Some of the most intense fighting in the history of air warfare occurred over the skies of Kent in August 1940 when the Battle of Britain was at its height. 54 Squadron, having been posted to No. 11 Group, was one of the squadrons that bore the brunt of the German aerial assault. At this time, the main objective of the Luftwaffe was the destruction of the Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) and especially, Fighter Command, to prepare the way for the planned German invasion, “Operation Sea Lion”. Shifting away from coastal targets and convoy assaults, their new tactic was to both destroy fighters in the air and on the ground, with bomber attacks concentrated on the vital inner airfields of No. 11 Group, in London and the south-east. This would force the R.A.F. into battle and at the same time, destroy the British control system. With their vastly superior numbers, how could they lose?

In my previous article, The Dunkirk Warriors of 54 Squadron, I described how the men of 54 Squadron, after their efforts at Dunkirk, and bolstered by the new pilots that replaced those killed or injured, had first risen to the challenge of Luftwaffe attacks, which began in earnest in July 1940. After much intense action, on July 26th, a sadly depleted squadron of just twelve pilots and aircraft flew to Catterick, Yorkshire for rest and recuperation. Only six of the so-called “Dunkirk Warriors” remained. Finally, there was a chance for the Squadron to regroup and focus on valuable training, as the new pilots supplied had had little chance to build up their Spitfire flying time and were lacking combat experience. Just under two weeks later, the Squadron returned to Hornchurch on August 8th 1940 with twenty two pilots and “an ample supply of machines” tasked with conducting patrols around the airfields of Manston and Hawkinge in Kent and convoy duty from Rochford in Essex.

August 12th

Due to unfavourable weather, the first time the enemy were engaged was on August 12th, when the Squadron stalwarts, P/O Gray, P/O Matthews and F/L Deere claimed a number of Me 109s in a fight over Dover, now nicknamed “Hells Corner”. It was reported in the Operation Record Book (OPR) that one of the Polish sergeants, Sgt Klozinski, “vented his wrath on the Hun” with a certain Me 109 and a probable Me 109. Less happily, P/O Turley-George and P/O Kemp were both injured in this engagement. Unbeknown to the Squadron, this day had been christened “Eagle Day” by the Luftwaffe, as it was to mark a fresh campaign of bombing of airfields and radar stations. Manston airfield was badly damaged, the first of many such attacks.

August 14th

Two days later, on August 14th, Squadron-Leader Leathart was interviewed in London by the Press and his views were widely reported in both national and local newspapers. He had this to say when describing the feelings of his men:

The fellows in my squadron find something stirring inside them when they see bombs dropped on their own country, and it makes them fight like the very deuce to prevent the enemy succeeding.

Liverpool Evening Express Wednesday August 14th 1940 via
Squadron Leader J A Leathart, DSO, No 54 Squadron (Art.IWM ART LD 414) image: half-length portrait of Squadron Leader J A Leathart in uniform, pictured sitting in the open cockpit of a Spitfire. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:

Leathart went on to give a vivid picture of how the members of the Squadron celebrated when they returned to the aerodrome after a dog fight and their experiences in just such a battle. He compared the sound of a Messerschmitt 109 firing to the chatter of a typewriter:

Liverpool Evening Express August 14th 1940 via
August 15th

A week had gone by and the order to “patrol behind Dover and engage enemy fighters” was becoming as familiar as the old convoy patrols. In between operations, pilots passed the time relaxing, and playing cards, but when the telephone rang, all else was forgotten. Men dashed for the door and their machines, as the order was given to scramble. August 15th was to be a busy day with four patrols and two clashes. The Germans had chosen this day to determine to what extent defences in the north had been stripped to supplement the hard-pressed squadrons of the south. Al Deere, in his autobiography, Nine Lives, estimates that 2,000 enemy aircraft took part in this operation. The drama of the morning encounter was captured in the Squadron’s Operations Record Book (O.R.B.):

