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

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

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Essex

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

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

RAF Debden

One of 11 Blister Hangars built at Debden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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RAF Castle Camps – A return to Essex.

Bordered by Cambridge and Suffolk to the North, Hertfordshire to the west, London to the south and the North Sea to the east, Essex is a coastal county that boasts a diverse range of landscapes. Primarily commuter belt for London, it has a range of its own industrial giants, electronics and pharmaceuticals being prime employers of the area. It also has a long and diverse aviation history, hosting a number of wartime airfields some of which are still in use today – albeit under a different guise.

Following on from Trail 33 (Essex Pt. 1), we return once more to Essex to its northern borders to visit some of the airfields that can be found among its green fields and idyllic villages. We start off at the former airfield, RAF Castle Camps.

RAF Castle Camps.

Castle Camps lies straddling the borders of Cambridge and Essex, a small unassuming airfield, it was none the less home to thirteen operational units at some point in their wartime career. It was constructed early on in the war, in sight of an ancient Motte and bailey built by Aubrey de Vere, soon after the Norman Conquest. Itself quite a historic monument, there is evidence that dates the site back further to both the Saxons and Romans. This castle itself is known to be the largest Medieval fortress in the county, and dates back to the latter parts of the thirteen century*1. Originally known as Great Camps, and Camps Green, it is after this Castle that both the village and airfield gained their names.

Castle Camps housed a small number of aircraft types: Hurricanes, Beaufighters, Spitfires and Mosquitos all resided here, with some as detachments, but many as full squadrons. Even with increases in Squadron  numbers, only one unit was ever formed here, that of 527 Squadron in 1943. However, that did not mean a posting here was by any means ‘quiet’.

Opening in the summer of 1940, it was designed as a satellite for nearby R.A.F. Debden and as such, both its accommodation and facilities were rudimentary to say the least. A grass airfield, with initially little more than tents for sleeping, it possessed a more ‘informal’ atmosphere than many of the R.A.F.’s other airfields.

No. 85 Squadron – a First World War unit that had only been reformed two years before war broke out – had been stationed in France to face the advancing might of the German army. Badly beaten and continuously moved around the many airfields of France: Merville, Lille, Mons-en-Chaussee and Boulogne, the squadron was completely decimated with only four aircraft from those originally sent out returning. In May 1940, these aircraft were pulled back to Debden to reform and re-equip. With detachments at both Martlesham Heath (A Flight) and Castle Camps (B Flight) they would be led by the soon-to-be-famous, Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, D.F.C.

85 Sqn would  initially take on a regime of coastal patrols many starting in the early dawn sunlight and continuing on through until dusk. These repeated flights were undertaken using many new ‘green’ crews who were eager to get back at the enemy for defeats in France. Whilst those at Martlesham would be thrown into the deep end, the Debden and Castle Camps’ crews would find their time slightly less ‘strenuous’.

The CO of No. 85 Squadron, Sqn Ldr Peter Townsend, jumps down from Hurricane Mk I P3166 ‘VY-Q’ while being refueled at Castle Camps, July 1940. © IWM (HU 104489)

With many airmen arriving with less than 10 hours flying experience, it was vital they learn discipline and extreme vigilance whilst flying, and Townsend saw these flights as a way of achieving that. By the end of June 1940, the flights at Debden and Castle Camps had undertaken 505 hours of flying, of which only 25 had been recorded as ‘operational’.*2

The importance of this training was soon realised when on July 22nd 1940, Hurricane P3895 piloted by Pilot Officer John Laurence Bickerdike (s/n 36266), undershot the runway at Castle Camps. In the resultant crash,  Bickerdike at just 21 years of age, was killed.

On August 13th, ‘B’ Flight departed Castle Camps and returned to Debden joining with ‘A’ Flight from Martlesham Heath. At last the squadron was together again and it wouldn’t be long before they would be moving on to pastures new, this time to Croydon, on the southern outskirts of London.

Other than an almost passing overnight stay in September, 85 Squadron wouldn’t return to Castle Camps until the war’s end in 1945.

Hawker Hurricane P2923 ‘VY-R’ of No. 85 Squadron. The Operational Record Books show this aircraft being flown by F/O R.H.A. Lee, D.S.O., D.F.C., at Castle Camps, August 1940. He was lost on the evening of August 18th 1940. Note the ‘temporary’ wooden airmen huts see note below. © IWM (HU 104510)

Whilst Debden remained busy – 85 Sqn making a straight swap with 111 Sqn – Castle Camps was quiet. The next users would be 73 Squadron in early October 1940.

Moving from the night training duties of Church Fenton, 73 Squadron had themselves been more successful in France than 85 Sqn. Using Hurricanes in this night fighter role though proved to be a costly mistake, as they were wholly unsuited and casualties were high in these early flights. By the end of October into early November, operational sorties has ceased as preparations were made to transfer the entire unit, via HMS Furious, to Heliopolis.

With this departure, Castle Camps fell operationally quiet again, and it was decided to upgrade both the airfield’s accommodation and flying facilities.

Three runways were built all covered with tarmac: the main running south-west to north-east of 1,900 yards, with a secondary and third runway of 1,600 yards and 1,070 yards respectively. Both the main and third runways were later extended, the main to 2,600 yards and the third to a more standard 1,100 yards. Sixteen hardstands were provided for aircraft dispersal as hangars were not yet added, but a Bellman and eight blisters were later erected.

Accommodation would be provided for 1,178 male and 184 female staff, 1,179 of which were ordinary ranks. The original temporary wooden huts (possibly Laing huts) were supplemented with ‘improved’ Ministry of Supply (MoS) huts. These differed in that they had canted sides as opposed to vertical sides normally found in these types of accommodation huts. Three of these huts are believed to survive today in a very much modified condition and used for agricultural purposes, a big change from the time they were used by the W.A.A.F.s of Castle Camps.

Once construction was near complete, operational units would again return. On the 17th December 1941, 157 Squadron (formed at Debden three days earlier) were informed of their immediate  departure to Castle Camps, which would now become a self-serving airfield. The move, which would involve 3 Officers, 34 N.C.O.s and a few airmen, began that day, with ground crews from 3081 Servicing Echelon accompanying them on the next day. A range of other staff began arriving during the course of the closing days of 1941.

However,  the running of the airfield and squadron was badly hampered by the lack of an N.C.O Disciplinarian and Clerk, and by the fact that officers were having to travel back to Debden for accommodation, as it was not available yet here at Castle Camps – the situation was far from ideal.

As Christmas approached, morale began to decline. Influenced by a number of factors it was primarily due to both the lack of work and the isolation of the Castle Camps airfield; the continuing influx of ground personnel also hindered the camp, as by now, it was beginning to put a strain on the lack of completed accommodation. On the 21st, Wing Commander Gordon Slade and Pilot Officer Truscott, his observer, both arrived on posting from 604 Squadron at Middle Wallop. Joining Slade at Castle Camps a month to the day, would be Sqn. Ldr. Rupert Clerke, formerly of No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (P.R.U.), who flew the first operational Mosquito sortie the previous year on 17th September to Brest. It would be almost a year later on September 30th 1943, that Clerke would fly the first Mosquito day sortie, a flight that resulted in the loss of a Junkers Ju 88 off the Dutch coast.

With little work to do, ‘Normal Squadron Routine‘ was repeatedly entered into the operations records, and so to help boost this flagging morale, the 25th December, was declared a general holiday for all staff who had were said to have a “real good Christmas feed and a good time was had by all“, no doubt a welcome break to the monotony that had preceded the season’s festivities.*3

Operations Record Book 157 Sqn

The entries for December reflect the poor morale and the regular Normal Squadron Routine that was becoming ‘routine’. Note the arrival of Sgt. Walters, His name appears in the Roll of Honour – see below. (AIR 27/1045)

Boxing day would see the first aircraft to arrive, bringing new hope to the squadron. A  Magister (N3880) was not what had been hoped for, but at least it was taking the squadron in the right direction.  More ground crews arrived and more “normal squadron routines” occurred. On the 29th, W/Cdr. Slade travelled to Hatfield to attend a conference on the new Mosquito and in the new year, Air Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas (A.O.C. in C. Fighter Command) arrived with the Debden Sector Commander Group Captain Peel. A full inspection of the airfield took place, which coincided with twelve airmen transferring on attachment to 32 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) at St. Athan, where the new Mosquitos were being “fitted and tested”.

A flurry of activity over the next few days saw W/Cdr. Slade travel to both Boscombe Down, and St. Athan – at last things seemed to be happening.

