Supermarine Spitfire Mk I RAF 54 Squadron coded KL-N N3173 flown by Plt Off Colin Gray Hornchurch 1940
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EM Spitfire MkI RAF 54Sqn KL-N Plt Off Colin Gray N3137 Hornchurch, May 1941
Supermarine Spitfire Mk I N3173 / KL-N of Plt Off Colin Gray
On the 25th of May the first Allied troops were evacuated from the port of Dunkirk. Also on that day No 54 Sqn escorted a squadron of FLeet Air Arm Swordfish delivering an attack on German troops between Gravelines and Calais. The biplanes completed their attack without interference, and headed for home. Once they were safely on their way the Spitfires were free to head south looking for trouble. They soon found it, as Plt Off Colin Gray later recalled;
'Suddenly, we found ourselves in amongst a gaggle of 109s. I opened fire at one of them, but stopped when I noticed smoke coming back over my wings. That shook me - I thought somebody was firing at me. I pulled round hard but there was nobody there what I had seen was cordite smoke blowing back from my own guns. I looked back at the Messerschmitt and saw Sgt John Norwell (who would later become an ace,) on its tail and the German pilot baling out.'
Norwell and Gray would each be credited with half shares in the destruction of the Messerschmitt. As the German fighter went down, Gray spent too long watching his victim - an error that nearly cost him his life.' 'Suddenly, there was one Hell of a row, like somebody running a bar along a piece of corrugated iron. The stick was knocked out of my hand and ended up in the left hand corner of the cockpit, and my aircraft flicked into a spiral dive. I grabbed the stick and hauled back on it, and the Spitfire responded immediately and started to climb. I looked behind but didn't t see anyone - the German pilot had not repeated my mistake of following me down. I selected +12 lbs (emergency boost) and continued my climb - the airspeed indicator read 240 mph, and I thought 'This is bloody marvellous!' (the normal speed for a Spitfire in a steep climb was about 190 mph indicated). But then, as I continued the climb, the Spitfire began to shudder and it seemed as if it was going to stall. I couldn't understand it - the air speed indicated still read 240 mph. I eased the stick forwards, but still it read 240 mph. . .Then I realised what had happened - my pitot head had been shot away, and the needle had dropped to the 240 mph position on the dial under gravity.' .'I levelled out and took stock of the situation. One cannon shell had I gone through the port aileron, and that was what had knocked the stick out of my hand and sent the aircraft into the violent spiral dive which shook off the Messerschmitt. The airspeed indicator was out, and there was no air pressure or hydraulic pressure. That meant that I had no flaps or brakes and I couldn't lower the undercarriage using the main hydraulic system. As I approached Hornchurch I blew down the undercarriage using the emergency carbon dioxide system, and saw the 'undercarriage down' sticks push up through the wings and two green lights come on to indicate that the wheels were down and locked.' 'The landing was very difficult. With the flaps up one came in at a different attitude than usual and, of course, I had no idea of my air speed - the indicator still read 240 mph! The first time, I came in too fast. The station commander at Hornchurch, Wg Cdr 'Daddy' Bouchier, was watching my performance and was overheard to say 'The silly young bugger.
He's going too fast. He'll never get in!' He was right. I got my wheels almost on the ground, realised I was not going to make it and took off again. The second time I stood well back from the airfield, and dragged the aircraft in at just above stalling speed. That time I landed and as I touched down the elevator cable finally parted and the control column collapsed back into my stomach.'
'On examination of the Spitfire afterwards it was found that a cannon shell had gone through the inspection hatch in the rear fuselage and exploded inside. Splinters from the shell had slashed their way out of the skinning, leaving it looking like a cheese grater. The air bottles had been knocked out, so were the batteries. There were bullet holes up and down the fuselage and, of course, the cannon shell through the aileron. From the entry and exit holes of the bullets it was clear the Messerschmitt had dived on me from the right and above - it had been a very neat piece of deflection shooting.' The Spitfire (N3173) was put up on trestles and people from Vickers were invited to come and look at it to see how much it had suffered. It was the first Hornchurch aircraft that had been fairly well clobbered and still got back. Soon there would be many others.'
Colin Gary would become one of the most successful Spitfire pilots, and also the top-scoring New Zealander of the war. Yet of his many actions, his most memorable was the one when lack of experience so nearly brought a premature end to his flying career.
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RAF No. 54 Squadron
Active 5 May 1916 -
Garrison/HQ: RAF Waddington
No. 54 Squadron (sometimes written as No. LIV Squadron) is a squadron of the Royal Air Force. It is a reserve squadron based at RAF Waddington, England. On 1 September 2005 it took on the role of Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) Operational Conversion Unit, responsible for training all RAF crews assigned to the Sentry AEW1 and the Nimrod R1. The unit will also train crews of the Sentinel R1 when it comes into service.
World War I
No. 54 Squadron was formed at Castle Bromwich on 5 May 1916. Like many others formed at the same time, was tasked with Home Defence duties flying BE2Cs and Avro 504s. Four months later, however, it transferred to day fighter missions and moved to France escorting bombers and attacking observation balloons equipped with Sopwith Pup's. The final months of the War were spent flying Sopwith Camel's in ground attack as well as fighter sorties. In February 1919, the Squadron returned to RAF Yatesbury, reduced to cadre status and was disbanded on 25 October 1919.
