The Few

a Spitfire flies past US Navy destroyer Winston S. Churchill (DDG-81); a wonderfully cool shot

Seventy-two years ago, brave heroes were taking to the skies to fend off the brutal German attacks.  Following great sacrifice, in winning the Battle of Britain, they forced Hitler to abandon his plans to invade Britain.  Without them, Hitler would have taken the Isles.  He would have turned his full attention on Russia.  There would never been a D-Day.  Europe would never have been liberated.  Quite likely, Nazi Germany would have eventually developed an atomic bomb.  Today’s world would be (in Charles Krauthammer’s words) dark, tortured, unrecognizable.

[Posted in 2004] Watched the 1969 film, “Battle of Britain” yesterday.  Great story, great cast.  Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, Robert Shaw, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer, Trevor Howard and Susannah York.  Even a young Ian “Lovejoy” McShane.  [It’s also stands as a lament to the great British film studios of not that long ago.]

I liked it, it seemed like a pretty good telling of the epic battle.  The aerial shots were great, for the most part (naturally, the special effects were very ‘1969’).  Some beautiful shots though.  The film also correctly emphasizes the use of the system of spotters and coordinated information relay that helped get the Spitfires in the air as quickly as possible to attack the invaders.  There’s a stirring scene at the end of the film, a series of scenes really — a major aerial battle, with the British defenders sparring with the attacking Luftwaffe; a grim but stirring aerial ballet wonderfully put to music (William Walton’s “Battle in the Air”).

A nice tribute at the end of the film, showing the nationalities of the airmen who made up ‘the Few’.  The Poles, Czechs, Canadians and other non-RAF groups were allowed to participate once the situation seemed desperate.

Origin  (Pilots/Killed in Action)
RAF & other Commonwealth (1822/339)
Fleet Air Arm (56/9)
Australia (21/14)
New Zealand (73/11)
Canada (88/20) [note, I think I read on Wiki somewhere there were 112 Cdns involved]
South Africa (21/9)
Southern Rhodesia (2/0)
Ireland (8/0)
United States of America (7/1)
Poland (141/29)
Czech (86/8)
Belgian (26/6)
Free France (13/0)
Israel (1/0)
TOTALS (2365/446)

The film ends, oddly to me, with a quote from Churchill on the screen: his ‘end of the beginning’ quote.  Not only is it misquoted, it is misplaced, as he said those words over two years later after the 8th Army’s victory over Rommel in North Africa.  Churchill’s ‘the Few’ quote is featured at the beginning of the film; without reference to Churchill, but I suppose that it’s obvious.  From his address in the House of Commons, August 20, 1940, I include the preceding words:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion.  Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

As in just about every one of Churchill’s speeches from this period, the lines that have leapt into the realm of the classic are accompanied by so many other stirring words that go unremembered.  As classic as these lines are — the few, their finest hour, we shall fight on the beaches — the speeches and addresses from which they come are themselves classic and deserve to be remembered and cherished for the role they played in allowing Britain to fight on.

For instance, other lines from the August 20, 1940 speech include:

Two or three years are not a long time, even in our short, precarious lives.  They are nothing in the history of the nation, and when we are doing the finest thing in the world, and have the honor to be the sole champion of the liberties of all Europe, we must not grudge these years or weary as we toil and struggle through them.  It does not follow that our energies in future years will be exclusively confined to defending ourselves and our possessions.  Many opportunities may lie open to amphibious power, and we must be ready to take advantage of them.  One of the ways to bring this war to a speedy end is to convince the enemy, not by words, but by deeds, that we have both the will and the means, not only to go on indefinitely, but to strike heavy and unexpected blows.  The road to victory may not be so long as we expect.  But we have no right to count upon this.  Be it long or short, rough or smooth, we mean to reach our journey’s end…


I do not think it would be wise at this moment, while the battle rages and the war is still perhaps only in its earlier stage, to embark on elaborate speculations about the future shape which should be given to Europe or the new securities which must be arranged to spare mankind the miseries of the third World War.  The ground is not new, it has been frequently traversed and explored, and many ideas are held about it in common by all good men, and all free men.

I include this part because it speaks to Churchill’s prescience once again; I think his prescience comes, at least in part, from his being such an astute historian.  Anyway, here we are, the Battle of Britain has barely been won and he’s already discussing the security arrangements required to prevent a third world war.  Indeed, later in this speech, he basically spells out NATO.

The speech concludes,

Undoubtedly this process means that these two great organizations of the English-speaking democracies, the British Empire and the United States, will have to be somewhat mixed up together in some of their affairs for mutual and general benefit.  For my own part, looking out upon the future, I do not view the process with any misgivings.  I could not stop it if I wished; no one can stop it.  Like the Mississippi, it just keeps rolling along.  Let it roll.  Let it roll on full flood, inexorable, irresistible, benignant, to broader lands and better days.

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