Tag Archives: Battle of Britain

Three doors down: a moment to take stock

Our next door neighbour:

Today was a fine English day. Our neighbour held a garden party to celebrate her birthday. Pretty bunting, loosely tied bouquets of old fashioned roses and bowls of strawberries welcomed the guests into a neatly clipped garden. It was warm and sunny (which I might say isn’t very English) and the Pimms quickly went to work on everyone’s head. The odd guest popped inside to check progress at Wimbledon, but otherwise, everyone sat contentedly and enjoyed the the green and pleasant land.

The chap two doors down:

I sat next to a clever, retired police officer at lunch (I know him well, but hadn’t seen him for some time, so it was a good chance to catch up). He’s recently published a book about the fate of the many servicemen from our little town. He’s a great source of information and his bright detective’s memory holds on to all the detail (‘talk to Chris…he can really find his way around an archive and knows everything about Naval matters…Did you know that there’s a fellow down at Rochford with a VC? He was 16 years old and didn’t leave his post…Old Ron, such a gentleman. He used to carry Prue’s Bible to church for her. Who would have thought that he was one of 2,000 (of the 8,000 that went in) who came out of Arnhem alive.) I admire him, because he was able to discover and record new things and had the dedication to fulfill his work in a fully published book (albeit published himself). “How’s your work going?” he asked. “Well, all I’m doing is reading what other people have written… I haven’t actually found anything out yet.” Which then made me wonder- was I tying to find something out? I think I’ve lost track. I guess the point is to discover what happened to Grandpa, but I think there will be very little find. I was pondering this problem when he tapped my arm “Hey- didn’t you say you’d flown a Harvard? You should talk to Peter here- he trained on them.”

Three doors down:

Peter is an elegant man, with a soft voice and beautiful manners. He and his wife have retired to the imposing red brick house three doors down. They once lived in a country estate, but as they were in their 80s, they figured it was time to relocate to something more manageable.

He has an exquisite charm and brightness that puts you at ease and encourages conversation. I’m not exactly sure how he started, but he explained that in 1945, he was stationed  in Africa, where he was training to be a pilot. He trained on the Harvard, and was trying to remember whether they had canvas wings. He considered it wistfully and asked about Grandpa. I told him that he flew Wellingtons. “Oh yes, Wellingtons. They liked to fly them, because they could be shot to pieces, but still fly. They had a clever design.” (I wanted to pipe up with ‘geodetic’ but it felt a little silly to cut in). He was then trying to remember a particular aircraft that began with H and I chimed in with ‘Halifax’- which was clearly wrong. The neigbour two doors down helpfully contributed ‘Hampden’, which was the right answer. I felt a bit sheepish for randomly guessing at planes and thought I better remember that for the future- don’t guess at an answer. I’m sure it didn’t matter, but I still wanted to kick myself.

He then looked very quizzical. “It’s funny that you are interested in this. It’s not worth remembering. Such awful things happened. I think of some things… like the Americans in South East Asia. The Battle of the Coral Sea. Flame throwers. They destroyed the Japanese that they came across. Burned them to death and all manner of terrible things. Well, they had to. But who wants to remember that?” He paused and fidgeted with his cuffs (despite the heat, he was wearing a perfectly ironed button-down shirt).” I lost my brother in the RAF”. His hands started to tremble. Neighbour number two jumped in: “Now it’s not about glorifying anything. It’s making sure that history books don’t get rewritten and that important things don’t get forgotten.” He looked unconvinced and said quietly “I don’t know how this came up. I really don’t care to talk about it.” I looked at him helplessly and said “I’m not expecting to find anything heroic or happy- I just want to know more about what happened to my Grandpa.” “It’s just curious to me” he said “that someone your age is bothered with any of this.” And that was the end of the conversation.

Sigh. It does leave me uncertain. I’m not quite sure what I’m doing. The log book should arrive with me this week and perhaps looking at it will tell me whether to go on, or whether to quietly leave this alone.

Far more alarming is that I am interviewing an author on Tuesday who has written over 20 books on the Battle of Britain. Good grief. I need to tread a careful line here- thoughtful and interested, but don’t repeat today’s mistake of jumping in with the wrong aircraft. I do have a habit of saying foolish things when I get nervous. I asked the chaps in my office whether they thought that I could get through the interview without being stupid. They both smiled and answered ‘No’. Oh dear. That’s the next hurdle then- get through Tuesday in one piece.




Back to David Denchfield

I read an article in West Sussex Today that stated that the authors of Westhampnett at War had discovered David Denchfield after stumbling across a piece in the newspaper.

Although a direct search on The Telegraph didn’t initially yield any matches, I picked my way through a few forum threads and think that I have now found the original article. It’s a good read and adds some additional information to the account published in the book:

Britain at War: Taken prisoner by the Germans after crashing my plane

Holding course

Looking back at the original post, where I define our objective as understanding more about the unspoken history of our Grandfather’s role in the War, we seem to have strayed a rather long way off topic.

