RAF in Dorset

Dorset's RAF history dates back to WWI, the county important in the defence of Britain from the threat of both airship attacks and German submarine activity, working in conjunction with Royal Navy forces. While many RAF stations were in use for several decades, during WW2 there were several sites set up to be utilised by both British and US forces ahead of the D-Day landings, the short route across the Channel making it an ideal base for ferrying troops into mainland France.

RAF Chickerell/Chesil Bank

Opened: 1917

Closed: 1959

A landing site at a location around four miles north west of Weymouth is recorded as being in use as early as 1917, a possible landplane alternative for the nearby seaplane base at Portland. In 1918, the Airco DH6s of No. 241 Squadron flew anti-submarine patrols from the site, and post-WWI, the site was only in use sporadically.

Aviation pioneer Sir Alan Cobham visited with his National Aviation Day displays in the early 1930s, and as tensions in Europe mounted in the late 1930s, the site was taken over by the military for aircraft using the nearby bombing range at Chesil Beach, and also as a satellite for RAF Warmwell (see below).

After WW2, aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm from Gosport and Lee-on-Solent used the grass airfield at Chickerell, before in 1955 it was again used as RAF Chesil Bank in support of the nearby bombing range. It closed in 1959 with housing built on the site, one of the streets named after Sir Alan Cobham.

RAF Christchurch

Opened: 1939

Closed: 1967

The station lay around seven miles east of Bournemouth, the military utilising the site of what was a civilian airfield that dated back to the 1920s. In 1940, Airspeed was brought in to manage a production facility at Christchurch, in 1941 work beginning on the air assault Horsa glider, and the airfield was handed over use to the US when there was a need for temporary advanced landing grounds ahead of the D-Day operation. Christchurch, along with a number of other locations along the south coast, were able to provide tactical air support for ground forces.

Republic P-47D-25-RE Thunderbolt 42-276552 of the 405th Fighter Group, 510th Fighter Squadron
(Republic P-47D-25-RE Thunderbolt 42-276552 of the 405th Fighter Group, 510th Fighter Squadron)

The USAAF 405th Fighter Group arrived on April 4, 1944 from South Carolina, flying the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, switching over the Channel on June 22, ending the USAAF’s use of the station.

Post-war, the production facility at Christchurch was taken over by a firm that eventually formed part of British Aerospace, manufacturing jet fighters and civilian airliners, the complex eventually closing down in mid-1960s.

RAF Hamworthy

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1944

The site at Poole Harbour was utilised by the RAF during WW2, with squadrons including Nos. 210 and 461 operating under Coastal Command, flying aircraft including Short Sunderlands.

RAF Hurn

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1944; now Bournemouth Airport

The site was located around five miles north west of the town centre, opening as a RAF station two years into WW2, Hurn used by aircraft flying to North Africa and avoiding French, Spanish and Portuguese airspace. In 1944, for a few months prior to its closure, it came under the control of US forces, becoming known as USAAF Station AAF-492, before it was handed over for civilian use by the RAF in October.

RAF Hurn in May 1947
(Hurn Airfield in May 1947)

The site was used for a couple of years as London’s International Airport until Heathrow opened in March 1946, and after several years’ hiatus, commercial flights started again in the late 1950s, officially becoming Bournemouth Airport in 1969; the RAF have recently returned to the site, using facilities for pilot training.

RAF Portland

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1958

The RAF established a non-flying Chain Home Extra Low (CHEL) radar station at the Verne Citadel on the Isle of Portland just south of Weymouth in 1942, later forming part of the UK government’s nationwide ROTOR programme which was developed in the early 1950s as the Cold War intensified. The ROTOR project created an elaborate air defence system that linked locations across the UK allowing a fast response to the detection of Soviet jets heading towards Britain.

Portland became non-operational in 1958 and was taken over by the US air force, a microwave relay station created that was linked to another US location at Ringstead (see below), which were in turn connected to sites across Europe and North Africa.

RAF Ringstead

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1974

As with RAF Portland, a CHEL radar station was established at Ringstead Bay during WW2, the site around eight miles east of Weymouth later forming part of the ROTOR programme at the height of the Cold War in the 1950s. The USAF took over Ringstead in the 1960s, providing a cross-Channel link from the UK to sites in Europe and beyond.

Ringstead Bay and the station's two parabolic aerials in circa 1970

(Ringstead Bay and the station's two parabolic aerials in circa 1970)

RAF Tarrant Rushton

Opened: 1943

Closed: 1980

A RAF station was established at the site around 20 miles north west of Bournemouth during WW2, the location used for glider operations which began in October 1943; Airspeed Horsas from Tarrant Rushton started leaving for France shortly before the D-Day landings to secure key locations ahead of the push from the Normandy beaches south.

Gliders also flew from Tarrant Rushton to the Netherlands as part of Operation Market Garden later in 1944, the station put under care and maintenance in September 1946. In June 1948 Flight Refuelling Ltd arrived at the station, Lancasters among the aircraft soon operating as part of the Berlin Airlift that allowed food and supplies to be flown into the German city after the Soviet blockade of road, rail and waterway access.

RAF Tarrant Rushton in 1944
(RAF Tarrant Rushton in 1944)

Work continued at Tarrant Rushton for several decades on in-flight refuelling and later early drone technology, the station finally closing in September 1980.

RAF Toller

Opened: 1918

Closed: 1919

Opening as one of several sub-stations to RAF Mullion in Cornwall, Toller was located in woodland near the village of Toller Porcorum around ten miles north west of Dorchester, and was used as a mooring-out site for anti-submarine airships from March 1918 until the end of WWI.

RAF Warmwell

Opened: 1937

Closed: 1946

The station five miles east of Dorchester opened as a landing ground in 1937 under the name of Woodsford, used by units carrying out firing and bombing exercises on land, and off the coast at Chesil Bank. Renamed RAF Warmwell in July 1938, it was utilised by aircraft early in WW2 for the defence of naval facilities at Portland and Portsmouth.

RAF Warmwell 16 August 1943
(RAF Warmwell 16 August 1943)

While US aircraft flew out of the site from 1942, it only came under USAF control in March 1944, Lockheed P-38 Lightnings among the aircraft operating from its three grass airfields, runways that were never upgraded to tarmac.

RAF Winkton

Opened: March 1944

Closed: July 1944

A landing ground was established at the site three miles north of Christchurch for just a few months during 1944, Sommerfield mesh runways laid for use by both British and US forces before it was effectively closed a month after D-Day.

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