RAF Wittering – a history rooted deep in the First World War.

You can’t look at the remnants of RAF Collyweston (Trail 37), without taking in RAF Wittering. Renowned for its Harrier Squadrons, RAF Wittering was an airfield that fell quiet as a result of the Government cutbacks that affected all the armed forces in December 2010. Sadly it meant the loss of the RAF’s Harrier fleet, an aircraft that had been stunning the crowds at air shows both here and overseas from many years. The Harrier remains one of the few RAF/RN jets to have proven itself in a combat environment, when it took on the Argentinian Air Force in the war over the Falkland Islands in 1982. However, the Harrier squadrons were just one small part of Wittering’s long and established history.

RAF Wittering.

RAF Wittering dates back to the First World War, its roots set in 1916 when an airfield was built on the site then known as Wittering Heath. Stamford Airfield, as it was then designated, was to initially operate BE12 aircraft in the anti-Zeppelin role, acting in conjunction with their main force of 38 Squadron at Melton Mowbray. These aircraft would eventually, in turn, be replaced by BE2e, FE2b and FE2d aircraft. During this time a small detachment from 90 Sqn would also be stationed at Wittering, but their stay would be short, between August and September 1918 – they were also flying the FE2b.

AERIAL VIEWS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1941-1942

Wittering airfield taken early in the Second World War. The A1 road can be seen to the east of the airfield. © IWM (HU 91901)

As the war progressed, Stamford became the training ground for new recruits, forming No1. Training Depot Stamford whilst a short distance to the west a second station was established at Easton on the Hill, operating as No. 5 Training depot. These two sites operated only a stones throw apart but both totally independent of each other. Eventually with the formation of the Royal Air Force on April 1st 1918, Stamford would become RAF Wittering and Easton on the Hill – RAF Collyweston.

RAF Wittering had been born. It would go on to be one of the RAF’s most significant airfields operating in excess of 36 active flying squadrons. Some of these would be formed here, some disbanded and many pass through in transit to other sites around the country. The aircraft here would range from Royal Aircraft Factory Biplanes to Whirlwind HAR 10 Helicopters, Boulton Paul Defiants through Supermarine’s Spitfire to Hawker Hunters; Hawker Siddely Harriers, Vickers mighty Valiant and Handley Page’s ‘V’ bomber the Victor, would all operate from here during its long life.

Following cessation of the First World War, Wittering was placed under care and maintenance, looked after and cared for until 1926 when the Central Flying School moved in from their previous base at Upavon.

The post war years were turbulent times for the RAF, having not only to fight off Government cutbacks and spending caps, but the Government’s tendency to favour both the Navy and the Army in terms of a national defence force. Since the war’s end, over 23,000 officers, 21,000 cadets and 227,000 other ranks would be lost from the RAF’s service. The landing grounds that had been used to fight off Germany’s mighty Zeppelins, along with vast quantities of material and machinery, were disposed of at near give-away prices. The fact that any force  had been kept at all was down primarily to the determination and foresight of one Hugh Trenchard who would himself rise to the rank of  Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1927.

As global tensions grew in the 1920s and British interests abroad were put at risk, a review was called for of Britain’s defence forces. The review concluded that some 52 squadrons would be needed to provide a sustainable and strong Home Defence Force that would not only be capable of holding back any force that should take desires on Britain, but could also respond adequately by taking the fight to the enemy.

So in the mid 1920s the RAF’s expansion began.  The first four Auxiliary Air Force squadrons were formed along with the first of the University Air Squadrons (UAS). A combined Air Force Cadet College and flying training school was established at Cranwell along with the Air Force Staff College at Andover, – the fledgling Royal Air Force was making its first proper steps in the right direction.

Further tensions in the 1930’s brought home the need to develop and increase the Air Force. The not so subtle build up across the channel with increasing tensions in Germany, meant that she was rapidly becoming a major threat. Now woefully under manned, the Government poured money and manpower into improving the stature of the Royal Air Force.

With design and engineering pioneering the way in long distance flight, speed and manoeuvrability, new models of aircraft were being designed. Monoplanes were the way forward and with Britain winning the Schneider Trophy for the final time, the way ahead was set for aircraft capable of incredible speeds and performance.

