Abbey marks 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain

Monday, 21st September 2020

Abbey marks 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain

Westminster Abbey marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain with a Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication on Sunday 20th September 2020. The 112-day fight for control of Britain’s skies, between July and October 1940, was the first decisive battle in history fought entirely in the air, and one which proved to be a dramatic turning point in the Second World War.

The service was led by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, who said in his Bidding:

We meet in this Abbey church, where our nation so often gathers to remember, to celebrate and to grieve. Here, we give thanks for the dedication and daring of members of the Royal Air Force and allied air forces during the Battle of Britain. Their sure courage halted the advance of a terrible tyranny. They held fast in days of greatest danger. For their resilience and their skill we give thanks, for their pain and loss we grieve.
Calling to mind those days, and those individuals, we remember too all who have served and still serve in the Royal Air Force. Remembering conflict past and present in which they have served, we come before God penitent that we are so often divided and so easily tempted into violence. Now, we renew our commitment to seek out, together, the ways of peace and reconciliation.

The service included an Act of Remembrance during which the Battle of Britain Roll of Honour was borne through the church, escorted by serving Royal Air Force pilots and aircrew, and placed beside the High Altar. The roll contains the names of 1,497 pilots and aircrew killed or mortally wounded during the Battle, including 449 in Fighter Command, 732 in Bomber Command, 268 in Coastal Command, 14 in other RAF commands and 34 in the Fleet Air Arm. Among them are the names of 47 Canadians, 47 New Zealanders, 35 Poles, 24 Australians, 20 Czechoslovaks, 17 South Africans, 6 Belgians and one American, as well as those from the United Kingdom and Colonies.

The Address was given by the Venerable (Air Vice-Marshal) John Ellis, Chaplain-in-Chief of the Royal Air Force, who spoke of the dedication and sacrifice of the Battle of Britain generation:

Today our gratitude, our thanksgiving focusses on those who fought 80 years ago. Those who still inspire the Royal Air Force of today, a force which continues to protect our nation with sacrificial service. We are not here, however, to passively honour their efforts but to commit ourselves to serve with determination and courage for all that is right and true. Let each of us remember and give thanks for our liberty, so bravely fought for, and pray for our peace to be strengthened. As we hold up into the light of God those we knew, have loved and those we have lost – we recall their courage and their sacrifice.

The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, Prime Minister, and Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, Chief of the Air Staff, gave readings.

Before pronouncing the Blessing, the Dean led an Act of Rededication ‘to building a world where there is justice and peace for all, and where women, men and children live a life of full human dignity.’

The service was sung by the Choir of Westminster Abbey, conducted by James O'Donnell, Organist and Master of the Choristers. The organ was played by Peter Holder, Sub-Organist. The Band of the Royal Air Force Regiment was directed by Wing Commander Piers Morrell.

Though COVID-19 restrictions meant that the usual 2,000-strong congregation was unable to attend this year, the service was able to go ahead with senior government, military, and diplomatic attendance. HRH The Prince of Wales was represented by Marshal of the Royal Air Force the Lord Stirrup.

After the service, three Spitfires and a Hurricane from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight took part in a flypast over the Abbey.

Honouring the sacrifice

The Abbey has been central to remembering the sacrifices made by the RAF since the first Battle of Britain Sunday service was held here in 1944. The annual tribute has been paid every year since then to remember the heroism of the young pilots and aircrew, many of them in their teens, who defended Britain’s skies in the summer of 1940.

In 1947, a chapel at the east end of the Abbey was dedicated to all those who lost their lives in the Battle. The chapel was unveiled by George VI and includes a stained glass window, designed by Hugh Easton, with the badges of all the fighter squadrons that took part.

The ashes of Lord Dowding, who led Fighter Command during the Battle, are buried in the chapel, and before Sunday’s service, a wreath was laid at his memorial by the Venerable (Air Vice-Marshal) Ray Pentland and Group Captain Patrick Tootal, Battle of Britain Fighter Association.