In Tywyn, if you head past Idris Villas and carry on down Sandilands Road towards the level crossing, you will pass what remains of RAF Tywyn, which comprised a camp, hangars, airfield, control tower and transmitter. It was built on a large piece of flat grassland belonging to Morfa Farm and later known as the Morfa Camp. Morfa means marsh/bog, and Roy Sloan reports that it flooded frequently, to the extent that damage was sometimes inflicted on planes as they attempted to take off and land, and the station’s aircraft occasionally had to be moved to RAF Llanbedr. The majority of the wartime buildings have been demolished. Most of the information in this post comes from Roy Sloan’s 1991 book Wings of War Over Gwynedd, full details of which are listed below under Sources, with my thanks to the author.
The purpose of the camp was mainly to engage in anti-aircraft co-operation duties, which primarily involved supplying target practice for anti-aircraft training in Tonfanau Camp, which had been established on the coast a few kilometers to the north of Tywyn in 1938 (described on an earlier post).
The camp and airfield was built during the summer of 1940 and opened on 8 September 1940 as an air-cooperation base for the Royal Artillery Anti-Aircraft Practice Camp at Tonfanau. It was under the control of No.70 Group, Army Co-Operation Command, which was created in December 1940 to facilitate joint British Army and the RAF activities where air support to the Army was likely to be vital. Its Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader Irens, recently promoted from the position of Flight Lieutenant, and the personnel numbered 12 officers and 226 airmen. Two flights were assigned to RAF Tywyn. “Flights” were units that consisted of a small number of planes (usually no more than six), their aircrews and ground support. The two assigned to RAF Tywyn were from No.1 Ant-Aircraft Unit (AACU), called U-Flight and C-Flight.
U-Flight specialized in de Havilland Queen Bee pilotless drones, the radio-controlled version of the Tiger Moth, and had relocated to Tywyn from RAF St Athan (Vale of Glamorgan, south Wales). C-Flight was equipped with Hawker Henleys, and had come from RAF Penrhos (Llyn peninsula, north Wales), arriving at RAF Tywyn in June 1941. In June 1942 these were joined by two Lysanders on detatchment from No.6 AACU. In November of the same year three Miles M.25 Martinet target tugs arrived when C-Flight became No.1605 Flight (all lettered Flights were to become numbered instead during the war). The unit lost one of this Henley’s, together with its pilot, in a crash in low cloud over hills at Penygroes at about the same time.
The camp was built of pre-fabricated huts and hangars, plus a control tower. The Nissen huts were composed of corrugated iron sheets that form half-cylinders to create lightweight buildings. They looked like gigantic pig-styes, a half-tube of corrugated iron blocked at either end, one end containing a door for access. Maycrete huts are long single-storey rectangular buildings consisting of reinforced concrete posts supporting a pitched roof frame that supports corrugated asbestos roof panels. The hangars were all similarly made of prefabricated parts according to specific design standards and consisted of two Bellman hangars (walls and roof easily assembled from rolled steel sections),two Blister hangars (another pig-styie style arched structure made of corrugated metal on a wooden or metal frame, which does not need a solid base to be laid, and can be anchored with pegs), and two Bessoneau hangars (portable timber and canvas structures with a central ridge anchoring a slightly arched roof on vertical stanchions). Parts of the concrete aprons on which two of the hangars stood remain. The control tower was built to an RAF specification. A transmitter for control of the Queen Bee was installed in November 1940 but due to technical difficulties it was not operational until the end of February 1941.
When the station opened, the Queen Bee and the Henley were both used as targets for training. The Queen Bee was used as a direct target and the Henleys towed targets behind them. Offset aiming was supposed to protect the Queen Bee from destruction in these sessions, but when shot down, its controller would attempt to retrieve it. Unlike the Tiger Moth on which it was based, it had a light wooden fuselage that was a lot more buoyant that the Tiger Moth’s metal construction. Sloan says that the Queen Bee was quite sophisticated for its time, but was subject to fairly heavy losses when being used for target practice, as near-misses caused damage to its control system. The Henleys were manned by a pilot and drogue/towing operator. The drogue was a a canvas cylinder approximately 12 feet long and 4 feet in diameter. The Henley was not designed for use in target practice, and the drag of drogue towing often caused heavy engine strain. There were several accidents when engines malfunctioned or failed, and some deaths. Unlike the Henleys, the Martinets that arrived in 1942 were designed for towing, with a lot of attention having been invested into the cooling system to counteract the strain of towing heavy loads. In March 1944 two Hurricanes joined the station, and some of the Henleys were replaced by Martinets. Sloan says that by the end of December there were 21 aircraft at RAF Tywyn, 8 Hawker Henleys, 9 Miles Martinets, 2 Hurricanes, and an Oxford. The Queen Bees were no longer in use.
