In 1940 Ernest Bevan, Minister of Labour, called on Southern Ireland to release men to a labour force for the construction of airfields on the mainland of Britain. As an example of the costs involved at Winfield, an airfield North of Milfield, the runways and taxyways took over six months to build at a cost of £360,000. A.M.60052 gives an Air Ministry costing of £90 per month per man. This would seem to include a lodging allowance.
The main contractors of the airfield runways and taxyways are believed to have been H. E. Pitt of Sunderland, who bussed the work force in by the day. It's hard to understand that over 100,000 tons of concrete could be laid down at each of over two hundred airfield sites within the British Isles, without those details being released to the public but in times of war advertising for labour to build a new airfield would not be made public and airfields, by their very nature were built in areas of minimum habitation. Indeed, Milfield village was but a dozen houses, a pub, post office, a blacksmiths and a small village hall with less than a hundred residents. Various sub-contractors were used and also built the Laing Interlocking hut. The twelve dispersed sites comprised a varying number of these huts which were a wooden structure, with an outer skin of insulation board covered by rubberised felt and an inner skin of finished plaster board. These were constructed in a variety of forms, to suit the function and requirement of the site, from single structures to multiple combinations as diverse as a cobblers shop or a canteen, with an entrance hall, stage and including a cookhouse or a straight forward dormitory block. The thirteenth dispersed site was the sewage plant.
The Milfield plain was chosen as a site for an A class expansion airfield by the Air Ministry Directorate of General Works at some time in 1939-40. The A class expansion airfield was a pattern of three runways in the form of a triangle, linked by a perimeter track and with its technical and maintenance areas close by but with its instructional, communal and domestic sites dispersed.
The main runway, usually aligned to the prevailing wind was 2,000 yds long by 50 yds wide. The two subsidiary runways were 1,400 yds long and 50 yds wide linked by taxyway 50 feet wide. To construct the A class expansion airfields runways. taxyways, hardstandings and bases for hangars and technical buildings required upwards of 130,000 tons of ballast and cement and the number of airfields built from 1940 until the end of the second world war was equivalent to building a highway 4,000 miles long and 30 feet wide, which would have stretched from London to Karachi.
The buildings on the A class expansion airfield were, in the main, of the same type, for housing the same equipment and to do the same job. These were of brick construction covered with a cement based coating, known as Maycrete. Many of these buildings remain all over the country and, even after fifty, years, most are in good order and require very little attention to remain serviceable for the many jobs that they have been adapted to do.
The hangars on these airfields are usually of the type that were built at Milfield, the large T2 and the not so large Blister hangar. The number varied with each intended user. At the time Milfield was being constructed the two T2 hangars were planned and built, the T2 took an eight man team three weeks or more to build. It was designed by Teeside Bridge & Engineering Co. and the main boom girders weighed 17 tons each and by its size best suited the maintenance needs of a bomber station but at this time the requirement for a Fighter O.T.U. with the features that Milfield possessed, decreed it would be a Fighter O.T.U. and so the two T2 hangars stayed. Added to those were eight extra over blister hangars designed and prefabricated by Dorman Long. These hangars were open ended and were 45 feet long, 70 feet clear opening and 20 feet high. Even these temporary hangars were not small. I would love to have seen Milfield at this time as I think they were typical of the scene that was Milfield at war.
A distinctive building that was planned and built at Milfield when it was intended as a bomber O.T.U. was the astral navigation trainer, 9288/42 design standard. A domed building with a single small man-sized entrance, painted black inside and outside. When used at a bomber O.T.U. the stars were projected onto the interior of the dome and the projector moved at the rate and angle of the firmament and also simulated the speed and passage of the required bomber type. This allowed trainee navigators to practice recognition of individual stars and the use of the sextant for taking star shots. The large number of trainee navigators on a bomber O.T.U. often meant this very sophisticated computer was in use twenty fours per day. Its use during 59 O.T.U.'s time would have been minimal, probably only as a night, aircraft recognition trainer, projecting aircraft silhouettes against a background of the stars.
