Trail 11 – Around Ely, Cambridgeshire

Known as the ‘Ship of the Desert’ Ely Cathedral can be seen for many miles away, and from the air, considerably further. It must have been a welcome sight to many returning bomber crews during those dark days of World War 2.

In the shadows of Ely Cathedral lie three RAF bomber stations, Mepal, Witchford and Waterbeach. Our journey today starts off at RAF Mepal, home to the New Zealand Squadron and later on Britain’s nuclear deterrent the Thor Missile.

RAF Mepal.

RAF Mepal - village sign

The Mepal Village Sign.

Mepal was built to Class A specification, as a satellite for Waterbeach further to the North. The A142 ran across the middle of the site, it was closed off for construction and traffic diverted away through the nearby village. It originally had three concrete runways; one of 2,000 yards, and two of 1,400 yards. In addition, some thirty-six hard standings were built along with a T2 and  B1 hangar. The bomb store lay to the north-west, with a range of dispersed sites to the east near Witcham. It was designed to accommodate 1,884 males and 346 females.

Mepal housed only one unit in it’s wartime life, the 75 sqn (New Zealand) with Stirling bombers and latterly Lancasters. They remained there for two years, after which training squadrons arrived in preparation for the war in the Far East. Following cessation of hostilities, Mepal closed to active units and was held in care until its closure.

On September 8th 1943, a tragedy hit Mepal when one of its Stirlings ‘BK809’ took off on a night mission to attack the gun battery at Boulogne. Piloted by F/O I.R.Menzies of the RNZAF, it badly swung ending up hitting houses bordering the airfield. The resultant crash left several dead and others severely wounded. It was a terrible blow for Mepal.

It was on Wednesday 1st December 1943, that a 75 Squadron Stirling MK.III (EH880)  piloted by F/S. J. S. Kerr (s/n 1558163) would be diverted and instructed to land at RAF Acklington in Northumbria. On the final approach it undershot striking a family home in Togston near Amble. Inside the house, Cliff House Farmhouse, was the Robson family. The five children, ranging in ages from 19 months to 9 years of age, were all killed, whilst the parents who were playing cards downstairs, escaped with varying injuries. All but one of the Stirling’s crew were killed, the mid upper gunner Sgt K Hook, was pulled from the burning wreckage his burning clothes being extinguished by the local butcher, Jim Rowell.

RAF Mepal - memorial

Memorial stone to 75 (NZ) Sqn.

In 1957 with the increased threat from the Warsaw Pact, Mepal was chosen to house Britain’s missile deterrent the Thor, and three ‘stations’ were built. By the early 1960s, these were no longer needed, being replaced by more up-to-date weapons, and the site was closed. The main road was reopened to by-pass the villages it had once protected and the site returned to other uses. The site is best visited in three parts. Firstly, the memorial in the village of Mepal.

RAF Mepal - site of eastern peri track

Mepal site of Eastern perimeter track.

The village has two memorials. The first is attached to the village sign and when entering the village, continue straight on without turning off. The sign is at the far end of the village on your left, opposite the school. A small insignificant memorial, this has been recently replaced by a much larger and more improved garden of remembrance. Leave the village sign and then turn right, the memorial garden is in here, tucked away on a small section of garden. A large circular stone, with benches and rose bushes, lay close by to a memorial wall. Here plaques have been placed by family members in memory of those brave New Zealand men who gave their lives in the name of freedom.

Leave the village turning left. Drive along the main road and the airfield is on your left. Here you actually cross the runways and perimeter track. Today the site is largely unrecognisable even though when you pass it, there are long stretches of concrete that you automatically consider to be airfield architecture. Theses stretches of concrete were in fact built later and do not represent the original layout. Enter the site and drive straight up; you arrive at what would have been the threshold point of one of the 3 runways. A power station now stands here. Turn right and stop, you are now looking down what was the eastern perimeter track, now an industrial site. To your left is where one of the two hangars would have stood.  If you look right, you are looking at what was the airfield and the views from the hangar. Behind these units there is a small building best viewed from the main road when you leave.

RAF Mepal - Location Of LE 10 Thor site

Location of LE10 Thor Missile Site.

The site was prepared for heavy industrial use with a number of small roads built-in readiness for larger industrial units. These have never materialised and so there is still a little of the atmosphere that open airfields offer. The bleak unbroken expanses show why this area of the country was so well designed for bomber activity.

Go back to the entrance and cross over the roundabout. This takes you to an agricultural auction site, again large expanses of concrete suggest airfield architecture. Much of this too is a later addition, and was built where the centres of two of runways would have crossed. Turn right again, go back up and you arrive back near the power station. This gives access to where one of the three Thor missile sites (LE10) would have stood. A little of the hard standing remains, but for the larger part, it was all dug up when the power station was built. The remaining two sites and the majority of the airfield would be to your right, and is now a neatly ploughed field. Small sections of concrete do exist in the long overgrown brambles that have taken over, but little else. Better evidence is actually found at the back of the village across the road and the second part of the tour.

RAF Mepal peri track south of the Airfield

Mepal peri track south of the Airfield.

Finding your way to the remaining parts in the second section of the visit, is a matter of trial and error. Small lanes that end abruptly are the norm but drive into the village go along and take aright at the garage and you will come to a pile of old tarmac chippings. Stop here. To your left is the perimeter track still evident and in quite good condition. Follow it with your eye and you can make out the runway that traverses south – north. This is now a famer’s track, but it gives a sense of the size and location of the structure. Behind you in amongst the shrubbery, is another part of the perimeter track leading round past the houses. It was along here that a MK II Lancaster from 115 Sqn RAF Witchford crashed following an attack by Luftwaffe night fighters. These Lancasters were powered by Bristol Hercules engines unlike the more common Merlins.

RAF Mepal memorial

The Mepal Memorial Located in the South Eastern Corner at the Entrance to the Airfield.

Leave the village and return to the main road and the roundabout. Cross back over to the site and pull over. On the exit side is a further memorial showing the location of the runways, perimeter track etc; a recent dedication to the crews that flew from here.

There is little evidence left of this once busy base that thundered under the roar of engines and heavy bombers on their way to Nazi Germany. What is left is rapidly disappearing. Very soon, the remaining site will be gone and Mepal will all but have disappeared into the history books. A sad ending to such an important part of history.

At the roundabout turn left and head toward Ely and our next location, RAF Witchford.

RAF Witchford

Witchford is found a few miles East of Mepal in the shadows of Ely Cathedral. Now an industrial estate, a large amount of the site is still in existence (and being used) and freely accessible to the general public. This makes it one of the rarer airfields around in terms of visiting.

RAF Witchford Peri track looking south

RAF Witchford Perimeter Track Looking South, the B1 Hangar is to your right.

A typical triangular Class A airfield, it had two runways of 1,408 and 1,415 yards and a further main runway of 2,010 yards, all concrete and 50 yards in width. The technical site was located on the western side of the airfield behind the long and straight perimeter track. A number of Nissen workshop huts were constructed along with the standard 343/43 Watch Office, Braithwaite water tower and 150 or so supporting buildings. As with all bomber airfields, the bomb store was well away from accommodation and was located to the southern side. Being a large airfield, it had three hangars, two T2 and one B1, and a total of 36 loop-type dispersed hardstands.