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

Sgt. Lawrence showing his “genuine hatred”, shot down three Ju 87s before being shot down himself, luckily crashing into the sea where he was rescued by the Navy. Both him and Sgt. Klozenski landed up in hospital that day. Any respite was brief, as another scramble meant that the boys were up in the air again later that evening:

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

Hornchurch was the target and although 54 Squadron were unable to inflict much damage on the bombers, Hornchurch was “preserved for yet another day”. Other airfields were not so fortunate. Two pilots were forced to land at West Malling just after it had been bombed but it was Manston that suffered the most damage, as it was that bit closer to the coast. Deere describes it thus:

The airfield was a shambles of gutted hangars and smouldering dispersal buildings all of which were immersed in a thin film of chalk dust which drifted across the airfield and settled on men, buildings and parked aircraft in the manner, and with the appearance, of a light snow storm.

Nine Lives Alan C. Deere page 118

Manston was made serviceable in a matter of hours and miraculously, no spitfires were hit when the bombs fell as they were taking off, though there were several casualties amongst station staff. The Squadron’s “bag” included one Me 113 (F/Lt Deere), one Me 109 (F/Lt Gribble) and two He 113 probables (F/Lt Deere and P/O McMullen). Characteristically, F/Lt Deere had an adventure all of his own. After straying over to France in pursuit of a Me 109, he was chased back to England and shot down over Kent. He ended the day parachuting to safety and was lucky to escape with just a wrist injury. Welcome news of a D.F.C. awarded to Colin Gray was also received by the Squadron.

The notice published in the London Gazette, later that month, gave this citation:

Since May, 1940, Pilot Officer Gray has flown continuously with his squadron on offensive patrols. He took part in numerous engagements against the enemy throughout the Dunkirk operations, and subsequently throughout intensive air operations over the Kentish coast and in protection of shipping in the Channel. He has shot down four Messerschmitt 109’s and, it is believed, destroyed a further four. He also assisted in destroying one Messerschmitt 109 and one Dornier 215. His example, courage and determination in action have contributed materially in maintaining the high morale of his squadron.

 “No. 34932”The London Gazette (Supplement). 27 August 1940. p. 5219.
English: Commonwealth Air Aces of the Second World War
Acting Wing Commander Colin Gray, the top scoring New Zealand pilot with 27 kills, pictured with his Supermarine Spitfire at Souk-el-Kehemis while commanding No 81 Squadron, Royal Air Force in North Africa.
August 16th

On August 16th, a large formation of Do 215s were spotted heading west towards Hornchurch, shepherded by He 113s and Me 109s. Two Me 109s were destroyed by Colin Gray “in celebration of his D.F.C.” and one He 113 was destroyed by F/O McMullen. However, any jubilation was short-lived as at 5 p.m. that afternoon, the Station prepared for yet another attack:

Amid the wailing of the sirens and the drone of guardian Spitfire overhead, the Station prepared for an air raid in real earnest. Once again we were fortunate and the raider passed us by. We have, however, no illusions about our future – but in the Squadron, (as everywhere on the station), every single person – ground or flying personnel – is ready and quietly confident.

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –
August 18th

August 18th was described as “a great day” and it earned the Squadron the praise of the Chief of Air Staff. Initially, it had not looked that way for at 12.40 pm, at least 600 enemy aircraft were plotted all over Kent. Although the Squadron was unable to approach the main formation, it was able to deal satisfactorily with many of the stragglers as the following report in the Operations Record Book reveals:

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

In a new tactic to meet the threat, the pilots of 54 Squadron were instructed to focus on the escort fighters and draw them off so other squadrons could then go after the bombers. The main difficulty with this was that the Squadron were operating out of their forward base at Manston. Here, it was proving difficult for the fighters to have enough time to get to a sufficient height of around 30,000 feet, which enabled them to be in a good attacking position.

Any celebration had to be curtailed as at 16.45 pm, a second wave of bombers arrived with their escorts, around 300 strong, both north and south of the Thames. It looked as if a pincer movement was being formed with Hornchurch as the main objective. Once again the Squadron was able to do some damage to the enemy, this time attacking the main formation with following results:

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

Hornchurch largely escaped damage and the Squadron lost no pilots or aircraft. However, two vital sector stations, Kenley and Biggin Hill were attacked, the former suffering considerable damage.

