Pilots who took on airships with rifles

Pilots who took on airships with rifles

Pilots who took on airships with rifles

First published in News
Last updated

On an airfield under what is now William Girling Reservoir in Chingford, pilots who would go on to fight for their country got their first taste of flying.

Many of the 1,000 airmen who trained at the Chingford Royal Naval Air Station, or Chingford aerodrome, between 1914 and 1918 would go on to face daunting missions, including battling Zeppelins in the skies over London.

Flight Lieutenant F Warren Merriam described one mission taken by inexperienced pilots in Sopwith triplanes and Sopwith Camel biplanes.

He said: “Orders had come through for all available pilots and aircraft to stand by.

“With them we received instruction that, should we encounter a Zeppelin and fail to destroy it with our rifles and hand grenades, we were to ram it!

“The fact that Chingford pilots had very little experience by day and practically none by night worried me considerably.”

The history of the 150 acre site was documented in a magazine called ‘Chingflier’ published fortnightly between October 1916 and February 1918 by flight lieutenants, commanders and naval pilots.

The ‘Chingfliers’ (pilots) and ‘Chingboys’ (service men) were based at the marshy site that now sits under 3,493 million gallons of water and dozens of grazing sheep.

Avid flyer Winston Churchill, while serving as the First Lord of the Admiralty, recommended the site be used as a re-fuelling base for sea planes defending the east coast against enemy attacks on London. But in practice, the aerodrome was used to train pilots for inland flying.

Its small, narrow land space surrounded by water proved difficult for landing, so a small power boat was permanently moored on the King George V Reservoir for the rescue of pilots routinely crashing into the water.

It is not known exactly how many lives were lost at the aerodrome. The pilots’s names are not recorded on the Chingford war memorial, nor is there a memorial dedicated to the airfield.

The spring of 1917 brought an unusually high death toll and was dubbed ‘bloody April’. Seven ‘Chingfliers’ lost their lives between April and Septem-ber.

Flt Lt Warren Merriam, whose memories are recorded in Chingfliers and Chingboys by Leonard Davis, crash-landed back at the base after his ill-equipped anti-Zeppelin mission, only to be faced with the news that none of his fellow pilots had survived the night.

He said: “The other pilots and observers were not so fortunate.

“While we were running those risks in an obviously almost impossible attempt to get to close quarters with the enemy, the raiders were flying far above us and showering their bombs at random over the darkened metropolitan area.”

Pilot Douglas Barnes was one of those killed on the mission and a number were injured.

His observer, Ben Travers, whse job was to look out for enemy aircraft, escaped with slight injuries.

Flt Lt Warren Merriam later described the numerous night flights targeting Zeppelin raids as “dangerous and nerve racking ordeals”.

Despite the numerous flying accidents, he said he was proud of the training standards at the Chingford aerodrome, adding: “I was proud in the knowledge that Chingford, like the Bristol School at Brooklands before it, had achieved a reputation second to none in the production of first-class pilots.”

The aerodrome was disbanded after the First World War.

It was used for a flying circus display ground, where pilots would perform tricks for crowds, before being reverted to a diary farm.

The area was flooded to a depth of 45 feet in 1951 to become the William Girling Reservoir.

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