Biggin Hill Fighter Base played a decisive part in the Battle of Britain. Biggin Hill gained the nickname “The Strongest Link”, which was later incorporated into the fighter station’s crest. Biggin Hill was a sector or controlling station in No 11 Group, Fighter Command. It commanded ‘Sector C’, which meant that by the very geography of its setting, Biggin Hill had to play a decisive part in the Battle of Britain.
Biggin Hill had been fully completed as an air base in 1930. Great importance had been attached to the base’s development after it became clear that the site was perfectly placed for the defence of London. As was approached, the base was expanded. In 1938, Biggin Hill received its first Hurricane fighters. At this time the base still had a grass runway and a decision was taken to construct a tarmac one.
When war was declared on September 3rd 1939, Wing Commander R Grice commanded Biggin Hill. The resident squadrons were No 32 and No 79. Just as the war started, these 2 squadrons were joined by No 601 (County of London) Auxiliary Squadron that flew Bristol Blenheims – the first twin-engine planes to fly from Biggin Hill. The 90th AA Regiment protected the base while 74 men from the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment protected Biggin Hill from an attack by paratroopers.
Little initially happened as the ‘Phoney War’ kicked in but both 32 and 79 squadrons were able to get in plenty of practice, each one ‘attacking’ the other as one or the other played at being the Luftwaffe. Hurricanes from Biggin Hill went into combat for the first time on November 21st 1939 when two of the fighters intercepted and shot down a Dornier 17 just off of the Kent coast.
Early 1940 saw the dispersal of all three squadrons based at Biggin Hill. The Blenheims went to Tangmere, 79 Squadron to Manston and 32 Squadron to Gravesend. This allowed the opportunity for major building works at the base. Deep air raid shelters were built along with a concrete runway. When these were finished 32 and 79 Squadrons returned.
The successful attack on Western Europe ensured that the fighters based at Biggin Hill played a much more active part in the war. 79 Squadron was sent to Merville in northern France in May 1940 to give what assistance it could to the British Expeditionary Force facing the onslaught that was Blitzkrieg. 79 Squadron was replaced by 610 (County of Chester) Auxiliary Squadron.
79 Squadron returned to Biggin Hill on May 21st just before the Germans overran its base. The work done by both squadrons was such that the pilots in them were given a period of rest. 32 and 79 were replaced by No 213, No 229 and No 242 (Canadian) squadrons. All three squadrons were to play a significant part in supporting British, French and Belgium troops at Dunkirk. While the weather played it part in stopping the Luftwaffe from flying as often as it would have liked, he importance of the RAF in the success of evacuating over 300,000 men at Dunkirk was recognised by Winston Churchill who said:
“Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Royal Air Force.”
In June 1940, 32 and 79 Squadrons returned to Biggin Hill. No 213, No 229 and No 242 Squadrons were dispersed elsewhere. As the Battle of Britain dawned, 79 Squadron was moved to Hawkinge, a forward air base near Folkestone while 610 Squadron, equipped with Spitfires, returned to Biggin Hill. They were joined by No 141 Squadron that was equipped with Boulton Paul Defiant’s.
On July 19th, 141 Squadron, flying from its forward base at Hawkinge, engaged Me 109’s over the English Channel. The Luftwaffe had learned that the Boulton Paul Defiant had an extreme weakness. If it was attacked from below, it had no way of defending itself as its four guns faced back. Of the nine Defiants that took part in the engagement, six were lost and one was badly damaged. Nine crewmen were killed. What remained of 141 Squadron was returned to Prestwick where the Defiants were converted to night flying duties.
For the rest of July, fighters from Biggin Hill, using Hawkinge as a forward base, patrolled the English Channel, given air cover to the convoys entering Dover harbour. Nearly every day brought some form of engagement with the Luftwaffe and invariably Me 109’s.
