Second World War Airfields near Harlow
During the Second World War, the countryside of England was carpeted with airfields. Essex was no exception. There were Royal Air Force (RAF) airfields at Hunsdon, Sawbridgeworth, North Weald and Stansted, and United States Army Air Force (USAAF)bases at Matching Green and Fyfield. The Air Ministry Department of Works had a large depot in the Netteswell Road west of Harlow. Both the 1875 and the 1947 Ordnance Survey maps identify a building north of the Netteswell Road as a laundry. This was originally the laundry for the Mark Hall estate, but it subsequently became a commercial enterprise. Whether it became part of the Air Ministry depot during the war is unknown. The depot, the North Lodge of the Mark Hall estate, Netteswell Road and the track leading south through Mark Hall Park can all be clearly seen in the aerial photo of Old Harlow taken from the west in October 1947.
During 1944 and 1945 RAF Hunsdon was home to six Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons. 406 (Lynx), 409 (Nighthawk), 410 (Cougar) and 418 (City of Edmonton), equipped with the deHavilland Mosquito, flew night-fighter and then daylight intruder missions. Numbers 441(Silver Fox) and 442 flew the North American Mustang III. The first Commanding Officer of the base was Squadron Leader Peter Townsend of 85 Squadron who became better known to the world after the war when he became a suitor of the Queen's sister, Princess Margaret.
At first glance, it may seem that nothing survives of this airfield except a few segments of perimeter track and a runway now used by ultra-light aircraft. However quite a few buildings survive in the surrounding hedgerows and woods, although there is no right of way to any of the surviving buildings and anyone wishing to see them must seek the permission of the landowner. The airfield was defended by 12 pillboxes and the same number of gunpits and FC type 'mushrooms'. Six of the pillboxes survive in Tuck Spring Wood, Blackhut Wood, at the rear of Hunsdon Lodge Farm, in the private drive at Drury Lane and two along the perimeter track. The underground battle headquarters with its above-ground observation room is still there, but is flooded and unsafe. A rare 20 mm ammunition storage building can still be found in Blackhut Wood, along with a small arms store, and a searchlight crew latrine and clothes drying shelter survives in Tuck Spring Wood.
There is no sign of the runways here because none were hard-surfaced. But much of the perimeter track has survived, especially the section running through Mathams Wood. Here you can also see exceptionally well-preserved aircraft dispersal pens of the 'Blenheim' type, complete with blast walls and air raid shelter. A type 24 pillbox still stands ready to defend the road along the Hadham-Sawbridgeworth road that runs through the centre of the airfield site. Many of the original buildings on the Technical Site survive on the Woodside Industrial Estate and Shingle Hall Farm. They include a 10-bed sick ward and attached dental unit, the mortuary and ambulance hut, and the Maycrete guardhouse. The underground battle headquarters has also survived, but as at Hunsdon, it is flooded and unsafe to enter.
A memorial to those who served on this airfield was built at the entrance to Shingle Hall Farm in 2007.
Matching Airfield: USAAF Station 166
The United States Army Air Force (USAAF) airfield at Matching (Station 166) was completed by October 1943 and was the home base of four squadrons of Martin B-26 Marauder aircraft of the 391st Bombardment Group (M) of the 9th Air Force. Nearly all the perimeter track remains, although it has been reduced in width to about 10 feet. There is also a very rare piece of full-width runway, west of the road that bisects the airfield site. The control tower is intact, as is the main aviation fuel storage facility near Stock Hall. Many Quonset huts survive on The Watertower Site Industrial Estate which formerly housed the C.O.'s quarters and the Sergeant's (Orderly) mess, showers and latrine. Sadly, the Braithwaite Water Tower, which was a prominent local landmark for almost 70 years, was demolished in 2014.
North Weald Bassett aerodrome was established in the summer of 1916 by the Royal Flying Corps and was taken over by the newly-established Royal Air Force on 1 April 1918. The airfield played an important part in the air defence strategy of the United Kingdom during the Second World War. Initially Hawker Hurricanes were deployed at the airfield, alongside Bristol Blenheim night fighters. The Hurricanes from North Weald saw action over the beaches of Dunkirk and played a key role in the Battle of Britain. The airfield was bombed by the Luftwaffe on three occasions during the Battle: on 24 August, 3 September and 29 October, with considerable loss of life.
In 1941, two American Squadrons ( 71 and 121) flew Spitfires from North Weald. Between May 1942 and March 1944, and again in April and May 1945, two Norwegian squadrons (331 and 332) operated from the airfield. Fighter squadrons flying Gloster Meteors and de Havilland Vampires were based at North Weald from 1949 onwards.
RAF 242 (Canadian) Squadron was based here from May to September 1941, flying Hurricane IIb aircraft. Two RCAF Squadrons wre also based here: 403 (Wolf) between 22 December 1941 and 1 May 1942 and 412 (Falcon) between 4 and 18 June, 1942. Both these units flew Spitfire Vb aircraft.
The Hawker Hunters of the last front line combat unit (No. 111 Squadron RAF) left North Weald in 1958 and the RAF withdrew from the airfield completely in 1964. It was sold to Epping Forest District Council in 1979.
The North Weald Museum is home to many vintage aircraft including a Spitfire, Mustang, Kittyhawk, Dakota, Skyraider, Seafire, Harvard, Hunter, Venom, Vampire, Gnat, and Jet Provost. Surviving buildings include one of the original 1927 hangar and the former Officers Mess, now a Grade 2 listed building. The airfield itself was granted listed status in 2005.
The RAF North Weald Memorial, was dedicated in 2000 in memory of all those who served at North Weald. It incorporates an obelisk erected in 1952 by the people of Norway to commemorate the Norwegian airmen stationed here.
Unaware of its rich history, too many people now think of North Weald only in terms of its Saturday market which is alleged to be one of the largest open air markets in the UK.
Like the airfield at Hunsdon, North Weald has been designated as the possible site for the development of up to 6,000 houses under the East of England Development Strategy. A request for public input in 2006 received more than 6800 objections and local residents continue to object strenuously against the proposal.