First of the Few

In Thames, Coromandel, while waiting for a friend to come off the bus from Auckland, I found myself standing beside a life-size bronze statue of Sir Keith Park.  Sir Keith was born in Thames.  He served in the First World War, in the RFC, and then stayed on in the RAF so that by the outbreak of the Second World War he had risen to senior rank (Air Vice-Marshal), and took command of No. 11 Group, defending London and south-east England during the Battle of Britain.  By all accounts he was a much admired and respected leader, taking care of his pilots, dropping in on them in his personal Hurricane to ask them what they needed.

September 15th is traditionally Battle of Britain Day.  In Their Finest Hour, the second volume of his history of the war, Churchill describes vividly his visit, on that day, to the 11 Group Operations Room at Uxbridge.  He observed the WAAFs pushing the models of the advancing Luftwaffe squadrons across the channel on the large map below him.  Radar indicated influxes of enemy aircraft, 50+, 80+, sometimes even 100+.  All the RAF fighter aircraft of the south east were scrambled.  Churchill asked Sir Keith what reserves were available and he was told there were none.  Apparently he looked grim.  At the conclusion of the battle when it became evident that the RAF had won the day, Churchill coined his remark, “Never in the field of human conflict…” in his car on the way back to London.  He thus created the legend of “The Few”, then went home for a four hour nap.  As you do.

Not quite.  Actually Henry V, or more accurately Shakespeare, first conjured the idea of “We Few, we happy Few” on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt.  While with Hal the notion of the Few was something of a PR stunt, I suspect with Churchill the sentiment was entirely sincere, even if simultaneously he recognised the potency of the expression.  I doubt if he would have appreciated Messrs Cook, Moore, Bennett and Miller taking the mickey in Edinburgh in Beyond the Fringe twenty odd years later.  “Sir, I want to join the Few.”  – “You can’t, there are far too many.”

Shakespeare’s Few and Churchill’s Few get conflated in the wartime film of Henry V with Lawrence Olivier in the title role.   William Walton composed a wonderful score for that film, and it is no surprise that he was approached again to supply music for the 1969 film, “The Battle of Britain”.  But the collaboration this time was not entirely successful.  I suspect that Walton’s music simply dwarfed the screenplay, and so it could only be utilised in a prolonged shot of aerial combat almost divorced from the rest of the film.  Yet Walton remains, it seems to me, the archetypal composer of the Second World War, and such marches as Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre seem to capture the idea of the Few legend, even if that legend is somewhat removed from reality.

But I believe the 1969 film of the Battle of Britain does actually capture something of the reality of the events it records.  I was in the University Air Squadron and the RAF Volunteer Reserve long enough ago to have experienced something of the atmosphere of the time.  I spent a fortnight flying out of an RAF base in the south of England in 1971, when the base’s Commanding Officer was in fact a Battle of Britain Ace.  One of our flying instructors flew a Spitfire in the making of the 1969 film.  There is a particularly painful scene in which a rather feckless rookie pilot narrowly avoids landing with his undercarriage up, and is mocked behind his back by his fellow pilots.  His squadron leader, played impeccably by Robert Shaw, gets him back in the air, pretends to shoot him up from behind, and gives him a right good bollocking.  Never fly straight and level for longer than ten seconds!  But you know, education by intimidation doesn’t work, and it’s no surprise that in the end, the rookie pilot doesn’t survive.

Does the doctrine of the stiff upper lip survive?  At the weekend I was on the playing fields of King’s College in Auckland, where King’s were playing Auckland Grammar – always a grudge match – at cricket.  (Incidentally, Keith Park was a pupil at King’s.)  The atmosphere felt more English than England.  I don’t know the first thing about cricket but I couldn’t help but be enormously impressed by the players’ skills, the sheer speed of delivery, and the accuracy of the fielding.  Yet there was a gentleness about the ambience.  I happened to catch sight of a vade mecum carried by one of the boys.  “Mr McKay’s 10 tips that may not seem important, but are actually vital.”  There followed some sound advice about the importance of being polite, courteous, sensitive, and kind.  I guess one or two of them seemed a bit dated.  “Always give up your seat for a lady.”  These days that might earn you a slap.

“Always tuck your shirt in.”

You decide.

Anyway, Kiwis in my experience remain sensitive and kind.  At least until they get behind the wheel of a car.  Then some appalling Jekyll and Hyde metamorphosis takes over.  My friend whose boy goes to King’s thinks it’s a rugby mentality.  Driving a car is a contact sport.  The yearly NZ road fatalities are just shy of 400.  The NZ population is less than that of Scotland.  Last time I looked, the road toll for the whole of the UK was of the order of 1800.  But the UK population is of the order of 66,000,000.  So NZ has a problem.  I have a problem, because currently I’m a road user.  All I can do is say a prayer, buckle up, adhere to the speed limit (they think I’m certifiable), and then prepare for the utterly unexpected.  Scramble, chaps.

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