Deadly skies: The bloody truth about the Battle of Britain 70 years on

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Rarely in history has a battle been so mythologised as the conflict that took place in the skies above southern England between 10 July and 31 October 1940. But the truth about the Battle of Britain - and the brave young airmen who fought it - is far more complex, ruthless and bloody than we often care to remember.

The corrugated steel wall of the gymnasium at Yardley Court School in Tonbridge, Kent, there was a jagged hole punched into the metal about five feet from the ground.

By 1956, the outer edges had rusted red and white but we 10-year-olds could stick our fingers into it and feel the sharp edges inside. Maurice Bickmore, the obsessive and sadistic headmaster, would almost mellow when he told us how it had come to be there – whenever his anger frothed out at us we had learnt to ask him about the hole in the gymnasium wall to cool him down. "I was standing just over there in the schoolyard," he would say every time, "and a German plane came right over the building chased by a Spitfire, and the Spitfire was shooting and one of the bullets hit the gym with a tremendous bang."

I had books about the fighter aircraft of the Second World War and I quickly identified that corroded hole in the wall as the effect of 22mm Hispano cannon fire,.........  f unless the Spitfire pilot had used his twin Browning .303 machine guns. If it was a Spitfire. I wanted it to be a Spitfire with its clean leaf-like wings and its devastating profile. I had Airfix kits with which I constructed the fighters and bombers of the war – German, British, American, even a couple of stubby Japanese Mitsubishis, all stuck together with LePage's Aeroplane Glue, although my Mum had to help me build the Avro Lancaster – but it was the Spitfire that mesmerised me. I could put my upright thumb under the fuselage of the tiny glue-stuck, completed scale-model aircraft just forward of the ailerons, and it would balance perfectly, swaying gently backwards and forwards with no danger of toppling off, even if my thumb imitated the turbulence of a sudden cumulonimbus at Angels Twenty. By 1942, RAF 616 Squadron's Spitfire HF VIIs could reach Angels 43 – forty-three thousand feet – with a maximum speed of more than 400 miles an hour at Angels 25. There wasn't much you could teach Master Fisk about the Supermarine Spitfire – even if he had been born almost six years to the day after the start of the Battle of Britain, as the desperate campaign fought out mostly in the skies above southern England from 10 July to 31 October 1940 is remembered.

It was the Spitfire's swept-back cockpit canopy that gave it the edge, lifted it out of the 1930s and put it firmly into the 1940s and the design of the future. Even at 10 years old, I knew there was something special about it – just as I realised, in a much vaguer way – that the Spitfire was emblematic of something unprecedented and necessary about the Battle of Britain. All the other fighter planes that entered the war in 1939 were artistically clunky, even the Hawker Hurricane with its boxy cockpit and fat fuselage which some say had more claim to victory in the skies over Kent in 1940. I liked my model German Messerschmitt 109f – partly because of its yellow-painted engine cowling – but it too had a square hen-coop of a cockpit for the pilot and a priggish tail. No wonder, asked what he needed to win the battle, Oberstleutnant Adolf Galland (Knight's Cross and Oak Leaves and Swords) turned to his bejeweled Field Marshal Goering with one word: "Spitfires."

The young pilot Richard Hillary was to recall, almost mystically, the moment he approached his first Spitfire:

"The Spitfires stood in two lines outside 'A' Flight Pilots' room. The dull grey-brown of the camouflage could not conceal the clear-cut beauty, the wicked simplicity of their lines. I hooked up my parachute and climbed awkwardly into the low cockpit. I noticed how small was my field of vision. Kilmartin swung himself on to a wing and started to run through the instruments. I was conscious of his voice, but heard nothing of what he said. I was to fly a Spitfire. It was what I had most wanted to do through all the long dreary months of training. If I could fly a Spitfire, it would be worth it..."

The Spitfire was to previous aircraft design as Auden was to Robert Graves – even though Auden missed the battle by skulking in New York – or as the Nightingale in Berkeley Square was to "We Don't Want to Lose You, But We Think You Ought to Go". In art, the Spitfire was Vorticism against the Romantics – sleek, new, frightening, unforgiving. In the First World War, stringbag fighters – literally glued together – were constructed to fight. The Spitfire was built to win.

And as the years now stretch out our grim and bloody historical perspective, from Great War to Second World War, to the vile, hypocritical conflicts we fight today in the Muslim world, the Battle of Britain itself has become a kind of antidote to both past and future. The blood sacrifice of 1916 on the Somme – 20,000 British dead in just one day – was assuaged by the sacrifice of the "Few" in 1940. The flower of British manhood in both cases, to be sure – with a strong leavening of public schools in the Spitfires and Hurricanes – but the Battle of Britain proved that you didn't have to destroy all of a nation's youth to fight the good fight. In restrospect, the air battles of 1940 were also an antidote to the memory of the RAF's later savagery over Germany, the fire-storming of tens of thousands of civilians across the Reich. If Bomber Command was brutality – even Churchill spoke about terror crimes – then Fighter Command in 1940 represented chivalry.

