Remembering the Hampshire ‘Few’ - the Spitfire pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain
PUBLISHED: 08:32 07 July 2020
courtesy of The Kent Battle of Britain Museum
As we mark 80 years since the Battle of Britain, we remember two of the Hampshire ‘Few’ who gave their lives to save others.
Eighty years on from one of the most important conflicts won by this country in the whole of the 20th century, new information continues to come to light about the men of the Royal Air Force who won the Battle of Britain.
As recently as last year, the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust added another name to the list of the fewer-than 3,000 who make up ‘the Few’ after accepting that Blenheim pilot Donald Brown, who flew with No 604 Squadron, qualified for the honour.
While it took eight decades to put right that omission, other errors have been corrected more swiftly, while new evidence continues to help the Trust and others build up a more accurate picture of the 1940 aerial battle that stopped Hitler’s planned invasion of this country.
For several decades, Hampshire man Frank Kinnersley Webster, whose family ran the Stag Hotel at Lake on the Isle of Wight, was thought to have died when his battle-damaged Spitfire caught fire after crashing as he attempted to land it on an airfield just inland from Dover’s iconic white cliffs.
It was not until the mid-eighties that this account of his death, supported by an official entry in the squadron’s operations record book (ORB), was questioned after the remains of the aircraft were excavated and examined.
Investigators discovered that the aircraft had buried itself 12 feet into the airfield at Hawkinge and been crushed by the impact, showing that it had in fact fallen from a great height.
Webster, who was born on 17 December 1917 to Elizabeth and Jasper Kinnersley Webster, achieved sporting success at Bedford Modern School and worked as a buyer before joining the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) in about April 1939.
Called up on 1 September that year, he completed his training and was commissioned on 27 July 1940, a couple of weeks or so after the start of the Battle of Britain on 10 July. He joined No. 610 Squadron at Biggin Hill the next day and was immediately sent away for training on Spitfires, re-joining the squadron on 12 August.
Surviving an engagement with Messerschmitt Bf 109s during his first recorded patrol on 24 August, Pilot Officer Webster was airborne again two days later, attempting to stop a Luftwaffe bombing raid on Folkestone.
It would have been a frightening experience for the inexperienced 26 year-old, and one that he failed to come through. While the original ORB entry suggested that the aircraft caught fire on crashing, it is now thought that it dived vertically into the ground from around 16,000 ft.
In his book on the squadron, 610 County of Chester Auxiliary Ar Force Squadron 1936 – 1940, author David J Bailey suggests that his commanding officer’s observation that, “His aircraft appeared to be undamaged before the crash”, makes it likely that the pilot had been killed at the controls.
Webster was buried in Sandown Cemetery, Lake, in the same grave as his father, Captain Jasper Kinnersley Webster.
According to the Isle of Wight County Press, during the funeral the Rev D Williams recalled then Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s observation that, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” David J Bailey points out how quickly the reference to ‘the Few’ had entered the language, since Churchill’s now-famous speech had only been made some ten days earlier.
Another Hampshire man who helped keep the Nazis at bay during the Battle of Britain was Sergeant Pilot William Silver, from Portsmouth – although he, too, was nearly the victim of a poorly-kept ORB.
With record-keeping not always as accurate in 1940 as it is now, coming up with a definitive list of the Few has not been possible, and it is generally accepted that there never will be an ultimate list.
The Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne, home to the National Memorial to the Few, lists just under 3,000 names. It was unveiled in 2005, but there is already a waiting list of amendments as a result of new evidence.
To be awarded the Battle of Britain Clasp to the 1939-45 star, an airman had to complete at least one operational sortie with a recognised unit of Fighter Command between 10 July and 31 October – and the most straightforward way to prove that was to be mentioned in the ORB.
As former Battle of Britain Memorial Trustee and author Geoff Simpson relates in his definitive history of the Battle of Britain Fighter Association, in the 1970s the BBFA wanted to remove Sgt Silver, of No. 152 Squadron, from the list because there was no reference to him in the ORB.
The BBFA lost the argument. Not only did Sgt Silver fly operationally in the battle, he gave his life for the cause, being shot down and killed over Portsmouth on 25 September.
According to Geoff Simpson, his death was witnessed by his comrade, Pilot Officer ‘Boy’ Marrs who, in a letter to his father later published in The Aeroplane in 1945, said Sgt Silver’s Spitfire “dived vertically into the sea” after being jumped by a Bf 109.
Sgt Silver is buried in Milton Road Cemetery, Portsmouth, alongside his daughter Joyce, who died in 1965, aged just 26, after the birth of her only child.
While it can be hard to prove entitlement to the Clasp, others claim it when they have no right to do so. Geoff Simpson relates tales of an RAF pilot who was lauded as a Battle of Britain veteran despite having not flown in the Battle, one man who served as ground crew but always claimed to have flown in the Battle and another who recorded his (invented) memories of the conflict – including having been shot down in a Hurricane – for an oral history archive.
He gives the last word to University of London academic Dr Tony Mansell, who has pointed out: “The important thing to realise about [squadron records] is that they were being compiled on airfields which could be in the thick of the fighting, including being bombed, and their compilers had other things on their minds than the convenience of future historians.”
Churchill’s Few are remembered at the Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne in Kent. For more information see battleofbritainmemorial.org