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No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron

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Hello,

 

As with my post about the East Africa Campaign, I share my research about No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron during WWII.

 

Indeed, I have been working since about two years trying to write a Chronicle about No.615 Squadron. It is a fighter squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force who have the distinction of having participated in the Battle of France, the Battle of Britain, Operations over France during 1941 - 1942, before being transferred to South East Asia (mid-1942). They fly on Gloster Gladiator (1939 - May 1940), Hawker Hurricane (May 1940 - October 1943) and Thunderbolts (June 1945).

 

Unfortunately the history of No.615 Squadron is often forgotten. Very few former pilots have written down their recollections although there are several famous names and some Free French Pilots. The participation of No.615 Squadron is also often forgotten in books analyzing Air War.

 

The objective here is to try to study the history of No.615 Squadron in detail. Unfortunately 80 years after the events, such a work is difficult: the veterans are now deceased (many documents have been lost, despite some contacts with the families of former squadron members), the archives of No.615 Squadron are sometimes of very heterogeneous quality, and the majority of the books often forget its participation in the fighting (or summarized in a few lines). The information is often incomplete or contradictory.

 

Nevertheless the study of the archives, personal documents and books allows to reconstruct with details the life of No.615 Squadron and its pilots during the terrible years from 1939 to 1945.

This story is intended to pay tribute to the pilots, mechanics and other members of No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron. They must never be forgotten.

 

I apologize in advance for the many errors in English, I tried to provide a correct and understandable translation. I would try to make the necessary corrections. Do not hesitate to report them to me.

 

I wish you a good reading.

 

 

 

Origins of the Squadron (June 1937)

 

No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron has its origins in the development of the Auxiliary Air Force. The latter is rooted in the ideas of Lord Hugh Montague Trenchard to establish an elite body of civilian volunteers, all from the wealthy classes of British society. Thus, candidates must obtain a private pilot license on their own money, the equivalent of £ 96, which now corresponds to around € 5 500, a sum not insignificant for the time. Admittedly, this expense is supposed to be reimbursed if incorporated into the Auxliary Air Force. However, the selection commission is organized by each unit, which makes it possible to restrict access to a particular social circle. The volunteers, once accepted, sign a commitment for a period of five years during which they must train a certain number of hours, as well as participate in an annual training camp of a period of fifteen days [1].

 

This highly elitist side is perfectly highlighted by Group Captain Hugh S.L. Dundas when he retrospectively describes his experience with No.616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron :

 

« Being a member of an AAF Squadron was to belong to a jealously guarded elite, whose access was barred by social and financial conventions, which were difficult to circumvent »[2].

 

The case of High Dundas is, moreover, quite illustrative as his cousin and godfather, Sir Harald Peake, command the No.609 (West Riding) Squadron where his brother John serves. The same characteristics are found in No.607 (County of Durham) Squadron. The commander, Squadron Leader Walter L. Runciman runs a family business, while the medical officer is a neighbor of Runciman, and the first recruits are all lawyers, engineers, real estate agents or working in the business community. The Squadron Leader Walter L. Runciman even prefers to remain understaffed to accept candidates as expected and only on the recommendation of another member of the unit [3]. If we put aside the very particular case of London units, we can not deny this social standardization. As Louise Wilkinson explains :

 

« it is obvious that the young candidates shared a common social environment ; most came from landowners or family businesses, and even lawyers and journalists. Many liked elite sports such as fox hunting, boating, rowing, rugby or cricket. They had often been trained at Oxford or Cambridge. In addition, social connections remained important through the network of public schools and sports, which found a new expression in the AAF. Thus we see a system of class solidarity taking precedence over the regional identities of the different units »[4].

 

The No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron was created on 1st June 1937, at Kenley Air Force Base in the southern suburbs of London. Its first commander, Squadron Leader Arthur V. Harvey was born on 31 January 1906 in Suffolk and joined the RAF in 1925. He then served with No.9 (RAF) Squadron before becoming an instructor. He then knows a first experience with the AAF as he is transferred as instructor to No.602 (City of Glascow) Squadron. He left, however, the air force after 1930 to leave for Hong Kong as director of the Far East Aviation Company Ltd. Fe joined Nationalist China in 1932 as a military aviation advisor with the honorary rank of Major-General. This experience came to an abrupt end in 1939, when he was forced to land on Japanese territory during a flight over Manchuria. Interned for a month, he is finally released with a ban for life. Back in the UK, he soon decided to join the AAF, and found the Squadron.

 

He is joined by Flight Lieutnant Richard C. M. Collard, a RAF officer, who is responsible for the duties of Flight Instructor. Born on 25 August 1911, he joined the RAF and No.4 (RAF) Squadron, where he was qualified to serve as an instructor. It should be noted that he represents RAF Rugby League on several occasions.

 

No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron is initially in charge of co-operation mission with the local territorial troops and receives a collection of Hawker Hart, Audax and Hector biplanes. Unfortunately, there is little information available on this short period of the pre-war, as well as on the selection and gradual assignment of pilots. However, in September 1938, the squadron was led to change its role to become a Fighter Squadron with Gloster Gauntlet, replaced shortly after (May 1939) by Gloster Gladiator Mk II. At the same time, an important event takes place when an old Member of the House of Commons, then totally disavowed since the succession crisis of Edward VIII and his repeated criticism against the policy of appeasement is named Honorary Air Commodore : Winston Churchill. A final series of training in the Auxiliary Air Force was organized in August 1939, after which the squadron was incorporated into the Royal Air Force to prepare for the war that broke out after the invasion of Poland by Germany.

 

 

A document gives the following list :

  • Squadron Leader : Arthur V. Harvey;
  • Equipment Officer : Fligh Lieutnant K.P. Dampier ;
  • Doctor : Flying Officer Robert S. Cromie ;
  • Administrative Officer : Flight Lieutenant G.A.B. Cooper, Flying Officer Walter O. Sternet, Pilot Officer Francis G. Bowling
  • A Flight : Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley, Flying Officer Peter Collard, John R.H. Gayner, Pilot Officer Anthony Eyre, Thomas C. Jackson, David J. Looker, Anthony St.C. Rose ;
  • B Flight : Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale, Eric C. Fieldsend, Pilot Officer Bernard J.R. Brady, Levin Fredman, John C.M. Hanbury, Patrick G.M. Hancock, Keith T. Lofts et John R. Lloyd.

 

Among these different pilots, there is a certain conformity with the characteristics of the AAF. For example, John C. M. Hanbury works in the business community (Truman Brewery, Hanbury, Buxton & Co), while his family owns the sumptuous residence of Hylands Park (near Chelmsford, Essex). For his part, David J. Looker was educated at the prestigious Eton College and then Trinity College in Cambridge, before becoming prominent in high performance sport as he twice won the Bobsleigh World Championship (1937 and 1938). ), while participating in various ski competitions. The father of John R. Lloyd, in addition to his rank of colonel, belongs to the Welsh aristocracy, like that of John R. Gayner [5]. It’s the same for Anthony St.C. Rose [6]. In addition to a Barrister’s training in one of London’s prestigious training institutes, his father is himself a Barrister and holding a Peerage. It should be noted that Christopher Lee was his half-brother, and that he was the cousin of another unknown man of the name of Ian Fleming.

 

Finally, the most surprising portrait is that of Bernard J.R. Brady, who contrasts sharply with the others. Born in a popular environment, he left school at the age of 14 to engage as a simple seaman in the Royal Navy where he would have served during the First World War (his name is mentioned in 1916). He seems to follow later training as a mechanic on the Royal Naval Air Service, before obtained his pilot’s license. In the late 1920s / early 1930s, he founded a company specializing in aircraft leasing and flying lessons : the Aircraft Exchange and Mart Ltd., located in London Air Park [7]. Now part of the middle class, he managed to bypass social barriers to join the AAF, despite his age approaching forty.

 

Promotional Poster for the Aircraft Exchange and Mart Ltd, published in the journal Flight (1935)

 

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[1] Auxiliary Air Force : Commissioned Officers Required for New Squadrons. Flight, n°41, Vol. XVII. 8 Octobre 1925, p.663 à 664.

[2] DUNDAS Hugh. Flying Start : A Fighter Pilot’s War Years. Pen & Sword, 2012. 224 p.

[3] DIXON, Robert. 607 Squadron : A Shade of Blue. Wolf’s Nick Publishing, 2012. 200 p.

[4] WILKINSON, Louise. The Territorial Air Force 1925-1957 – Officer Class and Recruitment. Thèse pour l’obtention du Doctorat. Université de Wolverhampton. 2017.

[5] WILKINSON, Louise. The Territorial Air Force 1925-1957 – Officer Class and Recruitment. Thèse pour l’obtention du Doctorat. Université de Wolverhampton. 2017.

[6] Her tent (Evelyn St. Croix Fleming) is none other than the mother of the famous writer Ian Fleming.

[7] WILKINSON, Louise. The Territorial Air Force 1925-1957 – Officer Class and Recruitment. Thèse pour l’obtention du Doctorat. Université de Wolverhampton. 2017.

 

 

 

 

Edited by 615sqn_Manfred
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First trainings, first losses (Septembre - October 1939)

 

Septembre 1939

 

The entry into war of No.615 Squadron is fast with a series of alerts in the early days of September. Thus, on 6 September, the A Flight receives the order to take off at 06h00 and to orbit for thirty minutes above the airfield of Kenley, before being recalled. But after the first two weeks of war, the squadron’s core activity is training. At the same time, some of the pilots are temporarily sent to the No.11 (Fighter) Group Pool to attend a conversion course on Hawker Hurricane. Unfortunately, it is during this preliminary training period that the Squadron knows its first tragedies.

 

Pilot Officer Anthony Sainte Croix Rose has the sad privilege of being the first to be killed when he crashed in command of Gloster Gladiator Mk I K7987, near Bletchingley, on 11 September 1939. According to the available documentation [1], decision is then made to organize night flight training sessions with landings and formation flights, within a radius of approximately eight kilometers southwest of Croydon. The weather conditions are deemed to be in good visibility with a cloud base at 600 meters. However, to minimize the risk, only three aircraft must be flying at the same time. 

Pilot Officer Anthony St.C. Rose take off at 20h15 aboard the Gloster Gladiator Mk I K7987 for about thirty minutes. The training is delayed, and he did not leave the ground until 20h40. Around 21:05, he radioed with Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley to inquire about the next events. He is then asked to return over Croydon. Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley takes off at the same time, along with Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson. They are however unable to contact Pilot Officer Anthony St.C. Rose who seems to know serious difficulties for navigation according to many exchanges with the air controller. Weather conditions deteriorate rapidly, greatly reducing visibility, forcing only instrument flying.

Around 21h50, a phone call was made by the local police to report a possible plane crash according to several witnesses. Pilot Officer Keith T. Lofts and Flying Officer Robert S. Cromie (doctor) are immediately sent to the scene where they can only see the destruction of the aircraft and the death of the unfortunate Anthony St.C. Rose.

The investigation concludes a loss of control due to a sudden deterioration of visibility, as well as a lack of experience in instrument flight. He was cremated at Croydon Crematorium on 14 September 1939.

 

On 21 September 1940, Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd damaged the Gloster Gladiator Mk I K8044 while taxiing at Croydon Airfield.

 

The month of September is also marked by the visit of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill.

 

 

October 1939

 

The month of October begins with another tragic accident, as Pilot Officer John C. M. Hanbury is killed, when the Gloster Gladiator Mk II N2314 (KW-M) crashes near Dorking.[2]

He took off at about 20h00 from Croydon Airfield with Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale and Pilot Officer Keith T. Lofts for a night flight training between Gatwick and Ockley. The latest visual on Pilot Officer John C. M. Hanbury is reported around 20h30 when the leader checks the presence of his two wingers over Ockley. Unfortunately, the latter is discovered missing over Kenley and no radio contact is able to be established with him.

Shortly afterwards, an army phone call reported an air crash near Holmwood (around Dorking) around 20h50. The reasons for the accident appeared mysterious in the report as the pilot had some experience with flying in these conditions. In addition, the study of the aircraft wreckage reveals no potential malfunctions. The altitude on site is also low: 90 meters above the sea. The weather conditions are however not good and deteriorate from 20h30 with a high cloud cover at only 800 meters. The most likely hypothesis would be that the pilot would have confused the lights on the ground with the navigation lights of his leader. He would then have tried to join him without checking his instruments until the fatal impact. It should be noted that flying over Kenley, Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale was forced to descend to an altitude of about 300 meters to remain under clouds. However, there is no evidence to support the reasons for the accident that cost the life of Pilot Officer John C.M. Hanbury.

