RAF Holme – From Bomber base to Fighter Development (P2)

After part 1, we continue at Holme-on-Spalding Moor. Holme has recently changed hands owing to the reorganisation of Bomber Command boundaries. 101 Squadron had departed and now 78 Sqn were moving in.

76 Sqn had been through a number of disbandments and reforms since its original inception in 1916.  Being reformed in 1941, it arrived here at Holme-on-Spalding Moor from Linton-on-Ouse, another Yorkshire base. It was truly a multi-national squadron, made up of Polish, Norwegian, New Zealand and Canadian crews.

76 Sqn would see the war out at Holme, progressing through a series of Halifax upgrades, from the Mk.V, to the better performing MK.III and onto the MK.VI, a model they used in the final operations on 25th April 1945.

Shortly after arriving at Holme, 76 Sqn would suffer their first loss, with the downing of Halifax MP-Q #DK224, on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1943. On board this aircraft was Group Captain D. Wilson (RAAF) their station commander.  Of the eight men on board all but one (Sgt. R. Huke’s, parachute failed to open after he had baled out of the aircraft) survived, seeing the war out as POWs. Whilst the crew survived, albeit in captivity, it was none the less a blow to the station losing such a prestigious officer. The mission to Mulhelm saw 557 aircraft of mixed types attack and destroy 64% of the town including road and rail links out of the city, virtually cutting it off from the outside world. Whilst a heavy loss for those on the ground, it also suffered the loss of thirty-five aircraft, 6.3% of the force, a figure well above the ‘acceptable’ limit of Bomber Command losses.

File:Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 1942-1945. CE91.jpg

Halifax B Mk.II, DK148 ‘MP-G’ “Johnnie the Wolf”, of No. 76 Squadron RAF rests at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, after crash-landing on return from an operation to Essen on the night of 25th/26th July 1943. The propeller from the damaged port-inner engine flew off shortly after the bombing run, tearing a large hole in the fuselage. The mid-upper gunner immediately baled out, but the pilot, F/L. C. M. Shannon, regained control of the aircraft and managed to bring the rest of the crew back to Holme. © IWM (CE 91).

Perhaps one of the more bizarre accidents to happen at Holme was the death of a car driver who ended up on the runway as aircraft were taking off. On December 7th 1944, Halifax MK.III #NA171 ‘MP-E’ piloted by F/O. W. MacFarlane had begun its take off run when the pilot noticed a car parked on the runway. Unable to stop or divert, he lifted the huge aircraft up over the car, but clipping it as he passed. The occupant of the vehicle was killed but the aircraft carried on relatively unscathed. This same aircraft was brought down later that month over Kola with the loss of all but one of the crew.

For the duration of the war, 76 Sqn would take part in some of the heaviest air battles over Germany: Essen, Koln, Hamburg, Nurnberg and Berlin, in which losses were sustained in all. By the war’s end, 76 Sqn had been credited with 5,123 operational sorties, in which they had lost 139 aircraft, the highest number of missions by any Halifax squadron.

By the end of the war, it was decided that Bomber Command was to be reduced, No. 4 Group would become a transport group, No. 4 (Transport) Group, a change of ownership meant not only a change of role but a change of aircraft too. The Halifaxes were swapped for C-47 Dakotas in May 1945, and three months later the unit transferred from Holme to Broadwell and eventually the Far East.

Other resident units at Holme including No. 1689 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight (15th February 1944 – 7th May 1945) were also disbanded as their services were no longer needed. Many of these training flights had already disbanded by the end of 1944, as the force was being cut back and reduced. The Spitfires, Hurricanes and other assorted aircraft being disposed of in various manners.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

One of two turret trainers still on site.

As 76 Sqn left, another Dakota unit moved in to the void left behind, but 512 Sqn, a short-lived squadron, left in the October and eventual disbandment in 1946.

For the next six years Holme-on-Spalding Moor was left in a state of care and maintenance, slowly degrading over that time. At this point Holme’s future took a turn for the better when No. 14 (Advanced) Flying Training School  was reformed in response to an increase in pilot training needs. Reformed along with a small number of other training flights such as 15 Flying Training School, at Wethersfield, they were short-lived units, operating aircraft such as Airspeed Oxfords. No. 14 AFTS disbanded at the end of January 1953 at Holme.

