High up in the northern most reaches of England are two airfields that repeatedly appear in the memoirs of many RAF and USAAF pilots. Not because they were busy front-line stations dealing with the constant battle against marauding enemy bombers, but more simply because they were training stations. However, they were no ordinary training facilities. They operated a large number of aircraft whose pilots played a major part in both the Normandy landings and the drive on through France and the low countries. There is also a third, one that was not a major player in the Second World War, but post war, it became one of the most sophisticated operational bases in the whole of the United Kingdom, and remains so today.
In this, the next trail, we visit Northumberland, and a place where ground attack pilots honed their skills, perfecting the use of rockets, canon and bombs, in the destruction of enemy troop convoys, trains and tanks. The first stop on this trail though is an airfield that is arguably one of Britain’s most significant wartime airfields, that of RAF Milfield.
RAF Milfield lies a short distance from the village it takes its name from, at the foot of the Cheviot hills on an area known as the Millfield Plain. It is an area steeped in history. On this site, evidence has been found of Neolithic hearths, storage pits and post holes. There is also evidence of two Bronze Age circular houses and a further three rectangular houses dating back to the ‘Dark Age’; an age that probably pre-dates the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the area from around AD 547.
This area was also the scene of many fierce and brutal battles between the English and the Scots, The Battle of Homildon Hill and the Battle of Flodden were both fought within a few miles of this very site. In both these conflicts, heavy casualties were suffered by both sides, and it is therefore, an area that is both used to war, and one that is rich in historical interest.
As a military aviation site, Milfield came into being during the First World War. One of several such sites in the region that was used as little more than an emergency landing ground by 77 Squadron who were based further north at Edinburgh. Known at the time as Woodbridge, it would be a quiet little site that would soon disappear, quickly returning to its agricultural roots once war was over.
As a second war with Germany seemed inevitable, the need for new airfields became evermore apparent, and so the Air Ministry implemented the airfield expansion scheme. This programme developed so quickly that by 1942 there was a front line airfield opening at the rate of one every three days! As the German forces moved ever more quickly, and the Fall of France led to the Battle of Britain, the need for fresh, well-trained pilots became paramount. With home reserves drying up, the Commonwealth became an untapped source that would fill the ever-increasing void that was becoming a thorn in the side of the RAF.
Trained only in basic flying techniques, these crews had to be battle hardened and fit for action in a matter of weeks or even less. Initial training operations were mere ‘lip-service’ and recruits often had as much chance of killing themselves as they did the enemy they were intended to down. To meet this demand, numerous training stations were created, manned mainly by Operational Training Units (OTU), they were governed by the various arms of the Air Command: Fighter, Bomber, Naval, Transport etc.
At these training sites, crews would in essence, perform a ‘post-graduate’ training exercise, where they would be assembled for the first time and trained in their respective roles on the aircraft they would be expected to fly operationally. Milfield would be designated as one such station, and was initially identified as a suitable location for a bomber command site. Following requisition of the land in early 1941, the green-light for development was given, the process was put into place, and RAF Milfield was born.
Before any bomber crew would use Milfield though, it would pass from Bomber Command control over to Fighter Command whose focus would now be fighter pilots, and in particular, those specialising in both ground attack and dive bombing techniques.
As pilots came from all across the world, their training standards were some what disjointed, and so a refresher course bringing all crews up to the same standard would be required. This was a role that Milfield would fulfil. Working in conjunction with its satellite station a few miles to the east, RAF Brunton, Milfield crews would spend some 9 to 10 weeks in total on flying techniques, both solo and formation flying, with the more advanced training taking place at RAF Brunton.
Nestled between the main road and the River Till, Milfield would be built to bomber station specifications, the three runways being wood chip and concrete one of 1,400 yards and two of 1,100 Yards. During development and subsequent handover to Fighter Command though, the new Class ‘A’ airfield standard would come in to being, requiring all airfields to be built with a longer runway specification. However, being a fighter training site, these were not imposed and whilst two of the runways were extended (1,800 and 1,300 yards) they were not to the full Class A specification.
As a training airfield it would be exceptionally busy. An expected turnover would be a new course starting around every 3 weeks, which would mean a considerable number of aircrew and aircraft; in excess of 100 air frames would be located here at Milfield at any one time. The primary fighter aircraft at this point would be the Hurricane with other examples including the Miles Master and Magister. To repair and maintain the aircraft, two T2 hangars were constructed with a further eight blister hangars located around the dispersal areas. Squadron dispersal huts were spread around the perimeter, with the technical area and main hangars being located to the south-eastern side. Accommodation, designed to be temporary, was dispersed over 13 sites, and would be designed to accommodate in the region of 1,650 staff, both male and female. Like many airfields though, this figure was surpassed with the actual ‘on roll’ totals varying considerably reflecting the constant movement of staff. Including the numerous support staff, it is believed that some 3,300 people were employed at Milfield at its height.
Adjacent to the airfield was the former Galewood Farm House, an old farm building used as an Officer’s mess during the airfield’s operational life. Destroyed in the 1960s, it was once part of an estate that adjoined the airfield, and was previously home to Josephine Butler. Josephine was the leader of a national women’s political campaign in Victorian England, who campaigned on behalf of prostitutes, abused and trafficked women until her death in 1906*1. Now commandeered by the military, a snooker table with lights powered by a generator was placed inside, and nearby stood the NAAFI theatre, the recreational building showing the usual films to keep the personnel entertained.
It was during this construction period that the first enemy action would occur over Milfield. On September 1st 1941, at 23:00 hrs, six bombs were dropped in the vicinity of Milfield. A crater 72 feet wide and 10 feet deep was recorded, the road was blocked and telephone lines were brought down. Also during this time, and whilst not officially open, aircraft would land at Millfield, presumably as test landings or after getting into difficulty. One of the first casualties here was that of Sgt. James B Spangler (R71573) RCAF flying Hurricane V7044 on 25th June 1941, who was “killed in the course of a training flight” whilst flying with 59 OTU. This tragic accident would be a sign of things to come.
