Several old friends, some neglected but never forgotten, dropped on our doorstep yesterday with a resounding thump. Somewhat mystified, I carried the large and heavy box to the kitchen table and set to slicing through the layers of tape and cardboard. Packaging moved aside, there laid a behemoth. The new edition of Men Of The Battle Of Britain had arrived.
Its cover instantly conjures up a myriad of imagery, anecdotes and knowledge from the time. Young men lounging in the sunshine, of what would otherwise have been the perfect summer, enjoying some rest and camaraderie but still having to force a smile for the camera while one of their aircraft sits quietly attached to its starter. It is a picture (colourised as it is) of tranquility but, like the Hurricane behind them, the men are ready to go at a moment’s notice. Who knows, perhaps they were all airborne and climbing for height three minutes after this photo was taken.
These seven men are, of course, included within the pages of this “Biographical Directory of The Few”. They are accompanied by almost 3,000 other aircrew – pilots, air gunners and observers. The Few, as is known well today, were actually quite a lot but never has a collective noun been so emotive. These were the men who stood before the overwhelming and seemingly unstoppable force that was the Luftwaffe. For the first time, however, the Luftwaffe, the brilliant tactical air force that it was, was not supporting its own. It was on its own and being asked to carry the momentum. Despite this unfamiliar situation, German expertise almost won the day. A change in tactics, egotistical upper leadership and, of course, a defending force that would become a legend, decided otherwise. That’s all a bit simplified but it was a close run thing and the character of the RAF was well and truly tested. It was not found wanting.
In this 75th anniversary year of the most famous of air battles, the one that remains a household name, the author, Kenneth G Wynn, has updated and expanded his landmark work that was originally published in 1989. The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust is behind this new edition that includes recently discovered photos (mostly printed as headshots to accompany the relevant entry), new aircrew entries and additional information for the ‘original’ men listed. All of this is contained within a hardback of epic proportions – more than 600 pages, about two inches thick, and a large format. I never know the official measurement details of books but this thing is as tall as a sheet of A4 but wider. It could be a coffee table book but there would be few items of furniture that could withstand its weight.
Every single page of this book has character. Every single man in this book needs to be lauded whether they flew one sortie or 100. I do not read Battle of Britain books regularly but, as I have mentioned before, it is what started me off in this ‘game’ so I have a lot of affection for this period of the war. Going through this new edition was like catching up with old friends. There are chaps in this book I haven’t thought about for years but instantly recognised them and even greeted them quietly with a nod and a smile as I read their entry. Men who I know well from their books – Wellum, Vigors, Hughes, Page, McDonnell and Crossman to name a very few – leap off the page. It is those they share the page with, however, that are just as deserving of attention. This is where Wynn’s work is at its most important. Many of the men listed have featured in previous books, some have written their own as mentioned above, but, for the most part, they are often just a name in a photo caption, ORB or casualty list. Here, as much as is reasonable is written about them and, like the memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, they are permanently remembered. This book is as much a memorial as any stone wall.
This is one of those books, like Middlebrook’s Bomber Command War Diaries, that, when it was first released, set many hearts aflutter. It is a legend pure and simple. The layout is straightforward. The men are, as you’d expect, listed alphabetically with their full names, service number, nationality and postings during the battle. Each entry is at least fifty words long, and some run to half a page, but the majority are considerably longer than that. Most include a photo although it was interesting to note how many still don’t. There is a short appendix of additional photos which, having checked some of the names, I can only assume were discovered very late in the production of the book. The author’s work, and that of the Memorial Trust, clearly continues.
The writing is of a high quality despite its necessary brevity and, being a “Biographical Directory”, the men’s pre-war and post-Battle lives are detailed well. It is fascinating to read of an airman’s actions during the Battle and then follow his service career while yearning for him to survive the war. So many didn’t.
Grab every superlative you can think of and throw them away. None can come close to describing this book. It has a presence, a gravity, about it. It is not something that lends itself to being read cover to cover like a memoir but it draws you in and it is hard to stop reading, to stop discovering, and tear yourself away. Every page is one of interest, adventure, valour, courage and sacrifice. Flick through to a name you know and you will discover it surrounded by others of equal stature. One thing leads to another in this book and time seems to slip away. Time is slipping away for the last remaining Battle of Britain veterans and there will sadly come a day in the not too distant future when they are all gone. There will, however, always be this book. It is an encyclopedia, a Who’s Who and a bible all in one. It is Kenneth G Wynn’s Men Of The Battle Of Britain.