I would just like to take this opportunity to wish all those of you who have followed, read or commented on the blog, a very merry Christmas and a very happy and safe New Year.
A extra big thanks goes out to those of you who have stuck around for so long, we’re now approaching our seventh year of the blog and have managed to visit over 125 airfields, 105 memorials and 40 museums. These have stretched from Perth in Scotland to the South coast of England, Suffolk in the east to Gloucestershire in the west. The range of these airfields is enormous, and they continue to vanish, with many in a worse state now than they were when I visited at the beginning of the journey.
Very soon many of these will be gone, lets hope the memories of those who served are not also gone with them.
Part 1 of Newmarket Heath saw the rebirth of this First World War airfield. The outbreak of war and the confusion that grew from the Phoney War.
Part 2 continues the growth and development of Newmarket and its eventual demise.
The Autumn of 1941 saw the reforming of a World War 1 squadron, 138 Sqn whose re-creation on the 25th, was the result of renumbering 1419 Flight. who would operate Lysanders, Whitleys and finally Halifax IIs before they departed mid December. 138 Sqn would then go on to play a major part in the forming of yet another squadron, also here at Newmarket, in a few months time.
December 1941 heralded another First World War squadron reformation, this time the ground echelons of 215 Sqn, who would make their way to India before the air echelons – formed at Waterbeach – could join them.
The winter of 1941 – 1942 would be a time of great discord for Bomber Command even to the point where its whole future was at stake. With high losses and poor bombing accuracy, there were those in power who were seeking to reduce the Command to a fraction of its size, and with such unsustainable losses, their arguments were holding a lot of water. But Sir Charles Portal, who vehemently supported the Bomber Command dogma of carpet bombing, managed to secure the backing of Churchill, and having Churchill on your side meant you had power.
Across Bomber Command, 1942 would bring many changes. To implement this mass bombing policy, now targeting the populous rather than individual industrial targets, Portal employed Sir Arthur Harris in February 1942. Whilst not Harris’s conception, it would be his name that would become synonymous with the policy that has become so controversial ever since.
Along with Harris came a restructuring of Bomber Command, including its support structure. With the heavier four-engined types all coming on line and into full squadron service, it would see the reduction on the reliance of the smaller, now outdated, twin-engined types: Whitley, Hampden and the Manchester; and whilst the numbers of Bomber Command aircraft would not significantly increase, its payload would.
These changes would include the training units designed to train crews for the new bomber aircraft, With larger aircraft, came larger and more specific roles. Within the reshuffle came renumbering, amalgamation and reformation, making their evolution a complicated mix of numbers and bases. Newmarket was a part of this mix.
One such unit to go through these changes was No. 1483 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight which joined with other flights to be finally renamed No. 3 Group Air Bomber Training Flight in mid 1942. The Flight would continue on in this form until mid March 1944, whereupon it was disbanded, and its aircraft disposed of.
The confusing reforming of training units would reflect the reshaping that Bomber Command would also go through, much of which was settled and firmly embedded by the year’s end. Much of this would be under Harris’s direction, but some by the natural evolutionary process of development and improvement.
The development of aircraft was rapid during the war years. With both the Allied and Axis powers investigating faster and more powerful aircraft, it wouldn’t be long before the jet engine would make an appearance. For the RAF, the Meteor (F.9/40 ‘GlosterWhittle’ twin-jet interceptors) would be the breakthrough. A twin engined jet aircraft, of which twelve prototypes were initially ordered by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (designated DG202 – DG213), and was unofficially known as the ‘Rampage’, would have different engines to undergo flight testing.
On July 2nd, 1942, one of these prototypes DG202, was transferred from the Gloster factory at Bentham in Gloucestershire, here to Newmarket by road. Loaded onto a low loader, its wings were removed and then reassembled for ground run and taxiing trials.
On the 10th, the aircraft was powered up and taxied by Flt. Lt. P.E.G. ‘Gerry’ Sayer, who attempted two short flights. On the second attempt, Sayers managed to get the aircraft off the ground for a few seconds before bringing it back down again. The engines fitted at the time, were not designed to be flight condition engines and so no greater duration attempts were made.
After suffering problems with the undercarriage, trials were resumed with Hawker Typhoon wheels, until mid August when the engines were removed, and the aircraft stored in one of the hangars on the airfield.
After further tests, the aircraft was transported, again by road, to RAF Barford St. John, in Banbury, Oxon where it would eventually fly for six minutes under the control of Gloster’s chief test pilot, Michael Daunt. DG202 then underwent numerous modifications and further flight tests, eventually being mothballed and refurbished, until it found its way to the RAF Museum at Hendon, London. The Meteor would of course go on the break the Air Speed Record at Herne Bay, Kent on November 7th 1945.
Meanwhile back at Newmarket, the end of October 1942 saw air and ground crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn at nearby RAF Mildenhall, begin transferring across to Oakington, an airfield that had caused so many problems with mud earlier in the war. The purpose of the move was to convert the men, initially of ‘B’ Flight and then ‘A’ Flight, over to the Stirlings they were about to receive. Once trained, they would return to Mildenhall and then transfer to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, where they would be based for the foreseeable future.
At the end of October the transformation from Wellington to Stirling began. Thirteen Welllingtons were dispatched to other squadrons, at which point the New Zealanders began their move to Newmarket. The move, overseen by Sqn. Ldr. R. Crawford, commenced on November 1st 1942, and involved two parties, one travelling by road whilst the other travelled by air. Once at Newmarket the crews would begin settling in, and as soon as their replacement aircraft arrived, they would carry out air training flights acclimatising themselves to the intricacies of the new four-engined heavy.
With new aircraft to get used to, it would not be long before the first accident would occur, one that thankfully did not involve casualties. A wheels-up landing by Sgt. P. Buck at Holme whilst on an air-to-air firing flight to RAF Marham, marked the start of a new era.
The first operational flight from Newmarket took place on November 20th, a long distance flight to Turin. A small force comprising of only four aircraft carrying 4 lb incendiary bombs, made up 75 Sqn’s component of 232 aircraft – the largest Italian raid of the period. Whilst the raid was successful and no losses were encountered by any squadron, two of the four No. 75 Squadron Stirlings returned early with problems; the incendiaries they were carrying being dropped over southern France or in The Wash.
Operations to Stuttgart two nights later showed similar results, this time only two aircraft were detailed of which one returned early with an unserviceable rear turret.
A pattern was beginning to emerge. On the 28th, another raid with four aircraft saw one forced to jettison its load of 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs due to one engine cutting out, the other three aircraft bombing Turin successfully. On the return, Stirling BK608 ‘T’ ran out of fuel over Stradishall, the crew bailing out as low as 600 ft, but against the odds, they all survived unhurt. The aircraft crashed, but was eventually recovered and converted to an instructional air frame. Sadly the same could not be said for the crew of BF399, who whilst on a training flight back at Oakington, flew into the ground killing all but the mid-upper gunner instantly. Sgt. C. T. Roberts, the only crash survivor, unfortunately succumbed to his injuries a few days later, adding another tally to the list of dead. It later transpired that the pilot, Sgt. H. Broady, had tried to avoid a head-on collision with another Stirling possibly putting the aircraft into a stall from which he could not recover.
On the 29th, further problems dogged the Stirlings, a faulty bomb release mechanism meant an early return for BK609 ‘R’, who landed in poor weather at Bradwell Bay; the pilot overshooting the runway damaging the aircraft and injuring the Air Bomber Sgt. Broadle.
Over the October / November period, 75 Sqn received a quantity of new Stirlings, the factories at Rochester, Swindon and Birmingham each supplying examples as the last of the Wellingtons were dispatched elsewhere.
By December, the crews were all together back here at Newmarket and taking part in squadron operations over occupied Europe. The last days of 1942 would not be happy yule tides for all though, as fate would claim one last victim of 75 Sqn, that of BF400 ‘G’ which was shot down over Holland. The crew were all captured and placed in POW camps, F/O. Eric Williams being one of those whose famous escape via the Wooden Horse was immortalised on film.
As 1943 dawned and Bomber Command settled into its new form, Newmarket would see a short stay of 2 Sqn Mustang Is. Based primarily a stones throw away at RAF Bottisham, they were only a detachment and would soon depart the site. Similarly, between the 6th and 14th March of 1943, 453 Sqn flying Spitfire VBs utilised the bomber site. Another short stay unit, the Merlin engined fighter group had only been formed at Drem in Scotland, some nine months earlier.
In the preceding years, the Stirling and Wellington had remained, for a large part, the main backbone of 3 Group, with the Stirling gradually replacing the twin-engined ‘Wimpy’, until it too would be withdrawn from front line service in favour of the Lancaster.
75 Sqn suffered only a handful of losses, many aircrew being captured and taken prisoners of war. In the March, the MK.I began to be replaced by the MK.III, and with it came new hope for improved performance. Many of the teething troubles that had dogged the earlier version of the Stirling had now been resolved, but it still remained a poorly performing aircraft, even in its current form.
Initial tests of the MK.III at Boscombe Down were positive. Altitudes of 17,000 ft were achievable, and whilst still far below that of the Lancaster or Halifax, it was better than the MK.I. However, these tests failed to take account of new equipment such as new dorsal turrets and flame dampers, additional weight and drag meant that in operational form, the new model was barely better than its predecessor, and far better engines were needed if any significant improvement was going to be made. With further engine developments the first of the MK.III Stirlings came out. Fitted with Hercules MK.VI engines they could achieve a marginal 2,300 ft better altitude and a slightly faster climb rate; it was hardly anything to call home about, but with improved German flak defences it was welcomed with open arms.
In March, 75 Sqn received two of the new models, with others following not long after. One of these was lost on April 8th on a mission to Duisburg. The crew were all lost when the aircraft came down on its way home only three miles west of Diss in Norfolk.
On the RAF’s anniversary, 75 Sqn formed a new section, ‘C’Flight, an increase in crew meant an an increase in operations too. Whilst 1943 saw low casualties generally, there were three nights on which four aircraft were lost each time. On the night of 28-29th April R9290, W7513, BF4667 and BK807 were all lost whilst on ‘Gardening’ missions in the Baltics, there were no survivors. Another four aircraft were then lost over Wuppertal, with only seven of the airmen surviving – it was another huge loss. A further four aircraft were lost on the night 22-23rd June whilst on a mission to Mulheim. During this attack the four aircraft were shot down by a combination of night fighters and flak, with only five crewmen from BK810 surviving as prisoners of war.
June 1943 saw the last remaining Newmarket operations. On the 19th, fourteen aircraft were dispatched to Krefeld on the western banks of the Rhine a few miles north-west of Dusseldorf. Over the target, Stirling MK.I EH880 piloted by Flt. Lt. J. Joll, was hit by flak, breaking a fuel-cock and control cables. As a result, fuel and oil poured into the aircraft’s body, causing a fire in the fuselage, mainplane and mid-upper turret. Without thinking for his safety, the Flight Engineer Sgt. G. Falloon, cut a hole into the wing with an escape axe, and crawled through. Once inside, he located and isolated the leak enabling the aircraft to land safely back at Newmarket.
Undaunted the crew returned to Krefeld two nights later, this time safely returning without damage. As the month closed, the last Newmarket loss came on the night of 25-26th June 1943, a loss that coincided with the Sqn’s departure from Newmarket, and a move to pastures new at RAF Mepal. The Loss of Stirling BK768 ‘L’ piloted by F/O. Perrott, came as a last minute blow to the squadron, with the loss of all on board.
As the war progressed, new technologies and better methods for bombing were being investigated by both sides. Within the RAF, the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) (formally 1418 Flight) was making huge steps in this direction. A specialist unit that was set up to run trials of new technologies for the RAF’s heavy bombers included: H2S, ‘Monica’, ‘Boozer’ and ‘Fishpond‘, each one designed to improve bombing accuracy or aircraft protection.
On 13th September 1943, the BDU moved from RAF Feltwell to Newmarket, where they continued these tests, including trials into higher altitude mine laying. The research carried out by the BDU was paramount in the introduction of ventral guns fitted in many of the RAF’s wartime heavy bombers. Under the leadership of Sqn. Ldr. (later Wing Commander) Richard ‘Dickie’ Speare DSO, DFC and bar, and Sir Lewis Hodges, they also investigated the idea of a radar guided rear turret (AGLT) that locked onto enemy aircraft. A design feature that never really took off, and the idea was later scrapped.
A number of other units, Maintenance units, Glider Maintenance sections, Training Schools and Flights, also graced the skies over Newmarket. But by now the end was drawing closer, and operations from Newmarket began winding down until they finally ceased shortly after the end of the war. A military presence remained for a further two years, but there was little activity. Post war, the Rowley Mile racecourse was reinstated, the buildings returned to their former use and the majority of the airfield’s buildings were pulled down. Within three years the military had pulled out and Newmarket’s wartime history came to a close.
Newmarket racecourse today. The Grandstand to the right with the Rowley Mile along the front (white fencing). The main runway was directly in front of you at this point, cutting across the airfield. (Taken from the lowered section of the Dyke)
Today the racecourse is predominant, little evidence can be seen of the former airfield, the Dyke still has the lowered section, and one original hangar remains to the north of the site next to the A14 road. The July landing strip still operates, and aircraft are permitted to land and take off up to an hour before or after racing commences/finishes, used mainly by visiting jockeys and horse owners, it is perhaps the last remaining sign of an aviation history at this once busy airfield.
The dangers of the Dyke continue to show themselves today, on June 1st 2000, a Piper Seneca carrying the Jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ray Cochrane crashed on this site both suffering serious injuries. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, was killed in the crash which took place between the July strip and Rowley mile, impacting on the Devils Dyke – yet another victim claimed by this ancient structure.
