Trail 31 – Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 2)

Moving on from the open expanses of Graveley and Caxton Gibbet, we continue our trail around the historic countryside of Southern Cambridgeshire. We visit two more airfields both of which continue for now, to uphold their aviation heritage. Our first stop is the current small airfield on the former RAF Bourn.

RAF Bourn.

Bourn sits between the towns of Cambourne to the west and Hardwick to the east and is confined by the new dual carriageway cutting across its northern side. Both the immediate eastern and western sides are heavily built upon and with further developments under proposal, the future of this historic airfield remains in the balance.

RAF Bourn was built-in 1940 /41 initially as a satellite for nearby RAF Oakington. With growing pressure from Bomber Command it would eventually become a bomber station  in its own right and come under the control of Air Commodore Donald Bennett’s 8 Group operating the elite Pathfinder Force (PFF). Accommodation would be suitable for 1,805 males and 276 females making it a relatively large airfield. Its three ‘A’ style concrete runways, would be extended later in 1942 to accommodate the heavier aircraft that were to use Bourn thus raising its profile as a bomber base. By the end of the war, Bourn squadrons would lose 135 aircraft in total accounting for: 60 Lancasters, 32 Short Stirlings, 24 Mosquitos and 19 Wellingtons – a considerable number of lives.

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Views along one of Bourn’s enormous runway.

Bourn would serve a number of RAF squadrons during its short wartime life: 15, 97, 101, 105, 162 and 609 would all play a part in its rich wartime tapestry. The first to arrive were the Wellington ICs of 101 Squadron (RAF). They arrived at Bourn very soon after the runways were constructed on February 11th 1942. During this time 101 were going through the process of updating their Wellingtons with the new Mk III. One of the first casualties of Bourne would be one of these models. Wellington ‘X3656’  SR-L, was lost on the night of March 8th/9th 1942, on a mission to Essen. Flight Sgt. S. Brown, P.O. C. Luin and Sergeants L. Calderhead, R. Lawrence and C. Parry were all lost in the attack; the aircraft missing in action and the crew presumed dead. Their names are now inscribed  on the wall of remembrance at Runneymede Cemetery.

101 sqn would continue the fight staying at Bourn until the 11th August that same year. They would then move on to Stradishall and Holme-on-Spalding Moor where they took on the Lancaster.

As 101 left, 15 Sqn (RAF) moved in, bringing the much heavier Short Stirling MkI. Having a rather checkered history behind them, 15 Sqn would operate the MkIs until the following January when the MK IIIs came into operation. Built by Short Brothers, the Stirling was a massive aircraft, dwarfing many of its counterparts with a cockpit height of some 22 feet. A forbidding aircraft, it was cumbersome on the ground but was said to be very agile in the air, some would say it could out-turn a Spitfire! Sadly though, it was a slow aircraft and whilst heavily defended, loses were to be high leading to its eventual withdrawal from front line operations .

A few miles away at Cambridge, an industrial unit of some  six / seven hangars were built by Short Sebro Ltd who manufactured the Stirling parts. Final assembly and air testing was then carried out at Bourn, the wings being transported by ‘Queen Mary’ trailers and the fuselage on specially made carriers pulled by tractors. To help, three large hangars would be built away to the east of the airfield to accommodate both these and battle damaged bombers for repair.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The crew of the Short Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’, of No. 15 Squadron after their 62nd mission. © IWM (CH 7747)

It was here at Bourn that a record would be set by a 15 Squadron crew. Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’,  would go on to complete 67 operations, a record for the type. N3669 would eventually be reduced to an instructional airframe in February 1943.

A short spell of conversion proceeded 15 Sqn moving to their new base at RAF Mildenhall on April 14th 1943, where they would eventually take on the new and more successful Lancaster I. It was here that LL806 “J-Jig”, would become one of the most famous Lancasters in Bomber Command, flying 134 sorties accumulating 765 hours in the air. Two incredible records were now set by 15 squadron aircraft and their crews.

Bourn would then have just another short spell visitor, 609 Sqn. Battled hardened from covering the BEF withdrawal at Dunkirk and defending Britain in the Battle of Britain, 609 Sqn moved in on 26th August 1942, with the potent Typhoon IB. Accustom as they were to moving around, their stay at Bourn would last only 4 days.

