First ‘Knights of the air’
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.
Although the nation’s major military museums will no doubt be familiar to many thousands of Aerodrome readers, it is still possible to find a few locations of aviation interest which until now have remained relatively undiscovered until now. As the country’s museum sites slowly begin to open their doors to the public once more, even though things might be very different to how they were at the start of the year, we are going to take this opportunity to celebrate this tentative step back to a semblance of normality by featuring a museum site which many Aerodrome readers may have not yet discovered.
Taking a step back into aviation history to look at how the first intrepid aviators took conflict into the air, we will be heading for a quiet, rural corner of Essex and a renovated airfield site which once played home to squadrons defending London and the South of England from marauding Zeppelin attacks during the Great War. It’s castor oil and ‘wind in the wires’ all the way in this latest edition of Aerodrome, as we discover the atmospheric WWI airfield at Stow Maries and feature some of the many aviation delights it can boast.
A unique link to the first fighting aviators
The truly historic surroundings of the restored Great War aerodrome at Stow Maries in Essex must surely be one of the most atmospheric aviation related venues in the country
As the opposing lines of belligerent forces on the Western Front settled into an entrenched, static war of attrition, aviation quickly revealed itself to be an essential and highly flexible means of gathering vital battlefield reconnaissance information. It is interesting to note that as these first aircraft flew over the battlefields, it was only eleven years since the Wright Brothers had made their historic first powered, heavier than air aircraft flight and only five years since Louis Bleriot made his crossing of the English Channel. The early Great War aviators were still very much aviation pioneers and should be recognised as such – they were using really basic aviation technology and learning how to maximise its potential during wartime conditions.
As the importance of the aeroplane in a military capacity quickly became apparent, it did not take long before crews began to take weapons into the air. Not only was there a need to defend themselves from enemy reconnaissance crews, but they also had to deny their enemy the ability to obtain the same information they had been tasked with securing. As early as 1915, the German Luftstreitkräfte introduced an aircraft which was designed from the outset to dominate the skies, adopting the latest technology to allow its pilots the best opportunity to shoot down enemy aircraft. The Fokker Eindecker had the distinction of being the world’s first fighter aircraft, one which would give Germany the first period of air superiority in the history of warfare and one which effectively heralded the arrival of the aeroplane as a weapon of war. It would also be responsible for changing the history of warfare forever.
Simple yet effective, the German Fokker Eindecker may have still been a relatively primitive aeroplane, but it incorporated innovations which made it a deadly killing machine and one which would change the course of aviation forever
For the general public back in Britain, these aviation developments must have been a source of real fascination and even though hundreds of thousands of their young men had left their homes to fight, the carnage of combat must have seemed a million miles away to them. Watching the development of aviation from afar, stories of the intrepid aviators who were engaged in fighting the first aerial duels for supremacy of the skies must have been mesmerising and much more civilised than reading about the hideous details of the casualties of trench warfare. Almost bordering on the glamorous, these first ‘Knights of the air’ appeared to be all about chivalry, bringing a type of honour to the fighting, using the very latest machines as their airborne steeds. Little did the public know that these same aviators would soon be bringing the carnage of war to the British mainland, threatening to wreck their homes and harm their loved ones.
Defending the home front
Even though the airfield at Stow Maries occupied a remote, rural location, the first Home Defence aircraft would have been closely guarded at all times
Although the mighty Zeppelin raiders which were operated by German Army and Naval units spread fear and panic amongst the population of Britain, their attacks were actually relatively ineffective and caused little damage and resulted in few civilian casualties. Nevertheless, the indiscriminate nature of their attacks and Britain’s perceived inability to mount an effective defence against their raids dismayed the public to such an extent that the government were forced to take immediate action. Initially, the siting of anti-aircraft batteries provided a high profile response to the threat, however it was not long before the aeroplane came to the rescue, with the formation of the first RFC Home Defence squadrons and an effective answer to the Zeppelin problem. Unfortunately, these aircraft and their support infrastructure had to be diverted from units already fighting on the Western Front or destined to be sent there imminently, at a time when they were so desperately needed. Nevertheless, the situation proved to be so grave that there simply was no alternative available to the government of the day.
