Jim Thomas

This week in September, 81 years ago, a civil defense observer in London reported the sunlit heavens “were filled with vapor trails, screaming engines, explosions, fighter planes, white-hot tracers, burning aircraft, parachutes and death.”

The Battle of Britain was raging toward its climax. Life as the British knew it and Western Civilization were at extreme risk.

By 1940 much of Western Europe had fallen under the jack-boots of Hitlerian Satanism.

When France surrendered in June, Adolf Hitler and his generals began planning the invasion of England. They believed a successful cross-channel assault turned on control of the air, as a deterrent to the Royal Navy’s powerful war ships. Herman Goering, therefore, unleashed the Luftwaffe for destruction of the Royal Air Force (RAF) — and the Battle of Britain was joined. Alone, out manned and under armed, she faced the Nazi onslaught.

Well known is the outcome of one of history’s greatest air battles and a towering drama of World War II. By the narrowest of margins Britain prevailed.

When the score was clearly settled, Prime Minister Churchill stood on a bluff overlooking the English Channel. Staring across at his German adversary, he declared, “We’re waiting on the invasion. So are the fishes.”

Credit for Britain’s defense rested upon the RAP’s 2300 pilots in their Spitfire and Hurricane fighter planes. They were incredibly young, highly trained, brave and motivated. — the “Few,” as they were called. Joining them in the struggle, however, often overlooked but still worthy of praise were the RAP’s volunteer pilots.

Volunteers, mind you, who sensed war winds were blowing, that Britain was up against it, and who risked everything to help save her in the summer and early autumn of 1940. They came from America, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and across the scattered British Empire, altogether 595, comprising a fifth of RAP’s pilots. Due to neutrality laws, problems with passports, visas and transportation, they encountered enormous difficulty in making their way to England and RAP’s fighter command, but they persevered.

Why, we ask? What motivated them? One cannot testify with certainty on the mental state of others. Undoubtedly, the threat of a monstrous German tyranny for some was reason enough. Aviation was still in its early development. The chance to fly England’s new Supermarine Spitfire, capable of over 350 mph, even when risking one’s life, for other pilots it was a gamble worth taking.

And, this too. There are those of strong character who can perceive the gravity of the occasion, the rightness of a cause, and irrespective of the danger find participation exhilarating. The critical sentiment for them is knowing they are in the fray when “it’s played for all the marbles.”

A great college football coach came close to expressing it. When Bud Wilkinson was asked why he chose late in life to leave retirement and coach the St. Louis Cardinals professional team, he replied.

“I wanted to experience again the intensity of the moment.”

The antithesis of Wilkinson’s mentality is found in a bronze plaque on the wall of the Hotel de Crillon in Paris. The inscription dates from 1589, when King Henry IV of France won a bloody, important victory at the Battle of Argues. His erstwhile friend, supporter, and confident failed to join him. Henry sent him word.

“Hang yourself brave Crillon. We fought at Argues, and you were not there.”

Charles de Gaulle, speaking from a life filled with huge events, made a point worth pondering.

“There is no challenge,” he said, “of more grandeur than the meeting of a  great crisis.”

The RAP’s volunteer pilots, high in the skies over England, met that nation’s supreme crisis. One in three paid with their lives. Of the seven Americans who flew in the Battle of Britain, only one survived the war. They were there, however, when it counted — leaving posterity an extraordinary ‘grandeur’.

• Retired attorney Jim Thomas lives in Atlanta. He is a former Pierce County resident and can be contacted at jmtlawyerspeak@yahoo. com.