THE CONTRIBUTION OF FLIGHT
When the Wright Brothers first flew their heavier than air machine at Kittyhawk in December 1903, no one could have foreseen the impact that aircraft would have on the world. The huge scientific progress which followed was to affect not only the world of industry and politics, but was destined to reach into the lives of ordinary men and women all over the world, and even here in the Lancaster District in which we live.
Five years elapsed before a powered flight took place in England, but in just two short years the pace of progress quickened. The first sighting of an aircraft over the Lune valley and Clougha occurred about 2.25pm on July 25th 1911 during the Round Britain Air Race. Of thirty starters at Hendon, only three successfully flew north to York and Edinburgh, before returning south via Glasgow, Carlisle and on to Manchester. It was on this leg that a French pilot, Monsieur Vedrines in a Bleriot monoplane, followed the Lune down from Kirby Lonsdale to Aughton and Halton before turning south over Clougha, on a line following the modern M6. Great excitement was reported in the local population with people flocking to local hilltops in the area for a view of these intrepid aviators.
The following year saw the first aircraft land in the Scale Hall field at 7.20pm on Sunday 14th July, having circled Skerton. The aircraft drew large crowds and remained through Monday as an attraction, before setting off at 5.45pm for Carlisle, but bad weather forced a landing instead at Whitehaven. One can only imagine how strange these events must have been to the residents of the area at a time when few pictures appeared in newspapers, and postcards were the principal source of photography. As early as the spring of 1911 the Army General Staff had decided that this new form of transport might have military applications, and a unit of the Royal Engineers was tasked with investigating their potential. The romance of the air, which continues to attract so many people to the world of flying, was to change in the following three years. As the crowds thronged to this first aviation event in the District on that balmy July evening, no one could envisage the future purpose of this type of machine. The storm clouds were gathering over Europe.
On the 1 Apr 1911, the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers was formed at Larkhill in Wiltshire with No. 1 Company using Airships, Balloons and Kites and No. 2 Company equipped with aircraft. Just one year later the rapid growth of Army Aviation led to the formation of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) with No. 2 Company splitting in May 1912 to form the early squadron numbers of the RFC and subsequently RAF. The RFC assumed control of the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers and the Naval Air Organisation. The Corps included a Military Wing, Naval Wing, a Central Flying School, a Reserve and the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough. Under the command of Captain FM Sykes, the Military Wing was to compromise, among other things, a Headquarters, seven aeroplane squadrons and one airship and man-carrying kite squadron!
The contribution of local men of the Lancaster District to the subsequent Great War is still being researched. Undoubtedly the majority will have volunteered to serve with the local Regiments and Volunteer Corps, which fought in the horrendous trench warfare of the Western Front. Some will have worked with the very new technology of the aircraft, laying the foundations for each successive generation of men who have served in the Air Arms of our Country. To these men and women, this chapter is dedicated.
World War I
At the outbreak of the Great War the RFC was based primarily in the Home Counties, from where the wartime expansion into France and Belgium occurred. Little wonder then that our researches have turned up few references to the involvement of local men in the aerial war. Such airfields as did exist in other regions were often involved in flying training tasks, but only Catterick on the A1 in Yorkshire is listed in the North of England.
The survival rate for RFC personnel was much higher than for line infantry, and it is possible that more local men served in the Corps than we have been able to establish. Lancaster Guardian records make scant mention of the air war; a small number of aircraft appear as photographs, including some French seaplanes and two of Vickers Vimy bombers. From the Lancaster Guardian and other sources, the details of three local men are known, who here may serve as an illustration of their generation.
The Lancaster Guardian of 1st July 1916, carried an article headed "Skertonian in Flying Corps". "Second Mechanic George Redhead RFC, son of Mr T Redhead, 121, Main Street, Skerton enlisted in the 2/5th Battalion King's Own Royal Lancaster Regiment, was made Corporal in training at Ashford, and joined the RFC as a mechanic at Farnborough, leaving for the front in January 1916. On flying he says, 'its
fine going up as if sitting on nothing, it beats motor cars because there is no dust .. (but)
when the machine is planing down you get nervy..'. He says the best British machine surpasses the Fokker in speed and the Germans know they are being outclassed in the air. In reference to the reported loss of a machine piloted to Lille by mistake, he says a German pilot made the same mistake and landed at a British aerodrome recently". George was home on leave when he gave the interview, which was the basis for this article, and happily survived the war. The photograph on the left is a local photograph, and serves to illustrate the RFC uniform: unfortunately the airman is still at this time unidentified.
