From Biggin Hill to Manston
October 1940 brought an influx of new pilots into the Squadron. The new Boss, Squadron Leader Alan Maclachlan, arrived to take over command from Brian Kingcome, and Flight Lieutenant Paddy Green returned from hospital. Pilot Officer Maitland Thompson, an ex-solicitor, Pilot Officer Lund, and Sergeant de Montbron from the Free French Air Force, also reported for flying duties.
The first encounter of the month took place on the 5th when Flying Officer Drummond shot down an ME 109 and a Heinkel 126. During the month the majority of the enemy aircraft formations consisted of ME 109s with makeshift bomb carriers. On the same day Pilot Officer Lund claimed a probable ME 109.
On the Squadron’s birthday, the 10th October, Brian Kingcome and Tony Bartley were awarded the DFC and Bob Tuck, now commander of 257 Squadron, was awarded a Bar to his DFC. This good news was mixed with tragedy as Flying Officer Drummond and Pilot Officer Williams were attacking a Dornier 17 over Tangmere when they collided. Both of them were killed.
The following day was bright and clear and several sorties were flown. The new squadron commander was attacked and shot in the upper thigh and buttock area. He didn't jump because his parachute was shot through with bullets, but he remembered to shut off the ignition before crash landing, to avoid the fuel catching fire.. He probably sustained some injuries from the impact too as they had to dig him out of the ground. Brian Kingcome, once again the acting squadron commander, brought down an ME 109. Another new pilot, Pilot Officer “Jack” Pattinson, was posted to 92 from the OTU having just converted to Spitfires. Jack had previously flown Hurricanes for a short while, then Blenheims with 23 Squadron.
The next day, the 12th, was a very big day for 92. In the morning Bob Tuck flew in his Hurricane and received a wild welcome from his old comrades, but they were tragically few now and to him the mess must have appeared full of strange young faces.
The old gang was reminiscing at dispersal when suddenly an alarm came through. Tuck asked Kingcome if he could come along and Kingcome readily agreed.
“But not in that bloody Hurri. Take one of our spares,“ he said.
They got off smartly and control sent them climbing out to sea. The sky was clear and quite empty. Tuck was thrilled to be flying the sensitive Spitfire again after nearly a month of Hurri-lugging. He was the first to see a small black dot which entered his field of vision, moving swiftly far below. He watched it for several seconds as it grew larger and more distinct. An ME 109.
He shouted “Tally-Ho” then completely forgetting that he wasn’t the leader, he dived out of the formation with full throttle and crept up to the lone enemy’s tail. The German couldn’t have seen him and made no effort to escape. With two short bursts Tuck had shot off the tailplane. The 109 went spinning down with long flames licking out of it. It was Tuck’s twentieth kill. Kingcome’s voice filled Tuck’s helmet.
“Well strap me! Of all the bloody cheek...“
Back at the mess, at lunch they argued as to whether the 109 should be credited to Tuck or added to 92’s total. Brian suggested 92 should have it but in the end gave in, saying:
“If you come back you won’t fly with us again. Bloody embarrassing having to report a ‘kill’ to Intelligence, and then explain it was made by a visitor!”
In the afternoon the Squadron was on patrol again and this time Kingcome, Pilot Officer Wade and Sergeant Don Kingaby each brought down ME 109s. This was Don Kingaby’s first of many 109s. Several more probable’s were scored bringing the Squadron’s total to a hundred and nine enemy aircraft destroyed, approximately fifty more probable’s and sixty damaged. The Squadron was well in the lead as the top scoring fighter Squadron but this knowledge was always marred by tragedy, as on this occasion when Pilot Officer Jack Pattinson was shot down on his first patrol. His body was found in the burnt out wreckage of his Spitfire X4591 in Bartholomew’s Wood near Hythe and recovered at Hawkinge.
As 92 seemed unable to keep a Squadron Commander for very long, having lost three in the past month, it was intended to promote Brian Kingcome still the senior Flight Commander. Brian had led the Squadron successfully on several occasions and his DFC was awarded for the way in which he handled the Squadron in between bosses. But before the recommendation of his promotion to Squadron Leader got beyond Group Headquarters on October 15th, he too was shot down, he still maintains by Spitfires. He baled out successfully but was wounded and admitted to the Royal Navy Hospital at Chatham.
On the following day the Royal Navy in he shape of HMS Nysan came to the assistance of Pilot Officer Lund when they fished him out of the river Medway, after he had been shot down.
On the 20th three sorties were made and on one Flight Lieutenant Villa and Pilot Officer Saunders shared with 66 Squadron in bringing down an ME 110. The Squadron’s total from then on featured this odd half victory. Five days later Flight Lieutenant Villa and Pilot Officer Sherrington brought down two ME 109s and Villa claimed another probable.