The accommodation sites (14 in total), were spread out well behind the technical site predominately where the village now stands and beyond. The main entrance to the airfield, also to the west, is now a small track leading to housing known as Bedwell Hey Lane. In total Witchford was designed to accommodate 1,502 men and 230 female ranks and it officially became operational in July / August 1943.

RAF Witchford

Original Nissen Hut now used for stores.

Witchford was served initially by Stirling IIIs of the newly formed 196 sqn RAF, whose first operational flight took place on August 28th that year. But as heavy operational losses built up, it soon became obvious that the large bomber was ‘unsuitable’ for long distance bombing missions and gradually, squadron by squadron, they were replaced by the more superior Lancaster to which the business park gets it’s modern name.  As these Stirlings became obsolete for front line use many were redeployed covering glider towing, mine laying and transport duties.

During September to November 1943 a number of changes were to happen at Witchford. A second squadron, 195 sqn RAF, was reformed at Witchford (October 1st 1943) using elements of 115 sqn, who were at that time, based at Little Snoring (Trail 22) in Norfolk.

RAF Witchford

Inside the Nissen Hut.

A further unit, 513 Squadron, also formed at Witchford (15th September) again using the ill-fated Stirlings. However, 513 Sqn never became operational, and were disbanded only two months later.

On the night of 26th November 1943, 12 aircraft of 115 Squadron left RAF Little Snoring in Norfolk, to attack the German capital, Berlin. On return, they were to land at their new station RAF Witchford where the ground staff had moved to that very day. Only one aircraft did not make it back that night and this meant that 115 sqn (who in August 1941 had taken part in trials of GEE) were now totally based at Witchford. 115 were still using the Armstrong Whitworth (Bagington) built Lancaster IIs with their Bristol Hercules engines. (My father, the inspiration to my love of aircraft, worked for Armstrong Whitworth at the Bagington site not long after being demobbed). It was with these aircraft that the Squadron dropped the first 8000 lb bomb on Berlin during Air Chief Marshal Harris’s bombing campaign against the German capital.

In March 1944, 115 sqn began replacing its Mk IIs with the Merlin engined Mk I and IIIs, aircraft it flew until hostilities ceased in 1945.

RAF Witchford

Currently a stable, the original building will become a Gymnasium.

Enemy intruder missions over Allied Airfields were common place, and Witchford and her neighbour Mepal, were no exception. On the night of April 18th and 19th 1944 an ME 410 joined the circuit over nearby Mepal (see above) and shot down two Lancasters both from 115 sqn. A further intruder mission also occurred on the night of April 20th / 21st but luckily there were no fatalities and little damaged was caused in this attack.

When 115 sqn’s war finally came to an end, it had one of the finest records in Bomber Command. A total of 678 operations in all, second only to 75(NZ) Sqn at Mepal. But the price was high, 208 aircraft being shot down or lost in action. Witchford as an airfield closed in March 1946 with the withdrawal of all operational units at the end of hostilities.

Today the site is a small business park, located on the western side of the airfield with a wide range of businesses working where the main Technical site of the field once stood. On entering the park, you drive down a long straight road, this is the original perimeter track. On your right is where the main hangars and maintenance area would have been located. The original B1 still stands today, but it is heavily transformed with new cladding and metal work. If you drive the length of this road you come to a security gate. Just to your right are a number of small huts. These are the original stores and in remarkable condition. Used by local businesses they house machinery and other equipment, but their features and layout clearly represent airfield architecture. Tucked away in here, in the foyer of one of the businesses, is a small collection of memorable dedicated to the crews and personnel of RAF Witchford and nearby Mepal. It has an array of photographs, personal items and one of the Bristol Hercules engines from the downed 115 sqn Lancaster II. A free museum, it has a bizarre feeling to it as workers casually walk through between offices while you peruse the items neatly displayed on the walls. Do spend some time here; it is a fascinating insight into life on the base.

RAF Witchford memorial looking south

RAF Witchford Memorial Looking South.

After leaving here, return back up the road taking the first right turn. On your right is the location of the control tower – now long gone. This brings you onto the remains of the main runway. If you drive to the top and turn back, you will see that it has been cut by a hedge that now separates the runway with the field. To the left of the hedge, you can still see the concrete remains of the original track. Continue to the top and turn the corner, then turn right.

RAF Witchford 115 sqn diary records

RAF Witchford ‘Diary’.

This is the threshold of the runway and joining perimeter and is marked by a superb memorial dedicated to the crews of the airfield. Also on here, is the remarkable ‘factual diary’ of the squadron and makes for very interesting reading. Look back south from here you have views across the airfield, along the perimeter track and down the runway; you just can sense the roar of lumbering bombers on their way to occupied Europe.

If you now leave the site, and turn left out of the park, follow the road down and turn left. Drive along as far as you can and stop at the gate. This is Bedwell Hey Lane and the original main entrance to the airfield. Vehicle access is only by permission, but a ‘kissing gate’ allows walkers free access and walks across the field. Go through. On your right are the entrances to various works stations, denoted by covered brickworks, further along to your left is the site of the original guard-house. keep going, and on your left you will see the Nissen huts mentioned previously. You finally arrive at the rear of the security gate you were at earlier. There are several occurrences of a worker having stood in the wet concrete, these footprints can be found at numerous points around the site, especially here. Turn right and walk through another farm gate and you are on the remainder of the perimeter track. From here you can walk around a large portion of the perimeter track, having great views across the field. In a short distance you join where the threshold of the second runway would have been, it too is now all but gone.

RAF Witchford holding point W-E runway

RAF Witchford Holding point and Runway Threshold to the Right.

Continue walking round the perimeter track, after a while, you see it narrows, the sides becoming overgrown with weeds, If you look in the adjacent fields, you will find a large quantity of former airfield drainage piping, scattered amongst pieces of building left after demolition. Eventually you arrive at a split in the track. Access straight on is not permitted, but you can take the right fork and in front you will see the low-lying remains of the armoury. Walking down this section will eventually bring you onto the main Ely to Cambridge road. If you look straight ahead and to the right from where you are standing, you will see the location of one of the two type T2 hangars.

RAF Witchford Peri track looking east bomb stores to the right

Witchford Perimeter Track Looking East – The Bomb Stores are to the Right, the T2 Hangar in Front.

To your right and behind, is the bomb store, a significant size in its day, covered in huts and stores, bustling with activity; today there is sadly no remaining evidence of this busy section of the airfield.  However, this part of the perimeter track is well-preserved and shows use by the local farmer who now uses a  majority of the site. But looking across back toward the industrial area, you get a real sense of wartime activity, Lancasters and Stirlings rumbling where you now stand, bomb crews readying aircraft and vehicles hurrying from one aircraft to the next. Take in the atmosphere before walking back the way you came. Keep your eye open to the right. Part way along here, you can see along the length of what remains of the second runway along to the point where you stood earlier by the memorial. The original concrete still evident and witness to the many aircraft that flew from here. A poignant moment indeed. Continue back the way you came taking in views across the filed and the stores area.

