Waafs, Biggin Hill

Sergeant Joan E Mortimer, Flight Officer Elspeth C Henderson and Sergeant Helen E Turner, recipients of the Military Medal for gallantry, standing outside damaged buildings at Biggin Hill, Kent. All three were WAAF teleprinter operators who stayed at their posts and continued to work the defence lines during the heavy Luftwaffe attacks on Biggin Hill on 1 September 1940. Copyright IWM

This airfield built on the North Downs, just south of London to avoid the occasional fog which filled nearby valleys, became almost synonymous with the Battle of Britain itself. Being some only 20 miles from the centre of London it was inevitably both the site of an important fighter command station, and ultimately a major target for the Luftwaffe in the Battle. It was the first to claim, along with its sector airfields, 1000 enemy destroyed.

It had begun life in the First World War as an airfield forming part of the defensive ring of airfields around London. In 1930, its refurbishment was started. It was then occupied by several squadrons flying the biplanes of the time. The squadrons were amongst the first to be re-equipped with Hurricanes in 1938 and 1939.

It‘s first heavy use came during the dark days of Dunkirk in 1940 when 242 and 79 Squadrons flew their Hurricanes over the beaches in constantly rotating shifts.

In July and August, aircraft from this airfield played an increasingly significant role in the Battle. By now Spitfires of 92, 72, 74 and 610 Squadrons had largely replaced the Hurricanes. However, near the end of August the station became a prime target for attack by the Luftwaffe. On August 30th, a squadron of Luftwaffe Ju88 Bombers attacked at low level with 1,000lb bombs, destroying a hangar, stores, accommodation blocks and repair shops, resulting in the death of 39 people and several aircraft destroyed. Serious raids continued for the next two days. As a result of their bravery 3 WAAFs operating the teleprinters were awarded the Military Medal for continuing with their duties until the last moment before their ops room was destroyed by a 500lb bomb.

It was early September the switch by the Luftwaffe to targets in London saved the day for Biggin Hill. It was able to recover during the rest of that month.

Because of the central part it played in the Battle, it has become the site of the Chapel of Remembrance commemorating the Battle. It is dedicated to those who lost their lives flying from Biggin Hill. It is situated in what is now a largely civilian airfield.