Oxford’s Lost Aerodrome
As a long standing resident of Wolvercote, Tim Metcalfe has long been fascinated by stories about the largely forgotten First World War aerodrome on Port Meadow where brave young men learned how to pilot flimsy aircraft before setting off to undertake aerial combat above the battlefields of France and Belgium.
On September 19, 1913, villagers in Wolvercote were surprised – and no doubt a little suspicious – when no fewer than 16 new fangled flying machines landed on Port Meadow after droning over the dreaming spires of Oxford.
This visit heralded a new development. Just three years later, the northern end of the meadow had become a busy aerodrome, home to the Royal Flying Corps’ training squadrons preparing pilots to take part in fierce dogfights above the battlefields of the First World War.
Would-be pilots spent two months at schools of military aeronautics at Oxford or Reading to learn the theory of their new profession before returning to the squadrons at RFC Port Meadow where they got to grips with actually flying their aircraft.
But the meadow was no stranger to pioneering aviators; in fact two had died in a crash here just 12 months before the mass landing.
Second lieutenant Edward Hotchkiss was piloting his Bristol Coanda monoplane with his observer Lieutenant Claude Albermarle Bettington on a straightforward hop from Larkhill to Port Meadow where a RFC ground crew was waiting to fettle the aircraft for the next stage of its journey to join military manoeuvres in Cambridgeshire.
As the aircraft was coming in to land a quick-release catch holding a strap popped open. A flying wire came free and ripped a hole in the fabric covering the starboard wing, rendering it useless.
Hotchkiss lost control and the machine spiralled to earth. Bettington was thrown clear of the doomed aircraft but Hotchkiss went down with it. Both lost their lives. This tragic accident is marked by a grand memorial on the bridge near where the aircraft crashed. This was paid for by public subscription and thousands of local people turned out to see it unveiled in June 1913.
Hotchkiss and Bettington may have been the first aviators to lose their lives at Port Meadow – but not the last. Seventeen young airmen died while training at Port Meadow. Flying the primitive aircraft of the time was dangerous, even when enemy pilots were not trying to shoot you down.
Fatal crashes associated with Port Meadow aerodrome were the result of a variety of causes, including a mid-air collision, structural failure, engine problems and even unauthorised low-level stunt flying. The ages of the casualties ranged from 19 to 29 – but 12 of the 17 killed were 23 or younger.
Now, 100 years on, there is a long overdue move to commemorate the young airmen who died – and raise awareness of the part played by the largely forgotten Port Meadow aerodrome in the history of flight.
The Wolvercote WW1 Aerodrome Project aims to erect a memorial to the pilots – as well as an information board as a reminder of the meadow’s place in the history of flight. The group hopes to have this in place by 2018 to mark the centenary of the end of the ‘war to end all wars’.
Howard Crapper, 65, a member of the memorial project, said: “We want to raise local awareness of the aerodrome during the centenary commemoration period for the First World War and – most importantly – visibly recognise the ultimate sacrifice made by the 17 young airmen who died.”
Oxford City Council has granted full planning permission for the memorial, information boards and associated works. The project now needs to get approval under the Common Land legislation from the Secretary of State which might take a few months.
Port Meadow RFC aerodrome (which covered around 260 acres) was properly established by mid-1916. In the aerodrome’s heyday there were ten large canvas hangars and several other buildings accommodating several hundred personnel. By October 1918 there were 848 people on site, including trainee pilots, officers and ground staff, including 215 women. Pilot training could take up to 11 months, of which around six to seven months involved actual flying.
Many of the trainee pilots were billeted with villagers while the ground crew lived in bell tents around the site. Records show that the trainees at Wolvercote came from many nations – including in 1918 a group of Russian fliers.
One local story is that the aircrews enjoyed their time off by visiting the nearby Trout Inn.
At this time there were about 60 aeroplanes of various types at the aerodrome, with the hangars taking up to six planes in each, and a large rigging shed where the ground crews undertook repairs.
While all this activity was taking place the locals got on with their traditional business of grazing animals on the meadow. Both the Wolvercote Commoners and the Freemen of Oxford have the right to graze cattle and horses on the meadow, a tradition which continues until the present day. This presented a problem for the aviators as their runways were shared by the resident livestock.
In his fascinating self-published book The Royal Flying Corps in Oxfordshire 1912-1918 author Peter Wright records the experiences of former air mechanic Arthur Smith who was stationed at the aerodrome. Arthur recalled how he had to rise at 4am each morning to drive the cattle away from the aerodrome and on to the adjacent Wolvercote Common. There is an aerial photograph showing this herding activity taking place, but whether it is Arthur moving the cattle along isn’t known.
The end of the war saw military flying from the aerodrome decline, with Port Meadow aerodrome being closed in early 1919. In February 1920 Buckell & Ballard auctioned off the remaining aerodrome huts, the rigging shed and various items of equipment.
Today there is little evidence of the aerodrome on the ground – apart from the concrete ‘target’ building situated near Shiplake Ditch - and only a few black and white photographs of the hangars help us remember this fascinating part of the meadow’s long history.
Monday, November 11, 1918 Armistice Day
From the diary of Captain Geoffrey F Hughes, based at Wolvercote Aerodrome.
“Had flu but feeling better. Doctor brought news the armistice was signed at 5pm and hostilities ceased at 11am today! Hooray! It is almost unbelievable that the war is actually over. It is the limit to be in bed for peace! We had some “bubbly” to celebrate the event!”
- With thanks to Peter Smith for his tireless and ongoing research into the history of the aerodrome and the seventeen young fliers
- Anyone interested in contributing to the project can visit the group’s Go Fund Me account, e-mail Wolvercotewwl@btinternet.com, visit the Facebook page or call 01865 728883.
- Further reading: The Royal Flying Corps in Oxfordshire 1912-1918 by Peter Wright (1985)
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