Unit History: RAF Castle Bromwich

RAF Castle Bromwich
A large piece of Warwickshire grassland (Castle Bromwich playing fields) became the Castle Bromwich private aerodrome, when Alfred P Maxwell flew the first aeroplane in the Birmingham area in September 1909. In 1911 Bentfield C Hucks flew a Bleriot monoplane and gave passenger flights. The Midland Aero Club established itself and a hangar was built for storage of the planes. It became a stopping place during early air races. The War Office requisitioned it for use by the Royal Flying Corps and flying schools in 1914, when proper roads and buildings were established.
In 1915 No 5 Reserve Aeroplane Squadron was formed, later becoming the No 5 Training Squadron. Nine other Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force squadrons resided at the airfield during and just after World War I. After the war Imperial Airways started a service from London. In the inter war years the aerodrome had a dual military and civilian function. In 1922 the airfield was used for the first round of the King’s Cup Race.
During the rail strike in 1919 the RAF and Vickers Ltd had flown mail and newspapers from London to Castle Bromwich. After the war workers from Fort Dunlop, the Dunlop factory on the other side of the Chester Road, used some of the bungalows at the airfield due to a housing shortage.
In 1934 the Air Ministry stated that Castle Bromwich could not be used for civil purposes indefinitely, so a new airport was built at Elmdon (some five miles away) which is just outside the Birmingham city boundary. It opened in 1939 and is now the present Birmingham International Airport. In 1937 more hangars and a squadron headquarters were built for the Royal Air Force. In 1939 it was extended further to become a fighter station and a base for other units. The airfield was also used for experimental purposes, including the ‘Harrow’ an early twin engined heavy bomber.
World War 2
As World War II approached, the Air Minister (Sir Kingsley Wood) asked Lord Nuffield (William Morris) if he would establish a new factory to produce aeroplanes. This was to be built in between Fort Dunlop and the airfield. Construction commenced on 14 July 1938 and an initial order for 1 000 Spitfires was placed on 12 April 1939. Castle Bromwich Aeroplane Factory was then the largest of its kind in Britain; it covered 345 acres and employed 12,000 people. The site plan shows main offices, drawing offices, tool rooms, stores for finished parts, areas for the assembly of wings and fuselages, and covering of tailplanes and fins, drape shops for covering of parts including petrol tanks, canteens, surgeries, sports and social clubs and power generating plants.
This Spitfire Mk 2A, now owned by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, was built at Castle Bromwich
This Spitfire Mk 2A, now owned by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, was built at Castle Bromwich
In 1940 Vickers-Armstrong was placed in charge of the factory. The factory built almost 12,000 Spitfires, over half of the total number produced. Often fifty Spitfires a week were made. In 1941 200 Avro Lancaster Mk II bombers were ordered, by the end of the war 305 had been built. Fifty Seafire 45s were also made. In 1943 a bomb was dropped on the factory, causing some production to be dispersed to other sites around the Midlands. By the end of the war more than 200 bombs had been dropped on the factory and eleven people had been killed.
When the planes were completed they were towed across the main Chester Road to the airfield where they were flown by test pilots and delivered to their squadrons. Alex Henshaw was the Chief Test Pilot from 1940 to 1946, putting more than 10% of the aeroplanes produced through their paces, and providing some spectacular air displays with the Spitfire’s. Henshaw became a celebrated flyer when he won the King’s Cup Air Race and also by completing a record breaking solo flight to Capetown and back.
The airfield was visited by many famous people. Winston Churchill (Prime Minister) and Mrs Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of Franklin D Roosevelt - President of the USA) visited on 26 September 1941. The King of Norway also visited during the war.
After World War 2
Post war, the airfield reverted back to training station. Various units used it and there was an annual display to mark the anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Civilian flights returned, including the first scheduled helicopter service from London. The aeroplane factory was closed in 1945 and became a car factory. It was first sold to Fisher and Ludlow Ltd, which was acquired by BMC in 1953. Later, it became part of Jaguar. Part of the original site was also bought by Dunlop to extend their premises and house their research programme.
The airfield closed in 1958 and in 1960 the site and that of the BIF, and nearby farmland was sold for housing. The runway was broken up, the buildings were demolished and construction of a Birmingham overspill estate (Castle Vale) started in 1964 and completed in 1969. All that remains is a memorial, a stained glass window in the estate’s church, streets and housing blocks with aviation names, a row of ex-RAF houses along the Chester Road, and a Spitfire Memorial. This is a large steel sculpture called Sentinel designed by Tim Tolkien which was erected on the roundabout where the road to the estate joins the Chester Road in 2000. The roundabout was subsequently renamed "Spitfire Island".

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