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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*4 Photo courtesy of RAF museum
The Cambridge Gliding Club website has details of their activities.