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Airport War Years

First military use

The first known military use of Exeter Airport took place during July 1937 when 42 Squadron flying Vickers Vildebeest aircraft, were temporally based here whist engaged in co-operation exercises with the Royal Navy.

Civil Air Guard scheme

The Straight Corporation operated Exeter Flying Club and by 1939, had about 300 members and several blue and silver DH Hornet Moths. The Civil Air Guard scheme, inaugurated on 1 October 1938, offered subsidised flying training within the civil flying clubs. 57 flying clubs in the UK opted to take part and by 1939, the Exeter Flying Club had 123 members participating in this scheme.

Civilian reserve flying training school

As a result of the Air Ministry plan to expand the RAF, the first of several civilian reserve flying training schools were set up during 1936 to train large numbers of cadet pilots as part of the Government initiated Air Training Scheme. Schools were operated by various firms providing a course of flying and other training in preparation of a career either in the RAF or in the RAF Volunteer Reserve. This helped to relieve RAF Service Flying Training Schools (SFTSs) of the preliminary part of flying training so that they could concentrate on the intermediate and advanced stages of pilot training.

Under the new scheme, the Air Ministry set certain standards of training that had to be completed in just two months. The pupils, although civilians, were to be subjected to a Service type routine. The chief aim of the school was to teach the pupil to handle the controls of an aeroplane correctly, and to develop a smooth and leisurely use of them. To achieve this, ground instruction included the rudiments of the theory of flight, the elements of airmanship; air pilotage and map reading, aircraft rigging, engines, armament, photography and parachutes. The elementary course required 50 hours flying divided equally between dual-instruction and solo-flying. At the end of this period, the pupil was able to carry out all normal aircraft manoeuvres, including loops, half-roles and slow-rolls. He was also able to perform forced landings and to climb, glide, fly level and turn with the use of instruments. Finally, he was able to carry out short cross-country flights with the aid of a compass and map. Passing out came as a test by an invigilating officer from the staff of the Superintendent of Reserve at Hendon.

The idea of all this training was to produce a new style of fully trained pilot who was nearly up to the standard of a pilot trained under the old scheme at a RAF SFTS which previously had taken 12 months. After gaining their “wings” at an E&RFTS, a Service pupil proceeded to a RAF Recruitment Centre such as Cardington to receive his uniform and carry out basic training. After this he was sent to a RAF SFTS such as Hullavington for the intermediate and advanced pilot training. Volunteer Reserve (VR) pilots with the rank of Sergeant, returned to their civilian jobs.
Flying Training Command

As soon as war was declared, plans were put into effect to reorganise the flying training schools and the E&RFTSs ceased to exist. They were replaced by 20 Elementary Flying Training Schools (EFTS) which were made up of the long established E&RFTSs, the remainder were closed or amalgamated with a nearby unit.

Straight Corporation awarded contracts

The Straight Corporation was duly awarded three contracts, and began on 3 July 1939, to form 37 E&RFTS at Exeter Airport, 39 E&RFTS at Weston-super-Mare and 45 E&RFTS at Ipswich. On the strength of the Air Ministry work at Exeter, a start was made on the construction of a second and larger hangar, built by A & J Main Ltd, to house the school’s aircraft. Other construction work included a compass platform, a 25yd (22.8m) rifle range and the first floor extension to the terminal building. All three schools operated by the Straight Corporation had hardly commenced to function however, when they disbanded at the outbreak of hostilities. The Tiger Moths at Exeter were flown to Weston-super-Mare for distribution to various EFTSs.

On 31 August 1939, three days before the outbreak of war, an Air Ministry Air Navigation (Emergency Restriction) Order, was introduced as Notice to Airmen, No. 271. One month later a further series of regulations were issued under the Air Navigation (Restriction in Time of War) Order, 1939 (Notice to Airmen No. 273). This prohibited all civil aircraft flying over the United Kingdom without a special permit issued by the Secretary of State and even then, aircraft were restricted to certain airports and corridors. At the same time all Imperial and British Airways services to the Continent were stopped and all landplane aircraft were put to the disposal of the Director-General of Civil Aviation.

National Air Communications

The new airport terminal at Exeter was duly taken over to provide a terminal for a new Air Ministry department, known as National Air Communications (NAC) (formed 1 September 1939). The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) at the Air Ministry, Lieutenant Colonel Sir Francis C. Shelmerdine, had prepared a scheme in 1938 whereby, 13 internal airline companies were to be made available to the NAC. Initially six aerodromes and airports were to be requisitioned for this purpose.

The headquarters for the NAC was established at 25 Julian Road, Stoke Bishop, Bristol as the aerodrome at Whitchurch is close by. Both Imperial Airways and British Airways who were in the process of merging to form BOAC, which took place on 1 April 1940, had used this aerodrome. Whitchurch had poor approaches from the south and east and Exeter Airport which is located on high ground had clear approaches, Exeter therefore, was regarded by British Airways as a better aerodrome for NAC operations. This being despite early reservations by the company about the small landing ground, although this was in the process of being enlarged. The expanded landing ground at Exeter included the 101 acres that the City Corporation already owned and an additional 56 acres that was part of the original estate. During this phase the Waterslade Farm buildings were demolished.

Stores to British forces in France

In the event, freight and passenger carrying services were commenced from Exeter to France and the Channel Islands, and their subsequent evacuation. A variety of aircraft rounded up for government service was brought to Exeter for this purpose and these included three Imperial Airways HP42s, the Short L17s Scylla and Syrinx, three Junkers 52 transports and a few of the smaller passenger carrying aircraft then being operated by Railway Air Services. All of these aircraft were used to carry stores and personnel to British forces in France and they also assisted in the move of RAF squadrons to bases on the Continent at this time. The flights were not without their problems and on 7 September 1939, HP 42 Horatius arrived overhead on return from the Continent when Exeter was closed due to storm conditions and eventually had to force land on Tiverton golf course. The NAC faded out shortly after the fall of France, when many of its tasks ceased to exist.

