RAF pilots were at the heart of the Battle of Britain. Just 3,000 men stood between Britain and a German invasion – those who Winston Churchill famously called ‘The Few’.
From terrifying dogfights in the skies over England, to the impact of heavy losses and extreme fatigue, listen to the memories of men who played a vital role in Britain’s struggle for survival in the summer of 1940.
Spitfires and Hurricanes
Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes were the two dominant RAF aircraft flown in the Battle of Britain. The state-of-the-art Spitfires were faster, sleeker and could climb higher than the Hurricanes. The Spitfires took on German fighter aircraft, while the Hurricanes usually went for the enemy bombers. Hurricanes outnumbered Spitfires and, although slower and unable to reach the same altitudes, were more robust. The Spitfire has since become the more famous of the two, but the Hurricane played an equally important role in the air battles of 1940. Pilot Geoffrey Page was one of the few pilots to fly both the Spitfire and Hurricane, and in this clip he talks about the differences between the two aircraft.
'I think their characteristics were comparable to the dog world'
"I was lucky because I had the unique experience of being one of the very few pilots during the Battle of Britain who had flown both the Hurricane and the Spitfire. They were both lovable, but in their different ways – they were delightful airplanes. I tend to give an example of the bulldog and the greyhound, the Hurricane being the bulldog and the greyhound being the Spitfire. One's a sort of tough working animal and the other one's a sleek, fast dog. But I think their characteristics were comparable to the dog world. If anything the Hurricane was slightly easier. It wasn't as fast and didn't have the rate of climb. But during the actual Battle of Britain itself, what really evolved was that the Hurricanes would attack the German bomber formations and the Spitfires, because of their extra capability of climbing, they would go up and attack the German fighter escorts. But in the earlier stages I found that we were getting involved with both bombers and fighters when we were flying Hurricanes."
Scrambled into action
RAF pilots began their day very early, waking at dawn and being driven out to their aircraft. Now ready for action, they waited for the order to ‘scramble’ – meaning enemy aircraft had been sighted and the pilots needed to get up into the sky and intercept them. Each group of pilots was headed up by a senior pilot who gave instructions and led the aircraft towards the enemy. Once the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) had been encountered, the fight was on and it was every man for himself. In the confusion and danger of aerial combat, it could be all too easy to suddenly find yourself outnumbered by a larger enemy formation, as Norman Hancock – who was based at RAF Northolt – discovered.
'So, into the cloud again we went'
"During this period we were constantly patrolling and intercepting. The weather by and large had been very, very good during that summer but there were days when it was poor. On one particular occasion, we had climbed to cloud level… I suppose was certainly not much more than 1,000 feet above Northolt when we took off. I was formatting on the starboard side of the squadron commander and we climbed up through something like 18,000 feet of cloud – just the wingtip. And that was how cloud flying was in those days and so you relied up on your section leader to be leading you because you couldn’t watch your instruments, you just watched his wingtips through the mist. And we came out eventually into brilliant sunshine – I've never forgotten it – and as we came out, one of the chaps of the six of us who got up there (it was a flight) as we came out in that very position, down came half a dozen Messerschmitt 109s slap onto us! So, into the cloud again we went – a highly successful trip that was! But that sort of thing happened."
During the Battle of Britain, nearly 200 RAF pilots became air ‘aces’ – those who had shot down at least five enemy aircraft. Among the top aces of the war were Czech pilot Josef Frantisek, the Englishman Eric Lock and Brian Carbury, from New Zealand. The Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the main type of German fighter aircraft that Allied airmen combatted during the battle. It was one of the best fighter aircraft of all time and RAF pilots had to use all their skill and ingenuity to shoot them down. Listen to the clip to find out how Roland Beamont, a pilot with No. 87 Squadron, managed to do just that during a fast-paced combat over Dorset in August 1940.
