Lincolnshire is understandably known as ‘Bomber County’. Airfields once littered this part of the world, and many have now gone, returned to agriculture, used for housing developments or industrial sites. The names of those who served there linger in street names, Spitfire Way, Lancaster Ave etc. In some respects, it brings me closer to my father’s experiences as he was based in this county at the end of his service. He talked fondly of Lincoln and stations such as RAF Manby. His memory, a little jaded as he came toward the end of his life.
So our first trip around the area included places both old and new. It will include an active airfield, three former airfields and three museums. A busy couple of days out but remarkable ones. Driving north through the Lincolnshire Fens, we head toward RAF Coningsby, one of the few active fighter airfields left.
As an active airfield I won’t dwell to ,much on Coningsby, its large open expanse with excellent viewing facilities located in a number of places around it, it is nestled on the edge of the village where extensive RAF housing can be seen. The designated viewing area is at the end of the runway and offers a great opportunity for photos and plane spotting. There seems to be a hardened crew of enthusiast permanently perched here with enormous telephoto lenses. A short distance toward the village finds the BBMF museum with its well stocked shop, super little museum and of course tours through the hanger of the famous BBMF.
Taking yourself back, round the airfield, diverting to a closed crash gate, you can see a BAC Lightning perched in one corner. Match this with the Phantom that was at the main gate and you have a good idea of previous residents of the airfield. Moving on to the other end of the runway, will place you nicely for photographing approaching aircraft as they come over the road, gear down and at a speed slow enough to get a half decent picture from.
Coningsby often sees visiting aircraft from overseas. In July 2015, after my initial visit, four Indian Airforce Sukhoi Su-30 MKI “Flankers” arrived for a two-week long operation in conjunction with the RAF Typhoons from Coningsby. A good opportunity to see Russian designed aircraft in the Skies over Britain. They brought with them a C-130 Hercules and C-17 Globemaster. More excellent photo opportunities for the enthusiast. Additional photos are on Flickr and a detailed write-up can be found on Tony Wilkin’s ‘Defence of the Realm’.
Being active, events and buildings can change overtime or even daily, its always worth stopping off at if you are in the area, On a good day, you may get to see the Typhoon display team, practice sessions or the BBMF running up their aircraft. A sight to behold. Come to Coningsby, on a warm day, have sandwiches and a camera and set yourself up for superb viewing and great day out.
Leaving Coningsby, head west toward the old RAF Woodhall Spa airfield a few miles up the road, to the north ,and a stark difference.
RAF Woodhall Spa
RAF Woodhall Spa was originally built as a satellite to RAF Coningsby a short distance away, and opened on 1st February 1942. It was built with three concrete runways; two of 1,400 yds (1,353 m) and a third and main runway of 2,000yds all 50yds (46 m) wide. The site like other Standard ‘A’ class airfields had two T2 hangars and one B1, thirty-six pan-style hardstands and numerous support buildings scattered around its perimeter. Accommodation was spread over 7 sites, along with a WAAF, sick quarters and 2 communal sites all located to the south-east. The technical and administrative sites were also to the south-east side of the airfield between the accommodation areas and the main airfield.
A bomb store was well to the north and the main entrance to the north-west. A range of accommodation and technical style huts were used, Laing / Nissen / Seco and a Watch Tower to drawing 15956/40.
One remarkable features of Woodhall Spa was the installation of six arrester gear units on the runways. These were designed to prevent aircraft overshooting the runway and were installed during the building programme. Some 120 units were manufactured in all but only a handful of sites had them. On October 22nd 1942, the Woodhall Spa units were tested using an Avro Manchester from the Royal Aircraft Establishment and all went well. However, as the war progressed, reservations were registered about such a technique and the units were never used ‘operationally’ in any of the allocated sites.
At the same time that Woodhall Spa opened, the newly equipped Lancaster (Mk I & III) squadron, 97 Sqn, moved from RAF Coningsby into RAF Woodhall Spa and within a month were flying operations from their new home. However, their first operation, mine laying, was to be fatal for three aircraft, cashing on the journey home. This was not to be the general theme for 97 Sqn though. For the next year they would prove themselves more than capable, hitting many targets accurately with bravery and courage.
The following March (1943) the main bulk of 97 Sqn moved to Bourn to form part of the new Pathfinder force, with detachments at Graveley, Gransden Lodge, Oakington and a further section remaining at Woodhall. On April 18th 1943, 619 Sqn was formed from the Woodhall Spa detachment retaining their Lancaster Is and IIIs. However, their stay was very short; they moved out to Coningsby in January 1944 and were replaced overnight by the famous 617 (Dambusters) Sqn*5.
During their year here, 619 Sqn would prove themselves further in raids over the Ruhr, Düsseldorf, Oberhausen and Krefeld. Casualties were light during these early missions, but in the following August (1943) the RAF a mounted a massive raid consisting of 596 aircraft on the V2 rocket site at Peenemunde. Three of the twelve aircraft sent by 619 Sqn would fail to return.
When 619 Sqn moved out, 617 Sqn moved in. Lead by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, 617 Sqn were the elite of 5 Group, Bomber Command and accordingly were to be assigned some of the most difficult and outright dangerous precision bombing missions.
