The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 6).

After considering the architecture of Britain’s airfields in Part 5, we turn to the hard surfaces, primarily the runways. Developed out of necessity, they created a steep learning curve for those involved in their construction. Many problems were found, many materials were tried, but ultimately they were built and even after their removal for hardcore, many have left scars in the tissue of the earth that remind us of their once massive presence.

Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands

In the pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. In the First World War, water logging and mud was an issue even for the small biplanes that filled the skies over Britain and  France. To overcome this, ash was spread over landing surfaces and to some degree successfully, but even though many local remedies were tried, it wouldn’t be taken seriously until the Second World War loomed.

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

Runways like this one at Glatton (Conington) remain in good condition and used by the local flying club.

At this point the typical airfield layout included up to four grass runways, one of 1,300 x 400 yards and three of 1,000 x 200 yards, many were even smaller. Bomber and Fighter Command, realising that not only would the new era of aircraft call for longer, hard runways on its airfields, but the need to maintain year round activity was essential if Britain was to defeat the Luftwaffe.

Both Fighter and Bomber Command pushed the Government to allow these to be developed, on the one hand Sir Hugh Dowding, fighting the corner for Fighter Command, pressed home the need for hard surfaces on his fighter airfields, whilst Sir Arthur Harris on the other, pushed for hard surfaces on his bomber airfields.

The entire process was lengthy and complex, and lacked in-depth, professional knowledge. The first hard ‘pavements’ later runways and taxi ways, being constructed based on road building techniques and knowledge. So before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine not only whether or not they were indeed needed, but if so, how they should be best constructed.

Initial steps in runway construction was started as early as 1937, where ‘flexible’ runways were constructed comprising layers of brick or stone covered with two further layers of tarmac and a coat of asphalt to seal the structure in. Concrete pavements, which proved to be much stronger were either 150 mm or 200 mm thick slabs laid directly onto the ground after the topsoil had been removed by heavy machinery. As would be expected, these early designs failed quite quickly under the heavy loads of the fighters and bombers that were coming into service. Rapid repairs were carried by adding a further layer of tarmac (6.5cm) and another layer (2cm) of sealant.

These early flexible constructions continued to fail whereas the concrete designs stood up to much more wear and tear and proved longer lasting. However, time was short and the learning curve would be steep.

The test to determine these needs was to take a Whitley bomber, laden to equal its full operational weight, and taxi it across a grassed surface.  A rather primitive assessment, it was intended to ascertain the effects of the aircraft on the ground beneath. Trials were first carried out at Farnborough and then Odiham, and these were generally successful, the Whitley only bogging down on recently disturbed soils. Further trials were then carried out at RAF Stradishall in March 1938, and the results were a little more mixed. Whilst no take offs or landings took place during these trials, the general agreement was that more powerful bombers would have no problems using grassed surfaces, as long as the ground was properly prepared and well maintained. All well and good when the soils were dry and well-drained.

By April 1939, the Air Ministry conceded, and agreed to lay runways at a small number of fighter and bomber airfields, of which Kenley, Biggin Hill, Debden and Stradishall were identified.  Whilst construction was slow, only two fighters airfields being completed by the outbreak of war, progress was finally being made.

These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, but were extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall in particular, would be further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.

RAF Charterhall

The runway at Charterhall in the borders, breaking up after many years of use both by training units and as a motor racing circuit post war.

During the early war years, the demand for airfields grew. By early 1940 the requirement was for three runways as close as possible at 60o to each other, and of a minimum length of 1,000 yards with room for extension up to 1,400 yards. This then became the norm by late 1940 especially at bomber airfields, with the main runway being 1,400 yards and subsidiaries at 1,100 yards. A month later, this increased by another 200 yards with a requirement to be able to extend to 2,000 and 1,400 yards respectively.

However, these short piecemeal responses were not sufficient and it was both a continual problem and a thorn in the side for the Air Ministry. Sir Arthur Harris, in raising his concerns for airfields belonging to Bomber Command, also pushed the need to develop good, long and reliable surfaces. He voiced his frustration in a vehement letter*6 to Lord Beaverbrook in 1941, In which he states:

“For twenty years everybody on the stations and the squadrons has been screaming for runways without avail.”

and he continues stressing the need for hard surfaces particularly in winter as:

“Through not having runways our effort will be seriously detracted from in normal winter conditions and reduced very probably to zero in abnormal winter conditions.”

