John Greenwood. Picture: Michael O'Brien/The West Australian

The Browning machineguns mounted on John Greenwood's Hurricane fighter plane rattled furiously as he blasted at the incoming enemy.

In lead-ridden skies, 16,000ft above war-torn England, his squadron throttled forwards on a deadly collision course with a swarm of German fighters.

"They were coming directly for us and we didn't have a choice," Mr Greenwood said on Friday. "I made a head-on attack."

At the last second, bullets blazing from his wings, Mr Greenwood dived beneath the Luftwaffe formation. That was when he saw the enemy bomber, one of many Adolf Hitler had sent across the Channel in a bid to pound England into rubble, and submission.

"I gave him all the bullets I had left and I got both his engines," Mr Greenwood said.

The enemy shot down, his fuel gauge hovering close to empty, Mr Greenwood headed back to base.

Three of his mates did not return from that desperate dogfight.

It was August 30, 1940, and the engagement was the first of about 50 sorties Mr Greenwood flew during months of vicious aerial fighting above England.

Yesterday, 72 years on, that terrible time was remembered as the Battle of Britain.

Now 91 and living in Safety Bay, Mr Greenwood said fewer than 50 pilots who waged that battle in the sky for Britain were alive.

"There are only two of us left in Australia," he said.

A South London boy who would emigrate to WA after World War II, Mr Greenwood said the Hawker Hurricanes he flew were outgunned and outclassed by the German ME-109 fighter planes.

"They were desperate times," he said. "But we realised if we didn't beat them they were going to invade us. They could shoot us down from 1000 yards. We had to close to 250 yards to shoot accurately. We had to get in close to have any chance at all."

Hitler's great push to crush Britain climaxed on September 15 during a concerted aerial attack.

But tracing the yellowed pages of his flying logbook with a shaking finger, Mr Greenwood said there were plenty of bad days, when the fighting was fierce and the losses were high - 29 pilots and friends who served in his squadron were killed in the Battle of Britain alone.

While the numbers are often disputed or distorted, in total the Luftwaffe is believed to have shot down some 788 Royal Air Force planes over the months of battle. Some 1294 Luftwaffe aircraft are thought to have been shot down during the same period.

The elderly flying ace said he did not need a special day of remembrance for the Battle of Britain.

The memories of the close calls, the friends he lost and the men he killed are never far from his thoughts.

"I still wake up sometimes early in the morning thinking about it," he said.

The West Australian

Popular videos

Compare & Save

Our Picks

Compare & Save

Follow Us

More from The West