August 12th 1940 witnessed the first major attacks on British bases by the Luftwaffe. 610 Squadron were on first call as just after 07.00, radar spotted the approach of German aeroplanes. The squadron took off for what was to be the first enemy contact of what became the Battle of Britain. While the Spitfires engaged Me 109’s, Luftwaffe bombers attacked their target – a radar station. In the afternoon of the same day 32 Squadron, flying out of their forward base at Hawkinge, engaged the enemy. It was on this day that Hawkinge fighter base sustained a heavy attack from German bombers but none of the parked Hurricanes were hit. However, with Hawkinge out of use, 32 had to return to Biggin Hill. The day was to set the tone and pattern for many days that followed.
32 and 610 Squadrons were called into action as far apart as Portland in Dorset to Harwich on the east coast. The speed with which Hurricanes and Spitfires could reach their patrol areas was vital – and being able to re-fuel and re-arm with comparative ease was a major advantage that the Luftwaffe did not possess.
On August 18th, the Luftwaffe launched a major attack on Biggin Hill itself. In just ten minutes, 500 bombs were dropped and the base was severely damaged. Immediately after the attack, all personnel at the base used whatever they could to fill in the craters that pockmarked the runway. By late afternoon, the runway was in use again and 32 and 610 Squadrons continued with their work.
Constant sorties had taken their toll and on August 27th, 32 Squadron flew its final sortie from Biggin Hill. The success of the squadron had led to it being given the nickname ‘The Pursuit’. It was credited with 102 kills. 32, which moved to Acklington, was replaced with 79 (Madras Presidency) Squadron.
Biggin Hill faced another major threat on August 30th when radar detected 100 German aeroplanes crossing the Channel. Sector commanders decided that this was to be a concerted attack on Fighter Command bases. A total of sixteen squadrons were sent up to attack the Luftwaffe force. The first wave of bombers failed to get to Biggin Hill fighter base but their bombs did hit Biggin Hill village. A second wave also failed to get to the base but it did succeed in destroying many radar stations based on the coast. Therefore, the early warning system that Fighter Command had come to rely on to get their fighters into the air with due speed was seriously weakened. An evening attack on the base did succeed, as the base commanders had no advance warning of incoming Luftwaffe bombers. The attack nearly put Biggin Hill out of use. Repair shops were destroyed, as was the base’s communication system, thus putting it out of touch with Fighter Command’s headquarters. 40 base personnel lost their lives when a shelter received a direct hit.
The base was attacked again on August 31st. The overnight repairs that had been done to the runways were undone and the base suffered further major damage. The operations block took a direct hit and ruined any progress on restoring the base’s communication system. Despite the ferocity of the attack, not one member of the RAF was killed – though a member of the local Boys Brigade was.
With its operations block destroyed, the base commander operated out of a shop in Biggin Hill village. 72 Squadron had to move to Croyden while 79 still managed to fly out of the base – the result of rapidly filled in bomb craters.
On September 1st Biggin Hill was attacked for the sixth time in three days. The attacks continued throughout early September. However, while the base was severely damaged, the number of Hurricanes and Spitfires put out of use was small. The real problem faced by Fighter Command was not the lack of fighter planes but the lack of experienced pilots.
The runway at Biggin Hill was quickly repaired and allowed two fighter squadrons to operate. The operations block moved from the village shop to a local manor house – Towerfields. On September 15th – Battle of Britain Day – 72 and 92 Squadrons were patrolling across Kent and engaging the Luftwaffe. The Luftwaffe lost 56 aeroplanes and two days later Hitler decided to postpone ‘Operation Sealion’.
Fighter bases throughout Southern England were spared further destruction when the Luftwaffe changed its target, moving to London (the Blitz). The attacks on London continued and Biggin Hill played a major part in the defence of the capital. How much more damage Fighter Command could have taken will always be open to debate but there can be little argument that the attacks on London allowed Fighter Command time to regroup – especially in terms of personnel. Pilots stationed at Biggin Hill had flown in sorties nearly every day since the Battle of Britain had begun and had been pushed to exhaustion.