In the early days of the Great War the insistent low hum of an airship on a moonless night was a uniquely unnerving sound to the people of these splendidly isolated islands. The Zeppelins (to use the generic term for airships) were hardly weapons of mass destruction – their navigation systems were primitive, and their bomb aiming was often wayward – but the new and terrifying idea that we were no longer safe on home soil must have dawned on Britain with a slow and invidious horror.
What the public was also barely aware of was how embarrassingly little the Royal Flying Corps could do about it. It had no autonomy over its resources and was constantly pulled between the Army and the Navy, who couldn’t agree on how best to put it to use.
When Lionel Morris joined a home defence squadron fresh out of flying school in early 1916, aeroplanes couldn’t climb fast enough to chase the airships effectively. That rendered the explosive tin bullets that needed to be dropped on, rather than thrown at, their targets, pretty much useless. Night flying was a skill there was precious little time to perfect – for the pilots rushed through training, courage was more important than preparation. I found one anecdote from a young Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris (like Morris, a member of both 19 and 39 Home Defence Squadrons at this time) who, on being asked if he could fly in the dark, admitted cheerfully that if he couldn’t fly during the day, then perhaps he could at night.
This atmosphere of desperate improvisation that the Royal Flying Corps operated in is brought to life brilliantly at Stow Maries Aerodrome in Essex. A little hamlet of grey huts and faded red brick structures, it’s a miraculous survivor – miraculous because none of the buildings were adapted for use in WW2 or at any time afterwards and it remains the most complete RFC aerodrome in Europe. Stow Maries received its first aircraft in the month that Lionel Morris died, and it was one of a ring of aerodromes around London like Suttons Farm and Hainault Farm, either of which Morris may well have flown from before he went to France.
We drove through parched fields on a stinkingly hot day at the beginning of August to visit. It’s an uncomplicated site, and in the absence of any immediately visible aircraft, retains more of an agricultural feel than an aviation one. But it’s this quiet and unobtrusive impression that makes it remarkable. Imagination does the work for you and the site’s custodians have done a brilliant job of not overdoing the interpretation.
The old engine workshop now houses a museum where the drama of the airship raids is recreated. My heart usually drops at the word ‘interactive’ but being able to pinpoint exact locations that were bombed, on a display screen (including several very close to where we have family now) was sobering. There were so many devastating hits – the 1940s Blitz holds our collective memories so firmly that it was shocking to realise just how much damage those early raids did. A simple display of tumbled bricks and a splintered desk tells the story of Poplar School, which lost sixteen children when Gotha bomber aircraft (less vulnerable to improved incendiary bullets than the Zeppelins) attacked in 1917. Despite the explosion and the crack of falling masonry, the memories of one stunned Poplar schoolboy were almost entirely visual.
There are much lighter moments – we all jumped and giggled when the booming voice of No. 37’s ‘Commanding Officer’ (or perhaps Adjutant) welcomed us to the squadron office and there’s a woebegone mannequin of a sergeant being all but jabbed in the chest by a flying officer swathed like an old-fashioned Michelin man in a fleece and cotton Sidcot suit. The Mess Hall Café now caters for tourists rather than pilots, but there’s RFC roundels, Union Jack bunting and an upright piano to remind you of the particular fellows who used to drink their tea here. I took confidently to the skies in a mocked-up nacelle with my knees somewhere near my chin. It’s easy to play at flying in a simulator. The lethal variables of real-life flight in these elementary machines are illustrated in photographs of crashed aeroplanes. Many of them lie nose-down in a cartoon manner. But it’s still wincingly obvious what human wreckage lies hidden.
There are still several buildings at Stow Maries that aren’t accessible to the public. Health and Safety rules obviously apply but these crumbling, weed-swamped ruins were the ones I would have really liked to explore, preferably on a still winter’s afternoon with a low sun. Owls are more likely to haunt these remains than the ghosts of airmen - Stow Maries has an admirable natural conservation programme and boasts all five of Britain’s native species. I hope there’ll always be room for a bit of romantic decay there when so much of the rest of the site is being so lovingly restored.
It was over 30 degrees when we wilted back into the car after staying less than an hour. But wonderful places like Stow Maries should be visited little and often, so that each time you can absorb each small, evocative feature of it properly, rather than ending up with a painful kind of cultural indigestion.
I didn’t feel cheated. I just need to relocate to Essex.
Not so much a journey of discovery, more of a commute of compulsion
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