He then goes on to state that Britain’s views were ‘blinkered’ saying that:

“Every other nation throughout the world has long been convinced of the necessity for runways…”

By the summer of 1941, the length of runways had again increased, all stations would now have a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards and where this was not possible, then a minimum of 1,600 and 1,100 yards (fighter and night fighter stations being shorter at 1,300 and 1,400 yards respectively).

The harsh winters were less than ideal for laying concrete (by far the best material for the job) but any delay could mean the difference between success and failure. Elaborate testing was therefore passed over, materials were laid and experience led the way. This method of trail and error, led to many instances of runways having to be dug up and relaid, this in itself led to problems as aircraft, men and machinery had to then be moved and housed elsewhere. The American Eighth Air Force suffered greatly with these problem, fully laden bombers repeatedly breaking through the surface or falling off the edges as it gave way.

Another consideration was that of training and satellite airfields. As the need for new pilots increased, the training of new recruits intensified. The harsh winters were causing major headaches for these airfields as mud, stones and other winter debris was causing continuous problems for flying. With both man power and materials being in short supply, suitable alternatives were sought.  A number of solutions were offered all very similar in their design and material.

The answer it seemed lay in steel matting – of which twelve different types were used – the more common being : Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT).

Sommerfeld track was a steel mat designed by Austrian Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with these other track types) were not only used commonly on training and satellite airfields, but also on Advanced and Forward Landing Grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy. In the build up to D-Day, 24 Advanced Landing Grounds in southern England were created using this form of Steel Matting,

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced; several records reporting tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

Because of the poor state and short length of runways, bombers were still regularly running off the ends, especially at night, or being unable to fly because the surfaces were poor or even unusable. A number of ideas were tested out to alleviate the problem, one such idea led to twenty sites testing arrester hook facilities. Several heavy bombers: Halifax, Manchester, Stirlings  and later the Lancaster,  were all modified to undertake these trials, with Woodhall Spa becoming the first airfield to have the full complement of six arrester sets.

Runway arrester gear

Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.

The idea was met with scepticism, but trials went ahead and in January 1942, a list of priority airfields was sent out to the Headquarters of No. 1,3,4, and 5 Groups RAF detailing those twenty sites selected for the equipment. At the top of the list was RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, followed by Bottesford, Swinderby, Ossington, Syerston, Middleton St. George, Linton, and ending with Waterbeach and Stradishall. By late 1942 Woodhall Spa was ready and in October, five landings were made by an Avro Manchester.  A month later the decision was made to install units at all major operational airfields, but this never came to fruition and the idea was soon mothballed. By 1943, it had been forgotten about and the 120 or so units built were scrapped (many being left buried where they were laid).

It was finally during early 1942 that a standard design airfield would be put in place. Known as the Class ‘A’, it would be the standard to which all new airfields and updated older sites would be made.

A Class A airfield would be designed around three hard concrete runways, shaped like an ‘A’ with each runway at 60o  to each other where possible. The main runway would be aligned with the prevailing wind again were possible to allow aircraft to take off/land into the wind as often as possible (north-east, south-west). In several cases, due to land features and local restrictions, this was not always possible, and so many permutations of design were seen as a result.

Rapidly becoming the largest part of the airfield layout, the runways and other paved areas – perimeters tracks, aprons and hardstands – were now given high priority. The standard now called for a main runway of 2,000 yards with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards. Each of these would be 50 yards wide whilst the connecting perimeter tracks would be 50 feet wide. Along side these runways would be an emergency landing strip, a grassed area given a landing surface of 400 and  200 yards respectively.

Dues to the high numbers of bombers returning badly damaged and unable to make safe and proper landings, a small number of emergency strips were created by extending the main runways to 4,000 yards long and 400 yards wide. One such airfield was RAF Manston in Kent. Being on of the closest airfields to the continent, it was often the first place a stricken aircraft, especially a bomber, would seek out.

Whilst the general layout of airfields did not change for the remainder of the war, some further runways were extended to 3,000 yards, one such example being RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk which was prepared to take the heavy B29 ‘Superfortress’ and post war, the B-36 ‘Peacemaker’.

