THE SECOND WORLD WAR
22. On 25th August, 1939, a Communications unit was formed for the RAF Field Component of the British Expeditionary Force at RAF Andover. On 16th September this unit flew to Laval, France, equipped with Tiger Moths, and Miles Magisters. The units other aircraft, Hawker Harts, may have been judged too old fashioned for active service, as they remained in England. On 17th September the unit was taken over by Sqdn Ldr G. R Ashton.
Miles Magister Hawker Hart Tiger Moth 23. On 3rd October, 1939, the unit moved to Mont Joie, near Amiens, and on 6th December, it was officially numbered 81 (Communications) Squadron. At this time, it consisted of eighteen aircraft, some four hundred officers, and men, and twenty eight vehicles.
24. 81’s Tiger Moths were employed on courier duties. On 21st October, the squadron received a Cierve
C 40 for trials, which began on 1st November. A second Cierve may have been received before the fall of France, but with the loss of the Unit’s records, there is no other evidence of this.
25. The German offensive against France opened on 10th May 1940, and on 11th Mont Joie was subjected to an air-raid, Sgt Bellchambers, who was on the squadron described it as “massive raid made on Amiens, and the surrounding district, by 250 bombers, our drome was hit, and aircraft destroyed….
26. The German Armies advance was rapid, and shortly afterwards, the squadron was ordered to pack up, and be prepared to move. It would seem that they left things quite late, though, as Mont Joie was not evacuated until 2 in the morning of the following Sunday, 19th May. The squadron aircraft flew direct to England.
27. It took the squadron ground personnel two days, and two nights to reach Boulogne, some 80 miles away, via Abbeyville, being periodically strafed on the way. On arriving at Boulogne, the squadron personnel were sent to the dock area, to replace the French Dockers who had departed. Further aerial bombardment ensued, and the airmen were employed in unloading a recently arrived ammunition ship.
28. Once the ship was unloaded, the squadron was allowed to embark, and together with about 3000 other troops, left Boulogne on 22nd or 23rd May, having thrown everything, but personal gear into the harbour. The ship took them to Dover, where 81 Squadron was dispersed to other units.
29. The Squadron was officially disbanded on 15th June, 1940.
30. Squadron Markings. Nothing is at present known about squadron markings, but communications aircraft of this period, were generally camouflaged, the normal “dark earth”, and “dark green” on the upper surfaces. Under surfaces may have been “training yellow”, or possibly half black, half white, the dividing line running from nose to tail along the underside of the fuselage. Camouflage schemes in those days were often quite home-made.
1941 – THE RUSSIAN FRONT
31. On 22nd June, 1941, Germany unleashed her invasion of Russia. Churchill pledged aid to the hard pressed Red Army, and since the only possible supply- route lay around North Cape to Murmansk, and Archangelsk, it was decided to move a Hurricane Wing to help in convoy protection.
32. On 29th July, 1940, two new Hurricane squadrons, 81, and 134, were formed at Debden as 151 Wing, under the command of a New Zealander, Wing Commander H.N.C. Ramsbottom-Isherwood. The Wing moved to Leconfield with 39 Hurricanes 11b’s, which were collected from Hawarden.
33. 81 Squadron had been formed from “A” Flight of 504 Squadron, although in fact most of 504’s pilots transferred to 81 Squadron, under the command of Sqn Ldr Anthony Harcourt Rook.
34. On 12th August, twenty four aircraft were loaded onto the Aircraft Carrier H.M.S. Argus, the remaining fifteen aircraft, being crated, and stowed as deck cargo on other ships. The ground crew embarked on S.S. Llanstephan Castle, and the convoy set sail from Liverpool on 21st August.
HMS Argus Llanstephan Castle
35. By 28th August, the convoy had arrived safely, eighty five miles off Murmansk, and on 1st September, the aircraft were flown off. A couple of Hurricanes, chipped bits off their propellers, as they put into effect, the Wing Commander’s instruction, to ‘get your noses down’. Two Hurricanes also hit the ramp at the end of Argus’s flight deck, and damaged their under-carriages’.
