Approximately seven and a half miles south west of the town of Horncastle in Lincolnshire, and nestling under the gaze of the 15th Century red brick tower of Tattershall Castle, is the Royal Air Force's premier air defence base of RAF Coningsby.
Early Days and the Second World War
Construction on the flat fenland that was to become RAF Coningsby began in 1937, but work took four years to complete due to frequent interruptions caused by drainage problems encountered by the contractors. The airfield was built with two large J type hangars and extensive administration, accommodation and technical buildings, but no hardened runways. These would come later in the war, together with a further expansion of the facilities.
The airfield was finally taken on charge by the RAF, and Number 5 Group Bomber Command, on 4th November 1940.
The first flying residents arrived in early 1941 with the Hampden equipped 106 Sqn from Finningley, closely followed by 97 Sqn with their Manchesters from nearby Waddington. Offensive operations were opened by the Hampdens of 106 Sqn with attacks against Cologne and Hamburg during the March of that year. 97 Sqn joined the fray in April, with bombing and mining operations which became the station's main task at that time. The poor reliability of the Manchester resulted in 106 Sqn bearing the brunt of operations during those first few months, losing 45 Hampdens on operations before converting to Manchesters in the spring of 1942. It is interesting to note that such was the unreliability of the Manchester, that 97 Sqn crews occasionally flew 106 Sqn Hampdens on operations.
106 Sqn was to have a difficult time in 1941 with the Hampden. Fifteen aircraft were lost in July and August alone, the equivalent of the whole squadron wiped out in a matter of weeks. 97 Sqn was fairing little better with the Manchester. The aircraft had a multitude of technical problems from the start and several were lost in fatal accidents at Coningsby, compounding the crew’s mistrust of the aircraft.
Despite the problems 97 Sqn had with its Manchesters, 106 Sqn began re-equipping with the type in early 1942, although it was on charge with the unit for less than three months before they began re-equipping with the superior Lancaster. 97 Sqn had received the first of its new four engined heavies on 14th January 1942, but was unable to fly them operationally from Coningsby - the airfield and its grass runways were clearly unsuitable for operations with the new generation of heavy bombers. As a result 97 Sqn moved to the recently completed airfield at nearby Woodhall Spa; in fact the runway there was already being used by Coningsby’s Hampdens and Manchesters during times of bad weather.
In May 1942 both Sqns took part in Bomber Command’s first 1000 aircraft raid against Cologne. It was just prior to the change of aircraft that 106 Sqn received its new Commanding Officer, Wg Cdr Guy Gibson, newly promoted, and fresh from night fighter duties with 29(F) Sqn on Bristol Beaufighters. He was to go on to lead one of the RAF’s most famous Sqns, number 617, and win the Victoria Cross for his role in the Ruhr Dams Raid. Gibson seems to have been an unpopular figure at Coningsby, being regarded by some as a glory seeker, but there is no denying his courage. In a special attack carried out by nine aircraft of 106 Sqn against the port of Gdynia where the new German aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin was being fitted out, Gibson made 12 runs over the haze covered target in an attempt to locate the carrier and drop a special 5600lb anti-shipping bomb. The Graf Zeppelin survived the attack, however it was never to sail.
Following the raid 106 Sqn departed for Woodhall Spa and major construction work commenced at Coningsby, including the laying of three runways and the erection of four more hangars. The station was closed for operational flying for almost a year but full use was made of its facilities. It became the temporary home to a number of ground schools, including the 5 Group Training School, 5 Group Gee schools and Bomber Command’s Field Cookery School. During spring 1943 the new runways were used by 1514 BAT Flight with its Ansons and Oxfords.
August 1943 heralded a new chapter in Coningsby’s history with the re-opening of the airfield for bomber operations. 617 Sqn arrived on 30th August from Scampton and continued in its role as a specialist bombing squadron, its first post move target being the Dortmund-Ems canal and in particular a stretch near Greven which was thought to be particularly vulnerable. Eight Lancasters armed with 12000lb bombs left for the target on 14th September, however a reconnaissance Mosquito reported bad visibility over the target and the aircraft were recalled. At the time they were flying low over the North Sea and one, flown by Sqn Ldr Dave Maltby, crashed into the water; sadly there were no survivors.
