HMS Queen Elizabeth's crew remember the ‘forgotten few’

Sailors from Britain’s biggest warship are today paying tribute to the ‘Forgotten Few’ – 79 years to the day the most important battle Britons had fought in centuries reached its climax in the skies of southern England.

The crew of HMS Queen Elizabeth will join a service of thanksgiving for the deeds and sacrifices of the small band of aviators who helped stave off Nazi invasion in the summer of 1940.

Today is Battle of Britain Day – when the battle for air supremacy reached its climax and British, Commonwealth and volunteer aviators from around the globe conclusively demonstrated that the aerial forces defending the UK had not been defeated.

While the bravery of the RAF and foreign fliers – notably the Poles and Czech – has been immortalised in books and on film, the role of 56 naval airmen (both Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines) is largely ignored; seven were killed and two wounded between July 10 and October 31 1940, when the battle officially ended.

All of which has prompted sailors and the RAF contingent aboard the future flagship to pay their respects while visiting Halifax in Canada on the carrier’s Westlant 19 deployment.

HMS Queen Elizabeth’s head of flying, Commander Ed Philips, is leading tributes at the nearby air base in Shearwater, laying a wreath on behalf of shipmates.

Two Fleet Air Arm Squadrons defended northern Scotland during the battle – 804 at Hatston in the Orkneys and 808 in Wick – but two dozen naval and Royal Marine aviators were peppered around the many RAF squadrons keeping the Luftwaffe at bay in the summer of 1940.

Those serving with the RAF remained true to their Royal Navy roots; Sub Lieutenant Arthur Blake, who flew Spitfires with 19 Squadron, was nicknamed Admiral by his comrades (he was killed over London in October 1940), while Sub Lieutenant Richard Gardner – who became an ace for shooting down five bombers during the battle and subsequently returned to the Fleet Air Arm – painted Nelson’s legendary ‘England expects…’ signal in miniature flags on the fuselage of his Hurricane.

Possibly the finest of all the Fleet Air Arm fliers involved in the summer of 1940 – and Gardner’s comrade – was Sub Lieutenant Richard ‘Dickie’ Cork.

Cork flew with ‘tin-legged’ Douglas Bader of Reach for the Sky fame in 242 Squadron, alongside numerous Canadians. He had already claimed four enemy aircraft shot down or damaged before he was scrambled on September 15 as the Luftwaffe unleashed a massed assault on London.

The naval flier downed a Dornier 17 ‘Flying Pencil’ bomber after evading a Messerschmitt 109 fighter over the Thames Estuary, setting the bomber’s port engine ablaze, before making a second pass to attack the other side of the German aircraft.

“Large pieces of the enemy machine flew off and his starboard wing burst into flames near the wing tip. He dived straight into the cloud, heading towards a clear patch, so I waited till he came into the open and fired another burst in a head-on attack and the machine dived into the ground,” he wrote in a combat report.

Almost immediately he was bounced by two Messerschmitt fighters, turned sharply to get on to the tail of one and used up the last of his ammunition trying to bring it down – in vain.

“No damage was seen on enemy machine, but as I was being attacked from behind by a second fighter I went into a vertical dive down to 2,000 feet and returned to base,” he reported. “No damage to my own machine.”

In several sorties flown that Sunday in 1940, Cork claimed five German aircraft damaged or destroyed. He later returned to the Fleet Air Arm and continued to be one of its most successful fighter pilots before being killed in a flying accident in Ceylon in 1944.