Because of the nature of training flights, accidental deaths on or around Milfield would become fairly common. These included on October 6th, 1941, Hurricane MK. I W9177 which was forced to Bellyland in a field near to Stocksfield just west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On 13th December 1941, Sgt. Norman Clunie Pow, (R83911) RCAF, again of 59 OTU, crashed in Hurricane P3809. Sgt. Pow was just 25 years of age and was buried some several hundred miles away next to RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, another training station.
As a training airfield, no operational front line squadrons would use Milfield, other than a detachment of 184 Sqn Hurricane IIDs between 1st December, 1942 and 1st March, 1943. The only other use of Milfield by ‘front line’ units would be as a transit base in the early post-war months.
The first full unit to arrive was that of 59 Operational Training Unit (OTU), arriving in the August of 1942.
59 OTU were originally formed at Turnhouse in December 1940, and operated amongst other things, the Hurricane, the Magister, the Fairy Battle and finally Hawker’s Tempest, all in a training capacity. After spending some five months at Crosby-on-Eden, the unit transferred to Milfield where they trained pilots in the ground attack role. As with many training stations, casualties were high, with many accidents happening through either pilot error or mechanical defects. Many of the Hurricanes used here were veterans themselves, beaten and patched up following intensive fighting in the Battle of Britain, many were long past their sell by date.
One of the first accidents to occur was that of Sgt. K. Dole, RCAF, who stalled whilst performing aerobatics – either authorised or not. His aircraft, a Hurricane MK.I ‘V7316’, MF 89 of ‘Z’ flight 59 OTU, crashed on farmland near Cornhill in August 1942. Luckily Sgt. Dole was unhurt, and the aircraft was salvaged; being repaired and sent to operations in the Middle East. The same fate however, did not fall to P/O J. Methum, who was killed in early September 1942, when his Hurricane MK.I ‘V6840’ crashed in a forced landing a few miles away to the east. The aircraft was written off in this most tragic of accidents.
The dangers of training became evermore apparent over the next few months, Saturday 27th March 1943 being particularly poor for 59 OTU with two crashes on the same day. Hurricanes Mk.I ‘W9184’ and ‘W9121’ crashing in forced landings and night landings respectively. Both pilots were killed that day; Sgt. Robert MacFadzean (s/n: 1349862) born of US resident parents, and Welshman, Sgt. Gordon Cullener (s/n: 1383311).
Four months after 59 OTU’s arrival, No 1 Specialised Low Attack Instructors School (SLAIS) would also be formed here (7th December, 1942) another unit that used the Hurricane and the Magister. One of the Chief Instructors of the School would be Squadron Leader J.H. “Ginger” Lacey DFM and Bar, a Battle of Britain Veteran who ended his career with 28 confirmed kills.
Low flying, in even in the relative safety of Northern England, was not immune from accidents, mishaps or misjudgments by the pilots. On 21st February 1943, Hurricane MK.II ‘HW731’ of the SLAIS hit an obstacle one mile north of Beal, the pilot escaped unharmed and after nursing the aircraft back to Milfield, it was repaired and converted for ground training purposes as ‘4616M’.
As flying training continued, so too did the number of accidents, burst tyres, engine malfunctions and fires, pilot error and collisions accounting for a wide range of them. On April 27th 1943, two Hurricanes collided in mid-air whilst performing formation flying. Both airmen, F/Sgt Davies and F/O Thompson were killed; an event that was mirrored in the following July when Hurricanes ‘P3475’ and ‘V7173’ also collided again with fatal results. New Zealander Charles Humphrey (s/n: 421056) is buried locally.
On May 1st 1943, 59 OTU transferred from 81 Group to No. 9 Group, at which point 81 Group was disbanded. No 9. took over 81’s responsibility, and it remained primarily a training arm of the Royal Air Force. For 59 OTU though, little would change.
On September 16th 1943, a B-17F-BO (42-30030) named ‘Old Ironsides‘ ran out of fuel whilst returning from La Rochelle. The pilot Lieutenant Henry J Nagorka, decided to ditch in the sea near Farne Islands, off the Northumbrian coast. The aircraft quickly filled with water and in under four minutes she had disappeared beneath the waves.
During the ditching two crewmen were lost, waist gunners: S/Sgt. Ed Christensen and S/Sgt. Claude Whitehead, whilst the tail gunner S/Sgt. Harris lost a leg. Those that survived managed to climb into a dingy and sailed to St Cuthbert’s Island where they awaited rescue. Upon being saved, they were transferred to Milfield, where they were collected by another B-17 from the USAAF. However, as Milfield was a fighter airfield and its runways hadn’t been extended to Class A specifications, there were doubts about the aircraft’s ability to get off the ground on the short space available. To overcome the problem, the hedges at the end of the runway were removed and steal planking temporarily laid, the problem never arose though as the B-17 along with its additional human cargo left Milfield safely.
On January 26th 1944, both 59 OTU and the SLAIS were disbanded and a new unit formed, the Fighter Leaders School (FLS). The School had its origins in 52 OTU formed at Chedworth, and was in January, created as a unit in its own right. Formed through the need for more ground attack pilots in preparation for the forthcoming invasion, it was a unit that would take on the responsibility for the majority of the RAF’s ground attack crews. One notable figure of the FLS at Milfield was Bob Doe DSO, DFC & Bar, another veteran of the Battle of Britain. He would later return to operational duties after his short stay here in Northumberland.
Using the codes HK, OQ and MF, the FLS operated a number of aircraft predominately Spitfire VBs, and Spitfire MK IXs along with a handful of other marks. It later went on to adopt the radial engined Typhoon IB. In total over 130 aircraft would be used by the Milfield unit, an incredible amount of aircraft on one site at any one time. Milfield continued to be in the spotlight.
It was also during this time, early 1944, that the USAAF would begin to send their pilots to Milfield to train on their ranges. With them, came a variety of US built aircraft, P-38 ‘Lightnings’, P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ and the P-51 ‘Mustangs’. The brainchild of General Quesada, the plan was to train Ninth Air Force pilots in the art of dive bombing, skip bombing and low-level attacks, techniques that would become paramount if the push through France and on into Germany was to succeed. The arrival and increased use of Milfield by the US crews gave an indication that the impending invasion was drawing ever closer.
