Michael Burn: Birkin’s ghostwriter

The story told in the BBC film Full Throttle, that of the writing of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s autobiography, was just one landmark in the life of another extraordinary character – the author, poet and warrior, Michael Burn. His is a tale well worth the telling.

Burn was born in December 1912, the eldest son of a solicitor who was soon appointed secretary to the Duchy of Cornwall. The family moved to a grace-and-favour house diagonally opposite Buckingham Palace. As a child, Burn used to fire his air rifle towards the palace, trying to hit the first Belisha beacon to be installed in London.

Screenshot 2016-01-22 12.33.45

‘Tim’ Birkin and Michael Burn as portrayed in Full Throttle

While at school in Winchester, Burn suggested to his father that he was attracted to the other boys.  Sir Clive arranged an appointment with King George V’s personal doctor, who prescribed benzedrine. That didn’t work, unsurprisingly, so his father went to a different doctor, who pronounced the youth ‘normal’ and, with that little matter thus cleared up, his son went up to Oxford.

University life was not a success. It ushered in a year of utter debauchery, from which Burn retired to a villa in Le Touquet in the summer of 1931, where his maternal grandfather had built the first casino. Here he met with the celebrated racing driver ‘Tim’ Birkin, twice a winner at Le Mans and a genuine Boys’ Own hero. Burn decided not to return to Oxford and instead agreed to act as ghostwriter for Birkin’s autobiography, entitled Full Throttle.


Birkin also invented electric rail racing – precursor to slot cars

The book did brilliantly and led to Burn being commissioned to write a history of Brooklands, which appeared as Wheels Take Wings (1933). During his research, Burn met a student from Trinity College, Cambridge, by the name of Guy Burgess. Burgess was openly homosexual, a Marxist, and he utterly bewitched the younger man – introducing him to his circle of friends among whom was the novelist EM Forster.

In the early 1930s, fiery political rhetoric intoxicated many young men and Burn was among them. He decided to witness Hitler’s Germany for himself: renting a flat in Munich and allowing himself to be seduced by Nazism. Here he lived among a number of other expats including Donald Maclean, who would soon join forces with Guy Burgess as members of the ‘Cambridge Spy Ring’.


Burn’s first encounter with the Cambridge spy ring came through Guy Burgess

Burn drank his fill of Hitler’s economic miracle and marvelled at the levels of national pride he encountered. He then went on to witness Mussolini in Italy, where he lived as a guest of Alice Keppel, Edward VII’s mistress, and her daughter, Violet Trefusis, in Florence. Fascist Italy provided pyrotechnic politics of the kind he so desired – and also brought about more contact with the opposite sex.

Returning to London, Burn took up residence with the celebrated stage and film actress, Viola Tree. He helped her to edit the memoirs of her late husband while he perfected vocational training in typing and shorthand. A relatively sedate life then beckoned on the staff of the Gloucester Citizen until Burn decided to spend hid summer holiday back in Munich during 1935.

Among the British crowd in Bavaria this time around was Unity Mitford, the most fervent of the celebrated Mitford sisters in her admiration of fascism. Unity was completely besotted with Adolf Hitler, and her peers were sure that she was hell-bent on marrying him. Burn took tea with Unity in Munich’s Carlton tea rooms when the Führer popped in to say hello, and Burn recorded that Unity was positively vibrating with glee as she was ushered off to sit with him.

Micky Burn, Wales 2010 6580

Burn (centre) pictured alongside Unity Mitford (left) at Nuremberg

Eventually, Burn would also be granted an audience with Hitler – who invited the young Englishman to witness the Nüremberg Rally from one of the more privileged seats alongside Unity. He was utterly spellbound by “great lights in the sky, moving music, the rhetoric, the presentation, timing, performance, soundtrack, exultation, and climax. It was almost aimed at the sexual parts of one’s consciousness.”

Hitler also handed him a personally-signed copy of Mein Kampf – although he lost it soon afterwards. He was also treated to a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, which apparently didn’t phase him. Nevertheless, something sparked an almighty row with Unity Mitford in the days afterwards and, with that, Burn turned his back on Germany.

