605 Squadron – 15th September 1940

The 15th of September started uneventfully enough and quoting from Richard Collier's book “Eagle Day”: "At Croydon, 605's pilots, sprawled in deck chairs in the gardens of commandeered villas along the airfield perimeter, were absorbed in calculations of their own: how many rose-bushes and cigarette butts would their voracious billy goat, brought south as a mascot, eat before breakfast this morning? Covertly, their Squadron Commander, F/Lt Archie McKellar, studied every one of them, checking that each man had taken time to shave. If a 605 pilot died this morning, the fastidious McKellar, as always, was determined that he'd died barbered and clean." It was somewhat ironic that the first line written that day in the Squadron log was "A beautiful still sunny day". On this day the Ops Room at HQ 11 Group, Uxbridge, had distinguished visitors, the Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine chose this Sunday morning to drop in on Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park and his controllers and plotters to see if any action was taking place. All was quiet and there was no evidence that the skies over Southern England would soon be reverberating to the roar of Luftwaffe engines telegraphing the arrival of the largest formation of enemy aircraft yet seen.

Archie McKellar

Churchill later wrote on his visit to "The Hole":"Air Vice-Marshal Park gave general directions for the disposition of his fighter force, which were translated into detailed orders to each Fighter Station by a youngish officer in the centre of the Dress Circle, at whose side I sat. Some years later I asked his name. He was Lord Willoughby de Broke. (I met him next in 1947, when the Jockey Club invited me to see the Derby. He was surprised that I remembered the occasion.)” Churchill didn't have to wait long before the WAAF plotters were expertly moving the coloured discs across the map, each indicating a large number of enemy aircraft. Things were certainly hotting up. The speed at which the discs were being placed on the map even surprised the senior controllers inside the two storeyed underground room. Over the shuffle of discs and the whisper of the radio conversations came the voice of the Prime Minister "There appear to be many aircraft coming in.” To which Park reassuringly replied "There'll be someone there to meet them."

Lord Willoughby de Broke (right), Lawrence Oliver (left) on the film set
of the Battle of Britain film, 1969.

Soon every squadron was on standby and even though he suspected yet another Luftwaffe feint, the duty controller W/Cdr Eric Douglas-Jones felt he could wait no longer. Moments later the aircraft on 72 and 92 Squadrons left Biggin Hill bound for the area around Canterbury. The first pilots to reach the commanded angels twenty were in for an unpleasant surprise, as for once it seemed the Germans held the upper hand and looked to have overwhelmed the forces of Fighter Command. The order to send more units into the air soon came, and the phone rang at Croydon sending the men running for their machines. A short while later and every fighter squadron in Southern England was involved in repelling this massive raid from reaching its intended targets.

It was 11:15am when 605 were finally called to action to meet a formation of Dornier bombers over Surrey and Kent. Moments later the Hurricanes were diving into a flight of thirty or so bombers and seventy Me 109s, scattering bombers all over the skies. In the ensuing battle the Squadron shot down 6 enemy aircraft and damaged another. Bunny Currant, leading Red Flight initially ordered a beam attack as the fighters were guarding the front and rear of the formation. After the flight had split Bunny climbed back into the sun and running parallel made a head on attack in true Gerry Edge style. Bunny accounted for two Dornier 17s and another damaged, Sgts Ricky Wright and Harold Howes shot down one each and Archie McKellar, who was now showing a penchant for fighters as opposed to bombers bagged two Me 109s. During the melee Bunny Currant was hit in the port wing, and being unable to turn left as his aileron was damaged, made a right handed spiral descent and made Croydon at 1210. Less fortunate was Eric Jones who sustained far greater damage and had no choice but to bail out suffering slight injuries, his aircraft coming down at Drux Farm, Plaxtol.

