The Secret History

24th April 2019

Located just a few miles from Goodwood, RAF Tangmere was a key Allied airfield during World War II, firstly as a base for Supermarine Spitfires, and later with a more clandestine purpose.

Words by Guy Walters

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If you had lived near Goodwood during World War II, you would no doubt have become accustomed to your nights being disturbed by the sound of aircraft taking off and landing at the nearby RAF Tangmere. And if you had been particularly observant, you might have noticed that these nocturnal sorties normally took place around the time of a full moon, and – if you could have glimpsed them – that the aircraft appeared to be neither fighters nor bombers.

The aircraft were in fact Westland Lysanders, and although they were originally designed to be spotter planes and for ferrying around top brass, their role at Tangmere was far more secretive and exciting. For on board were some of the bravest men and women who ever fought in the war, and whose exploits would only be widely appreciated many years later. They were, of course, members of the Special Operations Executive – more commonly known as SOE – an organisation Churchill famously directed to “go and set Europe ablaze” by carrying out acts of sabotage and fomenting local resistance movements across Nazi-occupied territories.

Looking back to the operational supper at Tangmere Cottage with our cheerful passengers just before take-off, it was almost impossible to imagine that the group would all have such terrible fates.

Some of the most celebrated SOE agents flew out of Tangmere, including Noor Inayat Khan, the organisation’s first female wireless operator, who flew from the airfield on 16 June 1943, accompanied by two other women, Diana Rowden and Cecily Lefort, who were to work as couriers. Tragically, all three women would never make it back to Tangmere. Khan would be arrested by the Gestapo in Paris in October, and despite attempting to escape, she would be executed at Dachau in September 1944. She was posthumously awarded the George Cross in 1949. Rowden and Lefort would also be captured and executed. As one Tangmere pilot, Hugh  Verity, later remarked, “Looking back to the operational supper at Tangmere Cottage with our cheerful passengers just before take-off, it was almost impossible to imagine that the group would all have such terrible fates.”

The pilots themselves were equally brave. Attached to No. 161 (Special Duties) Squadron of the RAF, they had to negotiate anti-aircraft fire, fog, perilous landing-strips and of course, hostile welcoming committees that would see their planes met with a hail of German gunfire rather than friendly words from local résistants .

Today, apart from Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, open every day from 1 February to 30 November, RAF Tangmere lies abandoned, although there is now a campaign to save the airfield’s control tower, from where so many flights were cleared on moonlit nights all those decades ago.

 

This article was taken from the Spring 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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