Eastbourne pupils learn from Battle of Britain pilots

Students are pictured with the photos and letters they received from last surviving Battle of Britain pilots
Students are pictured with the photos and letters they received from last surviving Battle of Britain pilots

Pupils at an Eastbourne school have been given a first hand account of the Battle of Britain after writing to the last survivors to find out more about their stories.

The students at Cavendish School in Eldon Road received letters from 11 of the surviving World War Two heroes, as well as a video from one, Group Captain Leonard Bartlett, a Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot who now lives in Australia.

Teacher Mark Sidley who encouraged the young people to write to the pilots last year says that when the pupils see a face and hear a story, they truly engage.

Mr Sidley said, “Back in November 2006, having been moved by a BBC documentary ‘The Last Tommy’, about the surviving veterans of The First World War, I decided to pay tribute to the soldiers by having my pupils write thank you letters to the soldiers.

“This had the added benefit of educating the pupils about the war through direct contact with the combatants.

“The project proved to be a huge success with twelve of the thirteen veterans replying to our letters and the project culminated with a visit from the late 110-year-old veteran, Henry Allingham who spoke to the pupils about his experiences in the trenches.

“Nine years on and I wanted to engage our pupils in similar projects so I began in the summer by taking a collage of paintings by seven of our girls as a gift for a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb whom I had arranged to meet in Japan on the day following the 70th anniversary of the bombing.

“This was followed up in September by a series of assemblies to all of our students on the visit and the history of the attack on Hiroshima.

“Such was the level of interest in this topic that it was easy to find 38 students willing to take part in the next project which was launched in October, the idea being that each of the 19 surviving pilots living in the UK would receive three letters: from a 15-year-old, a 12-year-old and me.

“Pupils chose their pilots, wrote down the name, rank, squadron number and type of plane of each pilot and agreed to research the pilot and the battle.

“I gave them instructions on what should go in their letters and to inspire them.

“The students’ faces light up when they see on-line a photo of their pilot - putting a face to the name is proving powerful.

“And the stories: one pilot, Tom Neil, the only surviving ace from The Battle of Britain, was used for propaganda photos by the War Ministry because of his height and good looks, another fought under the command of Sir Douglas Bader whilst a third was shot down and captured by the Germans and placed in Stalag Luft III where drawing lots with others, he lost and was therefore not part of the famous ‘Great Escape’, immortalised by the 1968 film starring Steve McQueen.

“All 38 students who wrote the letters had volunteered to be involved in the project - I wanted students who were genuinely interested.”

Among those replying to the students were 95-year-old Wing Commander Thomas Francis Neil, Squadron Leader Pickering, Wing Commander Elkington, 94, who was shot down and wounded on August 16 1940, Flight Lieutenant Lawrence, 95, Flight Lieutenant William Terence Clark, 96, Wing Commander Terence Michael Kane who said flying a Spitfire was something else, the youngest Spitfire pilot Squadron Leader Geoffrey Harris who is now 94, and Squadron Leader Stuart Nigel Rose, who claimed three victories during the Battle of Britain and flew three or four sorties each day.

Flight Lieutenant Bernard Brown wrote to the pupils saying he had been moved by the students’ mail and that was “wonderful to find such historical awareness among young boys and girls”.

The pupils held a presentation evening on Wednesday.

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