As mans first powered flight only took place on December 17th 1903, by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, airfields prior to WWI were few and far between. WWI itself did change this, however.
This war truly cemented flight as an integral part of a fighting force, and as such nations rapidly expanded their infrastructure to operate them, Britain included.
After WWI had ended, there were over 300 airfields of all types in Britain, a number reduced to just 30 soon after. The need for new airfields wouldn’t arrive until the 1930s, when Europe was once again facing war.
At this time, it was decided to construct more permanent airfields, ones that would house bomber forces and defensive fighter squadrons. These were often built with a focus on quality, much to the dismay of many people who thought these large establishments were intrusive in the countryside. In an attempt to alleviate this by making them slightly more visually appealing, many of the larger buildings were built in a neo-Georgian style.
By 1939 the number of permanent airfields built totalled 100. With war around the corner, it was clear many more aircraft, and therefore many more airfields, were needed. With time of the essence, no longer would these airfields be built to pre-war standards, which were costly, slow to make, and used too much manpower and materials.
These newer airfields were much more basic, and were built to a rather cookie-cutter design, consisting of an A-shape runway layout, and simple buildings like Nissen huts. These pop up airfields weren’t expected to last after the war.
To reduce the affect of bombing, these airfields were situated all around the country.
After France fell to Germany in June of 1940, Britain became the last bastion of defence against the Third Reich. From this point onwards, if any Allied aircraft were to fly over Europe, they had to leave from Britain. With the US’s entry into the war in 1941, they also used these airfields to operate their heavy bombers from. Runways had to be lengthened and infrastructure increased to support these heavy bombers and their crews.
These airfields were critical throughout the war, from defending against waves of German aircraft in the Battle of Britain, launching the mass bombing raids that helped cripple Germany from the inside, and as the last friendly soil paratroopers stood on before flying to Normandy for D-Day.
As they were never meant to last, most of these historic, once bustling sites have now returned to agricultural use. Many still have leftover remains and roads, some with whole runways still left, but a few have disappeared entirely, with just a scar in ground when viewed from the air now the only indication of their existence.
A few key airfields continued operation past WWII, as the new threats of the Cold War emerged. Newer, more complex aircraft meant these airfields needed to be adapted to accommodate them, plus offer safe storage for nuclear weapons.
Here is a compilation of these important locations in their heyday.