Throughout 1944, 617 Sqn would have many near misses, and losses, ranging from low-level bird strikes to fighter attacks and flak. Targets varied considerably including those at: Limoge (aircraft engine factory), the Antheor Viaduct, Albert, St. Etienne and Metz (aircraft parts factories); many using the new ‘Tall Boy’ 12,000lb bomb.
On 15th April 1944, 617 Squadron were joined by 627 Sqn and obtained some D.H. Mosquito VIs, using these to good effect in the Pathfinder role while their Lancasters continued with the bombing. In June, they had a small respite from bombing missions and on the day of the Allied Invasion, they were tasked with dropping ‘Window’ over the Pas-de-Calais to fool the Germans into believing the invasion force would strike there.
Throughout the remainder of 1944, 617 Sqn continued to use ‘conventional’ and Tall Boy bombs on prestige targets like U-boat pens and the Samur Tunnel. Cheshire found himself handed a P-51, and after having it unpacked and engine tested, he used it to mark a V1 target to which 617 struck a devastating blow.
Further major targets were to befall the wrath of 617 Sqn. Flying 2,100 miles to a forward operating base at Yagodonik with Lancasters from 9 Sqn, they attacked the German main Battleship the ‘Tirpitz’. During the mission, for which they had long-range fuel tanks, of the 38 aircraft that set off, six were to crash on the outward journey, one turn back and one to crash on the return. The Tirpitz however was to remain ‘unsinkable’ for some time. It would take two more return trips by 617 Sqn from Lossiemouth to finally sink the ship, the last being on 12th November 1944, with the loss of 1000 German sailors.
Bombing and pathfinder operations for Woodhall spa crews continued right up to the end of the war. Early that year they would start to use the new ‘Grand Slam’ 22,000lb bomb, with their last operational fatality being on 16th April 1945. That was not the end for Woodhall Spa though. The famous Guy Gibson drove here and ‘borrowed’ a Mosquito of 627 Sqn against a backdrop of changed minds, mishaps and misjudgements, the resulting crash leaving him dead.
Woodhall closed soon after the war ended, but it was identified as a suitable location for Britain’s air defence missile the ‘Bloodhound’ and on May 1st 1960, Woodhall Spa became the base of 222 Sqn with Bloodhound MkI missiles. These were disbanded in June 1964 and replaced by Bloodhound Mk IIs of 112 Sqn on November 2nd 1964. These stayed until 1st October 1967 when they moved to Episkopi in Cyprus.
After the removal of the Bloodhound squadron, the RAF continued to use a small site near to the main entrance, utilising the 617 Sqn T2 hangar and other ancillary buildings as an engine maintenance and testing facility. This too has since closed and the main use is now as a quarry.
A long and distinguished life, Woodhall Spa’s operational losses totalled 91 aircraft, of which 74 were Lancasters and 17 Mosquitoes. Daring and brave crews, they gave their all for freedom and the love of flying.
Today little exists of this former airfield. Being a quarry and partly MOD, much of the land it is not accessible to the general public. Most of the buildings have long since gone and the runways mostly dug up. A few minor concrete ‘side roads’ are in situ and with searching some evidence can be found. The tower was demolished just after the war as were many of the other buildings and huts. Steps have now been taken to turn whats left into a nature reserve (see post dated 4th July 2015) and a memorial has been placed at the intersection of the runway remains. The best remnants can be seen a little way to the south-east at the former No 1 communal site at Thorpe Camp (see below).
A small number of buildings remain here utilised now as a museum. These include a war-time NAAFI able to accommodate 469 airmen and 71 officers, the ablutions block, ration store and various Nissen huts. A bomb shelter is also here, now flooded and blocked off along with other part brick structures.
In the adjacent woods, the airmen’s quarters and other buildings can be found, now derelict and in a dangerous condition. Odd buildings are scattered about the various sites but these too are few and far between.
Considering the history of Woodhall Spa, the men who flew from here, the operations they undertook, the testing of revolutionary equipment, the new and deadly bombs, it has suffered possibly greater than most and much of this history, if it were not for the Thorpe Camp museum, would now be lost forever. Now it has become a nature reserve in part, then maybe, just maybe, the footsteps of those who were stationed here may once again be walked by others and their memories brought back to life.
Thorpe Camp Museum
Thorpe camp museum*1 sits on the original communal site 1 on the former RAF Woodhall Spa and was acquired in 1988 by a group of volunteers (The Thorpe Camp Preservation Group) who have utilised the original buildings and pathways that would have been used by RAF personnel during their stay at Woodhall Spa. Entrance is a nominal fee and worth every penny.
A number of original huts and buildings display a range of letters, photos, memorabilia and other artefacts that take you through aspects of life both at Woodhall Spa and Lincolnshire life during the Second World War. Specific displays tell you about each of the four squadrons based here (97, 617, 619 (Dambusters) and 627) , the crew members, aircraft and personal stories. A memorial stands at the centre of the site reflecting their dedication.
Extensive work has been done to research the famous dams raid of 617 Squadron, how the bouncing bomb was developed, how it worked and what the aftermath of the operation was.
