AERODROMES OF FIGHTER COMMAND THEN AND NOW – Review by Mark Barnes

 

The airport to the north of my town used to be in the doldrums. Regular services had dropped off and the only thing appearing to make any money were the array of aircraft servicing and scrapping businesses scattered around the perimeter of the airfield. One of the few highlights was the arrival of a Vulcan bomber, which came with a little bit of fuss and remains to this day, a testament to the enthusiasts who keep it in shape.  We even had a major drug smuggling incident when some chancers tried to fly in a tatty Boeing 707 full of cocaine but the revenue men were waiting. There used to be the hulks of massive Short Belfast freighters languishing on the perimeter, but the scrap men cut them up several years ago.

But, then new money arrived promising a boost to fortunes for all and sundry. The work began on a new terminal and control tower and things started to look polished. The runway needed to be extended and at one point the fate of a thousand year old church was argued over. The planners wanted to move it, brick by brick, to a new location, but there was no chance of that happening and a compromise was found. If you were to visit on one our rare snowy days you might think you had wandered on to the set of the second Die Hard movie.

Not all history is sacred and the last remnants of the airfield’s RAF past were swept away.  A mate of mine saved one of the Hamilton forts that had been installed for defence at the time Fighter Command was expanding under the leadership of Hugh Dowding.  He may have been a bit flaky with his spiritualism and not the easiest person to warm to, but Dowding was and remains a genius, the saviour of his nation.

But, all this had to start somewhere. Fighter Command was formed in 1936 and, WW2 aside, continued managing the air defence of the UK until it was merged with Bomber Command in 1968 to form Strike Command at a time when the RAF was shrinking and rethinking. Students of the fulcrum of it’s history, the Battle of Britain, will know much about the iconic airfields of the groups closest to the south of England where the battle raged hottest, but the principle of flexible defence set down by Dowding and his staff demanded the location of airfields across the British mainland to cover all the angles.  Squadrons could slip in an out of quiet spots to refit and recuperate from the tempest of battle but they would also be on hand if the enemy tried anything sneaky. He often did.

The Battle is not the whole story of Fighter Command and nor do the airfields of southern England have a monopoly on the victory. In this book we get to visit them all and see how they have fared over the years. Some have vanished completely while a few others are still in use. In some cases the ‘dromes show occasional hints of their past lives and these places are not always open to exploration. Thankfully, we have books like this to guide us and even if you can’t go for a bimble around the amenable sites you will be able to see them as is, compared to what was.

Nothing lasts forever and the aerodromes of the RAF definitely fall into this category. The system Dowding built is his monument and the fact that so little of it remains is something you can choose to be sad about or not. You might enjoy visits to the magnificent IWM Duxford and be thrilled to see an almost complete airfield, or you might live on the sprawling housing estate at the former RAF Hornchurch for which you work your arse off to cover the mortgage with little thought you reside on a place that was once vital to the defence of the country. Nothing lasts forever and maybe even our Norman church will fade away one of these decades… although there will be some fight about that!

This is yet another beautiful book from the After The Battle team. It comes with all the tried and tested ingredients plus the imposition of more colour images that I welcome, but am taking time to get used to, and the trickery of Google maps. The feel of it all is exactly the same as previous efforts and tried and tested formula is as solid as always. The old days of aerial photography and the Ordnance Survey are receding, so even the books we take for granted are bending with the times. I don’t see anything ironic in this, it is just progress.

This time round we have to commend Robin J Brooks for his efforts.  The mixture of superb photographs and a great deal of information are as good as it’s stable-mates have confirmed. You know where you are with these books. A glance through the credits, will, as always reveal a regiment of names who have provided assistance, snaps, titbits of info and so on. The Then and Now books are a mosaic and one of the pieces, here, was Simon Chamberlain who, was killed an air crash last March. The book is dedicated to him.

I can wax lyrical about these books until the cows come home and will save you the eye ache. I suspect it must be a bit of a conundrum for the ATB team to decide where to go next. Perhaps the kind of things being done by Ghosts of History is an option? I am a traditionalist in so many ways and am happy with things as they are. Although change is constant and we have seen so much of it in recent years it is sometimes nice to leave a few things to take things at their own pace.

Time was not in abundance for the architects of Fighter Command. They had to get a lot of things in place and just about had it right in time for the onslaught. Now, like them, their work is vanishing and will soon be just pages from history. If you want to see what remains of their achievement this book will help you on your way, but don’t hang about.

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

AERODROMES OF FIGHTER COMMAND THEN AND NOW
By Robin J Brooks
Battle of Britain International Ltd,
ISBN: 978 187006 782 9