The Battle of Britain ran from 10 July to 31 October 1940. It is regarded as the first military campaign fought entirely by air forces. The success of the RAF in defending Britain prevented Nazi Germany from launching an invasion across the English Channel. Many pilots from Perthshire and Kinross-shire as well as many who came to live in these counties after the war took part in the battle.
To pay tribute to ‘the few’, I would like to tell you about some of the Battle of Britain pilots who once walked amongst us.
In the early 1930s, the Lord Provost of Perth, Thomas Hunter, first mooted the idea of an aerodrome for Perth. In 1934, the government announced an expansion of the RAF so that Perth Councillor Ure Primrose decided to revive Thomas Hunter’s plans for an aerodrome, hoping it would draw business to our area. Work began in June 1935 and in December 1936, Airwork Limited undertook the delivery of RAF and civilian flying training at Scone Aerodrome. By December 1940, RAF No. 11 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School at Scone was equipped with 367 training aircraft.
With Perthshire having one of the main pilot training facilities on its doorstep, it naturally attracted its young people who dreamed of ‘spiffing’ aerial adventures and the glamourous ‘Brylcreem boy’ image. Throughout the county, Air Training Corps units were formed and the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR), established in 1936, became the recruitment pathway for civilian entry in the RAF.
The turning point of the Battle of Britain took place on 15 September 1940, when the Luftwaffe launched a significant bombing attack on the City of London. They were met by a large group of defending fighters. Fifteen hundred aircraft engaged in air battles which lasted until dusk, and which resulted in 56 aircraft being shot down. The Luftwaffe felt at the time that they were close to victory, but that decisive day for the RAF showed that they had clearly not gained the air superiority they needed for invasion. Winston Churchill visited RAF Fighter Command Headquarters on 15 September 1940 and saw first-hand the development of the struggle on this crucially important day.
The most highly awarded Perth-born pilot who flew in the Battle of Britain was Neil Cameron. He was born at 32 Pitcullen Terrace, Perth, on 8 July 1920. Cameron’s father was a Company Sergeant Major in the Seaforth Highlanders; he died when Neil was only three weeks old. Neil’s mother moved in with his grandparents who lived at 33 Balhousie Street, Perth.
Neil Cameron joined the RAFVR in May of 1939 and as a fighter pilot took part in the later stages of the Battle of Britain when he was posted to RAF 17 Squadron at RAF Martlesham Heath in Suffolk. He later took part in the Battle of Alam el Halfa, the First Battle of El Alamein, and the Second Battle of El Alamein. As a squadron leader, Cameron served in actions over Burma flying the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt.
Cameron became a military thinker and strategist, and, in August 1977, the Chief of the Defence Staff. He later became Principal of King’s College, London, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law degree. In 1983, he was created a life peer as Baron Cameron of Balhousie and later that year appointed a Knight of the Order of the Thistle.
Marshal of the Royal Air Force Neil Cameron, Baron Cameron of Balhousie, KT, GCB, CBE, DSO, DFC died in London on 29 January 1985.
John King ‘Jack’ Norwell AFC was born in Perth, 4 September 1917. Norwell joined the RAFVR in 1937 and initially trained at Scone Aerodrome. In September 1939, Flight Sergeant Norwell was a member of RAF 54 Squadron based at RAF Hornchurch (near Romford) in Essex. Norwell went on to become an ‘ace’ with seven fighter pilot victories. He fought over the beaches during the Dunkirk evacuation, during the Battle of Britain and later transferred to help Malta during its siege.
Jack Norwell was a partner in Norwell’s Perth Footwear Ltd. and ran the Cherrybank Inn for 26 years, he passed away in 2003.
Read more here: John King ‘Jack/Jock’ Norwell, AFC
Forgrave Marshall ‘Hiram’ Smith DFC was born in Victoria, Alberta, Canada on 17 August 1913. After retiring from British Petroleum, he resided at Glebe House, Dunning.
In 1935, Hiram made his way across the Atlantic and joined the RAF. By April 1939 he was flying the new Supermarine Spitfire with RAF 72 Squadron. From 1 June 1940, he flew for five days over the beaches of Dunkirk covering the evacuation of allied troops. Based at RAF Acklington, Northumberland, his first victory came on 29 June 1940, a third of a kill against a Dornier Do 17. On 15 August 1940, the Luftwaffe attacked the north of England with a hundred bombers thinking it would be only lightly defended by the RAF. Hiram led his Red Section into the attack and for his actions he was awarded the DFC.
