The first battle in history to be fought solely in the air lasted for over three months during World War II between July 10 and October 31, 1940. Dubbed the Battle of Britain, pilots and support crews on both sides, Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Luftwaffe, Nazi Germany’s air force, took to the skies and battled for control of airspace over Great Britain, Germany and the English Channel.

Almost 3,000 pilots fought for Fighter Command, flying at least one operational sortie during the battle. They are known as The Few, the name coming from Winston Churchill’s wartime speech on 20 August 1940 during which he referred to the ongoing efforts of the Royal Air Force crews by stating, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Among them were several Bradfieldians.

In the latest in our series of Bradfield Remembers articles, ahead of the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, OB David Wright (E 48-53) and Karen Ward from the Bradfield Society and Development Office present their research into members of the Bradfield community who were involved, many of whom survived the battle.

FLYING OFFICER ROBERT GEORGE ELPHINSTON DIAMANT (F 20-24)

Robert Diamant grew up in Egypt and left Hillside in 1924. He was commissioned in the RAF Voluntary Reserve on 8 April 1940 in the Administrative and Special Duties Branch and joined 600 Squadron at Northolt on 1 June 1940 as an Intelligence Officer. He flew for the first time in a Blenheim on 3 June apparently trying out the AI apparatus and made further flights during June and July 1940. Diamant flew on one operational sortie on 17 July, qualifying him for the Battle of Britain Clasp, recognising him among the ranks of The Few. He served in Malta during the siege there and he was later aboard an aircraft that crashed, leaving him with life-long injuries. Diamant died on 10 March 1989 in Faversham in Kent.

Alastair Stuart Hunter died on 6 Feb 1941, aged 24 years. He was performing an air test in the dark in a Beaufighter R2054 when it went into a spin as it approached to land. He was with the RAF 604 Squadron Auxiliary Air Force having joined them in 1937 and was called to full-time service in August 1939.

He shot down a He 115 into the sea near Dunkirk in the early hours of 18 June 1940. It was 604 Squadron’s first night victory.

While at Bradfield he had been a Prefect, in the Football XI 1933, the Cricket XI 1933-4, Fives Pair 1933-4 and the Athletics team 1933-4. He is buried in St Andrew’s Churchyard, Hatfield Peverel.

Christopher Dermot Salmond Smith died on 22 December 1941, aged 25 years, when his Hurricane IIB Z5255 collided with another aircraft off Southern Ireland.

He entered RAF College Cranwell in Sept 1934 as a Flight Cadet, graduating with a Permanent Commission and posted to the School of Air Navigation, Manston in July 1936. Smith went to A&AEE, Martlesham Heath in June 1938 and he was involved with the development of airborne radar.

For his service in that field and with the Special Duties Flight with which he flew operationally, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in May 1940. He scored the first radar guided victory on 12 May 1940 some five days after the award of the DFC while flying an early morning sortie in a Blenheim of the SD Flight. He was serving with 79 Squadron at the time of his death and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial.

John Guy Cardew Barnes worked his whole career in the RAF. While attending Bradfield he was in the Fencing and Boxing teams. In 1937 he joined 600 Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force in Hendon and learned to fly and got his wings and served with 600 Squadron throughout the Battle of Britain.

In early 1942 he was promoted to Wing Commander and appointed OC Troops on the Queen Mary and in 1943 on the Queen Elizabeth. Attached to the Invasion Planning Committee at Southampton, he supervised and commanded an RAF special communications group and following the invasion of 6 June 1944 he spent a week on a destroyer half a mile off the French coast at Arromanches. Once the landings were fully established, the ship then returned to Southampton.

In 1945 he was with a Disarmament Wing in Germany, moving with the Army, collecting documents and technical material before it could be destroyed by the Germans. He left in 1946 as a Wing Commander and died in 1998.

Philip Stephen Baddesley Ensor joined the RAF on a short service commission and joined 610 Squadron in Wittering on 23 January 1940.

During the night of 15/16 October he destroyed one He111 and damaged another four nights later. Ensor was a very successful night intruder over French airfields being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in Feb 1941. “This officer has taken part in many engagements against the enemy, including three at night. He has shown great skill and keenness over a long period and has contributed largely to the high standard of morale in his squadron”.

