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World War II airfield defences at RAF Church Fenton

A Scheduled Monument in Ryther cum Ossendyke, North Yorkshire

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Coordinates

Latitude: 53.8325 / 53°49'56"N

Longitude: -1.1903 / 1°11'25"W

OS Eastings: 453385.608462

OS Northings: 437660.563234

OS Grid: SE533376

Mapcode National: GBR NS43.3X

Mapcode Global: WHDBH.PXDV

Entry Name: World War II airfield defences at RAF Church Fenton

Scheduled Date: 22 June 2004

Source: Historic England

Source ID: 1021191

English Heritage Legacy ID: 35489

County: North Yorkshire

Civil Parish: Ryther cum Ossendyke

Traditional County: Yorkshire

Lieutenancy Area (Ceremonial County): North Yorkshire

Church of England Parish: Ryther All Saints

Church of England Diocese: York

Details

The monument includes remains of part of the defences of the former World
War II fighter station of RAF Church Fenton located on level ground on the
southern part of the Vale of York, 12km north west of Selby. The remains
include a series of dispersed fighter pens, a pillbox, two gun posts and a
battle headquarters used for coordinating the ground defence of the
airfield, together with remains of some support buildings and sections of
the perimeter runway and taxiing areas. The monument is divided into eight
separate areas of protection.

RAF Church Fenton comprised two runways, extending south east to north
west and south west to north east, with the technical and administrative
areas concentrated to the north west and a range of support buildings and
technical structures located around the southern and eastern perimeter. It
was built as part of the RAF's massive pre-war expansion programme, which
started in 1935 in response to Hitler's move to increase the strength of
the German armed forces. Work started at Church Fenton in 1936 and
although the airfield opened in April 1938 it was not completed until the
following year. It initially operated with a grass airfield and all
weather runways were in place by 1940. It was the main fighter station for
northern England and formed part of No.12 Group, Fighter Command, with the
task of protecting the industrial regions of Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield
and Humberside. When war broke out the station was transferred to No.13
Group and was designated as a `sector' station and thus received
information direct from radar stations on the coast and from the
headquarters of the Royal Observer Corps at York and Leeds. As one of only
five fighter stations in the north east it played an important role in the
Battle of Britain. Squadrons operating from Church Fenton included No.72
with Gloster Gladiators and later Spitfire mark 1's supported by a
detachment of 245 squadron with Hurricanes and No.213 with Gloster
Gauntlets. Church Fenton remained in active service until 1959 when it was
transferred to Flying Training Command and today the station is still part
of the RAF being used mainly for a range of training purposes.

During World War II airfields were considered vulnerable from air attack
and fighter aircraft were considered to be particularly at risk when on
the ground therefore, elaborate precautions were taken to prevent any loss
of aircraft whilst not in action. As a result, fighter aircraft were often
held in dispersed pens located around the perimeter of the airfields but
with easy access to the main runways. At Church Fenton there were 12 such
dispersal pens located in three groups of four, situated along the
southern perimeter, the south eastern corner and the north eastern corner.
In the north eastern group only part of one pen survives and this group is
not included in the monument.

In the south eastern group (centred at NGR SE53453770) there are three
pens located around the sides of an oval-shaped taxiing track, an average
of 150m apart. The fourth pen in this group lies to the south west and
faces west along the perimeter track. They are all standard Fighter
Command Works `E'-shaped twin fighter pens. Each consists of an open-sided
rectangular structure with a central traverse dividing it into two bays,
one for each aircraft. The pens are constructed of earthen ramparts
measuring approximately 10m wide and standing up to 2m high. The bays are
approximately 20 sq m and would have housed the larger twin engined
fighters. Within each bay the surface is composed of concrete covered with
a thin layer of asphalt in order to reduce glare. Externally they measure
70m in length by 40m deep.

