RAF Debden (Part 2) – The Battle of Britain.

Following on from the first part of this Trail, we see how Debden was thrust into the Battle of Britain and the historic changes that followed.

On August 18th 1940,  at 17:30, the squadron consisting of thirteen aircraft were scrambled to patrol the Skies over Debden. Almost immediately they were diverted to Canterbury and ordered to patrol at 20,000 ft. Five minutes after reaching their designated point, they were ordered into battle attacking ‘raid 51’ who were crossing the coast in the vicinity of Folkestone. Within minutes, the two formations were entwined and the aircraft of 85 squadron set about the 150 – 250 machines of the Luftwaffe.

A mix of J.U. 87s, H.E.111s, J.U. 88s, M.E. 110s and M.E. 109s were staggered in layers between 10,000 feet and 18,000 feet, and as soon as the aircraft of 85 squadron were sighted, the enemy immediately employed tactical defensive manoeuvres with some of the bombers heading seaward whilst other climbed toward their fighter protection.

Hugely lacking in aircraft numbers, the RAF  had little choice but to ‘dive in’, as a result large numbers of individual ‘dog fights’ occurred, resulting in aircraft being strewn across the Essex sky around Foulness Point.  For a while there was complete chaos, aircraft were burning and crews knew little of each other’s whereabouts. In one incident P/O. J. Marshall (Yellow 2) followed his leader into attack. In the melee that followed Marshall flew into a cloud of vapour created by a damaged H.E.111 his wing colliding with the tail of the Heinkel severing it completely and cutting the wing tip-off of his own aircraft. Despite the damage Marshall nursed his crippled aircraft to Debden where he landed safely and unhurt.

During this attack six Me 110s, three Me 109s and one He 111 were confirmed as destroyed, a further He 111, Me 110, Ju 87 and Me 109 were confirmed as probables, whilst four Me 110s and two Do 17s were known to have been damaged.

85 Squadron casualties on the day consisted of one Hurricane destroyed and one damaged. It was during this attack that  Flight Lieutenant Richard H.A. Lee, D.S.O., D.F.C. (s/n 33208), flying as Blue 1, was last seen by Sqn. Ldr. Townsend and F/O. Gowers 10 miles east of Foulness Point chasing 5 Me 109s. He lost contact and failed to return to Debden.  Lee, a veteran with nine victories to his name, was Lord Trenchard’s Godson, and was reported missing that day. *2

On the next day, 19th August 1940, 85 Squadron departed Debden, swapping places with 111 squadron who had previously moved to Croydon. In a signal Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, G.C.B., C.M.G., C.B.E., A.M., expressed his thanks to the crews of 85 Sqn, sending his gratitude for “all your hard fighting” in which he added “This is the right spirit for dealing with the enemy.” 85 Squadron went on to continue the fight at Croydon flying in the same determined manner they had shown whilst based at Debden.*2

RAF Debden

The memorial at Debden sits at the end of the north south runway (seen behind).

It was also during August 1940 that Debden became a focus for attacks by the Luftwaffe. On the 20th, a small reconnaissance mission took German aircraft over the airfield along with other airfields in the region. Six days later, on August 26th, the first attack on Debden would occur, a combined attack that would also involve strikes on Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and North Weald airfields.

Whilst 11 Group – whose sector headquarters were at Debden – put up ten squadrons and one flight to intercept the incoming raiders,  a number of bombers did get through and over 100 bombs were dropped on the airfield damaging the landing area; the sergeants mess, NAAFI , a motor transport depot and equipment stores. In addition to this the water and electricity supplies were both cut, and five personnel were killed. The raid was made worse by the inefficient vectoring of protective aircraft from Duxford due to them being unable to obtain the correct radio frequency. This mishap did little to help the ongoing ‘dispute’ between Air Marshal Sir Keith Park and Air Vice-Marshall (later Air Marshal) Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who were both locked in dispute over the defences of 11 Group’s airfields – it was arguably this feud that eventually cost Park his command of 11 Group, and a move as AOC to Malta.

At the end of August, Debden would once again become the focus of Luftwaffe attacks. Shortly after 8:00am on the morning of August 31st 1940, waves of Luftwaffe bombers flew over Kent turning northwards toward North Weald, Duxford and Debden. A formation of Dornier bombers managed to reach Debden again where they dropped over 100 incendiary and high explosive bombs on the airfield. This time the sick quarters and barrack blocks received direct hits whilst other buildings were damaged by blasts.