On October 26th Squadron Leader John Kent was posted in from 303 Polish Squadron and took command of 92. He found morale at pretty low ebb, which he saw reflected in the inevitable lack of discipline. In his autobiography One of the Few (William Kimber & Co.Ltd) he has written an excellent account of his service on 92 from October 1940 to February 1941 and he takes over the story at this point.
“I was appointed to take over a disorganised, undisciplined and demoralised collection of first class material. Although they had suffered terrific casualties they had also inflicted severe losses upon the enemy and under the circumstances, they felt they knew more about air fighting than any Squadron Leader who might occupy the chair of office for a day or two.
“The Station Commander, Group Captain Dick Grice, who really was a first class commander, told me that the Air Officer Commanding had decided to move No 92 to the north for a well earned rest. I argued that if this was done, the Squadron would be finished and I begged to be allowed to keep it at Biggin as that would give me the chance I needed to get it into shape – while the stigma of having ‘had it’ could not be attached to it. I pointed out that the activity of the Luftwaffe was decreasing and I felt that it was unlikely to increase again until the Spring. He saw my point of view and agreed with it, he also managed to persuade the AOC to agree, for which I have always been extremely grateful.”
The remainder of the month was fairly quiet. Also on 26th October Pilot Officer Sherrington attacked a DO 17 and scored a probable. On the 29th Sergeant Bowen-Morris and Don Kingaby had a slight taxiing accident and damaged two Spitfires but later in the day a patrol with Flight Lieutenant Villa, Pilot Officer Saunders and Sergeant Bowen-Morris destroyed three ME 110s and were credited with another probable and one damaged.
Although the 31st October was later chosen as the date upon which the Battle of Britain came to an end, those taking part noticed no change. When the 1st November came it brought another great day for 92 Squadron, as the Squadron Commander recalls:
“The telephone orderly stuck his head round the corner and yelled, “Garrick Squadron, scramble base – Angels one-five!” and off we went climbing, on fresh orders from the Controller, towards Dover.”
“After a lot of vectoring about and being told that the raid consisted of fifty Junkers, although no height could be given, I caught sight of a flash of yellow and there was a number of yellow-nosed 109s first above cloud near Rochester and about six thousand feet below us – an unusual situation. I immediately gave ‘Tally-Ho’ to the Operations Room and told the Squadron that we were going in to attack. We closed in very rapidly and I opened fire from a hundred and fifty yards and could see my De Wilde ammunition bursting all around the cockpit of the rearmost 109. The pilot immediately started to take violent evasive action and I had difficulty staying with him. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw another aircraft within feet of me and closing fast, I had to pull up to avoid a collision. The German I had attacked dived away into cloud and I followed breaking out at about two thousand feet, but could not at first see my man. Suddenly I spotted a 109 about one thousand feet below streaking eastwards and I am fairly certain that it was the one that I had already hit. I managed to catch up with him and after another burst he dived into the water not far from Whitstable.”
“I climbed back through cloud, saw three 109s pop up out of the cloud some two or three miles to the south so I gave chase and was gaining on them when, right in front of me and between me and the German aircraft burst a lot of our own anti-aircraft shells! I rapidly changed direction and so lost the chance of catching the enemy machines – I was furious but, of course, the Gunners were firing blind and could not know that one of their targets was British.”
“On returning to base I found that Flying Officers Holland and Bartley had each destroyed a 109 while Pilot Officers Saunders and Kinder, being in the rear section, had seen through a gap in the clouds a number of bomb bursts in the water. They had, therefore, ignored the fighters and gone on down to find the fifty Junkers, Stukas at about fifteen hundred feet. It was a great surprise as these aircraft had suffered such heavy losses early on that they had not been seen for many weeks. As soon as they saw the Spitfires they jettisoned their bombs and turned for home, but Saunders and Kinder got one each in flames. Immediately afterwards Saunders was attacked and shot down, crash landing at Eastchurch. Although a bullet had creased his helmet and gone through his goggles he was unhurt.”
“Kinder, a hefty New Zealander, was shooting at a second Stuka when he too was attacked. A few days later I received a letter from him written in hospital and I think it is one of the most perfect examples of unwitting understatement I have ever come across. The purpose of the letter was to lay claim to one Stuka destroyed and one probably destroyed and he followed up with a description of what happened.”
