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The Spitfire Society Interview


A Potted History of 92 (East India) Squadron


Len Stillwell

These days the iconic image of the spitfire is known and loved universally and sometimes, in some quarters, this famous aeroplane seems to overshadow the great men and women who built, maintained, armed, and flew it.

The following article about 92 Sqn was written by Len Stillwell. In many ways Len's wartime exploits were, although of course unique, relatively unremarkable; he went through the same training as thousands of other servicemen and though he went on to fly the legendary spitfire Len, like many other pilots, did not shoot down any of the enemy's aircraft. He was, however, wounded in action flying his spitfire over Italy towards the end of the war and these wounds caused him constant pain right up until his death in December 2008. What is astonishing is that this did not prevent Len from being one of the most active and enthusiastic members of the Spitfire Society, often getting up in the dead of night to prepare himself and his wife Dorothy to travel up from Teddington to our air shows in order to spend the day helping raise funds or doing vital committee work. As well as this Len also spent the last twenty years or so of his life caring, with no outside help, for Dot, all the while suffering from wounds received decades previously whilst fighting for his country and for the freedom we enjoy today.

These are just a few examples of the many ways in which this kind, dedicated, generous man was remarkable and serves to remind me that every man or woman who climbed into the cockpit of a spitfire or indeed any other wartime aircraft with the common aim of overcoming the global threat of fascist tyranny was a hero.

P.W. Jan 2011


92 Squadron Royal Flying Corps was formed in September 1917 at London Colney as a Scout (Fighter) Squadron. It moved to France in July 1918 where it operated on the Western Front equipped, in turn, with the Spad S7, the Sopwith Pup and the SE5A, the Spitfire of the First World War. 92 Squadron Royal Air Force was disbanded in August 1919.

The Squadron was re-formed in October 1939 at Tangmere as a Night Fighter Squadron flying Blenheim IFs and bearing the code 'GR'. The Squadron Badge embodies a hooded cobra entwining a sprig of maple leaves - it is said that the first Commanding Officer was a Canadian - and its later motto "Aut Pugna Ant Morere" translates as "Either Fight or Die". In 1940, the Squadron was adopted by the East India Fund and thereafter included that name in its Title, and it appears probable that the cobra was added to the badge at that juncture.

In those early days of the War the Squadron was engaged in day and night training on Blenheims, first at Tangmere then Croydon and Gatwick from which, on 2nd March 1940, it was re-equipped with Spitfire MkIs and continued training at Gatwick & Croydon. The Squadron code was still 'GR' at that stage but was changed to 'QJ' because, so the story goes, the Air Ministry thought that the Germans might otherwise believe that 92 was a Royal Squadron (George Rex) and pay its aircraft special attention! (The new code was shared with both 613 (City of Manchester) and 616 (South Yorkshire) until the latter changed in July 1941).

In terms of active service, Flt Lt Stanford Tuck was posted to 92 as a Flight Commander in May 1940, at which stage the Squadron was moved to Northolt and declared operational. It registered the first of its many successes when, operating from Hornchurch and flying patrols over France, its aircraft ran into six Me109s all of which were shot down   Later the same day forty Me110s were engaged and seventeen destroyed, although their CO Sqn Ldr Bushell was shot down and taken prisoner. He was later shot by the Gestapo for taking part in the mass escape from Stalag Luft III in 1944 (the film "The Great Escape" immortalised these events). Seven more enemy aircraft were destroyed the following day, after which the Squadron was rested at Duxford, but was operating again in June 1940 shooting down four fighters and four bombers, this time from an airfield in Norfolk. Flt Lt Stanford Tuck was awarded the DFC whilst at Duxford.

Posted to 10 Group, 92 moved to Pembrey in South Wales, patrolling that part of Wales and the Bristol Channel by both day and night, destroying several enemy bombers, following which it returned on 8th September to 11 Group at Biggin Hill with Sqn Ldr Maclaclan assuming command with Flt Lts Brian Kingcombe & Stanford Tuck DFC as his Flight Commanders. Continuing its successful campaign, seventeen enemy aircraft were destroyed on 27th September and, during October, Stanford Tuck was promoted to Sqd Ldr and awarded a Bar to his DFC. He was given command of 257 Squadron with Sqd  Ldr Johnny Kent DFC, AFC taking over at 92. Flt Lt Kingcombe was awarded the DFC.   On 15 November Sgt Don Kingsby shot down four Me 109s, a record tally for any pilot in one day and, by the end of 1941 as a Flt Sgt, had shot down eighteen aircraft, the only NCO pilot to have been awarded the DFM and two Bars and at that time the top scoring NCO pilot in Fighter Command (He finished the war a Wing Commander).

