Robert Alexander Barton was born in Kamloops, British Columbia on 7 June 1916. His mother was of Scottish decent and his father was a Canadian civil engineer. As a young man Barton was educated in Vernon, which required a weekly journey by steamship to and from his home at Penticton. When he reached nineteen years of age Barton paid a visit to a recruiting office in Vancouver, where he was accepted into the RAF.
In January 1936, Barton made the long voyage to England to take up a short service commission. After completing his training at No.9 Flying Training School in Thornaby, Barton joined No.41 Squadron at Catterick, where he remained until he was posted to Church Fenton as a Flight Commander of No.249 Squadron at its formation in May 1940. When the Squadron moved south to Boscombe Down during August 1940, Barton’s war really began.
It was during the second month of the Battle of Britain when ‘Butch’ (as he was nicknamed) Barton was flying with B Flight on 15 August 1940, started to show his calibre in combat. At around 1700 hours radar stations on the Hampshire and Sussex coasts reported the approach of enemy raiders. Spitfires and Hurricanes patrolling south-east of the Isle of Wight intercepted a number of enemy aircraft, but a mass formation of bombers broke through the line and made its way inland. Some bombers made way for the airfield at RNAS Worthy Down, and the remainder targeted the airfields at Middle Wallop and Odiham. During this time, No.249 Squadron had been ordered to patrol Warmwell at 15,000 feet. It was a beautiful evening with a clear blue sky, but the Squadron’s A Flight did not see any enemy aircraft to engage throughout the patrol. B Flight however sighted 11 Junkers Ju 88s escorted by a heavy number of Bf 110s near Middle Wallop. Barton’s Blue Section engaged the 110s, as did Spitfires of No.609 Squadron. It was approximately1735 hours near the Ringwood area when Barton led Blue Section into attack on the rearmost section of the 110s. The enemy twin-engined fighters turned into the approaching Hurricanes and in turn attacked Barton’s Section. Barton squeezed his gun button for two seconds, firing a 30° deflection burst at a 110 from his eight machine guns. Results followed as smoke emitted from one of its engines. Pilot Officer Bryan Meaker, flying as Blue 2, followed Barton into the attack but his aircraft went into a spin. Meaker managed to recover from the spin and in doing so he saw four Bf 110s circling. Meaker selected one as his target and attacked from beam with a full deflection burst. His bullets struck the 110 and streams of white vapour poured from both its engines. Meaker followed it down to 500 feet and watched the enemy aircraft crash about ten miles north of Southampton.
Meanwhile Barton had lined another 110 up in his sights and let off two deflection bursts. Bullets entered the 110’s fuselage behind the pilot and smoke poured from the starboard engine. Barton followed the stricken aircraft down and saw it crash about four miles north-west of Romsey.
Pilot Officer Terry Crossey, flying as Blue 3, also engaged a Bf 110 that he caught following Pilot Officer Meaker. He also attacked another formation but broke away when he thought that three enemy single-seater fighters were on his tail. These fighters were most likely Spitfires because the Luftwaffe’s only single-seater fighter at the time, the Bf 109, was not involved in this action. Such uncertainty was often a by-product of high speed combat. A sky full of aircraft, diving, twisting and turning in all directions left little to no time for a pilot to hang around to be conclusive. ‘Get in and get out’ was a trusted rule in order for a fighter pilot to survive. Low on fuel, Crossey was obliged to land at Harwell and two hours later he returned to base. Meaker returned to Boscombe Down at 1755 hours and twenty five minutes later Flight Lieutenant Barton returned having fired 800 rounds in anger.
When the pilots of A Flight landed back at base they were a little surprised to hear B Flight chatting excitedly amongst themselves about their various combat experiences as they had not even seen any enemy aircraft during the patrol. Pilot Officer Tom ‘Ginger’ Neil of A Flight joined the circle to listen to their intriguing conversations. Not only had Blue Section seen combat but Flying Officer Denis Parnall and Pilot Officer John Beazley of Green Section had also been involved in the action. At the time he was not to know it, but Pilot Officer Neil would soon see a lot of action with the Squadron. By the end of the war Tom Neil claimed 12 and 4 shared enemy aircraft destroyed, with additional ‘probables’ and ‘damaged’ enemy aircraft to his credit.
