About RAF Harrowbeer Airfield
The former RAF Harrowbeer Airfield is situated in the Parish of Buckland Monachorum, Devon. It is approximately nine miles NNE of the city of Plymouth and approximately six miles South of Tavistock, and also sits within the boundary of Dartmoor National Park. Although sited near the Village of Yelverton, it was called 'Harrowbeer' in order to distinguish it from RNAS Yeovilton. The Airfield was under the control of '10 Group' and it was never assigned a station badge.
To see where the Airfield is, and have an aerial view, please click on the link below. (N.B. the link takes you to the multi map website. click on the back button to return, or right-click on the link and select 'Open in new window' to keep this page and open the map in a new browser window)
You will also find below, some information on RAF Bolt Head and some general information of RAF Airfields which I can't find a home for anywhere else.
Apologies: After a considerable amount of time, it was noticed that both the grid reference and the latitude printed in our book (and originally below!) were both wrong. The correct reference should be 50 degrees 29 minutes North (not 51) and the grid reference is SX513680.
RAF Harrowbeer was one of many airfields dotted around the South West. Some are mentioned in detail on other websites, but RAF Bolt Head seems to be neglected in this respect. So below are a few pictures and details of the airfield.
RAF Bolt Head was an airfield in its own right, with Squadrons being stationed there during the war. It was also used as a satellite airfield of RAF Harrowbeer. Planes would fly from Harrowbeer to Bolt Head, before going on patrol, or on sorties over France. The Air Sea Rescue squadrons also used Bolt Head as a forward base for their operations.
The information here has been taken from the excellent memorial plaque provided by Malborough Parish Council at the site of Bolt Head Airfield. The Airfield does still exist - in parts - with the current single runway built through farmland and on a different alignment to the wartime strips. It is well worth a visit and several walks can be undertaken in the vicinity. The plaque is in the car park at the end of the road that leads to Bolt Head.
Another Airfield regularly used by Squadrons flying from Harrowbeer was RAF Portreath, now more famous as the 'Chemical Defence Establishment Nanceduke'.
General RAF Airfield Information.
The following is a range of information which doesn't seem to fit under any particular heading! I may find a home for it somewhere else in due course. It has been written up by Mike Hayes and as usual, if anybody has anything to add - we would like to here from you.
POLICY AND PROCEDURE
In 1939 there was a policy of dispersing aircraft around and sometimes beyond the perimeter of the airfield, but this would make defence very difficult. Defence was confined to a limited number of light machine-gun posts for anti-aircraft attack. Certain operational stations would have additional guns of a higher calibre :- Two Pounders and 3 inch, but no further works were constructed for them.
In 1940 with the threat of invasion there was an initiation to construct pill-boxes, rifle pits and very extensive wire entanglements (barbed wire) as additional airfield defence. Some pill boxes were constructed with anti-aircraft positions on the flat roof, thus giving an elevated all round view.
There was no laid down procedure or standard for the defence of an airfield due to the fact that owing to variations and topography it was impracticable.
A procedure that was adopted required the Local Military Authority, usually acting through the Local Defence Commander, who was the Defence Advisor to the Station Commander, would plan the defences and produce designs and drawings for the structural work. These were then sent to the Air Ministry Works Area Headquarters who prepared detailed drawings for contractors to work from.
In 1940 the R.A.F.Regiment had not been formed, but in the Autumn of 1940 there was created a new trade of “Ground Gunner” for airfield defence within the R.A.F.
Light anti-aircraft defence was the responsibility of the Royal Artillery with Bofors Guns. These were supported by the R.A.F.Gunners with light machine-guns.
In 1941 the location of defences of an airfield was considered a priority second only to the runway layout and above the requirements for accommodation. It was an important issue that the defences were completed in readiness of the opening of an airfield. There was also a requirement for inward facing defences in the event of the enemy landing on the airfield itself by parachute.
With the evacuation of the British Forces from France in June 1940 a body of men became available who could maintain vital airfields under the worst conditions. This body of men were the Royal Engineer Units. Detachments of 66 to 100 men each were located on approximately 110 airfields. A total of 7,000 Royal Engineers were available during the Battle of Britain and carried out repair work of the utmost importance.
Gunners trained at No.1 Ground Defence Gunnery School at North Coates, Lincolnshire in December 1939.
The Gunnery School moved to Ronaldsway on the Isle of Man during March 1940.
In March 1943 the School was absorbed by the R.A.F. Regiment.
