Don’t take Google’s word for it

A couple of mornings back I was indulging in my favourite pastime of wasting time at my PC while keeping half an eye on some recorded motorsport. This kind of prevarication is the sole difference between me and those dynamic young executives you see zipping around Canary Wharf in sharp suits making sure their iPhones are visible. Well, that and a keen sense of my own ridiculousness.

While the GP2 drivers investigated new ways of crashing into each other and the adjacent barriers, I noticed that the computer was somewhat busier than normal. It turned out that Google Earth was having one of its periodic bouts of Dr Who-esque regeneration, and needed most of my processing power and therefore temperature capacity to do it. When it had finished, I idly opened up the application to see if anything earth-shattering had changed.

What greeted me was the type of update that is purely designed to add to my timewasting ability. Large swathes of Britain now benefit from what Google describes as “historical imagery from 1945”. This is particularly interesting for residents of Milton Keynes, most of which didn’t exist until thirty years later. Having had my usual poke around at my own house, my parents’ house, my place of work and so on, it occurred to me to see what state the local RAF station was in at the end of the war.

This was very much an assumption on my part. Cranfield Aerodrome is now used for pilot training and assists the adjacent University with its hi-tech research in aviation and other fields. My assumption was that it was one of the spate of airfields chucked up in the 1930s as it became obvious that Hitler had certain expansionist tendencies.

Here’s the relevant aerial image.

Cranfield aerial view

Cranfield aerial view

The airfield location is to the left of the village – the main runway runs more or less parallel to the High Street. But the sharp-eyed among you will notice a distinct lack of airfield in the picture. This was a bit of a surprise. I know enough about Cranfield to know that it it shares the classic triple runway plan with all the pre-war airfields. Clearly it had been constructed, for some reason, well after hostilities had ceased. I thought I would have already known if it had any Cold War history, because those airfields tend to have hefty reminders of the fact in the form of large bunkers, missile storage and so on.

Intrigued, I headed over to the airfield’s “history” page to see what exactly prompted the building of an airfield that was apparently not used in either of the twentieth century’s big aerial conflicts, yet doesn’t function as a significant passenger or freight centre. Here’s the answer:

In 1936, construction of an airfield at Cranfield commenced, as part of a general response to developments in Europe….Cranfield RAF Station Headquarters opened on 1 June 1937 , and the aerodrome on 1 July, under the control of No 1 (Bomber) Group….Major work took place during the winter of 1939-40 to replace its grass airstrip with three properly surfaced hard runways. These became the targets of enemy attacks in the late summer of 1940 during the Battle of Britain, which damaged the airfield and local villages.

So, at least in this area, the “1945 imagery” isn’t from 1945. It’s at least nine years older than that. In a way, that’s reassuring, in that I wasn’t as ignorant of local landscape and history as I’d thought. In another way, it’s disappointing, because Google has to an extent set itself up as the leading purveyor of information to the world, and that’s a pretty spectacular margin of error.

On the other hand, it’s given me even more excuse to waste time, to see if I can find and research a few clues as to when the photographs were actually taken.

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