RAF at 100 in Essex

As the centenary of the founding of the RAF is marked across the country, Archive Assistant Neil Wiffen has been looking at the history of the world’s first air force in Essex.

Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first powered flight of a heavier-than-air-aircraft took place on December 17 1903, just over ten years before the outbreak of the First World War. These first aircraft, despite being primitive, were soon appreciated for their potential to assist with reconnaissance over a battlefield. In Britain the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), to support the army, was established in 1912 while the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) was formed in July 1914. With the outbreak of war, the first deployment to support the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France was of three squadrons with around 60 aircraft.

While supporting the BEF was of primary role of the RFC, German air attacks on Britain forced the deployment of Home Defence Squadrons in order to provide some air defence against first Zeppelin and then Gotha bomber raids. The proximity of Essex to London meant that the county was an obvious place in which to base aircraft. The first squadrons were operational by September 1916 with Flights of aircraft being based at Rochford, Stow Maries, Goldhanger, North Weald, Suttons Farm and Hainault Farm.

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The Sopwith Camel became one of the most iconic fighter aircraft of the First World War. It was first used on the Western Front, but eventually was used for home defence as well.

Early airfields, or landing grounds, were like early aircraft – basic. Virtually any fairly flat piece of farmland could be utilised to land and fly off aircraft and during the course of the First World War 31 locations in Essex were used with places as far apart as Beaumont near Thorpe-le-Soken, Chingford, Thaxted and Bournes Green, Shoeburyness. The most well-known of these is Stow Maries which still retains many of the buildings that were constructed to support the aircraft and personnel who were based there during the war. (You can read more about Stow Maries here.)

By 1917 official thinking was moving away from having two distinct services to support the army and navy and it was proposed that a single service would make more efficient use of resources. On the 1 April 1918 the RFC and RNAS were combined to form the Royal Air Force, the world’s first independent air force and with over 100,000 personnel and 4,000 aircraft, at the time the world’s largest air force, a far cry from four years earlier.

After the First World War the armed services were cut back, and the RAF did not need so many landing grounds. With so few permanent buildings and infrastructure, the transition back to agriculture came quickly for most sites.

During the 1930s, as Hitler’s Nazi party rose to power and rearmed Germany, the British armed forces expanded again, albeit slowly. The RAF was at the forefront of home defence. Permanent airfields, such as those at Hornchurch, North Weald and Debden were constructed, with well-built brick accommodation for the personnel stationed there as well as large, spacious hangars to help look after the larger and more powerful aircraft that had been developed.

At this point, the aircraft were still mostly biplanes, such as the Hawker Hart and Fury and later the Gloster Gladiator, and were really just modernised versions of the Sopwith Camels of earlier days. These airfields were situated to defend London from German attacks across the North Sea, and they were the most prominent part of RAF Fighter Command’s integrated defensive system, which combined with anti-aircraft guns and barrage balloons, was designed to prevent the German bombers getting though. However, their biplane fighters were starting to look antiquated when compared to the new aircraft being developed by the Luftwaffe.

Gloster Gauntlets belonging to 56 Squadron at North Weald in 1936. The Gauntlet was the last RAF fighter to have an open cockpit, and the penultimate biplane it employed. Image courtesy of North Weald Air Museum.

Fortunately for the RAF, Sidney Cam, of Hawkers, and Reginald Mitchell, of Supermarine, were both engaged in designing the next generation of fighter aircraft, this time monoplanes powered by the Rolls Royce Merlin engine and armed with eight .303 Browning machine guns – double the firepower of the Gladiator. These fighters, the Hurricane and the Spitfire, both flew from Essex airfields during the Battle of Britain (July-October 1940) and were instrumental in defeating the Luftwaffe.

