Paul Farnes, last surviving ace of the Battle of Britain, dies at 101
By EMILY LANGER | The Washington Post | Published: January 30, 2020
In England they are known as "The Few," the pilots who defended their country from Nazi aerial assault in the Battle of Britain during World War II. Among "The Few," whose ranks numbered approximately 3,000, Paul Farnes was one of the last surviving. And of those who remained, he was believed to be the only ace, or aviator with the distinction of downing five or more enemy aircraft.
Farnes was 101 when he died on Jan. 28 in West Sussex, England. His death was announced by the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, which did not cite a cause. The trust credited him with a "remarkable tally" during the battle, a months-long aerial engagement that became the first significant German defeat in World War II: In total he was said to have destroyed six enemy planes, probably destroyed another and damaged six more.
Farnes, who attained the rank of wing commander in the Royal Air Force, described his exploits as "just another day's work."
He was born Paul Caswell Powe Farnes in the English town of Boscombe on July 16, 1918. Because of the circumstances of his birth - he was considered "illegitimate," in the derogatory parlance of the time - he initially feared that the RAF might not accept him when he volunteered for service.
His mother had died the day after he was born, Farnes recalled in an oral history published in the book "Last of the Few: The Battle of Britain in the Words of the Pilots Who Won It" by military historian Max Arthur.
"My father said the midwife was to get rid of me" and place him in a home for orphaned children, Farnes recalled. "But this lady took a fancy to me - she was about forty at the time - and she adopted me. I had a wonderful upbringing, just she and I together."
By 1938, amid the looming threat of war, Farnes decided to join the military. He planned to enlist in the Royal Navy but was converted by an acquaintance," he recalled in an interview with the website History of War. "Why don't you fly?" the acquaintance asked him. "It's much more fun - you don't want to be in a ship."
And so it was that Farnes applied to join the RAF Volunteer Reserve in 1938. His adoptive mother wrote to the Air Ministry in his support and received the response that "so long as your son can pass the necessary exams, medical and otherwise, we'd be glad to have him." Farnes passed.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. By then, Farnes had already been called for active duty. He saw his first combat in the Battle of France, which began in May 1940 and ended six weeks later with France's surrender.
According to the memorial trust, "his score during the Battle of France was one enemy aircraft destroyed, one possibly destroyed and two shared, but that was just a curtain raiser to his impressive tally" in the Battle of Britain, which began in July.
Often described as the first major military battle waged entirely in the air, the engagement is considered a turning point in World War II because it helped stop the Germans from mounting an invasion of Britain. At the time, Farnes was a sergeant flying fighter planes known as Hurricanes, which fought the German Luftwaffe in dogfights alongside Spitfires.
"Suddenly you would get a scramble and we would be off," he told the BBC. "Sometimes you would find the enemy; other times it was a wasted trip. It was really a bit chaotic. There were times we know when Hurricanes shot Spitfires down and Spitfires shot Hurricanes down. It was almost inevitable."
He sometimes flew up to five sorties a day. On one of them, he was following a railway line in southern England when he encountered a German aircraft.
"I thought, 'Good God,' so I whipped out and had to reposition myself and managed to get round behind him," Farnes said in the History of War interview. "I gave him a couple of bursts and he crashed at Gatwick just on the point between the airport and the racecourse.
"It was particularly poignant for me," Farnes continued, "because I landed and the station commander took me over to meet the pilot of the German aircraft. I went to shake hands with him, but he wouldn't shake my hand. One of the gunners was all right, but the other was killed."
Among fellow British pilots, he often recalled, it was difficult to make friends, because any mission could prove fatal. The Battle of Britain resulted in more than 500 Allied deaths. The sobriquet "The Few" came from a speech from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who declared at the time: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
After the Battle of Britain, Farnes was commissioned as an officer. He served in Malta, North Africa and Iraq, ultimately retiring from the RAF in 1958. He later ran a hotel and became a celebrity among aviation enthusiasts at British air shows.
A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
According to the best information available to the memorial trust, only two veterans of the Battle of Britain are still living, and neither was an ace. Farnes sought to honor RAF ground crews, whose care helped ensure the safety of pilots in the air, and he dismissed popular notions of his and other airmen's courage.
"I don't go along with this business of people saying how brave we were," he once told The Daily Telegraph. "It's a lot of nonsense. I don't think the average chap was brave at all. He was trained to do a job, and he did the job and he did it well."
If anything, Farnes often said, he rather relished his experience in the battle, which besides turning back the Luftwaffe, allowed him to fly, just as he had set out to do.
"Everywhere in the Battle of Britain we had marvelous airplanes, wonderful aircraft, and you flew several times a day," he said. "You were doing it for a reason, too - you were doing it to protect your country. Altogether it was quite enjoyable."