World War Two: The Heroes of Biggin Hill
It is now 70 years on from the Battle of Britain and the experiences of the men, women and civilians of Biggin Hill in the Kent countryside encapsulated the drama of this critical period in Britain's history. Repeatedly bombed throughout the summer of 1940, these brave souls gave their lives for the future of the country by halting the Nazis advance during World War 2.
The Gathering Storm
It's September 1939, and on a quiet late summer's evening a solitary car is driving through the Kent countryside. It passes through a sleepy village and onwards to an RAF base. The passenger has a heavy heart for he knew what the morning would bring. He was none other than Winston Churchill and the base was Biggin Hill. the sadness in his heart was of course the prospect that in the morning, Britain would be at war with Germany.
Over the course of the following year, Biggin Hill airbase would become famous across the land for it's courageous young pilots, it's brave WAAF's and the unyeilding resolve of it's local villagers. It was to be the main Fighter Command station during the Battle of Britain and they were to bare the brunt of the Luftwaffe's attacks on the country.
In Biggin Hill in the April of 1940, set among the peaceful North Downs of Kent, the quiet villages' occupants felt like they were a million miles away from the conflict of World War 2 which is ravaging continental Europe. Lorryloads of fresh fruit and vegetables pass through the village everyday and the only noise was that of playful children in the lanes and fields.
Day of Days by Dave Harris Art
- Highly detailed pencil portraits, World War 2 pictures and limited edition prints: Dave Harris Art
Dave Harris Art produces highly detailed pencil portraits from photos and military artwork upon commission. Portraits of sports stars, movie scenes and World War 2 pictures are available to purchase on-line as limited edition Fine Art Giclee prints.
Preparing for War
The airbase had been built in 1918 and was relatively small, but over the course of six crucial months in 1940, it would play a vital role in the defence of Britain's frontline. Just down the road from Winston Churchill's family home at Chartwell just 17 miles southeast of London, Biggin Hill was ideally placed to defend Britain's vulnerable channel coast and act as the last line of defence before the capital.
After the fall of Denmark and Norway, the Biggin Hill residents knew that the Nazi threat was looming ever larger. Added to this, the RAF were arriving in droves and so Biggin Hill was changing rapidly. Hedges came down, barbed wire went up, everywhere people went, Military police were present and parts of the village resembled a prison camp.
Then the Spitfires and hurricanes arrived, with many of the pilots only a few years older than some of the boys in the village. Inexperienced 18 and 19 year olds, not only of combat, but in many cases of life itself. Hundreds of ground crew were also sent to the base and their families came with them.
War on the Doorstep
On the 10th May 1940, Winston Churchill became Prime Minister and by the end of the month Hitler had seized most of France. The British were driven back and had to suffer a humiliating retreat from Dunkirk. Churchill and Britain were now facing the threat of German invasion . The Nazis had succeeded in the battle for France and were now preparing themselves for the Battle of Britain.
The planned assault on Britain was codenamed Operation Sealion, a two-phased plan, firstly an airborne attack aimed at destroying the RAF, and secondly to invade with thousands of seaborne troops in a land invasion. As the German forces prepared, Biggin Hill's pilots were sent to patrol the English Channel and the French coast.
The Battle for Britain
Initial dogfights against German Heinkel bombers proved relatively successful as the Battle of Britain began in july 1940. In the opening weeks of the battle, Biggin Hill pilots accounted for 38 German planes, losing 18 in return. Up to now the battle had been fought over the channel, but German tactics were soon to change and the British airfields themselves were about to become the main targets. For the people of Biggin Hill, the Battle of Britain was about to become very close to home.
The warmth of summer had arrived and so had the war, August would prove to be a long, tragic month at Biggin Hill. As the Luftwaffe pushed forwards over Britain, the squadrons of Biggin Hill found themselves battling over the very villages and orchards of Kent itself. Hitler's plan was simple, destroy the RAF and invade Britain.
The pilots now found themselves flying up to three sorties per day and the civilians of Biggin Hill village found themselves in the thick of the action. The villagers were on constant look-out or listening for gunfire, air raid sirens, aircraft or the sound of churchbells which would signal that the invasion of Britain had begun.
Up until now, the Germans had been focusing their attentions on the Radar and communication stations around the south coast, and Biggin Hill had been left alone. Radar was something that the Germans did not posess and it gave the RAF a head start on the Luftwaffe, as it could tell exactly how many planes were coming and from which direction. This enabled the RAF to activate a targeted response, which was just as well for the Luftwaffe heavily outnumbered the Royal Air Force.
As the villagers looked on, the dogfights between the opposing forces resembled some kind of 'aerial ballet'. Planes wheeled, dived and soared at speeds of up to 300 miles an hour. Occasionally outnumbered up to 5 to 1, the RAF pilots' main concern was self preservation and the chance to 'live to fight another day'. Three times a day 3 squadrons of 12 pilots each, took off from Biggin Hill and the children on the ground were transfixed as the Spitfires and Hurricanes time and again scrambled to face the enemy hoardes. Young boys in the village were in awe of the dashing pilots and they ran through the fields in some vain attempt to keep up with the planes overhead.
The village youths became experts in the identification of fallen shrapnel which they traded, as shells, bits of bombs and pieces of aircraft virtually had their own currency amongst local boys in the Biggin Hill area. As the battle raged over the skies above the coast, the whole village watched the drama unfold. Fighting an overwhelming enemy, the pilots faced a relentless task. By the end of August the RAF was exhausted and had lost many good pilots, their replacements on the other hand were very inexperienced, having had only a few hours flying in Spitfires and having never fired their guns in anger.
