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The Battle of Britain: 70 years on

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BBC Wales History BBC Wales History | 10:17 UK time, Friday, 23 July 2010

Radio Wales presenter Dewi Griffiths was just eight years old when World War Two began.

Growing up in Ton Pentre in the Rhondda Valley, Dewi remembers how family life centred around war reports on the wireless and how, as a young lad he knew the distinctive sounds of the enemy aircraft. Here he recounts some of his memories of the time.

I suppose my intense interest in World War Two began on day one - 3 September 1939, when, at the age of eight, I sat with my brother Bill, 12, and my mother in the living room of our home in Wyndham Street, Ton Pentre. My father insisted we all listen to the wireless as he tuned in for a special bulletin from London.

The announcer introduced the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, who spoke to us directly from the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street, and he ended with these chilling words: "Consequently this country is at war with Germany".

That battery-powered wireless was never switched off after that. Every day, from September 1939 to August 1945, I heard all about the progress of the war - a conflict accurately described as "a world war".

Initially, the reports were all about the British Expeditionary Force arriving in France to help them in their fight against the advancing German army, but Hitler's Panzer Divisions were strong and well-prepared.

The combined British and French forces were no real match, and so, by the spring of 1940, I was listening to reports about "the miracle of Dunkirk" when a third of a million allied soldiers were taken off the beaches in thousands of little boats to be taken to the safety of the south of England.

That's when the dreaded word "invasion" became part of every-day conversation.

It was at another family gathering when we all gathered around the wireless as my father switched it on to listen to the new prime minister, Winston Churchill, and it was then we heard his historic pronouncement: "The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin."

The speech ended with a typical "Winnie" rallying statement: "if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, this was their finest hour!"

And of course, there were the newspapers, with the London dailies issuing maps of the south coast, pinpointing the places which were being bombed by the Luftwaffe providing the first reports that citizens had been killed.

The newspapers also began issuing leaflets with "aircraft recognition silhouette charts", and by my ninth birthday, in the middle of August, I was able to identify a Junkers, a Dornier, a Fokke-Wolfe, and a Messerschmidt.

We were also aware of the different sound made the engines of a German bomber - an oscillating drone produced by the different engine rotation speeds resulting in a distinctive "beat" frequency.

But we were far away from the actual danger at that time. The coal and steel industries just stepped up production, and buses took hundreds of women from the valley every day to work in the munitions factories in the Vale of Glamorgan.

And then we began listening to what the BBC reporters referred to as "dog fights" - which was when I first heard about the icon of my wartime years - the Spitfire.

Spitfire plane

I wondered what it looked like, because we youngsters were kept busy with gas mask drill, air raid precautions, and getting to know the strangers amongst us: the evacuees who had arrived from London, the Midlands, and later the docklands of Cardiff.

Of course there was the Saturday morning "rush" - the local cinema putting on entertainment films for children - and it was at the Workmen's Hall in Ton Pentre that I first saw a Spitfire in flight, in the newsreel that came up between Hopalong Cassidy and Donald Duck.

From the moment I saw it on that big screen I was fired with an ambition to be a pilot in the RAF. The newsreel coverage of the dog fights caused more excitement in the youngsters than anything Hollywood could conjure up.

When father came up from the night shift at the local colliery, the first thing they asked about was "are we winning the battle?" Then before jumping into the tin bath in front of the fire it was across to the allotments to tend to the home grown vegetables, or check the eggs in the chicken coop.

And that's how it was. Day after day, hour after hour, we listened to the radio for reports, such as: "early this morning eight German planes were shot down over Kent - six of our aircraft failed to return to base!" Then it was to the chart on the wall where we put a cross on emblems of a Union Jack or a swastika.

We were fascinated too that the pilots defending our homeland were not just British, but came from all over the Commonwealth, and from the occupied countries in Europe. As September came, we heard that Churchill had supplied the RAF with more aircraft, and more importantly, replacement pilots.

As a nine-year-old I didn't know what the word "propaganda" meant, but I was aware that the news bulletins were telling us that more and more German aircraft were being shot down - and that the end was in sight. The end?

In September 1940 the war had hardly touched us in the valley, but we were fully aware that the people living in the south of England had been living through hell.

Then came the radio announcement - the strangest report for months:

"For the last 24 hours there have been no reports of any German aircraft in the skies over England."

So, they were right! The end was in sight.

And now, 70 years on, I still find it difficult to hold back the tears of gratitude and admiration whenever I hear the words of Winston Churchill:

"Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few."

And those tears were running down my cheeks as I saw the Spitfire and the Lancaster fly over Cardiff Bay when I was a member of the BBC Radio Wales broadcasting team covering the Armed Forces Day Commemoration Ceremony.

It was all quite thrilling - and I can't wait to celebrate the magnificent victory of the Desert Rats, driving Rommel out of North Africa after the famous turning point, El Alamein.

Watch highlights from the BBC Wales Armed Forces Season.

View a slideshow of Armed Forces Day in Cardiff.

Dewi Griffiths is the presenter of the BBC Radio Wales music programme A String Of Pearls. Listen to the latest programme.

A String Of Pearls can next be heard on BBC Radio Wales on Sunday 22 July at 9.05am

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