At the first meeting of the new season on 10th September, Alan Fendley spoke about North-East airfields – aviation history 1910–2003. His talk entertained and informed both those in the audience who had little knowledge of the subject and those who had, like Alan, served in the RAF.
The Northumberland airfields played an essential part in the defence of the country throughout this period.
Until 1918 military flight was the responsibility of both the Royal Flying Corps, which was part of the army, and the Royal Naval Air Service. In those early days there were isolated, temporary airfields such as Newcastle Town Moor, where there was also an aircraft factory (1912–6), and at Long Benton, where there was a balloon barrage to protect the Tyne shipyards.
The RAF was formed as an independent organisation in April 1918. Acklington airfield was operational from 1916–20 as the Royal Flying Corps, and in 1938 it reopened to be used by the RAF until 1975.
In WWII the region was largely responsible for training, which was no less dangerous than the better known exploits of the air crews in the south. The RAF had expanded in the 1930s, and during the Battle of Britain the defence of the UK's airspace was divided up within RAF Fighter Command into four Groups, each comprising a number of airfields and squadrons. No. 13 Group covered the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The four groups saw different levels of activity during the Battle. No. 13 Group was primarily a training region. No. 11 Group, responsible for the defence of London and the south-east, saw the heaviest fighting, and pilots were often rotated among the groups to allow them to rest and recuperate after several weeks of fierce contact with the enemy, so many came north.
No. 13’s training role might be considered less risky, but a quarter died during training so in fact it was more hazardous. No. 4 Air Gunnery School at Tramwell Woods, Morpeth, (1942–45) had an exceptionally high death rate, including many Poles who had escaped to fight for the Allies.
The Group HQ and radar school was at Ouston (1941–3), and training on Spitfires took place at Eshott (1942–5).
Milfield is a natural aerodrome (1942–59); however pilots were obliged to take off into the prevailing westerly wind, leading to many crashes in the Cheviot Hills.
In addition to training, the North East saw plenty of action during the war. Based at Acklington, in October 1939 on their first combat patrol, 607 Squadron shot down an enemy flying boat. In February 1940, also flying from Acklington, F/L Peter Townsend shot the first enemy aircraft to fall on English soil. He became an ‘Ace’ pilot when later he had downed 5 enemy aircraft.
Presumably the pilot of a Junkers 88 thought he had saved German secrets by landing in the sea at Budle Bay, but when the tide went out the plane was salvaged and gave up valuable information.
Attempting to negotiate a peace before Hitler’s invasion of Russia, Rudolf Hess landed at Bamburgh before going on to crash-land near Glasgow.
Two Danish students, who had built a plane in a barn, flew westwards towards the UK where they were picked up on radar. They went on to serve in the RAF, one dying in service.
In the severe 1943 winter, an American Boeing B17 Flying Fortress had to abort its flight to Germany and return to Molesworth, Cambridgeshire. Hopelessly lost, it crashed into Cheviot. By chance a shepherd’s collie led people to the site, and all but 2 of the crew were rescued.
From 1936–8, Hindenburg airships provided the first regular scheduled flights between Europe and the US, but the crews also took aerial photographs for German intelligence. In 1945 some Luftwaffe plates were used to find the site of Ad Gefrin, the royal Anglo-Saxon township.
The WWII airfields now have other uses: Wolsington became the site of Newcastle International airport, Ouston is now Albermarle army base, and Acklington site is a prison.
RAF Boulmer was originally a satellite to Eshott, but now it is now a base for Air Traffic Control and an early-warning station. The remaining ‘golf balls’ face east, as they were built during the cold war. Boulmer plots every flight across UK airspace, sometimes scrambling RAF planes to challenge unplanned flights. This important role will continue, but the more visible RAF Search and Rescue (SAR) Force is to end after 74 years, and instead the service will be provided by a private contractor. So we’ll no longer be seeing the yellow RAF Sea King helicopters, which Alan described as ‘thirty-seven and a half thousand rivets flying in formation’, and after more than a century of illustrious service there’ll be no RAF airfields in Northumberland.