Battle of Britain

This week spitfires and hurricanes flew over West Sussex to mark 75 years since the "Hardest Day" in the Battle of Britain.

The event recalled 18 August 1940 when targets in the South East came under attack from the German Luftwaffe.

It became known as the "hardest day" as both sides recorded their greatest loss of aircraft during the battle.

The Luftwaffe flew 850 sorties, involving 2,200 aircrew, while the RAF resisted with 927 sorties, involving 600 aircrew.  Together they lost 136 aircraft in one day.

In his "finest hour" speech, Churchill named the Battle of Britain before it had begun, warning that "the whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us" and that British life depended on the outcome.

The Battle of Britain lasted throughout the summer of 1940.  From July to October the RAF lost 1,023 aircraft and 544 pilots were killed, while the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 aircraft and 2,500 aircrew were killed.

It is often forgotten that British civilian losses as a result of the Luftwaffe's bombing throughout this period were heavy.  From July to December 1940 over 23,000 people were killed and over 32,000 were wounded.

And of course Royal Navy superiority maintained defence of the Channel, as it had done to prevent any invasion of our country since 1066.

But the Battle of Britain was a decisive event.  Churchill summed up its effect and the contribution of Fighter Command with the famous words: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

My step grandfather, Group Captain John Peel DSO DFC, was one of the pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain, commanding 145 Squadron of hurricanes that flew from RAF Tangmere.

After he returned from one sortie over the English Channel, he was forced to ditch south of Selsey Bill.  He was rescued five hours later, semi-conscious in the sea, by the Selsey lifeboat.

His name is one of the 2,937 on the Battle of Britain monument in London, a permanent reminder of heroism that turned the course of the Second World War.

Nick Herbert