West Essex’s connections to the Battle of Britain

PUBLISHED: 13:05 11 March 2020 | UPDATED: 13:06 11 March 2020

The Battle of Britain was perhaps the most important battle fought by this country in the whole of the 20th century

The Battle of Britain was perhaps the most important battle fought by this country in the whole of the 20th century

DIRK SEYFRIED PHOTOGRAPHY

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain and here we honour ‘the few’ by focusing on three local aircrew whose bravery and sacrifice resonates to this day

The National Memorial is of a lone, seated airman gazing out across the English ChannelThe National Memorial is of a lone, seated airman gazing out across the English Channel

Standing proudly on Kent's famous white cliffs, the National Memorial to the Few at Capel-le-Ferne is a carving of a lone, seated airman, gazing out across the English Channel towards the coast of France.

The enigmatic airman, thinking perhaps of friends yet to return from their latest sortie or anxious about battles to come, is dressed in an Irvin jacket that hides any clue as to his rank, trade or nationality. Is he a British ace with a DFC to his name or a newly arrived NCO from overseas?

He may be a wireless operator or perhaps a gunner, which is why the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust is careful to refer to the men it honours as 'aircrew', rather than pilots.

That lack of visible rank or decorations is reflected on the nearby Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall, where the aircrew are listed in simple alphabetical order, battle-hardened Aces alongside those who failed to return from their first sortie. The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, which looks after the site, took this approach to highlight the shared sacrifice made by the less than 3,000 men to whom Churchill gave the name 'the Few' when he told the House of Commons: 'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.'

While some - men like Douglas Bader, 'Sailor' Malan, Al Deere and Bob Tuck - became household names, others simply did their best. Many lost their lives, others saw out the war before either staying in service or beginning another career. Whatever their fate, they all served their country and all are remembered. Here we honour three that did West Essex proud...

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Harris Augustus Wellum was affectionately known as 'Boy' Wellum because of his relative youthfulness, and is mistakenly believed by many - including several in the national media - to have been the youngest pilot to fly in the battle.

With research into the lives of the Few continuing even now, nearly 80 years on, the youngest pilot in the Battle with a proven date of birth has recently been named as Martyn Aurel King, who was born in West Mersea on October 15, 1921, two months after Sqn Ldr Wellum, and was just 18 when the battle began.

Wellum was born in Walthamstow on August 14 of that year, making him a month or so short of his 19th birthday when the historic battle for air superiority began on July 10, 1940. Now better known for penning the acclaimed autobiography First Light than for his exploits in the battle, Sqn Ldr Wellum nonetheless achieved considerable success and was awarded the DFC before going on to serve in Malta.

Sqn Ldr Wellum, whose father fought in the army during the First World War and saw action at Gallipoli, attended Forest School, Snaresbrook, and joined the RAF on a short service commission, beginning his training on his 18th birthday.

With training completed, he joined No 92 Squadron at Northolt on May 21, 1940, and stayed with the squadron throughout the battle. On September 11 he destroyed a He111, on the 27th he shared in the destruction of a Ju88, on November 2 he damaged two Bf109s and on the 17th he shared in damaging a Bf109.

He damaged a Bf109 on June 26, 1941, probably destroyed another on July 8 and destroyed another on the 9th. He was awarded the DFC in August and posted to No 65 Squadron at Debden in February 1942 as a Flight Commander. Sqn Ldr Wellum was posted to Malta in late July, leading eight Spitfires from the carrier HMS Furious to Luqa, where he joined the recently formed 1435 Flight as a Flight Commander.

Sqn Ldr Wellum's later career included spells as a test pilot and a gunnery instructor as well as flying high altitude sorties to gather information on Egyptian radar in the run-up to the Suez invasion and to obtain intelligence on Soviet air defences.

He retired from the RAF in 1961 and later became well known as the author of First Light, perhaps the foremost autobiography by a Battle of Britain pilot and later a BBC TV film. It was published in 2002. This much-loved member of Churchill's 'Few' only died on July 18, 2018, aged 96.

Sergeant Philip David Lloyd appears in a particularly poignant picture in the book The Battle of Britain Then and Now (edited by Winston Ramsey). The photograph shows Sgt Lloyd in Holy Innocents' churchyard in High Beach, with his bride, Phyllis Irma Glasscock, on their wedding day, August 24, 1940. Two months later he was laid to rest in a secluded corner of that same churchyard, deep in Epping Forest, after being shot down towards the end of the battle.

Lloyd was born in Loughton and worked for Chigwell Urban District Council before joining the RAF Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) in September 1938, learning to fly at weekends at Stapleford Tawney. Called up at the outbreak of war, he finished his training, arrived at 7 Operational Training Unit, Hawarden on August 12, 1940 and was sent to fly Spitfires with No 41 Squadron at Catterick in early September.

By now the Battle of Britain had been raging for two months as the RAF battled desperately to prevent a Nazi invasion and preserve the sovereignty of this island nation. Day after day throughout the summer and early autumn of 1940 the aircrew flew sortie after sortie in defence of the free world.

The battle was just a few weeks away from its official end - October 31 - when Sgt Lloyd joined the fray, carrying out his first operational sortie on October 12, when the squadron was at Hornchurch. He had been married for just seven weeks.

Just three days later Sgt Lloyd was shot down and killed in a surprise attack by the Austrian-born Luftwaffe ace Hauptmann Josef 'Joschko' Fözö, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War. His Spitfire crashed into the English Channel, his body not coming ashore until 12 days later, when it was recovered near Herne Bay in Kent and later buried at High Beach.

Although Sgt Lloyd's contribution to the battle was minimal, he qualified for the Battle of Britain clasp by meeting the three criteria set down after. Airmen had to take part in at least one operational sortie with a recognised Fighter Command unit or squadron within the recognised - albeit arbitrary - dates.

With record keeping not an exact science in the pen and paper days of 1940, the precise number of the Few has never been established, although it is known to be just short of 3,000 men. New claims from relatives of those who flew in World War Two continue to be considered from time to time.

While pilots like Sqn Ldr Wellum emerged from the Battle of Britain with a proud record of success against the enemy and went on to enjoy considerable affection in the hearts of the public, others were less successful.

And while mention of the battle conjures up images of heroism and dogfights, vapour trails and enemy aircraft being shot down in flames, some aircrew met their end in far less glamorous circumstances.

Sergeant Charles Victor Meeson, also of Loughton, joined the RAFVR in June 1939 to train as a pilot, was called up on September 1 and completed his training by August 3 1940, just a month into the battle. After converting to Hurricanes, Meeson joined No 56 Squadron at North Weald on August 31, flew against the enemy and earned his place in history as one of the Few. Men of the Battle of Britain, the 'Bible' for students of the battle, tells us that he was killed on September 20, 1940, in a flying accident during a formation practice. He crashed in Hurricane L1595 to the west of Bulford Camp, near Amesbury.

Meeson was 21. Buried in Loughton Burial Ground, he is just one of the men, of many nationalities, who played their part in preventing an invasion 
by winning what was perhaps the most important battle fought by this country in the whole of the 20th century.

Their tale is told at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, where the National Memorial to the Few, the Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall and a replica Hurricane and Spitfire are amongst the attractions.

To the rear of the site, The Wing, built in the shape of a Spitfire wing, complete with that iconic uplift, offers a comprehensive introduction to the battle using high-tech audio-visual wizardry and contemporary film and audio footage to tell the story.

battleofbritainmemorial.org

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