RAF Brunton – A little known about airfield.

In this the second stop on our trip to Northumberland, we travel close to the North Sea coast not far from the eastern borders of England and Scotland. A small airfield, this was the satellite to RAF Milfield, and performed an important role in the Second World War. You cannot mention Milfield without reference to this airfield, and vice versa. Here we stop off at that little known about site RAF Brunton.

RAF Brunton.

Brunton is located some 3.5 miles to the south-east of Seahouses, a short distance from the Northumbrian coast. The village it takes its name from sits alongside the airfield, and is made up of a handful of buildings – primarily farmhouses. It is an open and flat area ideal for an airfield, and only a short flying distance away from its parent airfield RAF Milfield.

Brunton was designed as a satellite, and even though it was not a major airfield, it more than fulfilled the role of one. A constantly busy site, it somehow managed to ward off the high numbers of tragedies, losses and accidents that dogged Milfield and many other aircrew training facilities.

Brunton was conceived during the development of Milfield, when the need for another site was soon realised. The land on which Brunton stands was requisitioned in 1941, opening for business in early 1942. With its three runways forming an almost perfect equilateral triangle at its centre, it had a 50 yard perimeter track and twenty-five hardstands of the frying pan style. The longest of the three runways ran slightly off north-south, and was originally built to a length of 1,600 yards – it was later extended to 2,000 yards. The second and third runways, intersecting almost at their centre, were both 1,100 yards and were also extended but to 1,400 and 2,000 yards respectively.

RAF Brunton

One of several exposed shelters at RAF Brunton.

Unusually, the accommodation areas were all closely tied together, a rare feature that placed them to the south of the airfield straddling the local railway (now the East Coast main line from which views can be seen as you speed past!). Being a satellite, Brunton was only designed to accommodate small numbers of personnel, upward of some 750 men and women of mixed ranks.

As a satellite, there were no permanent hangars built, but four blister hangars were erected around the site, and used to maintain the aircraft. These Blister hangars (a name given to cover a wide range of arched aircraft shelters initially designed by architects and engineers, Norman & Dawbarn and William C. Inman of Miskins and Sons) were known as Dorman Long hangars, and were built to design 4630/42. At slightly under 72 feet in length they were 45 feet wide with a height of over 20 feet. Dorman Long hangars differed in design to other hangars by being constructed of four sections each held together by three RSJ type ribs, and ‘I’ shaped Purlins along the roof. These hangars were also bolted to foundations rather than staked to the ground like the more conventional blister hangars in use at that time. A similar hangar was used at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire – none of which survive today.

As a satellite, Brunton would work closely with its parent. It would be used in the second part of the 9-10 week pilot’s course to train pilots in formation flying, ground attack and strafing techniques. In the ground attack role, pilots would use a mix of rockets, bombs and cannon to destroy dummy convoys and strongholds. There were a number of ranges in the region providing targets for this particular role; Brunton aircraft predominately using the gunnery range at Goswick Dunes on which numerous ex-army vehicles, including Churchill Tanks, were placed.

Even before Brunton officially opened, it would witness a tragic accident in which it became the final resting place of one Whitley bomber, and three of its four crew. On November 6/7th 1941, whilst on a training flight, the MK. V Whitley (Z6932) of 10 Sqn, RAF Leeming, became lost in poor weather due to a failure of its navigation equipment. After landing on the partially built site, the Whitley took off again, heading south in an effort to locate its home base. As it lifted off, it struck a steam roller causing the aircraft to jolt and strike live high tension cables. The aircraft burst into flames and subsequently crashed. The Wireless Operator/Rear Gunner Sgt. Robert Whitlock, RAFVR (s/n: 163028) was pulled free by a crew from the local search light battery, but the remainder of the crew: Pilot F/Sgt. William Stuart RCAF, (s/n: R/60298) P/O. Richard. S. Austin, RNZAF, (s/n: 403785) and Observer Sgt. P. Bryant, RAFVR, (s/n: 976876), all perished. Bryant was a mere 23 years of age whilst Stuart and Austin were both just 21 years old.

Brunton’s opening in the summer of 1942, coincided with the start of operations at RAF Milfield, Brunton’s first residents would be 59 Operational Training Unit, a unit set up to train pilots for Fighter Command.

59 OTU operated the Hurricane, many of which were themselves veterans of the Battle of Britain. War-weary and battle-scarred, they were joined by a number of other aircraft types including Magisters and Fairy Battles. These flights would take the now adept pilots and train them to fly in formation and at low-level. A speciality would be to fly across the sea, at low-level, turn toward land and then strike at land based targets with bombs and canon or later rockets.

During the Spring of 1942 it was decided to allocate reserve squadron numbers to Operational Training Units, these numbers being in the range 551 – 566. The idea behind this plan – code name ‘Saracen‘ – was to create a series of squadrons that could be mobilised at a moments notice to counteract an imminent German invasion threat. The plans were later revised under the codename ‘Banquet‘ but would remain, in essence, in its original form well into 1944 before being seen as unnecessary, and so  withdrawn. At Brunton, 559 Sqn was allocated, (500 was generally added to the OTU number to create the reserve number) but the pilots of 31 Course, like many others, were never officially mobilised. However, Brunton was run as if it were a fully fledged operational squadron, the same rules and regulations, with two flights ‘E’ and ‘F’ both operating the Hurricane MK.I.

Flying with old and war-weary aircraft was difficult. Many would suffer engine fires, oil leaks or complete engine failures – some whilst in flight – and they rarely flew without the need for excessive trimming or constant adjustments to flying controls. These continuing problems would hound the pilots and ground crews for months, but undeterred they carried on, and morale remained particularly high.

RAF Brunton

A very small number of buildings exist dotted about the former airfield. Thought to be the former flight offices, these examples are the largest.

On October 13th 1942, one of these Hurricanes would suffer from such a problem and its engine would fail causing the pilot to crash-land. A MK.I  Hurricane (P3524) it would be forced to land in a field not far from Alnwick, a village a few miles to the south-west of the airfield. The aircraft was slightly damaged in the incident but fortunately the pilot, Sgt. C. Tidy (s/n 1042890), would walk away unhurt. In carrying out the controlled crash, Sgt. Tidy would steer his aircraft down missing a nearby school, but as he exited the aircraft, the documents he was carrying were scattered to the four winds. Wanting to do their bit, a local school master organised a search party with the boys in his care, and the documents were all gathered up and retrieved successfully. *1

Brunton, like Milfield, would have a high turnover of visiting aircraft. Many would come from Milfield, but some from much further afield to practice landings at night or as pilots transferred from one aerodrome to another. Some aircraft were also using Brunton as a safe haven, getting down after getting in trouble in the air. In March 1943 a Hurricane MK. I (W9121) of 59 OTU based at Milfield  crashed whilst on final approach at night to Brunton airfield. The pilot, Sgt. Cullener was very sadly killed in an event that was repeated in early 1944, when another Milfield 59 OTU Hurricane MK.I (P3104) also crashed on its approach to Brunton.

The dawn of 1944 saw 59 OTU along with the Specialised Low Attack Instructors School  (SLAIS) (also formed in 1942 at Milfield) disband, being replaced by a specialised unit the Fighter Leader School. The FLS was a unit designed solely to train pilots in the ground attack role and was set up primarily in preparation for the forthcoming Allied Invasion of Normandy. With this change so came a change of aircraft type, the Spitfire VB and MK IX now becoming the main aircraft operated in place of the Hurricane. The FLS would make great use of Brunton, training many pilots until it moved to Wittering at the end of 1944.

But not all staff would vacate Brunton in this move. A small detachment remained behind to give support to the build up of the newly reformed 56 Operational Training Unit who were brought together, both here and at Milfield, in place of the vacating FLS. This meant that the two sites would continue to operate very closely, but now using the heavier radial engined Tempests and Typhoons still in the ground attack role rather than the previous Spitfires and the now vulnerable Hurricanes of before.

The Typhoons came in with a number of teething troubles, one such attribute was the propensity to lose its tail plane during mid-flight, or the engine suffering a blow-back resulting in a fire in the engine or worse still in the cockpit. These issues were soon dealt with  though, and the Typhoon went on to become renowned as a ground attack aircraft, with its bombs or rockets proving devastating weapons in the role.

Av Typhoon IB JP853/SA-K of No 486 Squadron (Tangmere) (IWM CH 11578)

Brunton continued its close relationship with Milfield, supporting its 140 aircraft. Course No. 1 would begin in that January of 1945 and through it a large number of pilots would pass on their way to new roles in the European campaign.

Even as the war drew to a close accidents were still to happen and Brunton was no exception. In early January 1945, whilst being ferried from Milfield to Brunton Typhoon IB. (RB343) developed engine failure on take of at Milfield causing it to lose height and ultimately crash into the ground. The pilot, Canadian born P/O Nelson I. Gordon (J88818) was killed. Then just a month before the end of the war on April 9th, Tempest MK. V (EJ845) swung on take off at Brunton colliding with a wind sock. The accident took the life of another Canadian pilot, 32-years-old F/Lt. Ivan W. Smith (J22244) RCAF; he remains buried at Harrogate (Stonefall) Cemetery in Yorkshire along with over 1,000 other war dead.

Gradually though, the need for ground attack pilots diminished and Brunton, no longer required, was earmarked for closure. The war finally came to a close, and on February 14th 1946, 56 OTU were disbanded and the RAF pulled out of Brunton almost immediately. The airfield was now all but deserted.

After the war, for around 20 years, the Borders Parachute Centre occupied Brunton, until the land was sold, and the owner gave them notice to quit. Their lease ran out in 2004 and the club closed on the site. During this time a small contingent of RAF personnel were brought in when a radar facility was set up on the eastern side of the site. This too eventually closed though, and the personnel were pulled out. A small number of private pilots used the airfield to store and fly their aircraft from, it is believed they too have had to vacate the site, although this is not certain.

A large portion of the airfield still exists and in very good condition today. If travelling toward Brunton village you pass beneath the main East Coast main line railway, and on into the village. This road was the original entrance to the airfield, with the main technical area to your left. Now only farm buildings stand here, but the concrete pathway is still visible as it leads away to the main airfield site. Views across the airfield from this point offer little advantage, so turning back and driving along side the railway  down a single track, will lead you along the western side of the airfield and toward the back of the site. This is another original road and provides much better, but still limited, views of the site. The runways and perimeter track are present and many air raid shelters are also present along this western side. The remainder of the buildings from these various sites are now gone.

The small radar / monitoring dome is also still present but on the eastern side of the airfield, and although information about this is scarce, it was linked to nearby RAF Boulmer, and manned by RAF personnel. Boulmer which is currently the home of the Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) plays a key role in the home defence of the United Kingdom. Boulmer is linked to a number of monitoring stations around the British Isles and monitors, around the clock, an area of over one million square miles of airspace. This airspace stretches from the northern tip of Norway to as far out as Iceland and beyond, and encompasses the whole of the United Kingdom. With links direct to the QRA sites at RAF Coningsby, it monitors and tracks all aircraft activity around British Airspace, and in particular Soviet intrusions into this Airspace.

RAF Brunton

Another of the exposed shelters to along the western boundary. The taxiway of a short distance from here.

Brunton, whilst only a satellite, proved its worth during the Second World War. It trained numerous pilots in the art of ground attack techniques, and was pivotal in both the Normandy invasion and the drive on through occupied Europe. Visited by many commonwealth pilots, it was more ‘relaxed’ than other wartime airfields, but always maintained the highest of standards, operating as strictly and smoothly as any operational airfield of the Second World War.

Sources and further Reading.

*1 Article appeared in “The Northumbrian Times – No. 28” and was quoted in Walton, D. (1999), Northumberland Aviation Diary, Norav Publications.

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RAF Milfield – Arguably One of Britain’s Most Significant Airfields.

High up in the northern most reaches of England is an airfield that has repeatedly appeared in the memoirs of many RAF and USAAF pilots. Not because it was a busy front-line station dealing with the constant battle against marauding enemy bombers, but more simply because it was a training station. However, this airfield was no ordinary training facility. It operated a large number of aircraft whose pilots played a major part in both the Normandy landings and the drive on through France and the low countries. In this, the next trail, we visit Northumberland, and a place where ground attack pilots honed their skills, perfecting the use of rockets, canon and bombs, in the destruction of enemy troop convoys, trains and tanks. The first stop on this trail is an airfield that is arguably one of Britain’s most significant airfields – RAF Milfield.

RAF Milfield.

RAF Milfield lies a short distance from the village it takes its name from, at the foot of the Cheviot hills on an area known as the Millfield Plain. It is an area steeped in history. On this site, evidence has been found of Neolithic hearths, storage pits and post holes.  There is also evidence of two Bronze Age circular houses and a further three rectangular houses dating back to the ‘Dark Age’; an age that probably pre-dates the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the area from around AD 547.

This area was also the scene of many fierce and brutal battles between the English and the Scots, The Battle of Homildon Hill and the Battle of Flodden were both fought within a few miles of this very site. In both these conflicts, heavy casualties were suffered by both sides, and it is therefore, an area that is both used to war, and one that is rich in historical interest.

RAF Milfield

The Perimeter track is now the public road, parts lay visible alongside with associated dispersal pans.

As a military aviation site, Milfield came into being during the First World War. One of several such sites in the region that was used as little more than an emergency landing ground by 77 Squadron who were based further north at Edinburgh. Known at the time as Woodbridge, it would be a quiet little site that would soon disappear, quickly returning to its agricultural roots once war was over.

As a second war with Germany seemed inevitable, the need for new airfields became evermore apparent, and so the Air Ministry implemented the airfield expansion scheme. This programme developed so quickly that by 1942 there was a front line airfield opening at the rate of one every three days! As the German forces moved ever more quickly, and the Fall of France led to the Battle of Britain, the need for fresh, well-trained pilots became paramount. With home reserves drying up, the Commonwealth became an untapped source that would fill the ever-increasing void that was becoming a thorn in the side of the RAF.

