Visiting the Abbey

The Royal Air Force Chapel

The Lady Chapel - The Royal Air Force Chapel

At the eastern end of the magnificent Lady Chapel built by King Henry VII is a chapel dedicated to the men of the Royal Air Force who died in the Battle of Britain between July and October 1940. This chapel received damage from bombs which fell in that year and a hole made in the stonework has been preserved and covered with glass. The Tudor glass in the window had also been blown out at the same time. The Dean of Westminster was approached early in 1943 by Mr N.Viner-Brady who suggested the idea of a memorial to "The Few" and Dean Labilliere chose this small chapel as one suitable for the purpose. Lord Trenchard (Marshal of the RAF) and Lord Dowding (who led Fighter Command during the Battle) headed a committee to raise funds for the furnishing of this chapel and for a stained glass window. The English walnut altar was designed by A.E.Richardson with sculptured figures of King Arthur and St George (although an embroidered frontal usually covers them). The silver cross, candlesticks and rails were designed by J.Seymour Lindsay. The chapel was unveiled by King George VI on 10 July 1947.

The Battle of Britain memorial window

The stained glass window, by Hugh Easton, contains the badges of the fighter squadrons that took part in the Battle.In four panels are shown visions which symbolise the Redemption. In one a squadron leader kneels before the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Below this she is represented in her sorrow with the dead Christ across her knees (a symbol of the sacrifice of the mothers and widows of those who died in the conflict). On the opposite side a panel shows a sergeant pilot kneeling before the Cruficifixion (a symbol of the sacrifice of the pilot himself). Lastly, above this, is the Resurrection seen by a pilot officer (representing the pilots' triumph). Seraphim, with six wings and with hands outstretched to paradise, are shown in the top row of the window. In the central section are the Royal Arms, the badge of the Fleet Air Arm and the badge and motto of the RAF "Per Ardua ad Astra" (Through struggle to the Stars) together with the furled flags of New Zealand, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belgium, and the United States of America. In two of the bottom panels are words from Shakespeare's Henry V "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers". Painted on the stonework below the glass are the names of six RAF war leaders (added in 1989). Trenchard and Dowding are buried in this chapel.

The Roll of Honour, illuminated by Daisy Alcock and given by Captain Bruce Ingram, contains the names of l,497 pilots and aircrew killed or mortally wounded during the Battle, of which 449 were in Fighter Command (whom the window specially commemorates), 732 in Bomber Command, 268 in Coastal Command, 14 in other RAF commands and 34 in the Fleet Air Arm. The names include those of 47 Canadians, 47 New Zealanders, 35 Poles, 24 Australians, 20 Czechoslovaks, 17 South Africans, 6 Belgians and one American, as well as those from the United Kingdom and Colonies.

A Services of Thanksgiving for the victory gained in the Battle of Britain has been held annually in the Abbey since 1944. The victory in the air over the German Luftwaffe was the major factor in forcing Hitler to postpone and eventually abandon his invasion of Britain. In the words of Prime Minister Winston Churchill "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

A postcard of the window is available from Westminster Abbey shop. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website ( www.cwgc.org) will give information about those who died during the war.

See also:

Battle of Britain Memorial Trust website www.battleofbritainmemorial.org

Men of the Battle of Britain. A biographical dictionary of “The Few”  by Kenneth G.Wynn 1999.

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