Croydon’s role in First World War defence of Capital


Women workers and foreman at National Aircraft Factory, 1918.​ Pic: Croydon Airport Society Archives.

Homes across the East London Lines area fell into darkness on Monday as part of the nationwide Lights Out event to commemorate the start of the First World War.

The National Lights Out event saw people in homes, offices and historic buildings turn out all but a single light or candle to symbolise the moment Britain entered the First World War – August 4 1914 at 11pm. In Croydon, the Mayor, Manju Shahul-Hameed, led a ceremony at the Town Hall. As a programme of events continues to run in the borough throughout the coming months, East London Lines looks at the part the borough played in the First World War.

A century ago the fields around Croydon were still mainly farm land and the advent of flight was still in its infancy. The First World War would change that.

The Great War started in Belgium and France along the Western Front in 1914 but by the beginning of 1915 it had moved closer to home.  A campaign of bombing military and industrial targets across the country saw hundreds of tonnes of explosives being dropped from Zeppelin airships and attacks from Gotha bomber planes by the Imperial German Air Service; it would eventually lead to 1,400 people being killed and more than 3,400 being injured in air raids on home soil during the war.

The first Zeppelin raid over London came on May 31 1915 and the increasing threat of attack saw the establishment of a ring of defensive airfields around the city.  From December 1915, the lavender and corn-fields of Beddington and Wallington, Croydon, became one of the fighters’ bases where squadrons from the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) would take off to defend the skies above the Capital.

From the start, the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) at Beddington aerodrome saw action with night raids in January, March and April 1916 but with inexperienced pilots, early plane design – it would take the state of the art BE2C plane nearly an hour to climb 10,000 feet – and ineffective ammunition, there was little success for the Home Defence Squadron until September 2 1916, when an airship was shot down over Cuffley in North London by 2nd Lieutenant William Leefe Robinson.  Using recently developed explosive and incendiary bullets, Robinson was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions, while a German Zeppelin commander was to have said of the new ammunition: “It’s the invention of the Devil.”


First plane – de Havilland DH9 completed at National Aircraft Factory 1918. Pic: Croydon Airport Society Archives.

Back at base, the presence of the airmen was at first a novelty for the locals. A reporter from The Sutton Advertiser, writing in the issue from January 14 1916 is quoted to have said: “Quite a large number of people may be seen walking in the direction of Plough Lane any fine afternoon, with the object of catching a glimpse of the airmen. I went out that way on Sunday morning and was astonished to see so many people out there.”

The RFC increased its squadron number across the country from 108 to 200 in July 1917 and as more aircraft were required, three new factories in Liverpool, Richmond and Croydon were planned to meet demand. The land opposite Beddington Aerodrome on the other side of Plough Lane became National Aircraft Factory No 1, Waddon, and in January 1918 the production line started with the first de Havilland DH9 being delivered only 58 days later on March 14 1918.

Many of the jobs were taken by women, who played an enormous part in the war effort on the Home Front.  Approximately 1.6 million women entered the workforce during the war and by Armistice Day 950,000 were employed in munitions factories like the one in Croydon.  But less than a year after it opened, National Aircraft Factory No 1 was redundant as peace came to Britain in November 1918. On Saturday January 11 1919, around 1,500 employees were dismissed with the remaining 600 taking a pay cut.

The RAF, which had been formed in April 1918, left Beddington in February 1920.  The aerodrome went on to become London’s first major International airport and commercial operations started for the first time at Croydon Aerodrome on March 29 1920.

The Croydon Airport Society has an extensive archive on the history of Croydon Aerodrome. They meet on the third Tuesday of each month at Airport house, Croydon airport and with a range of activities throughout the year.

Events will continue to run in Croydon throughout August and September with an exhibition on display at the church of St Mary the Blessed Virgin in Addington. There will be a service in Coulsdon Memorial Ground, Marlpit Lane, August 24, 3pm.

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