22 June 2009

This is an extract from Arthur Moreton’s "North Weald Airfield Eighty Five Years of Serving the Community".

The Battle for Britain began during the spring and summer of 1940 with the Luftwaffe targeting coastal towns and shipping. The North Weald squadrons quickly became heavily involved in fierce encounters with the Germans and many good men were killed. Everybody at the airfield felt the losses intensely, but under Beamish's command the station pulled together to do whatever was necessary to give the pilots the best possible chance in combat.

This, and similar situations like it at other fighter stations, was one of the reasons why the Luftwaffe turned its attention to the destruction of the RAF's airfields in the next phase of the battle.

The first major raids on RAF North Weald took place on the afternoon of 24 August, when more than 200 bombs fell on North Weald. At around 4.30pm German bombers and fighters, harassed by the defending RAF Hurricanes, headed for the airfield at around 15,000 feet and proceeded to drop bombs "in a straight line through the western part of the village across the Epping to Ongar road" before hitting the airfield itself.

The Officers Mess, the Officers and Airmen's Married Quarters, a powerhouse and other facilities were damaged. Nine young members of the Essex Regiment, who were attached to the airfield for ground defence, were among those killed that day. In North Weald High Road, the old Post Office, a cottage opposite the Kings Head and the Woolpack Pub were wrecked.

German attacks on the airfields of the southeast continued into early September and the aerial battles that took place in the skies over Essex were particularly brutal. So brutal that No 56 Squadron lost 11 aircraft in just five days of fighting and No 151 was reduced to just ten serviceable machines, The loss of pilots on 31st August was so great that both squadrons became non-operational and were withdrawn to Boscombe Down and Digby to reform. Their replacement squadrons - 249, 46 and 25 - had little time to get used to their new surroundings before plunging into action.

On 3 September, just as the fighters were taking off, the Luftwaffe again bombed North Weald. The damage was substantial with aircraft, hangars, living quarters, the operations room and other station buildings destroyed - leaving 5 people dead and 39 injured.

The attacks exacerbated the exhaustion that all at the airfield felt, but Beamish was an inspiration throughout. Indeed, he flew regularly with No 46 Squadron and was awarded the DSO in recognition of his leadership skills.

Mid-September brought an opportunity for the station to catch its breath when the German attacks on airfields abated. But it was not long before the fighters were again in demand to combat German raids over London. Throughout this period, North Weald played a pivotal role in the struggle to keep the skies above the capital clear of enemy aircraft. Losses were heavy, but many in North Weald thought that at least the threat to the airfields had passed.

Sadly, they were wrong, for on 29 October, just a few days before the Battle of Britain ended, the station was bombed again,, killing six and wounding 42. This attack was an agonising end to a defensive battle that had seen North Weald and her resident squadrons emerge with a great deal of credit.

Thirty-nine aircrew from North Weald and its satellite airfield at Stapleford Tawney were killed during the "Battle of Britain period" [officially 10 July - 31 October]. But thanks to them and their comrades, on the ground and in the air, the airfield was never put out of action.

(Other parts of this history of North Weald will be published here periodically)

© A Moreton 2000

If you would like to know more about the Battle of Britain visit the Battle of Britain website.


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