RAF Tydd St. Mary

Just over the Cambridge border into the area known today as South Holland in Lincolnshire, is a field that was a small airfield during the First World War. Designed for home defence, it was used for attacking marauding Zeppelin airships approaching England across the North Sea. Larger towns and cities such as Norwich and Lincoln were prime targets, although most designated targets were much further north for example Manchester and Liverpool. To protect themselves, the crews of these mighty airships flew at night and at altitude, but navigation skills were poor and crews were generally unaware of their actual location. As a result, they rarely made it beyond the eastern counties or the Fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire. Because of poor weather and inexperienced pilots flying against these ships, some Zeppelins were able to wander – at the will of the weather – for as much as 10 hours unabated, randomly dropping bombs on what they considered to be ‘prime targets’.

A major turning point in this air-war, was the night of January 31st 1916 when nine Zeppelins of the German Navy attacked what they believed to be the industrial north-west. In fact they had barely got beyond the lower regions of Lincolnshire before dropping their ordnance. These attacks resulted in the loss of sixty-one people and whilst no British fighter was known to have engaged the airships, a number of Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C) crews were lost due to bad weather.

This disastrous night led to major changes in the Home Defence Squadrons of the R.F.C and R.N.A.S (Royal Naval Air Service), a process that would take a considerable time to complete.

As a part of these changes, an airfield was developed just south of the South Holland Drain a mile or so north of the village of Tydd St. Mary.

RAF Tydd St. Mary

Designed as a class 1 landing ground, Tydd St. Mary covered 125 acres by the time it closed in 1919. Development of the site began in mid 1916 following the re-organisation of the home defence force, but the first units didn’t arrive until the autumn of 1917. Not much more than a field, it did eventually have a small number of  Bessonneau*1 hangars and a small selection of crew huts.

The main unit to use Tydd St. Mary was 51 Home Defence (HD) Squadron whose main flight was based at Thetford. Formed from the nucleus of 9 Reserve Squadron (RS) on 15th May 1916, they moved to Hingham with flights dispersed at Harling Road, Norwich (‘A’ Flight), Mattishall (‘B’ Flight), ) and Narborough (‘C’ Flight). Initially they were equipped with the BE2c, which were soon replaced by the BE12 and subsequently the FE2b aircraft and then the BE2e in December 1916.

For a short while Zeppelin intruder flights were rare and this breather allowed for extensive practice flights by both 51 (HD) Sqn and their partner unit 38 (HD) Sqn who were based a little further to the north.

This lull in movements ceased in the autumn of 1916, when a large formation of Zeppelins gathered over the wash and headed for London. Badly hindered by fog and bad weather, they were eventually scattered across the southern and eastern regions of England where they dropped their bombs on remote farmland. This attack caused no damage to property, nor were the Zeppelins challenged in any major way – the marauders had little to worry about other than poor weather. Patrols by 51 and 38 (HD) Sqn’s were in vain, a pattern that was to continue for the large part, for the duration of the war.

At the end of 1916, Tydd St. Mary was re-designated a Night Landing Ground (NLG) following the renaming of R.F.C Home Defence Stations. 51 (HD) Squadron would soon fly from here in the defence of the eastern counties.

51(HD) Sqn aircraft hangar modified for agricultural use post war.*2

The Zeppelins main advantage over the British was the poor performance of the aircraft types the R.F.C used.  Whilst capable of operating at the 8,000 – 10,000 ft altitude used by the Zeppelins, many aircraft simply took too long to get there and thus could not reach the airship in time to attack it.

As performance improved along with the development of the explosive ammunition that would ignite the airship’s gases, the odds were a little more balanced and larger numbers of airships were being brought down over the eastern region. The tide was turning and pilots of 51 (HD) Sqn were playing a large part in this.

In the early part of 1917  cuts to the Home Defence units were announced based on the increasing gains made by units of the Norfolk / Cambridge / Lincoln squadrons. But the Germans had not given up yet. Reductions in weight enabled new Zeppelins to reach greater altitudes. Now capable of 16,000 – 20,000 feet, few British defences could reach them.

As the tide was turning in France, attacks became fewer and fewer. These high altitude flyers were more at the mercy of the bitter cold and poor weather than defending aircraft.

In August 1917 51 (HD) Sqn moved their headquarters to Marham, and ‘A’ Flight arrived at Tydd St. Mary and 51 (HD) Sqn began replacing their BE2e aircraft with the Martinsyde G.100 ‘Elephants’ – so-called because of their size and poor manoeuvrability.

