RNAS Crail – The Mary Celeste of Aviation (Part 1).

On the eastern coast of Fife in Scotland, lies a remarkable airfield that has to be one of the most extraordinary Second World War airfields in the country. It is a change from the usual sites we look at, being neither RAF nor USAAF, but instead it is a Royal Naval Air Station.

Not only is this site remote, sitting just outside the small village of Crail, and accessible by one road, but it is an airfield that has been locked in a time capsule, an airfield that looks like the Mary Celeste of wartime sites.

As we head north again, this time close to the famous golf course at St. Andrews on the east coast of Scotland, Trail 53 visits the former Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) at Crail, an airfield that looks like it was left the very day the last man walked out the door.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

Crail has to be virtually unique, complete almost in its entirety, from accommodation, to the technical buildings, its runways and even the Naval watch office, they are all standing (albeit in a poor state) as they were when the site was closed in 1958.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

Crail’s Aircraft Repair Shop with its category ‘A’ listing dominates the skyline.

Now very much rundown, it has to be one of the most compete examples of wartime airfields in the UK today. This is primarily due to Historic Scotland who have scheduled the entire site listing many of the buildings for preservation.

Originally Crail was the site of a World War I airfield, opened and closed within a year 1918 -1919, and was designed specifically to train new pilots before posting to front line squadrons in France. The airfield was home to both No. 50 and 64 Training Squadrons, who were both immediately disbanded, and then reformed under the control of the newly formed Royal Air Force as No. 27 Training Depot Squadron RAF, on July 15th 1918.

Flying RE8, FE2b, Avro 504A & 504K aircraft and Sopwith Camels, they were to give airmen who had passed their basic flying training programme, instruction in techniques in both fighter-reconnaissance and air combat. Pilots would progress from one aircraft type to another learning to fly amongst other things, simulated dogfights which hopefully prepared them for combat over northern France.

At the end of 1918 US airmen were being sent across the Atlantic and some of these too were trained here at Crail. But as the war finally closed, there was little need to train new pilots and so flying duties were slowly withdrawn. The number of flights at Crail began to dwindle and its end looked near.

In March of 1919, a cadre of 104 Sqn DH.10s landed here, but with little or no flying taking place, they were soon surplus to requirements, the RAF being cut back to save money. As a result of these cuts, they were no longer needed and so were disbanded at the end of June.

During its short eight month life Crail would be a busy station seeing many aircraft types. It would also be developed quite extensively, having a range of buildings erected on site which included three coupled General Service sheds, recognisable by their curved roof using the ‘Belfast Truss’ construction method; and a single Aircraft Repair Shed, all typical of Training stations in the latter stages of the war.

Like many World War II airfields later on, Crail was unfinished when these first bi-plane units moved in, and once the war was over, like the aircraft, the buildings were all removed and the land returned to agriculture once more.

When war broke out for the second time, Crail was identified as a possible site for a new airfield for use by the Royal Navy (RN), a satellite being used at nearby Dunino. Having a record of good weather and drainage, it was a perfect location, quiet, secluded and on the coast of Scotland. It was an ideal location both for training and for operations over the North Sea.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

The Guard House, whilst listed (Cat B) is reflective of the condition of most buildings at Crail.

Being a Royal Naval airfield it would differ from RAF airfields in that it had four runways and not three, each being of tarmac. However, because they would not be used for heavy aircraft especially the larger bombers, these runways would be considerably smaller, 3 x 1000 yds and 1 x 1,200 yds each only 33 yds wide. The other reason for these narrow and short runways were that they were used to train pilots to land as they would on aircraft carriers, using much shorter and narrower landings spaces than their RAF counterparts.

World War II Crail would be considerably larger than its First World War predecessor, and would have numerous state-of-the-art buildings and features. With construction starting in 1939, it would open in the Autumn of 1940 but would continue to be adapted and updated right the way through to the war’s end in 1945. As Crail was a Royal Navy station, it would have to follow Royal Navy law and have its crew named after an actual floating vessel. Hence, on October 1st 1940, it was commissioned as HMS Jackdaw, following the tradition of using bird names for land based stations.

As with many wartime RAF airfields, Crail was split by the main road, the accommodation areas to the north-west and the active airfield to the south-east. Accommodation would cater for around 2,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender, WRNs (Wrens) being used, like WAAFs, not only in the administration and communication roles, but for aircraft maintenance, parachute packing and other maintenance duties.

Wren parachute packers at Royal Naval Air Station Crail. © IWM (A 6289)

Many of these accommodation blocks were single story, laid out in blocks of four (some grouped as eight) in a grid-style layout. Whilst separate from the active side of the airfield, it was not truly dispersed as RAF airfields were later on. Also on this site, close to the entrance, are the communal buildings such as the gymnasium/cinema and chapel, providing  comfort and entertainment for those off duty times.

RNAS Crail (HMS Jackdaw)

The Gymnasium / Cinema at Crail is Category ‘B’ listed.

On the technical side of the airfield Crail had a number of hangars, an Aircraft Repair Shop, torpedo attack training building (TAT), bombing training building and a watch office along with many other support and technical buildings. A bomb store was located in the southern area of the airfield.

The TAT building revolutionised torpedo attacks, removing the ‘educated’ guesswork that pilots had to make using bow waves, ships’ angles and speed estimations. These deflected attacks reminiscent of deflected shooting by fighter pilots and gunners of the RAF, they were much harder to calculate and so more difficult to score hits. This new ‘F’ director system fed information from the aircraft directly into the torpedo which once released, could accelerate away at accurately calculated deflection angles from the aircraft. These buildings used a large hemispherical screen linked to a TAT trainer which looked not unlike a Link trainer. Designed to drawing number 1697/42 they were large buildings, with a large lighting gantry suspended from the ceiling constructed by technicians from closed theatres in London. The example at Crail was the first such building and led the way to other similar structures being built at other Naval Air Stations. Today this is the only known example left and whilst the innards of the building have gone, it has been listed as a Historic building Category ‘A’ by Historic Scotland.

In conjunction with the synthetic training provided at Crail, cameras were used that would be strapped beneath the wings of the aircraft and would take a photo as the torpedo release button was depressed. Classed as ‘Aerial Light Torpedo’ it was a simulated attack that would take an image of the vessel under attack, allowing an examiner to calculate the success of it without the need to use a dummy torpedo. Pilots at Crail would carry out several mock attacks every day and so the use of a camera and synthetic training, reduced the use of dummy torpedoes that could not be collected once dropped.

A camera attached to the wing of Swordfish at Crail allowed examiners to calculate the success of hits against surface targets.(© IWM A 9413)

An additional aspect of synthetic training at Crail was the bombing teacher building, another rare and rather unique example. An example based on the earliest 1926/1927 designs, it remained unchanged and is said to be the only existing example of its kind left in Britain. The fore-runner of the AML bombing teacher, it was a two-story building that projected an image on to the floor beneath the bomb aimer. Designed to simulate a variety of conditions, the bomb aimer would lay on a platform feeding signals to a projector above, and the image would move simulating an aircraft flying at 90 mph at an altitude of 8,000ft.

But by far the most prominent building at Crail is the Aircraft Repair Shed (ARS) at 250 feet in length with its ‘zig-zag’ roof, these were unique to Naval Air Stations and were able to take numerous aircraft for full strip down and rebuilding work. In conjunction with this were a number of well equipped workshops and seven squadron hangars all 185 feet long and 105 feet wide. Five of these hangars were grouped together in the technical area with two more to the eastern side of the airfield. Specifically designed for naval use, these Pentad transportable hangars were able to accommodate aircraft with folding wings, as would be used on aircraft carriers during the war. Again especially built for Naval Air Stations, the sides were canted to allow close parking of aircraft. Sadly these hangars have now gone but their concrete foundations and door rails do still remain.

In the next post we shall continue looking at RNAS Crail, and the huge number of squadrons that used it during its operational life. We shall look at the variety of aircraft that would operate from here, along with its post war history and its current status. It truly is the Mary Celeste of aviation.

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Trail 52 – RAF Bottesford and the bizarre accident that killed five airmen.

In this next trail we turn westward and head to the Midlands towards Nottingham and Leicester. Here we take in an airfield that was part of the RAF’s Bomber Command, and whilst it is an airfield that saw only a small number of squadrons operating from it, it nonetheless has a very significant story to tell.  Now a successful industrial park, much of the site remains – albeit behind a security gate and fencing. This airfield was home to both the RAF and the USAAF and played an important part in the fight against Nazi Germany. Today we visit the former airfield RAF Bottesford.

RAF Bottesford (Station 481)

RAF Bottesford was built in the period 1940 / 41 by the major airfield builder George Wimpey & Co. Ltd. It was known more locally as Normanton after the small village that lies on the south-western corner of the site, and although a Leicestershire airfield, it actually straddles both Leicestershire, Nottingham and Lincolnshire. As a new bomber airfield, it was the first in the area to be built with concrete surfaces, a welcome break from the problematic grassed surfaces that Bomber Command had been fighting against before.

In 1941 Bottesford would open under the control of No. 5 Group, a group formerly headed by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, who had seen the group carry out anti-shipping sweeps over the North Sea and leaflet drops over Germany. Now under the guidance of Air Chief Marshal Sir John Slessor, No. 5 Group was able to muster a considerable number of heavy bombers capable of reaching Germany’s heartland.

As a bomber airfield Bottesford had a wide range of technical buildings, three concrete runways, one of 2,000 yds (after being extended) and two just short of 1,500 yds, all 50 yds wide and linked by a perimeter track. The technical site with its various support buildings lay to the north-west of the airfield with the bomb site to the east, and accommodation areas dispersed to the north-east beyond the airfield perimeter.

Bottesford would accommodate around 2,500 personnel of mixed rank, both male and female, in conditions that were often described as ‘poor’, the site suffering from extensive rain and lack of quality drainage as the Operational Records would show *1.

Around the airfield there would eventually be 50 dispersals, half of these being constructed initially as ‘frying pan’ hardstands, and then with the introduction of the improved ‘spectacle hardstand’, this number was doubled by 1945.

Aircraft maintenance would initially be in four hangars, but these were also increased to ten in total, giving a mix of T2 and B1 designs. An unusual design feature of Bottesford was that some of these dispersals, and later hangars, were across a public road and, like RAF Foulsham (Trail 22), a gate system operated by RAF Police would allow the road to be closed off when aircraft were moved into or out of the area. The airfield would therefore, undergo quite a major change during its operational life.

Aerial photograph of Bottesford airfield looking west, the technical site is bottom right, 8 June 1942. Photograph taken by No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, sortie number RAF/HLA/590. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

RAF photo reconnaissance photo taken on 8 June 1942. Compare this to the photograph taken three years later (below)*2

Aerial photograph of Bottesford airfield looking east, the technical site with seven T2 hangars, control tower and airfield code are top left, the bomb dump is on the right, 30 May 1945. Photograph taken by No. 544 Squadron, sortie number RAF/106G/LA/203. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

Bottesford 1945 *3

Only three operational front line RAF units would operate from Bottesford, the first being 207 Squadron flying the Avro Manchester, arriving on November 17th 1941, the same month as production of the Manchester ceased. Their arrival would also coincide with the arrival of 1524 (BEAM Approach Training) Flight operating the Airspeed Oxford.

207 Sqn were reformed as a new squadron at the beginning of November 1940, taking on the ill-fated Avro Manchester MK.I, before arriving here at Bottesford a year later. The first squadron to operate the type, they were soon to discover it had major issues, and so poor was the Manchester, that by the Spring of 1942 it was being withdrawn, replaced by its more successful sister the Lancaster. After its promising introduction into Bomber Command in late 1940, it became clear that the Manchester was going to become a troublesome aircraft. With engine seizures often followed by fires, it was very much under-powered even though it had what were in essence, two V12 engines mounted in one single engine.  Bearing failures led to engines failing, and already working at its limits, the Rolls-Royce Vulture engine was not able to keep the Manchester aloft without great skill from the crew.

After a period of bedding in and conversion of the crews to the new Manchester, the new year at Bottesford would start off badly, seeing the first casualty for 207 Sqn, on the night of 9th January 1942. On this mission, Manchester MK.I L7322 piloted by F/O G Bayley, would crash after being hit by flak on operations to Brest. There were 151 aircraft on this mission, with this aircraft being the only causality in which only three of the crew’s bodies were ever recovered.

The transition from the Manchester to the Lancaster would not be straight forward for 207 Sqn. Whilst on training flights, Lancaster MK.I ‘EM-G’ R5501 would collide in  mid-air with a Magister from RAF Cranwell, four crewmen would lose their lives along with the pilot of the Magister. Then on the 8th April, a second Lancaster would suffer problems when ‘EM-Z’ R5498 experienced fuel starvation in both starboard engines causing them to cut out. The aircraft crashed close to Normanton Lodge on the north-south boundary on approach to Bottesford’s main runway. Fortunately no one was seriously injured in the accident.

A third training accident occurred on the night of May 24th 1942, when Lancaster R5617 hit the ground in poor visibility near to Tavistock in Devon. In the resultant crash, four of the crew were killed whilst two further crewmen were injured. It was proving to be  a difficult transition for the crews of 207 Sqn.

The first operational loss of a 207 Sqn Lancaster came on the night of June 3rd / 4th, when ‘EM-Y’ R5847 was shot down whilst on a mission to Bremen in north-west Germany. During the flight, the aircraft were attacked by German night fighters. As a result a number of aircraft from various squadrons were lost, including this one flown by pilot W/O C. Watney, who along with all his crew, were killed.

With the last mission by a Manchester taking place on the night of June 25th / 26th, 1942 would be a difficult year for 207 Sqn, losing four Manchesters and twenty-five Lancasters, which when added to the twenty Manchesters lost in 1941, proved that things were not going well for the 5 Group squadron at Bottesford.

RAF Bottesford

Sgt. Harold Curson (s/n: 537658) was killed in a bizarre accident at Bottesford when a Manchester landed on top of a Lancaster destroying the aircraft and killing three of its crew.

Perhaps one of the most bizarre accidents to happen at Bottesford, occurred on August 6th 1942, when Manchester L7385 landed very badly. Somehow, the aircraft ended up on top of a Lancaster, R5550 who was also engaged in training operations. The accident was so severe, that two of the crew in the Manchester and three of the crew in the Lancaster were killed. The remaining five crewmen, whilst not killed in the accident, all sustained various degrees of injury.

