Arthur Watts circa 1939.
This memoire was originally written in 1976
as a contribution to a book about the history of the Squadron.
It is not known whether or not the book was published.
This material is Copyright Arthur Watts 1976 and Peter Watts 2008. It is published here with the kind permission of Peter Watts.
As an A.C.1 Fitter II, I was posted to 92 Squadron at Tangmere on or before 10th October 1939, after previously serving with No. 43 Squadron at that station. With Peter Moody, another member of 43 Squadron, I merely had to walk across to the adjoining vacant barrack block which had been allocated to 92. Thus we can fairly claim to have been the first arrivals of the newly formed Squadron. The other member of 43 to join 92 at that time was F/Sgt. "Ginger" Hughes who was to be such a pillar of strength in charge of "A" Flight for the next 2-3 years.
The Squadron gradually built up to full strength of personnel during October but there was no sign of aeroplanes, equipment, or tools, so a large proportion of us were put on fatigues (mainly contrived to keep us out of mischief). With the arrival of our first C.O., S/Ldr Roger Bushell, this state of affairs was speedily improved. He sent us on leave in relays on the logical assumption that it might be some time before we had a further chance of leave. This action set the seal on a common-sense approach by the Squadron to many future problems, an approach which did not always meet with approval by officialdom
The remainder of the Squadron's stay at Tangmere was not a very happy one. With the arrival of our first two Blenheims, each flight was allocated one aircraft and everyone was eager to start familiarisation flights. Within hours tragedy had struck and "A" Flight had lost their aircraft, together with their Flight Commander and three trainee pilots. Around this time we also lost two pilots in an Avro Tudor aircraft which had been borrowed to enable them to keep in practice. For a week or two we seemed to be constantly attending military funerals and consequently spirits were rather low during the period of building up to our full strength of aircraft. Also, the engineering staff were not enamoured of the Blenheim fighter conversion which, compared with the Hurricanes and Spitfires from which most of us had transferred, was considered a poor substitute. However we were soon to have a brighter outlook, for just before Christmas 1939, occurred the first of those many moves which made life full of interest and excitement for the next two years, we were posted to Croydon.
Croydon was certainly a drastic change for us all. It was still operating as a civil airport on a very limited scale and we were merely lodgers, there was no organised RAF station and we were soon savouring the pleasures of billets in an evacuated prep. school adjacent to the airport. We were entertained royally by the citizens of Croydon to whom we were something of a novelty and there was no lack of entertainment. The many diversions included an ice-rink, a Mecca dance hall, the largest cinema in Britain at that time (The Davis) and innumerable pubs, many of which were quite high-class establishments until we arrived! I well recall one of our favourite pastimes was to walk from the "Red Deer" at Purley to the "Greyhound" at Croydon and to try drinking a half pint of beer in each pub en route. Many fell by the wayside!
During January 1940 we had some of the worst snowfalls for years, and Croydon was particularly hard hit. Valiant efforts to carve a run-way across the undulating grass airfield, using nothing but shovels, eventually had to be abandoned, much to our relief.
One memorable incident during this period occurred when a Blenheim on formation flying, also carrying some newly recruited airmen for air experience, was accidentally rammed from the rear by the accompanying aircraft, the rudder was completely dismounted and the elevator control was minimal the pilot gave orders for baling-out, but one of the recruits opened his parachute prematurely and the canopy ballooned under the fuselage whilst the unfortunate "passenger" was held by his harness by another occupant of the aircraft and thus prevented from falling further. I remember a parade at which a citation for the pilot was read. I think the incident concerned 145 Squadron who were occupying Croydon with us at the time.
Tragedy struck 92 Squadron again at this time, when a Blenheim crashed on night take-off into a row of houses adjacent to the airfield. It was the pilot's first solo night flight on the Blenheim and he and several civilians were killed.
For a short period in early 1940, "A" Flight were detached to Gatwick in order to obtain better airfield utilisation. Gatwick was then in its pre-war state as a small civil airfield. The Flight was billetted in the central airport building and very soon all had succumbed to enteritis. The water supply was suspected.
With the coming of Spring 1940, the Squadron was re-equipped with Spitfire Mk I aircraft, an occasion of great rejoicing and excitement for all members of the Squadron except our air-gunners who of course were posted from us. The next few weeks consisted of intensive flying with the new aircraft. As far as Maintenance Flight was concerned, we were given strict orders by the C.O. that no aircraft undergoing second line servicing was to be in a hangar in an unmanned state at any time. This was solved by some genius in our midst deciding to operate a type of watch system which I recall gave us a period of intensive round-the-clock working, followed by a 36-hour recovery period every few days. I well remember taking a shilling (5p) ticket on the trams then running from Croydon to London. This ticket enabled us to travel anywhere on the trams for the whole day! Those 36-hour breaks were used to the fullest advantage in order to explore the places of interest in London.
