27 August 2020
Peter Duckers looks at the range of awards that were bestowed on the pilots fighting for their lives in the summer of 1940.
When it came to awarding campaign medals after World War II, the British authorities (via the Honours Committee) adopted the same practical attitude which had dictated the range of general awards after World War I. That is to say, that it was considered too complicated to produce and administer (to say nothing of expense) a wide range of medals and clasps that would reward service in the many important single actions, larger scale operations or whole campaigns that characterised a long and complex world war. As with 1914-18, it was decided simply to award a range of general medals, in this case covering service in the main theatres of operation, not in individual actions or smaller campaigns. The result was the production of the familiar series of campaign stars of 1939-45 covering wider areas - like the Burma Star, the Italy Star etc. One or two, like the Atlantic Star and Air Crew Europe, were rather more service specific but there was no attempt to pick out significant actions in any theatre which could be commemorated by themselves. This naturally caused some criticism at the time by those who felt that some battles or campaigns were so important that they should have been rewarded with a distinctive medal or at least a clasp - the D-Day landings and Normandy Campaign are examples - and the issue continues to rankle in some quarters down to our own day.
In fact, the only separate series of operations which were singled out for special award were those constituting the Battle of Britain. What has been identified as the first major campaign fought entirely by aerial forces, it derives its venerable name from Winston Churchill's speech to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 in which he said, “What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.” Its official duration is regarded as 10 July - 31 October 1940.
It is really a mark of the vital significance of the campaign that it was singled out for special award at a time when so many others were not, though this took the rather unimpressive form of a small clasp (‘Battle of Britain’) which would be worn on the ribbon of the standard campaign medal, the 1939-45 Star. Like the 1939-45 medals themselves, other clasps in the series were area awards (Pacific, Burma, Atlantic etc).
The clasp conforms to others in the series in that it is approximately 31.8mm wide, 5.6mm deep and only 0.95mm thick, made of bronze alloy, and stitches onto the medal ribbon via small holes at each corner. This method of attachment, first adopted with the clasp to the 1914 Star, is not very secure and makes the clasps rather prone to loss. With British World War II medals, when ribbons alone were worn, the clasps were represented by small silver rosettes, but for the ‘Battle of Britain’ clasp, the rosette was in gilt.
The ‘Battle of Britain’ clasp was awarded to crews of designated fighter squadrons and a few other formations who had flown at least one operational sortie during the Battle of Britain; many aircrew, of course, flew in many more sorties. The squadrons recognised as having participated in the Battle were defined as early as 1946 in an Air Ministry Order listing 63 squadrons. However, this number was revised by a later Order in 1960 which added 235, 236 and 248 Squadrons plus the Fighter Interception Unit, 421 Flight and 422 Flight. A final Air Ministry Order in 1961 added 804 and 808 Fleet Air Arm Squadrons, giving the total of 71 squadrons and units which has been accepted since then as definitive. It should be noted that the clasp: ‘Will not be issued to aircrew who did not fly in fighters, even though they may have been engaged with the enemy in the air during the qualifying period.’ Ground crews and administrative staff in the designated squadrons did not qualify.
It is estimated that just under 3,000 clasps were awarded. Despite this sizeable award number, the clasp has always been scarce and valuable. The 1939-45 Star, on which the clasp is worn, is very easily and cheaply available on the market at around £10, but these days, a genuine ‘Battle of Britain’ clasp by itself can fetch £2,000-£3,000 and as part of a medal group with original documents or other named medals (which enable research to be carried out on the recipient) they can fetch far more, depending on the recipient’s service etc.
Needless to say, such a rare item and of fairly simple design has attracted fakers and the makers of replicas over many years. Some of the copies are obvious and poor - very bright, very thick and modern looking. But other, bearing in mind that they have been faked over a long period by now, can be very dangerous and lead to costly purchase errors. Apart from the clasp’s original dull chocolate colour and age patina (which can of course vary with cleaning and wear) things to look out for include corner stitching holes which are far too large and badly sited, the ‘O’ in ‘OF’ being too round (in the originals it is almost oval), cramped letter spacing (the original has lettering neatly spaced), lettering which is flatter, less sharp and less crisp, and a wider ‘N’ in ‘Britain’. However, there are many types of fake which show other variations and the simplest thing to say is that anyone wishing to buy the single clasp or one worn in a group should take extra care that the item is right, preferably with an impeccable provenance.
(Right) A DFC group with Battle of Britain award and later Air Crew Europe Star with clasp
The overseas pilots
Amongst the aircrew serving in the Battle of Britain there were a large number of foreign personnel, men from the Empire (Australia, New Zealand, Canada etc), who had made their way to England to serve in the war, or men from European countries, like Poland, Czechoslovakia, France and Belgium who had fled to England as a refuge or to continue the war against the common enemy. In fact, it is estimated that about 20% of pilots who fought in the battle were from non-British countries. The Royal Air Force roll of honour for the Battle of Britain recognises 595 non-British pilots out of approximately 3,000 combatants. All of these, regardless of country of origin, received British campaign medals and clasps and were eligible for the standard range of air gallantry awards, like the Distinguished Service Order or the two principal air combat awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross or Distinguished Flying Medal. The last two had been instituted on the formation of the RAF in April 1918 and both were awarded in large numbers for repeated tours of active service or for specific acts of gallantry.
