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The few (act. 1940) were the airmen of RAF Fighter Command who during the summer and autumn of 1940 won a place in history they have never since lost. In what soon came to be known as the battle of Britain (10 July to 31 October 1940) they fought a series of battles over the south-east of England which prevented the Luftwaffe from obtaining supremacy in the air, the essential precondition for a successful German invasion. Speaking at a time when the outcome of the struggle was still in the balance, Winston Churchill placed the prophetic stamp of his oratory on their achievement: ‘Never in the field of human conflict’, he told the House of Commons on 20 August, ‘was so much owed by so many to so few’ (Hansard 5C 364.1167).

The heroic reputation of the fighter pilot owed something to memories of the Royal Flying Corps and the exploits of W. E. Johns's fictional hero Biggles. But it was grounded in the admiration of the public for a band of young men—their average age was twenty-four—who were risking their lives in a struggle fought out for the most part in broad daylight, far above the heads of astonished spectators. Of the airmen involved not all were, in fact, pilots. The Bristol Blenheim and the Boulton Paul Defiant also carried a gunner. But it was the pilots, and most of all the pilots of the Hurricane and the Spitfire, who captured the public imagination. These two single-seater aircraft, with eight machine guns mounted in the wings and a top speed of over 300 miles per hour, bore the brunt of the battle. In combat their pilots were both aviators putting their machines through intricate and hazardous manoeuvres and marksmen aiming to shoot down enemy aircraft in rapid bursts of fire. Once they were in the air they faced little threat from the enemy's bombers, which for the most part were more lightly armed and slower. But they were constantly at risk from the most deadly of the German fighters, the Messerchmitt 109, with which they fought many an aerial duel or ‘dogfight’. Here, then, were courage, daring, personal gallantry, and self-sacrifice. Of the RAF aircrew who took part in the battle nearly one in five was killed. Many suffered horrific burns to the hands or the face as they struggled to bail out of blazing aircraft.

Fighter Command created its own legend, but it was magnified and perpetuated by the Air Ministry's flair for public relations. The bestselling pamphlet Battle of Britain, published in March 1941, drove home the message that it had been one of the turning points of history: ‘Future historians may compare it with Marathon, Trafalgar and the Marne’. Initially it was Air Ministry policy not to refer to airmen by name except when they were awarded a decoration, or appeared in the casualty lists, but the press and the public were eager for personal stories as well as information about the fighter ‘aces’ who were credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft. Gradually the Air Ministry relented, and pilots were allowed to publish accounts of the battle under their own name. Tom Gleave (1908–1993), one of the first of the severely burned pilots to be treated by the plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe, and the American volunteer Arthur Gerald Donahue (1913–1942) both published books in 1941. Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy (1942) was acclaimed by the literary critics as a classic, but the soul-searching character of the narrative and the self-conscious artistry of the style set the author apart from the great majority of battle of Britain aircrew. The typical fighter pilot's memoir combined extrovert accounts of aerial combat with emotions laconically expressed and a minimum of autobiography.

Words were accompanied by images that were to prove equally if not more enduring. The newsreel companies were short of air combat footage and tended therefore to concentrate on ‘the happy camaraderie of young men on the ground, smoking their pipes, petting their dogs and playing cricket in full flying kit waiting to scramble, or returning to give their reports of the hunt’ (Smith, 63–5). The Air Ministry, meanwhile, was creating a portrait gallery of this new breed of hero. In September 1940 Cuthbert Orde was commissioned to draw fighter pilots selected for him by station commanders. Sixty-four of his drawings, including his portrait of the Czech air ace Joseph Frantisek were published as Pilots of Fighter Command in 1942. The Air Ministry also inspired Air Aces (1944), a collection of thirty-two short biographies of fighter pilots, accompanied by glamorous studio portraits. Most of the aces involved, including the New Zealander Alan Christopher Deere (1917–1995), Johnnie Johnson, Laddie Lucas, Christopher Frederick (Bunny) Currant (b. 1911), and the South African Sailor Malan, had fought in the battle of Britain. Malan had already featured, along with Douglas Bader, Ginger Lacey, and Cats-Eyes Cunningham in Drawing the RAF (1942), a collection of portraits for the war artists advisory committee by Eric Kennington.

