Second World War catapult found in Oxfordshire

Work by MOLA in advance of the development of a Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire has uncovered the remains of an experimental catapult from the Second World War.

Known from historical records, the catapult in question was called the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Mark III Catapult and was developed as a way to fling bomber planes into the air. In this way, the planes were supposed to have been able to launch using shorter runways and loaded with more fuel. The Harwell prototype was built between 1938 and 1940, after three years of design, and had a large rotating turntable, which would have directed the aircraft on to one of two runways, each measuring just 82m long. In theory, the planes would be attached to an underground pneumatic ram, driven by 12 Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero engines. Compressed air was then forced through the pneumatic ram, expanding the length of the guided track, and launching the bombers into the sky.

This experiment never got off the ground, however, with the engines wearing out and the design not fitting the types of planes it was meant for. By 1941, the catapult had been abandoned, the mechanisms removed, and the whole thing buried. The catapult wasn’t a complete loss, however, as it inspired other designs such as the CAM system, used to protect merchant ships during the Second World War.

When the MOLA excavation uncovered the concrete remains of the catapult – which had remained buried since the 1940s – at Harwell, they were able to record them in precise detail. This has allowed for the creation of a 3D digital replica. The excavations also uncovered a later runway, not associated with the Mark III, with large runway lights and a light anti-aircraft gun emplacement.

Susan Porter, MOLA Project Officer, commented: ‘This fascinating structure reminds us of the rapid experimentation and innovation of the interwar years and World War II. Crucially, recording the location and appearance of every inch means that the catapult is preserved by record for future generations.’

Text: Kathryn Krakowka / Image: MOLA