When one considers the Battle of Britain, which took place within quite a limited area and over a period of just a few months, it's easy to assume that the fate of almost all the pilots shot down would have been established. In fact nothing could be further from the truth, and of the RAF aircrew lost, fully one third were originally listed as missing, with no known grave.
Clearly, a fair percentage of these can be accounted for by the fact that the victims crashed into the Channel, or in rural areas with no witnesses, but Finding The Few reveals a disturbing number of crashes which were investigated at the time and yet, somehow, the fact that the pilots lay unidentified and buried in the wreckage of their aircraft was overlooked.
The author, Andy Saunders, has been involved with aircraft archaeology for over 30 years and was one of the co-founders of the Tangmere Aviation Museum. In this book he takes an often very critcal view of a series of cases, illustrating the many ways in which such errors have come about. Sometimes it's simply down to the failure to connect the clues which would have led to identifying the pilot. However, others involve a brick-wall of bureaucracy where one is left feeling that recovering the pilot was simply deemed "too much trouble" - to the point where relatives were knowingly misled by the authorities.
As the author describes, the "business" of excavating crash sites really blossomed with the release of the feature film "The Battle of Britain" in the late 1960s. In those days there were no guidelines and few rules on how the recovery of relics, and particularly the remains of the pilots, should be handled. It has to be said, going by the accounts in this book, few of the early excavation teams exactly covered themselves in glory; sometimes discarding human remains that would otherwise have involved a coroner halting the dig, or concealing as personal trophies, items that could have identified the pilots. But, without the controversy caused by the occasionally irresponsible behaviour in the early days, the strict guidelines that now protect sites would probably never have been introduced.
The eighteen chapters presented in the book make fascinating, but uncomfortable reading. Opinions will obviously differ as to whether the sites should have been excavated at all, or the pilots left in peace where they fell. In this the wishes of the victims' relatives are paramount, and when one reads of families left clinging to the belief for decades that a beloved son or brother might return one day, and being denied "closure" through incompetence or downright lies, you are left feeling that something is very wrong with the system; they deserve far better.
In each of the cases, Andy Saunders pieces together the pilot's career and the circumstances of his death in commendable detail, drawing together eyewitness accounts, British and German official documents and photos from a number of sources. In some cases, personal artifacts recovered from crash sites are shown as a poignant reminder of the bitter human cost of the battle.
And the rest of the "Missing"? Perhaps wisely, Andy Summers doesn't give many clues as the likely whereabouts of those whose identities he has established, lest a fresh wave of souvenir hunters start scouring the wood and fields of Southeast England.
In dealing with the eventual recovery of the pilots and the consequences for the bereaved in a frank way, Finding The Few covers an aspect of the Battle of Britain that is far too easily overlooked. Many of the pilots here are not household names and would be largely unknown beyond the immediate circle of their family, friends and former comrades. The author has written a fitting tribute and ensured that their sacrifice will not go unremembered. Recommended.
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Highs: A painstaking investigation into the lives and ultimate fates of some of the RAF pilots listed as "Missing" in the Battle of Britain.Lows:Verdict: As well as being an often critical account aviation archaeology, Finding The Few is a worthy tribute to the pilots who have lain largely forgotten in the wrecks of their fighters for decades.
About Rowan Baylis (Merlin) FROM: NO REGIONAL SELECTED, UNITED KINGDOM
I've been modelling for about 40 years, on and off. While I'm happy to build anything, my interests lie primarily in 1/48 scale aircraft. I mostly concentrate on WW2 subjects, although I'm also interested in WW1, Golden Age aviation and the early Jet Age - and have even been known to build the occas...