I’m spending a few days with my father on the south coast and yesterday – for want of anything better to do, desirous of getting some fresh hour after four hours in front of a computer screen in a quest to complete a substantial article – I suggested we visit the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum in West Sussex, not far from Chichester.
RAF Tangmere is one of the iconic southern England bases from which Battle of Britain sorties were flown during the Second World War. Whenever someone of my vintage conjures up stirring images of British black-and-white wartime movies of the 1950s featuring Kenneth Moore, Richard Todd (and – for some reason – the then young Scottish actor Gordon Jackson in a supporting role) … or Churchill intoning his ‘Never in the field of human conflict’ speech … or plucky boys scouts watching dogfights in the skies over the Downs … the names of airfields Biggin Hill in Kent and Tangmere always come to mind.
Tangmere had originally been built as an RFC/RAF training base in 1917. In the 1920s it became a naval Fleet Air Arm base and in the late Thirties, as the threat from Germany grew, it was enlarged and tasked with the defending the south coast from attacks by the Luftwaffe. The WW2 fighter aircraft with which it will forever associated is the Hawker Hurricane, although from August 1940 the RAF’s 602 Spitfire Squadron was based at Tangmeres’ satellite airfield at Westhampnett – a hamlet now best known as the site of Chichester’s biggest local rubbish tip.
Amongst the hundreds of pilots who at one time or another passed through Tangmere in WW2 were some of the most famous Allied aces including Douglas Bader, ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, Hugh ‘Cocky’ Dundas and Billy Fiske (the first American to die in WW2, flying for the RAF). On 16th August 1940 fourteen Tangmere ground staff and six civilians were killed in a raid by hundreds of Stukas but throughout the airfield remained operational. It also acted as a ‘setting off’ base for SOE operatives parachuting into Occupied France on their highly dangerous secret missions.
The Tangmere Military Aviation Museum was originally set up by RAF veteran volunteers. It’s about three miles out of Chichester and the entrance, barely signposted as you approach by car, is on a hairpin corner. The land it appears to occupy is surprisingly small and the building is almost a living replica of what I imagined a WW2 RAF airfield building would look like in living colour. Outside in the parking area is a Sea King helicopter and various jet and other aircraft presumably saved from the scrapyard.
To visit the Museum costs senior citizens £7 each – if memory serves, the full adult rate is £9 – and I loved the experience. This is not a slick modern museum backed by tens of millions of public money. It’s what it is – a monument to a famous airfield runs by enthusiasts. The set-up is like stepping back 70 years, with a cluttered mine of fascinating displays and small screens playing contemporary black and white footage, plus well-written explanations and biographies of RAF and other Allied pilots in addition to examples of rations books, flying logs, clothing, personal effects, bits of aircraft and all sorts of service flying ephemera.
I was stopped in my tracks in the Nicolson one, where the uniform he wore when he won the VC on 16th August 1940 over Southampton – the same day Tangmere was attacked by Stukas – is displayed in a case and the visitor can press a button to play a BBC recording of Nicolson (albeit unidentified) describing said action.
To hear his understated clipped tones calmly reciting the events of that day … in which he was shot down and – suffering from wounds to his eye and foot, as well as severe burns to his hands, neck, face and legs – had paused in his struggle to leave his blazing aircraft in order to return to his seat to somehow shoot down another Messerschmitt … was truly humbling, especially as he carefully omitted from his account the fact that he was further wounded by shotgun pellets fired by members of the Home Guard as his parachute came to earth.
We didn’t stay long – my father is not great on his pins these days and needs to sit down regularly to rest – and we departed after about an hour. At some point in the future I shall return to view the bits of the museum that I didn’t manage yesterday.
We returned to my father’s home in time for tea, discussing what we had seen and I was able to testify what an impressive man ‘Cocky’ Dundas – for whom I worked indirectly in the 1980s – was to meet in the flesh.
He had a ‘presence’ that I have encountered in very few in my life. I once remarked upon this to a colleague and he responded that when you have been flying wartime sorties from the age of 19 (taking part in death and destruction two or three times a day for weeks at a time), been promoted a Squadron Leader at 22 and later a Wing Commander, there’s really very little that can be thrown at you in the rest of your life that in comparison seems to matter more than a hill of beans.