Saluting the few: the remarkable story of Edinburgh's 603 squadron

ON THE first day of August 1940 Adolf Hitler issued the brutal dictate order No 17 which stated: "I have decided that war against Great Britain will be pursued and intensified by sea and by air with the object of bringing about the country's final defeat… The Luftwaffe must deploy its full strength in order to destroy the British air force as soon as possible."

Within days the fighting which had begun the previous month escalated as RAF pilots fought a pivotal battle with the might of the Luftwaffe to thwart Hitler's plans to invade Britain. The fate of the free world hung in the balance.

Next week marks the 70th anniversary of what was later to become known as The Battle of Britain. But amid the high-profile events taking place across the country and with replays of prime minister Winston Churchill's speech containing the stirring line "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few", it is easy to overlook the "voices" of the young men who risked all in the battle.

But their spirit, their initial sheer excitement and the feeling that they could never be killed, is captured by the fascinating story of 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron RAuxAF.

The Auxiliary Air Force squadron which had built itself up with volunteers, "weekend flyers" - "men from "the city desks of Edinburgh and the fields of the Lothians" - went on to receive the accolade of being deemed "The Greatest Squadron of Them All" by Group Captain "Boy" Bouchier the Commanding Officer of RAF Hornchurch, a significant Battle of Britain base and one to which 603 were sent for the duration of the Battle.

By the end of the Battle of Britain 603 Squadron was the top scoring squadron in the whole of the RAF, having shot down the greatest number of Germans. Factors contributing to this extraordinary achievement included their strong local identity and sprit de corps.

The wealthy young Edinburgh professionals and students who joined 603 Squadron after it was founded in 1925 were the cream of society, the "young tearaways" of their day who could afford to pay for flying lessons to indulge their love of aviation, the craze of the 1920s and 1930s. They delighted in taking to the air in the squadron's biplanes.

Typical of the elite pilots were "Bubble" Waterston and Ken and Don Macdonald.

Waterston from Trinity, who worked for an insurance firm, was the son of the director of George Waterston & Sons, the Edinburgh firm of stationers and printers in the city's George Street.Good looking and charismatic, the motor-bike mad "Bubble" (his nickname came from his resemblance to the boy in Pears Soap advertising) was the most popular member of the squadron who, unusually among officers, did not shirk from rolling up his sleeves and putting his engineering skills to good use on his aircraft engine.

Then there were Ken and Don Macdonald from Murrayfield - sons of one of the leading figures in the legal firm Morton, Smart, Macdonald & Prosser on York Place in Edinburgh. The family had a chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce, tennis courts and holidays abroad. For his 16th birthday Ken received a brand-new motorbike and a black MG convertible. A quiet character, Ken became a "Writer to the Signet" working as a solicitor in his father's firm. Don, five years younger, who studied history and medieval history at Cambridge, was also keen to become a pilot but did not have his brother's experience, a shortcoming which was to have tragic consequences.

All three were among 13 of 603 Squadron pilots killed in the Battle of Britain. Ken and Don Macdonald were shot down within 31 days of each other. Don, who had only 25 hours experience flying Spitfires, died on his on 28 August, eight days after his 22nd birthday, on his and the squadron's first combat patrol after their move south.

Describing the reaction of fellow pilots on 17 August to the moment the instruction came that 603 Squadron was moving south to Hornchurch in Kent to play their now legendary part in repelling the major airborne offensive by the Luftwaffe, Richard Hillary, one of the pilots, wrote: "Broody was hopping up and down like a madman. 'Now we'll show the bastards, Jesus will we show 'em'. Stampe was capering about shaking everyone by the hand and Raspberry's moustache looked like it would fall off with excitement…"

It was the moment 603 Squadron had been waiting for. Anticipation had been building up since the night of 23 August the previous year when "call out" notices were flashed up on cinema screens across Edinburgh ordering all squadron members to report to RAF Turnhouse immediately. The moment war was declared, in 1939, the squadron was embodied into the RAF and placed on a war footing for the first time in its history.

The Squadron's motto was the Doric words "Gin ye Daur" ("If you dare") and many of the pilots nicknamed their Spitfires after their home city, including Portobello, Auld Reekie and Corstorphine.

They had already had a taste of glory after Patrick "Patsy" Gifford, 29, a sportscar-driving solicitor from Castle Douglas and 603 Squadron member, became the first pilot to shoot down an enemy bomber in British airspace in the Second World War. Gifford, whose light-hearted war cry was "ninety in third" was flying one of the new Spitfires when he brought down a Luftwaffe Junkers 88 divebomber targeting Royal Navy ships in Firth of Forth on 16 October, 1939.Gifford was shot down over Belgium in May 1940 and his body never found.

