RAF Barkston Heath – A little known airfield with a big history.

In the lower regions of Lincolnshire is a group of small airfields that are historically speaking, extremely important, but yet some are barely even known about. One of these is a small Relief Landing Ground (RLG), built with very few buildings and little infrastructure, it is one that is relatively unknown and in many cases even overlooked. Yet it was none the less, a thriving airfield during the hostile times of the Second World War. Whilst flying continues here today, still as a RLG, it has more than earned its place in the annuals of world history by being one of a small group of airfields that launched not one, but several of the biggest air operations the world has ever seen.

In this part of Trail 2, we take a new look at RAF Cranwell’s smaller but just as important satellite, RAF Barkston Heath.

RAF Barkston Heath (Station 483).

Barkston Heath sits on an area of Middle Jurassic Limestone, and is located about six miles south of RAF Cranwell, the parent airfield of the site siting on the edge of the Lincolnshire Cliff. It was identified as a possible location as early as 1936, and the year it opened, it used grass runways with very little infrastructure to support those using its grounds. As a satellite airfield it would have little based here, but would regularly see a number of biplanes use its grassed surfaces over a good number of years.

As a result of the focused development of Britain’s airfields during the pre-war expansion period and the early part of the war, it was then decided to upgrade Barkston Heath to the Class A standard; this earmarked it for three runways of concrete and wood chip of the standard lengths 2,000 yds and 1,400 yds by 50 yds wide. The idea behind this upgrade was to allow it to be used as  a bomber station, a satellite of RAF Swinderby. Ready to house the four engined heavy bombers of the RAF, it was a perfect location as it was found in the southern regions of Lincolnshire and within reach of Germany.

However, the development of Barkston Heath wasn’t completed for another two years, during which time it continued to be used as a satellite for RAF Cranwell. It was during this period that Cranwell was also developed, it being closed whilst runway improvement works were carried out. In order to keep the training programmes going, the aircraft from Cranwell were transferred over to Barkston Heath thus bringing a renewed flurry of activity to this airfield.

Then, during 1943, after Cranwell had re-opened, work then began which closed Barkston Heath. This work included the construction of its own hard runways along with 48 spectacle hardstands and 2 frying pan, most of which survive intact today. Aircraft repair hangars, of which there were originally four, soon totalled seven, of which six were the T2 variety and one a B1. These were located to the north-east of the site next to a public road with four of them across the road on a separate site. Unusually, the technical area was to the south of the airfield away from the hangars, the very buildings you would expect to see in the technical area of any airfield. The bombs store was located to the north-western side of the airfield and accommodation areas dispersed to the south.

RAF Barkston Heath

Barkston Heath Watch Office.

Predominant in this area of the country were the RAF’s No. 5 Group, who were tasked with the training of bomber crews for the Royal Air Force. A number of airfields including Bardney, Bottesford and Swinderby were all found around here, and Barkston Heath would soon become another name added to that list. However, a decision in January 1944, when the airfield’s upgrading was complete, was made to transfer the airfield over to the USAAF in answer to their call to accumulate airfields in the region for Troop Carrying purposes. This meant that Barkston Heath was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force early that year, renamed Station 483 whereupon it became home to the 61st Troop Carrier Group (TCG) of the Ninth Air Force.

The TCGs were units set up to train and provide Troop Carriers for the forthcoming invasion of the continent on the Normandy beaches. An operation that would see one of the largest invasion plans of the war put into place. It would require the dropping of thousands of elite paratroops on and behind enemy lines to capture, eliminate and disrupt their positions before and during the invasion on the morning of June 6th 1944.

The 61st TCG, were one of five groups making up the “Northern Troop Carrier Bases” of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing (TCW). This wing consisted at this time, of four Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) the 14th,  15th, 53rd and the 59th TCS who would arrive during February 1944. Their stay would last long after the famed Normandy invasion had taken place, in fact until March 1945, almost to the war’s end. Whilst they were stationed here, the 61st would take part in a large number of major operations across the European territories.

The 61st’s journey to Barkston Heath took them from Olmsted Field in Pennsylvania, through Augusta (Georgia), Pope Field (North Carolina) and on to North Africa. By the time they left North Africa they were a an experienced Troop Carrier Group having taken part in paratroop activities whilst here. These drops had earned the 61st a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) and by the time they arrived at Barkston Heath, they had already two major invasion strikes on their books, Sicily and Italy.

On arrival at Barkston Heath, they were transferred to the Ninth Air Force, and due to their experiences required little training for the work ahead. In the days during the build-up to the invasion, paratroops of the 101st Airborne began to arrive. Their presence only added to the excitement and curiosity of the ground crews who busied themselves painting invasion stripes across the wings and round the fuselages of the C-47s, that were parked along the runways of Barkston Heath. During the invasion on June 6th 1944, and on D+1 on June 7th 1944, they dropped paratroops and supplies near to Cherbourg on the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. A major port, Cherbourg was also visited by the Titanic on its fateful voyage in April 1912, hopefully this would not be a prophecy as the area was an important place to both take and hold during the invasion.

Because of the nature of the drop and the dedication shown by the group, the 61st would receive their second DUC for this action. The awards for this brave and dedicated group of men were beginning to mount up.

Losses over Normandy were heavy however, and new recruits were brought in to replace those lost. A short period of training for the 44th TCS based at Cottesmore at the end of June, saw a six ship formation with gliders, mount a practice invasion at Barkston Heath. A smoke screen was laid down by an A-20 during which time four of the six aircraft landed safely.

After the breakout from the Normandy arena and the push north toward Holland and the Rhine, C-47s of 61st would then go on to drop British paratroops at Arnhem in Operation “Market Garden”; resupplying them by glider in the days that followed in September 1944. These troops consisted of the 1st Parachute Squadron Royal Engineers (550 men), 16th Parachute Field Ambulance (135 men), the Brigade Headquarters and the Paratroop section of the Defence Platoon consisting of 82 men. Amongst their parachutes they carried enormous quantities of kit, so much so that they had to be helped onto the aircraft by ground crew. Being ‘overweight’ parts of the kit had to be released before the paratroops hit the ground, as the extra weight forced them down faster than they should have been going. Many of these men suffered injuries from hitting the ground too hard, unable to release the harnesses in time to slow them selves down.

There were 157 paratroop filled aircraft in the sky that day, of which over 70 were from Barkston Heath – a considerable amount considering the relatively small size of the airfield. A further 358 aircraft followed all towing gliders, and so the sky that day was filled with silhouettes of aircraft as far as the eye could see. Even after this wave had passed, there were still two further waves to follow*1. In all, during operation ‘Market Garden‘, the 61st would carry out just short of 160 sorties dropping troops and supplies to the besieged ground forces around Nijmegen.

For the next few months the 61st would continue to supply the troops fighting in the lowlands of northern Europe, taking fuel, food and ammunition to the allied forces as they pushed forward toward Germany.

Then in mid March 1945, after many of the airfields in France had become secured, the 61st departed Barkston Heath, never to return. Whilst this curtailed their flying activities from this airfield, they would go on to cover other major operations including both the Rhine crossing that same month, and following the war’s end, the Berlin airlift in 1948/49. But before they departed, the Luftwaffe would have one small surprise for them. In a series of night attacks on the cluster of airfields in the area, including both RAF Cottesmore and RAF Barkston Heath, Night Fighters roamed the skies dropping anti-personnel bombs across the airfields. In the attack at Barkston Heath, the airfield was strafed and bombs were dropped, but thankfully little damage was done.

With the posting of the 61st to France, Barkston Heath would see a new group arrive, still under the ownership of the US Ninth Air Force. The new group, the 349th TCG,  operated C-46 aircraft to transport essential supplies into western Europe and then bringing  home both injured allied troops and German prisoners of war. The four squadrons based at Barkston, the 23rd, 312th, 313th and 314th, were only here for around 3 weeks before also moving off to France where they would continue their operations.

In April 1945, the withdrawal of the US forces from Barkston Heath meant that it was no longer required for their purposes, and so in June, the airfield was finally handed back to RAF control.

For a period after the war the airfield was used as a storage and disposal site before returning to the role of RLG for RAF Cranwell. Then, for the majority of the 1980s, Barkston Heath had an area within the former bomb dump developed for the siting of Bloodhound Missiles, Britain’s principle Surface-to-Air guided missile, and the first guided weapon to enter British operational service.

These missiles were manned by ‘D’ Flight from the RAF’s No. 25 Sqn on March  1st 1983, and remained here until October 1st 1989 when they were absorbed into No. 85 Sqn RAF. A year later they would be disbanded, the Bloodhound no longer being the mainstay of Britain’s last line of defence.

With the 1980s turning into the 1990s, Barkston Heath once more became a RLG for Cranwell. Since then it has continued to operate as a Training airfield for pilots of the three forces of the British Isles, recently replacing the Slingsby T67M260 Firefly with the Grob G 115 Tutor T.1.

As no large heavy aircraft had ever been assigned to Barkston Heath, it never needed developing beyond the Class A specification of its wartime role. The watch office has been updated though with the inclusion of the anti-glare glass house, but the wartime huts and technical buildings to the south of the airfield site have long gone. Fortunately the main concrete areas and hangars have survived much in thanks to their continued use by the Royal Air Force.

