A brief history of RAF Scampton - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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A brief history of RAF Scampton

 
This page is based on material I first culled from various archived files and documents I inherited when I started work at Scampton, and from additional research I carried out myself in the Ministry of Defence Air Historical Branch and other sources during my time at Scampton between 1990 and the end of 1995 when it was thought Scampton was finally closing. In particular, I am indebted to retired Flight Lieutenant C G Jefford who produced and published in 1968 his very comprehensive and entertaining ‘A History of Royal Air Force Scampton, 1917-1968’.

It was in 1911 that the political aim of creating a British military air force was first mooted when the Prime Minister of the day, Herbert Asquith, instructed the Committee of Imperial Defence to suggest ways of creating an 'efficient air force'. In due course the Committee recommended the formation of a flying corps comprising five main elements: a naval wing, a military wing, a reserve force, an aircraft factory at Farnborough, and a flying school. Newspapers at the time reported that Parliament had voted £300,000 for setting up the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The Military Wing was to have seven 'airplane' (sic) squadrons, each with 12 'machines'. The Royal Aircraft Factory would train mechanics, test airplanes and engines, as well as undertake the reconstruction of damaged machines. Although the Government and the military authorities had already recognised that there would be a place for aerial machines in any future wars, by the time the first World War broke out in 1914 no-one seemed to have given much attention to the question of how the mainland of Britain was to be protected from possible aerial attack.

It was then that vested interests came into play. The specialized aviation requirements of the Royal Navy made it appear, to the admirals at least, that a separate organisation was desirable and so, on 1 July 1914, the naval wing of the RFC was hived off to become the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). In September 1914, after much argument between the War Office and the Admiralty, defence of the homeland was passed to the RNAS and not to the RFC, presumably because the Zeppelins were approaching from across the North Sea. However, the RNAS failed to stop the Zeppelin raids and so, early in 1916, home defence duties were delegated to the RFC, no doubt to the great embarrassment of the admirals of the day.

The Zeppelins were slow, unwieldy and highly flammable beasts. They had a maximum speed of about 140kph and could, eventually, reach a height of some 14,000 feet. They each carried five machine guns and 2,000kg of bombs. After crossing the North Sea they cruised over England for as long as eight or nine hours at a time dropping their bombs with impunity. Their navigation aids were not up to much. Contemporary reports suggest that many German pilots simply headed across the North Sea in the general direction of Lincolnshire and hoped to come across either the Wash to the south or the Humber estuary to the north. They could then pinpoint their position accurately and re-plan the route to their designated targets accordingly. Because the Zeppelins often came by night, the home defence squadrons had to be capable of operating by night and that must have been a truly alarming prospect for those early aviators.

In March 1916 ten new RFC squadrons were formed specifically for home defence purposes. Amazingly, within just three months a line of searchlights, anti-aircraft guns and aerodromes had been established in fields throughout the Eastern Counties and especially around the Scampton area north of Lincoln. The flying squadrons were initially equipped mainly with the ubiquitous and once reliable BE2 and Avro 504G, aircraft which were becoming obsolescent and no longer suitable for further service on the front line in France.

The main problem facing the RFC pilots was that of finding the Zeppelins in cloud or at night. Their aircraft had no radio and only very primitive flying instruments - and radar had not even been invented. Those pilots must have been extremely courageous. They used to climb to a safe height and then throttle their engine back to idle from time to time so that they could listen for the familiar drone of the Zeppelin’s engines. Records show that there were far more flying accidents as a result of trying to land in darkness than there were Zeppelins shot down.

The RFC home defence squadrons usually set up their operational Headquarters in a suitably spacious civilian house commandeered by the War Office for that purpose. Each squadron had three flights of aircraft and crews based at aerodromes known as 'flight stations'. It was soon found necessary to establish additional relief landing grounds at convenient locations throughout a particular squadron's territory because their aeroplanes had a very limited operating range. Number 33 Squadron, for example, had its HQ in the town of Gainsborough, a few miles north-west of Scampton, and controlled about twenty landing grounds scattered throughout Lincolnshire as well as parts of Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. Command and control must have been very difficult.