36. Enemy air activity, prevented the convoy unloading at Murmansk, and the ships carrying the ground crew, and crated aircraft, were diverted to Archangel’sk, some 400 miles further east.
37. The airborne Hurricanes flew to Vayenga, twenty miles north-east of Murmansk, where of course, there were no ground crew to receive them. The crated at Archangel’sk were assembled, after considerable difficulties had been overcome, and flown to Vayenga within a week.
38. However, even then, operations could not begin properly. The Hurricanes from Argus had only been fitted with 6 out of the 8 machines guns in order to reduce weight, and when two Russian destroyers arrived from Archangel’sk, with the remaining guns, it found, that the gun blast tubes, and rear sears would not fit, having been taken from Hurricane 1’s. This was remedied by the Soviet Authorities immediately, and the same evening, enough blast tube adaptors for the entire Wing had been manufactured in local workshops.
39. 81 Squadron was airborne on 12th September, carrying 6 guns apiece, and on their second patrol, claimed their first enemy aircraft. Three out of five Messerschmitt Bf 109 E’s escorting a Henschel Rs. 126 were shot down, and the Henschel damaged, for the loss of one aircraft, and the pilot, Sgt. N.I. Smith. Sgt. Smith was 81’s only casualty while the squadron was in Russia.
Messerschmitt Bf 109E Henschell R 126
40. The story of the engagement was as follows. Plt. Off. J. E. Walker, a Canadian, and later triple D.F.C., was flying with Flt. Sgt. C. Haw, Sgt. N.L. Waud , Sgt. N.I. Smith, and Sgt. Rigby. They sighted five Me 109’s, and the Henschel Rs 126 at about 3,500’ over the enemy lines to the West of Murmansk. The enemy aircraft were approaching from ahead, and slightly to the left, as Haw and Walker began their attack. The Germans turned slightly to the right, but Haw got on the tail of the leading 109, and shot him down, with a ten second burst. Walker saw the aircraft burst into flames, before he himself was able to shoot down a second Bf 109, which was about to get on Haw’s tail. Waud was now in a favourable position to attack the Henschel, so he gave it a short burst from abeam, and then followed it, as it dived westwards. Waud followed it, until he was about 50’ astern. Both aircraft were enveloped in white smoke, but the Hurricane emerged unscathed. All Hurricanes now had to take violent evasive action, as they were attacked by the remaining Bf 109’s. Waud dived to the rescue of Smith, and got a 109 in flames, but he was too late to save Smith, in- Z3746, who had evidently been hit by cannon fire from a Messerschmitt.
41. The R.A.F. Squadrons at Vayenga, shared the airfield with a Russian medium- bomber squadron, under the command of Major-General Kutnetsov. The airfield itself was set on a sandy plateau, ringed around with a plantation of for trees. In wet weather, the surface of rolled sand, become rutted, and pot-holed, and it required airmen to hang on to the tail of each aircraft to prevent them from nosing over.
42. Five days later, the squadron again shot down, three Messerschmitt Bf 109’s. Eight Hurricanes, led by the C.O., were ordered to cover the withdrawal of Russian bombers over Balncha, North West of Murmansk. As the squadron flew in, two Bf 109’s dived over in front. Rook attacked the leader, and Flt Sgt Haw took on No 2. Rook delivered a quarter-stern attack 150 yards, and with a two-second burst, hit the radiator of the Messerschmitt. Glycol poured out, and covered Rook’s windscreen, so that he could not see, but despite this he continued firing, until his ammunition ran out. Sgt Plt. P.N. Sims, then took up the chase from the starboard quarter, and after a short burst was able to see the Bf 109 burst into flames, roll over on its back, and crash into the ground by a small lake.
