From IWM Duxford to RAF Museum at Hendon: a guide to the most important RAF WWII Airfields you can visit in Britain
This article highlights a few of the more comprehensive sites, where you can find clusters of buildings in good condition. Most are also supported by aviation museums or other interpretation.
The Second World War airfields peppered around Britain are among the most visible and widespread reminders of this devastating conflict. Some are now almost forgotten or built over; others have become museums, industrial estates or parkland; and some have been adapted and remain in operation today.
As told by aviation historian Stuart Hadaway in his beautifully book British Airfields of the Second World War, there are hundreds of airfield relics scattered around the country, ranging from near-complete sites to solitary buildings or sections of runway. This article highlights a few of the more comprehensive sites, where you can find clusters of buildings in good condition. Most are also supported by aviation museums or other interpretation.
Imperial War Museum Duxford, Duxford, Cambridgeshire CB22 4QR. Telephone: 0207 4165000. Website www. iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford —This is easily one of the most impressive aviation museums in the UK, as well as being a well-preserved and indeed still functioning airfield. Although some of the hangars and other buildings are post-war, or purpose-built for the museum, much of the flight line and the Technical Site behind it are original 1920s-1940s buildings. Apart from the hangars, squadron offices, and various workshops, there is also the Station Headquarters and Guard Room either side of the staff entrance on the A505. The Motor Transport Sheds are still intact and in use, while the rare gun butts are also in good repair. On the northern side of the A505 is the Domestic Site, including messes and barrack blocks. Many of these former domestic buildings are used as museum offices or stores, and are not generally accessible to the public. However, on air show days (which are well worth a visit for their own sake) public parking is in this area and you can see the buildings up close.
Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, Grahame Park Way, Hendon, London NW9 5LL. Telephone: 020 82052266. Website: www.rafmuseum.org.uk/london — Although much smaller than IWM Duxford, this is another site of national importance, and there are a number of interesting buildings. The Grahame White Factory and Watch Office (Hangar 2) date from the First World War, but next to them is a cluster of Expansion Period workshops (now the museum’s own workshops and `Claude’s Café’), and a parachute packing shed (Building 69) with its distinctive raised centre section in the roof, to enable parachutes to be hung up for inspection. The Historic Hangars (Hangars 3 and 4) date from the First World War but were used right through the inter-war period and the Second World War, and while their ends have been removed and they are encased in an outer shell, you can look up to see the original Belfast roof trusses. The RAF Museum’s other site at Cosford (Shiinal, Shropshire TF11 8UP, Telephone: 01902 376 200) also has wartime hangars.
The Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre, East Kirkby, Spilsby, Lincolnshire PE,23 4DE. Telephone: 01790 763207. Website: www.lincsaviation.co.uk —This is an active airfield in Lincolnshire that is famous for its Avro Lancaster ‘Just Jane’, which at the time of writing is regularly taxied around the airfield, although there are plans in motion to bring her back to flying condition. `Just Jane’ is only one of the attractions on site. The original control tower has been restored, and there are various other airfield buildings containing an impressive museum collection.
Kenley Airfield, Kenley, Surrey CR3 5LZ. Website: www. kenleyrevival.org — Kenley claims to be the most complete RAF fighter station still in existence. The site still operates as an airfield for gliders, and has runways and taxiways laid out on the original wartime plan. Numerous buildings and dispersal areas survive, as does a rifle range. The site has numerous interpretation boards, and self-guided walks can be downloaded from their website.
Airworlel Aviation Museum, Caernarfon Airport, Dinas Dinlle, Caernarfon LL54 5TP. Telephone: 01286 832154. Website: www.airworldmuseum.com — This is another museum that is at an active airfield. The former RAF Llandwrog, it is now Caernarfon Airport, and it includes a good example of a 1941 control tower that is still in use, while the nearby museum includes aircraft, an aviation collection, and an exhibition dedicated to the RAF Mountain Rescue Service. Just outside Beaumaris, on the other side of the Menai Straits, there are the remains of the flying boat base at Llanfaes. Some of the slipways and buildings still survive.
RAF Drem, Arts and Crafts Gallery, Fenton Barns, Drem, East Lothian EH39 5BW. Website: www.rafdrem.co.uk — RAF Drem also has a small museum, and there are a number of surviving buildings including two hangars in the surrounding Fenton Barns Retail Village.
This list only scratches the surface. For the more intrepid airfield spotter, buildings and infrastructure can be found all over the country. There are concentrations of them (without supporting museums) at Kemble (now Cotwolds Airport), Hullavington, Manby, West Raynham, Bicester, Church Fenton, North Weald, and Kirton-in-Lindsay, to name but a few. To find some in your area, or for particular building types, some excellent online resources are available.
The Airfield Research Group is a mine of information, including a forum accessible to non-members (www. airfieldresearchgroup.org.uk), and the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust has a searchable list of over 3,338 sites (www.abct.org.uk). At www.ukairfields.org.uk, the Owner has attempted to list all UK airfields, aviation memorials, and other associated sites. The site www.controltowers.co.uk is, as the name suggests, a list of control towers and their basic histories, and again can be searched by airfield name. A large number of old airfield buildings now enjoy listed status, and can be found on the Historic England database at www.historicengland.org.uk. Some areas also have their own, more specific websites, such as the Bomber County Aviation Resource (www.bcar.org.uk), which has a wealth of information on sites in Lincolnshire.
British Airfields of the Second World War is published by Shire Publications and is available to order here.