RAF Wittering crest

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RAF Wittering can be found located alongside the A1 Great North Road, some 3 miles south east of the fine Georgian stone town of Stamford.

The Early Days

The first airfield established on Wittering Heath was called Stamford after the local town. Opened in 1916 the first unit to be based was Number 38 (Home Defence) Squadron, formed at Castle Bromwich and commanded by Major Arthur Harris RFC (Later to become Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris, Commander in Chief of Bomber Command during the second World War). Harris selected Wittering as an Ideal site to locate fighters to beat of attacks on the East of England by Zeppelin and Schutte-Lanz airships. In July 1917 No1 Training Depot Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was established at Wittering tasked with the training of Airmen for the Western front, with No 5 Training Depot RFC nearby at Easton on the Hill. During this period, the Aerodrome housed a variety of types, including the Avro 504, RE8, FE2b, Sopwith Camel and Pup, and the Bristol DH4 and DH6.

On the 1st April 1918 The Royal Air force came into being with the amalgamation of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. On the 10 April 1918, Stamford and Easton on the Hill changed their names; Easton on the Hill became RAF Collyweston, and Stamford, RAF Wittering.

With the end of the war Collyweston continued as a flying training base while Wittering became a storage depot and was subsequently closed and placed under care and maintenance in January 1920.

Between the Wars

While under care and maintenance a vast amount of the bases infrastructure was dismantled. Wittering was saved however with an expansion to the Home Defence Forces in Southern England, which in turn required a new home to be found for the Central Flying School then based at Upavon. The 1st May 1924 saw a huge programme of works commenced at Wittering to ready the station for its new role, and just two years later in 1926 the School reopened with the start of number 21 course. The prime role of the Central Flying School then as it is now was to train flying instructors.

Prior to 1930 the RAF was a 'Fair Weather' service and RAF pilots were not trained, nor were the aircraft equipped to carry out instrument flying. Following an exchange with the French Air Force, Flying Officer Johnstone returned to Wittering and began a series of experiments, with a hood covering the cockpit of an AVRO 504, into instrument flying. This was so successful that instrument flying courses were introduced to the CFS Flying Instructors course syllabus. One can only imagine the drastic effect this would have placed upon the RAF had this skill not been available only a few years later.

During October 1935 Number 11 Flying Training School was formed and would remain at the airfield until 1938
During July 1936 Wittering received its first Royal visitor with the arrival of King Edward VIII and his brother the Duke of York (later to be King George V), accompanied by Sir Edward Ellington the Chief of the Air Staff, who flew into Wittering aboard The Kings own Dragon Rapide, in doing so becoming Britain’s first flying reigning monarch.
In October 1937 Wittering played host to a group who a mere few years later would not have been so warmly welcomed. The German Air Force Mission was allowed to carry out an inspection of the RAF training system. Included in the visiting party were, General Der Flieger Erhard Milch, Germany’s Secretary of State for Air, and World War One Fighter Ace General Major Ernst Udet now the Luftwaffe’s Technical Department Director.

With war clouds looming over Europe, in 1938 Wittering's role changed again. With the departure of 11 Flying Training School and the arrival of 23 Squadron with Hawker Demons, and 213 Squadron with Gloster Gauntlets. These were soon replaced with 23 Squadron receiving the Bristol Blenheim, and 213 with the Hawker Hurricane. During the early months of 1939 both squadrons practiced and took part in exercises to improve their combat readiness. By September that year, the station was ready.

The Second World War

For the most part the War got of to a quiet start for Wittering. Work was carried out on the airfield at Collyweston and the station was visited by HRH Duchess of Gloucester, who inspected the 70 or so WAAF whom she was Commandant of.

213 Squadron were detached to Biggin Hill to assist in the provision of air cover for the retreating British Expeditionary Force, returning to Wittering in May 1940. On the 19th June 23 Squadron Claimed two kills, one each for Sqn Ldr O'Brien, and Fg Off O'Rouke, these being the first aircraft downed by Aircraft and crews from Wittering.

During the period to September 1940 movements of Squadrons happened regularly. 266 Sqn arrived at Colleyweston, and 213 Sqn at Wittering was replaced by 229 Sqn (Hurricanes) who were then replaced by 1 Sqn (Hurricanes). During October 1940 1 Sqn claimed six enemy aircraft downed, or as probable kills. It was during October that the station received its own first direct attacks when it suffered two separate Incendiary raids, neither of which caused any damage.

The latter months of the year witnessed the departure of 1, 23 and 213 Sqn`s and the arrival of 151 Sqn (Defiants and Hurricanes) and 25 Sqn (Blenheims and Beaufighters). The new squadrons were primarily employed in the night fighter role and claimed the first of their kills on 16th January 1941, when Plt Off Stevens in a 151 Sqn Hurricane shot down two enemy aircraft for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Wittering was again attacked, this time quite heavily, on the 14th March 1941 when a lone raider dropped 500lb bombs and incendiaries on the station with the loss of 17 lives.

