Castle Bromwich Aerodrome 1914 - 1958

The houses of Castle Vale were built on the airfield after the Second World War.
The houses of Castle Vale were built on the airfield after the Second World War.

From the First World War until the Second World War, the area which is now called called Castle Vale was the site of Castle Bromwich aerodrome. 

 

For hundreds of years this was an area called Berwood - it was north of the River Tame and was not part of Castle Bromwich at all. 

 

Until the 19th century Berwood was farmland. In the 1890s Birmingham council used the fields to treat sewage. Then in the early 20th century the fields were laid out as football pitches as Castle Bromwich Playing Fields.

 

But in August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany and this large area of flat land was ideal for use as an airfield. This was now Castle Bromwich Aerodrome. 

 

A Castle Bromwich FIRST!

1909

Drawing of Maxfield's plane exhibited at Olympia, London
Drawing of Maxfield's plane exhibited at Olympia, London

Let's go back in time a little.

 

The first flight in a powered aeroplane took place in the USA in 1901; the first flight in Britain was in 1908 and one year later Castle Bromwich became the first place in the Midlands to see a powered aircraft fly.

 

 


Maxfield's plane on display at the Royal Hotel, Temple Row
Maxfield's plane on display at the Royal Hotel, Temple Row

At this time much of Hodge Hill had been laid out as Castle Bromwich Golf Course. This was where the Birmingham inventor, Alfred Pericles Maxfield chose to fly his home-made plane. The course had some long, flat areas of short grass and was on a hill which would give Maxfield's plane some lift.

 

Alfred Maxfield had a small factory in Aston where he made bikes and motor-bikes. Indeed his first plane was made out of bike and motorbike parts. Maxfield flew his aeroplane successfully a number of times from the golf course in September 1909.


and secondly -

Bentfield Hucks in action
Bentfield Hucks in action

 

More flights took place from Castle Bromwich Playing Fields, now Castle Vale. In 1911 the famous pilot, Bentfield Hucks came to Castle Bromwich - he was the first British pilot to achieve a loop-the-loop. Hucks gave passenger flights - just two people at a time. 

 

In 1912 the Midland Aero Club club moved here attracting crowds of spectators at the weekend. 

 

In 1914 Castle Bromwich was one of the stops in the Great Air Race from London to Manchester and back. A crowd of 80,000 people came to watch. There is a story of a French pilot who was running out of fuel, so he landed his aeroplane in a farmer's field near Coventry. A lady motorist kindly let him take two gallons of petrol from her car. Unfortunately, this was not quite enough to reach Castle Bromwich Playing Fields. He made a crash landing on Castle Bromwich racecourse and could go no further. 

 

But the fun was to come to a sudden end.

 

Britain declares war on Germany.

Tuesday 4 August 1914

Castle Bromwich aerodrome during the First World War
Castle Bromwich aerodrome during the First World War

In 1915 the army set up an army squadron to train aeroplane pilots for the war. At first there were only six trainees and four planes. There was nowhere for them to live, so they had to sleep in tents and use the football pavilion as their living quarters. 

 

Although the playing fields provided a wide, flat, grassy site, it was not the best place for an airfield. The trainees had to take care not to land on the railway line or crash into the telegraph poles alongside it. Some land at the end of the runway was still used by Birmingham as a sewage works and the pilots sometimes overshot the runway and landed in the sewage tanks. 

 

A Maurice Farman Shorthorn aircraft as used at Castle Bromwich
A Maurice Farman Shorthorn aircraft as used at Castle Bromwich

The trainee pilots tended to be a happy-go-lucky bunch. It was just as well. Flying was a very dangerous business in those days. 

 

There were over 70 accidents at Castle Bromwich during the First World War; 30 pilots were killed and 50 were seriously injured.

 

Most of the airmen were British although some came from Australia, Canada, India, South Africa and the USA. A number of them are buried in Castle Bromwich graveyard.

