RAF Old Buckenham – the home of film stars!

In the second part of Trail 13 we leave Tibenham behind and head to another still active airfield. Like Tibenham, the heavy bombers have all gone, replaced by small single engined aircraft, and also like Tibenham, much of the site has likewise disappeared. However, the history of this airfield remains very much alive, through fly-ins, displays and events that all remind us about those difficult days of the late 1940s.

Synonymous with film starts such as James Stewart and Walter Matthau, this airfield lives on and is thriving. Showcasing a range of facilities it is a delightful little airfield and one that keeps the spirit of flying very much alive. From Tibenham we head only a few miles north-west, where we find the former US airfield Old Buckenham.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)

Old Buckenham is an airfield with a rather grand name. It was a short-lived airfield, purposely built for the USAAF late on in the Second World War. It only ever housed one group, a group that was itself a late joiner. It was initially a rather unpleasant place to be, mud and rain being the airmen’s worst enemy. But as the war progressed it became more hospitable, more lively and more inspiring. Whilst the group was never considered a major player in the war, it did achieve some remarkable results, the group going on to set some extraordinary bomber records.

Opened as a bomber airfield in 1943, it was built under the class ‘A’ specification, with three intersecting concrete and woodchip runways (1 x 2,000 and 2 x 1,400 yds) each 50 yards wide. It had fifty hardstands of the spectacle style, two T2 hangars (four were allocated initially) and a standard 1941 design watch tower (12779/41).

‘Old Buck’ as it became known, was exclusively the home to the American 453rd Bomb Group, operating a range of versions of the enormous B-24 Liberator, initially under the command of Col. Joseph A Miller.

Consisting of the standard four Bomb Squadrons: 732nd (squadron code E3), 733rd (F8), 734th (E8) and 735th (H6), the group was constituted on the 14th May 1943 and activated on 1st June that same year. It then came into physical being on June 29th, taking its officers and enlisted men from the 29th BG (H), who, under Special Order No. 180, transferred fifty-five Officers and 231 enlisted men to the 453rd. Of these, twelve officers were sent to the 732nd, twelve to the 733rd, eleven to the 734th and another twelve to the 735th. Each of the squadrons also received fifty-five enlisted men, the remainder of the workforce going to the Group’s headquarters.

Even before leaving the United States, the 453rd would suffer casualties. Its first loss was B-24E #41-29032 piloted by 2nd Lt. David MacGowan (735thBS), which crashed into a hillside near to Du Bois, Wyoming whilst on a photographic and training exercise. The accident, on August 14th 1943, resulted in the loss of all eleven crewmen on board. It was perhaps, a sign of things to come.

After passing through a number of training sites in the United States: Wendover Field, Pocatello, Idaho and March Field, the ground echelons sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth to England. They  arrived at Old Buckenham at the end of December into what would prove to be a cold and very unpleasant winter. Considerable rain and snow had turned Old Buckenham into a mud bath. Colds and flu spread like wildfire through the ranks, and overshoes had to be issued to help against the unending sludge.

The air echelons would fly the southern route with the first leaving in early January. On the very day of departure another aircraft was lost  – two crews were now gone before the group had even reached the U.K.

The air echelons arrived throughout January and into February, organising themselves and preparing their ‘H’ model Liberators for the forthcoming battle. When possible, they undertook training flights over the English countryside, received ground instruction and took further role specific training. They began carrying out mock missions including on the 4th, a simulated mission which turned very sour for one particular crew.

Liberator #41-28641, ‘Cee Gee‘ (referred to in some references as ‘Chee Chee‘) piloted by 2nd Lt. John R. Turner, became lost and it would seem, damaged by flak. Forced down onto an enemy airfield, it was repaired by the Germans and put back into service as A3 + KB by KG 200. The aircraft was intended to be used to ferry supplies to the island of Rhodes, and was recaptured by advancing American forces in May 1945. This was the first Luftwaffe captured Liberator and only the second to be put into service with German markings.

S/Sgt J. T. Sipkovsky, inspects B-24H #41-28641 [A5+KB] of KG200  ex 453BG /732BS, left at Salsburg by retreating German forces. (WM UPL 23019)

The next day, February 5th 1944, the Union Jack was officially lowered at Old Buckenham when, with much pomp and ceremony, Sqn. Ldr. L. Archer handed over the keys of the airfield to Col. Miller. Station 144 was now officially open for business.

There would be no break nor celebratory parties for the new Group though. On that same day, the 453rd were to take part in their first mission, a bombing raid to Tours in France.

Tours had been the focus of the invading Germans in the early part of the war. Heavily bombed with incendiaries, it was quickly turned into a fortress housing military camps  with strong fortifications. The allies then made it a focus for their air bombardments, but on this occasion, the weather would be the winner with heavy cloud causing many problems over the Continent. With the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions in action that day, many would drop bombs on alternative targets, reform on other divisions or return home without bombing at all.

On the 6th February, the 453rd were back in action again, and again the horrors of war would be seen at Old Buckenham, when B-24 #42-52178 ‘Little Agnes‘ crashed after take off.  After lifting off the runway, the aircraft lost power, stalled and hit the runway hard sliding along on its belly into a ditch at the end of the threshold. The aircraft then broke up, at which point one of the ten 500lb bombs exploded setting off a chain reaction that led to a fireball. Mechanical failure of the #1 and #4 engines was blamed that day when eight of the ten crew on-board were killed when the aircraft came down.

For the remainder of February, including ‘Big Week’,  the 453rd would carry out further missions to both France, Holland and also Germany. These included: Siracourt (13th & 15th); Brunswick (20th), the airfield at Achmer (21st) and the Me-110 aircraft assembly plant at Gotha (22nd & 24th). Known for its high casualties, the 453rd managed to lose only one aircraft on the two missions it carried out to Gotha, a remarkable escape considering the ferocity of the battle, and the loss of thirty-three from other groups. It was also during this mission that sixteen aircraft would come down in Switzerland, the highest number of any mission of the war.

RAF Old Buckenham

The Blister Hangar at Old Buckenham.

