LEARNING RESOURCES

History of the Memorial

The idea for a National Memorial to The Few came from one of their number. Wing Commander Geoffrey Page had been a 20-year-old Hurricane pilot with 56 Squadron in the Battle.

On 12 August 1940, Pilot Officer Page was shot down and baled out into the sea with terrible burns. He went on to become a founding member of the Guinea Pig Club for RAF personnel treated at the Queen Victoria Hospital by the team of plastic surgeons led by Archie McIndoe.

Determination and courage ensured that Geoffrey returned to operational flying, becoming a wing leader. He was awarded the DFC and bar and at the time he received the DSO in 1944 he was credited with having destroyed 15 enemy aircraft. A crash late in the war seriously injured him again and he returned to East Grinstead.

Years later, Geoffrey realised to his astonishment that there was no memorial to his comrades who had flown with him in Fighter Command in 1940.

His determination that The Few should be remembered found a focus at “Hellfire Corner”, the area of Dover and Folkestone over which so much of the fighting had taken place in 1940. The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust was established and fund raising began.

On July 9 1993, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother opened the National Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne to see Geoffrey’s dream realised. He died in August 2000, shortly after attending the Memorial Day marking the 60th anniversary of the Battle.

The starboard wing of the Wing building, a dedicated education resource for schools, is now named the Geoffrey Page Centre in honour of the man who was the inspiration for the site.

The site that was chosen at Capel-le-Ferne for the national memorial had played its part in both world wars.

Airships were moored there during the 1914-18 conflict, and in 1941 the construction of a gun battery began. Much of the accommodation was underground, including a “hospital” or large sick quarters. By the end of 1942, naval pattern 8-inch guns had been installed in sites 40 feet deep, protected by concrete walls that were six to eight feet thick. Legend has it that the first ranging shot from Capel-le-Ferne struck Dungeness. The Army left In around 1952.

The original plan for the memorial was on a bigger scale than the visitor will see today. Many would argue that the final design, by Harry Gray of the Carving Workshop, Cambridge, is moving through its simplicity.

At the time Harry Gray was approached, he had, by a remarkable coincidence, been thinking of carving a pilot but could not get the design right. One day Harry and his trainee took a rest and the pose adopted by his colleague provided Harry with inspiration.

The seated airman looking out to sea was born, surrounded by the badges of the Allied squadrons and other units that took part in the Battle.

Folkestone resident Colin Baggott has invited the trust to link to a short film he has made of the memorial site.

He explained: “I find the memorial site a place for refection on the events of 1940. I was born in 1945 and therefore never experienced the horrors of WWII, but I felt the need to produce this short film after hearing and seeing many stories about the Battle of Britain.”

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The Battle of Britain

At about 03.40 on 3 June 1940, the destroyer HMS Shikari sailed from Dunkirk en route to Britain. As the last ship to leave France laden with men, her departure brought to an end the most famous part of the evacuation of British troops following the French capitulation.

 

Eleven days later German troops paraded through Paris. On 22 June the French Government signed an armistice with Germany. Now Britain faced the possibility of a Nazi invasion followed by all the horrors of brutal occupation suffered by many countries across Europe. Led and inspired by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, the people of Britain prepared to fight for their freedom.

 

After the fall of France in June 1940, Adolf Hitler contemplated invading Britain, Operation Sealion.

 

Before this could be attempted, the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, had to destroy RAF Fighter Command and thus achieve control of the skies over southern England.

 

So, the Battle of Britain came to be fought – officially between July 10 and October 31 1940.

 

The spearhead of the British defence was just under 3000 pilots and other aircrew of Fighter Command, of whom well over 500 died from all causes during the Battle. Their contribution at a turning point in British history was eventually recognised by the immediate award of the 1939-45 Star with Battle of Britain Clasp.

 

In a speech in the House of Commons on August 20 1940, as the Battle raged, Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister, referred to the British airmen who by their prowess and devotion were turning the tide of World War.

