Watch Office (Control Tower), former RAF Tangmere


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Watch Office (Control Tower), former RAF Tangmere


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Statutory Address:
Watch Office (Control Tower), former RAF Tangmere

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

West Sussex
Chichester (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:


Watch office (control tower) of 1944 to the former RAF Tangmere airbase.

Reasons for Designation

The former RAF Tangmere Watch Office (control tower), built to Air Ministry design 12096/1 in 1944 replacing an earlier watch office which had been destroyed along with many other airfield buildings during enemy raids in 1940, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Form and Intactness: a good survival of the Fighter Station watch office type, it is a building which has iconic status given its prominent position, role and form, a key building which is a visual reminder of the significance of the former RAF Tangmere airfield; * Historic Interest: a building that saw active service as the control tower for missions to occupied Europe by this significant Fighter Station towards the end of the Second World War. It also contributed to significant moments in the airfield’s later history such as the breaking of the world air speed record on two occasions.


Although the origins of the airfield at Tangmere date to 1916 when, after making a forced landing, the journalist Geoffrey Dorman reported that it would make a good landing ground, it was not until September 1917 that the land was requisitioned here under the Defence of the Realm Act. Work was well advanced by February 1918 and the field was used for training by the Royal Flying Corps. In September 1918 it was briefly handed over to the United States Air Service before being used as a holding station for squadrons returning from the continent. In common with many airfields after World War I, Tangmere was considered surplus to requirements and was closed in 1920.

During the early 1920s, plans for proposed war stations for the Home Defence Force led to the reacquisition or reactivation of many sites including Tangmere which, with Kenley, was one of the first bases to be occupied. It initially reopened as a Coastal Area Storage Unit for Fleet Air Arm aircraft in June 1925, and the airfield was reactivated, becoming RAF Tangmere, on 23rd November 1926. It was initially occupied by numbers 1 and 43 Squadrons flying Gamecock and Siskin aircraft. Barrack blocks, married quarters and mess buildings were constructed here in the late 1920s. Tangmere saw further expansion in the late 1930s when it was modified to form a permanent station with an extra Squadron. This included the construction of more barrack blocks, including the H-block (listed at Grade II), and workshop and training buildings, as well as the extension of the airfield to the east to elongate the runway.

During World War II, Tangmere was a key fighter station with a number of different squadrons stationed there (see Ashworth 1985 for a useful summary). The station was attacked by German aircraft on 16th August 1940 and was very badly damaged, including the destruction of two hangars and severe damage to a further three. Workshops, the water pumping station, Officers' Mess and the sick quarters were destroyed and thirteen people were killed. The airfield was the home of Douglas Bader and a number of other flying aces, and was a notable airfield of the Battle of Britain. It was also involved in the clandestine 'Black Lysander' operations whereby Special Operations Executive (SOE) agents were flown in and out of occupied France. Violet Szabo, who was the only woman to receive the George Cross for outstanding service, left from Tangmere on the mission for which she won her medal. Both Bader and Szabo had films made about them, both directed by Lewis Gilbert: the 1956 film Reach For The Sky, starring Kenneth More, and Carve Her Name With Pride in 1958, starring Virginia McKenna.

After the war the airfield was home to the RAF's High Speed Flight, and the world airspeed record was broken here in September 1946 and August 1953. The field was also modified for use by Meteor jet fighters in the 1950s. The base closed in 1970 although the airfield continued to be used by a gliding school until 1975. In 1982 a museum was founded by volunteers to tell the story of the airfield and the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, as it is known, is currently located on the edge of the former airfield.

The control tower at Tangmere was built in 1944 as a replacement to earlier facilities. Initially the active squadrons had locker and rest rooms within annexes to the aircraft sheds. But, as this proved unsatisfactory, an old flight office building near the sheds was converted into a small but detached watch office, providing heated accommodation in two rooms: the watch office itself and a rest room. This building, along with the aircraft sheds, was destroyed in German raids on the base in 1940. The watch office facilities were moved to the fire tender house on a temporary basis while the present building was completed. The present building saw active service in the latter part of World War II and also has associations with the later occupation of the base by Meteor jet squadrons, the RAF's High Speed Flight and the breaking of the world airspeed records here.


MATERIALS: Rendered brick and reinforced concrete; windows currently blocked.

PLAN: Rectangular two-storey building with an additional observation room at roof level. Projecting concrete balcony to the principal south east elevation which wraps around the adjoining corners of the building.

EXTERIOR: Design largely conforms to Air Ministry type 12096/1: a fighter station watch office type. Principal elevation to the south east, overlooking the former airfield, with three large rectangular windows on each of the two floors. Floors are divided by a projecting concrete balcony which wraps around the corners of the building to doorways that provided access at first floor level. The former balcony railings no longer survive. The ground floor is greater in width than the upper at the south corner with additional accommodation projecting to the east. There are numerous smaller openings to the south west elevation, and the same would be expected to the north east, although this is now heavily covered with vegetation. The rear (north west) elevation is largely blind, a feature usual in this design, but includes an off-centre entrance doorway. When inspected (November 2006), the window and door openings had been blocked to secure the building.

INTERIOR: Not inspected as all the openings were blocked.


Books and journals
Ashworth, C, Military Airfields of the Central South and South-East, (1985), 265-275
Dobinson, C S, Twentieth Century Fortifications in England Volume IX.1 and IX.2: Airfield Themes, (1997)
Francis, P, British Military Airfield Architecture From Airships To The Jet Age, (1996), 111-137
Stafford, D, Secret Agent: The True Story of the Special Operations Executive, (2000)
Tangmere Military Aviation Museum, accessed . from


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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