The men who built Dunsfold

The land to build Dunsfold Aerodrome was requisitioned in 1942 and work started almost immediately, mostly undertaken by the Royal Canadian Engineers. It was one of the very few airfields they built in England (4). Set a target by their commanding General, the Canadian sappers completed construction of the aerodrome in 18 weeks, against a quote of 18 months by civilian contractors on behalf of the British War Office. The Canadians did, however, have the advantage of large American earth-moving equipment (5).

The 2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Engineers, 2nd Road Construction Company & the Canadian Forestry Corps used explosives and some of the heavy machinery supplied from the USA under the lease lend arrangements. Tree stumps were blasted and from May 27th concrete was being poured in two shifts 18 hours a day.  Concrete was trucked in from Shoreham Cement Works.
One of the obstacles encountered in the construction of the 45ft wide 3 mile perimeter road was Broadmeads Cottage. It straddled the route to be taken and a swift demolition was required to keep construction within the tight timeframe.  Sergeant Fred Kreugar realised special skills were required to deal with the building so ordered Sergeant Whidden to deal with the issue.
Fred Kreugar’s words on the solution:

We had lots of beech logs that had been removed so we undermined the structure one log at a time , the major problem proving to be a fireplace in the middle which appeared to tie the building together. While the cottage was resting on the logs, we then rigged a cable , pulley and eveners. The idea was to work with 3 large D8 Caterpillar tractors pulling side by side and in preparation for the move we graded, or flattened , the terrain for probably half a mile or more.

Tractor similar to those used by Canadian Engineers

First of all the three tractor operators practiced responding to signals so that they would move their machines in unison. At the first attempt however, the three tractors would not move it, so we then used five, again with cables and pulleys. Shortly after we started, the weight of the fireplace on on the logs created so much friction that fires started squirting out on all sides of the logs. So, we then took up some of the floor and put men in the house with Carbon Tetrachloride and told them to watch the fire so it did not catch the floorboards. Fortunately the freshly felled beech logs were very green and wouldn’t support a flame. A BBC news crew did film some of the move and interviewed myself and Sergeant Whidden. I remember that only Whidden came out on the news later. I was told my name was too Germanic for the BBC’s liking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

As well as moving earth and buildings, the main Guildford-Horsham road had to be diverted. The job was complete in 20 weeks. (6)

More Aerodromes for RAF (1941) showing similar heavy equipment as used by the Canadian Engineers and contractors at Dunsfold

By the control tower, there is a plinth inscribed:

This aerodrome was built by the Royal Canadian Engineers assisted by Canadian Forestry Corps, Royal Canadian Army Service Corps and Ordnance Corps, 1942. It was handed over for the use of the RCAF in October 1942.”

Unveiling of the memorial with Watch Office behind (courtesy of Reg Day Museum). & the plinth in 2016 (private archive)
  • Aerial photograph 1942
Dunsfold 1944 (private archive) and 2013
1942 WWII Airfield Sites


Dunsfold was one of only two airfields in Britain to be granted to the Royal Canadian Air Force and, as such, was titled RCAF Dunsfold. This was in exchange for the many training airfields that the Royal Air Force was permitted to establish in Canada.

In December 1944, Dunsfold Aerodrome comprised:

Three runways, all 50 yards (46m) wide: one 2,000 yards (over a mile or 1,830m) and two, each 1,400 yards (1,280m), in the typical “A” shape

12 Blister hangars, 2 T-2 hangars: on the north of the site

Dispersals: 38 100 feet (30m) “frying pans”: on the south and east of the site.  “Dispersals” were parking areas for aircraft and distributed to minimise damage in the event of an attack. They could accommodate 50 aircraft.

Perimeter road

Accommodation for 1,241 people

2nd Battalion Royal Canadian Engineers:

Excerpt:

Towards May 1942  the sappers’ lines began to agitate with rumours of a new job, a large job, an airport, no less. As the rumours originated with the sappers, credence was promptly given to them by the officers and sergeants, and we prepared for the move. Dunsfold!!

When we arrived there, it consisted of acres of beautiful crop and pasture land, broken at intervals by groves of staunch blue and red oak trees. It was one of the grandest pastoral scenes in the whole of England. With the Forestry Corps, R.CA.S.C, 2nd Road.  Construction Cby details who were attached to us, the Battalion descended on the areas natural loveliness like a swarm of locusts. Regiments of trees disappeared in a dav at the behest of the Foresters, carry-alls moved mountains of earth, mechanical ditchers dug deep to provide drainage.  Fleets of trucks hauled “hogging” from Ewhurst and gravel from Hungry Hill. Fourteen ton capacity trailers towed bulk cement from Shoreham. For eighteen hours a day there was a pandemonium of sound and movement, and during the other six hours the camp’s rest was uneasy, as, during the night, vague groups of men wandered about ensuring that the machinery would be in order to resume its labour the following day. Gradually the runways were levelled off and finegraded to the point where concrete could be poured. A huge double barrelled cement mixer was put to work, and competition between shifts which had previously been very keen, now reached fever point. For some days the mixer was allowed to work as it’s manufacturers intended it should, squatting at the side of the strip to be poured, and depositing the wet cement in any place desired by means of a boom and a bucket, which were soon found to be the weakest part of the machine’s construction and subject to frequent break- downs. Within a week the boom and bucket had been abolished, the mixer placed squarely in the centre of the strip to be poured, and the concrete allowed to fall out of it into heaps from whence it was industriously shovelled into its required position by a group of sappers whose enthusiasm was beyond praise.

