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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Battle of Britain - 70 Years After

Friendlier foes today, two of the main antagonists of the Battle of Britain thrilled crowds at Tillsonburg Municipal Airport this past July at an event hosted by the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association. The Hawker Hurricane, Messerschmitt Bf 109 E-3 and a Supermarine Spitfire MK IX (not pictured here) are all owned and operated by the Russell Aviation Group.

Seventy years ago during the summer and early fall months of 1940, one of the most titanic military struggles in history took place, where England and her Commonwealth stood alone in the face of the seemingly endless German advance throughout Europe. While desperately needed supplies were shipped by naval convoys from the United States, Canada and elsewhere, the USA was still officially neutral and would not enter the war for nearly another one-and-a-half years. After the fall of France and the miraculous evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, the German invasion of England, code-named "Operation Sea Lion", was soon to be launched. Prior to any planned invasion, though, the Royal Air Force first had to be neutralized.

During the 1930s, growing German expansionism and belligerence spurred the development of air-defense radar and a long-overdue modernization of the RAF, particularly its inventory of fighter aircraft. The Sydney Camm-designed Hawker Hurricane led the charge, marking a clear evolutionary step in aircraft design and gaining fame as the RAF's first operational monoplane fighter and the first such aircraft capable of exceeding 300 mph in level flight. Reginald Mitchell designed the iconic Supermarine Spitfire, with its distinctive elliptical-shaped wing and even greater speed capabilities. Mitchell died shortly after seeing his Spitfire prototype, K5054, make its first test flight, but it was soon readied for RAF operational use. Both fighters were powered by the powerful and reliable Rolls-Royce "Merlin" V-12 engine, and both planes bristled with eight 0.303-inch Browning machine guns.

While many sources have portrayed the RAF as lacking in defensive capability at the onset of the war in 1939, current studies have made a very convincing case for Fighter Command's remarkable readiness for the defense of England's airspace in 1940. At any rate, while historians will argue their points, the fact remains that by maintaining remarkable aircraft production rates and having the "home field" advantage, where downed RAF crews and aircraft could be quickly recovered and sent back into the battle, the RAF was rather well-positioned to intercept the masses of attacking Luftwaffe aircraft.

In addition to the many airshow displays and ceremonies marking the 70th Anniversary of the Battle this year, one of the finest ongoing tributes, in my opinion, has to be the fine work of Mr. Tony Rudd, with his "Battle of Britain Day By Day" blog, and Mr. Rudd is to be commended for this deceptively large undertaking. Comprised of daily posts and weekly recaps, with free e-mail notifications of each new entry, Mr. Rudd's blog conveys the urgency of each stage of the Battle, with the daily weather observations, RAF aircraft strength and production totals, succinct commentaries of each day's actions and many other items of great interest to history buffs.

Covering the Battle, which spanned the first air battles over the English Channel convoys on July 10, 1940 and ending with the Battle's transition into the devastating night Blitz on October 31, Mr. Rudd's blog is a great resource and a reminder that if we do not observe and learn from our history, we are only doomed to repeat it. A WW II Mosquito navigator who saw action with the 2nd Tactical Air Force and who was himself shot down late in the war, Mr. Rudd, who joined the RAF in 1942, is uniquely qualified to write about the Battle, given his personal experiences during the era.

Today, Mr. Rudd's team includes Dr. Zoe Bagley, a professional researcher and historian who also served for a number of years at the RAF Museum at Hendon. Mr. Rudd also credits his son-in-law, Mr. James Dunford Wood, for his efforts in the creation, updating and maintenance of the blog itself. Mr. Dunford Wood also has a unique perspective, given that his own father was also a WW II RAF veteran, with the DFC to his credit. In addition, Mr. Rudd is assisted by Ms. Harriet O'Grady.

For students of the Battle, and for a very rare glimpse into the RAF's daily operations and the important work carried on by all personnel serving in England's defense, I wholeheartedly recommend you visit the Battle of Britain Day Bay Day blog at and sign up for the remaining daily updates as well.

