Two Royal Air Force veterans who played a central role in the Battle of Britain and the bombing campaign have helped start a 100-day baton relay as the service celebrated its centenary.
Wing Commander Paul Farnes, who flew Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain, said the centenary of the RAF was a “big day”.
“It is my 100th anniversary too later this year,” the 99-year-old from Chichester added, revealing that “life was pretty exciting” during the Second World War.
“As far as the RAF is concerned, its 100 years is quite an achievement,” he said.
Air Commodore Charles Clarke joined the RAF at the age of 17 – flying in Lancasters as a bomb aimer in 619 squadron.
It was during a sortie in early 1944 that his aircraft was hit by enemy fire forcing him to parachute out of the plane, where he was captured by the Nazis and taken to Stalag Luft III.
The infamous camp in Poland was where Allied PoWs constructed tunnels and attempted to make a daring bid for freedom in March 1944 – known as the Great Escape.
But it was in January 1945 that Air Cdre Clarke was evacuated from the prison as Allied Forces advanced, and ordered on the long march with other PoWs by the Nazis before being rescued.
As the RAF marked 100 years since its creation, Air Cdre Clarke passed a specially designed baton to one of the youngest RAF members – sending it on the 100-day tour.
The 94-year-old from London said: “I feel honoured to be able to participate, and it brings back so many memories and highlights how lucky I am to still be alive.”
Beginning outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London, Air Cdre Clarke, flanked by Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, handed the baton to Aircraftsman Adam Wood.
The start of the relay was marked by Wg Cdr Farnes who rang an original scramble bell, used during the Second World War to call pilots to their Spitfires and Hurricanes, and said doing so was “great fun”.
He described feeling “a bit nervous” and said it was a “proud moment” doing so, and not one he imagined doing so early on in his career.
AC Wood said he was “very proud” to receive the baton from Air Cdre Clarke, and added: “I didn’t imagine doing this when I joined the RAF, but it is great it has happened for me.”
Flight Lieutenant Rob Neal, a Chinook pilot, said as the relay began in London, the key memorials would be visited, and would also pass Buckingham Palace and the Houses of Parliament.
“They are all really important parts of RAF history,” he added, revealing the relay would stop at the Royal Air Force memorial at the Cenotaph, the Bomber Command memorial and the Battle of Britain memorial.
“As well as celebrating where we are today with the history of the Air Force, it is important to remember those sacrifices that were made throughout history as well.”
The 32-year-old said the baton will “travel around the whole country” as well as to the Gulf, Eastern Europe, Afghanistan and the Falkland Islands.
“I think one of the key things as we go around the country is really trying to inspire the younger generation, so air cadets and schools, and get them really involved and showcase what the RAF does,” he added.
With 20 RAF sports associations involved in the relay, the baton will also be carried by a variety of RAF equipment including aircraft and vehicles before it returns to London on July 10.
The RAF 100 baton itself is made out of brass, oak and aluminium to symbolise aircraft construction through the years, and was designed and manufactured by RAF apprentices.
In the shape of the RAF roundel, rings of red, white and blue LED lights illuminate the baton, which also features the RAF badge.