Below is a brief description of the history of RAF HARROWBEER AIRFIELD, from its inception through to closure and on to the present day. The main article below was originally posted on the Buckland Monachorum website and was written by Blaze Redgrave.
Following on from this is an article by Mary Osbourn “A Snapshot of Life at Harrowbeer” that first appeared in the Buckland Monachorum Parish Council Magazine “Monachorum Miscellany”. I am grateful to Mary for permission to repeat it here.
The History of RAF Harrowbeer
Harrowbeer before the War
Documents show that Plymouth City Council began to look at future airfield sites for Plymouth in the mid 1930s. A report dated for the year 1937 shows that three sites were being looked at; Chelson Meadow, Roborough, and Harrowbeer. The report suggests that Chelson Meadow was not suitable as it lay in a ‘hollow’, and would therefore be awkward for planes taking off. Roborough was felt unsuitable because the main runway would be too short and there was no easy way to extend it. [a very familiar argument!] And finally Harrowbeer, although not ideal, was suggested as the preferred option due to the nature of the land on which it would be built. It was suggested that minimal excavation would be required and that this would cost 2/3d (about 24p) per square yard! The only drawback that could be foreseen was the probability of fog.
Airfield construction – 1941
At the beginning of the second world war it was assumed that Plymouth was too far from German air bases to be under threat of aerial bombardment. The bombers of the Luftwaffe – Dorniers, Heinkels and Junkers – did not possess the range to bomb targets in South West England and the air defence of Plymouth was not considered an immediate priority in 1939.
The efficiency of the German blitzkrieg, with the rapid capitulation of France, meant that French air bases were now in German hands. In June 1940, Plymouth faced the immediate danger of aerial assault. Land had already been requisitioned for a new airfield at Yelverton, a village some nine miles north of the city of Plymouth. Plymouth was subjected to air raids in 1940, but it was the devastating raids of March and April 1941 that all but razed the city to the ground. After the initial incendiary attack, high explosive bombs destroyed the burned out shells of the buildings, leaving the streets filled with rubble.
The Air Ministry had decreed in 1940, that all new airfields would be equipped with tarmac runways, (because of the difficulties experienced by squadrons on all grass airfields) and so it was that the rubble from the Plymouth blitz was transported to Yelverton to form part of the hard core for the new runways. Rock from quarries and mines near Tavistock was also used to form the base for runways and new roads in the area. The airfield construction provided welcome employment for local people, as the small village became a hive of activity as construction progressed.
The shops in Yelverton were reduced to single storey buildings to reduce the risk to low flying aircraft taking off from, or approaching, the runways and several roads were diverted and new ones built. A number of properties near to Leg O’ Mutton were also demolished and the present roundabout installed.
The RAF regarded the (locally famous) Rock (standing at the end of one of the runways) as posing a serious threat to pilots approaching the runways and there was a local rumour that the top of the Rock was to be removed, to reduce the danger to aircraft. However, the rumour was unsubstantiated, as an early photograph circa 1910 shows the Rock to be unchanged. Both Yelverton and Horrabridge railway stations were used to bring materials to the airfield construction site and road transport was used for the same purpose. The airfield comprised three runways in an ‘A’ shaped layout, with two Belman hangars and eight smaller blister hangars. A large house, Ravenscroft, was used as station HQ, (now a nursing home) while another building, Knightstone, became the control tower, (more properly known as the Watch Office) and this is now a restaurant and tea-room. This was replaced during 1941, when a new Watch Office was built nearer to the centre of the Airfield.
Harrowbeer becomes operational – 1941
The first operational unit to use RAF Harrowbeer as a base was 500 squadron, flying Bristol Blenheims. The first machine to land was a Blenheim 1F bomber. The RAF had modified the Blenheim bomber as a fighter, by the addition of four additional machine guns in a ventral position and several days later a number of Blenheim fighters arrived at Harrowbeer. In the autumn of 1941, Hurricane fighters landed at the airfield, although these were not marked with squadron codes as was the normal wartime practice.
