RAF Macmerry – The darker side of war.

After visiting both RAF Drem and RAF East Fortune in Trail 42, we travel a few miles south, back to the A1 road where we visit another disused and almost lost RAF airfield. Initially used as a Landing Ground during the First World War, it struggled to become a fully fledged airfield but it did operate a small number of squadrons under RAF control. One of these squadrons had a rather sinister role to play and had Britain been invaded, then its name would no doubt be well-known and common place in history books today.

In Trail 51, we continue on in the south-eastern region of Scotland, not far from the historic city of Edinburgh, where we visit the former airfield RAF Macmerry.

RAF Macmerry (Tranent / Penston).

The former airfield at the small village of Macmerry is today split by the main A1 road, with the flying side of the airfield to the north and the technical and accommodation areas to the south. Sadly the active side has been completely removed and is now agricultural land, but on the technical and accommodation side there are fortunately still a small number of buildings remaining, albeit in private use today.

RAF Macmerry is located some 14 miles east of Edinburgh, its origins extend back to the First World War when it was known as Penston. Used by No. 77 Squadron who were initially based at Edinburgh, it was a Home Defence Landing Ground housing a squadron detachment until the entire unit moved over in April / May 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps became established as the Royal Air Force. No. 77 Sqn were well-known in the area, having detachments based at nearby Turnhouse and also at New Haggerston and Whiteburn. The squadron had been based at Edinburgh since October 1916 after moving there from Thetford in Norfolk, shortly after their inception. During their time at Penston, No. 77 Sqn operated a number of Royal Aircraft Factory types: the BE.2c, BE.2d and BE.2e, the BE.12 and BE.12b along with the D.H. 6 and RE. 8.

RAF Macmerry

One of many buildings that remain on the farm today.

Even though No. 77 Sqn moved into Penston full-time, they did retain a detachment at Whiteburn, an arrangement that continued until 13th June 1919, when the squadron (now Royal Air Force) was finally disbanded. No. 77 Squadron would go on to be reformed in 1937, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, but they would not return to their roots, and would never again appear at the airfield at Macmerry. After 77 Sqn’s departure from Penston, the RAF had no need for the site, and so the airfield was closed and the site sold off.

The 1920s and 30s then saw a short reprieve for Macmerry as aviation became fashionable. The Edinburgh Flying Club established itself here, and the Scottish Motor Traction (SMT) organisation put forward plans for a new major airport here at Macmerry. Established in 1905, the SMT was an established bus company who also provided an air taxi service flying a De Havilland Fox Moth between 18th July and 31st October 1932. Although these ambitious development plans never came to fruition, Macmerry (referred to as Edinburgh) was used for a short period between 1936 and 1939 for commercial air travel by North Eastern Airways.

North Eastern Airways (Copyright Bjorn Larsson)*1

After war broke out the RAF were looking to expand their airfields around the UK, and the border regions of Scotland were soon under the spotlight. The Air Ministry identified Macmerry and decided in July 1940, to rename Macmerry as Tranent after the nearby town. However, and even after the official requisition later on, this name change never appeared on any but a handful of official documents and the name Macmerry stuck.

It was around this time too that the Cunliffe-Owen company, a civilian aircraft manufacturing company, began operations at the airfield repairing Lockheed Hudson aircraft. Cunliffe-Owen was set up by the millionaire Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen on August 9th 1937 under the name of BOA Ltd, changing it later in 1938, to Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft. Utilising the First World War hangar at Eastleigh in the former county of Wessex, they would be famous for their investigations into the ‘Flying Wing’ project. Cunliffe-Owen also formed a contract with Lockheed Aircraft and began assembling Hudsons along with a large number of other American aircraft imported into the UK for RAF service.*2

On September 2nd 1940, No. 263 Squadron moved into RAF Drem, located about 6 miles north-east of here, and used Macmerry as a satellite airfield, even though the RAF had not officially taken over the site. Regardless of this, the Westland Whirlwinds they were flying, did occasionally use the airfield along with another satellite at Prestwick way off to the west.

In January 1941, Macmerry was officially requisitioned and would come under the control of 13 Group Fighter Command, with the first aircraft arriving very soon after. The Hurricane Mk.Is of 607 (County of Durham) Sqn would stop off here between January 16th and March 2nd 1941, before joining the main squadron also based at RAF Drem. No. 607 Sqn were veterans of the Battle of Britain, and would go on to be the first Squadron to operate the ‘Hurri’ bomber, a Hawker Hurricane fitted with bombs.

As they departed Macmerry, a second unit arrived, No. 614 (County of Glamorgan) Squadron, who were a pre-war squadron and would operate Lysander Mk.II and Mk.IIIs before replacing these with Blenheim IVs in July 1941. After a short spell away at Thruxton, No. 614 Sqn returned to Macmerry for a few days before departing for the final time at the end of August 1942. Flying with the squadron code ‘LJ’, it was these Lysanders that had a rather sinister role to play, and one that was perhaps unique along this coastline of Scotland.

Westland Lysander Mark III, ‘LJ-P’ of No. 614 Squadron RAF Macmerry, on a photographic-reconnaissance flight (IWM H 9183)

First impressions of Macmerry were not positive for crews, a small hangar and a flying control building were about all that greeted the men. There were no accommodation facilities and airmen were billeted in the homes of local families. Runways at this time were grass (1 x 1,500 yards and 2 x 1,200 yards), whilst the perimeter track was tarmac, a feature that would not change for the duration of the war.

By the summer months accommodation on the airfield was finally available (sufficient for around 1000 personnel of mixed rank and gender) and the whole of No. 614 Squadron moved into Macmerry. Work continued on the remainder of the airfield infrastructure, including six hardstands each holding two-twin engined aircraft in a ‘Blenheim’ style aircraft pen. Otherwise know as type ‘B’ (designed to drawing 7151/41) they had cranked sides and staggered entrances. Each of these had a shelter built into the revetment sufficient to hold 25 men. Eight Blister hangars and a T2 were also added at some point, along with a range of technical buildings.

Working under the control of the Royal Air Force Army Co-operation Command, No. 614 Sqn’s Lysanders were to monitor and patrol Scotland’s east coast, and in the event of an invasion, they were to contaminate the beaches with Gas (possibly Mustard Gas even though this was banned in the 1925 Geneva Protocol) using the vast stocks they had at Macmerry airfield. A lethal substance, it was never thankfully used and was disposed of later on. Much of the information about this has only recently come to light, but according to Operational Record Books*3 gas attacks were something that were rehearsed on many occasions.

Whilst No. 614 Sqn were based here at Macmerry, they performed regular operations with Army units, detachments from Macmerry flying to the Fleet Air Arm airfield at Arbroath where they would carry out photo reconnaissance, simulated dive bombing and these aforementioned gas laying operations. These operations (e.g. ‘FORFAR’, ‘HOPE’ and ‘JOHN’) were carried out in conjunction with various army divisions, with RAF support staff and  equipment (including Bowsers) being taken by road to the detachment airfield. In many cases, the crews and ground staff from Macmerry would be housed in tents supplied by the various army brigades and they would be fed by the Royal Navy, something that the more senior officials within the RAF wanted to stop.

During these exercises, Lysanders would drop messages to ‘message stations’, these message stations would be viable targets for the ‘enemy’ aircraft (bomber sorties being performed by other Lysanders, Spitfires or Miles Masters) and therefore the diligence of those inside was of the utmost importance. Following a review of the first of these operations, this key point was noted in the ORB, in which it was pointed out that  “…only intelligent men should be employed, and the same men, if possible, should do the duty on all occasions.

During August 1941 a detachment of Tomahawk IIA aircraft were to join No. 614 Sqn here at Macmerry. These aircraft were operating with No. 241 Sqn, who were primarily based at RAF Wattisham, but had detachments already at Snailwell, Henlow and Docking and now at Macmerry.

In March 1942 these Tomahawks were replaced by the North American P-51 Mustang Mk.I, an aircraft designed in response to the need for a long-range fighter with outstanding capabilities. Designed by a German born designer, Edgar Schmued, it would become one of, if not the, Second World War’s most successful fighters, especially after it had the Rolls Royce Merlin replace the weaker Allinson. As well as an increase in top speed of around 50 mph, it out performed the Allinson in all other categories including rate of climb and performance at altitude. By May 1942, No. 241 Sqn and their new Mustangs would all depart Macmerry for pastures new at Ayr. However, and not before too long, 241 Sqn would return to this part of the country, spending a short time at RAF Winfield in the border regions working in cooperation with 4th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery.

It was during May that No. 225 Sqn moved to Thruxton  whilst also having a detachment based here at Macmerry, and once again the Mustang Mk.I would be back in the skies over this small Scottish village. The entire squadron would move onto the airfield at the end of August and would stay until the end of October when they would depart for North Africa taking their Mustangs with them.

By late summer 1942, the accommodation, hangars and major facilities were all now complete and open, the site was now ‘modern’ and homely, engineer’s workshops, allowed for maintenance of the aircraft, and aircraft pens offered protection to both the airmen and aircraft in the case of Luftwaffe attack.

RAF Macmerry

One of the ‘B’ type aircraft pens surviving at Macmerry today. The brick structure to the right is the entrance to the built-in shelter.

By August 1942, No. 614 squadron were to pull out moving to RAF Odiham where they replaced their aircraft with Blenheim Vs. Their place at Macmerry being taken by No.13 Sqn flying Blenheim IVs. Their stay would, like many of their predecessors, be a short one, another ex Lysander user, they only stayed here for about 10 days before they too moved off to Odiham and onto North Africa.

The November would then see the last operational flying until arrive at Macmerry, and they would be the longest-serving unit to stay here. At the end of November, on the 21st, No. 63 squadron would arrive bringing  with them further Mustang Mk.Is. The main block of the squadron would operate from Macmerry whilst detachments would be placed across the length and breadth of the country at Lossiemouth, Odiham, Dalcross and Acklington. Many of the sorties flown by No. 63 sqn were photographic reconnaissance missions, using F.24 (8″) cameras installed on the port side of the fuselage directly behind the cockpit. Because of the open landscape and close proximity to the coast of the airfield, many sorties flown from here were hampered by high winds and the impending Scottish cold, something that brought discomfort to the may crews who were stationed here at some point.

A  No. 63 Squadron Mustang Mk.1 dropping a message bag (off to the right) during an Army co-operation exercise (IWM)

Originally reformed in the summer of 1942, No. 63 Sqn moved here from Catterick, and stayed until July 1943 when they departed to Turnhouse, leaving only a detachment here at Macmerry. In November, the entire squadron then moved off to Thruxton leaving the airfield at Macmerry behind for good.

Other than a handful of Lysander target tugs and glider trainers, flying wise Macmerry would then fall quiet, the sound of aircraft engines being replaced by the thud of marching boots. During the winter of 1943, Operation ‘Fortitude North‘ was put into place, an operation to fool the Germans into thinking the impending invasion would occur across the North Sea. Macmerry would see a huge influx of army personnel, from No. 2736, No. 2830 and No. 2949 Regiment Squadrons, who would take to the mountains sending out false signals that would be picked up by German intelligence. These groups stayed here for a number of months until moved south for the real  invasion across the English Channel. So successful was the operation that German forces failed to pull vital units away from the Norwegian coastal areas for fear of an impending Allied attack.

