Here's my new weekly blog, the Bastle Blog which features stories and features mainly on military history
Knights of the Air
As I write, I’m looking at a photo of my wife’s grandfather Stanley Smith (1900 – 1978). I knew him as a mild-mannered, impeccably polite retired shopkeeper from Wallsend. But the photo I have of him is from 1918, proud in the distinctive ‘maternity’ tunic of the Royal Flying Corps, (I’ve still got the shoulder tabs from that). He looks impossibly young – lied about his age to join up. In April 1918 the RFC disappeared as an army corps and was reborn as a distinct service, the Royal Air Force. Obviously, it’s their centenary this year.
One of the finest memoirs to emerge from the Second World War and particularly the Battle of Britain was my particular hero, Richard Hilary whose account, The Last Enemy is one of the war’s great classics. The author brilliantly evokes not just the spirit of the times but gets under his own and others’ skins. He was a fighter pilot, fought the Luftwaffe in those sunlit skies during that summer, was shot down and badly injured. He was one of those who benefitted from the pioneering surgical treatments being carried out by Sir Archibald McIndoe (1900 – 1960), who was a New Zealand born plastic surgeon, famous for his ‘Guinea-Pig Club’ of badly burnt fliers, he achieved miracles in terms of facial and bodily reconstruction.
As a member of the ‘Guinea Pig Club’ he underwent numerous operations on his badly burnt face and hands. He returned to flying duties and was killed in a second crash. He was 23… At this time the Germans were sending over comparatively few bombers. They were making a determined attempt to wipe out our entire Fighter Force, and from dawn till dusk the sky was filled with Messerschmitt 109’s and 110’s.
He brilliantly evokes the drama and tension of the air battle, arguably the deciding round of the war. He also explains why he and his fellow fliers fought and this has very little to do with chivalry: I would say that I was fighting to rid the world of fear – of the fear of fear is perhaps what I mean. If the Germans win this war, nobody except the little Hitler’s’ will dare do anything. England will be run as if it were a concentration camp, or at best a factory. All courage will die out of the world – the courage to love, to create, to take risks whether physical, intellectual or moral. Men will hesitate to carry out the promptings of the heart or the brain, because, having acted, they will live in fear that their action may be discovered and themselves cruelly punished.
The Hurricane and Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain were knightly heroes in every sense, of the pure noble breed Lloyd George or Auden had so lauded in the previous war. Theirs was the good fight. For bomber pilots and crew, it was more ambiguous. They did not fight against equal adversaries in the air; they strove to avoid the fighters on their tails and their war was often waged against civilians. Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris was unequivocal in his advocacy of strategic bombing which including pounding the enemy’s cities and their inhabitants into dust. Even at the time, the morality of hammering German urban targets was questioned. The bombing of Dresden in February 1945 is still regarded by some as an atrocity.
For me and for most boys of my generation brought upon a solid diet of war films and still thrilling to Churchill’s wartime speeches, the ‘Brylcreem Boys’ were the epitome of both heroism and glamour. We all made Airfix and Revell models of Spits and Hurries and, of course, ME109s, 110s, Focke-Wolf 90s, even the outmoded Fairey Swordfish – ‘String-bags’, Boulton-Paul Defiants and tank busting Hawker Typhoons. We pretty much knew war wasn’t really fun at all but the lure of the skies was compelling, completely spiffing!
Happy Birthday RAF!