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

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

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Essex

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

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

RAF Debden

One of 11 Blister Hangars built at Debden.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Wethersfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Wethersfield

Cold War Shelters located on the original hardstands.

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

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

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

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

RAF Wethersfield

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

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

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

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

Sources and further Reading.

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

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

R.A.F. East Fortune – Scotland’s Baby that Grew up.

After leaving R.A.F Drem, we travel a few miles to the east, away from Edinburgh to an airfield that was originally built in the First World War. In the mid war years it was closed and returned to agriculture; then, as the Second World War loomed, it was reopened, used by both the Navy and the Air Force. As such, its history goes back to the turn of the last century. Today it is Scotland’s home of the National Museum of Flight, it is also has one of the best preserved collections of original buildings left in the country. In the second part of Trail 42, we visit the former airfield of R.A.F East Fortune.

R.A.F East Fortune.

R.A.F East Fortune is another airfield that has its roots in the First World War. Located 4 miles north-east of the small town of Haddington, and a similar distance east of R.A.F Drem, it has since become Scotland’s premier aviation museum, housing one of the best collections of aircraft in the north.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of the many buildings left at East Fortune.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, German intrusions over British towns and cities became both a tangible and frightening threat. Scotland and the north-east along with North Sea shipping lanes, all became targets. To counteract these threats, a string of defensive airfields (Stations) were built along the eastern coast of Britain operating as a combined force in the British Home Defence Network.

East Fortune become one such station, from which, during 1915, a small number of aircraft would operate. Designed to protect the waters around the city of Edinburgh and the North Sea coast, it fulfilled this role using a selection of aircraft including types such as the: Sopwith Scout, Maurice Fairman, Avro 504 and B.E.2c.

It wasn’t until 1916 though that the airfield really came into its own. Officially opened in August as a Royal Naval Air Station, it operated initially Coastal Class airships, followed shortly after by North Sea Class airships, both of the non-rigid design. Later on, as airships developed, the more famous ‘R’ series rigid airships appeared and took their place at East Fortune.

As a major airship station, there would often be five or six of the type at East Fortune at any one time, each carrying out submarine patrols over the North Sea. To ensure their safety whilst on land, a number of airship sheds were built; the design and development of these sheds proceeded almost as fast and dramatic as the airships themselves.

When war broke out, the threat posed to British ships  by German submarines, became all too apparent. The Admiralty recognising the potential of airships as spotters, were soon to put in an order for a ship that would be able to travel at speeds of between 40 – 50 mph, carry two crew, 160lb of bombs, wireless equipment and sufficient fuel for up to 8 hours flying time. These airships would ideally reach altitudes of around 5,000ft, and their design be so basic, that the crew could be trained and in the air within weeks rather than months. The first of these ships was the Submarine Scout (S.S.) class, a design that was so simple, the first were airborne within three weeks of the initial prototype being built. In essence, these used the wingless fuselage of a B.E.2c aeroplane suspended beneath a simple envelope. These ‘S.S.’ ships were so successful in their role, that the Admiralty ordered more, bigger and faster airships, and so the Coastal Class was then born.

The Coastal Class was larger at 195.6 feet long. They had two 150hp engines, a top speed of 52 mph, and could be airborne for up to 22 hours at a time. Designed around a French design, they were made of three sections, an unusual “Tri-lobe” design. The gondola itself, utilised two shortened Avro seaplane aircraft fuselages, the tails were removed and the two sections joined back-to-back. This produced a car that could seat four or five crew members with two engines at opposing ends. Canvas and planking was added for further strength and improved crew comfort. Operating successfully for two years, many soon became weary and in need of updating. Deciding to opt for an improved alternative, the Admiralty scrapped the Coastal Class and brought in the last of the non-rigid designs, the North Sea (N.S.) Class.

Initial trials and operations of the N.S. Class proved it to be very unpopular. Problems with the drive system left many crews unhappy about its performance, its top speed of 57mph rarely, if ever, being achieved. The original engines, 250 horse-power Rolls Royce engines, had very elaborate transmission systems, in fact so elaborate that they were prone to breaking. The only answer was to replace the entire system and attach the propellers directly to the engine itself. Once this problem was overcome, the airship was hailed as a success to the point that many of them broke flight endurance records on an almost regular basis. Whilst flights of 30 hours or more were not unusual, some extended as far as 61 hours, and even post war, one of these ships flew for an incredible 101 hours non stop.

The period 1916 – 17 saw a rapid advancement in airship design and development. The larger rigid airships (so-called because the envelope was now wrapped around a rigid frame) were now coming into being, and the remainder of the war would see these new airships coming on-line and into service, many appearing at East Fortune.

To counter the German’s Zeppelin threat, three new manufactures were contracted to build these rigid ships: Beardmore, Armstrong and Whitworth, and lastly Shorts Brothers.

At East Fortune, (H.M.A) R.24 was delivered on October 28th 1917, and not without its problems. Initial testing revealed that it was two-thirds of a ton heavier than its sister ship R.23, and after investigations as to why, it was discovered that it was the rivets used that were the problem. In order to move the craft from its Beardmore shed, a number of weight modifications had to urgently be made. These modifications included removing an engine and all the associated components from the rear car.

RAF EAST FORTUNE DURING THE INTERWAR YEARS

The camouflaged Airship shed built to house H.M.A. R.34 at East Fortune. Note the smaller shed to the right. (IWM – Q103040)

Although now much lighter, R.24 paid the price with speed, with no replacement of the propulsion unit, she remained slow, achieving a top speed of little more than 35 mph. But she did cover some 4,200 miles and flew for 164 hours in total; most of which were as training flights. As an operational airship however, she was little more than useless, and was eventually scrapped in 1919.

The next rigid airship to arrive and operate from East Fortune was R.29 in the following June. R.29 went on to be considered the most successful wartime rigid airship. Being the only one to be involved in direct enemy action, she was responsible for the sinking of the German submarine UB.115. Commissioned on 20th June 1918, she was based at East Fortune and would cover around 8,200 operational miles, in some 335 hours flying time. This would be a short-lived active life though, lasting only five months before the war finally came to an end.

Carrying on flying post war, she would eventually be scrapped in October 1919 having covered in total, 11,334 miles in service, more than any other British rigid airship up to that time.