The raid was mounted again the following night, with eight Lancasters forming two groups of four for a low level approach. 20 miles from the target Sqn Ldr George Holdens aircraft was hit by light flak, igniting the petrol tank. The aircraft crashed into a farm house, its bomb exploding, sadly killing a number of civilians as well as the crew. Over the target visibility was again poor and although two 12000lb bombs hit the canal, little visible damage was recorded. The flak defences brought down another four Lancasters, several crew survived and one evaded capture, returning to England several months later. Among those killed were the six men with whom Gibson had flown the Dams raid.
Despite the beating 617 had taken, it was back in action the following night, joining forces with 619 Sqn from Woodhall Spa for an attack on the Antheor viaduct on the French Riviera. It was an unsuccessful attack, however all aircraft returned safely. 617 Sqn tried again in November and although hits were observed on the target, it again survived. Soon afterwards, Leonard Cheshire, another of Bomber Command’s legends, was appointed as 617’s Commanding Officer. He'd been itching to get back to operations following a spell as a Station Commander with 6 Group, he had to drop a rank to Wing Commander to join 617 Sqn.
617 Sqn mounted several more raids from Coningsby before it moved in January 1944 to its final home of WWII, Woodhall Spa. 619 Sqn took its place at Coningsby, only to depart to Dunholme Lodge after a stay of just four months. The changes coincided with the formation of 54 Base headquarters at Coningsby, which had Metheringham and Woodhall Spa as its satellite airfields. 1514 BAT Flight had also departed by this time, moving to Fiskerton, and being replaced by 61 Sqn from Skellingthorpe.
Both squadrons were to play a role in the final stages of the Battle of Berlin from their new home, with nine aircraft and a number of crews members lost.
The spring of 1944 saw a pivotal evolution in Bomber Command tactics, this having particular significance for Coningsby. Following an attack by 144 5 Group Lancasters against an aircraft factory in Toulouse, where the group provided its own marking force resulting in the small target being successfully hit; permission was given to 5 Group’s AOC (Air Vice Marshall Cochrane) for his squadrons to act in a semi independent role. Two of 8 Group’s Pathfinder squadrons, 83 and 97 were released and joined 5 Group along with a specialist marker squadron, 627 with the Mosquito. 627 Sqn went to Woodhall Spa to join 617, 83 and 97 went to Coningsby, from where they were to operate with resounding success during the final fifteen months of the War.
Guy Gibson returned to Coningsby during the summer of 1944, this time as 54 Base Air Staff Officer and although predominately a desk job, he still managed to fly occasionally and flew operationally on at least three occasions from Coningsby in marker aircraft; twice in a P-38 and once in a Mosquito. It was in his capacity as 54 Base ASO that he chose to fly a Mosquito from Woodhall Spa as master bomber in a raid against Munchen Gladbach on 19th/20th September 1944. Having completed the bombing raid Gibson went on to check anti aircraft positions, sadly the mosquito crashed, killing both Gibson and his navigator Sqn Ldr J.B. Warwick.
The Coningsby squadrons ended their war on the night of 25th/26th April 1945 in an all 5 Group attack against an oil refinery at Tonsberg in southern Norway. Accurate marking enabled the target to be almost completely destroyed in what proved to be the last major Bomber Command operation of the war.
Post war and the dawn of the jet age
In the immediate period following the cessation of hostilities in Europe and the Far East, 83 Sqn remained at Coningsby with Lancaster IIIs until July 1946 when they re-equipped with the Lancaster’s Griffon engined big brother the Lincoln, moving from Coningsby to their new base at RAF Hemswell in the process. From July 1946 a new shape was seen in the air around Coningsby, Mosquitoes of 109 and 139 Sqns, 231 OCU and the 'Highball Trials Flight' became a regular sight in the area. 'Highball' was a smaller anti shipping version of the dam busting 'Upkeep' bouncing bomb, both of which remained secret under the 30 year rule along with 'Ultra', the code breaking of the German 'enigma' machine until 1974.