During March 1944, several major events would occur at Old Buckenham. Firstly, on the 6th, B-24H #42-64469 “El Flako” of the 732nd BS, whilst only on her third mission, would accidentally drop her bomb load just 3 miles from the airfield. Thankfully there were no injuries apart from a very large dent in the pride of the crew on board. Red faces aside, this mission, the USAAF’s first daylight attack on Berlin, would not be an easy ride for the 453rd.

Of the twenty-four aircraft sent out, four would fail to return, two over the target and two ditching in the channel. A fifth, piloted by Lt. Richard Holman, was badly damaged with two engines put out of action whilst over the target area. Determined to get back home, Lt. Holman dropped down to the cloud base where he was pursued by a number of FW-190s. With only two turrets operating, the crew managed to fight off the attackers, shooting down almost half of them in the process. After passing through a flak zone in Amsterdam they continued on, Lt. Holman putting the Liberator through some of the most incredible and violent turns possible, until they reached the Channel. With fuel and ammunition now critically short, the crew threw out anything and everything, in a desperate attempt to lighten the load of the failing bomber. Eventually, and only by the skill and determination of the crew, the aircraft arrived back safely at Old Buckingham. Many prayers and thanks were said on that particular day.

Then on the 18th, B-24H #41-28649, ‘Little Bryan‘, was hit by flak over Friedrichshafen, a target located close to the border with Switzerland on the banks of Lake Constance. Whilst the weather was near perfect, the target was covered with a thick smoke screen, preventing accurate visual bombing taking place. Heavy flak and fighter activity made things even worse for the bombers of the mighty Eighth.

Badly damaged, ‘Little Bryan‘ managed to continue flying but was losing fuel fast. As a result it would not make it home. On board ‘Little Bryan‘ that day was the Group’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Joseph A. Miller, along with the Group’s Navigator, Capt. Joseph O’Reilly. The aircraft crashed west of Vernon after the crew had baled out. Of the crew, ten were captured and taken prisoner, the last crewman escaping to fight another day. With the loss of a second aircraft along with three of its crew, March 18th would be a heartbreaking day for the 453rd.

The following day, Col. Ramsey Potts Jnr assumed command at Old Buckenham, a veteran of thirty-two missions he was one of the most decorated officers in the European Theatre, having been on both the Polesti and Rome bombing raids. He remained with the 453rd until mid 1944.

It was also at this time, (March 30th) that Major James “Jimmy” Stewart became the Group’s Operations Officer, Stewart who led the 733rd BS for 11 missions, went on to become a famous actor. He was promoted after the loss of Major Colfield earlier on, on February 16th.

RAF Old Buckenham

The mobile ‘control tower’ at Old Buckenham

April would see further losses for the group, but May would prove to be the worst so far. On the 8th, seven out of thirty-two aircraft would fail to return to Old Buckenham: #41-28650, #41-29571, #42-52180, #42-52185, #42-64453, #42-64464 and #42-110076, all being lost at Brunswick, a target gaining in its notoriety.

Following a move of the ground echelons on April 11th to form a new squadron at North Pickenham, the remaining staff were reshuffled to fill the gaps left behind. A small interruption to the continuing missions over Germany.

The 13th of April saw the first mission undertaken by Major Stewart, an operation that took 274 B-24s to various targets including the Dornier parts factory near Munich. The results that day were considered ‘good’.

For much of April the routine was the same, missions to France and Germany. After three months of being at Old Buckenham, the 453rd were now settling in well, improvements had been made to the living areas, more concrete had been laid to reduce the mud, and the cinema was now showing regular films. Other recreational areas were developed and morale was rising.

Throughout the conflict the 453rd would attack prestige targets: the fuel dump at Dulmen, marshalling yards, Hamm rail centres, Gelsenkirchen oil refineries, along with numerous airfields, canals and viaducts.

May would see yet another return to the dreaded Brunswick, and for the 453rd it would be another high loss mission. Using a mix of general purpose bombs and incendiaries, 307 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division joined aircraft from the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions in attacking it, and other major cities across Germany. On this day, ten aircraft would fail to return to base with eight being lost as the 453rd led the large formations into the target area. In the lead plane was Capt. Andy Low, who for his exemplary leadership, later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bombing through 10/10 cloud using Pathfinder equipment, the group was attacked by around 200 enemy fighters, an attack that led to the area being known to the crews as ‘fighter-alley’.

RAF Old Buckenham

Part of the runway is now used as the taxiway.

By now, with mission counts mounting, crews were beginning to finish their tours of duty, the first full crew to do so, being the crew of Lt. Ward on May 31st, 1944.

Keeping morale up whilst the young men were away from home was always a challenge. Whilst undertaking training back in the States, a band was formed, a band that managed to reform itself finding space for rehearsals at Old Buckenham. The ‘GI’vers’ became one of the most successful forces bands in England, performing at dances both at Old Buckenham and at other US bases in the East Anglia area.

The morning of D-Day 6th June, brought early dawn action from the 453rd. Military sites between Le Harve and Cherbourg were targets for the day. The shore line batteries and any targets of opportunity, railways, troop concentrations and road junctions, were now well and truly in the sights of the bombers. So determined to play their part were the 453rd, that they flew four complete missions on that one day, unheard of in many Air Force heavy bomber Squadrons. For the next ten days Old Buckenham would be extremely busy, with missions being flown on all but one day, until the weather eventually brought an enforced break on the 16th.

As the war progressed the Old Buckenham group would go on to support many ground battles, including the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 – 45. A winter that would begin with the first crew loss through anoxia, when S/Sgt. Frank Mayar failed to respond to medical aid after his oxygen mask froze.

The 26th November 1944, would see tragedy strike home again for the 453rd. Mission 182 for the Old Buckenham Group, saw 350 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division and 381 B-17s of the 3rd Bomb Division attack targets in Germany. One of these targets included the railway viaduct at Bielefeld, a viaduct that became almost illusive until later destroyed by 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the RAF.

