Saturday, August 27, 2011

Stealth flying

Tempsford airfield is a special place; an open, flat Bedfordshire landscape where I can go to be alone. Now intensively farmed, this was a top secret airfield during WWII from whence special agents were flown into occupied territory. 
Not even the locals knew what went on at the site. The old runways are still there.
This secret airfield was used by the Special Operations Executive. It was a base for 2 legendary RAF squadrons: 138 (Special Duties Squadron) and 161, which dropped agents and supplies behind enemy lines in Europe. The Germans apparently knew of it, but never discovered its location. There is little evidence of the airfield today. Just the old runways and an inconspicuous little barn. 
As I walked to the barn, I spotted a few plants of what looked like amaranth growing on the verge (Amaranthus retroflexus I think). I've always thought 'amaranth' is a romantic sounding word. Spurred on by writing this I looked up its etymology (on Wikipedia). It's apparently from the Greek ἀμάραντος (amarantos) meaning unfading. The Greek for flower is ἄνθος (anthos). Yup, romantic.
This pretty clover looks to me like alsike clover (Trifolium hybridum). It's named after Alsike in Sweden, where it was first cultivated in the 18th century. 
The barn is just off the public right of way. There are no signposts on the path or plaques outside to indicate what it is.
Here's the same shot in March. 
There are no doors. It is just open to the elements. 
This is an amazingly atmospheric place. I'll not say much more, but just show you some pictures of the inside, incase you never get to visit yourself.
One of the most evocative names found on the memorials at Tempsford is that of Violette Szabo GC, MBE, a secret agent, who flew out from RAF Tempsford on her 2 missions to Europe. She was captured, tortured and executed by the Nazis in 1944. She was 23 and immortalised in the film Carve her Name with Pride. She would have been issued with her equipment from this barn.
Tempsford Veterans Association newsletters are available to read.
The barn was recently renovated by the Countess of Erroll (the landowner). 
There were 4 appropriately white doves up in the rafters. One posed for a picture, albeit rather reluctantly.
On the floor of the barn I found 4 tawny owl (Strix aluco) feathers. The extra velvety fluffiness on the top of the feathers helps to muffle the sound of the owl flying, making it a superb silent, stealth hunter.
Outside I came across a tawny owl carcass. Well, part of one. I looked about but couldn't find the skull unfortunately. 
The feathers show the characteristic owly fluffiness.
The foot with its 4 sharp talons, even in this decomposed state, shows very clearly how an owl can grasp and hold on to its prey. The scaly rough skin gives the owl a firm grip on wriggling food.
I snapped (not that easy to do) one of the bones. It was hollow; an avian adaptation (not unique to owls) to reduce weight for flight.
I wonder what caused its demise.

Further information
Tempsford airfield is on private farmland. The walks described in this and my previous post are accessed on public footpaths/bridleways via the Skylark Ride waymarked route [and set between points 16 and 17]. Although the barn is just off the public footpath, it is on private property. I have never been challenged when I've been inside and have met, on occasion, other walkers or cyclists pausing to pay their respects. 
These websites have more information about the airfield, squadrons and agents who used Tempsford during the war.


  1. Obviously an evocative site, sensitively depicted here.

  2. Yes, a wonderful site. I take people here when they come to visit. Amazing how many locals still don't know it's here.