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RAF 100: A Hornchurch airfield’s pride of place in the force’s history

PUBLISHED: 11:00 13 July 2018

41 Squadron RAF Hornchurch (photo courtesy of Havering Local Studies Library)

41 Squadron RAF Hornchurch (photo courtesy of Havering Local Studies Library)

Havering Local Studies Library

Tony Philpot of the Hornchurch Aerodrome Historical Society on airship attacks, First World War heroes and keeping memories of an historic airfield alive.

King George VI congratulates Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere of 54 squadron on his award of the Distinguished Flying Cross presented at RAF Hornchurch. Pic: Imperial War MuseumKing George VI congratulates Flight Lieutenant Alan Deere of 54 squadron on his award of the Distinguished Flying Cross presented at RAF Hornchurch. Pic: Imperial War Museum

Royal Air Force Station Hornchurch was a very important airfield sited within the parish of Hornchurch, then of course in the county of Essex.

The airfield was known originally as Sutton’s Farm during the First World War, when it occupied 90 acres of the farm of the same name.

It was used for the protection of London, being positioned only 14 miles east north-east of the capital.

Although the airfield closed shortly after the end of the First World War, the land was again requisitioned in 1923 because of the expansion of the Royal Air Force and it re-opened as a much larger fighter station in 1928.

The airfield was ideally located in bomb alley to cover both London and the Thames corridor from German air attacks.

In 1915 the London Air Defence Area was established, along with a number of airfields being constructed around London with the specific aim of defending the capital from the growing threat from enemy airships.

Sutton’s Farm, along with its neighbour Hainault Farm just eight miles to the north-east, were selected due to their location covering the eastern approaches to London.

They were designated Landing Grounds No.2 and No.3 respectively and joined the existing airfields of North Weald, Rochford and Joyce Green. Suttons Farm airfield became operational on October 3 1915, initially with two BE2c aircraft, but as the number of aircraft increased at the airfields around London, it was decided to organise them into No.39 Home Defence Squadron which was formed in April 1916.

The first recorded interception of an enemy airship over Britain was made by Lt. John Slessor on the very day he arrived at Sutton’s Farm, on October 13 1915.

The attack had to be aborted as the airship disappeared into cloud and he had to break off the engagement.

The first victory in Britain was not recorded until nearly a year later, on September 3 1916, and was attributed to a pilot from Sutton’s Farm, Lt. William Leefe Robinson, who shot down a Schütte-Lanz SLII, which crashed at Cuffley in Hertfordshire.

For this action Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross and became a national hero.

Two other Sutton’s Farm pilots, Lt. Frederick Sowrey and Lt. Wulstan Tempest, were awarded the DSO for their roles in the destruction of two further Zeppelins.

After the war ended it was decided that the land was now surplus to requirements and the airfield was decommissioned, although it did retain a ‘C’ listing meaning it was temporarily retained for service purposes until February 1920.

The decision to expand the Royal Air Force meant that any former First World War airfields were inspected to decide their suitability for use.

Again, Suttons Farm was thought to be ideally located for the defence of the north-eastern approaches to London and the land was re-purchased, together with some further land to the south of the original site.

The new airfield took four years to build and opened, as RAF Sutton’s Farm, in April 1928.

Two months later the name was changed to RAF Hornchurch and the first unit to take up residency was 111 Squadron, led by Squadron Leader Keith Park, who also became the first station commander.

During World War Two the station became a sector airfield for Fighter Command’s No.11 Group, covering London and the south east of England especially during both Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain.

It also played a vital role in 1944 during the D-Day Landings with air support for the troops on the ground.

Many of the pilots that flew from Hornchurch during World War Two became household names, gaining the sort of notoriety of some of today’s footballing superstars.

Pilots such as John Freeborn, Brendan ‘Paddy’ Finucane, John Mungo Park, ‘Sailor’ Malan, James Leathart, Johnny Allen, Raimund Sanders Draper, Robert Stanford Tuck, Alan Deere, John Kilmartin, Douglas Bader and so many other brave men and women that sacrificed everything for their country in time of war.

By 1962 the airfield finally closed its gates for the last time, with all existing buildings being demolished and the land sold off in various lots.

Following a long period of gravel extraction and infilling with rubbish in the 1970s, the site was extensively landscaped to create the Hornchurch Country Park, with work commencing in 1980.

Parts of the area are now a housing estate, with many streets commemorating the airfield and its pilots.

Some schools hold other famous names, such as R. J. Mitchell School which was named after the designer of the Spitfire fighter plane, along with Sanders named after the American pilot, Flying Officer Raimund Sanders Draper.

The last dispersal pen, now a car park, four pillboxes and sections of perimeter trackway, as well as the largest surviving number of Tett turrets anywhere in England still exist within the boundaries of the former airfield.

RAF Hornchurch was the subject of one of the programmes in the BBC TV series Two Men in a Trench, in the programme several of the defences were examined.

The Hornchurch Aerodrome Historical Society continues today to keep the memory alive of this once famous fighter station.

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