Members of 41 Squadron at RAF Hornchurch during the Second World War (courtesy of Havering Libraries – Local Studies)

It was not only London and other big cities that the Luftwaffe were bombing. This photograph shows bomb damage at Campbell Road in Southend-on-Sea, 4 February 1941. Two men and six women were killed, four men and five women were injured. (D/BC 1/7/7/7)

Once the initial threat was dealt with, the ‘Few’ of the RAF had to be increased to take the fight to the Germans. As part of this expansion new airfields had to be hurriedly built, such as RAF Great Sampford, to take the new squadrons that were being formed and trained. While by the end of the Second World War there were over 20 airfields in Essex, the majority of them new, most had been built for the massive expansion of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), such as Matching and Boreham.

USAAF servicemen based at RAF Wethersfield held an Easter party for local children in Lindsell in 1944. See more photos from this occasion here. (A12844)

The majority of the RAF were stationed in the midlands and the north, these being the major concentrations of RAF Bomber Command while Fighter Command fought the Luftwaffe from the east and south of the country, North Weald, and Hornchurch retaining their importance as fighter fields. RAF Bradwell joined them later on in the war, with both night fighters and the RAF’s new Hawker Tempest in the later part of 1944, helping to combat the V1 flying-bomb menace. Things were quieter at North Weald for most of 1945, but excitement returned when Group Captain Douglas Bader, after his release from Colditz Castle in April, was briefly given command of the North Weald Sector. Bader was also chosen to organise a victory flypast on Battle of Britain Day, 15 September, which was made up of some 300 fighters and bombers from both the RAF and USAAF. Bader himself led a Spitfire formation with 11 of his colleagues which took off from North Weald to lead the flypast.

Douglas Bader, centre, led the victory flypast taking off in his own Spitfire from North Weald on 15 September 1945. Image courtesy of North Weald Airfield Museum.

Again, at the end of hostilities the size of the RAF drastically reduced. Most of the wartime-built airfields were quickly disposed of as their Nissen hut accommodation, while suitable for emergency use during the war, were far below the standard of the permanent brick-built barracks constructed in the inter-war years.

RAF Stansted Mountfitchet, opened in 1943, shown here on a 1956 Ordnance Survey map, was used by the RAF and USAAF during the war as a bomber airfield and major maintenance depot.

However, just as there had been continued improvement of aircraft from biplanes to monoplanes, so now the jet engine aircraft, such as the Gloster Meteor, now took over from the piston-engined Spitfires and Tempests. Along with the new technology so new requirements for servicing and longer runways were required, something which disadvantaged airfields close to London, such as North Weald and Hornchurch. Fast jets and the suburbs did not make for very easy bedfellows. The speeds which could be achieved by new aircraft meant airfields did not have to be so close to London to defend it, and new bases were built nearer to the coasts to intercept Russian bombers over the North Sea.

Most of the RAF bases in Essex closed in 1945 or in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War. RAF Hornchurch remained open until 1962, and RAF North Weald until 1964. RAF Debden is still in the ownership of the military and home to the HQ of the Essex Wing of the RAF Air Cadets and the army’s Carver Barracks. Traces of other former RAF bases have helped to shape our modern landscape; RAF Stansted Mountfitchet became London Stansted Airport, and RAF Southend is now London Southend Airport.

With thanks to Havering Libraries – Local Studies and North Weald Airfield Museum for supplying images for this post.

The Siren

In searching recently for Christmas items in our collection, we came across this curious typescript magazine from Christmas 1939, which is full of humorous poems, stories, articles and puzzles (D/DU 948/1). The tone for the magazine is set by its title page – a play on the double meaning of ‘siren’ as both an air raid warning and an attractive (scantily clad) woman.

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The Siren was put together by the staff of the Civil Defence Control, the part of Essex County Council which was in charge of civil defence during the Second World War.

The Civil Defence Service was charged protecting people and property from injury and damage. Following general schemes laid out by central government, there were three main strands to their work:

  • Preventative – evacuation, air raid shelters
  • Alleviative – rescue
  • Remedial – clearing of debris, first aid, restoring vital services

The nerve centre of the system was the Control Room, based at County Hall in Chelmsford.

Reading The Siren not only gives an insight into the work of the Civil Defence staff, but also shows that they had a strong sense of humour, poking fun at each other in poems, stories and songs.