“”I was firing at the second JU 87,” he wrote, “which began to smoke heavily at the starboard wing root, but at this point my attention was distracted by a cannon shell which entered the left wing and blew the end off. I turned and chased the 109 that had hit me and I last saw it going down smoking near Herne Bay. I did not feel very well so I decided to return to Biggin, but after a while I felt worse so I landed in a field, I regret to say, with my undercarriage retracted. After a little while I felt better so I phoned the nearest RAF station and they came and collected me from the farm house from which I had phoned.””
“’Tiny’ Kinder was not the sort of man to try to impress me with hiss coolness, he was just stating plain facts. He did not mention, because to him it had no bearing on the matter, that the shell that ‘blew the end off’ had also badly wounded him in the left arm and leg. Despite this he clamped his arm onto his leg in an effort to stop the bleeding in both, turned his partly disabled aircraft and succeeded in out-manoeuvring the German and, I was able to establish later, shot it down. It was no wonder that he ‘felt ill’ but again he did not mention that he had had to walk nearly a mile from where he had landed to the farmhouse. Quite a remarkable person.”
“In the afternoon, we were on patrol when I experienced the first really serious result of the Squadron’s losses and lack of leadership. There were a number of small formations of 109s high above us over the south coast and every now and then one or two of them would start to dive towards us but I always turned to meet them head on and they would break off their attack. For some reason the German pilots seemed to loathe head on attacks and would invariably break away if one turned and flew straight at them. Later on in the war, they overcame this and carried out some very daring head on attacks, particularly against the American bomber formations. On this occasion, after a number of these abortive passes had been made, I found that several of my pilots had broken formation and were heading for home. It was clearly a case of what was called ‘one-oh-nine-itis’ and it was apparent that these pilots had lost all confidence in their ability to cope with the German fighters. I knew that this confidence had to be restored as rapidly as possible and the place to do it was in a combat area and not when on so called rest.”
“When we returned to our airfield I had all the pilots in and gave them a really good talking to and announced that if I had any more people breaking away – and by doing so exposing not only themselves to attack but the rest of the Squadron – I would not wait for the Germans to shoot down the offender but would do it myself. They all looked a bit glum and there was little doubt that they loathed my guts – I didn’t care as I felt they needed a bit of a straight talking. Although they obviously disliked me, they were beginning to appreciate the fact that I was, after all, the first CO they had had who was more experienced in war than they were.”
The squadron diary for the 1st November also records that Sergeant Kingaby shot down a 109 and that Sergeant Montbron shared another 109 with Bob Holland.
The pilots decided to celebrate their success but as they were scheduled for Dawn Readiness the next day the Boss decided to check with the Meteorological Office. They at first thought he was being frightfully keen and said they were terribly sorry but there was no hope of being able to fly the next day as the weather would be far too bad. That of course was just what he wanted to hear and preparations continued. They all went down to the White Hart at Brasted, presided over by that inimitable pair, Kath and Teddy Preston. After a ‘swing round’ they returned to the Mess for dinner and the continuation of the party in which they were joined by a number of the pilots from the other two squadrons – No 66 commanded by Atholl Forbes and No 74 whose CO was ‘Sailor’ Malan.
Johnny Kent continues the story, “After we had all drunk far more than was good for us we all retired to bed, I fortunately, had a room in the Mess but the others had to drive about six miles to the big country house that served as our dispersal Mess.”
“I slept like a log and the next thing I knew I was being shaken awake by my batman. I told him, rather roughly as I felt ghastly, to bog off and leave me alone. He protested that I was due at dispersal shortly as the Squadron was on Readiness. Impatiently I told him not to be a clot; the weather was far too bad. He replied rather quietly and I like to think sympathetically “It looks alright to me sir!””
“I pulled the blackout curtains back and – 0 perfidious Met Officers, it was bright starlight – not a sign of a cloud anywhere.”
“Somehow I got dressed, shaved, downed a cup of coffee, felt sick at the sight of breakfast, left it and struggled down to the Dispersal and into my flying kit and then collapsed into a chair surrounded by eleven other sufferers, all hoping we would not die before being released at eight o’clock.”
“Once or twice the telephone rang and everyone groaned hoping against hope that it would not be Ops ordering a scramble. Providence was kind – until ten minutes before we were due to be released and then it came. The orderly took the call and yelled his all too familiar message “Garrick Squadron, scramble base, angels one-five!” It was cruel and how we got to our aircraft I do not know but we did and were away well within the prescribed time.”
“As we climbed and were vectored about by the Controller one pilot after another called up to say that his oil pressure was low, his engine was running rough, even that the radio wasn’t working. This, however, was no result of what became known as ‘Battle Fatigue’, it was purely and simply the father and mother of all collective hangovers!”
