70 years ago today, the Second World War entered a deadly new phase. France had fallen to the might of Nazi Germany, our own soldiers had been forced to retreat across the Channel from Dunkirk, and an attempted invasion of the UK looked highly likely. Britain stood alone, and vulnerable, and Hitler knew it. On 10th July1940 he ordered the Luftwaffe to attack shipping in the English Channel, and so the BattleofBritain began.
If you'd been standing on the Kent cliffs at the time, an extraordinary aerial battle would have played out in the skies ahead of you. Hurricanes and Heinkels diving out of the clouds, Spitfires and Messerschmitts spinning above the waves, each plane piloted by patriotic young airmen in a combat to the death. Down below were at-risk convoys attempting to bring in supplies, with anti-aircraft guns blazing from their decks. And not just a three-minute burst, this went on for hours, and for weeks, with the inevitable casualties and destruction creating enormous logistical pressure on each side. From the clifftop all you could have done was watch, and pray, and marvel at the bravery of those risking all for everything.
And it's on these very same clifftops that the Battle of Britain Memorial has been constructed. On the chalk above Folkestone, close to the village of Capel-le-Ferne, a permanent tribute to the sacrifice of The Few. You're probably expecting a marble wall inscribed with the names of dead pilots, and yes there's one of those, but it's not the main focus of the memorial [photo]. Instead a major earthwork has been constructed, consisting of a horseshoe shaped ridge and two smaller circular mounds. At the heart of this central space sits the statue of a young pilot, staring respectfully out to sea [photo]. And leading outwards from this inner hub are three paved convex paths, stretching out from the centre to resemble a giant three-bladed propeller [photo]. It's hard to take in from the ground, or even from the top of the ridge, because this is a memorial optimised for viewing from the air[aerial map]. Clever that, if not quite as obvious as it could be for earthbound visitors.
Most visitors arrive by car, not least because most visitors are over 60. But it is possible to wander in along the North Downs Way, along the clifftop, by following the footpaths east of Folkestone. There are several places to stop and linger, in addition to the pilot statue and his big propeller. That marble wall, for starters, which was unveiled by Prince Michael of Kent five summers ago. There's a full-size Spitfire and an impressive Hurricane to stare at, although they're both replicas because you can't leave genuine vintage aircraft lying around in a field with full public access. And there's a visitor centre [arty photo], which looks rather like an oversized conservatory, where you can sit down with a nice cup of coffee and a KitKat whilst looking at some appropriately deferential memorabilia. Or you can bring your own sandwiches and sit outside on the benches beneath the flagpole, with added rucksack, which was very definitely the more popular option when I visited.
There's a special 70th anniversary commemoration at the Battle of Britain Memorial tomorrow, where brass bands and RAF top brass will both be in evidence. A service of remembrance will be held, wreaths will be laid, and the visitor centre will do a roaring trade in cups of tea. And a genuine Spitfire and Hurricane will fly overhead, twice, in memory of the dogfights which filled the Channel skies with death during the summer of 1940. It took a month for the main battle to head inland, with the Germans intent first on destroying airfields and signalling stations, then later the citizens of undefended cities and towns. It could all have gone so incredibly wrong for Britain, had the unthinkable happened, und unsere Zukunft würde sehr unterschiedlich gewesen sein. But those remembered here, atop the grassy chalk cliffs of Kent, helped to turn the tide in freedom's favour. This weekend, and in perpetuity, they will be remembered.