The Battle Of Britain
11 September 2008 at :00 am
As we gather in the 90th year of the Royal Air Force on this 68th anniversary of the Battle of Britain I want to suggest that we are engaged in three tasks: Celebration, Commemoration, and Commitment.
We celebrate with thanksgiving the victory of the Battle of Britain, which was a victory in so many ways: in the face of the threat of invasion:
It was a victory of good over evil,
it was a victory of courage over fear,
it was a victory that brought light in a dark world
it was a victory that promised freedom rather than tyranny.
In June 1940 Winston Churchill declared:
‘The Battle of Britain is about to begin, upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation.’
That this battle was won is alone worthy of celebration, and today we proudly salute the Few and of course the many who supported them. It is often in adversity when we are against seemingly enormous odds that our humanity shines through
These few lived life on the edge, they laughed and played practical jokes, they had fun, they often misbehaved, and sometime they were even caught! For these were young men with a love of life, mischief in mind, and a twinkle in their eyes, - or so their ladies tell me.
But these were few who lived daily under the shadow of death, as they took to the skies in defence of the values that made them who they were. Today we celebrate the fact that these, the few, did extraordinary things and in the context of this service we give thanks to God that they and the many, the radar operators, the stewards the engineers, the WAAFS, and the unnamed thousands stepped up to the mark, took their place and fought the Battle of Britain and won. Indeed it is because of their victory that we have the freedom to be who we are.
Could the founding fathers of 1918 ever have imagined that the drive and vision that brought Royal Air Force into being would be fulfilled a mere 22 years later when the fledgling service saved the nation as it stood on the brink of disaster? 90 years later we thank God for the foresight and courage that gave the nation Royal Air Force.
In 1940 it was a Royal Air Force of volunteers including a significant number from overseas and of course this morning the presence of The Sovereign's Colour for the Royal Auxiliary Air Force reminds us that the then Auxiliary Air Force provided 14 of the 62 Squadrons in Fighter Command's Order of Battle.
Just as then, today the Royal Auxiliary Air Force serves alongside the Royal Air Force at home and in operational theatres.
Peter Townsend, one of the few, writing on the 50th anniversary of the Battle wrote,
‘ The Battle of Britain was a victory for the whole British people – the man and woman and child in the street, the civil defence units, the Navy, Army and the Bomber and Costal Commands of the RAF. We ‘few’ happened to have the necessary weapons to fight the enemy hand to hand’
However, victory is not without cost, and so we also share in commemoration
We remember those of ‘The Few’ who took to the skies in defence of our nation, and did not return, and just as we have witnessed ‘the few’ escort the roll of honour this morning it is important to remember the sacrifice that they and their comrades made and commemorate the 544 who laid down their lives for the sake of others.
Commemoration is important, for it helps us put things in context. It is easy to look at a memorial or a roll of honour and forget that behind every name there is a story, a family, a wife, a husband, a mother, a father - those who mourn.
Today we have the honour to stand on the edge of living history, and the privilege of being here with some of the few as they remember their friends and comrades who did not return. We who were not there cannot imagine what they experienced, but perhaps a warrior from a later generation captures something of their feelings. Lt Gen Hal Moore in We Were Soldiers Once and Young writes,
‘We went to war because it was our duty. That is one kind of love. Another and far more transcendent love came to us unbidden on the battlefields as it does on every battlefield man has ever fought. We discovered in that depressing, hellish place, where death was our constant companion, that we loved each other. We killed for each other, we died for each other, and we wept for each other. And in time we came to love each other as brothers. In battle our world shrank to the man on our left and the man on our right and the enemy all around. We held each other’s lives in our hands, and we learned to share our fears, our hopes, our dreams, as readily as we shared what little else good came our way.’ They learned the gospel truth that and lived out by Jesus himself, that ‘greater love has no one than to lay down his life for another.‘
The more I have had the privilege of meeting these men, the more I have come to realise how extraordinary they are. The phrase ‘we’re not the heroes’ is often heard as they prefer to give that accolade to those who did not return. However, I feel honoured to say that to those of us here today and to our nation, Gentlemen, all of you ‘The Few’ are heroes. Indeed you are more, for you are also living memorials to your friends and colleagues, and we thank you for what you did and what you do to remind us of our responsibilities and to challenge us to live and if necessary fight for the values which we hold dear.
Our first lesson reminds us that in ancient Israel the worst thing that could ever happen to you was that your name would be wiped out as if you had never been born! The best was the commitment that your name should live forever.
When Rudyard Kipling was asked to choose an inscription to be carved in the Commonwealth war cemeteries he chose;
Their name liveth for evermore.
This morning that is part of our commitment – we will remember.
However, we also dedicate ourselves to building a world in which there is justice and peace for all.
As we consider our society and world we acknowledge that there is much to be done in the fight for a better world.
Today as we worship here, members of the Armed Forces of this nation serve in places of danger. Just as ‘the few’ did their duty. Young men and women, their successors, still take their place on the front line in the desire to build a better world. As with the example of those who fought the Battle of Britain, such service requires selflessness and sacrifice. However, sad as it may seem these are words we don’t often equate with society today, and yet these are words that are at the heart of the Christian Gospel. Today there are those who would undermine our values and seek to destroy our way of life, who would seek to say that not all people are equal. It is all too easy to stand back and watch while values are eroded by the selfish choices we make.
Our New Testament reading reminds us that in a world where many put the desire for wealth and fame above all else, where selfishness and greed are allowed to supersede the needs of others, we need to get our priorities right. We are told to be strong in the Lord, for He will equip us for the spiritual battles we face.
Sacrifice is a remedy for selfishness and is an important part of maturity. I never cease to be amazed at the young men and women of today’s Royal Air Force and the sacrifices they make, which are most evident in the deserts of Iraq, over , or under the shadows of the mountains of Afghanistan, aircrew, and support personnel still lay their lives on the line.
The times are different, but the values, the spirit, and the comradeship remain the same. Still there are families who sit at home and wait. Still there are children waiting for Mummy or Daddy to come home. The sound of crew rooms on the front line of 2009 are not so very different from the Nissen huts of 1940, the humour, the banter still remain, young men and women serving their country.
1940. The Battle of Britain –
our finest hour
– their finest hour !
A time when the world held its breath as evil was challenged and freedom won by a group of young men who put aside their fears, who flew into the skies and who in the words of John Magee a fellow fighter pilot,
slipped the surly bonds of earth
– and touched the face of God.