July 2nd 1919, H.M.A. R.34 Sets A World Record Flight.

On July 2nd 1919 at 01:42, airship R.34 lifted off from the airfield at East Fortune, east of Edinburgh, to make an epic voyage – the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean east to west by a powered aircraft.

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

Conceived as early as 1916, R.34 was built at the works of William Beardmore and Co. Ltd. of Inchinnan near Glasgow. At 634 feet in length with a top speed of 62 mph, she would have five 270 hp Sunbeam ‘Maori’ engines, and would cost £350,000 to build. Her massive size gave her an impressive 1,950,000 cubic feet for gas storage, and she would be equivalent in size to a Dreadnought battleship. A major step forward in airship design, her aerodynamic shape reduced total air resistance to that of just 7% of an equivalently sized flat disc.

As she was designed under war specifications, R.34 would be built to carry twenty 100 lb and four 550 lb bombs, a range of Pom-Pom guns, Lewis machine guns and a small number of two-pounder quick-firing guns; but as she wasn’t finished until after the war, none of these were ever fitted, nor was she ever flown in anger.

Completed in early 1919, she just missed out on achieving the record of the first Atlantic crossing, being laid up by damage caused by poor handling, and thus beaten to the record now held by Alcock and Brown.

In May, she arrived at East Fortune airfield, a major airship station in East Lothian, from where she carried out a number of test flights including an endurance flight across the Scandinavian countries. In July she was set to make the first  Atlantic crossing, east to west.

In preparation for the flight, eight engineers were sent to the United States to train ground crews in the safe handling of the airship. The Admiralty provided two  warships, the Renown and Tiger, as surface supply vessels, and should R.34 have got into difficulty, she could have been taken in tow by one, or both of the two vessels.

On the evening of 1st July 1919 the ship was fueled to capacity (some 6,000 gallons), and in the early hours of the morning she was moved out of her shed and prepared for the flight. Her captain, Major G. H. Scott, gave the order to release early, and at 1.42 am (GMT) R.34 lifted slowly in to the Scottish sky.

After battling strong winds and Atlantic storms, R.34 finally arrived at Mineola. Huge crowds had turned out to greet her and her crew, a grandstand had been erected, parks and public spaces were packed with onlookers. Major J. Pritchard (The Special Duties Officer) put on a parachute and jumped from the airship to become the first man to arrive in America by air. He helped organise ground staff and prepared the way for R.34 to safely dock. As she settled on her moorings, she had not only become the fist aircraft to fly the Atlantic East to West, but broke the current endurance record previously held by the North Sea Airship NS 11, also based at East Fortune.

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

After a 3 day stay in which the crew were treated like the heroes they were, R.34 was prepared for the homeward journey. On Wednesday July 10th 1919, at 23:54 she lifted off and set sail for home.

With prevailing winds carrying her eastward, she made an astonishing 90 mph, giving the opportunity to cut some of the engines and preserve fuel. This gave the crew a chance to divert over London, but due to a mechanical breakdown, this was cancelled and R.34 continued on her original route. Poor weather at East Fortune meant that she was ordered to divert to Pulham Air Station, Norfolk, but even after clarification that the weather had improved, her return to East Fortune was denied and she had to continue to Pulham – much to the disgust of the crew on board. At Pulham, the reception was quiet, RAF personnel greeted her and secured her moorings. She has covered almost 7,500 miles at an average speed of 43 mph.

Eventually after a major refit at East Fortune, R.34 left for the return to Pulham. After six weeks of static mooring, R.34 was sent to Yorkshire, to Howden Airship Station. Here she was used to train American crews, was modified for mast mooring and used for general training duties. During one such training mission, she was badly damaged in strong winds, and after sustaining further damage whilst trying to moor and secure her, she began to buckle. Falling to the ground, she broke up and was damaged beyond repair. R.34 was then stripped of all useful materials and the remainder of her enormous structure sold for scrap – a rather ungainly ending to an incredible and historical machine.

H.M.A. R.34 and her crew had become the first to cross the Atlantic east to west, they had achieved the  longest endurance flight, and become the first aircraft to complete a double-crossing of the Atlantic.

East Fortune

The memorial stone at East Fortune airfield commemorating the epic flight of R.34.

The Flight Crew for the Atlantic journey were:

Major G. H. Scott A.F.C – Captain
Captain G. S. Greenland – Second Officer
Second Lt. H. F. Luck- Third Officer
Second Lt. J. D. Shotter – Engineering Officer
Major G. G. H. Cooke DSC – Navigator
Major J. E. M. Pritchard O.B.E. – Special Duties
Lt. G. Harris – Meteorological Officer Second
Lt. R. F. Durrant – Wireless Officer
Lt. Commander Z. Lansdowne – Representative U S Navy
Brigadier General E. M. Maitland – Special Duties
Warrant Officer W. R. Mayes – First Coxswain
Flight Sergeant W. J. Robinson – Second Coxswain

Sergeant H. M. Watson – Rigger
Corporal R. J. Burgess – Rigger
Corporal F. Smith – Rigger
F. P. Browdie – Rigger
J. Forteath – Rigger Corporal

H. R. Powell – Wireless Telegraphy
W. J. Edwards – Wireless Telegraphy

W. R. Gent – Engineer
R. W. Ripley – Engineer
N. A. Scull – Engineer
G. Evenden – Engineer
J. Thirlwall – Engineer
E. P. Cross – Engineer
J. H. Gray – Engineer
G. Graham – Engineer
J. S. Mort – Engineer
J. Northeast – Engineer
R. Parker – Engineer

W. Ballantyne – Stowaway
“Whoopsie” – a small tabby kitten and stowaway

The crew of R.34 Crew – with the crew pets.

East Fortune airfield will appear in Trail 42.

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Historic RAF Halton to Close in 2022.

RAF Halton, currently used for basic training of new recruits, is set to close in 2022 following the Ministry of Defence’s announcement that it was having to save £140 million over the next ten years.

Halton is also used by the Specialist Training School, which is part of No 22 (Training) Group, which provides training in all three areas of: Environmental Management, Health and Safety and Quality Management for the Royal Air Force.

At Halton, new recruits go through a range of activities over a 9 week period including: general knowledge, fitness, inspections, arms instructions and of course P.T. etc,. The course culminates, for those successful candidates, in a graduation parade.

RAF Halton has its roots prior to the First World War, when the then land owner, Alfred de Rothschild, allowed the Army to use the land for manoeuvres. After a short while, the RFC (No. 3 Sqn) arrived with a small contingency of machines and men. When war broke out, the entire estate was handed over to Lord Kitchener, and by mid-war it was awash with tents and wooden huts accommodating up to 20,000 young men, many of whom would never be returning from the battlefields of France and Belgium.