By the end of 1940, 92 Squadron's tally was 130 enemy aircraft destroyed, 60 probably destroyed and 70 damaged

The Squadron was stood down at the end of 1941 in preparation for overseas service and re-assembled at Heliopolis in April 1942, returning to operations in the Western desert in June flying Hurricanes. The shooting down of three Ju87s and an Me109 brought the Squadron's total of destroyed aircraft to 200, their achievements whilst flying Hurricanes earning the congratulations of the AOC Western Desert, AVM Coningham on 1st August 1942 and the immediate allocation of Spitfires.

On 5th August the Squadron joined 244 Wing and was fully operational on Spitfire MkVcs. These events coincided with the creation of the Desert Air Force (DAF), which was to support the Eighth Army throughout the North African and Italian Campaigns (in fact, DAF was to retain its title and formation until June 1946 when it was disbanded in Northern Italy)

During August and September the Squadron engaged and destroyed several Me109s and Macchi C202s and, on 17th August, Sqn Ldr Wedgwood, the Commanding Officer who had brought the Squadron out from the UK and who had shot down nine aircraft, was awarded the DFC, the first award to the Squadron since leaving the UK. Four days later a force of some 40+ Me109s, attacking our forward troops, were driven off by aircraft of 92 Squadron which then made strafing attacks on enemy advanced Landing Grounds - the complements returned.

The Battle of El Alamein started on October 23rd. 1942. By November 2nd the Eighth Army started its advance westwards. The Squadron flew patrols throughout the battle and shot down nine enemy aircraft. By November 4th, the enemy was in full retreat and 92 Sqn followed our troops closely, leapfrogging from one Landing Ground to another, crossing the Egypt/Libya border on November 13th.

F/O Neville Duke DFC, an ex-Member of 92 Squadron in the UK, rejoined the Squadron on November 18th and Sqn Ldr Wedgwood DFC, who had led the Squadron since it arrived in the Middle East was posted back to the UK. In all he had destroyed thirteen enemy aircraft but did not arrive home for he was killed when the Halifax aircraft he was in crashed on landing in Malta

Sqn Ldr Morgan assumed command of the Squadron and, by Christmas and the New Year 1942/43, our forces were still advancing. In early 1943 the enemy made a stand and large numbers of Me109s were encountered   Fighter/bombers attacked our Landing Grounds and two Me109s were destroyed   After these initial attacks, patrolling aircraft managed to intercept the Messerschmitts and Macchi 202s before they reached their targets, with 92 Sqn shooting down an Me109 and three Macchi 202s, in the days that followed F/O Neville Duke DFC destroyed another two Macchi 202s.

On January 14th, 1943 the Eighth Army launched an all-out attack on the defenders of Tripoli and, on January 21st the Squadron destroyed three Ju87s. Tripoli fell to our forces on January 24th and 92 Sqn moved there on February 7th. A week later, Flt Lt Neville Duke DFC and the late Sqn Ldr Wedgewood DFC were awarded Bars to their DFCs; Sqn Ldr Morgan also received the DFC and Bar.

The enemy stood and counter-attacked during the early days of March 1943. There was heavy air activity and Flt Lt Duke DFC and Bar shot down five enemy aircraft in the first four days. At this junction 92 Squadron's total score reached 254˝ aircraft destroyed, 101 probables and 134 damaged (half an aircraft was claimed by and awarded to another Squadron). On March 10th, the Squadron received the first four Spitfire MkIXs and on March 27th, Flt Lt Duke was awarded the DSO; his total score then was 19 destroyed, 4 probables and 3 damaged.

As the North African campaign was drawing to a close with the Eighth Army encircling Tunis, the tasks of Fighter Squadrons changed and 92 Sqn was employed escorting Kittyhawks and Hurricane tank-busters which were attacking enemy troop dispositions, tanks and vehicles. On April 6th three of 92 Sqn's new MkIXs attacked 18 Savoia-Marchetti SM82s, destroying 5 of them. On April 18th, the Squadron flew top-cover to four Squadrons of Kittyhawks who intercepted a large number of enemy transport aircraft flying low over the sea. Whilst 92 Sqn kept the fighter escort at bay the Kittyhawk Squadrons shot down over seventy Ju52s.  Five more aircraft were destroyed by 92 Sqn on April 20th with the result that, since arriving in the Middle East and by the end of the victorious North African campaign, the Squadron had destroyed 78 aircraft, with 21 probables and 57 damaged.

