The Goodwood Revival – The Best Place on Earth to See the Things We Love
By Ned J. Lawler | Photos by Ned J. and Kate Lawler, Shamrock Motoring Images
(Note: Part One found here)
Part Two – Hallowed Ground
“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” uttered Sir Winston Churchill after a few minutes reflection on his experience at RAF Uxbridge. He had spent August 16th 1940 in the bunker housing the Operations Room of the RAF Group 11 following the battles of the day. Four days later his speech to the House of Commons was framed by this thought. The Battle of Britain airman of the RAF were to become known as “The Few” as a result of Sir Winston’s observation.
The Battle of Britain was the air war waged against the British Isle by the German Luftwaffe from 10 July to 31 October 1940. Luftwaffe Field Marshal Goring had convinced Hitler that Britain could be captured by air. “The Few” had proved Goring wrong, motivating Hitler to move his attention to the Western Front and cancel plans for the amphibious invasion of England, Operation Sea Lion. The timber of Churchill’s proclamation was significantly reinforced as history unfolded.
To explore how “The Few” relate to the Goodwood estate, we will begin in 1938. As the winds from the East began to darken the skies, the Air Ministry set about conscripting strategic flat sections of land to be used as emergency landing fields. Goodwood had such a field adjacent to the hamlet of Westhampnett. This area, along with a similar tract located near Merston, was to augment the established RAF Tangmere base. The three locations were on the corners of a triangle with each leg about two miles long, Westhampnett at the top, Merston straight south, and Tangmere on the vertex to the east. Information on the excellent museum at Tangmere can be found at www.tangmere-museum.org.uk. The field at Merston was subject to becoming waterlogged and occasionally its support activity needed to be moved to RAF Westhampnett. Shortly before the Battle of Britain, the Goodwood field status was raised to that of a satellite airfield. At this point the Air Ministry started to put in minimal facilities to support plane maintenance and house the pilots and crews.
On the 23rd of July 1940, the battle-tested 145th Squadron ferried their Hurricanes from RAF Tangmere to be the first unit operational from RAF Westhampnett. The opening shot of the Battle of Britain was fired from Squadron Leader John Peel’s Hurricane after taking off from the base on the Goodwood estate on 8 August 1940. In his encounter he inflicted damage on three German fighters.
During the wet Winter of 1940-41 it became obvious that if this base were to continue to be used, a service road would need to be built to allow the fuel and service vehicles to reach the planes and provide a solid pathway for the fighters to the airstrips. There is some debate as to exactly when the “hard standing” was laid; however, there are 1941 Air Ministry aerial photos of the base that show the ring road in place. This was the foundation of the present track. Since the planes were spread around the perimeter of the field, the layout of the road followed the topography to connect all the circular pads that were the planes’ parking spots. Today the trapezoidal aprons from the road to the parking pads still line the Lavant Straight. This perimeter path created the curves and straights of the Goodwood Motor Circuit.
From the first shot of the Battle of Britain to the first wave of air support for D-day, the Goodwood farm field hosted Belgian, French, New Zealander, Polish, Canadian, and American units along with Royal Naval Air Service and RAF Squadrons. While Spitfires were the most populous Goodwood plane, the early victories in the Battle of Britain were delivered by Hawker Hurricanes. During the 6 years of operation, from 1940 until the base was decommissioned on 13 May 1946, most of the arsenal of Allied fighter planes stirred the Goodwood grass. This included, of course, Hurricanes and Spitfires augmented by Tigercats, Typhoons, Barracudas, Avengers, Tempests and P-51 Mustangs. The most noticed fighter was the Hawker Typhoon with its 24-cylinder 2100 hp. Napier Sabre engine. On full takeoff power, the noise in the surrounding area was ear shattering!
Lord March is very keen to convey the tremendous significance of the airfield to the War effort and allows time in the Revival schedule to pay moving and fitting tributes to that contribution.
The 2010 Goodwood Revival paid homage to the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. On hand were 9 pilots that flew out of RAF Westhampnett. This group included one of the ladies who was a member of the civilian group, Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), whose charge was to do all the non-combat ferrying of planes from the manufacturing plants to the designated bases or any other type of land based plane redistribution. The ATA was an “Anything to Anywhere” corp that logged over 400,000 flight hours during the war years which kept combat pilots on the front line. Each of the 9 pilots was gridded on the main straight in a WWII period vehicle and after a 7-shot canon salute, one for each decade, they were taken on a parade lap. The honorees were followed by a Hawker Hurricane and a Supermarine Spitfire taxing down the main straight. The applause was loud and spontaneous and the intensity of the moment and its significance could be read on the faces of the elder attendants.
Leading the military machines and following the band of the Royal Marines was a British Racing Green 4 1/2 liter Blower Bentley that belonged to William Meade Lindsley “Billy” Fiske III. His close friendship with Tim Birkin, Bentley Team 1929 Le Mans winner and father of the Blower Bentley, gave Billy the “in” for him to order a very special “Blower” with many features of the Le Mans winning cars. Billy was a larger-than-life character who was the son of a wealthy New York banking family and had been educated in Chicago and England. At the age of 16, he captained the American 4-Man Bobsledding Team to the Gold Medal at the 1928 Winter Olympics at St. Moritz and, 4 years later, he repeated the Gold at the Lake Placid, New York Olympics.
Since only British subjects could join the RAF, Fiske hid his American citizenship by posing as a Canadian to become a RAF airman. His worldly confidence, competitiveness and quick athletic ability made him a natural fighter pilot. After flight training he flew successful missions with the 601st Squadron out of RAF Tangmere with his first flight on 14 July 1940. On 16 August he nursed his damaged Hurricane back to Tangmere rather than bailout and lose a valuable fighter. As he approached the base, which was under attack, his aircraft caught fire. Billy landed but was burned. Although he was rushed to the hospital and it appeared that he would recover, he died the next day from shock. The legend is that the fighter he saved was returned to combat service within days.
Fiske is thought to be the first U.S citizen killed in air combat during WWII. During his short 27 days of active flying he flew 42 missions and damaged several German planes. Lord March, in his tribute to Fiske and the other flyers, noted that Flight Officer Billy Fiske was buried in the nearby Boxgrove Priory very near Lord March’s ancestors. He is remembered on his headstone with the inscription “He died for England” and in a stained glass window in the adjacent church.
The next vehicle in the tribute parade, a US Army Command Car, carried Squadron Leader Tony Gaze OAM DFC** (Order of Australia Medal, 3 Distinguished Flying Crosses awarded). Gaze, a successful post-war racing driver, was the catalyst in the conversion of RAF Westhampnett to the Goodwood Motor Circuit. We will revisit his involvement in the next chapter as Britain transforms from wartime activities to normalcy, which in this context, means motoring racing.