RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt2)

After part 1, we return to  Snailwell, to see how the American influence played its part at Snailwell and how the build- up to D-day affected life at this small grassed airfield.

The squadron was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group (FG) who would eventually transfer to the Middle East. It would be the 347th’s sister squadron the 346th who would later convert Hurricane Mk I #LB640 target tug into a two-seat liaison plane.

Hurricane Mk I LB640, which was being operated as a target-tug with the P-39-equipped 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th AF USAAF in Sardinia in early 1944. It was field converted into a two-seater as a liaison plane by the unit's ground crew.

Hurricane Mk I #LB640 after being converted into a two-seat liaison plane.  IWM (UPL 17052)

As they were a new squadron the 347th would initially have no ground echelon, they were still being formed and prepared for transportation over the Atlantic from their base at Harding Field, Louisiana. They would arrive in the UK in the November and after a short period at Snailwell, the entire squadron would move out to RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, before moving away to the warmer climate of the Middle East.

The winter of 1942/43 saw further detachments being based here at Snailwell. In conjunction with the US forces were No. 170 Sqn, who remained here from the end of October through the winter until February 1943. After a short spell away they made a brief one day stop over before being moved to RAF Odiham.

The January of 1943 saw yet more short stays. On the 17th No. 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, No. 182 Sqn were finding it hard to get in any flying at all, as the heavy winter rains had clogged up the metal PSP runways with thick mud preventing the aircraft from taking off.

Two days earlier 70 ground personnel had been dispatched from Sawbridgeworth to Snailwell in preparation for the forthcoming training operation. Operation “Shatter” as it was designated, would be a mock attack on gun emplacements on the outskirts of Thetford Forest. On the 17th, the ten aircraft were sent from RAF Sawbridgeworth led by Sqn. Ldr Pugh along with a further four from the detachment at RAF Hunsdon. On arrival they found their sister squadron, 181 Sqn also with Typhoons, already here for the Army Cooperation training operation. A large party was given that night in honour of the new 182 Sqn crews. The next day, a preliminary attack was made on the target by eleven 182 Sqn aircraft, who made runs over both the dummy and real guns in a “full frontal attack”. The following day, a complete squadron attack was made with the aircraft having to be airborne in under 4.5 minutes. For the first time since forming, all the canons on the Typhoons are fully loaded with live ammunition and a full squadron scramble was undertaken.

Aerial photograph of Snailwell airfield looking south, 26 July 1942 (IWM RAF_FNO_67_V_6032)

In the afternoon a four ship formation was loaded up with 2 x 250 lb bombs and a further attack was made. This attack ended the training session for 182 Sqn and the next day they return to the muddy runways of Sawbridgeworth.

Two months later on March 8th 1943, 181 Sqn was reunited with her other sister squadron No. 183 Sqn here at Snailwell. After a number of short training flights covering just four days, 183 Sqn departed the Cambridgeshire airfield leaving 181 Sqn here until the end of the month.

Throughout 1943 much of the same was to happen, short stays for training missions were the order of the day. No. 309 Sqn flew the Mustang MK.I and Hurricane VIs. The Polish squadron became renowned amongst the Allies when F/Lt Janusz Lewkowicz flew a Mustang I to Norway and back strafing targets at Stavanger just to prove the point that the Mustang had the range!

Another squadron, 613 Sqn also brought their Mustangs along in July, and No. 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. No.247 Sqn brought back the mighty Typhoon, each of these squadrons carrying out training flights, some for as little as two days others for more prolonged periods.

As the end of 1943 drew a line under the busy ebb and flow of visiting squadrons, 1944 would see a rather more settled year. After a single RAF squadron, No. 527 Sqn, moved in and then out two months later, the  build up to D-day would see big changes at Snailwell.

The invasion of Europe was destined to be the largest invasion build up the world had ever seen, and southern England was to be the primary area in which this build up would take place. With the creation of the Ninth Air Force, whose primary purpose was to provide assistance to the forth coming Normandy landings, more and more airfields were going to be required. Whilst front line units would be directly involved in operations over the Normandy coast, there would need to be a major service and maintenance support network, if the invasion were to succeed. This service was to be carried out by a series of  six Tactical Air Depots (TAD) all falling under the command of the IX Air Force Service Command, via two Advanced Air Depot Areas (AADA).

One of these depots, the 3rd Tactical Air Depot based at RAF Grove some 55 miles from London, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of Douglas A-20 ‘Havocs’ and P-61 ‘Black Widows’. Because of the increasing demand for maintenance facilities, the 3rd TAD took over the facilities at RAF Snailwell, moving in two Mobile Repair and Maintenance Squadrons, the 33rd and 41st, in preparation for maintenance operations. Their primary role was to make field modifications to the aircraft in preparation for operational roles, as a result of which the A-20s became a regular feature around the airfield. After only a short time though it was realised that the 41st would not be required here, and so they returned to RAF Grove. To replace them, a specialist team were brought in – the 51st Service Squadron. By the time D-day had passed, the pressure at Grove had subsided and so both units were able to return home from Snailwell. With that, the American connection with Snailwell ended.

As the war drew to a close so too did both operational flying and training flights. The RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School used the airfield sharing it with nearby RAF Bottisham. In March 1946, the Belgians pulled out returning to their own country now free from the Nazi tyranny that had dominated it for so long.

Snailwell then closed, standing empty and gradually returning to agricultural use. Many of the buildings were pulled down but some hung on for several years being used for agricultural purposes. The Blister hanger, sheds and training buildings remained for a number of years, certainly until the mid 1990s, but gradually even these were removed with little evidence of their existence being left today. The airfield was then dissected by a major road development in 1975, remaining parts being bought up by the British Horse Racing School who now own a large portion of the former airfield. High hedges and gated access restrict most access to the former site, (the Icknield Way long-distance route does pass along side these tracks and borders the former airfield from which remnants can be seen) leaving the last few sections of concrete hanging on as reminders of the airfields once proud and hectic existence.

With a mix of repair and maintenance units added to the pot, the war years for Snailwell were far from slow. The regular ebb and flow of detached units for training flights, and the occasional permanent flying unit, saw a wide range of aircraft types and nationalities grace the skies of this small area of Eastern Cambridgeshire. With little evidence of its existence left today, Snailwell, and its proud history, would seem to have been lost, replaced by Horse racing and the desire for the high stakes demanded by the equestrian market.

