In May 1940, aged just 18, Geoffrey Wellum joined 92 Squadron at RAF Northolt and would soon be flying Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. Now, 75 years later, Wellum and a number of the surviving Battle of Britain veterans have been reunited with historic Spitfires and a Hurricane at RAF Northolt – the RAF's last remaining Battle of Britain station – to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle.
It was the brave actions of Squadron Leader Wellum and his comrades that, as Churchill said, "cast a glittering shield" to protect Great Britain during those fateful summer days of 1940 and the Royal Air Force, the RAF Benevolent Fund, and the RAF Museum honoured its oldest veterans with a heartfelt royal ceremony and commemorative dinner.
His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent, whose father served and died in the RAF during the Second World War, led the tribute and met Wellum and fellow pilots Wing Commander Paul Farnes, Squadron Leader Tony Pickering, and Flying Officer Ken Wilkinson, along with Spitfire fitter Sergeant Stan Hartill, all in their mid-to-late 90s.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight then took to the skies as two historic Spitfires and a Hurricane displayed for the veterans below, followed by the majestic Sunset Ceremony by the Queen’s Colour Squadron. The RAF Central Band performed the national anthem as the sun set and the Ensign was lowered.
The Battle of Britain aircraft and a modern day Typhoon fighter jet, sporting Battle of Britain livery, formed the backdrop for the ceremony on the RAF Northolt airfield.
RAF Benevolent Fund Controller Air Marshal Chris Nickols said: "So many of the Battle of Britain veterans have passed on, either during the war or in the years following, that 'The Few' are now very few indeed.
"It was our honour to welcome these veterans, all now well into their 90s, back to RAF Northolt and to share in this incredibly moving tribute to them and all who served in the Battle. We are forever in their debt."
RAF Museum Chief Executive Officer Maggie Appleton MBE said: "In paying tribute to the veterans present at RAF Northolt we also pay tribute to all those who sacrificed – the pilots, the grounds crew, the WAAFs and the civilian organisations who worked together in the defence of freedom.
"The Battle of Britain is all the more resonant because it included pilots from other countries such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, Jamaica and Canada all coming together for the common good.
"It is a story we share with the rest of the world and it is an honour to celebrate it and in doing so to pay tribute to the men and women of the RAF today."
The Battle of Britain involved nearly 3,000 aircrew from more than 70 squadrons between July and October 1940. The cost of the Battle was high – 544 lost their lives and a further 814 died before the end of the War. And of those 3,000 airmen, described by Winston Churchill as 'The Few,' only a handful still survive 75 years on from those fateful summer days.
Squadron Leader Wellum said: "You accepted losing friends. It was a personal thing how you went about missing absent friends.
"If you let your imagination run with it you could get shot down. In the end you accepted it, it was inevitable. But at 19 years old you cannot go to war in a Spitfire and forget about it. It stays with you for all time."
He continued: "One was aware that the Germans were not doing all this for fun, they meant business so it was bloody serious.
"What matters is we stopped them for the first time. We defeated them and got them to retreat, that is all that mattered to me."
RAF Northolt's Station Commander, Group Captain David Manning said: "The Battle of Britain was not only a defining event for the Royal Air Force, it was a pivotal event in our country’s history.
"The nation owes a huge debt, not only to 'The Few', but to the whole force that contributed to winning the Battle. It is a huge honour for Royal Air Force Northolt to host this 75th Anniversary Dinner. Meeting the remaining Few this evening, and paying tribute to their achievement, has been humbling and inspirational for everybody."
Stan Hartill, who tended Spitfires as part of the ground crew, recalled: "If you had been on those active airfields and saw what went on you would have realised that every word Winston Churchill spoke was the truth.
"Seeing the Spitfires taking off tonight and watching the Queen's Colour Squadron was incredibly powerful.
"I was truly touched to be at Northolt, along with my fellow veterans and so many from the RAF family, and to know just how much our service is still appreciated, even after all these years. I just can't express how much it means to me."