As a Battle of Britain fighter pilot, Paul Farnes became an ace in the cockpit of his Hurricane, taking on the Luftwaffe in dizzying dogfights over the English Channel.
It was 1940, and during that four-month battle, which thwarted Hitler’s invasion plans, he shot down eight enemy aircraft and significantly damaged 11 more.
Now aged 100, Wing Commander Farnes tells me: “I enjoyed the Battle of Britain. We were young, only 21. When we went up we thought it was amazing.
“It was a very free life in a way. I was never frightened and I don’t think many of my compatriots were either. Apprehensive possibly, but never frightened.”
There are only six Battle of Britain pilots remaining and he is the only “ace” – the term applied to those who brought down five or more Luftwaffe planes.
In October, 1940, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal. But now, at his home outside Chichester, West Sussex, a few weeks after his 100th birthday, he is modest about his achievements.
He says: “They like to use the term ace for those of us who got five aircraft but it doesn’t mean anything to me. There’s no significance attached to it.
“I never thought about it much – this was the job we had been given and we just got on with it. We knew we were just as good as the Germans and that we were flying wonderful aircraft. We had marvellous ground crew.”
These were the heroes about whom Winston Churchill said: “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.”
After joining the RAF’s Volunteer Reserve, Mr Farnes was mobilised in 1939, signing up to 501 Squadron after war broke out. The Hampshire-born pilot first saw action in the Battle of France, as the British Expeditionary Force made its retreat from Dunkirk.
He says: “I had already flown Hurricanes for a few weeks in France. In France we did not have the experience. No sooner was that over than the Battle of Britain started.
“Once we got back, we were very well prepared. It was, however, very tough on those just coming in.”
More than 1,500 British air crew were killed between July 10 and October 31, 1940, as well as 40,000 civilians in the Blitz.
Mr Farnes says: “During the war you didn’t really have time to get to know anybody. A lot of the time this was because they didn’t last long.
“One chap arrived in the morning. He was asked where he was from and whether he had flown a Hurricane before. He went up that day and he never came back.
“That was his introduction to the war. It was obviously exceptional to die so quickly, but life was like that. Many of them got shot down. Eight of us might go up, and then we would lose two or three pilots.” Even though the Luftwaffe had 600 more aircraft than the RAF, the Battle of Britain was to be Hitler’s first defeat of the war.
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Mr Farnes says: “I didn’t think it was a momentous battle then, but I think we realised we had a powerful enemy.
“They had cannons in some of their aircraft rather than machine guns.
“If they hit us with those it was devastating. I only vaguely remember firing at enemy aircraft.”
Mr Farnes had a tough start in life. His mother, who had been abandoned by his Australian father, died in childbirth and he was adopted by the midwife at the birth.
Now a great-grandfather, Mr Farnes is determined to attend the annual Westminster Abbey Battle of Britain memorial service next month.
With every passing year The Few become even fewer. Another ace, Wing Commander Tom Neil, and the youngest Battle of Britain pilot, Geoffrey Wellum, 96, both died last month.
Mr Farnes says: “There are only a handful of us left now, out of several hundred. I feel very fortunate.”
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