In this trail we head to the south once more, to the west of Harlow and to two wartime airfields, one of which played a major part in striking a blow at the very heart of the Nazi regime.
Hertfordshire is an area rich in commuters to both London and the technological towns of Harlow and Bishops Stortford. Being north of London, it is also close to Stansted airport, another ex World War 2 airfield.
It has some beautiful countryside, delightful little villages and quaint country pubs. It is also an area with a wealth of history.
Our first stop is a small airfield nestled in the heart of the beautiful Hertfordshire countryside behind the village that gives it its name, RAF Hunsdon.
RAF Hunsdon was built between October 1940 and March 1941, it was a constructed with two concrete runways, one N/S initially of 1,250 (extended to 1,450 yds) and the main E/W of 1,450 yds (also extended by a further 300 yds). Aircraft dispersals amounted to 18 hardstands, 16 Blister hangars around the perimeter, a Bellman Hangar, fuel dump and accommodation for up to 440 airmen and about 270 WAAFs, in 8 dispersed sites.
Hunsdon is within a stones throw of London and its main role was that of night fighter operations. A number of operational units (in excess of 25) would pass though it doors during it relatively short life, including: 3, 21, 29, 85, 151, 154, 157, 264, 287, 409 (RCAF), 410 (RCAF), 418 (RCAF), 442, (RCAF), 464 (RAAF), 487 (RNZAF), 488 (RNZAF), 501, 515, 530 (initially 1451 Turbinlite flight), and 611sqn, providing Hunsdon with a multinational mixture of crews.
The first unit to arrive was that of 85 sqn with Douglas Havocs IIs, followed by Mosquitos II, XV and XIIs; other models to be seen at Hunsdon included: Hurricanes, Defiants, Beaufighters, and the Mustang to name but a few. 85 Squadron, which went on to a long and distinguished career, staying for two years from May 1941 to May 1943 before moving to West Malling where it continued its night fighter role. 85 sqn was eventually disbanded in 1990/91.
The first DH Mosquito, for which Hunsdon is most commonly known, arrived in 1943 with Mosquito VIs. Around this point, the Air Ministry decided to form a new wing designated 140 Wing RAF. This wing would consist of 21 Squadron (RAF), 464 squadron (RAAF) and 487 squadron (RNZAF) all based at Hunsdon and would be part of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF) designed to support troops in the forthcoming invasion.
Between 1944 and 1945 140 Wing would carry out a number of daring low-level bombing raids against key Gestapo buildings and prisons in occupied Europe. These famous raids were designed to free captive resistance fighters and destroy important Gestapo documents. Operation Carthage took place in Denmark and occurred whilst the wing was based at RAF Fersfield in 1945, but the first, Operation Jericho, was whilst they were based at Hunsdon in early 1944.
On February 18th that year, 19 Mosquitos including a photo reconnoissance model, led by Group Captain Percy C. Pickard (DSO and two bars, DFC), took off to attack, breech or destroy the walls and main building of the Amiens prison*1. A famously brave act, it resulted in the death of 3 crew members; G.Capt. Percy C. Pickard, and F. Lt. John A. Broadley, (RNZAF), both in Mosquito HX922, ‘EG-F’; and F. Lt. Richard W. Samson, (RNZAF) in Mosquito MM404, ‘SB-T’. Samson’s pilot, S. Ldr. A. I. McRitchie survived his crash and was taken as a prisoner of war. Two Typhoons escorting the Mosquitos also failed to return home. Considered a success at the time, evidence has since come to light to suggest that the operation was ‘unnecessary’ and may have failed to achieve anything more than a successful PR role.
A further significant role that Hunsdon was to take part in, was that of the Turbinlite Trials. These were relatively unsuccessful as aircraft operations, and were soon withdrawn as better radar equipped fighters were produced. The idea behind Turbinlite was to adapt an aircraft, initially the Havoc II, or Boston III with the fitting of a large 2,700 million candle searchlight to the front of the aircraft. These would then fly at night, locate enemy bombers whereupon escorting fighters would shoot them down. Several adaptations attempted to improve the ‘kill’ rate but to no avail. At Hunsdon, this unique method of fighter interception was carried out by 530 Sqn (initially 1451 Flight), who were formed on 8th September 1942. As one of ten Turbinlite squadrons, they did not last and were disbanded only four months later on 25th January 1943.
As the war progressed and the end was in sight, Hunsdon’s role changed to that of long-range fighter escort, all be it for a brief period. P-51 Mustangs would operate escorting bombers deep into enemy territory before the conflict finally ceased in 1945.
Hunsdon then closed to operational activity very quickly, being used to receive returning men and materials up until mid 1946 whereupon it was placed into Care and Maintenance and quickly ran down. The tower was demolished very soon after the war ended, and the site was returned to agriculture. In total, Hunsdon’s crews accounted for over 220 enemy aircraft destroyed or damaged – a remarkable feat in any squadron’s chapter.
Today Hunsdon remains one of the more accessible airfields of Britain. A number of public footpaths criss-cross its boundaries allowing unprecedented access to it. It is still an active site, a small microlight operation exists here and has done since 1997. Using three small grass runways it has brought life, in albeit a small part, back to this old wartime airfield.
The perimeter track and narrow sections of all its runways still exist today and can be walked using a variety of footpaths. Along these paths and off to the sides can still be seen examples of runway lighting, drainage, inspection covers and even a small number of buildings.
The parachute store is one of the most notable of these, used by the farmer for storage, it is located at the north-western side of the airfield near to the former admins site and where the tower would have stood before being torn down. Also near here is the fire tender shed, now home to the local shooting club, a number of latrines \ wash blocks can also be found hidden amongst the trees to the south-east. The battle headquarters rests nestled amongst the crops still watching over the site, and small defence trenches and shelters can be found to the north and again these are visible from public footpaths. A number of airfield defences buildings in the form of pill boxes and an Oakington style pillbox can also be found around the site.
Many of these examples are buried amongst the undergrowth and are most easily seen in winter when the thorns and vegetation are at their lowest. Careful searching will also reveal a number of minor archeological examples but again best in the winter when crops and weeds are minimal.
To the northern side of the airfield, next to where the microlight site is based, is a memorial to the crews of all nationalities who were based here all those years ago. Formed from a propeller boss of a Mosquito, it was donated to by the former Mosquito Museum (now de Havilland Aircraft Museum – Trail 5), it stands proud looking down what was the length of the secondary runway. A further memorial plaque can also be found on the wall of the village hall.
Hunsdon is a small site with a big history. It played a large part in trials of new innovations, carried out night intruder missions, and attacked with daring at low-level, at the very heart of the Gestapo. Hunsdon and its crews proudly earned their place in the annals of world history.
After walking Hunsdon we travel the short distance to the north-east to the outskirts of Bishop Stortford and a little known about airfield that is all but gone. We go to RAF Sawbridgeworth.
*1 – There is some debate as to the validity of the Amiens raid, one of the French Resistance fighters has now revealed his doubts, and that it may have been some propaganda or diversionary attack. A book has been written by author Simon Parry and historian Dr Jean-Pierre Ducellier entitled ‘The Amiens Raid – Secrets Revealed‘ and is published by Red Kite.