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

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

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Essex

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

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

RAF Debden

One of 11 Blister Hangars built at Debden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advertisements

389th BG Exhibition at Hethel.

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

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

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

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

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

389th BG Exhibition Hethel

The restored murals in the Chapel.

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

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

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

The dedication plaque.

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

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

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

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

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

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

R.A.F. Wethersfield (U.S.A.A.F. Station 170).

After a short journey from Castle Camps we soon arrive at our next port of call. This airfield, although a Second World War airfield, saw little action but was used by both the U.S.A.A.F. and the R.A.F. both during and after the war. Whilst it does not generally have active flying units today, it does house the M.O.D. dog training unit and as such is classed as an active military site.

This part of the trail brings us to the former airfield RAF Wethersfield.

R.A.F. Wethersfield (Station 170).

RAF Wethersfield was originally designed and built as a Class ‘A’ bomber airfield with construction occurring during 1942. During this expansion period materials and labour were both in short supply, which delayed the completion of the airfield until late 1943. During this period, ownership of the airfield passed hands several times, initially belonging to the Eighth Air Force, it was to be loaned to the R.A.F. between December 1942 and May 1943, before returning back to American hands. However, the delay to construction meant that by the time it was completed and opened, it would not be used by the R.A.F. but passed instead directly into the hands of the ‘new’ U.S. Ninth Air Force.

Constituted in 1941, the Ninth had already been fighting in Egypt and Libya, before they were moved to England in late 1943 in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of the continent. Throughout the remainder of the war they would pave the way for the advancing forces from Normandy deep into Germany itself. As an Air force, it would be disbanded in 1945 only to be reborn post war as part of the Tactical Air Command, and latterly the Continental Air Command, at which point it was assigned to Reserve and National Guard duties.

The first units to arrive at Wethersfield did so in the February of 1944, four months before the invasion took place. The first aircraft to arrive were the A-20 ‘Havocs’ of the 416th Bombardment Group (Light). The Group, who was only a year old itself, was made up of the: 668th, 669th, 670th and 671st Bomb Squadrons, and would fall under the control of the IX Bomber Command, Ninth Air Force who had their headquarters at the rather grand stately home Marks Hall in Essex.

A-20 Havocs, including (serial number 43-9701) of the 416th BG. 9701 was salvaged August 18th 1945. IWM (FRE 6403)

A journey that started at Will Rogers Airfield in Oklahoma, would take the men of the 416th from Lake Charles in Louisiana, through Laurel Airfield, Mississippi and onto Wethersfield some 28 miles to the south-east of Cambridge, in Essex.

As a Class A airfield, its three concrete runways would be standard lengths: 1 x 2,000 yards and 2 x 1,400 yards, all the normal 50 yards wide. Scattered around the perimeter were fifty hardstands for aircraft dispersal – all but one being of the spectacle style.

The 2,500 ground and air crews would be allocated standard accommodation, primarily Nissen huts, situated over several sites to the south-west of the main airfield site. Two T2 hangars were provided for aircraft maintenance, one in the technical area also to the south-west, and the second to the east. One notable building at Wethersfield was a Ctesiphon hut. An unusual, and indeed controversial design, it originated in the Middle East when a sergeant, unable to camouflage his tent, had poured concrete over it. As the pole was removed, the structure remained both intact and strong. The commanding officer, Major J.H. De W. Waller took the idea, named it after a 1,600 year old palace at Bagdad, and developed it in the UK, through the Waller Housing Corporation.

The idea behind the building is that a metal frame is constructed, similar in design to Nissen hut ribs, then covered with hessian after which concrete is poured over it. As the concrete hardens, the hessian sags giving added strength through its ‘corrugated’ shape. The ‘scaffolds’ are then removed leaving the hut’s shell standing independently. At Wethersfield there were originally fourteen of these huts built, all within the technical site, it is not currently known whether any of these still exist today, but it is extremely unlikely as most were pulled down post war.

The 416th BG were part of the 97th Combat Wing, and were among the first to receive the new ‘Havocs’, along with the 409th and 410th BG who were also under the control of the 97th. For the short period between the 416th’s arrival (February 1944) and the invasion in June, they carried out sustained training missions transferring their skills from the B-25s they had earlier used, to the new A-20s, which included operational sorties targeting V-weapons sites in northern France starting in March 1944.

During these flights, accidents would happen. A number of aircraft were damaged or written off whilst attempting  landings at Wethersfield: ’43-9203′, (671st BS) piloted by George W. Cowgill crashed on 21st April 1944; ’43-9209′ piloted by Pilot Elizabeth O. Turner, crashed on 13th August 1944, and ’43-9368′ crashed two days earlier on 11th August 1944. Some of these accidents resulted in fatalities, including that of ’43-9223′ (668th BS) which crashed on a routine test flight 1.5 miles north-west of Wethersfield, on 9th May 1944. The pilot Capt. William P. Battersby (the Squadron Operations Officer) and a passenger Private First Class Charles W. Coleman (s/n 32372194) a Parachute Rigger, were both killed in the accident.

