History & Culture

Sacred Airspace – Then and Now

Pilots scramble for their Hawker Hurricane fighters at an airfield in England to tackle the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

Call it sacred airspace. We seldom think of history being up there, somewhere in the air – but on a recent trip to Germany, my plane swept the English Channel between London and Frankfurt, right where air combat rocked the World in July 1940, outset of WWII. In that airspace, freedom was attacked, nearly lost, defended, held at great cost. Thoughts swept me as we flew, contrails gone, history recalled.

The “Battle of Britain” raged 82 years ago this summer, German bombers sure they could destroy the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in short order, permitting a Nazi invasion of the UK, “Operation Sealion.”

Only it did not turn out that way. The Nazi Luftwaffe, aiming for air dominance, faced surprisingly intense, invariably exhausted, unflaggingly courageous flying by the RAF – young British pilots, nobly joined by pilots from other countries, including Poland and the United States.

Students of history will recall we did not officially get into WWII until December 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Hitler declared war, but American pilots flew with the RAF in 1940.

In the pre-dawn days of American engagement, summer of 1940, nine Americans joined the intrepid, seemingly unstoppable RAF fighters. Germany fielded 1200 bombers, including Heinkel, Dornier, and Junkers. Britain put up 900 fighters, mostly Hurricanes and Spitfires. Men flew until they dropped.

Looking up at this precious airspace, British men, women, and children watched dogfights, contrails crisscrossing, saw planes fall. They understood the fight as existential, a must-win to stop the invasion.  

The young fighter pilots knew that, too – which is why they barely slept for four solid months, a period that overlapped the German “Blitz,” including 57 days of bombing London to destroy British morale.

But British morale did not buckle, not in the air, not on the ground. Reinforced by a gravelly, unalterably confident, incomparably grounded voice – that of Prime Minister Winston Churchill – they fought on.

The Germans were unrelenting, at times sending 1000 bombers in one night, one day in August shooting down 39 British planes, killing 14 RAF pilots.

The Americans were standouts. Vernon Keogh was a New Jersey boy. After 500 parachute jumps, he fought in the Battle of Britain beside Andrew Mamedoff, born in Poland, resettled to Connecticut, Eugene Tobin of Utah, a California high school graduate, and Phillip Leckrone of Salem, Illinois. All four died in air combat in 1941.

Arthur Donahue of St. Charles, Minnesota learned to fly with his grandfather, was Minnesota’s youngest commercial pilot at 19, headed for combat over the Channel in 1940. John Haviland of Mt. Kisco, New York joined in 1939, flew in 1940. Donahue died in combat, 1940. Haviland lived to 81, died in 2002.

Meantime, De Peyster Brown of Pennsylvania shot down two German bombers, flying on after being badly wounded. He lived to 75, dying in 1991. Carl Davis had nine shootdowns, was a decorated ace, but got shot down in 1940. 

Most famous of these fearless flyers was Billy Fiske of Chicago, who graduated Cambridge, was a two-time Olympic competitor (bobsled), managed to land a badly damaged plane, but died in August 1940.

Among the British flyers, a shocking 1,542 were killed in the Battle of Britain, 422 wounded, as more planes came on and more young pilots got trained. 

In the end, what happened in that sacred air space – 82 years ago this month – helped decide the war.  The British RAF, joined by intrepid friends, handed Germany their first defeat, blocked air dominance, and prevented a seaborne invasion.

These rare, daring pilots lifted the spirits of free countrymen – fortifying every laborer, even a prime minister, who said, “Never was so much owed by so many to so few,” in describing the RAF. 

More, what happened in that short span and precious airspace in 1940, likely convinced the American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to sign the vital “Lend-Lease” program in March 1941. Without that program, triggered by confidence born of that battle, history would not have been the same.

Ponding billowing white clouds about me over the Channel recently, no combat contrails littered the l sky, no diving Spitfires flew to win or die, nothing intruded on the freedom this spot silently marked. Yet, to me, the moment was worth recalling and sharing.

But for the raw courage shown by those young pilots long ago, leadership they and others – including Churchill – summoned, and clarity of mission that Democrats and Republicans both had in that time of high peril, all we have today would be as nothing. The world would be different.

My mind wandered, as we descended into modern Germany – free and productive, unified and democratic, example of persistence against what ails mankind, unity found to hold the line. 

