Heritage: Havering’s grandstand view of the Battle of Britain
- Credit: Archant
On August 31, 1940 RAF Hornchurch, the front-line of freedom, was nearly put out of action, says Professor Ged Martin
When prime minister Churchill said, on June 20, 1940, that the Battle of France was lost, and “the Battle of Britain is about to begin”, he was warning of an expected Nazi invasion. Only later – as the danger receded – did that inspiring phrase describe the struggle in the skies that Churchill himself initially called “the great air battle”.
Hitler’s Army could not cross the Channel until Germany dominated the skies. The braggart Goering claimed his Luftwaffe could destroy the RAF, flatten the aircraft factories and drive British shipping from the Channel.
Even with 400 bombers and 700 fighters, operating from recently conquered airfields in France, it was a tall order.
The RAF had around 700 fighters, including the superb Spitfire and the reliable Hurricane.
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Guided to their targets by top-secret radar and communicating by radio-telephone, British pilots operated close to their bases, unlike the Germans who were flying at the limit of their range.
The Recorder’s war history, Ordeal in Romford, recalled how local people watched German aircraft approaching, “dozens of little silvery specks flying in formation against the blue sky. Then we would hear the drone of our fighters, and the sky would be criss-crossed by the vapour trails of the aircraft as they fought above.”
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In late August, Goering switched to bombing RAF stations, hoping to force Fighter Command to abandon the south-east of England.
Airfields along the coast came under heavy attack. RAF Hornchurch’s out-station at Rochford, now Southend Airport, was sometimes out of action.
The front line of freedom was now the ring of airfields protecting London – like Biggin Hill and Kenley, south of the Thames, Hornchurch, North Weald and Debden in Essex.
On August 24, RAF Hornchurch was attacked. Flying high and fast, the Germans could not pinpoint targets.
While seven high explosive bombs cratered the airfield, around fifty more hit Rainham and South Hornchurch. Luckily, there were few casualties, but 32-year-old John Richard Lewis of Hillview Avenue, a civilian worker at the aerodrome, became Havering’s first fatality.
One bomber crash-landed at North Ockendon. Scrambling free before it exploded, the five-man crew surrendered to farm workers, but arrogantly insisted that Germany would soon be victorious. In fact, their war was over. By contrast, RAF pilots who were shot down landed on home ground and usually returned to combat.
On August 31, RAF Hornchurch received what Peter Watt, in his book Hitler v. Havering, called “its worst hammering of the war”. In two raids, six Spitfires were destroyed, some as they took off.
A German bomber flew low across Havering, chased by a Spitfire, machine guns blazing. The raider dumped its bombs, killing two people in Park Lane, Hornchurch, and three more in central Romford’s Randall Road and Richmond Road.
Thousands watched when a German pilot parachuted out of his crashing aircraft, drifting about as he descended. There was general satisfaction when he landed in Elm Park’s Bretons sewage works.
The RAF was holding its own in aerial combat, but more raids like that might make it impossible to fly from Hornchurch. Fighter Command’s airfields were saved partly by luck.
On August 24, stray German bombs fell in central London – poor aiming again. Churchill ordered retaliatory raids on Berlin.
Hitler was furious, and decided to crush the British people through mass terror bombing. On September 7, waves of German aircraft used the Thames to guide themselves to pulverise the docks. The Blitz had begun.
On September 15 Goering made one last effort to destroy the RAF in battle. His gamble failed. There would be no invasion.
The East End suffered most in the Blitz, but bombs fell locally too. On September 21 a landmine wrecked houses in Gidea Park’s Carlton Road and Stanley Avenue.
One woman who lost her home simply said, “This sort of thing will never beat us. We have got to go through with it to the bitter end.”