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How Biggin Hill got pilots talking
7:30am Thursday 7th July 2011 in Bromley
Officers of The Royal Flying Corps who developed wireless communication (Picture from Biggin on the Bump by Bob Ogley)
As part of a series charting the military history of Biggin Hill, DAVID MILLS looks back at the birth of one of Britain’s most important fighter stations.
IT was in thick snow on January 2 in 1917 that Lieutenant Dickie and Air Mechanic Chadwick became the first men to land at Biggin Hill.
Less than a year earlier, two subalterns had come across the 75 acre site when looking for a place to build a centre to develop wireless communication.
Biggin Hill historian and author Bob Ogley said: “It was one of the highest points in Kent, 600ft above sea level. What better place to develop a system of communication with pilots in the air?”
The Royal Flying Corps, which became the Royal Air Force in 1918, opened an aerodrome to test equipment which would enable ground to aircraft communication as well as air-to-air.
Mr Ogley said: “The camp buzzed with activity. At times there was high excitement and sheer frustration as something went wrong.
“There were experiments with valves, microphones, receivers, aerials and Biggin Hill was soon festooned with wires.”
The results would change the face of aviation forever.
The landmark moment came in July 1917 when two pilots flying separately in Sopwith 1.5 Strutters spoke to each other, marking the birth of air-to-air telephony at Biggin Hill, something nearly 100 years later we take for granted.
'A VITAL ROLE IN WORLD PEACE'
Biggin Hill became a major defence site for London in 1917 against German Gotha bombers, which were increasing their raids on the capital.
South London was open to attack and squadrons were brought to Biggin Hill, including No 141, the first operation squadron to be based there.
By Christmas, Biggin Hill had become an operational fighter station and the following March, an officers’ mess, barrack blocks and steel and concrete hangars were built.
The birth of Biggin Hill as a major fighter station was consummated with the first ‘kill’ on the night of May 19, 1918.
Thirty eight Gothas, three Riesen and two smaller planes were crossing the Channel towards the Thames Estuary.
141 Squadron took off in Bristol Fighters to intercept what was the biggest raid of the First World War.
Lieutenants Turner and Barwise were flying 12,000 feet two miles east of Biggin Hill when they saw a Gotha flying above.
Following a deadly pursuit, they shot it down causing it to crash-land at Frinstead, Kent, killing the pilot and navigator.
This became Biggin Hill’s first ‘kill’ as a fighter station.
Mr Ogley said: “It was to be the last air attack of the 1914-18 war. The Germans decided enough was enough. The defences had mastered the bomber and Biggin Hill had played a vital role in world peace.”
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