The lost airfields of Gloucestershire and the remarkable role they played in WW2

From the Gloster Meteor to Concorde, the Red Arrows to those top secret B2 Stealth Bombers, Gloucestershire has a rich history when it comes to aviation. Indeed, even before aeroplanes, one of the first balloon flights recorded happened over Cheltenham.

So as the country marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day we’ve traced the history of Gloucestershire’s aerodromes and airfields which have been lost over the years.

Did you know that part of the M5 past junction 12 follows the line of an old runway? That the Red Arrows were formed in the Cotswolds or the brave glider pilots that landed in Normandy in the early hours of D-Day were towed across the Channel from tiny Cotswold villages.

Today Gloucestershire has just a handful of airfields, the three biggest being Gloucestershire Airport at Staverton, Cotswold Airport at Kemble and of course RAF Fairford, run by the USAF.

Yet during WW2 there were more than 30 active airfields across the county. Join us for a trip back in time to find lost aerodromes, runways which have disappeared into fields and the hidden history of Gloucestershire’s aviators.

RAF Aston Down

Perched on the hills above Chalford, not far from Minchinhampton, Aston Down is still an active airfield today with those graceful gliders which you see circling the Stroud Valleys based there. The airfield, originally RAF Minchinhampton, was reopened in 1938 and during WW2 was home to maintenance, ferry and training units. It stayed in the hands of the RAF until the late 1970s – even welcoming the odd visit from the Red Arrows – before becoming a private airfield afterwards.

RAF Babdown Farm

Most recently seen on episodes of Top Gear and now home to a furniture unit visited by David Beckham, this little airfield sits on the road between Tetbury and Calcot. Another training base this airfield was small but busy, with more than 570 RAF staff and a further 223 Women’s Auxilary Air Force staff based there during the peak of operations. It closed after the war and has since been partly returned to fields with the rest of the site now industrial estate.

RAF Barnsley Park

A small relief landing site, used during the final years of WW2 as a satellite base for storing aircraft.

RAF Bibury

This tiny airfield, no more than a couple of grass landing strips and a few buildings at one point played its own role in the Battle of Britain. It was a detachment base for the Hawker Hurricanes of 87 Squadron and later the Supermarine Spitfires of the 92 Squadron protecting the south west. Flying ended in 1944 and the site closed shortly afterwards. Today not much remains.

RAF Boddington

The odd one out, this was an RAF base with no airstrip. Opened in the 1940s as an army telephone exchange it was later an RAF signals unit. It stopped being an MOD site in 2007 and is now known as ISS Boddington, a Joint Forces Command operation.

Bowldown Farm

Just outside Tetbury, on the way to Westonbirt, this little aerodrome was a relief landing ground for nearby RAF Hullavington and RAF Kemble where new pilots would practice circuit flying.

Brockworth

Another odd one out because it wasn’t an RAF site, instead this was the home of the Gloster Aircraft Company. Today the Dowty factory on Hurricane Road has a section of the original runway, which used to run across the land between Cooper’s Edge and Tesco.

Beneath farms, fields and hidden by woodland are the hidden reminders of the vital role Gloucestershire played in the Second World War
Brockworth (GAC) works and Airfield taken from the in 1942, pic from Ken Whey collection

The Gloster Aircraft Aerodrome, where Britain’s first jet-powered aircraft performed trials, and the Gloster Meteor was built and flown.

RAF Chedworth

Inactive since the 1980s, this airfield was mostly used for training purposes in its heyday. It opened in 1942 as a satellite station serving RAF Aston Down, and was controlled by numerous RAF units throughout the early 1940s.

From June to July 1944, RAF Chedworth was home to the headquarters squadron of the Ninth Air Force of the United States Army Air Forces units.

Today, the skeleton of the site includes most of the two runways, one of the two original blister hangars, the armoury and the battle HQ building. Although, the site is largely agricultural.

RAF Down Ampney

This airfield, just a few miles outside of Fairford played a remarkable role in WW2. Home to 48 and 271 Squadrons, as well as the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion and the 3rd Parachute Brigade HQ, the Dakotas which took off from the field in Gloucestershire dropped troops into France via the Horsa gliders they towed behind them. On D Day 570 paratroopers left Down Ampney for Normandy. The airfield also played a pivotal role in Operation Market Garden (Arnhem). Today the remains of the airfield are clearly visible from above, although much of the site is now farmland. And the village remains rightly proud of its history with tributes to the squadrons who were based at Down Ampney in the form of memorial windows and a garden at the church which was a welcome sight to so many troops returning home.

