WW2 Spitfire pilots. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MONDADORI PORTFOLIO
WW2 Spitfire pilots. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MONDADORI PORTFOLIO

"The few" are becoming fewer. Seven Spitfire pilots from World War 2 have died in recent months, among them a South African and two women, one of whom was 101.

Strictly speaking, only two of the seven were part of "the few" whom British prime minister Winston Churchill mentioned in a speech during the war. He was referring to the Battle of Britain, which was fought in the skies over the UK from July 10 to October 31 1940.

Churchill told the House of Commons on August 20: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." The speech quickly became one of his most famous, and inspired a nation that had known only defeats in the war before victory against Germany’s Luftwaffe came.

Soon there will be no-one left who flew Spitfires in that war, so let’s include all the survivors under the heading of "the few". Even curmudgeonly Churchill might not have objected — and anyway, the two women pilots were symbiotically connected to "the few".

Mary Ellis, 101, and Joy Lofthouse, 94, were among 166 women who were part of the Air Transport Auxiliary’s 1,300 pilots who flew aircraft from the factories to the airfields, freeing the Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilots to take the planes into action. The women were known as the "Ata Girls" and were trained to fly 38 types of aircraft, from tiny spotter planes to giant Lancaster bombers. Both women later expressed a preference for the Spitfire.

Mary Ellis. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/IAN WEST
Mary Ellis. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/IAN WEST

One of the Battle of Britain pilots, Geoffrey Wellum, not only belonged to Churchill’s few but was also among the youngest. He was 18 when he went into a war in which a Spitfire pilot’s life expectancy was four weeks; he was 96 when he died.

The first time he set eyes on a Spitfire was when he was posted to his squadron in south Wales. "Once I was inside, the Spitfire, quite frankly, flew me," he recalled 62 years later in his book, First Light which became a bestseller. By the age of 21, he was diagnosed as "combat exhausted" and evacuated to England, where he became a test pilot and a flight instructor, according to his obituary in The Times.

Tom "Hawkeye" Neil was a year older than Wellum. He shot down 14 enemy aircraft, most of them when he was still 19. The strikes qualified him as an ace.

He was 97 when he died in July.

At the time of the Battle of Britain and later in the war the RAF was cosmopolitan and included many pilots from the Commonwealth — most famously the SA ace Sailor Malan — some from the US, some from countries that had been overrun by the Nazis, and Russians.

From the home front

Albie Götze, who died at age 95, and Don Laubman, who was 96 when he died, were part of the Commonwealth group.

Götze was a South African and, like Laubman, flew cover for the Allied soldiers who landed on Normandy beaches in 1944. He later took part in the airlift to Berlin when the Soviets, in the beginning of the Cold War, blockaded the city and no food and medicine could be received by rail or road.

From Spitfires, Götze switched to rocket-firing Hawker Typhoons, and then, during the Korean War, flew American Mustangs, the last of the propeller-driven fighter planes. He made his final flight in an SA Air Force Harvard in 1975, before retiring in 1978 as a brigadier-general.

Laubman was one of Canada’s most successful fighter pilots. During the Cold War, he became the commander of all Canadian forces in Europe as a lieutenant-general.

Poland, like then Czechoslovakia, provided the RAF with most of its pilots from occupied Europe. Adam Ostrowski, who died in March aged 99, was deported to a labour camp in Siberia when the Russians overran his home town of Lwów, but later released when the Soviet Union switched sides after it had been invaded by Germany in 1941.

With little flying experience, he travelled on an Arctic convoy to join the Polish Air Force, which was in exile in Britain, trained with the RAF and flew Spitfires from 1944 until the end of the war, according to his son Jan.

When Lwów was annexed by the Soviet Union and incorporated into Ukraine, he remained in Britain and became an engineer. He was buried in the Polish war graves cemetery at Newark in Nottinghamshire, where he lies with fallen comrades and his uncle Stanislaw Ostrowski, a former president of Poland in exile.

Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MAX MUMBY
Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MAX MUMBY

With the demise of so many Spitfire pilots from World War 2, how many are still alive? Not many, of course. At least one we know of: Eleanor Wadsworth, who will turn 101 on October 15. She is probably the last of the Ata Girls.

She lives in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and recently shared her wartime logbook with Pilot Magazine, showing the notable entry of a Spitfire she delivered during the war.

That plane, the Spitfire Mk Vc AR501, still flies and is part of the Shuttleworth Collection that is housed at the Old Warden Aerodrome in Bedfordshire, England. One of the approximately 50 original aircraft dates back to 1909.

Wadsworth’s Spitfire, it’s safe to say, will outlive all those who flew the iconic aircraft during the war.

Warriors of the sky

Its wartime pilots are either gone or grounded, but the Spitfire is far from dead.

Three of them took part in the July 10 flypast over London to commemorate 100 years of the RAF, another will attempt a round-the-world flight next year and an SA Spitfire could be airborne again in six years if money can be found to support its resurrection.

The Silver Spitfire project at the Imperial War Museum’s Duxford Airfield in Cambridgeshire, England, is nearly complete. The aircraft, adapted to take two pilots, will leave on August 19, flying west around the world to 30 countries and making 150 stops.

The SA Spitfire is being rebuilt at the SA Air Force Museum at Air Force Base Swartkop in Pretoria. Ian Grace and Tony Smit, who are leading the project, hope it will fly again by 2024, but it will take a lot of money.

SA’s last flying Spitfire disappeared from the country in 2006 in controversial circumstances, having been rebuilt by the SA Air Force. It was mysteriously sold to a buyer in the US but ended its life as a static display in Brazil.

After the war, SA bought more than 100 Spitfires to use as training aircraft. These were soon replaced by Harvards, and many of the Spitfires ended up as scrap.

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