Stansted -The Early Years (1942 -1966)
Text of BAA Stansted publication
Reproduced by kind permission of BAA Stansted
EARLY IN 1942, an historic decision was made by the British war-time government and American military officials to build a United States Army Air Force base on a plateau close to the village of Stansted Mountfitchet in Essex.
The first American unit, the 817th Aviation Engineering Battalion, arrived at Renfrew Farm on 8th August 1942. They were met by Mr. Grossman, the manager of the farm owned by a Jewish community in London’s East End. The battalion’s role was to begin the conversion of the typical English green fields into a huge military airfield. They would have been unaware, at that time, that over fifty years later their early efforts would culminate in the establishment of the third airport for London, with one of the world’s most state-of-the-art terminal buildings.
The 817th Battalion left Stansted in November 1942 and their work was continued by the 825th Aviation Battalion who had arrived at the Essex site in October. The 825th completed the airfield roads, as well as the control tower, fire station and motor transport section, before leaving in December 1943.
Work on the runways and taxiways began in May 1943 with the arrival of the 850th Aviation Engineering Battalion who remained at Stansted until April 1944.
By October 1943 Stansted had become the largest 9th USAAF base in East Anglia covering 3,000 acres, designated AAF Station No 169, and equipped with a main runway 6,000ft x 1 SOft and two subsidiary runways, each 4,2001t x 150ft.
In February 1944, the 344th Bombardment Group, squadrons 494,495, 496, and 497 moved in and flew their first operational mission on 6th March 1944. In September 1944, the Group moved to France.
Stansted also became an important maintenance base for aircraft of the 8th and 9th Air Forces operating from bases throughout East Anglia.
Following the end of the European War, Stansted was used as a ‘Rest & Rehabilitation’ centre for American troops including the famous 82nd and 100th Airborne Units, on their way home to the USA.
The USAAF withdrew from Stansted in August 1945 and the airfield was handed over to the Royal Air Force Maintenance Unit No 263 on 31st December.
Nearly 100 USAAF units were stationed at Stansted. Representatives of one of these, the 30th Depot Repair Squadron Association presented Stansted with a bronze memorial plaque to commemorate their stay from 17th August 1943 to 5th October 1944.The 344th Bomb Group Association also presented a memorial plaque, during the airport’s 50th Anniversary event in 1992.
Life in the UK
THE SEA JOURNEY from the United States took around twelve days and nights. The vessels used were often Liberty Ships able to carry about two thousand men. Ports of arrival were usually Gourock in Scotland, or Liverpool.
The Americans were always pleased to be back on dry land after crossing the Atlantic Ocean but they then had to endure long train journeys to Bishop’s Stortford Station, before boarding trucks for the final journey to Stansted.
Their personal recollections recall the strange experience of travelling at night, through towns darkened by the war time ‘black-out’. They soon realised that ‘The War’ was very close to British people with nearly every other man in uniform and many women working in jobs previously done by the men. The visible evidence of German bombing also gave the Americans their first experience of the reality of war.
People in the Stansted area soon developed friendships with the ‘Yanks’ after their arrival in the summer of 1942.
The Yanks quickly grew fond of the many hospitable pubs in and around Stansted and Bishop’s Stortford. The Ash at Burton End and Stansted’s Dog & Duck, still look today very similar to their traditional appearance of fifty years ago, despite some modernisation over the period.
The Barley Mow in Stansted is now a private house, while in Bishop’s Stortford, only the Nags Head survives, The Reindeer and Grapes pubs having long since made way for more shops.
Saturday night dances in Long’s Ballroom, Bishop’s Stortford were very popular despite the occasional ‘friendly punch-ups’. Long’s remained an important centre for social activities for many years after the war, until it too was demolished in 1988 to make room for a modern shopping arcade.
Another popular venue, situated in the Causeway Bishop’s Stortford, opened in 1943.This was a special hostel and canteen for American servicemen. The club had accommodation for 300 ‘residents’ together with large lounges, a reading-room, dining-room, barber’s shop, tailor’s shop and shower rooms.
