Vic Bashford's Memories of No. 615 Squadron

These are the memories of Corporal Frederick Victor Bashford who served with No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron, through the Battle of France and the Battle of Britain, from notes taken during a telephone call on 24th July 2020.

Cpl. Frederick Victor Bashford. Photo taken at RAF Credenhill (Vic Bashford)

Family and Early Life.

Vic was born on 28th December, 1920,  in Portsmouth. His Father was a Royal Navy submariner through the Great War and didn’t leave the service until 1925. In 1939, he re-joined the Navy a few days after war was declared and served again through the Second World War, despite being over 50, though they didn’t allow him back into the submarine service, which is what he would have preferred. He didn’t like ‘big ships,’ – too impersonal. He liked the fact that everybody knew each other on a submarine.

He met Vic’s Mum while serving in Scotland and the couple came south, living first in Nutfield, Surrey , and then Horley, where Vic went to school. His sister was a carrier of diptheria and Vic tested positive for the disease the day before he was due to sit an entrance exam for the local Grammar School. Consequently, he missed sitting the exam and left school at 14 years old to begin an apprenticeship as an electrician with ‘Horley Electric’, who undertook both domestic and industrial installations.

It was a period of long hours and hard work for Vic, but he loved the trade. He was involved in wiring up the whole village of Turner’s Hill, twelve miles from his home and had to cycle to work every day. Three nights a week he attended Night School at Redhill Technical College, cycling twelve miles home, grabbing some tea, and then getting back on his bike to ride 5/6 miles to College and back.

Joining the RAF

In 1938, Vic went on a company outing to Margate and met a group of young RAF chaps from Manston, who made quite an impression on him. He was about to start a year as an ‘Improver’ (one step up from an apprentice – where you got your own ‘mate’ to assist you), but decided to join the RAF instead. His foreman went mad, but Vic left that life behind and started his basic training at Cardington in January 1939.

Cardington was home to the Balloon Corps as well as the new recruits and Vic remembers that, not long after he arrived, a hydrogen bottle exploded early one Sunday morning, blowing a hole 20ft square in the roof of one of Cardington’s famous sheds, 193ft above! The explosion wrecked a few lorries and some of the old aeroplanes used for training recruits in aircraft handling.

The sheds at Cardington in 2013 (Libohaz)

Vic was at Cardington for about 10 weeks and was sent to RAF Upwood, then a newly built station, where he was put to odd jobs and menial work for a couple of weeks before being sent to RAF Henlow in April, to commence a 46 week electrical course. Although he was already an electrician, Vic found the work quite a challenge as it involved lead/acid batteries, chemicals, working out charge rates and all sorts of things he had never tackled before.

During his time at Henlow, Vic remembers listening to the declaration of War on the wireless, laying on his bed. The following day, his course was revised and shortened. There was also an air raid warning which sent everyone running into the woods opposite the camp. It turned out to have been caused by an unidentified (friendly) aircraft in the Brighton area.

No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron

Having completed his course, Vic was posted to No.615 Squadron at RAF Kenley in late 1939. It was an Auxiliary Squadron, full of people who lived locally and not many regular RAF personnel. Having travelled from Henlow that morning, he arrived at Whyteleafe Station and trudged up the hill to Kenley with his kit bag, arriving at midday to be greeted by the Corporal on the gate with, “Where have you been?” It transpired that 615 weren’t even at Kenley – most of the squadron had gone straight out to France from the summer camp at Tangmere. They had been in Merville since September! He stayed in the married quarters, which had been evacuated, and eventually joined a number of 615 personnel who hadn’t gone to France for various reasons, at RAF Croydon, where they were billeted upstairs over the workshops in a big hangar near the Purley Way gate to the aerodrome. Vic remembers that 615’s Adjutant at the time was Flying Officer Walter Stern who had been taken off flying duties due to ill health.

