Malcolm Barker: Our troops share the same red blood of courage that saved Britain 70 years ago

SEVENTY years ago this week, the Battle of Britain had begun. Adolf Hitler's Directive No 16, issued on July 16, 1940, announced his intention "to prepare a landing operation against England and, if necessary, to carry it out". He described the British military situation as "hopeless".

Well, not quite, mein Fhrer. He had not reckoned with the Royal Air Force. Or, more probably, he had placed too much reliance on Hermann Gring's undertaking to destroy the RAF in four weeks, and "guarantee invasion for the Fhrer within a month".

For Gring's failure to keep this promise we are indebted to the Few, the young RAF pilots who flew their Spitfires and Hurricanes at the throat of the Luftwaffe over the Channel and southern England. The Few are now old men, and as age takes its toll they become even fewer, with survivors today probably numbering less than a score.

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Their obituaries make enthralling reading. Squadron Leader Gerald Stapleton, who died in April aged 89, was born in South Africa and came to Britain to join the RAF in 1939. He flew throughout the Battle of Britain, scoring six victories.

In an encounter with a Messerschmitt 109 over the Channel his plane was hit by cannon fire. He brought it back across the Kent coast and touched down in a field. Nearby, a young couple were having a picnic. He joined them, and they also invited another pilot who had baled out and landed nearby.

The four of them sat in a sunlit English meadow sipping cups of tea while the fight for the nation's future continued in the blue sky overhead. Somehow this cameo captures the essence of that extraordinary summer. Combat to the death on high; tea among the buttercups and daisies on the ground; England was keeping calm and carrying on.

Men like Gerald Stapleton freely acknowledged that they owed their survival to their aircraft. These arrived just in time. The first Hawker Hurricanes, designed by a team led by Sidney Camm, were delivered to the RAF in 1937, and at the outbreak of war 497 were in service. There were also 187 of Reginald Mitchell's Spitfires, and they were in full production at the Supermarine works at Eastleigh, Hampshire.

A Hurricane had the distinction of being the first of these fighters to bring a German aircraft down on English soil. On February 3, its pilot, Flt-Lt Peter Townsend (later Group Captain), damaged a Heinkel 111 so badly that it crash-landed at Bannial Flatt, two miles out of Whitby on the Guisborough road.

The reputation of Hurricanes and Spitfires as efficient fighting machines meant that they were eagerly sought after. Pilots gathering to form the new 234 Squadron at Leconfield in the East Riding were picked up by lorry from Hull railway station, and asked its driver what kind of aircraft they would be flying. He said he did not know, and on arrival they found their commanding officer and flight commanders no wiser.

In the hangars they discovered two antiquated training aircraft of First War vintage. Blenheims came and went, and Fairey Battles. Then, in March 1940 a Spitfire touched down. The pilots gathered round, stroking its sleek sides and taking turns to sit in the cockpit.

The reaction of one of them is recorded in Finest Hour by Tim Clayton and Phil Craig (Hodder and Stoughton, 2000). Bob Doe, a former office boy at the News of the World, thought it the most beautiful thing he had ever seen. He flew Spitfires to tremendous effect, and by the end of September his score stood at 14 enemy aircraft destroyed, two more which he had a share in destroying, and one damaged.

Other heroes of the air war took similar toll of the Luftwaffe, Flt Sgt (later Wing Commander) George Unwin, a Yorkshireman, joined the RAF in 1929 as an apprentice. He became a Sergeant pilot with 19 Squadron, which was the first to be converted to Spitfires. By the end of the Battle of Britain, he had destroyed 13 enemy aircraft, with two shared, two probables and one damaged.

Another Yorkshireman, Flt Lt John Charles Dundas, joined 609 Auxiliary Squadron in 1938. Throughout the Battle of

Britain, his unit was heavily involved, and his victory total grew rapidly.

He survived the Battle itself, which was reckoned by Lord Dowding, commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, to have begun on July 10 and lasted into October, but on November 29 he was engaged in a dogfight off the Isle of Wight. He shot down and killed Major Helmut Wick, a top-scoring Luftwaffe pilot credited with 56 victories. Almost immediately after this, his 12th success, Johnnie Dundas was also shot down and fatally injured.

The heroics of our brave airmen, whose lasting place in history is assured, saved England from a Nazi invasion. The temptation is to doubt whether their like could be found today. But in fact we have found their like, and sent them to Afghanistan.

Daily, and with the utmost gallantry, the soldiers of the British Army face a ruthless, cunning, and often invisible enemy. Yet daily they carry out their duties, exposing themselves to snipers and roadside bombs. In these young men and women flows the red blood of courage that carried our pilots to the heights 70 years ago.

What's more, they are far from home, engaged in a questionable war in a grim, arid country noted for corruption and chicanery. For them, alas, there is no chance of a cushy landing in a summer meadow, and a nice cup of tea.

Neither is there a Churchill to laud them with sublime oratory. But the crowds who bear solemn witness at the homecoming of their dead speak in eloquent silence for the nation.