He returned to Britain after informing his editor that he wanted to leave the Gloucester Citizen for less tranquil waters. A glowing reference was presented to The Times, which stuck the newcomer on fairly light domestic duties until Burn’s unprecedented access to the royal family led to his covering the affair between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.


Burn and his father playing golf, 1931

When viewed from our age of phone tapping and litigation, this would appear to have been a staggering breach in court security. Burn’s father was firmly ensconced in the Duchy of Cornwall, and from this position granted his son access to court and everyone up to Walter Monckton, the King’s go-between with the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, during the abdication crisis. Whatever else, it can certainly be said that coverage of the whole sorry spectacle in The Times did not lack authority.

Nevertheless, the growing threat posed by Germany loomed large over proceedings and soon the threat posed by Hitler trumped even the ongoing fallout of royal scandal. Burn enlisted as a reservist in the Queen’s Westminsters territorial battalion of the King’s Rifle Corps during 1938 but remained a journalist and travelled to Croydon Airport to see off the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, when he went to Munich to meet Hitler.

When war finally came, Burn volunteered for service in one of the ten independent companies that were formed to conduct guerilla operations in the battle to save Norway from invasion. After the fall of Norway, Burn joined the British Commandos, ending up in No.2 Commando and honing his skills in readiness for the assault on the world’s largest dry dock in Ste. Nazaire in March 1942.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"

Ste. Nazaire: HMS Campbelltown resting on the wall it would soon destroy

The dock was believed to be the only location large enough to accommodate the battleship Tirpitz, and if it was put out of acton the German Kriegsmarine would be less likely to send its flagship out into the Atlantic. Burn’s 2 Commando landed in advance to destroy onshore facilities and minimize the firepower that could be brought to bear on the attacking force. They were to clear the way for the destroyer HMS Campbelltown, which would be crashed into the wall of the dry dock, laden with concealed explosives.

The plan was for the Campbelltown sit astride the dry dock wall, the fuses on her explosive cargo delayed to allow the Commandos to escape. Then she would be blown to smithereens, taking the wall with her and ushering in a wave that would demolish the entire facility.

Burn’s commanding officer described the audacious plan as “the sauciest job since Drake”. Militarily, the operation was an unprecedented success in terms of destroying the base, but the Commandos paid a heavy price, made worse because the small boats that they were supposed to escape in were sunk, forcing them to fight their way out and attempt to escape over land.

Burn was among the wounded. His capture was filmed for use in the propaganda reels and, noticing the camera crew as he passed, Burn discreetly positioned his fingers in a ‘V-sign’ as he was marched off. When the newsreel was shown in occupied Holland, Burn’s defiance so moved the mother of future Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn that she sent a food parcel to his prison camp.

Book Turned Towards The Sun

Caught on camera: Burn gives his defiant V-sign

Burn’s internment was to last to the end of the war, primarily in Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, where he languished alongside such men as future Le Mans winner Tony Rolt. Burn recorded as much detail of life in the camp as he could and, when he was released, turned his recollections into another best-selling book. During his incarceration, Burn also became a confirmed Communist sympathizer.

In the hoary early morning of the Cold War, Burn was to be found in Vienna as correspondent for The Times. He remained in the city – a place of secrets and shadows on the fringes of the enlarged Soviet empire – for almost a year. He then went to Budapest, much closer to the Soviets, and took with him a new wife.

Mary Booker had been the subject of one of the most tragic and celebrated romances of the war, as the great love of Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary, who badly burned in the Battle of Britain and later killed in a flying accident during 1943. Mary had been significantly older than Hillary and was well into middle age by the time she married Burn. They lived contentedly enough together in Budapest while Burn was The Times’ Balkan correspondent.


Burn and his wife, Mary

The couple returned to Britain in the early 1950s, whereupon Burn forsook journalism for more creative writing. He put out a play, The Night of the Ball, which opened in 1954. It was at this time that he was arrested during a sexual encounter with a young man in Bayswater. The policemen concerned attempted to blackmail Burn, who called their bluff and prosecuted the men. They were found guilty of blackmail and sentenced to prison.

Burn continued a fairly prodigious output of poetry and novels throughout the Fifties and the marriage continued until Mary’s death in 1974. He lived for a time in some bohemian splendour amid the eccentric village of Portmeirion, later to become famous as the location for Patrick McGoohan’s surreal spy drama The Prisoner. North Wales was his home and from here he attempted to run a Communist-style co-operative mussel farming business without conspicuous success.


