It would be easy to assume that the vaunted RAF “team spirit” that I talked about in an earlier entry held sway because the pilots were so similar to one another. It would be easy to imagine a tiny elite like the knights of earlier centuries or the Spartan guard with Leonidas at Thermopylae. After all, this was a Britain that was still overwhelmingly white, Christian and intensely class conscious.
Yet RAF Fighter Command was surprisingly diverse for the period. Of the nearly 3,000 RAF pilots who flew at least one sortie during the Battle of Britain, only 80% were British citizens. Twenty percent came from the Dominions and/or other Allied countries. The largest number of foreigners to participate in the Battle were Polish, accounting for 145 pilots, and the second largest foreign contingent flying for the RAF came from New Zealand with 126 pilots. Pilots also came from Canada, Czechoslovakia, Australia, Belgium, South Africa, France, the United States, Ireland, Rhodesia and Jamaica.
Even more astonishing, however, is that fully one third of the pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain were Sergeants. That is, they were not the children of privilege, not the scions of the aristocratic families or the product of “Oxbridge.” The Sergeant Pilots of the RAF were men with more mundane backgrounds, men without the ‘right accent,’ who had not gone to public schools, and sometimes had even left school at 14 or 15.
This was because since its inception, the RAF had actively encouraged recruitment from all sectors of society, intentionally breaking with the rigidly class-conscious traditions of the Royal Navy and Army. The RAF had provided scholarships to the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell for exceptional young airmen and apprentices. It had launched a special program to encourage ground crews to receive pilot training. The RAF Volunteer Reserve was established to enable young men still in civilian life without the means to finance flying lessons to learn to fly at RAF expense. These pilots almost invariably came from the classes of society whose sons did not traditionally go to public schools, University or the Officer Corps.
In the Battle of Britain, pilots of the VR flew, drank and joked alongside the titled and privileged pilots of the University and Auxiliary Air Squadrons and the regulars, who had graduated from Cranwell. Literally, the sons of dukes and miners served in the same squadrons, fulfilling the same duties, taking the same risks, and reaping the same rewards. Most of the Sergeant Pilots of the Battle of Britain who survived were later commissioned, and often rose to senior command.
Click here to see a video teaser of Where Eagles Never Flew