Then in September 1942, 207 Sqn were transferred from Bottesford to nearby Langar, the satellite airfield for Bottesford. This would be the first of many moves that would last into early 1950 when the squadron was finally disbanded whilst operating the Avro Lincoln. The squadron’s tie with Avro had finally come to an end (207 Sqn would reform several times eventually being disbanded in the mid 1980s).

The October / November 1942 then saw two further Bomber Command squadrons move into this Leicester airfield, those of 90 Squadron and 467 Squadron.

Reformed here after being disbanded and absorbed into 1653 HCU the previous February, 90 Sqn brought with them the other great heavy bomber, the Stirling.

An enormous aircraft, the Stirling also failed to live up to its promise, suffering from a poor ceiling and often being targeted by fighters when in mass formations. The Stirlings were eventually pulled out of front line operations and moved to transport and SOE operations, such were their high losses.

At the end of the year once the squadron was fully manned and organised, No. 90 Sqn departed Bottesford taking the Mk.Is to RAF Ridgewell, where they continued on in the bomber role. The only casualty for 90 Sqn during this short time occurring on the very same day they moved when ‘WP-D’ BK625 crash landed at Ridgewell airfield.

Also during the month of November 1942, on the 24th, 467 Squadron (RAAF) joined 90 Sqn, in a move that saw the return of the Lancaster MK.I and MK.III, these crews must have been the envy of those who struggled with the mighty Stirling in their sister unit. Formed on the 7th November at RAF Scampton under the command of W/Cdr. C. Gomm DFC No. 5 Group, 467 Sqn were another short-lived squadron eventually being disbanded on September 30th 1945 at Metheringham airfield in Lincolnshire.

In the first days of their formation there were initially sixteen complete aircrews, divided into two flights: ‘A’ commanded by Acting S/Ldr. D Green DFC and ‘B’ Flight with Acting S/Ldr. A. Pappe DFC. As yet though, they had an insufficient number of aircraft to accommodate all the crews.

After arriving at Bottesford, 467 Sqn battled with lack of equipment and poor weather which hindered both training and flying activities. A number of dances were held to make the Australians and New Zealand crews “feel at home”,  and a visit was made by Air Marshal Williams (RAAF). At the end of the month, aircraft numbers totalled just seven.

By the end of December new aircraft had been delivered and the Lancaster total stood at nineteen, but poor weather continued to hamper flying. Early January saw the first sign of any operational action at Bottesford, which occurred on the night of January 2nd / 3rd 1943. Five crews were assigned to a ‘Gardening’ sortie, laying mines, which excited the ground crews who were keen to see their aircraft finally participating in operations. It wouldn’t be until January 17th / 18th that 467 Sqn would finally venture into German territory laden with bombs. A mission that took them to the heart of Germany and Berlin.

RAF Bottesford

One of Bottesford’s hangars in use today.

With great excitement nine Australian crews, who were keen to show what they were capable of, took off from Bottesford to hit the target. The mission was considered a ‘disappointment’, damage to the target being very light due to both haze and lack of good radar. Target Indicators were used for the first time on this mission and it was the first all four-engined sortie. On their return flight, Sgt. Broemeling, the rear-gunner of F/Lt. Thiele’s crew was found unconscious, he had suffered from oxygen starvation and even after diving the aircraft to a safe breathing height and giving artificial resuscitation, he was declared dead on arrival at Bottesford.

A second night saw 187 RAF bombers from No. 1, 4 and 5 Groups in a subsequent raid that, like the previous night, also resulted in poor results.  Bombing saw little damage on the ground but twenty-two aircraft were lost. One of these aircraft being from 467 Sqn, that of Lancaster ‘PO-N’ W4378, which was piloted by a New Zealander, Sgt. K Aicken. Sgt Aicken had been one of the original pilots at 467’s formation. All seven crewmen from ‘PO-N’ were killed that night.

The next casualties would occur a month later, in a mission that saw 338 RAF heavies attack the port of Wihelmshaven in northern Germany. With the mission considered a ‘failure’, outdated maps were blamed, pathfinders marking the target area inaccurately as a result. The raid would also be notable for the loss of two Bottesford Lancasters; ED525 and ED529. On board the second aircraft were two crewmen Sgt. Robert Sinden (s/n: 577701) and Sgt. Derek Arnold Booth (RAFVR) (s/n: 1378781) who were just 18 and 17 years old respectively – the youngest crewmen to lose their lives in Bomber Command’s campaign of 1943. None of the fourteen men were ever found, their aircraft lost without trace.

A year after their arrival 467 Sqn then departed Bottesford heading for RAF Waddington, a point at which the RAF handed Bottesford over to the Americans in answer to their call for airfields to support the forthcoming invasion of the continent. 467 Sqn would go on to fight under Bomber Command, and in that month a special Lancaster would join the Sqn, that of R5868 ‘PO-S’ which went on to be the first Lancaster to reach the 100 mission milestone completing a total of 137 before the war’s end. She sat outside RAF Scampton as a gate guard after the war but has thankfully ended her days as the centre piece of the Bomber Command Hall at the RAF Museum in Hendon.*4

RAF Museum Hendon

‘S-Sugar’ a former 467 Sqn Lancaster stands in the RAF Museum, Hendon. Note the incorrect Spelling of ‘Hermann’ beneath the quote.

As one of a cluster in the area (North Witham (Trail 3), Spanhoe (Trail 6), Barkston Heath and Langar amongst others), Bottesford would become a home to the Glider units of the US Troop Carrier Command (TCC).

The airfield (renamed Station 481) would become the headquarters of the 50th Troop Carrier Wing (TCW), Ninth Air Force, and used as a staging post for new C-47 units arriving from the United States. The 50th remained here at Bottesford until April 1944 at which point they moved south to Exeter in their final preparations for the Normandy invasion.

This deployment would see a number of American units arrive, be organised and transfer to their own bases elsewhere, these included the eight squadrons of the 436th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) and the 440th Troop Carrier Group (TCG).

The 436th TCG were made up of the four squadrons:79th Troop Carrier Squadron (TCS), 80th TCS, 81st TCS and 82nd TCS, all flying C-47 aircraft. The Group was only one year old when they arrived at Bottesford, and their introduction to the war would be a baptism of fire.

The cramped barracks of the 436th TCG and 440th TCG at Bottesford. (IWM – FRE 3354)

Whilst primarily training and organising themselves at Bottesford they would go on to take part in the Normandy invasion, dropping paratroops early in the morning of June 6th 1944 into the Normandy arena. In the afternoon, they returned with gliders, again dropping them behind enemy lines to supply and support those already fighting on the ground. A further trip the following morning saw the group awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their action over the Normandy landing zones. Before the war’s end the 436th would take part in four major allied airborne operations, dropping units of both the 82nd and the 101st Airborne.

The 440th, like the 436th, were a very young unit, only being activated the previous July, and like the 436th, their introduction would be a memorable one. Dropping paratroops of the 101st Airborne into Carentan on D-Day, followed by fuel, food and ammunition the next; for their action they too were awarded a DUC. The 440th would also take part in the Battle of the Bulge supplying troops at Bastogne and later the crossing of the Rhine.

Whilst both units were only here at Bottesford a short time, they undoubtedly played a major part in the Allied invasion and all major airborne battles on the continent, a point that Bottesford should be remembered for.

The 436th moved to Membury whilst the 440th moved to Exeter in a mass move with the 50th TCW. After this, the US brought in a Glider repair and maintenance unit, who only stayed here for a short time before they too departed for pastures new. This then left Bottesford surplus to American requirements, and so in July 1944 it was handed back to the RAF and 5 Group once more.

This transfer would see the last flying unit form here at Bottesford – the death knell was beginning to ring its ghostly tones.  The RAF’s 1668 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) formed on the 28th, brought back the heavy bomber, the Lancaster MK.I. Working with the HCU were the 1321 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight consisting of mainly Beaufighter and Spitfire aircraft, who operated here until 1st November 1944 when they were absorbed into 1668 and 1669 HCUs. The HCU used these aircraft for fighter affiliation tasks and heavy bomber training.

As a training unit there would be many accidents, either due to aircraft problems or pilot error, including the first major accident on 12th December 1944 where fire tore through the port wing of Lancaster MK.III JA908. Diverted to East Kirkby the Lancaster attempted a landing but damaged a wheel, and had to crash-land in a field near to the airfield. Whilst no-one was killed in the crash, eight aircrew were injured in the resultant fire.

In the August 1945, the HCU moved to Cottesmore and there was no longer a need for Bottesford as an operational airfield. Surplus to requirements it was placed into care and maintenance, and used to store surplus equipment including ammunition before being closed and sold to the farmer who’s been using it since 1962.

As with all RAF / USAAF airfields a number other flying units operated from Bottesford, maintenance units, RAF squadrons and Glider units all played their part in its rich tapestry of wartime history. A history that provided one of the largest numbers of hangars collectively, and one that saw many young men come and go, many not coming back at all.

Today Bottesford is a thriving industrial and agricultural park, the farmer using large parts of it but the technical site being used by a number of industrial companies. The hangars are still present and in use, as are the runways now used for storage of vehicles rather than Lancasters, Stirlings, Manchesters or C-47s. The watch office has been refurbished and is used as offices, and several of the original buildings still remain in various states of disrepair. A flag of remembrance was hoisted outside the office in May 1995 and veterans have visited the site to pay their respects.

With access to the site through a security gate, you are left with some poor views from public roads, but the local church does have a small number of graves and a memorial which includes a book of remembrance.

Bottesford may have only been in existence for a short period, but it saw many aircraft and many crews, a mix of international airmen who brought new life to this small village on the border of three counties.

RAF Bottesford

A book of remembrance sits in the local church St. Mary the Virgin along with a small number of graves.

Links and sources

*1 AIR\271930\1 Operational Record Book 467 RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) Summary of Events (National Archives).

*2 Source Imperial War Museum photo ref: RAF_HLA_590_V_6004

*3 Source Imperial War Museum photo ref: RAF_106G_LA_203_RP_3093

*4 The AVRO Heritage Museum Website has details of ‘S for Sugar’ and her journey to Hendon.

Defence of the Realm, Tony Wilkins takes a detailed look at the Avro Manchester.

The Bottesford Living History Group have a detailed website with photographs and personal accounts and is worth visiting.

RAF Barkston Heath – A little known airfield with a big history.

In the lower regions of Lincolnshire is a group of small airfields that are historically speaking, extremely important, but yet some are barely even known about. One of these is a small Relief Landing Ground (RLG), built with very few buildings and little infrastructure, it is one that is relatively unknown and in many cases even overlooked. Yet it was none the less, a thriving airfield during the hostile times of the Second World War. Whilst flying continues here today, still as a RLG, it has more than earned its place in the annuals of world history by being one of a small group of airfields that launched not one, but several of the biggest air operations the world has ever seen.

In this part of Trail 2, we take a new look at RAF Cranwell’s smaller but just as important satellite, RAF Barkston Heath.

RAF Barkston Heath (Station 483).

Barkston Heath sits on an area of Middle Jurassic Limestone, and is located about six miles south of RAF Cranwell, the parent airfield of the site siting on the edge of the Lincolnshire Cliff. It was identified as a possible location as early as 1936, and the year it opened, it used grass runways with very little infrastructure to support those using its grounds. As a satellite airfield it would have little based here, but would regularly see a number of biplanes use its grassed surfaces over a good number of years.

As a result of the focused development of Britain’s airfields during the pre-war expansion period and the early part of the war, it was then decided to upgrade Barkston Heath to the Class A standard; this earmarked it for three runways of concrete and wood chip of the standard lengths 2,000 yds and 1,400 yds by 50 yds wide. The idea behind this upgrade was to allow it to be used as  a bomber station, a satellite of RAF Swinderby. Ready to house the four engined heavy bombers of the RAF, it was a perfect location as it was found in the southern regions of Lincolnshire and within reach of Germany.

However, the development of Barkston Heath wasn’t completed for another two years, during which time it continued to be used as a satellite for RAF Cranwell. It was during this period that Cranwell was also developed, it being closed whilst runway improvement works were carried out. In order to keep the training programmes going, the aircraft from Cranwell were transferred over to Barkston Heath thus bringing a renewed flurry of activity to this airfield.

Then, during 1943, after Cranwell had re-opened, work then began which closed Barkston Heath. This work included the construction of its own hard runways along with 48 spectacle hardstands and 2 frying pan, most of which survive intact today. Aircraft repair hangars, of which there were originally four, soon totalled seven, of which six were the T2 variety and one a B1. These were located to the north-east of the site next to a public road with four of them across the road on a separate site. Unusually, the technical area was to the south of the airfield away from the hangars, the very buildings you would expect to see in the technical area of any airfield. The bombs store was located to the north-western side of the airfield and accommodation areas dispersed to the south.

RAF Barkston Heath

Barkston Heath Watch Office.

Predominant in this area of the country were the RAF’s No. 5 Group, who were tasked with the training of bomber crews for the Royal Air Force. A number of airfields including Bardney, Bottesford and Swinderby were all found around here, and Barkston Heath would soon become another name added to that list. However, a decision in January 1944, when the airfield’s upgrading was complete, was made to transfer the airfield over to the USAAF in answer to their call to accumulate airfields in the region for Troop Carrying purposes. This meant that Barkston Heath was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force early that year, renamed Station 483 whereupon it became home to the 61st Troop Carrier Group (TCG) of the Ninth Air Force.

The TCGs were units set up to train and provide Troop Carriers for the forthcoming invasion of the continent on the Normandy beaches. An operation that would see one of the largest invasion plans of the war put into place. It would require the dropping of thousands of elite paratroops on and behind enemy lines to capture, eliminate and disrupt their positions before and during the invasion on the morning of June 6th 1944.

The 61st TCG, were one of five groups making up the “Northern Troop Carrier Bases” of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW). This wing consisted at this time, of four Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) the 14th,  15th, 53rd and the 59th TCS who would arrive during February 1944. Their stay would last long after the famed Normandy invasion had taken place, in fact until March 1945, almost to the war’s end. Whilst they were stationed here, the 61st would take part in a large number of major operations across the European territories.