A rumour had arisen that Harrowbeer was a bomber base, after a Halifax was forced to land but the airfield was too small for bomber operation and Harrowbeer was therefore used solely as a fighter base. In October of that year, 130 Squadron, flying Spitfire Mk II fighters, enjoyed a brief stay until November, when 276 Squadron arrived. The latter unit was involved in air sea rescue and flew Lysanders, Boulton Paul Defiants and Spitfires. In November, the Polish Poznan Squadron arrived at Harrowbeer, flying Spitfire VBs, under the command of Squadron leader Kowalski.
Building construction advanced in 1942 as the Polish 302 Squadron was replaced by 312 Squadron, a Czech unit flying Spitfire VCs under the command of Squadron Leader Cermak. The early missions involved shipping reconnaissance, as the fighters protected Channel convoys. With the advent of the new German fighter – the Focke Wulf 190 -Spitfires of 312 Squadron were detached to a satellite station at Bolt Head near Kingsbridge in South Devon. FW 190s were engaged in low level attacks in the South Hams and the Czech Spitfires were required to intercept the enemy intruders. Czech units were also engaged in offensive operations over the Channel in the destruction of German E boats in the Channel Islands. The Spitfires would also escort light bombers on sorties over occupied Europe.
Pilots of the Czech squadron were posted to delivery flight duty after flying the required number of combat missions. New aircraft had to be delivered to RAF fighter stations and a Czech Flight Sergeant remembers flying the new Hawker Typhoon from Westozoyland in Somerset. Typhoons were based at Harrowbeer in a section known on the station as ‘Tiffy Corner’, in blast shelters which still remain at Harrowbeer today.
On December 18th, 1942, Typhoon fighters arrived at Harrowbeer, flown by 193 Squadron with the code letters DP. The Typhoon initially suffered from unreliability problems and could be a difficult aircraft to start. The Typhoon was however to play an effective part in the battle for Normandy in 1944 and was used principally in the ground attack role against German armour. One is reminded of Paul Nash’s famous painting of Typhoons over Falaise.
1943 – Whirlwind fighter bombers at Harrowbeer
In February, 263 Squadron arrived flying the twin-engined Whirlwind fighter-bomber. The Whirlwind, escorted by single engined fighters was used effectively in strikes on enemy shipping. In May, 414 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force commenced flying operations in Mustangs, a supremely effective fighter used, like the Typhoon, in a ground attack role. From 1943 until 1945, many U.S. light aircraft used Harrowbeer.
1944 – Harrowbeer prepares for Operation Overlord
Harrowbeer, as with all other RAF stations, was to play a key role in the forthcoming invasion of occupied Europe. Only the Allied High Command knew the proposed date of the invasion but all were aware that the greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare was imminent. The Typhoons left Harrowbeer, to be replaced by many Squadrons of Spitfires whose function would be to defend against enemy air attacks. The end of Operation Overlord virtually marked the eventual demise of Harrowbeer as an RAF fighter station. By August, the station became a satellite of Exeter and the Free French 329 Squadron was the last operational unit to use the field, flying Spitfire IX fighters until June 1945.
RAF Harrowbeer closes – post-war developments
With the end of the war in Europe, RAF Harrowbeer had fulfilled its invaluable role and was no longer required as a fighter station.
In 1947, it was decided that Parliamentary approval should be sought with regard to the continued use of the airfield. Commoner’s’ rights had to be respected and as the Air Ministry decided in 1950 that it no longer required the airfield at Yelverton, a meeting was held with regard to de-requisitioning the land. Initially only hangars, huts and fences were removed but the runways were left intact. In 1960, Plymouth Corporation proposed that Harrowbeer should become the City’s airport but there was strong local opposition to the proposal and in 1961, when the Harrowbeer Airport Bill was presented to the House of Lords Select Committee, the Bill’s opponents engaged a QC to present their case and it was eventually rejected. The airfield was subsequently demolished and a road constructed across the former air-base.
For some time after the War, the dispersed sites (used as billets by the Station’s Aircrews) were used as temporary accommodation for local families. Some were still occupied in the 1970s. Today, (2005) although some of the picket posts and toilet blocks remain standing, all the accommodation huts have been demolished and all but a few of the hut bases removed.
All that now remains of RAF Harrowbeer are the vestiges of runways and hangar bases, but the blast pens on the perimeter of the airfield still form a prominent feature of an air base which had played such a crucial role in the Allied victory in the Second World War.
