Archive for the 'Airfields' Category

Metheringham

There were an awful lot of wartime airfields in Lincolnshire: almost 50, in fact, with 16 of them within ten miles of Lincoln itself. Most of the old airfields have reverted to the farmland from whence they came. But even today, if you take a flight over the county you’ll see unmistakable signs of the classic ‘A’ shape of wartime runways, marked by a line of trees, remnants of concrete or even a bunch of chook sheds.

Metheringham is one of the airfields in the close ring around Lincoln, situated ten miles to the south east. It was a wartime ‘temporary’ airfield and was built in a hurry, with all the privations that implied, and it was only operational for about two and a half years. 106 Squadron was based there and, among other honours, the Victoria Cross awarded to Norman Jackson, for his crawl-onto-the-wing-and-put-a-fire-out heroics, was earned while on a sortie from Metheringham.

There’s a book called Lincolnshire Airfields in the Second World War by Patrick Otter (1996), that says 106 Squadron were the “first and only” occupants of RAF Metheringham. This isn’t quite correct. In June 1945 – after the war in Europe ended – 467 Squadron was moved to Metheringham from Waddington. Here they began training for the ‘Tiger Force’ that was to begin bombing Japan. When the atom bomb rendered that force redundant, in September 1945 the squadron was disbanded with a ceremony held at Metheringham (“Vale 467”, says the Operational Record Book. “And so to Civvy Street.”)

Consequently, Metheringham is of some significance for me. Several veterans I know or knew served there, like Harry Brown and Ern Cutts. And it was one of the places I visited while on my Bomber Command pilgrimage in 2009. I well remember clambering up into the ruins of the old control tower in the late afternoon, and looking out over the old airfield:

Metheringham Pano.jpg

I also visited the small but active visitors centre and museum, set in the old ration store for the station. I was recently contacted by Jacquie Marson, who is the centre’s volunteer Education Officer, asking me to spread the word, particularly for any 106 Squadron veterans or their families. The centre is a registered charity and an accredited museum, with “an ever growing archive and genuine wartime buildings which are of great interest to family members who visit us,” Jacquie says.

They’re a friendly and knowledgeable bunch, and can be contacted at www.metheringhamairfield.co.uk, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

 

(c) 2017 Adam Purcell

Hangars, Ansons and Aeradio: A visit to Nhill

Most of the 40 or so locations around Australia that hosted aircrew training units during WWII are still in use today as aerodromes, both civil and military. Some are better-known than others. Mascot, for example, where the current Sydney International Airport is located, was No. 4 Elementary Flying Training School. Essendon – No. 3 EFTS – was, for a time, Melbourne’s main airport and remains in use by corporate aircraft, emergency services, freighters and trainers. Amberley and Pearce are still RAAF bases. While some were abandoned post-war (Cressy in Victoria, for example, or Uranquinty in NSW), a large number of the others are in use in regional and metro areas of Australia. Forest Hill – No. 2 Service Flying Training School – became Wagga Wagga Airport, now a reasonably busy training, maintenance and RPT hub for regional airline Rex. Many navigators trained at No. 1 Air Navigation School in Parkes, NSW, which remains active as a regional airport. And about five years ago I landed my last aeroplane, appropriately enough a Tiger Moth, on the grass runway at Camden, outside Sydney, which hosted for a time the RAAF’s Central Flying School where flying instructors were taught their trade.

Jack Purcell trained at four airfields in Australia, and all remain active. After he was scrubbed from pilot training at 8 EFTS, Narranderra (which today receives multiple scheduled air services each day to and from Sydney), he re-mustered and began his navigator training at No. 2 Air Observers’ School, Mount Gambier (hosting air services to Adelaide and Melbourne). Then he was posted to 2 Bombing and Air Gunnery School at Port Pirie, South Australia (a regional town on the eastern side of the Spencer Gulf). And finally, before being awarded the half-wing that denoted a qualified navigator in July 1942, he spent almost a month at No. 2 Air Navigation School, just outside the western Victorian wheatbelt town of Nhill, on the highway half-way between Adelaide and Melbourne.

Rachel and I happened to spend a night camped in the caravan park at Nhill on the way home from a holiday to Kangaroo Island late last year. Knowing that the name crops up in Jack’s logbook, I thought we might be able to have a quick look at the airfield to see if we could find interesting remnants of its wartime history. I was completely unprepared for what we actually found.

The first sign that something good is going on at Nhill was, quite literally, just that: a new-looking brown road sign. It was pointing, it said, to the “Historic RAAF Base”. Excellent, I thought, we’ll follow that in the morning. We arrived at the caravan park where a westerly wind was howling as we set up the tent. The roar of trucks passing on the highway was almost drowned out by the squawking and screaming of hundreds of white and pink corellas as they wheeled and soared and swung overhead.

