" The Archives 80 years ago " is a compilation of monthly information taken from
the R.A.F. Station Harrowbeer and Squadron Operation Record Books. Additional
information is added as it becomes available from various magazines, publications
and personal recollections. The pages are updated each month
and only show the four most current months.
Copies of the Station and Squadron Operation Record Books are kept at
' Knightstone House ' - R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives,
Educational and Heritage Centre
and are available to be viewed at ' Knightstone Tearooms '
( ask for Michael ) or by appointment
Telephone :- 01822 853679
1935 - 1939 Setting the scene
Way back in 1935 / 1936 the Directors of Roborough Airport, Plymouth, Devon had the foresight that aviation was going to expand with passenger flights and freight distribution, nationally and internationally. They arranged for surveyors to look for an alternative sight for a new, larger airport to take up the future expansion.
The first area they surveyed was at Chelsdon Meadows on the outskirts of Plymouth close to Laira Bridge and Saltram House ( the sight is now a re-cycling depot ). After obtaining weather reports and general conditions from R.A.F. Mount Batten for the area plus the fact that it was very low lying and susceptible to flooding at high tides and that a large amount of tree felling would be required it was agreed that this area was totally unsuitable for an airfield.
A second site was surveyed which was an area on Roborough Down near to Yelverton which was situated between ' The Rock ' ( a large granite outcrop ) on the corner of Crapstone Road and the main A386 road, Crapstone Village and Pound. It was thought that the area was acceptable as the ground had a very good substrata that drained easily after periods of heavy rain. There were a few areas of concern that could be overcome but may upset some of the locals but it was felt a compromise could be made. These would amount to Tumuli ( ancient burial mounds ) that could be bulldozed flat filling in depressions and holes ( especially in the Leg O'Mutton to Pound area ), felling trees, demolishing a few buildings ( The Moor House Hotel, Udal Tor Turberculosis Sanatorium, etc. ) and re-routing tracks and roads. This seemed to be a perfect solution. The findings were given to the Directors of Roborough Airport who studied them at length, thanked the surveyors for their work but decided that the Airfield would stay where it was and lengthened the runways and erected new buildings and hangars as and when required.
During the mid - 1930's the Royal Air Force was going through what became known as ' the expansion period ' having wound down Squadron numbers and Aerodromes after the First World War expecting that they would no longer be required. However there was a rumor that hostilities and unrest were underway in Germany which may lead to a possible war. The United Kingdom started making preparations which included in the Royal Air Force building up it's Squadrons and looking for new Aerodrome Sites. As the site on Roborough Down had already been surveyed and found to be suitable for an Aerodrome the ' Secretary of State for Air ' requisitioned the whole area including ' Knightstone House ' in 1937 in readiness.
Towards the end of 1938 and the beginning of 1939 contractors moved onto the requisitioned site and demolished ' The Moor House Hotel ' at the Leg O' Mutton ( where the children's playground is now ) allegedly to make way for runways, also ' Udal Tor ' a Tuberculosis Sanatorium and several Victorian houses situated between ' the granite rock outcrop and Knightstone House were demolished for the making of runways. At about this time a square tower was added to the side of Knightstone House ( built in 1893 ) and became known as the ' Original Watch Office '.
Pre - R.A.F. Harrowbeer - 1939
At the outbreak of war, September 3rd 1939 we know that Roborough Aerodrome was taken over by the Royal Air Force and that No.247 Squadron were operating from there with Gloster Gladiator aircraft. R.A.F. Roborough was a small Aerodrome which i have been informed could not accommodate many aircraft at any one time, therefore it seems reasonable that a Flight of No.247 Squadron Gloster Gladiators were operating from this new overspill site on Roborough Down.
After twenty four years of research i can still find no written evidence of this site being used officially, but i have spoken to W.A.A.F.'s who have worked on it and in the Watch Office. One W.A.A.F. in particular told me that she would come up to an Aerodrome in Yelverton from St. Eval in Cornwall two or three times a week to carry out administration duties in ' Knightstone House ' ( the Watch Office ). Along with her would come Armourers to re-arm the Gloster Gladiator aircraft. A local ex - R.A.F. Air Mechanic advised me that Gloster Gladiator aircraft from this site were flown to R.A.F. St. Eval for maintenance and routine servicing. Apparently this new site had no name or number it was always referred to as " the top secret aerodrome at Yelverton ". It had grass runways, no proper accommodation ( unless part of Knightstone House was used ) and had a gorse / hawthorn hedge on three sides of it.