Post war, rigids continued to operate from East Fortune; R.34 perhaps being the most famous. Another craft from the works of William Beardmore and Co. Ltd. of Inchinnan near Glasgow, R.34 would be constructed in the later stages of the war under War Specifications. At 634 feet in length with a top speed of 62 mph generated by five 270 hp Sunbeam ‘Maori’ engines, she would cost £350,000 to build. R.34 would be designed to carry twenty 100 lb and four 550 lb bombs, a range of Pom-Pom, Lewis and two-pounder quick-firing guns, but as she wasn’t finished until after the war, none of these were ever fitted, nor was she flown in anger.

R.34 probably at East Fortune. (author unknown)

Completed in early 1919, she just missed out the first Atlantic crossing, being laid up by damage caused by poor handling, and thus beaten to the record now held by Alcock and Brown. In May, she arrived at East Fortune, here she carried out a number of test flights including an endurance flight across the Scandinavian countries. Then in July 1919, she became the first aircraft to make the Atlantic crossing, both east to west, and back again.

On the evening of 1st July 1919 the ship was fueled to capacity, in the early hours of the morning she was moved out of her shed and prepared for the flight. Her captain, Major Scott, decided gave the order to release and at 1.42 am (GMT) R.34 lifted slowly in to the Scottish sky.

A record was made, R.34 had put East Fortune firmly on the map. After 108 hours and 12 minutes flying time, R.34, her crew and two stowaways: William Ballantyne and a small tabby kitten called “Whoopsie”, landed at Mineola, Long Island, New York.

After a major refit at East Fortune, R.34 left for Pulham airship base in Norfolk. Here she carried out a number of flights, but was eventually badly damaged in strong winds, and after being stripped, she was sold for scrap – a rather ungainly ending to an incredible machine.

Airships were not to be the only user of East Fortune though. With the formation of the Royal Air Force in 1918, it would initially house No. 208 Training Depot Station (T.D.S.), designed to train torpedo bomber pilots using a variety of aircraft types, such as the Sopwith Camel and Beardmore W.B.III. In August 1918, it became 201 Training Depot Station, merging both 1 Torpedo Training Squadron, and the Torpedo Aeroplane School already at East Fortune.

A Sopwith Cuckoo (N6954) of the Torpedo Aeroplane School dropping a torpedo during trials at East Fortune, 24 – 26 July 1918. (IWM Q 67496)

On 21st October 1918, No. 185 Squadron was formed here, made by merging elements of 31, 33, 39 and 49 Torpedo Depot Stations, they would fly the Sopwith Cuckoo until April 1919, when it was reduced to a cadre, and then disbanded five days later on April 14th, 1919.

It was also in this month on the 31st, October 1918, just days before the armistice that year, that Bristol F.2b B8942 of 201 T.D.S, left R.A.F. East Fortune for a bombing mission against the German Fleet. During the take off, the aircraft stalled and crashed into the ground. In what must have been the last casualties of 201’s operations, the two crew: Lieutenant Lynn N. Bissell (age 19), and  Lieutenant Eric W. Bragg (22), were both killed when a bomb they were carrying exploded on impact. They have remained together ever since in Athelstaneford Parish Churchyard in East Lothian*1.

201 Training Depot Station were soon re-designated as the Torpedo Training School, finally being disbanded on February 1st, 1920, here at East Fortune.

This move signalled the end of East Fortune as an airfield for now. The site was closed, many of the buildings were removed either scrapped or sold off, and no further flying activity would take place.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

A small part of the collection of wartime buildings that still exist at East Fortune.

After laying dormant for around twenty years, the outbreak of war saw East Fortune brought back to life once more. Designated a satellite for R.A.F. Drem, it was virtually unchanged in its layout. After a period of expansion and development, new runways were laid, a technical site established, and accommodation and administration areas developed. A bomb dump was created to the south-west, well away from the other areas to the north. The runways, tarmac laid on hardcore, were all non-standard lengths, 1,710 yards, 1,560 yards and 1,100 yards but they were the standard 50 yards wide.

The first to arrive were 60 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.)  in June 1941. A night fighter development unit they flew a range of aircraft including: Boulton Paul’s Defiant, Miles’ Master and Magister, and Westland’s Lysander. In June 1942, the  twin-engined Beaufighter also arrived here, a year which also saw a return of the Blenheim and Beaufort. Some of these Beaufighters were dual control and several had Aircraft Interception (A.I.) equipment installed.

It was in one of these Defiants, that pilot Sergeant Anthony. D.C. La Gruta, (s/n 400719) (R.A.A.F.) was killed when the aircraft he was in plunged into the ground with such force that it buried itself some 16 feet down. The Ministry of Defence, unable to recover the wreckage, declared it a war grave and his body remains there to this day. A monument and parts of the wreckage currently mark the spot where the aircraft lies. Whilst it can’t be confirmed, it would appear that whilst out conducting a series of ‘homing tests’, the pilot lost control of the aircraft resulting in the tragic accident.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

One of several Air Raid shelters at East Fortune.

During October 1942, No. 2 Glider School were formed here, they were quickly moved on however, and disbanded later at Dumfries – playing virtually no part in the development of East Fortune. On 24th November 1942, 60 O.T.U. was officially disbanded, and then immediately reformed as 132 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit, remaining at East Fortune airfield. Operating under the leadership of No. 17 (Training) Group (R.A.F. Coastal Command) it was designed to train crews in the long-range fighter and strike role. To achieve this, there were some sixty aircraft split primarily between Beaufighters and Blenheims; with other models such as Beauforts, Lysanders, Magisters and Spitfire VBs also adding to the busy airspace in this region of Southern Scotland.

In May 1944, Belgian Flying Officer, Gilbert A. E. Malchair, (s/n 132969), and Flight Sergeant, Roger H. L. Closon, (s/n 1424811), both of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, took off in Beaufighter ‘EL457’ on what is believed to be a training sortie. Little is still known about the accident but it is believed that the pilot reduced height to prevent icing, in doing so, the aircraft collided with the ground at Hedgehope Hill (Threestoneburn Wood) in the Cheviots. As a result, both crewmen were killed.

In 1944 a few D.H. Mosquitoes arrived at the airfield, but by now East Fortune had begun the long wind down. By May 1946, 132 O.T.U. was disbanded, and the aircraft were either dispersed or scrapped.

