RAF East Wretham – Home to the Czechs of Bomber Command (P1)

Hidden in the depths of Thetford Forest not far from the two major US Air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, is a former airfield that has received a new lease of life as an Army training facility. Once home to Bomber Command’s only Czechoslovakian Squadron, it was also home to Canadians and other Commonwealth nationals. After their final departure, it became the home of an American Fighter unit meaning its history is both diverse and multinational.

In Trail 13, we stop off at the former Station 133, more widely known as RAF East Wretham.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was primarily designed as a satellite airfield for nearby RAF Honington.  Being a satellite the airfield’s facilities would be basic, accommodation rudimentary and technical facilities limited. It would however, be developed as the war progressed and as its use increased. The main runway for example, (running north-east to south-west) was initially grass but with the arrival of the USAAF it would be covered with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), designed to strengthen the surfaces and thus prevent aircraft digging into the soil.

East Wretham would also have a range of hangars. In addition to the standard two ‘T2’ hangars, it would have a canvas Bessoneau hangar, (more generally linked to the First World and inter-war years),  and an additional four Blister hangars (9392/42) all believed to be double ‘extra over’ blister hangars each 69 ft wide in the singular design.

The watch office at East Wretham was another unusual design. Built to drawing 15498/40, it was originally a single storey room built on concrete pillars with a flat roof. It was then modified later on in the war to include an overhanging observation room, with the extension being mounted on metal pillars. This new extension had considerably more glazing than the original structure, and was more in keeping with the building style of other wartime airfields. These extra windows gave a much better view across the entire airfield, especially useful as the office was unusually located along the perimeter fence well behind the technical area of the airfield!

The Control Tower of the 359th Fighter Group at East Wretham. Caption on reverse: 'Caption on reverse: '359th FG Photos Source: T.P. Smith via Char Baldridge, Historian Description: #13 Control Tower at Station F-133, East Wretham, England.'

The unusual design of the Watch Office can clearly be seen in this photograph*1. (IWM)

Originally there were only 27 ‘frying pan’ style concrete hardstands, each one being located at various points around the perimeter track, all in groups of three or four. These were then added to later on, again using steel planking, to extend the number of dispersal points located on hard surfaces; a further indication to the problems with the boggy soil found in this part of East Anglia.

Accommodation for the initial 1,700 personnel, was dispersed over twelve sites around the north of the airfield, and across the road from the main airfield site. One of these sites (Site 2) was the nearby Wretham Hall, a grand building built in 1912, it was utilised by Officers of the USAAF for their own personal accommodation. Sadly, the grand three storey building was demolished in the early 1950s, possibly as a result of its wartime use.

A bomb storage site was also built on the airfield. Located on the south side of the site, it was well away from any accommodation or technical buildings. It was also well away from the three large fuel stores,  which boasted storage capacities of: 24,000, 40,000 and 90,000 gallons.

The initial use of East Wretham was as a dispersal for aircraft based at Honington, the first of which was a newly formed Czechoslovakian Squadron, No. 311 (Czech) Sqn, on 29th July 1940. So new were they that they didn’t receive their Wellington ICs until the August. This was to be a unique squadron in that it was the only Czech squadron to fly with Bomber Command, and whilst the main body of the squadron was located at Honington, the operational flight (A Flight) moved to East Wretham shortly after its  formation. In mid September a decision was made to move the entire squadron across to East Wretham posting a detachment to RAF Stradishall, where they stayed until April 1942.

On September 10th 1940, 311 Sqn, now with a small number of operational crews, took part in their first mission, a true baptism of fire flying directly into the German heartland and Berlin. For one of the crews and their Wellington, this would not go well, the aircraft believed forced down in the vicinity of a railway line near Leidschendam in Zuid-Holland, with all but one of the six airmen on-board being captured.

The only crew member not to be caught was Sgt. Karl Kunka, who managed to evade capture for a short period, only to shoot himself with the aircraft’s Very Pistol. It was thought that he carried out this action to not only avoid capture but any possible retaliation against his family back home in Czechoslovakia. Whilst Sgt. Kunka’s wounds were not initially fatal, they were so severe that he later died, failing to respond to treatment whilst in hospital.

The aircraft, Wellington MK.Ia, #L7788, ‘KX-E’, was also captured, repainted in Luftwaffe colours and flown for testing and evaluation to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s main aircraft test facility north of Berlin.

RAF East Wretham 3

East Wretham still uses the Nissen huts and smaller buildings today.

During December 1941, a further Czech unit, No.1429 Czech Operational Training Flight (COTF) was formed along side 311 Sqn, under the command of Sqn/Ldr. Josef Šejbl. This unit was designed specifically to train Czechoslovakian aircrews for Bomber Command, with instructors for the flight, being taken from 311 Sqn following completion of their tour of operations.

As aircrew completed their training, they were transferred to the operational flight, a steady but slow build up meant that numbers were quite low, the squadron being  considerably reduced by heavy casualties in the early stages of the war. As with other Bomber Command squadrons, 311 Sqn carried out night bombing missions, many penetrating Germany itself.

1941 would see more missions to Germany, starting with the first three nights January 1st – 3rd, when Bomber Command aircraft hit Bremen, with 311 Sqn taking part on the night of the 2nd. On this night, three aircraft from 311 Sqn would join the Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command in attacking a major railway junction in the centre of the city, where fires and explosions were seen as far away as 20 miles. A relatively successful operation, it would not be long before the first casualties of 311 Sqn would occur.

On the night of January 16th – 17th Wellington IC #T2519 ‘EX-Y’ was lost on a mission to Wilhelmshaven, the aircraft going down after suffering ‘technical’ problems. Last heard from  at 22:21, the aircraft disappeared without trace along with the entire crew, none of whom were ever heard from again.

1941 would end as it started, with a return trip to Wilhelmshaven, in which good results were recorded. One aircraft was lost on this mission, Wellington #T2553 ‘EX-B’, the pilot, Sgt. Alois Siska ditching the aircraft after it had sustained serious flak damage over the target area. As the aircraft sunk, it took the life of the rear gunner Sgt. Rudolf Skalicky, the other’s climbing into the aircraft’s dingy, a small craft in which they remained for several days.

As the dingy drifted towered the Dutch coast, the icy conditions would take two more lives, that of Sgt. Josef Tomanek (Co/P) and F/O. Josef Mohr (Nav.), whilst the pilot, Sgt. Siska, suffered badly from frost bite and gangrene. The remaining crewmen, F/O. Josef Scerba (W/O), Sgt. Pavel Svoboda (air gunner) along with Sgt. Siska, were picked up by German forces and  interned as POWs, mainly staying in hospitals for treatment for cold related injuries. Sgt. Svoboda went on to escape captivity no less than three times, evading capture until after the war whereupon he returned to England.

By mid 1942, 311 Sqn were assigned a new posting and a new airfield, but before departing in their final month, April 1942, they  would be visited by two particularly significant dignitaries. On April 3rd, Air Vice Marshal J. Baldwin, Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command, visited to award the DFC  to P/O. Karel Becvar for his services as a navigator with 311 Sqn. Then on the 18th April, the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Dr. Edward Benes, arrived along with several other dignitaries to inspect the Squadron, and give a speech regarding the work carried out by the crews here at East Wretham.

Tarck to Bomb Store

A number of tracks remain on the site.

During their last month, 311 Sqn would fly twelve more operations before finally departing Norfolk for Northern Ireland and Aldergrove. Whilst here at East Wretham, they would fly 1,011 sorties which included both attacks on industrial targets and propaganda leaflet drops. On the 30th, the main air body along with the rear party departed the site, the bulk of the squadron moving two days earlier. After their departure, 311 Sqn would not return to East Wretham.

In November 1942, after a long quiet break, East Wretham would spring into life once more with the arrival of another bomber squadron, No. 115 Sqn (RAF) from Mildenhall now flying  Wellington MK.IIIs.

Over the winter of 1942-43, 115 Sqn would lose ten aircraft, most to missions over Germany but two whilst ‘Gardening’, the last occurring on the night of New Years Eve 1942.

During the early months of 1943 six more Wellingtons would be lost from 115 Sqn, KO-D, KO-X, KO-C, KO-N, KO-T and KO-Q, the new year had not brought new fortunes.

By now the limits of the Wellington had been realised and its days as a front line bomber were numbered. A poor performer in the bombing theatre, it would be gradually moved to other duties, being replaced by the superior four-engined heavies; 115 Sqn was no exception. The MK.II Lancaster, powered by four Bristol Hercules engines, was less common than the Merlin powered MK.I and MK.III, but none the less was far superior to the Wellington in both performance and bomb carrying capacity.

The first Lancaster arrived in the March of 1943, and as it did the Wellingtons began to depart. To help train crews on the new aircraft, a detachment from 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) would be re-designated 1678 (Heavy Conversion) Flight (HCF) and was based here at East Wretham.

Flying the radial engined Lancaster MK.IIs under the code ‘SW’, they were one of only two HCFs to be established in Bomber Command, both in May of that year. Specifically set up to convert crews from the Wellington to the Lancaster, they were a short-lived unit, becoming a Heavy Conversion Unit once more on September 16th 1943, after moving to RAF Foulsham. During this time the flight would operate only eight aircraft in total, losing none whilst at East Wretham.

Even with the new aircraft though, flying over Germany was not without its problems for 115 Sqn. The first aircraft to be lost, and the first of its type in Bomber Command, Lancaster MK.II #DS625 ‘KO-W’ was lost without trace in a raid to Berlin on the night of March 29th/30th. The Pilot Sgt. H. Ross, (RCAF) and his crew all being commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. The aircraft being new, it had only flown 26 hours since its arrival at East Wretham earlier that year on March 9th.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28th/29th June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

With more missions into Germany, 115 Squadron’s Lancasters  would continue to serve well, perhaps one of the worst nights occurring just days before their eventual departure to RAF Little Snoring in early August 1943.

On the night of 2nd/3rd a mission was planned for Hamburg in which 740 aircraft were allocated. Of these, 329 were Lancasters, by far the largest contingency of the raid. Whilst over Germany, the formation entered a severe thunderstorm, and with many aircraft suffering from icing, they were forced to either turn back, or find other targets. The poor weather, including lightning, accounted for several of the losses that night including one of three lost from 115 Sqn.

Lancaster #DS673 was shot down by a night fighter, #DS685 was lost without trace and #DS715 was struck by lightning causing it to crash not far from the target. From the three that went down that night, there were no survivors from the twenty-one crewmen on board. 115’s time at East Wretham would close on a very sour note indeed.

