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After an original idea by Paul Freeman.
First published 7 Nov 2010. This collection of airfields is © 2010 - 2018 RonaldV
fr

Clastres (A-71)

29-11-2013


474

49°45'25"N 003°12'43"E


Runway: 10/28 - 1600m - concrete (CLOSED)
Runway: 15/33 - 1600m - concrete (CLOSED)
Runway: 04/22 - 2550meters/7,900feet - concrete/asphalt (CLOSED)


Air field Clastres (french: Aérodrome de Clastres or Base Aérienne Saint-Simon - Clastres, also known as Advanced Landing Ground A-71 Clastres and Clastres Air Base, ICAO: LFYT) is an abandoned air field located northeast of the town of Clastres in the Aisne department, Picardy, France.
The airfields history began in 1937, when it was built as an aerodrome by the French army. Featuring two grass runways, it covered about 100 hectares. This airfield became the home base of Groupe de Reconnaissance I/14 (G.R. I/14), flying 8 Potez 63.11 aircraft, in 1939. On 10 May 1940 (the outbreak of hostilities in France) 7 of their aircraft were operational. The airfield was seized by the Germans in June 1940 during the early part of the Battle of France. It was briefly used as a fighter airfield by Jagdgeschwader 27 (JG 27) and Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52), both flying Messerschmitt Bf 109Es, in early June 1940 and participated in the Blitzkrieg against the French Army and British Expeditionary Force.

clastres_IGNF_24-05-1939web.jpg
Clastres airfield, just north of the village of the same name, in May 1939. At the time, the airfield was little more than a grass field with two small hardened platforms on the west side fot he airfield (IGN, via Geoportail.fr).

Clastres was unused for the remainder of 1940, and remained so until 1943. From 1942 the Germans improved the facility by laying down three 1800m concrete all-weather runways, aligned 05/23, 10/28 and 15/33, three disperesal areas and 42 parkings. Presumably this was due to the fortification of the Pas-de-Calais, as the Germans believed that when the Americans and British tried to land in France to open a Second Front, the airfield would have a key role in the defense of France. The airfield became a day interceptor base in February 1944, housing fighters to attack the USAAFs 8th Air Force heavy bomber fleets attacking targets in Occupied Europe and Germany.
Units from Luftflotte 3, Fliegerkorps IV that are known to have opereated from Clastres were:
II.Gruppe/Schlachtgeschwader4 (II./SG4), from February 1944 until 6 June 1944, flying Focke Wulf Fw190F/G aircraft,
Stab/Jagdgeschwader1 (Stab/JG1), from 6 June 1944 until 28 August 1944, Messerschmidt Bf109 and Focke Wulf Fw190A aircraft,
I.Gruppe/Jagdgeschwader1 (I./JG3), from 6 June 1944 until 28 August 1944, Messerschmidt Bf109 aircraft,
I.Gruppe/Jagdgeschwader5 (I./JG5), from July 1944 until September 1944.
Previously unattacked, the fighter base Clastres came under frequent attack by Ninth Air Force B-26 Marauder medium bombers. In line with the strategy of the time, the medium bombers would attack in coordinated raids, usually in the mid to late afternoon, while Eighth Air Force heavy bombers were returning from attacking their targets in Germany. These attacks were timed to have the maximum effect possible, so the Luftwaffe interceptors would pinned down on the ground and unable to attack the heavy bombers. Along with the Marauders, P-47 Thunderbolts of Ninth Air Force would be dispatched to perform fighter sweeps over Clastres after the Marauder raids, then meet up with the heavy bombers and provide fighter escort back to England. When the P-51 Mustang groups of Eighth Air Force began accompanying the heavy bombers all the way to their German targets by mid-1944, it was routine for them to also attack Clastres on their return back to England with a fighter sweep and attack any target of opportunity to be found at the airfield. Also, as part of Operation Quicksilver, designed to deceive the Germans about where the invasion of France would take place, Clastres was attacked by Eighth Air Force B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bomber groups in early June 1944, just prior to the D-Day landings in Normandy.


