Ford Airfield (HMS Peregrine) Centenary

Ford Airfield (HMS Peregrine) Centenary

Exhibition (2018)

The Yapton & Ford Local History Group will commemorate the centenary of Ford Airfield with an exhibition to be held in the Yapton & Ford Village Hall. (See here for details.)

The following is a brief history of the airfield from its inception in 1917 up to the present day and what is possibly in store for the future.

During the latter stages of the Great War it was decided that more airfields were required along the south coast to facilitate the training of the expanding number of Royal Flying Corps (RFC) squadrons in preparation for them being transferred to the continent. Several sites were identified, one being that of Ford in West Sussex.

Work began on the air base during 1917. Hangars, workshops and accommodation blocks were built in the area of what is now The Peregrines, Drake Grove and Fordwater Gardens, and opened in early 1918. RFC Squadron No 148 flew in and Squadron 149 was formed at Ford, both flying Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b’s.


Ford Aerodrome 1918

Handley Page under construction (1918)

Following the entry into the war by the United States, several airfields were re-allocated to the US Air Service, and Ford (known at the time as Ford Junction) became Field no. 1 in the Chichester Area of Night Bombardment Section, American Expeditionary Force. The plan was for the Americans to fly Handley Page 0/400 bombers. The first Americans arrived in September 1918 and Squadron No. 326 was formed which flew FE2b's and Farman F40's for training purposes while they waited for 0/400 bombers to be shipped in from the USA. The signing of the Armistice occurred before the arrival of these aircraft except for one example which was being assembled at Ford. As a result the programme was cancelled and the American personnel left. The newly formed RAF used the airfield to de-commission squadrons over the next two years after which the airfield reverted back to farmland.

There followed 10 years free of aero-engine noise with the accommodation blocks being converted into homes for villagers. Flying started up again on the airfield when D.W. Aviation moved down from Brooklands, offering joyrides to the general public. They were followed a year later by Ford Motor Company who based their Tri-Motor aeroplane activities at Ford.


Ford Tri-Motor at Ford Aerodrome

Alan Cobham aircraft

Following Ford’s decision to cease production of the Tri-Motor, they relinquished the lease on the airfield and facilities which were taken over by Rollason Aviation Ltd who moved their flying club operation down from Croydon and renamed the club The Southdowns Flying Club. This flying club was to become The Yapton Aero Club where the famous Air Transport Auxiliary pilot, Lettice Curtice learnt to fly.

Sir Alan Cobham also made the airfield the base for his company National Aviation Displays Ltd from where he toured the country for a few seasons with his Flying Circus, giving displays with his array of flying machines performing stunts. It was while he was at Ford that he started his company Flight Refuelling Limited which developed the method of refuelling aircraft in flight, a variation of which is still used today by air forces around the world.

With the imminent onset of War, the Air Ministry commandeered the airfield and transferred the School of Navy Cooperation, soon to become the Royal Navy Observer School, from Lee-on-Solent. The flying school had to move out although Flight Refuelling was allowed to continue with their experimenting but eventually even they had to leave. The base was Commissioned 'HMS Peregrine' and came under the control of the Royal Navy and shortly the Royal Navy School of Photography arrived. The Navy’s tenure on the base came to an abrupt end when it was practically destroyed by enemy bombers on 18th August 1940 with many personnel killed and injured. The RAF took over the airfield and it was from here that they perfected their night fighting capabilities which eventually took a great toll of enemy aircraft. Squadrons from Ford also played major roles in the ill fated Dieppe raid and D-Day.


Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson
No. 144 Canadian Wing

After VE Day the base was used to bring home many POW’s and also to de-commission squadrons which were no longer needed.

Following the war, the Royal Navy took back control and soon after the Royal Navy Service Trials Unit was formed. This unit had an example on their books of every type of aircraft flown by the Royal Navy for the purpose of testing and assessing any new piece of equipment developed to improve the Navy’s capabilities. With the advent of jets, the base had to be closed from 1948 to 1951 to allow the runways to be extended and laid down in concrete to accept the more powerful and heavier aircraft which were replacing the old propeller driven types.

The Trials unit wasn’t the only activity that took place at HMS Peregrine. As a Royal Navy land base it was home for carrier based squadrons which had completed their tours of duty on aircraft carriers such as HMS Eagle. While they were shore based they would have gunnery practice off Selsey Bill and practice parachute jumping from a purpose made basket with a hole in the middle suspended underneath a gas filled balloon tethered above the airfield.

With the reduction in the size of the Armed Forces and consequently the size of the Fleet Air Arm, HMS Peregrine became surplus to requirement and eventually closed in 1958. That wasn’t the end of the story for the airfield. In 1962 it was used as the location for the filmA Prize of Arms’ starring Stanley Baker, Helmut Schmid and Tom Bell, with Patrick Magee and Rodney Bewes amongst the supporting cast. The plot was about a criminal gang trying to rob an army pay convoy. There was another link with the world of film as one of the aircraft featured in ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ was built by the Miles Aviation Co. in their plant on the airfield.

Civil flying continued for a few more years but under pressure from local residents even that eventually ceased.

A Prize of Arms (1962)

Today the buildings on the eastern side of the airfield are part of Ford Open Prison while the original site on the western side where Ford Motor Company and Sir Alan Cobham made their home is now The Peregrines housing estate. Other parts of what was HMS Peregrine have been given over to industrial use and the main runways are home to open air markets and car-boot sales. As to the future, there are plans afoot to build around 1,500 houses on the old airfield.

It is with this in mind that the Yapton & Ford Local History Group have decided to help preserve the memory of this little bit of England and honour the men and women who have lived and died here over the last century, before the final traces disappear under bricks and mortar.

Allen Misselbrook
Yapton & Ford Local History Group
December 2017

(Originally published in Yapton News, January 2018)