CHURCHILL'S FEW – WHO WERE THEY?

02/10/2015 15:48

"The 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain is now upon us and there has been plenty of coverage in the press and on television to remind us of the events of summer 1940. There have been the inevitable references to 'The Few', and the well-known wartime poster apparently depicting a group of fighter pilots staring skyward beneath the caption '“NEVER WAS SO MUCH OWED BY SO MANY TO SO FEW” THE PRIME MINISTER' will doubtless make a few more appearances. But were things quite as they are generally assumed today?

The first public reference to 'The Few' is generally accepted to have been in a speech by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the House of Commons on 20 August 1940. It is also significant that this was over three weeks before the Battle of Britain reach its peak on 15 September. This is what he said: 'The gratitude of every home in our island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

 

So far there is nothing to challenge the assumption that he was talking about the fighter pilots. But the speech continued: 'All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skills, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power. On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers, who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.'

 

So it appears that the Prime Minister's reference to 'The Few' included not only the fighter pilots but also the night- and day-bomber crews. And what about that poster? If you look at it closely, you will see that the two aircrew on the left are pilots but the three on the right have 'single-wing' air observer or air gunner flying badges. Although the Fighter Command Defiants and Blenheims did carry air gunners, the five aircrew pictured here were not in Fighter Command at all but in Bomber Command. In fact they were a Whitley bomber crew of No 58 Squadron based at Linton-on-Ouse in summer 1940, comprising (from left to right): Flight Sergeant D H Moore (captain), Pilot Officer P C Elliott (2nd pilot), Sergeant K Rawles (air observer), Sergeant H W Stone (wireless operator/air gunner) and Sergeant J F Craig (air gunner). Thus it is quite clear that, when this poster was being prepared, 'The Few' was understood to include not only the fighter pilots but also the RAF bomber aircrew, as Churchill's speech to the House of Commons made clear. Sadly, only two members of this crew appear to have survived the war: Flight Sergeant Moore and Sergeant Rawles.

 

So next time you hear mention of 'The Few', spare a thought for all the bomber aircrew who have often received scant recognition, either from official sources or from the media, but who were in Churchill's view just as much part of 'The Few' as the fighter pilots whose exploits are lauded every September."

 

By Mr Mawby, Station Memorial Room, RAF Linton-on-Ouse

 

Published in Linton Link, Autumn 2015