Two of our veterans, including a D-Day fighter pilot, joined celebrations of the Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary at RAF Northolt and Biggin Hill Airport – a former RAF station – on 13 April.
Retired Squadron Leader Martin Grugeon was one of the lucky few who enjoyed a flight on an RAF aircraft and flypasts by historic RAF aircraft as part of the 100-day RAF100 Baton Relay.
Not many people can say that they signed up to go to war at age 17 but that is exactly what Martin did.
After flying training, he joined No. 274 Squadron on its return from operations over Yugoslavia and Albania. Flying Spitfire IX’s they were based at Hornchurch in Essex before moving to the Kent based airfield at Detling on May 19 1944.
It was here that Martin took part in the largest operation of its kind ever seen, the assault on mainland Europe.
With plans for D-Day formalised, the task of the RAF was to soften up the enemy behind the coast by dropping bombs and to fight off any attempt by the enemy to harass or stop the invasion. From early morning, the aircraft from Detling and other airfields in the south of England were constantly in the air.
On D-Day itself he flew four missions to Normandy and retains many memories from that operation, describing it as ‘the greatest amphibious operation ever that the world would see’. Flying his Spitfire IX, he could look down and just see ships everywhere as far as the eye could see.
With his first mission leaving Detling at 4am he crossed the Channel, completed his mission and was back to refuel and re-arm by 6am.
Downing a hurried breakfast, he was back in the air by 8am to see the troops below storming the beach. This was the pattern for the day and weeks that followed until the landing strips prepared by the Royal Engineers in France were ready for occupation.
Martin diced with danger on several occasions, one of them being when part of a flight of four Spitfires were tasked with bombing enemy lines. The target was a fuel dump and ammunition dump, but the aircraft came in so low to hit the target that the entire ground erupted causing two of the Spitfires to crash.
Attacked by enemy fire he managed to escape but bullets had hit areas of the cockpit, covered in blood and in great pain, he managed to nurse his Spitfire back to Detling where the engineers described it as ‘a wreck’.
Martin left the RAF in 1958 but today he was back in the skies, being flown in an BAe 146 aircraft with the RAF Baton to Biggin Hill, alongside retired Squadron Leader Tom Rosser DFC OBE.
“Today was very enjoyable indeed. It was a nice moment to remember those who didn’t make it. I realise I was very lucky to survive”, said Mr Rosser.
RAF Northolt and RAF Biggin Hill played a vital role during the Battle of Britain in 1940, as homes to RAF Fighter Command squadrons. RAF Air Cadets also joined the ceremony, representing the next generation of young people who might serve in the Royal Air Force.