By 1917 there was a great need for aircraft mechanics and technical expertise in the RFC, Halton would become the hub for training these men. New huts were established, and it became known as the School of Technical Training (Men), which would eventually pass some 14,000 mechanics by the end of the year. By the end of 1918, it would also be training women (2,000) and boys (2,000) along side the 6,000 mechanics it already had under its wing.

After the death of Alfred de Rothschild in 1918, the War Office purchased the entire estate from his nephew for £112,000 and developed it into a an Officer Cadet College for the forthcoming Royal Air Force in April. The transfer of the site eventually went through the following year, and Halton took on a new role.

In December 1919 a new apprentice scheme was set up, where boys between the ages of 15 and 16 were recruited and trained internally; the idea being to intensify the programme reducing it from its normal 5 years to only 3. In January 1922, the first group of 500 recruits arrived, and Halton became No. 1 School of Technical Training; a school that would provide both ground crew and technical staff for the RAF. This scheme ran for 73 years before closing, at which point it has created 40,000 trained recruits, not just for the RAF, but for overseas Air Forces as well.

Since then, Halton has continued to train recruits: chefs, stewards, tradesmen, maintenance crews and even helped in the development of innovative surgical procedures in the Princess Mary Royal Air Force Hospital, opened in 1927; a task it sadly no longer continues to do today.

Flying has, and does occur at RAF Halton. On the 15th June 1943, No. 529 Sqn RAF was formed here from the disbanded 1448 (Radar Calibration) Flight, previously at Duxford. Between 1943 and its disbandment on October 20th 1945, it operated the Rota I, Hornet Moth, Rota IIs, Airspeed Oxford and the Hoverfly I.

It has two grass runways and four large hangars. It also has its own dedicated Air Traffic Zone and manages around 15,000 powered aircraft movements, and 2,500 winch launched glider movements a year.

RAF Halton has had a number of ‘Gate Guards’ including Spitfire XVI ‘RW386’, Hunter F6 ‘XF527’ and currently, Tornado GR1 ‘8976M’ which, as the first British pre-production aircraft, first flew on March 14th 1977.

On site, is a museum dedicated to the history of RAF Halton and named in honour of the founder of the Royal Air Force, and the RAF’s apprenticeship scheme, Lord Trenchard. It was opened in 1999 and is open every Tuesday from 10:00 to 16:00 hours. At present it not known what the future holds in store for the museum once the site is closed.

Also on the Halton airfield site is a: Polish monument, restored World War I trenches, the World War I firing range, historic burial sites, a neolithic long Barrow (mound), the site of the former hospital, a church and an RAF logistics heritage centre.

Once closed, the local council hope to create a ‘mixed use’ site rather than just a ‘housing estate’. It has been reported that various film companies have been interested in Halton, whether or not these come to fruition is yet to be seen.

Today Halton continues to provide new recruits with the basic skills required by the demands of a modern Air Force; once ‘qualified’, recruits go on to training in their respective trades at other bases and RAF colleges around the country. It seeks to develop the ethos and ideals of Lord Trenchard when he set up the Royal Air Force in April 1918, an ethos that has made the Royal Air Force one of the most respected Air Forces in the world.

RAF Halton certainly has a significant history, its roots deep in the founding of both the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Air Force. The site has numerous significant historical and architectural features, and hopefully, the true historical value of these will be considered before any tentative proposals are put in place.

The full news report appeared in the Bucks Herald newspaper  on 24th June 2017. (My thanks to Rich Reynolds for the link.)

 

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 3)

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

RAF Charterhall

The main runway at Charterhall looking south.

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Charterhall

‘No. 1’ Building on the Technical site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Charterhall

Jim Clark’s grave stone at Chirnside.

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and further reading

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

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

Can anyone identify this ‘unknown’ airman Sculpture? 

Not my area of expertise at all, but certainly aviation related. This stunning sculpture is of an airman, thought to be of RFC origin, looking over the side of his aircraft possibly at the enemy or at a compatriot.

His face looks saddened, perhaps reflecting the horrors of war or in quiet contemplation of what has been – I don’t know.

A reader has contacted me asking me if I can help establish the origin of the piece, the story behind him, who modelled it or even confirm who made it. It is believed to have been created by the artist C. L. Hartwell, but my own usual initial searches have proven fruitless in establishing this.

It is a superb piece, and must have a story behind it. If you are able to help identify the ‘unknown airman’, or anything of its origin or history,  then please do contact me, and I will gladly pass on your replies.

 

Who is the ‘unknown’ airman? Do you know?

 

Hingham – an airfield fallen into obscurity.

Continuing  on Trail 38, we depart Swanton Morley and travel south-east toward the former RAF / USAAF base at Hethel. Here we find fast cars, a museum, and more remnants of yesteryear. On the way, we pass-by another former RFC airfield from the First World War – the Home Defence Station at Hingham.

Hingham Home Defence Station.

There is considerable speculation about the true location of Hingham airfield. It is sadly one of those sites that has long since gone, and its history is now so blurred that its true location is not accurately known. It is known however, that it housed only three squadrons in its very short life: 51 (HD), 100 and 102, but only 51 Sqn remained for any period of time, thus making it the sole unit to have flown actively from this airfield.

A grass site, it was believed to be located near to the village of Hingham in Norfolk, some 12 miles south-west of Norwich, however, some sources cite it as Scoulton (latterly Watton airfield) located a few miles to the west of here. Wherever the true whereabouts of Hingham are, it is known that it did play a small but important part in the defence of Great Britain, and therefore worthy of a thought as we pass by.

Following the reorganisation of the RFC and RNAS in 1916, it was known that 51 (HD)  transferred from Thetford to Hingham, arriving at the fledgling airfield on 23rd September 1916, with the Royal Aircraft Factory BE12s. With detachments at Harling Road, Mattishall and Narborough, they were widely spread and would operate solely in the Home Defence role. These airfields were designated Home Defence Stations of which there were two, the ‘Flight‘ station (the smaller of the two) and the ‘Squadron‘ Station, the larger and main station. It is very likely that Hingham was designated as a Flight Station.

In October 1916, 51 (HD) replaced with the BE12s with  two-seat FE2bs and then with further RAE aircraft, the BE2e, in December 1916. The Hingham flight moved to Marham in early august 1917, whilst the Mattishall flight remained where they were.  ‘B’ flight moved west to Tydd St. Mary, a small airfield located on the Lincolnshire / Cambridgeshire border.

RAF Museum Hendon

The Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b at Hendon, London

Throughout the war 51 (HD) squadron fought against the Zeppelins that foraged over the eastern counties. By flying across the North Sea and then turning into The Wash, they were aiming to reach targets as far afield as Liverpool, Coventry and London.

