RAF Bircham Newton (Part 1 – The Early Years)

The north Norfolk coast area boasts numerous wartime airfields and several Cold War examples too, all of which are now closed. Many of these retain buildings or parts of runways in various states of disrepair. In Trail 20, we visit three of these and in one case a substantial amount remains solely thanks to its owners. As we revisit Trail 20, we look at the long history of RAF Bircham Newton.

RAF Bircham Newton.

RAF Bircham Newton has one of the country’s best preserved technical and accommodation areas anywhere in the UK. This remarkable achievement is largely down to the owners, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), who opened their first training centre here at Bircham Newton in 1966. Attracted particularly by the large hangars, they are an organisation who specialise in training people for the construction industry through a number of training centres spread across the UK. Their work at Bircham Newton has ensured maintenance/preservation of many (but not all) of the buildings on site.

Located 8 miles from the Norfolk town of Fakenham, RAF Bircham Newton has associations with several airfields including: RAF West Raynham (its parent), RAF Docking (its satellite from where all night flying took place) and four minor decoy sites including the former RFC/RAF Sedgeford.

With its origins in the First World War, prior to the birth of the Royal Air Force, Bircham Newton has had a long and distinguished career mainly serving under 16 Group Coastal Command, who operated a range of single and twin engined aircraft from the site.

By the end of the Second World War, it would have seen considerable development, including three runways, all BRC steel matting (British Reinforcing Concrete), three ‘C’ Type Hangars, three Bellmans, ten Blister hangars and two Belfast hangars mainly located in the south eastern corner. It would also have an extensive range of accommodation and technical buildings catering for around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender.

Opened in 1916, little initially happened with the airfield, and it wasn’t until near the war’s then that Bircham really came into being. Its first operational use was as a Fighter Gunnery School in 1918, with No. 3 School of Aerial Fighting & Gunnery (later known as No. 3 Fighting School) as its initial resident.

The School was born out of the need to train both pilots and gunners in the early biplanes to use their guns effectively in aerial combat. With their roots in the Auxiliary School of Aerial Gunnery, they were formed in May 1918 when Numbers 2 and 4 merged with another two Schools, Numbers 1 and 2 School of Aerial Gunnery. This amalgamation of ‘Schools’ was designed to streamline the complex array of establishments that had grown out of the need for new gunners and pilots. Once formed, they would be one of four new schools which were joined by a fifth in September later that year. Operating a range of aircraft including: B.E.2e, Bristol M.IC, D.H.4, Dolphins, Camels and H.P. 0/400 aircraft, their stay at Bircham would however, be short lived, moving to nearby RAF Sedgeford in November of that year.

Early losses with trainee pilots were high, novices learning to fly the hard way. At Bircham, one such loss occurred to 2Lt. Horace G. R. Boyt, who was killed when his Sopwith Camel (D8226) of No. 3 Fighting School stalled whilst attempting a forced landing near to Thornham bombing range, on July 31st 1918. 2Lt. Boyt was only 19 years of age at the time of his death – a young man taken in the prime of his life.

Possibly Bircham’s most significant early aircraft was the Handley Page V/1500 (Super-Handley) bombers*1. An enormous four-engined aircraft, it first flew in May 1918, and was designed to hit Germany hard, striking targets as far away as Berlin. The V/1500 was more than capable for the role too. It could carry up to thirty 250lb bombs over a range of 1,300 miles with a crew of six. Even more unusual, especially for an aircraft so large, it boasted folding wings; presumably this allowed it to be placed inside a hangar/repair shed for maintenance or storage.

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Handley-Page V/1500 heavy bomber biplane possibly at Bircham Newton. (© IWM Q 67329)

These aircraft arrived with three squadrons, the first 166 Squadron, was formed on 13th June 1918. Whilst initially receiving FE.2Bs, the squadron was created with the sole purpose of bombing Berlin, and the d’elite crews (mainly Canadian) were hand picked accordingly; a situation not unlike 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the Second World War. Bircham Newton was chosen for these aircraft, as it was both the most suitable and the most easterly aerodrome available to the RAF at that time.

Formed under the command of Major Cecil H. Darley DSC and Bar, DFC,  a seasoned veteran of the war, the squadron fell under the control of 3 Group, a relationship it maintained until 13th September 1918 when it was transferred to 86 Wing, 27 Group. As the squadron rapidly developed, it naturally grew in size taking on new staff on a regular basis. By the end of September, after its Group transfer, it would have 17 officers and 308 ‘other ranks’ on its books.