RAF Macmerry

Much of what is left is rundown but in use for storing farm machinery.

In the months after the D-day landings, the RAF began to shrink as the need for fighters and heavy bomber began to lessen. The closing stages of the war were near and the fight was well and truly over German soil. The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) however were still expanding, preparing for what was going to be the invasion of Japan. To this end they needed more airfields to train pilots and crews to meet this demand. The Air Ministry considered giving the FAA Macmerry airfield to use, primarily as a repair yard, but, and whilst the offer was accepted, it was never actually put into practice. The FAA also considered stationing No. 770 Sqn FAA here, a Fleet Requirements Unit, whose role was to provide target tugs, simulated attacks on vessels and other gunnery roles. This too however, never actually came to fruition, and whilst the FAA had renamed the airfield H.M.S. Nighthawk II in preparation (Drem being re-designated H.M.S. Nighthawk) they handed Macmerry back to the RAF on March 15th 1946 without ever actually placing a man through its gates. With the war over for the second time, the RAF had no further use for Macmerry, and it was closed down very soon after.

With the airfield abandoned, the Edinburgh Flying Club seized the opportunity to get back into Macmerry, and on August 31st 1946, they reopened the airfield and began to operate from its runways again. They continued to operate here until 1953 when flying finally ceased and Macmerry closed its gates for the last and final time.

After this the site was sold off, the main A1 was eventually built and then later extended into a dual carriageway. As a result of the new road the airfield was split, and the active side developed as farm land. There are suggestions that additional hardstands were provided on the perimeter track on this side, but any sign of these seem to have gone along with the flying side of the airfield. In addition to this, the hangars on the northern side have also been removed and replaced by a rather large grain store.

The accommodation and technical sites were then turned into a small industrial park, the land adjacent to this, being returned to farm land. It is on this land that many of the accommodation buildings have been retained being put to use by the farm to house farm machinery and produce. The WAAF site buildings were demolished but the squash courts and gym both remain today.

RAF Macmerry

The squash court at Macmerry.

The road from the A1 circumnavigates the entire site and it is from this road that the best views can be obtained. From the main A1, the first stop is at the two revetments, which remain sandwiched in between this side road and the main A1. Hidden from view of the A1, they are discernible from the side road and are in remarkably good condition for their age. In a small triangular section of ground, there are several structures here, including the aircraft pens and crew blocks.

The industrial site visible just off to the left of this road is what was the main technical area of the airfield. The modern warehouses and industrial units having replaced the technical buildings that were once thriving RAF workshops.

Continue on and take a left turn. This takes you past the former accommodation sites and the location of the majority of surviving buildings today; long halls with their chimneys which were once the centre of life at Macmerry. Following this road to the left then takes you past the Gym and Squash Courts, passed the accommodation area and back to the A1 and away from the airfield.

The former airfield RAF Macmerry went through a number of changes during its life, and although it has a history dating back to the First World War, it is one of those airfields that never really seemed to establish itself as a front line airfield. The number of squadrons who passed through here also brought a range of aircraft types, giving Macmerry a varied and interesting mix of models. That said, Macmerry had a dark side to it, and had the invasion of Britain come through Scotland’s borders, then Macmerry would no doubt be a name at the forefront of Britain’s history books today.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Timetable courtesy of Bjorn Larsson via Airline Timetable Images Website.

*2 Phipp, M., ‘Wessex Aviation History‘, Amberley Publishing 2009, e-book accessed 24/4/18.

*3 AIR 27/2122 National Archives.

AIR 27/587/1 National Archives.

The East Lothian at War website gallery has a number of photos taken at RAF Macmerry during the war and is worth a visit.

Advertisements

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 8).

In this, the last of the series looking at the development of Britain’s airfields, we look at the Watch Office, perhaps the most atmospheric of buildings associated with Britain’ wartime airfields. The hub of an airfield control, it was where aircraft were counted out and back, where the battle was monitored and the cries of those who fought in the air war were heard.

Though only a recent addition to airfield architecture, it developed quickly and became one of the technologically advanced offices in the world.

Watch Offices.

The Watch office, Watch Tower or in American terms Control Tower, was the centre piece of any airfield, the place in which all operations were controlled. Even today, the control tower is the one feature that stands high above the rest of the airfield with commanding views across the entire site.

Many of these watch offices remain today, some as fabulous museums, some as private dwellings, but many are sadly derelict or even worse – gone altogether. This that do survive create a haunting and evocative feeling when seen from inside.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The beautifully restored Thorpe Abbots Watch Office (design 15683/41).

Unlike hangar development, the watch office appeared quite late in the development of the airfield, only really coming into being as war seemed inevitable. Before this, a rudimentary office was often all that was used, usually attached to the side of the main hangar, and was used to ‘book’ aircraft in and out. But by the mid war period the watch office had become a major structure on the airfield, a standard design (depending upon the airfield use) with two or more floors and often a ‘glass house’ for observation purposes.

For obvious reasons the watch office was built away from other buildings with clear sight over the entire airfield, an important aspect if controllers were to keep watch on the many aircraft that were moving about the airfield space. A vital asset to the airfield it was often targeted by marauding bombers, and in the case of attack, the controllers within would relocate to an emergency battle headquarters, hidden at ground level on a remote part of the airfield, but still with views across the site.

The basic watch office was often adapted rather than demolished and rebuilt, this can and does, cause great confusion as to its design origin. Further more, on some sites, the original was abandoned but not demolished, and a new office built elsewhere on a nearby site, thus giving rise to two offices on the one airfield eg. Matlask and Martlesham Heath

The Watch Office as we know it was first seen on military airfields in 1926 and resembled a small bungalow with bay windows. Those constructed on bomber bases would be slightly smaller than those on fighter bases, a fighter base office having a pilots office attached. The idea behind this was to keep pilots as close to the airfield  control centre so they could quickly be scrambled and report back to the airfield controller on their return. These early design were found on airfields such as Bircham Newton in Norfolk, Hendon and Tangmere and were all built to the same  basic 1926 drawing design only modified to take the extra pilots room.

The standard shape of the World War 2 Watch Office stems back to the mid 1930s, with the introduction of a two-storey building that was square in design. Like similar buildings of its time, it was brick, a building material that was replaced with concrete, in 1936.

RAF West Malling Control Tower under refurbishment

West Malling a 5845/39 design which is now a coffee shop.

By the end of the expansion period, and with the introduction of hard runways, it was realised that the non-dispersed sites gave poor visibility for early watch offices, views across the airfields were not clear and so a quick remedy was called for. The answer lay in two choices, (a) demolish the current buildings  and rebuild it in a better location, or (b) add an extension. In many cases the former was the better idea and this progressed quite quickly, however, where the latter was chosen, remedial work required alteration of the building whilst it remained in use.

A further complication to these designs was the introduction of meteorological sections, which all new buildings erected at the beginning of the war now had. This gave a mix of design styles, enough though there was only a small selection of design drawings from which to work.

These late expansion period and early war designs introduced the idea of ‘viewing platforms’ or parapets, surrounded by safety railings along the front of the building. These deign also had very large glass fronted walls, bright and airy they allowed a lot of light to enter the building but gave cause for concern later on, when it was realised that a bomb blast would cause severed injury to the occupants in an attack. It was also found that during night operations, large windows were more difficult to black out and so smaller windows offered both better protection and greater ease of black out.

As building materials became scare, particularly wood and brick, concrete became the norm. This change also led to drawing changes even though the basic design inside and out, was the same.

In order to appreciate the changes to watch office designs, one needs to consider the different roles that airfields played during the war. Bomber Command airfields would have a differ office to a fighter Command airfield, which in turn, had a different office to a satellite or night-fighter station.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Watch Offices give commanding views across the airfield. (Thorpe Abbots).

The regional control stations where these first offices were being built were certainly getting the better choice at this time, standard fighter and bomber airfields having to use inferior designs that very soon became outdated and inadequate for the needs of the airfield.

During the massive building programme of 1941/42, there was some effort made to standardise all airfield Watch Offices, this resulted in the 1941 design drawing no. 12779/41. This was to be the basic airfield watch office design, with its parapet, six large windows to the front and outside access steps. As older airfields were brought up to Class A Specification, many had these new Watch Offices built to replace the older original ones. Some simply had adaptation of the original. Here the use of the airfield had a bearing on the watch office modification / design, and whilst the basic 12779/41 model was employed, slight variations did exist where the airfield was not a bomber airfield.

Therefore various adaptations of this did follow, examples of which include the slightly smaller 13023/41 (RAF Cottam), those with modified smaller windows 15371/41 (Kimbolton) and 343/43 (Martlesham Heath),  and the smaller Night-Fighter design 15684/41 (Winfield). Being a Night-Fighter station Winfield, had the same basic design but construction methods were totally different. This new design 15684/41, would become standard at all night fighter bases.

All these alternative designs appear outwardly very similar to the original, but differ mainly in window design only, although the physical size of some is different.

RAF Winfield

The Night-Fighter station Watch Office at Winfield (15684/41) is a similar design but smaller, having only four windows in the front.

This design, 343/43, eventually became the most common design for watch offices and appeared on all operational stations and Operation Training Unit airfields after 1943, using a set of six half-size windows across the front.

Tower (2)

The smaller windows of Parham (Framlingham) were half the original design size (12779/41 modified to 343/43).

A further addition was the glass observation room located on the roof of the Watch Office. These were generally only applied to Group control offices, and gave an excellent all round unrestricted view of the entire airfield. Examples that exist today, such as Framlingham above, are replicas but have been built to very high standards.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Martlesham Heath is a similar design to Framlingham (modified to 343/43) – Note the runway heading board on the roof.

At the end of the war some airfields such as Sculthorpe and West Raynham had their Watch Offices modified as they changed roles to Very Heavy Bomber Stations. This new design 294/45, utilised the former building having an extra floor added and then the octagonal ‘glass house’ or Visual Control Room with slanted glass to reduce glare.

Control Tower

Sculthorpe’s modified tower gives 360 degree views over the airfield. A three-story block it utilises the former World War 2 Watch Office.

The Watch Office has been the hub of airfield command and control since the mid 1930s, it has developed from the humble shed to a multi-functional technologically advanced building dominating the skyline of the airfield today. Sadly though, many are now gone, and of those that are left only a few remain in good condition or open to the public.

Summary

The war-time airfield incorporated numerous building designs and shapes, certainly far too many to cover here, the wide variety of technical buildings, synthetic trainers, parachute stores, headquarters and general stores, all changing as the war progressed.  The design and materials used in these structures was as varied as the designs themselves. But as the RAF grew so too did the airfields they used. The runways, the hangars, the technical buildings and accommodation sites have all grown alongside. Sadly many of these buildings have now vanished, but the process and speed at which they developed has been unprecedented. From humble grass strips with wooden shacks to enormous conurbations with numerous buildings, they have become iconic symbols representing decades of both aviation history and human sacrifice.

The entire page can be viewed separately:

Part 1 – The Road to War.
Part 2 – The Expansion Period and airfield development.
Part 3 – Choosing a site.
Part 4 – Building the airfield.
Part 5 – Airfield Architecture.
Part 6 – Runways and Hardstands.
Part 7 – Hangars and aircraft sheds.

or as a whole document.