RAF Barkston Heath

One of Barkston’s many hangars still in use today. (Photo taken in 2013)

For a short period during 2003, the wartime aircraft of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight were stationed here whilst the runways at Coningsby were resurfaced ready for the arrival of the Eurofighter Typhoon. Barkston Heath was in fact the third choice after both  Waddington (which could not accommodate them) and Scampton (which was too large – the Spitfires possibly overheating whilst taxing and the hangars were in need of refurbishment) were discounted. After some minor modifications at Barkston Heath, the BBMF operated from here until October 5th when the majority of the aircraft returned home to Coningsby.*2

Since then Barkston Heath has remained as a satellite for Cranwell, operating as both a training facility and a Relief Landing Ground, a role that takes it back to it origins in 1936.

Today, little flying activity can be seen, but the airfield does have some reasonable viewing points. The hangers and (active) guard-house, are adjacent to the main road, and passing the airfield here parked aircraft can often be seen on the apron.

The remains of a Canberra B(1)8 ‘WT339’, an ex RAF Cranwell aircraft, rest in the dump, visible from a path leading off from the main road on the northern side of the airfield. Here also are the remains of the Bloodhound site, the launchers and missiles obviously all having been removed long ago. All the remaining hangars are visible behind the trees but those across the road are no longer used by the airfield operators. Other than this, little buildings wise, remains.

Whilst Barkston Heath has had a long life and one that looks to continue well into the future, its wartime life was relatively short. However, this doesn’t detract from the fact that it was, none the less, a highly important airfield playing a major part in the Allied invasion plans, and not just Normandy itself, but beyond to the ill-fated operations around the Dutch town of Arnhem.

RAF Barkston Heath is a name that should be more widely known, seared into every tale of the Normandy Invasion plan, a name that should live for many, many years to come.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Hicks, N., “Captured at Arnhem: From Railwayman to Paratrooper“, (2013) Pen and Sword.

*2 Cotter, J., “The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight: 50 Years of Flying“, (2007) Pen and Sword.

 

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The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 7).

Whilst the runway’s remains one of the biggest features of an airfield, perhaps one of the most discussed and certainly visible is the hangar. Large sheds used to maintain aircraft, many still dominate the skyline today, used by farmers and industrial companies, they are massive buildings, but yet many remain classed as temporary or even transportable!

The development of these huge buildings is another that lasted many years, and whilst similar in layout and design, they are as complicated and as varied as any other building found on Britain’s airfields.

Hangars and Aircraft Sheds.

The topic of aircraft hangars is well versed in a large number of books and internet references. They, like the runways, can explain much about the history and use of an airfield, being the largest single building on any airfield site. Distinguishing features between hangar types is often difficult to see, many now re-clad or updated with modern features, doors or materials, even the differences between some designs is so small, without technical drawings or measurements, ascertaining the type can be all but impossible.

Hangars (or aircraft sheds as they were initially called) have been fairly constant in design, however, different services used different types, Admiralty seaplane sheds for example, were primarily side opening, whereas RAF hangars were generally front opening. Design and construction was undertaken by numerous companies (Herbertson & Co. Ltd., Nortons Ltd., Teeside Bridge and Engineering Co. Ltd., and Sir William Arrol & Co.) and even Handley Page Aircraft Co. and Boulton & Paul dabbled with the idea. With so many forms being used, it is a topic both detailed and extremely wide.

This is not therefore, intended to describe each and every hangar ever built (Second World War Air Ministry designs alone covered more than 56 types!), but more a general realisation of the huge development they undertook during this expansion and wartime period on RAF / USAAF airfields. Figures quoted here are generally rounded.

In order to understand the changes in aircraft hangars we need to briefly look at those of the First World War, where aircraft were stored in ‘sheds’, often made from canvas covering a wooden frame, or as a more permanent construction, completely wooden sheds with sliding doors. Later on these were built using metal (iron in particular) and were designed to be permanent, capable of housing several aircraft at a time.

The First World War hangars were varied and often crude, some little more than glorified tents, but through development famous names such as the Bessonneau and Hervieu were created toward the end of the war. Hangars became so large that specialist units had to be created solely to transport, erect and maintain them, and their use became more widespread.

The most common hangar of this period, the Bessonneau, was the first standard transportable hangar used on Royal Air Force airfields. Modern forms of it are still in use today, using different materials, they are quick to erect and offer reasonable protection from the weather outside.

The Bessonneau was a wooden frame structure covered in canvas. It was a simplistic design, able to be erected in as little as two days by a group of 20 skilled men. Heavy canvas doors open at one end allowing aircraft to be moved in and out with relative ease. The problem with these hangars was that the canvas was prone to freezing in winter and therefore becoming difficult to use.

There were two models of the Bessonneau built, differing only in their length – either 79 feet or 118 feet – but both were 65 feet wide.

The interwar and early war years were perhaps understandably,  the years in which the greatest hangar development occurred. The Air Ministry – the body overseeing the works – decided upon a system of ‘structure type’ using names and designations such as, Type ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, Bellman, ‘T2’, etc., and just like the expansion period schemes, they progressed through this system as new developments came about.

The first type was the Type ‘A’, a permanent design, originating in 1924, it was used well into the 1930s when it was gradually replaced during the expansion period. Some examples did last well into the war and even beyond, for example, North Weald, one of the first airfields to be allocated a Type ‘A’, still uses one today.

Type A Hangar

Type A Hangar at North Weald. One of the first stations to have these types of Hangar, it has workshops attached to the Hangar side.

The Type ‘A’ is probably the first to represent the modern hangar, doors at both ends in leaves of four running on rails. Workshops are attached to the hangar side, something that was discontinued as Britain entered the war. Walls were reinforced with concrete to protect from bomb splinters, and they were built 249 feet long and 122 feet wide.

During the late 1920s, the Air Ministry published requirements for new heavy bombers, and these would require new hangars in which to maintain them. In response, the Ministry then updated the Type ‘A’ hangar to the Type ‘B’. In essence a larger version of the Type ‘A’, (160 ft span and 273 ft in length) the ‘B’ was named the ‘Goliath‘ with only three being built (each being a different length). One of these was at RAF Martlesham Heath and is still used today on what is now the industrial park. Like the Type ‘A’, the roof of the ‘B’ is possibly its most discernible feature, a series of trusses along its length crossing laterally over the roof.

With expansion period demands increasing, further developments were needed, and it was envisaged that an increasing bomber size would be needed if substantial bomb loads were to be delivered deep into the continent. The current size of hangar was now considered too restrictive and so a new buildings would be needed. The requirements of the Air Ministry was for a hangar with a span of 150 feet and length of 300 feet. With these in place, new aircraft specifications could be issued.

The Type ‘C’, (designed in 1934) as it was designated, would become the dominant building on any airfield and therefore visible from quite a distance. As airfield designs were subject to scrutiny by the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, local objections were taken into account during the design process. To appease any  objections, the steel frame was covered with local brick or stone, keeping it inline with other buildings not only on the airfield, but houses and buildings erected locally.

Most airfields during the expansion period were built with these hangars on site, and naturally went through a series of developments and improvements. This means, that there are many different forms of the Type ‘C’: gabled roof, hipped rafter and reinforced concrete. Another modified version of the ‘C’ appeared in 1938 and was designated the ‘C1’ (or ‘Protected’), this was an austerity measure development, reducing the amount of material used by lowering the roof height by 5 feet – internal metal work was also left partially exposed. Both the ‘C’ and ‘C1’, continued to be built with offices, workshops and aircrew accommodation attached to the hangar side, the idea being that it was more efficient to do so for the repair of the aircraft inside. As these were larger in width and length than their predecessors, they would have six leaf doors also sliding on top and bottom rails.

RAF Upwood

Type C at the former RAF Upwood.

1936 saw a dramatic change in hangar design, with two new requirements being issued by the Air Ministry. Firstly, storage space was now running out and so new facilities were required. These Aircraft Storage Unit Stations (ASU) would need their own hangar type, and so a requirement for these was put forward. Also at this time, the Ministry put out a demand for transportable hangars, these would replace the ageing Bessonneaus of the First World War. The response to these demands were three storage hangars and two temporary hangars.

Storage Hangars.

The Type ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘L’ Hangars, were a development used specifically by the ASU stations, and they were not generally built on front line operational airfields. They were virtually identical in size to the Type ‘C’, but each type was marginally bigger in span 150 ft, 160 ft and 167 ft than the previous model, and all were the same length at 300 feet. The three types were different from previous hangars in that they had curved roofs, allowing the ‘E’ and ‘L’ to be covered with soil for protection and camouflage (the ‘D’ had straight side walls and therefore could not be covered). ASUs were built to assemble and disassemble aircraft for shipment to operational airfields in Britain or overseas. Aircraft were stored, in varying degrees of assembly within these units, and heavy hoists were often used to store aircraft ‘tail up’. However, with the outbreak of war, aircraft storage was thought better dispersed around the airfield and not concentrated in one space, so this method of storing aircraft was abandoned. Many of these hangars still remain today, used by small industrial units or for farm storage.

