History of Bournemouth (Hurn) Airport

By Vernon Rabbetts

Article Intro

The first article is a history of Bournemouth (Hurn) Airport in Dorset, England. Have a read through and view the pictures (some of which) that are published for the first time on the web. If you've got something to add or something related, remember to send it on in.

Hurn Airport

Bournemouth and Christchurch together have quietly been involved with flying for an extremely long time. Rolls Royce engines are famous, less famous is the fact that Charles Stewart Rolls of the original partnership was killed when flying in a display in Bournemouth. Other names come from the many aerodromes that had flourished around the two towns, Sholto Douglas was the pilot of the first commercial flight which took off from the Ensbury Park Aerodrome and Racecourse, which had originally been set up to train pilots for the Royal Flying Corps and the Western Front. He would gain far greater fame and some could say infamy as the head of Fighter Command.

The Schneider Cup, which would lead Supermarine's chief designer R.J. Mitchell to the Spitfire, started from Bournemouth Pier in September 1919 and turned into a complete fiasco thanks to a thick sea fog. The Supermarine Sea Lion, which, can be seen at the Science Museum in London, actually sank in Bournemouth during that race.

But possibly the name that can be most linked to aviation in Dorset and Hurn Airport is that of Sir Alan Cobham, the first man to fly over the Himalayas, the first to fly a return flight of the African continent and the founder of the company that bears his name Cobham Plc. Many pilots will be glad Sir Alan set up this company, because for most of its life it was know as Flight Refueling Plc. His experiments in this field go back to 1935 with a Harrow bomber (G-AFRL) that successfully "fed" four Short S.20 flying boats from Imperial Airways over Southampton Water, thirty-five miles east from Bournemouth.

Cobham had originally recommended to Bournemouth Council that they build an airstrip at Hurn in 1931, but as would become common with Hurn and local Councils, they did nothing. In 1939 however, Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Aircraft Production asked Sir Alan to help finding new airfields and just one year later, work commenced on a new Fighter Command Airfield, RAF Hurn. It was planned to be a satellite station for RAF Ibsley, half an hour down the road, but fate would have a more interesting role for the new strip than a mere "satellite". Thanks to a very hard winter, it would not be until the summer of 1941 that Hurn's three tarmac runways of 5,200, 4,800 and 3,400 feet would be ready for use and by then the need for fighter stations was less. It was decided that the base would be best utilised for Transport aircraft and plans were put in place for two runways to be extended to 6,000 and 3,900 feet respectively.

Having had it's reason for being changed, one of those odd chances meant that it was a Westland Whirlwind fighter from 263 Squadron at Warmwell that made the first ever landing on August 7th, 1941 after being damaged in combat with 109's over the Cherbourg Peninsula.

Seven days after this, the first unit to be officially based at Hurn moved in with the oddest complement of aircraft in the RAF at that time. The 50 aircraft to the Telecommunications Flying Unit included Tiger Moths, Hornet Moths, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Defiants, Havocs, Beaufighters, Wellingtons, Blenheims and Halifaxes. The Units name doesn't sound that exciting, but it played possibly one of the most significant roles in Britain's early war through their contribution to the "Battle of The Beams".

All of the aircraft were basically flying test-beds for work being done at the Telecommunications Research Establishment in a really small village nearby called Worth Matravers. Under the leadership of Alan Hodgkin, Bernard Lovell and Dr. Robert Cockburn, the Worth Matravers team was working on Radar and Radio-beam bombing countermeasures. Cockburn had already created "Domino" the countermeasure to the X-Geraet system and with the rest of the team was now looking to counter the German "Freya" system.

One of the products of all this research was an unusual use of the Mk.VII Airborne Interception radar sets installed in a Blenheim bomber, which would later have a major impact for Bomber Command, night bombing and the war in general.

With the centimetric beam from the Blenheim pointed downwards instead of forwards, the scientists were surprised to find themselves mapping Bournemouth, distinguishing streets, houses and pinewoods on the radar screen. Apart from getting a new Halifax, Mk.2 srs 1, (V9977) to further test the system they also got a name for the system from the government. Lord Cherwell, (Churchill's scientific adviser) at that time plain old Professor Frederick Lindemann commented that it stank that this hadn't been thought of before and so the H2S came into being. (H2S being Hydrogen Suphide's (Stink bombs!) chemical formula.) On March 22nd 1942, with the magnetron unit of an AI Radar fitted into a Perspex dome instead of a front turret, the Halifax mapped Bournemouth from the air at a height of 8,000ft and a distance of 6 miles. The H2S would retain it's links to the area, being produced in a "secret" factory in West Howe, less that five minutes from the Airport.