1981 – Stone Memorial at Harrowbeer
In 1981 a granite memorial was erected at Harrowbeer, near the Leg of Mutton, as a tribute to all who served there. It reads:
RAF Harrowbeer Operational 1941-1949
From this station flew pilots of many Commonwealth and Allied Countries, including Britain, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Poland and the United States of America, with the support of their ground crews and Airfield Defence units.
This stone is in memory of all who served here and especially of those who gave their lives.
by Mary Osborn (with acknowledgements to Michael Hayes (Knightstone) and the Air Historical Branch (RAF))
Whilst the parishioners of Buckland Monachorum were coping as best they could to provide food and shelter for many of the people fleeing the blitz in Plymouth, they were also coping with the major and long lasting physical changes that were occurring in the eastern part of their parish. In September 1940 the area of Roborough Down in this location was requisitioned by the Air Ministry as the site for a fighter aircraft station. Construction began with one source of hard core, after the start of the blitz, being the rubble from the shattered city.
Some of the major landscape changes that were necessary entailed the re-routing of the A386 to its present position as previously it passed through the Leg O’ Mutton area and across the Down to the vicinity of the Rock. To achieve this, a possible five properties between Leg O’ Mutton corner and close to the Devon Tors had to be demolished – perhaps another source of hardcore – one of these being the substantial Moor House Hotel. The Cricket Club which stood approximately where the roundabout is now was relocated to its present site; the houses and shops on the east side of the Princetown road were reduced to one storey.
The airfield to be known as RAF Harrowbeer – Yelverton being too similar to Yeovilton for safety – opened in May 1941 as part of No 10 Group within Fighter Command. At 1430 hrs on 15th August the official opening took place and at that point the station became a self-accounting unit with a Commanding Officer (CO) and eleven officers. Other personnel continued arriving in the days that followed with the first aircraft landing at 1005 hrs on 31st August.
During those early days the defence of the station was of paramount importance with the first Defence Exercise being held at 0830 hrs on the last day of August. One of the results of this exercise was the introduction of an intensive Defence Training Scheme for the airmen and regular inter unit rifle firing competitions for which the CO donated a trophy. The Local Defence Advisor (LDA) at this time was a major from the East Surrey Regiment who was based at RAF Harrowbeer. In the years that followed different exercises were held in and around the station organised by the LDA and monitored by ‘umpires’. When available, units of the local Home Guard, reinforced by Air Ministry personnel serving at RAF Harrowbeer, were involved often acting as ‘the enemy’. For exercises held within the perimeter of the station the roof of the Watch Office Tower (location SX511681), which these days would be known as the Air Traffic Control Tower, was used as an observation point. During one such night exercise the first command given by the CO was to put the station lights out!
By June 1942 the strength of the station had grown to 898 RAF, 99 WAAF and 256 Army personnel and their facilities were located outside the airfield perimeter amongst the 12 sites situated to the south west through to the north west of the airfield between Axtown and North Plantation. The most important of these sites were the Station Sick Quarters (SSQ) located to the north east side of Stokehill Lane (now the Yelverton Business Park), the communal area where the Wimpey Housing estate and naval estate now stand and which housed the airmen’s mess, barracks and NAAFI, and the WAAF area which was located between Pound Farm and North Plantation and opened on 16th May 1942. This latter site provided accommodation only so, for food and entertainment, the WAAF personnel went to the Communal area.
In the early 1940’s in the UK, towns and cities were busy raising funds to ‘buy a spitfire’ to help the war effort. In the case of one of the Harrowbeer squadrons a very special event occurred on 16th October 1943. Through an organisation known as ‘The Fellowship of the Bellows’ (a movement created in South America with the object of raising money for the purchase of RAF aircraft) a country raised enough money to ‘buy’ a squadron. The country was Brazil and the squadron, No 193 (Czech) equipped with Typhoon aircraft that were ‘priced’ at £5,000 each. For the handing over ceremony the Brazilian Ambassador, his wife, their entourage, British government and military VIP’s, plus the BBC and Paramount news came to witness the formal adoption of the squadron by the Ambassador on behalf of his country. Once the formalities were completed the squadron was known as No 193 (Bellows Brazil) Squadron and carried the Brazilian flag which was stencilled on the port side of the aircraft below the front of the cockpit canopy. During the event the CO of the squadron asked the Ambassador’s wife if she would consent to be the Squadron’s ‘Godmother’, to which she agreed. The planned flypast as a result of bad weather was reduced to a ‘taxipast’ though a flypast was performed the following month in front of a Mission from Brazil, after which the Squadron CO gave a ‘spectacular’ display of aerobatics.
