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RAF Biggin Hill

Restoration of RAF railings and gates

RAF Biggin Hill was the location of some of the fiercest fighting in the Battle of Britain in 1940. It was one of the principal fighter bases protecting London and the South East from Luftwaffe attack during WWII. The success of its pilots represents the first time in history that a nation retained its freedom and independence through air power.

During WWI, the Biggin Hill site was requisitioned by the War Office as a camp for experiments in wireless communications, including early development of listening devices, pre-radar. The airbase continued in use between the wars and was fitted out as a fighter station by 1930. Hurricanes from Biggin Hill went into combat for the first time on November 21, 1939. On August 18 1940, the Luftwaffe launched a major attack on the airbase dropping 500 bombs in 10 minutes. Immediately after the attack, personnel at the base rushed to fill in the craters that pockmarked the runway and it was back in use the same day. It remained a prime target for enemy bombers and was attacked again twelve times between August 1940 and January 1941. During the course of the war, fighters based at Biggin Hill claimed 1,400 enemy aircraft, at the cost of 453 Biggin Hill aircrew. Since 1959, Biggin Hill has been a mainly civilian airbase with only occasional military flying.

The first memorial chapel (converted from a Nissen hut in 1943) was destroyed by fire in 1946. The new St George’s RAF Chapel of Remembrance was designed as a simple, austere, building in brick and tile, and funded through a public appeal by Winston Churchill and friends and relatives of aircrew who had died in action. It was consecrated in 1951. Its interior includes a missile-form font presented in 1957, a plaque of Delft tiles presented by the Netherlands in gratitude for support of Dutch airmen, a carved eagle lectern presented by Belgian Air, and stained glass windows added in 1981 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The wooden floor is made from slats of sectioned propeller blades.

The RAF gates in front of the Chapel are the original 1930s gates to the airbase which were moved down the airfield to the Chapel after the station became an Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre in 1962. The restoration of the gates and railings at Biggin Hill was part of a larger project to create a dedicated museum next to the chapel. Biggin Hill’s own collections will be augmented with oral histories and new acquisitions and it will tell the story of the site, its fighter pilots and the airforce on the ground, including three Biggin Hill WAAFs awarded the military medal for valour. The new museum will wrap around the chapel site.

The gates and railings are the only remaining parts of the chapel site from the Battle of Britain period. Prior to their restoration both were in poor structural and decorative condition. They had suffered from poor quality welding and other later additions. Conservation included removal of corrosion, rewelding, restoration of the original gate bolts and fixings, removal of later paint layers, regilding the RAF motif and repainting the gates and railings in the original ‘bronze green’ paint from the 1930s.

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