We were very pleased to have been contacted by John and Vera Brockhurst. John joined 601 in 1938 when he was 23. He became a metal rigger and served with the squadron through the Battle of Britain and in North Africa. He was taken ill when 601 returned to Malta to help cover the landings in Sicily. John sent along a brief write-up of his service history and I include it below as written.
Memory is a funny thing. It seems to be haphazard. Some things you cannot remember at all while other memories are vivid.
I first became aware of the Auxiliary Air Force in the spring of 1938. I bought a glossy monthly aviation magazine and in it was an article about the A.A.F. 601 Squadron I discovered it was based at Hendon and the THQ (Town Headquarters) was in Kensington. Quite convenient for me as my home was near Hyde Park, Lancaster Gate.
I joined 601 in May 1938, just a week after my 23rd birthday. My first real memory is of F/Sgt Brownrigg! He was in charge of training and drilling us from a motley mob of civvies, from all walks of life, into a group of airmen reasonably capable of marching in a formation of fours, turning Left and Right on command.
I suppose I was a bit mercenary. I wanted a trade in the Class I category – they were paid the highest rate. There were two choices as I remember, the choice of being an Engine Fitter or a Metal Rigger, responsible for looking after the airframe. I chose the latter I didn’t want to get my hands dirty!
THQ was at 54 Kensington Park Road. At one time the home of Sir Philip Sassoon, one time minister in charge ot the Air Ministry. He gave his home to the nation for the use of 601 Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force.
We met once a week in the evening after work to drill and, eventually, to practice our skills in the trade of our choice. Many week-ends were spent at Hendon where we got to work on the aircraft under the eagle eye of a Senior NCO.
I remember watching with awe, Sgt Reddington, an experienced Metal Rigger, adjusting the tension of the wires between the two wings of a Gloster Gauntlet. And I thought ‘will they ever trust me to do that!’
At that time our aircraft were biplanes, Hawker Harts and Demons, open cockpits and fixed undercarriages. We all at some time had the opportunity to fly. This meant dressing up in a flying suit, like a boiler suit, helmet and goggles and donning a parachute which you sat on. As you walked to the aeroplane you waddled like a duck! You were whisked away for a short flight. Perishingly cold, buffeted by the wind and subjected to the Machiavellian attempts of your pilot to make you airsick by performing ‘loop the loop’ and other aerobatic manoeuvres. Rather different to my previous experience of flying which was a five bob trip in a Gypsy cabin plane at Croydon. My abiding memory of that trip was the shaking of the aircraft!
September 1938. Munich Crisis! War scare! We were called up to report at Hendon. Two days later we moved to our war station at Biggin Hill. Five days later we were ordered back to Hendon. And stood down on the 8th October.
During 1939 I gradually progressed from Air Craftsman 2nd Class to Air Craftsman 1st class and finally to Leading Aircraftsman by regularly attending the weekly meetings at THQ and Hendon at the weekends. Early in 1939 our outdated aircraft were replaced with Bristol Blenheims Twin engined fighters with four machine guns slung underneath.
In August I received my calling up papers to report to Hendon, this time for real, on the 24th. On the 2nd September we travelled in convoy, mainly in our own transport, across London to Biggin Hill. I remember it well, I drove my own car, a 1938 Morris 8 tourer. We were cheered all the way across the capital. We had all sorts of vehicles including solo motor cycles, at least one motorcycle combination, and a Morgan three wheeler and various lorries and petrol tankers. The motorcyclists would sweep on ahead and station their bikes across the adjoining cross roads to keep a free passage for the rest of the convoy. This is one of my many vivid memories.
For a while the war was more like a continuation of the annual training camp. Dubbed the ‘Phoney War’. In November we were honoured by being selected to take part in the first raid on German territory. We despatched (I think) six aircraft, three from ‘A” Flight and three from ‘B’ Flight, to Northolt. I went along as one of the crew, the aircraft had their final preparations, long range tanks were fitted, the guns were armed and everything was checked and rechecked. We learnt afterwards that they had shot up the seaplane base at the island of Borkum, some 250 miles across the water.
At Christmas 1939 we moved to Tangmere in Sussex, ‘Lord Haw Haw’ announced over the radio that “the famous 601 Squadron had been posted to Tangmere on the Sussex coast”. Our role at that time, with other squadrons of No 11 Group was to protect London. Then in April we were re-equipped with Hawker Hurricanes one of the best single seat fighters at that time. The situation in Europe was getting desperate then and 601 was ordered to send the six aircraft of ‘A’ Flight to France. We were stationed in the north at Merville, as I remember it, it was just a patch of grass. Often we had to start the aircraft engines by hand. This meant the rigger was supposed to wind the handle while the fitter sat in the cockpit and set the controls. I was 5’8″ with a 34″ chest and weighed around eight stone. I managed to turn the handle but I could not turn it quickly enough to fire up the engine. My fitter came to the rescue. He abandoned the cockpit having set the controls, grabbed the other handle and he wound one side of the engine while I wound my handle the opposite side.
One day I remember well was when F/Lt. Peacock, later a Squadron Leader with a Squadron of his own, came walking into camp with a bloody bandage round his head. He had been shot down.
We didn’t stay in France very long. I think it was about three weeks. The Germans had broken through to Belgium, side stepping the famous Maginot Line.
We were ordered “to get the hell out of there”. No time to go back to our tents. We left everything. The only things to be saved were the aircraft. We ground crew made our way to Boulogne. I travelled on a Bedford petrol bowser. We spent the night in an evacuated brothel. The next morning as we left we were confronted by the Mayor pleading for us to stay and defend Boulogne. Our Officer I/C, F/O Cleaver, was having none of it and we swept by on to the dockside. Our transport back to England was there. It was unloading ammunition! To speed things up we were volunteered as dock workers to assist. All our transport we left behind. We had a scare on the way home, a couple of depth charges were dropped. The white cliffs of Dover never looked more inviting!