Surprisingly however, the RAF were holding firm and home advantage was proving a decisive factor. With the battle being fought over home soil, German pilots who were shot down were effectively out of the war for good, downed RAF pilots though could be back in another cockpit the very same day.
A Darker Turn
With the Battle of Britain now on a knife-edge Hitler raised the stakes. Unable to destroy the RAF in the air, he decided to attack them on the ground. The people of Biggin Hill were about to feel the full force of the Luftwaffe as the airfields themselves were now the main target for German bombers.
The hundreds of RAF groundcrew were now faced with a battle for survival. There were 200 WAAF's (Womens Auxhillary Air Force) stationed at Biggin HIll and their job was to service the aircraft, get the pilots into the air and some even did some of the pilots' washing for them. The pilots appreciated them enormously and believed they would not have coped without them.
The WAAF's had many other wide and varied tasks including working in the operations room, relaying vital information about enemy movement. They also took on the role of plotters, telephone operators, aircraft mechanics and cooks.
Heroes and Heroines
On the 18th August 1940, the WAAF's work turned from vital to extremely dangerous as at 1;30pm a formation of enemy bombers approached the southeast coast. Minutes later waves of bombers passed over the village and began to lose their bombs. The village pub was hit, roads too were targeted and then the airfield. The administrative buildings, the operations room and aircraft were all ablaze. One brave WAAF Elizabeth Mortimer ran out onto the airfield and attempted to place a series of red flags into the ground to show where there may be unexploded bombs and to act as beacons for the RAF pilots attempting to land.
Suddenly one of the bombs exploded, propelling her sideways off the ground. Lying on the ground, gasping for breath, she managed to get to her feet and limp around the airfield continuing her task . One of the main reasons for this was that her boyfriend was one of the pilots in the squadron above who was trying to find a safe place to land. For this immense act of bravery, she became the first ever WAAF in Great Britain to be honoured with the Military Medal for Bravery.
August 18th had been a shocking day for the residents of Biggin Hill as two people were killed and many others injured. But Elizabeth Mortimer's actions enabled all the remaining squadrons to land safely and that night at least she would be reunited with her pilot boyfriend.
Facing the End
The southeast of England soon became known as 'Hells Corner' as attacks on airfields became almost a daily occurrence. Bases at Biggin Hill, Henden and Croydon came under constant bombardment. Until now, the battle seemed almost courteous and polite with bombing carried out on almost a 9 to 5 basis. But all that was about to change, with tragic consequences.
At around 6;00pm on the 30th August, a force of 10 German bombers were spotted over the coast heading towards Biggin Hill and the villagers hurriedly made their way to their air raid shelters. Their had been no sirens this time to warn of the impending danger and then the bombing began. The ground shook violently around the village and as the air cleared, everything seemed to be covered in a sheet of white chalky dust, this seemed to distress the local residents just as much as the bombing itself.
The airfield had been taken by complete surprise and the consequences were devastating. The WAAF's shelter had took a direct hit and many WAAF's had been inside at the time. A frantic search got underway to get them out, which took most of the night. Amazingly, by morning they had got them all out and only one WAAF had not survived. But a direct hit on the airmen's shelter had done terrible damage, killing almost evryone inside. This devastating day at Biggin Hill had seen 39 people die.
The bombs however, kept on coming and people feared for the survival and very existence of Biggin Hill. They had suffered a testing August as the airfield and surrounding village had been pummelled by German bombing. On the 31st August, the very next day after the devastating attack on the airbase, another wave of German bombers appeared on the horizon, this time hoping to wipe out Biggin Hill for good.
All non-essential staff had been ordered to leave the base and minutes later the bombing started. One 500lb bomb hit the operations room head-on and by the end of the raid, Biggin Hill resembled the surface of the moon. It was incredible then to think that the base remained operational even though the runways, ops room, hangers and aircraft had been all but destroyed.
Turning the Tide
An emergency operations room was set up in the village shop and the local villagers opened their own homes to the men and women of the airodrome. Incredibly, by the 18th September, all three of Biggin Hill's squadrons were back in action. The RAF was close to extinction, but so was the Luftwaffe and it would soon prove to be the climax of the battle as every single available plane left on both sides engaged for the final time.
An unending wave of dogfights ensued over southeast England and the fields and orchards of Kent, were soon littered with the smouldering wreckage of planes. Mid-September proved a decisive period of the battle as bombing raidson Croydon sparked retaliatory strikes on Berlin. Incensed by this, Hitler turned his attention to the cities of Britain, and the Blitz began.
As the cities burned, Hitler had made a fatal error as this gave the channel coast aerodromes the opportunity to regroup. With the winter fast approaching, Operation Sealion was rapidly becoming out of Hitler's grasp, and the threat of a German invasion of Britain had passed. The pilots and people of Biggin Hill had played their part in stopping Hitler in his tracks. Many dark days lay ahead of course, but the people and armed forces of Britain could now take heart knowing that the German war machine was not invincible and could be stopped. This would have a knock-on effect and give renewed vigour to Allied forces in places like North Africa, Sicily and Western Europe.
In total, 544 Royal Air Force pilots lost their lives during the Battle of Britain, 45 of these flew out of Biggin Hill. Over the next five years, many more pilots, WAAF's and airmen would find their home at Biggin Hill and in 1943 it would become the first station to claim it's 1,000th 'kill'
They fought on until the German surrender in May 1945 and today, 70 years on, many thousands visit the famous Biggin Hill air show every year. In many ways it was a glorious period for the men and women of Biggin Hill, tough, hard and frightening, but a period where they excelled to their very best over 16 weeks of bravery, danger and incredible fighting spirit.
They had ensured that the name of Biggin Hill would never be forgotten.