Why the Royal Air Force Burns Pianos Every Year

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Royal Air Force exchange officers stationed at Robins Air Force Base host a piano burn at Duck Lake as part of a local celebration of the RAF’s 100th anniversary. Piano burns are a tradition going back to the earliest days of the RAF and have come to represent an homage to those who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of their nation. (Tommie Horton/U.S. Air Force photo)

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

All hope was not lost. In May, a new prime minister had taken power in London, one who would not appease Nazi Germany nor accept any talk of surrender. After the fall of France, Winston Churchill famously said: “The 'Battle of France' is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin."

He was right. In order to successfully launch Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion of Britain, Hitler needed the English Channel cleared of Royal Navy ships and the skies free from interference by the Royal Air Force. He would get neither.

From July through October 1940, RAF pilots engaged the German Luftwaffe over the skies of England, both by day and by night. Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring’s plan was to first destroy the RAF, either in the skies or on the ground while targeting British aircraft production facilities. He wanted to end RAF bombing runs on Germany while blocking British ports from the air.

With the Royal Air Force out of the way, Göring then would order the destruction of military and economic targets throughout the United Kingdom, completely unopposed. The British had a shortage of skilled pilots, but international volunteers from at least 14 countries weren’t going to let the Germans have their way. Outmanned and outgunned, the RAF and its civilian ground spotters fought on for months.

126 German aircraft or "Adolfs" were claimed by Polish pilots of 303 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. The count here is featured 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 terrorizing British citizens by bombing London and other major cities nightly during “The Blitz” of 1940-1941, the Germans did not achieve superiority by air or by sea, and Britain lived to continue the fight to free Europe from the Nazi stranglehold.

Now, every September, the Royal Air Force -- along with American fighter units who served as volunteers during the Battle of Britain -- commemorate the victory with the ritualistic burning of a wooden piano. The piano is delivered in a ceremony, often ceremoniously hacked to pieces by airmen wielding axes and sledgehammers. Then, it’s set ablaze.

No one knows for sure how the tradition started. Some believe that the shortage of gentlemanly pilots led the RAF to recruit men who weren’t considered “gentlemen” at all. These pilots were forced to take piano lessons so they could earn the title. At the first opportunity, these stressed-out pilots were said to have burned the piano. No piano, no lessons, just air combat.

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

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

This is the most likely explanation, because it reflects what the modern piano-burning ceremony is actually about: remembering those who fought and those who died during the Battle of Britain and to honor the sacrifices made by all those who kept Britain for the British people.

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

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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