Thoughts old and new, on the Battle of Britain

So it all began in Orkney, not over Sussex and the weald of Kent! The Scots are bidding for a share of the Battle of Britain, held semi-officially to have begun on July 10 1940. As Patrick Bishop (btw a historian with Eamonn on the IRA) explains, analysis of the battle featuring the Few has failed to dislodge its place, secure in the pageant of British history.

I was dramatically  reminded of the anniversary yesterday in the baking heat of Osterley Park, a National Trust property in West London. There on the grass was displayed this real life, intact ME 109, shot down over Lydd, Kent at the height of the battle. You can stick your finger in the holes made by the Spitfire’s bullets in the engine cowling. Tiny, lightweight, deceptively frail looking – but fast and deadly. The pilot called  Zimmerman survived.  It was all the more  thrilling for taking me by surprise.

I’ve never met one of the Few, but during the Falkands conflict, I interviewed several Argentine pilots who straffed the task force in their own very effective home-built Pucaras

 (one sits in the Imperial War Museum).

 These guys sported moustaches, wore silk cravats and spoke pukka English. One told me: ” It is an honour to fight to descendants of the Battle of Britain.”  They were having the time of their lives.

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  • Munsterview

    I have a USA cousin that flew ‘Nam : he had a few tussles with Migs and lived to tell of the encounter. He said that once airborne and in danger he was on a total high and had an exhilarating intensive awareness that was beyond description. He said that all other life experiences before or after were pedestrian by comparison!

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    A good thing to remember this on Irelands National Day of Commemoration for those who took part in Wars.
    There is of course a very old Belfast joke about the Republican who was proud of his uncles who were pilots in the Battle of Britain……Uncle Siegfied, Uncle Hans and Uncle Fritz.

  • Greagoir O Frainclin

    In all fairness, an important battle won by the gallant and plucky Brits, given that there was a handful of Supermarine Spitfires compared to the strong air calibre of the Luftwaffe.
    The Nazi’s would have exterminated us Irish ‘peasants’ in the thousands had the Brits lost and over ran the country. However, no doubt the cronies and craw thumpers here would heve been bowing and scraping to the jackboot facists as well. The situation would have been no better here with one ruling establishment replaced with another and far more oppressive and murderous.

  • Alan maskey

    There on the grass was displayed this real life, intact ME 109, shot down over Lydd, Kent at the height of the battle. ….Tiny, lightweight, deceptively frail looking – but fast and deadly.

    The Spitfires were actually faster but tended to stall on steep dives. That meant that the gallant German, once he got a Brit (more likely Canuck or Aussie) on his tail, he had to nose dive to lose him.
    The Spitfires and ME109 were evenly matched but the Spitfires had much better engines. The ME109 began with Rolls Royce engines and any still flying do not use their original engines. The Spitfires still in service still use their original engines. British effiiciency and Kraut bungling.

    The Brits had considerable home advantage. When they raided Krautland, they lost that advantage and paid the price, the same high one the Luftwaffe paid in the Battle of Britain.

    O’Frainclin’s rantings show a sad ignorance of the times.

  • willis


    When is the book coming out? You appear to have had a ball in Buenos Aires. I still remember the poster that was mocked up for Capper(Snr)’s departure based on “The Last Detail”

  • Drumlin Rock

    Just to give a local tint, not sure if he was one of “the few”


    Pathfinder who flew 127 missions and always felt afraid

    JIM MALLEY’s service with the RAF during the Second World War extended to a remarkable 127 operations over enemy territory.

    One of his first operations was in the Vickers Wellington F for Freddie, which became a national byword after it featured in the wartime film Target for Tonight (1941). His last were in Mosquitoes of 139 squadron in which he flew 53 missions between September 1944 and April 1945, in one case flying on operations on ten successive night. His assignments included more than 30 raids over Berlin, which was the most dreaded target because of the nine-hour flight, the fighter screen and the anti-aircraft fire.

    When he resumed his career as a civil servant, Malley achieved distinction a second time when he held the pivotal post in the private office of the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland at a moment in the mid-1960s when Terence O’Neill was attempting a rapprochement in difficult circumstances with the Government of the Irish Republic. It fell to Malley to conduct the delicate negotiations which preceded the groundbreaking meeting of the two Prime Ministers, Sean Lemass of the Irish Republic and O’Neill, at Stormont in January 1965.

    James Young Malley was the son of a farmer and merchant. he was educated at Dungannon Royal School and entered the Civil Service in Belfast as a clerk. In 1940 he volunteered for the RAF and was commissioned as a navigator-bomb aimer. Remarkably, he was the eldest of three brothers to fly with Bomber Command. All three survived, in a business where the odds against survival were the most unfavourable of any branch of the Services.