43. Haw was having difficulty with the second Bf 109. He made a stern attack from about two hundred yards range, firing a three second burst without effect. The 109 then turned right across Haw’s path, a fatal mistake, as Haw was then able to get another three second burst at full deflection. Smoke began to pour from the enemy aircraft. The hood was jettisoned, and the machine rolled over and dived vertically. The pilot baled out, and was captured by the Russian Observer Corps.
44. Flt. Off. had spotted six more Bf 109’s diving from above, so he turned to engage them, and got on the tail of the nearest. A “dog fight ensued” he wrote “in which I was able to out- turn the enemy aircraft, and deliver a two-second burst from the starboard quarter. Thick black smoke came from the enemy aircraft, as it dived to earth. I got in another burst, and it burst into flames as it crashed into a hill”.
45. After this action, there was very little activity until 26th September, by which time the first snow had arrived.
46. On 26th September, during the afternoon, 81 Squadron was escorting Soviet bombers on a raid over the Petsamo district, six Hurricane for every four bombers “B” Flight was bounced by six Bf 109’s, but they not only managed to evade them, but also shot down three. After this action the Hurricanes landed at Vayenga, without a single bullet hole in any machine.
47. Flt. Lt. Michael Rook, cousin of the squadron commander, found himself one day, formatting on six Bf 109’s, which he had mistaken for friendly aircraft. Luckily he realised his mistake first, and was able to shoot down the leading aircraft, with one burst from his guns, blowing the enemy completely to pieces.
48. On 27th September, in similar circumstances to the previous day, the squadron again shot down, two enemy aircraft without loss. On 6th October, the squadron had to take off hurriedly, to defend their aerodrome from raiding Junkers Ju 88’s with Messerschmitt escort.
Junkers Ju 88
49. Shortly after this, orders came through, to hand over the camp and aircraft to the Russians, and from that day, the flying was only to familiarise the Russian pilots with the Hurricanes. On 20th November, the Wing officially became non-operational. Soon the RAF roundels disappeared, and were replaced by Red Stars. On 29th November, No 81 Squadron left Russia for home.
50. As the convoy carrying the squadron was departing from Murmansk, two Hurricanes, flown by Major-General Kutnetsov, and Kapitan Safanov flew low over the ships, and dipped in salute. Thus ended a detachment, which resulted in the destruction of thirteen enemy aircraft confirmed, and six or seven probables, in under three months. It was a proud boast that no Soviet bomber was shot down, while being escorted by 81 Squadron.
51. It is in memory of this association, possibly a bit bizarre, in view of post-war developments, that the official crest of 81 Squadron is the five-pointed Red Star, surrounding the Dagger Erect of The First Army.
52. Aircraft Markings. The Hurricanes at Vayenga carried normal R.A.F. camouflage for that period. Either side of the fuselage roundel, in large letters, and numerals, was carried a code. For example, Hurricane Z-4018 carried XK-41, ?-4006 carried FV-54, Z-5227 carried FE-53.
53. Sqn. Ldr. Rook, and Flt. Sgt. Haw, were awarded the Russian Order of Lenin.
1941-1942 United Kingdom
54. Back in the United Kingdom, the squadron reassembled at RAF Turnhouse on 6th December, and was re-equipped with Spitfire Va’s. They began to work up to operational pitch, and on 6th January, 1942, a detachment was sent to Ouston in Northumberland.
55. The command of the squadron, was given up by Sqn Ldr Rook about this time, and the new squadron commander was Sqn Ldr R (Ron) Berry, D.F.C.
56. 81 Squadron was declared operational on 1st February, 1942, but it had little chance to see any fighting, as it was engaged mostly on North Sea shipping patrols.
57. In April, 1942, the squadron was re-equipped with cannon- armed Spitfire Vb’s, but still saw no action until 8th May, when they spotted two Junkers 88’s over the North Sea. They were not able to attack.
58. At this time, the squadron was carrying the code letters “FL”, an identification that they continued to carry up to the end of the war.
