Searching out Spitfires #2

A silver Spitfire – and one of the last, this is F.Mk.24 VN485, which stands today in the Imperial War Museum, Duxford.

VN485 was recently rolled out at Duxford after a long restoration

VN485 represents the last of the line as the Spitfire entered the jet age

The Mk.24 was the last of the breed, built in 1946-47, and never saw active service. A decade after the type entered service, and trying to stay on terms with the first generation of jet fighters, the Spitfire Mk.24 had a pressurized cockpit to allow her pilots to reach a ceiling of 43,500 feet, powered by a 2,050 hp Rolls-Royce Griffon with a maximum speed of 454 mph with a service ceiling of 43,500 feet.

VN485 was delivered in 1947 and was shipped to Hong Kong in 1950 to join gathering reserves in what was a potential hot spot in the burgeoning Cold War.

Hostilities did break out in Asia but on the Korean Peninsular, meaning that none of the Spitfires were needed. The Hong Kong airmen had little to do and life must have been quite pleasant, all things considered. When the Queen visited Hong Kong in April 1955 four of the the local Spitfires – including VN485 – made the last official sortie by the type in RAF service when they performed a flypast before heading into retirement.

VN485 wears fictitious 'Battle of Britain' colours

VN485 wears fictitious ‘Battle of Britain’ colours on display

VN485 was placed on display in Hong Kong – being pictured in a replica Battle of Britain livery of 610 Squadron in the mid-1960s – before becoming a gate guardian. She was eventually donated to the Imperial War Museum in 1989 and restored to her 1954-55 colour scheme in 2004.

VN485 with Lancaster and Mosquito in the background

VN485 with Lancaster and Mosquito in the background

For more information on the Imperial War Museum’s fantastic facilities at Duxford, visit the website.

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!

The Real Piece of Cake: Part 4

As a child, my Dad built me a model Spitfire flown by 610 (County of Chester) Squadron during the Battle of Britain. A chance encounter with the 610 Squadron Society led me to do more research into this remarkable unit, which began life in the mid-1930s as a glamorous flying club for well-heeled young men from the north-west of England.

They flew in to action in May 1940, attempting to fend off the Luftwaffe while the remains of the British Expeditionary Force escaped from France and Belgium during the retreat from the beaches of Dunkirk. A heavy price was paid in lives and aircraft lost, requiring 610 to be rebuilt anew during the hiatus in June as Germany pressed for Britain to sue for peace in return for a Vichy-style government which would manage Britain and her Empire in a way which suited Hitler’s wishes.

Britain’s newly-appointed Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, successfully shouted down the siren call of peace on German terms, prompting Mussolini’s attempt to wrest control of the Mediterranean and North Africa – thereby taking control of the Empire. As a show of Britain’s considerable teeth, Churchill then ordered the sinking of the French fleet at anchor in Mers-el-Kébir lest it fall into enemy hands… and the Germans resigned themselves to having to fight on in the west in order to terrorize the British into ousting Churchill.

The French navy burns at anchor in Algeria

The French navy burns at anchor in Algeria

Invasion was not genuinely considered to be a possibility by Hitler’s military chiefs. Although Reichsmarschall Göring promised that his Luftwaffe could destroy the Royal Air Force, this in itself did little to inspire confidence in eithe Germany’s army or navy that they had the means to make a successful sea crossing. Even if the logistics proved surmountable and Göring meanwhile managed to neutralise the RAF, the Royal Navy’s home fleet was waiting at anchor with hundreds of cruisers, destroyers, battleships, aircraft carriers and escorts that would wreak havoc upon any invasion fleet.

They knew that it was now essential for Göring’s fighters to clear the skies over Britain and for his bombers to bring the enemy’s leaders back to the negotiating table. But with each passing day the defenders had been preparing – with 610 Squadron among them. While the RAF had capitalised on the Germans’ hiatus through June, extra breathing space was delivered by the weather in July. It was a typical British summer: truly appalling with rain lashing down and air operations cancelled for day after day.

History has accorded the Battle of Britain an official start date of July 10th 1940. On this momentous day it was business as usual for 610 Squadron, with 9 Spitfires scrambled in the afternoon to meet 12 inbound Messerschmitt Bf109s. It was a no-score draw.

From this point on the battle begins in earnest… whenever the weather permits. It is best to refer to the squadron’s own records to make sense of what were days of waterlogged torpor interspersed with fast and furious action:

14/7/40 (Biggin Hill): Despite bad weather, one break in the rain sees Junkers Ju87 Stukas attack a convoy between Eastbourne and Dover. A total of 12 Spitfires from 610 and 16 Hurricanes from 32 Squadron are dispatched, with one Hurricane shot down.

18/7/40 (Biggin Hill): 610 Squadron is caught out by the first dummy raid employed by the Luftwaffe, when 12 Spitfires are scrambled to meet what appears to be an incoming raid. The bombers turn back as soon as they see the fighters approach, but they in turn fall foul of Messerschmitt Bf109s that were waiting high above in the sun. Pilot Officer P.L. Litchfield is reported missing over Calais in the ensuing dogfight, airframe DW-T (P9452) lost.

18/7/40 (Biggin Hill): Later that day a total of 16 Spitfires from both 610 and 152 Squadrons is dispatched to meet 28 Messerschmitt Bf109s on a sweep. One unidentified Spitfire from 610 is claimed by the attackers.