The squadron brought down a total of 18 enemy aircraft off the north-east of Scotland before flying south.

Historian David Ross, who along with Bruce Blanche and Bill Simpson spent over 25 years writing the definitive two-volume history The Greatest Squadron of Them All, says: "The young auxiliary 603 pilots like 'Bubble' Waterston had loved the excitement of driving fast cars but moving to our latest fighter planes provided an even greater 'rush'. They went from flying a biplane capable of doing 230mph to the now legendary monoplane Spitfire which could do 350mph.

"The Spit was a single-seat fighter with no dual controls, they had to learn to fly it the hard way. Just imagine the first time they sat on the runway. The initial thrill came when they opened the throttle and felt themselves forced back into their seats by the acceleration. The flow of adrenaline must have been immense. Soon after, they were up flying in them, fighting for their lives."

Mr Ross describes the shock 603 Squadron experienced when they first went into battle against the Germans, who had honed their combat tactics in air battles during the Spanish Civil War: "The first few days were a real baptism of fire and the Squadron lost three pilots, killed on 28 August, their first day in battle, including Don Macdonald. All were killed when the squadron was 'bounced' out of the sun (where pilots put themselves between the enemy and the sun in order to ambush them] by the enemy Messerschmitt 109s. Squadron Leader 'Uncle' George Denholm subsequently changed tactics to reduce the odds of his pilots being 'bounced'."

But the excitement of battle can be gleaned by reading the RAF operational reports. On 1 September squadron member Jack Stockoe wrote: "…at about 2,000ft a Me109 silver with black crosses, dived past my nose flattened out about 50 feet up and headed south. I executed a steep turn, pushed in boost overide, and sat on his tail. At about 50 yards, I have him one small burst with little effect, closed to 30 yards and gave a slightly longer burst. Black smoke poured from him and I overshot him. The a/c crashed into a field, turned over two or three times and burst into flames in a clump of trees. 70 bullets were fired from each gun."

Ken Macdonald had been flying on the same patrol as his brother when Don was killed. In a letter to his sister, written shortly before his own death, he wrote: "I looked down the line of planes and saw Don looking at the controls slightly wondering what was what - then off we went. Don was a sitting target and hadn't a hope.It was rather like driving a Formula 1 car at Brands Hatch which you'd never seen before."

"Bubble" Waterston, 23, was killed three days later on 31 August - the same day the squadron shot down 14 enemy aircraft, the highest individual "bag".

On 28 September Ken, 28, died a hero Witnesses saw him climb from his cockpit and on to the wing to jump to safety but, on realising his Sptifire would crash in a populated area, he got back in and steered it away, before crashing to his death, preventing civilian casualties.

As the 70th anniversary draws nearer, Jim Skinner, 92, from Edinburgh, a former 603 Squadron ground crew member, and one of only two of its Battle of Britain veterans still alive, describes waiting for the pilots to return from battle: "It wasn't clever, we didn't like it when we were losing folk. When they came home you were looking up saying, 'that's "so and so",' and then wondering who else was coming back. They were just lucky to come back at all. We were aware of every loss but there was nothing you could do about it.

"The younger pilots should have spent more time at flying school to get experience of the Spitfire instead of just being left to find out in the squadron, because when we went down south we lost these young ones almost immediately."

The Squadron was disbanded in 1957 but reformed in 1999. It continues to mobilise part-time volunteers in support of regular RAF service personnel with members augmenting regular counterparts on the front line defending RAF aircraft and bases in Afghanistan.

Squadron Leader Jeff Rodgers, Commanding Officer of 603 squadron, said: "To this day the current members of the squadron are in awe and admiration for the achievements of those who went before. They are a great source of inspiration to us all. They knew the odds when they took off. Yet they did not hesitate. Courage like that motivates us all. They are well deserving of their place in history."

BATTLE FACTS

•THE Battle of Britain began on 10 July, 1940 and ended on 31 October, 1940.

•603 Squadron (City of Edinburgh) shot down 57.5 enemy aircraft – more than double the average of other squadrons operating the Spitfire.

•Some 47 of 603 Squadron's confirmed kills were the Messerschmitt 109, thus they are also credited with shooting down more of the Luftwaffe's top fighter than any other squadron.

•603 Squadron lost 13 of their 47 pilots flying in the Battle of Britain.

•There are differing estimates regarding the total number of aircraft lost on both sides. Recent estimates have concluded that the Luftwaffe lost 1,887 aircraft to the RAF's 1,023. Estimates for lives lost: Luftwaffe aircrew killed – 2,662; RAF aircrew killed – 537.

•More than 2,900 British, Commonwealth and Allied aircrew took part in the fighting.

•The average age of a pilot was 22.

•One in three of the young men taking part was either killed or wounded.