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Lives were lived and lost and a collective memory was acquired which still haunts these places; Wales' military airfields reveal stories of wartime activity and the impact they had on ordinary people, says Jonathan Berry, Cadw's Regional Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Archaeology.

Byline: Jonathan Berry

Military airfields had the most profound impact on the landscape of all of the different types of military sites built in the twentieth century.

Land was requisitioned by a government official, stripped of its defining landmarks, drained, re-graded and levelled. Farms were relocated, streams culverted and roads diverted or closed.

On this blank canvas an airfield was imprinted. Each was carefully planned to accommodate both the functions of a technology-led service and accommodation for its operatives. Barracks and housing were ordered by rank and sex for the communities of flyers, technicians, administrators and their families who lived there.

Airfields possessed official boundaries within which buildings and structures were built to standard Air Ministry or Admiralty designs.

More attention was paid to the design and look of officers' messes, station headquarters and guard houses compared with the more functional technical blocks, hangars and control towers. Many buildings were less permanent, using temporary construction methods and austerity materials.

Despite their size and complexity military airfields are particularly vulnerable to re-development and clearance. Many, such as Wrexham and Angle in Pembrokeshire, have almost disappeared. It is important that aspects of this military heritage are preserved so that future generations can experience and understand the motivations and pressures of this period. For this reason, Cadw has recently commissioned the Welsh Archaeological Trusts to assess the surviving remains on the military airfields of Wales so that we can identify which buildings are suitable for legal protection.

During the First World War a large number of airfields were built, but most were subsequently abandoned and few extant remains survive. The main inter-war developments were the construction of Cardiff Municipal Airport at Pengam Moors and the Flying Boat Station at Pembroke Dock plus a growing number of RAF training airfields, particularly from 1937 onwards.

Of the 33 Welsh wartime airfields, the majority hosted training units, aircraft storage stations and maintenance bases, including six fighter stations and four Coastal Command bases. Seaplane bases at Pembroke Dock and Lawrenny Ferry guarded the Western Approaches.

An airfield's plan reflects its different functions. Based on the concept of dispersal, technical buildings and aircraft were separated by large spaces to protect personnel and equipment from the lethal effects of attack and blast. The organisation and layout of airfield buildings and activity zones were characterised by pre-determined locations, distances and directions between technical facilities and zones of the airfield, to enhance efficiency, safety and usage under pressure.

Airfields are representative of the major investment by the defence establishment to secure victory during the major conflicts of the 20th century. But they are also about people. We are familiar with war movies such as 633 Squadron and The Dambusters, where military airfields are portrayed as bustling hives of heroic activity.

Lives were lived and lost and a collective memory was acquired which still haunts these places. People were highly mobile as troops moved around the country, and even between countries, reminders of which survive in ephemeral legacies such as sketches and notes hastily scribbled on walls. The part these places played in the lives of their temporary inhabitants made a lasting impression and many veterans and their families still visit and remember. By looking at the buildings, we can not only understand their function but also the stories of Wales' wartime activity and the impact on the lives of ordinary people. You can get a good idea of how a wartime control tower felt by visiting Carew Cheriton in Pembrokeshire.

The 2012 National Eisteddfod will take place on the former RAF airfield at Llandow in the Vale of Glamorgan. Today, its runways are still well defined and many of the original technical buildings remain, including hangars, the control tower, the water tower and guardhouses.

Not only will you be able to visit a well-preserved Second World War airfield but you will also be able to see superb then and now photographs of Llandow on the Cadw stand and maybe share a few memories too... * For more information about the military airfields projects or Cadw at the National Eisteddfod, go to Welsh History Month in the Western Mail is sponsored by Cadw.

Cadw is the Welsh Government's historic environment service working for an accessible and well-protected historic environment for Wales.

In practice this means that it conserves Wales' heritage; helps sustain the distinctive character of Wales and helps people understand and care about their history.

Cadw's director, Marilyn Lewis, said: "Everyone has their own story; some are shared but many are unique and Cadw is working to help connect these stories to historic places in Wales.

"We are pleased to support Welsh History Month and hope that it will encourage everyone to get out and explore not only the 127 sites looked after by Cadw, but the many thousands of amazing historic places all over Wales".


* You can get a good idea of how a wartime control tower felt by visiting Carew Cheriton in Pembrokeshire
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Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 17, 2012
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