I was recently contacted by Trevor Danks, a volunteer during the restoration of Vulcan XH558, until 2015, the world’s last flying Vulcan bomber. Trevor very kindly sent me his memories along with a selection of his photos, taken whilst working as a volunteer during the aircraft’s restoration.
My sincere thanks go to Trevor for sharing his memories and photos with me.
Memories of a Vulcan XH558 Restoration Volunteer.
I joined the 558 Club at the RIAT 2000 at RAF Cottesmore. At that time I was unable to play any active part due to work commitments. However by 2005 I was semi retired and when the request came out for volunteers to help out with the restoration of XH558, I replied immediately.
I had been an Airframe Mechanic during my National Service in the RAF between 1955 and 1957. I had been fortunate to be posted to 232 OCU Valiant Squadron at RAF Gaydon and became a member of a ground crew on a Valiant. So the prospect of being in close proximity to the Vulcan was an exciting prospect.
Following the first call for volunteers an e-mail was sent out asking if anyone knew someone who could do a drawing of the hangar at Bruntingthorpe, at minimum cost. I replied by e-mail to say that I would do it on my CAD system at no cost as part of my volunteer work. So on a cold April morning in 2005, I met Colin Marshall at Bruntingthorpe to discuss what was required. The first task was to take measurements of the hangar. I was also supplied with a drawing of the Vulcan which had to be shown in position in the hangar. Another volunteer, Derek Bates, helped with the measuring of the hangar. The original drawing was to be part of a document for the Heritage Lottery Fund. However as time passed the drawing was amended a few times and the later version is shown below, which shows the visitors walkway.
Hangar Layout (Bruntingthorpe).
The Hangar layout at Bruntingthorpe (Trevor Danks)
I became a member of the Wednesday Crew (See photo) together with a number of other volunteers. On that day there were a basic six of us who, from the start, did a variety of jobs. In the beginning we helped to set up the hangar to meet the requirements of Marshall Aerospace, the hangar becoming part of their engineering facilities located at Cambridge. Apart from the tidying up, dismantling or erecting shelving and racking, we participated in the setting up of the technical library, under the supervision of Frank Edmondson, this held all the Air Publications (AP’s).
Our main task lay with the 600 tons of spares held in the Deep Store, better known as “The Shed”. Over the days of the restoration we sorted, counted, placed in boxes and put the spares in the racking. This information was input to the computer. After which we then had to find and retrieve spares as and when required by the engineers. All this was carried out under the supervision of Simon Chipman. We were a happy bunch beavering away in The Shed, sometimes very hot and sometimes very cold depending on the time of the year. During tea and lunchtime breaks in the Airfield Diner we would reminisce about our days in the RAF or times past when the Vulcan was flying at displays.
In August 2006 it had reached a critical point where more finance was need to be able to complete the restoration. A fund raising operation had been carried out but the trust was still £500,000 short so the paid employees had been put on notice to end their employment. Everyone was convinced that it looked as this was to be the end of the project. After the aircraft had been rolled out to loud cheers a louder cheer went up as Sir Michael Knight, Chairman of VTTS Trust, announced a donation of £500,000 had been received from a mystery donor. The donor turned out to be Jack Hayward, owner at the time of Wolves football club.
When the Vulcan finally got to the stage of emerging from the hangar for such as engine runs we joined together with all the other volunteers who came on other days of the week. This usually required us to do a ‘FOD Plod’ which entailed us doing a walk of where the Vulcan was to pass, picking up any debris lying about. The first time the Vulcan was taken out for an engine test run, it was taken to a dispersal pad on the edge of the airfield. Having run the engines individually the time came to run them together up to 75% full power. I and a colleague were stationed on the perimeter track to prevent anyone coming along it. As the power increased we noticed a shed on the side of the perimeter track beginning to move. We quickly flagged the ground crew to shut down before the shed disappeared into the trees. The aircraft was then repositioned to continue the engine run.
The most enjoyable FOD Plod was on 18th October 2007 when we were all out on the runway at 7.30am as dawn broke. The expectancy on that day was electric; our little crew had been appointed as the emergency team in the team bus with the task of dashing to an emergency entrance on the edge of the airfield. This was to let in emergency vehicles in the event of a mishap. Fortunately the day blossomed into a beautiful day both weather-wise and the rebirth of a much loved aircraft. When the crew of XH558 let off the brakes and that famous engine “Howl” was heard, one minute it was rushing down the runway and the next 100 feet up as it went past us in the viewing area. We cheered like mad and hugged each other with not a dry eye in the house.
Sqd. Ldr Dave Thomas – VOC Display Pilot: AEO Barry Masefield – VOC AEO & Radio Op.: Sqd Ldr Al McDicken – Marshalls’ Test Pilot
This was not the end but the beginning, as much had to done to get it to the stage of giving a display at the Waddington Air Show in 2008. There were other engine runs and flights, with XH558 getting her certificate to display just two days before the first day of the Air Show. All the time the Vulcan remained at Bruntingthorpe I continued to visit there on a Wednesday. When it moved to RAF Lyneham and the office to Hinckley, I changed my visits to Hinckley and became part of the education team. From this I developed my Power Point presentation to give talks about the restoration time. However I retain the happy memories of our days at Bruntingthorpe and count myself very lucky to have been part of what can only be described as a great adventure. I was at Waddington for that first display and also managed to attend the day she flew with the two Lancaster bombers.
Since those days I have managed to visit Robin Hood Airport on a couple of occasions. The last time I managed to get the signatures of Taff Stone and Andrew Edmondson added to all the other signatures in my copy of Vulcan 607.
‘The Wednesday Crew’ – John, Trevor, Peter, Dave, Bob and Vic.
Volunteers with ‘Brunty Bear’ (XH558 Mascot) On head centre front row.
Roll Out Day – XH558 Outside for first time August 2006.
After Part 4, in this, the final part of Trail 62, we round off our look at RAF Leuchars. We have seen how to grew from a balloon training ground in the pre-war years to a training station for early flyers. Then on to maritime patrol, the Cold War and QRA status. Now as the years pass, defence cuts rear their heads once gain, Leuchars is once more under threat from politics.
The 1970s would see a return to training here at Leuchars with both the RAF and the Royal Navy embarking on new ventures with the Phantom – McDonnell Douglas’s all round, all-weather, multi-role aircraft. With new models, come new training units, and with the arrival of 111 Sqn the famous ‘Treble One’, in November 1975, also came a training support unit – the Post Operational Conversion Unit (later known as the Phantom Training Flight). The primary role of this unit was to train Fleet Air Arm aircrews for carrier borne models of the Phantom.
A No. 111 Squadron McDonnell Douglas F-4K Phantom FG.1, an aircraft closely associated with RAF Leuchars. (License: GNU Free Documentation License 1.2)
By the early 1970s, the shortcomings of the Lightning were now more than apparent, a lack of range and loitering ability becoming more obvious as the Phantom’s capabilities outshone it. A slower, but far more advanced Phantom, was proving to be more than just a suitable replacement for the now ageing ‘rocket of the skies’.
Whilst the Phantom was phased in and the Lightning phased out, pilots of the Lightnings continued to be wary of its tendency for engine fires, a problem that had been present for some time. One such incident saw Lightning XS918 catch fire before the pilot (Flying Officer Doidge) manged to eject over the North Sea, West of The Bell Rock, 9 miles East of RAF Leuchars. Unfortunately controversy surrounded several aspects of the pilots kit, after he ejected he became detached from his survival kit, an inquiry highlighting ‘modifications’ to his clothing that may or may not have led to his tragic loss of life. In what appears to have been common practice amongst many airmen, changes were officially made to the kits supplied to aircrew in light of the accident.
