The Royal Air Force (RAF) was formed on 1 April 1918 and was the world’s first independent air force. It was the result of the merger of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service which was deemed to be necessary due to the growing importance of aviation in the war. The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) was formed at the same time, although disbanded in 1920. The RAF went on to play a crucial role in the Second World War, perhaps most notably in the Battle of Britain between 10 July and 31 Oct 1940, with Churchill declaring that ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few’. It has continued to perform a vital part in subsequent conflicts.
West Sussex has a long association with flight and the RAF – from aviation pioneer Cecil Pashley’s early airport at Shoreham to the treatment of RAF personnel at Queen Victoria Hospital in East Grinstead. It has also been home to a number of RAF airfields and fighter stations, one of the earliest of which was Tangmere. In its time Tangmere was one
of the best known and strategically most important fight stations in Britain – perfectly located to defend the south coast. It was established in 1917 and became a training base for the Royal Flying Corps. It was turned over to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) as a training ground in 1918 and continued as such until the end of the First World War. The airfield was enlarged in 1939 and throughout the Second World War was used by the Royal Air Force Special Duty Service. Later, Group Captain Douglas Bader, the famous fighter ace, commanded the Tangmere wing of Fighter Command. By 1964, the last flying units had left Tangmere and the station finally closed in 1970. Following its closure, the station was given a new lease on life in 1982 when a group of enthusiasts established what would later become the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum.
To mark the centenary of the Royal Air Force, staff members from West Sussex Record Office reflect on the role the RAF played in their families…
FLIGHT SERGEANT RONALD H J VARNDELL BEM
Sarah Head, Technical Assistant
My father joined the RAF on the 30 March 1948 as a Leading Aircraftsman, rising to become a Ground Radar Fitter. Prior to this he had served in the Royal Navy from 7 April 1943 to 17 March 1947, training as an electrical mechanic, and was promoted to the rank of Petty Officer. His training began at RAF Hendon whilst my mother lodged with her Auntie Hilda in Slough. In 1950/51 he was stationed at Tangmere, moving to RAF Sandwich in 1952.
In 1953 Dad was posted to Germany. By now he had been promoted to the rank of Sergeant and was stationed at RAF Butzweilerhof, to the north of Cologne. In 1954 my parents were allocated married quarters and Mum, with my brother and sister, travelled from Harwich to the Hook of Holland and then on by train to Cologne. When Mum arrived she found out Dad was being posted to Denmark with the NATO forces for 13 weeks due to the start of the Cold War – they had twelve hours together before he left.
In 1956 he was posted to RAF Bassingbourn, Hertfordshire and was promoted to Flight Sergeant, in charge of Ground Radar Servicing. I was born at Royston, Hertfordshire in December 1957. With my brother having been born at Rustington and my sister in Ramsgate – we were the three Rs! In 1959 Dad was awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) in her Majesty the Queen’s New Years Honours.
On 6th December 1962 we all left for a new posting in Gibraltar. We sailed from Southampton on the SS Oxfordshire, her last ever sailing as a troop ship. We lived in a block of flats overlooking the runway. We could see the border gate into Spain from our dining room window. When the border wasn’t closed, due to the ongoing tensions with General Franco, we would go over to the market in La Linea.
In August 1965 we went to RAF Medmenham, Buckinghamshire. Whilst here my brother and I received treatment at RAF Halton. Unfortunately for us we both suffered with sticking-out ears, so we were both pleased to be having corrective surgery. We were under the care of Group Captain G Morley and his team. My mother had always told us that Morley trained at the QVH East Grinstead under Sir Archibald McIndoe. So I was touched to see his name listed in one of the magazines in the QVH collection at West Sussex Record Office – RAF Registrar Squadron-Leader G Morley FRCS.
Dad left the RAF in April 1967, and returned to life as a civilian. He gained a place at teacher training college in Bognor Regis. Returning to teach in the City of his youth and where it all began – Portsmouth.
FLYING OFFICER NAVIGATOR CHARLES EDWARD OAKLEY
Diane Ladlow, Searchroom Assistant
Phyllis and Charlie met in 1938 when Phyllis was 17 years old and Charlie was 16 years old and they quickly became sweethearts. Phyllis worked in the accounts department and on the Post Office counter of Hounslow Post Office and Charlie worked for a firm called Hilbert & Co Ltd also in Hounslow. They both had bicycles and on their day off used to go for long rides and picnics into the countryside sometimes as far as Box Hill in Dorking, both with friends and often by themselves.
When war broke out they remained in Hounslow and Phyllis & Charlie had fire watching duties as well as their normal jobs and then as soon as Charlie turned 18 in October 1940 he joined the RAF. Charlie went to the USA and Canada early in 1941 returning to England at the end of the year as part of 427 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force Volunteer Reserve as Flying Officer Navigator.
427 Squadron of the RCAF was known as Lion Squadron for its badge of a lion rampant in front of a maple leaf – the combination of a lion representing England and a maple leaf representing Canada indicates the formation of this RCAF Squadron in England. Initially Charlie’s crew flew Wellington Xs and then in May 1943 Lion Squadron moved to RAF Leeming in Yorkshire and began to fly Halifax IIIs. 427 Squadron served with Bomber Command’s main force and Charlie told Phyllis that their last sight on flying out of England and first sight on flying home was always Durham Cathedral.
On Wednesday 6thOctober 1943, Phyllis and Charlie married at St Paul’s Church, Hounslow, and after a reception which included all the crew of Charlie’s plane, Phyllis and Charlie spent a short honeymoon in London before Charlie and his crew reported back for duty at RAF Leeming.
Two weeks later on 22 October 1943 Charlie, aged 21, and his crew were shot down over Belgium and all the boys were killed.
Phyllis (my Mum) is now 96 years old and has never forgotten Charlie.