Trained only in basic flying techniques, these crews had to be battle hardened and fit for action in a matter of weeks or even less. Initial training operations were mere ‘lip-service’ and recruits often had as much chance of killing themselves as they did the enemy they were intended to down. To meet this demand, numerous training stations were created, manned mainly by Operational Training Units (OTU), they were governed by the various arms of the Air Command: Fighter, Bomber, Naval, Transport etc.

At these training sites, crews would in essence, perform a ‘post-graduate’ training exercise, where they would be assembled for the first time and trained in their respective roles on the aircraft they would be expected to fly operationally. Milfield would be designated as one such station, and was initially identified as a suitable location for a bomber command site. Following requisition of the land in early 1941, the green-light for development was given, the process was put into place, and RAF Milfield was born.

Before any bomber crew would use Milfield though, it would pass from Bomber Command control over to Fighter Command whose focus would now be fighter pilots, and in particular, those specialising in both ground attack and dive bombing techniques.

As pilots came from all across the world, their training standards were some what disjointed, and so a refresher course bringing all crews up to the same standard would be required. This was a role that Milfield would fulfil. Working in conjunction with its satellite station a  few miles to the east, RAF Brunton, Milfield crews would spend some 9 to 10 weeks in total on flying techniques, both solo and formation flying, with the more advanced training taking place at RAF Brunton.

Nestled between the main road and the River Till, Milfield would be built to bomber station specifications, the three runways being wood chip and concrete one of 1,400 yards and two of 1,100 Yards. During development and subsequent handover to Fighter Command though, the new Class ‘A’ airfield standard would come in to being, requiring all airfields to be built with a longer runway specification. However, being a fighter training site, these were not imposed and whilst two of the runways were extended (1,800 and 1,300 yards) they were not to the full Class A specification.

RAF Milfield

The runway threshold is still surviving, note the close proximity of the hills in the background.

As a training airfield it would be exceptionally busy. An expected turnover would be a new course starting around every 3 weeks, which would mean a considerable number of aircrew and aircraft; in excess of 100 air frames would be located here at Milfield at any one time. The primary fighter aircraft at this point would be the Hurricane with other examples including the Miles Master and Magister. To repair and maintain the aircraft, two T2 hangars were constructed with a further eight blister hangars located around the dispersal areas. Squadron dispersal huts were spread around the perimeter, with the technical area and main hangars being located to the south-eastern side. Accommodation, designed to be temporary, was dispersed over 13 sites, and would be designed to accommodate in the region of 1,650 staff, both male and female. Like many airfields though, this figure was surpassed with the actual ‘on roll’ totals varying considerably reflecting the constant movement of staff. Including the numerous support staff, it is believed that some 3,300 people were employed at Milfield at its height.

Adjacent to the airfield was the former Galewood Farm House, an old farm building used as an Officer’s mess during the airfield’s operational life. Destroyed in the 1960s, it was once part of an estate that adjoined the airfield, and was previously home to Josephine Butler. Josephine was the leader of a national women’s political campaign in Victorian England, who campaigned on behalf of prostitutes, abused and trafficked women until her death in 1906*1. Now commandeered by the military, a snooker table with lights powered by a generator was placed inside, and nearby stood the NAAFI theatre, the recreational building showing the usual films to keep the personnel entertained.

It was during this construction period that the first enemy action would occur over Milfield. On September 1st 1941, at 23:00 hrs, six bombs were dropped in the vicinity of Milfield. A crater 72 feet wide and 10 feet deep was recorded, the road was blocked and telephone lines were brought down. Also during this time, and whilst not officially open, aircraft would land at Millfield, presumably as test landings or after getting into difficulty. One of the first casualties here was that of Sgt. James B Spangler (R71573) RCAF flying Hurricane V7044 on 25th June 1941, who was “killed in the course of a training flight” whilst flying with 59 OTU. This tragic accident would be a sign of things to come.

Because of the nature of training flights, accidental deaths on or around Milfield would become fairly common. These included on October 6th, 1941, Hurricane MK. I W9177 which was forced to Bellyland in a field near to Stocksfield just west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On 13th December 1941, Sgt. Norman Clunie Pow, (R83911) RCAF, again of 59 OTU, crashed in Hurricane P3809. Sgt. Pow was just 25 years of age and was buried some several hundred miles away next to RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, another training station.

Sutton Bridge Churchyard

Sgt. Pow’s grave at Sutton Bridge.

As a training airfield, no operational front line squadrons would use Milfield, other than a detachment of 184 Sqn Hurricane IIDs between 1st December, 1942 and 1st March, 1943. The only other use of Milfield by ‘front line’ units would be as a transit base in the early post-war months.

The first full unit to arrive was that of 59 Operational Training Unit (OTU), arriving in the August of 1942.

59 OTU were originally formed at Turnhouse in December 1940, and operated amongst other things, the Hurricane, the Magister, the Fairy Battle and finally Hawker’s Tempest, all in a training capacity. After spending some five months at Crosby-on-Eden, the unit transferred to Milfield where they trained pilots in the ground attack role. As with many training stations, casualties were high, with many accidents happening through either pilot error or mechanical defects. Many of the Hurricanes used here were veterans themselves, beaten and patched up following intensive fighting in the Battle of Britain, many were long past their sell by date.

One of the first accidents to occur was that of Sgt. K. Dole, RCAF, who stalled whilst performing aerobatics – either authorised or not. His aircraft, a Hurricane MK.I ‘V7316’, MF 89 of ‘Z’ flight 59 OTU, crashed on farmland near Cornhill in August 1942. Luckily Sgt. Dole was unhurt, and the aircraft was salvaged; being repaired and sent to operations in the Middle East. The same fate however, did not fall to P/O J. Methum, who was killed in early September 1942, when his Hurricane MK.I ‘V6840’ crashed in a forced landing a few miles away to the east. The aircraft was written off in this most tragic of accidents.

The dangers of training became evermore apparent over the next few months, Saturday 27th March 1943 being particularly poor for 59 OTU with two crashes on the same day.  Hurricanes Mk.I ‘W9184’ and ‘W9121’ crashing in forced landings and night landings respectively. Both pilots were killed that day; Sgt. Robert MacFadzean (s/n: 1349862) born of US resident parents, and Welshman, Sgt. Gordon Cullener (s/n: 1383311).

Four months after 59 OTU’s arrival, No 1 Specialised Low Attack Instructors School  (SLAIS) would also be formed here (7th December, 1942) another unit that used the Hurricane and the Magister. One of the Chief Instructors of the School would be Squadron Leader J.H. “Ginger” Lacey DFM and Bar, a Battle of Britain Veteran who ended his career with 28 confirmed kills.

Hurricane MK.IID of No. 1 Specialised Low Attack Instructors School being refueled and rearmed by Ground crew, including a WAAF, on a wet dispersal at Milfield. The fairings covering the two Vickers 40mm anti-tank guns beneath the wings have been removed and a warning notice hung from the barrel. (IWM CH 18134)

Low flying, in even in the relative safety of Northern England, was not immune from accidents, mishaps or misjudgments by the pilots. On 21st February 1943, Hurricane MK.II ‘HW731’ of the SLAIS hit an obstacle one mile north of Beal, the pilot escaped unharmed and after nursing the aircraft back to Milfield, it was repaired and converted for ground training purposes as ‘4616M’.

As flying training continued, so too did the number of accidents, burst tyres, engine malfunctions and fires, pilot error and collisions accounting for a wide range of them. On April 27th 1943, two Hurricanes collided in mid-air whilst performing formation flying. Both airmen, F/Sgt Davies and F/O Thompson were killed; an event that was mirrored in the following July when Hurricanes ‘P3475’ and ‘V7173’ also collided again with fatal results. New Zealander Charles Humphrey (s/n: 421056) is buried locally.

On May 1st 1943, 59 OTU transferred from 81 Group to No. 9 Group, at which point 81 Group was disbanded. No 9. took over 81’s responsibility, and it remained primarily a training arm of the Royal Air Force. For 59 OTU though, little would change.

On September 16th 1943, a B-17F-BO  (42-30030) named ‘Old Ironsides‘ ran out of fuel whilst returning from La Rochelle. The pilot Lieutenant Henry J Nagorka, decided to ditch in the sea near Farne Islands, off the Northumbrian coast. The aircraft quickly filled with water and in under four minutes she had disappeared beneath the waves.

During the ditching two crewmen were lost, waist gunners: S/Sgt. Ed Christensen and S/Sgt. Claude Whitehead, whilst the tail gunner S/Sgt. Harris lost a leg. Those that survived managed to climb into a dingy and sailed to St Cuthbert’s Island where they awaited rescue. Upon being saved, they were transferred to Milfield, where they were collected by another B-17 from the USAAF. However, as Milfield was a fighter airfield and its runways hadn’t been extended to Class A specifications, there were doubts about the aircraft’s ability to get off the ground on the short space available. To overcome the problem, the hedges at the end of the runway were removed and steal planking temporarily laid, the problem never arose though as the B-17 along with its additional human cargo left Milfield safely.

B-17F ‘Old Ironsides’ 42-30030, was lost at sea on the 16th September 1943 with the loss of two men. (IWM UPL 28296)

On January 26th 1944, both 59 OTU and the SLAIS were disbanded and a new unit formed, the Fighter Leaders School (FLS). The School had its origins in 52 OTU formed at Chedworth, and was in January, created as a unit in its own right. Formed through the need for more ground attack pilots in preparation for the forthcoming invasion, it was a unit that would take on the responsibility for the majority of the RAF’s ground attack crews. One notable figure of the FLS at Milfield was Bob Doe DSO, DFC & Bar, another veteran of the Battle of Britain. He would later return to operational duties after his short stay here in Northumberland.

Using the codes HK, OQ and MF, the FLS operated a number of aircraft predominately Spitfire VBs, and Spitfire MK IXs along with a handful of other marks. It later went on to adopt the radial engined Typhoon IB. In total over 130 aircraft would be used by the  Milfield unit, an incredible amount of aircraft on one site at any one time. Milfield continued to be in the spotlight.

It was also during this time, early 1944, that the USAAF would begin to send their pilots to Milfield to train on their ranges. With them, came a variety of US built aircraft, P-38 ‘Lightnings’, P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ and the P-51 ‘Mustangs’. The brainchild of General Quesada, the plan was to train Ninth Air Force pilots in the art of dive bombing, skip bombing and low-level attacks, techniques that would become paramount if the push through France and on into Germany was to succeed. The arrival and increased use of Milfield by the US crews gave an indication that the impending invasion was drawing ever closer.

One of the earliest accidents for the FLS was in March of 1944, when Mohawk MK.III AR633 of 510 Squadron was hit by a Typhoon (JR509) of the Fighter Leader School on take off. Also on this day, a Spitfire MK.IIa (P8549) of the FLS tragically blew up in mid-air during a dive bombing attack on the Goswick ranges. The pilot of the Spitfire, F/Lt. Bouquen, a Belgian, was killed in the incident.

About a month later, a flight of four P47D Thunderbolts from the 366th FS (358th FG) from RAF Raydon attached to Milfield, were carrying out practice strafing attacks on a military convoy. During the climb out of the attack, one of the Thunderbolts (42-25530), piloted by 1st Lt A. Serapiglia collided head on with Spitfire Mk 1 ‘R6762’ which was preparing to land at nearby RAT Eshott. In the collision, both pilots Sgt. Kai Knajenhjelm a 19-year-old Norwegian and Lt. Serapiglia were killed. After the investigation it was deemed that all future exercises should be performed “outside of local flying areas” of nearby airfields, something that perhaps seems obvious today, but reflects the hectic and often frantic skies over northern England in the 1940s.

One of the benefits of attending the FLS was the diverse range not only of nationalities: Dutch, Czech, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South Africans to name but a few, but also the range of aircraft used. At the end of courses, trainees – now fully fledged fight pilots – were sometimes given the opportunity to try out other types of aircraft. An action that no doubt put the fear of God into the Station Commander who was heard to have shut his door and say “to hell with it”*2 . A number of other incidents occurred during this hectic time, which saw, by the end of December 1944, the FLS being absorbed into the Central Fighter Establishment based at RAF Wittering. Following this, the staff at Milfield all moved out, and momentarily peace prevailed once more.

Between mid December 1944 and into early January 1945, 56 OTU was reformed. Previously at RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, it brought new aircraft, to the area, and Northumbria now reverberated to the radial engines of the Typhoon IB and the Tempest V; as four squadrons operated the aircraft using the codes FE, GF, HQ and OD. A collection of other aircraft types also graced the skies of this now highly significant airfield, Spitfires, Tiger Moths, Leopard Moths and Magisters to name but a few.

Even though the war in Europe was winding its way toward its conclusive ending, priority for aircraft was given to this purposefully created unit, and practice flights continued in earnest. The skies remained busy and accident numbers remained high.  In the space of one month between mid January and mid February 1945, there were no less than 8 incidents involving aircraft from Milfield and 56 OTU. As with many incidents here, poor weather, engine failures and pilot error were the causes of many  aircraft abandonment, pilot injuries and tragically deaths. In these eight incidents six involved Typhoons and two involved Tempests.

RAF Milfield

MG & Cannon Range building, one of the few remaining structures at Milfield.

March and April were similar stories, accidents, mishaps and deaths continued to plague Milfield, with pilot error accounting for a larger number of the accidents. Perhaps one of the most bizarre incidents took place on March 8th 1945 when the leader of a Spitfire squadron ‘deliberately’ attacked a Typhoon Mk.Ib ‘MP187’ of 56 OTU, killing the pilot F/O. R Smith of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Typhoon was commonly mistaken for the Luftwaffe’s Focke Wolf 190, a formidable beast that became the scourge of the USAAF bomber formations.

