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How Bromley’s Biggin Hill Airport protected London during World War II - and paid a heavy price

PUBLISHED: 12:51 13 February 2017 | UPDATED: 11:21 14 February 2017

An RAF Spitfire at Biggin Hill

An RAF Spitfire at Biggin Hill

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The airport is marking the beginning of its centenary celebrations this week

The Bombardier hangar at Biggin HillThe Bombardier hangar at Biggin Hill

In the dark days of the Second World War, when German bombs rained down on London, Bromley’s Biggin Hill airport formed part of the first line of defence against the Luftwaffe.

The airfield was one of the commanding bases during the Battle of Britain, and the squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes that flew from the base are thought to have destroyed 1,400 enemy aircraft.

Now a commercial venture, the historic airfield began its centenary celebrations on Monday with a special flight for 100-year-old VIPs who contributed to the war effort.

The airport’s history began in 1916 when it was requisitioned by the War Office and a military camp was established to undertake experiments in wireless communications.

Biggin Hill AirportBiggin Hill Airport

On February 13, 1917, the Royal Flying Corps transferred to Biggin Hill from their long-time headquarters at Joyce Green, Dartford, and it became part of the London Air Defence Area, protecting the capital from attacks by Zeppelins and Gotha Bombers.

The custodian of St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance on Main Road told us: “The site was chosen due to its elevation. At Joyce Green, they had a lot of trouble because of the mist off the Thames.

“Biggin Hill is 600ft above sea level. It was known as ‘Biggin on the Bump’.

“We had the first biplanes. The first squadron was 141 squadron in 1918, which defended London from the first German bombers in the First World War.

Winston Churchill visits Biggin Hill Airport in the 1940s. Photo: Bromley Historic CollectionWinston Churchill visits Biggin Hill Airport in the 1940s. Photo: Bromley Historic Collection

“It started life as a wireless experimentation establishment, developing air-to-air and ground-to-air communications, and then we had the early development of listening devices before radar was established.

“It was involved in developing technology to capture the incoming sounds of aircraft – some of which was used during the Second World War.”

It was during the Second World War that the airport played its most important role, acting as a base for several squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes.

Before the war, many people feared cities would be indefensible against bombers - epitomised in Stanley Baldwin’s statement “the bomber will always get through” - but Biggin Hill’s pilots helped prove them wrong.

Flight officer Elspeth Henderson and Sgt Helen Turner at Biggin Hill Airport in 1940. Photo: Bromley Historic CollectionFlight officer Elspeth Henderson and Sgt Helen Turner at Biggin Hill Airport in 1940. Photo: Bromley Historic Collection

“It was a vital part of London’s defence,” the custodian continued. “It was the main airfield in the south east. If you look at the map and the position it is in, it was one of the main airfields defending London during the Blitz.”

The airport’s prominence came at a cost - German aircraft attacked it 12 times between August 1940 and January 1941, destroying buildings and killing 39 people on the ground.

“It was bombed quite a few times during the Second World War as they tried to knock out Biggin Hill as well as Croydon and Henley. Quite a few were killed on the ground as well as the pilots.

“The pilots and officers were billeted out. If they all lived in the mess and it was hit by a bomb it would have killed a lot of people, so they were spread about the area.

“They lived in big houses. They would requisition a house – it could be a stately home type of place – just so they were safe. If a house was hit, three or four pilots would be killed.”

After the war ended, Biggin Hill became a base for both regular and reserve fighter squadrons flying Spitfires, Meteors and Hunters, and served as an officer selection centre for the RAF.

When Croydon Airport was finally closed in 1959, RAF Biggin Hill began to accept civilian flights alongside its role as a rapid reaction station.

RAF operations ceased in 1974, and since then the airport has gradually grown to become an international gateway to Greater London and the City for business, corporate and general aviation.

The three VIPs who took off from the airport in a Learjet 75 on Monday provide a living link to the airport’s illustrious past.

Wing Commander Bill Lucas is a distinguished RAF pilot who flew 81 missions into enemy territory and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.

Mary Ellis, one of the world’s greatest female pilots, flew 1,000 aircraft from the factory direct to service units as part of the Air Transport Auxiliary.

Gertrude ‘Trudy’ Baxter specialised in covert operations within the War Office, and contributed to efforts to crack the Germans’ Enigma code at Bletchley Park.

The airport’s community engagement manager Colin Hitchins said the link to the past would always be there, but the airport is also looking towards the future.

“The significant part now is the number of jobs that are being created locally,” he added. “It is the second biggest employer in the borough, and with Bombardier moving in that is 300-plus jobs being created.

“There is a big legacy here. There are plans for a college on the site for future engineers, and the plans are going very well.”

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