'He started to side slip fairly violently'
"I could see the rest of this formation still up above. I thought, ‘Right, I'll climb back up and see if I can pick up a straggler.’ But before I did that, a target presented itself because right down across my front came a single 109. I rolled in after this Messerschmitt half thinking for a moment that it might be a Spitfire because it was so unusual to see a single Messerschmitt by itself. Whether he'd been hit or not, I don't know: he wasn't showing any smoke, he was travelling fairly fast just diving towards the sea as if he was getting the hell out of it and going home, which is probably just what he was doing. Anyway, I got onto his tail, fired a long burst. He slowed up and then he rolled very violently up to the right. As he came out of his roll I was back on his tail close in for another burst, when I could see that his undercarriage was coming down. He was also streaming grey smoke, might have been coolant. We were down to about 1200 feet then over the fields of Dorset, the Purbeck Hills. He started to side slip fairly violently. He did another roll this time with his wheels down and then did a diving, dirt turn down towards the ground. I thought either he's going to go in or he's actually aiming for a forced landing. I held off and he went round a field, lost speed, side slipped quite sharply and he was obviously a very capable pilot. Eventually he went in to land on this field…"
For much of the Battle of Britain, RAF successes were all too often outweighed by losses. The Luftwaffe was a formidable enemy and RAF airmen underestimated their German counterparts at their peril. Pilots had to think quickly and work fast in the high-stakes dogfights that took place. Life or death decisions had to be made in the space of seconds. Aircraft and pilots could be impaired in a range of ways and if anything went seriously wrong during a sortie (mission), an emergency landing or a parachute bail-out could be the only option left. This wasn’t always possible though, and huge numbers of men were shot down and never seen again. Hear how George Unwin, who served with No. 19 Squadron, was shot down by a Dornier and managed to make an emergency landing in September 1940.
'I must be dead or something, no blood, no nothing but I'm covered in smoke'
"I was at about 20,000 feet and I suddenly saw this lone Dornier, how he was on his own I'll never know, but he was off home. So I went after him. Now the drill against the Dornier was that he had a dustbin rear gunner, a dustbin hanging down below the fuselage and you had to fix him first and then close in for the aircraft. This I did cleverly of course, I could see him shooting at me and I closed in and gave him a burst and shut him up, at least I thought I had. I never know to this day whether I did or I didn't or whether someone took his place because as I closed right in on him and started shooting, I suddenly saw his rear gunner shooting back at me with little red sparks – you can see. I didn't pay much attention to it, I just thought he would stop another one and carried on firing for quite a while, quite a long burst, when suddenly I was covered in smoke. To my horror a hole appeared, I was leaning forward of course, as one did, to the gun-sight and a hole appeared in this thing in front of my face. I thought, ‘Good God, I must be dead or something, no blood, no nothing but I'm covered in smoke.’ I thought I was on fire. So I whipped the hood back, undid my straps and started to get out. By this time I'd broken away and was going down-hill. And I was halfway out of the cockpit, when I suddenly saw that smoke was coming from the top of the engine, through the engine cowling, which is where the glycol pipe is, the coolant pipe. It was a really browny colour, it wasn't black smoke and I could smell it too, it was glycol. So I got back in and strapped myself in again, left the hood open and still went rapidly down-hill in case somebody was following me and then started looking for a field and I found a field to land in. I waited until I'd found my field and got down to about 1,000 feet, dropped the undercarriage and did a forced landing in this field no trouble at all. I hadn't even got out of the cockpit before an army jeep with a young subaltern and two soldiers with fixed bayonets came roaring through the gate in a jeep and as soon as they saw it was one of ours they changed their attitude. I got a screwdriver from one of the soldiers and we took the top off and there it was: a bullet had gone through the glycol pipe, the top – the header – there was glycol all over the place."
If a pilot was severely wounded or his aircraft was badly damaged, he could bail out and use his parachute to get him safely back down to earth. But this presented problems if an aircraft was hit near the coast or over the sea, as the parachute could carry the airman into the water. Many perished while awaiting rescue, as the shock to their system of hitting the cold water could lead to death. Over 200 men lost their lives this way during the Battle of Britain. Douglas Grice was shot down and bailed out over Harwich in September 1940. Although he was badly wounded and landed in the sea, he survived.
