RAF and Luftwaffe markings on aircraft wingsHatfield in World War II

For a town of its size, Hatfield played a significant part in the world's most widespread and destructive war. Yet there is little in the town to remind today's generation of the efforts and sacrifices made on their behalf.


Hatfield is the place where the trials of the world's first operational tank were held during World War I. However, having been on the receiving end of its attentions, the Germans developed the tank and the tactics of Blitzkrieg (Lightning war) and used them to devastating effect in World War II. Within a few months of the war breaking out in 1939 Britain stood alone in a world at war.

Brian G Lawrence has written a detailed account Hatfield at War, which gives a fascinating insight of the impact of a global conflict on life in a small town. However, information on the conflict and Hatfield's role continues to emerge.


Banff Aerodrome and Strike Wing

Coastal Command was the third of the RAF's main strike arms; however, its members often refer to themselves as the Cinderella service (due to the bulk of the publicity going to Fighter Command and Bomber Command). So it is perhaps fitting to use their Banff strike wing to illustrate Hatfield's largely forgotten contribution. 

While much of this example should be regarded as a theoretical exercise (without further research being done – although we do know for certain that Hatfield-built DH.98 Mosquito aircraft were among those used to equip the wing), it does show how important the town's and Hatfield-based companies and units contribution was to the war effort.

Banff aerodrome, in northern Scotland, only became operational from September 1944. Ultimately, it played host to six Mosquito squadrons. Together with the Dallachy Beaufighter strike wing they wreaked havoc on German shipping using Norwegian waters and coastline.

Anti-shipping work was extremely hazardous. Between 1940 and March 1943, the entire RAF had sunk 107 enemy vessels (some 15,706 tons) by direct attack for the loss of 648 aircraft. In their first three months (September - December 1944) Banff Mosquitoes sank 23,582 tons of enemy shipping. By the end of the war German shipping had been almost totally destroyed. But at Banff alone 107 of Coastal Command's finest laid down their lives in the process.


Building the airfields

The airfield may have been built using Caterpillar earthmoving equipment supplied by Hatfield-based Jack Olding & Company Ltd, who were the sole agents for the US company Caterpillar in the UK.

There is a strong possibility that the airfield was built by some RAF construction crews trained at Hatfield. Jack Olding had established an unofficial heavy plant training school at no cost to the public purse. This was later replaced by a formal RAF school at Mill Green. The quarry and site they used is now occupied by the Gosling Stadium and Mill Green Golf Club.

Before it moved to St Albans, the 5351 Airfield Construction Wing was headquartered at Hatfield.


Paying for the planes

During World War II, civic communities took part in National Savings drives. Often these were week-long series of fund-raising events (similar to Comic Relief and Children in Need today). In 1943, Hatfield & District aimed to raise £140,000 for A Mosquito A Day as part of their Wings for Victory week campaign. The total was reached in four days. By the beginning of June £294,000 had been raised.


Building the planes

The de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito is regarded as one of the finest aircraft produced during World War II. It ranks alongside the Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster as a legendary aircraft.

Over 400 DH.98 Mosquitoes were delivered from de Havilland's Hatfield operations to the Banff Wing during the war.

DH.82 Tiger Moth and Airspeed Oxford training aircraft were also built at Hatfield before production was transferred elsewhere to give priority to Mosquito production.

Other de Havilland aircraft, the DH.91 Albatross and DH.95 Flamingo also saw service in the RAF.

Two other military aircraft that were designed, built and made their first flights at Hatfield – but did not see combat before the end of the war –  were the DH. Hornet (a single-seat derivative of the DH.98 Mosquito) and the jet-powered DH.100 Vampire, which became Britain's second operational jet aircraft to go into production.

Aircraft production at Hatfield during WWII

DH.98 Mosquitoes: 3,054

DH.82 Tiger Moths: 795

DH. Queen Bees (Radio controlled Tiger Moths): 110

DH.89A Dominies: 200

Airspeed Oxfords: 1,440

In total, 5,599 aircraft were built at Hatfield during WWII. Another 1,505 damaged aircraft were repaired by the Hatfield-based DH Repair Organisation (while the majority were Mosquitoes, this total includes 150 Hawker Hurricanes).

Of the 5,584 DH.98 Mosquitoes built worldwide by de Havillands during this conflict 55 per cent were made in Hatfield (not taking into account the 1,126 Mosquitoes made by other manufacturers in the UK or post war production).