A further point worth mentioning here is that of dispersals, not required pre-war, they were also an aspect of airfield architecture that were born out of the Second World War. In the inter-war years, aircraft were housed either on a central pan (apron or ramp) or within hangars. These collections of aircraft were easy targets and even a small amount of munitions could cause huge damage. In 1939 the need for dispersals was therefore recognised and so to address the issue, hedges were removed and tracks created that took aircraft away from the main runway but kept them within easy reach of the airfield site. The initial design was that of the ‘frying pan’ a 150 ft circle connected to the perimeter track by a small concrete track.

However, by 1942, it was found that aircraft were clogging up these tracks, some even ‘falling off’ the concrete onto soft soil and so blocking following aircraft in their tracks. The answer was the ‘spectacle’ or ‘loop’ hardstand, so-called by their oval shape, generally in pairs, that allow aircraft in and out without the need to turn or block access tracks. From 1942 onward, this model became the standard hardstand for all Class A airfields, and the aim was to have 50 such hardstands placed strategically around the perimeter, with 25 at satellite airfields. As the threat of attack diminished toward the end of the war, ‘finger’ or ‘star’ dispersals began to appear, much less effective than the predecessors, they were however cheaper and easier to construct.

RAF Milfield

Unusual as many training airfields didn’t have aircraft pans, RAF Millfield, in the borders, had several

In addition to hardstands, pens were built on fighter stations. The first, an experimental pit, was dug at Feltwell, whilst overly expensive and obtrusive, it did lead the way to aircraft pens later on, pens that were developed as either type ‘B’ or ‘E’  on these fighter airfields. The main difference here is that the early type ‘B’ had cranked side walls whereas the ‘E’ had walls that were straight. The former requiring more space, was later phased out in favour of the ‘E’, named so by its shape, using side and back walls to protect the fighter or small bomber located within.

Remains of Type 'B' fighter Pen

The remains of a Type ‘B’ Fighter Pen at Matlaske.

RAF Macmerry

A Type ‘B’ Pen at RAF Macmerry. The cranked wall can be seen to the right, with the central wall on the left. The entrance is to the bottom right.

Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) and Macmerry in Scotland, whilst the type ‘E’ were found on airfields especially those around London that included Biggin HiIl, Kenley and North Weald.

Kingscliffe airfield

One of the ‘E’ type pens found at Kings Cliffe. Adapted with rifle slits for additional defence.

These pens were designed to specific dimensions and were designed as either a ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Blenheim’ to accommodate either a single engined or twin-engined aircraft. Within the back wall of these pens was a shelter for up to 25 personnel, and in some cases, they had Stanton Shelters built-in to the structures. Some, for example, at Kings Cliffe in Northampton, remain with rifle slits for additional protection from ground forces.

King's Cliffe airfield

Inside the aircraft pen shelter at King’s Cliffe.

Whilst the majority of these shelters were manufactured using banks of soil, sandbags, brick or concrete, there was a least one example at RAF Drem, in Scotland which used logs cut to size and shape and built in the style of a Scandinavian house. It is these various designs of aircraft pen that paved the way to modern hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) seen on military airfields today.

From the early days of grass runways to the massive lengths of concrete that were created up to and after the mid 1940s, runways and hardstands have become a defining factor in airfield design. The sole purpose of an airfield – to get aircraft off the ground as quickly as possible, get them to their target and them get them home again – led to the development of both runway lengths and construction materials, much of which has paved the way for modern airfields today. These early leaps into runway designs have enabled larger and heavier aircraft to make those important journeys that we very much take for granted in this the modern world of air travel and general aviation.

In the next section we look at one of the buildings most associated with the airfield. An early form of aircraft storage, its role changed as it was soon realised that aircraft needed to be dispersed and not grouped together on large aprons as they were in the prewar era. Aesthetics and neatly lined up aircraft were no longer an important factor in front line flying, but safety and the ability to repair aircraft quickly and efficiently were. Here we introduce the hangar, a huge building often of a temporary or transportable nature, that became one of the more longer lasting structures of airfield architecture.

Sources and further reading. 

*6 Letter from Arthur Harris to Lord Beaverbrook, February 1941 – AIR 19/492 – National Archives

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A Happy New Year!

As 2015 fades away I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you who has visited, followed, liked, reblogged, commented and generally supported “Aviation Trails” during the last year. Without you, it would not be the site it is today.