Are we ready to do that again if war clouds gather, if Communist China – for example – attacks the freedom of allies, tests the West’s resolve, demands we stand and be counted, defend sacred airspace?  Must write about that, I thought. Then wheels were down, airbrakes up, dust spun, and flight done.

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Mary Annie
7 months ago

We must never forget.

In the last year, I have read a number of books about WWII — most recently John R. Burning’s INDESTRUCTIBLE and Roald Dahl’s GOING SOLO. I was reminded over and over what the intentions of the Germans and the Japanese were — world domination. It is apparent that today we face the same threat from the Chinese and the Russians. We must support potential leaders who will fight this threat.

we must never forget.

7 months ago

The photo is of 87 Squadron Hurricanes,France 1940 during the Battle of France.The Hurricanes are my 1s with 2 bladed wooden ‘Watts’ props.

John Riley
7 months ago

How did “lend lease” work? Could the same be used to provide Ukraine the aircraft they need?

7 months ago
Reply to  John Riley

there are around 30 MIG-28s ar Wright Patterson that the US bought from Moldavia when russia collapsed to keep Iran from getting them. Why not bring Ukrainian mechanics to WP and let them put them together, and send them over. Also, we have American pilots whose assigned seats in Germany after reunification was a MiG 28, so we have pilots available who are certified to fly them over there.

7 months ago
Reply to  John Riley

The original Lend Lease Act of 1941 gave FDR the authority to send any and all necessary supplies and equipment, including airplanes,etc., to Britain for the war effort with the understanding that we would be repaid after the war. This was before we entered the war in December and would not violate our neutrality status.

7 months ago

RBC, enjoyed your historical article as usual. S. Russell makes mention of the AVG vs. the Japanese which would be similar with GB vs. Germany for air combat. Today’s China will be no pushover if war was to break out in the region. The US Armed Forces are in about the same worse shape when compared to the 1930’s era. China will strike when the odds are overwhelming in her favor.

7 months ago
Reply to  Max

At the rate Biden and the Democrats are undermining our military’s readiness, that won’t take too much longer. While China builds new nuclear lauch silos to handle their additional long range ICBM missiles, our senior military staff is focused on which pronoun they and the rest of our military forces should be using for all the new transgender recruits they must accept into the ranks. Priorities matter and neither this administration nor the senior leadership at the Pentagon are focused on the actual threat growing right before them.

7 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

It’s a shame, isn’t it. What really scares me that if Biden were to resign for whatever reason, and Harris becomes President (definite lack of leadership), this would be the time for the Bear and Red Dragon to strike.

7 months ago
Reply to  Max

Both Biden and Harris take orders from Ron Klain and Susan Rice on behalf of the real people running the country. So honestly, we wouldn’t notice any real change in policy or competency. Still pure Marxist socialism and still zero fitness to handle the office.

Joey mize
7 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

Susan the right arm of Obummer Rice. I cannot believe she is still standing? Thought I would, hoped I would never hear her name again in this life. If she is anywhere involved it has to be criminal to some degree, her lies and deceit were enough then to last a lifetime. I must assume she is like a magnet attracting those without sound minds and turning them into pure robots to do her bidding.

7 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

If, God forbid, we’re drawn into a major war, the dems will use the crisis to snatch away our remaining freedoms.

7 months ago
Reply to  Morbious

Well of course. No doubt they will tell the American people that the emergency requires some real “temporary” (which they mean permanent) suspensions of certain, as in most, rights and frredoms to weather the crisis. Ninety percent of the American people will fall right in line and just go along with it without question. That’s what happens when the nation has basically become docile sheep.

7 months ago

You should ask yourself are the leaders of western Europe today even interested in standing up to China for any reason? Most leaders of western Europe today, especially Germany and to a lesser degree France, are more concerned with protecting their business interests with China than standing up to China on any particular issue. As for the United States under Joe Biden, I would say it is safe to say we wouldn’t do anything to ruffle China’s feathers too much. Joe has pretty much bent over backwards for the last 18 months on any issue related to China.

7 months ago
Reply to  PaulE

Frankly, I think he bends over frontward….

anna hubert
7 months ago

Nothing is sacred to China

Stephen Russell
7 months ago

Dont forget the AVG Flying Tigers for China in WW2
They fought with Chaing who later moved to Taiwan

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