The 61st’s journey to Barkston Heath took them from Olmsted Field in Pennsylvania, through Augusta (Georgia), Pope Field (North Carolina) and on to North Africa. By the time they left North Africa they were a an experienced Troop Carrier Group having taken part in paratroop activities whilst here. These drops had earned the 61st a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) and by the time they arrived at Barkston Heath, they had already two major invasion strikes on their books, Sicily and Italy.

On arrival at Barkston Heath, they were transferred to the Ninth Air Force, and due to their experiences required little training for the work ahead. In the days during the build-up to the invasion, paratroops of the 101st Airborne began to arrive. Their presence only added to the excitement and curiosity of the ground crews who busied themselves painting invasion stripes across the wings and round the fuselages of the C-47s, that were parked along the runways of Barkston Heath. During the invasion on June 6th 1944, and on D+1 on June 7th 1944, they dropped paratroops and supplies near to Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. A major port, Cherbourg was also visited by the Titanic on its fateful voyage in April 1912, hopefully this would not be a prophecy as the area was an important place to both take and hold during the invasion.

Because of the nature of the drop and the dedication shown by the group, the 61st would receive their second DUC for this action. The awards for this brave and dedicated group of men were beginning to mount up.

Losses over Normandy were heavy however, and new recruits were brought in to replace those lost. A short period of training for the 44th TCS based at Cottesmore at the end of June, saw a six ship formation with gliders, mount a practice invasion at Barkston Heath. A smoke screen was laid down by an A-20 during which time four of the six aircraft landed safely.

After the breakout from the Normandy arena and the push north toward Holland and the Rhine, C-47s of 61st would then go on to drop British paratroops at Arnhem in Operation “Market Garden”; resupplying them by glider in the days that followed in September 1944. These troops consisted of the 1st Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers (550 men), 16th Parachute Field Ambulance (135 men), the Brigade Headquarters and the Paratroop section of the Defence Platoon consisting of 82 men. Amongst their parachutes they carried enormous quantities of kit, so much so that they had to be helped onto the aircraft by ground crew. Being ‘overweight’ parts of the kit had to be released before the paratroops hit the ground, as the extra weight forced them down faster than they should have been going. Many of these men suffered injuries from hitting the ground too hard, unable to release the harnesses in time to slow them selves down.

There were 157 paratroop filled aircraft in the sky that day, of which over 70 were from Barkston Heath – a considerable amount considering the relatively small size of the airfield. A further 358 aircraft followed all towing gliders, and so the sky that day was filled with silhouettes of aircraft as far as the eye could see. Even after this wave had passed, there were still two further waves to follow*1. In all, during operation ‘Market Garden‘, the 61st would carry out just short of 160 sorties dropping troops and supplies to the besieged ground forces around Nijmegen.

For the next few months the 61st would continue to supply the troops fighting in the lowlands of northern Europe, taking fuel, food and ammunition to the allied forces as they pushed forward toward Germany.

Then in mid March 1945, after many of the airfields in France had become secured, the 61st departed Barkston Heath, never to return. Whilst this curtailed their flying activities from this airfield, they would go on to cover other major operations including both the Rhine crossing that same month, and following the war’s end, the Berlin airlift in 1948/49. But before they departed, the Luftwaffe would have one small surprise for them. In a series of night attacks on the cluster of airfields in the area, including both RAF Cottesmore and RAF Barkston Heath, Night Fighters roamed the skies dropping anti-personnel bombs across the airfields. In the attack at Barkston Heath, the airfield was strafed and bombs were dropped, but thankfully little damage was done.

With the posting of the 61st to France, Barkston Heath would see a new group arrive, still under the ownership of the US Ninth Air Force. The new group, the 349th TCG,  operated C-46 aircraft to transport essential supplies into western Europe and then bringing  home both injured allied troops and German prisoners of war. The four squadrons based at Barkston, the 23rd, 312th, 313th and 314th, were only here for around 3 weeks before also moving off to France where they would continue their operations.

In April 1945, the withdrawal of the US forces from Barkston Heath meant that it was no longer required for their purposes, and so in June, the airfield was finally handed back to RAF control.

For a period after the war the airfield was used as a storage and disposal site before returning to the role of RLG for RAF Cranwell. Then, for the majority of the 1980s, Barkston Heath had an area within the former bomb dump developed for the siting of Bloodhound Missiles, Britain’s principle Surface-to-Air guided missile, and the first guided weapon to enter British operational service.

These missiles were manned by ‘D’ Flight from the RAF’s No. 25 Sqn on March  1st 1983, and remained here until October 1st 1989 when they were absorbed into No. 85 Sqn RAF. A year later they would be disbanded, the Bloodhound no longer being the mainstay of Britain’s last line of defence.

With the 1980s turning into the 1990s, Barkston Heath once more became a RLG for Cranwell. Since then it has continued to operate as a Training airfield for pilots of the three forces of the British Isles, recently replacing the Slingsby T67M260 Firefly with the Grob G 115 Tutor T.1.

As no large heavy aircraft had ever been assigned to Barkston Heath, it never needed developing beyond the Class A specification of its wartime role. The watch office has been updated though with the inclusion of the anti-glare glass house, but the wartime huts and technical buildings to the south of the airfield site have long gone. Fortunately the main concrete areas and hangars have survived much in thanks to their continued use by the Royal Air Force.

RAF Barkston Heath

One of Barkston’s many hangars still in use today. (Photo taken in 2013)

For a short period during 2003, the wartime aircraft of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were stationed here whilst the runways at Coningsby were resurfaced ready for the arrival of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Barkston Heath was in fact the third choice after both  Waddington (which could not accommodate them) and Scampton (which was too large – the Spitfires possibly overheating whilst taxing and the hangars were in need of refurbishment) were discounted. After some minor modifications at Barkston Heath, the BBMF operated from here until October 5th when the majority of the aircraft returned home to Coningsby.*2

Since then Barkston Heath has remained as a satellite for Cranwell, operating as both a training facility and a Relief Landing Ground, a role that takes it back to it origins in 1936.

Today, little flying activity can be seen, but the airfield does have some reasonable viewing points. The hangers and (active) guard-house, are adjacent to the main road, and passing the airfield here parked aircraft can often be seen on the apron.

The remains of a Canberra B(1)8 ‘WT339’, an ex RAF Cranwell aircraft, rest in the dump, visible from a path leading off from the main road on the northern side of the airfield. Here also are the remains of the Bloodhound site, the launchers and missiles obviously all having been removed long ago. All the remaining hangars are visible behind the trees but those across the road are no longer used by the airfield operators. Other than this, little buildings wise, remains.

Whilst Barkston Heath has had a long life and one that looks to continue well into the future, its wartime life was relatively short. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it was, none the less, a highly important airfield playing a major part in the Allied invasion plans, and not just Normandy itself, but beyond to the ill-fated operations around the Dutch town of Arnhem.

RAF Barkston Heath is a name that should be more widely known, seared into every tale of the Normandy Invasion plan, a name that should live for many, many years to come.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Hicks, N., “Captured at Arnhem: From Railwayman to Paratrooper“, (2013) Pen and Sword.

*2 Cotter, J., “The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight: 50 Years of Flying“, (2007) Pen and Sword.

 

RAF Macmerry – The darker side of war.

After visiting both RAF Drem and RAF East Fortune in Trail 42, we travel a few miles south, back to the A1 road where we visit another disused and almost lost RAF airfield. Initially used as a Landing Ground during the First World War, it struggled to become a fully fledged airfield but it did operate a small number of squadrons under RAF control. One of these squadrons had a rather sinister role to play and had Britain been invaded, then its name would no doubt be well-known and common place in history books today.

In Trail 51, we continue on in the south-eastern region of Scotland, not far from the historic city of Edinburgh, where we visit the former airfield RAF Macmerry.

RAF Macmerry (Tranent / Penston).

The former airfield at the small village of Macmerry is today split by the main A1 road, with the flying side of the airfield to the north and the technical and accommodation areas to the south. Sadly the active side has been completely removed and is now agricultural land, but on the technical and accommodation side there are fortunately still a small number of buildings remaining, albeit in private use today.

RAF Macmerry is located some 14 miles east of Edinburgh, its origins extend back to the First World War when it was known as Penston. Used by No. 77 Squadron who were initially based at Edinburgh, it was a Home Defence Landing Ground housing a squadron detachment until the entire unit moved over in April / May 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps became established as the Royal Air Force. No. 77 Sqn were well-known in the area, having detachments based at nearby Turnhouse and also at New Haggerston and Whiteburn. The squadron had been based at Edinburgh since October 1916 after moving there from Thetford in Norfolk, shortly after their inception. During their time at Penston, No. 77 Sqn operated a number of Royal Aircraft Factory types: the BE.2c, BE.2d and BE.2e, the BE.12 and BE.12b along with the D.H. 6 and RE. 8.

RAF Macmerry

One of many buildings that remain on the farm today.

Even though No. 77 Sqn moved into Penston full-time, they did retain a detachment at Whiteburn, an arrangement that continued until 13th June 1919, when the squadron (now Royal Air Force) was finally disbanded. No. 77 Squadron would go on to be reformed in 1937, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, but they would not return to their roots, and would never again appear at the airfield at Macmerry. After 77 Sqn’s departure from Penston, the RAF had no need for the site, and so the airfield was closed and the site sold off.

The 1920s and 30s then saw a short reprieve for Macmerry as aviation became fashionable. The Edinburgh Flying Club established itself here, and the Scottish Motor Traction (SMT) organisation put forward plans for a new major airport here at Macmerry. Established in 1905, the SMT was an established bus company who also provided an air taxi service flying a De Havilland Fox Moth between 18th July and 31st October 1932. Although these ambitious development plans never came to fruition, Macmerry (referred to as Edinburgh) was used for a short period between 1936 and 1939 for commercial air travel by North Eastern Airways.

North Eastern Airways (Copyright Bjorn Larsson)*1

After war broke out the RAF were looking to expand their airfields around the UK, and the border regions of Scotland were soon under the spotlight. The Air Ministry identified Macmerry and decided in July 1940, to rename Macmerry as Tranent after the nearby town. However, and even after the official requisition later on, this name change never appeared on any but a handful of official documents and the name Macmerry stuck.

It was around this time too that the Cunliffe-Owen company, a civilian aircraft manufacturing company, began operations at the airfield repairing Lockheed Hudson aircraft. Cunliffe-Owen was set up by the millionaire Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen on August 9th 1937 under the name of BOA Ltd, changing it later in 1938, to Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft. Utilising the First World War hangar at Eastleigh in the former county of Wessex, they would be famous for their investigations into the ‘Flying Wing’ project. Cunliffe-Owen also formed a contract with Lockheed Aircraft and began assembling Hudsons along with a large number of other American aircraft imported into the UK for RAF service.*2

On September 2nd 1940, No. 263 Squadron moved into RAF Drem, located about 6 miles north-east of here, and used Macmerry as a satellite airfield, even though the RAF had not officially taken over the site. Regardless of this, the Westland Whirlwinds they were flying, did occasionally use the airfield along with another satellite at Prestwick way off to the west.

In January 1941, Macmerry was officially requisitioned and would come under the control of 13 Group Fighter Command, with the first aircraft arriving very soon after. The Hurricane Mk.Is of 607 (County of Durham) Sqn would stop off here between January 16th and March 2nd 1941, before joining the main squadron also based at RAF Drem. No. 607 Sqn were veterans of the Battle of Britain, and would go on to be the first Squadron to operate the ‘Hurri’ bomber, a Hawker Hurricane fitted with bombs.

As they departed Macmerry, a second unit arrived, No. 614 (County of Glamorgan) Squadron, who were a pre-war squadron and would operate Lysander Mk.II and Mk.IIIs before replacing these with Blenheim IVs in July 1941. After a short spell away at Thruxton, No. 614 Sqn returned to Macmerry for a few days before departing for the final time at the end of August 1942. Flying with the squadron code ‘LJ’, it was these Lysanders that had a rather sinister role to play, and one that was perhaps unique along this coastline of Scotland.

Westland Lysander Mark III, ‘LJ-P’ of No. 614 Squadron RAF Macmerry, on a photographic-reconnaissance flight (IWM H 9183)

First impressions of Macmerry were not positive for crews, a small hangar and a flying control building were about all that greeted the men. There were no accommodation facilities and airmen were billeted in the homes of local families. Runways at this time were grass (1 x 1,500 yards and 2 x 1,200 yards), whilst the perimeter track was tarmac, a feature that would not change for the duration of the war.

By the summer months accommodation on the airfield was finally available (sufficient for around 1000 personnel of mixed rank and gender) and the whole of No. 614 Squadron moved into Macmerry. Work continued on the remainder of the airfield infrastructure, including six hardstands each holding two-twin engined aircraft in a ‘Blenheim’ style aircraft pen. Otherwise know as type ‘B’ (designed to drawing 7151/41) they had cranked sides and staggered entrances. Each of these had a shelter built into the revetment sufficient to hold 25 men. Eight Blister hangars and a T2 were also added at some point, along with a range of technical buildings.

Working under the control of the Royal Air Force Army Co-operation Command, No. 614 Sqn’s Lysanders were to monitor and patrol Scotland’s east coast, and in the event of an invasion, they were to contaminate the beaches with Gas (possibly Mustard Gas even though this was banned in the 1925 Geneva Protocol) using the vast stocks they had at Macmerry airfield. A lethal substance, it was never thankfully used and was disposed of later on. Much of the information about this has only recently come to light, but according to Operational Record Books*3 gas attacks were something that were rehearsed on many occasions.

Whilst No. 614 Sqn were based here at Macmerry, they performed regular operations with Army units, detachments from Macmerry flying to the Fleet Air Arm airfield at Arbroath where they would carry out photo reconnaissance, simulated dive bombing and these aforementioned gas laying operations. These operations (e.g. ‘FORFAR’, ‘HOPE’ and ‘JOHN’) were carried out in conjunction with various army divisions, with RAF support staff and  equipment (including Bowsers) being taken by road to the detachment airfield. In many cases, the crews and ground staff from Macmerry would be housed in tents supplied by the various army brigades and they would be fed by the Royal Navy, something that the more senior officials within the RAF wanted to stop.