A local paper of that period reported that The Lord Lieutenant of Essex received from the Commanding Officers of various American Units stationed in the county the most remarkable tributes to the kindness of the people of Essex at Christmas time 1943.
A typical extract, quoted from a letter by a Brigadier General stated: “The County of Essex has been most kind to us throughout our stay. We have all made many good friends here, whom we will remember with pleasure in many years to come.”
The hospitality was reciprocated by the Americans in many ways, including a special War Orphans Fund, organised by the “Stars & Stripes” newspaper and, as a result, the 344th Engineering Battalion adopted a local nine year-old orphan, whose parents had been killed in an air raid. Life in the UK for some Americans during the war years was no picnic. Some of their impressions are vividly described in the poem “England 1944” written by an unknown ‘Yank in England’. The poem is reproduced below.
THE 344th Bombardment Group’s first mission from Stansted took place on March 6th 1944 when 37 Marauders pressed home an attack against targets at Conches, in France.
During one of the early missions the Group suffered its first major accident. Two Marauders of 494 Squadron collided in mid-air as they emerged from the clouds. Both planes plummeted to earth carrying all twelve crew members to their deaths.
Despite this tragedy, the rest of the crews proceeded to their target, Soesterberg, Holland and braving intense anti aircraft fire succeeded in dropping hundreds of bombs on the target with good results. Fourteen of the 52 Marauders that reached the target were damaged by enemy ‘flak’ but there were no further losses to crews or aircraft.
D-Day, 6th June 1944 was a memorable day for the 344th Bombardment Group when they had the honour of leading the 9th USAAF into action against beach defences, prior to landing-craft assaults by the Allied Ground Forces as part of Operation Overlord.
Fifty-six Marauders took off from Stansted shortly after 04.00 hrs on that historic day. The Group flew in three formations across the English Channel and dropped many hundreds of bombs on heavy coastal gun batteries situated on the Cherbourg Peninsular and nearby Normandy invasion beaches.
During the summer of 1944 the 344th Bombardment Group continued their support of the allied invasion, and moved their base from Stansted to France in September to be nearer the centre of operations.
They received a Distinguished Unit Citation for three days of action on 24th, 25th and 26th of July 1944.
The ‘Silver Streaks’ carried out 266 missions and dropped a total of some 7,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets during their offensive operations in Europe.
THE SQUADRONS of the 344th were equipped with Martin B26 Marauder twin-engined bombers.
The B26 was considered to be one of the sleekest shaped aircraft to see action in the Second World War.
During its early flights, the medium type bomber gained plenty of notoriety due to its poor climb performance, fast landing speed and practically non-existent single-engine capability.
The aircraft became known as “The Widow Maker” due to the plane’s alarmingly high accident rate. Design and training improvements however proved successful and the Marauder found its niche operating against targets in Europe from Stansted and other East Anglian airfields. Consequently, the Marauder survived its earlier reputation and became one of the most successful allied bombers with combat losses of less than one-half of one percent during the European campaign.
OPERATION OVERLORD, the invasion of Europe was the greatest single military operation of the war.
It was mounted by the largest military assault force
ever prepared in recorded history and was planned in absolute secrecy.
The 9th Air Force was equipped with more than 1,100 bombers, some 3,000 troop-carrier aircraft and gliders and over 200,000 personnel and, numerically had become the strongest air force in the world, averaging in good flying weather as many as 2,000 sorties a day.
Stansted was home to the 344th Bombardment Group, the 322nd were at Great Saling, the 323rd at Earls Colne, the 386th were at Boxted and Great Dunmow, and the 387th were based at Ongar.
The Essex bombardment groups played a major part in the pre-invasion air offensive in the early months of 1944, “softening up” installations to pave the way for the forthcoming invasion.
