For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see, / Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that / would be. / Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails, Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales; / Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew / From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue.
—from Locksley Hall by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
It was, arguably, World War Two’s smallest observation post; a promontory known as Shakespeare’s Cliff. One mile west of Dover, Kent, looming 350 feet above the English Channel. From August to mid-September, this was the amphitheatre from which the free world’s press viewed the Battle of Britain, squatting amid ripening red currant bushes, and beset by fluttering swarms of white chalk butterflies. Significantly, of the 150 newsmen assembled there, two-thirds were Americans, for the Battle was the stuff of which international headlines were made.
A young couple, their baby and a Blitz-era anti-gas protector for infants.
A few had been longtime observers of the Britain that stood alone: the burly red-haired Quentin Reynolds, of Collier’s magazine, Edward R. Murrow of CBS, always seen in the Savile Row houndstooth jacket that had become his trademark. Others, although connoisseurs of war in Spain and Finland were newcomers to the English scene: the svelte blonde Virginia Cowles, a Bostonian covering for the London Sunday Times, the red-headed Vincent Sheean of the North American Newspaper Alliance, the moon-faced young Ed Beattie, of United Press. The most colourful newsman of all this assembly was Ray Sprigle of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, marked out by his corncob pipe and Stetson.
Destiny was in the air, and as they watched the thin streamers of smoke and vapour staining the sky, moving in deadly concert with the whirling, snarling ballet of planes, all of them were expectant of an historic last stand. Ben Robertson, a likeable fair-haired youngster from the New York daily, P.M., thought of the settlers manning the ramparts of Daniel Boone’s Kentucky stockade: the frontier then had been the west, but now England’s frontier was the sky. Vincent Sheean recalled Dolores La Pasionara’s exhortation at Madrid during the Spanish Civil War: “Camaradas, no podremos perder más territorio,” (My friends, we can lose no more territory). Others, like Robert Bunnelle, of the Associated Press, were more impressed by the cottagers of Dover, living on in premises almost demolished by bomb blast. “It’s a bit public having no windows,” one householder confessed, “but the fresh air is nice.”
They had brought along their typewriters and their cameras, but as they queued impatiently to file their dispatches from the phone booths in Dover’s Grand Hotel, they had, almost without exception, left behind their objectivity. The London Bureau chief of The New York Times, Raymond Daniell, was adament on this point. Neutrality of thought was a luxury to which war correspondents in the first World War could afford to treat themselves,” he maintained. “We, their successors, cannot.”
But while their sympathies lay firmly with the Spitfire and Hurricane pilots, it was still a battle shrouded in mystery—as much for the newsmen as for the farm workers, the Home Guardsmen and the air raid wardens who watched those sky-high combats. Although young Whitelaw Reid, of the New York Herald Tribune, hailed an impending invasion as “the biggest story since the coming of Christ,” the Germans were evasive on this score. “The censors won’t let us mention the business,” Murrow’s Berlin correspondent, William L. Shirer, noted in his diary on 5 August, three days before the Channel convoy attack, and even one month later following the pile-driving assault on Biggin Hill, “The word ‘invasion’ is still taboo.”
What the correspondents witnessed on days as spectacular as Sunday 15 September, was a clawing, stalling mass of fighters bent on destruction, battling within a cube eighty miles long by thirty miles broad, more than five miles high: a battle that within thirty minutes might number above 200 individual dogfights. Yet the sights as often as not, produced poetic rather than warlike images. To Hilde Marchant, of The Daily Express, the planes “seemed to make an aluminium ceiling to the sky.” For Ben Robertson, the silver wheeling shapes were “like the white birds you see in far off parts of the Pacific Ocean, like the white birds you see off Pitcairn.” Despite their partisan stand, the American eyewitnesses still faced censorship problems. In one mid-Channel battle between Messerschmitts and Spitfires, seven German fighters retired with engines smoking and three British planes hit the water. It was, both Robertson and Quentin Reynolds agreed, “a grand story, and a fine tribute to the RAF,” but one censor on the Ministry of Information’s staff disagreed. Robertson could mention the loss of seven Messerschmitts but the British losses were inadmissable.
A lobby card image for the 1942 British Aviation Pictures film The First of The Few starring Leslie Howard and David Niven.
Robertson, a tenacious youngster, elected to fight this. From the censor himself, he went to a higher level, and finally, three levels higher, to the Minister of Information, Alfred Duff Cooper, who had only recently announced in a radio broadcast: “We are quite ready to receive (Hitler) now and we shall really be very disappointed if he doesn’t turn up.” Duff Cooper thus had little option than to pass the story—but it had taken Robertson thirteen hours of impassioned argument to win his point.
