'The Few' who saved Britain were even fewer than everyone thought

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The Independent Online

"The Few" who knocked the Luftwaffe out of Britain's skies in 1940 were even fewer than anyone previously thought. Six out of 10 RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain never shot down an enemy aircraft, new research indicates.

"The Few" who knocked the Luftwaffe out of Britain's skies in 1940 were even fewer than anyone previously thought. Six out of 10 RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain never shot down an enemy aircraft, new research indicates.

Christopher Shores, the author of Aces High, says that a relatively small number of pilots were responsible for most of the German aircraft shot down during Britain's "finest hour". He says that the top 17 RAF "aces" - less then 1 per cent of "the Few" - shot down 10 per cent of all enemy aircraft.

But a survey published yesterday shows that many people in modern Britain have a woefully inadequate grasp of the debt owed to these Second World War heroes. An ICM poll to mark the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Britain found that some were not even sure that Britain was fighting the Germans, saying instead that they thought the enemy was the Romans or Normans - while 10 per cent thought the French were the foe. Some people were also confused as to whether their wartime leader was Winston Churchill or King Alfred.

For the survey, 1,000 people were asked four questions about the Battle of Britain - but fewer than half of those aged between 18 and 24 knew it was an air battle. The RAF pilots, whose victory forced Hitler to abandon his invasion plans, became known as "the Few" after Churchill's speech in which he said: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."

The Battle of Britain was fought between 10 July and 31 October 1940. RAF pilots claimed to have shot down about 2,600 German aircraft, but figures compiled later suggest that Luftwaffe losses were more likely to be 1,700.

Of the 2,332 Allied pilots who flew fighters in the battle, 38.85 per cent were able to claim some degree of success in terms of enemy aircraft shot down, although the number claiming more than one victim amounted to no more than 15 per cent of the total.

To qualify for the description of "ace", a fighter pilot has to shoot down or be involved with others in shooting down at least five hostile aircraft. During the Battle of Britain just 188 pilots achieved that performance - 8 per cent of the total involved. A further 233 of those claiming successes during the battle became "aces" later in the war.

Mr Shores says: "It is particularly illuminating that the 17 most successful pilots (0.7 per cent of those involved) claimed 220 victories between them (8-9 per cent of the total claimed) - a quite disproportionate high level of achievement.

The 188 "ace" pilots claimed approximately half of all the victories. The most successful were Sgt Josef Frantisek (from Czechoslovakia) 17; Pilot Officer Eric Lock (England) 16; Flying Officer Brian Carbury (New Zealand) and Sgt James 'Ginger' Lacey (England) 15 and 1 shared each; Pilot Officer Bob Doe (England) 15; Flt Lt Pat Hughes (Australia) 14 and 3 shared; Pilot Officer Colin Gray (New Zealand) 14 and 2 shared; Flt Lt Archie McKellar(Scotland) 14 and 1 shared; Flying Officer Witold Urbanowicz (Poland) 14. Eight others claimed 10 or 11 individual victories, with varying numbers of shares.

The findings complement research published in Aeroplane magazine that examined which were the most effective RAF squadrons during the Battle of Britain. The most prolific were: 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron - a Spitfire squadron based at Hornchurch, Essex - which shot down 57.5 enemy aircraft; 609 Squadron, another Spitfire squadron, based at Middle Wallop, Hampshire, with 51.5 kills; and the Polish-manned 303 Squadron and 41 Squadron, which were nearly equal with 45 and 44.75 credits. Douglas Bader's 242 Hurricane Squadron achieved 22 kills.

A recent television programme debunked the widely held belief that nearly all the fighter pilots in the Battle of Britain were ex-public school boys from an upper-class background. Of the 3,080 airmen awarded the Battle of Britain Clasp, only 141 (6 per cent) were educated at the top 13 public schools.

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