The Battle of Britain called for incredible feats of bravery. The persistent, destructive and targeted German aerial attacks during the summer of 1940 placed those involved in Britain's defence in huge danger.
People who showed incredible bravery in withstanding the threat to Britain were often recognised with gallantry awards. Military Medals (MMs), Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFCs), Distinguished Service Orders (DSOs), George Medals (GMs) and even Victoria Crosses (VCs) were awarded to those who had displayed unflinching courage and determination during the Battle of Britain.
The types of bravery displayed varied. Strong leadership, a determination to defeat the enemy, self-sacrifice, and the risking of one's life for others were all rewarded. Those who went above and beyond the call of duty during this intense period of almost constant attack played a vital role in keeping the Royal Air Force (RAF) – and Britain – in the war. Here are ten examples of outstanding bravery from men and women during the Battle of Britain.
In November 1940, three women of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) were awarded 50% of all the Military Medals (MM) received by members of that service during the Second World War. They were stationed at RAF Biggin Hill in Kent, which suffered some of the worst air raids during the Battle of Britain. In a devastating attack on 30 August, 39 people were killed. The next morning, those who had survived reported for duty as usual, at the start of a day that would see further air raids.
Sergeant Joan Mortimer, Flight Officer Elspeth Henderson and Sergeant Helen Turner (pictured here) were all WAAF teleprinter operators who stayed at their posts during the heavy Luftwaffe (German Air Force) attacks on 1 September. Elspeth Henderson continued her work keeping in contact with Fighter Command Headquarters, Uxbridge while the raid was on. She carried on even after she was knocked to the ground as the operations room where she was working took a direct hit. Helen Turner was the switchboard operator and also kept working as the building was hit and bombs fell nearby. It was only when a fire broke out and they were ordered to leave that the two women finally abandoned their posts.
Sergeant Joan Mortimer was in the armoury when the air raid started. Although surrounded by several tons of high explosive, she remained at her telephone switchboard relaying messages to the defence posts around the airfield. Mortimer then picked up a bundle of red flags and hurried out to mark the numerous unexploded bombs scattered around the area. Even when one went off close by, she carried on. For the bravery all three WAAFs displayed in their determination to carry out their duties during such danger, each was awarded a Military Medal in November 1940.
On 15 September 1940, Flight Sergeant John Hannah was the wireless operator and air gunner in a Hampden bomber that was carrying out a raid on German invasion barges at Antwerp, Belgium. After releasing its bombs, the Hampden quickly came under attack from anti-aircraft guns. It took a direct hit, which started a fierce fire that soon engulfed the whole fuselage.
Gunner George James bailed out after the floor melted beneath him in the intense heat. Surrounded by flames, Hannah would have been justified in following him. But instead he began trying to put out the fire with the aircraft’s two fire extinguishers. When those were empty, he used his log book and then his own hands to stop the spread of the blaze. He worked for ten minutes in the blistering heat, as ammunition exploded around him and another member of the crew bailed out of the stricken aircraft.
Hannah managed to stop the fire, but suffered burns to his eyes and face in the process. He then crawled through to the pilot, Connor, to tell him the inferno was out. On discovering they were the only two left on board, Hannah took over the navigation while Connor flew the badly-damaged bomber (pictured here) back to their base.
Hannah was taken to hospital for emergency treatment where he learned on 1 October that he had been awarded a Victoria Cross (VC), the highest decoration for gallantry, for his incredible bravery. He was just 18 years old at the time. Hannah recovered and remained in the RAF, but contracted tuberculosis and was discharged in 1942. He died just five years later and is buried in Leicester.
While on patrol over the Dover area in September 1940, Pilot Officer Eric Lock (pictured here on the left) of 41 Squadron RAF took on three Heinkel He 111s of the Luftwaffe and shot one down into the sea. He then attacked another German aircraft immediately afterwards, using cool determination and great skill to destroy it. He was awarded a Bar to the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for this daring act of flying in October 1940. The details of this award also stated that he had ‘displayed great courage in the face of heavy odds’ and had destroyed ‘fifteen enemy aircraft within a period of nineteen days.’
