54 Squadron pilots, May 1941, gather round a Supermarine Spitfire Mark IIA, Rochford, Essex.
On the wing sits their commanding officer, Squadron Leader, R F Boyd, with the squadron mascot “Crash”. Boyd had at this time destroyed 14 enemy aircraft. 

By RAF official photographer, Woodbine G (Mr) – This is photograph CH 2710 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums (collection no. 4700-16), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5036935

This year sees the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the decisive campaign by Fighter Command to defend Britain from invasion by the Nazis, held in the skies above southern England between July 1940 and October 1940. My own uncle, Gordon Herbert Batchelor, was a Battle of Britain pilot and one of “The Few” so naturally, I’ve been reading many accounts of the Battle with great interest. Often one learns about history in broad sweeps: there is a place for that, but it can also be beneficial to get up close and look at one particular element. Gordon was posted to 54 Squadron towards the end of the Battle of Britain, in October 1940, so I thought it would be interesting to examine specifically the role played by his Squadron, over a series of articles.

To give you some background, after the fall of France in June 1940, Hitler drew up a plan, code-named “Operation Sea Lion” to invade Britain. The only thing standing in Hitler’s way was the Royal Air Force (RAF). Pilots from many different squadrons launched a defence against the German Luftwaffe in iconic aircraft such as the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire. Around 80% were British but pilots of other nationalities also took part, especially those from the British Empire and conquered European nations such as Poland and Czechoslovakia. It was a huge responsibility for this small band of brave pilots, whose average age was just 20.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR 1939 – 1945: THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN JULY-SEPTEMBER 1940 (CH 740) Supermarine Spitfire Mark IAs, (N3289 ?DW-K and R6595 ?DW-O? nearest), of No 610 Squadron, Royal Air Force based at Biggin Hill, Kent, flying in three ‘vic’ formations. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205193352

In 1936, the RAF was restructured into Fighter, Bomber and Coastal Commands in defence of the country. Fighter Command was divided into four geographical areas, called ‘Groups’, which were then sub-divided into Sectors. 54 Squadron, a Fighter Squadron, was part of Group 11, the Group which saw the most action, as it covered the south-east of England and London. Hornchurch, Essex, the home of 54 Squadron, was the main fighter base in its Sector, equipped with its own operations room. It was ideally placed to cover bomb alley, (the direct route for enemy bombers on their way to London), as it was a few miles to the north of London and near to the Thames Estuary. Each fighter base was, in turn, supported by satellite aerodromes. This was the world’s first integrated air defence system, named the Dowding System, after Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding who was instrumental in its development. The Dowding System allowed fighter commands forces to be deployed effectively, creating a more level playing field, despite the significant numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe in both planes and pilots.

The use of radar was to be a decisive factor in the outcome of the Battle of Britain. Radar gave an early warning of an impending raid. Precise information was distributed to each of the sector stations, who could then ‘scramble’ fighters into action. Radio was then used to give even more up to date information to the airborne fighters. Anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons were also defensive aids supporting the fighter planes.

ROYAL AIR FORCE RADAR, 1939-1945. (C 1868) Chain Home: airmen and WAAF operators at work in the wooden Receiver hut at Ventnor CH, Isle of Wight, during the Battle of Britain. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205211301

The main source of information on a Squadron’s activities during the Second World War are the Operations Record Books, which are held by The National Archives (UK) in AIR 27. Essentially, each Squadron kept a diary, which recorded the daily events and every flight undertaken by each pilot, and its purpose. The Operations Records Books for July 1940 can be found for 54 Squadron in AIR 27 511/22 and AIR 27 511/23. These records are further supported by the combat reports of individual pilots held in AIR 50. The Combat Reports for 54 Squadron at this time can be found in AIR 50 21. I have taken advantage of the fact that the National Archives (UK) have made these records free to download from their website for a limited time. Biographical information on the pilots can be found on the Battle of Britain Archive website: https://bbm.org.uk/the-airmen/. I am getting to know some of their faces quite well and it is very sobering to see how young they all were. Most were aged between 18 and 28. Links to individual pilots serving in 54 Squadron at this time can be found in the Appendix. Over 40% of them did not survive the War.

