Anatomy of a Bomber Base – Nissen Hut

By Kate Doak-Keszler, Director of Communications

Many of our visitors here in Tucson will refer to our Nissen hut as a “Quonset.” The mistake is totally understandable! Nissen and Quonset huts are very similar, but there are a few differences that can help you tell them apart. 

The front of a British Nissen hut vs an American Quonset hut, similar but constructed differently

The front of a British Nissen hut vs an American Quonset hut – very similar but note the difference in the curvature.

Royal Engineers Major Norman Nissen developed Nissen huts during World War I. The versatile, durable and quick to assemble structures have an interior framing made of metal or wood. Metal sheeting is bolted to the exterior of the framing. Nissen huts were used extensively at the former English air bases occupied by American forces in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Iceland, as well as lend-lease bases in Newfoundland and the Caribbean during the Second World War. The RAF Nissen Huts with brick end walls at Deenethorpe painted olive drab (401st BG) was constructed by the British in 1943.  Quonset huts were more commonly used in the Pacific, but some were built in the UK. Quonset huts do not have internal framing, but are simply arched panels bolted together. The American Army Engineers Quonset Huts at Molesworth (303rd BG) employed corrugated steel end walls and provided about 224 sq feet of additional floor space. 

American vs British construction of Nissen and Quonset huts

The RAF Nissen Huts with brick end walls at Deenethorpe (401st BG) vs Quonset huts built by the American Army Engineers at Molesworth (303rd BG) with corrugated steel end walls.

The following excerpt is from an essay written by Walt Bieschke of the 571st Squadron, who flew aboard “Odd Ball.”  He wrote the essay while a student at Notre Dame after his discharge from the service. 

“Like any true home the hut was always a place of utility and interest.  When not flying or out on a pass, most of a man’s time was spent back at ‘home.’  Things on an air base are greatly dispersed to minimize aerial damage.  Hence, it dampened a man’s interest to walk several miles to the Red Cross Club where Cokes were weak or to a movie where the film had an annoying habit of breaking only in the interesting parts.  Most of a man’s activities and time were spent, therefore, in his individual hut, and no small wonder.  Those huts were very versatile. 

To the men straddling a bunk and playing poker, it was a game room.  To the group swapping combat yarns while sitting on up-ended ammunition boxes around the tiny stove, which defied all efforts to keep it going, it was a raconteur’s parlor.  To the three or four men in the hard, lumpy, double-decker bunks, busily engaged in the main and popular activity of “sacking up” it was a bedroom.  To the man converting the bomb crate into a foot locker, it was a workshop.  When some enterprising gunner had accidentally liquidated several of the neighboring farmer’s chickens and had them roasted so that they wouldn’t be wasted, the ached walls of that hut widened and became more cheerful, and we would be sitting in a wonderful banquet hall.  To the man returning from the village pub and dumping the sacks of his sleeping crew mates or to the popular lad tossing a handful of cartridges into the stove, causing a flurry of arms and legs among the rest in an effort to scatter, it was just a place to raise the devil.”

Image of WWII era Nissen HutThe Nissen hut on exhibit at the 390th Memorial Museum was donated by Percy Kindred, on whose land the Parham Airfield was built.  The hut was a non-commissioned officer’s quarters that housed three crews of six men each.  It was an open floor plan with no privacy and no insulation. 


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