Typical landing grounds consisted of nothing more than farmer's field, for which the owner was paid a small retainer by the War Office as a reward for keeping the area under grass and not ploughed. An airman was often billeted with the farmer and supplied with a field telephone link to the nearest flight station so that, if and when an aeroplane was known to be approaching to land, the field could be cleared of livestock and farm machinery. Eventually, as things became more organised, some of the more frequently-used relief landing grounds boasted a small permanent staff and a couple of wooden huts for living quarters and stores such as fuel, flares and spare parts.

By the middle of 1916 the need for front line aircrews had grown to such an extent that proper aerodromes devoted to flying training started to spring up throughout the country. Lincolnshire’s open countryside, sparse population and lack of industrial haze made it very suitable for flying operations of all kinds. The Lincoln Cliff, the long Jurassic limestone escarpment to the north and west of Lincoln, turned out to be very convenient because the prevailing south westerly winds enabled aircraft to take off from aerodromes on the top of the escarpment heading towards the lower ground. After passing over the cliff edge aircraft could, when necessary (or perhaps just for the fun of it), gain extra speed by descending, rather like aircraft catapulted off the decks of early aircraft carriers used to do. Although there is an average of only 100 feet difference between the top and bottom of the Lincoln cliff along its entire length, many aircraft, in both world wars, were saved because of its presence.

Above: A photograph of Scampton airfield as it was in late-1917 with North roughly towards the top left-hand corner. (Until mid-1917 the airfield had been called Brattleby.) At the top right-hand edge you can just make out the old Roman Road that eventually became the A15. The long narrow road with SCAMPTON newly-painted on it, is called Polyplatt Lane which was eventually subsumed into the RAF Scampton site.
Scampton’s association with flying dates from the latter part of 1916. Initially it was simply a home for a basic searchlight unit which provided light to illuminate the enemy for the pilots of 33 Squadron. It could have been called Scampton, Aisthorpe or Brattleby, three villages very close together but the field was, in fact, first called Brattleby probably because that is what the farmer called it. The first aircraft arrived at Brattleby at the beginning of 1917 when the site became a proper training aerodrome and was then re-named Scampton. The new aerodrome was built, if built is the right word, on land belonging to Aisthorpe Farm and it occupied the area at the centre of the present RAF Scampton airfield, right outside the window of my new office when I arrived in 1989. Since it was a training airfield and expected to be needed only for the duration of the war, the buildings were mostly temporary wooden huts, apart from six rather more substantial aircraft sheds, as they were then called, to protect the aircraft from the weather and to make it more comfortable for those servicing them. (You can see those sheds in the image above.)

The village of North Carlton, picturesquely situated half way up and halfway down the Lincoln Cliff, has a magnificent old church in which can be seen a memorial to those local Royal Flying Corps wings and squadrons. There is also on display in the church a brief history which I wrote in 1992 at the request of Lord and Lady Monson who lived in the village for many years. (Nowadays, North Carlton village is exactly in line with the modern 9,000 ft long runway at Scampton.) South Carlton village, at the top of the narrow winding road leading out of North Carlton, was the site of another RFC aerodrome which is now buried underneath the extensive Lincolnshire Show Ground. There is, or was in the 1990s, a roadside plaque marking the site of that former airfield.

The lack of strictly enforced flying regulations, or a disregard for them, towards the end of World War 1 was possibly tolerated because of the almost complete lack of airfield facilities. Lieutenant Fiddament RFC used to tell his friends how he crashed into a tree at Scampton while attempting to land in fog with "the guidance of matches being struck by Mr J C Ward, the owner of Aisthorpe House". No pilot these days would even contemplate landing in fog without the aid of sophisticated precision approach aids. However, it seems Lieutenant Fiddament had no other option because he was running out of fuel and he had no parachute. With a very low landing speed of perhaps 30 to 40 miles an hour, he trusted in luck and local knowledge of the terrain and survived to tell the tale. I cannot imagine that the light from Mr Ward’s matches helped the pilot much and such historical records as are extant do not relate how Mr Ward knew where and when to strike his matches, nor how Fiddament, without the benefit of radio, knew that matches were being struck to light his path.

