The glorious ‘Few’ who are defending Britain

The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
The Prime Minister Winston Churchill helps to build a pillbox at Canford Cliffs, Poole, England, during a visit to Southern Command on 17 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at 'A' Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.
Spitfire pilots of No. 610 Squadron relaxing between sorties at ‘A’ Flight dispersal at Hawkinge, 29 July 1940.

The war had now seemingly resolved down to a simple scenario. Britain was under direct threat from a German invasion. At present the Royal Navy stood in the way of any amphibious landing – yet only so long as her ships could be protected from the air. In the ‘narrow seas’ between Britain and the continent of Europe if the Luftwaffe got the upper hand then no ship would be safe.

It was now readily apparent to those within the military command that only the thin line of ‘fighters boys’ of RAF Fighter Command kept Britain safe. It was a stark reality to confront, especially when they met the young men themselves, many of whom were only just out of school.

General Hastings “Pug” Ismay was Secretary of the Committee of Imperial Defence and Churchill’s principal military adviser, standing between the military establishment and the politicians, he saw the situation as clearly as anyone:

The German Air Force had been at full stretch throughout the Battle of France, and it was not until the first week in July that the Battle of Britain started in earnest.

As usual, the Prime Minister took every opportunity to go and see things for himself, and I accompanied him on many of his visits to fighter stations in Kent and Sussex.

From the moment one set foot on the tarmac, one sensed the tension in the air – the pilots standing by ‘on readiness’, waiting to ‘scramble’ into their machines at a moment’s notice.

It was impossible to look at those young men, who might within a matter of minutes be fighting and dying to save us, without mingled emotions of wonder, gratitude, and humility. The physical and mental strain of the long hours at dispersal, the constant flying at high altitudes (two or three sorties a day were normal, six or seven not uncommon), must have been prodigious.

And yet they were so cheerful, so confident, and so obviously dedicated. They were always thrilled to see Churchill, and they gave me a kindly welcome.

But they seemed a race apart, and I felt an intruder. They brought to my mind something that I had once read in the Old Testament. I looked it up when I got home. ‘And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up my jewels.’ [Malachi, chapter III, verse 17]

See The Memoirs of General the Lord Ismay K.G., P.C., G.C.B., C.H., D.S.O..

Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No. 85 Squadron, July 1940. The battery cart is plugged in and a member of the ground crew on standby beneath the wing, ready to start the engine as soon as the alarm is given.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.
Pilots of No. 85 Squadron run to their Hurricanes at the satellite landing ground at Castle Camps, July 1940. In the foreground is P2923 VY-R, flown by Plt Off Albert G Lewis.

One thought on “The glorious ‘Few’ who are defending Britain”

  1. What wonderful photographs!

    In the late 1990s, my husband’s company sent him to England for a temporary work assignment, and we lived in Windsor. We made several friends our own age, but the friendliest people we encountered were the senior citizens. I cherish the WWII stories they told.

    And of all the museums we toured, two of my favorites were Britain at War and the Imperial War Museum.

    Thank you for all the work you put into this marvelous site!

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