Originally used as an Air Landing Ground during WWI.
Three Runways made from Sommerfeld tracking and linked by a concrete perimeter track were added during its later use in WWII.
In 1937 an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) was established to the North of the Much Hadham road near Mathams Wood. This consisted of a 43 acre site and originally named as Mathams Wood ALG. This was on the site of a night landing ground dating from WWI that used land to the west of Shingle Hall. The ALG was under control of North Weald and in use until November 1918 when it reverted to agriculture again. Some peacetime flying by a glider club saw some use of the 31 acre site during the late 1920's through to the middle of the next decade.
In May 1940, the capitulation of France saw many varied squadrons returning home, amongst the Fighter and Light Bomber units were Army Co-operation Squadrons equipped with the high wing Westland Lysander aircraft. These had been used for Artillery spotting and co-ordination, and needed somewhere to go. II(AC) Squadron was one such unit. When the Squadron returned from France in 1940, it landed at Hatfield aerodrome in Hertfordshire, but deHavilland were not happy with the squadrons aircraft parked there, as they thought it would attract enemy aircraft to the valuable aircraft factory on the site. It was decided to take the aircraft to nearby Mathams Wood ALG, not knowing then that this site would would be their home on and off for the next four years.
W/C Geddes the Commanding Officer of the squadron was responsible for making the changes to the airfield that resulted in the eventual size it became. Great Hyde Hall (below left) was requisitioned first as the HQ, along with Blounts Farm nearby. Up to late 1940 the Air Ministry still referred the site as Mathams Wood ALG, but W/C Geddes referred to it in a telephone conversation one day to the Air ministry as 'RAF Sawbridgeworth'. The Air Ministry were told that the ALG was being upgraded by local labour to suit the squadrons needs and the name stuck. Later, the squadron traded their Lysanders for the P-40 Curtiss Tomahawk for a while, until being equipped with the new North American P-51 Mustang (Below right) Called the Mustang 1 by the RAF.
A "T2" Hanger was erected on the Shingle Hall site, with 16 blister hangers situated around the perimeter track of 40 feet wide. "Blenheim" type aircraft pens, of which the last remaining one appear's in the photo's, were located around the perimeter track.
The flying control tower was situated near Shingle Hall, but was demolished after the war as was the T2 Hangar. Another six dispersed site's were built for accomodation along Parsonage Lane.
The last Blenheim type dispersal pan in Mathams Wood
The runways were Sommerfeld tracking with a Coir matting underlay on grass, and were arranged as thus; main runway orientated at 130°/310° at 1700 yards in length, secondary runway 060°/240° at 1400 yards in length and the third 010°/190° at a length of 900 yards.
Airfield lighting was provided of the 'Drem' type , normally built in to the edge of the concrete runways and tracks, these were set in concrete blocks off to the sides of the perimeter track and runways instead.
Many varied Squadrons operated out of Sawbridgeworth during it's short wartime life, notably No 2 or II(AC) Squadron operating lysanders,Tomahawk 1's then Mustang 1's were the principal squadron at Sawbridgeworth, This Squadron undertook Ops in support of the Army for photographic, spotting, and Message dropping flights. Other Squadrons at Sawbridgworth were No 63, 168 and 170 Squadrons(Mustang 1's) 4 Squadron (Mustangs), then later in 1944 with Spitfire (PR), 4 Squadron( B flight Mosquito PR16) 80 Squadron (Spitfire 9b) 182 Squadron (Typhoon 1b) 268 Squadron (Tomahawk1/2 Lysander, Spitfire) A detachment to Sawbridgeworth whilst flying Mustang Mk.1 aircraft, commencing June 15, 1942, concluding about August 9, 1942. They were based at Sawbridgeworth whilst flying Mustang Mk.1A aircraft until they moved to Dundonald for Naval Gunnery Direction training and then onto their next major base, Gatwick on April 8, 1942. 126 Squadron (Spitfire 1Xe's). SOE 1419 Flight, later to become 138 (SD) Squadron, with Lysanders moving to Tempsford . This flight also operated Whitley Bombers converted to the role of agent dropping. A Lockheed Hudson aircraft was also allocated to the Squadron, they were known to have used North Weald, Stapleford Abbots in Essex, Stradishall & Newmarket in Suffolk as operating bases.
