History of RAF Winkleigh Airfield, Airbase, Devon, England. World War II | Winkleigh a Devon Village part 1V | Jackie Freeman Photography

RAF Winkleigh written by David Freeman RAF Winkleigh RAF Winkleigh


The story of a WW II Air Base in Devon

An illustrated History of the RAF Airfield at Winkleigh in Devon

With an extensive section on the RCAF Squadrons


Written by David Freeman

Adapted from his TV Series Secret Britain

Photographs by Devon Photographer - Jackie Freeman




Take a look at the  records and start with the 3 volume set the History of the Royal Air Force in World War II and you may be surprised to learn that there is no mention at all of the RAF airfield at Winkleigh in Devon! Yet the part played by RAF Winkleigh

in the war years was invaluable & the activities & exploits of its military residents unfathomable & at one time, unmentionable!






   Aerial plan RAF Winkleigh




 As the RAF's own personnel records show there were: 82 RAF officers, 86 S.N.C.O's and 894 O.R's giving us a total of 1062 men. W.A.A.F. 10 officers, 10 S.N.C.O's and 180 O.R's, Total 200, stationed at Winkleigh, so about 1,262 individuals all told.


  RAF Winkleigh air base was home to an incredible array of international combatants and their support units including; the IX USAF Service Command 74th Service Group, the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron USAAF, the crack RAF161 Black Squadron, RAF 286 Squadron and right from the start, the men and women of the Royal Canadian Air Force including;  RCAF 415 Maritime Patrol - Swordfish Squadron, RCAF 406 Lynx Squadron, RCAF 408 Goose Squadron and not forgetting the swashbuckling fighter pilots of the Free Polish Air Force who were a law unto themselves with a grudge to settle.

All were all stationed at Winkleigh air base for a period of time & they wouldn't be too happy at all at Whitehall's denial that the place existed.


But  history has a way of righting many wrongs and rightly records the deeds and bravery of many a nations sons, be they support or heroes who were stationed at Winkleigh airfield during the last years of the war. And for some, it would be the last years of their lives.



 The brand new, purpose built RAF base at Winkleigh, was just five minutes flying time to the north Atlantic coastline of Britain and less than an hour from the battlefronts of France So it  played an incredibly important and strategic role to the war in Europe. Both as a tactical support unit for Coastal Command and an offensive battering ram against the rapidly approaching Germans.
Mosquito Night Fighters lined up at Winkleigh airfield
Mosquito Night Fighters lined up at Winkleigh


 Winkleigh's fine family of squadrons were in one, guardians like a flock of protective hawks in the skies over our southern cities, iron fists smashing the transport and communications systems of the enemy and fearless, with its pilots like stealthy black panthers by night.


 Behind closed doors, new developments in radar technology were being undertaken, under the guidance of the Canadian radar experts based at the airfield. Munitions development and communication were being nurtured, secret operations planned and deadly strikes begun.  And it didn't exist?


 Alas, this is a common denial policy in England as was so brilliantly perceived and told by Antony Jay & Jonathan Lynnand in their comedy TV series.

It's a disacknowledgement of existence and a political excuse that we affectionately call "Yes Minister!"



 Winkleigh runway



"Today, looking back down these derelict runways where the engines of the fighters once tore into the night sky,

you are taken back seven decades to the summer of 1939.


As ominous war clouds blanketed Europe and the blight of the German occupation grabbed at its throat,

Britain and its allies did not rest."




A History of RAF Winkleigh                                                                                                       





  In the eyes of the Ministry, the need for new strategically placed air bases was paramount for the war effort. So plans were hastily made to develop a new airfield complex near Winkleigh to support Coastal Command in the defence of the Western Approaches.


Photograph: The RAF Airfield at Winkleigh

406 Lynx Squadron

Mosquito night fighter aircraft of  the RCAF crack 406 Lynx Squadron wait in

readiness at Winkleigh airfield

No one was aware of the problems its builders were about to face!


Crest Raf Winkleigh


The Construction of RAF Winkleigh


 A site for such a facility was selected to the north of the village of Winkleigh in Devon, England, on a deserted  & almost unfarmable flat plateau of moorland with construction work beginning there a year after the start of the war.



hangars RAF Winkleigh

The main aircraft hangars RAF Winkleigh today

© Jackie Freeman Photography 2008



 The tender to construct the Winkleigh airfield, including its independent infrastructure and permanent buildings, was won by the British civil engineering companies of George Wimpy &  A. Monk & Co., who began the monumental task in the spring of 1940 for a sum of £298,000.00

 To get the new air base at Winkleigh built and operational as fast as possible however was going to be no easy task.

The first headache the engineers had to overcome was purely logistical.

The masses of heavy equipment needed in the construction process, had to be brought in through the Devon countryside on carriageways that were designed for medieval oxen and carts, not to carry 20th century man, trucks, transporter  and bulldozer!



construction RAF Winkleigh



 So the civil engineers first major consideration was to improve the roads and the local infrastructure in all directions to make the project work.

 Thanks to the RAF then, many of the torturous bends and narrow lanes leading to Exeter and Plymouth in the south from Winkleigh were improved and re-metaled.