The next two types, the ‘J’ and ‘K’, were virtually identical in design, again with curved roofs, they were used for storage of aircraft. The ‘J’ can be found on many operational airfields, built in conjunction with other main hangars (Waterbeach is a very good example of this combination), whilst the ‘K’ was built on ASU stations. The design came in as a result of Expansion Scheme M, and was as a result of the call for 2,550 front line aircraft by March 1942.

The main difference between the two, (other than their location) was in the roof structure, the ‘K’ having lifting tackle rails along its width, while the ‘J’ were along its length. The ‘K’, being used for storage of aircraft, didn’t have any windows, where as the ‘J’ did as offices and workshops were in use constantly. Like previous hangars, the ‘J’ and ‘K’ both had a span of 150 ft and a length of 300 ft.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ hangar located at RAF Waterbeach.

Transportable hangars.

The 1936 transportable hangar requirement, asked for a hangar that could be easily erected and didn’t require a permanent base. It also asked for doors at both ends and needed to be simplistic in design, with parts being interchangeable. These hangers also saw the separating of the office/workshop facilities previously built onto the side of the hangars, these now being located in buildings in the technical and administrative areas. After considering numerous designs, two were chosen and ultimately built.

The first of these, and the primary choice, was the Bellman. Designed by an engineer within the Works Directorate, N.S. Bellman, they were smaller than previous hangars (88ft span and 175 ft on RAF bases) and could be built in under 500 hours by a dozen men. So successful, were they, that over 400 were built between 1938 and 1940 across a wide range of airfield types. Some of these examples even appeared in Russia.

Bellman Aircraft shed

Bellman Aircraft sheds at the former RAF Bircham Newton

The second design, was the Callender (later Callender-Hamilton with modifications) Hangar, designed by the bridge design company Callender Cable and Construction. These had a span of 90 clear feet, with a length of 185 ft, and were used on both RAF and RNAS airfields. There were only eight of these built before the outbreak of war, examples of which appear at East Fortune, further examples with lower roof clearances (17 ft) being purchased after 1940. The Callender-Hamilton are best recognised by their lattice-work on the top door rails.

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

As the war approached, 1939 – 1940 saw a transition period between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ buildings, although many of these temporary buildings still stand today! Because of this change, many airfields had various hangars built, something that often gives a mix of hangar designs on one airfield which can cause confusion as to its age and origin. However, from this point on, all wartime hangars were designed as temporary hangars, designed with short lives and easily assembled / disassembled.

By 1940, the Bellman was considered too small for the RAF’s requirements and a new design was going to be needed. An agreement between the Air Ministry and Teeside Bridge & Engineering resulted in the ‘T’ series of hangars, perhaps the most well-known of the hangar designs.

The ‘T’ series covers a wide range of (temporary or transportable) hangars, each slightly different to the previous, but designed as three main types; T1 (90 ft span), T2 (113 ft) and T3 (66 ft). The length of each hangar varied depending upon local requirements and the number of additional bays added as needed. The design number e.g T2 (26) indicated the number of bays (26) and hence the length.

The ‘T’ range were a diverse and complicated range, the ‘T2’ being sub split into 5 variants (T2, T2 Heavy Duty, TFB (flying Boat), TFBHD (flying boat heavy-duty) and T2MCS (marine craft shed), so the identification of each being difficult without measuring equipment.

RAF Wratting Common

A T2 hangar at RAF Wratting Common.

On first inspection the ‘T2’ and Bellman look virtually identical, both lightweight, steel lattice frames with metal side panels. The main distinctions are that the Bellman doors are flush with the top of the side panelling whereas the ‘T2’ has an extra level of panelling and so are not flush. The other difference is the lattice frame inside the roof, the ‘T2’ has only diagonal braces whereas the Bellman has vertical braces in addition to the diagonals. Both hangars have six leaf doors on sliding rails supported both top and bottom, allowing full width access.

A final addition to the ‘T2’ were the Ministry of Aircraft Production Hangars the Type ‘A’ (A1 & A2) and Type ‘B’ (B1 & B2) built in the mid war years 1942-43 and funded by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. These hangars, not to be confused with the type ‘A’ and ‘B’ of the 1920s, were designed specifically for the repair of damaged aircraft especially operational aircraft on their own airfield. They were also erected at ASUs, and Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG).

RAF Wratting Common

A B1 at RAF Wratting Common an RAF bomber station.

The ‘B1’ and ‘B2’ were built specifically at Bomber Command airfields for the repair of damaged bombers thus eliminating the need to transport them long distances to specialist repair depots. Designed by T. Bedford Consulting Engineers they were eventually found on virtually all Bomber Command airfields by the end of the war and were manned by civilian repair organisations. Examples of both the ‘T2’ and ‘B1’ can be found in use at Wratting Common.

‘A1’ and ‘A2’ hangars on the other hand, whilst similar in design – metal cladding on metal frames – were slightly smaller and found only on aircraft factory airfields. Thus again there are virtually two identical hangars designated primarily by their location!

The last hangar to be commonly found on RAF / USAAF airfields were the blister hangar. A hangar of a temporary nature that usually used a curved metal frame covered in metal sheeting. The Blister hangar was the brainchild of architects and consulting engineers Norman & Dawbarn and William C. Inman of Miskins & Sons, and was designed to accommodate small span aircraft ideally fighters dispersed around the perimeter of airfields. Maintenance or storage could easily be carried in these hangars, and they could easily and quickly be erected, no base or foundations being required before hand.

These types of hangar came in three designs, the standard blister, (timber construction), over type (light welded steel) and Extra Over (also light welded steel), and ranged in span from 45 – 70 feet, A further type built was that of Double extra Over and Dorman Long, a separate design similar in shape but securely bolted to foundations. Many of these hangars have now gone, the majority being dismantled and sold off, only to be erected elsewhere on farmland well away from their original location. The father of a friend of mine, was employed in this very role, one day finding a Spitfire inside a blister hangar which nobody claimed to own!

By the end of the war, in excess of 900 ‘T2’ hangars were erected on British airfields including those built abroad. In 2004 it was thought there were about 100*7 left surviving on MOD property in Britain. A number have also survived on farmland used to store foodstuffs or machinery, or industrial sites. The ‘T2’ remained the main hangar in use by both the RAF and USAAF during the war, appearing on all Class ‘A’ airfields, occasionally with other models also being present. A number of other older models also continue to serve even to this day. Considering many of these were built as temporary buildings, they have survived remarkably well and are testament to the engineering design of the pre and early war years.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of those hangars that were built during the period 1918 – 1945 (other examples include the: Aeroplane Twin Shed; RFC Sheds; Seaplane Sheds; General Service Sheds; Plane Stores; Running Sheds; Lamella (a German idea built in Britain); Hinaldi; Main Hangars; Lamson Hangars; Fromson Hangars; Robins Hangars; Butler (a US design); Merton; ‘S’ type Hangars (RNAS); Pentad Hangar and Boulton & Paul Hangars and of course post war examples such as the Gaydon), but hopefully it has shone a glimmer of light on these remarkable structures that often dominated the skyline and that remain the centrepiece of many a disused airfield today.

In the next section we shall look at that other main iconic building in airfield design, the watch office.

Sources and further reading. 

*7Technical Bulletin 02/02 “World War II Hangars – Guide to Hangar Identification” Ministry of Defence (February 2002).

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 6).

After considering the architecture of Britain’s airfields in Part 5, we turn to the hard surfaces, primarily the runways. Developed out of necessity, they created a steep learning curve for those involved in their construction. Many problems were found, many materials were tried, but ultimately they were built and even after their removal for hardcore, many have left scars in the tissue of the earth that remind us of their once massive presence.

Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands

In the pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. In the First World War, water logging and mud was an issue even for the small biplanes that filled the skies over Britain and  France. To overcome this, ash was spread over landing surfaces and to some degree successfully, but even though many local remedies were tried, it wouldn’t be taken seriously until the Second World War loomed.

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

Runways like this one at Glatton (Conington) remain in good condition and used by the local flying club.

At this point the typical airfield layout included up to four grass runways, one of 1,300 x 400 yards and three of 1,000 x 200 yards, many were even smaller. Bomber and Fighter Command, realising that not only would the new era of aircraft call for longer, hard runways on its airfields, but the need to maintain year round activity was essential if Britain was to defeat the Luftwaffe.

Both Fighter and Bomber Command pushed the Government to allow these to be developed, on the one hand Sir Hugh Dowding, fighting the corner for Fighter Command, pressed home the need for hard surfaces on his fighter airfields, whilst Sir Arthur Harris on the other, pushed for hard surfaces on his bomber airfields.

The entire process was lengthy and complex, and lacked in-depth, professional knowledge. The first hard ‘pavements’ later runways and taxi ways, being constructed based on road building techniques and knowledge. So before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine not only whether or not they were indeed needed, but if so, how they should be best constructed.

Initial steps in runway construction was started as early as 1937, where ‘flexible’ runways were constructed comprising layers of brick or stone covered with two further layers of tarmac and a coat of asphalt to seal the structure in. Concrete pavements, which proved to be much stronger were either 150 mm or 200 mm thick slabs laid directly onto the ground after the topsoil had been removed by heavy machinery. As would be expected, these early designs failed quite quickly under the heavy loads of the fighters and bombers that were coming into service. Rapid repairs were carried by adding a further layer of tarmac (6.5cm) and another layer (2cm) of sealant.

