Biggin on the Bump

Here’s a lovely little video made by the team of warbirds based at that most celebrated of all Battle of Britain airfields, Biggin Hill. One thing it shows – other than the gleaming black hive which houses Bernie Ecclestone’s money factory, Formula One Management, is just how pronounced Biggin’s Hill actually is.

But rather than fuss and fiddle over such ephemera, why not just enjoy Spitfires and a single, glorious Hurricane where they ought to be…

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Searching out Spitfires #1

I’ve been to a lot of places to find the aircraft that I love so I’m going to start sticking up the results in new sections on here. Might as well start off with the aircraft that 99.9% of the world wants to see… the Spitfire.

This is the ‘high back’ LF.Mk.XVI serial TB752, the ‘Manston Spitfire’.

The 'Manston Spitfire' stands proud in Kent

The ‘Manston Spitfire’ stands proud in Kent

She was built at Castle Bromwich in 1944 but held back until March 1945 before reaching an operational unit – 66 Squadron at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. Just days after arriving she was badly damaged in a landing accident, rebuilt and sent to Diepholz in Germany where she joined 403 ‘Wolf’ Squadron, RCAF and shot down three aircraft.

In peacetime ‘752’ suffered a lot of neglect until she was dragged out, tarted up a bit and stuck on a pole as gate guardian at the celebrated Battle of Britain station, RAF Manston, in 1955. The first move to save the old girl from the ravages of the British weather came in 1978, when a year-long 15,000-hour restoration saw her emerge in the condition you see now, in her wartime markings with 403 Squadron.

After two years of vigorous fundraising a permanent indoor home was completed for her and the Manston museum got its star exhibit. It’s a great little museum, with very kind and helpful volunteers dotted in every corner. Well worth a day out in the heart of ‘Battle of Britain country’. For more info go to the Mantson Spitfire & Hurricane Memorial Museum site.

The Manston Spitfire represents the type's long association with this airfield

The Manston Spitfire represents the type’s long association with this airfield

Piece of Cake: Grand Finale

Here’s the height of the Battle of Britain as portrayed in the 1988 dramatisation of Derek Robinson’s fabulous novel, Piece of Cake. Even if you haven’t read my story of the real-life heroes of 610 Squadron, it’s moving stuff. I’d say that the music from 2:20 is absolutely the finest of its kind for shots of Spitfires in flight.

That’s quite enough green and brown aeroplanes for now. The business of racing and record breaking will be resumed shortly…

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!

A regular Renaissance man

Martin Field is someone who’s turned a love of the most elegant, powerful, competitive and evocative machinery of the 20th Century into a whole raft of little gems. He’s turning his career as a technical illustrator and model engineer into a ‘fun consultancy’ for those with an eye for the fine things in life.

It’s always fun catching up with Martin’s latest project… which could be anything from modelling a traditional wooden motorboat to capturing the beauty of a canal boat engine on paper or carving the master mould for a 1/32 model kit. Among the many projects he’s been busy with recently are a slot car model of the unique Ferrari 126 C2 from the 1982 US GP West at Long Beach:

Completed slot car kit: Gilles Villeneuve, 1982

Completed slot car kit: Gilles Villeneuve, 1982

A 1/43 Raysoncraft drag boat and custom trailer kit:

Lovely little combo!

Lovely little combo!

A watercolour of the delicious Supermarine S6b Schneider Trophy winner:

A vision in blue: Martin's S6b

A vision in blue: Martin’s S6b

Martin’s always on the hunt for an interesting project, so if you’ve got an idea for anything that nobody else does, and want it done better than most people would manage, why not check out his website.

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…