The End of an Era – Vulcan XH558 Bows Out.

The end of October marks the end of an era, with the grounding of Avro Vulcan XH558. After an eight year reign as Queen of the skies, she finally bows out after the three main technical companies that support her, withdrew their support. In her last flight on October 28th 2015, she completed a short 15 minute flight, the culmination of 228 flights and 346 hours flying time. After a long taxi to runway 02 at Robin Hood Airport, she performed her last flight to a small crowd of gathered people whilst streaming the event live on YouTube. Creating her own cloud, she had the grace of an angel, performing a touch and go before landing for good and so closing the book on this remarkable story.

Vulcan XH558 Landing at Waddington

XH558 lands at Waddington July 2014

The Vulcan was the last of the Cold War bombers to fly and achieved a great following across the country. The ‘Vulcan effect’ as it became affectionately known would draw thousands to street corners, road sides and airshows just to see the graceful bird and hear her incredible howl.

The first flight of XH558 as she returned to the sky after a 14 year restoration.

For me personally the Vulcan was the aircraft I used to watch as a child from my parent’s bedroom window; my first real close up, large jet aircraft and one of the many that drove my love of aviation. They would do circuits around Bitteswell airfield following maintenance or upgrading, so it seems fitting therefore, that the last time I would see her in person, would again be from my own back garden so many years later as she flew over my home.

vulcan take off

Lots of jet wash on take off at Waddington 2013

Famed for flying to the Falkland Islands and bombing the runway at Port Stanley airport,  Vulcans supported by 13 Victor tankers, undertook the longest bombing raid on military record. An incredible feat and one that will go down in history for a very long time, probably eternity.

Designed initially by Roy Chadwick and built by the Avro company, it was one of many iconic aircraft to leave the Avro works. Shown to the public for the first time at Farnborough in August 1952, a Vulcan went on in 1955 to perform an amazing barrel roll much to the amazement of the crowd. Designed to carry weapons of mass destruction, the Vulcan formed the backbone of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and would carry a nuclear warhead to Russia should the demand arise. Crews were on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ready to take off knowing they would probably not be returning. The Vulcan had a  truly devastating punch. Her beauty and grace were matched only by her prowess and destructive power.

Vulcan Ready to launch

XH558 at Waddington June 2013

XH558 in particular was the RAF’s own display aircraft for 33 years eventually retiring from service in 1993. Bought and maintained by C Walton Ltd, she would go on to be cared for by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. She was flown to Bruntingthorpe and refurbished to airworthy status  over a period of 14 years at a cost of £7,000,000. XH558 was then flown to her new home at Doncaster airport, itself a former Vulcan bomber station, RAF Finningley.

From there she would undertake a huge number of flights, displaying to thousands across a range of airshows around Britain, far exceeding her original target of 250 hours flying time such was the demand to see her.

Eventually though her time would come, and even with the huge public support, the technical skills needed and provided by: B.A.E., Rolls Royce and Marshall Aerospace, have finally been pulled and her flying days are now over.

cropped

XH558 flies over for the last time.

XH558 will continue to reside at Doncaster in a Heritage centre alongside a new Technical School. She will be kept in taxiing condition, still run her engines and keep full electrical power. A new era dawns, and she joins the other grounded Vulcans, with  a new vision and a new life.

With the grounding of XH558, airshows across Britain won’t be the same, but at least she had the chance to fly again and amaze the thousands who flocked repeatedly to see a mighty Vulcan fly in Britain’s skies once more.

Sadly, I didn’t get to see her on her last tour of Britain, but even the Vulcan can’t be everywhere at once. I have some fantastic memories of her, from Waddington to Eastbourne, with the two Lancasters at Marham, and many, many more that I have gathered over the years.

For the chance to see a Vulcan in the skies again, to the team and XH558, from me personally, a very big heartfelt thank you.

 XH558 doing what she does best at Eastbourne 2015

The First of two tours forming the farewell flight of XH558 from inside the cockpit.

Pledges and support can continue to be offered for the upkeep of 558 through their dedicated website. Her history, visits and other information can also be accessed through this link.

Home to eight squadrons and the Pathfinders.

The second part of Trail 31 continues on through the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. Low soft hills give for superb views and fine examples of aviation heritage. We move on to the former RAF station at Gransden Lodge.

RAF Gransden Lodge

Sitting high on the hill-top, Gransden lodge rests peacefully nestled next to the villages of Little and Great Gransden to the west and Longstowe to the east; the county borders of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire pass right across it. Surrounded by undulating countryside it no longer reverberates to the mass sound of piston engines, but more with the gentle whistle of gliders.

Gransden Lodge was another Cambridgeshire airfield modified to class ‘A’ specifications. It was opened in 1942, initially as a satellite for RAF Tempsford. Going through many modifications, the original design differed greatly from the eventual layout; initially the runways not reaching the perimeter track and there being no allocation of hangar, staff accommodation or hardstand space. As a satellite station, presumably these would not have been required. However, with the expansion of Bomber Command and the need for more airfields, Gransden Lodge would eventually become much larger and much more significant. Following changes to plans and redesigns of the infrastructure, three concrete runways (NE-SW, N-S and E-W) were eventually constructed and with one at 1,600 yards and two at 1,200 yards each, they were not huge. However, these were then extended to the more usual 2,000 yards and 1,400 yards later on, when in April 1941, the government decided that every Bomber Command airfield would have to accommodate the larger four-engined aircraft. Again further development of the site was undertaken and the runways were extended.