A small shop provides food and drink, and is a welcome break after a long journey.
A civilian section shows life ‘at home’. Weddings of the Second World War were scant affairs due to lack of money and rationing, but brides made the most of what they had; examples of these are nicely displayed. The home guard, ARPs, and domestic life are all represented in this atmospheric museum.
Many young men were sent from within the borders of Lincolnshire on major operations such as ‘Market Garden’, these too are represented through displays of uniforms, photos, letters and official documents.
Further buildings, also originals, house well stocked displays of the V1 and V2 development. The terror weapons used by Hitler to break the morale of the British people. Over 3000 of these V2s were used against targets in the UK predominately London and the South East. Models, photographs and documents again show the extent of this development.
Something I had never come across before was the idea of using arrester gear on heavy bombers where runways may have been shorter than ideal. The principle, based upon that used by the navy on their aircraft carriers, was to place one or more steel cables across the runway for a landing bomber to ‘catch’ as it landed. A small number of airfields in the UK has these, Woodhall Spa being one of them, and an original winch has been removed from the airfield and carefully refurbished. This now has pride of place in the museum. It is believed a further example remains on the airfield alongside the remains of the runway. A rather ingenious but ineffective idea, it was not widely used due to mislandings and the increased weight that the arrested gear added to an already heavy aircraft.
Thorpe Camp provides a chance to see inside a Lancaster cockpit. A replica, painstakingly built includes all the detail of an original Lancaster bomber. Other parts, including turrets, dials and engines can also be found in this dedicated exhibition room.
Staff at Woodhall Spa are carrying out renovation projects and have their own workshop to do this. The process can be viewed and makes for an added interest to the visit.
As an aviation enthusiast the trip is topped off with another feature in the form of a BAC Lightning F1A (XM192) in 111 Squadron markings standing proud beside another cold war relic the Bristol Bloodhound missile.
Using a range of original documents, photographs, letters and memorabilia, Thorpe Camp at Woodhall Spa is a delight to wander and a real insight not only into the life of this Second World War airfield but life during those hard times in general.
On leaving here, driving toward Woodhall Spa village, you used to pass a two-seat hunter on the right*2. Bought by a farmer for a restoration project, it seemed to have been left and was deteriorating in the open. Many parts were missing and / or damaged. Research has shown that it is in fact made up of two Hunters joined together and not an original.
As you enter the village of Woodhall Spa, you are greeted by the ‘best towns’ award. A beautiful little village with a crossroad at the heart. Adjacent to this is a small car park and the famous Dambuster’s memorial, depicting a breached dam.
The names of the crew adorn the side, reminding us of those brave men who sacrificed themselves for this controversial raid. Whatever you think, it is a moving piece and you cannot but stand in silence contemplating it’s significance. A further memorial has since been added in this small park, specifically for 617 Sqn, including references to post WWII operations.
This For those requiring a small break, there is a cake shop in the village “Janet’s” which sells a good cup of tea and refreshments. “Janet’s” is full of RAF memorabilia, every inch of the wall is covered – a fascinating place to sit. Further up the road away from the memorial, you pass a long leafy road with a sports centre on your left. On your right after the woods, is the sign for Petwood Hotel. A formidable building, used by Guy Gibson and his crews as a mess hall whilst based at the nearby airfield. In the Squadron bar, are pictures and memorabilia of those times, which you can look at whist having your afternoon tea. One notable artefact above the bar is the large branch of a tree that was struck by a low flying Lancaster, punching its way through the Plexiglass bomb aimer’s window. The hotel allows you to wander at will through the old bars taking in the amazing history of the place.
On leaving Woodhall Spa, turn east toward the old airfield of RAF East Kirkby, or west to the former RAF Metheringham. Today we go east first of all and to the former RAF Easy Kirkby before turning back on ourselves and RAF Metheringham.
RAF East Kirkby
As the Lincolnshire countryside unfolds before you, and you can just imagine (in-between the sounds of jet engine) the Merlins, rumbling above you. Here is a relatively little known airfield, where a real story has unfolded. A taxiable Lancaster ‘Just Jane’sits proudly in its hangar, next to a Dakota. Purchased by two brothers, ‘Just Jane’ regularly taxis carrying fare paying passengers around the airfield. The long-term project is to return her to flight giving two airworthy Lancasters in this country – what a sight to be hold. Around the aircraft are the stark reminders of the darker side of aviation. Bits taken from crashed aircraft along with photos, personal artefacts recovered from the sites, and a range of military vehicles all add to the historical content of the trip.
The museum*3 is very well laid out. A good, clear guide tells you about the history of the site, the individual buildings (which are superbly renovated) and all the displays which are housed in huts. It even points out the bullet hole in the flag pole from the marauding German night fighter. Many of the displays were new to me and a very pleasant surprise to see, considering the nature of the trip. The watch tower, one of the best preserved in this country, has mannequins, sounds and artefacts set out as it would have been when waiting for ‘the boys’ to return from one of their war-time sorties.
After sampling refreshments in the lovely little café, head back home, leaving bomber country behind and some fantastic memories of a great day out.
