The Few of the Few – naval aviators in the Battle of Britain

Eight minutes to four on the afternoon of August 20 1940. The weather in southern England this Tuesday was autumnal: cool, windy, with intermittent showers.

It ruled out major actions by the German Air Force, which was one week into its onslaught against the British homeland.

For the past hour MPs had filled the Parliamentary chamber. Even during the greatest threat Britain had faced since Napoleon, democracy functioned largely as normal.

For a little over an hour, politicians had debated a raft of issues affecting their people and their nation in wartime: the Home Guard, overtime payments, the export of coffee from neutral lands to Germany, dealing with conscientious objectors, the employment of miners, and the rationing of plums, not to mention civil defence – protecting homes from the hail of bombs raining down on Britain day after day.

The daily business now gave way to the prime minister and an update on the war.

Winston Churchill would be on his feet for 48 minutes, as he informed fellow MPs of Britain’s military situation. “Our Navy is far stronger than it was at the beginning of the war," he assured his audience. There were now more than two million men under arms. Britain was now a fortress island. Its factories churned out war material as never before. Any German attempt to set foot in the mother country would be met with fire and fury. “The whole Island bristles against invaders, from the sea or from the air.”

Dickie Cork and Arthur Blake
Relaxing between sorties outside their crew room at RAF Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire are, from left, Pilot Officer Wallace ‘Jock’ Cunningham, Sub Lt Arthur Giles Blake and New Zealander Flying Officer Frank Brinsden (holding Rangy the spaniel). Blake – known by comrades as ‘Admiral’ – was one of 23 Naval aviators seconded to the RAF in 1940. The 23-year-old had been serving at HMS Daedalus when he was drafted to 19 Sqn. He is one of only around half a dozen credited Naval â during WW2 status granted to pilots who downed five or more enemy aircraft.

It was another powerhouse performance from the premier, probably the last of his great rallying cries in the spring and summer of 1940, but the world would largely remember just one sentence.

As he turned to the “great air battle”, he singled out the men who rose to the challenge, faced down the mortal danger and were “turning the tide of world war by their prowess and by their devotion.”

Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.

Britain’s fate in the summer of 1940 rested largely on the skill and bravery of fewer than 3,000 aviators, mostly RAF, but also foreign volunteers such as Czechs and Poles.

The role of the small band of naval aviators who fought that summer is usually written out of post-war accounts, especially in big-screen depictions such as the all-star blockbuster Battle of Britain.

As early as the first week in June, the Admiralty had given up more than 40 semi-trained pilots to the RAF, 30 more would join them.

In all 57 naval pilots (“The Few of The Few”) would fly for the air force in the Battle of Britain; four of the 57 became ‘aces’ (downing at least five enemy aircraft).

Londoner Sub Lieutenant Francis Dawson-Paul led the way with seven and a half ‘kills’ – in just 25 days: fighters, twin-engined fighters and bombers all fell victim to his Spitfire. He was shot down over the Channel and though rescued by the Germans, he died of his wounds aged 24 on July 30 1940 – not six weeks after becoming a fighter pilot.

Other flames burned brightly briefly, then were snuffed out.

Fellow Spitfire ace Sub Lt Arthur Blake was dubbed ‘sailor’ or ‘admiral’ by his 19 Squadron comrades. He was 23 when he was shot down over Essex two days before the official end of the battle.

Sub Lt ‘Dickie’ Cork flew with the legendary ‘tin-legged’ Douglas Bader and his 242 Squadron.

Cork was Bader’s wingman during the battle, a popular character who remained proud of his naval heritage despite his RAF comrade’s constant ribbing and efforts to draw him over to the ‘dark side’.

Bader nominated ‘Corkie’, as he called him, for the DFC and George VI approved the award… much to the chagrin of the Admiralty who demanded their man return the air force decoration in favour of the DSC. He refused.

Dickie Cork was one of three naval fliers in Bader’s squadron and features frequently in the air force officer’s biography… but not in the biographical film Reach for the Sky.

After the battle he returned to his naval roots and became the Fleet Air Arm’s fifth highest-scoring ace of the war. His luck ran out in April 1944, killed in a flying accident while landing in Ceylon (today Sri Lanka).

Naval aviators loaned to the RAF at least flew aircraft which could hold their own against the Luftwaffe. The two Naval Air Squadrons involved in the battle – 804 and 808 – were woefully equipped.

Protecting the Navy’s principal wartime base at Scapa Flow, the men flew Sea Gladiator biplanes or the two-seat Fairey Fulmar. All German bombers – apart from the lumbering Stukas – outmatched them, let alone fighters.

In all, seven naval pilots were killed and two wounded between July 10 and October 31 1940 – the official dates of the battle. Their names – and the 48 other Fleet Air Arm men who fought in Britain’s skies that fateful summer are listed on the Battle of Britain memorial in London.