    Malley received his DFC in 1941 and a Bar two years later after leading a daylight raid on shipping in the heavily fortified harbour at Tobruk. He was promoted to squadron leader shortly afterwards, and returned to England to take charge of navigator training.

    A bid to return to active operations failed on medical grounds, but on appeal a sympathetic chief medical officer-and fellow Irishman- Air Commodore O’Malley, pronounced that, while he could not pass him, he would not fail him. Malley then embarked on his Pathfinder exploits with 139 Squadron from Upwood, Near Peterborough. For this he was awarded the DSO.

    When he left the RAF in 1945 he was found to have a damaged lung, but it responded to treatment and he rejoined the Belfast Civil Service.

    After the resignation of O’Neill, Malley served as Registrar-General of Northern Ireland for nearly ten years, retiring in 1978. He was also actively concerned with the welfare of ex-servicemen and women.

    A tall, gangling figure and modest to a fault, Malley retired from Civil Service in 1979. A dedicated outdoorsman, he was to be seen regularly on the moors of Antrim and Fermanagh, his retriever at his heels, shooting grouse and pheasant.

    He once confessed to a friend that he never went on an RAF operation without feeling afraid – and doubted the word of those who claimed they did not.

    His wife Sheila died 17 years ago. He is survived by their two daughters.

    Squadron Leader Jim Malley, DSO, DFC and Bar, wartime Pathfinder and civil servant, was born on July 24, 1918. He died on June 5, 2000 aged 81.

    Words taken from the Times Newspaper 4/7/00

  • Oracle

    Just a little note to all you spitfire loving historians….. errr it was the Hurricane which won the air battle over Britain not the spitfire….

  • o’connor


    Republicans supporting the Nazis not so funny, just another example of republicans tunnel vision.

  • o’connor

    Alan maskey

    The British paid the price and because they did, and because so many Irish men stepped up to help, the likes of you and I are free to write what we like.

    And right now Im reminded of an old tale told to me by a member of my family.{ She left the Tilbury one morning: The newspaper seller was standing by his papers shouting the headlines. He paraphrased the morning news: “Bombs on Berlin and a bloody good job!”}

  • Brian Walker

    I remember Jim Malley well, just after’ he’d quit as Terence O’Neill’s – private secretary, I think his rank was. And al;thouhg not a pilot Bill Craig was a rear gunner in Wellington bombers

  • Brian Walker

    …and the Beamish brothers from my old school . I met the Air Marshal when I was a boy.

    Group Captain Francis Victor Beamish, D.S.O. and Bar, D.F.C., A.F.C. 485 (RNZAF) Sqdn., R.A.F. One of the most decorated RAF of WW2.

    From October, 1940, to March, 1941, he carried out 71 operational sorties, destroyed three enemy aircraft for certain, probably destroyed three more, and damaged others. He was later killed in action.

    Group Captain Beamish was born in 1903 at Dunmanway, Co. Cork, and educated at Coleraine Academical Institution He was commissioned from Cranwell in 1923. He retired in 1933, but returned to the Service when expansion began. He was awarded the A.F.C. in 1936, the D.S.O. in July, 1940, and the D.F.C. in November, 1940.

    He’s credited with spotting the German battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau making their celebrated Channel dash from Brest, running the gauntlet of the Royal Navy unchecked, to great embarassment. Victor was on a solo recce and his report was treated sceptically at first.

    Air Marshal Sir George Robert Beamish, KCB, CBE, RAF (29 April 1905 – 13 November 1967) was a senior commander in the Royal Air Force from the Second World War to his retirement in
    the late 1950s. Prior to World War II, whilst Beamish was in the RAF, he was a keen rugby union player, playing for Leicester Tigers and being capped 26 times for Ireland and the British Lions. He was also the chairman of the RAF Rugby Union and an Air Force rugby selector.

    George Beamish was born in Northern Ireland on 29 April 1905. He attended the Coleraine Academical Institution[1] and he and his three brothers went on to join the RAF.

    From 1923 Beamish attended the RAF College, Cranwell as a flight cadet and after he was commissioned in late 1924, Beamish was posted as a pilot on No. 100 Squadron.

    George Beamish is also accredited with getting the green of Ireland represented in the kit currently worn by the British and Irish Lions. On the 1930 tour to New Zealand, of which he was a member, the tourists wore what was by then the standard blue jerseys. These themselves caused some controversy because the New Zealand side, by then already synonymous with the appellation “All Blacks”, had an all black kit that clashed with the Lions’ blue. After much reluctance and debate, but having to defer to the rugby custom of accommodating guests, New Zealand agreed to change for the Tests and the All Blacks became the All Whites for the first time. Also on that tour, a delegation led by George Beamish expressed their displeasure at the fact that whilst the blue of Scotland, white of England and red of Wales were represented in the strip there was no green for Ireland. A green flash was added to the socks, which from 1938 became a green turnover and that has remained a feature of the strip ever since.

