Biggin Hill remembers Churchill’s few
15:45 25 August 2010
Exactly 70 years after Winston Churchill paid tribute to The Few – pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain – two World War II fighter aircraft touched down at an airport which played a crucial role in the conflict.
A Spitfire MK VB and a Hurricane Mk 1, from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, landed at Biggin Hill Airport at 3.25pm on Friday to mark the anniversary of the then Prime Minister’s Battle of Britain speech which summed up the monumental effort made by those fighting a war in the air.
As the pilots met Biggin Hill residents who remembered the sights and smells of the aerial battle, two other World War II planes flew over the Cabinet War Offices in Whitehall, where the few remaining veterans gathered with Dame Vera Lynn to hear a re-creation of Churchill’s “never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few” speech.
Despite low cloud and some heavy rain, the memorial flight staged a flypast at most of the airfields used in the Battle of Britain, including Gravesend and West Malling.
At Biggin Hill, Squadron Leader Al Pinner, Commanding Officer of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight until recently, was in the cockpit of the MK1 Hurricane R4118 that flew from Croydon during the Battle of Britain.
After landing at a grey and overcast airport to rapturous applause, he said: “The smell of the high-octane gas, the smell of the leather, for me it’s the holistic experience of flying these historic planes which gets me. That people fought and died in these planes is quite something.
“I have had the great privilege of meeting three of the pilots who flew these planes during the battle and they are an utter inspiration.”
The day before he had flown alongside a light aircraft carrying two Battle of Britain veterans, Bob Foster and Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum. “I was flying one of two of the planes either side of them,” he said. “They were aircraft that they flew during the war – that was a very special moment.” Biggin Hill was called the Strongest Link as the commanding station controlling others such as Gravesend and Hawkinge during the largest aerial battle of all time.
At the airfield some 453 fighter pilots lost their life in combat, and 91 ground staff died as the area became the target for German bombers looking to disable Britain’s air defence.
Watching the modern pilots of the memorial flight land at Biggin Hill on Friday brought memories of the long summer of 1940 flooding back to farmer Michael Blundell, now aged 80.
Mr Blundell, who still lives with his wife on the family farm in Jail Lane, will never forget the day he narrowly escaped a direct hit during a German air raid.
On August 18, 1940, a gloriously sunny Sunday, he was helping to collect glasses at the Kings Arms, in Leaves Green, where his father was enjoying a restorative pint with friends in the garden.
He recalls: “Suddenly the siren went off. Normally after it sounded nothing happened so we carried on as usual but looking over the Biggin Hill Valley I could see loads of German planes coming towards us, being attacked by Spitfires.
“Father saw the bomb leave the aircraft just above us. He dived over me to protect me. It landed 20 yards away and there was a huge explosion. My father was badly injured and taken to hospital.”
His brother Norman, who was 16, drove back to the Jail Lane farm with Michael, without realising that he had shrapnel embedded in his leg. And his father, who would later lose a leg as a result of the blast, had to deal with more attacks when German bombers targeted Farnborough hospital a few days later.
Michael, who was only 10 when the bomb dropped, added: “I stayed at the farm but after that incident my nerves were so bad I couldn’t cope and I was sent away to the relative safety of Lambourne, Berkshire.”
Reflecting on Friday’s commemoration, he added: “It is exciting to see these planes again today. I’m so grateful to have been invited along. It has been fantastic.”
l Days of terror as home of The Few came under attack from skies – Bob Ogley, page 24.