During these exercises, Lysanders would drop messages to ‘message stations’, these message stations would be viable targets for the ‘enemy’ aircraft (bomber sorties being performed by other Lysanders, Spitfires or Miles Masters) and therefore the diligence of those inside was of the utmost importance. Following a review of the first of these operations, this key point was noted in the ORB, in which it was pointed out that  “…only intelligent men should be employed, and the same men, if possible, should do the duty on all occasions.

During August 1941 a detachment of Tomahawk IIA aircraft were to join No. 614 Sqn here at Macmerry. These aircraft were operating with No. 241 Sqn, who were primarily based at RAF Wattisham, but had detachments already at Snailwell, Henlow and Docking and now at Macmerry.

In March 1942 these Tomahawks were replaced by the North American P-51 Mustang Mk.I, an aircraft designed in response to the need for a long-range fighter with outstanding capabilities. Designed by a German born designer, Edgar Schmued, it would become one of, if not the, Second World War’s most successful fighters, especially after it had the Rolls Royce Merlin replace the weaker Allinson. As well as an increase in top speed of around 50 mph, it out performed the Allinson in all other categories including rate of climb and performance at altitude. By May 1942, No. 241 Sqn and their new Mustangs would all depart Macmerry for pastures new at Ayr. However, and not before too long, 241 Sqn would return to this part of the country, spending a short time at RAF Winfield in the border regions working in cooperation with 4th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery.

It was during May that No. 225 Sqn moved to Thruxton  whilst also having a detachment based here at Macmerry, and once again the Mustang Mk.I would be back in the skies over this small Scottish village. The entire squadron would move onto the airfield at the end of August and would stay until the end of October when they would depart for North Africa taking their Mustangs with them.

By late summer 1942, the accommodation, hangars and major facilities were all now complete and open, the site was now ‘modern’ and homely, engineer’s workshops, allowed for maintenance of the aircraft, and aircraft pens offered protection to both the airmen and aircraft in the case of Luftwaffe attack.

RAF Macmerry

One of the ‘B’ type aircraft pens surviving at Macmerry today. The brick structure to the right is the entrance to the built-in shelter.

By August 1942, No. 614 squadron were to pull out moving to RAF Odiham where they replaced their aircraft with Blenheim Vs. Their place at Macmerry being taken by No.13 Sqn flying Blenheim IVs. Their stay would, like many of their predecessors, be a short one, another ex Lysander user, they only stayed here for about 10 days before they too moved off to Odiham and onto North Africa.

The November would then see the last operational flying until arrive at Macmerry, and they would be the longest-serving unit to stay here. At the end of November, on the 21st, No. 63 squadron would arrive bringing  with them further Mustang Mk.Is. The main block of the squadron would operate from Macmerry whilst detachments would be placed across the length and breadth of the country at Lossiemouth, Odiham, Dalcross and Acklington. Many of the sorties flown by No. 63 sqn were photographic reconnaissance missions, using F.24 (8″) cameras installed on the port side of the fuselage directly behind the cockpit. Because of the open landscape and close proximity to the coast of the airfield, many sorties flown from here were hampered by high winds and the impending Scottish cold, something that brought discomfort to the may crews who were stationed here at some point.

A  No. 63 Squadron Mustang Mk.1 dropping a message bag (off to the right) during an Army co-operation exercise (IWM)

Originally reformed in the summer of 1942, No. 63 Sqn moved here from Catterick, and stayed until July 1943 when they departed to Turnhouse, leaving only a detachment here at Macmerry. In November, the entire squadron then moved off to Thruxton leaving the airfield at Macmerry behind for good.

Other than a handful of Lysander target tugs and glider trainers, flying wise Macmerry would then fall quiet, the sound of aircraft engines being replaced by the thud of marching boots. During the winter of 1943, Operation ‘Fortitude North‘ was put into place, an operation to fool the Germans into thinking the impending invasion would occur across the North Sea. Macmerry would see a huge influx of army personnel, from No. 2736, No. 2830 and No. 2949 Regiment Squadrons, who would take to the mountains sending out false signals that would be picked up by German intelligence. These groups stayed here for a number of months until moved south for the real  invasion across the English Channel. So successful was the operation that German forces failed to pull vital units away from the Norwegian coastal areas for fear of an impending Allied attack.

RAF Macmerry

Much of what is left is rundown but in use for storing farm machinery.

In the months after the D-day landings, the RAF began to shrink as the need for fighters and heavy bomber began to lessen. The closing stages of the war were near and the fight was well and truly over German soil. The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) however were still expanding, preparing for what was going to be the invasion of Japan. To this end they needed more airfields to train pilots and crews to meet this demand. The Air Ministry considered giving the FAA Macmerry airfield to use, primarily as a repair yard, but, and whilst the offer was accepted, it was never actually put into practice. The FAA also considered stationing No. 770 Sqn FAA here, a Fleet Requirements Unit, whose role was to provide target tugs, simulated attacks on vessels and other gunnery roles. This too however, never actually came to fruition, and whilst the FAA had renamed the airfield H.M.S. Nighthawk II in preparation (Drem being re-designated H.M.S. Nighthawk) they handed Macmerry back to the RAF on March 15th 1946 without ever actually placing a man through its gates. With the war over for the second time, the RAF had no further use for Macmerry, and it was closed down very soon after.

With the airfield abandoned, the Edinburgh Flying Club seized the opportunity to get back into Macmerry, and on August 31st 1946, they reopened the airfield and began to operate from its runways again. They continued to operate here until 1953 when flying finally ceased and Macmerry closed its gates for the last and final time.

After this the site was sold off, the main A1 was eventually built and then later extended into a dual carriageway. As a result of the new road the airfield was split, and the active side developed as farm land. There are suggestions that additional hardstands were provided on the perimeter track on this side, but any sign of these seem to have gone along with the flying side of the airfield. In addition to this, the hangars on the northern side have also been removed and replaced by a rather large grain store.

The accommodation and technical sites were then turned into a small industrial park, the land adjacent to this, being returned to farm land. It is on this land that many of the accommodation buildings have been retained being put to use by the farm to house farm machinery and produce. The WAAF site buildings were demolished but the squash courts and gym both remain today.

RAF Macmerry

The squash court at Macmerry.

The road from the A1 circumnavigates the entire site and it is from this road that the best views can be obtained. From the main A1, the first stop is at the two revetments, which remain sandwiched in between this side road and the main A1. Hidden from view of the A1, they are discernible from the side road and are in remarkably good condition for their age. In a small triangular section of ground, there are several structures here, including the aircraft pens and crew blocks.

The industrial site visible just off to the left of this road is what was the main technical area of the airfield. The modern warehouses and industrial units having replaced the technical buildings that were once thriving RAF workshops.

Continue on and take a left turn. This takes you past the former accommodation sites and the location of the majority of surviving buildings today; long halls with their chimneys which were once the centre of life at Macmerry. Following this road to the left then takes you past the Gym and Squash Courts, passed the accommodation area and back to the A1 and away from the airfield.

The former airfield RAF Macmerry went through a number of changes during its life, and although it has a history dating back to the First World War, it is one of those airfields that never really seemed to establish itself as a front line airfield. The number of squadrons who passed through here also brought a range of aircraft types, giving Macmerry a varied and interesting mix of models. That said, Macmerry had a dark side to it, and had the invasion of Britain come through Scotland’s borders, then Macmerry would no doubt be a name at the forefront of Britain’s history books today.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Timetable courtesy of Bjorn Larsson via Airline Timetable Images Website.

*2 Phipp, M., ‘Wessex Aviation History‘, Amberley Publishing 2009, e-book accessed 24/4/18.

*3 AIR 27/2122 National Archives.

AIR 27/587/1 National Archives.

The East Lothian at War website gallery has a number of photos taken at RAF Macmerry during the war and is worth a visit.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 8).

In this, the last of the series looking at the development of Britain’s airfields, we look at the Watch Office, perhaps the most atmospheric of buildings associated with Britain’ wartime airfields. The hub of an airfield control, it was where aircraft were counted out and back, where the battle was monitored and the cries of those who fought in the air war were heard.

Though only a recent addition to airfield architecture, it developed quickly and became one of the technologically advanced offices in the world.

Watch Offices.

The Watch office, Watch Tower or in American terms Control Tower, was the centre piece of any airfield, the place in which all operations were controlled. Even today, the control tower is the one feature that stands high above the rest of the airfield with commanding views across the entire site.

Many of these watch offices remain today, some as fabulous museums, some as private dwellings, but many are sadly derelict or even worse – gone altogether. This that do survive create a haunting and evocative feeling when seen from inside.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The beautifully restored Thorpe Abbots Watch Office (design 15683/41).

Unlike hangar development, the watch office appeared quite late in the development of the airfield, only really coming into being as war seemed inevitable. Before this, a rudimentary office was often all that was used, usually attached to the side of the main hangar, and was used to ‘book’ aircraft in and out. But by the mid war period the watch office had become a major structure on the airfield, a standard design (depending upon the airfield use) with two or more floors and often a ‘glass house’ for observation purposes.

For obvious reasons the watch office was built away from other buildings with clear sight over the entire airfield, an important aspect if controllers were to keep watch on the many aircraft that were moving about the airfield space. A vital asset to the airfield it was often targeted by marauding bombers, and in the case of attack, the controllers within would relocate to an emergency battle headquarters, hidden at ground level on a remote part of the airfield, but still with views across the site.

The basic watch office was often adapted rather than demolished and rebuilt, this can and does, cause great confusion as to its design origin. Further more, on some sites, the original was abandoned but not demolished, and a new office built elsewhere on a nearby site, thus giving rise to two offices on the one airfield eg. Matlask and Martlesham Heath

The Watch Office as we know it was first seen on military airfields in 1926 and resembled a small bungalow with bay windows. Those constructed on bomber bases would be slightly smaller than those on fighter bases, a fighter base office having a pilots office attached. The idea behind this was to keep pilots as close to the airfield  control centre so they could quickly be scrambled and report back to the airfield controller on their return. These early design were found on airfields such as Bircham Newton in Norfolk, Hendon and Tangmere and were all built to the same  basic 1926 drawing design only modified to take the extra pilots room.

The standard shape of the World War 2 Watch Office stems back to the mid 1930s, with the introduction of a two-storey building that was square in design. Like similar buildings of its time, it was brick, a building material that was replaced with concrete, in 1936.

RAF West Malling Control Tower under refurbishment

West Malling a 5845/39 design which is now a coffee shop.

By the end of the expansion period, and with the introduction of hard runways, it was realised that the non-dispersed sites gave poor visibility for early watch offices, views across the airfields were not clear and so a quick remedy was called for. The answer lay in two choices, (a) demolish the current buildings  and rebuild it in a better location, or (b) add an extension. In many cases the former was the better idea and this progressed quite quickly, however, where the latter was chosen, remedial work required alteration of the building whilst it remained in use.

A further complication to these designs was the introduction of meteorological sections, which all new buildings erected at the beginning of the war now had. This gave a mix of design styles, enough though there was only a small selection of design drawings from which to work.

These late expansion period and early war designs introduced the idea of ‘viewing platforms’ or parapets, surrounded by safety railings along the front of the building. These deign also had very large glass fronted walls, bright and airy they allowed a lot of light to enter the building but gave cause for concern later on, when it was realised that a bomb blast would cause severed injury to the occupants in an attack. It was also found that during night operations, large windows were more difficult to black out and so smaller windows offered both better protection and greater ease of black out.

As building materials became scare, particularly wood and brick, concrete became the norm. This change also led to drawing changes even though the basic design inside and out, was the same.

In order to appreciate the changes to watch office designs, one needs to consider the different roles that airfields played during the war. Bomber Command airfields would have a differ office to a fighter Command airfield, which in turn, had a different office to a satellite or night-fighter station.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Watch Offices give commanding views across the airfield. (Thorpe Abbots).

The regional control stations where these first offices were being built were certainly getting the better choice at this time, standard fighter and bomber airfields having to use inferior designs that very soon became outdated and inadequate for the needs of the airfield.

During the massive building programme of 1941/42, there was some effort made to standardise all airfield Watch Offices, this resulted in the 1941 design drawing no. 12779/41. This was to be the basic airfield watch office design, with its parapet, six large windows to the front and outside access steps. As older airfields were brought up to Class A Specification, many had these new Watch Offices built to replace the older original ones. Some simply had adaptation of the original. Here the use of the airfield had a bearing on the watch office modification / design, and whilst the basic 12779/41 model was employed, slight variations did exist where the airfield was not a bomber airfield.

Therefore various adaptations of this did follow, examples of which include the slightly smaller 13023/41 (RAF Cottam), those with modified smaller windows 15371/41 (Kimbolton) and 343/43 (Martlesham Heath),  and the smaller Night-Fighter design 15684/41 (Winfield). Being a Night-Fighter station Winfield, had the same basic design but construction methods were totally different. This new design 15684/41, would become standard at all night fighter bases.

All these alternative designs appear outwardly very similar to the original, but differ mainly in window design only, although the physical size of some is different.

RAF Winfield

The Night-Fighter station Watch Office at Winfield (15684/41) is a similar design but smaller, having only four windows in the front.

This design, 343/43, eventually became the most common design for watch offices and appeared on all operational stations and Operation Training Unit airfields after 1943, using a set of six half-size windows across the front.

Tower (2)

The smaller windows of Parham (Framlingham) were half the original design size (12779/41 modified to 343/43).

A further addition was the glass observation room located on the roof of the Watch Office. These were generally only applied to Group control offices, and gave an excellent all round unrestricted view of the entire airfield. Examples that exist today, such as Framlingham above, are replicas but have been built to very high standards.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Martlesham Heath is a similar design to Framlingham (modified to 343/43) – Note the runway heading board on the roof.

At the end of the war some airfields such as Sculthorpe and West Raynham had their Watch Offices modified as they changed roles to Very Heavy Bomber Stations. This new design 294/45, utilised the former building having an extra floor added and then the octagonal ‘glass house’ or Visual Control Room with slanted glass to reduce glare.

Control Tower

Sculthorpe’s modified tower gives 360 degree views over the airfield. A three-story block it utilises the former World War 2 Watch Office.

