It was a battle fought entirely in the air and the defeat of the Luftwaffe by “The Few” was a turning point in World War II.
But what do we know about the Australians who were also involved in this major battle?
Well a new book by Author, Kristen Alexander, ‘Australia’s Few and The Battle of Britain’ explores this through the stories of eight young Australian pilots who flew Spitfires and Hurricanes against the Luftwaffe.
Alexander says we may never know the exact number of Australians who served.
“It’s difficult because everywhere you go, there is a different interpretation of the number of Australians who flew in the Battle of Britain and that all boils down to a definition of Australia or Australian.
Some of the boys were born in England, some were born in Australia, some considered themselves British and of course we didn’t have a concept of Australian citizen until about 1949. We were all British subjects so that made it difficult depending on where you were looking for information.
Some (sources) said there were 21 Australians, some 24, some 32, some 37, it was very difficult so when I was selecting the boys that I wanted to write about, I was conscious I wanted a full range of men who represented the different aspects of ‘Australianess’. Even now, no one can conclusively determine or agree on how many Australians there are.”
For the book, Alexander decided to focus on the lives of Jack Kennedy (Sydney, 238 Squadron), Stuart Walch (Hobart, 238 Squadron), Dick Glyde (Perth, 87 Squadron), Ken Holland (Sydney. 152 Squadron), Pat Hughes (Cooma and Sydney, 234 Squadron), Bill Millington (Adelaide, 249 Squadron), John Crossman (Newcastle, 46 Squadron) and Des Sheen (Canberra, 72 Squadron).
Alexander follows each participant through their childhood, education, training, relationships and flying careers.
She says one of the saddest stories she researched was that of Ken Holland.
“ … he was so full of life but he had a difficult background in that his father suffered terribly through post traumatic stress, shell shock, in the First World War.
He grew up knowing he was an unwanted child. His parents allowed him to leave home under the guardianship of a much older man and he left the country and there was a definite estrangement.
But he was so vibrant and so full of life. He fell in love, head over heels with a young woman who agreed to marry him because she thought it was the right thing to do and what if he died in battle and he did die in battle.
He tried hard to learn how to fly and to apply his knowledge of flight training to a battle situation but he ended up dying because his natural enthusiasm and exuberance took over.
He shot down an enemy aircraft, he followed it down, even though he was taught not to, he knew the lesson of make sure you take otu the rear gunner otherwise you could be in danger but he didnt’ and he was shot by a rear gunner.”
Alexander says it also became obvious as she researched the lives of theses eight pilots that they all had a sheer passion for flying.
“They all wanted to fly and they tried very hard to make sure they did. John Crossman and Bill Millington for instance, both wanted to fly from a very early age. Both of their fathers forbade them flying lessons and they had to wait until they were of age.
In John Crossman’s case, his father bitterly regretted the fact that he didn’t allow his son to fly before the war because as was pointed out to him, if he had, his son might have been as safe as an instructor. Though of course, as John knew there was no safety in being an instructor because men of a thousand hours plus were being killed in flying accidents but even so his father still regretted that.”
‘Australia’s Few and The Battle of Britain’ is out now through NewSouth Books.