Group of three Fighter Dispersal Pens at Biggin Hill Airport

Overview

Heritage Category:
Listed Building
Grade:
II
List Entry Number:
1444385
Date first listed:
03-Oct-2017
Location Description:
London Biggin Hill Airport at NGRs: TQ 42216 60188; TQ 42155 60328; TQ 42156 60495

Map

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Location

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

Location Description:
London Biggin Hill Airport at NGRs: TQ 42216 60188; TQ 42155 60328; TQ 42156 60495
County:
Greater London Authority
District:
Bromley (London Borough)
Parish:
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:
TQ4219360340

Summary

Three early type E fighter dispersal pens, built c1939. Post-war alterations to two of the pens.

Reasons for Designation

Three fighter dispersal pens at Biggin Hill Airport, constructed c1939 to provide aircraft with protection from air attack, are listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons:

* Historical interest: as key operational structures at Biggin Hill, the most famous Battle of Britain fighter station, and which have a particular resonance at this heavily bombed airfield;

* Architectural interest: the fighter pens at Biggin Hill are of the early E-type design and surviving pens at former RAF airfields are recognised as being rare nationally. The southern pen is an exceptionally good surviving example;

* Group value: as a coherent and legible group of fighter pens, and with the other listed buildings on the site of the airfield.

History

Biggin Hill, later to become the most famous RAF station, opened as a military landing ground in early 1917. On 14 February 1917, the Royal Flying Corps Radio Signals Unit (later Wireless Experimental Establishment) was established on a site, formally part of Cudham Lodge Farm, which later became known as South Camp. In December 1917 Biggin Hill became an operational Home Defence fighter station on the site at North Camp.

During the inter-war years Biggin Hill was developed as a fighter base and was the site of pioneering air-to-air and ground-to-air experiments in radio communication. In the critical Biggin Hill Experiment of 1938, the station was used as a laboratory for creating the Fighter Direction organisation, which linked radar to defending aircraft and proved decisive during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

From 1921 a series of permanent operational buildings, barracks and messes were built, largely on North Camp, in three principal stages. In the early 1920s staff accommodation was constructed on the south side of the public road which bisected North Camp. Between 1929 and 1934 operational buildings to serve two fighter squadrons were constructed north of the road. Lastly, under the RAF Expansion Plan between 1934 and 1940, further accommodation and operational buildings were added as war loomed. In 1939 the airfield was enlarged as part of Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding's drive to provide dispersed and serviceable flying fields on Fighter Command's front line bases. Hard runways (completed in March 1940), a perimeter track and 12 blast pens were constructed.

Biggin Hill's location south of London guaranteed its front line involvement in fighter operations throughout World War II, from the Battle of France to the support of daylight raids by Bomber Command. Biggin Hill shared, with RAF Hornchurch, the distinction of being the most bombed aerodrome in Fighter Command. During the Battle of Britain a raid on 30 August 1940 resulted in considerable loss of life and severe damage to the barracks, WAAF quarters, workshops, stores and an 'F-type' Admiralty hangar. On the following day the Sector Operations Room took a direct hit and other hangars were badly damaged. On 6 September, after further raids had rendered much of the base unusable, the last surviving hangar was destroyed on orders of the base commander. With attacks switched to London throughout the autumn Blitz, there was some respite, but there was a prolonged daylight attack on the morning of October 2, and four days later another raid demolished three of the barracks blocks while several units of the married housing in Vincent Square, in central London, were also destroyed. By the end of the war, more enemy aircraft had been destroyed by squadrons based at Biggin Hill than any other airfield and it became probably the most famous of the Battle of Britain airfields.

At the end of World War II, Biggin Hill was briefly used by the RAF's Transport Command, and then, following the intensification of the Cold War after the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, equipped with Meteor jet fighters. The main runway was extended in 1957 for Hawker Hunter jets but, in 1958, Biggin Hill ceased to be an operational RAF station, becoming the Officer and Aircrew Selection Centre for the RAF.

