If you want to get a sense of what a First World War aerodrome looks like, then a visit to Stow Maries is a must. Proudly claiming to be ‘Europe’s largest surviving World War I aerodrome’, the museum welcomes visitors to an impressive, hundred-acre site.
In September 1916, ‘B’ Flight of 37 (Home Defence) Squadron, RFC/RAF, arrived at its new home with its BE2s. Its mission was to defend London against Zeppelin and Gotha attacks.
‘B’ Flight would be joined by ‘A’ Flight in the summer of 1917, followed by HQ Flight in 1918, although it was not until after the war, with the arrival of ‘C’ Flight, that the squadron was stationed entirely at Stow Maries. At this time, the squadron’s complement was recorded as being some 300 personnel and 24 aircraft.
Stow Maries remains a working aerodrome to this day, with two runways, and is great for a ‘flying visit’ – even holding ‘fly-in’ events. But there is plenty of parking space for those arriving by a more typical mode of transport.
From the car park, a spine-like road takes you through the complex to a central cluster of buildings by the parade ground. This site now houses the squadron memorial and is used for commemorative events such as the annual Remembrance Day service. The squadron lost ten men during the war – five from the Stow Maries base – all of whom are commemorated here.
As you enter the site, the first building on the right is the original engine workshop, with its narrow link to the dope workshop, a typical arrangement in First World War aerodromes. As the name implies, the larger of the two buildings would have maintained the engines and planes, while the linked smaller building was where the planes’ fabric coverings would have been lacquered. Here a slit trench was found in the workshop, which would have taken poisonous fumes to a chimney. Both buildings have been conserved and fully restored.
The engine workshop now acts as the ticket office and houses a rather well-stocked shop. The rest of the building is given over to introductory displays relating to the aerodrome. There is an interactive history of the site, including part of a mock-up of a Gotha bomber flying over London, reflecting the squadron’s role in defending the capital from attack.
There is also a rather good display reproducing the look of a bedroom of one of the pilots. Another section examines the equipment from the station’s armoury, while elsewhere the history of the Women’s Royal Air Force is explored in some detail. Finally, if you are adventurous enough, you can ‘try out’ in a mock-up of a 1½ Strutter cockpit.
Relics and replicas
Opposite these workshops lies the motor transport shed, sandwiched between the site’s two current hangars, which are reconstructions of the originals. At the closing of the station in 1919, there were two double wooden hangars and a single Bessonneau hangar located behind the transport shed, and it is hoped that in future replicas of these may also be built.
The two hangars are mainly given over to late production British and German planes and replicas of them, but the second hangar also contains a replica of the Blériot aeroplane that achieved the Channel crossing in 1909, using wing warping to manoeuvre the plane as it did not have ailerons.
Other planes that can be found in the hangar include the German Fokker Eindecker from 1915, the first purpose-built German fighter. The Eindecker was the first aircraft to be fitted with a synchronisation gear, enabling the pilot to fire a machine-gun through the arc of the propeller without risk of striking the blades. There is a Sopwith Pup, too, some of which were briefly stationed at Stow Maries.
Another plane that was stationed at the aerodrome was the BE2e, with a wingspan longer than that of previous versions. It was a rather slow beast, taking 50 minutes to reach 10,000ft. The example here is a replica built from the original technical drawings and using original materials. A further flying replica is Stow Maries’ SE5a, though this was built to 7/8th scale.
Sandwiched between the two hangars, the original open-fronted transport shed has been used to house several vintage vehicles. These include a Bergmann Electric Truck of 1910, made in Germany, though Theodor Bergmann had lived in the United States and worked with fellow innovator Thomas Edison. There is an example of an early ambulance, too. Unsurprisingly, these vehicles are frequently borrowed for use as film props.
Passing the aerodrome’s communication room, which had a bank of switches suggestive of an early telephone switchboard, one reaches the present core of the site. This is signalled by the iconic water tower, which rises high above the surrounding buildings, and retains its original tank.
The squadron office, which would have been the original centre of the station’s administration, now houses the squadron museum, replete with donations. The Milburn Room, for instance, has a display of uniforms and photographs from 1918. Taking pride of place among these is Claude Ripley’s dress uniform. Captain Ripley, at just 19 years old, was the first commanding officer of Stow Maries. There is also an excellent reconstruction of the aerodrome duty office, which would originally have been located in the headquarters building.
Then there is the airmen’s mess, once the social hub of the aerodrome. Its role today is similar, serving as both a function room and a cafe where visitors can refresh themselves.
Completing this complex is the pilot’s ready room, a rare survival, as only two other examples from the period are known to exist. The interior has been fully restored, with the duty officer ready and waiting behind his desk. Today it is a good place for some plane-spotting.
Other intriguing buildings that survive include the fuel store, which is roofless and has blast doors and buttressed walls – all designed to send explosions upward in the event of an accident. For the same reason, the neighbouring ammunition store has a lightweight roof and is roughly 80% below ground.
English Heritage has designated Stow Maries a Grade II-listed site. As well as those already mentioned, there are other buildings you can visit – including a blacksmith’s workshop and an ambulance shed – and some you cannot, such as the accommodation block, which may be reopened in the future.
Whether it does or not, this is a unique set of buildings, whose many restorations, artefacts, and replicas are well worth visiting.
Stow Maries Great War Aerodrome Hackmans Lane, Purleigh, Maldon, Essex, CM3 6RN www.stowmaries.org.uk +44 (0) 1245 322644 (Mon-Fri), +44 (0) 1245 429134 (Sat, Sun)