Walking around the town looking for somewhere to have breakfast the next morning, we found a display in an otherwise empty shop window for the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre. I rang the telephone number and was put on to a lady named Joan Bennett, who is the Secretary of the group. She readily agreed to open up the hangar at the aerodrome for us to visit.

And so an hour later after breakfast in a local café, that’s exactly where we headed. Unexpectedly, and despite the almost constant truck traffic, Nhill is a rather pretty little town. Heritage buildings line the main street and a long park, with bandstand and war memorials, sits between the two carriageways as the highway passes through the town itself.

The smaller of the two memorials looked, to me, to be quite new. And so it proved, being a memorial set up by the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre in 2011:RAAF Nhill memorial in the town The northern end of the town is dominated by the concrete silos of the former Noske Flour Mills. When it was built in 1919 this was apparently the largest concrete silo in Australia. No doubt it was a significant landmark for trainee navigators during wartime. About two kilometres northwest of the town is the airfield.

In 1938 an Aeradio station began operating at Nhill. This was part of a national network of air/ground communications stations set up to give comms and navigation support to civil aircraft flying around Australia. It was, in effect, the forerunner of the Flight Service network which eventually developed into the enroute air traffic control system we now use. The first building we passed, right next to the road along the western boundary of the aerodrome, is the former Aeradio site. It looks to be in some disrepair but out of the seventeen original sites around the country this is, it seems, the most original and the best preserved, and so moves are afoot, in cooperation with the Civil Aviation Heritage Society based at Essendon Airport here in Melbourne, to restore it and turn it into part of the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre.

There are two hangars at Nhill Airport. One is the last of five Bellman hangars built at Nhill during the war. It currently hosts the Wimmera Aero Club: The Bellman Hangar at Nhill Airfield; now the home of the Wimmera Aeroclub The other is virtually brand new. It was built in 2013 and officially opened in May 2014. Designed and built at cost by Ahrens, a steel and industrial supply company based in Adelaide but which owns a local Nhill business, the hangar now houses the beginnings of an air museum.

Joan was already there when we pulled up in front of the hangar. We paid our $5 each for admission (genuine 1972 prices!) and Joan showed us around. Pride of place in the middle is this: The Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre Avro Anson, undergoing restoration in their brand new hangar It’s the bones of an Avro Anson, serial W2364 to be specific. While this particular airframe was not itself based at Nhill during the war, most of the flying that took place from the airfield would have been in aircraft very much like it. Jack Purcell’s logbook records a total of 25 hours of flying from Nhill by both day and night, over seven flights in July and August 1942. All of it was in Ansons. Page from RW Purcell's logbook In recognition of Nhill’s association with Ansons, then, this one is undergoing a slow but steady and beautifully detailed restoration. Joan says the aim is to get it to taxying status and they have already got one of the engines running, evidenced by the drip trays catching oil from said engine. Over along one side of the hangar is the workshop area, where members of the group have been cleaning, repairing or fabricating components as they go. It’s taken five years and over 2,000 man-hours of work to get it to this stage and while there’s undoubtedly a very long way to go, the day in February 2014 when the work-in-progress was towed from Anson Restoration Project Manager Mick Kingwell’s shed to the new hangar was a significant one for the group and for Nhill – the first time an Anson had been on the airfield in some sixty years.

While none of the original wooden parts have been suitable for re-use on the restoration, they have been used as templates for copies to be made and the level of detail already in place inside the fuselage is quite stunning: Inside the Nhill Anson Joan emphasised the spirit of cooperation and assistance that has come out of the aviation heritage community around Australia. A good illustration of this is the pair of Link Trainers which sit in a corner of the hangar. They both come from the same South Australian-based family. One is more complete than the other. This has been loaned to the Nhill group to restore to operating status and then to use as a template while they work on restoring the second one. Once restoration is complete the first trainer is to go back to its owners – but the second is to be retained in Nhill.

Also around the airfield itself is a Heritage Trail, with sealed pathways and signage, that takes the visitor around and explains the significance of the remains of the airfield’s time as a RAAF base. While we didn’t have time to walk around it ourselves it’s another sign that good things are afoot at Nhill. There are even plans to hold a fundraising airshow at the airfield on October 10 this year (stay tuned for details – I intend to be there if I can).