On 31 August 1940, RAF 72 Squadron transferred to RAF Biggin Hill. Three hours after arriving they were scrambled to intercept the enemy. Hiram’s Spitfire was hit by 20 mm canon fire from a Messerschmitt Bf 109 which attacked him head on. Smith parachuted out and survived extensive injuries. After three months in hospital, he was promoted to squadron leader and posted to RAF 603 (City of Edinburgh) at RAF Turnhouse. The Luftwaffe attack of 31 August 1940 was RAF Fighter Command’s heaviest day of losses, 39 RAF fighters were shot down with 14 pilots killed.
Hiram flew fighter sweeps over El Alamein in North Africa and, in August 1942, he was posted to India as Wing Commander (Flying) RAF 902 Wing. Wing Commander Forgrave Marshall Smith took part in 280 operational sorties during the war. He passed away in Hillside Hospital, Barnhill, Perth, in 1994.
William Nairn Gardiner was born in Perth on 26 January 1921. He flew his first operational mission in a Hawker Hurricane with RAF 3 Squadron on 27 October 1940. Based at RAF Castletown, just east of Thurso, the squadron was tasked with defending the Royal Navy Home fleet at Scapa Flow.
William Gardiner transferred to RAF 96 Squadron at RAF Cranage, Cheshire, on 25 December 1940 where he flew Hawker Hurricanes and Boulton Paul Defiant’s in night fighting role. After the war, he returned to Perth and resided in Burghmuir Road. He was a hydroelectric engineer and served as a town councillor.
William Gardiner’s name is on the Battle of Britain Memorial Wall at Chapel-le-Ferne, Folkstone. He passed away on 5 November 1998.
Read more here:Sergeant William Nairn Gardiner
Andrew Smitton Darling from 64 Fues, Auchterarder, joined the RAFVR in August 1937. He did his initial training at RAF Perth and RAF Prestwick. Flying Supermarine Spitfire’s with RAF 611 Squadron he participated in flying sweeps over the beaches at Dunkirk and during the Battle of Britain, he was part of the Duxford Wing of RAF 12 Group, commanded by Douglas Bader. On 21 August 1940, he shared in the destruction of two Dornier Do17s.
Posted to RAF 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, he chalked up in September and October of 1940, three probable and two damaged Messerschmitt Bf 109s. On 23 November 1940, he shot down over the Straits of Dover, two Fiat Cr42s biplane fighters of the Regia Aeronautica. On 29 November 1940, he shared in the destruction of a Dornier Do 17.
Andrew Smitton Darling was on a shipping reconnaissance patrol over the English Channel with RAF 91 Squadron on 3 March 1941 when he was shot down. His Spitfire came down near Reindene Wood, Hawkinge, Kent. Sergeant Andrew Darling rests in Auchterarder Cemetery.
Alexander Henry Thom DFC from Perth was born on 29 May 1919. His family home was 44 Crieff Road, Perth. On 24 June 1939, he joined the RAFVR and started flying at weekends as an airman under training pilot. During the Battle of Britain, he was with RAF 6 OTU (Operational Training Unit) learning to fly Hawker Hurricanes. He moved on to RAF 79 Squadron at RAF Pembury, Carmarthenshire, and then RAF 87 Squadron at RAF Exeter on 30 October 1940. Alexander Thom’s first victory was not until 18 July 1941 when he was the first of his squadron flight to attack a Heinkel He 111 just to the south of the Scilly Isles. Three days later, he shared in the destruction of another Heinkel He 111. On 20 October 1941 he shot down a Heinkel He 111 and on 21 October 1941 he shot down yet another Heinkel He 111.
RAF 87 Squadron next moved to Gibraltar and North Africa in support of the allied invasion of French North Africa, Operation Torch. He became a flying control officer at RAF Bone, Algeria, returning to Britain on 27 September 1943 as a flight instructor with RAF 55 OTU at RAF Annan. His final posting was to RAF Inverness on 8 May 1945 as staff officer.
After the war Alexander Thom returned to his profession as a quantity surveyor. He was Regional Quantity Surveyor for the Western Region Hospital Board, Scotland. Flight Lieutenant Alexander Henry Thom passed away on 10 January 2016 and is commemorated on the Battle of Britain Monument, Victoria Embankment, London.
During the Battle of Britain, Sir Alan Smith CBE, DFC and Bar, DL, was converting over to fly Supermarine Spitfire’s. He became associated, when he joined RAF 616 Squadron, with the most famous fighter pilot of the war, Douglas Bader, whose wingman he became.
Smith joined the RAFVR on the eve of the start of the war. In October 1940, he was posted to RAF 610 Squadron at RAF Acklington, Northumberland, joining Bader at the Tangmere Wing as one of the ‘Bader’s Bus Company’. His appointment as wing man followed Bader’s entry into the dispersal hut where he was told ‘Right you’ll do. God help you if you let any Hun get on my tail’.
