Story: John Mellor. This is a longer version of the article which appears in the printed edition.
In 1940 Britain faced a ruthless, determined and well equipped enemy. Many older Burngreave residents still vividly remember the deprivations and uncertainties they faced at that time and during the following 5 years.
In recent editions the Burngreave Messenger has printed first hand accounts of veterans of the Normandy landings in June 1944. We haven't been able to track down any surviving Spitfire pilots from the Battle of Britain living locally (but if any of our readers know of one, please let us know).
However, we were able to meet someone whose father was conscripted into the RAF in 1940. Speaking in his Burngreave home Richard told me:
“My father was working at the time as a bookkeeper for a textile firm in Huddersfield. When he received his call-up papers he was 32 years old and had never previously considered a career in the armed forces! But he had no choice and, although he never flew a Spitfire (the authorities must have realised that he was a bit too old to start that kind of training!), he provided vital ground support to those who did. His skills and training in managing accounts were put to good use as he was posted to a series of RAF bases around the British Isles during the next 5 years.
“During that time my mother took me to Cornwall where I started my primary education in a small village school and I was 7 years old by the time I had any real chance to get to know my father. Thankfully he returned home safely after the war, unlike the fathers of several of my contemporaries at school. He spoke very little about his wartime experiences – they were clearly not a pleasant memory – but some of the friendships he made in the RAF during those 5 years lasted for the rest of his lifetime.”
Richard told me that although he was, of course, unaware of the momentous battles going on around the world during his early childhood years, he later became curious to learn more about what happened during that time – in particular about the occasions when Britain came very close to defeat. Two of these happened in that critical year of 1940:
“In the early days of World War II France had fallen to the rapidly advancing German Panzer divisions, leaving the British Army stranded on the continent and desperate to return across the English Channel to defend their homeland from what appeared to be inevitable invasion.”
It was a desperate situation and on 27th May 1940 the German High Command announced, “The British Army is encircled and our troops are proceeding to its annihilation!”
“Recognising the seriousness, and seeming hopelessness of the situation, King George VI (the father of the present Queen), called people to a national day of prayer. In a stirring broadcast he urged the nation to commit their cause to God, an invitation to which there was an amazing response. Westminster Abbey was filled to capacity with crowds standing outside and churches across the land were full.”
A series of unexpected events followed:
Irrationally, Hitler ordered his generals to halt the advance towards the French coast.
A severe storm grounded the Luftwaffe, allowing the British forces to make their way to Dunkirk.
A great calm followed with low cloud cover over the English Channel for several days, allowing an armada of little ships and river boats to cross and ferry the waiting solders off the beaches.
“Churchill estimated that, at most, 30,000 men might be brought back. In a speech to Parliament he said, ‘The whole root and core and brain of the British Army seemed about to perish upon the field or to be led into captivity’. But, in fact, more than 335,000 men were evacuated from Dunkirk over a period of 9 days, proving to be a turning point in the war that became known, at the time, as ‘the miracle of Dunkirk’.
“Then, on 30th August 1940, Field Marshal Hermann Goering began his attempt to destroy the RAF prior to a planned invasion of the British Isles. 800 German aircraft were sent across the south coast and the RAF, already massively outnumbered, was soon in serious trouble as aircraft and pilots were being lost more quickly than they could be replaced.
“The King had already called for a further national day of prayer on 8th September 1940 as a thanksgiving for the Dunkirk evacuation but it now became obvious that there was another, even more desperate situation that only a miracle could save. Unexpectedly, Hitler changed tactics and diverted the Luftwaffe from attacking the airfields to bombing the city of London. This proved to be a catastrophic blunder for the Luftwaffe which took the pressure off the RAF and its exhausted fighter pilots, enabling repair of the airfields from which the Spitfires and Hurricanes took off.”
In the days that followed, the few hundred RAF fighter pilots took an enormous toll of the enemy bombers, 178 being shot down on one day. The German High Command realised that this level of attrition was unsustainable and on 17th September 1940 issued the order: “The invasion of England is postponed until further notice”.
The Battle of Britain had been won and Churchill addressed the nation with his now immortal words:
“Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few”.