After chancing across their former home at RAF Hooton Park, now part of the sprawling Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port near Liverpool, I chose to try and find out as much as I could about what happened to the men and machines of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron from the start of World War 2 until the end of the Battle of Britain.
Immediately after the retreat from France was complete, the surviving pilots and Spitfires of 610 Squadron returned, along with the Hurricanes of 32 Squadron, from their outpost at Gravesend to the hub at Biggin Hill. Here a much-needed infusion of new aircraft and pilots brought a return to full numerical strength, even if the character of the unit was changed forever.
A new commanding officer was brought in to replace the late ‘Bonzo’ Franks, this being Squadron Leader Andrew Thomas ‘Big Bill’ Smith, together with replacement pilots who were mainly drawn from 25, 41, 66 and 72 Squadrons. Many of the new pilots were non-commissioned officers: sergeant pilots who would never have cut the mustard amid the well-heeled amateur officers of 610 Squadron in the pre-war Auxiliary Air Force.
RAF Fighter Command had time to rebuild because the Germans had decided to press for a diplomatic solution. Peace terms were offered in which Britain would retain control of her Empire, over which a compliant Edward VIII would be restored to preside as king and David Lloyd George would be installed as his Prime Minister to replace the combative new incumbent of 10 Downing Street, Winston Churchill.
It was a proposition which found favour in many quarters but Churchill weathered the storm. His pleas to fight on against Germany received a welcome shot in the arm when Hitler’s wayward ally, Benito Mussolini, declared war on Britain and attempted to wrest control of the Mediterranean – and thereby the British Empire. While the Germans raged at il Duce’s ill-timed opportunism, Churchill was able to show that no deal with Germany or her allies could be trusted.
By mid-July the Germans, somewhat incredulous, realised that Britain was not going to accept their terms. Thus the Luftwaffe swept back into action, attacking convoys of goods ships… and 610 Squadron was in the front line once again.
Only two casualties were recorded by 610 throughout this period of relative calm, these being Sergeant Ronald William Haines, who crashed on take-off on June 29, and Pilot Officer Arthur Lionel Boultbee Raven, who bailed out of a burning Spitfire over the Channel on July 8 and was never located. The remainder of the rebuilt unit, meanwhile, awaited the coming storm.
The Battle of Britain was about to begin.