One of several Home Defence airfields in this region, the role of Hingham aircraft (and the other Home Defence units around here), was to protect these industrial areas by intercepting the Zeppelins before they were able to fly further inland.

However, in the early days of the war, Zeppelins were able to fly at greater speeds and altitudes than many of the RFC aircraft that were available, and so the number of RFC ‘kills’ were relatively light. Many of these German Naval airships were able to wander almost at will around the Fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire dropping their bombs wherever they pleased. It was this lack of a strong defence strategy that perpetuated the creation of the Home Defence squadrons. This new organisation along with improvements and developments in both ammunition and aircraft performance, began to improve the ‘kill’ success rates, and gradually the number of raids decreased. 51 (HD) Sqn played a pivotal part in this role, attacking Zeppelins on a number of occasions in these mid-war years.

It was during this time that two new RFC squadrons would be formed at Hingham. On February 11th 1917, the nucleus of 51 Sqn were relocated here to form the new 100 Sqn, whilst on August 9th that same year, the new 102 Sqn was formed. Both these units would train in the night bombing role and then go on to attack airfields and troops in Northern France in support of the stagnating Allied ground troops.

A stay of about 6 weeks for 102 Sqn and 12 days for 100 Sqn saw them both depart to pastures new, St. Andre-aux-Bois in France and Farnborough in the south of England respectively. It was at these locations that they would collect their operational aircraft before reuniting in Northern France in March that year.

After 51 (HD) squadron left Hingham, the site was never used again by the military and it was subsequently closed down. Whatever structures that were there were presumably sold off in the post war RAF cutbacks, and the field returned to agriculture with all traces, if any, removed – Hingham’s short history had finally come to a close.

Hingham was a small airfield that played its own small part in the defence of the Eastern counties. Whilst its true location is sadly not known, it is certainly worthy of a thought as we travel between two much larger, and perhaps much more significant sites, in this historical part of Norfolk.

RAF Wittering – a history rooted deep in the First World War.

You can’t look at the remnants of RAF Collyweston (Trail 37), without taking in RAF Wittering. Renowned for its Harrier Squadrons, RAF Wittering was an airfield that fell quiet as a result of the Government cutbacks that affected all the armed forces in December 2010. Sadly it meant the loss of the RAF’s Harrier fleet, an aircraft that had been stunning the crowds at air shows both here and overseas from many years. The Harrier remains one of the few RAF/RN jets to have proven itself in a combat environment, when it took on the Argentinian Air Force in the war over the Falkland Islands in 1982. However, the Harrier squadrons were just one small part of Wittering’s long and established history.

RAF Wittering.

RAF Wittering dates back to the First World War, its roots set in 1916 when an airfield was built on the site then known as Wittering Heath. Stamford Airfield, as it was then designated, was to initially operate BE12 aircraft in the anti-Zeppelin role, acting in conjunction with their main force of 38 Squadron at Melton Mowbray. These aircraft would eventually, in turn, be replaced by BE2e, FE2b and FE2d aircraft. During this time a small detachment from 90 Sqn would also be stationed at Wittering, but their stay would be short, between August and September 1918 – they were also flying the FE2b.

AERIAL VIEWS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM 1941-1942

Wittering airfield taken early in the Second World War. The A1 road can be seen to the east of the airfield. © IWM (HU 91901)

As the war progressed, Stamford became the training ground for new recruits, forming No1. Training Depot Stamford whilst a short distance to the west a second station was established at Easton on the Hill, operating as No. 5 Training depot. These two sites operated only a stones throw apart but both totally independent of each other. Eventually with the formation of the Royal Air Force on April 1st 1918, Stamford would become RAF Wittering and Easton on the Hill – RAF Collyweston.

RAF Wittering had been born. It would go on to be one of the RAF’s most significant airfields operating in excess of 36 active flying squadrons. Some of these would be formed here, some disbanded and many pass through in transit to other sites around the country. The aircraft here would range from Royal Aircraft Factory Biplanes to Whirlwind HAR 10 Helicopters, Boulton Paul Defiants through Supermarine’s Spitfire to Hawker Hunters; Hawker Siddely Harriers, Vickers mighty Valiant and Handley Page’s ‘V’ bomber the Victor, would all operate from here during its long life.

Following cessation of the First World War, Wittering was placed under care and maintenance, looked after and cared for until 1926 when the Central Flying School moved in from their previous base at Upavon.

The post war years were turbulent times for the RAF, having not only to fight off Government cutbacks and spending caps, but the Government’s tendency to favour both the Navy and the Army in terms of a national defence force. Since the war’s end, over 23,000 officers, 21,000 cadets and 227,000 other ranks would be lost from the RAF’s service. The landing grounds that had been used to fight off Germany’s mighty Zeppelins, along with vast quantities of material and machinery, were disposed of at near give-away prices. The fact that any force  had been kept at all was down primarily to the determination and foresight of one Hugh Trenchard who would himself rise to the rank of  Marshal of the Royal Air Force in 1927.

As global tensions grew in the 1920s and British interests abroad were put at risk, a review was called for of Britain’s defence forces. The review concluded that some 52 squadrons would be needed to provide a sustainable and strong Home Defence Force that would not only be capable of holding back any force that should take desires on Britain, but could also respond adequately by taking the fight to the enemy.

So in the mid 1920s the RAF’s expansion began.  The first four Auxiliary Air Force squadrons were formed along with the first of the University Air Squadrons (UAS). A combined Air Force Cadet College and flying training school was established at Cranwell along with the Air Force Staff College at Andover, – the fledgling Royal Air Force was making its first proper steps in the right direction.

Further tensions in the 1930’s brought home the need to develop and increase the Air Force. The not so subtle build up across the channel with increasing tensions in Germany, meant that she was rapidly becoming a major threat. Now woefully under manned, the Government poured money and manpower into improving the stature of the Royal Air Force.

With design and engineering pioneering the way in long distance flight, speed and manoeuvrability, new models of aircraft were being designed. Monoplanes were the way forward and with Britain winning the Schneider Trophy for the final time, the way ahead was set for aircraft capable of incredible speeds and performance.

With war looming, Wittering was about to come into its own receiving its first operational squadrons both 23 Sqn and 213 Sqn in May 1938. By the end of the following year, Wittering would be designated Sector Station of 12 Group whose responsibilities stretched from the boundaries of London in the south, to the Welsh border in the west, Liverpool and Hull in the north and the entire eastern counties.  Wittering units would be responsible for a wedge through the middle of this sector running from the North Sea coast to Wales.