59. On 14th May, the squadron flew south, to join the Hornchurch Wing, and after two weeks into getting the Wing, they went into action, on 1st June, escorting Hurricane bombers to Bruges.
60. On 2nd June, the squadron resumed scoring, by shooting down, two Focke-Wulf FW. 190’s over Le Touquet. There now followed, an almost daily round of fighter sweeps over France, and Belgium, plus bomber escorts for Bostons, flying over the Channel, and air-cover for the Dieppe Landing.
Focke Wulf FW 190 Douglas Boston
61. On 24th July the squadron moved to Fairlop, one of Hornchurch’s satellites remaining there until 5th October.
62. On the 5th October, 1942, the squadron withdrew to Wellingore to re-equip with Spitfire Ve’s, and prepare for further action overseas.
On 29th October, the squadron again embarked from Liverpool, but instead of North to Russia, it was South to Africa, that they were bound.
1942-1943. The Mediterranean.
63. At Gibraltar, the first stop, the squadron was again re-equipped, this time with tropical Spitfire V’s.
64. On 8th November, 1942, the first day of the landings in North Africa, the squadron flew ashore to Maison Blanche airfield, claiming to be the first squadron to land, closely followed by 43 Squadron. 43 was at this time commanded by Sqn Ldr Michael Rook, who had been with 81 Squadron in Russia. The other squadron in 322 Wing was No. 242.
65. The following day, the squadron was involved in a mad melee, to defend Maison Blanche airfield from raiding bombers. Over thirty Ju. 88’s were involved. 81 claimed eleven destroyed, but ‘Y’ Service confirmed that in fact, only three enemy aircraft returned to base, so the credit of kills, shared with 43 Squadron, may have been much larger.
66. On 13th November, the squadron moved to Bone, newly captured from the Germans. Here they were caught on the ground, before they had become fully established, and suffered heavy casualties. The campaign in Tunisia soon became bogged down, and 81 Squadron saw both Christmas, and the New Year at Bone. By the end of December, though, the official score for the squadron stood at fifty-two enemy aircraft confirmed, and many more probable’s, and damaged, with the loss of thirteen squadron aircraft, of which five of the pilots had been saved. By the end of the North African campaign, the score was to rise to over ninety destroyed,
67. On 8th January, 1943, the squadron moved to Constantine, but back again to Bone (Tingley L.G.), on 1st, February. It was while they were there, that the first Spitfire XX’s began to arrive to supplement the Mk. V’s. On 18th March, with the new squadron commander, Sqn. Ldr. C.F. Grey, the squadron moved forward into Tunisia, to “Paddington” landing ground at Souk-el-Arba, and it was there that the squadron was involved in close support of bombers, making their final onslaught on Tunis towards the end of April.
68. 81 Squadron was also involved in the mass destruction of the formations of heavily laden Junkers Ju52/3Hs, and Messerschmitt Me. 323’s, which were trying to bring supplies to Rommel’s beleaguered forces. On the 22nd, April, a total or twenty-one loaded Me 323’s were shot down by the RAF.
Junkers Ju 88 Messerschmitt Me 323
69. After the fall of Tunis on 12th May, the squadron moved to the airstrip at La Sebala on 14th, and Utique on 19th. Here they remained until embarking for Malta from Sousse on 2nd June,
. Sqn .Ldr. “Babe” Whitmore D.F.C. took over the squadron about this time.
70. The squadron remained at Takali, Malta from 3rd June, until after the invasion of Sicily on 10th July, 1943. From Takali, the squadron joined in the pre-invasion “softening-up” of the Sicilian defences, but it was not until 16th July that 81 left Malta, and on 17th the squadron aircraft flew direct to Lentini, in Sicily.
71. On 7th September, at the end of the Sicilian campaign, the squadron moved again, to Milasso to prepare for the invasion of Italy.
72. It was about this time, that the squadron claimed for itself, the distinction of carrying the “Ace of Spades” insignia, which it considered it had ???? ,North Africa, Sicily, and Italy.