Perimeter Track

Part of the Track in the Technical area.

A total of 36 hardstands were constructed using the pan style design, two of which were replaced when a hangar was built during the later development stage. This would give Gransden Lodge three hangars in total, two (a B1 and T2) to the north and one T2 to the south of the airfield.

The bomb store was located to the eastern side whilst the accommodation sites were spread to the west and north-west. These 10 sites were made up of two communal, two WAAF, and six domestic sites which included sick quarters and associated premises. The technical area would be to the west. In total, Gransden Lodge could accommodate 1,867 men and 252 women ranks.

Building plan of RAF Gransden Lodge*4

Once open, Gransden Lodge would be home to eight operational RAF squadrons: 53, 97, 142, 169, 192, 405, 421 and 692 before it would finally close at the end of the Second World War.

First to arrive were the combined units of 1474 and 1418 flights, who were here between April 1942 and April 1943, conducting radio navigation tests using the new GEE system. Operating the Wellington IC, III, X, IV and Halifax IIs, they were heavily involved in radio navigation and electronic counter-measure operations. These flights would probe German radar defences, gathering information so that counter-measures could be devised allowing bomber formations safe passage to their targets. The Wellingtons used for this would fly over Germany, France, and the Low Countries and even over the Bay of Biscay, gathering information and reporting back.

The British were were getting quite desperate to find out what frequencies the German airborne radar was using, until they knew, jamming and other counter measures would be difficult. On December 2nd 1942, a Wellington filled with specialist equipment and a daring crew set off from Gransden Lodge to find out as much about the enemy system as possible. In order to track and establish the frequencies they were using, they would have to allow themselves to be tracked by an enemy fighter for a lengthy period, a potentially fatal move for any RAF bomber!

Once tracked, the crew would record and transmit every detail they could about the system and then, if they hadn’t been shot down, head for home.

At around 4:30 am contact was made, and the enemy aircraft tracking them was monitored. The chance of attack increased with every long second they waited until eventually the aircraft, A Ju 88, fired upon the Wellington ripping canon shells along the length and breadth of its fuselage. In the melee that followed, the front and rear turrets were both put out of action, the gunners in each were wounded, the wireless operator was wounded, a specialist radio operator monitoring the Ju 88 was also wounded and the aircraft, controlled by one of only two uninjured crewman on board Pilot Sergeant Paulton, had fallen from 14,000ft to around 500ft as Sgt. Paulton had desperately tried to escape the Ju 88’s clutches.

Eventually the Ju 88 ceased its relentless attacks and left the Wellington to its seeming  terrible fate. But determined to get back, Sgt. Paulton headed for England, both engines now misfiring and much of the hydraulics system disabled.

Over England he told the most able to bale out, then he would attempt a sea landing. The aircraft came down just of the Walmer coast, whereupon the crew clambered out to discover their dingy had been badly damaged and was useless. Thankfully though, it wasn’t long before a rescue boat found them and all the remaining crewmen were taken aboard and brought safely to dry land.

Eventually, these flights would combine forming a new squadron 192 Squadron (RAF) which officially formed on 4th January 1943 here at Gransden Lodge. 192 would pass over to 100 Group and move away to RAF Feltwell on the April 5th that same year and they  would go on to gain the honour of flying more operational sorties, and as a result, suffer more casualties than any other Radio Counter Measures (RCM) squadron in the RAF.

With their departure, Gransden Lodge would then be transferred to No. 8 (PFF) Group like its sister station, RAF Graveley, whereupon its operational role would be changed for good.

The next units to arrive would only stay for 5 days. Passing through with their Mustang Is, 169 Squadron would transit on to RAF Bottisham, whilst 421 Squadron would take their Spitfire VBs to nearby RAF Fowlmere.

Nissen Hut

An overgrown Nissen Hut.

On April 18th 1943, 97 Squadron (RAF) arrived at neighbouring RAF Bourn – but would be split over several sites. A detachment was based here are Gransden, whilst two other detachments were located at Graveley and Oakington. 97 would go onto to gain notoriety for the disastrous ‘Black Thursday’ (See RAF Bourn) operation that took the lives of many of its crews. 97 Sqn would undertake many bombing operations staying here for a year, departing Gransden Lodge on 18th April 1944, a year to the day of their arrival.

April 1943 would be a busy time for Gransden. On the 19th, a day after 97 Sqn’s arrival, 405 Squadron (RCAF) would arrive, bringing with them Halifax IIs. Formed on April 23rd 1941, 405 would fly with 6 Group, at RAF Leeming, until their arrival here at Gransden. Adopted by the people of Vancouver, it would be the first Canadian unit to serve with Bomber Command.

