I am out of the closet (or should that be the crypt?) as a self-proclaimed taphophile. Graveyards have long held a fascination for me and many hours over my fifty plus years have been spent in cemeteries both here in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

On occasion, on my forays into these tranquil spaces, a particular grave will pique my curiosity. This may be for a variety of reasons, an association with local history, an intriguing epitaph or a family connection.... it doesn't take much. The online availability of censuses, official registries and newspaper archives have in recent years made it possible to learn something more about the lives lived by those remembered only as fading names carved in stone. These resources provide an opportunity to put 'flesh on old bones' as the turn of phrase goes, hence the title of this blog 'Beyond the Grave'.

If anyone reading these posts has anything to add please feel free to contact me at adrianandrews@myyahoo.com.

Tuesday 12 September 2023

Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome - A Step Back in Time


Artists impression of the Stow Maries Aerodrome in use
(Artist: Chris French FGAvA)

My wife, Gunta, and I live on the Hertfordshire-Essex border. In fact such is the position of Bishops Stortford that we are in fact surrounded by the county of Essex on three sides, to the north, east and south. It is then perhaps surprising that having lived in the town for 29 years were are pretty ignorant about the Essex countryside (my journeys to the office in Harlow do not really count!). So it was a couple of weeks ago that we decided on an Essex day out.

The plan was simple, first a visit to the Royal Horticultural Society gardens at Hyde Hall (located close to Chelmesford). They have an annual craft fair that Gunta wanted to visit. She, knowing full well that a visit to a garden/garden centre location ran the risk of inducing in me an episode of surliness she did some further homework on the area and established that just a stone's throw from Hyde Hall is Stow Maries aerodrome and museum... a bit of Great War history to redress the balance.

The satnav app on my phone told us that the aerodrome was just four miles away from the gardens. What the phone app did not tell me, but the museums web site did... had I bothered to scroll down that far was that the directions provided by satnav take the hapless, history hungry sightseer to the wrong entrance. There followed something of a slow progress down country lanes and farm tracks until eventually we reached the correct gate and were able to park up.

A volunteer by the gate welcomed us onto the site and informed us that we were welcome to wander around under our own steam or we could take the guided tour at one o'clock. Well, since we initially were unsure of how long we would be around, we paid in and took ourselves around the exhibitions that ultimately culminated in the original Airman's mess building which has been carefully restored such that one of the pilots of 1916 would not think anything was out of place.... except perhaps for an electronic till and a card reader proffered by the lady behind the counter. It was at this point that the heaven's opened and we resolved to stay a little longer and do the tour.

For all of my interest in the First World War, the existence of Stow Maries aerodrome was unknown to me... unlike the rash of Second World War airfields that exist all around where we live, even though many of them only exist as traces and a keen eye is needed to spot the military buildings that have long been repurposed to agricultural use.

Whilst aerial warefare had precedence in many battles in antiquity, the first use of aircraft in aerial attacks was by the Italian Army Air Corps against Turkish troops in Libya in 1911. In the run up to The Great War, as Europe tied itself up in Ententes and Treaties that made war an inevitability, it was well understood by military High Commands on all sides that for the first time the experience of warfare could be brought to the civilian population of the waring nations with the explicit aim that the resulting terror and demoralisation of attacks from the skies would very likely lead to one or other side suing for peace.

Since aviation was such a new and thrilling innovation, in the immediate pre-war years the military powers that would soon be at war were keen to show of their latest flying machines, both in public displays and in military exercises. So when war came in August 1914, the British public were familiar with the massive Zeppelin and I dare say could imagine what they could do if and when they appeared over British towns and cities.

And indeed the aircraft came, not only the fearful Zeppelins but also the first dedicated bomber aircraft in the form of Gothas and Giants. The dread prophesy that the age of warfare played out on distant battlefields would be replaced by aerial bombing of civilian cities was quickly realised after the announcement of hostilities between Britain and Germany.

The British response was slow, the supposition being that any major conflict involving Britain would reach a victorious conclusion through the efforts of the Royal Navy and the superiority of the British fleet. However, within weeks it was apparent that this 'scrap' would not 'be over by Christmas' and aerial defence against German air raids had to be tackled.

Stow Maries aerodrome was established in September 1916 as part of No. 37 (Home Defense) Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. Established as B Flight, other 37 HD squadrons were located at Roachford (A Flight) (now the site of London Southend airport) and C Flight at Goldhanger, close to Malden. The locations of these aerodrome stations was carefully considered. Placement took into account the range of the enemy aircraft and their navigational capabilities to reach their intended targets once they crossed the English coastline. At this point it is worth remembering that the task of reaching airspace over the intended target was no mean feat. The Zeppelin was essentially a 160+ meter hydrogen filled balloon that was, despite the best efforts of whatever horse power engines that propelled it, ultimately at the mercy of the weather conditions that prevailed at 20,000 feet! That said, with London as the gold medal target it was the estuaries of the rivers of Essex and Kent that provided the required navigation to the capital.

To the north Goldhanger (C Flight) protected the approach from the River Blackwater, Stow Maries (B Flight) covered the approach from the coast along the River Crouch and Roachford (A Flight) protected the approaches up the Thames estuary.