Experimental detachments

Because Exeter was in 1939, seemingly fairly safe from air attack, it was decided to evacuate certain experimental detachments here and the first to arrive came from the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough. Professor G.T.R Hill of the RAE planned to use Exeter as a base from which it could conduct flying experiments which involved the extremely hazardous task of deliberately flying aircraft into balloon barrage cables in order to test devices aimed at cutting them. The aircraft had previously used Mildenhall, Suffolk as an outstation, the unit using the heathland at Lakenheath to conduct their experiments but on the outbreak of WW2, Mildenhall was now required for urgent operational use while Lakenheath became a “Q” site for Mildenhall.

Exeter Airport was found to be an ideal location as use could also be made of the university’s new physics and chemistry laboratories known as the Washington-Singer building. Quarters for the RAE staff were also found at the student’s halls of residence. Furthermore, the local engineering firm of Willey & Co. Ltd was found to be more than capable of manufacturing the test equipment. The detachment brought from Farnborough and Mildenhall consisted of a remarkable variety of aircraft, including a Vickers Virginia (J7130), Vickers Wellesley (L2716), the Fairey P4/34 prototype (K5099), three Fairey Battles and a Handley Page Harrow. Although not used for flying, the small airfield at Haldon was also requisitioned for the RAE and ground experiments with cutting equipment were carried out there. The unit’s aircraft were based inside the now vacant E&RFTS hangar while the staff was housed under canvas (until their quarters had been built).
Central Gunnery School

During the “phoney” war period, flying was being carried out by both civilian, under contract to the Air Ministry and military aircraft. Whilst this was going on plans were also drawn up to establish a large tented camp to the south of the aerodrome and to transfer the Central Gunnery School (CGS) here from Warmwell in Dorset. The original aerodrome was modest in size but a start had now been made on its development and extension for the RAF. In June 1940 three "Hinaidi" and two "Bellman" aeroplane sheds were planned for the technical site for use by the CGS, but with the cancellation of the CGS only one Hinaidished was actually built.

Evacuation of troops

On 10 May 1940, the “Blitzkrieg” began. With extraordinary speed and after only seven weeks of massive and violent enemy action, the whole of Belgium, Holland and France was occupied by German forces, including of course, those parts of France lying directly across the Channel from this part of Devon.

Instead of the original task of taking supplies to France during this period, the locally based transport aircraft briefly became busier than ever before when they played an important part in the evacuation of troops. By the end of June it was all over.
During 7-8 May, seven Lysanders belonging to No. 416 Army Co-operation Flight left Hawkinge for armament training lasting one month at Exeter. Using an air-firing practice range at LymeBay the Flight dropped 533 bombs, fired 39,513 rounds while carrying out low level and high level dive bombing exercises. The unit left for Cosford on 5 June 1940.

Formal take over by RAF

In preparation for the planned transfer of the Central Gunnery School, Exeter was formally taken over by the RAF on 1 June 1940 and logically placed under the control of Flying Training Command. In the event the CGS never came to Exeter but a second research detachment did. This transferred from Boscombe Down on 3 June as “A” Flight of the Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) Armament Testing Squadron, and on arrival was immediately given its own independent status as the Gunnery Research Unit coming under 10 Group on 6 July. As such it was to become one of the stations longest resident units and during its stay flew virtually all types of fighter aircraft used by the RAF. To carry out its task it also had a small aircraft fleeton which gun and turret tests were flown, together with two or three target towing types. Throughout the course of its stay at Exeter, the unit was also visited by detachments ofvarious aircraft types for test purposes. On 13 July a gunnery research range was opened at Brandy Head between Budleigh Salerton and Sidmouth. A number of differenttypes of targets including flags and mild-steel structures, later Redpath Brown Ltd built an armour-plated target for use with cannon ammunition.

First operational fighter unit

During mid-June the deteriorating situation in France meant that the threat of an attack by the Luftwaffe was becoming increasingly more serious and on 18 June, the Hurricanes of 213 Squadron were deployed to Exeter to become the station’s first operational fighter unit. Almost immediately enemy attack began on the vital coastal and deep sea convoys passing through the Channel. The squadron engaged the Stukas and other enemy aircraft that had taken advantage of newly captured French airfields within striking distance of Devon.

Enemy raids

On 5 July, 213 Squadron was joined by the Hurricanes of 87 Squadron and within days both units found themselves fighting off enemy raids. One target was the important naval base at Portland, which came under frequent and heavy attack at this time. On 8 July, Exeter was taken over by Fighter Command and henceforth became one of the most important RAF stations in the West Country. Because of its geographical location, the station at Exeter became part of 10 (Fighter) Group (formed 1 June 1940) with its headquarters at Rudloe Manor, Box in Wiltshire. This Group was responsible for the defence of Plymouth, the south-west ports, naval dockyard and Channel convoys. For actual operations (between July and October 1940)Exeter was controlled by the Filton (W) Sector, but in October this task was taken over by the sector operations room on the new airfield at Colerne.

Personnel of 87 and 213 Squadrons were billeted under canvas (87 Squadron in the grounds of Farringdon House). Squadron Leader (Sq/Ldr) Dewer was transferred from 87 Squadron to take overcommand of RAF Station Exeter from Sq/Ldr R.H.E Emson who then took command of the Gunnery Research Unit. On 19 August R.S Mills was posted from Grangemouth to command 87 Squadron.

First enemy aircraft destroyed

It was an 87 Squadron Hurricane which shot down the first enemy aircraft to be destroyed by the fighters from Exeter - a Me110 which had been escorting a force of Stukas over Portland on 11 July, and this was one of three brought down by the squadron that day. Defensive patrols against night bombers were also necessary at this time, and despite the unsuitability of the Hurricane for this purpose, something had to be done to catch the raiders. One of 87 Squadron’s flights was therefore regularly outbased at Hullavington to the east of Bristol in order to extend the night defences. The remaining strength of the squadron at Exeter was expected to play a full part in the defence of the south coast.