405 Sqn’s entry into the Pathfinder Group brought more experience and skill. Participating in the both the ‘1000 bomber raid’ on Cologne and conducting temporary operations with Coastal Command, 405 had seen a number of different operational conditions. Initially bringing Halifax IIs, they would take on the Lancaster I and III only four months later. 405 Squadron would be the first unit to fly the Canadian built Lancaster – named ‘The Ruhr Express’, KB700 would be the first production model Mk. X.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The first Canadian-built Lancaster B Mk X, KB700 “The Ruhr Express”, taxiing after landing at Northolt, Middlesex, KB700 was the first of 300 aircraft built by Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario. IWM (CH 11041)

405 Sqn would go on to attack many high-profile targets including: Essen, Dortmund, Cologne, Düsseldorf and toward the end of hostilities, Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. They would be the last unit to attack targets in Italy and they would see action over Peenemunde.

Operating in conjunction with 97 Sqn, 405 would also fall victim to ‘Black Thursday’, when Lancaster JB477 ‘LQ-O’, would strike the ground within a stones throw of Graveley airfield killing six of the seven crew members. Two other Lancasters would also crash with fatalities that night, JB481 ‘LQ-R’ and JB369 ‘LQ-D’, – would both fail to make it home in the thick fog of ‘Black Thursday’ – truly a dark night for the Canadian Squadron.

At the end of 1944, No. 142 Squadron (RAF) would be reformed at Gransden Lodge. With an extensive Middle-Eastern history behind them, they would fly from here between 25th  October 1944 and September 28th 1945, the date of their departure a year later. Serving as apart of 8 Group (PFF) they flew Mosquito XXVs and would go on to complete 1,095 operational sorties, achieving 64 DFC’s and 52 DFM’s. They remained at Gransden Lodge carrying out their last raid on the night of May 2nd / 3rd 1945, finally disbanding on September 28th that year.

Watch Office

The Watch Tower today.

It was during this time that Gransden’s second Mosquito squadron would arrive. 692 Squadron (RAF) would fly the MK. XIV until September that year. Moving from neighbouring Graveley, it had a short life of only 20 months. Its last casualties being March just before their arrival at Gransden.

It would be three months before any further units would be based at Gransden Lodge. On December 1st 1945, Liberator VIs of 53 Squadron (RAF) would arrive and stay for two months whilst they carried out trials of a new radar-assisted airborne mapping system. They were eventually disbanded on February 28th 1946. Their demise would mark the end of military flying at Gransden and whilst it remained in MOD hands it would not be home to any further military units.

Post war, Gransden Lodge was home to the first motor racing event using the old runways and northern section of the perimeter track. This was not to be permanent arrangement sadly and Gransden would remain disused. Military life almost returned with the escalation of the Cold War when ‘The Lodge’ was earmarked as a possible site for Cold War forces, however this never came to fruition and all continued to be quiet. Finally, in the 1960s Gransden Lodge closed it doors for good and the site left to decay.

That was not the end of Gransden Lodge though. In the 1990s the Cambridge University Gliding Club, (now the Cambridge Gliding Club) took over the site and flying has returned once again. Small airshows have taken place and whilst gliding is the more prominent, the sound of the piston engine can once more be heard over this historic site.

Whilst little of the original infrastructure survives today, there are some good reminders of this airfield’s history to be found. After driving through Little Gransden go up the hill towards what is now the rear of the airfield, you will arrive at an old Windmill. Sitting below this Windmill is a small and rather sadly insignificant memorial dedicated to the crews and personnel who worked, died and served at RAF Gransden Lodge.  Carry on past the memorial along a small track and you finally arrive at the rear of the airfield. In front of you the barrier and beyond the barrier the former watch tower. This road would have been the main entrance to the airfield’s technical site, you can still see a number of small buildings and a picket post to the side. To the right of this a track leads off to one of the few remaining huts now heavily shrouded in weeds and undergrowth. The tower, a mere shell, has had a modern but temporary ‘watchtower’ added to its roof. Whilst in poor condition, the watch office stands overlooking what is left of the airfield towards the small flying club that keeps its aviation history alive. A small number of other buildings can be seen around here all buried beneath the undergrowth and all skeletons of their former selves.

Leave the site return back to the village bear left, and continue to follow the road round. You will eventually come to a gravel entrance on your left with a small sign pointing to the flying club.

Take this road, and traverse the potholes as you climb the hill. On your left you will pass a small selection of foundations and piles of bricks that were once part of the southern side of the airfield. Continue on from here and the road bears right, this is now the original perimeter track, follow it as it winds its way around the outside of the airfield. It’s width is greatly reduced throughout its length and only small patches of concrete tell you of its former life. As you pass the former bomb store on your right and the end of the modern grass runways, bear left where you will finally arrive at the flying club. Here  a collection of small aircraft and gliders will greet you. A small modern watchtower and clubhouse watch over the aircraft and the airfield as gliders take to the sky.

On warm summer days, or when  the thermals are good, this is a lovely place to sit and watch in awe as the majestic birds of the sky float silently above this once busy wartime airfield. A small club house provides refreshments and a welcome break from the dusty road that leads here.

As you depart the club, and drive back round the perimeter track, you can see in the distance, the control tower standing proud on the horizon, what memories it must hold and stories it could tell.

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The Stained Glass window in St. Bartholomew’s Church.

Before departing this site for good, it is worth going to Great-Gransden and the church of Saint Bartholomew. Within its walls is a beautiful stained-glass window that commemorates those who served at Gransden Lodge. Also placed nearby is the roll of honour detailing those individuals who gave their lives whilst serving here. A fitting and well deserved memorial, it forms an excellent record of those long gone.