Special Duties and Special Operation's Executive were involved in the clandestine operations that included dropping or landing trained agents in occupied Europe. Landing a range of aircraft in remote areas, sometimes right under the Germans noses. They also undertook supply drops of arms, ammunition, and explosives, for use by the resistance fighters. One of the most well known airfields for these types of operations was Tempsford in Bedfordshire, and its resident 161(SD) squadron. 138(SD) were also based there. Lysander aircraft from 419,later 1419 flight used Sawbridgeworth for training, in fact the art of short landing by a simple three lamp flarepath, was perfected in the fields around Sawbridgeworth airfield by II(AC) squadrons aircraft. Several 'long range air tests' were undertaken by Geddes and Scotter of II(AC) With Scotter landing at Hornchurch with a blackout curtain rigged inside the rear part of the cockpit, hiding the passenger. This suggests clandestine flights by 'black' Lysanders may well have taken place, and originated at Sawbridgeworth itself. Due to the secretive nature of SOE and it's operations, this has never been, or can be confirmed by documentation.
The airfield defences are still evident, for instance,on the Much Hadham road is a type 24 Pillbox with the remains of the road barrier placed next to it. This point marked the boundary of the airfield. The Much Hadham road that runs through the remains of the airfield, would have been shut at his point during the War. Traffic was probably diverted down and around Allens Green to get around the airfield.
The runways were Sommerfeld tracking on grass. There are references to an Air Ministry experiment using Coir underlay. This was made from coconut husks woven into a matting, and laid across the grass runways. But apparently it was a disaster at Sawbridgeworth due to the high water table. For the matting soaked into the grass and turned into a marsh for several weeks in the winter time. This prohibited the heavier aircraft from using the field, "B" flight of 4 Squadron operating their Mosquito aircraft, were forced to operate their aircraft from Hunsdon for a time.
A poem written in 35 Wing's newsheet at the time records this ditty regarding the wetness of the airfield;
'Move on you jolly campers! farewell to Sawbridgeworth!
Where everything is clampers,the dullest place on Earth.
Move out from winter quarters! if they exist as such,
the joy of Bishops Storters, We haven't Hadham much'.
The airfield was starting to be used less by the middle of 1944 due to the Invasion of the Continent, and flying ceased on the 10th of November 1944. The airfield closed officially in March 1947, the last remaining RAF non flying personnel had gone for good. Not a great deal remains of Sawbridgeworth airfield today, but it has faired better than nearby Hunsdon in regard to many original buildings remaining on the technical site. This is due to the care and maintenance of those buildings by the Landowner Mr David Morris.
Of the airfield itself, Most of the perimeter track remains. With only a short section missing from behind Blounts Farm. There are two aircraft dispersal pens of the "Blenheim"type, complete with blast walls and air raid shelter remaining. There are several of the wartime buildings at Shingle hall and Woodside trading estate that are being used as light industrial units, all are in good order. Several shelters and pillboxes remain, along with an early Spigot mortar position.The Battle Headquarters building is extant but flooded.
RAF Sawbridgeworth-The Human element.
One pilot who flew with II(AC) during WWII from Sawbridgeworth is Doug Reich, Doug, who now lives in North Wales was with 'B' flight and recalls the trials and tribulations of operating from Sawbridgworth.
I joined 2 Squadron at the end of May 1943 and served with the squadron until crashing in the River Seine near Rouen, France on the 15th June 1944. We were flying from Gatwick when the crash happened and due to hitting the water while strafing a german ferry boat. I lost contact with many of my friends as I spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 1 on the Baltic coast. The mustang 1 had two .50 calibre heavy machine guns, The main role of the aircraft being Tac/Eval photo recconaisance. These guns were extremely difficult to cock once in the cockpit. sometimes I had to let go of the stick, and put both feet on the instrument panel to pull the cocking levers back'
The photo below is of me flying over Flt/Lt George Kenning who was on the ground, changing aircraft, after shooting holes in his own propellor. This happened after he has cocked the guns on the ground, While taxying he hit a pothole in the perimeter track and shot holes in his propellor. The guns were not synchronised at such low revs. after he got airborne again, we set course for a shipping recce off of the Friesian Islands.
Doug pictured flying over George Kenning while waiting for him to change aircraft
Pilots of 'B flight' II(AC) Squadron at Sawbridgeworth 1943
From left to right F/Lt George Kenning; F/Lt Wakefield; F/O Andrews;
F/O Doug Reich; F/O Redman; F/O Stephen Shayle-George.
Above- Doug flying back from a sortie over enemy occupied France, photo taken by his wingman.
II(AC) had other aircraft for use as communications transports, including a
Boulton-Paul Defiant and a Fairey Battle.
