Owen Burns remembers the cold, the howling wind, and the silk underwear he wore to protect him from the bitter cold. Ken Wilkinson recalls the solitude of combat, Nigel Rose the perverse disappointment of coming back from a mission unscathed.
They are a dwindling band, these men with firsthand memories of the Battle of Britain, an aerial fight for survival that came to a head 70 years ago on Wednesday, and marked a turning point of World War II. They are modest icons, happy to reminisce and keep the past alive, but reluctant to dwell on either their bravery or their fear.
“There were times when you were really frightened, without a doubt,” said Mr. Rose, a former Spitfire fighter pilot who is still dapper at 92. “But there wasn’t much time to be really scared in the air.”
Between July 10 and October 31, 1940, German bombers pounded Britain’s ports, airfields and cities in a bid to destroy its defences in preparation for either invasion or surrender. France had already fallen to Adolf Hitler and the British army had been evacuated in disarray from Dunkirk.
The fate of Britain lay in the hands of men, barely out of their teens, sent up in Spitfires and Hurricanes to confront waves of Luftwaffe bombers. They are known as “The Few,” from Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s tribute- “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
September 15 was the symbolic climax to the battle, a day of heavy fighting in which British pilots shot down 60 German planes, though British propaganda at the time claimed three times as many. It is now commemorated as Battle of Britain Day, and veterans are gathering in London on Wednesday for the unveiling of a bronze statue of Air Vice—Marshal Keith Park, the Royal Air Force commander in charge of defending the capital and southeast England.
Of almost 3,000 British and Allied airmen who flew in the battle, more than 544 were killed. Almost 800 more died before the end of the war.
It is thought about 100 Battle of Britain veterans survive- silver—haired men in navy blazers with a resolute cheerfulness and a matter—of—fact manner.
“We were cocky. Stupidly cocky, if you like,” said Mr. Wilkinson, 92, who flew Spitfires. “We just didn’t envisage defeat. Some people may have been killed and so forth, but basically we knew we were going to win.”
Victory seemed unlikely at the outset. France had fallen and the U.S. had yet to enter the war. Britain, with its empire, was the lone Western holdout against Nazi Germany and endured heavy bombing, rallied by Churchill’s resolute declaration that the country would “never surrender.”
Stephen Bungay, author of a book about the Battle of Britain, “The Most Dangerous Enemy,” thinks it was a pivotal moment in British and world history.
“If the Luftwaffe had been able to establish air superiority and subject London to unobstructed bombing round the clock,” he said, Britain would not have remained in the war, leaving Hitler triumphant across Europe, opposed only by the Soviet Union.
“Churchill’s speeches of the time were incredibly prescient,” Mr. Bungay said. “He said ‘We are fighting by ourselves alone, but we are not fighting for ourselves alone.’”
Time and nostalgia have laid a mythic gloss on The Few. The pilots are seen as romantic, solitary figures, combining the chivalry of a bygone age of one—on—one combat with the machine power of modern war.
The mythology was encouraged by Churchill, Mr. Bungay said. “He needed heroes at the time.”
Mr. Bungay said the heroism of the pilots and the mystique of The Few have obscured the role played by commanders like Park and the well—organized air defence system established by the head of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding.
He said the Germans “were basically out—generalled and never really understood how tough a nut they’d taken on.”
The pilots themselves are eager to shoot down some of the myths, such as the supposed superiority of the Spitfire and the Hurricane over German fighter planes.
“We had pea shooters for guns,” said Tom Neil, 90, who shot down 17 enemy aircraft and won the Distinguished Flying Cross as a Hurricane pilot. “Three hundred rounds per gun, which could go 14.7 seconds. The Germans had 100 rounds per gun and 60 rounds for their cannons. They could destroy us with four shots of their explosive ammunition. We sometimes had to hit an aircraft with 100 shots before we even damaged it.”
Like many myths, though, the popular image of The Few contains a large element of truth. Air combat was a thrilling, solitary pursuit.
“It’s a single—seater aircraft, so you’re in complete charge of everything you do once you’re in combat,” said Mr. Wilkinson. “You have to concentrate, because once you are in combat it’s man against man, pilot against pilot.”
Mr. Burns, 95, was a gunner in a Blenheim fighter—bomber. The plane had a three—man crew but he, too, remembers the solitude of sitting alone in his elevated turret.
“You’re on your own, completely. You can hear the two people up front talking, and you are sitting all by yourself, and wind is howling around you.
“Silk underwear, that was essential. You had about four lots of underwear, rising from silk to thick stuff.”
All agree that the intense concentration and the frantic pace of the battle left little time to be scared. Air crews were often scrambled several times a day, snatching a few hours’ sleep between missions.
“All you’re concentrating on is getting back to Earth again,” Mr. Burns said. “And when you got out of the aircraft and saw the holes, sometimes you’d been riddled with bullets.”
They are all eager to downplay their youthful bravery. They are dismissive of their brushes with death. They do not dwell on the comrades who never returned.
Mr. Bungay says that “no fighting force in history has had such an anti—heroic ethos. The thing that makes them angry is people who acted like prima donnas.”
Mr. Rose, who flew was wounded in September 1940, said that whenever the planes landed, ground crew were “very disappointed if we hadn’t been in action, and I think so were we.”
“It’s funny how enthusiastic one was, despite the frights and the rest of it.”