However, the demise of 14 AFTS was to allow the airfield to transfer to the USAF, for deployment of its bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). A move that would require extensive upgrading of the airfield including lengthening of the main runway to 2,000 yards. The USAF moved large amounts of equipment through Holme, while the main airfield at Elvington was also upgraded. The extensive work carried out here though would not to come to anything, and after three years the USAF pulled out leaving Holme empty once more.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

The perimeter track bends round the former technical site.

However, it was not the end of Holme, the upgrading work meant that Holme airfield had a good long runway capable of taking the modern fast jets coming on-line. Blackburn Aviation Ltd, who were based not far away at Brough, saw the potential and began to carry out trials of the new Blackburn NA.39 ‘Buccaneer’. A rugged carrier-borne, high-speed, low-level strike aircraft, it went on to serve in both the Royal Navy and the RAF – the prototype (XK486) being first flown at RAE Bedford on 30th April 1958, piloted by Derek Whitehead.

As Brough could not accommodate the Buccaneer, the aircraft were towed on their own wheels, backwards, along the roads around the area. Protected by a Police escort, they were commonly seen in the back streets of Holme being prepared and test flown from the new runway at Holme airfield.

An aviation firm established by Robert Blackburn in 1911, Blackburn Aviation became an established aircraft manufacturer during the interwar and war years, producing models such as the T-4 Cubaroo of which only two were built, the B-2 trainer and the B-24 Skua, the first British aircraft to shoot down an enemy aircraft on 25th September 1939.

Blackburn concentrated on ship-borne aircraft, many, including the early variants, having folding wings. In the Second World War they produced the B46 Firebrand, a successful aircraft, of which they produced just over 200 models of different variants. The Buccaneer was their modern version and proved to be just as successful. In the 1950s they also produced the Beverley, which at the time was the largest transport aeroplane in the world.

Over the next 40 years, the British aircraft industry would go through major changes, big names like Blackburn were amalgamated into Hawker Siddeley Aviation, then British Aerospace and finally the modern BAE Systems.

Bruntingthorpe May 2016 106

AT the former RAF Bruntingthorpe, Buccaneers regularly perform fast taxis along the runway. A sight and sound that once graced Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

The change brought new opportunities for Holme. The development of the American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom allowed for testing at Holme, along with Harriers and Hunters of Hawker Siddeley fame. Trails of the Phantom included taking it to the extremes of its performance envelope, pushing the aircraft through maximum turns at supersonic speeds. Don Headley, Hawker Siddeley’s Chief Test Pilot at Holme, described the tests as “arduous” but “exhilarating nevertheless”.*3

Being a test pilot was a dangerous job, pushing aircraft to unknown limits. Deputy Chief Test Pilot with Blackburn Aircraft, Gartrell R.I. “Sailor” Parker DFC, AFC, DSM had to eject from the first prototype Buccaneer XK486 on 5th October 1960 when it got into difficulty following the artificial horizon breaking whilst in cloud. Both he and his passenger, Dave Nightingale, managed to escape the aircraft without injury. However, he didn’t have such a lucky escape when on 19th February 1963, the aircraft he was testing, Buccaneer XN952, went into an upright spin following a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) demonstration over Holme airfield.

In this manoeuvre, the aircraft flys in low enters a climbing loop and then releases the bomb near to the top of the loop, the aircraft completes the loop pulling away before the bomb strikes the target (also called ‘Toss’ or ‘Loft’ Bombing).  During the demonstration there was a loss of control due to a ‘roll-inertia coupling’ resulting in violent pitching and yawing, and loss of control as the aircraft rotated on all three axes. In the accident both Parker and his back seat observer, Mr Gordon R. C. Copeman (Senior Flight Test Observer), ejected from the aircraft, but Parker was too low, and Copeman fell into the burning wreckage after it had hit the ground. *4

Eventually on December 7th 1983, Buccaneer XV350 and Phantom XV429, took off  from Holme for the final time signifying the final closure of Holme airfield, a closure that ended a long history of aviation. With that, the name ‘Blackburn’ was gone forever, but the legacy of Robert Blackburn and his remarkable work in the aviation field would live on for many years yet.

