Sussex coastal defence and the RAF

Bristol F2B Fighter leading an RAF SE5a courtesy of the Old Warden Airfield in Biggleswade, Bedfordshire.

Even before the RAF was founded in 1918, air bases along the Sussex coast were sending planes and Zeros — ‘blimps’ — up to try and spot German submarines desperately trying to cross the channel.

Anti-submarine patrols operated out of the Sussex airship station at Polegate, which also opened out-stations at Slindon and Upton, and aircraft were flown from Telscombe Cliffs.

The most important air base was at Newhaven, but there were others built including at Eastbourne, Middleton-on-Sea, Goring, Ford and East Preston.

The Territorial Army was keeping an eye on the shore from an inland position, and it moved nearer the coast as the war drew on, but Newhaven was the only place in Sussex to receive defensive armaments, according to John Grehan and Martin Mace in their book Battleground Sussex.

Here were placed two rapid-firing six-inch guns to combat any German torpedo boats, but really Newhaven was principally a port for stores and munitions, which would be shipped to the Western Front.

In March 1918, three newly formed Royal Flying Corps Squadrons arrived, and on April 1 these squadrons became part of the Royal Air Force, which was officially given life that day. The WRAF was also formed in 1918.

It was the first time that any country had formed a completely separate air force that operated independently of the army or navy. The RAF had more than 290,000 staff and nearly 23,000 aircraft, and its role in WW1 was to support ground forces on the Western Front.

In July, the No. 92 Squadron left Tangmere for France with its SE 5a scout aircraft, a replica cockpit of which is housed at the Tangmere Aviation Museum.

Arrival of the Americans

More than 15,000 Americans arrived in Sussex towards the end of the First World War, according to research carried out by West Sussex County Council.

As writer Janet Green points out, it’s almost unfathomable how the local areas coped with this massive influx of people – how they fed and watered them and disposed of their waste.

But arrive they did, and in an incredible effort helped to develop five military sites – Tangmere, Ford, Rustington, Southbourne (Emsworth) and Goring-on-Sea. By the spring of 1918, Tangmere ‘Training Depot’ had been built.

Evidence of technical innovations developed in Sussex has been unearthed by the University of Chichester in its ‘Over Here’ project led by Professor Ross Wilson under the auspices of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

These innovations included work to develop the Handley Page bombers, huge long-range bombers that were built to cross enemy lines.

The bombers were able to drop the largest explosive of the war, the 1,650lb ‘SN’ bomb, which was so large it had to be carried externally under the bomb bay.

“The arrival of American aviators and the construction of aerodromes in Sussex in 1918 demonstrated the commitment of the US to the war effort. It also brought people from the United States ‘over here’ that might have otherwise never have come to Britain,” said Professor Wilson.

“The arrival of American servicemen in West Sussex in 1918 and the construction of aerodromes was enabled by a highly-important treaty between Britain and the US, while the development of technology and training for pilots contributed to the build-up of its air force.

“This is important international history right on our doorstep, and our project team has uncovered a history of the First World War in Sussex that has been almost forgotten.”

At 10:45am on 11 November 1918, the crew of a 15 Squadron RE.8 observation aircraft landed at Auchy and reported no enemy aircraft or anti-aircraft fire. Fifteen minutes later, the Armistice with Germany came into force and fighting on the Western Front ended.

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