It has certainly grown over the last year and taken on a new dimension. Investment in research material has enabled much longer posts and more personal information to be included, something that I know many people like to see. Not only do ‘we’ as enthusiasts, historical ‘writers’, modellers, relations of veterans etc. preserve our common history, but openly promote and educate others through the writing we do.

I believe it is important to remember what went on, the sacrifice and dedication to freedom, and if I can go a small way to helping that then it has all been worthwhile.

I have been inspired to take up old hobbies, learnt about aspects of military and natural history that I had never heard of, found new places in the world and been a part of a group of people who share the desire to learn, educate and inform others. It has been a wonderful year.

The tally of airfields I have visited is now around 75, double what it was this time last year. I have walked in the footsteps of famous people like Guy Gibson, Glenn Miller and Joe Kennedy, stood where important and famous missions have been planned and executed, trodden the very ground where so many young men and women served their country, many thousands giving the ultimate sacrifice.

It has been a most humbling experience.

So to each and every one of you, a heartfelt thank you, and here’s to a happy, peaceful and rewarding 2016.

RAF King’s Cliffe – buildings not recommended for listing.

A recent assessment of the remaining buildings on the former RAF King’s Cliffe airfield, Northamptonshire, has not proven to be as positive as one had hoped for. The result could open the door to future development of the site and ultimately the permanent loss of these buildings as a result.

Oakington Pillbox Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

One of the rarer Oakington Pillboxes deemed not to be of Historical interest.

King’s Cliffe (originally visited in Trail 6) was the station for a number of RAF and USAAF units flying P-38s and P-51s amongst them . They operated as fighter escort for the heavy bombers of the Eighth, seeking out targets of opportunity, particularly enemy locomotives, as enemy fighters reduced in numbers. It was also the site of Glenn Miller’s final hangar concert, for which a memorial has been erected on the base of the hanger structure.

Closed post war, it was returned to agriculture, and the runways removed for hardcore. A few buildings still remain including: aircraft pens, pillboxes, the Battle headquarters and a rather dilapidated watch office. Away from the airfield site, the chapel and other small accommodation buildings survive in modern use. King’s Cliffe has certainly taken its share of post war degradation.

This survey was initiated following the successful planing application made for Jacks Green; the area to the southern side of the airfield around the Glenn Miller Memorial. This application has been granted (see here and the media reports here), and development is due to proceed. This combined with the findings of the survey by Historic England, won’t help the long-term future of King’s Cliffe’s buildings, and it may have further implications for the preservation of the site as a whole.

Historic England,  submitted their report to the Secretary of State who has deemed that the remaining buildings, including those mentioned, are not suitable for classification as “historically significant” and therefore will not be added to the list of  Buildings of Historical interest and so ‘listed’.

 Under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic interest; buildings that are deemed to be significant in terms of their architecture, historical importance or rarity, can be classified.

The full report can be accessed via the Historical England Website, but the key points they highlight are thus:

1. The Watch Office:

The report highlights the fact that of the 18 different models constructed, there are 220 examples still surviving today,  with many of them surviving in a better condition.

At King’s Cliffe the watch office (type Watch Office for Night Fighter Stations FCW4514) is a windowless shell, with some of its internal walls demolished and its balcony rails missing. There are no internal features. It is a poignant and dramatic ruin, but its condition precludes designation.

2. The Battle Headquarters:

At the time of the survey, the building was flooded and so access was inhibited, but it is thought that it is unlikely to contain anything of historical or architectural significance. Again Historic England state that there are better preserved examples on other sites around the UK.

The report states:

At King’s Cliffe, much of the essential wartime context has been lost with the removal of its runways and hangers. Moreover, the interior of the structure, which is flooded currently and effectively inaccessible, is unlikely to retain fixtures and fittings of interest. Together, these considerations mean that King’s Cliffe’s Battle HQ cannot be recommended as an addition to the List.

3. Fighter Pens:

Built to protect fighters and crews from attack, with soil mounds, brick walls and protectives rifle slits, there are a variety of these structures surviving today around the UK. More significant examples can be found at Battle of Britain airfields for example, and whilst those at King’s Cliffe were important, they are in mixed condition and according to the report, not of significant value.