RAF Witchford SW - NE runway

Remains of RAF Witchford Runway Looking North.

After leaving the site, drive back along the main road away from Ely, you will pass a number of derelict buildings once used by the RAF at Witchford. Indeed one such building is now a small industrial unit, the others overgrown and in a poor state of disrepair. (Photos of both these buildings are available on flckr).

One of the happier stories to emerge from wartime Witchford is that of Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade, who given the choice of staying in his burning Lancaster, to die a terrible death, or jump minus his parachute, to a rather quicker death, opted for the latter. Amazingly for him, jumping from 18,000ft he landed in fir trees and soft snow, surviving with little injury. The Germans, after questioning him, confirmed his story after finding burnt sections of his parachute in the aircraft wreckage. He survived the war and returned to England later marrying his sweetheart. See his story here.

There are few wartime airfields today that exist in any form let alone accessible to the general public. Witchford has a few little gems tucked away in amongst the now busy business park, none more so than the display and memorial. But walking round the perimeter track, you do so knowing that many years ago, Lancasters and Stirlings also rumbled here, and that many a young man left here never to return again.

On July 12th 2015, I was lucky enough to have been invited to join members of the 115 squadron Memorial project who have painstakingly researched the crash site and details of Lancaster ‘KO-Y’ DS 734, that took off from Witchford and crashed near Pasbrug, Mechelen, Belgium on the night of April 24th/25th, 1944.

Together with Sue Aldridge, one of the Museum founders, we met Dave Howell, son of Aubrey Howell DFC who flew Lancasters whilst at RAF Witchford. We were also given a short tour of the buildings by David Brand of Grovemere Holdings, the current land owners of both Witchford and Mepal sites. To them all I would like to say a huge thank you, It was a most memorable day and a great honour to have met you.

Sue and her husband Barry, have written a book ‘Memories of RAF Witchford which includes an enormous number of personal stories, photographs and detail about the life of RAF Witchford and the people who worked here. It is available to buy for anyone wanting to know more.

A third airfield lies a few miles south of here, also part of bomber command it opened in 1940 and remained in use, by both the RAF and latterly  the Army, until 2013.  It is this one we visit in the final part of this Trail. It is also one whose days are numbered, already closed and earmarked for development, the bulldozers are knocking at the door whilst the final plans are agreed and development can begin. But this development may not be the total clearing of the site it often is. With plans to integrate parts of this historical site into the development, it is aimed to create a living and working space that reflects it significant historical value. Today, in the final part of Trail 11, we visit the former station RAF Waterbeach.

RAF Waterbeach.

The land on which Waterbeach airfield stands has a history of its own with royal connections going back as far as the 12th Century. Eventually divided up into farms, one of which, Winfold Farm, stood at the centre, the area would be developed into a long-term military base.

RAF Waterbeach would have a long career, one that extended well into the Cold War and beyond. It would be home to no less than twenty-two operational front line squadrons from both Bomber Command and Fighter Command, along with a further five Conversion Units. With only six of these units (3 front line and 3 Conversion Units) operating during the Second World War, the majority would be post-war squadrons, three being reformed here and eleven being disbanded here. This range of squadrons would bring with them a wide range of aircraft from Dakotas and Wellingtons through the four engined heavies the Stirling, Lancaster and B-24 Liberator, and onto the single and two seat jets, the Meteor, Hunter and Javelin, who would all grace the skies over this once famous airfield.

Originally identified as a possible site in the late 1930s, the land was purchased by the Government with development beginning in 1939. The farm at its centre was demolished and the surrounding fields dug up and prepared for the forthcoming heavy bombers of Bomber Command. As with many airfield developments, there was local opposition to the idea, partly as it occupied valuable Fen farmland with a farm at its centre.

In the early years of the war, it was found that heavy aircraft, bombers in particular, were struggling to use the grassed surfaces originally constructed on pre-war airfields. The rather ridiculous test of taxing a laden Whitley bomber across the site to test the ground’s strength would soon be obsolete, and so after much internal wrangling, hard runways were eventually agreed upon which would be built into all bomber and some fighter stations from that point forward*1.

As an airfield built at the end of the expansion period and into the beginning of the war, Waterbeach would be one of those stations whose runways were hard from the start; a concrete base covered with tarmac to the soon to be standard 2,000 and 1,400 yards in length. By the end of 1945, there would be 35 heavy bomber hardstands of the ‘frying pan’ style and a further three of the spectacle style, all supporting a wide range of aircraft types well into the cold war.

Waterbeach would develop into a major airfield, capable of housing in excess of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender, dispersed as was now common, over seven sites to the south-eastern corner of the airfield. The bomb store was located well away to the north of the airfield, but surprisingly close to the main public road that passed alongside the western boundary of the site.

Being a bomber base, there would be a wide range of ancillary and support buildings, including initially, two J type hangars, followed by three T2s and a B1. The site was considered by its new occupants as ‘luxurious’ and compared to many other similar airfields of that time, it certainly was. This opinion was not formed however, when it opened on January 1st 1941, as it was in a state that was nowhere near completion. The official records show that along with Group Captain S. Park (Station Commander) were the Sqn. Ldr. for Admin  (Sqn. Ldr. F Carpenter), Station Adjutant (Flt. Lt. H. Daves) and Sqn. Ldr. J. Kains (Senior Medical Officer) who were joined  by various other administrative officers, Senior NCOs and 157 corporals and Airmen. They found the majority of buildings incomplete, the runways and dispersals still being built and the site generally very muddy. The cook house was ‘adequate’ for the needs of the few who were there, but the sergeants mess could not be occupied for at least another five to six weeks.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ Hangar seen from the public road at Waterbeach.

As occurred with many airfields at this time, the first personnel to arrive took up the task of completing many aspects of the outstanding work themselves, laying concrete, installing fixings and preparing accommodation blocks for the forthcoming arrivals.

During these early years of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe targeted Britain’s Fighter airfields as a way of smashing the RAF before the German planned invasion could take place. Whilst this policy failed, attacks on RAF airfields were continued, becoming more ‘nuisance’ attacks or small raids, in which airfields beyond the reaches of Kent and London were also targeted. Waterbeach itself was subjected to these nuisance attacks on two occasions between the New Year December 1940 and February 1941. During these, some minor damage was done to the site (hangars, aprons and a runway) and there was one fatality.

These early days of 1941 would be a busy time for the personnel at Waterbeach, further attacks intermixed with flying activities kept them alert and on their feet. Being a large base, its runways would become safe havens for crippled or lost aircraft desperately trying to find a suitable site on which to put down. A number of aircraft used Waterbeach for such an activity, primarily Whitleys and Wellingtons, many being damaged and unable to reach their home bases further north in Yorkshire.

With changes in airfield command taking place a month after its opening, the first units to arrive were the Wellingtons of No. 99 Squadron RAF, in a move that was delayed by a further month in part due to the late completion of the construction work and also because of yet another nuisance attack by the Luftwaffe.

