RAF Bircham Newton (Part 5 – The war comes to an end)

After Bircham entered the war in Part 4, and new innovative designs helped to save lives at sea, Bircham continues on and heads towards the war’s end. Numerous squadrons have now passed through this Norfolk airfield, and many more will come. Once the war is over, Bircham enters the wind down, its future uncertain, but on the horizon a saviour is coming and Bircham may well be saved by an unusual guardian.

By 1942, designs in ASR equipment had moved on, and a jettisonable lifeboat had by now been designed. The Hudsons at Bircham were the first unit to have the necessary modifications made to them to enable them to carry such boats, and as a result several crews were saved by the aircraft of 279 Sqn. Many searches however, were not fruitful and lives continued to be lost as a result of the lack of suitable equipment and poor weather.

After ditching B-17 #42-29981 (92nd BG) on 26 July 1943 in the relative safety of a calm sea, the crew managed to escape a and (with difficulty) climb aboard their life raft. An ASR aircraft from RAF Bircham Newton located them and a rescue ensued (AAM UPL 39104).

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945.

Moments later, an airborne lifeboat is parachuted down by a Hudson of No. 279 Squadron to the crew. (© IWM C 3691)

During the year yet more front line squadrons would arrive here at Bircham. The first, 502 Sqn brought with it a change of aircraft type, with the Whitley V. The Whitley was a 1930’s design, constructed to Specification B.3/34, and was only one of three front line bombers in service at the outbreak of the war.

Within a matter of weeks, one of these Whitleys, returned from a maritime night patrol, overshot the flare path and crash landed. This particular mark of Whitley was soon replaced by the VII, and as 502 received their new models, so they began their departure to St.Eval; they had only been here at Bircham for a mere month.

March and April 1942 would then see two more units, both operating Hudsons. The first, 407 Sqn, was the first Canadian unit to be based here at Bircham, and would only stay here until October. As part of 16 Group, it would perform attacks on enemy shipping between Heligoland and the Bay of Biscay. The second squadron, 320 Sqn, would arrive at Bircham a month later on April 21st and would remain here for the next year. An entirely Dutch manned unit they had transferred from Leuchars in Scotland where they had been carrying out maritime patrols. The main part of April for 320 Sqn would consist of ferry flights, tests and cross country flying.

The final squadron, 521 (Meteorological) Sqn, was formed here on 22nd July 1942 through the joining of 1401 and 1403 (Met) Flights. These were operating a number of aircraft including the Blenheim IV, Gladiator II, Spitfire V, Mosquito IV and Hudson IIIA, and all passed over to 521 Sqn in the July on its formation. In the following year, March 1943, the squadron would be split again, returning back to two flights once more, Nos 1401 and 1409, thus ending this period of its history. The role of 521 sqn was meteorological, the Gladiators flying locally usually above base, whilst the remainder flew long range sorties over northern Germany or to altitudes the Gladiator could not reach.

There was little ‘front line’ movement in or out of Bircham during 1943, only two new squadrons would be seen here, 695 Sqn with various types of aircraft, and 415 (Torpedo Bomber) Sqn another Canadian unit.

415 were initially a torpedo squadron operating in the North Sea and English Channel areas attacking shipping along the Dutch coast. They arrived here at Bircham Newton in November with both Albacores and Wellingtons, and remained here in this role until July 1944 when they left for East Moor and Bomber Command. During D-day the squadron lay down a smoke screen for the allied advance, taking on the Halifax to join in Bomber Command operations. Throughout their stay they retained detachments at a number of airfields including: Docking and North Coates (Wellingtons) and Manston, Thorney Island and Winkleigh (Albacores). They were well and truly spread out!

695 Sqn were formed here out of 1611, 1612 and 1626 Flights, and performed anti-aircraft co-operation duties using numerous aircraft including: Lysanders, Henleys, Martinets, Hurricanes and Spitfires. They remained here until August 1945 whereupon they departed to Horsham St. Faith now Norwich airport.

Main Stores

The main stores with two of the C-type hangars in the background.

The only RAF squadron to appear here at Bircham Newton in 1944, was 524 Sqn. It was originally formed at Oban on the Scottish West coast with the failed Martinet, in October 1943, the squadron lasted a mere two months before being disbanded in the early days of December.

Like a phoenix though, it would be reborn later in April 1944 at Davidstow Moor. By the time it reached Bircham in the July, it was operating the Wellington XIII. After moving to nearby RAF Langham in October,  it would eventually disband for the final time in  1945.

It was also during this year that further FAA units would make their presence here at Bircham. 855 Sqn FAA brought along the Avenger, whilst 819 Sqn FAA brought more Albacores and Swordfish. Both these units served as torpedo spotter reconnaissance and torpedo-bomber reconnaissance squadrons.

As the war drew to a close, 1945 would see the winding down of operations and squadrons. Two units would see their days end at Bircham, 598 Sqn with various types of aircraft and 119 Sqn with the Fairey Swordfish, would both be disbanded – in April and May respectfully.

Bircham’s activity then began to dwindle, and its role as a major airfield lessened. From anti-shipping activities to Fighter Command,  Flying Training, Transport Command and finally to a Technical Training unit, Bircham was now training the Officers of the future. Flying activity naturally reduced, and small trainers such as the Chipmunk became the order of the day. Whilst a number of recruits passed through here, the most notable was perhaps HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who made several landings here as part of his flying training in the early 1950s.

Like all RAF Stations, Bircham was the proud owner of several ‘gate guardians’, notably at this time was Spitfire LF Mk.Vb Spitfire ‘EP120’ from around 1955 to late 1962, along with Vampire F MK.3 ‘VF272’.

Spitfire EP120, was a Castle Bromwich model, which entered RAF service in May 1942, with 45 Maintenance Unit (MU) at Kinloss in Scotland. Whilst serving with several squadrons she achieved seven confirmed ‘kills’ before being relegated to a ground instructional air frame. There then followed a period of ‘Gate Guardianship’ standing at the front of several stations including Bircham Newton. In 1967 she was used as a static example in the famous Battle of Britain movie, before being transferred back to gate guard duties. In 1989 she was then transferred to a storage facility at St. Athan along with several other Spitfires awaiting their fate. Finally she was bought by the ‘Fighter Collection‘ in 1993. After a two year restoration, EP120 finally returned to the skies once more, in September 1995 where she has performed displays around the country ever since.

Spitfire EP120

Spitfire EP120 at Duxford 2014.

Unfortunately, Vampire VF272 wasn’t so lucky. Whilst her fate is unknown at this time, it is believed she was scrapped on site when Bircham finally closed in 1962.

But it was not to be the end of the story though. In 1965, with the development of the Kestrel, Hawker Siddeley’s VTOL baby, Bircham came to life once more, albeit briefly, with the sound of the jet engine. With tests of the new aircraft being carried out, Bircham Newton once again hung on by its finger nails – if only temporarily.

A year later, Bircham was sold to the National Construction College and the pathways were adorned with young building apprentices, diggers and cranes of varying sizes. Being a busy building college, many of the original buildings have been restored but the runways, flying areas and sadly the watch office, removed. Whilst private, the airfield retains that particular feel associated with a wartime airfield.

Luckily, the main road passes through the centre of Bircham. A memorial project has been set up to remember those that served at the airfield with photos and exhibits from days long gone. A memorial has also been erected and stands outside the original Station Commanders house, just off the main road and is well sign posted. The original accommodation blocks, technical buildings and supporting blocks are still visible even from the road. The 1923 guard-house, is now a shop and the operations block, the reception centre.

Reputedly haunted, the squash courts (built-in 1918) continue to serve their original purpose, and most significantly, the three large C-type hangers and two Bellman sheds are still there – again all visible from the public highway.

RAF Bircham Newton, stands as a well-preserved model one of Britain’s wartime airfields. Although private now, the buildings reflect the once bustling activities of this busy centre of aviation.

In February 2020, the CITB announced that they had sold the site to the Bury St Edmunds based West Suffolk College. The move, it says, was planned as a cost cutting exercise with the loss of some 800 jobs. The intention of the West Suffolk College is to continue with the construction training at Bircham, hopefully preserving this incredibly historic site for generations to come. Only time will tell.

RAF Memorial and Station Commanders house

The RAF Memorial, and behind, the former Station Commander’s house.

Sources and links for further reading (RAF Bircham Newton):

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

*1A detailed history of the production of the HP.15 /1500 can be found on Tony Wilkin’s blog ‘Defence of the Realm‘.

*2 Letter from C.C. Darley (the brother of C.H. Darley) to Sqn Ldr. J. Wake 1st March 1937 (AIR 27/1089/1 Appendix B)

*3 Gunn, P.B. “Flying Lives with a Norfolk theme“, 2010 Published by Peter Gunn.

*4 Pitchfork, G, “Shot down and in the Drink” 2007, Published by The National Archives. – A very interesting and useful book about the development of the ASR service along with true stories of airmen who had crashed in the sea.

*5 BAE Systems website accessed 6/7/21

*6 Traces of World War 2 Website, accessed 11/7/21

*7 Aviation Safety Network website, accessed 21/7/21

National Archives AIR 27/263/1

National Archives AIR 27/788/1

National Archives AIR 27/1233/1

National Archives AIR 27/1221/1

AIR 27/1222/11, AIR 27/1222/12

Details of 206 Sqn fatalities are available on the 206 Sqn Coastal Command website.

Details of Great Bircham war cemetery graves are available at the role of honour of St Mary’s Church.

The memorial project at RAF Bircham Newton has a website and can be found here.

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 4 – Bircham Enters the War)

So far we have seen how Bircham Newton developed from a First World War training airfield through the cutbacks of the early 1920s, and on into the Expansion period of the 1930s. Bircham is now in the hands of Coastal Command, a force lacking in materials but not will power. The units at Bircham work hard, and new developments come along that will help save lives at sea and put Bircham on the map. After Part 3, Bircham now enters the war.

