The last of the glorious Few

Mar 29, 2011 No Comments by

Aces in the pack: Flanked by Spitfires and Hurricanes at Duxford, 17 of the last remaining Battle of Britain pilots line up for the camera

 

They are the glorious Few, the airmen whose extraordinary bravery saved Britain from Nazi invasion.

Seventy years on, the heroes who repelled Hitlerís Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain are a dwindling band ñ it is thought only 79, all recorded on this article, are still alive.

A special anniversary service at Westminster Abbey will remember the efforts of all those who took part in the pivotal encounter, arguably the most important ever fought by this nation.

Many were in their late teens or early 20s when they took to the skies in Spitfires and Hurricanes from July to October 1940. Others flew in Blenheims, Beaufighters and Defiants. Some became the ëacesí of the Battle, shooting down plane after plane.


During the Battle, Sir Winston Churchill said: ëThe gratitude of every home in our island, in our empire, and indeed throughout the world, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion.

ëNever in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.í

When it was over, 544 RAF pilots and aircrew were dead.

Here is a tribute to the last of the survivors . . .

1. Flight Lieutenant Robin Appleford. Age 89
Joined 66 Squadron aged 18. Vividly remembers cheating death after his Spitfire was attacked over Kent. ëSome Messerschmitt came out of the sun above us,í he says. ëI was the tail-end Charlie at the back of our patrol and the first thing I knew was that the starboard wing had disappeared. I opened the canopy and was blown out and landed in a field near Maldon in Essex. My shoes were a mess, which made me annoyed because I had bought them only the day before.í Worked in South Africa as a flying instructor, now lives in a nursing home in Berkshire.

2. Flight Lieutenant Owen Burns. Age 95
Distinctly recalls the silk underwear he wore to protect him from the bitter cold. A gunner in a Blenheim in 235 Squadron, Coastal Command, he also remembers feeling vul­nerable. ëYouíre on your own, completely. All youíre concentrating on is getting back to Earth again,í he says. ëAnd when you got out of the aircraft and saw the holes, sometimes youíd been riddled with bullets. We were all very young, it was a totally different world we were living in.í Now lives in West London.

3. Flight Lieutenant Terry Clark DFM. Age 91
An air-gunner with 76 Squadron, his abiding memory is of bitter nights spent on cold floors waiting for the order to scramble. ëAll we had was a small blanket to keep us warm, but they used to keep us going with 6in-thick sandwiches as we whiled away the time playing cards.í Mr Clarkís wife Mar garet died in 2001. He lives in Yorkshire.

4. Air Commodore John Ellacombe CB DFC. Age 90
Single-handedly took on 12 German planes over the South East coast. ëI went straight at them and started firing ñ and didnít stop.í He brought his Hurricane down in a field after a bullet hit his engine. ëAs I pulled myself out of the plane I saw a man running towards me, waving a pitchfork and shouting, ìI am going to kill you, you bloody German!î He was chasing me around the plane. It was like a scene from Benny Hill.í Fortunately four British soldiers arrived and disarmed him. John Ellacombe remained in the RAF until retiring in 1973. He lives in Middlesex.

5. Hubert Flower. Age 88
Born on the Isle of Man, he was at 18 the youngest airman to fly in the Battle of Britain. An air-gunner and wireless operator with 248 Squadron, he flew Bristol Blenheims. Later served in West Africa and flew 103 sorties in the Berlin Airlift. After the war he worked in the Colonial Service, HM Customs and Excise and the Lord Chancellorís Department.

6. Wing Commander Robert Foster DFC AE. Age  90
A Hurricane pilot in 605 Squadron, he joined the action during the Blitz. ëWe saw London burning,í he says. ëThat was our first sight of the real war. I remember a pal, Bunny Curran, saying, ìOh God, weíre really in for it now, if this is what itís like.î’ He adds: ëSitting around waiting was always the worst part of the thing: waiting for the bell to ring to tell you to take off.í After the war he became a manager with Shell-Mex and BP. He is now chairman of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association.

7. Flight Lieutenant Trevor Gray AE. Age 95
Became friends with a German pilot whose Messerschmitt 110 he shot down in a dogfight with his Spitfire. ëHis name was Helmut and he came to England and I took him out to dinner with his wife and my late wife, Dorothy. We swapped Christmas cards every year until he died three years ago.í After the war, Mr Gray, who was with 64 Squadron, developed marine radar and navigational aids for aircraft.

8. Flight Lieutenant Bill Green. Age 92
Found himself outnumbered 16 to one while circling over Kent with 501 Squadron. ëSuddenly there was a crash of glass ñ a big hole in the windscreen. I started getting covered in engine-coolant liquid and I realised my aircraft was crippled.í He baled out, but  initially his parachute failed. He recalls: ëQuite magically, there was a jolt. The wind must have got under the folds of the parachute. I couldnít believe that I was alive.í Became an RAF flying instructor after the war.

9. Sqn Leader Tony Iveson DFC AE. Age 90
Flew Spitfires with 616 Squadron. ëAs far as we were concerned, we saved the world,í he says. Facing enemy fire, the then inexperienced Yorkshireman plunged 18,000ft and ditched his plane into the sea near the Suffolk coast. ëI saw the temperature slowly rising and the oil pressure slowly disappearing and the engine running very rough. I knew I had to ditch it but there was an awful lot of sky and an awful lot of sea, and only me left. To jump out into the empty North Sea would have been rather foolish.í Continued to serve in the RAF after the war. Now lives in Oxted, Surrey.

10. Wing Commander Terence Kane. Age 91
A member of 234 Squadron, he recalls abandoning his Spitfire over the Channel after a dogfight in which ñ aged 19 ñ he shot
down a German plane. ëMy engine stopped and I deci ded the only thing was to bale out.í But he couldnít release his oxygen mask and had to climb back into the aircraft to free himself. ëI reached for the parachute ripcord and couldnít find it. Panic set in. I was falling through cloud . . . if Iíd been three seconds later pulling the ripcord, I wouldnít be here. The Germans fished me out and I spent the rest of the war as a PoW.í He stayed in the RAF after the war and was posted to Germany and Libya. Had three daughters with wife Willoughby, who died in 1993.

11. Wing Cmdr Tom ëGingerí Neil DFC AFC AE. Age 90
One of the pilots the War Ministry used in propaganda because of his height (6ft 4in) and good looks. A hugely successful Hurricane ace, he flew 141 combat missions (few pilots reached 50), shot down 13 enemy aircraft ñ and was still only 19 when the Battle of Britain ended. ëI should have been killed a dozen times,í he says. After leaving the RAF in 1964, he worked in the shoe industry and wrote of his Battle of Britain experiences in Gun Button To Fire. Lives in Norfolk with Betty, his wife of 65 years. They have three sons, who are now aged 64, 62 and 60.

12. Squadron Leader Tony Pickering. Age 90
Shot down by a German fighter plane, he recalls being forced to bale out of his blazing Hurricane at 3,000ft. ëI just pulled my pin and over I went. I landed in the middle of the Guards Depot in Caterham in Surrey.í Based at Gravesend with 501 Squadron, he was back in the skies the next day. ëWe were very young. I donít think we realised fully what we were doing. We were enthusiastic and we were driven on by Winston Churchill.í After the war, he became a steam-turbine designer until retiring in 1985. Married to second wife Chris, he has a son, a  a daughter, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.  

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