RAF Cottam – Built and Abandoned.

Up in the Yorkshire Wolds stands an airfield that could have been considered as one the Air Ministry’s ‘less sensible’ decisions. Open to the elements, this site was built but never fully used by an operational flying unit, in fact, Cottam could be considered one of the RAF’s more expensive bomb dumps, used primarily for munitions storage toward the war’s end. In its construction it would have accommodation, a hangar, and a watch office, along with three concrete runways – all the makings of an RAF bomber base, yet it was often desolate and empty. Even though it wasn’t used operationally, it did have its own problems however, and its own casualties . As we head across the River Humber into the East Riding of Yorkshire, we visit the former RAF airfield, RAF Cottam.

RAF Cottam.

Designed originally as a satellite for RAF Driffield, Cottam airfield lies high up in the hills on Cottam Well Dale, about 5 miles north of Driffield, just a stones throw from the village of Langtoft, and the tiny parish of Cottam. At 475 ft. above sea level, it is one of the higher peaks in the area which makes it popular with dog walkers and ramblers alike.

The airfield site encompasses the site of the ancient village of Cottam, (on maps of the late 1600s it appears as Cotham) of which only the church remains.  A lone building, it stands neglected and derelict, a reminder of a small community that has long since gone.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The abandoned medieval church marks the boundary of Cottam airfield and a community long gone.

The Air Ministry decided to build an airfield here to be used as a satellite and possible bomber base. The airfield would have a watch office with detached operations block (the separate block designed to drawing 13023/41). As construction was completed before June 1941, it would be classed as a Type ‘A’ building, and would need to be modified to bring it up to the newer Type ‘B’ standard as were being built on later airfield sites. Under the Type ‘B’ scheme, Cottam would have a Watch Office built to design 13726/41, then adapted by the fitting of smaller ‘slit’ windows more in line with bomber and O.T.U. satellite airfields of that time (15683/41). Sadly, the entire building was demolished in 1980, and no there are no signs of its existence left on site today.

A single T1 hangar provided space for aircraft repairs and maintenance, and accommodation, although sparse, would accommodate around 1000 men and 120 women of the Maintenance Command by December 1944.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The remains of the secondary runway looking west.

Cottam officially opened in September 1939, and as a grassed airfield, would only be used for dispersed aircraft from Driffield’s 4 Group Bomber Command, flying Whitleys of 77 and 102 Sqn. Cottam was also used later on for the Fairy Battles of 4 Group Target Towing Flight (4G T.T.F.) also based at Driffield at that time.

It wouldn’t be long though before Cottam would have its first accident. On July 1st 1940, a dispersed aircraft, Whitley V, (N1391) ‘DY-H’ of 102 Sqn, swung on take off causing minor damage to the aircraft. Luckily there weren’t thought to be any casualties in the incident, but the aircraft was rendered unable to fly, and the damage was sufficiently serious to need it to be taken away for repairs.

A month later, the 15th August 1940, signified a major point in the Battle of Britain, one which saw all of the Luftwaffe’s air fleets deployed for the first time, in a full and coordinated attack on the British mainland. This day saw the heaviest fighting of the Battle with attacks ranging from the south coast to east Yorkshire, and up to Edinburgh. This also meant the start of a number of attacks on British airfields and Driffield would not be left out. In this first attack, a Luftwaffe force of some 50 Junkers Ju 88s attacked the airfield damaging or destroying 12 aircraft on the ground – many of these were Whitleys. This attack was particularly devastating for a number of reasons, one of which was that it caused the first death on active service of a Bomber Command W.A.A.F., (A.C.W.2) Marguerite Hudson, who was killed after delivering stores to the site. This attack caused extensive damage to both the airfield site, infrastructure, and aircraft, and for a short period whilst repairs were undertaken, some aircraft were moved and dispersed here at Cottam. Indeed, on 27th September 1940, 4 Group T.T.F moved over to Cottam where they stayed for a month, not returning until the 24th October, once repairs had been completed and air attacks had all but ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The secondary runway looking east, this part is full width but built upon.

It is possible that these attacks may have led to the demise of one 77 Sqn Whitley V (N1355) ‘KN-X’ flown by Sgt. James Walter Ward RAFVR (741435), who undershot on landing at Cottam, hitting a fence, causing the undercarriage to later collapse. The five occupants of the aircraft were unhurt, but the aircraft itself was later struck off charge on 22nd September 1940, after assessment at Armstrong Whitworth in Baginton*1. Ward himself was killed with his crew only five days later, when his aircraft, Whitley V, (N1473) was shot down by flak over Noord Brabant, 2km from Vijfhuizen, on September 25th 1940. He died along with P/O C. Montague, himself a veteran of three previous serious crashes.

By the end of August 1940, both 77 and 102 Sqns had departed Driffield and so Cottam, which left it only being used by the Fairy Battles of 4 G T.T.F. During the winter months Cottam was abandoned by these aircraft, presumably due to its inclement weather conditions, but dispersed aircraft did return again in the spring and summer months. In October 1941, 4G T.T.F. reformed at Driffield as 1484 T.T.F., and it is at this point that it is thought their use of Cottam ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The perimeter track looking east. The main airfield is to your left.

Under the Ministry’s airfield expansion plan, new airfields of the early 40s were built with concrete surfaces. ‘Older’ grass sites, like Cottam, were upgraded having new runways laid down in an effort to reduce water logging and provide a more stable surface for the heavier bomber aircraft coming in. To meet these upgrades Cottam’s three runways – all consisting of concrete and wood chip – were built; the main being just short of 5,300 ft., with the two further runways around 4,000 ft. in length. Pan style aircraft dispersals were also added which gave Cottam a new look and hope for the future. However, and even though huge amounts of money had been spent on the airfield, it was decided it was not to be used further, as either a satellite or a bomber station. Cottam was offered to various other military groups who all turned down the location for various reasons. The army did take up residency for a short while until March 1944, whereupon it was then used to store vehicles for the impending invasion of Normandy.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

Blocks from the former site, and the beautiful views across the Wolds from one of the highest peaks in the area.

