Sunday 16 June 2013

RAF Wickenby.

I don't remember how old I was when my dad took me to Wickenby aerodrome, perhaps 8 or 9 (early 1990's).
He had booked a flight to take him over the Bardney lime woods, to take some aerial photos for Butterfly Conservation. I think the idea was I was going to go with him in the little aircraft, however when we got to Wickenby the aircraft was only a two seater and so I wasn't allowed to fly, I remember them saying I could have sat in the back, but it would have been very bumpy (I guess this was before health and safety ha-ha).
I'd been up in a light aircraft a year or so earlier on a pleasure flight out of Skegness Aerodrome and I was really disappointed not to be able to fly again.

Me and Polar Bear, waiting for out flight at Skegness.
Skegness aerodrome.

So instead I spent two hours sat on a chair just inside the door in the control tower. I will always remember the nice lady who gave me a packet of salt and vinegar crisps and a plastic cup of orange squash.
My dad said we'd try again but sadly he died in 1994 and I never got to fly with him.

In 2012 my mum and I went to our first Wings and Wheels event at Wickenby. We'd accidentally stumbled across the event a couple of years before and kept saying we'd go and finally we did and we weren't disappointed. It was a very enjoyable little air show and as we left we both agreed we'd be back next year.

2013's show was equally enjoyable. All the acts were excellent!! It still takes my breath away watching aerobatic pilots and each one brings something new to their display.

Lincoln Cathedral just visible in the back ground.

This year we were also treated to a practice display by the only flying Vulcan Bomber in the world, XH558. I've been a member to the Vulcan to the sky club since before first flight in 2007, and before that I've had the pleasure of seeing her when she was still with the RAF, so it's always special to see her fly.

We will go again in 2014! :)

A very brief history.
The first Aircraft began to arrive at RAF Wickenby in September 1942, 12 Squadron Wellingtons.
And in November of that year, the Squadron received it's fist Lancaster Bombers.
In November 1943 a second squadron formed, 626 Squadron.
Wickenby closed in 1945 but remained under RAF ownership till 1956.

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Wednesday 5 June 2013

RAF North Witham - D-Day and a brief History.

RAF North Witham. Runway 20.
"Just go behind a bush" my dad had said when I told him I needed the loo.
So I walked around some trees that had grown up in the middle of the runway and came face to face with a dozen deer, I could have reached out and stroked them they were that close. I'm not sure who was more surprised, me or them.

Site of a T2 Hangar.

I was 11 when I lost my dad to lung cancer, but a lot of my memories of him are of roaming through woods with him, the above story happened on a work party to Tyford Wood. He volunteered his time to Butterfly conservation, and was always working in some forest or meadow in Lincolnshire. It just so happened that two of these places in a previous life were airfields, RAF Bardney was one, now Austacre wood and Tyford Wood, also known as RAF North Witham.
Although it wasn't until much later that I researched the site and re visited in the summer of 2009.

When the site was finished in late 1942, it was originally earmarked for 5 Group Bomber Command, the large numbers of US forces present in the area meant it was then allocated to the 9th Air Force and RAF North Witham officially opened on the 15th of December 1943.

The Airfield became home to the 1st Tactical Air Depot. In March 1944 the Pathfinder school which had been located at near by RAF Cottesmore arrived. In the Spring of 1944 select paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions arrived at North Witham to train at the Pathfinders School.

At 21:54 on June 5th 1944 C-47 NO. 293098 of the 9th Army Air Force's Troop Carrier Group carrying 101st Airborne Division Pathfinders, took off from North Witham making history, they became the first D-day wave.

The next 3 aircraft followed five minutes later and so on until the last 3 took off at 22:20.
The next lot of C-47s carrying the 82nd Pathfinders took to the sky's for their mission ("Boston") beginning at 23:02.
Two C-47s flying at Duxford's 2013 Spring Air Show.

Captain Frank Lillyman of the 101st became the first man to be dropped over Normandy, although another Paratrooper form his stick beat him to the ground*Their job was to set up portable Aldis lights and radar/radio beacons for the main wave of paratroops to locate their own drop zones for the main airborne assault. "Albany" had "Mission Accomplished" at 00:46. 

All but one Aircraft returned to North Witham (or other airfields in England) safely, and the lost plane made a textbook ditch at sea with all on board rescued by the HMS Tartar with no injuries and returned to England. Although some of the C-47s were hit and damaged by small arms fire and flak.
339 paratroopers out of the 357* landed at the correct drop zones, minus the 18 that were in the C-47 that ditched at sea.