The Grandstand, the former accommodation block for aircrews, still stands but much refurbished and updated, a grand viewing platform where race-goers can watch in comfort as the horses gallop across the finish line.
Newmarket airfield started off as a rather insignificant satellite airfield growing considerably in size over its life. Although the runways were grass, (there were three officially designated) the longest stretched to around 9,000 ft (2,500 yds) – some 500 more than a standard Class A bomber airfield of the war years. The remaining two runways (1,800 yds and 1,600 yds), were also large for its size. A bomb store, much needed early on in the war, was located to the north and a small, non circular perimeter track linked the many hangers that were found on the original wartime site. Several T2s, two B1s, and various blister hangars were all located around the airfield.
The majority of the technical area was found to the north of the site, the opposite end of the Grandstand which was close to the watch office. In this technical area were located twenty-four hardstands of the spectacle style, all of which have now gone. The main A14 road now cuts across this former technical area, only one of the B1s still exists today, the second having been burnt down and replaced in recent years.
RAF Newmarket Heath saw a huge range of flying activities during its life. Primarily a bomber station, it witnessed many accidents and suffered many losses. From its inception in the First World War to its development as a substantial airfield in the second, it grew to be a remarkable site, and one which continues to be prominent today. Sadly though, this important period of history seems to have all but vanished, the slate wiped clean and replaced with something much more appealing to the general public today.
After we leave Newmarket, we head a short distance west towards Cambridge where we find another airfield that has long since gone. Through huge efforts by a small group of volunteers though, we see a museum sprouting out of the ashes, as we head to the former airfield RAF Botisham.
In the second of the four airfields visited in Trail 55, we move on from Snailwell, a small grassed airfield to a similar station a stones throw away to the west.
This second airfield is now one of the major venues of British Horse Racing, second only to Ascot, and is found in an area where much of the land is owned by the British Horse Racing School, stud farms, and stabling. It is also home to the famous Jockey Club, an organisation founded in 1750 that has a turnover of over £200 million.
Now where virtually all traces have long gone, we visit the former base RAF Newmarket Heath.
RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile).
Like RAF Snailwell, Newmarket Heath saw a wide variety of units using it, initially as a satellite airfield. It housed in excess of 20 squadrons or training units during its life. Being a satellite it would also be used by a wide range of aircraft types, but primarily the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, each one bringing its own story of hardship and heroism.
Opened in October 1916, its history lasted until the military finally pulled out on 15th April 1948, but whilst military flying has ceased, some light flying still does occur, mainly for those attending race days at the Newmarket race course.
Today Newmarket airstrip is one that confuses many pilots trying to land and use its facilities. The original landing strip was know as ‘Rowley Mile’, which now forms part of the Newmarket racecourse ending at the Rowley Mile Stands. During the summer months, another strip is used, known simply as the ‘July landing strip’, and this sits to the west of the Rowley Mile along side the ‘Devils Dyke’*1 (locally called the Devil’s Ditch’). This is is a 7 mile long embankment, created in Anglo-Saxon times, and is thought to be around 1,450 years old. Because of its collection of wild fauna and flora, is has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), which, at its highest point, reaches some 50 feet. It was this dyke that caused at least one major accident when a Stirling of 75 Squadron, based at the airfield, struck the dyke at ten minutes past ten on December 16th 1942.
The Devils Dyke looking north. The ‘July Strip’ is to the left and the ‘Rowley Mile’ and Newmarket Airfield to the right. This is the bank struck by the Stirling.
During take off, Stirling R9245 piloted by Sgt. B. Franklin, and carrying mines for the Gironde Estuary, clipped the Dyke with its starboard undercarriage tearing out the oil tank which caused one of the engines to fail. The incident brought the aircraft down about a mile from the airfield, killing all seven crewmen on board after the mines it was carrying, exploded. As a result, the mission was cancelled and the following five aircraft were stood down for the night. Because of this, and other accidents involving the Dyke, part of it was lowered during 1943, the results of which are still apparent today, and it is where a memorial stands in memory of the crew lost of that night in December 1942.
The plaque at the base of the Dyke where Stirling R9245 struck on the night of December 16th 1942.
Today there is a further, and more permanent landing area located behind the racecourse stands, and it is this area that forms the bulk of what was the Royal Air Force base RAF Newmarket Heath.
The Rowley Mile airfield originally opened during the First World War and operated for almost than three years. The primary users of this site, were the two Night Training Squadrons: 190 and 192 who were created out of elements of both 51 Sqn and 33 Sqn respectively. These two units operated from Newmarket in the latter stages of World War I, both being disbanded in 1919 after the war’s end. 190 Sqn had by then, moved to RAF Upwood whilst 192 had remained at Newmarket whereupon its operations ceased.
Between the wars it would seem there was no real flying activity, the race course being the prominent feature. But when war broke out again, it was put back into use, and utilised by the RAF as a large airfield capable of dealing with some rather large aircraft.
Being bordered to the north by the modern A14 road, and with the town of Newmarket to the east, Newmarket Heath reopened for military business in 1939 under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command, whose headquarters were at Harraton House in nearby Exning. Newmarket accepted its first visitors, a detachment of Blenheim IVs from 107 Sqn, during May of that same year.
On September 1st, two days before the declaration of war between Britain and Germany, the airfield was, by then, a satellite for RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Present at Mildenhall was 99 Sqn, with Wellington MK.Is, an aircraft they had been operating for a year.
The beginning of September marked a turning point not only in world history, but also in British aviation. On September 1st, a general mobilisation order was received at airfields across Britain, and at RAF Mildenhall, like many, 99 Sqn were told to prepare to put “Scatter” schemes into operation. Once confirmation was received, eleven aircraft were flown from Mildenhall to Newmarket along with a sufficient number of crews to prepare Newmarket for crew accommodation. This accommodation was to be the Grandstand originally used for spectators at the various race meetings.
The Grandstand was never designed for aircrew accommodation, the NCO’s never fully accepting the poor living conditions in which they had to stay. It was dirty and the mess hall was merely a room provided for them within the grandstand complex; the ablutions were a makeshift building outside, and it was impossible to keep yourself, or your clothes clean. Newmarket was not a popular place to be posted to.
The Grandstand today taken from the Devil’s Dyke. The white fencing indicates the Rowley mile and the former World War 1 landing strip.
The intention was to transfer the entire squadron to Newmarket leaving only a maintenance and repair section at Mildenhall, a move which began almost immediately. Then on September 3rd, at 11:00 hrs, the squadron were called to assemble on Newmarket’s parade ground to hear the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announce Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. Little did they know that history was being made, and that for the next five years the world would be plunged into very dark times indeed.
On the very same day that the declaration was made, orders were put in place to carryout leaflet drops, but subsequent instructions cancelled these, and no flying took place. As Britain entered the ‘phoney war’, confusion, mixed orders and a rather disorganised period would follow. Orders and counter orders became the norm, squadrons were moved and reorganised, and no one seemed to know quite what they were to do.
New orders came through on the 5th to prepare to ‘disperse all aircraft that could be flown’, along with skeleton crews, to RAF Upper Heyford. The confusion of the Phoney War continued, and when the local air raid warning sounding at 7:15 on the 6th, crews found themselves spread about the field as only one air raid shelter at Newmarket was usable. Immediately after, a new order came through to implement the ‘withdrawal’ scheme and so eleven Wellingtons, who had only recently arrived, took off for RAF Upper Heyford. A twelfth aircraft, that had also transferred over to Newmarket, was unable to fly due to it being unserviceable.
Further mixed orders came through with yet more operations being cancelled. But then on the 8th, a new order for leaflet drops was issued, and four aircraft were designated to fly to Newmarket and then onto Mildenhall where they would receive up to date information on the ‘target’ area. Four crews arrived and prepared to take off from Mildenhall. One of these Wellingtons, L.7770, was then found to have a leak in the oxygen system, and its flight was cancelled. With insufficient time to collect a spare aircraft from Newmarket, the operation was again scrubbed, and the three aircraft returned to base; another frustrating let down and another source of confusion for the crews.
On the 9th, another message came through to evacuate Newmarket, and all aircraft were prepared once more to move to RAF Elmdon (now Birmingham Airport). An additional sortie also planned for that night was also again cancelled, this time though due to bad weather, as preparations for the squadron’s move continued. Four Newmarket aircraft then departed for Elmdon in the afternoon, Wing Commander Walker making the necessary arrangements, flying to both RAF Upper Heyford, where further aircraft were dispersed, and then onto RAF Elmdon to ensure the move went smoothly. Coinciding with all this, the squadron received its first upgrade, the MK.IA, in the form of Wellington N2870, which was delivered by a ferry pilot to RAF Mildenhall.
The evacuation was completed by the late evening, all personnel had departed leaving just an NCO and a working party to clear the Grandstand and remove any remaining stores. A 32 seat omnibus along with a heavy lorry transported thirteen men and their supplies to Elmdon. The remainder of the party then transferred back to Mildenhall.
On the 25th, another order was received in the early evening to return to Newmarket, Sqn. Ldr. J. Griffiths must have said a few choice words as he made the arrangements to move the men and their stores back from where they had only just come.
Suggestions where again made to locate the entire squadron to Newmarket, but this was now seen as impracticable, and so only the dispersed Elmdon group made the move. By the end of the next day the transfer was complete.
With firing trials taking place at Carew Cheriton near Tenby, further instructions came through, again suggesting the squadron move to Newmarket. Again though this was noted as impractical, and the move stopped for a second time. The confusion was then broken at 12:15 when a message came thought to say that a Wellington had crashed on take off prior to undertaking gunnery practice, the crew sustaining minor injuries, but the aircraft being severely damaged in the accident. The crew were able to return to Newmarket after receiving treatment for their injures, where they resumed their duties.
On the 20th, the aircraft located at Newmarket were placed on a 60 minute standby, ready to attack the German fleet which was sailing from its base in northern Germany. But, by 16:30, the chance had passed and the flight was stood down. The irony of training with Leica cameras must have broken the monotony of gunnery practice, when on the 8th October, six aircraft did finally take off from their Newmarket base to attack the fleet. Unfortunately, the aircrews could not locate the ships, and all aircraft returned to Mildenhall for debriefing before flying on back to Newmarket.
It was this same order that would, on December 14th 1939, decimate the Newmarket detachment. A search for the fleet over the North Sea led to forty-two aircraft from various squadrons, flying Bomber Command’s most extensive search yet. The twelve 99 squadron aircraft finally managed to locate the fleet through the cloud at Schillig Roads, close to Willhelmshaven. Once here, the cloud, highly accurate flak and the Luftwaffe, decimated the formation. Five of the Wellingtons went down in the target area, and a further aircraft, after disposing of its bombs over the sea, limped back to Newmarket badly beaten up. Even though they were away from hostile territory, the crew were not yet safe, and when within sight of the airfield, the aircraft finally gave up the battle and crashed into the ground. The pilot, Flt.Lt. Eugene Hetherington (s/n: 39026) a New Zealander, perished along with two others of his crew. Of the six aircraft lost, only three from Flt. L. Herington’s crew survived, and the bodies of only two men from the other five aircraft were ever found. 99 Sqn had lost 33 aircrew in one night, a terrible blow to the Newmarket crews.
In the post operation analysis, Bomber Command officials decided that it was not the fighters that brought the aircraft down, and that good close formation flying had been a ‘success’ of the mission. They decreed that concealment was better than any amount of firepower and that pilots should seek shelter in cloud wherever possible.
With only one other aircraft going down in the then, neutral Belgium, there were no other major loses in 1940 and only a few, largely due to training accidents, in early 1941. The Winter of 1939-40, was certainly a baptism of fire for the crews of 99 Sqn.
The dawn of 1941 would signify changes to Newmarket. By March, 99 Sqn had finally pulled out, their poor start to the war proving that the idea of bombers successfully protecting themselves on daylight missions was a fallacy. A point made in dramatic style in one single operation.
On the 16th of March, orders were issued at nearby RAF Oakington to move the Stirlings of ‘A’ Flight, 7 Sqn, out to the new satellite station here at Newmarket; the runways at Oakington now becoming nothing more than a mass of mud, causing a danger to any aircraft that dare to venture out. By the 26th, the situation has become so bad that both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flight officers had departed, with the main body of ‘A’ Flight following the next day. For a month the squadron’s Flights operated out of Newmarket whilst Oakington’s mud dried out. However, by the 5th April, it was clear that the accommodation situation at Newmarket, both ‘inhospitable’ and ‘cold’, was far too cramped, and ‘B’ Flight were ordered back to Oakington where they would be ferried the short distance to Newmarket where their aircraft were to remain.
By the 27th April, Oakington had sufficiently dried out and the surface was ‘improving rapidly’, enough at least for ‘A’ Flight to return home. After one month of being at Newmarket, the crews could finally breathe a sigh of relief to be leaving the rather inaptly named ‘Grandstand’ behind.
Part 2 will see how Newmarket developed further, its wartime legacy and its eventual demise as an operational airfield.
In this new addition to Trail 20, we visit a former airfield whose history not only stems back to the First World War, but is deeply rooted in it. Between the wars it lay dormant, and then sprang into life once more, as military activity in Norfolk increased during the 1940s. Known under four different names, and controlled by three different branches of the armed forces, we visit an airfield that has been the subject of one of Britain’s largest archaeological digs in recent years. Situated east of the coastal resort of Heacham in Norfolk, it now forms the first airfield on our tour in Trail 20. We start the Trail at the former RAF Sedgeford.