With the departure of 115 Sqn in August, East Wretham would then pass from RAF ownership into the hands of the US Eighth Air Force, to become Station 133, the home of the three squadrons of the 359th Fighter Group – ‘The Unicorns’

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RAF Holme – From Bomber base to Fighter Development (P2)

After part 1, we continue at Holme-on-Spalding Moor. Holme has recently changed hands owing to the reorganisation of Bomber Command boundaries. 101 Squadron had departed and now 78 Sqn were moving in.

76 Sqn had been through a number of disbandments and reforms since its original inception in 1916.  Being reformed in 1941, it arrived here at Holme-on-Spalding Moor from Linton-on-Ouse, another Yorkshire base. It was truly a multi-national squadron, made up of Polish, Norwegian, New Zealand and Canadian crews.

76 Sqn would see the war out at Holme, progressing through a series of Halifax upgrades, from the Mk.V, to the better performing MK.III and onto the MK.VI, a model they used in the final operations on 25th April 1945.

Shortly after arriving at Holme, 76 Sqn would suffer their first loss, with the downing of Halifax MP-Q #DK224, on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1943. On board this aircraft was Group Captain D. Wilson (RAAF) their station commander.  Of the eight men on board all but one (Sgt. R. Huke’s, parachute failed to open after he had baled out of the aircraft) survived, seeing the war out as POWs. Whilst the crew survived, albeit in captivity, it was none the less a blow to the station losing such a prestigious officer. The mission to Mulhelm saw 557 aircraft of mixed types attack and destroy 64% of the town including road and rail links out of the city, virtually cutting it off from the outside world. Whilst a heavy loss for those on the ground, it also suffered the loss of thirty-five aircraft, 6.3% of the force, a figure well above the ‘acceptable’ limit of Bomber Command losses.

File:Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 1942-1945. CE91.jpg

Halifax B Mk.II, DK148 ‘MP-G’ “Johnnie the Wolf”, of No. 76 Squadron RAF rests at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, after crash-landing on return from an operation to Essen on the night of 25th/26th July 1943. The propeller from the damaged port-inner engine flew off shortly after the bombing run, tearing a large hole in the fuselage. The mid-upper gunner immediately baled out, but the pilot, F/L. C. M. Shannon, regained control of the aircraft and managed to bring the rest of the crew back to Holme. © IWM (CE 91).

Perhaps one of the more bizarre accidents to happen at Holme was the death of a car driver who ended up on the runway as aircraft were taking off. On December 7th 1944, Halifax MK.III #NA171 ‘MP-E’ piloted by F/O. W. MacFarlane had begun its take off run when the pilot noticed a car parked on the runway. Unable to stop or divert, he lifted the huge aircraft up over the car, but clipping it as he passed. The occupant of the vehicle was killed but the aircraft carried on relatively unscathed. This same aircraft was brought down later that month over Kola with the loss of all but one of the crew.

For the duration of the war, 76 Sqn would take part in some of the heaviest air battles over Germany: Essen, Koln, Hamburg, Nurnberg and Berlin, in which losses were sustained in all. By the war’s end, 76 Sqn had been credited with 5,123 operational sorties, in which they had lost 139 aircraft, the highest number of missions by any Halifax squadron.

By the end of the war, it was decided that Bomber Command was to be reduced, No. 4 Group would become a transport group, No. 4 (Transport) Group, a change of ownership meant not only a change of role but a change of aircraft too. The Halifaxes were swapped for C-47 Dakotas in May 1945, and three months later the unit transferred from Holme to Broadwell and eventually the Far East.

Other resident units at Holme including No. 1689 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight (15th February 1944 – 7th May 1945) were also disbanded as their services were no longer needed. Many of these training flights had already disbanded by the end of 1944, as the force was being cut back and reduced. The Spitfires, Hurricanes and other assorted aircraft being disposed of in various manners.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

One of two turret trainers still on site.

As 76 Sqn left, another Dakota unit moved in to the void left behind, but 512 Sqn, a short-lived squadron, left in the October and eventual disbandment in 1946.

For the next six years Holme-on-Spalding Moor was left in a state of care and maintenance, slowly degrading over that time. At this point Holme’s future took a turn for the better when No. 14 (Advanced) Flying Training School  was reformed in response to an increase in pilot training needs. Reformed along with a small number of other training flights such as 15 Flying Training School, at Wethersfield, they were short-lived units, operating aircraft such as Airspeed Oxfords. No. 14 AFTS disbanded at the end of January 1953 at Holme.

However, the demise of 14 AFTS was to allow the airfield to transfer to the USAF, for deployment of its bombers of the Strategic Air Command (SAC). A move that would require extensive upgrading of the airfield including lengthening of the main runway to 2,000 yards. The USAF moved large amounts of equipment through Holme, while the main airfield at Elvington was also upgraded. The extensive work carried out here though would not to come to anything, and after three years the USAF pulled out leaving Holme empty once more.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

The perimeter track bends round the former technical site.

However, it was not the end of Holme, the upgrading work meant that Holme airfield had a good long runway capable of taking the modern fast jets coming on-line. Blackburn Aviation Ltd, who were based not far away at Brough, saw the potential and began to carry out trials of the new Blackburn NA.39 ‘Buccaneer’. A rugged carrier-borne, high-speed, low-level strike aircraft, it went on to serve in both the Royal Navy and the RAF – the prototype (XK486) being first flown at RAE Bedford on 30th April 1958, piloted by Derek Whitehead.

As Brough could not accommodate the Buccaneer, the aircraft were towed on their own wheels, backwards, along the roads around the area. Protected by a Police escort, they were commonly seen in the back streets of Holme being prepared and test flown from the new runway at Holme airfield.

An aviation firm established by Robert Blackburn in 1911, Blackburn Aviation became an established aircraft manufacturer during the interwar and war years, producing models such as the T-4 Cubaroo of which only two were built, the B-2 trainer and the B-24 Skua, the first British aircraft to shoot down an enemy aircraft on 25th September 1939.

Blackburn concentrated on ship-borne aircraft, many, including the early variants, having folding wings. In the Second World War they produced the B46 Firebrand, a successful aircraft, of which they produced just over 200 models of different variants. The Buccaneer was their modern version and proved to be just as successful. In the 1950s they also produced the Beverley, which at the time was the largest transport aeroplane in the world.

Over the next 40 years, the British aircraft industry would go through major changes, big names like Blackburn were amalgamated into Hawker Siddeley Aviation, then British Aerospace and finally the modern BAE Systems.

Bruntingthorpe May 2016 106

AT the former RAF Bruntingthorpe, Buccaneers regularly perform fast taxis along the runway. A sight and sound that once graced Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

The change brought new opportunities for Holme. The development of the American McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom allowed for testing at Holme, along with Harriers and Hunters of Hawker Siddeley fame. Trails of the Phantom included taking it to the extremes of its performance envelope, pushing the aircraft through maximum turns at supersonic speeds. Don Headley, Hawker Siddeley’s Chief Test Pilot at Holme, described the tests as “arduous” but “exhilarating nevertheless”.*3

Being a test pilot was a dangerous job, pushing aircraft to unknown limits. Deputy Chief Test Pilot with Blackburn Aircraft, Gartrell R.I. “Sailor” Parker DFC, AFC, DSM had to eject from the first prototype Buccaneer XK486 on 5th October 1960 when it got into difficulty following the artificial horizon breaking whilst in cloud. Both he and his passenger, Dave Nightingale, managed to escape the aircraft without injury. However, he didn’t have such a lucky escape when on 19th February 1963, the aircraft he was testing, Buccaneer XN952, went into an upright spin following a Low Altitude Bombing System (LABS) demonstration over Holme airfield.

In this manoeuvre, the aircraft flys in low enters a climbing loop and then releases the bomb near to the top of the loop, the aircraft completes the loop pulling away before the bomb strikes the target (also called ‘Toss’ or ‘Loft’ Bombing).  During the demonstration there was a loss of control due to a ‘roll-inertia coupling’ resulting in violent pitching and yawing, and loss of control as the aircraft rotated on all three axes. In the accident both Parker and his back seat observer, Mr Gordon R. C. Copeman (Senior Flight Test Observer), ejected from the aircraft, but Parker was too low, and Copeman fell into the burning wreckage after it had hit the ground. *4

Eventually on December 7th 1983, Buccaneer XV350 and Phantom XV429, took off  from Holme for the final time signifying the final closure of Holme airfield, a closure that ended a long history of aviation. With that, the name ‘Blackburn’ was gone forever, but the legacy of Robert Blackburn and his remarkable work in the aviation field would live on for many years yet.

No longer required or aviation purposes, Holme was sold off, the runways and Perimeter tracks were dug up, and the grounds returned to agriculture.

Sadly, the technical area which is now an industrial estate, is run down and tatty. Many of the original buildings are used by small businesses, furniture manufacturers, tool makers and car part suppliers. Buildings that are not used are run down and in dangerous conditions, fenced off they have a limited life span left. That said however, it remains quite intact and there are a good number of buildings left to see.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Sadly many of the buildings are in a poor state of repair and have only a short life left.

If approaching from the village of Holme-on-Spalding Moor along Skiff Lane, you arrive at the first of three entrances. The first is the former perimeter track located at the north end of one of the secondary runways. The runway has long gone, but there is a hardstand still present, its large circular footprint giving a good indication of the nature of the site. This road leads round to the technical area and where the watch office was. A Post-war Fire Tender Shed does still stand here, but the office was believed  demolished in 1984. This road is gated and access is not permitted beyond here.

Continue along the road and a second entrance allows access to a small number of buildings of the former technical site. There is evidence across the road of further buildings but these have been removed leaving only their foundations visible. Continue passed here and you arrive at the main entrance, the two memorials are located just inside on the left hand side.  Continue along this road and you are entering the technical area, with a number of buildings on either side. Distinctly clear are the turret trainers and parachute stores, all in use with small businesses. At the end is one of the T2 hangars, re-clad and in use but inaccessible. Driving / walking round here you can see many of the former stores and admin blocks that formed the heart of the operations.

Some of these buildings are fenced off and in a dangerous condition, others have been better looked after, most are used by small businesses.

Commemorative memorials can be found at the former entrance to the site, including one to Group Captain (Lord) Cheshire VC, OM, DSO, DFC, who commanded 76 Sqn before being posted to Marston Moor. A highly respected man, he fought for changes to the Halifax to improve its handling and performance, and also post war, for funding for the memorials that stand at the entrance. His record of achievement and dedication is well versed across the history books and internet.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Memorial to Group Captain Leonard Cheshire.