He is buried in Chelmsford Cemetery on 3 October 1940. His ashes will later be transferred at his mother’s request to Hylands Park to rest with his father.

 

Note that several other flights were to take place in the same evening : Pilot Officer Patrick GM Hancock (N5578 KW-H), Levin Fredman (N2308 KW-T), Richard D. Pexton (N5581, KW-K) and John R. Lloyd (N2314 KW-M) between 20h15 and 21h15. They are of course suspended due to tragic circumstances [3].

 

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John Charles Mackenzie Hanbury is born on 23 November 1908 in Chigwell (Essex). His father (John M. Hanbury) co-director of a brewery in London (Truman, Hanbury, Buxton & Co) and his mother (Christine G. Colston), trained nurse. He spent part of his childhood on a family farm in the small village of West Hatch. His parents are relatively well-off middle-class, since they have seven servants at their disposal and are able to spend the holidays in a small estate in Scotland. Their only young son is sent to attend school in Eton. He suffers however the consequences of polio during his childhood which prevents him from being able to devote himself fully to sports activities.

 

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In 1922, his father is able to buy the beautiful estate of Hylands House (Chelmsford) and his huge park of 232 hectares.

 

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Unfortunately, the happiness is short-lived and he died suddenly in 1923, leaving his wife in charge of the brewery. While his entry into the majority is a great celebration with a ball attended by nearly three hundred guests at Hylands House, his studies at Pembroke College Oxford in October 1928 do not seem to be a great success as it disappears from the records at the end of 1930 without be graduated. After a “world tour”, he joined the family brewery as co-director. It seems, moreover, to lead the hectic life of the wealthy youth multiplying strongly alcoholic evenings and parties in the pool, while he regularly accompanies his mother in cruises. During one of them, in 1935 in the Caribbean he met the young Felicity Hyde Watts and marriage took place on 25 January 1934. The two young brides seem to discover a passion for aviation because they take training at Avro Club Cadet, Airwork School of Flying on the Heston airfield, and get their flight certificates in November. This new hobby allows the young couple to regularly rent a plane to spend the weekend in Le Touquet (France), obviously being accompanied by their valet.

 

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John CM Hanbury join the Auxiliary Air Force and No.615 Squadron in September 1938, while his wife tries to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service in January 1939 (she will join later, the Women Auxliary Air Force).

 

 

 

[1] Enquiries into Missing Personnel : Pilot Officer A. Rose (11/09/39). Kew : The National Archives, AIR 81/1512.

[2] Enquiries into Missing Personnel : Pilot Officer J.C.M. Hanbury (01/10/39). Kew : The National Archives, AIR 81/1562.

[3] AIR 81/ 1562, TNA (Kew), No.615 Squadron, RAF Croyon. Night Flying Detail – Sunday – 01/10/39.

 

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4 October 1939 : New Pilots

 

The day of 4 October 1939 is marked by the arrival of several pilots to reinforce the No.615 Squadron. However, the majority of them are relatively inexperienced either from flying schools or through rapid promotions as part of the RAF’s wartime expansion.

 

Flying Officer Hedley Nevile Fowler (39457), although born in London on 8 June 1916 spent part of his childhood in Australia (Adelaide) when the family followed the father (Officer in the Royal Navy). It is true that he has an Australian connection as his maternal grandfather, Henry Ayers, served as Prime Minister of South Australia between 1863 and 1873. He returned briefly to England to attend school at the prestigious Rugby School [1]. Returning to Australia in 1933, he studied mechanics at the University of Adelaide, then joined the Royal Australian Air Force, where he got his wings on 8 December 1936 and won the Mannock Cup, before being transferred to the Royal Air Force with a Short Service Commission as Pilot Officer on 19 February 1937 [2]. After his training at No.6 (RAF) Flying Training School of Netheravon [3], he joined No.3 (RAF) Squadron on 22 May 1937 [4].

 

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Squadron Leader Hedley N. Fowler - 14 December 1943

 

 

Flying Officer Herbert Selwyn Giddings (37283) [5] was born in 1915 in Knaresborough (North Yorkshire – England). He joined the RAF with a Short Service Commission in July 1935 [6]. After training at No.3 (RAF) Flying Training School Grantham on 28 September 1935, he joined No.65 (RAF) Squadron at Hornchurch on 5 August 1936.

 

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Flying Officer Herbert S. Giddings

 

 

Pilot Officer Richard Dunning Pexton (72150) [7] was born on 26 October 1913, in Yorkshire. After attending St. Peter’s School in York, he worked at the family farm in Watton (East Yorkshire), while joining the Territorial Army as Second Lieutnant in the 5th Battalion, Green Howards, on 5 November 1932. He join later the RAF Volunteer Reserve as a pilot on 26 January 1938 [8].

 

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Pilot Officer Richard D. Pexton

 

 

Pilot Officer Stanley Macdonald Wickham (40773) was most likely born in 1917 in the Sydney area, where he attended North Sydney High School. Holder of a pilotage certificate at the Sydney Aero Club [9], he joined the RAF around 1938 with a Short Service Commission [10].

 

Pilot Officer Brian Pashley Young (33376) was born on 5 May 1918, in the province of Natal (South Africa). After his schooling at the Michaelhouse School, he joined the RAF in 1936 with a Permanent Commission. Following his training at RAF College Cranwell, he joined No.32 (RAF) Squadron on 30 July 1938 [11].

 

Finally the most important reinforcement arrives by a strange combination of circumstances. Flight Lieutnant James Gilbert Sanders (37510) [12] in charge of taking B Flight. He was born on 19 June 1915, in Richmond upon Thames in the suburbs of London. Educated, partly in Italy in Genoa where he meets some worries following his remarks on Benito Mussolini [13]. He joined the RAF with a Short Service Commission on 25 November 1935 [14]. After his training at No.10 (RAF) Flying Traning School of Ternhill (1st February 1936 [15]), he joined the prestigious No.111 (RAF) Squadron on 10 August 1936 [16]. He has the privilege of being the third to be converted on the new Hawker Hurricane when his Squadron is designated to test the aircraft. Unfortunately, an incident broke out in the summer of 1939 when James G. Sanders performed some unauthorized acrobatics aboard a Gloster Gauntlet after Squadron Leader Harry Broadhurst criticized his flying skills. [17] The various tensions (and probably ego) between the two men will, nevertheless, be well managed by the Fighter Command. If James G. Sanders is indeed transferred to a much less prestigious unit, No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron wins a very experienced Flight Lieutenant.

 

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[1] Wikipedia – The Free Encyclopedia, Hedley Fowler : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedley_Fowler ; RAF Commands forum, Antiques Roadshow 11.09.16 – Squadron Leader Hedley Neville Fowler : http://www.rafcommands.com/forum/showthread.php?20552-Antiques-Roadshow-11-09-16-Squadron-Leader-Hedley-Neville-Fowler ; Australian War Memorial, Military Cross : Squadron Leader H N Fowler, RAF : https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/REL46322.001

[2] The London Gazette, 2 March 1937, p.1417 : https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34376/page/1417

[3] Flight, 25 March 1937, p.308 : https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1937/1937%20-%200812.html

[4] Flight, 10 June 1937, p.584 : https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1937/1937%20-%201540.html

[5] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/Lt. H S Giddings : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Giddings.htm ; SHORES, Christopher. Those other Eagles. London : Grub Street, 2004. p.211.

[6] The London Gazette, 8 October 1935 : https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34205/page/6302/data.pdf

[7] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/Lt. R D Pexton : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Pexton.htm

[8] The London Gazette, 26 April 1938 : https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34505/page/2713/data.pdf

[9] The Cumberland Argus, 20 December 1939 : https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/page/10073745

[10] The London Gazette, 14 March 1939 : https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34607/page/1772/data.pdf

[11] Air of Authority – A History of RAF Organisation, Air Vice-Marshal B P Young : http://www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Young_BP.htm

[12] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/Lt. J G Sanders : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/SandersJG.htm ; FRANKS, Norman. Dowding’s Eagles: Accounts of Twenty-five Battle of Britain Veterans. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2015. 272 p. ; WYNN, Kenneth G. Men of The Battle of Britain: A Biographical Dictionary of The Few. Frontline Books, 2015. 584 p.

[13] Imperial War Museum, Sanders, James Gilbert (Oral history) : http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80020501

[14] Flight, 20 February 1936, p.204 : https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1936/1936%20-%200471.html

[15] London Gazette, 4 February 1936 : https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/34252/page/737/data.pdf

[16] Flight, 3 Septembre 1936, p.257 : https://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1936/1936%20-%202424.html

[17] The Telegraph, Obituaries Wing Commander J G ‘Sandy’ Sanders, 19 August 2002 : http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1404745/Wing-Commander-J-G-Sandy-Sanders.html

 

 

Edited by 615sqn_Manfred

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Transfer to France (10 November 1939)

 

On 4 October, No.615 Squadron learns its imminent transfer to France to join the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. This choice may seem odd due to the lack of pilot experience and obsolete equipment with the Gladiator Gloster. This is not a coincidence, if several regular pilots of the Royal Air Force were sent. It is true that the case of No.615 Squadron is not unique and another unit of the Auxiliary Air Force is present : No.607 (County of Durham) Squadron. This choice is moreover dictated by a long reflection within the RAF concerning the commitment of the air force on the continent in case of war.

 

The first concrete elements appear in February 1938 when the composition of the British Expeditionary Force is fixed. A first approach of War Office towards the Air Ministry is engaged to revise the initial plan by requesting the presence of two additional Squadrons of fighters. The request is accepted in principle, although on 29 April a first remark is made due to a lack of adequate equipment, and a necessary coordination with the French Air Force to confirm or not the necessity.

 

At the same time, a report by the Imperial Defense Joint Intelligence Committee, dated February 1939, on the lessons of the fighting in Spain, indicates some surprising conclusions about the use of fighter aircraft in support of ground operations. In this hypothesis, it is indicated that the Polikarpov I-16 monoplanes have been very useful against ground targets [1]. If the report is quickly rejected by the Air Ministry arguing that the conditions of operations in case of conflict with Germany will not be those of the Spanish Civil War, the defense of Gloster Gladiator is strengthened .

 

At the same time, a dispute broke out between Air Commodore John C. Slessor (Director of Plans, Air Ministry) and Air Chief Marshal Hugh C. T. Dowding. The first modifies the plans by requiring now at least eight Squadrons of fighters to be used on the whole French front if needed.

 

However, this argument is the subject of a frontal opposition by Hugh C. T. Dowding on the basis of two arguments: on the one hand, modern fighters can only operate on well-equipped air bases ; on the other hand, the current equipment of the RAF is insufficient to fulfill the dual mission of defense of the British territory and the external operations.

 

Finally, a difficult agreement is obtained for the sending of six squadrons of fighters in France …, agreement relatively misinterpreted by the parties in presence : John C. Slessor hoping to wait for the retirement (June 1939) of Hugh C.T. Dowding [2], while the latter considers that this agreement gives priority to the defense of the United Kingdom and that it is the maximum allowed.

 

A second argument reinforces his defense. In a report on the role of the RAF in France [3], Air Commodore Keith Park R. strongly advises the sending of Spitfire and Hurricane on the contains on the grounds that, according to a very curious argument, the units concerned are not trained and equipped for the fight against fighters. He explains that these modern interceptors are too fast and not maneuverable enough to deal with enemy fighters and ground-attack aircraft. In this role, Gloster Gladiator is, in his opinion, much better suited.

 

This argument is quickly reinforced by the opinion of Air Chief Marshal Edgar R. Ludlow-Hewitt (in charge of Bomber Command), which also recommends the use of Gloster Gladiator or even Gloster Gauntlet as the best option to escort his bombers.

