The War Years

The year of 1939 began quietly enough with a visit to the aerodrome by twenty-two officers of the 2nd infantry division of the Aldershot command of the British army. They arrived on the Imperial Airways liner ‘Hannibal’ to watch a tactical exercise.
Over the next few months Hornchurch entertained both French and Romanian Missions, as well as a Siamese military contingent to show the running of a British RAF fighter station.
The ‘Home Defence Exercise’ took place in early August as a prelude of things to come.

The following is an extract taken from the station diary for late August and early September1939:

22.8.39 Instructions received to recall all officers above the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
23.8.39 All regular personnel recalled from leave.
24.8.39 Station defence scheme put into operation and all aircraft of squadrons took up positions at dispersal points. Camouflage of all buildings begun by Works and Buildings, with the operations room manned continuously with a skeleton crew.
25.8.39 fifteen officers arrived on posting for war appointments.
26.8.39 Certain war vehicles collected from Wembley.
27.8.39 Class E’ and Volunteer Reserve personnel begin to arrive.
28.8.39 one officer and forty-four men of the National Defence Guard and arrived to augment the station personnel on guard duties.
31.8.39 Splinter proof boxes placed in position in hanger windows by Works and Buildings.
1.9.39 Operations room manned continuously with complete staff.
2.9.39 General mobilization of the Royal Air Force including the Auxiliary Air Force and Reserves.

A very rare sight at Hornchurch aerodrome, a Hawker Hurricane parked up on the apron with a Miles Magister aircraft in the background, this picture was taken in early 1939.
Photo source, Percy Morfill.
On the 1st August 1939, 250 cadets of the Office Training Corps Air Section arrived to look around the aerodrome. When they were given the opportunity to view the new Spitfires of 54 squadron, pre-war coded DL, they all showed a very keen interest in the new machines.
Photo source, Keystone.

Although war had now been declared with Germany, the aerodrome was playing host to a film crew from the London Film Productions, who were shooting some flying sequences with B’ flight of 74 squadron, the semi documentary film revolved around life in fighter and bomber command and was titled ‘The Lion Has Wings’ staring Merle Oberon and Ralph Richardson.

Just three days into the war, on the morning of 6th September 1939, a single aircraft returning from patrol over the English Channel was plotted as ‘hostile’ by the 11 Group controllers at Uxbridge, the Hurricanes of 56 Squadron based at RAF North Weald, were scrambled to intercept the raider. None of the pilots involved had ever seen combat and almost certainly none of them had ever seen an enemy aircraft at this early stage of the war.

This photograph shows pre-war pilots taking a break outside the main hanger at Hornchurch between flying practice on the 1st August 1939, just one month before hostilities started.
Photo source, Getty Images.
An informal group shot of 65 squadron pilots at Hornchurch in 1939.
Photo source, the Australian War Memorial.
A view across the eastern boundary of the aerodrome on the 3rd September 1939, the day war was declared. Bell tents were erected by 65 squadron out on dispersal in readiness for the Germans next move.
Photo source, Percy Morfill.

The Hurricanes of 56 Squadron became split in their hunt for the so-called ‘intruder’ and in turn, these aircraft were plotted as ‘hostile’ and soon the Ops Room table in Uxbridge became cluttered with ‘hostile’ plots. As a result, further squadrons were scrambled to investigate and Spitfires of 54, 65 and 74 Squadrons from Hornchurch were sent out.

Once the Spitfires of 74 Squadron’s A’ Flight, led by ‘Sailor’ Malan caught sight of one of these suspect plots, Malan ordered ‘Tally Ho’ over the radio, which was the universal signal to attack. Almost as soon as he gave the order, he realised that he had made a mistake – the ‘hostile’ aircraft were in fact two of the Hurricanes of 56 Squadron. In the ensuing melee, both Hurricanes were shot down and although one pilot baled out safely, the other, 26-year-old Pilot Office Montague Hulton-Harrop had the unfortunate distinction of being the first RAF pilot to be shot down and killed over England during the Second World War, albeit by his own side.

King George VI congratulates Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere of 54 squadron on his award of the Distinguished Flying Cross presented at RAF Hornchurch. Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.
Pilot Officer Johnny Allen of 54 Squadron receives the DFC from King George VI at Hornchurch on the 27th June 1940. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command, standing in the centre, just behind the King with his hands clasped behind his back.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

Byrne and Freeborn on landing back at Hornchurch were put under arrest and quickly brought before a court martial. Fortunately, both men were acquitted, for it became clear that in the confused atmosphere prevailing on the day, it was impossible to apportion blame. However, this whole affair led to considerable ill-feeling in some quarters. Malan had appeared for the prosecution at the court martial and had accused Freeborn of being irresponsible and of ignoring orders. Freeborn, on the other hand believed that Malan was covering his own back and indeed during the court proceedings, Freeborn’s counsel, Sir Patrick Hastings, accused Malan of being “a bare faced liar.” Remarkably, once the dust of the court martial settled, the two men continued to serve together in 74 Squadron, although not surprisingly relations between the two never recovered.