From Snailwell, we head west, deeper in to the area owned by the Horse racing fraternity. Here we see on every street corner evidence of this now popular sport, well groomed bushes that surround neatly cut turfs, on what now remains of Britain’s wartime heritage. Our next stop on Trail 55, is the pinnacle of these activities, the former RAF Newmarket Heath.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Official Directorate of Works drawing (WA7/395/41) IWM UPL 17710

British History Online (Snailwell) website.

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

National Archives AIR 27/954/6

National Archives AIR 27/1135/1

Niall Corduroy. “Whirlwind: Westland’s Enigmatic FighterFonthill Media, 2017.

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RAF Polebrook – The First USAAF Bombing mission (Pt 1).

At the top of Northants, close to the Cambridge / Huntingdon borders, lie a number of wartime airfields. Relatively high up, they can be bleak and windy, but to those interested in aviation history they offer some amazing stories and fascinating walks. Some of these sites have been covered in earlier Trails e.g. Kingscliffe, Deenethorpe, Spanhoe Lodge and Grafton Underwood, but because of their close proximity, they could all be combined with this trip.

Our visit today in Trail 19 is the former RAF Polebrook, home to the famous Clark Gable, and the site that saw the very first official Eighth Air Force Bombing mission in August 1942.

RAF Polebrook (Station 110)

To the west of Peterborough, across the A1 and through some of the most gorgeous countryside this area has to offer, is Polebrook, a small village that once bustled with the sound of military voices. Originally designed for the RAF’s Bomber Command, Polebrook opened in May 1941, as a Class II airfield built by George Wimpey and Co. Ltd. It had three runways, the main one being (08-26) 1,280 yards in length, with two further runways (14-32) of 1,200 yards and (02-20), 1,116 yards, giving the site a substantial feeling of size. To accommodate the dispersed aircraft, it was designed with thirty hardstands laid mainly to the south-west and eastern sides of the airfield. The administration and technical sites were located to the north.

Aircraft maintenance was carried out in two type T2 hangars and one J type hanger, which sat next to each other, there were in addition, a range of technical buildings, a Watch Office (with Meteorological Section to design 518/40, to which a circular addition was made to the roof) and around 20 pill boxes built to provide defensive cover of the overall site.

To the north of the site across the main road, lies an area known as Ashton Wold Woods. Within the wood is the Ashton Estate, which was purchased and developed by the banker, Lionel Rothschild in 1860. It was after this that the estate was developed into a country home for his grandson, Charles Rothschild.

Charles, a banker by trade, set about creating a formal garden on the estate along with his wife Rozsika, and later his daughter Miriam. He had the grand honour of being the country’s leading expert on fleas, as well as a naturalist and conservationist who was responsible for forming the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves in 1912.

After his death and subsequently Rozsika’s in 1940, the house passed to their daughter, but when the construction of the airfield began, the house and gardens were requisitioned for use as both as a hospital and accommodation site. During the war, the site suffered badly through neglect, and post war, Miriam set about restoring parts of the estate. Sadly it was not fully restored and parts continued to fall into disrepair*1.

RAF Polebrook, Taken August 1948*2

A year after Miriam inherited the estate, the first RAF unit arrived, No 90 squadron (28th June 1941) with Fortress Is, otherwise known as Boeing’s B-17C, who stayed until their disbandment in February 1942. Although liked by their crews, the Fortresses were dogged by high altitude problems (freezing guns) and poor bombing results. This early version of the B-17 was not to be a record breaker and had a relatively short life before being replaced later by better models. Between 8th July and September 2nd, 1941 Polebrook Fortresses made 22 daylight attacks against targets including: Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Brest, Emden, Kiel, Oslo, and Rotterdam. The RAF eventually decided to pull out of these daylight raids and the airfield momentarily fell silent to operational activities.

B-17C #40-2079 delivered to the RAFSerial: AN518 (Mistakenly marked as AM518 at the Boeing Factory) 90 Squadron

Delivered to the RAF [AN537] as part of Lend-Lease. This was the last B-17C produced; 90 Squadron [WP-L] Polebrook 13th May 1941. The aircraft later transferred to No. 220 Squadron at Alder-grove, Northern Ireland. (IWM UPL 31070)

Polebrook airfield was then handed over to the USAAF (June 28th 1942) and re-designated Station 110. It was felt however, that the current runways were inadequate for the American’s new model B-17s, and so a period of expansion then occurred. During this time the hardstands were increased to 50, the main runway (concrete and tarmac) was extended to 2,000 yards and the two secondary runways were both extended to 1,400 yards. Accommodation blocks were increased now allowing for 2,000 personnel, and the whole site was brought up to Class A standard; all-in-all it was a major redevelopment of the entire site.

The first American units were those of the 97th BG of the 1st Combat Wing. The 97th were constituted on 28th January 1942 and activated in the following February. Passing from MacDill Field in Florida through Saratosa they would make their way across the northern route to Prestwick. On route to their departure points, elements of the group were detached and sent to the Pacific coast, whilst the remainder continued on to Europe. The first manned B-17 #41-9085, ‘Jarrin Jenny‘ arrived in the UK on 1st July 1942 touching down at Prestwick in Scotland after a 3,000 mile long flight via Greenland, with the first ground echelons arriving via the Queen Elizabeth, shortly before on 10th June. Five days after ‘Jarrin Jenny’s‘ arrival, the aircraft would reach their new base, and the Northampton countryside would become a buzz of activity, as much from the curious locals as the Americans they were in awe of.

Bill Colantoni of the 306th Bomb Group with a B-17 Flying Fortress (serial number 41-9085) nicknamed

Bill Colantoni poses in front of B-17 #41-9085 ‘Jarrin’ Jenny’ at Polebrook, the first B-17 to arrive in the UK. (IWM UPL 6830)

Almost immediately after arriving int the UK the four squadrons of the 97th were split. Between June and the end of November the Headquarters unit, along with the 340th BS and 341st BS were based here at Polebrook, whilst the 342nd and 414th BS went to the satellite airfield at nearby Grafton Underwood (Trail 6).

Within a month of arriving on August 17th, the 97th BG would enter service flying the first operational mission of the USAAF from England, under the control of the Eighth Air Force. However, hastily formed, these early groups of bombers were made up of poorly trained crews, many of the gunners never having fired their guns at moving targets, nor had pilots flown at high altitude on Oxygen or in close formation. Such was the rush to get the aircraft overseas, that basic radio, flying and gunnery skills were all lacking, and if they were not to become easy targets for the more experienced and ruthless Luftwaffe, then they were going to have to endure a very steep learning curve indeed. Thus the early part of August was to be filled with intensive flying practice, with the RAF offering their services as mock enemy fighters, trainers and advisers, supporting the Americans through the tough training regime that would hopefully save their lives in the coming weeks and months.