The declaration of war and the early 1940’s would see some remarkable events take place at Bircham Newton; new aircraft and new roles, along with some advances that were to help downed airmen who ended up in Britain’s coastal waters.

One of these advances, was the creation of the ‘Bircham Barrel’, a container manufactured from the tail end of a 250lb bomb that was carried under the wing of searching Air Sea Rescue (ASR) aircraft and dropped to downed aircrews. The barrel was based on the ‘Thornaby bag’ a container designed at RAF Thornaby, in which supplies of: water, food rations, first-aid equipment, clothing and cigarettes were all placed. The Bircham Barrel, developed this idea a little further, making it more water tight and easier to retrieve by crews once in the water.*4

The Barrel was placed under the wing of an aircraft on a bomb rack, and once a crew was sighted, the pilot could drop the barrel providing the crew with sufficient rations for several days. After tests, the idea was given the green light and by 1941 it was in use by a range of aircraft operating in the ASR role.

With an increase in coastal operations from Bircham, particularly in the Air Sea Rescue role, many of the aircraft that would now use the airfield would be the twin-engined types. Kicking off the decade were the Bristol Blenheims, of 254 Sqn in January 1940. Joining a small detachment of 233 Sqn  Blenheims that had arrived here late in 1939, 254 Sqn only stayed for three months, operating as ‘Trade defence’ or fisheries protection unit – perhaps one of the lesser well known operations of Coastal Command.

Twin-engined models were not to be the only aircraft seen at Bircham though. The spring and early summer of 1940 would see further detachments with Hurricanes from 229 Sqn, a short stay by 235 Sqn and the first of a number of Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) units 815 Sqn with the delightful Swordfish. One further unit to be based here at this time, would bring with it one of the more intriguing models of aircraft used during the Second World War, the Wellington DWI of No 2 General Reconnaissance Unit (GRU).

One of the roles of the GRU was to detect and destroy German mines, particularly new magnetic mines that were proving to be a menace to allied shipping. Using a Wellington 1A bomber modified to carry a large 51 foot ring of wood containing an aluminium coil, it would generate, using a Ford motor, an electronic signature that would resemble a ship. By flying low and slow over the water, it was hoped that the signal from the coil would detonate the new mines. Whilst the idea worked well in principal on land, over water it caused a number of issues primarily because the aircraft had to fly between 60 feet and 35 feet to detonate the mine. A number of successful detonations were recorded, but some aircraft were struck by the blast wash, causing them to be knocked ‘off balance’ as the mines exploded. Fortunately though, there are no recordings of any serious damage being sustained by these aircraft, but it was nonetheless, a dangerous job to do and because of advances elsewhere, it became a short lived attempt to gain an advantage over the Germans in the mine laying war.

ROYAL AIR FORCE OPERATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, 1940-1943.

Wellington DWI Mark II of No. 1 GRU based at Ismaliya. The ring weighed over two and a quarter tons.© IWM (CM 5312)

Like the Swordfish, both the Wellingtons of 2 GRU and the Blenheims of 235 Sqn were only based at Bircham for a month, all departing in May 1940, although 235 Sqn did return in the summer staying this time for a year. The immediate period after their departure saw yet more FAA units arrive, 826 and 812 Sqns, with Albacores and Swordfish respectively. Both of these units would operate as shipping patrols and also in mine laying operations, but would again only stay for a short period of time. During operations on 21st June 1940, at De Kooy Naval air base, one 826 Sqn aircraft was lost, two of the Albacore’s crewmen: Sub Lieutenant (A) Peter William S. Butterworth, (famed for his acting in the ‘Carry On’ films) and Telegraphist /Air Gunner Robert (TAG) J. Jackson, were both captured. Sub. Lt Butterworth survived ending up in Stalag Luft III after several failed escape attempts, whilst TAG Jackson died in captivity on 18th January 1945. The third crewman, Sub-Lieutenant Victor J. Dyke, died the day after the attack.*6

Peter Butterworth - Wikipedia

Peter Butterworth from the 1968 film “Carry on… Up the Khyber” (wikipedia)

Bircham’s long standing 206 Sqn were by now replacing their Blenheims with Hudsons, the American built twin engined aircraft designed around the civil Lockheed Super Electra. By militarising it, they produced an aircraft that would serve well in Coastal Command operations.

Initially carrying out convoy duties, the Hudsons would then patrol as far away as the ‘North German Islands’, but primarily flew reconnaissance patrols along the  coastline between Norway and Brest. Shipping was engaged on a number of occasions as were flak and Luftwaffe aircraft. During May, as the new Hudsons were being delivered, a number were lost to enemy action, particularly fighters.

For one Hudson, (P5120), life at Bircham would be short lived, the aircraft arriving here in April, only to be written off after a crash landing in June. The aircraft, one of three, departed Bircham on June 19th at 23:50 for a night patrol. On return it struck a ridge on the airfield’s approach causing it to bounce heavily. The aircraft then stalled and hit the ground so hard it caused the undercarriage to collapse. Thankfully all four crewmen emerged from the aircraft unhurt.

WITH A HUDSON OF COASTAL COMMAND

Hudson C-VX (P5120) of 206 Sqn on patrol before being written off in a crash landing. (© IWM CH 287)

Both during and after the build up to Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain, airfields across southern England were targeted by the Luftwaffe, and Bircham Newton was no exception. Whilst not a fighter airfield high on the list of Luftwaffe priorities, bombs nonetheless did fall on the airfield, and it was the Hurricane detachment of 229 Sqn based here, who were tasked with providing cover against such attacks.

In addition, many support units were also based at Bircham, these would provide training for pilots, gunners, navigators, other members of aircrew along with cooperation with ground operations as well. One such unit here at Bircham was No. 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit (AACU) which consisted of several Flights, designated ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘K’ and ‘M’, they all operated the Hawker Henley, the Hurricane’s little known relative.

With Flights designated A – Z (‘I’ was omitted), the unit operated at various airfields across Britain, flying a mix of Henley IIIs, Wallace, Lysander and Battle aircraft, with both Flights ‘B’ and ‘M’ being formed here at Bircham Newton. Several of these Flights also used RAF Langham, another Coastal Command / training airfield a few miles away on the Norfolk coast, particularly useful for the training of heavy anti-aircraft guns.

The Henley – built along side the Hurricane – essentially used the same jigs, their similarity thus being quite stark. The Henley was initially designed as a light bomber with modifications to the guns and an additional seat added behind the pilot. However, changes in Government policy toward daylight bombers meant that the Henley was soon transferred to other duties notably target towing. To assist this, a small propeller driven motor was added to the port side of the aircraft, just below the rear cockpit, this would power the winch that held the target drogue as it was towed some 7,000ft behind the aircraft for gunners to aim at*5.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945.

Hawker Henley, L3353, of ‘K’ or ‘M’ Flight, No. 1 AACU, next to a bomb crater at Bircham Newton. A lone Do 17 dropped seven high explosive bombs on the station causing light damage but also slightly damaging this aircraft. The similarities to the Hurricane are very evident. (IWM CE 43)

In November of 1940, two more squadrons were formed here, one, another First World War unit, was 252 Sqn. It would not fly operationally from here though, instead collecting its aircraft from Chivenor to where it would move a matter of weeks later.

The second unit, 221 Sqn was formed on the 21st November, and was also a former World War One unit. Disbanded in 1919, it would serve for the remainder of the war with the Wellingtons in the Coastal Command role. The initial order was to train crews at Bircham prior to their move to operations at Limvardy, a role it would perform using twenty-four Wellington IC aircraft. By the end of the month two such models, N2909 and N2910 were delivered and ready to be used for the job. A third aircraft, a dual control Wellington (R2700), arrived on the 6th and then on the 12th December, the personnel were all moved off site to a new location the rather grand Heacham Hall. The hall, which burned down during the war, was a 17th Century building, and had historic ties to Matoaka (better known as “Pocahontas”), who married local man John Rolfe. It must have been a  rather nice change for the airmen to be ‘off base’ and in more luxurious, and historical, surroundings.

During the remainder of December more aircraft arrived and by the last day of the year, eleven more Wellingtons were ‘on role’ along with a growing number of personnel – both air and ground crew.

1941 started on a high for Bircham Newton, with a Royal Visit. On 26th January, the Royal party consisting of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, visited the area inspecting the airfield and its aircraft. Whilst here, the King gave airmen a number of awards before the whole party moved of to other airfields across Norfolk.

For the whole of January, training flights were the order of the day for the Wellingtons of 221 Sqn, but poor weather meant that only 12 out of the 31 days were actually suitable. However, by March 27th 1941, all pilots had flown solo by day and a new flight was crewed up and ready for operations. The squadron then began its move over to Limvardy in Northern Ireland.

The summer of 1941 was another busy time for Bircham Newton. In May, two squadrons appeared, the first 200 Sqn was formed from 206 Sqn, which had already been used to create 220 Sqn earlier on. 200 Sqn were formed to perform the ‘operational duties of a Coastal Command general reconnaissance land-plane squadron’ in other words maritime and anti-submarine patrols. It would be made up initially of 210 personnel, who would depart Bircham on the 25th to Greenock, whilst seven Hudsons would fly to Gibraltar on route to Gambia. It would remain abroad until its disbandment at the war’s end in 1945.

The second, 500 Sqn moved in from Detling in Kent, bringing Blenheims with it. With detachments at both Limvardi and Carew Cheriton, these were replaced by the Hudson V in November before the unit departed for Stornaway in Scotland’s Western Isles in May 1942. Once at Bircham they immediately began patrols, looking for downed aircrew, mines or enemy shipping. Poor weather restricted many of these patrols, but both mines and shipping were spotted, sadly no dinghies or aircraft were found in these early days.

