The unseen put Lord Hugh Dowding's name in the history books: He was instrumental in developing radar to track undetected...

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“A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar, and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain”
by David E. Fisher
Shoemaker & Hoard,
273 pp., $25

The unseen put Lord Hugh Dowding’s name in the history books: He was instrumental in developing radar to track undetected German bombers over Great Britain in the summer of 1940, and soon after that he said he himself had seen the unseen, his long-dead wife as well as airmen killed in battle.

David E. Fisher makes Lord Dowding’s life a sprightly tale in his new book, “A Summer Bright and Terrible: Winston Churchill, Lord Dowding, Radar and the Impossible Triumph of the Battle of Britain.”

Fisher’s narrative is like a lecture from a professor who knows that to keep students’ attention he has to spice up dry historical facts with a clever turn of phrase, an ironic stance toward the material and an occasional aside or bit of humor. Not surprising, since Fisher is a professor of cosmochemistry and environmental sciences at the University of Miami. As the author of 23 books, he has this strategy down pat.

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Fisher takes the reader on a lively march through the history of aerial combat, the development of radar and a lucid explanation of how it works, a journey which culminates in the 1940 Battle of Britain and Dowding’s role in England’s victory.

The British Army had just escaped the European mainland and Hitler’s troops through a massive evacuation from Dunkirk, leaving behind stores of arms. So if the German army could get to England, they could win in a walk. The only things stopping them were the English Channel and the Royal Navy. But if the planes of the German Luftwaffe could destroy the Royal Navy, “nothing could stop the invasion,” says Fisher.

England’s hopes rested in the Royal Air Force and its ability to defeat the Luftwaffe. To do this, it first needed a way to find the approaching German planes. Then it needed aircraft that could both carry enough armament to bring down a heavy bomber, and fly high enough and fast enough to reach them.

Dowding had been working on these problems in the years before the war. In various RAF leadership positions, he pressed for the development of radar over every other defensive technology, from wild ideas about death rays to later technologies such as infrared and sonar. He advocated building a fleet of fast, heavily armed planes.

And as the Luftwaffe spent the summer trying to eliminate the RAF and clear the way for the invasion, he advocated a strategy of holding back most of these planes, keeping the Germans guessing as to the true strength of the RAF.

His arguments won out over the likes of Churchill and other commanders in the RAF, who exacted their revenge after Sept. 15, 1940. On that date Dowding finally went all in, ordering all fighters into the skies to take a heavy toll on the Luftwaffe, hoping to change Hitler’s mind about invading England. Hitler did, turning to attack Russia instead.

Nonetheless, the RAF commanders decided the Battle of Britain had been mishandled — never mind the victory — and dismissed Dowding as head of Fighter Command.

While the book is clearly a defense of Dowding, Fisher does allow that those who gave him the boot had their reasons — and they weren’t all bad.

Besides arguments over tactics and Dowding’s being past retirement age, there was his open talk about his current conversations with Clarice Vancourt, his wife who died nearly 20 years before.

Fisher writes that Dowding would become “a hero to the psychic community, but was regarded as a nut by everyone else.” In other words, probably not the person you’d want running your air force.

Sometimes Fisher’s light touches can seem flip or cavalier, given the subjects covered: the bombing of civilians, the threat of Nazi Germany and a man’s sincere belief in spiritualism.

But it certainly beats a dry recitation of historical facts.