A chance encounter on the Rally of Wales and memories of an old model Spitfire made by my Dad led me to try and find out more of the story of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron – a glamorous pre-war unit for well-to-do young gentlemen that found itself in the thick of the action during the darkest days of World War 2.
So what happened? When it comes to the Battle of France… rather a lot.
When the Germans unleashed the Blitzkrieg upon France and Belgium on May 10 1940, 610 Squadron was based at RAF Prestwick in Scotland. It was immediately pulled south to RAF Biggin Hill the same day, joining the incumbent 32 Squadron, whose Hurricanes were already heavily engaged in patrols off the Belgian coast.
It soon became clear was that the part-time volunteers of 610 Squadron were paired up with the old sweats of 32… not the sort of detail that you get from most books. And a wise move, as it transpired.
610 Squadron notched up its first recorded ‘kill’ on May 21, when a flight intercepted what they believed to have been a Junkers Ju88 bomber some five miles north of Boulogne. In fact it was an RAF Bristol Blenheim bomber – one of two lost by 18 Squadron that day. This aircraft, serial number L9185, was lost at sea but her crew – Pilot Officer V. Rees, Sergeant N.V. Pusey and LAC K.E. Murray were rescued from the sea and returned to their unit.
As the situation in France worsened, 32 and 610 Squadrons were transferred from Biggin Hill to Gravesend in Kent on May 26 in readiness to defend the troops as they attempted to escape the German advance on the beachhead at Dunkirk. 610 Squadron flew into action the same day, encountering a Heinkel He111 bomber with 40 escorting Messerschmitt Bf110 fighters. The squadron claimed to have shot down three Messerschmitts and the Heinkel but lost two of its Spitfires, these being:
Spitfire L1016 – Flying Officer Albert Rupert John Medcalf missing (age 26)
Spitfire N3284 – Sergeant William Thomas Medway killed (age unknown)
The squadron’s next major encounter came two days later – and it was a disaster. Meeting a strong force of Messerschmitt Bf109s over Dunkirk, four aircraft were lost with their pilots. These were:
Spitfire Unknown – Squadron Leader Alexander Lumsden ‘Bonzo’ Franks, killed (age 32)
Spitfire L1000 – Flying Officer Gerald Malcolm Theodore Kerr, missing (age 30)
Spitfire N3289 – Flying Officer John Kerr Wilson, missing (age 32)
Spitfire L1062 – Sergeant Peter Douglas Jenkins, missing (age 20)
As was pointed out in Derek Robinson’s novel Piece of Cake and its TV adaptation, much of the blame for such losses can be placed on the tactics employed at the time. It was intended that RAF fighter squadrons should fly in close formation and concentrate their combined firepower on the large bombers in the so-called Area Fighting Tactics.
This was fine in theory, but took no account of the battle-hardened and successful German fighter formations which flew in loose groups of four and remained fluid at all times. While a dozen RAF fighters wheeled in an ungainly unit, with each man doing his best not to hit the aircraft next to him, the enemy fighters could dive in and cause havoc. Hawk-eyed aces like ‘Sailor’ Malan saw this very clearly, but many squadrons, 610 among them, were struggling to keep their heads above water and were not going to demand a rewriting of official policy.
The last day of May brought 610 Squadron back over Dunkirk, and again they took a mauling at the hands of the Bf109s. Another two aircraft were lost, one pilot killed and the other rescued from the sea by one of the ‘little ships’ as they fought desperately to pull British and French troops off the beaches.
Spitfire N3274 – Flying Officer Graham Tim Lambert Chambers, missing (age unknown)
Spitfire Unknown – Flying Officer G. Keighley, wounded (age unknown)
By the time that the evacuation of Dunkirk was completed, it was clear that 610 Squadron had been changed forever. Almost half of the original squadron members – all of whom had been local men from Cheshire and Lancashire – were killed, missing or wounded by the time the last of the little ships got away in the ‘miracle of Dunkirk’.