Eric Lock was one of the most famous aces of the Battle of Britain, officially recorded as having shot down 21 enemy aircraft. He was nicknamed ‘Sawn Off Lockie’ by his fellow pilots for his short stature and became popular in the British press for his flying successes. Lock went on to earn a Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and joined 611 Squadron in June 1941. He was shot down during a mission near Boulogne, France, on 3 August 1941 and was never seen again.
Pilot Officer Bill Millington was flying as part of a section on aerodrome guard patrol over Kent on 31 August 1940. A large number of German Dornier and Messerschmitt aircraft were sighted and the RAF pilots went into the attack. Millington managed to cause damage to one of the Dornier bombers but he soon found himself under fire from three Messerschmitts. He quickly put one out of action and shook off the other two.
Millington was now outnumbered by the Luftwaffe aircraft but he didn’t leave the fight, and instead fired on the bombers. Now the Messerschmitt fighters began to target him, and he drew on all his flying skills to evade one and shoot another down. But as he did so, one more fired a cannon shell into the engine of his Hurricane, which also wounded him in the thigh.
With his aircraft ablaze and his leg in agony, Millington knew he would have to abandon the battle. His immediate thought was to bail out and parachute to safety – but he noticed that, if he did so, his aircraft would almost certainly crash into a small village.
Despite his injuries, the intense danger of remaining in his rapidly burning aircraft and the difficulties of controlling it, Millington stayed in the cockpit. He managed to crash-land his Hurricane clear of the village and escape from it before it exploded. For his determination to avoid causing harm to others, whilst placing himself at risk, Millington was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) in October 1940.
Bill Millington was born in Britain but emigrated with his family to Australia in 1926. With the Second World War imminent, he joined the RAF in 1939 and served with 79 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Following his crash-landing on 31 August, he was treated for severe burns in hospital. After recovering, he continued to fly successful missions until he was shot down over the Channel on 30 October 1940.
Whilst on a patrol in August 1940, Acting Flight Lieutenant Peter Brothers’ flight of eight aircraft came into contact with around 100 Luftwaffe bombers. Despite being so heavily outnumbered, Brothers (pictured here on the left) did not hesitate in immediately leading in his flight against the enemy. But before he could attack, he was fired at by a number of Messerschmitts. Brothers kept his cool and turned to face them. But he found himself in a stalled position and had to use all his skill to spin out of it and recover. He then sighted a Dornier 215 bomber, quickly targeting it and shooting it down. Later on, during the same day, he also destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf 109.
Peter Brothers was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for these actions on 13 September 1940. By the time of the Battle of Britain, Brothers was an experienced RAF pilot. His outstanding leadership skills were a huge asset during those intense months. He led by example and did all he could to boost the morale of his men and, in particular, new pilots. Later in the war he was awarded a DSO for his 'courage and brilliant leadership'.
Flying Officer Gordon Cleaver was defending his base, RAF Tangmere, from intense Luftwaffe air raids on 15 August 1940. Cleaver was an experienced fighter pilot who had already destroyed a number of enemy aircraft in operations over France.
During the raid, he led his section with courage and determination against the German bombers. Cleaver went into the attack and destroyed one of the German aircraft. But his Hurricane was hit – a cannon shell smashed into it, shattering the cockpit’s hood and sending Perspex splinters into Cleaver’s eyes. With his aircraft damaged and his sight severely impaired, the obvious choice would have been to bail out. But he refused to abandon his aircraft and instead, with great difficulty, made a successful landing.
Cleaver was rushed to hospital where his sight was partially saved, but he was unable to continue his flying career in the RAF. In September 1940, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bold bravery in attacking the enemy bombers and in saving his aircraft despite such painful, impairing injuries.
Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson (pictured here, centre) was on patrol near Southampton on 16 August 1940, when his Hawker Hurricanewas fired on by a German fighter aircraft. Making the ‘loudest noises [he] had ever heard’, four cannon shells thudded into his cockpit, damaging his machine, setting his petrol tank alight and wounding him in the eye, leg and heel. Surrounded by flames and with blood pouring down him from his injuries, Nicolson prepared to bail out. But just as he did so, he spotted a Messerschmitt Bf 110 ahead. Despite being in severe pain, he put down his parachute and reached instead for his gun controls. He poured fire into the German aircraft, keeping up his assault even as it tried to turn and twist away from him.
As he attacked, Nicolson noticed that the intense heat of the cockpit was burning his flesh. Only then did he abandon his Hurricane. After giving the Messerschmitt one last burst, he struggled free of his blazing cockpit and tumbled out into the sky. Nicolson deployed his parachute and, as he fell, he took stock of his extensive injuries, noticing that he could see the bones of his left hand showing through the knuckles. He managed to land in a field and was rushed to hospital, where his life hung in the balance. After several weeks, he had recovered enough to make it out of danger, but the burns he had received took much longer to heal.
Nicolson was awarded the Victoria Cross, which he received from King George VI at Buckingham Palace in November 1940.
Among the many airfields targeted in raids on 15 August 1940 was RAF Driffield in Yorkshire. As part of 219 Squadron, which was stationed nearby, Sergeant Oswald Dupee and Sergeant Thomas Banister were scrambled to intercept the incoming Luftwaffe force. Dupee was the pilot and Banister the air gunner of their Blenheim bomber.
They engaged a German aircraft off the Yorkshire coast, but it soon stopped returning fire on them. Dupee closed in and was about to continue to attack the German aircraft when it opened its guns on them once more. The Blenheim’s front windscreen was smashed and Dupee was severely injured in his arm.
They were now in a dangerous position – Dupee was unable to keep control of the aircraft and they were still vulnerable to enemy attack. Banister crawled forward, helped Dupee from his seat and took charge of the Blenheim. Banister was untrained as a pilot and the aircraft he was flying was badly damaged. Dupee’s strength was failing through loss of blood, but he managed to give enough help and directions to Banister to enable him to get them back. Banister made a forced landing at RAF Driffield, with only minor damage to the aircraft despite doing so with the wheels up. Both Dupee and Banister were awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for their actions.
Acting Flight Lieutenant Jack Adams of 29 Squadron RAF was on a night patrol on 20 August 1940 when he saw a German aircraft around a mile in front of him. He had spotted a light in the rear gunner position, making it possible for him to follow it, in his Blenheim bomber, for 50 minutes. During this time, he lost communication with his base, RAF Digby, but carried on in spite of this, determined to destroy the German aircraft. Finally, he made contact with it off the south coast, near the Isle of Wight.
Adams went in for the attack, skilfully shooting at the aircraft over the sea and destroying it. He then returned to his base. When he landed, it was discovered that both of his petrol gauges were at nil – he'd been running on empty.
On 24 September 1940, it was announced that Adams had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery. The official report for this also stated that Adams had been ‘continuously employed on night flying duties’ since the start of the war and had always shown ‘conspicuous devotion to duty’. Adams had joined the RAF in 1936 and had a successful career in the service, retiring in 1958 as a Wing Commander.
As well as the danger that pilots faced in aerial combat, there were also risks involved in taking off and landing aircraft at their bases. As the Battle of Britain reached its peak, one pilot took off from RAF Biggin Hill (pictured here) but lost control of his aircraft, which crash-landed and turned over in the garden of the house next door to Sergeant Arthur Cole of the Kent Special Constabulary.
The pilot was trapped in the stricken aircraft, hanging upside down and kept in place by his harness. Despite the chance that the plane could catch fire and explode at any moment, Cole immediately rushed to help. Working quickly and calmly, he freed the pilot and dragged him away to safety. Cole’s swift actions undoubtedly saved the pilot’s life – just minutes after he rescued him, the aircraft’s petrol tank ignited and there was a huge explosion.
For his bravery, Sergeant Cole was awarded the British Empire Medal.