The end of the Battle, but not of the war
The Battle of Britain was perhaps the most important battle fought by this country in the whole of the last century, but for the men of the RAF it was just one campaign amongst many.
The victory over the German Luftwaffe in 1940 prevented a Nazi invasion of this country and preserved the UK as a base for the Normandy landings four years later, but in the meantime there were other aerial battles to be fought.
For many pilots, including Pilot Officer Eric Bidgood, the Battle of Britain was merely a curtain-raiser to the even more daunting challenge of attempting to help relieve the siege of Malta.
Bidgood, who joined the RAF on a short service commission and began his training as a pupil pilot in March 1939, joined No 266 Squadron at Sutton Bridge towards the end of that year before moving to Digby to join No 229 Squadron, with which he flew in the Battle of Britain.
After flying his last operational sortie on September 11, some seven weeks before the official end of the Battle, Bidgood joined No 85 Squadron, but before tasting action with his new unit he was posted to No 1 RAF Depot, Uxbridge, en route to Malta. Sadly, he never reached his destination.
It was the opening by the Axis powers of a new front in North Africa in June 1940 that had increased Malta’s strategic value to both sides in the second world war.
British air and sea forces on the island, which Churchill described as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” were able to attack Axis ships transporting vital supplies and reinforcements from Europe, something Rommel knew could spell defeat for Axis powers in the area.
There followed a bombing mission of unprecedented intensity, designed to starve Malta into submission by attacking its ports, towns and cities as well as Allied shipping supplying the island.
It was into that maelstrom that pilots like Bidgood, who had survived the Battle of Britain, were sent, tasked with taking out the bombers and protecting the shipping convoys. Many who had seen off the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 later said defending Malta was a far more harrowing experience.
Such was the urgency to defend the island that Bidgood did not even reach Uxbridge but instead reported directly to the aircraft carrier HMS Argus, which later sailed from King George V Dock in Glasgow with 12 Hurricanes on board, together with two Blackburn Skuas of the Fleet Air Arm.
In mid-November the Argus sailed from Gibraltar with the aim of taking the two flights of six Hurricanes, each led by one of the two Skuas, within flying distance of the besieged island. Only four of the 12 aircraft were to reach land.
Bidgood was one of the six pilots in the ill-fated second flight. After leaving the carrier, a series of mishaps saw each of the aircraft run out of fuel and fall, one by one, into the sea. It has been suggested that they took off too far to the west of the island to be clear of the Italian fleet and that they encountered strong headwinds.
Another member of Churchill’s Few, Blair Eustace Galloway White, also followed up a respectable score in the Battle of Britain with service in Malta.
White, flying with No 504 Squadron in the Battle, claimed a probable Bf 109, destroyed a Dornier 17 and a Bf 110 and damaged a Bf 109 and a Heinkel 111.
Flight Lieutenant White was posted to Malta in October 1942, joining No 1435 Squadron at Luqa as a Flight Commander before being given command of 185 Squadron at Hal Far in November.
He fell ill with jaundice in January 1943 and relinquished command but in May took over No 229 Squadron at Krendi, carrying out offensive sweeps and bombing attacks against Sicily. On 5 July 1943 White was reported missing after failing to return. He was just 28.
Like many of those who flew in the Battle of Britain, Flt Lt White had earlier served in the Battle of France, where the RAF made a last-ditch attempt to stop the advancing German forces.
Shot down on 14 May 1940, he baled out, wounded, and was repatriated on the last ship to leave Dieppe.
Towards the end of the Battle of Britain, White took off from Filton with Sergeant R T Holmes on an interception sortie, but the pair became lost in fog and were diverted to Cardiff.
After landing safely they had breakfast with renowned flier Amy Johnson, one of the female pilots serving with the Air Transport Auxiliary, delivering aircraft of all kinds from factories to front-line squadrons around the country, before returning to Filton.
Bring your own chairs
It is always fascinating to look back on history and to see how things have changed over time.
