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Zeals Airfield
Aerial Photo

Zeals Airfield MapThis page has been included on the site as a result of a couple of questions received relating to the airfield built at Zeals during the Second World War.  It was to this airfield that the plane which crashed into King Alfred's Tower in 1944 was heading (read about the plane crash here).

Once Fighter Command went onto the offensive during the Second World War they needed forward airfields nearer the south coast from which to mount strafing raids against strategic targets in France. The reason for this was that fighter aircraft had only a limited range and endurance, so the nearer they could take off to fly to France the further inland they could penetrate.

 A suitable site for a forward fighter base was found just to the north of Zeals, and after closing a minor road between Stourton and Zeals, the contractors prepared a large grass landing ground. They laid a tarmac perimeter track, around which they provided 30 fighter type dispersal points, and erected eight Blister type hangars. At the south-east corner they erected a ‘T1’ type steel hangar and a small technical site. The admin site, together with several communal and domestic sites, were dispersed around the countryside near the village, with accommodation for some 2100 personnel. However, most of these facilities were a long time in coming, and for the first year conditions were very primitive with personnel living under canvas or in local houses.

The airfield opened under the control of No.10 Group of Fighter Command in May 1942, to serve as a satellite to Ibsley fighter station. However, it was not a fighter squadron that moved in, but No.286 Squadron, whose role was providing aircraft for co-operating with the Ack Ack gun and searchlight sites, or providing targets for coastal gunnery ranges. It flew a mixture of Oxfords, Defiants or Hurricanes, but remained only until the following August.
Zeals Airfield Map
Later in August, two fighter squadrons, Nos.66 and 118 arrived from Ibsley with their Spitfires, and quickly commenced fighter sweeps over France, or if not so engaged, they would be escorting medium bombers on daylight bombing missions to the Continent. Although No.66 departed for a few weeks in November, their place was taken by No.421 that was manned by Canadians, but also equipped with Spitfires. No.66 then returned and stayed here engaged in offensive missions over to the Continent until water-logging of the grass forced both squadrons return to Ibsley on the 23rd of December 1942.

The airfield was then void of flying units over the coming months although the domestic sites were occupied by an R.A.F Regiment Squadron until the grass had dried out. In March 1943, three fighter squadrons equipped with Spitfires and Hurricanes arrived  to take part in the huge army exercise code named Spartan, which lasted only two weeks.

Further improvement to the drainage took place before No.263 Squadron and its twin engine Whirlwind fighters paid a few weeks visit, lasting from the 19th June to the 12th July 1943. During this time they were engaged chiefly in sector patrols or convoy escort duties, with these somewhat radical type of fighter aircraft.

In August 1943 the airfield was handed over to the American Ninth Air Force, which was soon to arrive from North Africa to get involved with the preparations for the Invasion of Europe. They did not like what they saw at Zeals so immediately tried to improve the airfield by pinning two steel mesh runways to the soggy grass surface. It was also the Americans that demanded many additional living quarters that could cater for 2,000 personnel, as already mentioned.

By October, Zeals had become the home of their No.1 Tactical Air Depot (later renamed No.5) which in effect was a storage depot for issuing aircraft, spares and equipment to the many other airfields (several of them known as advanced landing grounds) being set up in the south of England. This T.A.D also serviced fighter type aircraft such as P47 Thunderbolts, but because these machines found the metal mesh runways a problem, the TAD transferred to Chilbolton in March 1944, at which time the airfield was handed back to the R.A.F.

Fighter Command again took over control on the 20th April, although it was the 4th May before No.488 Squadron arrived with its Mosquito night fighters. Their main task was the patrolling of the Normandy region of France by night, especially during the actual D Day landings on the 6th June, and the following few nights. On the 18th June they were joined by No.410, also manned by Canadians, when together they operated from Zeals mainly by night, until leaving for Colerne on the 28th July 1944.

Almost the next day, No.286 Squadron returned with its mixed bag of aircraft, which by this time were engaged in co-operating with the defences against the V1 flying bombs homing into targets in the south of England. However, on the 28th September 1944 this menace had ended due to the launch sites being over-run by the advancing ground forces, so the squadron left for Weston Zoyland to be closer to the gunnery ranges in that region.

In early October, the airfield was taken over by Flying Training Command, who required a grass airfield for glider pilot training. They posted in a section of No.3 Glider Training School, with its many Miles Master tugs and Hotspur gliders. At this time there was a need to train more army glider pilots to replace those lost on the Arnhem landings.

In early December the above section departed, but in its place came the Glider Pick Up Flight on the 8th January 1945. Its role was very interesting because it used its five Dakota tug aircraft for flying very low overhead before picking up a tow rope suspended just above the ground on poles, which then snatched the Hadrian glider into the air without the tug landing - all very clever. This unit remained at Zeals until 19th March 1945. The idea behind this technique was to recover gliders that had landed in inaccessible fields used in actual landings zones on the Continent.

The airfield was then surplus to R.A.F requirements so was taken over by the Royal Navy in late March 1945, who were beginning to concentrate the Fleet Air Arm flying training elements along the south coast. They later commissioned the airfield as 'H.M.S Hummingbird'.
Zeals Airfield Control Tower
The first squadron in this era to be based here was No.790 that arrived on the 1st of April 1945, whose role was providing target aircraft such as Seafires and Fireflies, for the training of Fighter Control Directors. Several other training squadrons in the 700 training series also moved in, engaged in converting new crews onto Mosquito night fighters, and pilots onto day fighters such as Corsairs and Hellcats. As a lead in to the more advanced types, a certain number of Harvards were also on strength. Another FAA squadron present at this time provided target facilities for the Naval base at Portland.

By November more suitable airfields had become available so the Fleet Air Arm wasted little time in vacating this rather austere place, and by January 1946 the Navy had abandoned it completely.

After a short period under the Care and Maintenance Scheme, the entire site was sold off and quickly returned to agriculture. The minor public road was reopened and most wartime structures removed. The control tower was turned into a modern dwelling, which can be seen alongside the road to Stourton (pictured here).
 


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