92 Squadron was already an effective fighter unit thanks largely to its leadership and the strength of character of its pilots. It also had a reputation for indiscipline, having a second home at the White Hart pub not too far from Biggin Hill in the small village of Brasted.
From 1st January 1940 it had been led by Squadron Leader Roger Bushell until he was shot down and captured on 23 May. He would later be executed by the SS for masterminding the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. Other notables in the squadron included Paddy Green, Bob Stanford-Tuck, Brian Kingcome, Tony Bartley, Johnny Kent, Allan Wright, Don Kingaby and Geoffrey Wellum.
On 6 September John made his first flight with 92 Squadron and on 8 September he departed Pembery for Biggin Hill. On his arrival here he roomed with Geoffrey Wellum who wrote in his memoirs, First Light,
“I share a room with a new pilot. His name is John Drummond. He was waiting at Biggin when we arrived, a quiet retiring sort of chap, a bit of an introvert. As we unpack our kit I get to know a little about him, although he doesn’t volunteer an awful lot. It appears he was in a Gladiator Squadron in Norway and they were, of course, hopelessly outnumbered and virtually decimated. He has a DFC but obviously doesn’t want to talk about it so I don’t press him. We get on well enough. He’s friendly so the arrangement suits me, not that I’m in a position to object. Hardly know he’s around anyway.”
So the last 35 days of John’s life were about to be played out defending his country against the imminent threat of invasion.
His first action in the Battle of Britain came in the late afternoon of 9 September when 92 Squadron was scrambled to defend Biggin Hill itself. They lost two aircraft but fortunately no pilots.
On 10 September John was ordered to fly to Hawkinge as part of an escort for an Avro Anson that was ‘spotting’ the results from a new 14 inch gun firing shells across the English Channel. This proved to be an uneventful flight and he returned to Biggin Hill in the early evening.
On 11 September, after some hours of much needed rest, thirteen aircraft of 92 Squadron were scrambled at 1520 hours to intercept a large formation of bombers, escorted by fighters, over Dungeness. John was flying as number 3 of Green Section. The squadron split up over Maidstone as pilots carried out individual attacks.
John encountered three Messerschmitt Bf109s at 20,000 feet, attacked number three firing a few short bursts before breaking away. He spotted a Hurricane being attacked and hit its assailant hard as it broke away. He pursued it, finishing off his ammunition in the process and causing white smoke to pour from its tail. John looked round to see two of the Bf109s diving on his tail so did a half roll and dived sharply to shake them off before heading back to base, landing at about 1730 hours. When reporting to Squadron Intelligence Officer Tom Wiese, John claimed the Bf109 as a probable.
92 were kept busy over the next few days defending Biggin Hill but rain, cloud and unsettled weather hampered enemy action to a large degree. The RAF aircraft took some punishment but fortunately the pilots were relatively unscathed. The action escalated on 18 September when 92 were scrambled to meet the third major attack of the day. At 1555 hours John flew one of eight Spitfires ordered off from Biggin Hill to rendezvous with 66 Squadron over base. Cloud cover forced them down to 18,000 feet where they sighted a formation of sixteen Bf109s heading toward Rochester. The Squadron went in to attack but the enemy aircraft simply headed for the cloud cover above. Despite losing sight of the Bf109s, Squadron Leader Kingcome managed to collect three pilots and attacked a formation of eighteen Ju88s and a He111. By the time the Spitfires returned to base they had claimed one and a half Ju88s destroyed and two He111s as a probable and damaged.
Showery weather on 19 September contributed to a day of relative inactivity so John and 92 were not called into action. That night the Luftwaffe dropped heavy explosive and incendiary bombs over a wide area of Liverpool, starting their campaign to destroy the city, a campaign that would soon have devastating consequences for John’s family.
On the morning of 20 September, 92 were scrambled to meet the one major attack of the day. A force of a hundred enemy aircraft was intercepted over east Kent, apparantly on course for London. In the ensuing melee two Spitfires of 92 were shot down (Sgt PR Eyles and P/O HP Hill both killed) by leading Luftwaffe ace Major Werner Molders (Kommodore of Jagdgeschwader 51) near Dungeness. These victories took his tally to forty making him the first fighter pilot to reach this total during the war.
Saturday 21 September was a quiet day for John and 92 as they were only involved in fighter sweeps over east Kent. There was little combat and only one enemy aircraft was reported damaged. That evening, however, the Luftwaffe stepped up their assault on Liverpool with the heaviest raid yet. One bomb smashed into the front of 63 Worcester Road, killing John’s grandmother and aunt where they slept.