To use a flying analogy (sorry), I’d like to think that we are circling over the target rather than veering hopelessly off course.

Before I could start to really think about Grandpa, we needed to gather more context. How could we understand his circumstances without first gaining a broader understanding of the wider picture?

The Battle of Britain marks the first major air-engagement for England and was a logical starting point. As previously noted, to gather the widest view, we’ve been looking at histories, biographies, visiting airfields etc.

This early effort has started to build up the knowledge base, but it then opened up a new question: how does one record history?

If I was a history academic, this question would have been exposed and dealt with during an undergraduate degree (thanks to all those post-modernists), but as an amateur, it’s a troubling matter.

How do you get to the core meaning of any event? Surely facts alone can’t tell a story (look, for example at Westhampnett at War. It gives a list of Squadrons who were based there, but the meaning of the book comes from the long letter of a veteran written many decades later).

This tension is well-represented by Park and Leigh-Mallory. Park, unrecorded in the official history of the Battle, had a bronze statue unveiled in his honour 70 years later. Leigh-Mallory, celebrated and promoted in his short life-time now stands as a political climber who misplayed his hand.

The challenge will come in both interpreting the information we find and in transcribing the facts into our own history.

Leigh-Mallory: going down in history

Before leaving the topic of Keith Park (although I am sure we will come back to Park as his later role in the War will intersect more specifically with our story), I want to spend a moment considering his successor.

As previously noted, Park was quickly and quietly removed from his command of 11 Group shortly after the Battle of Britain. It’s worth remembering that the Battle of Britain was a short, sharp episode which covers a specific period (the late summer and autumn of 1940). Germany’s failure to gain air supremacy over the UK contributed to their decision to abort an amphibious invasion and was one of the major turning points in the War.

Park fought an intensely defensive battle. He instructed his fighters to attack the incoming bombers and resisted attempts to be drawn into dog fights. He preserved his fire power and used it where it was needed most- against the bombers who could destroy their airfields. He and Dowding combined sharp military tactics with modern ingenuity and capitalised on German mistakes (such as their failure to understand the importance of the radar network).

Why then, was Park not recognised in his time? The Battle was clearly a success as the invasion had been prevented.

Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory replaced Park as Air Officer Commanding of 11 Group.

Leigh-Mallory was educated at Cambridge where he met Arthur Tedder, the future Marshal of the Royal Air Force. He passed his Bachelor of Law degree and had applied to the Inner Temple in London to become a barrister when, in 1914, war broke out. Already one catches a glimpse of the old boys’ network- an Oxbridge education and youthful friendships with the right people.

Leigh-Mallory served as a Royal Flying Corps pilot and squadron commander during the First World War. Remaining in the newly formed RAF after the war, Leigh-Mallory served in a variety of staff and training appointments throughout the 1920s and 1930s.

During the pre-Second World War build-up, he was AOC No. 12 Group  and then took the helm of 11 Group, where he assumed responsibility for the defence of London.

In 1942 he became the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command before being selected in 1943 to be the C-in-C of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, which made him the air commander for the Allied Invasion of Normandy.

During the Battle of Britain, Leigh-Mallory disagreed with Park and Dowding’s tactical decisions. Rather than scrambling small flights of interceptors, he and flying ace Douglas Bader pushed the ‘Big Wing’. The tactic involved meeting incoming Luftwaffe bombing raids in strength with a wing-sized formation of three to five squadrons. In the Battle, this tactic was employed by the Duxford Wing, under Bader’s command.

Although Leigh-Mallory and Bader claimed it was a great success, post-war analysis suggests the actual number of German aircraft shot down by the wings was probably a fraction of those claimed. However, their own losses were less- suggesting that there was some safety in numbers.

It was easier to interrogate the wing’s effectiveness after the War, when it was possible to study German logs and authenticate the claims of the pilots.

It’s not surprising that it was so well-received at the time. It was a dramatic vision- a triumphant force streaming across the skies in a wall of fury, designed to demoralise as much as destroy the Luftwaffe. It was bold in its vision and was led by a hero  (Bader was a talented pilot and flew despite losing both of his legs in an earlier crash).

This solves the first riddle: why was Leigh-Mallory so celebrated at the time? Perhaps it is simply because the idea that he was selling gripped the imagination of senior military figures and the news-hungry public. It wasn’t really possible to fully and dispassionately understand its effectiveness until long after the Battle had been fought. Coupled with his excellent political connections, it’s not surprising that he received his promotion and Park was scrubbed from the official history.

But, I wonder if there is another facet to the story that’s worth considering…

In August 1944, with the Battle of Normandy almost over, Leigh-Mallory was appointed Air Commander-in-Chief of South East Asia Command (SEAC). But before he could take up his post he was killed en route to Burma when the aircraft he was travelling in crashed into the French Alps.  All on board were killed. The subsequent Court of Inquiry found that the accident was a consequence of bad weather and might have been avoided if Leigh-Mallory had not insisted that the flight proceed in such poor conditions against the advice of his air-crew.