The magazine opens with ‘The Cuties of the County Control’, a song about the glamour of the young women who staffed the Control Room:

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‘A Disrespectful Ditty’ on one of the following pages begins with a ‘bereavement’ – ‘We’ve lost the deep respect for our betters once we bore’, which has become lost in the blackout.

It goes on to reference various staff members, including the first County Archivist, Frederick Emmison, ‘relentlessly efficient in the middle of the night’, and steadfastly avoiding getting tipsy at the staff party.

Other verses poke fun at two of the Deputy County Controllers – Major J Meikeljohn and Mr H.P. Jamieson – before another verse spares other managers the same treatment: ‘But on these exalted persons may depend our daily bread, So you can’t expect us to rush in where angels fear to tread’.

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Later in the magazine we find a ‘Prefatory Alphabet’, which gives a wonderful insight into what was on people’s minds, such as:

‘G is for Gas-mask. Alas for humanity –

Visibly sign pf social insanity.

K is for Knitting, nocturnal and endless;

Those making the garments will certainly spend less.

M is for Molotov, Soviet minister,

Whose machinations have lately been sinister.

R is for Rota that grimly enmeshes you;

Think of the coffee that nightly refreshes you!

V is the Volume of work that oppresses

The people whose job is to clear up the messes.

W’s the Warden, ensconced in a helmet,

Who moans of the light ‘twixt the curtain and pelmet.’

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Some of the pieces do not relate directly to the war, but provide some escapism, such as this (slightly cheeky) meditation on a day out in Epping Forest:

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Even though the staff of the Civil Defence Service were engaged in serious, vital work during the war, what comes through in The Siren is a strong sense camaraderie amongst the staff. The magazine was clearly supposed to provide some light relief at a dark time; as one of the couplets of the ‘Prefatory Alphabet’ says:

‘U are the reader. We hope this experiment

Will bring you good cheer and the odd spot of merriment’

We have only been able to just begin to lift the lid on these people and their work – if anyone out there has any more information do get in touch.

Winter in Wartime

Throughout December, the ERO’s Learning from History service will be offering a special session for primary schools investigating what Christmas was like during the Second World War.

Children will start with what they know. The session will begin by inviting them to suggest what they need for Christmas. As items are suggested they will be placed on a table. We will then look at these items one by one and think about whether people had them during the Second World War, using the archive at the Essex Record Office as evidence. Fairy lights will prompt a discussion about blackout restrictions and bombs dropping. Presents will lead to thoughts about shortages and include a craft activity where children create their own toys from clothes pegs. Thoughts of Christmas dinner will be compared to the realities of rationing. One by one the items that they think represent Christmas will be removed from the table.

American airmen host a party for local and evacuated children in Lindsell, 1944

American airmen host a party for local and evacuated children in Lindsell, 1944

Through this process the children will understand how Christmas was different and why, and empathise with children from the Second World War. Knowing what they can’t do, they will start to ask what they can do. We will try and find out from sources at the Essex Record Office what people did to have fun and end with playing some party games.

Cost: £75 for one session, for a class of 30 pupils (subsequent sessions on the same day are £60)

When: Book any day between the 8th and 18th December [1st-7th now fully booked]

Timings: Recommend an hour per session, but timings can be adapted to fit in with the school day

Where: In your classroom

Bookings and further information: please e-mail ero.events@essex.gov.uk

Document of the Month June 2014: Map of Tilbury showing plans for Operation Overlord

Each month a document is put on display in our Searchroom. Our document for June has been chosen by Archivist Allyson Lewis to reflect the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings which began on 6 June 1944.

This month we look at Essex’s involvement in Operation Overlord, known as the D-Day landings.  Eastern Command, which included Essex, was to provide for 104,000 men and their equipment embarking through Tilbury and London Docks.  Tilbury was a Marshalling Area for collecting men and vehicles for the D-Day landings.

