sway airfield

Sway Airfield: The WW2 Emergency Landing Ground (ELG) / Decoy Site

During the Second World War, the New Forest was a hive of aviation activity with large airfields and bases including RAF Beaulieu, Calshot, Holmsley South, Hurn, Ibsley, and Stoney Cross. 

There were also smaller airfields that would play a huge part in the Allied victory such as the advanced landing grounds of Bisterne, Lymington, Needs Oar Point, and Winkton.

But there’s one airfield which gets little mention due its small size and brief operational period: Sway Airfield, or the Sway ELG (emergency landing ground). There’s not much information about it in the public domain. 

But thankfully, in the 1980s, Ralph Dargue had the foresight to interview local Sway villagers about their memories of Sway Airfield before it was too late. His documents have proved invaluable in putting together this short history of the Sway ELG airfield and decoy site which was open very briefly between August 1940 and October or November of 1941. 

Other sources and help have also been credited at the footer of this article. These include the Operational Records Book of Special Duty Flight based at RAF Christchurch plus credits to authors who have referenced some of the activity on Sway Airfield, in particular the aircraft types and dates.

However, I do believe this is the first time Sway Airfield will have been discussed in this depth, either in print, or online. There will be mistakes, possibly with dates and the anecdotes mentioned, but the plan is to verify as much of this information as possible in the next few months using available archives.

Myself and Richard Reeves also visited the site in July 2022 and spoke to the family who own some of the land upon which the Sway Airfield was based. They were kind enough to give us a tour to see what remains of the airfield. I’ve included photos from that trip, and some observations Richard made based on what we saw.

Sway fields
The fields of Sway ELG as seen in July 2022. This was once a WW2 airstrip.

For the moment though, I hope you enjoy this collated history which would not have been possible without the notes of Ralph Dargue and the anecdotal accounts he gathered.

A brief overview of Sway Airfield

Sway Emergency Landing Ground was used by aircraft based at RAF Christchurch for a short period between 1940 and 1941. The south coast airfields were considered high risk targets for bombing raids or even a possible ground attack should an invasion have occurred in the early years of the war. 

Instructions were given to larger airfields to find suitable emergency airstrips where aircraft could also be hidden at night or when not being used. 

As a result, June 1940 saw plans for an Emergency Landing Ground to be sited on the fields of Sway’s Manor Farm and Little Purley Farm. The field boundaries were subsequently removed, land was levelled out, with one sergeant and 18 airmen housed in tents on the field or billeted in local houses. Their role was to maintain the grass airstrip and any visiting aircraft.

plan and map of Sway airfield
The late Alan Brown created this sketch plan to show the layout of Sway Airfield / ELG.

The longest distance available for landing and taking off was around 850 yards. Once created, ten aircraft from RAF Christchurch’s Special Duty Flight were sent to Sway’s airfield. 

During the short time it was operational, the site was hit by bombs dropped by the German Luftwaffe. But by October 1941 the threat of invasion had receded, and Sway Airfield was closed. This closure could also have been attributed to the fact the fields had been attacked. 

The airstrip was also described as a decoy airfield in RAF documents, which is possibly why the bombings occurred. It appears that Sway Airfield was dual purpose and was also intended to be a decoy to take bombing away from the larger airfields, as well as the more commonly known function as an ELG.

I will update this document once we discover more in the National Archives. 

A history of Sway Airfield

There was a flying club at Christchurch Airfield before WW2 broke out. When Britain entered the Second World War, this civil airfield was taken over and became RAF Christchurch. 

In early 1940 a Special Duties Unit was formed by the RAF for the evaluation of radar equipment, and the main body of this flight was despatched to Christchurch in May 1940. 

In July 1940, the threat of German invasion was very real and there was a need to disperse the aircraft from the main flight at Christchurch to protect it from Luftwaffe raids. A review of the surrounding areas found that the fields on farmland to the east of Sway village could be a potential grass airstrip to be used as an Emergency Landing Ground.

The land was requisitioned from the landowners, most likely by the Air Ministry. One can assume the land was commandeered with the promise of compensation as was typical with wartime land grabs for airfields in the New Forest. 

