“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
This powerful line from an iconic speech made by Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill on August 20, 1940, inspired the use of the phrase ‘The Few’ to describe the brave airmen who fought valiantly during the Battle Of Britain.
Sir Winston continued by expressing his gratitude to the men who soared above the clouds on missions they knew they might not return from. He said:
“All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often at serious loss, with deliberate, careful precision, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.”
The men who inflicted the “shattering blows” were young and eager to get in the air, at all costs.
Between July and October 1940, the nation’s first generation of wartime pilots faced unknown horrors in the skies above the south of England. The pilots had little time to fear the brutal battle as the fighting was so intense. In fact, waiting to go up was the difficult bit and from exploring the written accounts of The Few, it seems as though waiting to fly was a feeling they had become accustomed to.
Military historian Max Arthur, in his book Last of the Few: The Battle Of Britain In The Words Of The Pilots Who Won It, explained how many of the airmen fondly remembered desperately wanting to become pilots. He said:
“Flying was new, exciting, inspiring - and following the First World War a generation of boys was growing up with pilots as their role models and heroes.
“For many, born among the more affluent classes, flying was the ultimate goal - and one which could be achieved by joining flying clubs or the new Auxiliary Air Force.”
In “Last of the Few”, Max tells the stories of these young men in their own words.
Battle Of Britain Pilot Officer Tim Vigors, 222 Squadron, recalled fond memories of growing up and desperately wanting to fly. He said:
“My godmother ... knew of my interest in aeroplanes and suggested that I go flying with her each day during my visit.
“Something had happened to me which had made me different from my friends. I, Tim, had actually piloted an aircraft.
“I tried to while away the time which lay between the present and the moment I could join the RAF. My future was sealed.”
As these men grew up and started to learn how to fly, they were hungry for more time in the air. As Flight Lieutenant Peter Brothers of 32 and 257 Squadrons said:
“I never really bothered to think that we’d actually face an enemy. It was like being in a glorious, but expert flying club.”
However, an enemy would soon present himself giving cause for a strong air defence. Flight Lieutenant Tom Morgan of 43 Squadron said:
“About 1936 or ’37 it began to look as though the Germans would come, so being a young man, I thought I’d like to have a go at those chaps.
“The papers were telling us how nasty they were so, yes, I think I was ready for them.”
Eighty years on, only one Battle Of Britain pilot is still alive.
Group Captain John “Paddy” Hemingway is now 101 and lives near Dublin. His memories of the time he spent as a fighter pilot during the Battle Of Britain are precious as there is no one else alive with first-hand experience.
BFBS Radio broadcaster Fiona Cameron spoke to John at his nursing home in May 2017 and asked him to talk about his RAF career.
In 1938, John was chosen to be a single seat fighter pilot and that suited him quite well. He said:
“I fought the war alone. I just like being alone.
“When we were learning to fly in the Royal Air Force there were 30 on the course, three of us were chosen as fighter pilots, the rest were bomber pilots who got on well with the crews.
“Three of us were absolutely impossible and we went on fighters and I was one of those three.”
During the Battle Of Britain, John served with No. 85 Squadron RAF and was “shot down four times”. He said:
“... and I also had three narrow escapes.
“One of them, I was night flying at the time and my operator, he made it out and got his seat caught in a bucket by 2 o’clock in the morning with rain pouring down.
“He ended up marrying his nurse so not only did he curse me, but he praised me.”
John was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross by King George VI in July 1941 for “gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations.”
The centenarian dedicated his life to the RAF until he retired as Group Captain in 1969. He said:
“I decided that when I was 50, I’d been there long enough. I wanted to do things you can’t do in the air force.”
His military career saw him become station commander of RAF Leconfield, joining the Air Ministry and after the war, because of his writing skills, he joined the diplomatic staff in Turkey. He said:
“With a name like Hemingway I ought to be able to write.
“If somebody says absolute nonsense, I can have something that makes sense accurately in a very short time.”
John was full of praise for the branch of the armed forces that took him around the world. About his career in the RAF he said:
“You’re doing nothing except enjoying yourself, it’s a very good career.
“They pay you too, not badly paid.”
The Battle Of Britain
Francis Mason’s ‘Battle Over Britain’, describes in detail how terrifying the fierce battle in the sky was for The Few. He said:
"At this moment the first British pilots were experiencing a sight which would haunt the survivors for the rest of their lives.
"Breaking out of a layer of haze east of Sheppey, they found themselves on the edge of a tidal wave of aircraft, towering above them rank upon rank, more than a mile and a half high and covering 800 square miles, blotting out the sky like some vast, irresistible migration.”
The pilots were supported by the use of radar which, according to the Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Sir William Sholto Douglas, was one of the most crucial factors in the victory. He said:
“I think we can say that the Battle of Britain might never have been won … if it were not for the radar chain.”
In ideal conditions the radar, developed after the Zeppelin raids more than 20 years before, gave Britain the edge as we were now able to detect enemy aircraft and get into the air much faster than before.
Thanks to the combination of radar, ground defences and fighter pilots, collectively known as the Dowding System, the RAF no longer needed to waste petrol or energy as each aircraft had an exact target.