THE R.A.F. REGIMENT
In November 1941 the Committee on Airfield Defence recommended that the R.A.F. should have it’s own defence force under Air Ministry control. The “ R.A.F. Regiment “ was formed from all existing R.A.F. Ground Defence Squadrons and Flights on the 1st February 1942 and soon relieved the Army of its unwanted responsibility for defending R.A.F. installations in the U.K.
On the 18th April 1944 Winston Churchill wrote :-
“I do not think that we can afford to continue to maintain a special body of troops purely for the defence of aerodromes. The R.A.F. Regiment was established at a time when the invasion of this Country was likely, and when our life depended on the security of our Fighter Aerodromes. Since then it has been reduced, but the time has now come to consider whether the greater part of it should not be taken to reinforce the field formations of the Army. I consider that at least 25,000 men should be transferred. They will be much better employed there than loafing around overcrowded airfields warding off dangers which have ceased to threatened.”
The suggestion was taken up and 2,000 men were transferred to the Guards in June 1944. In October 1944 all defence work was abandoned apart from half a dozen airfields in the South East of England and the Shetlands which kept limited light anti-aircraft facilities.
Airfields were equipped with air-raid sirens to give prior warning of an attack.
The R.A.F. adopted the signals :-
Alert = A wailing tone
Raiders passed = A steady note better known as the “All clear”
The sirens were usually activated from the Operations Block. Alternately it was from the Guard Room after notification by telephone from the Operations Block.
There were many forms of Air-raid Shelters. The early type being a crude covered slit trench. These were soon superseded by pre-cast concrete shelters (Stanton type) each holding 25 – 50 men. Concrete sections were bolted together to form the required length, then covered with earth for bomb splinter protection. At one end was an entrance shielded by a blast wall, at the other end was a wall mounted ladder leading up to an escape hatch.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer was in the unique position of having two Battle Headquarters, it is not understood as to the reason why this was. One was situated on the Technical Site in accordance with the official Site Plan of the Station Airfield Site, the second Battle Headquarters ( built mid 1942, not on the actual airfield site but commands an excellent view of the airfield ) is situated along Golf Links Road with the junction of Down Park Lane, ( the observation post still visible ).
The defence of an airfield was co-ordinated by the Battle Headquarters. A purpose built stronghold which was standardized as drawing No. 1108/41 ( situated in Golf Links Road ) for Operational Stations and another type to drawing No. 3329/41 ( Building No.10 on the Technical Site of the airfield ) normally for Satellite Stations and Training Fields.
As with other defence work the Battle Headquarters was not always included in the plans for an airfield but sited in agreement with the Local Army Authority, taking into account terrain and camouflage. The Battle Headquarters was normally built on high ground, in a hedge or close to farm buildings. A few were built close to the Watch Office.
The 1108/41 Battle Headquarters was recognized by a six foot square observation post three foot high standing above the ground with a 360 degree viewing slit. The rest of the building was usually underground, if not the substantial earth banking was placed on all sides.
The sunken section was entered by a stairway at the opposite end to the observation post. The observation post had it’s own escape hatch.
The building measured externally approximately 21 foot by 8 feet, and comprised an office, sleeping accommodation and a latrine. A member of the personnel would be a runner for use if the telephone communication ceased to operate.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer had two Bellman Hangars which was at one time the most common steel hangar of which approximately 400 were located on British Airfields between 1938 and 1940. The Bellman Hangar became obsolete during the 1940’s when superseded by the “T – series” Hangars.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer had 8 Over Blister Hangars.
Blister Hangars were produced by Messrs. C. Miskin and Sons in 1939. There were basically three kinds :-
(1) The “ Standard “ which was constructed of wooden arched ribs, clad with corrugated iron
and had a span of 45 feet.
(2) The “ Over “ Blister constructed of steel arched ribs, clad with corrugated iron with a span
of 65 feet.
(3) The “ Extra Over “ Blister constructed as (2) but with a span of 69 feet.
All three styles were manufactured in 45 foot length sections making it possible to construct a 90 foot long building if required.
It was usual to have canvas curtains at each end for protection against the weather, sometimes the canvas curtain at one end would be substituted for a brick wall.
An advantage of the Blister Hangar was that they did not require foundations or hard standing, therefore being flexible enough to be constructed on fairly uneven ground.
Within the Technical Area were constructed Blast Shelters which were traversed blast walls built above ground in a large rectangular shape with shielded entrances. These shelters were for personnel to use at the last minute minimizing the disruption of their duties.
There were three standard sizes giving effective protection for 10, 20 or 50 personnel.