August 20th

The Squadron was in readiness for another big attack but instead, the enemy only came inland as far as Eastchurch. Cloud prevented the Squadron from “getting to grips” with the enemy” but F/Lt Gribble was the hero of the day, chasing nine He 113s back to France. He received a commendation from Headquarters for “his fine offensive spirit”. The Squadron score to date was recorded as 69 destroyed, 41 probable and 27 damaged.

August 21st

On the 21st, a large number of single reconnaissance machines were sent over by the enemy at great height, which necessitated in the Squadron partaking in six sorties in eight hours, each section in rotation. However, no enemy aircraft were seen by 54 Squadron.

August 22nd

On the 22nd, a convoy off Deal was being shelled from the coast of France so “B” Flight was sent over to deal with any enemy aircraft that might arrive. Thirty Me 110s and twenty Me 109s duly came and were sent back home again with the exception of three, “which found our shooting a trifle too accurate”. Sgt Norwell, P/O Hopkin and F/Lt Gribble were the victors. The success of saving the convoy and seeing off superior numbers of the enemy was only marred by the loss of Sgt Collett who was reported missing. It was believed that he went down with his aircraft near Deal and his body was later washed ashore in Holland, where he is now buried. He was just 24 years old.

August 24th

August 24th marked the start of a new German offensive. The Squadron was in action not once but twice that day. A wave of enemy aircraft appeared at 8.30 am and was 200 strong. The Squadron was patrolling Manston and although unable to attack the large bomber formation, they did manage to engage with stragglers and some spotter aircraft, keeping the whole of the fighter escort busily engaged. P/O Gray destroyed one Me 109 and F/O McMullen and Sgt Robbins each destroyed one Me 109. F/Lt Gribble put the port engine of an Me 110 out of action (though according to the Germans, it was engine failure) and the aircraft was forced to land with the pilot taken prisoner. P/O Campbell had a lucky escape, for despite having his machine badly shot up and receiving a bullet through his headphones, he managed to bring his machine home.

In the afternoon, Hornchurch was bombed. From maps found afterwards, Hornchurch was found to be the objective of at least nine He 111s bombers. Though there were a huge number of bomb craters, fortunately, little damage was done. Two Me 109s were destroyed by F/Lt Gribble and P/O Edsall and one Me 109 was a probable (P/O Matthews). Sadly, one of the new pilots that had just joined the Squadron, P/O Stewart, a New Zealander, lasted little more than a day after falling foul of 109s over “Hell’s Corner”. He baled out over the Channel but was picked up by a Naval boat and taken to Canterbury Hospital. The fierceness of the fighting can be judged by the fact that over 20,000 rounds were fired during the two engagements. On this day, (much to the relief of many), it was also finally decided that Manston, which had suffered so many enemy attacks, should be abandoned as a forward base and should be used for emergency landings only.

Fighter Command Groups and Sector Boundaries, Airfields & Squadrons 18th August 1940.
Image Courtesy of Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel-le-Ferne. Kent
August 25th

On August 25th, over a hundred enemy aircraft approached Dover that evening. 54 Squadron, patrolling Manston, became separated and Green Section were suddenly attacked by twelve Me 109s. P/O Howes was reported to have saved the day by passing on information on their presence just in time for them to take evasive action. P/O Gray destroyed one Me 109 and P/O Matthews attacked four Me 109s over Dover and shot one down into the sea. Unfortunately, P/O Shand, another new pilot and a New Zealander, was wounded and had to force land at Manston, damaging his aircraft. The Squadron now only had eight serviceable aircraft left.

Squadron score to date: 78 destroyed, 42 probably destroyed and 28 damaged.

In a boost to morale, Al Deere was awarded a bar to his D.F.C., the first member of the Squadron to achieve this distinction. Heartiest congratulations were due to him for shooting down eleven enemy machines. He also shared in the destruction of another three and had probably destroyed three others.

