The Real Piece of Cake: Grand Finale

This is the final part of my investigation into the life and times of 610 (County of Chester) Squadron during the Battle of Britain, sparked by the model Spitfire that sat in my childhood bedroom and reignited by chancing across its former home on the Rally of Wales.

As we have seen, 610’s war began in the skies over Dunkirk with a disastrous campaign that effectively ended its pre-war existence on the spot. While Germany pushed for a diplomatic end to hostilities, the RAF rebuilt its tattered squadrons and 610 Squadron was subsumed into preparations to defend Britain at all costs. After diplomacy failed and bad weather frustrated the Luftwaffe’s plans during July 1940, Hitler’s attempt to demolish the Royal Air Force and bring Britain to her knees began in earnest during August.

The aircraft of 610 Squadron dispersed at Hawkinge, where it moved temporarily in late July

The exhausting round of alerts, scrambles, combat and replenishment began for those squadrons in the front line – and 610 Squadron found itself in the thick of the action as the Luftwaffe unleashed wave after wave of violence on Britain. What follows are the key points in the 610 Squadron diary for the height of the Battle of Britain:

12/8/40 (Biggin Hill): An early morning raid by nine low-flying Messerschmitt Bf109s is met by 12 Spitfires from 610 Squadron. Going against standing orders they chased the Messerschmitts out to sea, and were duly ambushed in turn by another flight of Messerschmitts.

Escaping the melee, Pilot Officer E.B.B. Smith baled out with burns over Romney, airframe DW-H crashed in flames (write-off). Returning to base, the wounded Flying Officer F.T. Gardner managed to land his Spitfire DW-N (R6806) but damaged the port wing when crash landing (aircraft repairable). Another airframe (R6621) sustains repairable combat damage with the pilot unhurt and DW-K (P9495) is a write-off due to combat damage.

A strong justification for standing orders there.

14/8/40 (Biggin Hill): This is a good illustration of how intense the fighting had become by mid-August, in the build-up towards ‘Eagle Day’ and the promised destruction of the RAF’s fighters.

At midday Group scrambled 42 aircraft comprised of 32, 65 and 610 Squadrons to intercept 80 Stukas escorted by 90 Messerschmitt Bf109s. In total more than 200 aircraft were involved in the dogfight that followed, with the raiders destroying the Goodwin Lightship and eight barrage balloons. A pair of Bf109s were shot down together with three Stukas – while the RAF lost seven fighters, with 610’s Sgt. B.E.D. Gardner among wounded, his Spitfire DW-M (K9947) damaged by Bf109s but repairable.

Famously photographed by Fox News at the height of the Battle

Famously photographed by Fox News at the height of the Battle

The second action of the day saw an unnamed 610 Squadron pilot unhurt when his Spitfire airframe DW-B (L1009) was damaged by a cone of fire when he found himself boxed in by five Messerschmitt Bf109s.

15/8/40 (Biggin Hill): Once again 32 and 610 Squadrons were scrambled together, sent to meet a marauding flight of Messerschmitt Bf109s and 110s. They failed to find these raiders but did intercept an inbound flight of Dornier Do17s, shooting down two without loss.

16/8/40 (Biggin Hill): 610, 615 and 1 Squadrons intercepted Heinkel He-111s with escorting Messerschmitt Bf110s. Flt Lt W.H.C. Warner lost at sea, his Spitfire DW-Z (R6802) lost. Pilot Officer D. McI. Gray unhurt, Spitfire DW-D damaged by fire from Messerschmitt Bf109s but repairable.

22/8/40 (Biggin Hill): At 08:30 a British merchant convoy passing Dover was used as bait to lure the RAF by an attacking force of Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter-bombers. A joint effort by 610 and 54 Squadron was scrambled and two Spitfires were lost – one 54 Squadron aircraft (pilot killed) and one from 610 – Sgt D.F. Coffe unhurt, Spitfire DW-P (R6695) landed on fire and fire crews were unable to put it out, aircraft a write-off.

24/8/40 (Biggin Hill): An epic engagement against Messerschmitt Bf109s in the morning saw heavy damage inflicted on 610 Squadron. Sgt A.J. Arnfield broke an ankle after baling out of his Spitfire, airframe DW-S (R6686) crashed in flames. Pilot Officer D.E.S. Aldous was unhurt when his Spitfire DW-X (R6641) sustained repairable combat damage. Pilot Officer D. McI. Gray was wounded, airframe DW-K (X4067) a write-off after crash-landing. Pilot Officer C. Merrick wounded, airframe DW-D write-off after crash-landing.

However, in a remarkable reverse, Sgt Hamlyn of 610 Squadron recorded five confirmed victories in this single action – the first RAF pilot ever to do so!

In the afternoon of August 24th,  a second scramble for the surviving aircraft saw 610 join 151 and 501 Squadrons attack an incoming raid of Junkers Ju88 bombers with Messerschmitt Bf109s escorting – raid broken up without loss.

Another celebrated photo of 610 Squadron pilots

Another celebrated photo of 610 Squadron pilots

On 30 August came the news that 610 was to be redeployed. Its exhausted survivors would be taken out of the front line Acklington in Northumberland and the squadron rebuilt anew. However on that final morning there was a fault in the RDF radar system which meant that it had to be switched off for a short period – during which time a series of major raids was launched against RAF airfields.

Biggin Hill was the third airfield to be hit and three of 610 Squadron’s ground crew – AC1 John Joseph Jackson, AC2 Archibald Charles George Watson and LAC William Wright – died following a direct hit on their bomb shelter. It was a sad end to 610 Squadron’s role in the Battle of Britain.

The Battle of Britain went on with London becoming the focus of the Luftwaffe’s attentions, buying Fighter Command a reprieve when it was pushed dangerously close to extinction. On September 15 the greatest massed raids of the battle saw yet another inconclusive result for the Luftwaffe, and from October the war on Britain became one of attrition, as heavy night raids on major cities became Hitler’s chosen tool to break the will of the people.

When 610 Squadron returned to the front line in the winter of 1940-41 there was little or no trace of the Auxiliary Air Force unit which had embodied the age and spirit of the 1930s. Flying out of RAF Tangmere and its satellite airfield Westhampnett – famous after the war as Goodwood racing circuit – 610 Squadron was subsumed within the professional RAF.

The unit always flew Spitfires and, aside from brief periods spent providing escort for American bombers making daylight raids on France in 1942-43, 610 Squadron was dedicated to defending Britain from raiding bombers. In 1944 the men and machines of 610 Squadron were feted for becoming extremely successful at intercepting the dreaded V1 flying bombs before they reached London, felling them with their mighty Griffon-engined Spitfire Mk.XIVs by every means possible.

610 Squadron late in the war, armed with the mighty Spitfire Mk.XIV

610 Squadron late in the war, armed with the mighty Spitfire Mk.XIV

In December 1944 610 Squadron finally went overseas when it was reassigned to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (2TAF), to fly low-level strafing and bombing missions on enemy positions as the German army was pushed back towards Berlin. By February 1945 there were simply not enough targets to justify keeping the squadron in Europe and it returned to Britain, where it was immediately disbanded.

Today the memory of 610 Squadron is preserved in a forgotten corner of Vauxhall’s vast and sprawling Ellesmere Port facility, built on the site of 610 Squadron’s home at RAF Hooton Park. Its volunteers tend the memorabilia that sits within the old wartime hangar and make visitors feel very welcome… but beware just how intriguing this long-forgotten story can be!

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