The Battle of Britain was fought between RAF Fighter Command and the Luftwaffe during the summer of 1940. The battle was fought because Germany needed to achieve air superiority over southern England as part of the plan to invade Britain - a plan code-named Operation Sealion.
In August 1940, as the battle raged, Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech in the House of Commons in which he paid tribute to the dedication of the pilots of Fighter Command.
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
'The Few' is now a term often used to describe the pilots of the Battle of Britain.
Iconic Photographs of the Few
On 21 September 1940 an RAF photographer visited Duxford’s satellite airfield at Manor Farm, Fowlmere, in Cambridgeshire. Two Spitfire squadrons were present - No. 19, based there throughout the Battle of Britain, and No. 616, whose home airfield was Kirton-in-Lindsey in Lincolnshire.
The images taken that day are some of the most iconic of the Battle of Britain. They are a vivid testament to the courage and enduring legacy of the ‘Few’.
Together with three other squadrons operating from Duxford itself, the principal task of No.19 and No. 616 was to support the RAF’s front-line squadrons further south. Most famously, they operated as part of the Duxford ‘Big Wing’, seeking to hit enemy formations attacking London. They took part in the climactic battles of September 1940 which saw the Luftwaffe suffer its heaviest losses.
Some of the pilots photographed that day in September were officers, graduates of RAF College Cranwell or on short service commissions. Others were NCOs, including men who had served in RAF ground trades before re-training as pilots. Some were ‘old hands’, others not long out of training. Three of the pilots recorded here were killed in 1940, and seven more died later in the war. Four were captured by the enemy.
No. 19 Squadron
Squadron Leader Brian ‘Sandy’ Lane DFC
Brian John Edward Lane joined the RAF in 1936 on a short service commission. He was first posted to No. 66 Squadron at Duxford in January 1937, then No. 213 Squadron at Northolt in March 1937. On the outbreak of war he joined No. 19 Squadron at Duxford as a flight lieutenant and took command of ‘A’ Flight.
Still only 23 years old, Lane was an exceptional pilot and a natural leader, and following the death in action of the previous CO, Squadron Leader Philip Pinkham, on 5 September Lane was given command of the squadron. By this time he had destroyed at least 6 German aircraft with several more ‘probables’. In June 1941 he was posted away on staff duties in the UK and Middle East. He returned to operations on 7 December 1942 with command of No. 167 Squadron at Ludham in Norfolk. A week later, he was shot down and killed in combat with Focke Wulf Fw 190s during an offensive patrol over Holland.
No. 19 Squadron had been the first in the RAF to be equipped with Spitfires. At the height of the Battle of Britain it was chosen to introduce the cannon-armed Mk Ib version into service, but the experiment was not a success. The two 20mm Hispano cannon were more destructive than the eight .303-in machine guns normally fitted, but the weapons suffered constant stoppages in combat. In September the squadron reverted back to eight-gun Spitfires, like this one, delivered from an operational training unit
Pilots at ease. Squadron Leader Brian Lane is in the corner facing the camera. On his left, beneath the pin-up, is Pilot Officer Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas from No. 616 Squadron, now recovered after being shot down and wounded on 22 August. Dundas later commanded a Typhoon wing based at Duxford and then served in Italy. He survived the war.
Flight Lieutenant Wilfred ‘Wilf’ Clouston DFC
Wilfred Greville Clouston was born in Auckland, New Zealand, but came to the UK in 1936 and joined the RAF. In June 1937 he was posted to No. 19 Squadron at Duxford, becoming ‘B’ Flight commander. After the Battle of Britain he was sent out to the Far East but was captured by the Japanese at Singapore in February 1942. He survived captivity as a FEPOW, but never fully recovered from the ordeal.
Flight Lieutenant Jack ‘Farmer’ Lawson
Walter John Lawson, known as Jack Lawson, passed out as an RAF fitter in 1931 but re-mustered as a pilot in 1936 along with many other airmen as the RAF underwent a major expansion. In April 1940 he was commissioned and joined No. 19 Squadron. During the Battle of Britain he commanded ‘A’ Flight, after Lane took over the squadron, and shot down at least five enemy aircraft. Lawson talked of becoming a farmer after the war, hence his nickname, but was shot down and killed on 28 August 1941 while escorting Blenheim bombers attacking Rotterdam harbour.