Note (added 28.10.11): all 19 DH.98 Mosquito aircraft used (18 bombers and one Film Production Unit camera plane) in the famous Amiens Prison Raid by 140 Wing on 18 February 1944 are believed to be Hatfield-built examples.

Note (added 31.10.11): at least two of the four DH.98 Mosquito aircraft (NT202 and NT205) assigned to 617 Squadron ('Dambusters') for target marking were Hatfield-built examples.


Training the pilots

Nearly all UK-trained pilots first learned to fly on de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes. Before the start of the war Hatfield was home to the London Aeroplane Club and the RAF Flying Club. Later, Hatfield played host to Elementary Flight Training School No.1 (EFTS 1). As the airfield became more and more busy it was moved to Panshanger.

Click here for W/C Ian Gleed aviation feature...

Click here for F/Lt Gordon Brettell aviation feature...



Delivering the planes

The Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) was set up to free desperately needed combat pilots from the mundane but still dangerous task of ferrying aircraft from factories to frontline squadrons. Even more dangerous was the job of ferrying battle-damaged aircraft back to factories for repairs.

The first all-female ATA unit, Ferry Pool No.5 was initially based at Hatfield (although, due to the congestion on the airfield, the ferry pool had been moved away by 1944). Amy Johnson, probably Britain's most famous female pilot, was on the strength of this unit at the time of her fatal last flight. The circumstances of her death remain shrouded in controversy to this day.


Repairing the damage

Hatfield was home to the Mosquito Repair Organization (MRO). Its members would fly to frontline airfields to repair damaged aircraft on site. More severely damaged aircraft were brought by road or air to Hatfield for repair. In all, 1,505 damaged aircraft were repaired by the Hatfield-based DH Repair Organisation (while the majority were Mosquitoes, this total includes 150 Hawker Hurricanes – although these appear to have been worked on before the formal creation of the MRO).


Raw materials

With German submarines inflicting crippling losses, Allied shipping cargoes were restricted to the most essential materials. The Admiralty was not prepared to risk men's lives running the u-boat gauntlet for just a cargo of wood. Britain had to be self sufficient in timber.

Timber that was essential for building blast pens, bomb dumps, shelters, pillboxes (the concrete being poured into timber frames) and other structures found on airfields. Jack Olding & Company, which also held the agency for John Deere tractors, once again came to the nation's aid by supplying and maintaining heavy plant.


Food production

Farm labour was in short supply during the war as men were needed to serve in the armed forces, Home Guard, coalmines, fire service and other essential areas. Mechanisation was seen as the answer to the problem. Jack Olding & Company's wartime ads for Caterpillar tractors and farm equipment stressed not only that they could do the work of several men but they could be operated by the Land Girls – women who volunteered to work in the fields to release men for frontline service.

As far as the Banff illustration is concerned the pilots, ground crews, airfield construction battalions (also needed to fill in bomb damage after an airfield had been built) and people in factories making the arms and the ammunition all needed to eat. And it's likely, Jack Oldings' Caterpillar and John Deere farm equipment played a key role.


Beyond Banff

While Banff Airfield helps put Hatfield's contribution into context, it does not cover all aspects of Hatfield's role during the Second World War.



Hatfield House was used as a hospital during World War II. Some of those casualties never recovered and are buried in Hatfield Park War Cemetery, which is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. After the trees shed their leaves in autumn the cross and graves can be seen from trains heading towards London. Access is by a gateway on the Great North Road / A1000.



German bombing of Guernica, Warsaw and Rotterdam only served to heighten fears about the safety of the civilian populace.

With London clearly a prime target, anxious authorities and parents sought to move children out of harm's way. Close to London but far less built-up, Hatfield was a natural safe haven for the child evacuees, and a number stayed with local families.


Battle of Britain

Emergency repairs to battle-damaged Hurricane fighters, built by Hawker, were carried out at Hatfield (de Havillands also repaired Spitfires but at their Witney site). This was at a crucial point in the battle, when Britain was desperately short of planes and pilots.

Before the war, both the Spitfire and Hurricane prototypes had been on displayed at an air show in Hatfield.

Note (added 13.07.10): so dire was Britain's position in the early days of the war that an idea was floated to add bomb racks to DH.82A Tiger Moths to attack German invasion forces that landed on British soil. Major Hereward de Havilland (Captain Geoffrey de Havilland's younger brother) carried out bomb release tests at Hatfield. 1,500 sets of the racks, which could carry eight 20lb bombs, were produced and delivered to flying schools across the country.


