LONDON, JULY 28 -- At a time when it is struggling to come to terms with its shrinking power in a new, German-led Europe, Britain this summer is looking back with fondness and emotion to the moment 50 years ago when it stood alone against Germany and prevailed.
The Battle of Britain was a crucial victory and a turning point in World War II. But it was also a distinctly British fable of defiance and courage against overwhelming odds, a triumph against evil for a small band of brave pilots and their determined leader, a test of character for an entire nation.
The good guys won, and moreover, they won for the right reasons. The Royal Air Force used superior strategy, technological innovation and a stubborn insistence on sticking to a plan to wear down and eventually defeat a far larger German Luftwaffe that was arrogant and relentless but unable to clearly define and achieve its objectives.
It is a battle that still resonates today as Britain wrestles over its future as a military power. Analysts say large reductions in defense spending announced earlier this week would have been even greater had not Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet recalled the lessons of 1940 as they deliberated over the cuts.
"It is still very dominant in the national mentality," said recently retired Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, author of a new book on the RAF. "It's no coincidence that when we're talking about major cuts, the simple statement, 'Look, we went through the 1930s, and we don't want another Battle of Britain,' carries tremendous weight. There is also a tremendous residue of goodwill for the RAF, which undoubtedly helps when the political chips come down and is directly attributable to the Battle of Britain."
The four-month battle rewrote the rule book on aerial tactics and theories, and many of its innovations remain in use today. It marked the first time that a scientific air defense based on radar and aerial intelligence was used to harass and eventually humiliate a far larger, better equipped and better trained foe.
But it was also a battle of men, individual pilots who for the last time in history fought in prolonged single combat. They were "The Few," immortalized by Winston Churchill and lionized by a grateful nation, which looked on helplessly that summer and fall as young men in single-engine fighters desperately fought off the German Goliath over southeastern England.
Some were born heroes, others born killers, but most were ordinary people who were brand new to flying and to combat. Their modest goal, said retired Wing Commander Pat Hancock, a 71-year-old veteran of the battle, was "to do the job, stay alive and not embarrass anybody."
The survivors are men in their seventies and eighties, mostly retired, sometimes forgetful, bathing this summer in one last collective stream of youthful glory. There are air shows and museum openings, awards ceremonies and champagne. And there are searing memories of awful, exhilarating moments when death was just inches away or a few seconds below on the unyielding ground.
Denis David, a retired fighter ace who shot down two dozen planes during the war, likes to show guests a charcoal portrait made of him that summer when he was just 21. The face is tense and weary, the lips tightly sealed, the eyes deadened, the hands rigid.
"I remember a great tiredness," he recalled. "We were never over-awed by the Germans, but we always felt outnumbered. We always had to put on a show, act like we weren't afraid, when in fact we were scared to death. I aged so quickly. We all did.
"I was one of the lucky ones. I had bullets an inch away. You can actually smell the lead at that altitude when they're firing past you, and it's a most unpleasant smell."
It was not supposed to be a contest. Fresh from lightning victories over Poland and France, Adolf Hitler and his armies believed the war was over and expected Britain to sue for peace to avoid the prospect of invasion and conquest. But the British, protected from the mainland by a 20-mile-wide strip of English Channel, chose to stand alone and fight.
An incredulous Hitler ordered the Operation Sea Lion invasion to take place before the end of September. But for it to succeed, Germany first had to control Britain's skies.
Hermann Goering, the highly decorated World War I flying ace who was the Luftwaffe's flamboyant commander, said it would take a month to destroy the RAF. The numbers were on his side -- the Luftwaffe had 856 serviceable fighters and 1,112 bombers at the start of the battle in July, while the RAF could send up only 591 fighters to oppose them. Goering's idea was to quickly bleed to death the RAF's Fighter Command.
For six weeks in July and early August, the two sides jabbed and feinted warily, while the Luftwaffe gradually stepped up the pressure. Then on Aug. 13 -- dubbed Eagle Day by the Germans -- came a wave of planes so massive it darkened the skies.
The Luftwaffe was used to quick, decisive contests in which its speed and power overwhelmed the enemy. But the RAF refused to be lured into a full-scale air battle. Instead, it sent up small groups of planes, directed and controlled by radar, to harass and inflict wounds. The Luftwaffe air strikes gradually wore down the RAF, but its own losses were far higher than the Germans had anticipated.
Then, just when the losses they were inflicting were overcoming British production, Hitler and Goering lost patience and switched tactics. They stopped bombing RAF airfields and radar stations and on Sept. 7 started bombing London.
It was a critical mistake. London took enormous casualties but the RAF survived. It showed its teeth on Sept. 15 when British fighters shot down 56 German aircraft in a single day during massive German air raids over the city. On Oct. 12 Hitler reluctantly ordered the invasion postponed until the following spring. It never took place.
There were many more air raids -- London suffered for months under the night bombings known as the Blitz, and 23,000 civilians were killed that year. But the tide had turned. Britain was no closer to victory, but it had staved off defeat.
When it was over, the Luftwaffe had lost 1,733 aircraft to the RAF's 915. Of the 2,927 men officially designated to have taken part in air combat for Britain during the battle, 893 were killed or wounded. The Germans lost more than 3,000 men. Among pilots alone, the casualty rate was 34 percent.
German pilots, hardened by earlier battles in Spain, Poland and France, started with superior tactics and experience, but the British caught on quickly. The most effective aces learned to come in with the sun at their backs, dive steeply and pull up within 100 yards of an enemy formation, shooting their targets in the back. German pilots shot at British parachutes, while British planes hit German Red Cross planes.
"Get in quickly, punch hard, get out smartly," ordered A.G. "Sailor" Malan, one of Britain's legendary aces.
Leadership was the key in many ways. Had Goering concentrated for a few weeks longer on attacking RAF air bases and radar stations, experts believe the Luftwaffe might have won the battle.
His opposite number was dramatically different and quintessentially English. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, nicknamed "Stuffy," was an austere, eccentric and difficult loner who alienated his colleagues and superiors, including Churchill. Dowding's son remembers him correcting the grammar in letters from Air Ministry officials and returning them unanswered.
Dowding had one great advantage -- he was fighting on his home ground. His planes could stay in the air longer than the enemy and his men, when shot down, often landed in safe territory. Unlike Goering, he did not need to develop an elaborate strategy for victory -- all the RAF had to do was survive.
Dowding stubbornly defied Churchill by refusing to commit the RAF's reserves to France after the battle there was lost. He would not be lured into Goering's trap, refusing to send large numbers of planes into the air when the Luftwaffe attacked. He also took the lead in pressing for faster fighters and encouraged the development of the Hurricane and Spitfire, the two British fighters that won the battle. And he supported radar wholeheartedly, developing his air defense system around the untested innovation.
After the battle, he was quickly replaced and exiled to obscurity. But his own pilots did not forgot him. Denis David's wife, Margaret, recalls attending a special premiere of the film "The Battle of Britain" about 25 years ago. Dowding, in his eighties and soon to die, was brought in in a wheelchair, frail and half-blind, yet he stayed until 3 a.m. talking to the aging men he called "my dear fighter boys."
"He asked, 'Are they all here?' and they let out a big cry," she recalled. "Many of the pilots, middle-aged men, sat on the floor by his feet and you could see the pride they felt, you could feel the loyalty. It was a very touching moment."