There was a virtually defeatist conviction then that ‘the bomber will always get through’, and Tangmere’s distinctive appearance from the air, and so close to the south coast – labeled it an obvious – and vulnerable – target. In contrast what would become RAF Westhampnett – today’s Goodwood Aerodrome – would be a grass field virtually indistinguishable from the thousands of agricultural acres stretching away in all directions upon the coastal plain.
Famously now, Freddie Richmond readily agreed to the Ministy of War’s request for use of land while pointedly retaining ownership of the site rather than donating it. Consequently the Estate farm, which stood there, was demolished, hedgerows grubbed out and the grass field prepared for the Royal Air Force’s use. The first RAF personnel moved in during 1940, some officers taking residence in the farm cottages near today’s Woodcote Corner while ground crews, admin staff and general ‘erks’ discovered life under canvas and in hurriedly converted pig-sties and barns close by the current Claypit Lane/New Road roundabout. Through the Battle of Britain period, which extended from July 10 to October 31 1940, two Squadrons became fully operational from RAF Westhampnett, initially No.145 equipped with Hawker Hurricanes and from August 1940 No.602 with Supermarine Spitfires.
The action was hectic, and the cost was high. During the Battle period Tangmere Sector – which was RAF Fighter Command’s ‘A Sector’ in its overall south-east England command structure – comprised the RAF aerodromes at Tangmere, Westhampnett, Shoreham and RNAS Ford, while also controlling twin-engined Blenheims converted as interceptors and operated by Coastal Command from nearby Thorney Island. And overall during the Battle, Tangmere Sector lost 57 pilots.
Of these unfortunate few, 18 flew their final, fatal missions from ‘our’ aerodrome at Westhampnett. And that is why we felt it was so important to mark the 75th anniversary of the Battle during this year’s Revival Meeting. And why it was even more important to commemorate each one of those young men individually by name – so movingly presented by Nimmy March, with each lost pilot honoured by local-unit air cadets lowering the relevant national flag. While our Union flag predominated, it was notable how the Polish, Australian, Belgian, South African and American flags also featured.
Our country then in effect stood alone against the invasion threat but, most emphatically, not friendless…
And on the Tuesday following Revival – Battle of Britain Day – Goodwood then hosted assembly and take off for what we believe was the biggest group of Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft brought together since the 1940s. Credit for much of this fantastically evocative tribute’s organisation is owed to Matt Jones and his colleagues at The Boultbee Flight Academy – the Goodwood-based organisation celebrated for its Supermarine Spitfire training and conversion courses, and flight experience programmes.
Some 32,000 spectators packed the Motor Circuit outfield to witness that Tuesday’s spectacle once morning rains had blown clear and 1940-type summer sun prevailed. Surveying the scene from the brand-new Aero Club building’s roof gallery, it struck me that more Spitfire and Hurricane aircraft were visible upon the aerodrome than probably at any time during the Battle itself. Just those two Squadrons were based here then, maybe 25-30 aircraft at most – and now before us in 2015 were 35-40 – plus John Romaine’s magnificent and unique flying Bristol Blenheim.
As the aircraft coughed into life – initially flickering exhaust flame and billowing blue smoke before start-up rich mixtures burned off – then began to taxi out across the bumpy grass to line-up for takeoff on the infield near Woodcote Corner, those were real lump-in-the-throat moments.
The roar of multiple Rolls-Royce Merlin engines once again bounced back from Trundle Hill and Bow Hill. As – one-by-one – the aircraft climbed away between Lavant and Chichester, banking right to clear the town – the south-westerly sun flashed off cockpit canopies and tail fins. And – once assembled into their Section formations above Selsey Bill – each fly-by of three, four, six or eight radiated a sight and sound surely to be cherished.
Having spent long hours with specialist historian Andy Saunders verifying the list of Tangmere Sector’s losses that long-gone summer – the names were still flickering through my mind… Sergeant Eric Debnam Baker, Flying Officer Guy Raustrom Branch (Empire Gallantry Medal), Flying Officer The Lord Richard Ughtred Paul Kay-Shuttleworth, Flying-Officer Antoni Ostowicz, Sergeant Mervyn Sprague… and on… and on… and still further formations came winging in above us, more great classic aircraft wheeling low across the Aerodrome.
And looking up towards the Race Course one could see the crowds lining the crest of the hills – and out in the lanes all around were thousands more. This was simply a fantastic 75th anniversary tribute, and once home my young grandchildren were full of how, when leaving school, they had glimpsed the Spitfires and Hurricanes flying over, 25-miles north – and further accounts kept emerging from far and wide of how ‘they’ had been seen clear across the country, from Devon to Dover – absolutely the object of the commemorative exercise; mission accomplished.
Setting any Goodwood interest aside – what a fabulous event this was. And in such volume all made possible by private owners, private individuals, and private enterprise; certainly some of the freedoms those predecessors whose brief, brave lives we commemorate and honour, were defending in our skies, 75 long years ago.
Photography courtesy of The GP Library and Tom Shaxon