The following day the Squadron would again be called into action when twelve Hurricanes, led by Flight Lieutenant Barton, were ordered off to patrol the area between Poole and Southampton at 1305 hours. During the patrol a formation of Bf 109Es were sighted and Red Section, led by Flight Lieutenant James Nicolson, flew off to investigate. Suddenly out of nowhere Red Section was bounced from above and astern and Nicolson’s Hurricane was hit and set ablaze. In a courageous flurry Nicolson remained with his burning aircraft and, ignoring his wounds and the intense heat, he remained in his cockpit to attack a Bf 110 which appeared in front of him. Owing to the unbearable heat that followed Nicolson was then forced to bale out of his aircraft but as he floated down in his parachute he was shot at by a member of the Home Guard who mistook him for a German. Both attacks had left him severely wounded and he was taken to the Royal Southampton Hospital to be treated. A few days later from his hospital bed, Nicolson sent a report of the action to Squadron Leader John Grandy.
An extract of the report can be read below:
“I was proceeding with Red Section ... when I noticed three enemy aircraft some distance away to the left. I informed Butch [Flt Lt Barton], who told me to go and investigate. As however the three unfortunates ran into 12 Spitfires long before I got in range, I turned round to rejoin Butch, climbing from 15,000 feet to 17,000 feet so that I could catch him when I saw him. As I approached Southampton I heard Yellow Leader shout ‘Tally-ho, one mile to port’ and immediately turned off to join the scrap, at the same time reaching for my map. As I was opening my map, I was struck in the cockpit by four successive cannon shells...”
Nicolson’s courage in remaining in a burning aircraft with cannon shell wounds to engage a Messerschmitt 110 was commended and he was later awarded the Victoria Cross. (In fact the only Victoria Cross awarded to Fighter Command in the Second World War.)
Pilot Officer Martyn King’s aircraft was also damaged by a cannon shell and he, too, abandoned his cockpit but, horrifically, King’s parachute failed him and he crashed down through a tall tree, fell onto the lawn of a house in Clifton Road, Shirley, and died in the arms of a man who lived nearby.
The third Hurricane in Red Section also received damage from the bounce but the pilot was able to safely return to base. It was a terrible day for the Squadron.
During the following week enemy bombers continued to reek havoc over the south of England. On 24 August a large raid of Ju 88s attacked Portsmouth, killing and injuring many civilians and Royal Navy personnel. Meanwhile No.249 Squadron was patrolling the Isle of Wight, with ‘Butch’ Barton leading B Flight. At 1720 hours Blue Section sighted enemy aircraft at 19,000 feet heading south and they engaged the fighter escort. Barton soon found himself in a head-on attack, firing at a Messerschmitt 109 that was also shooting at him. The attack was over in a flash. Barton had only fired a quick burst from 150 yards range but when he turned away from the duel he saw the 109 diving towards the sea, emitting white vapour.
On 1 September, No.249 Squadron moved to North Weald in Essex to relieve No.56 Squadron. The next day the Squadron was brought to readiness at dawn and by 0720 hours ten Hurricanes were scrambled from North Weald to intercept a large formation of Dornier Do 17s, escorted by approximately 100 Messerschmitt 109Es and 110s. The bombers had been ordered to attack RAF airfields. Out of the six squadrons sent off to meet the raiders only the Hurricanes of No.249 and Spitfires of No.72 Squadron made contact with the enemy. After patrolling Rochester at 15,000 feet, the Squadron, led by Squadron Leader John Grandy, sighted the enemy formation and engaged.
Flight Lieutenant Barton’s combat report illustrates his part of the action:
I selected a Dornier which had broken formation after our first attack and was flying eastwards on its own. I carried out an astern attack, firing about ten bursts at both engines and cockpit. No evasive tactics were adopted but there was a lot of return fire, some of which hit my aircraft. Pieces flew off the E/A and I noticed what appeared to be a weight on a piece of wire ejected from the aircraft, but this did not hit me. E/A gradually lost height. Plt Off Meaker also attacked this aircraft which crash-landed on Rochford aerodrome, having just caught fire. One occupant baled out at 100 feet and his parachute failed to open in time.
Bartron’s wingman, Pilot Officer Bryan Meaker, wrote the following graphic description of the combat in his diary:
“Attacked en masse, then dived away as fighters came down. Joined Butch again after a frantic tail-watching breakaway, and started after bombers again. Suddenly we see a Dornier coming towards us – running for home. We jump on it – Butch sits on its tail, pumping lead at it. I do quarter attacks. He doesn’t like this, lumps fall off and smoke pours out. I am awake now and feeling hungry. Butch says, ‘Don’t waste any more ammunition on him; this guy’s finished.’ I say, ‘OK Bud,’ and formate on the Dornier as he heads for Rochford. He is a wreck – rudders in ribbons and pieces falling off all the time. One guy comes out at 100 feet. Parachute streams as he hits the ground – bounces. Butch and I are very cocky, go home and shoot a line.”
The Dornier belonged to 9/KG3 and owing to the intense attack it belly-landed at Rochford airfield. The German pilot was found wounded, the rear gunner was dead and the other two crew members were injured but had survived the attack.
