Posted: 9 January 2011 10:06
Further to my discovery of a series of airstrips in a concentrated area, research has revealed the what, why and when surrounding this little mystery.
In response to my previous post, I received an email from Dave T. with some information from a 1946 Royal Engineers Supplementary Pocket Book No 5B - Airfields, which he summarised as follows:
The pocket book notes Prefabricated Bituminous Surfacing (PBS) as being excellent for fighters and light bombers when treated for skidding but notes it has a low load spreading ability. However an amendment of January 1948 states PBS has no load bearing capacity and its use was to waterproof soil which has been stabilized by compaction.
Anti-skid treatment: PBS is dangerously slippery when wet so needs a surface dressing, normally with cut-back bitumen or tar and blinded with coarse dry sand.
The pamphlet notes that Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) cannot be laid on PBS because under traffic the PSP will puncture the PBS.
However, Square Mesh Track (SMT) could be laid on PBS and a cushion of hessian or straw should be provided between the PBS and SMT.
The reference to PBS confirms the bituminous substance I had found sandwiched in thin layers on the two airstrips I've located.
So the construction of the airstrips would seem to involve the soil being levelled and compacted and coated with what amounts to nothing more than thick layers of roofing felt to keep the water off.
As we shall see below, the PBS appears to have been delivered in rolls.
The diagram at right is a reminder of the layout of the various strips; strips nos. 1 and 2 were those already located and found to be heavily waterlogged where the PBS was still preventing drainage.
Nos. 5 and 6 are speculative and no evidence was to be found at their location.
However, I wanted to locate the other two stips and set out to try and identify the location of no.4 and see what remained there.
After an interesting map-reading exercise and the accidental discovery of some slit trenches and earthworks, I finally found myself surveying the scene in the photograph below.
The interesing point of note here is the fresh plantation of trees; a quick probe with my walking pole confirmed that there was no underlying PBS surface here and the presence of numerous tree stumps amongst the new saplings revealed that at least one other period of tree growth had occurred here.
However, this was definitely the correct location as the ground quickly reverted to lumps and bumps beyond the boundary. The PBS may have been removed postwar, or perhaps none was ever laid here.
A further visit this afternoon located strip no.3, shown below. The flat ground is evident; it was waterlogged but, as with no.4, no PBS was to be seen underfoot and vegetation and trees are slowly reclaiming the area.
Of strip nos 1-4, this is the least discernable on the aerial photograph and I can't be certain it actually was an airstrip and not ground levelled for another reason.
In my previous post I wrote:
My next visit to the National Archives will include the war diary of the Airfield Construction unit in question. I can always hope that it'll include detailed accounts and maps to explain what's going on here, but I suspect it'll have nothing of the sort and will be the uninformative type of document that describes many months of activity on a single page.
So a trip up to Kew yesterday saw me draw the file in anticipation. The file was more of the not-very-detailed type that I feared I would be looking at, but it nevertheless provided some very useful information.
The entries below are from the war diary; as usual, the location is witheld:
8 March 1944: CRE visits experimental areas at location.
13 March 1944: Conference on Standards of Airfield Construction. CRE to location.
20 March 1944: PBS arrives location.
26 March 1944: Detachments of two Companies move to camp at location.
27 March 1944: PBS experiments begin location.
29 March 1944: Lt-Col Shaw (2nd Army), Lt-Col McDowell (SHAEF), Major Grigson (E5), Major McIntyre (Cdn Army) visit PBS experiments at location. CRE discusses problems with Lt-Col Shaw.
3 April 1944: Laying of PBS starts at location.
6 April 1944: Lt-Col Wyncoll (India Office) and Major Grigson (E5) visit location to see PBS experiments.
11 April 1944: Final demonstration on laying of PBS at location. Major Galt (924 Engr Aviation Regt US Army) arrives on Anglo-US exchange.
5 May 1944: Experiment with clipping ends of PBS rolls prior to stamplicking at location.
Positive confirmation that these airstrips were the result of experiments as opposed for operational use.
The list of visitors to the tests including a SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) representative indicate the reason for them. Operation Overlord was just one short month away by the last test and there was a need to be able to construct forward landing strips for the forthcoming invasion of Normandy. The Airfield Construction Group was itself in a marshalling camp by the end of May 1944.
Documents survive for an earlier set of experiments on an airfield using Square Mesh Track (SMT). The purpose of these was to inform 21st Army Group on the suitability of the different types of SMT, their ease of transport in standard army vehicles and to suggest any improvements in materials and construction technique.
Did aircraft ever test the PBS experimental strips? Not that I know of; the war diary certainly doesn't mention it and the almost immediate disuse of the area in the light of D-Day might indicate this. However, it cannot be totally ruled out.
One local rumour was that these strips were actually dummies, designed to confuse German intelligence. This might indicate that locals didn't witness any aircraft landing, but they certainly weren't dummies. Their location is pointless and the effort involved in construction would be far too extravagant; you can make the ground look like a real airfield without actually building one.
There is still a lot of research to do on this; did these experiments actually have any bearing on events in Normandy? A more thorough read of the diary has revealed the identity of a couple of sub-units whose diaries might have something to add to the story.
So far, it's been a fascinating research sub-project involving most areas of my methodology. Oral evidence, an aerial photograph overlaid onto maps on a computer, fieldwork and original documents have all combined to piece together the story of this small area.
The site's dimensions are 700m x 900m x 8 weeks; a very small area with a very short lifespan. It's amazing how easily this brief episode might have been completely lost over the years.
What's more remarkable, however, is how a little bit of hard work on the back of a chance conversation has revealed so much detail in just ten days!
The codename for the Allied invasion of occupied Europe on 6th June 1944.
Small, narrow trench designed to provide protection against shrapnel and other battlefield hazards. Technically distinct from a weapon pit (which was intended soley as a defensive position) slit trenches were also used as defence works.
A record of events kept by all units from the point of mobilisation. A diary's contents vary enormously from unit to unit; some give detailed entries by the hour on a daily basis while others merely summarise events on a weekly/monthly basis.
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Hibbs, Peter The airstrips that never were (2019) Available at: http://pillbox.org.uk/blog/216678/ Accessed: 21 January 2019
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