By the 9th August it was decided that the 97th was combat ready and orders came through for their first mission. Sadly the 10th August brought poor weather, and the mission was scrubbed much to the disappointment of the those in the Group.

Two days after this, even before a bomb was dropped in anger, the dangers of flying in cloudy European skies would become all too apparent when a 340th BS, B-17E #41-9098 ‘Big Bitch‘ (not to be confused with #41-9021 ‘The Big Bitch’, which transferred to the 390th BG at Framlingham and was renamed “Hangar Queen“), collided with mountains in Wales whilst on a navigation exercise to Burtonwood, killing all eleven on board. The 97th were now racking up many ‘firsts’ adding the first B-17 fatalities to their extending roll.

August 12th saw the next call to arms, but again the weather played a cruel joke on the men of the 97th, the mission being scrubbed yet again; it was beginning to appear that someone was playing a rather frustrating joke at the expense of the eager young men.

Their next mission, detailed on the 16th was then again called. This time was ‘third time lucky’ and the following day the first official mission of the Eighth Air Force was given the green light. At 15:12 six B-17s in two waves of three left the runway at Polebrook and history was made. After rendezvousing with their ninety-seven RAF Spitfire escorts, they headed for the French coast only to turn away and head for home when just ten miles from the enemy’s coast. This time it was not the weather at fault, the mission was a planned feint to tease the Luftwaffe away from the main force following behind – a group of Twelve B-17s from each of the 342nd, 414th and 340th BS.

This mission was not only the USAAF’s first mission, but it also saw the testing of new electronic counter-measures equipment. Flying alongside this formation were nine Boulton Paul Defiants carrying the counter-measures equipment. Code named “Moonshine“, the equipment consisted of ‘repeaters’ designed to repeat back to the German’s their own radar signals thus giving the impression of a much larger and more formidable force.  These first two Polebrook flights split, the first making their feint toward Alderney, whilst the second force flew toward Dunkirk, it was this flight that was accompanied by the nine Defiants. Before reaching the coast though, they turned and headed for home their job done. It was reported by the British that an estimated 150 Luftwaffe fighters rose up to meet the ‘massive’ force, but no interception took place and all aircraft returned to base.

Amongst the main force following on, were three of the Eighth’s most prestigious personnel; the Group’s Commander Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr who sat beside Major Paul Tibbbets (Tibbets was to go on and drop the first Atomic bomb on Hiroshima thus ending the war with Japan) in ‘Butcher Shop‘; whilst in the second wave flew General Ira Eaker, Commanding General of the entire Eighth Air Force, in ‘Yankee Doodle‘. Bombing results were ‘good’, the clear skies proving to be the bombardiers best friend that day. All aircraft returned, the only casualty being a pigeon that hit the windshield of one of the B-17s as it approached Polebrook. The first mission was over, the ice had been broken.

This first mission, a trip to Rouen, preceded several attacks across the low countries, until in the November when the Group (previously assigned to the Eighth on September 14th) transferred to the Twelfth Air Force. They were now heading for  North Africa. Over the period 18-20th November the air echelons departed Polebrook heading for Hurn before flying on to North Africa. The Ground echelons left shortly after, a point at which the 97th’s connection with Polebrook ceased leaving nothing but a legacy behind.

Original J type hangar built to specification 5835/39

The original Type ‘J’ Hangar still in use today.

In the short time the 97th stayed at Polebrook they would complete 14 missions over occupied Europe, dropping 395 tons of bombs. They would then go on to earn themselves two Distinguished Unit Citations and complete a number of ‘firsts’ whilst operating in the Middle East. But with the 97th now gone, Polebrook airfield would enter a period of relative calm and peace.

Then in April / May 1943, Station 110 once more resonated with American voices, with the arrival of the 351st BG. Another new Group, they were initially assigned to the 1 Bombardment Wing (1 BW) of the 101 Provisional Combat Bomb Wing (101 PCBW). After the USAAF went through periods of change and renumbering, this eventually became the 94th Combat Wing, (1st Bombardment Division). The 351st operated with B-17s of the: 508th (code YB), 509th, (code (RQ), 510th, (code TU) and 511th (code DS) Bomb Squadrons, distinguished by a triangular ‘J’ on the tail.

A film taken at Polebrook showing a number of aircrew and aircraft of the 351st BG. Several views of the technical and accommodation sites give a good contrast to the views of today, especially the ‘J’ type hangar that appears above.

The 351st were only activated in the previous October, and were, as ‘rookies’, to take part in some of the most severe aerial battles in Europe. Luckily for them though, training programmes back home had improved, and the gaps that were present in the first crew selections had now been filled.

As with all units new to the theatre of war, a short time was spent on familiarisation and formation flying techniques. Shortly before the 351st were deemed combat ready they were practising formation flying over Polebrook when tragedy struck.

Former Washington Redskins player Major Keith Birlem (508th BS) was piloting B-17 #42-29865 ‘YB-X’ when the plane dropped down severing the tail of another B-17 #42-29491 (509th BS) piloted by Capt Roy Snipes. Both aircraft fell from the sky landing as burning wrecks near to the perimeter of the airfield. The accident took the lives of all twenty airmen on-board the two aircraft. Major Birlem had flown his one and only combat mission just three days earlier, on his birthday, gaining experience as a co-pilot with the 303rd BG who were stationed at Molesworth.

In part 2 we see how the 351st entered the European conflict along with the further development and subsequent rundown of Polebrook immediately after the war. We also look at how the increase in tension of the Cold War brought Polebrook back to life once more, and how it eventually closed for good leading to the condition we find it in today.

RAF Shipdham – The 44th BG ‘The Jinx Squadron’ (Pt. 2)

In part 1 we left the “Eightballs” in the middle of a cold and icy winter, before which, a heavy toll had been paid. The January of 1944 would not prove to be any better for the men of the 44th BG, with both further losses and the high levels of stress playing their part in the coming months at RAF Shipdham.