These early flexible constructions continued to fail whereas the concrete designs stood up to much more wear and tear and proved longer lasting. However, time was short and the learning curve would be steep.

The test to determine these needs was to take a Whitley bomber, laden to equal its full operational weight, and taxi it across a grassed surface.  A rather primitive assessment, it was intended to ascertain the effects of the aircraft on the ground beneath. Trials were first carried out at Farnborough and then Odiham, and these were generally successful, the Whitley only bogging down on recently disturbed soils. Further trials were then carried out at RAF Stradishall in March 1938, and the results were a little more mixed. Whilst no take offs or landings took place during these trials, the general agreement was that more powerful bombers would have no problems using grassed surfaces, as long as the ground was properly prepared and well maintained. All well and good when the soils were dry and well-drained.

By April 1939, the Air Ministry conceded, and agreed to lay runways at a small number of fighter and bomber airfields, of which Kenley, Biggin Hill, Debden and Stradishall were identified.  Whilst construction was slow, only two fighters airfields being completed by the outbreak of war, progress was finally being made.

These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, but were extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall in particular, would be further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.

RAF Charterhall

The runway at Charterhall in the borders, breaking up after many years of use both by training units and as a motor racing circuit post war.

During the early war years, the demand for airfields grew. By early 1940 the requirement was for three runways as close as possible at 60o to each other, and of a minimum length of 1,000 yards with room for extension up to 1,400 yards. This then became the norm by late 1940 especially at bomber airfields, with the main runway being 1,400 yards and subsidiaries at 1,100 yards. A month later, this increased by another 200 yards with a requirement to be able to extend to 2,000 and 1,400 yards respectively.

However, these short piecemeal responses were not sufficient and it was both a continual problem and a thorn in the side for the Air Ministry. Sir Arthur Harris, in raising his concerns for airfields belonging to Bomber Command, also pushed the need to develop good, long and reliable surfaces. He voiced his frustration in a vehement letter*6 to Lord Beaverbrook in 1941, In which he states:

“For twenty years everybody on the stations and the squadrons has been screaming for runways without avail.”

and he continues stressing the need for hard surfaces particularly in winter as:

“Through not having runways our effort will be seriously detracted from in normal winter conditions and reduced very probably to zero in abnormal winter conditions.”

He then goes on to state that Britain’s views were ‘blinkered’ saying that:

“Every other nation throughout the world has long been convinced of the necessity for runways…”

By the summer of 1941, the length of runways had again increased, all stations would now have a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards and where this was not possible, then a minimum of 1,600 and 1,100 yards (fighter and night fighter stations being shorter at 1,300 and 1,400 yards respectively).

The harsh winters were less than ideal for laying concrete (by far the best material for the job) but any delay could mean the difference between success and failure. Elaborate testing was therefore passed over, materials were laid and experience led the way. This method of trail and error, led to many instances of runways having to be dug up and relaid, this in itself led to problems as aircraft, men and machinery had to then be moved and housed elsewhere. The American Eighth Air Force suffered greatly with these problem, fully laden bombers repeatedly breaking through the surface or falling off the edges as it gave way.

Another consideration was that of training and satellite airfields. As the need for new pilots increased, the training of new recruits intensified. The harsh winters were causing major headaches for these airfields as mud, stones and other winter debris was causing continuous problems for flying. With both man power and materials being in short supply, suitable alternatives were sought.  A number of solutions were offered all very similar in their design and material.

The answer it seemed lay in steel matting – of which twelve different types were used – the more common being : Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT).

Sommerfeld track was a steel mat designed by Austrian Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with these other track types) were not only used commonly on training and satellite airfields, but also on Advanced and Forward Landing Grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy. In the build up to D-Day, 24 Advanced Landing Grounds in southern England were created using this form of Steel Matting,

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced; several records reporting tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

Because of the poor state and short length of runways, bombers were still regularly running off the ends, especially at night, or being unable to fly because the surfaces were poor or even unusable. A number of ideas were tested out to alleviate the problem, one such idea led to twenty sites testing arrester hook facilities. Several heavy bombers: Halifax, Manchester, Stirlings  and later the Lancaster,  were all modified to undertake these trials, with Woodhall Spa becoming the first airfield to have the full complement of six arrester sets.

Runway arrester gear

Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.

The idea was met with scepticism, but trials went ahead and in January 1942, a list of priority airfields was sent out to the Headquarters of No. 1,3,4, and 5 Groups RAF detailing those twenty sites selected for the equipment. At the top of the list was RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, followed by Bottesford, Swinderby, Ossington, Syerston, Middleton St. George, Linton, and ending with Waterbeach and Stradishall. By late 1942 Woodhall Spa was ready and in October, five landings were made by an Avro Manchester.  A month later the decision was made to install units at all major operational airfields, but this never came to fruition and the idea was soon mothballed. By 1943, it had been forgotten about and the 120 or so units built were scrapped (many being left buried where they were laid).

It was finally during early 1942 that a standard design airfield would be put in place. Known as the Class ‘A’, it would be the standard to which all new airfields and updated older sites would be made.

A Class A airfield would be designed around three hard concrete runways, shaped like an ‘A’ with each runway at 60o  to each other where possible. The main runway would be aligned with the prevailing wind again were possible to allow aircraft to take off/land into the wind as often as possible (north-east, south-west). In several cases, due to land features and local restrictions, this was not always possible, and so many permutations of design were seen as a result.

Rapidly becoming the largest part of the airfield layout, the runways and other paved areas – perimeters tracks, aprons and hardstands – were now given high priority. The standard now called for a main runway of 2,000 yards with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards. Each of these would be 50 yards wide whilst the connecting perimeter tracks would be 50 feet wide. Along side these runways would be an emergency landing strip, a grassed area given a landing surface of 400 and  200 yards respectively.

Dues to the high numbers of bombers returning badly damaged and unable to make safe and proper landings, a small number of emergency strips were created by extending the main runways to 4,000 yards long and 400 yards wide. One such airfield was RAF Manston in Kent. Being on of the closest airfields to the continent, it was often the first place a stricken aircraft, especially a bomber, would seek out.

Whilst the general layout of airfields did not change for the remainder of the war, some further runways were extended to 3,000 yards, one such example being RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk which was prepared to take the heavy B29 ‘Superfortress’ and post war, the B-36 ‘Peacemaker’.

A further point worth mentioning here is that of dispersals, not required pre-war, they were also an aspect of airfield architecture that were born out of the Second World War. In the inter-war years, aircraft were housed either on a central pan (apron or ramp) or within hangars. These collections of aircraft were easy targets and even a small amount of munitions could cause huge damage. In 1939 the need for dispersals was therefore recognised and so to address the issue, hedges were removed and tracks created that took aircraft away from the main runway but kept them within easy reach of the airfield site. The initial design was that of the ‘frying pan’ a 150 ft circle connected to the perimeter track by a small concrete track.

However, by 1942, it was found that aircraft were clogging up these tracks, some even ‘falling off’ the concrete onto soft soil and so blocking following aircraft in their tracks. The answer was the ‘spectacle’ or ‘loop’ hardstand, so-called by their oval shape, generally in pairs, that allow aircraft in and out without the need to turn or block access tracks. From 1942 onward, this model became the standard hardstand for all Class A airfields, and the aim was to have 50 such hardstands placed strategically around the perimeter, with 25 at satellite airfields. As the threat of attack diminished toward the end of the war, ‘finger’ or ‘star’ dispersals began to appear, much less effective than the predecessors, they were however cheaper and easier to construct.

RAF Milfield

Unusual as many training airfields didn’t have aircraft pans, RAF Millfield, in the borders, had several

In addition to hardstands, pens were built on fighter stations. The first, an experimental pit, was dug at Feltwell, whilst overly expensive and obtrusive, it did lead the way to aircraft pens later on, pens that were developed as either type ‘B’ or ‘E’  on these fighter airfields. The main difference here is that the early type ‘B’ had cranked side walls whereas the ‘E’ had walls that were straight. The former requiring more space, was later phased out in favour of the ‘E’, named so by its shape, using side and back walls to protect the fighter or small bomber located within.

Remains of Type 'B' fighter Pen

The remains of a Type ‘B’ Fighter Pen at Matlaske.

Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) whilst the type ‘E’ were found on airfields especially those around London that included Biggin HiIl, Kenley and North Weald.

Kingscliffe airfield

One of the ‘E’ type pens found at Kings Cliffe. Adapted with rifle slits for additional defence.

These pens were designed to specific dimensions and were designed as either a ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Blenheim’ to accommodate either a single engined or twin-engined aircraft. Within the back wall of these pens was a shelter for up to 25 personnel, and in some cases, they had Stanton Shelters built-in to the structures. Some, for example, at Kings Cliffe in Northampton, remain with rifle slits for additional protection from ground forces.

King's Cliffe airfield

Inside the aircraft pen shelter at King’s Cliffe.