'The next moment of course the cockpit was full of flames'
"I was flying by myself a thousand or a couple of thousand feet higher than the rest of the squadron and slightly behind, weaving like mad, looking right, left, centre, up, down, mostly back. When suddenly I, out of the corner of my eye, saw a flash over my left wrist and the next moment of course the cockpit was full of flames. The heat was enormous and I'd done two things absolutely instinctively. My left hand had gone to the handle of the hood, my right hand had gone to the pin of my harness and I was pulling with both hands and the next moment I was out in the open air. I'd made no attempt to jump out of that aircraft and of course I was straining back from the flames and the heat. And what I think had happened was, I was doing a left hand turn and my aircraft had gone on turning over on its back and I'd just fallen out! Anyway, there I was falling away and I did actually remember my parachute drill which was of course to wait before pulling the rip cord for two or three seconds. And I pulled it and there was a jerk and there I was floating down with a marvellous canopy and about a couple of miles inland. I could look down and see the land, so I thought at least I won't be going into the sea. Something seemed to have happened to my face – there were bits of skin flapping around my eyes! And my mouth felt very uncomfortable. Of course, I'd been burnt. Well, very shortly after that, I was over the coast and a few minutes later I was a mile out to sea, and a few minutes after that I was two miles out to sea. Well the sea gradually approached and I wasn’t a bit worried because I was coming down, going to splash down, only a couple of hundred yards from a little fishing trawler. Well the splash happened and I got rid of my harness and looked round and there was the trawler and I waved like mad and it eventually arrived and they hauled me on board."
Many pilots were seriously wounded in aerial combat – mainly from burns and bullets – and some faced the prospect of long-term disability. The Guinea Pig Club was set up in 1941 to treat airmen who had suffered burns with experimental plastic surgery. By the end of the war, it had 649 members. Some of the injuries that men suffered from were horrific and took months – even years – to heal and even longer to come to terms with. George Bennions, who served with No. 41 Squadron, was badly affected by his terrible injuries after being shot down.
'I felt so deflated just as though half my life had been taken and the half wasn't worth bothering with'
"The first few weeks I don’t remember much about it, really. I was very concerned, very upset, feeling rather annoyed with myself for having been shot down so decisively and… I felt, I don't know, awful feeling really, terribly isolated. I couldn't see, I couldn't hear very well. I couldn't recognise people unless it was somebody very close to me. I felt so deflated just as though half my life had been taken and the half wasn't worth bothering with. It was, I think, the worst period of my life, my friend, the chap I'd joined up with from school, he was in ward three at East Grinstead. He'd been shot down flying a Hurricane. He was in ward three. He'd heard that I'd been admitted to the hospital. He'd sent a message along, 'Could I go and see him?' As I opened the door in ward three I saw what I can only describe now as the most horrifying thing that I have ever seen in my life. That was this chap who had been badly burnt, really badly burnt. His hair was burnt off, his eyebrows were burnt off, his eyelids were burnt off, you could just see his staring eyes. His nose was burnt, there were just two holes in his face. His lips were badly burnt. And then when I looked down his hands were burnt. I looked down at his feet also. His feet were burnt. I got through the door on crutches with a bit of a struggle. This chap started propelling a wheelchair down the ward. Halfway down he picked up a chair with his teeth. That's when I noticed how badly his lips were burnt. Then he brought this chair down the ward, threw it alongside me and said, ‘Have a seat old boy.’ And I cried. I thought, ‘What have I to complain about?’ From then on everything fell into place."
Both sides suffered heavy losses during the Battle of Britain – 544 pilots, which was about one in six, from RAF Fighter Command were killed and 2,500 Luftwaffe airmen lost their lives. Men from a range of countries fought and died during the battle – from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Belgium to Canada, Australia and New Zealand. All of them are remembered on the Battle of Britain memorial on the Kent coast. The unrelenting nature of the battle meant that there often wasn’t time to mourn the deaths of friends and colleagues, as John Kaye, who served with No. 302 Squadron, found.
