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

 

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 2)

After Part 1, we return to RAF Winfield, where an ‘odd’ visitor arrives. We also see the post war demise of Winfield into the site it is today.

At the end of the war many Polish units and displaced persons were pulled back to the U.K. in preparation for their repatriation into civilian life and for some return to their native country. Winfield became the site of one such group; the 22 Artillery Support Company (Army Service Corps, 2nd Polish Corps) who whilst fighting in the Middle East and Italy adopted a rather odd mascot. He became known as Wojtek, a Syrian bear who was officially given the rank of Private in the Polish Army, and who ‘fought’ alongside them as one of their own.

THE POLISH ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1940-1947

Wojtek the Syrian bear adopted by the Polish relaxing at Winfield Airfield, the unit’s temporary home after the war.*1

After finding the bear as a young cub wrapped around the neck of a small Iranian boy, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys took him and adopted him. After the war, on October 28th 1946, the Polish Army along with the bear arrived at Winfield Displaced Persons Camp – little did they know what a stir Wojtek would cause.

As displaced persons the Polish men would venture into nearby Berwick, where the locals grew fond of them and drinks flowed in abundance. Wojtek would go with them, becoming a familiar, if not unorthodox, site amongst the streets and bars or Berwick. This cigarette smoking, beer loving character, often causing a stir wherever he went. He became renowned in the area, the local villagers would flock to see him. He joined in with the frolics and loved the life that he was being allowed to live.

As a bear he loved the rivers and the River Tweed flows only a short distance from Winfield, rich and fast flowing it is abundant in that other commodity – Salmon. However, Wojtek was under strict orders not to swim alone nor stray onto the airfield which although closed, could still provide a danger for him if seen.

Wojtek became part of local history, eventually, a year after their arrival, the Polish unit were demobbed and they moved away. Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo to look after, who did so until his death at the age of 21 in 1963. A statue stands in Princess Street Gardens beneath Edinburgh Castle as a reminder of both him and the Polish troops who were stationed at Winfield camp. A second statue of Wojtek stands in the centre of Duns, the village not far from Charterhall. The Wojtek Memorial Trust, set up in his honour, aims to promote both educational and friendship links between the young people of Scotland and Poland, an aim it tirelessly works towards today.

RAF Winfield

Statue of Wojtek in the centre of nearby Duns.

After the Polish troops left, Winfield was allocated to the USAF, and earmarked for development, but this never materialised and the site was left dormant. Winfield then reverted back to RAF control some five years later in October 1955, whereupon it was disposed of and sold off.

A small group of private flyers reopened the site, renovating the watch office and utilising a small hangar on the north of the airfield. This operation has now ceased and the watch office has sadly fallen into disrepair, it windows missing and open to the elements. The demise of Winfield and its subsequent decay has begun.

Winfield airfield lies between two roads, a further public road passes through the site although this was seen to be gated at the southern end. The most prominent feature is by far the Watch Office, a two-story design built to design 15684/41, having walls some 13.5 inches thick as was standard for all night-fighter stations (but different to the one at Charterhall).

Other buildings also remain to the west on the main airfield site but these are only small and very few in number. The accommodation sites have all been removed, however, there are some buildings remaining in the former WAAF site to the north of the airfield. Located down a track just off the B4640, these buildings appear to be latrines and a possible WAAF decontamination block, with other partial remains nearby. Drawing numbers for these are unclear, (but appear to be 14420/41 and 14353/41) indicating WAAF (Officer and sergeant) quarters. Other buildings on this site look to have been a drying room, water storage tank and a picket post. Heading further south along this track leads to a small pond, here is a local design Fire Trailer shelter: a small brick-built building no more than about seven feet square. Presumably this pond was used to fill the fire trailer in cases of fire or attack and was located midway between the WAAF site and the main airfield. Also on this site, which is part of the Displaced Persons Camp, is a makeshift memorial to the Polish Armed Forces, dotted around the ground are a number of metal parts partially buried in the soil.

RAF Winfield

A plaque dedicated to the Polish Armed Forces placed next to the fire trailer hut.

The airfield runways and perimeter tracks are still in place, and years of both decay and locals using them to practice their driving skills on, have taken their toll. Like Charterhall, Winfield was also used as a motor racing circuit, although not to the same extent that Charterhall was. On one occasion though, as many as 50,000 spectators were known to have visited the site on one day alone!

Winfield like its parent site has now become history, the remnants of its past linger on as final reminders of the activities that went on here in the 1940s. The night fighter pilots who pushed the boundaries of aircraft location and interception are gradually fading away; the dilapidated buildings too are gradually crumbling and breaking apart. Inch by inch these sites are disappearing until one day soon, perhaps even they will have gone along with the brave young men who came here to train, to fight and in many cases to die.

As we leave the remnants of Winfield and Charterhall behind, we continue North to our next trail; nearing Edinburgh we take in more of Scotland’s natural beauty and even more tales of its wonderful but tragic aviation history.

My sincere thanks go to both Mr. and Mrs. Campbell for their hospitality and the help in touring these two sites. The history of both Charterhall and Winfield can be read in Trail 41.

Sources and Further Reading – RAF Winfield

*1 Photo IWM collections No.HU 16548.

The Polish Scottish Heritage website provides information about the scheme.

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 1)

The second airfield on Trail 41 takes us a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the armed forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield, located a few miles east of Charterhall, was pivotal to the success of the night-fighter training programme and in particular to Charterhall and 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.).

Charterhall and Winfield cannot be talked about with great reference to each other, they were built together, manned together and operated as part of the same training programme. Winfield and Charterhall probably operated together more closely than any parent / satellite airfields of the Second World War.

RAF Winfield

Winfield Watch Office one of the few remaining buildings now derelict and forlorn.

Winfield (like Charterhall) was initially used as a First World War landing ground for 77 Sqn based at Edinburgh flying a range of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E. types in the Home Defence role. Whilst many of these airfields were designated ‘landing grounds’, many were not officially recorded to the point that their precise locations remain vague even today. Winfield (or Horndean as it was known), was designed as a site where crews could land in an emergency, perhaps if their aircraft developed problems or if weather prevented landing at their home station.

77 Sqn were part of a force who were to patrol the eastern regions of Britain, an area stretching from Dover in the south to Edinburgh in the north. This area, was the furthest point north and the defence of the Scottish border region fell to 77 Sqn. The conditions at Horndean were not luxury, and the ‘runways’ were far from smooth, but in an emergency any semi-decent ground was most likely welcome. Crews often practised emergency landings at both Horndean and Eccles Toft (Charterhall), where aircraft guards would restart the aircraft before flight could take place again. These ‘guards’ (or Ack Emas as they were known) were often mechanics recruited into the Royal Flying Corps because of their mechanical background and knowledge of engines. After a brief training period of some eight weeks, they were sent to various establishments to maintain and prepare aircraft before and after flight.