The villages of Little and Great-Gransden bear virtually  no reminders of their local aviation history. Delightful in their settings, nestled in the Cambridgeshire countryside, their secrets are bound tightly within their boundaries, but the airfield and the flying, still live on.

We finally leave here and head west to another ‘hilltop’ site. One that boasts one of the most prestigious memorials in the country. An open site with superb views over the Cambridgeshire countryside, we head to the former American base – RAF Steeple Morden.

Notes:

*4 Photo courtesy of RAF museum

The Cambridge Gliding Club website has details of their activities.

King’s Cliffe planning application gets approval.

Earlier this year, we highlighted the planning application put forward by Philip Ashton-Jones the current land owner of Jack’s Green on the former RAF King’s Cliffe airfield, in Northampton.

An online petition raised over 300 objections to the application. These came  from: supporters of Glenn Miller, aviation enthusiasts, wildlife groups and local people alike, who all highlighted concerns over the proposed development of the site and the impact it may have. At an initial meeting in September this year, the council failed to come to any overall decision as they needed to consider further reports from interested parties.  At a second meeting held on Wednesday 14th October,  after considering all the issues raised, East Northamptonshire Council approved the plans and so 55 holiday homes will now be built on Jack’s Green.

Whilst concerns were raised over the memorial that currently stands on the actual base of the hangar where Glenn Miller performed his last hangar concert, the land owner Philip Ashton-Jones, stated at the meeting that the memorial would remain “exactly as it is today”.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

The Memorial to Glenn Miller taken in December 2014. Jack’s Green is the area behind.

RAF King’s Cliffe is a large site, which is now primarily agriculture. It still contains a few buildings from the Second World War and a large memorial to those who served here during this time. Jack’s Green, is part of the larger woodland used by walkers, horse riders and nature lovers.

East Northampton’s decision is in line with many decisions being made by local authorities. Land is at a premium, and whilst this is not essential housing by any stretch, it is not a surprising decision in today’s climate.

Let’s hope Mr Ashton-Jones keeps to his word and this historical place is protected.

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here. (This may only be available for a limited time.)

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

‘Black Thursday’ took the lives of many crews – RAF Bourn.

In Trail 31 we continue our trip around the historic countryside of Southern Cambridgeshire. Moving on from the open expanses of Graveley and Caxton Gibbet, we visit two more airfields both of which continue for now, to uphold their aviation heritage. Our first stop is the current small airfield on the former RAF Bourn.

RAF Bourn.

Bourn sits between the towns of Cambourne to the west and Hardwick to the east and is confined by the new dual carriageway cutting across its northern side. Both the immediate eastern and western sides are heavily built upon and with further developments under proposal, the future of this historic airfield remains in the balance.

RAF Bourn was built-in 1940 /41 initially as a satellite for nearby RAF Oakington. With growing pressure from Bomber Command it would eventually become a bomber station  in its own right and come under the control of Air Commodore Donald Bennett’s 8 Group operating the elite Pathfinder Force (PFF). Accommodation would be suitable for 1,805 males and 276 females making it a relatively large airfield. Its three ‘A’ style concrete runways, would be extended later in 1942 to accommodate the heavier aircraft that were to use Bourn thus raising its profile as a bomber base. By the end of the war, Bourn squadrons would lose 135 aircraft in total accounting for: 60 Lancasters, 32 Short Stirlings, 24 Mosquitos and 19 Wellingtons – a considerable number of lives.

runway

Views along one of Bourn’s enormous runway.

Bourn would serve a number of RAF squadrons during its short wartime life: 15, 97, 101, 105, 162 and 609 would all play a part in its rich wartime tapestry. The first to arrive were the Wellington ICs of 101 Squadron (RAF). They arrived at Bourn very soon after the runways were constructed on February 11th 1942. During this time 101 were going through the process of updating their Wellingtons with the new Mk III. One of the first casualties of Bourne would be one of these models. Wellington ‘X3656’  SR-L, was lost on the night of March 8th/9th 1942, on a mission to Essen. Flight Sgt. S. Brown, P.O. C. Luin and Sergeants L. Calderhead, R. Lawrence and C. Parry were all lost in the attack; the aircraft missing in action and the crew presumed dead. Their names are now inscribed  on the wall of remembrance at Runneymede Cemetery.

101 sqn would continue the fight staying at Bourn until the 11th August that same year. They would then move on to Stradishall and Holme-on-Spalding Moor where they took on the Lancaster.

As 101 left, 15 Sqn (RAF) moved in, bringing the much heavier Short Stirling MkI. Having a rather checkered history behind them, 15 Sqn would operate the MkIs until the following January when the MK IIIs came into operation. Built by Short Brothers, the Stirling was a massive aircraft, dwarfing many of its counterparts with a cockpit height of some 22 feet. A forbidding aircraft, it was cumbersome on the ground but was said to be very agile in the air, some would say it could out-turn a Spitfire! Sadly though, it was a slow aircraft and whilst heavily defended, loses were to be high leading to its eventual withdrawal from front line operations .