 

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 7).

Whilst the runway’s remains one of the biggest features of an airfield, perhaps one of the most discussed and certainly visible is the hangar. Large sheds used to maintain aircraft, many still dominate the skyline today, used by farmers and industrial companies, they are massive buildings, but yet many remain classed as temporary or even transportable!

The development of these huge buildings is another that lasted many years, and whilst similar in layout and design, they are as complicated and as varied as any other building found on Britain’s airfields.

Hangars and Aircraft Sheds.

The topic of aircraft hangars is well versed in a large number of books and internet references. They, like the runways, can explain much about the history and use of an airfield, being the largest single building on any airfield site. Distinguishing features between hangar types is often difficult to see, many now re-clad or updated with modern features, doors or materials, even the differences between some designs is so small, without technical drawings or measurements, ascertaining the type can be all but impossible.

Hangars (or aircraft sheds as they were initially called) have been fairly constant in design, however, different services used different types, Admiralty seaplane sheds for example, were primarily side opening, whereas RAF hangars were generally front opening. Design and construction was undertaken by numerous companies (Herbertson & Co. Ltd., Nortons Ltd., Teeside Bridge and Engineering Co. Ltd., and Sir William Arrol & Co.) and even Handley Page Aircraft Co. and Boulton & Paul dabbled with the idea. With so many forms being used, it is a topic both detailed and extremely wide.

This is not therefore, intended to describe each and every hangar ever built (Second World War Air Ministry designs alone covered more than 56 types!), but more a general realisation of the huge development they undertook during this expansion and wartime period on RAF / USAAF airfields. Figures quoted here are generally rounded.

In order to understand the changes in aircraft hangars we need to briefly look at those of the First World War, where aircraft were stored in ‘sheds’, often made from canvas covering a wooden frame, or as a more permanent construction, completely wooden sheds with sliding doors. Later on these were built using metal (iron in particular) and were designed to be permanent, capable of housing several aircraft at a time.

The First World War hangars were varied and often crude, some little more than glorified tents, but through development famous names such as the Bessonneau and Hervieu were created toward the end of the war. Hangars became so large that specialist units had to be created solely to transport, erect and maintain them, and their use became more widespread.

The most common hangar of this period, the Bessonneau, was the first standard transportable hangar used on Royal Air Force airfields. Modern forms of it are still in use today, using different materials, they are quick to erect and offer reasonable protection from the weather outside.

The Bessonneau was a wooden frame structure covered in canvas. It was a simplistic design, able to be erected in as little as two days by a group of 20 skilled men. Heavy canvas doors open at one end allowing aircraft to be moved in and out with relative ease. The problem with these hangars was that the canvas was prone to freezing in winter and therefore becoming difficult to use.

There were two models of the Bessonneau built, differing only in their length – either 79 feet or 118 feet – but both were 65 feet wide.

The interwar and early war years were perhaps understandably,  the years in which the greatest hangar development occurred. The Air Ministry – the body overseeing the works – decided upon a system of ‘structure type’ using names and designations such as, Type ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, Bellman, ‘T2’, etc., and just like the expansion period schemes, they progressed through this system as new developments came about.

The first type was the Type ‘A’, a permanent design, originating in 1924, it was used well into the 1930s when it was gradually replaced during the expansion period. Some examples did last well into the war and even beyond, for example, North Weald, one of the first airfields to be allocated a Type ‘A’, still uses one today.

Type A Hangar

Type A Hangar at North Weald. One of the first stations to have these types of Hangar, it has workshops attached to the Hangar side.

The Type ‘A’ is probably the first to represent the modern hangar, doors at both ends in leaves of four running on rails. Workshops are attached to the hangar side, something that was discontinued as Britain entered the war. Walls were reinforced with concrete to protect from bomb splinters, and they were built 249 feet long and 122 feet wide.

During the late 1920s, the Air Ministry published requirements for new heavy bombers, and these would require new hangars in which to maintain them. In response, the Ministry then updated the Type ‘A’ hangar to the Type ‘B’. In essence a larger version of the Type ‘A’, (160 ft span and 273 ft in length) the ‘B’ was named the ‘Goliath‘ with only three being built (each being a different length). One of these was at RAF Martlesham Heath and is still used today on what is now the industrial park. Like the Type ‘A’, the roof of the ‘B’ is possibly its most discernible feature, a series of trusses along its length crossing laterally over the roof.

With expansion period demands increasing, further developments were needed, and it was envisaged that an increasing bomber size would be needed if substantial bomb loads were to be delivered deep into the continent. The current size of hangar was now considered too restrictive and so a new buildings would be needed. The requirements of the Air Ministry was for a hangar with a span of 150 feet and length of 300 feet. With these in place, new aircraft specifications could be issued.

The Type ‘C’, (designed in 1934) as it was designated, would become the dominant building on any airfield and therefore visible from quite a distance. As airfield designs were subject to scrutiny by the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, local objections were taken into account during the design process. To appease any  objections, the steel frame was covered with local brick or stone, keeping it inline with other buildings not only on the airfield, but houses and buildings erected locally.

Most airfields during the expansion period were built with these hangars on site, and naturally went through a series of developments and improvements. This means, that there are many different forms of the Type ‘C’: gabled roof, hipped rafter and reinforced concrete. Another modified version of the ‘C’ appeared in 1938 and was designated the ‘C1’ (or ‘Protected’), this was an austerity measure development, reducing the amount of material used by lowering the roof height by 5 feet – internal metal work was also left partially exposed. Both the ‘C’ and ‘C1’, continued to be built with offices, workshops and aircrew accommodation attached to the hangar side, the idea being that it was more efficient to do so for the repair of the aircraft inside. As these were larger in width and length than their predecessors, they would have six leaf doors also sliding on top and bottom rails.

RAF Upwood

Type C at the former RAF Upwood.

1936 saw a dramatic change in hangar design, with two new requirements being issued by the Air Ministry. Firstly, storage space was now running out and so new facilities were required. These Aircraft Storage Unit Stations (ASU) would need their own hangar type, and so a requirement for these was put forward. Also at this time, the Ministry put out a demand for transportable hangars, these would replace the ageing Bessonneaus of the First World War. The response to these demands were three storage hangars and two temporary hangars.

Storage Hangars.

The Type ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘L’ Hangars, were a development used specifically by the ASU stations, and they were not generally built on front line operational airfields. They were virtually identical in size to the Type ‘C’, but each type was marginally bigger in span 150 ft, 160 ft and 167 ft than the previous model, and all were the same length at 300 feet. The three types were different from previous hangars in that they had curved roofs, allowing the ‘E’ and ‘L’ to be covered with soil for protection and camouflage (the ‘D’ had straight side walls and therefore could not be covered). ASUs were built to assemble and disassemble aircraft for shipment to operational airfields in Britain or overseas. Aircraft were stored, in varying degrees of assembly within these units, and heavy hoists were often used to store aircraft ‘tail up’. However, with the outbreak of war, aircraft storage was thought better dispersed around the airfield and not concentrated in one space, so this method of storing aircraft was abandoned. Many of these hangars still remain today, used by small industrial units or for farm storage.

The next two types, the ‘J’ and ‘K’, were virtually identical in design, again with curved roofs, they were used for storage of aircraft. The ‘J’ can be found on many operational airfields, built in conjunction with other main hangars (Waterbeach is a very good example of this combination), whilst the ‘K’ was built on ASU stations. The design came in as a result of Expansion Scheme M, and was as a result of the call for 2,550 front line aircraft by March 1942.

The main difference between the two, (other than their location) was in the roof structure, the ‘K’ having lifting tackle rails along its width, while the ‘J’ were along its length. The ‘K’, being used for storage of aircraft, didn’t have any windows, where as the ‘J’ did as offices and workshops were in use constantly. Like previous hangars, the ‘J’ and ‘K’ both had a span of 150 ft and a length of 300 ft.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ hangar located at RAF Waterbeach.

Transportable hangars.

The 1936 transportable hangar requirement, asked for a hangar that could be easily erected and didn’t require a permanent base. It also asked for doors at both ends and needed to be simplistic in design, with parts being interchangeable. These hangers also saw the separating of the office/workshop facilities previously built onto the side of the hangars, these now being located in buildings in the technical and administrative areas. After considering numerous designs, two were chosen and ultimately built.

The first of these, and the primary choice, was the Bellman. Designed by an engineer within the Works Directorate, N.S. Bellman, they were smaller than previous hangars (88ft span and 175 ft on RAF bases) and could be built in under 500 hours by a dozen men. So successful, were they, that over 400 were built between 1938 and 1940 across a wide range of airfield types. Some of these examples even appeared in Russia.

Bellman Aircraft shed

Bellman Aircraft sheds at the former RAF Bircham Newton

The second design, was the Callender (later Callender-Hamilton with modifications) Hangar, designed by the bridge design company Callender Cable and Construction. These had a span of 90 clear feet, with a length of 185 ft, and were used on both RAF and RNAS airfields. There were only eight of these built before the outbreak of war, examples of which appear at East Fortune, further examples with lower roof clearances (17 ft) being purchased after 1940. The Callender-Hamilton are best recognised by their lattice-work on the top door rails.

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

As the war approached, 1939 – 1940 saw a transition period between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ buildings, although many of these temporary buildings still stand today! Because of this change, many airfields had various hangars built, something that often gives a mix of hangar designs on one airfield which can cause confusion as to its age and origin. However, from this point on, all wartime hangars were designed as temporary hangars, designed with short lives and easily assembled / disassembled.

By 1940, the Bellman was considered too small for the RAF’s requirements and a new design was going to be needed. An agreement between the Air Ministry and Teeside Bridge & Engineering resulted in the ‘T’ series of hangars, perhaps the most well-known of the hangar designs.

The ‘T’ series covers a wide range of (temporary or transportable) hangars, each slightly different to the previous, but designed as three main types; T1 (90 ft span), T2 (113 ft) and T3 (66 ft). The length of each hangar varied depending upon local requirements and the number of additional bays added as needed. The design number e.g T2 (26) indicated the number of bays (26) and hence the length.

The ‘T’ range were a diverse and complicated range, the ‘T2’ being sub split into 5 variants (T2, T2 Heavy Duty, TFB (flying Boat), TFBHD (flying boat heavy-duty) and T2MCS (marine craft shed), so the identification of each being difficult without measuring equipment.

RAF Wratting Common

A T2 hangar at RAF Wratting Common.

On first inspection the ‘T2’ and Bellman look virtually identical, both lightweight, steel lattice frames with metal side panels. The main distinctions are that the Bellman doors are flush with the top of the side panelling whereas the ‘T2’ has an extra level of panelling and so are not flush. The other difference is the lattice frame inside the roof, the ‘T2’ has only diagonal braces whereas the Bellman has vertical braces in addition to the diagonals. Both hangars have six leaf doors on sliding rails supported both top and bottom, allowing full width access.

