The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome

No. 7 Winter 2001

Airfield Defences - Sywell Aerodrome

by Adrian Armshaw
Pictures: David Crowhurst

Battle H.Q. - Vicarage barn before demoliton. Note 'loopholes' (gun slits).
Battle H.Q. - Vicarage barn before demoliton. Note 'loopholes' (gun slits).

Little serious consideration was given to airfield defence until the Munich Crisis of 1938 when passive defence measures were introduced, including the camouflage of airfield buildings, the construction of air-raid shelters and gas decontamination centres, and the dispersal of aircraft to the airfield perimeter where they were housed in blister hangars. This dispersed layout created new defence difficulties and at this time the only active defence consisted of light machine gun antiaircraft posts.

The next wave of construction followed Dunkirk and the fall of France in 1940 when invasion, and in particular paratroop assaults were a serious threat. An indication of the level of anxiety at the highest level is shown in Churchill's statement in June 1940: 'Every man in RAF uniform ought to be armed with something - a rifle, a tommy gun, a pistol, a pike or mace... It must be understood by all ranks that they are expected to fight and die in defence of their airfields'. The RAF regiment, with responsibility for ground defence, was not formed until 1st February 1942, but as early as the autumn of 1940 the trade of ground gunner was created for the airfield defence role. Sywell Aerodrome was also the home of E Company 9th (Brixworth) Battalion of Northamptonshire Home Guard. The airfield record plans identify a building as a Smith gun store, which housed a bizarre piece of Home Guard sub-artillery which had a reputation for being lethal to attackers and defenders alike.

Gun pit at Sywell.
Gun pit at Sywell.

Seven pillboxes were built around the airfield perimeter and were sited to cover the surface of the aerodrome and also the four roadblocks built on adjacent roads. They were Type 22 hexagonal brick structures with reinforced concrete roofs, and walls around 1ft (0.3m) thick. A loophole in each face allowed interlocking fields of fire to provide 360-degree coverage. In the event of an attack the defence of the aerodrome would have been co-ordinated from the Battle Headquarters. This was usually a purpose-built underground bunker, but at Sywell it was a unique structure built inside Vicarage Barn for camouflage, which until recently stood on high ground east of the aerodrome. An interesting survivor from this period is a circular light antiaircraft gun pit built from brick and sunk the ground for additional protection The socket in the base of the pit indicates that it was equipped with a Stork mount which used an ingenious arrangement of springs to counterbalance twin Lewis guns on a horizontal arm. This mount also allowed the guns to be used against ground targets. An example of a Stork mount is currently under restoration in the museum.

A 'store' mount as used in Sywell gun pit.
A 'store' mount as used in Sywell gun pit.

A large thick-walled Type 22 pillbox stands beside Holcot Lane, with 3ft. thick reinforced concrete walls and only three loopholes, suggesting that it was built later than the others when it was realised that German paratroops were equipped with several 2 cm anti-tank guns. It may be a type associated with Ministry of Aircraft Production sites, built to protect the works of Brooklands Aviation repairing and overhauling Wellington bombers and Armstrong Whitworth's assembly of Lancasters.

The museum would welcome and additional information or photographs of the defences of Sywell Aerodrome.

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Sywell Aviation Ltd. is a company registered in England with company no. 03180760 & VAT no. 623 8222 56.
Registered offices: Hall Farm, Sywell, Northampton, NN6 0BT.

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