The Battle of France

The 615 personnel at Croydon travelled out to France during the first week of January 1940. Vic travelled by train and boat to Vitry-En-Artois, a small village near Arras, where there was a large airfield that had been used by Richtofen during WW1. No.615 were sharing the airfield with No.607 squadron, who had come from RAF Acklington. Vic was billeted in the back of the tea room.

615 Squadron at Vitry-en-Artois with their Gladiators (copyright IWM C511)

The weather that winter was bitterly cold, with rain and snow. The Squadron only had one trolley accumulator for each Flight which took 16 hours to charge, using the power supply from a local house. They had nine aircraft per Flight, each taking three minutes to start. If it took two attempts, it would flatten the battery and the aircraft wouldn’t start at all.

The ground crews came up with a rather unorthodox way to solve the problem. Vic took a drainpipe off a barn, placed it against the air intake of the aircraft’s engine and used a blow lamp at the other end of the pipe to blow hot air into the engine. It did the trick although it was clearly against all regulations to have a naked flame so close to an aircraft.

Ground crews were ordered to run up the Gladiators every hour to keep them warm enough to stop the oil from freezing. This caused the reduction gear of the engines to fail because the aircraft weren’t level (as they would have been during flight) – their tail wheels were on the ground, so the engine was at an angle. Vic says that they couldn’t start an engine for three weeks!

“B” Flight were kept in order under the watchful eye of Flight Sergeant “Ditsy” Dean, a regular, who liked everything done by the book.

“A” and “B” Flight would take turns to move to the airfield at St. Inglevert, for two weeks at a time, where they would do coastal patrols to protect shipping in the Channel, between Dover and Calais. While there, the 615 lads were accommodated in two hotels at Wissant, one of which was run by a Welshman (Taffy Davies at the Hotel Normandy) who had stayed in France after the Great War. He had two beautiful daughters who were much admired by the RAF men. Vic remembers fondly the comparative luxury of the hotel and the wonderful food.

The Pilots

Vic was only 19 and was in awe of the pilots, who were treated like “gods.” During their time at St.Inglevert, he was approached by “Dutch” Hugo, a well-built South African pilot, to fix an old magneto, which turned out to have come from an old French aircraft with a rotary engine, that they had found in a hangar at the airfield. The pilots had decided to fix it up and fly it, which they duly did, once Vic had figured out how to fix the magneto. However, Hugo landed it on the beach and found out that his unorthodox flight had been plotted by the RDF (radar) as a ‘bogey.’

Petrus “Dutch” Hugo at RAF Northolt (Gerry Burke)

‘Tony’ Eyre was another man who made an impression on Vic. He rated him as an excellent pilot, though he thought James “Sandy” Sanders, “B”Flight Commander, was “the best pilot on the squadron.” Vic remembers on at least two occasions, Eyres came back to base with the inspection hatch blown out of his Hurricane, as a result of the way he flew, pushing the Hurricane’s rate of climb to the limit.  Eyres was an effective fighter pilot and got a well-deserved DFC eventually, but Vic feels that he was passed over while other pilots received awards sooner. Vic also remembers Keith T. Lofts, who he encountered again later in his service when Lofts took command of No.134 Squadron.

‘Saturday Afternoon Airmen’ of 615 Squadron, Anthony Eyre, standing second left

Spring in France

Winter was well and truly over and Vic remembers that the weather was lovely. He was due for leave and made the train journey to Vitry-en-Artois to pick up warrants etc. before heading to Cherbourg and back to England. Once his leave was over, he returned to Vitry-en-Artois to re-join his squadron only to find that 615 had gone! He asked around in Pidgin French but nobody seemed to know their whereabouts, so he spent the night in a barn and eventually managed to find out that “B” Flight were at Poix with their Gladiators, and “A” Flight were being re-equipped with Hurricanes at Abbeville. Then there were two or three moves in quick succession over the course of about two weeks – “B” Flight moved to Abbeville around 4th-5th May where they were joined by the section that had been at St. Inglevert.

