My father, John Leigh Parsons (known as Jack) was born in 1913 in Peckham, South London. He attended Wilson Grammar School and then worked as a bus driver for a church musical group before joining the Beckenham Electrical Company as an electrician.
This account of Jack’s War was drawn from various websites and books and, in particular, Jack’s RAF records.
The first part is an extract of a letter to me from Vic Milner in 1999. Vic knew Jack from when they both joined the squadron. After disbandment, they worked together at Marley Tiles and Vic attended Jack’s funeral. It’s interesting that he talks in some detail of the time in France, but doesn’t mention the Battle of Britain period in Kenley:
“Jack enlisted first in April 1938 and being of the same trade – W/T metal riggers – we teamed up as buddies. Attending summer ‘39 practice camp, we were recalled to Kenley during the second Thursday of the two week camp, and were promptly embodied into the regular RAF, collecting our £5.
Fortunately, by now, we had both passed our trade test as AG1 metal riggers, both missing our Leading Aircraftman by a few points – you needed 70% to sew on your props badge. The squadron moved to Croydon to enable the installation of runways at Kenley.
We left Croydon in November 1939 on an Imperial Airways Ensign to land at Merville, a mud-up-to-yer-knees airfield; grass, no runways. This necessitated a move to Vitrey, another grass airfield along the Arras Douai road.
By now the warmer days had arrived with the balloon going up and Jerry pushing west. We returned to Vitrey to repair unserviceable kites. I recall fitting a new port wing to a Hurricane which we were now flying, only to be instructed with others to burn the aircraft before a hurried departure to Auchy in a coal mining district from whence we, some twenty remaining 615s, were airlifted out by Ensign arriving the evening of May 20 at Hendon, then on to Uxbridge to be kitted out and on to two weeks leave.
The rest of the squadron made their own way out of France via the docks or the best way they could. After leave, we were posted back to 615, now returned to Kenley. Jack achieved his tapes ahead of me – at the time we were both in the servicing echelon whilst the squadron had earlier departed for Valley in North Wales where I rejoined them on promotion to corporal.
Jack and I then lost touch until 1946 when we met up once again on re-enlisting with the new post-war 615, dropping our rank to corporal, later to get our third stripe back, later again to have the crown. Thus, as flight sergeants, we were disbanded in 1957. Jack and I enjoyed ourselves at the subsequent practice camps in Germany and Malta.”
Jack joined 615 Squadron (“County of Surrey”) of the Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) in March 1938. He was ground crew, described initially as a “metal rigger”.
No. 615 Squadron (from now on – 615) had been formed on June 1, 1937 at Kenley Aerodrome as an army co-operation unit of the AAF. Initially equipped with Hawker Audaxes and Hectors, it became a fighter squadron in November 1938 receiving Gloster Gauntlets, then Gladiators in May 1939. In September, 615 joined the No. 11 Group Fighter Command.
On November 15, 1939, along with No 607 (County of Durham), 615 were preparing to deploy from RAF Croydon to Merville in France as part of the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force.
Both squadrons were equipped with the Gloster Gladiator – the last British military biplane to be built. With innovations like a fully enclosed cockpit and sliding canopy, four forward-facing fixed machine guns on the fuselage and wings, the aircraft had been introduced as a frontline fighter only two years earlier, but with the RAF expanding rapidly it was already obsolete and AAF squadrons were taking on the type as the RAF received the more powerful and capable Hurricanes and Spitfires. Before leaving, Winston Churchill (615’s Honorary Air Commodore since April 1939) and his wife were to review the Squadrons.
The aircraft being inspected were fully armed and fuelled, ready to depart after the review. The ground crew of both squadrons, including Jack and Vic, were ready to leave in two Armstrong Whitworth Ensign transport aircraft escorted by the squadron’s Gladiators. Once away from the British coast they were expecting trouble.
Such were the peculiarities of the Gladiator’s gun firing mechanisms that they could only be cocked for firing when on the ground and, once made ready, even turbulence rocking the wings could set the guns off.
Flight Lieutenant James Sanders was ‘B’ Flight Commander with 615 and had the pleasure of hosting Churchill. While Churchill examined one of the underwing gun pods on Sanders’ Gladiator, Sanders was making Mrs Churchill comfortable in the cockpit. Showing proper interest in such things, she asked questions and prodded dials before her fingers found the gun firing mechanism.