A final addition to the ‘T2’ were the Ministry of Aircraft Production Hangars the Type ‘A’ (A1 & A2) and Type ‘B’ (B1 & B2) built in the mid war years 1942-43 and funded by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. These hangars, not to be confused with the type ‘A’ and ‘B’ of the 1920s, were designed specifically for the repair of damaged aircraft especially operational aircraft on their own airfield. They were also erected at ASUs, and Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG).

RAF Wratting Common

A B1 at RAF Wratting Common an RAF bomber station.

The ‘B1’ and ‘B2’ were built specifically at Bomber Command airfields for the repair of damaged bombers thus eliminating the need to transport them long distances to specialist repair depots. Designed by T. Bedford Consulting Engineers they were eventually found on virtually all Bomber Command airfields by the end of the war and were manned by civilian repair organisations. Examples of both the ‘T2’ and ‘B1’ can be found in use at Wratting Common.

‘A1’ and ‘A2’ hangars on the other hand, whilst similar in design – metal cladding on metal frames – were slightly smaller and found only on aircraft factory airfields. Thus again there are virtually two identical hangars designated primarily by their location!

The last hangar to be commonly found on RAF / USAAF airfields were the blister hangar. A hangar of a temporary nature that usually used a curved metal frame covered in metal sheeting. The Blister hangar was the brainchild of architects and consulting engineers Norman & Dawbarn and William C. Inman of Miskins & Sons, and was designed to accommodate small span aircraft ideally fighters dispersed around the perimeter of airfields. Maintenance or storage could easily be carried in these hangars, and they could easily and quickly be erected, no base or foundations being required before hand.

These types of hangar came in three designs, the standard blister, (timber construction), over type (light welded steel) and Extra Over (also light welded steel), and ranged in span from 45 – 70 feet, A further type built was that of Double extra Over and Dorman Long, a separate design similar in shape but securely bolted to foundations. Many of these hangars have now gone, the majority being dismantled and sold off, only to be erected elsewhere on farmland well away from their original location. The father of a friend of mine, was employed in this very role, one day finding a Spitfire inside a blister hangar which nobody claimed to own!

By the end of the war, in excess of 900 ‘T2’ hangars were erected on British airfields including those built abroad. In 2004 it was thought there were about 100*7 left surviving on MOD property in Britain. A number have also survived on farmland used to store foodstuffs or machinery, or industrial sites. The ‘T2’ remained the main hangar in use by both the RAF and USAAF during the war, appearing on all Class ‘A’ airfields, occasionally with other models also being present. A number of other older models also continue to serve even to this day. Considering many of these were built as temporary buildings, they have survived remarkably well and are testament to the engineering design of the pre and early war years.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of those hangars that were built during the period 1918 – 1945 (other examples include the: Aeroplane Twin Shed; RFC Sheds; Seaplane Sheds; General Service Sheds; Plane Stores; Running Sheds; Lamella (a German idea built in Britain); Hinaldi; Main Hangars; Lamson Hangars; Fromson Hangars; Robins Hangars; Butler (a US design); Merton; ‘S’ type Hangars (RNAS); Pentad Hangar and Boulton & Paul Hangars and of course post war examples such as the Gaydon), but hopefully it has shone a glimmer of light on these remarkable structures that often dominated the skyline and that remain the centrepiece of many a disused airfield today.

In the next section we shall look at that other main iconic building in airfield design, the watch office.

Sources and further reading. 

*7Technical Bulletin 02/02 “World War II Hangars – Guide to Hangar Identification” Ministry of Defence (February 2002).

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.

Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) 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

RAF Thorpe Abbotts – home to the ‘Bloody 100th’.

There are few Bomb Groups who got through the war unscathed. Some earned notable awards, many earned notable nicknames. There are none more though than that of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Air Force, a groups of men who fought in many of Europe’s most fearsome air battles, suffering many great loses but also achieving great successes.

In this review of Trail 12 we look again at the airfield at Thorpe Abbots, and the history behind the derelict buildings and the concrete remains, we see how the 100th BG earned themselves that most unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th‘.

Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139).

Opened quite late in the war, (April 1943), Thorpe Abbots would only be active for a short period of time. But during these months, it would be home to one major air group, the 100th BG of the US Eighth Air Force, who would gain the unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th’. Their legacy would become well-known, it would be a legacy connected with death and destruction, and would be one that would live on for many years, even after the cessation of conflict in Europe.

The first units of the 100th BG would arrive in June 1943, and would operate continuously here until the cessation of conflict in 1945. The site would never see any further action after this, being returned to the RAF who retained ownership until its final closure in 1956. Now totally agricultural, it boasts a superb museum as a memorial to those who gave so tragically flying with ‘The Bloody 100th’.

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

The 100th’s name developed as a result of losses sustained by the group, which in actual fact were not significantly worse than any other Bomb Group of the US Air Force at that time. However, throughout their 306 operational missions over occupied Europe, 177 aircraft along with 700 lives were sadly lost in what were some of the most difficult and terrifying air battles of the Second World War.

Designated Station 139, Thorpe Abbots was built to Class A specification, with three concrete and woodchip runways in the form of an inverted ‘A’, with the cross of the A being the main runway running east to west. Being a bomber base it had 36 pan style hardstands and 16 spectacle hardstands around the perimeter. Maintenance was carried out in two T2 hangars (a type A to drawing 8254/40, and a standard T2). The technical area, accommodation areas and even the bomb store were very unusually all nestled close together in the south-western corner of the site, giving the whole airfield a  compact feel.

With two communal sites, six airmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and sewage works, it was a large accommodation area capable of holding 3,000 men and women of mixed ranks. All the accommodation areas used a range of standard huts, Nissen, Romney, Seco, Thorn and Orlit, all of which appeared on site.

Being a large base, it was, like many of its counterparts, a little town in its own right, with a barber’s shop, a cobblers, grocery store, a gymnasium and squash courts. It also had an on site plumbers, a cement store and a carpenter’s shop.

Although the journey of the 100th started with the activation on June 1st 1942, little occurred until later that year, when the collection of 230 enlisted men and 26 Officers arrived at Walla Walla, Washington, under the guidance of the Group Adjutant Cpt. Karl Standish. He began to organise the cadre into something worthwhile, and as more men arrived the ranks began to swell and the 100th began to take shape. The four squadrons: 349th (led by Cpt. William Veal), 350th (Cpt. Gale Clevan), 351st (Cpt. John Kidd) and 418th (Cpt. Robert Flesher), formed bonds and very quickly, and very soon after, the air echelons would begin to arrive, bringing with them brand new ‘straight out of the factory’ B-17Fs.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Thorpe Abbotts Control Tower now a museum to the 100th BG.

Their next move came at the end of November with a move that took them to Wendover Field, Utah, followed by, Sioux City and then Kearney Air Base in Nebraska, their final major US base before leaving for the UK in May 1943.

After the ground and air echelons split for their transition, the air echelons flew to bases in Newfoundland, where they departed across the northern route to Prestwick at the end of May. The ground echelons then  carried out ground training before departing on the “Queen Elizabeth” on the 27th May, many men being confined below decks because of the overcrowding on the upper decks.

The Queen Elizabeth finally made Greenock, and the men began unloading, the transition from the US to the UK being a shock to many as they clambered aboard the small ‘box cars’ size trains. That night they arrived at Poddington, their first base, and following a poor night’s sleep they received their initial introduction into the British way of life.

The 100th’s arrival at Thorpe Abbotts was not a pleasant one, the base was unfinished, accommodation was lacking and overcrowded, and food supplies were poor to say the least; this was not going to be an easy ride by any means.

Finally, in June, the air echelons began to arrive, the ground and air crews began to work on their machines, rehearsing, tweaking instruments and flying around the local area, until just after midnight on June 25th 1943, the order came through; they were to fly their first mission early that next morning.

The 100th were the third B-17 group to join the Mighty Eighth, as part of the new and reorganised 4th Bombardment Wing, they would join with the 379th BG (Kimbolton) and the 384th BG (Grafton Underwood), both also B-17 groups.

On that morning the aircraft would depart Thorpe Abbotts at 06:00 hrs, and whilst flying out over the North Sea, the formation would be joined by another B-17, with no top turret and the letters ‘VGY’ painted on it. No-one knew what it was, or where it had come from, and suspicions quickly arose about its authenticity. The ‘alien’ ship remained with the formation up until the target at which point it departed and “all hell broke loose”. The formation consisting of these new recruits was ragged and the experienced Luftwaffe pilots took full advantage of this. Focusing on the low squadron first, they fired a barrage of explosive shells into the fuselage’s of the B-17s. That afternoon three aircraft and thirty airmen failed to return home to Thorpe Abbotts, the war had hit home, and hit home hard.

Robert H. Wolff’s crew. L to R Back Row: Ira Bardman, Alfred Clark, William ‘Casey’ Casebolt, James Brady, Arthur ‘Eagle’ Eggleston, Willis ‘Browny’ Brown . Front Row: Charles ‘Stu’ Stuart, Fredric ‘Buzz’ White, (aiming at the enemy) Bob Wolff, Lawrence ‘Mac’ McDonell. The photo was taken after Regensburg for publicity purposes. (@IWM FRE 905)

Over the next month, there were many aborted and scrubbed missions, this continued raising and dashing of hopes set the men on edge but what few missions they did fly, they manged to get through relatively unscathed.

The end of July 1943 saw the official hand over of Thorpe Abbotts from the RAF to the USAAF, with Sqn. Ldrs. Lawson and Bloomfield representing the RAF and Col. Harding the USAAF.

On August 17th 1943, on the anniversary of the Eighth’s operations from England, the men of the 100th sat in the briefing room awaiting the revealing of the target for the day. The anticipation however, was soon replaced with trepidation as the route map revealed a line that would take them deep into the heart of southern Germany, to the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg. This would be no ordinary mission though, they were to not return to Thorpe Abbotts that day, but instead, they were to complete the first shuttle mission by the Eighth Air Force of the war, flying on to land in North Africa.

After an initial postponement because of mist, the green light was finally given and the aircrews started their engines. One by one they departed Thorpe Abbots toward the  skies above Germany. The 100th were in the unenviable position of ‘tail end Charlie’ being the low squadron at the rear of the formation. Added to this the 100th BG found themselves unprotected due to miscalculations in timing, and as unprotected ‘tail-end Charlies’, they were easy prey for the fearsome and hunting Luftwaffe. For two whole hours the defenders attacked from every possible angle, venting their determination on the lowly B-17s. The sky was littered with downed aircraft and falling wreckage. The B-17s were subjected to harrowing attempts to bring them down, air-to-air bombing from Ju-88s, and rockets fired from BF-109s just added to the mayhem of exploding cannon shells and bullets.

During this engagement B-17 #42-30311, piloted by Lt. Tom Hummel was attacked by Rudolf Germeroth in Bf 109G-6 of J 3/1. The aircraft was seen to explode and fall from the sky. The two waist gunners Ken O’Connor and Dick Bowler were killed whilst the remainder of the crew escaped the wreck and were taken prisoner.

Bombing over the target was accurate and reports sent back to England hailed the mission as a total success, The Messerschmitt factory being totally destroyed, and along with it unbeknown to intelligence, secret jigs for the manufacture of Me 262 jets. But the price had been high, of the twenty-one aircraft sent from the Thorpe Abbotts group,  nine had been lost and ninety men were either dead, captured or missing. Of all the groups who had taken part, the 100th had suffered the most, the lead group protected by P-47s coming off much more lightly.