The next unit to arrive was another Blenheim squadron, 248 Sqn who performed convoy patrols and strikes against enemy shipping. During July, a month after they moved in, they began to replace the Blenheim with Beaufighter ICs, a powerful and heavily armed aircraft built to design Specification F.37/35. After initial handling issues, it became a sturdy weapons platform that performed well, especially in the anti-shipping role, carrying a torpedo or rockets. For the next month the weather prevented much in the way of flying, with fog, rain and poor visibility preventing all but minimal flying, the squadron remained firmly on the ground for a good deal of August.

Armoury and Photographic building

Former armoury and photographic building.

The last of the summer squadrons to arrive were 53 Sqn and 59 Sqn. Initially based at Detling / Thorney Island, they had also maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham. Once the two squadrons had reformed at Bircham, they both took on the Hudson replacing their Blenheims before departing back to St Eval in the October of that year (53 Sqn) and North Coates (59 Sqn).

By September 1941, the need for more Air Sea Rescue aircraft, particularly deep search aircraft, had become ever more apparent, and it called for the creation of two more squadrons able to perform such tasks. However, suitable aircraft were in short supply, especially Lockheed’s Hudson with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) radar equipment and Lindholme rescue gear. Thanks though to Sir John Salmond GCB, CMG, CVO, DSO & Bar , Coastal Command’s corner was fought, and even though by the end of 1941, aircraft were still few and far between, by the December one of these Squadrons, 279 Sqn, was up and running here at Bircham. However, it would be a long haul, and it would not be until March the following year before they would be fully operational and their Hudsons operating regularly in the Air Sea Rescue role from this airfield.

The second squadron, 280 Sqn however, was not given the Hudson, instead they had to contend with the Anson. Another unit set up in 1941, its primary base was also at Detling in Kent. Whilst performing this duty, they maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham Newton, a position it held whilst the bulk of the squadron moved to Langham in Norfolk in the summer of 1942. It would then be after this, that the entire squadron would move into Bircham Newton.

Like its sister unit it would take time to become fully operational and it would not be until June before the squadron was operating as it should. The benefit of both units was quickly seen though, thirty-five men from six crews were rescued over May – June by 279 Sqn, whilst one crew was rescued by 280 Sqn within days of them becoming fully operational.

The early years of the war were busy for Bircham Newton, and as war progresses, further units arrive and depart, the hectic scenes will not be stopping yet!

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

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 3 – The build up begins).

In Part 2 we saw how Bircham had grown following the immediate post war cutbacks, and how France was seen as a threat. Now as developments occur in Germany, the dynamics of Europe begin to change and we enter the Expansion Period of the late 1930s.

Bircham sees more new squadrons, new aircraft and further developments to its infrastructure.

In the 1930s, the Government’s plans for expansion took a new direction when Germany too began to build up its armed forces – albeit surreptitiously at first. New expansion schemes were put in place, which not only signified the expansion of the RAF’s forces, but the number of available airfields, their design, and the number of their associated buildings as well.

One of these modifications was the construction of a standard watch office with attached tower. Designed as drawing 1959/34, it became the standard design used for all Watch Offices of this time, and was in essence a square building with a small observation tower built onto a flat roof. In addition to this, Bircham also had new barrack blocks (2357/36) built, now in the familiar ‘H’ shape, supplementing the previous models which were in the form of a ‘T’. These new buildings had reinforced roofs giving better protection to those inside should it be struck by small incendiaries.

The decade started off on a bad foot however, with the loss of a 207 Sqn aircraft, a Fairey IIIF on January 21st 1930. A previous resident of Bircham, the rear party had brought the last of the personnel to Bircham in November 1929. The next weeks were spent getting as many airmen flying solo on the Fairey IIIFs as possible. However, poor visibility due to fog that day, caused the aircraft ‘J9637’ to crash into an orchard near Sudbury in Suffolk killing both crewmen: F.O. Donald Mackenzie (aged 25) and Cpl. Leonard Edward Barnard who was a year younger.

Former Technical Building

One of the former technical buildings no longer used.

In November 1935 information was received at Bircham that two new squadrons were to be formed here, 21 Sqn and 34 Sqn, both bomber units flying Hawker Hinds. Personnel began arriving on December 3rd and began to work on 207 Sqn’s  updated Fairey Gordons, preparing them for dispatch to Cardington prior to their move abroad once more. 21 Sqn were allocated Hangar No. 17, and would receive their first Hind (K.4638) on New Years Eve 1935.

34 Sqn on the other hand, wouldn’t receive their first batch of Hinds until January 1936, when four examples were delivered from the Hawker Aircraft Company Ltd. at Brooklands, by pilots from other units. With two more Hinds being delivered on June 11th, also by pilots of other units, the cadre would soon be preparing to move. On July 30th, both 21 and 34 cadres were ordered north, making the move from Bircham Newton to Abbotsinch in Scotland.

The latter part of the decade reflected previous events at Bircham. Many new changes meant that events at the airfield were as dynamic as ever. Several new squadrons were formed resulting in new crews and some new aircraft. Sharing the space at Bircham were 18 Sqn (Harts and Hinds), 49 Sqn (formed from ‘C’ Flight of 18 Sqn) and ending the decade 206 Sqn with Ansons and later Hudsons. 206 would themselves later be used to form 220 Sqn, which in turn would see ‘C’ Flight be renamed as 269 Sqn. Many of these new squadrons would in turn depart Bircham as changes occurred on the continent.

With 206 came new changes of command at Bircham. Their arrival in 1936, saw a move to Coastal Command (16 Group). Formed at Manston in June under the initial command of Sqn. Ldr. A. H. Love, 23 (Training) Group, 206 Sqn had three flights of six aircraft each and a further six Ansons in reserve. The squadron transferred across to Bircham at the end of July by which time the command had been taken over by Wing Commander F.J. Vincent D.F.C.

206’s main role at this point was training pilots selected for Flying Boats and the  Blenheim squadrons of Coastal Command. Shortly after arrival, the unit’s command would pass over to Wing Commander H. Long D.S.O., and by June 1937, 270 pilots would have been successfully converted in 2,700 hours of flying time.

Naturally accidents did occur during this time, on November 9th 1936, 220 Sqn Anson ‘K6199’ stalled after take-off killing P.O. Peter White (age 23) and injuring three others: Sqn. Ldr. William M. M. Hurley (the pilot), AC.2 Eric D. Butler and AC.1 Reginald K. Birtwistle. The aircraft was written off, after which a court of enquiry recommended modifications to locking bars, as it appeared that the pre-flight checks had been made with the control systems locked. The aircraft was left as an instructional air frame and a stark reminder for proper pre-flight checks!*7

A second accident occurred a year later in September 1937, when another 220 Sqn Anson, ‘K6227’ also stalled, this time falling into the sea near Conway. This time, the crew were not so lucky, with all three, a Sergeant, an AC.1 and an AC.2 all being killed. Their average age was just 22 years old.

Guard House

The former Guard House now stands as a shop.

During the later years of the 1930s, a royal visitor was often seen parked in the hangars at Bircham Newton. The Airspeed Envoy G-AEXX of the King’s Flight was a regular here, being so close to Sandringham House, the Royal residency, it was an ideal location for the aircraft. The Envoy was a creation of the Airspeed company, headed by the author Nevil Shute, a former de Havilland and Vickers employee who later set up his own business, Airspeed Limited. The Envoy was later developed into the Airspeed Oxford which became one of the main trainers used by the RAF.

As the era closed and just weeks before the outbreak of war, another squadron arrived here at Bircham in the form of 42 Sqn with Vickers Vildebeests. The Vildebeest was a late 1920s design biplane, designed to meet Specification 25/25 which required an aircraft operating in the Coastal Defence role and capable of both day bombing and ant-shipping torpedo operations. Several marks were manufactured, up to and including the MK.IV of which only 18 were built. It was some of these that were later delivered to 42 Sqn at Bircham Newton. These aircraft remained in service at Bircham until April 1940, when they were replaced by Beauforts at which point, 42 Sqn departed Bircham transferring to Thorney Island in West Sussex.

On the day war was declared, another very mobile squadron appeared at the door of Bircham, this time it was the Blenheims of 90 Sqn who made a very brief appearance here from West Raynham. Over a period of just two weeks they would locate at five different RAF stations!

With the introduction of the last of the Expansion Schemes ‘L’ and ‘M’ over the years 1938 -39, Bircham would see yet more changes to its infrastructure, notably the demolition of the repair sheds and their replacement with three Type ‘C’ hangars. At this point a fourth was also proposed such was the size and nature of activity at Bircham Newton. In addition, the two original Belfast type hangars were retained providing a mass of hangar space on the airfield. Another bonus for Bircham was the addition of further accommodation blocks, providing better accommodation for the many new air and ground crews who were increasingly appearing at this Norfolk site.

Teetering on the bring of war, Bircham was now operational, more modern aircraft are filtering through and Coastal Command operations begin in earnest. In Part 4, Bircham Newton enters the war.

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

RAF Bircham Newton (Part 2 – The 1920s)

In Part 1 – The Early Years – we saw how Bircham Newton was created and how it was chosen to be the forefront of long rang bombers targeting Berlin. We saw the untimely death of One Captain Cecil Darley and how, as we enter the 1920s, a new build up of the RAF was required following massive cutbacks after the First World War. In Part 2, we progress through the 20s, Bircham develops into a larger station and how one of its pilots won his VC before arriving here.

This decision to rebuild the RAF in response to France’s build up, then led to an initial burst of refurbishment and development of Britain’s current airfield stock, those not closed by the post-war political hatchet. This included Norfolk’s Bircham Newton.

