Battle of Britain: in men and machines

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Exactly 70 years ago war-time leader Winston Churchill stood up and addressed parliament to hail the efforts of the aircrew who were fighting overhead.

501 Squadron Wg Cmdr Paul Farnes (4th from left) relaxing with 501 Squadron

"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few," he pronounced in the midst of his speech.

History tells us that outnumbered British air power, including Polish, Canadian and New Zealand pilots among others, defied the odds to withstand the Luftwaffe and a possible invasion.

Churchill's "Few", as they became known, have been celebrated ever since.

"You shouldn't say it, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, I think most of the chaps enjoyed it," said Wing Commander Paul Farnes.

"After all, a lot of us were volunteer reserves, we joined to fly and here we were flying one of the best aircraft as many times a day, more or less, as you could wish for. It was good fun."

It is an honest, if uncommon, account of the summer of 1940.

Then a sergeant flying Hurricanes in 501 Squadron, Wing Cdr Farnes recalls the "complete shambles" of air-to-air combat as he and 3,000 other aircrew battled the Luftwaffe for three and a half months in the skies above southern England.

"Suddenly you would get a scramble and we would be off," he said.

Start Quote

Wg Cmdr Paul Farnes

I'm very proud of having fought in the Battle of Britain”

End Quote Wing Cdr Paul Farnes 501 Squadron

"Sometimes you would find the enemy; other times it was a wasted trip.

"It was really a bit chaotic. There were times we know when Hurricanes shot Spitfires down and Spitfires shot Hurricanes down, it was almost inevitable."

Now aged 91 and still active at home in West Sussex, Wing Cdr Farnes did not talk about the Battle of Britain for 20 years. He only opened about up about it in later life.

He recalls meeting the German pilot of a JU88 who crashed at Gatwick moments after he shot him down. The plane's gunner was killed.

"I don't suppose many people had the luxury of landing to meet the pilot," he said.

Those events of that hot summer have taken on iconic status, in part thanks to Churchill's oratory.

This summer their stories have been recalled, just as they have many times before.

Some shy away from the limelight that their involvement in the battle throws on them. Some forget the past.

Most embrace it, acknowledging its place in history.

"I'm very proud of having fought in the Battle of Britain, it is thought of as being a considerable achievement," said Wing Cdr Farnes.

"Whether we like it or not, and the Navy do not, but if you talk sensibly about it people accept it as an iconic occurrence."

(L-R) Ken Wilkinson, Bob Foster, Hans Ekkehard Bob, Tony Pickering (L-R) Ken Wilkinson, Bob Foster, Hans Ekkehard Bob and Tony Pickering

He and others like him are VIPs on the UK's summer airshow circuit - no more so than this anniversary when time dictates that the chances to hear those first-person accounts are diminishing.

The veterans are feted, whether they like it or not; autographs have to be signed and pictures taken.

At RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, Wing Cdr Bob Foster, Sqn Ldr Tony Pickering and Flying Officer Ken Wilkinson are reunited with two former enemies - the Messerschmitt 109 and Hans Ekkehard Bob, one of the most highly decorated German commanders.

Reconciliation occurred many years ago, and Major Bob now calls his former foes his "brothers".

That view is accepted - if not embraced entirely - by his British counterparts.

"No, I'm unashamedly English," said Mr Wilkinson in response to whether he senses a brotherhood among pilots of both sides.

"As far as I was concerned they were Germans, they were bombing England and they wanted to invade and we didn't want it to happen."

"We were just a crowd of young men together, volunteers to fly and defend our country," added Wing Cdr Foster.

Muriel Vlanderen Muriel Vlanderen was an aircraft plotter during the Battle of Britain

"When October came, we realised we had won that bit of the war, we didn't know it was a Battle of Britain."

Naturally, the focus of most commemoration events are The Few. But talk to the veterans and most will turn the focus on the many who supported them.

"We each had our own ground crew and they were absolutely devoted to the pilot and the aircraft," said Wing Cdr Farnes.

"They could tell whether you had fired your guns. Of course, if you had fired them they would jump up on the wings and there was great excitement."

Muriel Vlanderen, now aged 100 and from Kettering, Northamptonshire, worked as an aircraft plotter.

"Without our lot, the pilots would not have been in the air," she recalls.

"No matter how many bombs were coming down and guns going off, I never saw one girl hesitate in her plotting.

"I do feel proud now of what we did, because I do think we did a good job."

At Capel-le-Ferne on the old front line above Kent's white cliffs, the fittest of The Few gathered, as they do most years, to recall friendships forged in combat.

Speak to them and two attitudes prevail.

Bill Green says many took to the skies with little training

The first was a strong faith in Churchill and victory.

"Without Churchill we would not have won the war," said Flt Lt Bill Green, from Clevedon, Somerset.

"I think we all realised it at the time. We never thought about losing, I always knew deep down that we were going to win."

The second is a comradeship that remains undiminished.

"Unless you were there, you couldn't understand it," said Flt Lt Eric Woods.

"It's something that's never broken, you never lose it, it's always there, always."

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