The Bielefeld Viaduct after the dropping of the RAF’s ‘Grand Slam’. The ground bears the scars of continuous and heavy attacks (National Archives)

During take off for the mission, Capt. Ray Conard, the mission leader, failed to gain height. In a desperate attempt to avoid nearby housing, Capt. Conard jettisoned his bombs and, it is believed, deliberately crashed his aircraft away from them, thus saving the lives of those people living inside. For his actions, Capt. Conard, aged just 25, was recommended for the DSC Posthumously.

Christmas brought a much happier cheer to the Old Buckenham crews. Permission was granted to fly a plane load of toys to Paris to deliver them to French children. Locals brought as many as they could muster to the airfield and handed them over to the Americans. After slipping off the runway, ‘Liberty Run‘ eventually made it off the ground delivering the toys just in time for Christmas day.

The notorious winter weather of 1944 would claim yet another victim before the year was out. On December 27th 1944, #42-50898 failed to rise more than a few feet after taking off from a salted and slippery runway at Old Buckenham. Lt. Roscoe Brown was heard to say, “I cannot keep her up, we have had it”, just before the aircraft slammed into the ground. In the ensuing crash, the aircraft broke up and burst into flames, the fire setting off bullets and causing the bombs to explode. There was considerable ice that day, the runway and aircraft’s pitot tube later being found to have been iced up, adding to the already difficult flying conditions. As a pathfinder, it came as a terrible blow to the 453rd whose mission that day was subsequently scrubbed. Only four of Lt. Brown’s crew managed to escape the inferno that followed – it was a sad end to 1944.

The new year started as the old had finished, with more aircraft slipping on ice and crashing into parked aircraft. After further lives were lost and sliding incidents increased, the Group’s Commanding Officer Col. Thomas, called a halt to the proceedings and another mission was also scrubbed. Those that had got off the ground continued on, joining other groups in bombing their target – the Ramagen Bridge.

Crumpled tail of B-24 #42-51865 1st January 45 Old Buckenham. Eventually after numerous crashes and aircraft sliding on ice, the mission was scrubbed. (IWM FRE 1863)

With more attacks on Germany, January would become the month when the 453rd would set a record for the most missions flown (200) by any Liberator Group in a short space of time. A record they would be proud of and celebrate at reunions for years after.

As the war drew to a close, more missions would take the group into the very heart of Germany.  Even though the war was nearly over, accidents continued to occur and aircraft continued to be lost. The last mission for the 453rd took place on March 31st 1945, bombing the rail junction at Amberg. Thankfully all aircraft sent out that day came home. With the decrease in bombing sorties the Group’s focus began to change, recreational activities taking over where flying had been lost.

The final orders to stand-down finally came through on the 12th April 1945, and with it the end of 259 missions, in which 15,800 tons of bombs had been dropped. Of the original sixty-one aircraft sent over with the 453rd, only one was left, ‘Male Call‘, a B-24 veteran of ninety-five missions.

Elsewhere, the 453rd had ten aircraft that had completed 100 or more missions, the highest being that of 120  – “My Babs” of the 733rd Bomb Squadron. Even though they had lost almost all the original aircraft, they had set another record of 82 consecutive  missions without loss; a remarkable achievement considering the losses sustained by other heavy bomber groups in the European Theatre.

In mid April the group received orders to depart European shores for home. The group had been earmarked for a role in the Pacific, but ‘R & R’ was the order of the day and even though ground crews prepared the aircraft for combat, the US was firmly on the minds of all. On the 13th May the USS Hermitage set sail for the States, and Old Buckenham fell silent as the last few men departed closing the gates behind them.

Post-war, the airfield returned to RAF ownership seeing a few aircraft from other units being placed here, but no other major service or operators. Eventually in 1960, the RAF disposed of the site and it returned primarily to agriculture. Flying does continue today though, as Old Buckenham hosts fly-ins, displays and has a thriving aero club on part of the remains of the east-west runway.

As the site is an active airfield, access to any parts other than the public areas is very limited and so there is little to see from those dark days of the 1940s. The runways do remain as small roads for local tractor access, and one small part of the east-west runways is used for light flying. A further section of the north-west/south-east runway also exists as a taxiway to access the main runway. An original blister hangar is also on site along with a Nissen hut that now houses a museum.

RAF Old Buckenham

RAF Old Buckenham, memorial to those who served.

There is a varied collection of military hardware, mainly field guns, located on the site. A further ‘famous’ attraction is the T-55 Tank used in the James Bond film ‘Golden Eye’ which greets you as you arrive. A small, well cared for memorial in the shape of a Liberator tail-fin is dedicated to those 366 crew members and staff of the 453rd BG who lost their lives, and a cafe, aptly entitled “Jimmy’s“, provides refreshments for the visitor.

A delightful place to spend a warm Sunday afternoon watching light aircraft and contemplating what life was like at Old Buckenham as the roar of B-24s filled the air over 70 years ago.

RAF Old Buckenham

The T-55 tank used in the film ‘Golden Eye’

Post script

Some rare photographs taken at Old Buckenham were found following an auction in Montana, in a box of old photographic supplies. The story was reported in the ‘Eastern Daily Press‘ on December 18th 2013.

A museum to honour the men of the 453rd BG has since opened at Old Buckenham. Their website gives details of the collection and opening times.

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Trail 44 – Kent (Part 3) – Sir Barnes Wallis – His Later Years.

We continue, in Trail 44, looking at the life of Sir Barnes Wallis, a man known for his expertise in engineering and design. Following on from his early works in airship design, we now turn to his Second World War and post war work.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, new designs of aircraft and weapons were much-needed. Wallis’s geodesic design, as used in the R100, had been noticed by another Vickers designer Rex Pierson, who arranged for Wallis to transfer to Weybridge, where they formed a new team – Pierson working on the general design of the aircraft with Wallis designing the internal structures. This was a team that produced a number of notable designs including both the Wellesley and the Wellington; both of which utilised Wallis’s geodetic design in both the fuselage and wing construction.

What made Wallis’s idea so revolutionary was that the design made the air frame both light-weight and strong, and by having the bearers as part of the skin, it left more room inside the structure thus allowing for more fuel or ‘cargo’. An idea that helped provide greater gas storage for the R100.

