Royal Auxiliary Air Force History
1939 to 1945
THE PHONEY WAR
“I have to tell you this country is at war with Germany” (Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in a broadcast to the nation on the morning of September 3, 1939).
From that date, 502 (Ulster), 608 (North Riding) and612 (County of Aberdeen) Sqns, equipped with Avro Ansons, undertook convoy escort and anti-submarine patrols, protecting merchantmen and the Royal Navy in the North Sea.
Auxiliary history was made on October 16, 1939, when Spitfires of 603 (City of Edinburgh) and 602 (City of Glasgow) fighter squadrons, based at Tumhouse and Drem respectively, engaged nine Ju 88s of Kampfgeschwader (KG) 30, based at Westerlandt on the island of Sylt, which were attacking naval shipping in the Firth of Forth. It was the first time that Spitfires had engaged the enemy.
Two of the German bombers were shot down, the first credited by Fighter Command to Flt Lt Pat Gifford of Red Section, 603 Sqn. The second was credited to Flt Lt G.C. Pinkerton of 602 Sqn. Following this action, congratulatory signals were received from Fighter Command, stating “First blood to the Auxiliaries”.
On October 28 the Spitfires of 603 and 602 Sqns shared in the destruction of a Heinkel He 111H of KG26, which was brought down close to the village of Humbie near Dalkeith, Midlothian. This was the first German aircraft to crash on British soil, as both of those shot down on October 16 had fallen in the sea off Port Seaton. Flight Lieutenants Pinkerton and Gifford were awarded DFCs for these actions. Gifford was promoted squadron leader and went on to command a Regular unit, 3 Sqn, equipped with Hurricanes. He was killed in the Battle of France, on May 16, 1940.
Within two months of Chamberlain’s historic announcement, two AAF squadrons, 607 and 615, equipped with Gloster Gladiators, found themselves in France. They were supporting the light bombers of the Advanced Air Striking Force in a show of solidarity and support for the French, who faced a threat from the German ground and air forces massing on their border. History has recorded this period as the Phoney War.
On November 27, 1939, six Blenheims of 601 Sqn flew from Biggin Hill to Bir- cham Newton in Norfolk to join with 25 Sqn in a daylight raid on the seaplane base at Borkum in Germany. Within months of the war being declared, the “pre-war long-haired amateurs”, to quote Reichsmarschall Hermann Goer- ing, were making their presence felt. Famous AAF personalities who took part in the Borkum raid included Sir Archibald Hope, Max Aitken and Willie Rhodes- Moorhouse (son of the first Air VC).
The Phoney War ended abruptly on May 10, 1940, when the German Blitzkrieg offensive began in the west.
BATTLE OF FRANCE
Following the German invasion of France, additional Auxiliary squadrons augmented 607 and 615 in what was to be known as the Battle of France. Numbers 501, 504, 600, 601, 604, 605 and 610 fighter squadrons now saw action in France, acquitting themselves well with their Hurricanes and Spitfires, aces such as Sgt Ginger Lacey scoring their first victories.
In addition, 613 (City of Manchester) Sqn, which had been formed only months before war was declared, flew over Calais in their Lysanders and Hectors, dropping bombs, while the Lysanders of 614 (County of Glamorgan) Sqn were acting as airborne spotters for the British Army at Amiens. From the forward airfields in Kent, at Rochford, Hawkinge and Manston, 605 (County of Warwick), 610 (County of Chester) and 611 (West Lancashire) fighter squadrons were covering Dunkirk and the British evacuation.
BATTLE OF BRITAIN
The exploits of the Auxiliary squadrons that took part in the Battle of Britain are well documented. Suffice it to say that Dowding needed the 14 AAF squadrons and their experienced pilots and ground crews, who had gained valuable experience in the Battle of France. Readers may recall an article by John Alcorn (Battle of Britain Top Guns, September 1996) which gave the results of detailed research showing that the AAF had provided the two top-scoring squadrons in the Battle of Britain. Moreover, five AAF units were in the top ten squadrons, and 12 were in the top 20 overall.
However, these squadron scores should be seen in context. Many of the original AAF pilots who went to war in 1939 had been killed in the Battle of France, promoted and posted to command AAF or Regular squadrons, or had become fighter controllers. Once they had been embodied in 1939, therefore, the squadrons were composed in the main of RAFVR officers, RAF NCOs and pilots from the Dominions, as well as Czechs, Poles and Americans.
From this analysis, 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn, based at Hornchurch, Essex, under the command of Sqn Ldr George Denholm, was acclaimed the top-scoring squadron, with 58 kills. During this period Pit Off Richard Hillary, author of The Last Enemy (MacMillan, 1942) served with the unit. He was shot down in flames by Hpt Bode of II/ JG2 6 during a combat off Margate on September 3, 1940, while flying Spitfire X4277/XT-M. Hillary bailed out but was grievously burned. He was rescued by the Margate lifeboat and eventually became one of Archie Mclndoe’s famous “Guinea Pigs”. He was killed on January 8, 1943.
The honour of being the first Spitfire squadron in October 1940 to claim 100 enemy aircraft destroyed fell to 609 Sqn. The CO of 611 Sqn, Sqn Ldr Charles, shot down the 1,000th German aircraft while flying from Biggin Hill, and 610 and 616 Sqns, as part of Bader’s Tangmere Wing, pioneered modern fighter tactics. Post-war analysis indicates that AAF squadrons accounted for a third of all kills during the Battle of Britain.
There were six AAF squadrons in No 11 Group during the Battle of Britain. Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, the Group’s AOC, wrote: “Without the Auxiliaries we would not have defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940″.
