Friday 12 September 2014

Who were The Few?

The Battle of Britain Memorial on London's Embankment (author's photo)
As we approach the 74th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day, it seems a good time to re-visit some of the myths surrounding The Few. Obviously, they were an extremely brave group of men, to whom we owe nothing less than the freedom that we take for granted today but to the average person, there are many misconceptions about these young men, their backgrounds, where they came from and what brought them to join the RAF in the first place.

The common conception of the Battle of Britain pilots portrayed in many movies about this era is that of the stereotypical upper class or upper middle class Englishmen, ex public schoolboys, who had a certain amount of independent means in order to allow themselves to support the financial burden of being an office in the RAF. This had been largely true in the very early years of the RAF when many of the pilot recruits had come from a public school background. 

However, Sir Hugh Trenchard, widely seen as the 'Father of the RAF' soon saw to it that it was essential for the infant service to set up it's own independent training establishments, such as Cranwell in Lincolnshire for officer training and Halton in Buckinghamshire for the training of ground crew. He also recognized the importance of widening the net for officer intake and an early step towards achieving this came when the best three apprentices each year from Halton were offered places at Cranwell. The next step came in late 1921 when outstanding candidates from the ranks were also offered the chance to learn how to fly, serving for five years as 'Sergeant Pilots' before returning to their trades.

At this point in time, the RAF had shrunk from being by far the largest air force in the World in 1918, to having it's very future threatened during the cash-strapped years of the 1920s and although the RAF was probably the most egalitarian of the three services, it's tiny size ensured that flyers from the ranks remained very much in the minority. 

This situation began to change in 1934 in response to events taking place in Germany, where the Nazi takeover in 1933 ensured that their armed forces began to expand rapidly and measures were put in place to increase the numbers of pilots and aircrew coming into the RAF. In addition to this increase in personnel, the infrastructure was also expanded; forty five new air stations were planned in 1935 in order to accommodate the increased number of home based squadrons, the number for these being set at one hundred and twenty three. In 1937, more money was spent on the RAF than on the British Army - the first time this had occurred and manpower was scheduled to be increased to 118,000 with 45,000 reserves by 1939 - a fivefold increase from the 1934 figure. Moreover, the number of Auxiliary squadrons was to be increased from eight to twenty and alternative reserve force, the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) was established.

The Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) had been established in 1924 and if any branch of the RAF fitted the common public 'upper crust' perception of the RAF's flyers, then the Auxiliaries fitted it perfectly. The first four squadrons were 600 (City of London), 601 (County of London), 602 (City of Glasgow) and 603 (City of Edinburgh). Applicants were required to have already learned to fly from within their own financial resources, not a cheap hobby in the 1920s and 30s, which meant that these first squadrons were somewhat socially exclusive; this was despite Trenchard's wish that these squadrons be open to all comers. Indeed, 601 Squadron was known as the 'Millionaires Squadron' due to the large number of it's members who were pulled from the ranks of White's Club, that most exclusive of the London Gentlemens' Clubs. By the time of the Battle of Britain, the Auxiliaries had expanded to fourteen fighter squadrons and this expansion, combined with the high number of casualties incurred, ensured that the social exclusivity of these squadrons was steadily diluted as the war progressed.

The RAFVR, founded in 1936 was in complete contrast to the Auxiliaries, being a far more democratic organization. It gave young men who were interested in flying and in aircraft generally, the chance to escape their routine civilian jobs, at least at weekends and for annual training, and gave them the opportunity to learn to fly at the Air Force's expense. Men aged between 18-25 joined as 'airmen under training' and they were commissioned as officers strictly on merit. The initial aim of the RAFVR was to train 800 new airmen per year. Volunteers were paid a £25 per year 'bounty' and in addition to their weekends, had to attend an annual fifteen day flying course. By the spring of 1939, there were 2,500 RAFVR pilots in training, 310 of whom were fighter pilots. They were to play an essential role in the Battle of Britain and in the wartime RAF in general. 

So much for the organizations which gave us the men but what of the men themselves? Who were they and where were they from?