[For more about the bombing of the Drummond house, see the Additional page]
It’s not clear when on 22 September John received the news from Liverpool, but it was perhaps fortunate he was only required to fly a short patrol over Beachy Head as fog and rain reduced activity to a minimum.
By the next morning the weather had cleared up enough for the Germans to launch their first major attack of the day at 0930 hours and John, flying Spitfire QJ-T (X4422), and 92 were scrambled to meet them. John climbed to 20,000 feet then was ordered by Flight Lieutenant Kingcome to attack any Bf109s he saw. Very quickly he got on the tail of one that was attacking another Spitfire, that of Tony Bartley. He fired a short burst that caused clouds of white smoke to pour from the exhaust. The pilot of the Bf109, Feldwebel Kuppa of 8/Jagdgeschwader 26, took evasive action but John followed him down firing short bursts until it became apparent that Kuppa would have to make a forced landing. He ended up in a pond near Grain Fort on the Isle of Grain but was captured unhurt. John returned to Biggin claiming it as a victory.
John’s Spitfire that day, X4422, was shot down by Bf109s three days later over Farningham, killing its pilot, 20 year old Flt/Lt Jimmy Paterson.
On 24 September the Germans again decided to make their first major attack of the day an early one. John, flying as Blue 1, and 92 were scrambled at 0845 hours, joining up with 66 and 72 Squadrons over the Thames Estuary. At 16,000 feet they spotted a formation of Ju88s escorted by a large number of Bf109s. John led Blue Section through the escort and attacked the bombers. In his combat report John described carrying out a beam attack on the rear Ju88, hitting the port engine.
After breaking away from the bomber John realised he had three Bf109s on his tail. He turned onto the tail of the rear Bf109, firing a five second burst. Clouds of white smoke pouring from its exhausts confirmed he had damaged it. He turned on the second Bf109, again firing short bursts and claimed to have damaged that. On his return to Biggin John declared he had expended 2,000 rounds and claimed an Bf109 as a probable, one damaged and a Ju88 damaged.
It’ll never be known how John felt about missing the funeral of his grandmother and aunt that took place on 25 September and the effect it had on him, but due to decreased enemy action in the London area, he didn’t fly again until 27 September. At 0915 hours he was ordered to patrol base as Yellow 1 flying Spitfire QJ-G (X4330), taking two other aircraft him. They engaged by enemy fighters and John damaged an Bf110. He was credited with a third of a victory as it was attacked by Hurricanes, most likely of 46 Squadron, on its way to crash landing in a field just south of Westerham.
After lunch in dispersal the squadron was scrambled at 1530 hours. John was again flying as Yellow 1. They intercepted a formation of Ju88s over Sevenoaks and John attacked the outside aircraft at the rear of the formation. The Ju88s engine was already smoking when another Spitfire from Yellow Section also hit it. It crashed near High Halden railway station.
Records indicate that 92 were not in action again until 30 September. At 1700 hours and still flying as Yellow 1, John was on patrol at 27,000 feet north west of Brighton when he spotted a formation of 15 bombers escorted by around 50 fighters 10,000 feet below. John dived towards the bombers and encountered two Bf109s on the way down. After firing a four second burst at a distance of 350 yards, John saw smoke coming from the Bf109 and it began to lose height. He watched it descend towards Beachy Head before returning to Biggin Hill. John claimed this as a probable.
With the coming of October, the Battle of Britain entered its final stage and John was next in action on the morning of 5 October. He took off about 10 minutes after the Squadron as Ganic 17 and set about finding them. Over Dungeness he saw 12 Bf109s and decided to carry out a solo attack. He fired on the rear fighter, hit it then watched it do a half roll before crashing in the sea. This is likely to have been a fighter from 2/JG 77. Having just seen the Bf109 hit the sea, John spotted a Henschel Hs126 flying low above the water. In his characteristic tenacious style he followed and engaged it, finally bringing it down just two miles from the French coast. He couldn’t know it, but the Henschel was to be his last victory.
The day was further marked by official RAF artist Captain Cuthbert Orde meeting John shortly after he landed and drawing his portrait. Of the nearly 3,000 pilots who flew in the Battle of Britain, GHQ picked less than 200 of the most outstanding for this accolade.
Orde’s iconic pictures of The Few are always striking. That John’s was drawn now, an hour or two after his final kill and with only five days to live, is all the more poignant.