April and May of 1941 saw continued success for Wittering's Sqns, claiming 30 aircraft destroyed and another 6 as damaged or probable's. Further attacks on the station during this period resulted in the deaths of 6 Officers and Airmen. In June 266 Sqn, who had arrived with their Spitfires the previous August, Carried out fighter sweeps over occupied Europe downing 4 enemy aircraft for the loss of one Spitfire.

Wittering then became involved with the development of various night fighting techniques, and attempts to assist with the camouflage of aircraft at night, as it had been discovered that the practice of painting the aircraft black was of little or no use, as the black aircraft appeared as a shadow against the night sky. Other colours were trialled and eventually a scheme consisting of dirty white wing leading edges with the rest of the airframe in a blue grey was settled upon. Both Fighter command and Farnborough had reservations about this but it was eventually adopted as the standard fighter command scheme.

Another innovation experimented with at Wittering was the 'Turbinlight' Havoc. This scheme involved a Havoc aircraft escorted by a brace of Hurricanes. Mounted in the nose of the Havoc was a high intensity searchlight. The enemy aircraft would have been observed on radar, and the Havoc vectored into position on its tail. One of the Hurricanes would dive towards the area of the target, the Havoc would then illuminate the enemy aircraft with the searchlight and the Hurricane would press home the attack on the illuminated enemy. Theory unfortunately could not be translated in to any kind of reality and the idea was soon dropped.

During 1943 the decision to amalgamate the two stations of Colleyweston and Wittering was taken. The two airfields were joined using a considerable amount of effort in removing hedgerows, and lines of trees, and filling ditches. The finished result provided a flat airfield with a usable length of 3 miles from its boundary to the east with the A1 Great North road.

1943 also witnessed the formation of several specialist units at Wittering. Possibly the least known of these was 1426 EAC Flight, The Captured Enemy Aircraft Flight. Unofficially known as the 'Rafwaffe', the unit operated Heinkel 111, Junkers 88, Messerschmitt Me109, and Focke Wulf Fw190 aircraft, all with RAF roundels applied and codes applied. The flight was an informative flying circus, which would travel the length and breadth of the country giving demonstrations, and briefings on the capabilities of the aircraft.

Also formed were the Air Fighting Development unit and the Naval Air fighting Development Unit. These two units were tasked to carry out various tests on a variety of aircraft as they entered service. Spitfires, Hurricanes, Seafires, Tempests, Typhoons, Mosquito’s, Mustangs and Meteors were all trialled before the units were absorbed into the Central Fighter Establishment, and the unit moved to Tangmere in 1945.

American Aircraft arrived and operated from Wittering late in 1943, when long range P-38 Lightning fighters of the 55th Fighter Sqn arrived. The 55th carried out attacks on enemy rail locomotives. During one mission in April 1945, Colonel Cy Wilson destroyed six locomotives and damaged another three.

The American presence remained until October 1945 when the unit was rapidly run down and returned stateside.
One of the final uses of the airfield in 1945 was by Martin Baker Aircraft Limited, who, on 11th May that year, conducted the first test of a dummy ejection seat, in preparation for the first live ejection by Mr Bernard Lynch on 24th July 1946.

By the cessation of hostilities in Europe on 8th May 1945 there were no frontline fighter squadrons based at Wittering and it was transferred to Flying Training Command. During May 1945 two personnel reception centres were set up to repatriate ex-POW’s returning initially from Germany and later from Japan.
The Squadrons based at Wittering during the war period claimed 151 enemy aircraft shot down, which with claims for damaged and probable's that number totalled 358. This figure included 88 V-1 flying Bombs.

Wittering Post War

The period immediately after the war saw little if any flying. This situation changed in 1946 when Wittering rejoined Fighter command, and received five squadrons. Two of these Squadrons 23 and 141 had been previously based at Wittering and brought their Mosquito’s with them. 19, 41, 264 Squadrons were the other new residents.
This sudden burst of activity did not last long and by the middle of 1947 they had moved out.

On February 20th 1948 Wittering returned to Flying Training Command, and had various other units lodging along side it, such as Number one Initial Training School, and Number 23 Group School of Instructional Technique. Neither of these had any longevity and by the time Maintenance Command had taken over in April 1950 both these units had moved elsewhere.

June 1950 saw the formation of the Central Servicing Development Establishment, which remained in situ until 1953. However, all these comings and goings aside the most important event to occur at Wittering during the early 1950’s was the laying of a new concrete runway. This determined the future role for the station, as on the 1st December 1952 Wittering became a station within 3 Group Bomber Command.