The airfield remained in R.A.F. hands, but during the cold war years, the U.S. Air Force lengthened two of the runways in anticipation of the Cold War becoming ‘hot’. Thankfully however,  hostilities never broke out and occupation of the site never materialised. East Fortune was then used as storage facility in case of any subsequent Soviet attack, primarily for the ‘Green Goddess’ fire engines, and later to store food stuffs by the Ministry for Agriculture and Fisheries. The site remained ‘open’, and for a short period – April to August 1961 – it acted as a replacement for Edinburgh’s Turnhouse international airport recording just short of 100,000 passenger movements. After this, in 1961, East Fortune was finally closed and the site vacated.

Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight

Two of the three Callender-Hamilton hangars.

Over the years East Fortune had gone from an Airship site to a night fighter training school. Operational Training Units had lost crews and the entire site developed and expanded. Two of the three runways were expanded up to 2,000 yards, 46 hardstands were laid, it had 3 Callender-Hamilton hangars, 8 blister hangars, and accommodated 1,501 R.A.F personnel and 794 W.A.A.Fs. Designed as a satellite it had achieved a remarkable status, incredibly much more than it was ever designed to do.

Since its closure however, it has taken on a new role, developing both its past and preserving its history, turning it into what is possibly Scotland’s finest aviation museum. Many of the Second World War buildings still remain: The night flying store (drawing number 17831/40); three Callender-Hamilton hangars; Nissen stores, latrines and a refurbished parachute store. The Watch Office sadly not refurbished, is also present on the airfield site, as are a number of air raid shelters. The main runway is also still in situ, now used for Sunday markets, with the original section and extended post war sections being dissected by the road through the site. The perimeter track and secondary runways are also intact, having been used in part for racing activities.

East Fortune

The Watch Office remains on the ‘active’ side of the airfield site.

One of the benefits of East Fortune is the location of all these buildings, primarily on one relatively small site. Access is easy although many of them are sadly locked and out-of-bounds to the public.

Considering its early history and the sacrifice many of its crews gave, East Fortune is an important site, it stands as a memorial to all those who came and died here, and to all those who not only wrote history, but have contributed to it over the last 100 years.

Sources and further reading:

Further details of R,34’s trip can be found here.

Additional pictures of East Fortune can be found on flckr.

More detailed information about R.34 and the development of Airships can be found on The Airship Heritage Trust website .

*1 The Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 2)

After Part 1, we return to RAF Winfield, where an ‘odd’ visitor arrives. We also see the post war demise of Winfield into the site it is today.

At the end of the war many Polish units and displaced persons were pulled back to the U.K. in preparation for their repatriation into civilian life and for some return to their native country. Winfield became the site of one such group; the 22 Artillery Support Company (Army Service Corps, 2nd Polish Corps) who whilst fighting in the Middle East and Italy adopted a rather odd mascot. He became known as Wojtek, a Syrian bear who was officially given the rank of Private in the Polish Army, and who ‘fought’ alongside them as one of their own.

THE POLISH ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1940-1947

Wojtek the Syrian bear adopted by the Polish relaxing at Winfield Airfield, the unit’s temporary home after the war.*1

After finding the bear as a young cub wrapped around the neck of a small Iranian boy, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys took him and adopted him. After the war, on October 28th 1946, the Polish Army along with the bear arrived at Winfield Displaced Persons Camp – little did they know what a stir Wojtek would cause.

As displaced persons the Polish men would venture into nearby Berwick, where the locals grew fond of them and drinks flowed in abundance. Wojtek would go with them, becoming a familiar, if not unorthodox, site amongst the streets and bars or Berwick. This cigarette smoking, beer loving character, often causing a stir wherever he went. He became renowned in the area, the local villagers would flock to see him. He joined in with the frolics and loved the life that he was being allowed to live.

As a bear he loved the rivers and the River Tweed flows only a short distance from Winfield, rich and fast flowing it is abundant in that other commodity – Salmon. However, Wojtek was under strict orders not to swim alone nor stray onto the airfield which although closed, could still provide a danger for him if seen.

Wojtek became part of local history, eventually, a year after their arrival, the Polish unit were demobbed and they moved away. Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo to look after, who did so until his death at the age of 21 in 1963. A statue stands in Princess Street Gardens beneath Edinburgh Castle as a reminder of both him and the Polish troops who were stationed at Winfield camp. A second statue of Wojtek stands in the centre of Duns, the village not far from Charterhall. The Wojtek Memorial Trust, set up in his honour, aims to promote both educational and friendship links between the young people of Scotland and Poland, an aim it tirelessly works towards today.

RAF Winfield

Statue of Wojtek in the centre of nearby Duns.

After the Polish troops left, Winfield was allocated to the USAF, and earmarked for development, but this never materialised and the site was left dormant. Winfield then reverted back to RAF control some five years later in October 1955, whereupon it was disposed of and sold off.

A small group of private flyers reopened the site, renovating the watch office and utilising a small hangar on the north of the airfield. This operation has now ceased and the watch office has sadly fallen into disrepair, it windows missing and open to the elements. The demise of Winfield and its subsequent decay has begun.

Winfield airfield lies between two roads, a further public road passes through the site although this was seen to be gated at the southern end. The most prominent feature is by far the Watch Office, a two-story design built to design 15684/41, having walls some 13.5 inches thick as was standard for all night-fighter stations (but different to the one at Charterhall).

Other buildings also remain to the west on the main airfield site but these are only small and very few in number. The accommodation sites have all been removed, however, there are some buildings remaining in the former WAAF site to the north of the airfield. Located down a track just off the B4640, these buildings appear to be latrines and a possible WAAF decontamination block, with other partial remains nearby. Drawing numbers for these are unclear, (but appear to be 14420/41 and 14353/41) indicating WAAF (Officer and sergeant) quarters. Other buildings on this site look to have been a drying room, water storage tank and a picket post. Heading further south along this track leads to a small pond, here is a local design Fire Trailer shelter: a small brick-built building no more than about seven feet square. Presumably this pond was used to fill the fire trailer in cases of fire or attack and was located midway between the WAAF site and the main airfield. Also on this site, which is part of the Displaced Persons Camp, is a makeshift memorial to the Polish Armed Forces, dotted around the ground are a number of metal parts partially buried in the soil.

RAF Winfield

A plaque dedicated to the Polish Armed Forces placed next to the fire trailer hut.

The airfield runways and perimeter tracks are still in place, and years of both decay and locals using them to practice their driving skills on, have taken their toll. Like Charterhall, Winfield was also used as a motor racing circuit, although not to the same extent that Charterhall was. On one occasion though, as many as 50,000 spectators were known to have visited the site on one day alone!

