‘Are you sure airfields are archaeological sites?’ came the inevitable challenge from a member of the audience at a recent talk that I gave. It is a fair enough question, one that I have been asked many times over the last two decades. Here’s why I think they are.
If you took a flight above the United Kingdom, it would not take long to recognise one of the biggest types of landscape feature from the modern age. Airfields, especially those built during the Second World War, took in substantial tracts of land. Even if your feet are firmly on the ground, a cursory look at an Ordnance Survey map is likely to have at least one example of an ‘Airfield – Disused’ on it somewhere.
Such landscape features are almost totally driven by conflict, or the threat of it, displaying in concrete a society’s will to use the latest technology to protect a way of life, or press home a foreign policy through the projection of air-power. That might seem extreme today, although one has to remember powered flight is only just over 100 years old. Indeed, the world took just 66 years to go from the first powered flight (17 December 1903), by the Wright Brothers, to the Moon landing on 20 July 1969.
Considering airfields as an archaeological resource is a fairly new, but growing, area of enquiry that was sparked by a substantial disposals programme of military facilities brought about after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The heritage position was formalised through guidance from English Heritage (now Historic England) around 2000-2002, but before then recording was an ad hoc affair, more a race to capture sites before removal than a professionally structured programme. Over the last decade, though, and following a realisation that such sites are far more complex in their operation than first thought, heritage bodies across the United Kingdom have become more engaged with this site-type.
Interestingly, this is one area of investigation where the independent archaeologist and historian has stolen a march on the professionals. A cursory glance across the internet finds all levels of investigation free to access. Everything from the Airfield Research Group and single sites, such as RAF Blakehill Farm, to specific structures, such as Control Towers, provides useful resources maintained by a dedicated group of airfield enthusiasts. This work is usually highly detailed, well researched, and, most pressingly, often includes the personal histories of those who were connected to the operation of such places. It is no exaggeration to state that the subject matter is enormous – indeed, the vast number of publications already available attests to that. What makes the archaeological investigation of airfields different is its focus on the social impact of aviation on the British landscape.
How many airfields are we talking about? Prior to the First World War, there were few permanent flying stations – just a handful of military and private sites. By the end of 1918, though, their number had swelled to more than 300, although this total quickly declined. Many stations stood on land given by wealthy landowners, and when hostilities ceased they were quickly cleared – the reduction of airfields was so dramatic that the RAF, formed on 1 April 1918, was nearly disbanded. By the 1920s, there were just 30 stations still operational, the main reason why so little architecture from the First World War survives in the landscape today.
Tensions in Europe would soon rise again, and the Air Defence of Great Britain was formed as a command in 1925. This organisation comprised two anti-aircraft battalions, a fighter defence ring around London, and a string of airfields following the line of the south coast but about 50km inland. Archaeologically, these sites are significant – each station had striking Neo-Georgian architecture, and this was the first ‘permanent’ expression of how the Royal Air Force wished to be viewed. The new stations exuded longevity, replacing timber huts and hangars with structures made of steel and brick. Air-power was no longer subservient to land and sea forces: it was now an integral part of any battle plan. This would become all too relevant when, in November 1932, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin told Parliament: ‘the bomber will always get through. The only defence is in offence, which means that you have to kill more women and children more quickly than the enemy if you want to save yourselves.’ The age of disarmament was over: it was clear that the UK was preparing for war, and the following year saw a Government plan set in motion that would have a lasting effect on the British landscape.
The first of a series of Expansion Schemes was initiated in 1933, primarily reversing the effects of disarmament, while keeping parity with Germany’s own rearmament programme. By the end of the Second World War, an incredible 750 airfields around the United Kingdom were involved in flying operations. Importantly, though, no more stations were built in Britain after 1945, allowing us to say that the majority of flying locations, save a few local strips, date to the first half of the 20th century. From here on in, the story has been one of reduction and, since the end of the Cold War, increasing attrition. So what?
Why investigate airfields?
There is no doubt that airfields are substantial landscape features, but surely their use is self-explanatory, requiring no further investigation? At first glance, that is a fair comment, but the key to their archaeological importance comes from a realisation that the history books can only go so far. As is the case with many aspects of ‘modernity’, the detail lies beyond the primary function of any given site.
The architectural styles of airfields reflect the RAF’s intention to promote a physical identity, and some of the most functionally mundane buildings from the Expansion Period are the most elaborate. Monumental water towers are occasionally crenellated, while boiler houses look more like the outside of Odeon cinemas. Internally, moulded plaster, archways, and steel and brass fixtures maintain the impression of modernism and technical prowess. These stations could take on the appearance of small towns – many boasted a cinema (often called the Astra), gymnasium, theatre club, tennis and squash courts, and a range of institutes. They interact with the wider landscape at a local and a national level, and we need to consider their impact on the local environment. To many a rural location, the sudden appearance of men from the ‘Ministry’ could spell the end of generations of working the land. Moreover, a village population could swell, almost overnight, to three or four times its original size with the creation of a new station.
