THE TINY SAINT GEORGE’S ROYAL AIR FORCE CHAPEL OF REMEMBRANCE at the former RAF Biggin Hill is a place of beauty as well as contemplation.
It forms an important part of a new museum on the site as well as being an active place of worship for the local community. (1) (2) (3) (4)
It is also a treasure trove of unusual objects and the building itself is listed as having historic significance by Historic England. (5)
The reredos (the screen behind the altar) is featured on the Imperial War Museums War Memorials Register as it contains details of the losses experienced by the many squadrons stationed there during the Second World War. (6)
Among the items to be seen are twelve stained glasss windows by Hugh Easton, each illustrating a seraph or six-winged angel holding an emblem.
There are seven squadron crests – representing Nos. 32, 72, 74, 79, 92, 141 and 610 Squadrons, RAF – together with the crests of RAF Biggin Hill, No. 11 Group RAF, Fighter Command.
Finally there are two more – one featuring a Supermarine Spitfire and the other a Hawker Hurricane, the RAF aircraft most associated with the ‘Battle of Britain’ during which RAF Biggin Hill played a key role in defending London and the South East of England.
Born in 1906, Easton was a stained glass artist who designed many church stained-glass windows in churches in post war-war Britain – often to replace those destroyed by wartime bombing.
He is probably best known for a the design of a number of memorial windows in London’s Westminster Abbey, which were made at the firm of Hawes and Harris in Harpenden to the north of London. (7) (8) (9) (10)
Although his work was praised at the time, tastes change and to some today some of his work can be seen as out of character with it surroundings. (11) (12)
At St George’s Biggin Hill many of the windows havesecondary dedications to groups or individual pilots.
However establishing the story of these men and their exploits is not always easy – take the case of Peter Bishop for example.
His dedication appears on the window showing the crest of No. 141 Squadron RAF which flew the Boulton Paul Defiant fighter during the Battle of Britain and afterwards.
However it also features an illustration of a Gloster Meteor F8 jet fighter complete with RAF serial – WA962 – and individual aircraft letter ‘D‘. This type first entered RAF service in December 1949 and accounted for 30% of all Meteor aircraft produced. (13) (14)
No. 141 SQUADRON’S WINDOW showing a seraph holding the squadron crest with the dedication to Flying Officer Peter Bishop below. Image © R Maddox 2019 and used with permission.
A CLOSE-UP of the dedication to Flying Officer Peter Bishop RAF. It features ‘Dustcart Crest’ the squadron crest of No. 601 Squadron – so called because it was applied to all the corporation vehicles in the City of London – flanked by the crest of New College Oxford and Brasenose College Oxford. It also contains an inscription from his brother which translates as ‘I loved you for a long time; I will never forget you’. Image © R Maddox 2019 and used with permission.
A quick internet search reveals that this aircraft was flown by No. 41 Squadron RAF from Biggin Hill, one of a number of squadrons based at the airfield that flew that particular aircraft type.
So given that another dedication – that of Flying Officer Ivo Cuthbert (15) who was killed in 1940 while flying with No. 601 Squadron RAF – is set into the window dedicated to No. 610 (County of Chester) Squadron, it would seem logical that Peter’s dedication would be set within 141’s window and that he died while flying the aircraft illustrated.
But he didn’t.
No.41 Squadron’s Operational Record Book (ORB) has no record of his death – or the loss of WA962 – in July 1955.
And then – like in the second half of a detective story where the police have arrested the wrong suspect – I looked again at the photographs I took recently of the windows and saw a clue I had overlooked.
In the centre of the inscription is the ‘Dustcart’ crest of No.600 Squadron – which was based at Biggin Hill at the time of Peter’s death and also flew Meteor F8 aircraft. Perhaps the ORB for that Squadron would give some information about Peter’s demise.
And there it was.
In the monthly summary for July 1955 under ‘(i) OPERATIONS’ is the following entry: (16)
(c) Flying Officer P.M. Bishop who joined this Squadron on coming down from Oxford in November 1953, met his death in a flying tragedy whilst working in his civilian capacity as a Pilot for Hunting Aerosurveys.
With his name and the month of his death confirmed and the information on the company he worked for, the next stage followed.
A search of a website that documents many air crashes indicates that an Auster J/5B Autocar, a small, single-engined high wing four-seater civil aircraft owned by Hunting Aerosurveys Limited crashed in Scotland on 8 July 1955 – the same date that is on the window at St. Georges Chapel, Biggin Hill.
So Peter did indeed fly with No. 600 Squadron but he met his death in Scotland when flying an Auster J/5B Autocar, a small, single-engined high wing four-seater civil aircraft. He had taken off from Elstree airfield in Hertfordshire, north of London.