This idyllic existence was short-lived and soon we were on the move again, this time to RAF Northolt and from there the Squadron was soon in action, this time covering the Dunkirk evacuation. We were at this time restricted to a maximum 2 hour pass to leave camp if conditions permitted. I well remember late one evening our watch returning from such a 2-hour release to discover that in that brief period the squadron had been moved to Hornchurch in Essex! We, as the remaining remnants of Maintenance Flight, were ordered to our hangar, there to find four or five replacement aircraft to be prepared for operations by morning. We heard, with great sadness, of our first casualties amongst the pilots, including our C/O, Sqdn/Ldr Bushell, who had been reported missing. We worked throughout the night to prepare the aircraft and the next day we followed the Squadron to Hornchurch. There the Squadron operated for the remainder of the Dunkirk period. I can recall an all-night session on the repair of F/Lt "Bob" Stanford-Tuck's aircraft which had sustained damage during his attack on a German flak post. The aircraft was serviceable by morning.
Hornchurch was not a popular station after Northolt but one bright spot was a pub which had become enclosed in the war-time barbed wire perimeter of the station, and this could be visited without a pass. It was there, late one evening, that we heard the very welcome news that our very popular C.O. Sqdn/Ldr Bushell was safe and a P.O W. Most of the Squadron joined in the celebrations that evening!
After the Dunkirk episode, the Squadron were on the move again. This time it was something different. We were transferred to RAF Pembrey in South Wales, there to guard against lone raiders who were frequently visiting the Bristol Channel area.
Pembrey was a unique station in many ways. There was a Station Commander, one W/Cdr Hutchins, whose favourite pastime was to take off at night time in a Miles Magister (not equipped for night flying!) to check the black-out over Cardiff and Swansea. There were no air-raid shelters at Pembrey, so during a raid we were ordered out into the surrounding meadows to disperse as best we could. Luckily it was a long warm summer as we spent several nights wrapped up in a blanket under the balmy skies. Those who were returning to camp during a raid were refused admission - a good excuse for the more venturesome to "get their feet under the table" at some local hospitable homes.
After a few sporadic raids, dispersal of the aircraft was the order of the day. Maintenance Flight found a small sheltered meadow on the perimeter of the airfield where we carried out our inspections and repairs. Access to the meadow was by a small bridge over which we manoeuvred the Spitfires by hand.
We were shown overwhelming hospitality by the local population who were proud that their local RAF station had changed over night from a training role to a fully operational Spitfire base. Our popularity waned temporarily a couple of times during our stay. Once when a member of the Squadron, driving his Ford V8, collided with the local school bus. Injuries were fortunately slight but feelings ran high. The second and tragic occasion was when the Squadron was returning from standing patrol, having almost empty fuel tanks, and in full view of the helpless pilots, a lone JU88 bombed the nearby chemical works where fatalities occurred in the canteen. It took plenty of diplomacy to explain why the Spitfires had not attacked the intruder, especially as many locals were of the opinion that the Squadron had been placed in Pembrey for the sole protection of that very factory. We only heard Welsh spoken in the pubs for many an evening after these two episodes. By the time we left Pembrey, however, we were on good terms again and there were terrific farewell parties at the two favourite Squadron pubs- The Cornish Arms in Pembrey Village and the ? Arms at nearby Burry Port. The latter was the favourite haunt of Maintenance Flight and at our farewell evening, attended by mountains of food and plenty of "Felinfoel" Ale, the pub was presented with a mounted Squadron crest by Corporal "Ace" Thieme. Ace, who was a particular friend of mine, developed the first unofficial Squadron crest and mounted a few of these on wooden shields. The design was later modified to conform with correct heraldic practice but is still recognizable in the official Squadron crest.
The sojourn at Pembrey was interrupted for half a dozen of us by being detached to Hornchurch for three weeks to carry out modifications. We were at first baffled by this arrangement and of course disappointed at leaving Pembrey for dismal Hornchurch, We soon found out the reason for our detachment; we were to convert the Squadron's aircraft to constant-speed propellers, Priority for this modification was given to 11 Group and the only way that 92, temporarily in 1O Group, could get in on the act was by some judicious wangling whereby the job was carried out on an 11 Group station and our aircraft were ferried to and fro by the 92 Squadron pilots. We completed 20 aircraft in 21 days so naturally had very little time to contemplate and bewail our surroundings. This modification of course was subsequently acknowledged to have had a decisive effect on the outcome of the Battle of Britain.
