The origins of the RAF presence at Naphill and Walters Ash start with Wing Commander Alan Oakeshott. Born the son of an Army Major and a local town councillor, Wing Commander Oakeshott grew up in the village of Naphill before joining the RAF in 1938. He would go on to become a decorated war hero and also be credited with the idea of building a well hidden RAF High Wycombe in the beech woods of the Chiltern Hills.
In 1938, with war looming, thoughts in the Air Ministry turned to the issue of where to site Bomber Command HQ, within easy reach of the capital, but in a location that could not easily be detected from the air. Anecdotal evidence indicates that
Wing Commander Oakeshott suggested that the area of beech woods near the villages of Naphill, Walters Ash and Lacey Green would be an ideal location.
In his relatively short RAF career he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) before going on to make the ultimate sacrifice.
On the 10 May 1940, flying a Fairy Battle of 15 Squadron, the then Flight Lieutenant Oakeshott was conducting a routine reconnaissance patrol towards the German border when out of the clouds emerged a horde of German fighters, faster and more manoeuvrable than his slower aircraft. Picked out by one of the fighters, Flight Lieutenant Oakeshott recognised that he needed to head for cloud cover. However, he noticed that German ground troops were manoeuvring below and carefully timed his run for cloud cover such that his crew were able to record the German troop movements in order to relay this important intelligence to higher command. His brave actions identified a shift in battle, the German troops main focus now being directed towards Dutch military installations. Intelligence gathered from this mission forewarned the Dutch and certainly contributed towards the saving of Dutch Navy and Air Force personnel. His efforts were recognised with the award of a DFC.
Wing Commander Oakeshott flew his final mission on the 2 July 1942 against the submarine yards at Flensburg on the border of Denmark and Germany. Flying a Mosquito of 105 Squadron, he headed for his target and successfully dropped his payload of 4,000lbs on the submarine slipways. Shortly after leaving the target area he was intercepted by a Focke-Wolfe 190. His Mosquito was shot down and he and his crew perished.
Wing Commander Oakeshott is commemorated on the War Memorial in Naphill but his most enduring legacy is the camp of RAF High Wycombe. Being so close to London the primary requisites were camouflage and difficulty of access to the enemy.
As soon as plans were drawn up the contract for the work was signed by the firm of John Laing and Son, Limited. The firm was instructed to complete the works as soon as possible, so they employed 80 specialists and a labour force of 400 men, of whom many were Irish and many local. Many of these labourers were old and unskilled and thus had to be trained. They embarked on the green buses of the Penn Bus Company nearby what is now the Officers’ Mess. At that time the resident camp site, with canteen and recreational huts, was on the present Officers’ Mess lawn area.
Each particular building was planned separately for its own particular location and purpose, and as each was designed, so the plans were passed to the contractors and the building erected. It is calculated that over six million multi-coloured, sand faced bricks were used, all being hand-made in the local area.
Of particular interest is the level of importance and considerations given to the protection of the trees. Evidence of this can be seen in diagrams used by the Ministry of Works at the time, where each tree is separately plotted and numbered. Every advantage had to be taken of this natural camouflage. Several new coppices were planted to cover new works.
A statement delivered by the Air Ministry said:
“The positions of all buildings to be checked and moved slightly, if necessary, to avoid removing trees. Roadway to be detoured to allow as many trees to remain as possible. No trees to be cut down without sanction of Air Ministry, other than are necessary to site the building.”
The original Air Staff block, completed in 1940 was built with dormer windows in the style of a municipal building or Town Hall. Further inspection of the original buildings leads us discover the Fire station and old heating building. Built in the form of a cruciform and with a tower, this building was, from the air, the archetypal village church serving the local village and manor house (the Officers Mess was built to look like a country manor, with grounds stretching out around it).
A network of underground tunnels allowed staff to transit from block to block without surfacing. The key building of this network was the Operations Block. A stairway led the fifty five feet down to the large concrete box that was the Operations block. The roof slabs alone were over five feet thick. Over that was a layer of ballast, another two feet of concrete covered with a four foot cushion of earth and another five foot layer of reinforced concrete extending way beyond the walls of the building. This “burster slab” would ensure the detonation of any bomb in the event of a direct hit. Last of all came a considerable depth of earth mounding, on top of which were laid grass turfs.
To this day, the Station of RAF High Wycombe remains on three separate sites, nestled amongst the Chiltern Forests.