BOMB DUMP / STORE
On airfields built in the early stages of the Second World War bomb storage was of a simple and economical design. This comprised of open Bomb Dumps, each around 200 Tons capacity made up of four 50 Ton bays separated by grass covered blast walls. This was an easy way of manhandling and storing small capacity bombs, from unloading off delivery lorries to loading onto the Bombing-up trolleys. Efficient movement of vehicles was ensured by circulating roads from Bomb Storage, Component Store, Pyrotechnic Stores and other ancillary Explosive Buildings in hutted construction, on to the Fusing Shed and onto Aircraft Dispersal.
Better known as the “Tannoy”. It’s general purpose was to enable operational instructions to be given clearly, rapidly and simultaneously to personnel at dispersal points and other distant parts of the airfield.
Microphones were placed in the main operational buildings eg:- Operations Block, Watch Office and Battle Headquarters and connected to the Speech Broadcasting Building which housed the amplifying equipment. This small blast-proof building was normally found close to the Watch Office. Cable ran to an average of 150 loudspeakers spaced around the airfield.
CANNON TEST BUTT
This was constructed as a robust brick and concrete wall with sand piled up against it. A red flag would have been flown when firing was taking place at the test butt.
Another feature at the butt would have been a large grooved block which would contain a pulley wheel, this was used to enable the tail-wheel of an aircraft to be raised in order that the aircraft guns and cannon could be tested and re-aligned as required.
This would have taken place in a local swimming pool ( for R.A.F. Harrowbeer they used the Moorland Links Hotel ).
The procedure was that air-crews were blindfolded to give the impression of night time conditions, then thrown into the pool. Each man had a whistle which he could blow allowing the air-crew to come together as a group. An inflated rubber dinghy would be in the pool ( upside down ) and it was up to the air-crew to locate the dinghy, right it and all climb on board.
Dispersal pens were constructed as substantial earth banking with small retaining walls on the inner edges in the rough shape of a letter “E” if viewed from above.
These pens would offer blast protection for two fighter aircraft and their air-crew. At the intersection of the banking most pens housed a Stanton type Air-raid Shelter for up to 25 persons. This was entered from each aircraft standing area by an entrance with a short tunnel built into the banking. There was also an emergency exit built into the rear of the Dispersal Pens leading off from one of the short tunnels.
Some of the aircraft standing areas had concrete pads for the aircraft to be positioned on, this was because various types of planes ( the Typhoon in particular ) was notorious for leaking oil and fuel which broke up the tarmac standing area.
Another feature on the arms of some of the Dispersal Pens was a defence gun position. R.A.F. Harrowbeer had twelve Dispersal Pens of which at least two had gun positions ( types not known as yet ).
On the central arm towards the extremity on the ground in each standing area is a small brick rectangle, it’s purpose is not clear, but was it possibly for standing fire fighting equipment on ( fire buckets with sand and a fire extinguisher ).
FLYING CONTROL CARAVAN
During the Summer of 1942 to reduce the number of accidents on the airfield, especially on the runways it was decided to position a caravan alongside the touch-down area. Where an airfield had a runway the caravan had it’s own hard-standing and access track. The caravan was manned by an Aerodrome Control Pilot who had an Aldis Signalling Lamp and a Very Pistol to warn pilots of danger.
LIGHTING / SIGNALS / EMERGENCY LANDING SYSTEMS
This was a small moveable trolley which was pointed into the wind, on it were mounted four powerful Aldis Lamps, as the aircraft descended the lamps were switched on shining a beam of light over the runway surface he was to land on. The aircraft would land in the beam, the lamps being switched off after the plane was down on the runway.
THE DARKY SYSTEM
If an aeroplane was in an emergency situation regarding it’s position to the airfield it is due to land at the pilot could use the basic life-saver “ DARKY, “ which was a system where the pilot could call for a ‘ Homing ‘ using the call-sign Darky. Most R.A.F. Stations operated a permanent Darky Watch on a common frequency with a transmitter / receiver of limited range to avoid possible overlap with other stations. By taking bearings and comparing them by telephone they could rapidly fix a lost aircrafts position.
Where R.A.F. coverage was poor the Royal Observer Corps Posts could be contacted to assist as they were also equipped with Darky sets.
These were improvised from floodlight units surplus to other services. The floodlights were mounted on three wheeled trolleys for ease of movement around the airfield. One would be placed on the left of each end of each runway edge and 25 yards in from the G.P.I.’s so as to shine down the runway in the same direction as the landing aircraft.
The Gooseneck Flare was so called because of the long-necked spout on a container that resembled a large watering can. The main body contained paraffin with a wick placed in the spout. The Gooseneck would be positioned with the spout pointing downwind to prevent flaring when alight. It produced a bright light but was extremely difficult to extinguish in the event of enemy approaching.