It’s wonderful to see such a passionate group at work in Nhill. Their plans are ambitious but the work to date is, really, most impressive. They appear to have the support of the local council and the town itself and they are breathing new life into what would otherwise be just another quiet, dying little country airfield in a quiet, dying little country town. We certainly need more of that sort of enthusiasm, and that there is a direct connection to Jack Purcell’s wartime story is, for me, an added bonus. Joan and Adam in front of the Nhill Anson You can find the Nhill Aviation Heritage Centre’s website at http://nhillaviationheritagecentre.com.au/. Visits to the Ahrens Hangar can be arranged by phoning Joan Bennett on 0438 265 579. Tell her I sent you! © 2015 Adam Purcell

Temora

About 330km west of Sydney, in country New South Wales, lies a small town called Temora. It’s perhaps most famous these days for the superb aviation museum which has taken up considerable real estate at the local airport since its formation in 1999. Home to a significant collection of airworthy warbirds, most owned by Museum President and Founder David Lowy, the Museum is by far the best in Australia in terms of its airworthy fleet, and is perhaps the closest that we come to something like the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden in the UK. It puts on flying days every six weeks or so to display the aeroplanes in the element in which they belong – the air.

It was to one of these flying weekends that I went in September 2009, in the back seat of a Piper Cherokee flown by a friend of mine.

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It was a great flight over in beautiful conditions, and I distinctly remember the chaos as we arrived in the circuit at Temora before the flying display started, just one of many light aeroplanes doing the same thing. There was so much traffic that we had to go around twice before we managed to land and at one stage we were on final for the runway and there were no fewer than four other aircraft in front of us. But once on the ground, the flying display was exciting and punctual and the organisation was superb.

But as I was wandering around the airfield I noticed a familiar sight. The hangar that now hosts the Temora Aero Club looked remarkably similar to many of the old hangars at Camden, which was the airfield from which I was doing my own flying at the time. Could Temora have a similar wartime heritage?

It could indeed. Temora was the site of 10 EFTS, the longest-running Elementary Flying Training School in the Royal Australian Air Force. Close by the Aero Club (which, yes, is in a Bellman Hangar, the sole remaining example out of six which were originally there) is this simple memorial:

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A sign near the entrance to the airfield records that upwards of 10,000 personnel passed through 10 EFTS during the war years, and that at its peak it had some 97 Tiger Moths on strength for pilot training. Four satellite fields scattered around the countryside were used when the congestion at the main airfield became too much. Tom Moore, who would eventually fly with 458 Squadron, said  that the satellite fields were just that – fields – requisitioned off farmers with no buildings or facilities other than a bench from which the instructors could watch their students flying around.

Like any EFTS, however, there were accidents during training at Temora. Sometimes they were almost comical – like one chap who “landed 20 feet off the ground and the plane just come down like that and the wings folded down around him,” as remembered by a 61 Squadron pilot named John Boland – but sadly, sometimes they were fatal. There are 13 of the simple white headstones denoting Commonwealth War Graves in Temora General Cemetery.

One of my favourite stories about Temora, however, comes from Lionel Rackley, eventually a 630 Squadron pilot, and doesn’t concern flying at all. He describes it at the Australians at War Film Archive:

Air crew trainees went into a place and they were there for a month, six weeks, and went out again. But the ground staff people were there, so the town belonged to them, really. In those days, we used to wear a forage cap, and air crew trainees wore a little white flash on the front of the forage cap, that denoted us as air crew trainees. And these ground staff, they had set word around Temora that out at the aerodrome there, there’s a venereal hospital. And all those fellows around town with white flashes on their caps, they’re the patients…

It’s not too far from the airfield into Temora itself, and after the flying display finished that September afternoon in 2009 my mate and I meandered in (without a white flash in our caps) to find a pub for dinner. We stumbled the two miles or so back to the airfield a few hours later, much as I imagined countless trainee aircrew had done, almost seventy years before.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Point Cook and the RAAF Museum

A little over twenty kilometres south west of Melbourne city, on the shores of Port Philip Bay, lies the birthplace of military aviation in Australia. RAAF Williams Base Point Cook is where land was purchased in 1912 for the newly-formed Australian Flying Corps, and where nine years later that fledgling organisation became the Royal Australian Air Force. In fact, until Richmond and Laverton were built in 1925 Point Cook remained the only military air base in Australia. Point Cook played an important role in training of pilots and officers and many other Air Force trades and disciplines over the next seventy or so years, and while military flight training ceased in 1992 the airfield remains operational with the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology operating a flying school from it (though little military traffic uses it these days and the control tower has been empty for many years).
It is, therefore, a fitting location for the RAAF Museum. Housed in four Bellman hangars, the museum follows the story of Australia’s military aviation history – from the very first days of the Australian Flying Corps right through to current operations in the Middle East. There is a large collection of significant aircraft and artefacts and some intensive restoration work underway, including of a Mosquito which is the only known surviving airframe of that type with a WWII combat record.
Three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 1pm, one of the collection of airworthy aircraft will be parked in front of a purpose-built grandstand. An MC delivers a short introduction, then the pilot adds a few words and climbs in, fires up whatever old machine it is and takes off for a short 10-15 minute flying display. During the flight the radio calls from the aircraft are patched over the PA system. After landing, with the aircraft once again shut down in front of the grandstand, the floor is opened up for questions. The whole thing is carried out without fuss in about half an hour. It’s a great opportunity to see some flying action at close range and then have a chat with those responsible for flying and maintaining the aircraft. When I visited in May, the star of the show was a Harvard:

