Full Fathom Five

In Brexit-era Britain, the disused airfields of the Second World War can be seen not simply as relics of a patriotic war but as warnings of the dangers of hubris and isolationism.

Aerial photograph of Charmy Down, December 4, 1943. Photograph taken by 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group.
Aerial photograph of Charmy Down, December 4, 1943. Photograph taken by 7th Photographic Reconnaissance Group. [English Heritage/USAAF]

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England …

— William Shakespeare 1

People who live on islands, who are born on islands, view anyone who comes ashore with suspicion.
— Paul Theroux 2

In 1940, H.G. Wells published an urgent manifesto. Europe was then in the second year of the Second World War. In May, the Germans had marched into Paris, and the next month occupied the Crown dependencies of the Channel Islands; in September the Luftwaffe began the aerial bombing of London. The Blitz would continue relentlessly for months. Britain was reduced to its basic principle: a spit of land in the North Atlantic, an island struggling to stem the tide. Mobilization was swift. Beaches were heavily mined; parks and sports grounds were hardened with poles and machinery to prevent aircraft from landing; concrete anti-tank obstacles were deposited across the landscape; secret tunnels were dug for the guerrilla Auxiliary Units 3; huge areas of land were cleared and the island mosaicked with airfields. Great Britain suddenly felt small.

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Born in South East England at the height of the Victorian era, Wells was then in the twilight of a prolific career, celebrated for groundbreaking works of science fiction such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, as well as a series of progressive and often prophetic social commentaries. In his wartime manifesto, The Rights of Man, Wells argued for a declaration of human rights, “a guiding system of ideas” that might combat the deepening global chaos and form the foundations of a “fundamental world reorganization.” He observes that the “abolition of distance and the stupendous increase in power” have led to a “crowding together of mankind” to which the only possible solution is “world collectivization.” Wells is unequivocal in his conviction:

Plainly I am an extreme revolutionary. … I do not believe it is possible to go on with the present way of living that prevails throughout the world, with the sovereign governments we have and the economic practices that prevail. These sovereign governments have given us nothing but inconclusive wars on a larger and larger scale, and we have to get rid of them. All of them. … We have to get rid of and replace all these governments by a world system. 4

The writer who had predicted aerial warfare and nuclear weapons, and famously envisioned bloody interplanetary conflict on the streets of London, was now fighting doggedly to “end war forever.5

As Wells worked on The Rights of Man — subtitled “What Are We Fighting For?” — German Messerschmitts were penetrating deeper into England. In his first radio broadcast as Prime Minister, in May 1940, Winston Churchill warned that very soon “there will come the battle for our Island — for all that Britain is, and all that Britain means.” 6 The island mentality is distinct, and permeates our collective consciousness. In her recent novel, Flights, the Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk captures the psychology:

The island state is a state of remaining within one’s own boundaries, undisturbed by any external influence; it resembles a kind of narcissism or even autism. One satisfies all one’s needs on one’s own. Only the self seems real; the other is but a vague specter, a Flying Dutchman just darting over a distant horizon.” 7

During the war years the Flying Dutchman became frighteningly real. The vague specter had disturbed Britain’s boundaries, its island narcissism. It was the beginning of a sea-change, an acknowledgement of the need for the “world system” Wells had called for. In earlier centuries Britain had sought to transcend its borders as a colonizing power, as the controlling center of a global empire. But after the war, in a speech delivered in Zürich in 1946, Churchill argued that the European nations ought to join together in a reciprocal union. “We must all turn our backs upon the horrors of the past and look to the future,” he said. To avoid the return of “tyranny and terror,” he argued, there is a remedy.

What is this sovereign remedy? It is to recreate the European fabric, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, safety and freedom. We must build a kind of United States of Europe. 8

Within a few years half a dozen nations joined together to create the European Coal and Steel Community. The immediate purpose was to regulate trade and industry, but the larger goal was to promote supranational cooperation and collaboration; in the words of its founding declaration, to render any future war between major European nations “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.9 The European Coal and Steel Community formed the basis of what became the European Union. The Rights of Man would influence the drafting of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which would in turn lead to the implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights. 10

Before the Brexit referendum, the Leave campaigners exploited lingering wartime nostalgia, promoting a romantic ‘us-against-them’ mentality.

