Tangmere is a small rural village near Chichester in West Sussex which played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain in 1940, for it was from the airfield at RAF Tangmere that pilots fought in the skies to defend the country. Now a small military aviation museum is located on a corner of the airfield which has not been take over by housing estates, and which commemorates the incredible work of the pilots and staff who sacrificed so much.
Photograph © Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
Historical Background of RAF Tangmere
The airfield at Tangmere was founded in 1917 for training pilots and after the First World War it was used by the Fleet Air Arm. In 1939 the airfield was enlarged to provide better defence for the south coast and RAF Tangmere was the controlling station of Sector “A” in No 11 Group, Fighter Command, covering an area from Brighton to Bournemouth. On the 16th August 1940, Tangmere was attacked by Stuka dive-bombers, causing serious damage and killing 14 military and six civilians. French Resistance agents trained at nearby Bignor and used Tangmere Cottage as their secret operations centre; many night-time missions to enemy territory were flown by Lysanders of 161 (Special Duties) Squadron from Tangmere.
After the war, RAF High Speed Flight was based at Tangmere, with several world speed records being set. The airfield closed in 1970 and over the following years, housing estates sprung up, with just the control tower and an accommodation block still standing. The museum opened in 1982, staffed entirely by volunteers.
A visit to RAF Tangmere Military Aviation Museum
This small military aviation museum advertises its experience as Where the Past is Present – a claim that is entirely appropriate because, in this relatively confined space, you genuinely feel that you have a true glimpse of the lives of those who worked and flew from RAF in the two world wars and beyond.
You are greeted on arrival by a body of enthusiastic volunteers, some of whom seem to have been pilots or airmen themselves in a previous existence. Their affection for their museum and its exhibits is immediately apparent and they are full of helpful information.
The Battle of Britain Hall is small but packed with absorbing memorabilia, carefully and clearly explained. The explanations are particularly moving because they come across as the work of dedicated amateurs who have researched their subject matter thoroughly, passionately and avidly rather than being the words of more analytical but often more tedious historians.
On the walls are many biographies of famous aces, beginning with Flight-Lieutenant James Nicholson VC. The information about his decision to engage the enemy even after he had been wounded and his own aircraft set on fire is there, alongside his bloodstained flying jacket. Fragments collected from the wreckage of his aircraft sit next to a scrawled note from the schoolboy who had found them and handed them in.
But the display is not all about known and acknowledged heroes - juxtaposed with the celebrated pilots are the stories and letters of some of the mechanics and aircraftmen who worked at the airfield - heartfelt tributes to these often neglected contributors to the success of the battle.
German aces are recognised and credited too, and there are some shattered remnants of a Messerschmitt 109. There are pilot logs, photos, paintings, personal items, models of the relevant aircraft. An RAF scramble bell is on display and also the sector clock from the Ops Room. Pilots from Tangmere took their orders from decisions made in the control room of the Uxbridge bunker, recently opened to the public in an excellent museum.
Shockingly and poignantly the Battle of Britain Hall has the wreckage of the Hurricane flown by Sergeant Dennis Noble. Sergeant Noble had only been flying from Tangmere for three weeks when he met his death over Hove during the battle on 30th August 1940. The remains of his aircraft were recovered early in the 21st century when special permission was granted for the excavation from the ground.
A coroner was present as it was known the body would be with the plane. Appropriately, so also was the Reverend Anthony Martlew, who as a boy had witnessed the Hurricane’s fatal dive in 1940. He conducted a small service to honour this member of the “Few”. Dennis Noble was finally buried at his home town of Retford in Nottinghamshire - it was discovered that the coffin his family had buried in 1940 was actually full of bricks. This exhibit is a sober and immediate reminder of the sacrifice made by so many in the defence of these islands.
Tangmere take great pride in the fact that, despite a determined attack by dive bombers from the Luftwaffe on 16th August 1940 when about 20 Stukas, Ju88s and Bf 110s bombed with great accuracy, the airfield remained fully operational throughout the battle.