The transition between Phantom and Lightning was a smooth if not rapid one. At Leuchars, the final farewell was made at the annual open day in September 1975, when six of 23 Squadron’s Lightnings and and four Phantoms of 43 Sqn formed a flypast. The Lightnings passing over the airfield in dramatic style saying a last farewell to the station where it has performed its duties so well for many years. With their disbandment in October, the baton and well and truly been passed over to a new breed of aircraft.
Between 1972 and 1978, Leuchars saw further sporadic returns of the Royal Navy, with 892 Squadron from HMS Ark Royal utilising the ground space for its operations. By 1978 though, 892 Sqn was disbanded, and their ship – the Ark Royal – decommissioned, bringing an end to this relationship between the navy and Leuchars. However, the FG.1 Phantoms used by 892 were absorbed into 111 Sqn, replacing the FGR.2s they had been operating before.
The end of 892 Sqn was marred by a tragic accident When rehearsing for the final solo display, the aircraft, a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG 1 ‘XT868’ flown by Cdr. C. C. N. Davies and his navigator/observer Lt J. Gavin, suffered multiple engine failures whilst flying low, downwind along the runway axis. The aircraft entered a tight right hand turn through 180º to fly dead stick back along the runway. The Phantom’s right wing then struck the ground, and with the aircraft now perpendicular to the runway, the pilot ejected followed almost immediately by the observer. In their exits, the pilot was severely injured whilst the observer was sadly killed.
The decision to scrap the angled-decked carriers of the Navy would in turn have an eventual knock on effect at Leuchars. With both naval Buccaneers and Phantoms transferring to the RAF, no new training would take place – the Navy now looking toward the introduction the Harrier. The Phantom Training Flight would for now, remain at Leuchars though its role ‘downgraded’ to performing refresher training, ensuring that a round the clock, carrier based status was maintained in the UK.
It was also at this time that another film crew arrived – this time from the BBC – who used Ark Royal and her on-board flying units, including 892 Sqn, for their documentary ‘Sailor‘. The iconic insight into carrier operations was perhaps made even more famous by its theme tune of a similar name sung by Rod Stewart.
The 1970s saw continuous and increased intrusions into the the northern airspace around the UK, and as a result QRA scrambles became more common place at Leuchars than any other UK station. A massed show of force on Lenin’s centenary provided a massive ‘target’ for the QRA aircraft, with no less than 60 ‘Bears’ and ‘Badgers’ filling the skies on one day alone over the North Sea. A major headache for the QRA crews, it did however provide an excellent photo opportunity even allowing for a Marham Victor to shadow a Soviet Tu-95 ‘Bear’ much to the annoyance of the AOC No.1 Group when he got to hear about it.
With continued use, the runway needed a further resurfacing, and after the Phantoms of 43 Sqn had departed to Kinloss for a ‘Bolthole’ (where Station based aircraft deploy to temporary locations) deployment to carry out QRA operations from there, and those of 111 had left for Coningsby, Leuchars was left to the developers, and for an estimated eight months the airfield was effectively out of front line action.
Now with restricted runway use, the Whirlwind and Wessex helicopters and later Sea Kings, of 22 Sqn, would be the main users of Leuchars; their Air Sea Rescue operations combining with the Scottish Mountain Rescue teams, saving not only downed aircrew but stranded climbers as well . They would also be joined by the University Air Squadrons from nearby St. Andrew’s, Aberdeen and Dundee (later amalgamated to form the East of Scotland Universities Air Squadron) who would use Leuchars for training with their Scottish Aviation Beagle Bulldogs.
Once completed, a second phase of work was then undertaken, new hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) were to be built. Common place on bases in Germany, these were designed to withstand conventional attacks, providing protection for individual aircraft whilst dispersed around the airfield. In an announcement made by Sir Michael Beetham the Chief of the Air Staff, Leuchars and five other airfields were to receive these ‘new’ shelters. It would take several years though before those at Leuchars were ready with its QRA aircraft safely tucked inside.
As the 1980s turned into the 1990s, the Phantom had now reached the end of its life and the new Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) the ‘Tornado’ would soon be appearing. The two Leuchars based squadrons, 43 and 111 were both stood down, the Phantoms removed and the Tornadoes brought in. 43 Sqn, who had been based at Leuchars since 1969 being the first to receive the new aircraft, a transition that saw all the Phantoms gone from the Scottish base within a year.
The introduction of the Tornado was not without its own political and military wrangling. Doubts cast upon the ability of the multi-role aircraft to perform as well as those aircraft it was designed to replace were raised by the military. History had shown some dramatic failures on this score whilst others, such as the Mosquito, had shown it more than possible with great success. Politicians however, seemed more drawn between upsetting the Americans who were trying to sell the F-15, and the multi national consortium Panavia Aircraft GmbH, who collectively built the Tornado. The decision would be a fine balance.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet incursions around the UK’s airspace would drop, the need for interceptors had now seemingly reduced, and so a review of the RAF’s front line operations was once again on the cards. The withdrawal of both the Phantom and shortly after the Buccaneer, left the Tornado as Britain’s only front line defence aircraft.
With the Gulf War in the 1991, the Tornadoes of Leuchars would play a major part and all eyes would be on them, scrutinising their every move. The gradual phasing out of Buccaneers and Jaguars leaving a lot on the shoulders of Tornado crews.
In 1995 two 43 Sqn Tornadoes from Leuchars were involved in a mid air collision over the North Sea. One of the aircraft ZE210 collided with the second, ZE733, during a joining up manoeuvre at 12,000ft whilst using night vision goggles. The pilot of ZE733 lost control and the two crew (Flt. Lt. McCarry and Flt. Lt. Booth) safely ejected, being rescued by an Air Sea Rescue helicopter from RAF Boulmer. The second aircraft, ZE210, suffered damage to the hood and electrics, which knocked out the navigational aids. On landing, it took a considerable time to extract the crew due to the damage sustained to the hood. The aircraft was not repaired instead being used for spares before finally being dumped at St. Athan. *8
The 2000s saw further upgrades to aircraft and new squadrons arrive. An Operation Conversion Unit for Tornadoes No. 56 (Reserve) Squadron, arrived in 2003. It was designed to upgrade pilots to the new variant Tornado. Absorbed into the long standing 43 Sqn, it remained on site and active until 2009 when it too was disbanded.
Further cut backs to finances meant the final departure of the Jaguars from bases in England. For Leuchars it would see the reforming of the University Air Squadrons into the ESUAS. A single training unit operating in conjunction with the three Scottish Universities .
After 2010 the Tornadoes were replaced by the Typhoons of 1 and 6 Sqns. 1 Sqn was reformed here on 15th September 2012, and joined 6 Sqn who had been reformed here on 6th September 2010, this offered an almost seamless transition from Tornadoes to Typhoons. These modern fighters now formed Britain’s front line of defence against potential aggressors taking over the QRA status for the north. But in 2014, orders came through to move the RAF out of Leuchars transferring the aircraft, personnel and role to Lossiemouth in Moray. On 31st March 2015 at 12:00 hrs, ownership of Leuchars officially passed over to the Army, Leuchars’ named was changed to Leuchars Station, and its history as an operational airfield had finally come to an end.
Designated an emergency landing ground, (Master Diversion Airfield or MDA) between 2015 and 2016 no fewer than fifteen aircraft used Leuchars for ’emergency’ landings. These included: Tucanoes (Linton-on-Ouse), Tornadoes GR4 (Lossiemouth); Hawks (Leeming); Typhoons (Coningsby) and F15s from Lakenheath in Suffolk.
A minor respite in 2020 saw the QRA Typhoons return briefly as work was carried out on Lossiemouth’s runway. Within a short period of time though, this was completed and the aircraft departed once more leaving Leuchars quiet again.
This move signified the last full use of Leuchars by the Royal Air Force, responsibility of this long standing Scottish airfield being handed over to the the British Army who now based the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Royal Engineers here. Various other non-flying units do serve here including The Military police units and 612 (R) Squadron, a medical unit of the RAF.
