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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The Secret Side of Sleepy North Devon and Cornwall

Barrel Rock Bude
Barrel Rock at the end of the Breakwater on Bude beach, used to guide ships into the harbour.

North Devon and Cornwall, a sleepy area that is full of history of its fishing and farming past. Now with a bustling influx of tourists every summer to enjoy the museums, adventure parks and sunny beaches. Just getting back from a holiday there in Appledore It has all these things, but the one big thing I noticed was the large presence of military sites in the area. Just visible from Appledore is RMB Chivenor, a big marine base, as well as a Babcock site that has built military ships for over 160 years. Just down the road is a selection of old RAF radar stations and airfields, one of which is now a top secret GCHQ site that could be listening to a large portion of the world’s internet traffic.

View From Bude
A view of one of the satellite dishes at GCHQ Bude taken from Bude beach. Credit: me.

On a day trip to Bude in Cornwall, after the customary ice cream we took a walk down the beach and were drawn to the Breakwater. More specifically a big rocky section at the end of the breakwater called Barrell Rock. Named so because of the barrel on the end of a long pole used to guide ships around the dangerous rocky breakwater. It gave a great view of the beach and bude itself,  and the chapel said to be where Bude originated. One thing I did notice when looking north up the coastline was what looked like a satellite dish, and that got me wondering. Then I remembered we passed a single signpost on the way pointing to GCHQ. It turns out that just 6km up the coastline is GCHQ Bude.

A view of GCHQ Bude
A great View of GCHQ from the coastal path. Credit: Paul Phillips

Nestled between the small villages of Morwenstow and Coombe, during the second World War the Air Force built RAF Cleave. It was designed to house target and target support aircraft for the firing ranges along the north cornwall coast. After the war it then stayed in government hands, with little use. Then in the 1960’s it started changing. The main reason: in 1962 a satellite receiving station was established at Goonhilly Downs, mainly for linking with television satellites, it also carried large amounts of telecommunications data. A surprisingly important piece of satellite communications infrastructure it has played a key role in communications events such as the Muhammad Ali fights, the Olympic Games, the Apollo 11 Moon landing, and 1985’s Live Aid concert. Being only 100km south of RAF Cleave signals could be intercepted by placing receiver dishes on the grounds. Initially to intercept mainly signals from Intelsat, a commercial communications satellite, the construction of the station began in 1969, with two 27m dishes, with smaller dishes coming after. Initially signposted as CTOS Morwenstow (CTOS standing for Composite Signals Organisation Station), in 2001 when a third large dish was built the station was renamed GCHQ Bude.

RAF Cleave gun emplacement
Remains of an RAF Cleave gun emplacement, with the modern satellite dishes of GCHQ Bude behind

GCHQ Bude has come under fire many times because of the ethical implications of the work conducted there. Even as early as 1963 they could have been tapping the data classed as suspicious from the TAT-3 telephone undersea cable. There are cable landing points at Widemouth bay that connect the UK to the USA, just 10 km south of the Cleave camp. It was also featured in a BBC Horizons documentary where it is claimed that all the data that goes through that the internet landing cable at Skewjack farm in Cornwall (formerly RAF Sennen) is sent on to GCHQ Bude for processing. The Fiber-Optic Link Around the Globe cable that surfaces there is estimated to see around 25% of all internet traffic, just think about that for a second. In terms of satellite installations at GCHQ Bude there are twenty one satellite antennae of differing sizes, three of which having a diameter of 30m. In theory these dishes could cover all the main frequency bands. Based on the position, some have theorised that they are oriented towards satellites of the INTELSAT, Intersputnik, and INMARSAT communications networks over the Atlantic Ocean, Africa, and the Indian Ocean, as well as towards the Middle East and mainland Europe. As well as this in 2011 a torus antenna was installed which is able to receive signals from up to thirty five satellites at once.

GCHQ Bude facing East
A wide image of GCHQ Bude facing east with a sunset in the background.

This post is not about my opinion about what they do at GCHQ but I find it a very interesting place, with a serious amount of technology involved, but they have been in the news a lot. A report made public in 2001 showed concerns by some EU member states that CTOS Morwenstow was involved in industrial espionage. It is claimed that the Intelligence Services Act 1994 grants GCHQ access to anything that emitted an electromagnetic signal, so pretty much any electronic device. In 2011 the Guardian reported how GCHQ attempted to gain access to the Blackberry Messenger service for the use of police to trawl for riot organisers. In 2013 the Guardian reported a large amount of information about GCHQ Bude leaked by Edward Snowden. It talked about operation Tempora, where GCHQ tapped into undersea cables and kept the data for up to 30 days to assess and analyse it. A further article reported that it was eavesdropping on charities, German government buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, and an EU commissioner. There are plenty of other similar articles out there with similar overtones, and about GCHQ in general. The thing I found crazy is that even though trespassing on the site is its own law, you can walk fairly close when going along the coastal path.

RAF Hartland Sign
A sign at one of the old radar stations at RAF Hartland Point, now used by the aviation authority. Credit: Exal66 on derelictplaces.co.uk

When researching this subject it can get into a deep pit of conspiracy, but the thing I enjoy the most is looking at old military installations. Just up the coast from Bude in the northwestern point of Devon is Hartland Point. We visited Hartland Quay (close by) and it is highly recommended for the views. Apart from the hundreds of shipwrecks along that coastline, a noticeable part of the view is the old radar station at the point. During World War 2 that was controlled by RAF Hartland Point. The foundations of the big type 11, 13 and 14 radars can still be seen around the radar station at the point. Great information about the radar systems and some more information about the base can be found here. There is also an old air raid shelter, and a former station building that has been commandeered by the coastguard. The radar that can be seen nearby (the spherical one) is used by the UK Civil Aviation Agency for air traffic control. A user on derelictplaces.co.uk shows some great images of his walk around the site.

RAF Hartland base
The base of a radar from WW2 at what was RAF Hartland point. The aviation authorities new radar is in the background. Credit Exal66 on derelictplaces.co.uk

The final place I want to mention is one that is very noticable to anyone who has called the Tarka Trail between Fremington and Bideford. It passes right across the river from the historical Appledore shipbuilders. With many owners and names in the 160 years it has been active, it is now owned and operated by Babcock international Ltd, the same company who run Devonport. The dockyard has built more than 350 vessels in its lifetime, including small and medium-sized military craft, as well as superyachts, bulk carriers, ferries and oil/LPG industry vessels. While we were there a Norwegian military ship was being worked on. Some of the most notable ships include HMS Echo, HMS Enterprise, HMS Scott, and RRS Charles Darwin. A trip down the Tarka Trail is highly recommended, especially by bike.

Appledore Babcock
The shipbuilders at Appledore, now owned and run by Babcock international, visible by the Tarka Trail.

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