The 1st TAD and all associated USAAF units left North Witham in May 1945 although elements had begun to depart as early as December 1944. It passed back into the care of the RAF and after the 7th of May 1945, it became a bomb storage site, the runways and any available concrete piled high with munitions and casings.
Post war bomb loading ramp visible on the right of the photo (taken 2009).
Another shot of the ramps (taken 2009).

In October the RAF Regiment used it briefly for disbanding personnel returning from overseas and for training, ending on the 5th June 1946.
It was used for storage into the 1950's and by February 1960 all the land had been sold, with the forestry commission taking back the woodland they gave over in 1942.

RAF Folkingham.
In 1960/61 the runways once again echoed the sound of engines as the BRM Racing Team used it to test their cars when RAF Flokingham closed it's runways to them when it was brought back into service during the cold war as a Thor missile site.

Bomb store roads.
North East Perimeter track.

It seems like just another wood, when you pass by it going South or North on the A1. There's very little to be seen from the outside, but inside the trees it's a whole different story.

Light fittings
Light fittings

Light fittings

'Spectacle' dispersals.

All three runways are still there, although they are not as wide as when in service and the concrete after 71 years is showing its age, in places the trees are starting to reclaim it. The perimeter track survives, as do many of the 'Spectacle' dispersals.

Control Tower.

Hidden away in the trees stands the watch office/control tower.

I'm sat here writing this on the 5th of June 2013, contemplating a walk in the woods.


*Chorlton. Martyn, Paths in the wood, A complete History of RAF North Witham. 2003. Old Forge Publishing.

Otter. Patrick, Lincolnshire Airfields in the Second World War, 1996, Countryside Books.

All photos taken by myself in 2009 and 2012.
The above is a very brief history of the site. For a full history I highly recommend Martyn Chorlton's book, Paths in the wood, available from the link above.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Hidden gems of a housing estate.

The sun was shining as we pulled into a lay-by on the side of the busy A46 Lincoln bypass. Down a slight incline the first signs of what my best friend and I were looking for came into view against the encroaching trees.

Unlike my last blog about RAF Woodhall Spa, this time the difference was drastic, yes the trees were similar, the roots slowly breaking up the concrete, but RAF Skellingthorpe is now very much buried underneath tarmac and houses and the silence that impresses upon you in the Woods at RAF Woodhall Spa is replaced by the constant traffic noise here.

Our first destination were the Bomb stores to the North of where the main airfield site was.
The A46 Lincoln bypass was built in 1986, now splits the site in two, with both areas now dense woodland.

Armed with a copy of the airfield site plans, we set off to see how much was left.
I'll admit I didn't have high expectations from reading other peoples accounts of what remains there. Which was probably the right mindset to have, as it meant anything we did find was a bonus.

The concrete roads are very much visible, leading the way to the blast walls that surround the bomb store.
Inside the mounds of earth, breaking through the brambles and ferns are the ramps that would have been used to move the bombs themselves. The steel rings, now rusted, still protruding from the bricks. 

Again the similarities to RAF Woodhall Spa's bomb stores are obvious, although one drawback of being so close to a large housing estate is the amount of graffiti found at Skellingthorpe.
I can't help think what those brave men and women who served here would have thought about it.

After this we made our way around to the south of the airfield. Here there is now a lovely little nature reserve, as well as a reminder of the history of the site.

There is also a bigger reminder, tucked away near to a open grass area lies a circular concrete feature.

To the South East lies the main runway, to the North West, the perimeter track and linking the two this circle of concrete, on which the runway caravan would have sat.

Further north where the nature reserve meets the housing estate is one of the more well known features still standing. A bunker.

A short walk through the houses to the Community centre and we were at the stunning memorial to  50 and 61 Squadrons.

Behind it is a timeline written on a section of perimeter track, giving the history of the site and sadly the losses that took place.

There are 208 poppies painted onto the tarmac to represent the aircraft lost. With over 1980 Air and Ground crews lost from No.50 Squadron and No.61 Squadron combined.

After a moment of reflection and remembrance, we moved on to our next and final destination of the afternoon. Back to the A46, this time on the North bound side of the road. It was raining quite hard when we arrived and I wasn't sure if we would be able to go very far, but it soon stopped and once again we found the concrete roads that 70 years ago would have been busy with men and women preparing the loads for that nights ops.

There is still a lot of evidence of the massive blast walls, less so the buildings that they would have surrounded, almost the opposite of RAF Woodhall where the buildings are pretty much as they were left in 1945 but many of the earth walls have been levelled in order to plant trees.

Incendiary and Pyro stores at RAF Skellingthorpe.

Here you can see the massive blast walls.

