Knights Of The Air

9th July 2010

Military historians still debate the full significance of the Battle of Britain to the outcome of World War II, but for the wider public it has long assumed mythical status. In this 70th anniversary summer, a visit to the RAF Museum’s Battle of Britain Hall should be high on the agenda of the curious, says Jack Watkins.

Under the dimmed lights of the RAF Museum’s Battle of Britain exhibition hall, Spitfires and Hurricanes, and Stukas and Messerschmitts, face each other across the aisles, just as they did in the skies above England that fateful summer seventy years ago. The Spitfire is sleek, low and bonny, as eye-catching a little number as she was (and to her pilots, the Spitfire always seems always to have been a ‘she’) in her heyday. The Messerschmitt (Me-109) is squarer, more upright, and rather old-fashioned in contrast. Its critics said Willy Messerschmitt must have thought he was still designing gliders when he built it, although it was actually faster than the Spitfire.

The Hawker Hurricane, reliable and sturdy, was no slouch either. It was the first British fighter plane to exceed 300mph in level flight, and shot down more enemy aircraft during the Battle than the rest of the RAF’s forces put together. The Stuka, fittingly enough, lurks sheepishly towards the rear of the hall. The dive bomber had been a weapon of terror during the earlier Blitzkrieg on Poland, its dreadful sirens screaming as the aircraft’s lethal payload was delivered. Its slowness and lack of manoeuvrability would be cruelly exposed, though, in the summer of 1940.

The Battle of Britain is one of those events that captured the public imagination as it unfolded and has never truly relinquished it. Like Hastings, Crécy, Trafalgar, Waterloo, its name – if not what actually happened – is familiar to just about everyone. This summer, special commemorative events and aerial displays will take place across the country, with a special fervour, no doubt, at those within Hellfire Corner: that part of Kent nearest the coast where the most fliers – on either side – were shot down. But the RAF Museum is playing a major part too, including the staging of a Living History weekend on 11-12 September, with scenes including scramble and operations room re-enactments.

It’s not hard to grasp how the Battle so quickly won a place in folklore, occurring as it did hard on the heels of the evacuation of Dunkirk. But it was not because it was the most decisive moment of the War. There was no decisive winner, even though it was a disaster for the Luftwaffe and a humiliation for its portly, baby-faced commander Hermann Goering. The British people would not feel safe from a German invasion until the attentions of the enemy air forces switched to the invasion of Russia the following spring. Nor was it over in a day, unlike the other celebrated stand-offs in history, but raged on for several months, reaching its climax on 15 September, and dragging on into October.

It took such a hold on imaginations partly because the dogged resistance and fortitude of outnumbered air reserves quickly became linked to Churchill’s stirring rhetoric, at a time when Britain seemed to be standing alone against the Nazis. The visibility of the air battles from streets and rooftops and fields gave the people a sense of personal involvement, and a sheen of glamour undoubtedly attached itself to the deeds of these brave, apparently chivalrous, ‘knights of the air’.

In some ways, however, the Battle of Britain marked the passing of one era – the rather innocent, pioneering days of flight and aerial derring-do – and the beginning of another: of more sophisticated, technologically organised manning of air defences, with British success owing much to ground-to-air communications and newly developed radar systems that German strategists so fatally underestimated.

There’s no more evocative place than the RAF Museum at Hendon to explore this past. In the inter-war years the Hendon Air pageants attracted huge crowds and rivalled Henley and Royal Ascot as social occasions. It was here that the first displays of inverted flying, of ‘looping the loop’ and parachute jumping were staged. Claude Grahame-White, a wealthy young airman who’d made history by becoming the first man to fly at night, had established the ‘London Aerodrome’ at Hendon in 1910, setting up a flying school for those wishing to pilot monoplanes and biplanes. Here too, in 1913, he set a new passenger-carrying record by flying for almost 20 minutes with nine people on board. His aircraft actually only had room for seven… but the ever resourceful Graham-White simply placed a couple of passengers on the wings.

During the Battle of Britain, the aerodrome was in the front line as a temporary base for Hurricanes used in the defence of London. The Battle of Britain Hall is situated not far from brick sheds that were part of Graham-White’s aircraft-making factories (one of which is used to exhibit the collection of early aircraft).
A cleverly staged sound and light film, Our Finest Hour, puts the Battle in context. Upstairs in the gallery, there are tributes to some of the key figures, not least Sir Hugh Dowding, the head of Fighter Command, whose shrewd refusal to over-commit British fighters in aerial engagements was a key element to the success, even if it frustrated some of the more gung-ho elements within the RAF at the time.

The gallery has some informative illustrations of fighter formations and, of course, studies of many of the great fighter aces. It’s worth recalling that one fifth of Fighter Command’s aircrew came from overseas – from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Czechoslovakia, for instance, and with the contribution of Polish airmen so notable that Dowding singled them out for special praise.

One of the newest acquisitions to the collection in the main hall is a 5m high plinth statue of Sir Keith Park, ‘defender of London’, the New Zealand-born Air Vice-Marshall and tactically astute commander of the RAF’s front line in the south east. It was at his operations room in Uxbridge (recreated in replica form in the gallery) that Winston Churchill was present on that critical day of 15 September, when Hurricanes and Spitfires inflicted massive losses on the German fighters. London took a pounding that day, too, and two bombs fell – but did not explode – on Buckingham Place. At one point Churchill turned to Park and enquired how many reserves were left, to which Park issued his famous answer: “There are none.”

But the real eyecatchers are, of course, always the planes. Not just the Spitfires, but also the lesser players like the slow and cumbersome Heinkel (He-111), and the Gloster Gladiator, the last biplane to see active RAF service. There’s even a de Havilland Tiger Moth, a real throwback, that was used for the elementary training of RAF pilots. There was once a plan to equip these with tanks that could spray poison on German troops in the event of their landing. Thanks to the unstinting efforts of ‘The Few’, however, that desperate action was never required.

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