Finally, on the 26th January, 1942 the first Mosquito would land, flown in by W/Cdr. Slade. Slade, who had flown the prototype Mosquito previously at Boscombe Down, brought in a dual control aircraft (W4073) but hopes of more aircraft were soon dashed as this was sadly the only model to arrive for some time.

For the remaining weeks bad weather hampered work on the airfield, and with workshops, decent accommodation and tools still lacking, Castle Camps was rapidly becoming a thorn in the Squadron’s side.

Further ground staff came and went, Mosquitos were ferried between Hatfield and St. Athan by pilots of 157 sqn, for fitting of electronic equipment, W/Cdr. Slade and five officers moved in to dispersed accommodation at a large mansion known as “Walton House” near Ashdon, 3 miles from the airfield.

RAF Castle Camps

The village sign at Castle Camps reflects the ever-present Black Mosquitos of 157 Sqn at the airfield.

On February 22nd, a Beaufighter II arrived, flown by W/Cdr. Ashfield, and by the end of the month more than a dozen Mosquitos had been transferred for modification to St. Athan. There was now a light at the end of the cold, dark tunnel. Staffing was now up to 16 Officers, 12 N.C.Os and 160 other ranks; some of the accommodation site drainage had been sorted, officers showers and baths were now working, and the N.A.A.F.I was at last open and providing entertainment for the staff. The first football match was played between the squadron and the works flight, a resounding thrashing saw the squadron winning 6 – 0.

Over the next few weeks facilities would gradually improve, the weather began to get warmer, and the signs were that more aircraft would soon arrive. On March 9th 1942, the first two operational Mosquitos arrived at Castle Camps, and what a welcome sight it must have been.

The first to arrive were W4087 and W4098, neither were yet fully fitted, but that wouldn’t dishearten the staff at Castle Camps, at least things were now moving. Over the next few days a large number of Mosquitoes would arrive, these NF.IIs were Airborne Interception (AI) equipped night fighters, armed with four .303in Brownings and four 20mm cannon – all very potent weapons of the night war.

By March 29th 1942, 157 squadron had to its name: 14 Mosquitos, 1 Beaufighter (fully equipped), 1 dual Mosquito, 3 not fully equipped Mosquitos, and 2 Magisters. Night flying would now start, but a lack of workshops, sleeping accommodation and fitters meant that not all aircraft could be kept serviceable at this time. By the end of April, training flights had reached their peak, and 157 was now ready for war.

On April 27th 1942, operations would begin. Three patrols would take off followed by four the next day and then three on the 29th. No visuals were recorded from the first two nights but a Do. 217 was identified but subsequently lost in cloud.

At the end of the month F/Lt. Stoneman (Engineer Officer) invented a modification that improved the effectiveness of the Browning’s flash eliminator, an improvement that was so successful, it was quickly adopted by the Air Ministry for other models.

Successes were slow coming to 157 Sqn, problems with the A.I. sets led to frustrations and missed opportunities, but eventually they did come, and the Mosquito proved itself to be a truly outstanding night fighter.

RAF Castle Camps

The Roll of Honour in All Saints Church lists W/O. W. A. C. Walters death as 10th June 1942. Walters (s/n 755538) arrived at Castle Camps on 22nd December 1941 (see above entry in O.R.B), he is currently buried in Nottingham Southern Cemetery, Sec. F.24. Grave 55. He was Son of Arthur and Annie Walters, of West Bridgford, Nottingham, and died at the age of 21.

By  March 1943 a change in command, Wing Commander V. J. Wheeler, M.C., D.F.C. replacing W/Cdr Slade, and then as night defenders turned to intruders, the role of 157 Sqn changed, and they prepared to move to pastures new and R.A.F. Bradwell Bay.

Around this time a small detachment of Mosquitos would share the facilities at Castle Camps, 456 sqn, who were primarily based at Middle Wallop, would have aircraft use the site between March and August 1943 – a month that would take Castle Camps into a new period, and new leadership.

The 15th would be a very busy day for staff at Castle Camps, with the departure of 157 Sqn came the simultaneous arrival of 605 Squadron.

RAF Castle Camps

Part of the Perimeter Track that leads away to the airfield.

Led by the then Wing Commander George Lovell “Uncle” Denholm D.F.C., he was himself a Battle of Britain veteran, a Turbinlite advocate and was also famed for his part in the shooting down of the first German bomber on British soil. The famous ‘Humbie Heinkle’ was generally credited to Flight Lieutenant Archie McKellar of 602 Squadron from R.A.F. Drem, but Denholm and his 603 Sqn, played their part in damaging the aircraft before its eventual crash in East Lothian.

With the arrival of 605 Sqn and their Mosquitos, Castle Camps, like the stations at Bradwell Bay and Hunsdon, were quickly becoming synonymous with squadrons of the new type. Also Flying Mosquito IIs, (replaced four months later by the FB.VI) they would eventually depart here also for Bradwell Bay, but not before the ruggedness and reliability of the Mosquito would be put to the test.

On August 17th 1943, Sqn. Ldr. Mack and Flt. Sgt. Harrison, flew Mosquito FB.VI (HJ781) on a night intruder mission to Jagel in the northern most tip of Germany. Whilst on this mission, the aircraft was hit by a cable rocket projectile (Parachute and Cable or P.A.C.) fried from the ground. With a thin cable attached to a parachute they were designed to bring down allied aircraft and could be fired from either multiple or single launchers. HJ781, flew into one such cable which severed around 3 feet off the end of the starboard wing. The Mosquito, suffering considerable damage, managed to return to Castle Camps and was later repaired and returned to flight – such was the strength of the design of the Mosquito.

For the duration of their stay, 605 Sqn would perform almost nightly patrols over the airfields of the low countries and northern Germany, a tit-for-tat game played between the R.A.F. and the Luftwaffe, each aiming to catch returning aircraft as they approached their home airfield. A game that resulted in minor and relatively insignificant attacks on Castle Camps itself.

For eight months from June 1943, Castle Camps would be shared with a new squadron, the only squadron to be formed here, 527 Squadron, who were formed through the combining of both 74 and 75 Wing Calibration Flights from Duxford and Biggin Hill respectively.  Flying a collection of Hurricanes (I & IIB), Blenheim IV and Hornet Moths, they would test the accuracy of Britain’s defence radar systems across southern England and East Anglia.

The October departure of 605 sqn left 527 the only unit operating from Castle Camps, and operationally all was quiet once more. In the December 1943, 410 Sqn, another Hunsdon Mosquito unit arrived, stayed for a short while and then returned to Hunsdon in the April of 1944. A short but active spell saw them victors over a number of German types.

1944  would see another flurry of activity, with units arriving and departing in quick succession, and it would be a few months before another Mosquito would grace the skies over Castle Camps once more. 486 Sqn (RNZAF) , yo-yoed between Castle Camps and Ayr during the month of March, bringing with them yet another potent and deadly weapons platform, the Tempest V; followed by 91 Sqn while they were upgrading their Spitfire XII to XIVs.

Giving a useful indicator of scale, F/O. J. R. Cullen of No. 486 Squadron (RNZAF), poses with his Tempest Mk V at Castle Camps. Cullen became a successful Operation DIVER pilot, shooting down around 16 flying bombs. © IWM (CH 13967)

Between March and June little happened at Castle Camps, 68 Sqn*4 breaking the quiet with their Beaufighter VIFs at the end of June, which were quickly replaced with Mosquito XVIIs and Mosquito XIXs.  68 (Night Fighter) Squadron was primarily an R.A.F. Squadron, but Czechoslovak pilots formed one of its flights. The determination of the Flight’s crews resulted in some high ‘kill’ rates, with twenty-one verified kills, three probable, seven enemy planes damaged  and three V-1 flying bombs to their credit. The flight saw Twenty-three Czechoslovak pilots (twenty-one Czechs and two Slovaks) pass through their doors, culminating in an incredible 1,905 combat sorties covering 4,095 operational hours during the war.*5 By the October 68 Sqn too had departed, replaced by 151 Sqn and 25 Sqn for a short period both with yet another Mosquito model, the MK XXX.

1945 and the close of war saw units slowly begin to disband and wind down, 307 were followed by 85 Sqn who returned in the June and September also with the MK. XXX. A  huge improvement and development from their early Hurricanes of 1939 / 40 and a fitting end to a station that had seen many a brave young man come and go. 25 Sqn also returned, in both the August and October with the Mosquito VI, staying until June 1946, whereupon the airfield closed and returned to agriculture, a state it remains in today.

Castle Camps has little – aviation wise – to offer the visitor these days.  A recently erected memorial stands at the northern end of the airfield, the only visible marker of this once busy site that grew from a cold and windy field with little more than tents for accommodation, to a bustling site with possibly the most advanced and formidable fighters of the Second World War.

