________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 3 . . . . September 29, 2006


Battle of Britain: Henry Woods, England, 1939-1941. (My Story).

Chris Priestly.
Toronto, ON: Scholastic Canada, 2006.
142 pp., pbk., $6.99.
ISBN 0-439-93881-3.

Subject Headings:
Britain, Battle of, Great Britain, 1940-Juvenile fiction.
World War, 1939-1945-Aerial operations, British-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 5-10 / Ages 10-15.

Review by Dave Jenkinson.

*** /4


On the 7 th [of September, 1940] we busied ourselves on stand-by once again. Some of the chaps dozed, some read books or magazines, some played chess, or dominoes, or cards. Everyone had different ways of staving off the boredom and the nausea.

One of the chaps was reading Picture Post. It had a photo of a smiling RAF pilot on it. It was the issue from 31 August and had a heading “The Men Against Goering.” The pilot on the cover was already dead.

At about 4:30 we were airborne again. It was a sunny autumn day. The afternoon sun was warming up the colours in the trees. As I climbed, I saw a game of cricket being played down below me on a village green. Someone in the crowd waved. We assumed that Jerry was heading for our bases or maybe the aircraft factories they'd attacked a few days before. I was climbing to patrol height, the sun lighting up my rear-view mirror, when I saw them.

“What the...” I said out loud. I heard a string of stronger exclamations coming from others in the flight.

It was a vast storm of hundreds of Heinkels, Dorniers and ME109s, a formation bigger than anything I'd ever seen - bigger than any of us had ever seen.

“London,” I muttered to myself, “They're heading for London!” I thought of Edith.

For a number of years, Canadian middle school girls have had access to Scholastic's historical fiction hardcover series “Dear Canada.” Now Scholastic has introduced the “My Story” soft-cover volumes which appear to be the publishing house's offering to boys. The first two volumes are both war-connected with The Trenches being set in World War I and the volume under review here, Battle of Britain, during World War II.

     Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2002, Battle of Britain is the story of Harry Woods who, at age 18, joined the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve in January, 1939, in order to fulfill his longstanding desire to learn how to fly. Following Britain's declaring war on Germany on September 3, 1940, Harry is called up to active service and becomes a fighter pilot, flying a Spitfire in one of the most significant and decisive events of World War II, the conflict for air supremacy which became known as the Battle of Britain.

     Told via the immediacy of first person narration, the book does not span the entire war. Instead, readers remain on the ground and in the air with Harry for some two years as the German Luftwaffe initially tries to eradicate the RAF before switching to the mass bombing of British cities in retaliation for British air raids on Berlin. During this period, Harry, as a member of RAF fighter command, goes from being reviled by some of his fellow citizens for the RAF's not providing sufficient air cover for the troops being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk to being one of what Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, heralded as the “few” who “turned the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion.”

     In telling his own story, the fictional Harry does not romanticize war. The momentary adrenaline rushes Harry experiences during the confusion of aerial combat are contrasted with the extreme fatigue he experiences because of the constant stresses of life and death combat. Leaves home with his parents or to visit his sister, Edith, a nurse in London, provide Harry with respites as well as providing a device for the author to show how the war was impacting the civilian population. During the course of the book, Harry is twice shot down, with the second time marking the end of the book. While a wounded Harry survives, his coming face to face with a dying enemy pilot causes an unexpected emotional response. “...I did something I had never done in the whole course of the war. I began to cry...”. A statistical summary in an “Historical Note” indicates that 418 out of 2,543, or about one in six, aircrew of British nationality were killed during the Battle of Britain. If Harry Woods had been a real person, potentially he would have still faced another four years of war. (As an aside, 20 of 94 Canadian aircrew died during the same period.)

     The book concludes with the aforementioned six-page “Historical Note” on the Battle of Britain, an annotated “Timeline” spanning July 30, 1936, to March, 1941, and five pages of black & white wartime photos. Although the photos will give readers some feeling for the period and will remind them of how young many of these pilots were, it is unfortunate that a photo of the ME109 was not included, given that it was the Spitfire's principal aerial opponent.

     A worthy addition to the recreational reading sections of school and public libraries, the contents of Battle of Britain could be contrasted with Iain Lawrence's B for Buster.


Dave Jenkinson teaches courses in children's and YA literature at the Faculty of Education, the University of Manitoba.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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