The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 3).

In Part 3 of this series, we turn from the political scene of Part 2 and look at how airfields were identified, The process and methodology of airfield selection.

Choosing a site.

Choosing an airfield site during these prewar periods was especially difficult as there were many ‘unknown’ factors to predict, a factor in itself that helped determine the needs of each of the various schemes mentioned previously. However, there were a number of airfields already in situ, some used by the military and some used by civilian aviation. As remnants of the First World War, many military sites were inadequate or inappropriate for the growing future needs of the RAF, but with some work, they could be developed into workable sites as the basic infrastructure was already there in place.

As well as these RAF sites, there were also civilian airfields, which the Government considered as potential military airfields. Because civil aviation had grown amongst the wealthier members of society, although not exclusively, this meant that in the pre-war period, there were some 90 airfields*4 owned either by local councils or under private ownership. Many of these were requisitioned by the authorities, but because many were small or located very close to built-up areas, (in 1928 the Air Ministry ‘encouraged’ towns of 20,000+ inhabitants to have a municipal airport), they were not suitable for modern fighter or bomber aircraft. As a result, many of these became training or maintenance sites, some linked to aircraft production facilities, but none were ‘operational’ for fighting units.

A further group of airfields in use at this time, were those of the AA (Automobile Association – better known as a motoring organisation). The AA Landing Grounds were often ex First World War sites located near to hotels and other places of interest to the motorist. Fuel was usually supplied at, or near to, each site, and each one was ‘tested’ by an aircraft on behalf of the AA before it was granted AA status. As these sites were registered, their locations were readily available to the Germans and so they were closed and rendered unsuitable for aircraft. However, land in close proximity was occasionally used, and so a new site would be created in a similar location.

With all these sites available, one would imagine choosing a site and developing it, would be relatively straight forward, but this is far from the truth. Many of these sites were inadequate, and the process of repairing/upgrading or rectifying it was simply not going to be sufficient. Therefore, many new sites were going to be required and the process by which a site was identified, acquired and then subsequently developed was not at all straightforward. In each case the Air Ministry Directorate (AMDGW) and Air Ministries Aerodromes Board would work in very close conjunction with numerous other Government departments and interested public bodies. These would include local Electricity Boards, Drainage Boards, the Geological Survey Department and the local War Agricultural Committee, who were concerned about flooding caused by run-off from the sudden building of large expanses of concrete.

In the first instance, using an ordnance survey map, areas that were below 50 feet above sea level or above 650 feet were generally ignored, the former being prone to flooding whilst the latter suffering high levels of low cloud or hill fog. Next a circle with a radius of 1,100 yards was marked off, this had to be flat with minimal rise in the ground layer. It also had to be free from obstructions and ideally at least three miles away from any other flying location. Next officers from the Air Ministries Aerodromes Board would walk the site, field by field, recording maximum landing distances, and noting any unidentified obstacles, trees, hedges, ditches or more permanent structures that would need removal.

By September 1939, board officials had identified, examined and recorded around 4,000 possible sites in the U.K. Many would be simply filed away never to see aviation of any kind, whilst others would become famous for years to come.

Once a suitable site had been identified and examined, the local geology had to be established where possible. In the pre-war years, no consideration was given to hard runways, they didn’t exist in any real form and were not seen as needed as any aircraft of that time could happily take off from a grass strip. However, in order to prevent aircraft wheels from bogging down, or flooding closing an airfield, well-drained soils were absolutely paramount.

Once the site had been accepted, the land was requisitioned, forcibly purchased using new powers created under the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939. This gave virtually immediate access and ownership of the land – with little notice to the land owner – to the Government. These powers also saw their way to reducing the ‘NIMBY*5 effect, protests against developments being side-lined through political clout.

The next stage in the process was to put the job out to tender. The difficulty here was that secrecy was of the utmost importance, and so little of the detail was released other than an approximate location. As the war progressed, the number of construction companies involved became fewer, and those that were involved more established, prime contractors being Wimpey, Laing, Taylor-Woodrow and McAlpine – all of whom went on to be major construction companies post war. That said, no major airfield would generally be completed by one single contractor, as the whole process required a wide range of skills based operations. As one completed their task, another would come in, sometimes dual operations would be carried out simultaneously. For example taxiways and access roads may have been built by Tarmac, whereas the runway may have been built by McAlpine. Accommodation areas often used ‘Nissen’, or in many USAAF cases, ‘Quonset’ huts, many of these and other ‘standard’ buildings were erected by buildings contractors whereas other more substantial buildings may have been built by John Laing and Co.

By the outbreak of war, 100 sites had been purchased, as the number was relatively small, the board were able to be ‘particular’ in their choice, something that was quickly disregarded as the war progressed.

Airfields are highly labour intensive projects requiring an enormous workforce and extensive heavy machinery, little of which were available in the early 1940s. Irish labour provided the backbone of the initial workforce, whilst heavy plant came in from the United States. At its peak there were some 60,000 men employed on airfield construction, all of whom were unable to spend their time rebuilding the devastated towns and cities of the UK.

As the war progressed, the Royal Air Force Airfield Construction Service began taking a greater role in airfield construction, diversifying away from their original role as repairers of damaged airfields sites. There would be an initial 20 squadrons created to carry out these tasks, with a further 6 being formed later in the war. With squadron numbers ranging from 5001 to 5026, they would be initially involved in the updating of older sites and the creation of ALGs, eventually taking on a much greater responsibility of airfield construction. These squadrons, were of course given great assistance by the well established Royal Engineers.

In 1942, the United States joined the European theatre sending their own Engineer Aviation Battalions to the U.K. Their task was to support these British squadrons by building their own airfields ready for the huge influx of men and machines that was about to arrive. The first site completed by the Americans and opened in 1943, was Great Saling (later renamed Andrews Field) by the 819th engineer Aviation Battalion. Not being experienced in U.K. soils, it was a steep learning curve fraught with a number of initial problems.

Former RAF Andrewsfield

RAF Andrews Field memorial to the 819th Engineer Aviation Battalion.

In 1939 there were only 60 military airfields in the UK, by 1940 this had increased to 280, almost tripling to over 720 by 1945. Between 1939 and 1945 444 airfields*2,4 new airfields were built by these organisations – an amazing feat by any standard. Using almost a third of Britain’s total construction labour force, they were often open and manned within a matter of months rather than years.

This whole process however was not fool-proof. In a number of situations sites were identified and requisitioned, but not developed. In several cases they were partly built, and in others like RAF Cottam, they were completely built but then never occupied. Some airfields were identified for USAAF use, only to be declined and then handed over to their RAF counterparts. Some US bases were never actually started but remained named and therefore official sites even though they remained as farmers fields!

The lead up to war led to a massive change in the British landscape. Keeping airfields secret led to many being built in remote areas and away from major towns. Little did the inhabitants of these quiet little villages know, but their population was about to increase, in some cases by thousands.

In the next section we look at how the airfield was built, the process of construction and the difficulties faced during this phase.

Sources and further reading. 

