When German Field Marshal von Manstein was questioned by the Soviets after World War Two he told his angry interrogators that the most decisive battle of the war had not been Moscow, Stalingrad or Kursk but Britain. The Royal Air Force’s victory in the Battle of Britain had left an undefeated Britain and her empire to the west of Hitler, maintained the economic blockade of Germany’s empire and forced Hitler to leave behind vast numbers of troops in western Europe as he invaded Russia.
It is one of the most important battles of recent history. Friday 10 July is the 75th anniversary of its official start. What better way to mark the anniversary than by digging up a Spitfire, the majestic British interceptor that became the symbol of Britain’s struggle against the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s empire.
In July 1942 a MkII Spitfire used as a training aircraft after a year on frontline service was involved in a mid air collision. It’s tail was sliced off. The pilot, William ‘Bill’ Johnston bailed out and the plane crashed on a very wet piece of land in the West Country. Those wet conditions will have preserved the wreckage and we are expecting to witness one of the best Spitfire reclamations of all time. Bill Johnston’s son will be at my side as we attempt to reunite him with some of his father’s personal possessions. Perhaps even his flying helmet.
The Spitfire was one of 2000 Presentation Spitfires. Built with money donated to the government by the public. This one was built with money from the staff at Lloyds Bank. During the Battle of Britain they raised over £7000 and in return the Spitfire bore the name ‘Black Horse’ after the bank’s symbol.
By mid-September 1940 it became clear that the RAF was not defeated. Hitler had failed to knock Britain out of the war through air power alone. He had failed to create the conditions in which an invasion could be launched. Winter was closing in, the skies over Britain remained in British hands and the English Channel remained guarded by the massive Royal Navy.
The following year Hitler turned east. His greatest fear, a war on two fronts, now guaranteed.
This summer may well be the last official occasion on which we can publicly thank the final members of The Few, the group of fighter pilots who fought in the summer of 1940. Over the course of the summer i’ll be meeting a good number of the remaining two dozen men who flew Spitfires and Hurricanes 75 years ago. I’ll keep you all posted!