In relation to Barton’s character and abilities Tom Neil wrote the following of ‘Butch’:
“‘Butch Barton’, in my view, was one of the best RAF fighter pilots of the Second World War. Which was surprising, as he did not look or sound like a hero ... he was small, had little dress sense, could never be described as eloquent, and his hand-writing looked like the trail of a fly with ink on its feet, crawling across an empty page. Moreover, and to my personal distaste, he smoked vile-smelling Canadian cigarettes called ‘Sweet Caporals’ ... He was brave and calculating in battle and, like many Canadians, was an excellent shot, both with a twelve-bore shotgun and a Hurricane’s eight Browning machine guns. Always calm and fearless in the air he was a determined, self-effacing leader.”
On 5 September, No.249 Squadron was back in the thick of it when in conjunction with No.46 Squadron the pilots intercepted a formation of enemy aircraft over the Thames Estuary. Flight Lieutenant Barton led his Section down to attack some Dorniers but his Hurricane (V6625) was hit by Dornier return fire and a Bf 109E which had latched onto his tail. Barton had no choice but to abandon his aircraft because his engine was on fire. He baled out and landed safely in a garden below. Retribution followed when Sergeant Henry Davidson attacked the 109 with a short burst at 200 yards range. The 109 dived and Davidson pursued it until at about 10,000 feet the German pilot pulled out of the dive and began to climb. Davidson let off a succession of short bursts which caused the 109 to dive for the sea with smoke pouring from its engine.
After getting back on his feet, Barton was driven back to North Weald in an army car to be greeted by friendly jibes from his colleagues for allowing himself to get shot down by a bomber!
The following day Squadron Leader Grandy was shot down, presumably by a 109 which had caught him unaware. Grandy baled out of his aircraft but was wounded in the process. With the CO now recovering in hospital the task of leading the Squadron fell into the capable hands of Butch Barton.
During the afternoon of 11 September No.249 Squadron was scrambled with an order to patrol the London Docks and Thames Estuary as enemy aircraft had been plotted in the Calais area. At about 1545 hours Barton led the Squadron into a head-on attack to meet 30 Heinkel He 111s flying at 19,000 feet. Barton claimed one of the bombers as ‘damaged’ and witnessed four of the Heinkels break formation, pouring glycol. Pilot Officer Meaker, as ever, was close behind Barton but to avoid colliding with the oncoming bombers he broke away so violently that his Hurricane went into an inverted spin. He recovered several thousand feet below but he could not regain sight of the battle overhead. With little choice, Meaker made his way back to base feeling peeved that he had missed out on the action.
Over the next few days the Squadron began to receive replacement pilots. The 14th saw the arrival of Pilot Officer Gerald Lewis, an experienced ace from No.85 Squadron, who had been involved in the heavy fighting in France. Another pilot to arrive the same day was Sergeant Charles Palliser posted from No.43 Squadron. Sergeant Palliser was soon christened ‘Tich’ by Pilot Officer Neil, as like Barton; he wasn’t the tallest chap in the air force.
Sunday 15 September 1940: A day that would see the most intense aerial action of the whole Battle of Britain.
In the morning Flight Lieutenant Barton and Pilot Officer William Pattullo took off together to identify an unidentified aircraft, but nothing was seen and they were recalled to North Weald.
Shortly after, at about 1130 hours twelve Hurricanes of No.249 Squadron raced across the aerodrome at North Weald and began to climb towards the first major raid of the day. The Squadron in company with No.46 Squadron were vectored towards a formation of Dorniers near south London, which they attacked. Guns were fired and damage was inflicted on the bombers, but only Pilot Officer Meaker was able to claim one Dornier destroyed and Pilot Officer George Barclay claimed a probable.
Later in the afternoon the next order to ‘scramble’ arrived and once again the fighter boys of No.249 were hurrying towards their aircraft. A large raid of well over 100 bombers plus heavy fighter escort were crossing the Channel and all of No.11 Group’s squadrons were sent off to intercept the mass raid.
Over south London the Squadron met 15 Do 17s, followed by a formation of He 111s that were heading for the Capital. Butch Barton led the Squadron into the swarm and the bombers began to divide. Pilot Officer Meaker attacked a Dornier with a short burst but immediately broke away to avoid heavy crossfire. 2,000 feet below the main action Meaker sighted a Dornier diving from the clouds. A five second burst from beam to quarter but the bomber’s starboard engine and fuselage in flames. Meaker saw of one of the crew bale out of the blazing furnace before he broke away. Barton joined Meaker in attacking another Dornier, hitting its engine and fuselage with several bursts of machinegun fire. The bomber dived into cloud cover, with Barton and Meaker in pursuit. They watched the enemy machine smoking badly until it passed through cloud. Suddenly Meaker broke away in a left-hand climbing turn to avoid the cannon shells of two Bf 109s on his tail. He tightened the turn until he was able to get off a burst at one of the Messerschmitt’s with was slightly above him. Bullets hit the enemy’s port wing and clearly shaken, it dived into cloud. Meaker began to chase the two 109s but he lost sight of them. Then he saw two fighters coming straight at him. He held his fire, thinking the two aircraft were Spitfires, so he dodged under them, but then realised they were the same two yellow-nosed 109s as before. They made off and Meaker was unable to catch up with them.