A few miles away at Cambridge, an industrial unit of some  six / seven hangars were built by Short Sebro Ltd who manufactured the Stirling parts. Final assembly and air testing was then carried out at Bourn, the wings being transported by ‘Queen Mary’ trailers and the fuselage on specially made carriers pulled by tractors. To help, three large hangars would be built away to the east of the airfield to accommodate both these and battle damaged bombers for repair.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The crew of the Short Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’, of No. 15 Squadron after their 62nd mission. © IWM (CH 7747)

It was here at Bourn that a record would be set by a 15 Squadron crew. Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’,  would go on to complete 67 operations, a record for the type. N3669 would eventually be reduced to an instructional airframe in February 1943.

A short spell of conversion proceeded 15 Sqn moving to their new base at RAF Mildenhall on April 14th 1943, where they would eventually take on the new and more successful Lancaster I. It was here that LL806 “J-Jig”, would become one of the most famous Lancasters in Bomber Command, flying 134 sorties accumulating 765 hours in the air. Two incredible records were now set by 15 squadron aircraft and their crews.

Bourn would then have just another short spell visitor, 609 Sqn. Battled hardened from covering the BEF withdrawal at Dunkirk and defending Britain in the Battle of Britain, 609 Sqn moved in on 26th August 1942, with the potent Typhoon IB. Accustom as they were to moving around, their stay at Bourn would last only 4 days.

It was at this time that Bourn really came into its own as a bomber base. 97 squadron (RAF) arrived on April 18th 1943 with their Lancaster Is and IIIs. With small detachments at nearby Graveley, Gransden Lodge and Oakington, they would stay here until moving on to Coningsby a year to the day later. Whilst at Bourn, they became a ‘marker’ squadron as part of the PFF  Group.  Notable target’s were both the  Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen in June 1943 and the Italian naval base at Spezia in April 1944; an event that became to be the first RAF “shuttle-bombing” raid. The introduction of Lancasters at Bourn greatly reduced the number of crews being lost. However, 97 Sqn were to suffer one of the worst nights on Bomber Command record, and not through enemy action either. During the night of December 16th /17th 1943, a large number of aircraft left from some 20 squadrons*1 to attack Berlin. Casualties to and from the target were on the whole low but for 97 Squadron it was arriving home that their troubles were to begin. This night would become known as ‘Black Thursday’.*2.

Aug 2015 014

A Nissen huts survives in modern use.

As they approached Cambridgeshire, they were informed that the weather had closed in on Bourn and landing would be very difficult if not impossible. In an effort to get the bombers down safely, all manner of tactics were used to move the fog and illuminate the runways.  Some aircraft managed to divert to other bases in Lincolnshire and Norfolk where FIDO was in operation, but many tried to wait it out. The result was a critical loss of fuel and subsequently several aircraft crashed in the dense fog. The loss that night was devastating for 97 Sqn: JB531 ‘OF-Y’; JA963 ‘Q’; JB243 ‘P’; JB482 ‘S’; JB219 ‘R’; JB117 ‘C’; JB119 ‘F’ and JB176 ‘K’ were all lost crashing in the vicinity of the airfield with many of the crews being killed.*3

It was during these last few weeks of 97 Sqn’s stay that Bourn would start to accept new residents. The smaller and much more agile Mosquito IX of 105 Squadron arrived to continue the pathfinder operations. Noted for their unusual black paint work, they would carry out many notable operations from here, especially in the lead up to D-day in June 1944, identifying and marking coastal batteries for the heavier bombers to attack in preparation for the invasion. One of these aircraft, MM237, would sadly fall victim to ‘friendly fire’. On crossing the coast on its way home, on March 6th 1945, it was shot down by a British night fighter. The crew luckily managed to bale out moments before the aircraft struck the ground.

105 would stay at Bourn for the duration of the war, taking on a new model Mosquito XVI in March 1944. They would mark high-profile targets such as: oil refineries, road and rail junctions, marshalling yards and coastal batteries. Many targets were as far afield as the German heartland; 105’s  final operational sorties would take  4 Mosquitos to Eggebeck on the night of 2nd/3rd May 1945, a month before they left Bourn for Upwood and final disbandment.

In December 1944, the last residents of Bourn would arrive and join 105 Sqn. Being reformed here on December 16th, 162 Squadron (RAF), would fly the Mosquito XXV until February the following year when they would replace them with the Mosquito Mk XX. As part of the light-bomber unit of the Light Night Striking Force, 162 would quickly establish their effectiveness, striking hard at the heart of Germany, Berlin, in 36 consecutive raids.  162 would eventually leave Bourn on July 10th 1945 to go to RAF Blackbushe and their disbandment. Even though they were only here at Bourn for a short period, they would amass 4,037 flying hours in 913 operational sorties. Their loss rate would reflect the effectiveness of the Mosquito as a fighter, a bomber and a PFF weapon, losing only four aircraft in operational missions.

The departure of 162 Sqn would leave Bourn both desolate and very quiet.

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One of the few derelict buildings that still survive.

Post war, Bourn lay idle, the nearby hangars were used by Marshalls of Cambridge for vehicle repairs but eventually these were sold at auction, leaving the  site empty. It was completely closed down three years later. The land was sold off in the early 1960s and development has gradually encroached ever since. One small saving grace for Bourn is that a small flying club operated by the Rural Flying Corps is utilising a small part of the field including sections of two of the original runways. It is hoped that this will continue and keep the history of Bourn airfield alive.

