RAF Cottam – Built and Abandoned.

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

RAF Cottam.

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

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

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

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

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

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

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The remains of the secondary runway looking west.

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

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

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

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

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

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

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

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

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

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

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source and further reading:

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

*2 See the National Archives website for details.

*3 News report on the proposal.

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

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

RAF Gransden Lodge aircraft revealed.

A recent article published by the Royal Canadian Air Force, tells the story of the fate and eventual discovery of, RCAF 405 “Vancouver” Sqn Halifax II, LQ-B.

LQ-B, s/n HR871, was based at RAF Gransden Lodge as part of 8 Group, Pathfinder Force from April 19th 1943 and was flown by Sgt. John Philips with his six crew members.

On the night in question, August 2/3 1943, they were part of a 740 strong force consisting of a mix of heavy and light bombers, who were despatched to Hamburg as part of the ongoing operation “Gomorrah”, to destroy Hamburg through blanket bombing. A combined operation by the RAF and USAAF would see continuous bombing both day and night from the end of July to the beginning of August whereupon they turned their attention to Nuremberg, Milan and then Peenemunde. In this short period some one hundred RAF aircraft were lost, many flown by Canadian, Australian and New Zealand crews, all fighting a war a very long way from home.

LQ-B set off with the other aircraft on the night of August 2nd and it was during this leg of the trip that they would encounter a terrific thunderstorm, in which lightning would strike the aircraft knocking out the two inboard engines, damaging a number of instruments and the radio.

With the aircraft difficult to control Philips made the decision to head north toward Sweden where the crew were eventually ordered to bail out. All the crew escaped the aircraft safely and were interned by the Swedish authorities until January 1944, when they were repatriated.

LQ-B went on to crash into waters just off shore of the Swedish coast where it has recently been discovered in 17 metres of water broken up and partially submerged in the silt. It is hoped to recover the aircraft in the near future.

During this same night 405 Sqn also lost the aircraft and crews of Halifaxes, LQ-E (HR849) and LQ-G (HR917) most of whom have no known grave.

Gransden Lodge, located on the Bedfordshire / Cambridgeshire border, can be seen in Trail 31, whilst the Royal Canadian Air force article can be found through this link.

Leslie Howard Pilot Officer 77sqn. RAF(VR) RAF Elvington

As a teacher, I often try to squeeze in a little bit of modern history. I feel it’s important that the younger generations know and understand what sacrifices were made during both the First and Second World Wars (not to mention the many others) so that they realise lives are lost and that war is not a game of ‘Call Of Duty’.

To my surprise one of the girls brought in some papers and explained how it was a relation of hers on her mother’s side, but she knew nothing about him. The gauntlet was thrown, eager to know more, I took copies of the relevant documents and brought them home.

After some considerable searching I came up with some interesting facts about this man.

His name was Leslie Howard (s/n: 168652), he was originally a policeman, and came from the Sheffield area (Birklands Road). He was married to ‘Gladys’ and on joining the RAF was posted to 77 Squadron who were based Elvington at the time of his death. He was a sergeant and received training on Wellington bombers. After promotion, he became and Pilot Officer and flew Halifax (V) bombers from Elvington with 77 Sqn, RAF(VR).

On the night of 20th /21st December 1943, he was on a mission to bomb Frankfurt. With him on board were: Sgt. E Dickman, F/sgt. C. Quine (DFM), F/Sgt. J. Waterston, Sgt. N.H.C. Short, Sgt. W.C. Wight and Sgt. A.P.H. Restarick. His Halifax, S/N LL121, “KN-G” was attacked by what is believed to be by either JU88 or B110 of 8./NJG3 night fighter squadron, piloted by, again not confirmed, Oblt. Paul Zorner, from Hintermellingen, near Frankfurt.

The aircraft was severely damaged and crashed. Both P.O. Howard and Sgt. E.W.Dickman were killed, whilst the others survived being taken prisoners of war.

Sgt. Dickman was buried in Runnymeade, whilst P.O. Howard was buried in the cemetery at Hintermellingen. His remains are now in the Hanover War Cemetery, block 16, row A, number 18.

I informed the father of the young child who was more than interested as they knew little of him. He told me that the family on the mother’s side, still resided in the Yorkshire area and were visiting in the next week or two. He would pass this information on.

I shall continue digging, to find more and confirm the details I’ve already found, but you get a real sense of achievement and satisfaction to know that a little bit of history has been uncovered for this family.

If you know of, or have any further information about this operation or crews, I would love to hear from you.

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Do you recognise anyone in these photos? Particularly the bottom left.

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The telegram sent to Mrs Howard.

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Leslie Howard’s grave is 16.A.18 to the top of the diagram (created by the War Graves Commision).