The modifications completed, we returned to Pembrey. By this time the German air attacks on Britain were beginning to increase and what we now know as the Battle of Britain was under way. For the first few weeks 92 Squadron had a comparatively quiet time, but the picture changed completely when, on 7th September we were posted to Biggin Hill. We were to replace 79 Squadron, who were to take over at Pembrey. I remember the consternation when our rear party marshaled three or four Hurricanes into dispersal and were told that these were the only serviceable aircraft remaining in that Squadron.
The advance party of ground crew flew to Biggin Hill in a Sparrow, which was the name given to the converted Harrow bomber used at that period for ferrying. The remainder of us followed by train to Paddington and thence by lorry to Biggin. We arrived at London shortly after the worst air raid that had been suffered up to that time. During our ride through the shattered streets of the south-eastern suburbs, we were amazed at the comparative cheerfulness of the inhabitants. Some of them, to our embarrassment, threw cigarettes, chocolates etc onto the open trucks in which we were travelling.
Biggin Hill had suffered severe damage by the time we arrived and, although the airfield was operational for flying, the accommodation available was almost non-existent. After the first few days of "squatting" in any convenient shelter, we were housed eventually in the old barracks on the South Camp. These quarters were 1914-18 vintage but, although old-fashioned, were comfortable and ideal from our point of view in that the cook house and canteen were in the same cavernous building. We enjoyed the comparative luxury of tumbling out of bed, straight into the next room for breakfast! For the next few weeks only the various squadrons' ground crew and other essential personnel occupied the airfield at night. All other personnel had been evacuated and were occupying makeshift accommodation and/or civilian billets in the local villages. The pilots, after being in action all day, were taken to comparatively quiet rural quarters at night. Thus we settled into our sojourn at Biggin Hill.
92 Squadron remained in the Biggin Hill Sector, including moves to Manston and Gravesend and back to Biggin, until 1941. I think that this was the longest continuous period that any squadron remained in the Sector during the period and 92 Squadron were very proud of the fact, sometimes during revels in the local pubs, to the annoyance of our rival squadrons!! During this period, which covered both the Battle of Britain and the development of the offensive fighter sweeps by Wings of aircraft, the Squadron enjoyed great success and of course suffered many casualties among our pilots. We on the ground staff were all proud to have served in such a great squadron during this historic period. I, for one, will never forget them.
In November 194l we were moved to Digby in Lincolnshire, where the pilots were to have a well-earned rest. There we settled down to a fairly hum-drum routine, punctuated by a visit from HM King George VI and climaxed by preparations for a move of the complete Squadron overseas. During this time there were many changes in personnel and I was one of those who moved on. I had spent over two very happy years in the Squadron, had moved from AC1 to Sergeant in that period and was now posted to an engineering course prior to commissioning. I was sad to leave 92 and truly very loath to go, but was threatened by my seniors who muttered oaths about being a "bloody fool" if I didn't take this opportunity.
That concludes the chronological sequence of events as I remember them during my time with 92. In addition, may I append the following random recollections of people and events:
The collection of beer bottle labels (pasted onto large boards) which were contributed by most members of the Squadron and which amused HRH the Duke of Kent on his visit to the Squadron shortly before his death in a flying accident.
The collection of neck-tie "ends" which were obtained from civilians at various hostelries etc with a pair of serrated scissors. The ends were supposed to be a token amount, but many were taken just below the knot, often to the intense annoyance of the owner!
The extreme consternation of one McKenzie, a newly-arrived fitter in Maintenance Flight at Biggin Hill, who, having purchased a BSA three-wheeler from a colleague for £5 and anxious to try out his new treasure, promptly reversed it into the Squadron's Miles Magister trainer aircraft. Now the BSA had a sharp "fish-tail" rear end and the Magister was constructed of ply-wood, so the result can be imagined. The fuselage was almost severed just forward of the tail-plane. The "glass house" loomed on the terrified McKenzie's horizon, but providence then took a hand in affairs. We had recently had some Spitfires written off during a night raid on the dispersal and the Magister was somehow included in the casualties and eventually transported away. It had been reasoned by our engineer officer, F/O Garland, that an incarcerated Fitter was of no benefit to anyone at that time. So, somehow or other, strings were pulled and reason prevailed.
One of our pilots landed his damaged aircraft on one of the many emergency refuelling airfields in the kent countryside. He noticed a Spitfire parked in the corner, serviceable except for an undercarriage that wouldn't retract. He ferried the aircraft back to Biggin Hill and for a week or two it was kept "unofficially" serviceable by the maintenance Flight and used by the pilots as a hack. Finally it was tracked down and retrieved by its rightful owners who, I think, were 610 Squadron.