The Regensburg mission would be a turning point for the 100th, their luck would run out and very soon they would earn themselves the unsavoury nickname ‘The Bloody 100th‘, a name that would stick with them for the duration of the war and beyond.

For their action in this mission, the 100th (and the entire division) would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) an award now becoming a regular feature amongst the brave crews of the Eighth Air Force.

In the Citation, the Secretary of War, G.C. Marshall said:

“The 3d Bombardment Division (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty on action against the enemy on 17th August 1943. This unprecedented attack against one of Germany’s most important aircraft factories was the first shuttle mission performed in the theatre of operations and entailed the longest flight over strongly defended enemy territory yet accomplished to this date. For 4.5 hours the formation was subjected to persistent, savage assaults by large forces of enemy fighters…

…The high degree of success achieved is directly attributable to the extraordinary heroism, skill and devotion to duty displayed by the members of this unit.”

During the September, the USAAF was reorganised again, the 4th Bombardment Wing now becoming the 3rd Bomb Division, 13th Combat Wing, a move that heralded little more than a change in aircraft markings. September would also be a notable month for other reasons. The mission on the 6th to Stuttgart would be a disaster for the USAAF, a deep penetration mission that saw over 400 aircraft combine in the skies over Germany. It was during this mission that B-17 #42-30088 ‘Squawkin’ Hawk II‘ would suffer from head on attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft who pounded the B-17 with 20 mm cannon shells. In the attacks the co-pilot (F/O. Harry Edeburn) was fatally wounded, the bombardier and navigator Lt. Peter Delso and Lt. Russ Engel were both severely wounded and the pilot, Lt. Summer Reeder was sprayed with metal as the nose of the B-17 shattered. With poor control and no oxygen, Reeder dropped the aircraft some 14,000 ft at an unbelievable rate of around 300 mph, before playing cat and mouse with the Luftwaffe fighters who were determined to finish off the damaged aircraft. By singing and telling jokes, the severely injured Reeder assisted by the badly wounded navigator, manged to reach England and without brakes or hydraulics, managed to put the aircraft down on a fighter airfield in England.

Squawkin Hawk II‘ would go on to become the first 100th BG aircraft to complete 50 missions covering a staggering 47,720 combat miles. She returned to the US in May 1944 where she was eventually sold for scrap.

After completing 50 missions, “Squawkin’ Hawk II” was covered with autographs before being sent back to the US for retirement and eventual scrapping.(@IWM FRE 4124)

During this disastrous mission many aircraft would run out of fuel, five made for Switzerland including ‘Raunchy‘ from the 100th BG in which Joe Moloney, the ball turret gunner, would be killed whilst trying to ditch. He would take the dubious honour of being the first US airman killed in neutral Switzerland.

It was also at this month, that the 100th would suffer another major blow and to rub salt into the wounds, they would not even get credit for it.

After a cancelled mission on September 24th 1943, the men of the 100th were raised from their beds for a practice mission over the North Sea, a ‘mission’ that would test their ability as Pathfinders. With bombs still in the aircraft from the morning’s preparations, skeleton crews and semi prepared aircraft took off from several bases across East Anglia.

They were to form up with P-47s over the Wash and then fly out over the sea and practice bombing. When a collection of aircraft appeared on the horizon it was assumed by the bomber crews that it was the friendlies arriving at last. The reality of it was sickening. Diving out of the sun Luftwaffe fighters from JG 3/II attacked the formation, rallying 20mm cannon shells in to the B-17’s wings and bodies. One aircraft, #42-30259 “Damifino II” piloted by Lt. J. Gossage crashed into the sea. Five crewmen were plucked from the water by Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) hunting German ‘E’ boats, five men remained missing presumed dead.

Yet more difficult times lay ahead. The October raid to Munster saw only one of fourteen aircraft return home – 120 crewmen were missing in action that day. As aircraft were hit from head on, the formation split. Aircraft dodged falling debris and exploding B-17s as rockets were launched at near point-blank range in a forty-five minute frenzy of slaughter.

This disastrous mission would see the tally of lost airmen rise to 200 in just one week, the loss could not be hidden and Munster would simply add another black chapter to the already darkening book of the 100th’s war. Even the one year celebrations at the end of October failed to cover the feeling of loss shrouding the base, a feeling as thick as the autumn fogs preventing flying from taking place.

Thorpe Abbotts Emergency operations block

Ghostly reminders hidden amongst the trees. Thorpe Abbott’s Battle Headquarters.

The cold winter of 1943/44 saw more fog, rain and cold, the dismal weather allowing only a few missions to go ahead. But as spring warmed the ground, the softening of the German defences in preparation for Operation “Overlord” could begin. ‘Big Week’ of February 20th – 25th, saw the 100th in action again – Brunswick on the 21st. March saw another milestone etched in the annuals of history as the 100th took the war directly to the heart of Germany and Berlin. Over three days the 100th would target the German capital, the first on the 4th, followed by the 6th and then the 8th. The 4th would see the 100th achieve the first blood, shooting down their first German aircraft over Berlin.

Each attack brought new challenges. In the first mission the weather forced many aircraft to abandon the flight and return home, the 100th, persevering lost one aircraft that day. On the 6th, the loss was much higher, fifteen aircraft went down and then another single aircraft on the 8th; 170 men were missing from those missions.

For their action, the 100th would receive their second DUC, albeit a year later. In the General orders 3rd March 1945, No.14 it said:

“The 100th Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in connection with the initial series of successful attacks against Berlin, Germany, 4, 6, and 8 March 1944…”

For the remainder of the summer the 100th would attack oil fields. bridges, and gun positions. They would provide support at St. Lo and Brest in August. Marshalling yards would also come under the focus of the 100th, the Ardennes and the assault across the Rhine. Eventually the war would come to a close and the 100th perform their last mission on April 20th 1945. They would lick their wounds and prepare for a well-earned return to the US.

By the end of its war-time operations the 100th BG had flown nearly 9,000 sorties, in over 300 missions, dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs. They would be credited with the destruction of 261 enemy aircraft, with another 240 damaged or probable. They earned two DUCs and the French Croix de Guerre with palm. Far from being the worst in the 8th Air Force, the 100th’s reputation for accuracy, and overall low operational loses made it one of the most outstanding Bomb Groups of the Air Force.

Finally leaving in December 1945, the 100th would eventually return to serve over the skies of the UK once more as the 100th Refuelling Wing based at nearby RAF Mildenhall.

After the 100th departed, Thorpe Abbots was returned to RAF ownership, no further military flying  took place and the site remained inactive. Eventually in 1956 the airfield was closed and the site then sold off to private ownership. Many of the runways and perimeter tracks were removed for hardcore, and the buildings fell into disrepair.

Today, the site houses a museum utilising the old original control tower and a small number of other buildings. Tucked neatly away amongst the beautiful countryside of Norfolk, this museum is more than worthy of a visit.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The Tower has Commanding Views.

Visible remains of the airfield are restricted to mainly perimeter track, but remnants can be found with a little effort. In the woods to the east of the tower, buried in amongst the undergrowth, are the remains of buildings including the Battle Headquarters  which would have commanded excellent views across the field in the case of attack.

The perimeter track has been partially utilised and turned into road, from which larger sections can be seen. A number of admin blocks, stores and a range of accommodation buildings are now engulfed by trees and vegetation but still survive and are all very much on private land.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Remnants of the perimeter track at Thorpe Abbotts.

Whilst many buildings remain hidden away, the dedication of a few volunteers keep the memories and lives of those who gave so much alive, and enable the history of Thorpe Abbots airfield to continue on for future generations.

Sources and further reading. 

Freeman, Roger A. “The Mighty Eighth” (1986) Arms and Armour

Arnold, Henry. H., “Contrails, My War Record: A history of World War Two as recorded at U.S. Army Air Force Station #139, Thorpe Abbots, near Diss, county of Norfolk, England” (1947) World War Regimental Histories Book 194.

Further details of the 100th BG and information about the museum can be found on the museum website.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 4).

In Part 4 of the Development of Britain’s Airfields, we take a short look at the construction process and the numerous companies that were involved in building the airfield. Once a site was found in Part 3, compulsory purchase was made and the developers moved in.

Building the airfield.

The creation of airfields was set, each plan was studied, trees, shrubs and hedges were removed, ditches filled and the land leveled to a maximum gradient of 1:60.

First of all to reduce the risk of machinery being bogged down, perimeter tracks were built. This allowed the delivery of heavy loads to any part of the site, and so were originally designed to carry support vehicles rather than aircraft. One reason why so many grassed airfields had hard perimeter tracks.

With such a big workforce being drafted in, accommodation for the workers would be needed, these would generally be the huts that would be used for the aircrews and other personnel on the base once active. Drainage and dry storage was needed as a matter of urgency, and were usually a priority even before the accommodation areas.

RAF Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)

Buildings would be built using a range of materials.

Hiding these enormous excavations was going to a headache for the authorities. How do you hide a building site covering many acres? (Average grassed stations covered 200 – 400 acres whilst those with runways were around 500 acres extending to over 1,000 by the war’s end).  Numerous strategies were tried from painting the ground to covering it with coal dust, even adding wood chip to the concrete surfaces was used all with little real impact. Any spy or reconnaissance pilot worth his salt would have spotted the works and reported back immediately.

Gradually the airfield developed. Workers worked in shifts covering a 24 hour working day, seven days a week, this meant that the construction period was relatively short and the completion rapid. By the end of the war some £200 million worth of work had been carried out involving somewhere in the region of 130,000 individuals including engineering workers, and building sub-contractors.

As the site neared completion, RAF staff would begin moving in. The stores officer or ‘Equipment manager’ would often be first, ordering the necessary supplies to accommodate the forthcoming personnel. He would usually be followed by a NAFFI and a medical officer who would officially declare the site ready for occupation. Once this had been given the ground crews would be brought in, followed by aircrews and the aircraft. Even with a newly opened site, it was rare that it was ever fully finished, often accommodation was rudimentary or cooking facilities limited. In some cases tents were the order of the day until construction was completed. Great emphasis was placed on getting the site open and operational rather than ready. In some cases ground crews, who were otherwise waiting for aircraft to arrive, would take to shovels and picks to complete or improve upon work that had been started on site.

Also the airfield needed naming. Names were usually taken from the nearest village or town, and where confusion might arise from a similar name, it could then be taken from an alternative nearby village. This is why some airfields appear to be quite distant from their respective named locations. Alternatives to this would be geographical features or alternatively local farms e.g RAF Twinwood Farm. The Americans used the system of numbering partly because (a) the American airmen were unable to pronounce accurately some of the English names and were often found getting confused by them, and (b) the American administration system made it easier to use numbers rather than names.

By now the airfield was built, or at least open, the first unit would arrive and airfield defences would be set up. Military personnel would become established and operations would soon begin. All this could occur within months, it was a massive undertaking achieved in very little time.

In the next section we look at the architecture of British airfields, how the idea of replication in design led to architectural developments, and how the demand for materials led to changes in airfield buildings.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 3).

