18 September 2020

This week, as the country commemorates the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, we look back and remember those Old Wellingtonians who took part.

The “Battle of Britain” was a term coined by Winston Churchill in a speech to the House of Commons in June 1940, to describe the struggle for air superiority in the skies above Britain and the Channel. Hitler believed that overcoming Britain’s air defences was necessary before a seaborne invasion could take place. Thus, by resisting the German attack, Allied air crews turned the course of the Second World War, preventing an invasion or a British surrender.

On 20 August 1940, at the height of the battle, Churchill declared that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” The “few” comprised 2,917 pilots and air crew who made at least one operational sortie for Fighter Command during the period 10 July to 31 October 1940. Of these, a total of 17 were Old Wellingtonians. Overall, the battle claimed 544 Allied lives, of whom 5 were OWs.

The oldest of Wellington’s casualties was Rodney Wilkinson (Stanley 1924-26), who was 30 when he died on 16 August 1940. He had made his career in the RAF, joining it straight from school, and earlier in the year had been given a desk job, but requested a return to flying duties. He shot down several German planes before his Spitfire collided with one in a dogfight over the Kent coast, when he was killed.

Peter Crofts (Anglesey 1931-35) joined the RAF in 1937 and in September 1940 joined 605 Squadron at Croydon. On 28th September his Hurricane was shot down over the Sussex Weald, and although he managed to bail out, he was machine-gunned while parachuting to the ground and recovered dead. He was 22.

Michael Homer (Hill 1933-36) entered the RAF College at Cranwell at the same time as Peter Crofts. After a period flying bombers which earned him the Distinguished Flying Cross, he volunteered for Fighter Command in August 1940. On 27th September his plane was shot down in flames over Kent, aged 21.

Timothy Wildblood entered the Lynedoch in 1933 as a Foundationer, his father, a brigadier general, having died in 1926. Upon leaving he was awarded Lord Derby’s Gift for the most distinguished Foundationer, and then won a King’s Cadetship to RAF College. He shot down several German planes in August 1940 but on 25th of that month, his Spitfire failed to return from combat over the Channel. He was aged just 20.

Kenneth Worsdell (Murray 1933-37) also won a Prize Cadetship to Cranwell. He too was aged just 20 when he died. His plane crashed while trying to return to Redhill Aerodrome in bad visibility on 30 October 1940, killing him and his radio operator.

These men who died so tragically young are representative: 20 was the average of a pilot during the Battle of Britain. They are remembered on the war memorials at Wellington, while all who died in the Battle are commemorated by the superb Battle of Britain Memorial Window at Westminster Abbey, designed by another OW, Hugh Easton.