– May 1940
Within 3 days of World War II beginning the awful realities
of War were brought home to the Hornchurch. On 6th September
1939 a flight of 74 Squadron were ordered aloft to intercept
a reported German bomber formation. Instead they met a flight
of RAF Hurricanes from the aerodrome at South Weald that had
also been directed against the supposed raid. The result became
known as the Battle of Barking Creek and what would now be
termed a Friendly Fire or Blue on Blue incident.
In this incident two of the North Weald Hurricanes were shot
down by the Spitfires of 74 Squadron resulting in the death
of one of the Hurricane pilots, Pilot Officer Halton-Harrop.
The two Hurricanes were therefore the first of the thousands
of air craft that would finally fall to the guns of a Spitfire.
Pilot Officer Halton-Harrop was also unfortunately the first
RAF fatality of the war. To this day no one is entirely sure
why this sorry incident was called the Battle of Barking Creek.
To add to the debacle the supposed German raider proved to
be an RAF Blenheim which was itself shot down by British anti-aircraft
fire. It was not a good start.
In fact the expected attacks and raids on Britain did not
come to much in these early days of the war and an eerie quiet
settled after Germany swiftly dealt with Poland and consolidated
its conquests. Both sides took stock of the situation and
continued their preparations for the mighty struggle that
was to follow. This was the Phoney War.
During this period Hornchurch was once more home to film
crews, this time for the propaganda film The Lion has Wings,
which was directed by Alexander Korda and staried Sir Ralph
Richardson. Again Hornchurch airmen and planes provided footage
of life in dispersal and aerial scenes.
At the beginning of October 1939, a fourth Squadron, 600
City of London Auxillary Squadron moved to Hornchurch. This
squadron was equipped with the twin engined Bristol Blenheim
and spent much of its time based at one of Hornchurch's satellite
airfields at RAF Manston training for its expected role as
a night fighter unit.
On November 20th 1939 Hornchurch finally opened its score
card when Spitfires of 74 Squadron intercepted and shot down
a Heinkel 111 Bomber over the Thames Estuary.
On December 20th 1939 the former 54 Squadron commander, Cecil
Bouchier, returned to Hornchurch as Group Captain commanding
the airfield. Under Bouchier's direction the winter the temporary
bell tents at dispersal were finally replaced with wooden
accommodation and hardcore was stockpiled to be ready to fill
bomb craters. Christmas was brightened up significantly by
a visit by the risqué and scantily clad dance troop,
the Windmill Girls.
Winter gave way to another spring and then and still all
was surreally quiet. There was nothing for the Hornchurch
pilots to do but practice their flying skills and kick their
heels in the London night spots. With the spring a concerted
effort was also made to Spruce up the aerodrome with tidied
paths, mown lawns and flower beds planted to brighten up the
technical areas and dispersals.
The peace and boredom did not last, for on May 10th 1940,
the German Panzers rolled across the Dutch, Belgian and French
borders and with heavy air support began to scythe across
the low counties and northern France. This awful Blitzkrieg
brushed the Belgian, Dutch, French and British armies aside
and apart with apparent impunity. Within two weeks the British
expeditionary force faced total annihilation with its back
to the sea on the beaches of Dunkirk and surrounded to landward
by a closing ring of German steel.