MUSIC from the Central Band of the Royal Air Force resounded through a packed Westminster Abbey on Sunday as veterans of the Battle of Britain — the last of “The Few” — were honoured at a special service to mark its 75th anniversary.
Battle of Britain Sunday is marked every year in Westminster Abbey; but this year’s event was a particularly poignant and important occasion, because it marked the platinum anniversary of what historians say was Nazi Germany’s first strategic defeat in the Second World War.
The service began with a nod to the event held to mark 25th anniversary of the Battle of Britain in 1965. On that occasion, the Queen dedicated a memorial stone to the wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the west end of the abbey, near to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Fifty years on, the stone is battered and bruised, and showing its age, yet it again took centre stage in a Battle of Britain memorial service as the Prince of Wales, aided by Sir Nicholas Soames MP, Churchill’s grandson, laid a wreath at the stone. A handwritten card read “In everlasting memory. Charles.”
But the real focus was on the last of “the Few” — the remaining veterans of the battle for the skies above Britain. They took their seats in the north transept after marching the length of the abbey behind the Battle of Britain Roll of Honour. This book, which is usually kept in the abbey’s RAF chapel, records the names of the 1497 pilots and aircrew who were killed or mortally wounded during the Battle of Britain.
As they processed, the Central Band of the RAF played the “Battle of Britain March” by William Walton. It was a just one of a number of iconic musical pieces from the band, which also included “Nimrod” from the Enigma Variations; R. E. C. Davies’s “Fanfare to the Royal Air Force”; the “Royal Air Force March Past”; and, most strikingly, William Walton’s “Spitfire Prelude”, and the theme from the film Battle of Britain, by Ron Goodwin.
Beginning the service, the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, explained that it was being held “to give thanks for the dedication and heroism of members of the Royal Air Force and the allied air forces in that remarkable struggle for air supremacy over Britain in October 1940”.
He told the congregation: “Their courage marked a turning point in the war; for without their bravery it is hard to see how the Second World War could have been won.
“As we reflect today on their gallantry and fortitude, we remember all who have served and still serve in the Royal Air Force. We honour all who fight in the service of freedom; we express penitence for the suffering and destruction caused by armed conflicts; and we renew our commitment to work for justice, freedom, and decency.”
The prayers were led by the past, the present, and the future: in 1940, a 19-year-old Joan Fanshawe responded to a radio appeal, and became a plotter in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force based at RAF Uxbridge. The present was represented by Sqn Ldr Rhona Metcalfe, and Wg Cdr Anne-Marie Houghton; and the future was embodied by Officer Cadets Jasmine Holmes and Juliette Lewis.
King George VI had designated 8 September 1940 as a national day of prayer; and, on that occasion, the abbey was, once again, crowded with worshippers, the RAF Chaplain-in-Chief, the Ven. Jonathan Chaffey, said in a sermon.
“The final prayer began ‘Remember O God, for good, these watchmen who by day and night climb into the air. Let thy hand lead them we beseech thee; and thy right hand hold them.’
“Seventy-five years on, we give thanks for his hand upon our nation at that dark time. For deliverance from invasion, and for the freedom that it brought. Yet it was a close-run thing.”
More than 2000 people were present in the abbey for the service. In addition to veterans and their families, and serving RAF personnel, the congregation included the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, and the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. Also present were diplomats and military personnel from the allied countries who flew alongside British pilots; as well as military officials from the United States, and also the military attaché from the German Embassy in London.
After the service, the abbey’s congregation applauded and gave a standing ovation as the veterans made their way out of the abbey for a private reception with Prince Charles in Church House.
Later, they assembled on the Church House balcony as Prince Charles and other dignitaries made their way to the steps of the building in Dean’s Yard. There, the Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment played military marches as the Queen’s Colour Squadron performed a series of drills, forming the shape of the number 75.
As they performed, four Spitfires and two Hurricanes from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight performed a double fly-past, first heading north over Church House towards Trafalgar Square before returning, to the delight of the veterans and the rest of the crowd that had gathered to witness it.
The Battle of Britain had been intended by Hitler to be the prelude to Operation Sea Lord, the German invasion of Britain. It was a battle which, on paper at least, Germany was bound to win: it started the campaign with 2700 aircraft — Britain had 700.
Praying for a victory in the Battle of Britain, Churchill told the House of Commons in June 1940 that, “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”