The Battle of Britain and Operation Sealion

08th January 2020

In advance of Harry Sherrard's talk at the end of the month, read more about the German's plan to invade Britain in the summer of 1940. 


In the interwar years Germany had been surreptitiously developing an air force, and an aircraft industry, under the guise of civil aviation. In March 1935, Hitler and his henchman, Hermann Göring, were sufficiently confident of Germany's emerging status to announce the formation of the Luftwaffe. Civil aviators switched to the military, and by the end of its first year the Luftwaffe had about 20,000 men and 2,000 aircraft.

The formation of this new force alarmed the British government and the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, announced an expansion of the RAF from 52 to 75 UK-based squadrons within five years. This expansion, though vital in the war to come, lagged far behind the development of the Luftwaffe.

To accommodate the expanding RAF, more airfield capacity was required, particularly in the south east of England, which was likely to feel the brunt of any Luftwaffe attack. Existing fighter bases were expanded and, to avoid large concentrations of fighters on the ground at permanent bases, satellite aerodromes were established short distances from the permanent bases to disperse the aircraft. These satellites also served as emergency landing grounds for aircraft unable to land at their home base.

An example was Tangmere. This fighter base was established in in 1917 for use by the Royal Flying Corps as a training base and its permanent brick buildings were familiar to the Luftwaffe from aerial reconnaissance. Recognising this, in 1938, the Air Ministry approached local landowner, the Duke of Richmond, the grandfather of the present Duke. He acceded to a request that an emergency landing ground and dispersal aerodrome be established on what was then Westhampnett Farm, a reasonably flat area within the Goodwood estate. Hedges were removed, grass runways were laid out and RAF Westhampnett thus came into being, located about five miles from the mother station.

Many of the new aerodromes, including RAF Westhampnett, were extremely basic in their early years, consisting of nothing more than grass strips and tented accommodation. Aircraft often had to be maintained in the open. But the policy of dispersing fighter aircraft was effective and, while Tangmere was bombed and badly damaged by the Luftwaffe several times, Westhampnett was never attacked.

The Hurricanes and Spitfires based at Tangmere and Westhampnett played a vital role in the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940, defending an area from Brighton to west of the Isle of Wight and destroying numerous hostile aircraft in the process.

After the war, the perimeter road around RAF Westhampnett became the Goodwood Motor Circuit.

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