When reading through the Operations Record Books for July 1940, you can see that the important role played by 54 Squadron in the evacuation of Dunkirk in May 1940 was a source of great pride. 54 Squadron, in their Supermarine Spitfires, had shot down thirty one enemy aircraft for the loss of four pilots and seven planes. At the time, the RAF was criticised savagely for not being on the scene, helping the men stranded on the beaches who were being strafed mercilessly by the Luftwaffe. However, far from being absent, 54 Squadron had been fully occupied preventing German bombers from reaching the beaches.

54 Squadron’s role was recognised very publicly when on June 27th, the King made a personal visit to Hornchurch. He gave a number of awards to members of 54 Squadron for their heroism at Dunkirk:

ROYAL AIR FORCE FIGHTER COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 430) King George VI congratulates Flight-Lieutenant A C Deere, on decorating him with the Distinguished Flying Cross at Hornchurch, Essex. To the King’s left stands Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command.
Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205208646

The visit of the King to Hornchurch and the decorations he awarded to Squadron members, gave a huge boost to the pilots and consequently, some great positive headlines in the newspapers:

The Sphere – Saturday 06 July 1940
Image © Illustrated London News Group via www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

One particular episode that showed the huge courage of the pilots was a daring rescue mission that took place on May 23rd 1940. Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere and Flying Officer John Allen were the escort for Squadron Leader Leathart, known as ‘The Prof’ because of his engineering degree. The Commanding Officer of 74 Squadron was stranded at Calais-Marck airfield and Squadron Leader Leathart, in a two-seater Miles Master, came to rescue him with Deere and Allen providing cover in their Spitfires. As Leathart took off with his passenger, he was attacked by twelve Me109’s but these were engaged by Allen and Deere, who between them, shot three down and badly damaged three more. All three pilots and their very important passenger made it back to England and safety.

Flight Lieutenant “Al” Deere, 22 years old and a New Zealander, was to become one of the most celebrated pilots of 54 Squadron. On May 28th, only a few days after the daring rescue had taken place, Deere’s aircraft was damaged in combat and he was forced to land on a beach halfway between Dunkirk and Ostend. Despite being knocked unconscious and incurring a head injury, Deere managed to free himself from his aircraft, (which was now on fire), and decided to make his way to Dunkirk. Commandeering a bicycle, he eventually managed to hitch a lift with British soldiers heading for Dunkirk in a lorry. Eventually, he made it on to one of the boats but encountered the animosity felt by many soldiers on board who felt that they had been abandoned by the RAF. After arriving at Dover, he caught a train to London, arriving back at the Squadron’s mess in Hornchurch, some nineteen hours after he had taken off the previous day. Deere was to be the subject of many exploits in the months and years to come.

From the Operations Record Books, it is clear that the Squadron was justly proud of their achievements at Dunkirk and pleased that their contribution was finally getting recognition in the Press:

July 13th 1940 The Squadron is receiving a great deal of ‘delayed action’ publicity for the epic Calais-Marck. An article in “Life” (June 24th), “I fought in the sky over Dunkirk” by an R.A.F. Squadron Leader (S/L Leathart) was followed by a commentary in the Daily Mirror and now Phillips and Powis display an extract of the account in a full page advertisement for ‘Master’ aircraft.

Belatedly, the RAF was receiving more credit for their role at Dunkirk. Internally, reports were being compiled, which merited a mention in the Operations Record Book on July 16th:

July 16th 1940 A most interesting and enlightening report on “DUNKIRK” has been circulated by H.Q. No. 11 Group. Great tribute is paid to the work of the Squadron engaged from No. 11 Group. During the period of DUNKIRK 403 enemy casualties were confirmed, 203 unconfirmed for a loss of 143 of our own pilots. Our own Squadron accounted for 7.7% of the total enemy confirmed casualties. 7.9% of those unconfirmed. Our loss in pilots was 2.8% of the total.

