Those Magnificent Flying Machines
Country Life UK|September 09, 2020
Those Magnificent Flying Machines
Outnumbered yet never outfought, The Few buckled on their Spitfires and rode into the Battle of Britain like knights on their chargers. Eighty years on, their true memorial is the freedom in the air we breathe, eulogises John Lewis-Stempel
John Lewis-Stempel

They were the young and the brave. In the high summer of 1940, some boys in blue uniforms, in a sky yet more blinding blue, took on a plague and defeated it. The plague was Nazism.

Like Henry V’s men at Agincourt, The Few —as Churchill unforgettably tagged the pilots of RAF Fighter Command—were outnumbered, but never outfought. Like Hal’s soldiers in that muddy, storied French field, the fighter boys, too, had the benefit of British technology. Henry’s comrades-in-arms toted the longbow; in the sunlit skies over England in 1940, above the immemorial patchwork fields, the ancient churches, the slumbering villages and the determined towns, the magnificent boys of the RAF piloted machines of equal magnificence. Some sat behind the joystick of the Hawker Hurricane, a fine and steady gun platform. Others, in the Battle of Britain, had the fortune, had history’s touch on the shoulder, to fly the Supermarine Spitfire.

The Spitfire was technology. It was art. It was Mars in a sleek, all-metal monocoque with elegant, elliptical wings. The Spitfire made everyone who sat in the aircraft’s tiny cockpit feel great, feel godly.

One did not merely get into a Spitfire. One put a Spitfire on. Dressed in it. The late flying ace Group Capt Wilfrid Duncan Smith knew this: ‘On taking over 64 Squadron, one of the first things I impressed on my pilots was that you did not “strap yourself in”, you “buckled the Spitfire on”, like girding on armour in days of old.’

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September 09, 2020