In the April, two months after the Americans had moved in, the R.A.F. officially handed over the airfield to the U.S. forces in a ceremony that unusually, saw a large number of civilians take part.

As the invasion neared, the 416th began to attack coastal defences and airfields  that were supporting Luftwaffe forces. During and after the invasion they targeted rail bottlenecks, marshalling yards, road networks, bridges and other strategic targets to prevent the build up of reinforcements and troop movements into Normandy.

As the German forces retreated, the 416th attacked escape routes in the Falaise Gap to the south of Caen, destroying the many bridges that allowed the German armies to leave the encircled area. During the battle, nine aircraft were lost, and all those lucky enough to return suffered flak damage, some of it heavy. For their actions here between the 6th and 9th of August 1944, the 416th earned themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) the only one they would receive during the conflict.

By the following September, the Allies had pushed into France and the Ninth began to move across to captured airfields on the continent, the 416th being one of those to go. Leaving the leafy surroundings of Wethersfield for the Advanced Landing Ground (A.L.G.) at Melun, to the south of Paris, it would be a move that would coincide with the change to the new A-26 ‘Invader’; the 416th being the first unit to do so, another first and another distinction. During their seven month stay at Wethersfield the 416th BG would fly 141 operational sorties losing twenty-one aircraft in the process.

A-20 Havocs and A-26 Invaders of the 416th Bomb Group at Wethersfield. This picture was probably taken around the time the 416th were departing Wethersfield for the Landing Ground at Melun, France. FRE 7445 (IWM)

With their departure, Wethersfield was handed back to the R.A.F. and the First Allied Airborne Army. This would see a dramatic change from the light twin-engined A-20s to the mighty four-engined Stirlings MK.IV, the former heavy bombers turned transport and glider tugs, whose nose stood at over 20 feet from the ground.

The two squadrons operating these aircraft at Wethersfield, 196 Sqn and 299 Sqn, would both arrive on the same day, October 9th 1944 and depart within 24 hours of each other on 26th and 25th of January 1945 respectively.

The Stirling, initially a heavy bomber of Bomber Command, was pulled from front line bombing missions due to its high losses, many squadrons replacing them with the newer Lancaster. 196 Sqn however, retained the Stirling and instead transferred from Bomber Command into the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.

The Stirlings proved to be much more suited to their new role supporting resistance and S.O.E. operations in occupied Europe. But the heavy weight of the Stirling took its toll on the runways at Wethersfield, and eventually they began to break up. Now in need of repairs, the two squadrons were pulled out and sent to Shepherds Grove where they would eventually be disbanded at the war’s end.

RAF Wethersfield

One of the original T2 Hangars on the south-eastern side.

A short stay in March of 1945 by the 316th Troop Carrier Group (T.C.G.) allowed them to participate in Operation ‘Varsity‘, transporting paratroops of the British 6th Airborne across the Rhine into Wessel, and on into northern Germany itself. An operation that saw 242 C-47 and C-53 transport aircraft leave bases in England filled with paratroops and their associated hardware. For many of these troops, it was their first drop into enemy territory – a true baptism of fire. During the take offs, paratroopers witnessed a V-1 flying bomb race across the Wethersfield sky, the Germans last-ditch effort to turn the tide that was very much against them. Immediately after the operation the 316th returned to their home station at R.A.F. Cottesmore, a move that signified the operational end of Wethersfield for the Second World War. Now unoccupied the site was put into care and maintenance, a state it remained in for a good number of years.

With the heightening threat of a soviet attack and the suggestion of the Cold War turning ‘hot’, Wethersfield was then given a new lease of life. On the 1st June 1952, the U.S. returned once more with the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing (F.B.W.), the 55th and 77th Fighter Bomber Squadrons (F.B.S.) operating the F-84G ‘Thunderjet’.

To accommodate the new jets, the main runway was extended, the original wartime buildings were removed and replaced with more modern structures. The original control tower was developed and upgraded to meet the new higher standards required of a military airfield. Accommodation and family support was also considered. Like many U.S. bases in the U.K. they had their own shops, bowling complex, basketball centre, Youth club, cinema and school. Wethersfield was to become, for a short period of time, a front line base and a major part of the U.S.’s twenty-two European bases.

Children are shown around RAF Wethersfield as part of cementing American and British relations. 

The F-84G was a Tactical-fighter bomber designed to carry a 2,000 lb nuclear bomb for use on enemy airfields in the event of all out war. Operating as part of the 49th Air Division, 3rd Air Force, they would operate in conjunction with the B-45’s located at nearby R.A.F. Sculthorpe.

In June 1955, the wing, now reformed but utilising the same units, began flying the Republic F-84F ‘Thunderstreak’. The ‘F’ model was essentially a swept-wing version of the ‘G’; designed to be more powerful whilst utilising many of the tooling used by the ‘G’. Gradually the ‘G’ was phased out by the 20th with the ‘F’ becoming the standard flying air frame.

