Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of 24 historical fiction and non-fiction works and the winner of more than 53 literary accolades. More than 34,000 copies of her books have been sold. For a complete list of her books and awards see: http://helenapschrader.com

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight into historical events and figures based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.

Friday, March 18, 2022

The World Loves an Underdog - The Nazi Juggernaut against a "Few" British Amateurs

As the war in Ukraine enters its fourth week, the ability of the out-numbered and out-gunned Ukrainians to withstand the Russian juggernaut increasingly attracts world admiration. People love it when the underdog defies expectations and stops a bully. 

The Battle of Britain had that quality as well.

In the summer of 1940, the RAF stood against an apparently invincible enemy, a juggernaut of  seemingly huge proportions, while RAF Fighter Command was tiny -- and largely composed of 18-22 year-old amateurs hastily inducted! Even including the foreign pilots flying with the RAF, there were only roughly 1,200 trained fighter pilots. (Numbers varied due to training, casualties and recruiting.) They were anything but "cannon fodder." Although very few of them were "regulars," because the process of learning to fly to the proficiency required took more than a year, fighter pilots represented a cadre that could not be readily replaced. The RAF had to beat the Luftwaffe with the few men it had.

Churchill – as so often – captured the sentiment of his countrymen when he claimed that “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.” This image of a small “band of brothers” standing up to a massive and invincible foe in a defensive battle for their homeland was reminiscent of other heroic battles – Henry V at Agincourt, Edward the Black Prince at Poitiers, Leonidas and his 300 at Thermopylae. Such battles, pitting a few defenders against a hoard of enemy, have always appealed to students of history and readers of historical fiction like almost nothing else.

It would be easy to imagine Churchill's "Few" as a tiny elite like the knights of earlier centuries or the Spartan guard with Leonidas at Thermopylae. After all, this was a Britain that was still overwhelmingly white, Christian and intensely class conscious. 

Yet RAF Fighter Command was surprisingly diverse for the period. Of the nearly 3,000 RAF pilots who flew at least one sortie during the Battle of Britain, only 80% were British citizens. Twenty percent came from the Dominions and/or other Allied countries. The largest number of foreigners to participate in the Battle were Polish, accounting for 145 pilots, and the second largest foreign contingent flying for the RAF came from New Zealand with 126 pilots. Pilots also came from Canada, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Belgium, South Africa, France, the United States, Ireland, Rhodesia and Jamaica.

Even more astonishing, however, is that fully one third of the pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain were Sergeants. That is, they were not the children of privilege, not the scions of the aristocratic families or the product of “Oxbridge.” The Sergeant Pilots of the RAF were men with more mundane backgrounds, men without the ‘right accent,’ who had not gone to public schools, and sometimes had even left school at 14 or 15.  

This was because since its inception, the RAF had actively encouraged recruitment from all sectors of society, intentionally breaking with the rigidly class-conscious traditions of the Royal Navy and Army. The RAF had provided scholarships to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell for exceptional young airmen and apprentices. It had launched a special program to encourage ground crews to receive pilot training. The RAF Volunteer Reserve was established to enable young men still in civilian life without the means to finance flying lessons to learn to fly at RAF expense. These pilots almost invariably came from the classes of society whose sons did not traditionally go to public schools, University or the Officer Corps.

In the Battle of Britain, pilots of the VR flew, drank and joked alongside the titled and privileged pilots of the University and Auxiliary Air Squadrons and the regulars, who had graduated from Cranwell. Literally, the sons of dukes and miners served in the same squadrons, fulfilling the same duties, taking the same risks, and reaping the same rewards. Most of the Sergeant Pilots of the Battle of Britain who survived were later commissioned, and often rose to senior command.

Where Eagles Never Flew is a tribute to the men and women who were engaged in this crucial conflict. Based on first-hand accounts by pilots and other participants as well as retrospective historical analysis, this novel recreates the tense atmosphere of this dramatic summer. It allows the reader to see unfolding events through the eyes of characters involved both in the air and on the ground and on both sides of the Channel.

Click here to see a video teaser of  Where Eagles Never Flew

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