He was one of the most senior British officers and the most senior RAF officer to be killed in the Second World War.

With a final twist of fate, Leigh-Mallory’s replacement at SEAC was Sir Keith Park.

Leigh-Mallory, in not surviving the War, was not there to shape the fluid and developing history around the Battle. He left few papers and his wife died alongside him. The paucity of information meant that his story was frozen in the heat of War, without any chance to relive, understand or explain the story.

How did we do it?

RAF pilot Tony Iveson

BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs

Kirsty Young’s castaway is the veteran RAF pilot Tony Iveson.

Aged 21, he survived being shot down in his Spitfire over the North Sea during his first taste of combat in the Battle of Britain. He then went on to join Bomber Command and the famous Dambusters squadron, sinking the German battleship The Tirpitz and winning a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Aged 89 he returned to the skies, becoming the oldest man to fly a Lancaster bomber: “Well, I got out of that aeroplane and looked at it and it and thought how did we do it?” he says. “I know it was a long time ago and I was young and fit and a professional flier. But I thought about some of my friends who had been lost and it was an emotional experience.”

He also touches on the controversy surrounding the creation of a permanent memorial for Bomber Command. He offers his views on the tension between remembering the 55,000 aircrew lost and the modern questioning of the validity of a campaign that killed so many German civilians.

Iveson is one of the only pilots who flew for both Fighter and Bomber Command and helps to set the scene to move our discussion away from the Battle of Britain and towards Germany’s rooftops.

Listen to the full interview
Broadcast January 2011 

The Biography of Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park

After reading Bungay’s Most Dangerous Enemy, I was intrigued to discover more about Keith Park.

Park is painted as a brilliant tactician, who grasped the situation and made the correct decisions in the heat of battle. However, after the Battle, he lacked the political ability to capitalise on his military triumph and convert it into career gain. This, of course, only serves to further cast him in the role of a hero.

Shortly after the Battle of Britain he was relieved of his command of 11 Group and sent off to train pilots (he would return to front line action in the War, but more on that later).

Vincent Orange‘s substantial biography of Keith Park presents the facts and well-deserved tributes in a readable manner. He enjoyed unrestricted access to Park’s papers and as the first edition of the book was written in 1984, he was able to conduct many interviews with people who had known him.

Orange reveals a man whose energy and courage won him supreme praise from Churchill and the lasting respect of all who served under him.

Christchurch Press writes:

“Park emerges from this very thorough and scholarly biography not as The Great Man, but as a human being with strengths and weaknesses like the rest of us: a man whose greatness is delineated alongside his more everyday qualities.”

Park wasn’t recognised in his time; the official record of the Battle doesn’t even mention his name. However, he has now taken up station as one of the War’s great leaders. To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a campaign was launched to create a permanent monument to him

“Individuals can achieve so much in a single life, and we should never forget how each of us, everyday, can make a difference to the world around us. That is something that Park and his Pilots knew only too well.”

-Terry Smith at the unveiling of the statue of Sir Keith Park, Waterloo Place, London, 15 September 2010

So, a hero now but not then. Why? Did someone fail to see the triumph at the time, or does history start to re-write itself over the decades?


Marshal of the RAF, Lord Tedder, credited one man in particular for winning the Battle of Britain: Sir Keith Park.

Park was a New Zealander, drawn to Europe by the First World War. He served in Gallipoli and on the Western Front from 1915-1916. He saw warfare at its grimy, fearful worst as a lowly infantry man. He also forged the leadership skills that he would call on in the coming decade.

He recalled his Anzac Commander, Sir William Birdwood and tried to follow many of his precepts: attention to detail, regular tours of inspection, indifference to personal danger and the ability to relax without cheapening authority.

He transfered to the fledgling Royal Flying Corps and was a highly accomplished pilot, ending the war as an ace.

He spent the inter-war years as a diplomat and served as a flight commander on No. 25 Squadron from 1919 to 1920 before taking up duties as a squadron commander at the School of Technical Training.

As commander of 11 Group during the Battle of Britain, he was responsible for the air defence of London and South-East England. He combined his thorough understanding of aerial warfare with inspired tactical decisions.

Terry Smith, chairman of the Sir Keith Park Memorial Campaign, writes: “While Sir Hugh Dowding controlled the Battle from day to day, it was Keith Park who controlled it hour by hour”.

Air Vice-Marshal ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, one of the top Allied air aces of the war, said: “He was the only man who could have lost the war in a day or even an afternoon”.

Wave after wave of German bombing sorties met with stubborn resistance from the fighter squadrons under Park’s command and, by mid-September, it was clear that Britain’s defences had held and Hitler was forced to abandon the planned invasion of Britain. Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “never… was so much owed by so many to so few”. It was Keith Park who led “the Few”.