The Strike at Biggin Hill

Written by Pam Preedy.

The RAF opened their station at Biggin Hill in 917.  It remained open after the war.  In 1919 there were 500 men of the Wireless Experimental station stationed at South Camp.  The living conditions at that time were appalling; most sleeping in tents in a sea of mud.  The dining hall, too, was a leaky canvas hangar equally muddy and the food, prepared in an open, rusty shed, was almost inedible.

In spite of many complaints to the authorities, nothing changed.  After a particularly unpalatable meal in January 1919, a meeting was held and the men voted overwhelmingly in favour of strike action.  The ‘Red Flag’ was sung, but calls for more radical actions such as a march down Picadilly smashing windows en route, was refused.

The next morning no one turned out for duty.  An orderly, wanting to know what was happening, was refused entry to the dining hall by a sergeant and two men refusing to recognise his authority.  The men removed magnetoes from all vehicles in the camp, including those belonging to civilian contractors and when men from the 141 Squadron in North Camp refused to intervene, the strike committee had achieved complete control.

Two Hawker Hurricane Mk Is of No. 32 Squadron coming in to land for refuelling and rearming at Biggin Hill, 1940.

A deputation was sent to the Commanding Officer, Colonel Blanchy (the new RAF ranks had not been fully introduced) and presented the following demands:

  1. No man to be victimised. 

  2. Unless we receive a satisfactory answer from the Commandant we will put our case before Lord Weir.
    i.e. our deputation will proceed to his quarters.
    (a) the men state that when they go “sick” the Medical Officer says that their complaints are due to the disgraceful conditions of the camp food and sanitary arrangements.
    (b) Names of the men who can bear witness to the above can be supplied if necessary.
    (c) We demand that Major ___ shall be dismissed from this unit.
    (d) Leave to be carried on in the normal way.
    (e) the men demand that they leave camp until it is put into a habitable condition by the civilian employees.
    (f) Temporary release of those men who have jobs waiting and those who want to get jobs pending discharge.  while the men are at home demobilisations must continue, and the men be advised by letter or telegram.
    (g) Abolition of work on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.
    (h) Restrictions placed on Y.M.C.A. to be removed and prices in canteen to be covered.
    (i) Efficient transport to be provided for officers, NCOs, and men.

  3. Grievances.
    (a) Wash-house – only 5 basins for 500 men.
    (b) Wet feet – no gum boots issued.
    (c) Dirty and leaking huts.
    (d) NO BATHS.
    (e) Inefficient latrines.

    (a) Shortages.
    (b) Badly cooked.
    (c) Dirty cook-house staff.
    (d) Dining Hall in a disgraceful condition.
    (e) Fully trained cooks should be substituted for present inefficient youths,
Hurricane & St George's Chapel by John Salmon
Aerial view of Biggin Hill

Clearly Blanchy thought they had a case and agreed to take the delegation to the Area HQ at Covent Garden!  the men agreed, and the magnetos were replaced in a sufficient number of vehicles to transport the delegation.  Meanwhile the rest of the camp remained on strike.  The delegation resulted in an inspection of the camp by the area second in command.

the outcome: the whole camp was immediately sent on leave for ten days, during which time conditions were drastically improved and the other demands largely conceded.  when the strike ended there was no victimisation.  This limited but solid struggle had met with success^.

Originally published in Life in Orpington magazine (Issue 52, June 2023)

^Source: RAF Biggin Hill by Graham Wallace, Putman, 1957. Edited from Mutinies, by Dave Lamb, which is extensively footnoted.

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