Holme-on-Spalding Moor is a remarkable airfield that is steeped in history. From the early days of the 1941 to the end of 1983 it saw some of the most heroic acts and the greatest advances in aviation. It took the fight to the heart of Nazi Germany, it led the way in state of the art fighter testing, rising like a phoenix out of the ashes until its final dying day.

Its present condition does not sadly reflect the enormous contribution it, and its personnel played in those turbulent years of history. Whilst having a largely intact technical area, its condition is a sad reflection on the importance we place on these once busy and historical places. Even with considerable development between inception and closure, and an ever-changing facade, the main heart of Holme always remained, but today sadly, it is a heart whose beat is slowing and one that will no doubt eventually stop and die. A remarkable place indeed.

Not far from here are both the airfields at Breighton and Melbourne, both of which have flying activities still going on, ‘intact’ runways and a number of buildings are still present. Also in Holme village is the All Saints Church, sadly kept locked out of hours, it has a window of remembrance dedicated to the crews of 76 Sqn and their heroic battle against Nazi Germany. It also has a number of graves from those who never saw peacetime again. It is certainly worth a visit.

Sources and further reading.

*1 The base system was brought in following the need for more airfields at the end of 1942 when the United States was drawn into the war. To ease administrative and support problems associated with multiple airfields, they were combined into a groups of 3 (or 4) with a parent station and 2 (or 3) satellites. Overall command was given to the HQ airfield (or base) headed by an Air Commodore. Approved in February 1943, it was rolled out over the following year.

*2 Australian War Memorial, Article number P04303.010

*3 Caygill, P., “Phantom from the Cockpit“, Leo Cooper Ltd; First Edition edition (26 July 2005) Pg 134

*4 ejection-history Website accessed 27/8/18.

ORB AIR 27/1902/1 National Archives

The 458 Squadron website aims to preserve the Squadron’s history paying tribute to those who served.

Chorley, W.R., Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, Midland Counties Publications (1994)

BAE Systems website, accessed 27/8/18.

RAF Holme – From Bomber base to Fighter Development (P1)

In this next part of Trail 40, we head to the south-east of York, to an airfield that started off as a bomber airfield in the early stages of the war. As Bomber Command operations grew, so did the airfield, and so too did the casualties rise.

Post war, it went on to play a minor part in the cold war as an American air base, then like a phoenix out of  the ashes it rose to feature in the development of modern British fighter jets. Sadly, it all ended with the demise of the British aviation industry, now a handful of dilapidated buildings form the core of a rundown industrial estate that was once RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor.

RAF Holme-on-Spalding Moor (RAF Holme/Spaldington)

The parish of Holme-on-Spalding Moor is  the largest historic parish in the county of  East Riding, covering 11,514 acres, with  a history that goes back as far as the iron age. The majority of the parish was, before the mid 1700s, a moorland, a bog in many places, that only the brave or knowledgeable could safely cross. The village and surrounding area is dominated by the medieval All Saints Church, that sits on land called Beacon Hill, 45m above sea level, about half a mile to the north-east of the village. The village  sits approximately halfway between York and Hull, whilst the airfield itself lies a few miles south-east of the village in the small hamlet of Tollingham.

Construction began in late 1940 as a bomber airfield for the expansion of the RAF’s No 4 Group, one of forty-three built in Yorkshire. It would initially cover around 400 acres, taking land from four separate local farms, an area that extended to over 1,500 acres as the war progressed.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Many of the buildings still stand used as an industrial site.

Designed in the early stages of the war, as a parent station for Breighton and Melbourne (implemented after the introduction of the Base system in February 1943*1), Holme-on-Spalding Moor (or Holme) was built as a dispersed airfield with accommodation constructed to the north-east away from the main airfield site, the start of a new design aimed at reducing casualties in the event of an attack.  As a Scheme ‘M’ airfield, it would have one austerity measure ‘J’ type hangar and two type T2 hangars, designed to replace the former Type ‘C’ hangar. By the end of the war, these numbers would have been increased giving a total of five Type T2s and one ‘J’.

Whilst not a Class A airfield (implemented in 1942), Holme was built with three intersecting concrete runways, thirty-six dispersed hardstands and a watch office (designed to drawings 518/40 & 8936/40) built of brick, concrete and timber. As a parent airfield, the office would have a meteorological section attached.

The technical site was located to the north side of the airfield (within the legs of an upturned ‘A’ with the bomb store to the north-west and the dispersed accommodation area to the north-east. At its peak it housed upward of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank including nearly 500 WAAFs. For many, Holme-on-Spalding Moor was not a particularly pleasant stay, the locals objecting to the influx of airmen into their quiet community, forcing ‘nights out’ to go much further afield. Those who stayed here considered it bleak, cold and damp with few comforts, but like many personnel on Britain’s wartime airfields, they made the best of what they had.

Once the airfield was declared open, it was handed to No. 1 Group to train (Australian) bomber crews on the Wellington bomber. The first major squadron to arrive was 458 Sqn (RAAF), formed at Williamtown, New South Wales, under Article XV of the Empire Air Training Scheme. Many airmen were posted to Canada to finish their training, before finally being sent to the UK and their first operational squadron. The first thirty-seven of these qualified airmen spent the majority of August 1941 en route to the UK, arriving at Holme later that month, where they joined with other commonwealth airmen to form the squadron. The first aircraft they would use was the Vickers Wellington MK.IV, a model they retained until January/February 1942, when they replaced them with the MK.IC. At the end of March that year, 458 Sqn transferred to the Middle East, retaining various models of Wellingtons for the remainder of the war.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Very easily visible is one of the few hardstands that survive at Holme today.

Whilst here at Holme-on-Spalding Moor, 458 Sqn would focus on the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, taking part in operations that took them to numerous cities in both Holland and Germany.

On the night of 20th/21st October, ten aircraft from 458 Sqn  joined twenty-five other aircraft in a raid on the port of Antwerp. With other raids targeting Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and Emden, it would be a busy night for Bomber Command. On board one the of the 458 Sqn aircraft (Wellington IV #Z1218, ‘FU-D’) was: Sgt. P. Hamilton (Pilot); Sgt. P. Crittenden; P/O. D. Fawkes; Sgt. T. Jackson; Sgt. A  Condie and Sgt. P. Brown. The aircraft would depart Holme-on-Spalding Moor at 18:39, on the squadron’s first operational sortie. The weather that night was fair but cloud covered much of the target, and so many aircraft returned with their bomb loads intact. On route, just after midnight, Wellington ‘FU-D’ was shot down by a German night-fighter, with all but Sgt. Brown being killed.

The average age of these men was just 23, Sgt. Philip George Crittenden (aged 20) was the first Australian airman to be killed whilst serving in an RAAF Bomber Command squadron. He, along with the remainder of the crew, were buried in the Charleroi Communal Cemetery, Belgium, and is commemorated on Panel 106 at the Australian War Memorial.

Pilots of No. 5 Flight at No. 4 SFTS, Saskatoon, Canada. The majority of the students are recently arrived members of the RAAF, who travelled to Canada under the Empire Training Scheme. Third row back, left side:  Sgt Phillip George Crittenden 400410 (KIA 20th/21st October 1941)*2

A second 458 Sqn bomber (#R1765) was lost on the night of 22nd/23rd October, on operations to Le Harve. Hit by flak, the aircraft made it back to England where the crew baled out. Only one crewman, Sgt. Hobbs, failed to do so, his body was subsequently found in the bomber’s wreckage. A third Wellington was lost before the year was out, that of  #R1775 which lost contact at 20:35 on the night of 15th/16th November 1941, with the loss of all crewmen.

The October also saw the arrival of No. 20 Blind Approach Training (BAT) Flight, formed at the sub-station RAF Breighton, they moved here in the same month only to be disbanded and reformed as 1520 Beam Approach Training (BAT) Flight. This addition brought Airspeed Oxfords and Tiger Moths to the airfield, and was designed as part of the pilot’s training programme teaching night landing procedures.

January 1942 saw little change, with the loss of three further aircraft, one (#Z1182) ‘FU-G’ due to icing causing the aircraft to crash just after take off, a further two were lost 3 days later,  #R1785 was hit by flak and crashed over the target, with #Z1312 hitting high tension wires after returning home suffering flak damage from an aborted mission. In total there were twelve airmen killed and six injured in just three days, a terrible startto 458 Sqn’s entry into the European war.

During the February 1942, 458 Sqn began changing their Mk.IVs for MK.ICs, and then on March 23rd they moved out of Holme-on-Spalding Moor and set off to the Middle East, where they remained until the war’s end.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

Original hangars once housed Lancasters, Halifaxes and Buccaneers!

This left 1520 (BAT) Flight the sole users of Holme-on-Spalding Moor, until the August when, for a short period of six weeks, 460 Sqn Conversion Flight stationed a flight of Halifaxes here from the sub-station at Breighton. The four engined heavies then went through a period of changes eventually taking on the Lancaster.

After their departure, the end of September saw another Wellington squadron arrive, that of 101 Sqn RAF. The squadron, who transferred in from No. 3 Group, remained off operations for a short while whilst they converted to the new Lancaster, a major change from the poorer performing twin-engined ‘Wimpy’.

It was during one of these training flights that 101 Sqn would suffer their first accident at Holme, when it was thought, a photo flash flare exploded causing structural failure of the  Lancaster’s fuselage whilst flying over Wales – all seven crewmen were lost in the tragic November accident. During the autumn and winter months training would continue as Wellingtons were gradually withdrawn from front line operations, and units converted to the four engined bombers, primarily the Lancasters. Holme-on-Spalding Moor was no different, and once over, 101 Sqn would continue where 485 Sqn left off, taking the fight to the German heartland. During 1942-43 they would lose six aircraft in non-operational flights and fifty-nine during operations.

During January 1943, the first three aircraft of the year would be lost; Lancaster Mk.Is #W4796 ‘SR-R’, #ED443 ‘SR-B’ and # ED447 ‘SR-Q’ were all lost on operations to Essen and Hamburg with no survivors. Twenty-one fully trained aircrew were gone along with their aircraft.

Whilst the Lancasters of 101 Sqn fared reasonably well compared to other units, casualties being generally light, there was one night that stood out above all others, a night that would devastate the crews of 101 Sqn.

RAF Holme on Spalding Moor

The parachute store is now a tool shop.