Whilst the defence cuts of 2010 indicated the closure of Leuchars, in October 2020, it was confirmed by the Ministry of Defence that they were looking into increasing both civilian and military usage of the airfield at Leuchars. Whilst there remains no intention to retain, or base aircraft here, the installation of fuel facilities does give hope that aviation will return in some form in the future. The indications are that by opening Leuchars to civilian traffic, it could bring revenue in to the hard pressed MOD*7.
Leuchars played a major part in two World conflicts being used primarily by the RAF throughout its life. The Royal Navy (Fleet Air Arm) have also been based here, as have the Army who are now the current main residents of the base. Other users include: the Dutch, the Norwegians, the Canadians, Australians and New Zealand Air Forces as well as civil aviation organisations and University Air Squadrons.
More recently, with it being located closer to international airspace which is regularly penetrated by Soviet aircraft, the RAF’s Northern QRA aircraft were based here for many years before moving away to Lossiemouth in Moray, someway further north. Leuchars’ history is therefore long and very varied, covering a wide range of users in a multitude of roles.
RAF Leuchars has a history going back over 100 years. It was never upgraded to ‘A’ class status, and has only ever had two runways. Originally built from concrete and wood chip, the surface was upgraded to accommodate the jets of modern warfare, and the infrastructure has been added to as the airfield grew.
It has been home to a considerable number of front line squadrons along with an extensive collection of support flights, training flights and non-flying units. The number of people that have passed through its doors probably uncountable. It performed during the first World War, trained air crew in the inter-war years, and carried out vital work during the Second. Post war, it formed the front line of defence against potential Soviet aggression before returning to training through the University Air Squadrons across Scotland. Now home to the British Army, it is at least for the time being open for business, but as a flying military site, it is all but closed.
Its location has been in many ways its saviour. Operating maritime patrols and clandestine operations into occupied and neutral Europe. The Fleet Air Arm were formed from its units, and the Air Forces of several nations have been based here. It has a history that is so diverse and dynamic that very few other airfields in Britain can match it. As with other airfields across the country, its future hangs in the balance, I hope that this long living and prestigious site remains alive and well to honour all those who over the last 100 years have served from its runways.
Leuchars as an operational military site is not accessible to the general public and views across it are limited. It is thought that two rare First World War Double Royal Flying Corps General Service Aircraft Sheds are among the few original buildings that survive on the site. The accommodation areas have now been sold off to private buyers, but the airfield is intact as it is used as an emergency landing ground and by the ESUAS. With care, opportunities are there to see this historic and fascinating piece of Britain’s aviation history.
The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.
Sources and further reading
*1 Fatal Air Accidents website 12th November 1918 – November 1919
As Leuchars emerged from the Second World War in Part 3, it entered a new phase in its long and distinguished life. No longer operating maritime patrols, it was now entering the Cold War, and under a new Command, that of Fighter Command, it would take on a new role with a new breed of aircraft.
Throughout the war Leuchars had been a maritime operations base, with submarine hunts, convoy patrols and anti-shipping flights taking the role of its front line squadrons. But with the last of the long range patrol aircraft being posted out, Leuchars’ role would now change, and a new breed of aircraft would be seen along its runways.
The Cold War brought a new dimension to warfare, nuclear weapons and the arms race were the flavour of the day. With both sides fearing preemptive attacks, fighters and bombers capable of carrying these potent weapons were in great need. Whilst bomber airfields across the length and breadth of Britain were modified to accommodate newer and bigger aircraft, Leuchars physically changed very little. However, being transferred to the control of RAF Fighter Command, Leuchars would be propelled to the forefront of RAF operations, with both day and night fighters soon shattering the quiet of this post war airfield.
This new focus would mean that the 1950s would see Leuchars aircraft participating in a number of high profile exercises ‘Coronet‘, ‘Premraf‘, ‘Kingpin‘, ‘Formulate‘ and ‘Fabulous‘ which often required the deployment of detachments to airfields around the United Kingdom. These exercises, varied in their structure, would often include Leuchars aircraft acting as the enemy trying to attack shipping or other targets at altitudes from very low level up to 50,000 feet. Air-to-air gunnery was also involved as war air-to-ground rocketry.
With this transfer came further changes. The first jet to arrive was the Meteor in the form of the F4. with 222 Sqn in May 1950. After staying for seven years upgrading to the F.8 and then returning back to the F.4, the unit was finally disbanded in 1957 only to re-emerge as a Bloodhound operator at RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire.
The next squadron to arrive, 43 Sqn, arrived in November 1950, and also brought the Meteor F.8. On 22nd October 1952, one of these aircraft Meteor F8 VZ461 ‘W’ was lost on route from RAF Acklington to Leuchars as part of three-ship formation. The aircraft (number two in the formation) suffered problems when its artificial horizon failed. The pilot, Pilot Officer Maurice William Prior, notified the lead pilot who instructed him to make a starboard turn and rejoin the group above the clouds. Unfortunately the Meteor descended instead, and struck the sea near to Coquet Island off Amble, Northumberland. In the accident, which was put down to ‘instrument failure’, the pilot lost his life.*9
43 Sqn retained their Meteors until 1954, they then replaced them with the Hawker Hunter; flying marks including the: F.1, F.4, F.6 and F.G.A.9 in a front line role. After transferring to Nicosia in 1961 and eventual disbandment, the squadron was reformed here at Leuchars in in 1969 with the McDonnell Douglas Phantom FG.1. An upgrade to the FGR.2 in May 1988 eventually led to the Phantom being replaced by the Panavia Tornado F.3 in 1989. This made 43 Sqn one of the longest standing front line squadrons to reside at Leuchars in its entire history.
1951 would see another long standing resident unit at Leuchars. But the early months were noted for more short stay units. The ‘sister’ of the Meteor, the DH. Vampire, made a presence through 602, 612 and 603 Sqns between April and July that year, each reflecting Leuchars’ war time record and staying for short periods before moving on. For a while over the summer months, Leuchars would be home to no less than six front line squadrons, five of them with Meteors or Vampires with a sixth flying that old favourite the Spitfire.
Then in September 1951, 151 Sqn was reformed, an ex-wartime unit it had its roots firmly in 1918. Initially flying the Vampire NF.10, Meteor NF.11, and then in September 1955, the Venom NF.3, it left for a spell at Turnhouse before returning to Leuchars in 1957 with the Delta Winged Gloster Javelin FAW.5. In September 1961, the squadron disbanded again being reformed a year later at Watton. During the war it had operated as a night fighter unit, a role it continued here at Leuchars. Donned with the Saltire of St. Andrew, the flag of the patron Saint of Scotland, it would make a good companion for 43 Sqn with whom it had flown with during the Battle of Britain with Hurricanes.
In 1952, a 222 Sqn Meteor from Leuchars took off on a low level training sortie over the Scottish mountains. The aircraft, an F.8 ‘WA882’ piloted by Pilot Officer Brian Lightfoot, departed Leuchars at 9:58am in poor conditions. Snow covered the mountains and frequent snow showers were experienced over the area. At 10:20, a witness reported hearing a crash and seeing black smoke rising from the Scottish mountain Oxen Craig, in the Bennnachie hills, Aberdeenshire. The Meteor had struck the mountain killing the pilot. It took some two weeks to locate the wreckage, most of which was buried at the scene by RAF rescue teams, after which a small memorial was built to commemorate not only the life of P.O. Lightfoot, but also the crew of a Westland Wallace ‘K6028’ which had crashed at the same location in September 1939. The official cause of the pilot’s death was attributed to “poor definition of snow covered mountains in the prevailing conditions”. It was one more loss in the Scottish hills*11.