Whilst 99 Sqn were preparing to transfer to Waterbeach, operations would continue from their base at Newmarket Heath, bombing raids that took the Wellingtons to Breman, Gelsenkirchen, Dusseldorf, Duisburg and Cologne.

Once arriving here at Waterbeach, they found early missions, on both the 1st and 2nd of April 1941, being cancelled due to poor weather – training would therefore be the order of the day. The 3rd however, would be very different.  With revised orders coming through in the morning, thirteen aircraft would be required to attack the Battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau located in Brest harbour.

Whilst one of the aircraft allocated was forced to land at RAF St Eval in Cornwall due to icing, the remainder flew on completing the raid which was considered a “great success”. One crew, led by P/O. Dixon, carried out particularly daring diving attacks scoring direct hits on one of the two ships in question. Whilst no other hits were recorded by the Wellingtons, many bombs fell very close to the targets and it was thought some may have even struck one of the two ships.

With the squadron being stood down on the 5th April, there would be a return to flying on the 6th, with ten aircraft being allocated to a maximum effort mission returning to Brest and the two German ships. Taking off at 20:17, ten aircraft flew directly to the harbour and carried out their attacks, whilst a ‘freshman’ crew flew a diversionary mission elsewhere. Although all but one aircraft returned safely to base, one aircraft did have problems when its 4,000lb bomb fell off the mounts prematurely.

Flying the MK.I, MK.IC and MK.II Wellington, 99 Sqn would carry out further operations to Germany, and on one of these sorties on the night of April 9th/10th, eight aircraft were assigned to Berlin, two to Breman and a further two to Emden. One Wellington, R1440, piloted by P/O. Thomas Fairhurst (s/n 85673) crashed in the Ijsselmer near Vegesack, whilst the second, R3199 disappeared without trace after making a distress call. On the 30th, the Air Ministry informed Waterbeach that POW cards had been received from a German prison camp from four of the crew: S/L. D. Torrens, P/O. P. Goodwin, Sgt. A. Smith and Sgt. E. Berry. The remaining two crewmen were also taken prisoner but this was not confirmed until much later.

April was a difficult month for 99 Sqn, operations called for in the morning were often cancelled by the evening, those that went ahead were made more difficult by poor weather over the target area. Two positive events occurring during April did bring good news to the crews however. On the 15th, the King approved an award of the DFC to P/O. Michael Dixon (s/n: 86390) for his action in attacking the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau earlier on, and on the 22nd, the Inspector General of the RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt visited the station where he inspected various sections of the squadron, met the crews and discussed some of their recent operations with them. A nice end to what had been a difficult start at Waterbeach.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, sitting in his office at Headquarters Bomber Command, High Wycombe. © IWM (C 1013)

Throughout the summer months 99 Sqn would continue operations into Germany along with further attacks on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau docked at Brest. With further loses on May 5/6, May 8/9, June 11/12 , and June 21st with the loss of X9643 two miles from the airfield, losses would be relatively low. In a freak accident X9643 would be lost with all of her crew when the dingy became dislodged and fouled the elevators causing the aircraft to crash and burst in to flames.

Corporal C. P. Eva

Corporal C. P. Eva, killed 21st June 1941 when the dingy in his aircraft fouled the elevators.

The latter months of 1941 would see two conversion flights formed at Waterbeach. Designed to train crews on the new four engined bombers, the Stirling and latterly the Lancaster, 26 Conversion Flight was formed out of ‘C’ flight of 7 Sqn on 5th October with 106 Conversion Flight joining them in December. Both units flew the Stirling bomber and were amalgamated in January 1942 to form 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) (later 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU)). Flying a mix of Stirlings and later Lancasters, they also used a Beaufighter, Spitfire, Tiger Moth and Airspeed Oxford. 1651 CU were one of only three Conversion Units set up in early 1942, with 1651 being the only Stirling unit at this point; the other two units flying with the Halifax or Liberator aircraft.

By the end of 1941, 99 Sqn would suffer thirty-four aircraft lost (2 in non-operational accidents), with many of the crewmen being killed. Whilst these were tragic losses, they were nevertheless ‘in line’ with the majority of all 3 Group operational units of that year. In early 1942 the squadron was sent overseas to India, a move that coincided with the new arrivals at RAF Waterbeach of No. 215 Sqn.

215 Sqn were going through a process of reorganisation and transfer. On 21st February 1942, the air echelon formed at Waterbeach whilst the ground echelons were already on route to India from Stradishall. With more Wellington ICs, they would also depart for India a month later, where they would stay for the remainder of the war. Being only a brief stay, their departure left Waterbeach with only 1651 Conversion Unit and its associated units in situ.

Being a conversion unit, 1651’s aircraft were worn and often unserviceable, and in February 1942, they could only muster five flight worthy aircraft. As the need for more bomber crews grew, so too did the number of aircraft supplied to the Conversion Units, and as a result the number of crews undertaking training also grew. To help meet this demand, another new squadron was formed within 1651 CU in the April, that of 214 Squadron Conversion Flight. Another Flight was also formed at Alconbury and moved to join these two units, No. 15 Squadron Conversion Flight. The idea behind this unit was to provide aircrews with operational experience, an experience many would find hard to deal with.

Training exercises in old and worn aircraft were often the cause of mishaps, accidents and tragedies, and as was seen in other training squadrons, the casualty rates were sometimes high. One of the first accidents for 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) at Waterbeach was caused by a malfunction in the extractor controls of N3642 which was being flown solo at the time by Sgt. K. Richards. The damage to the aircraft was so severe that it was downgraded being used as an instructional airframe only. Thankfully Sgt. Richards was unhurt in the incident and went on to fly with a new operational squadron later on.

Several more incidents in the following months led to further badly damaged aircraft, but the first fatalities came on the evening of June 16th 1942 when Stirling N6088 ‘LS-X’ flown by 24-year-old New Zealander F/O. Milan Scansie (s/n: 411491) was seen to fall from the sky over Nottingham with its port wing in flames and parts falling away. The entire crew died as a result of the accident, the cause of which has not yet been verified. The Stirling they were flying, was a veteran of European Operations, it had flown for nearly 250 hours and in twenty-two operational sorties, a remarkable achievement for a Stirling!

Bombing-up a Stirling of No 1651 CU/HCU  Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, 30 April 1942.© IWM (CH 5474)

Gaining operational experience was one of the most valuable tasks the trainee crews could undertake, and there was no ‘softly, softly’ approaches for the Conversion Units. The first 1,000 bomber raid to Cologne required every available aircraft and the Conversion Units were called upon to provide some of these aircraft.  In June 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the first operational aircraft casualty would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. Another factor that made this loss so great was the fact that not only did all seven crewmen lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had international caps for the England rugby team.

Born in 1909, Booth is one of sixteen boys from the Malsis School, who is commemorated on the Chapel’s stained glass window. After playing his debut match against Wales, his career ended in a game against Scotland at Murrayfield. In-between these games he achieved seven international caps for England scoring three tries.