Grappling With The Cold War

The first of Wittering's new squadrons soon arrived, with 49, 61, and 100 Squadrons all arriving during July and August of 1953. All were equipped with the Avro Lincoln, and the short period that the aircraft was in service at Wittering they were employed on anti terrorist duties in Kenya against the Mau Mau Guerrillas.

40 Squadron arrived in November 1953 and brought with a new shape and sound to the skies above Wittering, the English Electric Canberra. 49 Squadron re-equipped with Canberra’s in the same month before they departed to Upwood in early 1954. By the end of August 1954 the remaining Lincoln Squadrons, 61, and 100 had both converted to the new aircraft.

The 1st of August 1953 saw the creation of one of Wittering's most famous residents. The Bomber Command Armament School was formed with the intent to deliver armament training and technical support to the ground crews of the RAF’s new fleet of 'V' bombers, the Vulcan, Victor and Valiant. This unit was later known as the RAF Armament Support Unit (RAFASUPU) and was responsible for the safe transport of Nuclear weapons for both the RAF and Royal Navy, until March 2002 when it disbanded and its duties were taken on by the MoD Police.

Wittering’s V bombers soon made an appearance with 138 Sqn arriving in July 1955, to replace 61 Sqn. During the autumn of that year the Squadron was detached to Malta where they took part in attacking Egyptian forces during ‘Operation Musketeer’ the assault phase of the ill fated Suez operation.

Trials and tests became a way of life for Wittering’s aircraft and during 1955 49 Sqn was formed with the Valiant aircraft. Crews from this Sqn participated in 'Operation Buffalo' in 1956, when two Valiant aircraft were involved with the dropping of the United Kingdoms first Atomic weapons on the Maralinga range in Australia. During 1957 and 1958 the Sqn participated in a detachment to Christmas Island in the Pacific, to take part in ‘Operation Grapple’ to carry out testing with Hydrogen bombs.

September 1959 saw 49 Sqn depart on an extended tour of the Middle East, the Far East and Australasia. Back in the United Kingdom, during the same month 100 Sqn disbanded at Wittering.

During 1961, the freedom of the town of Stamford was conferred on the station as a mark of recognition during the town’s quincentenary year and a parade was held to mark the occasion.

Sadly during 1962 metal fatigue brought a premature end to the career of the Valiant. The aircraft were replaced at Wittering by Victor B2's. No 139 Sqn formed the first Victor B2 squadron at Wittering during February of 1962, closely followed by 100 Sqn in May of that year. These Sqn’s were the first to be equipped with the 'Blue Steel' standoff missile, which provided part of the United Kingdoms nuclear deterrent force during the 1960’s.

The squadrons undertook many overseas detachments visiting such far of places as Mexico, Jamaica, New Zealand, and Canada. 139 Sqn was also given the honour to fly the very first mission for the newly formed Strike Command when at 0001 hrs on the 30th April 1968 they launched a Victor aircraft from Wittering.

During 1968 the Victors left Wittering when the Royal Navy assumed the role of strategic nuclear deterrent for the United Kingdom.

The Dawn of a New Era

The era of vertical take off at Wittering began with the arrival of 230 Sqn during March 1969 with its Whirlwind Helicopters from Odiham. Far more significant was the arrival of 1(F) Sqn and its Harrier GR1’s during the August of that year. Unique in the fact that it operated vertical take off and landing aircraft (VTOL) 1(F) busied itself with gaining initial operating capability. Meanwhile the Harrier Conversion Team, worked to give the initial conversion to type to pilots. This was soon replaced by 233 operational Conversion Unit (OCU). The Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race of 1969 provided a perfect opportunity for the capabilities of the new aircraft to be demonstrated to a worldwide audience. Taking off from a dusty, disused, coal yard by St Pancras station, Sqn Ldr Tom Lecky-Thomson, flew the fourth production Harrier GR1 (XV 741) from London to New York in a time of 5 hours 57 minutes. The aircrafts arrival in the centre of down town New York made the desired impression just at the time that a US Marine Corps order for the aircraft was before Congress. Needless to say the Marines got their aircraft.
The concept for operations with the Harrier was that it should be as close to the Forward Edge of the Battlefield Area (FEBA) to allow the aircraft to be operated in close support to the front line Army units that needed it.

The force in the field would be protected by the RAF Regiment, and as a result No 5 Wing RAF Regiment was formed at Wittering in October 1970 and was made up of No15 and No 51 Field Squadron RAF Regiment.
Wittering saw more comings and goings between 1971 and 1973. 230 Sqn re-equipped with the Puma Helicopter and returned to Odiham where it remained until it re-acquainted itself with the Harrier at Gutersloh in 1980.