 

Finally, the last plan provides that in the event that a war broke out on 1st September (date chosen ironically arbitrarily), only six squadrons of fighters on Hawker Hurricane would be sent to the continent, despite the pressing demands of the army for increase the number. A final decisive reinforcement was thrown into the balance on 14 September by Air Vice Marshal William L. Welsh (in charge of aircraft supply). In his report [4], he explains that :

"The production has exceeded the expectations to equip our Squadrons, we must regret a waste even though the operations have not started yet (…). In order to combat this predicament, it is appropriate to send to France only squadrons equipped with Gloster Gladiator (…). This aircraft is particularly popular with our pilots, while the many reports on the Spanish Civil War have proven the value of biplanes in air operations (…). It is therefore necessary to prepare as quickly as possible to the month three hundred copies of this aircrafts when needed (…). Moreover, it would be extremely useful to equip the next squadrons, sent to France, with this aircraft “.

 

Finally, after several meetings between Air Marshal Arthur S. Barratt (liaison officer with the Air Force) and General Joseph Vuillemin (French Air Force), it was decided in October 1939 to send two additional fighter squadrons equipped with the Gladiator Gloster. The choice is explained, therefore, by a double belief between the idea that this biplane is the best fighters in the desired role, and that of wanting to keep in the rear, for the defense of England, modern fighters [5].

 

Regardless of these debates, on 10 November 1939 the transfer order to France is announced. Because of the bad weather, the departure starts five days later when the sixteen Gloster Gladiators take off from Croydon at 11h30 to land at Merville at 13h00. For their part, Flying Officer Walter O. Stern and Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd board transport planes with 54 men. The flight is conducted with Gloster Gladiator of No. 607 (County of Durham) Squadron, as well as a collection of very disparate transport aircrafts : five Armstrong Whitworth AW 27 Ensign, four De Havilland DH.86, an Avro 618 Ten, a Fokker and two Short L.17 Scylla. The rest of the staff arriving the next day aboard two Armstrong Whitworth A.W. 27 Ensign.

 

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[1] Subcommittee on Air Warfare in Spain: report, minutes and papers. Kew : The National Archives, CAB56/5.

[2] The latter was then to be replaced at the head of the Fighter Command by Air Vice Marshall Christopher Courtney, who shared the position of Slessor. He will, however, be seriously injured in a plane crash in 1939, which will result in extending the Dowding service until June 1940 …

[3] The role of Fighter Squadrons in France. Kew : The National Archives, AIR 16/119

[4] Hawker Aircraft Ltd: development and performance of Hurricane aircraft. Kew : The National Archives, AVIA 10/19.

[5] For more details on these debates, see BAUGHEN, Greg. The RAF in the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain: A Reappraisal of Army and Air Policy 1938-1940. Fonthill, 2017. 288 p.

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First Patrols (18 November 1939 – 17 December 1939)

 

This 18th of November marks the Squadron’s real entry into the war with its first operational missions after the training series of the previous months. In the morning, a section of B Flight is deployed on Le Touquet airfield : Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler (N2303) ; Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd (N2312) and Brian P. Young (N2309) while a second is sent on patrol over Amiens with Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders (N2306), Pilot Officer Levin Fredman (N2304) and Keith T. Lofts (N2310). The A Flight remains on the aerodrome of Merville, from which a patrol is carried out over Lille by Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley (N5581), Flying Officer Peter Collard (N5578) and Pilot Officer Stanley M. Wickham (N5582) between 11h00 and 12h15.

 

This stay at Merville is mainly marked by difficult weather conditions, which have the effect of drastically reducing air activity. Thus the following day, a patrol is carried out over the sector of Merville – Nieppe by Flying Officer Herbert S. Giddings (N5585), Flying Officer Peter Collard (N5577) and Pilot Officer Stanley M. Wickham (N5582) at 10h00 but quickly interrupted after only thirty minutes of flight. At the same time, the aerodrome proved deplorable, which led Squadron Leader Arthur V. Harvey to consider, on 22 November, a transfer to the airfield of Vitry-en-Artois.

 

Finally, the big event occurred on 5 and 6 December 1939 when King George VI toured to review the troops in France. For this purpose, Squadron Leader Arthur V. Harvey and Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley join the Lille-Seclin airfield with some of the ground staff, as well as one of the Gloster Gladiator Mk II.

 

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Troops Review by King George VI, General John S.S. Prendergast Vereker, Lord Gort (B.E.F. Commander) and Prince Harry, Duke of Gloucester (B.E.F. Liaison Officer). Source : Imperial War Museum.

 

On 12 December, B Flight is sent to Abbeville in order to participate in a training with Westland Lysander of No.51 (Army Co-op) Wing : No.2 and No.26 (RAF) Squadron. During the flights, Pilot Officer Brian P. Young is the victim of a motor problem and has to land his Gloster Gladiator Mk II in emergency near Berck.

 

After having obtained the authorization the day before, No.607 (County of Durham) and No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron leave the airfield of Merville whose runway is considered deplorable. The transfer is made on 13 December 1939 in the morning, despite the bad weather, and all aircrafts are considered operational in the afternoon. The pilots are then housed at the Café de la Grande-Bretagne, while the rest of the staff are housed in the field in conditions much better than at Merville.

 

On 17 December, two new pilots come to reinforce the Squadron : Pilot Officers Petrus H. Hugo and Flying Officer Woodwark. They are assigned respectively to A and B Flight.

 

The first, Petrus Hendrik Hugo was born on 20 December 1917 in Pampoenpoort (Cape Province, South Africa). He studied engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, before moving to the United Kingdom because of poor prospects in the South African Air Force. After obtaining his pilot’s wing at Sywell’s Civil Flying School, he joined the RAF with a Short Service Commission in April 1939. After his training at No.13 (RAF) Flying Training School in Drem, where he receives the mention “exceptional”, at No. 11 (RAF) Pool Group of St. Athan (23 October 1939) and at No.2 (RAF) Ferry Pool of Filton (17 November 1939), he is transferred to No. 615 Squadron.

 

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Pilot Officer Petrus Hendrik Hugo. Source : The Battle of Britain London Monument.

 

 

The identity of the second is more difficult to establish. Indeed, his name is mentioned a few times in the ORB without ever mentioning his initials or first names. It disappears, moreover, from the strength towards the month of March 1940 without any precision. After a search in the London Gazette’s archives, the most likely hypothesis is that of George Stuart Woodwark (37842), appointed Pilot Officer at the end of his training in March 1937, and with the rank of Flying Officer in 1939 before to be promoted Flight Lieutenant in November 1940. He was discharged from the RAF in 1949 as Squadron Leader. However, if the dates seem to match, there is no concrete evidence to suggest that the latter is the Woodwark of No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron.

 

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First fights, First losses over France (18 December 1939 - March 1940)

 

On 18 December 1939, Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley is ordered to join Saint-Inglevert Airfield with Flying Officer Peter Collard and Pilot Officer David J. Looker and Stanley M. Wickham. They were joined shortly thereafter by Flying Officer Leonid Ereminsky and Herbert S. Giddings, as well as Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson.

 

The objective for A Flight is to provide protection for the British liaison ships, which will now be the main flight activity (and partially for B Flight) until March 1940.

 

According to the mission orders [1], the British liaison ship must serve the following ports: Boulogne – Douvres or Folkestone ; Dunkirk – Dover and Calais – Harwich. The RAF must cover the ships from each French port within a radius of about fifteen kilometers, before transmitting the relay to Fighter Command. Each port corresponds to a patrol zone called Patrol Line A (Boulogne – 1 800 meters), Patrol Line B (Dunkirk – 3 000 meters), Patrol Line C (Calais – 1 500 meters).

 

Three sections of No.615 Squadron must be deployed, with nine Gladiator Gladiators, as well as the necessary personnel. Each detachment is scheduled for a period of approximately five days.

 

In practice this mission will be mainly provided by A Flight, while a regular rotation of pilots of the second Flight will take place.

 

Unfortunately, the inauguration of Saint-Inglevert is tragic. While the weather is deteriorating rapidly in the afternoon, Pilot Officer Stanley M. Wickham is killed when his aircraft (N5582) crashes on the ground during the landing, following a stall, at 13h40. He is buried on 21 December 1939, at the communal cemetery of Douai [2].

 

On 28 December 1939, a patrol of A Flight, from Saint-Inglevert (between 08h55 – 10h00), marks a major turning point for No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron. Indeed, during the flight, Flying Officer Herbert S. Giddings reports the presence of an aircraft identified as a Heinkel He 111. The events do not go much further and the German bomber quickly escapes.

 

As the day before, pilots continue their patrols of the sector of Saint-Inglevert. The major event takes place at 13h10 when Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders takes off aboard the Gloster Gladiator Mk II N2308. A Heinkel He 111 from Wekusta 26 is then reported above Wissant at about 7000 meters. Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders catches up with the German bomber south-west of Dover and opens fire. The Heinkel He.111 dive immediately to 1000 meters and disappears in the clouds. Due to the low visibility, the pilot decided to abandon without being able to appreciate the results of his attack [3].

 

The New Year begins with a slight incident on 2 January 1940 when Pilot Officer David J. Looker and Thomas C. Jackson are forced to a forced landing at dusk aboard the Miles Magister after a liaison flight between Vitry -en-Artois and Saint-Inglevert. No damage or injury is however to report.

 

During an inspection visit, Deputy Secretary of State for the Air Harold H. Balfour and Air Vice-Marshall Sholto Douglas are pleased to announce the upcoming transformation of the No .615 (County of Surrey) Squadron on Hawker Hurricane. Pilots will, however, have to wait until the beginning of April to begin their transformations on this more modern aircraft than Gloster Gladiators.

 

The Squadron receives the reinforcement of a new pilot with Pilot Officer Horace E. Horne, on 1st January 1940. This Canadian pilot, born in Edmonton, joined the RAF as a pilot probably in the mid-1930s, as he was admitted to the reserve on 23 October 1937, before being recalled on duty on September 1939.

 

On 3 January 1940, Flying Officer John R.H. Gayner suffered an accident (without injury) due to a motor problem (rupture of the oil pipe) on his aircraft. Forced to a forced landing near Crécy-en-Ponthieu, he breaks the tail wheel.

 

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Gloster Gladiator Mk II of No.615 Squadron on the airfield of Vitry-en-Artois. Source : Imperial War Museum.

 

The 20 January 1940 saw the departure of the Flying Officer Eric C. Fieldsend, who had been part of the Squadron since its origins in 1938. It was transferred on that date to No.61 (RAF) Wing. On 19 June 1940, he joined the No.4 (RAF) Ferry Pilots Pool. His presence is very short since he is reported at No.10 (RAF) Group, from the 24th of the month. On 20 July, he is attached to Middle Wallop air base where he seems to serve as air control [4]. The rest of his career is not known. He finished the war with the rank of Squadron Leader, then left the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Reserve of Officers with the rank of Wing Commander in December 1954.

 

If information is relatively scarce concerning the ground personnel, the ORB informs us of the death of the Aircraftman Henry Clemson as a result of a possible meningitis on 21 January 1940. He is buried, on 23 January, at the cemetery of Douai.

 

The end of January 1940 is marked by the arrival of two new pilots : Pilot Officer Michael R. Mudie and Ralph Roberts. The first (42073) was born in Singapore on 26 February 1916. He joined the RAF with a Short Service Commission in March 1939, where he trained with No.11 (RAF) Group Pool, then No. 2 (RAF) Ferry Pool from November 1939 [5]. The second (90897) joined the Auxiliary Air Force with No.616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron in March 1939. After his training, he joined the No.2 (RAF) Ferry Pool in December 1939, where he was in charge of convoying Hawker Hurricane to their assignment squadrons. This coincidence finally makes it one of the few pilots of the squadron to have an experience on their future aircraft [6].

 

The month of February 1940 is relatively calm because of a most deplorable weather. However, a new pilot joined the squadron on 28 February 1940 : Flying Officer Lionel M. Gaunce. Born in Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) on 20 September 1915, he served in the Canadian Army in the Loyal Edmonton Regiment with the rank of Corporal between 1933 and 1935. He joined the RAF with a Short Service Commission in January 1936. After his training, at the No.5 (RAF) Flying Training School in Chester, he joined No.3 (RAF) Squadron in October 1936, and served as Acting Flight Lieutenant from April 1939. He is, however , slightly injured in a motorcycle accident at the end of June 1939 and, after four weeks in the hospital, he is transferred to No.17 (RAF) Squadron. This is, for once, a relatively experienced pilot, including on Hawker Hurricane [7].