The following July and August were to see the start of a catalogue of accidents and operational losses that would reflect not only the poor quality of the machines that trainees were expected to fly, but the disadvantages that the Stirling became famous for. The night of July 28th/29th being one of the worst with the loss of four aircraft in a mission to Hamburg, followed on the 30th by a further loss of an aircraft whilst on a training flight. In two nights alone, twenty-four airmen had lost their lives with a further one being injured and four taken prisoner.

Waterbeach would prove to be a safe haven again on the night of August 10th/11th 1942, when aircraft sent to drop SOE troops at zones ‘Giles‘ and ‘John‘ found their home base at Fairford fog-bound. Spread far and wide the sight of Waterbeach’s runway must have been a very welcome sight indeed.

In the early days of October 1942, on the 7th, the two flights, 214 and 15 Squadron Conversion Flights were amalgamated fully into 1651 Conversion Unit raising the number of personnel to over 1,000. This change would mean that 1651 would now be designated 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) allowing for the first time, flight engineers and second air gunners to join the crews. Training would then continue, some of it for only a matter of a few weeks, as would more losses.

Whilst the transition between Conversion and Heavy Conversion Unit went smoothly, the 2nd and 18th saw two more training accidents. Whilst both incidents only involved one crewman – the pilot – both accidents involved the aircraft developing a swing that became uncontrollable – the resultant crash leaving both aircraft severely damaged.

1942 turned to 1943, and by the end of the year 1651 HCU would eventually depart Waterbeach. With a further small number of training accidents, some due to the aircraft swinging, some due to mechanical failures, others were due to forces outside of the control of Waterbeach crews.

On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, a Lancaster from 97 Squadron from RAF Bourn was diverted to land at Waterbeach. On landing, the aircraft overshot the runway colliding with Stirling MK.I  (BF393), wrecking both aircraft. Of the seven aircrew in the Lancaster, the pilot Sgt. Anthony Reilly (s/n: 1005145) was killed with a further three injured, thankfully there were no injures associated with the parked Stirling.

May would also see an increase of the numbers of Heavy Conversion Units at Waterbeach, but inadequate planning meant that this unit was spread across three separate airfields, a situation that proved too much and so within a month, they were all moved to RAF Woolfox Lodge. This short interlude by 1665 HCU played no major part in Waterbeach’s history.

The last 1651 HCU  accident occurred at Waterbeach on October 27th 1943 when Stirling N3704 piloted by F/O. K Becroft DFC, another New Zealander, and F/S. F Burrows, an Australian, landed with its undercarriage still retracted. Neither airmen were hurt in the accident, but it was F/O Becroft’s third accident in a Stirling in the last year. Whilst no further accidents were to occur at Waterbeach, a 1651 HCU aircraft did have the misfortune to crash-land at RAF Witchford a few miles away, after suffering brake failure, on the last day of the month.

November 1943 would bring further changes to Waterbeach as 1651 CU pulled out, moving to Wratting Common to allow room for the new radial engined version of the famous Lancaster bomber – the Lancaster MK.II of 514 Squadron and her associated Conversion Unit 1678 HCU. This move was in response to a reorganisation of No. 3 Group, the whole process of transferring taking a mere few days, primarily by road.

514 were formed on 1st September 1943, and 1678 HCU on the 16th September, both whilst at Foulsham (under the control of No.3 Group) and would go on to specialise in blind bombing techniques. Like many of Bomber Command’s Squadrons, 514 Sqn would draw their crews from a broad spectrum of the Commonwealth countries, giving it a real multi-national feel.

The squadrons first mission took place on the night of November 26th/27th and it would be to the German heartland, and Berlin. This would be their second trip into the Lions den in three days and would see eight aircraft  leave Waterbeach each carrying 4,000lb bombs and a wide range of incendiaries. Leaving between 17:45 and 17:55, they would arrive over the target at around 21:30 dropping their bombs from a height of between 20,000 and 21,000 feet. Large fires were seen from the bomber stream, some crews saying from 100 miles away, indicating that the city was “well alight”. On this mission, one aircraft returned at 19:28 with engine problems jettisoning its bombs before returning and another was reported ‘missing’ over the target area. It was later found that the aircraft was shot down over Germendorf killing all on board. Lancaster MK.II (DS814) ‘JI-M’ was piloted by twenty-one year old Canadian F/O. Maurice R. Cantin (RCAF).

RAF Waterbeach

The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.

It was during this period of the war that the Stirling was withdrawn from front line operations, its losses far outweighing its benefits. From this point on no further action over Germany would include the Stirling, and the hunters now focused on the Halifaxes and Lancasters. On this night alone over 40 Lancasters were lost (either over the target or crashing in England) with the majority of the crews being killed. This would prove to be one of the most devastating raids of Berlin causing extensive damage, loss of life and casualties.

The terrible winter of 1943/44 made operational flying very difficult. Ice was a problem as was thick cloud over the target area. With numerous bombing missions taking place, many to Berlin again, Harris’s desire to destroy the German Capital was proving difficult. Whilst many front line squadrons were suffering high casualties, for 514 Sqn, losses would be light.

The first loss of 1944 would not occur until January 14th/15th in a raid to Brunswick. During this night two Lancasters would be lost, that of LL679 ‘JI-J2’ and LL685 ‘JI-G2’ with the loss of fourteen airmen. For a raid that cost thirty-eight Lancasters, equivalent to 7.6% of the force, it provided very disappointing results, many of the bombs falling on open countryside or in the suburbs of the city.

Berlin would be hit hard during January. Over almost three consecutive nights, 27th-31st Lancasters would strike at the heart of the Reich, 514 Sqn losing  no aircraft in their part even though nineteen aircraft would participate in the mission. Of those nineteen, four would not get off the ground and one would return early.

February 1944 was a big month for both the RAF and USAAF as more combined operations began against the aircraft production and supply facilities. On the 19th/20th, Leipzig was hit by 823 aircraft of which 561 were Lancasters. 514 Sqn would lose three aircraft that night: DS736 ‘JI-D2’, piloted by F/S. Norman Hall, DS823 ‘J1-M’ piloted by F/S. Walter Henry and LL681 ‘JI-J’ piloted by F/L. Leonard Kingwell, there were no survivors from any of the three aircraft.

Schweinfurt ball bearing factories were once again targeted on the night of the 24th/25th, a foreboding target that had proven so disastrous for the USAAF in the previous October. Luckily for 514 Sqn though, losses were much lighter, with only one crew failing to return home.

As the summer arrived in England, so too did the invasion of continental Europe. May meant that the RAF’s bomber force would switch from the industrial targets of Germany to strategic bombing of defences, marshalling yards, communication lines and fortifications all along western France and in particular the Normandy area. Allied leaders stressed the importance of blocking a German reinforcements through the rail network, as a result, the entire system west of the Rhine became a target with Bomber Command being given the lion’s share to attack. Seventy-nine rail centres were chosen for the attacks, and by D-Day all those assigned to Bomber Command had received their attention.