In that same year, Spitfire Is of 610 Sqn Auxiliary Air Force joined the recently arrived Blenheim IFs and Hurricane Is before they headed south to Biggin Hill in support the BEF’s evacuation from Dunkirk in May 1940.

Wittering was really too far north to be able to effectively participate in the either the Battle of Britain or the defence of London; fuel and journey times would have left her fighters at a disadvantage, so Wittering concentrated on both resting and reforming battle worn units from the south, and defending the industrial Midlands and the north.  Her units would become key in the night fighter role, protecting the eastern and North Sea routes from the Luftwaffe – a role in which her squadrons would learn and develop very quickly.

23 Squadron were key in this very role. Dispersing their Blenheims at Collyweston, they shared Wittering with Hurricanes of 32 and 229 sqn, Spitfires of 74 and 266 Sqn and Defiants detached from 264 Sqn. These fighter versions of the Blenheim benefited from the addition of a bolt-on underbelly gun-blister housing four .303 machine guns; but they lacked any technologically advanced radar or Airborne Intercept (AI) mechanisms and so relied heavily on visual identification, referred to in the ranks as ‘Eyeball Mark One’!

23 Squadron would fly a number of patrols from Wittering, intermixed with sections being detached to RAF Digby for night flying co-operation duties on a weekly rotation basis. Few of these night patrols proved to be fruitful however, and many enemy aircraft escaped simply because they could not be found in the dark skies.

To improve kill rates, carefully drawn up patrol lines were set up fanning outward from Wittering. Often, pilots would use distant searchlights as a guide to locating the enemy intruders, however, this had its dangers and some RAF crews were lost because they too found themselves illuminated in the dark night sky, only to become victim to the enemy or the over eager A-A crews below. One such incident occurred on the night of 18th June 1940 when Blenheim L1458 ‘YP-S’ crashed near RAF Sutton Bridge as a result of being shot down by a He111 from KG4 that it was attacking. In getting close to the Heinkel, the Blenheim was itself caught in the local searchlight and the Heinkel returned fire. The pilot Sergeant A.C. Close, died as a result of the crash whilst the air gunner, LAC L. R. Karasek bailed out at low-level and was taken to Sutton Bridge and treated for his injuries*1.

The autumn of 1940 saw further changes at Wittering. In August, 266 Squadron arrived using various models of Spitfire, whilst in September, 23 Squadron departed moving to RAF Ford. Then in came No. 1 Sqn, the oldest RAF squadron, with Hurricane MKIs. Battle hardened from the fall of France and a summer of fighting in the skies over Kent, they remained here until the end of the year before returning south in the defence of London once more.

It was around this time too that a detachment of Hurricanes from 151 Sqn would arrive from RAF Digby, a station Wittering worked very closely with. After a short period these were replaced by Defiant Is also participating in the night fighter role. One determined and perhaps aggressive pilot, Flt Lt Richard Payne Stevens DSO, DFC would bring an element of mythical mystery to the flight as the squadron moved through Hurricane IICs, Defiants IIs and onto Mosquito IIs before the now permanent squadron left for Colerne in April 1943.

Using nothing more than his remarkable night vision, he would become the greatest scoring night fight pilot during the Blitz, downing a total of 12 Luftwaffe bombers in his black Hurricane.

In November / December 1940, 25 squadron came in bringing with them the much improved, faster and better AI equipped Beaufighter IF. In addition, a single Beaufighter MKII was also deployed here purely for evaluation purposes. A rarer Merlin engined model, R2277, it was credited with the shooting down of  a Ju88 on the night of June 22nd 1941 when piloted by F.O. Michael Herrick and his radar operator F.O. Yeoman. It was later stuck off in June and remains the only Merlin powered model to enter the books of 25 Sqn*2.

AIRCRAFT OF THE ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BRISTOL TYPE 156 BEAUFIGHTER.

Similar to R2277, Beaufighter R2270 was the first Merlin powered prototype MK IIF, © IWM (MH 4560)

At the end of 1940 a new commander arrived, Group Captain Basil Embry, who disliked the Defiant as a night fighter and considered Wittering too poorly designed for a night fighter station. He set about devising a plan to join adjacent Collyweston and Wittering together to develop and create a single airfield with a new much longer hard runway to replace the grass ones used until now. The expansion was completed in record time, Embry by-passing the more conventional channels of procedure.

In July 1941, the Beaufighters of 25 Sqn were replaced by the Douglas (Boston) Havoc Mk Is, an aircraft they took to Ballyhalbert (Ireland) in the following January.

The summer of 1941 would also see another new experimental model arrive. In conjunction with operations at RAF Hunsdon, the rather ill-fated Turbinlite project was put into operation here. Elements of the 1451 Flight were formed into a new squadron designated 1453 Air Target Illumination Flight, a concept that involved bolting an enormous 800,000 watt lamp to the front of the aircraft. As these modified Havocs were now much heavier, they could not carry any weapons and so relied upon an escorting Hurricane, Defiant or Spitfire to shoot down the enemy once located by the massive 950 ft wide beam of light. On October 22nd 1941, 151 squadron carried out its first official Turbinlite operation.

Fighter command decided to establish 10 dedicated Turbinlite squadrons in total, numbered 530 sqn- 539 sqn, they all became operational on either the 2nd or 8th of September 1942. On the 2nd, 532 was formed at Wittering using a combination of 1453 Flight and Hurricanes from both 486 Squadron and various Operational Training Units (OTU). The rather poor performance and low success rate however, meant that all these units were disbanded in one fell swoop on January 25th 1943*3.

It was part way though these operations (April 1942) that 151, released from their restrictive Turbinlite operations, replaced their Defiant IIs with the new ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito NFII. Only the second squadron to use them, they were to prove a formidable weapons platform and a deadly night fighter. The night skies were now a prime hunting ground and partly as a result of the Mosquito successes, the number of Luftwaffe intrusions began to reduce.

The turn of 1942/3 wold see further changes at Wittering with many short stays by 118, 288 (on Detachment), 349, 141, 91 and 438 Sqn taking Wittering through the new year. 151 remained until April moving off to Colerne and new model Mosquitoes, 141 who replaced them brought more Beaufighters in the form of VIFs. With increased engine power, more fuel and a capacity for increased bomb loads, the VIFs had modified noses to accommodate the new AI radar. Now the hunters were taking the war to Germany and intruder missions began to take place.

During this time Wittering was also home to No 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight, utilising the former RAF Collyweston site which evaluated captured enemy aircraft. A remarkable unit they flew captured aircraft around the many bases of the RAF and USAAF for crews to examine.

As the war drew to a close, sorties began to get fewer and fewer, and operational flying at Wittering would all but stop. Other than the P-38s and latterly P-51s of the USAAF 55th Fighter squadron –  who had been sharing Wittering with their RAF counterparts – Wittering became operationally quiet.

