All across the Cotswolds, if you stop for just a few minutes on hilltops, you can find strips of broken concrete, grass growing in the jumbled cracks. Red brick buildings with peeling, grey render and steel framed, glassless windows. Today, they’re derelict, but these World War II RAF bases were once crammed with life as they brought Britain’s war effort to the peace of the Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire countryside.
RAF Broadwell – closed, March 1947. A few seconds off the A361 between Burford and Lechlade. Now mostly farmland (although the control tower still stands), Broadwell saw clouds of Horsa gliders take off for the D-Day beaches and Arnhem. The main runway that launched the glider fleets is now a minor road linking the A361 and Kencot. You can ride along it.
RAF Kelmscott – closed December 1946. A few minutes walk from William Morris’ home in the village, in early 1944 it resonated to the shouts of Polish paratroops as they drilled endlessly for D-Day. Today, all that’s left is a grass track, some open fields and memories.
RAF Windrush – closed in late 1945. You can glimpse few still-standing buildings as you flash past on the A40 to Cheltenham. Late in the evening of August 1940, this is where trainee pilot, Sgt Bruce Hancock, practicing night flying in his unarmed Avro Anson, rammed an attacking Luftwaffe Heinkel out of the sky. He killed both the crew of the HE111 and himself. He was 26. To this day no-one’s sure whether he rammed the German plane deliberately or as part of an evasive manoeuvre. Sgt Hancock is buried at Hendon. The German airmen were laid to rest with full military honours at Northleach.
RAF Stanton Harcourt – closed in 1945. Churchill flew to the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 from here. Its runways are broken up and submerged under feet of water in gravel pits now. The only remaining length of them, where once Whitleys and Halifaxes clawed their way skywards, lies hidden and unregarded next to landfill mounds near Dix Pit, West Oxfordshire’s municipal rubbish dump.
The names of the bases read like poetry: Stanton Harcourt, Southrop and Akeman Street, Enstone, Chipping Norton, Down Ampney and Little Rissington. But there are few words to mark most of them today. Some dusty maps, station record books and faded grey photos in the RAF Museum Archive at Hendon.
I suspect there are many more photographs in musty family photograph albums – sepia shots of an uncle or a grandfather in RAF blue, a set of wings proudly on his left breast. The outline of a badge, showing Pegasus and Bellerophon for the British Airborne Forces, on the shoulder of a young man in the corner of another curled-edge shot.
The story of these bases is really the story of the thousands of young men who lived, flew and trained to fight on them. For some of those men, the glimpse of an RAF base through the closing door of a Normandy or Arnhem-bound C47 Dakota aircraft was the last they saw of England.
Few are marked with any memorial. Most are slowly being demolished for building and track hardcore, used for storage and farm machinery or simply left to rot. In no case are there gates, entrance fees or guidebooks. Anyone who is interested can walk in on the footpaths and see history for themselves.
For me, exploring them is a chance to feel this history first hand. To get a sense of the places that were – and are – so significant in our country’s past. It’s easy to think of them as abandoned, forgotten even, but they’re far from it.
I’ve been lucky enough to have conversations with some of the men who flew from them. Their memories are still bright and sharp. And, even as the bricks and concrete decay, more people are learning their history. It’s that history I’ve tried to capture in the pictures I’ve shot and words I’ve written. It’s the story of the thousands of men and women, as ordinary as us, who became extraordinary because of what they did. That makes it a history well worth telling.