One of the earliest accidents for the FLS was in March of 1944, when Mohawk MK.III AR633 of 510 Squadron was hit by a Typhoon (JR509) of the Fighter Leader School on take off. Also on this day, a Spitfire MK.IIa (P8549) of the FLS tragically blew up in mid-air during a dive bombing attack on the Goswick ranges. The pilot of the Spitfire, F/Lt. Bouquen, a Belgian, was killed in the incident.
About a month later, a flight of four P47D Thunderbolts from the 366th FS (358th FG) from RAF Raydon attached to Milfield, were carrying out practice strafing attacks on a military convoy. During the climb out of the attack, one of the Thunderbolts (42-25530), piloted by 1st Lt A. Serapiglia collided head on with Spitfire Mk 1 ‘R6762’ which was preparing to land at nearby RAT Eshott. In the collision, both pilots Sgt. Kai Knajenhjelm a 19-year-old Norwegian and Lt. Serapiglia were killed. After the investigation it was deemed that all future exercises should be performed “outside of local flying areas” of nearby airfields, something that perhaps seems obvious today, but reflects the hectic and often frantic skies over northern England in the 1940s.
A further accident to befall the Americans occurred on May 27th 1944, when a P-38 ‘Lightning’ #42-67425, of the 392nd FS, 367th FG piloted by Dueron H. Robertson, of the Ninth Air force, suffered a landing accident. The aircraft suffered major damage in the crash.
One of the benefits of attending the FLS was the diverse range not only of nationalities: Dutch, Czech, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South Africans to name but a few, but also the range of aircraft used. At the end of courses, trainees – now fully fledged fight pilots – were sometimes given the opportunity to try out other types of aircraft. An action that no doubt put the fear of God into the Station Commander who was heard to have shut his door and say “to hell with it”*2 . A number of other incidents occurred during this hectic time, which saw, by the end of December 1944, the FLS being absorbed into the Central Fighter Establishment based at RAF Wittering. Following this, the staff at Milfield all moved out, and momentarily peace prevailed once more.
Between mid December 1944 and into early January 1945, 56 OTU was reformed. Previously at RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, it brought new aircraft, to the area, and Northumbria now reverberated to the radial engines of the Typhoon IB and the Tempest V; as four squadrons operated the aircraft using the codes FE, GF, HQ and OD. A collection of other aircraft types also graced the skies of this now highly significant airfield, Spitfires, Tiger Moths, Leopard Moths and Magisters to name but a few.
Even though the war in Europe was winding its way toward its conclusive ending, priority for aircraft was given to this purposefully created unit, and practice flights continued in earnest. The skies remained busy and accident numbers remained high. In the space of one month between mid January and mid February 1945, there were no less than 8 incidents involving aircraft from Milfield and 56 OTU. As with many incidents here, poor weather, engine failures and pilot error were the causes of many aircraft abandonment, pilot injuries and tragically deaths. In these eight incidents six involved Typhoons and two involved Tempests.
March and April were similar stories, accidents, mishaps and deaths continued to plague Milfield, with pilot error accounting for a larger number of the accidents. Perhaps one of the most bizarre incidents took place on March 8th 1945 when the leader of a Spitfire squadron ‘deliberately’ attacked a Typhoon Mk.Ib ‘MP187’ of 56 OTU, killing the pilot F/O. R Smith of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Typhoon was commonly mistaken for the Luftwaffe’s Focke Wolf 190, a formidable beast that became the scourge of the USAAF bomber formations.
The closing stages of the war didn’t bring a respite either. Saturday 12th May saw a collision between Tempests ‘EJ685’ and ‘NV759’ an event that killed an instructor pilot. Even after the war’s end, accidents continued to occur, with June, July, August and September all witnessing further deaths and incidents. August 23rd saw Typhoon ‘SW638’ collide on the ground with two other aircraft, both those struck were written off whilst the ‘offending’ aircraft was badly damaged.
At the end of the war, and over just a two-day period, the only two operational units to use Milfield would arrive, using it as a transit stop. Both 164 Squadron and 183 Squadron would arrive and depart on the same day 16 – 17th June 1945 bringing with them yet more Typhoons.
Eventually, nearly nine months after the war’s end, on February 14th 1946, 56 OTU were disbanded, but not before one final roll of the dice when the life of an RAF pilot was taken. On January 29th 1946, whilst on a “Camera Exercise” and after performing a slow roll ten miles west of Holy Island, Tempest Mk. V EJ859 piloted by F/Lt. Vincent Parker (s/n 42356) RAFVR, an Australian aged 27, dived into the ground killing him. In a cruel twist of irony, F/Lt Parker was killed after having survived as a prisoner of war since 16th August 1940. He had remained in a German POW camp until its liberation at the end of hostilities, returning to England in June 1945, his post-war, peacetime life had been shorter than his life in captivity.
The departure of 56 OTU signified the end of the RAF’s interests in Milfield, and although not a front line operational airfield, it had become a very active and played a highly significant role in fighter training and development. Used to train both new and experienced pilots, it had become one of the RAF’s top fighter pilot training stations, developing pilot’s proficiency in low-level weapons delivery techniques. No matter how dangerous the training got, crews had continued to pass through, morale had remained high and the standards were never dropped. Of the 1,200 pilots who had passed through here, many went on to make their names as the top ground attack pilots of the Second World War.
Immediately after the war, many of the accommodation huts were used to house Latvian soldiers, many staying here up until 1950. Local people were then housed in refurbished WAAF blocks before moving on to more permanent housing in the local village.
Soon after, Milfield began its decline with many of the buildings being demolished over the coming years. During the cold war era, the two T2 hangars were designated storage units for dried foods and emergency rations, thankfully a role that never had to be called into operation. Eventually the runways were dug up and removed for hardcore, quarrying took over the southern end of the airfield and much of the surface layers were removed in the process.
During the 1970s investigations were carried by Air Anglia into the possibility of commencing commuter flights to European cities, but the project failed to ‘get off the ground’ and the service was scrapped before it ever developed into anything more than investigative flights.
