Royal Naval Air Station Stretton (HMS Blackcap), was an airfield in the village of Appleton Thorn, close to the village of Stretton in south Warrington. The airfield’s site was located to the south west of junction 9 of the later M56 motorway. All Naval Air Stations are named after birds.
World War II
RNAS Stretton was originally planned as a Royal Air Force night fighter station to protect Liverpool and Manchester from Luftwaffe air raids during World War II. However, changes in German tactics meant that the airfield was not required so it was transferred to the Admiralty on completion. The site was acquired on 2 August 1941, commissioned as HMS Blackcap on 1 June 1942, and was passed over to the full control of the Admiralty on 1 November 1942, having been on loan from the RAF until then.
Three runways and numerous hangars had been built. Forty-one Fleet Air Arm Squadrons were based here for varying periods with some aircraft being flown directly to and from aircraft carriers operating in the Irish Sea and other nearby waters.
Fairey Aviation used a hangar on the northeast edge of the airfield for the modification, repair and flight-testing of Barracudas, Fireflies and Fulmars before they were despatched to their operational squadrons. Fairey also had a repair site at Wilderspool Causeway from 1943 next to Bennett’s shirt factory. This is now used as the depot for Warrington Borough Transport (see photo in On The Buses).
From 1944, HMS Blackcap was also used as an Aircraft Maintenance Yard; a large hangar complex being constructed to the northwest of the airfield for this activity.
Entertainment was an important activity during wartime and Blackcap had its share of visiting celebrities, including George Formby. Dances and theatre shows were also staged for the troops and their partners.
Post War Operations
At the end of the war American Naval Aircraft were flown into Blackcap to be broken up for disposal. The Aircraft Maintenance Yard at Blackcap meant that the airfield continued to operate and, at its peak, handled one third of all Fleet Air Arm Aircraft and all its spare engines.
Current site of RNAS Stretton
In 1947 the Fleet Air Arm decided to form Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve Squadrons. The first to be based at Stretton was 1831 Naval Air Squadron, a fighter squadron, which was reformed here on 1 June 1947.
It was joined on 18 August 1952 by 1841 Naval Air Squadron, an anti-submarine squadron. Together, these Squadrons comprised the Northern Air Division which was formed at Stretton on 1 June 1952, and disbanded on 10 March 1957, together with its constituent units.
The last squadron based at Blackcap was 728B Naval Air Squadron, formed in January 1958. The squadron was relocated on 15th February 1958 to HMS Falcon, Hal Far, Malta. The airfield was closed on 4 November 1958.
The Church of St Cross, Appleton Thorn, was used as the station church in 1942, and has a dozen graves from HMS Blackcap, which contain three war-time deaths. Link to the church website.
Thorn Cross Prison
The main living area of Blackcap, Eagle site, which was also the main administration site, became Appleton Thorn Prison in 1960. This was later closed, demolished and replaced by Thorn Cross Prison, which opened in 1985 – a Category D Young Offenders Institution for males aged 18 to 21. Thorn Cross was initially used as an open prison for adult males. In 1996, the prison was re-rolled as a Young Offenders Institution.
At the time, Thorn Cross was the first such institution in the United Kingdom to enforce military-style disciplinary regime for its inmates, which led to the prison being labelled as a boot camp.
In January 1999, an inspection report from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons labelled Thorn Cross Prison as an inspirational example of good practice.
In particular the report praised the prisons High Intensity Training (HIT) project, and recommended it be rolled out to other prisons.
In October 2005, a further inspection report highly praised Thorn Cross Prison, again highlighting the prisons HIT program. The report also noted that Thorn Cross managed to reduce re-offending amongst its ex-inmates to just over 20%, which was one of the best rates in the country. However the report did say the prison did have to do more to improve relations with the local community.
Education and training courses offered at the prison include Construction Crafts, Motor Vehicles, Horticulture, Hospitality and Catering, and Rail Construction (NVQ Level 2). Thorn Cross has a number of partnerships with national and local employers which offer opportunities for work placements prior to, and on release.
Some information from Wikipedia