The closing stages of the war didn’t bring a respite either. Saturday 12th May saw a collision between Tempests ‘EJ685’ and ‘NV759’ an event that killed an instructor pilot. Even after the war’s end, accidents continued to occur, with June, July, August and September all witnessing  further deaths and incidents. August 23rd saw Typhoon ‘SW638’ collide on the ground with two other aircraft, both those struck were written off whilst the ‘offending’ aircraft was badly damaged.

At the end of the war, and over just a two-day period, the only two operational units to use Milfield would arrive, using it as a transit stop. Both 164 Squadron and 183 Squadron would arrive and depart on the same day 16 – 17th June 1945 bringing with them yet more Typhoons.

Eventually, nearly nine months after the war’s end, on February 14th 1946, 56 OTU were disbanded, but not before one final roll of the dice when the life of an RAF pilot was taken. On January 29th 1946, whilst on a “Camera Exercise” and after performing a slow roll ten miles west of Holy Island, Tempest Mk. V EJ859 piloted by F/Lt. Vincent Parker (s/n 42356) RAFVR, an Australian aged 27, dived into the ground killing him. In a cruel twist of irony, F/Lt Parker was killed after having survived as a prisoner of war since 16th August 1940. He had remained in a German POW camp until its liberation at the end of hostilities, returning to England in June 1945, his post-war, peacetime life had been shorter than his life in captivity.

The departure of 56 OTU signified the end of the RAF’s interests in Milfield, and although not a front line operational airfield, it had become a very active and played a highly significant role in fighter training and development. Used to train both new and experienced pilots, it had become one of the RAF’s top fighter pilot training stations, developing pilot’s proficiency in low-level weapons delivery techniques. No matter how dangerous the training got, crews had continued to pass through, morale had  remained high and the standards were never dropped. Of the 1,200 pilots who had passed through here, many went on to make their names as the top ground attack pilots of the Second World War.

Immediately after the war, many of the accommodation huts were used to house Latvian soldiers, many staying here up until 1950. Local people were then housed in refurbished WAAF blocks before moving on to more permanent housing in the local village.

Soon after, Milfield began its decline with many of the buildings being demolished over the coming years. During the cold war era, the two T2 hangars were designated storage units for dried foods and emergency rations, thankfully a role that never had to be called into operation.  Eventually the runways were dug up and removed for hardcore, quarrying took over the southern end of the airfield and much of the surface layers were removed in the process.

During the 1970s investigations were carried by Air Anglia into the possibility of commencing commuter flights to European cities, but the project failed to ‘get off the ground’ and the service was scrapped before it ever developed into anything more than investigative flights.

Now partly returning to agriculture, a small section of the airfield has been retained by the Borders Glider Club*3 . The battle to keep gliders and flying here alive, being a long and difficult one. Through this small organisation, that operates only at the weekends, the spirit of flying lives on, and Milfield continues to fight for survival, a fight that has been both emotive and historically significant in the battle for the skies over Britain. The T2s have now gone as has virtually all the remaining buildings. A stone statue built by an Italian POW who was employed on the local farm, stands on private land, marking what was the official entrance to the airfield during the war years, it is clearly visible from the road side.

RAF Milfield

One of two sculptures, one made by an Italian POW, the second copied by an RAF serviceman.

Located four miles north-west of Wooler and Visiting today, there is little evidence of the former airfield left. Small sections of the perimeter track are now the public road, but alongside the road,  the remainder of the track can just still be seen. The north-western end of the runway is also visible as are a small collection of dispersal pans.  The MG & Cannon Range building still stands, minus its roof it is rapidly decaying, it has a very short life left.

Interestingly, as a training airfield, Milfield used both a Fisher Front Turret Trainer and Hawarden Trainer, a simulation trainer that used the fuselage of a Spitfire to train pilots in interception techniques. A model suspended from the ceiling up to 60 feet away from the pilot could be moved forwards or backwards by operating the opposite movement of the Spitfire’s throttle. As the Spitfire ‘accelerated’ the model moved backwards along a rail, rather similar in design to a 1970’s child’s toy. During these sessions a range of flying skills could be tested, interception and aircraft recognition, throttle control and cockpit procedures included. A primitive method that was state of the art in 1941. Sadly neither of these exist today.

Two memorials are located at this site, the first in a public car park to the western end of the airfield, next to the Maelmin heritage trail. The second is located outside the club house of the Borders Gliding Club, approximately on the site of the former watch office, itself no longer there. This memorial was commissioned by the club entirely through donations and is their way of acknowledging the sacrifice of those who flew from Milfield.

Milfield is arguably one of the most significant airfields of the Second World War, many Spitfire, Hurricane and Typhoon pilots quote it in their memoirs, their time here short but memorable. Here ground attack pilots cut their teeth, low-level strafing and dive bombing techniques being honed to absolute perfection. The battle for Europe would certainly have been more difficult were it not for those daring young men who passed through this remote but historically important airfield.

After we leave Milfield, we head east, toward the coast and the satellite of Milfield. A small airfield, it too played a major part in the development of ground attack crews and it too saw many accidents and losses through its training programme. From here we go to RAF Brunton.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 A website tells the story of Josephine Butler’s life, and another has photos of Galewood farm-house.

*2 Dunn, W.R., “Fighter Pilot: The First American Ace of World War II“,  1996, The University Press of Kentucky, Page 118.

*3 Border flying club website

The Friends of Berwick and District Museum and Archives website provide information about the archaeological history of Milfield.

A book has been published about RAF Milfield, a complementary website gives fabulous personal detail of life at the airfield and is well worth a visit.

Photos of those stationed at Milfield can be seen through the BGC Flckr account.

RAF Debden (Part 3) – The USAAF Arrives.

After Part 1 and Part 2 of the trail, we find that Debden has a new owner, the USAAF. Its fortunes change and it becomes home to one of the most famous Fighter Groups of the Second World War.

121 Sqn, were reformed in 1941 at Kirton-in-Lindsey, initially with the Hurricane MK. I, and then IIBs moving on to the Spitfire IIA and eventually the VB; a model they brought with them to Debden. 71 Squadron had been formed at Church Fenton, and after moving through a series of stations that included Martlesham Heath, they arrived at Debden on 3rd May 1942 also with the Spitfire VB. On September 29th 1942 the two RAF units along a with a third, the 133 Sqn at Great Sampford,  were officially disbanded, but the men of the three units were not dispersed. Instead they absorbed into the USAAF as the 4th Fighter Group (FG). The men of these squadrons were all originally US volunteers who formed the three  American ‘Eagle Squadrons‘ operating within the Royal Air Force.

The 4th FG was specially created to take these three squadrons, they were brought together at Debden where they became the 334th (71 Sqn), 335th (121 Sqn) and 336th (133 Sqn) Fighter Squadrons (FS).  Debden would then be passed from the RAF to the USAAF, the transition of which, would be smooth and relatively uneventful, the units retaining the Spitfires they already had before replacing them with P-47s later in 1943.

A Spitfire Mk. V (QP-V) of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group. Handwritten caption on reverse: '1942. 334 FS. 4th FG.'

A Spitfire Mk. V (QP-V) of the 334th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group. (IWM)

The handover of ownership of Debden took place on the 12th September 1942, with an official ceremony on the 29th to coincide with the disbandment of the RAF units. During this ceremony both Major General Spatz and Brigadier General Hunter were joined by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas of the RAF’s Fighter Command, to see Debden and the aircrews officially joining the ranks of the USAAF. Initially little changed after the handover, the most prominent feature being the removal of the RAF roundels and the application of the US Star on the aircraft’s fuselage and wings. New ground crews were brought in and trained by RAF personnel to maintain the Spitfires, and so RAF crews remained on site until such times as the American were in position to become self-sufficient.

As these crews had been involved in front line operations for some time – the 71st having gathered a total of over half the 73.5 kills recorded by the three squadrons – they were immediately made operational and went on performing in the duties they had been so adept at completing thus far. So proud of their origins were they, that the 4th FG stood out from their fellow Americans both in the way they flew, and the way they behaved.

With their first mission under the ‘Stars and Stripes’ on October 2nd, they would not have to wait long before seeing action once again. The Eagle Squadrons would become famous throughout the war, achieving many records in aerial combat over the next three years. Taking part in the Normandy invasion, aerial battles over Northern France, the Ardennes, the Rhineland, and over Berlin itself; they would not be short of combat experience. Throughout their time the 4th FG would achieve many ‘firsts’. They were the oldest fighter group of the Eighth Air Force, and their combined totals of  enemy aircraft destroyed both in the air and on the ground was the highest of the entire USAAF. They were also the top scoring Allied Fighter Group of the war, destroying 1016 enemy aircraft for a loss of 241 of their own aircraft, many of which were due to flak. They would be the first unit to engage the enemy in air battles over both Paris and Berlin, and they would be the first US Eighth AF Group to penetrate German airspace – a record they established on 28th July 1943. The 4th would also be the first fighter group to be selected to escort the heavy bombers of the USAAF on their first shuttle run, landing in Russia before returning home.

Not only did they undertake many ‘firsts’, but the 4th FG gained an undeniable reputation, between the 5th March and 24th April 1944 they earned a Distinguished Unit Citation when they shot down 189 enemy aircraft whilst destroying 134 on the ground. You cannot mention the 4th without mentioning the name of Donald M. Blakeslee, credited with 16 kills, he was a brilliant fighter pilot who retired from the USAAF as a Colonel. Blakeslee was considered one of finest combat fighter leaders of the Second World War who shunned publicity even refusing to paint ‘kills’ on his aircraft, and he was known, on several occasions, to give kills to rookie airmen. Blakeslee initially flew in 401 Sqn (RCAF) before transferring to 133 Sqn and then the USAAF when they transferred across. He was a remarkable man, a great leader who was looked up to by all those who flew with him, he sadly died in September 2008 leaving a daughter. All-in-all, the 4th achieved quite a remarkable record considering they were initially volunteers of the American air war in Europe.

The 4th FG would remain at Debden thought the war, leaving it only when the RAF required the return of the airfield in July 1945, at which point the whole group packed up and departed for Steeple Morden in Cambridgeshire.

Airmen of the 4th Fighter Group ride in the back of a jeep at Debden air base. A P-47 Thunderbolt is in the background of the shot. Passed by the U.S. Army on 2 October 1943, THUNDERBOLT MISSION. Associated Press photo shows:- Pilots at a U.S. Eighth Air Force station in England are taken by truck from the Dispersal room to their waiting P-47's (Thunderbolts) at the start of a sortie over enemy territory. L-R: Lt. Burt Wyman, Englewood, N.J. ; Lt. Leighton Read, Hillsboro, W.V.; F/O Glen Fiedler, Frederickburg, Tex. AKP/LFS 261022 . 41043bi.' [ caption].' Passed for publication ....1943'. [stamp].

Taken almost a year to the day the US forces moved in, airmen of the 4th FG are taken ot heir P-47s before departing on a mission over enemy territory. The aircrew are: L-R: Lt. Burt Wyman, Englewood, N.J. ; Lt. Leighton Read, Hillsboro, W.V.; F/O Glen Fiedler, Frederickburg, Texas. (FRE 28 – IWM).

As 1943 dawned it would become much quieter in terms of movements at Debden. Now officially a US fighter airfield, the RAF had little to do here. For a short period of a week, 303 Squadron would stop over, the only visitors to make any great use of the airfield for the entire year. With Debden having long concrete runways, it was regularly visited by the lighter bombers, Marauders and Havocs taking refuge here from their own fog bound airfields during poor winter weather. It was during this time in 1943, that The Duchess of Kent, made a royal visit to Debden, taking time out to inspect the aircraft and crews of the 4th Fighter Group, accompanied by General D. Hunter and Colonel Edward Anderson.

With that 1943 faded into 1944, the jet age was dawning and the end of the war nearing sight.  In the July, 616 Squadron appeared with the Meteor, Britain’s first operational Jet aircraft. The squadron detachment stayed here until early 1945 when they moved on to Colerne and eventually the continent.

This move would signify the end of operational flying at Debden. The RAF retained the site reforming the Empire Flying Training School here on 7th March 1946 by merging both 12 and 14 Radio Schools into one. Flying a number of aircraft including Proctors, Tiger Moths, Ansons, Dominie and Lincoln IIs until October 20th 1949 when it was disbanded and Debden became the Royal Air Force Technical College, Signals Division. After a further name change the unit was finally disbanded on April 8th 1960, after it had operated a variety of aircraft including an: Anson, Air Speed Oxford, Spitfire XVI, Lincoln and Varsity.

Between 1963 and October 1973, Vampire F. MK.3 VF301 stood outside Debden’s front gate as guardian, one of several that have been here. It is now sits in the Midland Air Museum at Baginton in the markings of 605 (County of Warwick) Sqn as ‘RAL-G’.

DH Vampire F-1

A former Guardian of Debden now at the Midland Air Museum at Coventry’s Baginton airport.

Although remaining open, the airfield was used for a number of public displays and as a race track, including in 1966, the RAF Debden Motor Gala which featured Donald Campbell’s car, Bluebird CN7, in which Campbell set the land speed record in 1964.  Parts of the site are still used for racing today by the Borough 19 Motor Club*3

In 1975 the airfield officially closed although 614 Gliding School (later 614 Volunteer Gliding School) remained on site using it for flying, until they too departed moving to Wethersfield in 1982.

The army took over the site when the RAF Departed and they remain there to this day.

Debden, because if its post war usage, is a remarkably unique site, but whilst many of the original buildings remain intact, some even being listed as Grade II buildings*4, access is not permitted to the general public and therefore very little can be seen without prior permission. From public roads, high fences and thick hedges obscure most views although from the south, parts of the runway, and several dispersals can be seen quite easily.

RAF Debden

One of the pans now missing its Blister hangar.

