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The Aircraft that Decided Britain's Fate

A Spitfire Mk Vb (top) and a Hurricane MK I (bottom), from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, fly over Biggin Hill Airfield on August 20, 2010 in London, England. Matthew Lloyd

At ceremonies around the country on Friday, Britain celebrated the 70th anniversary of Winston Churchill's famous speech, "The Few," his homage to the Royal Air Force pilots who beat back the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

The "battle" actually encompassed a series of aerial engagements between mid-July and the end of October 1940 as the Germans attempted to establish air superiority in advance of a planned land invasion.

70 Years On, UK Honors Battle of Britain's "Few"

Germany's air force commander, Hermann Goering had promised Hitler that Adlertag or "Eagle Day" would result in the defeat of the Royal Air Force. He almost made good on that prediction before a grave miscalculation. Instead of pressing their heavy attacks on English airfields, the Luftwaffe decided shift its attention and attack London. That mistake allowed the RAF to catch its breath  and by mid-September, operational pilot strength was the highest it had been since the start of the Battle.

The English proceeded to inflict heavy damage on the attackers.According to the RAF's official account, it soon became obvious to both sides that Goering's tactics had backfired. Even though sporadic fighting continued - including some fierce engagements - for several more weeks into October, the German juggernaut had suffered its first significant defeat.

So it was that Churchill would tell his nation that:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the world war by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.