Seventy years ago this October, German Luftwaffe generals were quietly admitting to themselves that they had lost an air war they should have won and whose victory would have allowed the Nazis to invade England. The fact that they were fought to a standstill in the skies over Britain speaks to the inherent power of a democracy galvanized into fiercely protecting liberty.
The words of those who bore witness to that Battle of Britain have much to tell us about personal courage, valor and the defense of freedom.
Ken Rose, an 83-year old expatiate from England, and now a proud American living in New York, remembers the day that German fighters tangled with British Spitfires high over his family's home town near East Anglia, north of London. He recently told a gathering at the American Airpower Museum in New York, "There were thin contrails high above our heads and we knew this was`The Battle of Britain' where our fighters were mixing it up with the Luftwaffe."
"When the bombers began attacking London during the Blitz we could see the fires some fifty miles away," recalls Rose. "I would go out with my father in the early morning air and, since he was an air raid warden, he would look for German paratroopers landing at first light because we thought they would first invade by air."
The sudden death of fighter conflict did not spare his small village. "My Sunday school teacher joined the RAF when he was a student at Cambridge. Took off one day during the summer of`40 in the Battle of Britain and disappeared. Never came back. Never found the plane or the body. Only 19 when it happened. Tore the family apart."
Malcolm Hewitt of Long Island was seven years old that summer of 1940 and living with his family in London. The authorities gave his parents 24 hours notice that he would be evacuated to the countryside as everyone expected London would eventually be bombed. It was a heartbreaking scene as parents were not allowed to see their children off at the train station, where they became evacuees dispersed to the countryside. Later that fall, as London burned, Hewitt and his two sisters would clean cattle stalls, pick potatoes and then go to school at night, kept separate from the other village children. It was a harsh existence, but they avoided the fate of some 60,000 British subjects killed by Nazi bombers.
Hensley Murray, of Deer Park, New York, was a child in Glasgow, Scotland, whose industrial area, Clydebank, took a terrible pounding from Luftwaffe bombers because of its role as an industrial center. Some 12,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and, at one point during the aerial assault, over 500 people were killed within two nights.
"That was the ship building area. If they could knock that out of the war they could have destroyed our ability to put ships to sea. They went after the workers' homes and civil defense burned tires to create smoke screens. Glasgow rarely gets mentioned in the war reports, but the casualties were real. I lost two aunts and three cousins and you never forget that."
Murray also remembers the ration books and the one egg a week each person was allocated. "My grandmother would pool all of our ration stamps and create one glorious Sunday dinner each month. You come away from the bombing, and the loss of family and the hunger with an enormous appreciation of what this country represents."
Now, 70 years later, these men offer us the crystal clear hindsight into why the Germans failed. It was a battle where democratic people endured, refused to back down and went toe to toe with the most evil regime the world had ever seen. It is also about the caliber of leadership in wartime and the ability to rally a nation in the face of racial and religious hatred.
Today, the compelling lessons of the Battle of Britain are still very much relevant for those military strategists and politicians who are facing the challenges of fighting a bitter, merciless and implacable enemy in Afghanistan. While the faces, places and names have changed over the past 70 years, the evil remains. Today we face despots who, many perceive, have current day ambitions resurrected from centuries past to achieve Islamic conquests.
The most potent weapon in the arsenal of democracy remains its people who recognize the threat against them and respond as the men and women of Britain did 70 years ago, with resolute defiance and a commitment to protect and preserve our freedoms.