Spitfire And Hurricane Flypast Marks Battle Of Britain 'hardest Day'

Hundreds of thousands of people have witnessed a flypast of vintage planes, including 18 Spitfires and six Hurricanes, to mark the 75th anniversary of “the hardest day” of fighting in the Battle of Britain. The planes took off from Biggin Hill airport to circle over London and the south-east coast, though heavy cloud spoiled the view for many.

The all-out German offensive on 18 August 1940 saw Nazi bombers fly 850 sorties and the RAF 927. The RAF and Fleet Air Arm lost 68 planes within a few hours, and the Luftwaffe 69. Over the course of the war to control the skies over Britain, which lasted from July to October 1940, the RAF would lose more than 1,000 aircraft and the Luftwaffe almost twice that, with many downed by flyers from Biggin Hill.

The planes on display at Biggin Hill. The planes on display at Biggin Hill. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Tuesday’s event began with the wail of an air raid siren sounding across the site, before the planes took off in three groups to fly in tight formation. It was not just the pilots – who were mostly very young and often survived only a few weeks – being remembered, but also the engineers, armourers, operations staff and ground crews who kept the aircraft flying.

The then prime minister, Winston Churchill, famously said of the RAF crews: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Paul Bonamy, who was piloting one of the Spitfires in the anniversary flight, told the BBC: “It’s virtually the same aeroplane it was when it was wheeled out of the shed in 1943. It flies beautifully – it’s a work of art.”

Flames roar from the exhaust of a Spitfire as it starts its engine. Flames roar from the exhaust of a Spitfire as it starts its engine. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Of the three separate groups, some circled over London, while others flew to Dover or over Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight flight was codenamed Grice in honour of Wing Commander Douglas Grice, who was shot down three times in six weeks, one time parachuting into the sea, and twice gliding his damaged plane to a safe landing. Grice was decorated for downing so many German planes and, his nerve finally shattered, went on to become an operations controller at Biggin Hill.

Several veteran pilots were invited to the airport to observe the planes taking off, including Flight Lieutenant Tony Pickering who was stationed there with No 32 Squadron. Watching the aircraft, he said he would love to fly them again.

Veteran RAF pilot Tony Pickering stands with a Hurricane before takeoff. Veteran RAF pilot Tony Pickering stands with a Hurricane before takeoff. Photograph: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

The sleek Spitfire became an icon of the air battle, but the heavier, sturdier Hurricanes also played a crucial role. Geoffrey Page, a former pilot whose memories of the war are included in the Imperial War Museum’s (IWM) oral history archive, flew both planes and recalled: “They were both lovable but in their different ways – they were delightful airplanes. I tend to give an example of the bulldog and the greyhound, the Hurricane being the bulldog and the greyhound being the Spitfire.”

Biggin Hill, now a commercial airport on the fringes of south London, was a vital part of the Battle of Britain, one of the principal fighter bases protecting London and south-east England. The base itself was a repeated target for German bombers.

A pilot prepares to take off in a Spitfire. A pilot prepares to take off in a Spitfire. Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

The surviving airworthy war planes, some privately owned and others from the IWM’s Duxford base and the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, have had a busy summer with anniversary flights over many parts of the country. A Spitfire and Hurricane flew for the memorial at Capel-le-Ferne in Kent, while on 10 August the Queen and other members of the royal family stood on the balcony at Buckingham Palace to watch four Spitfires, two Hurricanes and modern Typhoons fly up the Mall and over the palace. There was another flypast days later to mark the 70th anniversary of VJ Day which finally brought the war to an end.

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