But the realities of organizing anything like a United States of Europe would prove immensely complicated, as would the UK’s relationship to the EU. Today, more than two years on from the Brexit referendum, as the deadline for disunion approaches, the country seems to be disintegrating. In recent months a socialist bookshop in Bloomsbury was terrorized by right-wing agitators associated with the UK Independence Party. Northern Ireland, where Brexit tensions run high, was racked by its most violent rioting in years. Theresa May’s embattled government has told the public to take “reassurance and comfort” in its plans to stockpile food and medicine. 11 The old island prejudices and narcissism are creeping back into the political discourse. Before the referendum, the Leave campaigners exploited lingering wartime nostalgia, promoting a romantic “us-against-them” mentality. At his rallies, Nigel Farage played the theme song from The Great Escape. Boris Johnson, author of a Churchill biography and narrator of the iOS app Think Like Churchill, boasted that the old leader would have joined him on the Brexit bus. 12 Since the referendum, numerous political pundits have evoked the “Blitz spirit,” and countless headlines have recycled the wartime slogan “keep calm and carry on.”

Charmy Down, 2018.
Charmy Down, 2018. [Google Earth]

It was with all of this in mind that I decided to try and sift through the rhetoric, attempt to connect with something solid underneath. I wanted to explore our island unconscious, and discover what might be at stake if we cut ourselves adrift once more. I had been studying an Ordnance Survey map of the area where I live, in Bath, when I noticed two words — Airfield (disused) — floating above the dotted outlines of three runways forming a ghostly A: a cartographic palimpsest. It resonated in the paper landscape as though it were a fault line, my finger stuttering to a halt. In an unrelenting climate of confusion and misinformation, the airfield might offer me an anchor — a place from which I might be able to plot a trajectory by exploring where we had come from.

My destination is Charmy Down, the site of an RAF airfield constructed in 1940, at the height of the Blitz, and used to defend the Bath and Bristol area from nocturnal attacks. I stop at a pillbox and hoist myself onto the cool concrete, winded by the steep hike up from the valley. Over the past half century, the landscape has been returned to agriculture, but fragments of the military history remain: the field is still level, high and open. Crumbling structures line the perimeter. Air-raid shelters warp the ground like the Bronze Age barrows that were found here by Victorian archeologists 13; aircraft blast pens mimic ancient earthworks. On the east side, concrete poles form a perimeter fence, ensnaring the shells of six brick huts. On the west, past mounds of rubble reclaimed by moss, hundreds of white butterflies circle the derelict control tower, while a mob of house martins patrols an uncultivated patch of meadowland nearby. The pillboxes guard the airfield’s southern side like sentries on the edge of a forgotten empire: weathered and vigilant, resisting a shifting environment. The stubborn hexagonal structures feel at odds with the landscape — too expensive to bulldoze, too awkward to be put to use. They sit in a field three miles outside Bath, rendered purposeless: curiosities, eyesores, ruins.

The pillboxes guard the airfield like sentries on the edge of a forgotten empire: weathered and vigilant, resisting a shifting environment.

The first aircraft to use Charmy Down arrived in November 1940: the black night-fighting Hurricanes of No. 87 Squadron, later joined by Defiants, Whirlwinds, Bostons, and Spitfires. 14 The runways are now overgrown, but their impressions remain. I follow north-south tractor marks towards two small copses until I reach an intersection with the main runway, and I am immediately struck by a feeling of buoyancy. There’s something ethereal about this place that’s more air than land. I feel edgy, overcome by the openness, as though any moment a fighter plane could barrel out of the clouds. As the wind picks up on the plateau, I imagine the drone of engines, the vortex of propellers. Shouts from the ground crew as smoke fills the air. The earth vibrating as bombs hit Bath; flashes in the distance.

In May 2016, I watched from my living room window as police launched a major operation to evacuate the buildings across the road. A 500-pound unexploded bomb had been found under a school playing field. 15 I saw families waiting on the curb with suitcases, and cars being turned away, and I wondered what it would mean if the bomb detonated. Who would be responsible, who would be blamed? It was likely dropped during the “Baedeker” raids in 1942: named after a German travel guide to historic British cities, the raids were a retaliation for the bombing of medieval German towns by the RAF. The assault began on April 25, and for two days the Luftwaffe dropped thousands of incendiaries and more than 250 bombs. Charmy Down faced its moment of crisis: the Hurricanes of No. 87 took off to repel the attackers but failed to make contact. Bath burned. When the smoke cleared on the morning of April 27, more than 1,000 buildings were damaged beyond repair; yet, somehow, the center remained unscathed. The city had survived. 16

Charmy Down, abandoned control tower (left) and pillbox (right), 2018.
Charmy Down, abandoned control tower (left) and pillbox (right), 2018. [Nicholas Herrmann]

