Remembering Membury: Preserving the Legacy of Wartime buildings

Military history buff John Leete pays tribute to the restoration of remaining WW2 architecture at Membury.

I consider myself to be just a history buff albeit with an interest spanning more than 20 years. However, friends of mine think I am obsessed. Either way I am fascinated by the social and military history of Britain during WW2 and the life and times of the people on the Home Front.

One thing is clear, the dedication and sacrifice of that generation and the human spirit that persisted against overwhelming odds helped to underpin the Allied victory in 1945.

The role of British airfields in D-Day

D-Day in June 1944 was the campaign known as Operation Overlord, the Allied Assault on occupied Europe. Planning for D-Day began as early as 1940 following the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. The country was by the eve of D-Day in June 1944, an island fortress.  Hundreds of thousands of troops from America, from the Commonwealth and from nations including India and Pakistan were encamped the length and breadth of the land. Naval craft were moored along the south and east coasts and supply and storage depots were stacked to the ceilings with fuel, provisions, ammunition and all the vital items necessary for supporting the Army, Navy and Air Force

Tanks, trucks and heavy equipment were assembled under camouflage in fields and on lanes and roads across the south of England and troops had spent hours and days in simulated training exercises

Ahead of and during the D-Day Campaign, both permanent airfields and those created as temporary airfields for limited use in mid-1944, were active around the clock as sortie after sortie of aircraft flew missions over Europe

Maycrete Huts at Membury circa 1943
Interior of a Maycrete Hut circa 1943

 

What to do with the airfields post-war?

At the end of the war the Government, conscious of the mood of the war-weary nation and the need to restore the publics hope and confidence, took the decision as part of the massive rebuilding programme to simultaneously ‘remove’ as much evidence of the wartime infrastructure as possible. The rubble from demolition would be used as ballast for new buildings – just as rubble from blitzed London had been used to build some of the airfields in the south of England in the early 1940s

The budget set aside for the demolition specifically of airfield buildings, runways and ancillary sites was some £60,000,000 (a staggering £2 billion today) however a number of airfields were on a care and maintenance programme and there was uncertainty over how many of the other former RAF / USAAF bases should be retained post war. On a temporary basis, the accommodation blocks on a handful of airfields were used to house bombed out families, mainly from cities including London and Bristol. The demolition programme did not start with any gusto and for example I recall that many years after the war, I learnt to drive on the main runway of an abandoned airfield. On another occasion I was an extra in a film, shot almost entirely on a former airfield which to all intents and purposes was complete, but desolate. However, the period of grace for almost all these wartime sites was not indefinite and the bulldozers and demolition teams eventually laid them to rest, pending other uses.

Interestingly however and perhaps symbolically the control (or watch) towers remained on many sites and to this day survivors across the country include those at Tangmere in West Sussex, Ibsley in the New Forest and Thorpe Abbots in Norfolk. In contrast, at former RAF Lasham in Hampshire the tower was removed in recent years as was the tower at former RAF / USAAF Membury, Wiltshire. 

Membury Airfield

The good news in the case of Membury is that 75 years after the end of WW2 many original buildings remain on the original site and at dispersed locations close by and whilst some have been lightly made over others have undergone sympathetic refurbishment for use as commercial and office units.

Presently undergoing a transformation is a small complex of Maycrete buildings on the Ramsbury Road. Despite previous use these buildings were until recently in a fairly forlorn state, but to those, like me with an interest such matters they were good examples of wartime construction. 

 

Keith Fryer who will be opening a business on the site in 2020 has taken great care to ensure the integrity of these buildings remains intact. Clearly passionate about the site and the history, Keith has for example, exposed the original internal brickwork, retained and refurbished a couple of internal doors and has left traces of the original wartime paint on the walls. External cladding ensures that the brick and concrete supports which have been repaired and repainted, remain exposed

Airfield construction, as with the construction of military infrastructure throughout the county during World War Two was done to a very demanding, if not urgent scheduleo. Nevertheless, the craftsmanship in the brickwork, joinery and ironwork was of a very high standard, a fact not lost on Keith who was quick to point out, by way of example, the high standard of brickwork

Keith’s plans to further promote the history of the site include having a framed original 48-star United States flag hanging in the office suite and photographs of wartime Membury on display in reception.

In 2020 the nation celebrates Victory in Europe Day 75 and its perhaps fitting that there is still evidence, like that at Membury, to remind us of our history and the generation who helped lead us to 8 May 1945

 

John Leete

Copyright 11 November 2019

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One Response

  1. John Leete
    I have an interest in the post WWII cold war years of the 50s and 60s. Membury airfield housed Civil Defence and Auxiliary Fire Service vehicle in one the their hangers. Do you have any information regarding this? Which hanger? Any photos? Anybody locally that was involved?
    Any insight gratefully received.
    Thank you

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