RAF Leeming – The Great North Road (Part 1).

In another of our Trails along the ‘Great North Road’ we arrive in Yorkshire, to stop off at a station with a history that stretches back to 1937, and one that continues its flying tradition today.

As a modern jet training facility, this airfield has a long and distinguished history; it is also one that has seen a number of aircraft types and squadrons using it. Born as a bomber airfield, transforming to a fighter establishment, it has now turned its attention to pilot training. From the early twin engined bombers of the late 30’s to the modern jets of today, it is an active aviation establishment.

Heading north, we pull off the A1 and stop at RAF Leeming.

RAF Leeming.

RAF Leeming has been an operational RAF airfield ever since its official opening in the summer of 1940. Following two years of construction in which a non-dispersed accommodation site, hangars and technical area were all built – the three concrete and tarmac runways were added. Each of these were built to the standard 50 yard width, and measured 1,950 yds, 1,650 yds, and 1,400 yds in length. Aircraft dispersals were included, these amounted to thirty-six of the ‘frying pan’ style, with the all important technical area nestled between the legs of the ‘A’ of the multiple runway design.

At its wartime peak, Leeming could cater for almost 2,500 personnel of mixed rank and gender, all accommodated within the boundary of the airfield perimeter, a normal practise for non-dispersed airfields of the pre-war expansion period.

RAF Leeming

One of Leeming’s Hangars today.

It was this expansion period that would also see the creation of 4 Group – the initial ‘owners’ of RAF Leeming. Hatched from 3 Group, it would hold control of twenty-two operational airfields in the Yorkshire area. Headed by one Arthur Harris, 4 Group would become synonymous with this region of England and Bomber Command, a command of which Harris would himself eventually take full control of.

During the war itself, Leeming would operate as a bomber base, operating beyond the focus of most Luftwaffe intruders. It would, throughout its life, be home to a large number of  front line squadrons, supported by: training units, Flying Training Schools and RAF support flights that would extend right the way through to the present day. With the impending closure of Scampton in Lincolnshire in 2022, Leeming has been identified as one possible location for the RAF’s Red Arrows to relocate to. Such a move, whilst not welcomed by many, would ensure the continued operational activities of the base in an otherwise uncertain military situation.

Leeming’s life began shortly after 12:05 on July 6th 1940, when an advanced party from 10 Sqn – ‘Shiny Ten’ as they were known – left RAF Dishforth to prepare Leeming’s accommodation site for the forthcoming arrival of the Whitley  squadron. Not long after they arrived, ‘spare’ aircraft from Dishforth began to arrive, the squadron remaining on full alert, and at readiness for operations that were continuing in earnest.

Two days later, on the morning of the 8th, the main party began its transfer over, all the time crews were being prepared and briefed for the days operational duties. Indeed there would be no settling in period and no honeymoon to find their feet. The first Leeming based aircraft took off and attacked targets at Kiel on the very same day they arrived. Following the briefing, aircraft were prepared and checks were made, then at around 21:00, five Leeming Whitleys took off at one minute intervals to join sixty-four aircraft departing Britain’s airfields to attack the ports of northern Germany. The primary target for the Leeming group was the Howaldts Railway Yard in Kiel. Prepared with a mix of 250lb and 500lb bombs, 20% of which had time delay fuses, they headed towards Kiel along a flight path designated as target corridor ‘A’.

In this early mission of the war only one Whitley was lost, that of 10 Squadron, N1496 ‘ZA-V’ flown by Flt. Lt Douglas A. Ffrench-Mullen, who was shot down  by Oberfeldwebel Hermann Förster (8./NJG 1),  in a Luftwaffe night-fighter off Heliogoland. Flt. Lt. Ffrench-Mullen and his four other crewmen were then picked up by German ground forces and detained as Prisoners of War. Sadly their time together would end there, they would not be sharing the same camps.

On the 10th, the then flamboyant Wing Commander William E. Staton, CB, DSO and  Bar,  MC, DFC and Bar arrived at Leeming to take over formal control of the airfield. A highly decorated man with a service going back to the First World War, he was soon to become known as ‘King Kong‘, his large stature being a prominent feature around Leeming’s site.

Staton, who record covered both World Wars, includes the downing of 25 enemy aircraft on the Western Front on no less than three separate occasions in 1918. On another occasion, during the Second World War, he spent an hour over the target area, after which he brought home his badly damaged Whitley. His accuracy in flying helped lead to the formation of Bennett’s Path Finder Force, and whilst serving in the Far East, Staton suffered at the brutal hands of the Japanese who removed his back teeth. Post war, his character would lead the British Shooting Team in both the 1948 and the 1952 Olympics. He was certainly a good choice to take Leeming forward as a bomber base.