It may not appear to be much more than green fields and cattle farming, but sitting in the summer sun, as I did, you can still hear the rumblings of that magnificent engine the Merlin, as the Hurricanes and Mosquitos of the R.A.F. fly over your head transporting you back to those days of 1940s England.

Sources and further reading.

*1 The Castle Camps Village webiste details the history of the Castle.

*2 AIR/27/703/14 National Archives

*3 AIR/27/1045 National Archives

*4 An interesting blog highlighting some of the Czech pilots who flew with 68 Sqn.

*5 Pilot Josef Capka, D.F.M. (a member of the Guinea Pig Club) joined 68 Sqn after they left Castle Camps. His incredible story is told in the Free Czechoslovak Air Force blog and through his book ‘Red Sky at Night‘.

Scotland’s National Museum of Flight – East Fortune (Part 3).

The final public hangar at East Fortune holds what is perhaps its pièce de résistance, an aircraft so ahead of its time that it has never been successfully matched. An aircraft that became simply too expensive to operate but was withdrawn under a cloak of darkness and sadness. In the third public hangar is the story of the Jet Age, a story that tells of the development of the modern jet air liner, from the post war development through to the classics of today. A story that is set around the beautiful aircraft that is of course the B.A.C. Concorde.

The Jet Age Hangar.

The Concorde at the National Museum of Flight (G-BOAA) was the first model Concorde to go into active service in 1976. After flying for a total of 22,768 hours and 56 minutes, in almost 25 years of service, she finally came to rest after what was possibly the most ambitious transportation project ever undertaken. In all her flying time she has visited cities right across the world including: New York, Paris, Bahrain, Miami, Calcutta, Auckland and Barbados. In her life time, G-BOAA has landed over 8,000 times and has flown through almost 7,000 supersonic cycles. She has become an icon, a reflection of what is achievable in civil aviation development.

Concorde was designed and built in agreement between the French Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and Britain’s British Aircraft Corporation (later B.A.E.). Each would make their own prototype, the French (001) flying first on 2nd March 1969, with the British model (002) flying from Fliton a month later on April 9th 1969. At the Paris airshow prospects looked good and over the next few years 65 initial orders were placed by 17 countries with options for many more. However, growing concerns over manufacturing costs, noise, environmental pollution and running costs eventually reduced the orders to just a handful from both British Airways and Air France.

With the price of a return ticket London to New York in excess of £6,500 in 2003, it certainly wasn’t cheap, nor affordable for the average man in the street (but where else can you watch the Mach Meter climb through Mach 2). It was however, a head turner. Wherever Concorde flew crowds gathered to watch in awe of her grace and technological advancement.

Concorde

Concorde G-BOAA stands proudly as the centre piece of the Concorde Experience.

Sadly, on July 25th 2000, it all went terribly wrong when taking off from Charles de Gaulle airport, Concorde  F-BTSC ran over a small piece of debris causing the tyre to burst sending shards of rubber at high-speed into the wing of the aircraft. An internal fuel tank ruptured and high-octane fuel poured from the wing igniting as it left. With too little runway to land and insufficient power to fly, it couldn’t fail to miss the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel and crashed. A terrible tragedy that began the rapid rundown and retirement of the entire Concorde fleet.

Following a slump in air travel due to terrorist activities, rising costs of Concorde and the urgent need for upgrades, by 2003 all Concordes had ceased flying, and the disposal of the air-frames began.

G-BOAA was delivered to East Fortune following a major operation that involved taking it by road to the River Thames, along the Thames by specialist barge and out to sea, around the coast of England and Scotland, and then by road to East Fortune. Roads had to be purposely made cutting through a number of fields in order to get the aircraft to its new home. An operation that took over a week was supported by members of 39 Engineer Regiment’s 53 Field Squadron (Air Support) with a helicopter assistance.

Today Concorde G-BOAA stands as the centre piece of the Jet Age and Concorde Experience Hangar, a proud and open monument to the collaboration and development of the Supersonic passenger age.

But this hangar is not just about Concorde. A cockpit and front cabin portion from a Boeing 707-436 (G-APFJ), and Hawker Siddeley Trident 1C (G-ARPH) cockpit, gives the visitor another insight into life inside another 1960s long haul passenger jet. Outside another two classic passenger aircraft, de Havilland’s Comet 4C (G-BDIX) and the BAC 111-510ED (G-AVMO) further give the visitor an insight into these classic times. A range of jet engines allow you to compare sizes and features, and stories from those who were involved in flying these masters of the sky bring the ‘Golden age of air travel’ to life once more.

East Fortune

Some of the engines on view at East Fortune.

The remainder of the museum is displays and hands on activities. The history of East Fortune, is well portrayed as are the medals of Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN., and the flying jacket and personal artefacts of Rolf Niehoff, the navigator of the Humbie Heinkel.

East Fortune

Portrait and medals of Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN

As mentioned earlier, in Post 1 the parachute store has been fully refurbished and is displayed in the way it would have been used during the war years. A unique building, they are easily recognisable by their higher central roof section, or as in some models, offset sloping roofs. Designed to hang and dry parachutes, they are kept at a constant temperature, ideally between 550F and 650F. Wartime parachute stores were built with 4.5 inch thick walls, early designs having a symmetrical two-stage pitched roof as is here at East Fortune. The parachutes were hung from the highest point on a pulley system, so that the silk was kept away from the floor and allowed to dry evenly and cleanly. Once dry, they were lowered to a packing table, inspected, packed away and stored in the store on racks. Each pack was labelled with an inspection date and the person to whom it belonged – each crewman having earlier being measured for his own parachute.

This is possibly the only original parachute store remaining in this condition in the UK and shows the method of drying, packing and storing these vital pieces of equipment extremely well.

East Fortune

The inside of the parachute store clearly shows how they parachutes were dried, packed and stored.

Other exhibits include the RAF’s Matador lorry and a ‘Green Goddess’ fire engine. Made more famous perhaps by the firemen’s strikes of 2002, they were built in the 1950s, and were designed to be used in the event of a nuclear attack. Operated by civilian personnel of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) they would be rushed into cities to extinguish fires and repair water systems. Thankfully, they were never used in this particular role.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

The RAF’s Matador truck.

The range of exhibits at East Fortune is fabulous. The history of aviation, both civil and military is shown through a range of rare examples, that are restored and maintained in original buildings, purposely restored in line with their original designs and construction. For anyone wanting to see original airfield buildings and beautifully restored aircraft, it is certainly worthy of a trip and is time very well spent.

Sources and Further Reading.

The National Museum of Flight Website has details of tickets, events and features on the various exhibits there.

A list of the aircraft locations at East Fortune.

RAF Drem – The home of Airfield Lighting Systems.

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

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

RAF Drem

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

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

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

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

RAF Drem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ROYAL AIR FORCE FIGHTER COMMAND, 1939-1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Drem

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading:

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

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

 

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 1)

The second airfield on Trail 41 takes us a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the armed forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield, located a few miles east of Charterhall, was pivotal to the success of the night-fighter training programme and in particular to Charterhall and 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.).

Charterhall and Winfield cannot be talked about with great reference to each other, they were built together, manned together and operated as part of the same training programme. Winfield and Charterhall probably operated together more closely than any parent / satellite airfields of the Second World War.

RAF Winfield

Winfield Watch Office one of the few remaining buildings now derelict and forlorn.

Winfield (like Charterhall) was initially used as a First World War landing ground for 77 Sqn based at Edinburgh flying a range of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E. types in the Home Defence role. Whilst many of these airfields were designated ‘landing grounds’, many were not officially recorded to the point that their precise locations remain vague even today. Winfield (or Horndean as it was known), was designed as a site where crews could land in an emergency, perhaps if their aircraft developed problems or if weather prevented landing at their home station.

77 Sqn were part of a force who were to patrol the eastern regions of Britain, an area stretching from Dover in the south to Edinburgh in the north. This area, was the furthest point north and the defence of the Scottish border region fell to 77 Sqn. The conditions at Horndean were not luxury, and the ‘runways’ were far from smooth, but in an emergency any semi-decent ground was most likely welcome. Crews often practised emergency landings at both Horndean and Eccles Toft (Charterhall), where aircraft guards would restart the aircraft before flight could take place again. These ‘guards’ (or Ack Emas as they were known) were often mechanics recruited into the Royal Flying Corps because of their mechanical background and knowledge of engines. After a brief training period of some eight weeks, they were sent to various establishments to maintain and prepare aircraft before and after flight.