Winfield like its parent site has now become history, the remnants of its past linger on as final reminders of the activities that went on here in the 1940s. The night fighter pilots who pushed the boundaries of aircraft location and interception are gradually fading away; the dilapidated buildings too are gradually crumbling and breaking apart. Inch by inch these sites are disappearing until one day soon, perhaps even they will have gone along with the brave young men who came here to train, to fight and in many cases to die.

As we leave the remnants of Winfield and Charterhall behind, we continue North to our next trail; nearing Edinburgh we take in more of Scotland’s natural beauty and even more tales of its wonderful but tragic aviation history.

My sincere thanks go to both Mr. and Mrs. Campbell for their hospitality and the help in touring these two sites. The history of both Charterhall and Winfield can be read in Trail 41.

Sources and Further Reading – RAF Winfield

*1 Photo IWM collections No.HU 16548.

The Polish Scottish Heritage website provides information about the scheme.

RAF Bardney to become a Shooting Range

After the closure of many of Britain’s wartime airfields, many were returned to agriculture or converted for use by light industry. Some were completely removed and some developed into housing. RAF Bardney, located a few miles to the east of Lincoln, has since been one of those used for a multitude of light industrial and agricultural uses and has been the recent subject of a planning application.

Bardney was home to three RAF squadrons during World War Two: Nos 9, (April 1943 – July 1945);  No. 227, who were reformed here at Bardney from ‘A’ flight of No. 9 Sqn and ‘B’ flight of 619 Sqn, staying for two weeks in October 1944; and finally No. 189 Sqn (April – October 1945) – all three squadrons operated the Lancaster MKI and MKIII.

During their stay here, No. 9 Sqn operated as part of 5 Group Bomber Command, using the Squadron code ‘WS’, and after moving in from nearby Waddington, they carried out a number of operations into the German heartland losing fifty-nine aircraft during 1943, half of which were whilst based here at Bardney.

The first fatality occurred on April 30th, when Lancaster III WS-R, ‘KD838’ was lost without trace in an operation to Essen. None of the seven crew members were ever found nor was there ever any trace of the aircraft.

9 Squadron was a mix of nationalities: British, Australian, Canadian, Rhodesian and Trinidadian. As with KD838, a large number of these crews were lost without trace, and as such, have no known grave – their memories being carved into the walls of the Runnymede Memorial.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Lancaster Mk III, ED831 ‘WS-H’, of No 9 Squadron RAF, flown by Squadron Leader A M Hobbs RNZAF and his crew, at Bardney. © IWM (CH 10405)

In the dying stages of the war, Bardney was used by the RAF’s Bomber Command Film Unit, flying Lancasters and Mosquitoes, the unit was itself eventually disbanded at Upwood later in the same year.

Post war Bardney was used  as a Thor missiles base by No. 106 Squadron (July 1959 – May 1963), before its eventual closure and final disposal.

A planning application was originally submitted in September 2016 for a:

“Change of use and conversion of existing agricultural land and associated outbuildings to provide an outdoor activities centre providing archery, air rifle shooting, axe throwing, combat archery and zombie training, and the construction of earth bunds to a maximum height of 3.0metres (bunds already constructed), in accordance with the amended plans received by the Local Planning Authority on 15th November 2016”.

Objections were put forward by local people and comments made by other interested bodies such as Environmental Health, Health and Safety and the Economic Development Team. Permission was initially granted in December that year. There are certain conditions in the terms of the decision, but it seems more than likely that the development will progress as planned.

The proposal and supporting documents can be found on the East Lindsey District Council Planning site.

The story first appeared in ‘Lincolnshire Live‘ news report on May 27th 2017.

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 1)

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

RAF Winfield.

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

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

RAF Winfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Winfield

Remains of the former WAAF site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Winfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 3)

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

RAF Charterhall

The main runway at Charterhall looking south.

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Charterhall

‘No. 1’ Building on the Technical site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Charterhall

Jim Clark’s grave stone at Chirnside.

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading

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

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

RAF Cottam – Built and Abandoned.

Up in the Yorkshire Wolds stands an airfield that could have been considered as one the Air Ministry’s ‘less sensible’ decisions. Open to the elements, this site was built but never fully used by an operational flying unit, in fact, Cottam could be considered one of the RAF’s more expensive bomb dumps, used primarily for munitions storage toward the war’s end. In its construction it would have accommodation, a hangar, and a watch office, along with three concrete runways – all the makings of an RAF bomber base, yet it was often desolate and empty. Even though it wasn’t used operationally, it did have its own problems however, and its own casualties . As we head across the River Humber into the East Riding of Yorkshire, we visit the former RAF airfield, RAF Cottam.

RAF Cottam.

Designed originally as a satellite for RAF Driffield, Cottam airfield lies high up in the hills on Cottam Well Dale, about 5 miles north of Driffield, just a stones throw from the village of Langtoft, and the tiny parish of Cottam. At 475 ft. above sea level, it is one of the higher peaks in the area which makes it popular with dog walkers and ramblers alike.

The airfield site encompasses the site of the ancient village of Cottam, (on maps of the late 1600s it appears as Cotham) of which only the church remains.  A lone building, it stands neglected and derelict, a reminder of a small community that has long since gone.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The abandoned medieval church marks the boundary of Cottam airfield and a community long gone.

The Air Ministry decided to build an airfield here to be used as a satellite and possible bomber base. The airfield would have a watch office with detached operations block (the separate block designed to drawing 13023/41). As construction was completed before June 1941, it would be classed as a Type ‘A’ building, and would need to be modified to bring it up to the newer Type ‘B’ standard as were being built on later airfield sites. Under the Type ‘B’ scheme, Cottam would have a Watch Office built to design 13726/41, then adapted by the fitting of smaller ‘slit’ windows more in line with bomber and O.T.U. satellite airfields of that time (15683/41). Sadly, the entire building was demolished in 1980, and no there are no signs of its existence left on site today.

A single T1 hangar provided space for aircraft repairs and maintenance, and accommodation, although sparse, would accommodate around 1000 men and 120 women of the Maintenance Command by December 1944.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The remains of the secondary runway looking west.

Cottam officially opened in September 1939, and as a grassed airfield, would only be used for dispersed aircraft from Driffield’s 4 Group Bomber Command, flying Whitleys of 77 and 102 Sqn. Cottam was also used later on for the Fairy Battles of 4 Group Target Towing Flight (4G T.T.F.) also based at Driffield at that time.

