News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 12, 2012

BRUCE’S HISTORY LESSONS: ‘The few’ are owed much

Bruce Kauffman
Special to the Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  

— Winston Churchill, paying tribute to the RAF pilots who fought the Battle of Britain



“Never, never fly straight and level for more than twenty seconds. If you do, you’ll die.”

— Geoffrey Wellum, RAF pilot and Battle of Britain survivor



Both men were right. The odds of a Royal Air Force pilot surviving the Battle of Britain, which began this week (July 10) in 1940, were practically zero, especially during his first five or six missions.

But even if he miraculously survived them, thus increasing his odds of survival as he gained combat experience, those odds would soon return to practically zero as the law of averages took over.  

To put it in proper perspective, every pilot in the Battle of Britain needed unimaginable courage, superhuman endurance and strength, and a near imperviousness to pain and fatigue. The temperature at the 20,000 to 25,000 feet at which they fought approached 30 degrees below zero and the cockpits had no heat. That meant their controls were nearly frozen stiff, which made it a challenge to control their planes as they flew at 300 miles an hour, rolling, twisting, diving and otherwise changing directions so suddenly that the alternating force of gravity would make a pilot feel light as air one minute and as if a mountain sat atop him the next.  

Imagine you’re that pilot. Your arms and legs ache from constantly pushing the control stick and rudder pedals in a macabre flight-of-the-bumblebee-type dance of death, as planes from every height and direction fly at you in a mad scramble with no discernible sense of order or predictability.  Meanwhile your mouth is dry from sucking oxygen from your mask, your eyes burn and your throat gags from the gasoline exhaust fumes that permeate your cockpit, and your brain is desperately trying to make sense of the warnings coming into your headset from ground-control operators, mixed with the screams of fellow pilots heading to their deaths. And if your eyes aren’t blinded from staring into the sun, your neck is aching from twisting to see which enemy plane has swooped in behind you for the kill.

During the battle’s apex in August, many a new pilot would be posted to a squadron and rushed into the battle before even unpacking his bags. Almost inevitably he would be killed without anyone knowing his name — a name that was only discovered later when his bags were searched.

Those were “the few,” so many of whom gave their lives to save their country and — unbeknownst to most of them — the free world. They are owed much.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is bruce@historylessons.net.