At that moment only a quick and heavy slap from Sanders on the hand of the wife of the future Prime Minister saved Churchill’s life.
The squadron were based at Merville until December when they transferred to Vitry-en-Artois until moving to Poix-de-Picardie in April and Abbeville in mid-May.
The Battle of France
The following is an account of 615’s time in France, and, afterwards, at Kenley. It gives a flavour of what Jack would have experienced.
On May 12, Hitler ordered the invasion of France. Within two days, German tanks had crossed the Meuse and had opened up a gap in the Allied front. Six days later they reached the English Channel.
The British, French and Belgium governments had seriously underestimated the strength of the German forces. As a result, the British Expeditionary Force, as well as French, Canadian and Belgian troops, found themselves fighting against overwhelming odds. Before long, the Allied forces had retreated to the harbour and beaches of Dunkirk where they were trapped, a sitting target for the Germans.
On May 15, ‘A’ wing flew to Vitry-en-Artois where they refuelled and waited for further orders. They then joined five Hurricanes from 607 to escort a dozen Blenheims to bomb bridges over the Meuse river. When they set out they were met by Messerschmitt Bf110s and Bf109s. In the afternoon, three 615 patrols reported encounters with Hs126 reconnaissance aircraft. 615 Hurricanes carried out low-level patrols north-west of Gemblous at 15:00 attacking several German barrage balloons.
Squadron Leader (SL) Lance Smith of 607 led five of his Hurricanes and six of 615’s to escort a dozen Blenheims to bomb the bridges over the Meuse in the Dinant-Celles area.
Before reaching the target they encountered Bf110Cs and Bf109s at 11,000 feet. In the ensuing combat, SL J. R. Kayll of 615 claimed two Bf110s while Flying Officer (FO) H. N. Fowler claimed a probable Bf109 before being shot down himself (he parachuted safely but was later taken prisoner). SL Smith was shot down and killed.
Three Hurricanes were lost while two of the Blenheims were shot down by Bf109s encountered when northwest of Charleroi.
On May 16, 615 moved north from Vitry-en-Artois across the Belgium border to Moorsele, a small civilian airfield east of Countrai. Shortly after take-off newly attached Pilot Officer (PO) Grassick attacked what he believed to be a Junkers Ju88, which turned out to be a Blenheim, which crash landed after the attack. The remainder of the squadron from Abbeville joined them at Moorsele.
615 immediately flew patrols from its new base. At 15:00 nine Hurricanes led by FL L.T.W. Thornley went on escort to a 4 Squadron Lysander. Near Tirlemont the formation was bounced by Bf109s and FL Thornley was shot down and killed.
PO Thompson was shot down and parachuted out but was taken prisoner. PO Young was also shot down and his Hurricane crashed near Essene, he bailed out although badly burned and was further wounded from ground fire from British soldiers. PO Grassick was the only member of the Squadron to claim one of the attackers. The Lysander was also shot down.
May 17 saw 615 busy from early morning operating from the advanced airfield in Moorsele. Three sections each of three aircraft departed at 05:30 and were soon in action. At about 09:30 another section of 615 encountered a Ju88 which they shot down.
May 18 was a quiet day, apart for a brief skirmish in conjunction with 32 Squadron, also based at Moorsele, against Heinkel He111s. The only other patrol of note undertaken by 615 during the day was when two Hurricanes become separated and lost, but POs Pennington and Yapp landed near Dunkirk, they returned to Moorsele next day.
Jack told the story that he was involved in blowing up his own squadron’s aircraft to stop them falling into enemy hands, and that he took cover from a Stuka raid by hiding under a truck which turned out to be a fuel tanker.
On May 19, still operating from Moorsele, 615 carried out a number of uneventful patrols. At 19:40 a section of four reported sighting hostile aircraft – fifteen Bf109s. FO Pexton was shot down between Arras and Cambrai and bailed out of his Hurricane.
May 20 was to be 615’s last day in France. They were very active following their early arrival at Norrent-Fontes with thirteen Hurricanes and the Magister. At 08:00 the squadron mounted an offensive patrol over Lille, while a section maintained a defensive patrol of the airfield. 615 provided three aircraft to take part in a composite formation, which attacked the German advance along the Cambria-Arras road.
