Trail 25 – Hertfordshire

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, its-self an ex World War II 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

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The Hunsdon Village sign reflects its history and links to the RAF.

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.

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The Parachute store now holds farm machinery.

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.

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Pill boxes of various types, line the perimeter of the airfield.

On February 18th that year, 19 Mosquitos including a photo reconnaissance 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 Mosquitoes 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*2.

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.

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Remnants of the main runway looking West.

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 archaeological examples but again best in the winter when crops and weeds are minimal.

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An air-raid shelter no longer covered with soil.

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), 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.

*2 There is further information and personal stories about Tubinlite operations on RAF 23 Squadron, and they can be found here:

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 Sqn’s 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 guard block is 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 guard house. 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.

Whilst in the area, a third,  very important and still active airfield, can be found not far away at North Weald.

North Weald (Essex)

An ex Second World War airfield, it has a delightful memorial and Museum housed in one of the original buildings. I won’t say too much about North Weald at this stage as the museum was sadly closed on the day I visited and so I will update this trail once I have had the privilege of going. However, North Weald is home to a number of aircraft that regularly perform at airshows around the country, and visits here can often lead to sightings of these aircraft on or around the airfield. A Number of hangars store these aircraft many of which are visible from the surrounding roads. Obviously as an active airfield there are tight restrictions on access and it is recommended that you check prior to going what this access is. For information about the museum, opening times etc click here.

Sources and links:

For more information about Turbinlite see Wikipedia

For a detailed history of Hunsdon and Sawbridgeworth with personal stories and a comprehensive collection of photographs click here:

For information on building the memorials at Hunsdon and Sawbridgeworth visit Hertfordshire Airfields Memorial Group website.

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