North Weald Airfield History
North Weald Airfield was established as a military airbase during the First World War. It continued to be used as a military base between the wars and was an important Royal Air Force base in the Second World War. The airfield gained prominence during this time as an important base in the air defence of the United Kingdom.
The development of fighter aircraft after the Second World War, in particular the advent of the 'Jet' age, meant that the facilities required could not be provided at North Weald. The Royal Air Force withdrew from active use of the airfield in the 1950's and the airfield became surplus to Ministry of Defence (MoD) operational requirements in the 1970's.
It is important to understand the historical background of the site in order to appreciate the depth of feeling existing within large sections of the local community whose perceptions of the airfield are based on its historical associations.
In 1914 when Kitchener was the Secretary of State for War, he ordered Churchill, then the First Sea Lord, to take responsibility for strengthening Britain's air defences. This included the reconstruction of a number of airfields around the perimeter of London. Churchill commissioned a new air defence unit, The Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and its 39 Squadron was based at Suttons Farm, Hornchurch, Hainault Farm, Chadwell Heath and North Weald.
It was proved that this was a wise precaution since the Zeppelin raids from Germany commenced in 1916 and a Victoria Cross was won by Leefe Robinson of 39 Squadron when he shot down a Zeppelin over Cuffley.
In 1917 the Germans replaced the Zeppelins with the menacing Gothas. These bi-plane bombers attacked on mass and were engaged by the new Bristol Fighters from North Weald. Around this time 39 Squadron was sent to France and replaced by Number 44 Squadron but the affection felt for the original Squadron remains strong.
In April 1918 the Royal Flying Corps merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to form the Royal Air Force. Major A T Harris, later to find fame during the Second World War as "Bomber" Harris, became North Weald's Commanding Officer. In 1919, with the immediate threat of war over, North Weald Airfield was put under care and management, becoming largely inactive. It wasn't until 1926 that a considerable amount of re-building took place, housing large hangars and accommodation for RAF personnel before the airfield re-opened in September 1927.
In 1936 training at North Weald intensified and by 1938 the first Hawker Hurricanes came into service at the airfield. They were later joined by the Blenheim Night Fighters and the scene was set for the outbreak of the Second World War.
On September 3rd 1939, the Royal Air Force at North Weald received its war signal from the Headquarters at Number II Group Fighter Command and in 1940, the Hurricanes from North Weald saw action over the beaches of Dunkirk.
North Weald saw two serious bomber attacks resulting in considerable death and destruction during the first phase of the Battle of Britain. The second attack rendered the Operations Room unusable and this "Ops" Room has since been developed as a museum by local enthusiasts.
By the end of 1940, an American Eagle Squadron moved into North Weald and was supplied with Spitfires. 1942 saw the arrival of the first Norwegian Squadrons who played a significant part in the history of the airfield. A great friendship was formed with the local villagers and the Norwegian Veterans visit North Weald at least once a year to lay a wreath at their memorial outside Ad Astra House, the ground floor of which contains the North Weald Memorial Museum. The graveyard at St Andrews Church provides the resting place for many of the aircrew, ground staff and soldiers who gave their lives whilst stationed at North Weald.