No longer required or aviation purposes, Holme was sold off, the runways and Perimeter tracks were dug up, and the grounds returned to agriculture.

Sadly, the technical area which is now an industrial estate, is run down and tatty. Many of the original buildings are used by small businesses, furniture manufacturers, tool makers and car part suppliers. Buildings that are not used are run down and in dangerous conditions, fenced off they have a limited life span left. That said however, it remains quite intact and there are a good number of buildings left to see.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Sadly many of the buildings are in a poor state of repair and have only a short life left.

If approaching from the village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor along Skiff Lane, you arrive at the first of three entrances. The first is the former perimeter track located at the north end of one of the secondary runways. The runway has long gone, but there is a hardstand still present, its large circular footprint giving a good indication of the nature of the site. This road leads round to the technical area and where the watch office was. A Post-war Fire Tender Shed does still stand here, but the office was believed  demolished in 1984. This road is gated and access is not permitted beyond here.

Continue along the road and a second entrance allows access to a small number of buildings of the former technical site. There is evidence across the road of further buildings but these have been removed leaving only their foundations visible. Continue passed here and you arrive at the main entrance, the two memorials are located just inside on the left hand side.  Continue along this road and you are entering the technical area, with a number of buildings on either side. Distinctly clear are the turret trainers and parachute stores, all in use with small businesses. At the end is one of the T2 hangars, re-clad and in use but inaccessible. Driving / walking round here you can see many of the former stores and admin blocks that formed the heart of the operations.

Some of these buildings are fenced off and in a dangerous condition, others have been better looked after, most are used by small businesses.

Commemorative memorials can be found at the former entrance to the site, including one to Group Captain (Lord) Cheshire VC, OM, DSO, DFC, who commanded 76 Sqn before being posted to Marston Moor. A highly respected man, he fought for changes to the Halifax to improve its handling and performance, and also post war, for funding for the memorials that stand at the entrance. His record of achievement and dedication is well versed across the history books and internet.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Memorial to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.

Holme-on-Spalding Moor is a remarkable airfield that is steeped in history. From the early days of the 1941 to the end of 1983 it saw some of the most heroic acts and the greatest advances in aviation. It took the fight to the heart of Nazi Germany, it led the way in state of the art fighter testing, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes until its final dying day.

Its present condition does not sadly reflect the enormous contribution it, and its personnel played in those turbulent years of history. Whilst having a largely intact technical area, its condition is a sad reflection on the importance we place on these once busy and historical places. Even with considerable development between inception and closure, and an ever-changing facade, the main heart of Holme always remained, but today sadly, it is a heart whose beat is slowing and one that will no doubt eventually stop and die. A remarkable place indeed.

Not far from here are both the airfields at Breighton and Melbourne, both of which have flying activities still going on, ‘intact’ runways and a number of buildings are still present. Also in Holme village is the All Saints Church, sadly kept locked out of hours, it has a window of remembrance dedicated to the crews of 76 Sqn and their heroic battle against Nazi Germany. It also has a number of graves from those who never saw peacetime again. It is certainly worth a visit.

Sources and further reading.

*1 The base system was brought in following the need for more airfields at the end of 1942 when the United States was drawn into the war. To ease administrative and support problems associated with multiple airfields, they were combined into a groups of 3 (or 4) with a parent station and 2 (or 3) satellites. Overall command was given to the HQ airfield (or base) headed by an Air Commodore. Approved in February 1943, it was rolled out over the following year.

*2 Australian War Memorial, Article number P04303.010

*3 Caygill, P., “Phantom from the Cockpit“, Leo Cooper Ltd; First Edition edition (26 July 2005) Pg 134

*4 ejection-history Website accessed 27/8/18.

ORB AIR 27/1902/1 National Archives

The 458 Squadron website aims to preserve the Squadron’s history paying tribute to those who served.

Chorley, W.R., Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Midland Counties Publications (1994)

BAE Systems website, accessed 27/8/18.

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