Sadly not all events at the station were happy ones. As a flying unit there were accidents that sometimes meant the loss of crew members and aircraft, though not all mishaps were from the station. The first accident involved the RAF Harrowbeer rescue section when on 27th May 1942 a Lancaster bomber from No 207 Squadron crashed at Standon Hill (485m) adjacent to Willsworthy Artillery Range near Okehampton. The site of the crash proved particularly difficult for the rescuers to reach but they did succeed in bringing back the crew. Four had died at the scene but two were alive though injured and in shock, one was admitted to Tavistock District Hospital and the other to the SSQ. On 30th May two members of the crew were buried in Buckland Monachorum cemetery with full military honours. Two months later there was an airfield fatality involving a visiting Blenheim aircraft that on taking off hit a Commer van and crash landed. No crew members were killed but sadly the four airmen in the van died. There were however more positive incidents and one was a USA Fortress aircraft that landed safely at Harrowbeer on 6th March 1943 having run short of fuel after a bombing raid over France. Imagine the surprise when station personnel discovered the crew were the ones that had baled out over Dartmoor on 23rd January 1943 and had been rescued by the station unit! A census of aircraft on the station on 28th May 1943 gives some idea of how busy it was at times with 64 aircraft of 16 different types being recorded.
During exercises held beyond the airfield, the houses and outbuildings of parishioners were used as evacuation centres, medical posts and for the storage of medical equipment such as stretchers. In one exercise in August 1943 both ‘Braemar’ in Golf Links Road and Pound Cottage, which was opposite the main guardroom, were decorated with a Red Cross.
In an exercise held on 19th March 1944 members of the Home Guard acting as ‘the enemy’ managed to capture two Armoured Fighting Vehicles by ambushing them in Green Lane. In another area of the same exercise one NCO and 10 men came within 50 yards on Battle Headquarters before being ‘wiped out’. After that it was decided that in a future exercise the ‘Battle Flights’ of the station should act as the enemy to give them a chance to study lines of approach from the enemy point of view! A different type of exercise was held on 2nd April of that year when 17 pilots from two of the Harrowbeer squadrons were involved in escape and evasion when trying to get back to the station from a drop-off point. As the Home Guard were unavailable, 40 to 50 members of the RAF Regiment from the station, plus local CMP patrolled the neighbourhood whilst four armoured cars carried out sweeps; the local police were also informed of what was going on and were put on alert. Prior to the exercise the pilots were told to wear battledress trousers but no battledress jacket, collar, tie or hat and the result, when the pilots appeared for their briefing, was a very mixed range of attire though all were judged peculiar enough ‘to attract the dullest civilians attention’. The most innovative attire was that of a pilot wearing a German NCO’s tunic with swastikas chalked on in prominent places, a species ‘of mustard coloured peaked knitted cap and most unusual shoes’. The purpose of the briefing held at 1330 hrs was to tell the pilots the rules and to hand them a note saying that the holder was taking part in an exercise. The rules covered arrest which was by seizure and also to stop if challenged by anyone bearing firearms; in both situations they were only to speak in broken English. A blacked out vehicle took the men to an area approximately 6 miles north west of the airfield where they were dropped off at intervals. The first pair came in at 1530 hrs having stolen bicycles and slipped through before the search parties and guards had manned their vantage points! Another pilot stole an airman’s greatcoat and cap from a dispersed sleeping site and returned to the airfield with a football crowd, saluting all officers that he met. Others also made it, though some of them were chased but not caught, with the last one reporting in at 1800 hrs; just 7 were captured and perhaps the pilot wearing the German NCO style jacket was one of them. All apparently enjoyed the exercise.
One German officer did reach the airfield on 19 July 1944 courtesy of an air sea rescue by a Walrus aircraft stationed at Harrowbeer’s satellite station at Bolt Head. He was the commander of a U-boat. This unexpected VIP was placed in the custody of the CO RAF Harrowbeer, then interviewed by intelligence officers from Plymouth and later, after a shave and bath which it was hoped would induce him to ‘talk’, he was flown to London and placed in the care of Admiralty officials.