During this summer month, 54 Squadron, were mainly operating out of the satellite aerodrome at Rochford in Essex, rather than from their base at Hornchurch. Rochford (now Southend Airport) was chosen as it was closer for patrols over occupied France, though it was not so poplar with the pilots, as facilities there were primitive. In the first couple of weeks, the Squadron was frequently conducting reconnaissance trips to see what the Germans were up to on captured French aerodromes. As part of the strategy, Bomber Command had been instructed to bomb coastal ports and shipping that was assembling in readiness for invasion. 54 Squadron was helping to gather intelligence on movements. The Germans had also begun attacking coastal targets and British shipping in the English Channel so another task of the Squadron was to go on convoy patrol.

Although the official date for the commencement of the Battle of Britain is July 15th, you can see from the Operations Record Books that 54 Squadron were certainly involved in dog-fights earlier in the month. The battle for the Channel, the Kanalkampf as the Luftwaffe called it, began July 3rd. Nine aircraft from the Squadron were engaged in a dogfight over Manston Airport in Kent during a rainstorm and “dodging bombs coming through the clouds with equal impartiality”. The following day, Manston was the scene of another attack and 54 Squadron were taken by surprise. The two machines of P/O. Kemp and F/O. McMullen were damaged, the former badly, but no pilots were lost. Manston was obviously being targeted but the German pilots only had fifteen to twenty minutes over the target before their lack of fuel meant they had to scurry home to their captured French airfields.

Eleven sorties were made by two Sections in nine hours on July 7th:

July 7th 9.30 A second and most disastrous day at Manston. “B” Flight lost three machines, two being complete “write-offs”. Green Section was attacked by a number of He 112s whilst themselves attacking an He 111. P/O. Campbell and P/O. Coleman were both shot down, but managed to make forced landings near Deal. The pilots suffered from minor injuries but the machines were completely wrecked. F/O. McMullan the leader was also damaged but managed to land at Manston. The He 111 disappeared unscathed. The fundamental lesson of “looking everywhere in the sky at once” has been learned at a very high price.

To cap it all, later in the day, P/O. Gribble was fired on accidentally by a Hurricane. In these early days, when communication systems had not been fully tested and nerves were strained, there was a real risk of being shot down through friendly fire. More action was evidently anticipated for at 21.00, all pilots were called to readiness and within half an hour, six machines were manned by pilots recalled from their 24 hour pass.

The following day, “the balance was slightly redressed in our favour” when during a three section patrol over Dover, two Me 109s were intercepted and shot down off the coast, one accounted for by F/Lt. Way, the other shared by him with P/O. Garton. The Germans had been targeting convoys as the thick cloud that day provided excellent cover. P/O. Finnie and P/O. Howes were also posted to the Squadron.

July 9th was an eventful day as an He 59 was confirmed by P/O. Allen and two Me 109s were confirmed by F/Lt. Deere and Sgt. Lawrence. Two further Me 109s were unconfirmed by F/Lt. Deere and Sgt. Lawrence. Three prisoners were taken from the He 59 that had been shot down. It was stranded on Goodwin Sands, (a 10-mile-long sandbank at the southern end of the North Sea lying 6 miles off the Deal coast in Kent). This was particularly noteworthy, as it was the first of its type claimed by the Squadron. F/Lt Deere was also causing a stir again:

July 9th 1940 18.52 F/Lt. Deere had an amazing experience that in manoeuvring for position for attack on a Me 109, neither 109 nor Spitfire gave way – and a head on collision resulted, the Me 109 catching the propellor and hood of the Spitfire. F/Lt. Deere (with engine stopped) managed to force land near Manston upon which his machine caught fire. He broke his way out of the machine uninjured except for slight burns on the hands.

