Stow Maries Aerodrome – A Great War Experience
We are pleased to be bringing you this latest edition of Aerodrome, our regular look at the fascinating world of aviation. In the previous edition of our blog, we marked the beginning of the 2017 season with a review of the Trainer and Radial Fly-in event held at Halfpenny Green airfield in the West Midlands and we are grateful for the many messages we received saying how much you enjoyed this feature. Since posting this edition, Britain has actually seen the first Airshow event of 2017 take place, with the delightful and historic aerodrome at Old Warden having the honour of proclaiming the latest Airshow season well and truly open. We will have a full review of this event in a future edition of Aerodrome, but for this week, we will be attempting to take readers back to the Great War and the birth of Britain's air defence network. We are heading to Europe's largest surviving First World War aerodrome and arguably one of the most atmospheric aviation venues in the world – come with us as we review a specially arranged event using historic Stow Maries aerodrome as its backdrop.
Stop the Night Intruders
Memorial and original WWI buildings at Stow Maries
As the true horrors of the ‘War that will end all war' slowly began to filter back to a British public somewhat remote from the carnage of the Western Front, few could have imagined that the civilian population of Britain would itself come under attack from an enemy threatening indiscriminate slaughter from the skies. The rise of air power in the months following the declaration of war saw aviation develop at an astonishing rate, as the aeroplane became yet another machine adapted for the purpose of killing efficiently. Arguably, the most feared exponent of this new aerial warfare were the mighty Zeppelins operated by German Army and Naval units and as they mounted their onslaught against the UK from their bases on the Northern coast of Germany, Britain had virtually no defence. Often attacking at night and raining bombs indiscriminately on the population below, the citizens of Britain were terrified and demanded that their government acted to protect them. Early measures consisted of installing search light batteries and anti-aircraft guns around London and some coastal towns, but they were largely ineffective and served only to reassure the public. The move also drained valuable resources from the trenches of the Western Front, to fight a battle that military planners had simply not anticipated. Slowly, the Home Defence units began to win the battle of the Zeppelin raiders, but just as Britain became more effective in defending its airspace, Germany unleashed a fearsome new threat.
The museum has this impressive diorama of a Gotha night raid on London
Although the Zeppelin threat caused fear and panic amongst the British population, the raids were not particularly effective and resulted in little damage and few civilian casualties. The airships were slow moving, difficult to control in less than ideal weather conditions and prone to technical problems – perhaps more importantly, their size made them vulnerable to concerted attack once located by the RFC. Even whilst these lumbering giants were spreading terror amongst the British population, Germany was developing its replacement, arguably the first effective strategic bomber the world had ever seen – the mighty Gotha. Although not capable of carrying the same payload as the largest Zeppelins, the twin engined Gotha was much faster and better able to defend itself against British fighters – so confident were the German's in their new bomber, that they mounted their first raids against London in daylight, knowing that they were unlikely to meet any serious opposition. Just as the first Zeppelin raids had highlighted the inadequacies of Britain's home defences, the Gotha further exploited these deficiencies and brought about a radical overhaul of Britain's air forces. The damage inflicted by the Gotha bomber raids proved to be much more significant than the Zeppelin's ever achieved, even though it could be argued that the airships were feared more by the British public – the government however, quickly realised that decisive action had to be taken against this new threat and a more robust air defence network created. This reorganisation would eventually lead to the formation of the Royal Air Force and a robust framework for future training, organisation and strategy of Britain's airborne fighting force.
Stow Maries Aerodrome – Defending Britain
The restored Pilot's Ready Room and water tower receiving attention
The threat posed by the German Zeppelin raiders, combined with the outpouring of public dismay at their perceived vulnerability brought about some immediate action by the government and the establishment of Home Defence squadrons. Aircraft, equipment and personnel were drawn from units already on the Western Front or destined to be sent there, at a time when they were desperately needed in Europe, but the situation was so grave that there was simply no alternative.
