As Patron of The Battle of Britain Fighter Association, it is a great privilege to be here today with my wife to see the completion of this magnificent monument which pays tribute to all those who fought in the Battle of Britain 65 years ago. We are, of course, particularly indebted to Lord Tebbit and the Monument Appeal Committee, along with Bill Bond who so brilliantly conceived the idea, and the sculptor Paul Day, who I am proud to say, was given an initial helping hand by my Prince's Trust. They have worked tirelessly, with the support of many exceptionally generous donors, to design and build this memorial to those who fought in the Battle of Britain - ‘The Few'.
Perhaps, especially for today's generation, it is hard to imagine just how dangerous and bleak the situation was in the dark Summer of 1940. With much of Western Europe under German occupation, it seemed almost inevitable that this nation would succumb to Nazi aggression. But before Hitler could launch Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Britain, it was imperative that the Luftwaffe gained control of the skies.
With twice as many fighters as The Royal Air Force, and countless more bombers, in June 1940 there seemed little or no chance that the Luftwaffe could be stopped. But over the next three and a half months nearly three thousand pilots - drawn from fifteen nations (who I am proud to see are represented here today) - flew with the most remarkable courage and tenacity day after day, night after night, to counter the German onslaught. During the Battle almost 550 pilots were killed defending this island. And nearly half of all those who flew in the Battle of Britain were dead by the end of the War. But by late 1940 it had become clear that, incredibly, the Royal Air Force had overcome quite overwhelming odds, making the invasion of Britain impossible.
As a child, I well recall my beloved Grandmother and my parents telling me stories of dog-fights in our skies, enemy bombers flying up the Mall, and of German aircraft crashing in Windsor Great Park. They also told me of the suffering endured by those on the ground during the Luftwaffe's intense bombardment of our cities, factories and airfields. But throughout all of this, the wartime generation remained stoic and resolute, battling on with the oft-expressed thought – repeated so frequently during this 60th Anniversary Year of the end of the Second World War – that if it “has your name on it there's nothing you can do about it anyway…” And our Battle of Britain pilots, together with their aircraft, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, came to epitomize a special sort of unwavering defiance.
Of course, the pilots were so very young; many even younger than my sons are now. For me, this makes their sacrifice even more poignant, and I do hope that today's generation, and those generations to come, will be inspired by this monument and, above all, will be able to reflect on the self-sacrifice of those courageous men.
Today we remember all those who paid the ultimate price to defend this country during the Battle, and also those whose horrific injuries remained with them for the rest of their lives. We shall never forget that if “The Few” had failed in their mighty struggle, the consequences for this nation would have been quite unthinkable. The unremitting bravery of those pilots is etched deep into the consciousness of this country and will ensure their special place in history. Stephen Spender's words in his poem “I think continually of those who were truly great” say it all:
“Near the snow, near the sun, in the highest fields,
See how these names are fêted by the waving grass,
And by the streamers of white cloud,
And whispers of wind in the listening sky.
The names of those who in their lives fought for life,
Who wore at their hearts the fire's centre.
Born of the sun, they travelled a short while toward the sun,
And left the vivid air signed with their honour. ”
Along with so many others, it gives my wife and I the greatest possible pride and pleasure to see the completion of this monument and with all our hearts we salute all those veterans who fought in the Battle of Britain.