R.A.F. Harrowbeer 1941 - 1945
The attitude of Local Residents to having an Airfield on their doorstep.
The general feeling of the local residents of Yelverton towards having an R.A.F. Station built on their doorsteps was not one of delight. The residents could hardly contain their fury. The area had been one of a very select kind comprising many retired senior Naval Officers, Bank managers and Hospital consultants who never thought for one minute when they purchased their house in a quiet peaceful village, that very soon they would have an airfield almost on their doorstep and a runway which ended almost in the village centre. It was bad enough when there was an Air Sea Rescue Squadron but now to their horror and indignation in 1942 they were going to be subjected to the continual roar of aircraft both day and night.
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All that remains today of the old Second World War Airfield is :-
* the old ' Watch Office ', now Abigail's at Knightstone Tearooms.
* ' Ravenscroft ' ( now Hart Care Residential and Care Nursing Home ) was the ' Officer's Mess ' in 1941, then in February 1942 became the Squadron Headquarters for No.276 Air Sea Rescue Squadron.
* the ' Gas Decontamination Block ' now known as Trimal House on the Crapstone Business Park.
* around the old Airfield are the remains of 110 airfield buildings, air raid shelters and aircraft dispersal pens, many linked by the old perimeter tracks.
The Early Days of ' Knightstone House '
Way back in 1893 a small lodge house was built on a plot of land on Roborough Down ( Grid Ref :- SX 513 680 ). It was called ' Victoria Lodge ' and was the Lodge for ' Axtown Estate ', half a mile down the road. Everybody going onto the estate had to report there on arrival and on leaving.
During the 1920's ' Axtown Estate ' had no further use for ' Victoria Lodge ' so it was sold. It stayed empty for a few years until a lady and gentleman purchased it who were quite well off financially. They changed the name to ' Knightstone House ' ( it is not known why ! ) and turned the back part of the building into servant's quarters. This is backed up by the fact that in the attic we found bell runs ( wires that ran the length and breadth of the roof-space with wires that dropped down into the rooms below ). It is believed they had a maid and a butler. It is not known how long the lived there but probably into the 1930's because in 1937 the building was owned by a family called Batten.
Roborough ( Plymouth ) Airport look for a new site
Roborough ( Plymouth Airport ) was situated opposite where the George Junction, Roborough ( Park and Ride ) and ' The George Public House ' are today.
In 1935 / 1936 the Directors of Roborough Airport, Plymouth, Devon had the foresight that aviation was going to expand both with passenger flights and freight distribution, nationally and internationally. They arranged for surveyors to look for an alternative new and larger site for an airport to take up the future expansion.
The first area they surveyed was at Chelston Meadows on the outskirts of Plymouth close to Laira Bridge and Saltram House ( the site is now a re-cycling depot ). After obtaining weather reports and conditions from R.A.F. Mount Batten for the area plus the fact that it was very low lying in a valley and susceptible to flooding at high tides and that a large amount of tree felling would be required it was agreed that the area was totally unsuitable for an airfield.
A second site was surveyed , which was an area of ground on Roborough Down near to Yelverton Village which is 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 and drained vey quickly after heavy rainfall. There were a few areas of concern that could be overcome which may upset some of the locals but it was felt a compromise could be made. These would be :- Tumuli ( ancient burial mounds ) on the site, but these could be bulldozed flat filling in depressions and holes, the felling of trees, demolition of a few buildings and re-routing tracks and roads ( Crapstone Road in particular ). To the surveyors this seemed 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 they would lengthen the runways and erect new buildings and hangars as and when required.
During the mid-1930'S the Royal Air Force were 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 the situation might have to be reversed. There was a rumour 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 at Roborough 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. South Westerly from this direction between ' The Rock ' and ' Knightstone House ' ( now a Tearooms ) were ' Udal Tor ' a Tuberculosis Sanitarium and several Victorian houses, these were also demolished to make way for runways. I firmly believe that at this time a square tower ( built to R.A.F. specification ) was added to the side of ' Knightstone House ' ( where the servants quarters were ) and became known as ' The Original Watch Office '.