It was at this time that Bourn really came into its own as a bomber base. 97 squadron (RAF) arrived on April 18th 1943 with their Lancaster Is and IIIs. With small detachments at nearby Graveley, Gransden Lodge and Oakington, they would stay here until moving on to Coningsby a year to the day later. Whilst at Bourn, they became a ‘marker’ squadron as part of the PFF  Group.  Notable target’s were both the  Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen in June 1943 and the Italian naval base at Spezia in April 1944; an event that became to be the first RAF “shuttle-bombing” raid. The introduction of Lancasters at Bourn greatly reduced the number of crews being lost. However, 97 Sqn were to suffer one of the worst nights on Bomber Command record, and not through enemy action either. During the night of December 16th /17th 1943, a large number of aircraft left from some 20 squadrons*1 to attack Berlin. Casualties to and from the target were on the whole low but for 97 Squadron it was arriving home that their troubles were to begin. This night would become known as ‘Black Thursday’.*2.

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A Nissen huts survives in modern use.

As they approached Cambridgeshire, they were informed that the weather had closed in on Bourn and landing would be very difficult if not impossible. In an effort to get the bombers down safely, all manner of tactics were used to move the fog and illuminate the runways.  Some aircraft managed to divert to other bases in Lincolnshire and Norfolk where FIDO was in operation, but many tried to wait it out. The result was a critical loss of fuel and subsequently several aircraft crashed in the dense fog. The loss that night was devastating for 97 Sqn: JB531 ‘OF-Y’; JA963 ‘Q’; JB243 ‘P’; JB482 ‘S’; JB219 ‘R’; JB117 ‘C’; JB119 ‘F’ and JB176 ‘K’ were all lost crashing in the vicinity of the airfield with many of the crews being killed.*3

It was during these last few weeks of 97 Sqn’s stay that Bourn would start to accept new residents. The smaller and much more agile Mosquito IX of 105 Squadron arrived to continue the pathfinder operations. Noted for their unusual black paint work, they would carry out many notable operations from here, especially in the lead up to D-day in June 1944, identifying and marking coastal batteries for the heavier bombers to attack in preparation for the invasion. One of these aircraft, MM237, would sadly fall victim to ‘friendly fire’. On crossing the coast on its way home, on March 6th 1945, it was shot down by a British night fighter. The crew luckily managed to bale out moments before the aircraft struck the ground.

105 would stay at Bourn for the duration of the war, taking on a new model Mosquito XVI in March 1944. They would mark high-profile targets such as: oil refineries, road and rail junctions, marshalling yards and coastal batteries. Many targets were as far afield as the German heartland; 105’s  final operational sorties would take  4 Mosquitos to Eggebeck on the night of 2nd/3rd May 1945, a month before they left Bourn for Upwood and final disbandment.

In December 1944, the last residents of Bourn would arrive and join 105 Sqn. Being reformed here on December 16th, 162 Squadron (RAF), would fly the Mosquito XXV until February the following year when they would replace them with the Mosquito Mk XX. As part of the light-bomber unit of the Light Night Striking Force, 162 would quickly establish their effectiveness, striking hard at the heart of Germany, Berlin, in 36 consecutive raids.  162 would eventually leave Bourn on July 10th 1945 to go to RAF Blackbushe and their disbandment. Even though they were only here at Bourn for a short period, they would amass 4,037 flying hours in 913 operational sorties. Their loss rate would reflect the effectiveness of the Mosquito as a fighter, a bomber and a PFF weapon, losing only four aircraft in operational missions.

The departure of 162 Sqn would leave Bourn both desolate and very quiet.

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One of the few derelict buildings that still survive.

Post war, Bourn lay idle, the nearby hangars were used by Marshalls of Cambridge for vehicle repairs but eventually these were sold at auction, leaving the  site empty. It was completely closed down three years later. The land was sold off in the early 1960s and development has gradually encroached ever since. One small saving grace for Bourn is that a small flying club operated by the Rural Flying Corps is utilising a small part of the field including sections of two of the original runways. It is hoped that this will continue and keep the history of Bourn airfield alive.

