The Period 1914 to 1945
In the years running up to the First World War the Island was used for army manoeuvres and camps appeared everywhere. When war started, due to the strategic importance of the Dockyard and Aerodrome, Sheppey became a restricted military zone. All residents were issued with a ‘passport’ which they had to produce to get on and off the Island. The Army and Royal Artillery defended the coast and Sheppey was nicknamed ‘Barbed Wire Island’. At Eastchurch the Royal Naval Air Service became the Royal Flying Corps and eventually in 1918, the RAF.
The war passed with little incident except for an air raid when a Zeppelin dropped 12 bombs on the village. These were very small and in effective, the only casualty being a small bird.
The main effect on the village was the loss of the young men who went off to war, never to return. The villagers erected the Lichgate at All Saints Church as a memorial to them.
During the inter war years the village continued to grow slowly as the railway and improved road transport allowed people to commute to work, both on the Island and as far as London. Increasing numbers of holidaymakers visited the Island, many to the holiday camps, which started off with tents but gradually changed to chalets and caravans. The aerodrome continued to develop and provide employment, becoming the Armament and Gunnery School in 1922 with various squadrons and units spending time here.
The great depression of the late 20’s and 30’s brought hardship to Sheppey and many unemployed were put into government work parties engaged on making up the roads.
In 1939 the start of the Second World War put Eastchurch squarely in the front line as various squadrons were temporarily based at the aerodrome. In March 1940, during the fall of France, some 1,300 Polish airmen were billeted on the camp. Spitfire and light bomber squadrons were based here in July and August 1940. With Eastchurch visibly overcrowded, the Luftwaffe Intelligence Service decreed the airfield a fighter base and promptly attacked it. The raid came on the opening of Eagle Day, 13th August 1940, when eighty-four bombers set out to bomb Eastchurch aerodrome. Fifty of the aircraft got through and did considerable damage. Five Blenheims and all six Spitfires of 266 Squadron were total wrecks. Twelve people were killed with a further 26 badly injured. The airfield was rendered totally unserviceable. Similar attacks occurred during the rest of August and into early September. Although made serviceable after each attack, the airfield was virtually abandoned after 2nd September and very little use made of its facilities. From mid 1942 the base was used as a forward operating airfield and several squadrons were based here for short periods. From late 1943 until the end of the war the base was used for various training purposes. For a short period after the end of the war the aerodrome was used as a camp for displaced persons then reduced to an inactive site in 1947. The whole aerodrome and base was relinquished to the Home Office in 1950 for the establishment of an ‘open’ prison; the first of its kind in Britain.