RAF Barkston Heath – A little known airfield with a big history.

In the lower regions of Lincolnshire is a group of small airfields that are historically speaking, extremely important, but yet some are barely even known about. One of these is a small Relief Landing Ground (RLG), built with very few buildings and little infrastructure, it is one that is relatively unknown and in many cases even overlooked. Yet it was none the less, a thriving airfield during the hostile times of the Second World War. Whilst flying continues here today, still as a RLG, it has more than earned its place in the annuals of world history by being one of a small group of airfields that launched not one, but several of the biggest air operations the world has ever seen.

In this part of Trail 2, we take a new look at RAF Cranwell’s smaller but just as important satellite, RAF Barkston Heath.

RAF Barkston Heath (Station 483).

Barkston Heath sits on an area of Middle Jurassic Limestone, and is located about six miles south of RAF Cranwell, the parent airfield of the site siting on the edge of the Lincolnshire Cliff. It was identified as a possible location as early as 1936, and the year it opened, it used grass runways with very little infrastructure to support those using its grounds. As a satellite airfield it would have little based here, but would regularly see a number of biplanes use its grassed surfaces over a good number of years.

As a result of the focused development of Britain’s airfields during the pre-war expansion period and the early part of the war, it was then decided to upgrade Barkston Heath to the Class A standard; this earmarked it for three runways of concrete and wood chip of the standard lengths 2,000 yds and 1,400 yds by 50 yds wide. The idea behind this upgrade was to allow it to be used as  a bomber station, a satellite of RAF Swinderby. Ready to house the four engined heavy bombers of the RAF, it was a perfect location as it was found in the southern regions of Lincolnshire and within reach of Germany.

However, the development of Barkston Heath wasn’t completed for another two years, during which time it continued to be used as a satellite for RAF Cranwell. It was during this period that Cranwell was also developed, it being closed whilst runway improvement works were carried out. In order to keep the training programmes going, the aircraft from Cranwell were transferred over to Barkston Heath thus bringing a renewed flurry of activity to this airfield.

Then, during 1943, after Cranwell had re-opened, work then began which closed Barkston Heath. This work included the construction of its own hard runways along with 48 spectacle hardstands and 2 frying pan, most of which survive intact today. Aircraft repair hangars, of which there were originally four, soon totalled seven, of which six were the T2 variety and one a B1. These were located to the north-east of the site next to a public road with four of them across the road on a separate site. Unusually, the technical area was to the south of the airfield away from the hangars, the very buildings you would expect to see in the technical area of any airfield. The bombs store was located to the north-western side of the airfield and accommodation areas dispersed to the south.

RAF Barkston Heath

Barkston Heath Watch Office.

Predominant in this area of the country were the RAF’s No. 5 Group, who were tasked with the training of bomber crews for the Royal Air Force. A number of airfields including Bardney, Bottesford and Swinderby were all found around here, and Barkston Heath would soon become another name added to that list. However, a decision in January 1944, when the airfield’s upgrading was complete, was made to transfer the airfield over to the USAAF in answer to their call to accumulate airfields in the region for Troop Carrying purposes. This meant that Barkston Heath was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force early that year, renamed Station 483 whereupon it became home to the 61st Troop Carrier Group (TCG) of the Ninth Air Force.

The TCGs were units set up to train and provide Troop Carriers for the forthcoming invasion of the continent on the Normandy beaches. An operation that would see one of the largest invasion plans of the war put into place. It would require the dropping of thousands of elite paratroops on and behind enemy lines to capture, eliminate and disrupt their positions before and during the invasion on the morning of June 6th 1944.

The 61st TCG, were one of five groups making up the “Northern Troop Carrier Bases” of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW). This wing consisted at this time, of four Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) the 14th,  15th, 53rd and the 59th TCS who would arrive during February 1944. Their stay would last long after the famed Normandy invasion had taken place, in fact until March 1945, almost to the war’s end. Whilst they were stationed here, the 61st would take part in a large number of major operations across the European territories.

The 61st’s journey to Barkston Heath took them from Olmsted Field in Pennsylvania, through Augusta (Georgia), Pope Field (North Carolina) and on to North Africa. By the time they left North Africa they were a an experienced Troop Carrier Group having taken part in paratroop activities whilst here. These drops had earned the 61st a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) and by the time they arrived at Barkston Heath, they had already two major invasion strikes on their books, Sicily and Italy.

On arrival at Barkston Heath, they were transferred to the Ninth Air Force, and due to their experiences required little training for the work ahead. In the days during the build-up to the invasion, paratroops of the 101st Airborne began to arrive. Their presence only added to the excitement and curiosity of the ground crews who busied themselves painting invasion stripes across the wings and round the fuselages of the C-47s, that were parked along the runways of Barkston Heath. During the invasion on June 6th 1944, and on D+1 on June 7th 1944, they dropped paratroops and supplies near to Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. A major port, Cherbourg was also visited by the Titanic on its fateful voyage in April 1912, hopefully this would not be a prophecy as the area was an important place to both take and hold during the invasion.

Because of the nature of the drop and the dedication shown by the group, the 61st would receive their second DUC for this action. The awards for this brave and dedicated group of men were beginning to mount up.

Losses over Normandy were heavy however, and new recruits were brought in to replace those lost. A short period of training for the 44th TCS based at Cottesmore at the end of June, saw a six ship formation with gliders, mount a practice invasion at Barkston Heath. A smoke screen was laid down by an A-20 during which time four of the six aircraft landed safely.