Another unusual occurrence came about on 29th July 1944 as the result of a message from the ‘Maquis’ in the French village of Scrignac asking for the German Headquarters there to be bombed as they were about to start operations against the Maquis. Two squadrons from Harrowbeer carried out the task successfully and as a result the two squadron commanders involved flew up to London to give the postscript to the BBC 9 o’clock news; the broadcast was tannoyed throughout the station and was perhaps heard that way by some parishioners.
It wasn’t only the Home Guard who had regular contact with the personnel at RAF Harrowbeer. The station soccer and rugby teams competed against local and league teams, the local shops and pubs would also have benefited from their custom and on occasion the likely presence of local ‘ladies’ at the dances held regularly in all the messes must have been appreciated. So perhaps there was a tinge of sadness for many when on 31st August 1944 the station was ordered on to a ‘care and maintenance basis with effect from 1st September’. The end of RAF Harrowbeer as part of Fighter Command was seen as being ‘not subjected to an unconscionably long time dying’.
But it was not quite the end for RAF Harrowbeer as a self-accounting unit within Fighter Command because, on 8th January 1945, the station re-opened. Prior to this a No. 10 Group detachment had been sent in towards the end of December to make the place ‘habitable with their scrubbing and paint brushes’; though they were unable to ensure there was a full water supply to greet the advance party.
On 9th January, Flying Control was taken over from the US Navy – who had used the airfield since the RAF left – and the first three aircraft arrived, followed in the next few days by the remainder of two squadrons who were re-locating from Exeter; the first squadron to arrive claimed Whistley as its living quarters. Perhaps more importantly ‘a limited amount of water arrived on the living sites’.
The SSQ in Exeter was closed with the personnel moving into the Harrowbeer site, and a house in Horrabridge called ‘Foxhams’ was requisitioned as a dispersed sick quarters. The messes were soon fully operational as was the station cinema though this did not prove to be as popular as expected due to its very inadequate heating. Not surprisingly heat was needed as from 20th January to the end of the month the airfield was often closed due to snow and ice. After one particularly heavy snowfall of 10 inches some personnel were kept busy on two days of snow clearance and their reward, or was it perhaps an incentive, was a very generous rum issue.
In early February the WAAF site was provided with its own NAAFI and by the end of the month had messing facilities as well; and life was made easier for all personnel when the station working hours were changed to 0830 – 1700 hrs. ‘Peace Time’ Wednesday sports afternoons began in March with organised games which included golf, tennis, swimming and riding as well as discussion groups and defence training. Once again dances, including an ‘all ranks’ one, were held regularly in all messes and ‘dining in’ nights reinstated – though the officers were none too pleased that they had to hire port glasses! Other light relief was provided by ENSA shows, No. 7 RAF ‘Gang Show’, films, progressive whist drives and football matches. On a more serious note a course for potential Junior NCOs commenced for all airmen and airwomen, being the only route for promotion to Corporal.
Flying accidents continued with some, as before, being more serious than others, but on a happier note No. 329 (French) Squadron arrived at RAF Harrowbeer on 24th May to prepare for General de Gaulle’s air pageant being held in France on 18th June. On 7th July General Lee, the USA deputy to General Eisenhower arrived by Dakota as he was due to unveil the memorial dedicated to all those who gave up their houses and farms to be used as training ground for the US Forces before ‘D’ day.
Although the station had been inspected in March with a view to its use after the war as a Technical Training Centre it was once again reduced to a ‘care and maintenance’ basis when the main party at RAF Harrowbeer left for Exeter on 31st July 1945. The army used the airfield on occasion and one very unexpected visitor arrived on 2nd August 1945 when an aircraft, due to land at St. Mawgan, was diverted due to fog to Harrowbeer. On board was the President of the United States, Harry Truman on his way home after the Potsdam conference. The Communal Site was used again in 1949 by the RAF personnel from Sharpitor but by November 1950 Devon County Council were asking the Air Ministry to arrange a contract for the removal of huts, all barbed wire entanglements and perimeter wire. By February 1951 the Air Ministry were still saying they would remove these items as soon as possible!
Mary Osborn (with acknowledgements to Michael Hayes (Knightstone) and the Air Historical Branch (RAF))