RAF fighter pilots were a cosmopolitan bunch, very different to the public school ‘Tally Ho’ chaps they’re popularly seen as. In fact, of the 3,000 or so pilots that flew at this time, less than 200 were public-school educated. The rest came from a wide variety of backgrounds – bank clerks, shop assistants and factory workers all served as fighter pilots. What they did have in common was their youth. While a few ‘old sweats’ were over 30, the average age of an RAF fighter pilot was just 20, and many were as young as 18. At the time, you had to be 21 to vote so many of these young men were risking their lives in defence of a democracy they were not yet old enough to participate in.
About 20 per cent of Fighter Command’s aircrew came from overseas. 126 New Zealanders, 98 Canadians, 33 Australians and 25 South Africans took part in the Battle, and they were joined by volunteers from a variety of nations including neutral countries like Ireland and the US. Vital contributions were made by pilots from Nazi-occupied countries – 145 Polish (members of the 303 Squadron are pictured above), 88 Czechoslovakians, 29 Belgians, 13 Frenchmen and an Austrian flew in the Battle. Many of these were experienced fighters, often motivated by an intense hatred of the country that was oppressing their own. Although it was only operational for six weeks, the Polish No 303 Squadron shot down more German planes than any other unit.
Originally published in issue 16 of History Revealed magazine. Subscribe here.