Bunny Currant

Shortly after lunch and the Squadron were called upon again this time being sent to intercept a formation of three waves of bombers and fighters between Maidstone and Folkestone. Only the first wave benefitted from a fighter escort and this was the one that the Squadron attacked, once again doing exceedingly well. Archie McKellar got a Do 17 and a probable He 111, Bunny Currant, never far from the action, added a Me 109 and a He 111 to his morning tally as well as damaging a further two Do 17s. Sgt Howes claimed a Do 17 probably destroyed and Watty Watson damaged another one, but without a doubt the claim of the day has to be given to Mike Cooper-Slipper, who having run out of ammunition decided the only course of action would be to ram his foe. This he did after his lateral control had been rendered useless after return fire from a Dornier bomber. Being only able to move his control about three inches fore and aft he had very little control of his Hurricane. Mike rammed the second aircraft in a vic of three, amidships tearing one of its wings off. Mike's aircraft was wrenched clear minus its port wing and most of the engine. The cockpit filled with glycol and his machine fell out of control in an inverted spin. Quoting from his combat report ".... so I left hurriedly. I pulled my rip-cord a couple of seconds later because I was much too scared to do a delayed drop. I saw the enemy aircraft explode after three people had baled out. I landed in a ploughed field near Marden and rapidly became a local hero." Mike returned triumphantly to Croydon that evening, unshaken from his escapades in the air, and sporting two German Mae Wests and a complete rubber dingy, given to him by the Maidstone police.

Mike Cooper-Slipper

As darkness fell the Germans continued their tactics, albeit with much smaller numbers, and two bombs landed within two hundred yards of the sleeping men of the Squadron, neither exploding. Had they gone off one wonders how many men would have slept through the noise, considering how tired and weary they were becoming. Apparently McKellar had grown increasingly anxious over a period of several days in an effort to "bag" one of the German night bombers whose course, on the way to bomb London, took them over the aerodrome at Croydon. On the evening of September 15th, Mac had asked his ground crew to stand by in case he had a chance of getting to grips with one of these dastardly invaders. He had ordered his armourer, Jock Pryce to change the ammunition belts in his Hurricane so that they held a greater quantity of 'De Wilde' (explosive/incendiary) and tracer rounds, so that he would have a better chance of hitting the bomber at night. The belts could not be altered until the Squadron was stood down from readiness at dusk so Jock asked Norman Connew if he could lend a hand. Mac's aircraft was checked by the groundcrew and was ready for action.

Norman Connew (left)

Early that evening the sirens sounded and before long the tell-tale 'throb' of a Heinkel's engines could be heard. Moments later the searchlights were frantically scouring the skies for the invader. Seconds later the bomber was lit up and the ack-ack batteries immediately opened up on him. McKellar, who had been watching events yelled to his fitter to start his aircraft up. Fortunately the fitter was already in the cockpit and in no time the Merlin engine spluttered into life and Mac was strapped in and opening his throttle, sent his machine across the airfield and into the night air. The bomber was being passed from one searchlight beam to another as he closed in. The ack-ack guns suddenly fell silent, presumably ordered to do so via a radio transmission from McKellar. Norman Connew waited on the ground with his colleagues and remembers ".... it wasn't long before we suddenly heard a couple of bursts of machine gun fire and wondered if 'Mac' had encountered the bomber. All we could do was wait for his return. When he landed and taxied to the dispersal point he climbed out of his aircraft. Jock Pryce asked "Any luck, Sir ?", to which 'Mac' gave the thumbs-up sign and remarked "Got the b*****d !". McKellar was so chuffed about finally shooting down a night bomber he invited all of his ground crew to join him for a celebration drink at the Greyhound Restaurant.”

Our Few in 1990, 50th Anniversary Battle of Britain Dinner
Back row: (L-R)
Wing Commander Bunny Currant DSO, DFC & Bar
Sgt Ken Jones, shot down in 1940 and captured by the Germans
Wing Commander Bob Foster DFC
Squadron Leader Mike Cooper-Slipper DFC
Front Row (L-R):
Flight Lieutenant Archie Milne
Group Captain Alec Ingle DFC AFC
Group Captain Gerry Edge OBE DFC AE
Wing Commander Jack Fleming (shot down 1940, Guniea Pig)
Wing Commander Peter Parrott DFC & Bar, AFC