The day Bader bailed out after a dogfight over France – 9 August 1941 – Smith was grounded on medical orders with influenza. He was not there to protect Bader’s tail. Johnnie Johnson, another of member of the ‘BBC’ and the greatest Second World War British fighter pilot, later described Smith as ‘leech-like’, and ‘a perfect number two who never lost sight of his leader’. Smith ended the war with 20 confirmed kills and more than 1,500 combat flying hours.
Smith transferred to RAF Balado Bridge near Milnathort to train new pilots. There, he married, settled in Kinross, and became a successful businessman with his company Dawson International. He passed away in Perth Royal Infirmary on 1 March 2003.
Read more here: Sir Alan Smith
One Perth pilot who should have taken part in the battle is RAF 603 Squadron, Spitfire pilot, Squadron Leader Colin Robertson DFC from Graybank House, Perth. Robertson suffered a fractured skull in a horse-riding accident in June 1940 and as a result, was stood down from flying. After a time in Canada, he returned to fly de Havilland DH. 98 Mosquito’s, recording 325 hours flying time.
On 12 December 1943, his squadron was tasked with proving cover for bomber aircraft attacking the V-weapons facilities at Peenemünde, Germany. His aircraft after take-off pitched up and dived into the ground near Filey in Yorkshire. He is buried in Camelon Cemetery, Falkirk.
The fighter pilots who took part received much of the glory, but it was not without the backing of the ground crews who kept them in the air, fighting. Once such hero was Corporal Colin Mackenzie, aircraft fitter with RAF 222 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch during the battle.
Colin Mackenzie was injured when he fell off an aircraft after an engine was wrongly started. This was the start of a lengthy illness from which he died in Perth Royal Infirmary on 25 November 1942, age 22. He is buried in Scone Cemetery.
Four other local airmen had their names inscribed in the official Roll of Honour of the Battle of Britain in 1947. But they were from squadrons who were subsequently denied the right to the ‘Clasp’ to the 1939/45-star award, the Battle of Britain bar (if they had flown at least one operational sortie during that time).
On 9 November 1960, the RAF issued a revised list of those squadrons considered to qualify for the Battle of Britain bar. Those airmen who previously had been issued this award were instructed to take down the bar immediately and return it to the RAF medals branch. One such was RAF 59 Squadron, a Coastal Command Squadron but was under the control of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Another, RAF 235 Squadron, a Bristol Blenheim squadron, took part in similar operations and were recognised as Battle of Britain participants.
As one RAF 59 Squadron pilot later put it when writing of the withdrawal of the award: ‘…the feelings about this change ran pretty high at the time, I can tell you!’.
Sergeant Derrick Barrie Simpson from Balvaird Place, Perth
Sergeant Derrick Barrie Simpson – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155
Pilot Officer John Littlejohn from Charlotte Street, Perth
Pilot Officer John Littlejohn – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155
Sergeant David Neill from Blairgowrie
Sergeant David Neill – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155
Sergeant William Thomson from Dupplin Brae, Perth
Sergeant William Thomson – Made in Perth ~ Official Website ~ SC044155
Extra Note, Research from Joel Diggle:
It was only the Blenheim MkIV equipped No.53 and 59 Sqn’s that were removed from the Fighter Command ORBAT.
These were after all originally Army Co-Operation Command units (later switched to Coastal Command after the Battle of France) and equipped with the Bomber, not Fighter variant of the type.
10 other Blenheim Fighter units are included amongst the accepted ORBAT, 7 x Fighter Command (23, 25, 29, 219, 600, 604 & FIU) with MkIF’s and 3 x Coastal Command (235, 236 & 248) with MKIVF’s.
Around 809 of the 2939 recognised ‘Battle of Britain’ Clasp holder’s qualifying for the prestigious title of the ‘FEW’ on Blenheims alone, another 30 plus flying both Blenheims and either Spitfires or Hurricanes during the Battle period.
Three thousand aircrew from the UK, the Commonwealth, and other Allied countries took part in the Battle of Britain, a third of whom were either killed or wounded. Winston Churchill fittingly paid tribute earlier on 20 August 1940 to the Battle of Britain pilots: “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.”
If you would like to read more about local Perthshire flyers during the two world wars, visit this website: madeinperth.org/past. There are to date over 130 researched flyer stories to read. The madeinperth.org website is available completely free and is an incredibly rich and detailed resource which is sponsored by Tippermuir Books Ltd, Perth.
Research by Ken Bruce