RAF Leeming – The Great North Road (Pt 3).

In the next part of this trail, Leeming enters the jet age, its future still in the balance as many of Britain’s airfields are closed and sold off. But with new aircraft coming on line and a new threat looming from the east, Leeming survives and takes on a new role.

The end of World War 2 saw a Europe devastated by war. The Eastern countries liberated by the Russians had survived the tyranny of the Nazi regime, only to be embroiled in Communist hardship and doctrines. A new threat was emerging as mistrust grew between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Allies. A new Europe would emerge hanging delicately by a fine thread of peace: the Cold War was approaching.

Immediately though, there was little need for many of Britain’s extensive range of wartime airfields, and many were either put in to ‘Care and Maintenance’, sold off or simply closed and left to decay. But this new threat would see some of Britain’s wartime airfields remain open, some turning into missile bases, and some continuing in the air defence or strategic bombing role. For Leeming, this was perhaps, its saviour.

Within a month of the Canadian’s departure, a new unit would arrive at Leeming, not a front line fighter squadron nor a heavy bomber squadron, but a training unit, 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.), which had been operational throughout the war. Flying a range of aircraft types, they were a far cry from the heavies that had preceded them over the last two years or so.

Their arrival in June was heralded by the ferrying in of a number of aircraft types, ranging from Tiger Moths to  Martinets and Wellingtons. Fighters such as the Tempest and Mosquito were also brought in during these early days of post war Leeming. The purpose of 54 O.T.U. was as a night fighter training unit, using ‘modern’ radar sets whose development had started during the war.

But years of neglect and a lack of funding, had meant that many of Britain’s airfields – to which Leeming was no exception – were in a poor state of repair, and much work was urgently needed to bring them up to a good standard. Over the next year or so, major repairs would be carried out. As a priority, the wartime accommodation buildings and now outdated water system were targeted first. Help in doing this was enlisted from German P.O.W.s who were yet to be repatriated, billeting them in the former accommodation blocks within the airfield grounds.

The immediate post war era saw a massive demobbing of forces personnel, this led to a  decline in service manpower, a move that resulted in the 1949 National Service Act. As a result of this act, adults between 17 and 21, were required, by law, to perform 18 months National Service.  This draft led to an influx of untrained personnel, who were brought in to fill gaps in important trades, but short service lengths meant the training was inadequate for many, and so a number of unskilled or poorly skilled personnel were placed in prime engineering positions. This lack of skilled personnel may well have contributed to a number of the many minor and major mishaps that occurred in the R.A.F. in the immediate years following the war.

Training new pilots was a risky business in these post war days, and on November 8th 1946, Pilot – Sqn. Ldr. Noel Dan Halifax R.A.F. (s/n: 33404), and his navigator F.O. Roy Edward Chater R.A.F.V.R. (s/n: 194286) were both killed whilst undertaking a training flight out of Leeming airfield. Chater was one of many young men who had come from the Emanuel College, Cambridge and was 21 years of age at the time of his death*6; his pilot was 27.

On that fateful day, the Mosquito, an NF30  serial number ‘NT266’, departed Leeming  in the late morning on a cross country training flight. Part of this flight took the Mosquito across the moors to the east of Leeming airfield. Whilst over the moors, the aircraft entered thick cloud which may have caused ice to form on the wings and / or control surfaces of the aircraft. The pilot, whilst a veteran of the Second World War and a Colditz inmate, had been in a P.O.W. camp for many years and was possibly inexperienced in both the aircraft type, and the weather conditions in which they were flying. After entering the cloud, the aircraft was then seen by a local farmer to dive in to the ground at Pockley Moor – killing both crewmen outright – the aircraft digging itself into the soft Moorland, where parts of it remain today. The Mosquito, a Leavesden aircraft built under contract 1/576 had only been at Leeming since the July, and was struck off charge as a result of the crash.

On May 1st the following year (1947), following the disbandment and subsequent merging of 54 O.T.U. with 13 O.T.U., a new unit, 228 Operational Conversion Unit (O.C.U.) was formed at Leeming. Flying a mix of piston engined and jet aircraft, it would eventually disband in 1961 before being reformed at Leuchars in Scotland in 1965.