On the July 10th, the author of the Operations Record Book takes stock of the situation, commenting that as a result of the first phase of the Battle of Britain, the Squadron “could only muster eight aircraft and thirteen pilots”. Sadly, P/O. Garton was dead, after his aircraft crashed near Manston and P/O. Evershed was missing. Patrick Bishop in his book “Fighter Boys” says that the death of Garton had been particularly distressing. “‘Prof’ Leathart last heard him over the R/T, screaming that he was on fire and being chased by four Germans. Evershed had been considered a promising pilot and a potential leader”.

On the July 11th, 54 Squadron were ordered to provide cover for a convoy: there was little time to rest or recuperate and each pilot had to rise to the occasion and take to the air to respond to the threat:

July 11th 13.18 Memories of the distant past were awakened this afternoon when 8 A/C were ordered on a convoy patrol. There is one big difference however, between the present and the past, then excitement was the exception, now it is common place.

On July 13th, 54 Squadron were once again patrolling Manston and one of their New Zealanders, P/O Gray was at the forefront of the action. He was to become the top New Zealand fighter ace of the Second World War:

July 13th 1940 New Zealand to the fore again! – This time in the person of P/O Gray. Three sections were patrolling Manston when seasoned Blue Section (F/Lt. Way, P/O. Gray, and Sgt Norwell – all survivors of Dunkirk) were sighted by two Me 109s. Better prepared than the earlier and less fortunate green section of the Squadron, the tables were turned on the 109’s, chasing them back at sea level almost to the French coast. P/O. Gray shot one which crashed into the sea (confirmed by 56 Squadron). F/Lt. Way was unfortunate for the 109 he was chasing escaped.

With resources fully stretched, it was important to analyse each Squadron’s figures and record every claim. The following tally was reported for 54 Squadron:

(a) e/a [enemy aircraft] certain casualties. 39
(b) e/a [enemy aircraft] probable casualties. 21
(c) our own pilots missing or killed. 6
(d) our own a/c [aircraft]lost whilst engaging the enemy. 13 

In the middle of the month, the Squadron received some “new blood” with with Sgt. Davis and Sgt. Gibbins posted to the Squadron on July 13th and P/O. Turley-George and Sgt. Collett joining on July 15th. A few days later, on July 18th, informal photographs of the “Dunkirk Warriors” and of the whole Squadron with its many new faces were taken:

54 squadron at RAF Hornchurch
Back Row L to R:
Sgt. Lawrence, Sgt. Collett, F/O/ Smith, F/O. McMullen, P/O. Howes, P/O. Finnie,
P/O. Turley-George, P/O. Matthews, Sgt. Tew, P/O. Gray.
Middle Row L to R: P/O. Allen, F/Lt. Deere, S/Ldr. Leathart, F/Lt. Way, P/O. Gribble.
Front Row L to R: Sgt. Norwell, P/O. Coleman, F/O. Shallard (Intelligence Officer), P/O. Hopkin. Image courtesy of Hornchurch Aerodrome Historical Trust – https://rafhornchurch.com/

That evening, a rare evening off was enjoyed. The majority of the Squadron were able to relax at a dance organised for the Squadron by the doctors and nurse of Southend General Hospital. “This gesture was greatly appreciated and full advantage taken of it.” It must have been wonderful for the young men to have a small opportunity to forget the cares of war and fighting and presumably, to enjoy some female company.

Further favourable press reports were to come out in July that must have been a big boost to morale. The Squadron received a visit from a representative from the Sunday Express, which resulted in a full page article on July 21st, entitled “Fighter Pilot and His Type“. “Many of the incidents quoted were recognised as Squadron anecdotes”, such as the story of P/O Allen who after being shot down over the Channel at Dunkirk, was rescued by a naval corvette and appeared in the mess the same evening dressed in naval uniform.

