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The strongest link of all

PUBLISHED: 15:31 23 December 2009 | UPDATED: 10:40 12 August 2010

SPITFIRE: Flown at Biggin Hill

SPITFIRE: Flown at Biggin Hill

Known affectionately as Biggin on the Bump to those who served there and to most people as the most famous fighter station in the world , Biggin Hill rose to become the strongest link , a motto that is incorporated in the station crest. This refers to

Known affectionately as 'Biggin on the Bump' to those who served there and to most people as the 'most famous fighter station in the world', Biggin Hill rose to become the 'strongest link', a motto that is incorporated in the station crest. This refers to the fact that during World War Two, the station claimed over 1,000 destroyed enemy aircraft with many more damaged.

The airfield sits on a high plateau on the North Downs and was an airfield during the first conflict. It was also an experimental station for instrument design and radio telephony, both systems that were essential when war finally came. With the ominous rumblings of another war with Germany becoming prevalent, the role of Biggin Hill changed from research to defence. A huge task of reconstruction took place during 1937/8 as part of the RAF Expansion Scheme. It was known that many more defensive airfields would be needed and Biggin Hill suited the purpose admirably.

Wartime saw the airfield become operational when Nos. 32 and 79 Squadrons flying Hurricanes became resident. They were joined by an auxiliary squadron (part-time airmen) No. 601 (County of London) who flew the first Bristol Blenheims into Biggin Hill. On the eve of war, a near neighbour and friend of the station, Winston Churchill, dropped into the Officers' mess to wish the squadrons well. He knew that the country would need all the strength of the RAF if it were to win.

Although both the squadrons were 'scrambled' within a week of the announcement of war, no contact was made with the enemy. This was the 'Phoney War', the time from September 1939 until June 1940 when the enemy kept his attacks to Channel convoys.

As the Germans overran Holland, Belgium and France, the British Expeditionary Force, sent to help the French stem the German advance, found themselves trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk. There then began an evacuation of immense proportions to bring the troops back to the UK. This was Operation 'Dynamo', the Dunkirk evacuation of May 1940.

With the troops safely back the country prepared for what everyone thought would be an invasion of our shores. At Biggin Hill, now a sector or controlling station for other airfields in Fighter Command, the 'Phoney' period had given the squadrons, the radar stations and the system time to perfect their technics. After Dunkirk the German tactics changed to attacking the airfields. Historians denote the start of the Battle of Britain in early July 1940 but previous to this the RAF, and especially the Biggin Hill squadrons, had been in daily contact with the enemy over the Channel. Now it was to be in contact in the skies above Kent, Sussex and Hampshire. Air Chief-Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, the Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command and his commander of No. 11 Group. Air Chief-Marshal Keith Park, knew that the brunt of the fighting would be over the south east corner of the country and had planned the defensive strategy accordingly. It was now time to put it to the test.

July saw sporadic attacks on the airfields of Fighter Command as 'Adler Tag', translated meaning 'Eagle Day', and the commencement of what the Luftwaffe called the annihilation of the RAF approached. Attacks upon the early warning radar stations situated along the Kent and Sussex coast began. From this day on the Biggin Hill squadrons would be scrambled constantly to defend the country.

The first real confrontation came on Monday, August 12, 1940, when No. 610 Squadron, now based at Biggin Hill, were scrambled in the morning. They met a superior force of Dornier 215s bombers escorted by Me 109 fighters. The twelve Spitfires of 610 tore into the enemy formation managing to shoot down two confirmed destroyed, six unconfirmed, two probables and one damaged. In the afternoon it was 32 Squadrons turn. Scrambled at 4.50pm to patrol Dover, the pilots saw a huge formation heading for the forward airfield at Hawkinge. Again 32 Squadron found success with just one of their own shot down. Returning to Biggin Hill they saw the airfield had received an attack. The grass landing area was full of craters, several buildings were burning and dozens of delayed action bombs were buried just under the surface. With difficulty the Hurricanes managed to land missing all the craters.

With work starting to restore services and put out the raging fires, the following days saw further attacks on the airfield. Then came Thursday August 15, the day that saw some of the heaviest fighting.

Although the early hours were quiet, the squadrons at Biggin Hill were at full readiness. 32 Squadron were sent off first to attack a large formation over the Channel. They were not alone as Fighter Command sent nearly 150 Hurricanes and Spitfires into the fray. Together with 610 Squadron, 32 were scrambed three times that day, both achieving success although with some loss of aircraft, the pilots parachuting to safety. That night the BBC gave the news that 182 enemy aircraft had been destroyed for the loss of 34 aircraft of Fighter Command. However, August 18 was see another devastating attack on Biggin Hill.

