Battle of Britain: Historic flypast for 75th anniversary

  • 15 September 2015
  • From the section UK
Media captionThe flypast was the biggest grouping of World War Two aircraft since the war itself

A flypast involving about 40 Spitfires and Hurricanes has taken place to commemorate the 75th anniversary of World War Two's Battle of Britain.

Aircraft from across the UK, US and Europe took off from Goodwood Aerodrome in West Sussex, then flew to airfields linked to the battle.

Prince Harry was due to take part, but gave up his seat for a WW2 veteran when one of the Spitfires was grounded.

The RAF's battle with German Luftwaffe was a key moment in British history.

A service was also held earlier at London's St Paul's Cathedral, attended by Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour's new leader Jeremy Corbyn.

A range of events have already been staged over the past few months to mark the fighting, which raged between July and October 1940.

Battle of Britain: July to October 1940

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Hurricanes taking off from Gravesend in Kent during the Battle of Britain in September 1940
  • The Battle of Britain was a pivotal moment in WW2 when the country stood alone against Hitler's seemingly unstoppable military power
  • In July 1940 the RAF deployed 640 planes, although more were available, and aircraft production was subsequently ramped up
  • The Luftwaffe could call upon 2,600 fighters and bombers
  • Nearly 3,000 aircrew served with RAF Fighter Command during the battle
  • The average age of a pilot was 20 years old
  • 20% of the pilots were from the British Dominions, and occupied European or neutral countries
  • The RAF lost 1,023 planes and the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 planes in the battle

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Tuesday's flypast and service were held on Battle of Britain Day - the name given to the day, on 15 September 1940, when the Luftwaffe launched its largest and most concentrated attack against London in the hope of drawing out the RAF.

Spitfires, Hurricanes and Blenheims, from across the UK, US and Europe came together at Goodwood Aerodrome. Present-day owners, operators, pilots and engineers were there alongside veterans.

The planes flew past Goodwood in formation before dispersing to historical airfields in Northolt in Middlesex, North Weald in Essex, Duxford in Cambridgeshire, Bentwaters in Suffolk, Colerne in Wiltshire and Biggin Hill in Kent.

The Battle of Britain Day flypast website has maps of the approximate routes.

Battle of Britain pilot Wing Commander Tom Neil, now 95, led the formation from the rear seat of a two-seat Spitfire.

Speaking from the cockpit after his aircraft landed, he said: "It was delightful. It was nice to be back in a Spitfire again."

He was joined in the flight by wounded service personnel who have been training to fly as part of the Spitfire Scholarship set up by the Boultbee Flight Academy, in partnership with the Royal Foundation's Endeavour Fund, which Prince Harry launched at Goodwood in 2014.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Battle of Britain veteran Tom Neil was greeted by Prince Harry after his Spitfire landed
Image copyright PA
Image caption The planes flew on their designated routes in formation
Image copyright PA
Image caption The vintage planes recreated the flight paths of those that flew in World War Two

The historic aircraft were due to take off at 12:00 BST but this was delayed until 14:00 BST because of bad weather.

The BBC's Robert Hall, at the aerodrome, said one of four two-seater Spitfires due to take part became unserviceable - prompting Prince Harry to pull out to allow others to fly instead.

Battle of Britain veteran Nigel Rose, 97, said pilots at that time only realised the significance of what they were engaged in some time later.

"Gradually more and more examples came up from history to show that this was an important thing to have done, to get the German high command to pull back from invasion," he said.

Media captionPrince Harry met some of the pilots taking part in the flypast

Earlier, at St Paul's, Mr Cameron stood alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda and welcomed him to Downing Street afterwards.

The prime minister described the service - organised by the RAF Association - as "very moving", and said it was a "particular honour" to see Mr Duda on the battle's 75th anniversary.

"The battle that really was not just one of most vital moments in the history of Britain, but in the history of Europe and the world, in which Polish pilots played such an absolutely vital role in saving Europe from tyranny, from Nazis and from Hitler," he said.

A march past by about 75 standard bearers took place after the service, and a scale model Spitfire was positioned in front of the cathedral.

At the scene

Image copyright PA

By BBC News correspondent Daniela Relph

The emphasis at the commemorative service at St Paul's Cathedral was on "everyone" - the pilots and air crew, but also radar operators, air raid wardens, firefighters, nurses and maintenance teams who played their part in the Battle of Britain.

It included foreign fliers who took part in the British air assault - the president of Poland heard the gallantry of Polish pilots described as "unsurpassed".

Sitting nearby on his first official engagement as Leader of the Opposition was Jeremy Corbyn, not looking obviously uncomfortable in the heart of the establishment.

Afterwards he told me he'd been to St Paul's many times before and it was a beautiful church. He said he'd thought of his mother today, who had been an air raid warden during the Blitz.

During the service, the Dean of St Paul's, the very Reverend David Ison, said we remembered the Battle of Britain bravery today but were also mindful that "our world is disfigured still by war and violence".

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Image caption David Cameron attended the St Paul's service along with Polish president Andrzej Duda
Image copyright PA
Image caption New Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also attended the service

The pilots of the RAF, who became known as "The Few", successfully stood up to wave after wave of German fighters and bombers.

In his famous speech, wartime leader Winston Churchill spoke of the sacrifices made during this period: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

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