Bat­tle of Bri­tain: ‘This was their finest hour’

West Sussex County Times - - Your News - Ru­pert Toovey

This week­end marks the 80th an­niver­sary of the start of the Bat­tle of Bri­tain.

There are mo­ments in our long is­land his­tory which have the stuff of le­gends about them. Th­ese points in our his­tory speak of the re­silience, self­less­ness, in­ven­tive­ness and for­ti­tude in our na­tional char­ac­ter, an abil­ity to tri­umph in the face of dis­as­ter. The Bat­tle of Bri­tain is amongst them.

In the House of Com­mons shortly af­ter France had sur­ren­dered Win­ston Churchill set out what was at stake: “I ex­pect that the Bat­tle of Bri­tain is about to be­gin. Upon this bat­tle de­pends the sur­vival of Christian civil­i­sa­tion. Upon it de­pends our own Bri­tish life, and the long con­ti­nu­ity of our in­sti­tu­tions and our Em­pire. The whole fury and might of the en­emy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Is­land or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move for­ward into broad, sun­lit up­lands. But if we fail, then the whole world, in­clud­ing the United States, in­clud­ing all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sin­is­ter, and per­haps more pro­tracted, by the lights of per­verted sci­ence. Let us there­fore brace our­selves to our du­ties, and so bear our­selves that, if the Bri­tish Em­pire and its Com­mon­wealth last for a thou­sand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

As the fields were tilled by horse and plough and the har­vest brought in, a bat­tle for the very sur­vival of the Bri­tish na­tion and way of life was fought in the skies over Sus­sex and south­ern Eng­land. End­less sor­ties were flown from air­fields like Tang­mere, Westhamp­nett on the Good­wood Es­tate, West Wit­ter­ings, and Cool­ham near Hor­sham.

The Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum (IWM) is one of Bri­tain’s most im­por­tant cus­to­di­ans of our na­tion’s story. Amongst their col­lec­tions is an evoca­tive wa­ter­colour by Eric Rav­il­ious ti­tled ‘Run­way Per­spec­tive’. The com­po­si­tion has an ex­plo­sive ge­om­e­try. The lines on the run­way cen­tre on a dis­tant church on the slightly tilted hori­zon, and seem to rush to­wards us lend­ing speed and en­ergy to the two bank­ing Spit­fires, em­pha­sized by the sweep­ing cu­mu­lonim­bus clouds. As the near­est air­craft climbs over­head it is as though we can hear the evoca­tive Rolls Royce Mer­lin en­gine roar­ing in our ears.

Eric Rav­il­ious’ child­hood was spent in East­bourne and he re­turned to Sus­sex in 1934 stay­ing at Fur­longs with Peggy Angus who had rented a shep­herd’s cot­tage in sight of Firle. Here he painted land­scapes and local scenes. His work is rooted in the land­scape and life of pre-war and wartime Eng­land. Sus­sex and the South Downs are strong in­flu­ences.

At the out­break of war Rav­il­ious joined the Ob­server Corps, be­com­ing a war artist in 1940. He of­ten flew with the RAF and died with the air­men he so ad­mired on an air sea re­con­nais­sance mis­sion which failed to re­turn.

Against ex­tra­or­di­nary odds the courage and brav­ery of our young fighter pi­lots in their Su­per­ma­rine Spit­fires and Hawker Hur­ri­canes com­bined with the de­fence sys­tem devel­oped by Air Mar­shall Sir Hugh Dowd­ing to halt the Nazi ad­vance.

The IWM in Lon­don, Dux­ford and across the coun­try is one of Bri­tain’s most im­por­tant cus­to­di­ans of our na­tion’s story. Through­out the sum­mer they are holding a se­ries of events at Dux­ford to com­mem­o­rate the Bat­tle of Bri­tain.

To find out more about th­ese events and how you can sup­port the IWM’s work in th­ese chal­leng­ing times visit www.iwm.org.uk. Ru­pert Toovey is a se­nior di­rec­tor of Toovey’s, the lead­ing fine art auc­tion house in West Sus­sex, based on the A24 at Wash­ing­ton - www. tooveys.com - and a priest in the Church of Eng­land Dio­cese of Chich­ester.

Eric Rav­il­ious, ‘Run­way Per­spec­tive’, wa­ter­colour © IWM 2020

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