Seventy eight years ago, men such as Pilot Officer Geoffrey Wellum, nicknamed “The Boy,” fought and bled and died in their cramped, noisy cockpits.
Today, Wellum is one of the very few of The Few who remain to tell what it was like to fly and fight in the Battle of Britain.
After being accepted on a short-service commission with the RAF in August 1939, Geoff Wellum trained on Tiger Moths and Harvards. After earning his wings, in May 1940 he was posted to No. 92 Squadron as a Spitfire pilot.
The Battle of Britain was the crucial point of the Second World War. Britain stood alone. The Nazis, flushed with a series of astonishing victories, appeared invincible, with a far greater number of planes and pilots. Throughout the summer of 1940, in the skies above southern England, Wellum and his comrades battled the Luftwaffe to prevent invasion.
His memoir First Light is one of the best fighter pilot autobiographies available, simultaneously capturing the beauty of flight and the horror of war and lost friends.
Wellum had an extraordinary story to tell, and the book he wrote is a huge success – it has reached number three on the non-fiction bestsellers list, behind Antony Beevor's Berlin: the Downfall and The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
His first Commanding Officer was Roger Bushell, (later immortalised in The Great Escape), shot down with two others the day after Wellum's arrival, covering the evacuation of Dunkirk.
Within days, a bewildered Wellum was joining such missions. He was involved in dozens of dogfights over France and England. "I was shot up badly on three occasions," he says. "One time, I had literally to fight my way back to the White Cliffs"
Today, less than 300 of "the chaps" are still alive. Even at the height of battle, Wellum suspected that their heroism would be forgotten. "Well, it has been," he says without pity. Recent Battle of Britain Association visits of schools revealed that virtually no children were aware of the events of 1940. Nor were their teachers.
It was a day that you had been waiting for for a long time but it wasn’t until my flight commander briefed me: you better take this aeroplane. I’ll come out and show you the cockpit. I’ll show you round it and if you break it there’ll be hell to pay. And I can remember walking out to it with my helmet on with my oxygen mask flapping in time with my walking and the parachute slung over my shoulder and I looked at this lythe sort of creature sitting there on this little narrow undercarriage.
Yes, that was it and once my flight commander had started explaining it to me you settled down a bit and thought well this is what it’s all about. So many things. If you stay too long taxiing on the ground the engine overheats. Be careful of the brakes because they’re nose-heavy on the ground.
But anyway then I remember him getting off the rigg and I said “Excuse me Sir”. “You don’t call me Sir, not any more. I’m a flight commander. You can call me Brian”. I said alright, excuse me but how do you start it? And he said, Oh I’m sorry.
Eventually we started it and he got off and walked away and the engine started to my amazement the first touch of the button. Great clouds of smoke came back and then I settled down and taxied out, turned it into wind. Made certain everything was strapped up.
Open up the taps and off you went. The acceleration was something else, that one had never experienced and in the end you felt you were hanging onto the throttle stick for grim death. And the next thing I knew it had hurtled itself into the air and I was going up into the wide blue yonder.
During the Battle I abused that aeroplane. It’s a question of survival.
I got caught by some 109s one day who had just seen me do a bit of a mischief and one of them got on to me and we went round in circles for god knows how long and managed to get a quick squirt at him in front and then I had no ammunition left. I had to get out of there but it wouldn’t let me go. A spitfire could turn inside a 109 and I was gaining on him slightly and he pulled up and away and so did to.
I decided to hit the hills as it were. He turned off and I turned on my back and went straight down. You did what you called an alien turn. What you did, the ground was right down there, which was not an ideal place for it to be, and if you put the stick over the aeroplane did that. It revolved around an axis going straight down. And I ended up doing 450 knots indicated and the wings flexed. A rivet popped and I got down and my ground crew reprimanded me because I popped the rivets underneath. But I got away.
The instrument, the altimeter, there’s always a bit of a lag and I saw 6000 feet pass just like that and I thought its time to do something about this. And I ended up about 500 feet. In fact it sounds terrible I was straight and level going like a bat out of hell at 500 feet. Which is where I wanted to be. From there I went on straight on down to the deck, 50 feet going up over hills and round forests down valleys and up the other side because you’re a difficult target then. That’s the sort of thing that you learn if you survive the first three weeks.