war memorial at dusk, photographed by Michelle Cooper



"DOVER'S "FEW"" by Dean Sumner

restored Hawker Hurricane, Wikimedia CommonsIn this month begins the sixty-seventh anniversary of the Battle of Britain that officially lasted from 10th July to the end of October 1940, and it’s an anniversary Dover can be proud of. France had fallen, and in that long ago wartime summer, the enemy were planning to invade Britain. 

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so Few”, said Winston Churchill. “The gratitude of every home in our island, in the Empire, and indeed throughout the world, goes out to the British airmen.”  Dover gave some of her finest sons to defend our shores.

The Battle of Britain enveloped Dover early in July 1940. Channel convoys were edging their way through the Straits, when they came under heavy air attack from Luftwaffe dive-bombers. The RAF had quarter the strength of the Luftwaffe; the RAF gave what protection to the convoys it could afford.

The spectacle of dogfights over and beyond the harbour tempted many a Dovorian to indulge in some ‘Goofing’. This was the term given to those who preferred to watch the dogfights rather than to seek shelter. The clifftops provided an obvious vantage point.

One notable ‘Goofer’ was the Deputy Town clerk, William Ransome. He became a casualty early one morning when he was hit in the shoulder by a stray bullet or lump of shrapnel. Happily, he survived and is on record in one reference as being Dover’s first casualty within the town.

On the afternoon of Sunday 14th July, a convoy came under attack from German Stuka dive-bombers. A pitifully small number of RAF fighters tried to defend the ships but they were hopelessly outnumbered. All too soon a Hurricane fell away from the fight, down towards the sea. Up on the cliffs recording the event, an excited BBC broadcaster, Charles Gardner, exclaimed:

“There’s one going down in flames! Somebody’s hit a German and he’s coming down with a long streak - coming down completely out of control - a long streak of smoke. And now a man’s baled out by parachute!” 

Unfortunately Gardner had mis-identified the aircraft. The man on the end of the parachute was a badly-injured RAF pilot. Burnt and fatally wounded, Pilot Officer Michael Mudie was fished out of the water and taken to Dover Hospital. He died the next day.

As the Luftwaffe switched its attacks towards mainland targets, August 1940 would prove costly in lives lost. There were three RAF fighter pilots in whom Dover can take particular pride.

Squadron Leader Henry (“Sam”) Sawyer was an Old Boy of Dover College. Already credited with two enemy aircraft destroyed, he took off from RAF Hornchurch, Essex, on Friday 2nd August. Some say he stood in for another pilot who was exhausted after intensive operations. Going on night patrol, his Spitfire stalled and crashed. Sam, a cheery, charming man known as the Happy Warrior, was killed.

David Kirton, sent by Dean SumnerAlso serving at RAF Hornchurch was Sergeant Pilot David Kirton. Aged 21, he was an Old Pharosian, a former pupil of Dover County (now Grammar) School. He’d faced the enemy many times. On Thursday 8th August, high above northeast Kent, young Sergeant Kirton tangled with deadly Messerschmitt fighters. On this day his luck ran out. Mortally hit by enemy fire, his Spitfire screamed down from the sky and crashed devastatingly into the ground near Manston.

David Kirton was buried five days later at St James, Dover, next to his father who had died in the Great War. Less than two years later, his Squadron Leader brother James was lost over Northamptonshire. 

Keith Gillman was an Old Pharosian too. An RAF Pilot Officer at the age of 19, he often battled the enemy in his Hurricane fighter over the English Channel. After a combat in early July 1940 he made an emergency landing at Hawkinge. A loving son, he took the opportunity for a surprise visit to his parents at home in River, Dover.

Keith Gillman, sent by Dean SumnerThat summer, Keith achieved some notable, albeit anonymous recognition, when he happily posed along with Squadron colleagues for official photographs. The pictures soon appeared in newspapers.

During the early evening of Sunday 25th August, Keith was again in combat over the Channel a few miles out from Dover, when his Hurricane fighter plunged down into the sea and he was reported ‘Missing’.

The following week Keith’s face appeared on the cover of ‘Picture Post’ magazine. His image continued to appear throughout the war. 

It was only much later that his identity was revealed. Keith Gillman died defending his hometown of Dover. Forever young and brave, his picture has become symbolic as the ‘Face of The Few’.

Dover can be justifiably proud of her “Few”.


This article first appeared in The Dover Mercury, 19th July 2007. Reproduced with permission

restored Hawker Hurrican, Wikimedia Commons
David Kirton
Keith Gillman

Copyright 2006 © Marilyn Stephenson-Knight. All Rights Reserved