An illustration of the chivalry of war which still existed, is shown in a Lancaster Guardian extract of 8th July 1916, which forms a poignant footnote to the death of one of our earliest aviators. "A gold cigarette case, which belonged to the late 2nd Lt R Barton RFC of Carnforth, in whose possession it was, when he was unfortunately killed in an aerial combat and fell into the German lines, has been forwarded through the American Ambassador and the War Office to his father Mr AE Barton of Red Court Carnforth." Robert
Barton was serving with No 1 Squadron RFC, and flying on a long-range reconnaissance mission on 12th January 1916, when he was shot down over enemy lines.
The third of our trio, pictured above, is John Salmond, almost certainly the first man from the Kings Own Royal Lancaster Regiment to join the, he was to break the British Altitude record the following year (13,140 feet), and at the outbreak of war as a Major he commanded No 4 Squadron RFC. During the course of the war, John's career was little short of meteoric. In January 1918 he took over command of the RFC in France from Lord Trenchard as a Brigadier General, and on the formation of the RAF in April 1918 was appointed Air Vice Marshall, and subsequently led the RAF in the victory parade in 1919. He went on to become chief of the Air Staff by 1930, and ended his career in the highest possible rank as Marshall of the Royal Air Force Sir John Salmond GCB, CMG, CVO, DSO, LLD.
On 1st April 1918, following many months of deliberation the RFC and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) were merged to form a separate service and command structure, the Royal Air Force was born. With its creation the uniform changed from army khaki to the familiar air force blue, and the modern rank structure was also introduced; for example privates became airmen and lieutenants became flight lieutenants. So the Royal Air Force was born. Given the cartoon
above so was their sense of humour! It is dated 1918 and shows a bi-plane from The 9th Brigade RAF dropping Christmas Greetings over the battlefield - the RAF equivalent of the Tommies below playing football with the Germans?
Inter war years
After the Great War, and the demobilisation which followed, there were large numbers of aircraft surplus to military requirements, and many surplus trained pilots. The coming of peace, following the huge technical advances made in flying during the war, led to the great age of aerial expansion of world routes and record breaking attempts.
Internal air routes in Britain were also opened up to provide faster means of communication and a means of delivering letters; the first Air Mail routes where internal, and airfields where needed near all cities and population centres. The Lancaster Guardian chronicles the opening of airstrips on the White Lund near the munitions' factory, and at Grange over Sands, and Heaton with Oxcliffe. It is quite likely that summer holidays will have seen occasional visits of the barnstorming flying circuses of the time. These were used to show off the aerobatic skills of the retired military pilots, and thrill the next generation of boys destined to wear the blue uniform of the RAF in another great conflict. Sir Alan Cobham's Flying Circus is known to have visited in the 1930's.
The relative peace and rapid disarmament of the 1920's was all too soon followed by the need to re-arm and rebuild the air force following the recognition of the German re-armament programme from 1935 onwards. Locally, little activity had arisen from the civil flying expansion of the '20's; the airstrip on the White Lund remained largely inactive, and although it was considered for conversion into an aerodrome it was considered too small in 1937 for the modern generation of monoplanes then being developed.
World War II
Local area involvement in the growth and expansion of the RAF began later than in other parts of the country located nearer to the areas of likely threat. From 1935 onwards, and in spite of the appeasement process, the RAF began to improve its equipment and tactics with for example monoplanes replacing biplanes, and in line engines replacing radial engines. The re-organisation of the Air Defence Regions led to the establishment of No 9 Group at Barton Hall near Preston, and the identifying of sites for new airfields and RAF units in the North West. For the first time, local people in the North Lancashire area became involved with the support of RAF units. A comprehensive list of RAF locations used during the War appears at the end of this section.
The arrival of the RAF in Morecambe during the war is well remembered by local residents even today. Several members of the RAF Association Morecambe Branch have fond memories of the times, and live in the area today because of their wartime introduction, in some cases meeting their wives and husbands during training here. The first unit magazine entitled "Morecambe Wings" was produced in November 1941 with an introduction from the Station Commander Group Captain WV Strugnell. Several issues survive today in Morecambe Library.
No 9 School of Technical Training opened in November 1939 training flight mechanics and riggers. The White Lund site with its grass strip was utilised for the stripping and re-building of aircraft which were brought to the site on RAF "Queen Mary's". Three hangars were used for this work, but local garages were also used to give additional practical experience to the trainees. The Airstrip was almost certainly too short for take off and landing, but taxi tests and training for aircraft movements on the ground were conducted on the site. Those days are very fondly remembered by Bill Ray who after training served throughout the war in India and Burma as a Leading Aircraftman servicing aircraft engines.
The Headquarters for the unit was in the Clarendon Hotel, while the Clifton Hotel was the Officers Mess. Jean Exton, husband of LAC Wyndham Exton, recalls that the Alhambra was used as a de-lousing unit, while perhaps most famously of all, the Midland Hotel was used from 1940 until 1946 as an RAF Burns Unit where long term treatment of aircrew suffering from burns was carried out. Sadly not all of these men survived, and a corner of the Torrisholme Cemetry bears witness to the loss of many of these brave men with its collection of War Grave headstones.