With war looming, Wittering was about to come into its own receiving its first operational squadrons both 23 Sqn and 213 Sqn in May 1938. By the end of the following year, Wittering would be designated Sector Station of 12 Group whose responsibilities stretched from the boundaries of London in the south, to the Welsh border in the west, Liverpool and Hull in the north and the entire eastern counties.  Wittering units would be responsible for a wedge through the middle of this sector running from the North Sea coast to Wales.

In that same year, Spitfire Is of 610 Sqn Auxiliary Air Force joined the recently arrived Blenheim IFs and Hurricane Is before they headed south to Biggin Hill in support the BEF’s evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940.

Wittering was really too far north to be able to effectively participate in the either the Battle of Britain or the defence of London; fuel and journey times would have left her fighters at a disadvantage, so Wittering concentrated on both resting and reforming battle worn units from the south, and defending the industrial Midlands and the north.  Her units would become key in the night fighter role, protecting the eastern and North Sea routes from the Luftwaffe – a role in which her squadrons would learn and develop very quickly.

23 Squadron were key in this very role. Dispersing their Blenheims at Collyweston, they shared Wittering with Hurricanes of 32 and 229 sqn, Spitfires of 74 and 266 Sqn and Defiants detached from 264 Sqn. These fighter versions of the Blenheim benefited from the addition of a bolt-on underbelly gun-blister housing four .303 machine guns; but they lacked any technologically advanced radar or Airborne Intercept (AI) mechanisms and so relied heavily on visual identification, referred to in the ranks as ‘Eyeball Mark One’!

23 Squadron would fly a number of patrols from Wittering, intermixed with sections being detached to RAF Digby for night flying co-operation duties on a weekly rotation basis. Few of these night patrols proved to be fruitful however, and many enemy aircraft escaped simply because they could not be found in the dark skies.

To improve kill rates, carefully drawn up patrol lines were set up fanning outward from Wittering. Often, pilots would use distant searchlights as a guide to locating the enemy intruders, however, this had its dangers and some RAF crews were lost because they too found themselves illuminated in the dark night sky, only to become victim to the enemy or the over eager A-A crews below. One such incident occurred on the night of 18th June 1940 when Blenheim L1458 ‘YP-S’ crashed near RAF Sutton Bridge as a result of being shot down by a He111 from KG4 that it was attacking. In getting close to the Heinkel, the Blenheim was itself caught in the local searchlight and the Heinkel returned fire. The pilot Sergeant A.C. Close, died as a result of the crash whilst the air gunner, LAC L. R. Karasek bailed out at low-level and was taken to Sutton Bridge and treated for his injuries*1.

The autumn of 1940 saw further changes at Wittering. In August, 266 Squadron arrived using various models of Spitfire, whilst in September, 23 Squadron departed moving to RAF Ford. Then in came No. 1 Sqn, the oldest RAF squadron, with Hurricane MKIs. Battle hardened from the fall of France and a summer of fighting in the skies over Kent, they remained here until the end of the year before returning south in the defence of London once more.

It was around this time too that a detachment of Hurricanes from 151 Sqn would arrive from RAF Digby, a station Wittering worked very closely with. After a short period these were replaced by Defiant Is also participating in the night fighter role. One determined and perhaps aggressive pilot, Flt Lt Richard Payne Stevens DSO, DFC would bring an element of mythical mystery to the flight as the squadron moved through Hurricane IICs, Defiants IIs and onto Mosquito IIs before the now permanent squadron left for Colerne in April 1943.

Using nothing more than his remarkable night vision, he would become the greatest scoring night fight pilot during the Blitz, downing a total of 12 Luftwaffe bombers in his black Hurricane.

In November / December 1940, 25 squadron came in bringing with them the much improved, faster and better AI equipped Beaufighter IF. In addition, a single Beaufighter MKII was also deployed here purely for evaluation purposes. A rarer Merlin engined model, R2277, it was credited with the shooting down of  a Ju88 on the night of June 22nd 1941 when piloted by F.O. Michael Herrick and his radar operator F.O. Yeoman. It was later stuck off in June and remains the only Merlin powered model to enter the books of 25 Sqn*2.

AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BRISTOL TYPE 156 BEAUFIGHTER.