The link forged in late 1918 with bombers would carry Bircham right through the 1920s and on into the mid 1930s, during which time a number of squadrons would either be formed here or pass through in transit elsewhere. The first of these was through the reforming of 207 Squadron on February 1st, 1920 with DH.9As. This unit came from the nucleus of 274 Sqn, itself a previous resident of Bircham. As a cadre, it would remain here for two years before departing for warmer climates and Turkey, in the Autumn of 1922. That was not the end of the link though, after a spell abroad the squadron would return to the UK, coming back to RAF Bircham Newton at the end of the decade. This return would bring a new variety of aircraft, the Fairey IIIF. By 1932 though, these models were themselves being replaced by another Fairey aircraft, the Gordon, and within three more years the squadron would be back on the road to the Middle East once more.

Another small cadre appeared here on New Year’s Day 1920. Moving in from the former Narborough airfield (Norfolk’s first), the cadre from 60 Squadron would disband later that month, having the good fortune to reappear at Risalpur, India, later in the year.

Over the period 1923 – 24 three more squadrons arrived at Bircham, 7 Sqn (who were formed here from 100 Sqn and stayed for four years); 11 Squadron (6 months) and 99 Squadron (four years) bringing a wide range of aircraft with them to this part of Norfolk. Delights such as the Vickers Vimy; Virginia II, III, IV, V, VI and VII; DH.9A, Fairey Fawn and the Handley Page Hyderabad were all present during this short period of time.

Squash courts

The original squash courts are still used as they were intended.

With such a mass of movement, accidents were inevitable. 7 Sqn suffered a loss when Vickers Vimy (F9187) overturned whilst landing at night on 16th October 1923. Damage to the aircraft itself was not too severe and it was repaired, however, one of the four man crew, AC.1 Ronald Sinclair Watson (aged 20), was not so lucky and was killed  in the crash. The remaining three crew all escaped unhurt.

Another accident befell a 99 Sqn aircraft on 27th February 1925, in which one of its crew was also killed with a second injured. The Avro 504K ‘H3083’,  spun after attempting a stall turn, the manoeuvre resulted in the death of P.O. Cecil S. Marshall Woode also aged just 20. This was the first fatal accident for 99 Sqn.

This build up of squadrons saw continuous movements both in and out of Bircham throughout the 1920s, resulting in many more personnel and aircraft residing at the airfield.

In mid January 1928, 39 Sqn appeared at Bircham (DH.9A) staying for just one year, followed soon after on March 21st, by 101 Sqn. This was another former RFC unit, and were reformed, under the initial command of Sqn. Ldr. J. C. P. Wood. Sqn. Ldr. Wood was posted in from RAF Uxbridge to oversee the formation of the unit and the training of the crews. At its inception the squadron had just 23 airmen in its ranks and was tasked with operating the Sidestrand, an aircraft built by Boulton and Paul aircraft manufacturers.

File:Im1927v145-p46f.jpg

The first example Boulton Paul Sidestrand (Grace’s Guide)

The first model built, J.7938 was collected and brought to Bircham Newton, it was then taken to Ringstead for testing there. It was however, unfortunately damaged in a landing accident after it developed an oil pressure problem whilst being flown by F.O. Duggan, the now Squadron Commander.

Meanwhile, at Bircham, Ground crew were occupied with further ground and air tests, along with lectures by staff from the Bristol Aeroplane Co. on maintenance of the  Sidestrand’s engine, the Jupiter VIIIF.

Rounding off the 1920s was 35 (Bomber) Sqn, reformed with DH.9As and then the Fairey IIIFs, followed not long after by the Fairey  Gordon. 35 Sqn was commanded by  Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall, who had in 1915 been awarded the VC for his actions in France. After having attacked  a German aircraft, he was forced down suffering numerous hits to his own aircraft. Once down, he was able to complete sufficient repairs enabling him to take off again, but in a hail of gunfire that kept others seeking cover.

Later, Insall was shot down again, this time he and his crewman were both injured and captured. Moved from hospital to a POW camp, he made two escape attempts, being recaptured in the first but successfully escaping in the second.

Once repatriated, Insall was by now, a keen archaeologist, and flying with 35 Sqn enabled him to take photographs of the Norfolk landscape. These photographs led to discoveries that have since proven to be very important in the archaeological world. His endeavours in this area went on to help in the development of aerial photography as a reconnaissance tool and to aerial photography as a whole.

However, by the mid 1930s, both Insall and 35 Sqn had also departed Bircham Newton, heading for warmer climates and the Sudan, this move ending their link with this Norfolk airfield.

By now, Bircham had grown considerably, partly in response to the number of its users but also in response to the growing concern over what was happening on the continent. The airfield would by now, have a single aircraft repair section shed along with three double bay general service sheds. All of these were located in the south-eastern corner of the main airfield site, sat in a row with doors facing north-west.

In Part 3, we enter the uncertain times of the 1930s. Germany begins a build up of her forces, and Bircham changes commands being transferred over to Coastal Command.

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

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.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 4)

As Leuchars emerged from the Second World War in Part 3, it entered a new phase in its long and distinguished life. No longer operating maritime patrols, it was now entering the Cold War, and under a new Command, that of Fighter Command, it would take on a new role with a new breed of aircraft.

Throughout the war Leuchars had been a maritime operations base, with submarine hunts, convoy patrols and anti-shipping flights taking the role of its front line squadrons. But with the last of the long range patrol aircraft being posted out, Leuchars’ role would now change, and a new breed of aircraft would be seen along its runways.

The Cold War brought a new dimension to warfare, nuclear weapons and the arms race were the flavour of the day. With both sides fearing preemptive attacks, fighters and bombers capable of carrying these potent weapons were in great need. Whilst bomber airfields across the length and breadth of Britain were modified to accommodate newer and bigger aircraft, Leuchars physically changed very little. However, being transferred to the control of RAF Fighter Command, Leuchars would be propelled to the forefront of RAF operations, with both day and night fighters soon shattering the quiet of this post war airfield.

This new focus would mean that the 1950s would see Leuchars aircraft participating in a number of high profile exercises ‘Coronet‘, ‘Premraf‘, ‘Kingpin‘, ‘Formulate‘ and ‘Fabulous‘ which often required the deployment of detachments to airfields around the United Kingdom. These exercises, varied in their structure, would often include Leuchars aircraft acting as the enemy trying to attack shipping or other targets at altitudes from very low level up to 50,000 feet. Air-to-air gunnery was also involved as war air-to-ground rocketry.

With this transfer came further changes. The first jet to arrive was the Meteor in the form of the F4. with 222 Sqn in May 1950. After staying for seven years upgrading to the F.8 and then returning back to the F.4, the unit was finally disbanded in 1957 only to re-emerge as a Bloodhound operator at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.

The next squadron to arrive, 43 Sqn, arrived in November 1950, and also brought the Meteor F.8. On 22nd October 1952, one of these aircraft Meteor F8 VZ461 ‘W’ was lost on route from  RAF Acklington to Leuchars as part of  three-ship formation. The aircraft (number two in the formation) suffered problems when its artificial horizon failed. The pilot, Pilot Officer Maurice William Prior, notified the lead pilot who instructed him to make a starboard turn and rejoin the group above the clouds. Unfortunately the Meteor descended instead, and struck the sea near to Coquet Island off Amble, Northumberland. In the accident, which was put down to ‘instrument failure’, the pilot lost his life.*9

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Hunter F.1s of 43 sqn RAF Leuchars, in a vertical climb. © IWM RAF-T 42a

43 Sqn retained their Meteors until 1954, they then replaced them with the Hawker Hunter; flying marks including the: F.1, F.4, F.6 and F.G.A.9 in a front line role. After transferring to Nicosia in 1961 and eventual disbandment, the squadron was reformed here at Leuchars in in 1969 with the McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1. An upgrade to the FGR.2 in May 1988 eventually led to the Phantom being replaced by the Panavia Tornado F.3 in 1989. This made 43 Sqn one of the longest standing front line squadrons to reside at Leuchars in its entire history.

1951 would see another long standing resident unit at Leuchars. But the early months were noted for more short stay units. The ‘sister’ of the Meteor, the DH. Vampire, made a presence through 602, 612 and 603 Sqns between April and July that year, each reflecting Leuchars’ war time record and staying for short periods before moving on. For a while over the summer months, Leuchars would be home to no less than six front line squadrons, five of them with Meteors or Vampires with a sixth flying that old favourite the Spitfire.

Then in September 1951, 151 Sqn was reformed, an ex-wartime unit it had its roots firmly in 1918. Initially flying the Vampire NF.10, Meteor NF.11, and then in September 1955, the Venom NF.3, it left for a spell at Turnhouse before returning to Leuchars in 1957 with the Delta Winged Gloster Javelin FAW.5. In September 1961, the squadron disbanded again being reformed a year later at Watton.  During the war it had operated as a night fighter unit, a role it continued here at Leuchars. Donned with the Saltire of St. Andrew, the flag of the patron Saint of Scotland, it would make a good companion for 43 Sqn with whom it had flown with during the Battle of Britain with Hurricanes.

In 1952, a 222 Sqn Meteor from Leuchars took off on a low level training sortie over the Scottish mountains. The aircraft, an F.8 ‘WA882’ piloted by Pilot Officer Brian Lightfoot, departed Leuchars at 9:58am in poor conditions. Snow covered the mountains and frequent snow showers were experienced over the area. At 10:20, a witness reported hearing a crash and seeing black smoke rising from the Scottish mountain Oxen Craig, in the Bennnachie hills, Aberdeenshire. The Meteor had struck the mountain killing the pilot. It took some two weeks to locate the wreckage, most of which was buried at the scene by RAF rescue teams, after which a small memorial was built to commemorate not only the life of P.O. Lightfoot, but also the crew of a Westland Wallace ‘K6028’ which had crashed at the same location in September 1939. The official cause of the pilot’s death was attributed to “poor definition of snow covered mountains in the prevailing conditions”. It was one more loss in the Scottish hills*11.