After a period of rest in North Africa and with Sqn Ldr Humphreys at the helm, 92 Sqn flew to Malta on June 14th 1943. Operating from Luqa, the Squadron carried out sweeps over Sicily in preparation for the invasion which started on July 10th. 92 Sqn was the first to patrol over our invasion forces and five Ju88s were destroyed during these operations. Whilst operating from landing grounds in Sicily, the Squadron was re-equipped with MkVIII Spitfires, basically the same aircraft but with a longer range than the MkIX and with a retractable tail wheel. New arrivals were Flt Lt Hards DFC, DFM who took over A Flight and Flt Lt Nicholls DFC who became B Flight Commander.

The invasion of Italy from Sicily began on 3rd September 1943. 92 Sqn covered the landing of our troops and successfully forced attacking Fw190 fighter-bombers to jettison their bombs. Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8th 1943.

The 8th Army advanced slowly up the Adriatic coast and Squadron patrols over Ban and Foggia met no resistance. By October 1943, on its 4th anniversary, the Squadron celebrated by shooting down a Dornier Do17. Sqn Ldr Mackie DFC and Bar took over command from Sqn Ldr Humphrys but there was a lack of enemy air activity during the 8th Army's battles of the Trigno and Sangro rivers which 92 Sqn covered. During November and December 1943, eleven enemy aircraft were destroyed without loss, Sqn Ldr Mackie DFC and Bar downing two and Lt Sachs (SAAF) destroying three. This brought the total of aircraft destroyed to 101 since leaving England and its overall total to 294˝ confirmed. An Me410 and Me109 were shot down as a closing gesture to 1943.

On January 17th 1944 the Squadron was switched to the western side of the country and, from a landing ground near Naples, covered the Anzio landings. Two enemy aircraft were destroyed over the bridgehead, one by Sqn Ldr Mackie and one by F/O Henderson and, on 6th February while patrolling Anzio, five of the Squadron's aircraft ran into twenty Fw190s and six Me109s. Flt Lt Edwards DFC, DFM, the new Flight Commander of A Flight, shot down an Fw190 and Lt Gasson an Me109 bringing the Squadron's total to 300 aircraft destroyed. Sqn Ldr Cox DFC assumed command of 92 Squadron at this time.

Routine patrols over the Anzio bridgehead kept the Squadron busy until April when 244 Wing moved in preparation for the assaults on the Gustav and Hitler Lines. On April 23rd twelve 92 Sqn Spitfires met twelve Fw190s with three Me109s as top cover and Capt Gasson, Flt Lt Garner and F/O Montgomerie destroyed one each. On May 13th twenty two Fw190s were intercepted and, again, three enemy aircraft were destroyed. By these victories 92 Sqn had the honour of destroying the 400th enemy aircraft for 244 Wing. Another Me109 was destroyed two days later.

Capt Gasson was now the Flight Commander of B Flight and, in one of his most spectacular engagements, took on sixteen Fw190s which were attacking a number of Bostons. He managed to damage three and pursued another down to the deck which was running for its base. Crossing the enemy airfield still in pursuit, Gasson passed underneath another Fw190 in the process of landing, which promptly spun in. Capt Gasson managed to damage his original quarry before breaking off the engagement and returning to base.

By July 1944 the Luftwaffe in Italy was practically a spent force and its demise released the Fighter Wings of the Desert Air Force from their traditional air combat roles and presented them with the task of supporting the Army in what was known as "Close Support" - either bombing or 'strafing' targets, mostly selected by the Army. The only enemy aircraft encountered were those on reconnaissance patrols over the north western coastal areas where Allied preparations for the invasion of Southern France were underway. In all, 92 Squadron encountered four of these aircraft and all were shot down. One, an Me 410, in flames.

The invasion of Southern France was achieved by the Army with no opposition from the German Air Force. Later the attack on the Gothic Line by the 8th Army was supported by fighter / bombers of 92 Squadron and a high standard of bombing was achieved. Major Venmer (SAAF) assumed command of 92 Sqn in September 1944.

The details of the individual targets destroyed in dive-bombing attacks are too numerous to list but every conceivable type of target was attacked in the final drive to beat a German Army with its back to the wall. The Allied Plan was to contain the German forces south of the river Po and, to that effect, all the bridges, barges and pontoons on the river were continuously attacked to deny the enemy any means or routes of escape.

