Why the Royal Air Force burns pianos every year

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In July 1940, things looked bleak for the British. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway had fallen victim to the German war machine, food and other goods were rationed and the Allied troops had to withdraw from the beaches of Dunkirk.

All hope was not lost. In May, a new prime minister had taken power in London, who neither wanted to appease Nazi Germany nor speak of a surrender. After the fall of France, Winston Churchill said famously: “The ‘battle for France’ is over. I expect the Battle of Britain to begin soon. “

He was right. In order to successfully launch Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Great Britain, Hitler had to clear the English Channel from ships of the Royal Navy and clear the sky from interference from the Royal Air Force. He wouldn’t get either.

From July to October 1940, RAF pilots fought both day and night with the German Air Force over the skies over England. Air Force Commander Hermann Göring’s plan was to first destroy the RAF either in the sky or on the ground while targeting British aircraft production facilities. He wanted to end the RAF bombing raids on Germany and at the same time block British ports from the air.

After the Royal Air Force was out of the way, Goering then ordered the destruction of military and economic targets across the United Kingdom, with no resistance whatsoever. The British lacked trained pilots, but international volunteers from at least 14 countries did not want to kill the Germans. The RAF and its civilian ground observers fought for months under-manned and inferior.

126 German aircraft or “Adolfs” were claimed by Polish pilots of the 303 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. The count here is pictured on a Hawker Hurricane in 1940. (Sikorsky Museum, London)

More than 1,500 British and Allied airmen were killed in the fighting and the RAF lost more than 1,740 aircraft. Even after the Germans terrorized British citizens by nightly bombing London and other major cities during the “Blitz” of 1940-1941, they did not achieve superiority by air or sea, and Britain lived on in the struggle for the liberation of Europe to continue the stranglehold of the Nazis.

Every September, the Royal Air Force – along with American combat units who volunteered during the Battle of Britain – commemorate the victory with the ritual burning of a wooden piano. The piano is handed over in a ceremony and often ceremoniously chopped to pieces by airmen wielding axes and sledgehammers. Then it is set on fire.

Nobody knows exactly how the tradition began. Some believe that the lack of gentleman pilots caused the RAF to recruit men who were not considered “gentlemen” at all. These pilots were forced to take piano lessons in order to earn the title. At the first opportunity, these stressed pilots are said to have burned the piano. No piano, no lessons, just aerial combat.

The Battle of Britain was fought between July 10, 1940 and October 31, 1940. (Ministry of Defense)

A more likely explanation, according to an Air Force historian, is that a group of RAF pilots were entertained each night by one of their own, an exquisite pianist. After a particularly brutal mission over the skies of England, her beloved melodic wingman did not return. The pilots, knowing that the piano would never play the music they loved so much again – and that their comrade would never be replaced – burned it.

This is the most likely explanation, as it reflects what the modern piano burning ceremony is all about: remembering those who fought and died during the Battle of Britain and honoring the sacrifices made by all those Britain made for the British people have held.

A piano is burned to commemorate the lives lost during the Battle of Britain at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England, September 18, 2020. (US Air Force / Airman 1st Class David Busby)

– Blake Stilwell can be reached at [email protected] He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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