By Alex Jones
RARE PHOTOS show what life was really like for the heroic Spitfire Pilots who fought in the Battle for Britain.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
So echo the immortal words of wartime leader Winston Churchill, as he paid tribute to the brave men and women of the RAF who were fighting in a pivotal air battle with the German Luftwaffe to fend off a Nazi invasion following the fall of France.
‘The Few’, as the pilots in that decisive dogfight became known, have been revered around the world for their stalwart defence of the UK against a constant onslaught from German attacks between July and October in 1940.
In the grand battle in the infancy of the Second World War, the newly released Spitfire became a symbol for British determination, innovation and grit – and remains a sight which still stirs the soul to this day.
Captivating never-seen-before photos, from the personal collections of the pilots themselves, show the inside story of Squadron 19 – the first squadron to receive the world’s most famous military plane – and the brave men who flew these scintillating and deadly machines during Britain’s ‘finest hour’.
Photos show the battle fatigue in the eyes of the 23-year-old squadron leader Brian Lane DFC in the midst of the gruelling battle for air superiority over England’s south coast, the grace and power of the Spitfire as it flies in formation, and a proud pilot showing off the badly damaged tail of his spitfire after he was shot at flying over the Thames Estuary.
The striking shots are included in Dilip Sarkar’s new book Spitfire! The Full Story of a Unique Battle of Britain Fighter Squadron, an enthralling and thorough account of the ‘The Few’ based on personal anecdotes, interviews, and a wealth of resources.
“I would say that what we have here is the story of an outstanding group of fit, intelligent, confident and courageous young people, bound together during a dreadful war, and without whose collective achievement the outcome would have been very different,” explained Sarkar, a recipient of an MBE for ‘services to aviation history’.
“It was these aerial warriors’ great fortune that their chief was demonstrably exceptional, even if his story was sadly and ultimately tragic.
“Arguably, 19 Squadron’s motto, ‘They Can Because They Think They Can’, might more appropriately have been ‘They Did Because They Knew They Could’.
“Without question, none involved would have missed, for all the world and, I daresay, whatever their fates, those days when they flew Spitfires – and they were, to me, the ultimate band of brothers.”
The book focuses on the history of the squadron and its exception Battle of Britain leader Brian Lane, who was killed in action aged in minor skirmish over the North Sea (which his colleagues believe he should never have been involved in).
It also follows the development of the UK’s finest flying machine and the exploits of the stoic pilots, who answered the call to arms from across the globe, who sat in her cockpit at RAF Duxford.
The thrust of Spitfire! surrounds the Squadron 19’s efforts to thwart Operation Sea Lion – the Nazi plot to invade England – in the face of overwhelming odds.
The British had only slightly more than 600 frontline fighters to defend the country when the Nazis launched their offensive.
The Germans meanwhile made available about 1,300 bombers and dive-bombers and about 900 single-engine and 300 twin-engine fighters.
However, due to superior equipment and incredible flying skills of the UK’s pilots, Germany was losing three planes for every one RAF aircraft. British fighters were shooting down German bombers faster than the German industry could produce them.
After months of death and destruction, Hitler decided to end Operation Sea Lion.
Victory in the Battle of Britain did not win the war, but it ensured the country could keep fighting on.
Four years later, the Allies would launch their invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe – Operation Overlord – from British shores, which would prove decisive in ultimately bringing the war in Europe to a close.
The Spitfire’s part in this story is assuredly worth telling.
“I hoped to record and raise awareness of the story of Squadron Leader Brian Lane and 19 Squadron during the early war period, in my first book Spitfire Squadron which was published in 1990,” explained Sarkar.
“During the years ahead, however, I came to enjoy a unique and privileged relationship with both many of the Squadron’s survivors from the traumatic days of 1940, and the families of casualties.
“Thirty years later we now have here the completely updated and re-written Spitfire Squadron –with the benefit of a vast amount of extra information and infinitely more experience as an author and historian.
“This new version of Spitfire Squadron, incorporating unique first-hand accounts, seeks to locate the whole story within a much wider context, including social, political, aviation and military history.
“In this way, I hope that we can better understand and appreciate the experience of having served on a Spitfire squadron – indeed the first Spitfire squadron – during the pre- and critical early-Second World War periods.
“Importantly, the wartime photographs have mainly been copied from the personal albums of survivors and their families, providing an authentic and atmospheric glimpse of the ever-distant past.”
Dilip Sarkar’s Spitfire! The Full Story of a Unique Battle of Britain Fighter Squadron, published by Pen and Sword Books, is due to be released in June. Pre-order here.