Also known as RFC Sedgeford, RNAS Sedgeford or Sedgeford Aerodrome, the airfield lies just outside of the village from which it takes its name, and on the south side of the B1454 Docking Road.
Sedgeford originally opened as a First World War airfield during the latter half of 1915 as Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Sedgeford. It was initially a Class 1 night landing ground (NLG) for the main base at Great Yarmouth (South Denes) much further to the east on East Anglia’s North Sea Coast.
The Royal Naval Air Service were themselves a fledgling service, being formed only a year earlier in July 1914, after the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was removed from RFC control, being placed under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. At their time of formation the RNAS had on its books some fifty-five seaplanes (inc. ship-borne aircraft); forty aeroplanes; seven airships; 111 officers and 544 men*1.
With aviation very much in its infancy, the RNAS had been using mainly airships, and were only just beginning to venture into aeroplanes as a means of fighting a war. With a range of airfields in the area including both RFC Holt and RFC Bacton (NLG), it also used Ludham (HMS Flycatcher), Pulham (an airship station), Hickling Road (a seaplane airfield), Lowestoft (a balloon site) and Great Yarmouth (South Denes which was a mixed use airfield for home defence and marine operations). From these humble beginnings, the RNAS were to become a strong force during the First World War.
With the might of the Zeppelin ruling the skies, it wasn’t long before the first attacks were made along the North Norfolk coast, ranging from Great Yarmouth to Kings Lynn. These attacks, and continuing intruder flights by Zeppelins, called for a much greater aerial protection of East Anglia. It was this call that led to the creation of not only Sedgeford but also Aldeburgh, Bacton, Holt, Narborough (which later became Norfolk’s first military airfield) and Burgh Castle as active airfields operating armed flying units*2.
During the early part of 1916, RNAS Sedgeford was transferred across to the RFC (themselves only formed on 13th April 1912) and used as a training station. The site was developed with further buildings added, eventually gaining eleven canvassed Bessonneaux hangars, two more permanent General Service Sheds, a range of buildings suitable for aircraft repair and maintenance, barrack huts, MT (motor transport) sheds and even a locomotive shed fed by a branch line to the main Hunstanton and West Norfolk Railway a mile or so to the north. Sedgeford would develop into a substantial sized airfield with some 100 buildings accommodating over 1,200 personnel including WRENs and WRAFs. Whilst the overall dimensions of the site cannot be confirmed, it is thought that the airfield covered around 170 acres.
The WRAFs, (known affectionately as ‘Penguins,’ because they didn’t fly) were often found working in aircraft doping sheds repairing aircraft fabrics using a potentially harmful ‘dope’ containing an acetate solvent. The fumes from this solvent were known to be lethal in large doses, with many of those using it on a regular basis, feeling ill or in extreme cases, dying from the effects of its toxic fumes. To combat the problem, some First World War doping sheds had extractor fans built into them to remove these hazardous fumes, and at Sedgeford, evidence has been found (by the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project), that confirms their use here.
Over the next few years Sedgeford would house a number of flying units, both training and ‘operational’ whilst preparing to move to France. The first of these (No. 45 Squadron) arrived on 21st May 1916 operating the Bristol BE.2b, an aircraft that they had been using since April at Thetford. Over the next five months, 45 Sqn would take on three other aircraft types: the Henry Farman F.20, (June to August), Royal Aircraft Factory FE.2b (July to Sept) and lastly the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (July to Sept 1917); the first British aeroplane to have synchronised guns firing through a two bladed propeller. The rather odd name was given to the aircraft because of the unusual ‘half-struts’ that attached the wings to the fuselage.
Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (unknown photographer via Wikipedia.)
In August 1916, 45 Sqn was broken up, with the nucleus being used to form a new squadron here at Sedgeford – No. 64 Sqn. The remainder of No. 45 Sqn then prepared for France, a move it made two months later.
No. 64 Sqn continued using the Henry Farman F.20s that had previously been allocated to them, but over time, they too would use a variety of aircraft types including: the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c and FE.2b, Sopwith’s famous Pup, the Avro 504 and the de Havilland DH5.
Then on February 1st 1917, 64 Sqn was itself then split, the demand for new pilots and new squadrons increasing as the conflict entered its third gruesome year. From this split, another new squadron was born, No. 53 Reserve Squadron, who were themselves re-designated as No. 53 Training Squadron on 31st May 1917, and operated models such as the RE.8, BE.2c, Avro 504J and the DH.6. They would eventually leave Sedgeford and end their days at Harlaxton where they were disbanded and merged into another unit.
Although many of these pilots were ‘experienced’, being in training meant there were of course accidents, many taking the lives of the young men who had been drawn to the thrill of flying. One such pilot, twenty year old Sec. Lt. Arthur Le Roy Dean, was killed when his Sopwith ‘Pup’ (official name Scout) #B1788 spun into the ground whilst flying with 64 Sqn on August 8th 1917. He initially survived the crash only to die from his injuries the following day.
The grave of Second Lieutenant Arthur Dean RFC.
The 9th would prove to be a black day for 64 Sqn, after they lost a second pilot, Canadian Lt. Edward Gordon Hanlan, who was killed when his DH.5 (#A9393) crashed following a wing failure whilst performing a loop over the airfield at nearby Bircham Newton.
September 1917 would prove to be a busy month for both Sedgeford airfield and the many airmen stationed there. On the 15th, another new unit arrived to join 64 Sqn. They too were a new squadron, only being formed a few days earlier at Upavon. No. 87 Sqn, remained at Sedgeford for just three months prior to moving to Hounslow before themselves moving across to St. Omer in France, which was rapidly becoming the hub of the Royal Flying Corp in continental Europe.
This month was the penultimate month of 64’s stay at Sedgeford, and prior to them leaving for France another Sopwith Pup (#B1787) would take the life of its pilot, 2Lt. Francis Brian Hallam Anderson (aged 19) who, like Sec. Lt. Dean, survived the actual crash only to succumb to his injuries and die several days later on the 8th. Flying these lightweight aircraft was not proving to be easy.
By mid October (14th), orders to move had come through, and 64 Squadron packed its bags – they were on their way to France taking their DH5s to St. Omer. St. Omer being the very place the parent squadron (No. 45 Sqn) had moved to almost a year to the day previously. The many faces of 45 Sqn surely being different to those that departed a year before.
It was in France that 64 Sqn’s Acting Captain Flt, Lt. James A. Slater MC., DFC. would go on to be the Sqn’s top ace achieving 22 kills, which when added to the two he achieved with No. 1 Sqn, gave him a total of 24 kills. His determination and expertise in the air earning him both the DFC and Military Cross (with Bar) which was Gazetted in the London Gazette Supplement published on February 1st 1918*3*4.
The beginning of November 1917 would see another short lived unit arrive at this Norfolk site, and it would be the brief reuniting of two sister units.
Both No. 72 Sqn and No. 87 Sqn, had their roots firmly fixed in the same place – the Central Flying School at Upavon; 87 being formed from the resident ‘D’ Flight whilst 72 were formed from ‘A’ Flight. Whilst they perhaps enjoyed a momentary annexation, it would not last long before they would all depart and go their separate ways for good. Whilst 87 Sqn moved to the cold winter of France, No. 72 Sqn would take their Pups to the much warmer Persian Gulf and onto Basra and Baghdad, where they stayed until the war’s end.
Sedgeford was rapidly becoming a major player in the RFC’s continued development, with yet another new unit arriving here the same month they were formed – No. 110 Sqn. They too would be another relatively short stay unit, and again, operating a number of different aircraft types. Formed on November 1st, they were created out of the nucleus of 38 Training Squadron at Rendcomb, and stopped off at Dover on their way to Sedgeford. By June 1918, they were on their way again, moving to Kenley in Surrey, a station that would become famous in the Second World War as a fighter airfield.
Within days of 110 Sqn’s arrival, pilot James Alan Pearson was killed following a flying accident at Sedgeford. Pearson, who was from Chesterfield, had only joined the RFC in August that same year, transferring from South Farnborough, to Winchester, Oxford and then Hendon, where he joined No. 19 Training Squadron on September 19th, 1917. On November 19th, he completed his probationary period and was confirmed as a Temporary Second Lieutenant upon which, he was posted to No. 110 Sqn, at Sedgeford, just after the main squadron arrived at the busy Norfolk airfield.
His death came within a matter of days of his arrival, some references stating he ‘blacked out’, whilst other say his aircraft, a Martinsyde Elephant (#B866), broke apart. No doubt, both actions resulted from a steep dive from which Pearson never recovered. During the dive, and probable breakup of the aeroplane, Pearson was thrown out of the cockpit, unaided or not conscious, he failed to survive the fall. His official service record (AIR 76/396/34) simply states ‘Killed as result of aero accident‘, the short few entries showing how limited, at 18 years old, his experience was.
The grave of 18 yr old, Sec. Lt. James A. Pearson at St. Mary’s Church, Docking, who was killed within four months of joining the RFC.
As the war turned to another year and the winter of 1917/18 dragged on, New Year’s day 1918, would see No. 110 Sqn joined by another newly formed unit, No. 122 Sqn, who whilst initially operating a range of aircraft, were earmarked to receive the de Havilland DH.9. However, the transition would not go smoothly and it would ultimately result in the squadron’s demise.
Both 110 and 122 Sqns were assigned to go to France, 110 Sqn leaving on 15th June 1918 initially to Kenley before Bettoncourt to the south of Nancy in France, whilst No. 122 Sqn were to be sent to Hamble (which became the more prominent Upper Hayford post World War Two) where they were to take on the DH.9s before also moving to the continent.
However, the unit was disbanded whilst still as a training unit at Sedgeford on the day prior to its move on 17th August 1918. No. 122 was then reformed at Hamble, but further plans stalled as the DH.9 was replaced by the DH.10 and a delay in allocation prevented the reformed squadron from its final activation. With the war’s end and no further requirement seen for the squadron, the process then halted, and in November 1918, the squadron was disbanded for good .
With the war in Europe now over, the withdrawal of squadrons from France began and units started the long journey home. Sedgeford would continue to host some of these units, continuing to perform their role as a training airfield. Even at this point, expansion of the airfield was still occurring but the future for Sedgeford was not bright.
At the end of 1918, No 3 Fighting School (FS) (who had been formed at nearby Bircham Newton) arrived at Sedgeford. Being a former Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School, it operated a number of different aircraft types including: Pups, a range of de Havilland models, Dolphins, Camels and Handley Page 0/400s. Perhaps now, as the war was over, a lapse in concentration may have been the cause of a New Year’s misadventure, when on January 24th 1919, two Sopwith Camels collided over Sedgeford airfield. Camel #C8318 flown by Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC., was in collision with #H2724 flown by Lt Hector Daniel MC.
Capt. King, who had been wounded in France, had been awarded not only the Military Cross in April 1918, but also the Distinguished Flying Cross in August 1918 along with the Croix de Guerre. Incredibly he was just short of his 19th birthday. Lt Daniel (a South African), survived the accident, and also achieved the Military Cross along with the Air Force Cross in July 1918 and June 1919 respectively.*5
The grave of Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC, Croix de Guerre
The wind down was slow at Sedgeford, but March 1919 would see two major changes at the airfield. Firstly, on the 14th, No. 3 FS was disbanded, reforming as No. 7 Training Squadron (TS), who continued in the training role at Sedgeford. By October though, with cutbacks in the pipeline, it would no longer be required and so operations were curtailed, and it was finally disbanded.
Secondly, the end of March saw the arrival of a cadre of No. 13 Sqn with RE.8s. Their journey to Sedgeford had taken them around the many battlefields of France over the last three years, the skies of Norfolk must have been a more than welcome break for the young pilots.
As more and more units were disbanded, Sedgeford too would feel the bite. On New Year’s Eve 1919/20, orders were received and subsequently carried out, to disband the last remaining squadron at the airfield, and with this, the end of Sedgeford as a flying base was now signalled.
The interwar years saw many of the buildings removed, many being sold off or demolished, but fortunately some remained, falling into disrepair or put to agricultural use. What remained of the airfield was left in a dormant state, fading bit by bit. But, the 1930s increase in international tensions would be the saviour of Sedgeford, as war once again reared its ugly head. This time however, it would not be as an operational airfield with the usual buzz and activity it was once so used to, this time it would be a much quieter decoy site.
With so many strategic airfields located in East Anglia, and with the extended development of Bircham Newton as few miles away, the protection of these sites was paramount. The war of deception created the dummy airfield, with the sole purpose of diverting the Luftwaffe bombers away from the real airfield located nearby. Sedgeford was seen as a suitable location for such a site, the few remaining buildings being partly representative of a wartime airfield. With a little development and appropriate lighting added, Sedgeford became one such site, the remaining buildings being utilised to create an image of activity one would expect to see on an active airfield.
The airfield today is far different from the one used in World War One.
These decoy sites were the brainchild of Colonel John Fisher Turner, a retired Officer from the Air Ministry who had turned his hand to film work and special effects. Working with a team of tradesmen and engineers, they produced life-like aircraft, vehicles, boats and buildings using canvas, wood and other lightweight materials that when viewed from the air, look like the real thing. With lights added to give the impression of runway lighting, fires and vehicles, it proved to be a major coup in the war against the Luftwaffe. Designated as both a ‘Q’ (night time) and ‘K’ (day time) decoy station, Sedgeford was operational between June 1940 and August 1942, after which time the larger threat of bombing had sub-sided.
Sedgeford had a small number of operators on site to perform the deception, and because they were to attract enemy attention, they were provided with a shelter, the bulk of which still exists on the site today. After this, Sedgeford was finally closed down and returned to agricultural use once more. A state it has remained in ever since.
