Trail 30 – RAF Scampton and the Heritage Centre

In this trip we head back northwards into Lincolnshire otherwise known as ‘Bomber Country’ to an airfield that is steeped in history; active since the first world war, it stands high above Lincoln but only a few miles from the Cathedral, a landmark welcomed by many a returning bomber crew. It was here that three Victoria Crosses were earned, Lancasters filled the skies and from here the famous ‘Dambusters’ of 617 Squadron carried out their daring raid on the dams of the Ruhr. It is of course RAF Scampton.

RAF Scampton.

RAF Scampton is to Bomber Command what Biggin Hill is to Fighter Command. It embodies all that is the air war of those dark days of the 1940s; the bravery and dedication of crews, the sacrifice, the loss and the heartache. It has had a long and successful life; even today it is a military airfield but one that sadly operates as a shadow of its former self.

Opened during the First World War under the name of Brattleby Cliff, Scampton was a Home Defence Flight Station, operated by the Royal Flying Corps with 11, 60 and 81 squadrons. A variety of aircraft were based here and it performed in this role until closing shortly after the cessation of the conflict in 1918. For a while Scampton lay dormant, many buildings being removed, but, as a new war loomed over the horizon, it once more sprang into life as RAF Scampton.

Opening in 1936, it was designed as a grass airfield. Its firsts residents were the Heyford IIIs of No 9 squadron (RAF) in 1938, who stayed for just short of two years. They were joined by the Virginia Xs of 214 Squadron (RAF) who arrived in October that same year. A brief spell by 148 Squadron (RAF) in 1937, further added to the variety of aircraft at this base.

The next units to arrive would see Scampton into the Second World War. Both 49 and 83 Squadrons arrived with Hawker Hinds, models they retained until replaced by the more modern twin-engined Hampdens in 1938. Using these aircraft, Scampton would have an auspicious start to the war. With inexperienced crews, flying was very ‘hit and miss’ – delays, missed targets and inaccurate flying all became common place during this period of the ‘phony’ war.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941.

The crew of a Handley Page Hampden Mark I of No. 83 Squadron RAF leave their aircraft at Scampton.© IWM (CH 256)

However, as the mighty German war machine charged across Europe, Scampton’s crews were to find themselves in the thick of the fighting. With bombing and mine laying being the main focus for them, they would learn quickly through flying into high risk areas – many heavily defended by flak and determined fighter cover – that they had to be better. It was in this early stage of the war that the first Victoria Cross would be earned by a Scampton pilot.

Flight Lieutenant Roderick Learoyd who by now was a veteran of 23 missions, fought to hold his badly damaged aircraft on track during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal. Then, nursing the crippled aircraft home, he would remain circling the airfield for three hours, so he could land his aircraft safely in the daylight rather than endangering his crew by landing at night.

Scampton’s sorties would become almost continuous. Barely a month would pass before a second V.C. would be won by wireless operator Sergeant John Hannah flying with 83 Squadron, in a raid on ports in the lowland countries. It was believed that the Germans were massing their invasion barges here and vital that they were bombed to prevent the invasion taking place. During the raid, Hannah would extinguish an onboard fire using a small fire extinguisher, then his log book and finally his hands. Badly burned and in great pain, he helped nurse the stricken aircraft home after two of the crew bailed out.

Scampton continued to develop as bomber station. Crew quarters were in short supply and often cramped. In March 1940, Fairy Battles of 98 Squadron would have a very brief spell here whilst on their way to RAF Finningley. In December 1941, 83 Squadron received the new Avro Manchester as a replacement for the now poorly performing Hampden, followed in April 1942 by 49 Squadron. These aircraft were not loved or admired, suffering from gross under power, and major hydraulic issues, they would soon go in favour of the RAF’s new bomber and Scampton’s icon, the Lancaster I and III.

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Scampton from Gibson’s window. Nigger’s grave can be seen to the left.

Both 49 and 83 squadrons would leave Scampton soon after this upgrade. Scampton itself would then go through a period of quiet until when in September that year, on the 4th, Lancaster I and IIIs arrived with 57 Squadron. They would stay here operating over Europe for one year before moving off to nearby RAF East Kirkby. 467 Squadron joined 57 for a short period, being formed at Scampton on November 7th 1942 again with the formidable Lancaster I and IIIs. Their stay was much shorter however, within a month of arrival they would have gone to RAF Bottesford.