Now partly returning to agriculture, a small section of the airfield has been retained by the Borders Glider Club*3 . The battle to keep gliders and flying here alive, being a long and difficult one. Through this small organisation, that operates only at the weekends, the spirit of flying lives on, and Milfield continues to fight for survival, a fight that has been both emotive and historically significant in the battle for the skies over Britain. The T2s have now gone as has virtually all the remaining buildings. A stone statue built by an Italian POW who was employed on the local farm, stands on private land, marking what was the official entrance to the airfield during the war years, it is clearly visible from the road side.
Located four miles north-west of Wooler and Visiting today, there is little evidence of the former airfield left. Small sections of the perimeter track are now the public road, but alongside the road, the remainder of the track can just still be seen. The north-western end of the runway is also visible as are a small collection of dispersal pans. The MG & Cannon Range building still stands, minus its roof it is rapidly decaying, it has a very short life left.
Interestingly, as a training airfield, Milfield used both a Fisher Front Turret Trainer and Hawarden Trainer, a simulation trainer that used the fuselage of a Spitfire to train pilots in interception techniques. A model suspended from the ceiling up to 60 feet away from the pilot could be moved forwards or backwards by operating the opposite movement of the Spitfire’s throttle. As the Spitfire ‘accelerated’ the model moved backwards along a rail, rather similar in design to a 1970’s child’s toy. During these sessions a range of flying skills could be tested, interception and aircraft recognition, throttle control and cockpit procedures included. A primitive method that was state of the art in 1941. Sadly neither of these exist today.
Two memorials are located at this site, the first in a public car park to the western end of the airfield, next to the Maelmin heritage trail. The second is located outside the club house of the Borders Gliding Club, approximately on the site of the former watch office, itself no longer there. This memorial was commissioned by the club entirely through donations and is their way of acknowledging the sacrifice of those who flew from Milfield.
Milfield is arguably one of the most significant airfields of the Second World War, many Spitfire, Hurricane and Typhoon pilots quote it in their memoirs, their time here short but memorable. Here ground attack pilots cut their teeth, low-level strafing and dive bombing techniques being honed to absolute perfection. The battle for Europe would certainly have been more difficult were it not for those daring young men who passed through this remote but historically important airfield.
After we leave Milfield, we head east, toward the coast and the satellite of Milfield. A small airfield, it too played a major part in the development of ground attack crews and it too saw many accidents and losses through its training programme. From here we go to RAF Brunton.
In this the second stop on our trip to Northumberland, we travel close to the North Sea coast not far from the eastern borders of England and Scotland. A small airfield, this was the satellite to RAF Milfield, and performed an important role in the Second World War. You cannot mention Milfield without reference to this airfield, and vice versa. Here we stop off at that little known about site RAF Brunton.
Brunton is located some 3.5 miles to the south-east of Seahouses, a short distance from the Northumbrian coast. The village it takes its name from sits alongside the airfield, and is made up of a handful of buildings – primarily farmhouses. It is an open and flat area ideal for an airfield, and only a short flying distance away from its parent airfield RAF Milfield.
Brunton was designed as a satellite, and even though it was not a major airfield, it more than fulfilled the role of one. A constantly busy site, it somehow managed to ward off the high numbers of tragedies, losses and accidents that dogged Milfield and many other aircrew training facilities.
Brunton was conceived during the development of Milfield, when the need for another site was soon realised. The land on which Brunton stands was requisitioned in 1941, opening for business in early 1942. With its three runways forming an almost perfect equilateral triangle at its centre, it had a 50 yard perimeter track and twenty-five hardstands of the frying pan style. The longest of the three runways ran slightly off north-south, and was originally built to a length of 1,600 yards – it was later extended to 2,000 yards. The second and third runways, intersecting almost at their centre, were both 1,100 yards and were also extended but to 1,400 and 2,000 yards respectively.
Unusually, the accommodation areas were all closely tied together, a rare feature that placed them to the south of the airfield straddling the local railway (now the East Coast main line from which views can be seen as you pass by). Being a satellite, Brunton was only designed to accommodate small numbers of personnel, upward of some 750 men and women of mixed ranks.
As a satellite, there were no permanent hangars built, but four blister hangars were erected around the site, and used to maintain the aircraft. These Blister hangars (a name given to cover a wide range of arched aircraft shelters initially designed by architects and engineers, Norman & Dawbarn and William C. Inman of Miskins and Sons) were known as Dorman Long hangars, and were built to design 4630/42. At slightly under 72 feet in length they were 45 feet wide with a height of over 20 feet. Dorman Long hangars differed in design to other hangars by being constructed of four sections each held together by three RSJ type ribs, and ‘I’ shaped Purlins along the roof. These hangars were also bolted to foundations rather than staked to the ground like the more conventional blister hangars in use at that time. A similar hangar was used at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire – none of which survive today.
As a satellite, Brunton would work closely with its parent. It would be used in the second part of the 9-10 week pilot’s course to train pilots in formation flying, ground attack and strafing techniques. In the ground attack role, pilots would use a mix of rockets, bombs and cannon to destroy dummy convoys and strongholds. There were a number of ranges in the region providing targets for this particular role; Brunton aircraft predominately using the gunnery range at Goswick Dunes on which numerous ex-army vehicles, including Churchill Tanks, were placed.
Even before Brunton officially opened, it would witness a tragic accident in which it became the final resting place of one Whitley bomber, and three of its four crew. On November 6/7th 1941, whilst on a training flight, the MK. V Whitley (Z6932) of 10 Sqn, RAF Leeming, became lost in poor weather due to a failure of its navigation equipment. After landing on the partially built site, the Whitley took off again, heading south in an effort to locate its home base. As it lifted off, it struck a steam roller causing the aircraft to jolt and strike live high tension cables. The aircraft burst into flames and subsequently crashed. The Wireless Operator/Rear Gunner Sgt. Robert Whitlock, RAFVR (s/n: 163028) was pulled free by a crew from the local search light battery, but the remainder of the crew: Pilot F/Sgt. William Stuart RCAF, (s/n: R/60298) P/O. Richard. S. Austin, RNZAF, (s/n: 403785) and Observer Sgt. P. Bryant, RAFVR, (s/n: 976876), all perished. Bryant was a mere 23 years of age whilst Stuart and Austin were both just 21 years old.
