By Haydon Luke ( previously printed in Fairlight News)
My research into RAF Fairlight has continued to throw up interesting snippets of information and it is clear that the radar station was extensive, complex and absolutely vital in the air war against Germany especially during the Battle of Britain and again at the time of the V1 flying bombs in 1944.
The full story of RAF Fairlight is for another time. My topic on this occasion involves the radar station but tells of an unpleasant Christmas present and its repercussions.
Almost 80 years ago, on Christmas morning 1941, an event occurred which caused a high level investigation because not only did it result in civilian and service casualties but it was initially thought to be a ‘friendly fire’ incident. So sensitive was this event that it was unreported at the time outside the military, and the files remained embargoed until 1972. Even then the files lay buried unseen in the National Archives.
What happened was this.
At 09.45 on Christmas morning two low flying fighters swooped in at sea level and shot up the Fairlight Coastguard Station, Christmas churchgoers at St Andrew’s Church, and the radar station. As a consequence, a civilian air raid warden was injured and taken to hospital and a house was slightly damaged. A further, similar event happened the next day, Boxing Day, in which two servicemen and a civilian were slightly injured, three houses and the CG Station were damaged and telephone lines were brought down.
(Air Ministry Memo, 1 January 1942, in National Archives AIR 16/480)
Incredibly, the first reports from the Observer Corps, the RAF and the Army indicated that the aircraft were Spitfires flown by Polish pilots and this was the information relayed to the regional office for Home Security in Tunbridge Wells and notified upwards to the War Cabinet itself. To say that the incident provoked consternation is an understatement!
Initially, it looked bad for the RAF. The RAF confirmed that its aircraft were in the sector at the time on firing practice. Reading the various letters, memos, signals and other correspondence now one can reasonably infer that all hell was let loose! If it was a FF incident, it would have to be vigorously followed up and culprits disciplined and if not it would have to be determined what had actually happened and why, if the raiders were German, had the radar not detected them? An energetic enquiry ensued at various levels.
As in all organisations, the enquiry was characterised by a tendency by the various participants to exonerate themselves from any blame.
In the event and after detailed investigation it was concluded that the raiders were indeed hostile fighters, Messerschmidt 109Es, and the confusion had arisen because of the proximity of RAF aircraft in the same sector (on firing ranges at Bexhill) at the same time. The fact that on both days the raid had taken place whilst the radar was off watch undergoing maintenance was an unfortunate coincidence, though it was later admitted privately that even if the radar had been operating it would have been unlikely to have detected aircraft flying in so close to sea level. In his report one of the investigating officers said: “I do not think it advisable to give too much publicity to the fact that very low raids will often approach undetected by the radio location organisation, but I leave it to your discretion to tell Mr McGill as much as is necessary” (Letter to Wing Commander G G Walker, 19 Jan 1942, in National Archives, AIR 16/480)
Indeed, it was this difficulty in ‘seeing’ very low flying aircraft that led indirectly to the later re-siting of the radar aerials from their original location near North’s Seat to a position closer to the cliff top and the Coastguard Station.
The incident not only caused a massive brouhaha but it also exacerbated the inter-service rivalries and sensitivities that existed at the time. On 4 January 1942 an Air Ministry official wrote this somewhat pained letter to Air Commodore A D Cunningham. It is clear that the RAF was still extremely sensitive to criticism.
And so the incident passed into history and the account of what happened was buried in the archives, one event of many in which the airmen and women of RAF Fairlight participated during the station’s service in WW2 and into the Cold War.
By Haydon Luke