The incident became known as the ‘Battle of Barking Creek’ although the action took place over rural Essex, nowhere near Barking Creek but as this unattractive feature of east London was the butt of several music hall gags of the time, it was probably inevitable that this misunderstanding would be christened thus by the rank and file of the RAF, who as always showed humour in adversity.

King George VI shakes hands with Flight Lieutenant Dickie Lee, after he had presented him with his DSO and DFC medals.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.
Flight Lieutenant Dickie Lee, after being awarded the DSO and DFC, and Flying Officer Kenneth Blair, after being awarded the DFC, by King George VI at RAF Hornchurch. The awards were given for their distinguished service as fighter pilots with 85 Squadron over France during the Dunkirk evacuations.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

So, after the dramatic start to September, things began to settle down into a long period of inactivity for the Hornchurch squadrons, as their diary entries show the following weeks of the anti-climax in what became a waiting game for the enemy to make its next move. No contact had been made throughout October and even into early 1940, a period that would come to be known as the ‘Phoney War’.

By May of 1940, the German war machine marched across the Dutch, Belgian and French boarders pursuing the British Expeditionary Force back towards the coast and within weeks had driven the British onto the beaches of Dunkirk, surrounded by the German army. With ‘Operation Dynamo’ being put to into action back in England, the plan to evacuate as many troops as possible from under the noses of the Germans using a flotilla of small boats and Naval warships with air support being given by squadrons flying most notably from RAF Hornchurch. This aerial dual was a prelude for things to come, it would also make household names of many of the young pilots flying these dangerous sorties.

An extract from Prime minister Winston Churchill’s speech delivered to the House of Commons on the 18th June 1940, which gave us these now famous words. ‘What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire’. ‘Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say’, “This was their finest hour.”

https://www.winstonchurchill.org/resources/speeches/1940-the-finest-hour/their-finest-hour

After an awards ceremony at Hornchurch, the decorated pilots cheer King George VI. They are, (left to right): Pilot Officer Johnny Allen, Flight Lieutenant Robert Stanford Tuck, Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere, Flight Lieutenant Adolph Malan, Squadron Leader James Leathart and an RAF bugler.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

On the 27th June 1940, a very special guest arrived at Hornchurch and unbeknown to the airmen it was His Majesty King George VI, who had come to present medals to some of the gallant heroes that took part in the Dunkirk evacuations by defending the skies over and around the beaches.

The men in question would receive awards for the shooting down enemy aircraft and their bravery in action, they are as follows: P/o Johnny Allen DFC, 54 sqn, F/l Robert Stanford Tuck DFC, 92 sqn, F/l Alan Deere DFC, 54 sqn, F/l Adolph ‘Sailor Malan, DFC, 74 sqn, S/l James Leathart DSO,54 sqn.

Eric Lock of 41 squadron, was the highest scoring British pilot during the Battle of Britain.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.
222 squadron ground crew sitting at dispersal on the aerodrome at Hornchurch 1940.
Photo source, Joe Crawshaw.
One of Joe Crawshaw’s photographs showing RAF groundcrew from 222 ‘Natal’ Squadron with a Spitfire at RAF Hornchurch sometime during the Battle of Britain.
Photo source, Joe Crawshaw.

By the 10th July 1940, the Battle of Britain had begun, this was to become the greatest aerial combat between to waring nations and would last until the 31st October, this would also be the turning point of the Second World War.

During the Battle of Britain period, all these squadrons flew from RAF Hornchurch aerodrome:
41 squadron, code letters, EB. Spitfire Mk I.
54 squadron, code letters, KL. Spitfire Mk I.
65 East India squadron, code letters, YT. Spitfire Mk I.
74 Trinidad squadron, code letters ZP. Spitfire Mk I.
222 Natal squadron, code letters, ZD. Spitfire Mk I.
264 Madras Presidency squadron, code letters, PS. Boulton Paul Defiant Mk I.
266 Rhodesia squadron, code letters, UO. Spitfire Mk I.
600 City of London squadron, code letters, BQ. Bristol Blenheim Mk IF.
603 City of Edinburgh squadron, code letters, XT. Spitfire Mk I.

Aircraftman 1st class AC1 Fred Ellis, Flight Rigger of 222 Squadron is seen here sitting in the cockpit of a squadron Spitfire at Hornchurch sometime during 1940.
Photo source, Mr. Fred Ellis.
Sergeant Ronnie Stillwell in the cockpit of his 65 ‘East India’ squadron Spitfire Mk I, coded YT X preparing to leave on another sortie from Hornchurch in 1940.
Photo source, unknown.
November 1940 pilots of 41 sqn FO MacKenzie FL Lovell SL Finlay FL Ryder PO Ford
1940, and pilots of 41 squadron pose in front of a Spitfire Mk IIA for this photograph, left to right are Flying Officer John MacKenzie, Flight Lieutenant Tony Lovell, Squadron Don Leader Finlay, Flight Lieutenant Norman Ryder and Pilot Officer Roy Ford.
Photo source, R Beardsley.

