WESSEX

The Flying Museum

aerodrome was opened here at Wroughton - high on the ridge overlooking the Vale of the White Horse - in 1940. It was never planned to be an operational airfield - flying squadrons of bombers or fighters on missions against the Luftwaffe. Rather, it was the base for No.15 Maintenance Unit.

The opening of the aerodrome had a profound effect on the village - even before it was built.

On 16th May, 1939 two village brothers, Edward and Arthur were told by the Labour Exchange (where unemployed men sought work or benefits) to report to the top of Priors Hill ("a hill and a half", according to my informant*) to meet a surveyor.

Edward was sent back down into the village to get a bag of cement powder. Meanwhile, Arthur "borrowed" a spade from a nearby barn. He uprooted fence-posts and used the spade to fill in a ditch - so that the surveyor could drive his black Standard 8 into the field.

There, Arthur and Edward (who had now returned) set one of the fence-posts into the ground - at a spot indicated by the surveyor - using grit from the road and water from the ditch to give a solid base (Edward hadn't yet arrived back with the cement powder).

Then the surveyor backed his car up against this post - its nose pointing towards Southrop. Then he drove the car one mile in a straight line, with Arthur and Edward removing hedges and ditches as they went. Here they erected the second post. These posts marked the ends of the main runway, and from these markers, the whole of the site was laid out - including all the runways and Princess Alexandra's Hospital.

*Bill Clark, who told me all of this, still has that spade head in his garage. Arthur was his father.

Bill adds another page to the history of Wroughton, when he tells of one Barney Howell, a school mate of the Clark boys.

Barney and some mates were walking home from the pub and they met a lad who was pushing his bike. They asked what was wrong. He said he had run out of water in his Carbide lamp (a kind of battery which needed topping up with water from time to time). They said ‘can't you make some water’ (Har, Har). He said no, so Barney obliged.

Only when they lit the lamp did they discover that the lad was a female.

Planes came here from factories all over Britain, to have their weapons and equipment fitted, before delivery to their operational units. Later, they might come back - for repair - if there was enough left to fix. The pilots who flew in and out of Wroughton were largely civilian auxiliaries (many of them women). During those years of war, Wroughton handled 62 different types of aircraft.

When the war was over, most of the remaining operational aircraft made their way back to Wroughton, where they were broken up - surplus to requirements. (Much later, there was cause for satisfaction when one of the few airworthy Lancaster bombers flew out of here, having been reassembled from bits originally hacked off during this post-war period.)

After the war, Wroughton continued its maintenance function - with increasingly sophisticated aircraft. In the 1960s it began to specialise in servicing helicopters.

In 1972, the RAF left, and the Navy took over - largely because the RN took over responsibility for servicing all military helicopters. This continued until Wroughton closed (as a military airfield) in 1978.

All over England, there were wartime airfields which gradually fell out of use. Some of them disappeared altogether - built over with housing or trading estates or absorbed into neighbouring towns. Some of them became race-tracks - officially or otherwise.

The Cold War kept many of them in (potential) business until the end of the 80s, when a new round of re-assessment began.

The timing of Wroughton's closure was crucial. In the mid-70s, the Science Museum had been seeking storage space for its expanding stock of exhibits. They had a particular desire to keep examples of commercial aircraft - a bit difficult to keep in their South Kensington headquarters, especially as the speed of aircraft development created an increasingly large fleet of obsolete (but interesting) models which deserved preservation.

Within a year of the Navy's departure, the Science Museum flew in. Specifically, the first craft were a Douglas DC-3 ("Dakota") and a De Havilland Comet (the first jet airliner).

More and more aircraft followed.

...including the rather wonderful Handley Page "Gugnunc" of 1929 (named after a catchphrase in a Daily Mirror cartoon), which was capable of flying safely at 35 mph or less, and could take off from a 300 foot runway (i.e., it could take off from a football pitch).

One intrepid pilot started his flight run within the hangar, and was airborne by the time he reached the doorway.

In addition, the Science Museum uses Wroughton's cavernous hangars to store large exhibits in "rotation" from its London HQ and elsewhere. There are also boxes and boxes of material which must be kept, but which aren't particularly interesting at the moment.

Wroughton is not open to the public - except on certain Open Days, or by special arrangement. School parties get in free.

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