On January 13th, a training mission was organised for a new crew, who had only joined the group on the Christmas Eve, and were barely three weeks into their war. On this day, B-24 #42-7551 of the 68th BS piloted by 2nd Lt. Glenn Hovey, would come in on approach to Shipdham, a landing in which one of the engines was feathered to simulate one engine out. With flaps and gear down, the pilot overshot, banking to the left striking a tree causing the aircraft to crash. The ensuing fireball killed nine men instantly, the tenth 2nd Lt. Richard Sowers being taken to hospital where he died shortly after. For a rookie crew this was perhaps the worst possible cause of death.

B-24 Liberators, including a B-24 (serial number 41-29153) nicknamed

Liberators, including a B-24 (#41-29153), ‘Greenwich’ of the 506th BS, 44th BG (pilot 1st Lt. Robert Marx) conducts a raid on a German airfield near Diepholz. February 21st 1944. This aircraft was subsequently lost on April 8th 1944, all the crew were taken prisoner. (Official U.S. Air Force Photo)

The extreme pressures placed of aircrew were beyond that imaginable, and for some, it was just too much. After having joined the 44th and flown since July 1943, for one pilot it all became too great, and on January 20th he sadly took his own life. Not a unique event by any means, but his death shows the great pressure that airmen were subjected to and for some it was simply a step too far.

The end of March and into April saw the poor weather continuing, with many missions being aborted. On April 1st, a mission to Grafenhausen was yet again cancelled, but B-24s of the 44th and 392nd did continue on. Unbeknown to them, they were way of course, and when they released their bombs it was the Swiss town of Schaffhausen that was beneath them, and not the Germany city. Ten aircraft were lost that day whilst Swiss papers reported the loss of thirty residents. The Nazi propaganda machine-made good use of this most unfortunate accident.

Only eight days later the ‘Eightballs’ would suffer their greatest loss of the war, April being the month that cost more in men and machines than any other month of the conflict. This was a month that put even Ploesti and Foggia in the dark. A mission to Brunswick was scrubbed as the town was shrouded in smoke, and so a secondary target was selected Langenhagen Aerodrome near Hanover in Germany.

Now for the first time, fitted with PFF, the B-24s flew toward the target. It was a cloudless and sunny day, an escort of P-51s were with the Liberators when suddenly, out of the sun, came a whole horde of enemy fighters. They struck from above and in front making a concentrated attack that took out eleven of the 44th’s group; forty-one airmen were killed that day with almost as many being taken prisoner.

For the remainder of the war the group attacked many high prestige targets, including airfields, oil refineries, railways, V-weapon sites, aided the Normandy landings and the breakout at St. Lo. They supported the ground forces in the Battle of the Bulge and attacked railway bridges, junctions and tunnels preventing German reinforcements arriving at the front.

With their last operational bombing sortie taking place on April 25th 1945, never again would they lose as many aircraft as they did during those three major raids. Bombing turned to food supplies and transit flights bringing home POWs from camps across Europe.

Then over May / June 1945, the various echelons began to depart Shipdham returning to the U.S., they had completed 343 missions using six different marks of B24. They had flown against submarine pens, industrial complexes, airfields, harbours and shipyards. Whilst in Africa they had flown in the Ploesti raid in Romania, the raid on Foggia and had helped in the invasion of Italy.

The Unit achieved one of the highest mission records of any B24 group for the loss of 153 aircraft, the highest loss of any B-24 group. They had taken the taunting of the B-17 crews, been called ‘Jinxed’ and had lost a lot of young men in the process. The 44th had paid the price, but they had earned two DUCs, a Purple Heart and numerous other medals for gallantry and bravery in the face of adversity.

The 44th and their home at Shipdham had well and truly written itself into the history books.

Following cessation of conflict the mighty 8th left Shipdham. The airfield became a POW camp closing in 1947, it then remained in care and maintenance until finally being sold off in 1963. Over the years it has been turned into agricultural premises with an industrial complex covering the technical area of the airfield. Fortunately, flying activity has managed to keep a small part of Shipdham alive with the Shipdham Aero Club utilising one of the remaining runways.

If you drive round the site to the industrial area, you  can clearly see the remaining two hangers through the fence. Behind these are a small selection of dilapidated buildings from what was the technical site, including the control tower and operations block.

RAF Shipdham

Shipdam’s runway used for storage.

The tower is now a mere shell and in danger of demolition. For those not tempted to venture further, views of these can be seen from across the fields on the aero club side of the site. Further views reveal one runway covered in farm storage units, but the runway they sit on, remains intact.

This is a large site, much of which is now either agriculture or industrial, with what is left is in desperate need of TLC. Whilst there is a small part of this airfield alive and kicking, the more physical features cling on by their finger nails desperate for the care and attention they wholeheartedly deserve.

The club house at the aero club houses a small museum in memory of those who flew from here, with many pictures and personal stories it is one to add to the list of places to go.

I found this rare original footage of the 44BG taken at Station 115 on ‘You Tube’.  This features a number of B-24s preparing for, and returning from, the November 18th Mission to Kjeller Airfield, Oslo (not the 19th as implied on the film). It also includes B24H #42-7535 ‘Peepsight‘ of the 506th crash landing after a mission.

The latter half of the film includes footage from 1944-45 noted by the change in the tail fin Bomb Group coding (Black stripe on white background as opposed to the black ‘A’ in a white circle). It would appear therefore to be a compilation of dates, but this aside, it is very much worth watching.

Shipdham was a relatively short-lived airfield, used by only one unit, the 44th Bomb Group, it saw many crews come and go and bore witness to some incredible actions. Whilst Shipdham lives on, the future of its buildings remain in doubt, the creeping industrial strong hold gaining in strength with each passing day. How long will it be before it sinks into obscurity and the brave actions of those who never returned are forgotten.

RAF Shipdham appears in Trail 10.

Sources and Further Reading.

Lundy, W., “44th Bomb Group Roll of Honor and Casualties“, 2005, Greenharbor.com  – a detailed account of the 44th’s missions, including personal accounts of each mission and details of the losses. (Twitter @44thbgROH)

Todd, C.T., “History of the 68th Bomb Squadron 44th Bomb Group – The Flying EIghtballs“. PDF document

RAF Gamston – Home of the OTU.

Britain’s longest, and perhaps most famous road the A1, which is known in part as the ‘Great North Road’, stands at 410 miles (660km) in length, and  connects the two capitals of England (London) and Scotland (Edinburgh) in one direct route. Original parts of it were built by the Romans, always easily distinguished by its direct routing. Over the years, the numerous upgrades and widening programmes have revealed both Roman settlements and Roman artefacts now totalling their thousands.  Much has been written about the A1, both its history and its legacy, but little about its aviation connections.

