RAF Dunkeswell

Affectionately called by the Americans “Mudville Heights”, of the three airfields Dunkeswell is possibly the best documented.

Map of Dunkeswell Airfield

Map of Dunkeswell Airfield

Post-war it has also remained the most active with a flying school and club facilities that go back several decades, it is also well known within the parachuting fraternity and has  a first rate parachute school, In recent years Micro light flying has also operated from the field. All these activities are surrounded by a good deal of commercial trading from the large number of industrial units, many of which are the original wartime buildings.

Constructed by Wimpey during 1941-42, Dunkeswell was intended as a 10 Group, Fighter Command station, but with the newly-built airfield at Culmhead providing additional defence for Exeter and with the repelling of the German air offensive during the Battle of Britain, the RAF’s attention turned more towards offensive operations and the need for additional bomber bases.

There was also an urgent need to bolster the strength and ability of  Coastal Command because of the major disruption being caused by German U-Boats.

From their established bases, that were situated along the west coast of France and the north coast of Spain. The U-Boats were causing heavy losses to the vital shipping convoys which were carrying much-needed supplies across the Atlantic to Britain.

RAF Coastal Command was in charge of the anti submarine activities and was regularly searching the Bay of Biscay with long range aircraft with some success. But by the autumn of 1942 Germany had equipped the U-boats with devices capable of detecting long wave radar used on the aircraft, thus reducing the chance being caught on the surface. To counter this, Coastal Command sought the support of the United States Army Air Force to supplement its efforts by providing long range B-24 bombers equipped with the new microwave Radar that the enemy could not detect so easily.

The first Group arrived at St Eval in Cornwall, in February 1943 and operated over the Bay of Biscay under the general direction of the RAF Coastal Command. A second group arrived during July and carried on operations until October the first Group having left for North Africa. 

Being a major centre for anti-submarine activity’s, St Eval was rather crowded and the Americans were not over impressed with the amenities and sought alternative bases for their operations. In July 1943 Dunkeswell was made ready for the Americans use, but initially with the RAF providing the majority of the ground personal needed. Temporarily deployed on anti submarine duties,  the 4th and 19th Squadrons of the 479th Bomb Group USAAF arrived from St Eval during August. Within the next three weeks they were to lose three of their B-24’s. Two whilst on patrol, one was brought down by enemy aircraft over the sea,  six of the ten man crew managed to get into a rubber dingy and were rescued  five days later the fate of the other plane was unknown.  The third crashed on take off  and only three crew members survived.  On the 8th  of September  a fourth plane was lost and a subsequent search of the patrol area found three crew members had survived adrift in a dingy and were rescued three days later.

With the phasing out of the USAAF anti-submarine squadrons a month after operations had commenced from the base and the units moving elsewhere,

Dunkeswell was then occupied by VP103 the first squadron of the US-Navy to completed their training with the RAF Coastal Command. They were soon joined by VP105 and VP110 of Flight Air Wing 7, and were soon to build up the scale of their operations.

The winter of 1943-44 proved to be particularly severe making it difficult for the US Navy squadrons to maintain their operations in addition they were also hampered by shortage of ground staff and equipment. Such were the appalling conditions, Dunkeswell acquired the dubious honour of being known by USN personnel as “Mudville Heights”!

In March 1944 Dunkeswell was handed over completely to FAW7 and all the remaining RAF personnel were posted elsewhere making it the only US Navy base in Britain. By May the three squadrons had become capable of putting up eighteen aircraft each day but to achieve this and because of the shortage of crew members it meant individual airman could be expected to flying duties every other day. The missions, sometimes lasting ten to twelve hours, were exhausting and tedious, due to the high level of concentration needed by crews whilst systematically scanning over the sea for any trace of the elusive U-Boats.