Largest air-raid in Britain

As the Battle of Britain built up to a crescendo, the fighter operations were stretched to their fullest extent. For Exeter a peak was reached on the morning of Sunday 11 August. 14 Hurricanes from 87 and 213 Squadrons were scrambled at 10.08hrs to help prevent another raid on Portland, which with its 70 bombers and 90 escorting fighters was the largest so far mounted against any target in Britain. In the dogfight, 87 Squadron claimed two Ju88’s and a Me109 destroyed, but in the melee both 87 and 213 lost two Hurricanes each and a total of three pilots. At midday on the following day 213 was sent to intercept another large raid on Portsmouth Dockyard and claimed two Ju88’s but lost two more of its aircraft (and pilots in the fighting).

The third successive day of heavy air attacks proved to be the vaunted “Adler Tag” (Eagle Day) and again the fighter aircraft from Exeter were needed further east for the defence of Portsmouth and Southampton. With more air combat taking place over Portsmouth, the Exeter fighters were able to claim three more raiders but each squadron lost another pilot in the process.
For Fighter Command as a whole, the heaviest single day proved to be the 15 August, and to prevent yet another raid on Portland, no less than 18 Hurricanes from Exeter were scrambled soon after 17.00hrs. The raid was successfully disrupted, but three more Exeter pilots were killed, two from 87 and one from 213, whilst two of 87’s aircraft had to force land near Weymouth.

Sunday 25 August was another hectic day and the Exeter squadrons joined others from Warmwell, Middle Wallop and Tangmere to counter another late afternoon raid on Portland. 87 Squadron claimed four enemy aircraft destroyed, but another three Hurricanes and their pilots were lost - one from 87 and two from 213.
enemy's full force against RAF airfields

Immediately after this the enemy turned its full force against RAF airfields in the 11 Group area, and this had the effect of relieving Exeter of much of the pressure it had been under. Accordingly on 7 September, 601 (County of London) Squadron was sent here to rest and recuperate after a hectic spell at Tangmere, and 213took its place when it transferred its operations to Sussex. On 12 September the station's Commanding Officer, Sq/Ldr J.S Dewer took-off for Tangmere, but he failed to arrive and as a result was reported as missing. Sq/Ldr R.S Millstook temporary command of the station.

During their “rest” period, 601 Squadron were involved in an engagement near Plymouth on 25 September 1940 and shot down two Me110s over Portland on 7 October, whilst on 12 December Flight Lieutenant Whitney Straight added a He111 to the score. Shortly afterwards 601 moved to Northolt and was replaced by another ex-Auxiliary Squadron 504, which flew from Exeter until the following July. On 18 July an Air Ministry Experimental Station formed at Sidmouth under Headquarters 60 Group with RAF Exeter as the parent station.

Barrage balloon scheme

The RAE meanwhile, between 16 July and 13 August, had been carrying out tests on an experimental 1000ft (304.8m) barrage balloon scheme to see whether it would be suitable for the protection of aerodrome buildings against low flying enemy aircraft. From the tests information was obtained on where the location of the barrage should be and how obstructive it would be to an active fighter station. Several 10ft (3.04m) diameter spherical "M" type balloons were attached to their own 18-swg piano wires (each with a breaking strength of 640lb {290.3kg} ) having a weak shear link (200-250lb {90.7-113.4kg} breaking strength) located 30ft (9.14m) from the winch. Other types under test included Brook, Cody and Cody Storm kites.

Pilots of 87 Squadron informed the RAE that the barrage was too low and should be nearer 4000ft (1219.2m) to be effective but of course this height was not suitable for an active fighter station. Another comment from the pilots was that while flying at some distance from the aerodrome, the balloons clearly showed the location of the aerodrome. Needless to say the project was abandoned.

An air-raid took place on 21 August when 4 bombs were dropped on the Army tents close to Treasbeare Farm which left 2 dead and 23 injured.

VIP visits during 1940 included, Marshal of the RAF Hugh Montague Trenchard on 31 August and HRH Duke of Kent on 10 October.

Runway construction

At this stage, the airfield had become rather like a large construction site with a start being made by John Laing & Son Ltd on the building of three hard surface runways which were joined together by a 50ft (45.7m)wide perimeter track:

  • NE/SW (Runway No. 1 & 4) 1000yds by 50yds (914.4m by 45.7m)
  • NW/SE (Runway No. 6 & 3) 1130yds by 50yds (1033.3m by 45.7m)
  • SW/NE (Runway No. 5 & 2) 1050yds by 50yds (960m by 45.7m)

At the same time a Bellman hangar was erected on the north-west side of the airfield and six dispersed single-engined fighter aircraft pens (two twin-engined fighter aircraft pens were added later to a dispersal area set aside on the west side for the Gunnery Research Unit). The other main dispersal area located in the north-east corner of the airfield also had six single-engined fighter aircraft pens but these were constructed around a semicircular dispersal loop track which required more land requisitioned from Treasbear Farm. Later in the war both dispersal areas also featured a number of Blister hangars and the usual hardstandings.

Air Service Training Ltd

In 1940, Air Service Training Ltd (a member of the Hawker Siddeley Group since its inception in 1934), became part of the Government sponsored Civilian Repair Organisation (CRO) - the major repair of aircraft by companies who were not engaged in aircraft production. The CRO had been set up by Lord Nuffield prior to the outbreak of war and administered by Morris Motors Ltd at Cowley, Oxford. In May 1940 the CRO came within the control of the new Ministry of Aircraft Production. Assigned to Spitfire repair under the Vickers Supermarine company at Woolston, AST carried out this work initially at their main works at Hamble and then set up a satellite unit based at Exeter Airport.

The company at first established their repair facility inside a Bellman hangar at the airport but also took over a number of motor garages, including Pike's of Alphington Street, in the city. Gradually the work increased and in due course two new A1 type hangars were specially constructed for the firm one of which was built on a new site on the north side of the main A30 road at Exeter Airport. By the end of the war, the AST had repaired many hundreds of Spitfires at Exeter, employing 80 civilian workers to turn out about five repaired Spitfires each week. A grand total of 3400 Spitfires were repaired at both Hamble and Exeter.