  • o’connor

    They dont make em like that anymore. Today someone hides behind women and children and gets called a ‘hero’.

    Malley, like all his generation, would not have called himself a hero, but he was, and he was not alone.

  • Indeed.

    There are plenty of histories around: few are as readable and enjoyable as Len Deighton’s Blood, Tears and Folly. More apposite still is his Fighter. I doubt in there’s many on this thread unaware of both.

    Where Deighton scores is not just on the ability to get words onto the page (not necessarily an ability common to all writers on the War: am I the only one to have problems with Martin Gilbert?) . It is even more so because he is strong on the technology.

    In one aspect, then, the Battle of Britain began much earlier:
    The RAF started thinking seriously about a modern low-wing monoplane with in-line engine only after Fairey tried out an American Curtiss D-12 engine in a Fairey Fox biplane. Immediately inspired by the increase in speed the in-line engine brought, Rolls-Royce designed one exactly like it: the Kestrel. In 1933 Rolls put a Kestrel into a sleek Heinkel He70 monoplane. To everyone’s amazement the big six-seater was faster than the current RAF fighter, the Super Fury …

    Of course this transformation of the He70 attracted the attention of the Germans. Messerschmitt purchased a Kestrel to power his newly designed Bf109 while he waited for a better engine. Rolls-Royce, without government money, improved the Kestrel to make the Merlin engine. It was tried out in the Hurricane, a monoplane version of a long line of Hawker biplanes. When the more sophisticated Spitfire was ready, the Merlin powered that too. Perhaps it’s not going too far to say that the Anglo-German hybrid, the Kestrel-powered Heinkel, inspired both the Messerschmitt 109 and the Merlin-powered Spitfire that confronted it.Somewhere in there, too, Deighton manages to mention the ups (the Germans used 87 octane fuel while … the RAF had overcome the limitations of the [US] Neutrality Act to secure … incomparably superior 100 octane fuel) and the downs (The RAF tried to get cannon-armed Spitfires ready … but failed).

    Deighton has a paragraph specifically on the point Oracle makes here:

    In 1940 Hawker Hurricane fighters outnumbered the Spitfires in RAF service. To speed its production the designers employed many components from Hawker’s biplane fighters. Its design was simpler than that of Supermarine’s Spitfire, and its performance was inferior to the [Bf109] Emil’s, but the Hurricane was rugged. RAF fitters and mechanics were familiar with its components, and battle-damage could often be repaired at squadron workshops instead of having to be carried out by the manufacturers. Hurricanes could be manufactured more quickly than Spitfires. By the time war came, 200 Spitfires had been built using 24 million man-hours while 578 Hurricanes had been produced from only 20 million man-hours …

    Ah that lovely elliptical wing! and such a bastard to make!

    [Thanks to the non-availability of any preview function in the all-new, all-shiny Slugger, E&OE.]

  • Nice one, Brian! Now write the Beamish biographies for the DNB: you know they should be there.

    In passing, we’ve all sat through Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain. Probably repeatedly. Not a dry eye in the house.

    So to its end-titles, with the listing of nationalities of the pilots. I assume that’s also the list on wikipedia. With a subtle difference: the film lists “Israeli” (damn difficult when you think about it), whereas wikipedia, more correctly, has “Palestine Mandate”. Who he?

    Then there are just the ten pilots identified as “Irish”. Has anyone identified them? Isn’t it a bit odd that they might insist on, or be granted that distinction? I’d have speculated that, with the composition of the officer corps being what it was, there’d be a dose more “Anglo-Irish”, capable of swinging both ways. One assumes, too, that the 2,353 “British” pilots must have included a small stack of Ulstermen.

  • Anonymous

    The Daily Telegraph had a letter printed that said that many RAF officers refused to wear their uniforms off base as they would be ostracized in the street for their perceived failings in protecting people from bombing raids.

  • Reader

    Malcolm Redfellow: Then there are just the ten pilots identified as “Irish”. Has anyone identified them?
    It’s complicated. Irish Citizens living in GB were dual citizens and subject to conscription, so probably wouldn’t be counted in the 10. Neither would Nationalists or Unionists living in NI, who would probably have been classed as UK volunteers. Free State unionists might have applied as British or Irish Citizens. So the 10 would be non-UK residents who traveled to volunteer for the RAF as Irish Citizens.

  • Reader @ 12:04 PM:

    So far, so good.

    Both Clair Willis and
    Brian Girvin (though neither specifically in this precise connection) refer to Irish recruitment into the RAF.