Somewhat surprisingly, given the intensity of the air war, and amidst a large number of standard air gallantry awards, only one Victoria Cross was conferred for the Battle of Britain. This was given Flight Lt. (later Wing Commander) EJB Nicolson (1917-1945), who was awarded the VC serving with 249 Squadron. The fact of his award was published in the London Gazette on 15 November 1940, with the following citation: ‘During an engagement with the enemy near Southampton on 16th August 1940, Flight Lieutenant Nicolson’s aircraft was hit by four cannon shells, two of which wounded him whilst another set fire to the gravity tank. When about to abandon his aircraft owing to flames in the cockpit he sighted an enemy fighter. This he attacked and shot down, although as a result of staying in his burning aircraft he sustained serious burns to his hands, face, neck and legs. Flight Lieutenant Nicolson has always displayed great enthusiasm for air fighting and this incident shows that he possesses courage and determination of a high order. By continuing to engage the enemy after he had been wounded and his aircraft set on fire, he displayed exceptional gallantry and disregard for the safety of his own life.’
Posted to India in 1942, Nicolson became Squadron Leader commanding 27 Squadron, flying Bristol Beaufighters over Burma and was awarded the DFC. He was killed when his plane caught fire and crashed into the Bay of Bengal in May 1945. Nicolson is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial and his Victoria Cross group is displayed at the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon.
Foreign personnel might also receive the appropriate air gallantry awards from their own country. Polish participants are perhaps the best-known non-British crews, their contribution being highly regarded at the time. With a Polish Air Force operating in France as that country fell to the Germans, by early June 1940 over 2,000 Polish air personnel had crossed into Britain and were assigned to various squadrons. France’s surrender on 25 June 1940 saw a further 6,000 Polish air personnel reaching Britain by the end of July 1940, increasing the total of Polish airmen on British soil to 8,384 men. Because some were trained and experienced airmen and aircrew, specifically Polish squadrons were formed, such as 302 and 303 Polish Fighter Squadrons; the latter was not just the highest scoring Hurricane squadron during the Battle of Britain, but also had the highest ratio of enemy aircraft destroyed compared to their own losses. Other Poles (as with other nationalities) were posted into existing or newly-formed RAF squadrons, though two specifically Czech squadrons were formed around exiled Czech nationals, these being 310 and 312 (Czecho Slovak) Squadrons, the latter flying 85 combat sorties during the Battle of Britain. Some of these received Czech awards, like the Czech War Cross or Cross of Valour (1939) and Bravery Medal, both of which exist in Czech and British versions (Spink of London).
(Right) Part of an exceptional gallantry group to a Polish pilot, with the Virtuti Militari and Cross of Valour with three bars and the Polish Air Medal with extra service clasps. Worn with the British DFM
Amongst the existing range of Polish honours and decorations, awards commonly seen to Polish airmen are the highly-regarded Virtuti Militari (an Order founded in 1792 and still conferred) and the Cross of Valour. The Virtuti Militari is amongst the oldest awards still given and became the highest-ranking military decoration of Polish forces in exile. Available in five classes, its highest grades were only conferred on the most senior commanders and dignitaries but its Fifth Class (silver) and Fourth Class (gold) are frequently seen in Polish RAF medal groups and they could also be awarded to British personnel serving in or alongside Polish formations. Some are numbered on the reverse and can be attributed to a specific recipient. Fakes of the Virtuti Militari are very common and some are very good - buyer beware!
The Polish Cross of Valour was originally established in 1920, just after the formation of the new Republic and lapsed in 1923. Re-instituted in 1940, it was a frequently-awarded decoration rewarding ‘deeds of valour and courage on the field of battle’, which included air operations. It could be given with up to three bars (ie representing four awards of the same decoration). As is common with foreign awards there are numerous manufacturers’ types and variations of both awards (especially since some were given by the Government in Exile and made in London by Spink as well as in Poland after the war) and there are the inevitable fakes.
The Polish Air Force Active Service Medal was created after the war but granted retrospectively to members of the Polish Air Force with at least six months’ meritorious service with a unit engaged in military operations against the enemy or with at least one year’s service with another unit. For further periods of service, a silver bar with oak leaves was worn on the medal, with a maximum of four bars allowed. There are many copies in circulation, some thin and of poor quality and others with red and white enamel in the reverse design, which is not present in the original types and represents private purchase types or more modern fakes. Good, original strikes can cost around £200.
(Right) A Battle of Britain pilot’s group with medal and clasp and two Czech awards - the Medal of Bravery and the War Cross
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