Battle of Britain aces on parade for last time

PUBLISHED: 18:41 23 June 2010 | UPDATED: 10:59 12 August 2010

THE last few remaining veterans of the Battle of Britain are due to parade through Bromley town centre tomorrow (friday) as part of a 70th anniversary tribute. The men, all aged in their 80s and 90s, have spoken poignantly of how the occasion is likely t

THE last few remaining veterans of the Battle of Britain are due to parade through Bromley town centre tomorrow (friday) as part of a 70th anniversary tribute.

The men, all aged in their 80s and 90s, have spoken poignantly of how the occasion is likely to be the last major celebration they will be alive to witness.

The six veterans Group Captain Billy Drake, Flight Lieutenant Bill Green, Flight Lieutenant William Walker, Squadron Leader Tom Iveson, Wing Commander Bob Foster, Wing Commander Peter Ayerst, will travel through Bromley town centre to mark the defeat of the Lutwaffe, seen as one of our country's most defining moments.

Their bravery in the skies over Bromley and the South East during the summer and autumn of 1940 played a major part in saving Britain from Nazi rule and their names will be committed to history forever.

Some 544 British personnel lost their lives battling the Germans and the parade is the start of commemorations to mark the borough's role in the entirely airborne battle which was as important as Trafalgar or the Somme.

All six men will meet with forces sweetheart Vera Lynn at Biggin Hill Airport.

Beckenham resident and RAF fighter ace Peter Ayerst, who was one of the only pilots to fly from the beginning to the end of the Second World War, said he felt "lucky" to still be alive to witness the anniversary.

He said: "It is important to celebrate it because there are only a very few of us old-timers left. I'm lucky to still be here, I wish I was younger.

"I am very proud of what we did at Biggin Hill back then.

We were just trying our hardest in the hope that we would come out in top. We knew it was a big aerial side of the war but we never really quite realised how important it would come to be."

After joining the service in 1938, the 90-year-old took part in the war's major campaigns including the Battle of Britain, D-Day, Arnhem and El Alamein.

He was posted to North Africa in 1942 where he had to crash land his Hurricane into a mine field. By the end of the war he had flown every type of Hurricane and Spitfire in the RAF collection.

Reflecting on the Battle of Britain, the Wing Commander said: "We were flying very hard from dawn to dusk. We had a certain amount of luck but on the other hand there were many more of them than us. We eventually managed to squash them down- so much so that in the end they were only doing night raids, they stopped the day raids.

Biggin Hill sustained constant attack from the Germans during the Battle yet remained operational throughout the whole of it. The airfield was called 'The Strongest Link'- the commanding station controlling surrounding ones including Gravesend and Hawkinge.

Aviation historian Robin Brooks, 70, from Maidstone, said: "We owe these men everything. Churchill called these men 'The Few' and they were - a few airmen who saved us. I feel very, very sad these days when I think of the youth and wonder would they do the same thing in the face of a global conflict?

"We would not be here were it not for them. This will probably be the last large celebration for them. It will be a milestone. These were young men when war began with little training. They were thrust into the cockpits of Hurricanes and Spitfires with virtually no training. They were strapped in and went to war not knowing what war was really about. During those four months they fought for their lives and for our lives.

"The Battle of Britain was the largest aerial combat ever fought. Hitler had overrun most of Europe. If he had travelled those 21 miles across the sea we would not be speaking here today. It was one of, if not the most important conflicts in British history."

Wing Commander Tom Neil, 90, claimed 13 victories during the battle while flying in 259 Squadron. He is frank about the fact that the 70th anniversary could be the last large celebration he witnesses but takes solace in the fact that he and his comrades will always be remembered.

He said: "You asked if I think of myself as a hero- well no. But those of us who fought in the Battle of Britain will go down in history. Our name shall last forever like those who fought in Trafalgar and the Battle of the Somme. That is a comforting thought for those of us who are still alive.

"I doubt we will make it to the 80th anniversary. There are only about 70 of us left, around 20 of who are still on their feet. Our average age is 93 and around 30 of us are dying each year.

"It is very important for the younger generation who perhaps don't know as much as they should about an event which was critical in Britain's past. Our future hung in the balance and had the Germans succeeded they would have won the war. There is no doubt about it.

"I am proud to have taken part in the Battle of Britain and honour those 550 chaps who were killed."

The parade, which will also see a Memorial flypast, is due to begin at 10.30am in Bromley town centre.

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