Norway comes to North Weald!
Andrew Bates looks at this historic airfield's recent 90th Anniversary fly-in, held on 20 August. Pictures by the author and Mike Kerr
In order to commemorate ninety years of flying at historic North Weald, an anniversary fly-in was held on Sunday 20 August, which attracted a wide variety of types throughout the day. Obviously a significant part of North Weald's history involved Royal Air Force operations, but unfortunately circumstances conspired to prevent the modern day RAF from attending. The planned 111 Squadron Tornado F3 went u/s and the Tucano pair from 72(R) Squadron were forced to return to Linton-on-Ouse after one of the aircraft was struck by lightning en-route. Fortunately, the stars of the show made it without a hitch, this being the welcome appearance of two Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16BMs. Between 1942 and 1944, two Norwegian squadrons (331 & 332) operated Spitfires out of North Weald, so it was quite fitting that their modern day counterparts were able to attend.
All the other participants were predominately privately owned historic and former military types, some flying in especially for the event, whilst the remainder were home-based and 'wheeled' out for the occasion. As the grey overcast of the morning gave way to the blue skies of the afternoon, a number of pilots were subsequently inclined to depart on local sorties to take advantage of the sunny conditions. Specific types on show ranged from multiple examples of Jet Provosts, Yaks, Bulldogs, to singleton types such as Broussard, Vampire, Seafire, P-51D and Cub. Indicative of North Weald's heritage, it was also nice to see a Spitfire in attendance, which was symbolically parked next to the F-16s.
North Weald's history with service flying dates from 1916 when a small airfield to the west of the village was established by the Royal Flying Corps for their home defence force, with the first unit to move in being a detachment from 39 (Home Defence) Squadron flying the Be2. During the period 1916-1918 the airfield was improved and enlarged as one of a number of airfields developed on the eastern approaches to London to help counter the threat from German airships. In fact, the first claim to be made by a pilot flying out of North Weald was made on 1 October 1916, when Second Lieutenant Tempest intercepted Zeppelin L31, which was already coned by searchlights, and shot it down over Potters Bar. He was awarded an immediate DSO.
With the end of the First World War, the newly formed RAF was dramatically cut back, so by the end of 1919 all the resident squadrons at North Weald had been disbanded, leaving the airfield devoid of aircraft. As a result, the next six years or so saw the airfield kept under care and maintenance, mainly used for grazing. However, during the mid-twenties the RAF gradually began to expand once again and subsequently one of the airfields selected for reopening and modernisation was North Weald. Reconstruction work began in 1926 with the fabrication of two 'A' type hangars along with much improved base facilities and living accommodation. The airfield officially re-opened on 27 September 1927 and, two weeks later, 56 Squadron moved in from Biggin Hill equipped with the Siskin IIIA, soon to be joined by 29 Squadron, also flying Siskins.
During the 1930s further modernisation work was carried out to bring the airfield up to improved service standards. Throughout this time, various squadrons moved in and out of North Weald, with the aircraft types operated gradually becoming more sophisticated. Siskins gave way to the Hawker Demon, then after the Gloster Gauntlet came the Gladiator, until 1938 when the first Hawker Hurricanes arrived. At this time of increasing tension in Europe the facilities at North Weald were further enhanced by the construction of two permanent runways, a perimeter track, additional blister hangars and improved fuel storage compounds, along with night landing facilities, so that by 1939 the airfield covered some 400 acres and it became 'E' sector station in No 11 Group.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, North Weald was home to two Hurricane squadrons, 56 and 151. On 28 September 1939 they were joined by the Bristol Blenheims of 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron. At the beginning of 1940, 604 Squadron was transferred to RAF Digby but they were soon replaced on 16 January with the arrival of 25 Squadron, another Blenheim unit. Also during the month, 111 Squadron, 'The Tremblers', arrived at Weald, bringing the total number of based Hurricane squadrons up to three. With the German invasion of the Low Countries in May 1940, all the North Weald Squadrons (25, 56, 111 and 151) were soon in the thick of the battle, flying from advanced bases in Belgium and France and, all too soon, covering the withdrawal at Dunkirk. During this period, operations were also regularly flown out of the satellite strip at Stapleford Tawney or from Rochford.
During the Battle of Britain, North Weald squadrons mounted daily patrols against Luftwaffe formations as they attacked coastal towns and shipping in the Channel, and latterly defended the airfields in the south-east from the onslaught. During the early weeks of the Battle it was 56 and 151 Squadrons that bore the brunt of the fighting from North Weald. At the end of August 1940 56 Squadron was transferred to Boscombe Down and 151 to Digby, these being replaced by 46 and 249 Squadrons. Like many fighter airfields, North Weald suffered its fair share of bombing - on 24 August it received around 200 bomb strikes causing considerable damage, with another attack occurring a week later on the 31st, although this was less severe. By far the heaviest attack was on the morning of 3 September, when both 25 and 249 Squadrons lost aircraft, whilst the operations room suffered a direct hit and was subsequently moved to Blake Hall near Bobbingworth where it remained for the rest of the war.