 

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Flying Officer Lionel Manley Gaunce. Source : The Battle of Britain London Monument.

 

A tragic accident takes place on the night of 6 March 1940, when Aircraftman 1st Class Reginald E. Parfitt falls in a canal near Vitry-en-Artois. He is buried in the communal cemetery of Douai [8].

 

The period from mid-March to the end of April is the subject of very limited documentation. In all cases, as in previous months, the majority of patrols continue to be flight from Saint-Inglevert to ensure the protection of British liaison ships.

 

The departure of Squadron Leader Arthur V. Harvey is confirmed on 12 March following his promotion to Wing Commander. He officially leaves his command on 16 March 1940 to join No.14 (RAF) Group. He finished the war in various administrative and command posts, with the rank of Air Commodore. After the war, he decided to enter politics and was elected to the House of Commons in 1945 with the seat of Macclesfield in the Conservativ Party. He remained until 1971. Appointed Life Peer (Baron Harvey of Prestbury), he died at St Martin’s Port on the Island of Guernsey on 5 April 1994.

 

At the same time, Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll arrives to ensure replacement. The latter is not unknown to pilots as he comes from No.607 (County of Durham) Squadron, also attached to No.61 (RAF) Wing and based on the same airfield? Born on 12 April 1914 in Sunderland, he studied at Aysgarth School in Yorkshire, unsuccessfully, as he left school at the age of 16 and went to work in a sawmill. After obtaining his pilot’s license, he joined the Auxliary Air Force in 1934. He received training as an instructor at the Central Flying School in Upavon in July 1939. [9]

 

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Squadron Leader Joseph Robert Kayll. Source : The Battle of Britain London Monument.

 

As the events are relatively calm in France, several pilots have periods of rest to return to England. This is the case of Pilot Officer Michael R. Mudie. His permission is, however, not easy. He finds himself in the midst of an incident on 6 April 1940, at a dance party at Coronation Hall in Kingston upon Thames. In this case, an altercation broke out between him and other members of the RAF following a dispute over his buttons irregular uniforms (it seems to bear, memories of his stay in France, those of the French Air Force). Michael R. Mudie opens fire with a pistol. He was quickly taken to the police station, slightly wounded with a bullet in his right leg. According to his defense, quite angry he would have drawn his gun and fired two shots towards the ground. One of the bullets would then ricochet and touch his leg. He finally gets out with a fine and the confiscation of the weapon. The incident, however, does not seem to have had any consequences as he returns shortly after to No.615 Squadron [10].

 

We have little information about No.615 Squadron during the month of April 1940. The ORB summarizes a single page with only two entries (1st – 12th April and 27th April), and the documentions is very limited. We can however note some events.

 

First, the Squadron leaves the airfield of Vitry-en-Artois on 12 April 1940 to join Poix. At the same time, B Flight remains at Saint-Inglevert to ensure regular patrols, always without significant events. The presence in Poix is however of short duration and on 27 April 27, A Flight is transfer to Abbeville. On the same date, the first Hawker Hurricane Mk I arrive finally and the transformation can begin.

 

Two movements take place during the day of 9 May 1940. First, the B Flight leaves Saint-Inglevert to join Abbeville to discover their new aircrafts. At the same time, the A Flight leaves for Le Touquet to experience Hawker Hurricane on patrol over the English Channel.

 

But, the awakening will be brutal the next day...

 

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Pilots of No.615 Squadron, at Abbeville. Seating (left to right) : Fying Officer Brian P. Young, Flying Officer John R.H. Gayner, Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson and Flying Officer Levin Fredman. Standing (left to right): unknown, Flying Officer Peter Collard and Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders. Source : Imperial War Museum.

 

 

 

[1] Headquarters, No.60 Wing RAF : Operation Instruction No.8 (20th December, 1939). No.61 Wing, Appendices. Kew : The National Archives : AIR 26 / 83.

[2] Commonwealth War Graves Commission – Wickham, Stanley Macdonald : http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2276520/WICKHAM,%20STANLEY%20MACDONALD

[3] James G. Sanders, Combat Report. The National Archives (Kew). AIR/50/75. GUSTAVSSON Håkan. Gloster Gladiator in 615 RAF Squadron service. Biplane Fighter Aces from the Second World War : http://surfcity.kund.dalnet.se/gladiator_raf_615.htm

[4] http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/fallen-alumni/flight-lieutenant-john-charles-dundas

[5] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – P/O M R Mudie : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Mudie.htm

[6] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/O R Roberts : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/RobertsR.htm

[7] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/Lt. L M Gaunce : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Gaunce.htm ; BREW Steve. Blood, Sweat and Courage : 41 Squadron RAF 1939 – 1942. Fonthill, 2014, p. 427 – 428 et 771 – 772.

[8] Commonwealth War Graves Commission : Casualty Details PARFITT, Reginald Ernest : http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2276510/PARFITT, % 20REGINALD%20ERNEST 

[9] DIXON, Robert. 607 Squadron : A Shade of Blue. 2012. 200 p ; Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – S/Ldr. J R Kayll : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/as-kayll.htm

[10] South-East History Boards, Pilot Officer Michael Mudie : http://sussexhistoryforum.co.uk/index.php?topic=11178.0

 

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Posted (edited)

10 May 1940

 

The pilots of A Flight, based at Le Touquet, are awakened very early in the morning due to a bombing by Heinkel He 111 (II./KG 27). Three Hawker Hurricane Mk I [1] are damaged, two of which are quickly repaired [2], while Leading Aircraftman Alan Brooks is burned at the hands trying to extinguish the fire [3].

 

According to Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll :

 

« We were bombed very early in the morning. The pilots were billeted at an unoccupied château a few miles from the aerodrome and we were woken up by the bombs. As we had received no warning of any kind we assumed that it was the French practising. It wasn’t until we received a call from the aerodrome that we realised the war had started »[4].

 

According to Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson :

 

« Woke at dawn to huge thumps. Looked out of hotel window and saw smoke from airfield half a mile away. Leapt out of bed and put uniform over pyjamas. Commandeered a car and drove back to hotel but others did not join me, so drove to the airfield and found two aircraft on fire. Got Hurricane started and took off. Saw Heinkel in distance and higher. Chased, but could not get to it. Shot at and felt something on sleeve – thought I’d been hit, but it was oil. Nil oil pressure so returned and landed. We late put the engine from the damaged Hurricane into this one and it was soon operational again »[5].

 

All A Flight joined the Abbeville airfield in the afternoon to join the rest of the squadron.

 

Regarding B Flight, the wake up in Abbeville is very similar. A formation of Heinkel He 111 of LG 1 [6] bombards  the station and the airfield around 04h30.

 

According to a French report:

 

« The airfield was attacked ; it is safe to assume that one of the planes (two perhaps) was piloted by inexperienced men experiencing difficulties in discovering the objective»[7].

 

Indeed, no damage is reported following the attack. This time, however, one of the pilots is able to take off at 05h00. It is Flying Officer Levin Fredman (with Gloster Gladiator). He intercepts the formation of Heinkel He 111, at about 6 000 meters, and damages the left engine (black smoke) of one of the aircraft [8]. He escapes however to the east. The combat report qualifies the claim as inconclusive.

 

rapport_levin_fredman_11mai40.jpg?w=681&

 

 

At the end of the day, the No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron hava only nine Hawker Hurricane Mk I. Three aircraft are nevertheless received in the afternoon.

 

 

 

[1] Unfortunately, we do not have a list of aircraft at No. 615 Squadron on 10 May 1940.

[2] According to John Foreman, the three Hawker Hurricanes are destroyed. FOREMAN, John. Fighter Command War Diaries (September 1939 to September 1940). Air Research Publications, 1996, p. 53 et 54 ; while Brian Cull reports only one repairable aircraft. CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. Grub Street, 1999. p.44.

[3] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. Grub Street, 1999. p.44.

[4] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. Grub Street, 1999. p.45.

[5] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. Grub Street, 1999. p.45.

[6] TAGHON, Peter. La Lehrgeschwader 1 : L’Escadre au Gruffon. Tome 1. Lela Press, 2017, p.49.

[7] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.40.

[8] Levin Fredman – Combat Report 10/05/40. Kew : The National Archives, AIR 50/175. Curiously, the report is signed by the name of Readman… ; CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. Grub Street, 1999. p.45 ; FOREMAN, John. RAF Fighter Command Victory Claims of World War Two : Part one 1939 – 1940. Red Kite, 2003. p.31 ; FOREMAN, John. Fighter Command War Diaries (September 1939 to September 1940). Air Research Publications, 1996, p. 52.

 

Edited by 615sqn_Manfred

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11 May 1940

 

There is little information regarding No.615 Squadron activity during this day, except for the mention of patrols between Abbeville and Le Touquet [1]. It is likely that the lack of pilot training, the transformation on Hawker Hurricane Mk I, and the low number of available aircraft have helped keep the unit in second lines.

 

 

[1] No.615 (RAF) Squadron, Operations Record Book. Kew : The National Archives, AIR 27/2123 ; CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.71 ; GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest — Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.91. 

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12 May 1940

 

The A Flight receives the order to join the former airfield of Vitry-en-Artois in order to cooperate with No.607 (County of Durham) Squadron. At least three patrols are carried out.[1]

 

Unfortunately, one will end tragically. Flying Officer William F. Blackadder (P3535  AF-C) is leading a patrol with five Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No.607 (County of Durham) Squadron, and three other from No.615 Squadron, including Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler (P2622) and Levin Fredman (P2564) [2].

 

The whole formation took off at 09h30 from Vitry-en-Artois and, at 10h00 around Tongeren, the British pilots encountered a formation of Bf 109 from I (J) ./ LG 2, and the confrontation breaks out. If Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler is able to claim a victory [3], his compatriot Levin Fredman does not return. His plane crashes at Wihogne, near Liege. His lifeless body, extracted from the plane, is buried in the nearby cemetery [4].

 

The German pilots claim the destruction of three enemy fighters : Oberleutnant Hans-Erwin Jäger (1.Staffel), Leutnant Helmut Mertens (2.Staffel) and Oberfeldwebel Hermann Guhl (1.Staffel). At the same time, a Bf 109 (2.Staffel) is forced to a forced landing west of Tongeren (70% damaged) [5]. For his part, Peter Cornwell mentions that the fight would have also involved aircrafts of I./JG 21 and the JG 27, while the loss of the Flying Officer Levin Fredman could be due to Feldwebel Erich Schröder (2./JG 27 ) [6].

 

photo.jpg?w=600&ssl=1

 

 

[1] No.615 (RAF) Squadron, Operations Record Book. Kew : The National Archives, AIR 27/2123.

[2] Unfortunately, the identity of the third is not known.

[3] If this claim is cited by several authors, including Brian Cull (Twelve days in may) or John Foreman (RAF Fighter Command – Victory Claims), there is no reference in the Squadron ORB. In addition, no combat report has survived.

[4] DIXON, Robert. 607 Squadron : A Shade of Blue. 2012.

[5] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.90 et 91 ; WATTEEUW, Pierre. Les pertes de la chasse allemande de jour en Belgique (1940 – 1945). Tome 1. Erpe : Editions De Krijger, 2000. p.19.

[6] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.247.

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13 May 1940

 

Brian Cull reports the presence of B Flight on Merville airfield, with a number of training on Hawker Hurricane Mk I [1].

 

The A Flight remains deployed for the day on Vitry-en-Artois with No.607 (RAF) Squadron.

 

The first mission is an escort of a Bristol Blenheim Mk IV, No.18 (RAF) Squadron, over the Albert Canal to check the condition of the bridges. The take-off is severely disrupted by the announcement of an ennemy bomber formation [2] or because of the maneuvers of the bomber [3], and only two Hawker Hurricane Mk I (Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll, Flight Lieutenant Leslie TW Thornley) are able to provide the escort. The mission unfolds without incident, but the aircraft of Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley (wing spar) and the Bristol Blenheim are damaged by ground fire. Note that the Bristol Blenheim Mk IV L8866 (Flying Officer D.D. Rogers; Sergeant A.J. Gulliver ; Leading Aircraftman D.C. Moore) of No.18 (RAF) Squadron is reported to be damaged during a reconnaissance over the Albert Canal at approximately 06h45 due to ground fire [4]. Maybe this is the same mission ?