The airfield’s site is located just outside of the village, a gate and long path indicate the original entrance to the site. This path was once lined with First World War buildings, none of which remain today. The actual airfield itself is now an agricultural field, the railway spur that led from the main line has also gone, as has the main line itself. From the public road there are sadly no indications of the significance of this once historic site.
The main entrance and long road into former RAF Sedgeford. The field to the left would have had several buildings along it. The buildings remaining today are located beyond the forest on the horizon.
Along from the airfield toward the village of Docking, is another private dwelling that was also known to have been used as a billet for Sedgeford’s airmen. Formally the Union Workhouse it dates back to 1835 and was one of the largest workhouses in Norfolk at that time. Intended to hold up to 450 people, it rarely had more than 100 at any one time. The RFC took over the building in 1916 handing it back at the war’s end.
Since 2009 the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has carried out a huge excavation of the site at Sedgeford, uncovering a number of foundations and links to Sedgeford’s aviation history. Some of these buildings include the mortuary and Officers quarters, with its very ornate fireplace, and the World War 2 shelter mentioned previously. These are all firmly on private land hidden in a small wood around which the majority of the technical buildings were originally erected. Access to these sites is understandably only with permission, something I didn’t have on the day. The project, which has been carried out yearly, also uncovered numerous building foundations and a track for a hangar door. Substantial information being gleaned from the various digs being carried out over the years.
The types of buildings remaining at Sedgeford, especially the First World War examples, make this quite a unique site. So few buildings exist from this era, Stow Maries being the only other site with examples of any quality. This, along with the many deaths and sacrifices witnessed by Sedgeford, make it both historically and architecturally significant, and as such, perhaps the site should be protected.
The history of Sedgeford is extraordinary. Many of those who passed through its doors were teenagers, some lasted only weeks, whilst others went on to fly for years performing acts of great bravery and daring. But one thing that draws them all together was the thrill of flying in an era were flight was new and boundaries were unknown. Their bravery and courage should be remembered.
Sedgeford airfield had sadly all but passed into the history books, but recent excavations have given new life to this once significant site, and maybe one day, these will be given public status, and the memories of those who served and died here will live again.
This recognition took a step forward when on 21st July 1918 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial at Sedgeford. The report can be seen on both Your Local Paper website, and the ABCT website along with videos of the day and interviews with SHARP members.
From Sedgeford we continue with Trail 20, and travel east toward Docking, stopping off at St. Mary’s Church, before travelling a few miles further to the former airfield RAF Docking.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 10/8/2019
*2 Gunn. P. “Aviation Landmarks – Norfolk and Suffolk“. The History Press (2017)
*3 London Gazette Publication date: Supplement: 30827, Page:9204.
At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month 1918, the guns on the western front fell silent. Four years of war in which millions were either killed or wounded, towns and villages wiped from the map and the environment changed forever, had finally come to an end. All along the front line, men were soon to put down their arms and leave their trenches for home.
The war to end all wars had finally come to an end. During the last four years some 40 million people had been killed or wounded, many simply disappeared in the mud that bore no preference to consuming man or machine.
Back home, virtually no city, town, village or hamlet was left unscathed by the loss of those four years. Many who returned home were changed, psychologically many were wounded beyond repair.
Sadly, twenty years later, the world slipped into the abyss of war once more. A war that saw some of the most incredible horrors, one that saw the extreme capabilities of what man can do to his fellow-man. Across the world millions of innocent people were slaughtered under the guise of an ideology. An ideology that was determined to rid the world of anyone who was willing to speak out against that very same ideology.
Young men were transported thousands of miles to fight in environments completely alien to them. Many had never been beyond their own home town and yet here they were in foreign lands fighting a foe they had never even met.
The bravery and self-sacrifice of those young men on the seas, on the land and in the air, go beyond anything we can offer as repayment today.
For nearly 80 years, the world has been at an uneasy rest, Korea, Vietnam, the Falklands, the Middle East, and the Far East, in almost every corner of the globe there has been a war in which our service men and women have been involved. The war to end all wars failed in its aim to bring peace to the world.
In this year, on the hundredth anniversary of the ending of the First World War along with the anniversary of the formation of the Royal Air Force, we remember those who laid down their lives in the fight for freedom. We remember those who fought for the right to free speech, for the right to be who you are and the right to live our lives in peace.
We will remember them…
St Mary’s Great Bircham
The rosette of the Commonwealth Air Forces – St. Clement Danes
Tyne Cot, Ypres
The American Cemetery Madingley
Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all? Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.
Many in the aviation world were saddened and even shocked recently (24th July 2018) with the MOD’s announcement that RAF Scampton and RAF Linton-on-Ouse were to close, and the two sites sold off.
Whilst there seems to be little general objection to Linton-on-Ouse, there has been quite a backlash regarding the closure of RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire. Scampton is of course home to the RAF’s Red Arrows display team who moved in there around twenty years ago, but more famously, it was the home of 617 Squadron RAF otherwise known as ‘The Dambusters’ during the Second World War.
It is this that has primarily caused the huge backlash resulting in a petition and some quite heated social media ‘discussions’ over the closure. So what are the reasons behind such a move and what could the future hold for RAF Scampton?
Scampton has been under RAF ownership since the First World War, it is one of their oldest stations and has housed some 19 operational flying squadrons as well as a number of non-flying units during this time. The base was closed in 1996 and then again partially reopened for the storage and maintenance of aircraft, it was also at this point that it became home to the RAF’s Red Arrows. Currently the only other units stationed here are No.1 Air Control Centre and the Mobile Meteorological Unit.
No. 1 Air Control Centre was moved here from RAF Lossiemouth whilst upgrading work was undertaken on its site. They work in conjunction with, amongst others, RAF Boulmer to provide National and International air surveillance operations ready to deploy QRA Typhoons from either Lossiemouth or nearby Coningsby at a moments notice. They also provide support to international operations including those with the British Army and the Royal Navy.
The Mobile Meteorological Unit uses civilian operators (Reserves) to monitor weather conditions primarily for aviation related operations, but they can also assist in any operation where the weather may impact on the overall objective.
The Red Arrows (RAFAT) are perhaps the most famous of the world’s aircraft display teams, currently flying the BAE Hawk, in close formation flying displays that have spanned fifty-four years. The Red Arrows are famous the world over, with pilots undertaking a rigorous selection process and subsequent training programme, that sets them amongst the most elite pilots in the world.
These three units mean that there are around 600 people employed on the Scampton site, mainly armed forces personnel who will be moved with their various units to new postings when the move finally takes place. Some of these employees are civilian and live locally to the airfield.
The argument for closure.
The RAF has been under considerable pressure to reduce its costs whilst keeping a viable and effective force. The recent purchase of the F-35 Lightning to replace the now ageing Tornado, had a significant impact in the RAF’s overall budget. However, this was taken into consideration within the MOD’s strategy which aimed to reduce costs, streamline operations and reshape the RAF for the modern world. Notifications of these cuts were aired in the 2010 Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) in which it was announced that the RAF would*1:
Reduce its manpower force by around 5,000 personnel to 33,000 by 2015;
Retain Tornado but remove Harrier from service in the
transition to a future fast jet force of Typhoon and JSF;
Not bring into service the Nimrod MRA4;
Withdraw VC10 and the three variants of Tristar aircraft
from 2013 as part of the transition towards the more capable
A330 future strategic transport and tanker aircraft;
Withdraw the C-130 Hercules transport fleet 10 years earlier than planned to transition to the more capable and larger A400M;
Withdraw the Sentinel surveillance aircraft once it is no longer required to support operations in Afghanistan;
Rationalise the RAF estate (40% of which is over 50 years old)
The VC-10 fly past over RAF Coningsby on August 29th 2012, prior to their withdrawal from service.
Whilst much of this criteria has already been met, the estates management review has yet to take full effect. A series of reviews and assessments have been carried out by relevant Government bodies in conjunction with personnel from the MOD. The Better Defence Estates strategy 2016 (which is part of the Defence Estate Optimisation Programme) focuses on streamlining the MOD’s estates: land, bases and housing by 30% by 2040. Only by doing this, will the MOD meet its SDSR commitment, saving £3bn by 2040, allowing £4bn to be invested over the next 10 years on over 40 separate sites.
A further Government commitment is to generate 55,000 new private homes, some of which will be for armed forces personnel (Service Families Accommodation, SFA), but most will be released to private housing ventures. Much of the land owned by the MOD (which covers 1.8% of the UK land mass), and in particular the RAF, has huge building potential and is therefore prime building land.
So far, the MOD has disposed of nine military sites, with a further ninety-one earmarked for closure. This doesn’t include Scampton or Linton-on-Ouse, but does include: Swansea Airport, Newtownards Airfield, RAF Colerne, RAF Henlow, RAF Halton and the three American bases at Molesworth, Mildenhall and Alconbury (currently occupied by USAF personnel).
The cost of maintaining one of these sites, is not cheap, and a considerable amount of money was spent on Scampton following the 2010 review, to resurface the runway to allow both the Red Arrows to operate from here and to keep the base in operational status should other units be posted here later on. However, the infrastructure remains a pre World War II design, the buildings and hangars dating back to the expansion period of the 1930s (as do Linton-on-Ouse’s) and therefore completely inadequate for today’s modern Air Force. In his deliverance of the ‘Better Defence Estate’ statement, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Tobias Ellwood, said “The disposal of the site would offer better value for money and, crucially, better military capability by relocating the units based there“.
Considering other aspects of Scampton, the Museum of RAF Fire Fighting*2 was told to vacate their premises in 2017, they have since found alternative accommodation in Gainsborough and aim to be up and running very soon. There was also a renewed effort to bring airshows back to Lincolnshire after the Waddington shows were stopped following upgrade at RAF Waddington. The first, and so far only attempt, at Scampton in September 2017, made a loss even though 50,000 visitors passed through the gates over the two-day period. This was a huge drop in figures however, compared to the 170,000 previously attained at Waddington. A planned event for 2018 was postponed until 2019, but no firm decision has been made about the future viability of this event.
Under restoration, two Lancaster front sections housed in the Grade II listed building. They may have to find new homes.
A further point to be considered is that of the local economy. Many argue that the base provides economic benefits to the local economy. Being only 600 personnel, this is quite a weak argument, unlike say Mildenhall that has 4,000 personnel contributing £219m (2013-14 figures) to its local economy.*3
So on the face of it, Scampton is ‘ideal’ for disposal, it is underused, located in an area already busy with aircraft activity (RAF Cranwell, RAF Waddington and RAF Coningsby are all nearby) and has an infrastructure suited for a private venture. The accommodation areas are mostly empty and those units based there are easily moved elsewhere, only the Red Arrows could prove a problem due to interference with other operational flying units.
The argument against closure.
However, that said, Scampton (more so than Linton-on-Ouse) has a huge historic value. Being a pre-war airfield it was vital for Bomber Command in the fight against Nazi Germany. Initially built with grass runways, these were improved upon with hard runways in the early war years, being extended to 10,000 feet later on in 1956, to be able to take the mighty Vulcan. This expansion led to extensive renovations including the re-sighting of the main Roman road (Ermine Street) that passes alongside the airfield. It is this extension that led to Scampton’s famous station badge of the bow and arrow. In 2016 Scampton celebrated its centenary and this year (2018) marks the 100th anniversary of the RAF.
The biggest factor in favour of keeping Scampton open are its historical, political and architectural aspects, the most famous being the presence of 617 (Dambusters) Sqn during the 1940s. A specialist squadron, formed under the leadership of Guy Gibson VC, DSO & Bar, DFC & Bar, who led the 133 airmen in nineteen Lancasters in the famous attack against the dams of the Rhur valley on May 16th, 1943. In memory of this historic event, a museum was opened up showcasing a number of artefacts from the Dambusters including Guy Gibson’s office. Gibson’s dog ‘Nigger‘ is also buried in the grounds of Scampton, outside of what was Gibson’s office and many of the offices used by the squadron are also open for pre-arranged visits.
The names of those who took part in Operation ‘Chastise’
There are of course a number of other historical aspects to this site. Airmen from Scampton were awarded a greater number of honours that any other bomber airfield, including two Victoria Crosses and a George Cross in 1940 alone. The first 2,000 lb bomb was delivered by aircraft based at Scampton, and numerous raids were undertaken from here including its participation on the first 1,000 bomber raid.
Post war and Scampton played a major part in the Cold War, an airfield housing the Vulcan, an aircraft capable of carrying and delivering the Blue Steel stand-off nuclear missile, one of only two airfields that could complete such a task. In order to complete this role, further T2 hangars were added, the dispersals were modified and additional ancillary buildings erected for fuelling and avionics.
The four ‘C’ type hangars now Grade II listed (1st December 2005 – List entry Number: 1391594) are the only listed buildings on site, the Blue Steel maintenance shed being demolished in March 2004, before listing was made. In fact over recent years, many unused buildings have been gradually demolished: the pre-war parachute stores, the main station workshop outbuildings, the Vulcan simulator, parts of the medical centre and the Warrant Officers’ Quarters are all included.
The main reason for the listing of these hangars is their ‘Legacy’ record, and includes the attached stores, workshops and offices. These ‘C’ type hangars were built in the period 1936-1937 by J. H. Binge of the Air Ministry’s Directorate of Works and Buildings, to drawing number 5043/36, and signify the airfield as a bomber airfield. The sacrifice by Bomber Command was immense, some 55,000 aircrew were killed in operations and many came from airfields in and around Lincolnshire. Thus these hangars, as listed buildings, stand as unofficial memorials to those who never came back and in particular to those of 617 Sqn who gave the ultimate sacrifice. As listed buildings, they cannot easily be demolished and therefore must be retained in any future development whatever that may be. Even with these modifications having taken place, the general layout of the airfield, the road networks and most buildings are still the pre-war expansion period designs, little has changed here since those days of the late 1930s when Britain was expanding it national network of airfields.