The report states:

Elsewhere, however, the pens are very degraded or part demolished. The fact that only a proportion of the fighter pens survival relatively well as an ensemble, and that much of the essential wartime context has been lost with the removal of the runways and hangers, means that King’s Cliffe’s fighter pens cannot be recommended as additions to the List.

4. Pillboxes:

There are a small quantity of pillboxes around the airfield site and these represent a minute number of the 28,000 constructed in defence of the UK. Rarer examples are more likely to be selected for listing than the more common examples. Those found at King’s Cliffe are the Oakington style, a rarer model of which only 61 have been recorded by the English Heritage Monuments Protection Programme. Some of these have since been demolished and so an even smaller number exist today. However, “a high degree of selectivity” was used as a basis for the decision.

While the three examples at King’s Cliffe are also of undoubted interest, and generally survive in relatively good condition, a high degree of selectivity must be deployed when assessing structures of this late date. The loss of so many key components of the wartime airfield compromises their historic context and argues against recommending them for designation.

The conclusion of this report, states that the decision not to recommend listing these buildings is down to three primary points:

1. The fact there the buildings are in poor condition,
2. The fact that they are not ‘rare’ and,
3. The fact that because the other major features, (runways and hangars) have been removed, they are not significant in ‘Group Value’.

This decision is not surprising, but the wording suggests that any airfield with no runway or hangars, is not likely to have its buildings listed for preservation unless they are either very rare or in very good condition. After 75 years, that is extremely unlikely.

This outcome means that any decision to demolish the buildings lays with the landowner, and whilst they have been in situ for the last 70 years or so, there is now no need to retain them in any form should they so wish.

Ultimately, these buildings could be removed for land development, or agriculture use, meaning they would then be lost forever. That would leave the two small memorials as the only significant reminders of the King’s Cliffe site.

The full report can be accessed via the link below, which gives a detailed explanation for the decision. The annex of the report will be published on the Heritage Gateway website.

www.historicengland.org.uk case number 1426070

Anyone who wishes to challenge this decision can do so within 28 days with a request that the decision be reviewed in light of further evidence or because of irregularities in the process, full details are available through the link below. A form is available through this link, with appropriate guidance for completion. Both downloadable from the ‘Reviews of Listing Decisions’ page.

https://www.gov.uk/how-to-challenge-our-decision-to-list-or-not-list-a-building

If you are unable to access the website please contact:

The Listing Review Officer
Heritage Protection Branch
Culture Team
Department for Culture Media and Sport
4th Floor
100 Parliament Street
London
SW1A 2BQ

My thanks to Sandra Beale for forwarding this information.

King’s Cliffe planning application gets approval.

Earlier this year, we highlighted the planning application put forward by Philip Ashton-Jones the current land owner of Jack’s Green on the former RAF King’s Cliffe airfield, in Northampton.

An online petition raised over 300 objections to the application. These came  from: supporters of Glenn Miller, aviation enthusiasts, wildlife groups and local people alike, who all highlighted concerns over the proposed development of the site and the impact it may have. At an initial meeting in September this year, the council failed to come to any overall decision as they needed to consider further reports from interested parties.  At a second meeting held on Wednesday 14th October,  after considering all the issues raised, East Northamptonshire Council approved the plans and so 55 holiday homes will now be built on Jack’s Green.

Whilst concerns were raised over the memorial that currently stands on the actual base of the hangar where Glenn Miller performed his last hangar concert, the land owner Philip Ashton-Jones, stated at the meeting that the memorial would remain “exactly as it is today”.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

The Memorial to Glenn Miller taken in December 2014. Jack’s Green is the area behind.

RAF King’s Cliffe is a large site, which is now primarily agriculture. It still contains a few buildings from the Second World War and a large memorial to those who served here during this time. Jack’s Green, is part of the larger woodland used by walkers, horse riders and nature lovers.

East Northampton’s decision is in line with many decisions being made by local authorities. Land is at a premium, and whilst this is not essential housing by any stretch, it is not a surprising decision in today’s climate.

Let’s hope Mr Ashton-Jones keeps to his word and this historical place is protected.

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here. (This may only be available for a limited time.)

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

As Heard on the BBC: RAF Kings Cliffe – Time is Running Out!