Stow Maries aerodrome was constructed in 1916 on farmland belonging to Edwins Hall and Old Whitman's farms, close to Woodham Ferrers in Essex and was established to protect London and the home front from German air attack. Initially, the facilities would have been rather crude, with a collection of wooden buildings and bell tents to accommodate the based personnel and support vehicles, with more substantial brick structures following later. The first official residents of the new aerodrome were ‘B' flight of No.37 (Home Defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps with their BE2c and BE12 aircraft. These aircraft had been designed for stability and were not particularly suited to the task they were now asked to undertake and the airmen of the Home Defence squadrons had to perfect their tactics quickly. No sooner had they struggled to see off the Zeppelin threat, the German's unleashed a new, much more capable bombing campaign, using their fast and heavily armed Gotha bombers. These twin engined bombers would pose a much greater threat and ensured the Home Defence squadrons would quickly receive the most capable fighter aircraft available to the RFC.
This beautifully produced BE2e replica is similar to aircraft that would have been based at Stow Maries
Like many similar facilities at this time, the aerodrome at Stow Maries became something of a fully functioning, self-contained community, with everything the stationed personnel may require brought to the airfield from the surrounding villages – it must have actually been quite a pleasant place in which to fight your war. Unfortunately, the landing strip itself was a constant source of problems and was prone to waterlogging following even modest rainfall. This resulted in Stow Maries being unable to operate its aircraft as often as many of the other Home Defence squadrons and required the station steamroller to be almost constantly trundling up and down the length of the airstrip, in an attempt to keep it serviceable. Interestingly, it is reported that airfield personnel cut the shape of a full size Gotha bomber into the grass and filled the area with white stone – this was then used for station pilots to practice their attack techniques in advance of being scrambled to repel the latest enemy raid.
The summer of 1917 saw the arrival of “A' flight No.37 Squadron at Stow Maries, doubling the number of personnel stationed at the airfield. On 17th June, No.37 Squadron pilot Second Lieutenant L.P Watkins took off from the nearby Goldhanger satellite airfield to intercept an incoming Zeppelin raid – he managed to shoot down L48, which came down on farmland near Theberton, Suffolk. This was a significant action, as it was the last Zeppelin to be shot down over Britain during the First World War.
Accommodation blocks currently under renovation at the site
By 1918, No.37 Squadron had relocated its headquarters to Stow Maries and at this time, it was recorded that 219 personnel and 16 operational aircraft were stationed at the airfield. In response to German air raids on the British mainland, the airfield launched 81 defensive sorties and made a significant contribution to Britain's home defence capabilities. Three months after the Great War ended, ‘C' flight also moved to the aerodrome with 300 personnel and 24 aircraft, including Sopwith Pups and the new Sopwith Snipe – this was the first time that an entire squadron had been located at one station. Their stay would prove to be a short one and by March 1919, No.37 was on the move once more, this time relocating to Biggin Hill and leaving Stow Maries abandoned.
The museum gives some idea of what an airmen's room may have looked like
At its peak, the Stow Maries aerodrome site covered approximately 15 acres and contained 44 brick and wooden structures, from mess halls to fuel storage areas and was home to hundreds of service personnel, all dedicated to the protection of Britain's skies. Increasing from a single timber and canvass Bessonneau hangar to adding a pair of sizable double wooden hangars to keep the station aircraft serviceable, such famous WWI designs as the BE2c, Sopwith Pup and the SE5a would have graced the airfield, which bore witness to the birth of Britain's dedicated and integrated air defence network. Following the end of the Great War and the relocation of RAF No.37 Squadron, there was no further use for the airfield and its facilities, which were simply abandoned and gradually returned to farmland. The historic buildings which were once home to so many service men and women were simply left to the weather and slowly fell into disrepair, with the isolated location of the site allowing nature to quickly reclaim what it had previously possessed. Forgotten and abandoned, this historic site slowly began to fade from the pages of history.
A Great War Resurrection
Sunset at Stow Maries. An enigmatic scene that portrays the history of this site
The past few years have been significant ones in the history of the forgotten airfield at Stow Maries. Despite the entire site falling into serious disrepair and almost disappearing from the memory of a nation that is currently in the midst of Great War Centenary commemorations, this unique and atmospheric aerodrome has been saved to act as a living memorial to both the sacrifices of the First World War and the establishment of Britain's air defence system.