Charmy Down, 2018
Charmy Down, 2018. [Nicholas Herrmann]

Charmy Down, 2018.
Charmy Down, 2018. [Nicholas Herrmann]

RAF St Davids, 2018. [Google Earth]

A few weeks after visiting Charmy Down, I’m studying another OS map, my finger pausing again on Airfield (disused). My partner and I are staying in a friend’s cottage in Pembrokeshire — a short drive from Bath, the Welsh county has become for us a sanctuary of sorts, a place for R&R. I discover, looking at the map, that it’s also littered with Second World War airfields. The one nearest us is RAF Brawdy, but that site has been reactivated and is now part of a functioning British Army base specializing in electronic warfare. A few miles west there is another, this one abandoned: RAF St Davids.

The airfield lies on the northern side of St Brides Bay, on the squally upland above the picturesque town of Solva. Once part of RAF Coastal Command, St Davids was opened in 1943 to guard Allied shipping convoys in the North Atlantic from U-boat attacks, and aircraft from St Davids helped protect the landing of the D-Day armada in France. 17 I arrive on a gray and blustery day. Unlike at Charmy Down, the metaled runways are still present, the same shade as the overcast sky. I set off down the abandoned strip, following in the tracks of Fortresses, Liberators, and Halifaxes. Nature is gradually reclaiming the surface, cross-hatching the asphalt with grids of grass and weeds: dandelions, bracken, the triffid-tall stalks of curly dock. To my left the plain stretches out, sloping down to Upper Solva, then falling to the sea. To my right, in the distance, the jagged hills of Carn Llidi and Carn Penberry rise like incisors. Ahead of me and out of sight is the town of St Davids, then Whitesands beach — near where the sand for these runways was reportedly sourced. 18

The bombers that used to roost here are long gone, but the site is now home to the ceaseless song of skylarks.

The bombers that used to roost here are long gone, but the site is now home to the ceaseless song of skylarks, their silhouettes freckling the air, steady in the buffeting wind. Haunting these high places, the bird seems a totem of flight, attracted to altitude, craving the proximity of clouds. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has put the skylark on its Red List — “species needing urgent action” — but sightings of this ground-nesting bird have almost doubled here since the grassland was returned to traditional, organic hay meadows. 19 I reach the western side of the airfield and walk the perimeter past acres of wild and wet heathland. This is the deliberate result of a major ecological restoration. When the site was transferred out of military ownership, a quarter century ago, the land was checked for explosives and cleared of rubble and asbestos; the topsoil was replaced with clay and turf, planted with heather and gorse. Managed by the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority, the former airfield is now classified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a wetland of national importance. 20

RAF St Davids, 2018.
RAF St Davids, 2018. [Nicholas Herrmann]

RAF St Davids, looking toward Carn Llidi, 2018.
RAF St Davids, looking toward Carn Llidi, 2018. [Nicholas Herrmann]

RAF St Davids, pond near the old airfield, part of its recent ecological restoration, 2018.
RAF St Davids, pond near the old airfield, part of its recent ecological restoration, 2018. [Nicholas Herrmann]

The revitalization of the land around St Davids airfield can be traced back even further, to postwar reconstruction: Pembrokeshire Coast is part of a park system that was created in 1949 when Parliament passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, which mandated that Britain’s national parks would be dedicated not only to “preserving and enhancing the natural beauty” of their landscapes but also to “promoting their enjoyment by the public.” 21 Much like the founding of the European Union and the European Human Rights Convention, the designating of the National Parks can be seen as an initiative founded on compassion, an effort to support and rehabilitate people who had come through a calamity. Today, a portion of the funding for the UK’s national parks comes from the European Union, and 80 percent of the country’s environmental laws are made at the EU level. 22 When the UK carves itself from the continent, the environmental laws that protect the country’s parks will likely be severely weakened. As I walk between the new wilderness and the old aircraft dispersals, I try to picture what the landscape will look like in a decade — if it will continue to regenerate, be returned to the military to once more defend the island, or perhaps become abandoned again: Site of Special Scientific Interest (disused).

The National Parks can be seen as an initiative founded on compassion, an effort to rehabilitate people who had come through a calamity.

