History of RAF Tangmere 1916-1979

Talk: Tuesday 10th January “History of RAF Tangmere 1916-1979 ” by Mr Dudley Hooley, Director, Tangmere Military Aviation Museum.
Dudley opened his talk by giving us a resume of his career in the RAF, time in industry and his involvement in the Tangmere Museum. He then covered the early days of RAF Tangmere.
RAF Tangmere was founded in 1917 for use by the Royal Flying Corps as a training base, in 1918 it was handed over to the American Air Force who used it as a bomber base. It was mothballed after World War I and in 1925 the station re-opened to serve the Fleet Air Arm. It went operational in 1926 with No. 43 Squadron.
Dudley then covered the important role of RAF Tangmere during WW2 as a frontline main sector airfield, especially during the Battle of Britain. In 1939 the airfield was enlarged to defend the south coast against attack by the Luftwaffe. Initially the main aircraft was the Hurricane but in August 1940 these were joined by the first squadron (602) of Supermarine Spitfires, based at the satellite airfield at nearby Westhampnett. The station was subjected to a major raid on 16 August 1940, when 100 Junkers Stuka dive bombers caused extensive damage to buildings and aircraft on the ground. 14 service people and six civilians were killed.
Throughout the war, the station was also a secret base for the Special Operations Executive(SOE), who flew agents in and out of occupied France on ‘black’ Lysander flights to strengthen the Resistance. Hitler decreed that all SOE operators and RAF pilots involved in these operations were to be treated as spies, and executed if captured. Dudley showed photographs of several pilots and SOE operatives – some who were either killed in action or executed by the Germans.
Dudley also described the actions of Pilot Officer “Billy” Fiske a US citizen and Olympic Bobsleigh Champion, who against the laws of the US (who were neutral at this time), joined the RAF early in the war. He unfortunately died in August 1940 at Royal West Sussex Hospital in Chichester from surgical shock, following an operation on injuries sustained following a sortie in which 8 Stukas were destroyed. Fisk was flying a Hurricane but after just 15 minutes of flying time, a German gunner put a bullet through Fiske’s fuel tank. With his aircraft badly damaged and his hands and ankles burnt Fiske nursed his Hurricane fighter home. Although Fiske landed his aircraft safely back at Tangmere, he had to be extracted from the aircraft by ambulance attendants. Dudley described how Prime Minister Winston Churchill arranged for a large funeral which was filmed, then used in Churchill’s propaganda in his attempts to get the US involved in WW2.
After the War, the RAF High Speed Flight was based at Tangmere. In September 1946, a world air speed record of 616 miles per hour (991 km/h) was set by Group Captain Edward Mortlock Donaldson in a Gloster Meteor. In September 1953, Squadron Leader Neville Duke flew a Hawker Hunter at 727 miles per hour (1,170 km/h).
The station finally closed on 16 October 1970, when a single Spitfire flew over the airfield as the RAF ensign was hauled down.
There followed a lively question and answer session.
R Keir