Recently affected by the building of extensive housing developments and a new dual carriageway, Bourn has had much of its original infrastructure removed. The runways were cut slightly short and much of the accommodation and technical site redeveloped. However, a small gain from this is that the dual carriage way offers some interesting views along the remains of its enormous stretches of runway.

If approaching from Caxton Gibbet to the west, leave the dual carriageway and pull on to the smaller Saint Neots road that runs parallel. From the bank you can see along the runway taking in its enormous width. Other views of this, can be seen from the bridge that takes you back over the A428 toward the village of Bourn to the south.

It is also along this road that the fire tender station can be found, now utilised by a small industrial company it is one of the few original buildings surviving in good condition today.

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The fire tender shed, now a small business unit.

Many tracks can also be seen along here, pathways that would have led to the admin and accommodation areas of Bourn, the road now separating the two areas. There are a couple of Nissen huts here too, again used by small industrial companies, whilst other buildings stand derelict and in grave danger of demolition by weather or developer.

Whilst the runways are intact, large parts are used for storage and a section is used for motorcycle training. A lone windsock flies over the flying club.

Recent archeological investigations have revealed late prehistoric and Roman connections around the site, including a Roman burial site within the grounds of the airfield. Great crested Newts are also known to inhabit the area, perhaps history and nature will prevail. With continued development and further proposed housing, the future of Bourn is very uncertain and should these plans go ahead, Bourn like many other airfields of Britain will most likely cease to exist.

After leaving Bourn, we travel a stones throw south-west to a small airfield now more commonly seen with sedate gliders than fearsome fighters of the Second World War. We stop at Gransden Lodge.

Notes:

*1 loses were recorded from 7, 9, 12, 44, 57, 97, 100, 101, 103, 156, 166, 207, 405, 408, 426, 432, 460, 576, 619, 625 squadrons all Lancasters.

*2 a website dedicated to 97 Squadron gives detailed information into ‘Black Thursday’ including personal accounts, the unit, men and operations.

*3 records from aircrew remembered

Home to Lancasters and Vulcans, Scampton is an iconic and historical airfield.

In this trip we head back northwards into Lincolnshire otherwise known as ‘Bomber Country’ to an airfield that is steeped in history; active since the first world war, it stands high above Lincoln but only a few miles from the Cathedral, a landmark welcomed by many a returning bomber crew. It was here that three Victoria Crosses were earned, Lancasters filled the skies and from here the famous ‘Dambusters’ of 617 Squadron carried out their daring raid on the dams of the Ruhr. It is of course RAF Scampton.

RAF Scampton.

RAF Scampton is to Bomber Command what Biggin Hill is to Fighter Command. It embodies all that is the air war of those dark days of the 1940s; the bravery and dedication of crews, the sacrifice, the loss and the heartache. It has had a long and successful life; even today it is a military airfield but one that sadly operates as a shadow of its former self.

Opened during the First World War under the name of Brattleby Cliff, Scampton was a Home Defence Flight Station, operated by the Royal Flying Corps with 11, 60 and 81 squadrons. A variety of aircraft were based here and it performed in this role until closing shortly after the cessation of the conflict in 1918. For a while Scampton lay dormant, many buildings being removed, but, as a new war loomed over the horizon, it once more sprang into life as RAF Scampton.

Opening in 1936, it was designed as a grass airfield. Its firsts residents were the Heyford IIIs of No 9 squadron (RAF) in 1938, who stayed for just short of two years. They were joined by the Virginia Xs of 214 Squadron (RAF) who arrived in October that same year. A brief spell by 148 Squadron (RAF) in 1937, further added to the variety of aircraft at this base.

The next units to arrive would see Scampton into the Second World War. Both 49 and 83 Squadrons arrived with Hawker Hinds, models they retained until replaced by the more modern twin-engined Hampdens in 1938. Using these aircraft, Scampton would have an auspicious start to the war. With inexperienced crews, flying was very ‘hit and miss’ – delays, missed targets and inaccurate flying all became common place during this period of the ‘phony’ war.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941.

The crew of a Handley Page Hampden Mark I of No. 83 Squadron RAF leave their aircraft at Scampton.© IWM (CH 256)

However, as the mighty German war machine charged across Europe, Scampton’s crews were to find themselves in the thick of the fighting. With bombing and mine laying being the main focus for them, they would learn quickly through flying into high risk areas – many heavily defended by flak and determined fighter cover – that they had to be better. It was in this early stage of the war that the first Victoria Cross would be earned by a Scampton pilot.

Flight Lieutenant Roderick Learoyd who by now was a veteran of 23 missions, fought to hold his badly damaged aircraft on track during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal. Then, nursing the crippled aircraft home, he would remain circling the airfield for three hours, so he could land his aircraft safely in the daylight rather than endangering his crew by landing at night.

Scampton’s sorties would become almost continuous. Barely a month would pass before a second V.C. would be won by wireless operator Sergeant John Hannah flying with 83 Squadron, in a raid on ports in the lowland countries. It was believed that the Germans were massing their invasion barges here and vital that they were bombed to prevent the invasion taking place. During the raid, Hannah would extinguish an onboard fire using a small fire extinguisher, then his log book and finally his hands. Badly burned and in great pain, he helped nurse the stricken aircraft home after two of the crew bailed out.