By keeping the gate house to your right and passing along the road east to west, you pass the current accommodation area, Guard House and modern buildings used by the current Army owners. Continuing along this road soon brings you to the memorial. Whilst there is no official parking space here, there is a grass verge opposite the memorial where you can safely park your car off the busy main road. Behind the memorial is the north-south runway, still in full width, in which a small section of it can be seen as it rises and dips over the hill. Returning toward the main entrance brings you to a parking area on your right, where public access is permitted to Rowney Wood. Here there are a small number of original buildings still left along with former roads / and taxi ways. During its US occupation, there were five Blister Hangars located here, today only a couple survive, both in current use by local companies.

Like many former airfields and military sites, Debden has been identified as a possible housing location, with the potential for the construction of 55,000 homes. The announcement to close the barracks was made on November 7th 2016, as part of the ‘Better Defence Estate’ strategy, in which 91 MOD sites across the country will close by 2040. Government figures say that the move will save £140 million by closing these sites which also includes the US base at Mildenhall.*5

Considering the history of RAF Debden and the current status of its buildings, the restrictive nature of the site is also its guardian angel. However, with the axe looming heavily overhead, what will become of this site in the future? Its runways will no doubt be dug up, the older non-classified buildings could be demolished, its pathways and taxiways removed. Debden is in danger of disappearing for good leaving only small traces of this once famous airfield that not only took part in the Battle of Britain, but whose airmen defended London in what was very much our darkest hour.

Sources and further reading.

*2 AIR 27/703/17 National Archives

*3 ‘Borough 19 Motor Club’ website has details of their race activities.

*4 One such building is the Sector Operations Block, built in 1938, to the designs of J.H. Binge of the Air Ministry’s Directorate of Works and Buildings (drawing no. 5000/137).

*5 The story was highlighted in the Saffron Walden Reporter website accessed 11th October 2017.

Royal Air Force Police Flights who were at Debden have photos and information on their website.

RAF Debden (Part 1) – The Build up to the Battle of Britain.

Not far from Wethersfield, lies the parent airfield of Castle Camps. Now closed to aviation, it currently resides in the hands of the Army as the Carver Barracks. On this next part of this Trail we wind our way through the Essex countryside to the former fighter station that gained notoriety during the early 1940s, and in particular the Battle of Britain. In this, the first part of the visit, we look into the development of the airfield, and the build up that took it into the heart of the Battle. We visit the former RAF Debden.

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Essex

The internet and history books are awash with pictures and information about RAF Debden, and rightly so. It is an airfield with an incredible history, famous for its part in the Battle of Britain and the defence of London, it was home to no less than thirty RAF squadrons at some point; it was used by the U.S. volunteer squadrons the ‘Eagle Squadrons’, and then taken over by USAAF as a fighter airfield following their official entry into the war. It was then used again by the RAF post war up until 1975 when the British Army took over,  those whose hands it remains in today as the Carver Barracks.  Not only is it history long but the site is historically highly significant. According to Historic England, Debden airfield represents “one of the most complete fighter landscapes of the Battle of Britain period“, considered historically important due to its “largely intact defensive perimeter and flying-field with associated blast pens“.*1

Debden is therefore a remarkable site, but as an active military base, access and views are understandably very restricted. However, some buildings can still be seen from public areas, particularly the front as you pass by the main entrance.

RAF Debden

One of 11 Blister Hangars built at Debden.

Debden’s life began in the mid 1930s, it eventually opened in 1937, as part of the expansion programme of the pre-war era, and was classified as a fighter airfield under Scheme ‘C’ of the airfield construction programme. During this period, great consideration was given to the architectural features of airfield buildings, standard designs being finished and positioned aesthetically in line with both the local landscape, stone and environment. Design and construction of these airfields, in this the second part of the expansion phase, was carried out in conjunction with the Royal Fine Arts Commission, whose influence led to an overall improvement in airfield design. During this phase of expansion, over 100 permanent sites were built using these new designs, in fact, according to Historic England, it is these sites that have tended to survive in the best condition to date largely thanks due to their post war and Cold War usage. Even in this pre-war period, aesthetics were as important as operability!

Built by W. L. Fench Limited, Debden wasn’t completed until after it had been opened, thus the first units there were using the site in its unfinished state. The two initial landing surfaces were grass, but as a fighter airfield little more was needed. Even so, and not long after it opened, these were replaced by concrete and tarmac surfaces, giving the airfield much stronger and more adaptable landing surfaces. Being the standard 50 yards wide, these runways were also extended from the initial 1,600 and 1,300 yards to 2,600 and 2,100 yards respectively, allowing for larger and more powerful aircraft to utilise the site.

Debden had a large number of hangars built: three ‘C’ type, one Bellman and eleven blister hangars which were all spread around the perimeter and technical areas of the airfield. Some 80 hardstands were also provided, thus large quantities of aircraft were expected to use the site at one point or another.

Of these thirty operational flying squadrons to pass through Debden, the primary aircraft to see service would be the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command. Biplanes such as the Demon and the Gloster Gladiator were also to feature here, as were the twin-engined aircraft the Beaufighter, Havoc/Bostons and the jet engined Meteor in the latter stages of the war. The period 1939 – 1942 though, was by far the busiest period for Debden, the majority of squadrons operating from here during this time.

Upon opening in 1937, Debden would operate the outdated and obsolete biplanes of the Royal Air Force, Hawker’s Fury II of 87 squadron being the first to arrive on 7th June 1937, being replaced shortly after by Gloster’s Gladiator, that famous Biplane that protected Malta as ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’. In the summer of 1938, prior to the outbreak of war, Hurricanes were brought in and the entire squadron moved to airfields in France where they would stay until May 1940, when France was invaded by the German forces. Brought back to England, a short two-day stop over at Debden, would lead to a move north and Yorkshire before returning to the battle, and a night fighter role over Southern England.

Joining 87 Sqn in June 1937 were further Gladiators, those of 80  Squadron who, themselves formed a month earlier, would stay at Debden until departing for the Middle East and Ismailia a year later. A third squadron would arrive during this time, 73 Squadron, who shortly after reforming at nearby Mildenhall, would also replace their Hawker Furys with Gladiators coinciding with their move to Debden. Also moving to France, 73 Sqn would eventually move to the Middle East, where they would remain for the duration of the war, flying from numerous airfields including that of Habbaniyah, one of several places where my father was stationed post-war.

One other squadron would grace the skies over Debden that year, that of 29 Squadron, whose Hawker Demons were adapted to accept a Frazer-Nash turret for defence. A small aircraft, they would be no match for enemy fighters and so were replaced in December 1938 by the far superior aircraft the Blenheim IIF. Coinciding with this, was the movement of a detachment of 29 sqn aircraft to Martlesham Heath, which was followed by a months stay at RAF Drem in the border region before returning to Debden once more. By the end of June though, the entire squadron have been pulled out of Debden and moved to Digby in Lincolnshire and a new role as night fighters.

1938 also saw the reforming of 85 Squadron on the 1st June. 85 sqn, as a unit, had their roots in the First World War, being stationed in France before disbandment in the summer of 1919. But on this occasion, they were reformed out of ‘A’ Flight of 87 squadron prior to them taking on their Hurricanes and imminent move abroad. During the period 1939 – 1940, 85 Sqn would move around almost weekly, with one of their longest permanent stays being between November 1938 and September 1939 whilst here at Debden. Being the parent airfield of Castle Camps, Debden units would often be dispersed there, or in some cases stationed there, whilst also operating out of Debden – 85 Sqn being no exception.

Two other squadrons would fly from Debden during the winter/spring of 1939 – 40, both 17 and 504 operating the Hurricane MK. I. On an almost weekly basis, both units would yo-yo between Debden and Martlesham Heath, an almost continuous spiral of postings saw them using the ‘Heath’ as a forward operating airfield until around May 1940, when both units were moved to France in support of the B.E.F.

Hawker Hurricane Mark Is of No 17 Squadron taxiing at Debden, July 1940. In the foreground is YB-C, that of the CO, Squadron Leader Harold ‘Birdy’ Bird-Wilson, who was shot down on 24th September flying YB-W (P3878) (IWM – HU 54517)

As the fall of France turned into the Battle of Britain, fighter units to defend Britain became top priority. The dawn of 1940 would see the beginning of six more squadrons operate out of Debden, the majority of which would arrive during the height of the Battle. Debden, as the Sector Station responsible for the Thames Estuary and eastern approaches to London, would become a prestige Luftwaffe target during those early days of the Battle. As a result, it along with other Sector stations at Northolt, North Weald, Biggin Hill, Tangmere and Hornchurch, would endure some of the most sustained and prolonged attacks by German bomber formations.

To meet the demand for fighter units, 257 Squadron were reformed and posted to Debden initially flying the Spitfire MK. I. They quickly replaced these with the Hurricane I prior to them becoming operational on July 1st. Four days later they were joined at Debden by both 601 (the ‘Millionaires Squadron’ named so after the men who initially joined it) and 111 Squadron making this one of the largest collections of Hurricanes at that time.

85 Squadron were soon in the thick of the battle. As July 1940 turned to August, patrols would be sent up as regularly as the sun would rise, many of these patrols would result in enemy engagement; the Operational Record Books being testament to the continuing battle for the skies over Britain at that time. At the beginning of August on the 7th, Air Vice-Marshal K.R. Park M.C., D.F.C. visited  Debden, a visit that preceded the transfer of Debden from 12 Group into 11 Group. It was also at this time that the funeral of P/O. Brittan of 17 sqn took place, a young man who lost his life in a flying accident.

In mid August 1940, both ‘A’ and ‘B’ flights of 85 Sqn were brought back from Martlesham Heath and Castle Camps to Debden, a move that preceded the not only the first but one of the largest attacks by a Debden squadron on enemy aircraft.

In part 2, we see how Debden was affected by the German campaign, the relentless attacks that drew Debden crews into battle. We look at the changes at Debden and how the American made a name for themselves as determined and fearless fighter pilots.

*1 Historic England, Historic Military Aviation Sites – Conservation Guidance, 2016.

389th BG Exhibition at Hethel.

Whilst visiting RAF Hethel (Trail 38), we drop into the exhibition of the of the 389th BG who were stationed here during World War II.

The exhibition is small but it has a lot to offer. Located in the former Chapel/Gymnasium, it has been carefully restored and filled with information and artefacts pertaining to the former airfield and U.S Air Force during the Second World War.  There are also articles from the 466th Bomb Group who were based at nearby RAF Attlebridge, the RAF and stories from local people who befriended the Americans whilst they were here.

The exhibition is located on a working poultry farm and so access is limited, open every second Sunday of each month between April and October, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

The buildings have been painstakingly restored by volunteers, some of whom have had connections with the airfield or Lotus cars, the current owner of the airfield itself. In 2001 the museum opened its doors to the public, after moving a collection of memorabilia from the Lotus site over to their new home here at the 389th exhibition.

It was during the restoration that two murals were discovered, these are perhaps one of the more stunning aspects of the exhibition. Painted in 1943 by Sgt. Bud Doyle, the then Chaplin’s driver, they are located on one of the walls of the Chapel. One is of Christ on a cross, whilst the other is a portrait of a pilot, both have been restored and remain on display where they were originally painted all those years ago..

389th BG Exhibition Hethel

The restored murals in the Chapel.

Located here, are a number of items many with stories attached. In the Chaplin’s quarters next door, are maps and other documents relating to the groups activities.

Two new Nissen huts have also been built, opened and dedicated in 2014 and 2017, they extend the exhibition further to include uniforms, service records, numerous photographs and more memorabilia.

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

The dedication plaque.

There is also a refreshments bar offering the usual tea and snacks, along with a toilet facilities.

From the museum there are public footpaths into what was one of the accommodation areas of RAF Hethel, here are some of the remains of buildings, shelters primarily, hidden amongst the undergrowth. The footpaths are mainly concrete once you get onto the site.

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

Part of the exhibition inside the former Chapel at RAF Hethel.

A nice little museum it has free entry and welcomes donations to help with the upkeep and maintenance of the site, if in the area, it is well worth a visit and your support .

The 389th website has further details and opening times and information of forthcoming events.

RAF Castle Camps – A return to Essex.

Bordered by Cambridge and Suffolk to the North, Hertfordshire to the west, London to the south and the North Sea to the east, Essex is a coastal county that boasts a diverse range of landscapes. Primarily commuter belt for London, it has a range of its own industrial giants, electronics and pharmaceuticals being prime employers of the area. It also has a long and diverse aviation history, hosting a number of wartime airfields some of which are still in use today – albeit under a different guise.

Following on from Trail 33 (Essex Pt. 1), we return once more to Essex to its northern borders to visit some of the airfields that can be found among its green fields and idyllic villages. We start off at the former airfield, RAF Castle Camps.

RAF Castle Camps.

Castle Camps lies straddling the borders of Cambridge and Essex, a small unassuming airfield, it was none the less home to thirteen operational units at some point in their wartime career. It was constructed early on in the war, in sight of an ancient Motte and bailey built by Aubrey de Vere, soon after the Norman Conquest. Itself quite a historic monument, there is evidence that dates the site back further to both the Saxons and Romans. This castle itself is known to be the largest Medieval fortress in the county, and dates back to the latter parts of the thirteen century*1. Originally known as Great Camps, and Camps Green, it is after this Castle that both the village and airfield gained their names.

Castle Camps housed a small number of aircraft types: Hurricanes, Beaufighters, Spitfires and Mosquitos all resided here, with some as detachments, but many as full squadrons. Even with increases in Squadron  numbers, only one unit was ever formed here, that of 527 Squadron in 1943. However, that did not mean a posting here was by any means ‘quiet’.

Opening in the summer of 1940, it was designed as a satellite for nearby R.A.F. Debden and as such, both its accommodation and facilities were rudimentary to say the least. A grass airfield, with initially little more than tents for sleeping, it possessed a more ‘informal’ atmosphere than many of the R.A.F.’s other airfields.

