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

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

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

RAF Barkston Heath (Station 483).

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

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

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

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

RAF Barkston Heath

Barkston Heath Watch Office.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Barkston Heath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and Further Reading.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Wethersfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Wethersfield

Cold War Shelters located on the original hardstands.

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

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

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

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

RAF Wethersfield

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

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

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

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

Sources and further Reading.

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

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

Spanhoe Airfield – into the Jaws of Death

RAF Spanhoe (Station 493)

With the BEF evacuation at Dunkirk, some thought that the war was over and that the mighty Nazi war machine was undefeatable. Poised on the edge France, a mere 20 or so miles from the English coast, the armies of the Wehrmacht were waiting ready to pounce and invade England. For Britain though, the defences came up and the determination to defeat this evil regime grew even stronger.

Defeat in the air during the Battle of Britain reversed the fortunes of Germany. Then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in the Pacific, which led to the United States joining the war, set the scene for a new and vigorous joint front that would lead to the eventual invasion of occupied Europe, and ultimately the freedom for those held in the grip of the Nazi tyranny.

Plans for the invasion were never far from the thoughts of those in power – even in the darkest hours of both Dunkirk and the Battle for the British homeland. To complete this enormous task, an operation of unprecedented size and complexity would be needed. Vehicles, troops and supplies would all needed to be ferried across the English Channel, a massive air armada would have to fly thousands of young men to the continent. To succeed in this auspicious and daring operation, a number of both training and operational airfields would need to be built, and in 1943 Spanhoe was born.

Known originally as RAF Wakerley (and also referred to as Harringworth or Spanhoe Lodge) it was handed over to the U.S.A.A.F. and designated Station 493.

RAF Spanhoe Lodge

Remaining buildings on the Technical site at Spanhoe Lodge.

Located in the county of Northamptonshire, it would be a huge site with three concrete runways, the longest of which was 6000 ft. Two smaller intersecting runways were of 4,200 ft and all three were a huge 150 ft wide. A total of 50 spectacle hardstands were spread around the perimeter track whilst the tower, built to a 1941 design (12779/41), was located to the south of the airfield between the technical area and main airfield. Such was the design of the airfield, that the tower was located a good distance away from the main runway to the north. The technical area included a small number of Quonset huts, temporary brick-built buildings and two T2 hangars. Instructional and training buildings included a Synthetic Navigation Classroom (2075/43) designed with the most up-to-date projection and synthetic training instruments possible. These buildings were made more distinct by the two glazed astrodomes located at one end of the building which could be used on nights when stars were visible.

As Spanhoe was originally built as a bomber station, a bomb and pyrotechnic store was built on the eastern side of the airfield with three huge fuel stores, one to the north and two others to the west, all capable of holding 72,000 gallons of aviation fuel each.

Accommodation for the crews and ground staff was widely spread to the south amongst the local woods and fields, and consisted of numerous cold Quonset huts – but for the residents, Spanhoe was considered nothing special to write home about.

The first U.S. units to arrive were the Troop Carriers the of the 315th Troop Carrier Group (TCG), whose journey from the United States was not as straightforward as most.

Whilst on their way over the north Atlantic route, they were hit by bad weather and had to be diverted to Greenland. Here they stayed for over a month scouring the seas for downed aircraft and dropping supplies to the crews before they were rescued.

Eventually the 315th made England and began a series of training operations. A small detachment were sent to Algiers to assist in the dropping of supplies to troops in the Sicily and Italy campaigns before returning to the main squadron in the U.K. The 315th arrived at Spanhoe on 7th February 1944 now part of the Ninth Air Force,  IX Troop Carrier Command, 52nd Troop Carrier Wing. They operated two versions of the adapted Douglas DC-3; the C-47 Skytrain and the C-53 Skytrooper transport aircraft. Four Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) would use Spanhoe: the 34th, 43rd, 309th and 310th, and would all operate purely as paratroop carriers.

C-47 Skytrains of the 315th Troop Carrier Group in flight. Handwritten caption on reverse: 'C-47 Skytrain. 315 TCG over Lincolnshire. C-47 before 1944.'Image actually shows Harringworth Viaduct. RAF Spanhoe, the home field of the two Aircraft, is slightly out of shot to the left, making this right on the border of Rutland & Northamptonshire.

