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Dunsfold Aerodrome: a top-secret Cold War test-ground in England that became a favorite filming location

Dunsfold Aerodrome from the air. Photo by:Andy Mabbett -CC BY-SA 3.0
Dunsfold Aerodrome from the air. Photo by:Andy Mabbett -CC BY-SA 3.0

Halfway between Guildford and Godalming in the county of Surrey, embedded in the forest, lies a mysterious airstrip which was enshrouded in secrecy until the mid-1990s. Dunsfold Aerodrome, built in 1942 and intended for use by the Royal Canadian Air Force, assumed a variety of roles throughout its existence, but its most memorable is as the main filming location of the BBC’s Top Gear show.

Well, first thing’s first. Dunsfold Aerodrome was constructed in a six-month period between May 11 and October 16, 1942, by a regiment of Canadian military sappers and engineers who, together with private contractors, stripped the heavily wooded area of its trees and set the foundation for the future runway.

During the war, the airstrip fulfilled its purpose as a take-off site for many missions, and afterward served as a repatriation center from which 47,000 prisoners of war were returned to their homelands once the war was over.

By 1946, the airfield was declared inactive. Skyways Ltd., which was the main operator of non-scheduled air services in Europe during the immediate post-war period, saw the opportunity and leased the compound from British Aerospace Company.

View across the aerodrome Photo by Hywel Williams CC BY-SA 2.0
View across the aerodrome Photo by Hywel Williams CC BY-SA 2.0

Then came the political turmoil of the Cold War. As tensions grew between the U.S.S.R. and the Anglo-American allies, the enclave of West Berlin was at one point cut off from its supply lifeline by Soviet authorities.

The Federal Republic of Germany sent all of the city’s necessities such as food and fuel via railway, but due to an international political stand-off between the superpowers, the Soviets blocked the railway, leaving the city in desperate need of basic supplies. With the help of the famous Berlin Airlift, supplies were distributed by Allied military cargo planes in a daring action that kept the world in awe, awaiting the potential escalation of the conflict, just two years after World War II.

During the Berlin Airlift, Dunsfold Aerodrome played a significant role between 1948 and 1949, as planes took off to distribute humanitarian aid to the stranded West Berliners.

During the 1950s, the airstrip changed hands, this time becoming part of the Hawker Aircraft Company Ltd. The British aircraft magnate benefited from the secretive location and made Dunsfold Aerodrome a testing ground for their most innovative designs such as the Harrier Jump Jet, the Folland Gnat, and other jet-powered aircraft.

In 1953, test pilot Neville Duke entered history for breaking the speed record sound barrier at an average of 727.63 miles per hour, while flying in the Hurricane Hunter prototype. The test flight, conducted at Dunsfold Aerodrome, ushered in a new era in terms of jet aircraft.

The location was protected under the Official Secrets Act until the late 1990s when it was assessed that Dunsfold Aerodrome and its long and peculiar history belongs more to a museum of some sort than to active service, as the Cold War was officially over.

Dunsfold Aerodrome is located in Surrey .Photo :Contains Ordnance Survey data CC BY-SA 3.0
Dunsfold Aerodrome is located in Surrey .Photo :Contains Ordnance Survey data CC BY-SA 3.0

Since 2002, the aerodrome was sold to the Rutland Group, which decided to turn it into the Dunsfold Park Ltd.,  functioning today as a private unlicensed airstrip and a favorite filming location for both Hollywood big-budget blockbusters and one of British television’s favorites―Top Gear. The crew used Dunsfold’s hangar as its base for production, while the airstrip was turned into race ground for the needs of the show.

Related story from us: Beijing has a 20,000-acre secret underground city, Dìxià Chéng, that was built during the Cold War by 300,000 people digging by hand

Apart from the Top Gear series, a number of commercials used the iconic strip, while numerous films have taken the advantage of the secluded location in order to convincingly present scenes involving airfields. Shots of the airstrip can be found in popular movies such as Casino Royal and The Da Vinci Code.

Nikola Budanovic

Nikola Budanovic is a freelance journalist who has worked for various media outlets such as Vice, War History Online,The Vintage News, Taste of Cinema,etc. He mostly deals with subjects such as military history and history in general, literature and film.