During the mid 1930's, it was realised by the Royal Air Force that it needed to build larger and better equipped airfields if another War with Germany was going to be a possibility. After the severe cutbacks of the 1920's and with government policy being not to fight another major war for at least ten years, it would be a large expansion indeed. Many purpose built airfields were established, and these were to be on a permanent basis. Built with brick barrack blocks and other permanent buildings,they were also to include bigger aircraft Hangars for servicing and maintenance, comfortable Officers and airmens quarters and dining halls, in fact they were as modern as could be at the time. The design and architecture gave the impression of being older than they were, benefiting from the ideas of one of the great architects of the time, Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens OM, KCIE,FRA,FRIBA.
By the latter part of the decade, it was realised that even more airfields would be needed. After many potential airfield sites were surveyed, a period of increased building took place on suitable sites with agricultural land being requisitioned under the Emergency Powers Act of 1939. Landowners and Farmers had no immediate recompense, nor grounds for appeal, and many did not get their land back until long after the war was over. These airfields were for hostilities only, born out of the need to expand quickly, their standard of build was not at all like the large permanent airfields mentioned above. Most buildings were of temporary brick construction with many types of huts employed to serve different purposes,the ubiquitous curved roof Nissen, pre-fabricated Seco, BCF, Laing, Janes and wooden MOWP huts were among the many types employed. Their life was not expected to be that long, probably ten years or so. The level of luxury at these airfields was non existent. Cold and damp with sparse heating and mud everywhere. An airman working a 12 hour shift out on the airfield in winter and summer alike, finished their shift cold and hungry. They then managed to get a meal at the communal site dining hall with probably a walk up to a mile or so to a sparse hut dripping in condensation, rainwater or both! It was no easy life on these temporary wartime airfields.
Much evidence can be found of these temporary airfields and their former existence, But alas, with each year that passes a little more is removed forever, until one day nothing will remain. For their four or five years of operational use, these temporary airfields were home to thousands of air and ground crews from all over the world including Great Britain, the Commonwealth countries, and the United States of America.
After the war was over they were abandoned, and quickly fell into disrepair. Many of the buildings were removed if no other use could be found for them . The miles of concrete from the perimeter tracks and runways was lifted over the post war decades. This was used to supply the hardcore-hungry road building market and releasing land once more to be put back under the plough. Even today more and more are being grubbed out for hardcore and crushed concrete. Now the current trend is to cover the face of these airfields with solar farms or wind turbines.
It is a shame to see these once proud places slowly being eradicated from the British landscape. To me they are probably just as important a part of England's heritage as a castle or an old battlefield. For in reality, battlefields they once were. An army of personnel manned the various services that provided the support to make them functional and, of course, not forgetting the aircrew that failed to return from the missions flown, nor ground crew involved in accidents on the ground. For fast turning propellors claimed quite a few personnel at many airfields while working in close proximity to the aircraft themselves.
Most have almost disappeared from sight now. In most cases the wide runways and perimeter tracks are just mere pathways of just a few feet wide. From the air, it is still possible to 'see' the outline of them, but not everyone has the chance to view them in this way. So, like most they resort to foot in an effort to explore. A few still have their huge runways and perimeter tracks intact, and have escaped destruction, but they are rare survivors. This website features just three of those temporary airfields, RAF Hunsdon and RAF Sawbridgeworth, both in East Hertfordshire, and the USAAF Station 161 at Matching Green Essex. This airfield was built by the Americans themselves for the US Ninth Air force, and their twin engined B-26 Martin Marauder Bombers.
All three are near the Town of Harlow that is on the boundary of the two counties.
If you do intend to see for yourself the remains of these airfields, try to adhere to a few basic points. Most farmers are familiar with the history of the land they work, and many will understand the interest generated by an old wartime airfield, the last thing they want is people walking through crops, or grazing land for livestock. Use common sense when visiting any of the airfields listed here, or anywhere else.
Please remember that these airfields are located on someones land. If you do plan to visit, please gain permission to enter, or, alternatively, use any public rights of way that may exist across these former airfields. CLOSE any gates that you open. DO NOT drop litter. DO NOT park your vehicle blocking access to fields or farms, and please DO NOT attempt to drive across private land.
A Website for the Hertfordshire Airfields Memorial Group can be found at http://hamg.co.uk
In Memory Of: Bunty Anderson. Ivor Harris. Keith Callaby. Fred Hitching. John Knight (HAMG Member). Squadron Leader Tom Bennett DFM.