Sunday, September 05, 2010

The many behind the few: TV's David Jason takes to the skies in a Second World War Spitfire to pay tribute to the Battle of Britain's heroes...

During the Battle of Britain, those fighter pilots lucky enough to have dodged the Luftwaffe’s deadly bullets always performed a ritual on their way home.
They would wait until they were flying just above the White Cliffs of Dover – the very symbol of everything they were fighting for – and flip their Spitfire or Hurricane in an exuberant barrel-roll of honour.
It was a kind of ecstatic, airborne dance of victory. Recently, while filming my forthcoming ITV documentary on the Battle of Britain, I got to experience just a little of what they must have felt.
Not only did I get to fly a Spitfire – with the help of a trusting trainer, Carolyn Grace, in the front – but I also got to experience the stomach-tumbling joy of the ritual myself.
That day I had already soared high above the English Channel in a plane steeped in military history.

My Spitfire had flown 300 combat hours during the Second World War and had shot down the first enemy plane during D-Day. It had been mind-blowing to imagine the steel required by pilots to keep their nerve, their course steady and their aim true while bullets flew past them in all directions. But the best was yet to come. As we flew back, Carolyn said: ‘Just imagine, you’re returning home after surviving your latest battle with the Luftwaffe. Now look over there.’ And as I did, I saw the White Cliffs looming majestically up from the sea.
‘Shall we do the barrel-roll?’ she asked. The answer had to be ‘yes’. Carolyn took the controls and we flipped in a glorious double somersault, careening above the cliffs with the magnificence of an eagle.

There are not too many things in life that have reduced me to tears but this was one of them. I felt humbled and so proud of those men who fought for us in our darkest hour. It’s an experience that will never leave me.

For me, the making of a documentary to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain was an intensely personal journey. I was born in February 1940 so I was just six months old as the battle raged overhead.

Our soaring and twirling Spitfire was painting the sky with a hula hoop of happiness...

I grew up in London, a city devastated by the bombing. I am, you might say, a Blitz Baby.

I was too small to remember much about it but all of us alive at that time were shaped by the events of the war. My parents, Arthur and Olwen, were honest, working-class people who raised my brother Arthur, sister June and me with the values of that era – patriotism, stoicism, honesty, concern for your neighbours and judging a man by what he did rather than what he had.
My mum worked as a char when I was growing up and my dad was a fishmonger, but during the war years he had another role, too. He was in the Reserves, a kind of Home Guard.

The stories my father used to tell about his service in that organisation had echoes of Dad’s Army about it. We lived in Finchley, North London, and so he and his compatriots in the local division would plonk themselves on top of the nearby Southgate Gasometer with an ack-ack gun and fire at German bombers as they flew overhead.
The problem was that they never actually had any real bullets because they were all being used in the war effort elsewhere. My dad would come home and say: ‘We could have hit them if we had ammunition!’ It wasn’t funny at the time, although he laughed about it years later when he retold the stories.
Thinking back, he was lucky to survive. Can you imagine if a bomb had hit the gasometer? He would still be flying now. When you look at the large casualty figures – four million British homes destroyed and more than 60,000 British civilians killed in bombing raids during the Second World War, two-thirds of those during the Blitz – we were lucky to survive at all. At home we had an air-raid shelter and we were religious about observing the lights-out rule.

One little chink of light could guide a German bomber in, and that would be it. Even now, the rule is so conditioned in my brain that I’ll never leave a light on in the house unnecessarily and I can get quite grumpy when other people do. Yet still, even with these precautions, everyone in London was vulnerable. One night, a German plane scattered bombs all around us: one landed just up the road on the Gaumont cinema, another in Percy Road, the street next to us, and a third in our road, Lodge Lane.
If the bomb had dropped just 150 yards to the right, I wouldn’t be here today. Years after the war had ended, the scarred landscape of London remained the backdrop of my childhood.
Our gang played on the bombsite that had been left in Lodge Lane, while a rival group played on theirs in Percy Road. When it got close to November 5, we would creep over to the rival bombsite to sabotage the bonfire they had been building. We would try to set fire to theirs, they would try to set fire to ours.

As young lads, around the age of ten, it never occurred to us that these ‘playgrounds’ were created by a bomb and that people must have died there. But now aged 70, I find myself reflecting on the human cost in both civilian and military terms.

We need to remember, for example, that during the war more than 55,000 men in Bomber Command never made it back – 5,000 of those were from Elvington, near York, one of several airfields I visited while making my documentary. Indeed, the life expectancy of a fighter pilot at the height of the battle could be counted in days. And I’ve been thinking not just about the pilots – perhaps the bravest men in the world – but of all the men and women on the ground who helped us defeat the forces of Nazi Germany.