It is therefore along this route that we next travel, for here we find many of Britain’s wartime airfields, and while most have now disappeared into the history books,  a few still linger on operating the fast jets of the current Royal Air Force.

With such a huge route to cover, it will take time to travel from one end to the other, but it is along this route that we begin our next trail, Trail 54, The Great North Road.

The majority of these airfields, of which there are literally dozens, lie in Northern England, but include notable examples such as: Old Warden (The Shuttleworth Collection), Brampton, Alconbury, Glatton, Wittering, North Witham, Bottesford, Winthorpe, Dishforth, Leeming, Brunton, East Fortune and Macmerry as its close or direct neighbours.

Our first stop in this next trail, is one of the lesser known airfields along this route, one that sits on the very edge of this great road, and one that survives today, not as a military site, but as a civilian airfield where flying is a strong today as it was during those dark days of the 1940s.

From Newark in Nottinghamshire we travel north where we find our first stop, the former RAF Gamston.

RAF Gamston (Retford Airport).

Gamston is a little known airfield, but it is one that played an important part during the Second World War. Opened in December 1942 it was a classic Class A airfield, built with three concrete and tarmac runways with a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiary runways of the standard 1,400 yards forming the distinctive offset A frame. A perimeter track linked all three runways with thirty heavy bomber hardstands located around its length giving an indication as to its wartime role. Further clues to this role are the four type T2 and single B1 aircraft hangars, designed large enough to hold medium to heavy bombers of the RAF. As with all wartime airfields, the technical area came with a variety of ancillary buildings, workshops, MT sheds (12775/41) and stores.

RAF Gamston

Gamston’s former Watch Office is now a residential property.

With temporary accommodation for almost 1,000 male ranks and over 300 female ranks, it was by no means a large airfield, but at a cost of £468,000, it was quite an expensive airfield to build.

When Gamston was being constructed in 1942, Bomber Command was going through a period of reorganisation and re-equipment. At the beginning of the year there were six operational groups: 1,2,3,4,5 and 8 along with two training groups 6 and 7. No. 8 Group was disbanded only to be reborn as the Pathfinders in January 1943 whilst No. 2 Group was transferred to the Tactical Air Force in that same year. A further part of this reorganisation was the renaming of 6 and 7 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U) Groups as No. 91 and 92 (OTU) Groups in the May 1942. In the June, another new Training Group No. 93 (OTU) Group was formed, giving three training Groups in total under Bomber Command’s control. 93 Group bucked the general trend at this point in the war, being the only expansion in what was basically a shrinking Command.

It was this third Group, led by Air Vice Marshal P. E. Maitland, that Gamston would fall beneath, joining in a collection of twelve airfields: Finningly, Bircotes, Worksop, Ossington, Castle Donnington, Wymeswold, Lichfield, Church Broughton, Hixon, Seighford and Peplow that all fell under the direct control of the headquarters at Eggington near Nottingham. This meant that the responsibility of No. 93 Group stretched from Shropshire in the west, through the centre of England into Derbyshire and Nottingham, and north as far as Yorkshire. The purpose of these Operational Training Units was to meet the demand for new crews whilst conducting operational flights with experienced crews as their leads. To this end, Gamston’s closet neighbour Ossington, was to be its ‘parent’, Gamston forming the satellite airfield for all flying operations.

RAF Gamston

One of the many buildings left standing on the Technical Site.

The first unit to use Gamston was No. 82 Operational Training Unit, who were formed at Ossington on June 1st 1943 with Wellington MK.IIIs. Over the time that 82 OTU used the two airfields, they would also fly Wellington MK.Xs. Martinets, Oxfords, Tomahawks, Miles Masters and the Hawker Hurricane. Their period of operations lasted for almost two years until they were disbanded in January 1945 just prior to the war’s end. Flying mainly out of Ossington, 82 OTU wold have their fair share of fatalities, with their first occurring with devastating effect on August 9th 1943, with the loss of all five crewmen and the first total aircraft write-off since forming.

The first Gamston based fatalities occurred on 12th October  that year, when Wellington MK.X HK201 took off on a training flight. Immediately after take off the port engine cut out forcing the aircraft down. Three of the seven crew were killed, the remaining four being treated for their injuries in hospital. For his actions that day, F/O. J Coughian was awarded the DFM.

Gamston would also serve as a safe haven for other operational bombers returning from action over occupied Europe. On December 1st 1943, a No. 9 Squadron RAF, Lancaster MK.I was returning from operations over Berlin. In attempting to land at Gamston, the aircraft DV334 ‘WS-C’ crashed killing six of the eight crewmen on board. The remaining two crew, Sgt. C. Rickards and F/S. L. Owen (RCAF), both being injured. This tragedy brought an end to 1943 but not a change in luck for the training crews of 82 OTU.

RAF Gamston

Many buildings are overgrown and in a poor state.

The January and February 1944 brought two more accidents, the first without fatalities as F/L. D. Parry brought the aircraft, a Wellington MK.X, down with its wheels retracted after the port engine lost power. F/L. Parry was uninjured in the accident unlike his five colleagues, who on the night of February  3 – 4, were all killed when their Wellington ‘X3409’ was seen to dive into the ground near the airfield resulting in a massive explosion. The crew, four Canadians and an Englishman, all perished.

Being an operational training unit, 82 OTU would participate in operational duties, such as flying ‘Nickel‘ operations (leaflet dropping) over occupied Europe. One such operation saw the loss of Wellington MK.X on the night of May 14 – 15 with the loss of all as the aircraft ran out of fuel on the return flight from Rennes.

Another near tragic accident occurred in June when a returning bomber, a Halifax from 1667 HCU was trying to make an emergency landing at Gamston when it collided with a stationary Wellington. There were no injuries in the collision but it was another event that brought home the dangers of flying heavy bombers in wartime Britain.

With two further losses in August 1944, and another in April 1945, death or injury were never far from the minds of the crews. Even as a ground crew you were not safe from the slightest lack of concentration or slip. In November, an accidental spark caused by a slipping airman ignited petrol in one of the hangars whilst working on Wellington MK.X ‘HK750. The accident on November 13th 1944, proved fatal for the Wellington destroying it completely in the subsequent fire.

