One hundred years ago a new threat to the United Kingdom was forcing the Government to introduce new measures to defend the country. From early 1915 German airships had been attacking and, whilst the casualties were very low compared to those that would be experienced in the ‘Blitz’ of the Second World War, this new form of warfare was causing alarm and fear amongst the population. In response to this unrest, in late 1915, a number of new Home Defence Squadrons began to be formed with the aim of providing a dedicated force of aircraft to defend the country’s eastern approaches. These squadrons, eleven in all, began to come into operation from January 1916. One of these squadrons, 37 (Home Defence) Squadron Royal Flying Corps, was formed in September 1916 with its headquarters at Woodham Mortimer and its three flights located at three separate, and newly built, aerodromes in Essex: Rochford, Stow Maries and Goldhanger. Its mission was to provide air defence on the eastern approaches to London.
The aerodrome at Stow Maries, the home of 37 Squadron’s B Flight, was initially under the command of Lieutenant Claude Ridley who, at 19 years of age, was already a decorated veteran of the Royal Flying Corps with a Military Cross and a Distinguished Service Order to his name. Under his command the first aircraft (rather inadequate BE12s) arrived at Stow Maries in October 1916 and the station became operational in May 1917. At its height the station was manned by 219 personnel of whom 16 were aircrew, with the rest supporting staff (of whom about 20 were female). During its operational period from May 1917 to May 1918, 81 operational sorties were flown from Stow Maries to intercept airships, Gotha and Giant bombers. By the summer of 1918 the Germans were being driven back on mainland Europe and were no longer able to threaten the United Kingdom from the air. As a result Stow Maries, now a station belonging to the newly formed Royal Air Force, re-roled to provide a training and support function until 1919 when, as part of post-war rationalisation, the squadron was relocated to RAF Biggin Hill. At that point Stow Maries aerodrome went back to agricultural use, although very importantly the buildings constructed to house 37 Squadron remained.
The site operated as a farm for the next 70 years until one of those fortunate circumstances occurred. It was put up for sale and by luck spotted by Russell Savory who was looking for somewhere as business premises. Immediately seeing the potential to return the site to its Great War heyday, in 2009 he and his business partner bought it. He then encouraged the formation of the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Trust (SMGWAT), which in 2013 purchased the site and began the difficult and mammoth job of its restoration and development as a heritage attraction telling the story of its days as a Great War aerodrome.
Last week I had the great pleasure to attend the launch of a new flagship museum at Stow Maries. Funded by monies given by the Government from the fines imposed on the banking sector, the museum was opened by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (and interestingly the local MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East) John Whittingdale. The museum marks the start of what augers to be a bright future for the site that will see its transformation from a set of derelict, and for years neglected, wartime buildings into a sympathetically restored homage to First World War aviation.
The museum, housed in the old workshop building, has been professionally designed, but has been constructed by some of the SMGWAT’s band of enthusiastic volunteers. The result is an excellent scene-setter for anyone visiting the site. On arrival one is met with a small shop and admissions area that are fresh and well-organised. The museum proper starts with an introduction to the air war conducted during the First World War with a particular emphasis on the air defence of London and its eastern approaches. This sets the scene and explains the reason for Stow Maries existence. It clearly outlines the threat from the various types of airship and aircraft, and culminates in a tableau showing a life-sized section of a German Gotha, complete with crew, flying over London. The latter is supported by a very informative interactive that shows the location of various bombing raids on London and their impact.
In parallel to the ‘bigger picture’ story, the role played by Stow Maries is also told – how it was established, its personnel and their roles. These include the aircrew, the ground crew and the female personnel. There is also a section on aircraft design and construction that graphically illustrates just how flimsy and dangerous these fighters from the First World War were. This is reinforced by the wartime casualty figures of 37 Squadron. Of the ten aircrew killed during the Squadron’s operational period, eight died as a result of flying accidents! In short the content of the museum tells a wonderful evocative story of Stow Maries and its contribution, set within the context of the air defence of the United Kingdom during the period.
Elsewhere on the site other buildings have, or are being, restored, in order to gradually bring the whole site to life. The Airmen’s Mess is now resplendent in its wartime glory and serves refreshments for visitors. The Squadron Offices tell the story of 37 Squadron and other buildings are in the process of being stabilised and restored, as and when finances are available.
The other big draw at Stow Maries are its flying days, when vintage and reproduction aircraft of the period fly over the aerodrome. To support the opening event we were treated to a display of flying. Standing on the aircraft line with a whole array of period aircraft lined up on the ground, with another in the air, transported the audience back to Stow Maries’ Great War heyday. And it has, like so many heritage sites, that intangible but spine-tingling sense of place. You can feel that you are standing in the ground where one hundred years ago young men, many still teenagers, got into aircraft that were made of wood and flimsy canvas, and flew them sometimes as high as 10,000 feet in order to engage and shoot down enemy airships and aircraft. To stand beside reproductions of these aircraft today the prospect of doing so is terrifying, yet these men did this and ultimately contributed to the defence of the nation.
The work being done at Stow Maries, like so many other projects of this nature, began as a mission to save decaying and unloved heritage from disappearing forever. With that initial threat now removed the task for the SMGWAT is to restore and make this fascinating site even more accessible. But also to continue to tell how Stow Maries played its small but important part in the bigger story of the development of the air defence of the United Kingdom, and ultimately the formation of the Royal Air Force.