A Proud Heritage
Weston-super-Mare and its seaside surrounds are peppered with relics of airborne conflict, while the town is also home to the fabulous Helicopter Museum. Robin Whitlock discovers a rich Somerset seam of aviation heritage.
On the western edge of Hutton Moor, Weston-super-Mare – a flat expanse that is rapidly being encroached on by new housing – stands a seemingly unremarkable warehouse. This somewhat forlorn structure, set amid a ragged collection of other buildings, perceivably dates from the World War Two era. Collectively, these sheds were once part of Oldmixon aircraft factory, where Bristol Beaufighters were made in serious numbers. Immediately to the east, stretching all the way to the A371 Banwell Road, the large open space now reserved for housing, served as Oldmixon’s accompanying airfield – RAF Weston-super-Mare.
The former aerodrome pre-dates World War Two. Sandwiched between the seaside town of Weston, the neighbouring community of Worle and villages of Locking and Banwell, Hutton Moor was nothing more than a stretch of shifting sands and peat before it was turned into an airfield in 1936. The driving force behind the transformation was Norman Edgar, owner of Western Airways passenger air service. Western Airways operated from Bristol in the early 1930s, providing a scheduled service between Whitchurch Airport and Cardiff Splott Airfield, but Norman was keen to move its operating base to the popular seaside town of Weston. He set about convincing the local council of its potential benefits and in 1935, the authority purchased the site from Somerset County Council and local landowner, A E Lance.
Construction of the new airfield began in February 1936. A hangar and a timber passenger terminal were erected in its south-east corner and, following completion of work to bury telephone lines along the road to Locking, the aerodrome was approved for operational use.
War with Germany Looming
Weston quickly became one of the busiest airports in the country, but as tensions with Germany heightened, the amount of military activity also increased. In July 1936, passengers gazed into the sky in amazement as the doomed German Zeppelin Hindenburg passed by on its way to Frankfurt. Three aircraft took off from the airfield to take a closer look and some observers on the ground suspected the Zeppelin passengers seen taking pictures were indulging in a bit of pre-war aerial espionage.
Even at this early stage, plans were in place to expand the site for an RAF reserve training school and aircraft factory. The 1930’s military expansion programme, in which RAF training aircraft were utilised by civilian operators under contract from the Air Ministry, brought large numbers of military aircraft to the airfield and by 1938 they outnumbered their civilian counterparts.
“Some observers on the ground suspected the Zeppelin passengers seen taking pictures were indulging in a bit of pre-war aerial espionage”
In 1937, Edgar had managed to secure an army co-operation contract, which required the installation of basic night-flying equipment, including a landing and boundary lights, red warning lights for the buildings, an illuminated wind direction ‘T’ and a control tower. Interestingly, according to the Helicopter Museum’s Collections Manager, Mark Service, the control tower was originally a shelter for taxi cab and horse and trap drivers, working from on Weston seafront. It’s known to have stood at that location since at least the 1920s before being brought to the airfield and converted into a control tower. The museum – which is today based at the former RAF Weston – has carried out a marvellous restoration of this building, including a refit of the adjoining pilot’s office and watch office which now accommodates an exhibition on the airfield’s history.
A variety of military aircraft passed over the airfield throughout 1938 as the war advanced, including flying boats operating from the newly established RAF Pembroke Dock on the South Wales coast. Hawker Henley monoplanes began to tow drogues for target practice over Weston bay and 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron Auxiliary Air Force based at Filton, near Bristol – equipped with Hawker Hinds – started to make frequent visits.
In May 1938, 72 RAF aircraft, including Bristol Blenheims, Fairey Battles, Hawker Harts and Demons, passed en route to the Empire Air Day flypast in London. Meanwhile, little more than a mile away, the airfield’s new neighbour, RAF Locking, was nearing completion. In October, Western Airways was taken over by the Straight Corporation, a company established by American millionaire Whitney Willard Straight, shortly after the arrival of a Civil Air Guard (CAG) unit.
When war finally broke out in September 1939, all civilian aircraft and aerodromes were requisitioned by the Government’s National Air Communications (NAC) organisation for military use by the RAF. Most of the Western Airways aircraft were loaned out to RAF units with the company retaining just two for its own use. All civilian flying without a special permit had already been prohibited, courtesy of the Air Navigation (Emergency Restriction) Order 1939, issued on 31 August. New facilities had been provided at Weston for 39 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School (ERFTS), which operated Miles Hawk Trainer IIIs supplemented by a DH Tiger Moth and Piper J-4As and ’Bs. In addition, a new larger, hangar had been built alongside the original to accommodate six RAF Miles Magisters and a Hawker Hind.
In 1940, Western Airways was awarded various repair and rebuild contracts, including fixing bullet-ridden Fairey Battles and overhauling RAF trainers, although its central role was working on Avro Ansons for the RAF and Fleet Air Arm. This was carried out at the western end of the original (small) hangar after the aircraft had been transported in by road.
Construction of the Oldmixon aircraft factory began that same year, and the facility began to produce the twin-engine Beaufighter, with production continuing throughout the remaining war years. A number of other locations in the town were commandeered for use as refurbishment workshops, the largest being the Drove Road Garage at the end of Bridge Road, now a Mercedes-Benz showroom.
The Beaufighter first flew on 17 July 1939 and was serving with 29 Squadron by October 1940. The aircraft was designed by Leslie Frise and was basically a fighter variant of the Bristol Beaufort, with the two supercharged Hercules engines positioned ahead of the wings to reduce vibration. Various models were produced, operating as night-fighters and serving in North Africa and the Far East as well as in Europe. A total of 5,562 were made, with the last of them (TF.X SR919) leaving Oldmixon on 21 September 1945.
In order to serve the Oldmixon factory, the airfield was extended westwards, almost to the edge of the GWR railway line. A single concrete runway was added in 1943. The main distinguishing features of the factory were its No.1 and No.2 Erecting Halls and No.1 and No.2 Flight Sheds, but various other buildings were constructed to support the facility. The site was also served by a siding off the nearby rail line.
A devastating air raid by German bombers on the Bristol Aeroplane Factory at Filton briefly halted construction work, before Oldmixon’s No.1 Erecting Hall was relocated just off the Locking Bypass at Elborough near Banwell and within a short distance of the newly completed RAF Locking. No.2 Flight Shed was also resited near the northern edge of Hutton Moor. Much of the road was widened so aircraft could be driven to the flight shed and a completely new stretch of, running past the airfield’s eastern edge, served the double gates at its northeast corner.
As a further air raid precaution, the factory buildings were camouflaged a year later, initially with black bitumen, until it was realised this had a glossy effect which acted like a mirror when wet. They were then repainted dark green and brown.
For the rest of this exciting feature, see the April issue of Britain at War – in the shops now.