A review of Britain’s airfields by English Heritage, classified Scampton (and Linton-on-Ouse) “as one of most complete surviving of our Airfields with Runways and Perimeter tracks” comparable with RAF West Raynham, RAF Finningley, and RAF Waddington. It is a prime example of an expansion period model, being built under Scheme B of the period and only one of four to be so. The architectural designs of the buildings significant in themselves, being a mix of neo-Georgian and concrete within its non-dispersed site. The shape and design of Scampton (and Linton-on-Ouse) are unique to this period in time, square with straight roads and grassed / tree areas to hide the accommodation and technical areas.
A further point is that there have been numerous archaeological investigations and finds on and around the airfield itself. These include: Prehistoric remains, Roman remains (the Roman road traverses part of the airfield), Anglo-Saxon burial sites, Medieval sites, post-medieval and modern warfare sites (WWI & II) that remain buried. Many of these have yet to be fully investigated and mapped, but it is thought that there are strong links to all of these periods in time.
The grave of Guy Gibson’s Labrador “Nigger“.
So what are the possible options?
These are certainly strong advocates for keeping the station alive, however, the question then arises does this warrant the huge expense of maintaining an operational airfield without service personnel being present? Does it warrant the use of an operational airfield just for the Red Arrows? Even if the RAF were to stay here, which unit(s) could be brought in and at what cost to other airfields? Many would argue not, and if the RAF / MOD are to meet their commitment to both a leaner more efficient Air Force and the SDSR, then on paper surely Scampton must close.
However, there are a number of options open when Scampton is closed. The worse scenario is that the entire site is sold to housing / industrial development. In such cases the historical aspect of Scampton could be lost, the hangars turned into industrial units and the airfield removed completely. This, if it were to happen, would no doubt cause a huge backlash from many in the aviation field including the RAF itself, and is unlikely (in my opinion) to happen.
Since the announcement of the 2010 SDSR the future of Scampton has been under considerable debate, with numerous studies being completed on behalf of the RAF and Lincolnshire County Council. On December 15th, 2011*4, Parliament were notified of the suggestion that Scampton could be closed by 2014 following the merger of No 1 Air Control Centre and the Control and Reporting Centre at RAF Kirton-in-Lindsey , which also closed as a result. Both these units would then move to RAF Coningsby, a move that was postponed following further investigations.
Two of the four Grade II listed ‘C’ type hangars. Note the BAE Hawk ‘Red Arrow’.
In October 2013, Lincolnshire County Council*5,6,7 carried out its own feasibility study following a request to investigate possible options for Scampton’s use in the future. The study looked at a range of options including combining civil and military aviation, a combined heritage and RAF base, and an expansion of the site to form a leisure complex. The report concluded that:
The potential for “increased airspace use on a joint military / civilian basis was not feasible given the requirements of RAFAT. This effectively ruled out the option of developing the base as a commercial or leisure aerodrome alongside RAF use“.
Many buildings were not being used and were therefore able to be demolished without any serious issues. Only the hangars were listed and would be more difficult to remove. Whilst there is currently a museum on site, this could be exploited establishing an “aviation focused attraction of national and international importance“. The cost of such a venture would be in the region of £80m, and it was thought that this would deliver an operating surplus based on “approximately 200,000 visitors per year“. These figures would make Scampton comparable with the National Space Centre at Leicester, and with a greater visitor rate than that of Lincoln Castle.
It was also suggested the unused space could be turned into leisure activities “themed hotels” for example, and that any such activity would compliment the RAF’s expansion at Scampton should it go ahead. The entire process of this consultation was met with interest by the base commander, and at that time it was thought that Scampton would expand in terms of operational staff.
In conclusion of the study, it was suggested that “The aviation heritage attraction would tell key stories relevant to Lincolnshire and its involvement in defence and aviation. It is likely to attract significant new visitors to the county, generating sufficient revenue to support long-term operational sustainability of the attraction, plus spend in the local economy.” It also suggested that “a major new aviation heritage attraction at RAF Scampton could sit alongside the current scale of military use and would be sufficiently flexible to work with a greater or lesser RAF presence.”
Whilst much of these points include an RAF presence of some sort, it would be flexible in nature until such time as it became self-sustaining. A further option is to develop Scampton retaining its historical features and infrastructure. Much of the married quarters area has already been sold off and is currently in private ownership. These utilise the actual married quarters and has proven quite successful. Further sections of this area are also being sold and developed and so the atmosphere of the site has changed little since its wartime days.
Recently we have seen similar ventures at both RAF Coltishall and RAF West Raynham, where the airfield buildings have been retained (including the hangars, watch office and many associated buildings including the aircraft pens) and the site turned into a working heritage site with small industrial units utilising the workshops and hangars, and private housing using the refurbished personnel homes.
The ‘Grand Slam’ and ‘Tallboy’ bombs at Scampton.
The main argument against closing Scampton is one of cost, defence budgets are being cut and savings have to be made in the estates area. Scampton as it is, is not a viable airfield. However, its historical value is much higher, and any future decision and development needs to take this into account. If we are to retain our aviation heritage then serious consideration needs to be given to Scampton as a future development opportunity, themed hotels, museums of national importance or even a living history museum are all possible. What needs to be considered very carefully, is how that change is brought about. Lack of suitable knowledge or understanding of even small aspects of the site could degrade the overall venture, with important features degrading beyond safe use and poor managerial provision wasting an ideal opportunity in raising public awareness of the site’s true historical value.
Developments at both RAF Coltishall and RAF West Raynham have shown what good planning can do, creating something useful from a former airfield, whilst allowing for the preservation of its unique historic infrastructure.
This is clearly going to be a long and heated discussion, whether Scampton closes or not is only part of the debate, the crux of the matter being the historical value that it holds and what happens to the legacy it carries for all future generations.
*5Scampton – Appendix A – Scampton Aviation Heritage Consultancy Brief Final Version.pdf (RAF Scampton – Feasibility Study for an Aviation Heritage Attraction and
related Site Development Options – Brief – March 2013 ) accessed 25/7/18
*6RAF Scampton Feasibility Study, 29 October 2013 to the Economic Scrutiny Committee on behalf of Executive Director for Communities Lincolnshire County Council. accessed 25/7/18
After visiting both RAF Drem and RAF East Fortune in Trail 42, we travel a few miles south, back to the A1 road where we visit another disused and almost lost RAF airfield. Initially used as a Landing Ground during the First World War, it struggled to become a fully fledged airfield but it did operate a small number of squadrons under RAF control. One of these squadrons had a rather sinister role to play and had Britain been invaded, then its name would no doubt be well-known and common place in history books today.
In Trail 51, we continue on in the south-eastern region of Scotland, not far from the historic city of Edinburgh, where we visit the former airfield RAF Macmerry.
RAF Macmerry (Tranent / Penston).
The former airfield at the small village of Macmerry is today split by the main A1 road, with the flying side of the airfield to the north and the technical and accommodation areas to the south. Sadly the active side has been completely removed and is now agricultural land, but on the technical and accommodation side there are fortunately still a small number of buildings remaining, albeit in private use today.
RAF Macmerry is located some 14 miles east of Edinburgh, its origins extend back to the First World War when it was known as Penston. Used by No. 77 Squadron who were initially based at Edinburgh, it was a Home Defence Landing Ground housing a squadron detachment until the entire unit moved over in April / May 1918, when the Royal Flying Corps became established as the Royal Air Force. No. 77 Sqn were well-known in the area, having detachments based at nearby Turnhouse and also at New Haggerston and Whiteburn. The squadron had been based at Edinburgh since October 1916 after moving there from Thetford in Norfolk, shortly after their inception. During their time at Penston, No. 77 Sqn operated a number of Royal Aircraft Factory types: the BE.2c, BE.2d and BE.2e, the BE.12 and BE.12b along with the D.H. 6 and RE. 8.
One of many buildings that remain on the farm today.
Even though No. 77 Sqn moved into Penston full-time, they did retain a detachment at Whiteburn, an arrangement that continued until 13th June 1919, when the squadron (now Royal Air Force) was finally disbanded. No. 77 Squadron would go on to be reformed in 1937, just prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, but they would not return to their roots, and would never again appear at the airfield at Macmerry. After 77 Sqn’s departure from Penston, the RAF had no need for the site, and so the airfield was closed and the site sold off.
The 1920s and 30s then saw a short reprieve for Macmerry as aviation became fashionable. The Edinburgh Flying Club established itself here, and the Scottish Motor Traction (SMT) organisation put forward plans for a new major airport here at Macmerry. Established in 1905, the SMT was an established bus company who also provided an air taxi service flying a De Havilland Fox Moth between 18th July and 31st October 1932. Although these ambitious development plans never came to fruition, Macmerry (referred to as Edinburgh) was used for a short period between 1936 and 1939 for commercial air travel by North Eastern Airways.
North Eastern Airways (Copyright Bjorn Larsson)*1
After war broke out the RAF were looking to expand their airfields around the UK, and the border regions of Scotland were soon under the spotlight. The Air Ministry identified Macmerry and decided in July 1940, to rename Macmerry as Tranent after the nearby town. However, and even after the official requisition later on, this name change never appeared on any but a handful of official documents and the name Macmerry stuck.
It was around this time too that the Cunliffe-Owen company, a civilian aircraft manufacturing company, began operations at the airfield repairing Lockheed Hudson aircraft. Cunliffe-Owen was set up by the millionaire Sir Hugo Cunliffe-Owen on August 9th 1937 under the name of BOA Ltd, changing it later in 1938, to Cunliffe-Owen Aircraft. Utilising the First World War hangar at Eastleigh in the former county of Wessex, they would be famous for their investigations into the ‘Flying Wing’ project. Cunliffe-Owen also formed a contract with Lockheed Aircraft and began assembling Hudsons along with a large number of other American aircraft imported into the UK for RAF service.*2
On September 2nd 1940, No. 263 Squadron moved into RAF Drem, located about 6 miles north-east of here, and used Macmerry as a satellite airfield, even though the RAF had not officially taken over the site. Regardless of this, the Westland Whirlwinds they were flying, did occasionally use the airfield along with another satellite at Prestwick way off to the west.
In January 1941, Macmerry was officially requisitioned and would come under the control of 13 Group Fighter Command, with the first aircraft arriving very soon after. The Hurricane Mk.Is of 607 (County of Durham) Sqn would stop off here between January 16th and March 2nd 1941, before joining the main squadron also based at RAF Drem. No. 607 Sqn were veterans of the Battle of Britain, and would go on to be the first Squadron to operate the ‘Hurri’ bomber, a Hawker Hurricane fitted with bombs.
As they departed Macmerry, a second unit arrived, No. 614 (County of Glamorgan) Squadron, who were a pre-war squadron and would operate Lysander Mk.II and Mk.IIIs before replacing these with Blenheim IVs in July 1941. After a short spell away at Thruxton, No. 614 Sqn returned to Macmerry for a few days before departing for the final time at the end of August 1942. Flying with the squadron code ‘LJ’, it was these Lysanders that had a rather sinister role to play, and one that was perhaps unique along this coastline of Scotland.
Westland Lysander Mark III, ‘LJ-P’ of No. 614 Squadron RAF Macmerry, on a photographic-reconnaissance flight (IWM H 9183)
First impressions of Macmerry were not positive for crews, a small hangar and a flying control building were about all that greeted the men. There were no accommodation facilities and airmen were billeted in the homes of local families. Runways at this time were grass (1 x 1,500 yards and 2 x 1,200 yards), whilst the perimeter track was tarmac, a feature that would not change for the duration of the war.
By the summer months accommodation on the airfield was finally available (sufficient for around 1000 personnel of mixed rank and gender) and the whole of No. 614 Squadron moved into Macmerry. Work continued on the remainder of the airfield infrastructure, including six hardstands each holding two-twin engined aircraft in a ‘Blenheim’ style aircraft pen. Otherwise know as type ‘B’ (designed to drawing 7151/41) they had cranked sides and staggered entrances. Each of these had a shelter built into the revetment sufficient to hold 25 men. Eight Blister hangars and a T2 were also added at some point, along with a range of technical buildings.
Working under the control of the Royal Air Force Army Co-operation Command, No. 614 Sqn’s Lysanders were to monitor and patrol Scotland’s east coast, and in the event of an invasion, they were to contaminate the beaches with Gas (possibly Mustard Gas even though this was banned in the 1925 Geneva Protocol) using the vast stocks they had at Macmerry airfield. A lethal substance, it was never thankfully used and was disposed of later on. Much of the information about this has only recently come to light, but according to Operational Record Books*3 gas attacks were something that were rehearsed on many occasions.
Whilst No. 614 Sqn were based here at Macmerry, they performed regular operations with Army units, detachments from Macmerry flying to the Fleet Air Arm airfield at Arbroath where they would carry out photo reconnaissance, simulated dive bombing and these aforementioned gas laying operations. These operations (e.g. ‘FORFAR’, ‘HOPE’ and ‘JOHN’) were carried out in conjunction with various army divisions, with RAF support staff and equipment (including Bowsers) being taken by road to the detachment airfield. In many cases, the crews and ground staff from Macmerry would be housed in tents supplied by the various army brigades and they would be fed by the Royal Navy, something that the more senior officials within the RAF wanted to stop.