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Other days it might be a Tiger Moth, or a CT-4, or perhaps a Mustang. And it’s all done free of charge. The Museum reckons it’s the only place in the world where these sorts of aircraft are displayed regularly like this.
Point Cook was the site of No. 1 Service Flying Training School during the Second World War. As such an entire hangar is dedicated to training – with displays of some of the aircraft and devices used for training a very wide variety of Air Force personnel throughout the 20th Century and beyond. Most relevant to my interests (apart from a brief look at air traffic control) was a Tiger Moth, in the ubiquitous bright yellow colours typical of Elementary Flying Training Schools:

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There was also an intriguing item on exhibition in the WWII Heritage Gallery:

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It’s a map of Europe, with the operations carried out by a 460 Squadron crew member marked on it. I couldn’t find a name to go along with it but in the bottom right corner is a list of all 43 operations along with dates. They span two tours, the first between 12 March – 03 November 1943 and the second from 24 October 1944 – 22 April 1945. Whoever the unknown crew member was, he was extraordinarily lucky. The particularly deadly Battle of Berlin period fell in the time that he was (presumably) instructing between his tours of operations.

Point Cook is steeped in history. Suburbia is fast encroaching (its sister base, just up the road at Laverton, has already been sold off for housing) but for the moment it is still an active airfield. The Government has announced a planned redevelopment with an “ongoing commitment to maintain the base” as an operating military airfield and continuing to “recognise the significant heritage of the site” which is very encouraging. Much work appears to have been carried out already – there is an excellent (but very large – around 75mb) presentation of ‘before and after’ photos from the end of 2012 available here on the Defence website – but I found many buildings that still look unloved as I wandered around the Museum precinct.
The difficulty is the trade-off between maintaining the base as an active RAAF station and retaining the heritage fabric of the physical environment. Remaining an active military base gives Point Cook an economic reason for continued existence and makes it more likely that future governments will continue to consider it a useful part of the Air Force’s infrastructure. But with that comes the security and access restrictions that the modern military demands, which seriously reduces easy access for the public. Opening the base to the public as a heritage site will necessarily reduce its utility as a pure military facility, and Defence will naturally be reluctant to take the required funding from its already stretched budget.
At the very least, though, the recent work will see the most significant physical parts of Point Cook’s heritage survive for some decades to come.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Air Traffic Control, Bomber Command-style

Around the time that Jack Purcell and his crew were on active service with 467 Squadron (January – May 1944), Bomber Command was routinely sending forces numbering six or eight hundred aircraft on large-scale raids against German cities. Even the ‘smaller’ raids on French targets still involved a couple of hundred aircraft each. Landing everyone safely at their airfields after the operation, in the dark, with no lights or radar, and contending with fatigued aircrew, battle damage and the odd German intruder attack, required the development of some remarkably sophisticated and highly efficient systems, and thus laid the foundations for what we now know as air traffic control.

There were a number of local variations depending on which Group the airfield fell under, but the basic procedure was that incoming aircraft would call up the control tower as they approached their home airfield to identify themselves. Flying Control would respond with instructions to either land immediately if there was no-one in front of them, or to circle the airfield, stacked above earlier arrivals at 1,000’ intervals. As No. 1 was in the circuit at 1,000’ and preparing to land, No. 2 would be circling at 2,000’, No. 3 would be at 3,000’ and so on. No. 1 flew around the circuit, following the ‘Drem’ lights located around the airfield, and the pilot would report on the radio as he passed each position: ‘crosswind’ as he passed over the upwind end of the runway, perpendicular to it; ‘downwind’ as he passed the mid-point of the runway, flying parallel to it (which is also where he would begin a slow descent from 1,000’ to land), and ‘funnels’ as he made the final turn to line up with the runway, facing into wind. Then he would wait for the green light from the aerodrome controller (who was located in a caravan parked next to the landing end of the runway) before landing and taxying off the runway to dispersal. Meanwhile, No. 2 became No. 1 and would leave the stack. He would adjust his circuit spacing and speed to position himself one reporting position behind the aircraft in front. As each aircraft left the bottom of the stack, everyone else still circling above them could be stepped down a level until, in turn, they were at the bottom and next to land.

