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Member of The Few pays tribute to 'Biggin on the Bump'

PUBLISHED: 15:09 15 September 2010

A posed scramble at Biggin Hill in 1939, during the Battle of Britain

A posed scramble at Biggin Hill in 1939, during the Battle of Britain

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Seventy years since our air force men and women saw off Hitler's attempted conquest of British skies, a member of The Few talks to the Times about the crucial role Biggin Hill airport played in the Battle of Britain.

Squadron Hurricanes flying out of Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain

Biggin Hill Airport has been in commercial use for more than 50 years, but its location to the south-east of London, bordering the front line county of Kent, meant that it played a crucial role defending the nation during the Battle of Britain.

Lasting from late July to mid-September 1940, the Battle of Britain saw the RAF shatter the German Air Force, or ‘Luftwaffe’, and September 15, which we now celebrate as Battle of Britain Day, is arguably the point at which British victory was achieved.

Yesterday people all over the country paid their respects, ahead of a memorial service at Westminster Abbey on Sunday. Other events marking the occasion include a flyover yesterday across North Kent, starting at Biggin Hill.

A total of 544 RAF pilots died during the Battle, with 453 of those based at Biggin Hill, but pilots based at the airfield, off Main Road, played a vital role, claiming 1,400 enemy aircraft — out of 1,887 by the RAF in total.

Spitfires of No. 610 Auxiliary Squadron from Biggin Hill, May 1940

Wing Commander Foster DFC of 605 Squadron flew in the Biggin Hill area and took down seven enemy craft during the Battle of Britain.

He said: “It was a very important airfield and was really the centre of attention for the Germans. Biggin Hill was strongly placed to meet the threat — it was a natural place to have an airfield. In fact, it was a key airport for WWI as well. ‘Biggin on the Bump’ is what we used to call it.

“Who knows what would have happened if we hadn’t won the Battle of Britain. The chances are Hitler would have tried to invade, or just raise London to the ground, as he did with Rotterdam in May 1940 when, after a day of extremely heavy bombing, the Dutch surrendered.

“It’s important to remember because people should learn from history and it’s something that we should all be proud of. Had we not won that battle, the world could have been a vastly different place today.”

72 Squadron at Biggin Hill in 1940

WC Foster DFC is going to Westminster Abbey, where speakers will include Prince Charles, actor and actor Ewan McGregor.

Janet Tootal, who runs the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust with husband Patrick Tootal, OBE DL, is going to read a prayer at the ceremony.

Mrs Tootal, from West Malling, said: “It is a great privilege to take part in a service to commemorate The Few and it’s great that there is so much interest this year.

“I think if the Battle of Britain hadn’t turned out as it did, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in now. Biggin Hill played a big part in that. If it hadn’t been there, I am sure the battle would have taken a different turn.”

A Naafi wagon for groundcrew at Biggin Hill 1940

Established in 1917 to help develop wireless telephony, Biggin Hill was converted into an RAF base later that year, following German bombing of London during The Great War. It would be called into use again just 22 years later and, on the outbreak of WWII on September 3, 1939, three squadrons — 32, 79 and 601 — were based at the airport.

RAF Biggin Hill was right on the frontline, intercepting many Luftwaffe planes destined for London and its aircraft were in daily action against the enemy. In July alone, pilots operating out of the airfield shot down 27 enemy aircraft. It became a regular target for the Luftwaffe in the coming weeks and by the end of the Battle had been attacked some 20 times, sustaining serious damage, but remained operational throughout.

Germany’s bombing campaign was designed to clear the way for Operation Sea Lion — the amphibious and airborne invasion of Britain. From July, the Luftwaffe targeted shipping convoys and coastal cities like Portsmouth and Liverpool. They then shifted their attacks to RAF airbases like Biggin Hill and, towards the end of the campaign, started targeting areas of political significance and using terror bombing tactics.

But RAF pilots fought back ferociously and, on September 15, Fighter Command claimed victory after a day of heavy bombing raids resulted in big losses for the enemy. 176 German planes were shot down and at least nine were hit by anti-aircraft guns, while only 25 British aircraft were lost.

Peace eventually came on VJ Day, August 15, 1945 and Biggin Hill remained as an operational RAF base until 1959, when, partly in response to the closure of nearby Croydon Airport, it became a primarily civilian airport with only occasional military flying taking place.

Bromley council bought the airport in 1974 but, in accordance with a government directive in 1992, leased it to Biggin Hill Airport Ltd for 125 years. It is prevented from being used for scheduled or holiday charter flights and is now used for business and corporate flights.

Replicas of a Hurricane and a Spitfire stand watch over the entrance to St George’s RAF Chapel, rebuilt in 1951 as a memorial to all Biggin Hill personnel who gave their lives during the war.

The Battle of Britain Memorial Trust has launched a £650,000 appeal for a learning centre and memorial and to The Few at Capel-le-Ferne, to mark the 70th anniversary.

To donate visit www.battleofbritainmemorial.org/donations/70th-anniversary-appeal or call 01732 870 809.

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