Take a look at the history and origins of British airports, major and minor, and it’s remarkable how many of them started life before or during World War Two. The First World War, of course, was the first war in which aeroplanes played a fledgling fighting part, but the second war with all its technological advances really put the stamp on warfare from the air.
From the 1930s onwards Britain, suspecting trouble might be in the air again, built countless new airstrips in preparation for another war.
What travellers don’t know about UK airport histories
The south coast was under constant threat of invasion, right in the front line if the German army had crossed the channel. So this week we’re looking at two particular UK airfields of WW2 in the south of England, both of which have an illustrious war record: Stansted and Bournemouth.
Bournemouth airport’s splendid war record
August 1941 saw Bournemouth airport open as RAF Hurn, home to a variety of aircraft including Spitfire – everyone’s elegant Art Deco design favourite – as well as Wellingtons and Typhoons. In late 1942 Bournemouth became a base for several American squadrons and in 1944, as the war drew to a close, it was transferred to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, Britain’s only intercontinental airport until Heathrow opened.
One young pilot’s tragedy echoes down the decades
The war’s impact echoes down through the years. Take this story, revealed in 2011. A 20 year old Halifax Bomber pilot, Flight Sergeant Denis Evans, took off from the airport in March 1944, crashing into houses just moments after take-off. All seven crew members died, including the Denis himself, and two sleeping civilians also lost their lives when the plane crashed into their home in a Bournemouth suburb.
The RAF recorded the cause as pilot error, saying the young pilot wasn’t paying enough attention to his instruments. But in 2011 new evidence was discovered in the shape of two eye-witness accounts, both of which said one of the four Rolls Royce Merlin engines caught fire just before the crash.
As reported in March 2014, justice has been done and the young pilot’s name has been cleared at last:
“With Sergeant Dennis Evans in the cockpit during the crash, he would have been seen as the cause of the tragedy if not for extensive research showing that the plane had several flaws in its design. The investigation carried through multiple decades before Evans was cleared of any suspicion regarding the fate of the Halifax bomber, and he is among those honoured by the recent commemoration ceremony.”
In subsequent years the airport was heavily involved in making planes, building Vickers Viscount aircraftduring the 1950s and ’60s and producing the BAC 1-11 jetin the ’60s and ’70s, at a time when Concorde components were also made there. The airport was finally sold to Bournemouth and Dorset Councils in 1969 and its life as a modern hub began.
The role of Stansted airport during the Second World War
In early 1942 the British wartime government and US military officials decided to build a US Army Air Force bomber airfield near the little village of Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex. The US 817th Aviation Engineering Battalion arrived on site at Renfrew Farm in August the same year, tasked with converting the sleepy rural landscape into a massive military airfield.
The 817th left Stansted in November ’42, replaced by the 825th Aviation Battalion. They finished off the airfield roads, control tower, fire station and motor transport area, leaving in December 1943. May of ’43 saw runways and taxiways emerging thanks to the 850th Aviation Engineering Battalion, who stayed until spring 1944.
In February 1944, the 344th Bombardment Group moved in, along with squadrons 494,495, 496, and 497. They flew their first operational mission in March before the Group moved to France. The airport was also a vital maintenance base for the 8th and 9th Air Forces, both of which operated there. And after the war Stansted Airport functioned as a maintenance unit and a place to house German prisoners before repatriating them.
‘Band of Brothers’ revisit Stansted airport
In 2009 four of the soldiers who inspired TV’s Band of Brothers series unveiled a very special plaque at Stansted. They were all 88 years old. Buck Compton, Donald Malarkey, Ed Tipper and Bradford Freeman were there to share their war stories and commemorate the part played by the airport in winning the war.
All four of the 101st Airborne Division fighters made heart-warming speeches about their experiences. Donald Malarkey said “The UK is an incredible country and coming over here to fight during the war were some of the proudest days of my life”. Malarkey even met Churchill in person, a meeting he remembered with great pride. And all four men played a part in the D-Day invasions.
The TV series Band of Brothers was a worldwide hit in 2001, inspired by the 101st paratroopers division and based on their real-life experiences, produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. But the men themselves are almost as famous, and they were mobbed by autograph hunters throughout their visit.
Stansted 70th birthday celebrations
Emotions also ran high in June 2013 when the airport celebrated its 70th anniversary with a Thunderbolt flypast and the unveiling of a memorial. US veteran jets were present, special guests of honour to mark one of the largest WW2 US bases in East Anglia, home to the infamous 344th Bomb Group, the Silver Streaks who led the US Air Force into action on D-Day.
Retired 344th Bomb Group flying hero Major Edward W. Horn flew in from the US to join the ceremony designed to recognise the crucial role of the American Army Engineers in 1943 and the equally critical role George Washington Field, as Stansted was then called, played in World War Two.
Forgotten wartime airfields of southern England
During the war literally hundreds of state-of-the-art airfields were hastily constructed. Some were designed to cater for heavy bombers, including dozens of special hard standings and complex support facilities. Others housed squadrons of fighter planes and transport aircraft.
Many of Britain’s wartime airstrips survived to tell the tale, expanding beyond all recognition to create popular regional and national hubs for modern air travel. Others have been lost in time, leaving behind fascinating ghost airports that are often only visible from the air, having fallen into disuse or become peaceful farmland again.
Now and again you’ll spot a dilapidated hangars or the weedy leftovers of a runway, stores, mess or living accommodation. But from the air they spring back to life, their old wartime contours suddenly as clear as a bell. It’s an eerily fascinating experience.
Google Earth is a brilliant way to explore ghost airfields. There are some spectacular aerial images of forgotten British wartime airfields on the brilliant urbanghostsmedia website.