Up grading of the F-84F to the F-100 ‘Super Sabres’ occurred in 1957, during which time the unit was also re-designated the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing after a major reorganisation of the U.S. forces in Europe. The Super Sabres remaining in service here until 1970 when the nearby development of Stansted Airport led to the Wing moving to Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Prior to this move Wethersfield would bear witness to the first demonstration of the F-111 in U.K. skies, an aircraft that would become the back-bone of the 20th after its departure to Upper Heyford in June that year.

In 1963, Wethersfield suffered a blow when  an F-100F Super Sabre ’56-3991′ piloted by First Lieutenant Paul Briggs (s/n 69418A) and co-pilot Colonel Wendell Kelley (s/n 7784A) crashed at Gosfield in Essex. The aircraft experienced repeated “severe compressor stalls” and ongoing problems with oil pressure. After disposing of their fuel tanks over the sea, the aircraft was guided back towards Wethersfield. Eventually the crew decided to eject, the co-pilot asked for the canopy to be blown, and believing he had gone, the pilot ejected. It was not until afterwards that the pilot realised the co-pilot was still in the aircraft, and he was killed in the resultant crash in a farmer’s field. To commemorate the tragic accident that took the life of Colonel Kelley, a memorial stands on the village playing field*1.

RAF Wethersfield

Cold War Shelters located on the original hardstands.

With this move in 1970, Wethersfield went back into care and maintenance, used by the airport repair organisation the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers or RED HORSE for short, who were responsible for the rapid repair of runways and other large airfield structures in times of war. This would also mean the end of operational flying at Wethersfield, and after the departure of the 20th, no further active flying units would return.

As the Americans began their European wind down, the ‘RED HORSE’ unit was also pulled out and the site returned to Ministry of Defence ownership. The R.A.F.’s M.O.D. Police units moved in during 1991, the hands of which it remains in today.

The airfield is still complete, the runways a little worn, its surfaces ‘damaged’ by experimentation with new techniques and repair practices, but it is used by visiting aircraft associated with Police and M.O.D. operations – Police Helicopters and the like. A glider training unit 614  V.G.S. also reside here utilising one of the remaining T2 hangars, keeping the aviation spirit alive if only for a short while longer.

Today it remains an active Military base, and as such access is strictly forbidden. The roads around the airfield do offer some views but these are limited. A public road and footpath is located at the north-eastern end of the site, from here the runway, parts of the perimeter track and hangar can be seen through the fencing. Passing the main entrance, there are a small number of buildings remaining derelict on adjacent farmland, these were part of the original accommodation site and are few and far between. Continuing along this road leads to a dead-end and private dwelling, but it does allow views of the current  accommodation and training buildings on the former technical area, all now very modern.

RAF Wethersfield

There have been many of these post-war additions to the airfield,

Whilst Wethersfield remains an active site, plans were announced in March 2016 to dispose of it as part of the M.O.D.’s plan to sell off many of its sites to raise money and streamline its activities. If planning permission is granted, Wethersfield could see 4,850 homes being built on it and the resident units of the military being moved elsewhere. It is planned to pass Wethersfield over to the Homes and Communities Agency by 2020, for its disposal*2.

Having a short war service and limited cold war history, Wethersfield is one of those airfields that never achieved huge recognition. Despite this, it was nonetheless, one that played its part in major world history. Achieving many ‘firsts’ and seeing many new developments in aviation, it is slowly starting that decline into obscurity. If the Government have their way, Wethersfield will shortly become a housing estate, and its history will sadly become yet another of those condemned to the local library.

After leaving here, we carry on into Essex and yet another airfield that has remained active but not as a flying base. We go to the Carver Barracks and the former R.A.F. Debden.

Sources and further Reading.

*1A website dedicated to the 20th T.F.W. at Wethersfield has a number of pictures of both aircraft and people associated with Wethersfield and the 20th T.F.W.  It also includes a transcript of the discussion between the pilot and the tower prior to the Sabre’s crash. There are also other documents relating to the crash located on the site.

*2 The announcement was highlighted ion the Essex Live website, March 24th 2016.

1945 World Air Speed Record – Herne Bay.

Before leaving Herne Bay in Trail 44, take a look out to sea and imagine yourself watching a Gloster Meteor flash by. On November 7th 1945, this very event occurred during which a new World Air Speed record was set.

On that day, two Meteor aircraft were prepared in which two pilots, both flying for different groups, would attempt to set a new World Air Speed record over a set course along Herne Bay’s seafront. The first aircraft was piloted by Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, CBE, AFC (the Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School, Cranfield); and the second by Mr. Eric Stanley Greenwood O.B.E., Gloster’s own chief test pilot. In a few hours time both men would have the chance to have their names entered in the history books of aviation by breaking through the 600mph air speed barrier.

The event was run in line with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules, covering in total, an 8 mile course flown at, or below, 250 feet. For the attempt, there would be four runs in total by each pilot, two east-to-west and two west-to-east.

With good but not ideal weather, Wilson’s aircraft took off from the former RAF Manston, circling over Thanet before lining his aircraft up for the run in. Following red balloon markers along the shoreline, Wilson flew along the 8 mile course at 250 feet between Reculver Point and  Herne Bay Pier toward the Isle of Sheppey. Above Sheppey, (and below 1,300 ft) Wilson would turn his aircraft and line up for the next run, again at 250ft.

