1. Adolph Malan

Adolph Malan was one of the leading fighter pilots of the Second World War. He led No. 74 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF) and became a flying ‘ace’ – someone was an ace if they had shot down five aircraft – during the Battle of Britain.

Malan was born in South Africa in 1910 and served in the Merchant Navy and Royal Navy Reserve, which later earned him the nickname ‘Sailor Malan’. He joined the RAF in 1935 and by 1939 was acting flight lieutenant of 74 Squadron. After serving in operations over Dunkirk in 1940, 74 Squadron took part in the Battle of Britain. In August, Malan was given command of the squadron and led its members through one of the most challenging periods of the war.

He was a tough leader, who demanded high standards of his men. He was also an excellent shot, and the high number of enemy aircraft he destroyed during the battle was undoubtedly a morale-booster for the squadron. In December 1940, Malan was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his ‘brilliant leadership, skill and determination’. The award citation stated that 74 Squadron had, since August that year, ‘destroyed at least 84 enemy aircraft and damaged many more’. Malan had a reputation for being an aggressive pilot and a strict leader. His driving force for this behaviour during the battle was very personal – his wife and young son. He told fellow Battle of Britain pilot Alan Deere that his family ‘gave him an absolutely definite thing to fight for and defend’ during those intense months. Malan retired from the RAF in 1946 after a highly successful wartime service as one of the leading Allied air aces.

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2. Brian Lane

World War Two Photos - Pilots of the Battle of Britain. Brian Lane
The strain of combat shows on Lane’s face as he consults with his pilots after a sortie. © IWM CH 1366

Brian Lane joined the RAF in 1936 and flew with No. 66 and No. 213 Squadrons before the outbreak of war in 1939. Lane, originally from Middlesex, was commander of ‘A’ Flight, No. 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford by the time of the operations at Dunkirk in May 1940. During that period, 19 Squadron’s commanding officer was shot down and killed, and Lane took temporary command of the unit.

He proved to be a natural and popular leader. Those who served with him remembered that, although he was an officer, he was not elitist and that he ‘knew everyone under his command by their first name and had time for us all, no matter how lowly their rank’. Lane also had the ability to stay calm during tense moments of the battle, which helped to reassure those under his leadership.

Lane took part in flying operations throughout the Battle of Britain and was put in charge of 19 Squadron after the death of its commanding officer on 5 September 1940. In December 1942, shortly after being given command of No. 167 Squadron, he was killed during combat over the Dutch coast.


3. Billy Fiske

Born into a wealthy New York family in 1911, William ‘Billy’ Fiske developed a love of Britain whilst studying at Cambridge University. During the Second World War, Fiske became one of an unknown number of US citizens who fought for Britain, by pretending to be Canadian and joining the Royal Air Force.

Fiske served with No. 601 Squadron, which was nicknamed ‘The Millionaires’ Squadron’ due to the large number of rich and well-connected young men who had joined it. It was based at RAF Tangmere in Sussex during the Battle of Britain. Fiske’s flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Sir Archibald Hope, described him as the best fighter pilot he had known, a ‘natural’ who learnt how to fly in battle extremely quickly.

Fiske’s first operational flight was on 20 July 1940, and over the next 27 days he flew a total of 42 sorties (missions), regularly going into action several times a day. As August progressed and the battle heightened, Fiske downed his first German aircraft. On one day, 13 August, he flew three operations and claimed three Messerschmitt Bf 110s.

On 16 August RAF Tangmere was targeted by the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) bombing raids on British airfields and 601 Squadron was scrambled into action. Fiske was piloting a Hawker Hurricane against a squadron of German Junkers Ju 87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers. The Hurricane’s fuel tank was soon hit by one of the Junkers’ tail gunners. Although it quickly became engulfed in flames, Fiske brought it in to land so that the aircraft could be saved. He was dragged from the wreckage and taken away by ambulance, but had received serious burns. Initially it looked as though he might recover but, on the following day, he died from shock.

Fiske is commemorated on a plaque in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, which states: ‘An American Citizen, Who Died That England Might Live’.


4. Witold Urbanowicz

Thousands of Polish airmen took part in the Battle of Britain, including Squadron Leader Witold Urbanowicz. He learned to fly in the 1930s and served with the Polish Air Force. By the outbreak of war in 1939, he had already made a name for himself as a fearless fighter pilot.

After Poland was invaded in September 1939, Urbanowicz was captured by the Soviets, but quickly managed to escape. He reached France but, after it fell to the Germans, he went to Britain and joined the RAF. He initially served with No. 145 Squadron and made his first operational flight on 4 August 1940, shooting down a German fighter aircraft four days later. On 21 August, Urbanowicz was transferred to No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron and was soon promoted to lead the squadron when its commander was wounded. He quickly made his mark, shooting down at least 15 enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain and thereby becoming a ‘triple ace’.

Urbanowicz led 303 Squadron during one of the most intense periods of the battle, and it achieved significant success against the German bombers in September. He shot down four German aircraft in a day on two separate occasions that month.