Adjacent to the pens and taxi tracks and included within the scheduling
there are remains of the support buildings which originally serviced the
needs of the fighter pens. These buildings provided the means by which the
aircraft housed within the pens could be ready for duty and able to
respond instantly to any reported threat. These buildings include a flight
office providing accommodation for flight officers and clerks, sleeping
shelter, rest and recreation rooms, repair shop and a latrine. These
structures survive as a series of concrete footings and slight earthworks
indicating their positions.

The other group of four dispersal pens within the monument is positioned
in a line along the southern edge of the airfield facing onto the southern
perimeter track. They are between 120m and 180m apart and each lies within
a single protected area. These pens are all the classic `E'-shape in style
and are constructed in the same manner as the first group. The bays within
this second group are however slightly smaller indicating that they housed
single engined aircraft. In total they have external measurements of 50m
by 30m. Further support buildings were also located near these pens
however no evidence of these survives and the sites of these are not
included in the monument.

None of the fighter pens within the monument show evidence of post-1941
brick or concrete retaining walls or air-raid shelters found within the
fabric of pens, which indicates that these are early examples dating to
when the dispersal strategy was first introduced.

By late 1940 it was realised that airfields were also vulnerable to ground
assault intended to capture an airfield for enemy use. Church Fenton was
defended from ground assault by a network of defensive positions around
the airfield including gun posts, machine gun posts and pillboxes all
coordinated from a battle headquarters. At Church Fenton there were two
separately located successive battle headquarters. The earliest of these
still survives and is located on the north east perimeter at NGR
SE52893864. It was abandoned when the airfield was expanded to the north
and was no longer able to command a clear view of the whole airfield. The
second later headquarters was located at NGR SE53333780. It has been
levelled and is not included in the monument.

The surviving battle headquarters follows the standard Air Ministry design
and consists of a rectangular-shaped underground bunker on a north to
south alignment concealed beneath a mound of earth. Within the bunker are
a number of rooms including the station defence commanders office, a
communications room connected to the individual defence posts and the
observation post. The observation post protrudes above ground level at the
southern end of the mound by approximately 0.8m. The exposed part
comprises a square concrete cupola with a narrow slit on all sides just
above ground level which allowed for 360 degree vision of the whole
airfield. At the northern end of the bunker access was provided via a
flight of steps. In total the bunker and protective mound measures 15m by
10m.

Only two of an original complement of 14 gun posts now survive, both of
which are included within the monument. One of these is located on a
raised mound in the centre of the south eastern group of fighter pens at
NGR SE53403772. It has a standard keyhole-shaped design with a gun mounted
in the rounded western section allowing a 360 degree field of fire. The
eastern rectangular section included a small covered room which served as
an ammunition store and temporary accommodation for the crew with access
through the gun pit. Elements of the machine-gun mounting and further
internal fittings still survive. It is partly sunken into the mound on
which it stands and is constructed from bricks. The mound it stands on
extends further to the north and there is earthwork evidence of further
structures whose function is currently unclear.

The other surviving gun post is located to the north of the technical site
at NGR SE52523830. It comprises a brick built structure measuring 4.37 sqm
with a central circular gun pit. The entrance was via a door in the south
wall protected by an external blast wall.

Only one pillbox still survives at Church Fenton. It is located in the
south west corner of the airfield at NGR SE52323718 and is included in the
monument. It survives virtually intact and stands to its full height. It
is a Type 24 pillbox and has an irregular hexagonal-shaped plan with the
rear, south west, wall being longer than the others. It was positioned so
that the field of fire concentrated inwards to the airfield. The rear wall
has a central entrance with a gun loop on each side protected by an
external blast wall. Each of the other five faces has a single gun loop
set into the wall. Internally there is a brick-built partition wall which
operated as an anti-ricochet device. The walls are made of concrete with
external brick shuttering and the roof is of reinforced concrete, the
whole standing on a concrete raft. The rear wall measures approximately
3.5m in length and the other five walls are 2m in length.

In addition to the immediate defences at the airfield itself Church Fenton
was also protected by three night decoy airfields and one day decoy
airfield: only eight of the 36 fighter stations in the country were
considered significant enough to have a day decoy. The control building
for the `Q'-type decoy at Hambleton 6.5km to the south east survives and
is protected as a separate monument.