The 50s saw a more permanent move by some RAF squadrons. 264 Sqn who only stayed for six months in 1952 with Meteors led the way. In 1954 ‘C’ Flight of 275 Sqn arrived, this signified another change in role for Leuchars as it brought the first of the helicopters to the airfield – the Sycamore HR.14. This squadron, formed in 1941 continued to perform its role of Air Sea Rescue (a much needed but over looked service during the war), and the Flight stayed here until the entire squadron was disbanded in 1959. As an Air Sea Rescue unit it understandably had Flights based at a number of sites around the UK, and took on the Whirlwind HAR 2 and 4 prior to disbandment. Working in conjunction with the Mountain Rescue Teams, many civilians as well as aircrew owe them a great deal of gratitude.

1957 then saw Leuchars enter the film industry when a crew arrived to make a film using 43 Sqn as its main squadron. Headlined by Ray Milland (Wing Commander Rudge), Bernard Lee (Flight Sergeant Harris), Leslie Philips (Squadron Leader Blake) and John Le Mesurier as the Commandant, it was about a Commanding Officer of an RAF Training School (Cranwell) who must deal with a difficult cadet. The problem was not the cadet’s behaviour so much as the fact that he reminded the Commandant of himself when he was young. The film included shots of 43 Sqn in low level, gunnery and aerobatic manoeuvres which were filmed until the end of the year when the days were too short to carry on.

The squadron initially identified with the ‘starring role’ was 111 Sqn, who had only that year been recognised as the RAF’s official Fighter Command Aerobatics team, pipping their Leuchars stable mates, 43 Sqn, at the post. ‘Treble One’ took the name of ‘Black Arrows‘ and with their nine ship formation went on to be as famous as the Red Arrows are today. 43 Sqn’s ‘Fighting Cocks‘ were a four ship group and the disappointment of not achieving the status of their Leuchars partners, ended a decade of pageants, displays and European tours where they had been centre stage across many countries.

As the decade drew to a close, so July 1958 would see the arrival of yet more Meteors with 29 Sqn. These NF.12s were operated until replaced by the Javelin, Gloster’s delta wing fighter, before they departed to Nicosia in 1963. This time  would also see the arrival of another Air Sea Rescue detachment, that of ‘C’ Flight from 228 Squadron also with the Sycamore helicopter. Throughout the war they had flown in Sunderland flying boats, including from the Scottish West coast base at Oban in 1941. The detachment had remained here until 1964 when it was renumbered as 202 Sqn.

The next forty years would see more front line jet squadrons, 25 Sqn with Javelins FAW.7s who retained these until their disbandment in 1962. They were followed by 23 Sqn who had disposed of their Javelins in preparation for the mighty Lightning, which they received a year after their arrival here in 1963. For eleven years they flew both the F.3 and the F.6, before they too were disbanded in preparation for yet more modern upgrades.

The arrival of the Lightning also heralded the arrival of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status, the Lightning proving to be a huge step forward in terms of aircraft speed and climb rate compared to its predecessors, was an ideal interceptor; only the appalling fuel consumption and limited armaments of early models prevented it from being the ultimate attack aircraft.

Although QRA’s origins are associated with the Lightning, the Hunters of 43 and 222 Squadrons had previously retained a two minute readiness with aircrew remaining in the cockpit at all times, a rota that kept aircraft at the ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sitting in the cockpit for many hours, waiting for the chance to intercept a Soviet aircraft, must have been somewhat tedious on occasions – a draining but very necessary part of the job.

Two more units arrived in 1964, 74 (Tiger) Sqn and 202 Sqn. 74 Sqn had had the honour of being the first Lightning squadron in 1960, and for bringing the first Lightning to Leuchars, roaring into the Fife skies in August that year. They remained here for three years whilst another detachment from 202 brought the Whirlwind HAR.10 strengthening Leuchars’ role in Air Sea Rescue. For the next twelve years the helicopters of ‘C’ Flight would operate from here, with other detachments at similar sites including Boulmer and Coltishall.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

Lightning F.6 of No 74 Squadron, RAF Leuchars. Armed with Red Top air-to-air missiles, and carrying over-wing long range fuel tanks.(© IWM RAF-T 6973)

74 Sqn soon took on the upgraded Avon powered Lightning F.3, this proved to be a godsend as the MK.Is were soon becoming worn out, regular faults being difficult to repair meant that flying hours were starting to fall. This upgrade was followed in September 1966 by the F.6. With this new aircraft they, and Leuchars, would participate in the sixth ‘Tiger Meet’, which saw a gathering of NATO ‘Tiger’ units from across the European and American nations. As Leuchars was hosting the gathering, it would mean a range of unusual aircraft types would appear here, if only for a short period of time. For four days in July 1966: F-100D Super Sabres, Super Mystére B2s, F-104G and CF-104 Starfighters along with F-4D Phantom IIs and a range of support aircraft, would all be present in these operations. This brought a multinational collection of pilots and crews from France, the US, Belgium and Germany to this Scottish airfield.

Unfortunately, the event was marred by the death of French pilot Capt. Joel Dancel, whose Armée de l’Air Super Mystère B.2 struck the ground shortly after take off killing him. As a mark of respect the final days solo displays, which he was practising for, went ahead with the flags of all nations at half mast.

Then followed the infamous Labour Government’s decision in 1965 to axe large parts of the defence budget, thus cancelling numerous projects such as TSR.2. This meant that Britain’s future strike capability was seriously weakened. The various separate commands were rapidly becoming no longer viable, and so now the nearly non-existent Bomber Command and Fighter Command were both amalgamated to form the new Strike Command. It was this Command that would take Leuchars on into the 1970s and beyond.

With more Lightnings arriving in April 1967 with the reforming of the fighter squadron 11 Sqn,  a stay of some five years would see the Lightnings continue the role of policing Britain’s North Sea airspace. The RAF’s ongoing interest in Leuchars would also be kept alive and well by the the newly formed 43 Sqn, who joined 11 Sqn in 1967 with the Phantom FG.1. 43 Sqn would remain at Leuchars for over forty years, taking over where the Lightning left off, and  eventually taking on the Tornado in 1989/90.

The end of the 1960s saw what was a first for not only 23 Squadron but perhaps even the RAF, when two Lightnings of the squadron left Leuchars to perform at an airshow in Toronto. The flight, made non-stop with the help of over-wing tanks and no less than six Victors for in-flight refuelling, was made by Sdn. Ldr. Ed Durham and Flg. Off. Geoff Brindle, supported by a VC10 carrying ground crew, supplies and spare pilots. The flight, which had lasted for some seven and a half hours, ended at Toronto in front of a massed crowd of well wishers and press, a real coup for the crews of Leuchars.

Leuchars personnel would also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RAF in 1968, when it was granted the freedom of St. Andrews. A parade through the town was supported by all makes of aircraft stationed at Leuchars including no less than sixteen Lightnings. Whirlwinds and Chipmunks from both the Air Sea Rescue service and the University Air Squadron also took part, further cementing the strong bond that had existed between Leuchars and its neighbouring town.

The 1960s finally drew to a close, world war had so far been averted but Leuchars remained on the front line, monitoring and intercepting Soviet aircraft over the North Sea, at least for the time being.

In the fifth and final part of this trail, we see how Leuchars is affected by defence cuts. The QRA status is at risk as is the very future of this historic airfield.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 3)

In Part 2, a number of twin engined models frequented Leuchars performing anti shipping roles and U Boat hunts out in the North Sea. BOAC had begun its clandestine role and shipping ball-bearings back from neutral Sweden. We now see a change to these flights and as the war ends, a new much larger breed begin to appear here are Leuchars.

Throughout all these changes at Leuchars, the BOAC company had been continually running its clandestine operations to Sweden. But by now it was clear that a new, faster more agile aircraft was needed. Even though they were marked with civilian markings and flown by Swedish crews, the Electras were slow and cumbersome and made easy targets for both fighters and flak. Now, with the development of the Mosquito, the opportunity had finally arrived.

It was during December 1942 that the first civilian operated model of the aircraft arrived here at Leuchars. A Mosquito PR.IV ‘DZ411’,  it was assigned the civilian registration G-AGFV, and would begin flights to Stockholm on 4th February 1943, after which it was joined by six other aircraft. These MK.VIs were given the sequential registrations G-AGGC to GH, and would arrive during the April and May of that year.

By the end of April the following year, a total of nine Mosquitoes would have been modified and delivered to BOAC at Leuchars*5.

BOAC Mosqquito BAE Systems (@BAE Systems)

All these aircraft had to be changed from military status to civilian, this required the removal of all traces of armament. Modified at Hatfield – the home of the Mosquito – the resultant weight loss altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity and so additional ballast had to be added to prevent changes in the aircraft’s flying characteristics.

It was vital that the Mosquitoes remained unarmed for these operations, so as to not infringe or violate Sweden’s wartime neutrality, however, this made any aircraft on this run a potential ‘sitting duck’, even though, like their Lockheed predecessors, they carried BOAC insignia and were flown by civilian aircrew.

These operations were by now carrying more than just mail and ball-bearings though. These covert operations, took the civilian marked and unarmed Mosquito across the North Sea to Sweden, where it would drop off the mail, papers and other written material held within its bomb bay, and return with prominent scientists, special agents or allied aircrew who had been interned in Sweden as well as vital ball-bearings produced by the Swedes. The faster and far more agile Mosquito would, in most cases, be able to out run any opposing Luftwaffe fighter that should, and indeed did, try to intercept the aircraft whilst on one of these flights.

