The last of "The Few." Some of the surviving RAF pilots and aircrew members from the Battle of Britain recently gathered for a photograph in the U.K. Daily Mail. The number corresponds to each man's profile in an article that accompanied the photo (Daily Mail).
Seventy years ago this month, the future of Britain--indeed, the future of western democracy--was being decided in the skies over England. The Battle of Britain was at its zenith; Spitfire and Hurricanes of the Royal Air Force rose daily to meet oncoming formations of fighters and bombers from Hitler's Luftwaffe, in a struggle for aerial supremacy.
German planners knew that control of the skies as absolutely vital; any attempt at invading Britain hinged on it. Without air superiority over the English Channel and the southern U.K., the Royal Navy's powerful Home Fleet, backed by the RAF, would decimate Germany's invasion forces and make landings impossible.
In hindsight, we know that many German officers harbored grave doubts about invading England. In mid-July 1940, on the heels of stunning Nazi victories in Norway, the Low Countries and France, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, Commander-in-Chief of the German Navy (Kriegsmarine) told Hitler that an invasion should be contemplated only as a last resort, and only with full air superiority. The commander of Hitler's sub fleet, Admiral Karl Donitz was even more pessimistic, telling Allied post-war debriefers that [Germany] was never in a position to gain control of the sea and the air, a point shared by many historians.
But the British couldn't operate on such assumptions during the dark days of 1940. They could only assume that the Luftwaffe's daily attacks were a prelude to a planned invasion, that would come only after the RAF had been chased from the skies.
That never happened, thanks in large measure to the gallantry of the RAF, particularly the young pilots and aircrew members who battled long odds in turning back the Germans. As we've noted in previous posts, the Hawker Hurricane--not the vaunted Spitfire--was the backbone of Britain's Fighter Command in 1940.
The Hurricane could out-turn Germany's front-line fighter (the ME-109), but it was slower and carried lighter guns. Even the Spitfire was evenly matched with the ME-109, so the outcome of individual engagements usually depended on such factors as the relative strength of each side--and the skill of their pilots. Never mind that many British pilots were rushed to front-line squadrons from flight training (some with only five hours of flying time in fighters). They were also saddled with pre-war tactics aerial tactics (most notably, the rigid "Vic" formation) that limited situational awareness and made it more difficult to engage German fighters.
Despite those obstacles, the RAF won the Battle of Britain. After heavy losses to British fighters on 15 September, Hitler postponed his invasion plans until the following spring. While German bombing raids against English cities would continue for many months, the invasion threat effectively ended on that September day, ensuring that Britian would survive and continue to fight alone, until the U.S. entered the war almost 14 months later.
Winston Churchill aptly summarized the contributions of the RAF during his speech to the House of Commons on 20 August 1940. "Never in the field of human conflict," he famously intoned, "was so much owed by so many to so few." Churchill conceived the line several days earlier, during a visit to a fighter control center at RAF Uxbridge. Watching an air battle unfold on plotting tables, the Prime Minister grasped the magnitude of the situation, realizing that his nation's fate was riding in the cockpits of "Hurrys," "Spits," "Beaufighters" and "Defiants" that defended British skies. At least 544 RAF aircrew members were killed during the Battle of Britain.
Since then, the years have thinned the ranks of those who survived. Sunday's U.K. Daily Mail published a special report with biographical sketches of living RAF pilots and aircrew who flew during the Battle of Britian. By their count, only 79 of the "glorious few" are still with us.
The profiles are brief, but remarkable, a reminder of the men who fought so bravely in the skies over their homeland eight decades ago. The youngest of the surviving aircrew are now in their late 80s; the oldest are approaching 100. But their stories of heroism and survival transcend the passage of time; we will still remember the sacrifice (and triumph) long after these last veterans are gone.