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All Posts, Military History

Guest Post: Dilip Sarkar MBE – Letters From The Few: Unique Memories of the Battle of Britain

Fascinated by the Battle of Britain from an early age, as a young man I realised that recording and sharing the Few’s memories was of paramount importance. At the time, back in the mid-1980s, membership of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association was well populated and the then Honorary Secretary, the now late Wing Commander Pat Hancock, supported my research by forwarding letters to individual pilots of interest. These included a wide-range of personalities, from famous airmen like Group Captain Peter Townsend and Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling to the ‘also rans’, as Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot Peter Fox famously described himself and peers. Indeed, it was Peter’s ‘also rans’ that were of greatest interest to me, having recognised that whilst many famous and distinguished pilots had either published personal memoirs or had biographies written about them, lesser-lights had no platform to record and share their experiences. This I became dedicated to resolving.

A small selection of letters from Air Marshal Sir Denis Crowley-Milling, an ace and close personal friend of the legendary and legless Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader.

For many years, I enjoyed prolific correspondence with the Few. Today, these letters – hundreds of them – represent a unique primary source. This process began, of course, well before the online, digital, age and modern, instant, global communication platforms. Today, we can all take and share photographs and videos easily via our mobile phones – but this was not the case back then. Letters are, however, a very personal thing, written by hand and signed. Indeed, reading through the files of correspondence during the course of producing this book was an emotional experience, because these men were my friends, despite the difference in our age, and we corresponded about all kinds of things, life, health, family, not just about the Battle of Britain. Wonderful. But also very sad: all of my correspondents, my friends amongst the Few, are now deceased. I miss them. Very much. Indeed, at the time of writing, only two Battle of Britain airmen are known to still be alive – a far cry from the evening in 1997 when I dined with over 100 of the Few at Bentley Priory!

Pilot Officer Crowley-Milling was shot down over London on 7 September 1940 – seen here holding his Hurricane’s shattered armoured glass windscreen, which saved his life.
A great friend of Dilip’s was Group Captain Peter Townsend, another Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot and ace – later in the news over his controversial and ill-fated romance with Princess Margaret.

Letters From The Few comprises twenty-five chapters on the Few themselves, mainly Hurricane and Spitfire pilots, along with the legendary Group Captain John ‘Catseyes’ Cunningham, the Blenheim and Beaufighter night-fighter ace, and one on Ray Johnson, an armourer with 152 Squadron – such dedicated men and women working in essential supporting roles should also be remembered and included. Finally, as always in an effort to provide a rounded view, the Epilogue concerns my old friend former Hauptmann Herman Kell, a German bomber pilot shot down over London during the Battle of Britain, to whom actually goes the last word. To give readers an idea, here are some randomly chosen examples of quotes from the letters: –

Group Captain Alec Ingle: ‘I was hanging upside down with blood running down my face. I could smell petrol leaking out and hear the hissing of the cooling engine in the west marsh. Everything seemed dead quiet. I tried to open the hood but it was useless. I was expecting the aircraft to go in flames at any time and seemed powerless to effect an escape’.

Flight Lieutenant Reg Johnson: ‘I was flying alongside Pilot Officer Whitbread when he was blasted out of the sky. I can add to your information…’

Wing Commander ‘Bunny’ Currant: ‘These (commemorative) occasions always move me a great deal. I love being there but it always surprises me how affected I get by it all. My war memories are so powerfully etched into my being that they never, ever, really leave me. I still experience them in my dreams’.

Group Captain ‘Pinners’ Pinfold: ‘My main recollection of the combat was, with the cockpit full of glycol fumes, do I bale out over the sea rather than land on it? I then saw a small hole in the cloud… throttled right back, opened the cockpit hood and glided towards the hole… when over which I was delighted to see land and even more delighted to see Warmwell, where I made a dead-stick landing. Subsequent inspection revealed no damage to the aircraft or engine other than a few bullet holes in the fuselage and glycol tank – lucky me!’

Group Captain Townsend (right) with fellow Battle of Britain Hurricane ace Squadron Leader ‘Ginger’ Lacey, whilst both were technical advisors to the 1969 Battle of Britain film.
Letters from another Hurricane pilot, Peter Fox, a 19-year-old pilot with 56 Squadron during 1940 who became a prisoner of war the following year and famously described himself and friends not as ‘also rans’.

In this 80th anniversary year, I wanted to make another original contribution to the Battle of Britain’s bibliography on two fronts: casualties and survivors. The first objective was realised by Battle of Britain 1940: The Finest Hour’s Human Cost (Pen and Sword June 2020) and Letters From The Few (Pen & Sword August 2020) covers the survivors and their unique memories. So substantial is the archive, in fact, that I daresay further volumes of this concept will follow….

Letters from Squadron Leader Bob Beardsley DFC, a Spitfire pilot with 41 Squadron during the Battle of Britain, who also provided a large collection of unofficial snapshots covering his wartime flying.
Letters from former Hauptmann Herman Kell – a German bomber pilot shot down over London during the Battle of Britain – to whom goes the last word in Letters From The Few.

Dilip Sarkar MBE FRHistS

Social distancing and CoVid-19 restrictions permitting, Letters From The Few will be launched at Bentley Priory Museum on Saturday 8 August 2020, all proceeds to the Museum, special guest Air Marshal Cliff Spink. Find out more here

Dilip Sarkar’s website.

Pre-order Letters From The Few here.