Tangmere was responsible for the defence of Portsmouth and Southampton and from the outset its squadrons were heavily engaged in combat with the enemy bombers and escorting fighters.
The first phase of the Battle lasted just over a month. Westhampnett (Goodwood) was brought into service as a satellite airfield and 602 Squadron arrived there in August with Spitfires. The second phase of the Battle started around this time: Germans turned against fighter and radar stations and Tangmere was ferociously attacked on 16 August 1940. During the Battle, squadrons from Tangmere sector were in the air on every day that the enemy attempted bombing raids on London.
Losses were alarming, planes could be replaced but experienced pilots could not. Success was not just measured in terms of enemy aircraft being destroyed but also of bombing raids being foiled and bombers being forced to turn for home before the raid. The pilots guarding the south east of England drove themselves to the limits of exhaustion, finally winning the Battle. The first American airman to die in the War was Billy Fiske, who died from his injuries after landing his damaged Hurricane at Tangmere.
Success in repelling German daytime raids owed much to ground controlled radar, which was used at Tangmere and all along the south coast.
Douglas Bader was in command of Tangmere’s Fighter Command for offensive operations over northern France. He lead them with characteristic aggression throughout the summer of 1941. He was flying from Tangmere when he was shot down over France and taken prisoner. With the struggle for the beach heads still in progress the Germans started to attack England with flying bombs – ‘doodle bugs’ to the public. Aircraft had to be detached from the invasion battle grounds to combat these. During the first 6 weeks Tangmere pilots shot down 199 of these pilotless flying bombs.
Tangmere was the principal operational base for a clandestine air service supporting those engaged in espionage and sabotage inside occupied Europe. A special division of Special Operations Executive (SOE) ferried agents and resistance leaders to and from the continent via Tangmere Cottage, conveniently located opposite the airfield entrance, behind a tall hedge. So secret even the station controllers didn’t know about it.
As war came to an end hundreds of prisoners of war from liberated camps were landed at Tangmere; for many it was the first sight of England for over 5 years.