“Never in the field of human conflict was so much been owed by so many to so few,” Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously declared on August 20, 1940. The pitched battle for control of the British skies that had been raging since July between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe would soon evolve from the tactical to strategic and then to an all-out attempt by the Germans to produce a quick victory by bombing British cities into submission. However, by September 15, after the Luftwaffe’s final attempt to annihilate the RAF failed, the tide of the battle had turned, culminating in a key defensive victory for Britain. 

Below are five of the “few” who helped to save Britain. 

 

  • After being discharged from the RAF in 1933 after losing both his legs during a crash landing, Douglas Bader sought to re-join the service at the outbreak of the war. Fitted with artificial legs, Bader proved he could still fly operationally and joined No. 19 Squadron at RAF Duxford in 1940. A proponent of the “Big Wing” tactic, Bader was known to be a superb leader and an aggressive pilot during the frenetic days of the Battle of Britain. Shot down over German-occupied France, Bader was taken prisoner and remained a POW until the end of the war. (Getty Images)
  • Brian Lane, remembered as a calm and popular leader of ‘A’ Flight of the No. 19 Squadron, flew operations over Dunkirk in May 1940 and flew countless sorties during the Battle of Britain. Although an officer, Lane “knew everyone under his command by their first name and had time for us all, no matter how lowly their rank,” according to the Imperial War Museums. In December 1942, he was killed in combat over the Dutch coast shortly after being given command of No. 167 Squadron. (Alamy)
  • Witold Urbanowicz, one of the thousands of Polish airmen to fly during the Battle of Britain, distinguished himself as a squadron leader of No. 303 (Polish) Fighter Squadron. Captured by the Soviets in 1939, Urbanowicz managed to escape Poland and ultimately made his way to Great Britain. During months of fierce flying, Urbanowicz shot down at least 15 German aircraft, becoming one of the few “triple aces.” The Polish pilot survived the war and was the recipient of several awards, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Silver Cross of the Virtuti Militari, Poland's highest military decoration. (Alamy)
  • William “Billy” Fiske, a former bodsled Olympian, was one of the few Americans to fly during the Battle of Britain. Fiske, who had become an Anglophile while studying at Cambridge prior to the war, pretended to be Canadian in order to join the RAF. From July 20, 1940 until his death on August 17, 1940, Fisk flew 42 sorties and claimed three Messerschmitt Bf 110s. He was one of the first American pilots KIA during World War II and is commemorated on a plaque in St Paul’s Cathedral in London with the words, “An American Citizen, Who Died That England Might Live”. (Getty Images)
  • Adolph “Sailor” Malan, one of Britain’s leading fighter pilots, was known to be an aggressive pilot, a tough leader, and an excellent shot. After serving in operations over Dunkirk, Malan took over command of the 74 Squadron in August 1940. In December of that year, Malan was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his “brilliant leadership, skill and determination.” Under his leadership 74 Squadron had “destroyed at least 84 enemy aircraft and damaged many more,” according to his citation. Malan retired from the RAF in 1946 as one of the leading Allied air aces, according to the Imperial War Museum. (Getty Images)