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Tangmere – 16 August 1940

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 seventy five 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 seventeen pilots killed. Churchill, on leaving Dowding’s HQ that evening, described it as, “One of the greatest days of history”.

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In spite of the set backs of the previous day, the Luftwaffe returned to the attack on Friday 16 August. 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, AOC No 11 Group, Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park, committed only a few fighters to meet the raids. Two Staffeln (German equivalent of a squadron) of Junkers Ju 88 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 eighty fighters to intercept and many of the bombers were turned back. About the same time, to the west of London, about a hundred and fifty 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 sixty six civilians were killed. Two Junkers Ju 88s 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 forty six aircraft destroyed.

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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 a hundred and fifty aircraft comprised a large formation of Junkers Ju 87(Stuka) dive-bombers of Luftwaffe unit SG2, Ju 88s of KG54 and escorting Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter aircraft of II/JG2 and Bf 110s of III/ZG76.

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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 pealed 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 Ju 87s 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, 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 Green1 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”.

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Pilot Officer Frank Carey, later Group Captain Frank Carey CBE, DFC**, AFC, DFM, US 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 Ju 87s that they, and the successive waves behind them, broke up. Some dropped their bombs into the sea in an effort to get away”.

 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 Archie 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 twenty thousand 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 – both crew members died. Another Stuka crashed by the roadside in Selsey and another was shot down over Pagham.

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Early in 601’s engagements with the Stukas, another American, Pilot Officer William (Billy) Fiske was hit by one of the dive-bomber’s 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. Meanwhile, 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 Willey was buried up to his waist when the chimney breast collapsed. Ignoring his injuries, he set up an emergency sick bay and carried on treating the seriously injured.

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When 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 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 20 August, four days after he was shot down.

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At Tangmere’s satellite aerodrome, Westhampnett, the recently arrived No 602 Squadron with their Spitfire Mk 1s and commanded by Squadron Leader Sandy Johnston, 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 Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers approaching Tangmere from the south. Findlay Boyd, a 602 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.

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The German attack was not only fought in the air, Second Lieutenant E P Griffin of the Royal Engineer 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 Bf 110. 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’.

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

The Luftwaffe did not escape unscathed; the returning fighters claimed twenty five enemy aircraft destroyed, including two Bf 110s, five Bf 109s and eight Stuka bombers with a further seven Stukas damaged. However, the real tragedy for Tangmere on that day was the deaths of ten RAF personnel (all but one were later buried in Tangmere’s St Andrews churchyard) and three civilians. A further twenty 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.

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Leading Aircraftman Maurice Haffenden was an engine fitter with No 43 Squadron and he later described the day’s events in a letter to his relations thus: “Lunchtime at 1pm 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 wheez…..

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 Lions 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 16 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 runways 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 still 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.

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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 away the rubble.

Group Captain Jack Boret, Officer Commanding RAF Tangmere, ordered that the following entry should be made in the Station’s Operational Record Book: “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.” His summary of the day’s events at Tangmere on 16 August 1940 would have been strongly influenced by the fact that the aerodrome, in spite of its destroyed and damaged infrastructure, remained operational throughout the day.

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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”. He used this sentence in the famous speech he made on the Battle of Britain in the House of Commons four days later.

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