VIDEO: Forces News takes a closer look at The Dowding System
One pilot who praised the use of radar during the Battle Of Britain was Sir Max Aitken, son of the press magnate and politician 1st Baron Beaverbrook. He said:
“Now radar really won the Battle of Britain because without it we would have been doing standing patrols and with a limited number of aircraft and a limited number of pilots you couldn’t have done it.
"As it was, we could wait on the ground and then radar would watch and, through the various controls, we would be told to take off at a time when the Germans were over Calais or over Amiens.”
What Was It Like To Fly During The Battle Of Britain?
On the ground the pilots were part of a Squadron, each with a desperate desire to return to the skies where they felt exhilarated and free. But, in the air it was every man for himself.
The pilots would try to use the sun in their favour by appearing as though from out of it, benefiting from the German pilots' squint and that extra second advantage. However, the Luftwaffe were also trying the same tricks.
In “Last Of The Few”, Flying Officer Al Deere of 54 Squadron said:
"... when you became engaged with a German formation it was every man for himself.
“One minute there were Spitfires and 109s going round in circles, the next minute you were all by yourself, it seemed.
“That was if you were still there.”
Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader was one of the RAF’s greatest heroes. He lost his legs at the age of 22 after crashing his aircraft in December 1931 but went on to fight valiantly in the Battle of Britain.
Pilot Officer Tim Vigors of 222 Squadron slept in a camp bed next to Sir Douglas which left him with a rather interesting responsibility. The Spitfire Bader flew was right outside the door so that he could get into the air as soon as possible. However, when he slept, the legendary pilot would remove his false legs for comfort. To ensure he could get to his Spitfire as soon as possible, Bader would hand his right leg to Vigors and his left leg to good friend and fellow airman Hilary.
As soon as they heard the alarm, Douglas would stick his legs over either side of his single bed so that Vigors and Hilary could attach his false legs. He said:
“Seizing him under the arms they would carry him bodily out of the door and down the steps on to the grass.
"Lifted by them on to the rear edge of the wing, he would grab the sides of the cockpit and lever himself into his seat.
“Spurred on by Douglas’s unswerving determination, we managed to reduce the interval between the sound of the alarm bell and all three Spitfires being off the ground to two minutes and fifty seconds."
By the time the pilots reached the sky, their game faces were on.
The airmen would soar above the clouds over and over again with little regard to their own safety. The thrill of flying again and playing their part in the battle to protect Britain was all the encouragement they needed.
Thousands of pilots were killed and wounded during the Battle Of Britain. The crews would see their friends die unimaginably horrifying deaths as they battled the Luftwaffe in the sky.
Sergeant Pilot Leslie Batt of 338 Squadron witnessed a German aircraft hurtling past him from above. The aircraft was travelling so fast that its wings came off and "appeared to shoot upwards”. He said:
“He must have made such a hole in the ground that I thought, ‘That’s saved somebody from digging a grave.’”
Airmen with the rank of Flight Lieutenant like Tom Morgan would join a squadron and then be made CO within a month because of the speed at which pilots were being killed.
After The Battle Of Britain
The success of RAF Fighter Command badly damaged the fighting capability of the Luftwaffe and ultimately thwarted Hitler's plan to invade Britain. However, not all the men had been recognised.
In April 2020, a Spitfire pilot was posthumously added to the ranks of The Few nearly 80 years after the Battle of Britain.
Sergeant James Ballard's logbook was discovered showing an operational sortie flown in October 1940.
Group Captain Patrick Tootal, secretary of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, said:
"The research goes on and even 80 years later we learn new things about the Battle of Britain.
“It is rare to be able to add a new name to the list of those who took part, especially a Spitfire pilot.
"Sergeant Ballard's contribution to the battle was relatively small but without him and men like him, the RAF could not have achieved its victory.”
And that victory was an international success. The majority of pilots were British but The Few came from 15 different countries around the world.
Sir Winston Churchill spoke on June 18, 1940, about the importance of us standing up against Hitler. He feared that if Britain did not act, the world would:
“... sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”
In response, nearly 3,000 pilots from 15 different countries made their way to England to defend the world from the horror of Hitler.
Men from Poland, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and even the United States and Ireland which were neutral countries at that time. Some pilots had heard that England was the only country prepared to fight the Germans and so were very keen to play their part.
In “Last Of The Few” Max Arthur recorded the memories of Polish Pilot Officer Henryk Szczesny of 74 Squadron. He recalled the Polish aircrew being sent to Blackpool, where … “the RAF sorted us out” after which he was sent to Aston Down for Spitfire training.
Remembering how difficult Henryk found learning different controls for the British single-seat fighter aircraft, he said:
“It was very difficult for me because the Spitfire has the undercarriage down, flaps down, everything different.
“In Poland you pull back the throttle; with the Spitfire it was the reverse. I think the Spitfire was flying me.”
For more, pick up a copy of Max Arthur’s book ‘“Last of the Few: The Battle of Britain in the Words of the Pilots Who Won It”’ from Virgin Books. Find out where it can be purchased here.
Illustration of Spitfire chasing a Messerschmitt from 'Spitfire vs Bf 109: Battle of Britain' by Tony Holmes, from Osprey Publishing - visit their website for more military history.