That same Arthur Leonard Fiddament, born in 1896, had enlisted into the Norfolk Regiment on the outbreak of war in 1914; he survived World War 1 and transferred to the fledgling Royal Air Force in 1919. After attending all the major Staff College courses, he was posted onto the Directing Staff of the RAF College in 1932-34 and returned to be the Assistant Commandant in 1943. He reached the rank of air vice-marshal by the end of World War 2, retired in 1949, and died in 1976. There is a whole-plate film negative of a seated Fiddament in the National Portrait Gallery made by Lafayette on 27 March 1930.

It is a little known fact that towards the end of the 1914-18 war an ever increasing number of pilots started to arrive in England from America to complete their training before joining RFC squadrons to 'help the war effort'. Many of those Americans trained at Scampton. To assist in training them, a small United States Army Air Corps detachment was set up at Scampton under the command of Major Frankie Scanlon. On the staff of Scanlon's unit was a medical officer who was an expert jazz pianist. The American medical officer taught Scampton’s Adjutant, an amateur pianist at the time, all there was to know about syncopation. That adjutant later put his musical expertise to good use when he became famous after the Armistice as big band leader Jack Payne. In 1929 Payne was appointed as the BBC's first Director of Dance Music (a post which, in 2014, seems to be defunct!) and he and his band featured in the BBC's first-ever television broadcast in 1929. The band certainly broadcast regularly on BBC programmes during WW2 because I remember listening to them.

Once the war was over, flying training at Scampton began to be scaled down and finally ceased at the end of December 1918, by which time the airfield had been called Royal Air Force Scampton for barely six months. In Spring 1919 the remaining aeroplanes and personnel were moved out. In early 1920 the station closed down completely; all the buildings were removed, the field boundaries were reinstated in their original positions and Aisthorpe Farm was put back under the plough.

During the early 1930s it became evident that WW1 had not been "The war to end all wars" as had been widely proclaimed. The situation in Germany, where Hitler’s National Socialists were fast gaining power, gave the UK Government cause for concern over the future security of this country. As a result, various schemes were started to re-equip and enlarge the armed forces. From those rearmament programmes came a demand for new airfields for the RAF's expanding bomber force. One of the sites chosen was that of the old aerodrome at Scampton.

The local residents were not exactly overjoyed when the RAF announced in 1935, incidentally the year that I was born, that there was once again to be an airfield at Scampton. Notwithstanding that discontent, the necessary land was requisitioned and construction work quickly started. The first building to be erected was a workmen’s hut at the side of Ermine Street, the old Roman Road leading due north from Lincoln, now the A15 trunk road. Within a matter of days, this hut was 'accidentally' burned down. Nevertheless, work went ahead regardless and on 27 August 1936 the Station Headquarters building was completed and the station opened as part of No 3 Group of Bomber Command.

Scampton's new airfield occupied the same site as the old one had done in 1918 but with the addition of some land to the south of the original aerodrome. Aisthorpe House, however, was still on the boundary of the airfield and was occupied by Mr R Fieldsend who was farming the land to the north. Unfortunately, the house was an obstruction to flying by the new bomber aeroplanes and eventually the inevitable happened. On the night of 31 August 1937 a Handley Page twin-engine biplane Heyford bomber of 9 Squadron, flown by Pilot Officer Torkington-Leech, crashed into Aisthorpe House while attempting to land. Fortunately no-one on the ground was killed although Mr Fieldsend and his daughter, who were in the house at the time, were slightly injured and no doubt badly shocked. The pilot was hurt rather more seriously but soon resumed flying duties; he was killed in the early days of WW2 whilst flying on active service. Following that 1937 accident the remains of the Aisthorpe House were demolished and the family’s land to the north of the airfield was absorbed into the RAF's estate.

The construction programme at Scampton was almost complete by the time World War 2 broke out. By then, most of the wooden huts had been replaced by permanent buildings, including the four huge aircraft hangars which were laid out on a gentle curve, as they were at the many airfields constructed with commendable prescience in preparation for war. The idea of the curve was to make it more difficult for enemy aircraft to destroy the entire line in a single pass with a stick of bombs. Finally, dozens of married quarters were built in Ermine Crescent, Trenchard Square, and First and Second Avenues.

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