Monday, August 30, 2010
The faces of "the Few"
I know everyone has their demons that hinder and slow us down and make our lives weary... however I simply cannot help but look at this picture and feel that my life is hardly all that difficult. Pictured here is newly promoted Squadron Leader Brian John Edward Lane, Officer Commanding of No. 19 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Take a good look at this picture and try to guess how old he is.
He is photographed during the height of the Battle of Britain, September of 1940 at the helm of the aforementioned historic No. 19 Squadron, having received his post following the death of the previous squadron leader. At this point in the battle, Lane had fought in the Battle of France that May and June, helping protect embattled British and French soldiers during the harrowing evacuation of Dunkirk. The Allies lost the Battle of France. By this point to many, including the still neutral USA, it looked like they were going to lose the Battle of Britain as well. I on the other hand, look at this face and I don't see defeat. I see strain, I see hardship etched into every line of his prematurely aged face, but I don't see defeat. Instead I see determination, I see grit, and I see sadness.
There are no smiles here. Men just returned from another hard fight, almost always with less planes coming back than went out. That was the reality these men lived in for almost a year, from the late spring of 1940 through spring of 1941. The enemy they faced, the German Luftwaffe, outmanned them, outgunned them, and had a years' worth of combat experience under its belt. This was the great test in that moment of history; after Poland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Norway and France had all fallen, and Italy being part of the Axis and Spain under control of a Fascist regime every bit as ruthless as Germany's, all eyes were on Britain. The war for the soul of Europe for that one year rested solely on their shoulders. We here in the USA offered little help. We sent no planes, we sent no pilots, we sent no ships, and we sent no soldiers. Britain was seemingly a force alone.
Forget fanciful images from films like "Pearl Harbor", of American volunteers risking criminal prosecution and lost citizenship back at home to gallantly help the beleaguered Great Britain to victory, the total amount of US airmen who flew during the actual Battle of Britain was between seven and ten. Our sole contribution to the actual fighting. Almost 150 Polish airmen fought in the battle however, even after England failed utterly to live up to its promise to assist Poland in the event of a German invasion. One in every eight pilots in the RAF during the battle was Polish.
We in the US, however, were neutral and would remain so for nearly another year and a half. The first full squadron of volunteer US pilots in RAF uniforms didn't become active until February of 1941, well after the majority of the fighting of the battle had wound down as the Germans prepared to invade the Soviet Union instead. The squadron itself was formed and being trained in September 1940, at the time this picture was taken. We have no right to take any pride from Allied victory in the Battle of Britain, or even pretend we do. But really, Britain was not alone. Apart from the Poles, scores of Czech, French, Norwegian, Belgian, Danish, and other pilots had all escaped to Britain. In fact the highest scoring RAF unit of the conflict was No. 303 (Polish) Squadron, which only entered combat on the final day of August 1940. On top of that many pilots from around the Commonwealth, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, all flocked to the homeland in its hour of need.
It would be over another year from when this photograph was taken before the US signed the Lend-Lease Act and started sending aid to Great Britain in earnest in exchange for Caribbean naval bases. It would be another year and a half almost from this photograph until we actually entered the war, and almost another two years from this photograph before we started sending our army air force in earnest to England to carry out the bombing campaign against occupied France and Germany. And even then, we were woefully unprepared to carry our weight. We talk of American victories and American military might when without Great Britain it never would have happened. They gave us staging areas, they taught us tactics and took us under their proverbial and even literal wings.
This was a different conflict, a different time. These were desperate and dedicated young men. Our soldiers on the ground today do not face the same struggles that Lane and his comrades did. No one but those who were there and then in that shining moment can have any idea what it possibly felt like; those of us alive today can only taste it. Fighting to keep anything resembling morale as your airfields, factories, and finally cities are all bombed mercilessly for months on end and no matter how many times you go up and how fewer and fewer of you return every time the enemy never seems to break or lessen their assault. Yet they held, they held strong and they kept fighting. And in the end that determination paid off in victory that I think won the war in Europe. Without a British victory in the Battle of Britain there would have been no launching point for a Normandy invasion, nowhere for the streams of Allied strategic and tactical bombers to break down the German war machine and fighting spirit bit by bit. This moment and these young men were the ones who beat Germany; they kept the light going and the door open for the future.
Let’s go back to the picture now. This was the face of that battle; very weary, very young, but very determined young men. Whatever your guess was at his age from the beginning, he was only twenty three at the time of this picture. He's not photogenic. The lower half of his face is markedly paler than the upper half from being covered by a flight mask after spending much of every day flying. The frown-lines between his eyebrows are very pronounced, he even appears to have bit of a wandering left eye if you look close enough, and you can. But he looks back at the camera, right back at you, and he's unwavering, isn't he? This is the face of Brian John Edward Lane, and this is the face of the Battle of Britain. Lane was not the highest scorer of the battle, not by a long shot. In fact he just barely made 'ace', which is to say he shot down 5 or more enemy aircraft, with a final score of 6. The man to his left, our right, George Unwin, downed over twice as many as Lane. And unlike Lane, Unwin survived the war. Lane on the other hand finally met his fate in combat over the North Sea in December of 1942. Yet it is Lane who we remember today. Because Lane didn't have a low score because of lack of ability, he had leadership thrust on him at a young age and carried his torch well. He dedicated himself to leading his men and the success of the unit over personal glory. The photo shows Lane as he was; a hard-working, no nonsense leader who wanted to win.
Look hard at this photograph. This is the face of a hero. Of a common man who fought a grand fight. And even if it claimed his life, he has in fact survived until today, hasn't he? Even knowing that he only lived two years beyond this photograph, maybe it's just me but I don't see death in Lane's face... do you? I see someone determined to keep going, even if it does kill him. That's a powerful thing, a force of will we all should have, don't you think? It's decidedly missing in today's world, the drive, the desire to win and keep going no matter how long the odds. I know some may argue that our enemies have it today, blowing themselves to smithereens in desperate attempts to kill us, but that's not the same thing, not by a long shot. Fighting to defeat your enemy even if it kills you will always win over killing yourself to kill your enemy. It didn't work for the Japanese in World War II and it won't work now. We should all learn something from this picture, learn something from this small moment in history and move forward with our lives, and keep fighting, even if it kills us, but with a hope for a future all the same. In that way we can all be heroes can't we? We can help keep the spirit of the "Few" alive. We can make sure that the sacrifices of those like Lane don’t go forgotten, or those who're putting their own lives on the line today. The very soul of our modern times depends on it.
(credit to image from militaryimages.net, photograph by Stanley Devon, September 1940)