During this action Barton also claimed a second Dornier as probably destroyed, later reporting the following:
I carried out an attack on a Do17 from below and saw a great amount of material fly off front position of fuselage after a three-second burst. Aircraft dived down out of formation. Then attacked Dornier with Blue 2 [Plt Off Meaker] – smoke and oil pouring from engine and aircraft dived into cloud.
Back at dispersal Pilot Officer Neil found “a queue of pilots leading to the intelligence officer, everyone in a high state of excitement. It had been a fantastic fight, no one missing and a mounting tally of Huns: seven, eight, nine ‘destroyed’ and about a similar number ‘probable’ and ‘damaged’. What a to-do! Crashed Huns burning on the ground everywhere; someone said that he had seen at least two. Plus mine in the sea of course!”
Over the next couple of days, bad weather kept Luftwaffe activity down to a minimum, but the lull would soon be over.
After midday on 18 September Barton was leading the Squadron into a head-on attack against a force of He 111s, escorted by fighters, over the Thames Estuary. Barton concentrated his fire on a Heinkel flying in the rear section and saw oil and puffs of smoke coming from the port engine. The bomber lagged behind its formation on its return to France and was claimed as ‘damaged’.
On the 25 September, Pilot Officer Neil and Barton’s good friend and trusted wingman, Pilot Officer Meaker, were informed that they had each been awarded the DFC.
Two days later the Squadron was airborne before 0900 hours. Barton led the Squadron through foggy conditions and rendezvoused with No.46 Squadron. The Hurricanes began to patrol Wickford but they were soon vectored towards Maidstone where enemy aircraft had been detected. On approach, a defensive circle of Bf 110s were spotted over Redhill and the Hurricane squadrons roared into action.
Barton led a diving attack out of the sun and fired a four second burst at the nearest 110 from above. He saw pieces fall off the enemy’s port engine, which streamed smoke, but he was forced to break away from the engagement as his own aircraft was hit and damaged. Barton landed safely at Gatwick at 0935 hours. The 110 that he attacked was seen to crash in the Redhill area by Pilot Officer Lewis.
Back at North Weald it was learned that the Squadron had claimed an impressive eight Messerschmitt’s shot down, with an additional five probables. It was a brilliant feat that was later dampened by the sad news that one of the Squadron’s very own had been killed in the attack. Apparently wounded and out of ammunition, it was believed that Pilot Officer Percy Burton had deliberately rammed his Hurricane into a Bf 110 that he was pursuing.
Soon after, in Barton’s absence, Pilot Officer Lewis led seven Hurricanes up to patrol Maidstone before sweeping the line between Hawkinge and Canterbury with No.46 Squadron. A dogfight ensued with Bf 109s and Lewis shot one down and damaged another. Pilot Officer Barclay also succeeded in shooting one of the fighters down, Pilot Officer Worrall damaged another and
Wing Commander Victor Beamish reported a probable.
The Hurricanes returned to North Weald to be rearmed and refuelled and just before 1500 hours the strained pilots were called upon for a third patrol of the day.
The Squadron met up with No.46 Squadron in the Hornchurch area and engaged enemy aircraft over South London at about 1530 hours. Swarms of enemy fighters were seen escorting a formation of Ju 88s. The Hurricanes attacked and enemy aircraft were soon downed and damaged, but Pilot Officer Meaker was killed. While attacking five Ju 88s his Hurricane was damaged by crossfire and he baled out, hit the tailplane of his aircraft and fell through the air with an unopened parachute. Meaker’s loss was keenly felt by Barton and his colleagues.
In his diary Pilot Officer Barclay wrote:
“Poor old Pilot Officer Brian Meaker, DFC, got shot down and was killed near Battle. A great loss – he was one of the best.”
Tom Neil was also saddened by the loss of Meaker, writing:
“In the hut we counted heads. George Barclay had gone – force-landed, we heard – also Bryan Meaker. Someone was saying that Bryan had been hit by return fire when attacking the first group of 88s ... Later still, we learned that he had baled out but, his parachute not opening, had been killed on reaching the ground. Bryan! The imperishable, imperturbable Bryan! It seemed impossible that he should have gone.