Whilst the majority of these shelters were manufactured using banks of soil, sandbags, brick or concrete, there was a least one example at RAF Drem, in Scotland which used logs cut to size and shape and built in the style of a Scandinavian house. It is these various designs of aircraft pen that paved the way to modern hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) seen on military airfields today.

From the early days of grass runways to the massive lengths of concrete that were created up to and after the mid 1940s, runways and hardstands have become a defining factor in airfield design. The sole purpose of an airfield – to get aircraft off the ground as quickly as possible, get them to their target and them get them home again – led to the development of both runway lengths and construction materials, much of which has paved the way for modern airfields today. These early leaps into runway designs have enabled larger and heavier aircraft to make those important journeys that we very much take for granted in this the modern world of air travel and general aviation.

In the next section we look at one of the buildings most associated with the airfield. An early form of aircraft storage, its role changed as it was soon realised that aircraft needed to be dispersed and not grouped together on large aprons as they were in the prewar era. Aesthetics and neatly lined up aircraft were no longer an important factor in front line flying, but safety and the ability to repair aircraft quickly and efficiently were. Here we introduce the hangar, a huge building often of a temporary or transportable nature, that became one of the more longer lasting structures of airfield architecture.

Sources and further reading. 

*6 Letter from Arthur Harris to Lord Beaverbrook, February 1941 – AIR 19/492 – National Archives

RAF Bardney to become a Shooting Range

After the closure of many of Britain’s wartime airfields, many were returned to agriculture or converted for use by light industry. Some were completely removed and some developed into housing. RAF Bardney, located a few miles to the east of Lincoln, has since been one of those used for a multitude of light industrial and agricultural uses and has been the recent subject of a planning application.

Bardney was home to three RAF squadrons during World War Two: Nos 9, (April 1943 – July 1945);  No. 227, who were reformed here at Bardney from ‘A’ flight of No. 9 Sqn and ‘B’ flight of 619 Sqn, staying for two weeks in October 1944; and finally No. 189 Sqn (April – October 1945) – all three squadrons operated the Lancaster MKI and MKIII.

During their stay here, No. 9 Sqn operated as part of 5 Group Bomber Command, using the Squadron code ‘WS’, and after moving in from nearby Waddington, they carried out a number of operations into the German heartland losing fifty-nine aircraft during 1943, half of which were whilst based here at Bardney.

The first fatality occurred on April 30th, when Lancaster III WS-R, ‘KD838’ was lost without trace in an operation to Essen. None of the seven crew members were ever found nor was there ever any trace of the aircraft.

9 Squadron was a mix of nationalities: British, Australian, Canadian, Rhodesian and Trinidadian. As with KD838, a large number of these crews were lost without trace, and as such, have no known grave – their memories being carved into the walls of the Runnymede Memorial.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Lancaster Mk III, ED831 ‘WS-H’, of No 9 Squadron RAF, flown by Squadron Leader A M Hobbs RNZAF and his crew, at Bardney. © IWM (CH 10405)

In the dying stages of the war, Bardney was used by the RAF’s Bomber Command Film Unit, flying Lancasters and Mosquitoes, the unit was itself eventually disbanded at Upwood later in the same year.

Post war Bardney was used  as a Thor missiles base by No. 106 Squadron (July 1959 – May 1963), before its eventual closure and final disposal.

A planning application was originally submitted in September 2016 for a:

“Change of use and conversion of existing agricultural land and associated outbuildings to provide an outdoor activities centre providing archery, air rifle shooting, axe throwing, combat archery and zombie training, and the construction of earth bunds to a maximum height of 3.0metres (bunds already constructed), in accordance with the amended plans received by the Local Planning Authority on 15th November 2016”.

Objections were put forward by local people and comments made by other interested bodies such as Environmental Health, Health and Safety and the Economic Development Team. Permission was initially granted in December that year. There are certain conditions in the terms of the decision, but it seems more than likely that the development will progress as planned.

The proposal and supporting documents can be found on the East Lindsey District Council Planning site.

The story first appeared in ‘Lincolnshire Live‘ news report on May 27th 2017.

RAF North Witham – A Truly Historical Place

On the western fringes of Lincolnshire close to the Leicestershire border, is an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for North Witham, many may not have been as successful as they were. For the next part of trail 3, we head west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

RAF North Witham sits quietly amongst the trees of Twyford Woods, a site originally known as Witham Wood, it is now a public space owned and maintained by the U.K.’s Forestry Commission.

Originally, North Witham was one of twelve airfields in the Leicestershire cluster intended to be an RAF bomber station for No. 7 Group, however, it was never used operationally by the Royal Air Force, instead like ten others in the area, it was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force and in particular the IX Troop Carrier Command.

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

As it was originally designed as a bomber station it was built to the Air Ministry’s class ‘A’ specification, formed around the usual three triangular runways, perimeter track and aircraft hardstands. With construction beginning in the mid-war years 1942/43, its main runway would be 2000 yds long, with the second and third runways 1,400 yds in length and all 50 yds wide. To accommodate the aircraft, 50  ‘spectacle’ style dispersals were built, scattered around the adjoining perimeter track. As a bomber base it had a bomb store, located to the north-eastern side of the airfield, with the admin and technical site to the south-east. One feature of North Witham was its operations block, built to drawing 4891/42, it was larger than most, with ceilings of 14 feet high. Amongst the myriad of rooms were a battery room, cipher office, meteorology room, PBX, traffic office and teleprinter room, all accessed through specially designed air locks. A further feature of this design was the attachment of a Nissen hut to house plant equipment and boiler equipment, a feature not commonly seen at this time.

Aircraft maintenance could be carried out in one of two ‘T2’ hangars with additional work space provided by one of six ‘Butler’ hangars. Designed and built by the Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas, USA, these were supplied in kit form and had to be erected on site by an Engineer Aviation Battalion. These ‘hangars’ had rigid box section girders over a canvas cladding, and once fully erected, gave a wide 40 ft span. Quite a rare feature, these types of structures were only built in limited numbers during the Second World War and only appeared on American occupied airfields. Post-war however, they were far more commonly used appearing on many American cold-war sites across the UK.

A hangar under construction at the 1st Tactical Air Depot at North Witham. Printed caption on reverse: '77877 AC - A butler hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion at North Witham, England. U.S. Air Force Photo.'

A ‘Butler’ hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) at a very snowy North Witham (IWM479)

The Ninth Air Force was born in 1942 out of the ashes of the V Air Support Command, and then combined with units already located in the England operating under the American Eighth Air Force. Its initial activities focused on the allied push across North Africa followed by the move up into southern Europe through Italy.

Moving to England in October 1943, it then became the tactical Air Force that would support the Normandy invasion, supplying medium bombers, operating as troop support and providing supply flights. Facilitation of this massive invasion required both a huge backup, and an intricate supply and support network. North Witham would form part of this support network through both repair and maintenance of the troop carrier aircraft that were operated by the Ninth Air Force – primarily the C-47s. The main group undertaking this role at North Witham was the 1st Tactical Air Depot comprising the 29th and 33rd Air Depot Groups between January and September 1944*1. One of a number of depots, they were once described as the “backbone of Supply for the Army Air Force”, and had a complicated arrangement that encompassed numerous groups across the entire world theatre.

For such a large base, North Witham would be operationally ‘underused’, the only unit to fly from here being those of the IX Troop Carrier Command (TCC), who would primarily use C-47 ‘Skytrains’ – an established and true workhorse, and one that would go on to supply many air forces around the world.

During the Sicily campaign, it was found that many incoming aircraft were not finding the drop zones as accurately as they should and as a result, paratroops were being widely and thinly scattered. More accurate flying aided by precise target marking was therefore required and so the first Pathfinder School was set up.

North Whitham pen

Part of one of North Witham’s 50 dispersal pans.

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham in March 1944. These aircraft were fitted with ‘modern’ Gee radar and navigation equipment, and would be used to train paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would remain at North Witham for short periods before returning to their own designated bases. The idea being a joint venture to land the troops who would then set up a ‘homing’ station using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft. This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

On arrival at North Witham, the Pathfinders were accommodated in the huts originally provided for the depot’s crews – some 1,250 enlisted men and 75 officers. Many of these displaced men were rehoused in tents along the northern end of the site which only added a further strain to the already rudimentary accommodation that was already in place at the airfield. At its height, North Witham would house upward of 3,700 men in total, a figure that included an RAF detachment of 86 men and large quantities of GIs.

Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their C-47s and departed in to the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, with only one being lost in the entire mission. The Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 was lost en route due to mechanical failure – the aircraft ditching in the sea. All the crew and paratroops on-board were believed to have been rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham into the summer of 1944, training that included Polish paratroops (1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade) who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and participating in Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

As the Allies pushed further into enemy territory, the flying distance from England became too great and so new airfields were either constructed or captured airfields refurbished. The Pathfinder School soon moved away to Hampshire and the maintenance units, needed nearer the front lines, gradually departed to new bases on the continent.

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise carried on at North Witham, but gradually the UK-based maintenance and repair work slowed down, and before long its fate was sealed and the airfield began the long wind-down that many of these unique places suffered.