Initial results showed Greenwood achieving the higher speeds, and these were eagerly flashed around the world. However, after confirmation from more sophisticated timing equipment, it was later confirmed that the higher speed was in fact achieved by Wilson, whose recorded speeds were: 604mph, 608mph, 602mph and 611mph, giving an average speed of just over 606mph. Eric Greenwood’s flights were also confirmed, but slightly slower at:  599mph, 608mph, 598mph and 607mph, giving an overall average speed of 603mph. The actual confirmed and awarded speed over the four runs was 606.38mph by Wilson*1.

The event was big news around the world, a reporter for ‘The Argus*2‘ – a Melbourne newspaper – described how both pilots used only two-thirds of their permitted power, and how they both wanted permission to push the air speed even higher, but both were denied at the time.

In the following day’s report*3, Greenwood described what it was like flying at over 600 mph for the very first time.

As I shot across the course of three kilometres (one mile seven furlongs), my principal  worry was to keep my eye on the light on the pier, for it was the best guiding beacon there was. On my first run I hit a bump, got a wing down, and my nose slewed off a bit, but I got back on the course. Below the sea appeared to be rushing past like an out-of-focus picture.

I could not see the Isle of Sheppey, toward which I was heading, because visibility was not all that I wanted.

At 600mph it is a matter of seconds before you are there. It came up just where I  expected it. In the cockpit I was wearing a tropical helmet, grey flannel bags, a white silk shirt, and ordinary shoes. The ride was quite comfortable, and not as bumpy as some practice runs. I did not have time to pay much attention to the gauges and meters, but I could see that my air speed indicator was bobbing round the 600mph mark.

On the first run I only glanced at the altimeter on the turns, so that I should not go too high. My right hand was kept pretty busy on the stick (control column), and my left hand was. throbbing on the two throttle levers.

Greenwood went on to describe how it took four attempts to start the upgraded engines, delaying his attempt by an hour…

I had to get in and out of the cockpit four times before the engines finally started. A technical hitch delayed me for about an hour, and all the time I was getting colder and colder. At last I got away round about 11.30am. 

He described in some detail the first and second runs…

On the first run I had a fleeting glance at the blurred coast, and saw quite a crowd of onlookers on the cliffs. I remembered that my wife was watching me, and I found that there was time to wonder what she was thinking. I knew that she would be more worried than I was, and it struck me that the sooner I could get the thing over the sooner her fears would be put at rest.

On my first turn toward the Isle of Sheppey I was well lined up for passing over the Eastchurch airfield, where visibility was poor for this high-speed type of flying. The horizon had completely disappeared, and I turned by looking down at the ground and hoping that, on coming out of the bank, I would be pointing at two balloons on the pier 12 miles ahead. They were not visible at first.

All this time my air speed indicator had not dropped below 560 mph, in spite of my back-throttling slightly. Then the guiding light flashed from the pier, and in a moment I saw the balloons, so I knew that I was all right for that.

On the return run of my first circuit the cockpit began to get hot. It was for all the world like a tropical-summer day. Perspiration began to collect on my forehead. I did not want it to cloud my eyes, so for the fraction of a second I took my hands off the controls and wiped the sweat off with the back of my gloved hand. I had decided not to wear goggles, as the cockpit was completely sealed. I had taken the precaution, however, of leaving my oxygen turned on, because I thought that it was just that little extra care that might prevent my getting the feeling of “Don’t fence me in.”

Normally I don’t suffer from a feeling of being cooked up in an aircraft, but the Meteor’s cockpit was so completely sealed up that I was not certain how I should feel. As all had gone well, and I had got half-way through the course I checked up my fuel content gauges to be sure that I had plenty of paraffin to complete the job.

I passed over Manston airfield on the second run rather farther east than I had hoped, so my turn took me farther out to sea than I had budgeted for. But I managed to line up again quite satisfactorily, and I opened up just as I was approaching Margate pier at a height of 800 feet. My speed was then 560 mph.

Whilst the first run was smooth, the second he said, “Shook the base of his spine”.

This second run was not so smooth, for I hit a few bumps, which shook the base of my spine. Hitting air bumps at 600 mph is like falling down stone steps—a series of nasty jars. But the biffs were not bad enough to make me back-throttle, and I passed over the line without incident, except that I felt extremely hot and clammy.

After he had completed his four attempts, Greenwood described how he had difficulty in lowering his airspeed to enable him to land safely…

At the end of my effort I came to one of the most difficult jobs of the lot. It was to lose speed after having travelled at 600 mph. I started back-throttling immediately after I had finished my final run, but I had to circuit Manston airfield three times before I got my speed down to 200mph.

