Call it sacred airspace. We seldom think of history being up there, somewhere in the air – but on a recent trip to Germany, my plane swept the English Channel between London and Frankfurt, right where air combat rocked the World in July 1940, outset of WWII. In that airspace, freedom was attacked, nearly lost, defended, held at great cost. Thoughts swept me as we flew, contrails gone, history recalled.
The “Battle of Britain” raged 82 years ago this summer, German bombers sure they could destroy the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in short order, permitting a Nazi invasion of the UK, “Operation Sealion.”
Only it did not turn out that way. The Nazi Luftwaffe, aiming for air dominance, faced surprisingly intense, invariably exhausted, unflaggingly courageous flying by the RAF – young British pilots, nobly joined by pilots from other countries, including Poland and the United States.
Students of history will recall we did not officially get into WWII until December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war, but American pilots flew with the RAF in 1940.
In the pre-dawn days of American engagement, summer of 1940, nine Americans joined the intrepid, seemingly unstoppable RAF fighters. Germany fielded 1200 bombers, including Heinkel, Dornier, and Junkers. Britain put up 900 fighters, mostly Hurricanes and Spitfires. Men flew until they dropped.
Looking up at this precious airspace, British men, women, and children watched dogfights, contrails crisscrossing, saw planes fall. They understood the fight as existential, a must-win to stop the invasion.
The young fighter pilots knew that, too – which is why they barely slept for four solid months, a period that overlapped the German “Blitz,” including 57 days of bombing London to destroy British morale.
But British morale did not buckle, not in the air, not on the ground. Reinforced by a gravelly, unalterably confident, incomparably grounded voice – that of Prime Minister Winston Churchill – they fought on.
The Germans were unrelenting, at times sending 1000 bombers in one night, one day in August shooting down 39 British planes, killing 14 RAF pilots.
The Americans were standouts. Vernon Keogh was a New Jersey boy. After 500 parachute jumps, he fought in the Battle of Britain beside Andrew Mamedoff, born in Poland, resettled to Connecticut, Eugene Tobin of Utah, a California high school graduate, and Phillip Leckrone of Salem, Illinois. All four died in air combat in 1941.
Arthur Donahue of St. Charles, Minnesota learned to fly with his grandfather, was Minnesota’s youngest commercial pilot at 19, headed for combat over the Channel in 1940. John Haviland of Mt. Kisco, New York joined in 1939, flew in 1940. Donahue died in combat, 1940. Haviland lived to 81, died in 2002.
Meantime, De Peyster Brown of Pennsylvania shot down two German bombers, flying on after being badly wounded. He lived to 75, dying in 1991. Carl Davis had nine shootdowns, was a decorated ace, but got shot down in 1940.
Most famous of these fearless flyers was Billy Fiske of Chicago, who graduated Cambridge, was a two-time Olympic competitor (bobsled), managed to land a badly damaged plane, but died in August 1940.
Among the British flyers, a shocking 1,542 were killed in the Battle of Britain, 422 wounded, as more planes came on and more young pilots got trained.
In the end, what happened in that sacred air space – 82 years ago this month – helped decide the war. The British RAF, joined by intrepid friends, handed Germany their first defeat, blocked air dominance, and prevented a seaborne invasion.
These rare, daring pilots lifted the spirits of free countrymen – fortifying every laborer, even a prime minister, who said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” in describing the RAF.
More, what happened in that short span and precious airspace in 1940, likely convinced the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to sign the vital “Lend-Lease” program in March 1941. Without that program, triggered by confidence born of that battle, history would not have been the same.
Ponding billowing white clouds about me over the Channel recently, no combat contrails littered the l sky, no diving Spitfires flew to win or die, nothing intruded on the freedom this spot silently marked. Yet, to me, the moment was worth recalling and sharing.
But for the raw courage shown by those young pilots long ago, leadership they and others – including Churchill – summoned, and clarity of mission that Democrats and Republicans both had in that time of high peril, all we have today would be as nothing. The world would be different.
My mind wandered, as we descended into modern Germany – free and productive, unified and democratic, example of persistence against what ails mankind, unity found to hold the line.
Are we ready to do that again if war clouds gather, if Communist China – for example – attacks the freedom of allies, tests the West’s resolve, demands we stand and be counted, defend sacred airspace? Must write about that, I thought. Then wheels were down, airbrakes up, dust spun, and flight done.
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