The returning ‘passenger’ on these flights had the unfortunate prospect of having to sit in a modified ventral bay for the whole duration of the flight. The prospect of further internment probably outweighing that of cramp and three hours of discomfort.

One such notable passenger who was carried back from Sweden, was the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, whose work on atomic structures and quantum theory, had won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922.*4 He would go on to work on the Atom Bomb in the Manhattan Project, the results of which were seen at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Even though these flights were highly successful, a few aircraft were lost. In Mid August 1944, G-AGKP ‘LR296’, a former 27 MU aircraft, was lost when it crashed into the sea nine miles from Leuchars. All three on board were killed as it approached on return from Stockholm; the passenger being a BOAC Mosquito pilot himself. The crash was believed to have been caused by a structural failure, the aircraft having been repaired previously after an accident in January. By the war’s end fourteen Mosquitoes had been used in some way by BOAC, five of which crashed.*6

As the war moved on, squadron numbers at Leuchars begin to diminish. 1943 brought only two, that of 235 Sqn and 333 (Royal Norwegian Air Force) Sqn who were formed here on April 5th as ‘B’ Flight after the dividing and renumbering of 1477 (Norwegian) Flight. This was a split unit, one part flying the Catalina from Woodhaven, whilst ‘B’ Flight flew the Mosquito MK.II. An upgrade to the MK.VI then saw the unit move to join the famous Banff Strike Wing in September 1944. Whilst at Leuchars they operated as sub-hunters and convoy escorts, whilst ‘A’ flight flew more clandestine operations smuggling secret agents and supplies into occupied Norway. The Mosquito as a multi-function aircraft performed well in these duties, and by the end of the war numerous U-boats had been attacked by aircraft based at the Scottish airfield.

RAF Leuchars

One of the Hangars at Leuchars 2018

With 1944 dawning and major events happening on the continent, more changes would take place at Leuchars.

In the early months, proposals to extend and widen one of the runways was put forward, a part of which was agreed in April. This move also required the relocation of the Watch Office and widening of the perimeter tracks. A further three squadrons would pass through this year beginning with a detachment of 281 Sqn, who stayed for a year from February. A second unit 206 Sqn, stayed here for less than three weeks. But then September/October would bring a new and interesting model in the shape of the B-24 Liberator and 547 Sqn. A change to the smaller twin-engined models that had frequented Leuchars for the last four years or so, the move here was unfortunately a signal of their ending though, the squadron being disbanded in June 1945 never to appear again.

Whilst here, the Liberators would patrol the Norwegian coast in the A/U (anti-U boat) role, many of these patrols being uneventful, the U-boat threat by now greatly reduced compared to its previous Atlantic successes. However, on October 12th, Liberator MK.VI “G” did spot a U boat on the surface which it attacked with both front and rear turrets. Strikes from both guns were seen on and around the conning tower, and it was initially thought that the sub was sunk. After patrolling for a further 45 minutes, the U boat was again sighted some two miles away, but managed to escape in the poor weather. It was believed by the crew to have been a 740 ton vessel which had subsequently suffered damage from the attack.

The B-24s of the these RAF squadrons would be complemented by B-24s now flying separate runs to Sweden by the Americans. In addition to these, Leuchars also saw the reintroduction of the popular and highly successful American built Douglas DC3. The route to Stockholm now being a little less dangerous than it had been in previous years.

The arrival of the Liberator had signified a big change in direction for Leuchars,  they were to be the first of many four engined heavies to serve from the Fife base.

In 1945, 519 Sqn brought along the Halifax III, but sadly they were to go the way of 547 Sqn and disband here at Leuchars in the following May; it too would not reappear in the RAF’s inventory of operational Squadrons. 519 were a meteorological unit, collecting data for flying operations. Using both the Spitfire VII and Halifax IIIs, they would climb to altitudes of around 40,000 ft, and collect valuable meteorological data. Using Prata I, Prata II and Recipe I (Pressure And Temperature Ascent) many of these flights would take the aircraft high out over the North Sea.

With the close of the war, Leuchars had seen no less than twenty-eight operational squadrons pass through its doors, some of these merely staying for a day, whilst others were more prolonged. A range of aircraft had come and gone, mainly twin-engined models operating in the photographic reconnaissance or anti-shipping role. With its position on the north eastern coast, Leuchars had proven vital to maritime operations protecting the seas between Britain and Scandinavia, an area it had operated in, in a number of clandestine roles. But with the war now at an end, these were no longer required, and Leuchars’ role would again revert back to its original one – that of training.

The post war world was very different to the pre-war one, Britain like many other countries was rapidly trying to revert to pre-war budgets. A reduction in the armed forces was seen as essential to cutting costs, whilst rebuilding the nations cities that had been so heavily bombed in the Blitz, was paramount. As a result, the RAF as with the other forces, were having to do with what they had. A reduction in man power and machinery though would not only mean a reduction in squadrons, but the airfields that used them.

Leuchars, like so many, was now under the potential threat of closure. However, the increasing post war tensions between the east and west created the Cold War, with a strained and anxious stand off between Soviet and Western forces right across the European frontier. As had happened before, Leuchars’ position would once again be its saviour. Over the coming years it would see a wealth of operational aircraft and a broad range of front line fighters be based in this small corner of Scotland,

The coming months after the war’s end would see further four-engined models reappear, a previous resident 203 Sqn who had been here in the 1920s, returned from overseas operations in May 1946, bringing back with them the B-24 (Liberator VIII). Within two months though, this would be replaced by the Lancaster GR.3, a version of the mighty four-engined heavy that had wreaked so much devastation across Germany’s industrial cities. But by 1947, 203’s link with the Scottish airfield would finally draw to a close, and the squadron would depart for good.

160 Sqn who arrived a month later in June, also brought the Liberator, and similarly began taking on the Lancaster GR.3. By October though their demise had also arrived, they were renumbered and reformed as 120 Sqn, and by 1947 they had lost the last of their Liberators retaining only the Lancaster.

In December 1950, 120 Sqn were posted to Kinloss, where its wartime bombers were replaced with the newer Avro model, the long range maritime patrol aircraft, the Shackleton with its rare contra-rotating props.

Avro Shackleton MR.3 (WR989) of 120 Sqn RAF (@BAE Sytems)

The aircraft, built in response to the growing Soviet threat, was designed around the Lancaster,  Roy Chadwick’s dream bomber. Chadwick, like R.J. Mitchell, having sadly died before their dream had finally been put into service. Built to Air Ministry Specification R 5/46, the Shackleton was initially designed with gun turrets and two Rolls-Royce Griffon 57A engines inboard, and two Roll-Royce Griffon 57 engines outboard.

One other unit arrived here at Leuchars that year, that of 82 Sqn, initially as a Lancaster detachment and then in June 1947 as a base with its own detachments at Eastleigh, Dar-es-Salaam and Lusaka. The last of the prop driven aircraft were now making their ultimate RAF appearances, and soon Leuchars would enter in the jet age.

In Part 4 Leuchars enters the jet age. The Cold War begins and Leuchars takes on a new challenge as it moves to a new Command, that of Fighter Command.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 2)

After Part 1 in which we saw how Leuchars came about and develop as we moved towards the Second World War, we enter the early 1940s. Here we now see anti shipping sorties, U boat hunts and a strange relationship spawn between the recently formed civilian organisation BOAC and RAF Leuchars.

Immediately after the declaration of war, searches began with flights penetrating out over the North Sea. On the September 4th, a Hudson of 224 Sqn spotted a Dornier 18. The Dornier attacked the Hudson which sustained damage in both the fuselage and fuel tank. Thankfully, the pilot evaded further damage and manged to nurse the aircraft back home to Leuchars without further problems. Leuchars’ position on the eastern coast provided an ideal opportunity for such flights, hunting for bombers, U-boats and ships over the North Sea; it was this operation perhaps that marked the beginning of these maritime searches- a role it would carry out for the next 5 years.

Armourers secure 250lb bombs in the bomb-bay of a Lockheed Hudson of No. 224 Squadron at RAF Leuchars. (public domain)

The two units at  Leuchars continued with repeated patrols, with 233 sighting  both enemy flying boats and a submarine on September 7th. Attacks were made on both but no signs of damage were reported to either. Sadly, on this day, a 224 Sqn Hudson was seen diving into the sea, no explanation was available as to the cause, and a launch was dispatched to search for survivors – sadly with no results. This rolling programme of patrols over the North Sea pretty much set the scene for the remainder of 1940, culminating in the departure of 233 Sqn in September, followed not long after by 224 Sqn on April 15th the following year.

At the base itself, more hangars were built, four (austerity) ‘C’ type hangars were added which expanded the servicing and maintenance area hugely. Leuchars was clearly expanding.

Leuchars like many of Britain’s airfields would not only operate ‘operational’ squadrons from them, but numerous support flights that would run along side. Some of these included: training flights, communications flights, Army support and co-operation flights, and Leuchars was no different. One such unit was that of  18 Group Communications Flight, who resided at Leuchars from the spring of 1940 right the way through to 1960. With only a brief spell at Turnhouse, it would operate a wide range of aircraft throughout its long service and be one of, if not the longest serving unit at the airfield.

The early part of 1940 saw yet another front line squadron arrive here at Leuchars, that of 605 Sqn with Hurricanes. The fighter squadron, whose battle honours would include The Battle of Britain and the Malta campaign,  would only stay for a very short period of time, transferring again at the end of the month to the rather unsuitable Wick, where only one Bessineau hangar existed and there were little or no dispersal facilities. As two other squadrons were also moving onto the airfield at the same time, it was decided to billet the non operational crews off the airfield site, an idea that became the norm in the following war years.

