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Old Airfield History

Martlesham Heath - A brief history.

The Royal Flying Corps came into being on 13th March 1912 and the Central Flying School was established at Upavon in Wiltshire at around the same time.

Upavon soon began to expand its activities and in 1915 the Armament Experimental Flight of the Experimental Flying section of the Central Flying School was moved to Orfordness in Suffolk. Soon it became apparent that the Aircraft Testing Flight, which was still at Upavon, should be sited nearer to the Armament Flight.

Consequently a survey was carried out to locate a suitable site capable of containing both the Armament Experimental Flight and the Aircraft Testing Flight.

Martlesham Heath was chosen and thus began the aviation history of this  area.

The new Station was officially opened on 16th January 1917 and was destined to become the premier national centre for the testing and evaluation of aircraft and armaments.

In October 1917 the operations at Martlesham Heath were given the name:

“The Aeroplane Experimental Unit, Royal Flying Corps”

Bristol Scout Fighter

The Bristol Scout fighter on the upper main-plane of this flying boat is believed to be the first aeroplane to land on the heath at Martlesham - in 1916. It released at a height of 1000ft over Harwich before landing at Martlesham. It is shown here on the slipway of the Royal Navy Air Service Station at Felixstowe.

On 1st April 1918 the Royal Flying Corps was merged with the Royal Naval Air Service to become the Royal Air Force. It is the oldest independent air force in the world.At the end of the Great War, in 1918, the RAF had gained complete air superiority. Nearly 300,000 officers and men had been recruited and it had an operational  strength of more  than 22,000 aircraft.

Handley Page V1500

This photograph, which was taken in 1918, shows a Handley Page V1500 at Martlesham for “heavy bomber handling trials”. Note the uniforms, reminiscent of cavalry officers.

Martlesham Heath has been described as “The Cradle of British Aviation”. It was established as the centre for testing and evaluation of aircraft only nine years after the first recorded flight of a heavier than air machine in Britain.

In March 1924 the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental establishment was formed at RAF Martlesham. This continued until 1939 when, with the outbreak of World War two it became necessary to move everything to Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. Away from the east coast.

All civil as well as military aircraft were tested here.

Handley Page HP42This Handley Page HP42 airliner obtained its Certificate of Airworthiness after acceptance trials at Martlesham  in June 1931.

It served without incident on the London to Paris and London to Karachi routes until the second world war.


Beardmore Inflexible


In 1928 The Beardmore Inflexible was the aircraft with the largest wingspan in the world. It was at Martlesham for evaluative trials. This video clip shows it landing,   Unsurprisingly it was not a successful design!In 1936 radar research and development commenced at nearby Bawdsey Manor and aircraft from Martlesham were available to assist when necessary.

airborne radar firsts

Click on the panel to listen to an historic recording made by the late Keith Wood, who was one of our members. Keith was part of the original team at Bawdsey.

He was one of the boffins on board  Avro Anson K8758 that took off from Martlesham Heath on September 4th 1937. This is an account by him of the first successful  radar detection of ships from the air. Aircraft taking off from HMS Courageous were also detected. Therefore this was also the first detection of aircraft from another aircraft

Three days before the outbreak of war, in 1939 the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment was moved to Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. Away from the impending “front line.”

The station became part of 11 Group - the group which bore the brunt of the “Battle of Britain”

Douglas Bader and Bob Stanford Tuck were two of the famous fighter aces stationed here at different times during 1940.

Volunteer pilots were arriving from the United States well before that country entered the war. They donned RAF uniforms and the RAF obliging formed three “Eagle squadrons” Two of these squadrons were at Martlesham at different times in 1941.

RAF Eagle Squadron

After the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese the United States entered the war in Europe in December, 1941. In the Spring of 1943 the 356th Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Force arrived at Martlesham.

They flew Republic P47 fighters and later the North American P51 Mustang. Their purpose was to escort USAAF Eighth Air Force heavy bombers on daylight raids over Europe.  

Hard runways were built for the first time on the previously grass airfield.  

For a full history of the 356th Fighter Group click on 356th FG              

P47 Thunderbolt P51 Mustang


Left picture is a P47 Thunderbolt returning to Martlesham sometime in 1944.

Right picture shows the P51 Mustang, “Damn Yankee” in the livery of the 356th Fighter Group, USAAF.

The P51 was able to escort the USAAF heavy bombers all the way to Berlin

RAF 56 Squadron remained on the station for a while. They were flying Hawker Typhoons and were mainly employed to attack targets in France and the Low Countries as well as shipping in the North Sea.

Martlesham, with its proximity to the coast,was an obvious choice for an Air, sea rescue squadron. ASR commenced on 14th May, 1941 when two Lysander reconnaissance aircraft arrived for the sole purpose of Air,sea rescue. These were quickly followed by Supermarine Walrus amphibians. Thus was formed “A” Flight of 277 Squadron whose headquarters was at Stapleford Tawney in Essex.

Supermarine Walrus

A Supermarine Walrus (X9521) at Martlesham, one of several based here during WW2.

In an era before helicopters the rather antiquated Supermarine Walrus had the ability to alight on a relatively rough sea and pick up survivors to fly back to Martlesham and land.  It was a true amphibian.

After the war RAF Martlesham Heath reverted once more to a research and development role. Although not on a scale seen in pre war days.

The Blind Landing Experimental Unit and the Bomb Ballistics Unit both became operation in September 1945.

The two units eventually merged and were finally moved from The Heath to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and Bedford.

Battle of Britain preparations

The "Battle of Britain Flight" moved to the airfield in 1958 and left in 1961. It consisted of Hurricanes and Spitfires but no Lancaster. It was later renamed “The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.”

This picture show the "Battle of Britain Flight" near the hangar which still exists on Anson road, near the Bowling Alley and Leisure Centre.

Here they are warming up for what was to be their last flight over London for a few years - After the annual flypast over Buckingham Palace the Spitfire crashed on a cricket pitch in south London with no loss of life. The players had gone in for tea!

After this the airfield reverted to care and maintenance status before the Air Ministry closed the facility on 25th April 1963.