We recently published a post highlighting the proposed development of the former RAF Kings Cliffe airfield (Trail 6), and in particular the Glenn Miller Memorial located at Jack’s Green, which is part of Rockingham Forest in Northamptonshire, England (post 6/1/15).

IMG_2285

The memorial and hangar base where Maj. Glenn Miller played his last hangar concert on 3rd October 1944.

The proposal, by the land owner/developer, Philip Ashton-Jones, states that a ‘caravan site’ with access and associated buildings would be built on part of the former airfield. This outlined plan includes the location of the memorial on the hangar base where Maj. Glenn Miller performed his final hangar concert (3rd October 1944) before his mysterious disappearance over the English Channel in December that year.

Whilst promoting the issue, Marcella, contacted John Griff at BBC Northants, who in turn asked for an interview on the Stuart Linnell Breakfast Show. Living in the U.S., this would prove interesting as there is a time difference of 5 hours. However, a suitable time was agreed and arrangements made for a pre-recorded rather than live interview.

The proposal has, unsurprisingly, been met with resistance from the local community. Some of the issues include: impact on local property and the current roads around Kings Cliffe which pass a quarry and lead to the back of Kings Cliffe village. The roads are very narrow, and unsuitable for high levels of traffic. The area is relatively high up and gives great views of the surrounding countryside, a reason why it is used by walkers, horse riders, cyclists etc. Furthermore, there is a wide range of wildlife including a herd of  deer that roam freely through the forest – it is indeed an idyllic area of pristine and natural beauty.

Of course there is the NIMBY aspect, no one wants a holiday village in their back garden. There are fears of ‘development creep’ and damage to the local finely balanced ecosystem. To Aviation Trails, it is not only the environment, but it the future of the Glenn Miller Memorial that is at stake, as are the remains of the airfield where so many brave young men, who gave the ultimate sacrifice, flew from during the Second World War.

The BBC broadcast both sides of the debate, including an interview with the landowner/developer, Mr. Philip Ashton-Jones, who slipped into admitting it was not caravans but 55 ‘luxury lodges’ that are being proposed. This was one of several ‘suspicious’ actions, along with the time at which the planning application was made public (i.e. prior to the Christmas holiday when the planning offices were closed), that caused some concern. This action reduced the amount of time objectors had to raise their concerns.

We feel these issues and the memorial in particular, are an important part of our shared British and American history. RAF Kings Cliffe comes from an era that changed the world, and Maj. Glenn Miller was a man whose musical talents helped shape and develop popular music for years to come.

These ancient forests are now delicate ecosystems, the memorials, rapidly disappearing monuments to past generations and Anglo-American heritage. Both need protection from permanent and sustained damage.

The BBC site has the various interviews available through their website, (links are valid for 30 days from the 9th February 2015 – but may be available on archives). They are for entire shows, but we have noted the timings of the relevant parts.

The BBC news website article can be found here.

A facebook page here, anyone can access this.

The radio interview with Marcella can be found here at 1:39:20

The interview with Ian Sharpe and Mr Philip Ashton-Jones can be found here at 2:39:15

A further report from the site can be found here on the John Griff show at 1:15:30

A big thanks also goes to my good friend, Kevin Fleckner, who wrote in support of the memorial.

As an additional note, there is also talk of development on the nearby RAF Deenethorpe site, another Northampton historical site likely to disappear. See the BBC report here.

Andy Laing and Marcella Beaudreau

Kings Cliffe under threat!

Following my recent revisit to RAF Kings Cliffe (Trail 6) I have been contacted by a reader who informs me that there is a planning application in to change the site to a caravan and camping site.

The application will utilise the site of the T2 hanger used by Miller for his final hangar concert in October 1944 and the memorial that now stands there. Details and photos of the site are in the trail update.

In the application, there is no reference to maintaining or preserving this memorial or any of the few remaining buildings that exist on this site.

This application was placed just prior to Christmas and so the offices have been shut for a large part of the holiday.

This is an area of natural beauty, used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders, not to mention visitors to the memorial. The roads are narrow and the surrounding villages are beautiful.

From an aviation point of view, Kings Cliffe is an historical site and is yet another example of world history being developed with little or no regard to its significance.