 

 

Some of the First World War graves at Castle Bromwich

Weblink

Read the story of one flying accident on the Castle Bromwich Community Project website.


Between the Wars

Castle Bromwich Aerodrome in the 1920s. The railway is bottom left; Castle Bromwich village is off the photograph to the left; the Chester Road runs left-to-right near the top; the buildings by the railway are the British Industries Fair.
Castle Bromwich Aerodrome in the 1920s. The railway is bottom left; Castle Bromwich village is off the photograph to the left; the Chester Road runs left-to-right near the top; the buildings by the railway are the British Industries Fair.

 

The First World War ended on 11 November 1918.

 

The War Office decided to keep the aerodrome for military use. However, it was also used by the Midland Aero Club until 1937 and for private aircraft, especially during the weeks of the British Industries Fair

 

The photograph shows Castle Bromwich Aerodrome in the 1920s. There are some buildings at the Chester Road end of the airfield, but the airfield is actually just a big, flat, grassy field. 


 

At least ten different squadrons used the Aerodrome at different times, but the best remembered is the 605 Squadron which was set up as a bomber squadron, known as the 'County of Warwick' squadron.

 

There is a memorial at St Cuthbert's church in Castle Vale. 

 

The British Industries Fair - the BIF

 

(Click here for the main article.)

 

 

The British Industries Fair (BIF) was set up in London after the First World War as a showcase for British products.

 

In 1920 a Midlands BIF opened in the aircraft hangars at Castle Bromwich. They were alongside the railway and had their entrance on the Chester Road next to Castle Bromwich station.

 

The exhibitions ran from 1920 until 1956. In 1922 and 1923 an air service was run from London to the BIF.

Regular flights 

In I933 a regular air service began between Birmingham, Cardiff and Plymouth in a 6-seater aircraft. The single fare to Cardiff cost £2, twice the price of the train. It was soon possible to fly to Liverpool and London from Castle Bromwich.

 

The King's Cup

The King's Cup Race began in 1922 as an annual race for light aircraft. The first race was from Croydon to Glasgow with a stop at Castle Bromwich. 

 

The Birmingham Air Pageants

In 1927 the first Birmingham Air Pageant at Castle Bromwich drew 100,000 people to the aerodrome. They paid 1 shilling to watch the Royal Air Force teams perform aerobatics and mock battles. Imperial Airways demonstrated their new deluxe airliner, the Argosy, which was designed to carry 20 passengers in comfort between London and Paris. The plane was named 'City of Birmingham’ for the event and the Lord Mayor of Birmingham flew over the city in the aircraft. The air pageants were held until the 1950s.

 

Below left: King's Cup Air Race 1922. Right: Birmingham Air Pageant 1927. Click to enlarge.

 

Weblink

 

Q. Was Castle Bromwich Aerodrome nearly Birmingham Airport?

A. Probably not  . . .

 

As flying became more popular and safer, Britain's cities raced to see which would be the first to have its own airport. Manchester set up an airfield in 1928 and in the same year Birmingham City Council proposed using Castle Bromwich as Birmingham's airport.

 

However, it was not to be.

 

With the threat of war from Adolf Hitler's Germany in 1933, the British War Office again took over Castle Bromwich aerodrome for use by the RAF.

 

Castle Bromwich would probably not have been chosen as Birmingham's airport anyway. There were too many problems with the site: it was too close to the River Tame, the Birmingham-Derby railway line and the sewage works. And the smoke blown eastwards from Birmingham's factory chimneys to Castle Bromwich added to the fog from the low-lying land around the river meant that flying was often impossible.

 

Elmdon airport was opened in 1939; it is now Birmingham International Airport.

 

The Second World War

Spitfire P7350 was built in 1940 at Castle Bromwich. It is now part of RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.
Spitfire P7350 was built in 1940 at Castle Bromwich. It is now part of RAF's Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

The Spitfire was the most advanced fighter plane of its time. Factories to build thousands of them were set up in Southampton and at Castle Bromwich. (The Spitfire factory is now the Jaguar factory on the Chester Road.)