ROYAL AIR FORCE FIGHTER COMMAND, 1939-1945. (CH 13619) Head and shoulders portrait of Wing Commander A C Deere. Photograph taken at the Air Ministry Studios, London. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
August 26th

August 26th saw a dog-fight 25,000 feet above Manston. F/O McMullan destroyed one Me 109 and P/O Gray and P/O Edsall both probably destroyed one. The big news was that Squadron Leader, Leathart, known affectionately as “Prof”, was to hand over his command and be rested after three months of almost continuous operations. It was received with mixed feelings:

Mixed because on the one hand we had grown accustomed to a “son of 54 Squadron” leading the Squadron through the most intensive and successful period of its history; whilst on the other. we knew that the strain of leading the Squadron, both in the air and on the ground would soon begin to take its toll. We say “au revoir” with the knowledge that wherever he may be in the “higher spheres” 54 Squadron will be well and truly cared for.

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

Leathart was to be replaced by S/L Donald Finlay, a famous Olympic hurdler who had been a pilot in the Squadron before the War.

august 28th

August 28th was a day for the “old hands” with the enemy engaged over Manston at 30,000 feet between 12.13 pm and 13.25 pm. Do 17s in a herring-bone formation, He 113s, and Me 109s were all attacked. S/L Leathart was congratulated for shooting a Do 17 in an economical way, using only 420 rounds and S/L Finlay was in action too, the first time with his new squadron. Sgt Norwell had a probable Me 109 as did F/Lt Deere. F/Lt Gribble sent a Me 109 into the sea and attacked twelve He 113s in line astern, successfully altering their formation.

There was to be little rest for at 16.18 pm, the squadron were up in the air again, patrolling Canterbury, Manston and Ramsgate. At 25,000 to 30,000 feet, a Me 109 was destroyed by F/Lt Gribble, (the pilot baled out), and P/O Gray damaged a Curtiss P-36Hawk (it had probably been seized by Germany after the fall of France and Norway). A comment was made in the Operations Record Book that “54 Squadron rarely operates below 25,000 feet these days”. F/Lt Deere once again had an adventure of his own. After becoming the victim of friendly fire, he was forced to bale out at 10,000 feet, landing in a plum tree some fifteen minutes later on a farm near to Detling. The irate farmer at first mistook Deere for a German! The author of the Operations Record Book remarked dryly that “this is an art in which he is rapidly becoming expert!” Deere arrived back in Hornchurch three hours later, in time to hear Lord Trenchard address the pilots. S/L Finlay, in a most unfortunate turn of events, had to bale out on his first day with the Squadron: this resulted in him being in hospital for several weeks. S/L Leathart was therefore asked to come back to help out. The Squadron was desperately short of experienced leaders and the strain was showing. Another pilot, P/O Jack Coleman was in hospital with malaria.

August 29th

On August 29th there were two more patrols for an hour’s duration each, but no enemy were sighted. P/O Shand returned to the Squadron, none the worse for his experiences, and it was noted that P/O Stewart was continuing to make progress in hospital.

August 30th

August 30th was described as “a very light day” with two patrols only and just one encounter with the enemy when Red Section, over Billericay in Essex, spotted fifty Do 215s and their escort at 25,000 feet. The Squadron was really only able to harass the formation but one Do 215 was destroyed, (shared between F/O McMullen and P/O Edsall) and a second was probably destroyed by F/Lt Deere. That evening, returning to the mess, a surprise awaited the Squadron in the form of a Luftwaffe bomber pilot who had been captured. P/O Howe spoke some German to him and in response, was told in no uncertain terms that Hitler would be in London within two weeks! The “cocky little blighter”, (as Gribble called him), had a rejuvenating effect on the assembled pilots. They were determined that they would never let this happen.

August 31st

One of the most momentous days was yet to come with the drama of August 31st, described in gripping detail in the Squadron Operations Record Book:

A really amazing day. Hornchurch bombed; The miraculous escape of three of our pilots who were bombed out of their planes; The Station bombed a second time.