If you wish to see this application, it can be found on the East Northants Website application reference 14/02225/FUL. Linked below – The closing date for any objections is January 12th 2015.

http://pawebsrv.east-northamptonshire.gov.uk/online-applications/applicationDetails.do?activeTab=summary&keyVal=NFDYXIGO03N00 or google ’14/02225/FUL’

Thank you
Andy.

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‘In the Mood’ for aviation nostalgia?

Taking advantage of the winter sun and nearby location, I decided to take a short visit to one of the earlier trails and see how things had changed. Being a different time of year too, perhaps the buildings I saw would now be less obscured. I also thought that the initial trails were lacking and needed a little ‘historical substance’.

Whilst not wanting to lose sight of the idea behind the blog, I felt a little extra would not go amiss. Hearing about a memorial that I had missed earlier, I braved the late December air, donned coat, hat and scarf and set off to Kings Cliffe, in the top corner of Northamptonshire – land of Fighter squadrons and the last hangar concert performed by Major Glenn Miller.

RAF Kings Cliffe (Station 367)

(Revisited and updated December 2014)

DSC_0169

The Memorial at Kings Cliffe.

Unlike the other airfields in the tour, Kings Cliffe was a fighter airfield. Pass through the village from the south, out the other side, under the odd twin-arched bridge and then right. A few hundred yards along and the airfield is now on your right hand side. The memorial is here, flanked by the two flags. It is a more elaborate memorial than some, being made with the wing of a Spitfire on one side and the wing of a Mustang on the other. Various squadron badges are etched into the stone and as the weather takes it’s toll, these are gradually disappearing.

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Protected aircraft pen, with ‘dual skin’ defences on three sides. A number of these litter the site.

Over its life, Kings Cliffe would have a number of fighter units grace it skies. Built in 1943, it would receive its first squadron late that same year when P-39 Airacobras of Duxford’s 347th FS (350th FG) were temporarily based here. A short spell they would soon leave and be replaced with another short-term unit.

The following January, the 347th left and three squadrons: the 61st (code HV), 62nd (code LM) and the 63rd (code UN) of the 56th FG arrived from the U.S. This group fell under the command of the 67th Fighter Wing, Eighth Air Force. Redesignated the 56th FG in the previous May, they were initially given P-47s and continued to train at Kings Cliffe for fighter operations until moving on the 4th/6th April 1943 to Horsham St Faith, Norfolk. A few days later on 13th April 1943, they undertook their first operational sortie. Over the next two years the 56th FG would become famous for the highest number of destroyed aircraft of any fighter unit of the entire Eighth Airforce. A remarkable feat.

Littlefriends.co.uk

Pilots of the 77th FS, at Kings Cliffe 1944-45*1

After the 56th left Kings Cliffe, three more squadrons arrived. In August that year, the 20th FG arrived with their P-38 Lightnings. The 55th (code KI), 77th (code LC) and the 79th (code MC), would fall under the umbrella of the 67th Fighter Wing, Eighth Airforce.

After a spell of renaming, aircraft changes and training, their arrival at Kings Cliffe would see a period of stability for the 20th. Initial operations started in December that year, and their primary role would be to escort bombers over Europe, a role it maintained until the cessation of conflict. Targets of opportunity were often found whilst on these missions, but toward the end of the war, with fighter cover becoming less of an issue, dive bombing and ground attack missions became more common place. Their black and white chequered markings became feared by airfields, barracks and in particular trains as they became known as the “Loco Group” for their high number of locomotive attacks.

Oakington Pillbox Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Oakington Pillbox, found in pairs, they offer a 360 degree field of fire.

On April 8th 1944, the 20th attacked an airfield in Germany, action for which they received a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC). They would later take part in the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Garden, and air cover in the Battle of Bulge. In July 1944 they converted to P-51s and continued to escort bombers and search out targets of opportunity until the war closed. In the following October 1945, they returned to the U.S. and Kings Cliffe was returned to RAF ownership. The RAF would use it as a storage depot until selling it off in 1959. Its runways were dug up for hardcore, the buildings demolished and the site finally returned to agriculture.

Kings Cliffe December 2014 Draincover

Drainage covers and pipes adorn the remains of the runway.

