BATTLE OF BRITAIN: 80 YEARS ON
Ambassador of Slovakia Ľubomír Rehák says we should use the anniversary as a constant reminder of the atrocities of war and that victory would not have been possible without collective international effort and sacrifice
REPRESENTING MY COUNTRY at a service of thanksgiving and rededication at Westminster Abbey on 20 September 2015 in the presence of HM The Queen and other senior members of the Royal Family was one of my first diplomatic engagements in London. At that 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain five years ago, I met several living heroes, ‘The Few’; the fighter pilots who fearlessly defended British skies against a massive Luftwaffe attack.
Watching the faces of these nonagenarians during the service, I was deeply touched by the heroism, bravery and sacrifice they faced during this massive air offensive. Each individual’s story is a sombre memento of those critical weeks when Britain – as a democratic bastion in Europe – resisted invasion.
Eighty years ago, in July 1940, around 640 RAF aircrafts – mainly legendary Spitfire – and around 3,000 young pilots resisted massive attacks from 2,600 Luftwaffe planes. Among them, 595 airmen were from the then-British Dominions and occupied countries of Europe. They provided valuable skills to British brothers in arms at the darkest hour and many of them paid the highest price for a common freedom. Together with 145 Polish pilots, 127 New Zealanders, 112 Canadians, 32 Australians, 28 Belgians, 25 South Africans, 13 French, Irish, nine Americans and 88 Czechoslovak pilots demonstrated high levels of gallantry, shoulder-to-shoulder with British RAF squadrons.
Facing blitzkrieg tactics of gaining air supremacy, under Operation Sea Lion, British Command involved the high-tech ‘Dowding system’ – a smart set of reporting chains, named after Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding. Interception of the Enigma cipher German communications (cracked with assistance from Polish mathematicians) and broad intelligence provided British Command with a serious advantage over the enemy. Other branches of defence forces such as Bomber and Coastal Command also significantly contributed to reversing German attack.
Firm political leadership from Prime Minister Winston Churchill supported and kept society’s spirits high during the Battle of Britain. His sincere messages regarding the threat of invasion mobilised the population: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat” and “We shall fight them on the beaches.” And his recognition for Royal Air Force crews is well-remembered today: “never was so much owed by so many to so few.” King George VI and Queen Elizabeth’s presence in London during the bombardments was another important contribution to public confidence in victory.
Eighty years on from those heroic events, when only very few direct witnesses survive, do we still need to commemorate them? Yes, we do – and not only to pay tribute to the memory of these heroes, as our culture dictates. We need a constant reminder of the atrocities of war as we face a new wave of malicious phenomena attacking the minds of the young generation, dulling the senses and spreading intolerance. We need to remind young people that victory in the Battle of Britain would not have been possible without significant sacrifices from the whole country. Victory was the result of proper cooperation and the involvement of forces from many nations; quite contrary to the myth that Britain stood alone against Hitler. Ideals of peace and unity directed our fathers in Europe to create a common space of prosperity and friendship. All of us – both the victors and defeated – can cherish it nowadays. That is not given for free – we must remind ourselves of, remember and commemorate those that paid the highest price for our peaceful skies today.
This summer, Slovaks and Czechs in the UK are also celebrating the 80th anniversary of the Czechoslovak army in Britain, when thousands of individual Czechs and Slovaks joined the renewed army in British exile. A commemorative event has been planned this month in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle, where several thousand Czechoslovak troops were stationed between July and October 1940. From Cholmondeley, our pilots left to fight in the Battle of Britain, and our land army units were formed which later excelled on the battlefields of Tobruk in Africa, at the liberation of Dunkirk or joined the Czechoslovak Army Corps in the USSR, liberating Czechoslovakia from the East. The legendary ‘Anthropoid’ team of Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš also stayed at Cholmondeley.
The Covid-19 pandemic has meant that we will celebrate this year’s anniversary virtually, along with the anniversaries of the formation of ‘Czechoslovak’ RAF squadrons – among them the 311 bomber squadron, the 310 and 312 fighter squadrons that took part in the Battle of Britain. Personally, I like the 310 Czechoslovak RAF Squadron motto: ‘We Fight to Rebuild.’ They were driven by the desire to rebuild peace in Britain, to rebuild the freedom of our own country, to rebuild prosperity and peaceful skies throughout the whole world. Slovakia, Czech Republic, Polandand others share the testament of ancestors with the United Kingdom as NATO allies today.
Commemoration events for the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain would have occurred in many places this month. Memorial Day at the National Memorial to ‘The Few’ at Capel-le-Ferne on 12 July has moved online. At the moment, it is hard to predict how the coronavirus pandemic will influence the 15 September Battle of Britain celebrations in London. Whether it will go ahead as planned, or move on to a digital platform, it will be a great occasion for us all to remember the heroic and selfless deeds of those who protected Britain’s freedom 80 years ago, paving the way for victory over fascism and peace after World War II. We will remember them.
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