The 50s saw a more permanent move by some RAF squadrons. 264 Sqn who only stayed for six months in 1952 with Meteors led the way. In 1954 ‘C’ Flight of 275 Sqn arrived, this signified another change in role for Leuchars as it brought the first of the helicopters to the airfield – the Sycamore HR.14. This squadron, formed in 1941 continued to perform its role of Air Sea Rescue (a much needed but over looked service during the war), and the Flight stayed here until the entire squadron was disbanded in 1959. As an Air Sea Rescue unit it understandably had Flights based at a number of sites around the UK, and took on the Whirlwind HAR 2 and 4 prior to disbandment. Working in conjunction with the Mountain Rescue Teams, many civilians as well as aircrew owe them a great deal of gratitude.
1957 then saw Leuchars enter the film industry when a crew arrived to make a film using 43 Sqn as its main squadron. Headlined by Ray Milland (Wing Commander Rudge), Bernard Lee (Flight Sergeant Harris), Leslie Philips (Squadron Leader Blake) and John Le Mesurier as the Commandant, it was about a Commanding Officer of an RAF Training School (Cranwell) who must deal with a difficult cadet. The problem was not the cadet’s behaviour so much as the fact that he reminded the Commandant of himself when he was young. The film included shots of 43 Sqn in low level, gunnery and aerobatic manoeuvres which were filmed until the end of the year when the days were too short to carry on.
The squadron initially identified with the ‘starring role’ was 111 Sqn, who had only that year been recognised as the RAF’s official Fighter Command Aerobatics team, pipping their Leuchars stable mates, 43 Sqn, at the post. ‘Treble One’ took the name of ‘Black Arrows‘ and with their nine ship formation went on to be as famous as the Red Arrows are today. 43 Sqn’s ‘Fighting Cocks‘ were a four ship group and the disappointment of not achieving the status of their Leuchars partners, ended a decade of pageants, displays and European tours where they had been centre stage across many countries.
As the decade drew to a close, so July 1958 would see the arrival of yet more Meteors with 29 Sqn. These NF.12s were operated until replaced by the Javelin, Gloster’s delta wing fighter, before they departed to Nicosia in 1963. This time would also see the arrival of another Air Sea Rescue detachment, that of ‘C’ Flight from 228 Squadron also with the Sycamore helicopter. Throughout the war they had flown in Sunderland flying boats, including from the Scottish West coast base at Oban in 1941. The detachment had remained here until 1964 when it was renumbered as 202 Sqn.
The next forty years would see more front line jet squadrons, 25 Sqn with Javelins FAW.7s who retained these until their disbandment in 1962. They were followed by 23 Sqn who had disposed of their Javelins in preparation for the mighty Lightning, which they received a year after their arrival here in 1963. For eleven years they flew both the F.3 and the F.6, before they too were disbanded in preparation for yet more modern upgrades.
The arrival of the Lightning also heralded the arrival of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) status, the Lightning proving to be a huge step forward in terms of aircraft speed and climb rate compared to its predecessors, was an ideal interceptor; only the appalling fuel consumption and limited armaments of early models prevented it from being the ultimate attack aircraft.
Although QRA’s origins are associated with the Lightning, the Hunters of 43 and 222 Squadrons had previously retained a two minute readiness with aircrew remaining in the cockpit at all times, a rota that kept aircraft at the ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Sitting in the cockpit for many hours, waiting for the chance to intercept a Soviet aircraft, must have been somewhat tedious on occasions – a draining but very necessary part of the job.
Two more units arrived in 1964, 74 (Tiger) Sqn and 202 Sqn. 74 Sqn had had the honour of being the first Lightning squadron in 1960, and for bringing the first Lightning to Leuchars, roaring into the Fife skies in August that year. They remained here for three years whilst another detachment from 202 brought the Whirlwind HAR.10 strengthening Leuchars’ role in Air Sea Rescue. For the next twelve years the helicopters of ‘C’ Flight would operate from here, with other detachments at similar sites including Boulmer and Coltishall.
74 Sqn soon took on the upgraded Avon powered Lightning F.3, this proved to be a godsend as the MK.Is were soon becoming worn out, regular faults being difficult to repair meant that flying hours were starting to fall. This upgrade was followed in September 1966 by the F.6. With this new aircraft they, and Leuchars, would participate in the sixth ‘Tiger Meet’, which saw a gathering of NATO ‘Tiger’ units from across the European and American nations. As Leuchars was hosting the gathering, it would mean a range of unusual aircraft types would appear here, if only for a short period of time. For four days in July 1966: F-100D Super Sabres, Super Mystére B2s, F-104G and CF-104 Starfighters along with F-4D Phantom IIs and a range of support aircraft, would all be present in these operations. This brought a multinational collection of pilots and crews from France, the US, Belgium and Germany to this Scottish airfield.
Unfortunately, the event was marred by the death of French pilot Capt. Joel Dancel, whose Armée de l’Air Super Mystère B.2 struck the ground shortly after take off killing him. As a mark of respect the final days solo displays, which he was practising for, went ahead with the flags of all nations at half mast.
Then followed the infamous Labour Government’s decision in 1965 to axe large parts of the defence budget, thus cancelling numerous projects such as TSR.2. This meant that Britain’s future strike capability was seriously weakened. The various separate commands were rapidly becoming no longer viable, and so now the nearly non-existent Bomber Command and Fighter Command were both amalgamated to form the new Strike Command. It was this Command that would take Leuchars on into the 1970s and beyond.
With more Lightnings arriving in April 1967 with the reforming of the fighter squadron 11 Sqn, a stay of some five years would see the Lightnings continue the role of policing Britain’s North Sea airspace. The RAF’s ongoing interest in Leuchars would also be kept alive and well by the the newly formed 43 Sqn, who joined 11 Sqn in 1967 with the Phantom FG.1. 43 Sqn would remain at Leuchars for over forty years, taking over where the Lightning left off, and eventually taking on the Tornado in 1989/90.
The end of the 1960s saw what was a first for not only 23 Squadron but perhaps even the RAF, when two Lightnings of the squadron left Leuchars to perform at an airshow in Toronto. The flight, made non-stop with the help of over-wing tanks and no less than six Victors for in-flight refuelling, was made by Sdn. Ldr. Ed Durham and Flg. Off. Geoff Brindle, supported by a VC10 carrying ground crew, supplies and spare pilots. The flight, which had lasted for some seven and a half hours, ended at Toronto in front of a massed crowd of well wishers and press, a real coup for the crews of Leuchars.
Leuchars personnel would also celebrate the 50th anniversary of the RAF in 1968, when it was granted the freedom of St. Andrews. A parade through the town was supported by all makes of aircraft stationed at Leuchars including no less than sixteen Lightnings. Whirlwinds and Chipmunks from both the Air Sea Rescue service and the University Air Squadron also took part, further cementing the strong bond that had existed between Leuchars and its neighbouring town.
The 1960s finally drew to a close, world war had so far been averted but Leuchars remained on the front line, monitoring and intercepting Soviet aircraft over the North Sea, at least for the time being.
In the fifth and final part of this trail, we see how Leuchars is affected by defence cuts. The QRA status is at risk as is the very future of this historic airfield.
The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.
In Part One of RAF Polebrook, we saw how the airfield had been developed, how it had been used by the first B-17s in RAF service. We saw how the first USAAF B-17 had landed setting the wheels of history in motion. We also saw the first USAAF bombing mission, and the American’s first major losses of the war. By mid 1943 a new unit, the 351st Bomb Group, was now arriving at Polebrook and they too were preparing for combat and their first mission of the War.
On May 12th 1943, the 351st would be initiated into the conflict, but it was not the most auspicious of starts to their campaign. The Eighth Air Force put up a force of seventy-two B-17s from the 4 BW and a further ninety-seven from the 1 BW. The call required all fourteen 351st BG aircraft to head for St. Omer / Ft. Rouge in France. After the lead aircraft discovered a fault in the oxygen system, it turned for home, the remaining aircraft then became disorganised and returned to base without dropping a single bomb.