C-47 Skytrains of the 315th Troop Carrier Group in flight. over the Harringworth Viaduct. RAF Spanhoe, the home of the two Aircraft is just out of shot. (IWM – FRE 3396)

For the next few months they would train in preparation for the forthcoming D-day landings in which they would rehearse both formation flying at night and night paratroop drops with the 82nd Airborne; the unit the 315th would take to drop zones behind enemy lines in Normandy. These preparations were relentless, and not without casualties. The 315th were considered as one of the ‘weaker’ elements of the air invasion force, and would carry out drops nightly until the paratroops had completed their full quota of jumps and all were finally classed as ‘proficient’. The majority of these jumps were however, carried out in clear weather, a point that had not been factored into the final decision.

Flying at night would, unsurprisingly, claim  lives and this was brought home when on the night of May 11th-12th, two aircraft from the 315th’s sister group the 316th, collided during combined operations, killing fourteen airmen.

Even with all this training and a very high aircraft maintenance programme, there were many factors that could affect the outcome of operations. Some 40% of crews had only recently arrived before operations, and thus were not a party to a large part of the training missions.  Of the 924 crews that were designated for the operations, 20% had only had minimal training and 75% had never actually been under fire. The airborne crews were not well prepared.

On the third day of June the order came through to paint invasion stripes on the aircraft. These three white and two black stripes, each two feet wide, were designed to enable the recognition of allied aircraft who were sworn to radio silence over the invasion zones. D-Day was now imminent.

The 52nd’s mission would involve all the other groups of the Wing, taking aircraft from: Barkston Heath (61st TCG), Folkingham (313th TCG) Saltby (314th TCG) and Cottesmore (316th TCG) as well as eleven other paratroop and glider-towing units of the U.S. Ninth Air Force and fifteen RAF Squadrons – it was going to be an incredible sight.

315th C-47 landing at Spanhoe. On the ground can be seen the 315th’s C-109 (converted B-24) tanker . (Knight Collection)

Forty-eight aircraft took off from Spanhoe and formed up with the other Groups at checkpoint ‘ATLANTA’, they continued on toward Bristol turning south at checkpoint ‘CLEVELAND’ . They flew crossed the south coast at Portland and headed out toward Guernsey. The route would then take them north of the island where the 52nd would turn east and head over the Cherbourg Peninsula. They would drop their load of heavily laden paratroops south of Utah beach to capture the important town of St. Mere-Eglise. A ten-mile wide corridor would be filled with aircraft and gliders.

Over the drop zone the aircraft encountered cloud and heavy flak. Whilst a quarter received damage, all but one were able to return to England, the last being lost over the drop zone. For their efforts that night, the 315th TCG was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, the only one they would receive during the war.

After D-day, units of the 315th continued to drop supplies to the advancing troops, a default role they carried out for much of the war.

Tragedy was to rear its ugly head again and strike down Spanhoe crews. In July 1944, 369 Polish paratroopers arrived for training as part of Operation ‘Burden’. This involved thirty-three C-47s of the 309th TCS, fully loaded flying in formation at around 1,300 ft. The aim of the flight was to drop the Polish Paratroops at a drop zone (DZ) over R.A.F. Wittering.

RAF Spanhoe Lodge

One of the few overgrown buildings at the entrance to Spanhoe Lodge.

Shortly before arriving at the DZ near to the Village of Tinwell, two aircraft made deadly contact and both plummeted to the ground. Twenty-six paratroops and eight crewmen were killed that day, the only survivor was Corporal Thomas Chambers who jumped from an open door. Eyewitness accounts tell of “soil soaked in aviation fuel”, and bodies strapped to part open parachutes as many tried to jump as the aircraft fell. This tragic accident was a devastating blow to the Polish troops especially as they had not yet been able to prove themselves in combat and one that ultimately led to the disbandment of the section and reabsorption into other units.*1

The 315th’s next major combat mission would be ‘Market Garden‘ on September 17th, 1944, another event that led to many tragedies. On the initial day, ninety aircraft left Spanhoe with 354 Paratroops of the U.S. 82nd Airborne, the following day another fifty-four aircraft took British paratroops and then on the third day they were to take Polish troops. However, bad weather continually caused the cancellation of the Polish operations and even with attempts at take-offs, it wasn’t to be. Finally on September 23rd good skies returned and operations could once more be carried out. During all this time, the Polish troops were loaded and unloaded, stores under the wings of the C-47s were added and then removed, it became so frustrating that one Polish paratrooper, unable to cope with the stress and anticipation of operations, fatally shot himself.

