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Ex-Battle of Britain pilot savours Westminster Abbey applause for The Few

Published 20/09/2015

Prince Charles will attend the Battle of Britain service at Westminster Abbey
Prince Charles will attend the Battle of Britain service at Westminster Abbey

A surviving Battle of Britain pilot has described the "moving" moment he and his comrades were spontaneously applauded during a service at Westminster Abbey today to mark the 75th anniversary of the aerial conflict.

The annual service attended by the Prince of Wales was the culmination of a week of commemorations remembering the victory and loss of life of the 1940 Second World War battle.

A full congregation of 2,200 people ended the service by standing to applaud the seven pilots and air crew, now in their 90s, as they left the Abbey together in a stirring moment described by one of the veterans as having never happened before.

The remaining Few, as they were honourably named by Churchill, earlier escorted to the altar the Battle of Britain Roll of Honour containing the names of those who took part in the critical battle.

Charles began the service by laying a wreath on the memorial stone of Winston Churchill, handed to him by the war prime minister's grandson Sir Nicholas Soames.

A flypast of four Spitfire and two Hurricanes later marked the occasion during a reception for the veterans and their families at Church House, where the Queen's Colour Squadron formed the number 75 during a procession with the Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment.

The Battle of Britain, fought entirely in the skies over southern England against German aircraft between July and October 1940, lifted the threat of invasion from Hitler and is often described as the most important event in RAF history.

Wing Commander Paul Farnes, 95, from Hampshire, who flew a Hurricane during the battle, said: "It was very emotional today because when we walked out of the Abbey the audience applauded and it's never happened before at the annual service and I was very moved by it.

"It is amazing that the Battle of Britain has caught on with the public and I am very proud to have been a part of it.

"I didn't at the time, but latterly and gradually I came to realise the importance of the Battle of Britain."

Squadron Leader Geoffrey Wellum, 94, from Cornwall, who flew a Spitfire, added: "You can't at 19 years-old fly a Spitfire and expect to forget about it. It stays with you in detail for the rest of your life.

"To me these annual services are always special, whether it's 75 or 74 we remember those who paid the extreme sacrifice so we could all be here.

"For me the best bit is when the Roll of Honour is carried along the aisle to the music in the background and everybody is so respectful, it's rather special."

The Few were 2,353 young male pilots and aircrew from Britain and overseas who took part in the Battle of Britain between July 10 and October 31, during which 544 were killed.

But on the ground, women were playing their own role in supporting the battle.

Joan Fanshawe from the Women's Auxiliary Air Force who gave a reading during the service, was 19 when she responded to an advert on the radio to become a "plotter", pinpointing the location of enemy aircraft from information being passed to her team from aircrew.

Now 95 years old, Mrs Fanshawe, whose role took on increasing responsibility as her male colleagues were moved overseas, said: "It wasn't common for women to work but I was worried about Hitler invading and I felt I wanted to do my bit for the country. I didn't realise how important the Battle of Britain events were at the time.

Speaking of the service, she said: "It was a great occasion, nobody does them quite like we do in Britain."

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon also attended today's service.

While the Duchess of Cornwall was forced to cancel as she continues to recovers from a bout of severe gastroenteritis, a Clarence House spokeswoman said.

The service comes after the biggest gathering of Battle of Britain aircraft since the Second World War in West Sussex and a service at St Paul's Cathedral in London on Battle of Britain Day on Tuesday, the name given to the day on September 15 1940 when the Luftwaffe launched its largest attack against London.

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