FORTY per cent of young Britons do not know what the Battle of Britain was, reveals a study published today on the 75th anniversary of the start of the first major World War Two campaign to be fought entirely in the skies.
The highly significant battle for air supremacy was waged in the summer of 1940 against Hitler’s Luftwaffe and was a fight for survival after the Nazis and their allies had conquered the rest of Europe.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s stirring speech paid tribute to “The Few” – the Spitfire and Hurricane fighter pilots involved in the pivotal battle.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” Churchill told the nation.
Despite this, the survey of 18 to 14-year-olds also revealed that only 51 per cent knew who The Few were, 10 per cent thought the battle took place last year and a further 10 per cent thought it was the name given to a Viking attack.
The poll of 1,000 people, carried out by Opinion Matters, was commissioned by the RAF Benevolent Fund, the RAF’s leading welfare charity, ahead of the anniversary.
Air Marshal Chris Nickols, RAF Benevolent Fund controller, said: “As the nation marks this milestone, it is my hope a new generation will take time to discover more about the pilots and the ground crew who bravely answered their country’s call.”
By the end of the air battle around 544 Allied pilots had been killed – approximately one in six of those who fought. The Luftwaffe lost around 1,900 aircraft and 2,500 crew.
Amongst those taking part was 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron RAuxAF, composed mainly of “weekend gentlemen fliers” who emerged as the top-scoring squadron in the entire RAF.
Only 68 per cent of younger people agreed it was important to mark such anniversaries, in contrast to 74 per cent of older people.
Air Marshal Nickols added that last year alone the RAF Benevolent Fund had spent nearly £19 million supporting almost 40,000 RAF personnel, past and present, and their families. In tribute to The Few and their memory, the RAF Benevolent Fund interviewed some of the veterans who lived through the Second World War.
RAF veteran Stan Hartill, who was ground crew for a Spitfire squadron, working 15-hour days to keep fighter pilots in the air, said: “There was nothing between England and the German armies but the RAF. We knew we were fighting for our lives.”
David Ross, historian and co-author of “The Greatest Squadron of Them All” – the story of the 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron – said: “This ignorance is a pretty sad state of affairs.
“There is definitely a large gap in our education for young people which needs addressed.
“I’d very much like to see the Battle of Britain included in the history syllabus. It would educate people on why we went to war in a clear manner, something which cannot be said for many later conflicts when soldiers did not know what they were fighting for.”