Whilst both the Wellesley and the Wellington went on to be successful in the early stages of the war (11,400 Wellingtons saw service), they were both withdrawn from front line service by the mid war years, being replaced by more modern and advanced aircraft that could fly further and carry much larger payloads.

Saddened by the rising death toll, Wallis put many of his efforts into shortening the war. His idea was that if you attack and destroy the heart of production, then your enemy would have nothing to fight with; in this case, its power supply. To this end he started investigating the idea of breaching the dams of the Ruhr.

Wallis’s idea was to place an explosive device against the wall of the dam, thus utilising the water’s own pressure to fracture and break open the dam. Conventional bombing was not suitable as it was too difficult to place a large bomb accurately and sufficiently close enough to the dam to cause any significant damage. His idea, he said, was “childishly simple”.

Using the idea that spherical objects bounce across water, like stones thrown from a beach, he determined that a bomb could be skimmed across the reservoir over torpedo nets and strike the dam. A backward spin, induced by a motor in the aircraft’s fuselage, would force the bomb to keep to the dam wall where a detonator would explode the bomb at a predetermined depth, similar in fashion to a naval depth charge. The idea was simple in practical terms, ‘skip shot’ being used with great success by sailors in Nelson’s navy;  but it was going to be a long haul, to not only build such a weapon, the aircraft to drop it, nor train the expert crews to fly the aircraft; but to simply convince the Ministry of Aircraft Production that it was in fact feasible.

Wallis began performing a number of tests, first at his home using marbles and baths, then at Chesil Beach in Dorset. Both the Navy and the Ministry were interested when shown a film of the bomb in action, each wanting it for their own specific target; the Navy for the Tirpitz, and the Ministry for the dams. Wallis still determined to use it on the dams, carried out two projects side-by-side,  “Upkeep” for the dams, and “Highball” for the Navy*3.

“Upkeep” was initially spherical, and the first drop from a modified Lancaster took place in April 1943 at Reculver near to Herne Bay, where this statue is located. He persevered with aircraft heights, speeds and bomb design modifications, carefully honing them until on April 29th 1943, only three weeks before the actual attack, the bomb finally worked for the first time.

Wallis’s plan could now be put into action, and with a new squadron of the RAF’s elite bomber crews put in place, the stage was set and the dams of Ruhr Valley would be the target.

The attack on the dams have become legendary, and of the 19 aircraft of 617 Squadron that took off that May evening in 1943, only 11 returned, some after sustaining considerable damage. Operation Chastise saw two of the three dams, the Mohne and Eder, successfully breached and the third, the Sorpe, severely damaged forcing the Germans to partially drain it for safety.

Scampton September 2015 (17)

The names of the crews of 617 Squadron at RAF Scampton. Those with poppies next to them, did not return.

Following the success of Operation Chastise, Wallis went on to develop other bombs capable of devastating results. His initial plan, a Ten ton (22,000lb) bomb, had to be scaled back to 12,000lb as there was no aircraft capable of dropping it at that time. Codenamed ‘Tallboy’, it would be a deep penetration bomb 21 feet in length with a hardened steel case and 4 inches of steel in the nose. The bomb contained 5200lbs of high explosive Torpex (similar to that used in the Kennedy Aphrodite mission) and would have a terminal velocity of around 750 miles per hour.

The idea of Tallboy, was to create a deep underground crater into which structures would either fall or be rendered irreparable. With a time fuse that could be set to sixty minutes after release, it was used on strategic targets such as the Samur Railway Tunnel in France, rendering the tunnel useless as it had to be closed for a considerable amount of time.

The crater made by Barnes Wallis’s Tallboy bomb above the Samur Railway Tunnel, 9th June 1944. *4

Soon after this, Wallis began developing his Ten Ton bomb, the “Grand Slam”, a mighty 26ft in length, it weighed 22,000lb, and would impact the ground at near supersonic speeds. Wallis’s design was such that the bomb could penetrate through 20 feet of solid concrete or 130 feet of earth, where it would explode creating a mini earthquake. It was this earthquake that would rock the foundations of buildings and structures, or simply suck them into a crater of massive proportions*5.

Production of the Grand Slam was slow though. It took two days for the casting to cool and then after machining, it took a further month for the molten Torpex  to set and cool. The first use of the Grand Slam occurred on 14th March 1945 against the Bielefeld Viaduct in Germany, on which one Grand Slam and 27 Tallboys were dropped. Unsurprisingly, the viaduct collapsed and the railway was put out of action.

Wallis had created more exceptionally devastating weapons, they were so successful that 854 Tallboys and 41 Grand Slams were dropped by the war’s end.

Scampton September 2015 (4)

The Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, designed by Barnes Wallis.

Post war, Wallis carried on with his design and investigations into aerodynamics and flight. He was convinced that achieving supersonic flight with the greatest economy was the way forward, and in particular variable geometry wings. The government was keen to catch up with the U.S., awarding Vickers £500,000 to carry out research into supersonic flight. Wallis’s project received some of this money, and he researched unmanned supersonic flight in the form of surface-to-air missiles. Codenamed ‘Wild Goose‘ (later ‘Green Lizard’) the project ran to 1954 when it was terminated.

Wallis continued with his research into swing wing designs, his first being the JC9, a single seat aircraft 46 feet in length. It was produced but never completed and was scrapped before it ever got off the ground. Wallis wasn’t put off though, and he continued on developing the ‘Swallow’, a swing wing aircraft that could reach speeds of Mach 2.5 in model wind tunnel investigations.

In its bomber form it would have been equivalent in size to the American B-1, with a crew of 4 or 5, and a cruising speed of Mach 2. It would have a range of 5,000 miles whilst carrying a single Red Beard nuclear bomb.

Whilst not selected to meet the R.A.F.’s OR.330 (Operational Requirement 330), which was eventually awarded to TSR.2, they were interested enough for him to proceed until the 1957 Defence White Paper put an end to the project, and it was cancelled.

