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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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