The most famous pilot to fly from Down Ampney was David Lord, awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery in the Battle of Arnhem. As the pilot of a Dakota which left Down Ampney to drop supplies to troops he found himself under attack from anti-aircraft guns on the ground. Instead of abandoning his mission, despite the starboard engine being set on fire, Flight Lieutenant Lord continued to the dropping zone and ensuring the supplies were dropped. With the plane now on fire he ordered his crew to leave the plane but a few seconds later the wing collapsed and plane plummeted, only one member of the crew survived.

His VC citation read: “By continuing his mission in a damaged and burning aircraft, descending to drop the supplies accurately, returning to the dropping zone a second time and, finally, remaining at the controls to give his crew a chance of escape, Flight Lieutenant Lord displayed supreme valour and self-sacrifice.”

RAF Fairford

Today it is the longest runway in the county, long enough for the B2 Stealth Bomber and before that the Space Shuttle and Concorde, but RAF Fairford is one of the newer airfields in Gloucestershire, not built until 1944. Originally aimed as a base for British and American troop carriers and gliders, much like neighbouring Down Ampney, it was not until after WW2 that it expanded and became such a key strategic base. The Americans arrived in 1948 and in the 1960s Fairford briefly became home to the Red Arrows. Now a USAF forward operating base, Fairford sees regular visit from the B2s, the B52 bombers and the U2 spy planes. It also hosts RIAT, although not this year.

RAF Filton

At the time of WW2, still part of Gloucestershire, Filton was home to the Filton Sector Operations Room which was part of No. 10 Group, RAF Fighter Command. It was bombed in September 1940, with the Luftwaffe concentrating their attack at the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s works on the south side of the airfield. Six air raid shelters were hit and 200 people were killed.

The site now houses BAE/ Airbus and Aerospace Bristol.

RAF Innsworth

Another site with no airstrip, this was a technical training base for airframe fitters and mechanics. It opened in 1940, with more than 2,000 officers based there at one time. By 1941 this had risen to 4,000 including members of the Womens Air Auxilary Force. Post war there were more than 5,000 people living at Innsworth, which later became home to the RAF Record Office and various admin offices including RAF Base accounts. In March / April 2005 the MOD Medals Office and Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC) were established at Innsworth.

Now known as Imjin Barracks it is the home of the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

RAF Little Rissington

RAF Little Rissington was built in the 1930s and quickly became a key site for training pilots. The Central Flying School was based there along with being the main administration base for the Red Arrows. Originally an RAF site, the USAF took over in 1981 until 1993. During WW2 it started off as a training, maintenance and storage site, with local satellite sites being used later on due to the number of planes being stored there. RAF Kemble became a satellite base for Little Rissington as it became too busy to accommodate the new jets that came along in the 1950s after war.

Beneath farms, fields and hidden by woodland are the hidden reminders of the vital role Gloucestershire played in the Second World War
The first Red Arrows at RAF Little Rissington

The site still belongs to the RAF, and has been used as a film set in recent years. It was used in the James Bond film Die Another Day.

RAF Long Newnton

Long Newnton aerodrome began WW2 as a decoy site for nearby Kemble. It would be lit up to mirror Kemble in a bid to foil enemy planes. But as the war wore on it came into use in its own right as a storage and maintenance unit. Its grass runways were used for training pilots in blind flying techniques.

RAF Kemble

Straddling the Wiltshire/ Gloucestershire border, Kemble was opened in 1936 as an aircraft storage and maintenance unit. No.4 Service Ferry Pilot Pool arrived in 1940 and the following year Kemble became the headquarters for all the RAF Ferry units in the country. No.5 maintenance unit was at Kemble from 1938 until 1983 serving the RAF and latterly the USAF. It was most famously home to the Red Arrows from 1966 until 1983.

Beneath farms, fields and hidden by woodland are the hidden reminders of the vital role Gloucestershire played in the Second World War
Red Arrows 1971 practice at their original home at RAF Kemble.