With 32 Squadron airborne and ordered to protect base, stick after stick of bombs rained down on the airfield from the enemy. Bombs hit the MT sheds causing horrific fires whilst others hit a Bofors gun pit sadly killing one of the crew and injuring several others. Further bombs hit hangars and buildings killing and wounding several airmen and women. Though the raid only lasted ten minutes, the damage caused was immense. Many remained at their posts intent on keeping essential services going. This resulted in the courage of Sgt Joan Mortimer, who worked in the armoury, later receiving the Military Medal for her bravery whilst under fire.

The next five days the weather turned keeping the Luftwaffe on the ground and allowing clearance and repair at Biggin Hill to continue. A change of squadrons took place as No. 32 moved away and No. 79 returned. An extra squadron, No. 72 arrived to bring the airfield up to full squadron strength. At 6pm on Friday August 30, the Luftwaffe returned intent on bombing Biggin Hill from the map.

The attack warning came as airmen and women were coming out of the mess after tea. Looking up they saw a black formation approaching the airfield with bomb doors open. Down came the bombs making a screaming sound as they did. This was accompanied by the crump, crump of exploding bombs. The damage was severe with the workshops, cookhouses, Sgts mess, Waafs' quarters and most of the motor transport section left burning. One hangar was devastated with aircraft inside and the water, electricity and gas mains were all ruptured. A shelter containing many Waafs' caved in under one explosion killing many of the occupants. It was a devastating attack once again and although over in minutes, it seemed like hours. The attack over, personnel came out of the shelters and various places of safey to survey the damage. What they saw shocked them all. How could such death and damage occur on such a lovely summers evening!

Personnel immediately began digging to rescue the Waafs' still alive in the shelter. Elsewhere fire engines and ambulances were rushing around, many of them from the local Bromley and Orpington area. Bodies were laid out in rows for identification if there was sufficient remains to do so. As darkness fell, work continued throughout the night on clearing and repairing damage.

The next day and the day after the Luftwaffe returned until very little was left standing on the airfield. The operations rooms, hit by a single bomb, was evacuated to a large house in the village of Biggin Hill called 'Towerfields'. Once again acts of heroism were recorded. Sgt Helen Turner stayed at her telephone exchange trying to keep contact with the operations room at Fighter Command to tell them what was happening. Even when a bomb exploded nearby, she remained calm and did not panic. Her bravery also earnt her the Military Medal.

Biggin Hill was hardly recognisable as further attacks continued. Even in this state the resident squadrons still managed to get airborne carefully avoiding the large craters. Day after day, hour after hour, they vented their fury on the enemy aircraft that dare attack their airfield. Yet somehow the airfield still remained operational. September 5 saw the station commander, Group Captain Grice, order the demolition of the one remaining hangar. In his mind whilst it still stood he thought it a target for the enemy. That done, he felt that the destruction of Biggin Hill was complete.

For the enemy, time was running out if Operation 'Sealion', the invasion of England, was to take place. Despite being told by the head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Goering, that the RAF had been cleared from the skies over the country, Hitler hesitated about giving the invasion order. Although Biggin Hill and many of the other Kent airfields had been blitzed beyond recognition and the fact that Fighter Command was desperately short of pilots, the few fought on. When the returning German aircrew told their intelligence that the RAF were as strong as ever, the plans for an invasion were cancelled.

As September rolled on the attacks on the airfields became less frequent. A change of tactics was apparent in the German mind when many of the major cities in the UK became the targets taking the heat off the airfields. It was none too soon for had the airfields, and especially Biggin Hill, been subjected to further heavy attacks such as had been experienced over the past few weeks, it would have seen total annihilation.

September 15 1940, forever celebrated as Battle of Britain Day, was the turning point in the enemies hoped for capitulation of England. Although the Battle of Britain is deemed to have petered out by the end of October as the bad weather and the dark nights settled in, Biggin Hill was to go on the offensive up until 1944. Many squadrons and personnel are proud to have served at 'the bump' and all the danger that it presented.

Today Biggin Hill is a major civil airport. St George's Chapel around the perimeter and flanked by a Hurricane and Spitfire contains the names of all those who lost their lives flying from Biggin Hill during the Battle of Britain. On August 20, 1940 Winston Churchill broadcast to the nation stating that " never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few". It is to those few that we all owe our very existence. today. Biggin Hill stands as a memorial to all those who lost their lives or were injured during that long hot summer of 1940.

'Kent & the Battle of Britain. The Long Hot Summer of 1940' is a recently released book by Robin J Brooks marking the 70th anniversary of the battle next year. It is available at all bookshops and also on line at www.countrysidebooks.co.uk.

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