Horndean as an airfield was not to last though, and before the war’s end it would close returning to its former agricultural use.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the training of pilots and other crewmen became a priority. Night fighters were also needed and Winfield would fulfil this role.

Winfield was built over the period 1941 – 42 opening later than expected, due to bad weather, in April 1942. A rather hastily affair, it was built between two roads and would only have two runways. Oddly, the initial construction of the runway was by hand, red shale from local quarries being brought in by endless lorries and laid down by local workers. It didn’t take long though before it was realised that this method was too slow, and so heavy machinery was brought in, and the stocks of shale bulldozed into the foundations. At the threshold, rubble stone was laid to a depth of some 12 feet, much deeper than the remainder,  to take the impact of landing aircraft. A covering of tarmac was laid over this layer in depths of between four and six inches thick. The runways at Winfield, like Charterhall, were 1,600 and 1,100 yards and both 50 yards wide. Aircraft dispersal was provided by thirty-seven hardstands whilst maintenance was carried out in four blister hangars.

The first personnel to arrive were an advanced party of thirty-four airmen led by Flying Officer Beal, who arrived on April 30th 1942. Unlike Charterhall, the airfield was complete and ready for the new recruits to move straight in. Being a satellite station, accommodation numbers catered for were less than those at Charterhall, 686 airmen and 56 WAAFs, all spread over five sites: three airmen, a WAAF, and a communal site. A small sewage plant was located not far from these, all to the north-eastern side of the airfield.

Trainees were to follow an initial three-tier programme. Starting in ‘A’ squadron – the conversion unit – they would then pass to ‘B’ and then finally onto ‘C’ here at Winfield. C Squadron, would finely tune skills and train aircrew in uses of Aircraft Interception (AI), ground attack and air-to-air gunnery techniques. Later on, a fourth tier would be added, focusing purely in flying the D.H. Mosquito in the night fighter role.

RAF Winfield

Remains of the former WAAF site.

These initial stages primarily used Beaufighters and Blenheims, aircraft that had been passed down from front line units to the training squadrons of the O.T.U.s. Many were therefore ‘war weary’ and as a result, mechanical problems were common place.

The first fatality at Winfield occurred in a rather bizarre accident on May 23rd 1942. A dispatch rider, Aircraftman 1st Class, John R. Livesey (s/n1478277), was struck by a Blenheim flown by Sgt. J. Grundy as the aircraft was taking off. The aircraft was damaged in the collision and the pilot unhurt, but Livesey was very sadly killed; he now rests at Marton (St. Paul) church in Blackpool.

In August 1942 a combined operation was planned involving Spitfire VBs from 222 Sqn (based at North Weald) and Boston IIIs from Attlebridge’s 88 Sqn. These manoeuvres saw eighteen Spitfires and twelve Bostons arrive, supported by three H.P. Harrows of 271 Sqn bringing ground crews, spares and supplies for the various aircraft. In all, around 360 new crews were accommodated at Winfield over the short two-week period.

Adept at low-level attacks, the two squadrons would arrive here between 1st and 4th August 1942, spend several days attacking ‘enemy’ transport and troop routes across southern Scotland, before departing. Considered a relative success, their stay was only for a short period vacating to RAF airfields at Drem, near Edinburgh, and Attlebridge, in Norfolk, respectively by mid August.

A further deployment of Mustang Is of 241 Sqn based at Ayr was cut short when bad weather prevented both flying and training operations from occurring. Later that month the small party left rather disappointed having hardly flown since arriving here at Winfield.

Being the more advanced tier of the training programme, serious accidents at Winfield occurred less frequently than at Charterhall. Burst tyres and mechanical problems being the main cause of many of the problems that were incurred.

RAF Winfield

Few buildings remain at Winfield, the WAAF site having the majority of the examples.

During July 1943, a Beaufighter from ‘C’ Squadron at Winfield misjudged the distance from himself to the target drogue being pulled by a Lysander, after firing and passing, his airscrew caught the drogue’s wire; luckily both aircraft were able to land safely and neither crew were injured. At the end of July a less fortunate incident occurred when, on a night flight, the port engine of Beaufighter T3370 (a former 456 Sqn RAAF aircraft coded RX-Z) caught fire. The crew bailed out, the pilot surviving but the Radio operator/navigator P/O. Frank Walmsley (s/n J/17124) of the RCAF was posted missing, presumed drowned, after the aircraft crashed into the sea. No trace was ever found of him.

October saw further deaths of crews from Winfield. On the 11th, Beaufighter VI, (ND184) crashed killing its Pilot Sgt. Angus Taylor, after it suffered engine failure; followed the next day by the crash of Beaufighter T3218 in a gunnery exercise over the North Sea. The aircraft crashed into the water after incurring a stall, both crewmen; F/O. John W. Roussel and F/O. Francis L. Kirkwood both of the RCAF, were missing presumed drowned. Both are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

During 1944 the tide began to turn and night fighter crews were on the offensive. The invasion of Normandy brought new hope and a new aircraft – the Mosquito. But as 1944 ended it would be the worst for fatalities in 54 OTU.

January brought many heavy bombers to the grounds of Winfield, returning from missions over Europe, they were either damaged or unable to land at their own respective bases due to poor weather. On February 17th 1945, fourteen Halifax IIIs from 420 Squadron RCAF landed at Winfield along with a further 408 Squadron aircraft. Whilst not able to comfortably accommodate such numbers and aircraft, it would have no doubt been a happy, and very much appreciated landing.

As the war drew to a close so did the number of flying hours. By May 31st the war was over and Winfield was no longer required, all the various ranks were pulled back to Charterhall leaving only a small maintenance party behind. For the next few years Winfield would have no operational units stay here, either temporary or permanently.

In the second part of this visit, we see how Winfield changed after the war, an odd visitor arrives, and Winfield’s decline begins. 

 

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 3)

We carry on from Part 2 of Trail 41 for the final Part of RAF Charterhall. An airfield that had become known as ‘Slaughterhall’ it was about to see a new breed of aircraft, perhaps even a turn in luck.

RAF Charterhall

The main runway at Charterhall looking south.

The night of May 27th – 28th 1944 was a heavy night for Bomber Command, with large numbers of four engined heavies attacking targets in Germany.  On their return, ten Lancaster bombers were diverted to Charterhall, the first time the four engined bombers would use the airfield, but not the last. On the 8th June, another seven were to arrive, also diverted on their return from the continent. Then in July, a Halifax was diverted here after sustaining heavy flak damage over Helioland. The pilot, P/O W. Stewart of the RCAF and navigator P/O K. Evans (RAF) were both awarded DFCs for their action whilst badly injured, such was the determination to get all the crew and aircraft back safely.

July to October saw an increase in flying and an increase in accidents. July ‘led the way’ with heavy landings, burst tyres, ground collisions and engine failures being common place. The majority of these incidents were Beaufighter MKIIfs, some were visiting or passing aircraft who suffered problems and had to divert. Charterhall saw a mix of Lysanders, Barracuders, Beauforts, Wellingtons and Hurricanes all use Charterhall as a safe haven.

As the threat of attack was now diminishing, a reorganisation of the O.T.Us would see 9 Group disband in September that year. The responsibility of 54 O.T.U (now flying mainly Mosquitoes) and Charterhall would now pass to 12 Group.

Eventually 1944 turned to 1945 and the year that saw for 17 fatal crashes also saw 54 O.T.U. take on more aircraft and more crews.

January 1945 was incredibly harsh in terms of weather and the cold. Training new crews on new radar meant that Wellingtons were brought into Charterhall. Small teams of pupils would take turns to operate the radar to detect Hurricane ‘targets’. These new models increased the air frame numbers at Charterhall to 123 by the end of January.

RAF Charterhall

‘No. 1’ Building on the Technical site.

By now the allies were winding their way into Germany, pressure was increased by Bomber Command and so more heavies were to find Charterhall a refuge when the weather closed in. On the 15th February a large ‘Gardening’ operation led to 12 heavies landing at Charterhall along with four Mosquitoes who had been flying with them over Norway. All these aircraft were able to return to their various bases at Skipton-On-Swale, Leeming and Little Snoring the next day.

Two days later, more aircraft were to find Charterhall (and Winfield) needed. Some 266 aircrews – an incredible influx for one night – were going to need bedding – billiard tables, sofas and chairs suddenly became in very short supply.

The poor weather continued well into the year and snow caused some ‘minor’ accidents at Charterhall. The first confirmed death was not until early March and others were to follow. By May the war had come to an end and operations began to wind down. Winfield was closed and crews returned to Charterhall. Beaufighters were gradually sold, scrapped or moved elsewhere, and by August the last aircraft had left.