On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, during the Battle of the Rhur, 141 Halifaxes, 255 Lancasters, 10 Mosquitoes, 80 Stirlings and 110 Wellingtons headed for Dortmund. A massive force, it was the largest single force below the 1,000 bomber raids so far, it was also the first major attack on Dortmund. Reports say that marking was accurate, but decoy fires lit on the ground drew many bombers away from the actual target. Even so, damage was extensive, with large areas of the city being flattened, over 3,000 buildings were either destroyed or damaged and 1,700 people either killed or injured. Sadly, 200 POWs were amongst those killed, alas a new record had been set for ground casualties. As for the Lancaster force, only six were lost, a small percentage compared to the other aircraft, but all six were from 101 Squadron.

All aircraft took off between 21:40 and 22:05 and headed out toward Germany. Of the six lost, one was lost without trace #W4784 ‘SR-E’ piloted by Sgt. W. Nicholson, and another ‘SR-F’ #W4888, piloted by F/O. N. Stanford, was shot down by a night fighter crashing in Friesland with the loss of six. The remaining four crashed either on their way out from, or on their return to, the airfield. ‘SR-G’, #W4863 piloted by Sgt. J. Browning (RNZAF) crashed at Scorton near to Richmond, Yorks; ‘SR-U’ #ED776, piloted by F/S. F. Kelly crashed short of the runway without injury; ‘SR-X’ #ED830, piloted by Sgt.F Smith hit trees near to Little Ouseburn, Yorkshire, and ‘SR-T’ #ED835 piloted by W/O. G Hough, was hit by flak but managed to return to Holme-on-Spalding Moor crashing a few miles away between Hotham and North Cave. On this night twenty airmen were lost, one was taken as a POW and seven sustained injuries of varying degrees. It would be the worst night for 101 Squadron for many months.

All Saint's Church

W/O. Gerald Hough killed on the morning of May 5th 1943 on 101 Sqn’s worse night of the war so far.

With the final loss taking place on the night of 12th June 1943, 101 Sqn would three days later, depart Holme-on-Spalding Moor for good, moving to Ludford Magna in Lincolnshire. A move that was triggered by the reorganisation of Bomber Command boundaries, Holme being taken over by No. 4 Group RAF.

The move would mean there would be no peace at Holme though, as 101 Sqn departed 76 Sqn arrived not with Lancasters though, but the other four engined heavy – the Halifax.

In Part 2 we see how 78 Sqn coped with the Halifax, an aircraft that was overshadowed by the Lancaster. Initially a poor performer, with improved engines it began to make its mark. It was slow process and in the meantime casualties for Halifax crews remained high. We also see what happened to RAF Holme post war, and how it played its part in the development of Britain’s jet fighters.

RAF Boulmer – Sophistication and intrigue (Part 1).

In this part of Trail 47 we return to the Northumbrian coast, and like many airfields in this northern arena area, this is one that sits on the very coastline itself. Originally a decoy airfield opened in the mid war years, it was eventually converted to flying status only to close to flying in the latter part of 1945.  However, it has continued to operate under the control of the RAF, but in a much more secretive and less obvious manner.

This airfield spent most of its life as a decoy airfield to RAF Acklington, and it wasn’t until later in is wartime life, that it actually became an airfield used for flying.  Throughout the Cold War era it played a major part in Britain’s defence, a role it continues to play today, and whilst no flying units are based here, nor have they been for a good number of years, it is none the less one of Britain’s most important RAF sites and one that has a history unique to itself.

In this part of Trail 47 we visit the site that is the former RAF Boulmer.

RAF Boulmer (Longhoughton).

RAF Boulmer sits on the very coast of Northumbria approximately 4 miles east of the historic town of Alnwick. Its life began in 1940 as a decoy airfield called Longhoughton with dummy Hurricanes and Spitfires protected by four Lewis Machine guns mounted on tripods. To add to the realistic effect, the dummy aircraft were moved about on a regular basis, the three grass runways were kept in good condition and a series of landing lights were left on to imitate an active airfield, The rouse was so good that the airfield was repeatedly attacked by Luftwaffe aircraft, but with little damage being sustained as result.

The airfield was manned by as few as twenty personnel, who maintained the deception well into the mid war years, until such time as the threat of invasion and raids had died down. No longer needed, the decoy site was closed and Boulmer would then enter a new phase in its long life.

In 1942 a decision was made to develop Boulmer into a hard-surfaced airfield, and although the tarmac and woodchip runways (1,800, 1,400 and 1,300 yds x 50 yds) weren’t added until November 1943, the airfield was opened and used ‘operationally’. Opened as a satellite airfield under the control of 12 Group, it would become a training station seeing a mix of Spitfires flown by 57 Operational Training Unit (OTU), (based as RAF Eshott) use its facilities. In addition to the hard runways were some twenty-five aircraft dispersal pans, a storage facility supplemented with four Dorman Long Blister hangars. These hangars were different to other types of Blister hangar by the fact that they were bolted to foundations and not held in place by their own weight. A larger more common T2 hangar was also planned, but this it would seem, never materialised.

57 OTU were originally reformed through the renumbering of No. 7 OTU on 1st November 1940 at Harwarden, before they transferred to RAF Eshott in Northumberland, two years later. They remained at Eshott for the duration of the war running 76 pilot training courses at both Eshott and Boulmer. The principal aircraft of the unit was the Spitfire, but they also used a variety of other small single engined aircraft including the Fairy Battle, the Lysander, Magister and Boulton Paul’s Defiant.

RAF Boulmer

Inside one of the remaining wartime shelters at RAF Boulmer.

Boulmer would become quite a busy airfield over the next few years, not only used by 57 OTU, but also by other ‘local’ squadrons as a relief landing ground. Boulmer’s primary aim at this point was to train pilots to fly the Hurricane and Spitfire. Pilots would work through a series of exercises from basic flying training at Eshott, to more advanced flying techniques here at Boulmer. Like many of these training airfields Charter Hall, Millfield and Brunton, the aircraft they used were old and in many cases ex Battle of Britain examples. Patched up and repeatedly repaired, they were not the most reliable models to be given to trainees.

One of the first accidents to happen at Boulmer was the collision between Spitfire MK.IIa #P8071 and Spitfire MK.IIa #P7836 over the North Sea. The pilot of #P8071, Sgt. Leonard Baker (s/n:658739), was killed outright, whilst the other pilot managed to nurse his aircraft home, landing wheels-up at Boulmer – he being unhurt. At the time of his death, Sgt. Baker was only a young man at 22 years of age.

In November, that year, another Spitfire was lost also with its pilot, F/O. Geoffrey Booth (s/n: 119496), when his aircraft #P8197, also a MK.IIa, crashed shortly after taking off during a night training flight. F/O. Booth (RAFVR) was another youngster being only 23 years of age. He is buried in Chevington Cemetery in Northumberland, and was the Son of Harold and Elsie Booth, of Leeds, Yorkshire.

A number of other accidents occurred in which aircraft swung, engines failed or undercarriage jammed. The last 57 OTU accident at Boulmer involved a Spitfire VB #W3713 on March 2nd 1945, when just after take off, the aircraft struck a tree causing both the pitot head to break off and the throttle to jam open. An ex USAAF aircraft, it was one of 20 produced under contract B19713/39 and was written off as a result.

The latter part of the war (1943/44) continued to see units from other nearby airfields use Boulmer, 59 OTU who were based primarily at RAF Millfield, would use Boulmer whilst their satellite station RAF Brunton was under repair. Millfield was also set up to train pilots on the Hurricane, a training unit that would take the pilot from an ordinary single engined trainer onto the Hurricane before posting to an operational unit. Later on, this took on ground attack duties as the Typhoons were brought in, eventually being disbanded and reformed as the Fighter Leader School (FLS). All these training groups came under the jurisdiction of No. 9 Group, whose headquarters were at Barton Hall in Preston. These groups taught the pilots the art of night flying, dive bombing and ground attack tactics, all very important  techniques in the new developing war.

In the closing days of September 1944 the Fleet Air Arm Squadron 808 Sqn, placed their Seafire L MK.IIIs here whilst in transit from Harwarden to Eglington. A brief stay, it nonetheless brought  a new model of Spitfire from the famous mould to this remote part of Northumberland. 808 Sqn’s history had taken them through some of the most incredible wartime events including their participation in the Battle of Britain, to the sinking of their carrier, the Ark Royal. They also took part in the Normandy operations acting as spotters for naval guns, who were pounding the beaches and inland batteries along the French coast.

The winter of 1944/45 was very cold, with extensive frost, fog and ice hampering many RAF and USAAF bombing missions. Those aircraft that were flown during this time often found their home bases fog bound, and unable to land there, they had to divert elsewhere. In October, Halifax MK.III of 425 (Alouette) Sqn was diverted to Boulmer, only to find that on its later departure, the two starboard engines cut out causing the aircraft to swing violently. As a result, the aircraft piloted by F/O. W Corbett, struck a wood shed damaging the aircraft. Luckily on this occasion though, there were no casualties in the unfortunate accident.

This use of Boulmer as a safe haven was not unique. Indeed that same year on New Years Eve, no less than six US Eighth Air Force B-24s were diverted from their home bases to Boulmer. On New Years Eve 1944, a total of 956 B-17 Flying Fortresses, 371 B-24 Liberators and 785 escort fighters were dispatched to various targets in Germany (mission 772). German fighter cover that day was light, for unknown to the Allies, the Luftwaffe were preparing for their New Years Day massed attack on liberated airfields in the lowlands in Operation Boddenplatte.

The continent like the UK was largely fogged in, and considering the size of the formations and numbers of aircraft involved, casualties were relatively light. On return many of the aircraft found their home bases closed and so were diverted elsewhere. It was during this flight that six B-24s  ended up at Boulmer as a result of the bad weather.

Eventually the war came to a close, and no longer required, units began to leave or be disbanded, 57 OTU being no exception. Disbanded on June 6th 1945, a year after the invasion of occupied Europe, it would take its mix of Spitfires and leave Boulmer for good.

With the demise of 57 OTU, Boulmer was placed into care and maintenance. In part 2, we shall see how Boulmer developed over the next 70 years, how flying returned to this part of Northumberland and how Boulmer came to be one of the most strategic sites in Britain’s Air Defence Network.

RAF Macmerry – The darker side of war.

After visiting both RAF Drem and RAF East Fortune in Trail 42, we travel a few miles south, back to the A1 road where we visit another disused and almost lost RAF airfield. Initially used as a Landing Ground during the First World War, it struggled to become a fully fledged airfield but it did operate a small number of squadrons under RAF control. One of these squadrons had a rather sinister role to play and had Britain been invaded, then its name would no doubt be well-known and common place in history books today.