Hillary wrote a short and brilliant book about the battle – and about himself – called The Last Enemy. It remains one of the few great literary works of the Second World War, its title culled from the First Book of Corinthians xv 26 – "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" – and its sorrow enshrined in the crash on 7 January 1943, in which Hillary himself met his last enemy. Returning from his first air battle in 1940, in which he had shot down a Messerschmitt and killed its pilot, Hillary examined his own conscience. On an old gramophone record, I have a BBC recording of this young man's voice, clipped, impatient, self-justificatory:

"My first emotion was one of satisfaction, satisfaction at a job adequately done, at the final logical conclusion of months of specialised training. And then I had a feeling of the essential rightness of it all. He was dead and I was alive; it could so easily have been the other way round; and that would somehow have been right too. I realised in that moment just how lucky a fighter pilot is. He has none of the personalised emotions of the soldier, handed a rifle and bayonet and told to charge. He does not have to share the dangerous emotions of the bomber pilot who night after night must experience that childhood longing for smashing things. The fighter pilot's emotions are those of the duellist – cool, precise, impersonal. He is privileged to kill well. For if one must either kill or be killed, as now one must, it should, I feel, be done with dignity..."

Hillary, though he could not have known it, captured that necessary antidote which his battle would provide for us. The soldier with his bayonet came from the Somme, the "dangerous emotions" of the bomber pilot from the future Battle of Germany.

Yet it is easy to forget that RAF Fighter Command did not save British cities from destruction, even if their crucifixion came nowhere near the incendiary slaughter that Bomber Command was later to visit upon Germany. Indeed, it was Hitler's decision in September 1940 to attack London – transferring his assault from Britain's airfields and radar stations – which spared the RAF from defeat. And of course, in the years that followed, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, the harsh facts of post-war research – read, for example, Peter Fleming's awesome Invasion 1940 – suggested that the Battle of Britain was not as great a victory as we imagined. The Germans had fewer pilots than we believed they had. We had more aircraft than we thought. And our "kill" claims were exaggerated. The British claimed 2,698 aircraft shot down between 10 July and 31 October 1940. The real figure was 1,733. But in the same period, the Germans claimed 3,058 British aircraft. In fact, they only shot down 915. The Brits only exaggerated by 55 per cent – the Germans by 234 per cent. There's Nazism for you!

Yet the years have also served to soften the cruelty and pain of the battle, to smother the terrible suffering of pilots and their families with the balm and bandages of our clichés. A stream of consciousness has wrapped itself around the reality of 1940. Never-before-in-the-field-of-human-conflict-Spitfires-Hurricanes-Dowding-Goering-Biggin-Hill-Tangmere-the-Few-Churchill-Hitler-Bandits-at-five-o'clock-Messerschmitts-Dorniers-Heinkels-the-Big-Wing-Bader-Deare-Tuck-Leigh-Malory-Galland-Molders-Wieck-Blood-Sweat-Tears. Very often tears. And most of it was fought above hop fields and Anglo-Saxon churches, the pale blue Kentish summer skies engraved with circular vapour trails, August forever turning into a golden September.

On the other side of the Channel, William Shirer – a CBS correspondent from still-neutral America whose memoir The Nightmare Years is in many ways more powerful than his timeless The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich – was taken by German military guides to a hotel in occupied Calais. From there, on 15 August, he saw "a

wave of German bombers roaring overhead towards the cliffs of Dover" with a swarm of Me 109 fighters above them. That day, the Luftwaffe flew 1,950 sorties, the RAF nearly a thousand on an air front of 500 miles. Then Shirer saw the German bombers coming back, some of them streaming smoke. But the German "minders" did not allow Shirer to talk to the returning pilots – he specifically asked for Galland – with good reason. The ghastly, flesh-burned creatures in those wounded planes were to be kept from the world.

So come now to a small Luftwaffe airbase near the forest of Crécy in occupied France where German pilot Gunther Bloemertz is waiting for a comrade to return from a raid over England in 1940. His almost forgotten record of the air war, Heaven Next Stop – regarded as a conflation of not only his own memories but those of his Luftwaffe colleagues – includes the terrifying moment when a Luftwaffe friend crashes on landing, his Me 109 toppling upside-down and bursting into flames:

"Our trapped comrade's horrible screaming came through to us, muffled by the closed cockpit-hood and drowned by the crackling of the flames. A human being burning alive before our eyes! At intervals we could make out the condemned man writhing and jerking convulsively – hammering on the unyielding walls of his glass cage, every moment more and more enveloped by the roaring flames... His despairing cry made us all realise simultaneously the only thing which could be done to ease our comrade's torment...