Brunton’s opening in the summer of 1942, coincided with the start of operations at RAF Milfield, Brunton’s first residents would be 59 Operational Training Unit, a unit set up to train pilots for Fighter Command.
59 OTU operated the Hurricane, many of which were themselves veterans of the Battle of Britain. War-weary and battle-scarred, they were joined by a number of other aircraft types including Magisters and Fairy Battles. These flights would take the now adept pilots and train them to fly in formation and at low-level. A speciality would be to fly across the sea, at low-level, turn toward land and then strike at land based targets with bombs and canon or later rockets.
During the Spring of 1942 it was decided to allocate reserve squadron numbers to Operational Training Units, these numbers being in the range 551 – 566. The idea behind this plan – code name ‘Saracen‘ – was to create a series of squadrons that could be mobilised at a moments notice to counteract an imminent German invasion threat. The plans were later revised under the codename ‘Banquet‘ but would remain, in essence, in its original form well into 1944 before being seen as unnecessary, and so withdrawn. At Brunton, 559 Sqn was allocated, (500 was generally added to the OTU number to create the reserve number) but the pilots of 31 Course, like many others, were never officially mobilised. However, Brunton was run as if it were a fully fledged operational squadron, the same rules and regulations, with two flights ‘E’ and ‘F’ both operating the Hurricane MK.I.
Flying with old and war-weary aircraft was difficult. Many would suffer engine fires, oil leaks or complete engine failures – some whilst in flight – and they rarely flew without the need for excessive trimming or constant adjustments to flying controls. These continuing problems would hound the pilots and ground crews for months, but undeterred they carried on, and morale remained particularly high.
On October 13th 1942, one of these Hurricanes would suffer from such a problem and its engine would fail causing the pilot to crash-land. A MK.I Hurricane (P3524) it would be forced to land in a field not far from Alnwick, the county town a few miles to the south-west of the airfield. The aircraft was slightly damaged in the incident but fortunately the pilot, Sgt. C. Tidy (s/n 1042890), would walk away unhurt. In carrying out the controlled crash, Sgt. Tidy would steer his aircraft down missing a nearby school, but as he exited the aircraft, the documents he was carrying were scattered to the four winds. Wanting to do their bit, a local school master organised a search party with the boys in his care, and the documents were all gathered up and retrieved successfully. *1
Brunton, like Milfield, would have a high turnover of visiting aircraft. Many would come from Milfield, but some from much further afield to practice landings at night or as pilots transferred from one aerodrome to another. Some aircraft were also using Brunton as a safe haven, getting down after getting in trouble in the air. In March 1943 a Hurricane MK. I (W9121) of 59 OTU based at Milfield crashed whilst on final approach at night to Brunton airfield. The pilot, Sgt. Cullener was very sadly killed in an event that was repeated in early 1944, when another Milfield 59 OTU Hurricane MK.I (P3104) also crashed on its approach to Brunton.
The dawn of 1944 saw 59 OTU along with the Specialised Low Attack Instructors School (SLAIS) (also formed in 1942 at Milfield) disband, being replaced by a specialised unit the Fighter Leader School. The FLS was a unit designed solely to train pilots in the ground attack role and was set up primarily in preparation for the forthcoming Allied Invasion of Normandy. With this change so came a change of aircraft type, the Spitfire VB and MK IX now becoming the main aircraft operated in place of the Hurricane. The FLS would make great use of Brunton, training many pilots until it moved to Wittering at the end of 1944.
But not all staff would vacate Brunton in this move. A small detachment remained behind to give support to the build up of the newly reformed 56 Operational Training Unit who were brought together, both here and at Milfield, in place of the vacating FLS. This meant that the two sites would continue to operate very closely, but now using the heavier radial engined Tempests and Typhoons still in the ground attack role rather than the previous Spitfires and the now vulnerable Hurricanes of before.
The Typhoons came in with a number of teething troubles, one such attribute was the propensity to lose its tail plane during mid-flight, or the engine suffering a blow-back resulting in a fire in the engine or worse still in the cockpit. These issues were soon dealt with though, and the Typhoon went on to become renowned as a ground attack aircraft, with its bombs or rockets proving devastating weapons in the role.
Brunton continued its close relationship with Milfield, supporting its 140 aircraft. Course No. 1 would begin in that January of 1945 and through it a large number of pilots would pass on their way to new roles in the European campaign.
Even as the war drew to a close accidents were still to happen and Brunton was no exception. In early January 1945, whilst being ferried from Milfield to Brunton Typhoon IB. (RB343) developed engine failure on take of at Milfield causing it to lose height and ultimately crash into the ground. The pilot, Canadian born P/O Nelson I. Gordon (J88818) was killed. Then just a month before the end of the war on April 9th, Tempest MK. V (EJ845) swung on take off at Brunton colliding with a wind sock. The accident took the life of another Canadian pilot, 32-years-old F/Lt. Ivan W. Smith (J22244) RCAF; he remains buried at Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery in Yorkshire along with over 1,000 other war dead.
Gradually though, the need for ground attack pilots diminished and Brunton, no longer required, was earmarked for closure. The war finally came to a close, and on February 14th 1946, 56 OTU were disbanded and the RAF pulled out of Brunton almost immediately. The airfield was now all but deserted.
After the war, for around 20 years, the Borders Parachute Centre occupied Brunton, until the land was sold, and the owner gave them notice to quit. Their lease ran out in 2004 and the club closed on the site. During this time a small contingent of RAF personnel were brought in when a radar facility was set up on the eastern side of the site. This too eventually closed though, and the personnel were pulled out. A small number of private pilots used the airfield to store and fly their aircraft from, it is believed they too have had to vacate the site, although this is not certain.
A large portion of the airfield still exists and in very good condition today. If travelling toward Brunton village you pass beneath the main East Coast main line railway, and on into the village. This road was the original entrance to the airfield, with the main technical area to your left. Now only farm buildings stand here, but the concrete pathway is still visible as it leads away to the main airfield site. Views across the airfield from this point offer little advantage, so turning back and driving along side the railway down a single track, will lead you along the western side of the airfield and toward the back of the site. This is another original road and provides much better, but still limited, views of the site. The runways and perimeter track are present and many air raid shelters are also present along this western side. The remainder of the buildings from these various sites are now gone.
