Heathrow: deception and the fog of war

Twelve of Middlesex’s 600 square kilometers belong to Heathrow Airport, which has become the major employer for London’s western boroughs. Almost all the site disappeared under concrete at one go: the runways were begun at around the time of the D-Day landings, in June 1944 and the new London Airport was in business by the end of 1946. It’s an odd place to put the world’s third largest international airport: unlike in Madrid, Frankfurt or Paris, planes in London have to cross the heart of the city either when taking off or, more commonly, when landing.  By choosing Heathrow, the small hamlet, on the western fringe of Hounslow Heath, the government of the day destroyed Middlesex as an agricultural county by commandeering its best land, whose fertility had been laboriously been built up by Victorian market gardeners using London’s endless supply of horse manure. Two planners chose Heathrow, and the decision was pushed through taking advantage of the wartime system of top-down direction. The first was Sir Patrick Abercrombie, the father of the New Towns and author of the County of London Plan (1943) and the Greater London Plan (1944) who saw a need for multiple airports serving London including the one that became Heathrow.

Air Minister Harold Balfour (pic Imperial War Museum)

The second was Harold Balfour, the wartime Under Secretary of State for Air. In his 1973 autobiography (quoted in Philip Sherwood’s ‘Heathrow 2000 Years of History), the now-ennobled Lord Balfour boasted that he had been able to ‘hi-jack for Civil Aviation the land on which London Airport stands under the noses of resistant ministerial colleagues. If hi-jack is too strong a term I plead guilty to the lesser crime of deceiving a cabinet committee.’ Balfour avoided a public inquiry and objections from cabinet colleagues by launching the develoment under the pretext that it was needed to transport troops to the Far East for the defeat of Japan and the land was acquired through the Defence of the Realm Act which did not permit appeals.  One legacy of this ploy is Heathrow’s distinctive outline from the air, with a hexagonal shape formed by six runways. Only two runways have ever been used, but it was an RAF requirement that planes should be able to land and take off into any possible wind direction, and the airport’s military cover story required that the extra runways should be constructed.

The redundant runways in 1955,  still partly visible from the air (below) half a century later


One Response to Heathrow: deception and the fog of war

  1. Pingback: Harmondsworth — a terminal case ? | MIDDLESEX: A ROUNDTRIP IN NOWHERE LAND

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