Scottie Kemp was 5 that summer long ago, one he’s never forgotten.
He and his chums would dig holes and build sod forts in the vast fields surrounding Bromsgrove, England.
They’d stage mock battles, get bloodied occasionally and run home to mom.
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“It was all part of growing up,” said Kemp, a Colony Cove resident. “But we saw things no 5-year-old should see. We knew death was around.”
Especially from above.
The Battle of Britain was raging the summer of 1940, a historic aerial engagement between the German Luftwaffe and the British Royal Air Force that blazed from July 10 to Oct. 31 during World War II.
Last Wednesday was the 70th anniversary of Battle of Britain Day, a commemoration of that nation’s epic fight for survival with outnumbered and outgunned RAF and Allied fighters, who ultimately vanquished Hitler’s ambition to invade and conquer England.
It was Nazi Germany’s first military defeat and inspired one of Winston Churchill’s most famous quotations:
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
British historian Stephen Bungay told the Associated Press, “If the Luftwaffe had been able to establish air superiority and subject London to unobstructed bombing round the clock, Britain would not have remained in the war, leaving Hitler triumphant across Europe.”
Kemp was a witness to that pivotal juncture in history.
“The Battle of Britain saved the USA,” he said. “I’ll always believe that.”
Later in life, Kemp joined the RAF and eventually came to America as a manufacturing engineer. His handiwork included seals for the Apollo XI lunar module astronaut Neil Armstrong landed on the moon July 20, 1969.
“If any of those parts were allowed to have finger prints when they left the plant, mine would be on the moon now,” kidded the native of Arbroath, Scotland.
Yet it’s the sounds and images from the summer of 1940 that are seared into Kemp’s soul.
The tinkling of empty bullet cartridges raining onto roofs and streets.
The vapor trails of dogfights high in the sky.
The death spirals of dying pilots in doomed warplanes.
“There was an armaments factory near us that was a perennial target,” Kemp said. “The RAF fighters would get mixed up with the German bombers, and there were so many contrails it was almost like knitting in the sky.
“Then a plane would get hit, sometimes it would go limping away trailing smoke.”
Sometimes they fell as Kemp and his friends looked on afar.
“One that sticks in my mind was a Spitfire getting hit,” he said. “We saw pieces fly off the plane as high as it was, then go into a dive straight down. We were just waiting for the pilot to bail out, see the parachute come out. When he went from sight there was still no parachute.
“Even a 5-year old kid knew we’d seen death.”
Still, Kemp had a child’s curiosity about the war.
Like running after spent machine gun shells bouncing on the road.
“You’d hear the shell casings from the dogfights, run to grab yourself the brass and the minute you did — Ow! It was still hot. I remember the painful burns,” he said.
Kemp recalled another wild episode involving friends of his mother, an older couple who lived a few streets over.
“One day they woke up and the house was in darkness and they didn’t know why,” he said. “So they went out to see what the cause was. The house was shrouded by a black parachute right over the roof. On the other side of the house hanging between the eaves and the ground was a German explosive device.
“That bomb would’ve taken out not just their house, but half the block.”
The privations brought on by the Battle of Britain and the war manifested themselves in many different ways.
The nightly blackouts.
Severe petrol rationing.
The cannibalizing of iron railings to make armor plating.
“Everything vital to the war effort was taken away and we lived without,” Kemp said. “We got basic groceries at the market — cheese, sugar, butter — and that’s it. Everybody had their little garden for tomatoes, potatoes, onions and so forth. If you didn’t grow it, you didn’t eat it.”
Life went on, though, for boys like Kemp.
Why, in their own little way they had a hand in the Battle of Britain.
During one daylight air raid, a crippled Junkers 88, a German twin-engine bomber, crash landed in a field where the boys built their forts.
“It came down where we used to dig holes in the ground and he must’ve hit one or two, because the undercarriage collapsed and over he went,” Kemp said. “The crew came out with their hands up and were taken away by the local home guard with pitchforks and 1914 rifles.”
The wrecked bomber remained long enough for the boys to break its Plexiglas cowling into bits and pieces their moms made into jewelry.
“The plane was our treasure trove, but they soon hauled it away,” he said, chuckling. “It would’ve been a great thing for us to play in.”