This article attempts to chart all active Royal Air Force airfields on the continent, from D-Day (June 6th, 1944) to the end of hostilities in Europe. It is my ambition to provide as comprehensive list as possible, sorting out the locations, terminology and geography. I’m aware that a work of this kind can always be improved. Therefore, I will be grateful for any additional input regarding these airfields, particularly the period of use and units stationed on each field. – Ed.
airfield, somewhere in the Netherlands.
[Library and Archives Canada]
When the Allies invaded Normandy on the 6th of June 1944, engineers of RAF Airfield Construction Service were among those in the initial assault waves. Their mission was to rapidly construct forward operating airfields, known as Advanced Landing Grounds (ALGs), on the continent, so that fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons could be moved ashore as quickly as possible.
Although no less than 23 Advanced Landing Grounds were constructed in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire prior to the landings to shorten flying time to and from the landing zones, lessons learned in Italy showed that only operating form airfields located directly within the bridgehead could provide effective tactical air support for troops on the ground.
In all, five airfield construction wings were landed in Normandy, establishing some 20 airfields in the British landing zone, and then following the Army into the continent. As it was desirable for the tactical forces to be based within the radius of one hundred miles from the frontline, No. 5357 Wing ACS was dedicated for direct cooperation with the frontline forces, building and repairing airfields for the fighter and fighter bomber squadrons as they advanced. Later in the campaign, the frontline could advance dozens of miles in a single day, and the Wing had done a tremendous job establishing dozens of airfields in France and the Low Countries and Germany.
The other four ACS wings undertook wider ranging programmes of airfield repair and construction work in support RAF operations. By September 1944, total strength of Airfield Construction Service in Europe counted over 20,000 men. A total of 76 airfields had been constructed by this time.
The stabilization of the front lines in Holland and Belgium in mid-September 1944 provided the ACS units with a much needed respite. This was not to last long. Air operations were required to continue during through autumn and winter which brought the need to keep the airfields suitable for operations in bad weather. Many of the fields had to be rebuilt with stronger surface materials. All this work allowed to keep the 2nd Tactical Air Force going. Another temporary crisis came with the thaw in early February 1945, which again made many airfields inoperable due to the mud and water.
The standard length of the runway was 5000 feet.
Airfield designation system
The large number of airfields and the mobility of the campaign necessitated the use of coded numbers for identification. Thus the British airfields were consecutively numbered with a B-prefix, from B.1 to B.174.
American airfields were given A-, Y-, or R-, prefixes and numbered consecutively from 1 to 99.
Unlike the more or less permanent air stations built in the United Kingdom, many airfields in mainland Europe were classified as landing grounds. Technically, the term “landing ground” signified a landing area without an all-weather runway and with incomplete facilities . When facilities were completed or an all weather runway was constructed, the landing area was to be called an “airfield”. It was common practice, however, for the generic term “airfield” to be used regardless of the technical status of the landing area.
Materials and technology
The surfacing material selected for the building of landing grounds during the first weeks after the Normandy invasion was known as square-mesh track (SMT). SMT was composed of heavy wire joined in three-inch squares and was basically designed for single-engined aircraft and fair weather conditions. It was chosen over other surfacing materials because it was very lightweight, allowing sufficient quantities to be transported across the English channel on landing craft even prior to the construction of the Mulberry harbour.
After the initial batch of airfields, engineering units switched almost exclusively to other surfacing materials, such as prefabricated Hessian (burlap) surfacing (PHS or PBS) or pierced steel plank (PSP). PHS was an asphalt-impregnated jute mat delivered in rolls. Its chief advantage over the SMT was that it helped keeping the paved surface mud- and dust-free.
Pierced steel plank was even better, with built-in structural strength sufficient for all-weather airfields suitable for medium bomber operations. Unfortunately, PSP was available in rather limited quantities, and its greater weight made long road transports impractical.
The priorities for the use of PSP changed markedly during the winter of 1944-1945. With the arrival of the wet winter season in the Low Countries it was found that PHS and SMT strips simply sank into the moist ground. PSP became then the only surfacing material that could withstand local weather conditions. Many selected airfields in Belgium and France were subsequently covered with PSP.
The vital construction time was also depending on the material. An SMT-paved fighter-bomber airfield could usually be constructed in about one week. A similar PHS field would require double that time, while construction of a PSP field could take up to a month.
Whenever possible, captured German airfields were cleared of mines and craters, repaired and incorporated into the system. Not surprisingly, it was found that German airfields could be rehabilitated and made operational sooner than new airfields, so their reuse became the preferred method particularly as the Allied forces entered Germany, where permanent Luftwaffe bases were available.
This article provides a short Guide to the airfields used by the Royal Air Force on the continent during World War II in Europe.