Whilst standing at the memorial, it is difficult to imagine any of the activity that occurred here all those years ago. However, behind the memorial you can see a number of brick defence buildings enshrouded in trees and bushes. Move along the road to your right and there is the main gate. Stating that it is an airfield, it doesn’t encourage entrance. However, walk or drive a little further and there is a bridal way that allows access to the site. Walking along around the edge of the airfield, you can see hidden amongst the thorn bushes  an Oakington Pill box. Found in pairs and common in this area, they offer a 360 degree view of the site. The second of the pair is  short distance away in the middle of the field and more visible to the viewer. Also round here are three protected dispersal pens. Each pen has a double skin, in other words, an outside loop holed wall for firing through and an inner wall to protect air and ground crews in the event of an attack. There are a handful of other ancillary buildings here, all of which can be accessed with careful treading. A considerable number of these exist close to the road and path, so extensive travelling or trespass is not required for the more ‘informal’ investigation.

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Inside the Shelter.

Walking further along the path, you pass a large clump of trees heading of in an easterly direction. These mark the line of the east-west runway. Whilst the runway has gone, evidence of its existence can be found. A drainage channel, numerous pieces of drainage material and grates can be found amongst the remains of hardcore.

The path continues in a southerly direction away from the main part of the airfield, and a better option may be to return to the car and drive along to a different part of the site.

If you return through Kings Cliffe, bear left and through the small but gorgeous village of Apethorpe. Continue on and you’ll see a footpath that goes through the woods. Park here and walk through the woods. A couple of miles in and you come across a large open space, to your left is a distinguished memorial to Glenn Miller.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Memorial to Glenn Miller’s final hangar concert, 3rd October 1944.

The memorial is located on the site of the original T2 hangar, quite a distance away from the main airfield. It was here that Miller performed his final hangar concert on October 3rd 1944. Standing here in the wintry air listening to ‘In the Mood’, is a surreal experience. To think that, on this spot 70 years ago, this very tune was performed by Miller himself; whilst young couples jitterbugged the evening away – a brief respite from the wartime tragedies that dominated their daily lives.

Leaving here, back to the track, you come across a footpath that takes you north, toward the main airfield before veering off and away to the west.

This path provides what is probably the nearest access point to the tower, as it crosses the track that joins the perimeter near to the towers location. The control tower still stands, but access from the path is over private land and should be undertaken with the land owner’s permission.

A final car trip back to the north side of the airfield reveals evidence of the accommodation blocks. The cinema, Gymnasium and chapel along with some other communal buildings still stand and in use by local timber companies. Well preserved, they are easily accessible and offer a good view to anyone aiming to find evidence of Kings Cliff’s history.

Kings Cliffe December 2014 Chapel with gym

Gymnasium and Chapel now used by a timber company.

Like many sites of it’s age, the majority of Kings Cliffe’s buildings are overgrown, indeed entering them you can see how the roofs have become detached in many cases, and mature trees now the only inhabitants where personnel once stood.

The main part of the airfield is agriculture, and it can be seen from further back, why this site was chosen as the views across the landscape toward Peterborough and the south are stunning. A remarkable place, it offers good evidence, nostalgia and beautiful walks into the bargain.

Overgrown buildings

Overgrown buildings

Kings Cliffe concludes this tour, however, if you return back along the road to the village of Kings Cliffe, turn right away from the village, you will eventually find yourself sitting opposite one of the crash exits of RAF Wittering, the main station to which Kings Cliffe was built as a satellite. Also along here, is a remnant of RAF Collyweston, an airfield absorbed into RAF Wittering at the end of the war when it expanded ready for the V – force bomber aircraft and later the Harriers. Now closed to flying due to government cutbacks, it houses an army detachment and a small RAF detachment for maintenance duties only.

Much of the evidence from the American participation in the Air War of the Second World War has now disappeared, being swallowed up by natures determination to regain what was originally hers. Agriculture and small businesses have clung on to the remainder, leaving little to see. In some ways, and I touched on this earlier, the fact that peace has now taken over what were bustling camps of 3000+ personnel, the roar of four engined bombers laden with high explosives or troop carriers taking scared young men to the killing fields of Europe, is a reflection on their bravery and dedication. These areas are simply peaceful now because of the men that served, lived and died here and whilst they are now gone, maybe their ghosts remain.

Kings Cliffe originally featured in Trail 6 ‘American Ghosts’.

*1 photo by Robert Derenbacker from ‘Little friends’ website http://www.littlefriends.co.uk