The History of Chapelford Urban Village and RAF Burtonwood
Chapelford Urban Village and the surrounding area to the west of Warrington is located on the site of what was once the largest military air base in the UK, RAF Burtonwood. Unfortunately virtually nothing now remains of this once military giant.
The site’s proud history began in the early part of WWII when the British military was rapidly expanding to meet the threat of Nazi Germany. Aircraft factory, repair and support bases were required to support a huge expansion programme which started in 1934. Burtonwood was to have two initial roles, one was a civilian manned aircraft repair depot named Burtonwood Repair Depot (BRD) and this was located on the east side of Burtonwood Road.
The other was the RAF Maintenance Unit – No 37 which had the role of receiving new aircraft from the manufacturers, preparing them for service and delivering them to the active squadrons and support units across the whole country. Building work started in 1939 with a huge workforce clearing fields, filling ditches and pulling a few farm buildings down to make was for a two runway airfield. Five sites were built with a total of 13 hangars plus the HQ site, and BRD site.
BRD site opened in early 1940 with a civilian work force of approximately 4,000 overhauling aircraft engines, making component parts and actually assembling some small twin engined bombers. No 37 Maintenance Unit opened on 1st April 1940. It soon became an important support base for Spitfires. The Battle of Britain was about to begin and many Spitfires came to Burtonwood where they were modified, painted and prepared for service during the Battle. A longer third runway was required and this was built during 1942, becoming the main runway along which the M62 is today orientated.
BRD also started to specialise in American built aircraft. Although located on the west of the country well away from the Luftwaffe, it was visited on 6 September 1940 when two Ju88 bombers dropped bombs near the runways but no damage was done. Strangely Burtonwood was only attacked twice by the Germans.
The base was earmarked for American occupation as the USA joined WWII due to its size, expansion capability, nearness to Liverpool docks and location well away from occupied Europe. It was taken over by the USAAC with the first units coming in June 1942. From then on on the role was the receipt and preparation of US aircraft into Britain and delivery to the squadrons plus support, repair and maintenance. BRD site became a huge aero engine maintenance facility ultimately overhauling over 2,200 engines every month. Aircraft included B-17, B-24, P-38, P-47 and many others with a record number of 1,014 aircraft produced in August 1944 and at its peak there were 18,500 US personnel at Burtonwood! Total WWII production by the Americans here was 11,575 aircraft in 22 months.
With the end of the war, Burtonwood was the last US base in the UK to close and it was handed back to the RAF in 1946 who re-occupied it as a maintenance unit and spares support base for US aircraft in the RAF and as a personnel holding unit for RAF personnel about to go overseas. However RAF occupation was not to last for long as the Cold War started and the USAF came back in 1948 to re-open the base to support American bombers acting as a deterrent to the Soviets.
Massive further expansion took place with the main runway becoming one of the longest in the country at 10,000ft long (3,048m). A new control tower was added with terminal building plus a storage warehouse – Header House – which covered three million square feet (178,700 sq m) being the largest storage warehouse in Europe. Average numbers of 5,000 air force personnel plus their families made a huge impact on the economy of Warrington as well as the estimated 7,500 marriages to local girls over the period 1942 to 1993. After expanding into virtually a town, defence cuts hit Burtonwood and from the end of the 1950s it slowly ran down and was handed back to the RAF in 1965.
In 1967 President De Gaulle of France ordered the US military to vacate its bases in France and eyes turned towards Burtonwood as a suitable location for US Army to occupy and bring its Cold War equipment out of France. Accordingly, RAF Burtonwood became a US Army base from 1967, acting as a store for thousands of vehicles, mobile hospitals, bridges and equipment to support the US Army in the event of war in Europe. Bombers would deploy to Burtonwood for exercises but in the event of war would have operated out of it. Eventually the Royal Navy took over the deterrent with Polaris missiles and the airfield was abandoned.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the area was used extensively by Territorial Army and Cadet units for training purposes. The site was also used by the MoD for civil contingency and emergency planning exercises, as well as EOD exercises for Police; Fire and Rescue training.
The end of the Cold War removed the strategic importance of Burtonwood so it ran down and closed in June 1993. Slowly the buildings fell into disuse and now all have been demolished to make way for new towns and businesses.
Chapelford is located on the old BRD and Header House sites and the site known as Omega, by the motorway, is part of the airfield. Marks and Spencer and Ikea now occupy what was the east end of the main runway and nothing remains in situ to remind us that well over 100,000 military personnel were stationed at Burtonwood and its satellites since 1940.
The RAF Burtonwood Associate was formed in 1986 to perpetuate the memory of those who served at Burtonwood, both civilian and military and both British and American. They have a Heritage Centre in the car park of Gulliver’s World. They also hold regular meetings and produce a quarterly magazine, Burtonwood Times, and hold reunions in the US every year and in the UK on alternative years.