THE skies above southern England echoed to the sound of massed Spitfire and Hurricane fighters yesterday, 75 years after they defended the country in the Battle of Britain.
Twenty-four Second World War fighters took off from Biggin Hill in south-east London to mark the anniversary of the defeat of Hitler’s planned Nazi invasion.
While Biggin Hill is used to noisy jets as a London airport, yesterday’s display took it back to its heyday, when it was in the forefront of the battle in 1940.
Veterans of the fight in the sky over Kent, Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire and London joined thousands of spectators who watched the planes and listened to the throaty roar of their famous Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
Will Curtis, managing director of Biggin Hill Airport, himself a modern-day Spitfire pilot, said: “This is probably the largest number of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines run on this airport since the Second World War, so it is a great privilege to see such a large number of aircraft airborne at once.”
He added that the Spitfire remained an “iconic aircraft”, saying: “The remarkable thing is that today it is still a joy to fly.
“If you think about how an 80-year-old car would feel today to drive, it is a real credit to (Spitfire designer) RJ Mitchell that to fly the Spitfire today, it is as finely tuned and as well-balanced, if not better balanced, than a modern aircraft.” The Spitfires, Hurricanes and a lone P-51 Mustang fighter gathered 75 years to the day after the hardest day of the Battle of Britain, to pay their respects to “The Few” – the pilots who took to the sky, as well as the engineers and other ground crews who kept them in the fight against the Luftwaffe.
Yesterday’s 24 aircraft scrambled before forming up into three flights, with one flying west over Surrey, West Sussex, Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight, a second flying east over the former RAF bases in Kent and the third going south-east over Sevenoaks and Ashford to make a special salute over the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-Le-Ferne on the white cliffs of Dover.
They then returned to Biggin Hill for several flypasts, before a lone Spitfire performed a victory roll over the crowd and runway.
Meanwhile, Battle of Britain pilots yesterday inspected a new coin which will stand as a tribute to their bravery.
The Royal Mint is releasing a new 50p coin showing a trio of airmen scrambling for their planes as a squadron of threatening aircraft appear to swarm overhead. At a gathering of veteran pilots and planes at Humberside Airport, Battle of Britain veteran squadron leader Tony Pickering said: “I think it’s a wonderful coin – it’s something that I would be proud to pass on to my grandson.
“It captures the scene very well”.
The day of 18 August 1940 saw Biggin Hill repeatedly attacked by bombers aiming to force the RAF to capitulate and pave the way for an invasion. But the base’s Hurricane and Spitfire squadrons kept fighting throughout the day.
Hitler eventually abandoned the invasion plan, codenamed Operation Sealion.
Striking of the new coin will “soon commence,” according to The Royal Mint.