DOWN MEMORY LANE: So much owed by so many to so few

Dramatic scenes from the Battle of Britain
Dramatic scenes from the Battle of Britain

Friday, August 16, 1940, some five weeks into what became known as the Battle of Britain, dawned sunny and clear.

Towards noon, Poling (near Angmering) and Ventnor Chain Home RDF (radar) stations picked up indications of a major build-up of an enemy raid.

Airmen distinguished themselves during the Battle of Britain

Airmen distinguished themselves during the Battle of Britain

During the next hour about 150 aircraft were identified heading for the Isle of Wight and about 12.45pm, eight RAF fighter squadrons were scrambled to meet the threat.

The enemy formations comprised Junkers Ju 87 (Stuka) dive-bombers and Messerschmitt Bf 109Es and Bf 110s.

When the Stukas reached the Nab Tower to the east of the Isle of Wight, the leading aircraft fired off signal flares and the force split into three groups, the largest of which headed for RAF Tangmere.

The scrambled Hurricanes of Tangmere’s No 43 and 601 Squadrons met the enemy bomber force head-on over the Selsey Bill, while the No 602 Squadron Spitfires from Westhampnett, Tangmere’s recently-opened satellite aerodrome (now Goodwood airfield), set upon the escorting Messerschmitts above.

Airmen distinguished themselves during the Battle of Britain

Airmen distinguished themselves during the Battle of Britain

In the ensuing action, 25 enemy aircraft were claimed to have been brought down between Tangmere and the coast.

However, about 20 Stukas broke through the defending fighters and commenced their dive-bombing attack on the airfield at 1pm. This they did with great accuracy, with no bombs dropping outside the airfield perimeter.

In the midst of the 20-minute raid, a damaged Hurricane crash-landed on the airfield between the bomb craters.

Two very brave airmen, Corporal George Jones and AC2 Cyril Faulkner, extricated the badly-wounded pilot, William (Billy) Fiske of No 601 Squadron, from his cockpit.

Pilot Officer Fiske, an American fighting for the RAF, was rushed to the Royal West Sussex hospital in Chichester, but sadly died of his injuries the next day.

He was buried with full military honours at Boxgrove Priory three days later.

All the pre-war hangars, with the exception of one, were destroyed or badly damaged.

The officers’ mess and numerous other buildings were badly damaged, including the station’s sick quarters.

In these quarters, Dr Courtney Willey, the only medical officer on the aerodrome at the time, buried to his waist in rubble, but ignoring his injuries, set up an emergency sick bay and carried on treating the seriously injured. He was later awarded the Military Cross ‘for gallant conduct’.

Seven Hurricanes, six Blenheims and a Magister aircraft were destroyed in the raid, but the real tragedy was the deaths of ten RAF personnel and three civilians with another 20 people wounded.

Following the raid, the Hurricanes landed between the craters and were quickly refuelled and rearmed.

On the aerodrome, flags were placed to mark unexploded bombs and the clear-up work began. In the afternoon, civilian volunteers and soldiers from nearby bases were drafted in to fill in the craters and to clear the rubble.

Group Captain Jack Boret, Tangmere’s Station Commander, ordered the following entry should be made in the station’s Operational Record Book, giving special recognition to the fact the aerodrome had remained fully operational throughout the day: “The depressing situation was dealt with in an orderly manner and it was considered that the traditions of the RAF were upheld by all ranks.

“In conclusion, it must be considered that the major attack launched on this station by the enemy was a victory for the RAF.”

On this day, Winston Churchill had been watching the outcome of the enemy raids at No 11 Group Headquarters, RAF Uxbridge.

On leaving that evening, he was heard to say: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” – the words he used in the famous speech he made of the Battle of Britain in the House of Commons four days later.