At 16:00, a section from 615 patrolling Arras-Douai-Lens, met twelve He111s of which two were shot down claimed by SL Kyall and PO Hugo. PO Verity claimed a Ju88 and PO Pennington claimed a Bf110. PO Verity’s Hurricane was damaged and it crash-landed at Norrent-Fontes, he was unhurt.
In the evening, orders were received to evacuate Norrent-Fontes, so nine Hurricanes of 615 and four of 607 escorted a departing Sabena SM73P to RAF Kenley. Three of 615’s unserviceable Hurricanes were returned to Kenley independently as did at least four of the squadron’s Gladiators.
Jack and Vic returned to England on an Ensign from Auchy-les-Mines, while others returned aboard the steamer Biarritz from Boulogne, arriving at Dover on May 21 and at once regrouped at Croydon and Kenley. Re-equipping with Hurricanes continued, although there was still a Gladiator flight at Manston until May 30.
In an effort to at least evacuate some of the troops stranded at Dunkirk, Churchill ordered the start of ‘Operation Dynamo’. This plan took its name from the dynamo room in the naval headquarters below Dover Castle, where Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay had planned the operation. Destroyers and transport ships were sent to evacuate the Allied troops. Between May 27 and June 4, nearly 700 ships brought over 338,000 back to Britain, including 140,000 soldiers of the French Army.
On June 26 after a very uneventful reconnaissance flight to France flying Hurricane P2966, the following is recorded in 615’s records: “returning from patrol PO Young’s wheel came off on landing – machine badly damaged, but Pilot unhurt.”
On June 27 after an uneventful patrol escorting Blenheims on photographic duties the King, George VI, visited 615 to decorate SL Kayll DSC and FL Sanders with their DFCs. He spoke to the remaining officers on parade and stayed for tea.
Churchill’s iconic speech to Parliament set the scene for what was to come:
“The Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Commonwealth and Empire lasts for a thousand years men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”
The Battle of Britain
For a seaborne assault on the south coast of England to succeed, the Germans needed complete mastery of the air which meant the RAF’s Fighter Command had to be defeated.
The Battle of Britain raged between July 10 and October 31 as the Luftwaffe turned their attention to the airfields in the south-east, particularly Kenley, whose importance had grown to be Sector HQ in 11 (Fighter) Group, controlling the airfields at Shoreham-by-Sea, Gatwick, Redhill and Croydon. Kenley’s pilots and ground crew were very much in the firing line.
The Hardest Day
Kenley would not have long to wait before it became a target for Luftwaffe bombers. On August 18, the airfield sustained major damage following a heavy bombing raid.
The early warning radar had picked up enemy activity across the Channel and, at around 12:45, 64 and 615 squadrons were scrambled, although the Germans’ targets were still unclear. At 13:00, some sixty Luftwaffe aircraft, comprising a high-level and a very low-level raiding force, crossed the Sussex coast at Cuckmere Haven near Beachy Head. Air raid sirens sounded around Kenley and Caterham. Fifteen minutes later, the onslaught began from the south with nine Dornier Do17 bombers of the low-level raiding force flying across Kenley at about 100 feet, followed several moments later by a raid from the high-level bombers.
Damage to the airfield and its facilities was extensive: three of the hangars were well alight, the equipment stores were a write-off. Four Hurricanes and a Bristol Blenheim bomber were destroyed on the ground and another four parked aircraft and the station’s medical facilities were damaged.
Nine airmen were killed and a further seven men and a woman were wounded. One soldier died of his wounds the next day and two more suffered minor wounds. Houses surrounding the airfield suffered major collateral damage.
Nevertheless, 64 and 615s’ pilots did not allow the enemy to escape unpunished, claiming several enemy fighters and bombers as they headed back to France. Of the nine low-level Do17s, only two made it back to their base north of Paris – four were shot down over England and two crash-landed in France.
While the raids appeared to have inflicted substantial material damage, the practical reality was somewhat different. The hangars destroyed were mainly surplus to requirements. The equipment stores were soon dispersed to the squadrons and the sick bay was relocated. Runway craters were filled in from mounds of rubble located around the airfield, and most importantly of all, the Operations Room remained intact. Kenley, despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe, was ready for action within hours of the raid ending.
On that day PO Young shot down a Dornier 215 over the Kenley area at 13:45 hours and claimed a Bf109 probably destroyed.