Horndean as an airfield was not to last though, and before the war’s end it would close returning to its former agricultural use.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the training of pilots and other crewmen became a priority. Night fighters were also needed and Winfield would fulfil this role.

Winfield was built over the period 1941 – 42 opening later than expected, due to bad weather, in April 1942. A rather hastily affair, it was built between two roads and would only have two runways. Oddly, the initial construction of the runway was by hand, red shale from local quarries being brought in by endless lorries and laid down by local workers. It didn’t take long though before it was realised that this method was too slow, and so heavy machinery was brought in, and the stocks of shale bulldozed into the foundations. At the threshold, rubble stone was laid to a depth of some 12 feet, much deeper than the remainder,  to take the impact of landing aircraft. A covering of tarmac was laid over this layer in depths of between four and six inches thick. The runways at Winfield, like Charterhall, were 1,600 and 1,100 yards and both 50 yards wide. Aircraft dispersal was provided by thirty-seven hardstands whilst maintenance was carried out in four blister hangars.

The first personnel to arrive were an advanced party of thirty-four airmen led by Flying Officer Beal, who arrived on April 30th 1942. Unlike Charterhall, the airfield was complete and ready for the new recruits to move straight in. Being a satellite station, accommodation numbers catered for were less than those at Charterhall, 686 airmen and 56 WAAFs, all spread over five sites: three airmen, a WAAF, and a communal site. A small sewage plant was located not far from these, all to the north-eastern side of the airfield.

Trainees were to follow an initial three-tier programme. Starting in ‘A’ squadron – the conversion unit – they would then pass to ‘B’ and then finally onto ‘C’ here at Winfield. C Squadron, would finely tune skills and train aircrew in uses of Aircraft Interception (AI), ground attack and air-to-air gunnery techniques. Later on, a fourth tier would be added, focusing purely in flying the D.H. Mosquito in the night fighter role.

RAF Winfield

Remains of the former WAAF site.

These initial stages primarily used Beaufighters and Blenheims, aircraft that had been passed down from front line units to the training squadrons of the O.T.U.s. Many were therefore ‘war weary’ and as a result, mechanical problems were common place.

The first fatality at Winfield occurred in a rather bizarre accident on May 23rd 1942. A dispatch rider, Aircraftman 1st Class, John R. Livesey (s/n1478277), was struck by a Blenheim flown by Sgt. J. Grundy as the aircraft was taking off. The aircraft was damaged in the collision and the pilot unhurt, but Livesey was very sadly killed; he now rests at Marton (St. Paul) church in Blackpool.

In August 1942 a combined operation was planned involving Spitfire VBs from 222 Sqn (based at North Weald) and Boston IIIs from Attlebridge’s 88 Sqn. These manoeuvres saw eighteen Spitfires and twelve Bostons arrive, supported by three H.P. Harrows of 271 Sqn bringing ground crews, spares and supplies for the various aircraft. In all, around 360 new crews were accommodated at Winfield over the short two-week period.

Adept at low-level attacks, the two squadrons would arrive here between 1st and 4th August 1942, spend several days attacking ‘enemy’ transport and troop routes across southern Scotland, before departing. Considered a relative success, their stay was only for a short period vacating to RAF airfields at Drem, near Edinburgh, and Attlebridge, in Norfolk, respectively by mid August.

A further deployment of Mustang Is of 241 Sqn based at Ayr was cut short when bad weather prevented both flying and training operations from occurring. Later that month the small party left rather disappointed having hardly flown since arriving here at Winfield.

Being the more advanced tier of the training programme, serious accidents at Winfield occurred less frequently than at Charterhall. Burst tyres and mechanical problems being the main cause of many of the problems that were incurred.

RAF Winfield

Few buildings remain at Winfield, the WAAF site having the majority of the examples.

During July 1943, a Beaufighter from ‘C’ Squadron at Winfield misjudged the distance from himself to the target drogue being pulled by a Lysander, after firing and passing, his airscrew caught the drogue’s wire; luckily both aircraft were able to land safely and neither crew were injured. At the end of July a less fortunate incident occurred when, on a night flight, the port engine of Beaufighter T3370 (a former 456 Sqn RAAF aircraft coded RX-Z) caught fire. The crew bailed out, the pilot surviving but the Radio operator/navigator P/O. Frank Walmsley (s/n J/17124) of the RCAF was posted missing, presumed drowned, after the aircraft crashed into the sea. No trace was ever found of him.

October saw further deaths of crews from Winfield. On the 11th, Beaufighter VI, (ND184) crashed killing its Pilot Sgt. Angus Taylor, after it suffered engine failure; followed the next day by the crash of Beaufighter T3218 in a gunnery exercise over the North Sea. The aircraft crashed into the water after incurring a stall, both crewmen; F/O. John W. Roussel and F/O. Francis L. Kirkwood both of the RCAF, were missing presumed drowned. Both are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

During 1944 the tide began to turn and night fighter crews were on the offensive. The invasion of Normandy brought new hope and a new aircraft – the Mosquito. But as 1944 ended it would be the worst for fatalities in 54 OTU.

January brought many heavy bombers to the grounds of Winfield, returning from missions over Europe, they were either damaged or unable to land at their own respective bases due to poor weather. On February 17th 1945, fourteen Halifax IIIs from 420 Squadron RCAF landed at Winfield along with a further 408 Squadron aircraft. Whilst not able to comfortably accommodate such numbers and aircraft, it would have no doubt been a happy, and very much appreciated landing.

As the war drew to a close so did the number of flying hours. By May 31st the war was over and Winfield was no longer required, all the various ranks were pulled back to Charterhall leaving only a small maintenance party behind. For the next few years Winfield would have no operational units stay here, either temporary or permanently.

In the second part of this visit, we see how Winfield changed after the war, an odd visitor arrives, and Winfield’s decline begins. 

 

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1 of Trail 41 – The Borders, we return to Charterhall in the beginning of 1943.

During the Battle of Britain many pilots suffered from burns in aircraft fires and crashes. The famous ‘Guinea Pig club’ became synonymous with those men who underwent experimental techniques in reconstructive skin work carried out by of Archibald McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead in Sussex. Some of these men wrote about their experiences, and one, Flight Lieutenant Richard Hillary, sadly lost his life at Charterhall.

Hillary arrived here in November 1942 – after two long years of surgery and hospitalisation. Writing about his experiences in ‘The Last Enemy‘ he opted for night fighter training and was posted to Charterhall. Still disfigured, he had virtually no experience in night flying and none on twin-engined aircraft.

RAF Charterhall

One of two remaining hangars.