One of the many types operated by the O.C.U. included the Meteor NF.36, a night fighter version of the Meteor that would be fitted with American built radar units. A delay  in supply of these models though meant that their presence would be limited, resulting in the reintroduction of the MK.XXX – a previous version of the aircraft. With a mix of aircraft types and a new influx of engineers, Leeming would soon see a return of the problems experienced by the Canadians only months before during the war.

Specialist tooling, experience in different aircraft and new parts were all once again in short supply, and in early 1948, this combination may well have led to the loss of a second Mosquito along with its pilot. In fact, as the 1940s drew to their close, pilot error and engine problems were commonly recorded as the causes of such accidents.

The O.C.U. would provide the opportunity for crews to convert from one aircraft type to another. The rise in tension in the Middle East (of which my father was to be a part of) saw the introduction firstly of the Brigand conversion course, and later the Mosquito light bomber course. These were then joined by both the Beaufighter and Meteor 7 courses. But these courses were dogged by delays, primarily due to the high number of unserviceable aircraft, created as a result of these aforementioned issues.

The early 1950s saw further changes to the R.A.F.’s training programmes, as squadrons were disbanded crews were posted elsewhere, and the aircraft they had been operating were moved about or scrapped. With much of this occurring at Leeming, the airfield would become a hive of activity. The silver lining on this rather dark cloud though, meant that the older outdated piston engines were disposed of, and more jets were brought in. The R.A.F.’s modernisation could at last perhaps begin.

RAF Leeming

A mix of old and new at Leeming.

On August 13th 1951, one of the most tragic of post war accidents was to happen to two Leeming aircraft – a Wellington and a Martinet both operated by 228 O.C.U. 

The two aircraft were carrying out air interception flights, the Wellington being used to train aircrew in the use of the interception radar, and the Martinet playing the part of the ‘target’. This was seen as an opportunity to give good experience to a group of Air Cadets who were visiting Leeming, both to see how these flights were carried out, and to give them experience in flying – it was meant to be a joyful day, but it sadly turned very sour with no warning.

With Cadets taking turns in each type, the two aircraft departed Leeming, and headed out over the Yorkshire countryside, the Martinet hiding amongst the cloud whilst the Wellington tried to track it.

The MK.XVIII Wellington (PG367) was flying over Husdwell in North Yorkshire with a crew of seven on  board that included one Air Cadet. The Martinet had a crew of two, again one was an Air Cadet gaining flying experience in the aircraft.

All of a sudden, the Martinet appeared of of the clouds colliding with the Wellington who had ironically failed to see him. The two aircraft struck each other, the collision causing the Martinet to immediately fall groundward killing instantly both the Cadet and the pilot. The Wellington meanwhile began to spin and break apart. The tail section, holding the parachutes, broke away leaving the crew stranded in the main fuselage. An experienced member of the crew, Ft. Lt John Alan Quinton (R.A.F.) G.C., D.F.C. managed to locate one parachute, strapped it onto the young cadet before he either fell, or was pushed  out, through the hole left by the now missing tail. 

With no further means of escape, the crew could do nothing but await their fate, one that came within moments and with the inevitable fatal consequences.

Of the nine people on board the two aircraft that day, only one, the cadet, sixteen year old Derek Coates A.T.C., survived, the remaining eight all being killed when the two aircraft hit the ground.

As a result of his actions, Flt. Lt. Quinton was awarded the George Cross posthumously, details being published in the London Gazette on 23rd October 1951:*8

CENTRAL CHANCERY OF THE ORDERS OF KNIGHTHOOD.
St. James’s Palace, S.W.I.
23rd October. 1951.

The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the posthumous award of the GEORGE CROSS to: —

Flight Lieutenant John Alan QUINTON, D.F.C. (115714), Royal Air Force, No. 228  Operational Conversion Unit.