The small radar / monitoring dome is also still present but on the eastern side of the airfield, and although information about this is scarce, it was linked to nearby RAF Boulmer, and manned by RAF personnel. Boulmer which is currently the home of the Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) plays a key role in the home defence of the United Kingdom. Boulmer is linked to a number of monitoring stations around the British Isles and monitors, around the clock, an area of over one million square miles of airspace. This airspace stretches from the northern tip of Norway to as far out as Iceland and beyond, and encompasses the whole of the United Kingdom. With links direct to the QRA sites at RAF Coningsby, it monitors and tracks all aircraft activity around British Airspace, and in particular Soviet intrusions into this Airspace.
Brunton, whilst only a satellite, proved its worth during the Second World War. It trained numerous pilots in the art of ground attack techniques, and was pivotal in both the Normandy invasion and the drive on through occupied Europe. Visited by many commonwealth pilots, it was more ‘relaxed’ than other wartime airfields, but always maintained the highest of standards, operating as strictly and smoothly as any operational airfield of the Second World War.
From Brunton, we head off again, further south this time and to an airfield with strong links to both Brunton and Millfield. An airfield that was also a training facility and one that closed at the end of the Second World War. However, that was not the final curtain for this airfield, Flying returned later on and it became one of the most important and sophisticated sites in the United Kingdom. We travel next to RAF Boulmer.
RAF Boulmer (Longhoughton).
RAF Boulmer sits on the very coast of Northumbria approximately 4 miles east of the historic town of Alnwick. Its life began in 1940 as a decoy airfield called Longhoughton with dummy Hurricanes and Spitfires protected by four Lewis Machine guns mounted on tripods. To add to the realistic effect, the dummy aircraft were moved about on a regular basis, the three grass runways were kept in good condition and a series of landing lights were left on to imitate an active airfield, The rouse was so good that the airfield was repeatedly attacked by Luftwaffe aircraft, but with little damage being sustained as result.
The airfield was manned by as few as twenty personnel, who maintained the deception well into the mid war years, until such time as the threat of invasion and raids had died down. No longer needed, the decoy site was closed and Boulmer would then enter a new phase in its long life.
In 1942 a decision was made to develop Boulmer into a hard-surfaced airfield, and although the tarmac and woodchip runways (1,800, 1,400 and 1,300 yds x 50 yds) weren’t added until November 1943, the airfield was opened and used ‘operationally’. Opened as a satellite airfield under the control of 12 Group, it would become a training station seeing a mix of Spitfires flown by 57 Operational Training Unit (OTU), (based as RAF Eshott) use its facilities. In addition to the hard runways were some twenty-five aircraft dispersal pans, a storage facility supplemented with four Dorman Long Blister hangars. These hangars were different to other types of Blister hangar by the fact that they were bolted to foundations and not held in place by their own weight. A larger more common T2 hangar was also planned, but this it would seem, never materialised.
57 OTU were originally reformed through the renumbering of No. 7 OTU on 1st November 1940 at Harwarden, before they transferred to RAF Eshott in Northumberland, two years later. They remained at Eshott for the duration of the war running 76 pilot training courses at both Eshott and Boulmer. The principal aircraft of the unit was the Spitfire, but they also used a variety of other small single engined aircraft including the Fairy Battle, the Lysander, Magister and Boulton Paul’s Defiant.
Boulmer would become quite a busy airfield over the next few years, not only used by 57 OTU, but also by other ‘local’ squadrons as a relief landing ground. Boulmer’s primary aim at this point was to train pilots to fly the Hurricane and Spitfire. Pilots would work through a series of exercises from basic flying training at Eshott, to more advanced flying techniques here at Boulmer. Like many of these training airfields Charter Hall, Millfield and Brunton, the aircraft they used were old and in many cases ex Battle of Britain examples. Patched up and repeatedly repaired, they were not the most reliable models to be given to trainees.
One of the first accidents to happen at Boulmer was the collision between Spitfire MK.IIa #P8071 and Spitfire MK.IIa #P7836 over the North Sea. The pilot of #P8071, Sgt. Leonard Baker (s/n:658739), was killed outright, whilst the other pilot managed to nurse his aircraft home, landing wheels-up at Boulmer – he being unhurt. At the time of his death, Sgt. Baker was only a young man at 22 years of age.
In November, that year, another Spitfire was lost also with its pilot, F/O. Geoffrey Booth (s/n: 119496), when his aircraft #P8197, also a MK.IIa, crashed shortly after taking off during a night training flight. F/O. Booth (RAFVR) was another youngster being only 23 years of age. He is buried in Chevington Cemetery in Northumberland, and was the Son of Harold and Elsie Booth, of Leeds, Yorkshire.
A number of other accidents occurred in which aircraft swung, engines failed or undercarriage jammed. The last 57 OTU accident at Boulmer involved a Spitfire VB #W3713 on March 2nd 1945, when just after take off, the aircraft struck a tree causing both the pitot head to break off and the throttle to jam open. An ex USAAF aircraft, it was one of 20 produced under contract B19713/39 and was written off as a result.
The latter part of the war (1943/44) continued to see units from other nearby airfields use Boulmer, 59 OTU who were based primarily at RAF Millfield, would use Boulmer whilst their satellite station RAF Brunton was under repair. Millfield was also set up to train pilots on the Hurricane, a training unit that would take the pilot from an ordinary single engined trainer onto the Hurricane before posting to an operational unit. Later on, this took on ground attack duties as the Typhoons were brought in, eventually being disbanded and reformed as the Fighter Leader School (FLS). All these training groups came under the jurisdiction of No. 9 Group, whose headquarters were at Barton Hall in Preston. These groups taught the pilots the art of night flying, dive bombing and ground attack tactics, all very important techniques in the new developing war.