Yet one incident that profoundly shocked the Americans, a broadcast by the BBC’s Charles Gardner, was one to which the Ministry of Information had turned a blind eye: a highly partisan description of a dogfight above Dover’s white cliffs, charged with as much adrenalin as a racetrack commentary. “Somebody’s hit a German … and he’s coming down absolutely out of control,” Gardner was heard to enthuse. “The pilot’s baled out by parachute … he’s going to slap into the sea and there he goes… SMASH. Oh boy, I’ve never seen anything so good as this…”
A flight of Junkers Ju 88 bombers en route to attack a target in England in 1940.
Committed though they were to the British cause, the Americans could not share this ghoulish approval to battle—and for the most part this was in keeping. Even fifty years later, the few exceptions are still traumatic memories. One eyewitness, Ernest Collier, a gardner at East Wittering, Sussex, never forgot how a Heinkel belly-landed on the beach at high watermark; as the first crewman, unhurt, clambered out onto the wing, a soldier raised his rifle and shot him dead. At Coulsdon Golf Course, in Surrey, Home Guardsman Richard May, hastening towards a German who had baled out, met two soldiers who had been first on the scene. Even many years later, May remembered how one soldier, carrying a pilot’s gauntlet glove, announced tersely, “We’ve fixed him.” Further up the course, May found a tall man wearing the Iron Cross, his head smashed to a bloody pulp.
But most who encountered the Germans recall a lighter-hearted approach—in line with one of the few chivalrous battles to stand out from World War II. Alan Henderson, a very sharp-eyed ten-year-old evacuee from Charlton Park, South London, caught a glimpse of this at Hadlow Down, Sussex: while the farm workers kept their pitchforks at the ready, the girls “used to doll themselves up and vie with each other to be the first on the spot…” In Mercery Lane, Canterbury, tobacconist George Woods remembered a puzzled Home Guard hastening into his shop with a query: was there a brand of cigarettes called State Express 555? When Woods confirmed it, the man explained: “We’ve bagged a German pilot and he’s sent me to get them.” At least one German adhered strictly to protocol. It was with flawless composure that a manservant at Buckhurst, Earl De LaWarr’s Sussex estate announced: “An officer of the German armed forces is waiting to see you in the drawing room my lord.”
Vapour trails of British and German fighters in dogfights above Lewes, Sussex, on 18 November 1940.
Farmer John Hacking was impressed by the Germans’ sense of humour; at Cadborough Farm, one pilot who baled out landed halfway through the tiled roof of a farm worker’s privy. In faultless English he hailed Hacking: “I seem to have come from the shit into the shit.” And at Duxford, Squadron Leader Douglas Blackwood recalled one bomber crew begging the guard room for the loan of some boot polish; they were due for interrogation and their flying boots were a disgrace. Whether formal or frivolous, their morale measured up. Assistant Mechanic Alfred Lacy, of the Margate lifeboat, remembered with admiration, “If they could stand at all, they stood at attention.”
A Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire.
A squadron emblem cigarette card.
The wreck of a downed German aircraft in summer 1940.
At Biggin Hill, Flight Lieutenant Peter Brothers reminisced, the pilots of 32 Squadron once liberated an ME110 pilot from the guard room, bore him off to the mess for a drink, then took him for a tour of their dispersal. It was not until Pilot Officer Pniak, one of the squadron’s Poles, chalked MADE IN GERMANY. FINISHED IN ENGLAND over the squadron’s trophies—a JU 88 machine-gun, the fin of a Heinkel—that the atmosphere became abruptly icy. It was at Biggin Hill too, that Squadron Leader Robert Stanford Tuck chatted so warmly with a shot-down JU 88 pilot in the sick bay that the boy, on an impulse, presented him with the Iron Cross second class he was wearing above his hospital-issue nightshirt. He explained: “For me, the war is finished, but it would be nice for me to know that my cross is still flying—still free.”
When they looked back to that far off summer, it was the calm, unflinching demeanour that they remembered most—almost as if, in a parody of British stoicism, it was not the done thing “to make a fuss.” Professional observers noted this, even at the time. Ed Murrow, strolling in a Sussex village street, was astonished to hear a police loudspeaker announce without warning, “Clear the streets for His Majesty The King. Hold that horse’s head,” before King George VI’s big maroon car purred sedately by. Although the country was on the brink of invasion, Murrow noted that the King’s sole escort was a lone patrolman on a motor cycle.