The Watch Office has been the hub of airfield command and control since the mid 1930s, it has developed from the humble shed to a multi-functional technologically advanced building dominating the skyline of the airfield today. Sadly though, many are now gone, and of those that are left only a few remain in good condition or open to the public.

Summary

The war-time airfield incorporated numerous building designs and shapes, certainly far too many to cover here, the wide variety of technical buildings, synthetic trainers, parachute stores, headquarters and general stores, all changing as the war progressed.  The design and materials used in these structures was as varied as the designs themselves. But as the RAF grew so too did the airfields they used. The runways, the hangars, the technical buildings and accommodation sites have all grown alongside. Sadly many of these buildings have now vanished, but the process and speed at which they developed has been unprecedented. From humble grass strips with wooden shacks to enormous conurbations with numerous buildings, they have become iconic symbols representing decades of both aviation history and human sacrifice.

The entire page can be viewed separately:

Part 1 – The Road to War.
Part 2 – The Expansion Period and airfield development.
Part 3 – Choosing a site.
Part 4 – Building the airfield.
Part 5 – Airfield Architecture.
Part 6 – Runways and Hardstands.
Part 7 – Hangars and aircraft sheds.

or as a whole document.

 

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 7).

Whilst the runway’s remains one of the biggest features of an airfield, perhaps one of the most discussed and certainly visible is the hangar. Large sheds used to maintain aircraft, many still dominate the skyline today, used by farmers and industrial companies, they are massive buildings, but yet many remain classed as temporary or even transportable!

The development of these huge buildings is another that lasted many years, and whilst similar in layout and design, they are as complicated and as varied as any other building found on Britain’s airfields.

Hangars and Aircraft Sheds.

The topic of aircraft hangars is well versed in a large number of books and internet references. They, like the runways, can explain much about the history and use of an airfield, being the largest single building on any airfield site. Distinguishing features between hangar types is often difficult to see, many now re-clad or updated with modern features, doors or materials, even the differences between some designs is so small, without technical drawings or measurements, ascertaining the type can be all but impossible.

Hangars (or aircraft sheds as they were initially called) have been fairly constant in design, however, different services used different types, Admiralty seaplane sheds for example, were primarily side opening, whereas RAF hangars were generally front opening. Design and construction was undertaken by numerous companies (Herbertson & Co. Ltd., Nortons Ltd., Teeside Bridge and Engineering Co. Ltd., and Sir William Arrol & Co.) and even Handley Page Aircraft Co. and Boulton & Paul dabbled with the idea. With so many forms being used, it is a topic both detailed and extremely wide.

This is not therefore, intended to describe each and every hangar ever built (Second World War Air Ministry designs alone covered more than 56 types!), but more a general realisation of the huge development they undertook during this expansion and wartime period on RAF / USAAF airfields. Figures quoted here are generally rounded.

In order to understand the changes in aircraft hangars we need to briefly look at those of the First World War, where aircraft were stored in ‘sheds’, often made from canvas covering a wooden frame, or as a more permanent construction, completely wooden sheds with sliding doors. Later on these were built using metal (iron in particular) and were designed to be permanent, capable of housing several aircraft at a time.

The First World War hangars were varied and often crude, some little more than glorified tents, but through development famous names such as the Bessonneau and Hervieu were created toward the end of the war. Hangars became so large that specialist units had to be created solely to transport, erect and maintain them, and their use became more widespread.

The most common hangar of this period, the Bessonneau, was the first standard transportable hangar used on Royal Air Force airfields. Modern forms of it are still in use today, using different materials, they are quick to erect and offer reasonable protection from the weather outside.

The Bessonneau was a wooden frame structure covered in canvas. It was a simplistic design, able to be erected in as little as two days by a group of 20 skilled men. Heavy canvas doors open at one end allowing aircraft to be moved in and out with relative ease. The problem with these hangars was that the canvas was prone to freezing in winter and therefore becoming difficult to use.

There were two models of the Bessonneau built, differing only in their length – either 79 feet or 118 feet – but both were 65 feet wide.

The interwar and early war years were perhaps understandably,  the years in which the greatest hangar development occurred. The Air Ministry – the body overseeing the works – decided upon a system of ‘structure type’ using names and designations such as, Type ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, Bellman, ‘T2’, etc., and just like the expansion period schemes, they progressed through this system as new developments came about.

The first type was the Type ‘A’, a permanent design, originating in 1924, it was used well into the 1930s when it was gradually replaced during the expansion period. Some examples did last well into the war and even beyond, for example, North Weald, one of the first airfields to be allocated a Type ‘A’, still uses one today.

Type A Hangar

Type A Hangar at North Weald. One of the first stations to have these types of Hangar, it has workshops attached to the Hangar side.

The Type ‘A’ is probably the first to represent the modern hangar, doors at both ends in leaves of four running on rails. Workshops are attached to the hangar side, something that was discontinued as Britain entered the war. Walls were reinforced with concrete to protect from bomb splinters, and they were built 249 feet long and 122 feet wide.

During the late 1920s, the Air Ministry published requirements for new heavy bombers, and these would require new hangars in which to maintain them. In response, the Ministry then updated the Type ‘A’ hangar to the Type ‘B’. In essence a larger version of the Type ‘A’, (160 ft span and 273 ft in length) the ‘B’ was named the ‘Goliath‘ with only three being built (each being a different length). One of these was at RAF Martlesham Heath and is still used today on what is now the industrial park. Like the Type ‘A’, the roof of the ‘B’ is possibly its most discernible feature, a series of trusses along its length crossing laterally over the roof.

With expansion period demands increasing, further developments were needed, and it was envisaged that an increasing bomber size would be needed if substantial bomb loads were to be delivered deep into the continent. The current size of hangar was now considered too restrictive and so a new buildings would be needed. The requirements of the Air Ministry was for a hangar with a span of 150 feet and length of 300 feet. With these in place, new aircraft specifications could be issued.

The Type ‘C’, (designed in 1934) as it was designated, would become the dominant building on any airfield and therefore visible from quite a distance. As airfield designs were subject to scrutiny by the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, local objections were taken into account during the design process. To appease any  objections, the steel frame was covered with local brick or stone, keeping it inline with other buildings not only on the airfield, but houses and buildings erected locally.

Most airfields during the expansion period were built with these hangars on site, and naturally went through a series of developments and improvements. This means, that there are many different forms of the Type ‘C’: gabled roof, hipped rafter and reinforced concrete. Another modified version of the ‘C’ appeared in 1938 and was designated the ‘C1’ (or ‘Protected’), this was an austerity measure development, reducing the amount of material used by lowering the roof height by 5 feet – internal metal work was also left partially exposed. Both the ‘C’ and ‘C1’, continued to be built with offices, workshops and aircrew accommodation attached to the hangar side, the idea being that it was more efficient to do so for the repair of the aircraft inside. As these were larger in width and length than their predecessors, they would have six leaf doors also sliding on top and bottom rails.

RAF Upwood

Type C at the former RAF Upwood.

1936 saw a dramatic change in hangar design, with two new requirements being issued by the Air Ministry. Firstly, storage space was now running out and so new facilities were required. These Aircraft Storage Unit Stations (ASU) would need their own hangar type, and so a requirement for these was put forward. Also at this time, the Ministry put out a demand for transportable hangars, these would replace the ageing Bessonneaus of the First World War. The response to these demands were three storage hangars and two temporary hangars.

Storage Hangars.

The Type ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘L’ Hangars, were a development used specifically by the ASU stations, and they were not generally built on front line operational airfields. They were virtually identical in size to the Type ‘C’, but each type was marginally bigger in span 150 ft, 160 ft and 167 ft than the previous model, and all were the same length at 300 feet. The three types were different from previous hangars in that they had curved roofs, allowing the ‘E’ and ‘L’ to be covered with soil for protection and camouflage (the ‘D’ had straight side walls and therefore could not be covered). ASUs were built to assemble and disassemble aircraft for shipment to operational airfields in Britain or overseas. Aircraft were stored, in varying degrees of assembly within these units, and heavy hoists were often used to store aircraft ‘tail up’. However, with the outbreak of war, aircraft storage was thought better dispersed around the airfield and not concentrated in one space, so this method of storing aircraft was abandoned. Many of these hangars still remain today, used by small industrial units or for farm storage.

The next two types, the ‘J’ and ‘K’, were virtually identical in design, again with curved roofs, they were used for storage of aircraft. The ‘J’ can be found on many operational airfields, built in conjunction with other main hangars (Waterbeach is a very good example of this combination), whilst the ‘K’ was built on ASU stations. The design came in as a result of Expansion Scheme M, and was as a result of the call for 2,550 front line aircraft by March 1942.

The main difference between the two, (other than their location) was in the roof structure, the ‘K’ having lifting tackle rails along its width, while the ‘J’ were along its length. The ‘K’, being used for storage of aircraft, didn’t have any windows, where as the ‘J’ did as offices and workshops were in use constantly. Like previous hangars, the ‘J’ and ‘K’ both had a span of 150 ft and a length of 300 ft.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ hangar located at RAF Waterbeach.

Transportable hangars.

The 1936 transportable hangar requirement, asked for a hangar that could be easily erected and didn’t require a permanent base. It also asked for doors at both ends and needed to be simplistic in design, with parts being interchangeable. These hangers also saw the separating of the office/workshop facilities previously built onto the side of the hangars, these now being located in buildings in the technical and administrative areas. After considering numerous designs, two were chosen and ultimately built.

The first of these, and the primary choice, was the Bellman. Designed by an engineer within the Works Directorate, N.S. Bellman, they were smaller than previous hangars (88ft span and 175 ft on RAF bases) and could be built in under 500 hours by a dozen men. So successful, were they, that over 400 were built between 1938 and 1940 across a wide range of airfield types. Some of these examples even appeared in Russia.

Bellman Aircraft shed

Bellman Aircraft sheds at the former RAF Bircham Newton

The second design, was the Callender (later Callender-Hamilton with modifications) Hangar, designed by the bridge design company Callender Cable and Construction. These had a span of 90 clear feet, with a length of 185 ft, and were used on both RAF and RNAS airfields. There were only eight of these built before the outbreak of war, examples of which appear at East Fortune, further examples with lower roof clearances (17 ft) being purchased after 1940. The Callender-Hamilton are best recognised by their lattice-work on the top door rails.

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

As the war approached, 1939 – 1940 saw a transition period between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ buildings, although many of these temporary buildings still stand today! Because of this change, many airfields had various hangars built, something that often gives a mix of hangar designs on one airfield which can cause confusion as to its age and origin. However, from this point on, all wartime hangars were designed as temporary hangars, designed with short lives and easily assembled / disassembled.

By 1940, the Bellman was considered too small for the RAF’s requirements and a new design was going to be needed. An agreement between the Air Ministry and Teeside Bridge & Engineering resulted in the ‘T’ series of hangars, perhaps the most well-known of the hangar designs.

The ‘T’ series covers a wide range of (temporary or transportable) hangars, each slightly different to the previous, but designed as three main types; T1 (90 ft span), T2 (113 ft) and T3 (66 ft). The length of each hangar varied depending upon local requirements and the number of additional bays added as needed. The design number e.g T2 (26) indicated the number of bays (26) and hence the length.

The ‘T’ range were a diverse and complicated range, the ‘T2’ being sub split into 5 variants (T2, T2 Heavy Duty, TFB (flying Boat), TFBHD (flying boat heavy-duty) and T2MCS (marine craft shed), so the identification of each being difficult without measuring equipment.

RAF Wratting Common

A T2 hangar at RAF Wratting Common.

On first inspection the ‘T2’ and Bellman look virtually identical, both lightweight, steel lattice frames with metal side panels. The main distinctions are that the Bellman doors are flush with the top of the side panelling whereas the ‘T2’ has an extra level of panelling and so are not flush. The other difference is the lattice frame inside the roof, the ‘T2’ has only diagonal braces whereas the Bellman has vertical braces in addition to the diagonals. Both hangars have six leaf doors on sliding rails supported both top and bottom, allowing full width access.

A final addition to the ‘T2’ were the Ministry of Aircraft Production Hangars the Type ‘A’ (A1 & A2) and Type ‘B’ (B1 & B2) built in the mid war years 1942-43 and funded by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. These hangars, not to be confused with the type ‘A’ and ‘B’ of the 1920s, were designed specifically for the repair of damaged aircraft especially operational aircraft on their own airfield. They were also erected at ASUs, and Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG).

RAF Wratting Common

A B1 at RAF Wratting Common an RAF bomber station.

The ‘B1’ and ‘B2’ were built specifically at Bomber Command airfields for the repair of damaged bombers thus eliminating the need to transport them long distances to specialist repair depots. Designed by T. Bedford Consulting Engineers they were eventually found on virtually all Bomber Command airfields by the end of the war and were manned by civilian repair organisations. Examples of both the ‘T2’ and ‘B1’ can be found in use at Wratting Common.

‘A1’ and ‘A2’ hangars on the other hand, whilst similar in design – metal cladding on metal frames – were slightly smaller and found only on aircraft factory airfields. Thus again there are virtually two identical hangars designated primarily by their location!

The last hangar to be commonly found on RAF / USAAF airfields were the blister hangar. A hangar of a temporary nature that usually used a curved metal frame covered in metal sheeting. The Blister hangar was the brainchild of architects and consulting engineers Norman & Dawbarn and William C. Inman of Miskins & Sons, and was designed to accommodate small span aircraft ideally fighters dispersed around the perimeter of airfields. Maintenance or storage could easily be carried in these hangars, and they could easily and quickly be erected, no base or foundations being required before hand.

These types of hangar came in three designs, the standard blister, (timber construction), over type (light welded steel) and Extra Over (also light welded steel), and ranged in span from 45 – 70 feet, A further type built was that of Double extra Over and Dorman Long, a separate design similar in shape but securely bolted to foundations. Many of these hangars have now gone, the majority being dismantled and sold off, only to be erected elsewhere on farmland well away from their original location. The father of a friend of mine, was employed in this very role, one day finding a Spitfire inside a blister hangar which nobody claimed to own!

