The UK’s last intact World War I airfield is to be completely restored, thanks to a campaign by a group of volunteers. During the war, Stow Maries was a base for the fledgling Royal Flying Corps, flying their early biplanes against German Zeppelins which were on bombing missions over London. Stow Maries closed in 1919 and remained hidden, forgotten and overgrown until 2008, when a group of enthusiasts rediscovered the airfield, and began a campaign to save it.
The plan is to restore many of the buildings to their wartime condition, and to open a museum commemorating the men who flew here. It will also host workshops, teaching the old skills of aircraft construction. Russell Savoury from the Heritage Lottery Fund showed Robert Hall around the site.
The requirement for an aerodrome at Stow Maries originated in the Government response to German Zeppelin airship and Gotha fixed- wing bomber attacks on the British mainland during the First World War. The first aircraft to arrive at the new aerodrome in September 1916 belonged to “Flight, 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. The Squadron was charged with the eastern aerial defence of the capital. The Headquarters Flight moved into “The Grange” Woodham Mortimer. ‘A Flight was despatched to Rochford (now Southend Airport) and “Flight to Gardeners Farm, Goldhanger.
In the earliest part of its existence the accommodation consisted of wooden hutting and tents. The buildings now present on the airfield are later additions when the possibility still existed of the aerodrome being made permanent. The first commanding officer of Stow Maries Aerodrome was Lieutenant Claude Ridley. Educated at St Pauls School, London, he was barely 20 years of age but had already seen service with the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front.
Following a period of organisation and training at Stow Maries the first recorded operational flight took place from the aerodrome on the night of 23rd/24th May 1917 when Ridley (now promoted to Captain) and Lieutenant G Keddie were ordered aloft in response to a large Zeppelin raid targeting London. They scored no success on that occasion but as time went on the amount of operational flights grew as did the aircraft establishment of the station.
Both day and night patrols are recorded but it was to be “Flight at Goldhanger that claimed the Squadrons first confirmed destruction of an enemy machine, when during the early hours of 17th June 1917, 2nd Lieutenant L. P Watkins was credited with the downing of Zeppelin L48 at Theberton in Suffolk. This was to be the last Zeppelin brought down in Great Britain during the war. One of the stations busiest days was 7th July 1917 when aircraft were ordered after a formation of twenty two Gotha bombers heading for London. Stow Maries pilots engaged the enemy aircraft in a running fight and scored several hits. Fire was returned however and the ground crews found a number of bullet holes in the returning aircraft. In the summer of 1917 “Flight was posted from Rochford to Stow Maries effectively doubling the size of the station. At the same time the stations first commander Claude Ridley departed to form a new Squadron at Rochford.
Day and night patrols continued but it was the fragility of the aircraft of the period and the inexperience of the young pilots that caused the loss of aircrew from the station. June 1917 saw the loss of 2nd Lieutenant Roy Mouritzen from Western Australia in a flying accident and July of the same year serious injury to Captain E Cotterill through engine failure. Captain B Quinan crashed at Woodham Walter on a training flight and was severely injured. He died in July 1918.
1918 saw continued losses at the aerodrome, Captain A Kynoch in an aerial collision at night, Lieutenant E Nicholls in another flying accident on the aerodrome and finally 2nd Lieutenant C Milburn in an accident near the edge of the flying field. Lieutenant Nicholls and 2nd Lieutenants Mouritzen and Milburn are buried in the churchyard of St Mary and St Margaret, Stow Maries, as is Stow’s first commanding officer, Claude Ridley who died as a Wing Commander during the second World War, from natural causes.
During the latter half of 1918 building continued and the aerodrome took on the familiar form it still holds today. The Headquarters Flight moved in from Woodham Mortimer and Stow Maries became a very busy place. An RAF survey at this time recorded 219 personnel and 16 aircraft. Completion of the aerodrome was scheduled for December 1918 but the war ended in November and some of the buildings were never completed. “Flight moved to Stow Maries from Goldhanger in February 1919 bringing the total staffing levels to around 300 personnel and 24 aircraft, the first time the whole Squadron had been located at one Station. It signalled the end for the Essex aerodrome however and the following month the Squadron moved to Biggin Hill in Kent, leaving the site empty
The site returned to agriculture and only in 1940 did an RAF aircraft return to the airfield when a 242 Squadron Hurricane force landed with combat damage.
The following years have seen the buildings used for both agriculture and accommodation. They now find themselves subject of a sympathetic restoration project to restore the aerodrome to its former glory.
Ivor Dallinger – Curator
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