 

He went on to declare, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Ever since, those who fought in the Battle have been referred to as “The Few”.

 

Those who earned that title are quick to stress the contribution to their victory of many other men and women in the RAF, as well as in the Royal Navy and Army and civilians in many capacities.

 

They often, too, stress the contribution to final victory in 1945 of the man who led them, Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding (1882-1970). It is often argued that without Dowding’s victory in 1940, other Generals would have been denied their triumphs later in the war.

 

In July and early August they fought mostly over the English Channel. The Germans designated 13 August, Adler Tag, “Eagle Day”, when Fighter Command would be eliminated. After this utter failure of the Luftwaffe, it was not long before enemy attacks were concentrated more and more on the fighter airfields, the radar stations and the aircraft factories. Some historians and participants in the Battle argue that by early September Fighter Command was close to breaking point, many of the experienced airmen had been killed or wounded. Those that were left were nearing exhaustion. Replacements were coming through and fighting heroically, but they were desperately inexperienced and under trained.

 

Then on 7 September, the Luftwaffe changed its tactics and began bombing London.

 

For Fighter Command the change provided a respite from attacks on its airfields.

 

The last major daylight raid on London by the Luftwaffe took place on 15 September 1940 designed to defeat the RAF once and for all. It was a resounding victory for Fighter Command and now commemorated as Battle of Britain Day.

 

Next morning the British press claimed 187 German aircraft were destroyed.  The real figure was 67 for the loss of 27 RAF aircraft.  More critical was that the Luftwaffe had also suffered heavy losses over the previous two months. Not included in the 67, numerous aircraft limped back home to France with dead gunners, burned engines and broken undercarriages.  The adverse effect on morale of crews that had been told by their intelligence that the RAF was defeated was significant. The effect of that day’s battle showed Hitler that the Luftwaffe had lost. Two days later on 17 September he postponed Operation Sealion indefinitely.

 

Heavy bombing raids by the Luftwaffe against cities continued at night.  During the day fighter bombers flew nuisance raids against coastal towns, airfields and other military targets.  The raids petered out as the weather deteriorated.

 

Historians will speculate forever on whether the Germans would have invaded Britain if the RAF had lost the Battle.  What is sure is that the Royal Air Force’s victory in the Battle of Britain was a tremendous boost to national morale.  The spring of 1940 had seen a series of unparalleled military disasters for Great Britain, and her allies.  Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France had fallen to the enemy in rapid succession.  The Battle of Britain demonstrated, for the first time, that the Nazi war machine was not invincible.  The way ahead was long, and hard, as London discovered during the Blitz, but it would not end in defeat.  The victory in the Battle also had a profound effect on opinion in the United States which lead to the US Lend Lease act. Also, without victory in the Battle of Britain, D Day would not have been possible as soon as June 1944.  For these reasons, the Battle of Britain ranks with the other decisive victories in our history at Trafalgar and Waterloo.

Timeline

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10 July

The Battle is considered officially to have started on this date.

8 August

Battle of Convoy CW9; intense fighting over the Channel, particularly off the Isle of Wight.

11 August

Battle of Portland; the RAF beats off attacks on the Portland naval base, but suffers heavy casualties.

13 August

Adler Tag, the day on which, according to the German plans, Fighter Command should have been severely damaged.

15 August

Black Thursday for the Luftwaffe, with severe losses.

16 August

In an action over Southampton, Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson of No 249 Squadron earns Fighter Command’s only Victoria Cross.

18 August

Fighter Command’s Hardest Day. The Luftwaffe launches major attacks on the airfields at Biggin Hill and Kenley Many more attacks on airfields followed during the rest of August and the first days of September.

7 September

The first mass attack on London.

15 September

The last large daylight attack on London. Later, this date will become commemorated as Battle of Britain Day.

31 October

The official end of the Battle.

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