Eventually the war ended and various units used Wittering for training and experimental work. Post war 1946, 23 Squadron was reformed here from the ashes of 219 Sqn, taking their Mosquito NF30 to Lubeck almost immediately. A range of squadrons using various piston-engined aircraft passed through Wittering and two reception centres were set up to receive incoming POWs from the continent. By the end of 1948 all aircraft had left , and it returned to its roots once more becoming the home of No. 1 Initial Training School, Flying Training Command.

In the early 1950s, Wittering was placed under care and maintenance whilst upgrading work was carried out to its runways. During August 1953 both Lincoln bombers and Canberras (B.2, B.6, PR7) would operate overseas from here – these included detachments at the infamous Christmas Island.

Further Canberras of both 76 and 40 Squadron would fly from Wittering and in 1955 Wittering entered the atomic age with the arrival of the Vickers Valiant. Operations using conventional bombs were seen during the Suez crisis in 1956, when Valiants from No 138 Sqn flew 24 missions against targets in Egypt. Two other squadrons would fly the enormous but less favoured ‘V’ bomber: 49 and 7 squadrons, and it would be 49 Squadron who would take Britain forward as a nuclear nation when in 1956 a Valiant B.1 dropped Atomic bombs on both the Maralinga Range (Central Australia) and in 1957 a total of 6 Hydrogen bombs over Malden Island. During this time the aircraft were operating as detachments from Wittering, again on Christmas Island in the Pacific.

RAF VALIANTS FOR CHRISTMAS ISLAND TESTS

Vickers Valiant bomber crews of No. 49 Squadron RAF about to leave RAF Wittering for Christmas Island in the Pacific to take part in Britain’s nuclear tests, March 1957. © IWM (C(AM) 2466)

With no decrease in the perceived threat from the Warsaw Pact, the  ‘V’ bomber force would continue from Wittering for a few more years . The Valiant being replaced by the Victor B.2 and later B.2Rs of 139 and 100 Squadron, who had themselves been disbanded in September 1959 to reform at Wittering in May 1962.

In December and September 1968 respectively both these squadrons were disbanded and Wittering would then enter the dawn of vertical take off and landing. A short stay by Westland Whirlwinds HAR.10s of 230 Squadron led to the arrival of probably one of the most famous aircraft in aviation – the Harrier.

In August / July 1969 No. 1 Squadron returned to Wittering, its first time since the 1940s. Wittering became famous as ‘The Home of the Harrier’ and its fame would spread far and wide. With combat success most famously in the Falklands campaign and later the Balkans, Serbia and Kosovo, it would go on to serve Wittering well flying the GR.1, GR.3, GR.5 and GR.7  before moving away to Cottesmore and disbandment in December 2010.

The only other units to fly from here (less any training squadrons) were 4 Squadron flying both the Hunter FGA.9 and Harrier GR.1, 45 Squadron and 58 Squadron both flying the Hunter FGA.9 until they were disbanded on the same day 26th July 1976.

With that flying ceased at Wittering, but it remained an active military base operating a number of logistics units including a wide range of logistical support organisations. It is also home to the RAF’s bomb disposal squadron 5131 (BD) Sqn.

Further reorganisation of flying training units has been Wittering’s saviour. Today 100 years after its inception, and after a 6 year gap, flying has finally returned to Wittering, with the re-introduction of flying training units from No.3 and 6 Flying Training Schools, relocating here from both RAF Wyton and RAF Cranwell.

It would seem that Wittering has gone full circle again, not once, but twice, with its history rooted deep in the First World War, it has always been one of the RAF’s most important airfields. It has trained aircrews, defending these shores against the night terrors of two World Wars, and its crews have defended us against invading forces both here and in British Territories far off. Wittering forces have provided a strong and powerful peace-keeping force across the globe and even today it plays a major part in support, training and defence against those who wish to cause harm to both British sovereignty and democracy.

Note: As a fully active military site, much of Wittering is understandably hidden behind high fences and trees. When passing along the main A1, the main gate, and some buildings are visible, but stopping is not permitted. There are other places to the rear of the airfield but views are limited and little can be gained from using them. Permission should be sought before approaching the site.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Commonwealth War Graves Commission Website
– Battle of Britain London Monument website
– Traces of World War 2 Website

*2 Goodrum, A, “No Place for Chivalry” Grubb Street, 2005

*3 Mosquito W4087 flew as Turbinlite aircraft at Wittering February 5th 1943 – Source: Jefford, C.G.RAF Squadrons – 2nd Edition“, Airlife, 2001

MOD UK – Website

RAF Mattishall Airfield – Part of Trail 36

Following on from previous posts about Tydd St. Mary and Narborough airfields, RAF Mattishall was used by the same squadron, 51 (HD) Sqn to combat the threat from Zeppelin airships over the eastern counties of England. Now long gone and sadly relegated to the history books, we visit another airfield that played a role in the defeat of these once mighty airships.

RAF Mattishall.

Close by to RAF Swannington is the former RAF/RFC airfield at Mattishall, a few miles to the south beyond Attlebridge and its huge USAAF base. Closed at the end of the First World War, Mattishall saw detachments of 51 Squadron during the First World War. 51 (HD – Home Defence) Squadron had its headquarters at Thetford, with other flights at Harling Road, Narborough and Tydd St Mary. Flying a range of models, including both the BE2 and BE12 models; 51 (HD) Sqn had a mix spread across these airfields taking on the FE2b in both single and two variants later on in the war.

Intrusions by Zeppelins were more common in the earlier stages of the war, and the Home Defence Squadrons were created to counter-act them. Poor performance initially led to poor successes against these airships but that didn’t stop the determined young crews of the RFC and latterly the RAF. Toward the end of the war in 1918, home defence had been scaled back. However, as the newer Zeppelins, Gotha and Zeppelin-Staaken were able to fly at much higher altitudes, home defence squadrons needed a more able aircraft to combat them. In poured numbers of Sopwith Camels, SE5 and DH4s, but it was all a bit ‘too-little, too-late’ for the mighty airships that once ruled the skies.

During the last Zeppelin raid of the war on the night of August 5th/6th, 1918, RAF DH4s and Sopwith Camels attacked a small fleet of airships of the Norfolk coast. Inland the home defence squadrons were alerted and scrambled but the group of Zeppelins never made it in-land and flights from 51 Squadron at Mattishall were to play no part in their eventual downfall. Sadly Lt. Drummond from Mattishall flying in FE2b ‘A5732’ had to make a forced landing at Skegness, presumably as a result of engine trouble. This was to bring the night fighter operations to an end and with it the end of both 51 Sqn and RAF Mattishall.