After building the squadron up and preparing for war, an audacious and no doubt suicidal attack, was planned for November 9th 1918 – a raid on Berlin. However, maintenance problems meant that only two of the three aircraft at Bircham Newton were serviceable, this despite ground crews working hard to get all three in the air. There then followed a spell of bad weather which caused even further delay to the operation. By the time the situation had improved and the weather was more favourable, the armistice had been agreed, and so the raid was no longer required. As a result, the squadron was ordered to ‘stand down’ and the raid never took place.

For 166 Squadron it was a bitter disappointment, had the war gone on and the flight taken place, they certainly would have made history regardless of whether or not they were successful in their task. Perhaps they too would would have been as famous as their Second World War partners 617 Sqn.

As for the V/1500s, it is believed they were left in Bircham’s sheds, allowed to decay until they had deteriorated beyond use, ultimately they were scrapped. A rather appalling end to an incredible aircraft.*2

The second squadron to be formed with these remarkable aircraft here at Bircham, was 167 Sqn, who also failed to see any active military service. Being formed on the 18th November 1918, just days after the Armistice was agreed, they too were no longer required.

The last of these special squadrons to be created was 274 Sqn,  which was also  formed here, at Bircham Newton, a year later on 15th June 1919. Personnel for the unit came from the nucleus of No.  5 (Communication) Squadron after it was renamed. As the war had now come to a conclusive end though, there seemed little need for these huge, long-range bombers and so all three units were disbanded each within six or seven months of their initial creation.

The immediate post-war era saw little interest in the building of a military force, especially an air force, and strong opposition from both the Navy and Army was fuelled by an anti-war feeling amongst the British public. As a result, many airfields were sold off, aircraft and equipment were scrapped and thousands of personnel demobbed. Airfields like Bircham Newton, now had in their store, numerous surplus aircraft awaiting disposal.

On of these surplus aircraft was the V/1500, and it would be Major Darley of 166 Sqn, who would go on to fly one, not in an operational  capacity, but as a non-stop flight to Madrid to promote these long range aircraft as potential civilian transports. It was not all plain sailing though, for the trip nearly cost Major Darley his life when, on the return leg, the aircraft got into difficulties and crashed into he sea off Biarritz. Managing to survive the accident, Major Darley eventually returned home to Bircham where he continued his military service. In honour of his achievements, the Spanish Government awarded Major Darley the Cross of Military Merit.*3

In a twist of fate, Major (now Captain) Cecil H. Darley, was joined in 1919 by his brother Flt. Lt. Charles Curtis Darley, also a veteran of the First World War, here at Bircham Newton, and they would be tasked with flying more of these surplus aircraft, this time Vickers Vimys, to Cairo. On their first trip together, on 24th September 1919, they departed Bircham heading for France, then onto Rome and eventually Cairo. On the 27th, following a forced stop at Lake Bracciano, 20 miles from Rome, the aircraft struck a telegraph pole causing it to crash. The resultant fire killed Captain Cecil Darley whilst his brother tried in vane to pull him free from the burning wreckage.*3

BRITISH AIRCRAFT OF THE INTERWAR PERIOD

Vickers Vimy (© IWM Q 73389)

Whilst Britain had entered a period of ‘demilitarisation’, the early 1920s saw increasing Government concern over France’s build up of military aircraft, particularly its bombers. The Government now saw France not as  potential Allie, but a potential aggressor, and there was now a growing concern over Britain’s lack of defensive strength.

By 1922, Britain had only 12 squadrons available in the UK, a weak and lacking force it would have been unable to counteract any aggressive moves made by the French. Consequently the Government put in a place a plan to rebuild its forces and increase this number, to a more substantial 52 squadrons by the mid 1920s.

In Part 2. we see how Bircham developed in response to the Governments plans and how new squadrons arrived at this rapidly developing airfield.

The full text can be seen in Trail 20 – North Norfolk Part 1.

8 thoughts on “RAF Bircham Newton (Part 1 – The Early Years)

  1. I love these stories that go pretty much from the dawn of military aviation onwards. From sticks and string to stressed skins and jets, Some of these airfields have seen it all, haven’t they?!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The second part of Bircham Newton simply must include Ernest Deverill, who must have been one of its most illustrious pilots. He won his first decoration, the DFM, when flying from there. I hope you can take in photos of his grave at Docking, and that of Ernest Townend (Great Bircham) and Raymond Keen, RNZAF (Hunstanton). The full story of his connection with Bircham Newton and Docking is in my booklet “Ernest Deverill: ‘A Knight of the Air'”, https://rafpathfinders.com/store/

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another very thorough piece of research and a very interesting read. I bet the Handley-Page V/1500, as you said, had the folding wings for storage and repair inside a hangar. I can’t imagine that the old wattle-and-daub biplanes would have stood up to the NW European winters if they had been kept outside. They would have to wait for all metal aircraft to be able to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

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