The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 8 No 4 - December 1990


by James Scott

Fifty years ago, English folk looked up into the skies above their fair island and warily eyed the vapour trails that snaked across the azure sky. They heard the deep snarl of powerful engines as fighter aircraft tangled in combat, and perhaps afterwards, in the ensuing silence, the brassy tinkle of empty cartridge cases cascading down - mainly .303 as every schoolboy knew - and here and there, real hardware, a crashed aircraft.

Conscious only of the immediate, grim drama being played out above their heads, it was left to those with prescient wisdom, like Sir Winston Churchill, to realize that Western civilisation was being threatened as never before and that England alone barred the way. To lose was unthinkable. To win, considering the circumstances, unimaginable.

Yet , victory was attained that summer - the 'Battle of Britain', unnamed as such at the time - was won. It turned Hitler away from the West and caused him to make the fatal mistake of leaving an 'unfinished' front to his rear; it gave hope to millions of people living under Nazi oppression; it showed that courage and tough mettle would triumph eventually and it provided the platform for the long haul back to Europe and Berlin.

It is time now to remember the sacrifices that were made. Sir Winston embodied it in his 'The Few' speech in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940, immortalising the men of the Royal Air Force who flew and did the execution, and who were the standard-bearers of the Empire at that moment in history. The great man would take no umbrage if it were to be suggested here that he also meant the thousands who contributed to the fight in a myriad different ways. Most remained behind the scenes, and some played their parts years before the battle occurred.

If one were to build an imaginary Cenotaph of Remembrance in one's mind and emboss it with plaques dedicated to all the personalities, people and servicemen and women that contributed to the story - and in so many cases, gave their lives for it - they would depict the following:

- Lord Hugh Trenchard, who in the early twenties, defended his fledgling air force against all attempts by bickering politicians and Army - Navy rivals to relegate it to a secondary role. Dare anybody now infer that he did not 'know' the Germans would have to be fought again and that this time, England would lose without an independently strong air arm?

- Sir Henry Tizard, scientific genius, whose providential support (with others in key positions) of the radar project resulted in the early-warning detection system. Its effect, in simple terms, was to cost the Germans the battle.

- Robert Watson-Watt, Tizard's brilliant team leader, who developed the apparatus.

- Aircraft designers R Mitchell and S Camm, who, in the mid-Thirties, turned the Air Ministry's specification F.7.30 into the fantastic Spiffire and Hurricane fighters respectively. - Each of the aircraft showing, in metal-etched form, their classic lines.

- Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, for his obdurate refusal to permit Winston Churchill to fritter away Fighter Command in the hopeless defence of France in 1940 and his strategic perception in ensuring that the work of Tizard's team was translated into the radar-station chain in time for the onslaught.

- Dowding's No.2, Air Vice Marshal Sir Keith Park, tactical architect of the RAF, who daily conducted the fight from the Ops Room of No 11 Fighter Group. (He did it again two years later at Malta and sent the Germans packing then.)

- Lord Beaverbrook, whose production-planning wizardry ensured that there was never a shortage of aircraft.

- The men and women in the factories who built the aircraft, and kept them coming.

- The Air Observer Corps, who filled the gaps when the radar stations went down from bombing, and who were expected to be the first to sight the invasion barges.

- The anti-aircraft and searchlight batteries, who did their share with equipment from the First World War.

- The policemen, air raid and fire wardens, firemen, nursing staff, city engineers and other auxiliary services, who kept their cities alive while the bombs crashed down.

- The Army's bomb disposal teams, to whom fell the ghastly task of defusing the aerial mines and unexploded ordnance, much of which was designed to trap them.

- The people of each metropolis, town, village and hamlet who suffered during the Blitz, 'took it on the chin' and turned the daily air battle casualty into into a cricket score.

- The Air Sea Rescue Service, whose ceaseless and uncomfortable vigil saved dozens of airmen from the maw of the icy Channel, and in the case of the RAF, got their pilots back to fly again.

- The women of the WAAF. They manned the radar stations, often under bombardment, they did inestimable duty in the Control Rooms, they ran the canteens, covered the 'admin' side, drove the trucks, served the tea, and did morale a power of good by just being around.

- One of the most vital and least-remembered corps of men, the post office engineers and technicians, who through incredible difficulties, kept Dowding's communications network operative throughout.

- Each branch of the RAF Services that kept their aircraft flying; the artificers and armourers, engine and airframe mechanics, radio and instrument technicians, signallers, airfield maintenance staff, and all the others; thanks to them, the Air Weapon continued to function.

- The many steady, faceless persons who indirectly or otherwise, played a part and, because of the nature of things, are not specifically remembered. Anonymous but not forgotten.

- Finally, to complete the pantheon, the 650 pilots of Fighter Command, the men who formed the spike in the cudgel. They came from throughout the United Kingdom, her Dominions, and the occupied territories. For eight torrid weeks of fear, heroism, mutilation and death, they fought the enemy and saw him off, 4 to 1 against, contributing to England's 'finest hour'.

A grateful realm paid tribute to them in 1990 as it has every year since the battle, in England and in the capitals of Christendom around the world. The Victory and the Deliverance were recalled when congregations assembled with bowed heads beneath the laurels and banners. Survivors of those dark days - a dwindling band now - must have looked back over their own personal recollections, and counted the cost. For the rest of their countrymen, in whatever land, there is the duty to honour the Fallen and through them, to resolve that if they in turn are ever faced with a similar peril, they will prove equal to the task, as others were a lifetime ago.
A salute then, to the Royal Air Force, a Nation, and unsung heroes.

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