Staton's Whitley.

The damaged wing of Staton’s Whitley Bomber. Despite the damage Staton carried out the raid on Bremen, nursing the aircraft back to England. His medal collection sold for £52,000 in 2013 (BNPS.CO.UK)

Due to delays installing the telephone system combined with an illness suffered by Wing Commander Staton, the transition to Leeming was slow, with operations continuing from both Leeming and Dishforth well into July. By the end of the month though, 10 Sqn had finally moved across allowing missions to continue in an almost seamless fashion.

The autumn of 1940 would become a hectic time at Leeming. Transition stops saw the arrival and departure of several 4 Group bomber units. On August 15th, an incursion on RAF Driffield left five 102 Sqn Whitleys destroyed and a number of 77 Sqn aircraft damaged. The airfield’s operational capability then being dramatically until repairs could be carried out. As a result, 102 Sqn transferred across here to Leeming at the end of August, staying here for one week before being temporarily detached to 15 Group and Coastal Command. 77 Sqn would also depart Driffield transferring for a short period to Linton-On-Ouse another of 4 Group’s Yorkshire airfields.

Whilst Driffield was being visited by the Luftwaffe, another RAF unit, 7 Squadron, was being resurrected for the third time of the war. 7 Squadron’s creation here at Leeming would herald a new era in Bomber Command, and a rather historical moment in aviation.

With this reformation would come the first ‘operational’ and soon to be ill-fated Short Stirling MK.I.

As Stirling N3640 flew into Leeming, it was greeted warmly and openly by the ground crews who had gathered to welcome it in. They all waited expectantly outside the hangars that they had repeatedly cleaned in order to keep themselves busy. August 2nd would not only mark a new period in the war, but it would also be the beginning of what would become a difficult time for those crews in Bomber Command.

The grace, beauty and sheer size of the Stirling brought a cheer, and instantly raised morale within the ranks of the RAF. It was their first long range, four-engined heavy bomber, and so at last, the war could now seriously be taken directly to the enemy’s front door.

The logistics of the change though would give rise to many problems, the Whitley, the Stirling’s predecessor, was a Merlin in-line powered aircraft, whilst the Stirling had a Bristol Hercules – a radial engine. Spares and tools were lacking and in addition, no one in 7 Sqn. had any experience of four-engined aircraft. To combat the problem, new crews were draughted in, mostly from Coastal Command, who had already been operating Short’s successful flying boat, the Sunderland. Closely linked, the transference of skills from one to the other came relatively quickly, and it needed to.

Despite the now known history of the Stirling’s on-going problems: its mechanics, the undercarriage, tail wheel, engine difficulties and its performance in general, the Stirling was liked by many, a good handling aircraft its manoeuvrability was better than others in its class. In battle it was also able to take a lot of punishment before finally giving up, a factor that no doubt saved a good number of crews. The Stirling, after many struggles within Bomber Command,  would eventually find its niche either laying mines or as a transport / glider tug in the numerous airborne operations over Europe.

But at Leeming however, it wasn’t to be. The aircraft’s arrival was slow, the initial eight promised with the arrival of the new Sqn. Commander, Wg. Cdr. Paul.I Harris D.FC., being held up after Luftwaffe attacks on the Short’s factories in both Belfast and at Rochester. By the end of the month only two more aircraft had arrived, N3641 and N3642.

Stirling, N3641 ‘MG-D’, the second Stirling to be delivered to 7 Squadron at Leeming. It took part in their first raid over Rotterdam on the night of 10-11 February 1941© IWM (CH 3139)

On September 5th another communication came through confirming the allotting of yet another eight aircraft so that 7 Sqn. could form a second flight – the note must have raised a few eyebrows across the station, as there wasn’t enough yet for one.

Being a new aircraft, 7 Sqn. crews had to perform a range of tasks on it, many of which they relished, completing over and over so they could get to know the aircraft and her delicate intricacies. One of these was loading the enormous bomb bay, and depending upon the load, it could be in one of twelve different configurations. Here the crews got to find the first of its many faults, the cables to haul the bombs up into the bays were too short, so it couldn’t, at this point, accept a full complement of bombs. What use was a bomber with only half a load?

Fuel consumption tests were next. On September 29th, F.O. T. P.  Bradley D.F.C., took off on a cross-country flight in N3640, the first Stirling to arrive at Leeming. During the flight the aircraft developed engine problems forcing it to crash at Hodge Branding in Lancashire (this location may be an error in the ORB). In the crash the aircraft struck a wall ‘writing it off’, luckily though the crew managed to avoid any serious injury.

