If you’re passing junction 12 on the M40, you’ll see signs for the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. You’re also driving past what remains of Britain’s first ever operational V-bomber base, which grew out of a Second World War airfield, and now houses one of Jaguar Land Rover’s engineering centres.
Last year, I spent a day at the Heritage Motor Centre, learning about the history of the site. As I used to work at Gaydon, and I’m researching ex Cold War airfields for the novel I’m writing, I couldn’t miss out.
RAF Gaydon, close to the Warwickshire village from which it takes its name, became operational in June 1942: it had three runways (in an A configuration), with 3 temporary hangars and a total of 27 “frying pan” hard standings. It was a Bomber Command training base, a satellite airfield of nearby Wellesbourne Mountford (Wellesbourne still has an airfield today, and now houses the most powerful surviving Vulcan in ground running condition, XM655). It trained mostly Royal Canadian Air Force crews to fly Vickers Wellingtons as part of 91 Group’s 22 Operational Training Unit. As it was a training base, student crews didn’t fly full-on bombing sorties, but towards the end of their training, they were often sent on leafleting missions over France and the Netherlands.
Inevitably, there were accidents: November 1942 saw most of them. On the 8th, Wellington DF742 crashed near the village of Harbury, approximately 5 miles away, after an engine failure: two of the crew were killed. The next night, Wellington HF648 crashed due to engine failure just after take-off, killing all on board. This was followed at the end of the month by Wellington HF633, which crashed with no survivors after hitting trees while circling the aerodrome.
As the war drew to a close, flying training at Gaydon stopped in July 1945. It briefly became part of No 3 Glider Training School, but as of August 1946, it was put onto Care & Maintenance.
When it became clear that a new kind of threat was emerging to the post-war world, the government developed the operational requirements that led to the three V-bombers. This went hand in hand with upgrading existing infrastructure to cope with advancing aerospace technology.
RAF Gaydon was one of ten airfields selected to become V-bomber bases, and reconstruction began in 1953. Interestingly, it was the only “temporary” wartime airfield chosen, and as such it required total redevelopment.
The old wartime airfield was completely flattened. The base technical area was then built around the old wartime layout. Instead of re-using the wartime runways, these were dug up and used as the hard-core base of an entirely new runway complex, built on newly-acquired farmland to the south-west. A mammoth 1.7 miles (or 3000 yards) long, accompanied by hardstandings, H-dispersals, taxiways, and fuel depots, this is still one of the longest runways in Britain.
A new, glass topped control tower was built by the new runway. This tower’s design actually foreshadowed that of most major post-war control towers by having a fully-glazed visual control room, above the approach control room.
As the wartime hangars were completely unsuitable, a new type of prefabricated steel structure was developed to house the aircraft: the type now known as a Gaydon hangar, which was then used on many subsequent airfields all over Britain. Two of these were built.
The old wartime accommodation was not up to scratch for the first line of Britain’s defence, so an entire housing estate was built by the base to serve as married quarters. At its operational peak, the base employed over 2,500 people.
RAF Gaydon became fully operational on 1st March 1954 under the control of No 3 Group Bomber Command, but it wasn’t until 1st January 1955 that it welcomed the first Vickers Valiants of 138 Squadron. This moved to RAF Wittering on 6th July 1955. 543 Squadron briefly visited for runway approach aid training, with photo reconnaissance versions of the Valiant and the English Electric Canberra T4, but they left for RAF Wyton on the 18th November 1955.
On the 4th July 1955, 232 Operational Conversion Unit formed at Gaydon with Valiants; Handley-Page Victors joined them on 11th November 1957. Had nuclear war beckoned, RAF Gaydon would also have been one of Britain’s key dispersal airfields: as such, it would have gathered Victors and Valiants to be armed ready for sending off to Russia.