Another pilot, identified only as Ulrich, walked into the flames and shot the burning man in the head. Earlier, Bloemertz himself had shot down an RAF fighter, at the same time willing his British victim to jump from his burning aircraft. "I shout aloud in despair. Instead I see him bathed in the red of his own blood; his body strains half over the side to hang there, mutilated. Then the waves close over him..."

Hillary was to suffer almost the same fate when his own burning plane dived towards the Channel:

"I was falling. Falling slowly through a dark pit. I was dead. I saw it with my mind, my mind that was redness in front of my eye, the dull scream in the ear, the grinning of the mouth, the skin crawling on the skull. It was death and resurrection. Terror, moving with me, touched my cheek with hers and I felt the flesh wince... I was hot now, hot, again, again one with my body, on fire and screaming soundlessly."

My own father, First World War veteran Bill Fisk – in 1940 head of the local Home Guard in Maidstone – was to recall the shriek of uncontrolled Merlin engines as a fiery ball fell out of the sky over the centre of the town. He lay on the cobbles behind the Star Hotel as the Spitfire blew up a few hundred metres away, his own body bouncing on the road as the blast waves came down the High Street. On the golf course, he found the three-feet-deep perfect imprint of a German pilot who had jumped from his burning plane – without a parachute. Bill's future wife Peggy, on the outskirts of Maidstone, saw a pyre of black smoke and cycled off with her sister Bibby to see the burning wreckage of another Messerschmitt. "But when we got there," she told me years later, "we found it was one of ours on fire."

When Harry Saltzman produced his 1969 epic Battle of Britain – using more than a hundred real British and German fighters and bombers, for these were pre-digital days – he employed a real and terribly disfigured ex-fighter pilot to explain to a burned pilot's distraught wife (Susannah York) that plastic surgeons could do "wonderful things" these days. The man's gaunt, twisted face added a bleak sidebar to the battle which Kenneth More, Robert Shaw and Laurence Olivier (as Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding) could never match. For those who were burned or smashed to death, wives and lovers re-lived the nightmare last moments or, broken in spirit, faithfully awaited the return of husbands who could never come back.

In his often distressing Battle of Britain novel Piece of Cake, Derek Robinson describes the heartbreak of a fighter pilot's wife who turns up each day at the airfield perimeter to wait for her dead husband's Spitfire, a fearful presence which haunts his still- living fellow pilots:

"Cattermole was squinting and blinking into the hazy distance where a tiny black figure shimmered beside a little black car. He began walking... Cattermole stopped when he was 10 feet away. The sweat trickling into his eyes made him blink but his face was untouched by expression. 'We want you to go,' he said... 'Stupid bitch. I don't give a damn about you... You're a jinx, a menace. Fitz is dead, he's not coming back...' "

RAF Fighter Command could also show a ruthlessness which Bomber Command would later perfect a thousandfold. If the nobility of warfare was upheld in the Battle of Britain, the Geneva Conventions were not. The Luftwaffe complained bitterly that the RAF attacked German hospital sea-planes. Their claim was correct. Churchill's War Cabinet formally announced that "it has come to the notice of His Majesty's Government... that enemy aircraft bearing civil markings and marked with the Red Cross have recently flown over British ships at sea... His Majesty's Government are unable, however, to grant immunity to such aircraft flying over areas in which operations are in progress on land or at sea..." Dowding was blunter: "They were engaged in rescuing combatants and taking them back to fight again, and they were also in a position... to make valuable reconnaissance reports..." In the television series The World at War, Squadron Leader Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook, revealed that he had no compunction at shooting down German Red Cross planes. And Churchill wrote: "We did not recognise this means of rescuing enemy pilots in order that they might come and bomb our civilian population again." But the Germans pointed out that whenever German Red Cross aircraft rescued British pilots, they were, oddly, never shot down.

Of course, the Battle of Britain did produce honour, even humour, amid the carnage. RAF pilots sometimes circled ditched German bombers in the Channel in an effort to save their crews' lives. One British pilot found a German's parachute tangled on his starboard wing and throttled back to allow his German enemy to float free and alive to earth. Hillary remembered shouting German invective into his radio while climbing to 25,000 feet. "To my delight I heard one of them answer: 'You feelthy Englishmen, we will teach you how to speak to a German.' I am aware that this sounds a tall story, but several others in the Squadron were listening out and heard the whole thing."

Several true stories were astronomically funny. Fighter pilot Peter Townsend – later to be Princess Margaret's lover – returned from a fierce battle over the Channel to find a German Heinkel 111 bomber, wheels up, propellers bent, crash-landed on the runway of his RAF airfield. The pilot thought he had ditched in the sea and "before the astonished eye of the airfield control officer... a door was opened, a dinghy was thrown out and two of the crew – bootless for easy swimming – dived out on to dry land. Rumour even had it that they dived into their dingy and began rowing."

