North Weald Airfield commemorates 100 years of operations in war and peace.
1916 RFC North Weald Landing Ground opens
During 1916 London and other towns and cities were being bombed by German Zeppelin airships. Many new Landing Grounds were established around London as bases for night fighters to combat the menace.
North Weald was one of these, becoming operational in August 1916 with a Flight of BE2cs from No. 39 (Home Defence) Squadron.
At the end of September one of North Weald’s BE2c aircraft flown by 2nd Lieutenant Wulstan Tempest had our first success, shooting down L31, a Zeppelin airship commanded by Kapitän-Leutnant Heinrich Matty.
He and his 19 crew were all killed when the airship went down in flames near Potters Bar.
Tempest was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
1918 Our second successful night interception
After the Zeppelin airships suffered crippling losses, the Germans started using large Gotha bombers instead on day and night raids. 39 Squadron now had Bristol F2B Fighters with much improved performance.
One of these, flown by 2nd Lieutenant Anthony Arkell with Air Gunner Albert Stagg, shot down a Gotha bomber over East Ham in May 1918. The aircraft was named Devil-in-the-Dusk, and part of its fabric survives in the collection of the Imperial War Museum along with a propeller from the Gotha bomber.
Just over a month earlier, on 1 April 1918, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service merged to form the Royal Air Force.
1927 The Airfield expands
After World War 1 many airfields were closed. North Weald was one of the bases around London which were retained to defend the Thames estuary and the capital itself.
In 1927 it was expanded with 2 new Type A hangars along with other barracks and buildings. Hangar 1 is our sole survivor from this time.
No. 56 Squadron was our first new unit, flying its Siskin fighters in from Biggin Hill. It became our longest serving squadron, leaving in 1940. This was followed by 29 Squadron from Duxford.
Through the 1930s North Weald squadrons operated a variety of aircraft including the Armstrong Whitworth Siskin, Bristol Bulldog, Gloster Gauntlet and Gladiator and the Hawker Demon 2-seat fighter.
1938 The new generation of fighters come into service
In May 1938 the first monoplane Hawker Hurricane fighters began to replace the Gloster Gladiator biplanes of 56 Squadron as the RAF rearmed to counter the growing threat from Nazi Germany.
In September during the Munich crisis over the Czech Sudentenland, RAF squadrons went to their war stations.
No. 604 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force flew in to North Weald from Hendon in their Hawker Demon biplane fighters. Camouflage and squadron codes were introduced at this time to replace the peacetime silver schemes.
1940 The Battle of Britain
Following the fall of France in June 1940, Britain stood alone against Germany, and was threatened with invasion if the Luftwaffe could gain air superiority over the RAF’s Fighter Command. North Weald was one of the key Sector stations in 11 Group guarding London and the south east.
Our Gate Guardian Hurricane represents an aircraft which served with both 56 and 249 Squadrons before being shot down in October.
The Airfield was bombed 4 times during the summer and approximately 25% of our wartime fatal casualties occurred between July and October 1940. The shrapnel damage is still visible on the armoured doors of Hangar 1.
1941 North Weald welcomes Allied contingents
In June 1941 the American volunteers of 71 (Eagle) Squadron arrived at North Weald in their Hurricanes. These brave men had left their homeland still at peace to fight against the Nazis. At the end of August they were re-equipped with Spitfires, and P/O William Dunn became the first US ace after he shot down his fifth enemy aircraft. During December they were replaced by 121 (Eagle) Squadron, which stayed until June 1942.
2 Norwegian squadrons arrived in May and June 1942. 331 and 332 Squadrons and their Spitfires were destined to stay until March 1944, when they joined the 2nd Tactical Air Force to prepare for the invasion of France. They took part in many sweeps and bomber escort missions over France, Belgium and Holland.
Commonwealth units which served here included 486 (New Zealand) Squadron with its Typhoon ground attack aircraft during 1942, and three Canadian squadrons – 242, 403 and 412 in 1941 and 1942.
After D-Day in June 1944, North Weald welcomed the Spitfire pilots of the Czech Wing, which was made up of 310, 312 and 313 Squadrons. In 1945 two Polish transport units were based at the Airfield flying Vickers Warwicks – 301 (Pomorski) and 304 (Land of Silesia) Squadrons.
1944 D-Day and the invasion of Europe
North Weald was not at the forefront of operations in support of the Allied invasion on D-Day because of its distance from the beaches in Normandy. However, it did play an important role in helping to train radar operators from nearby RAF Chigwell and RAF Regiment gunners by providing aircraft to act as targets and for calibrating the radars and gunnery predictors.
It also hosted the Headquarters of 19 (Fighter) Sector, 130 and 132 Airfields of the 2nd Tactical Air Force before they deployed south for the air campaign leading up to the landings on 6 June 1944.
On 15 September 1945 W/Cdr Douglas Bader led the very first Battle of Britain Flypast from North Weald. Flying ceased in 1947 and the Airfield became an Aircrew Selection Centre.
1949 North Weald returns to Fighter Command
The heightened tensions at the start of the Cold War in the late 1940s and early 1950s heralded a final phase of development for RAF North Weald.
The Airfield was handed back to Fighter Command in 1949 and 2 Royal Auxiliary Air Force Spitfire XVI squadrons moved in from Hendon – 601 (County of London) Squadron and 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron.
1950 The Airfield enters the jet age with Vampires and Meteors
The two Auxiliary Air Force squadrons converted onto the de Havilland Vampire F3 jet fighter in 1950 and were joined by 72 Squadron from Odiham.
In 1951 2 T2 hangars moved from former USAAF bases were erected, new aprons created and the main runway lengthened with an Operational Readiness Platform (ORP) at each end as the squadrons began flying jet fighters. A new control tower was also built, and was completed in 1952.
During 1953 all the squadrons converted onto the more powerful Meteor F8 fighters. In December 1953, 111 Squadron replaced 72 Squadron. This went on to form the famous Black Arrows display team, equipped with the Hawker Hunter F6. It was the Airfield’s last operational squadron. The Auxiliary Air Force squadrons were victims of the Duncan Sandys defence cuts in 1957 and were disbanded.
1958 The end of operational flying
The Hunters of 111 Squadron finally left North Weald for Wattisham in FebruRY 1958. Operational flying finally ceased in May when the RAF Historic Aircraft Flight departed.
This unit was the forerunner of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and had transferred from Biggin Hill when that station closed.
There was also a Hawker Contractors Working Party of around 100 employees, which continued to upgrade Hunters until 1959. After that, the RAF still used the Airfield intermittently.
614 Volunteer Gliding School (VGS) of the Air Cadets came to North Weald from RAF Hornchurch in 1962. It had been formed in 1955 from the amalgamation of three schools – 142 VGS, 146 VGS and 147 VGS. It remained here for three years, moving on to RAF Debden when the Airfield was handed over to the Army.
1971 The first Royal International Air Tattoo
The Royal International Air Tattoo originated at North Weald in 1971, and was then in aid of the Royal Air Forces Association. The Fighter Meet airshows also used to be a regular fixture in the annual calendar.
These events attracted thousands of people year after year, who came to see the famous pyrotechnics and classic warbirds display. The Essex Gliding Club was based here for many years too during this period.
2016 The Airfield celebrates its first 100 years!
Aviation continues to thrive, and we now host a wide range of aircraft from microlights to ex-military jets.
The Airfield is now planning for its next stage of development, with aviation very much to the fore. We look forward to more exciting times at North Weald Airfield in the coming years of our second century!