'Sailor' Malan' (author's collection)
The excellent film, 'Battle of Britain' first released in 1969, remains the tour de force of movies covering this facet of the war. Unlike many other films, it does not fall into the trap of showing all of the RAF's fighter pilots as being toffs, neither does it show them as being all British. There are many references to the Poles, Czechs, Free French, Canadians as well as many others and the pilots are shown as a true representation of all social classes - from Michael Caine's undoubtedly (and perhaps unlikely) upper class Squadron Leader, through Christopher Plummer's regular Canadian airman, Robert Shaw's 'Skipper' character, said to be based on the South African 'Sailor' Malan and Ian McShane's Sergeant Pilot amongst others. The incident in which the Polish 303 Squadron, ostensibly on a training exercise tore into a German formation and by default got themselves declared operational, is also based on a true incident and the film in general is an excellent account of the Battle.

 In the real life Battle of Britain, the men came from all manner of the social strata and from all parts of the world; there was the aforementioned 'Sailor' Malan from South Africa, covered in this blog in October 2010 and who seemed to have a real charisma about him. Stephen Bungay's excellent book, The Most Dangerous Enemy, quotes a fitter from Malan's 74 Squadron who said simply "I think Malan was the most wonderful man I ever met. Certainly in all my long service with the RAF, I never met another like him." Malan had had an interesting background, being originally a Merchant Seaman, before deciding to join the RAF in 1935, where he passed out as 'above average.'

More typical of the public schoolboy entrant to the RAF was Peter Townsend. He was the son of a civil servant of the British Empire and was born in Burma but grew up in Devon. A product of Haileybury School, he joined the RAF in 1935 and like many young officers of the period, felt that he had joined the best and most exclusive flying club in the world. He saw the German threat coming at the time of the Munich Crisis of 1938 and then realizing that war was inevitable, changed his attitude not only towards the Germans but towards the RAF, seeing it as being rather more than a flying club but rather than a serious weapon with which this country could defend itself. Townsend served throughout the War and remained in the RAF post-war, when sadly for him, he became better known for his on/off romance with Princess Margaret than for his exploits in the Battle of Britain.

A product of the Auxiliary Air Force was Sir Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook and who joined 601 Squadron in 1935. Born in Canada, he was educated at Westminster School and Pembroke College, Cambridge. Aitken was a talented sportsmen and more importantly as far as the AAF was concerned, a keen flyer. Aitken became CO of 601 Squadron in June 1940 and was uncompromising in his view of his Luftwaffe counterparts and was seen in the excellent ITV documentary series The World at War in which he stated "I hated them (the Germans). They were trying to do something to us. They were trying to enslave us." Aitken retired from the RAF in 1946 to become involved in his father's newspaper business, eventually taking over the Express Group of newspapers upon Lord Beaverbrook's death in 1964.

Amongst the many excellent flyers produced by the RAFVR was Bob Doe. He was a quiet young man from Reigate in Surrey and had been an office boy at the News of the World newspaper and like many of his counterparts, had joined the Volunteer Reserve because he wanted an escape from his boring job and had had a fascination with aeroplanes from a young age. Doe had good co-ordination, possibly as a result of being an amateur violinist and was a decent shot, the result of hours of practice in his garden with an air rifle. He narrowly passed his Wings examination but in November 1939 was posted to 234 Squadron at Leconfield in the East Riding of Yorkshire. One of the flight commanders at 234 Squadron was Pat Hughes, an Australian for whom Bob Doe gained a great deal of respect and who took Bob under his wing. From a hesitant start, which was as much to do with his shyness as much as anything else, Doe became an excellent pilot, ending the Battle of Britain with 14 'kills' to his name. Bob remained in the RAF post war, retiring in 1966 as a Wing Commander.

Pat Hughes was one of the many Commonwealth pilot who came to Britain under the short service commission scheme in the late 1930s. Hughes arrived in the UK in 1937 and qualified as a pilot in early 1939 and was posted to 64 Squadron at Church Fenton before moving to the newly formed 234 Squadron in November 1939. Pat had gained 14 'kills' plus 3 shared by 7th September 1940, the first day of the Blitz on London, when he was killed in a collision with a Dornier 17 over the village of Sundridge, Kent. Hughes was awarded a posthumous DFC in October and this was presented to his widow (after only five weeks of marriage) Kay Hughes.

