Very few wartime Lancasters ever saw the inside of a hangar. They lived outside, on big windswept bare concrete aprons. The aprons were ‘dispersed’ to limit the damage from enemy attack or accidental explosion (such as the one that killed three airmen and destroyed seven Lancasters at East Kirkby in April 1945), so they were known as ‘dispersals’, scattered all around an airfield.
For me, these dispersals are perhaps the most evocative parts of an old aerodrome. It was here that the bombers were prepared for operations – bombed up, fuelled up, tweaked and repaired – and boarded by their crews.
For more than 55,000 of the aircrew of Bomber Command, a dispersal was also where they stood their last upon friendly soil.
In April 2009 I spent three weeks on the Bomber Command trail, travelling around Lincolnshire. One of the places that I visited was what used to be RAF Bardney, a few miles east of Lincoln. Jack had been stationed at Bardney with 9 Squadron for a brief period in November 1943. My guide was Roger Audis of the 9 Squadron Association. Roger had with him a wartime map of the airfield, and together as we drove down the remains of the perimeter track we worked out where we calculated the ‘A Flight’ dispersals had been when Jack was on base. Though he never flew operationally from Bardney, Jack’s logbook records a number of training flights in Lancasters that would have been parked here.
I got out of Roger’s Landrover near the spot, while he went to turn the vehicle around. For a moment, I was all alone.
Today, very little remains of the actual dispersal. The concrete has mostly been ploughed up and crops now sway in the breeze where Lancasters once sat. But from the air the outline can still be made out as a slightly lighter patch in the wheat, caused by the oils and other fluids which would have been dropped while the airfield was an active bomber base. And there is something else present too, a feeling I couldn’t quite explain.
Jack was at Bardney for less than a month, but somehow I felt closer to him and his crew here than I ever had before. I knew that here was a place where they had climbed down from the crew trucks, looking up at the great hulking bomber. Here they walked around the aeroplane, checking that all was in order for a flight. Here they clambered up a small ladder and crawled into the depths of the fuselage. Here they started the engines and taxied off. The site has long been abandoned and is in considerable disrepair, but it was not difficult to imagine it as it might have been like when Jack and his crew were here. It felt to me like they left reminders of themselves here, waiting for me to find six and a half decades later.
I’m for all intents and purposes a fairly practical type of person so I am not going to claim that it was ghosts or anything supernatural. But there was a ‘feeling’ present at Bardney that I can’t altogether explain.
Most of that was stirred up, I think, by the dispersal, and by the knowledge of what took place there and on hundreds more just like it.
(c) 2010 Adam Purcell