“We had been airborne for perhaps forty minutes and had climbed to twenty seven thousand feet on the Maidstone patrol line with only five of the original twelve left when I had a call from one of the stouter pilots to the effect that there was “Anti-aircraft fire, ten o’clock below!” I glanced in the direction indicated and there about seven thousand feet below us, were about sixty 109s. It was just at the time the Germans were sending over these fighters carrying bombs and I think this must have been such a raid with their escort fighters. We had the advantage of being in the sun and I was able to lead the Squadron, or what was left of it, into a perfect astern attack without the enemy being aware of our presence.”
“I held my fire until I was about a hundred and fifty yards from one of the rear pair of Messerschmitts and then let go with a long burst and the aircraft immediately dived straight down trailing a great cloud of smoke. I was travelling very fast and was likely to overshoot the other one of the pair, but by skidding my machine and throttling back I was able to lose speed, pass under the 109s tail and come into formation with it on the starboard side. I could see the pilot looking out to the left, presumably to see what had happened to his late comrade, but still flying straight and level. I could not help saying to myself “What a stupid clot!” – by which time I had slowed down enough to get underneath him and give him a first from about a hundred yards. He immediately poured forth clouds of smoke in the midst of which I could see a flicker of flame, rolled onto his back and dived vertically. Both these aircraft were found outside Ashford in Kent within half a mile of each other.”
“The rest of the German formation dived for the coast and did not attempt to turn and fight, at least all but one. We chased after the fleeing Germans and I caught up with this one and attacked. I found that I had picked an old hand; instead of just running away he waited until I was very close and then suddenly broke to the right and into the sun. I momentarily lost sight of him...but as he continued to turn he moved out of the glare of the sun and the contest developed into a tail-chase. As we came round full circle he repeated his manoeuvre but this time I pulled my sights through him and although losing him under the nose of my aircraft, gave a short burst in the hopes that I might get some tracer near enough to him to frighten him into running for home. I misjudged my man, however, and he continued his tactics and apparently had no intention of running at all but finally after the fourth or fifth circle I drew my sights through him again gave a longish burst and was startled when he suddenly appeared from under my nose and we very nearly collided. I still have a very vivid mental picture of him looking up at me as we flashed past not twenty feet apart. I distinctly remember that he had his goggles up on his helmet and his oxygen mask in place.”
“I also recall the gashes along the side of the fuselage where my bullets had struck and the tail of the aircraft with practically no fabric left on it and a control cable streaming back with a small piece of metal whirling around on the end of it. It is one of those pictures of a split-second action that remains indelibly imprinted upon one’s mind. I did not, in the heat of the moment, fully appreciate the significance of all this and was jubilant when I saw that my opponent was reversing his turn, a fatal move in a fight, and gave him one last burst from a ‘fine quarter’ into his left side. A think trail of grey smoke appeared and the aircraft rolled quite slowly on to its back and started going down. I immediately thought that he was getting away and followed with throttle wide open hoping to catch him as he levelled out.”
“The last time I glanced at the airspeed indicator it was registering something like four hundred and fifty mph but still the 109 out-distanced me and finally I lost it against the ground. While continuing my dive and waiting to see the grey plan-form of it as it pulled out I was startled to see a vivid red flash and a great cloud of jet black smoke appear as the machine hit the ground and exploded.”
“I came down low to see where the aircraft had struck but could see no sign of it, until I noticed some soldiers running across the fields and waving to me. Then I saw it, a gaping hole that looked just like a bomb crater and hundreds of little bits scattered around.”
“A few days later the Intelligence Officer told me that the pilot had been quite a highly decorated Major but it had not been possible to establish his identity. Apparently I had shot away his controls and he was on the point of baling out when my last burst killed him. This was deduced from the fact that his seat harness was found undone and undamaged and the left half of his tunic was found with six bullet holes in it. Of the pilot himself they found very little, he was under the engine which was found thirty feet down in the ground; not surprising considering the aircraft had gone in vertically from about sixteen thousand feet.”
On the same patrol Pilot Officer Watling, and newly promoted Flight Lieutenant Holland, each shot down a 109; Pilot Officer Wellum was credited with two damaged 109s. The weather clouded over in the afternoon and there was no more flying.
The Squadron’s operations became rather tame as the time went on and consisted of numerous patrols but relatively few contacts with the enemy. On these patrols the pilots often saw small formations of high flying German fighters but they were never lucky enough to get above them and except on very rare occasions they only made feint attacks.
On November 5th the Squadron were scrambled and were climbing for height when the Boss saw a formation of 109s a few thousand feet above and to his right. He turned and climbed as rapidly as possible in an endeavour to intercept them or to entice them to come down. At this point another Squadron appeared above 92, but still below the Germans. As they were Hurricanes it was unlikely that they stood much chance of catching the 109s so 92 continued climbing.
