Today (4 June) marks the 80th anniversary of the last day of the Allies’ retreat from Dunkirk as the Nazis continued their march across Europe.
With the last of the ‘little ships’ sailing home to the UK with what was left of the British Expeditionary Force on board, and the battered Royal Air Force flying home to regroup on this side of the Channel, they were dark days.
The evacuation, codenamed Operation Dynamo, which began on 27 May and was to take just over a week, saw more than 338,000 men rescued, including almost 140,000 French, Polish, and Belgian troops. They sailed in 861 vessels, of which 243 were sunk during the operation.
Two weeks later, as France capitulated, Prime Minister Winston Churchill told the nation: “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.
“Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire.
“The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”
The speech ended with a call for people to “so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’.”
Churchill was right in his prediction that Hitler was about to turn his attention to this country – and equally right in his optimistic assessment of the UK’s response to the threat of invasion.
As history relates, the men of the Royal Air Force made sure that the Battle of Britain, 80 years ago this summer, dashed Hitler’s invasion hopes. They took to the sky in sortie after sortie, sometimes several times in a single day, to fight back against, and finally defeat, the numerically superior Luftwaffe.
They became known as ‘the Few’ following another of Churchill’s speeches in which he told the House of Commons: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few.”
Fewer-than 3,000 in number, their bravery and sacrifice saw Hitler abandon his plans, preserving this island as the springboard from which the Normandy invasion could be launched four years later and, in all probability, shortening the Second World War considerably.
“Without the Battle of Britain, the D-Day invasion of June 1944 could not have taken place in the way it did,” explained Group Captain Patrick Tootal, secretary of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust CIO, which looks after the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent.
“The country owes the Few a huge debt of gratitude, not just for what they did in 1940 but for effectively turning the tide of the war.”
The memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, just outside Folkestone, is home to the National Memorial to the Few, a statue of a lone airman looking out over the English Channel, and to the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall, on which are listed the names of all the Allied airmen known to have taken part. A replica Hurricane and Spitfire are among other features of the popular clifftop site.
The site receives no public funding of any kind, and with the Covid-19 lockdown ending all funding streams, including the shop, café and Scramble Experience visitor attraction, life is currently very tough for the charity, which opened its Wing visitor centre in 2015.
The Trust is currently delivering online presentations, creating fun things for families to do in lockdown and hoping visitors will support the charity generously once the site reopens, but, as with similar visitor attractions, life is tough.
“We had lots of events planned to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain but all of them had to be shelved,” Patrick explained. “Life for charities is always tough, but the pandemic has reduced our income to virtually zero, and we still have bills to pay.
“Anyone who would like to support the charity in memory of the Few and the sacrifices they made to keep this country free from invasion between 10 July and 31 October 1940 is asked to click on the Donate link on our website at www.battleofbritainmemorial.org