Imagine the scene. The night before D-Day, June 1944. Standing with ground crew by the hangers your eardrums threaten to explode with the noise of 20 C-47 Douglas aircraft taking off from Station 479, a US Air Force base in Lincolnshire. Their task is is to spearhead the allied invasion by dropping paratroops, supplies and equipment behind German lines in Normandy. For months these same aircraft, flying just above the waves of the channel to avoid radar, have been systematically dropping navigational equipment at key locations in preparation for this moment, the greatest sea borne landing in military history.
Fast forward to Boxing Day 2019. The only noise you hear is the constant though subdued drone of the AI, out of sight beyond the forest’s western edge. From time to time you also hear gunshots; game is being hunted somewhere. Our airfield was built rapidly, to a standard pattern, during 1943 and handed over to the US 9th Air Force whose pathfinder squadrons were based here; some 3,000 personnel living in huts and tents at one time. Closed at the end of hostilities in 1945, the base was handed back to the RAF who used it to store munitions. RAF North Witham closed for good in 1960 and the land was given over to the Forestry Commission (now Forestry England) who gradually replaced woodland that had been cleared to make way for the airfield in the first place. Oak, beech and other native species now proliferate alongside stands of pine. Colonising birch has made inroads into the concrete and tarmac runways while willow and alder are well settled in bogland by the original perimeter road. Big rectangles of concrete that make up Runway 30 remain fully exposed and the whole expanse remains deeply impressive when its vanishing point is obscured by today’s atmospheric grey mizzle, framed by bare trunks or swags of distant conifer.
In recent years this otherwise forgotten architectural remnant of war has been the site of a series of illegal mass raves, which explains the flat bed of an articulated lorry blocking the vehicular access by the official car park. We’d love to return in Summer as these woods are also home to two nature reserves rich in rare butterflies. Volunteers have registered sightings of purple emperor (dwellers in the deciduous tree canopy) as well as numerous sightings of silver washed fritillary and common blue alongside rare species like grizzled and dingy skippers. Those same spirited volunteers turn up every March in working parties to patiently clear scrub and saplings in the rides between woodland. These sheltering glades are the equivalent of wartime runways for butterflies and moths, securing their precious life cycles and enriching our own lives in the process.