    Girvin (page 266 in my paperback) gives figures of total recruitment into the RAF of 12,200 from NI and 11,050 “for Eire”. Willis has a telling comment (pages 226-7):

    Much of the training, particularly for those invlved in skilled jobs in gunnery or the Air Corps, was undertaken with the aid of the British Services anyway. Two RAF liaison officers were stationed at Baldonnel Aerodrome, and the RAF also supplied instructors and flight-training manuals, so that a move from one service to the other can hardly have felt like straightforward desertion.

    That stretches any definition of “neutrality”. So, implicitly, does the official Air Corps web-page:

    During the emergency, there is no record of any Air Corps aircraft actually engaging in combat with over flying machines of either side, despite the many thousands of flying hours spent on patrol duties. Very many liberated barrage balloons were, however downed by corps fighters throughout these turbulent years and somewhere between 163 and 200 aircraft crashed or forced landed on Irish soil on or near our shores. In many cases it became the responsibility of the Air Corps technical staff to examine all the wreckage, make safe weapons and explosives and, where possible to salvage the complete airframes, which were usually in very inaccessible areas creating hardship for those involved. Some of these aircraft were handed back to the allies when requested. Six found their way in to the Air Corps including one Lockheed Hudson patrol aircraft, a Fairy Battle and three Hurricanes …

    Any further, and more detailed, guidance or references welcome.

  • Munsterview

    Malcom R

    Somewhat off topic but still pertinent to the discussion!

    There is a whole untold story here : behind the optics. Churchill’s public ranting against Dev and Devs pained replies, the reality was that Ireland was ‘ neutral on the side of the Allies’ and did everything possible to assist the Allied cause short of openly compromising this stand.

    The IRA have been presented during this period as being pro-Nazi, nothing could be further from the truth. During the thirties Ireland produced its own Irish Fascist Party, The Blue Shirts.

    Blue was the Old Gaelic National color, They were let by a former Free State General who had also been a former Head of the Police. The top tier were no small potatoes, many had been high ranking Free State Army Officers while other members and fellow travelers could be found in the top tiers of society also.

    The Blueshirt Movement had several armed clashes with the State, members were killed in these clashes, the movement was later incorporated into what is now the Fine Gael Party and these dead ate regarded as ‘martyrs’ by the party although they were killed by forces acting with the authority of the very State that others in Fine Gael had set up and went in a killing spree against Republicans to maintain. I will be returning to this topic with a full essay in the future!

    At its height there were over ten thousand in Blue Shirt uniform and that included women and children. They even had elected TDs one of whom said, and this is a matter of Dail Record, one of whom said ” The Black Shirts were Victorious in Italy, the Brown Shirts were victorious in Germany as assuredly the Blue shirts will be acceptable in the Irish Free State……”

    In the early seventies at a Fine Gael National Conference in Cork when Cosgrave went into a rant about ‘blow ins’ and ‘mongrel foxes’ against Garrett Fitzerald and Costellow’s Towards a just society program’ I was in the hall as my late wife was meeting Fine Gael relatives after the conference and we called in time for the closing speech.

    Allowing for the euphoria at these conferences etc, it was still amazing to hear the shouts of ‘Up The Blue Shirts’ that greeted Cosgrave’s condemnation of liberal principles and the proponents of it whom he described as “Blow ins who could now blow up of blow out” but that there was no place for them in Fine Gael.

    I was even more taken aback to see some of those standing at the back of the hall and plenty more throughout the standing audience, men and women alike giving Fascist right arm salutes. The conference was well covered by the press yet not one photo of a Fascist salute appeared or reference to the ‘ Up The Blueshirts’ shouts.

    When Fianna Fail got into power they opened the Gail Gates and released All Republican prisoners as was done with Long Kesh only more immediately. These released Republicans did not exactly mellow towards Free Staters during their judicial internment and the were to the fore in the Republican movement in battering the Blue Shirt movement off the streets in Southern Ireland and in fact. This has never been forgotten or forgiven by Fine Gael !

    Much of the 1920 to 1940 period of history has never been properly exposed or investigated. The old saying that ‘History belongs to the victors and the victor will never be asked if they told the truth’ still applies. When Tim Pat Coogan did a Biography for Dev in the US, he failed to find a Marriage Cert for Dev’s parents or his alleged father De Velara! Many in Dev’s Mother’s home area believed that the man was to be found closer to home with a much less exotic name! This man was also married at the time !

    It is not surprising that Fianna Fail should re-write history or that Dev should cover the past! Neither is it surprising given Irelands very good relationships with the German State that it is not keen to expose just how ‘ un neutral ‘ the Free State really was!

  • Peter Smith

    looking please for the complete words of the poem dedicated to The Few heard on Radio 4 on Friday but not quick enough to get it down. I think by Flt Lt William Walker including the line
    “Their stories told in vapour trails”
    Thank you
    Peter Smith
    9 years old in Middx at the time!