It is believed that further forced landings took place at Cottam during this time. Firstly, a damaged B-24 ‘Liberator’ came down after sustaining damage on a raid; and secondly, it is also thought that a Halifax landed here after an S.O.E. mission. Sadly at present, I can find no further official details of these events, and cannot therefore expand on them further.

Toward the end of the year 91 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) were based here*2 using the runways and hardstandings to store ammunition and other stores that were delivered by road from the rail yard at Driffield. A spell of residency for 244 Maintenance Unit carried on the storage work before the airfield was finally abandoned and closed in June 1954.

Returned to agriculture, the airfield is mostly gone, a section of the easy-west runway does still exist, and in part, at full width. Footpaths allow for walks across the site allowing views along the runway in both directions, they also allow walkers to use the remains of the perimeter track and secondary runway – albeit as a track. The frame of an air-raid shelter and the standby set house (designed to drawing 13244/41) are in situ, although by far the runways are the most prominent feature surviving today.

Access is best made from the Cottam Lane junction. The path leads up through the site of the medieval village of Cottam where the church still stands. This takes you south onto the airfield site itself and along the two runways. The walk extends along the perimeter track to the south, where debris from the perimeter track can also be seen.

Built high on the Wolds of Yorkshire, it is hard to understand why such a site was chosen. In winter, it could be bleak, windy and very cold. Landing conditions must have been difficult at best, and treacherous at worst. Its history of accidents tell their own tale.

In 2016, Cottam Airfield was the subject of a wind farm review, and a battle between the locals and the energy firm R.W.E, began. As yet though the site remains free of turbines, a gem for walkers and those wishing to experience the natural beauty of the Yorkshire Wolds. The open air and fabulous views hide a strange history, one that goes back long before the Second World War, but one that has only scars to tell the tale in this oddly historical, but beautiful part of Yorkshire. *3

Source and further reading:

*1 This was reported on a number of sites (Air Safety Network) but no records could be found referring to the accident in the Operational Records Book recorded by 77 Squadron at that time.

*2 See the National Archives website for details.

*3 News report on the proposal.

The Hull and East Riding at War Website has a range of information on the area during the Second World War.

My thanks go to Ronnie and Jo for the great walk, and for being such fabulous hosts. 

RAF Bovingdon – The Hour that Never Was!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Fowlmere “a remarkable number of aviation firsts and combat records”.

This airfield concludes our three-part tour of Southern Cambridge for now; we shall be revisiting this area again shortly to see the remaining historic sites that once protected these green and pleasant lands from our invaders. This last stop however, is a former base just a stones throw from the Imperial War Museum and former Fighter Command base at Duxford – we go to RAF Fowlmere.

RAF Fowlmere (Station 378)

Fowlmere’s life can really be divided into two mains parts. That under the RAF as a Battle of Britain era airfield and that of the USAAF for which Fowlmere would achieve a remarkable number of aviation firsts and combat records.

But whatever its achievements, its wartime life was dogged by bad weather, and in particular rain! Poor drainage and heavy water logging left if unusable for large periods, inhospitable and rather bleak with poor accommodation, it was not a noteworthy ‘curriculum vitae’ for a prestigious fighter airfield. It is one of those airfields that took a long time to reach an honorary status, being home to a large number of RAF units, most for short assignments only, it was rarely in the spotlight. In total, it would be home to some 17 operational RAF squadrons,  a small number of training squadrons and one USAAF squadron. A rather high number for any second world war station.

Initially built as a First World War airfield, it opened on October 1st 1916, a small number of buildings were erected including six hangars and the runways were grass. It remained operational until the early 1920s at which point the buildings were demolished and the land reused.

With the next threat of an invasion looming, the defence of Britain was paramount. Fowlmere was then identified as a suitable site for a satellite to nearby Duxford, and Spitfires began to arrive from 19 Squadron. 19 Squadron would ‘yo-yo’ between Duxford and Fowlmere between June 1940 and August 1941, operating the Spitfire I,  IB and IIA in the process. These crews would operate as part of the Duxford Wing in the Battle of Britain where 19 Squadron would gain notoriety.

Duxford September 2015 436a

A sight once common over Fowlmere.

Following significant loses over France and southern England, the Boulton Paul Defiant was withdrawn from front line operations and pulled back to perform in ‘secondary’ duties. Part of this meant a short stay at Fowlmere in July 1940 for 264 Squadron who, whilst carrying out night-fighter duties, were in transit to Kirton-in-Lindsey.

Subsequent to their departure, there was a silence at Fowlmere which was only broken by a short five-day stay by the Hurriacne IIBs of 133 Squadron, whilst moving between Collyweston and Eglington. Noted for their twelve .303 machine guns and Merlin XX engines, first used in the Hurricane IIA, it used a mix of 30% glycol and 70% water. By using this mix, the fuel mixture was not only safer but it meant the engine would run much cooler thus giving it a longer life. Further examples of this aircraft would return later in the summer of 1942 with another squadron, 174 Sqn, also whilst transiting, but this time from and back to their main station at RAF Manston.