73. On 25th, September, the squadron embarked from Sicily for the Salerno beach-head, where they landed at Serrettelle L.G., near Naples. From here the squadron supported the campaign on the west coast of Italy until14th October, when it was sent to Bari, on the east coast, to occupy itself with operations over the Adriatic.
74. However 81’s stay was a short one, and on 9th November, 1943, it ceased operations, and was withdrawn to Egypt.
75. Here the squadron prepared for transfer to the Far East, together with 151 Squadron, which had also withdrawn from Italy. Squadron ground personnel had embarked from Giaia on 3rd November, and they arrived in Bombay on 29th. The Spitfire 111’s, which were the squadron’s latest aircraft, were flown from Cairo to Alipore, Calcutta, arriving 8th December.
1943-1945. The War in the Far East.
76. On the day of its arrival in the Far East, the squadron was declared operational- an indication of how desperately Spitfires were required. One writer has put the arrival of the Spitfire in the Far East, as a “tide-turning event in the struggle for Burma”. It was the moment for the tide to be turned, as the Japanese now lay along the borders of India, from Arakan to Imphal.
77. The Spitfire was reckoned to have the measure of the Japanese Zero, which only had a top speed of between 348 and 358 m.p.h., compared to the SpitfireVIII,s 408 m.p.h.
78. On 7th January, 1944, 81 Squadron flew to Tulihal, 15 miles south of Imphal. The first seeker reconnaissance was flown on 19th January. 81 was one of the two Spitfire squadrons in 170 Wing, the other being 136 Squadron.
79. Amidst the gathering momentum of 81’s participation in the struggle for India, there was a touch of heraldy in the jungle, as the squadron received its official crest, signed by the Monarch, depicting the Sword of Stalingrad against the five pronged Red Star. The motto “Non Solum Nobis” is translated as “Not By Us Alone”
80. The Anglo-American offensive on the Burma Front had opened in December, 1943, with General Stillwell’s attack on with two Chinese divisions from Ledo. General Slim also thrust south from India on the Arakan front with the limited objective of taking Maungdaw. However in February, the Japanese struck back with a counter-offensive on the Arakan front towards the port of Chittagong, thrusting round behind the British 5th and 7th Divisions.
81. What followed was referred by the contemporary press as “The Battle of the Box”. The Japanese had expected both Divisions to withdraw as their encirclement commenced, but they failed to reckon with the vital factor of aerial supply. Both divisions grouped themselves into perimeters, and stood their ground. For a fortnight food and ammunition were delivered to them by supply drops, together with such items as cigarettes, rum, mail, razor blades, and newspapers.
82. 81 Squadron, flying from Ramu, on the Arakan, covered these vital supply drops. On the 10th February, Sqn Ldr Whitamore claimed one enemy fighter damaged, in an attack on enemy fighters and bombers. On 13th February, the squadron intercepted 40-plus “Hamps”, and one was shot down by the C.O., and ten others claimed as damaged.
83. The Japanese failed to break the two British divisions, and being unprepared for such prolonged resistance, having only ten days supplies, they tried to break off the battle, splitting up into small parties, and fighting their way back into the jungle, leaving five thousand dead behind. The legend of Japanese invincibility had been shattered.
84. In March, 81 Squadron moved back to the Imphal area, sharing Tulihal with 11 Sqdn, and 113 Sqn (Hurricanes). Air support on the Central Front was provided by 221 Group, which worked in co-operation with IV Corps, and later XXIII Corps. By the end of March, the Group controlled fourteen squadrons, of which nine were located on airfields in the Imphal area, the remainder being in northern Assam.
85. In February there had been sure signs that the Japanese were preparing to attack in the Imphal area. Despite this we were then preparing to for the daring stroke, landing the Chindits behind the Japanese lines.
86. There now followed 81’s most intensive period of fighting in the Far East – the months of March and April, 1944. On 4th March, the enemy, intent on having photographic cover of the Imphal Plain, sent over a “Dinah” which was shot down by 81. On 6th March, they sent over another which was shot down as well.