*2 Smith, D.J., “Britain’s Military Airfields 1939-1945“, Patrick Stephens Limited, 1989

*4 Francis, P., et al, “Nine Thousand Miles of Concrete, Historic England in Conjunction with the Airfield Research Group (ARG). pdf document Published 15/1/16 via website accessed 2/1/18

*5 NIMBY – Acronym used to describe the objections of local planning projects. (Not In My Back Yard).

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The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 2).

In this series of posts we look at the development of Britain’s airfields and how they developed over the years. We move on from Part 1, and the “Road to War”, to look at the Political response to Germany’s build up and the development of the airfield. We focus on the expansion period 1934-1939, and the political moves that helped shape the airfields that are found in Britain today.

The expansion period and airfield development.

In this, the expansion period 1934-39, airfield development would become a prime factor in the RAF’s own development.  The driving force behind this was the need to increase the numbers of front line aircraft, both fighters and bombers, if Britain was to be able to match Germany’s growing armed forces and her desires over Europe. To this end, a number of schemes were created, each one building upon the previous through  adaptation of technological development, design improvement and political pressure. A continuation of updating meant that the face of the British airfield would change considerably from 1934 to the end of the war in 1945. This development would then go on post war as the world entered the jet age and nuclear deterrent.

Whilst many of Britain’s original airfields dated back to the First World War, the vast majority had vanished, (of the original 301 only 45 remained and of these 17 were civil*2) the rest being sold cheaply in the reorganisation of the post war RAF. Of those that did remain, many were poorly kept, the permanent huts that had been built were in poor condition and flying surfaces totally inadequate for the heavier aircraft that were envisaged.  Many of these airfields were located around London (including Biggin Hill and North Weald) and were built on a clay subsoil, a soil that holds water and led to numerous accidents as aircraft landed badly. The RAF began to apply pressure on the Government, but with no real direction, there was little hope of achieving anything more than lip service.

RAF Museum Hendon

Early biplanes formed the backbone of the interwar years.

The Government finally realising that change was needed, formed a new department, whose role of executing these new plans it fell to. The Air Ministry Directorate General of Works (AMDGW) under the control of Ernest Holloway, oversaw the process with the new Air Ministries Aerodromes (later Airfield) Board, being responsible for identifying the new airfield. The Lands Branch of the Air Ministry would purchase the land, and then the construction, development and maintenance would be carried out under contract, by civilian organisations, to the Air Ministry.

This process took airfield design through a series of successive alphabetically listed schemes commencing with ‘A’ (not to be confused with Class ‘A’ airfields that emerged much later in 1942) progressing through to ‘M’. Due to the rapid changes in these designs though, not all were implemented, many being absorbed into subsequent models before they could be administered. The future development and expansion of the RAF would be built-in to these schemes, restricted initially by the monetary cost of such a plan. But the overall  aim would be to build the RAF up to full strength within eight years (1942).

The key to these designs was continuity and replication. By creating a series of standard design drawings for everything from latrines to heating systems, hangars and runways, airfields could be ‘mass produced’ with ease, saving both time and money, which was paramount if the RAF was to be ready for the forthcoming war.

In essence, these schemes increased targets for aircraft numbers, including training facilities and airfield design:*2,3,4

Scheme A – (adopted in July 1934) is the scheme that set the bench mark by which all future schemes would develop, and called for a front line total of 1,544 aircraft within the next five years. Of these, 1,252 would be allocated specifically for home defence. This scheme was responsible for bringing military aviation back to the north of England, Norfolk and Suffolk, of which Marham (the first), Feltwell and Stradishall were among the first completed. These airfields were designed as “non-dispersed” (or compact) airfields, where all domestic sites were located close to the main airfield site, and not spread about the surrounding area as was common practice in war-time airfield designs. At this stage, the dangers of an air attack were not being wholeheartedly considered, and such an attack could have proven devastating if bombs had been accurately dropped. It was thought that by having personnel close by, airfields would run both economically and efficiently, and of course they could more easily be protected from ground forces.

Scheme ‘A’ would also introduce the idea of standard building designs, in which all new airfields (and older original airfields) would now be built to.

Scheme B – was never submitted to Government

Scheme C – adopted May 1935 following Hitler’s boast to Anthony Eden that the German Air Force had surpassed the RAF’s in number, a claim that has since been discounted. This would develop bomber bases within flying distance of Germany (notably Lincolnshire and Yorkshire), and proposed creating a further 70 bomber and 35 fighter squadrons accommodating 1,500 front line aircraft within two years.

Scheme D – was never submitted to Government

Scheme E – was never submitted to Government

Scheme F – replaced Scheme ‘C’ and was approved in March 1936. Scheme ‘F’ expanded the defence force, further increasing front line numbers to 1,736 with a foreseeable number of 2,500 by 1939. This scheme saw the creation of additional factories in close proximity to the already adopted car manufacturing plants in the industrial midlands. A move that was intended to assist with the supply of new aircraft and aircraft components. Such was the industrial output at this time that Aircraft Storage Units (ASU) had to be specially set up utilising land on already established Flying Training Schools. These ASU stations would be specifically created to assemble or disassemble aircraft for transport to fighter bases, either within or outside of Britain. Scheme ‘F’ would also create further new front line airfields, examples including: Debden, Upwood, Scampton and Dishforth, with further updating being implemented at previously built airfields.

Scheme G – was never submitted to Government

Scheme Hreached proposal at the end of 1936 and would have increased front line strength at the expense of the reserves, and so was rejected. It was at this point that the ADGB and associated bodies were split into the four aforementioned commands each headed by a Commander-in-Chief (CIC)

Scheme I – was not used

Scheme Jonly reached proposal, but would have provided the RAF with 2,400 front line aircraft. It was considered too expensive and rejected in lieu of Scheme ‘K’.

Scheme Kreached proposal in March 1938, but was considered too small following the German’s annexation of Austria. A further review was requested which accelerated the expansion, and was proposed a month later as Scheme ‘L’.

Scheme L – passed by the Government on 27th April 1938, it called upon industry to produce the maximum output possible over the next two years. Superseded by ‘M’ after the Munich crisis, new airfields included: Binbrook, Leeming, Middle Wallop, and Horsham St. Faith. This scheme required 2,373 front line aircraft in 152 squadrons, and focused on fighter Command; in particular, increasing the number of fighter pilot training units. Scheme ‘L’ also called for increased accommodation facilities to allow for this increase in trainee pilots, and it called for new RAF Hospitals, the first of which was at Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Scheme M – approved on 7th November 1938 and called for 2,550 front line aircraft by March 1942. Airfield examples included: Swanton Morley in Norfolk, Coningsby in Lincolnshire and West Malling in Kent. This scheme introduced the ‘J’ and ‘K’ hangars, implemented as part of austerity measures, one of the few permanent buildings now on site.

By the outbreak of war the RAF had a force that equalled less than half that of the Luftwaffe, Fighter Command possessing only 1,500 aircraft (less than was required under Scheme ‘F’), of which many were already outdated or inadequate. Bomber Command had 920 aircraft, but nothing was bigger than a twin-engined aircraft with limited capabilities.