In the closing days of September 1944 the Fleet Air Arm Squadron 808 Sqn, placed their Seafire L MK.IIIs here whilst in transit from Harwarden to Eglington. A brief stay, it nonetheless brought a new model of Spitfire from the famous mould to this remote part of Northumberland. 808 Sqn’s history had taken them through some of the most incredible wartime events including their participation in the Battle of Britain, to the sinking of their carrier, the Ark Royal. They also took part in the Normandy operations acting as spotters for naval guns, who were pounding the beaches and inland batteries along the French coast.
The winter of 1944/45 was very cold, with extensive frost, fog and ice hampering many RAF and USAAF bombing missions. Those aircraft that were flown during this time often found their home bases fog bound, and unable to land there, they had to divert elsewhere. In October, Halifax MK.III of 425 (Alouette) Sqn was diverted to Boulmer, only to find that on its later departure, the two starboard engines cut out causing the aircraft to swing violently. As a result, the aircraft piloted by F/O. W Corbett, struck a wood shed damaging the aircraft. Luckily on this occasion though, there were no casualties in the unfortunate accident.
This use of Boulmer as a safe haven was not unique. Indeed that same year on New Years Eve, no less than six US Eighth Air Force B-24s were diverted from their home bases to Boulmer. On New Years Eve 1944, a total of 956 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 371 B-24 Liberators and 785 escort fighters were dispatched to various targets in Germany (mission 772). German fighter cover that day was light, for unknown to the Allies, the Luftwaffe were preparing for their New Years Day massed attack on liberated airfields in the lowlands in Operation Boddenplatte.
The continent like the UK was largely fogged in, and considering the size of the formations and numbers of aircraft involved, casualties were relatively light. On return many of the aircraft found their home bases closed and so were diverted elsewhere. It was during this flight that six B-24s ended up at Boulmer as a result of the bad weather.
Eventually the war came to a close, and no longer required, units began to leave or be disbanded, 57 OTU being no exception. Disbanded on June 6th 1945, a year after the invasion of occupied Europe, it would take its mix of Spitfires and leave Boulmer for good.
After this, the RAF had no need to retain Boulmer, and so it was placed into care and maintenance. But then, in the early 1950s with the Cold War heating up, Boulmer was put back into action but not as an operational airfield flying front line aircraft, but as part of a sophisticated network of radar stations monitoring British airspace. To accommodate this new equipment, a new part to the of the airfield was opened up, located on both new land and former domestic sites to the north-west of the main airfield. This new construction took the name of the airfield but remains separate from its namesake, and well guarded from prying eyes.
During this time Boulmer would use Linesman Passive Detection equipment, *1 to detect jamming targets in mass formations. An innovative design they were eventually removed as new and more modern equipment came into operation. In conjunction with this was the primary radar, the Marconi Type 84 and 85 search radars. These massive structures used antenna reflectors measuring some 60 feet wide by 22 feet high, completing a full rotation four times every minute.
It was at this time, in the mid 1960s, that Boulmer the airfield, would once again see military flying take place. But by now the hard runways had been removed, and Boulmer’s gain had sadly been Acklington’s loss.
The closure of RAF Acklington meant that the Search and Rescue helicopters of 202 Sqn ‘A’ flight, would be moved into Boulmer to carry out Search and Rescue operations over the eastern regions of England and Scotland. The Whirlwind HAR 10s of 202 Sqn were spread far and wide in a complex range of changes that saw them move as far a field as Coltishall, Leuchars, Lossiemouth, Manston and Port Stanley. These moves placed many stresses on the unit, and with the reduction in operational aircraft, Boulmer’s search area became much bigger.
A series of updates over the coming years meant several changes to the various sites at Boulmer. For a short period between 1968 and 1974, Boulmer Radar Station (Lesbury) was closed, as upgrading took place which saw ‘electronic’ warfare, and later a computerised interception control system, added. By the 1990s mobile radar was becoming more widely available and the giant Type 85 radar was dismantled and replaced by modern 3-D screening and automated tracking radar. Part of this network being housed on part of the former RAF Brunton.
In 1975 the robust Search and Rescue helicopters on the former airfield began being replaced by the successful Sea King HAR-3, an aircraft they operated for a further forty years in the Search & Rescue role. In 1978, the Sea King was withdrawn from some of these 202 Sqn operations and replaced themselves by the Wessex HAR 2, but three Sea King helicopters continued on at Boulmer, being the last aircraft to fly here under Military control. In conjunction with these changes, the main headquarters of 202 Sqn also moved into premises at RAF Boulmer, giving a new and extended lease of life to the former airfield.
In this new role Boulmer would regularly bear witness to accidents and fatalities. On Sunday 17th May 1987, an ex Boulmer airmen F/Sgt. Philip Scott crashed in an Steen Skybolt he had built himself at Boulmer. The aircraft ploughing into the ground killing both F/Sgt. Scott and his passenger Cpl. Martin Leitner. It was suggested that a suitcase on board the aircraft had restricted control column movement leading to the crash.
In July 1989 an RAF Sea King from Boulmer was involved in a rescue mission to save two downed military airmen. A Tornado F3 of 23 Sqn RAF Leeming crashed into the sea 35 miles off Tynemouth, both airmen ejected, and whilst the navigator was saved, the pilot F/Lt. Stephen Moir was killed, trapped under his parachute in the cold waters of the North Sea.
Another RAF Leeming Tornado F3 (11 Sqn) got into difficulties later in 1994, the crew ejecting again but not before managing to transmit a distress call. This time both airmen were pulled from the water and taken to hospital with minor injuries, RAF Boulmer crews being on the spot within minutes.
A year later, 1995 saw another rescue mission by a Boulmer Sea King, when two Tornadoes collided 60 miles off the coast of Berwick-upon-Tweed. All four aircrew survived with two ejecting from one aircraft at the scene, whist the second (ZE773) was gingerly nursed back to RAF Leuchars. The aircraft landed without further incident even though it had no hydraulics or navigational aids.
In 2003 the Government put forward plans to close Boulmer, but protests from those opposed to the end of search and rescue operations led to a reprieve, and Boulmer would live a little longer.