By 1956, due to the impending closure of London’s first airport at Croydon, Biggin Hill had become a joint civil and military airport. In 1974, the majority of the site was purchased by the London Borough of Bromley who, in 1994, leased the airport to Biggin Hill Airport Limited (BHAL).

In the years immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, precautions began to be taken to protect fighter aircraft from air attack when on the ground. As had been the case in the First World War, a doctrine of tactical dispersal was introduced where the individual planes were placed in protected shelters positioned in groups around the perimeter of an airfield rather than housed in the vulnerable hangars. The effectiveness of this approach was confirmed by a live bombing trial undertaken on Salisbury Plain near RAF Netheravon in August 1938. The trials confirmed that the major threat to aircraft on the ground was from the horizontal blast of high explosive bombs rather than from incendiaries or strafing. Siting of dispersal bays at existing fighter stations began in the summer of 1939.

There were two main types of fighter dispersal pens, designated Type B and Type E (which was preferred by Dowding). Both consisted of two bays separated by a central spine, Type E having straight side walls whilst those of Type B were splayed. Because Type B took more space they came in two sizes, for single and twin engine fighters. The walls of the bays were of concrete or brick surrounded by earthen mounds. At the rear of the pen was an air raid shelter for the ground crew. Fighter stations usually had two groups of six pens providing for two squadrons of 12 planes. Biggin Hill had 12 Type E pens located around the perimeter track, with five grouped in the north and seven in the south of the airfield. A 1945 plan of the base shows an additional Type B pen in each group. Only four fighter pens survive in any form at Biggin Hill, with one - in the north-west of the airfield - having been being significantly altered, consisting of little more than a section of concrete kerb.

Details

Three early type E fighter dispersal pens built c1939. Post-war alterations to two of the pens.

MATERIALS: construction is of brick and concrete covered with earth banks. The air raid shelters are of pre-cast concrete.

PLAN: the three fighter dispersal pens are situated on the south-eastern edge of Biggin Hill Airport, in a row orientated north-south and opening westward onto the perimeter track. All are of the same E-plan layout, originally divided into two 15m wide bays, with concrete hard standings, by a central traverse. An air raid shelter for the ground crew is centrally placed at the rear with access from each bay and to the rear of the pen.

DESCRIPTION: the southern pen is the most complete. It retains the earth-covered central traverse which appears to have a concrete spine wall. The earth-covered outer traverses have brick spine walls with concrete dwarf retaining walls. The ends of the outer traverses have truncated triangle-shaped brick retaining walls. The air raid shelters have mass concrete lined entrances and passages with reinforced concrete roofs placed either side of the vaulted shelter itself. This has the corrugated metal lining and inner steel blast doors remaining (the outer doors have been lost). The concrete hard standing to the bays retains fixing rings for securing the aircraft.

The central pen has lost all its forward projecting traverses apart from a section of concrete dwarf retaining wall to the inner edge of the northern traverse. The northern section of the rear earth banking has also been lost. The air raid shelter survives and is in a similar condition to that of the southern pen with inner blast doors (one marked with the lettering PETROLEUM/ SPIRIT/ NO SMOKING indicating later storage use) but with the concrete walling to the northern entrance passage exposed. Some fixing rings remain on the surviving (southern) part of the concrete hard standing.

The northern pen has lost its central traverse and the earth-covered northern traverse is partly denuded. The air raid shelter again retains its inner blast doors and corrugated lining. Fixing rings survive on the hard standing.

Sources

Books and journals
Francis, P, British Military Airfield Architecture From Airships To The Jet Age, (1996), 23-26
Ramsey, W G (ed), The Battle of Britain Then and Now, (1989), 62-69
Other
English Heritage, Survey of Military Aviation Sites and Structures (2000)
Nathaniel Lichfield & Partners, Second World War Fighter Pens, Biggin Hill (19 January 2017)

Legal

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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