Wartime RAF Harwell

As we found out about how RAF Harwell was created in a previous post, it was taken over by the RAF between the 2nd and 12th of February 1937. The first aircraft flown in that April were Hawker Audaxes of No. 226 Squadron, in from Upper Heyford. They were quickly followed by Hawker Hinds of No. 105 Squadron from Old Sarum in Wiltshire. These were all biplanes with open cockpits, the pilots wearing leather flying helmets with huge goggles, maybe even a trademark scarf and bomber jacket to go with it. Just imagine that scene in Blackadder when Baldrick is hanging out the back of the plane. That was until later that year when No. 105 (B) and No. 107 (B) Squadrons brought in the brand new monoplanes. The planes introduced were the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim. The first Fairey Battle arrived in august, with both the squadrons fully equipped by October 1937.

On the 9th of May 1938, His Majesty King George VI and Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludelow Hewitt visited Harwell as part of a tour of four airfields. They were visiting one airfield for each of the major commands, fighter, bomber, coastal, and training. At this point in time RAF Harwell was still a bomber station, so was visited as such. The tour itself was brief at only 50 minutes, with the king inspecting a line of bombers, most of which were flown in for the occasion. He also visited the aircraft hangars, stores, dining halls and armament sections. Finishing up in North drive to inspect the married officers quarters, allegedly some of the best in the country. He was then whisked off to RAF Upton. During the short time, the A34 which goes right by the site was lined with waving crowds. Just one week later, on the 16th of May the bomb stores began loading the eventual 240 tons of bombs, shells and bullets supplied from the depot at Altrincham. This is the same bomb stores that was at the end of the runway, meaning there were a few close run ins with pilots that didn’t gain enough speed to take off. When the site became an Operational Training Unit (OTU) in 1939 the king made a second visit to inspect the No. 15 OTU.

King visiting Harwell
An image from when the his Majesty, Marshall of the RAF, King George VI on the 9th of May 1938. Credit: RAF, National Archives.

On the 10th of June 1938, four German officers visited the airfield by arrangement with the Air Ministry, with the German Air Attache (an Air Force officer who is part of a diplomatic mission) visiting a year later in June 39. They were likely looking for weaknesses in the airfields designs. On Empire Day 1939 (24th May) RAF Harwell held a public open day, inviting 11,000 visitors to come and see what the airfield looked like. There were reportedly many coaches of ‘charbancs’ from around the UK. There were also an unknown number of guests from Europe, of which there were likely a few German spies. They easily visited due to the reduced security for an open day. There were obviously many areas on the site fenced off the the public for safety and secrecy. There was one notable visit later on, by King Haakon of Norway. During the visit a display display was put on, three Avro Ansons flew in formation. Unfortunately two of them collided at low altitude, with one of the pilots parachutes failing to open in time. He died, with his plane crashing near Hendred Wood.

Hawker Hurricane, Likely at Harwell.
A Hawker Hurricane II held down, likely at Harwell. Taken in 1940. Credit: Paul Nash, the Tate.

This accident showed that flying was still a dangerous job, and the most dangerous flying (outside battles) was at nighttime. The landing strips were marked out at night by “goose necked flares” which looked a bit like a watering can or oil lamp. They burnt paraffin, with a big wick sticking out of the spout. The danger with them that was when the wind changed the flame could warm the chamber, potentially ending in an explosion. The ground of the airfield was well suited for its job as it had very deep ground water, meaning it was very unlikely to flood. That being said, anyone living in the area knows the ground is full of clay at the surface, and the famous chalk ridges to the south reach the site. This means when it all mixes together it gave everything a sticky white coating. Planes, cars and boots were all affected. In 1940 all this was over though, with the McAlpine company being contracted to build three concrete runways. It used stone from a quarry just up the road in Sutton Courtney, which afterwards became a water treatment plant, and is now a lake (bounded by Churchmere Rd and All Saints Ln). As well as this, the old paraffin lamps were replaced with electric runway lights, that would still be uncovered up to 50 years later. these lamps were built to last, with some still working half a century later after being buried!

goose necked flare
Goose-neck runway light from Tiree Airport. Similar flares would have been used at Harwell. Credit: an iodhlann

