Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

12 September 2009

My Thankyou to the Fighter Boys

I made this pencil drawing in a sketchbook when I was about seventeen.

It was with surprise that while chatting recently to a remarkably youthful 91 year-old I discovered that he was a survivor of those precious few New Zealanders who had voluntarily given their services to the Royal Air Force in World War Two. He arrived in England in 1940, a little late for the Battle of Britain, but he served with distinction flying Spitfires throughout the war.

I can’t imagine that any twenty-two year old New Zealander would today be drawn towards such a conflict, or to volunteer to fight on behalf of what has become an increasingly distant and unconnected country. Our emotional and familial connexions with Britain grow less relevant by the day as our ethnic mixture continues to dilute old Britishness. No regrets, that’s just the way of a changing world.

But while strong ties to Britain remain within the living memory of some of us they have a worth that should not be treated with disdain or cynicism.

What motivated young Kiwis to join the RAF at the beginning of that war? I doubt that they were they spurred by distaste for what they’d heard of the Nazis; political idealism rarely inspires young men. Perhaps it was because of their ancestry, feeling close enough to the old country to feel a sense of loyalty or patriotism? Or was it to draw a bow at adventure? Ah - that’s more likely.

Listening to that old Spitfire pilot reminded me that the 1940 Battle of Britain is commemorated on 15 September every year and that there will still be memorial services held during the week that surrounds it. This year’s will be the sixty-ninth anniversary of when nearly 3000 men who fought in Fighter Command in 1940 will be acknowledged. Of them 544 died that summer and nearly 800 more died before the end of the war in 1945. Of those who survived there are now very few left; a handful of old men who you wouldn’t notice in the street, physically (if not spiritually) diminished by age, many dependent, many helpless, and yet one or two miraculously able.

Soon, as that generation dies and the Second World War takes its place in hazy history, the commemoration of the Battle of Britain will start to be forgotten and its dates and details will live only in regimental tradition as do The Somme, the Relief of Ladysmith, Trafalgar, and beyond those, Waterloo, the Defeat of the Armada and Agincourt. Rightly so: each generation must honour its own heroes while time dulls the edge of pain.

I recall the summer skies of South-East England in 1940; I was seven-and-a-half years old. I remember the throbbing formations of German bombers, the popping of aerial gunfire, that distinctive sound of the Spitfire’s Merlin engine and the black puffs of anti-aircraft explosions. I recall noisy nights in an air raid shelter; a fear that was only ameliorated by having parents nearby. I recollect a small boy’s bursting feeling of pride at the glimpse of an RAF pilot in uniform, those embroidered wings, the odd medal ribbon - perhaps a Distinguished Flying Cross - that undone top tunic button which was the battle mark of one of the fighter boys. Boys! They looked like old soldiers to me and yet so many of them had just left school.

Only later did I come to realize how much, in Churchill’s words, we many owed to that few. Hindsight tells us that had it not been for those squadrons and the insight of their two great commanders, Hugh Dowding and our own New Zealander Keith Park, I might, today, have had German as my first language. Perhaps the Americans would have freed us eventually but that, too, would have had its price.

For the freedoms I have enjoyed since 1940 I therefore take this journalistic opportunity to thank the men of the Battle of Britain and all of those men and women from all the countries of the old empire and commonwealth. Opportunity for gratitude is fading fast. And I particularly thank my chance conversation with that eighty-five year old Spitfire pilot for reminding me; God bless you, sir.


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By Don Donovan