In wartime Britain the bomber crews, including such figures as Guy Gibson and Percy Pickard, received as much favourable publicity as the fighter pilots. After 1945, however, the reputation of Bomber Command was overshadowed by controversies over strategic bombing, while the battle of Britain was repeatedly celebrated in books, films, and television documentaries. The ‘fighter boys’ also enjoyed another advantage over Bomber Command. From 1943 onwards there were annual commemorations of the battle of Britain, with 15 September officially adopted as battle of Britain day, and a service of national thanksgiving. When peace returned battle of Britain day became in effect an annual showcase for the RAF, but it always retained its commemorative function with regular appearances by such well-known members of the ‘few’ as Johnny Johnson, Hugh Spencer Lisle (Cocky) Dundas (1920–1995), Douglas Bader and Robert Rowland (Bob) Stanford-Tuck (1916–1987). Nor were these the only acts of commemoration. In July 1947 George VI unveiled the Royal Air Force chapel in Westminster Abbey, a memorial dedicated to those who died in the battle of Britain. The main feature, a magnificent stained glass window designed by Hugh Easton, incorporated among scenes from the life of Christ the badges of sixty-eight fighter squadrons which had taken part in the battle.

Though tributes were regularly paid to the ‘few’ they were for many years an ill-defined group. In 1942 the proprietor of the Illustrated London News, Bruce Ingram, urged the Air Ministry to draw up a list of all those who had fought in the battle of Britain, but officials demurred on the grounds it would be too difficult a task administratively. A first step towards the definition of the ‘few’ was taken in May 1945 when the authorities approved the award of a battle of Britain clasp to the 1939–45 star to all those who had flown in operations under the control of Fighter Command between July and October 1940. This left room for some debate over which squadrons qualified for inclusion but by 1960 a definitive list of seventy-one squadrons was settled. The Air Ministry, however, was still reluctant to compile a list of names and the total number of the ‘few’ was unknown. A solution to the problem was provided by a dedicated amateur, Flight Lieutenant Holloway, who laboured at the task for many years with some assistance from the Air Ministry's historical branch. His list of 2937 names, first published in 1961, has been revised but never superseded. Building on this foundation Kenneth Wynn devoted many years of research to compiling a monumental biographical dictionary, Men of the Battle of Britain (1989; revised and expanded, 1999), which slightly reduced Holloway's figure to 2917. Owing to disputes over the inclusion of particular individuals slightly differing estimates of the total are still to be found and the RAF's official website gives a total of 2927.

Once the ‘few’ were listed it was apparent that the majority were relatively obscure or unknown. This was true even of some of the top ten aces of the battle, who included Eric Stanley Lock (1920–1941), Archibald Ashmore (Archie) McKellar (1912–1940), Robert Francis Thomas (Bob) Doe (b. 1920), Michael Nicholson Crossley (1912–1987), and Witold Urbanovicz (1908–1987). One explanation for the obscurity of many of the ‘few’ was the fact that of all those who fought in the battle, 46 per cent had lost their lives by the end of the war.

The list also revealed the gap between the glamorous image of the dashing young fighter pilot, fresh from public school or Oxbridge, with silk scarf, sports car, good looks, and raffish charm—an image epitomized on the silver screen by David Niven—and the more varied character of the group in general. While there was indeed no shortage of airmen like Peter Townsend, who lived up to the ideal of the gentleman warrior, it was clear that the ‘few’ as a whole were more broadly based, with a large number of recruits from the grammar schools and a handful from working-class backgrounds.

From its foundation in 1919 the RAF preferred to recruit its pilots from the public schools and the main routes of entry to the service, via Cranwell, short-service commissions, or the university air squadrons, were largely the preserve of former public schoolboys. The Auxiliary Air Force, the RAF's reserve of weekend flyers, was even more exclusive socially and saw itself as an élite within an élite. By the mid-1920s, however, an alternative route to the cockpit existed in the shape of the Apprentice Training School at Halton, where boys were trained as riggers, fitters, and other types of skilled tradesman. Halton's intake was drawn mainly from the grammar schools but included some former elementary pupils who had left school at fourteen. All graduates of Halton with the appropriate aptitudes had the right to learn to fly, and the educational historian Tony Mansell has traced 113 graduates of Halton among the ‘few’.

