The 15th September 2020 marks the 80th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Britain’, the title awarded by Churchill to the fight by the British to prevent Nazi Germany invading and conquering Britain in the summer and autumn of 1940.
On 1st September 1939 Germany started the Second World War by invading Poland; as a result, on the 3rd September, Britain and France were forced to declare war on Germany. Immediately following the declaration, however, a quiet period of war (sometimes known as the ‘phoney war’) ensued, as Hitler was unable to advance any of his military plans due to bad weather.
In the Spring 1940, however, the German ‘Blitzkrieg’ or ‘Lightening War’ plans swung into action, when Hitler invaded France. On the 10th May, as the attack began, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned, and Churchill became the new Prime Minister. The speed of the German advance into France forced the British, French and Belgian troops back to Dunkirk where they used the ‘little ships’ to help evacuate over 338,000 men from the harbour and beaches. Although a retreat, the rescuing of so many experienced troops was a boost for the Allies.
The impact of war in St Neots
In St Neots, the town Council had been busy preparing for war for many months, and by Spring 1940 evacuees from London had arrived, the Black-Out was in place, food rationing had begun, and men had been called up to fight. Victor Ekins, who lived in New Street, St Neots and whose family ran the cattle market and auction yard, had signed up as a RAF Volunteer Reserve and was already training to be a Spitfire pilot. In June 1940, Víctor was awarded his ‘wings’ as a qualified pilot, just in time to take part in the Battle of Britain which began on the 10th July 1940 when Hitler launched ‘Operation Sea Lion’. Victor flew with Squadron 501, flying with many of the most famous Battle of Britain pilots, including ‘Ginger’ Lacey, Bob Dafforn and Anthony Palmer Tomkinson. He later became the leader of RAF Squadron 19 based at Duxford.
Their finest hour
As the Germans planned their aerial bombardment of Britain, it was on 18th June 1940 that Churchill delivered one of his most famous speeches to the British People. He called this phase of the war the ‘Battle of Britain’ and said ‘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’ … ‘let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and the Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say : ‘This was their finest hour.’
People all over St Neots listened intently to the radio once the Battle of Britain began, hoping no harm would come to local men. However, Victor’s plane was eventually shot down and he was hit by a German bullet. Very luckily, he was able to parachute out of the plane and was rescued when he landed. He survived and was awarded the DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross). Soon he was flying again and was later awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his outstanding service to his country.