There are currently numerous events occurring to remind us of events during the Second World War and one specific event – that of the D-Day landings, 75 years ago.
Last week saw the present members of the RAF’s 1310 Flight take part in a commemorative service at North Bersted to remember those days. Part of the event saw a Chinook helicopter landing on the playing field, and they were joined by the cyclists, who are soon to cycle from the Pink Pub to Pegasus Bridge in Normandy to join their anniversary events.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, there were American, British, Canadian and other Allied forces who mounted the largest and most ambitious military operation on to the beaches. More than 130,000 men landed in Normandy that day.
The planning for an invasion of France started after the Battle of Britain and it became apparent many more airfields were required than those operated by the RAF.
The plans came under the title of Operation Hadrian and, initially, there were plans for 82 Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG), in the south of England. Of those, 26 were built of which seven were in Sussex, and they were actually satellite stations from Tangmere airfield.
There was a master format used, with each airfield being intended for 50 aircraft, only a few buildings, with two runways that crossed each other. Each runway was 50 yards wide (45.7m), one strip at 1,600 yds long (1,463m) and the other 1,400yds long (1,280m).
The land used in most cases had previously been used for agriculture, but once acquired it had to be levelled, trees and hedges removed, and a temporary surface installed with concrete bases for aircraft stands.
These plans began in Bognor Regis late in 1942 when West Sussex County Council started work to prepare the site. In the case of the Bognor ALG the land used, north of Chalcraft Lane, was farmland, and when travelling along Chalcraft Lane today between the Royal Oak and the roundabout junction of the B2166. there is a large section of the hedge missing just after the entrance to the cemetery. This was where one of the runways crossed over into the West Meads area.
The surface used for the airfield was known as Summerfield Tracking, which was a metal mesh, and again, several people have told me how over the years they have found pieces of mesh or metal pegs in their gardens or fields.
The Canadian Royal Engineers carried out the work in May 1943 as part of a training exercise and some of the Canadians remained to be on hand to remove the tracks when the airfield was no longer required.
The initial specification for the required work was £20,5000. The final layout requirement was produced only two months before the required completion date.
However, the work was completed, and the first planes arrived, as planned, on June 1, 1943. The final cost was £49,448 and 90 per ent of bonuses were paid under the ‘payment by results’ scheme.
Who used the airfield, I am sure is one question? There were a number of British squadrons, for example 66 Sqdn, 602 ‘City of Glasgow’ Sqdn, 19 Sqdn, also 350 Belgian Sqdn. Finally two squadrons from Norway, 331 and 332.
My research duly resulted in contacts with the Norwegian Archive Department and Little Norway in Canada in addition to a number of people in this country. It is interesting researching a subject of which you have no previous knowledge like aircraft and airfields.
Many of the people involved are, of course, enthusiasts and knew everything about planes, their markings, serial numbers etc.
At the time this airfield was in operation, the men were away in various service duties. So ,many of the memories came from people who were children, mostly boys and young men, who were quite excited to have ‘their own airfield’ just down the road.
Many families invited ‘officers to tea on a Sunday’, others allowed the men to use their bath, instead of the showers on the base. Another person remembered that his mother used to do some washing of clothes for the men on a Monday.
The records we have found to date indicate that Morells Farm was used as the Officers’ mess, and its barns were the telephone exchange for the airfield. On the other side of the airstrip, the Old Chapel Forge, as it is known today, was used as the paymaster’s office, and the disused chapel in the grounds was used as a store. For a time, Spitfire engines were repaired there.
When the Norwegians were here, Crown Prince Olav visited his men and slept under canvas with them in a field near the junction of the B2166 and Hewitts Lane. It was his practice to live in a tent whenever he visited the many sites of the Norwegians.
The airfield was used by a range of planes including Mustangs, Typhoons and Spitfires and it is incredible today to appreciate that at the height of its use nearly 100 planes were at the airfield.
Avro Ansons were also brought in to deal with the casualties from D-Day and to carry plasma to Normandy. About 100 tents were used for the injured service personnel before they were ferried to various hospitals in Chichester, Petworth and Midhurst.
The airfield was finally closed in September 1945 and stripped of all its fixtures and fittings and the land returned to the landowners for its previous agricultural usage.
In November 2003, I was contacted by a gentleman who was compiling the story of the Norwegian Airforce.
Bognor Regis was to be included in volume five of the publication. This brought to light even more information on our airfield, which was used in one of the biggest operations during the Second World War.
I would hope that when a housing estate is constructed, as frequently mentioned, we can remember this event and the men who left our small town to take part in this major event.
Copies of ‘It started with a map’, the story of the airfield, are still available from the Bognor Regis Local History Museum in West Street for just £2.50.