From the Thorley Archives

Thorley's Neighbouring Airfield

Unlike our impending 'big brother' at Stansted, little remains of the neighbouring airfield bordering the south west of corner our parish. Known successively as Allen's Green, Matham's (pronounced Maddam's) Wood and from November 1940, RAF Sawbridgeworth, this airfield had an impact on Thorley residents for many years. From its humblest grass strip beginnings in April 1916 to its final days with three reinforced grass runways preparing for D-Day in 1944, our residents have witnessed a variety of comings and goings.

A series of first-hand memories bring to life many incidents that illustrate the airfield's most intensive use during the Second World War. Herbie Martin, for instance, remembers having a short familiarisation trip in a Tiger Moth whilst in the Air Training Corps in 1942. His unit also acted in an airfield defence capacity. John Robinson recalls speaking to a local man who, whilst serving in the S.O.E. ( Special Operations Executive ), was secretly landed by Lysander at night at our airfield. He immediately recognised his location as being next to Thorley church! Mustangs continuously circling over the house kept Frank Warboys awake during the warm August nights of 1942. Mike Teitz, as an evacuee at Butlers Hall, records hearing a fighter plane crash between the house and The Green Man pub. He and his brother weren't allowed to go nearer to examine the impact site until all the evidence had been removed. RAF personnel from the airfield were responsible for investigating many such incidents in the surrounding villages. On September 19th 1940 a Heinkel He II was shot down and crashed in Thorley Wash. After the aircrew were removed by the RAF, two local boys, (who wish to remain anonymous!), removed the perspex to make into souvenirs which they then traded at school. By the time Bob Williams returned from the War in 1946 the airfield was being thoroughly dismantled. He recollects that POWs were employed taking up the wire mesh netting runways and contractors from High Wych were demolishing the many buildings.

The person with the most vivid memories is Geoffrey Ashwell. Geoffrey's family farmed Warren Farm and part of Blount's Farm during the war and had close neighbourly relations with the personnel stationed at the airfield. The Ashwell's bathroom and fireside became the second home to the photographic unit as home comforts were almost non-existent on the base. Farming went on as usual with the occasional breaks taken to avoid hostilities. Geoffrey recalls - 'One hot summer's day a dog fight took place immediately overhead and everyone took refuge in the nearest ditch. The horses, hitched to their carts, had to take 'pot luck' but thankfully they waited patiently and unharmed until it was deemed safe for us to resume work back in the open fields.'

On another occasion Geoffrey's shepherd, having finished work for the night, sat down to his supper when an agitated pilot knocked on his door. He had overshot the runway by two fields and a road! The shepherd invited him in to share supper until rescuers came to escort him back to the base. According to Geoffrey Matham's Wood became 'a beehive of activity'. Twelve 'blister' hangers were built with camouflage netting to house and hide the aircraft. Bunkers were filled with ammunition, fuel, chemicals and stores and a perimeter road, wide enough for two aircraft, surrounded the whole wood. Geoffrey was also an NCO in the Home Guard and, as member of the Intelligence Section, had to familiarise himself with high lookout points. One such was Thorley church tower which was manned as a vantage point in case of invasion or attack by parachutists. Detailed research about the 'forgotten airfield of Hertfordshire' was carried out by Paul A. Doyle and documented in his book 'Where the Lysanders were', !995. Geoffrey Ashwell was instrumental in providing much material for this book.

Whilst various squadrons of planes such as Tomahawks, Mustangs, Typhoons and Spitfires were either stationed there or used the airfield in transit, the plane that came to be associated most with the airfield was the Lysander. No. 2, Army Cooperation, Squadron used the airfield as their home after their hasty withdrawal from France in 1940. The Lysanders, affectionately known as Lizzies, were mainly used for photographic reconnaissance and shipping patrol duties. When the SOE was formed the Lysanders performed the clandestine role of landing and picking up agents at night in occupied France. Their ability to land and take off from short grass runways made them the ideal aircraft for this purpose. For these special duties they were painted black and had side ladders fitted for easy access.

Lysanders in Flight

Chris Newman, in his study of the airfield, documents the disturbance to the local population of the building of the airfield in the early days of the war. Roads were closed, buildings at Blount's Farm and Shingle Hall were requisitioned, pill boxes and other defences were built, ditches and hedges were taken out and the increase in population all contributed to a change of lifestyle in this quiet rural corner of Hertfordshire. Little remains today of the extent of the airfield that in wartime covered over three square miles. Driving up Parsonage Lane from Sawbridgeworth wartime buildings can still be identified, concrete runways now used as farm roads are still in evidence and within Matham's Wood, the bunkers and hardstandings have been reclaimed by nature

Surviving Pill Box Opposite Blounts Farm

Bill Hardy
June 2003

From the Archives