Flying Officer Richard Jones
Richard Leoline Jones finished his RAF training in July 1940 and went to No. 64 Squadron at Kenley. In September he was posted to No. 19 Squadron. On 28 September he was shot down. Unable to bail out because of a jammed canopy hood, he crash-landed his aircraft successfully and was rescued by army personnel. In 1941 he became a test pilot for the De Havilland Aircraft Company
Flying Officer Leonard ‘Ace’ Haines DFC
Leonard Archibald Haines joined the RAF in 1937 and became one of No. 19 Squadron’s most successful pilots during the Battle of Britain. He destroyed at least eight enemy aircraft - all fighters - between June and September 1940. Afterwards he was posted away as a flying instructor, but was killed in a low-flying accident on 30 April 1941, tragically only two weeks after getting married.
Flying Officer František ‘Dolly’ Doležal
František Doležal was a Czechoslovak Air Force pilot who escaped to France when the Germans invaded. He flew with a French squadron during the Battle of France before escaping to Britain where he was attached to No. 19 Squadron. He joined No.310 (Czech) Squadron in 1941 which he went on to command. He survived the war only to be killed in a flying accident on 4 October 1945.
Flying Officer Frank ‘Fanny’ Brinsden
Francis Noel Brinsden, known as Frank, was a New Zealander who joined No. 19 Squadron in 1938. On 31 August 1940 he was forced to bail out of his Spitfire when his aircraft was hit by a Messerschmitt Bf 110. He later became a Mosquito night-fighter pilot with No. 25 Squadron. On 17 August 1943 he flew a low-level intruder sortie as part of the Bomber Command raid on the Nazi V-weapon establishment at Peenemünde but his aircraft crashed after hitting the sea and he was taken prisoner. After his release he joined an RAF unit tracing missing Allied aircrew.
Pilot Officer Wallace ‘Jock’ Cunningham
Wallace Cunningham was born in Glasgow and joined the RAF in 1938. After training he was posted to No. 19 Squadron in June 1940. He shot down four enemy aircraft during the Battle of Britain, and shared in the destruction of three others. He was in turn shot down and captured during a bomber escort to Rotterdam on 28 August 1941.
Pilot Officer Eric Burgoyne
Flying Officer Leonard Haines sits opposite. Burgoyne joined No. 19 Squadron in May 1940. On 27 September, only a week after this photo was taken, he was shot down and killed in a combat with Messerschmitt Bf 109s over Kent.
Sub-Lieutenant Arthur ‘Admiral’ Blake
Arthur Giles Blake was one of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm pilots seconded to the RAF for the Battle of Britain. He joined No. 19 Squadron on 1 July 1940. Unsurprisingly, he was known to his fellow pilots as ‘Admiral’. He was killed in action on 29 October 1940.
Flight Sergeant George ‘Grumpy’ Unwin DFM
George Cecil Unwin, son of a miner, joined the RAF as a clerk in 1929, but was later accepted for pilot training. Older than many of his peers, he was the top ace in No. 19 Squadron during the Battle of Britain with ten confirmed ‘kills’ at this point. He was commissioned in 1941 and went on to fly Mosquitos in the night intruder role. He survived the war, and in 1950-51 flew operations against insurgents during the Malayan emergency.
Accommodation at Manor Farm consisted of Nissen huts, like those seen here nestled alongside a Dutch barn which was used previously to store hay. The pilots gathered around their dogs here include Brian Lane (fourth from left), Harry Steere (holding paper), George Unwin (white scarf) and Jimmy Jennings (extreme right). The man bending down in the flying suit is Czech pilot František Hradil, killed in action on 5 November 1940.
Flight Sergeant Harry Steere DFM
Harry Steere joined the RAF as an apprentice at RAF Halton in 1930, and passed out as a metal rigger. He later applied for pilot training and gained his wings in 1936. At the outbreak of war he was serving with No. 19 Squadron at Duxford.
