Peter Townsend

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When, in 1933, aged eighteen, I entered the RAF as a flight cadet it was not, frankly, through sheer patriotism nor in the hope of winning glory in some future conflict. I was driven only by a longing to fly. Luftwaffe pilots, long after the war was over, told me it was the same with them—the sound, the sight, the touch and the smell of an aeroplane had an irresistible appeal to all senses. More is the pity that it led us to kill each other.

After two years at the RAF College learning to be an officer and a gentleman and, of course, a pilot, my first posting in 1935 was to No. 1 Fighter Squadron at Tangmere, in Sussex. The airfield was in truth a huge hayfield where, after the crop, sheep did softly graze—except when our biplane Hawker Furies took off and landed. The hangars were built by German prisoners in World War I; the next generation of Germans, in their bombers, would demolish them in World War II. Not far away, near the coast, tall lattice masts were being erected. Occasionally someone might indiscreetly mention RDF (radio direction finding, later Radar) but the inventor, Dr Watson-Watt, was unknown to us, the subject taboo and the masts themselves in a no-go area. We fighter pilots enjoyed our pastoral life, conscious of belonging to the best flying club in the world.

At the time Fighting Area (as it was called) was but thirteen fighter squadrons strong. In 1936, faced with the menace of Hitler’s Germany, the tiny RAF began to muscle up. Yet at the Munich crisis of September 1938, Fighter Command (as it was now called) was utterly incapable of repulsing the threatening Luftwaffe bombers. At Tangmere our station commander was Group Captain Keith Park, tall, lean, good-looking, but severe. We called him “The Saint.” I was now with 43 Squadron; our Furies, with their twin Vickers guns mounted in the cockpit, were slower than the enemy bombers. We all, pilots included, spent a night daubing our silver aircraft with drab camouflage war-paint. Supposedly, Britain’s first line of defence, yet conscious of our shortcomings, I must admit we felt rather silly.

Then came the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, back from Munich waving a little white paper, signed by Hitler and guaranteeing “Peace in Our Time.” Not everybody was taken in: RAF expansion and re-equipment continued apace. By December our first Hurricanes arrived—swift, sturdy fighters with a terrible firepower. Spitfires were coming in too, though more slowly. Anti-aircraft, radar, and civil defence were being organised; workmen were digging trenches in the London parks and children, their baby faces made grotesque by hideous-looking gas-masks, were being told what to do—in case. As for us, the fighter boys, once we had mastered our new aircraft, our morale soared until we felt ‘let them come, we will bust them.’

Soon after the 3rd September 1939, when Britain and France declared war, our commander-in-chief, Sir Hugh Dowding, paid us a visit. Solemn and unsmiling, “Stuffy” Dowding’s genius lay in faultless generalship and his concern for us so-called ‘chicks’. Shortly afterwards No. 1 Squadron flew to France and we ourselves steered north to protect the coast-bound convoys and the naval base at Scapa Flow. There, above the tumultuous winter seas, we fought our first combats. In May 1940, shortly after the German offensive in Europe began, I travelled south by train to take over command of 85 (Hurricane) Squadron just back from France. During the journey I fell in with some Luftwaffe prisoners. One of them jibed “Your navy O.K., but where is your air force?” Another assured me with a smile that he expected to be back home in Hamburg for Christmas. Both were in for a surprise.

In the Battle of France RAF squadrons, including 85, fighting alongside their French allies of the Armee de l’Air, had inflicted serious losses on the Luftwaffe, but at grievous cost. At this point Dowding recalled his Hurricane squadrons—there were no Spitfires in France. While 85 was reforming at the end of May, other squadrons were fighting fiercely and at extreme range, to protect the evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk. Combats were often fought out of sight of the soldiers on the beaches below, so, not unnaturally, the army cursed the air force for failing them; “Woody” one of our bravest pilots, was booed in an Aldershot cinema. But Winston Churchill, Prime Minister since 10 May, addressed the Commons on a different note. Wars are not won by evacuations, he said, but the Air Force had gained a signal victory and so “we got the Army away.” He went on: “May it not be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?” And his bold, defiant peroration set our hearts on fire: “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be … we shall never surrender.’ The hour, the finest hour of the whole British people had struck. It had struck too, more urgently, for their first-line of defence, Fighter Command as yet untried in the role. With the King and Queen in their midst and the Prime Minister and Cabinet entrenched in Whitehall, Britain stood ready for the onslaught.