No. 85 Squadron – a First World War unit that had only been reformed two years before war broke out – had been stationed in France to face the advancing might of the German army. Badly beaten and continuously moved around the many airfields of France: Merville, Lille, Mons-en-Chaussee and Boulogne, the squadron was completely decimated with only four aircraft from those originally sent out returning. In May 1940, these aircraft were pulled back to Debden to reform and re-equip. With detachments at both Martlesham Heath (A Flight) and Castle Camps (B Flight) they would be led by the soon-to-be-famous, Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, D.F.C.

85 Sqn would  initially take on a regime of coastal patrols many starting in the early dawn sunlight and continuing on through until dusk. These repeated flights were undertaken using many new ‘green’ crews who were eager to get back at the enemy for defeats in France. Whilst those at Martlesham would be thrown into the deep end, the Debden and Castle Camps’ crews would find their time slightly less ‘strenuous’.

The CO of No. 85 Squadron, Sqn Ldr Peter Townsend, jumps down from Hurricane Mk I P3166 ‘VY-Q’ while being refueled at Castle Camps, July 1940. © IWM (HU 104489)

With many airmen arriving with less than 10 hours flying experience, it was vital they learn discipline and extreme vigilance whilst flying, and Townsend saw these flights as a way of achieving that. By the end of June 1940, the flights at Debden and Castle Camps had undertaken 505 hours of flying, of which only 25 had been recorded as ‘operational’.*2

The importance of this training was soon realised when on July 22nd 1940, Hurricane P3895 piloted by Pilot Officer John Laurence Bickerdike (s/n 36266), undershot the runway at Castle Camps. In the resultant crash,  Bickerdike at just 21 years of age, was killed.

On August 13th, ‘B’ Flight departed Castle Camps and returned to Debden joining with ‘A’ Flight from Martlesham Heath. At last the squadron was together again and it wouldn’t be long before they would be moving on to pastures new, this time to Croydon, on the southern outskirts of London.

Other than an almost passing overnight stay in September, 85 Squadron wouldn’t return to Castle Camps until the war’s end in 1945.

Hawker Hurricane P2923 ‘VY-R’ of No. 85 Squadron. The Operational Record Books show this aircraft being flown by F/O R.H.A. Lee, D.S.O., D.F.C., at Castle Camps, August 1940. He was lost on the evening of August 18th 1940. Note the ‘temporary’ wooden airmen huts see note below. © IWM (HU 104510)

Whilst Debden remained busy – 85 Sqn making a straight swap with 111 Sqn – Castle Camps was quiet. The next users would be 73 Squadron in early October 1940.

Moving from the night training duties of Church Fenton, 73 Squadron had themselves been more successful in France than 85 Sqn. Using Hurricanes in this night fighter role though proved to be a costly mistake, as they were wholly unsuited and casualties were high in these early flights. By the end of October into early November, operational sorties has ceased as preparations were made to transfer the entire unit, via HMS Furious, to Heliopolis.

With this departure, Castle Camps fell operationally quiet again, and it was decided to upgrade both the airfield’s accommodation and flying facilities.

Three runways were built all covered with tarmac: the main running south-west to north-east of 1,900 yards, with a secondary and third runway of 1,600 yards and 1,070 yards respectively. Both the main and third runways were later extended, the main to 2,600 yards and the third to a more standard 1,100 yards. Sixteen hardstands were provided for aircraft dispersal as hangars were not yet added, but a Bellman and eight blisters were later erected.

Accommodation would be provided for 1,178 male and 184 female staff, 1,179 of which were ordinary ranks. The original temporary wooden huts (possibly Laing huts) were supplemented with ‘improved’ Ministry of Supply (MoS) huts. These differed in that they had canted sides as opposed to vertical sides normally found in these types of accommodation huts. Three of these huts are believed to survive today in a very much modified condition and used for agricultural purposes, a big change from the time they were used by the W.A.A.F.s of Castle Camps.

Once construction was near complete, operational units would again return. On the 17th December 1941, 157 Squadron (formed at Debden three days earlier) were informed of their immediate  departure to Castle Camps, which would now become a self-serving airfield. The move, which would involve 3 Officers, 34 N.C.O.s and a few airmen, began that day, with ground crews from 3081 Servicing Echelon accompanying them on the next day. A range of other staff began arriving during the course of the closing days of 1941.

However,  the running of the airfield and squadron was badly hampered by the lack of an N.C.O Disciplinarian and Clerk, and by the fact that officers were having to travel back to Debden for accommodation, as it was not available yet here at Castle Camps – the situation was far from ideal.

As Christmas approached, morale began to decline. Influenced by a number of factors it was primarily due to both the lack of work and the isolation of the Castle Camps airfield; the continuing influx of ground personnel also hindered the camp, as by now, it was beginning to put a strain on the lack of completed accommodation. On the 21st, Wing Commander Gordon Slade and Pilot Officer Truscott, his observer, both arrived on posting from 604 Squadron at Middle Wallop. Joining Slade at Castle Camps a month to the day, would be Sqn. Ldr. Rupert Clerke, formerly of No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (P.R.U.), who flew the first operational Mosquito sortie the previous year on 17th September to Brest. It would be almost a year later on September 30th 1943, that Clerke would fly the first Mosquito day sortie, a flight that resulted in the loss of a Junkers Ju 88 off the Dutch coast.

With little work to do, ‘Normal Squadron Routine‘ was repeatedly entered into the operations records, and so to help boost this flagging morale, the 25th December, was declared a general holiday for all staff who had were said to have a “real good Christmas feed and a good time was had by all“, no doubt a welcome break to the monotony that had preceded the season’s festivities.*3

Operations Record Book 157 Sqn

The entries for December reflect the poor morale and the regular Normal Squadron Routine that was becoming ‘routine’. Note the arrival of Sgt. Walters, His name appears in the Roll of Honour – see below. (AIR 27/1045)

Boxing day would see the first aircraft to arrive, bringing new hope to the squadron. A  Magister (N3880) was not what had been hoped for, but at least it was taking the squadron in the right direction.  More ground crews arrived and more “normal squadron routines” occurred. On the 29th, W/Cdr. Slade travelled to Hatfield to attend a conference on the new Mosquito and in the new year, Air Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas (A.O.C. in C. Fighter Command) arrived with the Debden Sector Commander Group Captain Peel. A full inspection of the airfield took place, which coincided with twelve airmen transferring on attachment to 32 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) at St. Athan, where the new Mosquitos were being “fitted and tested”.

A flurry of activity over the next few days saw W/Cdr. Slade travel to both Boscombe Down, and St. Athan – at last things seemed to be happening.

Finally, on the 26th January, 1942 the first Mosquito would land, flown in by W/Cdr. Slade. Slade, who had flown the prototype Mosquito previously at Boscombe Down, brought in a dual control aircraft (W4073) but hopes of more aircraft were soon dashed as this was sadly the only model to arrive for some time.

For the remaining weeks bad weather hampered work on the airfield, and with workshops, decent accommodation and tools still lacking, Castle Camps was rapidly becoming a thorn in the Squadron’s side.

Further ground staff came and went, Mosquitos were ferried between Hatfield and St. Athan by pilots of 157 sqn, for fitting of electronic equipment, W/Cdr. Slade and five officers moved in to dispersed accommodation at a large mansion known as “Walton House” near Ashdon, 3 miles from the airfield.

RAF Castle Camps

The village sign at Castle Camps reflects the ever-present Black Mosquitos of 157 Sqn at the airfield.

On February 22nd, a Beaufighter II arrived, flown by W/Cdr. Ashfield, and by the end of the month more than a dozen Mosquitos had been transferred for modification to St. Athan. There was now a light at the end of the cold, dark tunnel. Staffing was now up to 16 Officers, 12 N.C.Os and 160 other ranks; some of the accommodation site drainage had been sorted, officers showers and baths were now working, and the N.A.A.F.I was at last open and providing entertainment for the staff. The first football match was played between the squadron and the works flight, a resounding thrashing saw the squadron winning 6 – 0.

Over the next few weeks facilities would gradually improve, the weather began to get warmer, and the signs were that more aircraft would soon arrive. On March 9th 1942, the first two operational Mosquitos arrived at Castle Camps, and what a welcome sight it must have been.

The first to arrive were W4087 and W4098, neither were yet fully fitted, but that wouldn’t dishearten the staff at Castle Camps, at least things were now moving. Over the next few days a large number of Mosquitoes would arrive, these NF.IIs were Airborne Interception (AI) equipped night fighters, armed with four .303in Brownings and four 20mm cannon – all very potent weapons of the night war.

By March 29th 1942, 157 squadron had to its name: 14 Mosquitos, 1 Beaufighter (fully equipped), 1 dual Mosquito, 3 not fully equipped Mosquitos, and 2 Magisters. Night flying would now start, but a lack of workshops, sleeping accommodation and fitters meant that not all aircraft could be kept serviceable at this time. By the end of April, training flights had reached their peak, and 157 was now ready for war.

On April 27th 1942, operations would begin. Three patrols would take off followed by four the next day and then three on the 29th. No visuals were recorded from the first two nights but a Do. 217 was identified but subsequently lost in cloud.

At the end of the month F/Lt. Stoneman (Engineer Officer) invented a modification that improved the effectiveness of the Browning’s flash eliminator, an improvement that was so successful, it was quickly adopted by the Air Ministry for other models.

Successes were slow coming to 157 Sqn, problems with the A.I. sets led to frustrations and missed opportunities, but eventually they did come, and the Mosquito proved itself to be a truly outstanding night fighter.

RAF Castle Camps

The Roll of Honour in All Saints Church lists W/O. W. A. C. Walters death as 10th June 1942. Walters (s/n 755538) arrived at Castle Camps on 22nd December 1941 (see above entry in O.R.B), he is currently buried in Nottingham Southern Cemetery, Sec. F.24. Grave 55. He was Son of Arthur and Annie Walters, of West Bridgford, Nottingham, and died at the age of 21.

By  March 1943 a change in command, Wing Commander V. J. Wheeler, M.C., D.F.C. replacing W/Cdr Slade, and then as night defenders turned to intruders, the role of 157 Sqn changed, and they prepared to move to pastures new and R.A.F. Bradwell Bay.

Around this time a small detachment of Mosquitos would share the facilities at Castle Camps, 456 sqn, who were primarily based at Middle Wallop, would have aircraft use the site between March and August 1943 – a month that would take Castle Camps into a new period, and new leadership.

The 15th would be a very busy day for staff at Castle Camps, with the departure of 157 Sqn came the simultaneous arrival of 605 Squadron.

RAF Castle Camps

Part of the Perimeter Track that leads away to the airfield.

Led by the then Wing Commander George Lovell “Uncle” Denholm D.F.C., he was himself a Battle of Britain veteran, a Turbinlite advocate and was also famed for his part in the shooting down of the first German bomber on British soil. The famous ‘Humbie Heinkle’ was generally credited to Flight Lieutenant Archie McKellar of 602 Squadron from R.A.F. Drem, but Denholm and his 603 Sqn, played their part in damaging the aircraft before its eventual crash in East Lothian.

With the arrival of 605 Sqn and their Mosquitos, Castle Camps, like the stations at Bradwell Bay and Hunsdon, were quickly becoming synonymous with squadrons of the new type. Also Flying Mosquito IIs, (replaced four months later by the FB.VI) they would eventually depart here also for Bradwell Bay, but not before the ruggedness and reliability of the Mosquito would be put to the test.

On August 17th 1943, Sqn. Ldr. Mack and Flt. Sgt. Harrison, flew Mosquito FB.VI (HJ781) on a night intruder mission to Jagel in the northern most tip of Germany. Whilst on this mission, the aircraft was hit by a cable rocket projectile (Parachute and Cable or P.A.C.) fried from the ground. With a thin cable attached to a parachute they were designed to bring down allied aircraft and could be fired from either multiple or single launchers. HJ781, flew into one such cable which severed around 3 feet off the end of the starboard wing. The Mosquito, suffering considerable damage, managed to return to Castle Camps and was later repaired and returned to flight – such was the strength of the design of the Mosquito.

For the duration of their stay, 605 Sqn would perform almost nightly patrols over the airfields of the low countries and northern Germany, a tit-for-tat game played between the R.A.F. and the Luftwaffe, each aiming to catch returning aircraft as they approached their home airfield. A game that resulted in minor and relatively insignificant attacks on Castle Camps itself.

For eight months from June 1943, Castle Camps would be shared with a new squadron, the only squadron to be formed here, 527 Squadron, who were formed through the combining of both 74 and 75 Wing Calibration Flights from Duxford and Biggin Hill respectively.  Flying a collection of Hurricanes (I & IIB), Blenheim IV and Hornet Moths, they would test the accuracy of Britain’s defence radar systems across southern England and East Anglia.

The October departure of 605 sqn left 527 the only unit operating from Castle Camps, and operationally all was quiet once more. In the December 1943, 410 Sqn, another Hunsdon Mosquito unit arrived, stayed for a short while and then returned to Hunsdon in the April of 1944. A short but active spell saw them victors over a number of German types.

1944  would see another flurry of activity, with units arriving and departing in quick succession, and it would be a few months before another Mosquito would grace the skies over Castle Camps once more. 486 Sqn (RNZAF) , yo-yoed between Castle Camps and Ayr during the month of March, bringing with them yet another potent and deadly weapons platform, the Tempest V; followed by 91 Sqn while they were upgrading their Spitfire XII to XIVs.

Giving a useful indicator of scale, F/O. J. R. Cullen of No. 486 Squadron (RNZAF), poses with his Tempest Mk V at Castle Camps. Cullen became a successful Operation DIVER pilot, shooting down around 16 flying bombs. © IWM (CH 13967)

Between March and June little happened at Castle Camps, 68 Sqn*4 breaking the quiet with their Beaufighter VIFs at the end of June, which were quickly replaced with Mosquito XVIIs and Mosquito XIXs.  68 (Night Fighter) Squadron was primarily an R.A.F. Squadron, but Czechoslovak pilots formed one of its flights. The determination of the Flight’s crews resulted in some high ‘kill’ rates, with twenty-one verified kills, three probable, seven enemy planes damaged  and three V-1 flying bombs to their credit. The flight saw Twenty-three Czechoslovak pilots (twenty-one Czechs and two Slovaks) pass through their doors, culminating in an incredible 1,905 combat sorties covering 4,095 operational hours during the war.*5 By the October 68 Sqn too had departed, replaced by 151 Sqn and 25 Sqn for a short period both with yet another Mosquito model, the MK XXX.

