RAF Driffield

RAF Driffield

RAF Driffield was a Royal Air Force station situated near Driffield in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England.

Situated between Kelleythorpe and Eastburn on the A614 road, there stands an aerodrome. In recent times, it was known as Alamein Barracks and used as an Army driving school. But the site was once a busy military airfield that operated for many years – spanning the development of aviation technology, and the history of the Royal Air Force.

The first aerodrome to occupy the site was made up of wooden and brick buildings, similar to those found at Duxford or Hendon. Known as Eastburn, No.21 Training Depot was the first unit to occupy the site from July 15 1918, joined later by Nos. 202 and 217 Squadrons from March 1919. However, by early 1920, these units had disbanded, leaving a deserted airfield, which was removed some years later.

During the early 1930s, Driffield was selected for one of the RAF’s expansion scheme aerodromes, with construction work beginning in 1935. This new airfield consisted of five large aircraft hangars, curved round the grass runways that stretched towards the north-west. Placed neatly behind these hangars were the many buildings that made up the camp. Opened in July 1936, RAF Driffield became home to a number of bomber squadrons. By 1938, these had been replaced by No.77 and No.102 Squadrons, and were eventually equipped with the twin-engined Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber.

World War II

As peace talks between Nazi Germany and Great Britain collapsed, Driffield prepared for war. Buildings were camouflaged; anti-aircraft gun emplacements manned; and air raid shelters built. Crews of both squadrons endured a series of training courses and exercises, so that by the morning of Sunday, September 3 1939, Driffield was ready for action, as the declaration of war was broadcast by the BBC.

The morning of September 4 brought great activity to RAF Driffield. Three aircraft from No.102 Squadron were to drop leaflets during that second night of the war. The fuselages of these bombers were crammed with large parcels of propaganda leaflets, wrapped in brown paper. Access that was normally difficult because of the retracted ventral gun turret, was now extremely challenging through the narrow gaps, between the parcels on either side of the turret. Flying at 15,000ft, the three aircraft crossed the enemy coastline and maintaining strict radio silence, flew down the Ruhr Valley and into France, releasing their load of leaflets, which were dropped through the aircraft’s flare chute. The following night of September 5, No.77 Squadron was given its opportunity to drop leaflets, when two aircraft repeated the operation.

On March 15/March 16 1940, two aircraft of No.77 Squadron alone dropped 6,000,000 leaflets during a raid over Warsaw; a mission successfully accomplished, despite difficulties encountered with navigation and atrocious weather conditions. This was followed on March 19 by the first deliberate bombing on German soil, when Whitley aircraft from both Driffield squadrons joined those from RAF Dishforth, who together bombed the mine-laying seaplane base at Hornum on the Island of Sylt. This heightened bombing offensive would ultimately draw the attention of the German Luftwaffe, now in striking distance following the invasion of Denmark.

The most prominent event in the history of RAF Driffield was the German air raid on Thursday, August 15 1940. At approximately midday, some 50 Junkers Ju 88 bomber aircraft attacked the aerodrome, killing 14 military and civilian personnel, and destroying 12 Whitley aircraft. The 169 bombs dropped caused extensive damage, with many buildings, including all fivehangars, being either damaged or destroyed.

Earlier that morning, a force of Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju88 bombers, along with Messerschmitt Bf 110 long-range fighters, took off from bases in Denmark, and flew at low level across the North Sea to attack RAF airfields in the North of England. However, due to inaccurate navigation and strong resistance by RAF fighters from both RAF Leconfield and RAF Church Fenton, many German aircraft failed to reach inland, with some bombers jettisoning their bombs over Bridlington. The only aircraft to reach the intended target area was the force of Ju88 aircraft, that bombed Driffield.

This was not the only air-raid on Driffield that “Battle of Britain” summer, but it was the most fierce. Weeks later, the surviving aircraft from both Whitley squadrons departed, leaving Driffield to repair the damage, which remained non-operational until early 1941. Probably the luckiest person to have endured the attack on Driffield was an airframe fitter, then residing in the guardroom, after he “borrowed” a Fairey Battle single-engined bomber. Arriving that June, No.88 Squadron had previously fought in the Battle for France, and after receiving heavy losses, the remaining aircraft and their crews arrived at Driffield. It was one of these aircraft that the untrained ground tradesman jumped into, taking off for an unofficial ‘joy ride’ – landing a few hundred miles away at another airfield – luckily without damage to either himself or the valuable (though obsolete) aircraft. Not pleased with his war effort, the Royal Air Force immediately arrested the joy-rider and returned him to Driffield, placing him in the guardroom, where he remained until the Luftwaffe obliged by demolishing the building without injury to the prisoner, who quietly walked away unharmed.

With repairs to the airfield complete, Driffield saw a new role in the early months of 1941, as fighters replaced bombers, when No.13 Group Fighter Command took control of the airfield. Equipped with Spitfires and Hurricanes, the three squadrons based at Driffield patrolled the North Sea, but saw little or no action and left that Easter. April 1941 saw the return of No.4 Group Bomber Command and the formation of two new squadrons, both equipped with the Wellington twin-engined bomber. No.104 Squadron and No.405 Squadron RCAF (the first Royal Canadian Air Force bomber squadron formed) commenced bombing operations against Germany.