Looking for funding Wallis turned to the U.S. hoping they would grant him sufficient funds to continue his work. After many meetings between Wallis and the U.S American Mutual Weapons Development Program at NASA’s Langley research facility, he came away disappointed and saddened that the Americans used his ideas without granting him any funding.

American research continued, eventually developing into the successful General Dynamics F-111 ‘Aardvark’, the world’s first production swing-wing combat aircraft.

Wallis continued with other supersonic and hypersonic investigations; designs were drawn up for an aircraft capable of Mach 4-5, using a series of variable winglets to link subsonic, supersonic and hypersonic flights, many however, never went beyond the drawing board.

Wallis didn’t stop there, he continued with many great inspirational projects: the Stratosphere Chamber, a test chamber where by simulated impacts on aircraft travelling at 70,000 feet could be safely tested and analysed; the Parkes Telescope, a radio telescope in New South Wales; the Momentum Bomb, a nuclear bomb designed to be released at low-level and high-speed, enabling the release aircraft to escape the blast safely, and in the 1960s, a High Pressure Submarine designed to dive deeply beyond the range of current detection.

In recognition of his work, Wallis was knighted in 1968, and he was also made an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society.

Wallis, after working beyond his forced retirement, died at the age of 83, on 30th October 1979, in Effingham, Surrey. He is buried in the local church, St Lawrence’s Church, in Effingham, a village he contributed greatly to. He was the church secretary for eight years, and an Effingham Parish Councillor, serving as Chairman for 10 years. He was also the Chairman of the Local Housing Association, which helped the poor and elderly of the village to find or build homes; and as a fanatical cricketer, he was Chairman of the KGV Management Committee who negotiated the landscaping of the “bowl” cricket ground, so good was the surface, it was used as a substitute for the Oval in London.

There are numerous memorials and dedications around the country to Wallis, and there is no doubt that he was both an incredible engineer and inventor who made a major contribution to not only the war, but British and world aviation in general.

His statue at Herne Bay overlooks Reculver where the first “Upkeep” bomb was dropped by a Lancaster bomber during the Second World War, and it is a fine tribute to this remarkable man on this trail.

Barnes Wallis at Work

Sir Barnes Neville Wallis.

From here, we continue to travel east, toward the coastal town of Margate. A few miles away is the now closed Manston airport, formerly RAF Manston, an airfield that is rich in History, and one that closed causing such ill feeling amongst many.

Sources and further reading

*3 The Mail online published a report on the discovery of a Highball bomb found in Loch Striven, Scotland in July 2017.

*4 Author unknown, photo from the Royal Air Force Website.

*5 The Independent news website– “Secrets of the devastation caused by Grand Slam, the largest WWII bomb ever tested in the UK.” Published 22/1/14

The Barnes Wallis Foundation website has a great deal of information, pictures and clips of Barnes Wallis.

A list of memorials, current examples of both Upkeep and Highball bombs, and displays of material linked to Barnes Wallis, is available through the Sir Barnes Wallis (unofficial) website.

 

Trail 44 – Kent (Part 3) – Sir Barnes Wallis – His Early Years

After visiting the many museums and former airfields in the southern and central parts of Kent (Trail 4 and Trail 18) we now turn north and head to the northern coastline. Here we overlook the entrance to the Thames estuary, the Maunsell Forts – designed to protect the approaches to London and the east coast – and then take a short trip along the coastline of northern Kent. Our first stop is not an airfield nor a museum, it is a statue of the designer of one of the world’s most incredible weapons – the bouncing bomb. Our first short stop is at Herne Bay, and the statue of Sir Barnes Wallis.

Sir Barnes Wallis – Herne Bay

Sir Barnes Wallis

The Barnes Wallis statue located at the eastern end of the town overlooking the sea at Reculver.

There cannot be a person alive who has not seen, or know about, the famous Dambusters raid made by 617 Sqn. It is a story deeply embedded in history, one of the most daring raids ever made using incredible ideas, skill and tenacity. There is so much written about both it, and the man behind the idea – Sir Barnes Neville Wallis CBE FRS RDI FRAeS – a man famous for his engineering prowess and in particular the famous ‘Bouncing Bomb’ that was used by Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron in that daring raid of 16th May 1943. But there is so much more to Barnes Wallis than the Bouncing bombs; he made a huge contribution to British Aviation, weaponry of the Second World War, and later on in his life, supersonic and hypersonic air travel.

He is certainly one the Britain’s more notable designers, and has memorials, statues and plaques spread across the length and breadth of the country in his honour. But he was not just a designer of the Bouncing bomb, his talent for engineering and design led him through a series of moves that enabled him to excel and become a major part of British history.

Born on 26th September 1887 in Ripley, Derbyshire, he was educated at Christ’s Hospital in Horsham, he went on to study engineering in London, and shortly afterwards moving to the Isle of Wight. With the First World War looming, he was offered a chance to work on airship designs – an innovative design that would become widely used by the Naval forces of both the U.K. and Germany.

Wallis cut his teeth in marine engines as an engineer and draughtsman. He began his career in the London’s shipyards, moving to the Isle of Wight after which he broke into airship design. He followed a colleague he had met whilst working as a draughtsman with John Samuel White’s shipyard, together they would design His Majesty’s Airship No.9 (HMA 9).

The design process of HMA 9 was dynamic to say the least. Early non-rigid airships were proving to be very successful, and the new rigids that were coming in – whilst larger and more capable of travelling longer distances with greater payloads – were becoming the target for successive quarrels between the government and the Admiralty. World unrest and political turmoil was delaying their development even though plans for HMA 9 had already been drawn up.

Joining with his colleague, H.B. Pratt in April 1913, at the engineering company Vickers, the two designers began drawing up plans for a new rigid based along the lines of the German Zeppelin. HMA 9 would be a step forward from the ill-fated HMA No. 1 “Mayfly”, and would take several years to complete. Further ‘interference’ from the Admiralty (One Winston Churchill) led to the order being cancelled but then reinstated during 1915. The final construction of the 526 ft. long airship was on 28th June 1916, but its first flight didn’t take place until the following November, when it became the first British rigid airship to take to the Skies.