Work soon commenced in order to make the fields suitable for aircraft landing. The landing ground of around 43 hectares (a rectangular area of 106 acres) was created by the removal of hedges, filling hollows and flattening a hump in the middle of the fields between Coombe Lane and Pitmore Lane. 

track and fencing
A dirt track leads from the farm onto what was once an airstrip, the fencing put in when the airfield closed.

The northern edge of the planned airfield would back into the properties facing onto Chapel Lane.

One local villager recalled how two or three Irish labourers were sent to do the work. He said they arrived in Sway out of the blue and asked people where the airfield was. This immediately raised suspicions with locals due to the fear of invasion, and it’s said the Irishmen were thought to be German spies. 

This anecdote, as recorded by Ralph Dargue, goes on to explain how the matter was soon sorted out when the Irish labourers’ identities were established by the Air Ministry as being legitimate.

With the possible panic over (if the story is to be believed), the work was able to be completed without further interruption.

Another anecdote relates to earth that had been removed from the fields by the Irish labourers. The earth was dug out for the levelling and then deposited at the rear of Manor Farm on the top of a “coombe” (short valley) to the other side of Coombe Lane. 

spoil heaps
Banks at the top of the coombe appear to be unnatural so could be spoil heaps where earth was deposited.

Dargue recounted how a local villager said this bank of earth saved a near calamity when the Avro Anson was being moved to its second location. At the controls was a RAF fitter with a lack of experience in using throttles on soft ground. 

The airmen holding each wing tip as it was taxi’ing were almost dragged off their feet into the air as the fitter gave it too much power. The Anson careered at high tilt towards Manor Farm, stopping only when the undercarriage lodged in the banked earth. 

If the Anson had been able to travel a few more yards without the bank of earth to stop it, the aircraft would have fell nose-first into the small valley, known as a coombe, below. 

Back to the construction: the longest grass runway for landings or take-offs was on bearings 130 or 310, however there were obstructions of an elm tree at GR 288981 and a hedge left extending to GR 291982. 

Some of the land was also wet, so steel mesh was placed down to support the weight of aircraft that would be using the new Sway airstrip. 

Between Manor Farm and Birchy Hill is the Sway Coombe which has a stream bed level at 23m above sea level while the Manor Farm stands at 39m, and the top of Sway Tower (Peterson’s Folly) at GR 280967 (96 m) is at 1.25 km from the centre of the Sway ELG. 

The Sway Tower could have been an excellent point of reference for enemy pilots. It would have let them fly on a direct line over it from the Needles lighthouse on the Isle of Wight on the way to Middle Wallop or Swindon with Southampton as bombing target just to the east of the flight line.

No permanent buildings were erected on Sway Airfield itself. However, it does appear that a concrete road was built running from Coombe Lane into Manor Farm and towards the fields.

The concrete road still exists to this day. 

concrete road at farm
This concrete road is believed to date from the Second World War.

An aerial photo from the 1960s also shows a Nissen Hut on the farm. It’s believed that this was placed there during the war, so could have been the only semi-permanent building placed on the airfield. 

manor farm sway
This 1960s photo of Manor Farm shows a Nissen Hut believed to be the only structure erected at the airfield.

The concrete base of the Nissen hut is still there to this day, but now has a modern horse stable on top of it.

horse stable
This horse stable sits on top of the concrete flooring here a Nissen Hut once stood.

There are sheets of corrugated iron 30 feet away from the Nissen hut foundation which have been fashioned into fencing.

The landowner suspects these panels are the remains of the Nissen hut which was pulled down in 1995.

possible nissen hut remains at sway
This corrugated iron fencing could be the recycled remains of the Nissen Hut that was dismantled in 1995.

Without any permanent buildings at Sway, activity was conducted from tents in the north west corner of the farm land near what is now the Old Chapel on Coombe Lane. Tents were also placed by Horseshoe Cottage on Pitmore Lane to the east, and near to Little Acre on Paul Lane to the south. 

The wind direction was given to pilots by the mounting of a strip of canvas on a large pole in place of a formal windsock. Approaches by aircraft could only be made from the north-west or the south-east because of various obstructions, the most noteworthy being Sway Tower less than one mile away to the south-west.

Ralph Dargue records how 18 airmen and a sergeant were posted to Sway airfield. A medical officer was also billeted in the farm house. He apparently turned up with no prior notice in the middle of the afternoon’s milking session. 