1945 and the close of war saw units slowly begin to disband and wind down, 307 were followed by 85 Sqn who returned in the June and September also with the MK. XXX. A  huge improvement and development from their early Hurricanes of 1939 / 40 and a fitting end to a station that had seen many a brave young man come and go. 25 Sqn also returned, in both the August and October with the Mosquito VI, staying until June 1946, whereupon the airfield closed and returned to agriculture, a state it remains in today.

Castle Camps has little – aviation wise – to offer the visitor these days.  A recently erected memorial stands at the northern end of the airfield, the only visible marker of this once busy site that grew from a cold and windy field with little more than tents for accommodation, to a bustling site with possibly the most advanced and formidable fighters of the Second World War.

It may not appear to be much more than green fields and cattle farming, but sitting in the summer sun, as I did, you can still hear the rumblings of that magnificent engine the Merlin, as the Hurricanes and Mosquitos of the R.A.F. fly over your head transporting you back to those days of 1940s England.

Sources and further reading.

*1 The Castle Camps Village webiste details the history of the Castle.

*2 AIR/27/703/14 National Archives

*3 AIR/27/1045 National Archives

*4 An interesting blog highlighting some of the Czech pilots who flew with 68 Sqn.

*5 Pilot Josef Capka, D.F.M. (a member of the Guinea Pig Club) joined 68 Sqn after they left Castle Camps. His incredible story is told in the Free Czechoslovak Air Force blog and through his book ‘Red Sky at Night‘.

R.A.F. East Fortune – Scotland’s Baby that Grew up.

After leaving R.A.F Drem, we travel a few miles to the east, away from Edinburgh to an airfield that was originally built in the First World War. In the mid war years it was closed and returned to agriculture; then, as the Second World War loomed, it was reopened, used by both the Navy and the Air Force. As such, its history goes back to the turn of the last century. Today it is Scotland’s home of the National Museum of Flight, it is also has one of the best preserved collections of original buildings left in the country. In the second part of Trail 42, we visit the former airfield of R.A.F East Fortune.

R.A.F East Fortune.

R.A.F East Fortune is another airfield that has its roots in the First World War. Located 4 miles north-east of the small town of Haddington, and a similar distance east of R.A.F Drem, it has since become Scotland’s premier aviation museum, housing one of the best collections of aircraft in the north.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of the many buildings left at East Fortune.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, German intrusions over British towns and cities became both a tangible and frightening threat. Scotland and the north-east along with North Sea shipping lanes, all became targets. To counteract these threats, a string of defensive airfields (Stations) were built along the eastern coast of Britain operating as a combined force in the British Home Defence Network.

East Fortune become one such station, from which, during 1915, a small number of aircraft would operate. Designed to protect the waters around the city of Edinburgh and the North Sea coast, it fulfilled this role using a selection of aircraft including types such as the: Sopwith Scout, Maurice Fairman, Avro 504 and B.E.2c.

It wasn’t until 1916 though that the airfield really came into its own. Officially opened in August as a Royal Naval Air Station, it operated initially Coastal Class airships, followed shortly after by North Sea Class airships, both of the non-rigid design. Later on, as airships developed, the more famous ‘R’ series rigid airships appeared and took their place at East Fortune.

As a major airship station, there would often be five or six of the type at East Fortune at any one time, each carrying out submarine patrols over the North Sea. To ensure their safety whilst on land, a number of airship sheds were built; the design and development of these sheds proceeded almost as fast and dramatic as the airships themselves.

When war broke out, the threat posed to British ships  by German submarines, became all too apparent. The Admiralty recognising the potential of airships as spotters, were soon to put in an order for a ship that would be able to travel at speeds of between 40 – 50 mph, carry two crew, 160lb of bombs, wireless equipment and sufficient fuel for up to 8 hours flying time. These airships would ideally reach altitudes of around 5,000ft, and their design be so basic, that the crew could be trained and in the air within weeks rather than months. The first of these ships was the Submarine Scout (S.S.) class, a design that was so simple, the first were airborne within three weeks of the initial prototype being built. In essence, these used the wingless fuselage of a B.E.2c aeroplane suspended beneath a simple envelope. These ‘S.S.’ ships were so successful in their role, that the Admiralty ordered more, bigger and faster airships, and so the Coastal Class was then born.

The Coastal Class was larger at 195.6 feet long. They had two 150hp engines, a top speed of 52 mph, and could be airborne for up to 22 hours at a time. Designed around a French design, they were made of three sections, an unusual “Tri-lobe” design. The gondola itself, utilised two shortened Avro seaplane aircraft fuselages, the tails were removed and the two sections joined back-to-back. This produced a car that could seat four or five crew members with two engines at opposing ends. Canvas and planking was added for further strength and improved crew comfort. Operating successfully for two years, many soon became weary and in need of updating. Deciding to opt for an improved alternative, the Admiralty scrapped the Coastal Class and brought in the last of the non-rigid designs, the North Sea (N.S.) Class.

Initial trials and operations of the N.S. Class proved it to be very unpopular. Problems with the drive system left many crews unhappy about its performance, its top speed of 57mph rarely, if ever, being achieved. The original engines, 250 horse-power Rolls Royce engines, had very elaborate transmission systems, in fact so elaborate that they were prone to breaking. The only answer was to replace the entire system and attach the propellers directly to the engine itself. Once this problem was overcome, the airship was hailed as a success to the point that many of them broke flight endurance records on an almost regular basis. Whilst flights of 30 hours or more were not unusual, some extended as far as 61 hours, and even post war, one of these ships flew for an incredible 101 hours non stop.

The period 1916 – 17 saw a rapid advancement in airship design and development. The larger rigid airships (so-called because the envelope was now wrapped around a rigid frame) were now coming into being, and the remainder of the war would see these new airships coming on-line and into service, many appearing at East Fortune.

To counter the German’s Zeppelin threat, three new manufactures were contracted to build these rigid ships: Beardmore, Armstrong and Whitworth, and lastly Shorts Brothers.

At East Fortune, (H.M.A) R.24 was delivered on October 28th 1917, and not without its problems. Initial testing revealed that it was two-thirds of a ton heavier than its sister ship R.23, and after investigations as to why, it was discovered that it was the rivets used that were the problem. In order to move the craft from its Beardmore shed, a number of weight modifications had to urgently be made. These modifications included removing an engine and all the associated components from the rear car.

RAF EAST FORTUNE DURING THE INTERWAR YEARS

The camouflaged Airship shed built to house H.M.A. R.34 at East Fortune. Note the smaller shed to the right. (IWM – Q103040)

Although now much lighter, R.24 paid the price with speed, with no replacement of the propulsion unit, she remained slow, achieving a top speed of little more than 35 mph. But she did cover some 4,200 miles and flew for 164 hours in total; most of which were as training flights. As an operational airship however, she was little more than useless, and was eventually scrapped in 1919.

The next rigid airship to arrive and operate from East Fortune was R.29 in the following June. R.29 went on to be considered the most successful wartime rigid airship. Being the only one to be involved in direct enemy action, she was responsible for the sinking of the German submarine UB.115. Commissioned on 20th June 1918, she was based at East Fortune and would cover around 8,200 operational miles, in some 335 hours flying time. This would be a short-lived active life though, lasting only five months before the war finally came to an end.

Carrying on flying post war, she would eventually be scrapped in October 1919 having covered in total, 11,334 miles in service, more than any other British rigid airship up to that time.

Post war, rigids continued to operate from East Fortune; R.34 perhaps being the most famous. Another craft from the works of William Beardmore and Co. Ltd. of Inchinnan near Glasgow, R.34 would be constructed in the later stages of the war under War Specifications. At 634 feet in length with a top speed of 62 mph generated by five 270 hp Sunbeam ‘Maori’ engines, she would cost £350,000 to build. R.34 would be designed to carry twenty 100 lb and four 550 lb bombs, a range of Pom-Pom, Lewis and two-pounder quick-firing guns, but as she wasn’t finished until after the war, none of these were ever fitted, nor was she flown in anger.

R.34 probably at East Fortune. (author unknown)

Completed in early 1919, she just missed out the first Atlantic crossing, being laid up by damage caused by poor handling, and thus beaten to the record now held by Alcock and Brown. In May, she arrived at East Fortune, here she carried out a number of test flights including an endurance flight across the Scandinavian countries. Then in July 1919, she became the first aircraft to make the Atlantic crossing, both east to west, and back again.

On the evening of 1st July 1919 the ship was fueled to capacity, in the early hours of the morning she was moved out of her shed and prepared for the flight. Her captain, Major Scott, decided gave the order to release and at 1.42 am (GMT) R.34 lifted slowly in to the Scottish sky.

A record was made, R.34 had put East Fortune firmly on the map. After 108 hours and 12 minutes flying time, R.34, her crew and two stowaways: William Ballantyne and a small tabby kitten called “Whoopsie”, landed at Mineola, Long Island, New York.

After a major refit at East Fortune, R.34 left for Pulham airship base in Norfolk. Here she carried out a number of flights, but was eventually badly damaged in strong winds, and after being stripped, she was sold for scrap – a rather ungainly ending to an incredible machine.

Airships were not to be the only user of East Fortune though. With the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, it would initially house No. 208 Training Depot Station (T.D.S.), designed to train torpedo bomber pilots using a variety of aircraft types, such as the Sopwith Camel and Beardmore W.B.III. In August 1918, it became 201 Training Depot Station, merging both 1 Torpedo Training Squadron, and the Torpedo Aeroplane School already at East Fortune.

A Sopwith Cuckoo (N6954) of the Torpedo Aeroplane School dropping a torpedo during trials at East Fortune, 24 – 26 July 1918. (IWM Q 67496)

On 21st October 1918, No. 185 Squadron was formed here, made by merging elements of 31, 33, 39 and 49 Torpedo Depot Stations, they would fly the Sopwith Cuckoo until April 1919, when it was reduced to a cadre, and then disbanded five days later on April 14th, 1919.

It was also in this month on the 31st, October 1918, just days before the armistice that year, that Bristol F.2b B8942 of 201 T.D.S, left R.A.F. East Fortune for a bombing mission against the German Fleet. During the take off, the aircraft stalled and crashed into the ground. In what must have been the last casualties of 201’s operations, the two crew: Lieutenant Lynn N. Bissell (age 19), and  Lieutenant Eric W. Bragg (22), were both killed when a bomb they were carrying exploded on impact. They have remained together ever since in Athelstaneford Parish Churchyard in East Lothian*1.

201 Training Depot Station were soon re-designated as the Torpedo Training School, finally being disbanded on February 1st, 1920, here at East Fortune.

This move signalled the end of East Fortune as an airfield for now. The site was closed, many of the buildings were removed either scrapped or sold off, and no further flying activity would take place.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

A small part of the collection of wartime buildings that still exist at East Fortune.

After laying dormant for around twenty years, the outbreak of war saw East Fortune brought back to life once more. Designated a satellite for R.A.F. Drem, it was virtually unchanged in its layout. After a period of expansion and development, new runways were laid, a technical site established, and accommodation and administration areas developed. A bomb dump was created to the south-west, well away from the other areas to the north. The runways, tarmac laid on hardcore, were all non-standard lengths, 1,710 yards, 1,560 yards and 1,100 yards but they were the standard 50 yards wide.

The first to arrive were 60 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.)  in June 1941. A night fighter development unit they flew a range of aircraft including: Boulton Paul’s Defiant, Miles’ Master and Magister, and Westland’s Lysander. In June 1942, the  twin-engined Beaufighter also arrived here, a year which also saw a return of the Blenheim and Beaufort. Some of these Beaufighters were dual control and several had Aircraft Interception (A.I.) equipment installed.

It was in one of these Defiants, that pilot Sergeant Anthony. D.C. La Gruta, (s/n 400719) (R.A.A.F.) was killed when the aircraft he was in plunged into the ground with such force that it buried itself some 16 feet down. The Ministry of Defence, unable to recover the wreckage, declared it a war grave and his body remains there to this day. A monument and parts of the wreckage currently mark the spot where the aircraft lies. Whilst it can’t be confirmed, it would appear that whilst out conducting a series of ‘homing tests’, the pilot lost control of the aircraft resulting in the tragic accident.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of several Air Raid shelters at East Fortune.

During October 1942, No. 2 Glider School were formed here, they were quickly moved on however, and disbanded later at Dumfries – playing virtually no part in the development of East Fortune. On 24th November 1942, 60 O.T.U. was officially disbanded, and then immediately reformed as 132 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit, remaining at East Fortune airfield. Operating under the leadership of No. 17 (Training) Group (R.A.F. Coastal Command) it was designed to train crews in the long-range fighter and strike role. To achieve this, there were some sixty aircraft split primarily between Beaufighters and Blenheims; with other models such as Beauforts, Lysanders, Magisters and Spitfire VBs also adding to the busy airspace in this region of Southern Scotland.

In May 1944, Belgian Flying Officer, Gilbert A. E. Malchair, (s/n 132969), and Flight Sergeant, Roger H. L. Closon, (s/n 1424811), both of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, took off in Beaufighter ‘EL457’ on what is believed to be a training sortie. Little is still known about the accident but it is believed that the pilot reduced height to prevent icing, in doing so, the aircraft collided with the ground at Hedgehope Hill (Threestoneburn Wood) in the Cheviots. As a result, both crewmen were killed.

In 1944 a few D.H. Mosquitoes arrived at the airfield, but by now East Fortune had begun the long wind down. By May 1946, 132 O.T.U. was disbanded, and the aircraft were either dispersed or scrapped.

