Section 2 : Preparing for War (september 1939 – 10 november 1939)

At the beginning of September, No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron left the base of Kenley to rejoin Croydon, where the officers were housed in the Hotel of the airfield, and the troops in the hangars belonging to the Imperial Airways. The Unit has sixteen Gloster Gladiators.

Movements of personnel

A list, dated September 3, 1939, mentions the following pilots and officers :

Officier Commanding : Squadron Leader Arthur V. Harvey.

Adjutant : Flying Officer Walter O. Stern.

A Flight :

  • Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley (A Flight Commander).
  • Flying Officer John R.H. Gayner.
  • Flying Officer Peter Collard.
  • Flying Officer J.R. Bradford.
  • Pilot Officer Anthony Eyre.
  • Pilot Officer David J. Looker.
  • Pilot Officer Anthony St.C. Rose.
  • Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson.

B Flight :

  • Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale (B Flight Commander).
  • Flight Lieutnant Eric C. Fieldsend.
  • Pilot Officer Levin Fredman.
  • Pilot Officer Keith T. Lofts.
  • Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd.
  • Pilot Officer Patrick G.M. Hancock.
  • Pilot Officer John C.M. Hanbury.
  • Pilot Officer Bernard J.R. Brady.

Equipement Officer : Flight Lieutnant K.P. Dampier.

Medical Officer : Flying Officer Robert S. Cromie.

Messing Officer : Pilot Officer Francis G. Bowling.

It should be noted, however, that several movements took place within the Squadron during the following weeks.

Arrival 

  • Pilot Officer David S.H. Bury (11 septembre – 4 octobre).
  • Pilot Officer Caslaw (8 septembre).
  • Pilot Officer Donald G. Cobden (8 septembre).
  • Flying Officer Leonid Ereminsky (4 octobre).
  • Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler (4 octobre).
  • Flying Officer Herbert S. Giddings (début octobre).
  • Pilot Officer Thomas W. Gillen (11 septembre au 3 octobre).
  • Pilot Officer Richard D. Pexton (6 septembre).
  • Flight Lieutnant James G. Sanders (4 octobre).
  • Pilot Officer Stanley M. Wickham (4 octobre).
  • Pilot Officer Richard A. Winter (6 septembre au 3 octobre).
  • Pilot Officer Brian P. Young (4 octobre).

Departure 

  • Flying Officer Robert S. Cromie (3 octobre).
  • Flight Lieutnant K.P. Dampier (3 octobre).
  • Pilot Officer Patrick G.M. Hancock (4 octobre).

First flights, first losses

The entry into action of No.615 Squadron is fast with a series of air alerts at Kenley at the beginning  of September. Thus, on 6 September, A Flight was ordered to take off at around 06h00 and to orbit for thirty minutes over the aerodrome, before being called back to land. However, after the first two weeks of wars, the Squadron’s main activity turned to training, while several pilots were temporarily sent to No.11 (Fighter) Group Pool to follow A conversion course on Hawker Hurricane. Training, however, is sometimes dramatic.

For example, Pilot Officer Anthony St.C. Rose has the sad privilege of being the first killed in the Squadron when he crashes, with Gloster Gladiator K7987, in the vicinity of Bletchingley during an overnight flight training. According to the documentation available [1], a decision was taken on 11 September, to organize night training sessions through various circuits, landing and formation flight, within a radius of about eight kilometers to the south- West of Croydon. The weather conditions are considered correct with good visibility and a cloud base at 600 meters. However, in order to minimize the risks, only three aircraft must be in flight at the same time. Pilot Officer Anthony St.C. Rose takes off at 20h15 aboard the Gloster Gladiator Mk K7987 for about 30 minutes. The training was delayed, and he finally left the ground at 20h40. At around 21h05, he communicated by radio with Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley in order to inquire about the sequence of events. He was then asked to return over Croydon to participate in a formation flight. The Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thorney took off at the same time, with Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson. They are, however, not able to contact Pilot Officer Anthony St.C. Rose, who appears to have serious difficulties with navigation after numerous exchanges with the air traffic controller. The weather conditions deteriorate rapidly, greatly reducing visibility, requiring only flight to instruments. Decision is, then, taken to immediately suspend the training. Finally, at 21h50, an aircraft was reported approaching southeast Croydon at an altitude of only 300 meters. No further information was received prior to a call from the Wallington Police Station to report that a plane crashed near the Chelsham Psychiatric Hospital near Bletchingley. Pilot Officer Keith T. Lofts and Flying Officer Robert S. Cromie (Physician) are immediately sent to the scene where they can only see the destruction of the aircraft and the death of the unfortunate Anthony St.C. Rose. The investigation concludes that the accident is likely due to a loss of control due to a sharp deterioration in visibility, as well as a lack of experience with instrument flight. It is cremated in Croydon Crematorium on September 14, 1939. He is cremated in Croydon Crematorium on 14 September 1939.

