'Hello Parliament': Biggin Hill between the wars

8:00am Wednesday 13th July 2011

As part of a News Shopper series exploring the military history of Biggin Hill, DAVID MILLS looks back at the period between the wars.

News Shopper: The Hawker Demons of 23 Squadron (Pictures taken from ‘Biggin on the Bump’ by Bob Ogley)

MUTINY IN THE AIR

By the end of the First World War, Biggin Hill had become a centre for wireless research.

Work was underway on the rebuilding of the site but living conditions for staff were so poor they decided to strike in January 1919.

Around 500 workers lived in tents with no heating or hot water.

Mud was everywhere and the food was rotten.

Historian and author Bob Ogley said: “Some wanted a gentlemanly approach but others sang the Red Flag at the top of their voices and suggested violence. Mutiny was in the air.”

But an RAF investigation sided with the workers and gave them all leave while their camp was improved.

News Shopper: Empire Day, Biggin Hill 1934 – aerobatics display by 32 and 23 Squadrons (Pictures taken from ‘Biggin on the Bump’ by Bob Ogley)

HELLO HOUSES OF PARLIAMENT

In August that year, the progress of the work on wireless technology carried out at Biggin Hill was illustrated in a historic broadcast to a stunned audience in the House of Lords.

The voice of Lieutenant S.G. Newport blared through a loudspeaker: “I am in an aircraft.”

The Under Secretary of State for Air, Major General Seely replied: “Hello Newport. We are the Houses of Parliament. Can you hear us?”

Newport said: “Hello Houses of Parliament. I can hear you well. My pilot can hear you too. We are flying at 8,000ft, 20 miles away.”

So impressed was the government by this major step forward, it set up an Instrument Design Establishment at Biggin Hill to conduct further experiments in long distance flying and landing aircraft in fog.

While residents today complain about the noise from the airport, think of the families living nearby at the time who had to put up with the high pitched sound of a giant concrete disc, designed to guide pilots.

Mr Ogley said: “The deafening noise terrified cattle and shattered windows for miles around.”

News Shopper: RAF married quarters at Biggin Hill (Pictures taken from ‘Biggin on the Bump’ by Bob Ogley)

GREAT FUN AT BIGGIN HILL

Building work began in 1927 to extend the airfield following the purchase of 27 acres of land including Cudham Lodge.

On completion five years later, Biggin Hill was home to messes for officers, barracks and married quarters all built in the RAF’s red-brick style, some of which still remain today.

The station reopened and became the base for two fighter squadrons 32 and 23.

Mr Ogley said: “War clouds were not yet looming but the young pilots were encouraged to put in hundreds of hours flying. They played football and cricket at the station and became frequent visitors to the nearby pubs. Life at Biggin Hill in the early 30s was great fun.”

But within a few years, the political landscape in Europe was to change forever and Biggin Hill would be at the heart of Britain’s defence.

News Shopper: An artist's impression of the Biggin Hill Heritage Centre

THE BIGGIN HILL HERITAGE CENTRE

Campaigners are hoping to open a long overdue military heritage centre on a site next to Biggin Hill airfield to remember The Few who gave their lives for so many.

The centre will chart the groundbreaking development of radar and communication technology used by aircraft during the First and Second World War, as well as house a large collection of artefacts and memorabilia from pilots based at the airfield.

Visit the Biggin Hill Battle of Britain Supporters’ Club, which is the backing the campaign, at bhbobsc.org.uk

Bob Ogley has written two books about the military history of Biggin Hill, ‘Biggin on the Bump’ (£11.99) and ‘Ghosts of Biggin Hill’ (£12.99). For more information and to obtain copies, call 01959 562972 or visit frogletspublications.co.uk

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