March would see the last fatalities at Charterhall, both in Mosquitoes on the 25th and 29th. In the former, the aircraft was in a high-speed vertical crash and the latter the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Cole (s/n125484), overshot the runway and crashed his Mosquito FBVI (HR297) a mile south of the airfield. He was 22.

Apart from a small detachment of crews from 770 Squadron Naval Air Branch carrying out trials, operations began slowing down. After VJ day, the Mosquito numbers were also wound down, only fifty-one aircraft remained by the end of August.

In September the order came through to vacate Charterhall and the packing began. By the end of the month 54 O.T.U. had all but vacated leaving Charterhall quiet once more. The last eighty aircraft consisting of: Mosquito VI,  XVII and NF30s, Martinets, an Oxford, Miles Master II, Ansons, Hurricane IICs and Wellington XVIIIs were flown out for the final time, 54 O.T.U. had played its part and their end lay ahead.

In the three years that Charterhall had been in operation, they had passed over 800 crews for night fighter operations, they had suffered over 330 accidents, 56 of which had resulted in deaths. During this time crews had flown just short of 92, 000 hours flying time day and night, with almost a third being carried out at night. Had it not been for this unit, the heavy bombers of Bomber Command may well have suffered even greater losses, the determined and deadly night fighters of the Luftwaffe may have had a much wider and easier reign over our skies and the losses we quote today would be even higher.

But the withdrawal of 54 O.T.U. was not the demise of Charterhall. For a short period it was set up as No 3 Armament Practice Station, designed to support and train fighter pilots in the art of gunnery. During its period here November 1945 – March 1947 it would see a range of aircraft types grace the runways of Charterhall.

The first units were the Spitfire IXB of 130 squadron from December 1st 1945 – January 24th 1946, followed by 165 Squadron’s Spitfire IXE between 30th December and January 24th 1946. On the day these two squadrons moved out, Charterhall entered a new era as the jet engines of Meteor F3s arrived under the command of 263 Squadron. After staying for one month they left, allowing the Mustang IVs of 303 (Polish) Squadron to utilise the airfield. Each of these squadrons followed a course which included air-to-air target practice, ground attack, bombing and dive bombing techniques.

Following the completion of the course 303 pulled out and the order was given to close No. 3 Armament Practice Station and wind Charterhall down for good. The RAF sent no further flying units here and apart from a detachment of Mosquitoes from 772 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, by the following summer, it had closed. The final spin of the airscrew had taken place.

Post war, the airfield was left, the runways and buildings remained intact and the airfield was used by small light aircraft. Gradually though it fell into disrepair, used mainly for agriculture, it had a new lease of life when on Saturday May 31st, 1952, the airfield saw its first motor race using sections of the perimeter track and runways. A two-mile track became the proving ground for a number of the worlds most famous racing drivers including: Sir Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart O.B.E., Roy Salvadori, Sir John Arthur ‘Jack’ Brabham, AO, OBE, Giuseppe “Nino” Farina and local boy Jim Clark O.B.E. Clark cut his racing teeth at Charterhall, eventually winning 25 Grand Prix races and the Indianapolis 500 in 1965. His grave lies in nearby Chirnside cemetery alongside his mother and father. Charterhall also saw the appearance of Scotland’s first organised sports car team, ‘Ecurie Ecosse’, using Jaguar cars*4. Racing occurred here until 1969, when the current owners took over the site.

The RAF then returned briefly in late 1976 undertaking trials of the Rapier ground-to-air missile system, in which a range of fast jets including Jaguars and Phantoms would participate. These lasted a month which would see the last and final RAF involvement end.

The owners reinvigorated the site providing a venue for rally sport events which started again in 1986. Eventually on March 30th, 2013, the last ever race was run and motor sport stopped for good and so another era finally came to a close.*5

RAF Charterhall

Jim Clark’s grave stone at Chirnside.

Today a section at the western end of the main runway is still available for use by light aircraft (with prior permission) and the main technical area is home to the Co-op Grain store, a facility which has a number of large stores for drying and storage of grain.

Accessing the site is from the B6460 where a memorial stands to the crews who passed through Charterhall and in particular Flight Lieutenant Hillary and Flight Sgt. Fison, who died in such tragic circumstances. A track leads all the way to the airfield site, which was the main entrance to the airfield. A good quantity of buildings still stand here on the technical site along with two of the original hangars. All of these are used for storage or stabling of animals including horses and are rather rundown. The perimeter track and runways are complete but their surfaces are breaking up and in a poor state of repair.

These buildings are a remarkable and poignant reminder of the tragic but significant years that Charterhall prepared and developed crews for the night fighter squadrons of the RAF. Hundreds passed through here, for many it was a difficult twelve weeks, for some it ended abruptly and decisively. Not known for its comforts, it was a pivotal station in the Second World War and indeed also for many years after for the those who went on to become some of the world’s most famous motor racing drivers.

Many airmen came and stayed, sixteen of them who were killed on active service whilst at Charterhall are buried in the nearby cemetery at Fogo, a short distance to the north of the airfield. Many are from around the commonwealth who came here to help and were never to return.

After leaving Charterhall, we head a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

Sources and further reading

*4 Obituary of Bill Dobson: ‘Ecurie Ecosse’ racing driver in ‘The Scotsman‘ newspaper 21st October 2008.

*5 A news report of the event can be read on ‘The Berwickshire News‘ Newspaper, 28th March 2013.

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1 of Trail 41 – The Borders, we return to Charterhall in the beginning of 1943.

During the Battle of Britain many pilots suffered from burns in aircraft fires and crashes. The famous ‘Guinea Pig club’ became synonymous with those men who underwent experimental techniques in reconstructive skin work carried out by of Archibald McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead in Sussex. Some of these men wrote about their experiences, and one, Flight Lieutenant Richard Hillary, sadly lost his life at Charterhall.

Hillary arrived here in November 1942 – after two long years of surgery and hospitalisation. Writing about his experiences in ‘The Last Enemy‘ he opted for night fighter training and was posted to Charterhall. Still disfigured, he had virtually no experience in night flying and none on twin-engined aircraft.

RAF Charterhall

One of two remaining hangars.

The controls of the Blenheim were awkward and difficult to use at the best of times, Hillary, with his disfigured hands, found the Blenheim I more so and often needed help with the undercarriage. Cockpit lighting was another issue experienced by crews, even in later models instrument panels were difficult to read in the dark and this led to several pilots making errors when reading the various dials and gauges. Hillary found this a further challenge, with damaged eyelids his night sight was ‘impaired’ and on January 8th 1943, his aircraft, Blenheim V BA194, struck the ground killing both him and his Radio Operator Flight Sgt. K.W. Fison. The cause of the crash is unclear, whether Hillary’s condition added to the accident is not known, and it is generally thought to be as a result of icing due to the thick, cold Scottish fog. Whatever the cause, it ended the life of two very brave young men, one of whom had fought long and hard to survive in some of the harshest of times.*2

In April 1943 Beauforts began arriving to replace the ageing and very much outdated Blenheim Is. It was also in this month that responsibility of the O.T.Us passed over to 9 Group, and there were now fourteen operational units countrywide. Monthly ‘processing’ of new crews would be increased to an intake of 40 all undertaking a 12 week course before finally being posted to operational squadrons.

The summer of 1943 saw a rapid increase in accidents. Some of these occurred on the ground as well as whilst flying. On June 14th a tragic accident occurred when a Beaufighter piloted by Sgt. Wilkie, swung on take off colliding with another aircraft being refueled. The Bowser exploded in the accident destroying both aircraft and killing two ground staff: Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Francis P. Matthews and Leading Aircraftman George Lotherington.*3

A further incident, also caused by a Beaufighter swinging on take off, caused the first July fatality, when the aircraft hit both a blister hangar and a taxiing Beaufort. The two collisions wrote off the Beaufighter and severely damaged the Beaufort. The pilot of the Beaufighter,  Flight Sgt. W. Andrew (s/n 415280) aged just 21, was killed in the incident.

July was a milestone for 54 O.T.U in that it was the first time that 3,000 flying hours had been exceeded of which 894 had been carried out at night at a cost of 20 accidents – such was the demand for trained operational crews.

During September, new MK VI Beaufighters began to arrive. These were passed directly to Winfield and ‘C’ squadron after delivery and inspection at Charterhall. Even though they were ‘factory new’, they did not prevent further accidents nor deaths occurring. By the end of 1943, 54 O.T.U had amassed 28,940 hours flying time of which 7,012 were at night. A huge total that had enabled the RAF to pass the equivalent of 12 operational squadron crews but it had also taken a serious loss of life.