On the 8th, they received their first Hurricane, marking the beginning of big changes for the squadron. Retractable undercarriages were a new innovation for the pilots and the ground crews started running a sweepstake  for the first pilot to do a “wheels up” landing. Squadron Leader Jo Kayll put a stop to it when he found out!

On the evening of 9th May at Abbeville, Vic and an armourer called Greenhall (or Greenhalgh?) volunteered to guard the aircraft. They were on duty on the 10th at 4am, when they heard “Bang! Bang!” – bombs began to drop on the airfield. They were near a petrol dump (stacked 4 gallon tins of fuel) and Vic saw an incendiary bomb fall a few yards from the dump and start to burn. He pushed it away with his bayonet but couldn’t put it out. He even tried peeing on it, but that didn’t work either! Vic remembers the noise of the Bofors guns, a sound he had never heard before. Only the duty pilot (clothed in pyjamas under his flying jacket), was available, but it was too dark for him to take-off, so they didn’t start his aircraft. In the end, there wasn’t much damage but for Vic and the squadron, this raid marked the real start of the war.

More Hurricanes began to arrive from the 10th May and Vic’s section moved just over the Belgian border, to Moorsele  (17th -19th May for “B” Flight). Vic remembers that from this point it was chaos – nobody knew what was going on or realised how bad the situation was! They had to leave Moorsele and  tried to get back to Abbeville. Vic can’t remember the exact chain of events but does recall that they left Abbeville in such a hurry that he had to run across the fields to a farm to get the laundry he had dropped off the previous day. The Farmer’s wife was upset because she hadn’t ironed his laundry, but the situation was so desperate that Vic gave her some money, told her to keep the change and ran back to the airfield. The roads were choked with refugees fleeing from the advancing Germans.

Escape from France

Finally, they travelled to Boulogne in a lorry, hoping to get on board a ship bound for England, but when they arrived there the destroyer was being loaded with French soldiers and an air raid was in progress – Junkers Ju87 ‘Stuka’ dive bombers were bombarding the area. The railway had been destroyed and Vic  remembers how the terrible “howl” of their sirens “got inside you.”   It is one of the memories of this period that he has never shaken off. The 615 men were told to get back in their lorry and spent the night parked up in woods on hills outside the town. However, there was another air raid during the night. Most of the men stayed in the lorry but someone got out an ‘ran like hell,’ -Vic clearly recalls the sound of him running through the long grass. (Unbeknownst to them there was a gun emplacement nearby which made their “safe” spot a prime target).

The following morning they drove down to Boulogne again. Another destroyer was docked and  taking English and French troops on board. Vic went to relieve himself and returned to find that most of the lads from 615 had gone aboard and taken his kit bag with them, but he couldn’t get on the ship to join them! There was another air raid and the destroyer departed. One of the remaining 615 men had kept a set of keys for the lorry and decided he was going to go back to the lovely hotel down the coast and visit the hotelier and his beautiful daughters, so Vic was left on a beach near Boulogne with no kit and a folding camp bed that he had bought in Douai. Vic doesn’t remember any of the supposed animosity towards the RAF, from any of the army personnel on the beach, just the screaming sirens of the Stukas.

Eventually Vic decided that he had to get off the beach and being a good swimmer, started to wade out into the sea. He remembers that he walked out a considerable distance before he needed to swim and then he used the horsehair mattress from his camp bed as a float. The skipper of a small boat saw him in the water and called out, “Where you going, mate?” to which Vic replied, “Away from here!” They pulled him out of the sea, but when Vic tried to pull his camp bed aboard they threw it back in. Vic’s tunic was rolled up in it, so he was left soaking wet in his shirt sleeves with no kit at all for the rest of the journey. They took him to a paddle steamer which brought him back to Dover towards the end of May, where they were greeted with sandwiches and cups of tea. Vic hadn’t eaten for some time and says the local women were “terrific.” They were taken to Redhill and Tidworth, where they spent the night.

