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Somerset Historic Environment Record

12722

Site Name: Second World War military research establishment, Pawlett
Civil Parish: Pawlett
Comprises:
PRN 10688Second World War balloon hanger, W of Pawlett Hill, Pawlett
PRN 11955Second World War research establishment building, Pawlett
Grid Ref: ST 283 430 (ST 24 SE)
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Image: Image of HER 12722 - Exterior of ?fabric shed. Photo by Somerset County Council (22 May 2003)
  HER 12722 - Exterior of ?fabric shed. Photo by Somerset County Council (22 May 2003)

Public access:

As far as we are aware this site is on private land and should not be visited without the owner's permission. [Information last updated on 20 December 2007]

Details:

Royal Aircraft Establishment comprising a balloon hanger (PRN 10688) and a small camp to house the detachment (see also PRN 11955). Was used in the development of barrage balloon cable cutting experiments from 1940. The aircraft flew from Culmhead (PRN 44340) and there were surprisingly few accidents. {1}

Pawlett was an outstation of RAE Farnborough where experiments could be carried out in safety involving ambitious and often bizarre methods of downing enemy bombers. There is a direct connection with the experiments carried out here and the University of Exeter. Exeter Airport (and later Culmhead) was used as the aircraft base and the university's new physics and chemistry laboratories (Washington-Singer building) became RAE workshops. RAE staff (under Professor G.T.R Hill) were housed in the students' hall of residence and the local firm of Willey and Co Ltd manufactured the test equipment.

The main work carried out at Pawlett was the testing of German barrage balloon cables (1-ton breaking strength) as well as our own (breaking 3.25-tons) to draw comparisons (by flying the RAE's aircraft into the cables). Countermeasures to barrage balloons were also developed including various types of strengthened aircraft wing leading edge and, of course, cable cutters. About 12 aircraft were available to the team to carry out this work. They key to the RAE's success however was the barrage balloon and its cables. In order that a balloon(s) was always available it was necessary to have a hangar of sufficient size to house it fully inflated. Repairs to the balloon fabric had also to be carried out and a large fabric store was also built (extant). The balloons had to be tethered at the test area and the concrete tethering pillars also survive (PRN 12869) [but see below].

Only two sites had balloon sheds of this type - the other being the Maintenance Unit at Sutton Coldfield where there were four similar sheds. It was necessary at the MU to have fully inflated repaired balloons to make sure that repairs had been carried out satisfactory. The balloon depots had a much smaller balloon sheds where they were only checked out partially inflated. Balloons from these depots were transported to the operational site many miles from the depot and inflated on site. Pawlett is entirely different - it was fully operational in the sense that the balloons were required on site - hence the need for such a large hangar. All four hangars at Sutton Coldfield have been demolished. {2}

A local resident who moved to the area in 1940 remembers the site in use. The balloon was tethered in the yard and not moved out - the structure on the Hams (PRN 12869) is the remains of a navigation beacon. The RAE carried out other experiments here including attaching (dummy, paint filled) aerial mines to ballons and testing bombs on the Hams. The test dropping of the first 500lb and 1000lb bombs took place here and other work involved plotting the fall pattern of dummy incendiary bombs.

The hanger appears structurally sound but the cladding is rusting in many places. There was no access to the interior of the hanger. Along the W side of the enclosure is a long building with a garage containg an inspection pit at the southern end. The roof of this building has mostly fallen in. The other buildings are severly overgrown and the site is littered with the remainants of its former use as a scrap and spare parts yard. {3}

A Second World War barrage balloon centre has been recorded and is visible on aerial photographs. The site is located at the junction on Gaunts Farm Road and Ham Lane and covers an area that measures circa 180m by 130m at its widest points. The site housed the barrage balloon hanger (PRN 10688) as well as accommodation blocks and other auxiliary buildings. This was a Royal Aircraft Establishment set up chiefly for the development of barrage balloon cable-cutting experiments. The accommodation block is centred at ST 2835 4293 and measures 37m long by 9m wide and orientated northeast/southwest. The building is still extant and is now part of a scrap yard. The Barrage balloon Hanger is centred at ST 2841 4296 and measures 32m long by 28m wide and orientated northeast/southwest. The hanger is still extant and is now used as a store in a scrap yard. An auxiliary building centred at ST 2847 4301 is circa 50m away from the main site. The rectangular building measures circa 4.5m wide by 5m long orientated northwest-southeast with the entrance on the southeast side. This building is still extant. There are other buildings centred at ST 2844 4292, ST 2844 4294, and ST 2837 4296 but all were demolished on aerial photographs taken in 1983. To the south of the site centred at ST 2841 4291 is a white arrow 15m in length which would have shown the direction to the bombing range marker, recorded as PRN 18121 in Pawlett Hams. {4}

Local memories have been published. {8}

References:

1 Description - Hawkins, M. Somerset at War: 1939-1945.  (1988), 61.
2 Correspondence - Francis, P (Paul),, email to Somerset County Council Historic Environment Record (5/10/2001). Location: Verbal, electronic or direct entry, no source retained
3 Site visit report - Webster, CJ [Chris]. Somerset County Council (22/5/2003) Location: Verbal, electronic or direct entry, no source retained.
4 Data transfer - National Monuments Record (English Heritage). Record ID: ST 24 SE 43 (9/1/2007)
5 Aerial photographs - RAF 225A/UK854/4 VV6-VV7. (01/08/1940) Location: National Monuments Record, Swindon.
6 Aerial photographs - RAF CPE/UK/1944 4100-4101. (23/1/1947) Location: National Monuments Record, Swindon.
7 Aerial photographs - NMR OS/83016 006-007. (08/03/1983) Location: National Monuments Record, Swindon.
8 Description - Haggett, R. Pawlett. Airfield Review  (December 2007), 151-55 Copy available in HER files.

Record created in March 1997

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