Just four are left. Four of the 95 New Zealand pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain 70 years ago this week.

They survived the battle then and they have survived the long years since. One still plays golf regularly. Three live in New Zealand.

Alan Gawith, 94, is about to move with his wife from his home in Nelson to a retirement complex where he says he will have more time for reading.

Bernie Brown, 92, has problems with his balance but otherwise is well. He and his wife watched last year as builders put up a new home for them on the next-door section in Tauranga.

John Gardner, also 92 and living in Tauranga, is the most active.

He plays golf every Tuesday and flew out of New Zealand on Friday to attend London celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the battle and the unveiling of the permanent Keith Park statue.

"New Zealanders should be very proud of Park, a great man," he said before leaving for England with his wife.

Sir Keith, a New Zealander who flew fighters with distinction in World War I, was the man who directed day-to-day operations of Fighter Command as the officer commanding 11 Group's Spitfire and Hurricane squadrons in southeast England.

It was Park, with the backing of Fighter Command chief Sir Hugh Dowding, who engineered the defeat of the Luftwaffe.

The fourth surviving New Zealand pilot of those eventful days of July 10-October 31, 1940, when the future of Britain hung in the balance, is Keith Lawrence, who lives in England.

In total, 135 New Zealanders were entitled to the Battle of Britain clasp, awarded to those who flew at least one operation during the battle. Twenty died, 16 of them pilots. Five of the 20 were killed in aircraft accidents, two of them newcomer Hurricane pilots killed within five minutes of each other on the same airfield on night training.

Thirty-one of the Battle of Britain survivors lost their lives on air operations later in the war and a further eight became prisoners of war. Two were captured during the battle itself.

All four living New Zealand Battle of Britain veterans joined the Royal Air Force on short four-year terms before the war when the RNZAF was so small it had no places for adventurous young men bitten by the flying bug.

Mr Gardner was unlucky in a way, posted to 141 Squadron, just one of two flying the Defiant, a low-wing monoplane, slow, cumbersome and without any forward-firing guns. He was shot down with three other Defiants.

Although wounded and bloodied, his scalp hanging down his face, he ditched his aircraft and struggled to the surface as his machine sank. His gunner died.

He was picked up by a motor torpedo boat, its crew shouting, "We gotcha, we gotcha," as they dragged him on aboard. He remembered no more until he woke up in hospital. The rest of the battle he spent convalescing.

He went to London because, he said,"it's important to make the journey to attend this symbolic event."


* Max Lambert is writing a book on New Zealand fighter pilots for publication next year.