The 351st would improve and go on to attack many prestige targets including: Schweinfurt, Mayen, Koblenz, Hannover, Berlin, Cologne, Mannheim and Hamburg. They would later go on to target submarine pens, harbours and ‘V’ weapons sites. Ground support was provided for both the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and other major ground battles up to and including the crossing of the Rhine.
Stone foundations poke through the undergrowth.
In October 1943, the unit received the first of its Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC), with highly accurate bombing in very challenging conditions raising the standing of this new group. A second DUC was to follow in January 1944 for action deep in the heart of Germany. During an attack on Leipzig in the ‘Big Week’ campaign of 20th – 25th February 1944, two crewmen of the 510th, 2nd Lt Walter Truemper (Navigator) and Sgt. Archibald Mathies*2 (Flt. Engineer), both received Medals of Honour for taking over their stricken aircraft when both Pilot and Co-Pilot were injured / killed. B-17, TU-A ‘Ten Horsepower‘ (#42-31763), was directly hit by flak, both Truemper and Mathies nursed the aircraft back to Polebrook where they allowed the other crew members to bail out safely. On attempting to land the aircraft for the third time, it crashed (Great North Road) between Glatton (Trail 6) and Polebrook exploding, killing all three remaining crew members.
The last moments of B-17G “Ten Horsepower” (TU-A, #42-21763) piloted by Second Lieutenant Walter E Truemper and Sergeant Archibald Mathies, as it is guided by a fellow aircraft after the pilot was severely injured. Truemper and Mathies unsuccessfully attempted to land the aircraft at Polebrook and were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour for their bravery, 20th February 1944. (IWM FRE 4724)
It was also during this time that (Cp.) Clark Gable was stationed at Polebrook, initially to make recruitment films for air gunners, flying five combat missions in total and taking a film crew on each one. The first was on 4th May 1943 and his last on 23rd September that same year. He was initially awarded the Air Medal, and later the Distinguished Flying Cross, finally leaving Polebrook with over 50,000 feet of film on 5th November 1943. In 1944, the film ‘Combat America’, narrated by Gable himself, was shown in theatres around the United States. The film covers the 351st from their departure from the United states through their campaign. Included is footage of the collision between the two B-17s on May 7th 1943.
Another remarkable record was set at Polebrook, between 13th June 1943 and January 11th 1944, when Maj. Eliza LeDoux would lead the 509th BS (351st BG) for fifty-two consecutive missions without losing either a single man nor a single aeroplane. An astonishing example set when at the same time other US Groups were losing aircraft at a rate of around 5%.
Major LeDoux, CO, 509th BS, 351st BG, 20th June 1943. He led his squadron without loss for 52 consecutive missions.
The 351st remained at Polebrook until shortly after VE day, returning to the US and becoming deactivated on August 28th 1945. Polebrook then became quiet once more being put under care and maintenance until its closure in 1948.
During the three years the 351st were at Polebrook, they flew a total of 279 B-17s on 9,075 sorties with 7,945 of them dropping 20,778 tons of bombs. Air gunners on these aircraft were credited with 303 enemy aircraft destroyed. In all they flew 311 credited missions losing 175 B-17s in all.
One interesting point about Polebrook was that as a station under care and maintenance, it is thought that within its hangars was the last Short Stirling to be owned by the Royal Air Force. A MK.V aircraft, it was struck off charge in 1946, a point that ended a long and interesting career for an aircraft that has long been considered a failure. As a bomber, this was certainly partly true, the many teething problems it had suffered – a lack of altitude, poor climb rate, continued engine problems and a tendency to swing on take off – all giving it a bad name. However, it could out manoeuvre a Lancaster and it could give any fighter of its time a run for its money. By the end of its flying career, the Stirling was loved by its crews, it had been a successful transport aircraft, mining platform and had brought many POWs back home after the war. Sadly though, none survived other than as wrecks at the bottom of Fjords or as bits salvaged from various crash sites across Europe. The days of the Stirling were now over and the only person to gain any benefit from them was to be the scrap man.
3 Thor missile sites remain used for farm machinery.
But it wasn’t quite the same for Polebrook. Post war, and with the heightened threat from the Soviet Union, Polebrook was once more brought back to life, with three Thor missile sites being constructed in the centre of the main runway. These remained operational until August 1963 when they were finally removed and the site closed off. It was sold back to the former owners, at which point the airfield’s runways were dug up for valuable hardcore and many of the buildings were pulled down.
Standing on the site now, the wind howling across the open fields, it is easy to imagine how the site must have been all those years ago. A memorial stands on what remains of the main runway, a small section of concrete, overlooking the airfield.
A memorial looks over the remnants of the main runway.
Two benches carved in marble with a main triangular stone are beautifully carved and cared for. Trees planted in lines mark the threshold where many bombers would have left on their way to targets in occupied Europe. A guest book is supplied in a wooden box and signatures reveal visitors from all over the world.
Across the road from here, tucked away in the corner of a field, is the main battle headquarters. Originally a sunken chamber with communications centre and raised platform, it allows observers a full 360 degree view over the site and surrounding area. Built to specification 1008/41 it is sadly now flooded and standing proud of the ground. Both access points are open to the more adventurous, or fool hardy, explorer.
The battle headquarters offers 360 degree views.
The single largest and most well-preserved building is the original ‘J’ type hangar. Used for farming purposes, it is well looked after and visible from most parts of the site. The T2 hangars that would have been opposite are gone. as has the control tower and other main structures.
The three Thor sites are still standing, used by the farmer for storage. They were (at the time of visiting) buried beneath hay bales and farm machinery. One is clearly visible however, the blast walls standing proud. Whilst careful exploring around the others reveals tracks and remains of the housing for the Liquid oxygen supply tank and hydropneumatic controllers, all ancillary buildings are gone.
The best evidence of life at Polebrook can be seen from the entrance to the ‘industrial’ site on the Lutton to Polebrook Road. This area, now woodland, is actually designated a nature reserve and access is freely available. This small road is the original entrance to the airfield and to both your left and right are the technical areas. Beneath the leaves and muddy floor, road ways still lined with kerbstones, are visible, and whilst the road way is not clear, it is possible to make out the general view of the site.
The original entrance to the airfield. The main road in the distance separates the technical areas, left and right, from the accommodation areas in the woods ahead.
Hidden amongst the trees and brambles, are a few good examples of the buildings once used. Most, are now piles of concrete, but quite a few shelters are still about and accessible. Storage tanks are open, the covers gone and so as a caution, tread very carefully amongst the bushes watching your footing.
From the entrance, to your left and a little further in, are two buildings, still shells but intact. The larger, I believe is the operations block, a smaller building next to it may have been a power or perhaps communications building.
One of the various substantial remains, possibly the operations block.
Polebrook is unique in that it has/had examples of twin looped pill boxes. Here one firing window is situated above the other. A few other more standard examples are also on site some easily seen from the road or track.
I believe that the office on the site contains a full-scale model of the airfield as it was, and that the owner is more than helpful to visitors. Unfortunately on the day I was there, I was unable to take advantage of this so a return visit is certainly on the cards for later.
I was amazingly surprised by Polebrook. It is a truly an atmospheric place with plenty to see for the visitor; remnants of a time gone by lay hidden amongst the trees and brambles of the now wooded area, and little reminders of lives lost, lay beneath the leaves. A howling winter wind replaced by summer sun, carry the voices of those young men across its open expanse and through its decaying walls of history.
*3 The story of Archie Mathies appears in the ‘Heroic Tales‘. The crew list of B-17 ‘Ten Horsepower‘ was:
Pilot: Clarry Nelson,
Co-Pilot: Roland Bartley,
Navigator: Walter Truemper
Engineer / Top Turret Gunner: Archie Mathies
Bombardier: Joe Martin (POW)
Radio Operator: Joe Rex,
Ball Turret Gunner: Carl Moore,
Waist Gunner: Tom Sowell,
Waist Gunner: Russ Robinson,
Tail Gunner: Magnus Hagbo
At the top of Northants, close to the Cambridge / Huntingdon borders, lie a number of wartime airfields. Relatively high up, they can be bleak and windy, but to those interested in aviation history they offer some amazing stories and fascinating walks. Some of these sites have been covered in earlier Trails e.g. Kingscliffe, Deenethorpe, Spanhoe Lodge and Grafton Underwood, but because of their close proximity, they could all be combined with this trip.
