R.A.F. STATION BIGGIN HILL
With a section on Mesothelioma in memory of Jill Cracknell
Aerial View (29K JPG)
Royal Air Force Station, Biggin Hill
Compiled by P.M. Corbell, (Airfield Historical Research Group)
– an Air-Britain Monograph
“What is Biggin Hill? The name has a homely sound, almost rustic, but there are squadrons in the R.A.F. as proud as having fought from here as regiments in the Army are of having “Blenheim” and “Alamein” emblazoned on their colours. In itself Biggin Hill was just a fighter station, not very large by jet-age standards, a rather untidy agglomeration of hangars and huts, offices, barrack blocks and Messes beside an airfield. Some buildings are modern, others bear the scars of war, patches of raw brickwork and the fading patterns of camouflage, but the eyes alone cannot discern the tradition that is Biggin Hill. It lies in dusty files and record and combat reports, in the treasured diaries and in memories of the men, and women too, who have served here.”
That description is taken from the Introduction to the book “Biggin Hill” by Graham Wallace and was written before the airfield was largely deserted by military aeroplanes, and had become better known for its flying club activities. In 1959, with the closing of Croydon, was leased to Surrey Aviation and the south camp was converted into a civil airfield, while the north camp still remains in Service hands.
The Chapel at Biggin Hill Airfield with the fullsize replica of a Spitfire.
Picture curtsey of Joseph J. Merchant OMB. MUF. To see further pictures or to order your copy of the Biggin Hill Millennium Calender click here
Situated on a plateau on top of the North Downs, Biggin Hill became a household word as long ago as 1943, when the Station and its Sector airfields were the first to claim a thousand enemy aircraft destroyed Even the official veil of secrecy that shrouded the intimate details of Fighter Command operations at the time was laid aside to reveal to the World the claim of Biggin Hill. The event was celebrated by the most spectacular party of the Second World War. Over a thousand guests were invited and the top table was adorned by three large lobsters labelled Hitler, Mussolini and Goebals. Fifty London cabbies insisted on driving the pilots up to Grosvenor House free of charge for this celebration.
Originally Biggin Hill was used for early wireless experiments, but was then established in 1917 as part of the inner patrol zone of the London Air Defence Area. No. 141 Squadron, R.F.C., was posted in with Bristol Fighters, each of which sported a bright red cockerel painted on the fuselage. At this time Zeppelin attacks were falling off, and raids by the German Gotha bombers were increasing. Before the end of World War One Biggin was able to claim at least one of these raiders which was shot down on Harrietsham aerodrome in Kent.
After the war Biggin became the home of the Instrument Design Establishment but this was moved to Farnborough in 1922, and the aerodrome again became concerned with the air defence of England. Concentrated on Biggin Hill were several organisations on major experimental work to perfect our ground defences against air attack. Included in these units were the Army School of Anti-Aircraft Defense and the Searchlight Experimental Establishment,. The R.A.F. posted in No. 56 Squadron, equipped with Snipes and the Night Flying Flight.
Towards the end of of 1927 No. 56 Squadron, now with Siskins, was transferred to North Weald, and two years later the Night Flying Flight, equipped with Vimys also departed, leaving Biggin empty except for a skeleton staff. Reconstruction of the Station began in 1929, and three years later the new buildings and hangars were ready for occupation. Nos. 23 and 32 Squadrons moved in from Kenley equipped with Demons and Bulldogs, respectively. A new unit, the Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Flight was formed at Biggin to give training to the growing number of A.A. sites in the London area. Horsleys were in use at first, but these were replaced by Wallaces.
In December 1936, No. 23 Squadron moved out to Northolt, leaving No. 32 now with the Gauntlets in sole occupation until the newly formed No. 79 Squadron, also with Gauntlets arrived the following year.
The familiar pattern of air displays continued and each Empire Air Day, Biggin was thrown open to the public in much the same way as in the days of the more recent Battle of Britain Displays.
At the time of the Munich crisis, No. 601 (County of London) Auxiliary Squadron, with Demons joined Nos. 32 and 79 Squadrons, but fortunately the immediate crisis passed, and both the regular squadrons were able to re-equip with Hurricanes before World War Two began. When that happened, No. 601 Squadron again returned from Hendon, Its Demons having given way to Blenheim Is.
During the “phoney” war, No. 79 Squadron became the first to claim aircraft when it shot down a Dornier Do 17 on November 2nd, 1939. This was the first of the thousand.