504 Squadron was principally engaged on monotonous convoy patrols but on 17 January 1941, intercepted and damaged a He111 bomber to the south of Start Point. Like 87 Squadron previously, 504 also flew a number of patrols at night. During the early months of 1941, it was heavily engaged in training, and on 4 February for example, the Hurricanes carried out air-to-ground firing practice on the ranges at Crichel Down. Another development at this time included the change over to VHF radio.

Whirlwinds commence operational service

Meanwhile, at the end of November 1940, 87 Squadron had departed to be re-deployed at Colerne near Bath for night fighter duties. In place of 87, came 263 Squadron equipped with a completely new twin-engined fighter type known as the Westland Whirlwind. After a long period of preparation and a series of technical troubles, the new Whirlwinds were now ready to commence their operational service, and were soon engaged in offensive sweeps across the Channel and searching for enemy “E” boats. To extend their range into the area of most interest around Brest, they frequently had to use St Eval, on the coast of north Cornwall, as an advanced base, where they were subsequently moved on 24 February.

In place of the Whirlwinds came 66 Squadron, which was being “rested” after a hard spell in the front line at Biggin Hill, and now became the first of many Spitfire squadrons to be based at Exeter. To extend their range from March onwards, both 66 and 504 Squadrons began to use the new fighter station at Portreath as an advanced base. This is situated on the Cornish cliffs a few miles from St Eval and the Exeter fighters also occasionally operated from Predannack (on the Lizard). The next enemy aircraft to be shot down, was a He111 encountered nearer home at Budleigh Salterton on 2 April, by a Hurricane of 504 flying from its home base.

Polish - 307 & 317 Squadrons

To strengthen the sector’s night defences, aircraft from 87 and 93 (Mutton) Squadrons were sent to Exeter forthwith, and from 27 April, when 66 Squadron moved to Perranporth, one of the day fighter squadrons was permanently replaced by a night fighter squadron. The first was a Polish manned unit - 307 Squadron from Colerne flying Defiants. From June onwards the Defiants had been supplemented with a detachment of Hurricanes from 247 Squadron and these black painted aircraft also patrolled at night, as well as flying “Intruders” over enemy airfields in France. In August they began to re-equip with the Bristol Beaufighter.

Meanwhile, to minimise the danger of damage to aircraft on the ground, arrangements were made to disperse as many fighters as possible to other airfields. During June for example, aircraft from 504 Squadron were parked out on occasions at Filton, Yeovilton or the new airfield at Churchstanton.

As the station’s sole day fighter unit, 504 Squadron was still primarily involved with convoy patrols. To save valuable time and extend the range of the fighters, a new landing ground was brought into use in May 1941 at Bolt Head, some 40 miles to the south-west and close to one of the most southerly points on the Devon Coast. Bolt Head consisted of little more than two grass strips, but in August a second fighter airfield for the Exeter Sector was also brought into use. This was Churchstanton, south of Taunton, and henceforth this “forward airfield” would house at least one day-fighter squadron of its own. Enemy aircraft had bombed Exeter Airport on the 3, 5, 12 and 14 April with the result that many aircraft were either destroyed or damaged. As a result of this and in anticipation of further attacks on Exeter, RAF Churchstanton was brought into use as soon as the station could be safely used. This happened on 9 June, before the station had officially been opened, when half of the squadron strength of 307 and 504 dispersed from Exeter. Thus the Defiants and Hurricanes of these two units became the first aircraft to make use of the new but incomplete airfield.

Major bombing raid on Brest

After a long stay over seven months, 504 squadron departed to Fairwood Common on 21 July 1941 and was replaced by another Polish Hurricane unit - 317 Squadron. One of its first missions was flown in connection with Operation Sunrise on 24 July. This was a major bombing raid on the enemy battleships now at Brest by a force of over a hundred Wellingtons, Hampdens and Boeing Fortresses and 317 teamed up over Predannack with their fellow Poles of 316 (from Colerne) to act as part of the escort force.

Convoy patrols continued to be a regular commitment but 317 increasingly took part in offensive sweeps across the Channel. On 4 September for example, in a typical operation, the Hurricanes used Warmwell as an advanced basewhen they formed a wing with the sector’s other day fighter squadron (316 at Churchstanton) they escorted six Blenheims making an attack on Cherbourg.

In October 1941, Harrowbeer, north of Plymouth, commenced to function as a second forward fighter base in the Exeter Sector, and initially housed the Spitfires of 130 Squadron. This was the point at which the Spitfire finally took over from the Hurricanes and in October both 316 at Churchstanton and 317 at Exeter re-equipped with the type. Many of the now redundant Hurricanes were flown to the Aircraft Storage Unit at Lichfield, Staffs to be packed and sent to the USSR.

With their new aircraft, 317 Squadron shot down two enemy aircraft on 8 November in a wing sweep to Lille (Circus 110), which was again flown with 316 Squadron, this time using Redhill as an advanced base. The Spitfires were constantly active but had an unusually tedious task at the end of November when they were ordered to maintain a constant defensive patrol over a large floating crane being towed down the Channel at a maximum speed of just four knots. Another success came on 6 December, when a Ju88 was shot down near the entrance to Plymouth Harbour and on the same day 317 despatched a Rhubarb to attack an alcohol distillery in northern France.

Because the enemy warships Scharnhorst and Gniesenau lying at Brest posed such a serious threat to the all-important convoys crossing the Atlantic, two large daylight bomber raids were specially mounted in December 1941. The first of these known as Operation Veracitytook place on 18 December, and four aircraft from 317 Squadron joined others from 302 (Harrowbeer) and 306 (Churchstanton) at Bolt Head to provide part of the fighter cover. No Spitfires were lost and 317 claimed two Me109s destroyed and two damaged, but the battleships remained largely unscathed.

After several postponements Veracity II was flown on 30 December, with the same negative result, and in a protracted dogfight on the way back one of 317’s Spitfires was lost, although several Me109s were also destroyed.

