Battle of Britain letters reveal how 'the Few' fought to survive

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When Luftwaffe bombers attacked North Weald airfield on a summer's day at the height of the Battle of Britain, Peter Brothers was concerned about one thing - his Bentley.

When Luftwaffe bombers attacked North Weald airfield on a summer's day at the height of the Battle of Britain, Peter Brothers was concerned about one thing - his Bentley.

The Hurricane pilot stationed in Kent, then aged 22, said: "I was hopping mad. It was a beautiful Bentley Red Label. One of the bombs threw up a huge pile of earth which filled the car. It took me days to dig it out. It made me all the keener to get in the air and shoot them down." That feisty insight into daily life at the height of the struggle for supremacy over the skies of southern England in 1940 is one of hundreds contained in a rare archive of private letters written by RAF veterans about the dogfights that spared Britain from Nazi invasion.

Yesterday, the archive was turned into a public resource for historians and students after it was presented to the Imperial War Museum in London.

The collection of first-hand accounts of the Battle of Britain from 24 pilots was built up during correspondence between the veterans and a photographer anxious to chronicle their achievements before they passed from popular memory.

Roy Asser, who has used the letters as the basis for a book on the battle, said: "Originally it was a means of gathering the information necessary for the book but by the end it dawned on me that I had a collection of raw history.

"Future generations will be able read these letters for an account of what took place in the words of the pilots themselves. It seemed only natural that they should be a resource for others."

The documents will be kept in the records archive of the Imperial War Museum, where they will sit alongside other accounts of the conflict ranging from papers about Gp Capt Sir Douglas Bader, perhaps the most famous of the RAF's Battle of Britain aces, to photographs of Field Marshal Goering, the commander of the Luftwaffe, eating breakfast in his cell during the Nuremburg trials.

The legend of the Battle of Britain, largely fought between July and November 1940, is famously hinged on the heroic efforts of "the Few", the name coined by Winston Churchill's tribute to the pilots in the House of Commons in August that year.

The Imperial War Museum documents reveal much of the peril and daily grind faced by the pilots, ranging from one pilot who recounted how he narrowly avoided death four times in three weeks by crash-landing, to a Polish flyer who escaped arrest in Italy to join the RAF in England.

By the end of the Battle of Britain the RAF, which had started with 3,000 aircraft, had lost 1,023 fighters. The Luftwaffe, which had begun with 4.500 aircraft, lost 1,887 bombers and fighters.

The battle - which came at a time when Britain was at its most isolated in the Second World War, after the Dunkirk evacuation, and Hitler expected Churchill to sue for peace - is seen as having spared the country from Operation Sea Lion, the Nazi invasion plan.

RAF veterans at the war museum yesterday said their existence consisted of a daily battle for survival, punctuated by a desire to live life to the full.

A typical day for the pilots of the RAF required them to be beside their planes 30 minutes before dawn and fly until 10pm.

Air Commodore Brothers, 86, a flight commander who shot down eight German aircraft and is now chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, said: "You didn't have time to sit down and write out what was happening.

"If you weren't airborne, then you were in the bar or trying to catch some sleep. We were just ordinary chaps doing what we had to do."