Our Finest Hour
The challenges and achievements of RAF personnel during the Battle of Britain was the theme of a Support Wing trip to London.
Looking up from the bustle of Trafalgar Square, a familiar figure from our nation’s proud military heritage stands sky-lined against a cloudy, grey sky over Central London. Standing there, it was easy to imagine that 71 years ago Nelson’s statue looked up at a very similar sky, however, it was a sky scarred with vapour trails that marked the fiercest aerial battle that our country had ever known.
It was a pictorial representation of Britain’s struggle for survival against a determined Nazi war machine, not unlike the situation the admiral had faced 135 years before. The Battle of Britain galvanized the national resolve to stand up to this foreign oppression and for the first time since the war had begun the Germans were given a moment of pause, all because of a resilient little isle, a determined public and at the forefront, a few magnificent men and their flying machines. So, starting in one of the most famous of London’s monuments 71 years after our most celebrated aerial achievement, Support Wing personnel from Wittering went in search of evidence showing how London survived these difficult times, how the nation rallied, what military strategies led to the victory and how the capital remembers it all today.
The staff ride would take Spt Wg through London from the Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park memorial, via the Cabinet War Rooms and St Clement Danes finishing at the Battle of Britain Memorial. At each location one of the group would give a vignette on important and relevant information relating to the elements of strategic command and control of the British Empire, the achievements of RAF personnel during the war and how these events and achievements are commemorated today. By drawing parallels with the leadership challenges of today’s military and those faced all those decades ago, it was hoped that lessons could be identified to further educate the leaders of tomorrow.
The day started with a short stroll to the Air Chief Marshall Sir Keith Park memorial which is now based in Waterloo Place after leaving it’s former temporary home of the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in September last year. The first stand, given by Wg Cdr Paul McClurg gave an insight into the famous New Zealander, the Officer Commanding 11 Group who acted as Dowding’s right-hand man in implementing the subsequent battle winning strategy during the Battle of Britain. While Dowding may have controlled the battle from day to day, it was Park that managed it hour by hour and it was this crucial management and enduring leadership that allowed him to inspire ‘the few.’
No tour of the significant London locations during the Second World War would be complete without a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. These underground rooms from which Churchill famously stated: “This is the room from which I will direct the war”, were the heart of the central nervous system controlling Britain’s war effort and most importantly her defense. These well-kept rooms stirred the imagination and afforded a glimpse into what testing conditions the leaders of the time had to work in.
After earlier hearing about Air Chief Marshall Park, the hands-on manager and coordinator of the battle, it was time to move on to learn about its grand architect – Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding who was the subject of the next stand. Fittingly delivered outside St Clement Danes by Sqn Ldr Kev Merrison in the shadow of the statue of ‘Stuffy’ Dowding himself, the stand showed how Dowding’s inspirational yet solitary leadership was the rock on which fighter command was based. Often the subject of debate and criticism, Dowding’s management of the RAF, specifically those under the umbrella of Fighter Command with it’s limited resources, the preparation of air defenses, and the introduction and development of new technologies such as radar, led to the decisive victory in which so much was owed by so many to so few. As the team heard about the trials that Dowding faced, managing huge commitments in the face of huge public pressure with limited resources and finance they were able to draw many similarities with the modern military and challenges that we see today.
Hearing about Dowding in the shadow of St Clement Danes made the next part of the tour even more poignant, a visit of the church itself. Just standing in St Clement Danes, one cannot help but be transported back in time. While soaking up the atmosphere of the squadron and command crests, the stories within the windows and the Books of Remembrance, Fg Off Laura Price delivered an insightful stand on Sir Archibald McIndoe, a brilliant plastic surgeon who treated and rehabilitated burn victims including many RAF aircrew. It was his patients that formed the well known ‘Guinea Pig Club.’
The final leg of the tour led Spt Wg down to Victoria Embankment to the Battle of Britain Memorial. The monument depicts aspects of the air battle and bears the names of the men and woman who were involved both in the air and on the ground. The last stand, given by Fg Off Mark Warburton told us of one of the most famous RAF pilots of all time, Gp Capt Douglas Bader. A few wonderful stories and some fascinating facts about the larger-than-life Battle of Britain pilot was a fitting end to an informative, reflective and fascinating tour of wartime London.
The staff ride around the parts of London that influenced the course of the war, both for the RAF and Britain as a whole, showed that despite a different era and circumstances, many parallels can be drawn with today and lessons that were learnt 70 years ago can continue to be applied. These lessons can contribute to a more effective, reasoned and successful future with their application in leading tomorrow’s forces. The day reminded the team that as they stood next to the Thames reading the names of those RAF personnel emblazoned upon the masonry of the Battle of Britain Memorial, it was those names that allowed them to learn the lessons and apply them to the future – names that will always stand proud as a testament to those brave personnel from all nations that led to our finest hour.