Air-raids cause extensive damage

Even at night, an enemy pilot’s view of the very distinctive outline of the large Exe estuary made it exceptionally easy for him to locate Exeter. In the course of April and May 1941, the airfield was subjected to no less than a dozen night attacks which left many of the buildings in ruins. In the first two raids, on the 3rd and 5th April, two Vickers Wellington aircraft of the GRU (L4252 and L4285) were destroyed and many of the resident aircraft were damaged, including Spitfires, Hurricanes (L2046 & Z2320), a Henley (L3247), a Wallace (K4244) and a Defiant (N1674).

On 5 April, Blue 1 and 2 Flights of 87 Squadron engaged the enemy bombers and the airfield ground defences opened fire but between 50 and 60 high explosive (HE) bombs were dropped which killed two personnel. On the nights of 12/13 and 16/17, air-raids caused extensive damage to buildings including hangars, huts, and the officers’ mess. Also damaged were more aircraft, including a Bristol Blenheim and a Whitley bomber. Smaller raids continued and when a Defiant crashed on the night of 4/5 May. The Luftwaffe took advantage of the lit flarepath and accordingly dropped HE and incendiaries. Craters were made on runways Nos 1 and 3 and the station fire tender crashed into one of the craters while attending to the Defiant. Anti-aircraft fire destroyed one bomber but three soldiers of the 70th Queen’s Royal Regiment were killed.

At 2335hrs on the night of 21 April an unidentified aircraft followed a Spitfire towards the aerodrome and proceeded to dive across the runways from NW to SW from a height of about 700ft. The enemy dropped incendiaries and HE bombs on the west side of the aerodrome with direct hits on a hut and a RASC petrol dump on the Honiton Road. EL1 fired five rounds while EL2 did not engage as when the aircraft was in range it was still not identified. There were no casualties. Nine days later another two Bofors guns became operational.

Direct hit on officers' mess

Another series of heavy raids between 8 to the 12 May, created a scene of near total devastation, but Exeter was never put out of action altogether and operations continued more or less as normal. At 00.20hrs on the night of 9/10 May for example, an aircraft flying approximately six miles from the airport was plotted as friendly. Soon after, an aircraft displaying a yellow light was heard to approach and begin to circle around the aerodrome at about 600ft (548.6m) but the station was under blackout and the flare path was not lit. After a short interval the sector ops room plotted this aircraft as unidentified and given the number K1. The aircraft meanwhile, continued to circle for 10 minutes and though constantly within range of more than one Bofors gun, it could not be positively identified.

Meanwhile, the sector ops room advised air traffic control that it had lost contact with a Beaufighter in the area. Still the runways remained in darkness and the aerodrome searchlights were also ordered not to operate. Finally the aircraft flying from the NE, flew at about 400ft (365.8m) and dropped four 500lb (226.8kg) bombs, seven 100lb (45.3kg) bombs and 40 to 50 incendiaries with a direct hit on the officers' mess and causing damage to buildings, an air-raid shelter, one hut and the sick quarters. The aircraft was then plotted as hostile No. 362. On the dropping of bombs the enemy was engaged by Bofors guns EL2, EL4 and EL5 (it was out of range for EL1), the gun crews later reported that flash from the guns made observation impossible after only two rounds had been fired. The enemy aircraft escaped unharmed.

Later during the same night at 03.49hrs a 604 Squadron Beaufighter shot down a 600 Squadron Beaufighter flying without recognition lights, both occupants bailed out and the aircraft crashed near Loddiswell.

On the night of 11/12 May an attack on the aerodrome took place by 12 enemy bombers flying between 800 to 1200ft (243.8 to 365.8m). The aerodrome Bofors guns engaged the enemy aircraft and rounds were fired.

Civilian hangar hit

At 03.20 on the same night another raid took place, this time the burning wreckage of a German aircraft was used by the enemy as a beacon. The large civilian hangar was hit, an airmen was killed, one soldier belonging to the Queen's Regiment and two gunners were also killed. The air defences were credited with three aircraft destroyed and one hit thought destroyed.

The Gunnery Research Unit had meanwhile, despite the loss and damage to its fleet suffered in the air-raids of April and May, persevered with its work. At this time experiments, included trials with, gun and turret equipment for Blenheims, Defiants and Hudsons. Also cannon trials with Spitfires and Hurricanes, while in May, a Havoc (BD126) arrived.

Parachute and Cable Scheme

Another project under development by the Exeter RAE staff, was the Parachute and Cable (PAC) Scheme Type "D" Mk II for aerodrome defence against low flying enemy aircraft. This essentially consisted of several rockets that arefired electrically into the path of an enemy aircraft. Each rocket lifting vertically from the ground, took a 480ft (146.3m) length of steel multi-wired cable armed with a 38in (0.96.5m) diameter parachute at each end. When the aircraft strikes the cable, the combined drag of the parachutes is sufficient to cause the pilot to loose control. This system was actually operational elsewhere and had been successfully used in anger atKenley during the Battle of Britain, but was under development at Exeter to raise the ceiling height of the rocket to above 700ft (213.3m).

Exeter had already become a sector station with its first operations room located within the main camp until 20 April 1941 when it moved to “Brockhill House”, Broad Clyst.

First WAAFs arrive

The first WAAFs began to arrive on 27 July and as there was no where to accommodate them on the station they were placed in hostels which in the form of requisitioned properties. These included “The Old House”, Nos. 1 and 4 “Playmore Villas”, “Pinhoe” and “Clystford” (SX 9967 9461). Some of these were actually unsuitable and even suffered from rat infestation!
During June 1941, a detachment of the RAF Airfield Construction Service carried out repairs to the grass surface by filling bomb craters with rubble from blitzed houses in Exeter. Another task was the repair of the large civilian hangar (used by the RAE), this involved borrowing heavy jacks from the GWR station at Exeter to support the roof while twisted stanchions were cut out and new sections bolted in place.

Camouflaging of the runways

On 30 July camouflaging of the runways took place. Black irregular lines to give the impression of hedges formed the main theme and black patches along the edge of runways were designed to break up the straight lines.
By August 1941, Exeter controlled the airfields at Bolthead, Churchstanton, Charlton Horethorn, Harrowbeer and the Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) stations at Exminster and Wrafton.

