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70 years on from WWII, Britain remembers 'the few'

LONDON -- In the words of Winston Churchill, it was Britain's ''finest hour,'' a turning point in world history -- though it didn't always feel that way at the time.

Seventy years after the Battle of Britain, Churchill's daughter commemorated the pivotal air campaign Friday alongside surviving members of ''the few,'' the Royal Air Force pilots who defied the odds to defend the country from German attack.

One of them is Nigel Rose, now a 92-year-old retired quantity surveyor, then a newly trained Spitfire pilot battling German bombers over England's south coast.

''I don't think one realized that this scrap that we were having would have a startling effect on the progress of events, and possibly help stop the impending invasion,'' Rose said.

Between July and October 1940, RAF fighter squadrons fought Luftwaffe bombers that pounded Britain's cities and airfields as preparation for a planned invasion.

Of 2,900 British and Allied airmen who took part, more than 500 were killed. But Germany's failure to defeat the young, undertrained and outnumbered RAF crews and conquer Britain's skies helped save the country from Nazi occupation.

Friday marked the 70th anniversary of Churchill's rousing House of Commons speech of Aug. 20, 1940, in which the prime minister said of the air crews that ''never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.''

Actor Robert Hardy read the speech Friday outside Churchill's wartime headquarters, at a ceremony attended by Churchill's daughter Lady Mary Soames, wartime singer Vera Lynn and some of the dwindling band of Battle of Britain veterans -- now only about 100 strong. The ceremony was being followed by a fly over of World War II Spitfire and Hurricane fighters.

The ''few'' speech was one of several stirring addresses by Churchill that helped galvanize British resolve in the darkest days of the war. In May 1940, he vowed to fight the Nazis with ''blood, toil, tears and sweat.''