By the end of the war, in excess of 900 ‘T2’ hangars were erected on British airfields including those built abroad. In 2004 it was thought there were about 100*7 left surviving on MOD property in Britain. A number have also survived on farmland used to store foodstuffs or machinery, or industrial sites. The ‘T2’ remained the main hangar in use by both the RAF and USAAF during the war, appearing on all Class ‘A’ airfields, occasionally with other models also being present. A number of other older models also continue to serve even to this day. Considering many of these were built as temporary buildings, they have survived remarkably well and are testament to the engineering design of the pre and early war years.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of those hangars that were built during the period 1918 – 1945 (other examples include the: Aeroplane Twin Shed; RFC Sheds; Seaplane Sheds; General Service Sheds; Plane Stores; Running Sheds; Lamella (a German idea built in Britain); Hinaldi; Main Hangars; Lamson Hangars; Fromson Hangars; Robins Hangars; Butler (a US design); Merton; ‘S’ type Hangars (RNAS); Pentad Hangar and Boulton & Paul Hangars and of course post war examples such as the Gaydon), but hopefully it has shone a glimmer of light on these remarkable structures that often dominated the skyline and that remain the centrepiece of many a disused airfield today.

In the next section we shall look at that other main iconic building in airfield design, the watch office.

Sources and further reading. 

*7Technical Bulletin 02/02 “World War II Hangars – Guide to Hangar Identification” Ministry of Defence (February 2002).

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 6).

After considering the architecture of Britain’s airfields in Part 5, we turn to the hard surfaces, primarily the runways. Developed out of necessity, they created a steep learning curve for those involved in their construction. Many problems were found, many materials were tried, but ultimately they were built and even after their removal for hardcore, many have left scars in the tissue of the earth that remind us of their once massive presence.

Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands

In the pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. In the First World War, water logging and mud was an issue even for the small biplanes that filled the skies over Britain and  France. To overcome this, ash was spread over landing surfaces and to some degree successfully, but even though many local remedies were tried, it wouldn’t be taken seriously until the Second World War loomed.

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

Runways like this one at Glatton (Conington) remain in good condition and used by the local flying club.

At this point the typical airfield layout included up to four grass runways, one of 1,300 x 400 yards and three of 1,000 x 200 yards, many were even smaller. Bomber and Fighter Command, realising that not only would the new era of aircraft call for longer, hard runways on its airfields, but the need to maintain year round activity was essential if Britain was to defeat the Luftwaffe.

Both Fighter and Bomber Command pushed the Government to allow these to be developed, on the one hand Sir Hugh Dowding, fighting the corner for Fighter Command, pressed home the need for hard surfaces on his fighter airfields, whilst Sir Arthur Harris on the other, pushed for hard surfaces on his bomber airfields.

The entire process was lengthy and complex, and lacked in-depth, professional knowledge. The first hard ‘pavements’ later runways and taxi ways, being constructed based on road building techniques and knowledge. So before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine not only whether or not they were indeed needed, but if so, how they should be best constructed.

Initial steps in runway construction was started as early as 1937, where ‘flexible’ runways were constructed comprising layers of brick or stone covered with two further layers of tarmac and a coat of asphalt to seal the structure in. Concrete pavements, which proved to be much stronger were either 150 mm or 200 mm thick slabs laid directly onto the ground after the topsoil had been removed by heavy machinery. As would be expected, these early designs failed quite quickly under the heavy loads of the fighters and bombers that were coming into service. Rapid repairs were carried by adding a further layer of tarmac (6.5cm) and another layer (2cm) of sealant.

These early flexible constructions continued to fail whereas the concrete designs stood up to much more wear and tear and proved longer lasting. However, time was short and the learning curve would be steep.

The test to determine these needs was to take a Whitley bomber, laden to equal its full operational weight, and taxi it across a grassed surface.  A rather primitive assessment, it was intended to ascertain the effects of the aircraft on the ground beneath. Trials were first carried out at Farnborough and then Odiham, and these were generally successful, the Whitley only bogging down on recently disturbed soils. Further trials were then carried out at RAF Stradishall in March 1938, and the results were a little more mixed. Whilst no take offs or landings took place during these trials, the general agreement was that more powerful bombers would have no problems using grassed surfaces, as long as the ground was properly prepared and well maintained. All well and good when the soils were dry and well-drained.

By April 1939, the Air Ministry conceded, and agreed to lay runways at a small number of fighter and bomber airfields, of which Kenley, Biggin Hill, Debden and Stradishall were identified.  Whilst construction was slow, only two fighters airfields being completed by the outbreak of war, progress was finally being made.

These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, but were extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall in particular, would be further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.

RAF Charterhall

The runway at Charterhall in the borders, breaking up after many years of use both by training units and as a motor racing circuit post war.

During the early war years, the demand for airfields grew. By early 1940 the requirement was for three runways as close as possible at 60o to each other, and of a minimum length of 1,000 yards with room for extension up to 1,400 yards. This then became the norm by late 1940 especially at bomber airfields, with the main runway being 1,400 yards and subsidiaries at 1,100 yards. A month later, this increased by another 200 yards with a requirement to be able to extend to 2,000 and 1,400 yards respectively.

However, these short piecemeal responses were not sufficient and it was both a continual problem and a thorn in the side for the Air Ministry. Sir Arthur Harris, in raising his concerns for airfields belonging to Bomber Command, also pushed the need to develop good, long and reliable surfaces. He voiced his frustration in a vehement letter*6 to Lord Beaverbrook in 1941, In which he states:

“For twenty years everybody on the stations and the squadrons has been screaming for runways without avail.”

and he continues stressing the need for hard surfaces particularly in winter as:

“Through not having runways our effort will be seriously detracted from in normal winter conditions and reduced very probably to zero in abnormal winter conditions.”

He then goes on to state that Britain’s views were ‘blinkered’ saying that:

“Every other nation throughout the world has long been convinced of the necessity for runways…”

By the summer of 1941, the length of runways had again increased, all stations would now have a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards and where this was not possible, then a minimum of 1,600 and 1,100 yards (fighter and night fighter stations being shorter at 1,300 and 1,400 yards respectively).

The harsh winters were less than ideal for laying concrete (by far the best material for the job) but any delay could mean the difference between success and failure. Elaborate testing was therefore passed over, materials were laid and experience led the way. This method of trail and error, led to many instances of runways having to be dug up and relaid, this in itself led to problems as aircraft, men and machinery had to then be moved and housed elsewhere. The American Eighth Air Force suffered greatly with these problem, fully laden bombers repeatedly breaking through the surface or falling off the edges as it gave way.

Another consideration was that of training and satellite airfields. As the need for new pilots increased, the training of new recruits intensified. The harsh winters were causing major headaches for these airfields as mud, stones and other winter debris was causing continuous problems for flying. With both man power and materials being in short supply, suitable alternatives were sought.  A number of solutions were offered all very similar in their design and material.

The answer it seemed lay in steel matting – of which twelve different types were used – the more common being : Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT).

Sommerfeld track was a steel mat designed by Austrian Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with these other track types) were not only used commonly on training and satellite airfields, but also on Advanced and Forward Landing Grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy. In the build up to D-Day, 24 Advanced Landing Grounds in southern England were created using this form of Steel Matting,

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced; several records reporting tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

Because of the poor state and short length of runways, bombers were still regularly running off the ends, especially at night, or being unable to fly because the surfaces were poor or even unusable. A number of ideas were tested out to alleviate the problem, one such idea led to twenty sites testing arrester hook facilities. Several heavy bombers: Halifax, Manchester, Stirlings  and later the Lancaster,  were all modified to undertake these trials, with Woodhall Spa becoming the first airfield to have the full complement of six arrester sets.

Runway arrester gear

Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.

The idea was met with scepticism, but trials went ahead and in January 1942, a list of priority airfields was sent out to the Headquarters of No. 1,3,4, and 5 Groups RAF detailing those twenty sites selected for the equipment. At the top of the list was RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, followed by Bottesford, Swinderby, Ossington, Syerston, Middleton St. George, Linton, and ending with Waterbeach and Stradishall. By late 1942 Woodhall Spa was ready and in October, five landings were made by an Avro Manchester.  A month later the decision was made to install units at all major operational airfields, but this never came to fruition and the idea was soon mothballed. By 1943, it had been forgotten about and the 120 or so units built were scrapped (many being left buried where they were laid).

It was finally during early 1942 that a standard design airfield would be put in place. Known as the Class ‘A’, it would be the standard to which all new airfields and updated older sites would be made.

A Class A airfield would be designed around three hard concrete runways, shaped like an ‘A’ with each runway at 60o  to each other where possible. The main runway would be aligned with the prevailing wind again were possible to allow aircraft to take off/land into the wind as often as possible (north-east, south-west). In several cases, due to land features and local restrictions, this was not always possible, and so many permutations of design were seen as a result.

Rapidly becoming the largest part of the airfield layout, the runways and other paved areas – perimeters tracks, aprons and hardstands – were now given high priority. The standard now called for a main runway of 2,000 yards with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards. Each of these would be 50 yards wide whilst the connecting perimeter tracks would be 50 feet wide. Along side these runways would be an emergency landing strip, a grassed area given a landing surface of 400 and  200 yards respectively.

Dues to the high numbers of bombers returning badly damaged and unable to make safe and proper landings, a small number of emergency strips were created by extending the main runways to 4,000 yards long and 400 yards wide. One such airfield was RAF Manston in Kent. Being on of the closest airfields to the continent, it was often the first place a stricken aircraft, especially a bomber, would seek out.

Whilst the general layout of airfields did not change for the remainder of the war, some further runways were extended to 3,000 yards, one such example being RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk which was prepared to take the heavy B29 ‘Superfortress’ and post war, the B-36 ‘Peacemaker’.

A further point worth mentioning here is that of dispersals, not required pre-war, they were also an aspect of airfield architecture that were born out of the Second World War. In the inter-war years, aircraft were housed either on a central pan (apron or ramp) or within hangars. These collections of aircraft were easy targets and even a small amount of munitions could cause huge damage. In 1939 the need for dispersals was therefore recognised and so to address the issue, hedges were removed and tracks created that took aircraft away from the main runway but kept them within easy reach of the airfield site. The initial design was that of the ‘frying pan’ a 150 ft circle connected to the perimeter track by a small concrete track.

However, by 1942, it was found that aircraft were clogging up these tracks, some even ‘falling off’ the concrete onto soft soil and so blocking following aircraft in their tracks. The answer was the ‘spectacle’ or ‘loop’ hardstand, so-called by their oval shape, generally in pairs, that allow aircraft in and out without the need to turn or block access tracks. From 1942 onward, this model became the standard hardstand for all Class A airfields, and the aim was to have 50 such hardstands placed strategically around the perimeter, with 25 at satellite airfields. As the threat of attack diminished toward the end of the war, ‘finger’ or ‘star’ dispersals began to appear, much less effective than the predecessors, they were however cheaper and easier to construct.

RAF Milfield

Unusual as many training airfields didn’t have aircraft pans, RAF Millfield, in the borders, had several

In addition to hardstands, pens were built on fighter stations. The first, an experimental pit, was dug at Feltwell, whilst overly expensive and obtrusive, it did lead the way to aircraft pens later on, pens that were developed as either type ‘B’ or ‘E’  on these fighter airfields. The main difference here is that the early type ‘B’ had cranked side walls whereas the ‘E’ had walls that were straight. The former requiring more space, was later phased out in favour of the ‘E’, named so by its shape, using side and back walls to protect the fighter or small bomber located within.

Remains of Type 'B' fighter Pen

The remains of a Type ‘B’ Fighter Pen at Matlaske.

Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) whilst the type ‘E’ were found on airfields especially those around London that included Biggin HiIl, Kenley and North Weald.

Kingscliffe airfield

One of the ‘E’ type pens found at Kings Cliffe. Adapted with rifle slits for additional defence.

These pens were designed to specific dimensions and were designed as either a ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Blenheim’ to accommodate either a single engined or twin-engined aircraft. Within the back wall of these pens was a shelter for up to 25 personnel, and in some cases, they had Stanton Shelters built-in to the structures. Some, for example, at Kings Cliffe in Northampton, remain with rifle slits for additional protection from ground forces.

King's Cliffe airfield

Inside the aircraft pen shelter at King’s Cliffe.

Whilst the majority of these shelters were manufactured using banks of soil, sandbags, brick or concrete, there was a least one example at RAF Drem, in Scotland which used logs cut to size and shape and built in the style of a Scandinavian house. It is these various designs of aircraft pen that paved the way to modern hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) seen on military airfields today.

From the early days of grass runways to the massive lengths of concrete that were created up to and after the mid 1940s, runways and hardstands have become a defining factor in airfield design. The sole purpose of an airfield – to get aircraft off the ground as quickly as possible, get them to their target and them get them home again – led to the development of both runway lengths and construction materials, much of which has paved the way for modern airfields today. These early leaps into runway designs have enabled larger and heavier aircraft to make those important journeys that we very much take for granted in this the modern world of air travel and general aviation.

In the next section we look at one of the buildings most associated with the airfield. An early form of aircraft storage, its role changed as it was soon realised that aircraft needed to be dispersed and not grouped together on large aprons as they were in the prewar era. Aesthetics and neatly lined up aircraft were no longer an important factor in front line flying, but safety and the ability to repair aircraft quickly and efficiently were. Here we introduce the hangar, a huge building often of a temporary or transportable nature, that became one of the more longer lasting structures of airfield architecture.

Sources and further reading. 

*6 Letter from Arthur Harris to Lord Beaverbrook, February 1941 – AIR 19/492 – National Archives

RAF Thorpe Abbotts – home to the ‘Bloody 100th’.

There are few Bomb Groups who got through the war unscathed. Some earned notable awards, many earned notable nicknames. There are none more though than that of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Air Force, a groups of men who fought in many of Europe’s most fearsome air battles, suffering many great loses but also achieving great successes.

In this review of Trail 12 we look again at the airfield at Thorpe Abbots, and the history behind the derelict buildings and the concrete remains, we see how the 100th BG earned themselves that most unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th‘.

Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139).

Opened quite late in the war, (April 1943), Thorpe Abbots would only be active for a short period of time. But during these months, it would be home to one major air group, the 100th BG of the US Eighth Air Force, who would gain the unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th’. Their legacy would become well-known, it would be a legacy connected with death and destruction, and would be one that would live on for many years, even after the cessation of conflict in Europe.