As Malcolm Holland, an authority on USAAF Ground Operations in Britain, recently told me: ‘Dropping what were in effect mini new towns into some of the most remote, rural, and underdeveloped parts of the United Kingdom was a risk. Rural communities, often still heavily dependent on the horse, suddenly came face-to-face with the mechanised military machine of the USAAF. Thankfully, the endeavour was generally a success, often forging links that are still in evidence generations later.’
When considered as landscape features, airfields represent part of a chain initiated by a nation’s foreign policy – be that through projection of power and intent, or defence. They are the culmination of economic, political, and technical ability manifested through conflict-related activities. Probably the best example of such a chain was initiated by the Air Ministry in 1935. Within the Expansion Schemes of the 1930s was an innovative programme aimed at the rapid construction and delivery of replacement aircraft. The experiences of the First World War had shown that the more aircraft you could hold in reserve the better, and to facilitate this the Government designed a manufacturing system that could both cope with the expected increase and be less vulnerable to air attack: the Shadow Factory Scheme.
The concept was simple: automotive manufacturers had their facilities enlarged at government expense. The new factories continued to produce car components, while the workforce received training in aircraft manufacturing techniques, and in an emergency the plants would turn over to aircraft production. This additional manufacturing stream complemented those aircraft factories already geared up for war production. These shadow factories produced everything from fuel gauges to wings and propellers, which were then transported by road and rail to central locations – often purpose-built RAF stations known as Aircraft Storage Units – for assembly.
As the conflict increased in severity, a new body, the Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO), was formed to repair and salvage damaged aircraft, working in workshops that were widely dispersed to make them less vulnerable to air attack. This organisation took over a substantial number of airfields in the south and west of the United Kingdom, including the Aircraft Storage Unit network, the majority of which were now reassigned as Maintenance Units. Maintenance Units (MUs) have a distinct geography, intended to make the repair, assembly, testing, and delivery of aircraft to the Front as smooth and timely as possible. Such sites align themselves more readily to manufacturing and repair industries than operational stations, and should be considered as a component in a chain of landscape features rather than standing in isolation. That chain covers a wide range of locations and processes, including raw material acquisition and production; aircraft manufacturing; shadow factories; dispersed workshops; MUs; and operational airfields. When considered in this way, airfields become infinitely more involved with the landscape of conflict and air travel – and that is just the beginning.
Social history and airfield archaeology
With substantial numbers of men moving to the uniformed services during the Second World War, especially once conscription got under way, the Government turned to a tried and tested source of labour: women. The contribution made by women both on the Home Front and in active service is well recognised, and upwards of seven million women were engaged in manufacturing and associated tasks nationwide – thousands of them in jobs related to aviation. By 1940, women could be found working alongside men at every stage of the chain described above. From aircraft design to flying the completed machine to operational stations – nothing was off the table.
Take the Air Transport Service, made famous by its many female pilots (among them the pioneer Amy Johnson) who flew completed aircraft from MUs and other assembly sites to stations on the front line. Over the course of the war, 15 female pilots from a complement of 166 were lost to enemy fire or crashes. While this type of service is incredible and humbling in equal measure, we should also remember those who made such flights possible. Women over the age of 16 went into the factories and acquired skills equivalent to their male co-workers, and with employment came calls for emancipation that continued to gather pace.
We are a long way from our starting point. Having cantered through building design, manufacturing processes, technology, and the role of gender in total war, I hope you can see that, when considered archaeologically, no airfield exists in isolation. You may argue that what I have said so far is not archaeology, but I would challenge that. Modern, contemporary, or conflict archaeology – however you dress it up – provides a launch point for all aspects of economic and social study. To emphasise this point, many rural settlements had no reliable electricity before the development of the airfield landscape. Consider the socio-economic impact just of that, and you can see the far-reaching effects of aviation. The fact remains that we are only asking the same questions of an airfield that we would when approaching the study of an Iron Age hilltop enclosure, Roman fort, or medieval castle. All interact with their respective landscapes and exert change through forms of social contact, economy, and developing technology. Even Cold War concrete has a story to tell.
In the early 1950s, a ‘missile gap’ appeared between the United States and the Soviet Union – and, disturbingly for the Americans, it was the Soviets who had the upper hand. US defence spending went into overdrive, and while developing Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), the Pentagon attempted to plug the gap with shorter-range vehicles capable of delivering a nuclear warhead into Soviet territory. As these stopgap missiles lacked the range to strike the USSR from American soil, though, European launch sites would be needed, and between 1958 and 1964, 60 missiles were stationed at 20 RAF units along the east coast of the United Kingdom. Project Emily, as the operation was codenamed, was controversial from the outset, becoming a focus of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).
This campaign had formed in 1957 in response to British developments in the nuclear field. Its members argued, as did many in Parliament and the press, that the UK was now a strategic target thanks to the American missiles, and it was widely thought that the British government would have no say in the use of these nuclear weapons in times of war. Each missile required a specific launchpad and infrastructure – and where these launchpads survive, they provide the signature of a very short-lived but dangerous period of the Cold War.
