The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 2).

In this series of posts we look at the development of Britain’s airfields and how they developed over the years. We move on from Part 1, and the “Road to War”, to look at the Political response to Germany’s build up and the development of the airfield. We focus on the expansion period 1934-1939, and the political moves that helped shape the airfields that are found in Britain today.

The expansion period and airfield development.

In this, the expansion period 1934-39, airfield development would become a prime factor in the RAF’s own development.  The driving force behind this was the need to increase the numbers of front line aircraft, both fighters and bombers, if Britain was to be able to match Germany’s growing armed forces and her desires over Europe. To this end, a number of schemes were created, each one building upon the previous through  adaptation of technological development, design improvement and political pressure. A continuation of updating meant that the face of the British airfield would change considerably from 1934 to the end of the war in 1945. This development would then go on post war as the world entered the jet age and nuclear deterrent.

Whilst many of Britain’s original airfields dated back to the First World War, the vast majority had vanished, (of the original 301 only 45 remained and of these 17 were civil*2) the rest being sold cheaply in the reorganisation of the post war RAF. Of those that did remain, many were poorly kept, the permanent huts that had been built were in poor condition and flying surfaces totally inadequate for the heavier aircraft that were envisaged.  Many of these airfields were located around London (including Biggin Hill and North Weald) and were built on a clay subsoil, a soil that holds water and led to numerous accidents as aircraft landed badly. The RAF began to apply pressure on the Government, but with no real direction, there was little hope of achieving anything more than lip service.

RAF Museum Hendon

Early biplanes formed the backbone of the interwar years.

The Government finally realising that change was needed, formed a new department, whose role of executing these new plans it fell to. The Air Ministry Directorate General of Works (AMDGW) under the control of Ernest Holloway, oversaw the process with the new Air Ministries Aerodromes (later Airfield) Board, being responsible for identifying the new airfield. The Lands Branch of the Air Ministry would purchase the land, and then the construction, development and maintenance would be carried out under contract, by civilian organisations, to the Air Ministry.

This process took airfield design through a series of successive alphabetically listed schemes commencing with ‘A’ (not to be confused with Class ‘A’ airfields that emerged much later in 1942) progressing through to ‘M’. Due to the rapid changes in these designs though, not all were implemented, many being absorbed into subsequent models before they could be administered. The future development and expansion of the RAF would be built-in to these schemes, restricted initially by the monetary cost of such a plan. But the overall  aim would be to build the RAF up to full strength within eight years (1942).

The key to these designs was continuity and replication. By creating a series of standard design drawings for everything from latrines to heating systems, hangars and runways, airfields could be ‘mass produced’ with ease, saving both time and money, which was paramount if the RAF was to be ready for the forthcoming war.

In essence, these schemes increased targets for aircraft numbers, including training facilities and airfield design:*2,3,4

Scheme A – (adopted in July 1934) is the scheme that set the bench mark by which all future schemes would develop, and called for a front line total of 1,544 aircraft within the next five years. Of these, 1,252 would be allocated specifically for home defence. This scheme was responsible for bringing military aviation back to the north of England, Norfolk and Suffolk, of which Marham (the first), Feltwell and Stradishall were among the first completed. These airfields were designed as “non-dispersed” (or compact) airfields, where all domestic sites were located close to the main airfield site, and not spread about the surrounding area as was common practice in war-time airfield designs. At this stage, the dangers of an air attack were not being wholeheartedly considered, and such an attack could have proven devastating if bombs had been accurately dropped. It was thought that by having personnel close by, airfields would run both economically and efficiently, and of course they could more easily be protected from ground forces.

Scheme ‘A’ would also introduce the idea of standard building designs, in which all new airfields (and older original airfields) would now be built to.

Scheme B – was never submitted to Government

Scheme C – adopted May 1935 following Hitler’s boast to Anthony Eden that the German Air Force had surpassed the RAF’s in number, a claim that has since been discounted. This would develop bomber bases within flying distance of Germany (notably Lincolnshire and Yorkshire), and proposed creating a further 70 bomber and 35 fighter squadrons accommodating 1,500 front line aircraft within two years.

Scheme D – was never submitted to Government

Scheme E – was never submitted to Government

Scheme F – replaced Scheme ‘C’ and was approved in March 1936. Scheme ‘F’ expanded the defence force, further increasing front line numbers to 1,736 with a foreseeable number of 2,500 by 1939. This scheme saw the creation of additional factories in close proximity to the already adopted car manufacturing plants in the industrial midlands. A move that was intended to assist with the supply of new aircraft and aircraft components. Such was the industrial output at this time that Aircraft Storage Units (ASU) had to be specially set up utilising land on already established Flying Training Schools. These ASU stations would be specifically created to assemble or disassemble aircraft for transport to fighter bases, either within or outside of Britain. Scheme ‘F’ would also create further new front line airfields, examples including: Debden, Upwood, Scampton and Dishforth, with further updating being implemented at previously built airfields.