The winter of 1941 / 42 would remain quiet at Fowlmere, and it wouldn’t be until the following spring on March 12th, that there would be any significant action at the base. The first visitors being a detachment of Spitfire VBs from 154 Sqn whose main force was based away at Coltishall. Eventually, a month later, the entire squadron would transit over, but yet again, they would be another short-stay resident who would depart  for RAF Church Stanton in early May that year. Other than the short visits by the Hurricanes, all would be quiet again until the autumn and in September Fowlmere would be blessed with yet another short stay of transiting Spitfires. The VBs of 111 Squadron, would stay for one month whilst on their way the Mediterranean and North Africa. 111 would go on to become famous for their Lightnings and the ‘Black Arrows’ aerobatics team with their Hunters in the post war jet era.

Once again the winter would have a quietening effect on Fowlmere, and there would be little happen for the next few months. The following March though, would see a considerable amount of movement at the airfield. Preceded by a short stay of Austers from 655 Squadron, Spitfire VBs of 411 Squadron and Spitfire VCs of 167 Squadron would arrive in the early days of March. Their departures on the 12th and 13th respectively would be interceded by the arrival of more Spitfire VBs of 421 Squadron, who also left on the 13th of that month. Similar movements would take place only a few days later. On the 19th 2 Sqn RAF arrived and stayed for just over a month. But the arrival and departure of 2 Sqn signalled a big change for Fowlmere and their Mustang Is were to be not only the end of RAF interests in the airfield, but a sign of things yet to come.

Littlefriends.co.uk

Aircraft of the 503rd FS from the waist gunner’s position of a B-17. Aircraft seen are, from rear to foreground: P-51B ‘D7-O’ “Miss Max”; P-51D ‘D7-M’ “Sally II”; P-51D ‘D7-Z’ “Shy Ann”; and P-51D ‘D7-F’ “Dee”. *1

After April, Fowlmere would remain very quiet. With the increasing need for bomber bases for the USAAF, Fowlmere was identified as a possible site. This potential new lease of life was to be short-lived though and the decision was reversed only a matter of weeks later. It was not to be, but thankfully, it was not the end of Fowlmere.

Handed over to the Americans as a fighter airfield, it would be upgraded. Two new runways were built (1,400 and 1,600 yds) using Sommerfield Track and pierced planking, eight new blister hangars were erected, to compliment the ‘T2’ hangar to the north of the site and firm plans were drawn up that would shape Fowlmere for the rest of the war.

To deal with the staff, eight sites would be developed. All to the north-eastern side of the airfield, there would be a communal site, five accommodation blocks in total for officers and enlisted men separately, a sick quarters and a sewage treatment site. The main road to Fowlmere village already severed, would have a runway built across it, aircraft pens, technical buildings and a wide range of supporting structures including: fire sheds, harmonisation walls and around forty hardstands around a perimeter track that encircled the two runways. The main technical area would be to the north, whilst the bomb and fuel stores were to the south along side the remains of the southern section of the main road. Fowlmere would be taking on a new role and it would be permanent.

The control tower at Fowlmere, home of the 339th Fighter Group, 1945. Image via James G Robinson. Written on slide casing: 'Fowlmere Tower, 1945.'

Fowlmere Tower, 1945*2

Fowlmere would open again on the 4th April 1944 as Station 378, with the arrival of the 339th FG, the penultimate fighter group to be based in the UK. Flying P-51s, the 339th FG at this time consisted of three squadrons, the 503rd (D7), 504th (5Q) and 505th FS (6N). They would use Fowlmere as their only European base and whilst here would be used in both the fighter escort and ground attack role.

Their first mission was on April 30th with a fighter sweep over France, followed by around 5 weeks of escort duties of medium and heavy bombers. They soon made their mark on the air war though. In the first thirty days, they claimed forty aircraft shot down and fifteen destroyed on the ground.

Initially flying P-51Bs they would also use the ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘K’ models. Missions would include: strafing runs over airfields; attacking communication lines; supporting the allied push out of Normandy; dive bombing locomotives; marshalling yards; anti-aircraft batteries and troops. They also supported allied advances such as the breakout at St Lo and in the Ardennes. The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for operations on September 10th and 11th whilst attacking heavily defended airfields and defending bombers of the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ whilst attacking cities in Germany. All in all they were to prove themselves a formidable force in the air.

One of the peculiarities of the 339th was the stripped jacket and baseball cap wearing  Runway Control officer. It was worn so the pilots could see him and his signal that it was clear to take off. A signal they depended upon greatly. Here he signals to a P-51 at Fowlmere embarking on a bombing mission in August 1944.*3

Each time the 339th went into battle it would seem a new record would be set. On the 29th November 1944, in a ferocious air battle, Lt. Jack Daniell shot down five FW-190s, giving him ‘Ace in a day’ status, the last pilot of the US Eighth Air force to do so. In early 1945, during strafing attacks 105 aircraft were destroyed in one mission, another first for any group. A remarkable feat that was repeated only twelve days later with a high score of 118 and an individual record for its leader Captain Robert Ammon.

The 339th would not only becomes a formidable force, but they would be the first units to test new ‘G’ suits, designed to prevent blacking out in tight turns, an essential piece of clothing in today’s modern air force. They would also take the British designed gyroscopic gun sight and develop it for use in the P-51, an innovative device that calculated deflection increasing hit rates both at greater distances and with more accurately.

By the war’s end the 339th would rack up a total of  264 missions, with 680 aircraft destroyed, two-thirds being on the ground and on heavily defended airfields, whilst losing less than 100 aircraft and crews. They achieved the greatest number of air and ground ‘kills’ in any twelve month period of the war,  a DUC and a remarkable reputation.

Fowlmere had finally achieved the status of its more famous neighbours, but it was a little too late for this airfield, the war was finally over. After the Americans pulled out in October 1945, Fowlmere fell silent for the last permanent time. The land was eventually sold off in the 1950s long after all military operations had ceased.

Fowlmere is one of those airfields that is quite difficult to find. Tucked away at the back of the village access is through an industrial site and along a rather grand driveway that is actually a farmers track. The road leads to nowhere other than the farm, a small light airfield and a memorial.