The controls of the Blenheim were awkward and difficult to use at the best of times, Hillary, with his disfigured hands, found the Blenheim I more so and often needed help with the undercarriage. Cockpit lighting was another issue experienced by crews, even in later models instrument panels were difficult to read in the dark and this led to several pilots making errors when reading the various dials and gauges. Hillary found this a further challenge, with damaged eyelids his night sight was ‘impaired’ and on January 8th 1943, his aircraft, Blenheim V BA194, struck the ground killing both him and his Radio Operator Flight Sgt. K.W. Fison. The cause of the crash is unclear, whether Hillary’s condition added to the accident is not known, and it is generally thought to be as a result of icing due to the thick, cold Scottish fog. Whatever the cause, it ended the life of two very brave young men, one of whom had fought long and hard to survive in some of the harshest of times.*2

In April 1943 Beauforts began arriving to replace the ageing and very much outdated Blenheim Is. It was also in this month that responsibility of the O.T.Us passed over to 9 Group, and there were now fourteen operational units countrywide. Monthly ‘processing’ of new crews would be increased to an intake of 40 all undertaking a 12 week course before finally being posted to operational squadrons.

The summer of 1943 saw a rapid increase in accidents. Some of these occurred on the ground as well as whilst flying. On June 14th a tragic accident occurred when a Beaufighter piloted by Sgt. Wilkie, swung on take off colliding with another aircraft being refueled. The Bowser exploded in the accident destroying both aircraft and killing two ground staff: Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Francis P. Matthews and Leading Aircraftman George Lotherington.*3

A further incident, also caused by a Beaufighter swinging on take off, caused the first July fatality, when the aircraft hit both a blister hangar and a taxiing Beaufort. The two collisions wrote off the Beaufighter and severely damaged the Beaufort. The pilot of the Beaufighter,  Flight Sgt. W. Andrew (s/n 415280) aged just 21, was killed in the incident.

July was a milestone for 54 O.T.U in that it was the first time that 3,000 flying hours had been exceeded of which 894 had been carried out at night at a cost of 20 accidents – such was the demand for trained operational crews.

During September, new MK VI Beaufighters began to arrive. These were passed directly to Winfield and ‘C’ squadron after delivery and inspection at Charterhall. Even though they were ‘factory new’, they did not prevent further accidents nor deaths occurring. By the end of 1943, 54 O.T.U had amassed 28,940 hours flying time of which 7,012 were at night. A huge total that had enabled the RAF to pass the equivalent of 12 operational squadron crews but it had also taken a serious loss of life.

In January 1944 the unit strength was up to ninety-six aircraft, flying continued where the inclement weather allowed, and the year would start off with no serious accidents or deaths – a welcome break; but 1944 would eventually prove to be Charterhall’s worst year.

May brought a new focus for the trainees when it was decided to make  54 O.T.U operational in support of the impending invasion. Operating in the night fighter role, they were called out on to intercept German aircraft roaming over the north-east of England and southern Scotland. Unfortunately, whilst intruders were detected, no contacts were made during these operations, primarily due to the intruders flying too low for the GCI to pick them up; but it did give some purpose to the heavy losses that were being incurred.

At this time a new aircraft began appearing in ‘C’ Squadron, a model that gave new hope and determination to the crews – the incredible, D.H. Mosquito. By the war’s end, 54 O.T.U. would have used eight different variants of the Mosquito.

The initial batch of two were located at Winfield, rather disappointing perhaps for those at Charterhall, but they were not to be  devoid of their own special breed of aircraft.

The final part of our visit to RAF Charterhall will follow soon, the end of the war is in sight and so starts a new era for RAF Charterhall…

Sources and further reading

*News report on Hillary in ‘The Scotsman‘ Newspaper, 11th November 2001

*3 Commonwealth War Graves Commission website accessed 29/4/17

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 1)

After leaving the Wolds of Yorkshire, Trail 41 takes us north across the border into Scotland. A land as diverse in its history as it is its beauty.  With fabulous views of the Cheviots to the south and the North Sea coast to the east, it is an area renowned for beautiful scenery and delightful walks. With Holy Island and Lindisfarne Castle standing proud, it also an area with a rich and diverse aviation history,

In this trail we stop off at two airfields where we find some remarkable relics and some terrible stories.

Our first stop is at a site that is little known about even though it played a major part in the night-fighter air war, and was also the proving ground for some of the world’s top motor racing drivers as well. Yet beneath all this glamour and bravado it holds a collection of terrible stories. We stop off at the former RAF Charterhall.

RAF Charterhall.

Located some 15 miles south-west of the coastal town of Berwick, Charterhall airfield had its aviation origins in the First World War. Its original name was RFC Eccles Tofts (although the two were not quite the same physical site), a landing ground for 77 Squadron who were based further north at Edinburgh, and flew the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c/d/e, BE.12, RE8, de Havilland DH6 and Avro’s 504k.  Whilst not official detached here, the airfield was available for these aircraft to land upon and be recovered should the need arise. It wasn’t kept open for long and soon disappeared returning to its former agricultural use.

Charterhall is one of those airfields that has a grand sounding name, suggesting regency and nobility, its reality though, was somewhat different. It gained the rather unsavoury, but apt, nick-name ‘Slaughterhall’, due to the high accident rate of the trainee aircrew who passed through here.

RAF Charterhall

Technical buildings at Charterhall.

Many of the aircraft that operated from here were outdated and ‘war weary’, held together by the dedicated mechanics that took great pride in their work. Used for short-term placements of trainees, it would not house any true front line squadrons until the war’s end in 1945.

As a training airfield it would have a large number of airfield buildings, two Tarmacadam (Tarmac) runways the main running east-west of 1,600 yards and the second north-east/south-west of 1,100 yards; both were the standard 50 yards wide. There were some 38 dispersal pans, similar in shape to the ‘frying pan’ style , eight blister hangars and four main hangars of which two still survive. Chaterhall’s accommodation was initially designed for 1,392 airmen and 464 WAAFs – consisting of 126 Officers (both male and female) and 1,730 other ranks (again both male and female).

The main technical area was to the north side of the airfield with accommodation spread amongst the woods around this area. The watch office, long since demolished, was a mix of concrete and timber (thought to be initially a 518/40 design), which originally had timber floors, roof and stairs. However, an acute shortage of wood led to all these designs having only a timber balcony and control room. These modified designs (Charterhall included) were therefore built to a mix of 518/40 and 8936/40 specifications.