The aerodrome at Stow Maries was originally constructed in 1916 on farmland belonging to Edwins Hall and Old Whitman’s farms, close to Woodham Ferrers in Essex. Built to allow the operation of aircraft in defence of London and the Home counties from German air attack, early facilities would have been rather basic at first, with a collection of wooden buildings and bell tents accommodating the based personnel and support vehicles. As operations became more established, more substantial brick buildings of all types would be constructed, from workshops to accommodation blocks and the all-important Officer’s Mess, which would become central to so many formal and social activities at the airfield.
Although this aircraft is a replica Royal Aircraft Factory BE2e, it is a representation of a slightly later development of the first RFC aircraft which flew on night interception raids against the feared German Zeppelins from Stow Maries
The first official residents of the new aerodrome were ‘B’ flight of No.37 (Home Defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps with their Royal Aircraft Factory BE2c and BE12s. These biplane aircraft had been designed for stability and were not particularly suited to the task they were now asked to undertake and the airmen of the Home Defence squadrons would have little time to perfect their air defence tactics, but defending their homeland certainly focused their minds. Successful Zeppelin interceptions quickly began to follow, however, no sooner had they managed to contain the Zeppelin threat, the Germans unleased an altogether more sinister aircraft to the fray, in the shape of their fast and heavily armed Gotha bomber. These twin engined bombers would pose a much greater threat to Britain and ensured the Home Defence squadrons quickly received the most capable fighter aircraft available to the RFC at that time.
During wartime conditions, the airfield at Stow Maries would have operated as an autonomous, fully functioning, self-contained community, with everything the station needed brought to the airfield from the surrounding villages. Secluded and rather picturesque, despite the fact that everyone was involved in the serious business of fighting a war, this must have actually been quite a pleasant place in which to be stationed. For the airmen, however, the landing strip itself would be a constant source of headaches, as it was prone to waterlogging, even after seemingly modest periods of rainfall. This resulted in Stow Maries being unable to operate its aircraft as often as many of the other Home Defence squadrons and required the station steamroller to be almost constantly trundling up and down the length of the airstrip, in an attempt to keep it serviceable.
Now under a program of concerted renovation, back during the Great War, this building served as the aircrew ready rooms, a place where duty crews could relax and collect their thoughts, whilst being ready to run to their aircraft at a moments notice
Just one of the many interesting stories to learn about this fascinating place, it is reported that airfield personnel cut the shape of a full size Gotha bomber into the grass and filled the area with white stone, which became a rather distinctive feature of the field. It is thought that station pilots would use this silhouette to practice their attack techniques, in advance of being scrambled to repel an actual enemy raid.
The summer of 1917 saw the arrival of “A’ flight No.37 Squadron at the aerodrome, which effectively doubled the number of personnel stationed at Stow Maries. On 17th June 1917, No.37 Squadron pilot Second Lieutenant L.P Watkins took off from the nearby Goldhanger satellite airfield to intercept an incoming Zeppelin raid and during the sortie, he managed to shoot down L48, which came down on farmland near Theberton, Suffolk. This was to be a hugely significant action, as it was the last Zeppelin to be shot down over Britain during the First World War.
The highly capable Sopwith Snipe was one of the last RAF aircraft types to be stationed at Stow Maries before the airfield closed and was left abandoned
By 1918, No.37 Squadron had relocated its headquarters to Stow Maries and during this period, its records show that 219 personnel and 16 operational aircraft were stationed at the airfield. In response to German air raids on the British mainland, the airfield would launch at least 81 defensive sorties against the enemy, making a significant contribution to Britain’s fledgling home defence capabilities. Three months after the First World War ended, ‘C’ flight also moved to the aerodrome with 300 personnel and 24 aircraft, including Sopwith Pups and the new Sopwith Snipe. This would prove to be another significant development in the history of Stow Maries, as this was the first time that an entire RAF squadron had been located at a single station. With the cessation of hostilities, their stay would be a short one and by March 1919, No.37 Squadron was on the move once more, this time relocating to Biggin Hill, a move which left the airfield site at Stow Maries abandoned.