Home and Birthplace to RAF units

At least three RAF squadrons used Hatfield as a home during WWII. The first was No.2 Squadron which briefly used Hatfield as a home in June and July 1940. This famous WWI vintage squadron had won the first aerial Victoria Cross – by an airman who was no stranger to Hatfield.

Click here for Moorhouse, Rhodes and Rhodes-Moorhouse VC, DFC – Part 1


Hatfield was also apparently home to one of the most important units of WW2 – No.1 AACU (Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit), which used a variety of aircraft to calibrate Britain's radar defences that played a huge part in the Battle of Britain. On 17 February 1941, at Hatfield, this Flight became the reformed 116 Squadron (originally formed during and disbanded after WWI). The squadron moved to Hendon in April that year.

Another disbanded WWI squadron which was reformed at Hatfield – on 18 September 1940 – was 239 Squadron (formed from elements from 16 and 223 Squadrons). It appears to have moved to another base the same month.



Olive drab Churchill tank outside the D-Day Museum, PortsmouthTanks and armoured vehicles

Bulldozers (usually Caterpillar D-series) were used by the Royal Engineers with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Norway in the earliest British engagements in World War II.

It is not clear, without further research, who first decided to armour plate them or which company carried out this work. However, Jack Oldings & Company was involved in readying imported US-built Sherman and Grant, and Canadian-built Ram tanks for action. It is also known to have been involved in the development of Britain's first dozer tank, and handled some work on British Churchill tanks (a Churchill tank is shown in the photo, with a Sherman behind it, outside the D-Day Museum, Portsmouth). 



Timber was needed to build the Mulberry harbour caissons, and heavy plant was needed to create a channel down to the sea to ship them to France. How much Caterpillar and John Deere equipment supplied by Hatfield-based Jack Olding & Company Ltd played in this role cannot be said without further research.

Olive drab Caterpillar D-8 armoured bulldozer with pusher plate in the frontArmoured Caterpillar D-series bulldozers were part of the 79th Armoured Division, perhaps better known as Hobart's Funnies. This combat formation used the specially adapted tanks, including bridge layers and flame-throwing tanks, designed for the invasion of Hitler's Europe. The photo shows a Caterpillar D8 without armoured protection but with a pusher plate in front, which would have allowed it to push Bailey bridges into position (this example belongs to the Royal Engineers Museum but is part of a display at the Royal Naval Dockyard, Chatham). Two modified versions are also reported to have been used on D-Day to push landing craft off the beaches – speeding up the landings and reducing the amount of time they were exposed to enemy fire.

There is an ongoing debate as to whether armoured bulldozers can be classed as 'funnies', as they appear to have been developed much earlier in the war, and were also used on the American D-Day beaches. However, they did take part in the Normandy landings and subsequent breakout. In a number of cases, when an undisputed 'funny' – often a modified Churchill tank – had been knocked out, the less-heralded bulldozer went into action, and won the day.

The Overlord Tapestry, on display at the D-Day Museum in Portsmouth, clearly shows a Caterpillar armoured bulldozer on the drawing board in Panel 6.

Again, it is not clear, how much involvement Jack Olding & Company had but it is known that men from the Royal Engineers gained useful knowledge and experience working at the Hatfield factory.

Click here for Jack Olding feature...



Espionage and Counter Espionage

A German courier, Karl Richter, was parachuted into Britain on 13 May 1941, and landed near Salisbury Hall near London Colney. He was soon arrested and spent a night in the prison cells at Hatfield. Refusing to betray his German masters, he was subsequently put on trial and sentenced to death. Usually, that would be the end of the story as far as a captured spy was concerned. However, although he had surrendered peacefully, he put up such a struggle at his execution that hangman Albert Pierrepoint recorded the event using the name Otto Schmidt in his autobiography (be warned: it is not pleasant reading).

Edward Arnold 'Eddie' Chapman's story is one of the most remarkable to come out of World War II. A 'gelly man' by trade – a safecracker who used explosives – he was serving a prison sentence in Jersey when the Germans invaded.

He saw a chance to escape by offering the Germans his services. Trained as a German saboteur he was parachuted into England.

His mission: knock out the de Havilland factory at Hatfield.