In January 1944 the unit strength was up to ninety-six aircraft, flying continued where the inclement weather allowed, and the year would start off with no serious accidents or deaths – a welcome break; but 1944 would eventually prove to be Charterhall’s worst year.

May brought a new focus for the trainees when it was decided to make  54 O.T.U operational in support of the impending invasion. Operating in the night fighter role, they were called out on to intercept German aircraft roaming over the north-east of England and southern Scotland. Unfortunately, whilst intruders were detected, no contacts were made during these operations, primarily due to the intruders flying too low for the GCI to pick them up; but it did give some purpose to the heavy losses that were being incurred.

At this time a new aircraft began appearing in ‘C’ Squadron, a model that gave new hope and determination to the crews – the incredible, D.H. Mosquito. By the war’s end, 54 O.T.U. would have used eight different variants of the Mosquito.

The initial batch of two were located at Winfield, rather disappointing perhaps for those at Charterhall, but they were not to be  devoid of their own special breed of aircraft.

The final part of our visit to RAF Charterhall will follow soon, the end of the war is in sight and so starts a new era for RAF Charterhall…

Sources and further reading

*News report on Hillary in ‘The Scotsman‘ Newspaper, 11th November 2001

*3 Commonwealth War Graves Commission website accessed 29/4/17

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 1)

After leaving the Wolds of Yorkshire, Trail 41 takes us north across the border into Scotland. A land as diverse in its history as it is its beauty.  With fabulous views of the Cheviots to the south and the North Sea coast to the east, it is an area renowned for beautiful scenery and delightful walks. With Holy Island and Lindisfarne Castle standing proud, it also an area with a rich and diverse aviation history,

In this trail we stop off at two airfields where we find some remarkable relics and some terrible stories.

Our first stop is at a site that is little known about even though it played a major part in the night-fighter air war, and was also the proving ground for some of the world’s top motor racing drivers as well. Yet beneath all this glamour and bravado it holds a collection of terrible stories. We stop off at the former RAF Charterhall.

RAF Charterhall.

Located some 15 miles south-west of the coastal town of Berwick, Charterhall airfield had its aviation origins in the First World War. Its original name was RFC Eccles Tofts (although the two were not quite the same physical site), a landing ground for 77 Squadron who were based further north at Edinburgh, and flew the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c/d/e, BE.12, RE8, de Havilland DH6 and Avro’s 504k.  Whilst not official detached here, the airfield was available for these aircraft to land upon and be recovered should the need arise. It wasn’t kept open for long and soon disappeared returning to its former agricultural use.

Charterhall is one of those airfields that has a grand sounding name, suggesting regency and nobility, its reality though, was somewhat different. It gained the rather unsavoury, but apt, nick-name ‘Slaughterhall’, due to the high accident rate of the trainee aircrew who passed through here.

RAF Charterhall

Technical buildings at Charterhall.

Many of the aircraft that operated from here were outdated and ‘war weary’, held together by the dedicated mechanics that took great pride in their work. Used for short-term placements of trainees, it would not house any true front line squadrons until the war’s end in 1945.

As a training airfield it would have a large number of airfield buildings, two Tarmacadam (Tarmac) runways the main running east-west of 1,600 yards and the second north-east/south-west of 1,100 yards; both were the standard 50 yards wide. There were some 38 dispersal pans, similar in shape to the ‘frying pan’ style , eight blister hangars and four main hangars of which two still survive. Chaterhall’s accommodation was initially designed for 1,392 airmen and 464 WAAFs – consisting of 126 Officers (both male and female) and 1,730 other ranks (again both male and female).

The main technical area was to the north side of the airfield with accommodation spread amongst the woods around this area. The watch office, long since demolished, was a mix of concrete and timber (thought to be initially a 518/40 design), which originally had timber floors, roof and stairs. However, an acute shortage of wood led to all these designs having only a timber balcony and control room. These modified designs (Charterhall included) were therefore built to a mix of 518/40 and 8936/40 specifications.

Another interesting feature of Charterhall would have been the instructional fuselage building. Here crews would have been trained using an aircraft fuselage (Charterhall had two, one each of Beaufighter and Blenheim) jacked up and linked to a controller’s panel. A number of simulated problems could be created for the crews to experience, anything from radio exercises through small warning lights to engine failure and even ditching. All crewmen had to have a good understanding of their aircraft, working hydraulics, electrical and fuel systems were all taught using this same method. In addition to these training fuselages, Charterhall would operate six Link Trainers, along with several other ‘state of the art’ training facilities.

RAF Charterhall

Many of the remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair.

The entire airfield would occupy around 143 hectares, it was certainly not large, especially considering the numbers of crews and mix of aircraft it would have during its short life.

Construction of Charterhall took place over 1941/42 opening on April 30th as part of 81 Group Fighter Command (and later 9 Group), receiving 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U) in May 1942. Formed two years earlier, they flew primarily Blenheim Is and Beaufighter IIs under the Squadron code ‘BF’ (Four different unit codes were used: BF, LX, ST and YX). A number of these aircraft were fitted with Aircraft Interception radar (AI) and some Blenheims were dual control.

To support the operations at Charterhall, a satellite airfield was built at nearby Winfield, a few miles east, both sites being used by 54 O.T.U. simultaneously. Later in the war, in an effort to divert marauding Luftwaffe bombers away from the two airfields, a dummy ‘Q’ site (No. 179) was built at Swinton also to the east of Charterhall.

The increase in O.T.U.s in these early days of the war was as a direct result of the increase in demand for new pilots in Fighter Command. In December 1940, 81 Group had six such units (54-59 O.T.U.) and by June 1941 this had increased to nine (52 – 60). By 1942, a total of twelve were in existence boosted by the addition of 12, 61 and 62 O.T.U. 54 O.T.U. would be one of two specialising in twin-engined night fighter flying. New crews, of which there were about 30 per month, were initially given about ten days to establish themselves and ‘crew up’. As time passed however, this time reduced to the point where some intakes were literally herded in a hangar and told to find a crewman or they would be allocated one! *1

Many of the crews arriving at Charterhall were brought in from around the Commonwealth and after passing their basic flying training instruction, would proceed through a further three stages of training. Some crews were also ex-fighter pilots already battled hardened, who had transferred in from front line units to night-fighters.

Progression through the course would be through initially three, and latterly four, squadrons. ‘A’ Squadron would be the initial conversion unit initiating crews on the rudiments of twin-engined aircraft as many had come from single engined fighter units. ‘B’ Squadron was the intermediate squadron, where the crews moved onto the larger twin-engined aircraft and finally ‘C’, (based at Winfield) was the advanced squadron honing skills such as aircraft interception and attack.  After completing the full training period, crews would receive postings to front line squadrons across the U.K. and beyond.

RAF Charterhall

A latrine on the technical site.

Initially on opening, Charterhall was not completely ready, especially the airfield’s lighting (Drem), and so training flights would only occur during the day. But, with the help of ground crews, this was soon rectified and by the end of the month considerable work had been done, and very soon night flying could begin.

The first daylight flights took place on May 13th 1942, followed by night flying seven days later, and – as crews were to find out very quickly – flying these aircraft would be a risky business.

During 1942 some 5000 aircrew would enter 81 Group’s training units, and they would suffer in the region of 2,000 accidents, of which just under 200 would be fatal. On May 23rd, 54 O.T.U’s first accident would occur when a ‘technical failure’ on a Blenheim Mk I, would cause the controls to jam. The aircrew were thankfully unhurt but the aircraft was severely damaged in the resultant crash. The first fatality would not be long in coming though, occurring just two days later, on May 25th, less than a month after 54 O.T.U’s arrival. On this day, Blenheim IV (Z6090) crashed killing both Pilot Officer J. A. Hill (s/n 115324) and Observer Sgt. A.E. Harrison (s/n 1384501) in an accident which is thought to have been caused by icing. P/O Hill is buried at Haddington (St. Martin’s) burial ground in East Lothain, whilst Sgt Harrison is buried in Middlesbrough (Acklam) Cemetery, Yorkshire.

During June, the first Beaufighters would begin to arrive, followed quickly by their first accident. Whilst on delivery by 2 Aircraft Delivery Flight at Colerne, the aircraft – a Beaufighter MkIIf – had an engine cut out causing it to crash about 10 kilometres north-west of Charterhall. Luckily the crew were able to walk away but the aircraft was written off.

During July bad weather hampered flying activities, but it didn’t prevent the unit from increasing its strength to seventy-seven aircraft.  Primarily Blenheims and Beaufighters, there were also a small number of Lysanders for target towing and four Airspeed Oxfords.