Similar to R2277, Beaufighter R2270 was the first Merlin powered prototype MK IIF, © IWM (MH 4560)

At the end of 1940 a new commander arrived, Group Captain Basil Embry, who disliked the Defiant as a night fighter and considered Wittering too poorly designed for a night fighter station. He set about devising a plan to join adjacent Collyweston and Wittering together to develop and create a single airfield with a new much longer hard runway to replace the grass ones used until now. The expansion was completed in record time, Embry by-passing the more conventional channels of procedure.

In July 1941, the Beaufighters of 25 Sqn were replaced by the Douglas (Boston) Havoc Mk Is, an aircraft they took to Ballyhalbert (Ireland) in the following January.

The summer of 1941 would also see another new experimental model arrive. In conjunction with operations at RAF Hunsdon, the rather ill-fated Turbinlite project was put into operation here. Elements of the 1451 Flight were formed into a new squadron designated 1453 Air Target Illumination Flight, a concept that involved bolting an enormous 800,000 watt lamp to the front of the aircraft. As these modified Havocs were now much heavier, they could not carry any weapons and so relied upon an escorting Hurricane, Defiant or Spitfire to shoot down the enemy once located by the massive 950 ft wide beam of light. On October 22nd 1941, 151 squadron carried out its first official Turbinlite operation.

Fighter command decided to establish 10 dedicated Turbinlite squadrons in total, numbered 530 sqn- 539 sqn, they all became operational on either the 2nd or 8th of September 1942. On the 2nd, 532 was formed at Wittering using a combination of 1453 Flight and Hurricanes from both 486 Squadron and various Operational Training Units (OTU). The rather poor performance and low success rate however, meant that all these units were disbanded in one fell swoop on January 25th 1943*3.

It was part way though these operations (April 1942) that 151, released from their restrictive Turbinlite operations, replaced their Defiant IIs with the new ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito NFII. Only the second squadron to use them, they were to prove a formidable weapons platform and a deadly night fighter. The night skies were now a prime hunting ground and partly as a result of the Mosquito successes, the number of Luftwaffe intrusions began to reduce.

The turn of 1942/3 wold see further changes at Wittering with many short stays by 118, 288 (on Detachment), 349, 141, 91 and 438 Sqn taking Wittering through the new year. 151 remained until April moving off to Colerne and new model Mosquitoes, 141 who replaced them brought more Beaufighters in the form of VIFs. With increased engine power, more fuel and a capacity for increased bomb loads, the VIFs had modified noses to accommodate the new AI radar. Now the hunters were taking the war to Germany and intruder missions began to take place.

During this time Wittering was also home to No 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight, utilising the former RAF Collyweston site which evaluated captured enemy aircraft. A remarkable unit they flew captured aircraft around the many bases of the RAF and USAAF for crews to examine.

As the war drew to a close, sorties began to get fewer and fewer, and operational flying at Wittering would all but stop. Other than the P-38s and latterly P-51s of the USAAF 55th Fighter squadron –  who had been sharing Wittering with their RAF counterparts – Wittering became operationally quiet.

Eventually the war ended and various units used Wittering for training and experimental work. Post war 1946, 23 Squadron was reformed here from the ashes of 219 Sqn, taking their Mosquito NF30 to Lubeck almost immediately. A range of squadrons using various piston-engined aircraft passed through Wittering and two reception centres were set up to receive incoming POWs from the continent. By the end of 1948 all aircraft had left , and it returned to its roots once more becoming the home of No. 1 Initial Training School, Flying Training Command.

In the early 1950s, Wittering was placed under care and maintenance whilst upgrading work was carried out to its runways. During August 1953 both Lincoln bombers and Canberras (B.2, B.6, PR7) would operate overseas from here – these included detachments at the infamous Christmas Island.

Further Canberras of both 76 and 40 Squadron would fly from Wittering and in 1955 Wittering entered the atomic age with the arrival of the Vickers Valiant. Operations using conventional bombs were seen during the Suez crisis in 1956, when Valiants from No 138 Sqn flew 24 missions against targets in Egypt. Two other squadrons would fly the enormous but less favoured ‘V’ bomber: 49 and 7 squadrons, and it would be 49 Squadron who would take Britain forward as a nuclear nation when in 1956 a Valiant B.1 dropped Atomic bombs on both the Maralinga Range (Central Australia) and in 1957 a total of 6 Hydrogen bombs over Malden Island. During this time the aircraft were operating as detachments from Wittering, again on Christmas Island in the Pacific.