Arrival over base could be inside 10/10ths cloud. In this case, according to 49 Squadron veteran rear gunner Hugh McLeod, the navigator would use the ‘Gee’ navigation aid to home in to the airfield. He would be calling instructions to the pilot in much the same manner as the bomb aimer would while over the target: “Starboard a bit, Skipper… hold it there… should be coming into view now”. Hugh says it was accurate enough to take the aircraft all the way to ‘funnels’ – quite astounding accuracy for the time. In the event of an intruder alert (“this happened to me on three occasions,” Hugh said), an emergency call would come over the radio, lights everywhere would be turned off and the arriving bombers would all scatter until the all-clear sounded or they diverted to other ‘dromes.

It’s interesting to study how the ‘Quick Landing Scheme’ worked in practice on a typical operation. My interest was piqued by an entry in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, following a Berlin raid on 15/16 February 1944. Pilot Officer Clive Quartermaine, flying in Lancaster LM338, said this in his interrogation report:

Had to circle base for 40 minutes before landing. Quick Landing Scheme disappointing.

This was an intriguing comment, I thought, and warranted further investigation. Happily, the ORBs for both 463 and 467 Squadrons record landing times for each aircraft at Waddington. I plotted reported landing times in five-minute blocks, for all aircraft landing between midnight and 1 a.m. LM338 landed at 00.53 (in red). The resulting table looks like this:

Time Aircraft   Landing Times
0000-0004 0001 0001 0003 0004
0005-0009 0008
0010-0014 0010 0011 0012 0014
0015-0019 0015 0015 0015 0017 0019
0020-0024 0022 0023
0025-0029 0025 0029 0029
0030-0034 0032
0035-0039 0036 0039
0040-0044 0040 0041 0043
0045-0049 0045 0047 0048
0050-0054 0053
0055-0059 0056

During this hour, thirty aircraft landed at Waddington. The longest gap between arrivals is five minutes (it comes immediately before Quartermaine landed). Without a modern-day radar controller judging approach paths and in darkness, the odd ‘blow out’ of a few extra minutes in the landing sequence is quite understandable. Shorter intervals are far more common and, assuming the times recorded in the ORB are indeed accurate, there were an amazing three arrivals in a single minute at 00.15. Tellingly, this was about 40 minutes before Quartermaine landed, so was quite possibly about the time that LM338 arrived overhead – to find a large stack of aircraft already awaiting their turn to land.

In the next 40 minutes, as Quartermaine and his crew circled overhead the field, a total of 21 aircraft landed. At a rate better than one aircraft every two minutes, this is actually a reasonably efficient use of the runway given wartime conditions (blackout, no lights, no radar control, fatigued crews etc). There is insufficient evidence about the timing of when other aircraft arrived over the field, but there is a good chance that other captains faced similar waiting times.

So while P/O Quartermaine may well have felt a little hard-done-by having needed to wait for so long, it was a simple case of too many aircraft arriving at once and not enough runways for them to use. This basic cause of airborne delays is still a common occurrence in modern-day air traffic control. Nothing ever changes… someone still has to wait!


Descriptions of aerodrome control come from C07-014-123, The Trenches in the Sky by Dan Conway, and C07-050-023 Takeoff to Touchdown by Don Charlwood. Hugh’s recollections were related in a phone call in May 2013.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Flying around the bases

In the very back of my great uncle Jack’s wartime logbook is a list of places and dates. It records the places at which he served, from Air Observer School right through to the Squadron. Jack evidently wasn’t the world’s most fastidious record keeper because the list is missing some places that are shown on his service record, but it does list all of the airfields he was stationed at.

jacklog-postings copyThe last eight names on the list are in the UK. When I was over that side of the world in 2009 I hired a light aeroplane and a local instructor from Tatenhill Aviation and flew over four of them, plus a number of others.

Tatenhill was a satellite airfield for 27 Operational Training Unit, RAF Lichfield. As it turns out, Lichfield itself is not very far away. Just after we took off we turned left – and there it was, less than seven miles to the south.

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At first it took me a moment to recognise it as an airfield. Parts of a runway and a number of hangars are still extant, but on top of what used to be a runway is now a great big Tesco warehouse. The northern corner, with half a runway, some taxiways and a couple of blister hangars, is the best-preserved section of the old airfield, though now in considerable disrepair.

Morton Hall was not an airfield, though it is very close to the remains of RAF Swinderby. It became No. 5 Group Headquarters a few months later but it appears that it was a venue for lectures about security and significant physical training at the time that Jack was there (C07-014-067). It was a prison when I drove by in 2009 and is now an immigration detention centre, so no photos. On my flight however we did see Swinderby.

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I was quite pleased to discover what appeared to be a relatively well-preserved RAF airfield when I visited on the ground a day or so later – but just a few months later the whole site was flattened for development.

But enough of that. Onwards with the aerial tour through Jack’s logbook. Winthorpe was a Heavy Conversion Unit, where Jack and his crew got to grips with the Lancaster for the first time.