These include the crews who looked after the planes and kept them ready constantly for service. I met Joe Roddis, who had been an 18-year-old flight mechanic in 1940 at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, now home to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

‘Without us, it was no good,’ he said simply. ‘And without them, the pilots, it was even less good.’

Then there was the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, affectionately known as the WAAFs. By 1943, the WAAF’s numbers exceeded 180,000, with more than 2,000 women enlisting every week.

During those dreadful months of the Battle of Britain, from July to October 1940, it was WAAFs such as the redoubtable Hazel Gregory, then aged 19, who worked as ‘plotters’ in radar stations up and down the country. It was their job to map the progress of Luftwaffe planes as they flew towards Britain.

During our interview, I looked into Hazel’s eyes as we sat together 60ft below ground in a bunker in Uxbridge that had been the Fighter Command centre for London and the South East.

‘Did you ever worry that the Germans would succeed?’ I asked her. ‘No,’ she said. ‘There was tremendous spirit and nobody thought for a single moment that we wouldn’t win.’ What better example of the Blitz spirit could you ever encounter?

And let’s not forget the Royal Observer Corps, a band of unarmed civilians stationed at hundreds of observation posts all over the country. While filming, I went to the wartime location of one such post, codenamed Sugar Three. There I met Dennis Bates and John Elgar Winney, two of the 30,000-strong army of volunteers who had spied on the skies through binoculars. ‘What we could do that the radar couldn’t was to tell what type of aircraft were coming, how many there were and what direction they were flying in,’ Dennis told me. They would call this intelligence through on a crackling GPO line to their own HQ, which then alerted Fighter Command, which would scramble Spitfires and Hurricanes.

‘The Observer Corps were vital in the Battle of Britain,’ John added. ‘Without us it could not have been won.’ The most important lesson, then, to emerge from the making of the documentary was that we owe a huge debt of gratitude to so many people. As Terry Kane, another of the veteran fighter pilots I was privileged enough to meet, explained: ‘It wasn’t just the pilots who won the Battle of Britain. In many senses, it was the whole country.’

If Britain had not come together at that time, as it did, to defeat theNazis, none of us would have lived the kind of life that we have been able to live, or had the kind of freedoms I know that I have certainly enjoyed.

So the documentary became not just about those brave fighter pilots immortalised in Winston Churchill’s post-Battle of Britain victory speech in which he said: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’

It was also a tribute to the ‘many’ behind the ‘few’: the unsung heroes of the Battle of Britain. Most importantly, I wanted to reveal the human face behind the history lesson, although, of course, the history itself is important.

War had been declared in 1939 and by the end of June 1940 the German jackboot went right through most of Europe, including France and Poland, and it was also well on its way to Russia. Britain was next on Hitler’s hit-list and by August 1940, German invasion barges were assembling on the French coast.

However, they could not set sail until the Luftwaffe had wiped out the RAF, both in the air and on the ground. We didn't feel brave, we just got on with it

It was essential that the RAF prevailed because it was the only thing standing between freedom and the Nazis, and if it had capitulated we would have been annihilated.

Yet we were horrendously outnumbered – 4,000 German bombers and fighters massed against just 600 RAF fighters.

‘But the question of being outnumbered didn’t come into it because you were always outnumbered,’ said Paul Farnes, who was a 21-year-old Hurricane pilot in 501 Squadron at the time. ‘But we had one big advantage: we were fighting over our own country and so we knew all too well what we were fighting for.’

Unwisely, Hitler had not reckoned on the indomitability of the British spirit and the men and women of the RAF. His generals had told him it would be easy, but even after attempting to destroy our airfields before turning his attention to cities such as London, Aberdeen, Bristol, Coventry and Hull, still we would not yield.

Hitler was left scratching his head over his force’s inability to defeat us. In the end, I suppose he said: ‘OK, we’ll come back to that later’ which was a big mistake because he never got to do that. The Battle of Britain was not just a defining moment in our nation’s history, it was also the absolute turning point in a war that ultimately saw the Nazis defeated.

But I also wanted to take a closer look at the men and the machines – the pilots and the planes – that gave the Luftwaffe such a run for their money in 1940. I’ve always had such tremendous respect for the men who fought in the Battle of Britain and I am a patron of the RAF Benevolent Fund.

I also have a pilot’s licence myself, although in my case, until I flew the Spitfire, I had only ever flown helicopters. I got my licence in 2005 after my wife Gill bought me a flying lesson as a birthday present.

I found myself so completely hooked on flying that I was determined to get the necessary qualifications. A couple of years ago, I bought my own helicopter, a Robinson R44. I use it occasion-ally to fly myself to sets where I am filming or to business meetings.