However, upon landing, he immediately contacted the British authorities and convinced them to use him as a double agent, codename ZigZag.

An elaborate deception was staged, involving faked bomb damage at Hatfield, and he returned to German occupied Europe. After being feted for successfully carrying out his mission and being decorated (allegedly with the Iron Cross), after a brief stay in Norway, he was parachuted from a German bomber for the second time over England.

This time his mission was to report back to the Germans on where their V1 flying bombs were impacting to enable them to target them more accurately. Not surprisingly, the information he supplied back to his German controllers was inaccurate. Ironically, while the Germans had decorated him, all he received from the British authorities was a free pardon. However, his story was adapted and made into a film called Triple Cross, starring Yul Bryner and Christopher Plummer.


VIP visitors

King George VI visited the de Havilland factory in Hatfield during the war.

Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, made the first of several visits to the hospital at Hatfield House in July 1940.

Sir Winston Churchill also visited the de Havilland factory in Hatfield in April 1943. He also saw a private display of the latest Allied aircraft – including the DH.98 Mosquito and Britain's first jet aircraft Gloster E.28/39 – the second prototype (W4046) – which had made the UK's first cross country jet flight earlier on in order to take part.

AVM Hon Air Commanding the Auxiliary Air Force, HRH the Duke of Kent, toured the facilities at Hatfield and Holwell Hyde (later RAF Panshanger) on 15 October 1941.

Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands learnt to fly at Hatfield during WWII.


The human cost

People from Hatfield worked in the factories and served in the armed forces (58 are commemorated on the town war memorial, and died in places as far away as India and Japan. However, three men and the only female service casualty died after the last shots had been fired. It's not clear whether their deaths were due to injuries sustained during wartime service).

Hatfield was attacked several times (503 air raids in the district) and there were three incidents when civilians were killed (34 lives lost).

The first incident, on 3 October 1940, was the worst when a Junkers Ju88A-1 (Werk. No.4136) of Stab I/KG77, '3Z + BB', dropped four bombs on de Havilland destroying the 94 Shop and Airspeed Design Office at Hatfield and damaging a number of others (including the Technical School).

21 people were killed, and around 70 wounded.

Allegations and rumours that the pilot had been a student at de Havillands were made (and are still made to this day) but were refuted, including by John Cunningham who had joined de Havillands as an apprentice in 1935.

The Junkers was hit by anti-aircraft fire and set on fire. It eventually crashed near Hertingfordbury.

The crew: Oberlt. Siegward Fiebig (pilot); Oberfeldwebel Erich Goebel (Bordfunker); Fw. H Ruthof and Uffz. K Seifert were all captured unhurt.

It was the only German aircraft brought down over mainland Britain that day (others crashed into the sea or on continental Europe).

Note (added 13.07.10): this may well have been the most devastating raid by a single German aircraft during WWII. Eighty percent of the materials and components readied for DH.98 Mosquito production (estimated as nine months' output) were destroyed. Airspeed (1934) Limited, which had been taken over by de Havillands a few months earlier, also had its design office destroyed in the raid – along with the mock-up, drawings and design calculations for a new fighter aircraft. The AS.49 was a single engine, single-seater fighter powered by a Gipsy VI engine. The loss of so much work effectively ended the programme and it never took to the skies.


 V1 strikes

Over 10,000 of these unguided missiles were launched at Britain and about quarter actually landed on the mainland. So while V1 attacks were common, the ones that struck Hatfield, in late September and early October 1944, appear to have been the rarer air-launched type (the V1 ramps in France had ceased firing by the beginning of September 1944).

22 September 1944 – Selwyn Crescent bomb. Destroyed No.2 and No.4 Selwyn Crescent (near the airfield). 4 people killed and around 60 injured.

10 October 1944 – St Audrey's School bomb. Destroyed much of the school – fortunately when it was empty – when it was sited on School Lane (site now occupied by Countess Anne School). 9 people killed and around 30 seriously injured.


HMS Tweed

While Hatfield's contribution to the war effort appears to have been forgotten, Hatfield itself appears to be guilty of forgetting the sacrifice of the crew of the warship the town sponsored, following its 1942 National Savings Warship Week campaign.

HMS Tweed (K250) was a River-Class Frigate and the seventh vessel to bear the name. More details of this ship and its connection with Hatfield can be found in the feature HMS Tweed (K250) – Hatfield's forgotten warship.


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