I wonder how this place appeared to pilots coming in to land. Sinking through suspended dunes of cloud. Water for miles, crumpled and vast, white seams quilting together an ocean of gray and blue. Then, the edge of an island: steep, serrated, gray relaxing into green. The globe transformed by a god’s-eye-view; height altering perspective, rendering the world infinitely simpler. The land becomes an unmarked map: no movement, no labels, no borders — an almost Buckminster Fuller-esque vision — the “one-world island in a one-world ocean,” a united, nationless planet. 23 Surely, for the pilots returning to RAF St Davids, the landscape appeared how Virginia Woolf imagined it in her essay on flying over London: “earth merely, merely the world.” 24

I’ve started to long for these strange places, sites of anchorage and recalibration, offering me the kind of calm that comes from looking at the night sky or swimming in the ocean. A day later, I drive twenty miles south to the other side of St Brides Bay. Perched on the edge of the Pembrokeshire coast, on the cliffs high above a medieval castle, RAF Dale opened in June 1942 as home to the No. 304 Polish Bomber Squadron. Their fleet of twin-engine Wellingtons for a year flew bombing raids over France. The station was then transferred to the Fleet Air Arm, becoming Royal Naval Air Service Dale. It’s the most vertiginous so far: runways catapulting out to sea, the island becoming aircraft carrier.

RAF Dale, 2018.
RAF Dale, 2018. [Google Earth]

On the morning of my visit, the airfield seems made into a mirror. It had rained through the night, dawn bringing clear skies, and water has collected between the weeds that burst from the asphalt, forming a network of symmetrical, crystalline rock pools stretching across the plateau. Everything is saturated by rain and light, giving the flora a fluorescent glow. Several years ago, a few thousand people from across the country descended on Dale for an illegal rave, with a resident of a nearby town describing the scene as “complete madness.” 25 Standing on the abandoned runway, I understand the pull of this place. Here too, as at St Davids, nature is reclaiming the site, though in a far less controlled manner. It exists on a border like something from Tarkovsky; as I splash through a reflected sky, I become a stalker traversing a liminal zone, a space stuck between past and present, rural and urban, its component organisms merging to form something almost sentient — an entirely new habitat. A parcel of linnets ripples down a runway. The needle-like chimneys of the local oil refinery loom on the horizon. Lichen blooms on every rock and boulder.

I walk past the exoskeletons of blister hangars rusting to the northeast. Waves break on the cliffs as the wind picks up. The landscape is spectacular and precarious. On August 12, 1942, Wellington HX384 took off from RAF Dale, bound for an anti-submarine sweep. The plane was hit by powerful crosswinds and fell into the sea, killing the crew of six. 26 Of the airfields I’ve visited, Dale underscores Britain’s island mentality most powerfully. In Theresa May’s first major speech after the Brexit vote, she declared: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” But it’s here, in this moment, that I realize what it means to be nationless; standing on the western edge of the country, on the remains of a floating fortress, cut off and confined.

RAF Dale, 2018.
RAF Dale, 2018. [Nicholas Herrmann]

“As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” 27 These are the famous first words of a long essay written in the midst of the London Blitz by a British writer who, like H.G. Wells, would become celebrated for his dystopian fiction. In the early years of the war, as Wells was laying out ideas for a post-national world order, George Orwell was analyzing the English national character in the “The Lion and the Unicorn.” First published in February 1941, the essay feels eerily familiar. “One cannot see the modern world as it is,” Orwell writes, “unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty.” He depicts a country in which patriotism runs as a “connecting thread” through all parts of society and is “always stronger than any kind of internationalism.” Yet at the same time, it’s a country hobbled by outdated class structures and riven by inequality. It is “notoriously two nations, the rich and the poor.”

England is not the jeweled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message … it resembles a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. It is a family in which the young are generally thwarted and most of the power is in the hands of irresponsible uncles and bedridden aunts. Still, it is a family. It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks. A family with the wrong members in control — that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase. 28

We face a hard choice: to remain globally engaged, or revert to an old hermetic essence, and stagnate in the false promise of a romanticized past.

As I write, highly civilized human beings are trying to dismantle the European Union, and the United Kingdom is closing its ranks, the wrong members in control. It’s as if we hadn’t progressed since Orwell. Notifications nudge my phone across the coffee table as stories break with headlines that should be antiquated, like the dotted outlines of ghostly runways on a map. As a nation, we’ve sought to have it both ways. We have presented ourselves as a place apart, “this sceptre’d isle … this fortress built by Nature for her self / Against infection and the hand of war”; while at the same time insisting upon claiming an inordinate degree of power and exerting a dominating influence upon world affairs. We now face a hard choice: to acknowledge the common fate we share with other nations and remain globally engaged, or revert to an old hermetic essence, and stagnate in the false promise of a romanticized past. “The past is fighting the future,” Orwell wrote, and it’s imperative the future wins.