The winter of 1940 was known as a particularly cold one. Before planes could land, men with shovels would have to go out to move the snow out of the way. At the start of the war, the Fairey Battles left for France, with Wellington bombers taking their place. The first attack of the site was in February 1940 by Heinkel bomber, with their pale grey bodies,and black crosses on their side. Later that year on the evening of the 16th of August two bombers were refueled by the mound at the rear of hanger 7. A lone German plane came via Rowstock (NE of site), dropping 4 bombs and strafing first street. Both aircraft were destroyed, along with another nearby, with two men killed. One of the airmen died trying to pull a burning bowser (type of storage tank on wheels) away from the storage tanks. A bullet did get into the ventilation pipe but did not catch the main fuel tanks on fire. There was another raid that night at midnight, then another three days later. The 26th of August raid was the most serious, with four bombs being dropped on the bomb dump, with 6 civilian men dying while building a wall. In August 1942 a single aircraft managed to drop 7 large bombs on the airfield, with four failing to explode. It was at night, with some pilots thinking they saw a cat in a shower of sparks running between hangar 9 and 10. It was actually a 500 kg bomb! These bombs were made safe, emptied, painted white and mounted on the wall of the CO’s office in B77. After the war the scientists buried them in the bomb dump, and were found 50 years later in 2002.

storage tanks
The storage tanks at the rear of hangar 7. Credit: RAF, National Archives.

There was plenty of defense against attacks, with an important part being the air raid shelters littered around site. Land surveys in 2003 in SW corner of campus revealed four underground air-raid shelters. There are also lots of concrete tunnels connecting buildings around the site. Most of these tunnels are long forgotten, and most were not on any maps or plans even at the time for security reasons. Subterranean tunnels linked B150 with B151 and many air raid shelters came to light in surveying by UKAEA in the late 1990’s. The cellar underneath ‘B’ mess (B173) was also serviced by a tunnel that emerged via vertical steel steps into shrubbery 15 m away. This was apparently still accessible in 2005. Other similar structures and tunnels were constructed with half inch thick steel blast doors.

RAF Harwell Pill Box
A pill box just outside the Curie entrance of what is now Harwell Campus. Credit: Steve Carvel
pill box in the snow
The same pill box as above, but in the snow.

During an air raid in 1943 a German Junkers 88 bomber got into trouble and dropped its bombs over countryside between Upton and the A417 to Rowstock. They landed on the airfield and the two crew were captured as prisoners of war. Interestingly, when released a few years later they actually stayed in England and worked for the Thames water board. The last attack was in 1944 by a ‘doodlebug’ flying bomb, and it destroyed three aircraft. The war ended on the 2nd of September, and just a couple of months later there was a visit by JD Cockroft of DSIR, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. This was a very special reconnaissance mission, and was the start of the end of RAF’s occupancy of Harwell. Cockroft got a “somewhat frosty reception” by all accounts, but it made sense when you looked at the military secrets held at RAF Harwell, a heritage that was seen as useful to DSIR. This was the beginning of the age of Harwell being at the heart of Atomic research, but that is for another post.

Thank you for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or any other sort of history. Alternatively follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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Creating RAF Harwell

Some time in early 1935 there was a knock at the door of the bungalow stables near Chilton. Leonard Cundall opened the door to two uniformed men, with only one thing to say. “Mr Cundall there’s going to be a war”. Within 6 months the Air Ministry had compulsory purchased the land for £11,6500. The land would be used for one of many new airfields being built as part of a national war effort. The John Laing engineering company won the contract to build 66 airfields for the RAF expansion period prior to World War Two. Reportedly the area south of Harwell village had been used as an emergency landing ground for night flying since WW1. There has also been talk of the area being used as a glider training ground around this time as well. The ground is surprisingly flat, and a big open space, perfect for air training. The John Laing engineering company was also famous for building the Mulberry Harbour system, which was the artificial harbour built for the Normandy landings. They also build the Royal Ordinance factory in Sellafield, Windscale nuclear power plant, the M1, and the reconstruction of Coventry cathedral. Of the 66 airfields Laings company built, Harwell was the first to be constructed. The work started on the airfield in June of 1935. 

Paratroops of 22 Independent Parachute Company, British 6th Airborne Division, waiting to board the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle Mk V that will drop them over Normandy, RAF Harwell, 5 June 1944. H 39065 War Office official photographers.

