The RAF at 100: The importance of Devon's airfields
PUBLISHED: 12:40 24 April 2018 | UPDATED: 11:57 25 April 2018
On 1 April 1918 the Royal Flying Corps – the aviation element of the Army – became the Royal Air Force, which means that April 2018 sees the 100th Anniversary of the RAF. KEN DELVE looks at the RAF’s presence in the county over those 100 years
In the early 1980s I was at Chivenor on a Hawk course and I took my mother, who lived in Ilfracombe, back to visit the airfield where she had worked as a WAAF in the early 1940s.
She had been a parachute packer and the hut she had worked in was still the parachute hut, and the young WAAF asked if my mother would like to pack a chute – she promptly declined! It was also the airfield where I first went solo, in an Air Cadet glider.
As befits its maritime heritage, Devon’s military aviation career was maritime-oriented, with airfields such as Chivenor in the north, Dunkeswell in the centre, and Mount Batten in the south being important in the Second World War. However, this role started back in the First World War, with a few sites being used by coastal patrol flights, whose primary role was hunting for German submarines.
These landing grounds included those at Prawle Point, Torquay and Westward Ho! The latter was opened in spring 1918 on the golf course at Northam Burrows; with the war over, the site was promptly handed back to the golfers. Torquay was a seaplane base situated between the two piers.
Other locations opened during the First World War but survived longer; one of Devon’s most important sites was Mount Batten, which was known as Cattewater when it first opened as a Naval Air Station in 1917. It became one of the RAF’s main flying boat bases, which remained in this role in the Second World War.
The Sunderlands of 10 Squadron (RAAF) based there had a fine record of hunting submarines, claiming their first successes on 1 July, 1940. The base was also on the receiving end of Luftwaffe attacks, such as that of 27 November, 1940 which damaged a hangar and two Sunderlands.
Post-war the base was primarily a servicing and support unit, as well as marine craft units. One support unit was the School of Combat Survival and Rescue. Like large numbers of RAF personnel, I was on the receiving end of their courses. This historic site finally closed in 1992.
The site at Winkleigh was completed in late 1942 as part of Coastal Command but it was a difficult site as space was restricted.
The airfield saw very little use, although some American units spent time here. Winkleigh was handed back to civil control in October 1948.
The major road that once crossed the site then re-opened and for many years learner drivers (myself included) turned off the road and on to the old runway for a spot of driving practice.) I shall pass over too much mention of the airfield at Haldon, as it was primarily Fleet Air Arm.
Slightly further south, the airfield at Dunkeswell was also in the maritime battle, although assigned to an American unit – who promptly called it ‘Mudville Heights’. As there was no significant RAF use, we will pass over this airfield.
The same is true of Upottery, which was used by American transport and maritime units. Other airfields were associated with another Devon tradition, rescue of people at sea, and in the second World War some locations were part of the Air Sea Rescue service, such as Bolt Head, Harrowbeer, Roborough and Exeter.
All these airfields had other roles as well, mostly as fighter bases for both defence, primarily of Plymouth and Exeter, and offensive operations. Use was mostly by detachments for short periods. Many fighter squadrons used Harrowbeer and it is an atmospheric site as there are still traces to be seen; you can park near one of the old fighter dispersal pens and enjoy a picnic! It is also one of the few sites with an airfield memorial, close to the Leg of Mutton pub.
Both Exeter and Roborough (Plymouth) started as civil flying fields and Exeter, of course, remains today as an active civil airport, having had an RAF period of use during the War. For Roborough it was primarily support units, but for Exeter it was primarily fighter squadrons.
The RAF retained the airfield for some time after the war, and even after it passed back to civil control the Chipmunks of No.4 Air Experience Flight continued to ‘fly the RAF flag’ and many an Air Cadet (myself included) waddled from the hut to the aircraft, parachute strapped to his backside for a short air experience trip.
I have restricted this article to flying locations, but Devon had other important sites as well, such the radar station at Hartland Point. The site opened in October 1940 as part of the Chain Home Low (CHL) system for early warning.
It survived post-war, undergoing various equipment upgrades until finally closed in 1987.
Ken Delve served in the RAF as aircrew from 1975 to 1994; he is an aviation researcher and author and is a trustee of the RAF Heraldry Trust. The Trust is a registered charity whose aim is to create a permanent artwork record of all RAF unit badges. For more information, visit rafht.co.uk. Ken can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chivenor’s busy history
Chivenor was the main airfield in North Devon, built on the site of the pre-war Barnstaple and North Devon Flying Club. A major Coastal Command location, it was used by operational and training units.
Construction started in May 1940 and it opened in October as home to a Coastal Operational Training Unit, training Beaufort crews. My mother recalled that one night in November 1941 a German Ju-88 landed at Chivenor in error and was captured before it could get away – notable as one bit of excitement!
By summer 1942 the airfield converted to operational use, with 172 Squadron and its Leigh-Light Wellingtons. The anti-submarine tactic employed by these planes used the high-power Leigh Light searchlight, the aircraft homing on its target at night using radar and when close to the target switching on the searchlight to illuminate the target and complete the attack. Beaufighters of 235 Squadron operated from Chivenor to provide escort.
Maritime ops, by a variety of units, continued to the end of the war. The post-war plan saw Chivenor survive the mass disbandment and closures, but now with Fighter Command. Its major role since 1951 was as a training base, with a number of units, and a variety of types, the last one being No.2 Tactical Weapons Unit with two Hawk squadrons (63 and 151).
The airfield also housed Search and Rescue helicopters, a role it had adopted back in 1957 but which became best known with 22 Squadron and its yellow Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea Kings. Their role was primarily rescue of aircrew, but they spent most of their time rescuing people from ships and tourists in peril.
Sadly, the axe fell again in 1994; however, the Marines knew a good thing and Chivenor became a Royal Marines barracks. Despite the helicopters continuing to 2015 and the gliders of 624 Volunteer Gliding School lasting a little longer, there is now no RAF presence.