Scampton continued to develop as bomber station. Crew quarters were in short supply and often cramped. In March 1940, Fairy Battles of 98 Squadron would have a very brief spell here whilst on their way to RAF Finningley. In December 1941, 83 Squadron received the new Avro Manchester as a replacement for the now poorly performing Hampden, followed in April 1942 by 49 Squadron. These aircraft were not loved or admired, suffering from gross under power, and major hydraulic issues, they would soon go in favour of the RAF’s new bomber and Scampton’s icon, the Lancaster I and III.

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Scampton from Gibson’s window. Nigger’s grave can be seen to the left.

Both 49 and 83 squadrons would leave Scampton soon after this upgrade. Scampton itself would then go through a period of quiet until when in September that year, on the 4th, Lancaster I and IIIs arrived with 57 Squadron. They would stay here operating over Europe for one year before moving off to nearby RAF East Kirkby. 467 Squadron joined 57 for a short period, being formed at Scampton on November 7th 1942 again with the formidable Lancaster I and IIIs. Their stay was much shorter however, within a month of arrival they would have gone to RAF Bottesford.

It was the following year that Scampton really became famous with the formation of 617 Squadron (RAF) in March 1943. Commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a Scampton ‘veteran’ himself, 617 Sqn was put together for a very special operation using specially modified Lancaster IIIs. ‘Operation Chastise’ is probably the best known military operation of Bomber Command and the story of the Dams raid on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams is well documented in virtually every form of media possible. This raid was to become synonymous with Scampton even though 617 Sqn were only here for a very brief period of time. They would only undertake two raids from Scampton, the Dams raid and a second to Northern Italy, before they moved to Coningsby, and later Woodhall Spa (Trail 1), both a short distance to the south. It was of course that as a result of this raid, Scampton would earn a third VC through the actions of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

The departure of both 57 and 617 Squadrons from Scampton allowed for development of the runways. Concrete was laid for the first time, in sufficient amounts to accommodate more heavy bombers, and the first to arrive were the Lancaster I and IIIs of 153 Squadron (RAF).

153 Sqn were to see out the war at Scampton, but their stay was not a good one. As the war drew to a close, 153 began the mining operations that Scampton had been so used to at the outbreak of war. Casualties were high with many crews being lost including that of the Gibson’s contemporary, Canadian born Wing Commander Francis Powley. On the night of April 4th/5th, two Lancaster Mk. Is – NX563 ‘P4-R’ and RA544 ‘P4-U’ with Powley on board, were both shot down by Major Werner Husemann of I./NJG3, over Kattegat, whilst on a ‘gardening’ mission. The crews were all lost without trace and are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

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Two Sisters under refurbishment in one of the four hangars.

On this same night, more Lancasters I and IIIs arrived from RAF Kelstern with 625 Squadron (RAF) and together they formed part of the last major Bomber Command operation of the war. On 25th April 1945, they flew against Hitler’s mountain retreat at Obersalzberg, Berchtesgaden. 153 Sqn was eventually disbanded on September 28th 1945 followed by 625 Sqn on October 7th that same year.

A brief 3 month stay by 100 Squadron saw flying from Scampton cease and it remained without operational flying units for the next two years.

Scampton would next play a part in the Berlin Airlift.  American B.29 Superfortresses were stationed here for a year as part of the US Strategic Air Command between 1948 and 1949  flying operations into the besieged Berlin. There then followed another quiet period, something that was common place for Scampton and it wasn’t until 1953 that it would see flying activity once again.

On 15th January 1953, 10 Squadron would reform here,  followed not long after by 27 Squadron (15th June), 18 Squadron  (1st August), and finally 21 Squadron on 21st September1953; all operating the new Canberra. Many of these units would stay for only a short period of time, moving on to new bases relatively quickly. However, as the ‘cold war’ threat increased, Scampton would come back into the limelight once more.

In 1956 the main runway was extended to 10,000ft causing the main A15 road to be re-routed giving it its notable ‘bend’. After two years, on 1st may 1958, 617 squadron would return to its historical home, being reformed at Scampton with the mighty Vulcan B.1. 617 Sqn would fly a variety of versions: B.1A, B.2 and B.2A, until disbandment on New Years Eve 1981*1. It was during this time that the Blue Steel would form Britain’s Nuclear deterrent, the very reason the Vulcan was designed. History was to repeat itself again on 10th october 1960, as 83 Squadron, who had flown Hampdens at the outbreak of war from here, were also reformed at Scampton, also with the B.2 and B.2A Vulcan. 27 Sqn were also to return, going through a number of reforms and disbandment forming up again at Scampton on 1st April 1961 to join what became known as the ‘Scampton Wing’. 83 Sqn sadly though, were not to last as long as their historical counterparts, being disbanded on 31st August 1969.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

An Avro Vulcan B.2 of the Scampton Wing © Crown copyright. IWM (RAF-T 4883)

Then on 16th January 1975, more Vulcans would arrive, those of  35 Squadron (RAF) who would go on to serve until disbandment on March 1st 1982 again here at Scampton. This being the last ever operational flying unit to grace the skies over this iconic airfield.