On leaving East Kirkby head back on yourself to Woodhall Spa and continue on. The road take you to another of Bomber Command’s airfields, an airfield that lasted until the war’s end featuring only one major flying unit, 106 Squadron. Today, we visit the former base RAF Metheringham.
Located on the edge of the Lincolnshire Fens 3 miles east of the Lincoln Cliff escarpment, and near to the village from which it takes its name, Metheringham was opened in 1943 as a class ‘A’ bomber airfield under the control of No. 54 Base, 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command. It would fall under the control of the main base at RAF Coningsby, operating in conjunction with RAF Woodhall Spa, in a three station network implemented to streamline the Bomber Command structure.
Like many airfields of the time, it had the usual three concrete runways; a main runway running slightly off north-south at 2,000 yds, and two additional runways of 1,400 yds each running north-east to south-west and north-west to south-east. The technical area was located to the west of the airfield, with the huge bomb store to the north. Metheringham had two T2 hangars and one B1, along with numerous spectacle hardstands around the perimeter track.
The accommodation areas, mainly Nissen hutting, were spread to the south and west of the airfield, separated from the main airfield by the public highway, a feature common with many late wartime airfields. The entire site covered 650 acres, previously utilised as forest or rich farmland,
Built from requisitioned land over the winter of 1942/43, construction was not complete until after the advanced party arrived in early November 1942. Described by some as ‘cold’, ‘bleak’ and ‘inhospitable’, it was not unlike the many other unfinished wartime airfields scattered across Britain at the time. Muddy and with little in the way of creature comforts, it was soon to be home for bomber crews of the Royal Air Force, who would reside here for the remainder of the war.
With the advanced party hurriedly connecting mains water and power, the first and primary unit to serve from the airfield, 106 Squadron, began arriving hoping for something more than cold huts and muddy pathways.
A First World War Squadron who had been disbanded in 1919 and reformed in 1938 as war loomed, 106 Squadron had initially operated single engined and twin-engined light trainers before transferring to No. 5 Group and bombers. It first real foray into the bomber war was with the under-powered Manchester before switching to the far superior big sister, the Lancaster, in May 1942. This change over occurred at their previous station RAF Syerston, and within a week of their November 11th arrival here at Metheringham, they were flying their first Metheringham mission, and it would be right into the German Heartland.
Following on from the usual familiarisation flights, thirteen Lancasters of 106 Sqn would take to the air on the night of November 18th/19th for a bombing raid on the German capital. Mid November signified the start of a period known as the ‘Battle of Berlin’, a period in the Second World War where Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, would finally get the chance to put into practice the idea that massed bombing of the capital would bring about the demise of the morale of the population by sustained attacks from Bomber Command. After witnessing first hand the Blitz of Britain’s cities, Harris was determined that such a campaign could succeed. However, ignoring the fact that the German’s own example had failed in reducing the British morale, he pressed on, sending wave after wave of bombers deep into Germany and Berlin itself.
So it began on that November night. With each 106 Sqn Lancaster carrying a 4,000lb bomb along with a mix of smaller bombs, they set off for Berlin. With moderate flak over the target, and no night-fighters encountered, resultant damage was light especially compared to some missions that would be flown by the Command.
The raid itself was not considered a great success, and whilst no major injuries were sustained on the mission, Sgt. R. Smith, the Mid upper gunner of Lancaster JB642, suffered severe frost bite after passing out due to a faulty Oxygen system in the aircraft. After landing at the fighter airfield at RAF Tangmere, Sgt Smith was treated for his injuries.
With one other aircraft landing away from base, the remainder of 106 Sqn all made it back to Metheringham with relatively minor damage. A remarkable escape considering the nature of the target.
A return to Berlin saw 106 Sqn back in the air on the 22nd/23rd and then again on the following night 23rd/24th November. The continuing spell of good luck saw all crews return safely again with only light to moderate damage to their aircraft. However, the night of 26th/27th would see 106’s luck finally run out and the first Metheringham loss.
Lancasters JB592 piloted By F/O. J. Hoboken DFC (his third flight to the capital that week) and ED873 piloted by F/O. R. Neil, were both lost that night. JB592, was brought down not far from Gross-Karben, in Hesse Germany with the loss of all the crew on board. ED873 suffered early engine problems with the starboard outer engine surging not long after take off. Once passed the coast, the 4,000 lb bomb was safely jettisoned and sent to the waters below where it was seen to explode by the crew. The aircraft then turned to land, overshot the runway and crashed into a field opposite the airfield. The crew were uninjured apart from the rear gunner (Sgt. Parker) who received minor injuries in the crash. This injury would however, prove to be a godsend, playing a vital role in his survival later on. This third night of bombing saw a force of 443 Lancasters take a heavy toll, with 28 being lost in action over the continent and another 14 over England. A loss rate of over 6%.
It was F/O. Neil’s crew who, after their lucky escape, would fall as the next victims of Berlin’s defence. With the original rear gunner still out of action due to the broken arm received in the last crash, he was replaced by Sgt. G. Stubbs, who made his last and fatal flight in ED874 on the night of December 2nd/3rd. The aircraft was brought down with the loss of all those on board, including the replacement Sgt. Stubbs. Berlin was fast becoming a rather large and sharp thorn in the side of Metheringham crews who by now, longed for a change in the target.