 

According to Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll :

 

« The Squadron was ordered to escort a Blenheim on a low-level reconnaissance of the Albert Canal, to find out how many bridges were still standing. The Blenheim arrived at Merville and we took off together. The Blenheim arrived at Merville fast as a Hurricane and as he turned sharply several times, the outside aircraft were unable to keep up. Finally only myself and Flight Lieutenant Thornley (in a bullet-damaged aircraft) were left as escort, one on each side. The Blenheim pilot was skilled as he flew under the bridges when they were intact and the escort flew over the ends. The only trouble occurred on the way back when we flew low over a large German Army formation, who shot at us with everything they had. The rear gunner of the Blenheim was wounded and I was saved by the armour plate behind my seat »[5].

 

Finally, in the evening several aircraft take off, alongside No.607 (County of Durham) Squadron [6], for a patrol in the vicinity of Namur.

 

A fight breaks out with several Bf 110 and Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale (P2580) is shot down, probably by the Leutnant Richard Marchfelder of the Stab II./ZG 1 [7], near Courrière. The unfortunate Peter N. Murton-Neale is killed.

 

He was a member of No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron, since his track record dates back to November 1937, and briefly served as B Flight Commander before the arrival of James G. Sanders. He was 23 years old, and now rests at Courrière Cemetery in Belgium [8].

 

photos-10-A-.jpg?w=412&ssl=1

 

Unfortunately, there is no information on the disappearance of Peter N. Murton-Neale. However, a report by Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd brings some new details [9]. The Hawker Hurricane Mk I would be the P2580 and not the L2035 as cited in the various publications. Three Hawker Hurricanes allegedly took off, with Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll, Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale and Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd. The aircraft take off from Vitry-en-Artois late afternoon probably around 17h00 (the disappearance of Peter N. Murton-Neale being recorded around 17:45). Finally, Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd mentions meeting with several Heinkel He.111, about eight kilometers west of Huy. The German bombers then take refuge in cloud (1 500 meters), and it is when emerging from the clouds that the disappearance of the Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale.

 

Murton_Neale-Lloyd_report_red.jpg?resize

 

The file contains a second interesting document: in this case a letter from his father (A.G. Murton-Neale) addressed to the Air Ministry on 10 December 1943. It mentions in particular the recovery, through the Red Cross, of a silver cigarette case with two bullet holes.

 

Murton_Neale_letter_page_1_red.jpg?resiz

 

Murton_Neale_letter_page_2_red_2.jpg?res

 

 

photos-7.jpg?resize=768,530&ssl=1

Possible photo of the remains of the Hawker Hurricane Mk I P2580 after the unfortunate fights of 13 May 1940.

 

photos-8-.jpg?resize=768,576&ssl=1

Current photograph of the field (near Courrière, Belgium) where Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale’s aircraft crashed.

 

 

 

[1] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.108.

[2] No.615 (RAF) Squadron, Operations Record Book. Kew : The National Archives, AIR 27/2123.

[3] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.108.

[4] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.256 et 257.

[5] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.108 et 109.

[6] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest — Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.154.

[7] No.615 (RAF) Squadron, Operations Record Book. Kew : The National Archives, AIR 27/2123 ; CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.109 ; CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.257.

[8] Commonwealth War Graves Commission : https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/4001719/murton-neale,-peter-norman/

[9] Casualty Record : Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale. The National Archives, Kew : AIR 81/2100.

 

 

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14 May 1940

 

Several reinforcements arrive in No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron when the RAF decides to detach several Flights to reinforce Squadrons in France. These are pilots from B Flight No.229 (RAF) Squadron Pilot Officer John E.M. Collins, Malcolm Ravenhill and Victor B.S. Verity, as well as Pilot Officer Cecil R. Young from No.601 (County of London) Squadron.

 

Malcolm Ravenhill was born on 13 January 1913 in Sheffield. He joined the RAF with an SSC in March 1938 (No. 40750). He joined the No.4 (RAF) Flying Training School in Abu Sueir and then the No.2 (RAF) Group Pool in Aston Down on 29 January 1940. After his training on Hawker Hurricane, he joined No.229 (RAF) Squadron on 9 March 1940.

 

Victor Bosanquet Strachen Verity was born on 5 November 1919 in Timaru (New Zealand). He joined the RAF in 1938 with an SSC (No. 42164). He was trained at No.11 (RAF) Elementary & Reserve Flying Training School in Perth from 16 March 1939, then at No.9 (RAF) Flying Training School in Hullavington on 30 May 1939. He joined No.229 (RAF) Squadron on 25 November 1939.

 

Cecil Reginal Young was born on 20 January 1920 in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). At the age of 13, he was sent to England to the Felsted School in Essex. He joined the RAF with an SSC on 4 May 1939. He trained at the Civilian Flight School at Gatwick on 30 May  1939, and then at the No.11 (RAF) Flying Traning School at Shawbury between 8 August and 25 October 1939. His instructor's assessment of him was very severe: "Graded subject below average, lazy and comparatively low intelligence. An average pilot but lacks concentration. Shows poor sense of responsibility." He nevertheless obtained his exam with 70.1% and joined the No.11 (RAF) Group Pool of St.Athan and then No.601 (County of London) Squadron on 3 February 1940.

 

Once again the events of the day are more confused. According to the ORB, several patrols are carried out, without further details, from the aerodromes of Abbeville, Vitry-en-Artois and Douai where B Flight spends the night.

 

We know some details about one mission of the day, a clash between a section of Hawker Hurricane Mk I and a German bomber in the morning (around 06h00). A victory is then claimed by Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler [1].

 

Once again this event raises more questions than it offers an answer. Thus, there is no combat report, and it is therefore difficult to confirm or not this victory. In addition, sources differ on the potential victim. Arnaud Gillet reported a Dornier Do.17, while questioning its veracity for lack of confirmation in the archives [2]For his part, Brian Cull refers to the Junkers Ju.88 A-1 7A + BH of 1. (F) / 121 (Oberleutnant Heinz Spillmann, Oberfeldwebel Richard Schnegotzki, Unteroffizier Wilhelm Colleseus and Walter Gers, all killed) conducting a reconnaissance of Brussels – Kortrijk – Ghent – Antwerp [3]. The plane crashed at Winkel-Sainte-Croix, north-east of Ghent, at 06h00. Finally, Peter Conrwell provides another interpretation. For him, a 1. (F) / 121 aircraft would have been the victim of No.504 (RAF) Squadron, while it is Junkers Ju.88 A-1 F6 + BL of the 3. (F) / 123 which would be related to the claim of Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler. The German aircraft carried out a reconnaissance along the French North coast, when it would have been intercepted by British fighters. Engine damaged, the Junkers Ju.88 is forced to a forced landing at Aalst, at 06h15. Unteroffizier Willi Reissmann is killed and the rest of the crew captured (Feldwebel Friedrich Küttner and Eugen Lauterbach, Unteroffizier Erwin Maxrath) [4]

 

 

 

[1] FOREMAN, John. RAF Fighter Command Victory Claims of World War Two : Part One 1939 – 1940. Walton-on-Thames : Red Kite, 2003. p.42.

[2] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest — Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.408.

[3] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.117. ; ROBA, Jean-Louis. La RAF en France — 2e partie : Hurricane sur le contient — Tome 1 : du 9 septembre 1939 au 14 mai 1940. Batailles Aériennes, n°68 (Avril – Juin 2014). p. 80.

[4] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.276.

 

 

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15 May 1940

 

Unlike previous days, No.615 Squadron activity is quite intense and relatively well detailed. It is also the occasion of several claims, but also new losses.

 

The day begins with several patrols from the airfield of Le Touquet, without further clarification, according to the ORB.

 

Later in the morning, six Hawker Hurricane Mk I took off, under the orders of Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll, from Vitry-en-Artois, for an escort mission on Dinant along with six other aircraft from B Flight, No. 607 (County of Durham) Squadron. The twelve Bristol Blenheim Mk I (three from No.15 Squadron and nine from No.40 Squadron) are responsible for destroying several bridges over the Meuse.

 

The entire formation is, however, intercepted by several Bf 109 and Bf 110 around 11h00. The No.615 Squadron pilots seem to have been surprised as Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler (Hawker Hurricane Mk I P2622), at the rear of the formation, can only scream a warning before being shot by the Bf. 109. His aircraft begins to catch fire, and he is forced to jump. He managed to join several French soldiers, but they were all captured the next day [1]. The victory could have been claimed by Oberleutnant Franz Eckerle (3./JG 76) [2].

 

According to a subsequent letter from Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler:

 

 

« We were escorting some bombers, bombing targets to holdup the advance, and I had dawn the position of Back and Charlie, which meant being behind the othere to warn them of attack. I got jumped by 4 Bf.109, which appeared out of nowhere, and while I was following one the cockpit, and one tank which went up like a blow-lamp. Things were decidedly warm, and as I was going pretty fast, I couldn’t get out properly but got my parachute caught blood. I was very scared, imagining I should pass out before I got down, as we were at 17 000 feet. Actually it was only a tiny piece of metal that had grazed the side of the marks. I landed with a hell of a bump in the middle of the Ardennes forest.

I had just arrived in the Ardennes and decided the best thing to do was to walk west by the sun. I must have tramped for miles in the forest without seeing a soul but all the time coming across deserted trenches and tank-traps. Eventually I was nearly shot by a patrol of French Engineers who mistook my grey uniform and flying boots for German. I kept with them, fully expecting to get back, but the whole country was flattened and all the houses in ruins. I managed to collar a big white cart-horse from a field and rode him to save my feet which were all blistered. After sleeping in a wood we were surrounded next day and having fired all our rounds there was nothing else but to give it. »[3]

 

He will later make the headlines after his escape from Colditz Castle on 9 September 1942. Disguised as German officers he managed to join Switzerland (with Dutch Lieutenant Damiaen Joan van Doorninck). Returning to England in April 1944, he received the Military Cross before being posted to the Armament Test Squadron of Boscombe Down. He was killed while testing a Hawker Typhoon on 26 March 1944. He is buried in the Durrington Cemetery.

 

According to Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll:

 

« The formation of Hurricanes was attacked by Messerschmitt 110 and 109 simultaneously. I did a head-on attck on the first 110, which afterwards force-landed, and a deflection shot on the second 110, which went into a dive and exploded in a wood. »[4].

 

Kayll_15mai40.jpg?w=727&ssl=1

 

 

Both claims do not seem conclusive. According to Peter Cornwell, this clash could be connected with that between Bloch MB.152 of GC I/8 and Bf 110 C of 2./ZG 26. Three aircraft are shot down by French [5].

 

If we observe the description of the fight in question, we can not deny concordant elements: the time (10:30 – 12:15), as well as places (above the Meuse, in the vicinity of Mezieres).

 

In addition, Adjudant Michaud (GC I/8) indicates the presence of a Hawker Hurricane during the confrontation:

 

« He drops a long burst, but at this moment an unexpected Hurricane passes between him and his target. He is forced to stop shooting and is falling behind his prey that stings in front of him. The Messerschmitt has his account, a crew member jumps, but the parachute of the unfortunate goes torch. Disastrous biplane hits and explodes in a clearing northeast of Renwez »[6].

 

 

There are several elements consistent with the second part of the report written by Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll.

 

This is a Bf 110 C of the 2./ZG 26 (Feldwebel Kurt Friedrich and Gefreiter Willi Neuburger, killed) which crashes, around 11 h 10, at Sécheval.

 

Obviously, in the absence of more convincing details, this remains of the simple hypothesis. The Germans record the loss of two Bf 109 E-3 from Stab I./JG 52, Hauptman Siegfried von Eschwege and Leutnant Kurt Kirchner (captured), while three British fighters are claimed by Hauptmann Werner Molders, Oberleutnant Heinz Wittenberg and Leutnant Georg Claus of the III./JG 53. No.607 (RAF) Squadron, Squadron Leader Lance Smith (P2870) is killed during the fight, and two Bf 109 are claimed by Flying Officer Bill Whitty and Pilot Officer Bob Grassick [7].

 

The afternoon is still quite hectic since the A Flight is in charge of a series of three patrols in the vicinity of Wavre. Several Henschel Hs 126 are encountered and a series of confrontation breaks out. Thus, a section under the command of Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley conducts a patrol northwest of Gembloux at 15h00.