According to the Station Operations Record Book, claims by squadrons flying out of North Weald, or on detachment from the airfield during the Battle of Britain, amounted to 108 enemy aircraft destroyed, 68 probably destroyed and 65 damaged. At the same time, the squadrons lost 79 aircraft (to all causes) and a further 50 damaged, with 21 pilots either killed or missing.
In September 25 Squadron traded in their Blenheims for Bristol Beaufighters and by early October had moved to Debden, with the Hurricanes of 257 Squadron replacing them. Towards the end of 1940, 257 Squadron then moved out to make way for the return of 56 Squadron back to North Weald, where they remained until June 1941. Meanwhile, another Hurricane Squadron, 242, had arrived during the spring of 1941. Then, during that summer, a further three squadrons arrived at North Weald, the first being 71 Squadron. By this time North Weald's association with the Hurricane was coming to an end, and the first squadron to equip with Spitfires was 111. For the remainder of the war, most of the squadrons based at North Weald flew Spitfires, although 486 Squadron, flying Typhoons, was in residence for a short time during 1942, whilst the period from late 1943 to early 1944 saw several squadrons flying Mustangs on low-level reconnaissance missions.
As already related, two Norwegian Spitfire squadrons operated from North Weald, these being 331 and 332. 331 arrived in May 1942 followed a month later by 332 Squadron, both squadrons resident until March 1944. With the impending invasion of Europe, the two squadrons, along with 66 Squadron, which had only operated from North Weald for a short while, moved on 31 March to the advanced landing ground of Bognor. At the end of April 1944 three new squadrons, 33, 74, and 127, which were all fighter squadrons, arrived from the Middle East. However they did not stay long and had departed for Lympne in Kent by the middle of May. Then in August 1944 two Czech squadrons arrived, 310 & 312, whilst in the same month 234 Squadron also arrived, which had mainly operated within No 10 Group beforehand. No 312 Squadron departed to Bradwell Bay in October but was then replaced by another Czech unit, 313 Squadron. However by the end of the year, both the Czech squadrons had also moved out to join their compatriots at Bradwell Bay.
By 1945, with the Allied advance on the continent well established, the remainder of the war was a relatively quiet period at North Weald. Subsequently, by VE-Day, the airfield found itself transferred to 46 Group Transport Command and on 1 July 1945 it became home to two Polish squadrons, 301 & 304, flying Warwick CIII aircraft. However, North Weald's runways were not really suited to these heavily laden aircraft, which were employed on transport flights to the Mediterranean area and, as a result, they had moved out to Chedburgh on 4 September 1945. So, on 29 September, flying officially ceased at North Weald and the airfield was once again placed under care and maintenance, although some of the facilities were still used by the Aircrew Selection Board. In March 1949, North Weald once more returned to Fighter Command and, on the 27th, 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force returned with their Spitfire XVIs, to be joined the following day by 601 (County of London) Squadron, another Auxiliary unit flying the same type. At the end of the year both squadrons began conversion to the Vampire F3 and by March 1950, they had been joined by the Vampire FB5s of 72 Squadron.
The facilities at North Weald were further enhanced in 1951 to cater for the second generation of jet fighters that would soon be coming into service. The runways were extended with the provision of Operational Readiness Platforms at each end of the main runway and the control tower was modernised. Also, two T2 Hangars were transferred from nearby disused former USAAF bomber bases and erected on the western side of the airfield and a new fighter pan was installed. This work was completed in the latter half of 1952, by which time the three resident squadrons had converted to the Meteor F8.
On 2 December 1953 111 Squadron reformed at North Weald on the Meteor F8 and by June 1955 had converted to the Hunter F4. Whilst under the command of Squadron Leader Roger Topp, who was very keen on aerobatics, 'Treble-One' became very proficient at aerobatic manoeuvres and quickly became famed as the 'Black Arrows'. They were consequently selected by RAF Fighter Command as its official aerobatics team in 1957, an honour which they held for the next three years.
Early in 1957 the Auxiliary Squadrons were disbanded (604 in February and 601 in March) leaving 'Treble-One' as the last operational RAF Squadron to serve at North Weald before it moved out to North Luffenham in March 1958. Once the last squadron had departed, the airfield was quickly run down with the last flying unit, the Station Flight, disbanding in July 1958 and the airfield yet again passed to care and maintenance in October 1958 before official closure in 1964.
Fortunately, this was not the end of flying activity at North Weald, and over the years the site has adapted to 'civvie' operations and developed into the thriving airfield it is today, with a number of well known operators basing themselves here, such as Aces High, Kennet Aviation, and of course, 'The Squadron' and their associated engineering company, North Weald Flying Services. Recently, this historic airfield was under threat of re-development to satisfy a need for further housing in the southeast, which would have been a great shame to say the least. However, a report published in June this year concluded that the proposed development of 6,000 houses on the site would be inappropriate. A number of reasons were cited, and notably, its historical value was given mention. Whist the recommendations will have to go for final governmental consultation, for the time being at least, the airfield has been given a welcome reprieve. With fingers crossed, perhaps we can look forward to a 100th Anniversary Fly-in in 2016.
(Historical data courtesy of North Weald Airfield Museum)