Statue unveiling to mark Battle of Britain anniversary

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The Independent Online

The sacrifices of RAF pilots who fought in one of the most pivotal battles in recent British history will be remembered today.

A total of 544 RAF personnel from Fighter Command died defending the UK from the Nazis in the Battle of Britain 70 years ago.

Scores more from Bomber Command and Coastal Command died as Britain's future hung by a thread in the face of the German onslaught during the dark days of the Second World War.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the battle, veterans, military figures, politicians and other dignitaries will gather for the unveiling of a statue of one of the period's great heroes.

New Zealander Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park commanded the squadrons that defended London and the South East in the summer of 1940.

His bronze stature will command a prime position in London's Waterloo Place.

The Battle of Britain began as Hitler turned his attention across the Channel after defeating the French.

The Germans began air attacks in the early summer designed to seize control of the skies over England in preparation for invasion.

High above the pastoral landscape of Kent and Sussex Britain's future was placed in the hands of a small band of young fighter pilots

Day after day the Germans sent bombers and fighters over England, with RAF pilots outnumbered in the air by four to one.

The RAF scrambled their Spitfire and Hurricane pilots into the sky to do battle often three, four or five times a day. Britain's air defence bent but did not break.

Nearly 3,000 air crew served with Fighter Command during the course of the battle, nearly 600 of whom were from the British Dominions, and occupied European or neutral countries.

The Luftwaffe lost almost 2,000 aircraft in the battle which raged throughout the summer, while the RAF lost more than 900.

On September 15, 1940, RAF Fighter Command claimed victory over the Luftwaffe after a day of bombing raids ended in heavy losses for Germany.

Shortly after, Hitler postponed and then cancelled invasion plans, turning his attention to the defeat of the Soviet Union.

In appreciation of the RAF pilots' heroic effort, then prime minister Winston Churchill famously said: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

The Sir Keith Park Memorial Campaign was launched in March last year by Battle of Britain pilots, serving RAF officers and Sir Keith's family.

It gained broad political support in New Zealand and in Britain, with well-known faces such as Sir Patrick Moore, Dan Snow and Edward Fox backing the campaign.

Defence Secretary Liam Fox and New Zealand defence minister Wayne Mapp will be joined at the unveiling ceremony by the chiefs of staff of the armed forces and diplomatic and political representatives.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, Chief of the Air Staff, said: "The summer of 1940 certainly saw an epic clash. It was only through the exercise of air power that the Nazis could bring pressure to bear and either force Britain to make peace, or bypass Britain's sea power and mount an invasion.

"Air superiority over southern England and the Channel was the prerequisite. By denying that supremacy, the Royal Air Force saved Britain and ultimately laid the foundation to free Europe from the scourge of Nazism.

"The airmen prepared to fight tyranny in a just cause were by no means all British; in all about one-fifth of them were from countries in the Commonwealth and occupied Europe, or neutral nations.

"It is with a sense of sorrow that we find that so many of 'the Few' died during the battle, and that of those still living in November 1940, close on half did not survive to see the final victory for which they fought.

"For their bravery and sacrifice in defence of our freedom, we will never forget them - indeed, we will remember them."

Today's commemorations include music from the band of the Royal Regiment and fanfare trumpeters while a Hurricane and Spitfire flypast will also mark the occasion.

Battle of Britain pilot, Wing Commander Bob Foster, 90, will unveil the memorial on behalf of veterans alongside Sir Keith's great-great-niece Leigh Park representing the family.