During the First World War, the west side of England was relatively safe from aerial attack and more airfields were desperately required for the rapidly expanding Royal Flying Corps (RFC). New squadrons were being formed as fast as possible and pilots had to be trained to equip them. In 1915, to the north-west of the village of Shawbury, a flat area of 260 acres was identified as being suitable for use as a flying field. Strips could be made to allow take-off and landing runs of over 1000 yards in two directions giving a possible choice of four runways.

German prisoners at work, Shawbury Aerodrome

McAlpines began clearing fences and hedges, filling ditches and laying suitable grass landing strips. Seven hangars were soon erected, built of timber, each being 250ft long and 70ft wide. The labourers were assisted by German Prisoners of War, who all lived in tents whilst the airfield was under construction. By summer 1917, the new airfield was ready to accept its first units and the headquarters of No 29 (Training) Wing was formed on 1st September 1917. No 29 Training Wing controlled five training squadrons, of which three were formed at RAF Shawbury (No10, 29 and 67) and two at neighbouring RAF Tern Hill, which had been built simultaneously.

No 29 (Training) Squadron was a unit within the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) and was integrated into the RFC to share its facilities and train its own men who would ultimately join the AFC flying squadrons in France. This squadron was the first of the four AFC units to form in Britain. In November two squadrons at Tern Hill formed in the same Wing, being numbered Nos 34 and 43 Training Squadron. The Wing was commanded by Major A W Tedder who was later to become Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Tedder.

AVRO crash across local road adjacent to Shawbury Aerodrome, 1917

Accidents were common, at first due to inexperienced instructors pushing pupils through a very short course as fast as possible.

On 1st November 1917, the first Americans arrived at the Wing for pilot training and were viewed with suspicion by the local villagers. Their uniforms were different and their manner was far wilder than that of the British and the Australian airmen seen so far. Discipline was not too strict and pilots would land in one of the surrounding fields and take their girlfriends up for a flight, contrary to orders of course! Contemporary newspaper reports talk of aircraft flying under the arches of the Severn bridges at Shrewsbury.

Communications at the time were still very much in their infancy. No radios were ever carried by aircraft in World War One and all the controlling was done by hand and lamp signalling. The station was not even connected to Whitehall and any important messages were sent to the village post office and then run, by hand to the airfield.

By June 1919, the Station had reached its maximum size. The station only operated at full strength for eight months, as the drastic reduction in the size of the RAF removed the need for new pilots and the Wing disbanded during June 1919. By mid 1919, the station had been so developed that it was established as a permanent aerodrome and was on the list for retention post war. As the flying units moved out, their place was taken by a Storage Detachment on 1st July 1919 followed by the Airship Construction Service Station on 1st September 1919.

The storage units disbanded on 31st December 1919 but a transit camp remained open well into January 1929 by which time all the airmen had departed. The Station was left deserted except for a small care and maintenance party responsible for salvaging any valuable items and the final closure of the Station. The generators were taken away, pipes sealed off, sewage works closed, many of the buildings demolished; by summer 1929, little remained to remind the local population that almost 1,000 men had occupied the nearby site. Shawbury village was left with no electricity or other services. The fields were returned to their farmer owners and the RAF finally left in May 1920.

With thanks to Aldon P Ferguson – A History of RAF Shawbury

 

Shrewsbury Chronicle, 20th July 1917

 Airman’s Amazing Display at Shrewsbury

Salopians were privileged to witness a sensation display of flying on Monday evening by an intrepid airman, who manoeuvred a powerful biplane in so daring a manner that his thrilling feats must have been seen to be believed possible. The exhibition lasted upwards of half an hour, and the weather conditions were ideal. The airman looped the loop times out of number, fled upside down, and indulged in a variety of apparently reckless antics at high and low altitudes which practically unnerved many eye-witnesses. Once the biplane seemed to be tumbling to earth in corkscrew fashion, and a wounded soldier on Pride Hill cried: ‘He’s done it this time! Five shillings to a pinch of snuff, he’s down.’ The next instant, however, the airman was gracefully soaring up again, with a view to providing more, and still more thrills. The performance won the admiration of the boys at Shrewsbury School, the crowd of people at the Quarry concerts, and hundreds of people gathered at every vantage point in the borough. It was an intense relief to many when the marvellous exploits terminated, and the airman flew for home.

 

Shrewsbury Chronicle, 27th July 1917

 Record crowds lined the banks of the Severn on the occasion of the conclusion of the Shrewsbury school Bumping Races on Saturday evening, but the magnet which had drawn the vast majority of the expectant throng was the prospect of a side-show. A story had gone round that the sensational display of flying witnessed earlier in the week was to be eclipsed by an intrepid airman who had declared his intention of flying under the Kingsland Bridge.

 The Boat Race was in progress when attention was riveted by the wonderful manoeuvres of the occupant of two huge biplanes. The airmen, however, at this stage made no pretence to pass under the bridge, but alighted in the School grounds. The multitude waited patiently, and an hour later were privileged to witness another magnificent flying display which culminated in the more daring of the two airmen passing under the Kingsland Bridge no less than eight times and once from the opposite direction.