In private hands since 2001, it is now known as Cotswold Airport, and houses a number of businesses including an air salvage business, the airfield has also hosted filming for Top Gear and even a couple of Formula One tests. It is currently storing a number of large Boeing 747s.

RAF Moreton Valence

A test site for the Gloster Aircraft Company and an important airfield in its own right. If you drive down the M5 from J12 towards J13 (or the other way) then you will cover part of the old runways. Most famous for the Gloster Meteors and Javelins that flew from there.

RAF Moreton-in-Marsh

Built relatively late on in 1940, Moreton was a relief runway and training base, home of No.21 Operational Training Unit flying Vickers Wellington bombers. It is now the site of the Fire Service Training College.

RAF Northleach

Technically nearer Hampnett than Northleach this little airstrip was an emergency landing ground for the Glider Training School from nearby Stoke Orchard.

RAF Pucklechurch

The home of the barrage balloons flown over Bristol, RAF Pucklechurch sat on the site now occupied by Ashfield Young Offenders Institution. It opened in 1939 and was operational until 1959.

Park Corner (near Daglingworth)

No more than a grass landing strip, this little airfield was a storage field for planes which could land quickly and be hidden by the surrounding trees from enemy eyes. Several large Short Stirling bombers were dispersed here and delivered by civilian ATA pilots.

RAF Quedgeley

No runway but this RAF base was one of the last to close in the county, still operational up until a few years ago. During WW1 it employed more than 6,000 people in its munition factories but by WW2 it served as a maintenance site up until the 1990s.

RAF South Cerney

Perhaps the best example of what an early WW2 aerodrome looked like can be found at South Cerney. Look on Google Earth and you’ll see a large, almost circular, landing ground (field) with no concrete runway.

Today it is run by the Army but during WW2 South Cerney was a very important training base and an RAF Service Flying Training School was based there flying Airspeed Oxfords and Hawker Harts. This training role continued through to the 1960s with Piston Provosts and North American Harvards.

It was later designated the Head Quarters for 23 Group, RAF, and remained in RAF control until 1971 when it was handed over to the army and renamed the Duke of Gloucester Barracks.

RAF Southrop

Blink and you’d miss the site of this former airfield on the edge of Southrop, it is on your left if you head into the village from Fairford, not far from Macaroni Woods. A relief landing ground for training flights from RAF South Cerney it boasted three grass runways. It was used from 1942 by No.2 Flying Training School and other training units through to November 1947.

RAF Staverton

Once situated at the site that is now Gloucestershire Airport, RAF Staverton was used for training operations from 1936 through to the 1950s. Famously, it was used by Sir Alan Cobham and later Flight Refuelling Ltd who pioneered the use of Air-Air refuelling techniques for aeroplanes.

Several flights and units were based at Staverton throughout WW2 and it went on to become a popular flying club and business aerodrome.

In 1946, the RAF Police Dog Training School moved from Woodford to Staverton. It is now known as Gloucestershire Airport.

RAF Stoke Orchard

RAF Stoke Orchard, near Bishop’s Cleeve, was developed in the early 1940s, initially to be used as a Relief Landing Ground. Between July 1942 and January 1945, the airfield was predominantly used for the training of glider pilots and instructors. Its first occupants were the Tiger Moths of No.10 Elementary Flying Training School that moved in from Weston Super Mare (RAF Locking).

In the present day, the airfield is now an agriculture/waste plant. What was once the Coal Board is now a Bloor Homes housing estate, the streets of which are namesakes of people, firms and aircraft related to the airfield – including Armstrong Road and Hurricane Drive.

RAF Windrush

RAF Windrush in the Cotswolds was only in use between 1940-45, and is now partly in ownership of the National Trust. It came into use during the summer of 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain but it was essentially a satellite and relief landing for the busy Little Rissington.

Between 1992 and 1997, The Midland Parachuting Club was granted a lease to use a strip of grass at RAF Windrush as a runway, using the Watch Tower as their base for parachuting – which was restored and is home to a very small museum dedicated to Sgt Bruce Hancock who collided with a marauding German bomber during the evening of Sunday 18th August 1940, losing his life in the process.

These are just a few of the lost airfields and airstrips in Gloucestershire and we are always keen to hear more stories about the amazing pilots, crew and volunteers who served our country during WW2 in Gloucestershire.

Story taken from: https://www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk/

steve clarke
Author: steve clarke