In keeping with the thinking of the 1940-41 period a battle headquarters was built to 1008/41 design standard. That is, it was dug out and then built. The dimensions being approximately 21 feet by 8 feet divided into an office, sleeping area and a latrine. A small observation tower topped this room, its observation slits about two feet above ground level when construction was completed.
A map is held at the Public Records Office, of the disposition of various types of artillery, their bearing and range in relation to Milfield, in the event of invasion by the enemy, these guns could lay down artillery fire on specific Milfield airfield locations, as directed by the defence controller in the underground Battle Headquarters adjacent to the control tower.
In total there were one hundred and twelve buildings built upon the Milfield airfield site, much as any other "A" class expansion airfield, a mixture of timber framed, brick or prefabricated steel.
A very large M.T. (Motor Transport) section with twenty four service bays was built and survived intact until the 1980's. Twelve bays was normal.
The dispersed sites, thirteen in number, had one hundred and seventy nine buildings between them and although the original plan was for separate Officer, N.C.0., Airman and Airwoman accommodation, in 1942, Air Ministry decreed that to take full advantage of the dispersal concept (to minimise casualties in the event of enemy attack) losses to any section i.e. Administration etc. would be further reduced in effect, if each dispersed site housed a complement of Officers, N.C.O.'s, Airmen and Airwomen.
With up to 2,000 personnel at Milfield, and the extent of the dispersed sites the means of getting from one place to another was the bicycle which worked on the principle of a bicycle pool - take one proceed to place of work - others who would then be going off-shift would then cycle back to the billet etc. A bicycle repair shop was provided and manned and, no doubt, was always busy, as was the barbers, the W.A.A.F. hairdressers and the tailors shop. All on main site. Across the road from main site was the Y.M.C.A. Club.
The domestic water was drawn from the River Glen south of Coupland, filtered, dosed and pumped to a high level storage tank on main site.
The drinking water was from a mains supply as was the electricity, but standby electricity generating sets were in place at various locations .
Sewage and waste water was taken from all sites to the sewage farm at the Thirlings.
As can be imagined, the miles of drains, pipework and cabling were that of a small town, and so it later proved.
Although my main interest are the flying units which operated at Royal Air Force Milfield, the story would be even less complete, if the camp and its personnel were not mentioned, many of the trade groups at this time of the 2nd World War were staffed by Womans Auxiliary Air Force, (W.A.A.F.) And at Milfield, like many other airfields, the W.A.A.F`s were often relatively local girls, girls from the North East of England, who had requested postings to Milfield. One such was Linda Faragher of Berwick upon Tweed, whose story will be told at a later date.
Generally, the personnel were from all over the country and from different backgrounds, some were of a service background having been trained in a particular trade, others conscripted and trade trained and then posted in to positions at Milfield. Many had come from lowly background and had not enjoyed the comparative luxury of three square meals a day, baths or showers and indoor plumbing and all the services offered by a large camp. And the social life at Milfield, for all ranks, was better than many a station closer to the capital, the people that I have been in contact with, who served at Milfield in its three and a half years, all enjoyed their time there.
Without doubt, for many, the wartime introduction to camp life and its facility`s, changed them and society for the better, that they could all come, in their diverse ways to Milfield and practice their new skills with such diligence, concern for the job and in the main, with good humour, then at the end of the war to return home and pick up their lives, without counseling, could only have happened at that time when all were pulling together.
I would also suggest that where there are photographs, you look beyond the central object of the photograph and take stock of its background, as an example, the graveside picture of F/O Ulric Look-Yan`s burial, show`s The Royal Air Force Regional Cemetery. Stonefall. Harrogate. On that bleak January day, prepared for more interments than the burial in progress, with a bugler and a firing party in attendance, when viewed with G/C Adams letter to Mrs Maud Look-Yan expressing condolences at her son`s death in Northumberland, the location of the brother Officers who sent wreaths, indicates the preparedness of the service for such sad happenings.