Accidents continued to occur at Charterhall, and it wasn’t until September 1942 that it would be fatality free – a welcome boost to the morale of the instructors at the time. However, the reprieve was short-lived, and October would see further accidents and yet more fatalities. On the 5th, two Blenheim MK Is (L6788 and L8613) collided: Pilot Sgt. J. Masters (missing – presumed drowned) and Navigator Sgt. J. Gracey were both killed. There were seven other accidents that month, a tally that involved two Blenheims and five Beaufighters, with the loss of one life. Causes included: two burst tyres, two overshoots, a loss of control and an undercarriage failure, all of which added to the lengthening list of accidents occurring at Charterhall.

The need for new crews increased the pressure on training stations to increase flying hours. Courses were cut short, spares were lacking and with only rudimentary rescue equipment, further deaths were inevitable. As a result, it wouldn’t be until March 1943 before Charterhall would see a break in these increasing fatalities.

The start of 1943 saw a new Station Commander, but the new change in command would not see the new year start on a good note…

 

(Part 2 of Trail 41 will continue shortly).

Sources and further reading

*1 An interview with Edward Braine, in ‘reel 4’ he describes his posting to RAF Charterhall for operational training; crewing up; transfer onto Bristol Beaufighters; position of navigator in Bristol Beaufighter; accident during training; method of observing aircraft at night and interpreting radar signals. Sound file reel 4 Recorded and presented by the Imperial War Museum.

 

RAF Wittering – a history rooted deep in the First World War.

You can’t look at the remnants of RAF Collyweston (Trail 37), without taking in RAF Wittering. Renowned for its Harrier Squadrons, RAF Wittering was an airfield that fell quiet as a result of the Government cutbacks that affected all the armed forces in December 2010. Sadly it meant the loss of the RAF’s Harrier fleet, an aircraft that had been stunning the crowds at air shows both here and overseas from many years. The Harrier remains one of the few RAF/RN jets to have proven itself in a combat environment, when it took on the Argentinian Air Force in the war over the Falkland Islands in 1982. However, the Harrier squadrons were just one small part of Wittering’s long and established history.

RAF Wittering.

RAF Wittering dates back to the First World War, its roots set in 1916 when an airfield was built on the site then known as Wittering Heath. Stamford Airfield, as it was then designated, was to initially operate BE12 aircraft in the anti-Zeppelin role, acting in conjunction with their main force of 38 Squadron at Melton Mowbray. These aircraft would eventually, in turn, be replaced by BE2e, FE2b and FE2d aircraft. During this time a small detachment from 90 Sqn would also be stationed at Wittering, but their stay would be short, between August and September 1918 – they were also flying the FE2b.

AERIAL VIEWS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1941-1942

Wittering airfield taken early in the Second World War. The A1 road can be seen to the east of the airfield. © IWM (HU 91901)

As the war progressed, Stamford became the training ground for new recruits, forming No1. Training Depot Stamford whilst a short distance to the west a second station was established at Easton on the Hill, operating as No. 5 Training depot. These two sites operated only a stones throw apart but both totally independent of each other. Eventually with the formation of the Royal Air Force on April 1st 1918, Stamford would become RAF Wittering and Easton on the Hill – RAF Collyweston.

RAF Wittering had been born. It would go on to be one of the RAF’s most significant airfields operating in excess of 36 active flying squadrons. Some of these would be formed here, some disbanded and many pass through in transit to other sites around the country. The aircraft here would range from Royal Aircraft Factory Biplanes to Whirlwind HAR 10 Helicopters, Boulton Paul Defiants through Supermarine’s Spitfire to Hawker Hunters; Hawker Siddely Harriers, Vickers mighty Valiant and Handley Page’s ‘V’ bomber the Victor, would all operate from here during its long life.

Following cessation of the First World War, Wittering was placed under care and maintenance, looked after and cared for until 1926 when the Central Flying School moved in from their previous base at Upavon.

The post war years were turbulent times for the RAF, having not only to fight off Government cutbacks and spending caps, but the Government’s tendency to favour both the Navy and the Army in terms of a national defence force. Since the war’s end, over 23,000 officers, 21,000 cadets and 227,000 other ranks would be lost from the RAF’s service. The landing grounds that had been used to fight off Germany’s mighty Zeppelins, along with vast quantities of material and machinery, were disposed of at near give-away prices. The fact that any force  had been kept at all was down primarily to the determination and foresight of one Hugh Trenchard who would himself rise to the rank of  Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1927.

As global tensions grew in the 1920s and British interests abroad were put at risk, a review was called for of Britain’s defence forces. The review concluded that some 52 squadrons would be needed to provide a sustainable and strong Home Defence Force that would not only be capable of holding back any force that should take desires on Britain, but could also respond adequately by taking the fight to the enemy.

So in the mid 1920s the RAF’s expansion began.  The first four Auxiliary Air Force squadrons were formed along with the first of the University Air Squadrons (UAS). A combined Air Force Cadet College and flying training school was established at Cranwell along with the Air Force Staff College at Andover, – the fledgling Royal Air Force was making its first proper steps in the right direction.

Further tensions in the 1930’s brought home the need to develop and increase the Air Force. The not so subtle build up across the channel with increasing tensions in Germany, meant that she was rapidly becoming a major threat. Now woefully under manned, the Government poured money and manpower into improving the stature of the Royal Air Force.

With design and engineering pioneering the way in long distance flight, speed and manoeuvrability, new models of aircraft were being designed. Monoplanes were the way forward and with Britain winning the Schneider Trophy for the final time, the way ahead was set for aircraft capable of incredible speeds and performance.

With war looming, Wittering was about to come into its own receiving its first operational squadrons both 23 Sqn and 213 Sqn in May 1938. By the end of the following year, Wittering would be designated Sector Station of 12 Group whose responsibilities stretched from the boundaries of London in the south, to the Welsh border in the west, Liverpool and Hull in the north and the entire eastern counties.  Wittering units would be responsible for a wedge through the middle of this sector running from the North Sea coast to Wales.

In that same year, Spitfire Is of 610 Sqn Auxiliary Air Force joined the recently arrived Blenheim IFs and Hurricane Is before they headed south to Biggin Hill in support the BEF’s evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940.

Wittering was really too far north to be able to effectively participate in the either the Battle of Britain or the defence of London; fuel and journey times would have left her fighters at a disadvantage, so Wittering concentrated on both resting and reforming battle worn units from the south, and defending the industrial Midlands and the north.  Her units would become key in the night fighter role, protecting the eastern and North Sea routes from the Luftwaffe – a role in which her squadrons would learn and develop very quickly.

23 Squadron were key in this very role. Dispersing their Blenheims at Collyweston, they shared Wittering with Hurricanes of 32 and 229 sqn, Spitfires of 74 and 266 Sqn and Defiants detached from 264 Sqn. These fighter versions of the Blenheim benefited from the addition of a bolt-on underbelly gun-blister housing four .303 machine guns; but they lacked any technologically advanced radar or Airborne Intercept (AI) mechanisms and so relied heavily on visual identification, referred to in the ranks as ‘Eyeball Mark One’!

23 Squadron would fly a number of patrols from Wittering, intermixed with sections being detached to RAF Digby for night flying co-operation duties on a weekly rotation basis. Few of these night patrols proved to be fruitful however, and many enemy aircraft escaped simply because they could not be found in the dark skies.

To improve kill rates, carefully drawn up patrol lines were set up fanning outward from Wittering. Often, pilots would use distant searchlights as a guide to locating the enemy intruders, however, this had its dangers and some RAF crews were lost because they too found themselves illuminated in the dark night sky, only to become victim to the enemy or the over eager A-A crews below. One such incident occurred on the night of 18th June 1940 when Blenheim L1458 ‘YP-S’ crashed near RAF Sutton Bridge as a result of being shot down by a He111 from KG4 that it was attacking. In getting close to the Heinkel, the Blenheim was itself caught in the local searchlight and the Heinkel returned fire. The pilot Sergeant A.C. Close, died as a result of the crash whilst the air gunner, LAC L. R. Karasek bailed out at low-level and was taken to Sutton Bridge and treated for his injuries*1.

The autumn of 1940 saw further changes at Wittering. In August, 266 Squadron arrived using various models of Spitfire, whilst in September, 23 Squadron departed moving to RAF Ford. Then in came No. 1 Sqn, the oldest RAF squadron, with Hurricane MKIs. Battle hardened from the fall of France and a summer of fighting in the skies over Kent, they remained here until the end of the year before returning south in the defence of London once more.

