RAF in Somerset

The county of Somerset has long-standing links with the RAF dating back to the 1920s when a facility was set up at Westonzoyland near the north Somerset coast, but it is more synonymous today with the Royal Naval Air Service, RNAS, the site at Yeovilton one of two active Fleet Air Arm bases in the UK along with RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall,

But Somerset was crucial to training RAF and other military personnel for work both at home and abroad during WW2 and post-war, RAF Locking on the outskirts of Weston-super-Mare seeing more than 30,000 tradesmen skilled up for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm from 1939-44. Aircraft production in the county was also crucial to the war effort from 1939-45, requiring the need for a number of decoy or Q-sites to be set up in a bid to prevent the Luftwaffe from hitting premises that included the Bristol factory at Weston-super-Mare.

RAF Charlton Horethorne

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1948

In a field on the north-western outskirts of the village of Charlton Horethorne, five miles south west of Wincanton, is an observation cupola which is the only visible sign that an airfield was located at the site, opening midway through WW2 as a RAF station. However, soon after it was completed, it was assigned to the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm as a training establishment for the remainder of the war, reverting to RAF control in 1945 when it was used as a storage site and as satellite for RAF Old Sarum in Wiltshire, before Charlton Horethorne closed in 1948.

RAF Charmy Down

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1946

Opening in November 1940 to provide fighter defence for Bristol and the surrounding area, Charmy Down worked in conjunction with Wiltshire station Colerne, operating in part as a satellite for its sister site. The station offered night-flying facilities with a detachment of Hawker Hurricanes operated by No. 87 Squadron amongst its first arrivals, soon joined by Nos. 125 and 263 Squadrons.

Two Hurricane Mark IIC night fighters of No. 87 Squadron at RAF Charmy Down

(Two Hurricane Mark IIC night fighters of No. 87 Squadron at RAF Charmy Down)

In the latter part of 1943, the site situated three miles north of Bath was handed over to the USAF to become a tactical depot, before returning to RAF control a year later when it was used by No. 3 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit until December 1945. The site was also used as reception centre for Australian airmen ahead of their return home, closing soon after the war ended.

RAF Culmhead

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1946

Originally known as Churchstanton when it first opened in August 1941 as a satellite fighter airfield, it was used by the fighters from RAF Exeter, its first arrivals the Polish squadrons Nos. 302 and 316, operating Hawker Hurricanes. The early arrivals were later joined by Czech squadrons Nos. 312 and 313, with Spitfires joining the Hurricanes, duties including sweeps against enemy targets and bomber escorts.

Aerial photograph of RAF Churchstanton (as it was known then) 26 June 1942
(Aerial photograph of RAF Churchstanton (as it was known then) 26 June 1942)

The large number of stations pre-fixed with ‘Church’ saw the name change to Culmhead sometime in 1943, a number of units passing through the site around eight miles south of Taunton, before many of its squadrons transferred to other locations and the airfield was utilised as glider training school before its closed in August 1946. In later years it became a wireless communications outstation for GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), its secretive work continuing until the late 1990s when the site became a business park.

RAF Locking

Opened: 1936

Closed: 2000

Located around three miles east of Weston-super-Mare, RAF Locking opened in the mid-1930s after a government purchase of 250 acres of land to create an extensive training unit, handed the title of No. 5 School of Technical Training.

The central unit was used to skill new entrants in aircraft mechanics, airframes, carpentry, fabric working and parachute packing, training also provided for marine craft personnel; by the end of WW2 it had developed into a huge settlement, utilising the nearby airfield at RAF Weston-Super Mare (see below).

Corner of 2T Building RAF Locking
(Corner of 2T Building RAF Locking)

In May 1947, the first RAF boy entrant recruits arrived at Locking, a scheme offering 15 to 17-year-olds, whose education was not up to School Certificate level, technical training if they were nominated for the scheme, a project that lasted for several years. In 1950, No. 5 School of Technical Training was closed and Locking became home to No. 1 Radio School RAF, training communication specialists and officers, which stayed at the site until 1998.

RAF Lulsgate Bottom/Broadfield Down

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1946; now Bristol Airport

Lulsgate Bottom was established in September 1940 as the home for No.10 Elementary Flying Training School, EFTS, the site around seven miles south west of Bristol providing a useful landing ground alternative to nearby Filton and Cardiff. A decoy or starfish site was set up near to Lulsgate Bottom during the Bristol Blitz in the spring of 1941, fires lit to draw Luftwaffe bombs away from civilian and other military sites.