The run up to D-Day at Dunkeswell like the other airfields on the Blackdowns, Culmhead and Upottery was an immensely busy period. It was during this time that the first sighting of a U-boat fitted with the revolutionary Schnorkel  tube that enabled them to remain submerged for long periods without the need to resurface to charge their batteries, was reported and on 22nd June  they made eight contacts launching four attacks.

Other aircraft that were stationed at Dunkeswell included a detachment of PBY-5A  Catalinas, two Vultee Vengeances plus a single NAF N3N biplane trainer. The US Navy also received six Seafires that retained their British markings although they were fitted with American VHF radios these aircraft were used for air combat training for the patrol squadrons.

In the months after D-Day, and with western France in the hands of the allies the U-boat activity in the Bay of Biscay declined. By the autumn of 1944, there were few sightings and although their job was effectively coming to a close, FAW7 still maintained its sorties and were rewarded with the surrender of a U-Boat off the Scilly Isles on May 9th 1945, a day after hostilities had ceased.

The run-down of Dunkeswell began immediately and during June 1945 the Liberators stared leaving for the United States, although many were broken up and sold for scrap on the airfield.

On 6th August 1945 Dunkeswell was officially handed back to the RAF, who finally relinquished it in February 1949, after it had spent some time as a aircraft maintenance unit and an equipment disposal depot.

Liberator flies past Dunkeswell Control Tower

Liberator flies past Dunkeswell Control Tower

Some facts about the B-24 Liberator; 19,256 planes (in several versions), were made by Consolidated Vultee, Ford Motor Company, Douglas Aircraft and North American Aircraft between 1939 and 1945. More were made and flown than any other four engine bomber in World War II. A fully armed and combat-ready B-24 had a crew of ten. Its gross weight when loaded was greater than 60,000 lbs. It had four movable turrets, each with two .50 calibre machine guns and two .50s in the waist, a total of ten. It was powered by four 1,200 horsepower Pratt & Whitney R-1830-43 Twin Wasp radial piston engines and had a maximum speed 303 mph. It carried 2,750 gallons of fuel and had a flight duration of 1,500 miles. Some extended ranges were near 2,000 miles.

The bomb load was usually ten 500 pound bombs or five 1,000 pounders. Depth charges were used when in the anti-submarine role. Liberators are recorded as having dropped over 630,000 tons of bombs. It’s operating environment was between 18,000 and 28,000 feet. It was not pressurised or heated; crewmen wore oxygen masks on high altitude missions and were exposed to temperatures that reached -30 degrees F and below. Some  B-24’s were modified used for reconnaissance, tanker, cargo and personnel transport roles. Sir Winston Churchill used one as his own transport aircraft.

A posting by Robbert Turner who is the secretary for the Weston Zoyland museum

I spoke earlier of the time when in 1978 I was on route from Topeka to visit cousins in Iowa, stopping off at the Greyhound Bus Terminal in Kansas City. The vast cafeteria was packed as my visit coincided with lunchtime. There was just one visible seat at a table where a middle-aged man was sat puffing on a big fat cigar.

I asked if he minded if I sat with him. On hearing my accent he responded to my request by saying – ‘Say – you’re English aren’t you?’ When I confirmed he continued – ‘Do you know a place called Devon-shire? When I answered in the affirmative he continued – ‘Do you know a place called Dun-kes-well?’ At that time I lived in Honiton just down the road although I did move to Dunkeswell a few years later.

I thought – ‘of all the places he should mention’. He introduced himself as Antony Simonvich who informed he served at Dunkeswell during the American occupation. He was one of the groundcrew of the U.S. Navy Airwing 7. He didn’t seem to recall much of his time there other than pub-crawls in their free-time to Exeter. He handed me his business card which I know I have somewhere but cannot locate today. He worked for ‘The Southern Tobacco Company hence puffing on a big fat cigar.

The Honiton News which I worked for at the time published an account of this and other episodes after my return. (Robbert Turner/W.A.M. Sec.)

