Why you should care
Modern warfare goes beyond those with guns.
The flight crews and staff at the Biggin Hill airfield were used to being bombed by the Germans. After all, the Royal Air Force base was only 17 miles southeast of the Tower of London, and its importance in defending the capital from aerial attacks during the Battle of Britain in the early days of World War II had earned it the nickname “the strongest link.” In response, the Germans bombed Biggin Hill more than any other single airfield, according to Stephen Bungay, author of The Most Dangerous Enemy.
Despite the target on Biggin Hill — or perhaps because of it — it was also “the fighter station that everyone wanted to serve at,” says Jemma Johnson-Davey, director of the Biggin Hill Memorial Museum. Among the most intrepid at the airfield were three members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force who disobeyed orders during the heaviest German attacks and won medals for their defiance and bravery.
Henderson maintained the connection to Fighter Command until a fire broke out. … Turner, at a nearby switchboard, had to be dragged from her post.
It was 1940, and the Nazis, having overrun France, now turned their attention to the “island home” that stood alone against Germany on the western front. Britain braced itself for the fight it had prepared for but hoped would never come. Then, on July 10, German planes attacked a British convoy in the English Channel and launched the Battle of Britain. The subsequent three and a half months of aerial combat pitted Luftwaffe bombers, dive bombers and fighters against RAF squadrons of Hawker Hurricanes and SUPERMARINE Spitfires in a deadly struggle that helped determine the outcome of the war.
On August 30, bombers targeted Biggin Hill — again — hitting the sector station’s air-raid shelter and killing 39 people. More attacks were launched in the following days. Amid the chaos, teleprint operators Joan Mortimer, Elspeth Henderson and Helen Turner stood their ground, maintaining vital communication channels between Fighter Command headquarters in Uxbridge and other airfields in the area.
During one bombardment, Mortimer sat at her switchboard surrounded by explosives, relaying information to defense posts around the airfield. Then she grabbed red flags and walked around the base to mark the positions of unexploded ordnance. “One of the bombs exploded and propelled her backward, and a male officer said, ‘What are you doing? It’s too dangerous,’” Johnson-Davey tells OZY. “She ignored his orders and carried on regardless.”
Henderson and Turner were both working switchboards during the September 1 raids. Henderson took a blow when a bomb hit the operations room she was working in, but she maintained the connection to Fighter Command until a fire broke out, and she was ordered to leave. Turner, at a nearby switchboard, had to be dragged from her post. She and Henderson exited the building just before it received a direct hit, Bungay says.
Throughout the raids, the Luftwaffe was unable to cripple Biggin Hill or Britain’s communication channels. This failure and the superior quality of Britain’s fighters contributed to Germany’s inability to establish air superiority. Hitler was forced to call off his invasion of Britain, marking an important turning point in the war.
The Germans hadn’t realized that British air defenses were so robust. In anticipation of eventual war, the U.K. had started in the 1930s to develop what became the world’s first air-defense system, Bungay says, “the principles of which were so good that they’re still deployed today, with more sophisticated technology.”
Known as the Dowding System, after its founder, Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, the commander of the RAF’s Fighter Command, the defenses combined human observers who monitored the movement of enemy aircraft and radar, then a cutting-edge technology used to detect incoming aircraft over the English Channel. The system mostly eliminated the element of surprise in Luftwaffe attacks. With so many men called up for active duty, women were recruited as radar and communications operators — one of the first times they appeared on the frontlines in Britain, according to Bungay — and played key roles in the eventual victory.
“It kept Britain fighting,” Bungay says. “Britain came very close to making peace in 1940, closer than it ever came later on. And had the Luftwaffe succeeded in disabling our defenses, it would’ve been able to threaten to bomb London around the clock.”
When people talk about who won the Battle of Britain, they point to the men in the skies. RAF pilots were known as “the few” — a reference to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s speech to Parliament, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” — and they were outnumbered by the Luftwaffe, yet they prevailed. These pilots, however, staked their lives and the fate of their country on an intricate network of heroes who never left the ground.
As for Mortimer, Henderson and Turner, they all received military medals for their actions — half of the six awarded to WAAFs during World War II. In the words of their commanding officer when he pinned the medals on the trio, “These three girls have shown amazing pluck.”
* Correction: In an earlier version of this story, the type of Spitfire was misidentified.