Secret Wendover: Flying Aussies in Halefield

Most people in the area know the story of how Alfred de Rothschild loaned his Halton lands for the British Army in WWI, after which it progressed to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and its successor the Royal Air Force. What’s less well known is that Halton Camp soon became so busy and overcrowded that several temporary satellite camps were set up nearby.

One of these was in the Hale Valley, in the Halefield that lies below Boddington Hill, between Hale Road, Hale Lane and Hogtrough Lane. Although it long ago returned to farmland and was ploughed over, when Antony Chapman was running the Hale Valley Vineyard on Hale Lane, he sometimes used to see strange tracks and markings in the field during particularly dry summers. He’s retired now, but last year he contacted the Trenchard Museum at RAF Halton, and also appealed to Wendover News readers for any memories they might have.

John Mayhead responded with links to some photographs he found on the Australian War Museum’s website collection. Bill Kennedy, who had been involved with the “Beacons of the Past” LiDAR study of 2019, pointed us at some RAF aerial photographs from the 1940s and 50s. These showed definite outlines of structures, although the modern LiDAR results didn’t add much.

It was Francis Hanford, curator of the Trenchard Museum, who found the most detailed explanation, thanks to a study written in 1993 by an Australian researcher, Alan Fraser, and kept at the museum.

Mystery solved: the Halefield Camp was an overflow camp from Halton Camp, originally for the Royal Engineers, though after they shipped out to France, it was run on a smaller scale for the British Army Service Corps and the Military Police. Meanwhile, in September 1917 the Australian Flying Corps had moved in to share training depot facilities at the main camp.

Initially there were four officers and 34 other ranks, but this soon expanded to 21 officers and 345 other ranks. However, they were soon being squeezed out by the rapidly expanding British contingent. The more or less unused Halefield camp was proposed as a new base for the AFC.

Before it could move, however, there was a burst of typically military bureaucracy and not a little Pommie prejudice. The British Sanitary Officer sent a memo to the Senior Medical Officer of Halton Camp about the Halefield proposal. He wrote that “colonial troops are far more likely to contract and spread infectious fevers than our home troops, for the reason that in the colonies houses are far apart, and many men escape the fevers of childhood.” Since 1 January, he claimed, 7% of Australian troops at Halton had suffered from infectious fevers as against 2% of the other (British) troops.

The argument was won by the Australian Staff Officer for Aviation, Captain Horace Clowes Brinsmead MC (later to become Australia’s first Controller of Civil Aviation), who pointed out that 85% of the Aussies were from Melbourne or Sydney, where housing was at least as dense as some British cities. He also implied out that the Army Service Corps can’t previously have been over-concerned with hygiene, as its bakery in Halefield was 40 yards from a sewage farm and 30 yards from stables for 60 mules! It seems that the bakery was then moved.

The AFC duly moved in on 19 June 1918 and set about renovating and extending the dilapidated facilities. It seems that the AFC mostly occupied two of the three lines of huts, designated B and C. With the war ending five months later, it only occupied the camp for a few months (records get vaguer after the war officially ended in November), with the AFC possibly moving out by the end of December 2018. By then, some 159 officers and 1,444 other ranks had moved through the Halefield Camp, with the final recorded numbers present on 29 December being 84 officers and 174 other ranks. Certainly the Halefield site seems to have gone out of use by the end of 1919. After that the camp was dismantled and the land returned to the farm use it has today.

However, Wendover News’ appeal for information did attract one idea about what happened to all those leftover huts after the war. David Ditchburns  told us that he used to live in a wooden bungalow on Cobblershill, above Wendover Dean. “When we moved in we were informed that it had been a hospital ward building from Halton. I now think that it originated from the Halefield site that was decommissioned about the same time as our plot of land was purchased from the Seventh Earl of Buckinghamshire’s estate in 1919,” he writes. “The shed, as we called it, succumbed to woodworm attack and was replaced with a brick building in 2008.

“I believe that the military standard for these temporary modular buildings for use as barracks, workshops, classrooms and hospital wards etc, was based on a 5x10ft template. The floor, walls and roof sections could be nailed together to form a building of any length to suit the requirement. The foundations for these structures were a quite simple brick pier at five foot centres.”

Now all is peaceful in the Halefield, with only the ghostly reminders in dry summers.