The history of the Battle of Britain is, of course, fundamental to the work of the Trust and is at the core of our efforts to inform and educate future generations.
But after more than a quarter of a century honouring the veterans of the Battle of Britain at the site at Capel-le-Ferne, the charity is beginning to create a history of its own. As the site has developed, so the Trust has changed, becoming steadily more professional over the years.
Supporters from the early days who are sadly no longer with us would surely marvel at the changes at the clifftop site. The simple, poignant Memorial they would instantly recognise is still there, but joined now by a high-tech, Spitfire wing-shaped visitor centre and a thriving business venue come library and resource centre.
While last year marked the 25th anniversary of the unveiling of the Memorial, this year’s 7 July commemoration will be the 25th anniversary of the first Memorial Day, which was held the year after the unveiling.
Trust secretary Patrick Tootal, still the driving force behind the Trust and the many events it organises, recently turned up a copy of the invitation letter that invited members of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association to the 1994 event.
Neatly typed in the days before word processors took over – and long before every communication was sent by email or via a Whatsapp group – there is even evidence of the judicious use of Tipp-ex at one point (other correcting fluids are, presumably, available).
Reassuringly, the Trust’s logo has not changed over the years, although the incorporation of the Fighter Association is highlighted on the slightly updated version now in use.
The veterans were invited to a “very informal affair, commencing at 1100 with a short service” and followed by “an exciting display of World War II aircraft” from Duxford’s Fighter Collection.
The 25th anniversary event will follow much the same lines, with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight providing this July’s exciting display, but the small print regarding the weather hasn’t changed over the past quarter of a century.
In more recent years the Trust has provided lunch for its VIP guests – most of whom pay for the privilege as the charity is still working to the “very restricted budget” mentioned in the 1994 missive – but back then the author of the letter, no less than Geoffrey Page* himself – advised guests to “get together with old chums and retreat to the nearest tavern”.
The lack of budget meant the Trust was on that occasion “not able to provide either loos or chairs”, with Wing Cdr Page adding “if you have a fold up version that might be useful”. One can only assume he meant a fold up chair, not a fold up loo…
As planning continues for this year’s Memorial Day it is reassuring to know that the format has remained very similar, although the budget now runs to luxurious mobile facilities.
The one sadness that was always inevitable, but probably far from the minds of those who gathered back in 1994, is the lack of representation by the Few. Wing Cdr Paul Farnes DFM was the sole representative at the 2018 commemoration, just a few weeks short of his 100th birthday. We can only hope he may make it to Capel-le-Ferne this July.
*Wing Commander Geoffrey Page was shot down on 12 August 1940 while flying a Hurricane with No 56 Squadron. He baled out, badly burned, and spent more than two years in hospital, undergoing plastic surgery at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, as one of Archie McIndoe’s ‘guinea pigs’. He later went back on active service and emerged with a DSO and DFC*. He was awarded the OBE in 1995.
It was Wing Cdr Page’s determination to see the men with whom he had served honoured in some way that saw the Trust formed and the National Memorial to the Few unveiled at Capel-le-Ferne in July, 1993. A founding Trustee, he died on 3 August 2000.
It’s a numbers game
A glance through the visitors’ books at the Memorial will inevitably highlight the fact that we attract visitors from all over the world, but it still came as a surprise to discover that in the past 25 years we have welcomed people from a staggering 90 nations.
There has been a succession of visitors’ books at the Memorial since it was unveiled in 1993, and it is always interesting to leaf through them and read the entries. Extracts are posted on social media from time to time, with most centred on remembrance and on the peace and tranquillity of the site.
Since 2015, when The Wing was opened, some of the comments have also mentioned the educational and learning aspects of the site, which is pleasing since that is something The Scramble Experience was designed to enhance, reflecting the fact that the then surviving members of The Few were keen to leave a legacy that highlighted their experiences in the Battle of Britain.