For the first two months of 1942 the enemy battleships continued to occupy the attention of the RAF and on the 10 February, 317 escorted another bomber force to Brest, this time consisting of the Wellingtons of 311 and 419 Squadrons.
A terrible surprise occurred when both ships escaped up the Channel in bad weather on 12 February. This was despite 317 Squadron being sent to Bolt Head to stand-by in anticipation of such an event happening. Even before they had been discovered, the enemy naval force had passed far out of range of the Devon airfields.

Tragedy for 317 Squadron

Tragedy overtook 317 Squadron on 15 March 1942 when 12 Spitfires were returning to Exeter in low visibility and could not locate the airfield. Only two aircraft eventually landed successfully and the other ten all crashed, resulting in the death of the Commanding Officer and injuries to three others. Despite this setback, the squadron was quickly re-equipped and posted to Northolt at the end of the month, being relieved at Exeter by another Polish unit - 308 Squadron.

Meanwhile 307 Squadron had not found many opportunities for action since converting to Beaufighters the previous autumn, although during November 1941 it had accounted for two raiders destroyed and one “probable”. Then in April 1942 came the start of the notorious Baedeker raids on cathedral cities such as Exeter, Norwich and York. The squadron embarked on one of active periods of its career attack. On the night of the 23rd some 40 aircraft, Do217s of KG 2, Ju88s of Kampfgruppe 106 and a few He111s of 1/KG 100 targeted Exeter. Fortunately due to cloud cover, only one aircraft managed to bomb the city with the result that just five civilians were killed. However, on the following night the sky was clear and 25 bombers took part in a two-wave, low-altitude bombing run with the result that 73 people lost their lives. No. 307 Squadron claimed five raiders destroyed on the night of 3 May, but on this particular night, Exeter suffered its third and heaviest attack.

To further strengthen the night defences at this time a temporary detachment of Turbinlite searchlight Havocs arrive, together with an associated flight of Hurricanes from 87 Squadron, but although they succeeded in making several contacts, none were conclusive. For almost a year, 247 Squadron at Predannack had maintained a night flying Hurricane detachment here and on 17 May the squadron finally moved its headquarters to Exeter. As well as flying defensive patrols this unit also flew Intruders to enemy airfields such as Lannion, Rennes and Morlaix and night Roadsteads to fire on enemy shipping. This was achieved by using long-range fuel tanks to extend their range into France.

During May and June 1942, the three Polish day fighter squadrons which made up the Exeter Wing, moved away and their place was taken by three Czech squadrons - 310 at Exeter, 312 at Harrowbeer and 313 at Churchstanton. As before, they used Bolt Head as an advanced base for convoy patrols and their regular cross Channel shipping reconnaissance sorties, but they were now more than ever engaged in flying offensive sweeps from airfields in 11 Group. In early July they stood by for several days at Redhill for a major operation which was eventually postponed, and 421 Squadron flew in from Fairwood Common to cover during their absence. Then, in August, the postponed operation was rearranged and turned out to be a large raid on Dieppe.

It was at this time that the USAAF commenced bomber operations from Britain, usually with the RAF providing a fighter escort. Accordingly, on 9 October, the new Exeter Wing operated from Debden in Essex on “Circus 224” and flew a diversionary sweep off the Dutch coast while the B17s bombed Lille. Back in the West Country on 21 October, the Exeter Wing acted as a Rear Support Wing for a B17 raid on Lorient.

The first Typhoons arrive

Meanwhile, in September 1942 the station’s first Typhoons had arrived when 257 Squadron flew in to give Exeter a second day fighter unit. Its purpose was to catch the growing number of “tip and run” raiders that were becoming a regular nuisance along the south coast. The Typhoons’ first victim a Ju88, was shot down on 28 September, but it was the high speed fighters that they were really after. Sure enough, on 4 November, when four Fw190s streaked across the Devon coast and dropped their bombs on Teignmouth (their version of a Rhubarb) but, were caught by the Typhoons who shot two of them down before they too flew Rhubarbs over France.

A further sign of the new USAAF presence came on 21 October when the twin tailed P38 Lightnings of the 48th and 49th Fighter Squadrons assembled at Exeter for a practice sweep. The operational training flight was flown (with RAF guidance) prior to leaving for North Africa.

For the Torch invasion in early November 1942, a very large force of RAF and USAAF aircraft was flown to Gibraltar from bases in Devon and Cornwall, and Exeter had the task of despatching the 23 Hudsons of 608 Squadron between 5 and 9 of the month.

Meanwhile, another aircraft type to appear was the North American Mustang, with which “A” Flight of 16 Squadron (RAF) spent four weeks here on shipping reconnaissance duties during November and December. New night fighters were now coming into service and in December 1942, 307 Squadron began to re-equip with de Havilland Mosquitos. Conversion took a long time, but they eventually flew their first operation on 15 April. By then enemy activity had become very infrequent and after training for “Intruder” and “Ranger” duties, the Mosquitos were transferred to Fairwood Common in April and replaced by more Beaufighters, this time in the hands of 125 Squadron.

Barrage Balloons & Bomphoons

At dusk on 11 May, the Exeter Balloon Barrage became operational some four miles from the aerodrome and pilots were duly warned about its location, a roughly circular area with a diameter of about two miles. One Typhoon squadron was replaced by another (266) in January 1943 and this unit stayed at Exeter for over nine months. Operations turned steadily away from high speed defensive patrols, in the early part of the year, to offensive duties later, in which they escorted both “Bomphoons”, unofficial name for a Typhoon carrying bombs, and medium bomber aircraft while flying Roadstead anti-shipping sweeps. The Air Ministry had intended at this time to open up another new fighter airfield in Devon at Winkleigh, probably in the neighbouring Portreath Sector, but the greatly reduced amount of enemy activity meant that this could no longer be justified. For the time being therefore, it remained unused by operational units.