The first units of the 100th BG would arrive in June 1943, and would operate continuously here until the cessation of conflict in 1945. The site would never see any further action after this, being returned to the RAF who retained ownership until its final closure in 1956. Now totally agricultural, it boasts a superb museum as a memorial to those who gave so tragically flying with ‘The Bloody 100th’.

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

The 100th’s name developed as a result of losses sustained by the group, which in actual fact were not significantly worse than any other Bomb Group of the US Air Force at that time. However, throughout their 306 operational missions over occupied Europe, 177 aircraft along with 700 lives were sadly lost in what were some of the most difficult and terrifying air battles of the Second World War.

Designated Station 139, Thorpe Abbots was built to Class A specification, with three concrete and woodchip runways in the form of an inverted ‘A’, with the cross of the A being the main runway running east to west. Being a bomber base it had 36 pan style hardstands and 16 spectacle hardstands around the perimeter. Maintenance was carried out in two T2 hangars (a type A to drawing 8254/40, and a standard T2). The technical area, accommodation areas and even the bomb store were very unusually all nestled close together in the south-western corner of the site, giving the whole airfield a  compact feel.

With two communal sites, six airmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and sewage works, it was a large accommodation area capable of holding 3,000 men and women of mixed ranks. All the accommodation areas used a range of standard huts, Nissen, Romney, Seco, Thorn and Orlit, all of which appeared on site.

Being a large base, it was, like many of its counterparts, a little town in its own right, with a barber’s shop, a cobblers, grocery store, a gymnasium and squash courts. It also had an on site plumbers, a cement store and a carpenter’s shop.

Although the journey of the 100th started with the activation on June 1st 1942, little occurred until later that year, when the collection of 230 enlisted men and 26 Officers arrived at Walla Walla, Washington, under the guidance of the Group Adjutant Cpt. Karl Standish. He began to organise the cadre into something worthwhile, and as more men arrived the ranks began to swell and the 100th began to take shape. The four squadrons: 349th (led by Cpt. William Veal), 350th (Cpt. Gale Clevan), 351st (Cpt. John Kidd) and 418th (Cpt. Robert Flesher), formed bonds and very quickly, and very soon after, the air echelons would begin to arrive, bringing with them brand new ‘straight out of the factory’ B-17Fs.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Thorpe Abbotts Control Tower now a museum to the 100th BG.

Their next move came at the end of November with a move that took them to Wendover Field, Utah, followed by, Sioux City and then Kearney Air Base in Nebraska, their final major US base before leaving for the UK in May 1943.

After the ground and air echelons split for their transition, the air echelons flew to bases in Newfoundland, where they departed across the northern route to Prestwick at the end of May. The ground echelons then  carried out ground training before departing on the “Queen Elizabeth” on the 27th May, many men being confined below decks because of the overcrowding on the upper decks.

The Queen Elizabeth finally made Greenock, and the men began unloading, the transition from the US to the UK being a shock to many as they clambered aboard the small ‘box cars’ size trains. That night they arrived at Poddington, their first base, and following a poor night’s sleep they received their initial introduction into the British way of life.

The 100th’s arrival at Thorpe Abbotts was not a pleasant one, the base was unfinished, accommodation was lacking and overcrowded, and food supplies were poor to say the least; this was not going to be an easy ride by any means.

Finally, in June, the air echelons began to arrive, the ground and air crews began to work on their machines, rehearsing, tweaking instruments and flying around the local area, until just after midnight on June 25th 1943, the order came through; they were to fly their first mission early that next morning.

The 100th were the third B-17 group to join the Mighty Eighth, as part of the new and reorganised 4th Bombardment Wing, they would join with the 379th BG (Kimbolton) and the 384th BG (Grafton Underwood), both also B-17 groups.

On that morning the aircraft would depart Thorpe Abbotts at 06:00 hrs, and whilst flying out over the North Sea, the formation would be joined by another B-17, with no top turret and the letters ‘VGY’ painted on it. No-one knew what it was, or where it had come from, and suspicions quickly arose about its authenticity. The ‘alien’ ship remained with the formation up until the target at which point it departed and “all hell broke loose”. The formation consisting of these new recruits was ragged and the experienced Luftwaffe pilots took full advantage of this. Focusing on the low squadron first, they fired a barrage of explosive shells into the fuselage’s of the B-17s. That afternoon three aircraft and thirty airmen failed to return home to Thorpe Abbotts, the war had hit home, and hit home hard.

Robert H. Wolff’s crew. L to R Back Row: Ira Bardman, Alfred Clark, William ‘Casey’ Casebolt, James Brady, Arthur ‘Eagle’ Eggleston, Willis ‘Browny’ Brown . Front Row: Charles ‘Stu’ Stuart, Fredric ‘Buzz’ White, (aiming at the enemy) Bob Wolff, Lawrence ‘Mac’ McDonell. The photo was taken after Regensburg for publicity purposes. (@IWM FRE 905)

Over the next month, there were many aborted and scrubbed missions, this continued raising and dashing of hopes set the men on edge but what few missions they did fly, they manged to get through relatively unscathed.

The end of July 1943 saw the official hand over of Thorpe Abbotts from the RAF to the USAAF, with Sqn. Ldrs. Lawson and Bloomfield representing the RAF and Col. Harding the USAAF.

On August 17th 1943, on the anniversary of the Eighth’s operations from England, the men of the 100th sat in the briefing room awaiting the revealing of the target for the day. The anticipation however, was soon replaced with trepidation as the route map revealed a line that would take them deep into the heart of southern Germany, to the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg. This would be no ordinary mission though, they were to not return to Thorpe Abbotts that day, but instead, they were to complete the first shuttle mission by the Eighth Air Force of the war, flying on to land in North Africa.

After an initial postponement because of mist, the green light was finally given and the aircrews started their engines. One by one they departed Thorpe Abbots toward the  skies above Germany. The 100th were in the unenviable position of ‘tail end Charlie’ being the low squadron at the rear of the formation. Added to this the 100th BG found themselves unprotected due to miscalculations in timing, and as unprotected ‘tail-end Charlies’, they were easy prey for the fearsome and hunting Luftwaffe. For two whole hours the defenders attacked from every possible angle, venting their determination on the lowly B-17s. The sky was littered with downed aircraft and falling wreckage. The B-17s were subjected to harrowing attempts to bring them down, air-to-air bombing from Ju-88s, and rockets fired from BF-109s just added to the mayhem of exploding cannon shells and bullets.

During this engagement B-17 #42-30311, piloted by Lt. Tom Hummel was attacked by Rudolf Germeroth in Bf 109G-6 of J 3/1. The aircraft was seen to explode and fall from the sky. The two waist gunners Ken O’Connor and Dick Bowler were killed whilst the remainder of the crew escaped the wreck and were taken prisoner.

Bombing over the target was accurate and reports sent back to England hailed the mission as a total success, The Messerschmitt factory being totally destroyed, and along with it unbeknown to intelligence, secret jigs for the manufacture of Me 262 jets. But the price had been high, of the twenty-one aircraft sent from the Thorpe Abbotts group,  nine had been lost and ninety men were either dead, captured or missing. Of all the groups who had taken part, the 100th had suffered the most, the lead group protected by P-47s coming off much more lightly.

The Regensburg mission would be a turning point for the 100th, their luck would run out and very soon they would earn themselves the unsavoury nickname ‘The Bloody 100th‘, a name that would stick with them for the duration of the war and beyond.

For their action in this mission, the 100th (and the entire division) would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) an award now becoming a regular feature amongst the brave crews of the Eighth Air Force.

In the Citation, the Secretary of War, G.C. Marshall said:

“The 3d Bombardment Division (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty on action against the enemy on 17th August 1943. This unprecedented attack against one of Germany’s most important aircraft factories was the first shuttle mission performed in the theatre of operations and entailed the longest flight over strongly defended enemy territory yet accomplished to this date. For 4.5 hours the formation was subjected to persistent, savage assaults by large forces of enemy fighters…

…The high degree of success achieved is directly attributable to the extraordinary heroism, skill and devotion to duty displayed by the members of this unit.”

During the September, the USAAF was reorganised again, the 4th Bombardment Wing now becoming the 3rd Bomb Division, 13th Combat Wing, a move that heralded little more than a change in aircraft markings. September would also be a notable month for other reasons. The mission on the 6th to Stuttgart would be a disaster for the USAAF, a deep penetration mission that saw over 400 aircraft combine in the skies over Germany. It was during this mission that B-17 #42-30088 ‘Squawkin’ Hawk II‘ would suffer from head on attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft who pounded the B-17 with 20 mm cannon shells. In the attacks the co-pilot (F/O. Harry Edeburn) was fatally wounded, the bombardier and navigator Lt. Peter Delso and Lt. Russ Engel were both severely wounded and the pilot, Lt. Summer Reeder was sprayed with metal as the nose of the B-17 shattered. With poor control and no oxygen, Reeder dropped the aircraft some 14,000 ft at an unbelievable rate of around 300 mph, before playing cat and mouse with the Luftwaffe fighters who were determined to finish off the damaged aircraft. By singing and telling jokes, the severely injured Reeder assisted by the badly wounded navigator, manged to reach England and without brakes or hydraulics, managed to put the aircraft down on a fighter airfield in England.

Squawkin Hawk II‘ would go on to become the first 100th BG aircraft to complete 50 missions covering a staggering 47,720 combat miles. She returned to the US in May 1944 where she was eventually sold for scrap.

After completing 50 missions, “Squawkin’ Hawk II” was covered with autographs before being sent back to the US for retirement and eventual scrapping.(@IWM FRE 4124)

During this disastrous mission many aircraft would run out of fuel, five made for Switzerland including ‘Raunchy‘ from the 100th BG in which Joe Moloney, the ball turret gunner, would be killed whilst trying to ditch. He would take the dubious honour of being the first US airman killed in neutral Switzerland.

It was also at this month, that the 100th would suffer another major blow and to rub salt into the wounds, they would not even get credit for it.

After a cancelled mission on September 24th 1943, the men of the 100th were raised from their beds for a practice mission over the North Sea, a ‘mission’ that would test their ability as Pathfinders. With bombs still in the aircraft from the morning’s preparations, skeleton crews and semi prepared aircraft took off from several bases across East Anglia.

They were to form up with P-47s over the Wash and then fly out over the sea and practice bombing. When a collection of aircraft appeared on the horizon it was assumed by the bomber crews that it was the friendlies arriving at last. The reality of it was sickening. Diving out of the sun Luftwaffe fighters from JG 3/II attacked the formation, rallying 20mm cannon shells in to the B-17’s wings and bodies. One aircraft, #42-30259 “Damifino II” piloted by Lt. J. Gossage crashed into the sea. Five crewmen were plucked from the water by Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) hunting German ‘E’ boats, five men remained missing presumed dead.

Yet more difficult times lay ahead. The October raid to Munster saw only one of fourteen aircraft return home – 120 crewmen were missing in action that day. As aircraft were hit from head on, the formation split. Aircraft dodged falling debris and exploding B-17s as rockets were launched at near point-blank range in a forty-five minute frenzy of slaughter.

This disastrous mission would see the tally of lost airmen rise to 200 in just one week, the loss could not be hidden and Munster would simply add another black chapter to the already darkening book of the 100th’s war. Even the one year celebrations at the end of October failed to cover the feeling of loss shrouding the base, a feeling as thick as the autumn fogs preventing flying from taking place.

Thorpe Abbotts Emergency operations block

Ghostly reminders hidden amongst the trees. Thorpe Abbott’s Battle Headquarters.

The cold winter of 1943/44 saw more fog, rain and cold, the dismal weather allowing only a few missions to go ahead. But as spring warmed the ground, the softening of the German defences in preparation for Operation “Overlord” could begin. ‘Big Week’ of February 20th – 25th, saw the 100th in action again – Brunswick on the 21st. March saw another milestone etched in the annuals of history as the 100th took the war directly to the heart of Germany and Berlin. Over three days the 100th would target the German capital, the first on the 4th, followed by the 6th and then the 8th. The 4th would see the 100th achieve the first blood, shooting down their first German aircraft over Berlin.

Each attack brought new challenges. In the first mission the weather forced many aircraft to abandon the flight and return home, the 100th, persevering lost one aircraft that day. On the 6th, the loss was much higher, fifteen aircraft went down and then another single aircraft on the 8th; 170 men were missing from those missions.

For their action, the 100th would receive their second DUC, albeit a year later. In the General orders 3rd March 1945, No.14 it said:

“The 100th Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in connection with the initial series of successful attacks against Berlin, Germany, 4, 6, and 8 March 1944…”

For the remainder of the summer the 100th would attack oil fields. bridges, and gun positions. They would provide support at St. Lo and Brest in August. Marshalling yards would also come under the focus of the 100th, the Ardennes and the assault across the Rhine. Eventually the war would come to a close and the 100th perform their last mission on April 20th 1945. They would lick their wounds and prepare for a well-earned return to the US.

By the end of its war-time operations the 100th BG had flown nearly 9,000 sorties, in over 300 missions, dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs. They would be credited with the destruction of 261 enemy aircraft, with another 240 damaged or probable. They earned two DUCs and the French Croix de Guerre with palm. Far from being the worst in the 8th Air Force, the 100th’s reputation for accuracy, and overall low operational loses made it one of the most outstanding Bomb Groups of the Air Force.

Finally leaving in December 1945, the 100th would eventually return to serve over the skies of the UK once more as the 100th Refuelling Wing based at nearby RAF Mildenhall.

After the 100th departed, Thorpe Abbots was returned to RAF ownership, no further military flying  took place and the site remained inactive. Eventually in 1956 the airfield was closed and the site then sold off to private ownership. Many of the runways and perimeter tracks were removed for hardcore, and the buildings fell into disrepair.

Today, the site houses a museum utilising the old original control tower and a small number of other buildings. Tucked neatly away amongst the beautiful countryside of Norfolk, this museum is more than worthy of a visit.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The Tower has Commanding Views.

Visible remains of the airfield are restricted to mainly perimeter track, but remnants can be found with a little effort. In the woods to the east of the tower, buried in amongst the undergrowth, are the remains of buildings including the Battle Headquarters  which would have commanded excellent views across the field in the case of attack.