87. On 8th March, the main Japanese offensive began. Three enemy divisions hurled themselves on Imphal, determined to capture the supplies there, and then burst out into India. However they repeated the same mistake they had made in Arakan. The British held firm although surrounded. Transport aircraft were again the key.
88. On 12th March six of 81’s Spitfires were detached to ‘Broadway’, some 200 miles behind the enemy line, which was being used as a supply landing ground for Wingate’s second Chindit operation.
89. The day after their arrival 30‘Oscars’ were intercepted, and four were shot down. 17th March was an unlucky day for the detachment, as twelve enemy aircraft strafed ‘Broadway’, and owing to the poor serviceability of the early warning system- a portable radar set – only two Spitfires could get airborne, each of which shot down an enemy aircraft. The C.O., Sqn Ldr Whitamore, was shot down and killed, and three other pilots who reached their aircraft were heavily machine-gunned, one of them dying of his wounds. The detachment was then withdrawn, and rejoined the squadron at Tulihal, and the air defence of ‘Broadway’ was undertaken from the Imphal area.
90. The Japanese by this time attacking Kohima which lay to the north of Imphal on the main road. On 4th April, the Japanese launched a whole division against the three battalions penned inside the perimeter, forcing them back onto a single hill. Steadfastly they clung on until on 20th April they were relieved. Around them lay four thousand Japanese dead.
91. The squadron was now extremely busy, but on 28th April, they were withdrawn slightly to the West, to Kumbhirgrem, the Japanese being on three out of four sides of Tulihal. At Kumbhirgrem they were with three Vengeance squadrons of 168 Wing.
92. By May, sixty thousand British and Indian troops were confined at Imphal, but the R.A.F. was dominant in the sky. Although the monsoon hindered air supply, it was on this that the success of the operation depended. Nevertheless all four divisions of IV Corps were slowly pushing outwards from their encirclement as along the Kohima Road, the relief force was approaching. By the third week in June, the situation was critical, but on 22nd June, the 2nd British, and 5th Indian Divisions met, and the siege was raised. The Japanese invasion of India was over, and they fell back leaving an estimated 65,000 men dead on all the battlefields.
93. 81 Squadron now undertook offensive strikes against the retreating Japanese.
94. In August the squadron was withdrawn from the line, and spent some time on garrison duties at Minneriya, in Ceylon, where they were engaged mainly on non-operational flying, training, and exercises. In October a newly arrived squadron commander, Sqn Ldr Torfield, was killed in a flying accident. In December the squadron moved to Ratmalana, Colombo.
95. Sqn Ldr C. B. Sylvester took over command, and in May, 1945, the squadron moved from Ratmalana, to Armada Road, in defence of Calcutta. Before it became operational, it was disbanded on 20th June.
96. At the same time, No. 123 Squadron, stationed at Bobbili in southern India, under the command of Sqn Ldr McGregor, was renumbered 81 Squadron. It was an interesting fact, that the last time 81 Squadron had any connection with 123 Squadron, was when they formed No 1 and No 2 Squadrons of the Canadian Air Force at Upper Heyford and Shoreham from 1918 to 1920.
97. 81 Squadron was now equipped with Thunderbolt FB II.s, which were replacing the Spitfires on some squadrons- a decision which had been greeted with some criticism. But the Thunderbolt was able to carry three 500 lb bombs in its close support, just three times as much as the Spitfire.
98. The Squadron now with its aircraft decorated with the prominent‘ace of spades’ on the cowling, began to prepare for Operation ‘Zipper’, the invasion of Malaya.
99. Before this operation could be mounted, however, the War in the Far East, came to an end with the capitulation of the Japanese.
100. 81 Squadron finished the war with a total of 113 enemy aircraft destroyed, 33 probably destroyed and damaged. It had served in many of the major theatres of operation of the war– France, Russia,U.K., the Mediterranean, and the Far East.