During March and April of 1950 the Mosquitoes left the Station and a period of relative inactivity descended for just over six months, before the arrival in October of 149 Sqn, followed by, in February and April 1951, XV and 44 Sqns, and in April 1952, 57 Sqn, collectively flying a total of 32 Washington B.1s, better known by its American designation of Boeing B-29 Super Fortress. The Washington remained in use until the arrival of the Canberra B.2 during early 1953, with 44, 57, and 149, Sqns. It was also home to the Bomber Command Jet Conversion Unit, from April to November 1953. During 1954 a frenetic period of work was carried out on the Station, with all areas receiving attention, including the runway which was re-laid and extended. The airfield was closed for the work and was not fully reopened until 1956 with the main runway increased to a length of 9000 ft, a width of 200 ft and a widened 6000 ft subsidiary runway.
The Station became home to 249 (Designate) Sqn for a short period between August and October of 1957, while they worked up on the Canberra prior to deploying to their regular operating base of Akrotiri in Cyprus. It was also the Home of the Bomber Command Air Crew Holding Unit from December 1957 to 1 April 1959.
A change in aircraft type occurred during 1961 when the based IX and 12 Sqns handed in their Canberra's, and joined by newly arrived 35 Sqn became part of the RAF’s nuclear deterrent 'V' Force flying the Vulcan B.2.
During 1963 RAF Coningsby was awarded the freedom of the Borough of Boston, the famous "Stump" being only ten miles away and a well known landmark. These three squadrons remained based at RAF Coningsby until they dispersed to new premises at RAF Cottesmore during November 1964. The station had been identified as the prospective main operating base for the RAF’s new aircraft, the TSR.2., however, the untimely and some would say scandalous cancellation of the TSR.2 left Coningsby’s future in the balance and by the end of 1964 the Station was under care and maintenance.
In 1966 RAF Coningsby was selected to become the initial operating base, and house the Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) for the F-4 Phantom and consequently the Station was transferred from Bomber to Fighter Command. The station underwent another huge programme of works to ready it for its new charges. In December 1967 it was transferred to Air Support Command, and at the same time the first conversion courses for Ground Crew were commenced under the banner of Number 5 School of Technical Training. This in turn became number 3 Sqn of 228 OCU.
Command changed again on 1st April 1968 with the Station coming under the auspices of Strike Command. The first Phantom FGR.2, as it was described in RAF terminology, arrived during August 1968 and the first aircrew conversion course carried out by 228 OCU was commenced during the following October. The first Sqn to convert to the Phantom was 6 Sqn during May 1969, and was closely followed by 54 Sqn during the September of that year. Both remained based at Coningsby operating the Phantom in the ground attack role until their disbandment during 1974, when they reformed on the Jaguar. 41 Sqn formed at Coningsby during April 1972 and remained at Coningsby until their disbandment and subsequent reformation on the Jaguar during 1977. 41 Sqn shared a unique position in the RAF Phantom force with only II(AC) Sqn, in performing photo reconnaissance for the RAF carrying the EMI Recce pod. It should be noted that the other ground attack Phantom Sqns, based in Germany (II, 14, 17, and 31 Sqns) at RAF Bruggen all formed `in theatre` after air crew conversion with 228 OCU.