He also notes how 6 RAF tradesmen were also billeted in the village while being controlled administratively from RAF Christchurch site.

Overall command of Sway was under Flight Lieutenant Burke who was presumably stationed at Christchurch. 

Sway Airfield’s activities

Between August and October of 1940, activity started in earnest at the new Sway airstrip. A Special Duty Unit had been formed at Martlesham Heath in early 1940 and its Handley Page Harrows were moved to RAF Christchurch in the May of that year. 

Dargue records how ‘X’ Flight was then detached to the Sway landing ground in early August with a complement of 6 men (1 Corporal, 1 LAC Fitter, 2 Flight Riggers, and 2 Armourers) to tend the aircraft being used on radar evaluation and development. 

Some of these infrequent experimental flights were made using two Handley Page Harrows and a Fairey Battle with an Avro Anson used for ferrying pilots and ground crews. The experimental work continued until October when the Unit was transferred to Middle Wallop.

The Operations Record Book for Special Duty Flight of Christchurch also has an entry relating to Sway. It states that on the 22nd of August, 1940, “Ten aircraft sent to K site at Sway”.

This is interesting, as it alters the common perception of what Sway Airfield is most referred to, which was a temporary emergency landing ground, or grass airstrip for use as and when needed by Christchurch.

Sway Airfield as a decoy bombing site

During WW2, “K” sites were decoy airfields. 

When war broke out in 1939, the Air Ministry formed a secret department to come up with tricks to deceive the Luftwaffe. Some of these involved using decoys and other means of deception. 

Early wartime decoy airfields, also known as “K” sites were intended to deceive the enemy during the day and were typically set out on large fields, just like Sway was. 

Sometimes props would be used such as dummy aircraft, or real ones like those used by the stations they were protecting – in this case, Christchurch. The field surface would also be levelled to look like a landing ground, as we know Sway was.  

These dummy airfields could look very realistic from the air with aircraft sat there in the day, and mock runway lights switched on at night. 

So, the fact that we know 10 aircraft were sent to the “K” site at Sway, possibly means these aircraft were going to be placed to act as a decoy for German bombers.

sway airfield from the air
This Luftwaffe target dossier is titled “Sway Airfield” (Sway Flugplatz) so the Germans knew of its existence.

There are also accounts that Sway Airfield was machine gunned on several occasions by German planes on their way back to mainland Europe. Whilst the airfield was unsuitable for night flying, it’s believed a dummy flare path was laid over the field to create the illusion of a nighttime runway as a decoy station. 

The fields were also bombed which lends further credence to the airfield also being used as a decoy to divert attention away from the larger New Forest airfields, and not just to be used as an emergency landing ground. 

As approximately 100 bombs of all types fell around Sway over the course of the Second World War with no substantial damage, then someone, somewhere was possibly spared and the dummy site had performed a useful purpose.

Aircraft at Sway

The 10 aircraft that were initially sent to the decoy airfield at Sway in August 1940 are believed to include Handley Page Harrows, a Fairey Battle, and later a Handley Page Hampden. An Avro Anson was also used to ferry men and equipment to and from the landing ground.

The aircraft were parked around the north side of the landing ground and servicing operations were conducted from tents erected near to them. 

As referenced earlier, the Harrows were part of Special Duty Unit from Christchurch. Their role was to work on radar evaluation and development. Dargue explains how only 2 Harrows and the Anson were used for this work in the end.

In October 1940, the Special Duty Unit and some of the Harrows were transferred in stages to Middle Wallop.

As the Harrows departed, more airmen and aircraft came in and out of Sway. This period up to September and October 1941 is when the men at the airfield reached its maximum number of 18. 

The other aircraft, as before, parked at the northern perimeter between North Sway Cottage on Coombe Lane and Horseshoe Cottage on Pitmore Lane. The Anson was usually parked by Pitmore Lane in the 16 acre field until a raid when a Hampden was damaged. It was then moved to the tail of the 7 acre field behind Little Acre in Pauls Lane.

There was then little activity on the aircraft other than servicing and running-up of engines plus deployments to aid the decoy nature of the Sway ELG. There are also accounts of the airmen illegally selling aviation fuel to the villagers.