It was the following year that Scampton really became famous with the formation of 617 Squadron (RAF) in March 1943. Commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a Scampton ‘veteran’ himself, 617 Sqn was put together for a very special operation using specially modified Lancaster IIIs. ‘Operation Chastise’ is probably the best known military operation of Bomber Command and the story of the Dams raid on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams is well documented in virtually every form of media possible. This raid was to become synonymous with Scampton even though 617 Sqn were only here for a very brief period of time. They would only undertake two raids from Scampton, the Dams raid and a second to Northern Italy, before they moved to Coningsby, and later Woodhall Spa (Trail 1), both a short distance to the south. It was of course that as a result of this raid, Scampton would earn a third VC through the actions of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

The departure of both 57 and 617 Squadrons from Scampton allowed for development of the runways. Concrete was laid for the first time, in sufficient amounts to accommodate more heavy bombers, and the first to arrive were the Lancaster I and IIIs of 153 Squadron (RAF).

153 Sqn were to see out the war at Scampton, but their stay was not a good one. As the war drew to a close, 153 began the mining operations that Scampton had been so used to at the outbreak of war. Casualties were high with many crews being lost including that of the Gibson’s contemporary, Canadian born Wing Commander Francis Powley. On the night of April 4th/5th, two Lancaster Mk. Is – NX563 ‘P4-R’ and RA544 ‘P4-U’ with Powley on board, were both shot down by Major Werner Husemann of I./NJG3, over Kattegat, whilst on a ‘gardening’ mission. The crews were all lost without trace and are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

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Two Sisters under refurbishment in one of the four hangars.

On this same night, more Lancasters I and IIIs arrived from RAF Kelstern with 625 Squadron (RAF) and together they formed part of the last major Bomber Command operation of the war. On 25th April 1945, they flew against Hitler’s mountain retreat at Obersalzberg, Berchtesgaden. 153 Sqn was eventually disbanded on September 28th 1945 followed by 625 Sqn on October 7th that same year.

A brief 3 month stay by 100 Squadron saw flying from Scampton cease and it remained without operational flying units for the next two years.

Scampton would next play a part in the Berlin Airlift.  American B.29 Superfortresses were stationed here for a year as part of the US Strategic Air Command between 1948 and 1949  flying operations into the besieged Berlin. There then followed another quiet period, something that was common place for Scampton and it wasn’t until 1953 that it would see flying activity once again.

On 15th January 1953, 10 Squadron would reform here,  followed not long after by 27 Squadron (15th June), 18 Squadron  (1st August), and finally 21 Squadron on 21st September1953; all operating the new Canberra. Many of these units would stay for only a short period of time, moving on to new bases relatively quickly. However, as the ‘cold war’ threat increased, Scampton would come back into the limelight once more.

In 1956 the main runway was extended to 10,000ft causing the main A15 road to be re-routed giving it its notable ‘bend’. After two years, on 1st may 1958, 617 squadron would return to its historical home, being reformed at Scampton with the mighty Vulcan B.1. 617 Sqn would fly a variety of versions: B.1A, B.2 and B.2A, until disbandment on New Years Eve 1981*1. It was during this time that the Blue Steel would form Britain’s Nuclear deterrent, the very reason the Vulcan was designed. History was to repeat itself again on 10th october 1960, as 83 Squadron, who had flown Hampdens at the outbreak of war from here, were also reformed at Scampton, also with the B.2 and B.2A Vulcan. 27 Sqn were also to return, going through a number of reforms and disbandment forming up again at Scampton on 1st April 1961 to join what became known as the ‘Scampton Wing’. 83 Sqn sadly though, were not to last as long as their historical counterparts, being disbanded on 31st August 1969.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

An Avro Vulcan B.2 of the Scampton Wing © Crown copyright. IWM (RAF-T 4883)

Then on 16th January 1975, more Vulcans would arrive, those of  35 Squadron (RAF) who would go on to serve until disbandment on March 1st 1982 again here at Scampton. This being the last ever operational flying unit to grace the skies over this iconic airfield.

A small reprieve for Scampton came in the form of two separate stays by the adored aerobatics team the Red Arrows, who have continued to use Scampton as their base stunning crowds at airshows around the world. Currently stationed here until the end of the decade, Scampton at least has retained some flying for the foreseeable future.

Today RAF Scampton is home to only two small non-flying but operational units; the Air Control Centre (ACC) who merged with the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) and the and Mobile Met Unit (MMU). These are responsible for monitoring British Airspace 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ready to alert the RAF’s QRA units when intruders are detected. These units provide Scampton with around 200 working personnel, somewhat dwarfed in a base built for 2000.

Scampton is of course synonymous with the Dambusters, and it is predominately this history that keeps Scampton alive today.