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One corner of the airfield is now the Newark Showgrounds, and across from those is the fantastic Newark Air Museum.  There’s very little remaining of the original airfield, and the runways, which were used for gliding until recently, are no longer fit for use. But at least one corner of the old airfield still has some sort of aviation activity taking place on it.

Bardney is only a few miles from Lincoln. From the air, the triangle of the runway layout is still visible, though most of the hard surface has been removed.

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The old airfield has reverted to the farmland it one was, with thousands of chickens now occupying sheds on what used to be the runways. Jack was only here for a few months serving on 9 Squadron, losing his pilot in a ‘second dickey trip before flying operationally himself. The crew did record some training flights from here however.

After losing their pilot Jack and (most of) his crew were posted to another Heavy Conversion Unit, this time at Syerston, where they joined up with Phil Smith. We skirted around Syerston on my flight but didn’t actually go over the top so I have no aerial photos of it – though I did visit the RAF Gliding squadron that now occupies the site on weekends.

The last unit in Jack’s logbook is of course 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington. This is where, on 10 May 1944, he and his crew climbed aboard B for Baker and took off in the direction of Lille on their final flight. Waddington remains an active RAF station and retains very little of its wartime ‘feel’, though remnants of the original triangle runway layout are still used as taxiways.

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There were a number of other airfields that we also flew over on this trip, with names like East Kirkby, Conningsby, Metheringham, Bottesford and Tollerton. What was perhaps most telling for me, used to the wide open spaces you get flying in Australia, was how close by everything is. I logged 1.5 hours for this trip, out and back, and we flew over at least ten separate wartime airfields that I could recognise, with a good few others nearby that I couldn’t identify. It’s not hard to imagine how crews could get lost and land at the wrong airfield, particularly during the wartime blackout, and the proximity of the bases would have considerably heightened the collision risk.

Most poignant, however, was at the most easterly point of our flight, near East Kirkby. From there, the coast is about fifteen miles away. That coast line was extraordinarily significant to the aircrew of Bomber Command. On the way out, it marked the end of friendly territory – beyond it was the enemy. And on the way home some hours later, it meant they were back among friends.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Bicester

Scattered across the fields of England are the remains of hundreds of former military aerodromes. Some have disappeared entirely, the runways excavated for hard fill and the buildings demolished. Some have been turned into business parks, showgrounds, residential estates and even prisons. Some have reverted back to agricultural land, with pig or chicken sheds where once were runways. A scant few are still operational airfields, civilian light aeroplanes replacing the bombers. And many more have simply been mothballed – still owned by the Ministry of Defence but all but abandoned, externally intact but uncared for, quietly decaying away to dust. One such airfield is RAF Bicester, and a group called Bomber Command Heritage  is determined to save it.

Bicester, at least according to English Heritage, “retains – better than any other aviation site in Britain – the layout and built fabric relating to both the first expansion period of the RAF and subsequent developments up to 1940”. While not an operational front-line Bomber Command station, Bicester was home to 13 Operational Training Unit, part of the great training pipeline which kept those front-line squadrons supplied with aircrew. The all-grass flying field is still used by gliders of the  Windrushers Gliding Club. Bomber Command Heritage sees an opportunity to preserve the site by turning the disused Technical Site into a significant museum.

On the face of it, it’s a fantastic idea. But it’s a large site (348 acres). Just purchasing the site from the MOD is expected to cost upwards of £2 million. There are also a large number of buildings on the site, some of which, the hangars in particular, are quite large. Many are in an advanced state of disrepair. Restoring the buildings is estimated to cost about £35 million, a lot of money for a volunteer organisation to come up with. And once they are restored, the costs involved in maintaining an active aerodrome and keeping the buildings in good repair are also not inconsiderable. It’s likely that gate takings alone from what would be, let’s face it, a niche market of Bomber Command enthusiasts would be insufficient to keep the museum open for long. There is always the possibility of lottery grants and other government support, but to rely on these as long-term funding appears less than sustainable.

So how could a site like Bicester be saved –with space for a significant museum on site – but still be a going concern in its own right? There needs to be something else other than just the museum to make the site commercially viable. ‘Developers’ have become a dirty word in today’s society with their ‘knock down and rebuild it bigger better and newer’ disregard for history. But development doesn’t have to be incompatible with heritage.

