This 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
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.
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
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'.
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).