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Tag Archives: Airfields

  • Shropshire Airfields Through Time by Alec Brew

    Wander nowadays down many Shropshire country lanes near small villages like Atcham, Condover, Montford Bridge or Rednal, and you will come across silent, sightless sentinels, looking out across empty fields of corn or cows, derelict control towers watching over long forgotten airfields. High above, only soaring skylarks can be heard, where once aircraft engines filled the heavens with noise, as young men from across the World learned the necessary skills to fight the aerial battles of the Second World War.

    The Spitfires moved south in August and were replaced by the Lockheed Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group, who flew their aircraft from California. An RAF officer greets one of the pilots. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When war clouds loomed in the late Thirties, the adjacent counties of Shropshire and Staffordshire were seen as the ideal place to site the training airfields which would be needed for an expanding air force, thought to be far enough away from Europe to be out of range of the Luftwaffe. Shropshire alone had nearly twenty airfields across its Northern plain, two of them, at Shawbury and Tern Hill, reviving First World War airfields, which had served the same function. Suddenly the skies over Shropshire were filled with aircraft, the circuits at many airfields almost touching.

    There was basic training from RAF Tern Hill, advanced training from RAF Shawbury, Bomber Operational Training Units (OTUs) at Tilstock, Sleap and Peplow, a fighter OTU at Rednal and Montford Bridge, the Fleet Air Arm used an airfield at Hinstock which they called HMS Godwit, about as far from the sea as a godwit could fly. Even the Americans came, operating a Combat Crew Replacement Unit at Atcham, and when their P.47 Thunderbolts chanced upon the Spitfires from Rednal, could they resist a mock dogfight?

    Other combats were far from mock. Night fighters operated from High Ercall and Tern Hill, stalking the Germans who came to bomb the North-West or the Black Country. Bomber OTUs joined raids on Europe, new crews testing their skills.

    Even in training accidents were many, young men let loose on powerful machines, always a recipe for disaster, and especially with the Shropshire and Welsh hills close at hand. The Americans at Atcham had a favourite sport, chock to chock races in their powerful Thunderbolts, all around the Wrekin, which loomed large just to the south. Such was its peril that they placed a warning beacon on the top, with the on/off switch in Atcham control tower, turning it off when Germans were about. After the War, when Atcham closed, the switch was moved to High Ercall, and now resides in the tower at RAF Shawbury.

    This photograph has always been attributed to Tern Hill, but shows 1456 Flight Turbinlite aircraft. In the foreground is a Handley Page Harrow transport ‘Boadicea’, sometimes called a ‘Sparrow’ without the front turret. Behind is an Airspeed Oxford of No. 286 Army Co-operation Squadron, a Havoc and two black Hurricanes of 1456 Flight. The Pontoon and Dock Company, currently make Marina equipment in this Type K hangar on No. 2 Sub Site. High Ercall has a total of three Type K hangars. (Shropshire Airfields Through Time, Amberley Publishing)

    When the invasion of Europe loomed, assault gliders were assembled at RAF Cosford, and glider pilots trained at Tilstock, Peplow and Sleap, and then they went away to carry the fight to Normandy fields.

    At the end of the War the cut back was swift, airfields soon closed, those at High Ercall and Tern Hill lasting longer than most. RAF Shawbury remains today training the helicopter pilots for all three services, including, in its time, two young princes. Its runway remains a safe haven for aircraft in difficulty, in an area of the country where few remain. RAF Cosford remains the sole training base for ground based trades, and the home of the RAF’s only surviving annual Air Show. Tern Hill was turned over to the Army but the helicopters from Shawbury visit often. Sleap became Shropshire’s main general aviation airfield, and up on the Long Mynd, the one airfield closed during the War, has thrived since, as the home of the Midland Gliding Club. One other airfield is a surprising survivor, little RAF Chetwynd, a neat grass field lost down the lanes north of Newport, continues to serve as an extra landing field as it has for over 75 years, currently for the helicopters from Shawbury.

    Hopefully my book makes sense of what once was there, and what little still remains, those silent sentinels, the old control towers, those small industrial estates in surprisingly rural places, built on the old technical sites like Condover, Hinstock, Atcham or Rednal, those derelict Romney or Maycrete huts in farmyards or woods. Unsung memorials to a generation of young men now disappearing as they are reclaimed by Nature and the march of time.

    Alec Brew's book Shropshire Airfields Through Time is available for purchase now.

