Guest Article: The Attack on RAF Tangmere 1940

Guest Article by David Coxon, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum | 04 August 2010
a painting of fighter planes and bombers seen from above with fields below them

(Above) Paul Couper, In Defence of Tangmere. Courtsey the artist and Trustees of Tangmere Military Aviation Museum.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum Curator, David Coxon, tells the dramatic story of August 16 1940 when Ju 87 Stukas of the Luftwaffe attacked RAF Tangmere.

On Thursday 15 August 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill was at Fighter Command Headquarters, Bentley Priory, with Air Marshal Hugh Dowding, Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Fighter Command, observing the progress of the enemy bombing raids.

By the end of the day 75 German aircraft had been shot down — a real blow to the previously invincible German Air Force. The Luftwaffe always referred to this day as “Black Thursday”. Fighter Command had lost thirty aircraft with 17 pilots killed. Churchill, on leaving Dowding’s HQ that evening, described it as “One of the greatest days of history.”

In spite of the setbacks of the previous day, the Luftwaffe returned to the attack on Friday, August 16. At about eleven o’clock in the morning, after the early mist had cleared, three small enemy raids were seen to be approaching Kent. Believing the raids to be a feint, the AOC No. 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, committed only a few fighters to meet the raids. Two Staffeln (the German equivalent of squadrons) of Junkers Ju88 bombers broke through and successfully bombed West Malling, one of No. 11 Group’s important sector stations protecting London.

Shortly after noon, the Chain Home Radio Direction Finding (radar) system showed three large enemy formations heading for the Thames Estuary. This time, Park scrambled over 80 fighters to intercept and many of the bombers were turned back. About the same time, to the west of London, about 150 enemy aircraft managed to cross the coast unopposed between Brighton and Folkestone.

When the defending Hurricanes and Spitfires reached them they were split up into small formations which dropped bombs on Farnborough and the London docks where 66 civilians were killed. Two Junkers Ju88s managed to penetrate as far as Brize Norton aerodrome, Oxfordshire, where in a short but very accurate raid, two hangars full of Oxford training aircraft were bombed and 46 aircraft destroyed.

a photo of a camouflaged pill box and air raid shelter

A pill box and air raid shelter in the grounds of Tangmere Military Aviation Museum.

At noon a third large build-up of enemy aircraft was picked up by the Chain Home RDF stations setting course towards the English coast from Cherbourg. Between 1230 hours and 1245 hours eight RAF fighter squadrons were scrambled to meet the threat. This enemy formation of about 150 aircraft comprised a large formation of Junkers Ju87 (Stuka) dive-bombers of Luftwaffe unit SG2, Ju88s of KG54 and escorting Messerschmitt Bf109E fighter aircraft of II/JG2 and Bf110s of III/ZG76.

When the Stukas reached the Nab Tower, to east of the Isle of Wight, the leading aircraft fired off signal flares and the force split into three groups; a small group peeled off to attack the Ventnor Chain Home station, a second group set course towards Portsmouth, where later they attacked Gosport, and the largest group headed for RAF Tangmere.

The Hurricanes of Tangmere’s Nos. 43 and 601 Squadrons were scrambled to meet the enemy force head-on over the Solent. No. 43 Squadron’s Intelligence Officer, Flying Officer Cridland, later reported what happened to the squadron:

“Eleven squadron Hurricanes flown by Squadron Leader Badger, Carey, Woods-Scawen, Gray, Lane, Hallowes, Gorrie, Upton, du Vivier, van den Hove and Noble took off at 1245 hours and intercepted 50 to 100 Ju87s travelling north off Beachy Head at 1255.

“The squadron was at 12,000 feet and enemy aircraft were at 14,000 feet in flights of five [or] seven, in close vics, the vics stepped up. A head-on No. 5 attack was made at once; some turned straight back to France, jettisoned their bombs and the leading enemy aircraft was shot down by Squadron Leader Badger, who was leading the squadron as Green 1 and two people baled out. There were escorting Me. 109s at 17,000 feet but they took little part in the engagement: some of the pilots never saw them at all.

“The squadron then returned and attacked from astern whereupon the combat developed into individual affairs and lasted approximately eight minutes. Some of the enemy aircraft made no attempts at evasion while others made use of their slow-speed manoeuvrability by making short steep climbing turns and tight turns – at least one [Hurricane] pilot made use of his flaps to counteract this”

Pilot Officer Frank Carey, later Group Captain, CBE, DFC and two bars, AFC, DFM, U. S. Silver Star, summed up his part in the action:

“This was the first time that Tangmere itself was attacked – with considerable success too. We met the raid head-on over Selsey Bill. Due to our positioning, we were only able to fire on about the second wave, leaving the leaders more or less undisturbed in their bombing. However, we were very lucky that our head-on attack so demoralised the Ju87s that they, and the successive waves behind them, broke up. Some dropped their bombs into the sea in an effort to get away.”

a black and white photograph of a group of people looking at a downed aircraft

The Junkers 87 Stuka shot down by Flying Officer Carl Davis.