'He said to me, ‘John, I think that I'm not coming back.’'
"That was a fight which I ever regretted, because there was a friend of mine. We became friends while in the squadron and he said to me, ‘John, I think that I'm not coming back.’ I said, ‘Look mate don't talk about this, because you put it in your mind. Don't talk about it, you will be back.’ He had a watch and a wedding ring and he took it off and gave it to me because I was, not on standby, I was there just in case, as a reserve. Eventually the four planes, I flew one of them, were called up to standby and eventually scrambled. Anyway he never came back."
Shortage of pilots
The heavy losses were compounded by the continuing need for more pilots and the deployment of men with minimal training in the aircraft they were going to be flying. They were often very young, too: the average age of an RAF fighter pilot in 1940 was just 20 years. Of those killed, the average age was 22. As the battle wore on, RAF Fighter Command had ever fewer reserves of experienced pilots to draw on and men were sent into combat after only a few hours of training. By mid-August the shortage became acute and had both military and political leaders worried. Alan Deere served with No. 54 Squadron and recalls the eventual fate of two inexperienced pilots in this sound extract.
'We were desperately short of pilots'
"We were desperately short of pilots. At that stage in the Battle of Britain, August into September, the aircraft had started coming in again and we were having them flown in. But we were short of pilots. We were getting pilots who had not been on Spitfires because there were no conversion units at that time. They came straight to a squadron from their training establishments. Some of them did have a few hours on the Hurricanes, a monoplane experience, but not on the Spitfire. For example, we got two young New Zealanders into my flight. Chatting to them I found they'd been six weeks at sea coming over. They were trained on some very outdated aircraft, I can't remember, out in NZ. They were given I think two trips or something in a Hurricane, something of that sort of order and they arrived at the squadron. We were pretty busy and so we gave them what was known as a cockpit check. We had by that time a monoplane and we’d give them one trip in that. One of the pilots would take them up to see the handling and brief them on the Spitfire. Then they'd go off for one solo flight and circuit, and then they were into battle. The answer is of course that they didn't last. Those two lasted two trips and they both finished up in Dover Hospital, strangely enough. One was pulled out of the Channel. One landed by parachute."
The lack of any real pause in the battle meant that there just wasn’t the time to devote to properly training men, not only to fly – but to fight. Combat skills could only be picked up from real experience over time, but time was of the essence. Jimmy Corbin joined No. 66 Squadron in August 1940 with very little experience – he had had just 29 hours' flying time in the Spitfire. He went on to earn a Distinguished Flying Cross, but at the start of his flying career he remembered being very naïve.
‘Christ almighty! I've never done any aerobatic flying’
"Any pilot that wasn’t fairly experienced was called a sprog, because you weren’t one of the boys. Anyway then you, after a bit you'd done a few hours flying and done a bit of formation flying either with two or three or maybe more and then eventually with the squadron and then they called you operational: that meant you were fit to be killed! The first aerobatics I did was in a Spitfire. Told by squadron commander, ‘Corbin! There’s your aircraft, go and do one hour’s aerobatic flying.’ I thought, ‘Christ almighty! I've never done any aerobatic flying.’ So I thought the loop must be the easiest thing. Of course, in my bloody ignorance and stupidity I went up in this loop and I stalled the bloody thing at the top through going around too fast, it spun out the top…! That was my first experience."
By mid-August, it was clear that the Luftwaffe hadn’t managed to secure air superiority over the RAF. The German tactics now changed, and airfields were targeted in bombing raids. The aim was to seriously damage the RAF’s ability to continue the fight by making it difficult for pilots to rest, take off and land at their bases. One of the worst hit was RAF Biggin Hill, which suffered heavy bombing on 18 and 30 August in particular. William David, commander of No. 213 Squadron, remembered the raids on RAF Tangmere.