On 21 September, Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd damaged the Gloster Gladiator K8044 on taxiing at Croydon Airfield. The month of September is also marked by the visit of the First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, which was made Honorary Air Commodore of No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron on 4 April 1939.

The month of October begins with another tragic accident as Pilot Officer John C.M. Hanbury kills, again during a night training flight, when the Gloster Gladiator N2314 (KW-M) crashes at Dorking . [2] On 1st October 1939, three aircraft: Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale (N2308 KW-T), Pilot Officer John CM Hanbury (N2314 KW-M) and Keith T. Lofts (N5581 KW-K) take off from Croydon at 20h10 for night training. The last visual on Pilot Officer John C.M. Hanbury is reported around 20h30, when the leader verifies the presence of his two wingers over Ockley. Unfortunately, the Pilot Officer John C.M. Hanbury is found missing over Kenley. No radio contact can be established with him. Soon after, an army phone call signaled an air crash near Holmwood (Dorking) around 20h50. The reasons for the accident appear mysterious in the report since the pilot has a certain experience in these conditions. In addition, the study of the wreckage of the aircraft does not reveal any potential malfunction or breakdown. The altitude of the place is also low: 90 meters above the sea, and without relief. The weather conditions are, however, not excellent as they deteriorate, starting at 20h30, with a strong cloud cover whose base is only 800 meters. The most likely assumption would be that the pilot would have confused the lights on the ground with the navigation lights of his leader. He would then have tried to reach him without checking his instruments until the fatal impact. It should be noted that when arriving over Kenley Airfield, Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale was forced to descend at an altitude of about 300 meters to remain under the layer, and to make several heading changes on request from the ground control. Nevertheless, there is no evidence to support the reasons for the fatal accident to Pilot Officer John C.M. Hanbury.

It should be noted that several other flights were scheduled to take place on the same evening : Pilot Officer Patrick GM Hancock (N5578 KW-H), Pilot Officer Levin Fredman (N2308 KW- T), Richard D. Pexton (N5581, KW-K) and John R. Lloyd (N2314 KW-M). They are, of course, suspended because of tragic circumstances [3].

[1] AIR 81/ 1512, TNA (Kew).

[2] AIR 81/ 1562, TNA (Kew).

[3] AIR 81/ 1562, TNA (Kew), No.615 Squadron, RAF Croyon. Night Flying Detail – Sunday – 01/10/39.

Departure for France

On 4 October, No.615 Squadron learned of his imminent departure for France to join the Air Component of the British Expeditionary Force. This choice may seem strange due to the lack of experience of pilots and outdated equipment with the Gloster Gladiator. Thus, it is no coincidence that several pilots of the Royal Air Force are sent to complete the Squadron. It is true that the case of No. 615 Squadron is not unique since another unit of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force is present in this case No. 607 (County of Durham) Squadron. Two air crashes occurred on 23 and 25 October when Flying Officer Leonid Ereminsky and Pilot Officer Stanley M. Wickham were forced into forced landings due to engine problems with Gloster Gladiator N5582 (KW-S) and N2312 KW-M).

On 10 November, the transfer order to France was announced. The new aerodrome is Merville (near Dunkirk). Due to bad weather, the journey begins five days later when all sixteen Gloster Gladiators take off from Croydon at 11h30 and land at Merville at 13h00. On their side, Flying Officer Walter O. Stern and Pilot Officer John R. Lloyd board aboard transport aircraft, with 54 troops, the rest of the personnel arriving the next day.

Squadron Leader Arthur V. Harvey (N2312) Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley (N5587)
Flight Lieutnant James G. Sanders (N2306) Flying Officer Herbert S. Giddings (N5585)
Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Neale (N2310) Flying Officer J.R.H. Gayner (N5583)
Flying Officer Hedley N. Fowler (N2303) Flying Officer Leonid Ereminsky (N5580)
Pilot Officer Brian P. Young (N2309) Pilot Officer D.J. Looker (N5577)
Pilot Officer Levin Fredman (N2304) Pilot Officer Thomas C. Jackson (N5581)
Pilot Officer Keith T. Lofts (N2308) Pilot Officer Stanley M. Wickham (N5582)
Pilot Officer Richard D. Pexton (N5586)

Flying Officer Peter Collard (N5578)

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