By the war’s end the last American personnel had pulled out and the site was handed back to the RAF’s 40 Group who, after using it for a brief spell as a maintenance depot themselves, placed it under care and maintenance. It was used as a munitions and hardware store until 1948, and then finally, in 1956, it was closed by the Ministry and the site sold two years later.

Photograph of North Witham taken on 17th January 1947. The technical site and barrack sites are at the top left, the bomb dump is bottom left. (IWM RAF_CPE_UK_1932_FP_1221)

The site, intact as it was, was returned to the Forestry Commission who planted a range of new trees around the site, covering the vast areas of grass. The technical area was developed into a small industrial unit and perhaps most sadly the watch office left to decay and fall apart.

Today the three runways and perimeter track still exist almost in their entirety, and remarkably, in generally good condition. Largely overgrown with weeds and small trees, the remainder is well hidden obscuring what little there is in the way of buildings – most being demolished and the remains left piled up where they stood. However, a T2 hangar is now used on the industrial estate and the watch office still stands tucked away amongst the trees and undergrowth. This area is a favourite place for dog walkers, and because of its runways, it is accessible for prams and pushchairs. Whilst here, I spoke to quite a few people, remarkably none of them knew of the site’s historical significance let alone the office’s existence!

Today the watch office remains open to the elements. Surrounded by used tyres and in constant threat of the impending industrial complex over the fence, its future is uncertain. Access stairs have been removed, but an entrance has been made by piling tyres up to the door – presumably by those wishing to enter and ‘explore’ further. Little evidence of its history can be seen from the outside, even the rendering has been removed, and so, any possible personal links with the past are more than likely now gone.

DSCF1273

The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

Returning back to the main public entrance along the perimeter track, a number of dispersal pens can be found; overgrown but relatively intact, they are a further sign that even here, war was never very far away.

North Witham was one of those ‘backroom boys’ whose contribution, whilst extremely important, is little known about. The work carried out here not only helped to maintain a strong and reliable fighting force, but one that spearheaded the frontal invasion of Normandy. It served as a cold and perhaps uncomfortable home to many brave troops, many of whom took the fight direct to Nazi Germany.

Standing here today, it is quiet and strangely surreal – you can almost hear the roar of engines. Looking along its enormous runways you get an eerie feeling – how many troops also stood here, spending their last few hours in this quiet place. Looking around now, it is difficult to imagine the immense work that went on here, the gathering of equipment as preparations were made for the big push into Normandy on that famous June night.

North Witham is truly a remarkable place, hidden away amongst the trees as a giant time capsule, a monument to those who lived, worked and died during that turbulent time in 1944-45.

After leaving North Witham, we return to the main A1 road and head south. Any journey here can not avoid briefly mentioning RAF Wittering, its Harrier still standing proudly outside the main gate. All went quiet here following the Government cutbacks of December 2010, but flying has now returned in the form of Grob Trainers – a small reprieve for this historic site. Wittering can seen later in Trail 37.

Another view along the main runway.

Another view along the main runway.

Sadly in May 2015, Twyford Woods was the scene of a large illegal rave, over 1000 people attended the event where a number of arrests were made in the violent altercations that took place*4. A sad day that would turn the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the freedom we take for granted so very easily today.

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

*2 C-47A #42-93098 itself was later lost whilst flying with the 439th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) on September 18th 1944, whilst flying in support of Operation ‘Market Garden‘ in Holland.

*3 Superb footage of Crouch and his crew as they depart from North Witham is available on-line here, it also shows the Watch Tower in its former glory.

*4 A report of the event is available on the BBC News website.

RAF Tydd St. Mary

Just over the Cambridge border into the area known today as South Holland in Lincolnshire, is a field that was a small airfield during the First World War. Designed for home defence, it was used for attacking marauding Zeppelin airships approaching England across the North Sea. Larger towns and cities such as Norwich and Lincoln were prime targets, although most designated targets were much further north for example Manchester and Liverpool. To protect themselves, the crews of these mighty airships flew at night and at altitude, but navigation skills were poor and crews were generally unaware of their actual location. As a result, they rarely made it beyond the eastern counties or the Fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire. Because of poor weather and inexperienced pilots flying against these ships, some Zeppelins were able to wander – at the will of the weather – for as much as 10 hours unabated, randomly dropping bombs on what they considered to be ‘prime targets’.

A major turning point in this air-war, was the night of January 31st 1916 when nine Zeppelins of the German Navy attacked what they believed to be the industrial north-west. In fact they had barely got beyond the lower regions of Lincolnshire before dropping their ordnance. These attacks resulted in the loss of sixty-one people and whilst no British fighter was known to have engaged the airships, a number of Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C) crews were lost due to bad weather.

This disastrous night led to major changes in the Home Defence Squadrons of the R.F.C and R.N.A.S (Royal Naval Air Service), a process that would take a considerable time to complete.

As a part of these changes, an airfield was developed just south of the South Holland Drain a mile or so north of the village of Tydd St. Mary.

RAF Tydd St. Mary

Designed as a class 1 landing ground, Tydd St. Mary covered 125 acres by the time it closed in 1919. Development of the site began in mid 1916 following the re-organisation of the home defence force, but the first units didn’t arrive until the autumn of 1917. Not much more than a field, it did eventually have a small number of  Bessonneau*1 hangars and a small selection of crew huts.

The main unit to use Tydd St. Mary was 51 Home Defence (HD) Squadron whose main flight was based at Thetford. Formed from the nucleus of 9 Reserve Squadron (RS) on 15th May 1916, they moved to Hingham with flights dispersed at Harling Road, Norwich (‘A’ Flight), Mattishall (‘B’ Flight), ) and Narborough (‘C’ Flight). Initially they were equipped with the BE2c, which were soon replaced by the BE12 and subsequently the FE2b aircraft and then the BE2e in December 1916.

For a short while Zeppelin intruder flights were rare and this breather allowed for extensive practice flights by both 51 (HD) Sqn and their partner unit 38 (HD) Sqn who were based a little further to the north.

This lull in movements ceased in the autumn of 1916, when a large formation of Zeppelins gathered over the wash and headed for London. Badly hindered by fog and bad weather, they were eventually scattered across the southern and eastern regions of England where they dropped their bombs on remote farmland. This attack caused no damage to property, nor were the Zeppelins challenged in any major way – the marauders had little to worry about other than poor weather. Patrols by 51 and 38 (HD) Sqn’s were in vain, a pattern that was to continue for the large part, for the duration of the war.

At the end of 1916, Tydd St. Mary was re-designated a Night Landing Ground (NLG) following the renaming of R.F.C Home Defence Stations. 51 (HD) Squadron would soon fly from here in the defence of the eastern counties.

51(HD) Sqn aircraft hangar modified for agricultural use post war.*2

The Zeppelins main advantage over the British was the poor performance of the aircraft types the R.F.C used.  Whilst capable of operating at the 8,000 – 10,000 ft altitude used by the Zeppelins, many aircraft simply took too long to get there and thus could not reach the airship in time to attack it.

As performance improved along with the development of the explosive ammunition that would ignite the airship’s gases, the odds were a little more balanced and larger numbers of airships were being brought down over the eastern region. The tide was turning and pilots of 51 (HD) Sqn were playing a large part in this.

In the early part of 1917  cuts to the Home Defence units were announced based on the increasing gains made by units of the Norfolk / Cambridge / Lincoln squadrons. But the Germans had not given up yet. Reductions in weight enabled new Zeppelins to reach greater altitudes. Now capable of 16,000 – 20,000 feet, few British defences could reach them.

As the tide was turning in France, attacks became fewer and fewer. These high altitude flyers were more at the mercy of the bitter cold and poor weather than defending aircraft.

In August 1917 51 (HD) Sqn moved their headquarters to Marham, and ‘A’ Flight arrived at Tydd St. Mary and 51 (HD) Sqn began replacing their BE2e aircraft with the Martinsyde G.100 ‘Elephants’ – so-called because of their size and poor manoeuvrability.

A large contingent of airships gathered once more on the night of October 19th 1917, requiring extensive sorties by 51 (HD) Sqn at Tydd St. Mary and her counterparts. Whilst a determined effort was made by the R.F.C crews, they had little or no impact, and the gathered airships made off only to be badly beaten by bad weather and anti-aircraft fire over France.

Further changes to R.F.C Squadron designations  in the latter parts of 1917/18, dropped the title ‘Home Defence’ and Tydd St. Mary became the base for 51 Sqn ‘A’ Flight in Eastern Command. Aircraft by now were primarily Royal Aircraft Factory FE2bs, although 51 Sqn were now replacing some of their ‘Elephants’ with BE12b variants which they kept until the autumn of that year. Further changes in February 1918 meant that ‘A’ Flight moved to Mattishall, whilst ‘B’ Flight took their place at Tydd St. Mary.

As the R.F.C turned into the R.A.F on April 1st 1918, Tydd St. Mary would once again become significant. On the night of April 12th 1918, Zeppelin L62 was sighted close by and aircraft took off to intercept. As it was dark at 22:00 the flare path was lit to assist the now R.A.F crews, which openly guided L62 directly onto the airfield. Gliding above the site, L62 dropped a small number of incendiary bombs onto the aerodrome in an attempt to damage or destroy aircraft on the ground. Fortunately the bombs fell well away from parked aircraft and caused no damage to either buildings or aircraft. Pursuit was made by Lt. F. Sergeant in FE2b ‘A5753’, but to no avail and he returned to base empty-handed. Other pilots also tried to catch L62, some crashing due to engine failure, but many simply weren’t able to catch-up with the intruder. Eventually L62 reached the coast and made a break for it across the sea under the protection of yet more bad weather.