Over the next few days, there were several sightings of enemy aircraft but no engagements. The Squadron was still occupied with convoy patrols, operating both from Rochford and Manston. There was also a change in personnel. Flying Officer Shallard, the Squadron’s first intelligence officer, relinquished his duties after a stay of four months and was replaced by Flying Officer Smith.

On July 21st, P/O. Kemp had a lucky escape and rather an adventure. During a convoy patrol, his engine cut out and fifteen miles east of Clacton, he was forced to abandon his machine in the North Sea. He made a successful parachute landing near a destroyer, which took him aboard. He returned to London from Rosyth on July 23rd.

July 24th was a day when plenty of action was seen. In the Operations Record Book, it was described as “The biggest and most successful day since Dunkirk”. Early that morning, twelve Do 215s, in two waves of six, attempted to bomb a convoy off Dover. An attack by Green Section, led by P/O. Gribble, forced the enemy to jettison their bombs before reaching their target and they were sent scurrying home. It was noted that this was the first instance in which coils of trailing wire, probably around 50ft. in length, were seen to be thrown out of the enemy bombers as they were being pursued (probably to foul the propellors).

Later that morning, at 11.25, the Squadron took part in what they called “The Battle of the Thames Estuary”. Eighteen Do 215s escorted by at least two Squadrons of Me 109s and an unknown number of He 113’s, attacked a British convoy in the Estuary that had just entered the Channel from the Medway. It was “the biggest fight since the second day of Dunkirk”. Despite facing considerable odds and with three new pilots, the engagement was thought to be a big success with sixteen enemy aircraft recorded as being either destroyed or probably destroyed. Patrick Bishop, in his book “Fighter Boys“, believes they were mistaken, with the most likely number being two, but it was still rightly considered a moral victory. It was also noted that some Me 109s were equipped with a rubber dinghy! This sounds like a sensible precaution to me, as crashes frequently occurred over the sea. However, it was marred by the unfortunate loss of P/O. Allen D.F.C. who only a month earlier, had been decorated by the King and was very well-liked:

July 24th 11.25 He [Allen] was attacked by a Me 109 near Margate; he was seen coming down with one engine stopped and appeared to be making a forced landing under perfect control. The engine came to life again, and he made for Manston; the engine cut a second time and P/O. Allen apparently turned towards Foreness when he stalled and spun straight into the ground. The loss of P/O. Allen, who has destroyed seven enemy aircraft, will be greatly felt by the whole Squadron.

Sgt. Collett also had to make a forced landing at Sizewell, near Oxfordness, after chasing a Me 109 until he was out of petrol, receiving slight injuries.

As well as the Operations Record Books in AIR 27, the combat reports in AIR 50, give you an idea of how events unfolded in the eyes of the pilots, along with specific details about the engagement: the number and type of enemy aircraft, their height, where the attack took place, the number of rounds used and the fate of the aircraft. This is the report given by P/O. Matthews for the aforementioned attack on July 24th:

Combat Report 54 Squadron July 24th 1940 AIR 50-21-53
The National Archives (UK) http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk

Any euphoria felt after the success the previous day was soon lost the following day. The writer of the Operations Record Book refers to July 25th as “Black Thursday”, with the Squadron bearing the brunt of heavy enemy attacks on convoys between Deal and Dover. At 14.32, hordes of Ju 87’s were spotted, escorted by Me 109s at 14.32. One Me 109 was destroyed by F/Lt Way, another probable was claimed by P/O. Gray and one was damaged by S/Ldr. Leathart. However, F/L. Way was reported as missing, a great tragedy for the Squadron. “That he accounted for an enemy aircraft before meeting his unknown fate is typical of his keenness and great courage in the face of odds large or small”. P/O. Turley-George was also shot down but although his machine was written off, he escaped uninjured.

Later in the day, at 16.21, enemy fighters and bombers, around 100 strong, attacked two destroyers off Calais. The squadron (ten aircraft), went to their aid but were heavily outnumbered. Their “cup of woe” was filled with the loss of P/O. Finnie, one of their new pilots, who was shot down and killed near Dover. Although no enemy casualties were claimed, the Squadron’s attack did disperse the enemy fighters, making it easier for other Squadrons to attack the bombers.