Recently affected by the building of extensive housing developments and a new dual carriageway, Bourn has had much of its original infrastructure removed. The runways were cut slightly short and much of the accommodation and technical site redeveloped. However, a small gain from this is that the dual carriage way offers some interesting views along the remains of its enormous stretches of runway.

If approaching from Caxton Gibbet to the west, leave the dual carriageway and pull on to the smaller Saint Neots road that runs parallel. From the bank you can see along the runway taking in its enormous width. Other views of this, can be seen from the bridge that takes you back over the A428 toward the village of Bourn to the south.

It is also along this road that the fire tender station can be found, now utilised by a small industrial company it is one of the few original buildings surviving in good condition today.

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The fire tender shed, now a small business unit.

Many tracks can also be seen along here, pathways that would have led to the admin and accommodation areas of Bourn, the road now separating the two areas. There are a couple of Nissen huts here too, again used by small industrial companies, whilst other buildings stand derelict and in grave danger of demolition by weather or developer.

Whilst the runways are intact, large parts are used for storage and a section is used for motorcycle training. A lone windsock flies over the flying club.

Recent archeological investigations have revealed late prehistoric and Roman connections around the site, including a Roman burial site within the grounds of the airfield. Great crested Newts are also known to inhabit the area, perhaps history and nature will prevail. With continued development and further proposed housing, the future of Bourn is very uncertain and should these plans go ahead, Bourn like many other airfields of Britain will most likely cease to exist.

After leaving Bourn, we travel a stones throw south-west to a small airfield now more commonly seen with sedate gliders than fearsome fighters or lumbering bombers of the Second World War. We stop at Gransden Lodge.

The second part of Trail 31 continues on through the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside. Low soft hills give for superb views and fine examples of aviation heritage. We move on to the former RAF station at Gransden Lodge.

RAF Gransden Lodge

Sitting high on the hill-top, Gransden lodge rests peacefully nestled next to the villages of Little and Great Gransden to the west and Longstowe to the east; the county borders of Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire pass right across it. Surrounded by undulating countryside it no longer reverberates to the mass sound of piston engines, but more with the gentle whistle of gliders.

Gransden Lodge was another Cambridgeshire airfield modified to class ‘A’ specifications. It was opened in 1942, initially as a satellite for RAF Tempsford. Going through many modifications, the original design differed greatly from the eventual layout; initially the runways not reaching the perimeter track and there being no allocation of hangar, staff accommodation or hardstand space. As a satellite station, presumably these would not have been required. However, with the expansion of Bomber Command and the need for more airfields, Gransden Lodge would eventually become much larger and much more significant. Following changes to plans and redesigns of the infrastructure, three concrete runways (NE-SW, N-S and E-W) were eventually constructed and with one at 1,600 yards and two at 1,200 yards each, they were not huge. However, these were then extended to the more usual 2,000 yards and 1,400 yards later on, when in April 1941, the government decided that every Bomber Command airfield would have to accommodate the larger four-engined aircraft. Again further development of the site was undertaken and the runways were extended.

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Part of the Track in the Technical area.

A total of 36 hardstands were constructed using the pan style design, two of which were replaced when a hangar was built during the later development stage. This would give Gransden Lodge three hangars in total, two (a B1 and T2) to the north and one T2 to the south of the airfield.

The bomb store was located to the eastern side whilst the accommodation sites were spread to the west and north-west. These 10 sites were made up of two communal, two WAAF, and six domestic sites which included sick quarters and associated premises. The technical area would be to the west. In total, Gransden Lodge could accommodate 1,867 men and 252 women ranks.

Building plan of RAF Gransden Lodge*4

Once open, Gransden Lodge would be home to eight operational RAF squadrons: 53, 97, 142, 169, 192, 405, 421 and 692 before it would finally close at the end of the Second World War.

First to arrive were the combined units of 1474 and 1418 flights, who were here between April 1942 and April 1943, conducting radio navigation tests using the new GEE system. Operating the Wellington IC, III, X, IV and Halifax IIs, they were heavily involved in radio navigation and electronic counter-measure operations. These flights would probe German radar defences, gathering information so that counter-measures could be devised allowing bomber formations safer passage to their targets. The Wellingtons used for this would fly over Germany, France, and the Low Countries and even over the Bay of Biscay, gathering information and reporting back.