Historic resurrection of a Great War aerodrome
With a heady mix of authentic, historic surroundings, Great War era aeroplanes and reenactors wearing period attire, it is easy to lose yourself in nostalgia during a visit to Stow Maries airfield
The end of the Great War removed the immediate threat of aerial attack against British cities and this once a bustling centre of our nation’s attempts to establish a coherent force of home defence airfields, was no longer required. At its peak, the Stow Maries aerodrome site covered approximately 15 acres and contained 44 brick and wooden structures, from mess halls to fuel storage areas and was home to hundreds of service personnel, each one dedicated to the protection of Britain’s skies. The aircraft based here were originally housed in a single timber and canvass Bessonneau hangar, but as the war progressed, two further large wooden double hangars would be constructed, reflecting the importance of air operations which took place from this airfield.
Once abandoned, the important role this airfield played was largely forgotten and the facilities which once supported vital air operations were left to slowly rot away. The isolated position of the site only served to hasten its dilapidation, as natural vegetation began to reclaim what it had been forced to relinquish just four or five years earlier and slowly but surely, this historic site began to fade from the pages of history.
Thankfully, even though time certainly had taken its toll on the original facilities at this Great War aerodrome, the site was rediscovered by a local enthusiast, who immediately began to research the history of the airfield and lobby the local council regarding its historical importance. Clearly, in order to secure the future of the site, it was going to take both vision and finance, with the two rarely going hand in glove and hardly ever at the hands of an enthusiast. Thankfully, the involvement of a British businessman who was looking for a new operating base, would prove significant and provide the platform for an ambitious restoration project for the entire Stow Maries airfield site. The centenary of the start of the Great War would provide the national recognition the project required and even though restoration works had already started by 2014, progress was proving to be a little on the slow side.
Ignoring the photographers clutter on the fence line and the fact that this is a replica aircraft, images like this one could have been taken over 100 years ago at this location, as Britain mounted its defence against German night raiders
By the following year, work on individual buildings started in earnest and the plans for a fully functioning visitor attraction were now in full swing. Over the next couple of years, as well as preserving the site and restoring the original buildings to their former glory, some were altered to accommodate new facilities, such as a museum, gift shop, café and other visitor conveniences. In addition to this and in an attempt to widen the appeal of the site, plans also included the establishment of a wildlife conservation area, something which actually seemed rather fitting. For a former airfield site which had been abandoned for almost 100 years and left to the protection of nature, it only seemed fair that nature should be allowed to play a part in its future.
Allowing visitors to take a unique step back in time and to immerse themselves in the world of a Great War aviator, Stow Maries aerodrome is somewhere that anyone with even the slightest interest in history, our country at war, or aviation, simply has to visit. This quiet, rural location allows visitors to wander around the original WWI buildings with only your own thoughts for company and if you have a fertile imagination, you will swear you can hear the voices of the young men and women who were stationed at the airfield over 100 years ago, as they go about their daily duties. This is a really eerie place, the like of which I have never experienced before and I would go so far as to say it is possibly the most memorable historic site I have ever visited and I have been to a few. With buildings restored to an extremely high standard, whilst at the same time preserving the integrity of the originals, Stow Maries is a real treat for the senses, a real ‘once visited, never forgotten’ type of place – you really do need to go.
A WWI aerodrome needs Great War aircraft
During my visit to Stow Maries, several WWI era aircraft replicas were arranged out on this historic airfield for the benefit of the gathered photographers. Can there possibly have been a finer venue to take pictures of these beautiful aeroplanes
One of the most appealing aspects of a visit to Stow Maries is the fact that the grass runway at the site is once again in use and the owners have arranged for several WWI era aircraft to be hangared at the site. Indeed, that was the main reason for my one and only visit to Stow Maries, as I booked my place on a specially arranged photoshoot event featuring several WWI aircraft and a number of suitably attired reenactors. The aircraft were in actual fact replica new-builds of Great War aircraft types, but had been produced to such a high standard that they are the closest thing we are going to get to some of the rarest aircraft types in the world, especially when considering most are maintained in airworthy condition.
Although the memory of this special day is still fresh in my mind, a relatively recent development at Stow Maries has me desperate to make a return visit at the earliest possible opportunity – the arrival of a beautiful replica Albatros D.Va WWI fighter. I have actually seen this aircraft since it arrived in the UK, as it was originally hangared at Old Warden under the care of the Shuttleworth Collection, however, I have yet to see it fly and I have not seen it at its current home. I know this is a German aircraft at a British Great War airfield, but it is just such an attractive aeroplane and the chance to see it in such historic surroundings and dare I say even taking to the air, is something I would happily travel the length of the country to experience.