 

According to Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson:

 

« Flying around, we suddenly saw a Hs126 but only when it fired at me. Had a go and hit it and belived killed the gunner. I shot past it and the Flight Commander had a go. Turned round and it had gone into the ground »[8].

 

According to Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley:

 

« Aircraft first seen by Pilot Officer Jackson at fairly long rang. E/a half-rolled and dived and I followed him down in the dive to 500 feet, friring all the way. E/a landed in ploughed field but did not crash. Assume engine was damaged »[9].

 

Thornley_15mai40.jpg?w=751&ssl=1

 

The aircraft could be belong to the 4. (H) / 22 (Leutnant H. Ricke injured)[10].

 

The events seem to be less successful for the Pilot Officer David J. Looker (P2554), who is hit by shots on the ground. As he jumps, he hits the rudder with his left arm. Touching the ground near Waterloo, he was picked up by British soldiers and quickly sent back to England for a hospital stay (Shenley Military Hospital).

 

Another Hs.126 was met at the same time by a second section with Flying Officer Peter Collard around 15h00 :

 

« Saw Henschel flying low near wood at 100 feet. Diving quarter-attack. One short burst from rear gunner at 200 yards. Enemy pulled up and on its back at 50 feet as I went underneath. No sign of aircraft after. (…) Enemy observed coming out of the sun, diving on two Hurricanes below. I came behing it but my reflector sight failed as I opened fire. E/a made a climbing turn to right, banking violently. Attack was broken off owing to running out of ammunition »[11].

 

Collard_15mai40.jpg?w=695&ssl=1

 

Note that the latter aircraft is mistakenly identified as a Heinkel He.112. Finally, at 15.30, another Hs.126, probably from the 1. (H) / 23 (Leutnant Hermann Küster and Felix Hack, killed) [12] is intercepted by a third section east of Gembloux towards 750 meters.

 

According to Flying Officer Horace E. Horne:

 

 «The Henschel staggered after first attack and pancaked in a field. Unable to press home attack due to heavy AA fire. Attempted also to attack a balloon moored on ground but the latter was ringed with defences. Own aircraft hit four times »[13].

 

Horne_15mai40.jpg?w=701&ssl=1

 

 

 

Due to the evolution of the events, the No.615 Squadron is ordered to leave Vitry-en-Artois to join the north-west of Belgium.

 

According to Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders :

 

« Joe Kayll and I had to fly up to locate an airfield in Belgium to operate from. I got into a Gladiator and he vent off in a Hurricane. He flew to Moorsele while I went to Evère, on the east side of Brussels. I got into Evère and had just landed when I noticed it was full of Germans, so I rapidly shot off and, keeping on the deck, headed for home»[14].  

 

Unsurprisingly, the final choice is of Moorsele.

 

 

 

[1] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.148.

[2] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.283.

[3] Casualty Record : Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler The National Archives, Kew : AIR 81/409.

[4] Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll, Combat Report. The National Archives, Kew. AIR 50/175/14 ; CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.148.

[5] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.290.

[6] JOANNE, Serge. Le Bloch MB-152. Les éditions Lela Presse, 2003. p.225 à 226.

[7] DIXON, Robert. 607 Squadron : A Shade of Blue. 2012.

[8] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.150.

[9] Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley, Combat Report, The National Archives, Kew. AIR 50/175/31 ; CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.150 ; GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest — Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.206.

[10] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.288.

[11] Peter Collard, Combat Report. The National Archives, Kew. AIR 50/175/3 (curieusement, le Flying Officer Peter Collard est identifié sous le nom de P.Collins) ; CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.150 ; GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest — Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.206 et 207.

[12] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.288.

[13] Flying Officer Horace E. Horne, Combat Report, The National Archives, Kew. AIR 50/175/12 ; CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.150 ; GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest — Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.206.

[14] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.151.

 

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16 May 1940

 

After the renforcement from No.229 (RAF) Squadron, a second group arrives with a detachment of three pilots from No.242 (RAF) Squadron, B Flight. They are Pilot Officer Robert D. Grassick, William L. McKnight and Percival S. Turner. They already have a little experience. They joined No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May, and participated in some operations, which have already cost the life of Flight Lieutenant John L. Sullivan in charge of the detachment.

 

Robert Davidson Grassick (41579) was born in London (Ontario – Canada) on 22 May 1917, and joined the RAF with a SSC in November 1938. After his training at No.5 (RAF) Flying Training School of Sealand, he was transferred to No.3 (RAF) Squadron (September 1939) then No.242 (RAF) Squadron (November 1939). He was seconded urgently to No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May 1940 with three other B Flight pilots from his squadron. [1]

 

William Lidstone McKnight (41937) was born in Edmonton (Alberta, Canada) on 18 November 1918. He joined the RAF in February 1939 with a SSU. After training with No. 6 (RAF) FTS Little Rissington he joined Squadron No.242 (RAF) on 6 November 1939, before being seconded to No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May 1940. [2]

 

Percival Stanley Turner (41631) was born on 3 September 1913 in Ivybridge (Devon – England). His family emigrated, however, to Toronto, Canada where he studied engineering while joining the No.110 Squadron of the Canadian Auxiliary Air Force. He joined the RAF, with a SSC, November 1938. After his training with the No.7 (RAF) FTS of Peterborought and No.1 (RAF) Fighter Training School of St.Athan, he joined No.219 ( RAF) Squadron, October 4, 1939, before being transferred to No.242 (RAF) Squadron on 20 November 1939. He was sent to France on secondment to No. 607 (RAF) Squadron on 14 May 1940. [3]

 

The No.615 Squadron leaves Vitry-en-Artois and Abbeville for Moorsele with twelve Hawker Hurricane Mk I. It is during this transfer that Pilot Officer Robert D. Grassick (KW-X) commits an unfortunate error when he claims a possible Junkers Ju.88 bomber. This one turns out to be a Bristol Blenheim Mk IV (N6168 TR-A) of No.59 (RAF) Squadron returning from a reconnaissance mission. Flight Lieutnant G.V. Smither succeeds, however, in putting his severely damaged aircraft on Vitry-en-Artois with his wounded gunner (Aircraftman Davy J. Pitcher) [4].

 

In the afternoon, nine Hawker Hurricane Mk I take off under the command of Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley to escort a Westland Lysander. Between Tirlemont and Brussels, British pilots are surprised by several Bf.109. Lieutenant Flight Leslie T.W. Thornley (N2335) is immediately shot down in the vicinity of Rosières and killed.

 

According to Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson (N2338):

 

« I opened the cockpit as I could not see much to rear. About a minute later, while flying with the sun behindn we wera bounced. The first I knew of it was when I was hit. An aircraft went past beneath me and I gave chase, but my engine cut. A second 109 came by and I had a go at him – believe bits of his tail came off. Fired at it again from behind. Saw aircaft all over the place. (…) My aircraft was hit heavily and there was a huge explosion. I had my gloves and flying boots on, but not my flying helmet. I did not unplug oxygen lead etc, just leapt out after releasing side panel. Opened the parachute and thought : God, it’s quiet ».

 

He is captured as soon as he arrives on the ground by German soldiers. Injured and suffering from several burns, he remembers:

 

« One soldier produced a big knife and cut open my collar, and another produced a hypodermic syringe and injected me. A vehicle arrived and I was told to get in ; an Oberleutnant sat in the back and covered me with a pistol. My own pistol had six rounds of locally bought .38 ammunition, as I had used that issued potting cans in a river. These appeared to be blunt-nosed and I thought the German might think they were dumdum, but he could not open my pistol so fired off rounds into the ground – I was greatly relived. I was taken to a field hospital at Tirlemont and spent two days in a room with eight or nine German officers ; one badly wounded with a stomach injury made lots of noise. I was moved to a large building with a stone floor, amongst some hundreds of British troops, and then transferred after a week to Maastricht ».

 

A third pilot is lost, in this case, the Pilot Officer Brian P. Young whose Hawker Hurricane Mk I (P2577) crashes in flames near Essene. Burned in the upper body and face, however, he manages to jump. He is, however, unlucky because he is immediately targeted by British soldiers who open fire in his direction, then throws a grenade, before realizing that it is one of them.

He is taken to a field hospital in Dieppe before being evacuated to Saint Nazaire. Having decidedly no luck, his ambulance is damaged, arriving in the port, by a shrapnel shell killing almost all occupants. Brian P. Young escapes miraculously to be on board a ship bound for England. 

He will not be coming back to No.615 Squadron. After a long hospitalization, he returned to service in 1942 as a Short S.25 Sunderland pilot in Coastal Command, before being transferred to the Middle East on various commands. He remained in the RAF after the war by with a series of senior positions, while attending the Imperial Defense College. He retired on 5 May 1973 with the rank of Air Vice-Marshal and died on 26 July 1992. [5]

 

For his part, the Pilot Officer Robert D. Grassick (KW-X), very active on this day, is able to claim a German fighter.

 

It is difficult to identify the confrontation in question for lack of the time during which this escort took place. Thus, Brian Cull [6] and Donald Caldwell [7] mention a confrontation around 15h50 with the II./JG 26, which claim three victories (identified as Morane 406 and Hawk 75A) despite the loss of a aircraft (pilot killed) This analysis is, however, contradicted by Arnaud Gillet [8] and Peter D. Cornwell [9], who make a connection with the events specific to No.87 (RAF) Squadron.

 

Another hypothesis would be that of I./JG 27 claiming several Hawker Hurricanes in the vicinity of Brussels around 13h40 (unfortunately some of these claims do not have a precise time). Thus, the Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley would have fallen victim to the Oberleutnant Gerhart Framm of the 2.JG 27. Conversely, two Bf.109 E-3 of the I./JG 27 were damaged, including that of the Feldwebel Otto Sawallish.

 

Once again, for lack of more details, it is difficult to match the facts, besides nothing proves that all the events specific to the No.615 Squadron takes place at the same mission.

 

Flight Lieutenant Leslie T.W. Thornley was 26 years old. His body was found and buried by men from Lancashire Fuesiliers near Rosières (Belgium). His grave seems to have been lost and his name is now commemorated at Runnymede Memorial.

 

P8710837-e1565965783713.jpg?resize=768,1

 

P8710838-e1565965826339.jpg?fit=684%2C1024&ssl=1

 

P8710832-e1565965883937.jpg?resize=768,1

 

P8710833-e1565965930144.jpg?fit=684%2C1024&ssl=1

 

 

 

[1] SHORES Christopher ; WILLIAMS Clive. Aces High: A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces of WWII. 2008, Grub Street ; Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/O R D Grassick: http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Grassick.htm

[2] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – P/O W L McKnight: http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/McKnight.htm ; SHORES Christopher ; WILLIAMS Clive. Aces High: A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces of WWII. 2008, Grub Street, p.437.

[3] Battle of Britain London Monument, The Airmen’s Stories – F/Lt. P S Turner : http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/TurnerPS.htm

[4] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.166.

[5] Air of Authority – A History of RAF Organisation – Air Vice-Marshal B P Young (33376) : http://www.rafweb.org/Biographies/Young_BP.htm

[6] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.166 à 168.

[7] CALDWELL Donald. The JG 26 War Diarry, Vol 1 (1939 – 1942). Grub Street, 1996. 346 p.

[8] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.221 et 222.

[9] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p. 294 et 299

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17 May 1940

 

In the morning, several sections of No.615 Squadron take off from Moorsele for various patrols, details of which are known for at least two of them.

 

The three pilots of No.229 (RAF) Squadron (Pilot Officer John E.M. Collins, Malcolm Ravenhill and Victor B.S. Verity) take off at 05h30. According to the combat report of Pilot Officer Malcolm Ravenhill (P2907):

 

 

« At 0530 hrs 3 sections of 3 aircraft (Hurricanes) of 615 Squadron left Moorsele aerodrome (Nr Courtrai) on a patrol. Three miles (approx) West of Brussels my section leader attacked a Henschel Nos 2 (myself) and 3 in line astern position on him. Heavy anti-aircraft fire forced me to break to the right, no 3 following me, and we lost contact with the leader as we all had a different R/T frequency. A few minutes after I sighted an aircraft below me to the right and proceeded to go down to investigate. I lost sight of this aircraft and, on regaining original ht (4000 ft), I discovered I was alone. I proceeded to patrol the West of Brussels in long zig zag North and South course gradually creeping West.