It is clear, then, that we have a Memorial with some great facilities that people enjoy, and one that deserves – and needs – visitors.
It is the NATIONAL Memorial to The Few but it sits on the nation’s southern extremity, not by accident but by design, since it sits under the skies in which much of the Battle was fought and within sight of France, the base in 1940 from which Hitler planned to launch his invasion. On a clear day the French coastline is clearly visible.
It is situated in an area of Kent – Hellfire Corner – that many people know about, but the question we keep asking ourselves is how many of them know about the Memorial. The answer, it seems, is quite a significant number if the visitors’ books are anything to go by – although we would inevitably like it to be higher.
The entries are many and varied, although statistically invalid in terms of overall visitor numbers, since not only is signing voluntary but each comment can represent a single person, a family or a group.
It is where our visitors come from that is so fascinating. The infamous 80:20 rule almost applies since, unsurprisingly, 79% of the entries are from UK visitors. Of the remaining entries, the larger representations come from the USA, Australia, Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand, France Poland and Czechoslovakia – the major allies of Britain in World War II. Germany, though, is also well represented and its people have contributed some of the more moving comments.
Some of the more unexpected nationalities include Vietnam, Belize, Senegal, Egypt and Peru, but wherever they come from our visitors are assured of a warm welcome to this unique site on the clifftop at Capel-Le-Ferne.
In all, since Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother opened the Memorial in 1993, visitors from 90 nations have signed the book. Nearly 38,000 entries have been made, by visitors ranging from children writing in their best primary school printing to Heads of State and Government. All were equally welcome.
As the site enters its second quarter century, wouldn’t it be good to get to a century of countries represented in the books and 50,000 entries?
The site facilities are open every day of the year (except for a short Christmas break) at 10am daily, and entry is free, although there is a small charge for parking. Entry to The Scramble Experience is by paid ticket but the rest of the facilities are free for visitors to enjoy at their leisure.
Even when the weather is cold or rainy the Memorial can be viewed from the warm cover of The Wing and a nice cup of tea or coffee awaits in the café with (probably) one of the county’s best views across the Channel.
Isn’t it about time you looked for a room with a view?
We all love a meeting, don’t we? Sometimes we even have meetings about meetings. We can fill entire days with meetings – often leaving with nothing more than a new winner for the next round of buzzword bingo and a mild case of sensory deprivation.
And there is always one in the room who loves the sound of their own voice, isn’t there? You politely look for an escape route but in a badly lit, low ceilinged room with no windows and just one door, you are trapped until Captain Conceited has finished talking.
Away day meetings can be just as colourless. Why are all hotel meeting rooms painted magnolia? Is magnolia really the catalyst for creative thought and inspiring discussion? Why choose to go away from the office to somewhere even less stimulating?
There are, of course, some key criteria for selecting a meeting room – things like space, facilities and accessibility. But I would like to add ambience and environment to that list of considerations if you want your session to be truly productive.
Surely there can be nothing more inspiring than seeing a huge expanse of deep blue water? The sea ozone alone is enough to enliven the senses. How about adding in the stunning landscape of the East Kent coast? Add to the mix a place of national, global even, historic significance and the mind is truly engaged. And if that wasn’t enough, how about having a Spitfire and Hurricane parked right outside the meeting room?
You can have all of that, and more, for the fraction of the cost of conventional meeting rooms, here at the National Memorial to the Few. The newly refurbished Hunting Lodge is an ideal environment to contemplate, stimulate and co-ordinate a meaningful and actionable meeting, training session or more informal gathering. You even have lots of opportunities for R&R during the day – by taking in the Memorial, interacting with the Scramble Experience or simply taking a break and taking in the views from the first floor Cockpit café.
And you may even discover you have a relative who fought in the Battle of Britain. That’s better than a magnolia room and an overpriced custard cream in anyone’s book, right?