It wouldn’t be long though before Cottam would have its first accident. On July 1st 1940, a dispersed aircraft, Whitley V, (N1391) ‘DY-H’ of 102 Sqn, swung on take off causing minor damage to the aircraft. Luckily there weren’t thought to be any casualties in the incident, but the aircraft was rendered unable to fly, and the damage was sufficiently serious to need it to be taken away for repairs.

A month later, the 15th August 1940, signified a major point in the Battle of Britain, one which saw all of the Luftwaffe’s air fleets deployed for the first time, in a full and coordinated attack on the British mainland. This day saw the heaviest fighting of the Battle with attacks ranging from the south coast to east Yorkshire, and up to Edinburgh. This also meant the start of a number of attacks on British airfields and Driffield would not be left out. In this first attack, a Luftwaffe force of some 50 Junkers Ju 88s attacked the airfield damaging or destroying 12 aircraft on the ground – many of these were Whitleys. This attack was particularly devastating for a number of reasons, one of which was that it caused the first death on active service of a Bomber Command W.A.A.F., (A.C.W.2) Marguerite Hudson, who was killed after delivering stores to the site. This attack caused extensive damage to both the airfield site, infrastructure, and aircraft, and for a short period whilst repairs were undertaken, some aircraft were moved and dispersed here at Cottam. Indeed, on 27th September 1940, 4 Group T.T.F moved over to Cottam where they stayed for a month, not returning until the 24th October, once repairs had been completed and air attacks had all but ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The secondary runway looking east, this part is full width but built upon.

It is possible that these attacks may have led to the demise of one 77 Sqn Whitley V (N1355) ‘KN-X’ flown by Sgt. James Walter Ward RAFVR (741435), who undershot on landing at Cottam, hitting a fence, causing the undercarriage to later collapse. The five occupants of the aircraft were unhurt, but the aircraft itself was later struck off charge on 22nd September 1940, after assessment at Armstrong Whitworth in Baginton*1. Ward himself was killed with his crew only five days later, when his aircraft, Whitley V, (N1473) was shot down by flak over Noord Brabant, 2km from Vijfhuizen, on September 25th 1940. He died along with P/O C. Montague, himself a veteran of three previous serious crashes.

By the end of August 1940, both 77 and 102 Sqns had departed Driffield and so Cottam, which left it only being used by the Fairy Battles of 4 G T.T.F. During the winter months Cottam was abandoned by these aircraft, presumably due to its inclement weather conditions, but dispersed aircraft did return again in the spring and summer months. In October 1941, 4G T.T.F. reformed at Driffield as 1484 T.T.F., and it is at this point that it is thought their use of Cottam ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The perimeter track looking east. The main airfield is to your left.

Under the Ministry’s airfield expansion plan, new airfields of the early 40s were built with concrete surfaces. ‘Older’ grass sites, like Cottam, were upgraded having new runways laid down in an effort to reduce water logging and provide a more stable surface for the heavier bomber aircraft coming in. To meet these upgrades Cottam’s three runways – all consisting of concrete and wood chip – were built; the main being just short of 5,300 ft., with the two further runways around 4,000 ft. in length. Pan style aircraft dispersals were also added which gave Cottam a new look and hope for the future. However, and even though huge amounts of money had been spent on the airfield, it was decided it was not to be used further, as either a satellite or a bomber station. Cottam was offered to various other military groups who all turned down the location for various reasons. The army did take up residency for a short while until March 1944, whereupon it was then used to store vehicles for the impending invasion of Normandy.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

Blocks from the former site, and the beautiful views across the Wolds from one of the highest peaks in the area.

It is believed that further forced landings took place at Cottam during this time. Firstly, a damaged B-24 ‘Liberator’ came down after sustaining damage on a raid; and secondly, it is also thought that a Halifax landed here after an S.O.E. mission. Sadly at present, I can find no further official details of these events, and cannot therefore expand on them further.

Toward the end of the year 91 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) were based here*2 using the runways and hardstandings to store ammunition and other stores that were delivered by road from the rail yard at Driffield. A spell of residency for 244 Maintenance Unit carried on the storage work before the airfield was finally abandoned and closed in June 1954.

Returned to agriculture, the airfield is mostly gone, a section of the easy-west runway does still exist, and in part, at full width. Footpaths allow for walks across the site allowing views along the runway in both directions, they also allow walkers to use the remains of the perimeter track and secondary runway – albeit as a track. The frame of an air-raid shelter and the standby set house (designed to drawing 13244/41) are in situ, although by far the runways are the most prominent feature surviving today.

Access is best made from the Cottam Lane junction. The path leads up through the site of the medieval village of Cottam where the church still stands. This takes you south onto the airfield site itself and along the two runways. The walk extends along the perimeter track to the south, where debris from the perimeter track can also be seen.

Built high on the Wolds of Yorkshire, it is hard to understand why such a site was chosen. In winter, it could be bleak, windy and very cold. Landing conditions must have been difficult at best, and treacherous at worst. Its history of accidents tell their own tale.

In 2016, Cottam Airfield was the subject of a wind farm review, and a battle between the locals and the energy firm R.W.E, began. As yet though the site remains free of turbines, a gem for walkers and those wishing to experience the natural beauty of the Yorkshire Wolds. The open air and fabulous views hide a strange history, one that goes back long before the Second World War, but one that has only scars to tell the tale in this oddly historical, but beautiful part of Yorkshire. *3

Source and further reading:

*1 This was reported on a number of sites (Air Safety Network) but no records could be found referring to the accident in the Operational Records Book recorded by 77 Squadron at that time.

*2 See the National Archives website for details.

*3 News report on the proposal.

The Hull and East Riding at War Website has a range of information on the area during the Second World War.

My thanks go to Ronnie and Jo for the great walk, and for being such fabulous hosts. 

RAF North Pickenham – The Worst Record of the Eighth

There were many airfields in the eastern region of England during the Second World War, and countless crews were lost flying in combat operations. Undeterred and undaunted by these losses, many continued the brave fight to release Europe from the evil grip that was slowly strangling it. Loses were high, but at one particular airfield, the loses of one Group were the highest, and of those that came here, few were to return home alive.

In Trail 9 we visit RAF North Pickenham, an airfield with a short life, but one with a terrible tale of loss and sacrifice.

