The Story of Birch Airfield

The following item is reproduced from the 'Questions Answered' page of the February 1988 issue of Air Pictorial.


Situated about 2 miles north-east of Tiptree in Essex, the site at Birch was allocated in August 1942 to the U.S. 8th Air Force for development into a heavy bomber base but construction work did not get under way until well into the following year. In October 1943 the base was transferred to the 9th Air Force but it had reverted to the 8th Air Force by the time it was finally ready for use in Spring 1944. Birch was constructed by the 846th Engineer Battalion, U.S. Army, and it was the last of the U.K. airfields to be completed by a unit of the U.S. Army.

The airfield was built to heavy bomber standard specifications with three concrete runways, fifty hard standings of the loop type around the perimeter and two T2 hangars. Dispersed communal and domestic sites were built to provide accommodation for almost 3,000 personnel.

The only thing that was missing was aeroplanes. By the time that Birch was completed the need of both the U.S.A.A.F. and the R.A.F. for airfields in East Anglia was satisfied and Birch became the airfield nobody wanted. It was designated as a Reserve Airfield by the U.S.A.A.F. but had no permanently resident squadrons from that air force. Two R.A.F. transport squadrons, Nos 233 and 437 flying Dakotas, are known to have used Birch briefly in the early part of 1945 but otherwise it saw little flying activity and closed soon after the end of the war.

Ken Border
Airfield Research Group.

More information is to be found in Essex Airfields in the Second World War by Graham Smith (Countryside Books 1996. ISBN 1 85306 405X). In the chapter on Birch airfield, the author mentions that the cost of constructing a Class A Standard airfield during the Second World War was in the region of 1,000,000. A very large sum, particularly in view of the minimal use made of the airfield. During its construction it was attacked by the Luftwaffe on the night of August 17/18th, 1943, but with no serious damage, and a few months later on the night of December 10th/11th when it was bombed. Birch airfield's only operational use was by the RAF in March 1945 for 'Operation Varsity' - the crossing of the Rhine. At 6-00am on 24th March, sixty Dakotas took off from Birch, towing plywood Horsa gliders, to take part in this last major airborne operation of the war.

As mentioned above, in October 1943 Birch airfield was made available to the US Ninth Air Force who planned to base a fighter group there in December that year. This did not happen because, although the runways had been completed by then, the aircraft hard standings had only just been started.

During the first week of April 1944 the personnel of the 410th Bomb Group arrived after a trans-Atlantic ocean crossing to find they were on a base which lacked many facilities. After only 12 days the men of the 410th were transferred to Gosfield, leaving the construction teams at Birch to continue their work. On May 13th, in conditions of low cloud, prolonged rain, and poor visibility, four P-38 Lightnings landed on one of the runways. The pilots, members of the Ninth Air Force's 474th Fighter Group at Warmwell, were returning from a combat mission and in the very poor weather decided to land at the first airfield they came across. These P-38s, said to be the first combat aircraft to have landed at Birch, departed the following day.

The mission of the 60 Dakota tugs and 60 Horsa gliders which took off on 24th March 1945 was to deliver part of the British 6th Airborne Division for 'Operation Varsity'. Most of the Dakotas were directed to land at other bases following this operation and the RAF No 46 Group withdrew from Birch during the next few days.

Birch had the ultimate Class A landing ground with a main concrete runway 6,000 feet long, and two others runways each 4,200 feet in length. Accommodation, mainly Nissen huts on seven sites to the east of the airfield, was provided for 2,894 persons.

Horsa Glider Reconstruction

Pictured above is the work of a group based at RAF Shawbury which is in the process of building a complete Horsa glider. Many of these aircraft ended their days in East Anglia and were converted into garden sheds, workshops, etc at the end of the war. If you know of anyone possessing any Horsa parts, large or small, which may be useful for the project, please email Ian Mactaggart at

Page updated: 16 MAR 2006