Between 1936 and 1937 the Hornchurch Squadrons were again
re equipped, this time with Gloster Gauntlets. By this date,
construction at RAF Hornchurch was near enough complete with
three big C Type hangars and an extensive technical area with
associated officers housing and mess, airmen's accommodation
and an airmen's institute. 1936 also saw RAF Hornchurch receive
a third squadron on establishment, this time 74 Squadron.
It was also in 1936 that RAF Hornchurch had its status raised
to a Sector station belonging to the newly constituted 11
Group. For this RAF Hornchurch was equipped with the latest
in fighter control technology including an underground Operations
and plotting room.
By the end of 1936 RAF Hornchurch was already the home for
a select group of airmen who were to make names for themselves
during the Battle of Britain. These included Robert Stanford
Tuck, William Franklin and Percy Morfill of 65 Squadron, Adolph
“Sailor” Malan of 74 Squadron, Cecil Bouchier
commanding 54 Squadron, and Donald Finlay. Donald Finlay also
made a name for himself by claiming silver in the 110 m hurdles
at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and as captain of the British
Olympic team in 1948.
In 1937 the Hornchurch squadrons, starting with 54 and 65
Squadrons were gradually re-equipped with the new Gloster
Gladiator, the last Biplane fighter to enter service with
the RAF and the first to be fitted with an enclosed cockpit.
Meanwhile in Spain the new German monoplane fighter, the Messcherschmitt
109, was already being tried in combat by Luftwaffe pilots
flying with the Condor Legion in support of General Franco's
Nationalists. As a terrible foreshadowing for what was to
come German pilots were also demonstrating in their sleek
new monoplane Stukas and Heinkels the awful results of the
bombing of civilian targets.
It was to this awful backdrop that in October of 1937, Hornchurch
played host to a visit by senior Luftwaffe figures including
the World War I ace Ernst Udet. It is recounted how during
this visit, that before astonished RAF pilots, a senior RAF
brass hat calmly ran over the finer points of the new, and
secret, reflector gun sight with the German party.
There were, however, occasional breaks for levity during
the more serious preparations for the coming war that most
of the pilots expected. These included the Empire Air Day
displays at Hornchurch which attracted 17,000 spectators in
1937. In addition 65 Squadron was given a supporting role
in providing the aerial footage for a Hollywood film, The
Shadow of the Wing.
The 1938 Empire Day at Hornchurch saw the first public demonstration
of the new Hawker Hurricane fighter, the RAF's first monoplane
fighter. This Empire Air day was also visited by the World
famous woman aviator and round the world flyer Jean Batten.
In June of 1938 the serious business of preparing for war
returned when 11 Group, and RAF Hornchurch were put through
a rigorous full sector mobilisation and war exercise. This
involved alerts, air raid drills, mock air attacks and interception
exercises. In September 1938, Europe teetered on the verge
of war over Hitler's annexation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland.
During this period (known as the Munich crisis) Hornchurch
was placed on full scale war alert and the Hornchurch Squadrons
were ordered to paint their aircraft in camouflage colours.
Munich is usually described as a failure but it must be remembered
that Britain was still woefully unprepared for war. Although
it had very severe repercussions for Czechoslovakia, the breathing
space given by the Munich agreement meant that the RAF would
be dragged into a war a year later, by which time its front
line squadrons would be equipped with state of the art monoplane
fighters, including the Spitfire and Hurricane. The Hornchurch
squadrons were amongst the few initially selected to fly the
superlative new Spitfire, the first of which flew into Hornchurch
on February 13th 1939.
There was to be one final Empire Air day in May 1939 which
was attended by an impressive 45,000 spectators. Again a world
famous aviator was in attendance, this time the air racer
Events in Europe were, however reaching an almost inevitable
conclusion. With tensions rising RAF Hornchurch was put on
full war footing on 22nd August 1939. The new Spitfires were
dispersed in their protected pens around the airfield perimeter.
Alongside the dispersal areas bell tents were erected to house
the ground crews and the local Home Guard took up post manning
the airfield defences. By this date RAF Hornchurch also had
two satellite airfields attached to it to aid dispersal and
provide forward airfields. These were RAF Manston on the Kent
coast and RAF Rochford.
In the early hours of September 1st 1939 Germany unleashed
it's Blitzkrieg (Lightening War) against Poland. On September
3rd 1939 Britain declared war on Germany. RAF Hornchurch was