Later that month, another plan was hatched to resupply the beleaguered troops in Holland. The idea was to land large numbers of C-47s on different airfields close to Nijmegen. Not sure if they had been secured, or even taken, the daring mission went ahead. Escorting fighters and ground attack aircraft neutralised anti-aircraft positions around the airfields allowing hundreds of C-47s to land, deposit their supplies and take off again, in a mission that took over six hours to complete. In total: jeeps, trailers, motorcycles, fuel, ammunition, rations and 882 new troops were all delivered safely without the loss of a single transport aircraft – a remarkable feat.

Further supplies were dropped to troops during both the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity – the crossing of the Rhine – in March 1945. During this operation, the 315th would drop more British paratroopers near Wesel, Germany, a mission that would cost 19 aircraft with a further 36 badly damaged.

By now the Allies were in Germany and the Troop Carrier units were able to move to France leaving their U.K. bases behind. This departure signalled the operational end for Spanhoe and all military flying at the airfield would now cease.

Two months later the 253rd Maintenance Unit arrived and prepared Spanhoe for the receiving of thousands of military vehicles that would soon be arriving from the continent. Now surplus to requirements, they would either be scrapped or sold off, Spanhoe became a huge car park and at its height, would accommodate 17,500 vehicles. For the next two years trucks, trailers and jeeps of all shapes and sizes would pass through, until in 1947 the unit left and the site was closed for good and eventually sold off.

This was not the end for Spanhoe though. Aviation and controversy would return again for a fleeting moment on August 12th 1960, with the crash of Vickers Valiant BK1 ‘XD864’ of 7 Squadron RAF. The aircraft, piloted by Flt. Lt. Brian Wickham, took off from its base at nearby RAF Wittering, turned and crashed on Spanhoe airfield just three minutes after take off. The official board of enquiry concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error and that Flt. Lt. Wickham, was guilty of “blameworthy negligence”. The Boards findings were investigated by an independent body who successfully identified major flaws in both the analysis and the Boards subsequent findings.  Sadly no review of the accident or the Boards decision has ever taken place since.

Spanhoe Lodge

Spanhoe was the home of the 315th Troop Carrier Group, part of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing, Ninth Air Force.

Spanhoe was then turned into a limestone quarry by new owners, the runways and the majority of the perimeter track was dug up and the substrate was removed. The majority of the buildings were demolished but a few were left and now survive as small industrial units involved in, amongst other things, aircraft maintenance and preservation work. A private flying club has also started up and small light aircraft now use what remains of the southern section of the perimeter track and technical area.

The main entrance to the airfield is no longer grand, and in no way reflects the events that once took place here. From this point you can see some of the original technical buildings and hidden behind the thicket, what was possibly a picket post. A footpath though the nearby woods allows access to the remains of eastern end of the main runway and perimeter track, other than this little is accessible without permission.

Outside the main entrance are two memorials consisting of a modern board detailing the group and squadron codes, and a stone obelisk listing the names of those crew members who failed to come home. Both are well cared for if not a little weathered.

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Spanhoe Lodge memorial

Spanhoe leaves a legacy, for both good reasons and bad. The crews that left here taking hundreds of young men into the jaws of death showed great bravery and skill. Determination to be the best and perform at the limits were driving factors behind their successes. Relentless training led to the deaths of many who had never even seen combat, and the scars of these events linger in what remains of the airfield today. Thankfully for the time being, the spirit of aviation lives on, and Spanhoe clings to the edge, each last gasp of breath a reminder of those brave men who flew defenceless in those daring and dangerous missions over occupied Europe.

On leaving Spanhoe, return to the main road, keeping the airfield to your left, join the A43, and then turn right and then immediately left. Follow signs to Oundle and Kings Cliffe and our next destination, the former airfield at Kings Cliffe, an airfield with its own modern controversies.

Spanhoe features as part of Trail 6, ‘American Ghosts’.

Sources and Further Reading

*1 A list of those killed in the Tinwell Crash can be found via this Dutch website for Polish War Graves.

The 315th TCG has a detailed website with regular newsletters and photographs.