October 1944 was a quiet month with bad weather setting in and very little flying possible. On the one or two days when the weather was clear enough for flying, direct hits were scored on enemy gun emplacements and 105mm and 210mm guns were destroyed. A strongly-fortified building was also attacked and five direct hits were recorded. During October Major ‘Johnny’ Gasson DFC, who had left the Squadron in June 1944, returned as its new Commanding Officer. The Squadron continued to attack enemy targets throughout October and November - enemy strongpoints, troop concentrations, gun positions and enemy-occupied buildings.

In December the Squadron received four telegrams of congratulations from Army Commands for the very effective support given by 92 Squadron. Attacks by the Squadron had been pressed home accurately no matter how intense the defensive fire. Attacks on enemy defensive positions only 300 yards ahead of our forward troops were so successful that when the Canadian troops went forward they found over thirty dead and took seventy prisoners for the loss of only two men. The day after this the Squadron destroyed two Tiger tanks. Group Captain Dundas, CO of 244 Wing added his congratulations to the Squadron on behalf of the other Squadrons in the Wing.

On Boxing Day 1944 92 Sqn attacked troops dug in along the banks of the Senio River and later destroyed another Tiger tank. The defence of the Senio River was the last properly organised stand made by the enemy in Italy. An observation post in a church tower was demolished by the Squadron, scoring four direct hits and two near misses. By this stage 92 Squadron was acknowledged as being the foremost fighting Unit of 244 Wing and of Desert Air Force.

The situation on the ground was static for the first few weeks of 1945, 92 Squadron spending its time seeking out and attacking targets of opportunity - locomotives, rolling stock, road transport and any troop movements or concentrations.

As the 8th Army moved up again for what was hoped would be the final push, enemy resistance stiffened and 92 Squadron along with all the other Squadrons was constantly in action, attacking new defensive positions, fighting vehicles and any buildings housing troops, stores or equipment.

In February 1945 Major 'Johnny' Gasson DFC was awarded the DSO, a richly deserved decoration for his outstanding leadership in taking 92 Squadron to its pre­eminent position.

The final assaults by the 8th Army across Lake Commachio and northwards, with the continuous support of Desert Air Force right up to the river Po itself wore down the German forces which suffered very heavy casualties. On 8th May 1945 the German forces surrendered and the European War was over.

The final score of enemy aircraft for 92 Squadron at the end of the war was 317˝ destroyed, 107 probables and 184 damaged. The squadron dropped 546 tons of bombs, destroyed numerous buildings and motor transports; 45 heavy guns destroyed with 91 damaged; 6 locomotives destroyed with 11 damaged; 9 barges destroyed with 11 damaged; 4 tanks destroyed including 3 Tiger tanks.

The historic account of a Fighter Squadron's exploits especially during wartime inevitably revolves around the achievements of its pilots, but credit must also go in large measure to the Squadron's Ground Staff - those who service and maintain the aircraft and equipment in all weathers and conditions. Praise must also go to the non-flying Officers, NCOs and all the other Ranks who provided the many essential support services. History mostly remembers only victories and successes, the living triumphant, going on to fight another day. The majority involved in the Squadron's duties probably contributed nothing memorable, but all played a part in the great achievements of 92 Squadron. Those who were killed, injured or taken prisoner occupy a respected position.

With the war over, 244 Wing took up occupational duties in Northern Italy and DAF was disbanded on 30th June 1946. In that September 92 Squadron moved up to Austria as part of the forces ranged against Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia who was threatening to invade disputed Italian territory but, with the withdrawal of that threat, the Squadron was disbanded in Austria on 31st December 1946. 244 Wing was disbanded on 27th January 1947. 92 Squadron was the last Squadron in Europe to give up its MkVIII Spitfires.

92 Squadron re-formed at Acklington, Northumberland on 31st January 1947 and became part of the Fighter Defence of the United Kingdom, flying Meteor F3s, F4s & F8s. It converted to Sabre F4s in 1954 and to Hunter F4s & F6s in 1956. The Squadron served as the official RAF Aerobatics team - the "Blue Diamonds" in 1961/62 flying Hunter F6s and were the first acrobatic team to loop 16 aircraft in close diamond formation.

In 1965 the Squadron moved to Germany as part of the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) flying Lightning F2 & F2As and, in 1977, converted to Phantom FGR2s. Returning to the UK, 92 Squadron became a Reserve Squadron flying Hawks out of Chivenor in a Tactical Reconnaissance role and was disbanded again on 1st October 1994. I cannot believe that it will not rise again!

You can read about Len's time in 92 Squadron here: Len Stillwell


Previous Spitfire Society interviews can be found in the Archives section:


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