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Airport as of 1942.

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Image from Google Earth showing the airport as of today. (added by editor)

One other side product from this team was "Window" better known as chaff which reduced casualties from an estimated 48 out of 791 bombers to 12 on its first outing and is still in use today. One of the Hurricanes based with the Unit still exists today and is the only completely original Battle of Britain period Hurricane left. Whilst serving with 56 Squadron, Pilot Officer Anthony Woods-Scawen had flown the aircraft before it was transferred to the TRU. L1592 now hangs from the ceiling of the Science Museum in London near the Sea Lion, which sank in Bournemouth twenty-one years previously.

In May the Telecommunications Flying Unit left Hurn as one of the best-equipped airfields in the United Kingdom with 56 hard standings and 17 hangars. The hangars only occupants now were 1425 Communications Flight with their Consolidated Liberators Mk.II, the best known of which was AL504 - Commando, which had been fitted out as a VIP transport and became the personal transport of Winston Churchill. Commando's hardened hangar still remains at Hurn to this day. This flight would leave for RAF Lyneham in July of the same year and Hurn would embark on the next phase of its contribution to the Allied war effort, the development of glider and parachute airborne forces.

38th Wing Army Co-Operation Command under the control of Air Marshall Sir Arthur "Ugly" Barratt comprised three squadrons, 296 and 297 flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mk.Vs and 170 (AC) flying Mustang Mk.Is. The Whitley had performed well for an aircraft that was called the "Flying Barn Door" but caused everyone consternation when they discovered that it did not have enough power to tow a fully laden Horsa glider, the job it had been assigned to do. Much to the fury of "Butch" Harris the leader of Bomber Command it was decided that Stirling's and Halifax's would have to tow the gliders instead. The Whitleys were therefore relegated to "nickelling" - dropping leaflets over Paris and Lille.

Hurn, being located on the south coast of England made it an ideal jumping off airfield and when Operation Cackle was planned, Hurn was selected. Operation Cackle concerned the supply of aircraft, aircrew and supplies for the USAAF 12th Airforce to take part in the much better known "Operation Torch." For the first, but definitely not the last time, Hurn and Bournemouth became swamped with "bloody Yanks." On the 3rd of November, six B-17Fs of the 97th Bomb Group arrived in Hurn and ferried senior Allied officers to Gibraltar, amongst them Dwight Eisenhower and Mark Clarke his deputy. One of the Squadron Commanders of the 97th would later achieve much greater fame over Hiroshima; Major Paul Tibbetts also flew though Hurn. By the 8th of December both Operations Cackle and Torch had finished. Over 100 C-47 aircraft had flown in and out of Hurn as well as 57 B-17s of the 97th and 301st (Heavy) Bomb Groups during the course of the Operations. Lt. General L.W. Sweetser Junior had planned well; the logistical operation had gone off without a major hitch.

With the first departure of the USAAF, RAF Hurn welcomed back a mixed bag of occupants. 239 (AC) Squadron were the first with their Mustang 1s, followed closely by 1498 Gunnery Flight with their Lysander and Martinet Target Tugs. The FAA got in on the act and detached Swordfish IIs from 811 and 816 Squadrons to hunt E-Boats in the Channel.

January 1943 saw Hurn revert to the "jump-off" status again, this time for Operation Husky. Albemarles arrived, as did Halifaxes in preparation for the Invasion of Sicily. Preparation was long and ate up much of 1943 but in the end, it would all come to nothing. Perhaps it was the fact that the aircraft actually jumped of from Portreath in Cornwall that was the cause, but Husky from a British Airborne Troop perspective was a disaster with only 5% of the whole force being effective during the campaign. It was two months and autumn before the Hurn Squadrons returned.