The Army Co-Operation Command was disbanded in 1943, as part of a general re-organization, and became part of the prestigious Fighter Command, which became responsible for the airfield in June of that year. In the December 1605 Flight, formerly C-Flight, was combined with 1628 Flight to become 631 Squadron, but it continued to be saddled with Henleys when most other towing squadrons were now using Martinets. Sloan says that by February 1944 the station’s complement was 16 officers, 25 non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and 185 airmen. In February 1944 one of the Henleys caught fire in the air and was ditched in the sea, very near the shore, with no loss of life. The plane was retrieved the next day by the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) No.1 Amphibious Training Wing based nearby.
Sloan quotes pilot Bert Pudney as a source for what it was like to be a towing pilot. He had joined the RAF in 1937 at the age of 16. By 1944 he had the rank of Sergeant and was transferred to Tywyn in the May of that year to fly Henleys. The account covers two pages in Roy Sloan’s book, but here’s a short excerpt:
The were several types of target, the largest being red flag 40 feet long and 6 feet wide, which was towed at various heights at a distance of 2,000 feet from the beech at Tonfanau, where Royal Artillery units had their guns – 4.5s and 3.7s. We towed at 140 m.p.h. because anything faster would send engine temperatures up. Some of the shelling was erratic, sometimes the target was hit and it dropped into the sea, sometimes the wire was cut and we lost the flog, but quite often the RA gunners seemed to be aiming at me and not the flat. I remember my Target Towing Operator (TTO) once saying after a few shots surrounded us, ‘This is getting bloody dangerous, Skipper!’
We also used a variety of drogues, carrying about a dozen or so then streaming them with about 400 feet of tow for various bodies to shoot at, e.g. RAF Regiment, Commandos etc. Their bullets were dipped in various coloured paints and after a few passes the drogue was dropped to check which groups had hit the target. This was indicated, of course, by coloured hols in the white nylon.
Some excitement occurred in July 1944 when a USAAF (United States Army Airforces) B-17 Flying Fortress bomber returning from North Africa with the 390th Bomb Group became lost in bad weather and, short of fuel, the pilot identified the Welsh coastline and flew along it, deciding to attempt a landing at the Tywyn airfield. The bomber was huge, far bigger than anything that the airfield was designed to cope with, and the bomber not only overshot the airfield but crossed the railway line and ran into an air raid shelter. A fire in the wing was put out by the station’s fire tender and the local fire brigade. The occupants of the bomber were fine, but the aircraft itself was a write-off. The railway line was again a victim in February 1945 when one of two Hurricane crashes again crossed the line, again resulting in a write-off of the plane.
After the end of war 631 squadron were deployed to Llanbedr in May 1945 and were replaced by No.22 Group, Technical Training Command. On 25th July it was closed, but its life was not yet over. It was transferred to the War Office and became an army camp and Outward Bound school and then a Joint Service Mountain Training Centre, an Armed Forces training facility . The latter closed in 1999. The old airfield was turned into a sports field and following a number of feasibility studies in 2015, is now a solar farm. Morfa camp is now privately owned, and some of the buildings are apparently let out as storage units. There is a commemorative plaque mounted on a slate monument at the entrance to the former camp.
Sloan, Roy 1991. Chapter 8, A Forgotten Airfield. RAF Tywyn. In Wings of War over Gwynedd. Aviation in Gwynedd during World War II. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch
I failed to get hold of the following book, but for anyone interested in finding out more, it might be worth tracking it down: Jones, Rees Ivor 2000. The Military in Tywyn 1795–1999: The Warlike Side of a Small Welsh Seaside Town.
Airfields of Britain
De Haviland Aircraft Museum – Queen Bee