No. 43 Squadron did not have it all their own way: Woods-Scawen was slightly wounded and had to crash-land at Parkhurst on the Isle of Wight, and Hamilton Upton had to make a forced landing on the beach at Selsey.

Tangmere’s No. 601 Squadron, led by Flight Lieutenant Sir Archibald Hope, having been scrambled at 1225 hours, was initially ordered to patrol over the base but was soon vectored towards Bembridge on the Isle of Wight and instructed to climb to 20,000 feet. Between Tangmere and the Isle of Wight they saw the Stukas below them.

Hope ignored the controller’s instructions to maintain height because of the fighters above and turned to attack the Stukas, now dive-bombing Tangmere. In the following engagements, the squadron shot down three Stukas as they turned south to make their escape.

One Stuka was shot down by an American, Flying Officer Carl Davis, the bomber crash-landing at Bowley Farm, South Mundham (see above) – both crew members died. Another Stuka crashed by the roadside in Selsey and another was shot down over Pagham.

Early in 601’s engagements with the Stukas, another American, Pilot Officer William (Billy) Fiske was hit by one of the dive-bombers’ rear gunners. Streaming glycol and on fire, he managed to crash land his Hurricane back on Tangmere aerodrome just as the Stukas commenced their dive bombing attack. Fiske’s aircraft came to a stop against the western boundary fence.

Having earlier been warned of the returning Hurricane returning with its pilot injured, Dr Courtney Willey, the only medical officer present in the Station Headquarters, ordered the two nursing orderlies, Corporal George Jones and AC2 Cyril Faulkner to take the ambulance to collect the injured pilot. In spite of the bombs dropping around them, Jones and Faulkner extracted the badly injured Fiske from his cockpit and returned him to the sick quarters.

”I saw one of 601s Hurricanes lying on its belly belching smoke on the airfield after coming in for its final approach. I taxied up to it and got out. There were two ambulance men there. They had got Billy Fiske out of the cockpit. They didn’t know how to take off his parachute so I showed them. Billy was burnt about the hands and ankles. I told him, ‘Don’t worry. You’ll be all right . . .’” (Archie Hope, 601 Squadron)

a black and white photo of a man in RAF uniform and peaked cap

Flying Officer C. B. I. Willey, MC RAFMS

Meanwhile, Dr Willey, on hearing the station Tannoy warning, “Take cover! Take cover! Stukas sighted coming towards Tangmere! Take cover!”, moved his twelve patients into a bomb-proof shelter. Shortly after the bombing started, the sick quarters received a direct hit and Dr Willey was buried up to his waist when the chimneybreast collapsed.

Ignoring his injuries, he set up an emergency sick bay and carried on treating the seriously injured. When Billy Fiske arrived by ambulance, Dr Willey climbed into it and found the pilot conscious but badly burnt from the waist down. Fiske was given a shot of morphine and, twenty minutes later, after the aerodrome roads had been cleared of rubble, he was rushed to the Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester.

For their actions that day, Jones and Faulkner were awarded the Military Medal and Dr Willey was awarded the Military Cross. Sadly, Pilot Officer Billy Fiske died of his injuries the following day. His death shocked his fellow 601 pilots; Archie Hope had visited him in hospital on the evening of the 16th and found him “sitting up in bed and as perky as hell”. Fiske was buried in the churchyard of Boxgrove Priory on the afternoon of August 20, four days after he was shot down.

At Tangmere’s satellite aerodrome, Westhampnett, the recently arrived No. 602 Squadron with their Spitfire Mk Is and commanded by Squadron Leader Sandy Johnstone, was finally scrambled just before one o’clock and ordered by Tangmere’s sector controller, David Lloyd, to orbit the base at two thousand feet.

However, once airborne the Spitfire pilots could see formations of Ju87 Stuka dive-bombers approaching Tangmere from the south. Findlay Boyd, a No. 602 Squadron flight commander, once airborne saw a Stuka pulling up after dropping its bombs on Tangmere. He quickly shot the bomber down. The other members of the squadron clawed their way into the air in an attempt to reach the escorting Messerschmitts above. This they successfully accomplished with Johnstone, Urie and Webb all reporting, after landing, claims of enemy aircraft destroyed.

The German attack was not only fought in the air. Second Lieutenant E. P. Griffin of the Royal Engineers Construction Company based at RAF Tangmere, on hearing the air raid warning, went to his battle position and with his Lewis machine gun shot down a Messerschmitt Bf110. The aircraft crashed three-quarters of a mile from the aerodrome, killing the three members of its crew. A few days later his colleagues presented him with a cartoon entitled, “The Glorious 16th of August 1940”.

a black and white photo of a man in RAF uniform and forage cap

AC2 Cyril Faulkner, MM RAFMS

The Stuka attack on Tangmere aerodrome had started at 1300 hours and lasted only twenty minutes. The bombing was extremely accurate with no bombs dropped outside the aerodrome perimeter. In that time, the Luftwaffe destroyed or damaged beyond repair, with the exception of one, all the pre-war hangars, the station workshops, stores and the water pumping station. The Officers’ Mess, the Y-Service hut and many other buildings were also badly damaged and auxiliary systems such as the station Tannoy, power, water and sanitation were put out of action.