The two Meteor aircraft were especially modified for the event. Both originally built as MK.III aircraft – ‘EE454’ (Britannia ) and ‘EE455’ (Yellow Peril) – they had the original engines replaced with Derwent Mk.V turbojets (a scaled-down version of the RB.41 Nene) increasing the thrust to a maximum of 4,000 lbs at sea level – for the runs though, this would be limited to 3,600 lbs each. Other modifications included: reducing and strengthening the canopy; lightening the air frames by removal of all weaponry; smoothing of all flying surfaces; sealing of trim tabs, along with shortening and reshaping of the wings – all of which would go toward making the aircraft as streamlined as possible.

Related image

EE455 ‘Yellow Peril’ was painted in an all yellow scheme (with silver outer wings) to make itself more visible for recording cameras.*4

An official application for the record was submitted to the International Aeronautical Federation for world recognition. As it was announced, Air-Marshal Sir William Coryton (former commander of 5 Group) said that: “Britain had hoped to go farther, but minor defects had developed in ‘Britannia’. There was no sign of damage to the other machine“, he went on to say.

Wilson, born at Westminster, London, England, 28th May 1908, initially received a short service commission, after which he rose through the ranks of the Royal Air Force eventually being placed on the Reserves Officers list. With the outbreak of war, Flt. Lt. Wilson was recalled and assigned as Commanding Officer to the Aerodynamic Flight, R.A.E. Farnborough. A year after promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1940, he was appointed chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (R.A.E.) who were then testing captured enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Wing Commander, 20th August 1945, retiring on 20th June 1948 as a Group Captain.

Eric Greenwood, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot, was credited with the first pilot to exceed 600 miles per hour in level flight, and was awarded the O.B.E. on 13th June 1946.

His career started straight from school, learning to fly at No. 5 F.T.S. at Sealand in 1928. He was then posted to 3 Sqn. at Upavon flying Hawker Woodcocks and Bristol Bulldogs before taking an instructors course, a role he continued in until the end of his commission. After leaving the R.A.F., Greenwood joined up with Lord Malcolm Douglas Hamilton (later Group Captain), performing barnstorming flying and private charter flights in Scotland.

Greenwood then flew to the far East to help set up the Malayan Air Force under the guise of the Penang Flying Club. His time here was adventurous, flying some 2,000 hours in adapted Tiger Moths. His eventual return to England saw him flying for the Armstrong Whitworth, Hawker and Gloster companies, before being sent as chief test pilot to the Air Service Training (A.S.T.) at Hamble in 1941. Here he would test modified U.S. built aircraft such as the Airocobra, until the summer of 1944 when he moved back to Gloster’s – again as test pilot.

It was whilst here at Gloster’s that Greenwood would break two world air speed records, both within two weeks of each other. Pushing a Meteor passed both the 500mph and 600mph barriers meant that the R.A.F. had a fighter that could not only match many of its counterparts but one that had taken aviation to new record speeds.

To mark this historic event, two plaques were made, but never, it would seem, displayed. Reputed to have been saved from a council skip, they were initially thought to have been placed in a local cafe, after the cliffs – where they were meant to be displayed – collapsed. The plaques were however left in the council’s possession, until saved by an eagle-eyed employee. Today, they are located in the RAF Manston History Museum where they remain on public display.

To mark the place in Herne Bay where this historic event took place, an information board has been added, going some small way to paying tribute to the men and machines who set the world alight with a new World Air Speed record only a few hundred feet from where it stands.

Part of the Herne Bay Tribute to the World Air Speed Record set by Group Captain H.J. Wilson (note the incorrect speed given).

From Herne Bay, we continue on to another trail of aviation history, eastward toward the coastal towns of Margate and Ramsgate, to the now closed Manston airport. Formerly RAF Manston, it is another airfield that is rich in aviation history, and one that closed with huge controversy causing a great deal of ill feeling amongst many people in both the local area and the aviation fraternity.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Guinness World Records website accessed 22/8/17.

*2 The Argus News report, Thursday November 8th 1945 (website) (Recorded readings quoted in this issue were incorrect, the correct records were given in the following day’s issue).

*3 The Argus News report, Thursday November 9th 1945 (website)

*4 Photo from Special Hobby website.

The RAF Manston History Museum website has details of opening times and location.

The Manston Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial museum website has details of opening times and location.

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 rubble was cleared from the craters in the tunnel, just in time for the Allies to take it over. The RAF Officer standing on the edge of the crater gives scale to the power of the Tallboy bomb

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

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

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

R.A.F East Fortune.

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

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of the many buildings left at East Fortune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF EAST FORTUNE DURING THE INTERWAR YEARS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

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

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

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

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

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of several Air Raid shelters at East Fortune.

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

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

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

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

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Two of the three Callender-Hamilton hangars.

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

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

East Fortune

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

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

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

Sources and further reading:

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

Additional pictures of East Fortune can be found on flckr.

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

*1 The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fortune

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

The Flight Crew for the Atlantic journey were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

East Fortune airfield will appear in Trail 42.

Historic RAF Halton to Close in 2022.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

RAF Drem – The home of Airfield Lighting Systems.

In Trail 42 we continue our journey northward driving along the coastal route taken by the A1 road. The North Sea views here are simply breathtaking. Heading toward the seat of the Scottish Government and the beautiful and historic city of Edinburgh, we visit two more airfields with long and distinguished histories. One of these also has perhaps, one of the best collections of preserved buildings left on any wartime airfield outside of Duxford.

