World War II Airfields
By the end of the Second World War, there were more than 600 airfields in England. Some were used by the Royal Air Force (RAF) but many of them were built to accommodate the Eighth and Ninth United States Army Air Force (USAAF) squadrons which began arriving in 1943, in preparation for the invasion of Europe. The speed with which the bases were built is astounding. In 1939 there were only three operational fields in Essex. By 1941 there were six, and by the end of the war, there were 23. There were 18 in Hertfordshire, most of them used primarily by single-engine fighter or army cooperation aircraft. Many of the Essex bases were used by American squadrons equipped with the Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber.
The Air Ministry Department of Works had a large depot in the Netteswell Road, west of Harlow, which can be seen in an oblique aerial photo looking eastward over the town, taken in October 1947. There was no airfield at Harlow, but the town was surrounded by them. There were RAF fields at Hundson and Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, North Weald and Stansted Mountfichet in Essex; and USAAF bases at Matching, Chipping Ongar (Willingdale) and Great Saling (Andrewsfield). Each of the American bases accommodated one four-squadron Bomb Group: the 391st at Matching, the 387th at Willingale, and the 322nd at Andrewsfield. In general the fields had 35 foot wide taxiways and 150 foot wide runways, most of which have either been reduced in width, or removed, especially those that were made of some kind of metal tracking. But there are enough of the concrete ones still in use as farm tracks or sections of road to provide some idea of the extent of the land taken up by the various bases. They are poignant reminders of an important piece of English history that is not as well remembered as it might be.
“Never again is such a panoply of might likely to be assembled, and it is sad that so little remains now of airfields where happiness, pathos and courage were inextricably mixed. Perhaps one day people will visit some of them, centuries hence, to feel something of their history which, to them, will be as distant as the castles of the Middle Ages are to us. They will find little, and certainly not the memorial one might expect. What is certain is that they will never be able to appreciate the thrill of having been around when it all happened”. Michael J.F. Bowyer, Action Stations: Wartime military airfields of East Anglia 1939-1945. (1979), p. 23.