MUCH seems to have been written about one particular group of young men
during the early years of the Second World War. They captured the imagination
of British people then, and have continued to inspire them since. This book,
named after the “Fighter Boys” who star in it, helps us to see why.
The narrative leads us through the events that foreshadow the Battle of
Britain; the first half of the book takes us from the trenches of the First
World War to the fall of France. Only with this background in place does the
reader go on to see how the Battle of Britain unfolded. This battle was a
completely new experience for the people of Britain. It was no surprise that it
passed into legend.
One of the strands that strikes home is that of youth. We all think of the
“Fighter Boys” as dashing young men. But what is so easy to forget is
the youthfulness of the RAF itself. As the clouds of the Second World War were
gathering, the structures and systems of the RAF were still being tested; the
aircraft were still being designed.
It was a time when cutting-edge technology met new ideas and young people.
It was a combination of events that meant that exciting things were bound to
happen, whatever the cause. The boys were young, scared, and caught up in the
pure excitement of doing new things and pushing against boundaries.
They took with them their dogs and touches of home such as photos of
parents. On days off, they were just as likely to be visiting their old school
or sleeping the whole day through as going into town to cause chaos as only
drunk young men know how.
Another strand that comes through is the ordinariness of these men. The RAF
had been founded on surprisingly meritocratic lines for that time. If you were
able, committed and showed sufficient competence, you were given the
opportunity to fly. Rank and class did not have to play a part. This was
counter-cultural in the military world. But the RAF was a new creation, and was
able to try new things.
The author, Patrick Bishop, concentrates his account around a group of
people and their recollections, using diaries and correspondence to explore the
battles in the boys’ own words. “It was a victory of spirit as much as of
skill, and the spirit of the Fighter Boys was that of Britain. They came from
every class and background and every area. Their values and attitudes were
those of the people they were defending,” he says.
Emotionally, this battle was different from that which the Army and Navy
were fighting. The RAF were living at home, and, when they flew, it was over
their people and their towns. Patrick Bishop mentions several instances in
which pilots saw the destruction of their family homes or familiar land-marks,
as they chased the enemy through the sky. He charts, too, how women plotted the
loss of their sweetheart on the map in the Ops room. This changed the
perspective quickly. No longer was this a game of skill alone. The legendary
bravery of the Battle of Britain is real, but the motivation for this fight
over England was deeply personal.
In the air, there were many risks to the pilot. Until 1928, we read,
parachutes were not allowed in the aircraft just in case the pilot lacked
sufficient moral courage, and jumped when the going got tough. Once safely out
of a doomed plane, individuals struggled with broken limbs, burned hands,
landing in the sea, finding their Mae West was damaged, having to swim, and —
perhaps most galling — being mistaken for the enemy and attacked by locals.
If the same challenge were to come today, to 21st-century men and women,
would they rise to meet it? Would they succeed, or are they too soft and too
I believe these challenges could be met by a new generation. The boys and
girls with whom I work are young, filled with enthusiasm and with desire to
push boundaries. Those who fly have been known to talk in the bar of “The Fear”
that grips when they are working at the limits of their capacity. They go into
conflict zones and operate under fire. They put their lives on the line. I hope
we would never have to test my theory to the degree of intensity and loss that
was the Battle of Britain, but I have no doubt that our young men and women
could continue to rise to such tasks.
Fighter Boys tells us of a threat that has passed, of the amazing —
not to say foolhardy — feats that took place during that great battle for
Britain. But it also reinforces a timeless truth: that ordinary people, young
and untried people, when given good cause and emotional support, can do the
most selfless and extraordinary things.
The Revd (Squadron Leader) Eleanor Rance is station chaplain at RAF Benson
Fighter Boys by Patrick Bishop is published by
Perennial/HarperCollins at £7.99 (
Chapter 3 talks of the wonder experienced by many of the Fighter Boys when
they had their first trip in an aeroplane. What engenders such wonder among
young people today?
How important is a sense of mystery in life?
What do we learn about the character of the Fighter Boys?
Is there a quality that marked them out from others?
What motivated the Fighter Boys and made them willing to fight?
The author quotes from an eye-witness account of people returning to
their bombed-out homes: “Quite a number of people explained to me how they had
swept up rooms that they agreed no one could possibly live in again” (page
282-3). What seemingly pointless actions do we perform in the face of tragedy
in order to normalise life?
How did the Battle of Britain shape this country’s fortunes in the War and
its final outcome?
How did the Fighter Boys’ part in the War affect their families and friends
who were not combatants?
How important was the social class of the men in the squadrons and on the
To what extent did the War change attitudes towards class?
The author believes that it was loyalty that sustained the morale of the
pilots. Do you agree?
Spirit of the RAF: (upper, below) Jon "Killy" Kilmartin; and (lower,
below), in front of his aeroplane, Michael Crossley. The photos, from the
Imperial War Museum, are used to illustrate Fighter Boys.
Next Month's Title Companions of Christ by
Margaret Silf. Canterbury Press at £7.99 (
Author notes Margaret Silf was born and brought up in
post-war Sheffield. She was an only child and spent many hours roaming
moorlands. She believed that God lived in the woods at the back of her house,
and would leave notes for him there about the events in her life. She read
English at the University of London, before working abroad as an interpreter
for a number of years, later becoming a technical writer for the computer
industry. Her previous books include Landmarks (1998),
Wayfaring (2001), and At Sea with God (2003).
Book notes The subtitle of Companions of Christ, “
Ignatian spirituality for everyday living”, neatly sums up the
contents. It is a straightforward guide to the wisdom of Ignatius Loyola,
founder of the Jesuit Order, with a practical bent. Exercises and questions
help readers to put what they have learned into practice in their own prayer
life, but without making this an onerous task. It is a short book of just over
100 pages, written in the accessible style that has made Margaret Silf one of
the most popular authors of recent years on the spiritual life.
Books for the next two months: February:
Mr Golightly’s Holiday by Salley Vickers March:
The Bridge of San Luis Ray by Thornton Wilder