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143)

RAF North Pickenham was built in the later part of the Second World War (1943/44) and was officially handed over to the USAAF, 492nd Bomb Group (BG), on May 22nd 1944, by an RAF Officer during a ceremonial hand-over parade. This handover would see the culmination of USAAF takeovers of British Airfields – some sixty-six in all. America’s ‘friendly invasion’, would result in eighty-two major operational units moving to the UK, all of which would occupy some seventy-seven military sites in total.

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143) was built with three concrete runways, 50 ‘spectacle’ style hardstands and a substantial bomb store to the north-west. Accommodation for the crews, was divided into a: communal site (site 3), mess site (site 4), six officers’ quarters (sites 6 to 11) and a sick quarters (site 5). Three further sites, 12-14, consisted of a small sentry post, sewage disposal site and H.F.D.F station. All the accommodation areas were to the eastern side of the airfield well away from the extended bomb store to the west.

The 492nd were a new unit, only being activated in the previous October. On arrival in the UK in April, they were assigned to the 2nd Bomb Division, 14th Combat Wing and sent to RAF North Pickenham where they entered combat on May 11th 1944. The main body of the ground echelon was formed with personnel taken from units already in the U.K. whilst the air echelons were trained states-side and then ferried across the southern Atlantic route.

This first mission, which took the 492nd to marshalling yards in north-eastern France, saw 364 B-24s of the 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions combine with 536 fighters over occupied Europe. Whilst relatively uneventful for the 492nd, two B-24s did run out of fuel on their return journey; the first, B-24J #44-4087 “Sweet Chariot” crashing at Bury St. Edmunds, whilst the second, came to grief at West Wittering in Sussex. Thankfully, only one crewman was lost (3 were injured), but he was to be the first of the many casualties of the 492nd’s operational war.

RAF North Pickenham

Operations Block, North Pickenham

Throughout the month of May, the 492nd operated against industrial targets in Germany, and being a new unit, their loses would be high. On May 19th 1944, a week into operations, they suffered their first major casualties, eight aircraft in total, all shot down in operations over Brunswick. Loses were not only happening in air either, only two days later, on May 21st, two B-24s collided on the ground whilst taxing -‘What’s Next Doc‘ struck ‘Irishman’s Shanty‘ – causing the former to be written off. It was not a good omen for the 492nd.

In the following month, on June 20th, a massed 2nd Bomb Division formation attacked Politz, an attack that saw the 492nd lose a further fourteen aircraft, six of which managed to limp to Sweden before finally coming down.

Things then went from bad to worse for the 492nd, but undaunted and undeterred, they would continue their quest, attacking V-weapons sites, coastal batteries, and other defences along the Normandy coast. Apart from supporting the St. Lo breakout on July 25th, they continued to attack targets in the German homeland for the remainder of what would be their brief existence.

Consisting of the 856th, 857th, 858th and 859th Bomb Squadrons, they were not to fare well at all. In total, the 492nd would carry out sixty-six missions accumulating just over 1,600 sorties. During these operations, they would lose fifty-seven aircraft (including six non-operationally) which was the highest loss of any B-24 unit of the entire Eighth Air Force. Talk of ‘blame’ for these losses was rife; some blamed the aircraft’s all metal finish, saying it attracted fighter attention, others pinned loses on the Luftwaffe’s determination to bring down one single group, whilst another placed it solely at the inability of the crews to fly in neat well-structured formations. Whatever the reasons, it was certain that the 492nd were often ‘Tail-end Charlies‘ finding themselves in the weakest and most vulnerable positions of the formations – easy pickings for the now determined and desperate Luftwaffe pilots.

With loses continuing to climb and talk of a jinxed group spreading, an order came though on August 5th 1944 for the 492nd to withdraw from combat missions and take over ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations previously being performed by the 801st at RAF Harrington.  This order would not end the 492nd’s increasing casualties though. On the following day, another two B-24s would both collide on approach to the airfield. #44-4016 ‘Sugar-n-Spice‘ and #42-50719 ‘Sans Souci‘ struck each other causing them both to crash. The accident resulted in the loss of eleven crewmen with another nine injured.

RAF North Pickenham

One of many buildings now being reclaimed at North Pickenham.

Finally, on 7th August the order was put in place and after the last mission that day, the move began. This reshuffle of numbers and crews was in reality the disbandment of the 492nd, the crews and ground staff being spread far and wide and the 492nd name being transferred to an already well established unit – the 801st.

The loss of these personnel gave North Pickenham a short respite from the rigours of war. But it would only be short. Within a few days, conflict would return as yet another B-24 unit, the 491st Bomb Group, would move in.

Originally designated to reside at North Pickenham, they were instead directed to RAF Metfield, primarily due to the immense progress that the 492nd had made in their training programme. Whilst there must have been concerns around the jinxed airfield, in terms of operational records, the 491st were to be quite the reverse of the 492nd.

The 491st arrived at North Pickenham on the 15th August, and continued with their operations over occupied Europe. Like their previous counterparts, they focused on industrial targets in Germany, flying deep in to the heart of the Reich: Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne. Gelsenkirchen, Hannover and Magdeburg. It was on one of these missions, on November 26th 1944, that they were awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) for successfully bombing their target in Misburg despite very heavy loses from a prolonged and determined German counter attack. Out of the original 27 aircraft that set out from North Pickenham that day, 15 were lost to enemy action.

As 1944 turned into 1945 the appalling European weather set in. The cold snows of the 1944/45 winter were one of the worst on record, as troops in the Ardennes and ground crews of the Allied Air Forces were to find out to their discomfort.

Many bombing missions were scrubbed, often at the last-minute, but desperate attempts were regularly made to not only get supplies through, but to bomb strategic positions held by the Germans. On January 5th 1945, heavy snows fell across England and in an attempt to attack German positions, two B-24s of the 491st took off from North Pickenham with disastrous results.

The two aircraft, B-24 #44-40165 ‘Rage in Heaven‘ the unit’s assembly ship, and B-24J #42-50793, both crashed just after take off, with considerable loss of life. As a result, the decision was then made for the 491st to abandon any further attempts to get aircraft airborne, and their part in this operation was cancelled. Even though some 1,000 aircraft of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions would get aloft that day, January 5th would become a black day and notoriously famous for a number of such incidents across the English countryside.

