An assembly from the Culham St Gabriel archive
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To tell true stories of people’s experiences of the Battle of Britain.
Preparation and materials
- Gather some books and posters about the Second World War. Also a copy of the classic poster with the words, 'Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few' or an image of it. You could also include some images of Spitfire and Hurricane planes. Images of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Spitfires and Hurricanes can be found on the RAF’s website at: www.raf.mod.uk/bbmf and Winston Churchill’s famous speech is available on YouTube. Have available the means to display these items and images during the assembly.
- Accounts of pilots and others’ experiences of the Battle of Britain, together with a chronology of events, are available on the Battle of Britain website at: www.battleofbritain1940.net/0024.html
- You will also need a leader and two readers.
- Find the passage from Ecclesiastes 3.1–8 to read out during the ‘Time for reflection’ section of the assembly.
- Have available the Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, Op. 42, by William Walton and the means to play it at the end of the assembly. This music was written as a score for the film The First of the Few, released two years after the Battle of Britain, so conveys some of the strong emotions felt at the time. Alternatively, choose some quiet reflective music.
Leader This is a true story.
It is a late summer evening, 60 years ago. In the countryside in Kent, southern England, a boy of 12 has been walking through the hop fields to collect the tea for his family and fellow workers who are picking hops. (Picking hops to make beer was a popular form of working holiday with poorer families from the East End of London.)
The day is hot and the sky clear as he takes the tin jug along the path. It's a long way to walk back to the living quarters, but why worry; it's a change from climbing and stretching to reach up the hop poles. There's the sound of planes overhead, but, in wartime you're used to that, especially if you're from the East End.
Mission accomplished, he starts on his way back to the fields again. He's nearly back when, to his astonishment, he finds his way is blocked by a plane. It has crashed, is almost buried in the path, a burnt-out wreck.
Some 60 years later, whenever the man hears anything about the Battle of Britain, this image comes back to him.
Let’s hear two other accounts.
Reader 1 I had damaged [the Hurricane] badly and she was on fire. She ought to have been a dead loss, yet she did not crash, but glided down in gentle curves. My flight companions and I attacked her three times, without a final result. I flew close alongside the flying wreck, by now thoroughly riddled, with smoke belching from her. From a distance of a few yards I saw the dead pilot sitting in the shattered cockpit, while his aircraft spiralled slowly to the ground as though piloted by a ghostly hand. (Account of a Luftwaffe Pilot, 11 September 1940)
Reader 2 There were about 12 ME109s diving at me from the sun and at least half of them must have been firing deflection shots at me. There was a popping noise and my control column became useless. I found myself doing a vertical dive, getting faster and faster. I pulled the hood back. I got my head out of the cockpit, and the slipstream tore the rest of me clean out of the machine. My trouser leg and both shoes were torn clean off. I saw my machine crash into the sea a mile off Deal. It took me 20 minutes to come down. I had drifted 11 miles out to sea. One string of my parachute did not come undone and I was dragged along by my left leg at 10 miles an hour, with my head underneath the water. I was almost unconscious when the string came undone. I got my breath back and started swimming. (Account of RAF Pilot Officer Stevenson, 13 August 1940)
Leader The Battle of Britain, fought in 1940, was a turning point in the Second World War. For a few days of that summer, a tiny number of British pilots and their support staff were responsible for saving Britain from invasion.
Between 24 August and 6 September 1940, nearly a quarter of Fighter Command's pilots were killed – 231 in all.
Think of the size of your school. Some schools have around a thousand students. That is the total number of pilots involved in the Battle of Britain. Many of the pilots were not much older than students in the Sixth Form. Many were sent into battle with not much more than a few hours’ experience of flying in a Spitfire or Hurricane. Some of the more experienced pilots found themselves flying as many as seven sorties a day. So, it's not surprising that Winston Churchill, the prime minister at the time, said, ‘Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.’
At the service held in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Britain, a handful of the young men who had been in action during the Battle of Britain were there. Now, though, they are old – as we shall all be old one day.
One of them was asked what was most important to them. He said, quite simply, it was that people should not forget. So, today, we are remembering.
What are we remembering? We are remembering that people did extraordinary things, they suffered and we should be grateful their actions preserved a country under a deadly threat. We are remembering that people died and were maimed, but also, those pilots had ordinary lives, like us, with friends and family and the usual daily pleasures and worries. Many of the people they fought for (such as the boy, whose story was told at the beginning) were only dimly aware of their struggle – they had other concerns.
It's important to remember real people and their hopes and fears. It's easy to shoot down a plane in a video game. It's easy to think of the enemy as just someone else – a non-person almost. It's easy to think of the pilots in the Battle of Britain as dashing heroes of the past. The reality is that, in other circumstances, it might have been us who had to make the sacrifices made by this handful of young men and their support staff in 1940.
Time for reflection
Leader Read Ecclesiastes 3.1–8.
This passage emphasizes that everything happens in its appropriate time. It reminds us that all our activities and experiences, good and bad, are part of the whole cycle of life and God's purpose for us.
Spitfire Prelude and Fugue, Op. 42, by William Walton
Chosen piece of quiet, reflective music