By Peter Lewis
Battle of Britain pilots would take to the air sick with fear – but their bravery and skill were all that denied Hitler victory
Scramble!! There is no other word like it for reviving the sensations of the Battle of Britain just 70 years ago.
For RAF fighter pilots it was the signal to fling themselves into the sky ready for combat.
For the rest of the dwindling number of us who remember the time, not just the films, it means the awesome spectacle of reckless courage pitted against seemingly overwhelming odds.
Schoolboys like myself built Spitfires and Hurricanes from model kits and pinned newspaper photographs of the aces to the school noticeboard.
The daily totals of German and British planes shot down were announced on the radio or the news-sellers’ billboards, and we followed them like cricket scores.
We knew it was far from being a game. If you lived near a fighter airfield you heard the roar of take-off, even occasionally the faint putter of machine-guns in the clouds.
Planes would plunge in flames out of the skies of the southern counties.
I remember inspecting the wreckage of a Messerschmitt with its crushed nose and up-ended cockpit seat and wondering, did he bail out or did he die in it? But no one can relive the battle except the men who fought it, and here they are in a tide of telling testimony, from interviews with still-living veterans or recorded and written archives, all in the first person.
They have been expertly tracked down and anthologised by our foremost oral historian of war, the self-effacing Max Arthur.
The Battle of Britain was a damn close-run thing, as Wellington said of Waterloo. If we – or rather 2,500 pilots – had lost it, Operation Sea Lion with 175,000 German troops waiting to invade would have gone ahead against the one remaining fighting enemy that Hitler still had. For 13 weeks, Britain lived on the edge of this abyss.
The phases of the battle from July to September 1940 are well documented – at first over the Channel convoys, then the attacks on the southern airfields, then the intended knock-out blow to destroy the RAF during which Fighter Command very nearly ran out of pilots.
At its climax on September 15, every available fighter was in the air and no reserves were left.
Suddenly, on Hitler’s orders, the attack was switched to night bombing of cities – the Blitz. The invasion was postponed – for ever as it turned out. It was a heaven-sent chance to repair the airfields and replace the planes and pilots – one in five of whom had been lost.
How did it feel to live this epic? Unless you know how to fly, the dog fights described are hard to imagine.
But anyone can appreciate the feelings about the Spitfire of the men who flew them: ‘I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. My first take-off was the greatest joy I have known.’ (Pilot Officer Bob Doe)
Flying Officer Richard Hillary wrote about, ‘the wicked simplicity of its lines. It was sweeter to handle than any other plane I have flown.’ Although German Messerschmitts were faster they could not match its manoeuvrability.
When Goering, who directed the assault, asked his ace pilot what was needed to win the battle, Adolf Galland, who looked just like a moustachioed RAF counterpart, and had 40 kills to his name, simply replied: ‘Spitfires!’ A pilot’s life was spent waiting to go up. If he was ‘on stand-by’, it would be within an hour; if ‘available’ within 15 minutes; or if ‘at readiness’ – immediately.
Pilots at readiness slept and ate at the dispersal hut on the edge of the runway, some playing cards or reading, waiting for the telephone to ring.
Some were physically sick when it did, a moment before jumping into their machines. ‘We all swore we wouldn’t have a telephone at home after the war.’ The famous legless pilot Douglas Bader had his Spitfire parked outside the door where he slept between his two fellow pilots.
When the bell went, they had to put his legs on while two mechanics seized him under the arms to carry him out and heave him onto the wing. All three Spitfires were airborne in two minutes 50 seconds, a better time than any other section managed.
Did these men feel fear as they scrambled? ‘Of course we were frightened – the whole bloody time. There was an awful gut fear as you climbed aboard. But once in combat your adrenalin was pumping and there was no room for fright.’ (Flying Officer A C Deere)
This experience is echoed again and again. Once in action, the fear went. Richard Hillary described his first take off: ‘Time seemed to stand still. I knew that morning I was to kill for the first time. That I might be killed didn’t occur to me. I suppose every pilot knows it cannot happen to him, even when he is taking off for the last time.’
Flying home after his kill he thought of it as a job done. ‘I had a feeling of the essential rightness of it all. He was dead – I was alive. A fighter pilot’s emotions are those of a duellist – cool, precise, impersonal. He is privileged to kill well.’ Flight Lieutenant Billy Drake remembered: ‘If a mate was killed, then it wasn’t us – it was dear old Joe – let’s find out if there was any stuff in his room that we could use. His goods would be distributed among his friends. I don’t think we feared death but it did worry us we could be burned.’ There was a condition known as LMF – lack of moral fibre, meaning shirking further combat.
‘If someone didn’t measure up they suddenly disappeared from the unit. There was no acrimony.’ (Pilot Officer Tom Neil)
Vivid accounts of battle abound. Many of them include being hit by German fire, crashlanding a crippled plane or bailing out by parachute from a burning aircraft.
No instances are known of anyone on either side firing on a descending parachutist.
Let one experience stand for all. At 18,000ft above Southampton Flight Lieutenant James Brindley Nicolson suddenly felt four huge bangs as he was shelled by an unseen Messerschmitt 110. ‘The first tore the hood and a splinter nearly severed my eyelid, the second set my spare petrol tank on fire, the third tore off my left trouser leg, the fourth made quite a mess of my left foot.
‘I was thinking of jumping when the ME 110 whizzed beneath me right in my gun sights. I pressed the button and we both dived down together at 400mph. I remember shouting, “I’ll teach you some manners, you Hun!” ‘ Nicolson landed in a field with his tunic in tatters, his face and hands badly burned.
‘I wasn’t looking very smart. But people who had watched the fight had seen the ME110 dive straight into the sea. So it hadn’t been such a bad day after all.’ Nicolson went into the care of the legendary plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe at East Grinstead. He was the only fighter pilot in the battle to be awarded the VC.
Richard Hillary wrote a book beginning with a terrifying description of being shot down in flames, trapped by a cockpit hood that wouldn’t open properly – and his subsequent treatment as one of McIndoe’s Guinea Pigs.
It became a war time classic, The Last Enemy (now re-issued by Vintage Books, £8.99). It distils how an admittedly arrogant and charismatic pre-war playboy’s character was changed by the experience of losing friends one by one and having eyelids and lips grafted on to his once so handsome face.
He begged to fly again and was killed at the age of 23. The last enemy, if you remember St Paul, is Death.
Did they hate their enemy, the Hun, in those deadly Messerschmitts?
‘The Germans and ourselves were comparable types. It was a joust to see who came out best.’ (Flight Lieutenant Tom Morgan)
Sometimes they acknowledged their enemy’s prowess. Pilots who downed a bomber would give its map reference to Control so the crew was picked up. Squadron Leader Myles Duke-Woolley flew low over a Heinkel he had forced down. ‘I was rather touched to see the captain and his crew salute me. On impulse I tied a packet of Players in a handkerchief and threw it out. I could see him handing them out to his men.’
The Battle of Britain has been encrusted with myth. The Few have sometimes been caricatured as cheerful, beer-swilling slang-using, devil-may-care ‘kite prangers’. There is none of that jolly exaggeration here. Read it – and remember.