Clastres-466thBGstrikephoto.jpg
Air strike of 466th BG at Clastres in 1944 (AFHRC).


American Ninth Army units moved though the area in early September 1944, heading towards Saint-Quentin. The airfield was seized and turned over to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF). IX Engineer Commands 846th Engineer Aviation Battalion moved in around 7 September 1944 and started a quick rehabilitation of the base to allow use by American aircraft Designated Advanced Landing Ground "A-71 Clastres Airfield" it was declared operationally ready for combat units on 9 September, only a few days after having been captured from German forces. Although operationally usable with one runway, Athies was still a wrecked base from the Allied air attacks and what was blown up by the Germans as they withdrew. The Americans worked with what could be repaired and moved in what equipment was necessary to conduct combat operations, the rest was done with tents.
Under American control, Ninth Air Force used the base for several units. Known units assigned to the base were:
387th Bombardment Group (387BG), from 30 October 1944 until 29 April 1945, flying B-26 Marauders
367th Fighter Group (367FG), from 8 September 1944 until 28 October 1945, flying P-38 Lightnings
One of the early missions of Clastres was to provide much needed fuel for the ground troops fighting on the western front. On September 11, 1944, the 467th Bombardment Group (B-24 Liberators) began a period of ferrying operations to carry gasoline to France, called Operation TRUCKIN'. Men from the Group were assigned to France to perform the necessary duties in connection with TRUCKIN' operations. The first airfield used was Orleans/Bricy south of Paris, but this was soon changed to Clastres, and it was to here that most of the Group's planes flew. In addition to the 467th's own aircraft, a number of war weary aircraft from other groups were also used. Skeleton crews were used, and at first the gasoline was carried in five-gallon cans unloaded by the crew at the destination. Later bomb-bay tanks and P-47 belly tanks were installed in the planes and a pumping station was installed at Clastres.
When the combat units moved out, Clastres was turned over to Air Technical Service Command to become an Air Depot and later, during the summer of 1945, a storage depot for large numbers of surplus aircraft, whose units had returned to the United States by ship. Clastres airfield was closed on 30 November 1945 and turned over to the French Air Ministry.

Clastres20-20467th20BG20trucking20-201.j
Offloading jerry cans at Clastres Air Base in September 1944 (387BG.com)

Clastres20-20467th20BG20trucking20-203.j
B-24Hs "Topper" (42-52303, foreground) and "Go Getter" (41-28744) at Clastres, France, during gas truckin' missions in September 1944. Note the tents: there were no accommodations at Clastres, so the 467th crews slept in tents on the airfield. (387BG.com)


Under French control the base sat abandoned for several years. There were thought to be too much unexploded munitions at the site which needed to be removed and also wrecks of German and American aircraft. Many of the buildings at the base were destroyed during the war and although some had been repaired by the American combat engineers, most were in ruins. On top of that, the French Air Force wanted to have nothing to do with what they considered to be a Nazi airfield on French soil. The French Air Ministry therefore leased the land, concrete runways, structures and all, out to farmers for agricultural use, after having sent in unexploded ordnance teams to remove the dangerous munitions.

clastres_IGNF_03-05-1949web.jpg
Clastres airfield, May 1949. This composite image shows the three runways, the three dispersals and to an extent even the aircraft parkings. Although there are similarities (such as the use of three runways), the Luftwaffe airfields were vastly different in set up from those of their opponents in the RAF and USAAF (IGN, via Geoportail.fr).