Our visit today in Trail 19 is the former RAF Polebrook, home to the famous Clark Gable, and the site that saw the very first official Eighth Air Force Bombing mission in August 1942.
RAF Polebrook (Station 110)
To the west of Peterborough, across the A1 and through some of the most gorgeous countryside this area has to offer, is Polebrook, a small village that once bustled with the sound of military voices. Originally designed for the RAF’s Bomber Command, Polebrook opened in May 1941, as a Class II airfield built by George Wimpey and Co. Ltd. It had three runways, the main one being (08-26) 1,280 yards in length, with two further runways (14-32) of 1,200 yards and (02-20), 1,116 yards, giving the site a substantial feeling of size. To accommodate the dispersed aircraft, it was designed with thirty hardstands laid mainly to the south-west and eastern sides of the airfield. The administration and technical sites were located to the north.
Aircraft maintenance was carried out in two type T2 hangars and one J type hanger, which sat next to each other, there were in addition, a range of technical buildings, a Watch Office (with Meteorological Section to design 518/40, to which a circular addition was made to the roof) and around 20 pill boxes built to provide defensive cover of the overall site.
To the north of the site across the main road, lies an area known as Ashton Wold Woods. Within the wood is the Ashton Estate, which was purchased and developed by the banker, Lionel Rothschild in 1860. It was after this that the estate was developed into a country home for his grandson, Charles Rothschild.
Charles, a banker by trade, set about creating a formal garden on the estate along with his wife Rozsika, and later his daughter Miriam. He had the grand honour of being the country’s leading expert on fleas, as well as a naturalist and conservationist who was responsible for forming the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1912.
After his death and subsequently Rozsika’s in 1940, the house passed to their daughter, but when the construction of the airfield began, the house and gardens were requisitioned for use as both as a hospital and accommodation site. During the war, the site suffered badly through neglect, and post war, Miriam set about restoring parts of the estate. Sadly it was not fully restored and parts continued to fall into disrepair*1.
RAF Polebrook, Taken August 1948*2
A year after Miriam inherited the estate, the first RAF unit arrived, No 90 squadron (28th June 1941) with Fortress Is, otherwise known as Boeing’s B-17C, who stayed until their disbandment in February 1942. Although liked by their crews, the Fortresses were dogged by high altitude problems (freezing guns) and poor bombing results. This early version of the B-17 was not to be a record breaker and had a relatively short life before being replaced later by better models. Between 8th July and September 2nd, 1941 Polebrook Fortresses made 22 daylight attacks against targets including: Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Brest, Emden, Kiel, Oslo, and Rotterdam. The RAF eventually decided to pull out of these daylight raids and the airfield momentarily fell silent to operational activities.
Delivered to the RAF [AN537] as part of Lend-Lease. This was the last B-17C produced; 90 Squadron [WP-L] Polebrook 13th May 1941. The aircraft later transferred to No. 220 Squadron at Alder-grove, Northern Ireland. (IWM UPL 31070)
Polebrook airfield was then handed over to the USAAF (June 28th 1942) and re-designated Station 110. It was felt however, that the current runways were inadequate for the American’s new model B-17s, and so a period of expansion then occurred. During this time the hardstands were increased to 50, the main runway (concrete and tarmac) was extended to 2,000 yards and the two secondary runways were both extended to 1,400 yards. Accommodation blocks were increased now allowing for 2,000 personnel, and the whole site was brought up to Class A standard; all-in-all it was a major redevelopment of the entire site.
The first American units were those of the 97th BG of the 1st Combat Wing. The 97th were constituted on 28th January 1942 and activated in the following February. Passing from MacDill Field in Florida through Saratosa they would make their way across the northern route to Prestwick. On route to their departure points, elements of the group were detached and sent to the Pacific coast, whilst the remainder continued on to Europe. The first manned B-17 #41-9085, ‘Jarrin Jenny‘ arrived in the UK on 1st July 1942 touching down at Prestwick in Scotland after a 3,000 mile long flight via Greenland, with the first ground echelons arriving via the Queen Elizabeth, shortly before on 10th June. Five days after ‘Jarrin Jenny’s‘ arrival, the aircraft would reach their new base, and the Northampton countryside would become a buzz of activity, as much from the curious locals as the Americans they were in awe of.
Bill Colantoni poses in front of B-17 #41-9085 ‘Jarrin’ Jenny’ at Polebrook, the first B-17 to arrive in the UK. (IWM UPL 6830)
Almost immediately after arriving int the UK the four squadrons of the 97th were split. Between June and the end of November the Headquarters unit, along with the 340th BS and 341st BS were based here at Polebrook, whilst the 342nd and 414th BS went to the satellite airfield at nearby Grafton Underwood (Trail 6).
Within a month of arriving on August 17th, the 97th BG would enter service flying the first operational mission of the USAAF from England, under the control of the Eighth Air Force. However, hastily formed, these early groups of bombers were made up of poorly trained crews, many of the gunners never having fired their guns at moving targets, nor had pilots flown at high altitude on Oxygen or in close formation. Such was the rush to get the aircraft overseas, that basic radio, flying and gunnery skills were all lacking, and if they were not to become easy targets for the more experienced and ruthless Luftwaffe, then they were going to have to endure a very steep learning curve indeed. Thus the early part of August was to be filled with intensive flying practice, with the RAF offering their services as mock enemy fighters, trainers and advisers, supporting the Americans through the tough training regime that would hopefully save their lives in the coming weeks and months.
By the 9th August it was decided that the 97th was combat ready and orders came through for their first mission. Sadly the 10th August brought poor weather, and the mission was scrubbed much to the disappointment of the those in the Group.
Two days after this, even before a bomb was dropped in anger, the dangers of flying in cloudy European skies would become all too apparent when a 340th BS, B-17E #41-9098 ‘Big Bitch‘ (not to be confused with #41-9021 ‘The Big Bitch’, which transferred to the 390th BG at Framlingham and was renamed “Hangar Queen“), collided with mountains in Wales whilst on a navigation exercise to Burtonwood, killing all eleven on board. The 97th were now racking up many ‘firsts’ adding the first B-17 fatalities to their extending roll.
August 12th saw the next call to arms, but again the weather played a cruel joke on the men of the 97th, the mission being scrubbed yet again; it was beginning to appear that someone was playing a rather frustrating joke at the expense of the eager young men.
Their next mission, detailed on the 16th was then again called. This time was ‘third time lucky’ and the following day the first official mission of the Eighth Air Force was given the green light. At 15:12 six B-17s in two waves of three left the runway at Polebrook and history was made. After rendezvousing with their ninety-seven RAF Spitfire escorts, they headed for the French coast only to turn away and head for home when just ten miles from the enemy’s coast. This time it was not the weather at fault, the mission was a planned feint to tease the Luftwaffe away from the main force following behind – a group of Twelve B-17s from each of the 342nd, 414th and 340th BS.
This mission was not only the USAAF’s first mission, but it also saw the testing of new electronic counter-measures equipment. Flying alongside this formation were nine Boulton Paul Defiants carrying the counter-measures equipment. Code named “Moonshine“, the equipment consisted of ‘repeaters’ designed to repeat back to the German’s their own radar signals thus giving the impression of a much larger and more formidable force. These first two Polebrook flights split, the first making their feint toward Alderney, whilst the second force flew toward Dunkirk, it was this flight that was accompanied by the nine Defiants. Before reaching the coast though, they turned and headed for home their job done. It was reported by the British that an estimated 150 Luftwaffe fighters rose up to meet the ‘massive’ force, but no interception took place and all aircraft returned to base.
