During the Battle of Britain, the 18th August 1940 was dubbed “The Hardest Day” as the Luftwaffe launched massive attacks against airfields and other military installations in an attempt to deal a knockout blow to the Royal Air Force and gain air superiority over Southern England. Losses were high on both sides but the RAF more than held its own against the onslaught. At the eye of the Battle was the Sector airfield at RAF Biggin Hill. 75 years on, the current operators of London Biggin Hill Airport and the Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar played their own unique tribute to the men and women who played such an important role in the Battle.
Paul Johnson/Flightline UK reports. All photography by the author or as credited.
It is not that often that an aviation event provides such an emotive experience, but what London Biggin Hill Airport and the Biggin Hill Heritage hangar achieved on 18th August 2015 with Biggin 75 was just the perfect salute to “The Few” and all those who played a pivotal role in the Battle of Britain.
It was a very different day; this was not an airshow by any means. It was however one of the biggest gatherings of Spitfires and Hurricanes since the Second World War with 22 such aircraft making it to the airfield. In these times of superficial heroes made by reality TV, it was impressive and heart-warming to see the National and Local press take such an interest, particularly in the stories of the large number of veterans gathered for the day. This was a big media event too with a great line of satellite trucks at one end of the showground relaying the live action to national television.
For the public, tt was a much more gentile day with just 3,000 spectators. The morning saw many of the Spitfires and Hurricanes arrive and park up a central arena. Surrounding them were displays from re-enactors as well as a few select traders.
The main event saw three formations of Spitfires and Hurricanes take off from Biggin Hill to visit some of the most important sites of the Battle of Britain within the South East of England. Each formation was named after notable Biggin Hill personnel from the Battle. ‘Grice’ Flight headed South West from Biggin Hill via Dunsfold to patrol the Solent and the Isle of Wight. ‘Mortimer’ Flight staed close to Biggin Hill flying over Eynsford, Chelsfield, Detling, Farningham, Downe and RAF Kenley. ‘Hamlyn’ Flight flew over Sevenoaks, Yalding, Ashford and the former RAF Hawkinge before heading to the Dover coastline.
Though 15th September is officially marked as the climax of the Battle of Britain, Sunday 18th August saw the most intense attack on the UK. The Luftwaffe launched some 850 sorties against the Royal Air Force and its bases with over 2200 aircraft taking part. Included within the sorties were three big raids launched against the airfields at Kenley, Biggin Hill, Gosport, Ford, Thorney Island, Hornchurch and North Weald, and the radar station at Poling. These raids saw some of the most intense combat resulting in 68 aircraft losses for the Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm with approximately 31 due to aerial combat . Luftwaffe losses amounted to 69 with aircraft lost or damaged beyond repair. However, the loss of aircrew was far more damaging to the Luftwaffe than that of aircraft.
It was an incredible gathering of aircraft, some of which were new on the circuit or rarely seen. Particular highlights included the Supermarine Seafire III recently restored by Richard Grace and Air Leasing Ltd ans Supermarine Spitfire IX RR232. The latter is based at Colerne Airfield and since returning to flight at Filton has not been seen at any of the major event. It is finished as it would be prior to delivery to the RAF devoid of any squadron markings. The aircraft which participated were:-
- Hawker Hurricane I R4118 – Minmere Farm Partnership
- Hawker Hurricane I ‘P3886’ AE997 – Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar
- Hawker Sea Hurricane Ib Z7015 – The Shuttleworth Collection
- Hawker Hurricane IIc PZ865 – RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
- Hawker Hurricane XII ‘P3700’ 5711 – Historic Aircraft Collection
- Supermarine Spitfire I X4650 – Comanche Warbirds
- Supermarine Spitfire Ia ‘P7308’ AR213 – Comanche Warbirds
- Supermarine Seafire III PP972 – Air Leasing Ltd
- Supermarine Spitfire Vb BM597 – Historic Aircraft Collection
- Supermarine Spitfire V EE602 – Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar
- Supermarine Spitfire Vb EP120 – The Fighter Collection
- Supermarine Spitfire IX MH434 – The Old Flying Machine Company
- Supermarine Spitfire IX TA805 – Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar
- Supermarine Spitfire IX RR232 – Martin Phillips
- Supermarine Spitfire IX MK356 – RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight
- Supermarine Spitfire IXT ML407 – Air Leasing Ltd
- Supermarine Spitfire IXT SM520 – Boultbee Flight Academy
- Supermarine Spitfire IXT MJ627 – Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar
- Supermarine Spitfire PR XI PL963 – Hangar 11 Collection
- Supermarine Spitfire XIV MV263 – The Fighter Collection
- Supermarine Spitfire XVI RW386 – Biggin Hill Heritage Hangar
- Supermarine Spitfire XVI TE184 – Stephen Stead
Joining the collection of Hurricanes and Spitfires was the Norwegian Spitfire Foundation’s North American P-51D Mustang which acted as a photo chase aircraft for ‘Grice’ Flight.
Accompanying the activity around the aircraft was a superb commentary by Andy Pawsey. Infact commentary does not quite give justice, it was a wonderful live audio documentary of the Battle of Britain background, in particular to the events around Sunday 18th August 1940.
The movement of the aircraft was heralded by the ringing of a squadron bell and the call of ‘scramble!’ The aircraft one by one fired into life and started to taxy on to the main runway at Biggin Hill forming into a gaggle which stretched almost half the length of the tarmac. Then followed the takeoff – a continuous symphony of Merlin engines of various marks being wounded up in turn – simply marvellous.
The flights didn’t disappear straight away and formed up in the overhead before they headed off on their various flightpaths. The organisers had tried to set up a modern equivalent of the observer corps with people using Twitter to report in sightings of the various flights. While this did work quite well with the commentators at Biggin able to relay some of the messages, sadly the weather forced all the various flights to fly modified flighpaths missing some of the important waypoints.
The silence was broken by the return of the first flight, Mortimer. The flight continued to patrol Biggin providing a wonderful display of Spitfire formations flying around the claggy Biggin Hill skies with various formation breaks and rejoins ahead of the return of the other two flights. It was simple yet enormously effective.
As the formations returned they all broke into the circuit and landed to return to their parking spots. The finale was a single pass by Paul Bonhomme flying MH434 who had held off until the last aircraft and landed. As he passed the crowd he pulled up into the iconic victory roll before landing.
Once the aircraft were shut down the “paddock” was opened for people to take an up close look at all the participating aircraft with various photo opportunities with re-enactors.
This was the largest gathering of Spitfires and Hurricanes at Biggin Hill in recent years which itself was special. However it was the presence of so many veterans and an incredible atmosphere that really made Biggin75 such a memorable commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain.