MoD Boscombe Down: 1917-2007

In October 2007 Boscombe Down Aerodrome celebrated 80 years of aviation history. The missing 10 years, the 1920s were the result of being returned to farm use after WW1 and the subsequent rebuilding programme. This account is an overview of the past 90 years.

It was opened in October 1917 as a Training Depot Station (TDS) in the Royal Flying Corps, to train pilots for operational roles in France. When opened, it was totally devoid of any buildings whatsoever, it was open grazing land for Redhouse Farm in Amesbury. It had been purchased from the Antrobus Estate when it was sold in 1915 to Messrs. Wort and Way of Salisbury. The Antrobus Estate was in effect almost the entire Parish of Amesbury.

When the United States of America entered the war, their Air Force was totally devoid of any operational training and the Royal Flying Corps training organisation was called upon to include their personnel, both aircrew and ground staff in their training programmes. To this end, Boscombe Down had a very active American influence as can be seen in the only photograph to emerge of the period that show row upon row of Bell Tents and a well used baseball diamond. They also left a few casualties in Amesbury’s cemetery, who were subsequently exhumed and returned to America.

After the Armistice, the Station became a large storage unit as squadrons disbanded until 1920 when it closed, subsequently returning to farm use. However, in 1926 the need for a peacetime air force led to the aerodrome and facilities being purchased as part of the expansion programme.
Of the original 54 buildings built in 1918, only 24 were retained in the rebuilding programme as many were timber built. The Station reopened in 1930 as a Bomber Squadron unit in the Air Defence of Great Britain, the fore-runner of Bomber Command.

9 Squadron was the first unit on the reopened and enlarged airfield, to be followed by No 10. Both squadrons were equipped with the lumbering Vickers Virginias. But this was a very fluid period of expansion when the normal method of establishing a new squadron was to extract one of the Flights of an existing squadron, move it out to a new station and give it squadron status. They in turn would expand to full strength when the process could be restarted. Thus 9 and 10 Squadron spawned a whole series of bomber squadrons in the 1930s.

The Virginias gave way to the Handley-Page Heyfords, then the Anson and finally Fairey Battles, thus at the outbreak of war in 1939 the RAF were totally without any heavy bomber force. Wellingtons, Whitleys and Hampdens made up Bomber Commands heavy bomber force, carrying a maximum bomb load of 4000lbs that depended on range requirements.

Then on September 3rd 1939, as war was declared, the work of the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment left its vulnerable to air attack base on Martlesham Heath for Boscombe Down, where it has remained ever since.

When it arrived on an airfield designed to accommodate two Light Bomber Squadrons, it was totally without any of the facilities required to operate an experimental establishment. As a result it expanded as, when or where facilities were required, with temporary buildings sited wherever a suitable space could be found. It was on a strictly functional basis without any thought to an overall plan. Thus in reality it was a very messy site indeed although very practical.

The airfield itself, adequate for the two Fairey Battle squadrons was limited to its pre-war boundaries and remained as a grass surface throughout the war handling everything including the Lancaster carrying the 22,000lb (10 tons) ‘Grand Slam’ bomb. It had four grass runways with landing lights, one of which as aligned with the Lorenz Blind Approach Beacon. This was used to develop the Blind Landing Approach School to train instructors. Closed down in June 1940, it reopened almost immediately to investigate the radio transmissions thought to be used for accurate bombing of targets in Britain. Its success led to the whole programme of destroying the possibility serious air attacks being developed within the unit, although the Station Commander had no knowledge of the operations, other than providing the required facilities. All of the early work to counter these ‘Bombing Beams’ was undertaken on Boscombe Down where a special operational squadron was formed and operated from here to make bombing attacks on the transmitters. 109 Squadron went on to become one of the founding units of The Pathfinders in Bomber Command.

Boscombe Down escaped any concentrated attack by the Luftwaffe although bombs were dropped on five occasions, but only by a single aircraft that suggests, in line with German policy, that an unguarded light invited an attack. To support this theory, just imagine being a bomb-aimer flying at night at probably 10,000 feet, over a totally blacked out countryside how was it possible to identify a likely target let alone bomb it? There was however, one occasion when an attack was invited. During the night of 16th April 1941 an aircraft was heard circling the area as though it was lost. It was thought to be a Hampden, it was challenged for the ‘Colours of the day’ and as they were correctly fired, the airfield lights were switched on to allow it to land. As it passed over the moon it was identified as a Heinkel 111. The lights were dowsed but it already had its bombing line and Station Workshops and Hangar 168 were damaged along with 14 aircraft, one of which was destroyed. In all 48 bombs were dropped, plus incendiaries in the five attacks. The only casualty was one of Mrs Hunt’s pigs that was injured by a piece of bomb casing.

