Welcome to The RAF in Essex, WW1 to WW2

Website about all the Airfields from RFC WW1 to WW2.

RAF Hornchurch

"Never was so much owed by so many to so few"
- Winston Churchill

RAF Hornchurch

In the first half of the 20th century RAF Hornchurch (originally called Suttons Farm) was among the country’s most important military airfields. Pilots stationed at Hornchurch became national heroes in both World Wars and in the summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain it was in the front line of the country’s defence as one of Fighter Command’s key aerodromes.

Today relatively little survives of the former airfield due to extensive gravel extraction and its landscape has been altered to form Hornchurch Country Park. However, In 2007 London Borough of Havering was awarded a grant from the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund (administered for DEFRA by English Heritage) to undertake a wide ranging project on RAF Hornchurch. The overall aim of the project was to increase knowledge of the historical significance of the site as well as providing management proposals on the future interpretation of the site’s heritage.

Royal Air Force Station Hornchurch or RAF Hornchurch was an airfield in the parish of Hornchurch, Essex (now the London Borough of Havering in Greater London), located to the southeast of Romford. The airfield was known as Sutton's Farm during the First World War, it occupied 90 acres (360,000 m2) of the farm of the same name and it had Albyns Farm alongside its southern perimeter. It was an airfield located and used for the protection of London and was situated 14 miles (22.5 km) east north-east of Charing Cross. Although the airfield closed shortly after the end of World War I, the land was requisitioned in 1923 because of the expansion of the Royal Air Force and it re-opened as a much larger fighter station in 1928. The airfield was ideally located in bomb alley to cover both London and the Thames corridor from German air attacks. It was a key air force installation between both wars and into the jet age, closing in 1962.

In 1915 the London Air Defence Area (LADA) was established and a number of airfields were constructed around London with the specific aim of defending the capital from the growing threat from enemy airships. Sutton's Farm, along with its neighbour Hainault Farm (later called RAF Fairlop), 8 miles (12.9 km) to the north-east, were selected due to their location covering the eastern approaches to London. They were designated Landing Grounds Nos. II and III respectively and joined the existing airfields of North Weald, Rochford and Joyce Green. Suttons Farm airfield became operational on 3 October 1915, initially with two BE2c aircraft. As the number of aircraft increased at the airfields around London, it was decided to organise them into 39 Home Defence Squadron, which was formed in April 1916, under the command of Major (later Brigadier-General) Thomas Higgins. As the enemy threat moved from airships to aircraft, so better aircraft were introduced to counter them. The BE12, Sopwith 1½ Strutter, Sopwith Pup, FE2, Bristol Fighter, SE5a and Sopwith Camel all operated from Sutton's Farm at some stage, some with more success than others. 39 Squadron moved to North Weald in September 1917 and was replaced by 78 Squadron, under the command of Major Cuthbert Rowden, a 20 year old veteran of the air war in France and subsequent winner of the Military Cross. 78 Squadron was later joined by 189 Night Fighter Training Squadron with Sopwith Pups and Camels.

The first recorded interception of an enemy airship over Britain was made by Lt. (later Marshal of the Royal Air Force) John Slessor on the very day he arrived at Sutton's Farm, 13 October 1915. The attack had to be aborted, however, as the airship disappeared into cloud and he had to break off the engagement. The first victory in Britain was not recorded until nearly a year later, on 2 September 1916, and was attributed to a pilot from Sutton's Farm, Lt. William Leefe Robinson. Robinson shot down a Schütte-Lanz SL11, one of a 16-strong raiding force over London, using the recently developed Brock and Pomeroy mixed incendiary ammunition, which had been adapted specifically for this task. For this action Leefe Robinson was awarded the Victoria Cross and became a National hero. Two other Sutton's Farm pilots from the First World War, Lt. Frederick Sowrey and Lt. Wulstan Tempest, were awarded the DSO for their roles in the destruction of Zeppelins. Tempest's actions were particularly notable; even though his fuel pump was broken and he was having to pump fuel manually whilst flying the aircraft with his other hand, he still managed to engage and destroy an enemy airship and then find his way home in thick fog. These pilots, together with many others, are commemorated by street names in South Hornchurch.