The perimeter track has been partially utilised and turned into road, from which larger sections can be seen. A number of admin blocks, stores and a range of accommodation buildings are now engulfed by trees and vegetation but still survive and are all very much on private land.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Remnants of the perimeter track at Thorpe Abbotts.

Whilst many buildings remain hidden away, the dedication of a few volunteers keep the memories and lives of those who gave so much alive, and enable the history of Thorpe Abbots airfield to continue on for future generations.

Sources and further reading. 

Freeman, Roger A. “The Mighty Eighth” (1986) Arms and Armour

Arnold, Henry. H., “Contrails, My War Record: A history of World War Two as recorded at U.S. Army Air Force Station #139, Thorpe Abbots, near Diss, county of Norfolk, England” (1947) World War Regimental Histories Book 194.

Further details of the 100th BG and information about the museum can be found on the museum website.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 5).

Once the airfield had been built (Part 4), it was occupied by ground and later air forces, and became operational. However, the process by which it was developed, was not haphazard, nor was the architecture of its buildings. Designed to meet specific needs, the airfields of Britain were built using local knowledge, materials and in many cases architectural design.

Airfield Architecture

Any of these airfield developments had to be in line with guidelines laid down by both the Royal Fine Arts Commission and the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, hardly what you’d want in such difficult times! These restrictions however, would initiate a building design that would initially be both functional and aesthetically pleasing, with standard designs varying only through local conditions (suppliers of local brick for example). In the early schemes a ‘Georgian’ style of architecture was chosen for all permanent brick buildings, distinguished by their pillars and ornate archways, often seen on the entrances to Officers Quarters.

RAF Stradishall

The Officers Quarters at RAF Stradishall were reflective of the types built during war-time under Scheme A

Officer's Quarters now called 'The Gibson Building'.

Standard designs allowed for replication across numerous airfields, the idea being an officer could lift his room from one site and drop it directly on another. RAF West Malling, (built under Scheme M), reflecting this with Stradishall, (Scheme A), above.

All buildings were constructed from brick with roofing tiles chosen accordingly for the local conditions. As the schemes progressed and brick became scarce, concrete was used as a cheap and strong substitute, certainly for technical buildings but less so for administration and domestic structures.

As each scheme was replaced, any previous buildings would have remained (some modified to the new standard), thus some sites will have had a range of building types, often leading to confusion and a mix of architectural styles. The accommodation areas themselves changed too. In the early war years and as the awareness of air attack increased, accommodation was built away from the main airfield site and outside of the airfield perimeter. Classed as either ‘dispersed’ or ‘non-dispersed’, they were identified by the location of these domestic sites, where ‘non-dispersed’ were within the perimeter, and dispersed were beyond the main perimeter area of the airfield.

Barrack block Type Q (RAF Upwood)

The changing face of Barrack Blocks. A Type Q Barrack block at RAF Upwood, built to design 444/36, to accommodate 3 NCOs and 68 aircraftsmen. Compare this flat-roofed, expansion period building to the later Nissen hut.

In these early stages little consideration was given to air attack, and so ‘non-dispersed’ sites were still being constructed at the beginning of the war. The benefit of these sites being that all personnel were in close proximity, general accommodation buildings often being built around the parade ground, and with all the amenities under one roof. These sites also saw the segregation between officers, sergeants and other ranks along with separate married (many with servants quarters) and single quarters. However, with the outbreak of war and as a result of austerity measures, the building of separate married quarters ceased. Examples of these early non-dispersed designs include: StradishallMarham, Tern Hill, Waddington and Feltwell.

RAF Debden

RAF Debden, a non-dispersed site where accommodation and administrative areas were collectively close to the main airfield site within the outer perimeter (IWM17560).

The layout of these barrack blocks, took on the familiar ‘H’ shape, a design that replaced the initial ‘T’ shape of the post First World War and inter-war years. The ‘H’ Block became the standard design and gave a distinct shape to accommodation blocks on these prewar non dispersed airfields.

As the awareness of the dangers of non-dispersed designs became all too apparent, dispersed sites became the norm, where domestic areas were located a good distance from the main airfield site. Dispersed accommodation could have many sites, depending largely upon the nature of the airfield (Bomber, Fighter etc), when it  was built and whether it was operated by the RAF or USAAF. In these later dispersed schemes, domestic sites became more temporary in nature, whilst some remained as brick, many were built as prefabricated units often as Nissen or Quonset style huts, often due in part to the shortage of brick for building and the speed at which they could be erected.

With the changes in dispersing accommodation blocks away from the main airfield, safety increased but both administrative and operational effectiveness noticeably dropped. It was going to be a fine balance between keeping a safe distance and achieving maximum effectiveness.

Andrewsfield Accommodation site

A typical dispersed site showing the accommodation areas dispersed well away from the main airfield (bottom left). RAF Andrews Field (IWM UPL17532)

Depending upon local topography, these domestic areas could be situated as much as two miles from the airfield site, wooded areas being utilised where possible to hide the location of huts; blocks were randomised in their position to break up the appearance of housing, and pathways weaved their way round the sites to reduce their visual impact. In most later airfields, a public road would separate the technical and accommodation sites, with as many as thirteen or fourteen sites becoming common place.

The separation of WAAFs from RAF communal quarters also ceased, men and women now allowed to mix rather than having the separate sites for each. As a result many post 1942 sites had fewer dispersed sites then those of pre 1942.

The design of the technical areas also took on a new look. The prewar practice of squadrons offices being attached to the hangar was dropped, these also being placed away from the main technical site, dispersals for ground crew or waiting pilots were spread about the perimeter so airmen could be closer to the aircraft but far away enough to be safe in the case of attack. This led to a number of buildings appearing on the outer reaches of the airfield, along perimeter tracks and near to hardstands, often these were brick, small and square, others more temporary.

Further changes occurred with the reduction in available materials. These changes have given rise to a wide variation in building design, again many airfields having a variety of buildings using different materials.

Initially, buildings built of brick were strong and commonplace, but as this became both scarce and time-consuming to build, alternative forms were found. Timber followed on, but it too proved to be time-consuming to manufacture, and by 1940 acutely rare also.

A range of materials were looked into, using a mix of timber and concrete, plasterboard and concrete, but they were all below the Air Ministry standard. Even so, many were accepted as design alternatives and used in temporary building construction.

1940 saw the return of the 1916 designed Nissen hut, a curved hut that bolted together in widths of 16, 24 or 30 feet. A cold but effective hut it was commonplace on many airfields as both accommodation huts and technical huts, many being sold post war, and ending up in farmer’s fields many miles from the nearest airfield. With the arrival of the USAAF in 1942-3, they brought with them the Quonset hut, bigger in design than the Nissen, they are mainly distinguishable by their curvatures, the Quonset being semi-circular to the ground whilst the Nissen gave a 210o curvature. This extra curvature gave greater use of ground space, but lacked in overall space compared to it US counterpart.

RAF Matching Green

A Quonset hut at Matching Green. Note the curvature at ground level.

Nissen Hut on Acc. Site

The Nissen hut had a larger curvature giving greater ground space – RAF Fersfield.

Even this material became in short supply, metal being scare and urgently required for the building of military hardware. In 1942 the Ministry of Works took over control of hut design, manufacture and supply, and various new designs were brought into play. Asbestos became popular again, with the US being able to supply large quantities of the material. Uni-Seco Ltd, Turners Asbestos and Universal Handcraft being examples introduced at this time.

The final design to be used, was that of the Orlit, a reinforced concrete panel and post design that slots together to form the walls and roof. Also know as the British Concrete Federation (BCF) design they were quick to erect and lasted from many years. This type of design was used for emergency housing in the post war period and has since proven to be degrading to the point that some of these properties have been condemned.

Thus the architecture of airfield buildings took on many guises, from permanent brick designs, through timber, timber and plasterboard mixes, various metal design, asbestos and finally concrete, all of which gave a change in shape and design examples of which could appear on many airfields. The most common surviving examples today being the Nissen hut.

In the next section we shall look at the runway, the very heart of the airfield and often the defining factor in its designation.

Warning over Airfield Closures.

A recent report on the BBC has highlighted a number of military airfields that are set to close over the next six years, with the potential loss of thousands of jobs. However, the threat is much wider than that, and an all-party group have now highlighted the issue, putting pressure on the Government to take action before the situation becomes extremely serious.

In the report, the BBC say that the all-party group on general aviation, labels airfields as “national assets“, and that once closed they “will never be replaced” – a statement primarily based on the complex planning system currently operating in the UK.

Many of the sites identified by the BBC have already been reduced to a holding status, or with minimal military activity anyway. In most cases military flying has already ceased and in some cases, has been so for a number of years. So why are the all party group so concerned?

As highlighted previously, this is all part of a massive cost cutting exercise and streamlining of Britain’s armed forces, a move that will not only save money for the Ministry of Defence, but provide valuable space for much-needed new housing projects across the UK.

Military airfields not only employ armed forces personnel but they also employ a large number of civilians.  Many of these people live locally, and provide a great deal of income to the local economy. As such, many small towns, for example Mildenhall, could be seriously affected by any such closure of its military base. In the event that a new airfield be required, the cost of it would, even if possible, run into millions of pounds, and would take a considerable time to complete. At a time when Britain and her allies were facing increased threats from foreign nationals, is this not perhaps a dangerous policy to be considering at this particular moment in time?

Furthermore, the issue here is not just military airfields, but Britain’s airfields in general. The all-party group, led by the Right Honourable Grant Shapps MP, aims to promote jobs and growth throughout General Aviation in the UK. The group currently (April 2018) contains 150 parliamentary members, which is a record number of members, and one that highlights the depth of feeling amongst its associates.  The group’s primary aim, which covers four areas of aviation: Airfield, Airspace, Tax and Regulations and Heritage, is to safeguard Britain’s network of airfields regardless of their size or status.

The BBC report states that many of those airfields highlighted are also used by both private pilots and particularly flight training firms, who are having to move their operations abroad due to lack of suitable airfields in the UK. Along with other ‘non-commercial’ flying activities (general aviation), these account for “£3bn a year to the UK economy“, the BBC says citing Government figures.

Whilst both military and general aviation airfields are the focus of this report, there are also wider issues at stake here. Figures quoted by the group show that the closure of Britain’s (civilian) General Aviation airfields not only affects the £3bn Gross Value Added (GVA), but directly affects over 38,000 people employed largely in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) roles. These activities they say, “provide the foundation for the much broader £60.6bn UK aviation sector“.

The general aviation situation at the moment, according to the all-party group, shows that in Surrey for example, every licensed airfield is under threat, whilst in Hertfordshire there is only one remaining licensed airfield, and in twenty-two counties across the whole of the UK, there are no licensed airfields whatsoever.

In terms of heritage, many of these airfields, and those that have closed already, are former World War Two sites, and as such have an immense  historical value to them. As we have seen many times already, many of these airfields are no longer in existence and many have been reduced to mere shells of buildings with no memorial, or little recognition of the human sacrifice made from them.

With the closure of airfields comes the knock on effect of air displays, which since the tragic events at Shoreham, have become prohibitively expensive. Owners of historic jet aircraft for example, are having to sell them abroad as they can no longer afford to fly them in this country. The drain on flying examples could, they say, lead to there being no examples of post war models left flying in this country at all. Even military supported fleets e.g the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the Royal Navy Historic Flight and the Army’s Historic Aircraft Flight, are having their ability to perform at airshows reduced by Government cutbacks. This is particularly worrying they say, as evidence shows that a considerably large number of armed forces recruits are gained through airshow attendance.

Promoting general aviation, and particularly Britain’s rich and diverse aviation heritage across the UK, also falls to the numerous museums located around the country.  The majority of people they say, are within an hours drive of at least one aviation museum, and whilst the majority are on former wartime sites in the east and south of the country, this figure broadly applies to the whole of the UK; one I think you’ll agree is both astonishing and reflective of the general interest in aviation in this country.

The national interest in aviation has also been heightened by the current anniversary of the founding of the Royal Air Force on April 1st 1918, but notwithstanding this, visits to these museums accounts for an estimated 2.5 million visits a year, generating over £40 million of heritage tourism revenue – a very significant figure indeed.

The purchase and storage of static aircraft for these museums is also a costly one, rents, hangar space and ground running costs are ever-increasing. Aircraft themselves are not cheap, and few museums can ill-afford to update ‘stock’ with models that are becoming more rare with each passing day. New or more recent examples are also at the base of the argument; with the forthcoming withdrawal of the Tornado for example, how many will be ‘offered’ to local small-scale museums at a reasonable price rather than dealers who will pass them on to foreign or large-scale buyers.

Furthermore, many of these museums, house archives and personal records of those who served during many of the conflicts this country and her allies have been involved in over the last 100 years. Allowing these organisations to prosper, enables future generations to access records, photographs and information, not only about world history, but in many cases family histories too.

The closure of Britain’s airfields has not just a localised impact, it has a national impact that long-term, could have serious affects not only on the aviation and tourist economy as a whole, but science and technology, the armed forces and historical sources too. Whilst the need for housing must be met, a balance must also be sought where these valuable assets are not simply stripped away and forgotten, but consideration is given to their historical and economic contributions too. We can ill-afford to let our aviation heritage be simply removed without due consideration of the financial, economic and historical consequences.

Some of the airfields currently listed as ‘under threat’ include:

Andrewsfield
Blackpool
Bourn
Deenethorpe
Dunsfold
Elvington
Halfpenny Green
Kemble
Long Marston
Manston
Alconbury
Molesworth
Mildenhall
Chalgrove
Colerne
RAF Henlow
RAF Hullavington
RAF Wyton
RAF Wethersfield
RMB Chivenor
Linton-on-Ouse
RAF Topcliffe
Nottingham City
Old Sarum
Panshanger
Peterborough
Plymouth
Redhill
Rochester
Wellesbourne
Wycombe Air Park
Fairoaks
North Danes
Tollerton
+ 30 other MOD sites

The BBC highlighted the story on April 21st 2018 via their website. (this may not be accessible outside of the UK).

The General Aviation All-Party Parliamentary Group has a website detailing its aims and policies. It also encourages lobbying of MPs for improvements to the planning process and in particular the protection of Britain’s aviation heritage.