We start off just outside of Edinburgh heading eastward at an airfield that became synonymous with airfield lighting. The idea was simplistic, the effect wide-reaching. It was so successful, it became standard across many of Britain’s wartime airfields, it is of course RAF Drem.

RAF Drem

Drem is often used when talking about airfield lighting systems, the lights used to illuminate perimeter tracks, runways and landing patterns during the Second World War. But as an airfield, it played a much bigger part in the war, hosting some 47 RAF squadrons, a selection of Fleet Air Arm units and various Technical and Developmental Flights at some stage during its wartime life.

Many of these units were here on short detachments or rotations, whilst not conducive to long-term development of the site, it did bring a wide variety of aircraft to this small airfield in Scotland: Hurricanes, Spitfires, Whirlwinds, Mosquitoes, Defiants, Beaufighters, Typhoons and Tempests to name but a few. It also brought a multitude of nationalities with it: French Czechoslovakian, Polish, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand airmen all used the airfield at some point.

Located in East Lothian, Drem has a history that started in the early stages of World War I. Used by 77 Sqn, who were based at nearby Edinburgh, it was then called West Fenton, a name it retained until 1919 when it was renamed Gullane. 77 Sqn were responsible for the protection of the east coast of Scotland, and in particular the Firth of Forth in the Home Defence role. They used a number of landing grounds in this region including both Eccles Toft (Charterhall) and Horndean (Winfield); and had detachments spread widely around the Edinburgh region: Turnhouse, New Haggerston, Whiteburn and Penston.

77 Squadron flew a number of BE Types in this role, a role that continued up to 13th June 1919 when the squadron was disbanded. Also in 1919, (21st February) cadres from both 151 and 152 squadrons were also based here, staying until September and June respectively, when they too were disbanded following the end of the war.

RAF Drem

The Stand-by Set house, an auxiliary power station, still remains in good condition today.

A year before the end of the conflict, No. 2 Training Depot Station was formed here flying types such as the Bristol Scout, Sopwith’s Pup and Camel, the S.E.5a, Avro’s 504, and the Royal Aircraft Factory F.2B. A short role, they too were disbanded at the end of 1919, thus bringing the end of flying to Gullane.

In the interwar years Gullane, although only a temporary facility, was renamed Trenent, and it remained in this guise for a further six years becoming a full-time facility in 1939. In two years time, it would undergo fighter name changes finally taking on the name it has today, that of RAF Drem.

It was on 17th March 1939 that Drem returned to the flying training role with No. 13 Flying Training School (FTS) being formed here, operating a number of aircraft types including, Avro’s Anson, and Hawker’s Audax and Harts. After being renamed 13 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) in September that year, it would only last a month before being disbanded and absorbed into No. 8, 14 and 15 (SFTS). But it was at this point that Drem’s potential as a fighter airfield would be realised and its first operational unit would move in. Drem had finally reached maturity and its war would very soon begin.

Transferred to Fighter Command at the end of October 1939, a number of operational units would quickly arrive: 602 (13/10/39-14/4/40), 609 (17/10/39-3/6/42) and detachments from 607 Sqn (10/10/39) and 72 Sqn (17/10/39) would all precede 111 Sqn (7/12/39-27/2/40) in these early days.

It was during this time, in the early stages of the ‘phoney war,’ that Drem aircrews would have their first and perhaps their most significant aircraft intercept.

On 16th October 1939, Heinkel He 111 ‘1H+JA’, of Stabskette/KG26 piloted by Kurt Lehmkuhl was spotted en-route to the Firth of Forth. Immediately, aircraft from Drem’s 602 Sqn and Turnhouse’s 603 Sqn, were ordered to take off and intercept the aircraft. Whilst the Heinkel tried desperately to avoid the Spitfires, their deadly firepower proved too much, and the aircraft was eventually brought down at Kidlaw Hill. This Heinkel became known affectionately as the ‘Humbie Heinkel‘ due to its close proximity to the village of Humbie. The air-frame rapidly became a tourist attraction, locals would climb up into the hills to see the intact bomber as it lay helpless amongst the Scottish heather. The aircraft lay just a few miles short of where an Airspeed Oxford (N4592) had crashed just two days earlier killing both its young corporals: Basil F. Evans (23) and Charles M. Thorpe (22). The hills around Edinburgh were fast becoming a graveyard!

As a result of the Heinkel attack, the two gunners Cpl. Bruno Reimann and Sgt. Gottleb Kowalke were both killed (both are buried at the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase), the pilot was injured, but the navigator remained unharmed. Both the navigator and pilot surrendered to a local Policeman who was first at the scene of the crash*1.  This shooting down was particularly notable as it was the first German aircraft to be brought down on British soil and the victory was claimed by Drem’s 602 Squadron pilot, Flt. Lt. Archie McKellar. McKellar’s jubilation would be short-lived though, being shot down and killed himself one year later and within days of the official ending of the Battle of Britain – his name would never appear in the Battle’s roll of Honour.