After the Battle of Britain Steere flew Pathfinder Mosquitos with RAF Bomber Command. He was shot down and killed with his navigator on 9 June 1944, three days after D-Day.
Sergeant Bernard ‘Jimmy’ Jennings
Bernard James Jennings began his RAF career in 1933 and served as a photographer/air gunner. He re-mustered as a pilot in 1937 and joined No. 19 Squadron on the outbreak of war.
In 1941 he was commissioned and was posted as a flying instructor. He returned to operations in 1944 with No. 168 Squadron, flying tactical reconnaissance sorties over Europe in Mustangs and Typhoons.
Sergeant David Lloyd
David Edward Lloyd finished his training in August 1940 and was posted to No. 64 Squadron at Leconfield. After surviving a crash in his Spitfire he was posted to No. 19 Squadron in September and then moved on to No. 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill in November. Like many of his peers he later served as an instructor, but was killed in a mid-air collision on 17 March 1942.
Flight Lieutenant Cyril Jones
Cyril Arthur Trevor Jones joined the RAF in 1936 and served with Nos. 66, 611 and 312 Squadrons before joining No. 616 Squadron at Kenley on 4 September 1940. In November he was badly wounded in the elbow by return fire from a Heinkel He 111. From February 1942 he served in the Far East, and commanded No. 79 Squadron in India.
No. 616 Squadron
Rather too obviously posed around a map, a mixed group of pilots from Nos. 19 and 616 Squadrons. Just visible, second from left is Sergeant Harry ‘Chaz’ Charnock, an experienced pre-war pilot and graduate of RAF Cranwell, recently posted from No. 64 Squadron. In 1930 he had been court-martialled and dismissed from the service for unauthorised low-flying but on the outbreak of war rejoined as an NCO. He too survived the war, ending up as a Flight Lieutenant.
Squadron Leader Howard ‘Billy’ Burton
Howard Frizelle Burton graduated with the Sword of Honour at RAF Cranwell in 1936 and joined No. 46 Squadron at Digby. In October 1939 he was posted to No. 66 Squadron. On 3 September 1940 he was given command of No. 616 Squadron, which had been pulled out of the line to re-form after suffering heavy losses. From 18 to 28 September the squadron operated from Fowlmere, flying back to Kirton-in Lindsey each evening.
In 1942 Burton was posted to the Middle East where he led a wing of P-40 Kittyhawks. He was recalled to the UK in May 1943. Setting out from Gibraltar on 3 June, the Hudson transport aircraft he was in was intercepted by a long-range Junkers Ju 88C fighter over the Bay of Biscay and shot into the sea. Burton, and the other nine men aboard the Hudson, were all posted as missing.
Flight Lieutenant Colin Macfie
Colin Hamilton Macfie joined No. 616 Squadron as ‘B’ Flight commander on 7 September 1940. He destroyed two enemy aircraft and damaged three more before being shot down over northern France and captured on 5 July 1941. He spent some of his captivity in Stalag-Luft III at Sagan, scene of the ‘Great Escape’.
Flying Officer Kenneth ‘Ken’ Holden
Kenneth Holden joined No. 616 Squadron in early 1939. He shot down two Messerschmitt Bf 109s over Dunkirk, claiming two more as ‘probables’, and survived the mauling the squadron received operating from Kenley at the height of the battle. In 1941 he took command of No. 610 Squadron and became an ‘ace’ (five kills). Later that year he was posted to staff duties and spent the rest of the war ‘flying a desk’. He commanded No. 616 Squadron for a period after the war.
Pilot Officer Philip ‘Uncle Sam’ Leckrone
Philip Howard Leckrone was from Salem, Illinois, in the United States. An accomplished private pilot, he travelled to Britain to volunteer with the RAF, and joined No. 616 Squadron in September 1940. In October he transferred to No. 71 Squadron, the first of the RAF’s ‘Eagle’ squadrons formed from American volunteers. He was killed in a flying accident on 5 January 1941.