Today marks the 80th anniversary of the start of World War Two, a global conflict that was to involve an estimated 100 million people and see more than 30 countries engage in a conflagration that lasted for six long years.
While casualty figures are an estimate at best, it is thought that between 70 and 85 million people died as a direct result of the war, most of them civilians in the Soviet Union and China.
The UK, which joined France in declaring war on Germany on 1 September 1939 following that country’s invasion of Poland, was to see more than 450,000 deaths, both military and civilian, before the war ended on 2 September 1945.
The scale of the war and the numbers involved make the contribution made by then-Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s Few – the men who fought the Battle of Britain – even more impressive.
The Battle of Britain, which lasted from 10 July to 31 October 1940, was a comparatively small part of a conflict that raged over land, sea and air and involved so many men and women from so many countries, but its impact was critical.
As the Battle of France ended and Nazi forces massed on the other side of the English Channel, Churchill predicted that “the Battle of Britain is about to begin”.
In what has become one of his best-known speeches, he went on to say: “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”.
He knew that before Hitler’s troops could cross the Channel and attempt to defeat this country, the Luftwaffe would need to secure control of the skies in order to prevent the invasion fleet being attacked.
Churchill and the Royal Air Force, though, had other plans. Throughout the summer and early autumn of 1940 the men of Fighter Command took on the much larger Luftwaffe force and defeated it, forcing Hitler to delay, and then abandon, his invasion plans.
In an exclusive interview for the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, 101 year-old Wing Commander Paul Farnes DFM, one of the Few, outlined some of the reasons why he felt the RAF had won the Battle.
“We were well trained, we were well led, we had good aeroplanes and we were fighting over our own territory, whereas the Germans had to flog off over the Channel into our territory,” he said.
But while the Hurricane Ace’s observations are undoubtedly true, they don’t detract from the incredible bravery and dedication shown by the Hurricane, Spitfire, Defiant and other aircrew members as they fought against the odds to keep their homeland safe.
Their names – without rank or decoration to highlight the fact that every one of them played his part – are listed on the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent.
The victory they won was more significant than simply bringing to an end one part of Hitler’s campaign. He lost that particular fight, but he also lost the opportunity to gain a strategically vital island off the coast of mainland Europe.
The invasion fleet that massed on the south coast in June 1944 in preparation for the D-Day invasion that took place 75 years ago this June could not have done so had this island been under Nazi rule.
That invasion, commemorated with such pride this summer, led to the Allies taking control of the war and was the start of the end for Hitler and his forces. As Churchill had predicted in 1940, Europe was indeed freed and the life of the world could move forward.
By keeping the UK safe from invasion, the fewer-than 3,000 men of the RAF – men like Wing Cdr Farnes and his colleagues both from this country and overseas – played a huge part in bringing to an end the most devastating war in the history of the world.