HMA 9 (author unknown*1)

With this Wallis had made his mark, and whilst HMA 9 remained classed as an ‘experimental’ airship with only 198 hours and 16 minutes of air time, she was a major step forward in British airship design and technology.

The Pratt and Wallis partnership were to go on and create another design, improving on the rigids that have previously been based on Zeppelin designs, in the form of the R80. Created through the pressure of war, the R80 would have to be designed and built inside readily available sheds as both steel and labour were in very short supply. Even before design or construction could begin there were barriers facing the duo.

Construction started in 1917, but with the end of the war in 1918, there was little future as a military airship for R80. Dithering by the Air Ministry led to the initial cancellation of the project, forcing the work to carry on along a commercial basis until the project was reinstated once more. With this reinstatement, military modifications, such as gun positions, were added to the airship once again. With construction completed in 1920, she made her first flight that summer. However, after sustaining structural damage she was returned to the sheds where repair work was carried out, and a year later R80 took to the air once again. After a brief spell of use by the U.S. Navy for training purposes, R80 was taken to Pulham airship base in Norfolk and eventually scrapped. Wallis’s design had lasted for four years and had only flown for 73 hours.

However, undaunted by these setbacks, the Vickers partnership of Pratt and Wallis went on to develop further designs. In the 1920s, a project known as the 1924 Imperial Airship Scheme, was set up where by a Government sponsored developer would compete against a commercial developer, and the ‘best of both’ would be used to create a new innovative design of airship that would traverse the globe. This new design, would offer both passenger and mail deliveries faster than any current methods at that time.

The Government backed design (built at the Royal Airship Works at Cardington) would compete against Vickers with Wallis as the now Chief Designer.

The brief was for a craft that could transport 100 passengers at a speed of 70 knots over a range of 3,000 miles. Whilst both designs were similar in size and overall shape, they could not have been more different. Wallis, designing the R.100, used a mathematical geodetic wire mesh which gave a greater gas volume than the Government’s R101, which was primarily of stainless steel and a more classic design. This geodesic design was revolutionary, strong and lightweight, it would prove a great success and emerge again in Wallis’s future.

Built at the Howden site a few miles west of Hull, the R100 was designed with as few parts as possible to cut down on both costs and weight; indeed R100 had only 13 longitudinal girders half that of previous designs. Wallis’s design was so far-reaching it only used around 50 different main parts.

The design plan of Wallis’ R-100 airship (author unknown*2

The 1920s in Britain were very difficult years, with the economy facing depression and deflation, strikes were common place, and the R100 was not immune to them. Continued strikes by the workers at the site repeatedly held back construction, but eventually, on 16th December 1929, Wallis’s R100 made its maiden flight. After further trials and slight modifications to its tail, the R100 was ready. Then came a test of endurance for the airship, a flight to Canada, a flight that saw the R100 cover a journey of 3,364 miles in just under 79 hours. Welcomed as heroes, the return journey would be even quicker. Boosted by the prevailing Gulf Stream, R100 made a crossing of 2,995 miles in four minutes under 58 hours. The gauntlet had been thrown, and Wallis’s airship would be hard to beat.

The R101 would face a similar flight of endurance, this time to India, and it would use many of the same crew such was the shortage of experienced men. On October 4th 1930, R101 left its mooring at Cardington for India. Whilst over France she encountered terrible weather, a violent storm caused her to crash, whereupon she burst into flames and was destroyed with all but six of the 54 passengers and crew being killed.

The airship competition became a ‘one horse race’, but an inspection of the outer covering of Wallis’s R100 revealed excessive wear, only cured by replacing the skin, an expense the project could barely swallow. With plans already in place for the R102, the project was in jeopardy, and eventually, even after offers from the U.S. Government, it was deemed too expensive, and by 1932 R100, the worlds largest airship and most advanced of its time, had been scrapped and the parts sold off.

Wallis’s airship career had now come to an end, but his prowess and innovation as a designer had been proven, he had set the bench mark that others would find hard to follow.

In the next part, we look at the work carried out by Wallis both during the Second World War and in the later years of his life.

Sources and further reading

*1 Photo from The Airship Heritage Trust website.

*2 ibid

Home to Lancasters and Vulcans, Scampton is an iconic and historical airfield.

In this trip we head back northwards into Lincolnshire otherwise known as ‘Bomber Country’ to an airfield that is steeped in history; active since the first world war, it stands high above Lincoln but only a few miles from the Cathedral, a landmark welcomed by many a returning bomber crew. It was here that three Victoria Crosses were earned, Lancasters filled the skies and from here the famous ‘Dambusters’ of 617 Squadron carried out their daring raid on the dams of the Ruhr. It is of course RAF Scampton.

RAF Scampton.

RAF Scampton is to Bomber Command what Biggin Hill is to Fighter Command. It embodies all that is the air war of those dark days of the 1940s; the bravery and dedication of crews, the sacrifice, the loss and the heartache. It has had a long and successful life; even today it is a military airfield but one that sadly operates as a shadow of its former self.

Opened during the First World War under the name of Brattleby Cliff, Scampton was a Home Defence Flight Station, operated by the Royal Flying Corps with 11, 60 and 81 squadrons. A variety of aircraft were based here and it performed in this role until closing shortly after the cessation of the conflict in 1918. For a while Scampton lay dormant, many buildings being removed, but, as a new war loomed over the horizon, it once more sprang into life as RAF Scampton.

Opening in 1936, it was designed as a grass airfield. Its firsts residents were the Heyford IIIs of No 9 squadron (RAF) in 1938, who stayed for just short of two years. They were joined by the Virginia Xs of 214 Squadron (RAF) who arrived in October that same year. A brief spell by 148 Squadron (RAF) in 1937, further added to the variety of aircraft at this base.