In the summer of 1941 concrete runways were laid, the first aircraft to land on the new tarmac a Luftwaffe Ju 88 that was returning from a raid over Merseyside on July 23/24, only to be deceived by RAF electronic countermeasures, the crew believing they were in fact in France – enemy combatants were detained and the aircraft passed to No. 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight for evaluation. On reopening, the station was temporarily renamed RAF Broadfield Down, returning to its original name in 1942, and in 1944 BOAC started to use the airfield for aircrew training.

Present Day Bristol Airport
(Present Day Bristol Airport)

The RAF left Lulsgate in October 1946, and in June 1954 the Ministry of Transport sold the airfield for the development of an airport which officially opened on May 1, 1957.

RAF Merryfield

Opened: 1944

Closed: 1956; in use today by the Royal Naval Air Squadron (RNAS) as a satellite for Yeovilton

A site midway between Taunton and Yeovil on the historic Merryfield estate was chosen as an airfield midway through WW2, but it only opened in 1944 due to drainage issues, complete with three runways in the classic bomber A-formation. However, the airfield was only used for transport duties by both the RAF and USAF, with 1500 American troops arriving in preparation for D-Day.

Douglas C-47A-25-DK Skytrain of the 301st
(Douglas C-47A-25-DK Skytrain of the 301st)

The airfield initially closed in October 1946, reopening in 1951 as an advanced pilot training establishment, No. 208 Advanced Flyting School (208 AFS) operating Gloster Meteors and de Havilland Vampires. The station later welcomed a detachment No. 231 Operation Conversion Unit, OCU, with English Electric Canberras, and also saw test flights for Westland Wyverns, before operations were again rundown in the early 1960s, the Royal Navy taking over the site in the early 1970s.

RAF Weston Zoyland

Opened: 1925

Closed: 1957

The county’s first RAF station arrived in the mid-1920s, created in conjunction with the gunnery range at Watchet on the north Somerset coast – the station was named after the nearby village, Westonzoyland, situated 20 miles from Watchet and four miles south east of Bridgwater.

Aircraft operated from the station towing gunnery targets to Watchet, No. 100 Squadron first using the new station as a temporary camp for exercises, operating their biplane bombers. Despite the regular use, the site comprised of little more than a grass landing area, canvas hangars and several tents, the basic nature of the location remaining up to the start of WW2. In 1943, three tarmac runways were laid, its new-found status seeing squadrons moving out to make way for the arrival of the Douglas C-47s of the 442nd Troop Carrier Group from RAF Fulbeck in Nottinghamshire.

C-47s of the 306th Troop Carrier Squadron
(C-47s of the 306th Troop Carrier Squadron)

In 1946, the station was placed under care and maintenance, reopening in June 1952 with No. 209 Advanced Flying School formed at Weston Zoyland with Gloster Meteors, before the arrival of several English Electric Canberra jet bomber squadrons using it as a work-up station prior to overseas deployment – some of the Canberras were used in the British atomic bomb tests in Maralinga in Australia. The station was effectively closed in December 1957, but it was retained by the Air Ministry for a further decade.

RAF Weston-super-Mare

Opened: 1939

Closed: 1993

The site was previously a municipal civilian airport in the early 1930s, part of aviation pioneer Sir Alan Cobham’s scheme to persuade local authorities to create their own airfields, the RAF’s nearby School of Technical Training utilising the facilities from the late 1930s before formally taking control of the station in May 1940. A new main runway was laid and a factory constructed to manufacture Bristol Beaufighters which were flown out from the station, the production facility requiring a decoy airfield nearby at Bleadon to be set up in an attempt to divert the attentions of the Luftwaffe.

The station also became home to No. 286 Squadron operating Hawker Hurricanes, Boulton Paul Defiants and Airspeed Oxfords, providing anti-aircraft gun practice, with an Aircraft Torpedo Development Unit also created at the site that used the nearby Bristol Channel for testing.

Old aircraft hangar still visible today

(Old aircraft hangar still visible today)

Training in conjunction with Locking continued post-war while civilian flights resumed from Weston-super-Mare, the on-site factory focusing later on helicopter production, becoming the home of Westland until its closure in the late 1980s, the site retaining a helicopter museum to this day. The location is still used occasionally by visiting civil and military helicopters.

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