Battle of Britain Day – 15 September
The actions of that momentous day were described by the then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons as: “The most brilliant and fruitful of any fought upon a large scale up to that date by the fighters of the Royal Air Force”
Britain’s air defence rested principally on the pilots of Fighter Command of the Royal Air Force. While Bomber Command and Coastal Command would both make a significant contribution to the Battle by attacking the German invasion preparations and airfields across the Channel, and the Army’s anti-aircraft guns would inflict losses on any raiders, only the pilots of Fighter Command, under Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, could meet the Luftwaffe head on.
Nearly 3,000 aircrew would serve with Fighter Command in the course of the Battle, of whom nearly 600 (around 20%) were from the British Dominions, and occupied European or neutral countries.
Of especial note was the contribution of the Polish airmen, many of whom had endured many hardships to escape from the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin in order to join the RAF and fight. Indeed it was the Polish 303 (Kosciuszko) Squadron which was the highest scoring squadron in the whole of the Battle of Britain. I am privileged to have got to meet some of those Polish airmen.
To compensate for the lack of numbers, the RAF had the advantage of a highly efficient and advanced command and control system. At various levels in the command structure, Operations Rooms gathered and collated information gleaned from the radar sites that looked out from Britain’s coastline, from the volunteers who staffed Observer Corps posts further inland, from aircraft in the air, and other sources to build a remarkably accurate and near ‘real-time’ picture of the situation in the skies above. This allowed the commanders to direct their sparse resources towards the points where they were most needed, rather than wasting effort guarding empty skies.
The Battle of Britain acts as a touchstone for today’s RAF. The courage and self-sacrifice demonstrated serves as a continuing inspiration to serving personnel, and also acts as a constant reminder that the RAF’s foremost duty remains the control of the air. The threat to the UK may have changed in character, and the ongoing control of the air mission in Afghanistan takes a very different form from the air battles over Kent and Sussex 70 years ago, but the objective remains the same: to secure the free use of the air for ourselves and our allies and to deny it to our adversaries.