RAF Museum Hendon

The RAF’s front line bombers were twin-engined with limited capability.

The four Commands created out of the ADGB were also undergoing dramatic change, with aircraft being distributed more appropriately and groups being formed to streamline operations. Whilst still far below the levels at which the Luftwaffe were operating, the RAF had over the last few years seen a major reconstruction process, both in terms of aircraft and airfield development, along with major changes in the Air Force’s structure.

As aircraft were designed to perform different duties, airfields within their commands would also differ in their operation and construction. Hangars or watch offices for example, would be designed but modified depending upon the nature of the airfield they were servicing. Standard buildings would be altered to suit the different needs of the different duties, and airfield design would take a change in direction, the non-dispersed site being discarded for the safer, but less efficient, dispersed site.

As the years progressed, further changes to airfield development would occur as new, larger and heavier aircraft were developed. The four engined heavies: Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster, determining new designs and new requirements. The entrance of the USAAF in the European theatre also played a part in airfield design and development, and by 1942, a new standard would be devised by which all future airfields would be built.

The Class ‘A’ airfield became the standard airfield design for bomber airfields, with many fighter airfields, training and temporary airfields remaining either as grass or using a form of steel matting. Twelve different types of matting were developed during the war, the most common being – Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT). The Class A was determined primarily by its runway layout and measures, formed around three intersecting runways at 60o to each other, the main was 2,000 yards long with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards, each 50 yards wide. An extension of 75 yards was provided alongside the runaway to allow for emergency landings. In addition, another grass strip clear of all obstacles was also provided, these measured 400 and 200 yards respectively.

The Class A would set the standard from now on, the British airfield was now a major geographical conurbation. They were now like small towns, with cinemas, gymnasiums and other recreational facilities, they had dispersed accommodation areas, technical sites, large aircraft maintenance sheds and hard runways that only a few years earlier were unheard of.

Each of these schemes brought new requirements for airfield designs; their layouts and buildings were changing almost as fast as aircraft development. The airfield had finally evolved.

In the next part we look at the way in which a site was chosen, the number of agencies involved and the criteria for airfield location.

Sources and further reading. 

*2 Smith, D.J., “Britain’s Military Airfields 1939-1945“, Patrick Stephens Limited, 1989

*3 “Norfolk Heritage Explorer pdf document published by Norfolk County Council – via  website accessed 2/1/18,

*4 Francis, P., et al, “Nine Thousand Miles of Concrete, Historic England in Conjunction with the Airfield Research Group (ARG). pdf document Published 15/1/16 via website accessed 2/1/18

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 1).

The development of Britain’s airfields has been both rapid and complex. The design, layout and specific requirements of airfields changing as the need for areas suitable for larger and more powerful aircraft arose. From the early days of flight through the expansion period of 1934 – 1939, and on into the cold war, Britain’s airfields have become iconic symbols not only of Britain’s defence, but also the rapid development of air travel.

The range of airfields is as wide as their developmental history: fighter; Bomber; Coastal Command; Emergency Landing Grounds (ELG); Relief Landing Ground (RLG); Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG); Advanced Landing Grounds (ALG) and Cub Strips, not to mention the fake ‘Q’ sites along with the various training, glider and ATC sites.

It is a very detailed and complex subject, and one in which there have been many valuable and in-depth texts written. It is a subject that is far too detailed to cover in its entirety here, but by focusing on the main features of airfield development, we can at least shed some light on the huge undertaking that reshaped the British landscape, and whose effect has been long-lasting, becoming the widespread topic of interest it is today.

In the following series of eight posts, we look at the development of these airfields, the main structures that are associated with them and how Britain’s airfields grew from basic fields to major conurbations as a result of the direct threat of war.

We start with the build up to war and the growth of the Royal Air Force from 1918.

Britain’s Road to War.

The Royal Air Force was formed on April 1st 1918 through an act of Parliament that saw its predecessor, the Royal Flying Corp, mutate into what has become not only one of the premier fighting forces of the world, but also the oldest Air Force in the World. However, in the post-war era following the First World War, political opinion was very much against the continuation of the RAF, feeling that it was exhausting an already depleted national economy and contravening a stern non-rearmament policy. In addition, an apathetic and vehemently pacifist post war public was also hard to convince that a third force, which was seen as ‘weaker’ than its two older sisters, was really necessary.

Two men, Winston Churchill (then Minister for War) and Air Marshal Trenchard (as Chief of the Air Staff), crusaded on behalf of the RAF, seeing it as the valuable asset it had become. In the Trenchard memorandum of December 1919, Trenchard outlined the biggest re-organisation of the Royal Air Force in history, a change that included everything from insignia and uniforms, to buildings and training. It was a change that would establish the RAF as an air force capable of mobilisation and expansion at a moments notice.

To achieve these goals, Trenchard would set up a rigorous training plan, with stations specifically designed to deal with the various aspects that would be needed; an Air Force Cadet College at Cranwell, a flying training school for Air Force Staff in Andover, a further scheme for short-service commissions and a technical college at Halton (set to close in 2022) in Buckinghamshire.

RAF Cranwell

RAF Cranwell in Lincolnshire remains the Officer Training College today.

This re-organisation would be a re-organisation for survival, and would involve the disbandment and demobilising of vast numbers of men and women; the subsequent rundown of the RAF being both rapid and immediate. By March 1920, in excess of 23,000 officers, 21,000 cadets and 227,000 other ranks and been demobilised and returned to ‘civvy street’. The new RAF was small, formed with just 3,280 officers and 25,000 other ranks. Assets too were stripped, airfields were sold off and hardware disposed of, but the Air Force was going to survive as an independent fighting force that would become a major peacekeeping force within the next few decades.

In the 1920s, and even though limited by the 10 Year Rule on defence expenditure, Trenchard envisaged a build up of the Air Force, incorporating both fighters and bombers, to a level that would be both powerful and dominant. He set a target of some 52 Home Defence Squadrons, but his continued battles with the Army, Royal Navy and politicians alike, meant that this figure would take many years to achieve and Britain would be poorly protected in the case of attack.

In a statement by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Samual Hoare, at a meeting of the Imperial Conference on October 19th, 1923, Sir Samual highlighted the inadequate numbers that were present for Home Defence, he said:

“When the Navy and Army requirements were met and the squadrons provided for the Air Command in Iraq, and provision made for training in Great Britain, the machines left for home defence in Great Britain were altogether insignificant. I may give as an instance of this insignificance the fact that a few months ago at the height of the Turkish crisis, when we had sent two Royal Air Force squadrons to Constantinople, we were left with only twenty-four first-line machines actually available for home defence against air attack.”

Whilst slow, the 1920s and early 1930s did see the RAF expand, achieving 65 squadrons by January 1st 1935, mostly manned by fully trained reserves. This did however, do little to bolster the front line numbers of available fighters, and as demands for spending cuts in the world’s depression started to bite, this build up began to slow even further.

It was during these early 1930s that movements in Germany, in particular with Hitler and the rise of the Nazi Party, gave rise to an uneasy feeling across Europe; a feeling that would lead to new policies being implemented, policies that would refuel the impetus of Britain re-arming its major forces in the latter half of the 1930s.