It appears while Victors and Valiants were there, there were few fatal accidents. On the 2nd October 1962, Victor B1 XA934 crashed into Combrook Woods, a short distance from the end of the runway, after engine failure during take-off: only the co-pilot survived.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, RAF Gaydon’s annual airshow was second only to Farnborough. One of my colleagues, who has lived nearby all his life, told me of spending hours queueing on what was then the A41 (and is now the B4100) to get into the airshow, but watching Victors, Valiants and Vulcans, even Lightnings and Canberras, leaving trails in the sky and listening to them echoing off the landscape. Gaydon even continued to host the RAFA Midland Air Day right up until 1975.
232 OCU disbanded in June 1965, and from September 1965, Gaydon housed the Varsities and Valettas of No 2 Air Navigation School, teaching basic navigation. However, in May 1970, No 2 ANS moved to RAF Finningley (now, of course, Robin Hood Doncaster Sheffield, and the home of the only airworthy Avro Vulcan B2, XH558). Strike Command Special Avionics Unit of No 1 Group briefly stayed at Gaydon, but disbanded in December 1971.
The station then went onto Care & Maintenance under the control of 71 MU Bicester Maintenance Command, until it was finally closed on the 31st October 1974.
Interestingly, Gaydon was once considered as a potential site for a third London airport (presumably adhering to the budget airline definition of London), but this never happened. Instead, British Leyland bought the site in 1978, to turn it into a vehicle design and development centre.
So, what’s left of all of this today?
Most obviously, the runway and taxiways have been developed into the test track and vehicle proving ground. The runway was wide enough to serve both as the main straight of the test track and the brake straights (used for testing brakes, as you might have guessed). The rest of the runway, taxiways and dispersals have been turned into a series of differing road surface and technical areas for vehicle development and testing.
Fascinatingly, traces of Gaydon’s V-Force past can be seen around the proving ground. Many tie-down hooks are still there on various roads, firmly embedded in the concrete. Yellow lines along what were taxiways, showing the pilots where to go, are still clearly visible, hardly eroded by time. At the end of the brake and main straights, where there is now a vehicle disposal compound, you can see the filled-in squares of concrete which once housed the runway lights. A huge embankment, shielded by trees, hides one of the airfield’s fuel storage tanks.
The control tower is still there, though it’s now stripped of all ATC equipment: the lower floors are offices, and the glass-topped hexagonal visual control room is now a spectacular meeting room. In front, the station’s ‘GD’ designation is still kept scrupulously clean and painted bright white.
I’d love to have taken pictures of all of these to show you, but one of the conditions of our test track / runway tour was no photographs. Understandable when you consider the variety of interesting prototype vehicles that were around!
If you look at aerial photographs of Gaydon today, the site road layout still follows the old wartime A-runway pattern: the large building at the apex of the A is, in fact, Aston Martin’s facility. The original base gate house and entrance is now the Aston Martin entrance.
Surprisingly clear on the aerial photos are the dispersals: the changing surface is noticeable on the ground, but far more obvious from above.
Both the hangars survive, and are now used as vehicle workshops: one has had to be re-roofed, but it still retains its hangar footprint. The huge sliding doors have been replaced by much smaller roller shutters, though.
What used to be the officer’s mess is now being used as the canteen and catering building.
The atomic bomb store, some distance away from the main base area towards the village of Moreton Morrell, and surprisingly close to the Fosse Way, is now used as the British Film Institute archive. Despite there being many rumours (at least, when I was at Gaydon) about tunnels connecting the runway, the bomb store, and the hangars, there doesn’t appear to be any evidence to back that up. The other rumour, about an underground railway linking Gaydon to the nearby Kineton armoury depot, was also swiftly scotched by those leading the tour.
The base accommodation was sold off as housing during the 1970s, and is now the village of Lighthorne Heath.
Other RAF-era buildings are still intact and in use on site, but as the buildings age, and development and expansion increases, these are becoming fewer.
On the 11th November 2005, Jaguar Land Rover commemorated Gaydon’s RAF past with a memorial in the site gate house. (http://s37.photobucket.com/user/airfieldsman/media/VariousMemorials0029.jpg.html) It’s a simple, but fitting, tribute to those who served, and sometimes died, and to the past of a site that many simply don’t know.
Thanks to Lindsay (@Lins_Rumbold) for submitting this superb blog to us here at #twitterVforce
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