I could not fail to notice that in the week that this item is being published Britain will be remembering the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. For us in Europe the war had begun in 1939, and the Battle of Britain was the turning point of the war as Adolf Hitler faced his first defeat.
As I reflect on this momentous time in history my own personal memories, whilst serving in the British Royal Air Force, go back to when I climbed onto the wing of the Spitfire and into the small cockpit. I was conscious not only of how small it was, but also of how difficult it was to see ahead. Its long straight nose, up tilted when the tail wheel was on the ground, would have made taxing difficult since it was not easy to see ahead. It would have been necessary to swing from side to side to look in front. The view at take-off would also have been restricted in the same way until travelling fast enough to lift the tail; only then would it be possible to see over the nose. To take the pilot’s seat and feel the thrill of sitting in one of the world’s most iconic cockpits was an experience beyond compare. However, for me it was not the real thing of facing the battle of the 2nd World War. It was thirty years later in 1975 as I served as a young airman attending to the maintenance of the aircraft on an RAF base in Wales. The vast majority of the aircraft there were Hunters, but this one solitary Spitfire gave me the opportunity of allowing my imagination to run freely, thinking of a bygone age. Trust me when I say that it was the most emotional, historical and exhilarating experience available in aviation. The Merlin engine powered two of the greatest fighters of World War II, the Supermarine Spitfire and the North American P-51 Mustang, but for the average Brit, it was the Spitfire that would always be seen as the one most well remembered.
Douglas Bader, is a name well remembered as one of the heroic pilots taking part in the Battle of Britain, and first flew a Super marine Spitfire in February, 1940. He wrote about it in his book, Fight for the Sky (1973). He said that the Spitfire “had eight machine guns of .303 calibre each, mounted four in each wing. The guns were spaced one close to the fuselage, two mid-wings, one further out. The eight guns were normally synchronized to 250 yards. In other words the four in each wing were sighted so that the bullets from all eight converged at that distance, in front of the Spitfire. Experienced fighter pilots used to close the pattern to 200 yards. The successful pilots succeeded because they did not open fire until they were close to the target”.
The Second World War air campaign by the German Air Force occurred over several months in 1940. The UK suffered devastating aerial bombings as the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy Britain’s air defences. The RAF’s efforts prevented Hitler’s plans to invade Britain and were a crucial turning point in the war, marking Germany’s first major defeat. There were 348 British pilots that were killed during the campaign and they each need to be honoured, yet there were also numerous interesting tales that can be discovered happening on the ground, as a small nation with limited resources showed that it is still possible to face the might of a larger nation even when they seemed to be left on their own seeking to defend themselves and the principles of the needs of the future of democracy.
William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, was a notorious broadcaster of Nazi propaganda to the UK during World War II. His announcement ‘Germany calling, Germany calling’ was a familiar sound across the airwaves, introducing threats and misinformation that he broadcast from his Hamburg base. However, there was one occasion when the residents of the South of England knew without a shadow of doubt that Lord Haw Haw had made a tremendous mistake, as he announced that the Luftwaffe had completely destroyed Biggin Hill airodrome, though he would have felt confident he was making a true statement. Among the various tricks used by the British at the time was focused on the nearby golf course where replica models of the Spitfire had been placed. As the bombers flew over they were sure that the golf course was the place they were on a mission for. The spitfires were clearly there for them to see, but they were merely false illusions not at the aerodrome but on the golf course.
My grandparents lived at Bigginhill in a home they affectionately called The White House. It was painted white and easily seen from the distance. My grandmother would often recall the days when they were notified that they were at risk, and needed to move house. The Luftwaffe was known to have been taking photos of the area, and there must be a reason for it. Gran was a determined character and saw no reason why she should leave home just because of a photographer. Eventually, in frustration the authorities agreed for her to stay, but on condition that they did not paint the house in any other colour nor change anything related to the external structure. Any change would have meant the Germans would have suspected that their plans had been found out. That spirit of standing firm was at the heart of the character of the people who faced the bombings regardless of the risk to their lives. It was noted that even the Royal family refused to move out of London, but stayed with the people, bringing to them comfort and encouragement.
There were those who would have wondered in later life how they managed to escape. Driving home one evening an air raid began and my parents could see the local people heading for the nearest air raid shelter. They knew what they ought to do, head for shelter, but something within them seemed to be saying “head for home, head for home”. They could not understand that inner feeling, but it was home they went for. The next morning they knew why home was best for them. The air raid shelter they should have gone for was completely destroyed. That would have been their last day if they had not followed the call for home.
Mum had volunteered to work with the London Ambulance service during this time. She was a mere 4 foot 10 inches in stature, and the commandeered removal Lorries that were used as makeshift ambulances were not the place for her, one might think. Being so small she must have scared the life out of others on the road who could not see the driver, but night after night the emergency services did their bit whilst the few in the air likewise did theirs. A small nation with limited resources, but everyone needed to do their bit in times of war and emergency even if it was a noncombatant role. In every age I guess it is still the same, it is only as everyone is prepared to work as a team putting in their everything that the whole of society can see the victory in life.