With events like the Schneider Trophy and displays at Hendon capturing the imagination of the public, the Government saw these as a way to develop new faster and more agile aircraft, and as a pedestal on which to put both Britain and the RAF. These air displays continued until 1937, when a war with Germany became evermore likely, and the previously formed rearming policies began to take shape.

German boasting of its redevelopment was barely enough to hide the fact that it was rearming as early as 1932, and the speed at which this was happening would far outstrip the RAF’s meagre numbers in the years following the Nazi’s rise to power in 1933. In these early years, Britain’s bomber strength was as low as five night, and six-day bomber squadrons, each one operating limited, slow and cumbersome biplanes. Aircraft that were no match for even the reduced force that Germany was to front during the controversial Spanish Civil War.

Germany’s rearming was occurring at an alarming rate, and after Goring’s inauguration as head of the Reich Commission for Aviation, a formal request for the purchase of British aircraft, by Goring, was refused, but ironically not the supply of two military supercharged aero-engines that were to be built under license in Germany! Britain was not alone in this action though, the USA also sold Germany contravening merchandise during the 1930s, 19 aircraft and 569 aero-engines crossed the Atlantic, with most of these being supplied during 1934.*1 Perhaps even more astonishingly, the World War 1 German Ace Ernst Udet visited the US in the 1930s, where he developed not only ground attack and dive bombing techniques, but purchased two Curtiss Hawk II biplanes, which were taken back to Germany for evaluation for future dive bomber designs. This action eventually led to the Germans developing the Junkers Ju-87, famously known as the ‘Stuka‘, an aircraft that wreaked fear and havoc across the European continent.

Although the depression of the 1930s held German production back, the number of air-frame plants rose from 2,813 in January 1933 to almost 38,000 in 1935. This rearming was becoming so rapid, that in 1933, six new aircraft manufacturers joined the seven already established – all diversifying from other engineering areas to begin aircraft manufacture. By 1935, the total number of air-frame and aero-engine plants had risen to an astonishing 53,865, an increase of nearly 50,000 in just two years.

This massive increase was highlighted in a letter from Winston Churchill to Stanley Baldwin (three times British Prime Minister) on March 17th 1935*8, in which Churchill pointed out that:

“I believe that the Germans are already as strong as we are and possibly stronger, and that if we carry out our new programme as prescribed Germany will be 50 per cent stronger than we by the end of 1935 or the beginning of 1936.”

This increase eventually led to a number of changes in Britain. One such change was the demand for a twin-engined aircraft capable of delivering a 1,000lb bomb up to 720 miles away. Whilst not record-breaking, specification B.9/32 led to both the Wellington and the Hudson being developed, each a major step forward from the biplanes in RAF service at that time.

A further major change that the German action brought about, occurred during the mid – late years of the 1930s (1934-1939) where Britain saw, what is now commonly referred to as, “the Expansion Period”, a period in which the RAF began to increase its numbers also. It was during this period (between May and July 1936) that the idea of Trenchard’s small elite force would become four; the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) along with No.1 Air Defence Group and other administration and command groups, would be disbanded and reformed as four new commands: Fighter Command (HQ at Stanmore), Bomber Command (HQ at Uxbridge), Coastal Command (HQ at Lee-on-Solent) and Training Command (HQ at Ternhill). In addition, new aircraft were going to be required, particularly fighters and heavy bombers, and to support these new aircraft, a massive support network:  new training facilities; aircraft and aero-engine factories; storage facilities; armaments factories; flying schools, and of course a range of new airfields would be needed.

This demand would begin the process by which Britain would develop its airfields and air force, kick starting the huge economic and technological change that would see Britain move from the simple bi-plane to jet technology, and airfields that covered not just a few, but several thousands of acres of land across the British landscape.

Britain had entered the arms race with Germany, and it would be a race to the death.

In the second part we examine the political response focusing on the expansion period 1934-1939, and how Britain’s airfields changed as a direct result.

Notes, sources and further reading.

CAB\24\164 Note from the Meeting  of the Imperial Conference on October 19th, 1923. (National Archives)

*1 Dancey, P.G., and Vajda, A-V, “German Aircraft Industry and Production, 1933-45“. 1998, Airlife Publishing Ltd

*8 Churchill, W.S., “The Second World War Volume I – The Gathering Storm“, Cassell, 1948

Disaster at RAF Tibenham.

In this post, we revisit Tibenham in Norfolk, the home of the 445th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. Whilst here, the 445th would suffer the worst casualty rate of any Bomb Group in a single mission, a mission that virtually wiped out the entire Group. Yet they would no give up, determined they would go onto have one of the most successful bombs on target statistics of all the Eighth’s Bomb Groups, a record they can be proud of.

RAF Tibenham (Station 124)

Station 124 was one of those purpose-built airfields designed specifically for the USAAF in the mid-part of the war. Known to the locals as Tivetshall, it occupies a site previously used by the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1 (although there appears to be no record of units based here).

In preparation for the Air Force’s arrival, a Class A airfield was built, with three standard concrete and tarmac runways, the primary of 2,000 yds and two secondary each 1,400 yds long and all the standard 50 yds wide. In addition, there were thirty-five ‘frying pans’ hardstands and a further seventeen ‘spectacle’ hardstands, all dotted around the perimeter track. Aircraft maintenance was completed in two T2 hangars, one in the technical area and one other to the south side of the airfield. The bomb store was located to the north-west of the airfield, with the technical and administrative areas to the east. Beyond this, dispersed further to the north-east were the accommodation areas: two communal sites, a WAAF site, sick quarters and seven male accommodation sites. Accommodation was initially designed for 3,000 personnel, using mainly Nissen huts with some Orlit hutting on site. Most other buildings were ‘temporary’ and built of brick.

RAF Tibenham Perimeter track

Part of the perimeter track – RAF Tibenham

Built over 1941-1942 by W. and C. French Ltd, it was opened in 1942, and was the temporary residence for the ground echelons of two squadrons of the 320th BG in November that year. The plan was to send the air echelons via the northern route, but due to heavy losses of the 47th and 319th BGs, they were diverted to North Africa via the southern route. The Ground echelons would then join them departing both Tibenham and nearby Hethel on November 21st 1942.

Tibenham then remained unoccupied by operational forces until November 4th 1943, when the 700th, 701st, 702nd and 703rd Bomb Squadrons of the 445th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force arrived.

The 445th’s journey brought them from Gowen Field in Idaho, through Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, to Sioux City where they completed their training. In October the ground echelons sailed on the Queen Mary arriving in Scotland in early November. The air echelons flew the southern route, covering Florida, Puerto Rico, Brazil and West Africa before arriving shortly afterwards.

Flying B-24 Liberators, they would perform their first mission on December 13th 1943 – a month after their arrival. Their first target was the U-boat pens at Kiel. Along with other units of the 2nd Bomb Division fifteen aircraft would take off and undertake what was to be a relatively uneventful sortie, all the 445th aircraft returning with only two aircraft damaged and no casualties.