Eventually, these flights would become combined forming 192 Squadron (RAF) which officially formed on 4th January 1943 here at Gransden Lodge. 192 would pass over to 100 Group and move away to RAF Feltwell on the April 5th that same year and they  would go on to gain the honour of flying more operational sorties, and as a result, suffer more casualties than any other Radio Counter Measures (RCM) squadron in the RAF.

With their departure, Gransden Lodge would then be transferred to No. 8 (PFF) Group like its sister station, RAF Graveley, whereupon its operational role would be changed for good.

The next units to arrive would only stay for 5 days. Passing through with their Mustang Is, 169 Squadron would transit on to RAF Bottisham, whilst 421 Squadron would take their Spitfire VBs to nearby RAF Fowlmere.

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An overgrown Nissen Hut.

On April 18th 1943, 97 Squadron (RAF) arrived at neighbouring RAF Bourn – but would be split over several sites. A detachment was based here are Gransden, whilst two other detachments were located at Graveley and Oakington. 97 would go onto to gain notoriety for the disastrous ‘Black Thursday’ (See RAF Bourn) operation that took the lives of many of its crews. 97 Sqn would undertake many bombing operations staying here for a year, departing Gransden Lodge on 18th April 1944, a year to the day of their arrival.

April 1943 would be a busy time for Gransden. On the 19th, a day after 97 Sqn’s arrival, 405 Squadron (RCAF) would arrive, bringing with them Halifax IIs. Formed on April 23rd 1941, 405 would fly with 6 Group until their arrival here at Gransden. Adopted by the people of Vancouver, it would be the first Canadian unit to serve with Bomber Command.

405 Sqn’s entry into the Pathfinder Group brought more experience and skill. Participating in the both the ‘1000 bomber raid’ on Cologne and conducting temporary operations with Coastal Command, 405 had seen a number of different operational conditions. Initially bringing Halifax IIs, they would take on the Lancaster I and III only four months later. 405 Squadron would be the first unit to fly the Canadian built Lancaster – named ‘The Ruhr Express’, KB700 would be the first production model Mk. X.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The first Canadian-built Lancaster B Mk X, KB700 “The Ruhr Express”, taxying after landing at Northolt, Middlesex, KB700 was the first of 300 aircraft built by Victory Aircraft of Malton, Ontario. IWM (CH 11041)

405 Sqn would go on to attack many high-profile targets including: Essen, Dortmund, Cologne, Düsseldorf and toward the end of hostilities, Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden. They would be the last unit to attack targets in Italy and they would see action over Peenemunde.

Operating in conjunction with 97 Sqn, 405 would also fall victim to ‘Black Thursday’, when Lancaster JB477 ‘LQ-O’, would strike the ground within a stones throw of Graveley airfield killing six of the seven crew members. Two other Lancasters would also crash with fatalities that night, JB481 ‘LQ-R’ and JB369 ‘LQ-D’, – would both fail to make it home in the thick fog of ‘Black Thursday’ – truly a dark night for the Canadian Squadron.

At the end of 1944, No. 142 Squadron (RAF) would be reformed at Gransden Lodge. With an extensive Middle-Eastern history behind them, they would fly from here between 25th  October 1944 and September 28th 1945, the date of their departure a year later. Serving as apart of 8 Group (PFF) they flew Mosquito XXVs and would go on to complete 1,095 operational sorties, achieving 64 DFC’s and 52 DFM’s. They remained at Gransden Lodge carrying out their last raid on the night of May 2nd / 3rd 1945, finally disbanding on September 28th that year.

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The Watch Tower today.

It was during this time that Gransden’s second Mosquito squadron would arrive. 692 Squadron (RAF) would fly the MK. XIV until September that year. Moving from neighbouring Graveley, it had a short life of only 20 months. Its last casualties being March just before their arrival at Gransden.

It would be three months before any further units would be based at Gransden Lodge. On December 1st 1945, Liberator VIs of 53 Squadron (RAF) would arrive and stay for two months whilst they carried out trials of a new radar-assisted airborne mapping system. They were eventually disbanded on February 28th 1946. Their demise would mark the end of military flying at Gransden and whilst it remained in MOD hands it would not be home to any further military units.