During these exercises, Lysanders would drop messages to ‘message stations’, these message stations would be viable targets for the ‘enemy’ aircraft (bomber sorties being performed by other Lysanders, Spitfires or Miles Masters) and therefore the diligence of those inside was of the utmost importance. Following a review of the first of these operations, this key point was noted in the ORB, in which it was pointed out that “…only intelligent men should be employed, and the same men, if possible, should do the duty on all occasions.”
During August 1941 a detachment of Tomahawk IIA aircraft were to join No. 614 Sqn here at Macmerry. These aircraft were operating with No. 241 Sqn, who were primarily based at RAF Wattisham, but had detachments already at Snailwell, Henlow and Docking and now at Macmerry.
In March 1942 these Tomahawks were replaced by the North American P-51 Mustang Mk.I, an aircraft designed in response to the need for a long-range fighter with outstanding capabilities. Designed by a German born designer, Edgar Schmued, it would become one of, if not the, Second World War’s most successful fighters, especially after it had the Rolls Royce Merlin replace the weaker Allinson. As well as an increase in top speed of around 50 mph, it out performed the Allinson in all other categories including rate of climb and performance at altitude. By May 1942, No. 241 Sqn and their new Mustangs would all depart Macmerry for pastures new at Ayr. However, and not before too long, 241 Sqn would return to this part of the country, spending a short time at RAF Winfield in the border regions working in cooperation with 4th Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery.
It was during May that No. 225 Sqn moved to Thruxton whilst also having a detachment based here at Macmerry, and once again the Mustang Mk.I would be back in the skies over this small Scottish village. The entire squadron would move onto the airfield at the end of August and would stay until the end of October when they would depart for North Africa taking their Mustangs with them.
By late summer 1942, the accommodation, hangars and major facilities were all now complete and open, the site was now ‘modern’ and homely, engineer’s workshops, allowed for maintenance of the aircraft, and aircraft pens offered protection to both the airmen and aircraft in the case of Luftwaffe attack.
One of the ‘B’ type aircraft pens surviving at Macmerry today. The brick structure to the right is the entrance to the built-in shelter.
By August 1942, No. 614 squadron were to pull out moving to RAF Odiham where they replaced their aircraft with Blenheim Vs. Their place at Macmerry being taken by No.13 Sqn flying Blenheim IVs. Their stay would, like many of their predecessors, be a short one, another ex Lysander user, they only stayed here for about 10 days before they too moved off to Odiham and onto North Africa.
The November would then see the last operational flying until arrive at Macmerry, and they would be the longest-serving unit to stay here. At the end of November, on the 21st, No. 63 squadron would arrive bringing with them further Mustang Mk.Is. The main block of the squadron would operate from Macmerry whilst detachments would be placed across the length and breadth of the country at Lossiemouth, Odiham, Dalcross and Acklington. Many of the sorties flown by No. 63 sqn were photographic reconnaissance missions, using F.24 (8″) cameras installed on the port side of the fuselage directly behind the cockpit. Because of the open landscape and close proximity to the coast of the airfield, many sorties flown from here were hampered by high winds and the impending Scottish cold, something that brought discomfort to the may crews who were stationed here at some point.
A No. 63 Squadron Mustang Mk.1 dropping a message bag (off to the right) during an Army co-operation exercise (IWM)
Originally reformed in the summer of 1942, No. 63 Sqn moved here from Catterick, and stayed until July 1943 when they departed to Turnhouse, leaving only a detachment here at Macmerry. In November, the entire squadron then moved off to Thruxton leaving the airfield at Macmerry behind for good.
Other than a handful of Lysander target tugs and glider trainers, flying wise Macmerry would then fall quiet, the sound of aircraft engines being replaced by the thud of marching boots. During the winter of 1943, Operation ‘Fortitude North‘ was put into place, an operation to fool the Germans into thinking the impending invasion would occur across the North Sea. Macmerry would see a huge influx of army personnel, from No. 2736, No. 2830 and No. 2949 Regiment Squadrons, who would take to the mountains sending out false signals that would be picked up by German intelligence. These groups stayed here for a number of months until moved south for the real invasion across the English Channel. So successful was the operation that German forces failed to pull vital units away from the Norwegian coastal areas for fear of an impending Allied attack.
Much of what is left is rundown but in use for storing farm machinery.
In the months after the D-day landings, the RAF began to shrink as the need for fighters and heavy bomber began to lessen. The closing stages of the war were near and the fight was well and truly over German soil. The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) however were still expanding, preparing for what was going to be the invasion of Japan. To this end they needed more airfields to train pilots and crews to meet this demand. The Air Ministry considered giving the FAA Macmerry airfield to use, primarily as a repair yard, but, and whilst the offer was accepted, it was never actually put into practice. The FAA also considered stationing No. 770 Sqn FAA here, a Fleet Requirements Unit, whose role was to provide target tugs, simulated attacks on vessels and other gunnery roles. This too however, never actually came to fruition, and whilst the FAA had renamed the airfield H.M.S. Nighthawk II in preparation (Drem being re-designated H.M.S. Nighthawk) they handed Macmerry back to the RAF on March 15th 1946 without ever actually placing a man through its gates. With the war over for the second time, the RAF had no further use for Macmerry, and it was closed down very soon after.
With the airfield abandoned, the Edinburgh Flying Club seized the opportunity to get back into Macmerry, and on August 31st 1946, they reopened the airfield and began to operate from its runways again. They continued to operate here until 1953 when flying finally ceased and Macmerry closed its gates for the last and final time.
After this the site was sold off, the main A1 was eventually built and then later extended into a dual carriageway. As a result of the new road the airfield was split, and the active side developed as farm land. There are suggestions that additional hardstands were provided on the perimeter track on this side, but any sign of these seem to have gone along with the flying side of the airfield. In addition to this, the hangars on the northern side have also been removed and replaced by a rather large grain store.
The accommodation and technical sites were then turned into a small industrial park, the land adjacent to this, being returned to farm land. It is on this land that many of the accommodation buildings have been retained being put to use by the farm to house farm machinery and produce. The WAAF site buildings were demolished but the squash courts and gym both remain today.
The squash court at Macmerry.
The road from the A1 circumnavigates the entire site and it is from this road that the best views can be obtained. From the main A1, the first stop is at the two revetments, which remain sandwiched in between this side road and the main A1. Hidden from view of the A1, they are discernible from the side road and are in remarkably good condition for their age. In a small triangular section of ground, there are several structures here, including the aircraft pens and crew blocks.
The industrial site visible just off to the left of this road is what was the main technical area of the airfield. The modern warehouses and industrial units having replaced the technical buildings that were once thriving RAF workshops.
Continue on and take a left turn. This takes you past the former accommodation sites and the location of the majority of surviving buildings today; long halls with their chimneys which were once the centre of life at Macmerry. Following this road to the left then takes you past the Gym and Squash Courts, passed the accommodation area and back to the A1 and away from the airfield.
The former airfield RAF Macmerry went through a number of changes during its life, and although it has a history dating back to the First World War, it is one of those airfields that never really seemed to establish itself as a front line airfield. The number of squadrons who passed through here also brought a range of aircraft types, giving Macmerry a varied and interesting mix of models. That said, Macmerry had a dark side to it, and had the invasion of Britain come through Scotland’s borders, then Macmerry would no doubt be a name at the forefront of Britain’s history books today.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Timetable courtesy of Bjorn Larsson via Airline Timetable ImagesWebsite.
In this, the last of the series looking at the development of Britain’s airfields, we look at the Watch Office, perhaps the most atmospheric of buildings associated with Britain’ wartime airfields. The hub of an airfield control, it was where aircraft were counted out and back, where the battle was monitored and the cries of those who fought in the air war were heard.
Though only a recent addition to airfield architecture, it developed quickly and became one of the technologically advanced offices in the world.
The Watch office, Watch Tower or in American terms Control Tower, was the centre piece of any airfield, the place in which all operations were controlled. Even today, the control tower is the one feature that stands high above the rest of the airfield with commanding views across the entire site.
Many of these watch offices remain today, some as fabulous museums, some as private dwellings, but many are sadly derelict or even worse – gone altogether. This that do survive create a haunting and evocative feeling when seen from inside.
The beautifully restored Thorpe Abbots Watch Office (design 15683/41).
Unlike hangar development, the watch office appeared quite late in the development of the airfield, only really coming into being as war seemed inevitable. Before this, a rudimentary office was often all that was used, usually attached to the side of the main hangar, and was used to ‘book’ aircraft in and out. But by the mid war period the watch office had become a major structure on the airfield, a standard design (depending upon the airfield use) with two or more floors and often a ‘glass house’ for observation purposes.
For obvious reasons the watch office was built away from other buildings with clear sight over the entire airfield, an important aspect if controllers were to keep watch on the many aircraft that were moving about the airfield space. A vital asset to the airfield it was often targeted by marauding bombers, and in the case of attack, the controllers within would relocate to an emergency battle headquarters, hidden at ground level on a remote part of the airfield, but still with views across the site.
The basic watch office was often adapted rather than demolished and rebuilt, this can and does, cause great confusion as to its design origin. Further more, on some sites, the original was abandoned but not demolished, and a new office built elsewhere on a nearby site, thus giving rise to two offices on the one airfield eg. Matlask and Martlesham Heath
The Watch Office as we know it was first seen on military airfields in 1926 and resembled a small bungalow with bay windows. Those constructed on bomber bases would be slightly smaller than those on fighter bases, a fighter base office having a pilots office attached. The idea behind this was to keep pilots as close to the airfield control centre so they could quickly be scrambled and report back to the airfield controller on their return. These early design were found on airfields such as Bircham Newton in Norfolk, Hendon and Tangmere and were all built to the same basic 1926 drawing design only modified to take the extra pilots room.
The standard shape of the World War 2 Watch Office stems back to the mid 1930s, with the introduction of a two-storey building that was square in design. Like similar buildings of its time, it was brick, a building material that was replaced with concrete, in 1936.
West Malling a 5845/39 design which is now a coffee shop.
By the end of the expansion period, and with the introduction of hard runways, it was realised that the non-dispersed sites gave poor visibility for early watch offices, views across the airfields were not clear and so a quick remedy was called for. The answer lay in two choices, (a) demolish the current buildings and rebuild it in a better location, or (b) add an extension. In many cases the former was the better idea and this progressed quite quickly, however, where the latter was chosen, remedial work required alteration of the building whilst it remained in use.
A further complication to these designs was the introduction of meteorological sections, which all new buildings erected at the beginning of the war now had. This gave a mix of design styles, enough though there was only a small selection of design drawings from which to work.
These late expansion period and early war designs introduced the idea of ‘viewing platforms’ or parapets, surrounded by safety railings along the front of the building. These deign also had very large glass fronted walls, bright and airy they allowed a lot of light to enter the building but gave cause for concern later on, when it was realised that a bomb blast would cause severed injury to the occupants in an attack. It was also found that during night operations, large windows were more difficult to black out and so smaller windows offered both better protection and greater ease of black out.
As building materials became scare, particularly wood and brick, concrete became the norm. This change also led to drawing changes even though the basic design inside and out, was the same.
In order to appreciate the changes to watch office designs, one needs to consider the different roles that airfields played during the war. Bomber Command airfields would have a differ office to a fighter Command airfield, which in turn, had a different office to a satellite or night-fighter station.
Watch Offices give commanding views across the airfield. (Thorpe Abbots).
The regional control stations where these first offices were being built were certainly getting the better choice at this time, standard fighter and bomber airfields having to use inferior designs that very soon became outdated and inadequate for the needs of the airfield.
During the massive building programme of 1941/42, there was some effort made to standardise all airfield Watch Offices, this resulted in the 1941 design drawing no. 12779/41. This was to be the basic airfield watch office design, with its parapet, six large windows to the front and outside access steps. As older airfields were brought up to Class A Specification, many had these new Watch Offices built to replace the older original ones. Some simply had adaptation of the original. Here the use of the airfield had a bearing on the watch office modification / design, and whilst the basic 12779/41 model was employed, slight variations did exist where the airfield was not a bomber airfield.
Therefore various adaptations of this did follow, examples of which include the slightly smaller 13023/41 (RAF Cottam), those with modified smaller windows 15371/41 (Kimbolton) and 343/43 (Martlesham Heath), and the smaller Night-Fighter design 15684/41 (Winfield). Being a Night-Fighter station Winfield, had the same basic design but construction methods were totally different. This new design 15684/41, would become standard at all night fighter bases.
All these alternative designs appear outwardly very similar to the original, but differ mainly in window design only, although the physical size of some is different.
The Night-Fighter station Watch Office at Winfield (15684/41) is a similar design but smaller, having only four windows in the front.
This design, 343/43, eventually became the most common design for watch offices and appeared on all operational stations and Operation Training Unit airfields after 1943, using a set of six half-size windows across the front.
The smaller windows of Parham (Framlingham) were half the original design size (12779/41 modified to 343/43).
A further addition was the glass observation room located on the roof of the Watch Office. These were generally only applied to Group control offices, and gave an excellent all round unrestricted view of the entire airfield. Examples that exist today, such as Framlingham above, are replicas but have been built to very high standards.
Martlesham Heath is a similar design to Framlingham (modified to 343/43) – Note the runway heading board on the roof.
At the end of the war some airfields such as Sculthorpe and West Raynham had their Watch Offices modified as they changed roles to Very Heavy Bomber Stations. This new design 294/45, utilised the former building having an extra floor added and then the octagonal ‘glass house’ or Visual Control Room with slanted glass to reduce glare.
Sculthorpe’s modified tower gives 360 degree views over the airfield. A three-story block it utilises the former World War 2 Watch Office.
