‘I’m only a cog’: The woman I met at Fairlop

Pilots of 164 Argentine-British squadron, based at Fairlop during the Second World War. Photo: David

Pilots of 164 Argentine-British squadron, based at Fairlop during the Second World War. Photo: David Kolody - Credit: David Kolody

In this week’s heritage column, David Martin of the Fairlop Heritage Group takes a look at the unsung heroes of the battle of Britain.

I once spoke to a woman at Fairlop, who said she had served in the RAF.

I asked what she did and she replied that she was only a cog.

Cogs are important. For a big machine to function correctly, everything must work, including the cogs.

A variety of trades are needed to keep an aircraft serviceable: armourers, instrument and airframe fitters, bowser drivers, engine mechanics and electricians.

Of equal importance are drivers, signal clerks, paymasters, and cooks. Everyone from a lowly clerk to the Squadron Leader needs to be paid and fed. Especially fed!

In Operation Record Books (ORB’s) at Fairlop, every pilot is named, including his nationality. Other Ranks are only mentioned if they are court marshalled, receive a bravery award or killed. In most cases the number, type and squadron codes of aircraft are also given.

Most Read

From 1941 to 1944, four types of single-engined fighters flew from Fairlop: Hurricanes, Mustangs, Spitfires and Typhoons. A similar number of other ranks (cogs) were needed to keep a fighter flying, regardless of type.

A documented move from Gatwick to Fairlop by 239 Squadron in 1943, gave the impetus to investigate further. All squadron personnel are mentioned. This information combined with research from other historians, reveals the ratio is likely to be, 12 personnel : 1 aircraft.

542 aircraft flew from Fairlop, making a total of 6,504 serving RAF personnel. Although records are incomplete, 341 personnel can be added for RAF Regiments and a Balloon Centre.

A grand total of 6,845.

When Fairlop was operational, it was deemed to be a satellite of Hornchurch and not an airfield in its own right. The records show thousands of sorties with some pilots enduring terrible deaths. Groundcrew worked to keep aircraft flying despite adverse weather, air raids and flying bombs.

They were all only a cog – just like the woman I met at Fairlop.