Aircraft diversions

Because of its easily found location, Exeter inevitably attracted a number of aircraft diversions, and on several occasions these included RAF bombers. Typical examples were Stirling BK507 of 199 Squadron which landed here on returning from a raid on Mannheim on 7 December 1942 and two Avro Lancasters of 44 Squadron which were diverted here when on the way back from Turin on 13 July 1943.

The Czech Spitfires meanwhile, kept up their own offensive over France and were increasingly engaged in bomber escort duties. On 6 March for example, they provided medium cover for a diversionary B17 raid on Brest, whilst on 3 May they escorted six Whirlwinds of 263 Squadron on an armed shipping reconnaissance sweep off Guernsey and the Ile du Batz. The following day they went to Tangmere for “Circus 294” and flew with 12 Venturas of 464 Squadron to bomb the marshalling yd at Abbeville.

Fleet Air Arm Fairey Swordfish

A detachment of Fairey Swordfish of 834 Squadron, Fleet Air Arm, inaugurated a naval presence at Exeter in February 1943. These venerable looking biplanes, were later relieved by othersfrom 816 Squadron and then by Albacores of 841, carried out “Crossover” patrols in the Channel searching for enemy “E” boats. For these occasions they were armed with 250lb bombs. Another development in May 1943 was the arrival of the first several detachments of pressurised Spitfire VIIs of 124 Squadron, which were sent here following the recent appearance of very high altitude enemy photo reconnaissance aircraft over south-west England. The first high altitude success was achieved on 14 May when one of two Fw190 “bandits” was shot down over Start Point.

A very successful night interception was made on 13 June by 125 Squadron during a raid on Plymouth when the Beaufighters claimed a total of four raiders destroyed plus one probable. This was quite exceptional night however, and the squadron had only one more engagement during the rest of the year.

Transferred Czechs

After a long stay, the Czechs were finally transferred to Scotland with the result that no less than 14 Harrows arrived at Exeter on 26 June to transport 310 Squadron to Castletown, near Wick. They left their Spitfires behind to be taken over by 131 Squadron, which was transferred down from Castletown to relieve them. 131 continued the programme of sweeps and bomber escorts and was later briefly joined by a similar unit - 165 Squadron - which shot down two Fw190s whilst operating from Bolt Head on 30 July. Both units escorted eight Whirlwinds of 263 Squadron on “Circus 409” on 3 August, when the target was Brest/Guipavas airfield, but only a few days later they were posted away to Kenley. From 20 August, the runways were closed for a short time so that re-surfacing work could be carried out on the main runway intersections.

In September, the Typhoons of 266 moved to Harrowbeer, whereupon day fighter duties were taken up by the newly arrived 616 Squadron. Whilst at Exeter this unit replaced its Spitfire VIs with the much improved VII, which was similarly pressurised for high altitude interceptions. These were no longer required however, so like most Spitfire squadrons at this time, 616 Squadron was mainly engaged in bomber escort duties. On 22 December for example, it acted as top cover for a force of North American Mitchells making another raid on Brest/Guipavas (10 Group Ramrod 83). The squadron also made use of other stations such as Fordin Sussex (in 11 Group) as advanced bases for Ramrods over the eastern part of the Channel.supply

Top secret supply dropping to the French Resistance was stepped up during 1943 and it was quite a surprise when, on one occasion, no less than nine Halifaxes from Tempsford were diverted here on their return.

Preparation for invasion

During the latter months of 1943 a huge build up of landing craft, troops and equipment began to take place in south Devon in preparation for the invasion, and Exeter was provisionally earmarked to house a USAAF fighter wing transferred to England from North Africa. This did not happen, but with the growing number of military targets in the West Country, it was more than ever important for Fighter Command to keep up its defences. In November the Beaufighters of 406 Squadron arrived to replace those of 125 and during the same period, 610 Squadron also moved in from Fairwood Common to re-equip with the new Spitfire XIV. The first of these powerful Griffon engined aircraft (40 mph faster than the familiar Mk IX) arrived in January 1944 and after a lengthy training period at Exeter, this unit transferred in April to “Culmhead” as the former Churchstanton was known.

In the background, meanwhile, the GRU continued in its use of a mixed fleet of aircraft for trials purposes and work in hand during 1943 included the testing of the “Tsetse” (Mosquito) Molins Machine Company 57mm nose cannon and the new Mk IIc gyro gun sight. An important part of the work carried out by this unit (during 1943) was a comprehensive system of trials on the Mk IIc gyro gun sight used with bomber aircraft gun turrets. As a result of these trials it was found that this type of sight could be used during daylight with exceptional accuracy against all types of attack from enemy fighters. The sight was found to be the complete answer to gunnery problems associated with bomber aircraft and if a reasonable standard of training could be achieved, adequately armed bombers would be perfectly capable of defending themselves against fighters during daylight operations.

Exeter becomes USAAF Station

By the spring of 1944, it had been decided to use Exeter as a temporary American station to provide an aerodrome for the transportation to France of the US airborne troops stationed in Devon. On 13 April the Beaufighters were therefore, re-deployed to the little used airfield at Winkleigh, whilst the GRU joined other fighter research units at Collyweston.
Exeter became USAAF Station 463 and flying in from Bottesford came no less than 80 C47 Dakotas of the 440th Troop Carrier Group. For much of the next six months Exeter was busier than ever before, as khaki suited American personnel took over from the familiar RAF airmen. It was at this time that work began along the north perimeter track on the construction of “Loop” type hard standings built to provide marshalling areas for the Dakotas.

The invasion began

The first task for the troop carriers was to complete their working up, and training during April and May 1944 took the form of several large airborne-forces exercises. On the 5 June all out-living personnel were called into camp, all passes stopped and civilian telephone communications were cut. Finally therefore, after several weeks of preparation, the invasion began on 6 June 1944 and in the early hours of that day the 440th despatched 47 Dakotas, each carrying paratroops of the 101st Airborne Division and dropped them near Carentan on the Cotentin peninsular.