The Watch Office has been the hub of airfield command and control since the mid 1930s, it has developed from the humble shed to a multi-functional technologically advanced building dominating the skyline of the airfield today. Sadly though, many are now gone, and of those that are left only a few remain in good condition or open to the public.
The war-time airfield incorporated numerous building designs and shapes, certainly far too many to cover here, the wide variety of technical buildings, synthetic trainers, parachute stores, headquarters and general stores, all changing as the war progressed. The design and materials used in these structures was as varied as the designs themselves. But as the RAF grew so too did the airfields they used. The runways, the hangars, the technical buildings and accommodation sites have all grown alongside. Sadly many of these buildings have now vanished, but the process and speed at which they developed has been unprecedented. From humble grass strips with wooden shacks to enormous conurbations with numerous buildings, they have become iconic symbols representing decades of both aviation history and human sacrifice.
Whilst the runway’s remains one of the biggest features of an airfield, perhaps one of the most discussed and certainly visible is the hangar. Large sheds used to maintain aircraft, many still dominate the skyline today, used by farmers and industrial companies, they are massive buildings, but yet many remain classed as temporary or even transportable!
The development of these huge buildings is another that lasted many years, and whilst similar in layout and design, they are as complicated and as varied as any other building found on Britain’s airfields.
Hangars and Aircraft Sheds.
The topic of aircraft hangars is well versed in a large number of books and internet references. They, like the runways, can explain much about the history and use of an airfield, being the largest single building on any airfield site. Distinguishing features between hangar types is often difficult to see, many now re-clad or updated with modern features, doors or materials, even the differences between some designs is so small, without technical drawings or measurements, ascertaining the type can be all but impossible.
Hangars (or aircraft sheds as they were initially called) have been fairly constant in design, however, different services used different types, Admiralty seaplane sheds for example, were primarily side opening, whereas RAF hangars were generally front opening. Design and construction was undertaken by numerous companies (Herbertson & Co. Ltd., Nortons Ltd., Teeside Bridge and Engineering Co. Ltd., and Sir William Arrol & Co.) and even Handley Page Aircraft Co. and Boulton & Paul dabbled with the idea. With so many forms being used, it is a topic both detailed and extremely wide.
This is not therefore, intended to describe each and every hangar ever built (Second World War Air Ministry designs alone covered more than 56 types!), but more a general realisation of the huge development they undertook during this expansion and wartime period on RAF / USAAF airfields. Figures quoted here are generally rounded.
In order to understand the changes in aircraft hangars we need to briefly look at those of the First World War, where aircraft were stored in ‘sheds’, often made from canvas covering a wooden frame, or as a more permanent construction, completely wooden sheds with sliding doors. Later on these were built using metal (iron in particular) and were designed to be permanent, capable of housing several aircraft at a time.
The First World War hangars were varied and often crude, some little more than glorified tents, but through development famous names such as the Bessonneau and Hervieu were created toward the end of the war. Hangars became so large that specialist units had to be created solely to transport, erect and maintain them, and their use became more widespread.
The most common hangar of this period, the Bessonneau, was the first standard transportable hangar used on Royal Air Force airfields. Modern forms of it are still in use today, using different materials, they are quick to erect and offer reasonable protection from the weather outside.
The Bessonneau was a wooden frame structure covered in canvas. It was a simplistic design, able to be erected in as little as two days by a group of 20 skilled men. Heavy canvas doors open at one end allowing aircraft to be moved in and out with relative ease. The problem with these hangars was that the canvas was prone to freezing in winter and therefore becoming difficult to use.
There were two models of the Bessonneau built, differing only in their length – either 79 feet or 118 feet – but both were 65 feet wide.
The interwar and early war years were perhaps understandably, the years in which the greatest hangar development occurred. The Air Ministry – the body overseeing the works – decided upon a system of ‘structure type’ using names and designations such as, Type ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, Bellman, ‘T2’, etc., and just like the expansion period schemes, they progressed through this system as new developments came about.
The first type was the Type ‘A’, a permanent design, originating in 1924, it was used well into the 1930s when it was gradually replaced during the expansion period. Some examples did last well into the war and even beyond, for example, North Weald, one of the first airfields to be allocated a Type ‘A’, still uses one today.
Type A Hangar at North Weald. One of the first stations to have these types of Hangar, it has workshops attached to the Hangar side.
The Type ‘A’ is probably the first to represent the modern hangar, doors at both ends in leaves of four running on rails. Workshops are attached to the hangar side, something that was discontinued as Britain entered the war. Walls were reinforced with concrete to protect from bomb splinters, and they were built 249 feet long and 122 feet wide.
During the late 1920s, the Air Ministry published requirements for new heavy bombers, and these would require new hangars in which to maintain them. In response, the Ministry then updated the Type ‘A’ hangar to the Type ‘B’. In essence a larger version of the Type ‘A’, (160 ft span and 273 ft in length) the ‘B’ was named the ‘Goliath‘ with only three being built (each being a different length). One of these was at RAF Martlesham Heath and is still used today on what is now the industrial park. Like the Type ‘A’, the roof of the ‘B’ is possibly its most discernible feature, a series of trusses along its length crossing laterally over the roof.
With expansion period demands increasing, further developments were needed, and it was envisaged that an increasing bomber size would be needed if substantial bomb loads were to be delivered deep into the continent. The current size of hangar was now considered too restrictive and so a new buildings would be needed. The requirements of the Air Ministry was for a hangar with a span of 150 feet and length of 300 feet. With these in place, new aircraft specifications could be issued.
The Type ‘C’, (designed in 1934) as it was designated, would become the dominant building on any airfield and therefore visible from quite a distance. As airfield designs were subject to scrutiny by the Society for the Preservation of Rural England, local objections were taken into account during the design process. To appease any objections, the steel frame was covered with local brick or stone, keeping it inline with other buildings not only on the airfield, but houses and buildings erected locally.
Most airfields during the expansion period were built with these hangars on site, and naturally went through a series of developments and improvements. This means, that there are many different forms of the Type ‘C’: gabled roof, hipped rafter and reinforced concrete. Another modified version of the ‘C’ appeared in 1938 and was designated the ‘C1’ (or ‘Protected’), this was an austerity measure development, reducing the amount of material used by lowering the roof height by 5 feet – internal metal work was also left partially exposed. Both the ‘C’ and ‘C1’, continued to be built with offices, workshops and aircrew accommodation attached to the hangar side, the idea being that it was more efficient to do so for the repair of the aircraft inside. As these were larger in width and length than their predecessors, they would have six leaf doors also sliding on top and bottom rails.
Type C at the former RAF Upwood.
1936 saw a dramatic change in hangar design, with two new requirements being issued by the Air Ministry. Firstly, storage space was now running out and so new facilities were required. These Aircraft Storage Unit Stations (ASU) would need their own hangar type, and so a requirement for these was put forward. Also at this time, the Ministry put out a demand for transportable hangars, these would replace the ageing Bessonneaus of the First World War. The response to these demands were three storage hangars and two temporary hangars.
The Type ‘D’, ‘E’ and ‘L’ Hangars, were a development used specifically by the ASU stations, and they were not generally built on front line operational airfields. They were virtually identical in size to the Type ‘C’, but each type was marginally bigger in span 150 ft, 160 ft and 167 ft than the previous model, and all were the same length at 300 feet. The three types were different from previous hangars in that they had curved roofs, allowing the ‘E’ and ‘L’ to be covered with soil for protection and camouflage (the ‘D’ had straight side walls and therefore could not be covered). ASUs were built to assemble and disassemble aircraft for shipment to operational airfields in Britain or overseas. Aircraft were stored, in varying degrees of assembly within these units, and heavy hoists were often used to store aircraft ‘tail up’. However, with the outbreak of war, aircraft storage was thought better dispersed around the airfield and not concentrated in one space, so this method of storing aircraft was abandoned. Many of these hangars still remain today, used by small industrial units or for farm storage.
The next two types, the ‘J’ and ‘K’, were virtually identical in design, again with curved roofs, they were used for storage of aircraft. The ‘J’ can be found on many operational airfields, built in conjunction with other main hangars (Waterbeach is a very good example of this combination), whilst the ‘K’ was built on ASU stations. The design came in as a result of Expansion Scheme M, and was as a result of the call for 2,550 front line aircraft by March 1942.
The main difference between the two, (other than their location) was in the roof structure, the ‘K’ having lifting tackle rails along its width, while the ‘J’ were along its length. The ‘K’, being used for storage of aircraft, didn’t have any windows, where as the ‘J’ did as offices and workshops were in use constantly. Like previous hangars, the ‘J’ and ‘K’ both had a span of 150 ft and a length of 300 ft.
A ‘J’ hangar located at RAF Waterbeach.
The 1936 transportable hangar requirement, asked for a hangar that could be easily erected and didn’t require a permanent base. It also asked for doors at both ends and needed to be simplistic in design, with parts being interchangeable. These hangers also saw the separating of the office/workshop facilities previously built onto the side of the hangars, these now being located in buildings in the technical and administrative areas. After considering numerous designs, two were chosen and ultimately built.
The first of these, and the primary choice, was the Bellman. Designed by an engineer within the Works Directorate, N.S. Bellman, they were smaller than previous hangars (88ft span and 175 ft on RAF bases) and could be built in under 500 hours by a dozen men. So successful, were they, that over 400 were built between 1938 and 1940 across a wide range of airfield types. Some of these examples even appeared in Russia.
Bellman Aircraft sheds at the former RAF Bircham Newton
The second design, was the Callender (later Callender-Hamilton with modifications) Hangar, designed by the bridge design company Callender Cable and Construction. These had a span of 90 clear feet, with a length of 185 ft, and were used on both RAF and RNAS airfields. There were only eight of these built before the outbreak of war, examples of which appear at East Fortune, further examples with lower roof clearances (17 ft) being purchased after 1940. The Callender-Hamilton are best recognised by their lattice-work on the top door rails.
Callender-Hamilton Hangar East Fortune National Museum of Flight
As the war approached, 1939 – 1940 saw a transition period between ‘permanent’ and ‘temporary’ buildings, although many of these temporary buildings still stand today! Because of this change, many airfields had various hangars built, something that often gives a mix of hangar designs on one airfield which can cause confusion as to its age and origin. However, from this point on, all wartime hangars were designed as temporary hangars, designed with short lives and easily assembled / disassembled.
By 1940, the Bellman was considered too small for the RAF’s requirements and a new design was going to be needed. An agreement between the Air Ministry and Teeside Bridge & Engineering resulted in the ‘T’ series of hangars, perhaps the most well-known of the hangar designs.
The ‘T’ series covers a wide range of (temporary or transportable) hangars, each slightly different to the previous, but designed as three main types; T1 (90 ft span), T2 (113 ft) and T3 (66 ft). The length of each hangar varied depending upon local requirements and the number of additional bays added as needed. The design number e.g T2 (26) indicated the number of bays (26) and hence the length.
The ‘T’ range were a diverse and complicated range, the ‘T2’ being sub split into 5 variants (T2, T2 Heavy Duty, TFB (flying Boat), TFBHD (flying boat heavy-duty) and T2MCS (marine craft shed), so the identification of each being difficult without measuring equipment.
A T2 hangar at RAF Wratting Common.
On first inspection the ‘T2’ and Bellman look virtually identical, both lightweight, steel lattice frames with metal side panels. The main distinctions are that the Bellman doors are flush with the top of the side panelling whereas the ‘T2’ has an extra level of panelling and so are not flush. The other difference is the lattice frame inside the roof, the ‘T2’ has only diagonal braces whereas the Bellman has vertical braces in addition to the diagonals. Both hangars have six leaf doors on sliding rails supported both top and bottom, allowing full width access.
A final addition to the ‘T2’ were the Ministry of Aircraft Production Hangars the Type ‘A’ (A1 & A2) and Type ‘B’ (B1 & B2) built in the mid war years 1942-43 and funded by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. These hangars, not to be confused with the type ‘A’ and ‘B’ of the 1920s, were designed specifically for the repair of damaged aircraft especially operational aircraft on their own airfield. They were also erected at ASUs, and Satellite Landing Grounds (SLG).
A B1 at RAF Wratting Common an RAF bomber station.
The ‘B1’ and ‘B2’ were built specifically at Bomber Command airfields for the repair of damaged bombers thus eliminating the need to transport them long distances to specialist repair depots. Designed by T. Bedford Consulting Engineers they were eventually found on virtually all Bomber Command airfields by the end of the war and were manned by civilian repair organisations. Examples of both the ‘T2’ and ‘B1’ can be found in use at Wratting Common.
‘A1’ and ‘A2’ hangars on the other hand, whilst similar in design – metal cladding on metal frames – were slightly smaller and found only on aircraft factory airfields. Thus again there are virtually two identical hangars designated primarily by their location!
The last hangar to be commonly found on RAF / USAAF airfields were the blister hangar. A hangar of a temporary nature that usually used a curved metal frame covered in metal sheeting. The Blister hangar was the brainchild of architects and consulting engineers Norman & Dawbarn and William C. Inman of Miskins & Sons, and was designed to accommodate small span aircraft ideally fighters dispersed around the perimeter of airfields. Maintenance or storage could easily be carried in these hangars, and they could easily and quickly be erected, no base or foundations being required before hand.
These types of hangar came in three designs, the standard blister, (timber construction), over type (light welded steel) and Extra Over (also light welded steel), and ranged in span from 45 – 70 feet, A further type built was that of Double extra Over and Dorman Long, a separate design similar in shape but securely bolted to foundations. Many of these hangars have now gone, the majority being dismantled and sold off, only to be erected elsewhere on farmland well away from their original location. The father of a friend of mine, was employed in this very role, one day finding a Spitfire inside a blister hangar which nobody claimed to own!