Another interesting feature of Charterhall would have been the instructional fuselage building. Here crews would have been trained using an aircraft fuselage (Charterhall had two, one each of Beaufighter and Blenheim) jacked up and linked to a controller’s panel. A number of simulated problems could be created for the crews to experience, anything from radio exercises through small warning lights to engine failure and even ditching. All crewmen had to have a good understanding of their aircraft, working hydraulics, electrical and fuel systems were all taught using this same method. In addition to these training fuselages, Charterhall would operate six Link Trainers, along with several other ‘state of the art’ training facilities.

RAF Charterhall

Many of the remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair.

The entire airfield would occupy around 143 hectares, it was certainly not large, especially considering the numbers of crews and mix of aircraft it would have during its short life.

Construction of Charterhall took place over 1941/42 opening on April 30th as part of 81 Group Fighter Command (and later 9 Group), receiving 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U) in May 1942. Formed two years earlier, they flew primarily Blenheim Is and Beaufighter IIs under the Squadron code ‘BF’ (Four different unit codes were used: BF, LX, ST and YX). A number of these aircraft were fitted with Aircraft Interception radar (AI) and some Blenheims were dual control.

To support the operations at Charterhall, a satellite airfield was built at nearby Winfield, a few miles east, both sites being used by 54 O.T.U. simultaneously. Later in the war, in an effort to divert marauding Luftwaffe bombers away from the two airfields, a dummy ‘Q’ site (No. 179) was built at Swinton also to the east of Charterhall.

The increase in O.T.U.s in these early days of the war was as a direct result of the increase in demand for new pilots in Fighter Command. In December 1940, 81 Group had six such units (54-59 O.T.U.) and by June 1941 this had increased to nine (52 – 60). By 1942, a total of twelve were in existence boosted by the addition of 12, 61 and 62 O.T.U. 54 O.T.U. would be one of two specialising in twin-engined night fighter flying. New crews, of which there were about 30 per month, were initially given about ten days to establish themselves and ‘crew up’. As time passed however, this time reduced to the point where some intakes were literally herded in a hangar and told to find a crewman or they would be allocated one! *1

Many of the crews arriving at Charterhall were brought in from around the Commonwealth and after passing their basic flying training instruction, would proceed through a further three stages of training. Some crews were also ex-fighter pilots already battled hardened, who had transferred in from front line units to night-fighters.

Progression through the course would be through initially three, and latterly four, squadrons. ‘A’ Squadron would be the initial conversion unit initiating crews on the rudiments of twin-engined aircraft as many had come from single engined fighter units. ‘B’ Squadron was the intermediate squadron, where the crews moved onto the larger twin-engined aircraft and finally ‘C’, (based at Winfield) was the advanced squadron honing skills such as aircraft interception and attack.  After completing the full training period, crews would receive postings to front line squadrons across the U.K. and beyond.

RAF Charterhall

A latrine on the technical site.

Initially on opening, Charterhall was not completely ready, especially the airfield’s lighting (Drem), and so training flights would only occur during the day. But, with the help of ground crews, this was soon rectified and by the end of the month considerable work had been done, and very soon night flying could begin.

The first daylight flights took place on May 13th 1942, followed by night flying seven days later, and – as crews were to find out very quickly – flying these aircraft would be a risky business.

During 1942 some 5000 aircrew would enter 81 Group’s training units, and they would suffer in the region of 2,000 accidents, of which just under 200 would be fatal. On May 23rd, 54 O.T.U’s first accident would occur when a ‘technical failure’ on a Blenheim Mk I, would cause the controls to jam. The aircrew were thankfully unhurt but the aircraft was severely damaged in the resultant crash. The first fatality would not be long in coming though, occurring just two days later, on May 25th, less than a month after 54 O.T.U’s arrival. On this day, Blenheim IV (Z6090) crashed killing both Pilot Officer J. A. Hill (s/n 115324) and Observer Sgt. A.E. Harrison (s/n 1384501) in an accident which is thought to have been caused by icing. P/O Hill is buried at Haddington (St. Martin’s) burial ground in East Lothain, whilst Sgt Harrison is buried in Middlesbrough (Acklam) Cemetery, Yorkshire.

During June, the first Beaufighters would begin to arrive, followed quickly by their first accident. Whilst on delivery by 2 Aircraft Delivery Flight at Colerne, the aircraft – a Beaufighter MkIIf – had an engine cut out causing it to crash about 10 kilometres north-west of Charterhall. Luckily the crew were able to walk away but the aircraft was written off.

During July bad weather hampered flying activities, but it didn’t prevent the unit from increasing its strength to seventy-seven aircraft.  Primarily Blenheims and Beaufighters, there were also a small number of Lysanders for target towing and four Airspeed Oxfords.

Accidents continued to occur at Charterhall, and it wasn’t until September 1942 that it would be fatality free – a welcome boost to the morale of the instructors at the time. However, the reprieve was short-lived, and October would see further accidents and yet more fatalities. On the 5th, two Blenheim MK Is (L6788 and L8613) collided: Pilot Sgt. J. Masters (missing – presumed drowned) and Navigator Sgt. J. Gracey were both killed. There were seven other accidents that month, a tally that involved two Blenheims and five Beaufighters, with the loss of one life. Causes included: two burst tyres, two overshoots, a loss of control and an undercarriage failure, all of which added to the lengthening list of accidents occurring at Charterhall.

The need for new crews increased the pressure on training stations to increase flying hours. Courses were cut short, spares were lacking and with only rudimentary rescue equipment, further deaths were inevitable. As a result, it wouldn’t be until March 1943 before Charterhall would see a break in these increasing fatalities.

The start of 1943 saw a new Station Commander, but the new change in command would not see the new year start on a good note…

 

(Part 2 of Trail 41 will continue shortly).

Sources and further reading

*1 An interview with Edward Braine, in ‘reel 4’ he describes his posting to RAF Charterhall for operational training; crewing up; transfer onto Bristol Beaufighters; position of navigator in Bristol Beaufighter; accident during training; method of observing aircraft at night and interpreting radar signals. Sound file reel 4 Recorded and presented by the Imperial War Museum.

 

Dunsfold seek Designation for a Conservation Area

As previously mentioned, Dunsfold airfield has been the subject of a planning proposal and it has been brought to my attention that this has now gone through. Permission has being granted for the construction of some 1,800 homes. However, in order that some of the buildings can be saved, the Dunsfold Airfield History Society are seeking designation of the site as a conservation area.

In addition to this, Historic England are also looking at listing 10 of the buildings on the site, thus protecting them for future generations, and together, these moves may help save some of these historic features before it is too late.

You can help by registering support as soon as possible on the  on the Dunsfold Airfield History Society site at:
https://dunsfoldairfield.org/conservation-area/

Waverley Council have produced a map showing the extent of the site and the proposed conservation area.

RAF Martlesham Heath (part 2) – A long and distinguished history.

