Continuing our series of blogs called ‘Behind the Episode’. Our resident aviation expert, Kirsty, will be looking further into the real history threaded throughout our audio drama, particularly the aircraft featured in each episode.
Katherine Winters witnesses a Handley Page Hampden with a damaged left engine attempting to limp back to base after a bombing raid over Germany. Arthur Nelson, who had seen it too, informs her that in all probability it was heading for RAF Scampton. Katherine seems unfamiliar with this location, but Arthur is happy to enlighten her, “We used to fly training flights from there back in the day, Camels mainly or Pups, but they’ve given it over to Bomber Command now”. And so they had and events during the next few years would elevate Scampton to the most famous of all the Bomber Command airfields.
An airfield was first opened on the site, which is just North of Lincoln, in November 1916, at which time it was known as Brattleby. The first unit to be based there was No.33 Squadron who operated RAF FE.2bs against the Zeppelin threat. This was a task for which the aircraft was wholly unsuited as it had a ceiling of 12,000 feet, the German airships tending to operate at 18,000 feet. The airfield was then given over to training and amongst the many types to be employed on these duties were the; Avro 504J, Avro 504K, RAF BE,2, RAF RE.8, Martinsyde Elephant and a trio of Sopwiths; the Camel, the Pup and the Dolphin. By July 1918, the various resident training squadrons had been combined to form No.34 Training Depot Station. At its height, the airfield boasted six hangars, but it had only ever been intended as a temporary site and most units moved out soon after the Armistice. By 1920 all buildings had been demolished and no trace of the airfield remained.
With tensions growing with Germany, the site at Brattleby once again attracted attention and under the RAF Expansion Scheme was earmarked as an airfield for the rapidly expanding bomber force. Occupying a slightly larger area than the original WWI airfield, the station was reopened in August 1936 as RAF Scampton. This time construction was on a somewhat more permanent basis and included four C type hangars and brick built technical and domestic accommodation. The airfield was still in a somewhat incomplete state when the first units arrived in October 1936; No.9 Squadron equipped with the Handley Page Heyford and No.214 Squadron with the Vickers Virginia and from January 1937, the Handley Page Harrow. No.148 Squadron was briefly in residence from June 1937 initially flying the Hawker Audax, a two-seat variant of the Hawker Hart biplane that had been developed for army cooperation. These were soon replaced by the Vickers Wellesley, a type that was essentially obsolete by the outbreak of WWII and did not see service in the European theatre. March 1938 saw the arrival of Nos 49 and 83 Squadrons both flying another biplane bomber, the Hawker Hind, but by the year’s end both had re-equipped with the Handley Page Hampden. By the outbreak of war construction of theairfield was fully complete and the two Scampton Squadrons each boasted 16 combat ready aircraft.
These Squadrons were in action on the very first day of hostilities when a six strong Hampden force led by the then Flying Officer Guy Gibson, conducted a raid on Wilhelmshaven. March 1940 would see the commencement of Bomber Command’s mine-laying operations, code-named “Gardening”. Both Scampton squadrons were involved from the outset and would play a major role in these dangerous low-level operations. On 12th August 1940 Flight Lieutenant R.A.B. Learoyd of No.49 Squadron took part in a daring low-level raid on the Dortmund-Elms Canal for which his conspicuous bravery led to the award of Bomber Command’s first Victoria Cross. In December 1941 both resident Squadrons begun to reequip with the Avro Manchester, a medium bomber that was to prove something of a failure due to the unreliability of its Rolls-Royce Vulture engines. Nonetheless, when Roy Chadwick refined this design and the underdeveloped Vulture engines were replaced by four Rolls-Royce Merlins, it would re-emerge as the Avro Lancaster, the finest bomber of WWII. By that summer both Squadrons had converted to the heavy bomber.
On the evening of 30/31 May 1942 Bomber Command mounted “Operation Millennium”, the first of three 1,000 bomber raids. 1,046 bombers took part in this attack including Manchester and Lancaster aircraft from both Scampton squadrons. Bomber Harris had originally selected Hamburg as his preferred target but poor weather conditions on the night dictated a switch to Cologne. It was hoped that by mounting such an attack German morale would be so shattered that the country would sue for peace. 1,455 tons of bombs were dropped, but although the city suffered substantial damage, particularly to residential areas, it was far from destroyed and within six months industrial life had largely recovered. Further 1,000 bomber raids were conducted against Essen and Bremen, but the operations were major undertakings that stretched Bomber Command’s resources to the limit and could not be sustained.
The event that was to enshrine the name of RAF Scampton in history was “Operation Chastise” which was mounted on the evening of 16th May 1943 by 19 aircraft of the specially formed 617 Squadron. Better known as the “Dam Busters” raid, Wing Commander Guy Gibson led his hand-picked crews on daring low level raids of the Ruhr dams using Barnes Wallis’ specially developed “bouncing bomb”. Of the three dams attacked, the Möhne and the Eder were both breached causing a significant impact on Germany’s industrial might. But these results were achieved at a high price, nine aircraft were lost along with the lives of 53 brave crew.
In August 1943 RAF Scampton was closed so that paved runways could be laid, the base not reopening until July 1944. Moving in at this time was No.1690 Bomber Defence Training Flight which operated Spitfire, Hurricane and Martinet aircraft. Two Lancaster Squadrons, No.153 & No.625 also moved in and were to take part in the base’s last raid of the war, the bombing of Obersalzberg on 25th April 1945.
The first notable event post-war was the blockade in Berlin which saw the arrival in July 1948 of 30 USAF Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft, the Americans remaining until February 1949. The airfield was then given over to 230 OCU for the training of Avro Lincoln crews. In 1953 the airfield once more resounded to the sound of Lancaster aircraft during the making of the film “The Dambusters”. In the early 1950s four Canberra Squadrons were in residence but these moved out in 1955 so that work could commence to upgrade the station for V-Bombers. Amongst this vast undertaking was the laying of a new 9,000-foot runway which necessitated the rerouting of the A15. Reinforced hard standings were installed as were secure areas for the storage of nuclear bombs. Not surprisingly the security of the whole site was considerably ramped up. Henceforth Avro Vulcans would be the station’s major residents until the type’s withdrawal in the early 1980s.
In 2000 the RAF Aerobatic Display Team, the Red Arrows relocated here from Cranwell and remain in residence to this day. Their iconic scarlet Hawk aircraft are known and loved by audiences worldwide, the team renowned for their peerless flying displays that few can match. With Covid-19 emptying the skies over the North West the team has been able to take advantage of a near deserted Manchester Airport to practice some approaches, Team Leader Red1 Martin Pert “Perty” himself doing a visual approach to Runway 05L on 17th April.
Sadly, RAF Scampton now faces an uncertain future with defence cuts meaning that the base is currently earmarked for closure in 2022.
As a Postscript, should you wish to learn more about Katherine Winter’s Father, who we know as Philip Brook, then catch up with Time & Again Theatre Company’s production of “Clouds” once normal times return.