The Forgotten Yorkshire Airfields of No. 4 Group, Bomber Command

raf-snaith-abandoned-6 (Image: Ossington_2008. RAF Snaith’s surviving J Type hangar)

For a brief period during the 1930s and ’40s, the air of tranquility enveloping the northern English county of Yorkshire was shattered by the rumble of piston-engined heavy bombers. During that time more than 50 large airfields and operations centres existed across Yorkshire’s North, East and West Ridings, from the permanent expansion scheme stations of the 1930s to the so-called austerity airfields, satellite bases and sub-stations hastily built to accommodate the vast numbers of allied aircraft produced to counter Nazi Germany during World War Two.

Many of Yorkshire’s airfields were home to the Halifax, Wellington and Whitley squadrons of No. 4 Group RAF, headquartered at RAF Linton-on-Ouse and later Heslington Hall. Though a handful of former 4 Group stations remain in military use today, many more lie abandoned, slowly returning to the farmland from which they were requisitioned 75 years ago.

lissett-memorial (Image: Jason, cc-nc-4.0. The 158 Squadron memorial at RAF Lissett)

It’s easy to pass them by without ever noticing their presence. Some are betrayed by the unmistakable forms of cavernous wartime hangars, decaying control towers and derelict Nissen huts. Others have seen their buildings demolished or dismantled long ago, their potholed runways and dispersal pans now hidden in the fields.

Though a small number continue to host light aircraft and have seen their historic buildings repurposed, the majority of this expansive wartime infrastructure lies in ruins, slowly disappearing with time.

This article examines 13 former No. 4 Group airfields in East and North Yorkshire, seemingly unremarkable today yet steeped in history and heroism, lonely memorials to the 55,573 men of RAF Bomber Command who lost their lives between 1939 and 1945 at an average age of 22.

RAF Breighton

raf-breighton-2 (Image: Google Earth)

Today, RAF Breighton is home to a small grass strip and a collection of light pleasure aircraft. But viewed from above, the ghostly outlines of abandoned runways and extensive dispersal pans are plain to see. Opened in 1942, Breighton was originally on the charge of No. 1 Group, which still controls the UK’s fast jet force – including Tornado and Typhoon – today. But by July 1944 it was home of the Handley Page Halifax Mk.III heavy bombers of No. 4 Group’s 78 Squadron. With the Cold War came a stint as a Thor nuclear missile base before the facility finally closed in 1964.

raf-breighton-3 (Image: Google Earth)

Google Earth shows the remnants of an expansive airfield, its abandoned runways clearly visible between a neglected perimeter taxiway flanked by more than a dozen surviving hard standings. Much of the concrete surface is now used for storage and a variety of prefabricated industrial buildings have taken over the confluence of the three runways.

raf-breighton-halifax (Image: F/O G. Woodbine. A Breighton-based 78 Sqn Halifax Mk.II, s/n LW235)

The south-west corner of the site now serves at Breighton Airfield, home to a variety of light civilian craft, where a small airstrip has been developed from the remains of the southern taxiway. Even today, with the majority of the abandoned bomber airfield lying amid farmland to the north, the narrow, potholed lane leading to the site betrays its wartime origins. What does survive has held various warbird events over the years. The restored Hurricane night fighter ‘G-HURR’ (below) was seen at Breighton a year before it tragically crashed in 2007.

hawker-hurricane-g-hurr (Image: Mark Butcher. Hawker Hurricane ‘G-HURR’ in 2006)

Across a farmer’s field, within the boundaries of the original perimeter track, a surviving wartime T2 hangar stands neglected beside a small copse of trees.

raf-breighton-5

raf-breighton-4 (Images: Google Earth/Street View)

Once a maintenance site for the airfield’s compliment of front line bombers, the hangar (above) now houses agricultural equipment, a lonely relic of Breighton’s wartime past.

raf-breighton (Image: Chris McLoughlin – @ChrisMcLoughlin)

Above, Breighton’s unusual ‘gate guardian’ stands alongside the western perimeter fence. Wearing Russian markings, the Aero L-29 Delfín jet trainer was widely used by Warsaw Pact countries during the Cold War.

RAF Burn

Not far from RAF Breighton, amid farmland just south of Selby, lies RAF Burn, a North Yorkshire heavy bomber base which opened in 1942 and, like so many World War Two airfields, remained in use for just four years. During its short operational life Burn was home to the Vickers Wellingtons of No. 431 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, which later relocated to the No. 6 Group RCAF’s base at Tholthorpe near Easingwold.

raf-burn-abandoned-airfield (Image: Google Earth. Hidden in the farmland, Burn’s bomber runways remain intact)

By 1944 Burn operated the Halifax bombers of 578 Squadron until the unit’s disbandment in April 1945, three months before military flying operations ceased at Burn forever.

