Historic Military Airfields
Beginnings and the First World War
One of the greatest changes in warfare during 20th century was the growth of military aviation. At the outbreak of the First World War there were just a handful of military airfields. Most were concentrated around Salisbury Plain and internationally significant buildings from the beginnings of military aviation survive at Larkhill, Netheravon, and Upavon. You can find out more about what we already know from our First World War pages.
By the end of the war the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service were combined to form the Royal Air Force. The new service occupied 301 airfields, including airship and fighter stations, and training depots. After the war all but thirty were closed and the number of airfields didn’t substantially increase until the early 1930s.
The inter-war period
During the 1920s and 1930s under Chief of the Air Staff Trenchard new permanent airfields were established to house the deterrent bomber forces and defensive fighters. These new airfields were built to high design principles with standardised technical and domestic areas.
Contemporary amenity societies were concerned at the intrusion of these large developments into the countryside and one consequence was construction of the larger domestic buildings in neo-Georgian style. Many also have tree-lined roads and widely spaced buildings to guard against bombing giving a campus-like quality.
Second World War
By 1939 around 100 permanent airfields had been constructed.
After the war had started it was quickly recognised that many more airfields would be required. It was also acknowledged that pre-war standards were too expensive in materials and manpower. The new wartime airfields were built to temporary standards and were not expected to endure beyond the war’s end. Typically, their runways were laid out to an A-shape and they were provided with steel-framed hangars, buildings with walls a single brick thick and corrugated-iron Nissen huts.
In contrast to the compact pre-war airfields the buildings of the wartime bases were scattered to minimalise the effects of bombing. They represent a class of military airfield that is poorly protected and one with many conservation challenges.
To inform their future protection we have carried out an audit of temporary wartime airfields and you can download the resulting report. Our Archives have also worked with the American Air Museum to make available historic air photographs of most of the United States Army Air Force stations and you may view them on their website
The Cold War
At the end of the war many temporary airfields were closed and the land returned to agricultural use. By 1950, with growing Cold War tensions, the remaining airfields were redeveloped for a new generation of jet powered fighters and bombers, including units of the United States Air Force. These airfields were characterised by longer runways and concrete dispersal areas, larger hangars and specialised buildings to maintain increasingly complex aircraft. During the 1970s and 1980s a number of key airfields were secured with hardened aircraft shelters and command posts to protect them against nuclear, biological, and chemical attack.
The end of the Cold War brought with it a reduced need for airfields and during the 1990s many were closed; a process that continues as the defence estate is rationalised.
Former airfields can present potentially attractive large brown field sites for redevelopment. Many embody strong commemorative values as monuments to the aircrew who flew from them never to return. Before redevelopment it’s important to understand the history and inherited character of these places.
The well-considered features of airfields might provide the inspiration for new and distinctive places. We have undertaken national studies of First and Second World War, and Cold War airfields, and key sites have been protected. At RAF Coltishall we made a unique photographic record of the station prior to closure.
An updated Historic England leaflet provides guidance on the management of historic military airfields and their associated buildings so that their special character and interest are preserved and enhanced. It explains how the operational needs and development potential of these sites can be reconciled with the preservation of their special historic, architectural or archaeological significance. It is also intended to provide a template for the preparation of guidelines for individual sites.
If you have information on First World War aviation sites please share it with the Home Front Legacy project. The American Air Museum is also keen to collect recollections of wartime American bases, aircraft and personnel on its interactive web site.