Remembering the Hertfordshire heroes in the Battle of Britain
PUBLISHED: 10:33 10 November 2020
Credit: Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
This month, 80 years ago, a desperate air battle to stop Nazi domination began over southern England. Here are the stories of three of the Few; young Herts men who helped stop an invasion. Article originally published in July 2020
A statue of a solitary airman staring contemplatively out over the English Channel forms the centrepiece of a national memorial to the men Churchill immortalised as ‘the Few’.
The location, atop Kent’s famous white cliffs and within sight on a clear day of the coast of France, is an appropriate place to pay tribute to the men of the Royal Air Force who defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940 and saved Britain from Nazi invasion.
It was, though, a Hertfordshire man, himself a pilot in the Battle of Britain, who was the inspiration for, and the driving force behind, the enigmatic sculpture at the heart of what is now the Battle of Britain Memorial.
Alan Geoffrey Page (known as Geoffrey) was born in Boxmoor on May 16, 1920 and would go on to have an impressive career in the RAF, earning the Distinguished Service Order and a Distinguished Flying Cross and Bar.
It was many years after the conflict that he was to inspire the creation of the National Memorial to the Few at Capel-le-Ferne, now a focus for those who wish to pay their respects to the fewer-than 3,000 men whose bravery and sacrifice helped turn the tide of the Second World War.
It was towards the end of the 1980s that Geoffrey realised that there was no dedicated memorial to the friends and colleagues with whom he had flown in 1940, and decided to put that right. With no site, no memorial and no funds, all he had was an idea – and the kind of determination that was perhaps not surprising in one who had defied seemingly insurmountable odds some five decades earlier.
Just three days into the Battle of Britain on July 13, as Hitler threw a huge offensive at British supply convoys in the English Channel, the 20-year-old Geoffrey, flying with No 56 Squadron destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf109.
A week later he helped bring down a Junkers Ju88 and on July 25 he destroyed a Ju87. But after a month of fighting, on August 12, Geoffrey’s life would change dramatically. During an attack on Dornier Do17s 10 miles north of Margate, his Hurricane was hit, the fuel tank ruptured and he was badly burned on the face and hands while baling out of the blazing aircraft.
After being brought ashore by lifeboat, Geoffrey spent more than two years undergoing surgery at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead, becoming a founding member of the Guinea Pig Club for patients of the renowned plastic surgery pioneer, Archie McIndoe.
Despite his severe injuries, he persuaded the authorities to let him fly again, determined, he said, to shoot down one enemy aircraft for each of the 15 operations he had endured.
He achieved that target just before his active flying career ended in September 1944 when he injured his back as his damaged aircraft crashed on landing.
By now an Acting Wing Commander, Geoffrey had been awarded his first Distinguished Flying Cross at the end of July 1943 and his second in August the following year. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order at the end of 1944.
More than 40 years later he threw his energies behind the campaign which, in the words of his daughter Shelley Gubelmann, ‘became his life’. The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust was set up in June 1990 and in July 1993 Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother unveiled the National Memorial to the Few.
Shelley said her father, who died in August 2000, was ‘incredibly happy and very proud’ on that day, adding, ‘He had an absolute conviction that his friends and colleagues who had fought the Battle of Britain had an important story to tell and a determination that their story should never be forgotten.’
One of those colleagues was a fellow Hertfordshire man who earned an MBE for his bravery but was fated never to receive the award.
John Coggins was born in Barnet in 1913, making him 27 when he fought in the Battle of Britain. After joining the RAF as an aircraft apprentice in September 1929, he qualified as a fitter in 1932 but later applied for pilot training and became a Sergeant Pilot.
John served in Palestine in the 1930s and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal and Bar for gallant and distinguished services. He joined No 235 Squadron in June 1940, just before the start of the Battle of Britain on July 10, and was commissioned in August.
In September an aircraft carrying a full load of bombs crashed among other aircraft and burst into flames. With the loss of all the planes imminent, John and two other officers ran to the aircraft, started the engines and taxied them away, during which two of the bombs exploded.
