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The Airmen's Stories - F/Lt. R A Barton

 

Robert Alexander Barton, the son of a Canadian civil engineer and a Scottish mother, was born on 7th June 1916 at Kamloops, British Columbia. He was educated in Vernon, requiring a weekly journey by steamship to and from his home at Penticton. When he was 19 he went to a recruiting office in Vancouver and was accepted into the RAF. He travelled to England to take up a short service commission in January 1936.

After training as a pilot he joined No 41 Squadron, flying biplane fighters. Following the outbreak of war he joined the newly-formed No 249 Squadron, whose CO was S/Ldr. John Grandy, later Chief of the Air Staff and a Marshal of the RAF.

Barton, known to his colleagues as 'Butch', was flight commander of the Hurricane-equipped No 249 Squadron based in Yorkshire when it was transferred to Boscombe Down on 14th August 1940; the aim was to reinforce the hard-pressed fighter squadrons in the south. He was immediately in action, and the following day shot down a Me110 and damaged a second.

On 16th August Barton's deputy, F/Lt. JB Nicolson, was attacked and his Hurricane caught fire. Despite suffering burns, Nicholson immediately attacked another German fighter before baling out. He was later awarded a Victoria Cross, the only pilot in Fighter Command to receive the supreme award for valour.

Over the next three weeks, Barton's successes mounted. On 3rd September, now flying from North Weald in Essex, his Hurricane was hit by return fire from a Dornier bomber and he was forced to bale out. On his return to the squadron later in the day he was ribbed by his colleagues for allowing himself to be shot down by a bomber.

When his CO was wounded, Barton led the squadron into battle during the most hectic phase of the Luftwaffe's onslaught, sometimes flying four times in a single day. On 15th September, the day of the greatest air battle, he shot down a Dornier bomber over the Thames Estuary and damaged a second.

By the end of the Battle of Britain on 31st October, Barton had accounted for two more enemy fighters and damaged two others. He was awarded a DFC for his "outstanding leadership".

In December 1940 Barton was promoted to take command of 249 Squadron, and he destroyed two more enemy fighters. In 1941 his squadron was ordered to prepare for service in Malta, and on 19th  May its Hurricanes were transferred to HMS 'Ark Royal' in Gibraltar.

Barton opened his account in Malta on 3rd June, when he shot down an Italian bomber, the squadron's first victory over the island. Five days later he destroyed another bomber, this time at night. At first light, he returned to the scene to search for the Italian crew. Two men were found and rescued.

Under Barton's leadership, 249 Squadron was one of the most successful fighter squadrons on the island. But on 31st July he was lucky to survive when the engine of his Hurricane failed as he took off and he crashed through some sturdy Maltese walls. His injuries included second-degree burns, and he was kept in hospital for several weeks. Yet by September he was back leading the squadron, and was soon involved in a fierce battle with Italian fighters, during which he was credited with shooting down one and damaging another. On 22nd November he achieved his final victory when he shot down a Macchi MC202 fighter near Gozo.

After two years' continuous and intense fighting, in December he was rested and returned to England. His deputy, Tom Neil (himself a Battle of Britain ace), wrote: "I was very conscious of the squadron's debt to him. Small and slight in stature, in no way a heroic figure and unassuming almost to a fault, he was a wonderful leader and one of the best fighter pilots it would be my good fortune to meet." The citation for the Bar to Barton's DFC concluded that "his excellent leadership inspires the pilots under his command".

(Above: his portrait was done by Cuthbert Orde in 1940)

Following a spell as chief instructor at a fighter training unit, Barton took command of the fighter airfield at Skaebrae in Orkney. He later commanded North Weald and served at HQ Fighter Command, where he was responsible for tactics. He was mentioned in despatches and in June 1945 was appointed OBE.

In August 1945 he was posted to India, and then for two years helped in the creation of the Pakistan Air Force following Partition.

Barton served on a number of fighter stations and commanded RAF Acklington in Northumberland. His final appointment was on the operations staff at the Air Ministry, and he retired in February 1959. During his career he had always tried to maintain the highest standards of chivalry, once severely reprimanding an inexperienced colleague who had finished off a damaged German aircraft, killing the pilot as he was attempting to crash land over England.

On his return to Canada he lived a quiet life. Much of his time was devoted to caring for his wife, who for a long time was in poor health, and every year they wintered in Arizona. His great passion was fishing in the rivers and lakes of British Columbia, where he was regarded as one of the region's finest fly fishermen.

"Butch" Barton died on 2nd September 2010. His ashes were scattered on his favourite lake in British Columbia on the morning of 15th September, Battle of Britain Day.

He married, in 1939, Gwen Cranswick; she died in 1988, and he is survived by their son.

 

(With acknowledgment to the Daily Telegraph).

 

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