Norfolk’s Battle of Britain heroes, 80 years on
PUBLISHED: 14:32 08 July 2020
80 years ago in the Battle of Britain a handful of brave airman, some with links to Norfolk, faced the Luftwaffe – and defeated it
A touching tribute in Cromer Parish Church highlights the sacrifice made by one of the Few, the men of the Royal Air Force who saw off the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. The simple wooden cross, inscribed ‘Unknown Airman,’ sits under a canopy that points out that the cross originally marked the desert grave of Squadron Leader Richard George Arthur Barclay DFC (known as George), who was shot down and killed near Alamein in 1942.
Barclay, a member of the famous banking family who spent part of his childhood in Norfolk, was the son of the Rev G A Barclay, who took on the living at Cromer in 1939.
A year later, at the age of 20, his son was in the thick of one of the most critical battles ever fought by this country, fighting with the RAF to prevent the Nazis achieving the aerial superiority that would almost certainly have been followed by an invasion.
In October 1938, while at Trinity College, Cambridge reading economics and law, Barclay had joined the University Air Squadron before enlisting in the RAF Volunteer Reserve in June 1939 as an Airman u/t Pilot.
Called up in October, he completed his training and converted to Hurricanes before joining No 249 Squadron at Leconfield on June 23, 1940, a few weeks before the start of the Battle of Britain on July 10.
While he didn’t open his account until September 2, he did so with a vengeance. After damaging a Messerschmitt Bf110 that day, Barclay shot down a Bf109 and damaged a Dornier Do17 and a Heinkel He111 on September 7.
On September 15 he shot down a Do17, probably destroyed two others and damaged another; three days later he probably destroyed a He111, on the next dayhe shared a Junkers Ju88 and on the 27th he claimed a Bf109 and a Ju88 destroyed before being shot down and making a forced-landing at West Malling.
Barclay probably destroyed Bf109s on October 14 and 15, achieved two probable Bf109s on November 7, shared a He59 destroyed on November 11 and shared another Bf109 three days later. That impressive tally saw him awarded the DFC at the end of November, just days before he was shot down by a Bf109 and wounded in the ankle, legs and elbow.
After spending two months in hospital he rejoined his squadron in March 1941. Like many of those who joined the ranks of the men Churchill immortalised as ‘The Few’ when he told the House of Commons: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so Few”, Barclay went on to see further success after the official end of the Battle of Britain on October 31 1940.
After spending three months as an instructor, he joined No 611 Squadron at Hornchurch as a Flight Commander. After another forced-landing, this time in enemy territory, the French Resistance helped him cross the Spanish frontier. He got to Barcelona, reached the British Embassy, left for Gibraltar on 7 December and arrived back in the UK two days later.
In April 1942, by now a Flight Lieutenant, he was given command of No 601 Squadron, which was about to go to the Middle East, but before having a chance to lead 601 he took command of No 238 Squadron at Amriya in July. After shooting down a Bf109 on July 16 and a Ju87 the next day, he was shot down and killed that evening while on patrol in the Alamein area.
Barclay is buried in the El Alamein Cemetery, while the cross that marked his grave can be seen in Cromer Parish Church, where his father served as vicar until 1946. His elder brother, Lieutenant G C Barclay, was killed on May 5, 1944, while serving with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment and is buried in Kohima War Cemetery, India.
Another member of the Few with a Norfolk connection is Canadian Norman Neil Campbell, now at rest far from home after playing his part in the battle.
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While popular mythology suggests Britain ‘stood alone’, the facts tell a different story. The Christopher Foxley-Norris Memorial Wall at the Battle of Britain Memorial just outside Folkestone, Kent, highlights the contributions of men from countries including Australia, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, the United States, Belgium, France, Ireland, Poland and Czechoslovakia.
One of two Polish Squadrons, No 303, based at RAF Coltishall for part of the war, is often claimed to have achieved more kills than any other squadron, while Canada and Czechoslovakia also had their ‘own’ squadrons.
Campbell was born in St Thomas, Ontario, and joined the London, Ontario Flying Club, obtaining his civil pilot’s licence in 1938. He applied for a short service commission in the RAF in late 1938 and sailed for England on January 14, 1939.
After converting to Hurricanes, Campbell joined No 32 Squadron at Wittering before moving to No 242 Squadron at Biggin Hill on 3 June. Five days later he flew to France with the squadron to help cover the rearguard actions being fought by the retreating British Army.
By mid-July, 242 was operational again and on 15 September Campbell damaged a Do17. Three days later he claimed two Ju88s destroyed, shared in shooting down another and damaged a fourth. On October 17 1940, Campbell’s Hurricane crashed into the sea, probably after being hit by return fire off Great Yarmouth.
His body was later recovered, and he was buried on 31 October in Scottow Cemetery. He was 27.
Another Norfolk victim of the battle, which saw fewer than 3,000 airmen defeat the might of the Luftwaffe, was Frederick William Rushmer, who was born into a farming family in Sisland on April 12, 1910. The youngest of 11 children, he was the first to die.
Rushmer – nicknamed Rusty - joined No 603 Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force in 1934 and was called to full-time service with the squadron on August 23, 1939.
After assuming command of the squadron’s ‘B’ Flight on 17 November as an Acting Flight Lieutenant, he was later put in charge of the 603 detachment at Montrose, where it was engaged on convoy protection duties.
On January 19, 1940, he damaged a He111, on July 23 he shared in the destruction of a Do17, on July 30 he shared in destroying a He111 and on 2 September he destroyed another Do17.
Three days later, Rushmer, who had been made a Flight Lieutenant in March 1940, failed to return from a combat with Do17s and Bf109s over Biggin Hill. He was reported as ‘missing’, while the authorities were unable to prove that his Spitfire, X4261, was one that crashed at Smarden, in Kent. The pilot of that aircraft was buried as ‘unknown’ in All Saints’ churchyard, Staplehurst.
Undeterred by an investigation of the crash site in 1970 which failed to establish the pilot’s identity, local residents Jean Liddicoat and Ted Sergison were determined to prove that the unknown airman was Rushmer and began campaigning to prove it in 1990.
They finally achieved their goal and a named headstone replace the original one in May 1998.
Churchill’s Few are remembered at the Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne in Kent.