In Trail 51, we continue on in the south-eastern region of Scotland, not far from the historic city of Edinburgh, where we visit the former airfield RAF Macmerry.

RAF Macmerry (Tranent / Penston).

The former airfield at the small village of Macmerry is today split by the main A1 road, with the flying side of the airfield to the north and the technical and accommodation areas to the south. Sadly the active side has been completely removed and is now agricultural land, but on the technical and accommodation side there are fortunately still a small number of buildings remaining, albeit in private use today.

RAF Macmerry is located some 14 miles east of Edinburgh, its origins extend back to the First World War when it was known as Penston. Used by No. 77 Squadron who were initially based at Edinburgh, it was a Home Defence Landing Ground housing a squadron detachment until the entire unit moved over in April / May 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps became established as the Royal Air Force. No. 77 Sqn were well-known in the area, having detachments based at nearby Turnhouse and also at New Haggerston and Whiteburn. The squadron had been based at Edinburgh since October 1916 after moving there from Thetford in Norfolk, shortly after their inception. During their time at Penston, No. 77 Sqn operated a number of Royal Aircraft Factory types: the BE.2c, BE.2d and BE.2e, the BE.12 and BE.12b along with the D.H. 6 and RE. 8.

RAF Macmerry

One of many buildings that remain on the farm today.

Even though No. 77 Sqn moved into Penston full-time, they did retain a detachment at Whiteburn, an arrangement that continued until 13th June 1919, when the squadron (now Royal Air Force) was finally disbanded. No. 77 Squadron would go on to be reformed in 1937, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, but they would not return to their roots, and would never again appear at the airfield at Macmerry. After 77 Sqn’s departure from Penston, the RAF had no need for the site, and so the airfield was closed and the site sold off.

The 1920s and 30s then saw a short reprieve for Macmerry as aviation became fashionable. The Edinburgh Flying Club established itself here, and the Scottish Motor Traction (SMT) organisation put forward plans for a new major airport here at Macmerry. Established in 1905, the SMT was an established bus company who also provided an air taxi service flying a De Havilland Fox Moth between 18th July and 31st October 1932. Although these ambitious development plans never came to fruition, Macmerry (referred to as Edinburgh) was used for a short period between 1936 and 1939 for commercial air travel by North Eastern Airways.

North Eastern Airways (Copyright Bjorn Larsson)*1

After war broke out the RAF were looking to expand their airfields around the UK, and the border regions of Scotland were soon under the spotlight. The Air Ministry identified Macmerry and decided in July 1940, to rename Macmerry as Tranent after the nearby town. However, and even after the official requisition later on, this name change never appeared on any but a handful of official documents and the name Macmerry stuck.

It was around this time too that the Cunliffe-Owen company, a civilian aircraft manufacturing company, began operations at the airfield repairing Lockheed Hudson aircraft. Cunliffe-Owen was set up by the millionaire Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen on August 9th 1937 under the name of BOA Ltd, changing it later in 1938, to Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft. Utilising the First World War hangar at Eastleigh in the former county of Wessex, they would be famous for their investigations into the ‘Flying Wing’ project. Cunliffe-Owen also formed a contract with Lockheed Aircraft and began assembling Hudsons along with a large number of other American aircraft imported into the UK for RAF service.*2

On September 2nd 1940, No. 263 Squadron moved into RAF Drem, located about 6 miles north-east of here, and used Macmerry as a satellite airfield, even though the RAF had not officially taken over the site. Regardless of this, the Westland Whirlwinds they were flying, did occasionally use the airfield along with another satellite at Prestwick way off to the west.

In January 1941, Macmerry was officially requisitioned and would come under the control of 13 Group Fighter Command, with the first aircraft arriving very soon after. The Hurricane Mk.Is of 607 (County of Durham) Sqn would stop off here between January 16th and March 2nd 1941, before joining the main squadron also based at RAF Drem. No. 607 Sqn were veterans of the Battle of Britain, and would go on to be the first Squadron to operate the ‘Hurri’ bomber, a Hawker Hurricane fitted with bombs.

As they departed Macmerry, a second unit arrived, No. 614 (County of Glamorgan) Squadron, who were a pre-war squadron and would operate Lysander Mk.II and Mk.IIIs before replacing these with Blenheim IVs in July 1941. After a short spell away at Thruxton, No. 614 Sqn returned to Macmerry for a few days before departing for the final time at the end of August 1942. Flying with the squadron code ‘LJ’, it was these Lysanders that had a rather sinister role to play, and one that was perhaps unique along this coastline of Scotland.

Westland Lysander Mark III, ‘LJ-P’ of No. 614 Squadron RAF Macmerry, on a photographic-reconnaissance flight (IWM H 9183)

First impressions of Macmerry were not positive for crews, a small hangar and a flying control building were about all that greeted the men. There were no accommodation facilities and airmen were billeted in the homes of local families. Runways at this time were grass (1 x 1,500 yards and 2 x 1,200 yards), whilst the perimeter track was tarmac, a feature that would not change for the duration of the war.

By the summer months accommodation on the airfield was finally available (sufficient for around 1000 personnel of mixed rank and gender) and the whole of No. 614 Squadron moved into Macmerry. Work continued on the remainder of the airfield infrastructure, including six hardstands each holding two-twin engined aircraft in a ‘Blenheim’ style aircraft pen. Otherwise know as type ‘B’ (designed to drawing 7151/41) they had cranked sides and staggered entrances. Each of these had a shelter built into the revetment sufficient to hold 25 men. Eight Blister hangars and a T2 were also added at some point, along with a range of technical buildings.

Working under the control of the Royal Air Force Army Co-operation Command, No. 614 Sqn’s Lysanders were to monitor and patrol Scotland’s east coast, and in the event of an invasion, they were to contaminate the beaches with Gas (possibly Mustard Gas even though this was banned in the 1925 Geneva Protocol) using the vast stocks they had at Macmerry airfield. A lethal substance, it was never thankfully used and was disposed of later on. Much of the information about this has only recently come to light, but according to Operational Record Books*3 gas attacks were something that were rehearsed on many occasions.

Whilst No. 614 Sqn were based here at Macmerry, they performed regular operations with Army units, detachments from Macmerry flying to the Fleet Air Arm airfield at Arbroath where they would carry out photo reconnaissance, simulated dive bombing and these aforementioned gas laying operations. These operations (e.g. ‘FORFAR’, ‘HOPE’ and ‘JOHN’) were carried out in conjunction with various army divisions, with RAF support staff and  equipment (including Bowsers) being taken by road to the detachment airfield. In many cases, the crews and ground staff from Macmerry would be housed in tents supplied by the various army brigades and they would be fed by the Royal Navy, something that the more senior officials within the RAF wanted to stop.

During these exercises, Lysanders would drop messages to ‘message stations’, these message stations would be viable targets for the ‘enemy’ aircraft (bomber sorties being performed by other Lysanders, Spitfires or Miles Masters) and therefore the diligence of those inside was of the utmost importance. Following a review of the first of these operations, this key point was noted in the ORB, in which it was pointed out that  “…only intelligent men should be employed, and the same men, if possible, should do the duty on all occasions.

During August 1941 a detachment of Tomahawk IIA aircraft were to join No. 614 Sqn here at Macmerry. These aircraft were operating with No. 241 Sqn, who were primarily based at RAF Wattisham, but had detachments already at Snailwell, Henlow and Docking and now at Macmerry.

In March 1942 these Tomahawks were replaced by the North American P-51 Mustang Mk.I, an aircraft designed in response to the need for a long-range fighter with outstanding capabilities. Designed by a German born designer, Edgar Schmued, it would become one of, if not the, Second World War’s most successful fighters, especially after it had the Rolls Royce Merlin replace the weaker Allinson. As well as an increase in top speed of around 50 mph, it out performed the Allinson in all other categories including rate of climb and performance at altitude. By May 1942, No. 241 Sqn and their new Mustangs would all depart Macmerry for pastures new at Ayr. However, and not before too long, 241 Sqn would return to this part of the country, spending a short time at RAF Winfield in the border regions working in cooperation with 4th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery.

It was during May that No. 225 Sqn moved to Thruxton  whilst also having a detachment based here at Macmerry, and once again the Mustang Mk.I would be back in the skies over this small Scottish village. The entire squadron would move onto the airfield at the end of August and would stay until the end of October when they would depart for North Africa taking their Mustangs with them.

By late summer 1942, the accommodation, hangars and major facilities were all now complete and open, the site was now ‘modern’ and homely, engineer’s workshops, allowed for maintenance of the aircraft, and aircraft pens offered protection to both the airmen and aircraft in the case of Luftwaffe attack.

RAF Macmerry

One of the ‘B’ type aircraft pens surviving at Macmerry today. The brick structure to the right is the entrance to the built-in shelter.

By August 1942, No. 614 squadron were to pull out moving to RAF Odiham where they replaced their aircraft with Blenheim Vs. Their place at Macmerry being taken by No.13 Sqn flying Blenheim IVs. Their stay would, like many of their predecessors, be a short one, another ex Lysander user, they only stayed here for about 10 days before they too moved off to Odiham and onto North Africa.

The November would then see the last operational flying until arrive at Macmerry, and they would be the longest-serving unit to stay here. At the end of November, on the 21st, No. 63 squadron would arrive bringing  with them further Mustang Mk.Is. The main block of the squadron would operate from Macmerry whilst detachments would be placed across the length and breadth of the country at Lossiemouth, Odiham, Dalcross and Acklington. Many of the sorties flown by No. 63 sqn were photographic reconnaissance missions, using F.24 (8″) cameras installed on the port side of the fuselage directly behind the cockpit. Because of the open landscape and close proximity to the coast of the airfield, many sorties flown from here were hampered by high winds and the impending Scottish cold, something that brought discomfort to the may crews who were stationed here at some point.

A  No. 63 Squadron Mustang Mk.1 dropping a message bag (off to the right) during an Army co-operation exercise (IWM)

Originally reformed in the summer of 1942, No. 63 Sqn moved here from Catterick, and stayed until July 1943 when they departed to Turnhouse, leaving only a detachment here at Macmerry. In November, the entire squadron then moved off to Thruxton leaving the airfield at Macmerry behind for good.

Other than a handful of Lysander target tugs and glider trainers, flying wise Macmerry would then fall quiet, the sound of aircraft engines being replaced by the thud of marching boots. During the winter of 1943, Operation ‘Fortitude North‘ was put into place, an operation to fool the Germans into thinking the impending invasion would occur across the North Sea. Macmerry would see a huge influx of army personnel, from No. 2736, No. 2830 and No. 2949 Regiment Squadrons, who would take to the mountains sending out false signals that would be picked up by German intelligence. These groups stayed here for a number of months until moved south for the real  invasion across the English Channel. So successful was the operation that German forces failed to pull vital units away from the Norwegian coastal areas for fear of an impending Allied attack.