  Overcoming the geographic problems that the Winkleigh Hundred had to offer the Royal Air Force airbase builders was the second headache they suffered and it was water and poor drainage that nearly stopped the project dead in its tracks.An impervious layer of clay under the Devon soil made drainage a nightmare. The workforce of over 1000 Irishmen having to pump dry, literally acres of bogs and wetlands to lay the foundations of the RAF's new strategic airbase and its colossal runways at Winkleigh.

Runways which at 15 feet thick, would be capable of carrying the weight of the heaviest bomb laden aircraft yet designed by man.

 Incredible as it may seem, in the mud soaked Devon fields, Typhoid and gastric illness was rife amongst the airbase builders and construction labourers, even in our modern times and many suffered!




 Local Devon quarries laboured night and day to produce the hardcore demanded by the engineers who needed foundation ballast and stone  for the two huge runways of up to 17 feet deep, but they simply couldn't keep up. So the shipping of stone ballast from South Wales by coastal barges became a new priority and when it arrived into the tiny north Devon harbour of Bideford, convoys of heavy trucks forwarded it the last 20 miles to the aerodrome site at Winkleigh.


On January 1st, 1941, a solitary RAF pilot landed a Boulton Paul Defiant night fighter at the newly commissioned cross bow designed airbase at Winkleigh under the command of their first CO., Squadron Leader James 'Jim'. Reginald Cooksey & its history began.






Winkleigh airfield

Photograph:  Winkleigh airfield today looking west along the
northern perimeter track away from the main hangars.

© Jackie Freeman Photography 2008







Squadron Leader James 'Jim'. Reginald Cooksey

Squadron Leader James 'Jim'. Reginald Cooksey 1912-2001



Defiant night fighter

Boulton & Paul Defiant night fighter




RAF Pilots Winkleigh



 Much can be learned about the day to day life on the air base at Winkleigh, thankfully from first hand sources such as the memoirs and recollections of those who served there.

Take for instance, Canadian Radar Technician Horace Red McCaulay. He spent 3 1/2 years of his life in the UK on active service with the Canadian 406 Squadron developing and servicing A1 Radar systems for Mosquito night fighters and he has plenty of recollections of Winkleigh.

Red McCaulay

  "406 Squadron were relocated to RAF Winkleigh, North Devon in April 1944. Resuming Channel patrols and carrying out ranger sorties into Brittany, adding many more locomotives to the scoreboard.

By August the Squadrons Beaufighters had been replaced with Mosquito XXX's fitted with Mk 10 AI (SCR20) radar equipment.


Bristol Beaufighter             Mosquito winkleigh            Nissan Huts Winkleigh

Bristol Beaufighter                                                                                     Mosquito                                                                                                Nissan Huts


 Our quarters were in Nissen huts, constructed of corrugated steel which formed the roof and sides in a half circle design. This was erected over a cement pad with an access door at each flat vertical end. The huts were not heated, but did have a small cast-iron stove in the centre of the room.
The ration of coke for the stove was one scuttle-full per week. Certainly not enough for a fire every evening, but it did come in handy heating up items that arrived in care packages from home, such as soup and cocoa.

Scrounging additional fuel was out of the question as the coke storage compound had good security. You were considered a potential thief even to be found walking in that area!

 Radar technicians were normally assigned a separate hut for approximately 15-20 personnel and single cots were provided with a felt mattress or palliasses and a bolster, two grey blankets  but no sheets or pillow cases.

 Rest in the daytime for the night crews was frequently interrupted with in /out traffic and you were expected to attend day parades for pay, medical, camp musters, special lectures and training classes. Each hut was wired into a station public address system, which seemed to have frequent urgent messages."

Rest must have been difficult.

 Its interesting to learn that much experimental radar and equipment was being developed at this time, not least of all, that which was being fitted to Beaufighters and Mosquitos and of course the elusive Lysander.


But there's another tale yet to tell.



The Black Squadron Espionage Missions.

Go to Next Page >




The War Years - 10 Group  Fighter  Command at RAF Winkleigh 1942 - 1945

12th Tactical Reconnaissance USAAF RAF 161 squadron RAF 286 squadron
Free Polish Airmen
RCAF 415
RCAF 406 
RCAF 408

 IX USAF Serv. Comd.

   74th Serv Group

"Above All"

12th Tactical Reconnaissance

Squadron USAAF

"Know your Enemy"

          RAF 161

    Black Squadron

        " Liberate"

  RAF 286 Squadron

   "We exercise our


Free Polish Airmen

303 Squadron

RCAF 415
Swordfish Squadron

"To the mark"

RCAF 406 

Lynx Squadron

"We kill by night"

RCAF 408
Goose Squadron
"For Freedom"



A History of the Borough Town of Winkleigh, Devon

Sponsored by Jackie Freeman Photography


Jackie Freeman



The writer thanks and acknowledges the help of Steve & Shirley Leahy

                                                                                                          WEB Design and Graphics: WinkWEB

Copyright:/ 2008 | Jackie Freeman Photography - Grays Cross - Winkleigh - Devon - England. All rights reserved
Unauthorized use of the images illustrated is prohibited and protected under international laws of copyright.


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