On the northern head at the entrance to Sydney Harbour lies the old Quarantine Station. It’s a magnificent site with many extremely significant buildings, used between 1832 and 1984 to quarantine passengers from arriving ships affected by infectious diseases. After its closure as an active facility the site passed into the management of the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service. NPWS did considerable work to the site to care for it (and conducted fantastic ghost tours, one of which I well remember going on in the mid 1990s) but they never had the funding required to ensure that the site was preserved properly. Things came to a head in 2002 when the 180-year-old hospital building burnt down, a fire thought to have been caused by an electrical fault. Shortly afterwards it was decided that government funding by itself was not enough to properly care for the site, and that private development was a possible solution. Unsurprisingly there was considerable public protest towards the idea, but – now that the site has indeed been leased to a private operator and has been reopened as a boutique accommodation, function and conference venue with a museum and guided tours – it’s actually turned out quite well. The commercial activities generate an income which supports the upkeep of the site, while being sympathetic to the heritage of the old station. The buildings are restored to their former glory. Even the old hospital that burnt down has been completely rebuilt, from scratch and using period methods, into a faithful and quite spectacular reproduction of the old building. Government funds alone would never have been sufficient to cover the work at the extraordinarily high standard required. Most importantly, the site retains the ‘feel’ of the old Quarantine Station – the work carried out has remained sympathetic to the original buildings and the activities that now take place there are compatible uses for them – and the public still has access to the site to be able to enjoy, appreciate and learn from it. The site is still alive.

I use the Quarantine Station simply as an example of what I think is a well-thought-out, sympathetic and viable use for a historical site. I’m not advocating that RAF Bicester is turned into a ‘boutique accommodation, function and conference centre’. But despite having all the best intentions, sentiment alone will not provide the cold hard cash that’s needed to acquire and restore a large site like a historic airfield. There needs to be some sort of income generating activities in place if the site is to remain viable, beyond just a museum. Imaginative and creative – and commercially viable – uses for significant historical sites are not necessarily incompatible with the idea of preserving the heritage value of them.

There need to be carefully thought-out controls in place to ensure that any development remains true to the heritage of the site. But developers are not necessarily the enemy, if they have the funding that will make the difference between the site falling further into disrepair, or it remaining in the long-term as an example of a Bomber Command airfield.

© 2012 Adam Purcell    

Lichfield

Among the small collection of photos that my family has belonging to Jack Purcell are two postcards from the English town of Lichfield. Both are unwritten and unsent. The only mark on either is a tiny cross in pen, at top right of this one:

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Jack was stationed at the nearby RAF Lichfield between 22 June and 9 September, 1943. The airfield – actually closer to the village of Fradley than to Lichfield itself – was the site of No 27 Operational Training Unit during the war.

The OTU stage of an airman’s training was where, in general, he first ‘crewed up’. The concept of the ‘crew’ is central to the Bomber Command legend – even transcending class boundaries in the RAF. Crews would, by the time they got onto a squadron, live together, play together, fight together and, all too often, die together. While officers and NCOs might have lived and messed separately, most crews socialised together when off-duty. In many cases airmen began strong friendships that would last them the rest of their lives.

But it took time for those uniquely close bonds to develop within the crews. The OTU was where it started and where the crews learnt to operate as an interdependent unit, but they were not there yet. As Don Charlwood wrote of his first flight at an OTU, in his superb book No Moon Tonight:

we were not a crew, we were a ‘plane load of bewildered individuals” (C07-035-023)

Consequently in many cases crews would not therefore come to regard their time on an OTU with any particular affection like they would their time on an operational squadron. The OTUs, it could be said, were the forgotten part of Bomber Command.

They were nevertheless an extremely important part of the Bomber Command machine. Many Australians passed through the gates of Lichfield. In the forecourt of Lichfield Cathedral is a memorial park bench which was paid for by Charlwood after the war. The plaque on it reads as follows:

“To the memory of the many hundreds of Australian airmen who trained at No. 27 Operational Training Unit Fradley during the Second World War. In Lichfield they found peace and friendship”

Years later Charlwood wrote a second, more thorough book of his time in Bomber Command called Journeys into Night:

“It always tantalized me when I gazed from the sergeant’s mess across the fields to the cathedral and thought of life going on in Lichfield, not as in peacetime to be sure, but at least with semblances of normality. Most of us were glad to escape [to] there” (C07-034-093)

While Lichfield will never be as famous as Waddington or Binbrook, it is clear that airmen like Charlwood understood its significance to the war effort and to the development of the crews of Bomber Command. It is also significant on a personal level for Jack Purcell, simply because of the existence of those two postcards.

Unlike the superb archive of letters and documents that I have been lucky enough to study from Mollie Smith and Gil Thew, we have very little bar a few photographs from Jack. I know he wrote letters while he was in the Air Force but what happened to them is unknown. These two postcards – though unwritten – are therefore particularly special.

So special, in fact, that in 2009 I visited Lichfield in an attempt to discover what the mysterious cross might have been marking. Chris Pointon of the RAF Lichfield Association was my guide. We first visited the Cathedral, in front of which was the park bench donated by Don Charlwood. Interestingly the bench is the only memorial to the OTU in the city – the building’s importance to the airmen seemingly less spiritual (as a religious place) than it was practical (as a prominent landmark nearby the airfield). Down a hill from the Cathedral we came to the Pond. At first Chris could not recognise the postcard – sixty-five years of tree growth has significantly changed the scene. But the road bridge with its three arches stands out. Walking towards it I could make out the distinctive façade of the Library and Museum through the thick tree growth:

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And the cross? Standing in front of the Library, looking up the street, I spotted two buildings.