Amongst the main force following on, were three of the Eighth’s most prestigious personnel; the Group’s Commander Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr who sat beside Major Paul Tibbbets (Tibbets was to go on and drop the first Atomic bomb on Hiroshima thus ending the war with Japan) in ‘Butcher Shop‘; whilst in the second wave flew General Ira Eaker, Commanding General of the entire Eighth Air Force, in ‘Yankee Doodle‘. Bombing results were ‘good’, the clear skies proving to be the bombardiers best friend that day. All aircraft returned, the only casualty being a pigeon that hit the windshield of one of the B-17s as it approached Polebrook. The first mission was over, the ice had been broken.
This first mission, a trip to Rouen, preceded several attacks across the low countries, until in the November when the Group (previously assigned to the Eighth on September 14th) transferred to the Twelfth Air Force. They were now heading for North Africa. Over the period 18-20th November the air echelons departed Polebrook heading for Hurn before flying on to North Africa. The Ground echelons left shortly after, a point at which the 97th’s connection with Polebrook ceased leaving nothing but a legacy behind.
The original Type ‘J’ Hangar still in use today.
In the short time the 97th stayed at Polebrook they would complete 14 missions over occupied Europe, dropping 395 tons of bombs. They would then go on to earn themselves two Distinguished Unit Citations and complete a number of ‘firsts’ whilst operating in the Middle East. But with the 97th now gone, Polebrook airfield would enter a period of relative calm and peace.
Then in April / May 1943, Station 110 once more resonated with American voices, with the arrival of the 351st BG. Another new Group, they were initially assigned to the 1 Bombardment Wing (1 BW) of the 101 Provisional Combat Bomb Wing (101 PCBW). After the USAAF went through periods of change and renumbering, this eventually became the 94th Combat Wing, (1st Bombardment Division). The 351st operated with B-17s of the: 508th (code YB), 509th, (code (RQ), 510th, (code TU) and 511th (code DS) Bomb Squadrons, distinguished by a triangular ‘J’ on the tail.
A film taken at Polebrook showing a number of aircrew and aircraft of the 351st BG. Several views of the technical and accommodation sites give a good contrast to the views of today, especially the ‘J’ type hangar that appears above.
The 351st were only activated in the previous October, and were, as ‘rookies’, to take part in some of the most severe aerial battles in Europe. Luckily for them though, training programmes back home had improved, and the gaps that were present in the first crew selections had now been filled.
As with all units new to the theatre of war, a short time was spent on familiarisation and formation flying techniques. Shortly before the 351st were deemed combat ready they were practising formation flying over Polebrook when tragedy struck.
Former Washington Redskins player Major Keith Birlem (508th BS) was piloting B-17 #42-29865 ‘YB-X’ when the plane dropped down severing the tail of another B-17 #42-29491 (509th BS) piloted by Capt Roy Snipes. Both aircraft fell from the sky landing as burning wrecks near to the perimeter of the airfield. The accident took the lives of all twenty airmen on-board the two aircraft. Major Birlem had flown his one and only combat mission just three days earlier, on his birthday, gaining experience as a co-pilot with the 303rd BG who were stationed at Molesworth.
In part 2 we see how the 351st entered the European conflict along with the further development and subsequent rundown of Polebrook immediately after the war. We also look at how the increase in tension of the Cold War brought Polebrook back to life once more, and how it eventually closed for good leading to the condition we find it in today.
A third proposal for airfield development had been released in this last week. The first two, RAF Downham Market and RAF West Raynham have been highlighted in previous posts. The third, is possibly the most significant so far and one that like RAF West Raynham, sets a standard by which future developments could proceed. This site is that of RAF Coltishall.
RAF Coltishall – The Future
RAF Coltishall was home to around 56 RAF Squadrons throughout its life, these included the Jaguars of 6, 41 and 54 Squadrons along with a wide range of aircraft from both the Second World War, Cold War era and the Gulf War. It is a large site that accommodated around 1,500 people at its height, with four hangars, a single runway and both extensive accommodation and technical sites.
Vacated by the RAF in 2006, it has been the subject of a public consultation since 2013. Questions were asked about the possible future use of the site which included light aviation with air displays, a change to affordable housing, industrial use and site redevelopment. Norfolk County Council took the future of the site very seriously, knowing how much it meant to both the local people of Norfolk and Britain’s aviation heritage. The results of this consultation have now been released and can be accessed through the link at the base of the page.
The Control Tower at Coltishall may be part of a Heritage Trail
As with West Raynham, a site like Coltishall, that is complete, offers a unique opportunity to develop the buildings and structures whilst retaining and highlighting the heritage value that it represents. The buildings and infrastructure are ideal for a small self-contained ‘village’ that encourages links with both the local and wider community as a whole.
Norfolk County Council have recognised the importance of this site in particular, and as a result, much of it is now listed as ‘ancient monuments’ or locally listed buildings. These include: the World War 2 dispersals, Cold War blast walls, hangars, tower and communal buildings. It survives today in its entirety, primarily because the entire airfield is designated a Conservation Area by Norfolk County Council. This status gives protection against some of the more virile development and ensures in part, the preservation of the site for future generations.
Norfolk County Council have now released their proposed plans for the site, which include a harmonic development of both the main technical and accommodation areas utilising the buildings in situ where they can.
These plans may mean the sad loss of the main runway and grassed areas, probably both being returned to agriculture or open green space. It would also suggest a loss of much of the perimeter track as well. However, their plans do include creating a public heritage trail, viewing platform and sign-age to promote and explain the uses of Coltishall, as it was throughout its aviation life. There are also suggestion of ‘interpretations’ of both cold war and second world war aircraft in their respective pens.
Just this week however, a private enterprise (led by a cycle shop owner) put forward a proposal to use the three-mile perimeter track as a cycle track for recreational and competition cycling opportunities. Further proposals include a £300,000 development of the former operations room into a cafe and cycle workshop. Landscaping would also be included making it a hub for recreational activities linked by cycles paths to Norwich, Hoveton and Aylsham.
Financial support has not yet been granted for this particular part of the proposal, but it is hoped that the site will be open mid 2016.
Norfolk County Council are considering the plans in line with their own heritage and development ideas. If it all goes ahead, then once developed, RAF Coltishall is likely to be the best preserved airfield in the UK that has not only been developed but opened to the public. Furthermore, if these proposals are to come to fruition, it could become a model for future development of Britain’s old wartime relics.
Details of the Council’s proposal can be found here.
The end of October marks the end of an era, with the grounding of Avro Vulcan XH558. After an eight year reign as Queen of the skies, she finally bows out after the three main technical companies that support her, withdrew their support. In her last flight on October 28th 2015, she completed a short 15 minute flight, the culmination of 228 flights and 346 hours flying time. After a long taxi to runway 02 at Robin Hood Airport, she performed her last flight to a small crowd of gathered people whilst streaming the event live on YouTube. Creating her own cloud, she had the grace of an angel, performing a touch and go before landing for good and so closing the book on this remarkable story.
XH558 lands at Waddington July 2014
The Vulcan was the last of the Cold War bombers to fly and achieved a great following across the country. The ‘Vulcan effect’ as it became affectionately known would draw thousands to street corners, road sides and airshows just to see the graceful bird and hear her incredible howl.
The first flight of XH558 as she returned to the sky after a 14 year restoration.
For me personally the Vulcan was the aircraft I used to watch as a child from my parent’s bedroom window; my first real close up, large jet aircraft and one of the many that drove my love of aviation. They would do circuits around Bitteswell airfield following maintenance or upgrading, so it seems fitting therefore, that the last time I would see her in person, would again be from my own back garden so many years later as she flew over my home.
