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BUILDING 33 (STATION HEADQUARTERS) BIGGIN HILL

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posted by John K Thorne alias John K Thorne on Saturday 14th of August 2021 05:46:00 PM

GV II Office block, formerly station headquarters building. Dated 1931, to Air Ministry Directorate of Works drawing no 1329/27. Red brickwork in stretcher bond to cavity walls, slate roof, leadwork to flat section. PLAN: Central hall and staircase to corridor and double-banked offices to each floor. A symmetrical 2-storey rectangular hipped range with short central T-arm to rear with flat roof, continued in one storey with a double hipped unit to a central valley. Original accommodation included for the Commanding Officer, engineer office and clerks, also accounts section, waiting and orderly rooms, lecture room and library. EXTERIOR: 2 storeys; 9-window front. Windows are timber glazing-bar sash set to slight reveals, to brick voussoir heads and concrete subsills. The front, in 9 bays, has the central 3 brought forward, and with a brick parapet taken above the continuous eaves-line. Windows are mainly with plain bottom sash and 6-pane upper, but full 12-pane have been inserted later in bay 4, ground floor, and bay, 9, first floor. A central pair of 3-panel doors on 2 steps is framed in a Portland stone surround with fine moulded architrave, plain pilasters to block bases, and modelled brackets to a heavy plain cornice to flat top and moulded edge; the frieze between the brackets is dated 'AD 1931'. The end returns are in 2 bays, all windows with plain lower sash, and the rear has 3 over 1 windows each side of the projecting flat-roofed section; those to the left are 12-pane at first floor, and to the right 12-pane; to the ground floor single light only. The flat-roofed bay has a replacement light above door and small 4-pane, right, and a sash with plain lower light at each level, left; the rear wall has a central small light to the left of a square stack taken up to a brick capping. The double single-storey range has four 12-pane to the long sides. A fascia with ogee gutter on a small soffit to a bed-mould is carried completely round the main block. Centred to the ridge is a square wooden turret with louvred sides and flat square leaded cupola; above the entrance is a short flat-staff, rising from the gutter level and braced to the parapet. INTERIOR: Original joinery with panelled doors. Dogleg staircase with steel balustrade. HISTORY: The building is located at the S end of the domestic site in West Camp, opposite the former Officers' Mess (qv). It is a characteristic example of early Expansion Period architecture and is externally almost unchanged, except for a small number of replacement sashes. It was the first building to be reoccupied after the devastation of the West Camp in the Battle of Britain. Biggin Hill acquired a reputation as the most famous fighter station in the world, primarily through its associations with the Battle of Britain, the first time in history that a nation had retained its freedom and independence through air power. It was developed as a key fighter station in the inter-war period, playing a critical role in the development of the air defence system - based on radar - that played a critical role in the Second World War. Of all the sites which became involved in The Battle of Britain, none have greater resonance in the popular imagination than those of the sector airfields within these Groups which bore the brunt of the Luftwaffe onslaught and, in Churchill's words, 'on whose organisation and combination the whole fighting power of our Air Force at this moment depended'. It was 11 Group, commanded by Air Vice Marshall Keith Park from his underground headquarters at RAF Uxbridge, which occupied the front line in this battle, with its 'nerve centre' sector stations at Northolt, North Weald, Biggin Hill, Tangmere, Debden and Hornchurch taking some of the most sustained attacks of the battle, especially between 24 August and 6 September when these airfields and later aircraft factories became the Luftwaffe's prime targets. It relates to historic sites and fabric stretching from those used by the RAF to those used by or built especially for the Luftwaffe, including the now-protected sites at Paris Le Bourget and Deelen in the Netherlands. Biggin Hill opened as a military landing ground in February 1914. From 1917 it functioned as a Radio Signals Unit and from February 1918 as a 'Home Defence Aerodrome' as part of London's air defence system. The first substantial group was erected on South Camp in 1917, when 80 acres were acquired from the Earl of Stanhope's estate. Only fragmentary remains date from this period, the significant surviving buildings - mostly of 1930/31 - being located further north, in West Camp, and situated on each side of the main Bromley to Westerham road (the A 233). Work on rebuilding the station in permanent fabric begun in 1929, several buildings bearing datestones of 1930 and 1931 and the Air Estimates for 1933-4 