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The History of the Airfield

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Both pictures courtesy of Peter Crosier and Mike Aitchison

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In 1915, during the First World War an Airfield was established on the Berwood Playing Fields. The War Dept carried this out. This was initially set up for a training centre, including ones from France, Canada and later on for testing new Aircraft. The size of the airfield was small in comparison with others. Very few staff. A commanding officer, his assistant and two mechanics. Planes were also few, only three or four. Flying was limited to forty minutes due to the fact with fog, high winds and a large presents of Industrial haze from nearby factories. The other hazard that faced the pilots was the presence of a sewage works at the very end of the runway.

The first squadron to be based at Castle Bromwich was that of 10 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps. This squadron was on hand to train the many staff of other Squadrons based in France. The training aeroplanes used at the time were Maurice Farmans.The pilots were accommodated in tents at the edge of the runway, and the mess area was a large marquee. This later changed and they were transferred to Erdington and also the local jockey's quarters at the racecourse. With the staff increasing all the time the Old Hall Farmhouse was used as an officers' mess, new rooms were built and a line of huts were erected as billets for the remaining staff. German prisoners of war were placed in corrugated iron sheds next to the Castle Bromwich station. These building were later to become the British Industries Fair, an early form of the now known NEC.

There were many characters abounded for Castle Bromwich. It has been said that an Indian Prince visited at one time, and the Flight Commanding Officer Captain Henderson used to wear a kilt when flying instead of the recommended uniform

With the signing of the Armistice to end the First World War, the officers at the airfield celebrated by taking all the furniture out of the mess and setting fire to it. Little did they know it wasn’t over?

After the war, the home farm premises were let to Dunlop’s. The airfield was still active but was given over to the Midland Aero Club for the fliers of the University. It also had regular visits from Jones & Cobham’s' flying circus and for two Americans who had a "signwritting" contract in order to supply advertising for the local industrial concerns. Also it was used as a refuelling stop in the Kings Cup Air Races.

Even though peace was established in 1918, it was not until 1922 (and then after pressure) that the Air Ministry allowed the drainage board to retake control of a large proportion of the land. Sewage farming had now ended although contracts had to be honoured in the supply of dried sludge. During this period the Government erected some buildings with a cost of 12500. These became profit within a short period of time after the buildings were let out. The large corrugated hangers were let out for a period of two weeks a year, so local business men keen to promote the Birmingham's manufactured products. The B.I.F was promoted nationally and received visits from members of the Royal Family. At these times trainloads of people would commute from Birmingham to Castle Bromwich station. A part from these busy times the area surrounding the Airfield was peaceful.

Squadrons of the Airfield

Castle Bromwich became a stopping place during many early air races. Probably the most historic of them all was June 20 1914 when, during the Daily Mail London to Manchester Air Race, the playing fields were a port of call in both directions. Six competitors came and four proceeded to Manchester, leaving Graham White entertaining the crowd in his Farman Biplane. The war office requisitioned the site in 1914 and established flying school's here.

No.5 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron formed on May 11 1915, and stayed until December 12 1917 by which time it had become NO.5 Training Squadron. On September 1 1915, the famous 19 (fighter) Squadron was born here, worked up using BE 2cs and Caudron G111's, and in late 1915 took over some RE 7's from NO.5 Squadron.NO.55 Squadron formed here on April 27 1916.Using BE 2cs, FK 8's and Avro 504's, it became a training unit and left in June 1916. No.38 Squadron followed, forming on July 14 1916 as a home defence Squadron flying BE 12's, RE 7's and FE 2 'bs before leaving in October 1916. Assorted reserve Squadron commenced existence at Castle Bromwich including NO. 28 here from June 1916 to July 1918, NO.34 based here during November 1916, NO.67 formed in June 1917 and NO's 54,55 and 74 here in 1918. Of these No.54 was the last to leave. An Aircraft Acceptance Park opened at Castle Bromwich in April 1918 testing locally built HP 0/400's and SE 5's. To Castle Bromwich came the remnants of 9 Squadron held here from July 1919 to the year's end. Castle Bromwich had been most active during the First World War.

Its future looked bright and, in August 1919, the Air Board acquired it. Castle Bromwich appeared to be an ideal airport site and the British Air Transport Co opened, on September 29 1919, their first London-Birmingham passenger service.

September 1922 brought the next milestone, 17 competitors in the first Britain King's Cup Race. A repeat performance came on July 13 1923. Air Ministry approached the city, offering 3000 to assist the running of an aero club. Flying clubs, they argued, could form a cheap reserve force. Some 2000 of the money was spent on a couple of DH Cirrus Moths for the Midland Aero Club, which opened in style on October 16 1925.