RAF Macmerry

Much of what is left is rundown but in use for storing farm machinery.

In the months after the D-day landings, the RAF began to shrink as the need for fighters and heavy bomber began to lessen. The closing stages of the war were near and the fight was well and truly over German soil. The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) however were still expanding, preparing for what was going to be the invasion of Japan. To this end they needed more airfields to train pilots and crews to meet this demand. The Air Ministry considered giving the FAA Macmerry airfield to use, primarily as a repair yard, but, and whilst the offer was accepted, it was never actually put into practice. The FAA also considered stationing No. 770 Sqn FAA here, a Fleet Requirements Unit, whose role was to provide target tugs, simulated attacks on vessels and other gunnery roles. This too however, never actually came to fruition, and whilst the FAA had renamed the airfield H.M.S. Nighthawk II in preparation (Drem being re-designated H.M.S. Nighthawk) they handed Macmerry back to the RAF on March 15th 1946 without ever actually placing a man through its gates. With the war over for the second time, the RAF had no further use for Macmerry, and it was closed down very soon after.

With the airfield abandoned, the Edinburgh Flying Club seized the opportunity to get back into Macmerry, and on August 31st 1946, they reopened the airfield and began to operate from its runways again. They continued to operate here until 1953 when flying finally ceased and Macmerry closed its gates for the last and final time.

After this the site was sold off, the main A1 was eventually built and then later extended into a dual carriageway. As a result of the new road the airfield was split, and the active side developed as farm land. There are suggestions that additional hardstands were provided on the perimeter track on this side, but any sign of these seem to have gone along with the flying side of the airfield. In addition to this, the hangars on the northern side have also been removed and replaced by a rather large grain store.

The accommodation and technical sites were then turned into a small industrial park, the land adjacent to this, being returned to farm land. It is on this land that many of the accommodation buildings have been retained being put to use by the farm to house farm machinery and produce. The WAAF site buildings were demolished but the squash courts and gym both remain today.

RAF Macmerry

The squash court at Macmerry.

The road from the A1 circumnavigates the entire site and it is from this road that the best views can be obtained. From the main A1, the first stop is at the two revetments, which remain sandwiched in between this side road and the main A1. Hidden from view of the A1, they are discernible from the side road and are in remarkably good condition for their age. In a small triangular section of ground, there are several structures here, including the aircraft pens and crew blocks.

The industrial site visible just off to the left of this road is what was the main technical area of the airfield. The modern warehouses and industrial units having replaced the technical buildings that were once thriving RAF workshops.

Continue on and take a left turn. This takes you past the former accommodation sites and the location of the majority of surviving buildings today; long halls with their chimneys which were once the centre of life at Macmerry. Following this road to the left then takes you past the Gym and Squash Courts, passed the accommodation area and back to the A1 and away from the airfield.

The former airfield RAF Macmerry went through a number of changes during its life, and although it has a history dating back to the First World War, it is one of those airfields that never really seemed to establish itself as a front line airfield. The number of squadrons who passed through here also brought a range of aircraft types, giving Macmerry a varied and interesting mix of models. That said, Macmerry had a dark side to it, and had the invasion of Britain come through Scotland’s borders, then Macmerry would no doubt be a name at the forefront of Britain’s history books today.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Timetable courtesy of Bjorn Larsson via Airline Timetable Images Website.

*2 Phipp, M., ‘Wessex Aviation History‘, Amberley Publishing 2009, e-book accessed 24/4/18.

*3 AIR 27/2122 National Archives.

AIR 27/587/1 National Archives.

The East Lothian at War website gallery has a number of photos taken at RAF Macmerry during the war and is worth a visit.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 8).

In this, the last of the series looking at the development of Britain’s airfields, we look at the Watch Office, perhaps the most atmospheric of buildings associated with Britain’ wartime airfields. The hub of an airfield control, it was where aircraft were counted out and back, where the battle was monitored and the cries of those who fought in the air war were heard.

Though only a recent addition to airfield architecture, it developed quickly and became one of the technologically advanced offices in the world.

Watch Offices.

The Watch office, Watch Tower or in American terms Control Tower, was the centre piece of any airfield, the place in which all operations were controlled. Even today, the control tower is the one feature that stands high above the rest of the airfield with commanding views across the entire site.

Many of these watch offices remain today, some as fabulous museums, some as private dwellings, but many are sadly derelict or even worse – gone altogether. This that do survive create a haunting and evocative feeling when seen from inside.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The beautifully restored Thorpe Abbots Watch Office (design 15683/41).

Unlike hangar development, the watch office appeared quite late in the development of the airfield, only really coming into being as war seemed inevitable. Before this, a rudimentary office was often all that was used, usually attached to the side of the main hangar, and was used to ‘book’ aircraft in and out. But by the mid war period the watch office had become a major structure on the airfield, a standard design (depending upon the airfield use) with two or more floors and often a ‘glass house’ for observation purposes.

For obvious reasons the watch office was built away from other buildings with clear sight over the entire airfield, an important aspect if controllers were to keep watch on the many aircraft that were moving about the airfield space. A vital asset to the airfield it was often targeted by marauding bombers, and in the case of attack, the controllers within would relocate to an emergency battle headquarters, hidden at ground level on a remote part of the airfield, but still with views across the site.

The basic watch office was often adapted rather than demolished and rebuilt, this can and does, cause great confusion as to its design origin. Further more, on some sites, the original was abandoned but not demolished, and a new office built elsewhere on a nearby site, thus giving rise to two offices on the one airfield eg. Matlask and Martlesham Heath

The Watch Office as we know it was first seen on military airfields in 1926 and resembled a small bungalow with bay windows. Those constructed on bomber bases would be slightly smaller than those on fighter bases, a fighter base office having a pilots office attached. The idea behind this was to keep pilots as close to the airfield  control centre so they could quickly be scrambled and report back to the airfield controller on their return. These early design were found on airfields such as Bircham Newton in Norfolk, Hendon and Tangmere and were all built to the same  basic 1926 drawing design only modified to take the extra pilots room.

The standard shape of the World War 2 Watch Office stems back to the mid 1930s, with the introduction of a two-storey building that was square in design. Like similar buildings of its time, it was brick, a building material that was replaced with concrete, in 1936.

RAF West Malling Control Tower under refurbishment

West Malling a 5845/39 design which is now a coffee shop.

By the end of the expansion period, and with the introduction of hard runways, it was realised that the non-dispersed sites gave poor visibility for early watch offices, views across the airfields were not clear and so a quick remedy was called for. The answer lay in two choices, (a) demolish the current buildings  and rebuild it in a better location, or (b) add an extension. In many cases the former was the better idea and this progressed quite quickly, however, where the latter was chosen, remedial work required alteration of the building whilst it remained in use.

A further complication to these designs was the introduction of meteorological sections, which all new buildings erected at the beginning of the war now had. This gave a mix of design styles, enough though there was only a small selection of design drawings from which to work.

These late expansion period and early war designs introduced the idea of ‘viewing platforms’ or parapets, surrounded by safety railings along the front of the building. These deign also had very large glass fronted walls, bright and airy they allowed a lot of light to enter the building but gave cause for concern later on, when it was realised that a bomb blast would cause severed injury to the occupants in an attack. It was also found that during night operations, large windows were more difficult to black out and so smaller windows offered both better protection and greater ease of black out.

As building materials became scare, particularly wood and brick, concrete became the norm. This change also led to drawing changes even though the basic design inside and out, was the same.

In order to appreciate the changes to watch office designs, one needs to consider the different roles that airfields played during the war. Bomber Command airfields would have a differ office to a fighter Command airfield, which in turn, had a different office to a satellite or night-fighter station.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Watch Offices give commanding views across the airfield. (Thorpe Abbots).

The regional control stations where these first offices were being built were certainly getting the better choice at this time, standard fighter and bomber airfields having to use inferior designs that very soon became outdated and inadequate for the needs of the airfield.

During the massive building programme of 1941/42, there was some effort made to standardise all airfield Watch Offices, this resulted in the 1941 design drawing no. 12779/41. This was to be the basic airfield watch office design, with its parapet, six large windows to the front and outside access steps. As older airfields were brought up to Class A Specification, many had these new Watch Offices built to replace the older original ones. Some simply had adaptation of the original. Here the use of the airfield had a bearing on the watch office modification / design, and whilst the basic 12779/41 model was employed, slight variations did exist where the airfield was not a bomber airfield.

Therefore various adaptations of this did follow, examples of which include the slightly smaller 13023/41 (RAF Cottam), those with modified smaller windows 15371/41 (Kimbolton) and 343/43 (Martlesham Heath),  and the smaller Night-Fighter design 15684/41 (Winfield). Being a Night-Fighter station Winfield, had the same basic design but construction methods were totally different. This new design 15684/41, would become standard at all night fighter bases.

All these alternative designs appear outwardly very similar to the original, but differ mainly in window design only, although the physical size of some is different.

RAF Winfield

The Night-Fighter station Watch Office at Winfield (15684/41) is a similar design but smaller, having only four windows in the front.

This design, 343/43, eventually became the most common design for watch offices and appeared on all operational stations and Operation Training Unit airfields after 1943, using a set of six half-size windows across the front.

Tower (2)

The smaller windows of Parham (Framlingham) were half the original design size (12779/41 modified to 343/43).

A further addition was the glass observation room located on the roof of the Watch Office. These were generally only applied to Group control offices, and gave an excellent all round unrestricted view of the entire airfield. Examples that exist today, such as Framlingham above, are replicas but have been built to very high standards.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Martlesham Heath is a similar design to Framlingham (modified to 343/43) – Note the runway heading board on the roof.

At the end of the war some airfields such as Sculthorpe and West Raynham had their Watch Offices modified as they changed roles to Very Heavy Bomber Stations. This new design 294/45, utilised the former building having an extra floor added and then the octagonal ‘glass house’ or Visual Control Room with slanted glass to reduce glare.

Control Tower

Sculthorpe’s modified tower gives 360 degree views over the airfield. A three-story block it utilises the former World War 2 Watch Office.

The Watch Office has been the hub of airfield command and control since the mid 1930s, it has developed from the humble shed to a multi-functional technologically advanced building dominating the skyline of the airfield today. Sadly though, many are now gone, and of those that are left only a few remain in good condition or open to the public.

