The Forest in World War II

Hatfield Forest saw active service during World War II.  There are accounts of soldiers camped there in 1940.  War time remains can be seen in several areas, including Elgin's, Gravel Pit and Street Coppices.  Three airfields were constructed in the local area.  There is however remarkably little documentary evidence.

1940 - a holding camp  

There are accounts in the Imperial War Museum archives and a BBC "listening project" from three different soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment who were posted to Hatfield Forest for short periods in 1940, during the period of the Battle of Britain.

They reported being able to see the red glow of the fires in the sky above London, 40 km (25 m) to the south. The only activity noted was the digging of slit trenches. It seems that their purpose was part of a general mobile reserve, for deployment elsewhere in the event of an invasion. 

New Roads

Pre-war access to the Forest for visitors was through a gate at Bush End, opposite the church, with cars then driving across the grassy open areas.

With the arrival of the military, new roads were built - the present day entrance road from the main car and going into Elgin's Coppice, and the exit road. 

Storage shelters in Elgin's 

The forest canopy made the coppices ideal locations for storing supplies out of sight of overhead enemy reconnaisance aircraft.  The foundations of twenty two structures can still be seen in Elgin's Coppice, located amongst the trees, on either side of the access road. All that remains of each are lines of little metal legs, in concrete foundations, surrounded by a low bank.  Each set of foundations measures about 9m by 9.5m. 

Foundations of a World War II hut showing through the fallen leaves
Foundations for a WWII hut showing through in Elgins Coppice
Foundations of a World War II hut showing through the fallen leaves

It is not clear whether these  were built early in the War years, for general use, or in the later years, following the construction of Stansted airfield and its subsequent use as a bomber base, after February 1944. 

a somewhat grainy image of a storage hut
One of the storage huts in Elgins, hidden amongst the trees
a somewhat grainy image of a storage hut

In the north west corner of the coppice, set slightly apart from the huts, is the remains of an unroofed brick built shelter, enclosed within a bank of earth.  It is thought to be associated with bomb storage and may have been an inspection facility. 

There are reports of a light railway being built for delivering bombs to the airfield. 

The present day entrance and exit roads through the coppice were constructed during this period, to service the depot. 

Ammunition shelter

There are the remains of a brick-built ammuntion shelter, in the south west corner of Elgin Coppice, set slightly apart from the huts.  This was enclosed with a bank of earth, designed to absorb the impact of any accidental explosion.  The walls survive to a height of about 1.6m. 

The remains of an ammunition shelter, now somewhat overgrown
The overgrown remains of a World War II ammunition shelter in Elgin Coppice
The remains of an ammunition shelter, now somewhat overgrown

A mystery concrete structure in Gravel Pit Coppice 

There are the remains of a sunken three-celled rectangular concrete structure measuring about 4m by 5.3m, in the southern part of Gravel Pit Coppice. It is thought that this may have been a toilet block although it may date from an earlier period and be associated with nearby small scale gravel workings. 

The Coppice also contains a number of trenches, comprising a series of linked dog-legs, apparently built defending Gravel Pit Cottage.  The cottage may have been used as the command centre for military operations within the Forest. 

Bomb Craters 

A number of possible bomb craters have been identified, mainly in Street Coppice, at the southern end of the Stansted runway, circular in shape and measuring betwen 3 and 5m. These are thought to have arisen from German aircraft dumping surplus bombs  after air raids on London, prior to their return journey.

Bomb damage was also reported for Shell Cottage, and Forest and Warren Lodges, to the tune of £21, in 1941. 

Practise Trenches

A number of trenches, thought to have bveen dug for practice purposes, can be found in Grvel Pit Coppice.  These are about 2.4m wide and 0.6m deep, on average.

Documentary Evidence

There is remarkably little documentary evidence about the Forest during this period, either at the Essex County Records Office or in national archives. 

Aerial Reconnaissance 

The Luftwaffe took aerial reconnaissance photographs in 1940! These now provide a very useful record of the layout of the Forest at this time. 

Local Airfields

Starting in 1942, an airfield was constructed beyond the northern boundary of the Forest, at Stansted, by US Air Force engineering battalions.  This was Station 169 and was to become the largest USAF base in East Anglia, covering 3000 acres.

Its initial role was as a maintenance depot for all the USAF Ninth Air Force groups stationed in Essex.

In February 1944, it also became a combat airfield, with the arrival of the 344th Bombardment Group, the "Silver Streaks", flying Mitchell B-26 Marauder medium bombers. They saw service in Northern Europe during the closing stages of the war, including providing support for the D-Day landings.

This airfield was later to become the present day Stansted airport. Airfields were also constructed slightly further away, at Dunmow and Great Easton.