Last of the Few

The Battle of Britain in the words of the pilots who won it

Hurricane Mk1 at the Royal International Air Tattoo, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England, 2008. (Adrian Pingstone)

When Hitler’s forces invaded Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939, Britain prepared to send its Advanced Air Striking Force across the Channel to help defend the Belgian and French borders. But no Spitfire squadrons were sent out of the country—the new aircraft was too important to Britain’s defense to use them to defend other nations.

From bases in France and forward airfields in England, RAF pilots battled the Luftwaffe and their Me 109 fighters in their slower (and heavier) Hawker Hurricanes. Before the RAF was forced to withdraw from France on June 18, 1940, 80 pilots had been killed, and 25 percent of RAF aircraft were lost.

The pilots and aircraft that remained returned to Britain to join the Spitfire squadrons, determined to protect the island from a German invasion. But before German troops could land, Hitler ordered Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering to gain air supremacy over Britain by destroying RAF bases and aircraft. These attacks, which came to be known as the Battle of Britain, lasted from July 10 until October 31, 1940. It was the Luftwaffe's longest aerial bombing campaign to that date.

For his new book, Last of the Few: The Battle of Britain in the Words of the Pilots Who Won It (Skyhorse Publishing, 2011), author and oral historian Max Arthur interviewed surviving members of the Battle of Britain. Click on the slideshow images below to read excerpts from the book.

Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

Pilot Officer Tom Neil: 249 Squadron

It just so happened that I was the first officer to arrive at 249 Squadron…. I found that we had no aeroplanes and that we were designated as a Hurricane squadron, because it said so on my posting notice. So it was no surprise to us when eight Spitfires turned up, and we flew Spitfires straight from biplanes. None of us (most of us were volunteer reservists) had ever flown monoplanes before and suddenly we were faced with these fearsome Spitfires.

The bloke said to me, “This is a Spitfire. Get in and fly it.” All the training you had was to sit in the hangar with the blindfold round your eyes—the Spitfire was up on trestles—and you felt around the cockpit trying to identify all the tits and bits, pull the wheels up and you put the flaps down, etc.—half a day.

Then you were introduced to your aeroplane and told to get on with it.

Pictured: Supermarine Spitfire F. Mk.1 over England, circa 1940.


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