In Part 3 of this series, we turn from the political scene of Part 2 and look at how airfields were identified, The process and methodology of airfield selection.

Choosing a site.

Choosing an airfield site during these prewar periods was especially difficult as there were many ‘unknown’ factors to predict, a factor in itself that helped determine the needs of each of the various schemes mentioned previously. However, there were a number of airfields already in situ, some used by the military and some used by civilian aviation. As remnants of the First World War, many military sites were inadequate or inappropriate for the growing future needs of the RAF, but with some work, they could be developed into workable sites as the basic infrastructure was already there in place.

As well as these RAF sites, there were also civilian airfields, which the Government considered as potential military airfields. Because civil aviation had grown amongst the wealthier members of society, although not exclusively, this meant that in the pre-war period, there were some 90 airfields*4 owned either by local councils or under private ownership. Many of these were requisitioned by the authorities, but because many were small or located very close to built-up areas, (in 1928 the Air Ministry ‘encouraged’ towns of 20,000+ inhabitants to have a municipal airport), they were not suitable for modern fighter or bomber aircraft. As a result, many of these became training or maintenance sites, some linked to aircraft production facilities, but none were ‘operational’ for fighting units.

A further group of airfields in use at this time, were those of the AA (Automobile Association – better known as a motoring organisation). The AA Landing Grounds were often ex First World War sites located near to hotels and other places of interest to the motorist. Fuel was usually supplied at, or near to, each site, and each one was ‘tested’ by an aircraft on behalf of the AA before it was granted AA status. As these sites were registered, their locations were readily available to the Germans and so they were closed and rendered unsuitable for aircraft. However, land in close proximity was occasionally used, and so a new site would be created in a similar location.

With all these sites available, one would imagine choosing a site and developing it, would be relatively straight forward, but this is far from the truth. Many of these sites were inadequate, and the process of repairing/upgrading or rectifying it was simply not going to be sufficient. Therefore, many new sites were going to be required and the process by which a site was identified, acquired and then subsequently developed was not at all straightforward. In each case the Air Ministry Directorate (AMDGW) and Air Ministries Aerodromes Board would work in very close conjunction with numerous other Government departments and interested public bodies. These would include local Electricity Boards, Drainage Boards, the Geological Survey Department and the local War Agricultural Committee, who were concerned about flooding caused by run-off from the sudden building of large expanses of concrete.

In the first instance, using an ordnance survey map, areas that were below 50 feet above sea level or above 650 feet were generally ignored, the former being prone to flooding whilst the latter suffering high levels of low cloud or hill fog. Next a circle with a radius of 1,100 yards was marked off, this had to be flat with minimal rise in the ground layer. It also had to be free from obstructions and ideally at least three miles away from any other flying location. Next officers from the Air Ministries Aerodromes Board would walk the site, field by field, recording maximum landing distances, and noting any unidentified obstacles, trees, hedges, ditches or more permanent structures that would need removal.

By September 1939, board officials had identified, examined and recorded around 4,000 possible sites in the U.K. Many would be simply filed away never to see aviation of any kind, whilst others would become famous for years to come.

Once a suitable site had been identified and examined, the local geology had to be established where possible. In the pre-war years, no consideration was given to hard runways, they didn’t exist in any real form and were not seen as needed as any aircraft of that time could happily take off from a grass strip. However, in order to prevent aircraft wheels from bogging down, or flooding closing an airfield, well-drained soils were absolutely paramount.

Once the site had been accepted, the land was requisitioned, forcibly purchased using new powers created under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939. This gave virtually immediate access and ownership of the land – with little notice to the land owner – to the Government. These powers also saw their way to reducing the ‘NIMBY*5 effect, protests against developments being side-lined through political clout.

The next stage in the process was to put the job out to tender. The difficulty here was that secrecy was of the utmost importance, and so little of the detail was released other than an approximate location. As the war progressed, the number of construction companies involved became fewer, and those that were involved more established, prime contractors being Wimpey, Laing, Taylor-Woodrow and McAlpine – all of whom went on to be major construction companies post war. That said, no major airfield would generally be completed by one single contractor, as the whole process required a wide range of skills based operations. As one completed their task, another would come in, sometimes dual operations would be carried out simultaneously. For example taxiways and access roads may have been built by Tarmac, whereas the runway may have been built by McAlpine. Accommodation areas often used ‘Nissen’, or in many USAAF cases, ‘Quonset’ huts, many of these and other ‘standard’ buildings were erected by buildings contractors whereas other more substantial buildings may have been built by John Laing and Co.

By the outbreak of war, 100 sites had been purchased, as the number was relatively small, the board were able to be ‘particular’ in their choice, something that was quickly disregarded as the war progressed.

Airfields are highly labour intensive projects requiring an enormous workforce and extensive heavy machinery, little of which were available in the early 1940s. Irish labour provided the backbone of the initial workforce, whilst heavy plant came in from the United States. At its peak there were some 60,000 men employed on airfield construction, all of whom were unable to spend their time rebuilding the devastated towns and cities of the UK.

As the war progressed, the Royal Air Force Airfield Construction Service began taking a greater role in airfield construction, diversifying away from their original role as repairers of damaged airfields sites. There would be an initial 20 squadrons created to carry out these tasks, with a further 6 being formed later in the war. With squadron numbers ranging from 5001 to 5026, they would be initially involved in the updating of older sites and the creation of ALGs, eventually taking on a much greater responsibility of airfield construction. These squadrons, were of course given great assistance by the well established Royal Engineers.

In 1942, the United States joined the European theatre sending their own Engineer Aviation Battalions to the U.K. Their task was to support these British squadrons by building their own airfields ready for the huge influx of men and machines that was about to arrive. The first site completed by the Americans and opened in 1943, was Great Saling (later renamed Andrews Field) by the 819th engineer Aviation Battalion. Not being experienced in U.K. soils, it was a steep learning curve fraught with a number of initial problems.

Former RAF Andrewsfield

RAF Andrews Field memorial to the 819th Engineer Aviation Battalion.

In 1939 there were only 60 military airfields in the UK, by 1940 this had increased to 280, almost tripling to over 720 by 1945. Between 1939 and 1945 444 airfields*2,4 new airfields were built by these organisations – an amazing feat by any standard. Using almost a third of Britain’s total construction labour force, they were often open and manned within a matter of months rather than years.

This whole process however was not fool-proof. In a number of situations sites were identified and requisitioned, but not developed. In several cases they were partly built, and in others like RAF Cottam, they were completely built but then never occupied. Some airfields were identified for USAAF use, only to be declined and then handed over to their RAF counterparts. Some US bases were never actually started but remained named and therefore official sites even though they remained as farmers fields!

The lead up to war led to a massive change in the British landscape. Keeping airfields secret led to many being built in remote areas and away from major towns. Little did the inhabitants of these quiet little villages know, but their population was about to increase, in some cases by thousands.

In the next section we look at how the airfield was built, the process of construction and the difficulties faced during this phase.

Sources and further reading. 

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

*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

*5 NIMBY – Acronym used to describe the objections of local planning projects. (Not In My Back Yard).

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 1).

The development of Britain’s airfields has been both rapid and complex. The design, layout and specific requirements of airfields changing as the need for areas suitable for larger and more powerful aircraft arose. From the early days of flight through the expansion period of 1934 – 1939, and on into the cold war, Britain’s airfields have become iconic symbols not only of Britain’s defence, but also the rapid development of air travel.

The range of airfields is as wide as their developmental history: fighter; Bomber; Coastal Command; Emergency Landing Grounds (ELG); Relief Landing Ground (RLG); Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG); Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) and Cub Strips, not to mention the fake ‘Q’ sites along with the various training, glider and ATC sites.

It is a very detailed and complex subject, and one in which there have been many valuable and in-depth texts written. It is a subject that is far too detailed to cover in its entirety here, but by focusing on the main features of airfield development, we can at least shed some light on the huge undertaking that reshaped the British landscape, and whose effect has been long-lasting, becoming the widespread topic of interest it is today.

In the following series of eight posts, we look at the development of these airfields, the main structures that are associated with them and how Britain’s airfields grew from basic fields to major conurbations as a result of the direct threat of war.

We start with the build up to war and the growth of the Royal Air Force from 1918.

Britain’s Road to War.

The Royal Air Force was formed on April 1st 1918 through an act of Parliament that saw its predecessor, the Royal Flying Corp, mutate into what has become not only one of the premier fighting forces of the world, but also the oldest Air Force in the World. However, in the post-war era following the First World War, political opinion was very much against the continuation of the RAF, feeling that it was exhausting an already depleted national economy and contravening a stern non-rearmament policy. In addition, an apathetic and vehemently pacifist post war public was also hard to convince that a third force, which was seen as ‘weaker’ than its two older sisters, was really necessary.

Two men, Winston Churchill (then Minister for War) and Air Marshal Trenchard (as Chief of the Air Staff), crusaded on behalf of the RAF, seeing it as the valuable asset it had become. In the Trenchard memorandum of December 1919, Trenchard outlined the biggest re-organisation of the Royal Air Force in history, a change that included everything from insignia and uniforms, to buildings and training. It was a change that would establish the RAF as an air force capable of mobilisation and expansion at a moments notice.

To achieve these goals, Trenchard would set up a rigorous training plan, with stations specifically designed to deal with the various aspects that would be needed; an Air Force Cadet College at Cranwell, a flying training school for Air Force Staff in Andover, a further scheme for short-service commissions and a technical college at Halton (set to close in 2022) in Buckinghamshire.

RAF Cranwell

RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire remains the Officer Training College today.

This re-organisation would be a re-organisation for survival, and would involve the disbandment and demobilising of vast numbers of men and women; the subsequent rundown of the RAF being both rapid and immediate. By March 1920, in excess of 23,000 officers, 21,000 cadets and 227,000 other ranks and been demobilised and returned to ‘civvy street’. The new RAF was small, formed with just 3,280 officers and 25,000 other ranks. Assets too were stripped, airfields were sold off and hardware disposed of, but the Air Force was going to survive as an independent fighting force that would become a major peacekeeping force within the next few decades.

In the 1920s, and even though limited by the 10 Year Rule on defence expenditure, Trenchard envisaged a build up of the Air Force, incorporating both fighters and bombers, to a level that would be both powerful and dominant. He set a target of some 52 Home Defence Squadrons, but his continued battles with the Army, Royal Navy and politicians alike, meant that this figure would take many years to achieve and Britain would be poorly protected in the case of attack.

In a statement by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Samual Hoare, at a meeting of the Imperial Conference on October 19th, 1923, Sir Samual highlighted the inadequate numbers that were present for Home Defence, he said:

“When the Navy and Army requirements were met and the squadrons provided for the Air Command in Iraq, and provision made for training in Great Britain, the machines left for home defence in Great Britain were altogether insignificant. I may give as an instance of this insignificance the fact that a few months ago at the height of the Turkish crisis, when we had sent two Royal Air Force squadrons to Constantinople, we were left with only twenty-four first-line machines actually available for home defence against air attack.”

Whilst slow, the 1920s and early 1930s did see the RAF expand, achieving 65 squadrons by January 1st 1935, mostly manned by fully trained reserves. This did however, do little to bolster the front line numbers of available fighters, and as demands for spending cuts in the world’s depression started to bite, this build up began to slow even further.