On the days before the invasion the aircraft were painted with the well-known black and white invasion stripes, used to allow easy identification of allied aircraft by friendlies. On the early morning of June 6th, twenty-two 514 Sqn aircraft set off to attack fortifications at  Ouistreham, the port at the mouth of the Canal de Caen à la Mer, the canal that serves Caen found on the eastern flank of the allied beachhead area.

RAF Waterbeach

The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.

Considering that the June raids set new records for the number of Bomber Command raids, 514 Sqn suffered no casualties. The first coming in the days after when two Lancasters (DS822) ‘JI-T’ and (LL727)  ‘JI-C2’ were lost over France. With a loss of four, the remainder of the two crews were either captured or managed to escape.

By June 1944 the need for the HCU had diminished, crews no longer needing the training to transfer to heavy bombers, and so 1678 HCU was disbanded in the usual grand style that was becoming famous in RAF circles.

It was also at this time, mid June, that 514 Sqn began to replace it MK.II Lancasters with the more famous Merlin engined MK.I and IIIs. The change itself didn’t herald a significant change in operations, now dogged by bad weather the constant cancellation of missions began to affect morale as crews were stood down often at a moments notice. The poor weather continued for most of the summer, what operations did take place were in support of the Allied forces as they advanced through France. Harris remained under the control of Eisenhower and so the focus of attacks continued to be Western France and German supply lines to the invasion area.

July into August saw a return to Germany for the bombers, a new experience for many crews of Bomber Command. By the October, raids were now being carried out in daylight hours. The first enemy jet aircraft were encountered and morale was high. However, the year would not end quietly.

December 29th 1944 was a hazy day with severe frost, fourteen aircraft were allocated for operations whilst H2S and G.H. training was provided for the non-operational crews. Out on the dispersal, the operational aircraft were being loaded with their bombs and prepared for the forthcoming flight, when suddenly one of the bombs being loaded on to Lancaster (PD325) ‘JI-L2’ fell and exploded. The explosion completely destroyed the aircraft and severely damaged seven others including NG141 which was parked alongside. The blast, heard as far away as Mildenhall, had repercussions across the airfield damaging windows and sending aircraft parts far and wide. Nine members of the ground crew attending to the aircraft also died, five simply ‘disappeared’ as did a tractor along with its portable generator. Following the incident, which was thought to have been caused by an ‘old stock’ bomb, the Station Commander cancelled operations for the day, partly in case time-delayed bombs exploded. To clear them and make the area safe, bomb disposal teams were brought in to remove those that were left remaining in the aircraft’s bomb bays.

1945 brought good fortune as the war came to an end. ‘Manna’ operations became the order of the day along with ‘Exodus’ flights bringing POWs back home for their captive camps across the continent. Slowly flights were wound down and on August 22nd 1945, 514 Squadron was disbanded at Waterbeach. Whilst they had been here, 514 Sqn had lost sixty-six aircraft on operational missions with the loss of over 400 aircrew, some of whom are buried in the neighbouring Cemetery at Waterbeach.

Thus ended the wartime exploits of RAF Waterbeach, despite crews leaving and the aircraft being taken away, Waterbeach’s wartime legacy would go on, strongly embedded in Britain’s aviation history. The peace would not last long though, for within a month a new era would dawn, a new aircraft type would arrive and Waterbeach would begin to see a change in operational flying take place.

Immediately after the war, two new squadrons would take up residence at Waterbeach. During early September 1945 No. 59 Squadron would arrive followed within a few days by No. 220 Squadron, both flying the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Both these squadrons transferred from Coastal Command into the Transport Command and were used to ferry the many troops back and forth from India and the Far East. These operations would continue well into May (59 Sqn) and June (220 Sqn) 1946 whereupon both Squadrons were disbanded. The cessation of the units allowed for crews of the Squadrons to be transferred to a new unit and training on the Avro York aircraft, a model 59 Sqn would then use once reformed in 1947 at Abingdon. No. 220 Sqn would later reform flying the Shackleton, returning once more to Maritime Patrols from Kinloss in Scotland. Neither Squadron would return to Waterbeach, but whilst here, they would carry almost 19,000 troops across the world, a tremendous achievement indeed.

Whilst neither 59 nor 220 Squadrons would return, the Avro York would come to Waterbeach. In the August of 1946, No. 51 Squadron brought the C.1 York from Stradishall, continuing the India flights that both 59 and 220 had performed before her. Initially carrying freight, they the went on to carry passengers before departing themselves to Abingdon in December 1947.

RAF Waterbeach

Waterbeach seen through the fence.

The advanced party of 51 Sqn would arrive on the 16th, with the main party arriving on the 20th of August (1946). Flights would occur almost daily for the whole of August, flying to Palam (India) and back. In that month alone the Squadron would fly 1,435 hours of training flights, 355 of which were at night.

With a regular number of aircrew being posted to RAF Bourn amongst other airfields, the turnover of staff would be very high. Specific training was targeted at the long distance flights, many going to Cairo or Singapore, and many flying via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

A year later, in mid November 1947, 242 Squadron joined the York group, crews gradually absorbing into 51 Sqn. Shortly after this however, notice came through that 51 Squadron was to move to Abingdon, along with the remnants of three other squadrons (242 included) to form a new long-range unit there.

After their departure, two more transport squadrons moved in to Waterbeach, taking a step backwards in terms of aircraft, both with that Second World War Veteran the  Dakota. No. 18 and 53 Squadrons stayed here, operating flights to and around the Middle East from December 1947 to early September 1948 (18 Sqn) and the end of July 1949 (53 Sqn).

With the Berlin Airlift demanding high levels of aircraft, 18 and 53 Sqns were soon ordered into the affray, and began carrying out flights under operation ‘Plainfare‘. After their withdrawal from the operations, 18 Sqn moved to Oakington for almost a year, during which time No. 24 Squadron moved into Waterbeach momentarily sharing the ramp with 53 Sqn. Yet another York unit, they also flew Avro’s Lancastrians and Dakotas, a role that involved them carry numerous dignitaries such as Field Marshall Lord Montgomery to various destinations around the globe. A short return of 18 Sqn meant that Waterbeach was again particularly busy with transport aircraft, and then for another short two month period it would get even busier.

During the New Year period, 1st December 1949 – 20th February 1950, No 206 Squadron appeared at Waterbeach, also reforming with that old favourite the C-47 Dakota. Using examples such as KN701, it was another squadron who had a long and distinguished history in Maritime patrol, eventually going on to return to this role also from Kinloss in Scotland.

Between the 25th February and the 29th February 1950, both No. 18 and 24 Squadrons departed Waterbeach, 18 Squadron disbanding and 24 Sqn moving to Oakington. During the move, the resident aircraft were disposed of, and the new Vickers Valletta was used in their place.

Quiet then reigned at Waterbeach for about three months. After which time Waterbeach took yet another turn of its page in the history books. With a combined flight of twenty-seven Meteors from both No. 56 and 63 Squadrons the silence was broken and the jet age had arrived. On May 10th 1950, the Meteors became the first major units of the RAF’s front line to be stationed at Waterbeach, two units that would remain here for a number of years operating several variants of the Meteor, Supermarine’s Swift and then the Hawker Hunter.

