An airfield whose history remains secret.

This is the second airfield of Trail 25 which takes place in the Hertfordshire countryside. Even today, much of what went on here remains secret and little information about the people or its activities exists. However, its role in the both wars was significant.

RAF Sawbridgeworth

RAF Sawbridgeworth was originally constructed as an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) during April 1916. It was designed to take aircraft from 39 sqn, who were currently based at nearby North Weald. Activated initially to combat the Zeppelins from Germany, 39 sqn are currently based at RAF Waddington flying the MQ-9 Reaper against a much different enemy.

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Part of the Airfield defences.

It wasn’t until the Second World War, that RAF Sawbridgeworth  really came into its own as an operational airfield.

Mathams Wood ALG, as it was known, saw expansion in the early 1940s, more through luck than careful planning. Each of the three runways, were constructed of Summerfield tracking, and measured 1,700 yds, 1,400 yds and 900 yds in length.  The usual Drem lighting was installed adjacent the track rather than embedded as would be the usual case.

A number of buildings were requisitioned as aircraft were dispersed here following France’s fall in 1940. The ALG was expanded through local workers and Mathams Wood ALG took on the unofficial name RAF Sawbridgeworth after the village that stands close by.

The expansion of Sawbridgeworth also included a number of buildings: 16x Dorman Long (4630/42) blister hangars, a T2 hangar, a number of ‘Blenheim’ style aircraft pens and 8 dispersed sites primarily to the East of the airfield. A watch tower, fire tender station, hospital, grocery store, Link trainer, gymnasium and the usual accommodation blocks all added to the much bigger site than had been previously been designed.

grocery store

The former Grocery Store.

The first unit to be based here was that of 2 (AC) sqn flying Westland Lysander II and IIIs in the observational role. Performing primarily in this activity, 2 sqn later on used the Curtis Tomahawk I & II, followed shortly after by the Mustang I and eventually the IA. Other squadrons to be based here included: 4, 63, 80, 126, 168, 170, 182 , 239, 268 and 652 sqns primarily undertaking a PR role whilst here.  A number of other non-flying units performing the evacuation and redeployment of personnel were also stationed here.

2 Sqn were also heavily involved in the secret work of the Special Operations Execute (SOE) involved in dropping agents into occupied France. Much of the training of the aircrews took place at Sawbridgeworth, with practice flights using the famous ‘Black’ Lysanders. Even today, some 75 years later, these operations and the role of the photographic reconnaissance units, remain well hidden operations cloaked in secrecy.

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The perimeter track still remains, in full at some points.

Sawbridgeworth was not devoid of its own enemy attention. On September 19th 1940 a Heinkel III was shot down and crashed in nearby Thorley Wash, one of several crashes close by.

As the war drew to a close, so did the activity at Sawbridgeworth. Following the invasion of Normandy, and the subsequent liberation of Europe, all operational flying ceased in November 1944 and the site went into care and maintenance. The runways were pulled up using P.O.Ws and the tower was demolished a year after the cessation of conflict in 1945. Other buildings were removed or demolished and the land turned back to agriculture.

Wandering the site today, there is luckily still quite a bit of evidence about. The perimeter track is complete, not in its full width throughout, but a large proportion of it. A number of pill boxes remain scattered around the perimeter of the site and the Battle Headquarters (design 11008/41) can be found with determined searching amongst the brambles and hedgerows.

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The former Medical block, still largely intact.

To the west of the site is a small industrial complex utilising what was a ten-bed sick quarters, dental annexe, a twelve bed Barrack hut that doubled as a hospital ward, mortuary and an ambulance shed. An ablutions block is was also located here and the site is more or less complete. Not far from here, is a modern farm, which houses a number of smaller original buildings including a Parachute store (built to drawing 11137/41), fabric store, sub station, main stores and other technical buildings. These are all located on private land and in use by the farmer. There is also a signals block, located nearby to these sites and easily visible from the road.

Across to the east of the airfield, is whats left of the communal site. Here stood 33 buildings in total, incorporating a wide range of supporting units for recreation and general living. The only remaining buildings being the standby generator house and the grocery store. Both are used by local businesses.

Emergency generator

The Standby Generator House now a stores for machinery.

A memorial to those who served at Sawbridgeworth stands outside what was the hospital block. A recent addition, it is a nice reminder of the dedication of the crews who were stationed here during two world wars.

Sawbridgeworth is a small well hidden airfield and takes some finding. Hidden by woodland and crops, it was created through luck rather than good planning. The crews and aircraft of Sawbridgeworth played a considerable part in the Second World War, and all in its short but yet significant life.

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A memorial stands dedicated to those who served at Sawbridgeworth.

Sawbridgeworth features with its sister station RAF Hunsdon in Trail 25.

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6 thoughts on “An airfield whose history remains secret.

  1. One of the attractions near Nottingham is a walk or a cycle around. Rutland Water. Why don’t councils try this out for derelict airfields. Lots of people would enjoy a day’s wander around the countryside looking for all the surviving bits of an old airfield, especially if there were booklets to use to help them out. Another excellent blog post by the way, thanks a lot for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A brilliant idea John and one I would fully support. However, the majority of these places are all on private land and I suspect the process for establishing a public path across private land is somewhat complicated if not drawn out. Some luckily do have good pathways across them but these sadly are few and far between. The other point is that those more recently closed, or still in a state of relative completeness are prime building land – an unwinable situation. Many thanks for the kind comments they are appreciated as always.

      Like

  2. Excellent article, though I was surprised that some of the information after 75 years was still un-classified. Do they at least give a reason why they won’t reveal the content? Could it still be national security after so long?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not really. I can’t imagine national security is the reasons, – links with the current secret service perhaps. I didn’t delve too deeply to be fair, perhaps a little more on my part might have revealed more. Something for the back burner.

      Liked by 1 person

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