“…the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization….”
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons.
18 June 1940
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. (photo courtesy of IWM).
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.
“Sitting nearest to the Spitfire’s engine on the wing is Brian Lane, who had joined the RAF after escaping a dead-end job as a factory supervisor. He was appointed temporary commanding officer of 19 Squadron, part of the Duxford Wing, in September following the shooting down of its CO. In one logbook entry, he describes an encounter with the enemy in suitably Boys’ Ownish terms.
“Party over London. Sighted big bunch of Huns south of the river and got in lovely head-on attack into leading He 111s. Broke them up and picked up a small batch of six with two Me 110s as escort. Found myself entirely alone with these lads so proceeded to have a bit of sport. Got one of Me 110s on fire whereupon the other left his charge and ran for home. Played with the He 111s for a bit and finally got one in both engines. Never had so much fun before!”
Lane was awarded a DFC for his bravery and survived the battle, but his luck was not to last. During a sweep over Holland in December 1942 his Spitfire was jumped by Me109s. No one saw his aircraft go down but it was assumed to have dived into the North Sea. Lane was 25. The men sitting next to Lane on the wing with German Shepherd Flash and spaniel Rangy are George “Grumpy” Unwin and Francis Brinsden, both of whom survived the war. So did the two men standing to the left, Bernard Jennings and Colin McFie – the latter after being shot down and captured during a sweep over France in July 1941.
Howard Burton, the man in the dark jumper, and Philip Leckrone, the man on the far right, were not so fortunate. Burton went on to serve in the Middle East but died when in June 1943 when the Hudson bomber bringing him back to Britain disappeared over the Bay of Biscay. He was 26.
Leckrone was an American who had chosen to fight for Britain. Known to the boys as Uncle Sam, he went on to join 71 Squadron, an American volunteer unit flying Hurricanes. On 5 January 1941 his aircraft collided with another in the squadron during training and he was killed. He was 28.
John Boulton (pictured on the left with two fellow pilots and a spaniel leaning on the tail of a Hurricane) was 20 when the battle claimed him. He was flying next to Gordon Sinclair (the man on the right by the tail) over Croydon on September 9 when their aircraft collided. Sinclair survived but Boulton’s aircraft careered into a Me 110 and plunged to earth.
The man in the middle with the moustache is Jerrard Jefferies, who changed his surname to Latimer later in the war to carry on an old family name. He joined the RAF in 1936 and fought in the battle with 310 (Free Czech) Squadron, as did Boulton and Sinclair. After the battle he transferred to Bomber Command and died over France when his Lancaster bomber was shot down. The spaniel in the picture, thought to be called Rex, died when he accidentally jumped into the propeller of Jefferies’ Hurricane as he tried to greet his master.
One of the two pilots pictured seated by a Nissen hut is the only man in the photographs still living. Wallace “Jock” Cunningham is 93 now, but in poor health. The officer next to him is Arthur Blake, a Fleet Air Arm pilot attached to the RAF and known in the wing as Sailor. the Battle of Britain was in its last days when it claimed him. Blake was ‘weaving’ behind his squadron – acting as lookout – when he was surprised by an Me109 and shot down. He was 23 when he met his death.
lest we forget
2353 British and 574 overseas aircrew fought in the battle of britain. 544 were killed between July and October 1940. Another 791 died later in the war, in combat and as a result of accidents.
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.
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.