By May 1944, highly accurate pinpoint bombing raids were carried out daily against targets that included all types of enemy transport, communication lines such as railway marshalling yards, roads, canals and rivers connecting and supplying the Nazi anti-invasion coastal defences in addition to airfields, gun positions, ammunition storage dumps and V-l flying bomb installations.
The raids were carefully planned so as not to reveal the exact location of the invasion beaches and to confuse the enemy about the actual intentions of the Allied forces.
As the invasion date came closer, the Essex based bombers began the systematic destruction of all major railway and road bridges crossing the Seine from Paris to the English Channel and at the same time carried out difficult precision bombing attacks against the large anti-invasion gun and infantry positions on the French coast.
Just a few hours before the cross-Channel invasion was due to commence, the bombardment groups received special orders to paint black and white stripes around the wings and fuselages of all aircraft to help with recognition by Allied forces.
ON D-DAY, Stansted’s ‘Silver Streaks’ led the formations of Marauder bombers to attack the coastal defences on the beaches selected for the troop landings.
The nickname ‘The Silver Streaks’ for the 344th Group resulted after the Marauder crews had stripped their aircraft of the camouflage paint leaving a natural aluminum finish.
The camouflage was considered no longer necessary as raids over East Anglian airfields were virtually non-existent.
‘The Silver Streaks’ had a reputation for accurate bombing which was vital as their D-Day sorties were timed to take place just a few minutes before the first troops hit the beaches.
The crews had been briefed to make their attacking runs at 5,000 feet or even 1,000 feet if necessary to get under the low cloud over their targets.
The low level runs were essential to provide the accuracy on which perhaps thousands of lives of the invading troops would depend.
Normally they were briefed to bomb targets above 10,000 feet so the low level briefing included a warning of possible heavy casualties.
However, only two of the 450 Marauders used in the attack failed to return.
250-pounder bombs were used instead of the 2,000-pounders normally carried by the Marauders, to avoid creating crater obstacles for the Allied tanks.
The bombing run along the invasion beaches only lasted about 15 seconds, then the Marauder Groups had to make a wide detour across the Cherbourg Peninsular for their return to England.
The detour was necessary following an instruction to the Marauder pilots to “Get the hell out of there” because over fifteen hundred Flying Fortresses were timed to blast defences behind the beaches just five minutes later.
After safely landing back at Stansted, at the end of the historic mission, all of ‘The Silver Streak’ combat crews were proud to have been part of the D-Day spearhead.
Following the D-Day landings the German air and ground commanders almost unanimously agreed that the 9th Air Force missions were a decisive factor in the success of Operation Overlord.
Herman Goering was quoted as saying: “The Allies owe the success of the invasion to their air forces. They prepared the invasion; they made it possible; they carried it through.”
All the Allied senior officers were delighted with the success of the air missions and as the Essex based American bombers continued their attacks on Nazi forces, the Commanding General of the 9th Air Force issued the following message of commendation on 8th June 1944:
feel it a distinct personal privilege to be your Commander and to congratulate
each officer and every man of this air force on magnificent, individual
and collective efforts in preparation for this battle.
The First Airlines
BY EARLY 1946 all flying at Stansted had ceased and the hangars on the airfield were used to store war surplus equipment from other closed airfields in East Anglia, with German prisoners of war assisting with equipment handling.
However, although it was still under the control of the Royal Air Force, some time in December 1946 London Aero Motor Services (LAMS) moved to Stansted and were described by the local newspaper as “Squatters with 17 Bombers”.
LAMS was set up by a Dr Graham Humby, owner of Grosvenor Square Garages. It operated from Stansted with six brand new Handley Page Halton aircraft, which were surplus Halifax bombers converted for civilian use.
Originally LAMS leased Elstree airfield, but the grass runway there proved to be impractical and in December 1946 a couple of LAMS aircraft were sent on a reconnaissance of closed airfields to find a suitable replacement.