The next units to arrive would see Scampton into the Second World War. Both 49 and 83 Squadrons arrived with Hawker Hinds, models they retained until replaced by the more modern twin-engined Hampdens in 1938. Using these aircraft, Scampton would have an auspicious start to the war. With inexperienced crews, flying was very ‘hit and miss’ – delays, missed targets and inaccurate flying all became common place during this period of the ‘phony’ war.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941.

The crew of a Handley Page Hampden Mark I of No. 83 Squadron RAF leave their aircraft at Scampton.© IWM (CH 256)

However, as the mighty German war machine charged across Europe, Scampton’s crews were to find themselves in the thick of the fighting. With bombing and mine laying being the main focus for them, they would learn quickly through flying into high risk areas – many heavily defended by flak and determined fighter cover – that they had to be better. It was in this early stage of the war that the first Victoria Cross would be earned by a Scampton pilot.

Flight Lieutenant Roderick Learoyd who by now was a veteran of 23 missions, fought to hold his badly damaged aircraft on track during a raid on the Dortmund-Ems Canal. Then, nursing the crippled aircraft home, he would remain circling the airfield for three hours, so he could land his aircraft safely in the daylight rather than endangering his crew by landing at night.

Scampton’s sorties would become almost continuous. Barely a month would pass before a second V.C. would be won by wireless operator Sergeant John Hannah flying with 83 Squadron, in a raid on ports in the lowland countries. It was believed that the Germans were massing their invasion barges here and vital that they were bombed to prevent the invasion taking place. During the raid, Hannah would extinguish an onboard fire using a small fire extinguisher, then his log book and finally his hands. Badly burned and in great pain, he helped nurse the stricken aircraft home after two of the crew bailed out.

Scampton continued to develop as bomber station. Crew quarters were in short supply and often cramped. In March 1940, Fairy Battles of 98 Squadron would have a very brief spell here whilst on their way to RAF Finningley. In December 1941, 83 Squadron received the new Avro Manchester as a replacement for the now poorly performing Hampden, followed in April 1942 by 49 Squadron. These aircraft were not loved or admired, suffering from gross under power, and major hydraulic issues, they would soon go in favour of the RAF’s new bomber and Scampton’s icon, the Lancaster I and III.

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Scampton from Gibson’s window. Nigger’s grave can be seen to the left.

Both 49 and 83 squadrons would leave Scampton soon after this upgrade. Scampton itself would then go through a period of quiet until when in September that year, on the 4th, Lancaster I and IIIs arrived with 57 Squadron. They would stay here operating over Europe for one year before moving off to nearby RAF East Kirkby. 467 Squadron joined 57 for a short period, being formed at Scampton on November 7th 1942 again with the formidable Lancaster I and IIIs. Their stay was much shorter however, within a month of arrival they would have gone to RAF Bottesford.

It was the following year that Scampton really became famous with the formation of 617 Squadron (RAF) in March 1943. Commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, a Scampton ‘veteran’ himself, 617 Sqn was put together for a very special operation using specially modified Lancaster IIIs. ‘Operation Chastise’ is probably the best known military operation of Bomber Command and the story of the Dams raid on the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams is well documented in virtually every form of media possible. This raid was to become synonymous with Scampton even though 617 Sqn were only here for a very brief period of time. They would only undertake two raids from Scampton, the Dams raid and a second to Northern Italy, before they moved to Coningsby, and later Woodhall Spa (Trail 1), both a short distance to the south. It was of course that as a result of this raid, Scampton would earn a third VC through the actions of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

The departure of both 57 and 617 Squadrons from Scampton allowed for development of the runways. Concrete was laid for the first time, in sufficient amounts to accommodate more heavy bombers, and the first to arrive were the Lancaster I and IIIs of 153 Squadron (RAF).

153 Sqn were to see out the war at Scampton, but their stay was not a good one. As the war drew to a close, 153 began the mining operations that Scampton had been so used to at the outbreak of war. Casualties were high with many crews being lost including that of the Gibson’s contemporary, Canadian born Wing Commander Francis Powley. On the night of April 4th/5th, two Lancaster Mk. Is – NX563 ‘P4-R’ and RA544 ‘P4-U’ with Powley on board, were both shot down by Major Werner Husemann of I./NJG3, over Kattegat, whilst on a ‘gardening’ mission. The crews were all lost without trace and are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

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Two Sisters under refurbishment in one of the four hangars.

On this same night, more Lancasters I and IIIs arrived from RAF Kelstern with 625 Squadron (RAF) and together they formed part of the last major Bomber Command operation of the war. On 25th April 1945, they flew against Hitler’s mountain retreat at Obersalzberg, Berchtesgaden. 153 Sqn was eventually disbanded on September 28th 1945 followed by 625 Sqn on October 7th that same year.

A brief 3 month stay by 100 Squadron saw flying from Scampton cease and it remained without operational flying units for the next two years.

Scampton would next play a part in the Berlin Airlift.  American B.29 Superfortresses were stationed here for a year as part of the US Strategic Air Command between 1948 and 1949  flying operations into the besieged Berlin. There then followed another quiet period, something that was common place for Scampton and it wasn’t until 1953 that it would see flying activity once again.

On 15th January 1953, 10 Squadron would reform here,  followed not long after by 27 Squadron (15th June), 18 Squadron  (1st August), and finally 21 Squadron on 21st September1953; all operating the new Canberra. Many of these units would stay for only a short period of time, moving on to new bases relatively quickly. However, as the ‘cold war’ threat increased, Scampton would come back into the limelight once more.

In 1956 the main runway was extended to 10,000ft causing the main A15 road to be re-routed giving it its notable ‘bend’. After two years, on 1st may 1958, 617 squadron would return to its historical home, being reformed at Scampton with the mighty Vulcan B.1. 617 Sqn would fly a variety of versions: B.1A, B.2 and B.2A, until disbandment on New Years Eve 1981*1. It was during this time that the Blue Steel would form Britain’s Nuclear deterrent, the very reason the Vulcan was designed. History was to repeat itself again on 10th october 1960, as 83 Squadron, who had flown Hampdens at the outbreak of war from here, were also reformed at Scampton, also with the B.2 and B.2A Vulcan. 27 Sqn were also to return, going through a number of reforms and disbandment forming up again at Scampton on 1st April 1961 to join what became known as the ‘Scampton Wing’. 83 Sqn sadly though, were not to last as long as their historical counterparts, being disbanded on 31st August 1969.