In part two of this Trail, we continue looking at the history of RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

On August 15th 1944, two P-47s flying more than 200 miles off course mistakenly attacked the Ninth Air Force headquarters near to Laval. In the attack, ground gun crews managed to bring down one of the aircraft killing its pilot. The second aircraft managed to avoid the anti-aircraft fire and returned home safely.

For three days in September, the 356th attacked enemy gun emplacements at Arnhem, earning themselves a DUC for their actions. These aircraft had the unenviable task of attacking the gun emplacements defending the allied drop zones. In order to neutralise the guns, the pilots first had to find them, a move that involved presenting themselves as bait. They proved their worth, bombing and strafing with 260lb fragmentation bombs, destroying all but two of the guns.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Martlesham Heath’s Watch Office now a museum surrounded by housing.

In November 1944 the P-47s were replaced by the P-51 ‘Mustangs’, the delight of the USAAF Fighter Groups. Early successes were good, even though they were tainted with repeated and wide-spread gun jamming.

The winter of 1944-45 was notoriously bad, one of the worst on record and many flights were cancelled at the last-minute. Maintenance on open airfields was incredibly difficult and accidents increased because of cloud, ice and snow. In mid January, five P-51s were lost, crashing on snow packed runways, being lost in cloud or suffering from taxiing accidents. By now though the war had turned and the blue and red chequered nosed fighters of the USAAF had turned to hunters and were eager for blood.

By now, Luftwaffe jets had now been in service for some time, harassing bombing formations, diving in amongst them, firing and then fleeing. Three P-51s of the 356th had the good fortune to catch an Arado-234 in the Bielefield area. After the pilot bailed out, they flew along side photographing the aircraft before finally shooting it down. It was one of a number that day that were lost to American airmen.

As the war ended the 356th had seen only eighteen months of active service, a short time that had allowed them to amass 276.5 kills in the air. Whilst being the lowest ‘score’ in the US Air Force, it doesn’t detract from the determination nor the skill of the brave pilots who flew with the 356th.

After the war’s end, the Americans departed and in November 1945, Martlesham Heath was returned to RAF ownership.

In 1946, experimental units returned with the forming of the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit. Over the next few years they would go through several changes of name , but in essence retained their primary role. During this period, they would operate a small number of aircraft including amongst them: Mosquito NF38 (VT654); Meteor F4 (VW308); Lincoln B1 (RE242); Canberra T4 (WE189) and Comet 3B (XP915).

On November 1st 1949, the Bomb Ballistic Unit (formed May 1944 at Woodbridge) and Blind Landing Experimental Units (formed October 1945 also at Woodbridge) were amalgamated, forming one complete unit (the Bomb Ballistic and Blind Landing Experimental Unit) here at Martlesham Heath. They each operated a number of twin and four engined aircraft that would be absorbed into the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit 15 days later. On November 1st 1955 RAF control of the unit ceased, and it was re-branded Armament and Instrument Experimental Establishment, whereupon it ran until 1st July 1957, when it was disbanded and absorbed into the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

A number of the ‘H’ blocks have been given a new lease of life as office blocks. The parade ground, the car park.

With little operationally occurring at Martlesham, its decline was inevitable. Between 15th April 1958, and New Years Eve 1960, 11 Group Communications Flight operated: two Ansons (TX193 & WB453); a Devon (VP974); a Meteor T7 (WL378) and Chipmunk T.10 (WG465). Following their disbandment the only other flying units to use Martlesham were the then Hurricane and four Spitfires of the Battle of Britain Flight (now the legendary Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby) between 1958 and 1961. The 612 Glider School also used the site between September 1952 and May 1963, whereupon they disbanded and the airfield then closed. Remaining intact, the airfield would continue to be used but for light private flying only, until this also finally ceased in 1979.

Following its closure, Martlesham Heath’s 600 acres were handed over to the Bradford Property Trust following the reversion of the lease from the Air Ministry, and because of its location to both the larger town of Ipswich and the major sea port at Felixstowe, it was destined for development. It was declared by the new owners that Martlesham would become a ‘village’, rather than a traditional ‘housing estate’ in which the concept of small groups of housing would be built, often around a cul-de-sac rather than in rows, thus promoting a ‘community spirit’ within each segment of the development. Planning permission was granted in 1973, ten years after the Ministry sold it off, the development was finally completed in 1990.*2

On its completion Martlesham was designated a village, and since then the original 3,500 population has grown, in 2011, the Martlesham Neighbourhood Development Plan stated the population of the Parish at 5,478.

Today Martlesham Heath is a thriving mix of private housing, industrial and retail units, reflecting this ‘Garden Village’ design. Two major employers soon moved in: the British Telecom Research Centre and Suffolk County Police – forming their headquarters on this and the adjacent land.

Beneath all this development though, elements of the ‘Heath’ do still exist, largely due to the good foresight of the developers. The parade ground (now a car park), the barrack ’H’ blocks (like West Malling are office blocks), the watch office, messes, hangars and RAF workshops all transformed into light industrial units which remain in use today.

In 1982, local people set on preserving the heritage of Martlesham Heath created the Martlesham Heath Aviation Society, and were allowed to set up their home in the former watch office. After raising funds, the office was refurbished and turned into a museum displaying many artefacts, stories and photographs of Martlesham’s history. The museum finally opened in 2000 and remains there today encircled by housing on all four sides. The spirit of Martlesham Heath also lives on in the road names. Even the Douglas Bader pub has a tenuous link to this historic place.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

The memorials to those who served at Martlesham Heath during its long and distinguished career.

Viewing the airfield remains are relatively easy as most are visible and accessible from the public highway. Finding them is another matter. The design of the streets are such that there are many paths and small side streets and ‘getting lost’ is quite easy for the visitor. The main A12 road through Martlesham dissects the airfield site in two. The museum is to the west off Eagles way, surrounded by housing – an odd remnant of a bygone era. What little remains of the runway can be seen further south off Dobbs lane, in an area of heath and scrub – a lingering reminder of this once historic airfield, how long I wonder, before this too is removed.

The hangars and barrack blocks are to the eastern side, mostly among the retail park. The three memorials are located on Barrack Road opposite the BT building and alongside the former parade ground and ‘H’ blocks.

Now listed locally and with Suffolk Coastal District Council, many of the remaining but obscure remnants (airfield markers, hangar foundations, revetments, and the last remains of the runway) all lie dormant amongst the footpaths, cycle tracks and parks of the huge Martlesham Heath conurbation that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

Notes and further reading

*2 Ward, S.V., The Garden City, past, Present and Future,  1992, Spon Press

RAF Martlesham Heath (Part 1) – a long and distinguished history.

