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Library Reference Number: 012

Pre-War and WW2 Flying with Nos 602 and 613 Squadrons

George Conway, MBE, AE, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA.

It must be remembered that in pre-war days, these were bomber squadrons, and I gained my first experience as an AirGunner in aircraft such as the Hawker Hart and Hawker Hind, which were classified as light day-bombers. No.602 Squadron only converted to Spitfires in 1938, and at that time, myself and several other Air Gunners became redundant. As we were armourers to trade before becoming gunners, we simply reverted to our ground role as such, and were employed re-arming the squadrons' Spitfires. We therefore played a key role in maintaining the Spitfires' armament, which enabled them to carry out their fighter duties even before commencement of WW2. It also gave us opportunities to gain valuable experience before the war had even started.

The Spitfire had entered RAF service in June 1938, and by September 1939, nine RAF squadrons were fully equipped with Spitfire 1s including No. 602 Squadron. My official flying badge at this time was the Brass Flying Bullet which was subsequently changed to the AG half-wing brevet, but many of us with with four years pre-war flying experience really regretted losing our Flying Bullet badge.

At the outbreak of WW2 in September 1939, a number of us with previous air-gunnery experience were asked if we would volunteer for aircrew duties, bearing in mind we were fully qualified in that category with four years flying experience in light bombers. During those years, in addition to air gunnery, we had also been trained in bomb-aiming, photography and navigation - hence the reason for some of the gunners moving on to pilot training, and as the war proceeded, some of these early air-gunners were actually awarded decorations as Spitfire pilots. For the rest of us, there was no great alternative but to comply with the request to return to flying duties. Events rapidly caught up with me at this point, for on October 16th, 1939, our earlier experience on re-arming Spitfires was urgently required when 602 Squadron was directly involved in engaging the enemy. Twelve Ju88s had been assured that no modern fighters were based in Scotland. They had obviously not been briefed on the existence of 602 & 603 Spitfires, and for me this was a turning point in my RAF career. I had enjoyed the previous four pre-war years as a pastime, a bit of fun, yet never dreaming I would be caught up in a real war but that's how it was. I became involved in the first Luftwaffe raid on mainland Britain!

In early 1940 I was posted to No. 613 Squadron, and remained with them until early 1942. During this period I was attached to 242 Squadron (C/O W/C Bader) where special duties were being carried out. Still with Fighter Command, I was seconded to 50 Squadron but was recalled to 613 after one month. Shortly afterwards I volunteered for Night Fighter Force, was accepted, and sent to No. 60 O.T.U. (Defiants). On completion of this course I was retained as an Instructor.

Commissioned in 1942, I was posted to the Central Gunnery School and took up duties at the Fighter Wing which was greatly influenced by the South African Group Captain 'Sailor' Malan, DSO*, DFC*. As the war proceeded, we became aware of famous names emerging, particularly among fighter pilots whose exploits had been recording massive strikes on enemy aircraft. Such a well-earned reputation had Group Captain Malan. Therefore, it was all the more surprising when out of the blue, I was called to appear before the great man. He announced "I have a special job for you, and I'll tell you this, if you can't do it - you'll not be here bloody long!" I was then appointed as Instructor on a Fighter Leaders' Training Course designed by Malan himself. Apparently, on completing a tour of operations, he had felt the need for further intensive training for Fighter Leaders. The Senior Instructor's post was held by a Rhodesian Spitfire pilot who had been shot down at the time of Dunkirk. He had sustained serious injuries to his spine, and although his paralysis caused him to wear irons on his legs, he still flew Spitfires. He was an extremely well educated person, whose tactical knowledge was of great value to me in my role as his Assistant Instructor.

This was a job I thoroughly enjoyed, as the fighter pilots coming on the Fighter Leaders' Training Course were mostly all 'Aces' in their own right, and many Squadron Leaders and Wing Commanders with lots of flying experience. The training included 'fixed gun sighting' as well as 'free gun sighting' which I had been more familiar with in the past. Where before, I had concentrated on positioning guns on enemy aircraft, this new approach meant aiming the whole aircraft at the enemy. Gone were the days of slower flying planes with time to manipulate guns and turrets into positions to tackle the enemy. With ever-increasing flying speeds and more sophisticated fire power, it was felt necessary to study in greater depth the advantages of Fighter Leaders and improved tactical skills. As well as RAF fighter pilots, we also had several pilots from the 7th and 9th U.S. Air Force and members of other Allied Forces under instruction at that time.

What had simply started in 1934 as a hobby or 'pastime' before WW2, had developed into a highly complex age of innovation and technology, where the pressures of war had motivated huge advances. My early flying experience in Hawker 'Hinds' 'Harts' and 'Hectors' had been swiftly transformed over a few years beyond all recognition. When we had been proudly awarded our pre-war 'Flying Bullets' for pointing guns, the onus was now on the pilot to point his aircraft. Perhaps we have experienced the best of 'aircrew life' before it becomes too high tech and automated! Anyhow, my RAF career ended on a Specialist Armament Officers Course at East Fortune at conclusion of WW2. This also completed a personal cycle in the field of aircraft armament - from 'armourer' in 1934, to F/Lt. Specialist Armament Officer in 1945.

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