Further attacks on September 3rd and 15th failed to materialise and Debden was finally left alone to lick its wounds and repair the damage to its fragile infrastructure. It was also during this time (2nd September to the 5th September 1940) that all three resident squadrons: 257, 601 and 111  would depart, leaving Debden behind and heading further south to pastures new.

With the ending of the Battle of Britain, things would become a little quieter at Debden, although movements of man and machine would continue with a perpetual occurrence. The October and November would see more short stays: 25 squadron (8th October for around two and half months); 219 Sqn as a detachment for two months, and 264 Sqn at the end of November for just one month. These changes would lead Debden into the new year and 1941.

During 1941, 85 Squadron would return yet again, and after being bounced around with almost regular occurrence this, their final visit, would be in the night fighter role. Initially using their Hurricanes and then Defiants, they soon replaced these with the Havoc before vacating the site for good and the fields of Hunsdon in May that year.

There were yet more short stays during 1941: 54 Squadron in June (two days), 403 Squadron (25th August  – 3rd October); 258 Squadron (3rd October  – 1st November); 129 Squadron (1st November – 22nd December); 418 squadron (15th November – 15th April 1942); a detachment of 287 Squadron; 157 who were reformed here on 13th December moving to Castle Camps five days later where they would receive their Mosquito II aircraft, and finally 65 Squadron who arrived three days before Christmas and stayed until 14th April 1942.

One of these squadrons, 403 Squadron flying Spitfire VBs, was formed as a result of Article XV of the Riverdale Agreement, in which it was agreed between the British Government and the nations of the commonwealth: Canada, Australia and New Zealand; that their trained military personnel would fly and operate as part of the Royal Air Force. This would mean that both air and ground crews would perform their duties under RAF command. Some 70 squadrons were created as a result of this agreement, and of those seventy, 67 were numbered in the 400 series. Even though they were part of the RCAF, RNZAF and RAAF, they were treated as integral parts of the British Royal Air Force for the duration of the conflict.

Into 1942 and yet more of the same, 350, 41, 124, 232 and 531 Squadrons all following this similar pattern of short stays and placements, thus life at Debden was becoming a constant carousel of ground crews and flying personnel. Two squadrons from here did make a real name for themselves though, that of 71 and 121 Squadrons.

In Part 3, we see Debden take on a new owner, its fortune changes and it becomes home to one of the most famous Fighter Groups of the USAAF – the 4th Fighter Group.

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

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

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Essex

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

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

RAF Debden

One of 11 Blister Hangars built at Debden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

389th BG Exhibition at Hethel.

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

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

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

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

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

389th BG Exhibition Hethel

The restored murals in the Chapel.

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

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

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

The dedication plaque.

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

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

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

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

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

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

Scotland’s National Museum of Flight – East Fortune (Part 3).

The final public hangar at East Fortune holds what is perhaps its pièce de résistance, an aircraft so ahead of its time that it has never been successfully matched. An aircraft that became simply too expensive to operate but was withdrawn under a cloak of darkness and sadness. In the third public hangar is the story of the Jet Age, a story that tells of the development of the modern jet air liner, from the post war development through to the classics of today. A story that is set around the beautiful aircraft that is of course the B.A.C. Concorde.

The Jet Age Hangar.

The Concorde at the National Museum of Flight (G-BOAA) was the first model Concorde to go into active service in 1976. After flying for a total of 22,768 hours and 56 minutes, in almost 25 years of service, she finally came to rest after what was possibly the most ambitious transportation project ever undertaken. In all her flying time she has visited cities right across the world including: New York, Paris, Bahrain, Miami, Calcutta, Auckland and Barbados. In her life time, G-BOAA has landed over 8,000 times and has flown through almost 7,000 supersonic cycles. She has become an icon, a reflection of what is achievable in civil aviation development.

Concorde was designed and built in agreement between the French Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and Britain’s British Aircraft Corporation (later B.A.E.). Each would make their own prototype, the French (001) flying first on 2nd March 1969, with the British model (002) flying from Fliton a month later on April 9th 1969. At the Paris airshow prospects looked good and over the next few years 65 initial orders were placed by 17 countries with options for many more. However, growing concerns over manufacturing costs, noise, environmental pollution and running costs eventually reduced the orders to just a handful from both British Airways and Air France.

With the price of a return ticket London to New York in excess of £6,500 in 2003, it certainly wasn’t cheap, nor affordable for the average man in the street (but where else can you watch the Mach Meter climb through Mach 2). It was however, a head turner. Wherever Concorde flew crowds gathered to watch in awe of her grace and technological advancement.