Sadly, he was killed in action on 8 September 1941, aged 21, while serving with 23 Squadron and flying Havoc I BB 905 on an intruder operation to Lannion, Brittany. He is buried in Kerfautras Cemetery in Brest.

Andrew Henry Humphrey entered RAF Cranwell as a Flight Cadet in 1939 and graduated a year later. He was commissioned to a number of squadrons converting to Spitfires in Sept 1940 and moved to night fighting after the Battle of Britain.

On December 4 1940, Humphrey destroyed a He111 over the Zuider Zee, having chased it across the North Sea. He was awarded a DFC in May 1941 and the AFC in Jan 1943 when he was attached to the Specialised Low-Level Attack Instructors School at Millfield adding two Bars during his years of service. Humphrey was posted to the Middle East in April 1943 and later to Cyprus and India responsible for rocket training of Hurricane and Beaufighter pilots.

Later in his career he was an instructor at the RAF Flying College Manby and in 1953 broke the Cape Town to London record flying a Canberra. The following year, in the same aircraft, he made the first RAF jet flight to the North Pole.

Humphrey was Chief of Air Staff from 1974 to 1976 and Chief of the Defence Staff in October 1976. He was Air ADC to the Queen and died on 24 January 1977 having been taken ill while visiting the RAF in Germany. His memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey on 18 March 1977.

Hugh Harold Percy learned to fly with the University Air Squadron at St John’s College, Cambridge where he went after Bradfield. He was a Scholar, becoming Head of House and was in the Football XI.

He was killed in action as a Flight Lieutenant with 610 Squadron on 22 May 1944. On a morning shipping reconnaissance flight to Guernsey his Spitfire XIV was struck by flak batteries from Pleinmont Point. Percy managed to bale out, but his parachute malfunctioned and it is feared that he drowned.

He was 24 years old and is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial and his name is also recorded on The Battle of Britain London Monument.

AIRMAN OF THE DAM RAID (OPERATION CHASTISE)

FLT LT WILLIAM ‘BILL’ ASTELL (E 33-37) died on 17 May 1943, aged 23, while serving with 617 Squadron. He was awarded the DFC when he was shot down over the Western Desert and crash landed behind enemy lines. He managed to evade capture and got back to his base some five days later.

He flew on a number of operations during active service largely in the Middle East and Malta. From his school days he was regarded as an adventurous spirit.

He first enlisted into the Navy but then transferred to the RAFVR in July 1939. In April 1940 he was selected for pilot training and was taken to Rhodesia.

Returning to England in Sept 1942, he trained to fly Lancasters and was then posted to 57 Squadron at RAF Scampton in Jan 1943.

He and his crew in C flight were selected for a special operation and on 14 May were the first to fly a specially modified Lancaster AJ-B for Baker plane in what is now known as the Dam’s Raid (Operation Chastise).

On the night of the raid, May 16, 1943 headed for the Mohne Dam, Astell took off in the final trio of the first wave and everything seemed to go well until they crossed the Rhine when they encountered light flak and his gunners vigorously returned fire.

Astell eventually hit an electrical pylon near Marbeck, where a line of HT cables lay in the path of the attacking force. The two other pilots in the raid, a few minutes ahead, had noticed them and flown over them.

The Upkeep mine (bouncing bomb) that Astell’s aircraft was carrying exploded shattering windows all around. He is buried in Reichswald Forest Commonwealth War Cemetery.

In addition to the Bradfield College War Memorial, these men are all commemorated at the Runnymede Air Forces Memorial near Egham in Surrey, the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, near Folkstone, which is a monument to aircrew who flew in the Battle of Britain on the White Cliffs in Kent and also at the Battle of Britain Monument on Victoria Embankment in London.

Photo Credits

Header Image: Three Spitfire Mk Is (including R6712, YT-N, and R6714, YT-M) of No. 65 Squadron, taking off from Hornchurch, August 1940. Accessed from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Battle_of_Britain_HU54421.jpg and usage covered by Crown Copyright provisions.

Flt Lt John Guy Cardew Barnes: Image courtesy of The Battle of Britain London Monument

Pilot Officer Andrew Henry Humphrey: Image courtesy of The Battle of Britain London Monument 

Flt Lt William ‘Bill’ Astell: Image courtesy of Lincolnshire County Council/Grantham Collection

Our response to Covid-19

Find out more