A large contingent of airships gathered once more on the night of October 19th 1917, requiring extensive sorties by 51 (HD) Sqn at Tydd St. Mary and her counterparts. Whilst a determined effort was made by the R.F.C crews, they had little or no impact, and the gathered airships made off only to be badly beaten by bad weather and anti-aircraft fire over France.

Further changes to R.F.C Squadron designations  in the latter parts of 1917/18, dropped the title ‘Home Defence’ and Tydd St. Mary became the base for 51 Sqn ‘A’ Flight in Eastern Command. Aircraft by now were primarily Royal Aircraft Factory FE2bs, although 51 Sqn were now replacing some of their ‘Elephants’ with BE12b variants which they kept until the autumn of that year. Further changes in February 1918 meant that ‘A’ Flight moved to Mattishall, whilst ‘B’ Flight took their place at Tydd St. Mary.

As the R.F.C turned into the R.A.F on April 1st 1918, Tydd St. Mary would once again become significant. On the night of April 12th 1918, Zeppelin L62 was sighted close by and aircraft took off to intercept. As it was dark at 22:00 the flare path was lit to assist the now R.A.F crews, which openly guided L62 directly onto the airfield. Gliding above the site, L62 dropped a small number of incendiary bombs onto the aerodrome in an attempt to damage or destroy aircraft on the ground. Fortunately the bombs fell well away from parked aircraft and caused no damage to either buildings or aircraft. Pursuit was made by Lt. F. Sergeant in FE2b ‘A5753’, but to no avail and he returned to base empty-handed. Other pilots also tried to catch L62, some crashing due to engine failure, but many simply weren’t able to catch-up with the intruder. Eventually L62 reached the coast and made a break for it across the sea under the protection of yet more bad weather.

By November 1918 the final FE2bs had been relinquished and for the remainder of the year and into May 1919, 51 Sqn operated Sopwith Camels. A move by ‘B’ Flight in May to Suttons Farm (RAF Hornchurch) not only signified the end of the Camels (replaced by Sopwith Snipes) but the end of 51 Squadron who were disbanded in June. This departure also meant the end of Tydd St. Mary and in November 1919 notice of closure was given and the site finally closed in January 1920.

At its height Tydd St. Mary covered an area of 125 acres, and contained two Home Defence flight sheds as single units (believed to measure 130 x 60 ft). These were utilised by local farmers and business and lasted for many years. Other buildings were also utilised, the last, believed to be the Flight Office, is thought to have been demolished as late as 2009.

Not a major player in the war and never to return to aviation, Tydd St. Mary is a notable site and perhaps when passing, a second thought for those who flew from here in defence of the Eastern counties, should be offered.

Tydd St. Mary forms part of Trail 37.

Sources and Further Reading

*1 Early Bessonneau hangars were constructed of wood covered in canvas. Various types were made and were designed to be erected by small trained groups of men. Later models replaced wood with metal and were more permanent.

*2 Photo on display at Thorpe camp, Woodhall Spa.

Goodrum, A. ‘No Place For Chivalry: RAF Night Fighters Defend the East of England Against the German Air Force in Two World Wars‘. 2005, Grub Street

The Great War Forum – website 

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20 thoughts on “RAF Tydd St. Mary

  1. Pingback: RAF Mattishall Airfield – Part of Trail 36 | Aviation Trails

  2. There’s a great scene in the BBC’s “Wings” series where a pilot in a BE.2 is trying ot reach a Zeppelin to attack it and can’t quite reach it. The German crew are so unbothered that they are drinking tea and even toast the British pilot who curses back at them. Remarkably accurate. Nice write up again Andy. When’s the book coming out?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. That was really fascinating, thank you. A Zeppelin overflew Nottingham once and then bombed the priority target of the cast iron works at Ilkeston. And, if I remember correctly, a canal, but it missed that. What risks those brave young men took…of both sides!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you John. Whilst researching these airfield, I found out a lot about the Zeppelin attacks that I didn’t know before. Very much at the mercy of the wind, they were difficult to navigate and shooting them down was a huge risk to both attacker and defender.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Fascinating article Andy. Of course, in addition to improved aircraft performance, Le Prieur rockets had some success against Zeppelins, however, the real breakthrough came with the introduction of the incendiary bullet. Standard bullets would often pass straight through the fabric of the Zeppelins with no effect.

    Incendiary bullets entered the outer skin, and the tip would set fire to the hydrogen within, sealing the fate of combat airships until the safer helium gas was introduced.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Rich. I read something like that and recalled it appearing in a blog post elsewhere but I couldn’t recall where. It certainly made a difference, but what really surprised me was the speed and height achieved by some of these airships – just incredible!

      Liked by 1 person

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