Scheme G – was never submitted to Government

Scheme Hreached proposal at the end of 1936 and would have increased front line strength at the expense of the reserves, and so was rejected. It was at this point that the ADGB and associated bodies were split into the four aforementioned commands each headed by a Commander-in-Chief (CIC)

Scheme I – was not used

Scheme Jonly reached proposal, but would have provided the RAF with 2,400 front line aircraft. It was considered too expensive and rejected in lieu of Scheme ‘K’.

Scheme Kreached proposal in March 1938, but was considered too small following the German’s annexation of Austria. A further review was requested which accelerated the expansion, and was proposed a month later as Scheme ‘L’.

Scheme L – passed by the Government on 27th April 1938, it called upon industry to produce the maximum output possible over the next two years. Superseded by ‘M’ after the Munich crisis, new airfields included: Binbrook, Leeming, Middle Wallop, and Horsham St. Faith. This scheme required 2,373 front line aircraft in 152 squadrons, and focused on fighter Command; in particular, increasing the number of fighter pilot training units. Scheme ‘L’ also called for increased accommodation facilities to allow for this increase in trainee pilots, and it called for new RAF Hospitals, the first of which was at Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Scheme M – approved on 7th November 1938 and called for 2,550 front line aircraft by March 1942. Airfield examples included: Swanton Morley in Norfolk, Coningsby in Lincolnshire and West Malling in Kent. This scheme introduced the ‘J’ and ‘K’ hangars, implemented as part of austerity measures, one of the few permanent buildings now on site.

By the outbreak of war the RAF had a force that equalled less than half that of the Luftwaffe, Fighter Command possessing only 1,500 aircraft (less than was required under Scheme ‘F’), of which many were already outdated or inadequate. Bomber Command had 920 aircraft, but nothing was bigger than a twin-engined aircraft with limited capabilities.

RAF Museum Hendon

The RAF’s front line bombers were twin-engined with limited capability.

The four Commands created out of the ADGB were also undergoing dramatic change, with aircraft being distributed more appropriately and groups being formed to streamline operations. Whilst still far below the levels at which the Luftwaffe were operating, the RAF had over the last few years seen a major reconstruction process, both in terms of aircraft and airfield development, along with major changes in the Air Force’s structure.

As aircraft were designed to perform different duties, airfields within their commands would also differ in their operation and construction. Hangars or watch offices for example, would be designed but modified depending upon the nature of the airfield they were servicing. Standard buildings would be altered to suit the different needs of the different duties, and airfield design would take a change in direction, the non-dispersed site being discarded for the safer, but less efficient, dispersed site.

As the years progressed, further changes to airfield development would occur as new, larger and heavier aircraft were developed. The four engined heavies: Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster, determining new designs and new requirements. The entrance of the USAAF in the European theatre also played a part in airfield design and development, and by 1942, a new standard would be devised by which all future airfields would be built.

The Class ‘A’ airfield became the standard airfield design for bomber airfields, with many fighter airfields, training and temporary airfields remaining either as grass or using a form of steel matting. Twelve different types of matting were developed during the war, the most common being – Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT). The Class A was determined primarily by its runway layout and measures, formed around three intersecting runways at 60o to each other, the main was 2,000 yards long with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards, each 50 yards wide. An extension of 75 yards was provided alongside the runaway to allow for emergency landings. In addition, another grass strip clear of all obstacles was also provided, these measured 400 and 200 yards respectively.

The Class A would set the standard from now on, the British airfield was now a major geographical conurbation. They were now like small towns, with cinemas, gymnasiums and other recreational facilities, they had dispersed accommodation areas, technical sites, large aircraft maintenance sheds and hard runways that only a few years earlier were unheard of.

Each of these schemes brought new requirements for airfield designs; their layouts and buildings were changing almost as fast as aircraft development. The airfield had finally evolved.

In the next part we look at the way in which a site was chosen, the number of agencies involved and the criteria for airfield location.

Sources and further reading. 

*2 Smith, D.J., “Britain’s Military Airfields 1939-1945“, Patrick Stephens Limited, 1989

*3 “Norfolk Heritage Explorer pdf document published by Norfolk County Council – via  website accessed 2/1/18,

*4 Francis, P., et al, “Nine Thousand Miles of Concrete, Historic England in Conjunction with the Airfield Research Group (ARG). pdf document Published 15/1/16 via website accessed 2/1/18

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