75 years on, the foreign and female fighters to whom we owe our liberty are only now being honoured, writes PETER FROST
AS Britain celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, you might be led to believe that the war was won by stereotypical Boris Johnson lookalikes flying their Spitfires from pretty aerodromes somewhere on the South Downs.
After a sunny afternoon shooting down the Hun, they would hop into the red MG to spend the evening in the village pub with some sporting gels in pretty frocks or Air Transport Auxiliary uniforms and listening to Churchill or the king on the bakelite wireless set.
This stereotype of the Battle of Britain might be comical if it wasn’t so tragically wrong.
It is true that during the war there were some brave ex-public school university students going into combat, and dying, within 24 hours of enlisting, but there were also working-class heroes from all over Britain, Europe and the Commonwealth flying Spitfires and Hurricanes — and women flew planes too.
Mohinder Singh Pujji was one of 18 qualified Indian pilots to join the RAF in 1940. A disgraceful official RAF colour bar was only removed in 1939.
After being hit in one aerial dogfight, Pujji’s Sikh turban filled with blood. After that he always carried a spare turban, but wearing it in combat meant that he could not wear an oxygen mask and one of his lungs was irreparably damaged at high altitude.
Pujji was just one of the pilots from foreign lands who fought in the skies above England in that long summer of 1940. At least 595, one in five of the 2,936 Battle of Britain fighter pilots, were not British.
They included 145 Poles(some of who are pictured below) 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 10 Irish, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, seven US citizens, three Southern Rhodesians and one each from Jamaica and Palestine.
Among those killed were 47 Canadians and the same number of New Zealanders, 24 Australians, 17 from South Africa, 35 Poles, 20 Czechs and six Belgians.
Even this impressive roll of honour may not tell the whole story.
Aubrey de Lisle Inniss, for instance, came from Barbados. During the battle, he flew a Bristol Blenheim night fighter and shot down a nazi bomber.
Despite his place of birth, the official RAF roll of honour lists him as British.
From wherever they came, Britain or abroad, we owe them all a huge debt of gratitude.
In the battle of Britain, the objective of the nazi Luftwaffe was to achieve air superiority over the RAF’s Fighter Command.
They started by bombing coastal shipping convoys and ports such as Portsmouth. A month later the main targets were RAF airfields. Then came raids on factories involved in aircraft production.
The workforces in these factories were mainly female. Heavy raids failed to lower either morale or production. Finally Hitler ordered the heavy bombing of civilian populations in towns and cities.
The Battle of Britain stopped Hitler gaining air superiority. He was forced to postpone and eventually cancel Operation Sea Lion, his plan to invade Britain. It was the nazis’ first significant defeat of the war.
After his planned invasion Hitler had hoped for a negotiated peace with Britain.
Many British aristocrats and members of the royal family were certainly in sympathy with the nazi cause and ready to do a deal with Hitler.
Just a few weeks before Germany invaded Poland, King George VI and his wife, the late Queen Mother, sent Hitler a birthday greeting.
The king and queen and daughters Elizabeth — now queen in her own right — and Margaret have, of course, been seen recently practising their nazi salutes in a 1930s royal home movie.
King George’s brother, the former King Edward VIII, who became the Duke of Windsor after abdicating in 1936 pronounced: “I never thought Hitler was such a bad chap.”
Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail, was another friend and supporter of Hitler.
One Rothermere editorial told Daily Mail readers: “The minor misdeeds of individual nazis would be submerged by the immense benefits the new regime is already bestowing upon Germany.”
It has been largely forgotten that women were another equally important band of fliers who played a key role in the victory over the nazis in the skies over Britain.
Banned from actual combat, this elite group of aviators helped keep our overstretched fighter squadrons supplied with new and repaired aircraft to replace losses.
Delivering often unfamiliar aircraft in all kinds of weather, often without the aid of radar and radio, the 164 female Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) pilots suffered heavy losses. Proportionately the female casualty rate was higher than for male fighter pilots.
During the war these female heroes faced incredible jealously and sexism and it’s only now, 75 years later, that their exploits are being properly recognised.
The first eight women signed up on New Year’s Day 1940. They were initially paid 20 per cent less than the men. Not until 1943 did the women finally achieve equal pay.
Legendary pioneering aviator Amy Johnson (below) was the first female pilot to die in ATA service. Her Airspeed Oxford crashed into the Thames estuary in 1941. A further 15 ATA women pilots would pay the ultimate price.
One was Margaret Fairweather, who lost her pilot husband while she was pregnant, but got back into the cockpit soon after her baby was born. She escaped one crash landing only to die in another crash in 1944.
The female pilots faced opposition from jealous male colleagues. Accusations of incompetence and lesbianism were common. There was even sabotage.
Charles G Grey, editor of Aeroplane magazine, had written: “The menace is the woman who thinks that she ought to be flying in a high-speed bomber when she really has not the intelligence to scrub the floor of a hospital properly.”
It was Grey’s keen support for both Hitler and Mussolini, rather than his sexism, however that cost him his job as editor.
So let us leave the last word on these brave women to Lord Beaverbrook, owner of the Daily Express and Churchill’s minister of aircraft production.
“They were soldiers fighting in the struggle just as completely as if they had been engaged on the battlefront. Without them the pilots in the Battle of Britain would never have got off the ground.”
This article first appeared in the Morning Star on Battle of Britain Day 15 Sept 2015