Back in Blighty

Finally Vic was re-united with the rest of 615 Squadron at Croydon. They had bed space in a vacant girls’ school near the lido, opposite Croydon Airport and slept on the floor with two blankets. However, quite a few of them lived locally and went home. Corporal Benny Lynch announced that he was going home to Copthorne and Vic wanted to go home to Horley, but he didn’t have any money, so he asked the gate warden at RAF Croydon to lend him 5 bob. The warden lent him 10 bob, which he shared with Benny Lynch, who promised to pick him up from the Chequers Hotel, in Horley, the following morning, so Vic got the Green Line bus back home, where his Mother was delighted to see him, but very concerned about him paying back the 10 bob!

The following day he was sent down to Manston to service Gladiators for airfield defence.

King George VI presenting S/Ldr. Joseph Kayll with the DSO and DFC at Kenley on 27/6/1940

RAF Kenley and The Hardest Day

Vic finally arrived back at Kenley on 29th May and was amazed to find everything peaceful and quiet after the melee across the Channel. He says it was a “lovely station,” handy for Croydon with the train and the tram. The only problem was walking up Whyteleafe Hill! He didn’t drink or smoke at the time, so didn’t frequent any of the local pubs. July 1940 was uneventful, with routine servicing, but on the 15th August he watched a group of aircraft flying up the valley, initially thinking they were Blenheims, before realising that they were Messerschmitt Me110’s. This was just before RAF Croydon was badly raided around 6pm.

Sunday 18th August was quite a dull morning. Ground crews were permitted to do servicing with panels back on in half an hour, and Vic was doing a 40 hour inspection. They went for an early lunch because “B” Flight was on readiness from 1pm. ‘Ditsy’ Dean wanted them back at dispersal for 12.45pm, so Vic had lunch quickly and then went to the NAAFI to get some toothpaste. He returned to find the lorry back to dispersal disappearing into the distance. Realising that he wouldn’t make it back in time on foot, Vic went to fetch his motorbike from one of the hangars where he kept it, and rode it back to the dispersal, parking it behind the blast pen. He later realised that an “immediate warning” had been given over the tannoy while he was riding round. As he walked up the side of the dispersal, he saw three Dornier Do.17’s just clear the top of the hangars and the 4″ Anti-aircraft gun, which was 50 yards away on the other side of their dispersal, opened fire. By this time, Vic was sprinting for the shelter in the back of the blast pen, but he saw a flash just before he made it to safety and thinks this was a rocket from the launch of the parachute and cable system, which he had no inkling of up to that point. He thought, “Christ, that was close! as he made it to the shelter.

Things quietened down and they emerged from the shelter to find the hangars burning. Vic was glad he’d ridden over on his motorbike, which was still undamaged behind the blast pen, unlike all the other cars and bikes stored in the hangars, which had been destroyed. About 20 minutes later, they discovered that the man who had driven the ground crew back from lunch had been killed in the cab of the lorry during the raid. Vic was shocked to see the driver dead but the lorry completely undamaged. The passemger side window had been open, and the bullet had entered from that side. Vic thinks this may have been LAC Holroyd and that in peacetime he ran a company that rebuilt batteries.

Five new Hurricanes had recently arrived and had been sitting outside the hangars waiting for their squadron markings to be applied. All these aircraft were damaged in  the raid, but Vic was disappointed to discover that KW*O, “O for Orange” had survived intact. It was usually flown by Keith Lofts and always had lots of ‘gremlins’ and technical glitches.

Vic remembers that despite the casualties and damage, Kenley was in use again the following morning.

A 615Squadron Hurricane damaged by flying debris on 18/8/1940 at Kenley. (Fisher).

