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RAF in Derbyshire

It’s topography and central location made Derbyshire an unsuitable site for airfields, and despite opening RAF stations in the county during WW2, their limitations soon became apparent – RAF Ashbourne and Darley Moor two prime examples. The hills of Derbyshire did, however, prove ideal for the development of storage sites for weaponry, Harpur Hill used both as a depot and for disarming enemy munitions.

RAF Ashbourne

Opened – 1942

Closed – 1954

Constructed as a typical Class-A bomber station, work at the site located 12 miles north west of Derby began late in 1941, with three concrete runways laid. The plan was to use Ashbourne as part of Bomber Command, coming under 92 Group, but due to problems of variable weather with its altitude of 650 feet it never became an operational bomber station.

A Royal Air Force Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber in flight, circa 1940.

(A Royal Air Force Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber in flight, circa 1940)

Control moved to 93 Group with the station handed a training role, becoming home to No. 81 OTU, Operational Training Unit, with 29 Wellingtons allocated. A satellite station was constructed at Darley Moor (see below), and at its peak more than 700 personnel were based on site at Ashbourne. It was later transferred to No. 38 Group and was home to Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and Albermarles, along with Bristol Blenheims, with post war the site used for storage of ordnance – much of the airfield is now an industrial estate with some of the original runways still visible.

RAF Burnaston

Opened – 1938

Closed – 1990

Also known as Derby Airport, the site located on the south west outskirts of the city opened for training flights in 1938 with its official opening taking place the following year. Plans to start commercial flights were interrupted by WW2, with the RAF requisitioning the airfield for training purposes with Nos 16 and 30 Flying and Training Schools, along with No. 49 Gliding School RAF, all stationed at the site.

Post war, commercial flights began in 1953 with Jersey the first destination, before they transferred in the 1960s to the newly-opened East Midlands Airport. Flying clubs continued to use the airfield until it closed in 1990 to make way for a Toyota car plant.

RAF Church Broughton

Opened – 1942

Closed – 1946

The station was opened three years into WW2, located 12 miles south west of Derby city centre, coming under the control No. 93 Group, which used the site to screen pilots, with Vickers Wellingtons operated. A satellite of No. 27 OTU also operated from Church Broughton, along with No. 1429 (Czechoslovak Operational Training), flying Wellingtons and Westland Lysanders.

RAF Darley Moor

Opened – 1942

Closed – 1954

Built in 1942 for training purposes, Darley Moor operated as a satellite station for RAF Ashbourne, with three concrete runways built and accommodation for more than 1,000 people. It was used by No. 42 OTU but, like Ashbourne, located a few miles north east, it suffered from variable weather conditions due to its altitude, and it was permanently closed as airfield in February 1945.

Darley Moor Airfield Today

(Darley Moor Airfield Today)

Despite the closure of the airfield, the site remained in use by the RAF as a storage site for explosives and ammunition, a role which continued until 1954.

RAF Harpur Hill

Opened – 1938

Closed – 1961

Situated near Buxton, it was home to an artillery range in the First World War, but it was taken over by the Air Ministry the year before the start of WW2, the RAF Maintenance Unit moving in at the outbreak of hostilities.

It was used as an underground munitions store with a range of tunnels built into the hillside, the development so extensive a railway track ran along its length. The tunnels were located 60ft below ground level to protect the site from bombing raids, and it continued that role throughout WW2.

In 1944, an RAF Mountain Rescue branch was based at the site, recovering many wartime aircrews from crashes – the moors and hills of the Peak District accounting for around 250 air crashes. The team were called out in 1948 when a US Air Force Superfortress crashed at Bleaklow Moor near Kinder Scout, all 13 crew killed with a memorial near the site erected in 1988.

Bleaklow Bomber 1948 Superfortress Crash Site
(Bleaklow Bomber 1948 Superfortress Crash Site)

A bomb disposal unit was based at Harpur Hill post war, with captured German ordnance, including V-rocket warheads, taken to the site to be disarmed. Chemical weapons were also disposed of by burning on the surrounding hills, with the RAF moving out in the early 1960s.

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