Musings on the worlds of aviation, military and international affairs.
With reviews of books that cover these topics
The Famous RAF Fighter Station – An Authorised History
Reginald Byron & David Coxon
Grub Street, October 7th, 2013
ISBN: 9781 909166196
The story of the Battle of Britain and the RAF’s role in WW2 has been told in countless autobiographies, and war narratives. With the exception of the excellent Action Stations series, it is rarely told through the history of a single airfield. But then Tangmere was no ordinary airfield. Home of 1 and 43 Squadrons before the war, it became the epicentre of Fighter Command on the South Coast. This book therefore covers all the satellite airfields and Advanced Landing grounds that came within Tangmere’s spreading ambit.
Early chapters describe evocatively the relatively carefree pre-war years at the airfield: in the summer fighter pilots only flew in the mornings – afternoons were reserved for sport and recreation! Nonetheless Tangmere became a sort of finishing school for young men who became some of the most successful British pilots, and who later rose to the highest rank – eg Selway, Rosier and Corbally.
The authors sometimes wander off-topic – such as an exposition of the early development of radar – which has precious little to do with Tangmere. The prime source materials are the Operations Record Books of the squadrons based at the field. These are typically (but not always) stiff and PC accounts of the squadrons’ activities. And this formality is transfused into the book’s style, which sometimes makes for a dull read. The formality is enhanced by the eccentric choice of font, a sans serif designed by Eric Gill in 1928, and used by the RAF and the other armed forces for many years afterwards – but very unusual in a book.
Tangmere is enlivened by some personal diaries. Eric Marsden, an engine fitter on 145 squadron, brings to life the flight line in 1940, in a way rarely seen. With autobiographies more usually published by pilots, it is refreshing to hear the perspective of the hard-working ground crew. The CO – ‘Boydy’ – decided to have the ranging of his squadron’s Hurricanes changed:
“Boydy had already shown his preferred range by nudging a Heinkel’s rudder with his spinner when he opened fire- unfortunately it also put ‘K’ out of action for several hours because the engine and hydraulic oil from the EA sprayed back all over the Hurricane so that it took two of us some hours to clean it down with petrol and paraffin. “
The rapid expansion of Tangmere’s activities in 1940 led to the development of many satellite airfields, of which one of the more important was Westhampnett, now better known as Goodwood motor racing circuit. The living conditions for the crews in its early days were primitive in the extreme.
Another personal account - a letter home by Sergeant Bushell – gives a moving account of one of the tussles on one of the more important days of the Battle of Britain, 16th September. Mark Selway gives a fascinating account of the so-called Channel Dash, in which the pride of the German Navy cruised up the Channel to the sanctuary of their home ports. The Tangmere connection was that Lt Cdr Esmonde, who led his Swordfish crews on the suicidal mission to attack the convoy, was a Tangmere old boy. The authors fail to underline the very poor communications and decision- making up through the RAF’s chain of command that led to this failed last ditch attack.
Tangmere was later used as a forward operating base for the Lysanders normally based at Tempsford in Bedfordshire. Some flavour of the epic flying involved in these SOE operations can be found in John Nesbitt-Dufort’s autobiography, Black Lysander (Jarrolds, 1973) – not quoted in the bibliography, but it would have been remiss of the authors not to peruse this. A sample story (from Tangmere) is a local farmer being recruited in the middle of the night to bring a team of bullocks to drag a bogged down Lysander out of some field in France Profonde.
After the BoB, the RAF decided to “take the battle to the Germans” by fighter sweeps over Northern France. These ‘rhubarbs’ are described in the book, although their strategical irrelevance (and relatively high cost in pilot lives) is overlooked.
Tangmere’s location meant it was not so central to the BoB as the celebrated stations of Kent – Biggin, Kenley, Hawkinge and Manston. (See my photo on the next page). However the advent of the preparations for Overlord meant that Tangmere’s empire expanded again. It became the centre of activities for the fighter patrols which protected the beaches during D Day and beyond. These met little opposition. But perhaps the most colourful accounts inserted into this book are those by Ed Prizer, a Canadian on 412 Sqn, who later became a journalist. He was one of the two pilots who shot up Rommel’s staff car, injuring the General, causing him to be sent back to Germany at a crucial point in the D Day campaign.
Prizer describes the stress not only of battle, but of constant movement between temporary landing grounds in Normandy, usually under shellfire. His views on the locals are illuminating: he did not find the Normans very welcoming, thinking they rather missed the Germans. The Parisians, on the other hand, showed much more enthusiasm. There are some gritty accounts of what actually happened in relations with the Normans, which rather contrast with the sanitised images to which we are used.
After VE Day the airfield played a major role in the repatriation of POWs. But the subsequent dismemberment of the RAF’s strength and dismantling of Tangmere’s infrastructure makes for depressing reading. The station was heavily involved in the various celebratory flypasts, including the epic Coronation Review, and these seemed to have been plagued by appalling weather. Press-onitis seems to have been rampant, and greater disaster was only avoided by the grace of God.
Fred Rosier's Fury, as flown at Tangmere, but here at Goodwood