On August the 13th, 1951, Flight Lieutenant Quinton was a Navigator under instruction in a Wellington aircraft which was involved in a midair collision. The sole survivor from the crash was an Air Training Corps Cadet who was a passenger in the aircraft, and he has established the fact that his life was saved by a supreme act of gallantry displayed by Flight Lieutenant Quinton, who in consequence sacrificed his own life. Both Flight Lieutenant Quinton and the cadet were in the rear compartment of the aircraft when the collision occurred. The force of the impact caused the aircraft to break up, and as it was plunging towards the earth out of control, Flight Lieutenant Quinton picked up the only parachute within reach, and clipped it on to the cadet’s harness. He pointed to the rip cord and a gaping hole in the aircraft, thereby indicating that the cadet should jump. At that moment a further portion of the aircraft was torn away and the cadet was flung through the side of the aircraft clutching his rip cord, which he subsequently pulled and landed safely. Flight Lieutenant Quinton acted with superhuman speed, displaying the most commendable courage and self-sacrifice as he well knew that in giving up the only parachute within reach, he was forfeiting any chance of saving his own life. Such an act of heroism and humanity ranks with the very highest traditions of the Royal Air Force, besides establishing him as a very gallant and courageous officer who, by his action, displayed the most conspicuous heroism.

Since then, a memorial has been dedicated to those who died, so their names may live on and so that the tragic accident may never be forgotten.

It was during this early part of the 1950s, that it was decided to upgrade Leeming to accept more jets, a new perimeter track and an extension to the runway was needed, better radio networks and accommodation blocks were required. Work began over the winter of 1951/52 which caused major disruption for those stationed at the base; so to allow flying to continue, it was decided to transfer the O.C.U. to RAF Coltishall. To add insult to injury, the snow and bad weather of 1951/52 further delayed the transfer of the O.C.U., the process not being completed until February at the earliest. By the summer though, work was almost completed and the O.C.U. returned now having in excess of 40 Meteors on its books. Leeming had now properly entered the jet age.

The increase in world tensions and improvements to the Air Force’s readiness, saw many reviews of the training programmes. Leeming’s wing was divided into three squadrons, each one focusing on a different aspect of flying training. Students would pass though each section before being allocated to an operational unit.

During the mid 50’s yet more work was carried at Leeming, including resurfacing of runways, a new airfield lighting system and further extensions to the accommodation areas. A new Vampire also emerged, the T.II, and new a Meteor, the NF.12.

1956 would see the jet age take a step further, with more new models arriving at Leeming destined for the O.C.U., that of Gloster’s Delta winged Javelin F.A.W.5.  To deal with the lack of trained crews required by the increase in numbers of squadrons waiting to transfer over to the Javelin, a ground training section was created within 228 O.C.U. – that of the Javelin Mobile Training Unit (J.M.T.U.) in early 1957.

Set up using simulators and radar equipment in caravans, a flying classroom was provided in one of two Vickers Valletas, a twin engined aircraft used to replace the Dakotas used in wartime. Gradually over time, a dedicated trainer version of the Javelin was brought in, the T.3, which meant that by 1959, the J.M.T.U. was no longer required, and it was disbanded.

The Javelin’s ingress into squadron life was slow,  until the September of 1957, when 33 Squadron (reformed following the disbandment of 264 Sqn) arrived at Leeming. Initially bringing more Meteors, they transitioned over to the Javelin F.A.W. 7 in the summer of the following year. Based on a design requirement F.44/46 for a twin-seat all weather / night fighter, the Javelin was developed into over ten different marks before its production was finally curtailed.

33 Sqn would not stay long though, apart from a short revisit it departed Leeming a year later, moving to Middleton St. George, now Durham Tees Valley Airport.

The transference to the Javelin was now happening in earnest, and with so many front line squadrons converting to the Javelin, it was imperative that training was increased. However, politics would play their part in the downfall of 228 O.C.U. and its eventual, but temporary, demise. With somewhere in the region of over eighty aircraft operated by the squadron, Duncan Sandy’s 1957 Defence White Paper would see RAF units cut back once more as numbers were reduced in light of perceived changes in the style and nature of any future nuclear war. The O.C.U. was therefore, disbanded in 1962 after it had moved to Middleton St George, its role ceasing after many years of active and all but unbroken duty since 1929.

The White Paper of 1957 is often considered as one of aviation’s greatest scythes cutting five major aircraft projects and two engine development programmes.  The first of these, the Avro 730 was followed by, the Saunders-Roe SR.177, the Short Seamew (a small lightweight anti-submarine aircraft), the Fairey Delta 3 Long Range Interceptor and the The Hawker P.1121. The Lightning was also hit hard but survived the cull to fill the gap between manned interceptors and ground to air missiles. Whilst cancelling these projects others did survive, the thin Wing Javelin (cancelled post White paper), the Hunter, and of course the Harrier, a remarkable leap in aviation*9.

