NOSTALGIA: Wilmington was a training ground for Second World War pilots

Sergeant John Edward Bayley, from Eastbourne ... lost his life during the Battle of Britain
Sergeant John Edward Bayley, from Eastbourne ... lost his life during the Battle of Britain

We continue our look back at the history of flying in Eastbourne and in particular the construction of the Wilmington Aerodrome on land off the A27.

Peter Longstaff-Tyrell takes up the story in the mid 1930s when Captain Douglas Ann was establishing his Drusillas Zoo and Tea Garden nearby at Berwick named after his first wife.

Peter writes, “At weekends the car park at Drusillas became known as the Motor Show of the South as fashionable visitors patronised the establishment with their exotic cars and limousines. Along with the aircraft at Wilmington, the district certainly had a vibrant buoyancy.

“Construction of new Art Deco clubhouse buildings in the south east corner of the aerodrome site began in mid 1937 when the enthusiasm there was at a peak.

“On August 20 1930 the imposing new clubhouse and facilities close to the main road were opened by WP Hildred OBE, the deputy controller of General Civil Aviation.

“The architect was Mr F Sayer and construction was by WB Price of Coventry Road, St Leonard’s with a steel girder frame by Rother Iron Works of Rye.

“The angular property was to be a popular Art Deco statement built with flat roof and parapets, all affording a perfect view of the landing area.

The main block was seven bays long and two storeys high with the central bay set forward slightly and with a control tower over, two storeys higher.

“There were single storey extensions at both ends. The windows were probably steel casements; to the main block in each two lights and with tall slit windows to the central bay to the upper storeys, probably lighting the staircase with double doors to the ground floor. The single storey extensions had large windows five lights wide.

“The control tower was fully glazed probably in light steel framework.

“It may be hard to visualise the interior fittings and unfortunately no specific photos or brochures or information has been found regarding the clubhouse.

“However, they may be compared to the extant Shoreham Airport building that officially opened in 1936.

“A colleague who visited the part-occupied property at Milton Gate in the mid 1960s suggested the building was possibly clad in asbestos sheeting.

“The property at that time was home to Ray Sweet, his wife and daughter. Ray was a jockey for John Hooton, the Wilmington vet and horse trainer. Ray rode for him in a Grand National at Aintree.

“By July 1938 the Civil Air Guard Scheme had been launched by Sir Kingsley Wood, the Air Minister and potential pilots enrolling at Eastbourne Labour Exchange were sent to Wilmington Aerodrome to assess their capabilities and medical condition.

“More than 100 recruits were in training by the next year.

“One airman was Sergeant John Edward Bayley who was born in Eastbourne and learnt to fly at Wilmington Flying Club in 1933.

“At the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 he was a qualified volunteer reserve pilot at Biggin Hill and was posted to 249 Squadron at North Weald.

“On October 10, the height of the Battle of Britain, his Hurricane V7537 was part of a patrol over the River Thames. At 3.47pm suddenly his fighter went into a steep dive dropping from formation.

“It is thought that he suffered from oxygen failure. He is buried at St Luke’s Church, Bromley.

“In September 1939 Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made his famous broadcast that the nation was at war again with Germany.

“At Wilmington Aerodrome the club secretary unceremoniously locked up the premises and passed the keys to the Ministry of Supply.”

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