Urbanowicz received several awards for his service in the battle, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Cross of the Virtuti Militari, Poland's highest military decoration. Urbanowicz survived the war and later settled in the United States.


5. Arthur Clowes

Arthur Clowes was born in Derbyshire and joined the RAF in 1929. By the time of the Battle of Britain, he was an experienced pilot who had downed at least eight German aircraft during action over France in 1940. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal for his skill and bravery during this period.

Clowes served with No. 1 Squadron, based at RAF Tangmere, during the Battle of Britain. Like all the pilots in the squadron, Clowes flew several sorties each day during the summer. On 6 September, he led the squadron in a patrol when their commanding officer’s engine would not start. They were attacked by a formation of German Messerschmitt Bf 109s, but Clowes took control and firmly led his squadron out of danger and safely back to base.

The following day, Clowes was back in action as the Luftwaffe launched a huge bombing raid on London. At around 5pm, 1 Squadron met a large formation of German bombers and fighter aircraft. A confused aerial combat ensued, in which Clowes managed to successfully pursue and shoot down a Messerschmitt BF 110 over the Kent coast. He was scrambled into action five times in total on 7 September.

That day, Clowes was flying his personal Hawker Hurricane, number P3395, which he had first received in August 1940. He painted a wasp emblem on the nose of the aircraft and, each time he shot down an enemy aircraft, he added a black stripe to the wasp. His final number of destroyed aircraft was at least twelve.

In 1943, Clowes lost his left eye in an accident in the officer’s mess at RAF Uxbridge. No longer able to fly, he remained in the RAF as a staff officer. He died in 1949, aged 37, from liver cancer.


6. Douglas Bader

At the outbreak of war in 1939, Douglas Bader set out to re-join the RAF. He had been discharged from the service six years previously after losing both his legs in a flying accident. Bader crashed his aircraft while taking part in an aerobatics display and as a result had lost one leg below the knee and the other leg above the knee. Within six months, he had been fitted with artificial legs and had learned to walk again.

He was able to persuade the RAF to give him a chance to prove that he could still fly operationally and joined No. 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford in early 1940.

Bader was soon made a flight commander of No. 222 Squadron, which took part in the Battle of France in May and June 1940. After these operations, in which Bader shot down several German aircraft, he was posted to command No. 242 Squadron at RAF Coltishall. The squadron had suffered heavy losses in France, but Bader soon improved the morale of the unit through his determined leadership.

The Battle of Britain started on 10 July 1940 and Douglas Bader shot down his first German aircraft of the battle the following day. He was an aggressive pilot and over the next few months he destroyed many more aircraft, including two Messerschmitt Bf 109s and a Dornier on 7 September. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Order that month for his combat leadership. His squadron had achieved considerable success against the Luftwaffe, shooting down 10 enemy aircraft on 30 August alone.

Bader was a key supporter of the ‘Big Wing’ tactic, in which dozens of aircraft were made airborne at once to face the Luftwaffe bomber formations. Bader led the ‘Duxford Wing’ against German bombers targeting London and the south east. But it took time for such a large concentration of aircraft to form up and this delay meant it often arrived too late to meet the raiders. The ‘Big Wing’ was a point of great debate, particularly amongst members of the RAF leadership. The success of the strategy in dealing with the Luftwaffe threat was unclear at the time and is still controversial.

Bader was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross in January 1941 for his leadership and was promoted to Wing Commander of the RAF Tangmere Wing in March. He became a prisoner of war in August that year and remained in captivity until 1945. Bader is one of the most famous pilots of the Second World War and a film was later made about his life and career.


7. Geoffrey Allard

Geoffrey Allard was born in York in 1912. He joined the RAF in 1929 and trained as a leading aircraftman (LAC) mechanic. He began pilot training in 1936 and qualified the following year. He joined No. 85 Squadron, RAF and was serving with that unit as a sergeant pilot when the Second World War broke out.

Allard was a popular and talented pilot. He went with the squadron to France in 1939, which remained there throughout the ‘Phoney War’ until it was needed to take part in the Battle of France in May 1940. Allard destroyed several enemy aircraft during this period, but became so exhausted from flying multiple missions each day that he was sent back to England to recuperate. Allard was awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal for his contribution at this time.

Allard added to his list of destroyed German aircraft during the Battle of Britain. He, along with another pilot, shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 on 30 July and he shared in the destruction of a Dornier bomber on 6 August. His squadron was moved from RAF Debden in Essex to Croydon on 19 August, putting it at the heart of the battle. On 24 August, Allard shot down a Messerschmitt Bf 109 into the sea, near Ramsgate. He then destroyed at least two Dorniers on 26 August and another Bf 109 on 28 August.

The squadron was badly hit by a Luftwaffe raid on 1 September, and Allard’s Hawker Hurricane was damaged. A few days later, the unit moved north to Yorkshire and out of the intense danger in southern England. Allard had shot down around eight enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain, and was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for his ‘skill and courage’.

On 13 March 1941, Allard was killed alongside two other pilots near RAF Debden when the aircraft they were in crashed soon after take-off.

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