Portmeirion – the Welsh village has had a profound effect on popular culture

In 1988, Burn produced the book Mary and Richard, based the love letters that passed between his late wife and Richard Hillary up until his death. He wrote it as a means to end rumours that Hilary had chosen to kill himself because of unhappiness in the affair. As a defence of his late wife’s reputation it was a masterpiece: through their intimate words, Burn conclusively proved how profound their affection had been to the end.

In 1995 Burn added his voice to the BBC’s film Full Throttle, a dramatization of his three week stay with Sir Henry Birkin, where his young self was portrayed by Crispin Bonham-Carter, cousin of the celebrated actress Helena. Burn’s own autobiography appeared in 2003, entitled Turned Towards the Sun. He died in his sleep at home in North Wales in 2010, aged 97.

Micky Burn, Wales 2010 6573

Michael Burn in his final days in North Wales


Norisring under threat?

The future, or rather the character, of one of Germany’s most popular racetracks is under threat. The venue in question is the Norisring, the Bavarian street circuit which was first used in 1947 and provides Germany’s biggest race series with their most tumultuous and atmospheric amphitheatre.

The 2.3km circuit is built around a vast concrete edifice, measuring 360 metres in length, which acts as the main grandstand. When a Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters (DTM) touring car event really lights up, it is when there are tens of thousands of passionate fans backing their chosen brand – Audi, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Because the Norisring is a street circuit with a colossal grandstand towering over it the atmosphere becomes like a cup final, with hooting and hollering and intensity the like of which is seldom seen in motor sport.


The Norisring brings a crowd and an atmosphere like no other in Germany

But then, this is a venue that was built for just such pyrotechnic displays of bombast. The Norisring has a unique bit of history attached as well…

The Zeppelinfeld upon which the Norisring exists was not designed for motor sport. The colossal grandstand is in fact the ‘Führer’s Rostrum’ designed and built by Albert Speer from which Adolf Hitler would lead the Nazi Party’s annual Nuremberg rallies.


When the Zeppelinfeld was built, it had an altogether different purpose

Speer’s handiwork is now beginning to crumble. At the back of the gigantic structure there is considerable netting and signs that warn “Danger of collapse!” and “Enter At Your Own Risk”.

“We will only be able to prevent permanent decay if we start carrying out the necessary repair work soon,” Daniel Ulrich, Nuremberg’s building maintenance department chief, told The Independent this week. “Otherwise we will end up with nothing more here than a heap of rubble.”


The 1,000 year concrete probably didn’t have a lifetime warranty

Speer claimed that he had used special building materials and that the complex – which featured a parade ground the size of 12 football pitches, a two-mile-long “Great Way” paved with 6,000 granite blocks for mass stormtrooper marches, a congress hall the size of London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the tribune with its balustrades and ceilings decorated with golden stars and Nazi swastikas – would last for 1,000 years. As it turns out, Speer’s calculations were a little bit optimistic.

When the Norisring was first in use as a circuit, the entire Führer’s Rostrum was virtually intact, minus the most obvious Nazi motifs but retaining the quarter mile of balustrade upon which Speer built his ‘cathedral of light’ by mounting 150 searchlights to bring a bit of extra ‘wow factor’.


Speer ‘turned it up to 11’ with his Cathedral of Light

Today all of those pillars have gone, leaving the tribunes where once the Party faithful flanked their leader to look out over an endless sea of banner-carrying and flag-waving members of the Master Race. Today these are the most celebrated seats in German motor sport; looking out over the temporary pits and main straight of a circuit that always delivers fast and frenetic action.

Nuremberg Rally

These days the view is of the pit lane, with this vast area lying as scrubland covered in parked cars, VIP hospitality and temporary grandstands

In the beginning, the Norisring was primarily used for motorcycle races – not least due to the severe restrictions that were imposed upon Germany’s automotive industry and motor sport the defeat of 1945.  Cars and motor sport were major tools of Hitler’s social order and the level of suppression was extraordinary when viewed from today.

22B  Pit area at Noris Ring, Nurnburg.