Concorde

Concorde G-BOAA stands proudly as the centre piece of the Concorde Experience.

Sadly, on July 25th 2000, it all went terribly wrong when taking off from Charles de Gaulle airport, Concorde  F-BTSC ran over a small piece of debris causing the tyre to burst sending shards of rubber at high-speed into the wing of the aircraft. An internal fuel tank ruptured and high-octane fuel poured from the wing igniting as it left. With too little runway to land and insufficient power to fly, it couldn’t fail to miss the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel and crashed. A terrible tragedy that began the rapid rundown and retirement of the entire Concorde fleet.

Following a slump in air travel due to terrorist activities, rising costs of Concorde and the urgent need for upgrades, by 2003 all Concordes had ceased flying, and the disposal of the air-frames began.

G-BOAA was delivered to East Fortune following a major operation that involved taking it by road to the River Thames, along the Thames by specialist barge and out to sea, around the coast of England and Scotland, and then by road to East Fortune. Roads had to be purposely made cutting through a number of fields in order to get the aircraft to its new home. An operation that took over a week was supported by members of 39 Engineer Regiment’s 53 Field Squadron (Air Support) with a helicopter assistance.

Today Concorde G-BOAA stands as the centre piece of the Jet Age and Concorde Experience Hangar, a proud and open monument to the collaboration and development of the Supersonic passenger age.

But this hangar is not just about Concorde. A cockpit and front cabin portion from a Boeing 707-436 (G-APFJ), and Hawker Siddeley Trident 1C (G-ARPH) cockpit, gives the visitor another insight into life inside another 1960s long haul passenger jet. Outside another two classic passenger aircraft, de Havilland’s Comet 4C (G-BDIX) and the BAC 111-510ED (G-AVMO) further give the visitor an insight into these classic times. A range of jet engines allow you to compare sizes and features, and stories from those who were involved in flying these masters of the sky bring the ‘Golden age of air travel’ to life once more.

East Fortune

Some of the engines on view at East Fortune.

The remainder of the museum is displays and hands on activities. The history of East Fortune, is well portrayed as are the medals of Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN., and the flying jacket and personal artefacts of Rolf Niehoff, the navigator of the Humbie Heinkel.

East Fortune

Portrait and medals of Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN

As mentioned earlier, in Post 1 the parachute store has been fully refurbished and is displayed in the way it would have been used during the war years. A unique building, they are easily recognisable by their higher central roof section, or as in some models, offset sloping roofs. Designed to hang and dry parachutes, they are kept at a constant temperature, ideally between 550F and 650F. Wartime parachute stores were built with 4.5 inch thick walls, early designs having a symmetrical two-stage pitched roof as is here at East Fortune. The parachutes were hung from the highest point on a pulley system, so that the silk was kept away from the floor and allowed to dry evenly and cleanly. Once dry, they were lowered to a packing table, inspected, packed away and stored in the store on racks. Each pack was labelled with an inspection date and the person to whom it belonged – each crewman having earlier being measured for his own parachute.

This is possibly the only original parachute store remaining in this condition in the UK and shows the method of drying, packing and storing these vital pieces of equipment extremely well.

East Fortune

The inside of the parachute store clearly shows how they parachutes were dried, packed and stored.

Other exhibits include the RAF’s Matador lorry and a ‘Green Goddess’ fire engine. Made more famous perhaps by the firemen’s strikes of 2002, they were built in the 1950s, and were designed to be used in the event of a nuclear attack. Operated by civilian personnel of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) they would be rushed into cities to extinguish fires and repair water systems. Thankfully, they were never used in this particular role.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

The RAF’s Matador truck.

The range of exhibits at East Fortune is fabulous. The history of aviation, both civil and military is shown through a range of rare examples, that are restored and maintained in original buildings, purposely restored in line with their original designs and construction. For anyone wanting to see original airfield buildings and beautifully restored aircraft, it is certainly worthy of a trip and is time very well spent.

Sources and Further Reading.

The National Museum of Flight Website has details of tickets, events and features on the various exhibits there.

A list of the aircraft locations at East Fortune.

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

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

R.A.F East Fortune.

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

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of the many buildings left at East Fortune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF EAST FORTUNE DURING THE INTERWAR YEARS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

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

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

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

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

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of several Air Raid shelters at East Fortune.