Lots of jet wash on take off at Waddington 2013
Famed for flying to the Falkland Islands and bombing the runway at Port Stanley airport, Vulcans supported by 13 Victor tankers, undertook the longest bombing raid on military record. An incredible feat and one that will go down in history for a very long time, probably eternity.
Designed initially by Roy Chadwick and built by the Avro company, it was one of many iconic aircraft to leave the Avro works. Shown to the public for the first time at Farnborough in August 1952, a Vulcan went on in 1955 to perform an amazing barrel roll much to the amazement of the crowd. Designed to carry weapons of mass destruction, the Vulcan formed the backbone of Britain’s nuclear deterrent and would carry a nuclear warhead to Russia should the demand arise. Crews were on standby 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ready to take off knowing they would probably not be returning. The Vulcan had a truly devastating punch. Her beauty and grace were matched only by her prowess and destructive power.
XH558 at Waddington June 2013
XH558 in particular was the RAF’s own display aircraft for 33 years eventually retiring from service in 1993. Bought and maintained by C Walton Ltd, she would go on to be cared for by the Vulcan to the Sky Trust. She was flown to Bruntingthorpe and refurbished to airworthy status over a period of 14 years at a cost of £7,000,000. XH558 was then flown to her new home at Doncaster airport, itself a former Vulcan bomber station, RAF Finningley.
From there she would undertake a huge number of flights, displaying to thousands across a range of airshows around Britain, far exceeding her original target of 250 hours flying time such was the demand to see her.
Eventually though her time would come, and even with the huge public support, the technical skills needed and provided by: B.A.E., Rolls Royce and Marshall Aerospace, have finally been pulled and her flying days are now over.
XH558 flies over for the last time.
XH558 will continue to reside at Doncaster in a Heritage centre alongside a new Technical School. She will be kept in taxiing condition, still run her engines and keep full electrical power. A new era dawns, and she joins the other grounded Vulcans, with a new vision and a new life.
With the grounding of XH558, airshows across Britain won’t be the same, but at least she had the chance to fly again and amaze the thousands who flocked repeatedly to see a mighty Vulcan fly in Britain’s skies once more.
Sadly, I didn’t get to see her on her last tour of Britain, but even the Vulcan can’t be everywhere at once. I have some fantastic memories of her, from Waddington to Eastbourne, with the two Lancasters at Marham, and many, many more that I have gathered over the years.
For the chance to see a Vulcan in the skies again, to the team and XH558, from me personally, a very big heartfelt thank you.
XH558 doing what she does best at Eastbourne 2015
The First of two tours forming the farewell flight of XH558 from inside the cockpit.
Pledges and support can continue to be offered for the upkeep of 558 through their dedicated website. Her history, visits and other information can also be accessed through this link.
In this second part of the Norfolk Trails, we visit three more of Norfolk’s treasures. Deep in the heart of Norfolk, two of them are very much complete, but the third is all but gone. However, all is not lost as it still an active private airfield, and some of its features have luckily survived.
The first of these three jewels on this trail is RAF Sculthorpe.
Located to the west of Norwich, Sculthorpe has its origins in the Second World War, but it has a larger claim to fame that it still retains to this day.
A once busy shop now derelict and forgotten.
Designed initially as a heavy bomber site, and satellite to RAF West Raynham, Sculthorpe now has three runways one of 12,000ft and two of 6,000ft, all concrete. With its enormous technical and administration sites that housed up to 10,000 personnel, Sculthorpe was one of the biggest bases in Europe, an honour it retains to this day.
Sculthorpe had a limited Second World War life, being opened quite late in the war in January 1943. Following a years development and growth, it initially housed Mosquitos of 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) squadrons. Originally based at Methwold, the Mosquito FB.VIs replaced the earlier and slower twin-engined Venturas. At Sculthorpe, these two units were joined by 21 Sqn who stayed until the following December, before moving on. Then the much heavier B-17s of 214 sqn moved in thus changing the role of RAF Sculthorpe. The B-17s were redesigned and adapted to assist in radio jamming trials, the early form of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), the B-17 crews would also be joined by other personnel from the United States, who stayed carrying out this role, until just prior to the end of hostilities.
It was really at this time that Sculthorpe came into its own. With the influx of crews from the States, more accommodation would be needed and quickly. A sustained period of redevelopment, improving of runways and hardstandings, saw Sculthorpe gain the designation of Very Heavy Bomber base. It was anticipated that the enormous Boeing B-29s would be stationed here, but when the war in Europe came to an end, further deployment at Sculthorpe ceased and the B29s never arrived. However, the rise in ‘Soviet Aggression’ and post conflict tensions during the Cold War and Berlin airlift, secured the immediate future of Sculthorpe. Atomic weapons were stored here ready, when the North American B-45 Tornado found itself becoming the front-line four engined bomber designed to attack Soviet targets from the UK. During 1952, the 47th Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command were redeployed here from the United States. This wing consisted of the 84th, 85th, and 86th BS, along with the 420th Refueling Sqn and the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance sqn. These units operated a number of types including the: B-45, B-66, KB-29, KB-50, and RB-45C aircraft.
The Control Tower in a setting sun.
Ninety day duty rotations saw aircraft like the mighty B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ fill the skies over Sculthorpe, until finally, political agreements and imposed de-escalation strategies between the Cold War factions, prevented further deployment of large-scale US bombers on European soil.
Gradually, as nuclear deterrents turned to missiles and naval based platforms, Sculthorpe’s activity began to slow. Being returned to RAF ownership in 1964, it was placed in care and maintenance, and held by only a small detachment of support staff. Then in the late 60s, the USAF returned once more, needing a base from which to operate its aircraft whilst other airfields were redeveloped and runways resurfaced. This brought new life to Sculthorpe, American F-4 Phantoms and C-130s were based here, along with other aircraft types from the RAF operating under similar circumstances. This process went on well into the late 1980s and Sculthorpe became a mecca for plane spotters for at least another few years.
‘Hut 380’, a Second World War remnant.
This was not to last however, and Sculthorpe finally closed its doors in 1992, the enormous accommodation blocks and technical sites were sold off. Both these and many of the remaining buildings were left to decay, whilst planners gae thought to what they should be used for. However, like a phoenix, Sculthorpe returned from the dead yet again. The RAF, Army Air Corps and USAF using it for manoeuvres, with tilt wing aircraft, paratroops and rehearsals of supply drops over its enormous runways; much of this activity taking place at night. Even up until recently, C-130s have also been seen landing here, again rehearsing quick ‘stop-‘n’-go’ drops.
Looking at Sculthorpe, it is hard to believe its origins were in the Second World War. Being a real monster of the Cold War, Sculthorpe is clinging on by the skin of its teeth. The accommodation blocks that once housed 10,000 personnel are decaying and vandalised, refurbished areas are now sold off and accommodating local families. A small industrial area has been developed from the technical area, and the local farmer grazes his cows on the far reaches of the site. Many of the older orignal buildings have been left to rot and fall down. The American authorities still retain some ownership of the site, whilst a large part of it is in private hands.
A large part of Sculthorpe has been left to rot, piece by piece.
The original guard-house is no longer manned, and a number of other buildings close by are also empty. A small public track that once took eager plane spotters to the rear of the airfield, still allows views across the north of the now quiet site where a blister hangar continues to stand alone. The control tower is still intact visible in the distance from this point, as are a number of original Nissan huts and Second World War buildings hidden amongst new buildings and old developments.
In remembrance of the 47th BW, 50th anniversary reunion, 2002.
Sculthorpe was once a bustling airfield, home to some of the world’s heaviest bombers, a mecca for aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters alike. Today, it is a decaying industrial site, a mix of old buildings and new developments, a remnant of the Cold War, it clings on to life by the skin of its teeth, maybe, just maybe, the Phoenix will rise up once more and spring into life again.
Sculthorpe’s remaining Blister hangar in a low setting sun.
From Sculthorpe, we travel a few miles south, a stones throw, to its sister station and another post war relic – RAF West Raynham.