LONDON : Ken Wilkinson, one of the last survivors of “The Few” — the band of pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain — has died. He was 99. The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust said Wilkinson died Monday. The group said he was “a true gentleman who we shall miss dearly.”
Born in 1918, Wilkinson flew a Spitfire fighter plane during the 1940 air battle between Britain and its allies and Nazi Germany. Between July and October, German bombers pounded Britain’s ports, airfields and cities in a bid to destroy its defenses in preparation for either an invasion or a surrender. France had already fallen to Adolf Hitler, and the British army had been evacuated in disarray from Dunkirk.
Royal Air Force crews, many in their teens or 20s, inflicted heavy losses on the Germans and prevented invasion, but at a high price. Of almost 3,000 British and Allied airmen who flew in the battle, more than 544 were killed. Another 800 died before the end of the war in 1945.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill later said of the battle: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Wilkinson told The Associated Press in 2010 that the possibility of defeat never crossed his mind.
“We were cocky. Stupidly cocky, if you like,” he said. “We just didn’t envisage defeat. Some people may have been killed and so forth, but basically we knew we were going to win.” Air Chief Marshal Stephen Hillier, head of the Royal Air Force, said Wilkinson and his comrades “represented an extraordinary generation to whom we owe a great debt that should never be forgotten.”
After the war Wilkinson became a chartered surveyor and was active in the Battle of Britain veterans’ group. He made headlines in 2015 for light-heartedly telling off helicopter pilot Prince William for flying “choppers” instead of “proper airplanes.”
Wilkinson is survived by his daughter Penny and a grandson.