This same phenomenon was witnessed by the Daily Herald’s Reginald Foster at Dover’s Grand Hotel. It was the lunch hour. and one guest was complaining, with marked originality of shrapnel in his soup, but the head waiter, George Garland, not only coaxed him into overlooking the slip-up but was greeting newcomers to the dining room: “Good morning, sir! A nice table here, sir, away from the broken glass …”
“We’re a very stolid lot of people, after all,” commented George Woods, and all along the south coast this was the prevailing mood. At Folkstone, a farmer’s wife, Mrs Mary Castle, remembered queuing outside a patissier’s while shrapnel and machine-gun bullets spattered the pavement. At once the airmen queuing in the shop’s doorway ahead of her, stepped politely back, raising their forage caps, enabling her to pass inside. At Homefield, Kent, their ancestral home, the Smithers family recalled how William, their butler, did the rounds of the lawns after each dogfight, sweeping up spent machine-gun bullets as deftly as he had ever brushed crumbs from a damask tablecloth. At Worthing, Sussex, the Ministry of Information’s Vera Arlett found that her maid was equally matter-of-facty. “Shall we have the plums and custard for dessert—oh, and they’re machine-gunning the back garden.”
Later, on a bus bound for Shoreham along the coast, Miss Arlett was intrigued to see the conductor, craning from the step, was keeping toll of the battle overhead like an umpire, scribbling the score on a scrap of paper tacked by the door—but this again had become commonplace. And all along the south coast, Ben Robertson of P.M. noted that the newspaper sellers always chalked up the day’s results in terms of a cricket match: “RAF v GERMANS, 61 FOR 26—CLOSE OF PLAY TODAY 12 FOR 0.”
At times this quiet sense of satisfaction came close to a kind of cockiness. One farmer put forward a novel proposition—which was promptly rejected—to Kent County Council headquarters at Maidstone: he proposed to rope off a meadow, charge sixpence admission for the Spitfire Fund, and advertise it as “The Only Field in East Kent in which No German Aircraft has yet fallen.”
What so many eyewitnesses remembered, in retrospect, was the noise: the fearful martial music of a bombardment that never seemed to stop. Mrs Joanna Thompson, a Folkstone confectioner’s widow, recalled spending the best part of a week crouched inside her Anderson shelter with her eight-year-old son, Roger: a week in which shrapnel crashed and bounced like thunderbolts on the shelter’s tin roof, while the sky seemed to rain blazing planes, parachutes, even flying boots. Near Biggin Hill airfield, in the village of St Mary Cray, Mrs Mary Simcox had a vital memory of darting from her mother’s shelter with a dustbin lid serving as a steel helmet, but even four feet below ground, with three thick topcoats wound round her head, she could not shut out the noise.
Portsmouth ambulance crew volunteers during the Blitz in 1941.
In the darkness she felt her mother’s left hand clutched in hers while her right hand told her rosary: there was no other way of communication.
The noise of the battle affected others in unpredictable ways. At Abbotsbury, Dorset, Fred Lexter, the swanherd who had had charge of the unique 1,200-strong swannery for twenty-five years, and had even shown off his charges to the dancer Anna Pavlova, still recalled his sense of outrage that summer. The devil’s chorus of sound so distracted his birds they refused to hatch their eggs. Flight Lieutenant Geoffrey Hovenden, the medical officer at RAF Hawkinge, told of an entire sick parade of station defence troops complaining of wax in their ears. With the aid of an auriscope, the Flight Lieutenant corrected their diagnosis: the nonstop percussion of the pom-pom guns had blocked their ears with blood clots, rendering them temporarily stone deaf.
Most eyewitnesses still insist that there was no escaping the impact of the battle. Land Girl Liz Bradburne, of the 80,000-strong Women’s Land Army, remembered her alarm, in an orchard near Maidstone, as ripe red apples, lashed by shrapnel hailed down like cannonballs, she and her co-workers fell face down, shielding their heads with wicker baskets. By contrast, eighteen-year-old Brenda Hancock, picking apples to help the war effort near West Malling airfield, proved more adventurous. Every dogfight saw her venturing still higher up the ladder—something she would never have deigned to do where mere apples were involved.
A downed Messerschmitt Mel 10 in Durrants Road, Ponder’s End, England, on 30 August 1940
Some, almost with a sense of bravado, harked back to the pitiful coastal defences—an era when only one Home Guardsman in three had a rifle and when the Army was in little better shape. From Dover to Southampton, they recalled with awe, there was only one machine-gun to defend each 1,500 yards of beach. Private Alfred Neill, of the 5th Battalion, Shropshire Light Infantry, remembered one Bren gun among 950 men to defend the port of Deal. One concrete pillbox outside Dover was defended by twenty trainee signallers, among them Private Ben Angell, with rifles they barely knew how to fire.
The weird barricade alone showed the shape of the guerilla war that many believed was still to come. At Chilham, Kent, there were tree trunks from the sawmill; at Tonbridge, tar barrels from the distillery; at Goring, in Sussex, a flimsy latticework of old iron bedsteads. A surveyor, Sidney Loweth, remembered that inland, at Sidcup crossroads, the police had dumped 100 tons of glass, as if for a medieval seige. Reginald Blunt, an agricultural contractor at Deal told of waiting each night until 11 p.m., when the last bus had finally gone, before dutifully blocking the road with his three traction engines and a steamroller.
