THIS week marks the 80th anniversary of the opening of RAF Middleton St George.

Today, of course, it is Teesside Airport, which is taking the opportunity afforded by the lockdown to refurbish its terminal ready for when passengers return.

Although the airfield has been continuously in use for the last 80 years, there are a few leftovers from the earliest military days: a couple of bunkers and pillboxes still offering protection and still on the look-out, and perhaps even the remains of a Pickett-Hamilton.

Construction started on the airfield in late 1938 on a notoriously wet piece of flat land known as Goosepool. Indeed, construction was held up because of a national shortage of rubber wellington boots which meant the men couldn’t get on the land.

To raise the ground a little, hardcore was brought over from the Middleton St George ironworks, plus stone from quarries at Shildon, Scorton and Sacriston which arrived at the Fighting Cocks siding where 100 men were stationed to unload materials.

Black ash came from the coal-fired power stations of Darlington and Middlesbrough and, as well as helping with the drainage issues, it ensured the white concrete runways looked black and so were less visible from the air.

Construction was not helped by a farmer’s wife who lived in one of the many farms which ringed the site. She brandished a shotgun if workers came too near, and police had to have several words with her.

Once the war had started, much of the construction was by men who were medically unfit for combat. The nature of the work and the poor conditions on site meant that four of them died.

The archives suggest that the airfield was formally opened on January 15, 1941, but there doesn’t seem to have been any public ceremony – unsurprising, really, as the enemy would have been keen to learn about any such developments. As it was, the airfield kept German wireless operators guessing – it’s official title was RAF Middleton St George, which they were able to locate on a map, but so many airmen referred to it over the airwaves as “Goosepool” that the Germans were convinced that there must a second airfield somewhere in the south Durham area.

The day after the opening, Squadron Leader DG Singleton arrived to find the airfield still very much a building site. On January 17, 305 airmen – many new recruits – arrived, but the water in the accommodation block froze and the heating failed so they were hurriedly given seven days leave.

After they returned, on February 19, 36 hours of snow stopped completion of the runway. The snow was followed, on February 27, by a rapid thaw which the left the camp under several feet of water – the new recruits wondered whether they had joined the RAF or the navy.

On March 3, construction recommenced and at the end of the month, lorry loads of bombs began to arrive.

On April 9, the first plane, a Whitley Mark V bomber of 78 Squadron, touched down on the new runway from Dishforth, and it was soon followed by 15 others. Air Vice-Marshal A Conningham telegrammed to say: “Congratulations on the opening of RAF Middleton St George as an active operational station.”

On April 14, eight of the Whitleys took off on their first operation, attacking German cruisers in Brest harbour, in north-west France. Seven reached the target – one had to turn back after 90 minutes with engine trouble – and all returned safely.

Now the new airfield, the most northerly of Bomber Command’s bases, was most definitely up and flying…

Today, although practically everything has been altered and extended in the 80 years since, those early airmen would probably recognise the hangars – all five were built during the war – and the control tower. The officers’ mess, latterly the St George Hotel, is said to be one of the least altered buildings of its kind in the country.

Airside, the runways remain, and on the south side – near the ancient church of St George which may be where the Treasury relocates from London – the rounded shapes of the “dispersal pads”, where the bombers were parked before take-off, can still be made out. Near them grow the dogroses that the airmen tended and the alpine plants brought back in the bombers’ engines (see Memories 478). Plus, as the pictures show, there are several concrete shapes that need investigating…

Information from Goosepool by Stanley D Howes. Old pictures kindly supplied by Geoff Hill. Also with thanks to Chris Long and Craig Peacock of the airport