The airfield was built close to Toll House Farm and had a range of facilities common to First World War airfields. A few wooden huts and two hangars were erected on-site and these proved to be the limit of accommodation on the 80 acre site. Post war, these were all sold off to local businesses and farms and the land returned to the farmer.

Now completely agricultural, Mattishall was once a hive of flying activity for a short period of the war, where flying bravely in open cockpits and without parachutes was common place. Sadly, Mattishall’s existence has disappeared into the history books and it is no more.

A short history of Mattishall along with some personal accounts can be found here.

Mattishall is can be found in Trail 36 – North Norfolk (Part 6).

RAF Tydd St. Mary

Just over the Cambridge border into the area known today as South Holland in Lincolnshire, is a field that was a small airfield during the First World War. Designed for home defence, it was used for attacking marauding Zeppelin airships approaching England across the North Sea. Larger towns and cities such as Norwich and Lincoln were prime targets, although most designated targets were much further north for example Manchester and Liverpool. To protect themselves, the crews of these mighty airships flew at night and at altitude, but navigation skills were poor and crews were generally unaware of their actual location. As a result, they rarely made it beyond the eastern counties or the Fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire. Because of poor weather and inexperienced pilots flying against these ships, some Zeppelins were able to wander – at the will of the weather – for as much as 10 hours unabated, randomly dropping bombs on what they considered to be ‘prime targets’.

A major turning point in this air-war, was the night of January 31st 1916 when nine Zeppelins of the German Navy attacked what they believed to be the industrial north-west. In fact they had barely got beyond the lower regions of Lincolnshire before dropping their ordnance. These attacks resulted in the loss of sixty-one people and whilst no British fighter was known to have engaged the airships, a number of Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C) crews were lost due to bad weather.

This disastrous night led to major changes in the Home Defence Squadrons of the R.F.C and R.N.A.S (Royal Naval Air Service), a process that would take a considerable time to complete.

As a part of these changes, an airfield was developed just south of the South Holland Drain a mile or so north of the village of Tydd St. Mary.

RAF Tydd St. Mary

Designed as a class 1 landing ground, Tydd St. Mary covered 125 acres by the time it closed in 1919. Development of the site began in mid 1916 following the re-organisation of the home defence force, but the first units didn’t arrive until the autumn of 1917. Not much more than a field, it did eventually have a small number of  Bessonneau*1 hangars and a small selection of crew huts.

The main unit to use Tydd St. Mary was 51 Home Defence (HD) Squadron whose main flight was based at Thetford. Formed from the nucleus of 9 Reserve Squadron (RS) on 15th May 1916, they moved to Hingham with flights dispersed at Harling Road, Norwich (‘A’ Flight), Mattishall (‘B’ Flight), ) and Narborough (‘C’ Flight). Initially they were equipped with the BE2c, which were soon replaced by the BE12 and subsequently the FE2b aircraft and then the BE2e in December 1916.

For a short while Zeppelin intruder flights were rare and this breather allowed for extensive practice flights by both 51 (HD) Sqn and their partner unit 38 (HD) Sqn who were based a little further to the north.

This lull in movements ceased in the autumn of 1916, when a large formation of Zeppelins gathered over the wash and headed for London. Badly hindered by fog and bad weather, they were eventually scattered across the southern and eastern regions of England where they dropped their bombs on remote farmland. This attack caused no damage to property, nor were the Zeppelins challenged in any major way – the marauders had little to worry about other than poor weather. Patrols by 51 and 38 (HD) Sqn’s were in vain, a pattern that was to continue for the large part, for the duration of the war.

At the end of 1916, Tydd St. Mary was re-designated a Night Landing Ground (NLG) following the renaming of R.F.C Home Defence Stations. 51 (HD) Squadron would soon fly from here in the defence of the eastern counties.

51(HD) Sqn aircraft hangar modified for agricultural use post war.*2

The Zeppelins main advantage over the British was the poor performance of the aircraft types the R.F.C used.  Whilst capable of operating at the 8,000 – 10,000 ft altitude used by the Zeppelins, many aircraft simply took too long to get there and thus could not reach the airship in time to attack it.

As performance improved along with the development of the explosive ammunition that would ignite the airship’s gases, the odds were a little more balanced and larger numbers of airships were being brought down over the eastern region. The tide was turning and pilots of 51 (HD) Sqn were playing a large part in this.

In the early part of 1917  cuts to the Home Defence units were announced based on the increasing gains made by units of the Norfolk / Cambridge / Lincoln squadrons. But the Germans had not given up yet. Reductions in weight enabled new Zeppelins to reach greater altitudes. Now capable of 16,000 – 20,000 feet, few British defences could reach them.

As the tide was turning in France, attacks became fewer and fewer. These high altitude flyers were more at the mercy of the bitter cold and poor weather than defending aircraft.

In August 1917 51 (HD) Sqn moved their headquarters to Marham, and ‘A’ Flight arrived at Tydd St. Mary and 51 (HD) Sqn began replacing their BE2e aircraft with the Martinsyde G.100 ‘Elephants’ – so-called because of their size and poor manoeuvrability.

A large contingent of airships gathered once more on the night of October 19th 1917, requiring extensive sorties by 51 (HD) Sqn at Tydd St. Mary and her counterparts. Whilst a determined effort was made by the R.F.C crews, they had little or no impact, and the gathered airships made off only to be badly beaten by bad weather and anti-aircraft fire over France.

Further changes to R.F.C Squadron designations  in the latter parts of 1917/18, dropped the title ‘Home Defence’ and Tydd St. Mary became the base for 51 Sqn ‘A’ Flight in Eastern Command. Aircraft by now were primarily Royal Aircraft Factory FE2bs, although 51 Sqn were now replacing some of their ‘Elephants’ with BE12b variants which they kept until the autumn of that year. Further changes in February 1918 meant that ‘A’ Flight moved to Mattishall, whilst ‘B’ Flight took their place at Tydd St. Mary.

As the R.F.C turned into the R.A.F on April 1st 1918, Tydd St. Mary would once again become significant. On the night of April 12th 1918, Zeppelin L62 was sighted close by and aircraft took off to intercept. As it was dark at 22:00 the flare path was lit to assist the now R.A.F crews, which openly guided L62 directly onto the airfield. Gliding above the site, L62 dropped a small number of incendiary bombs onto the aerodrome in an attempt to damage or destroy aircraft on the ground. Fortunately the bombs fell well away from parked aircraft and caused no damage to either buildings or aircraft. Pursuit was made by Lt. F. Sergeant in FE2b ‘A5753’, but to no avail and he returned to base empty-handed. Other pilots also tried to catch L62, some crashing due to engine failure, but many simply weren’t able to catch-up with the intruder. Eventually L62 reached the coast and made a break for it across the sea under the protection of yet more bad weather.