On July 26th, a sadly depleted squadron of only twelve aircraft left for Catterick, in Yorkshire, containing only six survivors from Dunkirk. It was hoped that this would be a period of rest, enabling the squadron to rebuild its strength for 54 Squadron had seen a disproportionate amount of the action, flying more operations than any other Squadron in Group 11. Squadron Leader Leathart was also keen for the new pilots to receive more training as on average, they had only completed five hours of Spitfire flying before joining the Squadron. It was hoped that their stay would “afford excellent opportunities of welding together our Squadron that may even rival the 54 Squadron of pre-Dunkirk days”. Despite the tragic losses, July ended on a high with the news that P/O. Gribble, one of the few pre-war members of the Squadron, had been awarded the D.F.C. He was fifth member of the squadron to be so decorated.

In my next article in this series, fighting in the Battle of Britain intensifies over the skies of southern England. No one knows whether the RAF has the strength to combat the relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe in the skies and thwart an invasion. 54 Squadron and its courageous pilots are once again in the thick of the action.

Please subscribe to my blog to receive a notification of the next instalment. If you would like to know more about the story of my Uncle Gordon and the information I found on him in Red Cross records, you can read it here: https://genealogyjude.com/2020/06/27/ww2-prisoner-of-war-records-from-the-archives-of-the-red-cross/

Appendix

The pilots below were all members of 54 Squadron in July 1940. Further biographical details on each of them can be found on the website of the Battle of Britain archive: www.bbm.org.uk.

Pilot Officer John Evershed and Pilot Officer Jack Garton are not included as they were killed before July 15th, the day when the Battle of Britain officially commenced.

AllenJohn LauranceF/OGBDied July 24th 1940http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/AllenJL.htm
CampbellAlan Roberts McLeod.P/OCANDied September 1979http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/CampbellARM.htm
ColemanEdward JackP/OGBDied February 17th 1941http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Coleman.htm
CollettGeorge RichardSgtGB Died 22 August 1940http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Collett.htm
CouzensGeorge WalterP/OGBDied 1978http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Couzens.htm
DavisJackSgtGBDied February 1989http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/DavisJ.htm
DeereAlan ColinF/LNZDied September 21 1995http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/as-deere.htm
EvershedJohn Sydney AnthonyP/OGBDied July 9th 1940*
FinnieArchibaldP/OGBDied July 25th 1940http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Finnie.htm
GartonJack WallaceP/OGBDied July 9th 1940*
GibbinsDudley GuySgtGBDied December 1995 http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Gibbins.htm
GrayColin FalklandP/ONZDied 1995http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/GrayCF.htm
GribbleDorian GeorgeP/OGBDied June 4th 1941http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Gribble.htm
HopkinWilliam PelhamP/OGBDied January 1971http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Hopkin.htm
HowesPeterP/OGBDied September 11th 1940http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/HowesP.htm
KempJohn LeslieP/OGBDied April 1991http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Kemp.htm
LawrenceNorman AnthonySgtGBDied August 22 1958http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/LawrenceNA.htm
LeathartJames AnthonySq/LdrGBDied November 17th 1998http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/as-leathart.htm
MatthewsHenry Key FieldingP/OGBDied October 7th 1940http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/MatthewsHKF.htm
McMullenDesmond Annesley PeterF/OGBDied July 1st 1985http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/McMullen.htm
NorwellJohn KingSgtGBDied May 28th 2003http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Norwell.htm
TewPhilip HarrySgtGBDied 1984http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Tew.htm
Turley-GeorgeDouglas RichardP/OGBDied 1991http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/Turley-George.htm
WayBasil HughF/LGBDied July 25th 1940http://www.bbm.org.uk/airmen/WayBH.htm

© Judith Batchelor 2020

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