Reformation

The Squadron was reformed twenty years later at Tangmere in Sussex on 10th October 1939 under the command of Flight Lieutenant Roger Bushell.  The swarms of German bombers that had been expected since the start of the war, five weeks previously, had not appeared and the “Phoney War” was to last for a further seven and a half months before No. 92 even met Hitler’s Mighty Luftwaffe.  The Squadron was initially intended to be a Night Fighter Squadron equipped with Blenheim Aircraft powered by two Mercury VIII engines and armed with five guns firing forward and one gun in the rear turret.  When Bushell arrived at Tangmere on the 15th from No. 601 Fighter Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force he became the first AAF Officer to be posted to command and form a new squadron.

Bushell was a South African who had practised in London as a criminal barrister before the war, and taken a prominent part on one or two sensational cases.  But he was better known as a champion skier who had coached the British Olympic Team.  He usually had a single tear coursing down his left cheek, the result of an eye injury received in a skiing accident a few years before.  No one ever saw  him wipe the tear away, he simply ignored it even when the eye streamed for hours on end.  His sight was unimpaired and this inconvenient ailment had only one result: he always held his head slightly tilted to the right.  It was difficult to tell how old he was, though he must have been about thirty.  Of medium height, dark and indelibly tanned, he was wonderfully compact and fit.  His voice was strong and cultured, his diction was like an actor’s, yet there was no false courtroom pomp about him; he could bellow cheerful vulgarities and roar the rowdiest choruses with the rest of them.  He was never one to stand on ceremony, but a candid and open character ready to joke or play the fool with all.  Yet when there was serious talk, the affability and the humour fell away and he became direct, shrewd and commanding.  His overwhelming personality was to generate a fine squadron spirit in the months ahead.

The Squadron was housed in the offices and hangars vacated by No 1 Squadron who had gone to France, but this accommodation was left vacant for some time to come. The Squadron consisted of only three sergeant pilots and ninety-eight ground crew with no aircraft, no office equipment and indeed no equipment of any description.

One of the CO’s first moves was to phone 11 (Fighter) Group and persuade them to let him have two officers from his old Squadron.  So it was arranged that Flying Officer Patrick Green should be posted as the first Flight Commander and that Pilot Officer J. Monroe-Hinds should be the second officer and Section Leader.  With no choice now but to wait for his pilots and aircraft to arrive, Bushell reviewed his new situation.  The other two squadrons stationed at Tangmere were No 43 Fighter Squadron commanded by Squadron Leader R. Baine and No 605 County of Warwick Fighter Squadron Auxiliary Air Force commanded by Squadron Leader Lord Willoughby de Broke M.C. One evening Bushell was very hospitably entertained at Tangmere Cottage by Lord and Lady Willoughby de Broke and the members of No 605 Squadron.  Retiring to his bed at a late hour he felt that Tangmere was the best station to be found in the country and of course No 92 was going to become the best squadron.

The next day Bushell visited No 605 Squadron and persuaded their adjutant, Pilot Officer Longsdon, to lend him a Hind aircraft to give the three sergeant pilots some flying.  None of these pilots had any experience at all on twin engine aircraft and Bushell was making efforts to get them sent on a conversion course.  Meantime there was still no equipment while equipment demands and correspondence were written on any odd piece of paper that could be found.  Even the Official Diary was written on forms borrowed from 43 Squadron.  On the 20th October the first two officers arrived and that evening all three of them retired to the bar to celebrate with considerable elan the re-birth of 92 Squadron, the first born child of 601 (F) Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force.

The following day they heard that ten pilot officers and three sergeant pilots were being posted to the Squadron straight from Flying Training School.  By some divine providence all of them had between eighty and one hundred hours on Twins, so immediately upon arrival at Tangmere they were sent off on a conversion course to learn to fly Blenheims.  By the 24th the news came that six aircraft were to be delivered shortly.  Things seemed to be moving at last but the Squadron was still without any equipment, stationery or publications.  Flying Officer Green, the Flight Commander, borrowed a Gauntlet from 601 Squadron and the Squadron Diary records “The Townend Ring had to be replaced.  This important piece of equipment developed a large hole on a flight Flying Officer Green made today to collect Lady Willoughby de Broke’s furs from Warwickshire.”  Sure enough Britain really was at war and the effects were being felt not only by the poor.  

That next day the Squadron Adjutant, D.H. Cary arrived. He had been recalled from his civilian job at six hours’ notice and had not even got a uniform.  That night the CO dined excessively well with the Station Commander then the party went on to one of Lady Willoughby de Broke’s soirees at Tangmere Cottage, where a “good and rough time was had by all”.

The following week efforts were made to obtain tool kits and spares.  The first aircraft arrived and the pilots continued their conversion to Blenheims.  By now the Squadron had a full complement of eighteen pilots.  Flying Officer Green was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and Bushell became a Squadron Leader.

Training continued throughout November in terrible weather, torrential rain and even gales, but some local flying was achieved.  Whenever possible new aircraft were collected and on the 14th Pilot Officer Monroe-Hinds and his two passengers, Pilot Officer Dugdale and Pilot Officer Drummond, collected a new Blenheim from Tern Hill.  That evening they crashed on the north east boundary of the airfield and were all killed.  The cause of the accident remains a mystery but the weather at the time was for once fine and clear.

The weather was terrible for the remainder of 1939.  Whenever it eased up a little the pilots ventured out of the circuit area to do ‘Sector Reconnaissance’.  Three made the attempt on December 5th.  Pilot Officers Bartly and Williams accomplished the exercise successfully, encountering local storms as was expected.  However, Pilot Officer Fraser lost himself in a local blizzard and ended up in a turnip field near Wantage with the undercarriage up and both propellers badly bent.

