A bit of a long shot: an experimental catapult from WWII

This image shows the remains of an innovative catapult – designed to launch fighter aircraft into the sky – which has recently been uncovered by archaeologists in Oxfordshire. The Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Mark III Catapult was one of a series of experimental schemes dating from the early years of the Second World War, although flaws in construction meant that it was never actually used.

Archaeologists from MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) have been working at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus, the site of a former RAF base, to record this extraordinary piece of infrastructure, which has remained buried since the early 1940s.

Made up of a large rotating turntable and two runways just 82 metres long, the catapult was intended to launch aircraft via a pneumatic ram and a towing hook, powered by 12 Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero engines. Highly pressurised compressed air was intended to sling the aircraft along the runway, saving on fuel and allowing for take-off over very short distances.

But the prototype threw up several problems, which were never successfully overcome. The engines wore out and the design did not even fit with the aircraft for which it was built. Despite three painstaking years of construction, the catapult was never used, and the mechanism was taken out and the structure filled in by 1941. A normal runway was built across it instead.

The excavations have also allowed for the creation of a 3D digital replica of the prototype (below), providing a fascinating glimpse of what might have been. In addition, artefacts have also been uncovered from another wartime runway nearby, including large landing lights, and a gun emplacement that would have defended the site from enemy attack.

Although the catapult was flawed in design and never saw use, the technology was the precursor to later, more successful innovations, such as the Catapult Armed Merchant (CAM) ships, which used a rocket-propelled system to launch Hawker Hurricanes at sea.

Text: Calum Henderson / Image: MOLA