With one more Lancaster lost that year (Lancaster MK.III ‘JB638’, ZN-G) again with all on board, the cold 1943 winter drew to a close with many empty bunks in the Metheringham huts. It would be a long and bitter winter though, a winter that would last for several months over the 1943/44 period and all as the Battle for Berlin continued to rage on.
The New Year 1944 should have brought new hope for the Metheringham crews, but sadly things were to be worse – much worse. In fact, it would go on to prove to be the worst year in 106 Sqn’s history with their highest losses experienced to date.
The year began with fine but cold weather recorded as fifteen crews reported for duty on New Years Day. With bated breath they waited for the curtain to be pulled back to see where the bomb run marker would now take them. A thin line that denoted high chances of survival or low. But once again, and to the dismay of crews, the flight line marked its way across the continent to Berlin, it would be yet another night over the capital. With a take off time of 23:59, crews were briefed, checks carried out and engines started. Over the target 10/10 cloud were reported, so bombing was carried out on Pathfinder markers, with many of the Metheringham aircraft verifying their position with H2S.
Although fifteen aircraft took off, only thirteen made it to Berlin, Lancasters JB642 ‘ZN-J’ and JB645 ‘ZN-F’, both MK.IIIs, were shot down with the loss of thirteen airmen. The youngest of these, Sergeant John Alfred Withington (s/n: 1628244) was only 18 years of age and one of the youngest causalities of Bomber Command. The only survivor, F/S. A. Elsworthy, was captured and taken to a POW camp, Stalag Luft III in the German province of Lower Silesia not far from the town of Sagan.
With yet more flights to Berlin, briefings were becoming rather repetitive, and January ended the way it began with the loss of another seven air crew led by RAAF pilot P/O. K Kirland. Over the whole month, 106 Squadron had flown 123 sorties over nine nights, a total of 769 flying hours, dropping 497 tons of bombs, the second highest total in the whole of No. 5 Group.
During the 1940s, fog was a particular problem around Britain’s airfields, often reducing visibility down to virtually nil, meaning bombers could neither take off nor land. Arthur Harris realising the effect this was having on his bomber operations, requested investigations be carried out into a possible method for clearing the fog thus allowing bombers to operate in this appalling conditions and widening the possibilities of operations in bad weather.
Churchill, influenced by Harris’s argument, instructed his Scientific Adviser Lord Cherwell to begin action at once, and so the Petroleum Warfare Department began to assemble a team of experts – who had already carried out some investigations into the weather and methods for dealing with fog – into a team to investigate the problem. A wide ranging group of scientists and industrialists carried out research concluding that heat was by far the best method for clearing fog over the low lying landscape.
The requirement put forward was to clear a standard Class A runway of at least 1,000 yards long and 50 yards wide, and an area up to 100 feet above the ground – a staggering 1.65m cubic yards of air. Further limitations were then put on the order restricting the placement of any obstacles likely to endanger an aircraft within 50 feet of the runway’s edge. A mammoth task but one which saw the development of the oil burning FIDO system.
The FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) system was developed under the leadership a British Civil Engineer Arthur Clifford Hartley, CBE who worked with the Petroleum Warfare Department, and whose initial ideas involved using one of two streams of fuel; petroleum trialled at RAF Graveley, and Coke trialled at RAF Lakenheath. After initial (and rather crude) tests at both Moody Down (petroleum) and Staines (coke), petroleum was found to be the better of the two fuels, and henceforth, the Gravely model was used as a template for fourteen further sites of which Metheringham was one.
Installed at Metheringham during early 1944, it saw pipes laid alongside the runway which when lit, created an initial mass of smoke. Once the system had ‘warmed up’ the smoke dissipated and the fog began to ‘burn off’ as the immense heat from the burners created an up draft of warm air.
By the war’s end FIDO had been used across England to assist in the landing of almost 2,500 aircraft most of which would otherwise have not been able to land without great danger to the crews or ground staff; it had been one of the war’s greatest success stories and was sold as such to the wider public. So successful in its outcomes, FIDO was intended to be installed at London’s major airport Heathrow, after the war, but the cost of running each system was astronomical, burning some 6,000 – 7,000 gallons of fuel in four minutes – the time it took to clear the designated volume of air. It is estimated that during its wartime use, something like 30 million gallons of fuel were burnt and whilst the cost to the taxpayer was tremendous, it is thought to have saved the lives of over 10,000 airmen in the process.*1
Back in the air, the night of March 15th/16th saw split missions with one section going to Stuttgart and and a further six aircraft heading to the aero-engine factory at Woippy in France. These six made up a total formation of twenty-two Lancasters, a flight that included 617 Sqn aircraft. With promises of good weather over the Metz region, it came as a huge disappointment to find 10/10 cloud cover over the entire target. Even with the target being identified on the H2S screen and five marker flares being dropped, the leader announced the mission scrubbed and all aircraft were instructed to return to base taking their full complement of bombs with them. So strong were the crew feelings that 617 Sqn’s leader, Leonard Cheshire, seriously considered complaining! However, despite this, all aircraft returned including those of 106 Sqn to Metheringham with only minor flak damage to ND331.