It was during these early 1930s that movements in Germany, in particular with Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party, gave rise to an uneasy feeling across Europe; a feeling that would lead to new policies being implemented, policies that would refuel the impetus of Britain re-arming its major forces in the latter half of the 1930s.

With events like the Schneider Trophy and displays at Hendon capturing the imagination of the public, the Government saw these as a way to develop new faster and more agile aircraft, and as a pedestal on which to put both Britain and the RAF. These air displays continued until 1937, when a war with Germany became evermore likely, and the previously formed rearming policies began to take shape.

German boasting of its redevelopment was barely enough to hide the fact that it was rearming as early as 1932, and the speed at which this was happening would far outstrip the RAF’s meagre numbers in the years following the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. In these early years, Britain’s bomber strength was as low as five night, and six-day bomber squadrons, each one operating limited, slow and cumbersome biplanes. Aircraft that were no match for even the reduced force that Germany was to front during the controversial Spanish Civil War.

Germany’s rearming was occurring at an alarming rate, and after Goring’s inauguration as head of the Reich Commission for Aviation, a formal request for the purchase of British aircraft, by Goring, was refused, but ironically not the supply of two military supercharged aero-engines that were to be built under license in Germany! Britain was not alone in this action though, the USA also sold Germany contravening merchandise during the 1930s, 19 aircraft and 569 aero-engines crossed the Atlantic, with most of these being supplied during 1934.*1 Perhaps even more astonishingly, the World War 1 German Ace Ernst Udet visited the US in the 1930s, where he developed not only ground attack and dive bombing techniques, but purchased two Curtiss Hawk II biplanes, which were taken back to Germany for evaluation for future dive bomber designs. This action eventually led to the Germans developing the Junkers Ju-87, famously known as the ‘Stuka‘, an aircraft that wreaked fear and havoc across the European continent.

Although the depression of the 1930s held German production back, the number of air-frame plants rose from 2,813 in January 1933 to almost 38,000 in 1935. This rearming was becoming so rapid, that in 1933, six new aircraft manufacturers joined the seven already established – all diversifying from other engineering areas to begin aircraft manufacture. By 1935, the total number of air-frame and aero-engine plants had risen to an astonishing 53,865, an increase of nearly 50,000 in just two years.

This massive increase was highlighted in a letter from Winston Churchill to Stanley Baldwin (three times British Prime Minister) on March 17th 1935*8, in which Churchill pointed out that:

“I believe that the Germans are already as strong as we are and possibly stronger, and that if we carry out our new programme as prescribed Germany will be 50 per cent stronger than we by the end of 1935 or the beginning of 1936.”

This increase eventually led to a number of changes in Britain. One such change was the demand for a twin-engined aircraft capable of delivering a 1,000lb bomb up to 720 miles away. Whilst not record-breaking, specification B.9/32 led to both the Wellington and the Hudson being developed, each a major step forward from the biplanes in RAF service at that time.

A further major change that the German action brought about, occurred during the mid – late years of the 1930s (1934-1939) where Britain saw, what is now commonly referred to as, “the Expansion Period”, a period in which the RAF began to increase its numbers also. It was during this period (between May and July 1936) that the idea of Trenchard’s small elite force would become four; the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) along with No.1 Air Defence Group and other administration and command groups, would be disbanded and reformed as four new commands: Fighter Command (HQ at Stanmore), Bomber Command (HQ at Uxbridge), Coastal Command (HQ at Lee-on-Solent) and Training Command (HQ at Ternhill). In addition, new aircraft were going to be required, particularly fighters and heavy bombers, and to support these new aircraft, a massive support network:  new training facilities; aircraft and aero-engine factories; storage facilities; armaments factories; flying schools, and of course a range of new airfields would be needed.

This demand would begin the process by which Britain would develop its airfields and air force, kick starting the huge economic and technological change that would see Britain move from the simple bi-plane to jet technology, and airfields that covered not just a few, but several thousands of acres of land across the British landscape.

Britain had entered the arms race with Germany, and it would be a race to the death.

In the second part we examine the political response focusing on the expansion period 1934-1939, and how Britain’s airfields changed as a direct result.

Notes, sources and further reading.

CAB\24\164 Note from the Meeting  of the Imperial Conference on October 19th, 1923. (National Archives)

*1 Dancey, P.G., and Vajda, A-V, “German Aircraft Industry and Production, 1933-45“. 1998, Airlife Publishing Ltd

*8 Churchill, W.S., “The Second World War Volume I – The Gathering Storm“, Cassell, 1948

Great Sampford – A disaster for the U.S. “Eagles”.

After leaving RAF Wratting Common, we turn south and head back past Haverhill towards Finchingfield. Reputedly one of the most photographed villages in England, it has a ‘chocolate box’ appeal, its quaint houses, old tea shops and village pond, reminiscent of Britain’s long and distant past. Finchingfield and this trail, are also close to the airfield at Wethersfield, and a short detour to the east, is an added bonus and a worthy addition to the trail.

This next airfield, a small satellite airfield, lies one and a half miles to the west of Great Sampford village, and five miles south-east of Saffron Walden. It is actually quite remote, with no public roads close to the site. Footpaths do cross parts of the former airfield, which is all now  completely agricultural.

As we head south we stop  off at the former airfield RAF Great Sampford.

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359)

RAF Great Sampford was a short-lived airfield, built initially as a satellite for RAF Debden, it would be used primarily by RAF Fighter Command, and later by the US Eighth Air Force. It was also used by 38 Group for paratroop training, and by the Balloon Command.

Being a satellite it was a rudimentary airfield, and accommodation was basic; utilising wooden huts as opposed to the more pleasant brick dwellings found at its parent station RAF Debden. It was very much the poorer of the airfields in the area, although by the war’s end a wooden hut would no doubt have been preferential to a cold, metal Nissen hut!

As a satellite it would be used by a small number of squadrons, No. 65 RAF, No. 133 (Eagle Squadron) RAF and No. 616 Squadron RAF. The famous Eagle Squadrons being manned by American volunteers, 133 Sqn was later renamed 336th Fighter Squadron (FS), 4th Fighter Group (FG), after their absorption into the US Army Air Force.

There were two runways at Great Sampford, one of grass and one of steel matting (Sommerfeld track), a steel mat designed by Austrian Expatriate, 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 a handful of other track types) were common on fighter, training and satellite airfields, especially in the early part of the war. It was also used extensively on forward landing grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

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. Some records report tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

At Great Sampford the steel matting was 1600 yards long, extended later to 2,000 yards, the grass strip being much shorter at just over 1,000 yards. A concrete perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield, and due to the nature of the area the airfield took on a very odd shape indeed. With many corners and little in the way of straight sections, it may have suited the longer noses of the RAF’s Spitfires well, avoiding the need to weave continuously to see passed the long engine. However, because it was small and uneven, it caused numerous problems for pilots taking off, the hedges and trees proving difficult obstacles to clear without stalling the aircraft in an attempt to get above them.

Hangars and maintenance huts were also sparse, but four blister hangars were provided as the main structures for aircraft repair and maintenance.

Opened on 14th April 1942, the first unit to use the site was No. 65 (East India) Squadron RAF who arrived the same day that it was opened. No. 65 Sqn, being veterans of both Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, had been moved about to regroup and refit, upgrading its aircraft numerous times before settling with the Spitfire.

The Spitfire VB of 65 Sqn (who were previously based at Debden) was a modified MK.V,  the first production version of the Spitfire to have clipped wingtips, a modification that reduced the wingspan down to 32 ft but increased the roll rate and airspeed at much lower altitudes. No. 65 Squadron, would use their Spitfire VBs for low-level fighter sweeps and bomber escort duties, something that suited the clipped wing version well.

Between April and July 1942, 65 Squadron would move between Debden, Martlesham Heath and Hawkinge with short spells in between at Great Sampford. They would then have a longer spell in Kent before leaving for RAF Drem in Southern Scotland. These repeated moves were largely in response to the threat of renewed Luftwaffe attacks on the airfields of southern England, and were part of a much larger plan put into place to protect the front line squadrons.

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The entry in the Operational Record Book for April 14th shows the first landing of Spitfires at Great Sampford. (AIR 27/594/4)

On April 14th, the move took place, a move that was achieved under some difficulty as the squadron was called upon to participate in two Rodeo (fighter sweeps) operations. After extensive searching between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, no enemy aircraft were sighted, and so the wing returned to their various bases. At 20:00 hrs, the first 65 Sqn aircraft touched down at Great Sampford – the base was now open and operational.

The next mission would be the very next day – there was no let up for the busy flyers! “Circus 125” led by Wing Commander J. Gordon, consisted of ten aircraft from Great Sampford, who after taking off at 18:10, met with the bomber formation and escorted them to an airfield target near Gravelines. The entire mission was uneventful and the aircraft arrived safely back at Great Sampford at 19:55 hrs.

This mission pretty much set the standard for the remainder of the month. Numerous Rodeo and Circus operations saw 65 Sqn repeatedly penetrate French airspace with various sighting of, but little contact with, enemy aircraft. The first real skirmish took place on the 25th, when the Boston formation they were escorting was attacked by fourteen FW-190s. One of the Bostons was hit and subsequently crashed into the sea. Flt. Sgt. Stillwell (Red 3) of 65 Sqn threw his own dingy out to the downed crewman who seemed to make no effort to reach it – he was then assumed to be already dead.

On the April 27th, “Circus 142” took place, the escort of eight Hurricane bombers who were attacking St. Omer aerodrome. Three sections ‘Red’, ‘White’ and ‘Blue’ made up 65 Squadron’s section of the Wing, and consisted of both Rhodesian, Czech and British airmen. The Wing flew across the Channel at 15,000 ft, and when on approach to the target, they were attacked by 50-60 FW-190s. In the ensuing dogfight F/O. D. Davies, in Spitfire #W3461; P/O. Tom Grantham (s/n: 80281) flying Spitfire #BL442, and P/O. Frederick Haslett (s/n: 80143) in Spitfire #AB401, were all reported missing presumed dead. It was thought that both F/O. Davies and P/O. Grantham may have collided as they were together when they went down, P/O. Grantham was just 19 years of age.

There were no further losses that month although operations continued up until the last day. In all, 21 operations had been flown in which 2 enemy aircraft were destroyed, 1 was a probable and 1 was damaged. April proved to be a record month in terms of operational flying hours for every pilot below the rank of Squadron Leader, the successes of which though, were marred by the sad events of the 27th and the loss of three colleagues.

On the 28th, their last day of this, the first of several stays at Great Sampford, a congratulatory message came though from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, “Well done the Debden Wing”, which went some way to lighten the atmosphere before the new month set in.*1

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The Operational Record Book for 65 Squadron. A message of congratulations from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group. (AIR 27/594/4)

It was three months later on July 29th 1942, that 65 Squadron would depart Great Sampford for the last time, and the next squadron would arrive, the Spitfire VIs of No. 616 Squadron RAF.

