The Squadron’s Origins

Origins of the Squadron (June 1937)

No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron has its origins in the development of the Auxiliary Air Force. The latter is rooted in the ideas of Lord Hugh Montague Trenchard to establish an elite body of civilian volunteers, all from the wealthy classes of British society. Thus, candidates must obtain a private pilot license on their own money, the equivalent of £ 96, which now corresponds to around € 5 500, a sum not insignificant for the time. Admittedly, this expense is supposed to be reimbursed if incorporated into the Auxliary Air Force. However, the selection commission is organized by each unit, which makes it possible to restrict access to a particular social circle. The volunteers, once accepted, sign a commitment for a period of five years during which they must train a certain number of hours per term, as well as participate in an annual training camp of a period of fifteen days [1].

This highly elitist side is perfectly highlighted by the Captain Hugh S.L. Dundas Group when he retrospectively describes his experience with No.616 (South Yorkshire) Squadron :

« Being a member of an AAF Squadron was to belong to a jealously guarded elite, whose access was barred by social and financial conventions, which were difficult to circumvent »[2].

The case of High Dundas is, moreover, quite illustrative since his cousin and godfather, Sir Harald Peake, command the No.609 (West Riding) Squadron where his brother John serves. The same characteristics are found in No.607 (County of Durham) Squadron. Thus, the commander, Squadron Leader Walter L. Runciman runs a family business in the field of delivery, while the medical officer is a neighbor of Runciman, and the first recruits are all lawyers, engineers, real estate agents or working in the business community. The Squadron Leader Walter L. Runciman even prefers to remain understaffed to accept candidates as expected and only on the recommendation of another member of the unit [3]. If we put aside the very particular case of London units, we can not deny this social standardization. As Louise Wilkinson explains :

« it is obvious that the young candidates shared a common social environment ; most came from landowners or family businesses, and even lawyers and journalists. Many liked elite sports such as fox hunting, boating, rowing, rugby or cricket. They had often been trained at Oxford or Cambridge. In addition, social connections remained important through the network of public schools and sports, which found a new expression in the AAF. Thus we see a system of class solidarity taking precedence over the regional identities of the different units »[4].

The No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron was created on 1st June 1937, at Kenley Air Force Base in the southern suburbs of London. Its first commander, the Squadron Leader Arthur V. Harvey deserves a brief stop on his previous life. He was born on 31 January 1906 in Suffolk and joined the RAF in 1925. He then served with No.9 (RAF) Squadron before becoming an instructor. He then knows a first experience with the AAF since he is transferred as instructor to No.602 (City of Glascow) Squadron. He left, however, the air force after 1930 to leave for Hong Kong as director of the Far East Aviation Company Ltd. Fe joined Nationalist China in 1932 as a military aviation advisor with the honorary rank of Major-General. This experience came to an abrupt end in 1939, when he was forced to land on Japanese territory during a flight over Manchuria. Interned for a month, he is finally released with a ban for life. Back in the UK, he soon decided to join the AAF, and eventually found the unit.

He is joined by Flight Lieutnant Richard C. M. Collard, a career officer, who is responsible for the duties of Flight Instructor. Born on August 25, he joined the RAF and join No.4 (RAF) Squadron, where he was qualified to serve as an instructor. It should be noted that he represents RAF Rugby League on several occasions.

No.615 (County of Surrey) Squadron is initially in charge of co-operation mission with the local territorial troops and receives a collection of Hawker Hart, Audax and Hector biplanes. Unfortunately, there is little information available on this short period of the pre-war, as well as on the selection and gradual assignment of pilots. However, in September 1938, the squadron was led to change its role to become a Fighter Squadron with Gloster Gauntlet, replaced shortly after (May 1939) by Gloster Gladiator Mk II. At the same time, an important event takes place when an old Member of the House of Commons, then totally disavowed since the succession crisis Edward VIII and his repeated criticism against the policy of appeasement is named Honorary Air Commodore : in the occurrence a certain Winston Churchill. A final series of training in the Auxiliary Air Force was organized in August 1939, after which the squadron was incorporated into the Royal Air Force to prepare for the war that broke out after the invasion of Poland by Germany.

A document gives the following list :

  • Squadron Leader : Arthur V. Harvey;
  • Equipment Officer : Fligh Lieutnant K.P. Dampier ;
  • Doctor : Flying Officer Robert S. Cromie ;
  • Administrative Officer : Flight Lieutnant G.A.B. Cooper, Flying Officer Walter O. Sternet Pilot Officer Francis G. Bowling
  • A Flight : Flight Lieutnant Leslie T.W. Thornley, Peter Collardet John R.H. Gayner, Pilot Officer Anthony Eyre, Thomas C. Jackson, David J. Looker, Anthony St.C. Rose ;
  • B Flight : Flying Officer Peter N. Murton-Nealeet Eric C. Fieldsend, Pilot Officer Bernard J.R. Brady, Levin Fredman, John C.M. Hanbury, Patrick G.M. Hancock, Keith T. Lofts et John R. Lloyd.

Among these different pilots, there is a certain conformity with the characteristics of the AAF. For example, John C. M. Hanbury works in the business community, most notably as a co-supervisor of Truman Brewery, Hanbury, Buxton & Co., while his family owns the sumptuous residence of Hylands Park (near Chelmsford, Essex). For his part, David J. Looker was educated at the prestigious Eton College and then Trinity College in Cambridge, before becoming prominent in high performance sport as he twice won the Bobsleigh World Championship (1937 and 1938). ), while participating in various ski competitions. The father of John R. Lloyd, in addition to his rank of colonel, belongs to the Welsh aristocracy, like that of John R. Gayner [5]. It’s the same for Anthony St.C. Rose [6]. In addition to a Barrister’s training in one of London’s prestigious training institutes, his father is himself a Barrister and holding a parish.

Finally, the most surprising portrait is that of Bernard J.R. Brady, who contrasts sharply with the others. Born in a popular environment, he left school at the age of 14 to engage as a simple seaman in the Royal Navy where he would have served during the First World War (his name is mentioned in 1916). He seems to follow, later, training as a mechanic on the Royal Naval Air Service aircraft, before obtained his pilot’s license. In the late 1920s / early 1930s, he founded a company specializing in aircraft leasing and flying lessons : the Aircraft Exchange and Mart Ltd., located in London Air Park [7]. Now part of the middle class, he managed to bypass social barriers to join the AAF, despite his age approaching forty.


Promotional Poster for the Aircraft Exchange and Mart Ltd, published in the journal Flight (1935)

[1] Auxiliary Air Force : Commissioned Officers Required for New Squadrons. Flight, n°41, Vol. XVII. 8 Octobre 1925, p.663 à 664.

[2] DUNDAS Hugh. Flying Start : A Fighter Pilot’s War Years. Pen & Sword, 2012. 224 p.

[3] DIXON, Robert. 607 Squadron : A Shade of Blue. Wolf’s Nick Publishing, 2012. 200 p.

[4] WILKINSON, Louise. The Territorial Air Force 1925-1957 – Officer Class and Recruitment. Thèse pour l’obtention du Doctorat. Université de Wolverhampton. 2017.

[5] WILKINSON, Louise. The Territorial Air Force 1925-1957 – Officer Class and Recruitment. Thèse pour l’obtention du Doctorat. Université de Wolverhampton. 2017.

[6] Her tent (Evelyn St. Croix Fleming) is none other than the mother of the famous writer Ian Fleming.​

[7] WILKINSON, Louise. The Territorial Air Force 1925-1957 – Officer Class and Recruitment. Thèse pour l’obtention du Doctorat. Université de Wolverhampton. 2017.