5 years after the war, as a result of the perceived Cold War threat of the Soviet Union, the air base at Clastres was offered to the United States Air Force by the French Air Ministry as part of the French commitment to NATO in order to establish a modern Air Force Base at the site. NATO faced several problems when attempting to solve the air power survival equation in the face of a Warsaw Pact first strike. Survival in case of both conventional and nuclear wars had to be considered. As the main air bases were built on relatively small parcels of land with very limited dispersal space, it was decided to use Clastres as an emergency "backup" airfield, consisting of a "bare bones" facility of a runway with minimal facilities intended for use by all NATO air forces to disperse their aircraft in case of all-out war. The goal was to have no more than one fighter squadron on each main or dispersed base in the event of war.

clastres_IGNF_22-04-1951web.jpg
Clastres in April 1951, when the airfield was clearly still in use as farmland, although the facilities appear to be ready for use (IGN, via Geoportail.fr).

Around 1953 French demolition companies returned to Clastres to secure the area around the World War II air base. French Army Explosive demolition teams were brought in to safely remove any remaining unexploded munitions and the site was prepared for construction.
A modern all-weather concrete NATO-standard jet runway of 2550m/7,900feet was laid down over the former German 04/22, along with taxiways and dispersal areas for three fighter squadrons. 3 dispersal areas (one per squadron) were designed in a circular system of hardstands (marguerites) which could be revetted later with earth for added aircraft protection. Typically the (semi-)circle consisted of fifteen to eighteen hardstands, with each hardstand capable of parking one or two aircraft, allowing the planes to be spaced approximately 150feet (50m) apart. Other than the occasional touch-and-go landing of NATO (mostly USAF) aircraft, Saint-Simon - Clastres Air Base was never used, not even for exercises. 

clastres_IGNF_04-05-1958web.jpg
Clastres, April 1958. Although Luftwaffe infrastructure is still recognisable, the NATO upgrade clearly stands out in the landscape (IGN, via Geoportail.fr).

clastres_IGNF_03-03-1963web.jpg
Clastres, March 1963. While the German infrastructure is decaying and in parts even disappearing (the disperesal areas mainly), the NATO base appears to be in perfect condition (IGN, via Geoportail.fr).

After the French decided to withdraw from the integrated military component of NATO in 1967, the base was only used occasionally during exercises until it was sold off to the Communauté de Communes du Canton de St-Simon.

clastres_IGNF_08-04-1974web.jpg
By 1974, the northernmost of the remaining German runways had been broken up completely. The remaining one was cut off to about half its former length (IGN, via Geoportail.fr).

clastres_IGNF_19-04-1985web.jpg
Between 1974 and the time this photo was taken in April 1985, nothing really changed at the airfield (IGN, via Geoportail.fr).

In the nearly 45 years since it closed, the former airport and military air base has been used mainly for agriculture (farming) and the occasional military exercise. The NATO runway, dispersals and taxiways remain in place, and although deteriorated after 40 years of abandonment, they are most likely usable for emergency aircraft landings. All three dispersal circles (marguerites) and their pads, some removed or damaged, remain in a mostly reasonable condition.


The removal of the wartime German base around 1970 has been thourough. The most obvious remaining features of Athies wartime past is half of the 10/29 east-west German-built concrete runway, the other one, which used to be on the northern edge of the airfield, was completely removed. The concrete is deteriorated with large breaks in the expansion joints visible. A small part of the runway has been resurfaced on the east side of the German runway, and a few sheds have been erected with a local access road from the village of Clastres, just to the southeast of the airfield.

Some taxiways built by the Germans remain as single-track agricultural roads. A windmill farm was built on the northern dispersals. The entire airfield is now owned by a motor sports company, who have operated circuits at the airfield since 2008. The runway, taxiway and some dispersal areas appear to have had a fresh coat of asphalt some time ago, possibly to facilitate the use of agricultural aircraft.
During a 2002 'farewell' ceremony a plaque was unveiled at the airfield, remembering the use of Clastres by American forces in 1944 and 1945. A race track was built on the southern dispersal in 2012.

clastres-2006.jpg
Saint-Simon - Clastres Air Base in 2006 (Google Earth)

clastres-circuit.jpg
A racing circuit was laid out on the southern dispersal in 2012 (Google Earth).





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