The site came to the attention of a British businessman who was looking for a new operating site for his business. He was surprised and fascinated at what he found when he visited the site, having not previously known anything about this collection of dilapidated and overgrown buildings, he was keen to find out more and started to research the site and what the buildings were previously used for. Once he discovered the unique history of the site, his intentions quickly changed and he had a clear vision of what he would like to achieve – to restore this Great War aerodrome to something of its former glory and to allow the world to experience what it must have been like to operate early aircraft in the defence of London and the south of England. His ideas for the restoration and preservation of the aerodrome were significant in becoming the successful bidder when the site came up for auction, even though his bid turned out not to be the highest placed – sometimes history has to take precedence over commercial gain.
Great War aviation was a chance for the woodworker to show his skills
For ambitious projects such as this to succeed, there are a number of factors that need to align in order for it to come to fruition. Money is certainly the primary consideration, but drive, vision, the support of the local community and a small army of volunteers to help with the works are all extremely important. The plans to restore and preserve this historic site included the renovation of 22 original WWI era buildings, some of which would be used to establish important visitor amenities, such as a museum, shop, café and conveniences, all of which would be important in attracting as many people to the airfield as possible. Alongside this, the plans included the establishment of a wildlife conservation area – as this site remained untouched for almost 100 years, it seemed fitting that the environment that had happily reclaimed the aerodrome over that time would play a significant part in its future.
Central to the plans for the Stow Maries site was the determination to have WWI era aircraft housed and flown from this historic site once more and in order to achieve this goal, the airfield waterlogging problems that had affected the site during its operational years had to be addressed. Drainage works were amongst the first and most significant works to be undertaken at Stow Maries, with the new landing area proving to be in much better condition than it ever was during the war. There were also plans to recreate authentic WWI hangars on the airfield, using original plans, materials and building techniques as those used during the construction of the hangars that protected the aircraft during the days of the first Blitz and significantly, house a collection of rare WWI aircraft that were capable of operating from the site. This would provide visitors to Stow Maries with an opportunity to experience what it must have been like to be posted to this aerodrome during the Great War and Germany's aerial onslaught on the British population.
The Sopwith Snipe would have been one of the last aircraft based at the aerodrome
This was my first visit to Stow Maries, having read much about it over the past couple of years and was arranged to attend a special sunset photoshoot, with the promise of some replica WWI aircraft as our subjects. Although the event was not due to start until the late afternoon, I wanted to take this opportunity to discover this enigmatic site for myself and take a look around before the army of photographers turned up en masse. Having arrived following an exceptionally arduous journey from the North West, I had a quick look round the impressive on-site museum, which helped to tell the story of the aerodrome and the important duties undertaken by the personnel stationed at Stow Maries, before heading off to discover the site for myself. With this being such a unique and historic venue, I desperately wanted to spend some time walking amongst the various buildings, trying to sample the atmosphere of this Great War aerodrome and engaging with the history of site – I am so glad that I did.
With the airfield at Stow Maries occupying such an isolated, rural location, a stroll amongst its historic buildings really is like taking a journey back into history. With nothing but birdsong and your imagination as your guides, it is quite easy to be swept along with the nostalgia of the site and imagine what it must have been like to live and work at this aerodrome, whose sole purpose was to meet and defeat the German bombing campaign that was threatening to demoralise the population of Britain during WWI. Walking amongst authentic buildings, many of which are still eerily derelict, whilst others have been sympathetically restored to their former glory, you can't help but think about the people whose footsteps you may be walking in and how this must have been a very different place during the turbulent times of war – it really does make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
A memorial to the fallen
Stow Maries aerodrome is a very special place - a little part of Britain where time has almost stood still for nearly 100 years. It has to be considered one of the most authentic former Great war aerodromes in the world and must be preserved for current and future generations, both for its historical importance and to allow the nation to understand the conflict and pay their respects. It is a unique educational site and allows children studying the Great War an opportunity to engage with the subject in a unique manner. Using the atmosphere at this authentic site, they can easily imagine themselves in the position of men and women who were little older than they currently are, who found themselves in times of savage worldwide conflict and fighting for the good of their nation. It will give them a clearer appreciation for the service personnel who willingly gave their today, so we could have our tomorrows.