The diminutive French Nieuport 17 Scout was one of the most effective Allied fighters of the Great War and proved to be something of an Eindecker killer, a more capable fighting aeroplane in every respect
The Albatros series of fighters were some of the most successful fighting aeroplanes of the First World War and the mainstay of the German Air Service from 1917 onwards. Remarkably advanced when first introduced, the aircraft were continually developed throughout the conflict and with around 4,800 examples of all variants being produced by wars end, it is easy to see why many of the most successful German air aces spent time behind the controls of the Albatros. With its rather large, almost bulbous fuselage, the Albatros was an extremely elegant aeroplane, but even though many Allied airmen would fall to its guns, by the time such aircraft as the agile SE5a and Sopwith Camel had been introduced, the Albatros was beginning to show its limitations.
During 2018 and in the midst of national Great War centenary commemorations, news that a new, airworthy Albatros replica had arrived at The Shuttleworth Collection’s Old Warden airfield was met with great excitement amongst aviation enthusiasts. That excitement only increased when we learnt that the aircraft was to be based in the UK and potentially displayed at Airshow events during the following year. Built during 2017, this beautiful fighter is a product of the renowned Vintage Aviator Limited (TVAL) workshops in New Zealand and has been sent to the UK on loan to the WWI Aviation Heritage Trust (WW1 AHT). It arrived at Old Warden in a shipping container during September 2018 and a team from Flying Restorations engineering assembled the aircraft in time for it to be a huge static attraction at the final Shuttleworth show of that year.
The Albatros was scheduled remain at Old Warden until it was granted a permit to fly, but at that time, it was unclear as to whether it would be staying with the Shuttleworth Collection, or operating out of Stow Maries aerodrome. UK aviation enthusiasts have been fortunate enough to see two previous Albatros replicas flying in British skies over recent years, with Old Warden playing host to both of them. Also built by TVAL (The Vintage Aviator Limited), but back in 2011, an Albatros in the colours of Jasta 61’s ace pilot Karl Freidrich Kurt Jentsch was flown during the late summer of 2012, before being transported by road the RAF Museum’s Hendon site, where it is currently on public display. In 2015, another TVAL Albatros replica was operated by the WWI AHT from Stow Maries, which took part in Airshows at its home airfield and at Duxford and Old Warden during that year. This particular aircraft was presented in the famous colours of celebrated 43 victory Luftstreitkräfte ace Paul Bäumer, who decorated his fighter with a large Edelweiss emblem on both sides of its fuselage.
One of the most distinctive aircraft of the Great War, the German Albatros series of fighters would see extensive service from 1917 onwards and would be flown by many of the world’s early air aces, including Manfred von Richthofen
This third TVAL replica Albatros D.Va is finished wearing the distinctive colours of pilot Otto Kissenberth, who was the commanding officer of the Royal Bavarian Jasta 23b. Presented in a sinister black scheme, this fighter also displays a representation of the Edelweiss flower on the sides of its fuselage and looks very different from the other two flying examples which graced British Airshows over recent years.
Interestingly, Kissenberth would end the war with a score of 20 aerial victories but did not actually take part in any combat from June 1918 onwards. As Commanding Officer of his unit, he was given the opportunity to fly a captured Sopwith Camel and managed to crash it during this first flight, sustaining some quite serious injuries in the process. He would not be cleared to fly again until the war was over.
A beautiful replica aircraft built by The Vintage Aviator Limited in New Zealand, enthusiasts flocked to Old Warden to catch a glimpse of this aircraft, once news of its arrival began to circulate. It is now one of the aviation attractions at the historic Stow Maries Great War airfield
I suppose it might seem a little strange that it’s a replica German aircraft that has me desperately trying to arrange by second visit to Britain’s most authentic Great War airfield site, but as it has already been over three years since my previous visit, I am also keen to see how the renovations have progressed over that time. I am certain the museum will be hoping their long awaited reopening goes without too many problems and as distancing restrictions continue to ease over the weeks and months to come, that ever increasing visitor numbers head for this delightfully atmospheric location. When I eventually make my long awaited return visit, I will definitely have camera in hand and look forward to bringing Aerodrome readers an updated review. Until then, I hope you have enjoyed this little blog trip back to the early days of military aviation and an airfield which possesses incredible national significance.
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our firstname.lastname@example.org address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 28th August, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.
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