World War II airfield defences at RAF Church Fenton


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Scheduled Monument
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Ordnance survey map of World War II airfield defences at RAF Church Fenton
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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Yorkshire
Selby (District Authority)
Church Fenton
North Yorkshire
Selby (District Authority)
Ryther cum Ossendyke
North Yorkshire
Selby (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SE 52322 37187, SE 52461 37164, SE 52526 38300, SE 52670 37188, SE 52891 38644, SE 52946 37264, SE 53113 37341, SE 53455 37721

Reasons for Designation

The importance of defending airfields against attack was realised before the outbreak of World War II and a strategy evolved as the war went on. Initially based on the principle of defence against air attack, anti-aircraft guns, air raid shelters and dispersed layouts, with fighter or `blast' pens to protect dispersed aircraft, are characteristics of this early phase. With time, however, the capture of the airfield became a more significant threat, and it was in this phase that the majority of surviving defence structures were constructed, mostly in the form of pillboxes and other types of machine gun post. The scale of airfield defence depended on the likelihood of attack, with those airfields in south or east England, and those close to navigable rivers, ports and dockyards being more heavily defended. But the types of structure used were fairly standard. For defence against air attack there were anti-aircraft gun positions, either small machine gun posts or more substantial towers for Bofors guns; air raid shelters were common, with many examples on each airfield; and for aircraft, widely dispersed to reduce the potential effects of attack, fighter pens were provided. These were groups together, usually in threes, and took the form of `E' shaped earthworks with shelter for ground crew. Night fighter stations also had sleep shelters where the crew could rest. For defence against capture, pillboxes were provided. These fortified gun positions took many forms, from standard ministry designs used throughout Britain and in all contexts, to designs specifically for airfield defence. Three Pickett-Hamilton forts were issued to many airfields and located on the flying field itself. Normally level with the ground, these forts were occupied by two persons who entered through the roof before raising the structure by a pneumatic mechanism to bring fire on the invading force. Other types of gun position include the Seagull trench, a complex linear defensive position, and rounded `Mushroom' pillboxes, while fighter pens were often protected by defended walls. Finally, airfield defence was co-ordinated from a Battle Headquarters, a heavily built structure of which under and above ground examples are known. Defences survive on a number of airfields, though few in anything like the original form or configuration, or with their Battle Headquarters. Examples are considered to be of particular importance where the defence provision is near complete, or where a portion of the airfield represents the nature of airfield defence that existed more widely across the site. Surviving structures will often be given coherence and context by surviving lengths of perimeter track and the concrete dispersal pads. In addition, some types of defence structure are rare survivals nationally, and all examples of Pickett- Hamilton forts, fighter pens and their associated sleep shelters, gun positions and Battle Headquarters closely associated with defence structures, are of national importance.

The remains of the former World War II airfield defences at RAF Church Fenton survive well. Church Fenton was one of few fighter stations in the north of England and is one of the few nationally where significant remains of the defences of a Battle of Britain station still survives. Three quarters of the fighter pens still survive in a near complete state along with remains of support buildings and sections of the perimeter runways. Fighter pens are now rare survivals in England, and with their associated structures they illustrate well some of the measures taken to protect fighter planes during World War II by means of dispersed and well-defended pens. In addition one of the battle headquarters and some of the defensive posts are still intact. Taken as whole the monument provides tangible information about a significant period of history when England was under severe threat and demonstrates some of the counter measures employed.


The monument includes remains of part of the defences of the former World War II fighter station of RAF Church Fenton located on level ground on the southern part of the Vale of York, 12km north west of Selby. The remains include a series of dispersed fighter pens, a pillbox, two gun posts and a battle headquarters used for coordinating the ground defence of the airfield, together with remains of some support buildings and sections of the perimeter runway and taxiing areas. The monument is divided into eight separate areas of protection.

RAF Church Fenton comprised two runways, extending south east to north west and south west to north east, with the technical and administrative areas concentrated to the north west and a range of support buildings and technical structures located around the southern and eastern perimeter. It was built as part of the RAF's massive pre-war expansion programme, which started in 1935 in response to Hitler's move to increase the strength of the German armed forces. Work started at Church Fenton in 1936 and although the airfield opened in April 1938 it was not completed until the following year. It initially operated with a grass airfield and all weather runways were in place by 1940. It was the main fighter station for northern England and formed part of No.12 Group, Fighter Command, with the task of protecting the industrial regions of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Humberside. When war broke out the station was transferred to No.13 Group and was designated as a `sector' station and thus received information direct from radar stations on the coast and from the headquarters of the Royal Observer Corps at York and Leeds. As one of only five fighter stations in the north east it played an important role in the Battle of Britain. Squadrons operating from Church Fenton included No.72 with Gloster Gladiators and later Spitfire mark 1's supported by a detachment of 245 squadron with Hurricanes and No.213 with Gloster Gauntlets. Church Fenton remained in active service until 1959 when it was transferred to Flying Training Command and today the station is still part of the RAF being used mainly for a range of training purposes.

During World War II airfields were considered vulnerable from air attack and fighter aircraft were considered to be particularly at risk when on the ground therefore, elaborate precautions were taken to prevent any loss of aircraft whilst not in action. As a result, fighter aircraft were often held in dispersed pens located around the perimeter of the airfields but with easy access to the main runways. At Church Fenton there were 12 such dispersal pens located in three groups of four, situated along the southern perimeter, the south eastern corner and the north eastern corner. In the north eastern group only part of one pen survives and this group is not included in the monument.