Throughout October, 7 Squadron’s Operational Record Book*1 read badly, “Teething troubles seriously interfered with the programme of intensive flying“, hardly a glowing testament to a new aircraft. With that though, on 29th October, 7 Sqn. moved out from Leeming transferring across to Oakington in Cambridgeshire, where they continued to be dogged by serious issues. Comments such as “continual modifications interfering with squadron activities” and the training flights taking place in “the two or three aircraft more serviceable than the others” clearly showing the frustration of the squadron as they struggled to get to grips with the new aircraft.

Meanwhile Leeming’s resident Whitleys would be playing a large part in Bomber Command’s operations, flying many missions over Europe. On the night of October 15th 1940, three Whitleys of 10 Squadron were lost. The first, P4952, ran out of fuel trying to find and airfield in thick cloud. The pilot Sqn. Ldr. K. Ferguson gave the bail out order, and all crew members landed safely. The second Whitley T4143, on the same mission to the Stettin oil facility,  also ran out of fuel, and without radio contact the pilot also ordered the bail out. Unfortunately two of the crew were killed, one of whom, had only lost his brother a matter of weeks earlier in the same squadron. Sgt. Leslie Neville (age 26) and his brother Sgt. Brian Neville (age 19) had joined on the same day, and their service numbers were  only 4 digits apart. The third aircraft lost that night, Whitley P4993, struck a balloon cable whilst on its way to Le Harve. Sadly all five crewmen were lost that evening, their bodies being returned to their respective homes.

In the following month, November 1940, another short stay squadron appeared at Leeming in the form of 35 Squadron, the first unit to be equipped with that other new four-engined heavy, the Halifax MK.I. Designed initially to meet Specification P.13/36, it took its maiden flight on 25th October 1939 and would go on to form 40% of the RAF’s heavy bomber force.

After being disbanded at RAF Upwood early that year, 35 Squadron then reformed at Boscombe Down (7th November 1940) taking on their first Halifax, L9486, flown by F.O. M.T.G. Henry and his crew. On the 20th, the squadron moved across here to Leeming, to come under the control of 4 Group taking on the prototype Halifax L7244 from the Ministry of Aircraft Production (M.A.P)  for ‘dual’ purposes. The aircraft was ferried in by Wg. Cdr. R.W.P. Collings AFC, the squadron’s first Commanding Officer along with his crew. On December 5th, 35 Squadron would then transfer to Linton-On-Ouse where it would, within a matter of days, lose its first Halifax (L9487) in a tragic accident with the loss of all on board. The aircraft, which is thought to have crashed because a fuel cap had been left off, had only had 4 hours of flying time before crashing at Howefield House, near Baldersby St. James in Yorkshire*2. Whilst at Linton-On-Ouse, 35 Sqn. would receive many new pilots, one of whom, P.O. Geoffrey L. Cheshire DSO.,  would go on to achieve amongst others, the DFC and the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. He would also go onto lead 617 Sqn. and not only be the youngest group captain in the RAF, but one of the most highly decorated pilots of the entire war.

After all these arrivals and subsequent departures, Leeming was then left with just its original 10 Squadron, which meant that the winter – summer period 1940/41 was relatively quiet in terms of operational movements in or out of Leeming. 10 Sqn. performing their role as best they could with their Whitleys.

December 22nd 1940, brought the last Leeming fatalities for the year. On take-off for a training flight,  10 Sqn. Whitley P4994 ‘ZA-U’ struck the roof of a farm house located beyond the end of the runway. In the resultant crash, one crewman was killed – Canadian P.O. Ross Flewelling. Two further crewmen were injured whilst the forth escaped unharmed.

Two Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Mark Vs of No. 10 Squadron based at Leeming, Yorkshire in flight © IWM (CH 4451)

The introduction of the new heavy bombers was not smooth. A third, the Manchester from Avro, merely compounded the issues already being faced by bomber and ground crews. Faced with unreliable mechanics and poor handling characteristics, regular flying was now being further reduced by continual poor weather, making maintenance, flying practise and life generally miserable on the ground as well as in the air. 10 Sqn. would be subjected to gales, severe icing and heavy rain, airfields across Britain were fast becoming churned up and boggy.

