The importance of Essex’s airfields
PUBLISHED: 10:07 06 July 2020 | UPDATED: 11:12 07 July 2020
Ken Delve, an aviation researcher, author, and a trustee of the RAF Heraldry Trust, showcases some of the key Essex airfields that have served the RAF so well over the last 100 years
April 2018 marked the 100th anniversary of the RAF, an institution that has forever left its mark on the county.
Essex had a network of Home Defence Landing Grounds defending London in World War I, and in the Battle of Britain, as part of No.11 Group, fighter stations such as Debden, Hornchurch and North Weald played key roles as Sector Stations and as the bases of the Hurricanes and Spitfires that daily battled the enemy.
Barking Creek has passed into aviation history as the ‘Battle of Barking Creek’, when RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes fought each other at the start of World War II in the first ‘friendly fire’ incident.
By that date, September 6, 1939, the airfield that had once existed at Barking Creek was long gone.
This was a pre-war site used by Handley Page from 1909 to 1912, and as such was one of the first aviation locations in Essex.
Hainault Farm was acquired in 1915 for development into a Landing Ground, as a training base on the outskirts of London. The airfield was destined for World War I fame as home to the Zeppelin Killers’ of 39 Squadron.
The squadron scored significant successes from late 1916, their best night on September 24, 1916, with Lt Sowrey shooting down the L32 and Lt Alfred de Bathe Brandon contributing to the destruction of the L33.
Chingford was one of ten Landing Grounds around London at which No.19 Training Squadron (which became 39 Squadron) based flights of two aircraft as part of the Home Defence (HD) of the capital against Zeppelin attack; it opened on a 150-acre site in 1915 and closed at the end of the war.
Stow Maries was used by HD types from 1916 and although a grass field, it was given a range of buildings, with intent to make it a permanent site.
However, at the end of the war it was abandoned and returned to agriculture; some buildings were removed but others were left in situ for agricultural use.
It still looked like a grass airfield however, and 20 years later it attracted at least one German bomber and one Hurricane looking for somewhere to land!
Sutton’s Farm was used by 39 Squadron and on the night of September 2, 1916, Lt William Leefe Robinson shot down the airship SL11 – the first success over the UK.
The airship fell at Cuffley and having been witnessed by the public a great fuss was made, Robinson being awarded the Victoria Cross. Ops continued to the end of the war, but the airfield closed in 1919. A few years later it was decided to develop a permanent fighter station.
Buildings and hangars sprang up and on April 1, 1928, the base opened, taking the name of Hornchurch in June that year.
It soon housed two squadrons of Siskin fighters and became a major airfield in No.11 Group.
During the Battle of Britain, three Spitfire squadrons made up the Hornchurch Wing. Hornchurch received ‘attention’ from the Germans and suffered some 20 air raids during the battle, some causing considerable damage.
Defence turned to offence and Hornchurch’s squadrons were flying escorts and fighter sweeps.
It was on one such sweep that a replacement artificial leg was dropped for Douglas Bader, the Germans having made it known through the Red Cross that he needed a new one.
Hornchurch finally closed on July 1, 1962, and was soon sold, part going for gravel extraction and part for re-development, including housing.
There is now no trace of the airfield that played a key role in defending London during two World Wars, although several local roads carry names associated with the old airfield.
North Weald followed the same pattern as Hornchurch – HD airfield, re-birth in the 1920s and an important role in the Battle of Britain and beyond.
From 1942 and the period of offensive ops, the airfield was particularly associated with Norwegian squadrons.
In a 15-year post-war period it was home to Auxiliary Air Force squadrons plus 111 Squadron and its Hunters. By 1958 this was over, but in 1968 the Battle of Britain returned with North Weald as one of the filming locations for the great film of that name.
In council ownership, the airfield has survived as a flying location and is home to a range of historic aircraft.
Debden was the third of the famous trio of Essex fighter stations; it opened in 1937 and fighter squadrons soon arrived.
As a Sector Station, Debden and its squadrons were key players in the Battle of Britain and squadrons were involved in numerous scrambles, day and night, with victories and losses steadily mounting as the summer progressed.
By 1941 it had turned to the offensive, although in 1942 it was assigned to the Americans and became home to the 4th Fighter Group.
Bradwell Bay was unique in that its focus was on night operations from its opening in November 1941. Night fighters – Beaufighter and Mosquito – were operated by several squadrons, most of which rotated through here for a month or two.
From 1943 its main use was a forward base for fighters, as it was one of the closest airfields to enemy territory. In a 1942 report, Essex was listed as having the largest requirement of any region for aggregate, 21,000 cubic yards per day for September to November 1942.
Much of this was for the new or extended airfields for the Americans. Essex was a base for the fighter and medium bomber units of the 9th Air Force, which meant the departure of most of the 8th Air Force units.
Names such as Andrews Field, Boreham, Boxted, Leiston, Rivenhall and many more will forever resonate with Americans as places in the ‘Old Country’ where their young men came to fight.
These fall outside our RAF centenary coverage here, but are not forgotten.
Some of the old airfields have significant traces surviving, and some have memorials to the units and people who served, the ones at North Weald and Bradwell Bay being particularly impressive.
There are no active RAF airfields, but some airfields are still civil flying fields and The Squadron at North Weald is always worth a visit for its café and view.
Essex also has aviation museums to visit. The Great War Aerodrome at Stow Maries is a must and is great for families, the North Weald Airfield Museum has a superb collection of memorabilia and the East Essex Aviation Museum has a small collection in the Martello Tower near Clacton on Sea.