The initial variants of Meteor F.4 were replaced within two years by the F.8, during which time a number of accidents occurred – some incurring fatalities. Perhaps the worst blow came with the death of the Station Commander Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC when on 27th June 1951 his Meteor F.8 (WA953) rolled after take off crashing into the ground. Sqn. Ldr. Yeates was killed in the resultant crash and is buried in the local cemetery next to the airfield.

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC killed on 27th June 1951.

Sqn. Ldr. Yeates’ death came at the end of a month that had seen four other aircraft damaged in landing accidents. These included two Station Flight Tiger Moths and two other Meteor F.8s, a decidedly bad month for the two squadrons.

A further landing accident brought home the dangers of jet aircraft on November 1st 1951, when Meteor WA940 of 63 Sqn collided with Meteor VZ497 of 56 Sqn after landing. The collision caused a fire in which both F/O. K Jones and Sgt. G Baldwin were both killed. As if through foresight, the personnel of 63 Sqn has noted on their arrival in 1950 that not only was the accommodation sub-standard but the hangarage and aircraft dispersals were insufficient for the needs of two squadrons. Highlighting the problems certainly didn’t prevent this tragedy from occurring. The terrible conflict of the Second World War may have been over, but casualties at Waterbeach would continue on for some time yet.

The work of 56 Sqn and 63 Sqn was carried out in cooperation with the US forces at nearby RAF Lakenheath, who at that  time were operating Boeing’s B-29 ‘Superfortress’ known for their devastating effect on Japan. These exercises, carried out over the skies of the UK,  were joint Anglo-American fighter affiliation exercises and included not only the B-29s but F-86 ‘Sabres’ as well.

As if history was to repeat itself, the bad weather that had brought disaster upon the bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command on ‘Black Thursday‘ (RAF Bourn) ten years earlier also brought havoc to 56 Sqn on December 16th 1953.

With visibility down to a little as 100 yards on the Tuesday, Wednesday saw some improvements. With flying restricted to four aircraft per flight, it was going to be difficult. The Cathode Ray Direction Finding equipment (C.R.D.F.) was not working and so bearings needed to be obtained by VHF. Whilst the majority of aircraft were able to land using a Ground-Controlled Approach (G.C.A.) ‘A’ flight were not so lucky. Red Section were diverted to Duxford, but failed to achieve a landing. Being too low on fuel to continue on or try for a third time, the two aircraft climbed to 5,000 feet and the pilots, Flt/Lt. G. Hoppitt  and F/O. R. Rimmington ejected. Fuel gauges at the time were reading as little as 20 Gallons. Both aircraft came down near to each other, no damage was caused to public property and both pilots were unhurt. Yellow section, also diverted to Duxford, where they attempted G.C.A. landings also, but unable to do so, the section leader, F/O. N. Weerasinghe suffered a broken neck and fractured skull after he force landed in a field. The fourth pilot, F/O. Martin, broke his back in two places after ejecting at only 700 feet. A court of enquiry ruled that three of the pilots had difficulty in jettisoning their canopies, and F/O. Martin, even though he managed to succeed,  ejected at an all time low-level. It was well into the New Year before  F/O. Weerasinghe regained consciousness, and all four aircraft, WA769, WH510, WA930 and WH283 were written off.  In a light-hearted but perhaps tasteless ‘that’s how its done‘ demonstration, both Flt/Lt. Hoppitt  and F/O. Rimmington jumped off the bar at a Pilot’s party in the Bridge Hotel.*2

Over the next four years a number of other squadrons would arrive and depart Waterbeach. On 18th April 1955 a new night fighter squadron was formed, that of No. 253 Sqn. Operating the DH Venom NF.2A, an aircraft designed around the earlier Vampire, it was a short-lived squadron, disbanding on September 2nd 1957. 253’s reforming would however, see the beginnings of a string of Night Fighter Squadrons being stationed here at Waterbeach.

Almost simultaneously to the disbanding of 253 Sqn, was the arrival of a second Night Fighter squadron, the Meteor NF.14 of 153 Sqn from RAF West Malling absorbing the staff of the now disbanded 253 Sqn. Training crews on Meteors along with being on 24 hour standby, meant that flights were frequent, a regime that continued until July 2nd 1958 when 153 was disbanded being renumbered 25 Sqn. After having a short spell in the turmoil of the Middle East, they then began to prepare to upgrade to Gloster’s Delta wing fighter the Javelin in September. By December only a handful of aircraft had been received, but further training and upgrades saw the FAW.7 replaced by the FAW.9. Work was slow but by late 1959 the squadron was considered operational.  By the October 1961, 25 Sqn was posted north to Scotland and RAF Leuchars, where it received the FAW.7 back before being disbanded once more.

Gloster Javelin FAW.7 of No 25 Squadron RAF Waterbeach, showing its missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. © IWM (RAF-T 2172)

During this time 56 Sqn who had been one of Waterbeach’s longest standing squadrons, departed to RAF Wattisham where it would receive the Lightning, the RAF’s high-speed interceptor that burnt fuel at an incredible rate of knots. No. 56 Sqn had whilst here at Waterbeach, used not only the Meteor but the Supermarine Swift (F.1 and F.2) and the Hunter F.5 and F.6. No. 63 Sqn, who also flew the Hunter F.6 was also disbanded at Waterbeach during this period (October 1958), and the loss of these Hunters would also see the end of the line for 63 Sqn RAF.

The last 5 years would see the last of the RAF’s involvement at Waterbeach. July 17th 1959 saw the arrival of No. 46 Sqn with Javelin FAW.6s. Disbanded in 1961 the nucleus would remain ferrying Javelins to the Far East. The November 1961, would then see two more squadrons arrive; No. 1 on the 7th and No. 54 on the 23rd.

Both these squadrons were Hunter FGA.9 Squadrons, both moving in from RAF Stradishall operating as Ground Attack squadrons. With successive  deployments to the Middle East, they were armed for operational flying patrolling the border along Aden.

By August 1963, both No.1 and No.54 Sqn were moved on, thus ending the RAF’s ‘front line’ flying involvement with Waterbeach. Whilst the military retained Waterbeach as an active airfield, the Royal Engineers as airfield construction and maintenance units used the site to  test numerous runway surfaces and construction methods. Testing of these surfaces used a wide variety of aircraft types, from small jets to large multi-engined aircraft such as the Hercules and BAC 111. A further ten years of intermittent flying activity ensured that the legacy of Waterbeach continued on. With various open days and flying events to raise much need money bringing crowds onto the airfield, Waterbeach’s life was extended yet further, but then in March 2013 the MOD finally pulled out, and the site has since been earmarked for development.

The post war era saw many gate guardians at Waterbeach. Spitfire Mk22 (PK664) was later moved to Binbrook, whilst the Hurricane MKIIc went to Bentley Priory. Another  Spitfire replaced both these examples, Mk XVIe (TE392) which was brought here in 1961 and remained here until 1966. A veteran of 63, 65, 126, 164, 595 and 695 Sqns, it eventually ended up in the United States flying with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Texas.

