Ashbourne Airfield

THE speaker at the November 2013 meeting of the Ashbourne Heritage Society was Mr Barry Chambers, and his topic, Ashbourne Airfield, must have struck a chord with many people because St Oswald’s Church Hall was packed. Almost standing room only!

Barry asked us to imagine it was `1942’ and we had been ‘called up’. We’d done our basic and trade training and were now awaiting a posting. Ours was RAF Ashbourne. Ashbourne Airfield was a standard bomber A class station and not ideal, but the RAF was desperate for airfields.

Six hundred feet was the maximum height for airfields and Ashbourne is just above that. Nearby Darley Moor was to be a fighter station, probably to protect Manchester, but eventually became a training station.

Ashbourne had a population of about 4,000 in those days so the population was almost doubled by the 3,500 employed at the airfield. Having arrived at ‘our’ posting there was a multitude of jobs to fill from pilot to technician to cook.

Aerial photograph of Ashbourne Airfield site.RAF Ashbourne was a self-contained town with accommodation blocks, a communal area, sewage works, sick quarters, and most important, a stand-by power station.  The contractors were Laing’s and the accommodation huts were built originally of wood, but later it was single brick with a concrete skin. The huts each housed 24 men. In 1935 it was planned for 60 sq ft per man (bed and wardrobe) but by 1942 this was down to 42 sq ft, plus one coke stove per hut. Spartan to say the least! They were supposed to last for 12 years but were only used for four.

All this covered a wider area from Ashbourne to Rodsley, Bradley Wood and Osmaston. Being spread over a wide area, it avoided obliterating the whole operation should it be bombed, but this did mean there was a three quarter mile walk from the hut to the toilet block and another one to the communal/ eating area. After breakfast there was another three quarter mile walk to the work site. The WAAF site was a self-contained area at Osmaston — well away from the men!

There were runways in shape of a leaning A. Planes in those days had to take off into the wind as they were tail-wheel aircraft, unlike modern planes that have a nose landing wheel.   Flying was tricky with Ashbourne town being in a valley and many flying hours were lost due to poor weather conditions.

Barry showed us plans and photos of the site – some were copies of photos and others he had taken himself showing what remains of the site; including a hangar where repairs were carried out.

Some work, including repairs to aircraft, had to be carried out in the open air, whatever the weather. What other jobs were there? Men were needed in the control tower. You could be a pilot, a trainee pilot, navigator or gunmen. Stores of various sorts needed storemen and the sick quarters required doctors and attendants (not necessarily nurses). We saw a photo of a huge underground reservoir – essential for the fire service men on site.

We also saw photos of the types of planes that flew from Ashbourne including Whitley Bombers, – Oxfords, which were all wood apart from the engines and undercarriage, and the Albemarle which was too highly powered but was used for towing gliders. They were used at Arnheim.


The crew of the ill-fated flight shot down by enemy action.

The final photo Barry showed us was of a group of laughing airmen at the back of a small bus taken at Ashbourne Bus Station. Only one Ashbourne airfield plane was shot down by enemy action and, sadly, those laughing lads were on that plane.

I hope you realise by now that Barry’s knowledge of Ashbourne Airfield is wide-ranging and detailed. He conveyed his interest for his audience with enthusiasm and humour.  I’m sure all present felt the journey to St Oswald’s Church Hall had been well worth it. BN

Some Ashbourne scenes
Larger scale pictures of these and other images are available on the Galleries pages.