From Buckinghamshire, where I live, I’ll fly for an hour to Norwich, perhaps, or to the south coast. But I never fly more than that. It’s more than enough in terms of the mental workload because it takes a lot of concentration. So I’m lost in admiration at the way our pilots were able to fly up to six sorties a day. And they did it without any of the mod-cons that pilots have today. They would have been alone and freezing cold, heading towards an enemy that had only one objective in mind. It was a shoot-or-be-shot situation. It would have taken nerves of steel. During my visit to RAF Coningsby, I was shown the oldest airworthy Spit-fire in the world. It is the only one still flying today that fought in the Battle of Britain. A team of proud fitters showed me the workings of this magnificent plane, including its eight guns.

Each was loaded with 350 bullets, which seems impressive but this gave the pilots only 12 to 14 seconds of fire-power, after which they had to come back to base to reload before going out again.

‘Ninety-seven per cent of the bullets missed. We were very bad shots,’ Tom Riley, another of the veteran fighter pilots, recalled with a smile. ‘But the only thing to do was to get as close as you could to the bloke in front. If you could almost touch him you could probably hit him.’

Like so many of the pilots, Tom had been heartbreak-ingly young at the time that he risked all for his country. He was just 19 when he flew his first Battle of Britain mission. The average age of fighter pilots was 22.

Amazingly, the pilot in command of one of the squadrons that bombed Dresden later in the war was only 24.It’s difficult to imagine young men in their early 20s these days being able to stand so much responsibility.

But, perhaps, if the enemy was at our door, as it was then, they would find the courage.Back in 1939 these young men had joined the RAF as volunteers and learned to fly in Tiger Moths, but with the outbreak of war they were called upon to defend our skies in Spitfires and Hurricanes against the Messerschmitts and Dorniers.

It was not what they had signed up for and so, in that sense, their lives were not given for this country but taken by it, because no fool ever actively wants to go to war.And yet they discovered such tremendous heroism and tenacity within themselves, although they would never dream of boasting about their own achievements.

‘I don’t think anybody felt particularly brave,’ former Hurricane pilot Paul Farnes said. ‘It was what we had been trained for. It was our job and we just got on and did it.’During my interviews, I wanted to find out what – aside from luck – separated those who survived from those who died.

According to Bill Green, a fighter pilot with 501 Squadron who flew 29 missions himself before being gunned down and baling out, it was the exhausted and the inexperienced pilots who were first to be shot down.

‘Most of the casualties were inexperienced pilots joining the squadron one day and being shot down the next,’ he told me. ‘The ones who stayed alive usually had a great deal of experience.’

Paul Farnes added: ‘The really good pilots all had a sixth sense. They didn’t need to look round to see where the danger was – they felt it instinctively and dodged the bullets.

‘Those who had intuition survived and those who didn’t got shot down, I’m afraid. It was brutal.’

At RAF Hawkinge, now the Kent Battle of Britain Museum, I saw just how brutal things were for myself. The museum still holds the remains of 650 crashed aircraft – a propeller from a German Dornier 17 is riddled with bullets, showing just how many shots it must have taken to bring down such an aircraft. But while our planes did fall, the British spirit never faltered, and in its own way, life went on. People still fell in love, babies were still born, and the young still tried to enjoy themselves.

For example, after working at Fighter Command at Uxbridge, Hazel Gregory would travel into London to go dancing. Was she worried about the bombers, I wondered.  ‘No,’ she replied. ‘We were young and we wanted to have fun.’So in the midst of it all she wanted what probably every ordinary young woman wanted at the time: to meet a good-looking pilot or soldier and have an innocent dance.

They all wanted to forget about the worries of the war for an evening and just have a good time. Again, I felt totally moved by what she told me.There is an emotional thread that runs through the documentary – the same emotional thread that still binds us and tugs at us 70 years after the events of that fateful period.
We are still fascinated by that time – by the Second World War in general and the Battle of Britain in particular – because it was our finest hour. And it was the spirit of the men and women just like Hazel and all the fighter pilots and those who ensured that they could keep on flying that made it so.
Flying high above the White Cliffs of Dover at the end of the documentary, the soaring, twirling Spitfire painting the sky with a hula hoop of happiness seemed to embody the very spirit of those brave men and women and of the Battle of Britain itself.

After the barrel-roll of victory, I retook the controls and we headed homewards.‘You certainly know how to affect a man’s heart!’ I told Carolyn.

And, oh, how she did.

David Jason: Battle Of Britain will be shown on ITV1 on September 12 at 7pm. Albert’s Memorial, a drama about Second World War veterans in which David Jason stars, will be shown on the same evening at 9pm.

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