Their third mission, also in December, was less successful. A massive force of 546 bombers left England to attack Breman, arriving over the target between 11:42 and 12:14, the force was badly hit by ME-410s of the Luftwaffe. The 445th had fifteen of their aircraft damaged, with two crewmen wounded and eleven classed as ‘missing’. The realities of war were beginning to bite home.

1944 would be a more decisive year for Tibenham and the 445th. During the February ‘Big Week’ campaign against the German aircraft industry, Tibenham would suffer from accidental bombing by a returning Liberator. After being recalled, a  B-24 accidentally released a bomb whilst flying over Tibenham airfield, the resultant explosion killing two servicemen and a civilian in a nearby house.

The 445th would also suffer this year, but for their determination and action over Gotha they would be awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC), an award that reflected their bravery.

RAF Tibenham

Today’s huts and hangars

The eight groups of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD) were targeting the Me-110 factories on February 24th 1944, dropping 372 tons of high explosive bombs. During the  mission 239 aircraft would leave England in three large wing formations, the 445th in the 2nd Combat Wing (CW) were to fly in the lead, along with the 389th BG and the 453rd BG. Behind them were the 14th Combat Wing with the 20th Combat Wing bringing up the rear.

The lead group were hit hard as much as 80 minutes before the target. Flying ahead of schedule, they had failed to rendezvous with their escort and so were at a huge disadvantage. Flying at altitude, the lead aircraft of the 389th suffered oxygen problems, which caused the bomb aimer to suffer from anoxia, the condition led to him release the bombs early, over Eisenach and not the primary target. As the bombs fell toward the ground, others in the wing began to follow suit, all releasing their bombs far too early, and well away from the target area. The 445th realising there was a problem, ignored the false signal and continued on to the target alone. Being out of formation and without escort, the B-24s were ‘sitting ducks’, and unsurprisingly were given special attention by the Luftwaffe.

From then on, and for an hour after the bomb run, Luftwaffe fighters attacked the B-24s, and one by one, the heavy bombers fell from the sky as fighters picked them off. After two and a half hours of relentless attacks, thirteen of the original twenty-five aircraft had been lost and nine others were badly damaged. The mission had cost 50% of the groups aircraft, but it was a tragedy that was not to be their last, nor their worst.

The main formation who had released early, had also suffered badly, being subjected to aerial bombing, cable bombing and rockets, an attack which led to a mission tally of thirty-three aircraft being lost and 314 airmen being classed as ‘missing in action’.

March 1944 would also be a noteworthy month. It was the end of a career as Commanding Officer for Capt. James Stewart, Commander of the 703rd BS. Posted here before he was declared unfit for flying duty, he arrived as ‘Operations Officer’, before being given the Command of the 703rd. He would go onto fly ten missions with the 703rd before departing Tibenham for Old Buckenham and the 453rd BG as Group Operations Manager.

Because the 445th had flown many missions over the winter months, March would become noteworthy for another reason. Four months after their first operation, Lt. Sam Miller and the crew of B-24 #42-110037 of the 700th BS had completed twenty-five missions whilst here at Tibenham, they were the first crew of the group to do so. At last some good news had brought relief to the horrors of the previous months and in particular the disaster of ‘Big Week’.

Ground personnel of the 445th Bomb Group gather around a B-24 Liberator (I5-B+, serial number 42-110037) after its return to base on D-Day. Printed caption on reverse: '51451- Ground crew swarming around a bomber returning from a D-Day mission for information on the invasion.' Handwritten caption on reverse: 'Lt Sam Miller's B-24 returning to Tibenham, Norfolk after he and crew completed a 25 mission tour of operations. First crew in the 445th bomb Group to do so.'

The return of B-24 #42-110037 after its crew had completed 25 Missions (USAF).

In the lead up to the Normandy invasion in June, the 445th attacked airfields in the Paris area along with V-weapons sites in Northern France, and on D-Day itself, they returned and attacked the shore installations, pounding them before the land forces arrived. The 445th then went on to help with the breakout at St. Lo striking enemy defensive positions. The Tibenham group were now so successful that they led the ratings for the most accurate bombing of all the Liberator groups in Europe, these successes though, were to be short-lived, for on September 27th 1944, the 445th would suffer its own ‘day of infamy’.

On that day the group was allocated the Henschel facility in Kassel, and they were to lead 315 B-24s to the target. Navigating by GEE the 445th took a wrong turn and left the protection of the formation. The turn went unnoticed by the remainder of the group and so, all of a sudden, the 445th were now out on a limb and lacking the protection of the formation once again.

The group then all dropped their bombs, but unbeknown to them they were not over Kassel but were in fact over Gottingen some 20 miles away. After implementing the withdrawal plan, the 445th put themselves even further away from the main force, they were now alone. All of a sudden the 445th met II/JG.4, and what followed would all but wipe out the group.

Fw-190s approached the group from behind, three abreast diving down as they fired. Then followed two Me-109 Gruppen of JG.4 who picked off the damaged aircraft. With individuals falling away, the formation was spread and broken up, some 150 enemy aircraft had attacked and devastated the group.

In around five minutes, the Luftwaffe fighters had picked off and dispatched twenty-five B-24s and damaged most of those that remained flying. Only the intervention of US fighters stopped the total and complete annihilation of the group. The scene was devastating, the sky was full of smoke and debris, parachutes from both sides floated through the carnage. Three more B-24s crashed on the way, luckily in allied territory, two others managed to reach Manston’s emergency runway and one more crashed at Old Buckenham. The four remaining aircraft managed to limp back to Tibenham, but only one was able to fly again the next day.

In a written account*1, Pilot Capt. William R Dewey Jr describes the scene in his B-24 (one of those that made Manston)

“The tail turret had caught fire, from direct hits by 20 mm cannon in the first wave of FW-190s, both waist gunners were wounded and bloody along with the tail gunner. There was a huge hole in the right waist ahead of the window, the left waist window was shattered. Control cables to the tail were partially damaged, and the twin vertical rudders appeared frayed and disintegrating. Looking out the copilot’s window we could see a 3′ diameter hole in the upper surface of the wing behind the #3 engine, where 100 octane gasoline was splashing out.”

Dewey goes on to explain how the co-pilot William L. Boykin Jr, carried oxygen bottles back to the wounded crew, gave them first aid and comforted them. Dewey then decided to drop below oxygen requirement level and risk ditching. Switching channels to the emergency channel, he manged to contact air-sea rescue using the code word “Colgate“. After obtaining a radar fix, they gave him a heading for Manston.

After an hour Dewey spotted Manston and began the task of landing not knowing what condition the flaps, undercarriage or tyres were in. Thankfully all were in good order and he described it as:

“the best I ever made in a B-24 – like we were on feathers. A day we will never forget!”*1

Statistics for the day were horrendous, the efficiency of the German controllers had been spectacular, no previous efforts had yielded such incredible results; 236 men were missing, 1 was dead and 13 were injured in the resultant crashes. This loss, left only ten aircraft in the entire group, and would go down as the worst operational day of the war for any single group of ‘The Mighty Eighth’.