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

An Avro Vulcan B.2 of the Scampton Wing © Crown copyright. IWM (RAF-T 4883)

Then on 16th January 1975, more Vulcans would arrive, those of  35 Squadron (RAF) who would go on to serve until disbandment on March 1st 1982 again here at Scampton. This being the last ever operational flying unit to grace the skies over this iconic airfield.

A small reprieve for Scampton came in the form of two separate stays by the adored aerobatics team the Red Arrows, who have continued to use Scampton as their base stunning crowds at airshows around the world. Currently stationed here until the end of the decade, Scampton at least has retained some flying for the foreseeable future.

Today RAF Scampton is home to only two small non-flying but operational units; the Air Control Centre (ACC) who merged with the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) and the and Mobile Met Unit (MMU). These are responsible for monitoring British Airspace 24 hours a day, 365 days a year ready to alert the RAF’s QRA units when intruders are detected. These units provide Scampton with around 200 working personnel, somewhat dwarfed in a base built for 2000.

Scampton is of course synonymous with the Dambusters, and it is predominately this history that keeps Scampton alive today.

The four enormous ‘C’ type hangers stand virtually idle, no longer holding the huge aircraft they were designed to hold. No Vulcans fill their beams, no Lancasters roar into life on moon lit nights. Instead private companies use one for storage, the Red Arrows another and the Heritage Centre a third. The last one is utilised by the Museum of RAF Firefighting to store some 40+ historically important RAF and civilian fire engines all once used to fight the fierce fires of crashed aircraft. Reputedly the largest collections of fire fighting equipment, models, photographs and memorabilia in the world, it is an extensive collection and well worth the visit.

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Two of the four ‘C’ types Hangars, each one could take 4 Vulcans.  Note the Red Arrow Hawk.

Whilst only a fraction of Scampton is used these days, its crew quarters quiet and locked, it remains under very strict security with patrolling armed guards. Photography is strictly forbidden around the former quarters, but once on the actual airfield security is relaxed – albeit in a small amount. Access is only by prior permission as a visitor to either the National Museum of Fire Fighters or to the Heritage Centre. It is these volunteers that care for and share the very office used by Guy Gibson when 617 sqn prepared for their mission to the Ruhr.

On arrival at Scampton an armed guard watches vigilantly, as guides check your ID, a passport or drivers licence, who then take you through the gate to walk along where Gibson and his crews were briefed on that very night. The buildings that line either side of the road are no different from that day and it is here in this very spot where Guy Gibson (Richard Todd) walked away from Barnes Wallis (Michael Redgrave) at the end of the 1955 film “The Dambusters”. The main gate you walk through to enter the site is the very gate at which the squadron mascot ‘Nigger’ was run over and killed by a car. Not by a hit and run driver as portrayed  in the film, but a passer-by who stopped, collected the dog and reported it to the very guard-house that stands there today. Like many films portraying the brave and heroic acts of the Second World War, the factual accuracy of the film is somewhat skewed. However, the film makers could be forgiven for this as much of the operational records were still on the secret list when the film was made.

Once passed the accommodation blocks cameras are permitted and the views over the airfield are stunning. The control tower – moved after the redevelopment of the airfield – watches over its quiet expanses, little moves here expect the Hawks of the Red Arrows.

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The names of those who took part in Operation Chastise.

Gibson’s office stands overlooking this part of the field, and perhaps the only reminder of that night, is Nigger’s grave. A ‘headstone’ enclosed in a fence marks the dog’s grave, placed in front of Gibson’s offices slightly offset so Gibson himself could be laid to rest here with him. Sadly his death on September 19th 1944 near Steenburgen in Holland prevented the reuniting of Gibson’s body with his beloved pet and the two remain separated for eternity.

His office,  so well reconstructed, stands with period furniture as it would have been during his stay here with 617 sqn. Uniforms, photos and numerous other artefacts from that time are displayed for the visitor.

Below this floor, a large model of a Lancaster and more artefacts reflect the historical importance of 617 squadron from its earliest days of the Second World War to the point when they were to return with the RAF’s modern fighter the Tornado.

Guy Gibson trail then takes you through a mock-up of the crew quarters and on into the hangar. Here several aircraft are stored, a Hunter, Sukhoi SU 22, Gnat and Hawk both in Red Arrows colours. Also a second Hawk used to train RAF Technicians ready for the Red Arrows. Two Lancaster front sections are being carefully restored and a number of artefacts are stored here waiting their fate whatever that may be.

Scampton as an ‘active’ base may well have a reprieve over the next year or so. With the recent announcements from the RAF that Waddington will no longer host an airshow due to ‘increased security risks’, Scampton has been identified  as a possible replacement venue after 2017. Whether this will come to fruition or not is yet to be seen, but if it does, it may well breath new life into this historic and truly iconic airfield.

Further reading, links and notes.

There are many additional stories linked with Scampton that would simply fill a book. The live bomb unknowingly used as a gate guard for a number of years, the Lancaster that served here and now stands in the Imperial War Museum, London, and the little known story of Iris Price, possibly the only WAAF to see a bombing mission from an allied aircraft. Passing out due to oxygen loss, she was nearly thrown out of the aircraft so as to dispose of the body, thus avoiding a court-martial for her and the crew.

Guy Gibson’s own book ‘Enemy Coast Ahead’ gives a fabulous insight into his life especially whilst at Scampton and is highly recommended.

The ‘Dambusters’ Pub located near to the airfield was frequented by the crews of Scampton and is now a popular haunt for the Red Arrows. It is filled with memorabilia, photographs and is purely fascinating, a museum with beer, even producing its own tipple  – ‘Final Approach’!

*1 617 would go on to be reformed later, with the ‘Tornado’ at RAF Marham forming a front line fighter squadron.

For current operational information on Scampton and how to visit the Heritage Centre click here.