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Historic Military Airfields

This section is about the study and conservation of modern military airfields. Within it you will find advice on their conservation and how you can contribute your knowledge to a growing body of knowledge on First and Second World airfields.

Upavon, Wiltshire, First World War single storey Royal Flying Corps officers’ mess
Upavon, Wiltshire, First World War Royal Flying Corps officers’ mess © Historic England DP 004898

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.

RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, a mid-1930s permanent airfield imposed on an enclosed agricultural landscape
RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, a mid-1930s airfield imposed on an enclosed agricultural landscape © Historic England 24369/010 Damian Grady

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.

RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, officers' mess, during the 1930s there was great concern about the growth of new airfields. The Royal Fine Arts Commission advised on the design of many airfield buildings and a plain neo-Georgian style was used for many domestic buildings
RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, officers' mess, during the 1930s there was great concern about the growth of new airfields. The Royal Fine Arts Commission advised on the design of many airfield buildings © Historic England AA 054416 Steve Cole

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

RAF Harrington, Northamptonshire, a temporary wartime airfield, its outline remains visible in modern road patterns and crop marks
RAF Harrington, Northamptonshire, a temporary wartime airfield © Historic England 21798/06

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.

RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, during the Cold War the airfield was substantially redeveloped, after closure it has been used for car storage
RAF Upper Heyford, Oxfordshire, during the Cold War the airfield was substantially redeveloped © Historic England 18517/25

Today

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.

RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, three Jaguar aircraft on the flight line in front of the 1930s hangars
RAF Coltishall, Norfolk, Jaguar aircraft on the flight line in front of the 1930s hangars © Historic England AA054413 Steve Cole
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