As a result Captain Dennis Leach made the first civilian flight at Stansted when he landed to check it out, despite the fact the airfield was closed! Mr. Leach still lives in the Stansted area.
On 23rd April 1947 LAMS commenced its world-wide tramping service when Halton G-AIWT left Stansted for New Zealand. It returned six weeks later with seven tons of dripping - a gift from Australia to the rationed “poms”**.
It would appear that, although LAMS was already flying from Stansted, negotiations with the Ministry of Civil Aviation were very protracted and it was not until the day G-AIWT returned — Thursday 5th June 1947 — that Stansted officially opened as a civilian airport.
1947 also saw the start up of Kearsley Airways, with a Percival Procter and three Douglas DC3s. These aircraft were very busy flying passengers and cargo from Stansted to all over the world, with one covering over 30,500 miles in less than a year.
Loads included fruit, textiles and racing pigeons, with one arrival at Stansted being a piebald donkey from Khartoum bound for London Zoo.
The next year saw Alpha Airways join LAMS and Kearsley Airways at Stansted, with passenger charters to Johannesburg. Their single Halton carried 18 passengers.
However, the independent airlines found it increasingly difficult to operate in a very restrictive and nationalised environment and while sadly LAMS and Alpha ceased trading at the end of the forties, Kearsley Airways diversified into overhauling aircraft components and is still based at Stansted.
Sir Freddie Laker Arrives
THE END of the Second World War left a lot of aircraft spares about. Also, there were many training and cargo aircraft that could be used for civilian purposes.
A young entrepreneur called Freddie Laker, formerly a LAMS flight engineer, saw such an opportunity and, initially using a lockup garage in Streatham, built up a parts and maintenance base at Southend airport in 1947 under the name of Aviation Traders.
By 1951 the maintenance side of the business had grown so much that Aviation Traders (Engineering) Limited leased a hangar at Stansted and so Sir Freddie’s association with Stansted recommenced.
To make way for Aviation Traders several red London Transport double deck buses and Green Line coaches stored at Stansted after the war had to be removed.
1951 also saw Freddie Laker branch out into the airline business, with the purchase of Surrey Flying Services and Fairlight. As Air Charter London he started passenger and trooping charter flights from Stansted with AvroYorks and Tudors. Destinations included the Woomera rocket range in Australia and the nuclear testing centre on Christmas Island in the South Pacific.
The next year the engineering operation had taken over another hangar. This time surplus Miles Marathon four engined airliners had to be removed from it and scrapped.
Up to 1954 most of Aviation Traders’ work at Stansted involved maintaining Avro York aircraft or dismantling them for spares. It was also becoming a major centre for ex RAF spares, including engines, tyres etc.
A big boost came in 1954 when Aviation Traders secured a contract to build Bristol Freighter fuselage sections and got financial backing to buy up all the remaining Avro Tudor aircraft to convert them into “Super Traders”. It also won a contract to refurbish 100 ex RAF F86E Sabre jet fighters.
The Avro Tudor conversion involved making a double freight door on the port side of the aircraft, strengthening the floor and upgrading the main landing gear and braking system.
In 1948 Silver City Airways had commenced a car/air ferry service between Lympne and Le Touquet using the Bristol Freighter. By the mid fifties there were several such services and in April 1955 Air Charter started its car air ferry routes out of Southend to Calais and Ostend.
With Air Charter’s experience Laker saw there
was a need for a bigger aircraft and using Aviation Traders he converted
surplus wartime four engined DC4/C54 Skymaster aircraft into car transporters
In September 1958 Air Charter took delivery of two brand new Bristol Britannia aircraft for its trooping flights to Hong Kong and Singapore. On 1st April 1960 Air Charter become part of the British United Airways group based at Gatwick.
BUA operated up to nine Bristol Britannias on trooping flights from Stansted, but after the loss of the contract to British Eagle at Heathrow, operations ceased at Stansted on 1st October 1964.