Before driving or walking to the memorial start off at the village centre. Facing south, site 3 would be behind you, and sites 4, 9, 7 and 5 to your front. Take the road south and then turn in toward Manor farm; as you enter, there is an industrial site on your right. This road, was the original main entrance, and there would have been a picket post, Co’s house and Officer’s Mess to your right. On you left was a further Officer’s mess, recreation room for enlisted men, and a block with showers and ablutions for the Sergeants. The road bears right, here you can see, in the field to your right, a Nissen hut once part of the Communal area (Site 2). Now derelict and truly overgrown its days are definitely numbered. The original plan layout differs quite a bit from the current layout, and it is difficult to ascertain the precise nature of its origin. However, it could have been either an ‘A.M.W.D*4‘. or latrines for 310 – 400 enlisted men. Using satellite photos, you can clearly see the foundations for a number of other buildings including the: Officer’s Mess, Dental Centre, Stand-by set house and CO’s quarters. This road, which was originally much shorter than it is today takes you into an industrial estate that has reused some of the period buildings, these may well have come from the original site and have been moved or the site was built differently to the original design. It is at this stage difficult to determine.

Aug 2015 005

One of the few remaining structures at Fowlmere, now overgrown and disappearing, this Nissen hut stands on Site 2.

Leave here and turn right at the end of the road. This grand road takes you up the hill toward the airfield. On your left would have been the sick block Site 8 with a barrack hut, sick quarters with 18 beds, a garage and mortuary. Follow this road along, at the farm follow the road right, and the memorial is about 100 yards further along on your left. A small space has been made available for parking by the adjacent property who kindly ask you to look after the memorial during your visit. It is sad that we have to ask people to do this, it should be an absolute.

The memorial overlooks the remains of the airfield. The original T2 hangar stands reclad in its original position now storing small private aircraft. Other remains, the crew rest rooms and two main workshops, have been reclaimed by the farm and incorporated into the farm infrastructure. A considerable amount of concrete also exists from this technical area, again utilised by the farm.  The watch office, originally built to 17/65840 for the RAF, was later replaced by a the more common 343/43 two storey type; this too is long gone and would have been to your front beyond the hangar.

A quiet an unassuming place, Fowlmere remained a satellite for most if its life, seeing a number of temporary stays by some prestige aircraft and squadrons. It wasn’t until the latter parts of the war that it really came into its own, sadly though, this was short-lived; but the P-51s of the 339th would carry Fowlmere’s history into the annuls of time and the small private aircraft that now stand where Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs were once dispersed, grace the skies where their forefathers cut their teeth – in the skies over war-torn Europe.

Aug 2015 018

The Memorial overlooks the airfield, the reclad T2 and its new inhabitants beyond.

A stones throw from Fowlmere, is the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, essential to anyone with an interest in the Second World War. Home of many displays, exhibitions, and restoration projects it has to be on everyone’s list of to-dos. The Duxford website can be accessed here.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Russell Abbey (www.55th.org) from the ‘Little Friends’ website.

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman collection FRE 5982  American Air Museum in Britain.

*3 Photo from Roger Freeman collection FRE 5961 American Air Museum in Britain.

*4 This is the reference on the site plans, if anyone knows what it means please let me know.

‘Black Thursday’ took the lives of many crews – RAF Bourn.

In Trail 31 we continue our trip around the historic countryside of Southern Cambridgeshire. Moving on from the open expanses of Graveley and Caxton Gibbet, we visit two more airfields both of which continue for now, to uphold their aviation heritage. Our first stop is the current small airfield on the former RAF Bourn.

RAF Bourn.

Bourn sits between the towns of Cambourne to the west and Hardwick to the east and is confined by the new dual carriageway cutting across its northern side. Both the immediate eastern and western sides are heavily built upon and with further developments under proposal, the future of this historic airfield remains in the balance.

RAF Bourn was built-in 1940 /41 initially as a satellite for nearby RAF Oakington. With growing pressure from Bomber Command it would eventually become a bomber station  in its own right and come under the control of Air Commodore Donald Bennett’s 8 Group operating the elite Pathfinder Force (PFF). Accommodation would be suitable for 1,805 males and 276 females making it a relatively large airfield. Its three ‘A’ style concrete runways, would be extended later in 1942 to accommodate the heavier aircraft that were to use Bourn thus raising its profile as a bomber base. By the end of the war, Bourn squadrons would lose 135 aircraft in total accounting for: 60 Lancasters, 32 Short Stirlings, 24 Mosquitos and 19 Wellingtons – a considerable number of lives.

runway

Views along one of Bourn’s enormous runway.

Bourn would serve a number of RAF squadrons during its short wartime life: 15, 97, 101, 105, 162 and 609 would all play a part in its rich wartime tapestry. The first to arrive were the Wellington ICs of 101 Squadron (RAF). They arrived at Bourn very soon after the runways were constructed on February 11th 1942. During this time 101 were going through the process of updating their Wellingtons with the new Mk III. One of the first casualties of Bourne would be one of these models. Wellington ‘X3656’  SR-L, was lost on the night of March 8th/9th 1942, on a mission to Essen. Flight Sgt. S. Brown, P.O. C. Luin and Sergeants L. Calderhead, R. Lawrence and C. Parry were all lost in the attack; the aircraft missing in action and the crew presumed dead. Their names are now inscribed  on the wall of remembrance at Runneymede Cemetery.

101 sqn would continue the fight staying at Bourn until the 11th August that same year. They would then move on to Stradishall and Holme-on-Spalding Moor where they took on the Lancaster.