No. 616 Sqn were formed prior to the declaration of war in November 1938. An Auxiliary Air Force Unit, it too took part in supporting both the Dunkirk evacuation and the early days of the Battle of Britain. Now, at Great Sampford, it had been given the high altitude Spitfire, the MK. Vl, an attempt by Supermarine to tackle the Luftwaffe’s high altitude bombers, and quite the opposite to the VBs of 65 Sqn – these Spitfires had extended wingtips!

616 Squadron would, like 65 Sqn before them, spend July to September yo-yoing between Great Sampford and the airfields further south, Ipswich and Hawkinge, before departing Great Sampford for the final time on September 23rd 1942 for RAF Tangmere. Whilst here at Great Sampford, they would perform fighter sweeps, bomber escort and air patrols over northern France, engaging with the enemy on numerous occasions.

On the same day as 616 Sqn departed, the last operational unit would arrive at Great Sampford, the U.S. volunteer squadron, 133 Squadron known as one of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Being one of three squadrons manned totally by American crews, it had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving here at Great Sampford. Whilst some British RAF ground crews helped servicing and maintenance, the aircrew were entirely US, and crews were regularly changed as losses were incurred or crews were transferred out.

Many of these new recruits came in from other units. Ground crews coming into Great Sampford would have to get the train to Saffron Walden where they were met by a small truck who would take them to RAF Debden for a meal and freshen up. Afterwards they were transferred, again by truck, the few miles here to Great Sampford, the transformation was astonishing! In the words of many of those who were stationed here, “there was nothing ‘great’ about Great Sampford!”*2 Also flying Spitfire VBs, they were to quickly replace them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise.

It would be a short-lived stay at Great Sampford though, as 133 Sqn RAF were disbanded on the 29th September, being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, USAAF, and officially becoming US Air Force personnel. They were no longer volunteers of the Royal Air Force.

Just three days before this final transfer, on September 26th 1942, 133 Sqn would suffer a major disaster, and one that almost wiped out the entire squadron.

A small force of seventy-five B-17s from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, were to mount raids on Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix, when the weather closed in. The 301st BG were recalled as their fighter escort failed to materialise, and the 97th BG were ineffective as cloud had prevented bombing to take place. The RAF’s 133 (Eagle) Sqn were to provide twelve aircraft (plus two spares) to escort the bombers on these raids. After refuelling and a rather vague briefing at RAF Bolt Head in Devon, they set off. Unbeknown to them at the time, the two pilots instructed to stay behind, P/O. Don Gentile and P/O. Erwin Miller, had a guardian angel watching over them that day.

During talks with P/O. Beaty, it was ascertained that the Spitfires had flown out above 10/10th cloud cover and so were unable to see any ground features, thus not being able to gain a true understanding of where they were. Added to that, a 100 mph north-easterly wind blew the aircraft far off course into the bay of Biscay. Finding the bombers after 45 minutes of searching, the flight set for home and reduced their altitude to below the cloud for bearings. Being over land they searched for the airfield, all the time getting low on fuel. Instead of being over Cornwall however, where they thought they were, they were in fact over Brest, a heavily defended port, and in the words of 2nd Lt. Erwin Miller – “all Hell broke loose.” *3

In the subsequent battle, all but one of 133 Sqn aircraft were lost, with four pilots being killed.  P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; P/O. Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140 – Millers replacement; P/O. Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and P/O. Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294.

Only one pilot managed to return, P/O. Robert ‘Bob’ Beatty,  who crash landing his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal. From his debriefing it was thought that several others managed to land either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland. Of these, six were known to have been captured and taken prisoners of war, one of whom, F/Lt. Edward Brettell  DFC was executed for his part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. A full report of the events of that day are available in an additional page.

There would be no further operational flying take place for the rest of the month for 133 Sqn – all in all it was a disastrous end for them, and to their spell as RAF aircrew.*4

Pilot Officer Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

Because these marks of Spitfire were in short supply, the remainder of the Squadron were re-equipped with the former MK.VBs, a model they retained into 1943 before replacing them with the bigger and heavier Republic P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’.

As a result of the losses, the dynamics of the group would change. The cohesive nature of the men who had been together for so long, was now broken and the base took on a very different atmosphere.

The effect on those left behind was devastating, morale slumped, and in an attempt to raise it, Donald ‘Don’ Blakeslee ordered the remaining pilots to line up along the eastern perimeter track and take off in formation; something that had been considered virtually impossible due to its short length, uneven surface and rather awkwardly placed trees along its boundary. Blakeslee, who became a legendary fighter pilot with both 133 Sqn and later the 4th Fighter Group (FG), led the group in true American Style, getting all the aircraft off the ground without any mishaps. Heading for Debden, they formed up, and flew directly over the station at below 500 feet, shaking windows and impressing those on the ground with precision flying that took as much out of the pilots as did air to air combat.

That night, the mess hall at Debden, was awash with celebrations as 133 Squadron pilots enjoyed the limelight they had for so long deserved.

On the next day, September 29th, the crews packed their personal belongings and departed Great Sampford for the comforts of Debden, where an official handover took place. General Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, witnessing the official transfer of the three Eagle Squadrons to the United States Air Eighth Air Force, a move that on the whole, pleased the American airmen.

From then on, Great Sampford would remain under control of the USAAF, being used as a satellite for the 4th FG at Debden, but without any permanent residents. The occasional flight of Spitfires or P-47s would land here whilst on detachment or away pending a Luftwaffe attack. In the early stages of 1943, the Americans decided that Great Sampford (renamed Station 359 as per US designations) was no longer suitable for their needs as it wouldn’t accommodate either the  P-38s or the P-47s due to its awkward size and shape. By February 1943 they had pulled out, and Great Sampford was returned to RAF ownership. By March 1943 the airfield now surplus to flying requirements, was closed, used only by a large selection of RAF Regiments training in airfield defence, Guard of Honour duties and VIP Security. The station eventually closed in August 1944.

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. Handwritten caption on reverse: '19A. KP. Fall, 1942. Great Sampford Satellite Field. 336th crew by 336th Spit Mk. Vb. Wings clipped by sawing off wing & pounding in board then carving and painting it. MD-A, red/blue wheel. Source -Bill Chick, Megura.'

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. at Great Sampford. (@IWM – FRE3230)

However, this closure was not the end for Great Sampford. With paratroop operations progressing in Europe, the airfield was put back into use on 6th December 1944 by 620 Sqn in Operation ‘Vigour‘.

No. 38 Group, in need of practice areas, had acquired the airfield, and were dropping SAS paratroops into the site. This flight preceded another similar activity the following day where Horsa gliders pulled by 620 Sqn Stirlings, took part in Operation ‘Recurrent‘; a cross-country flight from RAF Dunmow in Essex. This flight culminated with the Horsas being released and landing here at Great Sampford. These activities continued throughout the appalling winter of 1944 / 45, and into the following months. In March, in the lead up to Operation ‘Varsity‘ the allied crossing of the Rhine, there was further activity in the skies of this small grass strip. Operation ‘Riff Raff‘  saw yet more paratroops and gliders at Great Sampford, whilst in November 1945, after the war’s end, Operation ‘Share-Out‘ saw the final use of Great Sampford by the paratroops. No. 620 Squadron, who had been based at RAF Dunmow, were now winding down themselves and their use of Great Sampford ceased virtually overnight.

Since then, Great Sampford has become completely agricultural, the perimeter track virtually all that remains of this small but rather interesting site. It lies in a remote area, fed only by farm tracks and small footpaths. The tracks, now a fraction of their original size, still weave their way around the airfield as they did for that short, but busy time, in the mid 1940s.

Regretfully the airfield and its unique history has all but passed into the history books, and rather sadly, no memorial marks the airfield, even though many airmen were lost during  the many sorties in those dark days of the war-torn years of the 1940s.

We depart Great Sampford heading off once more, the airfields of Essex and East Anglia beckoning. As we move off, we spare a thought for those for whom this was the last view they had of ‘home’, and of those who never came back to this quiet and remote part of the world.

Sources and further reading

*1 National Archives: AIR 27/594/4 .

*2 Goodson. J,. “Tumult in the clouds” Penguin UK, (2009) 

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

*4 National Archives: AIR 27/945/26

National Archives: AIR 27/945/25

The “Slightly-out-of-Focuswebsite has details of a photo essay documenting the planning and execution of an airborne exercise prior to Operation Varsity. It’s a detailed document which includes gliders of 38 Group RAF landing at Great Sampford.

Operation ‘Fuller’ – “The Channel Dash”.

On 12th February 1942, 18 young men took off on a daring mission from RAF Manston, in outdated and out gunned biplanes, to attack the German fleet sailing through the English Channel.

Leaving Brest harbour, a force of mighty ships including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, attempted a break out, supported by sixty-six surface vessels and 250 aircraft, they were to head north through the Channel out into the North Sea and homeward to Germany where they could receive valuable repairs.

The British, fearing such an attempt, had prepared six Fairy Swordfish of 825 Naval Air Squadron at nearby RAF Manston in readiness for the breakout. Ageing biplanes, they were no match for the Luftwaffe’s fast and more dominant fighters, nor the defensive guns of the mighty German fleet they were hoping to attack.

In front of their Swordfish, Lieut Cdr E Esmonde, RN, (2nd Left) on board HMS Ark Royal, October 1941. This photo was taken after the attack on the Bismark, and includes the various aircrew who received decorations as a result of that daring attack. (Left to right: Lieut P D Gick, RN, awarded DSC; Lieut Cdr E Esmonde, RN, awarded DSO; Sub Lieut V K Norfolk, RN, awarded DSC; A/PO Air L D Sayer. awarded DSM; A/ Ldg Air A L Johnson, awarded DSM). (© IWM A 5828)

In the cold winter of 1942, the Swordfish were kept ready, engines warmed and torpedoes armed, when suddenly and unexpectedly, at 12:25 on the 12th February, the fleet was sighted. They could no longer wait, and instead of attacking as planned at night, they would have to attack during the day, and so the order was given. The crews started their engines and set off on their daring and suicidal mission.

Shortly after take off, the escort arrived, merely ten Spitfires from No. 72 Squadron RAF, led by Squadron Leader Brian Kingcombe, and not the five Spitfire squadrons promised. The six Swordfish, led by  Lt. Cdr. Eugene Esmonde, dived to 50 feet and began their attack. Hoping to fly below the level of the anti-aircraft guns each of the six Swordfish flew gallantly toward their targets. Eventually hit and badly damaged, they pressed home their attacks, but they were out-gunned, and out performed, and just twenty minutes after the attack began, all six had fallen victim to the German guns. No torpedoes had struck home.

Of the eighteen men who took off that day, only five were to survive.

Leading the attack, Lt. Cdr. Esmonde was warded the V.C. Posthumously, he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the attack on the Battleship Bismark; an award that also went to: S/Lt. B Rose, S/Lt. E Lee, S/Lt. C Kingsmill, and S/Lt. R Samples. Flying with them, L/A. D. Bunce was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and twelve of the airmen were mentioned in dispatches.

In their honour and to commemorate the brave attempt to hit the German fleet that day, a memorial was erected in Ramsgate Harbour, the names of the eighteen men are listed where their story is inscribed for eternity.

Operation 'Fuller'

The memorial stands in Ramsgate Harbour.

Operation 'Fuller'

The names of the 18 airmen and the Swordfish they flew.