Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Remembering The Brave Few: Battle of Britain Pilots

I recently watched the film 'First Light' again - I've lost count of how many times that makes now, but it's so beautiful and evocative, and I lose myself in the drama. Some of you will know it's an adaptation of the book, First Light, a personal and frank account of life during the Battle of Britain by author and former WW2 pilot, Geoffrey Wellum DFC. Geoff is now 95 years old, but he remembers his experiences as a Spitfire pilot most vividly.
Geoff 'Boy' Wellum 92 Squadron Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Geoff was 18 years nine months when he completed his initial training and arrived fresh and eager at 92 Squadron at Biggin Hill. Nicknamed 'Boy' by his Squadron Leader Brian Kingcombe, he was to have the most harrowing induction into the life of a fighter pilot in RAF Fighter Command.

Initially, while he might have felt keen to join in the fight and send the enemy packing, he soon realised just what hell he was embroiled in. Like the rest of his 'brothers' he would become tired, worn down and worn out by the relentless pace, lack of sleep, the constant threat of enemy attacks and perhaps worst of all, witnessing the loss of one's friends up among the clouds.
Geoff with Brian Kingcombe Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
But while Geoff was clearly a great fighter pilot, he is also a great writer, effectively conveying in the most elegant prose the trials and tribulations of life in 92 Squadron during those dark, uncertain days.

In the film, one of the most poignant scenes for me came following the squadron's return from a sortie. Having encountered the FW 190 for the first time, Flight Lieutenant Lund was leading a section of three Spitfires when they encountered enemy aircraft over the Channel. The Luftwaffe shot all three down, and Lund's Spitfire Vb W3459 was seen diving away in flames. He was 22 years old and Geoff's good friend. Geoff narrates throughout the film.
P/O Tommy Lund No 92 Squadron Image via Wikimedia Commons
Geoff stated "Tommy Lund was a lovely chap and a very dear friend. He went into the Channel, but all the best blokes did, and the blokes like me got away with it."
At the end, Geoff says "Nobody wants a medal, nobody wants a thank you, but it would be nice just to be remembered because then you must think of all of us, and not just those of us who survived."

After serving eighteen months with 92 Squadron, Geoff was posted to an OTU elsewhere to instruct. Later, as a Squadron Leader, he served in the siege of Malta, and that was where he suffered a nervous breakdown, aged twenty. In 1944 he married his sweetheart, Grace and served in the RAF until 1961.

By the end of 1940, 92 Squadron had achieved the highest combat score in the entire RAF, with a tally of 127 enemy aircraft destroyed.
Researching the war and putting faces to names is something I love and feel privileged in doing, and it's so important to me to remember the sacrifices made, remembering the selfless, brave, young men who gave their all for our today. Lest we forget.