Behind the Episode – From Pups to Perty: The incredible story of RAF Scampton

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.

The Red Arrows display over RAF Scampton
Attribution: Photo: Cpl Andy Benson/MOD – “The Red Arrows” display over RAF Scampton, Lincoln.

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.

RAF_Bomber_Command_1940_HU104656
Handley Page Hampden of No. 83 Squadron with crew, seated on a loaded bomb trolley at Scampton, 2 October 1940.

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.

757px-Wing_Commander_Guy_Gibson,_Vc,_Dso_and_Bar,_Dfc_and_Bar,_Commander_of_617_Squadron_(dambusters)_at_Scampton,_Lincolnshire,_22_July_1943_TR1127
Wing Commander Guy Gibson with members of his crew. Left to right: Wing Commander Guy Gibson, VC, DSO and Bar, DFC and Bar; Pilot Officer P M Spafford, bomb aimer; Flight Lieutenant R E G Hutchinson, wireless operator; Pilot Officer G A Deering and Flying Officer H T Taerum, gunners.

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.

The Luftwaffe – Behind the Episode

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.

‘It was definitely a Heinkel. That girl said so.’ – Nancy in Episode Two ‘The Wooden O‘.

Even those with only a passing knowledge of the Second World War, will have heard something of the allied bombing campaign. They might be familiar with the Thousand Bomber raids, and the devastating attacks on cities like Dresden and Cologne and they will almost certainly of heard of the exploits of Guy Gibson and the legendary Dambusters who wrought havoc on the dams of the Ruhr Valley. Most will also be aware of the instruments used to reap this “Whirlwind”; aircraft like the Wellington, the Halifax and most famous of all, the Lancaster.

But what of the Luftwaffe? Whilst everyone knows about the Blitz and the havoc that was wrought on London from the autumn of 1940, many will be less familiar with the actual extent of the campaign or of the aircraft used to deliver this terror. Films like “The Battle of Britain” present the argument that Hitler switched his strike force from bombing the vulnerable RAF airfields, to attacks on London because he was incensed by an audacious RAF attack on the German capital. Whatever the reason, diverting his bombers to London was to prove costly, the Messerschmitt 109 fighters lacking the endurance to provide escort to the target, so leaving them easy prey to the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Leigh-Mallory’s “Big Wing”. The Luftwaffe would pay the ultimate price and the Battle of Britain would be lost. With his plans for an invasion now stalled until the following spring, Hitler sought to break English morale by bombing them into submission.

Flugzeug Junkers Ju 88
‘Junkers Ju 88’ – Photo by the German Federal Archive https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en

Far from being confined to London, the Blitz would extend nationwide with raids on, Southampton, Portsmouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Plymouth, Swansea, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Liverpool, Hull and Belfast. North of the border, what would become known as the “Clydebank Blitz”, would see particularly devastating raids on the West Dunbartonshire town.

On the night of 13th March 1941, a force of 236 Heinkel He.111H and Junkers Ju 88 medium bombers took advantage of a full moon to rain down terror on the unsuspecting populace. The first sirens sounded shortly after 9 pm, but the townsfolk paid little heed suspecting it was another false alarm. It was then that the first Pathfinder wave led by the He.111H aircraft of 100 Kampfgruppe duly arrived unleashing incendiaries and high-explosive bombs. The intended targets were the Admiralty Oil Depot, the Royal Ordnance Factory, John Brown’s Shipyard, the Singer Complex, which had been pressed into service as a munition’s factory, and the surrounding railways and infrastructure.

The RAF had introduced a new defence plan called Operation Fighter Night which called for the Spitfires of 602 Squadron, operating from nearby Prestwick, to assemble at 20,000 feet so that they could pick off the bombers without getting entangled with anti-aircraft fire. The bombers, however, had other ideas and had decided to take their chances with the “ack-ack” and fly low-level. The RAF pilots were refused permission to descend by Fight Control and as a result the defence plan proved worthless, not a single bomber being downed.

At midnight a second wave of German bombers arrived from the direction of Loch Lomond by which time the town’s civil defences were struggling to cope. At 2am just as the anti-aircraft guns were running out of ammunition the final aircraft in the second wave headed for home. An hour later the third wave arrived, and the endless night of hell continued. It would be shortly before 6am that the last of the night’s attackers headed home and the all-clear could sound.

The following night a further 203 bombers returned to unleash further torment on an already shell-shocked population. The final all-clear sounded on the morning of Saturday 15th March at 6:25am. During the two nights over 1,000 bombs had rained down, whilst the Luftwaffe had escaped unscathed. As most of the housing was located adjacent to the targets it had borne the brunt of the damage and out of an estimated 12,000 houses only 8 remained undamaged. At least 1,200 people lost their lives in the raids and another 1,000 were seriously injured. Over 35,000 were left homeless and many were forced to evacuate the town. Many of these would never return and thus the character of this close community was forever changed.

Captured_Heinkel_He_111_at_Celone_1944
‘Captured Heinkel He 111 at Celone 1944’ – Photo by the Australian War Memorial

 

Raids like this and indeed all such operations flown during the Blitz were achieved using a force of medium bombers, most typically the Heinkel He 111 or Junkers Ju88. The Heinkel He 111 could carry a bomb load of 4,400 lbs in the bomb-bay, a payload that could be increased to 7,900 lbs if the bombs were carried externally. This did, however, come with a significant reduction in performance. Compare this to the Avro Lancaster that was able to carry a bomb load of up to 18,000 lbs.
Germany had built its entire pre-war strategy on fighting a Blitzkrieg style campaign. As a result, despite repeated pleas from various experts, it had failed to develop a successful strategic bomber, instead concentrating on medium bombers and small dive bombers such as the Junkers Ju.87 Stuka. It was an error that was to cost the Reich dearly once it launched it’s attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. With Barbarossa underway, much of the Luftwaffe’s bomber strength was diverted to the Soviet campaign, thus allowing the United Kingdom some respite before the onset of the V-Bombs. During this period the RAF by night and the USAAF Eighth Air Force by day pursued a highly organised and coordinated bombing campaign that would eventually render Germany incapable of mounting offensive operations.

So, when Katherine Winters listened to the bombers flying overhead, she would have indeed heard the sound of Heinkel He.111 aircraft. Rather than being bound for Glasgow, however, their targets were more likely to have been in the Midlands, raids on Scotland generally originating from Northern Europe.