Airfields on the Air is organised by the Royal Air Force Amateur Radio Society (RAFARS). RAFARS exists to promote and foster amateur radio activities within the Royal Air Force and through Amateur Radio, to maintain and foster the close bonds that exist between radio amateurs serving in the Royal Air Force and those who have retired from, or have close links with, the Royal Air Force. Greg 2W1BUF (callsign correct at the time of writing) has a long association with the RAF as a historian and researcher, being: 100 Squadron Association Historian, 100 Squadron (RAF) Researcher 1917 – Present Day, 100 Squadron (RAAF) Researcher 1942-1945, RAF No.1 (Bomber) Group Researcher 1940-1945. He is also member 6019 of RAFARS.
The dates for Airfields on the Air are the first week-end of April but the event can be put on any other times of the year. All that is needed is either a current or an old RAF Military Establishment which was used during the wars or perhaps may still be in current use. Participating stations need to register their activation, the details for this can be found on the Airfields on the Air pages of the RAFARS website, the operating details are SSB or CW on any Band (no digital modes at the time of writing). Certificates are available to all Radio Amateurs/SWL working sufficient registered AOTA stations (charges apply); the details of this can also be found on the AOTA pages of the RAFARS website.
When Greg 2W1BUF found out about Airfields on the Air it was inevitable that it was going to become a Special Event that we were going to take part in. Greg’s long association with 100 Squadron meant that his first plan was to try to activate a local airfield that has or had an association with 100 Squadron. Identifying such an airfield within the geographical area of the South Bristol Amateur Radio Club was no mean feat. But this is only the beginning of the process, once identified permission to operate needs to be obtained followed by determining equipment and logistics.
Greg 2W1BUF identified former RAF Westonzoyland. This site had many things to commend it:
- It’s only 40 miles from the SBARC HQ,
- It was the temporary home of 100 Squadron for periods between 1926 – 1929
- This airfield had not been previously activated as part of Airfields on the Air
A Brief History of Former RAF Westonzoyland
In the 1920s, a large anti-aircraft gunnery range was established at Watchet on the north Somerset coast. In order to give the gunners on the range targets upon which to practice, the Air Ministry established a summer practice camp in a large field just to the east of Westonzoyland village. The first aircraft to arrive were the Hawker Horsleys of No.100 Squadron on detachment from their home airfield of RAF Spitalgate near Grantham, for several weeks in the summer of 1926, who towed banners on long lengths of cable into the air for the Watchet gunners to practice their aim on. This exercise was so successful that No.100 Squadron returned every summer for the next few years.
In 1929, the Anti-Aircraft Cooperation Flight, based at Biggin Hill, took over responsibility for the summer camp, and returned every year until 1936, flying the Westland Wallace. Renamed No.1 Anti-Aircraft Unit in early 1937, the unit returned in the summer of the same year with their Wallace aircraft, and again in 1938, but by the summer of 1939 their Wallaces had been replaced with Hawker Henleys.
With the outbreak of war, No.16 Squadron arrived with their Westland Lysanders, with the greater remit of Army Co-operation in addition to their responsibilities to provide target practice for the Watchet gunners. In August 1940, with the threat of imminent invasion, they added coastal patrols to their roster. With activity at an all-time high, the former summer camp became a fully established RAF station in September 1940, which coincided with an invasion alert being issued on the 7th of the month, when all station personnel were recalled from leave. On the 25th of the month, with Germany stepping up their bombing raids on the UK, a large formation of enemy aircraft was spotted nearby at about 16,000 feet, but no bombs were dropped on the airfield itself.
As airfield activity and personnel increased, it was found there was insufficient accommodation on the station, and a number of local buildings were requisitioned for RAF use. Coach-houses and cheese-rooms at local large country houses were used to billet RAF personnel, and the village hall was put to use as the station NAAFI.
In June 1941, No.16 Squadron went through a particularly troublesome time while operating from the airfield. Their Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Richard Hancock, lost his life on the 10th of the month, having been seriously injured the previous day when his aircraft crashed whilst taking off for Westonzoyland from RAF Roborough near Plymouth. His replacement, Squadron Leader Donald Walker, was killed the very next day, the 11th of June, when his Lysander was attacked by four Messerschmitt 109 fighters in the vicinity of Exmouth, Devon.
In July 1941, the airfield became one of the major practice camps for the RAF’s Army Cooperation squadrons, and No.239 Squadron took up residence on the 6th of the month, operating Lysander aircraft. In May the following year, they swapped their Lysanders for Mustangs, and started operational fighter sweeps over northern Europe. No.239 Squadron left for Andover in May 1942, leaving Nos. 1600 and 1601 Flights for Army Co-operation work, being joined by No. 1625 Flight in January 1943, all three units operating Hawker Henleys and Boulton Paul Defiants, towing targets for the Army gunners to practice their skills against. Various squadrons came and went over the next few months, operating in the target-towing and ground-gun-position attack role.
The transport version of the Wellington, the Vickers Warwick, arrived in September 1943 when No.525 Squadron took up residence, staying until February 1944. In April the same year, all the RAF units were moved out, and the airfield was prepared for the USAAF. In May 1944, American gliders and C-47 aircraft arrived, and paratrooper exercises were undertaken in preparation for D-Day. On the big day itself, the 101st Airborne Division were dropped in Normandy, having taken off from Westonzoyland.
In early 1945, and signalling the technical advances that had been made during the war, No. 1540 Beam Approach Training Flight was established at the airfield, equipped with the Airspeed Oxford. However, by October 1946 the last RAF unit, No.222 Squadron with its Gloster Meteors, had left Westonzoyland and the airfield was placed on a “care and maintenance” basis.
The Korean war saw an upsurge in training requirements, and in June 1952 Westonzoyland was reopened, home to No.209 Advanced Flying School, operating De Havilland Vampires and Gloster Meteors. These eventually left in 1955, being replaced by Canberras of No.76 Squadron, which would ultimately participate in the British atomic tests at Pearce, Australia. The last units to use Westonzoyland were the Canberras of Nos. 32 and 73 Squadrons in early 1957, before they left for Cyprus. The station eventually closed in January 1958, but was retained by the Air Ministry until 1969, when it was disposed of.
Today, Westonzoyland, along with Middlezoy which is right next door, is used for microlight flying and go-cart racing. Some airfield buildings remain, and a small museum occupies part of the former RAF site.