The statistics of the day were frightening; Burton and Meaker killed, Beazley wounded, Barton and Barclay shot down, all of us in one form or another deeply affected by events.”
Throughout October the Squadron continued to rise against the Luftwaffe, flying regular patrols and interception sorties. Towards the end of the month enemy activity decreased and the RAF was on the brink of a defensive victory that would keep Britain free from invasion and put the Goring’s Luftwaffe on the back foot.
On 20 October, Butch Barton was awarded the DFC for his ‘skill’ and ‘outstanding leadership’. He would be decorated by the King at Duxford in January 1941.
On Thursday 25 October a dozen Hurricanes of No.249 Squadron left North Weald at 1124 hours. Led by Flight Lieutenant Barton, the Squadron climbed to 25,000 feet with No.46 Squadron to carry out their patrol. Bf 109s of JG26 were soon spotted making their way back to France and combat followed. Sergeant Bentley Beard was shot down and wounded but he baled out near Tunbridge Wells and was whisked off to hospital to be treated. Adjutant Henri Bouquillard, a Free French pilot, was also shot down by a 109 over North Kent, and seriously wounded; he made a forced-landing at Rochester before being admitted to the Royal Naval Hospital at Chatham.
Pilot Officer Neil fired a short burst as a 109 overshot his Hurricane. A large piece broke away from the fighter and Neil then watched it roll on to its back and go down in a vertical dive.
As Blue 2, weaving behind the Squadron, Pilot Officer Worrall noticed some 109s pass beneath his position. Worrall opened fire at close range, totally surprising the 109, which disintegrated in midair with a burning petrol tank.
Positioned up sun, Pilot Officer Millington carried out an astern attack from slightly below a 109 which he attacked from close range near Hastings. Large pieces of metal broke off from the Messerschmitt before it dived steeply through clouds trailing a heavy amount of black smoke.
Barton did not make any claims during this patrol, but on 29 October he shot down a Bf 109 whilst leading Red Section.
At about 1630 hours, the Squadron began to lift off from North Weald after being ordered to patrol base at 15,000 feet with No.257 Squadron, but as the first sections were in the process of getting airborne, bomb carrying Bf 109Es suddenly appeared over the aerodrome and attacked. Flying Officer Loft’s aircraft was damaged by debris, but he was fortunate enough to be able to land safely. Sergeant Tich Palliser was also in the process of getting up when he heard a horrible crack to his starboard side. He looked right and saw that a Hurricane had taken a direct hit from one of the Messerschmitts bombs. Palliser’s engine then began to violently shake because part of his propeller had been knocked off by the blast.
Palliser: “I had to level out at naught feet and do a quick flat turn to port to enable me to land before my engine blew up. I landed in minutes beside the perimeter track, climbed out and ran back across the airfield.”
Palliser: “I had to level out at naught feet and do a quick flat turn to port to enable me to land before my engine blew up. I landed in minutes beside the perimeter track, climbed out and ran back across the airfield.”
The Hurricane that had taken a direct hit belonged to No.257’s Sergeant Alexander George ‘Tubby’ Girdwood. Horrified onlookers stood helpless as he burned to death in his Hurricane.
On the ground 19 people were killed and over forty were injured during the Messerschmitt attack.
Flight Lieutenant Barton led Red Section after the 109s as they made off due west. He attacked and damaged the rearmost enemy aircraft, then broke off to engage another. In all, Barton attacked six of the Messerschmitts causing one to stream glycol from its radiator and another to emit white smoke from a wing root. He shot one down, hitting the petrol tank behind the pilot. The pilot baled out of his aircraft which crashed on Malder-Goldhanger road. The pilot of 4/LG2 was wounded and taken to hospital, but he died from his injuries and shock the same day.
Flying as Red 2, Sergeant Michal Maciejowski, claimed another 109 and reported the following:
I followed Flt Lt Barton, as leader, attacking one of a formation of five at about 4,000 feet. Two of this formation separated and I pursued them. They dived into cloud and I cut through the clouds and found myself 50 yards behind both of them. I have one of them five-to ten- seconds burst stern attack and it immediately burst into flames and fell to earth, where I saw it burning about 200 yards from the seashore, on land...
Maciejowski fired at the second fighter for another 5 seconds, but lost track of it due to cloud.
On 31 October the Battle of Britain was officially over, but Fighter Command, including No.249 Squadron, would take the fight across the Channel.
Just after midday on 7 November, Barton led the Squadron into combat and destroyed a Bf 109. He reported the action as follows:
I attacked a single 109 at 8,000 feet. I fired several short bursts and glycol streamed back from his starboard radiator. E/A flew straight towards cloud and I had to break away as there were several other ME109s above.