I was flying a zig-zag Westerley course from Brussels when I sighted at 0625 hrs a single enemy aircraft which was at about 150 m.p.h patrolling a line North and South from Mons. The aircraft was camouflaged brown and green above and pale green underneath. I attacked from astern and took the enemy by surprise. The enemy aircraft dived to the ground with black smoke pouring from the engine. Near the ground he flattened his dive and his shadow on the ground merged with aircraft. Whilst investigating I sighted another similar aircraft and proceeded to take up attacking position. No fire was observed from the rear cockpit of the Henschel. On sighting this second aircraft I took a position to attack from astern, at 200 yds the rear gunner opened fire and I watched his tracer bullets going above me about two or three yds. I closed to a hundred yds and having got him in my sights gave a long burst breaking away about 10 yds astern of the enemy. The Henschel immediately spun down and crashed into the ground.

After my combat with the two Henschels I steered a course due West. I eventually landed at Compiegne where I was informed by French personnel on the landing ground that I was approximately 30 miles South of Lille. I therefore took off with a view to landing on Vitry aerodrome. I found myself later over very wooded and hilly country and decided to forced land in a ploughed field approx. 600 yds long and into wind. One side of the field is the main Paris-Dieppe road and on the other the Foiet de Bray. I circled the field once, lowered my undercarriage etc. and as I was on the cross wind leg of the approach into the field my petrol supply ran out and I could not restart the engine with the emergency starter on the gravity tank should it have contained any petrol. I therefore only had just enough time to pancake the aircraft on top of the trees and crash through. I left the aircraft in the care of the local Police at Forges Les Eaux, and proceeded to Poix by road and thence to Abbeville by air».[1]

 

The identification of aircrafts concerned is delicate. If Brian Cull [2] refers to an aircraft of 1. (H) / 14 and 1. (H) / 23, Peter D. Cornwell [3] hypothesizes a Henschel Hs 123 of the 3. (H) / 41 who crashed near Mons killing one of the crew members, while the second was injured (Oberstleutnant Graf von der Schulenburg).

 

Shortly after, another section takes off around 09:30. A Junkers Ju.88 is claimed by the Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders between Charleroi and Wavre. Indeed, a Junkers Ju.88 A-1 (L1 + AR) crashes near Flines-lez-Raches, around 10h15, killing all the crew (Oberleutnant Ernst Schwartz, Alfred Dudeck Gefreiter, Oberfeldwebel Bernard Rinke and Gefreiter Georg Fuhrmann) [4]. The Hawker Hurricane Mk I seems, however, hit by defensive fire as the pilot is forced into a forced landing, although his aircraft is repairable.

 

If a few other patrols take place in the afternoon, no special events is noted. Flying Officer Anthony Eyre and Richard D. Pexton joining the Glisy airfield field aboard the Miles Master N7577, to receive two new Hawker Hurricane Mk I. [5]

 

 

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[1] Pilot Officer Malcolm Ravenhill, Combat Report, The National Archives, Kew. AIR 50/86/32.

[2] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.186.

[3] CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.307.

[4] Once again, this claim is controversial since Arnaud Gillet (GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008. p.243) et Peter Taghon (TAGHON, Peter. La Lehrgeschwader 1 : L’Escadre au Gruffon. Tome 1. Lela Press, 2017, p.56) awarded victory to Flight Lieutenant Ian Soden of No.56 (RAF) Squadron who also claims a Ju.88 at the same time in concordant conditions. In addition, the absence of a combat report signed by Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders prevents more details about this event.

[5] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999. p.187.

 

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18 May 1940

 

Unfortunately, there is no concrete detail on the events of this day. At most, the ORB indicates the preparation of an escort mission, for Bristol Blenheim at 04h00, which is canceled ; while Brian Cull [1] mentions a brief confrontation with Heinkel He.111 of KG 1 without further details.

 

 

[1] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999, p.225.

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19 May 1940

 

At 04h00, six Hawker Hurricane Mk I took off from Moorsele for a patrol of Cambrai - Le Cateau - Cambresis area.

 

At 17h30, six aircraft patrol over Arras, while five patrol the road between Arras and Cambrai. A fight takes place, around 19h40, with about fifteen Bf 109 of 9./JG 26, in the northeast of Cambrai [1]. According to Anthony Eyre Flying Officer (L1289 KW-V) : 

 

« I was No 2 in formation of four when Blue 4 warned us over R/T of the approach of e/a. I turned 90° to starboard, then 180° when I attacked from the starboard quarter a 109 which was attacking one of our formation at about 400 feet below. I turned away and, searching, saw an aircraft, which I believe was the one I attacked, diving spirallingly with black smoke pouring from it. I then sighted another 109 below me which I dived on and attacked slightly below with a long burst. I immediately broke away since my ammunition was nearly exhausted. »[2].

 

According to Pilot Officer William L. McKnight :

 

« During a patrol over Cambrai, seven enemy attacks us from behind followed by eight other aircraft. After alerting the rest of the section by radio, I take altitude very quickly by a left turn. I am behind an enemy aircraft and shoot. Smoke comes out of the enemy plane that I fire until he crash on ground. »[3].

 

At the same time, the Hawker Hurricane Mk I N2331 is hit. Injured at legs, Flying Officer Richard D. Pexton is forced to parachute into adversary territory. He rejoin Dunkirk where he can embark, on 23 May, aboard the hospital ship Worthing. Returning to England, he is admitted to Barnet Hospital (Hertfordshire) and will not return to the squadron until 10 July. Flying Officer Richard D. Pexton provided a very detailed account of these days through in France :

 

“I was shot down on the evening of 19 May near Cambrai and, after a pretty rough time, I finally came into the hands of the RAMC on 20th late afternoon. Luckily my wounds were only slight but was unable to walk.

After being driven, by ambulance, to a CGS I wasn’t there above an hour when I was moved, by another ambulance, to a Red Cross train – somewhere near Armentières – this would be about 21h30 – and was placed on a bunk. About 10 minutes later another pilot was brought in a stretcher and put into the opposite bunk.

Sanders [4] was in a terrible state and suffering from severe burns. Face, neck, arms, hands and legs I feel sure that he had no actual bullet wounds.

The Sister immediately attended the burns they had previously been dressed at a CCS. Everything that was possible was done to comfort Sanders.

The remainder of his tunic and slacks were cut off and his request that his wings should be cut off his tunic and pinned to his shirt was carried out by the Sister.

We were given a cooked meal – those who could eat and Sanders was given a warm drink.

The train moved off after dusk and the lights were dimmed and those who could slept.

The next morning I woke up and found the train was stationary and bombs were dropping somewhere near. I asked what had happened and was informed that the track had been bombed and there were five trains in front of us – full of refugees and we had only travelled a few miles since the previous night. The bombing continued through the day and a feeling of helplessness seemed to be over us. Sanders condition was, by this time, much more serious and, if I may be allowed to say so, he had become practically blind – as he was continually asking for the bandages over them. It was then I noticed his name of his card. I tried to get into conversation with him.

About 17h00, that evening there were some bombs dropped very near to the train then the machine came over the train and machine-gunned the whole lenght. There were a few casualties in the next carriage to ours. I shall always remeber how some of the orderlies left to the train and seeked refuge in a near wood whilst the Sister (I believe her name was Davison or Davidson) tried to comfort us all by being so casual and especially Sanders who, naturally, was unnerved by this sudden outbreak of machine gunfire – it was an act of extreme bravery the way she knelt by his bunk and comforted him with words and tender care and will always be one of my treasured memories of what the Millitary nurses really meant to the wounded.

Almost another hour passed when some ambulances arrived and all stretcher cases were moved from the train – Sanders was in the same amublance as myself – it was a terrible fight to see the walking and sitting cases sitting on the side by the train. The look of hopelessness and despair on their faces, whilst we were aboard the ambulances, showed as much that they really throught very little of their chances of escaping from the enemies onslought.

By the time we arrived at the next hospital, Steenvoorde, it was dark and this is the last time I ever saw Sanders he was carried in front of me and was put in a different ward to myself.

We were in this hospital from the evening of the 21st until we were finally moved to Dunkerque on the evening of the 23rd. I enquired several times from the orderlies how Sanders was and was always told he was very seriously ill and there was little hope.

After we were carried aboard the Worthing and had set sail I enquired from the Sergeant if Pilot Officer Sanders was aboard. He informed me that he died during the ambulance ride from the hospital but I understood his body had been taken aboard.

As a conclusion I should like to mention that I had studied Sanders wounds and, when I returned to my Squadron I gave them the information and the necessity of being prepared against fire. After this it almost became a rule that all pilots wore protective clothing what ever the weather. Also we used our reserve petrol first to lessen the risk of cockpit fire. »[5]

 

According to Donald Caldwell [6], the British pilots reportedly faced 4./JG 26 under the command of Kommandeur, Hautpman Herwig Knüppel (Bf.109 E-3 – W.Nr.1542). The latter is shot and killed during the fight, while the injured Oberleutnant Karl Ebbighausen (Bf 109 E-3) makes a forced landing in the vicinity of Lille. Another Bf.109 E-3 is reported to have made a forced landing in Brussels. Perhaps this is the aircraft that struck the Hurricane of Flying Officer Richard D. Pexton [7]. According to a summary of events on the German side :

 

« Free hunting on the region of Grammont – Lille – Cambrai. The group took off at 19h07 under the command of Hauptman Knüppel. Above Lille, an aerial battle takes place with four Hurricanes in which three enemy machines were shot down. Captain Knüppel is attacked. We did not follow the rest of the fight. The Hurricane was shot down by the Leutnant Krug. The Hauptman Knüppel did not return from this mission. »[8]

 

A last patrol is reported, in the evening, above Oudenaarde – Tournai, without special events. But that’s the end for the No.615 Squadron as explained by Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll :

 

« On the evening of the 19th we were surprised to see a German motrocycle and sidecar driving round the aerodrome and we could hear gunfire to the east. Then we were ordered to move to Merville at first light, only keeping enough ground staff to see the aircraft off. During the night (about 22h00) a Belgian officer arrived and said that he had been ordered to blow up the aerodrome immediately. I took until about 01h00 to persuade him not to do this, owing largely to the efforts of our adjutant and a few drinks. A compromise was reached in that he would dig holes and place the mines, leaving a straight take-off lane for us to use at dawn. One of the results of our frequent moves was that we had not had sufficient time to keep the starter batteries charged. Only one battery was serviceable and had to be used by all aircraft, mechnics being used to start the engines of the less experienced pilots. ».[9]

 

Pilot Officers Robert D. Grassick, William L. McKnight and Percival S. Turner are ordered to join Kenley Aerodrome in the evening to return to No.242 (RAF) Squadron.

Pilot Officer Robert D. Grassick eeturning to No.242 (RAF) Squadron, he participated in the various battles over Dunkirk and Battle of Britain, as well as the various British operations of 1941. On 28 September 1941, he joined the OTU of Aden. From now on, the rest of his career will be mainly in Eastern and Southern Africa as an instructor and transport liaison pilot. He joined the RCAF on 1st May 1945, and returned to Canada. He died on 28 October 1978.

Pilot Officer William L. McKnight returning to No.242 (RAF) Squadron, he participated in the various battles over Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. On 12 January 1941, he disappeared in combat, with Hawker Hurricane Mk I P2961, during a Rhubarb near Gravelines. His name is commemorated at Runnymede Memorial.

Pilot Officer Percial S. Turner returning to No.242 (RAF) Squadron, he participated in the various battles over Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. He joined No.145 (RAF) Squadron in June 1941 and was awarded the DFC in October of the same year. After a brief rest, he took command of No.411 (RCAF) Squadron, in December 1941, then No.249 (RAF) Squadron in Malta, in February 1942. He remained on the besieged island until November 1943 by exercising various functions. In May 1944, he received the DSO, while integrating the headquarters of the Desert Air Force. He returned to Europe in January 1945 with the rank of Group Captain to take command of No.127 (RAF) Wing. He joined the RCAF after the war until his retirement in 1965. He died on 23 July 1985.

 

 

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

 

[1] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999, p.261.

[2] Combat Reports. Flying Officer Anthony Eyre (19/05/40). Kew : The National Archives, AIR 50/175/2. GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008, p.296.

[3] Combat Reports. Pilot Officer William L. McKnight (19/05/40). Kew : The National Archives, AIR 50/175/22. GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008, p.296.