In the south eastern group (centred at NGR SE53453770) there are three pens located around the sides of an oval-shaped taxiing track, an average of 150m apart. The fourth pen in this group lies to the south west and faces west along the perimeter track. They are all standard Fighter Command Works `E'-shaped twin fighter pens. Each consists of an open-sided rectangular structure with a central traverse dividing it into two bays, one for each aircraft. The pens are constructed of earthen ramparts measuring approximately 10m wide and standing up to 2m high. The bays are approximately 20 sq m and would have housed the larger twin engined fighters. Within each bay the surface is composed of concrete covered with a thin layer of asphalt in order to reduce glare. Externally they measure 70m in length by 40m deep.

Adjacent to the pens and taxi tracks and included within the scheduling there are remains of the support buildings which originally serviced the needs of the fighter pens. These buildings provided the means by which the aircraft housed within the pens could be ready for duty and able to respond instantly to any reported threat. These buildings include a flight office providing accommodation for flight officers and clerks, sleeping shelter, rest and recreation rooms, repair shop and a latrine. These structures survive as a series of concrete footings and slight earthworks indicating their positions.

The other group of four dispersal pens within the monument is positioned in a line along the southern edge of the airfield facing onto the southern perimeter track. They are between 120m and 180m apart and each lies within a single protected area. These pens are all the classic `E'-shape in style and are constructed in the same manner as the first group. The bays within this second group are however slightly smaller indicating that they housed single engined aircraft. In total they have external measurements of 50m by 30m. Further support buildings were also located near these pens however no evidence of these survives and the sites of these are not included in the monument.

None of the fighter pens within the monument show evidence of post-1941 brick or concrete retaining walls or air-raid shelters found within the fabric of pens, which indicates that these are early examples dating to when the dispersal strategy was first introduced.

By late 1940 it was realised that airfields were also vulnerable to ground assault intended to capture an airfield for enemy use. Church Fenton was defended from ground assault by a network of defensive positions around the airfield including gun posts, machine gun posts and pillboxes all coordinated from a battle headquarters. At Church Fenton there were two separately located successive battle headquarters. The earliest of these still survives and is located on the north east perimeter at NGR SE52893864. It was abandoned when the airfield was expanded to the north and was no longer able to command a clear view of the whole airfield. The second later headquarters was located at NGR SE53333780. It has been levelled and is not included in the monument.

The surviving battle headquarters follows the standard Air Ministry design and consists of a rectangular-shaped underground bunker on a north to south alignment concealed beneath a mound of earth. Within the bunker are a number of rooms including the station defence commanders office, a communications room connected to the individual defence posts and the observation post. The observation post protrudes above ground level at the southern end of the mound by approximately 0.8m. The exposed part comprises a square concrete cupola with a narrow slit on all sides just above ground level which allowed for 360 degree vision of the whole airfield. At the northern end of the bunker access was provided via a flight of steps. In total the bunker and protective mound measures 15m by 10m.

Only two of an original complement of 14 gun posts now survive, both of which are included within the monument. One of these is located on a raised mound in the centre of the south eastern group of fighter pens at NGR SE53403772. It has a standard keyhole-shaped design with a gun mounted in the rounded western section allowing a 360 degree field of fire. The eastern rectangular section included a small covered room which served as an ammunition store and temporary accommodation for the crew with access through the gun pit. Elements of the machine-gun mounting and further internal fittings still survive. It is partly sunken into the mound on which it stands and is constructed from bricks. The mound it stands on extends further to the north and there is earthwork evidence of further structures whose function is currently unclear.

The other surviving gun post is located to the north of the technical site at NGR SE52523830. It comprises a brick built structure measuring 4.37 sqm with a central circular gun pit. The entrance was via a door in the south wall protected by an external blast wall.

Only one pillbox still survives at Church Fenton. It is located in the south west corner of the airfield at NGR SE52323718 and is included in the monument. It survives virtually intact and stands to its full height. It is a Type 24 pillbox and has an irregular hexagonal-shaped plan with the rear, south west, wall being longer than the others. It was positioned so that the field of fire concentrated inwards to the airfield. The rear wall has a central entrance with a gun loop on each side protected by an external blast wall. Each of the other five faces has a single gun loop set into the wall. Internally there is a brick-built partition wall which operated as an anti-ricochet device. The walls are made of concrete with external brick shuttering and the roof is of reinforced concrete, the whole standing on a concrete raft. The rear wall measures approximately 3.5m in length and the other five walls are 2m in length.

In addition to the immediate defences at the airfield itself Church Fenton was also protected by three night decoy airfields and one day decoy airfield: only eight of the 36 fighter stations in the country were considered significant enough to have a day decoy. The control building for the `Q'-type decoy at Hambleton 6.5km to the south east survives and is protected as a separate monument.

Other elements of the World War II RAF station still survive at Church Fenton and are not included in the monument. These include a number of buildings within the technical and domestic sites including hangers, offices, the chapel and gate house as well the original perimeter track and runways. These are all in active use and are not included in the monument. Those sections of the original perimeter track of the airfield, and those sections of hard standing for aircraft which lie within the area of protection are however specifically included.

The metal mast array and associated brick building in the south east corner lies outside the protected area.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

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Books and journals
Otter, P, Yorkshire Airfields in the Second World War, (1998), 58-65
Otter, P, Yorkshire Airfields in the Second World War, (1998), 58-65
AM DRG 2380/45, (1945)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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