Before the Battle of Britain began, Prime Minister Winston Churchill said, “If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.'”
They’re still saying it 75 years later, including during the service held at the Saskatchewan War Memorial this morning.
Ground troops had already been pulled out of Dunkirk, France after the Nazis had taken control of the country along with most of Europe. Germany then turned its eye onto Britain with a plan to dominate the air, wear down its defenses and invade over the English channel.
The Battle of Britain lasted through the summer of 1940 from July to October and was a major turning point in the war. The Royal Air Force along with the Royal Canadian Air Force, were vastly outnumbered by the powerful German Luftwaffe. By the end, 544 allied pilots died preventing the invasion, along with thousands of Germans.
“It was the first time during the course of that war that the Nazis were defeated and the first time in human history that a battle was won entirely in the air,” said Major Jason Quilliam.
Planes from 15-Wing flew over the service during the moment of silence, but the veterans kept their heads bowed remembering the 15 pilots from Saskatchewan who fought in the battle. Four died, seven survived the battle only to be killed later in the war and four returned home to Saskatchewan.
Quilliam, who has served two tours in Afghanistan, read out their names before wreaths were laid at the war memorial just west of the Saskatchewan Legislature.
“What a scary, scary time for them,” he said, “I just can’t even begin to fathom what they must have had to go through.”
Battle of Britain Committee Chairman and retired Lieutenant Colonel Terry Lyons knows what it’s like to sit in the cockpit. He served with the Royal Canadian Air Force from 1950 to 1975, although he was never fired upon.
He was just a boy during the Battle of Britain, but the triumphant victory over the Germans was enough to inspire him and his fellow colleagues .
“It really gave us an incentive to serve our country,” said Lyons.
However, today’s generation won’t have the honour to hear straight from the Second World War veterans. Many are over 90 years old and soon there will be none left. That’s why Lyons stressed the importance of teaching today’s youth about the wars, so that the lessons and the people who gave their lives are never forgotten.
“If you don’t learn your history, you know, you’re bound to repeat it,” said Lyons.
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed, by so many, to so few.”
The ‘few’ in Churchill’s famous speech are now even fewer. It is believed there is only one surviving Canadian pilot left from the Battle of Britain. John Stewart Hart was born in Sackville, New Brunswick and turns 99 this month.
He is the last of the few.