The most important point concerning the AAF in the Battle of Britain is that this conflict could not have been won without the contribution of the AAF squadrons, who carried the day. In particular, the contribution made by both AAF and RAFVR pilots was significant and eliminated any doubts about the formation of the AAF in 1925 and the RAFVR in 1936. The combined achievements of these reserves tipped the balance, 423 pilots being credited with 359 victories and 144 shared victories. The highest number of credited victories in the Battle was shared by a pre-war Auxiliary officer, Fit Lt A.A. McKellar of 605 Sqn, and a sergeant pilot in the RAFVR, Sgt J. H. “Ginger” Lacey of 501 Sqn, both of whom claimed 19. Also, a major part of the reserve air forces’ contribution in the Battle of Britain fell to the 132 SNCO pilots of the RAFVR.
BATTLE OF THE ATLANTIC
Auxiliary squadrons equipped with Armstrong Whitworth. Whitley Vs, Handley Page Halifaxes, Vickers Wellingtons and Consolidated B-24 Liberators played a part in the Battle of the Atlantic. Flying the Coastal Command version of the Halifax, 502 (Ulster) Sqn achieved a total of four U-boats destroyed, while 612 (County of Aberdeen) Sqn, flying Wellingtons equipped with the Leigh light (a searchlight installed in the nose to illuminate surfaced U-boats) prevented the U-boat wolfpacks from attacking convoys. To 502 Sqn goes the credit of being the first squadron to use ASV radar to locate a U-boat and subsequently destroy it.
THE NIGHT-FIGHTER WAR
John “Cats-eyes” Cunningham and his navigator, C. F. Rawnsley, of 604 (County of Middlesex) Sqn were one of the war’s highest-scoring night-fighter crews and did much to evolve nightfighter tactics. In particular, they developed the successful application of airborne interception radars. Cunningham became a very successful post-war test pilot.
Also notable in the night intruder role were 605 (County of Warwick) and 614 (County of Glamorgan) Sqns, the latter being involved in the first 1,000-bomber raid on Cologne.
Wing Commander R.P. Beamont, who test-flew the English Electric Canberra and Lightning after the war, evolved tactical ground-attack operations in the Hawker Typhoon as Commander of 609 (West Riding) Sqn.
Flying off the American carrier Wasp in the summer of 1942, 603 and 601 Sqns helped relieve the siege of Malta. Number 611 (West Lancashire) Sqn was the first British squadron over the Normandy beaches in 1944. A year later its Mustangs became the first RAF aircraft to meet the Russians over Berlin. Famous as Pathfinders, 608 (North Riding) Sqn took part in the last bomber raid, on the night of May 2-3, 1945. Another Pathfinder unit in Southern Europe, 614 (County of Glamorgan) Sqn, were involved in attacks on the Ploesti oilfields in Romania.
The Mosquitoes of 613 (City of Manchester) Sqn executed two daring daylight raids, the first against Gestapo headquarters in the Hague and the second against SS barracks in France. Meteor fighters flown by 616 (South Yorkshire) Sqn were the first jets operated by a British squadron.
Many pre-war Auxiliary/RAFVR pilots finished the war as highly-decorated senior officers with high scores of aircraft shot down. The Auxiliaries on the ground also acquitted themselves well, serving in headquarters and airfields in every theatre of operations.
However, the accolade must go to the Balloon Squadrons, manned by 16,400 Auxiliaries who flew 1,450 balloons from fixed and mobile sites. By August 31, 1940, Balloon Command consisted of five Groups: No 30, London; No 31, Birmingham; No 32, Romsey; No 33, Sheffield; No 34, Edinburgh. Each group controlled several Balloon Centres, and these in turn controlled the Balloon Squadrons. The squadrons claimed 278 VI flying bombs, 233 of which were later confirmed, and accounted for at least 20 enemy aircraft confirmed destroyed. Two members of the balloon squadrons received the George Cross.
Additional squadrons formed during the war provided barrages not only in the UK but also in the Middle East, India and Burma. They protected major towns, industrial sites, dock areas and other vulnerable points, and provided a passive defence against dive-bombing attacks. Balloons were also used during the Normandy D-Day landings and as a protection against flying bombs. There was a disadvantage to the balloon barrage, however, as it proved almost as great a danger to Allied aircraft as it did to the enemy. It was therefore deactivated in September 1944, Balloon Command finally being disbanded on June 15, 1945.
Not to be forgotten is the role played by the WAAFs, who initially were used in support tasks. By the time of the Battle of Britain they were employed in operations rooms and headquarters, and a number of trades. As they grew in numbers and efficiency, so their field of employment enlarged. They became cryptanalysts at Station X (Bletchley Park), photographic interpreters, and intelligence staff in operational rooms and headquarters in every Command. They also served with the Special Operations Executive as agents and radio operators, and many served in Balloon Command. By mid-1943, at their peak, there were 182,000 WAAFs. serving in 22 officer branches and 75 trades. Three were awarded the George Cross (two posthumously) and six were awarded the Military Medal. Thousands were Mentioned in Despatches.
Most of the great names of the RAF were at some time connected with the Auxiliaries. The best tribute was paid by Lord Templewood: “The twenty Auxiliary units that were in existence in 1939 proved indispensable in every important phase. Their help was invaluable during the Dunkirk evacuation, in the Battle of Britain they claimed one out of every three aircraft destroyed. Whether it was on the African, the Indian, the Russian, or the Home Front, or on D-Day, the story was the same. They took their place with the best regular squadrons, they flew the latest types of machines, they carried out the most difficult and dangerous missions, and by their achievements they gave the answer to the charge that they would never be able to fly the most modern types of machine. Facts such as these need to be respected and the lessons of the past remembered, when old criticisms are dug up from the distant past in order to assign an inferior status to this yeomanry of the air.”
The Auxiliary squadrons were disbanded between July and August 1945, following the end of hostilities.