Over the next few years, there would be a plethora of squadrons use Leuchars. In October, 320 Sqn arrived in a move that saw the return of the Avro Anson. Within days of their arrival though the squadron would begin receiving the Hudson I. What makes this particular unit special was the fact that both it, and 321 Sqn with whom it would soon merge, were both formerly of the Royal Dutch Naval Air Service, and had arrived at Pembroke Dock in June that year after the Germans invaded Holland. They brought with them Fokker T VIII seaplanes which were quickly replaced with the Anson.

On January 18th 1941, the two units were merged to form 320 (Dutch) Sqn, whose headquarters were at Carew Cheriton under the command of Lieutenant Commander W. van Lier, at which point all but one of the Ansons were disposed of. For short time the unit would perform from both there and Silloth training crews on aerial photography in the Hudson, before returning here to Leuchars in the March, where upon they gradually updated the Hudsons with the MK.II, the MK.III and eventually the MK.IV before ending their link with Leuchars and departing to Bircham Newton in the April of 1942.

Another unusual squadron to arrive at Leuchars was that of 72 Sqn in November 1940. A Spitfire unit, they had then taken on the Gloster Gladiator, a 1934 designed bi-plane that became famous in the defence of Malta as ‘Faith‘, ‘Hope’, and ‘Charity‘. The switch to the bi-plane appears to have been made as a result of an unsuitable airfield at Acklington. However, and even though the Gladiator was in no way equal to the Spitfire, 72 Sqn retained the Gladiator well into the Spring of 1941, at which point they upgraded to the newer Spitfire, the IIa.

Arriving at Leuchars on November 29th, 1940, 72 Sqn immediately began flying patrols over the sea, their first being in the area around Dunbar. However, the Scottish winter weather dogged operational flying resulting in many cancelled flights and patrols. On December 8th, Green section led by P.O. Norfolk struck lucky, and the flight encountered a lone Luftwaffe Heinkel He.111 over Holy Island. The Spitfire engaged the Heinkel firing numerous shots at the enemy aircraft, but the bomber made his escape flying into the heavy cloud that blanketed the coastal skies. As a result, P.O. Norfolk was unable to make a claim against it. It was this very same bad weather that prevented the squadron’s proposed move back to Acklington, meaning that the planned trip for the 15th, was delayed, the aircraft unable to make the transfer until the end of the month.

AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BRISTOL TYPE 152 BEAUFORT.

Beaufort Mark I, N1172 ‘AW-S’, of 42 Sqn RAF, in flight with L9834, also of 42 Sqn (@ IWM CH 2775)

The majority of 1941 saw similar moves; short stays by 86 Sqn (2nd February – 3rd March) with Blenheims; 42 Sqn (1st March – 18th June) with Beauforts on their way to the Far East; 107 Sqn (3rd March – 11th May) with Blenheims and 114 Sqn (13th May – 19th July) also with Blenheims, all of which brought a number of twin-engined models to the Scottish airfield. The primary role for these units was maritime patrols, monitoring and photographing vessels out over the cold waters of the North Sea.

In 1941 a strange relationship spawned between the recently formed British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and RAF Leuchars. BOAC – being formed by the amalgamation of British Airways Ltd and Imperial Airways – formed a partnership with Leuchars that would remain at the airfield up until the war’s end, operating in an ‘open’ but rather contradictory clandestine role.

The civilian company would initially operate a single Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra (the forerunner of the Hudson) named ‘Bashful Gertie‘, between Leuchars and Stockholm in neutral Sweden. Piloted by Swedish aircrew, the idea behind the route was to pass POW mail into Sweden where it could be forwarded to prison camps in occupied Europe. At the time though, Sweden was one of Europe’s largest producers of ball-bearings, a commodity that both the allied and axis powers needed in order to keep their war machine turning. It is now known that much of Germany’s war supply of ball-bearings was in fact coming from Sweden, but they were not the only country buying the Swedish goods. After dropping off the post, the Electra would be refuelled and filled with ball-bearings before returning to Leuchars. This run hence became known as the ‘ball-bearing run’. These operations would continue for several years from Leuchars, but upgrades at a later date, would see a new form take over from these rather slow and vulnerable aircraft.

On August 12th, another new squadron was formed here at Leuchars, that of 489 Sqn with Beauforts, who kept them until the January of 1942. At this point they began replacing them with the Blenheim IV. After departing to Thorney Island in March 1942, they returned here as a full squadron in October 1943. At this point they began receiving the Beaufighter X an aircraft they kept until the war’s end. Prior to D-day the squadron moved to RAF Langham in Norfolk where they donned invasion stripes ready for their part in the forthcoming invasion of Normandy*3.

A detachment of the Horsham-St-Faith based 105 Sqn, arrived at Leuchars in December 1941 bringing yet another twin-engined, but new design, to these Scottish shores. A revolution in aircraft design, it was the envy of the Luftwaffe and a joy for British pilots – the de Havilland Mosquito IV.

Aircrew of 105 Sqn next to a Mosquito (location unknown) (@IWM CH 018011 1)

The detachment would stay here until after September 1942 whereupon it would reform as a complete unit at RAF Marham in Norfolk. In the last days of September however, four aircraft would leave Leuchars to attack a ‘special’ target in Oslo.

In Oslo on this day was a gathering of high level Nazi officials at the Gestapo headquarters, and this was to be the primary target for the four aircraft. After bombing successfully, they four sped away at low level toward the sea and home, only to be attacked, by four FW-190s. All four Mosquitoes received damage to varying degrees, and one was sadly lost, that flown by twenty-six year old Flt. Sgt. F. Carter and his navigator twenty-year old Sgt. Young. The Mosquito was seen heading toward the Oslo Fjord (Lake Engervann) with its starboard engine on fire. Unable to maintain height, the aircraft clipped trees and struck the water killing the two crew. The two bodies were successfully  pulled from the Fjord by local fishermen and buried in Oslo. The four crews had only been posted to Leuchars the day before.

Little changed throughout 1942. More short detachments and movements through Leuchars saw 217 Sqn, 415 Sqn, 455 (RAAF), 144 Sqn and 544 Sqn bringing mainly twin engined models to Leuchars. Only the detachment of 544 Sqn with Spitfires saw any major changes. The longest standing unit at this time was 144 Sqn with Hampdens, but they were spread far and wide, detachments being located at Skitten, Sumburgh, Wick, Afrikanda and Vaenga.

In October, a month after the departure of 105 Sqn, the Mosquito returned once more. This time a new unit, 540 Sqn, who were created from both ‘H’ and ‘L’ flights of 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU). The multiple flights of this former RAF Benson unit was divided up into five separate consecutive squadrons 540 – 544. Flying models that included:  Mosquito II ‘DD615’, IV ‘DZ592’, VIII ‘DZ424 and IX ‘LR422 they would also use the Spitfire IV up to the end of the year. Their role here was primarily to photograph targets in Norway and northern Europe, a role they performed until early February 1944. They would eventually return to their former home at RAF Benson leaving a year’s long stay at Leuchars behind.

In Part 3, the running of BOAC aircraft from Leuchars see a change, the war comes to a close and new larger aircraft begin to appear here at the Scottish base.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 1)

Following on from Trail 53 we leave the former RNAS Crail and Dunino behind and head north-west to the mecca of the golfing world, and the historic town of St. Andrew’s, where just outside of the University town is an airfield whose history goes back as far as 1911; this makes it one of Britain’s oldest and most established airfields. Its development then takes it through the First World World War, to the relative peace of the 1920s, the expansion period of the 1930s and on into the Second World War. Faced with potential closure it then went on to be one of the most significant and important airfields in Britain’s Cold War defence network.

Sadly politics played its part as it often does, and in 2011, its fate was sealed when at 4:48pm on July 18th, Dr. Liam Fox the then Secretary of State for Defence announced when talking about bringing the Army back from Germany: “Two major units and a formation headquarters will be based at Leuchars, increasing the number of posts there from 1,200 to more than 1,300. Consequently, the Typhoon force due to be built up there will instead be built up at RAF Lossiemouth.”*10 With that the airfield was to close, being transferred over to the Army, a transfer that occurred four years later in March 2015. Since then the RAF has, on occasion, returned for flying duties,  but its front line RAF role had gone. A state which exists today.

On this next stop, we take an extensive look at the long and incredible life of RAF Leuchars.

RAF Leuchars.

Leuchars sits on the north-eastern coast of Fife, on the banks of the River Eden as it enters the sea at St. Andrew’s Bay. To the north across the River Tay, lies Dundee, and to the west, the city of Perth. South of Leuchars is the University town of St. Andrews – the home of world golfing. Being literally on the shore line, Leuchars provided an ideal location for a whole host of maritime operations, aerial reconnaissance and even later on, search and rescue.

Its life began just after the turn of the last century in 1911, when powered flight was but a mere few years old.  Even before the first aero-engine had been started here, the site was being put to use by the Royal Engineers with a Balloon Squadron, who used it for reconnaissance training in the Tentsmuir Forest on the edge of what is now the airfield.

With the formation of the RFC in 1912, the Balloon Squadron would become part of the first military flying arm to exist in the UK. It would continue in its role as spotting for artillery, even as powered flight gradually became established. On the nearby beaches, small aircraft were tried and tested, but balloon training would ultimately remain the focus of the squadron.

In 1916, the RNAS then acquired the land and began to develop the site as a place for powered flight. Taking over farmland, and eventually swallowing up the resident farm, the airfield slowly expanded, and by 1918 its future was established. By this time, the RAF had been formed, the flying responsibilities of the Navy were transferred to the RAF and the first unit was ready to move in. The Grand Fleet School of Aerial Fighting and Gunnery, run by the RAF to train Naval airmen, resided at the airfield from the end of 1918 on into 1920. This unit, a new unit in its own right, was formed out of the disbanded 208 (Temporary) Training Depot Station which, whilst formed at East Fortune in the Scottish borders, had only been in existence for as little as one month.