Four days later Barton claimed another aircraft destroyed with Pilot Officer McConnell. During a patrol over the Thames Estuary, they noticed an unusual aircraft which Barton described as ‘a bomber of rather clumsy design with very dark green camouflage (almost black), and the roundels which looked like British ones from a distance were, in reality, white with the black German crosses inside.’
Both Barton and McConnell attacked the aircraft, which took evasive action, but ultimately to no avail.
The Squadron’s Intelligence Report for this action offers additional details:
They [Barton and McConnell] both carried out attacks and the E/A took violent evasive action, climbing steeply, stalling and diving back towards the sea. F/Lt. Barton set the port wing fuel tank on fire. The pilot throttled back but the tank exploded and the fuselage caught fire. The E/A dived into the sea, broke up and sank and no trace of the crew was seen.
The enemy aircraft was thought to be a Ju 86, but it may have been a FW58 of JG51, which had been sent out to search for missing pilots.
On Thursday 14 November Pilot Officer Barclay was involved in a convoy patrol which he described in his diary:
“We did a convoy patrol outside the Estuary today. Two 109s suddenly appeared at our own height about 18,000ft. We split up and dived after them – one climbed away out of reach, the other dived and about six people followed it. I won the race to reach it first and approached from astern firing from 200 yards inwards. My throttle stuck fully open so I overhauled the 109 very rapidly at about 7,000ft. I fired until I had to break away for fear of hitting the enemy aircraft, and then turned in again and did a quarter attack. As I fired glycol and black smoke came out- very satisfactory as I deliberately aimed at one radiator.
Other Hurricanes fired and the enemy aircraft turned inland and tried to force-land near Manston aerodrome. Just as he was at tree top height Sergeant Smyth shot at the enemy aircraft. It flew straight into some trees and crashed in flames.
On returning Butch tore a terrific strip off Sergeant Smyth about his unsportsmanship, etc, and we all heartily agreed.”
On returning Butch tore a terrific strip off Sergeant Smyth about his unsportsmanship, etc, and we all heartily agreed.”
That same night frightening numbers of enemy bombers attacked Coventry, killing and injuring a large number of the population and causing awful destruction. The following day Barclay wrote that on ‘Hearing of the bombing of Coventry last night we are inclined to think that perhaps Sergeant Smyth’s action yesterday wasn’t so bad after all’.
In early December, Butch Barton was promoted to Acting Squadron Leader, and was officially given command of No.249 Squadron.
During the afternoon of 29 December, Squadron Leader Barton and Pilot Officer Wynn took off from base to conduct an offensive patrol. As the two pilots crossed the French coast they were fired upon by flak near Boulogne so they climbed into cloud and in doing so became separated. Alone, Barton followed the Boulogne road to Calais road and then flew on to St Inglevert airfield where he strafed what he believed where petrol tanks stacked in the west corner of the airfield’s dispersal area. Barton soared through heavy ground fire without being hit and then made his way back to North Weald.
Butch Barton’s next aerial victory occurred on the afternoon of 4 February 1941, when with Sergeant Tich Palliser, he dived on a Bf 110 from 10,000 feet and made a head-on attack. The enemy aircraft had been harassing a convoy at 2,000 feet, but its bombs fell wide of its target before Barton engaged. After an initial pass at the 110, Barton turned his aircraft around and delivered a second attack from astern as it entered cloud.
Sergeant Palliser followed the 110 and also fired various bursts. Both engines of the fighter were emitting black smoke. Barton pursued the aircraft as it climbed into cloud layer with oil streaming back onto Barton’s windscreen. Palliser waited for it above the cloud, but as soon as it appeared it went down into cloud and disappeared from view, leaving two thick black trails of smoke behind.
Pilot Officer Thompson circling below the cloud layer saw a large splash in the water to his right and went to investigate it with Barton. A large circle of foam and oil was seen and the Controller informed Barton that the convoy had seen a bomber crash into the sea.
The Hurricanes left the scene and returned towards the anti-aircraft fire thumping into the air over the convoy. Another Bf 110 was spotted and Barton, using full boost, climbed and chased the enemy aircraft. He sprayed the 110 with his ammunition and its port engine stopped dead. The 110 went through cloud but Barton continued to attack, firing various bursts in a running fight. The 110 fired back at Barton in a head-on attack, but Barton drove it down to sea level and watched it crash into the water. The 110 submerged beneath the sea but Barton saw the pilot floating and waving his arms at him.
Now the convoy was safe, Barton, Palliser and Thompson set course for North Weald and landed at 1455 hours.