The days of Dunkirk saw feverish activity at Biggin with constant patrols over the beaches by Nos. 242 and 79 Squadrons flying Hurricanes. By the time the Battle of Britain was well under way, Biggin Hill had become a Spitfire station operating with such squadrons as Nos. 92, 72, 74 and 610. Between August 18th, 1940 and January 7th, 1941, the aerodrome was attacked twelve times. On August 18th, KG 76, a Luftwaffe bomber unit, sent in a high level and low level attack with Dornier Do 17s and Junkers Ju 88s, but the main damage was the cratering of the landing ground. In the second of two attacks on August 30th, a small formation of less than a dozen bombers at low level reduced Biggin Hill to a shambles with 1,000 lb. bombs. Workshops, stores, barracks, W.A.A.F. quarters and a hangar were wrecked, and 39 were killed. The next day a high level attack did further extensive damage including a direct hit on the Ops block.
Again, on September lst there were two attacks, the second of which by Dornier Do 17s, hit runways and the Sector Operations Room. The defence teleprinter network was wrecked by a 500 lb. bomb and three members of the W.A.A.F. working on until the last moment received the M.M. for bravery.
Despite the heavy damage the Luftwaffe inflicted on Biggin Hill. it remained operational throughout the whole course of the Battle. For one week however the damage was so severe that only one squadron could operate from it.
The enemy was now turning to night attacks to supplement its dwindling day raids. Into Biggin came No. 141 Squadron with Defiants to continue the task which it had begun twenty-two years earlier. The squadron celebrated its return to Biggin by claiming two Heinkel He llls and a Junkers Ju 88 in two successive nights.
When Spring came the following year, the enemy turned eastwards to Russia instead of renewing the onslaught on the U.K. Released from its defensive role, Fighter Command turned over to the offensive and Festung Europa began receiving daily attention from the R.A.F.
At first of limited scope and size, the air offensive mounted in strength over the next three years. During the summer of 1941 the arrival of the first Spitfire VBs with its two cannon and four machine guns gave a new impetus to the Station’s rapidly mounting score. In August 1942 the combined raid on Dieppe, code-named “Operation Jubilee” was mounted, and the Biggin Wing claimed 15 enemy aircraft destroyed for the loss of only six pilots. The Fw 190, which was more than a match for the Spitfire VB, now in its second summer, appeared in 1942 and caused a temporary setback to our air superiority. The Spitfire IX was the answer and Biggin Hill received its first consignment during August 1942.
Now the tide was running in the R.A.F.’s favour, and the Biggin Hill squadrons were taking part in every type of Fighter Command operation. These consisted of circuses, rhubarbs, rodeos and ramrods, to mention but a few of the code-names involved.
During these three years of continuous front-line fighting the pace at Biggin and its Sector stations, Lympne, Hawkinge, Gravesend and West Malling was hectic. Periodically squadrons had to be withdrawn and rested in quieter sectors. They were replaced by others from the north and west of Britain, some of the pilots of which had already become well-known for their deeds; men like “Sailor” Malan (who became Commanding Officer of Biggin Hill in 1943), Alan Deere, Jamie Rankin, Stanford Tuck, and many others including Allied pilots from Poland, Holland, Belgium and the U.S.A.
On June 13th, 1944, one week after D-Day, the first V1 flying bombs made their debut over England. The close proximity of Biggin Hill to London brought it within the defensive balloon barrage belt and at the end of June the Station had to be evacuated to allow the balloon crews to take over. The airfield lay in “bomb alley” and itself received a number of hits and near misses. In September 1944 however, Station Headquarters returned from Redhill and Biggin Hill again resumed the offensive fighter role, escorting R.A.F. Lancasters and Halifaxes in daylight attacks on Germany.
Biggin Hill also became a Transport Command terminal for services to the various parts of Europe now freed from enemy domination. The first unit to fly from Biggin on transport duties was a detached flight of No. 168 Squadron, R.C.A.F., which operated seven Dakotas on the Mailcan service.
Soon after the end of the war in Europe, Biggin Hill was transferred from the famous No. 11 Group, with whom it had given such sterling service, to No. 46 Group, Transport Command. It now became even busier, and in July 1945, to take one example, 18,463 passengers were landed at the aerodrome from the Continent, many of them in the Dakotas of No. 168 Squadron, R.C.A.F., and No. 314 Squadron, U.S.A.A.F. In December 1945, No. 168 Squadron returned to Canada, being replaced it Biggin Hill by the Dakota of No. 436 Squadron. This was also a R.C.A.F. squadron, and services were flown to such places as Schipol (Amsterdam) Evere (Brussels), Munster and their home base at Down Ampney in Gloucestershire. No 436 Squadron returned to Canada in June 1946.