The remains of B-24 #42-50793 lay in the heavy snows of North Pickenham following a crash on January 5th 1945.  One of two 491st aircraft that crashed that day in snow storms. (IWM FRE 8588)

Eventually by April 1945, “The Ringmasters” as they had become known, had amassed over 5000 sorties, dropping over 12,000 tons of bombs, for the loss of only 47 aircraft on operational missions over occupied Europe. In June and July, after cessation of conflict, they began their withdrawal and a gradual return to the United States. A few days of ‘R and R’ then led to their inactivation on September 8th 1945.

After the group left North Pickenham, no other flying squadrons were based here, neither American or RAF, but a brief residency of Thor missiles operated by 220 Sqn between 22nd July 1959 and 10th July 1963, saw the site brought back to life momentarily. Finally, a last reprieve in 1965 saw testing of the Kestrel VTOL aircraft which of course became famous as the Harrier, one of the many British Jet Aircraft to see combat operations in the post war eras.

After the Kestrel trials were over, the site was closed and sold off, returning to a mix of poultry farming, and light industry. Many of the hardstands were removed, buildings left to deteriorate and the perimeter track reduced to a fraction of its former self. As time has gone on wind turbines have sprouted up across the open landscape making good use of the winds that blow across the Norfolk countryside.

RAF North Pickenham

“Stanton” shelter located at South Pickenham

Despite this decline, there are still signs of this once busy station to see. If approaching from the south, you will pass through South Pickenham first. Follow the leafy road toward the village, but keep a sharp eye open for amongst the trees are a series of “Stanton” air raid shelters of which there are five in total. Many of these are only visible by the escape hatches serving the top of the shelter. These were part of the domestic site that once served the airfield.

Some of these shelters are easily accessible being a few feet from the roadside, but as always, caution is the key word when visiting, and remember the laws of trespass! Moving further on, take a left and you pass a small collection of buildings on the right hand side.

These are the operations block and the store for the American  Norden M7 bomb sight. In a very poor state of repair, they once played a major role in the American offensive over Nazi Germany, – there must be many stories held within their crumbling and decaying walls. Continue past the buildings and you arrive at a ‘T’ junction. Turning right will take you to the airfield, now an industrial site and turkey farm. Access from here is both limited and private. Instead turn left, follow the road along, and then join the B1077. Turn right and drive for a mile or two, the airfield is on your right. A suitable parking space allows views across the field where its enormity can be truly understood. Now containing many turkey sheds along its runways, the outline is distinct and relatively clear considering its age. Up until November 2014 one of the original hangars still remained*1 fire destroying the structure, and what was left then subsequently removed. A number of ordnance huts mark the former location of the bomb dump, these can still be seen in the foreground from this high vantage point. The Watch Office, built to design 12779/41was demolished many years ago but stood opposite you and to the right.

airfield cropped

Views across the Airfield, propellers of the wind turbines replace the propellers of B24s.

It is also possible to view the main runway. By driving around the site via Swaffham, or retracing your steps though the village, the best view is from the northern end of the airfield on the road from Swaffham to Bradenham, close to the village where the base gets its name. Substantial is size, these runways have fared remarkably well and the sheer size of them easily discernible from the views at this end.

North Pickenham may truly fit the description of ‘ghost’ airfield, its chequered history includes not only one of the worst fatality records of the whole eighth Air Force, but it also attracted a lot of Luftwaffe attention. In excess of 200 German bombs were dropped on it during its short and rather dramatic wartime life. Handed over to the Americans in May 1944, it was the 66th and final one to be so, thus ending a remarkable chapter in world history.

RAF North Pickenham

North Pickenham’s  last remaining Hangar* before it burned down in late 2014.

A memorial to the servicemen who flew from North Pickenham, lays silently in the village on the edge of a new housing development. Wreaths from nearby RAF Lakenheath enforce the link between the current American Air Force and Norfolk’s legendary flying history.

On leaving the remnants and stories of North Pickenham, we continue south-east, toward the former RAF Watton, another now extinguished British airfield.

DSC_0056

Memorial dedicated to those who flew from, and never returned to, North Pickenham.

North Pickenham was originally visited in early 2014, this post has since been updated.

*1 This hangar was burnt down in November 2014. My thanks to the anonymous reader for the updates and corrections.

RAF North Witham – A Truly Historical Place

On the western fringes of Lincolnshire close to the Leicestershire border, is an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for North Witham, many may not have been as successful as they were. For the next part of trail 3, we head west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

RAF North Witham sits quietly amongst the trees of Twyford Woods, a site originally known as Witham Wood, it is now a public space owned and maintained by the U.K.’s Forestry Commission.

Originally, North Witham was one of twelve airfields in the Leicestershire cluster intended to be an RAF bomber station for No. 7 Group, however, it was never used operationally by the Royal Air Force, instead like ten others in the area, it was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force and in particular the IX Troop Carrier Command.

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

As it was originally designed as a bomber station it was built to the Air Ministry’s class ‘A’ specification, formed around the usual three triangular runways, perimeter track and aircraft hardstands. With construction beginning in the mid-war years 1942/43, its main runway would be 2000 yds long, with the second and third runways 1,400 yds in length and all 50 yds wide. To accommodate the aircraft, 50  ‘spectacle’ style dispersals were built, scattered around the adjoining perimeter track. As a bomber base it had a bomb store, located to the north-eastern side of the airfield, with the admin and technical site to the south-east. One feature of North Witham was its operations block, built to drawing 4891/42, it was larger than most, with ceilings of 14 feet high. Amongst the myriad of rooms were a battery room, cipher office, meteorology room, PBX, traffic office and teleprinter room, all accessed through specially designed air locks. A further feature of this design was the attachment of a Nissen hut to house plant equipment and boiler equipment, a feature not commonly seen at this time.

Aircraft maintenance could be carried out in one of two ‘T2’ hangars with additional work space provided by one of six ‘Butler’ hangars. Designed and built by the Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas, USA, these were supplied in kit form and had to be erected on site by an Engineer Aviation Battalion. These ‘hangars’ had rigid box section girders over a canvas cladding, and once fully erected, gave a wide 40 ft span. Quite a rare feature, these types of structures were only built in limited numbers during the Second World War and only appeared on American occupied airfields. Post-war however, they were far more commonly used appearing on many American cold-war sites across the UK.

A hangar under construction at the 1st Tactical Air Depot at North Witham. Printed caption on reverse: '77877 AC - A butler hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion at North Witham, England. U.S. Air Force Photo.'

