"DOVER'S "FEW"" by Dean Sumner
In 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.
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.
‘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
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:
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Keith achieved some notable, albeit anonymous recognition, when
he happily posed along with Squadron colleagues for official
photographs. The pictures soon appeared in newspapers.
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
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”.
first appeared in The Dover Mercury, 19th July 2007. Reproduced
restored Hawker Hurrican, Wikimedia Commons