Military Airfields - Scheduling Enhancement Programme
The project sought to understand the significance of the three airfields in the region (RAF Hawarden, RAF Sealand and RAF Wrexham) and to identify the surviving elements that embody that significance and possess national and regional importance. It commenced each year with a desk-top assessment, and following this field visits were made to try to identify any surviving elements on the ground. In the first year the work focussed on the flying fields and their associated instructional, storage, technical and administrative buildings; the core of each airfield. In the second the variety of sites and structures built in the landscape around them was the focus; for example pillboxes, bombing decoys, accommodation and communal sites, aircraft dispersals, aircraft landing aids and navigation and radio communication facilities.
Information generated during the project has been fed into the regional Historic Environment Record to provide a basis for heritage management and development control and to contribute to our understanding of the turbulent nature of the 20th century.
‘K’-type aircraft hangar at the former RAF Hawarden. Photo 3391-0046, © CPAT
RAF Hawarden had its origins as a Relief Landing Ground for nearby RAF Sealand and was used to house a Maintenance Unit and several Operational Training Units (OTUs) during the Second World War. The RAF station closed in 1959, although the airfield continued in use for civil flying and by an adjacent aircraft factory, which eventually became part of Airbus.
RAF Hawarden was developed when it was clear that war was inevitable. Swiftly constructed, largely in one phase, the buildings were intended for use only for the duration of the war. At the heart of the airfield was the flying field, consisting of 3 concrete runways. Distributed around the outside of the perimeter track were 5 distinct sites comprising over 480 buildings and structures providing accommodation, administrative and training facilities as well as hangars and other technical buildings.
Ablutions block at the former RAF Hawarden. Photo 3391-0058, © CPAT
The field visits identified only 30 surviving buildings but several of these, such as particular types of hangar and instructional buildings were strongly representative of the former use of the airfield for maintenance and training purposes. While some of the sites have been cleared or developed as industrial estates the retention of the airfield and 3 of the sites for aviation purposes has been instrumental in ensuring the survival of hangars and buildings such as the control tower as well as the runways and other infrastructure.
RAF Hawarden was provided with its fair share of pillboxes and other defences, 10 being recognised from desk-based study, but these have not stood the test of time well, having succumbed to the expansion of the Airbus factory, industrial estates, roads and shopping and housing developments in this densely populated corner of Wales.
The elements that define RAF Hawarden are its aircraft dispersals, fields surrounding the airfield where aircraft could be stored and worked on away from the busy and vulnerable airfield. While field visits confirmed that most physical traces had disappeared, tracks and 3 or 4 circular hard-standings were visible as raised areas at the former Manor Hall Farm dispersal. Also identified was a base for a maintenance hangar.
The north-east section of the Officers’ Mess is the sole survivor on the Officers’ domestic site, which originally consisted of 34 buildings and structures. At the former WAAF site concrete building bases with brick revetments survive on levelled platforms, sections of concrete paths are linked by sets of 2-3 concrete steps and two Stanton shelters and a near intact sewage works complete the surviving remains.
RFC Shotwick/RAF Sealand
Water tower at the former East Camp, RAF Sealand. Photo 3391-0094, © CPAT
The origins of RAF Sealand lie in the last years of the First World War. It developed through several phases to the present day, this being reflected in distinct styles of aerodrome architecture. Initially two adjoining stations known as Shotwick and Queensferry, the base became RAF Sealand in 1924 and was a significant base for training, maintenance and storage. Only part of the former airfield remains under official control, the remainder having been either redeveloped or reused for business premises.
A key feature indicating the importance and longevity of RAF Sealand is the survival of groups of buildings from each phase of its development, about 100 surviving of over 280 constructed across 3 sites. Particularly rare is the survival of a number of buildings of First World War vintage. The inter-war years are also well reflected with groups of buildings dating to the 1920s and ‘30s, the whole of East Camp, added in 1937 possesses a single architectural style.
The pillboxes built to defend RAF Sealand have survived quite well. They are of a variety of different types including an example constructed in woodland which has had its plan altered to allow room for an adjacent tree.
There is a unique structure set into a flood defence bank on the west side of South Camp which is generally accepted to be RAF Sealand’s Battle Headquarters (a bunker from which to coordinate the defence of the airfield in the event of an attack). It originally comprised 4 rooms linked by narrow corridors but doesn’t conform to any official designs and interpretation is complicated by one of its 2 observation rooms having collapsed.
Another interesting feature of RAF Sealand is a facility to allow the safe movement of aircraft across the railway between North and South Camps. Sections of tarmac survive to the north and south of the line of the former railway and there are also traces of crossing barriers, to prevent accidental collisions with passing trains. At Mancot Royal to the south of the airfield, the dispersed Married Quarters, which date to before 1927, are all still to be found in use as homes.
RAF Wrexham has its origins in 1917-20 as a training site for bases at Shotwick and Hooton Park. The early months of the Second World War saw a single major phase of construction in a temporary style similar to that of RAF Hawarden, and brief use as a fighter base before being employed for the majority of the war for training and anti-aircraft co-operation purposes. The general layout of the airfield comprised three runways and a surrounding perimeter track. A large group of buildings on the north-west side of the airfield, beyond the perimeter track, formed the main instructional and technical site. The south and east sides of the airfield were used for aircraft dispersal and a number of blast pens to protect aircraft when on the ground, and simple hangars to facilitate maintenance were built there reflecting its original use by fighters.
The control bunker for the ‘Q’ site bombing decoy for RAF Wrexham on Ruabon Mountain. Photo 3601-0050, © CPAT
Sold in 1959 the site has become a quarry to which the majority of the airfield has been lost. Only on the east side is there any trace of airfield structures, of which 9 survive; one of which, a hangar, attests to the fact that the land was once used for aviation.
RAF Wrexham is rather different to the other two airfields in that it has been thoroughly researched by local historians Derek Pratt and Mike Grant. Thanks to their work we have a benchmark against which to measure the types of structure to be expected to have once stood within the hinterlands of the other 2 airfields, although post-war quarrying for sand and gravel has removed much of the airfield and has taken many of these features with it.
The defences of RAF Wrexham were apparently organised into three ‘defended localities’ comprised of groups of pillboxes interlinked with other defensive features, in contrast to the rings of defences at the other 2 airfields, which were built slightly earlier. The Battle Headquarters is also believed to survive, although it has been buried. Of the other structures originally in the defensive localities (9 pillboxes, 5 prefabricated pillboxes, 5 ‘seagull’ trenches and 7 anti-aircraft gun emplacements), as far as is known only a single pillbox and ‘seagull’ trench survive, although others may be hidden beneath quarry spoil.
The main VHF/HF radio station and mast were located to the northwest of Borras Road, and although the mast has been lost, its associated staff accommodation and backup power supply buildings survive as shells. It is also thought that one of the 2 direction finding buildings vital in guiding aircraft lost in poor weather survive on the golf course to the south of the airfield.
What makes RAF Wrexham particularly interesting is that traces of its ‘Q’ site night-time bombing decoy survive on Ruabon Mountain, some 10km to the west-southwest. The control bunker survives relatively intact, comprising two main rooms, one originally for lighting control and the other housing a power supply.
Download the Military Airfields project report.
Download the Military Airfield Hinterlands project report.