As 101 left, 15 Sqn (RAF) moved in, bringing the much heavier Short Stirling MkI. Having a rather checkered history behind them, 15 Sqn would operate the MkIs until the following January when the MK IIIs came into operation. Built by Short Brothers, the Stirling was a massive aircraft, dwarfing many of its counterparts with a cockpit height of some 22 feet. A forbidding aircraft, it was cumbersome on the ground but was said to be very agile in the air, some would say it could out-turn a Spitfire! Sadly though, it was a slow aircraft and whilst heavily defended, loses were to be high leading to its eventual withdrawal from front line operations .

A few miles away at Cambridge, an industrial unit of some  six / seven hangars were built by Short Sebro Ltd who manufactured the Stirling parts. Final assembly and air testing was then carried out at Bourn, the wings being transported by ‘Queen Mary’ trailers and the fuselage on specially made carriers pulled by tractors. To help, three large hangars would be built away to the east of the airfield to accommodate both these and battle damaged bombers for repair.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

The crew of the Short Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’, of No. 15 Squadron after their 62nd mission. © IWM (CH 7747)

It was here at Bourn that a record would be set by a 15 Squadron crew. Stirling Mk I, N3669 ‘LS-H’,  would go on to complete 67 operations, a record for the type. N3669 would eventually be reduced to an instructional airframe in February 1943.

A short spell of conversion proceeded 15 Sqn moving to their new base at RAF Mildenhall on April 14th 1943, where they would eventually take on the new and more successful Lancaster I. It was here that LL806 “J-Jig”, would become one of the most famous Lancasters in Bomber Command, flying 134 sorties accumulating 765 hours in the air. Two incredible records were now set by 15 squadron aircraft and their crews.

Bourn would then have just another short spell visitor, 609 Sqn. Battled hardened from covering the BEF withdrawal at Dunkirk and defending Britain in the Battle of Britain, 609 Sqn moved in on 26th August 1942, with the potent Typhoon IB. Accustom as they were to moving around, their stay at Bourn would last only 4 days.

It was at this time that Bourn really came into its own as a bomber base. 97 squadron (RAF) arrived on April 18th 1943 with their Lancaster Is and IIIs. With small detachments at nearby Graveley, Gransden Lodge and Oakington, they would stay here until moving on to Coningsby a year to the day later. Whilst at Bourn, they became a ‘marker’ squadron as part of the PFF  Group.  Notable target’s were both the  Zeppelin works at Friedrichshafen in June 1943 and the Italian naval base at Spezia in April 1944; an event that became to be the first RAF “shuttle-bombing” raid. The introduction of Lancasters at Bourn greatly reduced the number of crews being lost. However, 97 Sqn were to suffer one of the worst nights on Bomber Command record, and not through enemy action either. During the night of December 16th /17th 1943, a large number of aircraft left from some 20 squadrons*1 to attack Berlin. Casualties to and from the target were on the whole low but for 97 Squadron it was arriving home that their troubles were to begin. This night would become known as ‘Black Thursday’.*2.

Aug 2015 014

A Nissen huts survives in modern use.

As they approached Cambridgeshire, they were informed that the weather had closed in on Bourn and landing would be very difficult if not impossible. In an effort to get the bombers down safely, all manner of tactics were used to move the fog and illuminate the runways.  Some aircraft managed to divert to other bases in Lincolnshire and Norfolk where FIDO was in operation, but many tried to wait it out. The result was a critical loss of fuel and subsequently several aircraft crashed in the dense fog. The loss that night was devastating for 97 Sqn: JB531 ‘OF-Y’; JA963 ‘Q’; JB243 ‘P’; JB482 ‘S’; JB219 ‘R’; JB117 ‘C’; JB119 ‘F’ and JB176 ‘K’ were all lost crashing in the vicinity of the airfield with many of the crews being killed.*3

It was during these last few weeks of 97 Sqn’s stay that Bourn would start to accept new residents. The smaller and much more agile Mosquito IX of 105 Squadron arrived to continue the pathfinder operations. Noted for their unusual black paint work, they would carry out many notable operations from here, especially in the lead up to D-day in June 1944, identifying and marking coastal batteries for the heavier bombers to attack in preparation for the invasion. One of these aircraft, MM237, would sadly fall victim to ‘friendly fire’. On crossing the coast on its way home, on March 6th 1945, it was shot down by a British night fighter. The crew luckily managed to bale out moments before the aircraft struck the ground.

105 would stay at Bourn for the duration of the war, taking on a new model Mosquito XVI in March 1944. They would mark high-profile targets such as: oil refineries, road and rail junctions, marshalling yards and coastal batteries. Many targets were as far afield as the German heartland; 105’s  final operational sorties would take  4 Mosquitos to Eggebeck on the night of 2nd/3rd May 1945, a month before they left Bourn for Upwood and final disbandment.

In December 1944, the last residents of Bourn would arrive and join 105 Sqn. Being reformed here on December 16th, 162 Squadron (RAF), would fly the Mosquito XXV until February the following year when they would replace them with the Mosquito Mk XX. As part of the light-bomber unit of the Light Night Striking Force, 162 would quickly establish their effectiveness, striking hard at the heart of Germany, Berlin, in 36 consecutive raids.  162 would eventually leave Bourn on July 10th 1945 to go to RAF Blackbushe and their disbandment. Even though they were only here at Bourn for a short period, they would amass 4,037 flying hours in 913 operational sorties. Their loss rate would reflect the effectiveness of the Mosquito as a fighter, a bomber and a PFF weapon, losing only four aircraft in operational missions.

The departure of 162 Sqn would leave Bourn both desolate and very quiet.

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One of the few derelict buildings that still survive.