The airfield remained in R.A.F. hands, but during the cold war years, the U.S. Air Force lengthened two of the runways in anticipation of the Cold War becoming ‘hot’. Thankfully however,  hostilities never broke out and occupation of the site never materialised. East Fortune was then used as storage facility in case of any subsequent Soviet attack, primarily for the ‘Green Goddess’ fire engines, and later to store food stuffs by the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries. The site remained ‘open’, and for a short period – April to August 1961 – it acted as a replacement for Edinburgh’s Turnhouse international airport recording just short of 100,000 passenger movements. After this, in 1961, East Fortune was finally closed and the site vacated.

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Two of the three Callender-Hamilton hangars.

Over the years East Fortune had gone from an Airship site to a night fighter training school. Operational Training Units had lost crews and the entire site developed and expanded. Two of the three runways were expanded up to 2,000 yards, 46 hardstands were laid, it had 3 Callender-Hamilton hangars, 8 blister hangars, and accommodated 1,501 R.A.F personnel and 794 W.A.A.Fs. Designed as a satellite it had achieved a remarkable status, incredibly much more than it was ever designed to do.

Since its closure however, it has taken on a new role, developing both its past and preserving its history, turning it into what is possibly Scotland’s finest aviation museum. Many of the Second World War buildings still remain: The night flying store (drawing number 17831/40); three Callender-Hamilton hangars; Nissen stores, latrines and a refurbished parachute store. The Watch Office sadly not refurbished, is also present on the airfield site, as are a number of air raid shelters. The main runway is also still in situ, now used for Sunday markets, with the original section and extended post war sections being dissected by the road through the site. The perimeter track and secondary runways are also intact, having been used in part for racing activities.

East Fortune

The Watch Office remains on the ‘active’ side of the airfield site.

One of the benefits of East Fortune is the location of all these buildings, primarily on one relatively small site. Access is easy although many of them are sadly locked and out-of-bounds to the public.

Considering its early history and the sacrifice many of its crews gave, East Fortune is an important site, it stands as a memorial to all those who came and died here, and to all those who not only wrote history, but have contributed to it over the last 100 years.

Sources and further reading:

Further details of R,34’s trip can be found here.

Additional pictures of East Fortune can be found on flckr.

More detailed information about R.34 and the development of Airships can be found on The Airship Heritage Trust website .

*1 The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

July 2nd 1919, H.M.A. R.34 Sets A World Record Flight.

On July 2nd 1919 at 01:42, airship R.34 lifted off from the airfield at East Fortune, east of Edinburgh, to make an epic voyage – the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean east to west by a powered aircraft.

R.34 possibly at East Fortune. (author unknown)

Conceived as early as 1916, R.34 was built at the works of William Beardmore and Co. Ltd. of Inchinnan near Glasgow. At 634 feet in length with a top speed of 62 mph, she would have five 270 hp Sunbeam ‘Maori’ engines, and would cost £350,000 to build. Her massive size gave her an impressive 1,950,000 cubic feet for gas storage, and she would be equivalent in size to a Dreadnought battleship. A major step forward in airship design, her aerodynamic shape reduced total air resistance to that of just 7% of an equivalently sized flat disc.

As she was designed under war specifications, R.34 would be built to carry twenty 100 lb and four 550 lb bombs, a range of Pom-Pom guns, Lewis machine guns and a small number of two-pounder quick-firing guns; but as she wasn’t finished until after the war, none of these were ever fitted, nor was she ever flown in anger.

Completed in early 1919, she just missed out on achieving the record of the first Atlantic crossing, being laid up by damage caused by poor handling, and thus beaten to the record now held by Alcock and Brown.

In May, she arrived at East Fortune airfield, a major airship station in East Lothian, from where she carried out a number of test flights including an endurance flight across the Scandinavian countries. In July she was set to make the first  Atlantic crossing, east to west.

In preparation for the flight, eight engineers were sent to the United States to train ground crews in the safe handling of the airship. The Admiralty provided two  warships, the Renown and Tiger, as surface supply vessels, and should R.34 have got into difficulty, she could have been taken in tow by one, or both of the two vessels.

On the evening of 1st July 1919 the ship was fueled to capacity (some 6,000 gallons), and in the early hours of the morning she was moved out of her shed and prepared for the flight. Her captain, Major G. H. Scott, gave the order to release early, and at 1.42 am (GMT) R.34 lifted slowly in to the Scottish sky.

After battling strong winds and Atlantic storms, R.34 finally arrived at Mineola. Huge crowds had turned out to greet her and her crew, a grandstand had been erected, parks and public spaces were packed with onlookers. Major J. Pritchard (The Special Duties Officer) put on a parachute and jumped from the airship to become the first man to arrive in America by air. He helped organise ground staff and prepared the way for R.34 to safely dock. As she settled on her moorings, she had not only become the fist aircraft to fly the Atlantic East to West, but broke the current endurance record previously held by the North Sea Airship NS 11, also based at East Fortune.

A record was made, R.34 had put British Airship designs and East Fortune firmly on the map. After 108 hours and 12 minutes flying time, R.34, her crew and two stowaways: William Ballantyne and a small tabby kitten called “Whoopsie”, had landed at Mineola, Long Island, New York.

After a 3 day stay in which the crew were treated like the heroes they were, R.34 was prepared for the homeward journey. On Wednesday July 10th 1919, at 23:54 she lifted off and set sail for home.

With prevailing winds carrying her eastward, she made an astonishing 90 mph, giving the opportunity to cut some of the engines and preserve fuel. This gave the crew a chance to divert over London, but due to a mechanical breakdown, this was cancelled and R.34 continued on her original route. Poor weather at East Fortune meant that she was ordered to divert to Pulham Air Station, Norfolk, but even after clarification that the weather had improved, her return to East Fortune was denied and she had to continue to Pulham – much to the disgust of the crew on board. At Pulham, the reception was quiet, RAF personnel greeted her and secured her moorings. She has covered almost 7,500 miles at an average speed of 43 mph.

Eventually after a major refit at East Fortune, R.34 left for the return to Pulham. After six weeks of static mooring, R.34 was sent to Yorkshire, to Howden Airship Station. Here she was used to train American crews, was modified for mast mooring and used for general training duties. During one such training mission, she was badly damaged in strong winds, and after sustaining further damage whilst trying to moor and secure her, she began to buckle. Falling to the ground, she broke up and was damaged beyond repair. R.34 was then stripped of all useful materials and the remainder of her enormous structure sold for scrap – a rather ungainly ending to an incredible and historical machine.

H.M.A. R.34 and her crew had become the first to cross the Atlantic east to west, they had achieved the  longest endurance flight, and become the first aircraft to complete a double-crossing of the Atlantic.

East Fortune

The memorial stone at East Fortune airfield commemorating the epic flight of R.34.

The Flight Crew for the Atlantic journey were:

Major G. H. Scott A.F.C – Captain
Captain G. S. Greenland – Second Officer
Second Lt. H. F. Luck- Third Officer
Second Lt. J. D. Shotter – Engineering Officer
Major G. G. H. Cooke DSC – Navigator
Major J. E. M. Pritchard O.B.E. – Special Duties
Lt. G. Harris – Meteorological Officer Second
Lt. R. F. Durrant – Wireless Officer
Lt. Commander Z. Lansdowne – Representative U S Navy
Brigadier General E. M. Maitland – Special Duties
Warrant Officer W. R. Mayes – First Coxswain
Flight Sergeant W. J. Robinson – Second Coxswain

Sergeant H. M. Watson – Rigger
Corporal R. J. Burgess – Rigger
Corporal F. Smith – Rigger
F. P. Browdie – Rigger
J. Forteath – Rigger Corporal

H. R. Powell – Wireless Telegraphy
W. J. Edwards – Wireless Telegraphy

W. R. Gent – Engineer
R. W. Ripley – Engineer
N. A. Scull – Engineer
G. Evenden – Engineer
J. Thirlwall – Engineer
E. P. Cross – Engineer
J. H. Gray – Engineer
G. Graham – Engineer
J. S. Mort – Engineer
J. Northeast – Engineer
R. Parker – Engineer

W. Ballantyne – Stowaway
“Whoopsie” – a small tabby kitten and stowaway

The crew of R.34 Crew – with the crew pets.

East Fortune airfield will appear in Trail 42.

Historic RAF Halton to Close in 2022.

RAF Halton, currently used for basic training of new recruits, is set to close in 2022 following the Ministry of Defence’s announcement that it was having to save £140 million over the next ten years.

Halton is also used by the Specialist Training School, which is part of No 22 (Training) Group, which provides training in all three areas of: Environmental Management, Health and Safety and Quality Management for the Royal Air Force.

At Halton, new recruits go through a range of activities over a 9 week period including: general knowledge, fitness, inspections, arms instructions and of course P.T. etc,. The course culminates, for those successful candidates, in a graduation parade.

RAF Halton has its roots prior to the First World War, when the then land owner, Alfred de Rothschild, allowed the Army to use the land for manoeuvres. After a short while, the RFC (No. 3 Sqn) arrived with a small contingency of machines and men. When war broke out, the entire estate was handed over to Lord Kitchener, and by mid-war it was awash with tents and wooden huts accommodating up to 20,000 young men, many of whom would never be returning from the battlefields of France and Belgium.

By 1917 there was a great need for aircraft mechanics and technical expertise in the RFC, Halton would become the hub for training these men. New huts were established, and it became known as the School of Technical Training (Men), which would eventually pass some 14,000 mechanics by the end of the year. By the end of 1918, it would also be training women (2,000) and boys (2,000) along side the 6,000 mechanics it already had under its wing.

After the death of Alfred de Rothschild in 1918, the War Office purchased the entire estate from his nephew for £112,000 and developed it into a an Officer Cadet College for the forthcoming Royal Air Force in April. The transfer of the site eventually went through the following year, and Halton took on a new role.

In December 1919 a new apprentice scheme was set up, where boys between the ages of 15 and 16 were recruited and trained internally; the idea being to intensify the programme reducing it from its normal 5 years to only 3. In January 1922, the first group of 500 recruits arrived, and Halton became No. 1 School of Technical Training; a school that would provide both ground crew and technical staff for the RAF. This scheme ran for 73 years before closing, at which point it has created 40,000 trained recruits, not just for the RAF, but for overseas Air Forces as well.

Since then, Halton has continued to train recruits: chefs, stewards, tradesmen, maintenance crews and even helped in the development of innovative surgical procedures in the Princess Mary Royal Air Force Hospital, opened in 1927; a task it sadly no longer continues to do today.

Flying has, and does occur at RAF Halton. On the 15th June 1943, No. 529 Sqn RAF was formed here from the disbanded 1448 (Radar Calibration) Flight, previously at Duxford. Between 1943 and its disbandment on October 20th 1945, it operated the Rota I, Hornet Moth, Rota IIs, Airspeed Oxford and the Hoverfly I.

It has two grass runways and four large hangars. It also has its own dedicated Air Traffic Zone and manages around 15,000 powered aircraft movements, and 2,500 winch launched glider movements a year.

RAF Halton has had a number of ‘Gate Guards’ including Spitfire XVI ‘RW386’, Hunter F6 ‘XF527’ and currently, Tornado GR1 ‘8976M’ which, as the first British pre-production aircraft, first flew on March 14th 1977.

On site, is a museum dedicated to the history of RAF Halton and named in honour of the founder of the Royal Air Force, and the RAF’s apprenticeship scheme, Lord Trenchard. It was opened in 1999 and is open every Tuesday from 10:00 to 16:00 hours. At present it not known what the future holds in store for the museum once the site is closed.

Also on the Halton airfield site is a: Polish monument, restored World War I trenches, the World War I firing range, historic burial sites, a neolithic long Barrow (mound), the site of the former hospital, a church and an RAF logistics heritage centre.

Once closed, the local council hope to create a ‘mixed use’ site rather than just a ‘housing estate’. It has been reported that various film companies have been interested in Halton, whether or not these come to fruition is yet to be seen.

Today Halton continues to provide new recruits with the basic skills required by the demands of a modern Air Force; once ‘qualified’, recruits go on to training in their respective trades at other bases and RAF colleges around the country. It seeks to develop the ethos and ideals of Lord Trenchard when he set up the Royal Air Force in April 1918, an ethos that has made the Royal Air Force one of the most respected Air Forces in the world.

RAF Halton certainly has a significant history, its roots deep in the founding of both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force. The site has numerous significant historical and architectural features, and hopefully, the true historical value of these will be considered before any tentative proposals are put in place.

The full news report appeared in the Bucks Herald newspaper  on 24th June 2017. (My thanks to Rich Reynolds for the link.)

 

RAF Drem – The home of Airfield Lighting Systems.

In Trail 42 we continue our journey northward driving along the coastal route taken by the A1 road. The North Sea views here are simply breathtaking. Heading toward the seat of the Scottish Government and the beautiful and historic city of Edinburgh, we visit two more airfields with long and distinguished histories. One of these also has perhaps, one of the best collections of preserved buildings left on any wartime airfield outside of Duxford.

We start off just outside of Edinburgh heading eastward at an airfield that became synonymous with airfield lighting. The idea was simplistic, the effect wide-reaching. It was so successful, it became standard across many of Britain’s wartime airfields, it is of course RAF Drem.

RAF Drem

Drem is often used when talking about airfield lighting systems, the lights used to illuminate perimeter tracks, runways and landing patterns during the Second World War. But as an airfield, it played a much bigger part in the war, hosting some 47 RAF squadrons, a selection of Fleet Air Arm units and various Technical and Developmental Flights at some stage during its wartime life.

Many of these units were here on short detachments or rotations, whilst not conducive to long-term development of the site, it did bring a wide variety of aircraft to this small airfield in Scotland: Hurricanes, Spitfires, Whirlwinds, Mosquitoes, Defiants, Beaufighters, Typhoons and Tempests to name but a few. It also brought a multitude of nationalities with it: French Czechoslovakian, Polish, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand airmen all used the airfield at some point.