A small reprieve for Scampton came in the form of two separate stays by the adored aerobatics team the Red Arrows, who have continued to use Scampton as their base stunning crowds at airshows around the world. Currently stationed here until the end of the decade, Scampton at least has retained some flying for the foreseeable future.

Today RAF Scampton is home to only two small non-flying but operational units; the Air Control Centre (ACC) who merged with the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) and the and Mobile Met Unit (MMU). These are responsible for monitoring British Airspace 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ready to alert the RAF’s QRA units when intruders are detected. These units provide Scampton with around 200 working personnel, somewhat dwarfed in a base built for 2000.

Scampton is of course synonymous with the Dambusters, and it is predominately this history that keeps Scampton alive today.

The four enormous ‘C’ type hangers stand virtually idle, no longer holding the huge aircraft they were designed to hold. No Vulcans fill their beams, no Lancasters roar into life on moon lit nights. Instead private companies use one for storage, the Red Arrows another and the Heritage Centre a third. The last one is utilised by the Museum of RAF Firefighting to store some 40+ historically important RAF and civilian fire engines all once used to fight the fierce fires of crashed aircraft. Reputedly the largest collections of fire fighting equipment, models, photographs and memorabilia in the world, it is an extensive collection and well worth the visit.

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Two of the four ‘C’ types Hangars, each one could take 4 Vulcans.  Note the Red Arrow Hawk.

Whilst only a fraction of Scampton is used these days, its crew quarters quiet and locked, it remains under very strict security with patrolling armed guards. Photography is strictly forbidden around the former quarters, but once on the actual airfield security is relaxed – albeit in a small amount. Access is only by prior permission as a visitor to either the National Museum of Fire Fighters or to the Heritage Centre. It is these volunteers that care for and share the very office used by Guy Gibson when 617 sqn prepared for their mission to the Ruhr.

On arrival at Scampton an armed guard watches vigilantly, as guides check your ID, a passport or drivers licence, who then take you through the gate to walk along where Gibson and his crews were briefed on that very night. The buildings that line either side of the road are no different from that day and it is here in this very spot where Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) walked away from Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) at the end of the 1955 film “The Dambusters”. The main gate you walk through to enter the site is the very gate at which the squadron mascot ‘Nigger’ was run over and killed by a car. Not by a hit and run driver as portrayed  in the film, but a passer-by who stopped, collected the dog and reported it to the very guard-house that stands there today. Like many films portraying the brave and heroic acts of the Second World War, the factual accuracy of the film is somewhat skewed. However, the film makers could be forgiven for this as much of the operational records were still on the secret list when the film was made.

Once passed the accommodation blocks cameras are permitted and the views over the airfield are stunning. The control tower – moved after the redevelopment of the airfield – watches over its quiet expanses, little moves here expect the Hawks of the Red Arrows.

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The names of those who took part in Operation Chastise.

Gibson’s office stands overlooking this part of the field, and perhaps the only reminder of that night, is Nigger’s grave. A ‘headstone’ enclosed in a fence marks the dog’s grave, placed in front of Gibson’s offices slightly offset so Gibson himself could be laid to rest here with him. Sadly his death on September 19th 1944 near Steenburgen in Holland prevented the reuniting of Gibson’s body with his beloved pet and the two remain separated for eternity.

His office,  so well reconstructed, stands with period furniture as it would have been during his stay here with 617 sqn. Uniforms, photos and numerous other artefacts from that time are displayed for the visitor.

Below this floor, a large model of a Lancaster and more artefacts reflect the historical importance of 617 squadron from its earliest days of the Second World War to the point when they were to return with the RAF’s modern fighter the Tornado.

Guy Gibson trail then takes you through a mock-up of the crew quarters and on into the hangar. Here several aircraft are stored, a Hunter, Sukhoi SU 22, Gnat and Hawk both in Red Arrows colours. Also a second Hawk used to train RAF Technicians ready for the Red Arrows. Two Lancaster front sections are being carefully restored and a number of artefacts are stored here waiting their fate whatever that may be.

Scampton as an ‘active’ base may well have a reprieve over the next year or so. With the recent announcements from the RAF that Waddington will no longer host an airshow due to ‘increased security risks’, Scampton has been identified  as a possible replacement venue after 2017. Whether this will come to fruition or not is yet to be seen, but if it does, it may well breath new life into this historic and truly iconic airfield.

Further reading, links and notes.

There are many additional stories linked with Scampton that would simply fill a book. The live bomb unknowingly used as a gate guard for a number of years, the Lancaster that served here and now stands in the Imperial War Museum, London, and the little known story of Iris Price, possibly the only WAAF to see a bombing mission from an allied aircraft. Passing out due to oxygen loss, she was nearly thrown out of the aircraft so as to dispose of the body, thus avoiding a court-martial for her and the crew.

Guy Gibson’s own book ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ gives a fabulous insight into his life especially whilst at Scampton and is highly recommended.

The ‘Dambusters’ Pub located near to the airfield was frequented by the crews of Scampton and is now a popular haunt for the Red Arrows. It is filled with memorabilia, photographs and is purely fascinating, a museum with beer, even producing its own tipple  – ‘Final Approach’!

*1 617 would go on to be reformed later, with the ‘Tornado’ at RAF Marham forming a front line fighter squadron.

For current operational information on Scampton and how to visit the Heritage Centre click here.