Battle of Britain: The Unsung Heroes

By Guest, 14 September 2017 - 10:50am

The Battle of Britain could not have been won without support from the ground crew. Henry Buckton interviews the surviving personnel

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A group of Civil Defence workers man a searchlight in London, c1940, looking for night-time bombers. Credit: Humphrey Spender/Picture Post/Getty Images

In July 1940 the fate of Britain hung in the balance, as across the English Channel the Nazi hordes were preparing to invade this green and pleasant land.

With lightning speed and military brilliance they had already conquered all before them, but Nazi Germany was about to suffer its first defeat in a desperate struggle that took place in the sky over southern England that became known as ‘The Battle of Britain’.

Although an invasion seemed inevitable after France signed the armistice with Germany on 22 June, many high-ranking Nazis thought a blockade by sea and air was 
a better solution. By starving Britain of its sea trade, perhaps it would capitulate without a fight?

However, any hopes of German troops marching down The Mall unopposed were dashed when Britain’s new Prime Minister Winston Churchill exclaimed: “We shall fight on the beaches… we shall never surrender.”

The battle that followed was the struggle between the RAF’s home defence force, Fighter Command, and the German air force, the Luftwaffe, to win control of British air space before an invasion could be attempted.

The contest lasted from 10 July to 31 October and was split into four distinct phases, the first of which was largely fought over the English Channel as the Germans attacked convoys to try and stop the supply of raw materials reaching British factories.

During the second phase, starting on 13 August (Eagle Day), the Luftwaffe turned its attention to Fighter Command itself by attacking airfields in a bid to halt its effectiveness south of the Thames.

The third phase, from 24 August, saw an even more intense period of attacks against the RAF’s infrastructure that would stretch Fighter Command almost to breaking point.

And the final phase began on 7 September, when the Germans made a dramatic switch and began the Blitz on London, bombing day and night.

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Bombed-out streets near St Paul's Cathedral. Credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images

During each of these phases the young pilots of Fighter Command, who Churchill called The Few, battled in the sky, often four or five times a day, outnumbered at least five 
to one.

The pivotal day in the battle was 15 September, after which Hitler had no choice but to abandon his plans to invade Britain due to unsustainable losses, not just to his aircraft, but also to his invasion barges, which RAF Bomber Command had been destroying at their places of anchorage.

Although The Few were the heroes of this conflict, it would be fair to say that their victory could not have been achieved without the support of many thousands of ‘the unsung heroes’. These were ordinary men and women, each contributing to the overall success in their own way.

Most people won’t have a fighter pilot in their family but there are many who will find a connection to someone who still played an important part.

In 1940 RAF Fighter Command held the responsibility for the air defence of the United Kingdom from its headquarters at Bentley Priory, in Stanmore, Middlesex, where Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding was commander-in-chief.

For this purpose Britain was divided into regional groups. 
No 11 Group covered the south-east of England, including London, and it was 
here that the battle would be won or lost.


Aircraft movements being plotted in the operations room, February 1943 (Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images)

Plotting the battle

Each group had an operations room with a plotting table that showed a map of the area 
it covered. The groups were themselves sub-divided into smaller commands called sectors, which also had plotting tables.

Around these tables sat WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), recording the movement of all aircraft in their area based on information received from the early warning system.

In charge of the room was the controller, who sat in a gallery overlooking the table, from where he had an overview of each raid and could scramble his fighters accordingly.

As the battle progressed and raids were met in force, it soon became evident to the Germans that Fighter Command had a sophisticated system of control.

On realising this, group and sector stations came in for some unwelcome attention.

Bunty Buck was a WAAF plotter in the sector operations room at Middle Wallop when it was bombed one night. Somehow the German raider had discovered 
the British recognition code, which aircraft would flash so the lights on the airfield could be turned on to help them land in the dark.

The German flashed the correct code, the lights were switched on, the airbase lit up, and the bombs rained down.

