Seventy years ago in the summer of 1944 an airfield became operational not far from the village of Chailey, north of Lewes.
Known as an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG), the airfield was little more than a grass strip located in a field requisitioned from adjacent Bower Farm.
The site had been surveyed some two years earlier by RAF Fighter Command and identified as being a suitable home for a fighter station. The initiative in the war against Hitler’s Germany had passed to the Allies and Fighter Command was keen to expand its forces and reinforce command of the air.
As it happened work did not commence on Chailey Airfield until late in 1942 and continued through 1943 by which time Allied planners were hard at work developing a strategy for the liberation of Occupied Europe. It was decided that Chailey would become an operating station supporting the invasion of France, an enterprise that would go under the codename “Operation Overlord”.
In order to construct the airfield, the RAF took down the local pub, The Plough Inn, which was located at the end of the airstrip. They moved the building to a new site about half a mile away near Plumpton.
Nobody knows for certain who made the first landing at Chailey or even what type of aircraft it was but one machine that could claim the honour wasn’t a fighter at all.
On August 27, 1943, a B26 Marauder (named “Idiot’s Delight II”) of the US Eighth Air Force was returning from a bombing mission after being badly damaged in an attack by the Luftwaffe. With failing flying controls, an unresponsive rudder and a big hole in one wing, the bomber’s pilot, Frank Remmele, spied the welcome sight of Chailey’s empty runway. In a skilful display of flying he landed his wounded war bird using only throttle control.
In late April 1944 RAF Chailey became home to three squadrons of Mk IX Spitfires, all flown by Polish pilots. The station’s commanding officer was the highest-ranking Pole in the RAF, Group Captain Aleksander Gabszewicz.
Within a month it became normal for up to 30 Spitfire movements to take place in a single day. On D-Day itself, 6th June 1944, almost all the Chailey aircraft were engaged in providing low-level air cover for the Allied forces invading Normandy by air and sea. The Polish Spitfires were based at Chailey for only two months that summer and were very fortunate to record just two fatalities.
On October 3, 1944, the RAF declared Chailey ALG redundant for their needs and the airfield was de-requisitioned and gradually returned to farm use. Today a casual passer-by would never imagine that Bower Farm once performed such an important military function all those years ago. There exists, however, an impressive memorial to the Polish airmen that is set in the grounds of The Plough pub.
Ten years ago this month also saw a remarkable event when the Chailey ALG was brought back to life and half a dozen Spitfires plus a host of other aircraft actually landed on the temporarily restored grass runway. The legendary aviation daredevil Ray Hanna (founder pilot of the Red Arrows) was one of the flying guests. Another was the famous lady Spitfire pilot Carolyn Grace. It was a spectacular weekend played out in glorious sunshine and witnessed by thousands of enthralled spectators. Several Spitfire veterans also attended including one of the original Polish pilots who flew from Chailey.
I’m pleased also to say that I was there and indeed had helped make the event possible. Sadly, I doubt if it will ever happen again.
There is an excellent book “Spit and Polish” by Richard Whittle that tells the story in detail of the Poles at Chailey and their remarkable wartime exploits. Copies are on sale at The Plough Inn near Plumpton. Tel: 01273 890311.