[4] Pilot Officer Richard Atheling Sanders has been posted from No.141 (RAF) Squadron to Squadron No.87 (RAF) on 16 May 1940. He is shot down aboard the Hawker Hurricane Mk I N2710. on 20 May, probably victim of a Bf 110 north-west of Arras.

[5] Casualty Record : Flying Officer Richard D. Pexton The National Archives, Kew : AIR 81/742.

[6] CALDWELL Donald. The JG 26 War Diarry, Vol 1 (1939 – 1942). Grub Street, 1996, p.28 à 29.

[7] It should be noted that Peter D. Cornwell matches the loss of Flying Officer Richard D. Pexton with a claim by Hauptman Günther Lützow (Stab I./JG 3) at about 19h15 in the Arras – Cambrai area.

[8] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008, p.296.

[9] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999, p.261 à 262.

 

 

 

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20 May 1940

 

The No.615 Squadron leaves, finally, at 04h30, for the airfield of Norrent-Fontes with thirteen Hawker Hurricane Mk I (as well as one Miles Magister). The day starts very early when at 08h00 a double patrol is organized : the first above Lille (six aircraft), and the second in defense of the airfield (three aircraft).

 

A more ambitious operation begins at 11h00. In this case, a formation composed of No. 504, No.607 and No.615 (RAF) Squadron is responsible for attacking a German convoy on the Cambrai-Arras road.

 

According to Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll :

 

« There was a request from the Army that we should try de delay the German advance towards Arras on the road from Cambrai. We managed to get 12 serviceable aircraft together (three from 615, three from 504 and six from 607), 615 leading. We found a large quantity of German transport on this perfectly straight road and were able to do some damage. Unfortunately we lost three aircraft, including Flying Officer Bob Pumphrey [P3448 AF-H] of 607, who managed to jump out at low level and survived as a PoW. Our mistake was to attack in sections of three in line astern and the German had a concentration of cannon and machine-guns at either side of the road. ».

 

The losses are non-negligible and, besides Flying Officer Robert EW Pumphrey, No.504 (RAF) Squadron loses Pilot Officer Michael Jebb (P3586) and Blair E.G. White, although the two pilots are only injured and can be evacuated from Dieppe, while No.607 (RAF) Squadron loses Pilot Officer Richard S. Demetriadi (P2671 – AF-H), again without consequences. At the same time, the aircraft of Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll is also damaged in the wing, but he can return to Norrent-Fontes [1]. Despite these losses, mainly material, British pilots are able to destroy seven vehicles according to a raconnaissance made by Flying Officer Lionel M. Gaunce around 13h00.

 

In the afternoon, six Hawker Hurricane Mk I take off for a patrol of Arras – Douai – Lens sector. A formation of twelve Heinkel He.111 of I./LG 1 was sighted, at an attitude of about 4 800 meters and a fight commenced, around 16h00, during which Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll and Pilot Officer Petrus H. Hugo claim a bomber [2].

 

According to Joseph R. Kayll :

 

« Attacked tail of formation with beam attack which put rear gunner out of action. Then attacked from astern, closing to 200 yards. Port engine stopped and was smoking badly. E/a went into a spin and disappeared through low cloud. »[3].

 

Kayll_20mai40_615.jpg?resize=271,300&ssl

 

The Heinkel He.111 (L1 + GK), from 2./LG 1 [4], hit the ground near Lille killing Feldwebel Erich Hackbarth, Unteroffizier Max Bröge and Gefreiter Heinz Schönberg.

 

According to an interrogator report of the sole survivor, the Feldwebel Erich Weber, by the British :

 

« We took off from Dusseldorf at 14h00 to watch troop movements west of Lille. The Heinkel 111 aircraft was armed with four machine guns and carried twelve 50-kilo bombs. We were fired bu several anti-aircraft fire, and shot down by a Morane at 4 800 meters »[5].

 

This patrol is the last documented sortie of No.615 Squadron from France. The evacuation orders to England are starting to rain on the different British Squadrons. The evacuation of Norrent-Fontes begins around 18h30 when nine Hawker Hurricane Mk I of No.615 Squadron, including L1289 (Flying Officer Anthony Eyre), take off with four others of No. 607 (RAF) Squadron to escort a Sabena’s Savoia-Marchetti S.73P carrying the No.60 (RAF) Wing staff, and some of the ground personnel, heading for Kenley Airfield [6].

 

Three other Hawker Hurricane Mk I and the last four Gloster Gladiator Mk I (including the N2304 and N2306) take the same path in the evening. Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders makes the crossing with a Bristol Blenheim, while Pilot Officer Petrus H. Hugo returns with the Miles Magister from Merville.

 

« At 13h00, instructions were received that everyone should be ready to evacuate to England. At 14h30, the ground staff packed up for Boulogne leaving behind eighteen airmen. At 18h25, a SM75 transport aircraft took on board the No. 60 Squadron Commander and his staff as well as the 18 airmen of the squadron, twenty-one airmen of No. 615 Squadron and ten airmen of No.607 Squadron. The plane takes the direction of England »[7].

 

Pilot Officer John E.M. Collins, Malcolm Ravenhill (aboard Gloster Gladiator Mk II N2308 KW-T) and Victor B.S. Verity return in the evening to No.229 (RAF) Squadron.

Pilot Officer John E.M. Collins returning to No.229 (RAF) Squadron, he participated in the fighting over Dunkirk, where he disappeared on a mission, flying the Hawker Hurricane Mk I L1982, on 31 May 1940.

Pilot Officer Malcolm Ravenhill returning to No.229 (RAF) Squadron, he participated in the last battles over Dunkirk, then the Battle of Britain. On 1st September 1940, he was hospitalized after being forced to parachute during a battle over Biggin Hill (Hawker Hurricane Mk I P3038). Back in operation, he disappears on 30 September when following a fight with Bf.109 his Hawker Hurricane Mk I P2815 hit the ground near Ightham (Church Road). He is buried in City Road Cemetery, Sheffield.

Pilot Officer Victor B.S. Verity returning to No.229 (RAF) Squadron, he participated in the fighting over Dunkirk, then Battle of Britain. At the end of 1940, he volunteered to join the night fighters. In April 1942, he was transferred to North Africa until June 1943. Back in Europe, he take command of No.650 (RAF) Squadron, during the first half of 1944, to ensure British air defense training. After passing through various commands and OTU, he returned home to New Zealand in November 1945. He died on 2 February 1979 in Wellington.

 

 

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[1] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999, p.292 à 293 ; CORNWELL, Peter D. The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007. p.332 ; DIXON, Robert. 607 Squadron : A Shade of Blue. 2012. 200 p.

[2] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999, p.294 ; TAGHON, Peter. La Lehrgeschwader 1 : L’Escadre au Gruffon. Tome 1. Lela Press, 2017, p.59.

[3] Combat Reports. Pilot Officer Joseph R. Kayll (20/05/40). Kew : The National Archives, AIR 50/175/14. (n°27) ; GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008, p.332.

[4] Peter D. Cornwell (The Battle of France, Then and Now : Six Nations Locked in Aerial Combat, September 1939 to June 1940. Old Harlow : After the Battle, 2007, p.337) attribue la victoire au Flying Officer Duus du No.79 (RAF) Squadron à 13h45.

[5] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008, p.332.

[6] CULL, Brian ; LANDER, Bruce ; WEISS, Heinrich. Twelve Days in May. The Air Battle for Northern France and the Low Countires, 10 – 21 May 1940, as seen through the eyes of the fighter pilots involved. London : Grub Street, 1999, p.294

[7] GILLET, Arnaud. La Luftwaffe à l’ouest – Les victoires de l’aviation de chasse britannique (10 mai 1940 – 23 mai 1940). Béthenville : Arnaud Gillet, 2008, p.345.

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23 - 30 May 1940

 

Unfortunately, there is little information available about this period in the squadron ORB, which only starts again in early June.

 

There is only mention of an alert take-off of three Hawker Hurricanes from Kenley Airfield on 30 May at 14h45. However, they returned at 15h07 as the threat turned out to be another Hurricane.

 

However, it appears that Flight Lieutenant James G. Sanders, as well as others pilots, participates in Operation Dynamo within a Flight created for the occasion on Gloster Gladiator Mk II. This provisional unit is based at Manston, with No. 604 (RAF) Squadron, between 23 and 30 May 1940.[1]

 

According to No. 604 (RAF) Squadron ORB, the detachment is composed of Flight Lieutenant James B. Sanders, Flying Officer Lionel M. Gaunce and Pilot Officers David Evans, Petrus H. Hugo, Michael R. Mudie and Ralph Roberts.

 

The pilots are then supposed to carry out night patrols over Dunkirk and Boulogne. In practice however the majority of patrols seemed to take place during the day over British ports or off the English coast.

 

According to Håkan Gustavsson, four aircraft are used : the K7928, K7970, K8001 (damaged on 26 May in a ground collision with the Bristol Blenheim L6607 on the Manston airfield) and the K8033.[2]

 

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[1] FRANKS, Norman. Dowding’s Eagles: Accounts of Twenty-five Battle of Britain Veterans. Pen & Sword Aviation, 2015 ; Christopher SHORES; WILLIAMS Clive. Aces High: A Tribute to the Most Notable Fighter Pilots of the British and Commonwealth Forces of WWII. 2008, Grub Street ;

[2] GUSTAVSSON, Hakan. Gloster Gladiator in Fighter service : http://surfcity.kund.dalnet.se/gladiator_raf_ff.htm

 

 

23_30mai40_615_1.jpg?fit=619%2C765&ssl=1

23_30mai40_615_2.jpg?fit=627%2C721&ssl=1

 

23_30mai40_615_3.jpg?fit=620%2C200&ssl=1

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2 June 1940

 

Squadron Leader Joseph R. Kayll is in charge of the reorganization of No.615 Squadron, at Kenley Airfield, following the various losses suffered during May 1940. Flying Officer Lionel M. Gaunce temporarily took over the command of A Flight as Flight Lieutenant.

 

Pilot Officer Horace E. Horne is transferred to No.242 (RAF) Squadron on 2 June, where his presence seemed very short. The rest of his career remains unknown. He does not seem to participate in the Battle of Britain following his transfer to No.242 (RAF) Squadron as his name does not appear in the "Few" list. He was promoted to the rank of Flying Officer (September 1940), then Flight Lieutenant (September 1941), before being transferred to the RCAF on 3 January 1945.

 

At the same time, we note the presence of two new pilots, Pilot Officers David Evans and Cecil R. Montgomery.

 

David Evans was born on 21 November 1919 in Liverpool. He joined the Territorial Army in 1938 in the 38th (AA) Battalion of the King's Regiment. He was transferred to the RAF with an SSU in June 1939. After his training with the 9 E&RFTS in Ansty, he joined No.615 Squadron during May.

 

Cecil Robert Montgomery was born in 1914 in Lisnaskea (Northern Ireland). He joined the RAF with an SSU in June 1939. He trained at 22 E&RFTS (Cambridge), then at the No.2 Flying Traning School at Brize Norton (21 August 1939 - 17 February 1940). After his conversion on Hawker Hurricane, he joined No.615 Squadron in May 1940.

 

These first days of June are then essentially devoted to a series of training sessions to enable the Squadron to return to operational activity as quickly as possible over France.

 

On 2 June, Flight Lieutenant Lionel M. Gaunce (P2871), Pilot Officer Petrus H. Hugo (P2963) and Cecil R. Young (P2966) performed an alert take-off between 18h20 and 19h55.

 

This period of lull also allowed the pilots to take a little rest after the terrible fighting in France in May 1940.

 

According to Flying Officer John R.H. Gayner :

 

"Terror and exhausion dominate my recollation of that period over France and Belgium. Terror because of all the bloody Huns. There were many more of them than of us, they had better aeroplanes, they were trying to kill us, and they were better at it than we were. They liked war and most os us didn't like war at all.

I was exhausted because I was getting up at half-past three or four in the morning and flying three or four sorties a day. Communications and orders from headquarters and our wing were pratically non-existent. Our job was to stop German aircraft attacking our ground forces and gain air superiority over the battlefield. We weren't even able to start the job. There weren't enough of us. The sky was swarming with Bf.109, and we lost over a third of our pilots in twelve days fighting."

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