One is the Probate Court.

The other is the Angel Croft Hotel.

For some reason, I reckon Jack was marking the pub.

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(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

Hat tip to Chris Pointon for the idea that inspired this post.

G’lland-oohrogh

On the far north western edge of Wales is the old fortified city of Caernarfon. Its magnificent castle looks out over a flat estury on one side, with dramatic hills rising above the horizon on the other. Eight or so miles south of Caernarfon is a tiny stone village named Llandwrog, situated in low hills a short distance from the Irish Sea.

From Llandwrog the ground slopes down gently towards the coast, flattening out at the bottom into a wide plain. The plain is surrounded on three sides by the hills of Snowdonia, rising up to 3,500 feet. The hills are responsible for the unique weather of the locality. Biting westerly winds sweep off the sea, bringing moisture-laden air with them. The air is deflected up by the rising terrain and, as it cools with altitude, the moisture condenses into cloud. It is not unusual for the entire British Isles to be clear of cloud, except for this tiny corner of Wales (and perhaps deepest, darkest, northern-est Scotland):

On the plain between the village of Llandwrog and the sea is an airfield. Despite being closer to the village of Dinas Dinlle, the airfield was originally named RAF Llandwrog. It opened in January 1941 as the home of No. 9 (Observers) Advanced Flying Unit and later became famous as the base of the first ever RAF Mountain Rescue unit. In late May 1943, following three months thumb-twiddling at No. 11 PDRC in Bournemouth and two months flying in Tiger Moths at No. 26 EFTS at the old grass airfield at Theale in Reading, Jack Purcell found himself posted to RAF Llandwrog. Over the next month or so he would log 18.25 hours by day and 7.10 hours at night flying in Avro Ansons.

Summer in this part of the world is very different to summer in Australia. It’s not too difficult to imagine what Jack may have thought on first being posted to this place with the strange name. He had been exposed to flying in English conditions in the Tiger Moths at Theale – but not in something relatively modern like an Anson, and certainly not in weather as persistant as that at Llandwrog. Visibility would have been often reduced in atmospheric haze, which made visual navigation difficult. The wind over the hills made the air bumpy when an aeroplane strayed too close to them. Sure, aeroplanes bounced a bit in thermals in Australia, but this was a different sort of bump. Even in summer the wind would be cold, especially when it blew straight off the Irish Sea. The beach is covered in pebbles and under a cloudy sky would have looked far less than inviting. In short, this must have looked like a forgotten part of the world.

Llandwrog, I discovered when I visited the area in June 2010, is pronounced ‘G’lland-oohrogh’. The airfield, now known as Caernarfon Airworld, is still active and is home to a flying club and a small museum. Despite the brand new hangar and operations building, much remains of the old RAF station. The former fire station, now missing important bits like its roof, stands behind the museum:

The old control tower – until recently the headquarters of the flying club and still in use as their air-ground radio base – still stands:

Behind the fire shed is a remarkably intact bomb shelter:

I particularly wanted to go flying from Caernarfon because of its connection with Jack’s story. I took along a local instructor named Phil. We flew south along the peninsula towards Bardsey Island, keeping below the cloud base. Nearer the island it became clear that the cloud was very much ‘following’ the coast line and we emerged into beautifully clear flying weather:

The cloud, however, stretched solidly over land back towards the airfield and the tops of some of the higher peaks were easily visible popping out the top of it as we flew ‘over the top’. It was easy to see how someone not used to flying in the area (like, for example, a brand new Australian WWII navigator) might blunder into what pilots euphemistically call ‘cumulo-granite’. We were able to use the modern aid of radar and a helpful air traffic controller from nearby RAF Valley to vector us clear of the terrain for a descent through cloud over the sea before we returned to the airfield, but this of course was not an option during wartime. It really is no wonder so many aircraft crashes occurred (and, sadly, continue to occur) in the Snowdonia area – a direct factor in the creation of the RAF Mountain Rescue team originally based at RAF Llandwrog.

For a morning, I had walked (and flown) in the footsteps of my great uncle. Though in some respects modernised there remains much in this area that has probably not changed in the six and a half decades since Jack was here. The sleepy little stone villages remain sleepy little stone villages. The airfield remains an airfield. The wind and the cloud is still the same wind and cloud. The connection that I felt to that time was made even stronger when I discovered the full name of the instructor I flew with.

He was called Phil Smith.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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Dispersal

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

 

 

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