Whilst they had gone, Spitfires had moved in temporarily from 66, 131 (County of Kent), 412 RCAF and 504 Squadron flying B-17 and B-24 escort missions to Brest and the Cherbourg Peninsula. The Albemarle's stayed and Halifax squadron (295) converted to the same type and Hurn reverted to Special Duties flying as it had at the beginning. Tempsford, home of 138 and 161 Squadrons who serviced the Special Operations Executive couldn't cope with the demand from Europe and Albemarles under 38th Groups command the Albemarles from Hurn became suppliers of arms, munitions and equipment for the resistance and SOE operarives. But in March 1944, Hurn went on the Offensive in a way that not even its designers had thought it would.

On March 17th a new aircraft engine note was heard for the first time that year. It announced the arrival of a whole new season in Bournemouth; it was going to be a Typhoon Summer.

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The Second Tactical Airforce moved in with a vengeance, first was 143rd Wing, 83 Group comprising 438 (Wild Cat), 439 (Westmount) and 440 (City of Ottawa and Beaver) Squadrons, RCAF under the command of Wg.Cmdr. R. P. Davidson DFC. He would be shot down in May but evade capture and fight alongside the resistance. 440 when it arrived was still flying Hawker Hurricane Mk. IV's but would convert by D-Day. By the end of April, 124 Wing were also there, comprising 181, 182 and 247 (China-British) Squadrons. Hurn now hosted over a hundred Typhoons and to add to the logistical problems, 40 Mosquitoes.

125 (Newfoundland) Squadron were equipped with Mosquito NFXVIIs fitted with SCR720 AI Radar and were controlled by "Starlight" the Sopley GCI station a few miles down the road, north of Christchurch. They made their first Hurn kills on 24.04.44, claiming three JU88's destroyed and two damaged. 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron was the other Mosquito unit and they were also assigned to 2nd TAF.

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The Typhoons meanwhile were attacking anything that moved with 60lb Rockets and 1,000lb bombs. In particular prior to D-Day they were tasked with the destruction of all German Radar stations - except that at Fecamp which was to be left as part of the deception program for D-Day. On the night of 5/6th the Mosquito's got into the act, flying night cover for the fleet and over the beachheads. On D-Day itself, the Typhoons flew 88 sorties, which increased by the 10th of June to 150 sorties a day.

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124 Wing were the first to move out to Coulombs, south of Caen starting on the same day. 123 Wing replaced them immediately comprising 183 (Gold Coast), 198 and 609 (West Riding) Squadrons. 143 Wing flew out next to the forward strip at Lantheuil, being immediately replaced by 146 Wing of 84 Group 2nd TAF. This comprised 193(Fellowship of the Bellows), 197, 257 (Burma) and 266 (Rhodesia) Squadrons. By the end of July, all the Typhoons had left, needing sand-filters for the conditions in Normandy and 263 Squadron of the ADGB was the last to leave on 23.07.1944. During July, stretching the logistics even further was the arrival of six P-61's of the 422nd Fighter Group, Ninth Airforce from Scorton in Essex. They had come down to learn from 125 Sqdn, the fine points of using the SCR720 radar in conjunction with Ground Controlled Interception units. They encountered no success whilst in Hurn and returned to Scorton on the 10th of July. Rubbing salt into the wound, Wg. Cmdr. Maxwell, leader of 604 Squadron bagged a Ju 88 that very night bringing his squadron's total to 100 Kills. Four days later 604 would move to Wiltshire and then become the first Mosquito unit in France. 418 (City of Edmonton) flying Mossies replaced them immediately and found the airfield crowded to bursting point. 125 and 418 Squadrons would perform one mission of great significance before they left Hurn though, the bombing of the Mimoyecques V3 Super-Gun site, which would finally be destroyed by the Dam-Busters of 617 Squadron.

But Hurn once again was about to change it's role and five days after the Typhoons left, so did the Mosquito's leaving the field free for new occupants and the locals to complain about more "bloody Yanks".

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The USAAF and the Ninth Airforce returned to Hurn but this time, they were the only occupants. Station 492 as Hurn was designated was the base, briefly, for the 397th (Medium) Bomb Group of the 9th Air Force under the command of Richard T. Coiner, flying B-26 Marauders. The "Baltimore Whore" flew from Hurn for 25 days, mounted twenty two missions and the group passed it's hundred mark raiding targets in St. Malo, Brest, Rouen and on the 13th destroying a rail marshalling yard at Corbeil in spectacular fashion. But by August 30th, it was all over bar the shouting. When the last B-26 left, Hurn had one more wartime transition to make, but it did it with style.