In RAF tradition all airfields have pretty much the same layout. This makes sense when you think about it as if a new pilot flies in from another group they know where to go to find the mess hall or where to get paid or where to find the Commanding Officer. Another tradition is that every building is numbered in the order of construction. No. 1 was the guardroom at the entrance to the site. After initial construction the site had 202 individually numbered buildings, and then almost another 100 houses on top of this for people to live. The hangars had a slightly different numbering system, the four hangars were originally named H1-H4, but at the outbreak of war they were renamed H7-H10. At the other end of the numbering B199 was a Gymnasium that doubled up as a chapel. There were no buildings west of Hangar 10 when the site was built. There was a gunnery range in this area that was there to realign the aircraft guns, but this was subsequently occupied by the B220 radio chemical facility, the first major building built by Chivers post war. Two civilian houses were demolished to make way for a a deep underground fuel store, building B3. It contained 6 large cylindrical tanks, with excavated dirt piled on top to produce bomb proof mounds. The second building was pulled down to become the main runway, which is now Frome Road. Aldfield farm to the north and Upper farm to the south escaped demolition. Upper farm stables were requisitioned though. The long building with large doors was perfectly sized to be turned into an aircraft cleaning shed. Go in one side dirty, come out the other side clean!

The Harwell site taken in 1944 with the A34 running from left to right at the top. According to the markings it was taken in April 1944.

The naming of the airfield comes with an interesting story. The 800 acre site sits mainly in the parish of Chilton. A third of the site is in East Hendred parish, with the smallest section being in Harwell. Up until the Commanding Officer got there, it likely had some sort of code name or number. When the CO arrived the subject of the name had to be handled. He lived in the largest of the houses in the northern end of the site in South Drive. He declared that the airfield should be named after whichever parish his house resided in. That parish happened to be Harwell, therefore RAF Harwell it was. As it was a very early airfield it had many flaws. Even worse, it was a bomber training station, with new and inexperienced pilots everywhere. The first big issue was that the three runways intersected in the middle (almost). This is a huge issue, as it would only take a single bomb to take out all three runways. Plus there is a much larger risk of the new pilots crashing in the centre when trying to launch at the same time. There was also a hugely complex system of taxi tracks. There were also over 120 dispersal pads for the planes/gliders scatted around the site. These pads are there to disperse parked aircraft, so if there is an air raid it will minimise the damaged caused overall. Also called hardstands, they also stopped damage to other planes if there was an accident while “bombing up”. These pads tended to be 150 ft (46 m) in diameter and at least 150 ft from the funnel track, this was actually a rule for all buildings on the site.

The pathfinders of the 22nd Independent Company and the Advance parties disembark from their trucks at RAF Harwell alongside the Albemarles of 295 Squadron that will carry them to Normandy. Copyright: Imperial War Museum.

One big thing that they overlooked in the design was the location of the munitions dump. They placed it at the end of the shortest runway, now known as Severn Road. The other issue with this particular runway is that it had a slight hill. When going along the runway you couldn’t actually see the other end over the brow of the hill. There are many stories of young pilots with huge bomb payloads barreling down the runway to then realise they did’t have enough speed to make it. They would have to ‘prang’ the aircraft into the field between the end of the runway and the bomb store fence. There was no reports of any explosions caused by this though. One other notable point is the building materials used in the construction of many of these buildings and tracks. The runway of a bomber station was often up to 9 inches (23 cm) thick, and took 18,000 tons of dry cement and 90,000 tons of aggregate, then covered with a layer of asphalt. In later airfields the hardcore used was often from destroyed buildings, and were carried by train to the sites. Harwell initially opened in February 1937 with a grass airfield but got replaced with concrete runways between July and August 1941.

A slightly better quality photograph of RAF harwell, you can clearly see the dispersal pads and the concrete runways. 

The buildings themselves were made from the classic red brick but the food preparation and storage areas were made from a brick named ‘grano’. Short for granolithic stone it was a mixture of sand cement and granite dust. The resulting stone was hard wearing and was perfect for the constant cleaning and wiping of food storage areas. The issue found later was that the high granite content meant measurable amounts of natural uranium/thorium. The food areas were slightly radioactive. They were also found in the walls of offices in the aircraft hangers and in the BISO, the aimens mess! Plus most dials on compasses and equipment were painted with radium, another radioactive material. Turns out Harwell always had some radioactive heritage.

A Short Stirling Mark IV (LK115, ‘8S-Z’) of No. 295 Squadron RAF, taking off from Harwell, Oxfordshire (UK), towing an Airspeed Horsa glider. Credit: Royal Air Force/ Imperial War museum

By the end of the war over 500 airfields had been built, and most of these issues were ironed out in later designs. The original site was only designed to last 10 years, but even today a huge amount of buildings on that Harwell site still remain in some state. There are a few sections of runway still left, and even a few of the dispersal pads are still visible underneath the undergrowth. 

Thank You for reading, take a look at my other posts if you are interested in space, electronics, or any other sort of history. Alternatively follow me on Twitter to get updates on projects I am currently working on.

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