By November 1918 the final FE2bs had been relinquished and for the remainder of the year and into May 1919, 51 Sqn operated Sopwith Camels. A move by ‘B’ Flight in May to Suttons Farm (RAF Hornchurch) not only signified the end of the Camels (replaced by Sopwith Snipes) but the end of 51 Squadron who were disbanded in June. This departure also meant the end of Tydd St. Mary and in November 1919 notice of closure was given and the site finally closed in January 1920.

At its height Tydd St. Mary covered an area of 125 acres, and contained two Home Defence flight sheds as single units (believed to measure 130 x 60 ft). These were utilised by local farmers and business and lasted for many years. Other buildings were also utilised, the last, believed to be the Flight Office, is thought to have been demolished as late as 2009.

Not a major player in the war and never to return to aviation, Tydd St. Mary is a notable site and perhaps when passing, a second thought for those who flew from here in defence of the Eastern counties, should be offered.

Tydd St. Mary forms part of Trail 37.

Sources and Further Reading

*1 Early Bessonneau hangars were constructed of wood covered in canvas. Various types were made and were designed to be erected by small trained groups of men. Later models replaced wood with metal and were more permanent.

*2 Photo on display at Thorpe camp, Woodhall Spa.

Goodrum, A. ‘No Place For Chivalry: RAF Night Fighters Defend the East of England Against the German Air Force in Two World Wars‘. 2005, Grub Street

The Great War Forum – website 

RAF Narborough – Norfolk’s first Airfield.

Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War – but it played such a major part, it should never be forgotten. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became the biggest First World War airfield and led the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force.

RAF Narborough

Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough was known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size but also its multi-national stature and its achievements in aviation history. Used by both the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) it would also have names that reflected both these fledgling services.

Designed to counteract the threat of the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, Narborough was initially used by the RNAS as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth. No crews were permanently stationed here, but ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in and await the call to arms should a raid take place over East Anglia.

The first recorded arrival was in August 1915; an event that would keep the site in use by the RNAS for the next ten months before being designated as surplus to requirements, and handed over to the RFC in June 1916.

Used as a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described as a “desolate God-forsaken place”*1 buildings needed to be erected for accommodation, training and maintenance. A total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. By the end of the war, some 1,000 personnel would be based at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.

As the First World War raged on the European continent, the use of aircraft was seen as a new way to monitor, kill and record enemy troop movements; it would develop into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. Training programmes were rushed into place, and Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered basic by today’s standards, recruits had to pass a series of tests before being sent to the France. Written examinations followed up by twenty hours solo flying, cross-country flights and two successful landings, were followed by flying for fifteen minutes at 8,000 feet and landing with a cut engine. These daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads awe-inspired by their antics.

Life was not always ‘fun’ though. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare. Some 15 graves lay in the local church  at Narborough, all young men who never made it through the training and on to the battle in France.

The occurrences of these accidents were so frequent, that one instructor, W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ cited spies as the cause of many ‘accidents’ – tampering with machines causing the deaths of the crews on board. Johns, himself having written of many machines, believed Americans with German sounding names were to blame for aircraft breaking up in mid-air or crashing at the bottom of loops. More likely, the fault lay with over exuberant or poorly trained recruits.

Narborough as a training station would operate a wide range of aircraft. The French designed Henry Farman F.20, a military reconnaissance trainer, would operate with 35 Squadron from June 1916 until October when they were replaced by the Armstrong Whitworth FK8; 35 Sqn moving to France with these aircraft in January 1917.

The first full squadron to be formed here was 59 Sqn on 21st June 1916. Born out of 35 Sqn, they would operate Avro’s 504K followed by the second French design, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn; named so because of the length of the skids designed to prevent recruits overturning the aircraft on landing. After these came the BE2c, BE12 and RE8s, before the squadron moved to St-Omer in February 1917.

It was during this year that 83 Squadron would be born out of 18 Reserve Squadron (RS) operating various aircraft in the training role. They arrived at Narborough during December that year with FE2bs before they themselves moved to St-Omer in March 1918.

As the war drew to a close, one further squadron was formed at Narborough; 121 Squadron on New Year’s Day 1918. Whilst originally formed to fly the DH9, they actually used a variety of aircraft before being moved to Fliton and eventual disbandment on 17th August 1918.

Sgt Pilots of No 121 Squadron, 1918. Chaundry (A/Flt), Ghennis (orderly), Turner (Exchange), Davis (C/Flt), Allerton (Post Master), Windspear (Orderly).*2

Three other units would pass through Narborough before it closed. Now part of the Royal Air Force, 56, 60 and 64 Sqns would all come here as cadres in February 1919. 64 Sqn disbanded here in the following year, whilst both 56 and 60 Sqn moved to Bircham Newton and onto disbandment.

The end of the war saw the closure of Narborough. But unlike its sister station RAF Marham a mile or so away, it would remain closed. The buildings were all sold off in what was considered to be one of the biggest auctions in Norfolk, with some of them going to local farmers, small industrial units, schools and the like. Some of these buildings still exist at various places around the local area today but many have long since succumbed to age and inevitable deterioration.

Narborough itself having no hard runways or perimeter tracks has long since gone. A small memorial has been erected by a local group aiming to promote and preserve the memory of Narborough, a memorial plaque also marks the fifteen graves of those who never made it to France; and the small Narborough Museum & Heritage Centre holds exhibits of 59 Squadron in the local church.

Significant not only in size, but in its history, Narborough has now been relegated to the history books. But with the dedication and determination of a few people the importance and historical significance of this site will hopefully continue to influence not only the aviators of tomorrow, but also the public of today.

The memorial to those who served at Narborough.

Sources, Links and Further Reading.

*1 letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk

*2 Photo appeared in ‘Let’s Talk‘ – ‘ High flyers of Narborough’ published 22nd October 2014.

C.G. Jefford, RAF Squadrons, Airlife Publishing limited, 2001

The Narborough History Society cane be visited through their website.

The Narborough Airfield Research Group tell the history of 59 Squadron at Narborough, this includes personal notes and details of the Narborough airfield.

Memorial Garden Opening 

Mixing my day job with my hobby is not usual but I felt this was more than worthy of a post.

For some time now I have been toying with the idea of a Memorial Garden at school tied in with the various topic work that we have been doing, which is linked to both the World War I and VE-day commemorations.

The idea really came to fruition in sort early last year when I approached the head of the school and put the idea to her. With enthusiasm the go ahead was given and the children were approached with the idea as an after school club. A small group volunteered to help and we began planning.

On June 18th 2015 the plan finally came together.