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Marshalling Areas (MAs) were intended to hold 40,700 men and 6,500 vehicles prior to embarkation, load them and send them out as part of the initial landings, and then to embark 4,000 men and 600 vehicles per day for as long as necessary after D-Day itself.  Once sent for embarkation, the troops had to be provided with food and drink so any postponement of the operation posed a serious logistical problem.  The MA was arranged in 8 sub-areas located at Orsett Golf Club, Tilbury, Purfleet, Thorndon Hall, Belhus Park, Warley Barracks, Weald Park, and the Halfway House Inn on the Southend Arterial Road.

Planning began in February to identify suitable sites for camps field hospitals, ammunition dumps, petrol dumps, bakeries, rail heads and traffic routes.  This map (C/W 3/4/9) shows the location of the camps in each sub-area and the routes traffic should take to reach the embarkation points.  Most of the vehicles were parked up on the Southend Arterial Road.  They had to be waterproofed before being loaded onto the ships.  During March camps were constructed and roads strengthened, and by 1 May the area was ready.  Postal censorship began on 1 April and by the end of May all camps were patrolled to prevent contact with the local population.

Embarkation of troops and vehicles was a four day process: three days to waterproof the vehicles and get them aboard and to issue supplies and load the men, and one day to clear the area and get ready for the next detachment.  Y-Day was the name given to the day when everything would be ready to go.  Any long delay at this point would mean that men would have to be disembarked and sent back to their camps.  However, the weather improved sufficiently on 5 June for Operation Overlord to commence on 6 June 1944.

Information from http://www.airfieldinformationexchange.org/community/showthread.php?11999-SECOND-WORLD-WAR-D-Day-Marshalling-and-Embarkation-Areas

New Accession: 2nd Rayleigh Scouts log book, 1924-1944

Katharine Schofield, Archivist, writes for us about an interesting new arrival at the archive…

A log book of the 2nd Rayleigh (Holy Trinity) Troop of Boy Scouts was recently deposited and digital images are now available free of charge on Seax (D/Z 608/1). 

The troop was started in 1924 and the log book begins with the first parade and details of patrol leaders and the colour of the scarves.  The volume is particularly notable for the many photographs of camps and other activities of the Scouts.  These include photographs of the Essex Jamboree of Whitsun 1927 held at Priory Park, Southend and attended by Lord Baden-Powell (image 17).  Later that year the summer camp was held at Soligny in France, although the camps were more normally held in the Rayleigh area or at Heybridge Basin. 

Essex Jamboree of Whitsun 1927 held at Priory Park, Southend and attended by Lord Baden-Powell (D/Z 608/1 image 17)

In May 1935 to celebrate George V’s Silver Jubilee, the troop prepared a beacon as part of the Scout Beacon Chain in a meadow off Crown Hill opposite the Mount and the volume includes photographs of this.  Having made such a good job of this, they were then asked to prepare a bonfire to mark George VI’s coronation in 1937. 


Building a bonfire to mark the coronation of George VI in 1937 (D/Z 603/1 image 54)

When war was declared in 1939 the troop were engaged in War Service distributing posters calling up the reserves and staffing Council Offices with messengers 24 hours a day for a week ‘until the powers that be decided that no one under 16 could act in that capacity’ (image 66).  Thereafter the log book becomes much less detailed.  The Scouts were engaged in bill posting, waste paper collection, the collection of scrap metal and helped to put up more than 100 Morrison Shelters for Rayleigh Urban District Council.  As the war continued the log book records those who left to join the Armed Forces; sadly three former members of the troop lost their lives serving in the RAF.


A thank you letter to the Scouts for their help in putting up a Morrison shelter (D/Z 608/1 image 69)


Schools on a Naze Adventure

ERO staff are frequently to be found not just in our building in Chelmsford, but all over the county. Our education officer Sarah Girling has been working with school children around Walton-on-the-Naze to find out about how this vulnerable bit of coastline was defended in the Second World War…

173 pupils from three Essex schools have been learning about their local World War Two history on the Naze at Walton this October.

On a trail around the Naze headland searching for remains of WW2 coastal defences

On a trail around the Naze headland searching for remains of WW2 coastal defences

Frinton Primary, Walton-on-the-Naze Primary and Hamford Primary Academy School were involved in four days of visits to the militarised area of the Naze during World War Two, looking at surviving pillboxes and the area used for secret guided missile testing.

