No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron

Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) squadrons were first envisaged during World War One by Sir Hugh Trenchard and were set out in a document prepared by him in 1919. They were to be a reserve organisation similar to the Territorial Army. A Bill was drafted in 1922 but did not become law until 1924. Provision was made for the formation six Auxiliary squadrons and seven Special Reserve squadrons. A further 12 years passed until No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron was formed on 10 February 1936 at RAF Hendon.

However, five days earlier, Liverpool City Council had granted a tenancy to the Air Ministry of five acres of land to the east of the Chapel House Farm, Speke. The terms of the tenancy required the Ministry to construct roadways and erect temporary buildings.

AAF squadrons had a small nucleus of regular personnel who were mainly concerned with administration and aircraft maintenance, but the majority of the officers and men were recruited from geographical areas local to the unit and trained at weekends, attending a two week annual training camp. Hence No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron was irrevocably linked to its titular county and Liverpool.

The squadron never received aircraft at Hendon but moved to Liverpool and then to Speke airfield from 1 May 1936, taking over the newly built accommodation on the west side of the airfield.

The intended role of the squadron was day bombing, using single-engined Hawker Hart biplanes which were retained until 1st January 1939, when the squadron was re-classified as a fighter unit. On 19 May 1939 they received their first fighter aircraft, six Supermarine Spitfire MK 1s.

It seems astonishing that the squadron went from biplanes designed in the 1920s to a cutting edge monoplane aircraft design overnight. Air Ministry specification F7/30 required a fighter capable of at least 250 mph and armed with four machine guns and they got one.

The Commanding Officer since the squadron formed up was Squadron Leader GL Pilkington of Pilkington Bros. Ltd.

Norman joined the squadron at Speke before the outbreak of the war as an aircraft hand, service number 811138. He was mobilised on 24 August 1939 and in February 1940 he was a Leading Aircraftman under training as a pilot.

Marriage

By now Norman had been dating local woman Joan Hankinson for a number of months. Joan came from the Parr Mount, Fingerpost area of St Helens. Her father, Isaac (known to the family as Ike), had been a coal miner until injury forced him to change career, after which he was a chauffer for a local doctor.

Norman and Joan were regulars at The Star Inn where landlord James Halsall got to know them well. As it did for so many couples, war heightened feelings of romance because those in love knew there may be no tomorrow. Norman was a man in a hurry when he proposed to Joan around Christmas 1939. Now training to be a fighter pilot, he knew he would soon be on the front line so, forsaking wartime austerity, they arranged a wedding as close to St Valentine’s Day as possible.

Norman and Joan were married by the Reverend Campbell at Holy Trinity Church on Saturday 24 February 1940. Norman was in his RAF uniform whilst Joan wore a blue silk dress and black coat with fox fur toque. On the handbag she carried with her was a posy of forget-me-nots. Norman’s best man was his brother Gerald. As Norman entered the church a Spitfire appeared out of the clouds and circled the building before speeding off into the distance. Joan arrived a few minutes later and the Spitfire returned, swooped low and dipped its wings in honour of the bride then disappeared into the dull grey sky.

Norman and Joan enjoyed a reception at the local Raven Hotel and later left for their honeymoon in Southport. For the newlyweds there were to be but a few precious months together.

Pilot Officer Sutton

Having completed his training, on 17 August 1940 Norman was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on promotion (Gazetted 20 September 1940). Norman took Joan with him and they were billeted in the village of Ruskington, just a few miles from RAF Digby. He converted to Spitfires at 5 OTU, Aston Down, and re-joined No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron at Digby on 9 September 1940 where he was assigned to B Flight and declared operational on 22 September 1940.

The Fighter OTU course involved air firing, tactics, practicing aerial manoeuvres, mock dogfights, aircraft recognition and elocution for speaking over the R/T. It also included formation flying and emergency take-offs but could it really prepare a new Pilot Officer for how he would feel, how he would react, when the scramble bell rang?

Norman completed his first operational flight on 24 September 1940 in a Mk IIa Spitfire (P7284) as Blue 2 on a convoy patrol. The following day he flew a Mk IIa Spitfire (P7301) from Digby to Manchester Ringway in the morning before flying a patrol over Sealand and returning to Digby in the late afternoon.

On 27 September he took a Mk IIa Spitfire (P7299) from Digby to Tern Hill and on 28th September flew a patrol over Liverpool in a Mk IIa Spitfire (P7299). This was his last operational flight with No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron which was soon to move to Tern Hill. Norman’s time with the squadron had consisted of flying patrols during which he had not encountered an enemy aircraft, hardly the best preparation for a posting to a front line Battle of Britain squadron at Biggin Hill.

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