 

More than 12,000 people worked at the factory making it the biggest of its kind in the country. 

 

Lancaster bombers being made at Castle Bromwich
Lancaster bombers being made at Castle Bromwich

More than 50 Spitfires were made here every week. By the end of the war more than 12.000 Spitfires had been made at Castle Bromwich.

 

After 1941 Lancaster bombers were also made here. When they were finished, the planes were taken across the Chester Road and tested before being flown to bases across the country.

 

During the war German bombers made the Castle Bromwich factory their target. From 1940 the factory was hit by over 200 bombs with many workers injured and some killed. Some of the bombs fell on Castle Bromwich. 

 

 

To watch a film on YouTube of chief test pilot, Alec Henshaw testing a Spitfire in 1941,
click here.

 

Castle Bromwich Aerodrome closed

Photo by Amanda Slater of the Sentinel sculpture at Spitfire Island on Flickr reusable under Creative Commons
Photo by Amanda Slater of the Sentinel sculpture at Spitfire Island on Flickr reusable under Creative Commons

The Castle Bromwich Spitfire factory closed at the end of the war and was converted into a factory making bodies for cars, including Minis; from 1977 it became the home of Jaguar cars.

 

The Aerodrome was still used as an RAF training station and the RAF put on air displays were held here every year until 1957 commemorating the anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

 

The Aerodrome was also used for passenger flights. The world's first helicopter service began here taking passengers from London to the British Industries Fair at Castle Bromwich in 1950.

 

 

On 7th June, 1955 Her Majesty the Queen approved a Unit Badge for use by Royal Air Force, Castle Bromwich. The design of the badge is intended to symbolise the Station's close ties with the City of Birmingham, and consists of a sprig of broom enfield by a mural crown taken from the city's own crest.

 

The sprig of broom portrays the location of the unit i.e. Castle Bromwich - "where the broom grows", as it once did in profusion at Castle bromwich. the motto "Spra urbem alae nostrae volant" may be translated as "Our Wings rise over the City".

 

Entrance to RAF Castle Bromwich, photo Harold Beason posted by Michael Newbold on Birmingham History Forum
Entrance to RAF Castle Bromwich, photo Harold Beason posted by Michael Newbold on Birmingham History Forum

 

 

From 1954 to 1958 a Spitfire stood by the gates of Castle Bromwich aerodrome.  It is now on display in Thinktank in Birmingham.

 

The Aerodrome closed in 1960 and the site and was sold to Birmingham City Council to build the houses that would become Castle Vale. Building started in 1964 and was finished by 1969.

 

 

Not forgotten

Every year there has been a service of remembrance for the people who were killed during the war. This takes place at the Altar of Remembrance on Castle Bromwich Green. In 2014 there was a service in the church graveyard remembering the day 100 years before on which the First World War started, 4 August 1914. 

 

Weblinks

 

 

Find out more about the Spitfire on the London Science Museum's website and take a look at photographs of the factory making them on The Spitfire Site. (Opens on a new page.)

 

 

 

The Spitfire factory is now the Jaguar factory. If you've 45 minutes to spare, click here to see how the Jaguar XJ luxury saloon is made at Castle Bromwich - largely by robots.

'A History of Castle Bromwich for Young People' written by William Dargue 2016 for the Castle Bromwich Bellringers.

We’ve been ringing here for 500 years and are keen to involve local people in our ancient art. Contact us via our Castle Bromwich Bell Ringers website if you want learn to ring or visit the tower or have one of us talk to your group about the history of Castle Bromwich, our church or bellringing.  Material on this site may be reused only for non-commercial purposes providing appropriate attribution is given (Creative Commons Licence Attribution NonCommercial 4.0) - details on the Contact page.