The 445th would regroup and return though. In December and January they supported the troops in the Battle of the Bulge by bombing German communication lines, helping the Paratroops holding up in the forests of the Ardennes.

On February 24th 1945, Ford built Liberator B-24H-1-FO #42-7619 “Bunnie” a veteran of 103 missions, took off from Tibenham’s main east-west runway. Within seconds something went wrong and the bomber crashed a few hundred yards west of the airfield. In the crash four of the crew were killed, the remaining five managed to survive.

Photo of

“Chuck” Walker & his crew being congratulated by Lt. Col. Fleming, (deputy commander) on completion of their 35th mission and “Bunnie’s” 100th.(IWM)

and then on 24th March 1945, they dropped food, ammunition and medical supplies to the troops who had made the Rhine crossing at Wesel. They returned later that day to bomb the landing grounds at Stormede.

The 445th went on to carry out a total of 282 operations building a reputation for high accuracy bombing in the face of danger. Further awards were received from the French for their support of the Resistance, in dropping food supplies, gaining them the Croix de Guerre, a highly regarded award.

The 445th flew their last mission on 25th April 1945, the last mission by the Eighth Air Force in Europe, attacking airfields and rail targets in south-east Germany and Czechoslovakia without loss. The 445th finally returned to the US at the end of hostilities leaving behind huge numbers of crews for whom home would never be back on their own soil.

After their departure in May / June, Tibenham remained ‘operational’ although no operational flying took place. The RAF then began to sell off parts of the airfield to the local farmers. A short-lived expansion of the airfield’s runway in 1955 led nowhere, as no aircraft were assigned to the airbase, and in 1959, Tibenham was finally closed as a military base. During this time, the Norfolk Gliding Club took over part of the site, paying a rent to the Ministry of Defence, remaining here even after 1964/65 when the airfield site was finally sold.

Since then the Club has fought long and hard to keep flying at Tibenham. Battles over land and attempts to curb flying have so far failed. Gradually bit-by-bit the infrastructure has been removed, sold off for hardcore and agriculture use.

Flying at Tibenham

Small piston engined aircraft keep the spirit alive

A small collection of memorabilia and photographs of the four squadrons based at Tibenham are maintained by the club, and a memorial stands as a lasting legacy to those who never returned.

Currently, large parts of two of the runways remain; the perimeter track can also be seen, being split by the main road round the airfield. Also a small number of huts are still being used and the site is in remarkable condition as a result.

Other evidence is hard to find, the majority of the accommodation, stores and works all being located to the east amongst the trees and on private land. I am reliably informed that primitive airfield defences can be found amongst the trees at the end of the runway. These amount to a ladder that would enable any defence troops to climb up and remain hidden should any German paratroopers fall.

The heavily laden bombers have long since been replaced by the grace and beauty of gliders, the control tower and other major buildings are now history, but as the summer sun and cool breeze wafts across the open skies above Norfolk, it is easy to picture these lumbering bombers, fuelled and crewed waiting for their turn to depart. With the roar of labouring engines now long gone, peace has returned once more to this quiet corner of Norfolk.

RAF Tibenham memorial

Memorial dedicated to the 445th BG.

Tibenham was initially visited in April 2014 when these photos were taken. It appears as part of Trail 13 along with Old Buckenham and East Wretham. This page is an update with additional information on the 445th’s history.

Sources and further reading.

The Norfolk Gliding Club website gives details of their activities, opening times and flying operations.

*1 A typescript memoir written by Capt. William R. Dewey ‘Disaster at Kassel’: 27th Sep 1944. Second Air Division Digital Archive . Ref: MC 371/250, USF 5/1 accessed 25/3/18.

All Saints Church in Tibenham also has a small memorial and kneelers dedicated to those who flew from Tibenham.

50 Aviation Trails Reached!

I am pleased to announce that since starting Aviation Trails four years ago, I have now reached that magic number of 50 Trails around Britain’s wartime airfields, a feat I never thought would happen.

Each Trail covers two or more sites, in some cases six, many three, covering in total, over 100 former RAF and USAAF airfields and museums around Britain.

I can honestly say its been a terrific four years, in which I have learnt a lot about Britain’s wartime past, the men and machines that flew from these places and the tragedies that occurred at so many. The development of these airfields was staggering, the process of construction, and the subsequent decay just as eye-opening. These sites and the people who used them, have changed both the British and world landscape, leaving in many cases scars that may never heal. The buildings and stretches of concrete that remain are monuments to human endurance and sacrifice, a sacrifice that we hope may never have to be repeated.

RAF Tibenham Perimeter track

The perimeter track at the former RAF Tibbenham.

During these four years there have been several changes at many of these sites, hangars and other buildings have gone, runways are continuing to be dug up as they become prime land for development. As we speak there are numerous sites under planning proposals, whilst others are waiting in the wings to hear what their fate will be.

To compile these trails I have personally visited each and every one of these sites, even a field has a certain something when you know who stood there before you.

To all those who have visited, commented and followed me on this journey, I thank you, I hope you have enjoyed the journey back in time as much as I have writing it. I hope that through these trails, the memories of those who gave their all may live on so that future generations may know who they were and what they did, so that we may enjoy the peace we do today.

Here’s to the next 50!

Andy.

RAF Andrews Field – (Great Saling/Station 485) – Trail 33: Essex Part 1.

RAF Attlebridge  (Station 120) – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Barton BendishTrail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Biggin Hill (Westersham) (Station 343) – Trail 4: Kent Part 1.

RAF Bircham NewtonTrail 20: North Norfolk (Part 1).

RAF Bodney (Station 141) – Trail 8: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 1 of 3).

RAF BournTrail 31: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 2).

RAF Brenzett (ALG) – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF BruntonTrail 47: Northumberland.

RAF Bungay (Flixton) (Station 125) – Trail 14:  Central Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Bury St. Edmunds (Rougham) (Station 468) – Trail 16: West Suffolk (part 1).

RAF Castle CampsTrail 45: Essex (Part 2).

RAF Caxton GibbetTrail 29: Southern Cambridge (Part 1).

RAF Charterhall Trail 41: The Borders of Scotland and England.

RAF ChedburghTrail 49: Bomber Command – Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill

RAF Collyweston Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Coltishall – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF ConingsbyTrail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF CottamTrail 40: Yorkshire (East Riding).

RAF CranwellTrail 2: Lincoln Borders and Newark.

RAF Debach (Station 152) – Trail 39: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 1).

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Trail 46: Essex Part 3,

RAF Deenethorpe (Station 128) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Deopham Green (Station 142) – Trail 27: Southern Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF Digby (Scopwick) – Trail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF Docking – Trail 20: North Norfolk (Part 1).

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell) – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Drem – Trail 42: Edinburgh’s Neighbours.

RAF East Fortune – Trail 42: Edinburgh’s Neighbours.

RAF East Kirkby Trail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Eye (Brome) (Station 134) – Trail 14: Central Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Fersfield – (Station 130) – Trail 28: Southern Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF FoulshamTrail 22North Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF FowlmereTrail 32Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 3).

