On 18 September 2005, the 65th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall unveiled a sculpture dedicated to the thousands of men and women who fought from 10 July – 31 October 1940. As Prince Charles quoted from Steven Spender’s poem ‘I think continually of those who were truly great’, it is engraved with the 2,936 ‘names of those who in their lives fought for life’: those christened by Winston Churchill as ‘the Few’.
On its Victoria Embankment site, the monument is made up of two high-relief friezes cast in bronze. They are set in a 25m-long granite structure, originally a smoke outlet in the times when underground trains were powered by steam engines, with an oblique walkway sliced through the centre. It was conceived by Bill Bond, founder of the Battle of Britain Historical Society, many years before the February 2003 press release announcing the concept for the monument was sent out.
Bond appointed Lord Tebbit, an RAF veteran, as chairman of the fundraising committee, tasking him with raising the £1.65 million monument fund (the site was donated by Westminster Council). The money was raised entirely by public subscription and sponsorship, including £230,000 of public donation prompted by a Daily Mail interview with Lord Tebbit.
Internationally-renowned sculptor Paul Day was chosen for the crucial role of making the concept a reality. His other major works include Brussels – an urban comedy, another 25m-long frieze in its title city, and The Meeting Place, a 9m tall bronze statue in St Pancras Station. Immersing himself completely in the project, Day spent three months researching the Battle of Britain before doing anything: interviewing veterans, reading every book on the subject he could find – even taking to the air with his namesake, then-Squadron Leader of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight S/Ldr Paul Day, to experience for himself the physical intensity of battle manoeuvres.
His vision was two-fold, illustrated by the two halves of the monument. On one, he wanted to document and commemorate the unique achievements of Fighter Command. On the other, to set this achievement in a wider context: of both the war as a whole, and the myriad of equally essential and courageous individuals who made victory possible. Whilst many war memorials take the form of relief friezes, Day was keen to ensure that this one stood apart as a contemporary work, reflecting a modern respect for the events of World War II and not mimicking past commemorations. It was important to him that the monument celebrated the achievements and strengths of those involved, rather than functioning as a metaphorical tomb to mourn the many deaths of the Battle.
A selection of the scenes depicted on the monument include: fighter pilots at rest; mechanics and riggers; the women of the war; a large fighter pilot’s head, deep in the concentration of battle, and St Paul’s Cathedral, standing intact among the rubble of the Blitz. The classic ‘Scramble’ scene dominates the Fighter Command portion of the monument – life-size figures of pilots surge out of the wall towards the viewer as they eternally race to their planes.
Since its unveiling, the monument has received near-universal praise. On the day, the crowd of over 700 included more than 70 surviving Battle pilots, as well as survivors who had lived through it on the ground. One of the many approving comments came from Battle of Britain veteran Squadron Leader Graham Leggett, who told the monument’s commissioners:
‘It’s unbelievable, quite fantastic. The workmanship, the devotion, the attention to detail is quite extraordinary. Seeing those panels with all the names of people one once knew, it’s very emotional.’