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A ring around London: Beddington Aerodrome

Beddington Aerodrome was at first just meant to be an emergency landing field but public pressure after the Zeppelin air raids meant it became an aerodrome for fighter planes. It was one of a ring of ten aerodromes around London: Hounslow, Hendon, Hainault’s Farm, Sutton’s Park, Joyce Green, Farningham, Croydon, Biggin Hill, Wimbledon and Northolt.
Each were 2 x B.E.2c fighter planes. And so, in January 1916 there was a new Royal Flying Corp Squadron based at (officially) Croydon but known locally as Beddington Aerodrome. It was sometimes also known as Wallington. The 19 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron (RAS) were based there, became 39 Squadron. There were, until that point, very few pilots left in Britain for air defences as most operated on the western front.

B.E.2 replica at the RAF Museum, London
The two B.E.2c planes at Croydon were presentation machines, that is they were subscribed for by central Argentine Railway (2574) and Baroda / Guikwar of Baroda, India (2584). Not long after being based there, the two planes were used in a sortie on the night of 31 January / 1 February: Lieut. P Rader flew 2574 at 19.35/20.25 and returned with the plane slightly damaged, while Lieut. C. T. Black took out 2584 at 22.01 but returned after 15 minutes due to the weather. Signals had been intercepted at midday that zeppelins were planning to attack Liverpool in the biggest raid planned so far. The raid was both a disaster for the Germans, as they did not get very far, and ‘one of the biggest fiascos in British air defence history’ (Cole & Cheesmen, 1984: 85). Six British aircraft were destroyed and two squadron commanders fatally wounded. The main component was the weather with little visibility.

Another sortie carried out from Croydon on 31 March / 1 April when ten Zeppelins raided London, leaving 48 dead and 64 injured. 13 planes went up and 1 pilot was killed. Captain F. G. Dunn left Croydon carrying explosives to follow an Airship towards Wimbledon at 9.55pm on 31 March and managed to climb to 11,000 feet but saw no aeroplane or airship. Two hours later 2nd Lt. Rader left Croydon carrying more explosives and flew in the direction of Dartford, crossing the river and circling the outskirts of London. On his way back to London, he reported being caught in huge searchlights that he thought may have been attracted by the noise of his engine. The next day led to a conference of all the pilots involved and a report was sent noting the need for better aerodrome lighting, the lack of visibility of airships and that the B.E.2c could now climb higher and faster than the Zeppelins.

Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson (c) IWM Q 66470

The first airship shot down was on 3 September at Cuffley in an attack that saw the German army and navy combine in the largest attack on Britain yet. Naval intelligence intercepted signals indicating an incendiary raid in the early evening. Shütte-Lanz (sometimes misidentified as Zeppelin L21) SL11 was ‘ineffectively bombing some of the northern suburbs’ when Lieutentant W. Leefe Robinson, flying a B.E.2c, intercepted it.  Robinson eventually managed to shoot his Brook and Pomeroy phosphorous bullets into the side and back of the airship until it was aglow. He then had to move very fast so he was not caught in the burning debris. The entire crew of the airship died and it was a horrifying spectacle, seen as far away as Croydon in ‘what seemed to be the northern sky on fire’. Robinson was awarded a VC; it was the only VC awarded for military action in Britain.

The Zeppelin attacks continued until the last one on 19 October 1917 but now they were under attack themselves. The piece of Zeppelin turned into a broach as a war trophy and sold to raise funds that is in the HCAT archive is from a L31, which had bombed Purley on 23 September 1916. The L31 was a super Zeppelin – the size of a battleship – and it and the entire crew were killed at Potters Bar / Enfield on 1 October. However, the raid by a single aircraft in November 1916 signalled the end of one phase of the air war, with the last Zeppelin raid on 19 October 1917, and the start of another.

Larry Williamson, ‘Beddington Aerodrome’s First Aircraft’, Croydon Airport Society Journal No. 30, 2003.

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