West Sussex Airfields and the Battle of Britain 1940

By Alan Readman and Martin Hayes

The Battle of Britain, fought mainly in the skies above Sussex and Kent, took place between July and October 1940 and this month marks its 80th anniversary. September 15th has been designated Battle of Britain Day to commemorate RAF Fighter Command’s decisive victory over the German Luftwaffe. Key events will be held at the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel-le-Ferne on the Kent coast.

This blog is dedicated the memory of all veterans who served during the Battle and all those who supported them in West Sussex.

Battle of Britain Airfields

West Sussex airfields played a crucial role in the air defence of Southern England in the early years of the war, and subsequently in the air-operations in the build-up to D-Day and the Normandy Landings.

RAF Tangmere was the controlling station of Sector “A”, in No 11 Group, Fighter Command, and as such covered an area from Brighton to Bournemouth. It is probably the most well-known Sussex airfield because of its Battle of Britain role, and links with the legendary Douglas Bader.

Airfields were a prime target for the Luftwaffe, and at lunchtime on Friday 16 August 1940, Tangmere was attacked by Stuka dive-bombers, causing great damage and leaving 13 killed. Through Tangmere flew French Resistance agents, trained at nearby Bignor, and using Tangmere Cottage as their secret operations centre.  Many moonlit missions inside enemy-held territory were flown by the Lysanders of 161 (Special Duties) Squadron at Tangmere.

L’Alouette/A/1/3/3 – Panorama showing aftermath of air raid by German Stukas at RAF Ford, August 1940

Ford, like Tangmere a former First World War airfield, was re-commissioned by the government in 1938 as a Fleet Air Arm Station. Two days after the raid on Tangmere, on Sunday 18 August 1940, Ford was also dive-bombed by Stukas, with 39 killed, many in a crowded canteen.  A granite memorial was erected in Climping churchyard.

Ford had a varied role, flying in the wounded from France after D-Day, commanding the Air Sea Rescue Station at Littlehampton, and hosting the radar-equipped Fighter Interceptor Unit.

On the outbreak of war, West Sussex had a third military airfield, commissioned in 1938 at Thorney Island, but this number was soon to rise, first with the Tangmere satellite stations at Merston and Westhampnett, and by 1944 Chichester was to be surrounded by one of the highest concentration of airfields in the country.

Westhampnett had a vital role in the Battle of Britain, and later played host to Wing Commander Douglas Bader, who led the Tangmere Wing in 1941. In 1942, RAF Westhampnett became the home of 31st Fighter Group, US Army Air Force, equipped with Spitfires.

PH 20624 – Showing US Spitfire pilots (309 Squadron) on scramble at Westhampnett. Several of those pilots shown in the picture returned on 28th September 1987 for the dedication ceremony of the memorial stone at Goodwood Aerodrome. Published by Downsway Postcards, Lavant by courtesy of the Southdown Observer Series.

Their evening jaunts into Chichester are well remembered, and a memorial stone was installed in 1987 on what is now Goodwood Airfield.

Battle of Britain

Through the hot summer days, and into early autumn, of 1940, people in West Sussex were eye-witnesses of the drama of the Battle of Britain, watching the dog-fights in the clear blue skies as the gallant “Few” beat off the attempts of the Luftwaffe to clear the way for the invasion of Britain.

The enemy raids intensified from the middle of August. For his courage in a dog-fight on 16 August Flight Lieutenant James Brindley Nicholson, a Hurricane Pilot whose parents lived in Shoreham, became the first fighter pilot to win a Victoria Cross.

West Sussex Gazette 29th August 1940

Not all came out of these encounters so successfully. Sergeant Cyril Babbage of 602 Squadron, Westhampnett, had to bail out of his crippled Spitfire on 26 August, and was rescued by fishermen at Bognor. During the Battle of Britain he was to shoot down six BF 109’s and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Medal.

L’Alouette A/1/3/18 – Sergeant Cyril Babbage shaking hands with RAF officer, 26 August 1940.

After the raid on Tangmere on 16 August, eleven Stukas were shot down, and early in September a Junkers 88 crashed in the sea off Pagham.

Bognor Regis photographer Frank L’Allouette obtained a Ministry of Information Permit and captured many wartime events in and around his home town. See these blogs for more about Frank and his work.

As increasing number of enemy aircraft were brought down, it became a familiar sight in Chichester to see captured Luftwaffe pilots and aircrew escorted to the railway station, en route to POW camps.

Photograph from the Chichester Observer, 18th August 1940 showing the captured German pilot.

Gradually the tide turned and by mid September more attacks were being thwarted.

The courage of the “Few”, and the high casualty rate, is well documented. The Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead was where Sir Archibald McIndoe, the renowned plastic surgeon, operated a specialist burns unit for wounded airmen. Among his patients was Wing Commander Geoffrey Page DFC DSO, a 20-year-old Hurricane pilot with 56 Squadron, who suggested the national Battle of Britain Memorial. West Sussex Record Office holds the archives of the Queen Victoria Hospital including the Guinea Pig Club.*

The Record Office also hold a remarkable collection of audio recordings (OH17) of local people describing the effects of the Battle of Britain on Chichester and Tangmere and also a first- hand account of action by John Bisdee a fighter pilot.

The churchyard at Tangmere, where British and German airmen lay side by side, is a poignant reminder of the air war. Enemy airmen were buried with full military honours, far away from home. At least 107 German airmen are known to be buried in West Sussex.


Websites:

RAF: history, statistics, photos and events

RAF Benevolent Fund: video interviews with veterans of the Battle, blogs and podcasts

Imperial War Museum: events, information and short feature on Douglas Bader

Battle of Britain Memorial: events, learning resources, day-by-day timeline, app etc


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