The thriving paddock of a Norisring bike meeting


Cars returned to action in the 1950s


Much more of the Führer’s Rostrum was in place in the circuit’s early years

Eventually, in the 1950s, German cars returned to action on a regular basis. New German-made Formula 2 cars, Volkswagen-based ‘specials’ and the emergence of top quality machinery from Porsche reinvigorated the national racing scene. The Norisring flourished, and in the 1980s it even hosted frenetic and spectacular sprint races for Le Mans machinery, joining the World Sportscar Championship in 1986 to provide spectacle such as this:

The venue is now best known as the most popular round of the DTM, and the series’ own website describes the Norisring thus: The spectacular street circuit – incidentally the last surviving racetrack of its kind, in Germany – is popular with drivers and fans in equal measure and winning here counts slightly more than winning elsewhere.


Victory at the Norisring is a unique highlight for German racers

There is no doubt that the Norisring is a special place and for many reasons. Should the old tribunes be torn down? At the S&G, the feeling is that they should not. For one thing, what would replace them?  Certainly it is unlikely that Nuremberg council could create a grandstand that could rival it, or that was designed to generate the sort of fervour that this one does. Students of history and lovers of motor sport cannot fail to marvel at the place in all its insane pomposity.

It is impossible to understand something unless it can be witnessed, and the giganticism of the Norisring tribune, just like that of Berlin’s Olympic Stadium, offers a beacon to navigate history: to understand the means by which Germany was so catastrophically seduced in the 1930s. If we do not understand the threat that humanity can pose to itself then we are failing as a race.


How do we explain and learn from what we cannot witness?

Meanwhile as a sporting venue, the tribunes would be utterly impossible to replace and losing them would rob motor sport of a unique asset. While the past of the Zeppelinfeld is an abomination, the heritage of the Norisring is anything but. Bringing joy to a place like this, through the very best in motor racing action, and creating a new history of almost 70 years of achievement, is something well worth preserving.


23B  Pit area at Noris Ring.

The mystery of Seaman’s grave

Last month I paid a visit to Dick Seaman’s grave for the first time in a few years. I had almost forgotten that February 2013 marked what would have been his 100th birthday, but this pre-war hero has been a constant companion over the years so it seemed an appropriate moment to catch up.

Dick Seaman’s grave, February 2013

In fact it was thanks in no small part to the late Richard John Beattie-Seaman that I became a member of the accredited Formula One media. I wrote a little story about this young man who looked like the one character that Ralph Fiennes was born to play in what could be the most astonishing movie ever made. A few people liked it and soon enough I was on a plane to cover the inaugural US Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Of course, we used to think that we knew everything about Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. We had contemporary newsreels and race reports but more than this we had the testimonies of the survivors, credulously recorded by the most esteemed scribes in motor sport.

The trouble was, of course, that many of the survivors didn’t half tell some whoppers. If you read their autobiographies, interviews and the great works of automotive literature that they inspired, the only insights on offer from the greatest sporting stars of the Third Reich were that Adolf Hitler was a curious little chap with an amusing moustache.

Dick Seaman's Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Dick Seaman’s Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Then, in the late 1990s, came a change. For the first time a German writer, Eberhard Reuss, took an interest in the Silver Arrows. Here was someone with time to dig deep in archives written in his mother tongue, and who dedicated time and talent to follow evidence that was never going to be accessible to the mainly British chroniclers who preceded him.

Suddenly there was much less to laugh about… although that’s another story in itself.

Poor old Seaman never had the opportunity to tell tall tales of how he cocked a snook at the jumped-up little Austrian corporal and his cronies. He died from the severe burns that he suffered in a crash while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.

Today, his tombstone may be fading fast but the grave itself is conspicuously well kept – just as it always has been.

When the fleet of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union heritage cars gathered for their over-blown ‘reunion’ at last year’s Goodwood Revival I was chatting with another historian and the subject of Seaman duly cropped up. ‘As far as I can tell,’ said he, ‘maintaining Seaman’s grave is probably the last of Hitler’s direct orders that is still being carried out.’

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

It’s one of those little comments that will always raise an eyebrow. It tantalises when, after all, the fact is now long established that appointing a British driver to the propaganda machine that was the ‘Silver Arrows’ required sign-off by Hitler himself.