We had, of course, developed our own hydrogen weapon by the late 1950s, and had the capability to deliver it into central Europe and beyond. Until 1970, the RAF was responsible for the maintenance of the British independent nuclear deterrent, and during this period a number of modifications were applied to strategic RAF stations. Recognising these Cold War remnants is a chilling reminder of exactly what ‘total war’ would have meant had Soviet missiles been launched against us. The mainstays of the deterrent at this time were the Avro Vulcan and Handley Page Victor, both armed with gravity weapons or stand-off missiles. During periods of relative political calm, the aircraft were located at just a handful of stations, which made them vulnerable to attack, and so periodically the entire force was dispersed to more than 25 locations around the United Kingdom.
Each dispersal airfield was provided with a specific parking area away from the main unit; should the alert sound, direct runway access ensured take-off in the shortest possible time. Such modifications are quite conspicuous from the air, again indicating the dispersal of nuclear weapons across the United Kingdom in times of heightened international tension. Had the Cold War turned hot, these dispersal stations were likely to have been the first strike targets for Soviet nuclear weapons.
The final major modification to British airfields came during the last decade or so of the Cold War. Interestingly, it was influenced by events in the Middle East. On the first day of the Arab–Israeli Six-Day War (5-10 June 1967), a pre-emptive strike by the Israeli airforce caught and destroyed most of the Egyptian airforce on the ground. This forced the West to reassess many defensive policies. By the mid-1970s, a wide range of European stations connected to NATO had been provided with additional protection for aircraft and aircrew, and this substantial building programme crossed into Britain just a few years later. Designated airfields changed beyond all recognition. A range of new buildings appeared, far removed from the aesthetic designs of those from the pre-war era. Protected structures fashioned from reinforced concrete sprang up across many airfield landscapes, with the emphasis now placed on protecting aircraft and aircrew from air attack or the effects of chemical weapons.
This change of policy reached its zenith with the stationing of cruise missiles in Europe. Their social impact in the early 1980s cannot be underestimated, refocusing public outrage against weapons of mass destruction. Throughout the decade, public opposition to nuclear weapons reached heights not seen since the late 1950s, and membership of CND rose as the nuclear debate became ever-more heated. Bunkers had appeared on a massive scale at two stations in the United Kingdom: Greenham Common, Berkshire, and Molesworth, Cambridgeshire. The former became home to a Women’s Peace Camp, regularly making national headlines; Molesworth also received the attention of CND. Peace camps – some small, some large – became a regular feature at many of the USAF bases in Britain, but RAF stations were not immune, with tents pitched on their outskirts and slogan-painted bedsheets tied to their security fences – a vivid backdrop to ‘mass dyings’ that saw protesters lie in the road to block station entrances.
Dramatic change came on 11 March 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev became the new Soviet leader. Importantly for the West, he was far removed from his predecessors’ structured ideology, even as the US president Ronald Reagan was increasing his ‘evil empire’ rhetoric. Both men knew that the Soviet system required substantial reform and, four months after Boris Yeltsin rose to prominence in 1991, the Soviet Union had been consigned to history. Over the next 20 years, most of the airfield estate was disposed of through various initiatives, beginning with ‘Options for Change’. Today, operational base numbers are below those of the 1920s.
There are many who think we should allow the removal of military sites, viewing them as unwanted, ugly reminders of an unsavoury past. I would suggest, though, that airfields are much more than the sum of their parts. Their continued existence provides future generations with an opportunity to confront the brutalism and futility that marked the conflicts of the 20th century, but the social impact of airfields far outweighs a purely militaristic interpretation – these landscapes, many of them now under threat from development, drove many of the social changes experienced in the 20th century.
Many of these features are now being protected by national bodies – probably the most unusual of them being the cruise-missile bunkers at Greenham Common. Now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, these massive edifices to the terror of nuclear weapons, so much the focus of public protest, have recently made an on-screen appearance as a rebel base in the latest Star Wars trilogy. I wonder how many fans of the film franchise realise the importance of that ‘backdrop’ to British society? Ultimately, it is down to how we value such sites and remember the reasons why they are there. With that in mind, I will leave the closing comments to my colleague Vince Povey, curator of the RAF Blakehill site:
‘Bringing veterans, relatives, and visitors to RAF Blakehill Farm is both the proudest and hardest thing I have ever done. To stand on the runway, in the ghostly bootsteps of men preparing to glide or parachute into Europe in 1944, and commemorate the many who did not return home brings so much emotion. To be able to tell their stories in context, often in the presence of their families, is one of the many reasons why the airfield landscape should be protected wherever possible.’
Dr Bob Clarke is a Senior Researcher with Wessex Archaeology and an expert on the Cold War.
Airfield Research Group: www.airfieldresearchgroup.org.uk
RAF Blakehill Farm: www.rafblakehillfarm.co.uk
Control Towers: www.controltowers.co.uk
Greenham Common: www.greenham-common.org.uk
IMAGES: all black-and-white images courtesy of the Ministry of Defence; all other images Bob Clarke, unless otherwise stated.