A number of visiting units stopped by at Leeming during this turbulent time of the late 1950s / early 1960s. This brought a lot of aircraft and a lot of personnel, which Leeming, as an already cramped base, could not ideally hold. But the extensive range of aircraft must have made for excellent viewing for those interested in aviation.

Following the departure of 228 O.C.U., Leeming would immediately be occupied by another unit. The arrival of No. 3 Flying Training School (F.T.S.), under the control of 23 Group Flying Training Command.

In the last part of this trail, we see how Leeming became a front line operational station, giving up the training role to accommodate the R.A.F.’s modern front line fighter of the time the Tornado.

The full Trail can be seen in Trail 57.

A New Memorial to Honour Those Who Never Came Home.

RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, was home to 6 squadrons during the Second World War: 214, 218, 571, 608, 623 and 635 along with a number of other non-flying units. It was also home to a number of aircraft types, Short’s enormous Stirling, the famous Lancaster and of course de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito of the RAF’s Pathfinder force.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts still left on the airfield.

It was also the airfield that launched the last bombing mission by an RAF aircraft, a Mosquito, on May 2nd 1945, to attack retreating German forces at the Kiel canal.

Considering the strong links it has with the RAF and Bomber Command, it has never been given a fitting memorial, but maybe finally, this is about to change.

A proposal has been put forward to erect a grand memorial on a site next to where one of the former accommodation sites once stood. It will honour not only those who flew from Downham Market and never returned, but those who served and were stationed here as well.

It is hoped that the new memorial will consist of seven polished, black granite slabs with each name of the 700 crewmen who lost their lives, carved into it, in the order in which they were lost. It is hoped to raise £250,000 to cover the cost of the structure which will be grand in scale and stand next to the main A10, a road that was made using the runways for its hardcore.

Currently the only reminder of their sacrifice is a small memorial outside of Bexwell church. It is a small memorial telling the stories of the two heroic crew members, Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron and Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, two pilots who both received the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market, for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

Today whilst none of the runways or perimeter tracks exist, a number of the original buildings are still present, used by small businesses and light industry. Recently however, a  £170m regeneration plan was announced, one that may signify the end of these buildings and Downham Market airfield for good (see here).

RAF Downham Market and especially the many crew members, who came from all across the Commonwealth, deserve great recognition for the work they did. Perhaps this, is finally a sign that it may now happen.

The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. 

RAF Downham Market appears on Trail 7 – North West Norfolk. 

 

A Happy New Year!

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

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

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

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

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

It has been a most humbling experience.

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

A pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley deserves much greater recognition.

In Trail 29 we turn south and head to the southern end of Cambridgeshire. This area is rich in fighter stations, both RAF and USAAF. Home to Duxford and Bader’s ‘Big Wing’, Mustangs, Spitfires and Hurricanes once, and on many occasions still do, grace the blue skies of this historical part of the country.

We start off though not at a fighter station but one belonging to those other true professionals, the Pathfinders of No 8 Group, RAF and former RAF Graveley,

RAF Graveley

Graveley sits to the south of Huntingdon, a few miles east of St. Neots. It takes its name from the village that lays close by to its eastern side. It would see a range of changes, upgrades and improvements and be home to many different residents during  its wartime life.

Built as a satellite for nearby RAF Tempsford, Graveley opened in March 1942 with 161 (Special Duty) Squadron. Their role was to drop SOE agents in occupied France, a role 161 would undertake throughout its operational life. Equipped with Lysander IIIA, Hudson MkI and Whitley Vs, they were somewhat dwarfed by the enormity of Graveley airfield. Within a month of arriving however, they would leave and move away to their new permanent base at RAF Tempsford, leaving the open expanse of Graveley behind.

Built as a standard ‘A’ class airfield for 8 Group, Graveley would have three concrete runways, the main laying E-W, initially of 1,600 yds long; the second, NW-SE of  1,320 yds and the last laying NE-SW 1,307 yds. Later these would be lengthened to 2,000, 1,420 and 1,407 yards respectively as improvements and upgrades would take place. Accommodation was spread around the north side of the airfield, across the main Offord to Graveley road. These were spread over nine accommodation sites, incorporating a separate communal and sick quarters. Graveley could accommodate up to 2,600 personnel which included 299 WAAFs. As with all sites, the bomb store was well away from the accommodation to the south-west, partially enclosed by the three runways. The 50 foot perimeter track linked the runaways with 36 pan style hardstands (after the extension three of these were replaced by loops). The main technical site lay to the north-west, where two of the three T-2 hangars were located, the other being to the south-east next to a B-1.