There is some speculation ( still to be confirmed ) that two Squadrons were possibly operating from this new ( un-named ) site namely :- No.247 Squadron, a detachment between 1st August 1940 and the 15th January 1941 and a detachment from No.16 Squadron flying Lysander aircraft between the 3rd August 1940 and 14th August 1940, 15th October 1940 and the 4th November 1940 and the 4th June 1941 until the 6th June 1941.
After the ' Blitz of Plymouth ' and the building of R.A.F. Harrowbeer - 1941.
It was after the ' Blitz of Plymouth ' during late March and early April 1941 that the rubble was brought to Yelverton Railway Station and unloaded into the fields opposite the Railway Goods Yard. In May 1941 the rubble was then collected by an Ivybridge Company using American ' Rio ' lorries and taken to the new Aerodrome site which was to have three tarmac runways laid out in the traditional ' A ' shape with a second Watch Office to be constructed which was officially opened in early 1942.
The runways were constructed in May 1941, the first to be laid was Runway No.3 adjacent to the main A386 road, second was Runway No.2 followed immediately by Runway No.1. The remainder of the Aerodrome including the Technical Site, Dispersal Bays, Dispersed Sites, Communal Site, Station Sick Quarters, etc. were constructed over the next twelve months.
When the Runways were constructed the foundations were dug to a depth of five feet and fifty yards wide. The longest runway, No.1 was 1280 yards long, No.2 runway was 1115 yards long and No.3 runway was 912 yards long. In the bottom of each trench were laid large granite boulders on edge which gave extra strength, the cavities between these boulders being filled with spoil from the ' Sortidge Tin Mine ' and the ' Creber Tin Mine ' at Lumburn. On top of the leveled spoil was a layer of Plymouth Blitz rubble of various depths. The rubble was then covered with large asphalt followed by smaller grades with a final layer of coloured rubber chippings set in bitumen. Drainage was by way of digging deep channels radiating from the runways and perimeter tracks, these were layered with pea gravel with terracotta pipes on top and back filled with soil. The storm water was then directed into a storm water drainage system and also the Devonport Leat.
During the construction process of the runways and perimeter tracks the mechanical machinery comprised :- bulldozers, Caterpillar graders and a total of sixteen steam powered road rollers. Coal was delivered to power these machines on a daily basis and deposited on the top road by ' The Rock ' ( the granite outcrop ). The steam roller drivers ( i have been told ) had to be in position at 0600 hours each day ( seven days a week ) and have " steam up " by 0700 hours and be ready to commence rolling.
Once all three runways and perimeter tracks had been constructed they were immediately put into use and the rest of the Aerodrome went into full construction mode - the Dispersal Sites, the Technical Site, the W.A.A.F. Site, the Communal Site, the Dispersal Bays for the aircraft, etc.
The Aircraft Dispersal Bays ( twelve doubles in total ) were constructed during the early part of 1942. Prior to these Bays being built the aircraft were located around the eastern and western sides of the runways and picketed on grass. The Flight Offices were the left behind contractors wooden huts until more suitable brick buildings could be built to Air Ministry drawings.
The contractors lived on the Aerodrome Site in wooden huts close to where they were working and had to have permits to access and leave the site as required. Normally once they were on site they stayed until that part of the contract was completed. They would work from sun-up until sun-set through all kinds of weather. There were ' tea boys ' and ' errand boys ' who arrived on the Aerodrome Site each day and would be assigned to a particular group of workmen, their wages were five shillings a week ( £ 0.25 decimal currency ). It was their job to see that their group of workers had drinks as required ( tea or water ), run errands and purchase sweets, tobacco, cigarettes, etc. from the local shops and to collect cooked meals from the big houses opposite the Aerodrome Site at lunchtime, returning the empties afterwards. The huts that were used by the contractors as offices and billets during construction were left in place and used by the incoming aircrews as temporary billets and Flight Offices.
R.A.F. Station Harrowbeer was ready for opening on the . 15th August 1941.
The following is a summary taken from the R.A.F. Station Harrowbeer and the R.A.F. Squadron Operation Record Books ( O.R.B.'s ) for the month of August 1941 until it's closure on the 31st July 1945.
RAF Harrowbeer Archives, Education & Heritage Ctr
Knightstone, Crapstone Road, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6BT GB
Archivist - Michael Hayes 01822 853679
All images copyright of :- PHL Archives, R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives, Graham Buchan Innes or HIG
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