After the breakout from the Normandy arena and the push north toward Holland and the Rhine, C-47s of 61st would then go on to drop British paratroops at Arnhem in Operation “Market Garden”; resupplying them by glider in the days that followed in September 1944. These troops consisted of the 1st Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers (550 men), 16th Parachute Field Ambulance (135 men), the Brigade Headquarters and the Paratroop section of the Defence Platoon consisting of 82 men. Amongst their parachutes they carried enormous quantities of kit, so much so that they had to be helped onto the aircraft by ground crew. Being ‘overweight’ parts of the kit had to be released before the paratroops hit the ground, as the extra weight forced them down faster than they should have been going. Many of these men suffered injuries from hitting the ground too hard, unable to release the harnesses in time to slow them selves down.

There were 157 paratroop filled aircraft in the sky that day, of which over 70 were from Barkston Heath – a considerable amount considering the relatively small size of the airfield. A further 358 aircraft followed all towing gliders, and so the sky that day was filled with silhouettes of aircraft as far as the eye could see. Even after this wave had passed, there were still two further waves to follow*1. In all, during operation ‘Market Garden‘, the 61st would carry out just short of 160 sorties dropping troops and supplies to the besieged ground forces around Nijmegen.

For the next few months the 61st would continue to supply the troops fighting in the lowlands of northern Europe, taking fuel, food and ammunition to the allied forces as they pushed forward toward Germany.

Then in mid March 1945, after many of the airfields in France had become secured, the 61st departed Barkston Heath, never to return. Whilst this curtailed their flying activities from this airfield, they would go on to cover other major operations including both the Rhine crossing that same month, and following the war’s end, the Berlin airlift in 1948/49. But before they departed, the Luftwaffe would have one small surprise for them. In a series of night attacks on the cluster of airfields in the area, including both RAF Cottesmore and RAF Barkston Heath, Night Fighters roamed the skies dropping anti-personnel bombs across the airfields. In the attack at Barkston Heath, the airfield was strafed and bombs were dropped, but thankfully little damage was done.

With the posting of the 61st to France, Barkston Heath would see a new group arrive, still under the ownership of the US Ninth Air Force. The new group, the 349th TCG,  operated C-46 aircraft to transport essential supplies into western Europe and then bringing  home both injured allied troops and German prisoners of war. The four squadrons based at Barkston, the 23rd, 312th, 313th and 314th, were only here for around 3 weeks before also moving off to France where they would continue their operations.

In April 1945, the withdrawal of the US forces from Barkston Heath meant that it was no longer required for their purposes, and so in June, the airfield was finally handed back to RAF control.

For a period after the war the airfield was used as a storage and disposal site before returning to the role of RLG for RAF Cranwell. Then, for the majority of the 1980s, Barkston Heath had an area within the former bomb dump developed for the siting of Bloodhound Missiles, Britain’s principle Surface-to-Air guided missile, and the first guided weapon to enter British operational service.

These missiles were manned by ‘D’ Flight from the RAF’s No. 25 Sqn on March  1st 1983, and remained here until October 1st 1989 when they were absorbed into No. 85 Sqn RAF. A year later they would be disbanded, the Bloodhound no longer being the mainstay of Britain’s last line of defence.

With the 1980s turning into the 1990s, Barkston Heath once more became a RLG for Cranwell. Since then it has continued to operate as a Training airfield for pilots of the three forces of the British Isles, recently replacing the Slingsby T67M260 Firefly with the Grob G 115 Tutor T.1.

As no large heavy aircraft had ever been assigned to Barkston Heath, it never needed developing beyond the Class A specification of its wartime role. The watch office has been updated though with the inclusion of the anti-glare glass house, but the wartime huts and technical buildings to the south of the airfield site have long gone. Fortunately the main concrete areas and hangars have survived much in thanks to their continued use by the Royal Air Force.

RAF Barkston Heath

One of Barkston’s many hangars still in use today. (Photo taken in 2013)

For a short period during 2003, the wartime aircraft of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were stationed here whilst the runways at Coningsby were resurfaced ready for the arrival of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Barkston Heath was in fact the third choice after both  Waddington (which could not accommodate them) and Scampton (which was too large – the Spitfires possibly overheating whilst taxing and the hangars were in need of refurbishment) were discounted. After some minor modifications at Barkston Heath, the BBMF operated from here until October 5th when the majority of the aircraft returned home to Coningsby.*2

Since then Barkston Heath has remained as a satellite for Cranwell, operating as both a training facility and a Relief Landing Ground, a role that takes it back to it origins in 1936.

Today, little flying activity can be seen, but the airfield does have some reasonable viewing points. The hangers and (active) guard-house, are adjacent to the main road, and passing the airfield here parked aircraft can often be seen on the apron.

The remains of a Canberra B(1)8 ‘WT339’, an ex RAF Cranwell aircraft, rest in the dump, visible from a path leading off from the main road on the northern side of the airfield. Here also are the remains of the Bloodhound site, the launchers and missiles obviously all having been removed long ago. All the remaining hangars are visible behind the trees but those across the road are no longer used by the airfield operators. Other than this, little buildings wise, remains.

Whilst Barkston Heath has had a long life and one that looks to continue well into the future, its wartime life was relatively short. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it was, none the less, a highly important airfield playing a major part in the Allied invasion plans, and not just Normandy itself, but beyond to the ill-fated operations around the Dutch town of Arnhem.

RAF Barkston Heath is a name that should be more widely known, seared into every tale of the Normandy Invasion plan, a name that should live for many, many years to come.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Hicks, N., “Captured at Arnhem: From Railwayman to Paratrooper“, (2013) Pen and Sword.

*2 Cotter, J., “The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight: 50 Years of Flying“, (2007) Pen and Sword.