'They were quite nasty attacks; they were very well planned and deliberate attacks'
"Well they were grim: they were grim. I came back one day – I'd landed at Tangmere, I don’t know why – and they’d… they used Stukas in those early days and they caught the whole WAAF contingent changing from one watch to another and they killed a lot of girls. Which really upset people, as much as anything. They were quite nasty attacks; they were very well planned and deliberate attacks, they were hitting hangars, buildings, everything and, of course, personnel. And of course you see there again, this happened more than once in the history of the Battle of Britain. Unfortunately, Leigh Mallory was supposed to patrol our airfields while we were refuelling and quite often busy forming these stupid Big Wings, which meant that a lot of kids were killed unnecessarily really. This is one of these occasions, when the German Stukas had just dive-bombed Tangmere with disastrous effect and killed lots of WAAFs and wounded… and one of the Germans [prisoners of war] was seen to smirk. And the RAF commander hit him very hard to stop him laughing."
The strain placed on pilots during the Battle of Britain took a huge toll on their morale and their ability to keep operating at such a demanding pace. At the height of the battle, pilots could be scrambled into action four or even five times a day. Fatigue became as much an enemy as the Luftwaffe and was a very real danger in a job that required such total concentration, skill and accuracy. One pilot remembered being so tired at one stage in the battle that he slept through an air raid on his base, Biggin Hill. In this clip, Denys Gillam of No. 616 Squadron talks about the effects of his demanding daily routine.
'I realised I was upside down and diving hard to the ground'
"One was called about four in the morning and you went down to dispersal in the half light, and breakfast was brought down to one. And then you generally scrambled about seven or eight o’clock for the first raid. And then you came back, refuelled and rearmed, and they brought sandwiches down to one at the dispersal. And then you got scrambled again and had another battle, and probably a third in the afternoon or evening. And then towards dusk you would ease up and you were on readiness until just after dark. At the end of our tour when there were only three or four of us they were even asking us to night fly which was very hard because we really weren’t getting enough sleep. And this was very hard. In fact one night I went off after a raid and I think I went to sleep in the cockpit because, the next thing I knew, the speed was building up and there were lights in front of me, and I couldn’t make out what it was and I realised I was upside down and diving hard to the ground. And this was entirely due to fatigue. I think the evening raid was the worst in that one had already flown three or four sorties and probably lost three or four pilots, and you were reduced down in numbers. Then you had another go and one was getting tired."
Keeping up morale
Despite the chronic fatigue, getting proper rest at night was very difficult for the airmen, given the need to be constantly ready to go into action and the knowledge that they would have to do it all again tomorrow. The camaraderie and humour that pilots shared played a role in distracting them from the strains of the battle. As well as the lack of sleep, pilots had to deal with the constant worry of what the Luftwaffe would throw at them next. As pilot Harold Bird-Wilson remembers here, airmen had to cope with the sight of huge enemy formations heading towards them day after day and the resulting fear many of them felt was not surprising.
'It's the only time in England I think anybody ever prayed for bad weather'
"You read many stories nowadays of pilots saying they weren’t worried and weren’t frightened when they saw little dots in the sky, which gradually increased in numbers and grew in size as they came from the French coast towards the English, over Kent and towards London. I maintain that if anybody says that they weren’t frightened or apprehensive at such an occasion then I think he’s a very bad liar, because you cannot help but get worried. I openly admit that I was worried and I was frightened at times. As the battle went on and on, we were praying for bad weather – it's the only time in England I think anybody ever prayed for bad weather. But somehow during the whole of the battle we had beautiful weather – sunshine and blue skies. And we prayed mighty hard. And fatigue broke into a chap’s mentality in the most peculiar ways. Some really got the jitters and facial twitches and stuff like that. Others, as I did, I had nightmares at night. I admit it that I used to wake up in my dispersal hut, sleeping near – within 25 yards – of my aircraft and I was night-flying my Hurricane. This went on for quite a long time."