By the end of the war, in excess of 900 ‘T2’ hangars were erected on British airfields including those built abroad. In 2004 it was thought there were about 100*7 left surviving on MOD property in Britain. A number have also survived on farmland used to store foodstuffs or machinery, or industrial sites. The ‘T2’ remained the main hangar in use by both the RAF and USAAF during the war, appearing on all Class ‘A’ airfields, occasionally with other models also being present. A number of other older models also continue to serve even to this day. Considering many of these were built as temporary buildings, they have survived remarkably well and are testament to the engineering design of the pre and early war years.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of those hangars that were built during the period 1918 – 1945 (other examples include the: Aeroplane Twin Shed; RFC Sheds; Seaplane Sheds; General Service Sheds; Plane Stores; Running Sheds; Lamella (a German idea built in Britain); Hinaldi; Main Hangars; Lamson Hangars; Fromson Hangars; Robins Hangars; Butler (a US design); Merton; ‘S’ type Hangars (RNAS); Pentad Hangar and Boulton & Paul Hangars and of course post war examples such as the Gaydon), but hopefully it has shone a glimmer of light on these remarkable structures that often dominated the skyline and that remain the centrepiece of many a disused airfield today.
In the next section we shall look at that other main iconic building in airfield design, the watch office.
Sources and further reading.
*7Technical Bulletin 02/02 “World War II Hangars – Guide to Hangar Identification” Ministry of Defence (February 2002).
After considering the architecture of Britain’s airfields in Part 5, we turn to the hard surfaces, primarily the runways. Developed out of necessity, they created a steep learning curve for those involved in their construction. Many problems were found, many materials were tried, but ultimately they were built and even after their removal for hardcore, many have left scars in the tissue of the earth that remind us of their once massive presence.
Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands
In the pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. In the First World War, water logging and mud was an issue even for the small biplanes that filled the skies over Britain and France. To overcome this, ash was spread over landing surfaces and to some degree successfully, but even though many local remedies were tried, it wouldn’t be taken seriously until the Second World War loomed.
Runways like this one at Glatton (Conington) remain in good condition and used by the local flying club.
At this point the typical airfield layout included up to four grass runways, one of 1,300 x 400 yards and three of 1,000 x 200 yards, many were even smaller. Bomber and Fighter Command, realising that not only would the new era of aircraft call for longer, hard runways on its airfields, but the need to maintain year round activity was essential if Britain was to defeat the Luftwaffe.
Both Fighter and Bomber Command pushed the Government to allow these to be developed, on the one hand Sir Hugh Dowding, fighting the corner for Fighter Command, pressed home the need for hard surfaces on his fighter airfields, whilst Sir Arthur Harris on the other, pushed for hard surfaces on his bomber airfields.
The entire process was lengthy and complex, and lacked in-depth, professional knowledge. The first hard ‘pavements’ later runways and taxi ways, being constructed based on road building techniques and knowledge. So before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine not only whether or not they were indeed needed, but if so, how they should be best constructed.
Initial steps in runway construction was started as early as 1937, where ‘flexible’ runways were constructed comprising layers of brick or stone covered with two further layers of tarmac and a coat of asphalt to seal the structure in. Concrete pavements, which proved to be much stronger were either 150 mm or 200 mm thick slabs laid directly onto the ground after the topsoil had been removed by heavy machinery. As would be expected, these early designs failed quite quickly under the heavy loads of the fighters and bombers that were coming into service. Rapid repairs were carried by adding a further layer of tarmac (6.5cm) and another layer (2cm) of sealant.
These early flexible constructions continued to fail whereas the concrete designs stood up to much more wear and tear and proved longer lasting. However, time was short and the learning curve would be steep.
The test to determine these needs was to take a Whitley bomber, laden to equal its full operational weight, and taxi it across a grassed surface. A rather primitive assessment, it was intended to ascertain the effects of the aircraft on the ground beneath. Trials were first carried out at Farnborough and then Odiham, and these were generally successful, the Whitley only bogging down on recently disturbed soils. Further trials were then carried out at RAF Stradishall in March 1938, and the results were a little more mixed. Whilst no take offs or landings took place during these trials, the general agreement was that more powerful bombers would have no problems using grassed surfaces, as long as the ground was properly prepared and well maintained. All well and good when the soils were dry and well-drained.
By April 1939, the Air Ministry conceded, and agreed to lay runways at a small number of fighter and bomber airfields, of which Kenley, Biggin Hill, Debden and Stradishall were identified. Whilst construction was slow, only two fighters airfields being completed by the outbreak of war, progress was finally being made.
These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, but were extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall in particular, would be further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.
The runway at Charterhall in the borders, breaking up after many years of use both by training units and as a motor racing circuit post war.
During the early war years, the demand for airfields grew. By early 1940 the requirement was for three runways as close as possible at 60o to each other, and of a minimum length of 1,000 yards with room for extension up to 1,400 yards. This then became the norm by late 1940 especially at bomber airfields, with the main runway being 1,400 yards and subsidiaries at 1,100 yards. A month later, this increased by another 200 yards with a requirement to be able to extend to 2,000 and 1,400 yards respectively.
However, these short piecemeal responses were not sufficient and it was both a continual problem and a thorn in the side for the Air Ministry. Sir Arthur Harris, in raising his concerns for airfields belonging to Bomber Command, also pushed the need to develop good, long and reliable surfaces. He voiced his frustration in a vehement letter*6 to Lord Beaverbrook in 1941, In which he states:
“For twenty years everybody on the stations and the squadrons has been screaming for runways without avail.”
and he continues stressing the need for hard surfaces particularly in winter as:
“Through not having runways our effort will be seriously detracted from in normal winter conditions and reduced very probably to zero in abnormal winter conditions.”
He then goes on to state that Britain’s views were ‘blinkered’ saying that:
“Every other nation throughout the world has long been convinced of the necessity for runways…”
By the summer of 1941, the length of runways had again increased, all stations would now have a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards and where this was not possible, then a minimum of 1,600 and 1,100 yards (fighter and night fighter stations being shorter at 1,300 and 1,400 yards respectively).
The harsh winters were less than ideal for laying concrete (by far the best material for the job) but any delay could mean the difference between success and failure. Elaborate testing was therefore passed over, materials were laid and experience led the way. This method of trail and error, led to many instances of runways having to be dug up and relaid, this in itself led to problems as aircraft, men and machinery had to then be moved and housed elsewhere. The American Eighth Air Force suffered greatly with these problem, fully laden bombers repeatedly breaking through the surface or falling off the edges as it gave way.
Another consideration was that of training and satellite airfields. As the need for new pilots increased, the training of new recruits intensified. The harsh winters were causing major headaches for these airfields as mud, stones and other winter debris was causing continuous problems for flying. With both man power and materials being in short supply, suitable alternatives were sought. A number of solutions were offered all very similar in their design and material.
The answer it seemed lay in steel matting – of which twelve different types were used – the more common being : Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT).
Sommerfeld track was a steel mat designed by Austrian Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.
Sommerfeld track (along with these other track types) were not only used commonly on training and satellite airfields, but also on Advanced and Forward Landing Grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy. In the build up to D-Day, 24 Advanced Landing Grounds in southern England were created using this form of Steel Matting,
Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced; several records reporting tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.
Because of the poor state and short length of runways, bombers were still regularly running off the ends, especially at night, or being unable to fly because the surfaces were poor or even unusable. A number of ideas were tested out to alleviate the problem, one such idea led to twenty sites testing arrester hook facilities. Several heavy bombers: Halifax, Manchester, Stirlings and later the Lancaster, were all modified to undertake these trials, with Woodhall Spa becoming the first airfield to have the full complement of six arrester sets.
Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.
The idea was met with scepticism, but trials went ahead and in January 1942, a list of priority airfields was sent out to the Headquarters of No. 1,3,4, and 5 Groups RAF detailing those twenty sites selected for the equipment. At the top of the list was RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, followed by Bottesford, Swinderby, Ossington, Syerston, Middleton St. George, Linton, and ending with Waterbeach and Stradishall. By late 1942 Woodhall Spa was ready and in October, five landings were made by an Avro Manchester. A month later the decision was made to install units at all major operational airfields, but this never came to fruition and the idea was soon mothballed. By 1943, it had been forgotten about and the 120 or so units built were scrapped (many being left buried where they were laid).
It was finally during early 1942 that a standard design airfield would be put in place. Known as the Class ‘A’, it would be the standard to which all new airfields and updated older sites would be made.
A Class A airfield would be designed around three hard concrete runways, shaped like an ‘A’ with each runway at 60o to each other where possible. The main runway would be aligned with the prevailing wind again were possible to allow aircraft to take off/land into the wind as often as possible (north-east, south-west). In several cases, due to land features and local restrictions, this was not always possible, and so many permutations of design were seen as a result.
Rapidly becoming the largest part of the airfield layout, the runways and other paved areas – perimeters tracks, aprons and hardstands – were now given high priority. The standard now called for a main runway of 2,000 yards with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards. Each of these would be 50 yards wide whilst the connecting perimeter tracks would be 50 feet wide. Along side these runways would be an emergency landing strip, a grassed area given a landing surface of 400 and 200 yards respectively.
Dues to the high numbers of bombers returning badly damaged and unable to make safe and proper landings, a small number of emergency strips were created by extending the main runways to 4,000 yards long and 400 yards wide. One such airfield was RAF Manston in Kent. Being on of the closest airfields to the continent, it was often the first place a stricken aircraft, especially a bomber, would seek out.
Whilst the general layout of airfields did not change for the remainder of the war, some further runways were extended to 3,000 yards, one such example being RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk which was prepared to take the heavy B29 ‘Superfortress’ and post war, the B-36 ‘Peacemaker’.
A further point worth mentioning here is that of dispersals, not required pre-war, they were also an aspect of airfield architecture that were born out of the Second World War. In the inter-war years, aircraft were housed either on a central pan (apron or ramp) or within hangars. These collections of aircraft were easy targets and even a small amount of munitions could cause huge damage. In 1939 the need for dispersals was therefore recognised and so to address the issue, hedges were removed and tracks created that took aircraft away from the main runway but kept them within easy reach of the airfield site. The initial design was that of the ‘frying pan’ a 150 ft circle connected to the perimeter track by a small concrete track.
However, by 1942, it was found that aircraft were clogging up these tracks, some even ‘falling off’ the concrete onto soft soil and so blocking following aircraft in their tracks. The answer was the ‘spectacle’ or ‘loop’ hardstand, so-called by their oval shape, generally in pairs, that allow aircraft in and out without the need to turn or block access tracks. From 1942 onward, this model became the standard hardstand for all Class A airfields, and the aim was to have 50 such hardstands placed strategically around the perimeter, with 25 at satellite airfields. As the threat of attack diminished toward the end of the war, ‘finger’ or ‘star’ dispersals began to appear, much less effective than the predecessors, they were however cheaper and easier to construct.
Unusual as many training airfields didn’t have aircraft pans, RAF Millfield, in the borders, had several
In addition to hardstands, pens were built on fighter stations. The first, an experimental pit, was dug at Feltwell, whilst overly expensive and obtrusive, it did lead the way to aircraft pens later on, pens that were developed as either type ‘B’ or ‘E’ on these fighter airfields. The main difference here is that the early type ‘B’ had cranked side walls whereas the ‘E’ had walls that were straight. The former requiring more space, was later phased out in favour of the ‘E’, named so by its shape, using side and back walls to protect the fighter or small bomber located within.
The remains of a Type ‘B’ Fighter Pen at Matlaske.
A Type ‘B’ Pen at RAF Macmerry. The cranked wall can be seen to the right, with the central wall on the left. The entrance is to the bottom right.
Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) and Macmerry in Scotland, whilst the type ‘E’ were found on airfields especially those around London that included Biggin HiIl, Kenley and North Weald.
One of the ‘E’ type pens found at Kings Cliffe. Adapted with rifle slits for additional defence.
These pens were designed to specific dimensions and were designed as either a ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Blenheim’ to accommodate either a single engined or twin-engined aircraft. Within the back wall of these pens was a shelter for up to 25 personnel, and in some cases, they had Stanton Shelters built-in to the structures. Some, for example, at Kings Cliffe in Northampton, remain with rifle slits for additional protection from ground forces.
Inside the aircraft pen shelter at King’s Cliffe.
Whilst the majority of these shelters were manufactured using banks of soil, sandbags, brick or concrete, there was a least one example at RAF Drem, in Scotland which used logs cut to size and shape and built in the style of a Scandinavian house. It is these various designs of aircraft pen that paved the way to modern hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) seen on military airfields today.
From the early days of grass runways to the massive lengths of concrete that were created up to and after the mid 1940s, runways and hardstands have become a defining factor in airfield design. The sole purpose of an airfield – to get aircraft off the ground as quickly as possible, get them to their target and them get them home again – led to the development of both runway lengths and construction materials, much of which has paved the way for modern airfields today. These early leaps into runway designs have enabled larger and heavier aircraft to make those important journeys that we very much take for granted in this the modern world of air travel and general aviation.
In the next section we look at one of the buildings most associated with the airfield. An early form of aircraft storage, its role changed as it was soon realised that aircraft needed to be dispersed and not grouped together on large aprons as they were in the prewar era. Aesthetics and neatly lined up aircraft were no longer an important factor in front line flying, but safety and the ability to repair aircraft quickly and efficiently were. Here we introduce the hangar, a huge building often of a temporary or transportable nature, that became one of the more longer lasting structures of airfield architecture.
Sources and further reading.
*6 Letter from Arthur Harris to Lord Beaverbrook, February 1941 – AIR 19/492 – National Archives