THE RAF, a symbol of Britishness, of the might of the United Kingdom, turns 100 today. What many people don’t know is that the RAF’s success in World War II lies in no small part with the many pilots from Europe and the Commonwealth who flew in RAF squadrons during World World II.
In the Battle of Britain, 574 foreign pilots, made up of Polish, Irish, Czech, French, and Belgians, as well as many from the Commonwealth, flew alongside 2353 British pilots. “The few” as Churchill called them, were not just British, but European heroes. It is certainly ironic that the Polish, who made up by far the largest contingent of foreign pilots in the RAF during the Battle of Britain and helped secure the freedom of Great Britain against the tyranny of Nazi Germany, are today being scapegoated for Britain’s ills in the current xenophobic Brexit climate.
My connection to the RAF is a personal one.
Lieutenant Kare Herfjord, a Norwegian, was a Spitfire pilot with RAF 332 Norwegian squadron, based at North Weald airfield in Essex, from 1942 until the end of the war. He was my grandfather. Squadron, 332, made up of Norwegian fighter pilots, was amongst the top RAF squadrons throughout the war.
It was a dangerous occupation; the life expectancy of a Spitfire pilot was only four weeks. Despite the enormous risks, my grandfather, along with many Norwegian and other foreign fighter pilots flying for the RAF, went on as many three sorties a day. On 4th January 1945, he was shot down behind enemy lines in occupied Netherlands. He managed to evade capture, eventually made his way back to UK and rejoined his squadron.
The contribution of many European citizens to the protection of freedoms of this country has been largely forgotten. Today, on this centenary, as we are planning to leave the EU, we would do well to remember the freedoms we have today are thanks to the bravery of the many European pilots who battled in the skies alongside their British counterparts.
Ines Respini Jones