Summary

The war-time airfield incorporated numerous building designs and shapes, certainly far too many to cover here, the wide variety of technical buildings, synthetic trainers, parachute stores, headquarters and general stores, all changing as the war progressed.  The design and materials used in these structures was as varied as the designs themselves. But as the RAF grew so too did the airfields they used. The runways, the hangars, the technical buildings and accommodation sites have all grown alongside. Sadly many of these buildings have now vanished, but the process and speed at which they developed has been unprecedented. From humble grass strips with wooden shacks to enormous conurbations with numerous buildings, they have become iconic symbols representing decades of both aviation history and human sacrifice.

The entire page can be viewed separately:

Part 1 – The Road to War.
Part 2 – The Expansion Period and airfield development.
Part 3 – Choosing a site.
Part 4 – Building the airfield.
Part 5 – Airfield Architecture.
Part 6 – Runways and Hardstands.
Part 7 – Hangars and aircraft sheds.

or as a whole document.

 

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

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

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

Hangars and Aircraft Sheds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Type A Hangar

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Upwood

Type C at the former RAF Upwood.

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

Storage Hangars.

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

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

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

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ hangar located at RAF Waterbeach.

Transportable hangars.

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

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

Bellman Aircraft shed

Bellman Aircraft sheds at the former RAF Bircham Newton

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

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

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

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

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

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

RAF Wratting Common

A T2 hangar at RAF Wratting Common.

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

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

RAF Wratting Common

A B1 at RAF Wratting Common an RAF bomber station.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading. 

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

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

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

Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands

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

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Charterhall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runway arrester gear

Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Milfield

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

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

Remains of Type 'B' fighter Pen

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

RAF Macmerry

A Type ‘B’ Pen at RAF Macmerry. The cranked wall can be seen to the right, with the central wall on the left. The entrance is to the bottom right.

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

Kingscliffe airfield

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

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

King's Cliffe airfield

Inside the aircraft pen shelter at King’s Cliffe.

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

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

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

Sources and further reading. 

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

RAF Thorpe Abbotts – home to the ‘Bloody 100th’.

There are few Bomb Groups who got through the war unscathed. Some earned notable awards, many earned notable nicknames. There are none more though than that of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Air Force, a groups of men who fought in many of Europe’s most fearsome air battles, suffering many great loses but also achieving great successes.

In this review of Trail 12 we look again at the airfield at Thorpe Abbots, and the history behind the derelict buildings and the concrete remains, we see how the 100th BG earned themselves that most unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th‘.

Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139).

Opened quite late in the war, (April 1943), Thorpe Abbots would only be active for a short period of time. But during these months, it would be home to one major air group, the 100th BG of the US Eighth Air Force, who would gain the unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th’. Their legacy would become well-known, it would be a legacy connected with death and destruction, and would be one that would live on for many years, even after the cessation of conflict in Europe.

The first units of the 100th BG would arrive in June 1943, and would operate continuously here until the cessation of conflict in 1945. The site would never see any further action after this, being returned to the RAF who retained ownership until its final closure in 1956. Now totally agricultural, it boasts a superb museum as a memorial to those who gave so tragically flying with ‘The Bloody 100th’.

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

The 100th’s name developed as a result of losses sustained by the group, which in actual fact were not significantly worse than any other Bomb Group of the US Air Force at that time. However, throughout their 306 operational missions over occupied Europe, 177 aircraft along with 700 lives were sadly lost in what were some of the most difficult and terrifying air battles of the Second World War.

Designated Station 139, Thorpe Abbots was built to Class A specification, with three concrete and woodchip runways in the form of an inverted ‘A’, with the cross of the A being the main runway running east to west. Being a bomber base it had 36 pan style hardstands and 16 spectacle hardstands around the perimeter. Maintenance was carried out in two T2 hangars (a type A to drawing 8254/40, and a standard T2). The technical area, accommodation areas and even the bomb store were very unusually all nestled close together in the south-western corner of the site, giving the whole airfield a  compact feel.

With two communal sites, six airmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and sewage works, it was a large accommodation area capable of holding 3,000 men and women of mixed ranks. All the accommodation areas used a range of standard huts, Nissen, Romney, Seco, Thorn and Orlit, all of which appeared on site.

Being a large base, it was, like many of its counterparts, a little town in its own right, with a barber’s shop, a cobblers, grocery store, a gymnasium and squash courts. It also had an on site plumbers, a cement store and a carpenter’s shop.

Although the journey of the 100th started with the activation on June 1st 1942, little occurred until later that year, when the collection of 230 enlisted men and 26 Officers arrived at Walla Walla, Washington, under the guidance of the Group Adjutant Cpt. Karl Standish. He began to organise the cadre into something worthwhile, and as more men arrived the ranks began to swell and the 100th began to take shape. The four squadrons: 349th (led by Cpt. William Veal), 350th (Cpt. Gale Clevan), 351st (Cpt. John Kidd) and 418th (Cpt. Robert Flesher), formed bonds and very quickly, and very soon after, the air echelons would begin to arrive, bringing with them brand new ‘straight out of the factory’ B-17Fs.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Thorpe Abbotts Control Tower now a museum to the 100th BG.

Their next move came at the end of November with a move that took them to Wendover Field, Utah, followed by, Sioux City and then Kearney Air Base in Nebraska, their final major US base before leaving for the UK in May 1943.

After the ground and air echelons split for their transition, the air echelons flew to bases in Newfoundland, where they departed across the northern route to Prestwick at the end of May. The ground echelons then  carried out ground training before departing on the “Queen Elizabeth” on the 27th May, many men being confined below decks because of the overcrowding on the upper decks.

The Queen Elizabeth finally made Greenock, and the men began unloading, the transition from the US to the UK being a shock to many as they clambered aboard the small ‘box cars’ size trains. That night they arrived at Poddington, their first base, and following a poor night’s sleep they received their initial introduction into the British way of life.

The 100th’s arrival at Thorpe Abbotts was not a pleasant one, the base was unfinished, accommodation was lacking and overcrowded, and food supplies were poor to say the least; this was not going to be an easy ride by any means.

Finally, in June, the air echelons began to arrive, the ground and air crews began to work on their machines, rehearsing, tweaking instruments and flying around the local area, until just after midnight on June 25th 1943, the order came through; they were to fly their first mission early that next morning.

The 100th were the third B-17 group to join the Mighty Eighth, as part of the new and reorganised 4th Bombardment Wing, they would join with the 379th BG (Kimbolton) and the 384th BG (Grafton Underwood), both also B-17 groups.

On that morning the aircraft would depart Thorpe Abbotts at 06:00 hrs, and whilst flying out over the North Sea, the formation would be joined by another B-17, with no top turret and the letters ‘VGY’ painted on it. No-one knew what it was, or where it had come from, and suspicions quickly arose about its authenticity. The ‘alien’ ship remained with the formation up until the target at which point it departed and “all hell broke loose”. The formation consisting of these new recruits was ragged and the experienced Luftwaffe pilots took full advantage of this. Focusing on the low squadron first, they fired a barrage of explosive shells into the fuselage’s of the B-17s. That afternoon three aircraft and thirty airmen failed to return home to Thorpe Abbotts, the war had hit home, and hit home hard.

Robert H. Wolff’s crew. L to R Back Row: Ira Bardman, Alfred Clark, William ‘Casey’ Casebolt, James Brady, Arthur ‘Eagle’ Eggleston, Willis ‘Browny’ Brown . Front Row: Charles ‘Stu’ Stuart, Fredric ‘Buzz’ White, (aiming at the enemy) Bob Wolff, Lawrence ‘Mac’ McDonell. The photo was taken after Regensburg for publicity purposes. (@IWM FRE 905)

Over the next month, there were many aborted and scrubbed missions, this continued raising and dashing of hopes set the men on edge but what few missions they did fly, they manged to get through relatively unscathed.

The end of July 1943 saw the official hand over of Thorpe Abbotts from the RAF to the USAAF, with Sqn. Ldrs. Lawson and Bloomfield representing the RAF and Col. Harding the USAAF.

On August 17th 1943, on the anniversary of the Eighth’s operations from England, the men of the 100th sat in the briefing room awaiting the revealing of the target for the day. The anticipation however, was soon replaced with trepidation as the route map revealed a line that would take them deep into the heart of southern Germany, to the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg. This would be no ordinary mission though, they were to not return to Thorpe Abbotts that day, but instead, they were to complete the first shuttle mission by the Eighth Air Force of the war, flying on to land in North Africa.

After an initial postponement because of mist, the green light was finally given and the aircrews started their engines. One by one they departed Thorpe Abbots toward the  skies above Germany. The 100th were in the unenviable position of ‘tail end Charlie’ being the low squadron at the rear of the formation. Added to this the 100th BG found themselves unprotected due to miscalculations in timing, and as unprotected ‘tail-end Charlies’, they were easy prey for the fearsome and hunting Luftwaffe. For two whole hours the defenders attacked from every possible angle, venting their determination on the lowly B-17s. The sky was littered with downed aircraft and falling wreckage. The B-17s were subjected to harrowing attempts to bring them down, air-to-air bombing from Ju-88s, and rockets fired from BF-109s just added to the mayhem of exploding cannon shells and bullets.

During this engagement B-17 #42-30311, piloted by Lt. Tom Hummel was attacked by Rudolf Germeroth in Bf 109G-6 of J 3/1. The aircraft was seen to explode and fall from the sky. The two waist gunners Ken O’Connor and Dick Bowler were killed whilst the remainder of the crew escaped the wreck and were taken prisoner.

Bombing over the target was accurate and reports sent back to England hailed the mission as a total success, The Messerschmitt factory being totally destroyed, and along with it unbeknown to intelligence, secret jigs for the manufacture of Me 262 jets. But the price had been high, of the twenty-one aircraft sent from the Thorpe Abbotts group,  nine had been lost and ninety men were either dead, captured or missing. Of all the groups who had taken part, the 100th had suffered the most, the lead group protected by P-47s coming off much more lightly.

The Regensburg mission would be a turning point for the 100th, their luck would run out and very soon they would earn themselves the unsavoury nickname ‘The Bloody 100th‘, a name that would stick with them for the duration of the war and beyond.

For their action in this mission, the 100th (and the entire division) would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) an award now becoming a regular feature amongst the brave crews of the Eighth Air Force.