On the outskirts of Ipswich close to the former Cold War bases at Woodbridge and Bentwaters, is what is perhaps a model of the future, of many of our wartime airfields. Built upon with town housing hidden in the ‘Village’ idea, it is a place with major industry and retail parks, where the few remains that exist are hidden amongst the pathways and roads of this large conurbation. However, not all is lost, a museum and modern use of many of its original structures ensure the history of this once busy airfield are not lost forever.  In Trail 40 we head to the southern reaches of East Anglia, to the the outskirts of Ipswich and the former site that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

Martlesham Heath was opened in 1917, and until it closed in 1963, was the home to a very large number of military units. It was also used by a number of aircraft experimental units, each one investigating the various aspects of aircraft and weapons designs needed in a modern air force. These investigations were carried out initially by the RFC Aeroplane Experimental Station and latterly the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE). Also present at Martlesham were the Armament & Instrument Experimental Unit, the Air Sea Rescue units, and the Battle of Britain Flight (now the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby). In addition, a Gunnery flight was also based here, as were gliders and numerous squadrons flown by a whole range of Nationalities including: Belgian, Czech, Polish, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and American airmen. With all these units came a broad and diverse range of aircraft types. Its history is certainly long and very, very distinguished.

The dawn of aviation happened at Martlesham Heath when it officially opened on January 16th, 1917.  During that year, the Aircraft Testing Squadron would arrive here from its base at Upavon to be joined on March 16th 1920 by the Armament Experimental Station from Orfordness. The amalgamation of these two aircraft experimental units would set the foundations for Britain’s future research and development organisation. This marriage, forged the name the Aeroplane Experimental Establishment (Home) until 24th March 1924, when it disbanded to become the better known Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), who carried out their work here, at Martlesham Heath, until the outbreak of war in 1939. 

A number of both civilian and military aircraft were tested here, one of the most notable being the enormous all-metal tri-engined transport, the Beardmore Inflexible. Designed by William Beardmore, it had a wing span of 157 feet – 16 feet longer than Boeing B-29. Other aircraft included the 4.F1 ‘Taper Wing’ Camel, a sole example was produced with simplified wing-struts in an attempt to reduce drag and improve the Camel’s performance.  Amongst others featuring at Martlesham, were the Bristol Blenheim, various Auto Gyros and the Bristol Bombay. The A&AEE would be joined in July 1923 by the reformed 22 Sqn who would undertake armament testing investigations; and then, a year later, by the reformed 15 Sqn who would carry out performance and handling trials. Both these units operated solely as trials units, flying  a notional number of aircraft including a: Boulton Paul Bugle II, Fairy Ferret, Gloster Gamecock, Vickers 161 and Hawker Horsley aircraft.

INTER WAR BRITISH AIRCRAFT

The prototype Bristol Blenheim at Martlesham Heath under evaluation. (IWM)

With the outbreak of war, all sections of the A&AEE, with one exception, was moved for its own protection, to its new base at Boscombe Down. Here its history has become renowned, and many weapons and aircraft developments have taken place since. The exception to the move, was ‘D’ Flight of the A&AEE’s Performance Testing section, who moved to Perth where it became the Royal Air Force Detachment, Perth.

Over the next few years Martlesham Heath would become a major player in the war. Some 60 or so RAF squadrons would pass through here, either permanently based here or as detachments away from their parent bases. The first of these was 64 Sqn RAF flying Hawker Demons. After a short spell abroad, they would return in 1941 with Spitfire IIAs – the first permanently based unit. Other sqn’s that would pass through in these early years included:  29 and 151 Sqn (December 1938); 110 Sqn (June 1939); 25 and 56 Sqn (October 1939);  604 Sqn (September 1939) and 236 Sqn (December 1939).

With the evacuation of the BEF and the subsequent Battle of Britain, Martlesham would become increasingly busy. During 1940 five squadrons would be based here, whilst in 1941, thirteen squadrons would pass through. This would increase to sixteen in 1942; nine in 1943 and only two in 1944; thus the number of units using Martlesham would reflect both the level of the German threat and direction that the war was moving.

Being close to London, Martlesham would play its part in the Battle of Britain. A number of gritty and determined fighter pilots would serve here, including both Group Captain Douglas Bader and Squadron Leader Bob Stanford Tuck.

Squadron Leader Stanford Tuck poses with a group of pilots of 257 Squadron, RAF © IWM (CH 1674)

On September 19th 1940, 71 Sqn was reformed at RAF Church Fenton moving to Martlesham in the following April. Made of volunteer U.S. pilots it was to be one of three ‘Eagle Squadrons’ destined to become famous before the U.S. officially entered the conflict in December 1941. (Also during this time, ‘A’ Flight of the Special Duties Flight would reside here whilst the main parent unit was located at St. Athan, until replaced by the various Radio Servicing Sections).

71 Squadron were initially provided with Brewster Buffalo MKIs, so disappointed with them were they, that it was rumoured the commanding officer ‘instructed’ his pilots to deliberately damage them so that more ‘appropriate’ aircraft would be issued*1. By the time 71 Sqn arrived at Martlesham Heath in early April 1941, these Buffaloes had been replaced and 71 Sqn  was equipped with the much superior Hurricane MKIs, followed soon afterwards, by the Hurricane MKIIA. 71 Squadron then left Martlesham in June 1941 only to return in December that year with Spitfire VBs. They finally departed in May 1942 thus ending their presence  at the ‘Heath’ for good. It wasn’t the last of the Eagle squadrons though, for a very short period of about eight days, 133 Squadron graced the grounds of this Suffolk airfield before departing to Biggin Hill and eventual amalgamation into the USAAF.

Primarily a grass stripped fighter base, Spitfires and Hurricanes were the most commonly seen aircraft here. Exceptions being the very brief visit of Tomahawks of No. 2 Sqn, Mustang MkIs of 26 and 239 Sqns, Typhoons of 198 and 182 Sqns (who were formed here in August 1942) ; Defiants of 264 Sqn; Lysander IIIA of the Air Sea Rescue Flight (formed here May 1941 and latterly 277 Sqn) and a detachment of Lysander IIs of 613 Sqn in September 1940. Thus a wide range of aircraft were to pass through Martlesham adding to the variety and diversity of its aviation history.

Many of those units to use Martlesham’s facilities were short stays, often passing through to other stations either in the U.K. or abroad. Some consisted of days whilst others were perhaps weeks.

In 1942, the airfield was designated as a U.S. Fighter base and the first real permanently stationed units would soon arrive. Following testing, they created two soil-stabilised, oil and tar mixture runways, linked together by steel pierced planking.  Also known as ‘Marston Matting’ or Perforated Steel Planking (PSP), these were strips of metal slotted together that meant no heavy excavations were needed and the tracks could be laid very quickly by small engineering teams. Once work had been undertaken, Martlesham Heath would receive the P-47s and latterly P-51s, of the 356th Fighter Group.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Memorial to the 356th FG based at Martlesham Heath.