At the outbreak of war, September the 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 over-spill site on Roborough Down. After twenty three years of research I can still find no written evidence of this being used officially, but I have spoken to W.A.A.F.'s who had worked there. One in particular told me that she would come up the Aerodrome in Yelverton from St. Eval, Cornwall two or three time 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 Gladiators from this site were flown to R.A.F. St. Eval for maintenance and routine servicing. Apparently the new site had no name or number, it was always referred to as " the Top Secret Aerodrome at Yelverton ". The Aerodrome possibly had grass runways and no proper accommodation ( unless ' Knightstone House ' was used ) and the site had a gorse / hawthorn hedge on three sides of it.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer under construction
It was after ' the ' Blitz of Plymouth ' during late March and early April 1941 that the rubble was brought up to Yelverton Railway Station and unloaded into the fields opposite the Railway Goods Yard. In May 1941 the rubble was then collected 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 officially opened in early 1942.
The three tarmac runways were :- Runway No.1 was 1280 yards long X 50 yards wide, Runway No.2 was 1115 yards long X 50 yards wide, Runway 3 was 912 yards long X 50 yards wide and the Perimeter Track was 25 yards wide, the foundation for these and for many of the airfield buildings, being from the rubble of Plymouth after the ' Blitz ' of March / April 1941.
During the construction process of the runways and perimeter tracks there were bulldozers, caterpillar graders and a total of sixteen steam powered rollers used. Coal was delivered to power these machines on a daily basis and deposited on the top road by ' The Rock '. The steam roller drivers, I have been told, had to be in position at 0600 hours each day and have ' steam up ' by 0700 hours and be ready for 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 Dispersed Sites, the Technical Site, the Communal Site, the Dispersal Bays for the aircraft, etc.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer as a Fighter Station
R.A.F. Harrowbeer was a Fighter Station under the command of No.10 Group which was responsible for the defence of South West England.
The Airfield officially opened on the 15th August 1941 at 1430 hours with only a handful of Officers and airmen. The highest ranking Officer was Flight Lieutenant C. V. Jolleff who was placed in command of the Station. We had no aircraft at this time. The first aeroplane to arrive at R.A.F. Harrowbeer was on the 31st August 1941 piloted by Wing Commander Walter. R.A.F. Harrowbeer closed as an Operational Station on the 31st July 1945.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer was home to many Squadrons and a range of nationalities :- Czechoslovakians, Polish, Canadians, Rhodesians, Australians, etc.
Aircraft flying out of R.A.F. Harrowbeer included :- Spitfire, Hurricanes, Typhoons, Mustangs, Blenheims, Fairey Swordfish, Walrus, Lysander, etc.
Although R.A.F. Harrowbeer was a Fighter Station, as the war progressed, some of the aircraft were armed up with small bombs up to 500 lb in weight and rocket projectiles. A small two bay bomb stores was built outside the main operating area at Pound towards the end of 1942.
From time to time R.A.F. Harrowbeer was used by Bomber Command when aircraft were returning from operations and had been badly damaged by flak, got injured personnel on board or running out of fuel. Technically our runways were too short for them to land, but when necessity dictates, its surprising what can be done. We received :- Halifax, Lancasters, Wellingtons and even Flying Fortresses.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer played a vital role during the war by providing air cover for merchant shipping in the English Channel between Land's End, Cornwall and Weymouth, Dorset, watching for enemy E-boats and U-boats; operational sorties in the Cherbourg area; and later escort duties to bomber aircraft flying on their missions to and from targets in Europe.
