THEY were "the few" whose role has been largely ignored. A Scottish historian has claimed that The Battle of Britain began not over the white cliffs of Dover, but the islands of Orkney.
• RAF fighters did battle with German aircraft over Orkney. Photographs: Getty Images
As the nation yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the battle between the RAF and the German Luftwaffe for control of Britain's skies, the author of a new book argues that Scotland's contribution to fending off enemy attacks has been all but forgotten.
Les Taylor, writer of Luftwaffe Over Scotland, said a three-day attack in April, 1940, when Germany's Air Force targeted Royal Navy shipping off Orkney and in Scapa Flow, was the true beginning of the famous battle that saw Winston Churchill declare: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
It was during the Battle of Orkney that the Luftwaffe first attempted to dominate British airspace and it was the first time the RAF used radar to direct fighters to specific points to intercept enemy planes.
"The air battle over Orkney was a dress rehearsal for the Battle of Britain," said Taylor, who spent ten years researching his book documenting every German attack on Scots soil during the Second World War.
"Most historians are based in England and that does tend to lead to a blinkered attitude. I expected to get a lot of flak by claiming that the Battle of Britain could be said to have started over Orkney, but I am standing my ground on it."
Taylor's comments have divided experts. The organiser of the RAF's 70th anniversary celebrations, Wing Commander "Tinny" Tinworth, said he was sticking to the official date, while the author of a book on the battle said he was "sympathetic" to Taylor's arguments.
The Battle of Britain is officially recorded as beginning on 10 July, 1940, when the Luftwaffe began a concerted attempt to destroy Britain's air defences, and so allow Hitler to launch Operation Sealion, the amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain.
The battle began with an airborne attack on ports and convoys. Over a long hot summer, in the first major campaign to be fought by air forces, the RAF managed to fight off relentless waves of German fighters, and force Hitler to ditch his invasion plans.
Three months earlier, however, the Luftwaffe tried similar tactics in Orkney. At the time Germany was invading Norway and wished to crush Britain's naval support, so waves of 60 aircraft at a time attacked shipping.
The archetypal image of the Battle of Britain, in which pilots raced across airfields to their planes, under instructions from Fighter Command who used radar to chart incoming enemy planes on expansive tables, was reflected at Wick airfield, where Hurricanes were based, Kinloss, which had a grass runway, and Sumburgh, where the Shetland Fighter Force, as it was known, was equipped with the old Gloster Gladiator bi-planes fitted with machine guns.
On the first day, 8 April, three Heinkels were shot down by 43 Squadron, based at Wick, with one plane crash-landing on Wick airfield itself.
While the two surviving German crewmen were arrested and locked up in the cells at the local police station, officers later had to go back and guard the wrecked aircraft, which had been stripped almost bare by souvenir-hunters.
As Taylor writes of the second day of aerial combat: "By the end of the day the Luftwaffe had lost almost a dozen bombers and their crews over Orkney and the Pentland Firth, with at least as many again seriously damaged and their crews wounded. These were huge air battles matching anything that would later be seen over the Channel."
Yesterday, Wing Commander Tinworthsaid: "You could argue that it started earlier and you could argue that it ended later, but those are the dates set by historians in the past, therefore that is what we are sitting with."
James Holland, the author of bestseller The Battle of Britain, said he was sympathetic to Taylor's argument that the air battle began over Orkney: "I don't completely disagree with him. It depends on what you call 'the Battle of Britain'. When the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command wrote his dispatch he said he was 'rather arbitrary' in choosing the date of 10 July, as that was the first time a large raid of over 70 aircraft came over England.
"I'm not disagreeing with what Mr Taylor is saying about April in Orkney. The only argument against it is that Britain's sovereignty wasn't threatened at any stage in April, 1940.
"I am open to the argument. The Battle of Britain date of 10 July is arbitrary and on that I agree with him."
• Luftwaffe over Scotland by Les Taylor, Whittles Publishing, 16.99. Peter Ross takes a trip in a Tiger Moth, page 14.z