How the fields of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire played a vital part in the Second World War
PUBLISHED: 09:47 11 August 2014
The patchwork fields of our counties hid some vital centres of the Second World War effort, but you had to look up to see the results, explains John Leete
For a young lad with an enquiring mind it was quite a lot to take in. Like most youngsters of his age, Alf Moore had studied his aircraft recognition chart and could tell the difference between ‘one of ours’ and ‘one of theirs’. How many times had he looked to the skies in the hope of seeing one of theirs being chased by a Spitfire or a Hurricane, well, he’d lost count.
Today was different though, not least because all was calm at home now that his Aunty Olive, who had moved in with him and his mum some years before, had stopped repeating herself, ‘I am not going to stay in the town to get ‘it by Jerry’. Today was just the right weather for plane spotting and Alf, 11, and his friends would soon be flat on their backs in a field just down the road from home. Above them, so many planes that they gave up counting. They were in awe.
Recalling that day, Alf, who grew up in Berkshire, said that he realised not long after the war’s end that they were witnessing the start of the Allied air offensive in the build up to D-Day 1944. “Over a period of weeks, it must have been, we saw a lot of aircraft going to and from Europe. I had seen various aircraft lined up at Theale airfield, but as much as I wanted to I wasn’t allowed to cycle up to Hampstead Norreys, where the bombers were.”
Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, like almost every other county, had vital roles to play in the build up to and launch of D-Day. This contribution, particularly to the air offensive, has left us with a tangible legacy of those dramatic times.
For instance, many of Buckinghamshire’s airfields were used for training pilots, but as the war progressed they began to fly overnight raids to Germany and on D-Day. Flights at Wing airfield began in 1942 and some of the buildings have survived from those days. At Westcott some of the first ever simulator training was installed, using the fuselage of a Wellington. Both here and at Oakley crews were lost during training missions. A Wellington bomber that had taken off from Wing crashed in Winslow with the lost of 17 lives.
Haddenham airfield was first used as a base for the Glider Training Squadron, with lower ranks living in Thame workhouse. It was visited by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). Haddenham was transferred to the Air Transport Auxiliary, for training the civilians who flew repaired planes to military bases.
The High Wycombe area saw the arrival of Bomber High Command at Naphill in 1940. The Chilterns beech trees were part of a disguise, with buildings made to look like a church and village houses.
Whilst there is little or no trace of some of Berkshire’s 15 or so airfield sites including the emergency landings grounds, (ELGs) at Bray Court, Maidenhead and Crazies Farm, Henley-on-Thames, those that do remain have more than a passing presence some 70 years after their contribution to the air war and to Operation Overlord, the invasion of occupied Europe.
In this anniversary year therefore, it is appropriate that we take, albeit a brief look at a couple of examples of our wartime aviation heritage, contrasting two sites, one of which is no longer visible, except in the pages of history books.
To the west of Berkshire, there is evidence of the former Membury airfield and although the site has been effectively cut in half by the M4, the interested observer will be able to identify remains of wartime occupation on both sides of the motorway bridge. Construction of this standard type airfield was authorised in 1941, it being typical in layout with a main runway and two subsidiary runways plus four hangers with a technical area and dispersed domestic sites. One such domestic site, now industrial units, remains at Little Noakes Copse, Ermine Street on the B4000, whilst on the main site at Lambourn Woodlands on the road to Ramsbury, are a number of original buildings, again in use by industry.
This site was nearing completion just as contingents of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) started to arrive in Britain and it was immediately earmarked for their occupation. Designated as Station 466 by the USAAF, Membury was a Royal Air Force Bomber Command airfield which although still not completed, was opened in the autumn of 1942. Various aircraft flew from here including, in the early years, the P-38 Lightning, the B-17 Flying Fortress and the Spitfire V. The need for a longer runway became apparent when Membury was chosen as the base for transport aircraft and the demand for aircraft movement increased. What was called the North/South Runway, the imprint of which can still be seen today, was extended to 1,829 metres (6000 ft) taking it almost up to Ermine Street.
The airfield was handed over by the RAF to the Americans on 22 February 1944 at a time when the build up to D-Day was operating at a heightened state. Training for the Normandy operation, under the code-name Albany, ensued under the leadership of Colonel AN Williams with low level glider towing and paratroop drops using C-47 troop transport aircraft and Horsa gliders.
Ninety aircraft took part in the first operation on 6 June 1944, the first waves going in after midnight carrying paratroops from the American 101st Airborne, a unit which has close historical links with Berkshire. Membury, which until recent years was regarded as the most complete WW2 ‘hostility’ airfield in Berkshire (the credit now goes to nearby Welford) was placed on a care and maintenance basis after closure in 1946 although it was subsequently considered for use as a Strategic Air Command base (SAC) during the Cold War. Another Berkshire airfield, Greenham Common was chosen instead, but that’s another story!
Part of the original Membury airfield site is now used for private flying.
In the east of the county, Smiths Lawn in Windsor Great Park was also engaged in the business of supporting the air offensive. When in 1940, the Vickers Armstrong factory in Weybridge was bombed, the company had to relocate production. It moved to Smiths Lawn where a private grass airstrip already existed. This airstrip was already in use by Hawker Hurricane fighters (designed by Sidney Camm who was born in Windsor) and was also to be used now for the production of high altitude Wellington bomber aircraft which were constructed in two brick hangers. One was situated near Cheeseman’s Gate, Wick Lane, Windsor where fuselage sections were built and the second hangar called the Flight Hangar, was where the aircraft were completed.
During the war, 64 Wellington Mk VIs were assembled on Smith’s Lawn and some aircraft were modified to carry an airborne lifeboat for use to rescue ditched aircrew. American DC3 (Dakotas) were stationed on a permanent basis at Smiths Lawn and later, canvas and wooden huts were built near Cumberland Gate to accommodate an operational centre for the 27th Transport Group (TC) of the USAAF. Effective camouflage across the site gave it the look of ploughed fields.
The men and machines have long since vanished, perhaps though still remaining in the memory for a few who experienced those times. So it is to our generation to reflect upon and carry forward the story of the counties’ wartime aviation history.