Post war, Gransden Lodge was home to the first motor racing event using the old runways and northern section of the perimeter track. This was not to be permanent arrangement sadly and Gransden would remain disused. Military life almost returned with the escalation of the Cold War when ‘The Lodge’ was earmarked as a possible site for Cold War forces, however this never came to fruition and all continued to be quiet. Finally, in the 1960s Gransden Lodge closed it doors for good and the site left to decay.

That was not the end of Gransden Lodge though. In the 1990s the Cambridge University Gliding Club, (now the Cambridge Gliding Club) took over the site and flying has returned once again. Small airshows have taken place and whilst gliding is the more prominent, the sound of the piston engine can once more be heard over this historic site.

Whilst little of the original infrastructure survives today, there are some good reminders of this airfield’s history to be found. After driving through Little Gransden go up the hill towards what is now the rear of the airfield, you will arrive at an old Windmill. Sitting below this Windmill is a small and rather sadly insignificant memorial dedicated to the crews and personnel who worked, died and served at RAF Gransden Lodge.  Carry on past the memorial along a small track and you finally arrive at the rear of the airfield. In front of you the barrier and beyond the barrier the former watch tower. This road would have been the main entrance to the airfield’s technical site, you can still see a number of small buildings and a picket post to the side. To the right of this a track leads off to one of the few remaining huts now heavily shrouded in weeds and undergrowth. The tower, a mere shell, has had a modern but temporary ‘watchtower’ added to its roof. Whilst in poor condition, the watch office stands overlooking what is left of the airfield towards the small flying club that keeps its aviation history alive. A small number of other buildings can be seen around here all buried beneath the undergrowth and all skeletons of their former selves.

Leave the site return back to the village bear left, and continue to follow the road round. You will eventually come to a gravel entrance on your left with a small sign pointing to the flying club.

Take this road, and traverse the potholes as you climb the hill. On your left you will pass a small selection of foundations and piles of bricks that were once part of the southern side of the airfield. Continue on from here and the road bears right, this is now the original perimeter track, follow it as it winds its way around the outside of the airfield. It’s width is greatly reduced throughout its length and only small patches of concrete tell you of its former life. As you pass the former bomb store on your right and the end of the modern grass runways, bear left where you will finally arrive at the flying club. Here  a collection of small aircraft and gliders will greet you. A small modern watchtower and clubhouse watch over the aircraft and the airfield as gliders take to the sky.

On warm summer days, or when  the thermals are good, this is a lovely place to sit and watch in awe as the majestic birds of the sky float silently above this once busy wartime airfield. A small club house provides refreshments and a welcome break from the dusty road that leads here.

As you depart the club, and drive back round the perimeter track, you can see in the distance, the control tower standing proud on the horizon, what memories it must hold and stories it could tell.

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The Stained Glass window in St. Bartholomew’s Church.

Before departing this site for good, it is worth going to Great-Gransden and the church of Saint Bartholomew. Within its walls is a beautiful stained-glass window that commemorates those who served at Gransden Lodge. Also placed nearby is the roll of honour detailing those individuals who gave their lives whilst serving here. A fitting and well deserved memorial, it forms an excellent record of those long gone.

The villages of Little and Great-Gransden bear virtually  no reminders of their local aviation history. Delightful in their settings, nestled in the Cambridgeshire countryside, their secrets are bound tightly within their boundaries, but the airfield and the flying, still live on.

We finally leave here and head west to another ‘hilltop’ site. One that boasts one of the most prestigious memorials in the country. An open site with superb views over the Cambridgeshire countryside, we head to the former American base – RAF Steeple Morden.

Notes:

*1 loses were recorded from 7, 9, 12, 44, 57, 97, 100, 101, 103, 156, 166, 207, 405, 408, 426, 432, 460, 576, 619 and 625 squadrons all Lancasters.

*2 a website dedicated to 97 Squadron gives detailed information into ‘Black Thursday’ including personal accounts, the unit, men and operations.

*3 records from aircrew remembered

*4 Photo courtesy of RAF museum

The Cambridge Gliding Club website can be accessed here.