By November 1918 the final FE2bs had been relinquished and for the remainder of the year and into May 1919, 51 Sqn operated Sopwith Camels. A move by ‘B’ Flight in May to Suttons Farm (RAF Hornchurch) not only signified the end of the Camels (replaced by Sopwith Snipes) but the end of 51 Squadron who were disbanded in June. This departure also meant the end of Tydd St. Mary and in November 1919 notice of closure was given and the site finally closed in January 1920.

At its height Tydd St. Mary covered an area of 125 acres, and contained two Home Defence flight sheds as single units (believed to measure 130 x 60 ft). These were utilised by local farmers and business and lasted for many years. Other buildings were also utilised, the last, believed to be the Flight Office, is thought to have been demolished as late as 2009.

Not a major player in the war and never to return to aviation, Tydd St. Mary is a notable site and perhaps when passing, a second thought for those who flew from here in defence of the Eastern counties, should be offered.

Tydd St. Mary forms part of Trail 37.

Sources and Further Reading

*1 Early Bessonneau hangars were constructed of wood covered in canvas. Various types were made and were designed to be erected by small trained groups of men. Later models replaced wood with metal and were more permanent.

*2 Photo on display at Thorpe camp, Woodhall Spa.

Goodrum, A. ‘No Place For Chivalry: RAF Night Fighters Defend the East of England Against the German Air Force in Two World Wars‘. 2005, Grub Street

The Great War Forum – website 

Britain’s Airfields – What does the future hold?

There has been a recent ‘spate’ of developments with planning applications that affect Britain’s wartime heritage, and in particular the airfields that were used during the Second World War.

With land at a premium, a housing crisis that is growing, these sites are becoming more and more handsome as development opportunities. Many have a ready-made infrastructure, many are open fields and as such, prime agricultural or development land. So what does the future hold for Britain’s heritage?

We have seen applications submitted or at least interest shown, for the former: RAF Kings Cliffe, RAF Downham Market, RAF West Raynham, RAF Denethorpe and RAF Coltishall, further applications have now been seen affecting former RAF Dunsfold, RAF Bourn and RAF Wellesbourne Mountford.

We also know that the USAF have given notice of withdrawal from their major UK base at RAF Mildenhall, the smaller site at RAF Molesworth and the remaining site at RAF Alconbury. The Government has already announced it will be selling these sites for housing after the military withdrawal in 2020-23. These three sites form part of an estimated £500m sell-off that would also include: RAF Barnham (Suffolk), Kneller Hall (Twickenham), Claro and Deverell Barracks (Ripon), Lodge Hill (Kent), Craigiehall (Edinburgh), HMS Nelson Wardroom (Portsmouth), Hullavington Airfield (Wiltshire) and MOD Felton (London). Changes at RAF Lakenheath will also see job losses through streamlining of operations.

It is estimated that the 12 sites could accommodate an estimated 15,000 homes with Alconbury having 5,000 alone.

The former airfield and barracks at RAF Waterbeach is also subject to planning proposals, and the Bassingbourn barracks near Cambridge is also under the development spotlight. The recent closure of Manston (a vital Second World War airfield) has led to speculation of its future both as an airfield (possibly London’s third) and as a development opportunity. These are perhaps just a few of the prime areas of land that are now becoming the focus of planners and developers alike.

There are many variables in this heated and long-lasting debate, in fact far too many to raise and discuss here. Strong feelings exist both toward and against the idea of development and it is certainly not a new one. Employment, jobs, environment, heritage, housing etc, they all create discussion and a strong case for both arguments, but the debate here is not “should we build or not” this is quite frankly, inevitable and in many cases much-needed, no, it’s more how can we meet the needs of an ever-growing population with the needs to preserve historically important sites that form the very thread of today’s society.

We have a dynamic population, and as health care improves, social mobility increases and a growing desire to own our own home increases, the need for more housing, affordable homes and homes for rent also increases. We are an ageing population, care homes, schools for our children and hospitals for the sick are all in much greater need. Where do we build them?

Whilst housing demands have always been with us and the need for more housing an all important one, the recent developments suggest that these old airfields could become prime land to meet these future housing needs.

Many of the current Second World War airfields are now either industrial conurbations or agricultural areas. Most have little or no remnants of their former lives visible, and certainly not widely accessible. Many argue that these sites are scrub, derelict and in need of development, and some indeed are. A proportion of the more recently used sites, are ‘mothballed’ or in part operating aviation related activities. They cover huge areas and have a ready-made infrastructure such were the designs of war and post war airfields. These sites also contain extensive dereliction, primarily due to being left and allowed to decay by their owners. Vandalism and pilfering has left them rotting like carcasses of forgotten wild animals. Where industry has been operating, contaminates have seeped into the soils, damaging flora and fauna growth; some so severe that they are rendered too difficult to reclaim as ‘Green Space’. Certainly on paper, they offer good sources for today’s desperate housing stock.

However, balance this against the historical and cultural importance of these places and the argument becomes a little blurred at the seams. Had it not been for the people who came to this country from all over the world to fight the Nazi tyranny in the war years 1939-45, then Britain and Europe would probably not be the Europe we know today. Many thousands of people gave their lives during those dark days, and for many of them, these airfields were their last homes, cold, often draughty huts on the outskirts of some bleak airfield. Their dedication helped form the very society we live in today, the democracy and freedom of speech we so enjoy and relish, the open spaces where we can walk our dog without fear and in freedom. The fact that we can have this very debate, is in itself, testament to those who came here never to return. The very nature and fabric of our local communities has been built around the ‘friendly invasion’ the acceptance of others into our quaint life and idyllic life-styles. Influences from other nations and cultures grew and developed as a result of those who came here from far and wide to give up their lives.

These sites have become monuments to them, their lives and deaths, many still have no known grave; many simply ‘disappeared’ such was the ferocity of the explosion that killed them. The design of Britain’s airfields are architecturally significant to our heritage, buildings were designed to fulfil a purpose and just like our castles and stately homes, they are monuments to a significant period of not only British, but world history. Our education system, includes this very period as a subject for discussion, debate and analysis. To build over such sites without due regard to them would be a travesty, and one that we would regret in the future. To paraphrase that well-known quote; If we are to learn from our mistakes then we need to remember the past. The Second World War is still, for the moment, in living memory, the veterans and civilians who survived it are dwindling in numbers and very soon their memories will be lost for ever. Each day brings news of a lost veteran or a newly discovered story. If we don’t acknowledge the value of these places, if we don’t plan for their ‘preservation’ then both we and our future generations, will be the ones to regret it.

So where do we go from here? The plans published for RAF West Raynham and RAF Coltishall take into account the nature of these sites, they are sympathetic to their historical value and acknowledge the sacrifices made. West Raynham utilises the very buildings that were created, thus keeping the atmosphere for those who wish to visit. Small museums create a record, first hand experiences and artefacts, all valuable records for the education of future generations. But both of these are unique. Both closed in more recent history, they have retained their structures whereas many older sites have had theirs long since demolished.

It is a delicate balance, and as sad as it would be to see them go, there has to be legislation to create compromise. Sympathetic developments have to be the way forward, acknowledgement of the sacrifice has to be high on the agenda. Many of the airfields I have been too have no museum, no memorial barely even a signpost. Surely this is wrong.

If we are to preserve our fragile heritage, we need to consider the implications of the planning process, to look at the value of these sites as both suitable housing and significant historical areas, the sacrifice of the many needs to be acknowledged and it needs to be done soon.

Sources and Further Reading.

Laying the Foundations: A Housing Strategy for England ” HM Gov, November 2011

Stimulating housing supply – Government initiatives (England)” House of Commons Library, 9 December 2014

The “Get Surrey” news report issued on January 5th 2016 relating to Dunsfold can be found here.

Then latest news from “Cambridge News” December 16th 2015 can be found here.

The “Stratford-Upon-Avon Herald” January 6th 2016 front page story about Wellesbourne can be found here. (This may be a limited time link).

The latest news on RAF Mildenhall and Lakenheath published by the BBC, 18th January 2016 can be found here.

A Happy New Year!

As 2015 fades away I would like to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you who has visited, followed, liked, reblogged, commented and generally supported “Aviation Trails” during the last year. Without you, it would not be the site it is today.

It has certainly grown over the last year and taken on a new dimension. Investment in research material has enabled much longer posts and more personal information to be included, something that I know many people like to see. Not only do ‘we’ as enthusiasts, historical ‘writers’, modellers, relations of veterans etc. preserve our common history, but openly promote and educate others through the writing we do.

I believe it is important to remember what went on, the sacrifice and dedication to freedom, and if I can go a small way to helping that then it has all been worthwhile.

I have been inspired to take up old hobbies, learnt about aspects of military and natural history that I had never heard of, found new places in the world and been a part of a group of people who share the desire to learn, educate and inform others. It has been a wonderful year.