Located in East Lothian, Drem has a history that started in the early stages of World War I. Used by 77 Sqn, who were based at nearby Edinburgh, it was then called West Fenton, a name it retained until 1919 when it was renamed Gullane. 77 Sqn were responsible for the protection of the east coast of Scotland, and in particular the Firth of Forth in the Home Defence role. They used a number of landing grounds in this region including both Eccles Toft (Charterhall) and Horndean (Winfield); and had detachments spread widely around the Edinburgh region: Turnhouse, New Haggerston, Whiteburn and Penston.

77 Squadron flew a number of BE Types in this role, a role that continued up to 13th June 1919 when the squadron was disbanded. Also in 1919, (21st February) cadres from both 151 and 152 squadrons were also based here, staying until September and June respectively, when they too were disbanded following the end of the war.

RAF Drem

The Stand-by Set house, an auxiliary power station, still remains in good condition today.

A year before the end of the conflict, No. 2 Training Depot Station was formed here flying types such as the Bristol Scout, Sopwith’s Pup and Camel, the S.E.5a, Avro’s 504, and the Royal Aircraft Factory F.2B. A short role, they too were disbanded at the end of 1919, thus bringing the end of flying to Gullane.

In the interwar years Gullane, although only a temporary facility, was renamed Trenent, and it remained in this guise for a further six years becoming a full-time facility in 1939. In two years time, it would undergo fighter name changes finally taking on the name it has today, that of RAF Drem.

It was on 17th March 1939 that Drem returned to the flying training role with No. 13 Flying Training School (FTS) being formed here, operating a number of aircraft types including, Avro’s Anson, and Hawker’s Audax and Harts. After being renamed 13 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in September that year, it would only last a month before being disbanded and absorbed into No. 8, 14 and 15 (SFTS). But it was at this point that Drem’s potential as a fighter airfield would be realised and its first operational unit would move in. Drem had finally reached maturity and its war would very soon begin.

Transferred to Fighter Command at the end of October 1939, a number of operational units would quickly arrive: 602 (13/10/39-14/4/40), 609 (17/10/39-3/6/42) and detachments from 607 Sqn (10/10/39) and 72 Sqn (17/10/39) would all precede 111 Sqn (7/12/39-27/2/40) in these early days.

It was during this time, in the early stages of the ‘phoney war,’ that Drem aircrews would have their first and perhaps their most significant aircraft intercept.

On 16th October 1939, Heinkel He 111 ‘1H+JA’, of Stabskette/KG26 piloted by Kurt Lehmkuhl was spotted en-route to the Firth of Forth. Immediately, aircraft from Drem’s 602 Sqn and Turnhouse’s 603 Sqn, were ordered to take off and intercept the aircraft. Whilst the Heinkel tried desperately to avoid the Spitfires, their deadly firepower proved too much, and the aircraft was eventually brought down at Kidlaw Hill. This Heinkel became known affectionately as the ‘Humbie Heinkel‘ due to its close proximity to the village of Humbie. The air-frame rapidly became a tourist attraction, locals would climb up into the hills to see the intact bomber as it lay helpless amongst the Scottish heather. The aircraft lay just a few miles short of where an Airspeed Oxford (N4592) had crashed just two days earlier killing both its young corporals: Basil F. Evans (23) and Charles M. Thorpe (22). The hills around Edinburgh were fast becoming a graveyard!

As a result of the Heinkel attack, the two gunners Cpl. Bruno Reimann and Sgt. Gottleb Kowalke were both killed (both are buried at the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase), the pilot was injured, but the navigator remained unharmed. Both the navigator and pilot surrendered to a local Policeman who was first at the scene of the crash*1.  This shooting down was particularly notable as it was the first German aircraft to be brought down on British soil and the victory was claimed by Drem’s 602 Squadron pilot, Flt. Lt. Archie McKellar. McKellar’s jubilation would be short-lived though, being shot down and killed himself one year later and within days of the official ending of the Battle of Britain – his name would never appear in the Battle’s roll of Honour.

Perhaps one of the most iconic photos of the war, The ‘Humbie Heinkel’ lies on a Scottish hillside surrounded by onlookers, the first German aircraft to be shot down on British Soil.*2

Drem had now entered the war and whilst it was a ‘front line station’ its buildings would never be more than temporary. Crew numbers would reach 1,807 RAF air and ground crew along with a further 374 WAAFs. The runways (1 x 1850 yds extended to 2,300 yds and 2 of 1,400 yds) would remain grass and a number of hangers (15 in all) would include 3 Bellmans. Seven hardstands were built all suitable for single engined aircraft with the technical and main accommodation sites located to the north-east.

However, these early stages of the war were not all smooth running. In December 1939 tragedy struck when a combination of errors led to a number of 602 Squadron Spitfires inadvertently attacking a flight of Hampdens of 44 Squadron. During the confusion, in which it is thought the Hampdens failed to identify themselves correctly as ‘friendly’, two were shot down: Hampden I L4089 and Hampden I L4090. In the second aircraft Leading Aircraftman T. Gibbin was killed by the Spitfire’s bullets, as the two aircraft crashed into the cold waters of the North Sea. The remaining seven were all picked up by trawlers and taken safely to shore. In a moment of dark humour the next day, the remaining Hampdens departed Drem, dropping hundreds of toilet rolls over the squadron huts!

The winter of 1940 saw a short stay by 43 Sqn, arriving mid December and then departing at the end of February, possible one of the less appreciated stays knowing the inclement Scottish weather.

ROYAL AIR FORCE FIGHTER COMMAND, 1939-1945

RAF crews of 43 Squadron sit around their dispersal hut stove at Drem. (IWM)

The early months of 1940 saw a royal visit to Drem, when on 28th February 1940, King George VI visited, escorted by none other than Air Marshall Dowding. Whilst here, the King awarded Sqn. Ldr. Douglas Farquhar with the DFC after he had brought down another HE 111 that was able to be repaired at Drem and subsequently flown to a base in England for evaluation.

The subsequent months would prove to be very hectic for Drem. Like other airfields in the north, Drem was to become a home and solace for battle weary crews moved from 11 Group in the southern regions of Britain. To keep up their skills, they would fly both coastal patrols and convoy escort missions, a far cry from the hectic and turbulent skies of Kent and the south coast.

This rotation of units through Drem would continue throughout the war, most squadrons remaining for short periods of only a month or two, and many ‘leap-frogging’ between here and other stations. One of these units included, in 1940, 29 Sqn (RAF) a night fighter unit that excelled and became perhaps one of the most successful night fighter Squadrons of the Second World War.

With these short stays, came a variety of nationalities, including two Polish units (307 and 309); a French (340); two Canadian (409 and 410); an Australian (453) and three New Zealand squadrons (485, 486 and 488), each bringing their own touch of life to Drem.

With them also came night fighter training, and it was with one of these units 410 Sqn (RCAF) – who had only been formed a month earlier on 30th June 1941 – that Pilot, Sergeant Denis W. Hall, (s/n 1168705) and Gunner, Flight Sergeant Denis G. Cresswell (s/n 751880) would lose their lives, when their Defiant N1731 crashed into a hillside near to the village of Gifford in East Lothian, whilst on  a night training flight. Their military service at Drem had lasted a mere twenty-four days.

It was just prior to this, during 1940, that the Drem Lighting system was developed. Born out a necessity to solve issues around the Spitfire’s poor visibility when landing, the station Commander, Wing Commander “Batchy” Atcherly, personally addressed the issue. The problem was that Spitfires needed to keep their noses up in a relatively high angle of attack in order to maintain slow landing speeds, a configuration that meant the pilot could not see directly in front of him. Atcherly devised a plan using lights, whereby the pilots would be able to maintain this high angle and still be able to see where they were supposed to be going. He also had to overcome the added problem that lighting illuminated an airfield and thus attracted enemy aircraft over the site.

So he developed his idea, a bright lighting system that was mounted in such a way that only aircraft in the landing pattern and flight path could see the lights, yet they were dim enough and shrouded well enough, to be hidden from those not directly in the landing circuit. Essentially, the idea involved mounting covered lights on poles 10 feet high at designated points around the airfield indicating the landing pattern. If enemy aircraft were to approach, they would not be able to see the field and home based aircraft could land in relative safety. In an emergency, the entire system could be dimmed or even shut down, something that didn’t, as a rule, need doing.

The system was so successful that it was adopted by the RAF and used widely across other RAF airfields. Remnants of this system are scare today, but some can be found with careful scouring of the ground where runways were once laid.

During the latter half of 1940, Drem would be the place where the remains of the beleaguered 263 squadron would reform and recuperate. Formed in 1939, 263 would go on to serve in Norway with Gloster Gladiators, and after many problems, would bring their aircraft home during the Allied evacuation of Narvik. Unable to fly the great distance from Norway, the aircraft were loaded onto the carrier HMS Glorious for the trip home. It was during this trip that the Glorious met two of the German’s deadliest warships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who simply outgunned the carrier and on June 8th 1940, sank the Glorious with all the aircraft, many of its pilots and its commanding officer, on board.

The surviving fourteen pilots returned to Drem, where they were given Hurricanes. Gradually new pilots arrived and the squadron was returned to full strength. In July, after a short spell at Grangemouth, 263 Sqn returned to Drem with Whirlwinds replacing the Hurricanes.

Dogged by problems, the Whirlwinds were not to be the master of the air they had designed to be. 263 Sqn also brought a new idea they had successfully used in Norway, that of log-lined dispersals. Sadly they were too far away from the crew huts and apart from a photo opportunity, they were never used.

Slowly the war progressed, units came and went. Being near to the coast, Drem was regularly used for detachments of Air Sea Rescue Squadrons including 278 Squadron whose parent base was at Coltishall  several hundred miles south in Norfolk!

In the mid 1940s Drem’s focus narrowed not only in to the night fighter role, but also airborne radar investigations. The Radar Development Flight were formed here in December 1942 operating Defiant IIs and Beaufighter VIs. For six months they would fly these aircraft evaluating new radar designs and new methods in aircraft interception. They carried on this role through several name changes including: 1692 (Radio Development) Flight and then 1692 (Bomber Support Training Flight) after it had left Drem for Norfolk.

As the war drew to a close, the Royal Navy strengthened its involvement with Drem, renaming it HMS Nighthawk on May 3rd, 1945. The Royal Navy had a keen interest in night fighter training and used the skills of the RAF to aid its own programmes of night flying training.

Whilst RAF involvement had all but wound down, one final important act was to occur at Drem. Just as Drem aircraft had taken part in the first downing of a Luftwaffe aircraft at the start of the war, it was another Drem unit, 603 squadron, who would take part in the ending of the war. 603 Sqn Spitfires were tasked on May 11th 1945, just four days after returning to Drem, with escorting three white Junkers JU 52s that were carrying a number of German High Command officers into Drem as part of the official surrender of the Norwegian delegation. As part of this agreement, the senior officers would provide not only detailed information on the locations of mines laid out in the Norwegian waters: but the locations of all military shipping; lists of all stocks of oil; petrol and coal; coastal batteries and their associated supplies and all matters concerning German naval activity – including the surrender of the entire U-boat fleet.

The German High Command in front of their white JU52. Left to right: (from doorway) Lieutenant Albens; Captain Loewisch; Captain Kruger; and on extreme left, Commander Mundy Cox, RN, C/O of the Royal Naval Air Station. (IWM)

Throughout the war, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) had a number of units use Drem themselves: 732, 770, 784, 884, 892 and both 1791 and 1792 squadrons were all based here along with detachments from three other FAA units. This brought a new breed of aircraft including the Seafire, Hellcat and Firefly to Scotland’s skies.

After the war ended the Royal Navy’s Night Fighter Training School pulled out, the RAF returned but never really used it for more than glider training, and eventually Drem was closed in September 1947. Its closure had been swift and its decline even faster.

Much of Drem today is agriculture. The airfield is split into two parts, divided by the B1345 road. To the west is the former airfield, a grass site with a virtually intact perimeter track. Along this track (now a farm road) are the various dispersals used during Drem’s wartime life. To the south is a Type B Fighter Pen, distinguished from Type ‘E’s by their cranked walls, greater in size, they provided greater protection to aircraft than the ‘E’.

The technical site sits to the north-east of the airfield, now a small industrial site it still contains many of the original buildings used by Drem’s personnel. Some of these have been refurbished whilst others contain many original features. Back along the road, the Stand-by Set house still stands and what remains of the accommodation site sits across the other side of this dividing road.

RAF Drem

Part of the Accommodation site still stands in use by small industrial and retail units. A small display of information about Drem is also located on this site.

Inside one of these buildings, the Arts & Crafts Gallery, now Fenton Barns Retail Village which is the former WAAF dining hall, is a small display providing information about Drem and its wartime operations, with free entry it is an interesting stop off if you have time.

RAF Drem had a long and chequered history. For such a  small airfield, it played a major part in the war: bringing down the first Luftwaffe bomber on British soil, being involved in the sad situation of friendly fire, and having a Royal visit. It provided solace for many weary crews, helped develop night fighter interception tactics and methods, and was used by the Royal Navy. It saw many nationalities pass through its doors, along with a wide range of aircraft types. Drem gave its name to a remarkable system of lighting that revolutionised airfield lighting both during the war and for aviation today. It certainly should have a place in today’s history books, it truly deserves it!

After we leave Drem, we travel a few miles south-east to a former satellite airfield of Drem. To an airfield that became a player in its own right, and has since been developed into perhaps Scotland’s biggest Aviation Museum  it is certainly one of the best preserved airfields around. We go to the former airfield at RAF East Fortune.

Sources and further reading:

*1 A report of the crash appeared 75 years later in The Berwickshire News.

*2 © National Archives of Scotland. http://www.scotlandsimages.com