It was around this time too that a detachment of Hurricanes from 151 Sqn would arrive from RAF Digby, a station Wittering worked very closely with. After a short period these were replaced by Defiant Is also participating in the night fighter role. One determined and perhaps aggressive pilot, Flt Lt Richard Payne Stevens DSO, DFC would bring an element of mythical mystery to the flight as the squadron moved through Hurricane IICs, Defiants IIs and onto Mosquito IIs before the now permanent squadron left for Colerne in April 1943.

Using nothing more than his remarkable night vision, he would become the greatest scoring night fight pilot during the Blitz, downing a total of 12 Luftwaffe bombers in his black Hurricane.

In November / December 1940, 25 squadron came in bringing with them the much improved, faster and better AI equipped Beaufighter IF. In addition, a single Beaufighter MKII was also deployed here purely for evaluation purposes. A rarer Merlin engined model, R2277, it was credited with the shooting down of  a Ju88 on the night of June 22nd 1941 when piloted by F.O. Michael Herrick and his radar operator F.O. Yeoman. It was later stuck off in June and remains the only Merlin powered model to enter the books of 25 Sqn*2.

AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BRISTOL TYPE 156 BEAUFIGHTER.

Similar to R2277, Beaufighter R2270 was the first Merlin powered prototype MK IIF, © IWM (MH 4560)

At the end of 1940 a new commander arrived, Group Captain Basil Embry, who disliked the Defiant as a night fighter and considered Wittering too poorly designed for a night fighter station. He set about devising a plan to join adjacent Collyweston and Wittering together to develop and create a single airfield with a new much longer hard runway to replace the grass ones used until now. The expansion was completed in record time, Embry by-passing the more conventional channels of procedure.

In July 1941, the Beaufighters of 25 Sqn were replaced by the Douglas (Boston) Havoc Mk Is, an aircraft they took to Ballyhalbert (Ireland) in the following January.

The summer of 1941 would also see another new experimental model arrive. In conjunction with operations at RAF Hunsdon, the rather ill-fated Turbinlite project was put into operation here. Elements of the 1451 Flight were formed into a new squadron designated 1453 Air Target Illumination Flight, a concept that involved bolting an enormous 800,000 watt lamp to the front of the aircraft. As these modified Havocs were now much heavier, they could not carry any weapons and so relied upon an escorting Hurricane, Defiant or Spitfire to shoot down the enemy once located by the massive 950 ft wide beam of light. On October 22nd 1941, 151 squadron carried out its first official Turbinlite operation.

Fighter command decided to establish 10 dedicated Turbinlite squadrons in total, numbered 530 sqn- 539 sqn, they all became operational on either the 2nd or 8th of September 1942. On the 2nd, 532 was formed at Wittering using a combination of 1453 Flight and Hurricanes from both 486 Squadron and various Operational Training Units (OTU). The rather poor performance and low success rate however, meant that all these units were disbanded in one fell swoop on January 25th 1943*3.

It was part way though these operations (April 1942) that 151, released from their restrictive Turbinlite operations, replaced their Defiant IIs with the new ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito NFII. Only the second squadron to use them, they were to prove a formidable weapons platform and a deadly night fighter. The night skies were now a prime hunting ground and partly as a result of the Mosquito successes, the number of Luftwaffe intrusions began to reduce.

The turn of 1942/3 wold see further changes at Wittering with many short stays by 118, 288 (on Detachment), 349, 141, 91 and 438 Sqn taking Wittering through the new year. 151 remained until April moving off to Colerne and new model Mosquitoes, 141 who replaced them brought more Beaufighters in the form of VIFs. With increased engine power, more fuel and a capacity for increased bomb loads, the VIFs had modified noses to accommodate the new AI radar. Now the hunters were taking the war to Germany and intruder missions began to take place.

During this time Wittering was also home to No 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight, utilising the former RAF Collyweston site which evaluated captured enemy aircraft. A remarkable unit they flew captured aircraft around the many bases of the RAF and USAAF for crews to examine.

As the war drew to a close, sorties began to get fewer and fewer, and operational flying at Wittering would all but stop. Other than the P-38s and latterly P-51s of the USAAF 55th Fighter squadron –  who had been sharing Wittering with their RAF counterparts – Wittering became operationally quiet.

Eventually the war ended and various units used Wittering for training and experimental work. Post war 1946, 23 Squadron was reformed here from the ashes of 219 Sqn, taking their Mosquito NF30 to Lubeck almost immediately. A range of squadrons using various piston-engined aircraft passed through Wittering and two reception centres were set up to receive incoming POWs from the continent. By the end of 1948 all aircraft had left , and it returned to its roots once more becoming the home of No. 1 Initial Training School, Flying Training Command.

In the early 1950s, Wittering was placed under care and maintenance whilst upgrading work was carried out to its runways. During August 1953 both Lincoln bombers and Canberras (B.2, B.6, PR7) would operate overseas from here – these included detachments at the infamous Christmas Island.

Further Canberras of both 76 and 40 Squadron would fly from Wittering and in 1955 Wittering entered the atomic age with the arrival of the Vickers Valiant. Operations using conventional bombs were seen during the Suez crisis in 1956, when Valiants from No 138 Sqn flew 24 missions against targets in Egypt. Two other squadrons would fly the enormous but less favoured ‘V’ bomber: 49 and 7 squadrons, and it would be 49 Squadron who would take Britain forward as a nuclear nation when in 1956 a Valiant B.1 dropped Atomic bombs on both the Maralinga Range (Central Australia) and in 1957 a total of 6 Hydrogen bombs over Malden Island. During this time the aircraft were operating as detachments from Wittering, again on Christmas Island in the Pacific.

RAF VALIANTS FOR CHRISTMAS ISLAND TESTS

Vickers Valiant bomber crews of No. 49 Squadron RAF about to leave RAF Wittering for Christmas Island in the Pacific to take part in Britain’s nuclear tests, March 1957. © IWM (C(AM) 2466)

With no decrease in the perceived threat from the Warsaw Pact, the  ‘V’ bomber force would continue from Wittering for a few more years . The Valiant being replaced by the Victor B.2 and later B.2Rs of 139 and 100 Squadron, who had themselves been disbanded in September 1959 to reform at Wittering in May 1962.

In December and September 1968 respectively both these squadrons were disbanded and Wittering would then enter the dawn of vertical take off and landing. A short stay by Westland Whirlwinds HAR.10s of 230 Squadron led to the arrival of probably one of the most famous aircraft in aviation – the Harrier.

In August / July 1969 No. 1 Squadron returned to Wittering, its first time since the 1940s. Wittering became famous as ‘The Home of the Harrier’ and its fame would spread far and wide. With combat success most famously in the Falklands campaign and later the Balkans, Serbia and Kosovo, it would go on to serve Wittering well flying the GR.1, GR.3, GR.5 and GR.7  before moving away to Cottesmore and disbandment in December 2010.

The only other units to fly from here (less any training squadrons) were 4 Squadron flying both the Hunter FGA.9 and Harrier GR.1, 45 Squadron and 58 Squadron both flying the Hunter FGA.9 until they were disbanded on the same day 26th July 1976.

With that flying ceased at Wittering, but it remained an active military base operating a number of logistics units including a wide range of logistical support organisations. It is also home to the RAF’s bomb disposal squadron 5131 (BD) Sqn.

Further reorganisation of flying training units has been Wittering’s saviour. Today 100 years after its inception, and after a 6 year gap, flying has finally returned to Wittering, with the re-introduction of flying training units from No.3 and 6 Flying Training Schools, relocating here from both RAF Wyton and RAF Cranwell.

It would seem that Wittering has gone full circle again, not once, but twice, with its history rooted deep in the First World War, it has always been one of the RAF’s most important airfields. It has trained aircrews, defending these shores against the night terrors of two World Wars, and its crews have defended us against invading forces both here and in British Territories far off. Wittering forces have provided a strong and powerful peace-keeping force across the globe and even today it plays a major part in support, training and defence against those who wish to cause harm to both British sovereignty and democracy.

Note: As a fully active military site, much of Wittering is understandably hidden behind high fences and trees. When passing along the main A1, the main gate, and some buildings are visible, but stopping is not permitted. There are other places to the rear of the airfield but views are limited and little can be gained from using them. Permission should be sought before approaching the site.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website
– Battle of Britain London Monument website
– Traces of World War 2 Website

*2 Goodrum, A, “No Place for Chivalry” Grubb Street, 2005

*3 Mosquito W4087 flew as Turbinlite aircraft at Wittering February 5th 1943 – Source: Jefford, C.G.RAF Squadrons – 2nd Edition“, Airlife, 2001

MOD UK – Website