The tally of airfields I have visited is now around 75, double what it was this time last year. I have walked in the footsteps of famous people like Guy Gibson, Glenn Miller and Joe Kennedy, stood where important and famous missions have been planned and executed, trodden the very ground where so many young men and women served their country, many thousands giving the ultimate sacrifice.

It has been a most humbling experience.

So to each and every one of you, a heartfelt thank you, and here’s to a happy, peaceful and rewarding 2016.

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

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

RAF Scampton.

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

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

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

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

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941.

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

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

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

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

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

Scampton September 2015 (10)

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

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

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

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

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

Scampton September 2015 (38)

Two Sisters under refurbishment in one of the four hangars.

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

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

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

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

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

THE ROYAL AIR FORCE, 1950-1969

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scampton September 2015 (2)

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

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

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

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

Scampton September 2015 (17)

The names of those who took part in Operation Chastise.

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading, links and notes.

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

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

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

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

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

An airfield that holds a tremendous history, yet little exists.

In this revised trip, we go back to Woodhall Spa, and visit the former Bomber Command airfield, famed for its crews, missions and aircraft. Woodhall Spa is a remarkable airfield, yet it is hardly known, or recognisable today.

RAF Woodhall Spa was originally built as a satellite to RAF Coningsby a short distance away, and opened on 1st February 1942. It was built with three concrete runways; two of 1,480 yds (1,353 m) and a third and main runway of 2,075yds (1,897 m) all 50yds (46 m) wide. The site like other Standard ‘A’ class airfields had two T2 hangars and one B1, thirty-six pan-style hardstandings and numerous support buildings scattered around its perimeter. Accommodation was spread over 7 sites, along with a WAAF, sick quarters and 2 communal sites all located to the south-east. The technical and administrative sites were also to the south-east side of the airfield between the accommodation areas and the main airfield.

A bomb store was well to the north and the main entrance to the north-west. A range of accommodation and technical style hut styles were used, Laing / Nissen / Seco and a Watch Tower to drawing 15956/40.

aerial photo

An aerial photograph of Woodhall Spa taken post war. The B1 and T2 hangers can be seen to the north-west, a further T2 to the south. The accommodation block are below the frame. (Taken from a photo at the Thorpe Camp museum).

One remarkable features of Woodhall Spa was the installation of 6 arrester gear units on the runways. These were designed to prevent aircraft overshooting the runway and were installed during the building programme. Some 120 units were manufactured in all but only a handful of sites had them. On October 22nd 1942, the Woodhall Spa units were tested using an Avro Manchester from the Royal Aircraft Establishment and all went well. However, as the war progressed, reservations were registered about such a technique and the units were never used ‘operationally’ in any of the allocated sites.

At the same time that Woodhall Spa opened, the newly equipped Lancaster (Mk I & III) squadron, 97 Sqn, moved from RAF Coningsby into RAF Woodhall Spa and within a month were flying operations from their new home. However, their first operation, mine laying, was to be fatal for three aircraft, cashing on the journey home. This was not to be the general theme for 97 Sqn though. For the next year they would prove themselves more than capable, hitting many targets accurately with bravery and courage.

Lancaster Mk I ‘R5495’ OF-N of 97 Sqn Woodhall Spa, bombs up. This aircraft was shot down over Essen 8th/9th June 1942, the crew were all killed.*1

The following March (1943) the main bulk of 97 Sqn moved to Bourn to form part of the new Pathfinder force, with detachments at Graveley, Gransden Lodge, Oakington and a further section remaining at Woodhall.  On April 18th 1943, 619 Sqn was formed from the Woodhall Spa detachment retaining their Lancaster Is and IIIs. However, their stay was very short; they moved out to Coningsby in January 1944 and were replaced overnight by the famous 617 (Dambusters) Sqn*2.

During their year here, 619 Sqn would prove themselves further in raids over the Ruhr, Düsseldorf, Oberhausen and Krefeld. Casualties were light during these early missions, but in the following August (1943) the RAF a mounted a massive raid consisting of 596 aircraft on the V2 rocket site at Peenemunde. Three of the twelve aircraft sent by 619 Sqn would fail to return.

DSC_0174

The bomb shelter now flooded and inaccessible.

When 619 Sqn moved out, 617 Sqn moved in. Lead by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, 617 Sqn were the elite of 5 Group, Bomber Command and accordingly were to be assigned some of the most difficult and outright dangerous precision bombing missions.

Throughout 1944, 617 Sqn would have many near misses, and losses, ranging from low-level bird strikes to fighter attacks and flak. Targets varied considerably including those at: Limoge (aircraft engine factory), the Antheor Viaduct, Albert, St. Etienne and Metz (aircrafts parts factories); many using the new ‘Tall Boy’ 12,000lb bomb.

On 15th April 1944, 617 Squadron were joined by 627 Sqn and obtained some D.H. Mosquito VIs, using these to good effect in the Pathfinder role while their Lancasters continued with the bombing. In June, they had a small respite from bombing missions and on the day of the Allied Invasion, they were tasked with dropping ‘Window’ over the Pas-de-Calais to fool the Germans into believing the invasion force would strike there.

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A handful of huts and buildings remain.

Throughout the remainder of 1944, 617 Sqn continued to use ‘conventional’ and Tall Boy  bombs on prestige targets like U-boat pens and the Samur Tunnel. Cheshire found himself handed a P-51, and after having it unpacked and engine tested, he used it to mark a V1 target to which 617 struck a devastating blow.

Further major targets were to befall the wrath of 617 Sqn. Flying 2,100 miles to a forward operating base at Yagodonik with Lancasters from 9 Sqn, they attacked the German main Battleship the ‘Tirpitz’. During the mission, for which they had long-range fuel tanks, of the 38 aircraft that set off, six were to crash on the outward journey, one turn back and one to crash on the return. The Tirpitz however was to remain ‘unsinkable’ for some time. It would take two more return trips by 617 Sqn from Lossiemouth to finally sink the ship, the last being on 12th November 1944, with the loss of 1000 German sailors.

Bombing and pathfinder operations for Woodhall spa crews continued right up to the end of the war. Early that year they would start to use the new ‘Grand Slam’ 22,000lb bomb, with their last operational fatality being on 16th April 1945. That was not the end for Woodhall Spa though. The famous Guy Gibson drove here and ‘borrowed’ a Mosquito of 627 Sqn against a backdrop of changed minds, mishaps and misjudgments, the resulting crash leaving him dead.

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Brick walls outline former structures.

Woodhall closed soon after the war ended, but it was identified as a suitable location for Britain’s air defence missile the ‘Bloodhound’ and on May 1st 1960, Woodhall Spa became the base of 222 Sqn with Bloodhound MkI missiles. These were disbanded in June 1964 and replaced by Bloodhound Mk IIs of 112 Sqn on November 2nd 1964. These stayed until 1st october 1967 when they moved to Episkopi in Cyprus.

After the removal of the Bloodhound squadron, the RAF continued to use a small site near to the main entrance, utilising the 617 Sqn T2 hangar and other ancillary buildings as an engine maintenance and testing facility. This too has since closed and the main use is now as a quarry.

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Map showing the location of the Bloodhound Missile Site (Photo of the display at the museum).

A long and distinguished life, Woodhall Spa’s operational losses totalled 91 aircraft, of which 74 were Lancasters and 17 Mosquitos. Daring and brave crews, they gave their all for freedom and the love of flying.

Today little exists of this former airfield. Being a quarry and partly MOD land it is not accessible to the general public. Most of the buildings have long since gone and the runways mostly dug up. A few minor concrete ‘side roads’ are in situ and with searching some evidence can be found. The tower was demolished just after the war as were many of the other buildings and huts. Although there are steps being taken to turn whats left into a nature reserve (see post dated 4th July 2015) it really is too late for this airfield with its incredible history. The best remnants can be seen a little way to the south-east at the former No 1 communal site at Thorpe Camp.

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The former NAAFI for 469 airmen and 71 officers.

A small number of buildings remain here utilised now as a museum. These include a war-time NAAFI able to accommodate 469 airmen and 71 officers, the ablutions block, ration store and various Nissen huts. A bomb shelter is also here, now flooded and blocked off along with other part brick structures.

In the adjacent woods, the airmen’s quarters and other buildings can be found, now derelict and in a dangerous condition. Odd buildings are scattered about the various sites but these too are few and far between.

Considering the history of Woodhall Spa, the men who flew from here, the operations they undertook, the testing of revolutionary equipment, the new and deadly bombs, it has suffered possibly greater than most and much of this history, if it were not for the Thorpe Camp museum, would now be lost forever. Perhaps if it becomes a nature reserve in part, then maybe, just maybe, the footsteps of those who were stationed here may once again be walked by others and their memories brought back to life.

*1 Author unknown, photo from http://www.aircrewremembered.com/hughes-mervyn.html, August 2015

*2 617 Squadron are most famous for the raid on the Ruhr dams in Operation Chastise ‘Operation Chastise’ carried out on 17 May 1943 under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

This is an updated trail part of Trail 1 Lower Lincolnshire. For the other places on this trip see here.