RAF Gamston

1944 saw yet further changes to the Training Command. In June, the number of Bomber Command Squadrons increased, conversion training was taken away from the main squadrons and given to a new Heavy Conversion Group No. 7 (HCU) Group.  it was also decided that a new OTU was required and so ‘C’ Flight of 82 OTU was moved permanently to Gamston where it was re-designated No. 86 OTU who would specialise in the role of night training with both the Wellington MK.III and X. This was a  short-lived unit though, lasting only until October 15th that same year before being  disbanded. Crews from 86 OTU were then used to form the Heavy Glider Conversion Units elsewhere.

A gradual reduction in crew losses toward the end of 1944 meant that 93 (OTU) Group could now be disbanded,  with the operational training being consolidated into the two original groups. By the end of February 1945, No. 93 (OTU) Group was no more.

As the war drew to a close, other training units also began to close. No. 30 OTU who were originally formed at Hixon in June 1942, also with Wellingtons, moved to Gamston where they were disbanded on 12th June 1945. Their final days at Gamston would not be the quite and sedate ending that many would have hoped for though.  On May 18th, a month before disbanding, Gamston would see its final wartime loss, when Wellington NA718 ‘BT-O’ crashed killing both crewmen: F/O. Robert Fraser Thompson (s/n:174908)  and Leading Aircraftman. Douglas Fletcher Dryden (s/n:1353162). It is not known what caused the accident but, the pilot had attempted to glide the aircraft back into Gamston without success.

With the closure of these units, Bomber Command began the rapid decline that would see it become a shadow of its former self. Crew training was put on hold, aircrew held pending a decision as to where to send them and aircraft mothballed.

Once the European war was finally over, Gamston’s flying days were over, at least for the time being, and from July 1945, it became the main resettlement camp for repatriating Royal Australian Air Force personnel. The responsibility for this fell to No. 9 Aircrew Holding Unit (ACHU), where crews were sent before departure to either the Pacific Theatre or more likely home. Once all the residents had departed the Nottingham site, it lay dormant, being used primarily for agricultural purposes.

RAF Gamston

Many buildings a re left open to the elements.

For 8 years the airfield remained closed, but over 1950-51, the site was used for motor racing activities. Small races were held but these never truly ‘took off’ and any future use of the site for such activities, were curtailed in May 1953, when Gamston reopened as a satellite for nearby RAF Worksop, where No. 211 Advanced Flying School (AFS) were currently based. The aircraft type had now changed and the jet age had dawned. The RAF’s latest jet aircraft the Gloster Meteor and de Havilland Vampire now being the aircraft to utilise Gamston’s runways.

No.211 AFS would go through several numerical changes over the next few years, on June 1st 1954 it became 211 Flying Training School (FTS), disbanding on June 9th 1956 to be absorbed into No. 4 Flying Training School (FTS). This in turn was disbanded at Worksop in 1958 to be reformed at RAF Valley in Wales – thus ending the links with Gamston. All through these changes, the aircraft remained primarily the same types, Meteors, Vampires and Prenctices of various marks.

It was during this time, on 1st April 1955, that a Gloster Meteor T.7  WL474 of 211 FTS would crash 2½m north-east of Gamston whilst performing asymmetric training. During the manoeuvres the aircraft dived into the ground killing both its crewmen: F/O. Stanley T. Jenkins and Acting Pilot Officer Duncan H. Moffat.

Gamston then again closed in 1957, but although officially closed it was used during the 1970s and 80s as a satellite landing ground by training aircraft from RAF Finningley. These consisted mainly of the small de Havilland ‘Chipmunks’ and later Scottish Aviation’s ‘Bulldogs’.

Then in 1993 when the site was purchased by Gamston Aviation Limited who opened and operated it as a civil airport under the name Retford Gamston Airport.

RAF Gamston

Gamston’s former runway is still in use (in part) today as part of Retford Airport.

Since then, Gamston has been upgraded with maintenance work being carried out on both the hangars, usable runway and perimeter tracks. Whilst these are part of the original infrastructure, they are much smaller only dealing with single or twin-engined light aircraft rather than the larger bombers of Bomber command.

The airfield is a going concern today, the main site operated by the Airport Authority whilst the technical area is a small industrial unit. Within this, there are numerous original wartime buildings still surviving in varying degrees of condition. The various stores are used for storing of industrial ‘components’ and general industrial rubbish, whilst another houses a car repair shop. Discarded vehicles lay buried beneath an ever-increasing range of thorny shrubbery while the whole area is fenced off and basically left with little outside interest.

Accessing the two sites is best from the A1, the industrial area is the first turning off this road and takes you along the former perimeter track past the end of the former main runway. It is this runway that is used today, very much a smaller part of the original. The former watch office is also here, tucked away behind hedges it is now a private residence. Various huts and small buildings can be found here, the whole area in a rapid state of decline and disrepair.

Taking a left turn back onto the main road takes you toward the airfield with its modern buildings, hangar space and offices. A small but excellent cafe ‘The Apron’ provides refreshments and the chance to sit and watch the activities of this small but thriving airport. There is also further evidence of the airfields history here, one of the hardstands now forms a parking area, discernible only where a careful eye will distinguish its outline amongst the more modern structures around it.

RAF Gamston

The general state pf the site suggests a bleak future for these historic buildings.

Compared to front line operational airfields Gamston’s history is perhaps ‘less intense’. But, in the bigger picture of Bomber Command, it is a major cog that helped turn the wheels of this massive wartime organisation, providing trained crews for operations over a country, whose determination to destroy all in its path, was finally brought to its knees by those who passed though Gamston’s very doors.

As we leave Gamston behind, we return to the A1 and head north and yet more trails around Britain’s forgotten airfields.

Sources and further reading. 

AIR 27/127/24 – 9 Squadron ORB National Archives.

Chorley, W.R., “Royal Air Force Bomber Command Losses Vol 7“, Midland Publishing, 2002.

The website for Retford (Gamston) Airport has details of its operations and facilities.

My thanks to the anonymous reader for the update of the 1970s and 80s.

RAF Waterbeach – A period of change (Part 3).

In this last part looking at RAF Waterbeach we see how its military career finally came to a close. The jet age was had arrived but would soon pass, the curtain was about to fall on this historic airfield.

Immediately after the war, two new squadrons would take up residence at Waterbeach. During early September 1945 No. 59 Squadron would arrive followed within a few days by No. 220 Squadron, both flying the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Both these squadrons transferred from Coastal Command into the Transport Command and were used to ferry the many troops back and forth from India and the Far East. These operations would continue well into May (59 Sqn) and June (220 Sqn) 1946 whereupon both Squadrons were disbanded. The cessation of the units allowed for crews of the Squadrons to be transferred to a new unit and training on the Avro York aircraft, a model 59 Sqn would then use once reformed in 1947 at Abingdon. No. 220 Sqn would later reform flying the Shackleton, returning once more to Maritime Patrols from Kinloss in Scotland. Neither Squadron would return to Waterbeach, but whilst here, they would carry almost 19,000 troops across the world, a tremendous achievement indeed.