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

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

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

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

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Two of the three Callender-Hamilton hangars.

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

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

East Fortune

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

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

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

Sources and further reading:

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

Additional pictures of East Fortune can be found on flckr.

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

*1 The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fortune

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

The Flight Crew for the Atlantic journey were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fortune airfield will appear in Trail 42.

Historic RAF Halton to Close in 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 1)

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

RAF Winfield.

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

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

RAF Winfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Winfield

Remains of the former WAAF site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Winfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 3)

We carry on from Part 2 of Trail 41 for the final Part of RAF Charterhall. An airfield that had become known as ‘Slaughterhall’ it was about to see a new breed of aircraft, perhaps even a turn in luck.

RAF Charterhall

The main runway at Charterhall looking south.

The night of May 27th – 28th 1944 was a heavy night for Bomber Command, with large numbers of four engined heavies attacking targets in Germany.  On their return, ten Lancaster bombers were diverted to Charterhall, the first time the four engined bombers would use the airfield, but not the last. On the 8th June, another seven were to arrive, also diverted on their return from the continent. Then in July, a Halifax was diverted here after sustaining heavy flak damage over Helioland. The pilot, P/O W. Stewart of the RCAF and navigator P/O K. Evans (RAF) were both awarded DFCs for their action whilst badly injured, such was the determination to get all the crew and aircraft back safely.

July to October saw an increase in flying and an increase in accidents. July ‘led the way’ with heavy landings, burst tyres, ground collisions and engine failures being common place. The majority of these incidents were Beaufighter MKIIfs, some were visiting or passing aircraft who suffered problems and had to divert. Charterhall saw a mix of Lysanders, Barracuders, Beauforts, Wellingtons and Hurricanes all use Charterhall as a safe haven.

As the threat of attack was now diminishing, a reorganisation of the O.T.Us would see 9 Group disband in September that year. The responsibility of 54 O.T.U (now flying mainly Mosquitoes) and Charterhall would now pass to 12 Group.

Eventually 1944 turned to 1945 and the year that saw for 17 fatal crashes also saw 54 O.T.U. take on more aircraft and more crews.

January 1945 was incredibly harsh in terms of weather and the cold. Training new crews on new radar meant that Wellingtons were brought into Charterhall. Small teams of pupils would take turns to operate the radar to detect Hurricane ‘targets’. These new models increased the air frame numbers at Charterhall to 123 by the end of January.

RAF Charterhall

‘No. 1’ Building on the Technical site.

By now the allies were winding their way into Germany, pressure was increased by Bomber Command and so more heavies were to find Charterhall a refuge when the weather closed in. On the 15th February a large ‘Gardening’ operation led to 12 heavies landing at Charterhall along with four Mosquitoes who had been flying with them over Norway. All these aircraft were able to return to their various bases at Skipton-On-Swale, Leeming and Little Snoring the next day.

Two days later, more aircraft were to find Charterhall (and Winfield) needed. Some 266 aircrews – an incredible influx for one night – were going to need bedding – billiard tables, sofas and chairs suddenly became in very short supply.

The poor weather continued well into the year and snow caused some ‘minor’ accidents at Charterhall. The first confirmed death was not until early March and others were to follow. By May the war had come to an end and operations began to wind down. Winfield was closed and crews returned to Charterhall. Beaufighters were gradually sold, scrapped or moved elsewhere, and by August the last aircraft had left.

March would see the last fatalities at Charterhall, both in Mosquitoes on the 25th and 29th. In the former, the aircraft was in a high-speed vertical crash and the latter the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Cole (s/n125484), overshot the runway and crashed his Mosquito FBVI (HR297) a mile south of the airfield. He was 22.

Apart from a small detachment of crews from 770 Squadron Naval Air Branch carrying out trials, operations began slowing down. After VJ day, the Mosquito numbers were also wound down, only fifty-one aircraft remained by the end of August.

In September the order came through to vacate Charterhall and the packing began. By the end of the month 54 O.T.U. had all but vacated leaving Charterhall quiet once more. The last eighty aircraft consisting of: Mosquito VI,  XVII and NF30s, Martinets, an Oxford, Miles Master II, Ansons, Hurricane IICs and Wellington XVIIIs were flown out for the final time, 54 O.T.U. had played its part and their end lay ahead.