May 9 1941 saw the first operation by No.104 Squadron, when six Wellington aircraft were despatched to bomb Bremen. One aircraft failed to reach Germany and returned to Driffield with a jammed rear gun turret. Flying at 16,000ft, four aircraft managed to release their bombs over Bremen, but were unable to see the results, due to the bright glowing haze of the already burning city. One other aircraft failed to reach the target due to intercom failure, but was able to bomb the secondary target of Wilhelmshaven. Despite both targets being heavily defended, all aircraft and crews returned safely. Other Wellington squadrons based at Driffield during the war were No.158 Squadron, No.466 Squadron RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) and No.196 Squadron.

In 1943, RAF Driffield was temporary closed for the construction of three concrete runways, the longest stretching 6,000ft, linked by a perimeter track, along the length of which were situated the aircraft dispersals and bomb dump. The airfield became operational again in June 1944 with the return of No.466 Squadron RAAF, now equipped with the heavy four-engined Handley Page Halifax bomber. This unit began operations supporting the allied invasion of Europe by bombing targets in the Normandy area.

August 12 1944 saw the formation of No.462 Squadron, a second Australian unit. During the months that followed, both squadrons joined forces to hit targets across Europe. On September 10th 1944, a small force of some 69 bombers, including 30 from Driffield, targeted the German occupied garrison and coastal defence battery at Le Havre. This was immediately followed by a much larger force of some 930 aircraft, which dropped 47,000 tons of bombs. The following day, the raid was repeated when 22 aircraft from Driffield, combined with a total of 218 from Bomber Command, again attacked the target. Ten hours later, the German garrison surrendered to allied ground forces. In December 1944, No.462 Squadron moved to Norfolk, leaving No.466 Squadron to fight on from Driffield. The Australians carried out their final raid of the war on April 25 1945, when a force of 18 aircraft bombed gun emplacements on the island of Wangerange.

After WWII

After the war, Driffield became home to a number of training establishments. The first, No.10 Air Navigation School, flew from 1946, equipped with Avro Anson, twin-engined aircraft, which were employed to fly student navigators on short three hour flights. The unit’s war-weary Wellington aircraft, endured flights of up to six hours, flying sometimes at night, down to the Channel Islands, along the English Channel and up the North Sea to Scotland. Replaced in 1948 by No.204 Advanced Flying School, this unit taught pilots how to fly the fast twin-engined de Havilland Mosquito fighter/bomber, an aircraft built entirely out of wood and affectionately known as the “Wooden Wonder”.

In 1949, the jet age reached Yorkshire, when No.203 Advanced Flying School formed at Driffield – replacing the Mosquitoes, which departed with their parent unit. This new school would be the first in the world responsible for teaching a new breed of pilot how to fly fast jet aircraft. There were two sections within the school: No.1 Squadron operated the Gloster Meteor – Britain’s first operational jet fighter, while No.2 Squadron flew the de Havilland Vampire.

Before climbing into the cockpit, students underwent four weeks of ground training, learning about jet engines, airframes and the different flying techniques associated with the new and much faster aircraft. This was followed by actual flight training, when pilots were taught basic manoeuvres, aerobatics, formation flying, instrument flying and navigation. Renamed No.8 Flying Training School in June 1954, the unit continued at Driffield before moving to Lincolnshire in July 1955.

That September, RAF Driffield reverted back to the role of a fighter station, when No.13 Group Fighter Command again took control of the airfield. During this period, Nos. 219 and 33 Squadrons, equipped with the de Havilland Venom night fighter, occupied the base until June/July 1957, when both units were disbanded. The following October saw the arrival of the Fighter Weapons School from RAF Leconfield, a unit equipped with a variety of jet aircraft, which itself departed in March 1958.

In 1957, the British Government announced that the RAF would deploy 60 nuclear intermediate range ballistic missiles. From August 1959, Driffield would be home to No.98 Squadron, which was equipped with three Douglas Thor missiles, each with a range of 1,750 miles and capable of reaching Moscow. With the length of 60ft, these missiles were stored horizontally on the ground and were erected only when ready for firing or during training exercises. Although the missiles were British owned, the nuclear warheads were still under American ownership. Accordingly, the United States Air Force maintained a sizable presence at Driffield. In good bureaucratic fashion, the RAF Launch Officer was expected to sign for the warhead after it had been launched, because technically it was then under British control. Thankfully, the missiles at Driffield were never used and the system was dismantled in 1963.

RAF Driffield then became a neglected airfield, infrequently used, but still complete. During the late 1960s, Blackburn Buccaneer naval aircraft were flight tested at Driffield, and in the early 1970s, gliders of No.642 Volunteer Gliding School also occupied the airfield, albeit briefly, while RAF Linton on Ouse had its main runway resurfaced. Sadly, there were to be no more happy landings, and in 1977, the airfield and camp were taken over by the British Army. Known as Alamein Barracks, the transfer of ownership brought great changes. By the early 1980s, the runways were removed and the hardcore used in the construction of the Driffield bypass. The control tower and air-raid shelters disappeared, while the hangars that protected aircraft for many years were converted to protect Government surplus grain from the elements.

The army used Driffield as a driver training centre, until RAF Leconfield (which was also taken over by the Army in 1977) was enlarged to accommodate those who lived and trained at Driffield. In 1992, the RAF regained ownership of this historic aerodrome, naming it: RAF Staxton Wold – Driffield Site. Once again, the RAF ensign flew over Driffield, but not for long. In 1996, the RAF itself transferred its own personnel and facilities to RAF Staxton Wold, thus bringing an end to 60 years of service in the defence of the realm. On June 28 1996, the RAF ensign was lowered for the last time, bringing to an end Driffield’s proud association with those tasked with defending this country.

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