Whilst neither 59 nor 220 Squadrons would return, the Avro York would come to Waterbeach. In the August of 1946, No. 51 Squadron brought the C.1 York from Stradishall, continuing the India flights that both 59 and 220 had performed before her. Initially carrying freight, they the went on to carry passengers before departing themselves to Abingdon in December 1947.

RAF Waterbeach

Waterbeach seen through the fence.

The advanced party of 51 Sqn would arrive on the 16th, with the main party arriving on the 20th of August (1946). Flights would occur almost daily for the whole of August, flying to Palam (India) and back. In that month alone the Squadron would fly 1,435 hours of training flights, 355 of which were at night.

With a regular number of aircrew being posted to RAF Bourn amongst other airfields, the turnover of staff would be very high. Specific training was targeted at the long distance flights, many going to Cairo or Singapore, and many flying via RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire.

A year later, in mid November 1947, 242 Squadron joined the York group, crews gradually absorbing into 51 Sqn. Shortly after this however, notice came through that 51 Squadron was to move to Abingdon, along with the remnants of three other squadrons (242 included) to form a new long-range unit there.

After their departure, two more transport squadrons moved in to Waterbeach, taking a step backwards in terms of aircraft, both with that Second World War Veteran the  Dakota. No. 18 and 53 Squadrons stayed here, operating flights to and around the Middle East from December 1947 to early September 1948 (18 Sqn) and the end of July 1949 (53 Sqn).

With the Berlin Airlift demanding high levels of aircraft, 18 and 53 Sqns were soon ordered into the affray, and began carrying out flights under operation ‘Plainfare‘. After their withdrawal from the operations, 18 Sqn moved to Oakington for almost a year, during which time No. 24 Squadron moved into Waterbeach momentarily sharing the ramp with 53 Sqn. Yet another York unit, they also flew Avro’s Lancastrians and Dakotas, a role that involved them carry numerous dignitaries such as Field Marshall Lord Montgomery to various destinations around the globe. A short return of 18 Sqn meant that Waterbeach was again particularly busy with transport aircraft, and then for another short two month period it would get even busier.

During the New Year period, 1st December 1949 – 20th February 1950, No 206 Squadron appeared at Waterbeach, also reforming with that old favourite the C-47 Dakota. Using examples such as KN701, it was another squadron who had a long and distinguished history in Maritime patrol, eventually going on to return to this role also from Kinloss in Scotland.

Between the 25th February and the 29th February 1950, both No. 18 and 24 Squadrons departed Waterbeach, 18 Squadron disbanding and 24 Sqn moving to Oakington. During the move, the resident aircraft were disposed of, and the new Vickers Valletta was used in their place.

Quiet then reigned at Waterbeach for about three months. After which time Waterbeach took yet another turn of its page in the history books. With a combined flight of twenty-seven Meteors from both No. 56 and 63 Squadrons the silence was broken and the jet age had arrived. On May 10th 1950, the Meteors became the first major units of the RAF’s front line to be stationed at Waterbeach, two units that would remain here for a number of years operating several variants of the Meteor, Supermarine’s Swift and then the Hawker Hunter.

The initial variants of Meteor F.4 were replaced within two years by the F.8, during which time a number of accidents occurred – some incurring fatalities. Perhaps the worst blow came with the death of the Station Commander Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC when on 27th June 1951 his Meteor F.8 (WA953) rolled after take off crashing into the ground. Sqn. Ldr. Yeates was killed in the resultant crash and is buried in the local cemetery next to the airfield.

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC

Sqn. Ldr. J. Yeates DFC killed on 27th June 1951.

Sqn. Ldr. Yeates’ death came at the end of a month that had seen four other aircraft damaged in landing accidents. These included two Station Flight Tiger Moths and two other Meteor F.8s, a decidedly bad month for the two squadrons.

A further landing accident brought home the dangers of jet aircraft on November 1st 1951, when Meteor WA940 of 63 Sqn collided with Meteor VZ497 of 56 Sqn after landing. The collision caused a fire in which both F/O. K Jones and Sgt. G Baldwin were both killed. As if through foresight, the personnel of 63 Sqn has noted on their arrival in 1950 that not only was the accommodation sub-standard but the hangarage and aircraft dispersals were insufficient for the needs of two squadrons. Highlighting the problems certainly didn’t prevent this tragedy from occurring. The terrible conflict of the Second World War may have been over, but casualties at Waterbeach would continue on for some time yet.

The work of 56 Sqn and 63 Sqn was carried out in cooperation with the US forces at nearby RAF Lakenheath, who at that  time were operating Boeing’s B-29 ‘Superfortress’ known for their devastating effect on Japan. These exercises, carried out over the skies of the UK,  were joint Anglo-American fighter affiliation exercises and included not only the B-29s but F-86 ‘Sabres’ as well.

As if history was to repeat itself, the bad weather that had brought disaster upon the bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command on ‘Black Thursday‘ (RAF Bourn) ten years earlier also brought havoc to 56 Sqn on December 16th 1953.

With visibility down to a little as 100 yards on the Tuesday, Wednesday saw some improvements. With flying restricted to four aircraft per flight, it was going to be difficult. The Cathode Ray Direction Finding equipment (C.R.D.F.) was not working and so bearings needed to be obtained by VHF. Whilst the majority of aircraft were able to land using a Ground-Controlled Approach (G.C.A.) ‘A’ flight were not so lucky. Red Section were diverted to Duxford, but failed to achieve a landing. Being too low on fuel to continue on or try for a third time, the two aircraft climbed to 5,000 feet and the pilots, Flt/Lt. G. Hoppitt  and F/O. R. Rimmington ejected. Fuel gauges at the time were reading as little as 20 Gallons. Both aircraft came down near to each other, no damage was caused to public property and both pilots were unhurt. Yellow section, also diverted to Duxford, where they attempted G.C.A. landings also, but unable to do so, the section leader, F/O. N. Weerasinghe suffered a broken neck and fractured skull after he force landed in a field. The fourth pilot, F/O. Martin, broke his back in two places after ejecting at only 700 feet. A court of enquiry ruled that three of the pilots had difficulty in jettisoning their canopies, and F/O. Martin, even though he managed to succeed,  ejected at an all time low-level. It was well into the New Year before  F/O. Weerasinghe regained consciousness, and all four aircraft, WA769, WH510, WA930 and WH283 were written off.  In a light-hearted but perhaps tasteless ‘that’s how its done‘ demonstration, both Flt/Lt. Hoppitt  and F/O. Rimmington jumped off the bar at a Pilot’s party in the Bridge Hotel.*2

Over the next four years a number of other squadrons would arrive and depart Waterbeach. On 18th April 1955 a new night fighter squadron was formed, that of No. 253 Sqn. Operating the DH Venom NF.2A, an aircraft designed around the earlier Vampire, it was a short-lived squadron, disbanding on September 2nd 1957. 253’s reforming would however, see the beginnings of a string of Night Fighter Squadrons being stationed here at Waterbeach.