Other elements of the World War II RAF station still survive at Church
Fenton and are not included in the monument. These include a number of
buildings within the technical and domestic sites including hangers,
offices, the chapel and gate house as well the original perimeter track
and runways. These are all in active use and are not included in the
monument. Those sections of the original perimeter track of the airfield,
and those sections of hard standing for aircraft which lie within the area
of protection are however specifically included.

The metal mast array and associated brick building in the south east
corner lies outside the protected area.

MAP EXTRACT
The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract.

Source: Historic England

Reasons for Scheduling

The importance of defending airfields against attack was realised before the
outbreak of World War II and a strategy evolved as the war went on.
Initially based on the principle of defence against air attack, anti-aircraft
guns, air raid shelters and dispersed layouts, with fighter or `blast' pens to
protect dispersed aircraft, are characteristics of this early phase. With
time, however, the capture of the airfield became a more significant threat,
and it was in this phase that the majority of surviving defence structures
were constructed, mostly in the form of pillboxes and other types of machine
gun post.
The scale of airfield defence depended on the likelihood of attack, with those
airfields in south or east England, and those close to navigable rivers, ports
and dockyards being more heavily defended. But the types of structure used
were fairly standard. For defence against air attack there were anti-aircraft
gun positions, either small machine gun posts or more substantial towers for
Bofors guns; air raid shelters were common, with many examples on each
airfield; and for aircraft, widely dispersed to reduce the potential effects
of attack, fighter pens were provided. These were groups together, usually in
threes, and took the form of `E' shaped earthworks with shelter for ground
crew. Night fighter stations also had sleep shelters where the crew could
rest.
For defence against capture, pillboxes were provided. These fortified gun
positions took many forms, from standard ministry designs used throughout
Britain and in all contexts, to designs specifically for airfield defence.
Three Pickett-Hamilton forts were issued to many airfields and located on the
flying field itself. Normally level with the ground, these forts were occupied
by two persons who entered through the roof before raising the structure by a
pneumatic mechanism to bring fire on the invading force. Other types of gun
position include the Seagull trench, a complex linear defensive position, and
rounded `Mushroom' pillboxes, while fighter pens were often protected by
defended walls. Finally, airfield defence was co-ordinated from a Battle
Headquarters, a heavily built structure of which under and above ground
examples are known.
Defences survive on a number of airfields, though few in anything like the
original form or configuration, or with their Battle Headquarters. Examples
are considered to be of particular importance where the defence provision is
near complete, or where a portion of the airfield represents the nature of
airfield defence that existed more widely across the site. Surviving
structures will often be given coherence and context by surviving lengths of
perimeter track and the concrete dispersal pads. In addition, some types of
defence structure are rare survivals nationally, and all examples of Pickett-
Hamilton forts, fighter pens and their associated sleep shelters, gun
positions and Battle Headquarters closely associated with defence structures,
are of national importance.

The remains of the former World War II airfield defences at RAF Church
Fenton survive well. Church Fenton was one of few fighter stations in the
north of England and is one of the few nationally where significant
remains of the defences of a Battle of Britain station still survives.
Three quarters of the fighter pens still survive in a near complete state
along with remains of support buildings and sections of the perimeter
runways. Fighter pens are now rare survivals in England, and with their
associated structures they illustrate well some of the measures taken to
protect fighter planes during World War II by means of dispersed and
well-defended pens. In addition one of the battle headquarters and some of
the defensive posts are still intact. Taken as whole the monument provides
tangible information about a significant period of history when England
was under severe threat and demonstrates some of the counter measures
employed.

Source: Historic England

Sources

Books and journals
Otter, P, Yorkshire Airfields in the Second World War, (1998), 58-65
Otter, P, Yorkshire Airfields in the Second World War, (1998), 58-65
Other
AM DRG 2380/45, (1945)

Source: Historic England

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