Editor's note: While the Battle of Britain was truly "The finest hour", as British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill so eloquently stated, my editorial stance is to discuss the events in as even-handed a manner as possible, with the utmost respect to all combatants who served their countries. Having grown up with and having had the immense honor of meeting and knowing personnel from both sides of the conflict, there is no other choice. I only wish I had taken the time to talk to them in greater depth and to have helped them tell their own stories, in their own words. Therefore, Mr. Rudd's efforts are highly valued and valuable to us all today, and to our future generations.

A scene that could have come from a WW II-era British Commonwealth Air Training Plan aerodrome, taken on a rainy July 24th at the Tillsonburg Municipal Airport. The Hurricane was the RAF's most numerous single-seat fighter during the Battle of Britain and downed more Luftwaffe aircraft than all British defense forces combined. Hurricane C-FDNL is one of more than 14,000 Hurricanes ultimately produced. It was manufactured here in Canada originally as a MK IIB by Canadian Car & Foundry in Montreal, Quebec, and soon after, it was upgraded to MK XII standard.

It is one of a number of Hurricanes that were scrapped after the war, but fortunately, it was recovered by Brantford, Ontario's Jack Arnold in 1984 and eventually made its way to England. After being restored by Charles Church, the Hurricane was first flown in September 1991. During the Battle of Britain the Hurricane destroyed more enemy aircraft than all other air defense forces combined.

One of several Hurricanes recovered from a scrap heap by Jack Arnold of Brantford, Ontario in 1984, P2970 eventually ended up in England. After being rebuilt by warbird restorer Charles Church, it made its first post-restoration flight in September 1991. It was then acquired by David Price in 1991 and shipped to California, where it was reassembled and operated from Chino from April 1992. The Hurricane was acquired by Mr. Ed Russell of Ontario on July 28, 2002. Since then, it has provided a wonderful living mermorial to "The Few".

Squaring off against the Hurricanes and the less numerous Spitfires of the RAF, the Messerschmitt Bf 109 set the standard for the new generation of all-metal, monoplane fighters that appeared beginning in the mid-1930s. It was relentlessly developed, improved and combat-hardened in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s into one of the world's most-feared fighters. Compact, agile and powerful, the Bf 109 (Bf = Bayerische Flugzeugwerk) was the brainchild of Willy Messerschmitt during the early 1930s, and a development of his Bf 108 Taifun (Typhoon) sportplane design. Over 30,000 examples were produced, and local variants including the Spanish-built Hispano Aviacion HA-1112 Buchon (with Rolls-Royce Merlin power) and the Czech-built Avia S-99 were made post-war. Considered by most to be the world's first truly modern fighter aircraft, the Bf 109 forever relegated biplane fighters to the history books.

This incredible and very airworthy Bf 109, currently and appropriately registered C-FEML (the "EML" letters are short for "Emil", the name by which Bf 109 Es are commonly known), was originally built as an E-1 model and then it was later upgraded to E-4 specifications. A fantastic restoration by the UK's noted Craig Charleston to airworthy standards, it also holds the distinction of being the sole E-model Bf 109 in the world that is powered by a Daimler-Benz DB 601 V-12 engine. It is also believed to have been flown on several occasions during the Battle of Britain by Hans-Joachim Marseille, the legendary "Star of Africa" who achieved a victory tally of 152 aircraft before his death. Among his early victims was an RAF Spitfire he downed over the Thames Estuary during the Battle of Britain. Accordingly, it is presently finished as "White 14". On September 2, 1940, the aircraft suffered a forced landing on the beach at Calais-Marck, France, and after recovery and repairs, it was used on the Eastern Front and later abandoned in the former Soviet Union.

The Messerschmitt was eventually recovered from a swampy area in the 1990s, shipped to the UK and restored by Mr. Charleston for prior owner David Price. On January 14, 1999, it arrived in Chino, California, where it received the DB 601 engine and after approximately 50 hours' flight time, it was purchased (believed 2002-Editor's note) by its current owner, Mr. Ed Russell of Ontario, Canada, who displays it regularly at several venues, among them the Tillsonburg Municipal Airport.
Both the Hurricane and the Bf 109 were photographed by the writer on July 24th at Tillsonburg's Municipal airport, which has also become the "de facto" hub of Canadian warbird activity, being the home of the renowned Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association and its restoration and maintenance facilities. My thanks to the CHAA, the Tillsonburg Municipal Airport staff, and of course, Ed and Fran Russell.

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