In October 1974 the Station changed hats with a change of role, from ground attack/recce to air defence, and a change of command from 38 Group Strike Command to 11 Group Strike Command. The conversion of ground attack Sqns to the Anglo-French Sepecat Jaguar was well under way, and the Phantom was now expected to fulfil its potential, swing its role, and become an air defence fighter aircraft. The first Sqn to convert to the Phantom for air defence was 111 Sqn who relinquished their short-legged Lightning's, and formed at Coningsby on 1st October 1974, before moving back north of the border to RAF Leuchars during November 1975. Their compatriots at Leuchars, 43 Sqn, also providing Northern 'Q' (Quick Reaction Alert), had already formed with FG.1 Phantoms during September 1969 at Leuchars. January 1st 1975 saw the 'Triplex' marked Phantoms of 29 Sqn take up the Phantom and operate the aircraft non stop at the station until their disbandment in 1987. 23 Sqn reformed at Coningsby on 1st November 1975 and remained at the Station until their move to RAF Wattisham in February 1976. During March 1976 the last Sqn to convert to the Phantom, 56, began training on type, and stood up during June that year, and they followed 23 Sqn to RAF Wattisham during July 1976.
Life at Coningsby quietened slightly from the hustle and bustle of converting so many Sqns. 29 Sqn shared the duties of Southern 'Q' with the Sqns at Wattisham and 228 OCU continued to provide the vital conversion training of pilots to type, while the instructor pilots and navigators maintained their own proficiency and readiness to react in a conflict under their shadow designation of 64 Sqn. 1976 also saw the arrival of a new set of residents that in one way reflected the sacrifices of the early war years. On 1st March 1976 The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight arrived at Coningsby from its previous base of RAF Coltishall. The Memorial Flight consists of Lancaster PA474, five Spitfires of various marks, a brace of Mk II Hurricanes, a C-47 Dakota, and a pair of Chipmunks, vital for maintaining 'tail dragger' currency in a world of fast jets and tricycle undercarriage.
In 1977 Her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret became the Honorary Air Commodore of RAF Coningsby, and carried out official visits to the Station on a bi annual basis until her death on 15th February 2002.
RAF Coningsby Royal Visit 1979
From Left to Right: Gp Cpt JC Sprent, Flt Lt P Congdon, HRH The Princess Margaret,
Flt Sgt G Masterson, Senior Aircraftsman Pete Thompson
During June 1981 the airfield hardening programme commenced at Coningsby. The programme's main purpose was to harden facilities used by aircraft and ground personnel, in particular the provision of Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS's). The runway was re-surfaced between March and October 1984 and aircraft were deployed to RAF Waddington. The programme was finally completed and the airfield handed back during October 1984.
November 1984 saw the arrival of another new shape in the skies over Lincolnshire. 229 OCU (65 Sqn) began training up with the F.2 variant of the aircraft and preparing to take over the training of pilots in the air defence role. During April 1987 29 Sqn disbanded on the Phantom and became the first operational air defence Sqn on the Tornado F.3. Also during April of that year Coningsby’s 19 year association with the Phantom came to an end with the OCU moving to RAF Leuchars. 1st January 1988 saw the arrival of 5 Sqn and its aircraft, having disbanded as a Lightning Sqn on 31st December 1987 at RAF Binbrook. Training continued apace and although Sqns stood up they did so at their home bases, 43 and 111 Sqns at Leuchars, 11 and 25 Sqns at Leeming etc. The OCU underwent a change during July 1992. In line with the policy of re-numbering OCUs as reserve Sqns, 229 OCU became 56(R) Sqn.
Tornado became a way of life at Coningsby with all the associated ephemera, although the Tornado's Turbo-Union RB 199 engine had a specialist strip down and repair facility built at the former Dam Busters base at RAF Woodhall Spa. 5 and 29 Sqn both became involved in the first Gulf war of 1990/91, deploying to the region for three months to provide air defence for coalition air forces, with both squadrons being based at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.
The pair also became involved with out of area operations during Operation DENY FLIGHT. This involved both Sqns flying from the Italian airbase at Gioia Del Colle and policing the no fly zone over Bosnia Herzegovina. At the same time as this operation was ongoing, both Station and Sqn personnel were still providing manpower for the support of the four aircraft in the Falkland Islands at Mount Pleasant Airport, and 5 Sqn was forward deployed to Al Kharj Air Force Base Saudi Arabia, about 80 Km south of Riyadh.