In the Citation, the Secretary of War, G.C. Marshall said:

“The 3d Bombardment Division (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty on action against the enemy on 17th August 1943. This unprecedented attack against one of Germany’s most important aircraft factories was the first shuttle mission performed in the theatre of operations and entailed the longest flight over strongly defended enemy territory yet accomplished to this date. For 4.5 hours the formation was subjected to persistent, savage assaults by large forces of enemy fighters…

…The high degree of success achieved is directly attributable to the extraordinary heroism, skill and devotion to duty displayed by the members of this unit.”

During the September, the USAAF was reorganised again, the 4th Bombardment Wing now becoming the 3rd Bomb Division, 13th Combat Wing, a move that heralded little more than a change in aircraft markings. September would also be a notable month for other reasons. The mission on the 6th to Stuttgart would be a disaster for the USAAF, a deep penetration mission that saw over 400 aircraft combine in the skies over Germany. It was during this mission that B-17 #42-30088 ‘Squawkin’ Hawk II‘ would suffer from head on attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft who pounded the B-17 with 20 mm cannon shells. In the attacks the co-pilot (F/O. Harry Edeburn) was fatally wounded, the bombardier and navigator Lt. Peter Delso and Lt. Russ Engel were both severely wounded and the pilot, Lt. Summer Reeder was sprayed with metal as the nose of the B-17 shattered. With poor control and no oxygen, Reeder dropped the aircraft some 14,000 ft at an unbelievable rate of around 300 mph, before playing cat and mouse with the Luftwaffe fighters who were determined to finish off the damaged aircraft. By singing and telling jokes, the severely injured Reeder assisted by the badly wounded navigator, manged to reach England and without brakes or hydraulics, managed to put the aircraft down on a fighter airfield in England.

Squawkin Hawk II‘ would go on to become the first 100th BG aircraft to complete 50 missions covering a staggering 47,720 combat miles. She returned to the US in May 1944 where she was eventually sold for scrap.

After completing 50 missions, “Squawkin’ Hawk II” was covered with autographs before being sent back to the US for retirement and eventual scrapping.(@IWM FRE 4124)

During this disastrous mission many aircraft would run out of fuel, five made for Switzerland including ‘Raunchy‘ from the 100th BG in which Joe Moloney, the ball turret gunner, would be killed whilst trying to ditch. He would take the dubious honour of being the first US airman killed in neutral Switzerland.

It was also at this month, that the 100th would suffer another major blow and to rub salt into the wounds, they would not even get credit for it.

After a cancelled mission on September 24th 1943, the men of the 100th were raised from their beds for a practice mission over the North Sea, a ‘mission’ that would test their ability as Pathfinders. With bombs still in the aircraft from the morning’s preparations, skeleton crews and semi prepared aircraft took off from several bases across East Anglia.

They were to form up with P-47s over the Wash and then fly out over the sea and practice bombing. When a collection of aircraft appeared on the horizon it was assumed by the bomber crews that it was the friendlies arriving at last. The reality of it was sickening. Diving out of the sun Luftwaffe fighters from JG 3/II attacked the formation, rallying 20mm cannon shells in to the B-17’s wings and bodies. One aircraft, #42-30259 “Damifino II” piloted by Lt. J. Gossage crashed into the sea. Five crewmen were plucked from the water by Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) hunting German ‘E’ boats, five men remained missing presumed dead.

Yet more difficult times lay ahead. The October raid to Munster saw only one of fourteen aircraft return home – 120 crewmen were missing in action that day. As aircraft were hit from head on, the formation split. Aircraft dodged falling debris and exploding B-17s as rockets were launched at near point-blank range in a forty-five minute frenzy of slaughter.

This disastrous mission would see the tally of lost airmen rise to 200 in just one week, the loss could not be hidden and Munster would simply add another black chapter to the already darkening book of the 100th’s war. Even the one year celebrations at the end of October failed to cover the feeling of loss shrouding the base, a feeling as thick as the autumn fogs preventing flying from taking place.

Thorpe Abbotts Emergency operations block

Ghostly reminders hidden amongst the trees. Thorpe Abbott’s Battle Headquarters.

The cold winter of 1943/44 saw more fog, rain and cold, the dismal weather allowing only a few missions to go ahead. But as spring warmed the ground, the softening of the German defences in preparation for Operation “Overlord” could begin. ‘Big Week’ of February 20th – 25th, saw the 100th in action again – Brunswick on the 21st. March saw another milestone etched in the annuals of history as the 100th took the war directly to the heart of Germany and Berlin. Over three days the 100th would target the German capital, the first on the 4th, followed by the 6th and then the 8th. The 4th would see the 100th achieve the first blood, shooting down their first German aircraft over Berlin.

Each attack brought new challenges. In the first mission the weather forced many aircraft to abandon the flight and return home, the 100th, persevering lost one aircraft that day. On the 6th, the loss was much higher, fifteen aircraft went down and then another single aircraft on the 8th; 170 men were missing from those missions.

For their action, the 100th would receive their second DUC, albeit a year later. In the General orders 3rd March 1945, No.14 it said:

“The 100th Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in connection with the initial series of successful attacks against Berlin, Germany, 4, 6, and 8 March 1944…”

For the remainder of the summer the 100th would attack oil fields. bridges, and gun positions. They would provide support at St. Lo and Brest in August. Marshalling yards would also come under the focus of the 100th, the Ardennes and the assault across the Rhine. Eventually the war would come to a close and the 100th perform their last mission on April 20th 1945. They would lick their wounds and prepare for a well-earned return to the US.

By the end of its war-time operations the 100th BG had flown nearly 9,000 sorties, in over 300 missions, dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs. They would be credited with the destruction of 261 enemy aircraft, with another 240 damaged or probable. They earned two DUCs and the French Croix de Guerre with palm. Far from being the worst in the 8th Air Force, the 100th’s reputation for accuracy, and overall low operational loses made it one of the most outstanding Bomb Groups of the Air Force.

Finally leaving in December 1945, the 100th would eventually return to serve over the skies of the UK once more as the 100th Refuelling Wing based at nearby RAF Mildenhall.

After the 100th departed, Thorpe Abbots was returned to RAF ownership, no further military flying  took place and the site remained inactive. Eventually in 1956 the airfield was closed and the site then sold off to private ownership. Many of the runways and perimeter tracks were removed for hardcore, and the buildings fell into disrepair.

Today, the site houses a museum utilising the old original control tower and a small number of other buildings. Tucked neatly away amongst the beautiful countryside of Norfolk, this museum is more than worthy of a visit.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The Tower has Commanding Views.

Visible remains of the airfield are restricted to mainly perimeter track, but remnants can be found with a little effort. In the woods to the east of the tower, buried in amongst the undergrowth, are the remains of buildings including the Battle Headquarters  which would have commanded excellent views across the field in the case of attack.

The perimeter track has been partially utilised and turned into road, from which larger sections can be seen. A number of admin blocks, stores and a range of accommodation buildings are now engulfed by trees and vegetation but still survive and are all very much on private land.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Remnants of the perimeter track at Thorpe Abbotts.

Whilst many buildings remain hidden away, the dedication of a few volunteers keep the memories and lives of those who gave so much alive, and enable the history of Thorpe Abbots airfield to continue on for future generations.

Sources and further reading. 

Freeman, Roger A. “The Mighty Eighth” (1986) Arms and Armour

Arnold, Henry. H., “Contrails, My War Record: A history of World War Two as recorded at U.S. Army Air Force Station #139, Thorpe Abbots, near Diss, county of Norfolk, England” (1947) World War Regimental Histories Book 194.

Further details of the 100th BG and information about the museum can be found on the museum website.

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 4).

In Part 4 of the Development of Britain’s Airfields, we take a short look at the construction process and the numerous companies that were involved in building the airfield. Once a site was found in Part 3, compulsory purchase was made and the developers moved in.

Building the airfield.

The creation of airfields was set, each plan was studied, trees, shrubs and hedges were removed, ditches filled and the land leveled to a maximum gradient of 1:60.

First of all to reduce the risk of machinery being bogged down, perimeter tracks were built. This allowed the delivery of heavy loads to any part of the site, and so were originally designed to carry support vehicles rather than aircraft. One reason why so many grassed airfields had hard perimeter tracks.

With such a big workforce being drafted in, accommodation for the workers would be needed, these would generally be the huts that would be used for the aircrews and other personnel on the base once active. Drainage and dry storage was needed as a matter of urgency, and were usually a priority even before the accommodation areas.

RAF Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)

Buildings would be built using a range of materials.

Hiding these enormous excavations was going to a headache for the authorities. How do you hide a building site covering many acres? (Average grassed stations covered 200 – 400 acres whilst those with runways were around 500 acres extending to over 1,000 by the war’s end).  Numerous strategies were tried from painting the ground to covering it with coal dust, even adding wood chip to the concrete surfaces was used all with little real impact. Any spy or reconnaissance pilot worth his salt would have spotted the works and reported back immediately.

Gradually the airfield developed. Workers worked in shifts covering a 24 hour working day, seven days a week, this meant that the construction period was relatively short and the completion rapid. By the end of the war some £200 million worth of work had been carried out involving somewhere in the region of 130,000 individuals including engineering workers, and building sub-contractors.

As the site neared completion, RAF staff would begin moving in. The stores officer or ‘Equipment manager’ would often be first, ordering the necessary supplies to accommodate the forthcoming personnel. He would usually be followed by a NAFFI and a medical officer who would officially declare the site ready for occupation. Once this had been given the ground crews would be brought in, followed by aircrews and the aircraft. Even with a newly opened site, it was rare that it was ever fully finished, often accommodation was rudimentary or cooking facilities limited. In some cases tents were the order of the day until construction was completed. Great emphasis was placed on getting the site open and operational rather than ready. In some cases ground crews, who were otherwise waiting for aircraft to arrive, would take to shovels and picks to complete or improve upon work that had been started on site.

Also the airfield needed naming. Names were usually taken from the nearest village or town, and where confusion might arise from a similar name, it could then be taken from an alternative nearby village. This is why some airfields appear to be quite distant from their respective named locations. Alternatives to this would be geographical features or alternatively local farms e.g RAF Twinwood Farm. The Americans used the system of numbering partly because (a) the American airmen were unable to pronounce accurately some of the English names and were often found getting confused by them, and (b) the American administration system made it easier to use numbers rather than names.

By now the airfield was built, or at least open, the first unit would arrive and airfield defences would be set up. Military personnel would become established and operations would soon begin. All this could occur within months, it was a massive undertaking achieved in very little time.

In the next section we look at the architecture of British airfields, how the idea of replication in design led to architectural developments, and how the demand for materials led to changes in airfield buildings.