Few today remember that the area had its 'own' Squadron, but Eleanor Corcoran's husband John served with 77 Squadron on one of his two tours of frontline duty as a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner in Halifax Mk III aircraft and she helped find the details. In May of 1943 during the "Wings for Victory" week celebrated in Lancaster, the personnel of 77 Squadron marched through the city, while overhead a formation of three aircraft overflew the parade. The Squadron subsequently became No 77 (B) Squadron (Lancaster's Own). Photographic material off the event can still be seen in the Yorkshire Air Museum at Elvington near York.
Undoubtedly the involvement of local families in the air war was much greater during this conflict than the Great War, and the full story may never be fully assembled. One cameo, which is particularly poignant, has been selected to represent the aircrew loss which took place at this time, and will serve to represent all those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Robert Fawcett joined the RAF just before the start of the war, having lived in Halton and worked in Lancaster. Having trained as an Air Gunner he flew with 220 Squadron in both Hudson and Lancaster bombers. Robert was shot down and killed on 1st June 1941 aged just 19. While stationed at RAF Thornaby on Tees-side he had met and married Margaret Dixon, and three months after his tragic death, his daughter Ann was born. Still living in the area, she is justifiably proud of her father, as should be anyone connected to these brave airmen.
No. 9 (Fighter)Group RAF
Re-formed August 1940 for the defence of the North West of England disbanded September 1944
RAF Squires Gate Blackpool
C Flight No 63 Squadron September to December 1939
A Flight 75 Squadron November to December 1939
215 Squadron (Detachment) November 1939 to January 1940
A Flight 96 Squadron December 1940 to March 1941
307 Squadron January to March 1941
256 Squadron March to October 1941
B Flight 312 Squadron summer? 1941
No 3 School of Technical Training (Stanley Park) formed in October 1939
Training Flight Mechanics, Flight Riggers, Drivers closed August 1944
No 3 School of General Reconnaissance formed December 1940 closed June? 1944
F Flt No 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit opened April 1939 moved January 1942 Cark
R Flt No 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit re-formed September 1941 and moved to Millom
No 2 School of Photography re-formed January 1941 closed June 1944
Polish Technical Training School formed and transferred July 1942 to RAF Halton
School of Air Sea Rescue formed May 1943 moved to Calshot February 1945
No 181 Gliding School (Stanley Park) formed August 1943 moved to Warton January 1947
No 13 Radio School formed August 1943 training ground radio operators, closed October 1944,
No.47 MU RAF Burtonwood opened in October 1939
March 1940 transferred to Civilian Repair Organisation for aircraft repair
Staff Pilot Training Unit opened March 1942 closed December 1945
No 1614 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Flight from Squires Gate( Ex F Flight) November 1942
re-formed as 650 Squadron December 1943
No 1606 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Flight lodged June 1944 to April 1945
R Flt No 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit lodged January 1942 disbanded October
No 188 Gliding School formed February 1944 moved to Barrow May 1947
No 9 LAAPC Flookburgh ground unit working with No 1614 AACF
No 10 School of Technical Training formed March 1940 training flight mechanics and riggers
Closed in November 1958
No 2 Bombing & Gunnery School formed January 1941 and became
No 2 (Observers)Advanced Flying Unit in February 1942 closing January 1945
R Flt No 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit lodged September 1941 to January 1942 to Cark
No 9 School of Technical Training Morecambe opened November 1939 training Flight mechanics and riggers closed in May 1942
Midland Hotel Morecambe RAF Burns Unit
RAF Walney Island - Barrow
No 3 Air Gunners School opened October 1941 moved November 1941to Castle Kennedy
No 10 Air Gunners School reformed August 1942 closed June 1946
? Flight Engineers School opened September? 1942 closed ? 1943
Short Sunderland Manufacture and Repair opened late 1940 closed 1945
Lancashire Aircraft Corporation
Factories at Squires Gate, Stanley Park, Salmesbury manufacturing Beaufighter & Beaufort aircraft
With the relaxing of National Service in 1958 and as the RAF units closed in North Lancashire, fewer and fewer local people have been involved with the RAF through the cold war and beyond, but several points of contact do remain. The Air Training Corps formed in 1941 has three healthy squadrons in Lancaster, Morecambe and Carnforth, and the Combined Cadet Force has a very strong RAF section in the Lancaster Royal Grammar School. From these sources the RAF welcomes its new volunteer corps as a steady stream of members joins the service. Many of them have given distinguished service in other conflicts including the Korean War, the Falklands conflict and the Gulf War. Their place in history, and in some cases their great sacrifice should be remembered by us all with grateful thanks. My thanks are due to those members of the Morecambe Branch of the RAFA who assisted with the preparation of this chapter, and whose memories it reflects.