Hornchurch Country Park at War
Hornchurch Country Park is situated on the site that used to be Sutton's Farm and has historic connections with the Royal Air Force (RAF). A military airfield was set up on the site in 1915 during the First World War for the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and by 1917 Sutton's Farm had become an important airfield. Planes from this airfield shot down the first Zeppelin of the war. RFC Sutton's Farm was closed in 1919 after the end of WW1 and the land returned to agricultural use.
In 1922 the RAF expanded and Sutton's Farm was again chosen as an ideal location for a military airfield essential as a base for the defence of London and the South East of England. The new airfield opened in 1928 when No. 111 Squadron landed their Armstrong Whitworth Siskin III’s led by their Commander, Squadron Leader Keith Park. For the next 10 years the latest fighter planes, from Bristol Bulldogs to Gloster Gladiators, flew from the airfield.
In 1939 the first Spitfires arrived to re-equip No. 74 Tiger Squadron in the Second World War. RAF Hornchurch would become the most renowned Spitfire Station in fighter command. Three Spitfire Squadrons, Nos. 54, 65 and 74, were based at the airfield and formed part of 11 Group in the Battle of Britain, they also escorted bombers and were instrumental in defending our troops from enemy bombers at Dunkirk. During the Dunkirk evacuation the existing three Spitfire Squadrons were temporarily joined by five more Squadrons, Nos. 19, 41, 92, 222 and 616.
It was 222 Squadron that brought Flight Lieutenant Douglas Bader, the legendary pilot who refused to give up flying despite losing both his leg in a pre-war flying accident, to RAF Hornchurch and within a day he had shot down his first enemy aircraft of the war. He claimed many more enemy aircraft before being shot down himself, captured and incarcerated in Colditz Castle. Other famous fighter pilots including Adolf “Sailor” Malan, Stanford Tuck, Alan Deere and James “Prof” Leatheart also flew from RAF Hornchurch.
Between 1941 and 1944 pilots from RAF Hornchurch claimed 268 German aircraft shot down and 96 others probable. Many more enemy aircraft were damaged or destroyed while still on the ground as well as numerous military installations, trains and convoys. Sadly 126 RAF Hornchurch pilots were killed in the defence of our country and many more were injured or captured.
During the Battle of Britain RAF Hornchurch was bombed at least 10 times but the amazing ground crews continued to service, refuel and re-arm aircraft as the bombs fell around them. After the end of WW2 RAF Hornchurch became a training centre for pilots and aircrew and from 1952 to 1962 thousands of young airmen passed through the Aircrew Selection Centre.
In 1962 RAF Hornchurch closed never to re-open and a year later the site was sold for gravel extraction and storage. In 1980, following ground reinstatement after the quarrying and in filling with rubbish, the London Borough of Havering carried out a massive landscaping project to create what is now Hornchurch Country Park.
47 years of service history had ended but the legacy of the airfield, its pilots, aircrew and ground staff will never be forgotten. Reminders of the parks history in the form of turrets, pillboxes, tunnels, trenches and gun emplacements can still be seen throughout the park.
Contributed by Stephen “Chip” Curtling