The role of the Squadron was still intended to be ‘Night Fighter’ but none of the pilots had ever flown in the dark.  The method of learning this in 1939 was to practice flying in the dusk and do as many landing as one could in dusk conditions until one felt confident enough to do it in the dark.  A little of this was practiced in December when the weather would permit.  On the 12th, Pilot Officer Fraser and a passenger borrowed an Avro Tutor from 605 Squadron to do some local flying and landing practice.  At 11.45 p.m. the Police phoned to say that a yellow training machine had crashed near Sidlesham and this turned out to be the Tutor.  The CO and Flight Lieutenant Green went at once to the scene of the crash by car and found the aircraft a total wreck in a ditch and both officers dead.  It appears that they were low flying and on executing a turn near to the ground lost height, put the port wing tip into the ground and crashed.

Christmas Day was celebrated in the normal fashion as the Squadron was still non-operational.  Then the news came in that the Squadron would be moved to Croydon on the 29th.  In January training continued despite the snow and storms, but force landings became an everyday occurrence.  Aircraft were to be found at all the nearby aerodromes and several were put down in fields.  Some formation flying was practiced and the pilots gained some general flying experience.  The Blenheim, although not a single seat aircraft, was only ever flown by 92 Squadron solo or with a passenger in the gun turret and, in fact, only one air gunner was ever posted to the Squadron.  The aircraft much later proved very vulnerable to the Messerschmitt 109s and due to its resemblance to the Junkers 88 was even attacked on one occasion by a squadron of Hurricanes; so it was no use as a fighter but did serve the Squadron as a useful trainer in the first few months.  The mistakes made on this aircraft, often causing embarrassment and sometimes loss of life, were to add to the Squadron’s experience in the later months.  Then at the beginning of March the Squadron heard that they were to be re-equipped with the new Spitfire Mk1. 

This wonderful piece of news was received with joy and gladness.  At last this motley tribe of ex-businessmen, students and Volunteer Reserve pilots were to be recognised as ‘professional’ pilots and given this ‘sleek, strong and incredibly high powered’ fighter of their dreams.  On 6 March Bushell went to Cosford to collect the first Spit.  Thirty feet of wicked beauty that Air Ministry red tape and shortage of money had kept from the squadrons for so long.

As there was no two seat version of the Spitfire the first flight was also one’s first solo, so the student sat in the aircraft while a more experienced pilot explained the cockpit drills. The following excerpt from the squadron diary gives a feeling for what it entailed.  For over an hour the pilot sat in the aircraft while the chap standing on the wing ordered him to place his hands on the various controls.  When he had memorised the position of each knob, lever, switch and dial, they went over the various drills for pre-take off and landing checks which took the best part of another hour.  When he was happy and ready to put it all into practice, they called the ground crew, started the engine and with one last shout above the roar of the powerful Merlin, “Don’t forget, be careful not to get her nose too far forward on takeoff.  Once the tail’s up you’ve only a few inches clearance between the prop tips and the deck!”  Then his instructor was gone.

Left alone, the pilot felt uneasy as he looked through the tiny windscreen at the slender shark’s head cowling covering the only engine, after he had been so used to having two.  He realised the Spitfire bore no relation to any aircraft he had flown before.

He signalled ‘chocks away’, eased the throttle forward, opened the radiator wide to prevent overheating, eased off the brakes and taxied carefully to the downwind end of the field.   There, he turned her into wind, stopped and began his pre-take off checks.  As soon as he became involved in this mental task he became more relaxed, then he lined her up on the runway.

He eased the throttle open and she seemed to leap forward.  At first he couldn’t see anything ahead because of the long cowling but as the speed built up rapidly, the controls took effect and the tail came up giving him a clear view ahead.  Gently he checked the stick, keeping the prop tips clear of the ground.  The aircraft had a strong inclination to swing to the right due to the torque of the air from the prop striking the fin, so a strong boot of left rudder was needed to keep her straight.  Then suddenly she leapt airborne.

At this point he had the hazardous task of raising the undercarriage.  First he throttled back to climbing revs then tightened the large throttle friction nut to keep the throttle steady.  He then had to change hands and hold the stick with his left.  Here was the moment of danger.  He had to keep a careful eye on the air speed and keep it constant by raising or lowering the nose very gently with his left hand and at the same time with his right he had to pump vigorously for several seconds.  Even the best of beginners couldn’t be expected to hold her steady in a climb at this point and at least a gentle ‘porpoising’ movement was inevitable.  Then the thump under his feet told him that the wheels were in their belly housings and he began to fly this new creature.  He found it a gentle and sensitive machine that responded lively to the most delicate suggestive pressures from its master’s hands and feet.

On the way back to Croydon he spent twenty minutes looping, rolling, spinning and stalling while generally getting the feel of the aircraft.  Then he descended in a long, gentle dive and touched 360 mph, levelled out near the aerodrome and concentrated on the difficult task of landing a new aircraft for the first time.  

He throttled back, opened the radiator wide, slid back his hood and began the approach.  As he turned across wind he lowered the undercarriage and flaps, then he turned into the wind, put the prop to fine pitch and eased the stick back.  He couldn’t see a thing as the long nose obscured everything ahead of him, so he had to put her into a gentle side slip and then straighten her out just before the wheels touched.  Stick back, gently but firmly back into the pit of the stomach, a soft jolt and she was rolling bumpily over the grass.  He kept her straight with the brakes, slowed her down to taxiing speed and trundled leisurely to dispersal. Bushell had delivered the first Spitfire to 92 Squadron and he knew this would be an important milestone in the Squadron’s history.

But he couldn’t have known how important.

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