With the next few missions passing without major incident, the night of March 30th, would deal a hefty blow to the crews of 106 Sqn.
With take off starting at 22:15, seventeen Lancasters would depart Metheringham heading for Nurumberg carrying a range of 4,000lb, 1,000lb, 500lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, skymarkers guided the bomb-aimers as cloud was reported as heavy as 10/10 again. Searchlights and flak were evident as were fighters which attacked and damaged Lancaster ND332 piloted by F/O. Penman. The Lancaster, which claimed two enemy aircraft damaged, returned to England putting down on Manston’s emergency runway. Both the rear and mid upper turrets were out of action, one of the engines caught fire, and on landing, the undercarriage collapsed due to the enemy action. luckily though, no crewmen were injured in the sustained attack that caused the Lancaster’s severe damage.
A further Lancaster had to return early, Lancaster JB567 after suffering the failure of the port inner engine landing back at Metheringham after two and half hours into the flight. Similarly it was an engine failure that also caused the early return of JB641 this time landing three hours after departure. Three of the seventeen Lancasters were already out of action.
Meanwhile on the continent, Lancaster ND585, was reported missing, later being found to have been shot down by a German night fighter, crashing in Belgium with the loss of all its crew. On board was, at 18 years old, another of Bomber Command’s youngest ever crewmen, Sgt. Julian Mackilligin RAFVR (S/N: 1804016), who even at his young age, was already half way through his operational quota. He was buried at the Hotton War Cemetery, Luxenbourg.
Next came another two losses, Lancasters JB566 piloted by F/S. T. Hall DFM and ND535 piloted by F/O. J Starkey. Both went down with the loss of all but four crewmen. The mission had indeed been costly, forty-two airmen were out of action, seventeen of them killed.*3
By the end of the first quarter of 1944, 106 Sqn had carried out more sorties than any other 5 Group squadron (358) losing 8 aircraft in the process. This gave the men of Metheringham an average of 19 sorties per aircraft in the first 90 days.
April began with a mix of bombing and ‘Gardening‘ missions, operations that included laying mines along the Koningberger Seekanel, with mines being dropped from as low as 150 ft. Even though some aircraft reported heavy ground fire from the banks of the Canal, the mission was deemed to be a great success and all aircraft returned safely.
The month continued to go well for the Metheringham crews, but the night of April 22nd / 23rd would take another toll on the morale of the crews. That night saw twenty Lancasters fly to Brunswick as part of a much larger force of 238 Lancasters and seventeen Mosquitoes. The mission, whilst generally uneventful, marked the first operation in low level target marking by No. 5 Group over a large city, an aid that proved fruitless on this occasion partly due to low cloud/haze obscuring the bomb aimer’s clear sight. With varying reports of cloud from 5/10 to no cloud and haze, all bombers reported bombing on markers, but damage and ground causalities were recorded as low.
RAF loses that night were also relatively low, with only four aircraft being lost from the whole flight. Sadly though, one of these, Lancaster MK.III ‘JB567’ ZN-E piloted by F/Lt. J. Lee was a Metheringham aircraft. F/Lt Lee had only one more mission to go before completing his first tour of duty. Only two of his crew survived, being picked up by German forces and sent to POW camps. This loss only went to strengthen the idea that it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a full tour of duty unscathed.
The next night 24th/25th April, 1944, took 106 Sqn back to Germany once more, to Munich and another ‘clear night’ with accurate bombing reported. But, then it was Schweinfurt a city that would become synonymous with high casualties especially amongst colleagues in the US Air Force.
Metheringham would send sixteen aircraft that night with take off commencing at 21.25 from the Lincolnshire airfield with another mix of 4,000lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, marking would again be low level by Mosquitoes but this time it was inaccurate. Strong winds hampered the bombers, with many of the bombs falling away from the main target. Crews reported large fires across the city accompanied by ‘large explosions’. Sadly these were not to be the target and as a result the mission was not deemed a success.
Of the 206 Lancasters sent out that night (26th/27th) twenty-one were lost to heavy and sustained night fighter attacks, a figure of 10% of the force, a terrible blow for Harris and his Command. From Metheringham, five aircraft failed to return, with a further one returning on three engines. Methringham’s loss that night was some 31%, a third of its force gone in one mission. It was a difficult mission for 106 Sqn, with thirty-six airmen lost, (JB601 was carrying a second pilot). Ten of these were taken alive as POWs, four managed to evade capture, whilst the rest were killed. The deaths of the remaining twenty-two must have had another huge impact in the Metheringham dining room that morning.
