The Hardest Day

Today, the 18th August 2020, is the 80th anniversary of what became known as ‘The Hardest Day’; the day during the Battle of Britain when both sides lost the most aircraft. The garden at Oxted Place still bears a scar from the events of that day.

The Cedar of Lebanon that lost its top to a Do17

As part of Germany’s plan to invade the UK, known as Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) the Luftwaffe first had to achieve air superiority and on Sunday 18th August 1940 they launched a massive attack against the RAF’s Biggin Hill and Kenley airfields, both of which contained sector operations rooms from which the the RAF’s fighters were directed.

27 Dornier Do17 bombers of 9 Staffel (Squadron) from the Luftwaffe’s Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 76, based north of Paris were tasked with attacking Kenley airfield. Their flight plan had them crossing the coast at Brighton and following the route of the main rail line north towards London. A Do 17 usually carried a crew of four: the pilot, navigator and two gunners, however the Germans were so confident of success on 18th August that a number of the planes also carried a journalist to provide press coverage of the event.

The lead Do17 of 9 Staffel was piloted by Hptm Walter Stoldt with Fw Johann Beck as navigator and gunners Uffz Paul Gengel and Ofw Wilhelm Lautersack. Walter Surk, a war correspondent, was also aboard.

As the Dorniers flew over the Sussex countryside Hurricanes from the RAF’s No. 32 Squadron, based at Biggin Hill, were scrambled to meet them. The lead Hurricane was piloted by Alan Eckford and what happened next is recounted in an article by Alfred Price in the Royal Air Force Yearbook; Death of a Dornier.

Squadron Leader Alan F Eckford DFC

“Early on the afternoon of 18 August, as a formation of 27 Dornier Do. 17s of Kampfgeschwader 76 were running in to bomb the airfield at Kenley, the Hurricanes of No. 32 Squadron moved into position for a head-on attack. As he closed on the enemy planes, Pilot Officer Alan Eckford worked out his attack plan. “The bombers were stepped up, in close formation. I remember thinking as I was approaching the formation, that if I opened fire at the first one and then gradually lifted my nose and kept the button pressed, several would have to pass through my fire.” The plan failed to take into account the tremendous closing speed of the opposing forces.

“Eckford had time for only a short burst at the Dorniers, before he had to push hard on his stick to avoid colliding with his victim. Once he was past the enemy formation he looked back and saw the bomber he had attacked pull into a drunken half roll before falling into a spin.

“Lying on his stomach on the floor of the Dornier and manning the rearwards-firing machine-gun, Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Lautersack had heard a crash as Eckford’s rounds rammed into the bomber and saw smoke spurt out of the starboard engine. When the Dornier fell into a spin he was pinned to the floor by G forces. Glancing forwards, he saw his pilot was slumped lifeless against his harness. With a strength born of fear Lautersack inched his way to the escape hatch in the floor of the cabin, pulled the release lever and as the door fell away he tumbled after it. After a long delay he pulled his ripcord and was relieved when the canopy opened with a loud ‘thwack’. The navigator followed him out the hatch, but none of the other crewmen escaped.”

The doomed Dornier hit and broke the top off one of the Cedars of Lebanon next to the drive at Oxted Place with the remains of the aircraft then landing in a field this side of Hurst Green.

A Do17 downed by 32 Squadron on 18 August 1940, possibly the one which took the top off our tree.

The bodies of Walter Stoldt, Walter Surk and Paul Gengel were  buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Oxted although after the war they were re-interred at Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery. Wilhelm Lautersack and Johann Beck were made prisoners of war. Alan Eckford went on to have a distinguished career and died on 6 December 1990.

Cleddau Bridge Disaster – 50th Anniversary

50 years ago today at 2.16pm on 2nd June 1970 the Cleddau bridge at Pembroke Dock in Wales collapsed while under construction. Four workmen lost their lives in the accident. The BBC’s coverage of the anniversary is here.

The bridge was designed by Freeman Fox & Partners and Charles Doveton Crossthwaite, one of their partners, was living at Oxted Place East at the time. The firm experienced a second collapse, just four months later, of a box girder bridge while under construction at West Gate in Melbourne, Australia with the loss of 35 lives; to this day this remains Australia’s worst ever industrial accident. In the UK the Merrison Committee of Inquiry was set up to investigate both failures. The Inquiry found that the Cleddau bridge failure was due to inadequate design of the diaphragm bulkhead inside the box girder above the support pier. The Inquiry also found that “the failure of site organisation between the parties was of more general significance”.

During the Inquiry Oxted Place East served as Freeman Fox’s base for coordinating their defence (senior partner Sir Ralph Freeman lived nearby in Ballards Lane, Limpsfield). For this task the billiard room was converted to the document library filled with many tables piled high with papers.

While Freeman Fox went on to design a number of other long span bridges, including the Humber bridge, their reputation never fully recovered from these two catastrophic failures and in 1987 the firm merged with John Taylor & Sons to form Acer Consultants (now part of Arcadis).

The Merrison Committee of Inquiry initiated the implementation of Interim Design and Workmanship Rules for box girder bridges which subsequently developed into British Standard BS 5400. Cleddau bridge’s collapse during construction was the last major bridge disaster in the UK.

One World Group Oxted

Today, had it not been for Covid-19, the garden would have been open as part of One World Group Oxted’s Open Garden scheme. One World Group is an excellent charity improving the lives of some of the World’s most impoverished people. Each year they arrange five local gardens in the Oxted area to open to the public to raise funds to support their work. More info on the Group’s activity can be found on their website here while some photos of the gardens that would have been open are on their Facebook page here.

New signpost

Oxted Place

As a Covid-19 lockdown project we have erected a new signpost to replace the much repaired old wooden one that was at the end of its life. Hopefully this new cast steel one, supplied by Furnitubes Ltd. will last us many years.

The Millennium Menhir

Raising the menhir

We are regularly asked how the garden’s menhir, which was erected to mark the turning of the Millennium, got here. The answer is that it came from a worked out 19th Century quarry on Bodmin Moor. In the quarry field boulders were split to make stones for use in construction. To make the splits the masons hand drilled a series of holes, inserted timber plugs and then wetted the plugs to split the stone. In this case the stone split to a tapered shape which was rejected for building work but is just what we wanted. The hand drilled hole marks on the split face are still clearly visible.

The stone was delivered close to its final site on a trailer was then dragged into position and erected using the winch on the Defender. Finally it was concreted securely into position. The menhir weighs just over 3t so the operation required some careful planning.