‘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.

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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

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8 thoughts on “‘Black Thursday’ took the lives of many crews – RAF Bourn.

    • It certainly had its moments. Many devices were created such as FIDO (burning oil) to disperse fog to varying degrees of success. In this instance the weather was ok over the target but 2000 odd miles can make a big difference. British weather did stop quite a few operations.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Congratulations and well done for your detail and passion.
        I visited Bourn today, as we knew the wife of Bill Colson who was lost on Black Thursday.
        Mollie was a lovely lady and always spoke fondly of her Bill for 50 plus years – such tragic circumstances and he was only flying that night to provide a bomb aimer for F-Freddie – From memory, on his headstone is ‘died so others could live’ – I think of that every day and regularly remind my children and friends. Julian

        Liked by 1 person

      • What a beautiful sentiment that is Julian. I think those words reflect the great determination and dedication of all those who gave so that we may live. They were all remarkable people. Thank you for your kind comment and for dropping by it is really appreciated. Andy

        Like

  1. A really in-depth look at this airbase, thank you very much. I wonder if the crew of that night fighter ever got to meet the “friendly” fighter that shot them down? Not on track really, I suppose, but I wonder what was the biggest thing destroyed by “friendly” fire?

    Liked by 1 person

    • An interesting point. Odd that a Mossie, possibly one of the best aircraft, was caught by a night fighter. Perhaps caught off guard. I’ll bet there were others but no idea of the biggest. Would a four engined aircraft not be recognised by night fighters or ground defences. I would hope not. Thanks for the lovely comment John.

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  2. Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’, would go on to complete 67 operations, a record for the type.

    There maybe a DotR article in there. You know how much I like my underdog stories and the Striling was the underdog. A fascinating article Andy.

    Liked by 1 person

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