The Memorial at the Centre of the Garden.

As people arrived they were greeted with refreshments and displays of work, photos of family members along with artefacts gathered or brought in by friends and parents. My good friend Kevin Fleckner brought four original uniform and bits from a crashed B-17 for us to show.

At 17:15 two RAF Tornado jets from RAF Marham flew overhead. The first low and slow, the second 15 seconds behind, higher and much faster with her wings swept. Over the school, she banked and the crowd waved. The event had opened.

The head then read a short introduction and it was my turn. I have to tell you that public speaking is not my forte and whilst I had been a little nervous I stood at the podium and the nerves vanished. My speech went thus:

June 18th 2015 is a special day. Not just because we’re opening this beautiful space, but for several iconic reasons. 200 years ago today the British and French forces were locked in arms at the Battle of Waterloo. 75 years ago today Winston Churchill made his famous “this was their finest hour” speech. Two dates that will go down in history as both important and momentous.

But these ae not the only significant dates in history.

100 years ago last year in 1914 young men in their thousands signed up with excitement for what they thought would be the war to end all wars. However, the war they thought would be over by Christmas went on for four long years. In the killing fields of Flanders, young men, many barely older than 16 or 17 were slaughtered in their thousands, living in mud and rat infested trenches very few were to survive. If not killed by the constant shelling, sniper fire or the slow march through no man’s land, many would suffer shell shock, a brutal psychological illness that would eat away at the very heart and soul of the young men. Eventually, in 1918 the First World War ended, the guns fell silent and Europe could finally begin rebuilding once more.

Sadly man’s inhumanity to man was to raise its ugly head again. In 1939, Europe was plunged once more into war with the German invasion of Poland. As The mighty Nazi war machine blitzkrieged its way across Europe, the British Armed Forces once more fought bravely in the name of freedom and democracy.

From the beaches of Dunkirk to the defence of Britain in the skies over Kent, the landing grounds of Normandy, to the battles in the Ardennes, Arnhem, over the Rhine and eventually the battle for Berlin itself, the brutality of war would once more be seen again.

The civilian population of Europe was to suffer greatly too. The blitz of our cities and the bombing of European targets that killed thousands upon thousands as bombs rained down from the sky. The concentration camps, death camps and prisoners of war camps saw a brutality on a scale that was and still is, incomprehensible.

From the hot deserts of Africa through the warm seas of the Mediterranean to the freezing conditions of the Arctic convoys, young men would bravely fight without question many paying the ultimate and final sacrifice.

Eventually, on 8th May 1945, the war in Europe finally ended and Peace reigned once more. However, the killing went on in the Far East. On the Pacific Islands of Okinawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal, The fighting continued in some of the most brutal conditions known to man. Eventually on August 15th 1945. UK time, following the Americans dropping the world’s most devastating and horrific bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war was declared finally over. The world has now entered the atomic age and six years of war had left it scars across Europe, the Middle East, The Far East, in the waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and across both the northern and Southern Hemispheres. Across the world millions lay dead, injured, homeless or orphaned. In the words of our distinguished guests here today “There are no winners in war.”

If there is one thing that history can teach us, it is that man is unable to live at peace with his fellow-man. Whether it be disputes over territory, natural resources or religious ideologies, War has continued to be fought and young men and women have continued to die.

In post-World War 2, the world lived on a knife-edge; the Cuban missile crisis being the ultimate stand-off between the east and west. From Korea and Vietnam to the Falkland Islands, the Middle Eastern countries of Iraq and Afghanistan, Britain and her allies have continued to fight for peace and democracy something we here take very much for granted.

It is in the name of these young men and women that we have built this memorial garden, so that their memories and their sacrifice may live on in the hearts and minds of future generations. It is so that we can pay homage and remember the dedication, bravery and self-sacrifice that they have shown so that we may live today without fear and in freedom.

It is to these people that I say thank you. Thank you for willing to lay down your life so we may freely speak out against injustice. To those who never came home, who paid the ultimate sacrifice, may you forever rest in peace. Thank you

Next one of the children read what the garden meant to him. Un-nerved by the occasion, he told how his father passed on his grandfathers tales of the war, how it means he can enjoy the peace and tranquility and he made a remarkably moving speech from the heart.

We then had a young lady from the group read in full the Robert Lawrence Binyon poem ‘For the fallen’. Short gasps from some of the audience told me they didn’t realise where the Remembrance Day words came from as it appears in the middle of the poem. She too read fluently and without falter, quite an achievement. Both these children were only just 10/11 years old.

A blessing by the vicar led us into the last post and a two minutes silence for those who had paid the ultimate sacrifice. A number of visiting Vets saluted, the Air Training Cadets lowered the colours and all went silent. Not a sound bar the cool wind in the adjacent trees.

My Good Friends Baz and Helen, whom helped enormously, John and Tony the Veterans and Kevin, who brought a number of uniforms and bits for us to display.

After the reveille the colours were raised and the two veterans invited to open the memorial officially. One Tony, a Normandy D-day+1 vet and the other John, who fought from Africa against Rommel’s Tigers, through Italy up into the continent, stood either side. As they lifted the flag, John declared the garden open to applause from the gathered audience. The children then sang unaccompanied Vera Lynn’s “We’ll meet again”; many from the audience joined in. The event closed and photos were taken around the memorial.

I estimated around 150 people, which for a small school of 68 children is remarkable. We had veterans from Cambridge a good hour and half away,  visitors from Northampton another similar distance and a large number of folk from the village turn up.

The seating before people started to arrive. There were many more standing, being a small school. we simply didn’t have enough chairs!

The feedback from visitors was superb and everyone was buzzing.

A real team effort, the long evenings, the hard work and recent battle against moles had all been worth while.

We had texts and emails from those who were there praising the efforts. It all worked out far better than even I had envisaged.

We shall miss it. We had great fun, even the odd beer or two, but it has been a real bonding exercise, we have become a little ‘family’ and are really proud of our achievements.

I passed on the good wishes to the children whom I think are quite overwhelmed themselves. They did a fantastic job and were superb role models for others to follow.

The Garden as it is today. We shall seed the outside, and continue the fight with the moles. An area for relaxation and thought.

We shall continue to nurture and maintain the Garden and watch it grow. The children use it already and do enjoy it. The rose in the crown were the poppies. Made out of clay, they are all handmade by the children mounted on metal rods and bunched in groups of 3 or 4. They do look superb.

There were small stumbling blocks along the way, and these caused delays but none so great we couldn’t deal with them. All in all it went beautifully, far, far better than I ever imagined and the finished product, I hope you’ll agree, is stunning.

An article appeared in the paper on the following day, Saturday here’s a link.