D-Day memorial service at former airfield

Dorset Echo: Royal Air Force Tarrant Rushton on D-Day.  Picture the Andrew Wright Collection Royal Air Force Tarrant Rushton on D-Day. Picture the Andrew Wright Collection

A special D-Day commemorative service is to be held at an historic former Dorset airfield – 70 years after it landed wooden gliders containing vital troops and equipment in Normandy as part of the largest and most daring maritime invasion in history.

Members of the public – including the children and grand-children of veterans who served at the Royal Air Force base – are being invited to attend the poignant gathering above the village of Tarrant Rushton, between Wimborne Minster and Blandford Forum, on Sunday, June 8.

The special service commemorating the brave tug pilots, glider pilots, and soldiers who took part in the historic and crucial D-Day invasion of France on Tuesday, June 6, 1944, takes place at the stone memorial by the old entrance to the Tarrant Rushton airfield at Windy Corner, Hogstock – on the road from Witchampton to the Tarrant valley – at 2.30pm.

Taking place by the old airfield's main gate – in the shadow of a large aircraft hanger now used for storing cattle and feed – the gathering is being organised by retired aviation engineer Dennis Hart who worked on jet aircraft at the Tarrant Rushton airfield during the 1950s when it was used as the base for the pioneering Flight Refuelling company.

Dennis explained: "Once home to 3,000 people men and women, the top secret Royal Air Force base on its hill above the village of Tarrant Rushton played a vital role in the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944 – delivering three waves of wooden gliders, containing troops and equipment, in support of the massive and crucial Allied attack on the Normandy beaches.

"So busy and crucial to the fight for survival and freedom against Adolf Hitler's Nazi war machine 70 years ago, the old airfield is now a wide expanse of fields which belies its important role in the Second World War thanks to the brave men and women who served there in secrecy.

"It is important to hold a service of commemoration to not only mark Tarrant Rushton airfield's important role in the 'D-Day' invasion of France but also say thank you to the brave men who flew from the airfield to start the liberation of Nazi-occupied Europe – many of whom did not come back, losing their lives in the fight for freedom.

"Everyone is welcome to attend the gathering – from the children and grand-children of the brave people who served their country, both in the air and on the ground, to the general public," added Mr Hart who lives in Corfe Mullen, between Poole and Wimborne Minster.

Built by the Wimpey construction company in seven months at a cost of £1 million – £40 million in today's money – and opened in May, 1943, Royal Air Force Tarrant Rushton was home to two squadrons, No. 298 and No. 644, which flew the large Halifax four-engined bomber.

The airfield had been built for the training of Halifax bomber crews in the dangerous towing of wooden troop-carrying Horsa and tank-carrying Hamilcar gliders not just for the 'D-Day' invasion of France in June, 1944, but also the invasion of Arnhem in Holland during September, 1944, and the crossing of the Rhine into Germany in March, 1945.

Dennis Hart explained: "Brave Halifax crews based at Royal Air Force Tarrant Rushton also flew dangerous low-level flights to drop secret agents belonging to the Special Operations Executive (S.O.E.) deep into Occupied Europe – from the south of France to the Low Countries and up to Norway – to disrupt German military activities and help Resistance fighters.

"During the build up to 'D-Day', Royal Air Force Tarrant Rushton was a hive of activity with glider-towing training flights day and night. To maintain complete security and secrecy, the airfield was sealed off a couple of days before June 6, 1944, with no-one allowed in or out.

"One Halifax crashed with its brave crew of Canadians losing their lives even before the invasion of Normandy had begun," explained Mr Hart, a Flight Lieutenant in the Royal Air Force's Volunteer Reserve specialising in training for the Air Training Corps.

After the Royal Air Force moved out of Tarrant Rushton in 1946 with the coming of peace, the following year saw the pioneering aviation research and manufacturing company Flight Refuelling move in – a tenant that would remain at the airfield for more than 30 years, until 1980 when the 300 acre site was closed.

Its 300 buildings were demolished and the airfield's three large concrete runways broken up for hardcore material that was used in the building of the Wimborne bypass.

Anyone wishing to attend the 'D-Day' anniversary service at the former Tarrant Rushton airfield can contact organiser Dennis Hart on 01202 694864 for more details.

Donations in memory and recognition of those who served at Tarrant Rushton during the Second World War can be made to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund's Wings Appeal.

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