Pictured in Kansas City Bus Station Cafeteria

Antony Simonich pictured in Kansas City Bus Station Cafeteria(Copyright Robbert Turner)

Out of Dunkeswell, book detailing ASW operations out of Dunkeswell.
Out of Dunkeswell, book detailing ASW operations out of Dunkeswell. Available from the trust for £8.50 inc p&p

Out of Dunkeswell

‘Out of Dunkeswell’ describes in detail the role played by the airfield and the USAAF anti-submarine units based there during the Battle of the Atlantic and patrols in the Bay of Biscay.  To reach patrol areas in the Atlantic from July 1940 until October 1943, almost a year after the USAAF ceased antisubmarine operations, most German submarines sailed from four French ports through the Bay of Biscay.  The book draws on historical material from various sources under the authorship of Mike Jarrett, Bernard Stevens and David Steel.

The book is available from the Trust for only £8.50, (including P&P).


Dunkeswell from the air

These images show Dunkeswell Airfield today: Tweet

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Dunkeswell new collection of photos from the Album of Virginia Quaife, Red Cross Director 1944 -45

Before viewing the collection, please read the message from her daughter Jennifer Bell and her son, Marvin Cox : Our mother was Virginia “Ginny” Quaife, the Red Cross Director, assigned to Dunkeswell Navy Base during the last years of the war. She, like many women, wanted to serve her country in any way she could …

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  1. Dave Richardson

    I and many other Guardsmen did our parachute training on the airfield in the 70,s with the Guards independent parachute sqn

  2. Rhys Hughes

    Government use of Dunkerswell did not finnish post war. By 1966 it was a depot for the Home Office Supplyy and Transport branch storing war reserve fire fighting equipment.

    Green Goddess Fire Engines were issued from Dunkerswell to RNAS Yeovilton in 1977 for the first national fire strike.

    Not sure when the facility closed.


  3. Brandon J.White

    In the late 1970′s I worked with the people constructing a stock car racing oval on the airfield known locally as SMEATHARPE, the adjoining village…..the name UPOTTERY was never mentioned locally because the airfield tacks onto the village of Smeatharpe and the village of Upottery is a few miles away…..Smeatharpe was home to the 439th TCG, and the then landlord of the YORK INN at CHURCHINFORD, Phil Foxwell, was a mine of information about the YANKS on Smeatharpe Airfield during the War. I do not know if Mr Foxwell is still with us, I hope so, but I also knew a landowning farmer, BILL DREW, a real gentleman, since deceased. Bill had a cider press in one of his barns, and the story is worth telling about what happened on the eve of D-Day, perhaps another time…..I did take some air to ground mono photos of Smeatharpe Airfield, and ground shots of surviving buildings in the late 1970′s, I did this during flying training trips out of Dunkeswell while a member of the flying club there…..happy days of long ago…..during our work, we found a wartime bomb trolley in one of the brick buildings, and in another was a leather flying jacket left hanging on a peg…..I was told about things which were buried on the airfield, including a JEEP in a packing crate….which we were told we would get a share in if we found it while digging drains….no luck there, so I suppose the jeep remains to be liberated ! There was ONE JEEP too many on the manifest at the end of the war, somehow or another Smeatharpe had ‘gained’ a Jeep, and the quickest way to resolve it was to bury the ‘NEW’ jeep because it obviously could not be driven to a depot etc, thus saving time and possible delay. Cheeerio from Brandon White.

    1. Colin Drinkwater

      Hi Brandon,

      I believe the story of the jeeps refers to Dunkeswell as their resting place, and there is more than 1! My Mother has spent many years researching USAF B17 missions, but also other American activities.
      I think she still has letters from the person that witnessed the jeeps being burried.
      An attempt was made to recover them many years ago, but the leaseholder refused permission to dig for them

  4. william McCAIN

    My late father was in the RAF and stationed at Dunkeswell during the War . He died in 1985 and although I did speak with him many times about his experiences I wish that I had asked him more. He was on air traffic control duties. He mentioned that Joseph Kennedy Jnr had flown from there on a secret mission and an enquiry I made in the late ’80′s to the US Navy Airforce Records resulted in a very nice reply the content of which I lent to a cousin and which was never returned . However I understood from it that a book had been written about the last Kennedy flight but I cannot recall the author or title. Decades later I read in a newspaper that the remains of part of that plane had been unearthed in [ I think ] , a Sussex wood.