The first Squadron to arrive at R.A.F. Harrowbeer was No.500 Squadron with Blenheim aircraft for a period of six weeks. About the same time No.78 Signals Wing Calibration Flight came to R.A.F. Harrowbeer with two Blenheim aircraft and were using ' Knightstone House ' as their Squadron Flight Office until they moved on in June 1943. October saw No.130 Squadron for five weeks and No.302 ( Polish ) Squadron for six months who were followed by No.312 ( Czechoslovakia ) Squadron until October 1942. No.312 ( Czech ) Squadron were to take part in ' Operation Jubilee ' and the Dieppe raids. To do this successfully the Squadron had to fly to R.A.F. Redhill, Surrey, re-fuel then carry out their duty returning to R.A.F. Redhill, re-fuel then fly back to R.A.F. Harrowbeer. ( Our aircraft did not have the fuel capacity to fly directly, engage the enemy and then return to base ).
No.276 Air Sea Resdcue Squadron are formed
On October the 21st 1941 in one of the rooms on the ground floor in ' Knightstone House ' No.276 Air Sea Rescue Squadon was formed. ' Knightstone House ' became the Squadron's Headquarters until February 1943 when they moved across the road into ' Ravenscroft ' which had been the Officer's Mess and billets.
No.276 A.S.R. Squadron operated many types of aircraft which included :- Defiant, Anson, Lysander, Walrus and Spitfires. Much later in the war the Squadron also flew Hudson and Warwick aircaft.
The Squadron were successful in saving well over one hundred lives in the period that they were at R.A.F. Harrowbeer. There were also many rescue operations that resulted in either, not locating the ditched aircrews, or that the occupants of the dinghy did not survive their ordeal.
In the event of an airman ditching from his aircraft or making a forced landing on the sea it is hoped that a radio fix had been sent in advance of his likely position. This fix ( co-ordinates ) would be passed on to the nearest Air Sea Rescue Squadron who would send out two Spitfire aircraft followed by a Lysander and Walrus ( an amphibious aircraft that could land on the sea ).
The Spitfires would try and locate the ditched airman, on finding him they would orbit to protect him from enemy attack at the same time sending an exact locational fix. The Lysander would fly to this new location and drop a fresh dinghy and emergency supplies ( his present dinghy could be holed from enemy action and could not stay inflated ). They would also drop a smoke flare for the Walrus to follow and indicate the wind direction for landing on the sea. Once the ditched airman was safely on board the rescue aircraft would return to base.
Squadron activities from 1942 until it's closure in 1945
During 1942 a lot of operations and reconnaissance duties were carried out in the Cherbourg Peninsular and Channel Island areas by the R.A.F. Harrowbeer Squadrons.
They would be carrying out various operations with code names :-
Circus :- a large scale combined bomber and fighter operation.
Rodeo :- a fighter offensive to destroy German aircraft on the ground.
Rhubarb :- small harassing attacks on specific targets by fighter aircraft under
Jim Crow :- shipping reconnaissance operations.
While waiting to undertake an operation the pilots would be placed on readiness - waiting at dispersal for the signal to be in their aircraft and be ready to take off once the signal is given. There were three stages of readiness :-
30 minutes :- Pilots at dispersal dressed ready for flying.
15 minutes :- Ground crew warming up engines of aircraft to keep the engine
5 minutes :- Pilots in the cockpit ready for taxying to the take off position.
On the 12th December 1942 No.193 Squadron were formed at R.A.F. Harrowbeer, they were to be a Typhoon Squadron. The Squadron never received any of their Typhoon aircraft until February 1943 due to demand and replacement to other Squadrons. They were begging and borrowing any aircraft they could so that the pilots could keep up their flying skills. The Typhoon was fraught with disaster, it was meant to be a high altitude fighter but one of it's failings was that it was prone to the tail falling off. Another problem was oxygen starvation over a certain altitude and a heating system that either worked or did not work. It was therefore decided to convert the aircraft into a low level pursuit aircraft by arming it with rocket projectiles. They fixed rockets to the R.A.F. Harrowbeer Typhoons and sent them to the tank firing ranges at Bolt Head. When the first rocket was fired the rivets joining the wings to the fuselage came out. Back to the drawing board. Once modifications had been made the Typhoon was a most formidable tank and train busting aircraft. One of our pilot's Pilot Officer Kilpatrick was the first pilot to survive a tail falling off a Typhoon aircraft when he was flying his over Yelverton. An organisation called ' The Fellowship of the Bellows of Brazil ' ( ex patriots living in Brazil ) raised enough money to buy nine Typhoon aircraft which were presented to No.193 Squadron on the 16th October 1943. The Squadron left R.A.F. Harrowbeer in February 1944.