During this mission the remarkable actions by the crew of Lancaster ME669, and in particular Flight Engineer Sergeant Norman C. Jackson (later Warrant Officer), would become well known. After being hit several times by a night fighter, a fire started in the inner wing section next to the upper fuel tank. Sgt. Jackson, who had been wounded in the leg and shoulder, donned his parachute and grabbed a fire extinguisher before climbing out on to the wing through an escape hatch in the fuselage roof. Upon leaving, his parachute was deployed into the cockpit area, where his colleagues gathered it up and gradually fed the lines through the hole allowing Jackson to gain access to the fire in the wing. Undertaking such an act on a burning aircraft and at altitude, was no easy task and getting back, had he been successful, virtually impossible. The wind knocked the extinguisher out of his grip which prevented Jackson from succeeding in achieving his aim. The fire, now spreading, began to burn both his parachute, hands and face and fearing for his safety, his colleagues let go, releasing him from the stricken bomber. Sgt. Jackson fell to Earth, his parachute partially burned, opened and allowed him to reach the ground alive, but suffering several injuries in the process.
The 21 year old Canadian Captain, F/O. Frederick M. Miffin D.F.C., then ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; himself and 20 year old F/Sgt, Norman H. Johnson (Air Gunner) both failing to survive.
Sgt. Jackson’s brave attempt to save his colleagues and their aircraft earned him the Victoria Cross for his actions, his citation being published in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 23rd October 1945.*2
The Schweinfurt raid had been a major blow to the Metheringham crews, but it had also shown their courage and determination to win, regardless of the dangers to their own safety.
Another heavy blow on the night of 7th/8th May took another four aircraft along with all but one of the crew, Sgt. J Smith evading capture, in a month that would see a further six aircraft go down with heavy losses.
June 1944 would see another remarkable event take place. Although the entire crew of DV367 were lost on the night of 7th / 8th, they were all awarded the DFM for their action, an usual act in any squadron, and one that nonetheless reflected the bravery of RAF crews at that time.
Following the Allied invasion of Normandy, the US forces would begin to use Metheringham as an evacuation point for wounded American troops from nearby Nocton Hall Military Hospital. Once a suitable recovery had been made, the troops were brought to Metheringham and flown on to Prestwick for onward travel and reparation to the United States.
Rarely a month would go by without the squadron facing some loss. Exactly a month later in July, Metheringham would see yet another dip in their crew numbers as five more aircraft went down on the mission to St.-Leu-D’Esserent – the flying bomb storage dump. A force of 208 Lancasters and thirteen Mosquitoes accurately bombed the mouth and access roads to the tunnels in which the bombs were being stored. Metheringham’s loss was particularly high, almost a third of the sixteen sent out being lost. Whilst many airmen were either captured or evaded capture, another eighteen were lost.
In September 1944, No. 1690 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight arrived ay Metheringham airfield. A unit formed seven months earlier at Syerston after 1485 (Bomber) Gunnery Flight was re-designated, it operated a number of single and twin engined aircraft including the Spitfire, Oxford and Wellington bomber under the code ‘9M’. They were used to train bomber crews in the art of defence against fighters, performing violent moves to throw off their attacker. One famous pilot of this unit who served at Metheringham was the Commanding Officer Sqn. Ldr. John Leslie Munro, CNZM, DSO, QSO, DFC, JP of 617 Sqn fame. The Flight would leave Metheringham in the summer of 1945, being disbanded in October that same year back at Syerston.
It had been a long and difficult war for the crews at RAF Metheringham. As the end of the war drew ever closer, they all knew their last mission would soon be here. On April 25th 1945, that day arrived.
Sixteen Lancasters took off to either bomb Tonsberg in the southern region of Norway, or mine the Oslo fjord. A last ditch effort to force the capitulation of the German leadership and end the conflict that had devastated the world for the last six years.
By the time the cease fire was announced, 106 squadron had flown 5,834 sorties with a loss of 187 aircraft (59 from Metheringham), 3.21% on average per mission. 17,781 tons of bombs and mines were dropped and 267 decorations awarded.
After the war, 106 Sqn was earmarked for ‘Tiger Force’ operations and training was tailored to meet these new requirements: fighter affiliation sorties, high level bombing and air-sea firing exercises. Also during May, operation ‘Exodus‘ was put into place and a number of 106 Sqn aircraft flew to the Continent to bring back POWs, many landing at Dunsfold on their return. On the 9th May, whilst evacuating POWs from Rheine airfield, one aircraft from 106 Sqn struck a bomb crater causing damage to the aircraft, the crew and their valuable cargo of POWs thankfully escaped unhurt. The aircraft was then repaired with parts being ferried over from Metheringham the next day. Between May 4th and May 11th, Metheringham crews repatriated 1,484 prisoners of war bringing them home from captivity.
During June aircraft were exchanged with those from 8 Group at RAF Oakington, RAF Warboys and RAF Graveley, allowing Operation ‘Firebrand‘ to be completed by the 19th. Other operations included ‘Rebecca‘, ‘Dodge‘, ‘Nickel‘ and ‘SPASM‘.
On June 15th, another Lancaster squadron, No. 467 (RAAF), joined 106 here at Metheringham. In the days preceding their arrival, they spent many hours dropping ordnance into the sea, a comment in the ORB stated “it seemed like the old days with all serviceable aircraft loaded with incendiaries and it looked like a real operational take off.” It goes on to say a ‘waste but necessary‘ reflecting perhaps the feelings of the men as the squadron wound down for the final few weeks.