Sadly the buildings inside are now mostly ruins but to get an idea of what they would have looked like we have to take a brief de tour to RAF Woodhall Spa.
The next three photos are all from Woodhall.

RAF Skellingthorpe

A comparison of the same building types at Skellingthorpe and Woodhall.

RAF Woodhall

The sun was trying to break through the rain clouds as we left the woods to look for the other bomb stores to the north of the site. The concrete roads are visible on a satellite map of the area.

Above are the bomb ramps and the photo to the left the roads that would have carried the trucks laden with munitions.

It had started to spit with rain again as we made our way back towards the noise of the busy A46.
I had been following my plans in order to try and locate certain features and one that I was interested to find was listed as a 'Latrine'. It didn't take much to find the solid concrete foundations of the small rectangular building hidden under moss and dead leaves.
I'm not sure why this concrete corner made me so excited, but I count this as my favourite find of the day.

Last but by no means least of our walk around these unassuming woods were these even bigger blast walls.

 Listed as building 12 on the plans, it is a component store.

With the exception of the small bit of peri track behind the community centre and a tiny bit of runway near to one of the schools which I didn't visit, there is very little to indicate what was once below the streets and houses.
Of course there are other more obvious signs, the memorial stands on the main road through the estate, and a second memorial can be found in the village of Skellingthorpe next to a small but informative heritage room.

Another small museum to 50 and 61 squadron is open daily inside the community centre.
There are many road names that are named after airbases not just in Lincolnshire, to which there are many, but the rest of the UK.
The Schools also have ties to the site. The Manser school is named after the brave Flying Officer Leslie Thomas Manser VC, of 50 Squadron who lost his life aged just 20 and one month, on the RAF's first 1000 bomber raid to Cologne, May 30th and 31st 1942.
His AVRO Manchester was hit by anti aircraft fire because when heavily laden with a full bomb load he could only get it to fly at 7000 feet, 11000 feet lower than it should have been. Because of this, a search light found his aircraft. More search lights on the ground followed his aircraft zeroing in the anti aircraft fire on their Manchester.
As bomb aimer Richard Barnes dropped the incendiary bombs on the target, one anti aircraft shell exploded inside the bomb bay ripping off the doors and the flak and shrapnel hitting the Manchester wounded the rear gunner B. Naylor.
The Manchester was badly damaged as Manser tried to shake off the search lights. The crew could have bailed out, but he was determined to return to RAF Skellingthorpe.
Unfortunately the aircraft was so badly damaged that it became too difficult to fly, and he knew it would be difficult to make it back to Skellingthorpe so Manser pointed the stricken aircraft in the direction of what would be the nearest allied airfield, RAF Manston in Kent. A fire had started in the central fuselage, the wings were covered with holes  and the port engine was over heating which lead to a fire that was eventually brought under control with the internal extinguisher, although it meant the Manchester was now flying on just one engine.
Co Pilot Sergeant L. Baveystock tackled the flames as Manser struggled to get the aircraft to 2000 feet. Flying on one engine the crippled Manchester made it as far as Holland, when the port engine exploded.
His Manchester was loosing height rapidly when Manser gave the order for his crew to parachute to safety whilst he stayed behind the controls, keeping the aircraft steady long enough for the last man, Baveystock, to bail out. Baveystock had returned to hand Manser a parachute but he replied to Baveystock "For God's sake, get out".
Baveystock followed orders and left the aircraft, it turned out to be a very short fall, not even long enough to deploy his parachute fully, into a Dutch dyke, where he watched the aircraft hit the ground and explode.
Leslie Manser's posthumous Victoria Cross was awarded to his widow in October 1943 at Buckingham palace "In recognition of most conspicuous bravery". He would have known how low his Manchester was flying when he gave the order to his crew to bail out, he would also have known that he would have had no chance of bailing out himself.
Thanks to his bravery 5 out of the 6 who bailed out were picked up by the resistance and were back in Britain by October. Only the Navigator, who twisted his ankle, was picked up by the Germans.

I always think of all those brave men who flew from RAF Skellingthorpe when ever I pass through the Birchwood estate which was built on the derelict site in 1970's. I hope that the people who live there also know of the history beneath their feet and spare even the briefest of thoughts to those who did not return.


Brammer, Derek, RAF Skellingthorpe. Lancaster Station at War 1941 - 1945. 2010, Tucann Books.

Otter. Patrick, Lincolnshire Airfields in the Second World War, 1996, Countryside Books.

Matthews, Rupert, Heroes of Bomber Command. Lincolnshire, 2005, Countryside Books.

All photos are taken by myself.