The Squadron was reformed at RAF Hornchurch on 15 January 1930 as a fighter squadron equipped initially with Siskins. The squadron had a brief stay at RAF Upavon in 1931, prior to returning to RAF Hornchurch. The Siskins were subsequently replaced with Bulldogs, Gloster Gauntlets in September 1936 and Gladiators in April 1937, before the Squadron's first monoplane, the Supermarine Spitfire, arrived in March 1939.
World War II
The early days of World War II were spent patrolling the Kent coast, until, in May-June 1940, the unit provided air cover for the evacuation of Dunkirk. Following this, the Squadron was heavily engaged in the Battle of Britain, until it moved north to RAF Castletown, in November 1940 to regroup, prior to undertaking coastal patrols. In June 1942, the squadron was moved to RAF Wellingore, to prepare for moving to Australia
Locations in England
* 3 September 1939 - RAF Hornchurch, London Borough of Havering, East London
In mid-1942, the squadron left for Australia. In January, 1943, it joined No. 1 Wing (Spitfire Wing) of the Royal Australian Air Force, a Spitfire unit responsible for air defence duties against Japanese aircraft in the Darwin area, under Wing Commander Clive Caldwell. Initially, the wing as a whole suffered from the inexperience of its pilots and mechanical problems caused during the shipment of Spitfires. Although contact with the Japanese was generally brief, 54 Squadron pilots scored a number of kills. Following the end of the war, the squadron disbanded in Melbourne on October 31, 1945.
Locations in Australia:
* 13 August 1942: Ascot Vale, Melbourne, Victoria
* Sqn.Ldr. E. M Gibbs - 13 August 1942
On 15 November 1946 No. 183 Squadron RAF a Hawker Tempest ground-attack unit based at RAF Chilbolton near Oxford, was renumbered No 54 Squadron and spent a year training pilots destined for overseas service before receiving Vampires and moving to RAF Odiham a year later.
In 1948, six Vampires from the Squadron made history when they completed the first crossing of the Atlantic by jet aircraft. Following a three year stint with Meteors, which arrived in April 1952, Hunters arrived in March 1955, and the Squadron took up ground-attack duties as part of No 38 Group, frequently deploying to trouble spots around the world as part of the Group's Offensive Strike Wing. The squadron relocated to RAF Stradishall in July 1959 and to RAF West Raynham in 1963.
The squadron was briefly disbanded on 1 September 1969, however was reformed the same day after being re-equipped with McDonnell-Douglas Phantoms at RAF Coningsby in 1969. SEPECAT Jaguars were delivered during 1974. Remarkably, the Squadron, role and aircraft have remained the same, albeit at a different base (Coltishall) and updated Jaguar aircraft. With the move to a more expeditionary footing, the squadron has seen a number of operational deployments in recent years including Northern Iraq and the Balkans.
With the decision taken to run the Jaguar fleet down in anticipation of the arrival of its replacement, the Typhoon, No 54 Squadron was disbanded at RAF Coltishall on 11 March 2005. The Squadron Standard is now housed in Norwich Cathedral.
Reformed as 54 (Reserve) Squadron at RAF Waddington on 1 September 2005 it re-roled as the Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) Conversion Unit, responsible for training all mission crews for the Sentry AEW1 and the Nimrod R1. The unit will also train crews of the Sentinel R1 when it comes into service.
No 54 Squadron was the first jet RAF formation team to trail smoke with a team of five De Havilland Vampires.
In 1955, No 54 Squadron flew a formation of four Hawker Hunter aircraft. The following year the Squadron team adopted the name The Black Knights - the pilots wore black flying suits.
* Western Front, 1916-1918
* DL - April 1939 - September 1939, April 1944 - October 1945
No.54 Squadron spent the entire Second World War flying the Supermarine Spitfire. During 1940 it helped to protect the Dunkirk evacuations and took part in the Battle of Britain, before in the summer of 1942 it moved to Australia, arriving after the worst of the Japanese raids were over.
No.54 Squadron was reformed as a fighter squadron in 1930, flying a series of biplanes until in March 1939 it received its first Spitfires. The Spitfire squadrons were considered too precious to send to France, and so No.54 spent the first few months of the war flying defensive patrols.
It's serious combat debut came during the evacuation from Dunkirk, when a significant proportion of the RAF's Spitfire squadrons were used to prevent German bombers from reaching the beaches. The squadron then played a major part in the first half of the Battle of Britain, eventually having to be moved north to Yorkshire in September to recover. The squadron returned to the south coast in February 1941, and until November took part in the costly fighter sweeps over northern France.
In June 1942, after a six month break in Scotland, No.54 Squadron departed for Australia, as part of a Spitfire wing sent to protect the north coast against Japanese raids. Although the squadron was in place by August, its aircraft were constantly diverted to the Middle East, and No.54 didn't return to combat until January 1943. By this time the threat of Japanese attack was receding, and the raids stopped in July, but the squadron remained in Australia to the end of the war.
August 1942-January 1943: Richmond (Australia)
Squadron Codes: KL, DL
This webpage was updated 7th April 2013
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