A hundred years ago the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service merged to form the Royal Air Force. German attacks from the skies in the Great War led to aircraft bases being established in Essex, including at Rochford, Stow Maries and, in this constituency, North Weald. When Zeppelins or Gotha bombers were seen approaching the coast, calls were made to the Essex flight bases and various home defence bi-planes were scrambled.
North Weald’s airfield came back into service in World War Two. Its Great War hangars and buildings were developed to house the 56( R ) Squadron and its aircraft - I have been delighted to hear that the Squadron is going to be given the Freedom of Epping Forest District at a ceremony in June this year.
If we think, in 2018, that the prospect of driverless cars on our roads is almost unbelievable, it’s hard to comprehend what North Weald’s residents must have felt about spindly biplanes flying over their heads in 1918. It had taken just over a decade from Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first hesitant flight in 1903, to single engine propeller planes rising to fight in the skies over Essex. The planes, made of wood, canvas cloth and wire, were fragile and difficult to fly and so the average life-expectancy rate for a Great War pilot was about two weeks.
If you want to see what life was like for those first pilots and crew, visit the Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome, just outside Maldon, which was returned to farmland after the Great War, leaving the various buildings built for the Royal Flying Corps intact. Essex County Council and Maldon District Council bought the land in 2009 and this wonderfully evocative piece of RAF history is now being sympathetically conserved and restored.
One of those who worked there in WWI was William George Medley, who grew up in Shenfield. He worked at the Brentwood munitions factory before signing up with the Royal Flying Corps as a mechanic and driver in 1917. He survived the war and lived to a good age, dying in Brentwood in 1983 - but his memory, and that of his extraordinary generation, lives on among the buildings and bi-planes of Stow Maries.