The Gooseneck Flares were positioned at intervals along the edge of the runway being used at night to assist and guide the pilots of landing aircraft.
This was a mobile beacon which would flash the airfields Pundit Code ( identity code ) high into the sky at night using Morse Code by way of a red light. R.A.F. Harrowbeer’s Pundit Code was “ Q. B. “
ROYAL OBSERVER CORPS
A function of the Royal Observer Corps Posts was to plot aircraft movements both visually and by sound. They then passed the information to their Groups Operations Room where a complete picture was built up on a operations table.
This system comprised three search lights positioned around an airfield which could be directed skywards to form a cone. In the case of low cloud-base a glow could be seen from above.
The Signals Square was situated close to the Watch Office.
On an airfield the runway-in-use for landing and take offs was dependant on the wind direction. For an aircraft coming into land a “ Landing Tee “ would be positioned in the Signals Square pointing in the appropriate direction. There would also be a second “ Tee “ positioned at the downwind end of the runway. The crossbar was always nearest to the approaching wind.
VERY PISTOL / SIGNALS MORTAR
A Very Pistol was used to warn air-borne pilots to go round again if they were approaching with another aircraft in a blind spot or the aircraft was landing with it’s undercarriage retracted.
The Pistol could fire pyrotechnics of different colours depending on the situation.
Another use was to alert pilots and air-crew at dispersal to scramble in the event of other methods failing, eg :- Tannoy or Telephone.
Very Pistol / Signals Mortars could be used to fire a brilliant flare high into the air to assist and guide aeroplanes to an airfield.
The Signals Mortar would fire a large pyrotechnic vertically above the airfield in bad weather, usually used as a last resort for emergency guidance to an airfield.
The Signals Mortar at R.A.F. Harrowbeer is still in it’s original position, it has a diameter of 3 inches and is stamped with a date of 1943. It can be found adjacent to the Signals Square close to the Watch Office.
Invented in 1920 by an American :- Edward Albert Link, it was the first electro-mechanical Flight Simulator.
This was a machine housed in a building which was a very basic representation of an aircraft with cockpit controls and flight instruments. A bellows arrangement at the base of the cockpit would give the impression of movement. A hood could be placed over the top of the cockpit for use with instrument flying practice giving the impression of night flying.
This was normally a windowless building.
One design was that the main Operations Room was similar to a small theatre with a raised dais for the controller. The rest of the building being a maze of offices and store rooms.
PUNDIT CODE AND BASE
During the Second World War the R.A.F. adopted a system of airfield recognition which was visible from the air. This system comprised of a two letter code usually chosen from the airfields name. However after a while it became difficult to allocate codes to airfields without doubling up, so because the letters “I” “J” “Q” “U” “V” “Z” or “X” were seldom used they became a new source of codes. R.A.F. Harrowbeer’s Pundit Code became “ Q. B. “.
( The name Harrowbeer was chosen in preference to Yelverton to avoid confusion with R.N.A.S. Yeovilton. )
The code letters “ Q. B. “ was displayed in two concrete rectangles in front of the Signals Square with characters approximately ten feet in height.
This system of identification was great during daylight but of no use during the night, so a mobile beacon known as a Pundit Light was used which would flash the airfield identity code using a red light in Morse Code high into the sky. Because this beam could be seen by enemy aircraft the beacon was positioned a few miles from the airfield and moved from time to time. The air-crews were notified of the beacon position in relation to the airfield at their briefing prior to night flying activity.
RUNWAYS AND TAXIWAYS
Due to the large number of aircraft at an airfield and the increase in activity there had to be regulation of vehicle movement, the clearance of obstructions and the control of taxiing. Taxi routes were devised and white lines were painted on perimeter track bends, this proved effective especially at night.
Runways had numbers ( compass bearings ) allocated to their extremities. R.A.F. Harrowbeer had three runways, therefore they required six numbers. The numbering started from the runway end nearest to North and continued in a clockwise direction.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer’s runways were numbered :- 05 / 23 11 / 29 17 / 35
From March 1944 runways were referred to by their magnetic headings.
Commonly used for tying down aircraft.
A similar form was used for staking out barbed wire. Barbed wire fencing was used as a method of enclosing an airfield around it’s perimeter.
( Not sure if R.A.F. Harrowbeer had any ).
This was a device that could indicate wind direction and if required lay a smoke screen. This consisted of a slotted metal cover over a pit, the smoke was produced by vaporizing oil or paraffin over a hot surface.