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RAF Graveley (author unknown)

Graveley lay operationally dormant following the immediate departure of 161 Sqn in April 1942. However, in May’s ‘1000’ bomber raid, aircraft from 26 OTU flew from Graveley as part of the massive operation. Four Wellingtons (all Mk Ic) failed to return; WS704, DV740, DV707 and DV709 were lost during the night of May 30th/31st – a reality check for those at this quiet Cambridgeshire base.

As Bomber Command developed the new Pathfinder Force (PFF) Graveley would find itself a major player. Its first residents, of the new 8 Group, were 35 Sqn (RAF) with Halifax IIs. These would be upgraded to MK IIIs in the following October and Lancaster I and IIIs a year later. Arriving on August 15th 1942, they would have their first mission from here just three days later. On the night of 18th/19th August, a total of 31 PFF aircraft left to mark the target at Flensburg. Poor weather and strong winds prevented accurate marking and two Danish towns were accidentally bombed as a result. A rather disastrous start for 35 Sqn.

Another blow was to fall 35 Sqn later that same year. On the night of 19th September 1942, the experienced Wing Commander J.H. Marks was lost when his Halifax II (W7657) ‘TL-L’  crashed at Blesme near Saarbrucken with the loss of three crew members. (This same identification was given to Halifax HR928 which also crashed with the loss of its crew see photo below).

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Graveley village sign depicts its aviation heritage.

A number of other experienced crews were to be lost from Graveley over the next few months. But all news was not bad. The night of 18th/19th November saw a remarkable turn of fortune. Halifax DT488 (TL-S) piloted by Wing Commander B.V. Robinson, caught fire when flares in the bomb bay ignited. He ordered the crew to bail out, but as the last man left the fire extinguished itself. Robinson decided to try to nurse the bomber home. Flying single-handed, he reached the safety of RAF Colerne, Wiltshire, where he survived a crash landing. The six crew members who had bailed out also survived but were captured and taken prisoner by the Germans.  As a result of his actions, Robinson was awarded a Bar to add to his DSO.

Robinson would have a second lucky escape later on, after which, in May 1943, he would become the Station Commander of his home base at Graveley.

35 Sqn would carry out a number of missions marking and attacking strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany. By the end of 1942 the new H2S system was being introduced and a small number of 35 Sqn aircraft were fitted with the units. Missions were on the whole successful even after the Germans developed a device able to track aircraft using it; eventually the whole of the PFF were fitted with HS2.

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Halifax Mark II Series 1A, HR928 ‘TL-L’, 35 Sqn RAF being flown by Sqn Ldr A P Cranswick, an outstanding Pathfinder pilot who was killed on the night of 4/5 July 1944 on his 107th mission. The Cranswick coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.(IWM)*1

In early 1943, Graveley was to become the first base to use ‘FIDO’ the Fog Dispersion system, which led to a number of successful, poor weather landings. This in turn led to 15 other operational airfields being fitted with the facility, a  major step forward in allowing Bomber Command to fly in poor weather.

A number of major operations were undertaken by 35 Sqn over the coming months, and the loss of Group Captain Robinson on the night of 23rd/24th August 1943 in a Halifax II (HR928) ‘TL-R’, brought a further blow to the base. Following this, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris restricted flying operations by base Commanders as the number being lost was becoming unsustainable.

The new year brought new changes to Graveley. Mosquito B.IVs arrived with a newly formed 692 squadron (RAF). Their first mission would be on the night of February 1st/2nd 1944 in which a single aircraft would attack Berlin.

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Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb into a Mosquito. The Mosquitos were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. The tower can be seen behind. (IWM)*2

Some of these 692 Sqn Mosquitos were later modified to carry the enormous 4,000 lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, This was first used by S/Ldr. Watts in Mosquito DZ647 who took off at 20.45 hours to attack Düsseldorf. The attack took place on  the night of 23rd/24th February 1944 from a height of 25,000 feet. The initial bomb was followed by two further bombs from Mosquitos of the same squadron, DZ534 and DZ637.