RAF Leuchars

The control tower at Leuchars. The airfield’s proximity to the shore line being evident.

In these early days of flying, risks were high, the thrill of manned flight was a draw for many young men eager to experience the joy of soaring above the clouds. As a result, there were numerous accidents and Leuchars was no different.

On May 19th, 1919, Lt. David Gardiner Cooper (22) lost his life when he misjudged a slow roll whilst flying in his Sopwith Camel (F8497), and on August 1st, Canadian, Lt. Philip Hall-Smith (30) was killed, after his Camel was seen to inexplicably nose dive into the ground.*1*2 Two unfortunate losses after a war that had already taken hundreds of thousands of lives.

During the 1920s, with the war now over, military might was seen as an almost unnecessary waste, units were cutback, airfields that had been established for war were closed, and fighting men were returned to civvy street. Political fighting amongst the three arms of the military, saw the RAF cut back to a fraction of its former self, its cause for survival spearheaded by Lord Trenchard. However, Leuchars managed to cling on, remaining not only active, but receiving further development as well. More land was purchased and in 1925 the base was officially renamed RAF Training Base Leuchars.

It would be a time of dramatic change and turbulence for the fledgling Air Force though, and this was wholly reflected by the number of units appearing at Leuchars during this period. Operating as one of the UK’s major Naval training bases (the RAF being responsible for Naval flying at this point), the first of these units to appear was 203 Sqn in March 1920 which had reformed here after having been disbanded just two months earlier at Scopwick.

On April 1st 1923, the RAF Carrier units were re-designated under the new 400 series of squadron codes – a major stepping stone in RAF / Naval structure. Then a year later in 1924, these units were combined to form the new Fleet Air Arm (FAA), the flying branch of the Royal Navy. These changes had a major impact on operational numbers here at Leuchars.

Formally a Royal Naval Air Service unit, 203 Sqn initially flew the Sopwith Camel, replacing these  in April 1922, with the Nieuport and the General (Gloster) Nightjar. In mid September, the squadron was posted to Turkey, departing Leuchars onboard HMS Argus; a posting that would last for three months. After that, the squadron returned to Leuchars once more, again onboard HMS Argus, remaining active at Leuchars until 1st April 1923. At this point the squadron was disbanded, being divided into two Naval Flights: 401 and 402. The squadron as was, would be reformed later, but it would be another twenty-three years before they would see the shores of Leuchars once more.

203 Sqn would be joined a month after their arrival by another former RNAS unit – 205 Sqn. Like 203, it too was disbanded at Scopwick only to reform here at Leuchars in April 1920. Bringing another new model of aircraft to the Scottish airfield, 205 Sqn flew the Parnall Panther, and would serve in its entirety as 205 until October 1921, when the Mobile Flight element  was reformed as 3 Squadron. The remainder of 205 Sqn continued serving alongside here at Leuchars.

3 Squadron would operate out of the Scottish base until 1st April 1923, at which point it was similarly divided into three flights: 420, 421 and 422 now serving at Gosport. The remainder of 205 were also divided up into separate Flights – 440, 441 and 442, but unlike its sister unit, 205 would not return in any form to these Fife shores.

As part of this formation of the FAA, Leuchars would see all these Flights joined by another seven: 403, 404, 405, 406, 443, 445, and 446, and all around this time. This would bring a whole range of aircraft to these shores: Nightjars, Panthers, Nimrods, Flycatchers and the like.  Some of these units would depart for foreign shores whilst some would remain in the UK at other bases. The skies above Leuchars was now buzzing with activity.

For the majority of the 1930s, Leuchars would remain as an FAA training base, being renamed No. 1 Flying Training School, on April 1st 1935. Aircraft seen here would have included a range of training types including the: Fairey IIIF, Fairey Gordon, Avro Tutor and Avro 504N. For three continuous years pilots trained at Leuchars for the Fleet Air Arm, a branch that continued to be the responsibility of the RAF.

The mid to late 1930s would see tensions slowly rise in Germany, but Britain’s general post war doctrine was to defend her shores rather than attack any potential enemy. The Royal Navy was still seen at these times as the main military force, a belief that would very soon change. Britain in these early years, had not seen Germany (partly due to the devastating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles) but France, as her biggest potential aggressor, and as such long range aircraft or heavy bombers were not seen as an important requirement.

Government ideas that Britain should only arm itself with a view to defence against its nearest potential threat, meant that early on, defences were developed at the cost of attacking units. But by the time it was clear that Germany was the threat, Britain was lacking far behind, as little national development had been undertaken. This doctrine saw a far reaching impact right across Britain’s peace time airfields, which at this time included Leuchars. With only one squadron, 36 Sqn (the former Coastal Defence Torpedo Flt.) transiting through on its way to the Far East, preparation for war and flying in particular, remained limited to training flights here at the Scottish base.

As Britain then entered the Expansion Period, new aircraft specifications were being pushed through and airfield development became increasingly important. A number of new airfields were built and a restructuring of the RAF was once again on the cards. Here at Leuchars, the number of hangars was extended, with 7 Belfast Truss hangars being added to the site.

With further changes in the late 1930s, Leuchars became a Temporary Armament Training Camp (later station) with a small collection of Wapitis who used the nearby range at Tentsmuir.

Then in 1938, this restructuring took place, Leuchars, driven by its coastal location, was passed over to Coastal Command in an exchange that saw the two squadrons based at Thornaby (224 Sqn and 233 Sqn) transfer across here, whilst 1 FTS would leave for Netheravon. The Temporary Armament Training Camp previously established here would also disband.

Both these units brought the Avro Anson with them, 224 replacing them the following year with the Lockheed Hudson, a military aircraft born out of a civil transport model. Over the next two years, 224 Sqn would upgrade each of these with both the MK.II and MK.III models before departing to Limvadi in April 1941.

233 Sqn however, would have a more turbulent time, moving initially to Montrose, and then back to Leuchars, where they also took on the Hudson, only to replace it a month or so later with the Blenheim IV. Then, within less than a year, they would depart Leuchars for good, heading for Aldergrove in Northern Ireland where they would continue their operations with Coastal Command.

As 1938 passed the situation in Europe looked even more grave, and home based units were put on alert. 224 Sqn began carrying out searches of the North Sea, looking for vessels making their way to the open waters of the Atlantic. A further flight began sweeps of the Firth of Forth looking for submarines operating in the waters off the Scottish coast. However, in September, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, and following his ‘Peace in our time’ speech, war had seemingly been averted for the time being, and these precautionary measures were then relaxed.

In mid December, with tensions eased, 224 Sqn was granted 3 weeks leave allowing personnel time to go home over the Christmas period. The relaxation of measures was however, short lived, and a year later the squadron was put on a war footing with mobilisation orders coming through on September 1st 1939.

In part 2 Leuchars enters the war, being a coastal airfield the sea would dominate its actions and the squadrons that would be based here. It would also be the first line of defence against Luftwaffe bombers, ships and U-boats.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

Operation ‘Fuller’ – “The Channel Dash”.

On 12th February 1942, 18 young men took off on a daring mission from RAF Manston, in outdated and out gunned biplanes, to attack the German fleet sailing through the English Channel.

Leaving Brest harbour, a force of mighty ships including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, attempted a break out, supported by sixty-six surface vessels and 250 aircraft, they were to head north through the Channel out into the North Sea and homeward to Germany where they could receive valuable repairs.

For many weeks the British had been monitoring the vessels awaiting some movement out to sea. Then,  German transmitting stations based at both Calais and Cherbourg, began a cat and mouse game transmitting false readings to interfere with British radar sets on the south coast. In mid February, the Luftwaffe organised themselves over northern France and the radars went wild with false readings and interference. Temporarily blinded by these measures, the British were unable to ‘see’ the mighty armada slip out into the Channel waters. Their escape had been a success.

The British, fearing such an attempt, had prepared six Fairy Swordfish of 825 Naval Air Squadron at nearby RAF Manston in readiness for the breakout. Ageing biplanes, they were no match for the Luftwaffe’s fast and more dominant fighters, nor the defensive guns of the mighty German fleet they were hoping to attack.

Of the eighteen men who took off that day, only five were to survive.

Leading the attack, Lt. Cdr. Esmonde was warded the V.C. Posthumously, he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the attack on the Battleship Bismark; an award that also went to: S/Lt. B Rose, S/Lt. E Lee, S/Lt. C Kingsmill, and S/Lt. R Samples. Flying with them, L/A. D. Bunce was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and twelve of the airmen were mentioned in dispatches.

In their honour and to commemorate the brave attempt to hit the German fleet that day, a memorial was erected in Ramsgate Harbour, the names of the eighteen men are listed where their story is inscribed for eternity.

Operation Fuller was a disaster not only for the Royal Navy but also for the Royal Air Force. A force of some 100 aircraft made up from almost every Group of Bomber Command also made its way to the Channel. By the time evening had dawned it had become clear that some fifteen aircraft from the force had been lost. The loss of life from those fifteen aircraft totalled sixty-three, with a further five being captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war.*1

February 12th had been a disaster, but from that disaster came stories of untold heroism, bravery and self sacrifice that have turned this event into one of Britain’s most remarkable stories of the war.

Operation 'Fuller'

The memorial stands in Ramsgate Harbour.

Operation 'Fuller'

The names of the 18 airmen and the Swordfish they flew.

Further reading

*1 To read more about Bomber Commands part in Operation Fuller and a German film of the event, see the Pathfinders Website