Coningsby then went through a period whereby there appeared to be no good news. The Strategic Defence Review had long hung over the RAF and as a consequence of this review 29 Sqn was disbanded during October 1998. Difficult times continued and 5 Sqn followed, disbanding during September 2002. 56(R) Sqn survived but moved out lock stock and barrel, to RAF Leuchars, and with the subsequent refurbishment work that was undertaken on the runway the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight moved out throughout the summer of 2003 leaving the Station probably as quiet as it had been at any point during the preceding 35 years. This may have given the impression that the Station was on the long road to obscurity and perhaps closure, however behind the scenes work was afoot that would pave the way for Coningsby to again become a hive of activity.
The first sign of this was the relocation to the base of the Strike Attack Operational Evaluation Unit (SAOEU) which was quickly renamed the Fast Jet and Weapons Operational Evaluation Unit (FJ&WOEU). Operating (at the time) a mix of Jaguar GR.3, Tornado GR.4 & F.3 and Harrier GR.7/9 aircraft they are the RAF’s frontline trials and test team, trialling new developments and modifications and developing the tactics for use by the frontline pilot to deliver his weapon, accurately, on target, on time, and most of all safely for the pilot and his aircraft.
Coningsby began its life as a bomber base during the dark days of the Second World War, and has over the past 35 transformed through to today becoming the RAF’s foremost fighter base. RAF Coningsby, now part of 1 Group Strike Command, is one of three air defence bases in the United Kingdom, but is all the more important in that Coningsby is the home of the Eurofighter consortiums swing role fighter, the Typhoon.
Typhoon is air defence for the 21st century, giving the pilot care free handling over the full flight envelope whilst carrying a wide array of weapons. Its gestation may have been prolonged, the birth difficult and interfered with, but the end product is the most advanced swing role combat aircraft that is available today.
The history of Coningsby entered a new phase with the relocation of 17(R) Sqn from BAe Warton. The Operational Evaluation Unit, 17(R) Sqn arrived at Coningsby on the 1st April 2005 and was tasked with bringing the type into service. Their first task was to prepare the cadre of pilots that would form the Operational Conversion Unit that would eventually train all RAF pilots on type. Consequently, on the 4th November 2005 29(R) Sqn stood up and took on the role of pilot training, allowing 17(R) to concentrate on tactics and operational doctrine for the aircraft.
The third Sqn to form, but the first to fly the Typhoon operationally is 3(F) Sqn. Having transitioned from the Harrier at Cottesmore, 3(F) formed at Coningsby on the 31st March 2006. On the same day the Fast Jet and Weapons OEU (FJ&WOEU) became number 41(R) Sqn, having given up their Jaguars at Coltishall. The following day, 6 Sqn flew their Jaguar aircraft from Coltishall to their new home at Coningsby - a busy year followed for the personnel of the Sqn before a somewhat hasty and controversial disbandment; the last Jaguar flights took place during June, however 6 Sqn is expected to reform on the Typhoon during 2009 before departing to a new home at Leuchars. The second operational Sqn, XI(F), stood up on 29th March 2007 and will remain at Coningsby.
The 1st April 2006 also gave rise to a revised concept to RAF operations, when 121 Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) was formed at the Coningsby. This concept is designed to provide deployable, interoperable and capable air power. Coningsby is one of nine RAF Stations which will train their individual units to be able to perform in multi role operations.
What does the future hold for Coningsby? The future of the RAF’s 'Fightertown' appears to be, in military terms, fairly secure. It has many years of work to do in training and operating the Typhoon, and while the iconic Jaguar has now passed into history, the Station will continue to operate possibly the most diverse inventory of aircraft that any RAF station can boast. Where else is there the possibility of surveying the circuit to see a Spitfire downwind, a Lancaster crewing up for a display or a Harrier performing a vertical landing, with a Typhoon turning finals and a Tornado in the distance on a PAR or ILS approach?
The motto of RAF Coningsby is 'Loyalty Binds Me'. There is no doubt that little loyalty is required to bind the casual observer or enthusiast alike to this, the RAF’s Premier Fighter base, RAF Coningsby.
© On Target Aviation 2008