Perhaps one of the most iconic photos of the war, The ‘Humbie Heinkel’ lies on a Scottish hillside surrounded by onlookers, the first German aircraft to be shot down on British Soil.*2

Drem had now entered the war and whilst it was a ‘front line station’ its buildings would never be more than temporary. Crew numbers would reach 1,807 RAF air and ground crew along with a further 374 WAAFs. The runways (1 x 1850 yds extended to 2,300 yds and 2 of 1,400 yds) would remain grass and a number of hangers (15 in all) would include 3 Bellmans. Seven hardstands were built all suitable for single engined aircraft with the technical and main accommodation sites located to the north-east.

However, these early stages of the war were not all smooth running. In December 1939 tragedy struck when a combination of errors led to a number of 602 Squadron Spitfires inadvertently attacking a flight of Hampdens of 44 Squadron. During the confusion, in which it is thought the Hampdens failed to identify themselves correctly as ‘friendly’, two were shot down: Hampden I L4089 and Hampden I L4090. In the second aircraft Leading Aircraftman T. Gibbin was killed by the Spitfire’s bullets, as the two aircraft crashed into the cold waters of the North Sea. The remaining seven were all picked up by trawlers and taken safely to shore. In a moment of dark humour the next day, the remaining Hampdens departed Drem, dropping hundreds of toilet rolls over the squadron huts!

The winter of 1940 saw a short stay by 43 Sqn, arriving mid December and then departing at the end of February, possible one of the less appreciated stays knowing the inclement Scottish weather.

ROYAL AIR FORCE FIGHTER COMMAND, 1939-1945

RAF crews of 43 Squadron sit around their dispersal hut stove at Drem. (IWM)

The early months of 1940 saw a royal visit to Drem, when on 28th February 1940, King George VI visited, escorted by none other than Air Marshall Dowding. Whilst here, the King awarded Sqn. Ldr. Douglas Farquhar with the DFC after he had brought down another HE 111 that was able to be repaired at Drem and subsequently flown to a base in England for evaluation.

The subsequent months would prove to be very hectic for Drem. Like other airfields in the north, Drem was to become a home and solace for battle weary crews moved from 11 Group in the southern regions of Britain. To keep up their skills, they would fly both coastal patrols and convoy escort missions, a far cry from the hectic and turbulent skies of Kent and the south coast.

This rotation of units through Drem would continue throughout the war, most squadrons remaining for short periods of only a month or two, and many ‘leap-frogging’ between here and other stations. One of these units included, in 1940, 29 Sqn (RAF) a night fighter unit that excelled and became perhaps one of the most successful night fighter Squadrons of the Second World War.

With these short stays, came a variety of nationalities, including two Polish units (307 and 309); a French (340); two Canadian (409 and 410); an Australian (453) and three New Zealand squadrons (485, 486 and 488), each bringing their own touch of life to Drem.

With them also came night fighter training, and it was with one of these units 410 Sqn (RCAF) – who had only been formed a month earlier on 30th June 1941 – that Pilot, Sergeant Denis W. Hall, (s/n 1168705) and Gunner, Flight Sergeant Denis G. Cresswell (s/n 751880) would lose their lives, when their Defiant N1731 crashed into a hillside near to the village of Gifford in East Lothian, whilst on  a night training flight. Their military service at Drem had lasted a mere twenty-four days.

It was just prior to this, during 1940, that the Drem Lighting system was developed. Born out a necessity to solve issues around the Spitfire’s poor visibility when landing, the station Commander, Wing Commander “Batchy” Atcherly, personally addressed the issue. The problem was that Spitfires needed to keep their noses up in a relatively high angle of attack in order to maintain slow landing speeds, a configuration that meant the pilot could not see directly in front of him. Atcherly devised a plan using lights, whereby the pilots would be able to maintain this high angle and still be able to see where they were supposed to be going. He also had to overcome the added problem that lighting illuminated an airfield and thus attracted enemy aircraft over the site.

So he developed his idea, a bright lighting system that was mounted in such a way that only aircraft in the landing pattern and flight path could see the lights, yet they were dim enough and shrouded well enough, to be hidden from those not directly in the landing circuit. Essentially, the idea involved mounting covered lights on poles 10 feet high at designated points around the airfield indicating the landing pattern. If enemy aircraft were to approach, they would not be able to see the field and home based aircraft could land in relative safety. In an emergency, the entire system could be dimmed or even shut down, something that didn’t, as a rule, need doing.

The system was so successful that it was adopted by the RAF and used widely across other RAF airfields. Remnants of this system are scare today, but some can be found with careful scouring of the ground where runways were once laid.

During the latter half of 1940, Drem would be the place where the remains of the beleaguered 263 squadron would reform and recuperate. Formed in 1939, 263 would go on to serve in Norway with Gloster Gladiators, and after many problems, would bring their aircraft home during the Allied evacuation of Narvik. Unable to fly the great distance from Norway, the aircraft were loaded onto the carrier HMS Glorious for the trip home. It was during this trip that the Glorious met two of the German’s deadliest warships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, who simply outgunned the carrier and on June 8th 1940, sank the Glorious with all the aircraft, many of its pilots and its commanding officer, on board.