Suddenly, without any warning the Spitfires were bounced by four other 109s from the rear. Sergeant Ellis the ‘weaver’ was hit. He was unhurt but was badly shot up and he forced landed at Gravesend. The Boss yelled ‘Break’ to the Squadron and there followed the usual mix-up of aircraft all seemingly going in different directions. Pilot Officer Bartley shot one down, then as usual, it was all over and each pilot made his separate way back to Biggin.
On landing the rest of the Squadron found the Boss in a flaming temper, partly with his own Squadron for not seeing the ‘Bounce’ and partly with the Squadron Commander of the Hurricane squadron who had watched the whole thing and done nothing about it – despite the fact that it was a perfect set up to draw the higher 109s into battle. All he had to do was to have turned over the top of 92, taken the four 109s head on and by turning tail to the upper formation, enticed them to attack. If they had done so, 92 would have been in an ideal position to take them head-on. But no – he just watched and thought it was a huge joke to see the Spitfires get jumped. When the Boss met the other Squadron Commander a few days later he advised him that it would probably be much healthier for him if he kept out of 92’s way in the air as they could just possibly mistake him for a 109; in fact it would be a pleasure to do so! At the time he really meant it too.
Just to make sure that his own Squadron didn’t get away with it, Kent took this opportunity of telling them exactly what he thought of them, what he proposed to do about it and what would happen to anyone who thought he knew better and disobeyed his orders. As it was evident that the whole Squadron was affected, he assembled all the senior NCOs, pilots and ground crew and all the officers and then let fly: firstly at the sergeants and dismissed them; next the flight sergeants and dismissed them; and so on right through to the flight commander. Graham Wallace recalls the CO’s words to the pilots which went something like this:
“I have been CO of this Squadron exactly a month and have several comments to pass on to you all. My NCOs are slack and slipshod. They have allowed the men to get lazy and out of hand. The Station Warrant Officer had complained to me that they are blatantly arrogant and so conceited that they refuse to take orders from anyone but their own officers. This will stop immediately, or I will be forced to take drastic action.”
“I have studied my officers’ behaviour with concern and frankly I think it stinks. You are the most conceited and insubordinate lot I have ever had the misfortune to come up against.”
“Admittedly you have worked hard and got a damn good score in the air – in fact a better score than any other Squadron in Fighter Command – but your casualties have been appalling. These losses I attribute to the fact that your discipline is slack; you never by any chance get some sleep; you drink like fishes and you’ve got a damn sight too good opinion of yourselves.”
“Now your billets. It appears that you have turned the living quarters which were allotted to you to provide a certain amount of security and rest into a nightclub. It also appears that you ask your various lady friends down to spend weekends with you whenever you please.”
“This will cease. All women will be out of the house by 2300 hours sharp.”
“Your clothes – I can scarcely call them uniform. I will not tolerate check shirts, old school ties, or suede shoes. While you are on duty you will wear the regulation dress. Neither will I tolerate pink pyjamas under your tunics.”
“You all seem to possess high-powered automobiles. None of these appear to be taxed or insured, but I hear from the Adjutant that you have an understanding with the local police. Well, that may be, but how do you explain where you get your petrol from? Your cars reek of 100-octane and I can assure you you’re not fooling the Station Commander.”
“Finally, I want to see an immediate all round improvement. At the moment I think you’re a lot of skunks!”
By the time he had finished there was nobody who did not know just exactly where he stood.
After the intense activity had died down, Air Marshal Dowding was succeeded as Commander-in-Chief by Air Marshal Sholto Douglas, and Air Vice-Marshal Park handed over No 11 Group, which had borne the brunt of the Battle, to Air Vice-Marshal Leigh-Mallory from No 12 Group. Both of the new commanders had been in favour of the wing formation during the Battle and both favoured a more offensive policy. It was now deemed possible to do this as the training schemes were beginning to produce a flow of pilots which was eventually to achieve vast proportions and the squadrons had all been brought up to strength. The terrific fighter production programme planned and set in motion by Lord Beaverbrook and his predecessors was also now getting into gear and there was no shortage of aircraft.
Johnny Kent continues:
“As the Battle had progressed it became increasingly apparent that the Germans were badly shaken by the firepower of our fighters and they were frantically trying to protect their aircraft by armouring them. They, like some theoreticians in our own Air Force, had held the view that the bomber could outrun the fighter – a fatal mistake on both sides, although I think we learned our lesson first.”
“At any rate it was getting more difficult to shoot down the German machines and even the Dornier, which usually only needed one good burst, was standing up to some very heavy punishment. It became evident that the .303 machine gun was too light a weapon for the task. Earlier in the year one squadron of Spitfires had been armed with 20mm Hispano cannons but, for a variety of reasons, they had not proved successful and the pilots, fed up with the continual stoppages, cried out for a return to the .303 which was duly agreed.”