Six Blenheims, including those flown by the Fighter Interception Unit (the unit developing night fighter aerial interception equipment and techniques), seven Hurricanes, and a Magister aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Some 40 vehicles were also destroyed in the raid.

The Luftwaffe did not escape un-scathed; the returning fighters claimed twenty-five enemy aircraft destroyed, including two Bf110s, five Bf109s and eight Stuka bombers with a further seven Stukas damaged. However, the real tragedy for Tangmere on that day was the death of ten RAF personnel (all but one were later buried in Tangmere’s St Andrew’s churchyard) and three civilians. A further 20 persons were injured. One of the civilians who died was Henry Ayling, a civilian builder; he was killed when the slit trench he was sheltering in received a direct hit from a Stuka bomb. He is buried in Chichester Cemetery. His wife never remarried.

Leading Aircraftman Maurice Haffenden was an engine fitter with No. 43 Squadron and later described the day’s events in a letter to his relations:

“[At] lunchtime at 1 pm the loudspeakers with a greater urgency than before suddenly appealed, “Take cover! Take cover!” Within three minutes of that warning I saw the first of the Junkers coming straight down on the ‘drome in a vertical dive.

“The leader was within 2,000 feet of the ground – long wing span –fixed undercarriage – single engine – and then w-h-e-e-z . . . I went head first down a manhole as the first bomb landed on the cookhouse. For seven minutes their 1,000-pounders were scoring direct hits and everything was swept away by machine gun bullets. I never believed such desolation and destruction to be possible. Everything is wrecked – the hangars, the stores, the hospital, the armoury, the cookhouse, the canteen – well, everything.

“By special permission a Lyon’s ice cream fellow is allowed in the ‘drome. He always stands just outside the cookhouse on the square. He was last seen standing there guarding his tricycle but now at the same spot is a bomb crater thirty feet deep.

“But there were quite a few casualties. In the early evening they still were sorting out the bloody remnants of flesh and bones and tied them in sheets.”

Joyce Fryer (now Joyce Warren, the Museum’s secretary) still clearly remembers the sixteenth of August 1940. She was on school holiday that bright sunny day and was living with her grandmother Pat Collins in Tangmere village. Her father was on Ford aerodrome, helping to construct the run-ways and her grandfather was in nearby Aldingbourne where he worked in a nursery.

When the air raid warning siren sounded at lunchtime she and her grandmother rushed to the dugout her grandfather had built in the garden. Her grandmother took with her a cooking pan of boiled rice and some golden syrup. Joyce remembers the screams of the Stukas as they dived on the aerodrome and the sound of the bombs exploding. When the “all-clear” sounded they emerged safe from their shelter and could clearly see the smoke rising from the RAF station down the road.

Following the raid, the Hurricanes landed between the craters and were quickly refuelled and rearmed. On the aerodrome, flags were placed to mark unexploded bombs and the clear-up work began. In the afternoon soldiers from nearby bases were drafted in to fill in the craters and to clear the rubble.

a photo of two bells hanging on a metal frame

The scramble bells of RAF Tangmere - housed in the Battle of Britain Hall at the museum

That evening, Sandy Johnstone observed:

“I drove over [from Westhampnett] to Tangmere in the evening and found the place in utter shambles, with wisps of smoke still rising from the shattered buildings. Little knots of people were wandering about with dazed looks on their faces, obviously deeply affected by the events of the day. I eventually tracked down the Station Commander [Group Captain Jack Boret] standing on the lawn in front of the Officers’ Mess with a parrot sitting on his shoulder.

“Jack was covered with grime and the wretched bird was screeching its imitation of a Stuka at the height of the attack! The once immaculate grass was littered with personal belongings which had been blasted from the wing which had received a direct hit. Shirts, towels, socks and a portable gramophone – a little private world for all to see . . . Rubble was everywhere and all three hangars had been wrecked"

Jack Boret later ordered that the following entry on the day’s events should be made in the Station’s Operational Record Book, giving special recognition to the fact that the station remained fully operational throughout the day: “The depressing situation was dealt with in an orderly manner and it was considered that the traditions of the RAF were upheld by all Ranks. In conclusion, it must be considered that the major attack launched on this Station by the enemy, was a victory for the RAF.”

On 16 August 1940, Winston Churchill was again watching the outcome of the enemy air raids, this time with Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park at No. 11 Group Headquarters at RAF Uxbridge. On leaving that evening, he was heard to say, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” – the words he used in the famous speech he made on the Battle of Britain in the House of Commons four days later.

This article was previously published in the summer 2010 issue of The Tangmere Logbook, which is available in the Museum shop.

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