At 15:30 hours there was another air raid warning and the squadron engaged fifteen HE111s at Thameshaven. SL Kayll shot down one which PO McClintock finished off. It crashed near Hornchurch where PO McClintock landed. The German crew were taken prisoner and the aircraft destroyed.
Squadrons operating from Kenley during the Battle claimed successes as an increasing number of Luftwaffe aircraft were now operating over the south-east. There were bad days as well as good – in one day No 616 (County of Yorkshire) Squadron lost seven Spitfires and 615 lost four Hurricanes and three pilots were killed. Yet Kenley’s pilots inflicted significant damage on the attacking bombers and fighters, many of them gaining “ace” status as a result.
Once again Winston Churchill’s speech to Parliament perfectly matched the moment:
“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 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. All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.”
On August 29 a signal was received moving 615 to Prestwick in Scotland to rest and re-equip. They left Kenley at 14:00 hours flying north.
Having failed to achieve air superiority, Hitler cancelled his plans to invade Britain in September 1940. There was no doubt that Kenley had played a highly significant role. Across the six squadrons based on the airfield at various times during the course of the Battle, thirty-three young pilots flying out of Kenley had paid with their lives; many more suffered life-impairing injuries. On the aerodrome, RAF ground crew and soldiers had been killed and wounded.
Back from leave, and with the Battle of Britain seemingly over, Jack was recommended for training as an Airman Pilot (non-commissioned) and was passed medically fit, but he withdrew the application in December. His record does show him being transferred from 615 to No 2 Flight Training School and back to 615, but the dates don’t quite align. It also appears he was preparing to transfer to 3 Flight, No 2 AACU (Anti-Aircraft Cooperation Unit), but this wasn’t actioned.
In February 1941, 615 began to fly offensive sweeps over France providing fighter cover for bomber escort and ground attack missions.
In March, with the rank T/Cpl (temporary Corporal) Jack was transferred to HQ Ferry Service Pools at RAF Kemble which co-ordinated overseas ferrying of single-engine aircraft and was formed in November 1940 within No 41 Group, Ferry Command.
The Ferry Service Pool then relocated to RAF Honeybourne and was transferred to No 44 Ferry Group and renamed 1 Ferry Training Unit (FTU) in November 1941, training pilots for ferrying aircraft to overseas theatres.
In March 1942, now a T/Sgt, Jack moved to RAF Lyneham with the FTU which was redesignated No 301 FTU. Apart from a two week posting to RAF Huntsdon (No. 85 Squadron, Mosquitos), he stayed at Lyneham for two years. In March 1943, No 44 (Ferry) Group was absorbed into the new Transport Command to train crews to ferry aircraft abroad, initially Bristol Beaufighters, Beauforts & Blenheims and Vickers Wellingtons, then Lockheed Hudsons and Handley Page Halifaxs.
In March 1944, Jack moved with his unit to RAF Pershore where No 1 Ferry Unit was formed from No 301 FTU and No 1 Ferry Crew Pool within No 44 Group, ferrying multi-engined aircraft from factories to front-line operational units, mainly Bristol Beaufighters and Blenheims, de Haviland Mosquitos and Douglas Dakotas.
This was, of course, the period of the build up to Operation Overlord and D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe and the Normandy landings in June 1944.
During this posting, Jack spent a month at the Vickers Armstrong factory (possibly at Brooklands) where they built the Wellington bomber, and a week at de Haviland’s factory at Hatfield where they built the Mosquito; I assume both of these were qualification courses. Jack’s records show he was qualified on Wellingtons, Beauforts, Blenheims and Hudsons.
In April 1945, he was transferred to HQ 44 Ferry Service Group, probably back at RAF Kemble, who were responsible for overseas air transport.
With victory in Europe secured in May, Jack was de-mobilised via PDC102 – Personnel Dispatch Centre, Cardington – in September 1945 with a Class A release to Reserve.
So I have three questions:
Having applied to train as a Pilot, and possibly spending two weeks at Brize Norton, why did Jack withdraw the application and return to 615?
Why did he then transfer to the Ferry Units rather than stay with 615 and deploy with them to the Far East? Was it a personal choice or was he simply posted? I guess we’ll never be able to answer these two.
Finally, what did Jack do in the Ferry Units?
Throughout his initial 615 posting, and until late 1942, his trade was “metal rigger”. From December 1942, it became Fitter IIA, which means he was responsible for the airframe, instruments and control surfaces; maintaining, servicing and repairing aircraft before they were ferried to operational bases, including new aircraft delivered from factories as well as casualties of combat.