13.15 A large formation of enemy bombers – a most impressive sight in vic formation at 15,000 feet – reached the aerodrome and dropped their bombs (probably 60 in all) in a line from the other side of our original dispersal pens to the petrol dump and beyond into Elm Park. Perimeter track, dispersal pens and barrack block windows suffered, but no other damage to buildings was caused and the aerodrome in spite of its ploughed conditions remained serviceable. The Squadron was ordered off just as the first bombs were beginning to fall and eight of our machines safely cleared the ground; the remaining section, however, just became airborne as the bombs exploded. All three machines were wholly wrecked in the air. The survival of the pilots is a complete miracle. Sgt Davis taking off towards the hangars was thrown back across the River Ingrebourne two fields away scrambling out of his machine unharmed. F/Lt Deere (in yet another role) had one wing and his prop torn off: climbing to about a hundred feet he turned over and coming down slid along the aerodrome for a hundred yards upside down. He was rescued from this unenvious position by P/O Edsall, the third member of the Section, who had suffered a similar fate except that he had landed the right way up. Dashing across the aerodrome with bombs still dropping he extricated F/Lt Deere from his machine. “The first and last time, I hope” was the verdict of these truly amazing pilots – all of whom were ready for battle again by the next morning.

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

The enemy had caught Hornchurch unawares and it was lucky escape, as despite the large number of bombs, there were no Squadron casualties apart from the three machines lost. The remainder of the Squadron succeeded in destroying one Me 109 (shared between F/Lt Gribble and Sgt Norwell), and one Do 17 probable, shared between F/O McMullen and a Hurricane pilot from another Squadron. Some ribbing occurred with jokes about adding cows to one’s personal tally when this story was related:

“At one stage during this patrol, F/Lt Gribble and Sgt Norwell were flying so low that the former shot a cow when attacking his Me 109 and the latter found pieces of tree sticking to his plane!”

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

However, there was more to come. During the afternoon, nine aircraft were again in battle in the Manston area with the second big raid of the day. Twenty four to thirty Dorniers and many Me 109s were met, harassed and turned back. P/O Gray destroyed one Me 109 and Sgt Gibbons probably destroyed another but unfortunately, he had to bale out, though he made the “jump” successfully. While this engagement was taking place, Hornchurch was again bombed but this time, little damage was incurred. One could be forgiven for thinking that everyone deserved a night off after a day like that. However, it was considered a triumph that night flying would be taking place as usual:

Squadron score to date: – 85 destroyed; 49 1/2 probably destroyed, and about 30 damaged.

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

When looking back over the month, it was a mixed picture. Although a number of aircraft had been written off, only one pilot had been lost. However nine had been injured and were out of action indefinitely. Though replacement aircraft were being flown in quickly enough, it was a challenge to find new pilots and those that came were often inexperienced both in fighting and in flying. It caused a huge strain on those that survived with long hours at dispersal, constant flying at high altitude, forced landings, and repeated combat. The result was acute tiredness that sapped their strength. This made the Squadron’s achievements in August all the more impressive. They were summed up in the Operations Record Book:

“Though the score is small for each successive sortie, it is none the less sure. The turning back and splitting up of the Hun formation is an accomplishment in itself. During these last eighteen days’ fight for England, the Squadron has destroyed, probably destroyed or severely damaged 70 enemy planes.

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –

Winston Churchill paid tribute to the pilots of Fighter Command when he gave his famous speech to the House of Commons on August 20 1940:

The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen, who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.

Winston Churchill’s Speech – House of Commons August 20 1940

No other squadron saw as much action as 54 Squadron in August 1940, as the country entered the most difficult and dangerous period of the Battle of Britain. In the words of Al Deere, “Before there was courage; now, there was grim determination.” 54 Squadron had risen to the challenge magnificently, supported by their fellow pilots in other squadrons too and the selfless dedication of all the aerodrome personnel and ground crew. Heavy losses had been inflicted on the Luftwaffe but was it enough to avert an invasion? The Battle was not over yet!