Post war, Bourn lay idle, the nearby hangars were used by Marshalls of Cambridge for vehicle repairs but eventually these were sold at auction, leaving the  site empty. It was completely closed down three years later. The land was sold off in the early 1960s and development has gradually encroached ever since. One small saving grace for Bourn is that a small flying club operated by the Rural Flying Corps is utilising a small part of the field including sections of two of the original runways. It is hoped that this will continue and keep the history of Bourn airfield alive.

Recently affected by the building of extensive housing developments and a new dual carriageway, Bourn has had much of its original infrastructure removed. The runways were cut slightly short and much of the accommodation and technical site redeveloped. However, a small gain from this is that the dual carriage way offers some interesting views along the remains of its enormous stretches of runway.

If approaching from Caxton Gibbet to the west, leave the dual carriageway and pull on to the smaller Saint Neots road that runs parallel. From the bank you can see along the runway taking in its enormous width. Other views of this, can be seen from the bridge that takes you back over the A428 toward the village of Bourn to the south.

It is also along this road that the fire tender station can be found, now utilised by a small industrial company it is one of the few original buildings surviving in good condition today.

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The fire tender shed, now a small business unit.

Many tracks can also be seen along here, pathways that would have led to the admin and accommodation areas of Bourn, the road now separating the two areas. There are a couple of Nissen huts here too, again used by small industrial companies, whilst other buildings stand derelict and in grave danger of demolition by weather or developer.

Whilst the runways are intact, large parts are used for storage and a section is used for motorcycle training. A lone windsock flies over the flying club.

Recent archeological investigations have revealed late prehistoric and Roman connections around the site, including a Roman burial site within the grounds of the airfield. Great crested Newts are also known to inhabit the area, perhaps history and nature will prevail. With continued development and further proposed housing, the future of Bourn is very uncertain and should these plans go ahead, Bourn like many other airfields of Britain will most likely cease to exist.

After leaving Bourn, we travel a stones throw south-west to a small airfield now more commonly seen with sedate gliders than fearsome fighters of the Second World War. We stop at Gransden Lodge.

Notes:

*1 loses were recorded from 7, 9, 12, 44, 57, 97, 100, 101, 103, 156, 166, 207, 405, 408, 426, 432, 460, 576, 619, 625 squadrons all Lancasters.

*2 a website dedicated to 97 Squadron gives detailed information into ‘Black Thursday’ including personal accounts, the unit, men and operations.

*3 records from aircrew remembered

1940s revisited

A little more light-hearted look at the 1940s away form the disused airfields of Britain.

These last two years have been significant years in terms of both the First and Second World Wars. With the 100th anniversary  of the start of WWI last year, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year, VE-day and of course to come VJ-day commemorations, there has been an understandable increase in interest in all things Second World War.

One thing I have noticed in particular, is the increase in numbers at 1940s weekends, in both participants and visitors.

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Vehicles of all shapes and sizes came for the weekend.

I myself have been to two recently, and at one I got the chance to sit in a Spitfire cockpit. Not something you do every day!

I know these events are not to everyone’s taste and some will groan at the thought of it, but I do think there is an historical value to them. Many of the participants only use genuine clothing or equipment, much of what you see is rare and in all cases they are only too keen to talk about what they have, its history, how and where it was used and in some cases, allow you to hold the articles in question.

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The rumbling of tanks could be heard once more.

From another perspective, and for those of you who know my day job, there are too, a growing number of children attending these events which I believe is a good thing as it brings history to life – something that is very difficult in a school classroom. A gun in school? I can see the headline now!

Two events I recently attended, both for different reasons, were at Woodhall Spa and Baston, two small villages in ‘Bomber country’, Lincolnshire.

Woodhall Spa was the home to the Dambusters, and for one weekend each year the entire village steps back in time to the 1940s. A second invasion occurs. Walking along the high street is like walking along in 1940, uniforms of every description can be seen, from RAF aircrew to British Army, U.S. infantry, Canadian, and even a variety of Russian, Luftwaffe and German infantry. Even the 1940s housewife, ‘spiv’, Firemen, Policeman and Milkman are represented in full 1940s attire. Many of the vehicles that line the numerous side streets are authentic World War II vehicles, half-tracks, trucks, endless jeeps and even the odd small tank driven here on trailers or under their own steam. Owners have taken a lot of time and money to get them rebuilt and keep them going.

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Re-enactors were everywhere

At the Petwood Hotel, used by 617 Squadron as a mess and officers quarters, there are re-enactments, talks and even ‘briefings’ in a 1940s style. The BBMF perform short displays over the grounds of this small village adding to the feel and as always people stop and watch in awe as once again a Spitfire, Hurricane and Dakota fly low over the streets of this small Lincolnshire village.

Inside the Petwood, you can wander the rooms that 617 Sqn once wandered by Guy Gibson and his crews; drink a tea or refreshing beer in the same room they did. The Squadron bar, displays numerous letters, photographs and other memorabilia connected with 617’s stay here. It is a remarkable place to be, knowing you walk the same ground as those special crew members did some 70 years ago.

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The Squadron bar.

Outside in the manicured gardens among the rhododendrons singers perform the many songs that inspired a nation, bolstered our morale and kept us going through those dark days of the Second World War. The feel is very much 1940s.

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Spitfire that is about 80% original.

Baston was very much the same. A large participation of re-enactors, vehicles and uniforms, many rasing money, good money, for War Veterans – a valuable cause I’d say. But it is the most odd feeling to walk amongst uniforms that once fought to the death and that were feared by those who were governed by them. In the summer and autumn of 1940, Britain came so close to being invaded, today an invasion has taken place.

Whether you like them or not, these events do have a place in our ‘living history’ and thankfully now, at least, it is on friendly terms.

Battle of Britain Memorial, London

In this the 75th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain, it is rather apt to include a mention of a further part of a Trail of major memorials. Another found in London outside the Ministry of Defence Building on the Northern Embankment, is that of the Battle of Britain.


