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“Remembering the few, who are – sadly – getting fewer”

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Second World War veteran Harold Edward 'Dutch' Holland reads High Flight during the ceremony. Credit: Cpl Darcy Lefebvre Second World War veteran Harold Edward 'Dutch' Holland reads High Flight during the ceremony. Credit: Cpl Darcy Lefebvre

The Royal Canadian Air Force paid tribute to its fallen comrades, and the steely resolve of a nation at war, during parades and memorial services that were held across Canada on Sunday, September 15 to honour the 72nd anniversary of The Battle of Britain.

In Ottawa, where the national ceremony took place, 99-year-old Arthur Tinker donned a suit and his wartime medals to attend the parade with his cousin Robert Roushan, a peacetime veteran of the RCAF. They attend the ceremony every year.

Wing Commander (ret’d) Tinker served in Europe and North Africa in the Second World War as a staff officer and executive assistant to Air Marshall Austin Curtis, Chief of the Air Staff from 1947 until 1953. For his service, WComd Tinker became a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

“It’s a great day today,” said WComd Tinker. “I don’t know how they pull it off every year, but they do.”

WComd Tinker enlisted in the RCAF auxiliary in 1934 and could very well be one of the last surviving members of the pre-war RCAF. The ceremony brought back some happy and not-so-happy memories. “There were good times, and ones I would rather not remember, but they were the best of times nonetheless.”

Much has been said about the Battle of Britain, a battle that is recognized by historians as one of the greatest air battles and a turning point in the course of the Second World War. July 10, 1940 is normally accepted as the first day of the Battle of Britain, marking the first attack of a convoy in the England Channel by the Luftwaffe, in preparation for an invasion of the British Isles.

From that day on, German attacks increased in both scope and frequency with proportional reaction from the Royal Air Force (RAF). As for the end date, opinions vary among historians, but many point to October 12 as the date on which a German army bulletin was issued officially signaling Hitler's decision to retreat.

Canadians celebrate Battle of Britain Day on the Sunday closest to September 15, 1940, a day that represents the "high water mark" of the battle. A massive counter-attack from the RAF inflicted such a blow to the attacking Luftwaffe that Hitler decided to postpone his plans to invade Great Britain. On that day, the largest number of attacking German aircraft met unexpected resistance from the RAF.

Dr. Andrew Pocock, British High Commissioner to Canada credited “the people and the machines” for keeping the Nazis at bay after having invaded Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

“The British Isles now faced something fearful and alien, a vast contagion from the air. The front line would be everywhere, in cities, towns and villages. There had been aerial bombardments before in Spain and Poland, but nothing on the scale gathering across the Channel – a great air armada as a prelude to invasion.”

Len Bridges, 92, whose home in London was damaged three times during the battle from vibrations coming off anti-aircraft guns on the ground, served with the British Army’s Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in Egypt during the Second World War. As the battle raged, he was taking his basic training in Nottingham, north of London in the Midlands.

“On September 15, I was working at one of the biggest ammunition dumps in the country and was tasked, along with many other young men, to pull ammunition out of boxes. I remember that day because some of the last Hurricanes and Spitfires were sent up into the sky because Britain had so few left. The next morning we jumped for joy because the bombers seemed to retreat after that. The [Germans] had had enough. They got their a-s kicked.”

Many Canadians served within the RAF’s Fighter Command, which comprised pilots and ground crew from 13 allied nations. Whether flying with No. 1 Fighter Squadron of the RCAF or with other RAF Squadrons, including 242 (Canadian) Squadron, Canadians “put their lives at risk to defend the ideals of society and the way of life that we so cherish today,” said Defence Minister Peter McKay before the ceremony.

Canada’s efforts came with a price; of the more than 100 Canadian pilots who flew in the battle, 23 were lost forever. Countless other Canadian men and women served as aircraft mechanics, anti-aircraft gunners, radar operators and plotters. Plotters worked in an early form of air traffic control, monitoring that played a vital role in the Battle of Britain and the bombing of British cities that followed. The majority of plotters were female, members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force.

“It is true the pilots were the tip of the spear,” said Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, commander of the RCAF, “but the ground crews, whose support role was crucial, faced other challenges. They worked relentlessly in all kinds of weather, repairing aircraft, and getting them back up in the air in record time. They were also in the line of fire when the Luftwaffe concentrated their attacks on RAF airfields. The network of observers and radar systems was also central to the successful outcome of the battle, supplying vital strategic information to mission planners.”

Although Battle of Britain ceremonies held at RCAF wings across the country commemorated the valiant acts of “the few – who are sadly getting fewer”, as High Commissioner Pollock described them, they are a call to future generations.

“We are likely the next air force so it’s only natural that as members of the air cadets we would participate in such a large air event and show our respects to those who have come before us,” said 17-year-old air cadet Andrew Lumley of 872 Squadron, who wants to become an RCAF pilot.

Fellow squadron member 16-year-old Skye Wilson agreed.

“I think the Battle of Britain parade is actually one of the best parades that you can actually do as a cadet. It’s something that represents what we as Canadians and the air force can do. It probably means a lot for the veterans to see kids like us underneath their shoulders looking up to them and saying, ‘that might be us someday’. I know for a fact I want to go into the air force after high school as a military police officer. It would be the fulfilment of a dream.”

Mr. Bridges, whose wartime service has long passed, says the opportunity to thank members of Allied air forces should always be taken.

“Like millions of others, I used to look up at the skies during the battle and think that if those boys had not done what they did, England as a country would have been finished.

“In those days, it didn't matter if you were in the armed forces or a civilian, we knew that those boys up there in the sky saved everybody's life.”

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