The surviving fourteen pilots returned to Drem, where they were given Hurricanes. Gradually new pilots arrived and the squadron was returned to full strength. In July, after a short spell at Grangemouth, 263 Sqn returned to Drem with Whirlwinds replacing the Hurricanes.

Dogged by problems, the Whirlwinds were not to be the master of the air they had designed to be. 263 Sqn also brought a new idea they had successfully used in Norway, that of log-lined dispersals. Sadly they were too far away from the crew huts and apart from a photo opportunity, they were never used.

Slowly the war progressed, units came and went. Being near to the coast, Drem was regularly used for detachments of Air Sea Rescue Squadrons including 278 Squadron whose parent base was at Coltishall  several hundred miles south in Norfolk!

In the mid 1940s Drem’s focus narrowed not only in to the night fighter role, but also airborne radar investigations. The Radar Development Flight were formed here in December 1942 operating Defiant IIs and Beaufighter VIs. For six months they would fly these aircraft evaluating new radar designs and new methods in aircraft interception. They carried on this role through several name changes including: 1692 (Radio Development) Flight and then 1692 (Bomber Support Training Flight) after it had left Drem for Norfolk.

As the war drew to a close, the Royal Navy strengthened its involvement with Drem, renaming it HMS Nighthawk on May 3rd, 1945. The Royal Navy had a keen interest in night fighter training and used the skills of the RAF to aid its own programmes of night flying training.

Whilst RAF involvement had all but wound down, one final important act was to occur at Drem. Just as Drem aircraft had taken part in the first downing of a Luftwaffe aircraft at the start of the war, it was another Drem unit, 603 squadron, who would take part in the ending of the war. 603 Sqn Spitfires were tasked on May 11th 1945, just four days after returning to Drem, with escorting three white Junkers JU 52s that were carrying a number of German High Command officers into Drem as part of the official surrender of the Norwegian delegation. As part of this agreement, the senior officers would provide not only detailed information on the locations of mines laid out in the Norwegian waters: but the locations of all military shipping; lists of all stocks of oil; petrol and coal; coastal batteries and their associated supplies and all matters concerning German naval activity – including the surrender of the entire U-boat fleet.

The German High Command in front of their white JU52. Left to right: (from doorway) Lieutenant Albens; Captain Loewisch; Captain Kruger; and on extreme left, Commander Mundy Cox, RN, C/O of the Royal Naval Air Station. (IWM)

Throughout the war, the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) had a number of units use Drem themselves: 732, 770, 784, 884, 892 and both 1791 and 1792 squadrons were all based here along with detachments from three other FAA units. This brought a new breed of aircraft including the Seafire, Hellcat and Firefly to Scotland’s skies.

After the war ended the Royal Navy’s Night Fighter Training School pulled out, the RAF returned but never really used it for more than glider training, and eventually Drem was closed in September 1947. Its closure had been swift and its decline even faster.

Much of Drem today is agriculture. The airfield is split into two parts, divided by the B1345 road. To the west is the former airfield, a grass site with a virtually intact perimeter track. Along this track (now a farm road) are the various dispersals used during Drem’s wartime life. To the south is a Type B Fighter Pen, distinguished from Type ‘E’s by their cranked walls, greater in size, they provided greater protection to aircraft than the ‘E’.

The technical site sits to the north-east of the airfield, now a small industrial site it still contains many of the original buildings used by Drem’s personnel. Some of these have been refurbished whilst others contain many original features. Back along the road, the Stand-by Set house still stands and what remains of the accommodation site sits across the other side of this dividing road.

RAF Drem

Part of the Accommodation site still stands in use by small industrial and retail units. A small display of information about Drem is also located on this site.

Inside one of these buildings, the Arts & Crafts Gallery, now Fenton Barns Retail Village which is the former WAAF dining hall, is a small display providing information about Drem and its wartime operations, with free entry it is an interesting stop off if you have time.

RAF Drem had a long and chequered history. For such a  small airfield, it played a major part in the war: bringing down the first Luftwaffe bomber on British soil, being involved in the sad situation of friendly fire, and having a Royal visit. It provided solace for many weary crews, helped develop night fighter interception tactics and methods, and was used by the Royal Navy. It saw many nationalities pass through its doors, along with a wide range of aircraft types. Drem gave its name to a remarkable system of lighting that revolutionised airfield lighting both during the war and for aviation today. It certainly should have a place in today’s history books, it truly deserves it!

After we leave Drem, we travel a few miles south-east to a former satellite airfield of Drem. To an airfield that became a player in its own right, and has since been developed into perhaps Scotland’s biggest Aviation Museum  it is certainly one of the best preserved airfields around. We go to the former airfield at RAF East Fortune.

Sources and further reading:

*1 A report of the crash appeared 75 years later in The Berwickshire News.

*2 © National Archives of Scotland. http://www.scotlandsimages.com