RAF Pilots Wore Silk Scarves To Save Their Lives

“…the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization….”” 

18 June 1940

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons. 

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One of the most haunting images from the Battle of Britain is that of Squadron Leader Brian Lane DFC (above middle) taken immediately after he landed from a combat sortie in September of 1940. The strain and exhaustion on his face belie his young age (23) and make this one of the best-known and most powerful photographs to come from the era. (photo courtesy of IWM).

This was taken during the Battle of Britain at Fowlmere, Duxford’s satellite station. Walter ‘Farmer’ Lawson (left), Brian ‘Sandy’ Lane (centre) and George ‘Grumpy’ Unwin (right) had all been in heavy combat that day. Lawson and Lane were both killed in combat later in the war, but ‘Grumpy’ Unwin survived. (This paragraph from the Imperial War Museum blog)

 

 Pilots of No.19 and No.616 Squadrons pose by a Spitfire. Sitting on the wing (left to right) are Brian Lane, ‘Grumpy’ Unwin and Francis Brinsden – with Flash the Alsatian and Rangy the Spaniel.  (photo courtesy Imperial War Museum)

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If you were an RAF pilot and ditched in the English Channel, the collar of your standard officer’s Van Heusen shirt “shrank in contact with sea water and throttled the wearer.”

So writes author Stephen Bungay in his outstanding work: The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain.

“The wearing of silk scarves as an alternative, which many outside of Fighter Command thought a mere affectation, was a life-saving measure…”  (The collar was detachable from the shirt)

Unlike the USA, where all pilots were officers, the young men who entered the RAF and trained as pilots through the Volunteer Reserve were not considered gentlemen and therefore could not be officers. Instead, they were “sergeant pilots.”

The VR program began in 1936 and trained 800 pilots a year. The young men represented a large cross-section of society and over one-third of RAF pilots in the Battle of Britain and beyond belonged to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve.

This class-based discrimination was offensive to many, damaging to morale and ludicrous in practice. Air stations had to have separate messes and clubs for sergeant-pilots who were not supposed to fraternize with their squadron mates who were officers. (Some squadrons only had a handful a sergeant pilots– who messed with the senior RAF ratings on the base).

So the very men who formed bonds of comradeship in battle, fought together, grieved together and faced a deadly foe together, who may have just fought a grueling air battle with the Luftwaffe, were not allowed to share a beer after they landed.  If a sergeant-pilot had saved the life of an officer pilot, that man could not buy the sergeant a drink.

Hard to believe such pettiness existed in a war for the survival of the Kingdom but it did. Distinctions between the two groups lessened as time went on but the system was always awkward.

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Brian Lane. The epitome of the gallant few who won the Battle of Britain. Lane was No. 19 Squadron’s fourth Commanding Officer in less than 12 months. Of his predecessors, one was posted away, one was shot down and made a prisoner of war, and one was killed. Lane was extremely well-liked by his men and was a very gifted fighter pilot. He wrote a book about his experiences in the battle, “Spitfire!” which was published in 1942.

Tragically, Lane was killed in action 13 December 1942. He was 25 years old. (Imperial War Museum)

LEST WE FORGET

Brian John Edward Lane

Squadron Leader No. 19 Squadron, Royal Air Force.

born 18 June 1917–reported missing-in-action presumed dead– 13 December 1942, age 25.  

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/