The advanced party arrived to make sure the transition went smoothly, with the main party arriving shortly afterwards. Beer was supplied by Metheringham and the crews soon got to know each other well. On July 11th, an athletics competition was run between the two squadrons, involving contests such as ‘tug-o- war’, ‘hop, step and jump’, ‘throwing the cricket ball’ and distance races.
With the announcements of Japan’s capitulation on August 15th, all 106 Sqn ‘Tiger Force’ training flights were cancelled although it continued to be used as the basis of further training operations. B.A.B.S. (Beam Approach Beacon System) training also continued at the airfield.
Shortly after 467’s disbandment on September 30th 1945, October saw yet another Lancaster unit arrived at Metheringham, No. 189 Squadron who brought yet more Lancaster MK.Is and III. to be disposed of and they too were disbanded within a month.
The poor weather that had caused so many problems during the winters of the 1940s leading to Metheringham having FIDO installed, continued on into 1946 curtailing many flights and operations. On 13th February 1946 the final curtain came down and a memo came though to Metheringham to ‘stand down’ from all operational and non-operational flying as of 00:01, 15th February 1946. Sixteen aircraft were to be ferried to RAF Graveley to have Mark III H2S units fitted, although this was cancelled and the aircraft were sent to Waddington (10), Binbrook (1), Lindholme (4) and one further Lancaster going to Waddington. By 22nd February 1946 all aircraft had left Metheringham and the squadron no longer existed, 106 Squadron was once more consigned to the history books and Metheringham airfield would follow not long after. Men, machinery and administrative items were then disposed of in accordance with the relevant Bomber command instructions. By April, everyone had left, the site was stripped and placed in care and maintenance, a condition it remained in until December 1950, whereupon it was abandoned before being sold off ten years later.
Like many stations, local people used the accommodation sites for their own accommodation, the runways were eventually pulled up for hardcore, buildings and other metal structures were removed for scrap or sold off to farmers. By the early 1970s Metheringham had all but been wiped off the map. The Watch Office left to decay has since been bought by a local developer, with a mammoth task ahead of him he hopes to turn it into accommodation and a small museum/residential block.
Metheringham’s record of achievement was a proud one, with generally low loss statistics they were to face some of the toughest challenges of the war, losing many crews in the process. Their determination to survive and to win over the Nazi tyranny led to many brave and heroic acts, acts which helped secure the release of hundreds of captured airmen.
Metheringham’s gallant and brave young men, are all remembered in a small, but excellent museum that now utilises part of one of the accommodation areas. A memorial to the aircrew stands on the eastern perimeter track as a reminder of the 995 Airmen who were lost whilst serving with 106 Sqn.
Much of Metheringham’s runway and perimeter track still exists today, in most part as a public road. The width of the concrete bases far exceeding the width of the road. A memorial stands to the eastern side overlooking the main airfield site (Site 1) with lines of tress denoting the remainder of runways long gone. The main B1189 road dissects the accommodation areas with Site 1, as was common with late wartime airfields. The museum lies off the junction of this road and the main Woodhall Spa road B1191 along the entrance to Westmoor Farm. If taking the B1189 toward the Metheringham village, you will pass a number of former wartime buildings used as small industrial units and farm storage. These are on private land although the museum do organise visits to some of these at certain times of the year. After passing these, turn right, this road was one of the secondary runways and crosses the remains of the main runway part way down. It then bends to the right taking you along the perimeter track, and then right again to the memorial – a circular route that traverses what was the peri track. Several of the hardstands still survive, mainly on farm property and difficult to see from the ground, but the number of buildings still standing is quite remarkable for such a short lived airfield.
Notes and further reading.
*1 The Thorpe Camp museum have a website. The museum was visited in July 2015 and this page has been updated since.
*2 The hunter has since been sold/disposed of, and is no longer in the field (see comments below)
*3 The East Kirkby Museum have a website which can be found here.
*4 Author unknown, photo from http://www.aircrewremembered.com/hughes-mervyn.html, August 2015
*5 617 Squadron are most famous for the raid on the Ruhr dams in Operation Chastise ‘Operation Chastise’ carried out on 17 May 1943 under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.
Sources and further reading (RAF Metheringham)
*1 Fleming, J., “The Callendar Effect: The Life and Work of Guy Stewart Callendar (1898-1964)“, 2007, The American Meteorological Society
*2 The London Gazette, 23rd October 1945.
*3 Operational Record Book March 1944 – IWM AIR-27-834-6
Operational Record Book January 1944 – IWM AIR 27/834/1
Operational Record Book November 1943 – IWM AIR 27/833/22
Operational Record Book April 1944 – IWM AIR 27/834/8
Operational Record Book – Squadron Number: 106 Summary of Events: Y – IWM AIR 27/835/9, (01 May 1945 – 28 February 1946)
467 RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Summary of Events: Y 01 May 1945 – 30 September 1945 – IWM AIR 27/1931/33
Middlebrook. M., Everitt. C., “The Bomber Command War Diaries.” 1996, Midland Publishing.
Records of a 1690 BDTF pilot can be read on the Website ‘A Pilot’s Story‘.
Metheringham Airfield Museum webiste holds details of opening times, admission fees and special events. An excellent little museum it is well worth a visit.