In his book “The Flying Sword” Tom Moulson wrote:
“An order was received by 601 on 31st May 1940, to supply nine Hurricanes as escort for a VIP Flamingo which was flying from Warmwell to Paris. Three sections of three Hurricanes each escorted the Flamingo in correct battle formation, five hundred yards between sections, stepped up towards the sun and suitably placed to anticipate any attack. On arrival at Villacoublay, Paris, the VIP turned out to be Mr. Churchill, whose first words were a rebuke to his pilots that he had not seen his ‘Spitfires’, as he called them throughout the trip. Rather than ruffle the new Prime Minster with explanations of tactics, the situation was tactfully remedied on the return flight by placing one of the sections close enough to the Flamingo for its passenger to see the pilots’ faces”
Back at Tangmere during the ‘Battle of Britain’ we kept the aircraft with their noses into the wind for a quick take-off, running the engines at intervals to keep them warm. When there was a flap on there were three stages of ‘Readiness’ – ‘Available’ meant fifteen minutes to get airborne, ‘Readiness’ airborne in five minutes and ‘Standby’ when the pilot sat strapped in the cockpit and was airborne in two minutes. ‘Released’ meant you were stood down. The ground crew slept at the dispersal point, away from the hangers and station buildings, either in the crew hut or on the grass close to the parked aircraft.
In August the Luftwaffe paid particular attention to our airfield on two days in succession. The damage was slight. The bomb holes were soon filled in and flying resumed. Two airmen sheltering near the cookhouse were killed by a direct hit.
We had lost a number of pilots and those remaining were in no fit state to carry on with such intense and frequent aerial combat. We were due for a rest. On the 7th September the Luftwaffe changed their tactics and concentrated on bombing London, the start of the ‘Blitz’. Shortly afterwards 601 was transferred to Exeter. But not before my pilot Flying Officer Carl Raymond Davis DFC was shot down and killed. He was credited with thirteen enemy aircraft shot down in the battle. I felt his loss very much. He was 29.
It was the next day that we moved, a much depleted squadron, to the former aerodrome of Whitney Straight at Exeter. There, new and inexperienced pilots straight from flying school, some as young as eighteen, were given further training to prepare them for aerial combat. Just before Christmas we were moved to Northolt. This was a bit of a blow to me as I had become engaged to my wife to be with a wedding planned to take place in Exeter in January. However 601 was operational again.
Then we had a spell at Manston in Kent. Dubbed “Hell Fire Comer” we had regular early morning raids from Messershmitt 109’s who would strafe the airfield with their machine guns. In July we moved again, to Matlask in Norfolk. Our Hurricanes were replaced by American Airacobras. These had tricycle undercarriages and were powered by an Allison engine behind the pilot. They were never successful. They were hardly ever serviceable, prone to many faults mainly electrical and engine. Neither the pilots nor ground crews liked them. Another move, this time to Yorkshire, Acaster Malbis. Here we encountered severe weather conditions. Snow, slush and freezing temperatures. After a time the Airacobras were shipped off to Russia and we were re-equipped with Spitfires. The pilots were delighted knowing they had the best fighter available. And the ground crews were no less ecstatic.
Our next move was overseas. The pilots went to Malta, the ground crews to Egypt. We were living in tents. Almost immediately we met up with a sandstorm. I was in the Sergeants Mess, a marquee at the time the sandstorm struck us. We all clung to the poles to save the whole thing taking off in the wind. Sand was everywhere, in our eyes, ears and hair and in our mouths too! The visibility outside was zero. Worse than a London peasouper. After a few days our pilots arrived from Malta and we were operational once more. Following the victory at El Alamein, our role was to give support to the 8th Army in their push along the North African coast by leapfrogging from one advanced airstrip to the next. One airstrip was a little too advanced to be comfortable!
I quote from Tom Moulson’s history of 601 Squadron:
“On the morning of March 1st. the bombardment began in earnest. The first shells struck the camp at ten minutes to five, puffs of smoke on the neighbouring hills indicating a large number of guns. The shelling was incessant and accurate. Without hesitation the No. 244 Wing Commander ordered all serviceable aircraft to leave, which they did through heavy fire. A few days later the 8th Army breached the Mareth Line and we returned.’
We continued our advance and duly arrived at Tunis. I had driven the’ A’ Flight stores truck, a Ford V8 stake sided truck (a product of the American Lease Lend agreement) some fifteen hundred miles through the sand and the minefields of the Western Desert from El Alamein.
The squadron then returned to Malta to help cover the projected landing in Sicily. Unfortunately I was taken ill there and was flown in a Dakota back to Cairo and the RAF hospital there. I went to Tel Aviv to recuperate and promptly caught sand fly fever! Then a return to the UK as ‘unfit for overseas service’ in luxury by Sunderland Flying Boat landing in the harbour at Poole. A stay at the RAF hospital at Wroughton. On discharge I was posted to various maintenance units that had moved on. Finally to No.85 Squadron. A night fighter squadron equipped with Mosquitos. My service ended when I was discharged as ‘Physically unfit for Air Force Service, although fit for selected employment in civil life’ on the 24th January 1945….
801508 John Brockhurst
NOTE: I was notified by John’s wife Vera that he passed away in October, 2015 – but not before celebrating his 100th Birthday on May, 8. He will be missed.