RAF Framlingham (Parham) (Station 153)Trail 39: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 1).

RAF Glatton (Station 130) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Gransden Lodge – Trail 31: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 2).

RAF Graveley – Trail 29: Southern Cambridge (Part 1).

RAF Grafton Underwood (Station 106) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Great Dunmow (Station 164)- Trail 33: Essex (Part 1).

RAF Great MassinghamTrail 21: North Norfolk (Part 2).

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359) – Trail 50: Haverhill’s neighbours – Wratting Common and Great Sampford.

RAF Hardwick (Station 104) – Trail 12: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 1).

RAF Hawkinge – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF Hethel – Trail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RFC HinghamTrail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RAF Hunsdon – Trail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF Kimbolton (Station 117) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF King’s Cliffe (Station 367) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF LanghamTrail 23: North Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF Lashenden (Headcorn) – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF Lavenham (Station 137) – Trail coming soon.

RAF Little Snoring – – Trail 22North Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF MarhamTrail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Martlesham HeathTrail 48: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 2).

RAF Matching (Station 166) – Trail 33: Essex Part 1.

RAF Matlask (Station 178) – Trail 34: North Norfolk (Part 5).

RAF MattishallTrail 36: North Norfolk (Part 6).

RAF Mendlesham (Station 156) – Trail 15: Central Suffolk (Part 2).

RAF MepalTrail 11: Around Ely.

RAF Methwold – Trail 8: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 1).

RAF Millfield –  Trail 47: Northumberland.

RAF Narborough (Narborough Aerodrome)- Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF North CreakeTrail 23: North Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143) – Trail 9: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 2).

RAF North WealdTrail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF North Witham (Station 479) – Trail 3: Gone But Not Forgotten.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Oulton – Trail 34: North Norfolk (Part 5).

RAF Polebrook (Station 110) – Trail 19: Northamptonshire American Ghosts II.

RAF Rattlesden (Station 126) – Trail 15: (Central Suffolk (Part 2).

RAF SawbridgeworthTrail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF ScamptonTrail 30: Scampton and the Heritage Centre.

RAF SculthorpeTrail 21: North Norfolk Part 2.

RAF Shipdham (Station 115) – Trail 10: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 3).

RAF Snetterton Heath – (Station 138) – Trail 27: Southern Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF Spanhoe Lodge (Station 493) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Steeple Morden – Trail 32: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 3).

RAF Stoke OrchardTrail 24: Gloucestershire.

RAF Stradishall- Trail 49: Bomber Command – Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill

RAF Sutton BridgeTrail 3: Gone But Not Forgotten.

RAF Swannington – Trail 36: North Norfolk (Part 6) 

RAF Swanton Morley – Trail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RAF Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139) – Trail 12: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 1).

RAF Tibenham (Station 124) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Tuddenham – Trail 16: West Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Tydd St. Mary – Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Upwood – Trail 17: The Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys – Trail 17: The Pathfinders.

RAF Watton (Station 376/Station 505) – Trail 9: Swaffham & Her Neighbours (Part 2).

RAF Wendling (Station 118) – Trail 10: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 3).

RAF West Malling Trail 4: Kent Part 1.

RAF West RaynhamTrail 21: North Norfolk Part 2.

RAF WethersfieldTrail 45: Essex (Part 2).

RAF Westley – Trail 16: West Suffolk (part 1).

RAF WinfieldTrail 41: The Borders of Scotland and England.

RAF Winthorpe Trail 2: Lincoln Borders and Newark.

RAF WitchfordTrail 11: Around Ely.

RAF Wittering  – Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Woodall SpaTrail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF Wratting CommonTrail 50 – Haverhill’s neighbours – Wratting Common and Great Sampford.

 

RAF Stradishall – The early years.

Moving on from RAF Chedburgh, we continue south-west along the A143 to another former bomber airfield, and the parent station of Chedburgh. This next site has a history that dates back to the late 1930s and is one that has many of its original buildings still in situ, many thankfully still being used albeit by a completely different organisation.

The next stop on this trail is the historically famous airfield the former RAF Stradishall.

RAF Stradishall.

RAF Stradishall has a rather unique history, it was one of the first to be built during the expansion period of Britain’s Air Force beginning in 1935.  A series of Schemes, this programme was to develop the RAF over a period of years to prepare it for the forth coming war; a series of schemes that continued well into the war and created the basis of what we see today around Britain’s forgotten landscape.

This first scheme, Scheme ‘A’ (adopted by the Government in July 1934), set the bench mark by which all future schemes would develop, and called for a front line total of 1,544 aircraft within the following five years. Of these aircraft, 1,252 would be allocated specifically for ‘home defence’. This scheme brought military aviation back to the north of England, and to the eastern counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Under this scheme, a number of airfields would be built or developed, of which Marham (the first completed under these schemes), Feltwell and Stradishall were among the first. These airfields were designed as “non-dispersed” airfields, where all domestic sites were located close to the main airfield site, and not spread about the surrounding area as was common practice in later airfield designs. At this stage, the dangers of an air attack were not being whole heartedly considered, and such an attack could have proven devastating if bombs had been accurately dropped.

Thus in 1938 Stradishall was born, its neo-Georgian style buildings built-in line with common agreements and local features. Within the grounds of the airfield accommodation blocks provided rooms for just over 2,500 personnel of mixed rank, and all tightly packed in within the main airfield site.

In these pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. By now, Bomber Command had realised that the new era of bombers would call for hard runways on its airfields, and so they pushed the Government on allowing these to be developed. However, before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine whether or not they were indeed needed and if so, how they should be best constructed.

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

However, Dowding continued to press home the need for hard surfaces, and by April 1939, it had finally been recognised by the Air Ministry that Dowding was indeed right. A number of fighter and bomber airfields were then designated to have hard runways, of which Stradishall was one. These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends of the runways on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall would be expanded and further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.

Stradishall was also one of the first batch of airfields to have provisions for the new idea of dispersing aircraft around the perimeter. To meet this requirement, hard stands were created to take parked aircraft between sorties, thus avoiding the pre-war practice of collective storage, and so reducing the risk of damage should an attacking force arrive – a practice not necessarily extended to the accommodation! By the end of development, Stradishall would have a total of 36 hardstands of mixed types, the extension of the runway being responsible for the removal and subsequent replacement of some. For maintenance, five ‘C’ type hangars and three ‘T2’ hangars were built, again standard designs that would be later superseded as the need required.

As Stradishall was one of this first batch of new airfields, it would also be used for trials of airfield camouflaging, particularly as the now large concrete expanses would reveal the tell-tale sign of a military airfield. On wet days the sun would shine off these surfaces making the site highly visible for some considerable distance. Initial steps at Stradishall used fine coloured slag chippings added to the surface of the paved areas. Whilst generally successful, and initially adopted at many bomber stations, Fighter Command refused the idea as too many aircraft were suffering burst or damaged tyres as a result of the sharp stones being used. Something that is reflected in many casualty records of airfields around the country.