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Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh C.T. Dowding.

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Flight Lieutenant Caesar B. Hull of Nos. 263 and 43 Squadrons.

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Group Captain Peter Townsend visiting a set for the Battle of Britain film in 1968.

When in July the battle began, 85 Squadron were in 12 Group, north of London, commanded by Trafford Leigh-Mallory. I had reported to him in May, the first time I had met him since as a fourteen-year-old schoolboy I had made my first flight at Old Sarum, Salisbury, where “L-M” was commanding an army-cooperation squadron—he was not bred as a fighter pilot. Short and solid of build, his alert mind could cope with issues both great and small. As I left his office he called after me, “By the way, young Townsend, it’s time you had a haircut.” In the midst of a life and death struggle!

Later in the battle 85 moved to 11 Group, south of London, commanded by Keith Park, New Zealander, tall, lean, icy calm, he was a fighter pilot to the manner born. During the battle, clad in a white helmet, he regularly flew his Hurricane to visit his squadrons. He was a brilliant tactician, employing his squadrons (twelve aircraft) individually while skillfully concentrating them all on incoming raids. Leigh-Mallory, incited by the most remarkable of fighter pilots, Douglas Bader, favoured the use pf ‘wings’ of three or more squadrons.

Douglas had no legs; both had been amputated after a crash some years earlier. He would lead his squadron daily to Martlesham Heath, where we became friends. Some time later we were convened before the King who was visiting the station. Douglas said to me “the only thing I can’t do is stand to attention, so if I look like falling over, please come to the rescue.”

Another visitor was Lord Trenchard, fondly known as the father of the RAF. Our most brilliant pilot, Dickey Lee, was his godson. He had disappeared before my eyes into the sea. “Is there anything you can tell me of that great boy?” asked Trenchard. I could only tell him the worst. I was at nursery school when Trenchard began his lonely battle to save the RAF, created in 1918 as the first ever independent air force, from extinction. Because of him we were there with the fate of Britain in our hands.

The Battle of Britain was a victory for the whole British people—the man and woman and child, in the street, the civil defence units, the Navy, the Army and the Bomber and Coastal Commands of the RAF. We “few” happened to possess the necessary weapons to fight the enemy hand to hand. Those weapons were the Spitfire and the Hurricane—thirty-three Hurricane squadrons and nineteen squadrons of Spitfires. Machine for machine, the faster Spit had a very slight edge on the Hurricane but in the aggregate the Hurricane squadrons did far greater execution on the enemy and consequently suffered, in all, heavier losses of young lives. So all honour, hitherto lacking, to the Hurricane. We of Fighter Command were joined by pilots who came from near and far—volunteer pilots from other RAF commands and from the Royal Navy; pilots from Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, from European countries whence they had escaped the Nazis and, notably, from Poland and Czechoslovakia; as well as illegally, from the neutral United States. Living—and dying—in that exuberant, varied company, that band of brothers, has marked me for life.

Bill Millington, a young Australian, and I, both wounded, lay in adjacent beds in hospital. He wrote to his parents “I go forth into battle light of heart… I regard it as a privilege to fight for all those things that make life worth living—freedom, honour and fair play … Flying has meant the companionship of men, the intoxication of speed, the rush of air and the pulsating beat of the motor awaken some answering chord deep down which is indescribable …” He spoke for us all.

—Peter Townsend

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Flight Lieutenant Douglas R.S. Bader, of No. 242 Squadron in the Battle.

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