From the spring of 1941 through to early 1944, Hornchurch squadrons played a major role in taking part in fighter sweeps (Ramrods) over northern France, as well as seek and destroy missions, (rodeos) and if the weather was bad they made small scale attacks on targets of opportunity (Rhubarbs) these sorties were collectively known as (Circuses). Once the Americans entered the war Hornchurch’s Spitfires were also increasingly called upon to act as escorts for the daylight bombers of the US 8th Army Air Force.

During this time the creation of the ‘Hornchurch Wing’ was formulated, it was a combined force of at least three Spitfire squadrons and often more, that usually operated together en mass on operations over occupied Europe. One of the operations the ‘Wing’ took part in was the provision of escorts to protect air craft making attacks on the German warships ‘Scharnhorst’, ‘Gneisenau’ and ‘Prinz Eugen’ during their dash up the channel. They also supplied fighter cover for the ill-fated Dieppe raid (Operation Jubilee).

A 64 squadron Spitfire Mk Vb, being refuelled and given the once over by its ground crew, the photograph was taken on the 7th May 1942.
Photo source, Unknown.
64 squadron Spitfire MK IIA P7784 flown by Pilot Officer John Rowden, was tragically killed on the 9th April 1941, after combat with Messerschmitt Bf 109’s over Fort-Mardyck while on a Rhubarb from Hornchurch.
Photo source, Michel Beckers.
64 Squadron pilots Flight Lieutenant John Plagis a Rhodesian fighter pilot and Flying Officer A. J. Hancock, standing in front of a squadron Spitfire Mk Vb at RAF Hornchurch, circa 1943.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

During late 1943, the air battles intensified over Europe as the allies began their preparations for the sea invasion, which with luck would take place sometime during early 1944. The Hornchurch Spitfires again had the task of trying to convince the German High Command that any amphibious invasion would take place near Calais and not the planned Normandy beaches. As the date for D-Day approached the Hornchurch squadrons were steadily deployed to forward nearer the proposed landing sites. On February 18th 1944 the Hornchurch operations centre was stood down for the last time, with this fighter operations from Hornchurch aerodrome had all but ended.

Although the aerodrome continued to play in the ongoing war, it became a staging post for the new mobile radar units that would make their way to Europe. It also became home to a maintenance and despatch centre to service vehicles for the allied forces. 567 squadron now called the aerodrome their home, along with 278 Air Sea Rescue squadron and 765 Fleet Air Arm squadron and a signals unit.

On the 24th March 1943 Flying Officer Raimund Sanders Draper an American volunteer serving with the RAF as part of 64 squadron, sacrificed his life to save around 650 children who were inside Suttons School just 530 yards from the aerodrome at Hornchurch. On that morning, he had taken off but soon realised that his aircraft had developed engine trouble, realising that with reduced power he could possibly hit the school, so he deliberately put the nose of the Spitfire down in the playing field, whereupon it bounced up onto the gravel drive and clipped the wall of the end classroom at the southern end of the school.
Photo source, the Draper Family.
Station commander Group Captain Alfred Guy Adnams (centre) accompanies Sir John Coalville, Governor Designate of Bombay (right) on his visit to the aerodrome to meet with pilots of 122 ‘Bombay’ squadron.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

The first Vengeance rocket attacks commenced on the 23rd June 1944, when a VI exploded on one of the flightpaths, with a second exploding on the same day came down just outside the aerodromes perimeter. Other VI’s were hitting the suburban areas of East London and were causing heavy damage and casualties and in response 55 Maintenance Repair Unit (MRU) was formed at Hornchurch to help clear bomb sites and repair damaged properties. The 6221 Bomb Disposal Flight (BDF) were also based at the aerodrome.

Delegates of the Turkish Production Mission watch a Spitfire undergo firing testing at the aerodrome’s firing butts.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.

By March 1945, the threat of the V2 rocket hit home when one came down the new NAAFI building with the blast also damaging the new sergeants mess, airman’s cookhouse and rest room, no casualties were known.

Once hostilities had ceased, Hornchurch still continued to operate as a marshalling depot for service personnel and vehicles, with the site was also being used by Air Training Units.

RAF Hornchurch again hosted a Royal visit when the Regent of Iraq, Emir Abdullah Illah came to the aerodrome as part of his tour of the country. The Regent of Iraq (centre) is shown around by station commander, Wing Commander David Scott-Malden (left) and senior intelligence officer Squadron Leader D. S. Franze (right).
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.
Flying Officer Reginald Frederick Bass of 222 ‘Natal’ squadron poses with his new aircraft ‘Cuba Libre’. This was one of two aircraft named and unveiled by His Excellency Senor Don Guillermo de Blanck, the Cuban Ambassador. The other aircraft was named ‘Spirit of Marti’.
Photo source, Imperial War Museum.
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