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Battle of Britain pilots: How many pilots were killed, are any still alive and how can you trace them?

Jonathan Scott surveys the best websites for researching Battle of Britain pilots and ground crew

Hawker Hurricanes flying in formation during the Battle of Britain in 1940 Battle of Britain pilots

What was the Battle of Britain?

The Battle of Britain refers to the bombing campaign conducted by the Luftwaffe against Britain during the Second World War, with the aim of breaking British morale and forcing the country to accept a peace settlement with Nazi Germany. It lasted from 10 July to 31 October 1940. The Royal Air Force and the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy successfully resisted and defeated the Luftwaffe, leading to Winston Churchill’s famous words: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

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How many pilots were killed in the Battle of Britain?

During the Battle of Britain, 1542 British pilots were killed, 422 were wounded and 23,002 civilians were killed.

Are any Battle of Britain pilots still alive?

The last surviving Battle of Britain veteran is 102-year-old Pilot Officer John Hemingway, who lives in Dublin.

How to research Battle of Britain pilots

If your ancestor flew with Fighter Command you may already have some family ephemera relating to the conflict, such as the Battle of Britain Clasp that was awarded to combatant pilots.

But lots of online resources reveal new details about the timeline, aircraft, tactics, contemporary coverage and official reports of the battle in more and more detail.

Indeed if your ancestor was a Battle of Britain pilot, there are several websites that should record his name, rank and wartime service – and often a lot more besides.

1. Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight website Battle of Britain pilots

This RAF website includes information about the Battle of Britain memorial flights and the types of aircraft used.

2. Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain pilots

A clunky-looking but content-rich site that is dedicated to the “pilots, crew, fitters, ferry pilots, cooks, and all concerned with Fighter Command” during the Battle of Britain. It contains a list of all RAF pilots, pilots and crew by nationality, squadrons and a basic diary.

The entry for Monday 29 July 1940, for example, reads “Dover was heavily attacked by 48, Ju 87s escorted by about 80, Bf 109s. Smaller raids took place later in the day, off Portland and Harwich…”

Many of the Battle of Britain pilots’ names are hyperlinked, which often lead to biographies and photographs.

3. The National Archives

The National Archives Battle of Britain pilots

TNA’s Research Guides page lists the key RAF collections now available. Second World War material includes combat reports, which Battle of Britain pilots or air gunners filed after operational flights. The reports record date/ time of the combat, squadron of the person submitting the information, type/number of enemy aircraft, losses, plus a detailed narrative.

The records are searchable via Discovery. Fields include the name of the author/s of the report, whether pilot (for fighters) or air gunner (for bombers). You can also explore TNA’s operations record books, compiled by the Air Ministry.

4. Battle of Britain Memorial

Battle of Britain Memorial Battle of Britain pilots

This website, launched for the Battle of Britain’s 75th anniversary, is the place to explore the Battle of Britain Memorial Wall, which records all pilots who received the Battle of Britain Clasp. There are also biographies of a ‘Few of the Few’, and an ‘enthusiasts only’ Squadron Logbook section, which features an assortment of in-depth articles.

5. Expert’s Choice: Battle of Britain Historical Society

Battle of Britain 1940 Battle of Britain pilots

Chosen by Phil Tomaselli, author of Air Force Lives and Tracing Your Air Force Ancestors:

“My choice for novice researchers would be the official website of the Battle of Britain Historical Society.

“Its section on Fighter Command in 1940 gives splendid background details and on the action day by day, including descriptions of the fighting on both sides.

“There are features on the aircraft that fought, not just the Spitfire and Hurricane but also the Gloster Gladiator and Boulton Paul Defiant, two older fighters that covered the West Country, as well as German aircraft. Other documents cover the development of radar, the Observer Corps and Air Intelligence.

“The Battle of Britain Historical Society section is more personal and focuses on individuals with a complete list of British, Commonwealth and Allied aircrew that took part, a list of the known surviving participants and stories from the men who flew themselves.”

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Jonathan Scott is a freelance writer and family history expert. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter.