For the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain
Given on Sunday 19th September 2010 at The Abbey by The Vicar, Canon Eric Woods
Some years ago I received from my last-surviving uncle – now, alas, no longer with us – a photograph which meant so much to me that I framed it and it now occupies pride of place in my study – alongside another, I might add, of the Queen and me!
My uncle's photograph was taken without his knowledge at a Remembrance Sunday Parade in Bury St Edmunds, the Suffolk town from which all my family comes. It was taken by a photographer from the local newspaper, and it appeared in that paper with the caption An Old Soldier Remembers. ‘Old soldier indeed!’ my uncle wrote. ‘You’d think they'd know an RAF tie when they saw one.’
He might have added that they might also have recognised the Distinguished Flying Medal which he won early in the Second World War as a very young man before he received his Commission, and the Distinguished Flying Cross which he won later as an Officer. But he was not that kind of man. And no doubt a young reporter can be forgiven for not recognising the DFM or the DFC. Perhaps he should also be forgiven for not being able to tell an RAF tie from a regimental one. But it all betokens a forgetting of what should be a remembrance. And I want to suggest to you tonight that remembrance is absolutely vital to us all if we are to hold on to what is true and right and of good report in our land.
Let me explain what I mean. Today is Battle of Britain Sunday. Until a few years ago Sherborne used to mark that with a Parade to Evensong, and the laying of a wreath at the War Memorial. But it’s seventy years ago now, and survivors are few. For most people in Britain today, knowledge of the Battle of Britain amounts to not much more than the half-remembered sequences of a Jack Hawkins’ film. So perhaps I need to retell the story tonight.
Put simply, Battle of Britain Sunday commemorates the great victory won by the Royal Air Force which saved Britain from invasion in 1940. The enemy's object was to eliminate the RAF in the air and on the ground, and to obtain air superiority in preparation for a seaborne and airborne invasion. Confident of success, the gathered formations of the Luftwaffe along the French and Belgian coasts began their first heavy onslaught early in July, directed against British shipping and the channel ports. The intention of this first phase of the battle was to draw the RAF into the conflict and wear down its strength. The second phase, from the 8th to the 18th of August, consisted of intensive day operations against coastal radar stations and fighter airfields. The third phase began after a five-day lull with increased night attacks, and raids on the fighter airfields in the London area.
The daylight assault on London itself marked the beginning of the fourth phase which opened on 7th September with attacks on the docks which, though serious in themselves, brought vital relief to the fighter airfields which had been under such pressure. This phase lasted most of the month and reached a climax on the 15th September, when over one thousand sorties were flown against the capital in the afternoon and at night. The Luftwaffe suffered a heavy defeat, losing 56 aircraft.
Throughout October, the fifth and last phase saw the decline of enemy daylight attacks on London and an increase in the night bombing of Britain's major ports and industrial centres. At the beginning of the battle the Luftwaffe had no fewer than 2,790 aircraft to launch against England. To meet this aerial armada, we had fewer than 60 fighter squadrons, representing some 650 aircraft, and the ground staff had to work sometimes 16 hours a day to keep the machines in the air. Between 24th August and 6th September alone, Fighter Command lost 103 pilots killed and 128 seriously wounded, while 366 fighters had been put out of action. The position was indeed grave.
On Sunday, 15th September, came what Sir Winston Churchill called ‘one of the decisive battles of the war’, and with it the Luftwaffe's greatest defeat. In Churchill's immortal 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, turned 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.
The fact that I can retell that story, simply and briefly, is utterly dependent on the freedom which was won for us by ‘the few’ and all the rest of the allied forces who fought against tyranny and oppression during the Second World War. If Adolf Hitler had won that conflict, we probably wouldn't be here now, and I certainly wouldn't be able to tell the story. When in 1933 Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he immediately carried out a purge of those teaching in Germany's schools and universities. And the very first departments he purged were not those of chemistry or physics or technology, as you might have imagined, but those of history. You see, Hitler realised much more clearly than many people do today, that he who controls our understanding of the past will also control our perception of the present and our ambitions for the future. Thus it was that Hitler was able to insist that in every school and every university in Germany it should be taught that there was one race – a master race – which had been destined to achieve world domination, and that every other race (especially the Jewish) were somehow inferior or even sub-human. By asserting the superiority of the Aryan peoples, Hitler was able to justify his persecution of the Jewish and other minorities in Germany and enlist the great majority of the German people in his evil crusade.
We should not have been surprised by that. It has been the technique of tyrants and dictators down the ages. In more recent times, South African schools were required to teach that when the first white explorers reached the southern half of Africa from the fifteenth century on, they found a land which was empty. It was the white man, they taught, who claimed that empty land, and other races which arrived later. Thus the whites were the hosts and the rest were the guests – and it was the hosts who made the rules. That was how apartheid was born, from a twisted piece of historical fiction. And to this day you will find the same manipulation of history by Catholic and Protestant in Northern Ireland, by Jew and Arab in Israel, by settler and Aborigine in Australia and so on and on and on.
In the Old Testament, the story of Israel's bondage in Egypt and subsequent journey to the Promised Land was so important that it was told over and over again, from father to son, generation after generation. And in the New Testament the story of human captivity to sin and our redemption by Jesus Christ on the Cross was so important that that story – the greatest story ever told – was proclaimed over and over again. And that is why I tremble that our generation, still at the beginning of a new century and millennium, is not only failing to tell the stories any more, but is even beginning to dismiss them as irrelevant and somehow not ‘politically correct’. When the essential stories of our island race and – far more importantly – the essential stories of our salvation history, can no longer be told because a group of self-appointed thought police have decreed them to be politically incorrect, then we have to be very much on our guard unless the tyranny against which this nation fought in 1940 is not creeping in by the back door. We must remember, in order to be renewed and re-inspired by the stories which are our foundation history. Of course it is not enough if you only come to church for Battle of Britain Sunday, and then Remembrance Sunday. These are but two stories in our history and there are greater ones still to be heard in this church, Sunday by Sunday. You need to hear, time and again, the story of how God made us and loves us, keeps us and redeems us. But the fact that you are here this evening should give us all heart. Seventy years ago our freedom to hear any of the stories of our nation or our salvation was in peril. That freedom has been preserved for us by the few. We, the many, must remember. And be thankful.