Many more Squadrons were to come and go, some for only a few days others for a longer time depending on their operational skills. In the months leading up to D-day Nos.263, 266 and 183 Squadron aircraft were attacking the Yffniac Viaduct and Abervarcht Estuary in France.
The Abervracht Estuary, France was a very important target on the Cherbourg Peninsular for the R.A.F. and the Squadrons spent a lot of time attacking a beached German Elbing Destroyer. On the 30th April 1944 No.838 F.A.A. Squadron ( who were now at R.A.F. Harrowbeer ) were detailed for an operation around mid-night. Unfortunately the were given wrong co-ordinates and flew into the fiercest battle imaginable for an aircraft that was slow and cumbersome ( the Fairey Swordfish ). The first three aircraft were attacked and perished in the mayhem, the remaining aircraft turned and headed for home. Nine brave airmen lost their lives that night !
The 6th June 1944 - D-day. R.A.F. Harrowbeer was on lock-down from the 4th June until the 7th June. Only four operations were carried out on the 6th June and they were early in the morning over the Channel Islands to keep the enemy busy. When the airmen returned and reported for de-briefing they said about the number of ships they could see in the English Channel and asked what was it all about. They were told that all would be revealed in good time. It was about ten o'clock that night that it was announced over the tannoy that D-day had taken place and been successful. We were now in France.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer's role from then on was to escort bombers attacking Germany on their outward and home flights. By this time some of the Squadrons had Mustang aircraft which had larger fuel tanks, so could fly that bit further.
After D-day had taken place R.A.F. Harrowbeer's role seemed to be coming to an end so the powers to be decided to close the Station at the end of August 1944. It was taken over by the Americans who presumably were using the Aerodrome to re-supply the troops in France. ( I have very little information on the American involvement at present, can you help ? )
On January the 8th 1945 Wing Commander R. I. G. MacDougal assumed command of R.A.F. Harrowbeer on it's re-opening as a Self-Accounting Unit, a two Squadron basis, under Fighter Command. R.A.F. Bolt Head was to become a Satellite Station to R.A.F. Harrowbeer.
No.691 Squadron arrived to carry out duties and an Air Despatch Letter Service used to fly in and out on occasions.
R.A.F. Harrowbeer finally closed on the 31st July 1945 as an operational Station and placed on ' Care and Maintenance '.
In the late 1950's / early 1960's there was a proposal to turn the old aerodrome into Plymouth Airfield but due to a lot of local opposition this never happened. ( How different would it have been if the Directors of Roborough Airport had of taken up the chance in 1936 ! )
In 1962 ' Knightstone House ' was put back into the public domain - it became a Tearoom / Restaurant back then and is still today in 2020.
August 15th 1981 saw the return of R.A.F. Harrowbeer's first Station Commander, the Hon E. F. Ward and other Station personnel for the unveiling of a Memorial Stone at the Leg O'Mutton Corner, Yelverton as a tribute to all who served at R.A.F. Harrowbeer.
Further details and information about the Airfield's history, activities and personnel can be found at the :- R.A.F. Harrowbeer Archives, Knightstone, Crapstone Road, Yelverton, Devon, PL20 6BT
or on the website :- www.rafharrowbeer-dartmoor.org.uk
Archivist :- Michael Hayes Telephone :- 01822 853679
Knightstone RAF Harrowbeer Archives
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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