20/7/40 (Biggin Hill): A quiet day comes alive at 18:00 when Stuka dive bombers arrive unannounced and proceed to attack the airfield, accompanied by 50 Messerschmitt Bf109s and Bf110s. 32 Squadron’s Hurricanes are sent after the bombers while a combined flight of 610 and 615 Squadron’s Spitfires take on the escort. A total of five of the German fighters are shot down. Pilot Officer G.K. Keighley bales out wounded over Lydden, airframe DW-S (N3201) write-off.

24/7/40 (Biggin Hill): At 11:20 a raid of 18 Dornier Do17 bombers accompanied by 40 Messerschmitt Bf109s is met by a combined force including 6 Spitfires from 54 Squadron and the whole of 65 Squadron. To support them, nine Spitfires from 610 Squadron are vectored to intercept the Germans’ retreat. Two German aircraft destroyed in 610 Squadron’s surprise attack – but their recently-installed commanding officer, Sqn Ldr A.T. Smith is killed while attempting to crash-land his bullet-riddled Spitfire, airframe DW-A (R6693).

29/7/40 (Biggin Hill): A disappointing day. 610 Squadron is scrambled to help meet a force of 48 Stukas accompanied by 80 fighters but arrived too late. Upon return Pilot Officer S.C. Norris was unhurt in airframe DW-O (R6955) after suffering a burst tyre/ground-loop on landing – aircraft repairable.

610 Squadron in action, 1940

610 Squadron in action, 1940

As August approaches, the weather over southern Britain begins to brighten. Göring must deliver on his promises, but nothing has yet been done to weaken the RAF. A decisive battle must therefore be waged…

The Real Piece of Cake: Part 3

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.

June 1940 sees a revived 610 Squadron prepare for action

June 1940 sees a revived 610 Squadron prepare for action

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 Luftwaffe turns its attentions on Britain

The Luftwaffe turns its attentions on Britain

The Battle of Britain was about to begin.

The Real ‘Piece of Cake’ Part 2

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.

610 Squadron awaiting the call to arms, 1939

610 Squadron awaiting the call to arms, 1939

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.

Blenheims suffered heavily throughout the war, including several 'own goals'

Blenheim squadrons suffered several ‘own goals’

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.

Close formations looked impressive but cost lives

Close formations looked impressive but cost lives

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’.

The Real ‘Piece of Cake’: Part 1

When I was five or six, my Dad built me a model Spitfire – as most Dads did and many still do. Over the course of several days I would race downstairs each morning to see what he had added to it, whether the wings were on yet and whether it could stand on its own undercarriage. Finally it was beautifully painted in dark green, dark brown and duck-egg blue – I can still smell the paint now.

A long time ago, Dad brought one of these home...

A long time ago, Dad brought one of these home…

For years I wasn’t allowed to touch ‘our’ Spitfire, just admire it from a safe distance. Instead I’d read books about Spitfires and often see photos of ‘our’ aircraft with its signature markings of DW-K, which I learnt were those of a 610 Squadron aircraft from the Battle of Britain.

Eventually I was able to get my mitts on the model and tinker with the moveable rudder, ailerons, elevators and undercarriage. Sadly I tinkered with it too much and over the years Dad’s handiwork was reduced, slowly but surely, to its component pieces.

In the late 1990s I went to Ellesmere Port while working on the Rally of Wales, which had its main Service Area in the massive Vauxhall plant that was built on what was once RAF Hooton Park airfield.

Going in search of a cup of tea on a blustery November morning, I came across a World War 2 T1 hangar which is now home to the 610 Squadron Association, crammed with artefacts, pictures and good company. These dedicated volunteers are incredibly passionate about 610 and, if you happen to be in the area, look them up and support their cause.

Unbeknownst to me when he was building our model Spitfire, my Dad was born on the Wirral Peninsular in the ‘Thirties, and nearby, at RAF Hooton Park, was based none other than 610 (County of Chester) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force. It was formed first as a bomber unit in 1936 flying biplane Hawker Harts and Hinds, then receiving new all-metal Fairey Battles in May 1939 before reforming as a fighter unit in September 1939.

The Auxiliary Air Force was formed as a volunteer organisation, with part-time pilots who were mainly the well-heeled sons of prominent local gentry, landowners and – in the North-West – captains of industry. They were weekend warriors who had great cars, pots of money, saucy girls and got to fly fighters into the bargain!

When war broke out, the pilots of 610 Squadron reported for duty at a squadron which was, temporarily, equipped with both Spitfires and Hurricanes due to an administrative error. The Hurricanes were subsequently sent away to 605 (County of Warwick) Squadron, while 610 went off to Scotland to get familiar with their new machinery before returning to Hooton Park in early 1940.

610 Squadron receives its new Spitfires (Pic. courtesy of 610 Sqn Assoc)

This was the time of the ‘Sitzkrieg’ or ‘Phoney War’. Then in May 1940 the Nazi steamroller launched itself westwards through Belgium, Holland and France – and before long 610 Squadron was drawn fully into the war.

They flew south to Biggin Hill, where they would provide cover for the evacuation of Dunkirk. As the Battle of France ended, 610 Squadron dug in for the long summer of the Battle of Britain, flying not only from Biggin Hill but also Hawkinge, Gravesend and Croydon. In total they claimed 40 victories over the Luftwaffe during the Battle, but I wanted to know more… and that is where the story really takes off in Part 2.