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611 Squadron

No. 611 Squadron out in force as Liverpool marks anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic

A sector of the RAF that is often overlooked is the auxiliary service which celebrates its centenary in 2025, a total of 29 squadrons and units made up of reservists who train and work alongside the Regulars.

The brainchild of Lord Trenchard, a man instrumental in establishing the RAF, it was in 1918 that he decreed a Reserve Air Force should bet set up alongside the full-time service. An order to establish the Auxiliary Air Force was signed in 1924 before the auxiliary squadrons began their formation the following year.

Among the best known is No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron RAUXAF, its training role extensive: air and space operations, intelligence, ground engineering, logistics, human resources, media, and not forgetting chaplaincy services.

Members of 611 were out in force in their spiritual home of Liverpool recently, marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of the Atlantic, personnel from RAF Woodvale near Southport representing the service.

Their association with Liverpool is a long one, dating back to 1936, when on April 1 – the 18th birthday of the RAF – a handful of airmen arrived at St George’s Hall in Lime Street, taking up temporary residence in what was the local Territorial Army HQ; five weeks later a permanent home was set up at RAF Speke, now John Lennon Airport.

The links to Merseyside and surrounding area are seen in the squadron crest which contains the Red Rose of Lancashire supported by the Trident of the City of Liverpool.

Starting life as regular squadron and a bomber unit, No. 611 was redesignated as a fighter squadron shortly before the outbreak of WW2, initially operating in a defensive role flying Supermarine Spitfires.

Flight Lieutenant Barrie Heath of 611 Squadron, photographed in 1940 on the wing of Spitfire IIa P7883 "Grahame Heath", named after his brother.

(Flight Lieutenant Barrie Heath of 611 Squadron, photographed in 1940 on the wing of Spitfire IIa P7883 "Grahame Heath", named after his brother.)

In August 1936 the unit made the first of numerous transfers across the UK, initially moving to RAF Duxford in Cambridgeshire, coming under the control of No. 12 Group. They remained at Duxford until the outbreak of war, No. 611 heavily involved in operations during the Battle of Britain in 1940, by which time they were operating from Digby in Lincolnshire.

Early in 1941, No. 611 undertook offensive sweeps over northern France from RAF Hornchurch in Essex, the unit also deployed in shipping reconnaissance and escort duties during the early part of the war. Among some of its more notable WW2 pilots was Eric Brown, renowned as the ‘top-scoring’ British-born pilot during the Battle of Britain, recording 26 confirmed victories in just six months of flying time.

Brown was already a hero for his Battle of Britain exploits as part of No. 41 Squadron when he was posted to No. 611 in command of B Flight in July 1941, in short time gaining three victories flying offensive operations over France.

In August 1941, returning from another sweep, he spotted a column of German troops near Calais and notified colleagues in the formation he was peeling off to attack. Lock and his Spitfire were believed to have been shot down by ground forces, neither his body or his aircraft were seen again – he was 22 years of age.

Later in the conflict, the squadron were based at RAF Bradwell Bay in Essex, flying long-range escort missions before a further move was made to Orkney, returning south again to RAF Hawkinge in Kent to resume escort duties, this time flying US Mustangs.

When the squadron was disbanded at Peterhead near Aberdeen, they had flown from well in excess of 20 stations during WW2, from Orkney in the north of Scotland to Predannack on the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall.

After disbanding in August 1945, the squadron spent nine months in hibernation before it was reformed at Speke in May 1946, returning as a fighter squadron within the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The increase in civilian operations at Speke saw the unit moved to RAF Woodvale near Southport in July 1946, by which time they were back flying Spitfires, this time the F.14s which were later upgraded to F.22s, before transferring to their first jets, the Gloster Meteor in May 1951.

611 Squadron Meteor F.8 WH505 at RAF Hooton Park in September 1952

(611 Squadron Meteor F.8 WH505 at RAF Hooton Park in September 1952)

The jets now required the squadron to transfer to the longer runways of RAF Hooton Park on the Wirral, the Meteors later upgraded to the F.8 variants, the unit staying on the Wirral until they were disbanded in March 1957, along with all other RAF Auxiliary flying units.

There followed a half century hiatus for the squadron, before a Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) in 2010 resulted in No. 611 being reformed as part of a wider government programme which was described at the time as a plan to “sustain and grow our reserve forces”. Part of the aim was to connect the RAF to local communities in regions such as Merseyside from where many of 611’s personnel are recruited.

On March 10, 2013, exactly 56 years after it was disbanded, recruitment began for No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron RAUXAF. In November of that year, Liverpool’s Lord Mayor Gary Millar hosted members of No. 611 at a civic reception, in the process returning some of the squadron’s historic silver artefacts, safeguarded by the city council for more than half a century.

A year later, members of 611 were at Liverpool’s Remembrance Sunday parade, their first public duty in their home city since 1957, the ceremonial drop of poppy petals taking on particular significance: the event took place outside St George’s Hall where the fledgling squadron spent its first nights in the city, 78 years earlier.

This month, ten years after the rebirth of 611 Squadron, a contingent from Woodvale turned out in force in Liverpool city centre to mark the Battle of the Atlantic, reminding the community of the importance of the RAF to the region. A flypast in the city included a Lancaster, Hurricane, Spitfire, as well as a Fairey Swordfish, and as Wing Commander Stephen Chaskin, the Officer Commanding 611 Squadron, said: “As the RAF’s only squadron in the North West, we were proud to represent the service at the commemorations.”

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