1941 – 1944
In late 1940, a few British pilots, including Robert Stanford
Tuck, demonstrated that British fighters did have the range
to conduct attacks on targets or conduct fighter sweeps over
Northern France, Belgium and Holland. From the Spring of 1941
to early 1944 the Hornchurch squadrons primary tasks were
to conduct seek and destroy missions (Rodeos) Fighter Sweeps
(Ramrods) and if the weather was bad small scale attacks on
targets of opportunity (Rhubarbs). Collectively these were
known as circuses. From 1942, as the allied bomber offensives
steadily gained pace with the entry of the United States into
the war, Hornchurch Spitfire's were also increasingly called
upon to act as escorts for daylight bombers.
Fighter sweeps were attempts to tempt Luftwaffe fighters
into the air so that they could be destroyed in air to air
combat. These sweeps often accompanied bombing raids to tempt
German fighters into the air. The seek and destroy missions
(Rodeos) and attacks on targets of opportunity (Rhubarbs)
were usually conducted “on the deck” at no more
than tree top height and comprised gun attacks on airfields,
road transport, trains, river traffic, military installations
and factories. All were exceedingly dangerous, especially
as German air defences and radar improved and to begin with
many pilots were lost for apparently little gain. As Hornchurch
pilots gained experience and with an ever increasing advantage
in numbers, especially after the United States entered the
war, the effects of these raids became far more credible.
Occasional raids were still made by the Luftwaffe on RAF
Hornchurch but from early 1941 the initiative began to shift
back towards allied pilots. Even by the end of the Battle
of Britain RAF Hornchurch had been home to pilots from many
diverse nations, including Americans, Canadians, New Zealanders,
South Africans, Belgians, Dutch, French, Poles and Czechs.
In the years 1941 – 1944 entire Squadrons made up of
some of these nationalities would serve alongside British
flyers. The years 1941 to 1944 also saw the creation of the
legendary Hornchurch Wing, a combined force of at least three
Spitfire Squadrons and often more that would operate together
en mass on operations over Europe.
Amongst the operations that the Hornchurch wing participated
in was the unsuccessful provision of escorts to protect air
craft making attacks on the German warships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau
and Prinz Eugen during their dash up the channel in February
1942 and the provision of fighter cover for the ill fated
Dieppe raid (Operation Jubilee) in August 1942. The Hornchurch
Operations centre, now firmly at home in Romford's Masonic
Hall, was also made responsible for directing Beaufighters
in night interceptions of German raids.
During 1943 the air battles over Europe intensified as the
allies began their preparations for landing in Northern Europe
and by late 1943 Hornchurch Spitfires were intensifying their
attacks over northern France to convince the German High Command
that any amphibious landing would take place near Calais and
not as was planned in Normandy. As the date for D Day approached
however, the Hornchurch squadrons were steadily deployed away
to forward airfields nearer to the proposed landing beaches.
On February 18th 1944 The Hornchurch Operations Centre was
stood down and closed. Fighter Operations from RAF Hornchurch
had all but ended.
During the years 1941 to 1944 Hornchurch pilots claimed 268
German aircraft shot down and 96 others as probable. They
also damaged or destroyed many more aircraft on the ground
as well as destroying many locomotives, barges, military installations
and ground vehicles. In return, however, 126 Hornchurch pilots
were killed with many others injured or captured.