Bearing the civil air registration G-AMFO, the aircraft was carrying a passenger, probably another employee of Hunting Aero Surveys when it crashed around 40 miles from its destination at Perth (Scone) airport. (17)
Armed with this information I found a picture of the aircraft on the Auster Heritage Group website. (18)
Although the civilian air registration, the manufacturer’s construction number and the place of crash all match the information on the Air Safety Network website, it appears that the date of the crash has been wrongly captioned (8 July 1965 and not 8 July 1955) on the image.
Of course the story doesn’t end there and we would like to here from anyone that can add any details to Peter’s story.
A new mystery
The windows – according to information on the one dediated to RAF Biggin Hill – were placed in the chapel in September 1955 – hold at least one more mystery.
The RAF Fighter Command one has an easily missed additional ‘dedication’ – a small mosquito insect.
The RAF used the De Havilland Mosquito in a variety of roles including as a day and night fighter.
THE WINDOW dedicated to RAF Fighter Command and gifted in 1955. The tiny mosquito is to the right of the seraph’s wing, level with the word ‘by’ in the inscription. Image copyright © R Maddox 2019 and used with permission.
A CLOSE-UP of the mosquito drawing in the Fighter Command window. Image copyright © R Maddox 2019 and used with permission.
Whether included in Easton’s original design, or added during production of the window, the signifcance of the mosquito – and who placed it there and why – is another mystery.
And perhaps one for someone else to solve.
A personal note
I first saw St George’s Chapel at Biggin Hill and the window with Peter’s details on it many, many years ago – long before the internet.
The chapel was guarded not by fibreglass replicas but by a ‘real’ Supermarine Spitfire and a ‘real’ Hawker Hurricane and I remember one day watching a robin that had made its nest in the Hurricane fly back and forth, disappearing and then reappearing from the somewhere under the engine cowling.
In those days parts of the airfield were still used by the RAF with large notices visible from the road declaring WRAF accommodation blocks ‘out of bounds’ to airmen
Although I knew nothing of Hugh Easton, I was fascinated by the windows – the colours, the history they contained, the majesty they conveyed.
Peter Bishop’s inscription – and in particular the beautifully represented Meteor jet – immediately attracted me.
But there was never anyone to ask about why a 1950s jet fighter was featured in a chapel that seemed dedicated to events in the Second World War. Even though I looked at the windows and searched for books at the local library I never moved the story forward.
Eventually ‘Life’ took over and I moved out of the area.
Today I can’t say I have solved the mystery – even to my own satisfaction – but I am at least more knowledgable.
Hopefully this information will enlighten someone who as I did many years ago finds themselves puzzling over why there is an inscription to a man who died 10 years after the Second World War ended in a place that is so much about that conflict.
(1) https://londonist.com/london/museums-and-galleries/biggin-hill-memorial-museum – retrieved 19 May 2019
(2) https://bhmm.org.uk/ – retrieved 19 May 2019
(3) https://www.family-tree.co.uk/news-and-views/news/new-raf-museum-honours-battle-of-britain-many-and-the-few – retrieved 19 May 2019
(4) https://www.rafchapelbigginhill.com/ – retrieved 19 May 2019
(5) https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1391588 – retrieved 19 May 2019
(6) https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/11020 – retrieved 19 May 2019
(7) https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/hugh-easton – retrieved 19 May 2019
(8) https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/raf-chapel – retrieved 19 May 2019
(9) https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O695918/design-for-stained-easton-hugh/ – retrieved 19 May 2019
(10) http://www.harpenden-history.org.uk/page_id__145.aspx – retrieved 19 May 2019
(11) https://www.yarnstormpress.co.uk/glazed_expressions/hugh-easton/ – retrieved 19 May 2019
(12) https://stainedglassattitudes.wordpress.com/2014/08/31/a-blaggers-guide-to-stained-glass/ – retrieved 19 May 2019
(13) http://www.neam.co.uk/meteor.html – retrieved 19 May 2019
(14) https://www.baesystems.com/en-uk/heritage/gloster-meteor – retrieved 19 May 2019
(15) https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2726380/cuthbert,-gerald-ivo/ – retrieved 19 May 2019
(16) UK National Archives, Kew, England – File reference: Air 27/2502/3
(17) https://aviation-safety.net/wikibase/18374 – retrieved 19 May 2019
(18) http://austerhg.org/gallery3/Auster-1243594292/Model_J5_A/G-AMFO – retrieved 19 May 2019
If you are interested in contributing to IWM’s War Memorials Register so that future generations can continue to value and remember the people, places and events that UK war memorials commemorate – or simply want to search for a memorial in your area – follow the links on IWM’s War Memorial page at https://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials