Some 60 years after World War II, authors continue to reveal the "untold" stories. War biographies are as consistent as almanacs in the print world. And, unfortunately, many read as dry as an almanac, too.
But then along comes a narrative so stirring that producers in Hollywood see dollar signs float by and readers ask, "How'd we never hear about this before?"
Case in point: Alex Kershaw's new release, The Few: The American "Knights of the Air" Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain. Tom Cruise and Michael Mann are currently in the cockpit scripting and aiming to release a 2008 film version of the story that some forgot and most never knew: how a handful of American pilots supported England at her darkest hour.
The Few focuses on the dogfights between the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe above the English Channel beginning in the summer of 1940. The conflict pits the swift British Spitfire and Hurricane fighter aircrafts against Germany's Messerschmitt 109 E and 110 Zerstorer planes.
Long before America opted to break its apathetic, isolationist policies, eight Americans risked their lives to sneak to England and fly with the RAF. Most knew the war would eventually reach America's shores. One was a two-time Olympic gold medalist; another simply "just felt [he] wanted to fly some of these powerful machines," the Spitfires.
These Americans' sacrifices are the untold story. What makes their tale a great read is Kershaw's gift for interspersing engaging direct quotation and journal entries from both German and British forces amid historical documentation and re-enactment. The style is far more complex than a mere account of who-downed-who on such-and-such a date, with ruthless Nazis bad; square-jawed English flyboys good; Germans defeated; end of story.
One particularly entertaining exchange recounts Churchill's visit to an airstrip to rally a group of fighter pilots. It's described twice, first by a British major general, and then by one of the flying officers. "I watched their faces light up and smile in answer to [Churchill's], I thought they looked like the angels of my childhood ... creatures of an essence that was not of our world," recounted the general.
The airman remembered the occasion differently: "There assembled ... just about as hungover a crew of dirty, smelly, unshaven, unwashed fighter pilots as I doubt has ever been seen ... We must have appeared vaguely human at least."
As with most war tales, one ends up feeling sympathy for soldiers on both sides. The Few heads into Hermann Gring's German stronghold with propagandist hero pilots Werner Mlders and Adolf Galland to capture rare dialogue with fly-on-the-wall objectivity the same objectivity used to describe Winston Churchill zooming around England in his black Daimler, trying to unite a country. Though without the same focus as All Quiet on the Western Front or Das Boot, both exemplary for exploring the German troops' perspectives of the great wars, The Few manages to play fairly.
The Few: The American "Knights of the Air" Who Risked Everything to Fight in the Battle of Britain
By Alex Kershaw
De Capo Press, $25/hardcover