A change was on the horizon for Butch Barton and his fellow fighter boys, but it would not be a welcomed one. The news soon arrived that the Squadron would be sent overseas, equipped with Hurricane Mk1s.
Tom Neil recalled his thoughts at the time:
“We were all struck dumb. Mark 1s! Oh, no! Not again! We were back again on the old, out-distanced, out-performed, out-everythinged Mark 1, and this time the tropicalised version, which was even slower and less combat-worthy than those we had flown in the Battle of Britain.”
After a spell of leave the pilots were instructed to report to Euston railway station on 8 May 1941 to journey to Liverpool, where they would board the carrier HMS Furious. At this stage the pilots did not know where they would be serving, but it was thought that the Middle East was more than likely to be their destination.
The Squadron reached Gibraltar on the 18th and throughout the night and early hours of the 19th, 21 Hurricanes were transferred to Ark Royal at Gib. Two days later Squadron Leader Barton led his Hurricanes off the carrier’s flight deck and set course for Malta.
After landing on the island Tich Palliser recalled:
“Before we had our breath back, we were given the bad news that we, 249 Squadron, were to remain on Malta.”
With lack of kit, supplies and inferior aircraft the pilots were understandably displeased with their current predicament. The defence of Malta would be a tough campaign, but the Squadron’s resilience and mettle would help them through it.
The day following their arrival, Squadron Leader Barton and Flight Lieutenant Neil organised the Squadron into two Flights. Barton would command B Flight and Neil A Flight.
On 3 June Barton would claim the Squadron’s first Malta victory when he intercepted an Italian SM79 which he caught flying from Sicily to Libya as an escort for Naval Vessels. Barton simply reported:
SM79 shot down into the sea – on fire off Gozo – no crew known to have escaped.
Barton returned to base to rearm and refuel his aircraft. He took off once again with a section of Hurricanes to search the scene for any survivors, but the SM79 crew had not survived.
On 8 June the Squadron took off in the dark early hours of the morning to intercept an enemy raid approaching the island. Barton continued to add to his tally, shooting down a Fiat BR20M in flames. Barton returned to Takali and again took off in search of survivors. Two Italians were rescued and taken prisoners, but the remainder of the crew had perished.
One of the survivors, Mar Guglielmo Mazzolenis, told his captors of Barton’s attack:
“The Hurricane came in from the direction of the moon. [We] could see him quite well. His attack was very determined and the gunner was unable to return accurate fire, as the Hurricane was weaving across [our] tail. The first burst hit one engine which went up in flames and from that moment the crew prepared to bale out.”
Towards the end of June the Squadron began to receive Hurricane MkIIs, including several MkIICs, which were armed with cannons. The new additions were welcomed with open arms by the pilots who were fed up of flying outdated Mk1s into combat.
On 17 July Barton fronted eight of these new Hurricanes when the Squadron engaged 30 Italian fighters that were acting as escort to a SM79 reconnaissance aircraft on approach to Malta. Barton shot a Macchi 200 down, a new arrival, Pilot Officer Graham Leggett downed a second and Flying Officer Davis damaged a third.
The following week, on 25 July, an Italian reconnaissance aircraft was detected in the morning as it approached the island, with the intention of photographing a convoy off the coast. Squadron Leader Barton led ten Hurricanes, together with No.185 Squadron to shoot it down and engage its fighter escort. Six pilots of No.185 Squadron were able to reach and attack the reconnaissance aircraft which was subsequently shot down. Meanwhile Squadron Leader Barton claimed a Macchi 200 shot down into the sea.
On the last day of July, Butch Barton was wounded when he encountered engine failure on take-off and crash-landed his aircraft from 300 feet. His Hurricane (Z3492) ploughed through several stone walls and tapped in the cockpit, Barton suffered second degree burns from battery acid, glycol and petrol. He was admitted to Mtarfa Hospital.
The next day Flight Lieutenant Tom Neil and Flying Officer Terry Crossey visited Butch in hospital and found him ‘disfigured, shocked and trembling but profoundly thankful that things had turned out as well as they had. Few people had survived such an experience and with so much operational and other flying behind him, he felt that an engine failure of some sort was long overdue. And now it had happened, in Malta of all places, and he was still alive and kicking. Looking tiny and waif-like in his hospital bed, he was childishly relieved at his deliverance.’
While Barton recovered in hospital, the responsibility of leading No.249 fell on the capable shoulders of Tom Neil.
At the end of August Barton returned to the Squadron and on the 30th he made his first flight since the crash in Hurricane Z2794 for the duration of ten minutes. Two days later he returned to operations.