A Fitter I would originally have been qualified in both Engines and Airframes and was the highest aircraft technical trade, but, even at the outbreak of the War, they were an endangered species, as the required level of experience could not be built up under emergency wartime conditions, and it quickly became obsolete.
The trades of Fitter IIA (Airframe) and Fitter IIE (Aero Engine) were the next layer of knowledge and experience and the basic trades were Flight Rigger (for airframes) and Flight Mechanic (for engines). There were older, superseded trades such as Rigger (Metal) which was introduced in the late 1920s when metal primary structures became a feature in aircraft designs, and Carpenter, for older wooden aircraft.
There is an anecdotal suggestion that Jack crewed on Lancaster bombers on ferry missions, possibly to Egypt. This can’t be corroborated, and it’s unlikely that it would have been Lancasters as they weren’t on his unit’s roster, so it would be more likely they were Wellingtons. I would guess that he did a lot of flying so, on balance, I’d say this was very plausible.
One thing everyone knows about the Battle of Britain is that it was won by “the few” in their Spitfires but, in fact, it was the Hurricanes and their squadrons that scored more kills (by a ratio of three to two) and, while the skill and bravery of the Pilots – a bravery we simply cannot understand or imagine now – was undoubtedly the deciding factor, without the extraordinary and under-celebrated efforts of RAF ground crews, victory would have been impossible, and the Army and Navy would have not have achieved their later successes in the different theatres and operations without air support from the RAF’s bombers and fighters.
We should be – we are – intensely proud of Jack’s war.
The Post War Years
With the reactivation of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 615 was reformed on 10 May 1946 at RAF Biggin Hill as a day fighter squadron equipped with Spitfire F.14s. Spitfire F.21s were received in 1947 and these were replaced by F.22s in 1948, both marks being flown until 1950.
In July 1947, Jack was released from his RAF Reserve commitment and immediately re-joined 615 at Biggin Hill. Both he and Vic Milner re-joined as Corporals, but both regained their Sergeant stripes and then Crowns, denoting Flight Sergeant.
The squadron re-equipped with Gloster Meteor F.4 jet fighters starting in September 1950. Meteor F.8s were received in September 1951. These were flown in the annual UK air defence exercises and at annual summer training camps. It seems these annual camps at Horsham St. Faith in Norfolk (August 1947), Tangmere (1950), Malta and Germany featured large in squadron activities.
600 and 615 squadrons were great rivals. No 600 had the Queen Mother as Honorary Air Commodore and 615 had Sir Winston Churchill. In September 1954, Churchill was at Biggin Hill to present the Esher Trophy for the Most Efficient Squadron to 615.
Churchill sent a message to the Queen Mother:
“I have today presented to my squadron the Esher Trophy. It was a great joy to me to be made an honorary member of 615. They were equally good at work or play. I remember visiting them at summer camp at Horsham St Faith. After the day’s flying the squadron funds were raided and launches hired on the Norfolk Broads. At one or two selected stopping-places the adjutant went into the nearest hostelry and to the consternation of the locals ordered 86 pints and four lemonades.”
Along with all other flying units of the RAuxAF, No. 615 was disbanded on 10 March 1957.
615 Squadron 1941–45
After Jack left the Squadron, 615 left Kenley in April 1941 for RAF Valley in Anglesey, RAF Manston (September, 1941), RAF Angle (Wales, November) and RAF Fairwood Common, Swansea (January 1942)
In April 1942, they were transferred to the South East Asian theatre, initially to India, before moving closer to the front lines in Burma in December. They returned to India to re-equip in May 1943, receiving Mk V Supermarine Spitfires in October before returning to operations Burma in November. They was recalled to India again for defensive duties in August 1944, before returning to Burma in February 1945.
On June 10, 1945, 615 was officially disbanded – although No 135 Squadron was renamed 615 that same day at RAF Cuttack, India. The new 615 was equipped with Republic Thunderbolts and began training for proposed landings in Malaya. However, since air support was not required following the surrender of Japan, the squadron disbanded on 25 September at RAF Vizagapatam, Andhra Pradesh.
Jack joined the Southern Aeroclub at Shoreham and learned to fly, gaining his private licence in 1955. He regularly flew Tiger Moths owned by the Wheel brothers, one of which still exists.
Jack died in May 1963.