ITS ranks included legendary fighter ace Douglas Bader, its pilots were involved during World War Two at Dunkirk and Normandy and played a key part in the Battle of Britain. Features editor DARREN BURKE looks back at the history of Doncaster’s very own 616 Squadron.
IT was in existence for just over 20 years and its pilots last reached for the skies way back in 1957 - but memories of one historical squadron are still flying high.
The aircraft of 616 Squadron may have fallen silent more than half a century ago but for retired mechanic Eric Browne his memories of vintage planes, sadly departed friends and colleagues and spirit of adventure are still fresh and vivid in his mind.
The walls of his home are laden with nostalgic reminders of the past - and its clear Eric, 84, enjoys a true sense of pride in his role as president of the squadron’s association which helps to keep alive the memories of those who lost their lives in battle.
“Those really were the days,” he said. “One of the best periods of my life. I have such happy memories of great days and great people - true friends that would do anything for you.”
Eric missed active service during the Second World War, serving in the regular RAF from late 1945 and was at a loss when his flying career came to an end in 1948.
“I found it difficult to settle down,” he said. “But The Royal Auxiliary Air Force was manned by part time volunteers and it seemed ideal for me.” Spurred on by a friend already in 616’s ranks, Eric signed up immediately to the squadron which had spent its formative years based at Doncaster, on the site now occupied by the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum at Lakeside.
But for most of its history, crews were stationed at bases all over the UK and even Europe - and its doors were even darkened at one time by legendary flying ace Douglas Bader, whose return to the air after losing both legs in a flying accident was retold in classic war movie Reach For The Sky.
Added Eric: “I never met him - he would never have had anything to do with a lowly grease monkey like me! But from what I can gather, he was always a bit of a character. I think he always felt he had something to prove and could be a difficult according to those who had dealings with him.”
And while Eric was employed purely as a mechanic, it didn’t stop him trundling down the runway and into the air - something which once saw him carpeted by air chiefs.
“I remember being an observer on one flight over the Humber Estuary and up the coast towards Newcastle. As we were flying, the pilot, Flt Lt John Harland said to me “Have you ever seen Durham Cathedral?”. When I told him I hadn’t, he swooped down and flew between the towers - we were only a matter of a few feet off the ground.”
But an eagle-eyed policeman spotted the aircraft’s number, reported the daredevil dive to authorities - and by the time the pair returned to Finningley, military police were waiting and promptly arrested the duo for their antics.
“I was lucky,” he added. “I told them there wasn’t much I could do about it as I was just an observer and they let me off.”
Sadly it was one of Flt Lt Harland’s last sorties - he died just a few weeks later in a mid-air collision over the North Sea.
However, the memories of lost colleagues and friends live on at the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum which now houses a permanent memorial to 616 Squadron and is also the home for yearly reunions of former members from across Britain.
Unfortunately, the numbers are dwindling each year but Eric says the camaraderie remains - even after all these years. “Service pals are the best friends you could ever have,” he said. “You could share your last cigarette with these guys. They’d do anything for you.”
The squadron also holds a unique place in history - it was the first in the RAF to take delivery of jet planes - and also the first to see a successful bail out from a jet.
Explained Eric, who now lives at Cantley: “The pilot, Flt Lt Dennis Barry suffered an engine failure - and this was before ejector seats. All he could do was fly upside down, open the canopy and drop out. He suffered a broken leg but was back flying again six weeks later.”
Following the squadron’s disbanding in 1957, Eric enjoyed a long career working for tractor manufacturer International Harvesters - but kept in touch with his service colleagues - and was thrilled when he was asked to be the association’s president.
“There are about fifty of us left and everyone is getting on a bit, but we all look forward to the reunions. They are a wonderful reminder of such happy times in all our lives and I look back on every single day with 616 Squadron with very fond memories.”