Even on a cold and wet winters day it is an inspiring memorial placed near the busy junction at Westminster Bridge.

Sculpted by Paul Day, work on the site began in February 2005 with erection of a 82ft long granite base, in two parts, on which to stand the bronze sculpture. Created initially in wax, the sculptures were cast in bronze by Morrris Singer in sections, each section depicting a scene relating to the Battle. The memorial was finally opened by HRH the Prince of Wales on 18th September 2005.


The main and most significant section shows pilots as they ‘scramble’ to their waiting aircraft. Around this, are scenes referring to the women who helped not only in the factories and munitions works, but those who ferried the vital aircraft to their airfields. Other scenes depict: workers in a slit trench watching the battle rage overhead, the gunners defending the airfield, a dogfight, observers, mechanics and fitters all of whom worked tireless to keep the damaged aircraft flying. Further depictions show pilots at rest, drinking tea and relaxing telling tales of heroism and narrow escapes. A prominent picture that came out of the battle and the following blitz, was that of Saint Paul’s Cathedral standing proud of the smoke as all London burns around it. This too has been immortalised in bronze on another of the 14 scenes.

The detail of each panel is incredible. The emotion behind the eyes of those depicted grabs the passer-by and holds them, captured momentarily in time.


The entire battle is described through these characters, the romantic idea of the battle as seen by the farm workers, the joy of a victory from returning  crews, the tiredness after yet another sortie, and the fear as they run not knowing if this were to be a one way journey.

Around the scenes are the 2,937 names of the airmen who took part in Battle. As many records from the day were inaccurate, mislaid or destroyed it had to be decided upon what criteria  would be set in order to ‘qualify’ for a listing. This was that the pilot had to have flown between 10th July and 31st October 1940 and to have been awarded the Battle of Britain Clasp after flying at least one operational sortie in one of the recognised squadrons. A daunting task that took many hours of reading and research but was eventually completed and finalised as the 2,937 that appear today.  

There are 15 countries listed, covering 544 pilots who died during the battle and 795 who were to die by the end of the war. Interestingly, there is no Israeli mention, yet in the 1969 film made famous by its incredible cast, an Israeli pilot is mentioned. Perhaps this is due to the criteria used or inaccuracies in records used by the film.

Winston Churchill’s immortalised words ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’ are etched into the  base of the memorial bringing the entire structure to life.

The detail on this memorial is incredible, just glance and you’ll miss it. The way each scene is depicted in great detail even down to the ruffles in the clothing, the emotion behind the eyes and the position of the various people, it is an awe-inspiring memorial that proudly and aptly reflects those who gave so much for so many.

The memorial is found on the Victoria Embankment opposite the London Eye to the East of Westminster Bridge.

Other major memorials can be found here.

Battle of Britain Memorial Capel-le-Ferne, Kent.

A recent revisit took me back to the Battle of Britain memorial at Capel-le-Ferne between Folkestone and Dover, in Kent. It sits high on the cliff-top, in a windy corner, a stones throw from the international docks at Dover, and the Battle of Britain airfield at Hawkinge. A ‘recent’ addition to the range of memorials, it is a poignant reminder of the young men who, from many nationalities, gave their lives in the name of freedom and the defence of this country.

Last time I was here, work was starting on the new visitor centre and the two replica aircraft, a Spitfire and Hurricane, had both been removed.

The replica Hurricane.

This week, on May 25th 2015, I went back to see what had been done.

The new centre is superb. First of all it has a good car park with ample space for a large number of cars.

The visitors centre itself has a bright open reception area and a small shop for souvenirs (I had to buy a book!) and upstairs a new cafe with a balcony overlooking the monument and across  the English Channel to France.

The Visitors center behind the ‘Wall of Honour’.

Entrance to the memorial is still free, but there is the option to try the ‘scramble’ experience, which I believe costs £6.00.

The Spitfire and Hurricane are both back, admittedly both are metal replicas but up here it gets very windy and the weather can change dramatically in seconds, so it’s probably for the best. They are certainly good replicas. 

The carved Pilot, sitting in the centre of a three-bladed propeller, gazes patiently out to sea, watching for his missing friends. Designed by Harry Gray of the Carving Workshop, Cambridge, the pilot is surrounded by the creats of those squadrons who took part in the famous battle in the Kent skies.

To either side, two large mounds, signify the locations of anti-aircraft batteries, now silent and filled in, perhaps two replica emplacements might add to the ‘feel’ of the site, although sometimes less is more.

As before, the monument is a quiet and moving place to sit; to read the names of those who gave their lives for us, and to absorb yourself in the battle through the numerous information panels around the site. From here you begin to imagine the vapour and smoke trails high above you and to think that Hitler and his invasion forces, stood not more than 30 miles away in the distant haze on the coast of France.

A big improvement to a very moving place.

Diary of a Luftwaffe pilot

A recent visit to an antiques shop, led to the purchase of two books, one detailing the events of the Battle of Britain, the second included short diary entries of Luftwaffe pilots. Sadly, not many Luftwaffe diaries exist today, all but a few being destroyed in case they fell into enemy hands! As a result, records are sketchy, few and far between.

Some of these Luftwaffe entries refer to the Battle of Britain.  I tried to make a comparison, maybe one entry would refer to the other – sadly they were not sufficiently detailed enough to be certain. This aside, I was intrigued to see the Germans portrayed their part in the battle and how they might compare in terms of recounts.

After the fall of France, the Germans built up strong groups of fighters, transports and bombers in readiness for the coming invasion of Great Britain. Five main groups (Luftflotte ‘air fleets’ similar to the RAF groups) operated across the German empire. Covering the eastern borders were Luftflotte 1 and 4, to the north in Norway and Denmark was the newly formed Luftflotte 5 and in Belgium and France , Luftflotte 2 and 3 respectively.Total servicable aircraft facing Britain amounted to 3,157.