Three Dakotas failed to return. After 12.00hrs living out personnel were permitted to return home and normal evening passes were resumed. The next day the Dakotas flew back to France to drop supplies. They did an excellent job and were duly awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation. Casualty evacuation and conventional transport duties then followed between England and the newly opened airstrips in northern France, but in July most of the Group was detached to Italy to take part in the invasion of southern France. The remaining Dakotas were meanwhile, sent to Ramsbury and stayed active on more normal and unglamorous transport duties.

End of the American period

With the return of the detachment from Italy in August, preparations began for further operations in northern Europe and the aircraft and crews moved to Fulbeck the following month for the airborne assault on Holland meanwhile, the headquarters was transferred direct to Rheims. Subsequently, the Dakotas made a brief return to Exeter on 22 September, but they only stayed a week before they left for their new base on the Continent at Le Mans. Quite suddenly, Exeter’s frantic American period was over, and the local scene became unusually quite. On 19 September, Exeter took over the recently vacated USAAF hospital at Hay House as a combined RAF/WAAF hospital.

From October 1944 Exeter was used mainly by the Anti-Aircraft Co-operation aircraft of 286 Squadron, and the air sea rescue Spitfires and Supermarine Walruses of 275 Squadron.

Last operational resident

The airfield was closed for runway repairs on 30 October 1944, while on 1 November the Pundit light was switched on for the first time. The last operational resident to be based here was 26 Squadron, whose Mustangs and Spitfires were engaged in “shooting” practice with French navel vessels at the end of the year, but they only stayed until 14 January. Ironically, the day before their departure the resources of the station had been stretched to the limit when 31 Lancasters were diverted here whist en-route to their bases in Bomber Command.

The number of bicycles reached a peak of 700 during 1942, but in 1944, a spate of bicycle thefts took place with the result that all station bikes were painted yellow except for the crossbar which was painted red, white and blue.

Exeter ceased as operational RAF station

For the last four months of war, Exeter ceased to be an operational RAF station but was taken over, within 23 Group, to house a RAF glider training school which arrived from Stoke Orchard between 16-22 January. From St Eval came a detachedair-sea rescue unit (282 Squadron) which remained in residence for a short while with its Walruses, Sea Otters and Warwicks. This unit was responsible for the western end of the English Channel flying either from Exeter or from the advanced base at St. Eval. No.3 GliderTraining School running Army glider pilot's conversion courses used Culmhead as a satellite. The unit had a large fleet of over 70 tugs and a similar number of gliders. The principal tugs and gliders were Miles Masters and Hotspurs but the unit also had a small number of Armstrong Whitworth Albemarles and Airspeed Horsa gliders.

Glider pilots for the Far East

In the final weeks before VE Day, only a few replacements were required in the European theatre, but Exeter’s final contribution to the war effort was to turn out a large number of newly trained glider pilots for the final campaigns against the Japanese in the Far East.

On 15 April 1945, the Colerne and Portreath Sectors amalgamated with Exeter, when the operations rooms at these two airfields closed down. Exeter then took control of a number of stations (see Appendix 10). The next day (16 April) a colour photograph of the official station badge was presented by the AOC HQ 23 Group to the station. The badge consists of a triangular castle with three towers (from the Arms of Exeter) and two winged arrows – one white and the other black representing day and night operations. The motto translated is: From Everlasting Watchfulness (Comes) Strength.
Within weeks of the end of hostilities the glider training school was transferred away, and the air-sea rescue squadron disbanded, enabling Exeter to be transferred back to Fighter Command in July 1945. 10 Group had disbanded on 2 May 1945 and therefore, Exeter was now part of 11 (Fighter) Group with its headquarters at Uxbridge.

Weston Sector Headquarters

The Free French Spitfires of 329 Squadron arrived in August and kept up their training here during their last few weeks before the pilots went home to France to become part of the Armee de l’ Air in November. Also at Exeter at this time were the target tugs and practice aircraft of 691 Squadron, equipped with a mixed fleet of Vengences, Spitfire XVIs, Martinets, Oxfords and Harvards, they stayed here until the following April. Exeter Airport became Weston Sector Headquarters on 1 October.
Exeter’s first jet fighters

A new and unfamiliar noise in the circuit heralded the arrival of Exeter’s first jet fighters in December 1945, when the newly equipped 222 Squadron arrived with Gloster Meteor 3s. The Mosquito night fighters of 151 Squadron joined 222 at Exeter during April 1946.

RAF Exeter closes

The officers' mess at Farringdon House closed down on 30 September and the officers transferred over to RAF Exeter.

On 4 February 1946 WAAFs vacated their accommodation at Park Farm (Nissen Creek) and moved into Deer Copse. The inevitable rundown of forces was also well under way during 1946, and at quite short notice it was decided to finally close down the Exeter Sector and transfer the squadrons to Weston Zoyland. This duly happened on 1 July 1946 when Weston Sector disbanded although the sector operations block continued to operate until 10 July when it finally closed and within a few weeks “RAF Exeter” was no more.

Acknowledgements

Much of the information above came from an "Historical Report" commissioned by Devon County Council and East Devon District Council.

The survey was compiled by Paul Francis, an acknowledged expert on the subject of airfield architecture and leading member of the Airfield Research Group which seeks to research and record aviation buildings.

The main part of the research for this report was undertaken at The Public Records Office at Kew.

Denis Corley of the Airfield Research Group assisted with operational history of RAF Exeter and Colin Dobinson advised on aspects of airfield defence.

Other contributors include:

Barry Abraham - Airfield Research Group

Peter Berry - Airfield Research Group

Jerry Bird - Airfield Operations, Exeter Airport

Bob Cook - Civil Aviation Library, Gatwick

Ken Elliott - Devon County Council

Aldon Ferguson - Airfield Research Group

Bill Horner - Devon County Council

Carol Jackson - Devon County Council

Jeremy Lake - English Heritage

Mr Northcott - Park Farm

Mr Pile - Treasbear Farm

Julian Temple - Brooklands Museum

Historic Environment - Local Management (HELM) by English Heritage has futher reading and information about military aircraft crash sites which are an important part of Britain’s military and aviation heritage.