On 4 September Barton took off with seven other Hurricanes and led them five miles off Cap Passero where they intercepted Italian fighters at 1546 hours. The Hurricanes dived on a formation of Macchis that were escorting a Z506B seaplane. A fierce dogfight erupted at 1,000 feet above the sea and Barton claimed one probable Macchi destroyed and one damaged. He later remarked that it was the hardest fight of his career because the Italians put up a very determined fight. Two pilots, Sergeant Jim Kimberley and Pilot Officer George Smith attacked the seaplane but in turn were shot down and killed by the Italian fighters. Barton ordered the Squadron to disengage and head for base, later remarking “We should have done better.”
During the morning of 19 October Barton took off with Sergeant Tich Palliser to patrol the south of Lampedusa Island for enemy aerial activity. The two pilots circled the area a few times with open cockpits, looking for aircraft which would not be sighted. Barton signalled to Palliser to head back for Malta, so the two Hurricanes turned for base.
Flying on a north-easterly course at 6,000 feet Palliser spotted a lone SM81 bomber-transport aircraft emerge from cloud 1,000 feet below them. Palliser waggled his wings to get Barton’s attention and pointed over his left shoulder. Barton responded with a signal for them to turn steeply to port and the hunt was on.
Palliser recalls what happened next:
“With full boost, the Mark II engine had us in firing range very quickly. Butch fired a burst in a quarter attack and the tracer field of 12 guns was something to see. I followed close to Butch, but diving under him, coming up under a lower target, and gave two three-second bursts, hitting the middle engine and the belly of what was a Savoya Trimoter Bomber, or possibly a cargo plane. The sight of 24 lines of tracer bullets was awesome, and the aircraft caught fire and in no time at all it was a blazing mess in the sea.”
Barton and Palliser then made off for base at full speed.
By the end of the month, Squadron Leader Barton was awarded a Bar to the DFC for his great success in the air and leadership. The citation for this award concluded that “his excellent leadership inspires the pilots under his command". There was no truer statement made than that for everyone in the Squadron respected and admired him for his courage and direction.
On 22 November Barton would claim his final victory of the war when he shot down a MC 202 eight miles north-east of Gozo, flying Hurricane Z3764. In total Barton had claimed an impressive12 and 5 shared enemy aircraft destroyed and 2 probables, with additional others claimed as damaged.
From the Battle of Britain to Malta Butch Barton had earned a reputation that held him in high esteem amongst his friends and colleagues. He had displayed a great deal of courage and initiative both in the air and on the ground. Barton’s leadership and fighting spirit was contagious, for he flew and fought relentlessly, with unquenchable determination, which undoubtedly inspired the men he led. So in December, when Barton left Malta to return to the UK, the Squadron would never quite be the same.
Tom Neil remembered:
“‘Butch’ Barton slipped away one night to board a Sunderland in Kalafrana Bay bound for Gibraltar and home. There was no departing binge or palaver, he just went. Quietly. Without fuss. Disappearing as he had always fought, with unassuming distinction. I suspect he was glad to leave; he had been on the go since September 1939 and was beginning to believe that his luck would shortly run out.”
Barton left Malta on 8 December 1941 and thereafter served in various appointments until the end of the war. He was made an OBE on 14 June 1945 and retired from the RAF as a Wing Commander on 27 February 1959. Barton returned to Canada with his wife, Gwen, in 1965.
After a long war and career in the RAF, Barton preferred a quiet life in retirement, spending a lot of his time fishing in the rivers and lakes of British Columbia, where unsurprisingly, he gained quite a reputation for his fishing abilities.
Butch Barton died aged 94 on 2 September 2010, survived by his only son. During the morning of 15 September, (Battle of Britain Day), Barton’s ashes were scattered on his favourite lake in British Columbia.
|Butch Barton with Howard the duck|
Copyright Christopher Yeoman 2011
 Cull, Brian, 249 At War, Grub Street, 1997, page 12.
 Neil, Tom, Gun Button To Fire, Amberley, 2010, page 240-241
 Neil, Tom, Gun Button To Fire, Amberley, 2010, page 96.
 Barclay, George, edited by Wynn, Humphrey, Fighter Pilot, A Self-Portrait by George Barclay, Crecy Books, 1994, pages 68-69.
 Neil, Tom, Gun Button To Fire, Amberley, 2010, page 117.
 Barclay, George, edited by Wynn, Humphrey, Fighter Pilot, A Self-Portrait by George Barclay, Crecy Books, 1994, pages 98-99.
 Neil, Tom, Onward To Malta, Airlife Publishing Ltd, 1992, page 46-47.
 Cull, Brian, 249 At War, Grub Street, 1997, page 69.
 Neil, Tom, Onward To Malta, Airlife Publishing Ltd, 1992, page 135
 Neil, Tom, Onward To Malta, Airlife Publishing Ltd, 1992, page 169.