We are in the soup, full fathom five, and we have been brought there by follies which we are still committing and which will drown us altogether if we do not mend our ways quickly. 29

Today, as the UK struggles to disentangle itself from the intergovernmental organization that was awarded the Nobel Prize for its “contribution to the advancement of peace and reconciliation,” 30 Charmy Down, St Davids, and Dale, and all the other disused airfields covering the country, can be seen not simply as relics of a patriotic war but as reminders of Britain’s island adolescence; warnings of the dangers of hubris and isolationism. In April 1942, while Bath was still shrouded in smoke from the Baedeker raids, a Heinkel He 111 bomber was shot down by the Allies on its return trip. The German pilot survived the crash and confessed to his captors that he had dropped his payload early on the approach. He had studied in Bath as a student before the war and still had many friends in the city. 31 Bath had survived being devastated by the assault, in part, due to a highly civilized human being looking out his cockpit window, and for one brief moment, being able to see the land below him as an extension of his home.

  1. William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act 2, Scene 1.
  2. From a conversation with Anthony Bourdain. Parts Unknown, “Hawaii,” Season 5, Episode 8. CNN, June 15, 2015.
  3. Norman Longmate, Island Fortress: The Defense of Great Britain 1603–1945 (London: Pimlico, 2001), 479–497.
  4. H.G. Wells, The Rights of Man: What Are We Fighting For? (London: Penguin Books, 2015), 3, 106, 44–45, 128, 104.
  5. H.G. Wells, The Rights of Man, 12. H.G. Wells, The War in the Air (1908) and The War of the Worlds (1898).
  6. Winston Churchill, “Be Ye Men of Valor,” May 19, 1940.
  7. Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, trans. Jennifer Croft (London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018), 103.
  8. Winston Churchill, speech delivered at University of Zürich, September 19, 1946.
  9. Robert Schuman, French Foreign Minister, in the declaration that launched the project. The founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community were France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
  10. Ali Smith, “Celebrating HG Wells’s role in the creation of the UN Declaration of Human Rights,” The Guardian, November 20, 2015. Aisha Gani, “What is the European convention on human rights?The Guardian, October 3, 2014.
  11. Alison Flood, “Ukip suspends three members over socialist bookshop attack,” The Guardian, August 7, 2018.  “Northern Ireland sees its worst riots in years,” The Economist, July 19, 2018. Rob Merrick, “Brexit: Theresa May tells public not to worry about plans to stockpile food and medicine in event of no deal,” The Independent, July 25, 2018.
  12. Estelle Shirbon, “Brexit debate brings out Britain’s World War Two fixation,” Reuters, June 3, 2016. David Mitchell, “Actually, Boris, this Churchill fetish isn’t your finest hour…,” The Guardian, September 30, 2018.
  13. The Beaker People and the Bronze Age,” Somerset Archives and Local Studies.
  14. David Berryman, Somerset Airfields in the Second World War (Newbury: Countryside Books, 2006), 34–49.
  15. Bath WW2 bomb scare: Device defused, police say,” BBC News Online, May 13, 2016.
  16. Berryman, 236–240.
  17. “Military History,” St Davids Airfield, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Chris Kelsey, “Sensitive management brings wildlife back to WW2 airfield,” Wales Online, May 10, 2011.
  20. “Conservation,” St Davids Airfield, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. See also “Habitat restoration at St David’s Airfield,” The National Trust.
  21. National Parks and Access to Countryside Act, 1949.
  22. National Parks, “Costs and Spending.” Kalina Oroschakoff and Marion Solletty, “Brexit threatens environmental law enforcement,” Politico, March 23, 2017.
    Michael Savage, “Brexit could wreck green agenda, says UN,” The Observer, May 19, 2018.
  23. Joachim Krausse and Claude Lichtenstein, eds., Your Private Sky (Baden: Lars Müller Publishers, 1999), 250–255.
  24. Virginia Woolf, “Flying over London,” in Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 208.
  25. Rachael Misstear, “Bank Holiday ‘rave’ chaos at beauty spot,” Wales Online, May 31, 2010.
  26. Tim McLelland, Action Stations Revisited No. 5 (Manchester: Crecy Publishing Limited, 2012), 88. See also 304 (Polish) Squadron – RAF.
  27. George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius (London: Penguin Classics, 2018), 3.
  28. George Orwell, 20.
  29. Ibid., 37.
  30. European Commission, Press Release Database.
  31. Berryman, 241.
Nicholas Herrmann, “Full Fathom Five,” Places Journal, December 2018. Accessed 08 Feb 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/181211

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