The main flying from the field was when the whole exercise was abandoned in late autumn 1941 when the aircraft and airmen departed to various destinations. There had been a turnover in personnel during the period. None of the personnel appeared to stay very long on what appeared to be a dangerous assignment – more on those dangers in a moment.

In the early days of Sway Airfield, it was also occasionally used as an emergency landing ground. Dargue reports how one or two Hurricanes once landed on the ELG seeking directions to their home airfields. 

He also recounts how a damaged Hurricane made a forced landing at Sway to the east of Allotment Gardens. The aircraft was broken up and taken away by road. The pilot was left with minor injuries. 

Attacks on Sway’s ELG / decoy site

The Luftwaffe made a number of attacks on the Sway ELG and decoy site. There are reports that 11 bombs fell on the fields in total. Whether some were deliberate, or were opportunistic bombing and strafing by German aircraft returning from alternative raids I don’t yet know. I will attempt to cross-reference with available archives. 

Dargue documented some of the most memorable incidents.

23rd August 1940

On the day when New Milton was subjected to a devasting attack, a Luftwaffe Heinkel 111 bomber dropped 24 bombs in a line from Old Milton Road across Station Road and into Spencer Road. 

The bombs included three 250lb bombs and nineteen 50lb anti-personnel incendiaries. Twenty-five people were killed in New Milton on this day.

During the attack a stick of 10 bombs also fell to the north of the field in Sway, possibly by the same aircraft. One of the bombs dropped down a well in front of a cottage on Back Lane, and another showered the cottages on Chapel Lane with potatoes from the Allotment Gardens.

A witness to the bombing of New Milton recalls how the Heinkel had initially passed over New Milton, then flew in the direction of Sway before circling back. It could be that the stick of bombs were dropped near Sway ELG and decoy during this circling.

9th April 1941

Two heavy bombs fell on the Sway Airfield at night in April 1941. One exploded on impact near the end of the hedgerow between the 12 and 14 acre fields and damaged a Handley Page Hampden. 

The second bomb was a delayed action type and erupted at the south end of the 7 and 16 acre fields early the following morning.

Today it’s still possible to see two bomb craters on the Sway farmland. 

bomb crater in the field
Richard Reeves stood in a bomb crater. Sadly it’s not clear in the photo due to the perspective.

Dargue documented a story from a local villager where he recalled an air raid shelter being built at one of the cottages bordering the airfield. 

He noted how the owner of Purley Cottage had built a substantial air raid shelter by digging into the boundary bank, laying heavy timbers on top which were then covered by galvanised iron. The shelter was also covered with a thick layer of earth.

One night the whole family had taken cover when bombs fell near Sway, only to find three or four airmen dashing into the shelter. They declared it was “too hot” for them outside. The family’s grandmother was apparently upset by this incursion.

What remains of Sway Airfield today

If you were to visit the privately owned farmland on the site where Sway’s Emergency Landing Ground and decoy airfield once stood, you’d struggle to see any evidence of what once was.

There were no permanent buildings erected, aside from the Nissen Hut previously mentioned. There is also a concrete road coming into the farm which was likely created in 1940 to support the military traffic.

After the airfield closed the field boundaries were put back in place. 

sway airfield fence posts
These fence posts probably put in to restore the field boundaries once the RAF vacated the land.

Today you can see concrete fence posts (like above) which were possibly put there by the Air Ministry as part of reparation for loss of the agricultural land during its wartime usage.

It’s also possible to see where hedgerows stop and fencing starts – this is presumably where the hedges were taken out to make way for aircraft to land. 

The hedges stop and then fence posts start which shows how hedging was removed from the land.

The fields are used for cattle grazing and horse breeding. The area is now farmland, just like it was before it being taken over in August 1940. 

References & credits

  • Ralph Dargue’s notes from 1983.
  • Gail Meaker for allowing access to Manor Farm in Sway in July 2022.
  • Richard Reeves for further on-site analysis in July 2022. 
Additional detail on dates and aircraft
  • Ken Davies: “New Forest Airfields” published in 1992.
  • Allen White: “Christchurch Airfield 40 Years of Flying” published in 1987.
  • Chris Ashworth: “Action Stations 5” published in 1982.
  • Alan Brown’s sketches and notes from his archive folders.

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