By the time the airfield had been developed it covered a wide area, and because of it long history, it would consist of multitude of architectural features. Many of these dated back to the First World War and included aeroplane sheds (damaged in attacks) built to various drawings (e.g. 146/16-149/16, 110/16 and 1656/18); Type A aeroplane sheds (based on 19a/24 designs); aeroplane Type B ‘Goliath’ shed (1455/27); blacksmiths and welders workshops; a range of barrack blocks; married and single officers quarters; separate RAF and USAAF latrines; workshops; blister hangars; squadron offices and a wide range of associated buildings.

Around 70 aircraft dispersals were also laid using a mix of both an unusual square, and the more common pan style hardstands.

The 356th FG, arrived here in October 1943, after a 10 month journey that began at Westover Field, Massachusetts. They arrived in England in  August 1943 transiting from Goxhill to Martlesham Heath over the following weeks. Consisting of three squadrons: the 359th, 360th and 361st FS, they would initially be equipped with P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ lovingly referred to as ‘Jugs‘.

The main duties of the 356th FG was as fighter escort covering the heavy bombers of the American Eighth Air Force as they penetrated occupied Europe. After initial engine difficulties, the P-47 proved to be a reliable and agile workhorse, much against the stereotyped view reflected by its resemblance to a ‘flying brick’. One of the first missions the 356th carried out was to escort a mix of P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ of the 56th FG fitted with bombs flying in conjunction with B-24 ‘Mitchells’. This new strategy became known as ‘drop-on-leader’ whereby the B-24s would sight the target, and drop their bombs as a signal to the P-47s to drop theirs. The first mission to St. Omer was to produce poor results however, the B-24 bombing mechanisms jamming which resulted in all the bombs overshooting the target.

The 356th would be active throughout the remainder of the war, initially supporting bombers until January 1944 when they took on the role of ground attack, strafing targets such as U-Boat installations, Marshalling yards, Locomotives, airfield flak units and German radar installations. In June 1944 they supported the Normandy invasion going on to assist in the allied push through France,  the low countries and on into Germany itself. With ground attack and fighter aircraft being given almost free-reign, anything that moved became a target. Avoiding civilian areas and civilian traffic was a high priority and the perceived threat of friendly fire on troops below, a distant thought in the minds of the crews. However, not everything went according to plan.

Part 2 will follow next week.

 

Notes and further reading

*1 Imperial War Museum Website

RAF North Witham – A Truly Historical Place

On the western fringes of Lincolnshire close to the Leicestershire border, is an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for North Witham, many may not have been as successful as they were. For the next part of trail 3, we head west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

RAF North Witham sits quietly amongst the trees of Twyford Woods, a site originally known as Witham Wood, it is now a public space owned and maintained by the U.K.’s Forestry Commission.

Originally, North Witham was one of twelve airfields in the Leicestershire cluster intended to be an RAF bomber station for No. 7 Group, however, it was never used operationally by the Royal Air Force, instead like ten others in the area, it was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force and in particular the IX Troop Carrier Command.

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

As it was originally designed as a bomber station it was built to the Air Ministry’s class ‘A’ specification, formed around the usual three triangular runways, perimeter track and aircraft hardstands. With construction beginning in the mid-war years 1942/43, its main runway would be 2000 yds long, with the second and third runways 1,400 yds in length and all 50 yds wide. To accommodate the aircraft, 50  ‘spectacle’ style dispersals were built, scattered around the adjoining perimeter track. As a bomber base it had a bomb store, located to the north-eastern side of the airfield, with the admin and technical site to the south-east. One feature of North Witham was its operations block, built to drawing 4891/42, it was larger than most, with ceilings of 14 feet high. Amongst the myriad of rooms were a battery room, cipher office, meteorology room, PBX, traffic office and teleprinter room, all accessed through specially designed air locks. A further feature of this design was the attachment of a Nissen hut to house plant equipment and boiler equipment, a feature not commonly seen at this time.

Aircraft maintenance could be carried out in one of two ‘T2’ hangars with additional work space provided by one of six ‘Butler’ hangars. Designed and built by the Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas, USA, these were supplied in kit form and had to be erected on site by an Engineer Aviation Battalion. These ‘hangars’ had rigid box section girders over a canvas cladding, and once fully erected, gave a wide 40 ft span. Quite a rare feature, these types of structures were only built in limited numbers during the Second World War and only appeared on American occupied airfields. Post-war however, they were far more commonly used appearing on many American cold-war sites across the UK.

A hangar under construction at the 1st Tactical Air Depot at North Witham. Printed caption on reverse: '77877 AC - A butler hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion at North Witham, England. U.S. Air Force Photo.'

A ‘Butler’ hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) at a very snowy North Witham (IWM479)

The Ninth Air Force was born in 1942 out of the ashes of the V Air Support Command, and then combined with units already located in the England operating under the American Eighth Air Force. Its initial activities focused on the allied push across North Africa followed by the move up into southern Europe through Italy.

Moving to England in October 1943, it then became the tactical Air Force that would support the Normandy invasion, supplying medium bombers, operating as troop support and providing supply flights. Facilitation of this massive invasion required both a huge backup, and an intricate supply and support network. North Witham would form part of this support network through both repair and maintenance of the troop carrier aircraft that were operated by the Ninth Air Force – primarily the C-47s. The main group undertaking this role at North Witham was the 1st Tactical Air Depot comprising the 29th and 33rd Air Depot Groups between January and September 1944*1. One of a number of depots, they were once described as the “backbone of Supply for the Army Air Force”, and had a complicated arrangement that encompassed numerous groups across the entire world theatre.

For such a large base, North Witham would be operationally ‘underused’, the only unit to fly from here being those of the IX Troop Carrier Command (TCC), who would primarily use C-47 ‘Skytrains’ – an established and true workhorse, and one that would go on to supply many air forces around the world.

During the Sicily campaign, it was found that many incoming aircraft were not finding the drop zones as accurately as they should and as a result, paratroops were being widely and thinly scattered. More accurate flying aided by precise target marking was therefore required and so the first Pathfinder School was set up.

North Whitham pen

Part of one of North Witham’s 50 dispersal pans.

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham in March 1944. These aircraft were fitted with ‘modern’ Gee radar and navigation equipment, and would be used to train paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would remain at North Witham for short periods before returning to their own designated bases. The idea being a joint venture to land the troops who would then set up a ‘homing’ station using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft. This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

On arrival at North Witham, the Pathfinders were accommodated in the huts originally provided for the depot’s crews – some 1,250 enlisted men and 75 officers. Many of these displaced men were rehoused in tents along the northern end of the site which only added a further strain to the already rudimentary accommodation that was already in place at the airfield. At its height, North Witham would house upward of 3,700 men in total, a figure that included an RAF detachment of 86 men and large quantities of GIs.

Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their C-47s and departed in to the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, with only one being lost in the entire mission. The Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 was lost en route due to mechanical failure – the aircraft ditching in the sea. All the crew and paratroops on-board were believed to have been rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham into the summer of 1944, training that included Polish paratroops (1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade) who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and participating in Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

As the Allies pushed further into enemy territory, the flying distance from England became too great and so new airfields were either constructed or captured airfields refurbished. The Pathfinder School soon moved away to Hampshire and the maintenance units, needed nearer the front lines, gradually departed to new bases on the continent.

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise carried on at North Witham, but gradually the UK-based maintenance and repair work slowed down, and before long its fate was sealed and the airfield began the long wind-down that many of these unique places suffered.

By the war’s end the last American personnel had pulled out and the site was handed back to the RAF’s 40 Group who, after using it for a brief spell as a maintenance depot themselves, placed it under care and maintenance. It was used as a munitions and hardware store until 1948, and then finally, in 1956, it was closed by the Ministry and the site sold two years later.

Photograph of North Witham taken on 17th January 1947. The technical site and barrack sites are at the top left, the bomb dump is bottom left. (IWM RAF_CPE_UK_1932_FP_1221)

The site, intact as it was, was returned to the Forestry Commission who planted a range of new trees around the site, covering the vast areas of grass. The technical area was developed into a small industrial unit and perhaps most sadly the watch office left to decay and fall apart.

Today the three runways and perimeter track still exist almost in their entirety, and remarkably, in generally good condition. Largely overgrown with weeds and small trees, the remainder is well hidden obscuring what little there is in the way of buildings – most being demolished and the remains left piled up where they stood. However, a T2 hangar is now used on the industrial estate and the watch office still stands tucked away amongst the trees and undergrowth. This area is a favourite place for dog walkers, and because of its runways, it is accessible for prams and pushchairs. Whilst here, I spoke to quite a few people, remarkably none of them knew of the site’s historical significance let alone the office’s existence!

Today the watch office remains open to the elements. Surrounded by used tyres and in constant threat of the impending industrial complex over the fence, its future is uncertain. Access stairs have been removed, but an entrance has been made by piling tyres up to the door – presumably by those wishing to enter and ‘explore’ further. Little evidence of its history can be seen from the outside, even the rendering has been removed, and so, any possible personal links with the past are more than likely now gone.

DSCF1273

The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

Returning back to the main public entrance along the perimeter track, a number of dispersal pens can be found; overgrown but relatively intact, they are a further sign that even here, war was never very far away.

North Witham was one of those ‘backroom boys’ whose contribution, whilst extremely important, is little known about. The work carried out here not only helped to maintain a strong and reliable fighting force, but one that spearheaded the frontal invasion of Normandy. It served as a cold and perhaps uncomfortable home to many brave troops, many of whom took the fight direct to Nazi Germany.

Standing here today, it is quiet and strangely surreal – you can almost hear the roar of engines. Looking along its enormous runways you get an eerie feeling – how many troops also stood here, spending their last few hours in this quiet place. Looking around now, it is difficult to imagine the immense work that went on here, the gathering of equipment as preparations were made for the big push into Normandy on that famous June night.

North Witham is truly a remarkable place, hidden away amongst the trees as a giant time capsule, a monument to those who lived, worked and died during that turbulent time in 1944-45.

After leaving North Witham, we return to the main A1 road and head south. Any journey here can not avoid briefly mentioning RAF Wittering, its Harrier still standing proudly outside the main gate. All went quiet here following the Government cutbacks of December 2010, but flying has now returned in the form of Grob Trainers – a small reprieve for this historic site. Wittering can seen later in Trail 37.

Another view along the main runway.

Another view along the main runway.

Sadly in May 2015, Twyford Woods was the scene of a large illegal rave, over 1000 people attended the event where a number of arrests were made in the violent altercations that took place*4. A sad day that would turn the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the freedom we take for granted so very easily today.

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

*2 C-47A #42-93098 itself was later lost whilst flying with the 439th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) on September 18th 1944, whilst flying in support of Operation ‘Market Garden‘ in Holland.

*3 Superb footage of Crouch and his crew as they depart from North Witham is available on-line here, it also shows the Watch Tower in its former glory.

*4 A report of the event is available on the BBC News website.

RAF Bovingdon – The Hour that Never Was!

During the 1960s, a cult TV series hit the British Screens – ‘The Avengers’ starring  Patrick Macnee (as John Steed), and Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel).

In episode 9 of the fourth series, “The Hour That Never Was” the two characters go to an old airbase, the fictitious RAF Hamelin home to (also fictitious) 472 Squadron, where Steed had been invited to a party before the base was officially closed.

But following an accident in their car, Steed and Mrs. Peel, find things are not what they seem and so begins the investigation into what has happened.

The episode was filmed on location at the former RAF Bovingdon between the 5th July and 20th July 1965 before the site was officially closed in 1972.

The film designer used Bovingdon to cleverly achieve the illusion of abandonment, an aim successfully done through filming in the old original wartime buildings. They even manage to include a shot where Steed climbs inside a D.H. Mosquito!

Bovingdon was initially designed as a bomber airfield for the RAF, but was quickly passed over to the USAAF. Sadly it never became a true operational airbase primarily due to the three short runways. However, the 92nd BG, the only operational unit to be stationed here, are reported to have taken part in a small number of raids in both September and October 1942, before departing to Alconbury in January 1943. Bovingdon then became a training centre for bomber crews as the 11th Combat Crew Replacement Centre, training the majority of US crewmen after their arrival in the UK. It also trained and hosted a number of film stars (including Clarke Gable and James Stewart) along with reporters who were to fly over occupied Europe for reporting and making propaganda films.

As a support station for the Eighth Air Force Headquarters and the Air Technical Section, it would also see a range of aircraft types based here, the most noteworthy being General Eisenhower’s own personal B-17 stored in one of the four T2 hangars that stood on the base.

Bovingdon, now a prison, is also noted for being the location for “633 Squadron” as the fictional base RAF Sutton Craddock also with its D. H. Mosquitoes, and with “The War Lover” with Steve McQueen. Other films include: “Mosquito Squadron“, “The Battle of Britain“, and the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun“.

Bovingdon has a remarkable and highly significant history and like so many others has earned its place in history.

A ‘You Tube’ version of “The Hour That Never Was” is not the best quality film, but it does give you good views of the airfield and the hangars before the airfield was closed for good.

My thanks go to fellow blogger and reader John Knifton  for the links!