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From our archive: Sky pilots and the Battle of Britain

by
15 September 2020

Battle of Britain Day is commemorated today. In this article, first published in the Church Times in 2010, Andrew Wakeham-Dawson and Eleanor Rance look at the part played by RAF chaplains

PA

A Spitfire and an Avro Lancaster bomber take part in a Battle of Britain memorial flight during the Battle of Britain Air Show at the Imperial War Museum in Duxford, Cambridgeshire, in September 2018

A Spitfire and an Avro Lancaster bomber take part in a Battle of Britain memorial flight during the Battle of Britain Air Show at the Imperial War Mus...

THE Battle of Britain, fought entirely in the air between 10 July and 31 October 1940, reached its greatest intensity by mid-September.

The exploits of Fighter Command — the “few”, as Winston Churchill named them — in defending Britain in the air have become the stuff of legend and history. But, given the attendant loss and distress, who was there to pick up the pieces on the ground?

This was the task of Royal Air Force chaplains, such as the Revd Guy Mayfield, who was attached to RAF Duxford in February 1940, and was to serve there throughout the Battle of Britain. His diary reflects a life immersed in the ways of the station and its personnel.

As well as the tasks one might ex­pect — prayers on the parade square, evening “surgeries”, Sunday services, and occasional offices — Mr Mayfield practised a ministry of presence. He went flying with the aircrew, spent evenings standing with the flare-path crews watching as night flying took place, attended dances and parties, and participated fully in the social life of the unit.

 

THE Royal Air Force Chaplaincy was formed by the Revd H. D. L. Viener, a Royal Navy chap­lain of 17 years’ service, shortly after the formation of the Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918, and towards the end of the First World War. It sought to bring the compassion and hope of the Christian gospel to the newly formed Air Force.

Initially, there were 21 Church of England chaplains, and 14 chaplains who represented the Roman Catholic and Methodist Churches, and the Church of Scotland. These commissioned chaplains were supported by officiating chaplains, recruited from among clergy who lived near to the air stations.

By mid-1930, RAF chaplaincies had also been established in Egypt, Aden, Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, India, and Singapore.

When the chaplaincy was founded, its structure reflected that of the Churches that provided clergy for the RAF; so the chaplaincy was organised strictly on denominational terms — very different from the cross-denom­inational approach of today.

Over the course of the Second World War, a total of 1000 clergymen served as RAF chaplains, at home and away; several became prisoners of war in Europe or the Far East, and a small but significant number lost their lives during active service.

 

RAF chaplains provided constant pastoral support for air-force personnel and their families during the Battle of Britain and the rest of the war. Among these was Padre Martin who, while based at Oakington, in Cambridge­shire, received a daily postbag of requests for news from relatives of downed aircrew, such as this one, from a young woman on his station.

Dear Sir, I wonder if you can give me advice. My husband has wrote [sic] to me, he is now a POW. Well I have been writing to his crew’s next of kin. We promised each other we would write as soon as we get news. Well, Frank says the other ‘boys’ were killed. I don’t feel as if I can write and tell them. What shall I do, if I write and say I’ve heard from my husband they will want to know about thier [sic] loved ones. Please let me know what you think I ought to do.

Mr Martin’s experience was replicated across the country as chaplains took on the task of writing to bereaved relatives, recovering bodies from the wreckage of aircraft, or burying the dead.

At Duxford, Mr Mayfield’s days were busy and long, and on many occasions he records that, just as he was about to go to bed, someone would seek him out to talk about a friend who had died, or about challenging questions faced by those living on the front line.

An early reflection from his diary — on the evening of a dance after the funeral of a pilot killed during night-flying training during the Battle of Britain — sums up the balance many RAF chaplains struggled to find:

I didn’t dance, but talked to anyone who wanted to and propped up the bar. (Lots came, for beer heightens the theological instincts of the English. I had not felt like going to the dance. I had been shaken a bit by the crash, by writing to the next of kin, and by the funeral. When I got to my quarters I wondered whether this was how an RAF chaplain should work. I didn’t know but it seemed to be the alternative to shutting oneself away both from the spilled blood and guts and from the human beings. I went on trying to follow that way. The chaplain was the one person who must not be shaken. He must not drown his sorrows. He should not be heavy, whatever his feelings were. He should be there. The policy seemed to work well, for almost always after a dance or a party, I would get people coming to see me to be taught, or to ask for help.)

The chaplains’ willingness to “be there” for their men inevitably took its toll. At the end of that year, Mr Mayfield reflects:

New Year’s Eve party in the Ser­geants’ Mess. I only stayed an hour. I could not bear it any longer. There is nothing to sing about this year. I crept back here to sleep and to try not to think about the thunder and lightning which is threatened to come upon us very soon. I hadn’t the heart to sing Auld Lang Syne in the bloody world as it now is. This is no time for ‘old acquaintance’. Who’ll be left to remember? If it is remembered next year, how much of it without bitterness and sadness, how much of it will be remembrance of times lost, of things left unsaid and unshared? I can’t sing when we are on the edge of an abyss once again and about to be robbed of comrades and friends as we were last summer. The summer was one of brilliant sunshine, heat, shim­mer­ing landscape; I remember walking to the Mess every day with the impression that the sky was black and heavy as lead. . .

 

THE Battle of Britain evidently gained its cachet quickly. As early as 1942, it was being used as a sermon illustration by RAF chaplains. “Whatever else the war has done, it has reminded us of the greatness of ordinary people,” the Revd Leslie S. R. Badham, an RAF chaplain, said in his address “These Greatest Things”.

“The blitzkrieg has thundered and flamed over cities and villages, and ordinary people have attained a new distinction. They have become heroic in a night. . . The Battle of Britain is a story of desperate odds fearlessly faced and overcome. Men with Wings, how was flesh and blood able to take those deadly chances ‘grappling in the central blue’?”

Battle of Britain Day is now commemorated annually on 15 September, and Battle of Britain Sunday on the following Sunday.

The first official Battle of Britain service was held in 1943, in St Paul’s Cathedral, to remember those who had lost their lives. The service now takes place every year, but is currently held in Westminster Abbey. The annual tradition is upheld widely elsewhere, too; services are held at cathedrals and churches throughout the country, and at RAF air stations at home and abroad.

 

The Revd Dr Andrew Wakeham-Dawson is a Staff Chaplain at HQ Chaplaincy Services (RAF). The Revd Eleanor Rance has recently retired from the RAF Chaplaincy.


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