Inevitably, the pilots were fascinated by their enemies. When the legless Douglas Bader was shot down over France – by one of his own Spitfires, although he would never admit it – Adolf Galland greeted him warmly at his Luftwaffe airbase at St Omer, enquiring how he had managed to bale out with no legs. Bader didn't remember. "One never does," Galland replied before warmly inviting his captive to climb aboard a fully armed Me 109. According to Bader's biographer, "mad thoughts" of starting the engine and throttling away to freedom passed through his mind.

But a snapshot sent to Bader after the war shows a junior Luftwaffe officer covering him with a machine pistol. As he stepped out of the 109, "Bader looked across country and saw the sea. Far beyond he thought he could glimpse the White Cliffs of Dover and for a moment felt quite sick." A few months later, Wing Commander Robert Tuck crash-landed near Boulogne and was taken on the same pilgrimage to Galland. "We have met before, Herr Oberstleutnant Tuck," Galland said, shaking hands. "Last time I very nearly killed you, but you saw me coming..." The two men laughed when they realised that each had shot down the other's number two pilot. Galland recalled Bader's visit to his airbase at St Omer – "Wonderful fellow!" – before telling an orderly to place a bottle of White Label in front of Tuck, the last of the stock abandoned by the British at Dunkirk.

But the Battle of Britain was not a schoolboy game, a jape, a friendly match. It was harsh and cruel and thus – if it was an antidote to what had gone before and to what was yet to come – reflected the murderous war in which it occurred. The battle also remains a danger to us in a historical sense; our obsession with the RAF's victory tends to diminish infinitely more terrible and important turning points in a conflict that consumed upwards of 60 million lives. In terms of men and machines, it was a puny sideshow to Pearl Harbour, Alamein, Stalingrad, D-Day, the Battle for Germany, Dresden, Hamburg, Iwo Jima, Hiroshima, Nagasaki... The Soviets, not the RAF, broke the back of Hitler's legions.

And the pilots who fought were not, as hindsight might suggest to us, struggling to avenge Hitler's greatest crimes. The industrial slaughter of the Jewish Holocaust had not yet begun. The invasion of the Soviet Union was a year away. The nightly Blitz on London commenced on 7 September 1940, when the RAF were on the edge of victory. It was, perhaps, something more visceral that drove those pilots into the sky; the sheer bloody insult that the Luftwaffe committed by flying over the British coast from France. "The controller reports another large formation of Huns building up over Gris Nez and starting to come across but he doesn't go into how many," Spitfire pilot Geoffrey Wellum recorded in his diary. "Perhaps he thinks we've enough on our plate already. Where do all these bloody Germans come from? There seems to be no end to them..." When a false report of the German invasion of England circulated in one fighter pilot's mess, the legless Bader was the first to cheer up his comrades. Rubbing his hands with delight, he announced that now they would be able to kill even more Germans.

Nor would RAF Fighter Command keep its chivalry intact in the years to come. After the Normandy landings in June 1944, some of those same pilots helped to massacre the encircled German army trapped in the "Falaise Pocket"; thousands of French civilians died in the Pocket and in the still occupied towns between Normandy and Paris. While Bomber Command tore Germany's cities to pieces, fighter pilots – American and British, flying Spitfires as well as Typhoons and Mustangs – ranged the countryside to strafe German refugees, trains and even farm carts and horses, just as the Luftwaffe had done in France in 1940. Inevitably, they also attacked columns of British and American PoWs.

At the time, the Battle of Britain did not seem as coherent as it does today. "From time to time we openly recognised the meaningless of this existence," Luftwaffe pilot Bloemertz was to write of 1940. "More often we simply sensed it... Fate plunged onwards down its ordained path, and however we might try to protect ourselves it struck us exactly as it pleased. I couldn't block its way; and you – you who had wanted to kill me early in the morning – you couldn't do so either. Tommy, if you still live, are you perhaps drinking at this moment in some bar in the West End?"

And yet. There is always an "and yet" with this battle. By June of 1940, Britain was the sole country still in arms against the Nazis. If the RAF had broken, giving the Luftwaffe air superiority, the German invasion of the UK would have followed. If Britain failed, Churchill warned in June 1940, "the whole world, including the United States and all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age, made more sinister and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science". And despite the historical manipulation of both the battle and Churchill by those miserable politicians who want to maintain our dishonest, illegal wars abroad today, his words, like the Spitfire, retain their integrity.

Perhaps it is what Richard Hillary, in a different context, called "the essential rightness of it all". For once – just once – Britain did the right thing and fought the right battle at the right time. And won.

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