Pilots Ready Room – A sign of things to come
Will the German's be coming tonight? Re-enactor in the doorway of the Pilots' Ready Room
As the photographers and enthusiasts began to gather for the evenings event, we were drawn to an impressive building that was closest to the airfield itself and one that will have been a focal point at Stow Maries during its operational status – the pilot's ready rooms. This building has already been restored to an impressively high standard and has been fitted with the amenities that would have been afforded the duty pilots as they awaited the call to intercept the latest incoming German raid. Enabling them to relax until the alert klaxon had them running to their aircraft, the rooms were equipped with a bed, armchair and desk and even a seating area outside for warm summer evenings. The building was positioned to enable the pilots to be trundling down the grass runway in their aircraft in around two minutes, once they had heard the alert and been given the approximate location of the latest German raid. Their patrols could often last around four hours and if they managed to sight the enemy, could also involve savage aerial combat, which may result in them failing to return to their home airfield, having paid the ultimate price, in the skies high above their homeland.
The re-enactors certainly added interest and authenticity to the event
Sopwith Snipe prepares for a late evening sortie
Assessing a captured Fokker Eindecker
This magnificent building certainly added to the atmosphere of the event, particularly as a number of WWI re-enactors wearing authentic period uniforms and flying kit were using the ready room as their base for the day and attracted plenty of attention from the gathered photographers. Indeed, the re-enactors were fully involved in the evening's proceedings and added an extra dimension to the unique nature of this event and the historic venue which was our backdrop. On the grass airfield in front of the Pilot's Ready Room, a number of magnificent WWI replica aircraft had been pulled from the protection of their hangar and arranged for the benefit of the photographers and as the light slowly began to fade, we all attempted to use this opportunity to capture as many memorable images as we could, using the history of the site as our inspiration.
Our aviation subjects for this specially arranged photoshoot. The Royal Aircraft Factory BE2e
Nieuport 17 Scout
And one from the opposition, the Fokker E.III Eindecker
A scale replica of the highly effective SE5a fighter
The magnificent Sopwith Snipe was an exceptional late war fighter
The WWI era aircraft available during the event were a scale Royal Aircraft Factory SE5a, a huge Royal Aircraft Factory BE2e, a Nieuport 17 Scout and a beautiful Sopwith Snipe. Not to be outdone, the German Air Service were represented by a Fokker E.III Eindecker, which never saw action over the UK, but was one of the most significant aircraft of the First World War. Obviously, the aircraft were the main focus of the event, but they were certainly aided by the support of the re-enactors, who certainly added an extra dimension to the photoshoot and helped to make this such a memorable occasion. All the photographs used to illustrate this feature were taken during the event, which was extremely enjoyable and very well organised – as the fading evening light gave way to night and you could see the silhouettes of the WWI buildings, it was easy to imagine the sound of the alarm klaxon to warn of the latest German air raid, almost 100 years ago.
The night shoot. First, the majestic Royal Aircraft Factory BE2e
The Sopwith Snipe
Fokker Eindecker in the dark
There is no doubting that Stow Maries aerodrome is a very special place indeed. As one of the most authentic Great War airfields remaining anywhere in the world, this is such an important site and one that must be preserved for the benefit of future generations. With much work still to do for the aerodrome to be as the current owners had originally envisaged, it could be some time before the site is restored to its former glory, but if you are interested in history and aviation, you must visit the site as soon as you possibly can. The ability to walk amongst the current collection of derelict and restored buildings is really quite moving and will leave you with a unique experience that cannot be equalled. It is to be hoped that the site will be preserved as a place of national importance in the future and the work that was started by the current owners taken on by some official body, so this unique aerodrome can be maintained for current and future generations. It will act as a living memorial to the airmen of the Great War and the cost our nation paid during this terrible conflict.
A final look at the BE2e at the Stow Maries night shoot
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we sincerely hope you found it an interesting read. Modellers and enthusiasts with an interest in Great War aviation will be interested to view the current collection of Airfix kits, which includes both the RAF BE2 and the Fokker Eindecker. For the die-cast collector, Corgi have just added Major Francesco Baracca's SPAD XIII to the Aviation Archive range, which marks one of the aircraft flown by Italy's greatest air ace.
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Finally, we would like to thank all our readers for your continued support. We will have more from the world of aviation in the next edition of our blog, which is scheduled for publication on Friday 2nd June.
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