Further decisions led to the formation in October 15 1926, of No.605 (County of Warwick) Squadron, part of the newly formed Auxiliary Air Force. Equipped with DH 9a's, the Squadron displayed itself on July 16 1927 to over 100,000 people. Nearly 100 aircraft took part in the show, including Gamecocks of 32 Squadron, Horsleys, a Siskin, a Hinaidi and a clutch of RAF DH 60's. An Armstrong Whitwort Argosy biplane brought the official delegation, and then gave the Lord Mayor a memorable flight. A year later the 1000-mile King's Cup was routed via Birmingham. In 1929 it took place over an even greater distance, competitors calling at Castle Bromwich on the homeward leg.

A dozen Westland Wapitis replaced 605's DH 9a's in April 1930 and Castle Bromwich became increasingly used by Railway Air Services. The GWR element extended its services to Cardiff, a 40-minute flight away when travelling in a tri-motor Westland Wessex. A steady expansion of the Railway Air Services was reflected when, in April1934, Midland and Scottish air ferries introduced a run to Liverpool. By that time RAS were using DH 86's. In April 1933 Bulldogs of 111 Squadron exercised here, and a year later there was talk of Birmingham having its own AAF Squadron.

Hawker Harts replaced 605 Squadron's Wapits in 1934 and were exchanged for Hinds late in 1936. Early in 1937 the go ahead was given for a 250,000 to be spent on a station over the next two years. Included was the cost of a "C" Type hanger and a stylish Headquarters building for the auxiliaries, built by the Chester Road, opposite a huge factory site which Lord Nuffield acquired in 1938. Castle Bromwich was a train volunteer reservists at a six aircraft strong unit known as 14 E&RFTS. In 1938 agreement was concluded with the Midland Aero Club for the latter to be a Civil Air Guard flying instruction unit, remaining when the VR School moved to Elmdon in1939. Before 1938 ended, 605 Squadron was notified that its role would change to that of a fighter.

Six Tiger Moths were delivered to the Aero Club in February 1939, and six DH Moth Minors were to follow. April1939 brought 605 Squadron its Gladiators. Another 213 acres were added to the field in the expectation that Hurricanes would come to 605 Squadron. With the opening of Elmdon in May 1939, scheduled air services were switched to Birmingham’s council's new playground. The last pre-war display at Castle Bromwich provided the public with the first look at a Spitfire.

Second World War

Come the war and Castle Bromwich fighter Squadron moved to Tangmere. In replacement came assorted ground units and balloon crews. The E&RFTS combined with No's20 and 44 to form 14 EFTS on September 3 1939, the school leaving for Elmdon a few days later. No 7 AACU arrived in April1940 to co-operate with the Wolverhampton Searchlight School. Another AAC formation, No 116 Squadron based at Hendon, had a detachment here in 1941 for Anti-Aircraft gun calibration.

Wartime Castle Bromwich is remembered for it's massive contribution to the Spitfire Production/ programme. Although production did not commence until 1939 it was June 1940 before the first SpitfireII taxied of the Factory to the Airfield for the first of 33,198 Spitfire test flights here.

The first Castle Bromwich Spitfire P7280 was delivered to the RAF on June 27 1940, and the first delivery to a Squadron took place on the 17th June 1940. Production reached 30 Spitfires a week with the Factory long concentrating on Mk V's and IX's and later the high speed Mk21 & 22's. Huge Spitfire orders were placed, for 1000 on April 12 1938. In May 1942 2,990 Spitfires were ordered, to be produced in the largest single order for any British military aircraft. Many came to be the backbone of the Spitfire Squadrons in the last two years of war. The Factory also built 50 Sea fire 45's.

When the Factory closed in December 1945 it had built 15634 Spitfires Inc of Sea fire’s, and a 305 contribution to Lancaster production the first of which was completed in late 1943. Brook lands CRO functioned at Castle Bromwich, repairing 71 Wellington bombers. From the Factory, Alex Henshaw, of the pre-war Mew Gull fame, test flew Spitfires.

Following the War, Castle Bromwich reverted to being a training station for No.44 Reserve Centre formed on November 1 1947 and 5 RFS used Tiger Moths and Anson 21's. Also here was HQ 3605 Fighter Control Unit, No. 4 Gliding School, ATC and Birmingham University Air Squadron. No.605 Squadron's aircraft needed hard runways so it was stationed at Honiley.No. 5 RFS disbanded on June 20 1954 after re-equipping with Chipmunks.

When Castle Bromwich closed April 1 1958, there remained one last link with the great Wartime days, Spitfire IX, 6457M standing for lone not far from where it had been born as ML427. That item has passed on and on the hallowed ground now known as Castle Vale, has raised a housing estate.

 

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