BOOK OF THE WEEK
by John Willis (Mensch £18.99, 368 pp)
Lying in his bunk bed at North Weald airfield in Essex that summer of 1940, nursing a hangover and alone with his thoughts just before daybreak, Pilot Officer Geoffrey Page struggled with what lay ahead.
‘Just another day of butchery,’ the 20-year-old reflected. ‘It makes me feel sick. I sometimes wonder if the whole war isn’t a ghastly nightmare from which we’ll wake up soon.’
Tough front: Churchil’s pilots pose by a Spitfire with their dogs. The heroic pilots who put their young lives on the line to save the nation
Eighty years ago, Britain was fighting for its life. The beleaguered RAF was stretched to the limit as it scrambled to swat away the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt fighters and Dornier bombers, while Hitler attempted to soften up the south of England for a cross-Channel invasion.
BOOK OF THE WEEK: CHURCHILL’S FEW by John Willis (Mensch £18.99, 368 pp)
Page was one of the The Few, as Churchill called them, the heroic pilots who put their young lives on the line to save the nation.
‘Never, in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,’ was the wartime leader’s tribute to them and their Battle of Britain victory. It’s a story that still stirs the emotions.
Page was the ‘chocks-away’ epitome of those days. A blond, handsome, former public schoolboy with an endless appetite for women and wine, his vocabulary stuffed with ‘Wizard!’ and ‘Good show!’, he would party in London til late then drive back to base with his chums in a battered old sports car to have another crack at Jerry. Spiffing, eh?!
Except it wasn’t. The bravado, the jolly friendships, the fast living, the gallows humour and the compulsive womanising — that was all a front. They were just kids really and they were scared most of the time, trying not to think about death while seeing it close up and simply hoping to get through in one piece.
They were heroes, right enough, but heroes with feet of clay — and, far too often, after a dogfight or a crash, with no feet at all. Or legs, or hands, or nose, or face, such were the awful injuries sustained in air combat.
This thoughtful book, first published 35 years ago and now reissued for this year’s Battle of Britain 80th anniversary, takes us behind the Boys’ Own mythology to capture the sobering reality of that battle for those who took part in it.
RAF Spitfire Fighter Pilots scramble to get airborne, 1940, during the Battle of Britain
The Indefatigable Wing Commander Geoffrey Page, DSO, OBE, DFC & Bar. On 12 August 1940, during the Battle of Britain, he was shot down into the English Channel, suffering severe burns
Author John Willis does not pull his punches. RAF tactics were often chaotic, preparation amateurish and unrealistic. Morale dipped as casualties mounted. Old-fashioned snobbery excluded pilot sergeants from the pilot officers’ mess and caused resentment in what, in the air, was a joint venture.
Outnumbered, outgunned and constantly on call, the strain on individuals was immense. The miracle was that they stuck to their task, though the effort took its toll very quickly.
‘We’ve all been through hell since the Squadron was formed just a few weeks ago,’ noted Geoff Myers. When he looked in the mirror, he saw ‘an old man with a scar on his forehead, wrinkles and sad, tired eyes’ staring back at him.
He shared a room at RAF Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, with a fellow pilot who put on a cocky front but whose body language spoke volumes. ‘He was fidgety, his eyes would never come to rest. The life of perpetual readiness and the heavy odds began to tell on him.’
RAF pilots of the Advanced Air Striking Force attached to the BEF, fighting the air war over occupied France, relax with their mascots beside a Spitfire aircraft
Pilots of No 610 ‘County of Chester ‘ Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force resting around their Supermarine Spitfire I fighters on Hawkinge airfield during a lull in the Battle of Britain
Day after day, enemy aircraft appeared in the skies over the English Channel, a distant grey smudge at first, then forming into ominous dark, buzzing clouds. It took almost foolhardy nerve on the part of the pilots to fly at these armadas without flinching, conquering the natural instinct to scoot for cover in the clouds.
It also took immense courage to keep going after watching comrades take a hit and spiral down in flames. Or after landing safely back at base, then anxiously waiting and counting the toll of those who didn’t make it.
The loss of close friends was devastating. When his room-mate was lost on a mission, Myers stared at the empty space in disbelief. ‘There are his pyjamas on the bed. His violin on the table. He played to me only two nights ago . . .’
Supermarine Spitfire Mark IAs of No 610 Squadron, Royal Air Force based at Biggin Hill, Kent, flying in three ‘vic’ formations, during the Battle Of Britain, World War II, 24 July 1940
The sheer horror and panic of being shot down was described by David Hunt. ‘Flames came through the instrument panel, filling the cockpit and burning my hands, legs and face. The reserve fuel tank exploded and I had on neither gloves nor my goggles, which I had pushed over my forehead to get a better view.
‘I tried to open the hood but it was jammed. Using both hands on one side I managed at last to pull the hood open, undid my harness and plunged out of the starboard of the plane.’ He parachuted to safety but was badly burned.
In this fight to the death, it was kill or be killed. There was no time for sentimentality about taking lives. In the 112 days of the battle, from July 10 to October 31, 2,000 Allied airmen were killed and wounded; German casualties (killed, wounded and captured) amounted to 4,250.
Besides, there was something impersonal about the enemy. A plane you raked with shells and brought down was a flash in the sky, a trail of smoke, a splash in the sea; you rarely saw the whites of their eyes. You were just grateful it wasn’t you.
Pilot Officer James Reginald Bryan Meaker, No 249 Squadron, (left) and Flying Officer Percival Ross Frances Burton, No 249 Squadron, (right) both based at RAF North Weald
Yet the killing could be haunting. Joseph Szlagowski, who fled Nazi-occupied Poland and joined the RAF, split a German bomber in two with cannon fire and watched as one crewman, arms outstretched, hung between the halves as the wreckage drifted down.
Eventually, the man fell away, his parachute failed to open and he plummeted to the ground.
Szlagowski remembered thinking, ‘If only I could catch him on a wing and bring him down gently.’
He never forgot this. There but for the grace of God….
What bugged many Battle of Britain fighter pilots was that, as they fought the enemy above southern England, below them life for civilians was going on much as usual.
Wing Commander Geoffrey Page and his wife Pauline on their wedding day
On August 12 — at the battle’s height — 27 people wrote to The Times to report the fine quality of the cuckoo song that year, while Londoners queued in the West End to see actor Robert Donat in Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple. Pilot Cyril Bamberger went into a pub in Bromley, South-East London and ‘it made me want to spit. We were suffering really heavy casualties but here was the civilian population quietly drinking as if there wasn’t a war going on at all’.
Perhaps the significance of it all passed people by. Only later — after Hitler, unable to gain mastery of the skies, backed off and re-focused his ambitions on the Soviet Union — would it become clear this had been a turning point in the war.
And what had won the battle for Britain? The bravery of those pilots, their doggedness, raw courage and self-sacrifice. And the Spitfire, which was faster and more agile than the Messerschmitt 109s.
But it was also that the RAF was playing at home. The Luftwaffe had the Channel to contend with. Crossing from French airfields left fighters with just 15 minutes of flying time over England before the fuel warning lights flickered and they had to retreat. Many Germans got their calculations wrong and ended up ditching in the sea.
To win, Hitler needed to destroy the RAF, whereas the RAF really only needed to survive in order to win. The Few, bless ’em, needed a home draw, and they got it.