For a few, the war struck mercilessly at all they cherished. At 2 p.m. on 18 August, though the air raid siren had sounded, there was nothing to warn Mrs Doris Addison, a coalman’s wife and mother of Delma, aged six, and ten-year-old Frank, that danger was imminent. At their tiny cottage, ‘The Warren’, close by the millstream at Hurst Green, in Surrey, Doris Addison was just dishing up the Sunday joint when they heard the droning of an engine, louder and louder, until the drone gave place to a high-pitched scream. Even Bob, their two-year-old liver and white spaniel, huddled uneasily beneath the table. Though the Addisons did not know it, one of thirty-one Dorniers that had raided Kenley and Biggin Hill, hotly pursued by the pilots of No. 111 Squadron, was in dire distress.
Just south of ‘The Warren’, the Dornier struck the ground with the screech of tortured metal, already disintegrating in a sweeping sheet of flame. Ripping through a hedge and shedding its full bomb load everywhere, it bounced partly over ‘The Warren’, spraying everything in its path with blazing fuel. From the Fire Service post up the lane, where he had seen everything, Auxiliary Fireman Dick Addison was racing to protect his family.
Inside the cottage, Doris Addison and the children were taken unawares; following one appalling explosion, the open kitchen door was then a shaking yellow curtain of flame. The resourceful Mrs Addison bustled the children into the downstairs bathroom, then turned back for Bob. But the spaniel, panic stricken, had bolted through the open door, seemingly into the heart of the flames.
Somehow, though they never forgot that day, the Addisons managed to come through. At first, the children were inconsolable, lamenting the loss of Bob: it had been Delma’s whim to dress him up in a bonnet and shawl and wheel him around in her pram. But when the dog was found a few fields away, badly burned but alive, the local vet, McConnachie Ingram, took Bob into his care and six weeks later delivered him alive and well—his black nose scorched pink, four bootees protecting his damaged pads.
After only one night spent with their neighbours, the Addisons moved back into ‘The Warren’ to find that the damage had been superficial after all. Opening the larder door, the first thing Doris Addison saw was the Sunday lunch blancmange, still untouched, and she told Dick triumphantly: “I think if I dust it off we can eat it after all.”
That is how the eyewitnesses remembered it: a heightened battle, every moment fraught with excitement, as if a vast aerial circus had been staged exclusively for their diversion that summer and autumn.
Only the combatants, like Pete Brothers, recalled the reality—“hours of excruciating boredom interspersed with moments of pure terror.” Only outsiders like Edward R. Murrow remembered the aching tension: “Those were the days and nights and even weeks when time seemed to stand still.”
Saturday 31 August
We did four patrols today ending up with one on which we intercepted about thirty DO 17s and twenty to thirty ME 109s. I got onto a 109’s tail after an ineffectual attack on the bombers, and got in several long bursts at about 300 yards. However, nothing was observed in the way of damage. Another got on my tail and I had to break away. I succeeded in throwing him off in a steep turn but not before he had put an explosive bullet through my wing. Sgt. Stewart was shot down, but was safe. I burst another tail wheel today.
—from the diary of Pilot Officer Denis Wissler, 17 Squadron
Like a woman who has forgotten rape, / the island dozes, cosy in sunlight; no echoes shiver her still pools, / no memories play back the tramp / of jackboots across her mossy breasts. Fortresses crumble on the cliffs / among the ghosts of guns / and concrete bunkers battened down with gorse / and jagged dentures of currents hurrying to slap against their sides.
—from Fly Past Alderney by Lois Clark
I saw the lightning’s gleaming rod / Reach forth and write upon the sky/The awful autograph of God.
—from The Ship In The Desert by Joaquin Miller
I am purely evil / Hear the thrum / of my evil engine, / Evilly I come. / The stars are thick as flowers / In the meadows of July, / A fine night for murder / Winging through the sky.
—from Song Of The Bomber by Ethel Mannin
When the sun shines on England, it atones / For low-hung leaden skies, and rain and dim Moist fogs that paint the verdure on her stones/And fill her gentle rivers to the brim. / When the sun shines on England, shafts of light fall on far towers and hills and dark old trees, and hedge-bound meadows of a green as bright / As bright as the blue of tropic seas. / When the sun shines, it is as if the face / Of some proud man relaxed his haughty stare,/And smiled upon us with a sudden grace, / Flattering because its coming is so rare.
—from The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller
Heinkel He 111 bombers over England during the Battle.