The event for which the old airfield is perhaps best known came on the night of March 30, 1944, when 22-year-old Pilot Officer Cyril Joe Barton was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for valour and extreme courage, after nursing his crippled bomber from the heart of the Third Reich to a forced landing in northern England.

raf-burn-abandoned-airfield-3 (Image: Google Street View. More hard standings can still be seen across Common Lane)

Barton’s crew took off in Handley Page Halifax LK797 to attack the German city of Nuremberg. But 70 miles from the target LK797 came under sustained fire from two Luftwaffe night fighters, damaging the aircraft severely and taking out its machine guns and intercom. Despite confusion which led to the navigator, bombardier and wireless operator bailing out, Barton pressed on with the attack, releasing the bombs himself and turning for home as one of the spluttering starboard engines burst into flames.

cyril-joe-barton-vc (Images: T Macdonald, cc-sa-3.0; RAF. P/O Cyril Joe Barton VC, died March 31, 1944, aged 22)

In a courageous feat of airmanship, Barton nursed his crippled Halifax back across occupied Europe and the North Sea. Reaching the English coast with just one engine running, too low to bail out and with fuel pouring from ruptured tanks, Barton decided to attempt a crash landing near the mining village of Ryhope, Tyne and Wear. But at the last second he spotted a row of cottages and heroically banked the heavy bomber away from them. LK797’s four remaining crew members survived the impact, but Barton died from his injuries soon after, along with local man George Heads who had been struck by flying debris. Sixty years later, in 2004, a memorial service was held for Barton in Ryhope. Among those who paid tribute to the young pilot was his navigator, Len Lambert.

raf-burn-abandoned-airfield-2 (Image: Google Street View. From ground level the old airfield could easily slip by unnoticed)

Cyril Joe Barton’s story is but one among numerous tales of heroism and tragedy that underscore the service of Bomber Command crews based throughout the UK. In 2012, after years of delay, an official memorial to Commonwealth bomber crews was finally unveiled near London’s Hyde Park Corner. But Britain’s lonely airfields, neglected and returning to farmland, will always serve as poignant monuments to their courage and sacrifice.

raf-burn-memorial-garden (Image: Paul Glazzard, cc-sa-4.0. RAF Burn’s memorial garden dedicated to 578 Squadron)

Today, though many of its temporary buildings have been dismantled, RAF Burn’s storied runways remain virtually intact. Around the abandoned airfield’s perimeter are the ghostly outlines of hand standings where the heavy bombers, including Halifax LK797, once stood quietly awaiting their orders. Since closing in 1946 the airfield has reverted to agriculture, though the resident Burn Gliding Club maintains its flying tradition.

RAF Driffield

raf-driffield-abandoned (Images: Harry Blades. RAF Driffield today)

With the exception of its three concrete runways, long since torn up for road-building materials, RAF Driffield remains an unusually well preserved example of a wartime Bomber Command station. Nestled 11 miles north of Beverley, the East Yorkshire airfield was originally called RAF Eastburn when it opened as a Royal Flying Corps aerodrome in 1918.

raf-driffield-abandoned-5

raf-driffield-abandoned-4 (Images: 49 Sqn RAF; JThomas, cc-sa-4.0. Expansion period hangar layout)

But during the 1930s as the UK initiated its airfield expansion programme in a bid to counter the looming threat of Nazi Germany, Driffield was completely rebuilt. Five large hangars were constructed along with dozens of brick-built support facilities, from operations buildings and accommodation blocks, messes, and recreation halls to bunkers and munitions stores.

raf-driffield-abandoned-10 (Image: Harry Blades)

Despite its ongoing military role today, many of Driffield’s historic wartime buildings lie in ruins, their windows smashed, internal fittings looted and graffiti liberally daubed across their walls.

raf-driffield-abandoned-2 (Image: Harry Blades. Driffield’s derelict wartime buildings)

When war broke out the airfield was home to Nos. 77 and 102 squadrons, equipped with twin-engined Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers. The second night of hostilities saw Driffield’s aircraft take to the skies, tasked with a daring flight down the Ruhr Valley to drop propaganda leaflets on the civilian population below. Later, on the night of March 19, 1940, Whitleys from Driffield and nearby RAF Dishforth conducted the first deliberate bombing raid on German soil. Yorkshire’s key role in World War Two had commenced.

raf-driffield-whitleys (Image: Daventry, B. J., public domain. Whitleys preparing for a sortie, Driffield)

By 1941 RAF Driffield had re-equipped with Wellington bombers and hosted a number of Commonwealth squadrons including those of the Canadian and Australian air forces. Following the construction of three concrete runways to ‘Class-A‘ standard in 1944, No. 466 Squadron RAAF returned to the Bomber Command station with its compliment of four-engined Handley Page Halifax heavy bombers, which immediately launched raids against targets in Normandy in support of the Allied invasion of Europe.

raf-driffield-abandoned-9 (Image: Hull Daily Mail/Phillip Rhodes via controltowers.co.uk)

The end of the war ushered in a more peaceful period at Driffield. The former Bomber Command airfield became a training base for the RAF’s new breed of fast jets – the Gloster Meteor and de Havilland Vampire. But with Western-Soviet relations becoming increasingly icy as the Cold War unfolded, Thor nuclear missiles began appearing at Driffield, alongside a sizable contingent of American personnel to oversee their US-controlled warheads.

raf-driffield-abandoned-7 (Image: via Forgotten Airfields)

Thankfully the missiles were never launched in anger and, by the 1960s, RAF Driffield was in use as a flight test facility for Royal Navy Blackburn Buccaneers before transitioning to army control under the name Alamein Barracks. The site remains in use for military driver training, though the abandoned runways have long since been removed.

raf-driffield-abandoned-8 (Image: Google Earth)

Four of the original five cavernous bomber hangars survive alongside other wartime structures. Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s been a call for RAF Driffield’s conservation as an example of living history if and when the military finally vacate the wartime site.

 

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About the author: Tom

 

Website: https://www.urbanghostsmedia.com

 

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