Although an experimental unit, Boscombe Down was also used for operational purposes, one of which, 109 Squadron, has already been recorded. 58 Squadron flew its Whitleys on convoy protection duties in 1939/40. 56 and 249 Squadrons operated from here during the Battle of Britain, when one of 249s pilots was awarded the only Victoria Cross in Fighter Command. 207 Squadron, the first of the heavy bomber squadrons was formed with one of A&AEE’s Manchesters, to be followed by 35 Squadron around a Halifax.

Two exclusive bombing ranges were established to supplement the Larkhill and Porton ranges, Ashley Walk in the New Forest and Crichel Down about which little is known.

The first of the new runways was opened in October 1945, a welcome addition to a sorely tried piece of Wiltshire downland that had passed for an aerodrome over many years. It is significant that since the runway was built, there has not been a single accident associated with the airfield surface, whereas before, it was often a daily occurrence. It was also used extensively for the maiden flights of many prototype aircraft, the first of which was the Attacker from the Supermarine Experimental Airfield at High Post. It was also responsible for the closure of that airfield, as High Post was on the approach to their new runway and only 2000 yards away!

The Empire Test Pilot School was opened in as an experiment 1943 due to the lack of specially trained test pilots. Its success is part of aviation history. Fully established in 1944, it moved to Cranfield in 1945 and Farnborough in 1947 finally returning to Boscombe Down in 1968 where it remains today.

Post-war, the Establishment continued to expand with two additional runways and taxi-tracks as it is today. In addition to the testing of military aircraft, it reverted to pre-war practice when civil aircraft were awarded their Certificate of Airworthiness by the A&AEE. A small section was formed for this purpose. The Civil Aircraft Test Section (CATS) was the only civilian servicing unit within the military establishment. It continued until the work was transferred to the Air Registration Board. Loath to lose a well respected section it continued to operate a series of aircraft trials and eventually supplied the nucleus of civilian personnel required when the Establishment replaced most military servicing ground trades. A few were retained for specialised requirements. The programme began in 1957 and was completed within a couple of years.

New facilities were created as the needs arose. The Blower Tunnel designed to test flame-damping of engine exhaust systems became operational too late in the war to be of use, but it has proved to be invaluable in testing ejection seat installations also missile and external fuel tank jettison systems. A High Test Peroxide (HTP) installation was built for the Saunders Roe SR53 rocket powered fighter and the Avro Blue Steel test site. A ground test rig for the revolutionary Fairey Rotadyne was built in 1957 to test the principle in advance of aircraft flight trials. The Weighbridge Hangar was completed in 1955 to house a weighbridge capable of weighing any aircraft envisaged. Up to and including the Brabazon. Post-war planning was to include three more hangars of similar size, a new Officers Mess with the Sergeants Mess taking over the old one, plus many other refinements as befitting Britain’s Premier Aircraft Testing Station, but they were never built, but new accommodation and airmen’s restaurant were built. It was too grand to be called the airmen’s mess! But we managed perfectly well with what was available, without the grand planning. There must be a moral there somewhere!

The internal management was a totally fluid organisation, sections, teams, even entire units would disappear to be replaced by others which could be short or long-lived according to needs. The individual squadron principle was replaced by two new more appropriate identities, Fixed Wing and Rotary Wing Test Squadrons and offices became dominated by hundreds of computers, the direct result of which was that the Photographic Section has almost disappeared to be replaced by individual digital cameras.

Amalgamation had become the order of the day, even the original establishment title disappeared, reworded, initially to reflect the changes within the Establishment before disappearing completely. But amalgamation was not confined to Boscombe Down it became fact throughout the MOD.

In 1991 the Defence Research Agency (DRA) was set up to provide a more efficient research organisation within the MOD. A year later The Directorate General of Test and Evaluation (DGT&E) was formed that included the A&AEE. Then in 1995, DRA and DGT&E were combined to form the Defence Evaluation Research Agency (DERA). One of its operating divisions, the Defence Test and Evaluation Organisation (DTEO) included Boscombe Down. The final reshaping during 2000/2001 saw DERA split into two organisations. Part was retained by the MOD, whilst the greater part was recreated as the QinetiQ Group, a wholly Government owned UK Public Liability Company in July 2001 and the MOD organisation became the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

Thus in October 2007, the skies over Boscombe Down reverberate to the roar of powerful jet engines and the pulsating throb of the helicopter, sights and sounds totally outside the imagination of Lt Bill Hurley the RFC Officer in charge of establishing the new aerodrome on Boscombe Down and Bill Heaton the first instructor. To celebrate the event, the Boscombe Down Aviation Collection (BDAC) have manufactured a facsimile of the first aeroplane to be flown by Bill Heaton from Boscombe Down, a BE2B. But it was not the first aircraft for the new unit, this was a BE2C that dropped a wheel into a rabbit hole on landing and was wrecked. The first of many that succumbed to accidents during take-off or landing until 1945 and the new runway.