More important in broadening the social base was the dramatic expansion of the RAF in response to the rise of Nazi Germany. As the demand for suitable candidates outstripped the supply the RAF was compelled to look beyond the public schools for recruits. In a radical departure the Air Ministry persuaded the government in 1936 to create an entirely new organization, the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR). Largely the brainchild of the Air Ministry's director of training, Air Commodore Tedder, who described it as a ‘citizen air force’, it was intended to extend the opportunity of learning to fly to the less affluent sections of the middle classes. By July 1939 4500 RAFVR pilots were in training, and the RAFVR was the point of entry into the RAF for about 40 per cent of the members of the ‘few’ born in the United Kingdom. The main effect was to increase the number of former grammar school boys who subsequently qualified as sergeant or officer pilots.

Last but not least in diversifying the social character of the ‘few’ was the intake of recruits from overseas. The expansion of the RAF during the 1930s drew in substantial numbers from the dominions and colonies. Of battle of Britain airmen, 10 per cent were from the empire, including 126 New Zealanders, 96 Canadians, 33 Australians, and 23 South Africans. In the summer of 1940 they were joined by exiled airmen from several of the European nations that had been overrun by Germany. Collectively they accounted for another 10 per cent of the ‘few’ including 145 Poles, 88 Czechs and Slovaks, and 29 Belgians.

Though the ‘few’ were more diverse than the stereotype suggested, they were nevertheless an élite in which the public school type remained the ideal to which most of the UK-born aspired. The sons of Baldwin's Britain and the inter-war empire were, for the most part, natural if somewhat apolitical Conservatives who accepted without question such conventions as the social segregation of officer pilots and sergeant pilots. They might fly together in the same squadron but they were unlikely to drink together in the same pub. A sample based on 200 questionnaires completed by surviving members of the ‘few’ suggests that in 1945 85 per cent of them voted Conservative, 14 per cent Labour and 1 per cent Liberal. One notable exception to the general rule was John Eric Loverseed (b. 1910), who won the Eddisbury by-election for Common Wealth in 1943, but stood unsuccessfully as the Labour candidate at the general election. Two other members of the ‘few’ went on to make important but unorthodox contributions to post-war public life. Anthony Fisher became a disciple of Hayek and one of the founders of the free market think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. Jim Bailey, a wealthy South African, gave his financial backing to Drum, a magazine which became ‘the most authentic manifestation of black culture in South African journalism’ (Oxford DNB).

After a great military victory most of the credit usually goes to the commanders. In the case of the battle of Britain Churchill's tribute to the ‘few’ ensured that it would always be the airmen rather than the air marshals—Sir Hugh Dowding, the commander-in-chief, Keith Park, the commander of 11 fighter group, or Trafford Leigh-Mallory, the commander of 12 fighter group—who enjoyed the lion's share of the glory. Military historians still debate the merits of the ‘big wing’ controversy which raged between Park and Leigh-Mallory during the latter stages of the battle, but the collective merits of the ‘few’ have rarely if ever been questioned.

In one sense the homage paid to them is unique. Traditionally rolls of honour record only the names of those who died in combat. In the case of the battle of Britain the name of every airman who took part has been inscribed on the Foxley-Norris wall at the battle of Britain memorial at Capel-le-Ferne. In September 2005 a memorial to the pilots of the battle of Britain was inaugurated on the Thames embankment, inspired by the Battle of Britain Historical Society, and containing on a set of bronze plaques the name and rank of every one of the ‘few’.

Paul Addison

Sources  

The battle of Britain, August–October, 1940, Air Ministry (1941) · battle of Britain questionnaires, U. Edin., Centre for Second World War Studies · P. Bishop, Fighter boys: saving Britain, 1940 (2003) · J. Crang, ‘Identifying the “few”: the personalisation of a heroic military elite’, War and Society, 24/2 (Nov 2005), 13–22 · A. Gregory, ‘The commemoration of the battle of Britain’, The burning blue: a new history of the battle of Britain, ed. J. Crang (2000) · R. Hillary, The last enemy (1942) · E. Kennington, Drawing the R.A.F.: a book of portraits (1942) · T. Mansell, ‘Flying start: educational and social factors in the recruitment of pilots of the RAF in the interwar years’, History of Education, 26/1 (1997), 71–90 · R. Overy, The battle (2000) · M. Smith, Britain and 1940: history, myth, and popular memory (2000) · D. Wood and D. Dempster, The narrow margin: the battle of Britain and the rise of air power, 1930–40 (1961) · K. Wynn, Men of the battle of Britain: a biographical dictionary of ‘the few’ (1999)