In the three years that Charterhall had been in operation, they had passed over 800 crews for night fighter operations, they had suffered over 330 accidents, 56 of which had resulted in deaths. During this time crews had flown just short of 92, 000 hours flying time day and night, with almost a third being carried out at night. Had it not been for this unit, the heavy bombers of Bomber Command may well have suffered even greater losses, the determined and deadly night fighters of the Luftwaffe may have had a much wider and easier reign over our skies and the losses we quote today would be even higher.

But the withdrawal of 54 O.T.U. was not the demise of Charterhall. For a short period it was set up as No 3 Armament Practice Station, designed to support and train fighter pilots in the art of gunnery. During its period here November 1945 – March 1947 it would see a range of aircraft types grace the runways of Charterhall.

The first units were the Spitfire IXB of 130 squadron from December 1st 1945 – January 24th 1946, followed by 165 Squadron’s Spitfire IXE between 30th December and January 24th 1946. On the day these two squadrons moved out, Charterhall entered a new era as the jet engines of Meteor F3s arrived under the command of 263 Squadron. After staying for one month they left, allowing the Mustang IVs of 303 (Polish) Squadron to utilise the airfield. Each of these squadrons followed a course which included air-to-air target practice, ground attack, bombing and dive bombing techniques.

Following the completion of the course 303 pulled out and the order was given to close No. 3 Armament Practice Station and wind Charterhall down for good. The RAF sent no further flying units here and apart from a detachment of Mosquitoes from 772 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, by the following summer, it had closed. The final spin of the airscrew had taken place.

Post war, the airfield was left, the runways and buildings remained intact and the airfield was used by small light aircraft. Gradually though it fell into disrepair, used mainly for agriculture, it had a new lease of life when on Saturday May 31st, 1952, the airfield saw its first motor race using sections of the perimeter track and runways. A two-mile track became the proving ground for a number of the worlds most famous racing drivers including: Sir Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart O.B.E., Roy Salvadori, Sir John Arthur ‘Jack’ Brabham, AO, OBE, Giuseppe “Nino” Farina and local boy Jim Clark O.B.E. Clark cut his racing teeth at Charterhall, eventually winning 25 Grand Prix races and the Indianapolis 500 in 1965. His grave lies in nearby Chirnside cemetery alongside his mother and father. Charterhall also saw the appearance of Scotland’s first organised sports car team, ‘Ecurie Ecosse’, using Jaguar cars*4. Racing occurred here until 1969, when the current owners took over the site.

The RAF then returned briefly in late 1976 undertaking trials of the Rapier ground-to-air missile system, in which a range of fast jets including Jaguars and Phantoms would participate. These lasted a month which would see the last and final RAF involvement end.

The owners reinvigorated the site providing a venue for rally sport events which started again in 1986. Eventually on March 30th, 2013, the last ever race was run and motor sport stopped for good and so another era finally came to a close.*5

RAF Charterhall

Jim Clark’s grave stone at Chirnside.

Today a section at the western end of the main runway is still available for use by light aircraft (with prior permission) and the main technical area is home to the Co-op Grain store, a facility which has a number of large stores for drying and storage of grain.

Accessing the site is from the B6460 where a memorial stands to the crews who passed through Charterhall and in particular Flight Lieutenant Hillary and Flight Sgt. Fison, who died in such tragic circumstances. A track leads all the way to the airfield site, which was the main entrance to the airfield. A good quantity of buildings still stand here on the technical site along with two of the original hangars. All of these are used for storage or stabling of animals including horses and are rather rundown. The perimeter track and runways are complete but their surfaces are breaking up and in a poor state of repair.

These buildings are a remarkable and poignant reminder of the tragic but significant years that Charterhall prepared and developed crews for the night fighter squadrons of the RAF. Hundreds passed through here, for many it was a difficult twelve weeks, for some it ended abruptly and decisively. Not known for its comforts, it was a pivotal station in the Second World War and indeed also for many years after for the those who went on to become some of the world’s most famous motor racing drivers.

Many airmen came and stayed, sixteen of them who were killed on active service whilst at Charterhall are buried in the nearby cemetery at Fogo, a short distance to the north of the airfield. Many are from around the commonwealth who came here to help and were never to return.

After leaving Charterhall, we head a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

Sources and further reading

*4 Obituary of Bill Dobson: ‘Ecurie Ecosse’ racing driver in ‘The Scotsman‘ newspaper 21st October 2008.

*5 A news report of the event can be read on ‘The Berwickshire News‘ Newspaper, 28th March 2013.

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 2)

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

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

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

RAF Charterhall

One of two remaining hangars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading

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

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