I will close with this assessment, written in the Operations Record Book to end the month:

After Dunkirk, with its triumphs and losses, it was suggested that a new 54 Squadron – Squadron in the real sense of the word – would arise before long to compare at least favourably with the old “Fighting Fifty-Fourth”. The last days of August have seen the realisation of this and although most of the faces are new, 54 is a Squadron once again.

AIR 27/511-24 via The National Archives –


The pilots below were all members of 54 Squadron in August 1940. Further biographical details can be found on the website of the Battle of Britain archive: Unfortunately, I can find little information on Sgt P.H. Sexton who presumably did not qualify as a Battle of Britain pilot.

BakerStanleyP/OGBDied February 11th 1941
CampbellAlan Roberts McLeodP/OCANDied September 1979
ColemanEdward JackP/OGBDied February 17th 1941
CollettGeorge RichardSgtGB Died 22 August 1940
CouzensGeorge WalterP/OGBDied 1978
DavisJackSgtGBDied February 1989
DeereAlan ColinF/LtNZDied September 21 1995
EdsallEric FrankP/OGBDied April 12th 1942
FinlayDonald OsborneS/Ldr.GBDied April 18th 1970
GibbinsDudley GuySgtGBDied December 1995
GoreWilliam ErnestF/LtGBDied September 28th 1940
GrayColin FalklandP/ONZDied 1995
GribbleDorian GeorgeP/OGBDied June 4th 1941
HarveyLeslie WalterSgtGBDied November 2002
HopkinWilliam PelhamP/OGBDied January 1971
HowesPeterP/OGBDied September 11th 1940
KempJohn LeslieP/OGBDied April 1991
KrepskiWalentyP/OPolandDied September 7th 1940
LawrenceNorman AnthonySgtGBDied August 22 1958
LeathartJames AnthonySq/LdrGBDied November 17th 1998
MatthewsHenry Key FieldingP/OGBDied October 7th 1940
MayneErnestW/OGBDied March 24th 1978
McMullenDesmond Annesley PeterF/OGBDied July 1st 1985
MearesStanley ThomasS/LdrGBDied November 15th 1941
NorwellJohn KingSgtGBDied May 28th 2003
RobbinsRobert HorleySgtGBN/K
RobertsonBasil LionelSgtGBDied February 1942
ShandMichael MorayP/ONZDied 2007
SteadmanDenis JamesSgt.GBN/K
StewartCharlesP/ONZDied July 11 1941
SwitonLeonSgtPLDied July 13 1978
TewPhilip HarrySgtGBDied 1984
Turley-GeorgeDouglas RichardP/OGBDied 1991
WolfeEdward ChathamF/LtGBDied 1994
WordsellKenneth WilsonF/OGBDied October 30th 1940

@ Judith Batchelor 2021


I have a personal interest in the Battle of Britain and specifically 54 Squadron, because my uncle, Gordon Herbert Batchelor, served with them as a pilot from October 1940. You can read about my research into his time as a prisoner of war here:

Much of the research for this article was taken from the Operations Record Books for 54 Squadron, held at the National Archives in AIR 27, plus Combat Reports in AIR 50. These records are currently free to download from the National Archives website. I also benefited from reading “Nine Lives”, by Alan C Deere, which gives a real perspective on what it was like to have been a fighter pilot in 54 Squadron during the Battle of Britain. He was truly a remarkable man and pilot. You can listen to an audio recording of him speaking about his life and service in the RAF on the website of the Imperial War Museum:

4 thoughts on “The Fighting Fifty Fourth – 54 Squadron- Battle of Britain – August 1940

  1. Wonderful work highlighting a most important period of history. This subject should be taught more in history lessons and also shown in more documentaries for further understanding. Well done. Paul Davies aviation historian. Battle of Britain Site.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, there is so much rich material in the Operations Records Books. It is amazing to think that the fate of the nation was in the hands of these brave young men. There is still a lot of work to do to make their contribution more well-known.


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