Remember the Battle of Britain

First published in Features

TOMORROW is Battle of Britain Day and I have a treat in store. I am invited to the unveiling of the statue of Air Vice Marshal Park in Waterloo Gardens here in London. The military historian Stephen Bungay mentions Park among the three most important characters who dominated that war in the air seventy years ago.

He says: “The Battle of Britain was the most important campaign in the history of the RAF. That it was fought and won was down to three men. The first was Winston Churchill. He decided to fight it. The second was Hugh Dowding. He built the system that made victory possible. The third was Keith Park. He wielded the weapon that Dowding had forged and Churchill decided to use.”

The first of that great trio, Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons in June 1940 and said: “The Battle of France is ended. The Battle of Britain is about to begin.

“Upon this coming battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions.”

On 16th July 1940, Hitler issued Directive Number 16: “As England, despite her hopeless military situation, still shows no sign of willingness to come to terms, I have decided to prepare, and if necessary to carry out, a landing operation against her.”

He knew that the success of such an operation would depend on destroying the RAF.

The climax came on September 15 which, as with the Battle of Waterloo, was a Sunday.

Hundreds of bombers and fighters hurled themselves against us in wave after wave of attacks. We were defended by the commander of 11 Group, Air Vice Marshal Park’s 25 squadrons of fighters. On this day, Churchill and his wife went to Fighter Command’s HQ, 50 feet below ground at Uxbridge.

This network, which was to prove crucial to the outcome of the battle had been set up by Dowding immediately before the war. It was augmented by the 50,000 men and women in the Observer Corps, 200 anti-aircraft batteries and the recently invented radar.

Churchill later wrote: “We took our seats in the dress circle.” The day began quietly and Park said to the Prime Minister: “I don’t know whether anything will happen today.”

Suddenly, the gigantic blackboard with its six columns of electric bulbs flashed into life, indicating forty-plus raiders...sixty-plus...

eighty-plus.

In the middle of the afternoon, Churchill asked Park: “What other reserves have we?”

Park replied: “There are none.”

Churchill recorded: “ The odds were great, our margins small, the stakes infinite.”

And the outcome? We shot down 56 enemy aircraft for the loss of 28. Two days later, Hitler cancelled his invasion plans.

Air Chief Marshall Dowding, Head of Fighter Command, said: “It’s a miracle - the miracle of Marne all over again! The pilots were wonderful, but it’s a miracle.”

Churchill then uttered words which we do well to remember seventy years on: “At the summit, the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme.

“Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons, ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’.”

■ Peter Mullen is Rector of St Michael’s, Cornhill, in the City of London, and Chaplain to the Stock Exchange.

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