'On a later occasion when returning from an op, I decided to do a front wheel landing in which you actually fly the A/C onto the runway at 120 mph, then cut the throttle. I had cocked my guns but not fired them, and when the wheels touched the runway, the guns fired through the arc of the prop. As there was no report of anyone being shot, I breathed a sigh of relief, and from then on stuck to three-point landings!'
Shortly after the squadron moved to Gatwick, Doug and his wingman were sent on a armed TAC/Eval to the area inland of the Seine estuary, while strafing a german ferry, Dougs Mustang clipped the water and the aircraft cartwheeled in. Doug being unconscious, floated free when the aircraft broke up. He floated in the water for 6 hours before a French fisherman pulled him out and took him to the Germans for medical assistance. After he spent time in a German controlled hospital, he was incarcerated in Sagen POW camp.
Three members of II(AC) Squadron- Doug Reich (left) Wing Commander Andrew Hine (centre) and Ivor Harris (Right)
Pictured at the Sawbridgeworth airfield Memorial dedication day 2006
W/C Andrew Hine was the current commanding officer of II(AC) Squadron at Marham
Ivor Harris was shot down a few days after Doug, and ended up in the same Prisoner of War camp as Doug.
Ivor Harris sadly passed away in 2011
Flt/Lt Stephen John Shayle-George 1943.
Shortly after the declaration of war against Germany, Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage announced New Zealand’s war aims in a radio broadcast on 5 September 1939. Towards the end of that address, he declared that: "Both with gratitude for the past and with confidence in the future we range ourselves without fear beside Britain. Where she goes, we go, where she stands, we stand."In New Zealand a Ballot system was introduced based on birthdates, where all eligible young men were called up. December 1940 Stephen’s name came up and immediately enlisted himself into the Air Force and started instruction courses around New Zealand. September 1941 Stephen left New Zealand, by sea on the MV Monowai, for Canada and further training. Got his commission on 7 December 1941, on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.With German "U-Boats" patrolling the Atlantic seas between USA/Canada and the UK getting from Canada now proved more perilous. Avoiding the big escorted convoys and anxious to join the war effort, Stephen volunteered to go to England on a Norwegian 3,000 ton freighter carrying a cargo of Bacon with about 12 others and arrived in Liverpool on February 1942 and given 2-weeks R&R. He spent this time wisely on a farm around Gloucestershire, (his New Zealand upbringing showing here!). This method of transport was the ‘way’ to avoid the German U-Boats! It was rumoured that on the next sailing this Freighter was sunk with the loss of all on board.After 1-week on the farm he was called into service being sent to RAF Old Sarum, where Stephen was introduced to the Lysander, and not the Spitfire that he had hoped for!. After the initial disappointment at not being assigned to a Spitfire Squadron Stephen became adept at handling the Lysander in all aspects of its idiosyncrasies!Particular memories were of the long periods they spent training on ‘instrument flying’ where the instructor sat in the front and the rear compartment was blacked out to simulate the conditions. The Lysander was coming to the end of its time and Stephen moved onto the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk. These US manufactured aircraft had been manufactured for the French Air Force and were in metric configuration which posed a few problems of their own. Unfortunately Stephen caught a severe bought of Pneumonia which saw him admitted to the Air Force Special Hospital at Wroughton. After a long time he was advised not to go to the convalescence centre at Torquay but spend time on a farm. He only knew one farm, in Gloucestershire. The approach was made and accepted and so a wonderful relationship developed, staying for a month, to return to the Squadron where they all thought they would never see him again. This being around May/June 1942. (Just a note here; It was the Farmers niece that Stephen was later to marry, and bring back to New Zealand to settle down with.)Soon after the Tomahawk, the P-51 Mustang arrived and it was in the middle of 1943 that Stephen was assigned to No: 2 Squadron, Army Co-operation Command, at Sawbridgeworth flying the P-51.
These beautiful high speed aircraft, well suited for Army support, with their aerodynamic lines, were cut about to mount cameras to cover every angle. Even accommodating the Pilots parachute had to be modified so as to ensure the operation of another camera! Such were the trials of the Army co-operation pilots at that time.Stephen left Sawbridgeworth at the end of 1943 after approx 6-months there, and went to Gravesend where he was involved in instruction work with pilots from Canada prior to them joining the RAF.
Stephen Shayle-George still resides in New Zealand. One of that Countries sons who made the long journey to Great Britain to do his duty.
Sadly, Stephen John Shayle-George passed away in January 2009.