RAF Stradishall

The Type ‘B’ Officers Mess at Stradishall is now a Prison Officers Training Facility. The Officers quarters are located in wings on either side of the mess hall.

On opening Stradishall would fall under the command of 3 Group Bomber Command, and would operate as an RAF airfield until as late as 1970, being home to 27 different operational front line squadrons during this time. Many of these would be formed here and many, particularly those post-war, would be disbanded here, giving Stradishall a long and diverse history.

The first squadrons to arrive did so on March 10th 1938. No. 9 Sqn and No. 148 Sqn (RAF) arriving with Heyford III and the Vickers Wellesley respectively. 148 Sqn replaced these outdated Wellesleys with the Heyfords in November, and then again replacing these with both the Wellington and Anson before departing for Harwell on September 6th 1939. No. 9 Sqn also replaced their aircraft with Wellingtons in January 1939, themselves departing on July 7th that same year.

It was during a night training flight, on November 14th 1938, that Wing Commander Harry A. Smith MC along with his navigator Pilot Officer Aubrey W. Jackson would be killed in Heyford III K5194, when the aircraft undershot the airfield striking trees outside the airfield boundary. The crash was so forceful that the aircraft burst into flames killing both airmen.

Wing Commander Smith MC qualified as a pilot whilst in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, and was the first of his rank to be killed since the inception of Bomber Command in July 1936. He had been awarded the Military Cross ‘for gallantry and distinguished service in the field‘ in 1918.

Pilot Officer Jackson was appointed for a Short Service Commission in January 1937, and later a Permanent Commission. He was only 20 years old at the time of his death.

Both crewmen are buried in Stradishall’s local cemetery.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

A very much less than grand grave stone marks the plot of P.O. Aubrey W. Jackson, killed on November 14th 1938 on a night training flight.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

Wing Commander Smith, killed alongside P.O. Jackson on a night training flight. He was the first of his rank to die since the formation of Bomber Command.

Two more squadrons arrived here in 1939. No. 75 Sqn operated the Wellington MK. I from July, departing here just after the outbreak of war in September, and 236 Sqn flying Blenheims between the end of October and December that same year. 236 Sqn were reformed here after being disbanded in 1919, and after replacing the Night-Fighter Blenheims with Beaufighters, they went on with the type until the end of the war and disbandment once more. Almost simultaneously, 254 Squadron reformed here in October 1939, also with Blenheims. They remained here building up to strength before moving to RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire in December – one of many ‘short stay’ units to operate from Stradishall during its life.

This pattern would set the general precedence for the coming years, with bizarrely, 1940 seeing what must have been one of the shortest lived squadrons of the war. No. 148 Sqn being reformed on April 30th with Wellingtons only to be disbanded some twenty days later!

This year saw three further squadrons arrive at Stradishall: 150 Sqn on June 15th, with the Fairy Battle (the only single engined front line aircraft to be used here during the war), whilst on their way to RAF Newton; a detachment of Wellington MK.IC from 311 Sqn based at East Wretham (Sept); and 214 Sqn flying three variants of Wellington between 14th February 1940 and 28th April 1942. No. 214 Sqn would be the main unit to operate from here during this part of the war, and would suffer a high number of casualties whilst here.

On June 6th 1940, 214 Sqn Wellington IA ‘N2993’ piloted by F/O. John F. Nicholson (s/n 70501), would take off on a routine night flying practice flight. During the flight, it is thought that F/O. Nicholson became blinded by searchlights throwing the aircraft out of control. Unable to regain that control, the aircraft came down near to Ely, Cambridgeshire, killing the five crewmen along with an additional Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Maurice Peling who had joined them for the flight. A tragic accident that needlessly took the lives of many young men. F/O. Nicholson is buried in the local cemetery at Stradishall, whilst the remainder of the crew are buried in different cemeteries scattered around the country.

St. Margaret of Antioch, Stradishall

F/O. J. Nicholson was killed when he lost control of his Wellington on the night of June 6th 1940.

214 Sqn began operations from Stradishall on the night of June 14th/15th, the day German forces began entering Paris. This first raid was to the Black Forest region of Germany, a mission that was relatively uneventful.

Joining 214 Sqn at Stradishall was another unit, 138 Sqn*1 between December 1941 and March 1942. Flying a mix of aircraft, including the Lysander, Whitley, and later: Liberator, Stirling and Halifax, they would perform duties associated with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) carrying out clandestine missions dropping agents behind enemy lines.

It was one of these aircraft, Lysander III T1508, that crashed in January, nosing over near to the French town of Issoudun, a medieval town that bordered the regions of occupied France and ‘free’ France. The towns people protected many wanted resistance supporters, and so it was the scene of many heroic acts. From this particular accident, Squadron Leader J. Nesbit-Dufort managed to escape, evading capture and eventually returning to England where he was awarded the DSO for his actions. Needing to destroy the aircraft, locals pushed the Lysander onto nearby railway lines where it was obliterated after being hit by a passing train*2. It is believed that this was the first Lysander to be lost on these clandestine operations.

This night of January 28th/29th 1942, was a particularly bad night for Stradishall, with three aircraft being lost, two from 138 Squadron and one from 214 Squadron. Thirteen souls were lost that night none of which have any known grave.

1942 would also see a short one month stay by the Wellingtons of 101 Squadron, a detachment of 109 Squadron, and the accommodation of 215 Squadron’s ground echelon. Formed at Newmarket, the ground crews were posted to India whilst the air echelons were formed up at Waterbeach joining them with Wellingtons in April.

An updating of Wellington MK.Is with the MK.VI saw the remainder of 109 Squadron move into Stradishall, only leaving a small detachment at Upper Heyford – a residency that only lasted 4 months between April and July 1942. As 109 Sqn left, Stradishall was joined by the Heavy Conversion Unit 1657 HCU.

Formed as a bomber training unit through the merger of No. 7, 101, 149 and 218 Squadron Conversion Flights and 1427 (Training Flight), it would also operate the Stirling, and later the Lancaster along with some smaller aircraft such as the Airspeed Oxford. They would remain here until late 1944 when they too were finally disbanded. This meant that 1943 was quieter than usual, there wasn’t any sign of the previous ebbing and flowing that had taken place in the preceding years.

With a focus on training, few of these aircraft were used for ‘operational’ sorties until the closing stages of the war. That said, there were still a number of accidents and crashes that resulted in injury. A number of these were due to technical issues, engine failure, engine fires or undercarriage problems, some were due to pilot error. One of the earliest incidents here was that of Stirling MK.I W7470 which crashed, after suffering engine problems over County Durham. The accident killed two crewmen and injured a further two.

After a short spell at Honnington, 214 Sqn would join 1657 HCU, also replacing the Wellington with the ill-fated Short Stirling MK.I in April 1942. But the last flights of the Wellington would not be a good one. The night of April 1st/2nd 1942 would go down as 214 Sqn’s worst on record, and one that would prove devastating to the crews left behind.

In part two of RAF Stradishall, we look at the later war years, the terribly sad events that scarred 214 Squadron, and Stradishall’s post war development. The dawning of the jet age.

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.

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.