RAF VALIANTS FOR CHRISTMAS ISLAND TESTS

Vickers Valiant bomber crews of No. 49 Squadron RAF about to leave RAF Wittering for Christmas Island in the Pacific to take part in Britain’s nuclear tests, March 1957. © IWM (C(AM) 2466)

With no decrease in the perceived threat from the Warsaw Pact, the  ‘V’ bomber force would continue from Wittering for a few more years . The Valiant being replaced by the Victor B.2 and later B.2Rs of 139 and 100 Squadron, who had themselves been disbanded in September 1959 to reform at Wittering in May 1962.

In December and September 1968 respectively both these squadrons were disbanded and Wittering would then enter the dawn of vertical take off and landing. A short stay by Westland Whirlwinds HAR.10s of 230 Squadron led to the arrival of probably one of the most famous aircraft in aviation – the Harrier.

In August / July 1969 No. 1 Squadron returned to Wittering, its first time since the 1940s. Wittering became famous as ‘The Home of the Harrier’ and its fame would spread far and wide. With combat success most famously in the Falklands campaign and later the Balkans, Serbia and Kosovo, it would go on to serve Wittering well flying the GR.1, GR.3, GR.5 and GR.7  before moving away to Cottesmore and disbandment in December 2010.

The only other units to fly from here (less any training squadrons) were 4 Squadron flying both the Hunter FGA.9 and Harrier GR.1, 45 Squadron and 58 Squadron both flying the Hunter FGA.9 until they were disbanded on the same day 26th July 1976.

With that flying ceased at Wittering, but it remained an active military base operating a number of logistics units including a wide range of logistical support organisations. It is also home to the RAF’s bomb disposal squadron 5131 (BD) Sqn.

Further reorganisation of flying training units has been Wittering’s saviour. Today 100 years after its inception, and after a 6 year gap, flying has finally returned to Wittering, with the re-introduction of flying training units from No.3 and 6 Flying Training Schools, relocating here from both RAF Wyton and RAF Cranwell.

It would seem that Wittering has gone full circle again, not once, but twice, with its history rooted deep in the First World War, it has always been one of the RAF’s most important airfields. It has trained aircrews, defending these shores against the night terrors of two World Wars, and its crews have defended us against invading forces both here and in British Territories far off. Wittering forces have provided a strong and powerful peace-keeping force across the globe and even today it plays a major part in support, training and defence against those who wish to cause harm to both British sovereignty and democracy.

Note: As a fully active military site, much of Wittering is understandably hidden behind high fences and trees. When passing along the main A1, the main gate, and some buildings are visible, but stopping is not permitted. There are other places to the rear of the airfield but views are limited and little can be gained from using them. Permission should be sought before approaching the site.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website
– Battle of Britain London Monument website
– Traces of World War 2 Website

*2 Goodrum, A, “No Place for Chivalry” Grubb Street, 2005

*3 Mosquito W4087 flew as Turbinlite aircraft at Wittering February 5th 1943 – Source: Jefford, C.G.RAF Squadrons – 2nd Edition“, Airlife, 2001

MOD UK – Website

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6 thoughts on “RAF Wittering – a history rooted deep in the First World War.

  1. Excellent work yet again mate. Guy Gibson flew Blenheim IFS and later Beaufighters with No.29 squadron from Digby and nearby Wellingore before he transferred back to Bomber Command.

    It might sound daft but until reading this I never truly grasped the risk to our own nightfighter from British searchlights and how this could aid German defensive gunners.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Neither had I Tony. I found out that night fighters dropped coloured flares or lights to signal that they were ‘friendlies’. Up till then they were considered targets and shot at. Of course once illuminated the Luftwaffe could easily see them. A dangerous game indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This article is a tour de force Andy! I was aware of Wittering’s Harrier heritage and had a vague idea it was a V-Bomber base, but I had no idea that it had such a rich history with such a wide variety of aircraft. Such a shame the 2010 SDSR did such damage. Thanks for a terrific post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Rich. As I dug into it I found more an more interesting articles worthy of inclusion and further investigation; the difficulty I found was keeping it short! The SDSR certainly didn’t do the Harriers any favours at all and we can only hope that it’s replacement can adequately fill its shoes.

      Liked by 2 people

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