In August 1946, Biggin Hill was handed to Reserve Command, under whose control it remained until November 1949, when it again reverted to Fighter Command. Two Royal Auxiliary squadrons, Nos. 600 (City of London) and 615 (County of Surrey) reformed at Biggin Hill in 1946 and remained the sole flying units until 1951 when they were joined by a regular squadron, No.41. At first the Auxiliaries flew Spitfires, but both converted to Meteors in 1950, while No. 41 Squadron with Meteors later converted to Hunters.
But the writing was on the wall for Biggin Hill as a fighter station. In March 1957, both Nos. 600 and 615 Squadrons were disbanded in common with all the other Auxiliary Squadrons up and down the country. Then, with the contraction of Fighter Command and the fact that the air space over Biggin was becoming too crowded with airliners flying to and from London Airport, No. 41 Squadron disbanded at Biggin and gave its number plate to No. 141 Squadron at Coltishall in January 1958. Attending the ceremony at Biggin was Group Captain Jamie Rankin who had flown from Biggin in 1940.
This transfer marked the end of an era for Biggin Hill, for it had now been relegated to a non-operational status. The R.A.F., however, still retained the North Camp to house the Officers and Aircrew Selection Centre, whilst one of the now demolished post-war black hangars contained a fine collection of World War Two aircraft, including a Junkers Ju 88, Me 109, Me110, FW 190, Heinkel He 111, Fiat CR 42, Vickers Wellington and a Mitsubishi “Dinah” from Japan and a V1 and V2. An annual event in the North Camp was, until the late 1970s, the “Battle of Britain” Open Day, which occurring in September, brought a temporary return of R.A.F. aeroplanes and many thousands of spectators.
The Chapel at Biggin Hill Airfield
The R.A.F finally left Biggin Hill in October 1992, when the Selection Centre moved to RAF Cranwell. Today, the RAF’s 75 year pressenceat Biggin Hill and in particular the 454 allied aircrew who gave their lifes in the Second World War on operations from the Biggin Hill Sector, are commemorated in St George’s Royal Air Force Chapel of Remembrance. The Chapel which is a living church is situated on the Main Road between the cicil air terminal and Biggin Hill village, its entrance flanked by full-scale replicas of a Hurricane and a Spitfire. It was built and dedicated in 1951, replacing the first station church made in 1943 from 3 wartime huts and destroyed by fire in 1946. The present Chapel retains something of the internal appearance of the original church, and has an atmosphere of great tranquility and peace, but it is of course more ornately furnished and has exceptionally fine stained glass windows, designed by Hugh Easton, as well as a number of other interesting artefacts. Some 12000 people visit the chapel each year, and in addition to regular weekly services, special commemorative services are held on Battle of britain Sunday and Remembrance Sunday. The Chapel is open daily from 1000 to 1600 (times vary slightly depending on the day of the week) and visitors are always most welcome. Opening hours can be confirmed on 01959 570353. If you would like to help assure the future of the chapel, details concerning membership of the Friends of St George’s Chapel can also be obtained from the same number.
As already related the south camp was leased to Surrey Aviation Ltd. in 1959 and early that year the Surrey and Kent Flying Club celebrated their arrival at Biggin by holding a breakfast patrol. Biggin Hill’s days as a civil operated aerodrome were about to commence.
One of the first events in the Biggin Hill civil calendar was its fairly intensive use by a considerable proportion of the entrants in the Daily Mail London to Paris Air Race in July 1959. Among the aircraft that filtered through Biggin were a Miles Student, Jet Provost, Cessna 310. Hunter T.66, Spitfire VIII and a Tiger Moth.
When Croydon Airport was finally closed on September 30th most of the operators who had not already made the move flew over Biggin Hill. These included Maitland Air Charters and Air Cour for whom a second hangar was taken into use.
More recently, Biggin Hill has seen a very popular event, Travel Fair, held yearly since 1963. In 1965 the highlight of display was the return of an Avro Lancaster from Australia for preservation in this country.
Today Biggin Hill, as the most popular light aviation centre south of London can boast a collection of thriving lightplane clubs and charter companies, among them being Classair, Surrey and Kent, Flairavia, Vendair, Alluette, Civilair and Air Couriers.
Because of the long term use of asbestos, the United Kingdom has seen a marked increase in cases of the asbestos-caused cancer malignant mesothelioma in the past 20 years. The country’s Health and Safety Executive reports that only 153 cases of the disease were diagnosed in 1968. In 2006, the last year for which statistics are currently available, 2,056 individuals died of mesothelioma. Projections say cases of the disease in the UK will peak around 2015, with approximately 2,500 annual deaths from mesothelioma occurring around that time.
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