Almost simultaneously to the disbanding of 253 Sqn, was the arrival of a second Night Fighter squadron, the Meteor NF.14 of 153 Sqn from RAF West Malling absorbing the staff of the now disbanded 253 Sqn. Training crews on Meteors along with being on 24 hour standby, meant that flights were frequent, a regime that continued until July 2nd 1958 when 153 was disbanded being renumbered 25 Sqn. After having a short spell in the turmoil of the Middle East, they then began to prepare to upgrade to Gloster’s Delta wing fighter the Javelin in September. By December only a handful of aircraft had been received, but further training and upgrades saw the FAW.7 replaced by the FAW.9. Work was slow but by late 1959 the squadron was considered operational.  By the October 1961, 25 Sqn was posted north to Scotland and RAF Leuchars, where it received the FAW.7 back before being disbanded once more.

Gloster Javelin FAW.7 of No 25 Squadron RAF Waterbeach, showing its missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. © IWM (RAF-T 2172)

During this time 56 Sqn who had been one of Waterbeach’s longest standing squadrons, departed to RAF Wattisham where it would receive the Lightning, the RAF’s high-speed interceptor that burnt fuel at an incredible rate of knots. No. 56 Sqn had whilst here at Waterbeach, used not only the Meteor but the Supermarine Swift (F.1 and F.2) and the Hunter F.5 and F.6. No. 63 Sqn, who also flew the Hunter F.6 was also disbanded at Waterbeach during this period (October 1958), and the loss of these Hunters would also see the end of the line for 63 Sqn RAF.

The last 5 years would see the last of the RAF’s involvement at Waterbeach. July 17th 1959 saw the arrival of No. 46 Sqn with Javelin FAW.6s. Disbanded in 1961 the nucleus would remain ferrying Javelins to the Far East. The November 1961, would then see two more squadrons arrive; No. 1 on the 7th and No. 54 on the 23rd.

Both these squadrons were Hunter FGA.9 Squadrons, both moving in from RAF Stradishall operating as Ground Attack squadrons. With successive  deployments to the Middle East, they were armed for operational flying patrolling the border along Aden.

By August 1963, both No.1 and No.54 Sqn were moved on, thus ending the RAF’s ‘front line’ flying involvement with Waterbeach. Whilst the military retained Waterbeach as an active airfield, the Royal Engineers as airfield construction and maintenance units used the site to  test numerous runway surfaces and construction methods. Testing of these surfaces used a wide variety of aircraft types, from small jets to large multi-engined aircraft such as the Hercules and BAC 111. A further ten years of intermittent flying activity ensured that the legacy of Waterbeach continued on. With various open days and flying events to raise much need money bringing crowds onto the airfield, Waterbeach’s life was extended yet further, but then in March 2013 the MOD finally pulled out, and the site has since been earmarked for development.

The post war era saw many gate guardians at Waterbeach. Spitfire Mk22 (PK664) was later moved to Binbrook, whilst the Hurricane MKIIc went to Bentley Priory. Another  Spitfire replaced both these examples, Mk XVIe (TE392) which was brought here in 1961 and remained here until 1966. A veteran of 63, 65, 126, 164, 595 and 695 Sqns, it eventually ended up in the United States flying with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Texas.

Other guardians include Westland Whirlwind HAR3  (XG577) of the Royal Air Force and a Hawker Hunter (WN904) which flew with 257 Squadron at RAF Wattisham. It was brought in to represent the Hunters, the last aircraft that flew from Waterbeach, and was present here until 2012. It was then moved to the Sywell Aviation Museum in Northampton.

Plans are already in the pipe-line to develop the 293-hectare site along with adjacent fields into a £2.5bn ‘Silicon Valley’ style township, complete with marina facilities and three schools. The barracks site alone will include 6,300 new homes with some original aspects such as the Watch Office utilised in the modern development.

At present the site is empty, entrance strictly controlled and by prior appointment only, the gate guarded by a private security firm. A fabulous museum exists in a managed building just inside the gate and can only be accessed by appointment. Whilst the site is gradually becoming overgrown, it is virtually intact, the main runway, hangars and ancillary buildings are all present. Local farmers store hay on the disused runways and an eerie silence blows across the parade ground.

Some views are possible from certain public advantage points but these are very limited and restrictive. The busy A10 allowing only occasional glimpses to the watch office and hangars, and side roads giving no more than fleeting glimpses through high fences and locked gates.

This once thriving airfield has finally met its match. The enormous hangars that once housed the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, the mighty B-24s of Transport Command and the fast jets of Fighter Command, now shells awaiting their fate. Once one of the RAF’s biggest and most important airfields, Waterbeach will soon been relegated to the history books, buried beneath the conglomeration of houses, schools and small technology businesses that thrive in today’s fast living world. Which buildings survive have yet to be finalised, the future of Waterbeach lays very much in the hands of the developer, and as a historical site of major aviation significance it is hoped that they look upon it sympathy and understanding, something that is often left out when it comes to development.

RAF Waterbeach appears in full in Trail 11 with Mepal and Witchford.

Sources and further reading.

*Aviation Trails – “The Development of Britain’s Airfields“.
*2 AIR 27/2620/1 – The National Archives
AIR 27/789/5 – The National Archives
AIR 27/792 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1977/2 – The National Archives
AIR 27/1978/11 – The National Archives

Grehan, J., & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations 1942-1945“, Pen & Sword. 2014

The museum website has details of opening times and access.

For details of the development of Waterbeach see the Cambridge News Live website, with links to the plans.

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’

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.