“Discussions were held at both Group and Command Headquarters at which the views of various Squadron Commanders and Staff Officers were expressed as to how best to meet the new problem of the armour on the German machines. For the most part the Squadron Commanders were in favour of the re-introduction of the cannons if they could be made reliable; I personally was quite certain that we must have cannon and must make them work. I was, perhaps, rather outspoken about this, certain notable Squadron Commanders were, however, almost as outspoken against them and begged to be given more .303s.”
“The new C in C listened to all the arguments for and against cannon and then with his usual common sense approach to a problem decided to have a small number of Spitfires modified to take two Hispano cannons and four .303 machine guns. This gave us six seconds fire with the cannons while retaining the seventeen seconds of the machine guns.”
“In order to get a good cross-section of opinion as unbiased as possible he had three of these modified aircraft allotted to four selected Squadrons. This was important as it precluded the experience of one Squadron, good or bad, unduly influencing the opinions of others. The Luftwaffe had a saying which was very true:
‘If you have two pilots – you have got three opinions!’ – Which was just what the Air Marshal was trying to avoid.”
“Probably because I had spoken up so strongly for cannons, my Squadron was one of those selected and in a very short time we received our modified Spitfire Is and set about making the cannons work. In this we were most successful and by far the greatest part of the credit for this must go to the Squadron Armament Officer, Warrant Officer Stewart, who worked like a black to ensure that they were a success.”
“It was not very long after we received these aircraft that one of the flights was scrambled after a small force of 109s. The Flight Commander, ‘Pancho’ Villa, got to within three hundred yards of one of the Germans and opened fire with his machine guns. Although he could see a number of strikes on the enemy aircraft, his fire was having no visible effect. He then remembered his cannons and, slipping his thumb on to the cannon button, gave a very short burst and was more than a little startled, as was everybody else, when the 109 exploded. As he described it, it looked just like an anti-aircraft shell bursting and there was nothing left but a cloud of black smoke and tiny pieces tumbling to the ground.”
“This success made us all the more enthusiastic and it was with satisfaction that I received a call from the C in C, Air Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, the following day to congratulate the Squadron as a whole, and the Armament Officer and Pilot in particular, on this demonstration of gun reliability and effectiveness. He asked me if I was still convinced that we really needed cannons and when I replied in the affirmative he asked if I felt cannons were sufficient or would mixed armament be better.”
“My reply was to the effect that, as I had stressed before, we must have cannon to combat effectively the renewed onslaught that we expected would commence in the Spring but, as each cannon only carried fifty rounds in its magazine, giving a bare six seconds’ fire, I was of the opinion that mixed armament was the answer as the .303 would still be useful in deflection shooting where the bullets could get past the armour plate into the vital parts of the aircraft. He said this was precisely his own thinking and with that he hung up.”
“A few days later I was most gratified to receive notification that 92 Squadron was to be re-equipped immediately with the latest Mark of Spitfire, the 5b, which carried the mixed armament I had advocated.”
During this time a few encounters were made with the enemy – on 9th November Sergeant Fokes and Sergeant de Montbron shot down a JU 88 and on the 13th Flight Lieutenant Holland and Sergeant Havercroft set a DO17 on fire. Unfortunately it was lost in the clouds and not seen to crash.
The 15th November was a most notable day with splendid results. Flight Lieutenant Villa was leading a section who intercepted a formation of 109s. He shot down one himself, Sergeant Fokes got another and Sergeant Kingaby shot down four all confirmed.
Shortly after this Don Kingaby was awarded the DFM for ‘displaying great courage and tenacity in his attacks against the enemy’ and the newspapers christened him ‘The 109 Specialist’ because most of his confirmed victories so far had been against this particular type of enemy aircraft. He shot down his eighth 109 during the afternoon of the 1st December.
Then came Don’s first narrow escape. He had just landed at Manston Aerodrome after a patrol and was walking towards the dispersal hut to make out his report when a formation of Messerschmitts made a lightning swoop on the airfield. Don threw himself flat on the ground as the leading Messerschmitt came in low with guns blazing. He saw the flashes of the fighter’s guns and felt the thud of the bullets as they hammered into the earth all around him. A bullet shattered one of his fingers, but he had no time to consider the wound as a second Messerschmitt opened up. He rolled over, away from the stream of deadly lead, and went on rolling until the 109s had used up all their ammunition. He reckoned he was lucky to get away with only one smashed finger after that experience. As a matter of fact this was the only wound that he ever received throughout the war, although he was to have many more narrow escapes.