The plotters were able to map the course of raiders because they received information about them from various sources, most importantly radar, which at that time was called RDF (Radio Direction Finding).

Radar could detect an approaching aircraft up to 100 miles away, certainly before it left France. At first the Germans didn’t appreciate the significance of radar, but once they did they began to attack the coastal stations with their Stuka dive-bombers. This put the occupants of these tiny outposts in extreme danger.

Personnel manning a radar scope. (Credit: Time Life Pictures/US Navy/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)


The Military Medal

It was for bravery under fire during an attack on Poling radar station on 18 August that a WAAF called Avis Parsons was awarded the Military Medal, one of only six female recipients during the whole of the war.

On the afternoon in question the masts at Poling detected bombers approaching the south coast.

It soon became evident that the station itself was among their targets as Stukas dived to release their bombs.

Although the building in which she worked was devastated, Avis remained at her post, passing vital information by telephone to Fighter Command even as the attack continued.

Due to radar, hardly a German aircraft could cross the coast without being detected.

The moment they did, the second part of the warning system kicked in.

This was the Observer Corps, a complex web of watching posts where observers waited at hilltop locations with rudimentary plotting equipment.

As an aircraft came into view the observation post would report its height, direction, nationality and type to an Observer Corps area centre.

Much of this information radar was unable to provide and was used by Fighter Command to direct pilots.

Observers were mostly part-time volunteers dressed in civilian clothes with armbands and tin helmets.

Their contribution to the victory was incalculable and battle hero Hugh Dundas of 616 Squadron once said of them: “Winter, spring, summer and autumn, day and night, fair weather and foul, they were out there.

“The work done so successfully by the Observer Corps was a vital factor in winning the Battle of Britain and so averting invasion and occupation of our land.”

As well as aircraft, Dowding had other weapons in his arsenal, such as ‘barrage balloons’.

These effectively prevented the Germans from making low-level bombing runs over vulnerable points.

The balloons were tethered in line 100 yards apart at heights of up to several thousand feet.

Each balloon was attached to a thick steel cable. If a raider struck the cable it would be severely damaged, if not destroyed.

Frances Greene served in the WAAF as a barrage balloon operator at several sites in London, including Hyde Park.

Some balloons had a bomb attached to the cable, which would explode when hit by an aircraft.

Frances remembers attaching these devices and confirms, “they were lethal, but we just got on with it”.

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Workers assemble a barrage balloon. Credit: Haywood Magee/Getty Images

Dowding also had Anti-Aircraft guns – David Pond manned a gun at Raynes Park and remembers how, during the battle, shells sometimes failed to go off and were therefore left in an unstable condition.

One night this happened to around 30 shells, all of which had to be removed to the safety of Banstead ammunition dump.

David drove the lorry and stated: “I eased it carefully over every small bump in the road, sighing with relief each time we reached the downward slope.”

When they eventually arrived at the dump, David and his co-driver had to unload the unexploded shells.

“An egg could not have had more loving treatment," he says. "When we returned to the gun site, the officer who had ‘asked’ us to volunteer seemed surprised to see us. Or was that my imagination?”

In their attempts to shoot down enemy aircraft the guns worked closely with searchlight teams.

At night the beam of the searchlight also helped fighter pilots to seek out intruders in the dark. But even this job had its dangers.

William Stainton was one of a 10-man searchlight detachment based in Hackbridge.

Their light was on a lorry, which meant it could be moved to wherever the authorities wanted at short notice.

“During August and September”, says William, “at the height of the night-bombing, we were sometimes grouped with five other lights to form a powerful circle.

“This often led to the Germans either firing down the beams to extinguish them, or dropping explosives or incendiary bombs.

“I used my tin hat to extinguish one incendiary that was dropped near our light, then the cost was deducted from my pay!”

So the pilots of Fighter Command were not the only victors during the Battle of Britain, but merely the main components among thousands of ordinary people who helped in their own way.


This article first appeared in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine August 2010 to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain


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