Of the central mixing plant, the saw mill, the drainage crews, the work of transport and Q.M. etc., there is not room here for more than passing notice, but, when in September, the first ‘plane landed, and in October, when the Airport was officially opened and handed over to the Air Force by General McNaughton, the Battalion was rightly proud. A difficult job had been com-pleted in record time. It had thereby justified itself, and felt confident of being able to give a creditable account of itself in any work the future might hold.

Dunsfold too holds memories of a lighter type, as when a certain red-headed A.T.S., decided she was going to make her residence in the camp. The R.S.M. decided not and the whole camp held its breath whilst she defied him and passed four nights quite pleasantly in certain tents the morning after the fourth night however, she was caught and hauled off to “pokey”, much to the indignation of several individuals.

It was here too that the famous and notorious chicken incident occured.  Close to the camp resided a widow with two daughters, whose livelihood, to a great extent, depended upon the well being, happiness and egg producing capacity of some half a dozen hens. One dread night all six of them disappeared. The local constabulary was hot on the trail next morning, and, noses close to earth, sniffed their way along a morbid trail of blood and feathers into the middle of our camp. Here the trail ended. The incriminating facts were reported to the Colonel, and he, in his wisdom, ruled that unless the birds were returned to their rightful owner that very night, the whole camp would be C.B’d for one month. The next morning the widow found herself to be the somewhat perplexed owner of 186 chickens.

Then there was the night of the fire in the ammunition tent, when a certain C.S.M. awakened to the sound of exploding bullets and decided that Hitler himself was leading a personal invasion of Dunsfold. He leaped from his tent clothed in underwear and a bandoleer, his rifle at the “on guard” and shouting,

“Invasion”, as only a C.S.M. could. Then there were the dances in the Auxiliary Services blister hut and what dances. Dances at which, after they were over, lovelorn sappers endeavoured to smuggle themselves aboard the trucks taking the girls back to Guildford.

Dunsfold runways 1950’s

4 Delve, 2005: p78.
5 McCue, 1991: p16.
6 McCue, 1991: p16, p28.

Conservation Area

Dunsfold: 'Before the war it was the most remote village in Surrey: now, well hidden, an airfield tests jet fighters.'

Nikolaus Pevsner, Buildings of England: Surrey 

Historic England explains that Local Planning Authorities are obliged to designate as conservation areas any parts of their own area that are of special architectural or historic interest, the character and appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.  Waverley Borough Council Planning Department are considering an application for designation of Dunsfold Aerodrome as a Conservation Area.   There is a consultation process concluding on April 28th 2017.  Please read what follows and look at the references to Historic England’s documents. Then if you  want to support DAHS and make comments about the designation you can make them on the Waverley website.  It is a simple questionnaire.

You may be surprised to know that former military airfields can – and do – become designated as Conservation Areas. This is because conservation areas are not just about ‘old buildings’. They have a much wider role to play than that. In the words of Historic England (formerly English Heritage);

‘The totality of an aerodrome cannot be captured through statutory designation alone, and other approaches such as conservation area protection….. have been shown to be appropriate’ (Historic England (4))

In respect of Dunsfold Aerodrome,  the case for establishing a Conservation Area is very much about the historical context, the people, and the events (of national and international importance) that are inextricably linked to the site. But it is also about the appropriate management and preservation of the large number of heritage buildings still existing, the future of which is currently uncertain. Most members of the public are unaware of the existence of these structures as the site is still private and largely ‘hidden’. It is not coincidental that at this point in time Historic England is considering the designation of at least 10 structures on Dunsfold Aerodrome – in other words ‘listing’ them. This would have an important bearing on the designation of the site as a Conservation Area.

Plan of Dunsfold Heritage Assets click to expand:

‘The vast majority of nationally significant airfield structures will be most appropriately protected through listing…..Another mechanism by which the significance of an airfield can be highlighted as a historic landscape, is through conservation area status.’  (Historic England (5)).   

Conservation of a special place such as Dunsfold Aerodrome is about the complex processes through which we as individuals or as groups define ourselves and  our relationships with the natural and cultural aspects of the airfield. It is about a sense of place – profoundly important for individual and community identity, and the ‘significance’ of this airfield as a heritage asset. Currently, Historic England recognises Dunsfold Aerodrome as an Undesignated Heritage Asset; if it were to be granted conservation area status this would raise it to Designated Heritage Asset status.

There is a recognised procedure for appraisal, designation and management of a Conservation Area (Historic England (6)). Appraisal of an area for conservation can include establishing its significance for a number of reasons:-

  • History, Landscape and Identities
  • Rural Sense of Place
  • Urban Sense of Place
  • Cultural Landscapes
  • Conservation, Biodiversity and Tourism

 

DAHS exists to research and make public all of the history of what has been called ‘Surrey’s most secret airfield’*, to celebrate historical achievements, and preserve precious assets and memories for the benefit of current and future generations. We believe that the right and proper way of doing that is for all statutory bodies, local councils and stakeholders to work together to establish a robust framework for the airfield that will inform and guide its future management and development, recognising its heritage value. A conservation area covering the site would be an ideal means of achieving this.

What makes Dunsfold Airfield special?

  • The relatively ‘untouched’ nature of the 1942-built airfield
  • The survival of a large number of key physical assets, including the runways, in their original form
  • Home to the development of a number of iconic British military aircraft; including the Hunter, the Hawk and the Harrier ‘jump jet’ – world class technology that led to military and economic success.
  • Berlin Airlift – Dunsfold Airfield helped to avert what would probably have been a humanitarian disaster.
  • 3 permanent runways designed for the WWII bombers and latter used to test new aviation technology.
  • Wings and Wheels – major air show and motorsport event attracting 25,000 visitors and over 1000 participants.
  • Home to the BBCs Top Gear programme watched in 214 territories worldwide and has an estimated global audience of 350 million

Examples of former military airfields that have been given Conservation Area status include;

Read More