Apart from Don Kingaby, the Squadron scored a total of four ME 109s destroyed, two probables and six other damaged on the 1st December. The other destroyed 109s were shot down by Flight Lieutenant Villa, and Pilot Officers Saunders and Mansell Lewis. A very satisfactory day for 92.
The rest of December continued in much the same way, the Squadron was at dawn readiness every day and flew patrols daily. A total of four more 109s were destroyed during the month and many more probably destroyed. On the 23rd Brian Kingcome returned from hospital just in time to celebrate Christmas with the Squadron.
For Squadron Leader Kent it wasn’t much of a holiday. On Christmas Day he, Sailor Malon and Atholl Forbes had to go to Hornchurch to attend a conference being held by the new AOC, the purpose of which was to discuss an offensive operation scheduled for the following day when they hoped to catch the Germans whilst they were still feeling ‘Christmassy’. The plan was to escort a few bombers over to Pas de Calais and shoot up any enemy aircraft sighted in the air or on the ground. The role of the Biggin Hill Squadrons was to sweep in behind the main force as they crossed the French coast on their way home and tackle any pursuing German fighters. The whole plan seemed somewhat at variance with the spirit of Christmas but the country was at war.
The Boss needn’t have had any qualms as the weather put pay to the operation by producing thick fog that made all flying impossible. Instead the first offensive patrol made by Fighter Command since Dunkirk was made on the 27th.
Alan Wright and Roy Mottram took off at 13.30 hours and flew to the North of Abbeville. Wright did not see anything and did not fire his guns. He landed at Southampton to refuel and returned to Biggin Hill. He was over French Territory for about forty minutes. Roy Mottram shot up a staff car and a convoy of army lorries. Two of the lorries were seen to be damaged. He landed at Hawkinge and was unable to return to Biggin Hill owing to the weather.
One of the achievements of the Luftwaffe during the early part of the Battle of Britain was effectively to deny the Royal Air Force the use of Manston and Hawkinge airfields except as forward bases for particular operations and for the re-arming and refuelling of fighters. With the decrease in activity it was decided to re-occupy them and 92 was chosen to do the first stint at Manston – which did not please them at all.
The move eventually took place on the 9th January 1941, after several delays due to poor telephone communications with Biggin Hill and also due to the bad weather. Many of the services were still out of order as a result of the pounding the station had taken during the summer and autumn. The accommodation was rather on the rough side and the whole place was wet, muddy and cold. Most of the time the Squadron was engaged on soul destroying convoy patrol work covering shipping as it was shepherded through Bomb Alley past Dover and Ramsgate into the Thames Estuary. Altogether they were rather unhappy with the situation and the middle of February, when 74 Squadron was to relieve them, seemed a long way off.
On the 9th January the Squadron were warned that the operation planned for Boxing Day was now scheduled for the 10th and that 92 Squadron would lead the Biggin Hill wing, meeting up with the other two squadrons over Dungeness.
January the 10th dawned clear and it was evident that the show was on; this was soon confirmed by Ops at Biggin. At the appointed time they took off and set course for Dungerness where they formed up with the other Squadrons and set course for Le Touquet. Here they were to turn and fly north, sweeping in behind the main force or ‘Beehive’ as it was called, just over the French coast. Johnny Kent who was leading the wing continues the story.
“As we approached Boulogne, I had no difficulty in picking up the raiding party as my attention was drawn to it by the mass of anti-aircraft shell bursts that followed it – the German had certainly recovered from his Christmas hangover.”
“Although the German Flak gunners were on their toes, there seemed to be little or no reaction on the part of the fighters – we did not see any at all – so I led the wing back to our own coast and led down towards Manston while the other two squadrons carried on to Biggin Hill.”
“Although this operation was on a very small scale and did not achieve very much from a material point of view, it did nark the turning point where Fighter Command began its swing from a purely defensive role to one that was to become more and more offensive in character. I thought it was a great honour to have led the Biggin Hill wing – which was to achieve such fame under the leadership of Malan, Rankin and Deere – on this, its very first offensive operation.”
After the 10th the weather again became quite foul and the ground at Manston was so soft that it was practically impossible for the refuelling bowsers to drive anywhere on the grass without sinking in and getting stuck. There was one reasonably solid bit of ground and weather conditions being what they were, the possibility of any air attack was ruled out and the aircraft were all concentrated on this fairly hard piece of ground so that the bowsers could get at them. On the following day the weather was still bad and the aircraft were still grouped in this way. Johnny Kent recalls:
“I was endeavouring to catch up on a lot of paperwork in my office, which was a little wooden hut on the opposite side of the airfield from the Dispersal hut. Tom Wiesse was with me when we heard an aeroplane somewhere in the murk above. I had just made the remark that he would be lucky to get down safely when I heard machine gun fire, and looking out of the widow I stared straight at the nose of a rapidly approaching 109. As I gaped at it the pilot dropped his bomb, which came straight towards the hut as the plane zoomed over the top, the black crosses looking enormous.”