Aviation Traders remained at Stansted servicing the Rolls Royce Tyne turbo-prop engines of the Bristol Britannia and the Pratt and Whitney JT4 jets of the new Boeing 707.
Flying Troops from across the World
APART FROM Air Charter London there were two A other major charter airlines based at Stansted in the 1950’s - Skyways of London and Scottish Airlines. Both relied for work on trooping contracts, which took their aircraft all over the world.
Skyways of London commenced flights in October 19S2 with a fleet of AvroYorks and a large maintenance base with three hangars. The airline’s fleet totalled 33 aircraft and in its first year 40,000 troops were carried and 2.9 million revenue miles flown.
In November 1953 Skyways launched a scheduled civilian flight from Stansted to Nicosia via Malta. The single fare for the 14 hour flight in an unpressurised aircraft was (J75.This “Crusader” service proved popular and in 1956 the Yorks were replaced with ex BOAC Handley Page Hermes aircraft, which were pressurised.
In June 19S9 Skyways purchased four ex BOAC Lockheed Constellations, but the cost of this and a failed joint venture in the Bahamas with BOAC, brought closure in 1963 and purchase by Euroavia of Luton.
Scottish Airways, although a smaller operation, earned for itself rather more notoriety through a series of incidents.
The airline arrived at Stansted in 1953 from its home base at Prestwick with three AvroYorks and a contract to fly RAF cadets to Montreal. This was followed by another contract to the Middle East.
Its aircraft carried RAF roundels and its crews wore RAF uniforms in case they were forced to land in hostile countries!
Other post war moments
On 24th September 1954 one of its York’s suffered an undercarriage collapse whilst on its take off run at Stansted, which in turn fractured a fuel tank and caused the aircraft to burn out. Miraculously, all the servicemen and crew onboard escaped without serious injury.
In another incident in 1954 a Scottish Airways York carrying cargo overran the runway at Luqa in Malta — again the crew escaped unharmed.
But two years later - 1st May 1956 - in another take off incident at Stansted, one serviceman was killed and others seriously injured when once again the undercarriage of a York collapsed. This flight also had service families onboard and included 14 children and four babies among the 49 passengers on their way to Malta and Iraq.
A further accident at Stansted in December 1957 wrote
off yet another York and finally in September 1958 Scottish Airways ceased
Folk lore has it that on the take off run the skipper of the aircraft had shouted to the flight engineer that he should “cheer up”, where upon the flight engineer selected gear up! Fortunately there were no injuries and the Aircraft was repaired to fly again.
The US Airforce Returns
FOLLOWING THE Korean War, NATO defences were stepped up and Stansted was once again chosen by the Americans for a base.
However, because of Stansted’s importance for British trooping flights the airfield remained opened during the lengthening of its main runway to 10,000 feet, by strengthening and widening the northern taxiway into a temporary runway.
Over 66,000 passengers were flown using the taxiway — in 1956 alone over 44,700 passengers used Stansted.
The work took from 1954 to ‘56 to complete and included new taxiways and hard standings for nuclear bombers and improved approach lighting.
But after the USAF engineers left in 1957 it was decided not to turn Stansted into an operational base, leaving the airfield with the longest runway in Britain, a fact that was to -play a major part in its selection as the third airport for London.
AVIATION TRADERS and airlines were not the only A residents at Stansted in the 1950’s and early sixties, it was also home to what are now the Civil Aviation Authority’s Flight Calibration Service and Fire Service Training Centre and to British European Airways (BEA) diversionary services.
The Flight Calibration Service, formerly known as the Civil Aviation Flying Unit (CAFU), was formed at Stansted by the Ministry of Aviation in 1950 from units previously based at Gatwick and Prestwick.
It originally consisted of a range of aircraft, including DH Tiger Moths and Chipmunks, Austers, Airspeed Consuls and Avro Ansons. By the early sixties these “war time” aircraft had been replaced by Percival Princes and a President and DH Doves - one of which is preserved at Duxford.