It would not be long into 1941 before casualties would be incurred. 10 Sqn, who were now beginning their own transition to Halifaxes, were still operating  Whitleys, and on the night of 16th – 17th January, they sent them to the port at Wilhelmshaven on Germany’s North Sea coast. With eight aircraft taking off around 18:30, they would briefed at Linton-On-Ouse where the night’s operations were being commanded from. At 21:15 hrs Whitley T4220 piloted by F.O. H Skryme would report in that the mission had been successful and that they were on their way home. It would be the last time the crew were heard from, and the aircraft along with its occupants were recorded as missing at 04:30 hrs. The crew of T4220 were never heard from again, their aircraft, nor they, were ever found.

The implementation of a new directive saw Bomber Command’s focus change to oil production facilities. Some seventeen sites were earmarked for attacks, over 80% of Germany’s production was going to soon be on the receiving end of Bomber Command. Implementation of a second, and parallel directive that focused on maritime operations, would then follow leading to attacks on docks, ports and shipping facilities particularly those located along the French coast.

By September 1941, things would change again at Leeming.  77 Squadron – another Whitley Squadron – would arrive, staying here until the early summer of 1942. With a history dating back to the First World War it was later resurrected by the renumbering of ‘B’ Flight of 102 Sqn in 1937. One of 77 Sqn’s Commanding Officers whilst at Leeming would be Wing Commander Don Bennett, the later Commander of 8 Group and the Pathfinders.

Like many units, 77 Squadron’s transition between its former base, RAF Topcliffe and its new base RAF Leeming, occurred whilst operational sorties remained in progress. On the very day the transfer began (September 2nd), aircraft were ordered to a raid on Frankfurt. On return from this operation, many of the squadron’s aircraft landed directly at Leeming rather than returning to their former base RAF Topcliffe.

On their next sortie, their first official Leeming mission, 77 Sqn. would lose three aircraft, Whitleys: Z6654 flown by P. Off. Havelock, (classed as missing); Z6668 flown by Sgt. D. Mercer (loss of all onboard) and Z6824 flown by Sqn.Ldr. A. Hanningan, with the loss of all but one. It had proven to be a bad start for the squadron at Leeming.

The next ten days were consistently poor weather with rain and mist preventing operational flying for the squadron. Indeed the remainder of October followed a similar pattern, rain or mist interspersed with operations. During these flights, which took the squadron to Wilhelmshaven, Le Harve, Kiel, Hamburg and Cherbourg, casualties were light allowing the squadron to settle into their new home.

Leemings’s long standing squadron 10 Sqn, began replacing their Whitleys with Halifaxes in December 1941. It was at his point that the squadron would be split; a detachment moving to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland, in a move that would mark the beginning of change for this long standing resident of Leeming.

The beginning of 1942 saw air operations focus on the German Cruisers located at the French port at Brest. With successive operations attempting to sink, or at least cripple the ships, it became a thorn in the side of not only Bomber Command, but the Government as well, who as a result of these failed operations were to suffer a great humiliation. The culmination of these attacks saw many Bomber Command squadron losses along with six Swordfish crews of 825 Naval Air Squadron take part in ‘Operation Fuller’, a disaster that saw the loss of so many lives.

With the appointment of Harris as Command in Chief of Bomber Command, little immediately changed. Operations carried on as usual and at Leeming 77 Sqn visited St. Nazaire from which two aircraft were lost on their return trip. With a further 10 Sqn Halifax also being lost that night, it was a bit of a blow for the station.

The further loss of three more 77 Sqn aircraft at the end of February,  and four more in March – Z9293 ‘KN-D’; Z9312 ‘KN-S’; Z6975 ‘KN-V’ and Z9221 ‘KN-G’ – meant that the squadron was taking a bit of a battering and that the Whitley was perhaps beginning to show its outdated status. Indeed, April followed with several ‘softer’ targets being attacked without loss. Then on May 6th – 7th, the squadron began its departure from Leeming to Chivenor and a spell of Maritime Duties with Coastal Command. 77 Sqn would later return to Bomber Command but their spell at Leeming was now over, and this chapter of their life was closed.

The summer of 1942 would see big further changes at Leeming. In May, the departure of 77 Sqn. on the 6th along with the move of another section of 10 Sqn. to Aqir south of Tel Aviv, meant that numbers were once again low. The final departure of all remaining 10 Squadron personnel in the August 1942, meant that Leeming was now all but empty, and it would be passed over to the control of the Canadians and 6 Group Bomber Command. The new Command would then retain control of the airfield operating a small number of Canadian Squadrons right the way through to the war’s end.

With that, new times lay ahead. The four engined heavies were beginning to make their mark, the lighter of the bombers were starting to be withdrawn from front line service, and the focus on shipyards was now about to shift. The Canadians were about to arrive at Leeming.