Moving into Wittering in 1972 were 45 and 58 Sqn both flying the Hunter FGA9 in the training role, teaching the art of ground attack to pilots prior to them going on to the Harrier, Jaguar, or Buccaneer. Both Sqn’s remained at Wittering until their disbandment in 1976.

During 1982, 5 Wing RAF Regiment left Wittering but continued to support Harrier operations. They were not destined to be apart long as a set of remote islands in the southern ocean, with a title disputed by both the United kingdom and Argentina, was about to test the skill and resolve, not least of 1(F) Sqn and their Harriers.

I Counted Them All Out…………………..

Early on the morning of the 2nd of April 1982 Argentinean air, sea, and land forces invaded the Falkland Islands, a group of small islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. On the same day Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced the formation of a Task Force to retake the islands should diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation come to nothing.

1 (F) Sqn prepared for their mission to the South Atlantic. 14 Aircraft were chosen. Test flights were carried out carrying Aim 9 Sidewinder missiles for self-defence, and two inch rocket pods as used by the Royal Navy, because of concerns about the reliability of the RAF’s SNEB pods in the electronic environment aboard ship. The aircraft themselves had work carried out, ranging from the fitting of a transponder to allow ships radar to pick up an enhanced signature to holes being drilled and surfaces being greased to prevent the build up of salt water with its associated aluminium corroding properties.

On the 3rd May 1982 nine Harrier GR3’s flew from Wittering to St Mawgan, and then with the support of Victor Tanker aircraft flew the 4260 miles to Ascension Island. This nine-hour flight necessitated five air-to-air refuelling's and was a record in terms of time and distance flown in the Harrier.

Three Harriers were left at Ascension as Six were flown onto the cargo Carrier 'Atlantic Conveyor' and wrapped in heavy-duty rubber bags to afford them some protection from the elements in the southern seas. Atlantic Conveyor got the aircraft to 52 degrees South on 18th May 1982 with reach of the Carriers HMS Hermes and HMS Invincible. The aircraft were readied and over the next two days they took off from the small pad behind Atlantic Conveyors foremast and flew to HMS Hermes. What is most remarkable is the fact the 1(F) pilots had never made a carrier landing before. From 19 May 1982, 1(F) Sqn was tasked with its forte, ground attack while the Royal Navy Sea Harriers were left to Combat Air Patrols. Four More Harrier GR3 followed shortly afterwards bringing the force in theatre to ten.

On 13th June 1982, (F) Sqn with its Harrier GR3 aircraft became the first RAF Squadron to drop a laser-guided weapon in anger (XZ997 now in the RAF Museums 'Milestones of Flight' exhibition).

During the conflict 1(F) lost three aircraft to ground fire with no loss of life, and no aircraft were lost in air to air combat.

With the Surrender of Argentine forces on 15th June 1982, 1(F) Consolidated on Port Stanley’s airfield before returning home to Wittering in August 1982.

New Aircraft – Same Name.

In 1989 Wittering became home to a new type of Harrier. Working in partnership with McDonnell Douglas, British aerospace produced the Harrier GR5. An all-new aircraft, it retained the unique capability to hover of its predecessor, while improving its combat capability. 1 (F) transitioned to this new aircraft, and then on to the GR7 which, in 1992, for the first time gave the Harrier the ability to fly using Night Vision Goggles and Forward looking Infra Red. On the 1st September 1992 233 OCU which had been responsible for pilot training since the very early days of the Harrier was renumbered as 20(R) Sqn.

Since receiving the new aircraft 1(F) deployed from Wittering on 'Operation Warden' between 1993 and 1995 policing the Iraqi Northern no Fly Zone. From 1996 to 2000 they flew missions in support of 'Operation Deny Flight' ' Operation Decisive Edge' and 'Operation Deliberate Forge' over the Balkans.

During 1997 and 1998 1(F) Harriers flew over Iraq as part of Operation Bolton flying from HMS Invincible.
In 1999 the squadron spearheaded the United Kingdoms response to a deteriorating Serbian/ Kosovan situation by deploying to Gioia del Colle southern Italy from where they flew over 850 missions during the 78 day long 'Operation Allied Force' over the Balkans. During this time they lost no aircraft or personnel.

In August 2000 1(F) departed Wittering traveling just a few miles up the road to RAF Cottesmore, as part of Joint Force Harrier, joining No 3 and 4 Sqns who were already stationed at Cottesmore.

Today and the Future

RAF Wittering continues to be the home base for 20(R) Sqn the Harrier Operational Conversion Unit, No 1 Tac STO HQ, and the assets that were formally based at RAF Stafford, most notably the RAF’s long distance Mechanical Transport Fleet of Two MT, easily identifiable by the Black stenciled outline of an elephant on their vehicles, Wittering also has a parenting responsibility for the MoD hospital unit at Peterborough District Hospital.

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