Jagdgeschwader 3 (fighter ‘wing’ made up of 3 Gruppen*1 and 1 Stab) normally stationed on the eastern front, had been brought in to bolster numbers in Luftflotte 2 and were now based at Samer not far from Boulogne. Commanded by Hauptmann Hans von Hahn*2 (himself a German Luftwaffe ace and recipient of the Knight’s Cross), Luftflotte 2 were able to field 23 Messerschmitt Bf 109Es at the start of September.

The mid part of September had been dogged by poor weather, on the 12th 13th and 14th, the Luftwaffe launched only small raids and reconnaissance missions with minimal numbers of aircraft. Many fighter pilots were given the luxury of rest periods some even taking in local sites.

One of the biggest days of the Battle of Britain, now celebrated as Battle of Britain day, was Sunday 15th September 1940. It saw a major change in Luftwaffe policies. The weather was misty but promised to improve, and the Germans saw this as an opportunity to bring a severe blow to London and the RAF; this would be the ultimate prelude to invasion.

The Unit war diary for 1 Gruppe, Jagdgeschwader 3, September 15th 1940*3, reads:

12:00.

Escort (by 12 aircraft) Do 17s against London. Oblt Keller shot down the Spitfire, Leutnant Rohwer a Hurricane. Fw Wollmer dived into the channel; the impact was seen by Lt Springer. This crash appears not to have been caused by enemy action. After a long dive Wollmer’s machine rolled a quarter turn into a vertical dive and he did not succeed in bailing out. A motorboat detached from a German convoy near Cap Gris Nez and went to the scene of the crash.

15:10.

Operation by nine aircraft to escort He 111s against London. At 1,500m there was almost total cloud cover. Over the Thames estuary and to the north of London there were gaps in the cloud. During the flight in there was contact with Spitfires. The bombers flew in loose formation to the north of London. Strong and accurate flak. The Spitfires came from above, fired, and dived away. Hauptmann von Hahn shot down the Spitfire, Lt Rohwer probably destroyed a Hurricane. During an attack by Spitfires Oberleutnant Reumschuessel became separated from his wing-man, Obfw Olejnik, and has not returned (this aircraft crashed near Charing, Kent; the pilot bailed out and was taken prisoner). After he was separated from the formation Obfw Hessel was heard on the radio, but he failed to return (this aircraft crash near Tenterdon; The pilot bailed out was taken prisoner). Obfw Buchholz’s aircraft was hit in the cooling system and forced down in the Channel. Oblt Keller made contact with the rescue aircraft nearby, which picked up Buchholz. He had injuries and was taken to the military hospital a Boulogne. The body of Lt Kloiber has been washed ashore near St. Cecile, and buried. Lt Meckel and two Feldwebeln attended the funeral. During the last few days news has been received from the Red Cross in Geneva that Oblt Tiedmann, Oblt Rau, Oblt Loidolt, Lt Landry (these last two wounded) and Obfw Lamskemper have been captured by the British”.

 An interesting read, if only there were more!

Notes:

*1 The singular is ‘Gruppe‘ and each Gruppen operated with three Gruppe. Each Gruppe would operate from one airfield but moved as a Gruppen.

*2 Hauptmann Hans von Hahn more infomration can be found at http://www.luftwaffe.cz/hahn3.html or http://falkeeins.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/hans-von-hahn-and-his-stab-ijg-3.html

*3 The Luftwaffe Data Book, Dr. Alfred Price (1977) Greenhill Publications pg196-197

What the Luftwaffe failed to do, the local council have finally managed.

Many of Britain’s airfields have hung on desperately to a small corner of history. Hawkinge is sadly one of those that has been buried deep beneath housing, schools and shops. Sadly, one of England’s most historic airfields, has finally been defeated not by Goring’s Luftwaffe, but by local planners.

Hawkinge was at the forefront of the Battle of Britain, it was repeatedly attacked by the bombers of the Luftwaffe. Because of its location, just minutes from France, crews would often have little warning and would have to take to the sky unprepared. Many returning aircraft would use its runways as a safe haven returning battle damaged and weary; Hawkinge fire crews were some of the busiest Britain was to have. It was used as a transport depot in the First World War, became a mecca for international pilots, saw some of the first ‘drones’ and was used in the filming of the 1969 film ‘The Battle of Britain’.

Today a small museum, utilises what’s left of the original buildings whilst housing creeps like poison ivy, ever further across the airfield.

The nearby cemetery is home to not only RAF pilots but also fallen Luftwaffe crews, ironically remaining in the land they tried to take all those years ago.

As part of a second aviation trail around historic Kent, Hawkinge is a must for any follower of history, aviation or the Battle Of Britain.

See the full story and Kent’s second trail here.
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Polish Fighter Ace Turned a V1 on its back.

The first V1 for 315 sqn was shot down by Flt Sgt Jankowski at 13:10 on July 11th. There were three more the following day and several others would meet similar fates. Shooting down a V1 was dangerous, many aircraft being caught in the subsequent blast. Other, less conventional methods would include tipping the wing of the V1 destabilising the gyroscopic guidance system within, sending it tumbling to the ground. On one occasion, WO Tadeusz Szymanski managed to completely turn a V1 onto its back using such a method.

Brenzett, was an advanced landing ground, built to be temporary, but even so, it produced some remarkable stories.

As part of a second trail around Kent, we visit three more of Britain’s airfields, Hawkinge, Brenzett and Lashenden. Each with its own story to tell. Want to know more? click here to go back to 1940s England and then see what has happened to these historic places.

Brenzett village sign

Brenzett Village Sign Depicts its Aviation History