Sunday, November 13

Of hangars and hangovers

This article will be the first in a series featuring some unsung, almost unlikely, war heroes, of modern British history.
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Cath Preston, the licensee of the White Hart, a Tudor style hotel 6 miles from Biggin Hill, the famous RAF fighter command station is perhaps an unusual wartime hero. Her contribution to Britain's war effort was undoubtedly invaluable.
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The White Hart's saloon bar was a favourite pre-war rendezvous for such names as Douglas Bader and Max Aitken. During the Battle of Britain, in the summer of 1940, it became so popular with the young pilots that it was virtually a second mess.
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The enthusiastic proprietor, Mrs Preston, well understood the vital need for the pilots to relax and forget the daily tensions of the ever - present threat of death.
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With four or five scrambles a day, the few were permanently shatteringly tired. The White Hart provided a moral boosting bolt - hole, which heard more than a few sing-songs from the young airmen.
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Showpiece of the pub was a wooden blackout board over the front door, on which many of the few including Stanford Tuck, Sailor Malan, Brian Kingcombe, Al Deere, Neville Duke and other famous wartime pilots signed their names at the height of the Battle of Britain.
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A regular at the White Hart was Biggin Hill Station Commander in 1940, Group Captain Richard "Dickie" Grice (played by Kenneth More in the 1969 film, Battle of Britain), who won his DFC in the 1914/18 War.
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Every evening during the Battle of Britain the Group Captain would lay on a coach to take his war weary pilots to the White Hart to play a game of darts and eat a meal. Apparently he had a loud speaker fitted to the roof of his car and as he led the coach from Biggin into the hotel's forecourt, he would announce "25 beers!" (or whatever number) on the loud speaker.
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Grice, clearly an eccentric was obsessed with a burnt out shell of a hangar on Biggin's airfield. Convinced that the Germans believed it to be undamaged, and would consequently target the airfield with a bombing raid. The bureaucrats at the Air Ministry stubbornly refused to dismantle the large construction, so the intrepid Group Captain cunningly arranged for the Royal Engineers to dynamite the former hangar during an an enemy air raid.
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Unfortunately a subsequent investigation revealed that the Luftwaffe could not have been responsible and Group Captain Grice was court- martialled.
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Such was his popularity amongst his immediate superiors that he was equitted. However, as always, bureaucrats (even in wartime) got the last word and Group Captain Dickie Grice DFC spent the remaining four years of the war at a posting in Australia.
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To our knowledge this is the only example of an RAF Station Commander blowing up his own hangar at a time of war, albeit with the best of intentions.
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In 1971 Cath, after 39 years of pulling pints for the RAF, retired as proprietor of the White Hart, with a champagne party - the now famous board on permanent display at Shoreham Air Force Museum in Kent and a flying club now stands on the site of the former hangar.

92 Squadron at RAF Biggin Hill September 1940.

5 comments:

Kelly said...

Isn't there a comment about they also serve who stand and wait? or in this case who stand and serve?
Morale is a great thing, and can help bolster up the mental well being of those about to go and not know if they are going to return or not. There isn't usually a lot about the behind the scenes sort of people. Glad you wrote one!

Peter Troy said...

Thanks for the comment. There will be more to follow. Ed

Anonymous said...

That's not 92 Squadron, as they flew Spits, not Hurricanes, as anyone who has read Geof Wellum's book will recognise.

martin said...

i was reading the book called fly for your life written by larry forrester. its about the famous stanford tuck. Very interestingly in the book it mentions about the clalk board and the autographs on page 303. Thats how i found out about the site. I would like to know if its still up.

Anonymous said...

I'm Sure Larry Forrester would like capitals when his name is quoted ....