Then during 2015, it was decided that the last six remaining UK RAF Search and Rescue bases – RAF Lossiemouth (202 Sn ‘D’ Flt.), DST Leconfield (202 Sqn ‘E’ Flt.), RAF Valley (22 Sqn ‘C’ Flt.), RAF Wattisham (22 Sqn ‘B’ Flt.), RAF Chivenor (22 Sqn ‘A’ Flt.) and RAF Boulmer’s ‘A’ Flight – would close, as Search and Rescue operations were finally privatised. Boulmer ceased operations on 30th September, with the last crews at RAF Chivenor being told to ‘Stand down’ a few days later on October 4th 2015, an event that ended seventy-four years of Search and Rescue history.
Since April 1st 1983 Search and Rescue units had answered 34,122 call-outs during which time 26,916 people have been rescued from both the sea and land*2. Boulmer’s operations had now ended, raising a feeling of great sadness in the local community, a community who had regularly witnessed the S & R helicopters over their small village.
During this time the Sea Kings had operated in some of the most treacherous of conditions and some of the most important events in recent history. This included rescue operations in the Lockerbie bombing, the collapsed North Sea oil rig ‘Alexander Kielland‘ and the Carlisle floods.
Boulmer’s name would not end there though, now forming the backbone of Britain’s Air Defence Network as the headquarters of the Air Surveillance and Control System Force (ASACS), it monitors the UK and NATO airspace 24 hours a day, 365 days year. As part of a sophisticated network of mobile and fixed radar monitoring stations, it is linked to European based networks ready to intercept any threat or unidentified aircraft entering British Airspace. Boulmer remains the headquarters of this force with No.1 Air Control Centre currently at RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire, but due to return to Lossiemouth once Scampton has closed and refurbishment at Lossiemouth are complete. Together their information can lead to the dispatch of QRA Typhoons from RAF Coningsby or RAF Lossiemouth depending upon the direction and location of the threat.
Whilst the main airfield site is still owned and used by the RAF, there are currently no flying operations taking place. High tech training is the order of the day, Boulmer being home to the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management (SABM). This is a worldwide centre of excellence leading battlespace management training and education for not only the UK’s Armed Forces, but NATO and other foreign military personnel as well. A range of associated technical units also serve and train here, giving Boulmer one of the most sophisticated organisational groups in RAF service. There are currently some 1,000 Service, civilian and contracted personnel working at the site at any time.
Whilst flying ceased some years ago, Boulmer’s aviation history has not been forgotten. The main gate at Boulmer continues today to be guarded by Phantom XV415 an FGR.2 which operated with eight RAF squadrons before its final retirement. Prior to this, Spitfire MKVb EP120 was in pride of place until 1967 when it was removed for use in the film ‘The Battle of Britain‘. Its replacement was another Spitfire F, Mk XVI TB252 which left in December 1969 for RAF Leuchars.
These Spitfires headed a succession of aircraft to guard Boulmer’s gate. In 1972 Lightning XP745 became guardian as tribute to the close work carried out between the radar station and 11 Group’s fighters. The twenty-sixth MK.3 Lightning built, XP745 was formerly based at RAF Wattisham with 56 Sqn, it moved to Akrotiri and then back to Wattisham and 29 Sqn. The Lightning made its last flight on February 4th 1975 to Leconfield, where it remained for a number of years donating parts and being gradually stripped of its components. Eventually it was given to Boulmer and returned to guardian standard. The current gate guardian, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FGR.2 XV415 ‘E’, like its predecessor, also stands at Boulmer in the colours of No. 56 Sqn formerly of RAF Wattisham.
Even though Boulmer is no longer a flying RAF base, it is heavily guarded and its operations kept secret behind high fences. The main airfield site has itself gone, the runways all removed (a small patch remained at the time of visit in 2018) and little of the wartime airfield remains in public view. The road approaching Boulmer gives you a choice, turning right takes you to the Radar centre an area patrolled by dog handlers and armed guards, this gives some indication of the seriousness taken inside the perimeter fence. Taking the left fork brings you to the main gate of the former airfield and Air Sea Rescue centre, and the location of the Phantom gate guard mentioned above. Behind here are the various training facilities, again guarded from prying eyes and unwanted visitors.
Carrying on past here, in a small coppice on the left, is a small collection of wartime buildings, very much left to the elements they are still mainly intact and possibly the best reminders of any wartime activity here at Boulmer.
Continue on from here along the coast road. This takes you to the eastern end of the former airfield, and in parts, along the original perimeter track used during Boulmer’s flying life. A caravan park sits on what was part of the airfield here, the only location where the remnants of the runway can still be found.
Further along this road and you come to a bend, this is the threshold to the two main runways with their location still visible as scars on the earth disappearing into the distance. Distant views also allow sighting of the current hangar and watch office, but there is little to be gained here. The road then continues round and whilst the perimeter track carries on into the field, the road leaves here and passes away from the airfield site. The perimeter track at this point is now a mere single track hardly distinguishable as an airfield perimeter track.
Other than small buildings found in private gardens, little exists of this rather interesting site. Whilst its early wartime history is not earth shattering, it has however become one of the most important and key RAF sites in the UK today.
Sources and Further Reading – RAF Milfield.
*2 Dunn, W.R., “Fighter Pilot: The First American Ace of World War II“, 1996, The University Press of Kentucky, Page 118.
*3 Border flying club website
The Friends of Berwick and District Museum and Archives website provide information about the archaeological history of Milfield.
A book has been published about RAF Milfield, a complementary website gives fabulous personal detail of life at the airfield and is well worth a visit.
Photos of those stationed at Milfield can be seen through the BGC Flckr account.
Sources and further Reading – RAF Brunton
*1 Article appeared in “The Northumbrian Times – No. 28” and was quoted in Walton, D. (1999), Northumberland Aviation Diary, Norav Publications.
Sources and Further Reading – RAF Boulmer.
*1 For a detailed explanation of these radar systems and personal accounts of using them, visit Dick Barrett’s excellent website.
*2 MOD Memo dated 10 May 2016 in response to a freedom of information request.
Chronical Live website accessed September 29, 2015 “Farewell to the Sea Kings at RAF Boulmer as new era in search and rescue dawns“