Lord Dowding (centre) - Al Deere (in beret) next to him, Max Aitken fourth from left. (Crown Copyright)

The largest Commonwealth contingent, with 127 flyers in the Battle of Britain, was New Zealand. Amongst them was Alan Deere, who was another to take advantage of the short service commission scheme and who arrived in the UK in December 1937. After passing his examinations, Deere was posted to 54 Squadron at Hornchurch in 1938, at first operating Gloster Gladiator biplanes but converting to Spitfires in early 1940. Also on 54 Squadron was Colin Gray, another New Zealander who would become the top scoring pilot for that country during the war with 27 'kiils' plus two further shared. Deere himself some tough combat through the fall of France and covering the Dunkirk evacuation and of course, the Battle of Britain. Alan Deere served throughout the Battle and in Europe for the majority of the war, ending it with 22 'kills'. Deere remained in the RAF post war and retired in 1967 as an Air Commodore.

The largest overseas contingent had nothing to do with the British Empire or Commonwealth but was in many ways a windfall from the German occupation of mainland Europe. When Poland was conquered in September 1939, some 8,500 Polish airmen managed to escape, firstly to France and later to the UK. The Polish Air Force had been in the process of converting to modern aircraft but this had come too late to save them against the rampaging Luftwaffe. The Poles were good flyers but obviously, there was a massive language barrier to be overcome before the majority of them could fly as part of the RAF. Some individuals were posted into RAF squadrons, where they were immediately taken under the wings of the RAF men, who treated them almost as lucky mascots. One pilot, Ludwik Martel, who flew with 54 and 603 squadrons, twice refused transfers to a Polish unit and was quoted by Stephen Bungay as saying "My most cherished memories date from 1940 to 1941, when I was in an English squadron."

Unlike their British counterparts, the Poles had seen what the Nazis could do once they had conquered a land and fought the Luftwaffe with an implacable hatred and with a passionate desire to avenge their own country's defeat. 303 Squadron, based at Northolt, was the highest scoring squadron in Fighter Command with 126 accredited 'kills' and at first, there was some skepticism as to whether all of these claims were genuine. As a result, the Station Commander at Northolt, Group Captain Vincent, flew with 303 on one sortie and came back rather shaken but was certain after this experience that "what they claimed, they did indeed get!"

The Czechs were fighting with the same motivation as the Poles, but were somewhat more disciplined in their approach and once the language barrier was overcome, fitted into the RAF very comfortably.

Many of the Belgian contingent had already flown Hawker Hurricanes, with which the Belgian Air Force was re-equipping but as this force had been largely destroyed on the ground by the Luftwaffe, had not had the chance to use them in anger. Those that escaped to the UK were quickly integrated into the RAF and posted to squadrons which already flew the Hurricane.

Billy Fiske (Crown copyright)
One other overseas contingent should also be mentioned; it is uncertain exactly how many Americans fought in the Battle of Britain as some of them pretended to be Canadians in order to get around their government's strict neutrality laws. Some made it to France, planning to join that country's Air Force, just in time for France to fall and came to England instead. It was not yet an American war but there were around ten or eleven who fought in the Battle of Britain. One of them was Billy Fiske, a film producer, stockbroker and Olympic bobsleigh champion, who had married into English society when he wed the former wife of the Earl of Warwick. He joined 601, the so-called Millionaires Squadron so that he could fly with friends who were already members and thus became the first American to die in the War. On 16th August, Fiske's Hurricane was hit in the fuel tank by return fire from a Stuka dive bomber. Despite suffering severe burns, Fiske elected to bring his crippled aircraft back to Tangmere and although he was extricated from the burning Hurricane by medical teams moments before the aircraft's fuel tank exploded, Billy Fiske died from his wounds and from surgical shock in hospital the next day. He was 27 years of age.

This was Fighter Command - predominantly British but with significant numbers of oversea airmen making it a diverse, international force with men of vastly different backgrounds and upbringings as well as arguably, differing motivations. 

Whatever their nationality and whatever their motivation, we still owe these men an enormous debt of gratitude.

Remember them on Battle of Britain Day.

"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many, to so few." Winston S Churchill

Printed Sources:

Battle of Britain - Patrick Bishop, Quercus 2010
The Most Dangerous Enemy - Stephen Bungay, Aurum Books 2001
The Narrow Margin - Derek Wood with Derek Dempster, Tri Service Press 1990
Nine Lives - Air Commodore Alan C Deere, Crecy 2012
Spitfire: Portrait of a Legend - Leo McKinstry, John Murray 2008