Anatomy of a Bomber Base – Buildup Begins

The buildup of air fields and bases in the UK during WWII was a massive undertaking. Many airfields in the UK were built during the 1920s and 1930s for deterrent bomber forces. Because of concerns about the impact of these airfields on the countryside, they were often designed with neo-Georgian style, with tree lined roads. By 1939, about 100 airfields had been built in the UK, and only nine had hard runways. The usual pre-war standard design provided for four strips, the main one of 1,300 yards by 400 yards and subsidiaries of 1,000 yards by 200 yards, with clearance zones at either end for flightway approach outside an angle of 1:15 glide and fanned at a 15-degree angle from the airfield boundary. 

However, with the kickoff of WWII, it was recognized that the wartime requirements made the pre-war standards cost prohibitive. Instead, airfields were designed as temporary installations. The Eighth Air Force was activated in 1942, and the British Air Ministry began to survey land for U.S. airfields. While the mutual aid agreement called for the British to provide all facilities for USAAF, the labor shortages required that U.S. aviation engineer help with the actual construction. Their labor was classified as “training” to cover the cost. 

Staging of engineering equipment in preparation for shipment to various air field sites at Thatcham Depot, UK

For American troops who assisted with the project, building bases in the UK presented a range of issues. A major problem was a lack of properly trained and experienced troops. Ironically, it was often a matter of those with engineering and construction experience with no military training, or the exact opposite. The Center for Military History’s Corps of Engineers record indicates “The 342d, 332d, and 341st Engineer General Service Regiments, among the earliest engineer units dispatched to Britain, were filled with men experienced in civilian construction work… General Larkin had complained of a lack of military experience among engineer officers (while on the other hand) Aviation engineer units lacked skilled construction personnel. The total construction experience among thirty-two officers of one aviation battalion added up to two years, while few battalions had an experienced unit engineering officer.” Troops were often left to cobble together their own training programs, often with British assistance.

Compounding the issues of personnel was the logistical nightmare of getting equipment and materials where they needed to go.  The shipment of equipment from the United States was slow, often resulting in troops waiting two months or more for their tools and machines to arrive.  

Even with the arrival of personnel and equipment, the differences between British and American methods, materials and nomenclature proved endlessly frustrating. Measurements were different, a monkey wrench was a spanner, American trucks struggled to navigate British roads and American equipment wouldn’t run on British current.

In 1939, about 100 airfields had been built in the UK, and only nine had hard runways. The usual pre-war standard design provided for four strips, the main one of 1,300 yards by 400 yards and subsidiaries of 1,000 yards by 200 yards, with clearance zones at either end for flightway approach outside an angle of 1:15 glide and fanned at a 15-degree angle from the airfield boundary.  More than 140 airfields were built for use by the USAAF, with 67 of the bomber bases built for the 8th Air Force. Including the civilian airfields that were redesignated and upgraded, there were 270 military airfields by 1940.

Image of Station 153 scale model on exhibit at the museum

In the mezzanine of the 390th Memorial Museum, you can find a scaled replica of Station 153. This exhibit demonstrates how the air field and buildings were laid out, dispersed in an attempt to make them harder to bomb. Thanks to the Sonoran Desert Model Builders for their work on this exhibit! 

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