Last Sunday, I once again attended the commemorative service at St Stephens’s Church in Lympne to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. I would like to congratulate the Chairman of the Hythe and Romney Marsh branch of the Royal Air Forces Association, Roger Townsend, and all of the officers of the association, for organising another excellent service. This year it also has the added poignancy of falling during the centenary of the founding of the RAF.
The sight of the Spitfire airplanes for commemorative fly pasts, and the unmistakable sound of their Rolls Royce Merlin engines, is still familiar to everyone who lives and works in East Kent. It is incredible though, to think what it must have been like seventy-eight years ago, during the summer of 1940, as the air crews based at Hawkinge and Lympne provided the first line of our defence against the Luftwaffe. Victory in the Battle of Britain enabled the RAF to prevent the German military for gaining air supremacy over the Channel, which would have been a necessary condition for an attempted invasion.
The Royal Air Force roll of honour recognises 2,936 pilots who flew with them during the Battle of Britain, a number which brings alive the line in Winston Churchill’s famous speech, that ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’
Just over twenty percent of the pilots, 595 is the exact number provided by the RAF, came from other countries to support Britain in this time of maximum danger. Some were from other Commonwealth countries, including New Zealand, Canada and Australia. There were also pilots others from nations that had already been overrun by Nazi Germany, including 145 Polish pilots, 80 Czechoslovaks, 28 Belgians and 13 Frenchmen.
There are now not many left of ‘the Few’, the pilots who fought in and survived the Battle. I remember, five years ago, meeting Bill Green, who was shot down in his Hurricane in the Elham Valley in August 1940, but he is sadly no longer with us. Sooner than we would like, the direct experience of those who fought in that Battle will pass to the written and recorded archives, rather than personal testimony. That does not mean though that the significance of the services held on Battle of Britain Sunday should be any the less. It is important we remember that those Allied pilots risked their lives so that others might be saved; no greater sacrifice can be asked on anyone then that. However, their efforts were not just carried out in defence of this island, so that the people living there would be safe, whilst much of the rest of Europe lived under Nazi tyranny. Victory in the Battle of Britain was the necessary step in a journey that would only end once Europe had been liberated. Many of the pilots who prevailed in that battle, including aces like Douglas Bader, would then go on to fly missions over the occupied territories. Then, as now, our national defence and our obligations to promote and defend liberty, do not begin and end at the white cliffs of Dover.