The first casualties for 692 Sqn were reported only three days earlier, on the night of 19th/20th February, which also proved to be the worst night of Bomber Command casualties in the war so far. Mosquito DZ612 ‘P3-N’ flown by F/L W Thomas (DFC) and F/L J Munby (DFC) took off at 01:05 to attack Berlin. The aircraft was shot down and both crew members killed.

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Mosquito B Mark XVIs of No. 692 Squadron RAF (PF392 ‘P3-R’ nearest), lined up at Graveley. (IWM)*3

In early April 1944, a small detachment of 571 Sqn Mosquitos (RAF Downham Market – Trail 7) joined 692 passing through on their way to RAF Oakington and then Warboys where they were eventually disbanded. An event not un-typical for Graveley.

692 would have another claim to fame a year later on January 1st 1945. In an attempt to assist in the Ardennes offensive they attacked supply lines through a tunnel, requiring the bomb to be dropped into the mouth of the tunnel where it would explode. These attacks were carried out between 100 and 250 feet using the ‘Cookies’ and were so successful that smoke was seen bellowing from the other end of the tunnel.

The final 692 Sqn mission would be on the night of May 2nd/3rd 1945, and consisted of 23 aircraft in 2 waves of 12 and 11 aircraft against Kiel; all crews would return safely.

692 Squadron RAF, would operate a variety of Mosquito types during its life the B.IV, XIV and XVI and would prove to be highly successful and instrumental in 8 Group’s ‘Light Night Striking Force’.

35 Sqn RAF would go on to have a long and established career, as late as 1982. 692 Sqn on the other hand would move to Gransden Lodge in June 1945 where they were finally disbanded; a sad end to a remarkable career. Many highly regarded crew members were lost in operations from Graveley. including Sqn. Ldr. R. Fitzgerald and Wing Commander A. Cranswick. Graveley would have a high record of prestige loses such was the nature of the PFF.

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The remaining buildings utilised by the farm, which no longer resembles the Control Tower it was.

Other units to grace the skies over Graveley would include detachments of 97, 115 and 227  Sqns all with Lancaster I and IIIs, many prior to disbandment toward the war’s end.

692 Squadron carried out 310 operations from Graveley losing 17 Mosquitos in all. A  total of 150 aircraft were registered either missing or crashed following operations from this station: 83 Halifaxes, 32 Lancasters and 35 Mosquitos.

As one of the many pathfinder stations in this part of the country, Graveley is linked by the long ‘Pathfinder Walk’ that leads all the way to RAF Warboys in the north (Trail 17). Using this walk allows you to visit a number of pathfinder bases linking each one by open cross-country footpaths.

Today, Graveley is all but gone. The control tower is now very well disguised as a farm-house, its shape considerably different to the  original design, the concrete huts have been pulled down and the runways mainly dug-up. A couple of buildings do still remain next to the farm-house, storing a range of farm equipment. The perimeter track considerably smaller in width, remains used by the local farm for lorries to transport their goods to the main road.

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The perimeter track where bombers once lumbered.

A small memorial has been erected and sad to say, is poorly maintained. It stands at the entrance to the former airfield on the northern side, now the entrance to the farm site.

Graveley is typical of the sad end to many of Britain’s lost airfields. The wide open expanses that once resounded with the roar of piston engines taking brave young men to war, are now quiet and the sounds mere whispers in the wind. Lorries gently roll where the wheels of laden bombers once lumbered. The brave acts of those young men now laid to rest in a small stone overlooking where they once walked. As a pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley and its crews deserve a much greater recognition for their dedication, bravery and sacrifice.

A beautiful stained glass window can be found in Graveley church and is worthy a visit if time allows.

After the quiet of Graveley we head south-east, but before arriving at our next planned destination, RAF Bourn,  we stop off at the now extinct RAF Caxton Gibbet.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

*2 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

*3 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

156 Sqn RAF – a 15% chance of survival!

Due to high losses, 156 sqn became known as the ‘chop’ squadron and consequently,  morale fell. With a 15%  chance of survival, morale continued to be an issue and the station was stood down for a short period. In a desperate attempt to bolster the men’s spirits and raise morale, a royal visit was arranged for the Queen. Read more about RAF Warboys and the valuable work they did here.

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Warboy’s Church Memorial to the Pathfinders.