For this week’s publication onto its website/facebook & twitter feeds, London Shoes continued to adhere to the Covid19 lockdown doctrine of non-essential travel, by selecting a ‘local’ subject matter of historic interest, to trek out to and explore.
Just one & a bit miles down the road from London Shoes home base in Romford, is the town of Hornchurch within the London Borough of Havering – and its where this particular article’s subject matter is located – and it’s a topic that has had a massive influence, past & present, on the town.
So – this week’s publication onto the London Shoes website/facebook & twitter portals is all about the history of the old Hornchurch Airfield.
Before it was designated an airfield, this plot of rural Hornchurch land was known as Suttons Farm – and it still retained that title when 90 acres of the farm were commissioned by the military at the start of the WW1, for the specific purpose of protecting London’s skies from potential attacks from enemy airships & zeppelins.
Because of its close proximity to central London (14 miles), and its closeness to the River Thames, Suttons Farm was considered the ideal place for an air defence airfield, as it was on the flight path of any enemy attacker using the Thames Estuary to navigate its way towards London.
Motorised flight had not long been invented prior to the commencement of WW1, and the development of fighter planes was a little way off – and so the German enemy sent zeppelin airships loaded with bombs, across the English Channel, which were then dropped on London.
The very first ‘victory’ of an air attack in Britain took place on 2nd Sept 1916 and originated from the Suttons Farm airbase in Hornchurch – when Lt.William Leefe Robinson shot down one of a 16 strong fleet of German zeppelins on their way to bomb London. Lt. Robinson was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross medal, and became a national hero.
During WW1 two other pilots operating from the Suttons Farm airbase in Hornchurch were awarded the DSO (Distinguished Service Order) for their bravery and involvement in the destruction of German zeppelin airships.
After WW1 ended the Royal Air Force (RAF), as it was now known, decided that they had no further use for the Suttons Farm airbase, and so all its airbase buildings and fixtures were pulled down and destroyed, and the land went back to being a working farm again.
However, by 1920 following a programme of expansion by the RAF, serious consideration was given to the possibility of re-acquiring the Suttons Farm site, and converting it back into a military airfield again – because it was ideally placed to protect London from an enemy attack from the skies.
The newly built airfield was formally opened in 1928 and renamed ‘RAF Hornchurch’.
When WW2 broke, RAF Hornchurch became the ‘home-base’ of many squadrons, whose job it was to defend London and South East England.
RAF Hornchurch played a significant part during Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain conflicts – and some of the pilots operating from there became house-hold names, gaining a sort of super-star status with the general public – airmen such as Adolph ‘Sailor’ Malan – Raimund Sanders-Draper – Brendan Finucane – Robert Stanford-Tuck – John Mungo-Park – Alan Deere – the very famous Douglas Bader plus many more brave men (& women) who sacrificed everything for their country in its hour of need.
RAF Hornchurch also played its part in one of the most controversial incidents of WW2 when, in the very first few days of the conflict, two Spitfires from the Hornchurch airfield were dispatched to shoot down two Hurricane fighter planes from another base, that were circling the east London skies. There had been inaccuracies and errors made in the information being relayed which resulted in the pilots from RAF Hornchurch being misinformed by authorities that they were enemy planes. This incident was one of the very first tragic cases of fatalities caused by ‘friendly fire’ and the incident is referred to as ‘The Battle of Barking Creek’.
Throughout WW2 and the subsequent years, the pilots and ground-staff based at RAF Hornchurch, used to drink at ‘The Good Intent’ pub located right near the airbase site.
During WW2 there used to be a large concrete dome situated right next door to the pub, which had weaponry installed in its roof – this structure was used for training gunners.
After WW2 RAF Hornchurch became a ‘Flying Commands-Aircrew Selection Centre’ for many years, until such time the centre moved to the RAF Biggin Hill site.
Sadly, RAF Hornchurch was eventually decommissioned in 1962 – but its legacy and influence still lives on throughout the Hornchurch area.
A large part of the RAF Hornchurch base is now a housing estate known locally as ‘The Airfield Estate’ (obviously), where many of the roads such as Bader Way – Deere Avenue – Malan Square – Robinson Close – Tuck Road – Bouchier Walk, to name just a very few – are named after those brave airmen who once operated from the airbase.
The local Sutton School changed its name to ‘Sanders-Draper’ in commemoration of the WW2 pilot ‘Raimund Sanders-Draper’ who one day suffered engine failure upon take-off from RAF Hornchurch – his plane was descending rapidly towards the school with all the children in it, so rather than bail-out to save himself, he deliberately stayed at the controls to steer his plane to a spot away from the school, thus sacrificing himself to avert a major disaster and loss of many children’s lives.
Another local school was renamed ‘R.J. Mitchell’ after the man who designed the ‘Spitfire’ plane.
The ‘Good Intent’ pub is still in situ today, and its pub-sign commemorates its association with the WW2 fighter pilots, and there are loads of items of RAF Hornchurch memorabilia on display inside the pub. (Obviously, the pub is currently closed due to Covid19 ‘lockdown’ restrictions – so I couldn’t venture inside for a ‘butchers’)
Many of the RAF Hornchurch administrative buildings such as the ‘Officers Mess’ – the ‘Officers’ living quarters – the married Officers & RAF Personnel’s houses etc, are all still in situ, and being used for different purposes these days – and they all have been given listed protection status.
Apart from the ‘Airfield Estate’, a big chunk of the old RAF Hornchurch airfield was extensively landscaped to create the massive ‘Hornchurch Country Park’ recreation and conservation area.
The majority of the old RAF structures and buildings such as aircraft hangers and disposal huts etc, were destroyed to make way for the Hornchurch Country Park, but there are some of the old WW2 structures that still remain today as a sort of reminder of just how important the RAF Hornchurch site was to the defence of Britain in war time.
Tucked away in seclusion throughout the Park there are a few ‘Pill-Boxes’ that were originally situated on the perimeters of the air-base.
There are also a few of ‘Tett-Turrets’ that can be found in the undergrowth. ‘Tett’ Turrets are small circular tube shaped pill-boxes sunken deep into the ground, so that only the top part is visible. They were installed at the very beginning of WW2 when a land invasion by the Germans was believed to be a distinct possibility. A gunner would situate himself inside the sunken turret, and would not be easily seen by any enemy on foot – thus enabling him to take aim and fire.
In the middle of the children’s playground at the Hornchurch Country Park, there’s a kids climbing structure that represents a Spitfire plane up in the clouds.
There are also many ‘story-boards’ scattered throughout the Park area providing background info and graphics on what certain areas of the old RAF base were used for.
Some of the old Dispersal Huts are still in situ, and can be found scattered around the Hornchurch area – these are today used as halls for local community organisations such as Cubs/Scouts/Guides etc, and one is actually home to a boxing club.
The public car park used to be a ‘Dispersal Pen’ where the planes would be ‘parked’ whilst preparing to be scrambled for action – these Pens had an underground air-raid shelters attached to them, for the pilots to use. The entrance to one of these shelters can still be seen in the car-park, although its entrance has long been filled in.
So – that’s the story behind RAF Hornchurch – maybe not one of the bigger and better known war-time airfields, but one that most definitely played its part throughout both World Wars, and one that still, to this day, continues to leave its influence on the Hornchurch area.
Hope you found this interesting 🛩😉
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