A History of Aviation in Eastbourne
Local Doctor and flying enthusiast Dr Hugh F Thomas tells us more about Eastbourne's fascinating aviation history....
2012 – Three Major Eastbourne Aviation Anniversaries
This year’s Airbourne takes place in a year which has three major local aviation anniversaries. Not many local people know that Eastbourne has an aviation history going back over a century. In September 1909, two months after Bleriot flew the Channel, the local council established an Aviation Committee and so local government support for aviation and air displays is not a new thing.
On January 16th, 1912 Mr F B Fowler obtained the first pilot’s certificate (No 175) issued to a pilot who trained at the Eastbourne airfield, established the previous year at St Anthony’s, near the Crumbles. He was flying a Bleriot monoplane. Six of the 211 British pilot’s licences issued in 1912 were obtained by pilots trained at the Eastbourne Aviation Company. At that time there were only eleven aerodromes in England training pilots. Today only two – Farnborough and Upavon – still have active flying. Eastbourne airfield closed in 1924.
Photo: Mr Frederick B Fowler standing by a Bleriot aeroplane. He lived at his father’s house Avalona, 57 Watts Lane, Eastbourne for some of his early adult life.
Secondly, on March 7th , 1912 Henri Salmet, chief pilot at the Bleriot Company’s School at Hendon flew from London to Paris. It was the first crossing from Eastbourne to Dieppe. Earlier crossings had been from Calais to Dover. Louis Bleriot came to meet Salmet on his arrival in Paris. Salmet wrote ‘ He is very happy that I do cross the channel at the wide part, from Eastbourne to Dieppe – thing that had not been done since aviation existed. In his great joy he grasp both my hands and squeeze so hard that he hurt me much.’ Unfortunately the return trip next day was not so successful and he crashed, sustaining only minor abrasions, but writing off his Bleriot, attempting to land in a short field near Beckton gasworks in East Ham, London.
Photo: Henri Salmet - a French aviator
The third anniversary – 30 years after the other two – was again of air travel between Eastbourne, or more correctly Friston airfield, near East Dean and Dieppe. But this was a major war-time operation. Almost 3000 aircraft from over 70 squadrons passed over the airfield on August 19th, 1942 in support of troops, mainly Canadians, landing at Dieppe. This was ‘Operation Jubilee’ and the air battle has been described as the greatest air battle of the war in Northern Europe. The allied aircraft, often flying several sorties during the day, came from 30 English airfields, Duxford (Cambridge) being one of the furthest away. The actual army operation was a not a success, with over 1000 soldiers killed, 600 wounded and 1900 taken prisoner. However, valuable lessons were learnt regarding large scale seaborne invasions and aerial support, and these were used in the planning for D-Day in 1944.
The RAF casualties comprised 59 Spitfires, 20 Hurricanes and 10 Mustangs. These three fighters should all be represented at Airbourne. Other aircraft losses were 4 Bostons, 2 Typhoons and 2 Blenheims. None of the B17s and Beaufighters were lost. The heavy Spitfire losses are understandable because over two thirds of the aircraft were from Spitfire squadrons with Hurricanes from only 8 squadrons. In total 64 allied aircrew died on that August day.
Many famous pilots took part in the Dieppe air battle and over 25 Distinguished Flying Crosses and 5 Distinguished Service Orders were awarded. One medal recipient was Squadron Leader W G G Duncan-Smith, commanding officer of 64 Spitfire Squadron and a ‘brilliant pilot and fine leader’. His son Duncan has been in leadership both as as an army officer and Conservative Party leader.
As we enjoy watching the many different aeroplanes and helicopters flying over Eastbourne and coming in from Beachy Head we should spare a thought for their predecessors, a few pioneering and intrepid aviators of 100 years ago and also the 1100 men who flew supporting Operation Jubilee 70 years ago and the 64 who gave their young lives in the struggle against tyranny.