Three aircraft were taken to safety without damage and a fourth sustained only minor damage. John and Flying Officer J H Laughlin were each recognised with an MBE, but John was never to receive his. On December 16, 1940 he was the captain of a Blenheim which crashed into the sea while on a minesweeper escort operation. He and the observer and air gunner were lost.
RAF aircrew were trained to respond to enemy aircraft at a moment’s notice, racing across the grass to their waiting aircraft as soon as the scramble bell sounded, sometimes several times a day during the Battle of Britain. One Hertfordshire pilot, though, did not even have time to don his uniform when called into action a few weeks ahead of the start of the battle itself.
Timothy Vigors, born in Hatfield in 1921, was a Spitfire pilot with No 222 Squadron based at Duxford, just north-east of Royston, when an aircraft was reported during the night of June 19-20, 1940. Still wearing his pyjamas and dressing gown, Timothy was sent up to investigate but lost his bearings.
Spotting a bomber, he flew alongside in the hope that it would lead him to an airfield, but it turned out to be a Heinkel He111 which opened fire, hitting his aircraft. He retaliated and shot it down before landing safely.
On July 25, a fortnight into the Battle, Timothy damaged two He111s, on August 30 he probably destroyed a Messerschmitt Bf110 and on the 31st he destroyed a Bf109 and probably two more before crash-landing at Hornchurch when his undercarriage jammed.
On September 1 he destroyed a Bf109, on the 3rd he destroyed a Bf110 and damaged another. On the 6th he damaged a Bf109, on the 7th probably destroyed a Dornier Do17, and on the 9th shot down a Bf109 in flames and was then shot down himself, crash landing on allotments near Dartford.
After spending the night in London, Timothy was leaving Liverpool Street Station the next morning, escorted by two policemen, when he was attacked by a crowd who thought he was German. Realising their mistake they cheered him.
Back with the squadron, Timothy probably destroyed two Bf109s on October 30, as the Battle of Britain was drawing to a close, and damaged a Bf109 on November 2, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his contribution to what many see as the most important battle fought by this country in the whole of the 20th century.
Imperial war museums on the decisive battle
Imperial War Museums’ view of the battle that stopped a Nazi invasion of Britain:
Hitler had expected the British to seek a peace settlement after Germany’s defeat of France in June 1940, but Britain was determined to fight on. Hitler explored military options that would bring the war to a quick end and ordered his armed forces to prepare for an invasion of Britain – codenamed Operation Sealion.
But for the invasion to have any chance of success, the Germans needed to first secure control of the skies over southern England and remove the threat posed by the Royal Air Force. A sustained air assault on Britain would achieve the decisive victory needed to make Sealion a possibility.
The Germans began by attacking coastal targets and British shipping operating in the English Channel. They launched their main offensive on August 13. Attacks moved inland, concentrating on airfields and communications centres. Fighter Command offered stiff resistance, despite coming under enormous pressure. During the last week of August and the first week of September, in what would be the critical phase of the battle, the Germans intensified their efforts to destroy Fighter Command.
Airfields, particularly those in the south-east, were significantly damaged but most remained operational. On August 31, Fighter Command suffered its worst day of the entire battle. But the Luftwaffe was overestimating the damage it was inflicting and wrongly came to the conclusion that the RAF was on its last legs. Fighter Command was bruised but not broken.
On September 7, the Germans shifted the weight of their attacks away from RAF targets and on to London. This would be an error of critical importance. The raids had devastating effects on London’s residents, but they also gave Britain’s defences time to recover. On September 15 Fighter Command repelled another massive Luftwaffe assault, inflicting severe losses that were becoming increasingly unsustainable for the Germans.
Although fighting would continue for several more weeks, it had become clear that the Luftwaffe had failed to secure the air superiority needed for invasion. Hitler indefinitely postponed Operation Sealion.
For much more, visit iwm.org.uk