The four enormous ‘C’ type hangers stand virtually idle, no longer holding the huge aircraft they were designed to hold. No Vulcans fill their beams, no Lancasters roar into life on moon lit nights. Instead private companies use one for storage, the Red Arrows another and the Heritage Centre a third. The last one is utilised by the Museum of RAF Firefighting to store some 40+ historically important RAF and civilian fire engines all once used to fight the fierce fires of crashed aircraft. Reputedly the largest collections of fire fighting equipment, models, photographs and memorabilia in the world, it is an extensive collection and well worth the visit.

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Two of the four ‘C’ types Hangars, each one could take 4 Vulcans.  Note the Red Arrow Hawk.

Whilst only a fraction of Scampton is used these days, its crew quarters quiet and locked, it remains under very strict security with patrolling armed guards. Photography is strictly forbidden around the former quarters, but once on the actual airfield security is relaxed – albeit in a small amount. Access is only by prior permission as a visitor to either the National Museum of Fire Fighters or to the Heritage Centre. It is these volunteers that care for and share the very office used by Guy Gibson when 617 sqn prepared for their mission to the Ruhr.

On arrival at Scampton an armed guard watches vigilantly, as guides check your ID, a passport or drivers licence, who then take you through the gate to walk along where Gibson and his crews were briefed on that very night. The buildings that line either side of the road are no different from that day and it is here in this very spot where Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) walked away from Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) at the end of the 1955 film “The Dambusters”. The main gate you walk through to enter the site is the very gate at which the squadron mascot ‘Nigger’ was run over and killed by a car. Not by a hit and run driver as portrayed  in the film, but a passer-by who stopped, collected the dog and reported it to the very guard-house that stands there today. Like many films portraying the brave and heroic acts of the Second World War, the factual accuracy of the film is somewhat skewed. However, the film makers could be forgiven for this as much of the operational records were still on the secret list when the film was made.

Once passed the accommodation blocks cameras are permitted and the views over the airfield are stunning. The control tower – moved after the redevelopment of the airfield – watches over its quiet expanses, little moves here expect the Hawks of the Red Arrows.

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The names of those who took part in Operation Chastise.

Gibson’s office stands overlooking this part of the field, and perhaps the only reminder of that night, is Nigger’s grave. A ‘headstone’ enclosed in a fence marks the dog’s grave, placed in front of Gibson’s offices slightly offset so Gibson himself could be laid to rest here with him. Sadly his death on September 19th 1944 near Steenburgen in Holland prevented the reuniting of Gibson’s body with his beloved pet and the two remain separated for eternity.

His office,  so well reconstructed, stands with period furniture as it would have been during his stay here with 617 sqn. Uniforms, photos and numerous other artefacts from that time are displayed for the visitor.

Below this floor, a large model of a Lancaster and more artefacts reflect the historical importance of 617 squadron from its earliest days of the Second World War to the point when they were to return with the RAF’s modern fighter the Tornado.

Guy Gibson trail then takes you through a mock-up of the crew quarters and on into the hangar. Here several aircraft are stored, a Hunter, Sukhoi SU 22, Gnat and Hawk both in Red Arrows colours. Also a second Hawk used to train RAF Technicians ready for the Red Arrows. Two Lancaster front sections are being carefully restored and a number of artefacts are stored here waiting their fate whatever that may be.

Scampton as an ‘active’ base may well have a reprieve over the next year or so. With the recent announcements from the RAF that Waddington will no longer host an airshow due to ‘increased security risks’, Scampton has been identified  as a possible replacement venue after 2017. Whether this will come to fruition or not is yet to be seen, but if it does, it may well breath new life into this historic and truly iconic airfield.

Further reading, links and notes.

There are many additional stories linked with Scampton that would simply fill a book. The live bomb unknowingly used as a gate guard for a number of years, the Lancaster that served here and now stands in the Imperial War Museum, London, and the little known story of Iris Price, possibly the only WAAF to see a bombing mission from an allied aircraft. Passing out due to oxygen loss, she was nearly thrown out of the aircraft so as to dispose of the body, thus avoiding a court-martial for her and the crew.

Guy Gibson’s own book ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ gives a fabulous insight into his life especially whilst at Scampton and is highly recommended.

The ‘Dambusters’ Pub located near to the airfield was frequented by the crews of Scampton and is now a popular haunt for the Red Arrows. It is filled with memorabilia, photographs and is purely fascinating, a museum with beer, even producing its own tipple  – ‘Final Approach’!

*1 617 would go on to be reformed later, with the ‘Tornado’ at RAF Marham forming a front line fighter squadron.

For current operational information on Scampton and how to visit the Heritage Centre click here.

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