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In 1937 my family moved to the new estate being built by Costains at Elm Park. in the Borough of Hornchurch, Essex. I was 7 years of age. We had come from an area where railways were the only thing that mattered to a young boy, and to find myself in a house where no trains could be seen, and only heard if the wind was in the right direction, it seemed that life had completely lost its meaning!
Fortunately, salvation was at hand, as I soon discovered another interest which has been part of my life to this day. Our garden backed on to a small field, and beyond that, not 250 yards away, was a much larger field containing machines I had previously only seen in books – silver biplanes with colourful markings. I had discovered RAF Hornchurch, with its Gloster Gauntlets and Gladiators, and it was right on my doorstep!
I soon made some like minded friends, and we would spend hours by the perimeter fence, close by the main hangars, and watch the pilots in their immaculate white overalls climb on board, taxi and take off, sometimes right over our heads. My notebook soon filled up with the aircraft numbers, and we probably logged all the resident aircraft. Needless to say, there was much excitement when we spotted a visitor.
In 1939 I went to their Empire airday display. It was held just before my ninth birthday, and I went alone. Can you imagine that happening in current times? My one vivid recollection was my first sight of a Spitfire, two of them in fact. The first arrived flying parallel to and quite close to the crowd line. It was quite low, nose up with flaps and wheels down, and probably only a few knots above the stall. As it came to the centre of the crowd, with immaculate timing another Spitfire came in from the same direction but further out, and racing at a speed most of the crowd station personnel had never previously seen. The effect was electrifying.
When war came, I was evacuated to Swindon, where my interest in trains was rekindled, but as it was all quiet (raid wise) at home I was allowed to return in March 1940.
The airfield was now swarming with Spitfires, also some Blenheims and Defiants. Towards the end of May, we were awakened each morning literally at the crack of dawn when virtually the entire complement of Spitfires, three and sometimes four squadrons of them, would take off, not returning until the evening. They would spend the day at forward bases nearer the coast to help cover the evacuation from Dunkirk, but of course we did not know this at the time.
Eventually the raids started, and I spent many hours in the Anderson shelter with my mother. I recall at least one occasion after the siren had sounded that a Miles Magister would be calmly doing ‘circuits and bumps’. I have flown a few aircraft since, and watched numerous others, but I have never seen any aircraft side slipping as that Magister often did. After the aircraft returned from their sorties they would often do a ‘victory’ roll, either horizontally or vertically. In the film Battle of Britain a pilot is carpeted for this practice, but it was commonplace at Hornchurch, and good for the moral of the locals. Another boost would come each evening when the Station tannoy system would broadcast an upbeat assessment of the days activities. I remember asking my father what ‘fine fettle’ was on hearing that the boys on the Station were in it!
Things did begin to get quite scary, culminating in a bomb landing in the road outside our house. It could not have been a large one as the house was not demolished, but the damage was sufficient to make it uninhabitable, enforcing a move to stay with my grandparents in Barking, on the eastern fringes of London. As it turned out this was not such a good idea, as shortly thereafter the bombing of the airfields lessened, the day and night blitz on London started, and we had moved several miles nearer to it!
However, that is another story. While we were away, the house was requisitioned by the local authority, and we didn’t regain possession until 1948, the year I joined the RAF. The airfield had long since been abandoned by Fighter Command, and as I recall the only flying activity was provided by a few ATC gliders and their tugs.
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