“Just as I started to dive under the table I saw a second 109 drop its bomb right into the middle of the parked aircraft. I hit the floor under the table, but Tom had beaten me to it. There followed a shattering explosion and the whole office rocked. Nothing fell down and so, after waiting to make sure that that was the end of the attack, we crawled out and with sinking hearts went over to see what damage had been done and how many aircraft we had lost.”
“The bomb that had appeared to have my name on it actually burst out on the air-field and aside from very minor splinter damage had been very ineffective. It was the second bomb that worried me, so I was more thankful than I can say when I discovered that the ground, being so wet, had saved the day. The bomb penetrated deep into the ground, that when it exploded it merely shot a great shower of earth up into the air. The result was a lot of mud on the aeroplanes – and one small hole in the fabric of one elevator. It was really quite remarkable and for once I was very thankful for all the rain we had had.”
On the 16th the CO, along with Ronald Kellet and Atholl Forbes, attended an investiture held by General Sikorski at the Polish Headquarters in the Rubens Hotel. They were to receive the Virtuti Militari for their operations with the ‘Kosciusko Eskadra’ or as it was known officially in the Royal Air Force, No 303 Squadron.
This decoration is Poland’s highest military award ranking in Polish eyes with our Victoria Cross. It is a very attractive silver Maltese Cross with the white Polish Eagle in its centre, suspended from a royal blue ribbon with black vertical stripes near the edges. It used to carry a number of very useful privileges and a small estate with its award, but since the advent of a Communist government unfortunately this has all been done away with. Johnny Kent describes the occasion:
“The three of us met at the hotel where we were taken to a room upstairs to find a crowd of people and a whole battery of camera – all for us! A Staff Officer briefed us and then positioned us in front of the cameras. A few minutes elapsed and then the General arrived and the cameras started clicking, clashing and whirring.”
“A senior staff officer read out an announcement first in Polish and then in English, but I cannot remember what he said. The General then moved towards us, halting in front of Kellett, the same staff officer read out the citation in Polish and then in English and the General next took the Cross handed to him by yet another officer and pinned it well and truly to Ronald’s tunic. There was no question of using convenient hooks and rings as at Buckingham Palace! The General then shook him by the hand and kissed him on both cheeks; after this the performance was repeated with me, and then Atholl.”
“Next a series of posed photographs, some with the General and Air Marshal Babington who, as the British Director General of Personnel, also attended. Others were taken with Urbanowicz, the Polish CO of 303. Then it was all over and I went downstairs to collect my things preparatory to leaving. At the bottom of the stairs I was stopped and directed along a corridor towards the rear of the hotel. I thought, ‘Well, at least you are shown out of the front door of the Palace!’ Just as I reached some swing-doors the General and his retinue appeared through another door on my left. I stood back to let them pass but the General motioned me to go ahead saying, “The hero first please!” With that I straightened my tie and swept in – it appeared we had been invited to lunch.”
“There was a great profusion of Polish delicacies set out on shelves; the others followed and we were all given a liqueur glass of vodka and briefed on how to drink it, the drill being to eat one of the rather greasy snacks, drink the vodka in one gulp and then quickly eat another of the snacks. Despite the number of times the toast ‘Naz drovia’ was given we managed to cope amazingly well for the best part of an hour and a half, and by then we had put away a remarkable amount of both food and drink. Then there came a rap on the table and we turned to find the General announcing that lunch was about to be served and would we please take our places!”
“Even by peacetime standards the lunch was quite fantastic, but in this period of all-round shortages it was nothing short of fabulous. There was a magnificent selection of the most delicious wines, smoked salmon, venison, fresh fruits, cheeses and the lord knows what! The last really clear recollection I have of this fantastic feast is of the General, at about five o’clock in the afternoon, pushing himself back from the table, raising his glass to me and saying: “Squadron Leader – à votre santé!” I replied, also forgetting my English, with, “Here’s the skin off your nose, General!””
“In the evening the Squadron took us out on the town. We started with dinner at the Grosvenor House but the whole party became very involved and a few of us ended up at five o’clock in the morning in somebody’s flat off Park Lane drinking pink champagne, which was being poured out for us by a Polish Army officer serving from behind a bar made of mirrors. I don’t know to this day who the place belonged to but it was a most memorable and enjoyable day.”