Military staff posted to Stow Maries from the late summer of 1916 were originally accommodated in canvas quarters before increasing budgets saw a progressive solidification of site constructions from canvas, through timber to the brick buildings that remain today.

The Home Defence (HD) squadrons were established in the aftermath of the public outcry that followed the Zeppelin raids over an ill-defended London and the loss of civilian life. Stow Maries HD Squadron, B Flight, Royal Flying Corps was operational between September 1916 and early 1919, when the site was decommissioned. 

For the young airmen of Stow Maries the odds were significantly stacked against them. Aviation as a phenomenon was barely in its teens in 1916. The aircraft designated for the home defence role were in relative terms both outdated and poor in performance. The aircraft manufacturers of the day produced model after model, each (usually) a slightly improved over predecessors, but these were destined for service on the Western Front... the boys attempting to stop the German bombers had to make do. Engagement with a Zeppelin (or a Gotha or Giant bomber for that matter) was fraught with practical difficulties. Detection of the enemy was the first challenge in those pre-radar days (wireless radio communication was also in its infancy during the First World War and tested out at Stow Maries in conjunction with the Marconi Company who were based in nearby Chelmesford during the aerodromes operational lifetime). With a typical ceiling altitude of 20,000 feet, Zeppelins were not visible despite their massive size, as most attacks occurred at night. With luck spotter ships located off the east coast may hear the engines and this information would be telegraphed to the War Office who in term would then alert the HD aerodromes. This inefficient chain of communication meant that it would not be unusual for more than an hour to pass from first detection of an incoming raid to a having plane in the air to try to intercept then. Which brings us onto the next problem. Pilots would have to take off into a void of blackness and then climb to get as close as possible to the incoming Zeppelins. The BE2e, a two seater observation aircraft would take 45 minutes to climb to 10,000 feet. Once at a fighting height, the pilot would either have to be almost on top of a Zeppelin to attack it or rely on the ability of searchlight  crews to pinpoint a craft in their beams.

A Zeppelin pinpointed in searchlight beams over London

Whether successful or not in an interception, the pilot would finally have to bring his aircraft back in and land successfully. This was a manoeuvre of particular danger since all of the weight of the aircraft was in the front which lead to an inherent instability and a tendency to pitch forward on landing. It is extremely telling that of the ten airmen who served at the three aerodromes of 37 (HD) Squadron, only two were killed in action, the other eight lost their lives in training. So temperamental were these aircraft and so rudimentary the training available at the time, that many inexperienced pilots were killed on take off and landing. Many suffered horrible deaths as their fuel laden aircraft would engulf them in flames upon a crash landing. 

A crashed Sopworth Pup

After decommissioning in 1919, the site returned to its original agricultural use when reacquired by the Turner family (the original owners of the site at the time that the aerodrome was established. Some of the buildings e.g. the motor transport shed was adapted for large agricultural machinery, but many of the other original aerodrome buildings were left untouched and fell into a state of disrepair over the years. Eventually, through local public funding the site was acquired in December 2013 and placed in the hands of a Charitable Trust, Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Limited (SMGWA). Prior that, earlier subscription funding in 2010 resulted in the raising of a memorial to the men of 37 (HD) Squadron who lost their lives in the conflict. In 2012, the twenty two surviving buildings were assured further protection by having Grade II listed status conferred upon and in the same year the site was added to English Heritage's 'Buildings At Risk' register.

Stow Maries' distinctive water tower

The Airman's Mess

Interior of the Airman's Mess, restored to its 1917 appearance.

The Airman's Mess still serves as a place of refreshment and entertainment housing a cafe and library.

Interior of the Pilots' Ready Room

Here pilots would be briefed and await the 'Ready to Patrol' command that would send them running to their machines in order to intercept raiding aircraft.

One particularly unassuming, yet highly poignant, building is the mortuary which doubled up as an ambulance station. 

Mortuary/Ambulance Station

Above is the ammunition store, built mostly underground and covered by a thin corrugated iron roof, the idea being that in the event of an explosion, the force of the blast would be in upward direction, through the roof, thereby causing less damage to surrounding buildings and personnel.

The site has a couple of hangers (there are future plans to rebuild the hangers as they were during the war) where there can be found some forensically accurate replicas of the models of aircraft that operated out of Stow Maries.

The Royal Aircraft Factory's BE2e

The Memorial

It is all too easy when visiting a site such as Stow Maries to sample the tea and ice cream and get lost in the information panels of the exhibitions, but I took a moment away from all that and removed from others to reflect for a moment on what actually happened here. Standing in a field surrounded by these old functional buildings I looked across the flat Essex landscape then looked up at the grey clouds scudding overhead in the direction of London and thought about the young men who spent two or three years in this same field over a hundred years ago. They were so young, significantly younger now than my son, and whilst they were every bit in the mold of fighter pilots as we view them today, high spirited, eager for adventure and perhaps rather gung ho, they also died here and are remembered solemnly for their bravery and sacrifice.

If you find yourself in the Chelmesford/Malden area with a couple of hours to spare you could do a lot worse than pay the site a visit.


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