Roger Kennell of the Clacton Victoria County History group tells children about an infantry pillbox

Roger Kennell of the Clacton Victoria County History group tells children about an infantry pillbox

Year 5s from Walton-on-the-Naze Primary School with teacher Liz Wilson, local historians Fred Nash and Roger Kennell, and ERO education officer Sarah Girling

Year 5s from Walton-on-the-Naze Primary School with teacher Liz Wilson, local historians Fred Nash and Roger Kennell, and ERO education officer Sarah Girling

They also climbed the Naze Tower, listening to a talk given by Michelle Nye-Browne, the manager of the 300 year old Grade II* listed building, which was used as a radar tower.

The Naze Tower

The Naze Tower

Inside the Naze Tower, learning about how it was used as a radar station in the Second World War

Inside the Naze Tower, learning about how it was used as a radar station in the Second World War

The Naze Tower in use as a radar station in WW2

The Naze Tower in use as a radar station in WW2. Image reproduced courtesy of the Naze Tower.

Looking out from the top of the Naze Tower

Looking out from the top of the Naze Tower

As part of the European-funded World War Two Heritage project, pupils learned about the defences that were built during the Second World War and how they would have been used if German invasion forces had landed on the Essex coast.

Looking at a pillbox which has fallen into the sea

Looking at a pillbox which has fallen into the sea. The coast at Walton has been eroded at a rate of 2 metres a year, and some of the WW2 defences have fallen off the cliff edge

Led by enthusiastic historians, Roger Kennell and Fred Nash, the children were inspired by the stories including an eccentric Brigadier, who when faced with a missile that was heading back to its launch site on the Naze, calmly raised a ‘colourful golf umbrella’ as the bits of broken metalwork fell to the ground.

Roger Kennell shows children the site where soldiers lived during wartime

Roger Kennell shows children the site where soldiers lived during wartime

The pupils had obviously learned something of the Second World War back at school but the visit was a chance for pupils to really understand how national and international events impacted their local community. The Naze itself was inhabited by the army and the RAF, making it their home for the duration of the war.

Pupils using the specially designed Four on a Naze Adventure workbooks to find out about the WW2 coastal defences at the Naze

Pupils using the specially designed Four on a Naze Adventure workbooks to find out about the WW2 coastal defences at the Naze

The project will be continuing and will include a visit to the Essex Record Office for pupils to investigate local records that reveal what life was like for ordinary people living in Walton during the war, interviewing locals to find out about their memories, and holding a 1940s tea party at each school to celebrate the end of the project.

To find out more about the educational work of the ERO, visit our services for schools webpage.

This project is part of the EU Interreg-funded World War Two Heritage project taking place on both sides of the Channel.

Evacuees’ voices at ERO

By Martin Astell, Sound and Video Archivist

The Essex Sound and Video Archive has recently added to SEAX a collection of oral history interviews which focus on childhood experiences during World War II (SA 48).

The collection includes a number of interviewees who were evacuated from their homes to ‘safer’ parts of the country. The evacuation of children can be portrayed as an example of how the nation ‘pulled together’ during World War II to help one another through the crisis. However, the individual stories told by those who experienced evacuation can help to present a more complex narrative.

The recordings in this collection include an account of being treated very poorly by the family which had taken the interviewee into their home (SA 48/1/1) and another of the local children being told not to mix with the evacuees from London and being strictly segregated within school (SA 48/8/1). This interviewee also states that she and her siblings returned to Chingford despite the clear risk of being bombed because her mother, who had accompanied the children in their privately arranged evacuation while her husband remained at home, was in danger of falling into an affair with another man.

This collection has been catalogued with the help of volunteers, and joins our existing Sound and Video Archive sources material on the Second World War. You can download a guide to these sources by clicking the link below.

ESVA Sources on the Second World War

All of the recordings in the source list can be ordered in the Searchroom, and listened to or watched in the Essex Sound and Video Archive.