RAF 100: Soaring the skies at RAF Chivenor
- Credit: Archant
Tomorrow (Sunday, April 1) is the 100th anniversary of the Royal Air Force but the Chivenor base in North Devon has been active for much of that time.
Here, Ilfracombe-born Ken Delve of the RAF Heraldry Trust looks at the history of RAF Chivenor and the time he spent there.
In the blood
In the early 1980s I was at Chivenor on a Hawk (jet) course and I took my mother, who lived in Ilfracombe, back to visit the airfield where she had worked as a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in the early 1940s.
She had been a parachute packer and the hut she had worked in was still the parachute hut, and the young WAAF asked if my mother would like to pack a chute – she promptly declined.
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Chivenor was also the airfield where I first went solo, in an air cadet glider.
Chivenor was built on the site of the pre-war Barnstaple and North Devon Flying Club.
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A major Coastal Command location, it was used by operational and training units. Construction started in May 1940 for a three-runway operational airfield to support the Atlantic campaigns.
Approaches to the runways were not ideal, with the estuary providing the usual hazards of bird strikes and the large hill to the north often being masked in low cloud or sea mist.
The airfield opened in October 1940 and No.2 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit became the first users, training Beaufort crews.
This became No.5 (Coastal) OTU and for a year trainee aircrew converted to the Beaufort before going to operational squadrons.
An unexpected visitor
My mother recalled that one night in November 1941 a German Junkers-88 landed at Chivenor in error and was captured before it could get away.
The aircraft was eventually given RAF markings and used for evaluation and recognition.
Operational units had been using the airfield since it opened, but in summer 1942 the airfield converted to full operational use.
When 172 Squadron formed in April 1942 its Wellingtons were also the first to have the Leigh Light system, which had been tested at Chivenor to develop and employ anti-submarine tactics using the high-power searchlight, the aircraft homing on its target at night using radar and when close to the target switching on the searchlight to illuminate the target.
This Squadron played a major role in the campaign over the Bay of Biscay, denying the U-boats the opportunity to surface at night to recharge batteries and purge air.
The Bay of Biscay became an intense battlefield, and the Beaufighters of 235 Squadron operated from Chivenor to provide escort to the other units, and undertake their own anti-shipping work. Maritime ops continued to the end of the war.
After the war
The post-war plan saw Chivenor survive the mass disbandment and closures, but now with Fighter Command.
The major role from 1951 was as a training base, initially with 229 Operational Conversion Unit, which stayed until 1974, having used Vampires, Meteors and Hunters.
Training included tactics and weapons and Chivenor was an ideal base for this type of activity with plenty of free airspace and no shortage of weapon ranges.
The move to Brawdy in 1975 left Chivenor with just its search and rescue helicopters, a role it had adopted back in 1957 but which became best-know with 22 Squadron and its yellow Whirlwind, Wessex and Sea King.
Their role was primarily the rescue of aircrew, but they spent most of their time rescuing people from ships and tourists from cliffs and beaches.
The jets return
The fast-jets returned in 1981 as No.2 Tactical Weapons Unit with two Hawk squadrons (63 and 151), which is when I spent a few months flashing around the hills and valleys of Devon and Wales.
Sadly, the axe fell again in 1994; however, the marines knew a good thing and Chivenor became a Royal Marines barracks.
Despite the helicopters continuing to 2015 and the gliders of 624 Volunteer Gliding School lasting just a little longer, there is now no RAF presence at Chivenor.
Although Chivenor was the main flying base in North Devon, there was a second maritime airfield further south. The site at Winkleigh was intended as a satellite airfield for Chivenor.
However, by the time it was completed in late 1942 Coastal Command was no longer interested.
It was a difficult site as space was restricted. The airfield saw very little use, although some American units spent time here.
Another important location was the radar station at Hartland Point. It opened in October 1940 as part of the Chain Home Low (CHL) system for early warning.
Ken Delve served in the RAF as aircrew from 1975 to 1994; he is an aviation researcher and author and is a trustee of the RAF Heraldry Trust. The trust’s aim is to create a permanent artwork record of all RAF unit badges. Visit www.rafht.co.uk.