    1. Robin

      William, I have tried contacting you via email address provided with out any joy. If you would like to be put in touch with a historian please come back to me via the email address provided on this site. Regards Robin

  5. Iain Brandie

    Hi Robin,

    Can you confirm if copies are still available of ‘out of dunkeswell’?

    If so, how does one get a copy, is paypal accepted, is price still £8.50 inc p & p?

    Kind regards and keep up the great work……………..


  6. Rolf Blattner, Switzerland


    Interested in obtaining an example of “Out of Dunkeswell” if available

    Please state price including p&p to Switzerland.

    Best regards, R. Blattner

    1. Robin

      Rolf, I will look into the cost of postage to Switzerland and come back to you ASP

      1. Rolf Blattner, Switzerland

        Robin – many thanks in advance.
        Please also state if payment by PayPal might be accepted.

        Book would be doubly welcome. First because of my interest in the subject, second as an additional reference for a planned display of two finished 1/72 models of FAW 7 PB4Y-1′s.


  7. bob trott

    my mother-in-law lived and worked for a squadron leader Cartlidge and his family, at Dunkeswell at the end of the war. he was employed as part of the clearing operation, by the RAF. Can anyone give any info about this please?

    1. Robin

      Bob, your mother in laws connection with Dunkeswell is most interesting, we will ask around to try and discover more information.

  8. Graham Beckwith

    During WW2 my father served with the RAF as an aircraft engineer/ flight engineer moving from groundcrew with Fighter Command to aircrew with Bomber Command on Stirlings at Mildenhall and Lancasters at Bourne. Before he passed away in 1995, he spoke to me about the days leading up to D-Day when he was stationed at Uppottery with USAF Liberators, (I’m now thinking maybe at Dunkeswell having found your site). His abiding memory at Uppottery was of the paratroops being loaded onto C-47′s with all their kit and all the goodbyes, fears and trepidation, only to be taken as far as Exeter as an exercise a day or two before the big launch of D-Day itself. I wonder if there are any accounts of these days that would help me get the story straight. Surely there would be no loading troops onto gliders for training? Liberators at Uppottery? I can only find reference to PBY-4 Privateers there. Were there many RAF personnel working with the USAF at these times?
    Many thanks:
    Graham Beckwith
    Flockton Yorkshire

    1. Robin

      I have responded to Graham direct as he raises so many questions, Liberators were operated out of Upottery during 1945, this was after the 439th Troop Carrier Group had left for a base in France around Sept/ Oct 1944.
      A while after that the runways at Dunkeswell were in need of repair so the USN Liberators were then operated from Upottery, after this the Upottery airfield became a satellite field for Dunkeswell.

      The Original Liberators at Dunkeswell were operated by the USAAF in conjunction with the RAF Coastal Command so there was a great deal of RAF presence at that time, Until eventually Dunkeswell airfield was handed over to the United States Navy during 1944.

  9. admin

    Dunkeswell was not directly linked to D-Day. J.F. Kennedy’s brother Joe was stationed there with the United States Navy flying Liberator long range bombers in support of coastal command. mainly around the Bay of Biscay. Unfortunately Joe and a fellow officer having volunteered to take part in a special assignment were killed when the Liberator they were flying exploded in mid air. This mission was not flown from Dunkeswell. It is an interesting story on its own and was not connected in anyway to D-Day but an attempted attack on V2 rocket sites. for more detail try http://www.orwelltoday.com/jfkbrother.shtml

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