Let me ask you a question. Who are your heroes?
Elvis? Lady Gaga? Beckham? Your Dad?
“A person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.” That’s a hero according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
When I was a child Saturdays were the best day of the week. No school – until later at Secondary School. Out early to help Charlie on the milk round. I’d get 2/6d if I did half the round or even 5 bob if I did the whole round right to the top of the estate. Later on it would be 10 bob when I could carry two crates stacked on top of each other – wearing a hole across the top of my jeans where I rested the crates - and climb the stairs of the flats because the lifts didn’t work, scraping my fingers on the horrid bottle tops of the awkward sterilised-milk bottles and trying to carry six bottles, three in each hand of red-tops, gold-tops and silver-tops. Afterwards, with luck, careering down the hill on a screeching electric float, mostly devoid of milk and hanging on for dear life as Charlie tried to beat last week’s record. Then I’d get dropped off at the end of the road to the library. A two mile walk and I’d be back with 4 books; typically Biggles, and maybe the Flying Doctor in the Australian outback. Then into the newsagent to get that week’s Victor, Hornet or Hotspur, maybe some rhubarb and custard sweets and if I’d saved enough, into the model shop next door, moments later to emerge clutching my latest Airfix or Revell project – another Spitfire, Hurricane, Mosquito or Lancaster – and then the walk home.
A person, typically a man, who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities
My Dad subscribed to Purnells Encyclopedia and I vividly remember the History of The Second World War series and in particular the volume on The Battle of Britain. Inside was a huge pull-out map of the UK and the coast of France. A host of cards with roundels and swastikas denoting squadrons and airfields, notes and reproduction Flight Logs, tales of dog-fights and bombing runs, casualties and crashes. I don’t remember reading the volume, but the map and all the cards were immediately pinned up on my bedroom wall as I imagined the glamour of it all, the pluck and the courage, echoing the stories I read of Union Jack Jackson and I Flew With Braddock and the room began to take on the unmistakeable smell of polystyrene glue, enamel paint and some degree of frustration.
Fast-forward a few years, OK maybe a few more than a few, to my visit to The Kent Battle of Britain Museum in Hawkinge with my youngest daughter, to learn about “The Few”.
Here we were met by David Brocklehurst MBE, volunteer Director and Historian of the Museum. The next hour was an intense whirlwind tour. David – full-on and slightly frightening - knew everything. Names, dates, battles, back stories and more. Here was a man as obsessed as I all those years ago, but in him it had never died, never been usurped by Prog Rock or Physics homework. Not for him milk-rounds and comics. For him it was volunteering at the Museum at ten years of age, re-purposing patio doors to make display cabinets, fighting the council for better signage, repairing the roof, digging out hydraulic pop-up pill boxes (Picket-Hamilton Forts) from the airfield and recovering long-forgotten aircraft from long-forgotten crash sites. For him it was a calling – something in the blood.
..not for him milk-rounds and comics
There was no way I could keep up with David’s stream of history as my daughter scribbled furiously and she and I were immersed in tales of unbelievable courage, incredible coincidence and immeasurable sadness.
Here were stories of men shot down in the morning, rescued from the Channel, only to be shot down again in the afternoon. Men with artificial legs of wood and leather flying fighters against the enemy, and no, Douglas Bader was not the only one. And stories of men refusing treatment for their injuries until they had made their report and subsequently succumbing to those wounds. Even of Whitstable golfers complaining that a pilot was bleeding on their Club House carpet after he had crashed on the golf-course. Stories of men from across the Empire come to defend these shores; from Canada, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa and those displaced from their own countries; Poles, Czechs, Frenchmen and Belgians – every one of them a hero.
On many occasions the Museum has been visited by relatives of those commemorated and honoured here. There have been sons, daughters, nephews and cousins, from overseas and close to home – searching for some family history. They have been amazed to find personal details and sometimes the effects of their relatives. They have been taken personally by David to crash sites and airfields; the blanks have been filled in and final chapters of stories written. The Museum is held in such high regard that many have donated heirlooms and personal artefacts and indeed the Museum holds such items as Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding’s uniform which he wore during that period. It is to protect such things that photography is not allowed within the Museum. It is also worth pointing out that the Museum also holds considerable memorabilia from World War 1 in addition to the Battle of Britain archives – far more than is generally recognised.
We forget in our sheltered lives just how un-prepared we were as a nation for war. The Home Guard armed with wooden rifles and mattocks, pitch forks and Lee Enfields - relics from World War One. There is a display starkly contrasting the ordnance of the two sides at that time. Had the invasion come, had Operation Sealion been undertaken – where would we be now? There are plenty of alternate-history works of fiction out there – but what if it hadn’t been an alternative? What if that had been our history?
What if a certain German bomber pilot - Hauptmann Walter Rubensdörffer - had not made a mistake or, as some believe, disobeyed his orders and had bombed RAF Kenley as he should have rather than Croydon airfield instead? Churchill would not have ordered the bombing of Berlin, Hitler would have not been outraged and ordered Göring to switch the German attacks from the airfields to the cities – the RAF may not have survived.
This is not a museum of the glittering engines of war. It does not revel in the technology, the shape of a Spitfire’s wing, the sound of a Merlin engine or the fury of a prop boss firing ME109. It is a place of remembrance, honour, respect, of thanks. It is a place of human stories and the sacrifices of real people, from both sides.
This is not a museum of the glittering engines of war
It is unfashionable in today’s pc world to have pride in one’s country, in our martial history. One runs the risk of being called an “-ist” of one kind or another. But as “The Few” become fewer with the passing years, the Museum is here to remind us all of their bravery and sacrifice, their stoicism and courage. Every 900 years or so we are tested; in 1066 it went one way, in 1940 it went the other but they are equally important. Perhaps in 900 years, or sooner, we will be tested again and we will look to this museum and the memories it holds to inspire us once more.
So, do your heroes live up to that? No, I thought not.
Perhaps the dictionary should change its definition; “Hero - A person, not necessarily a man, a pilot or ground crew or operational support of the RAF during the Battle of Britain”.
And my heroes? Well, I’ve got some new ones; David is one of a few of us to have met his heroes and to call them friend. David and his colleagues – volunteers all – should be all our heroes.Neil Proctor - Editor
©All photographs for this article are copyright The Kent Battle of Britain Museum Trust