Just to cover off the more pragmatic considerations, here’s what else we have to offer…
- Space for up to 50 people
- Ample parking, just minutes from the M20 and mainline train stations
- Meeting rooms with natural light and high ceilings
- Modern rooms with regulated heating, air conditioning and windows
- All rooms feature AV equipment, with a large drop-down projection screen in the Geoffrey Page Centre
- Plenty of power sockets and full WIFI connectivity
What are you waiting for? Book a room with a view, and so much more, for your next meeting. Simply call Jules Gomez on 01303 249292 or email Manager@battleofbritainmemorial.org
Welcome to 2019
I’ve never really been into New Year’s Resolutions. That’s not simply because, like most people, I’m not good at keeping them, but because I tend to think that if something is worth doing it’s worth doing not just well, but now. If you feel unfit in September, why wait until 1 January to join a gym? Spending too much of your summer on social media? Stop now, not on 31 December.
But if resolutions are not on the agenda as we reach the turn of the year, reflections certainly are. This strange no-man’s-land between Christmas and New Year is a time to wonder, not just about what day of the week it is, but about what the future has in store and what the past year delivered.
For the Trust, reflecting on 2018 means looking back with a certain amount of pride, though tinged with some sadness, and forward with hope and optimism.
The year was a major milestone not just for the RAF, which celebrated its 100th birthday, but also for the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, which marked 25 years since the National Memorial to the Few was unveiled by Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.
While we played our part in the national celebrations, including welcoming the RAF 100 relay torch ‘baton’ to the site, ferried in style by the Aston Martin Red 10, we also marked our own anniversary in style.
In April, just over a month before Red 10 arrived, escorted by a fleet of other impressive Aston Martins, the Trust unveiled its new library and resource centre, created by modernising and upgrading Hunting Lodge.
Up until 2015, Hunting Lodge served the Trust well as the site’s visitor centre, housing a small shop and café, toilets and an office, having been opened 20 years earlier in July 1995.
The new Wing building, officially opened in March 2015 by Her Majesty The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, saw Hunting Lodge forced into an early retirement, but it was not to prove much of a break for this loyal member of the team.
Remodelled by Wing architects Godden Allen Lawn, a team so supportive that partner Nick Lawn is now a Trustee, Hunting Lodge has a new role as home to the Trust’s impressive library of Battle of Britain-themed books. The bright and airy space also works well as a meeting venue for local businesses – just ask the site manager for details.
Hunting Lodge was nowhere to be seen when four of our current supporters first got involved with the Trust.
Brenda and Martyn Halls, Sylvia Coles and Gwen Beaumont have been around since day one and were on hand to watch the Memorial’s unveiling in 1993. This December, in company with the Trust’s immediate past president, Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, they celebrated a quarter of a century of support for the charity.
As well as opening the re-imagined Hunting Lodge, April also saw the unveiling of new black granite squadron badges around the National Memorial to the Few, replacing the weather worn badges that had soaked up the salty air of the past 25 years. The new badges also put right one slight anomaly which had seen a handful of the insignia displaying the ‘wrong’ Queen’s crown instead of the more accurate King’s crown.
As for sadness, this was a year which saw a number of the Few leave us, amongst them Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, perhaps better known to the general public as the author of First Light, and Wing Commander Tom Neil, who achieved ‘Ace’ status as a Hurricane pilot with No 249 Squadron.
While it’s always sad to lose old friends (although in my case I guess it would be less presumptuous to call them acquaintances), there is considerable consolation in thinking back to their exploits of 78 years ago. I am sure there were many occasions in the summer of 1940 when Geoffrey, Tom and the remaining members of the Few still with us (including Wg Cdr Paul Farnes, now a remarkable 100 years old) were far from confident they would survive into their twenties, let alone their nineties.
And the future? One of the surprising features about working with the Trust is the realisation that the exploits of the Few continue to inspire young people as well as older generations. Watching teenagers enjoy The Scramble Experience and soak up the atmosphere of the Memorial site, clearly moved by the tales of bravery and sacrifice it represents, is reassuring. We WILL remember them.