Battle of Britain Day
By September, Germany had changed tactics again in its efforts to break Britain’s ability to stay in the war. The Luftwaffe started making air raids on London on 7 September – the start of what became known as the Blitz. This gave RAF Fighter Command a much-needed chance to regroup. When the Luftwaffe launched a series of heavy raids on southern England on 15 September it found the RAF was stronger than expected and the Luftwaffe suffered heavy losses. This had a severe impact on German morale and revealed that a seaborne invasion of Britain wouldn’t be possible. David Cox, of No. 19 Squadron, had a close escape on 15 September, now known as ‘Battle of Britain Day’.
'They said the Germans were trying to spoil our Sunday lunch and tea'
"Oh the great day, the 15th. We went off in the morning. There were two raids that day: the lunchtime and the teatime. They said the Germans were trying to spoil our Sunday lunch and tea – which they effectively did. This was midday and we – the wing – intercepted a raid just south of London. Again, we were taking the Messerschmitts, 109s, on. And after the first pass or two I suddenly saw a Dornier below me. I made an attack but he got into cloud. I had plenty of ammunition, so I flew south a little bit and to my right I saw six single engine aircraft, which I thought were Hurricanes. And we’d always been told that you shouldn't fly around on your own, you should always try and join up with any friendly aircraft. But it was the angle I was looking at: they turned towards me and I turned towards them and suddenly found they were six 109s. Which you might say was slightly embarrassing! We were on about the same level, but four of the 109s dived away – I saw nothing more of them. Of the other two, one climbed up behind me and one climbed up above me in front and the one behind attacked and I turned very violently and he just carried straight on and I didn’t see him again. But the one who’d been above me I turned and he was coming at right angles and I fired with a 90-degree deflection, saw strikes on his aircraft and he then went down through some broken cloud and crashed near Crowborough."
Attitude towards the enemy
During the Battle of Britain, some RAF pilots developed a degree of respect for the German pilots they were facing. They acknowledged their skill as fighters – even if they disliked their presence in the skies over Britain. But for Ronald Berry, the bombing of civilians turned his feelings of professional regard to vengeful hatred.
'I never thought of killing anybody. I just wanted to shoot them down'
"I do know that when I saw Heinkels just unleashing their load onto the poor populace of London, it had the effect on me of making me hopping mad. And I think that from that moment on, I had the feeling that there was something much more serious than just having dogfights in the air going on. And perhaps from then on I think it sunk in a bit more solidly than it had done before at that sort of bombing. I would think there's a word you get into it: bloodlust, I suppose. I think that some people don’t like killing anybody. I never thought of killing anybody. I just wanted to shoot them down. That’s how I felt about it."
A place in history
The crucial role that a few thousand RAF pilots played in protecting Britain from German invasion in 1940 has since become almost legendary. They took on a tough, determined, well-trained enemy and succeeded in not only withstanding months of heavy aerial attack but also in convincing Hitler to abandon his plans to invade England. But at the time, ‘The Few’ weren’t always aware that they were making history, and many didn’t appreciate their part in the wider battle. Roland Beamont describes here what motivated him and his fellow pilots during that intense period in 1940.
'They'd got to push over and steamroller their operation across this country, which had never been done before'
"I think you'd got this extraordinary morale. I mean, the Germans had the target of 'Deustchland Über Alles and we'll push the Brits into the sea'. But it was an offensive, they were in France, they'd beaten France and the Low Countries, now they were going to attack the hated enemy across the channel but it was still an overseas operation. They'd got to push over and steamroller their operation across this country, which had never been done before. We on the other hand could see it very, very clearly. We were young fighter pilots: we were scarcely schoolboys, but the cockpits of our fighter aeroplanes were all that stood between the invasion of this country by the Germans. We'd seen what they'd done to the nationals abroad. We all lived in this country. Some of us had our homes within sight of our airfields. I used to fly often over Portsmouth in the Battle of Britain and looked down on my home where my family were at Chichester. Tangmere was being bombed ten miles away. It's all a very personal thing. You got into your aeroplane, you felt the fears that everybody fears when they're going off to fight something. But overpowering all that was this feeling that, if you and all your chaps didn't do your damnedest on every operation you took off on, then all these Germans were going to be flooding over your country, over your homes and destroying everything that you thought was worth preserving. That's what it was all about."