A ‘Butler’ hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) at a very snowy North Witham (IWM479)

The Ninth Air Force was born in 1942 out of the ashes of the V Air Support Command, and then combined with units already located in the England operating under the American Eighth Air Force. Its initial activities focused on the allied push across North Africa followed by the move up into southern Europe through Italy.

Moving to England in October 1943, it then became the tactical Air Force that would support the Normandy invasion, supplying medium bombers, operating as troop support and providing supply flights. Facilitation of this massive invasion required both a huge backup, and an intricate supply and support network. North Witham would form part of this support network through both repair and maintenance of the troop carrier aircraft that were operated by the Ninth Air Force – primarily the C-47s. The main group undertaking this role at North Witham was the 1st Tactical Air Depot comprising the 29th and 33rd Air Depot Groups between January and September 1944*1. One of a number of depots, they were once described as the “backbone of Supply for the Army Air Force”, and had a complicated arrangement that encompassed numerous groups across the entire world theatre.

For such a large base, North Witham would be operationally ‘underused’, the only unit to fly from here being those of the IX Troop Carrier Command (TCC), who would primarily use C-47 ‘Skytrains’ – an established and true workhorse, and one that would go on to supply many air forces around the world.

During the Sicily campaign, it was found that many incoming aircraft were not finding the drop zones as accurately as they should and as a result, paratroops were being widely and thinly scattered. More accurate flying aided by precise target marking was therefore required and so the first Pathfinder School was set up.

North Whitham pen

Part of one of North Witham’s 50 dispersal pans.

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham in March 1944. These aircraft were fitted with ‘modern’ Gee radar and navigation equipment, and would be used to train paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would remain at North Witham for short periods before returning to their own designated bases. The idea being a joint venture to land the troops who would then set up a ‘homing’ station using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft. This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

On arrival at North Witham, the Pathfinders were accommodated in the huts originally provided for the depot’s crews – some 1,250 enlisted men and 75 officers. Many of these displaced men were rehoused in tents along the northern end of the site which only added a further strain to the already rudimentary accommodation that was already in place at the airfield. At its height, North Witham would house upward of 3,700 men in total, a figure that included an RAF detachment of 86 men and large quantities of GIs.

Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their C-47s and departed in to the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, with only one being lost in the entire mission. The Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 was lost en route due to mechanical failure – the aircraft ditching in the sea. All the crew and paratroops on-board were believed to have been rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham into the summer of 1944, training that included Polish paratroops (1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade) who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and participating in Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

As the Allies pushed further into enemy territory, the flying distance from England became too great and so new airfields were either constructed or captured airfields refurbished. The Pathfinder School soon moved away to Hampshire and the maintenance units, needed nearer the front lines, gradually departed to new bases on the continent.

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise carried on at North Witham, but gradually the UK-based maintenance and repair work slowed down, and before long its fate was sealed and the airfield began the long wind-down that many of these unique places suffered.

By the war’s end the last American personnel had pulled out and the site was handed back to the RAF’s 40 Group who, after using it for a brief spell as a maintenance depot themselves, placed it under care and maintenance. It was used as a munitions and hardware store until 1948, and then finally, in 1956, it was closed by the Ministry and the site sold two years later.

Photograph of North Witham taken on 17th January 1947. The technical site and barrack sites are at the top left, the bomb dump is bottom left. (IWM RAF_CPE_UK_1932_FP_1221)

The site, intact as it was, was returned to the Forestry Commission who planted a range of new trees around the site, covering the vast areas of grass. The technical area was developed into a small industrial unit and perhaps most sadly the watch office left to decay and fall apart.

Today the three runways and perimeter track still exist almost in their entirety, and remarkably, in generally good condition. Largely overgrown with weeds and small trees, the remainder is well hidden obscuring what little there is in the way of buildings – most being demolished and the remains left piled up where they stood. However, a T2 hangar is now used on the industrial estate and the watch office still stands tucked away amongst the trees and undergrowth. This area is a favourite place for dog walkers, and because of its runways, it is accessible for prams and pushchairs. Whilst here, I spoke to quite a few people, remarkably none of them knew of the site’s historical significance let alone the office’s existence!

Today the watch office remains open to the elements. Surrounded by used tyres and in constant threat of the impending industrial complex over the fence, its future is uncertain. Access stairs have been removed, but an entrance has been made by piling tyres up to the door – presumably by those wishing to enter and ‘explore’ further. Little evidence of its history can be seen from the outside, even the rendering has been removed, and so, any possible personal links with the past are more than likely now gone.

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The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

Returning back to the main public entrance along the perimeter track, a number of dispersal pens can be found; overgrown but relatively intact, they are a further sign that even here, war was never very far away.

North Witham was one of those ‘backroom boys’ whose contribution, whilst extremely important, is little known about. The work carried out here not only helped to maintain a strong and reliable fighting force, but one that spearheaded the frontal invasion of Normandy. It served as a cold and perhaps uncomfortable home to many brave troops, many of whom took the fight direct to Nazi Germany.

Standing here today, it is quiet and strangely surreal – you can almost hear the roar of engines. Looking along its enormous runways you get an eerie feeling – how many troops also stood here, spending their last few hours in this quiet place. Looking around now, it is difficult to imagine the immense work that went on here, the gathering of equipment as preparations were made for the big push into Normandy on that famous June night.

North Witham is truly a remarkable place, hidden away amongst the trees as a giant time capsule, a monument to those who lived, worked and died during that turbulent time in 1944-45.

After leaving North Witham, we return to the main A1 road and head south. Any journey here can not avoid briefly mentioning RAF Wittering, its Harrier still standing proudly outside the main gate. All went quiet here following the Government cutbacks of December 2010, but flying has now returned in the form of Grob Trainers – a small reprieve for this historic site. Wittering can seen later in Trail 37.

Another view along the main runway.

Another view along the main runway.

Sadly in May 2015, Twyford Woods was the scene of a large illegal rave, over 1000 people attended the event where a number of arrests were made in the violent altercations that took place*4. A sad day that would turn the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the freedom we take for granted so very easily today.

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

*2 C-47A #42-93098 itself was later lost whilst flying with the 439th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) on September 18th 1944, whilst flying in support of Operation ‘Market Garden‘ in Holland.

*3 Superb footage of Crouch and his crew as they depart from North Witham is available on-line here, it also shows the Watch Tower in its former glory.

*4 A report of the event is available on the BBC News website.