There are many humorous touches in their artefacts and commentaries - the flying boots left behind in a pub by a pilot in payment for beer, the radiogram from the Officers Mess which stopped working.
The notice beside it says, "The attempted repairs by several officers trying to rectify the malfunction using fists and boots eventually brought its service life to an end. The Mess barman finally took it home and repaired it, his family giving it to the museum in March 2019”.
It is a very recent arrival, and clearly demonstrates that this museum is a vibrant organisation, constantly adding to its collection and reassessing its subject matter.
A small corner is devoted to Douglas Bader who arrived at Tangmere as a Wing Commander in March 1941. Another area shows the artwork of WAAF Dorothy Colles, a plotter in the Operations Room at Tangmere.
The displays lead the visitor on through a small section on the Home Front showing, amongst other artefacts, a blouse made from a silk parachute, and a Morrison shelter. To reinforce the message of the dangers for those at home there is a 250 kilo bomb dropped near Tangmere from a Junkers Ju88.
One area is dedicated to the bravery of SOE agents, many of whom were dropped into France from Tangmere in Lysander aircraft. There are silk maps of Germany, escape playing cards, compass buttons, false ID papers and stories of the fate of individuals. The statistics of SOE are astonishing. There were 279 Lysander sorties - 186 were successful, with 283 passengers flown in and 410 flown out. One of the information panels describes the work of Lysander pilot, Leonard Ratcliff, DSO, who died relatively recently in 2016.
Smaller areas look at flying in the Royal Flying Corps of the Great War, the Dambusters raid, the Goldfish and Caterpillar Clubs, the Late Arrivals Club, the work of the RAF navigators, the role of Czech and Polish pilots. There's so much packed in here yet, strangely, it doesn't feel cramped or crowded, just a genuine attempt to ensure that everyone's story is told. There's variety in the presentation - there are short films of about 7 - 12 minutes where you can sit comfortably, as well as information panels and artefacts in display cases.
In the two big hangars are the aircraft, mostly replicas, which have special meaning for Tangmere. From the Great War there is an SE 5a cockpit. Among others there’s a prototype of the Supermarine Spitfire, a Hawker Hunter Mk3, a Gloster Meteor F4 and an English Electric Lightning. A recent edition is the Westland Lysander Mk.111 (SD), built for the film Allied. This aircraft has been marked in the No 161 Squadron markings of Jimmy ‘Mac’ McCairns’s aircraft in which he flew 25 successful pick-up operations from RAF Tangmere.
The museum has done its best to provide hands on experience where possible. There are simulators to try your hand at flying a fighter aircraft, available just for a donation, and cockpits to clamber into. An old air raid shelter provides an 'air raid on Tangmere' experience which is not for the faint hearted.
I was told - with justified pride - that the museum is run and staffed solely by volunteers. They look after the reception desk and the NAAFI (a café serving a small selection of very reasonably priced drinks and snacks), they are also on hand to answer any questions. The only paid employee is the cleaner!
VISITING THE TANGMERE MILITARY AVIATION MUSEUM
How to get to Tangmere Aviation Museum
Postcode: PO20 2ES
Public Transport: The 55 bus from Chichester Bus Station runs every half hour (at ten past and twenty to the hour) and stops at Meadow Way, Tamar Way in Tangmere village, approximately 10 minutes walk from the Museum. Journey time is around 25 minutes. Click here for a downloadable timetable and live updates on the 55 route from Stagecoach.
Parking: Approach from the A27 where the museum and Tangmere are clearly signposted from both directions. The Museum lies just outside Tangmere village and there is ample free parking.
When is Tangmere Military Aviation Museum open?
March to October:
10.00am to 5.00pm
February and November:
10.00am to 4.30pm
How much does it cost to visit Tangmere Military Aviation Museum?
Under 16s: £3
Are there any facilities at Tangmere Military Aviation Museum?
There is a shop, café, loos and a library.
Which is the nearest town to Tangmere Military Museum?
Chichester is the nearest town. You can find accommodation, restaurants and other things to do at The Great Sussex Way