Prestwick and Northolt

615 Squadron remained at Kenley until 29th August and were then sent to Prestwick for a rest, though some of the pilots stayed on in the south and were posted to other units. He enjoyed his time there, especially learning to skate at the brand new ice rink in Ayre. He was at Prestwick on 15th September (Battle of Britain Day) and followed the days action like it was a football match.

Vic says that he hears a lot of talk about how tired and distressed the pilots were during the Battle of Britain, but didn’t see much evidence of that himself. He remembers that they were glad to get back south to RAF Northolt.

The ground crews were flown down in two old Bristol Bombays. While they were waiting to take off a Blenheim coming in to land had its port engine stall (a common problem on the Blenheim). A small fire started on the intake of the engine, but  no action was taken because the fire engine was fast approaching. However, when the appliance arrived it couldn’t pump and the fire spread and engulfed the fuselage where the Wireless operator/gunner was trapped and killed.

615 Squadron Hurricanes landing at Northolt (Andy Long)

Vic feels that 615 squadron changed at Northolt. There were lots of new pilots and personnel and he feels the ground crews weren’t as ‘slick.’ They were lucky to get nine aircraft off the ground in fifteen minutes, whereas before the crews could do it in three. Silly mistakes, like not changing the oxygen bottles, began to be more commonplace too.

Vic had applied for flying duties and S/Ldr. Kayll had said he would soon be on his way to Elementary Flying Training School but instead, Vic was posted to RAF Credenhill, Hereford, to take his Group I Electrical Training Course and was told he was going, “whether he liked it or not.” He was even made class leader and was responsible for getting his fellow trainees to the scheduled classes punctually.

His Father had been sent home on sick leave at Christmas so Vic got a weekend pass and went home to spend his 20th birthday with his family. He had promised to be back at Credenhill by midday on Monday.

The Second Great Fire of London

On 29th December 1940, he was on a train between London Bridge and Charing Cross when the front was hit by a bomb and suddenly everything was on fire around him. He was running one way along the track when a large shed in front of him blew up and disappeared. Turning round, he began to run the other way and in doing so ran past the guard leaning out of his van, who shouted, “Did you shut the door?” as he ran past. There were lots of other passengers running about on the railway tracks and Vic began to get concerned about the live rail, warning people about it and telling them to jump over it. He helped one Mother by carrying her child over the rail and up to the platform. From there he went to the air raid shelters which were in the railway arches; the whole street was on fire and there was a fierce draught and sparks blowing everywhere. He helped a local air raid warden until midnight when he thought he should try to get to Euston to get back to Credenhill, but the warden said he should stay put and signed his pass, thanking him for his assistance.  Vic slept on the steps of Charing Cross tube station because the platform was too crowded. There were no trains so Vic took a bus to Oxford the next morning and arrived back at Credenhill at 4pm. He was put on a charge and docked a day’s pay for being late back from leave! The memories of that night made a deeper impression on Vic than the ‘Hardest Day’ – it was one of the heaviest raids London ever endured, lasting 13 hours, and became known as the “Second Great Fire of London.”

‘The Second Great Fire of London’ reported in The War Illustrated

Once Vic had passed his course, he was sent to RAF Abingdon to work on the Whitley’s of No.10 OTU, which was a challenge after the fighters of 615.

Vic was subsequently posted to  No.134 at Leconfield and travelled out to Murmansk with the Squadron and their  Hurricanes before being posted to the Middle East, but he always remembers his time at 615 squadron as the “the happiest days and the worst days,” and the men he met there as, “the best crowd of blokes.”

At the end of our conversation Vic said that he has always tried to do his best. When I said that I thought that was a good attitude to have he replied that it is the ONLY attitude to have. Wise words from a lovely gentleman.

It was a privilege to listen to Vic telling his extraordinary story. We had planned to film an oral history video but that idea had to be abandoned because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Vic has been very generous with his time and we are profoundly grateful to him for sharing his memories.

 

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