  • US Air Force Bases in the UK by Paul Bingley

    When it was suggested that I write a book about US Air Force bases in the UK, I jumped at the chance. After all, as the chairman of a museum dedicated to one base in particular, I knew I had a solid foundation on which to build. Shortly afterwards, though, I began to wonder if I had the tools for the job.

    The 'Stars and Stripes' are raised at RAF Burtonwood on 22 October 1943. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    My first task was to determine exactly how many US Air Force (USAF) bases there had been. This was no easy task, especially considering that the USAF and its antecedents – the US Army Air Corps and US Army Air Forces – had been in the UK since 1942. After some time, I concluded that there had been approximately 186 airfields used by the Americans at one time or another. This was not counting those that were allocated to them by the British and never actually used (probably another 40 or so); nor their support and non-flying facilities, which numbered around 300. Even a lengthy USAF report compiled in 1985 failed to fully determine the actual number of wartime American installations in the UK. So how to write about such a huge, undefined subject with a limited word count? My foundations were looking decidedly weak.

    With so many disused bases around the country, it would have been easy just to list each one and give a brief description of its current condition. However, for a reader with scant knowledge of the story behind the USAF’s presence in the UK, it would have failed to answer two very important questions: why was a particular airfield given over to the Americans, and why was it built where it was?

    A Douglas C-54 Skymaster lifts off from RAF Prestwick loaded with wounded GIs bound for the US. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    The most logical way of answering these questions was to build a chronological picture of airfield construction and use. Starting with the earliest American air force arrivals (but always bearing in mind those airfields that are still in use with today’s USAF), I began compiling a timeline of events running from January 1939 to the present day. Using this as the basis for a narrative, I then decided to ‘thread’ the story of present-day USAF facilities throughout, whilst highlighting other wartime airfields that had either continued to be used by the USAF post-war, or had particularly interesting back stories, i.e. emergency and advanced landing grounds, and those built by the Americans themselves.

    It must be said that my research was the easy part. Having a passion for a subject that I had a basic knowledge of meant that I knew roughly where to look. Putting it into words, however, was much more difficult. Using the timeline as my guide, I quickly realised that the restricted word count would mean that I could only focus on a limited number of bases. As a result, I decided to select 50 airfields and other facilities, including those still in use today. But this presented me with another challenge.

    The scale of RAF Burtonwood can be seen from this aerial image taken in August 1945. (Author's collection, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    Throughout the writing process, I was mindful of those who share my passion. Like me, many enthusiasts are devoted to particular airfields (in my case, the former RAF Ridgewell). I soon realised that by not touching on over 100 other American bases, I was risking the wrath of many in the airfield history community. Unfortunately, it was something that could not be helped, so I added a caveat to the preface and concentrated on the wider picture. Again, writing a limited number of words on such a sizeable subject was the most hindering aspect.

    Next, came the images. I already possessed a large collection of historical photographs, but I required some up-to-date shots of the bases as they are today. Thankfully, a very good friend and airfield aficionado came to the rescue. Richard E. Flagg has been on a mission to photograph airfields all over the UK. Moderator of various Facebook groups and content creator of the website, ukairfields.org.uk, Richard owns a fantastic library that he kindly gave me access to. The bulk of the images used in US Air Force Bases in the UK came through the lens of Richard.

    An F-15 Strike Eagle of the 48th FW ('Liberty Wing') outside its Hardened Aircraft Shelter at Lakenheath. (Richard E. Flagg, US Air Force Bases in the UK, Amberley Publishing)

    Finally, I began seeking a foreword written by someone highly regarded in the field of military history. I had given a small amount of assistance to the Battle of Britain historian, James Holland, for his most recent book, Big Week. To say I was overjoyed when he agreed to write my foreword is an understatement.

    Shortly after US Air Force Bases in the UK was released, I was invited to attend a book-signing event at the Imperial War Museum, Duxford. This was a huge moment for me, having been a volunteer tour guide in its AirSpace gallery for over five years. To see my book on the gift shop’s shelf (rather appropriately, below James Holland’s Big Week) was certainly a proud moment. But to sign it for other enthusiasts was the most humbling experience. Needless to say, when someone asked me if ‘their’ airfield was included, I was greeted with a look of despondency when I announced that it wasn’t. I guess this is the life of a writer – risking reputations to help educate others. One thing’s for sure, though – I now know I have the tools to build on something special.

    Paul Bingley's new book US Air Force Bases in the UK is available for purchase now.

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