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…