Other guardians include Westland Whirlwind HAR3  (XG577) of the Royal Air Force and a Hawker Hunter (WN904) which flew with 257 Squadron at RAF Wattisham. It was brought in to represent the Hunters, the last aircraft that flew from Waterbeach, and was present here until 2012. It was then moved to the Sywell Aviation Museum in Northampton.

Plans are already in the pipe-line to develop the 293-hectare site along with adjacent fields into a £2.5bn ‘Silicon Valley’ style township, complete with marina facilities and three schools. The barracks site alone will include 6,300 new homes with some original aspects such as the Watch Office utilised in the modern development.

At present the site is empty, entrance strictly controlled and by prior appointment only, the gate guarded by a private security firm. A fabulous museum exists in a managed building just inside the gate and can only be accessed by appointment. Whilst the site is gradually becoming overgrown, it is virtually intact, the main runway, hangars and ancillary buildings are all present. Local farmers store hay on the disused runways and an eerie silence blows across the parade ground.

Some views are possible from certain public advantage points but these are very limited and restrictive. The busy A10 allowing only occasional glimpses to the watch office and hangars, and side roads giving no more than fleeting glimpses through high fences and locked gates.

This once thriving airfield has finally met its match. The enormous hangars that once housed the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, the mighty B-24s of Transport Command and the fast jets of Fighter Command, now shells awaiting their fate. Once one of the RAF’s biggest and most important airfields, Waterbeach will soon been relegated to the history books, buried beneath the conglomeration of houses, schools and small technology businesses that thrive in today’s fast living world. Which buildings survive have yet to be finalised, the future of Waterbeach lays very much in the hands of the developer, and as a historical site of major aviation significance it is hoped that they look upon it sympathy and understanding, something that is often left out when it comes to development.

RAF Waterbeach Museum.

The Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum is located on the former RAF Waterbeach airfield; creating the museum has been quite an achievement and a very worthy cause. The museum contains many interesting photographs and artefacts relating to life at “the ‘Beach”, from its inception in 1940 right through to its final closure in 2013.

The current Museum was opened after the Army’s departure and the subsequent closure of the barracks. It is currently housed in Building 3 just inside the main entrance next to the former guard-house, and access is strictly controlled, and by prior arrangement only. It was created by the then curator, Oliver Merrington, along with a handful of local people who wanted to secure the future of the museum and keep the memories of Waterbeach alive for future generations. Mr. Merrington has since sadly passed away, but the volunteers continue the good work he put in place.

Whilst the museum is currently small, it holds a tremendous amount of information, all  of which is neatly displayed in cabinets and on the walls. Many original photographs are supplemented with official documents, personal stories, newspaper cuttings and artefacts, some of which relate to specific aircraft from Waterbeach’s history.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

Part of one of the many displays in the museum.

Whilst most of the displays reflect life at Waterbeach during the Second World War, various aspects reflect its post war life, both with the RAF and with the Army’s Engineer Regiment – the founders of the original Waterbeach Museum in 1984.

The two rooms of the museum are dedicated to all these people, taking you on a journey through the life of Waterbeach, starting with the sad First World War story of three brothers: Sgt. Jack Day, (1st July 1916), Private Walter Day (1st July 1916) and Private Clifford Day (13th August 1918). Like so many families of the war, their lives were all taken prematurely, two of which occurred on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme. The three brothers, whose ages ranged from 19 to 22 years old, were all local boys to Waterbeach, and like so many, left a family devastated by their loss. Two of the boys remain buried abroad but Walter, like so many other young men, has no known grave and remains missing.

From here the display takes us to Waterbeach in the 1940s, the story of its construction and design are told using photographs taken at that time. Representations of the various bomber squadrons who used the airfield are supported with operational details, personal stories and artefacts relating to individual aircraft that flew from Waterbeach during these early war years.

In the post-war period Waterbeach was transferred to the Transport Command and again photographs and documents show the range of aircraft that flew from here: Liberators, Dakotas, Lancastrians and Avro Yorks.

Into the jet age and we see a flying suit, and a canopy from Gloster Javelin XH871, which ended its days at Bovingdon as a fire fighting air frame. It is particularity significant as it previously served here at RAF Waterbeach in the late 1950s.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

One of the many exhibits on display at the Museum.

After the Royal Air Force departed the base was handed over to the Army, and a small number of exhibits represent their presence here at Waterbeach. The Royal Engineers finally departed the barracks themselves in March 2013.

Other exhibits on display here include: the weather vane from the station church (now demolished), the operations boards, astro-compasses, radios and telephone equipment, all neatly arranged inside glass cabinets. A detailed history of one of the former gate guards, Spitfire LF MK.XIVe ‘TE392’ which now flies with the Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston, Texas, is also on view.

This is a delightful little museum that has been put together to pay homage to those who served at Waterbeach, either under RAF command or with the Royal Engineers. It is run by volunteers and relies on charitable donations to keep it running. Like many museums, it has limited opening hours, but the range of material is fabulous and it deserves a great deal of public support.

On a final note, my personal thanks go out to Adrian Wright who gave up his own time to open up and show me around the museum.

For details of opening times and other information the curator can be contacted via email at:  waterbeachmilitarymuseum@waterbeach.org

Sources and Links (RAF Mepal and RAF Witchford).

Further details of the Robson family loss can be found here.

The 115 Squadron Memorial Project website can be found here.

For further information about both RAF Mepal and RAF Witchford see the Ousewashes website.

Sources and further reading (RAF Waterbeach).

*Aviation Trails – “The Development of Britain’s Airfields“.
*2 AIR 27/2620/1 – The National Archives
AIR 27/789/5 – The National Archives
AIR 27/792 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1977/2 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1978/11 – The National Archives

Grehan, J., & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations 1942-1945“, Pen & Sword. 2014

The museum website has details of opening times and access.

For details of the development of Waterbeach see the Cambridge News Live website, with links to the plans.

Advertisements

4 thoughts on “Trail 11 – Around Ely, Cambridgeshire

  1. Hello guys
    Hope you remember me (Richard and Cheryl)
    Just to say what a brilliant site you have produced .It is good to see you all looking well in your 2015 photo at Witchford
    We are traveling to evere cemetery for the anniversary of LL622
    KO J crash March 31st

    Regards Richard and Cheryl

    Ps photo of Dennis Atkinson grave is not his.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Richard.

      I think you have attributed this to the wrong person. I know Bram and the group well, I have met with them myself and follow the progress with their project, it’s certainly an honourable one. You can find Bram’s site here https://mylancasterstories.wordpress.com/. I’m not sure what the grave picture is your referring to, if it’s on here please let me know so I can make any amendments. Thanks for coming by anyway and best wishes to you. Andy.

      Like

      • Hi Andy Sorry to send comment to wrong address as I used my phone so big fingers did not help. About the grave of Dennis Atkinson the photo should be as the other crew members with a hedge behind it.This photo is on the Belgium website so again sorry for troubling you. Any you have a very good site and keep up the good work Regards Richard Luckie

        Relation to Dennis Atkinson 115 sq navigator on LL622 lost March 31st 1944

        Sent from my iPhone

        >

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.