Apart from testing avionics and airfield navigation systems, these aircraft were also used for government VIP transport and a large workforce was employed at Stansted.
The Percival Princes were retired in 1969 and ironically ended up on the fire ground of the Fire Training School. CAFU, reformed in to the Flight Calibration Service, departed Stansted for Teeside on 26th March 1993.
The Fire Service Training Centre, formerly the Ministry of Aviation Fire Service Training School, arrived at Stansted in 1960 from Pengham Moor, Cardiff. It occupied an area well away from the then passenger terminal on the northside, near to the present cargo centre, and used the war time chapel as its main lecture room.
Most of the fire training was done with scrapped airliners and many of the aircraft no longer wanted by Stansted’s airlines were disposed of in this way. Like CAFU, the school also moved on to Teeside - in August 1981.
Both BEA and BOAC used Stansted for crew training, but in addition BEA also out-based from Heathrow diversionary services at the airport during winter months. This comprised traffic officers, engineers and equipment.
Gateway to Britain
THE British Airports Authority took control of Stansted, along with Heathrow, Gatwick and Prestwick airports, on 1st April 1966 from the Ministry of Aviation.
The authority was set up under the Airports Authority Act 1965 “to provide efficient, courteous, attractive and profitable Gateways To Britain worthy of the Nation as a whole.”
The airport had grown to an annual throughput of over 105,000 passengers in 1963, but this had drastically fallen to under 4,000 by April 1966. War time nissen huts were still used for the passenger terminal and offices and, in the main, flights consisted of charters, diversions and those for training.
Compared to the importance of cargo in Stansted’s
early civilian days, freight totalled a pitiful 133 tons in 1965. Aircraft
movements totalled over 28,000 that year, with training accounting for
about 60 per cent.
decision went in favour of Gatwick, with Blackbushe chosen as the principal
diversion airport, due to its close proximity to Heathrow.
The committee looked at 18 possible sites and decided that Stansted was the best of the sites and the “only one with a clear prospect of making a successful third London airport.”
A public enquiry was held from December 1965 to February 1966, but it look two years for the report to be published. Its eventual conclusion lead to a White Paper and the infamous Roskill Commission.
Your World Class Airport
LONDON STANSTED AIRPORT was transformed in 1991 from a modest international airport to one which can handle eight million passengers a year in a calm and pleasant environment.
With careful regard to the surrounding countryside, the airy and spacious award winning new terminal appears to be a single storey building, its overall height corresponding to that of nearby mature trees. Its short stay car park, coach station and integrated railway station are sited below ground level.
A wide range of scheduled destinations with convenient onward connections to the rest of the world makes Stansted ideal for the business traveller. For holidays, over 100 tour operators offer a comprehensive choice of long and short haul destinations to suit all tastes.
The Stansted Skytrain rail link, with its 41 minute journey time to Liverpool Street Station in the heart of the City of London and the Ml 1 motorway, provide excellent access to the Airport.
The terminal can be extended to accommodate 15 million passengers without disruption to its operations. With its up to date technology and advanced construction London Stansted is at the forefront of international airport design.
London Stansted is designed to take the stress out of flying. Use London Stansted once and you will want to fly from nowhere else.
Telephone Freephone 0800 118118 for information on scheduled flights and holidays. London Stansted also publishes a guide to passenger facilities.
Written by Derek Winter and researched
by Reg Robinson.
We were delighted in September 2007 to hear from Greg Weir, an aviation researcher from Queensland Australia who wrote:
"I found your website after typing a rego into Google. The rego was G-AIWT. I spent the day with Keith Thiele who was the pilot of thisaircraft - I have him on video talking abouthis time on Halifaxs after the war. During the war he flew Spitfires, Halifax's and Lancasters etc.
And in September 2010 we received this e-mail from Susan Acton-Campbell whihc we'll also be sending on to the BAA:
"My father who used to fly out of Stansted while working for LAMS, has been reviewing your web page http://www.ukaccs.info/stansted/early.htm.