showing that ?190,000 had been allotted for this purpose. The surviving buildings are mostly representative of the type designs associated with Trenchard's Home Defence Expansion Scheme of 1923 onwards, the principal exception to this being the officers' mess. Biggin Hill had been the subject of pioneering air-to-air and ground-to-air experiments in radio communication and, crucially, how radar was to be integrated into an operationally-successful fighter defence system. During the critical Biggin Hill Experiment of 1938 the station was used as a laboratory for creating the Fighter Direction organisation, linking radar to defending aircraft. The 1930s also saw Biggin Hill functioning as both a weather-reporting station on the Croydon-Le Bourget route, and a relief airport for Croydon. The runways, perimeter track and 12 blast pens were constructed on an enlarged airfield as part of Dowding's drive to provide dispersed and servicable flying fields on Fighter Command's front-line bases in 1939 (the runways completed in March 1940) , of which one intact and two partially-surviving blast pens survive in the north half of the site. Some pillboxes and an hydraulically-operated Pickett Hamilton fort have survived. The runways - which were augmented by a 1700-yard runway extending to the north and begun in March 1942 - form a 'V' instead of the more typical plan, in part due to the constricted nature of the site. Few buildings have been demolished on the technical site since 1945, and the existing lacunae date from the raids on the site which caused such damage and loss of life during the Battle of Britain. The raid of the 30th of August resulted in considerable loss of life (39 dead and 26 wounded) in addition to severe damage to the barracks, WAAF quarters, workshops, stores and an 'F-type' Admiralty hangar. On the following day the Sector Operations Room took a direct hit and other hangars were badly damaged; on the 6th of September - after further raids had rendered much of the base unusable - the last surviving hangar was destroyed on orders of the base commander. With attacks switched to London throughout the autumn Blitz, there was some respite, but there was a prolonged daylight attack on the morning of October 2, and 4 days later another raid demolished three of the barracks blocks: Tangmere Block (Building 1) retains evidence of that period, when its left wing was damaged and reduced from two storeys to one. Several units of the married housing in Vincent Square were also destroyed. Biggin Hill's location south of London guaranteed its front-line involvement in fighter operations throughout the Second World War, from the Battle of France to the support of daylight raids by Bomber Command. In addition to sharing 'with Hornchurch the distinction of being the most bombed aerodrome in Fighter Command' (Ramsey, 67), it was regarded as Britain's principal fighter station. More enemy aircraft (1,400, including the first thousand by 1943) had been destroyed by squadrons based at Biggin Hill than any other airfield, and its 'aces' - including Michael Crossley, 'Sailor' Malan, Mungo park, A.C. Deere, Max Aitken and Brian Kingcome - became national figures, as well as the volunteers of the Free French and U.S. Eagle squadrons. 453 aircrew were killed while operating from Biggin Hill. Biggin Hill's satellites were West Malling and Manston, with the former customs airport at Lympne serving as a landing strip. Like Kenley, it was sited within the balloon barrage erected around London as part of 'Operation Diver' between spring and October 1944. The main runway was then extended in 1957 for Hawker Hunter jets. The RAF ceased flying in 1959, after which the runways were transferred to civil control, and withdrew from the site in 1992. It was subsequent to this, and fears concerning the future of the site, that Bromley Borough Council, with the strong support of English Heritage and veterans' associations, designated the technical site and the former married quarters as a conservation area. The technical site is now mostly in the ownership of Formula One, and the married quarters - the best-preserved group of their type noted in the thematic survey - have now been sensitively developed for private housing. The former flying field is now used by Bromley Civil Airport. The RAF ceased flying in 1959, after which the runways were transferred to civil control (Bromley Civil Airport). Wallace G, RAF Biggin Hill, 1957; Halliday P, 'Biggin Hill', in W.G. Ramsey (ed), The Battle of Britain Then and Now (5th edition, London, 1989), pp. 62-70; Operations Record Book, PRO AIR20/28/64; Churchill, W. The Second World War. Volume II: Their Finest Hour (London, 1949); Lake, J. and Schofield, J., 'Conservation and the Battle of Britain'. In The Burning Blue. A New History of the Battle of Britain, Addison, P. and Crang, J. (eds), 229-242 (London, 2000); Wood, D. and Dempster, D. The Narrow Margin (London, 1969)



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  • Published 12.01.21
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