Memories of Smeatharpe Airfield

Memories of Smeatharpe Airfield by Clifford Pym (Smeatharpe Resident, May 2003)

The airfield was built for D-Day landings in 1942-1943. Several farmers but mainly Lord Sidmouth owned the land, a great deal of which was covered with gorse and bracken. The airfield was constructed by G Wimpey and Co with mainly Irish labour. Before the construction, roads through Upottery had to be reinforced to take the force of the heavy lorries carrying cement from Honiton Station and hard core from quarries and the coast. The lorries were very noisy as they roared along our narrow roads, unsheeted and often with broken silencers. At times bags of cement etc. would fall off the lorries only to be picked up by local householders whose sheds soon became full. The airfield was constructed on approx. 500 acres of land. Only two houses, which were council houses, had to be demolished. Electricity and mains water was brought to Smeatharpe at that time. When the airfield was finished all small roads into Smeatharpe were blocked off and other accesses were guarded round the clock.

Two weeks before the D Day landings American Troops marched out from Honiton Station via Rawridge and Upottery and past the school. It was the first time many of the school children, me included, had seen a coloured person. The troops camped under canvas for weeks in three fields near Newhouse Chapel. The Dakota was the main aircraft to use the airfield but sometimes a Super Fortress or Lancaster would land. The Dakota was mainly a transport plane but also used for towing. I remember thinking how terrified the soldiers must have been sitting in the big plywood gliders, which were suddenly being hauled up into the air by planes. Sometimes the gliders would fail to make the runway and bulldoze through hedges making large holes.

After the war was over the running of the airfield was taken over by the Agricultural Land Commission, the runways being used for emergency landings and for touch down training for Canberra’s and Vampires. From 1947-1960 the grassed area of the airfield was cut and the grass dried and milled and added to animal feed. A company based at Exeter Airport called Wessex Crop Driers did this, a company I worked for. In about 1960 the land was sold back to the farmers who owned it originally. The majority of it owned by Lord Sidmouth was later sold to R Mason of Riggles Farm for whom I still work in semi retirement. I have spent a total of 48 years working on the airfield, living on it with my family for the last forty years.

The airfield is currently used by radio controlled model aircraft enthusiasts, stock car racing, hang gliders and paragliders, motocross and car rally clubs and driving schools. It has also at times been an illegal temporary camping site for travellers. Most of the land is used for growing corn, hay and silage and the rest is known as “set-aside” i.e. uncultivated. After the war much of the wildlife returned and so have many bird watchers who have been welcome visitors and someone to talk to on long lonely bleak wintry days when working hours alone, sharing an interest not only in the birds but other wildlife and the flora and fauna. The Crow, Rook, Jackdaw, Magpie, Buzzard, Kestrel, Sparrow Hawk, Little Owl, Raven, Sky Lark, Meadow Pippet, Snipe, Woodcock, Lapwing have been the most frequent visitors on the airfield but none have nested there in recent years except last year, so hopefully some more will return this year. On the set-aside area of the airfield, which has not been cultivated for a while, the Hare has made a return, also the Roe Deer, which are venturing out into open spaces. I have seen a set of twin Deer for the last three years. On the outskirts of the airfield other birds can be seen in great numbers: the Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Coal Tit, Robin, Blackbird, Starling, Pigeons, Collared Dove, Yellow Hammer, Long Tailed Tit, Tree Creeper, Nut Hatch, Green Woodpecker, Spotted Woodpecker, House Sparrow, Pied Wagtail, Grey Wagtail, Wren and Siskin. A few Thrushes and Tawny Owls but sadly not many.

The airfield may be a reminder of war and bad times and may seem bleak and windswept and lacking beauty but beauty is in the eye of the beholder: the airfield is where I have spent many happy years working the land. It is an area where I have learnt so much. Somewhere to see the sunset and the moonrise, able to study the stars at night and to admire the many colour changes of the sky and cloud formations. My blue Ford tractor, my radio and earphones, the airfield and its inhabitants enable me to observe the ever-changing world without travelling far. I didn’t think as a small boy, 4 years of age, watching the airfield being constructed that it would provide me with so many happy memories and many more I hope.

(This article first was published in the Upottery & Rawridge Parish Pump Magazine, May 2003.)

Watch a video made in 2010 showing all the old buildings that still remain on Smeatharpe Airfield.

Watch a video of a C47 Dakota landing at Smeatharpe Airfield in 2007.

More pictures of RAF Upottery (Smeatharpe) at