Where I live now I can stand outside and point through a 360 degree circle and name the locations of the Battle Of Britain airfields. North-west is Gravesend; north-east are Croydon, Kenley and Biggin Hill; to the west are Tangmere, Detling and Headcorn; south and east are Hawkinge, Lyminge and Manston. There are more but yesterday, 10th July was the marked anniversary of the start of the Battle Of Britain.
I sat in my armchair feeling a little lethargic, maybe it was just the heat. Then I heard a sound, faint at first but building - jet engines but not the usual sound made by a passing passenger plane. No, this was a sound that bought a familiar tightness to the gut and set the adrenalin racing. I had never moved so fast - I was out of the back door and almost leaping over the back fence - or was it falling over. Who cares - I was there in time to see a massive contrail blossoming out as nine jets screamed behind the bungalows opposite. Excited, I rushed back inside and dragged my wife outside. Well, the planes had gone and we thought that was that.
It wasn't for no sooner had she gone back inside than the planes came back in diamond formation. I don't know how long it lasted but I stood there mesmerised as I and a neighbour stood outside watching what almost seemed to be a private display by the Red Arrows. Overhead they streamed out with red, white and blue smoke - singly nine aircraft ripped the sky apart.
In doing so this display took me back to the twentieth anniversary of the Battle Of Britain. September 1960 I was with 173 Squadron Air Training Corps based at St. Mary Cray, Orpington, Kent. As such I was part of the Guard Of Honour at R.A.F Biggin Hill. Flights of Hawker Hunters, Gloster Javelins rubbed wings with classics like Spits and Hurricanes.
There I was crisp in uniform, belt whited with blanco; brass gleaming and boots polished to the point that I could see my (exaggeration) face in them. Lee Enfield .303 held at salute as the local dignitaries, Air Commodores and Air Marshalls filed past. But it was the guy at the back with the balding head, hair slicked back and wearing the familiar sports jacket and grey flannels who stumped by who stopped me from looking eyes front. My mouth went dry as one of my heroes went by but not before I saw a mischievous glint in his eye followed by a slight nod. This meeting with the fighter ace Douglas Bader was by no means the end of a magic day.
Later that day I flew for the first time. I was invited by the crew of a Lancaster bomber 'G George' for a quick flight which took us over Orpington. It was noisy and I never realised just how cramped it was. The experience was something else and when I got home my dad said that he had seen the Lancaster fly over the house. Unfortunately, he thought that I was telling a tale.
Twenty one years later I met up with G-George. The Lanc is now housed at the War Museum at the Memorial in Canberra, Australia. And, yes, I got into trouble because I climbed over the barrier to have a good look. After I explained why I had done it I was cautioned not to do it again.
I love the Red Arrows but I do relate more to the planes that flew in the war. Look to the sky and see a Hurricane or a Spitfire and they make me think of a time when the British, Poles, French, Czech, Australian, New Zealanders, Canadian, American (most of them volunteers because the States hadn't entered the war) to name some of the pilot nationalities fought an air war that brought an end to Hitler's plan to invade our island. Amongst these pilots were men like the South African Sailor Malan; Al Deere from Australia and Brits like 'Ginger' Lacey, Richard Hillary, Bob Stanford-Tuck and Douglas Bader
Although I wasn't around for the Battle Of Britain the pilots, the planes and the airfields were a part of my childhood.....just as the sight of Hunters and Javelins were a part of my schooldays (they used to fly over the playground every lunchtime when I was at Warren Road school) and my time with the Air Training Corps.