That was in 1937, and for two-and-a-half seasons Seaman drove well while making himself at home in the Third Reich. Indeed, he even married the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of BMW’s founder Franz Josef Popp. This was exactly why he was approved: to underline Hitler’s good intentions toward Britain and display the virtues of the Reich to the British public.

Unfortunately for the Führer, nobody listened.

When Seaman took his first and only Grand Prix victory it should have been manna from heaven to the media. This dashing young Englishman beat a phalanx of all-conquering German drivers in their home race at the Nürburgring – with a spectacular fire in the pits to boot. But of the 14 daily newspapers in Britain only the Daily Mail gave it even a cursory mention.

Afterwards, in 1941, while the Luftwaffe’s bombs were raining down on British cities, the racing team owner Prince Chula of Siam wrote his biography Dick Seaman Racing Motorist. Even in those dark days he felt it important to emphasise that after Seaman’s death ‘…orders came from Berlin that he was to be given full honours.’

Indeed he was. The German ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, stage-managed proceedings including liaison with Seaman’s widowed mother over the funeral arrangements. He also ensured that Mercedes-Benz’s British importers, headquartered in London’s Camberwell Road, ensured that portraits of the fallen star were prominent in all dealerships across the country.

At the service itself in Putney Vale, the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams were present along with Ambassador von Dirksen and other dignitaries. It was said that the German contingent kept a low profile but many accounts remarked upon the gigantic wreath of white lilies with a red sash and a swastika, bearing the inscription ‘Adolf Hitler’.

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman's funeral

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman’s funeral

When leaving Putney Vale this year, I suddenly remembered my colleague’s allegation that Seaman’s grave was being tended at Hitler’s bidding. Thus a little detour was made to the cemetery offices and, after a bit of digging through files by the extremely accommodating staff, the answer came back: Mercedes-Benz has always tended the grave, they said.

Out of courtesy I called up Mercedes-Benz UK’s press office the next morning to find out more. “Oh! We had the cemetery on the phone yesterday,” said the helpful girl who answered. “Can we call you back?”

A short while later Angus Fitton from the Mercedes-Benz PR team rang to say that, in fact, they had no knowledge of who tends Seaman’s plot and indeed never had. “Since the question came up I’ve checked this with Stuttgart and can say categorically that Mercedes-Benz would not impinge upon the family’s private arrangements on such a personal matter,” he said.

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

I did remind Angus that the Beattie-Seaman family was effectively extinct. Dick left behind only an ageing mother and elder half-sister with whom he had no known contact throughout his life. His young German widow emigrated to the USA during the war and died in 1990 after two further marriages. Was he sure that they were somehow footing the bill?

“Richard played a very big part in Mercedes’ competition history of course, and we honour that memory at events like the Goodwood Revival last year,” Angus said. “But we would never directly involve ourselves in the private memorial of an individual driver.”

Golly! I thought. This was getting interesting.

Angus’s statement also came as news to the Official Mercedes-Benz Club, to whom I put in a call to check if they had anything about it in the archives. After all, Mercedes-Benz UK has only existed since 1990, so perhaps there might be a prior arrangement that the friendly young folk of Milton Keynes might not be aware of?

“Mercedes pays a small fee to the cemetery every year to keep it tidy,” was the response. “They always have done.”

Other graves around the Seaman family plot are long forgotten

Much as I would like to believe that there is a stack of post-dated cheques written in 1939 that gets passed, as some sacred rite, from each Superintendent at Putney Vale Cemetery to the next, I’m inclined to believe that payment is made annually. And that, despite protestations to the contrary, it is made by Mercedes-Benz.

I’m also inclined to believe that, despite such a ludicrous response, this is not in itself  evidence that Hitler’s last unbroken order is carried out in a Surrey suburb each year. It is simply yet another example of the cack-handed airbrushing of history that has been going on throughout the German automobile industry for almost 70 years.

This story should have been a positive one for those involved. One unseen little act of kindness each year does not atone for the Third Reich, but it does reflect an enormous credit on those responsible.  If only they had wished to accept it.

The way Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember the 1930s: no swastikas in sight

Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember their past with swastikas omitted

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.