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In January of 1944, BOAC had started a development flight at Hurn testing military aircraft for conversion to passenger carrying civilian aircraft. The aircraft they were most keen on was the redoubtable Lancaster. Tested over long distance with great success, the program resulted in the A691 Lancastrian civil passenger and freight carrier. This was the start of Hurn's passenger aircraft services, launching the first passenger flight to Egypt of a Lancastrian, the first passenger service to Australia (53 hours!) and by February 1945, Hurn was the largest civilian long-haul airport in Britain. Operators included, BOAC, Qantas, KLM, and Sabena and in October DC-4 transatlantic flights by American Overseas Airways had commenced. Pan-American flew it's first passenger transatlantic flight into Hurn on the Lockheed Constellation on January 1st, 1946 and Hurn remained it's base until May of that year. Hurn looked to have at last found it's place and until May 1946 remained the centre of Britain's post-war airline industry until someone opened up an airfield called Heath Row to major commercial development and Hurn lost out once again.

But you can't keep a place like that down and it is still there, only now officially known as Bournemouth International Airport. After the war the FAA moved back in with the Fleet Requirements Unit using a fleet of Mosquito's, Meteors, Hunters and Canberra's to simulate attacks on ships and target practice. All the aircraft were painted in the typical yellow and black stripes of target tugs. Vickers Armstrong moved in to do all the flight-testing for the Vickers Valiant and possibly the most beautiful of all prop-liners; the Vickers Viscount, which was also built there. British Aerospace built airliners there too, the BAC 1-11, and the BAe 146 before they closed. Repair facilities based at the airport have done work on all manner of work on aircraft from Hercules to Tornadoes.

The runway was recently extended again and has succesfully hosted Concorde although most residents are hoping it doesn't come back regularly. ("Too noisy Dear!") But even then, well over 300,000 passengers use the airport every year; Channel Express operates an extremely successful charter and freight operation with it's own fleet of aircraft; Ryanair offer regular scheduled passenger flights whilst dreaming of bringing down British Airways; Cessna's and Piper's flit in and out and occasionally Air Atlantique bring back an air of nostalgia with their fleet of Dakotas. It's all very civilian when you look at the place now until you actually go there and then you notice some oddities.

Firstly, Heathrow may have stolen Hurn's thunder, but it still needs Bournemouth International Airport very much. The extended runway means that when Heathrow is closed through too bad weather, Bournemouth gives the passengers a welcome. Bournemouth is also designated an airport for hijacked aircraft with regular visits from the SAS to make sure they know how to take hijackers down. And most importantly, Bournemouth International Airport is still the home of the Air Traffic Control College which all of Heathrow's A.T.C.'s have graduated from.

But on a military front, you wouldn't look twice at the FR Aviation fleet of blue and white Dassault Falcon business jets unless you noticed the pods and sensors all over them. These are used to simulate attacks on the Royal Navy so that ship commanders and FAA fighter jocks know how to deal with incoming threats.

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And then there's that hangar near the terminal with some very loud noises coming from it and this building is the reason you really should go to Bournemouth International Airport when you're near there again. This is the home of the Bournemouth Aviation Museum, which is host to a great collection of flying post-war British jets and vintage aircraft. Currently based there are a number of Hunters, Meteors, Vampires, Venoms, a Buccaneer, a C-47, a Folland Gnat in Red Arrows livery, a MiG 21 and the last flying Sea Vixen as well as many others. As they have good engineering facilities through De Havilland, the chances are that you'll get to see one of the birds stripped down during maintenance or an overhaul.

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When I was a kid growing up in Bournemouth, I used to daydream that I lived next to a major military airfield and not soggy old Hurn. Couldn't have been more wrong really could I?

For a table with the squadron numbers and codes, designation or dedication, aircraft type, dates at Hurn, notes on posting, and motto, click here.

Picture Credits

All period photos: Bournemouth International Airport (via Mike Phipps). MiG-21 & Hunter: Bournemouth Aviation Museum (via Phil Bailey-Churcher)

Links for further reading

© Vernon Rabbetts

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This article was published on Wednesday, July 20 2011; Last modified on Saturday, May 14 2016