RAF Halfpenny Green - A Brief History   by Nic Hale (NS24)

RAF Halfpenny Green began life as RAF Bobbington in 1941. The RAF originally drew up plans for a volunteer reserve centre on the site in 1938 and the following year the required land was requisitioned and the aerodrome was built. From the beginning it was a training station turning out wireless operators, air gunners, navigators and air bombers, work that carried on for the duration of the Second World War.

It was home to three units during the war, opening on 17th February 1941 as No. 3 Air Observers’ Navigation School (51 Group) with 50 Blackburn Bothas, later to be replaced by Avro Ansons. In fact instructional flying could not start until the following May because of problems with the runways.

In October of the same year the unit was redesignated No. 3 Air Observers’ School, the number of Ansons on the strength was increased to 66 and these were joined by 6 target towing aircraft. Courses in navigation and air bombing began at the same time.
The first WAAFs arrived in July 1941, their numbers growing to the extent that less than a year later there were enough trained musicians amongst them to form a volunteer band which became a popular addition to C.O.’s parades, which must have given Gp. Capt. T.Q. Horner something to look forward to. He was followed as C.O. later in the war by Gp. Capt. F.Wright who stayed in post until the station was disbanded.

The final change of name came when, in April 1942, the unit became No. 3 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit. To this a further addition was made when during the winter of 1942/1943 the School of Flying Control, together with their twelve Ansons, transferred to Bobbington from RAF Watchfield.

For two years the name of the station gave countless clerks, storemen and M.T. people a real headache because it was so easily confused in telephone conversations with RAF Bovingdon, which was close to Watford. Chaos so frequently descended on stores consignments and accounts that the Air Ministry in its wisdom changed the name from RAF Bobbington to RAF Halfpenny Green in September 1943. It was a change that the locals never fully accepted; they continued to call it ‘Bobbington airfield’, much to the consternation of new arrivals by road, for as long as a camp was there. The name Bobbington had been a logical choice, given that the airfield was built in the parish of that name which, incidentally, went back at least as far as the Doomsday Book. Halfpenny Green on the other hand is the name of a very small hamlet in the parish, a little group of cottages clustering around the Royal Oak (of happy memory); strictly speaking no part of the airfield, other than a few feet of the perimeter track in the north-east corner, was truly in Halfpenny Green itself.

Halfpenny Green was not one of the more glamorous stars in the RAF’s wartime firmament, but it certainly worked hard. During the war, training accounted for an average of one and a half thousand flying hours every month. A record was set in July 1944 when a total of 3,965 hours was logged, 2,359 daylight hours and 1,606 hours of night flying. In all, between 1941 and 1946 the station ran 354 courses for wireless operator/air gunners, 359 for navigators and 342 for air bombers.

As an airfield it has to be said that it wasn’t a hot favourite with all RAF pilots. Lying in a hollow in the surrounding land, although the rising ground around it was in no way dramatic it was still enough to trap winter fogs and frosts quite effectively. Then in summertime much of the surrounding farm land was put to cereals that could give rise (literally) to rather interesting thermals. Neither is much of a problem for the lighter aircraft but it was sometimes a different story for the hard pressed pilot of an Anson with an overfull load of cadets and heavy gear, further weighed down with a full load of fuel.

The station wasn’t entirely forgotten by authority during the war, though doubtless quite a lot of the permanent staff would have been pleased if it had been, because the VIPs came so hard on each other’s heels that there was hardly time to get another coat of whitewash on the coke between their visits. The then Duke of Kent visited in October 1941, closely followed a month later by the Inspector General of the Royal Air Force, Air Chief Marshall Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, and, not to be outdone, the politicians followed two months later in the ample shape of Sir Archibald Sinclair, Secretary-of-State for Air.

There was one moment of reflected glory. The playwright and author Terence Rattigan, who had come across the station whilst he was attached to the RAF during the war, based his script for the film ‘The Way to The Stars’ (known in the USA as ‘Johnny in the Clouds’) on entirely fictitious events at Halfpenny Green, which in the film he called ‘Halfpenny Field.’ Originally the intention was to shoot some of the externals at Halfpenny Green but when Two Cities began to make the film in 1945 the station was still operational, so nearby Wolverhampton Municipal Airport (then at Pendeford to the north of the town, today covered by a housing estate) was used instead. For most of the film ‘Halfpenny Field’ is an operational station for B.17 s, an impossibility for the real Halfpenny Green because the runways were too short. If squadron markings on the Flying Fortresses are any indication it would seem that the film footage of planes taking off and landing, apparently shot during April and May 1945, was made at the 348 BG base at Grafton-Underwood, in Northamptonshire, which was an actual combat unit at the time.
With the end of the war in Europe Halfpenny Green’s role as a beam-landing training school came to an end and on a cold grey afternoon in December 1945 the last Bedford five-ton lorry rumbled out of the gates. No. 3 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit was officially disbanded on December 11th.