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5.   Reaching For Yorkshire's Skies

RAF, 31/3/2008


The connection between Yorkshire and the Royal Air Force goes back to the Service's formative year of 1918, but undoubtedly it was during the Second World War that the two became inextricably linked.



Back then Yorkshire was Bomber County and it's not hard to see why. Vast tracts of land - mainly in the flat Vale of York - were requisitioned by the Air Ministry to be turned into airfields from which iconic aircraft such as the Halifax and Lancaster Halifax were sent to attack the Third Reich.

The RAF's finest hour may have been the Battle of Britain but its main effort during the war was the strategic bombing campaign against Germany, where Bomber Command launched night raids, sometimes with up to 1000 aircraft.

Much of that campaign was waged from 26 aerodromes that dwarfed the small Yorkshire settlements next door and from which they took their names.

At night, all across the county, villagers would look up into the sky and say prayers for their new neighbours as they watched a relentless stream of aircraft climb high above York and on into the darkness for yet another 'ops' mission.

Eight hours after wishing god speed they once again gazed skywards to see the crews home; this time, hoping and praying that the night's toll would prove less costly than the previous one, or the one before, or the one before that.

Bomber Command suffered an appalling loss of life. Almost 40% of its crews failed to return and the heartache was shared by North Yorkshire folk who with open arms had welcomed the men into their communities.

But while adults feared the worst, to John Lancaster it was a big adventure.

Now a farmer in 1940 Mr Lancaster was a young lad living in the village of Tholthorpe when RAF Tholthorpe was home to Whitley bombers.

In 1943 it was redeveloped as a heavy bomber base for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) - which eventually made up 15% of Bomber Command's Squadrons.

When the airmen moved in, the population of Tholthorpe - like so many other villages - swelled by twenty fold.

Mr Lancaster said: "No-one ever came to Tholthorpe; it isn't on a route to anywhere so it was fascinating to meet these people who had unusual accents. They brought things with them, things we had never seen before; like Pepsi Cola and chewing gum....yes I remember the chewing gum very well, juicy fruit and cinnamon were my favourites.

"As children we didn't really understand what was going on but were fascinated by it all. My late brother Peter was the airfield's softball team mascot and we were taken to games all over the county.

"After Chapel, airmen used to come round to our house for a cup of tea. Some played the piano and we all sang along. I was allowed to stay up late and listened to the Canadians as they told amazing stories about their country. I was a big Roy Rodgers fan and it was like having a real live cowboy in the living room."

It may have been exciting to have new friends from so far away and to watch the aircraft flying over the house day after day, night after night. But even at the tender age of 11, Mr Lancaster was not immune to the devastating impact of war.

He said "We knew one of the airmen as Dolly. One night before going on 'ops' he said to my mother 'Auntie Queenie (they all called her that) I won't be coming back tonight, I know it.'

"That was the last I ever saw of him, but I can still picture Dolly now. He had blond wavy hair and all the girls swooned at him. When my mother told me he had been shot down I shed some tears. When the men were lost we always hoped that they had just gone missing; it's what kept us going.

"There was a close bond between village and airmen. To us they were boyhood heroes. I didn't want to be a farmer back then; all I wanted to do was become a pilot.

"When the airmen left in 1945 my fantasy world came to an end. The chapel was empty overnight and there was a great sense of loss. Like everyone else, I missed them greatly."

Today, apart from memories, little remains as testimony to Tholthorpe's days as a bomber base; unless like Mr Lancaster, you know where to look.

Despite the rigours of war, off duty crews did manage to turn their thoughts to other things and like at Tholthorpe, became an integral part of village life; regular faces in the shop, pub and church.

And in York you couldn't move without bumping into airmen. Many headed for Betty's - and not always for afternoon tea. In those days its basement housed a bar.

Today the cafs memorial to its war time clientele are mirrors into which are inscribed the signatures of hundreds of flyers. They borrowed diamond rings from barmaids to etch their name into posterity.

And at the city's Clifton Moor shopping complex most DIY enthusiasts, as they take a bag of nuts and bolts off the shelf in a superstore, are blissfully unaware that sixty years ago - on that very spot - aircraft engineers were doing the self same thing.

There were no designer stores then. It was an airfield with hangars full of battle damaged Halifax bombers in for repair.

Today the legacy barely exists. Streets may be named after aircraft, but do many shoppers have an inkling why?

During the war Clifton Moor was also a relief landing ground for RAF Linton-on-Ouse, one of only three Yorkshire bases still in RAF hands today.

At Linton is a unique museum with photographs depicting a rather different and very human glimpse of life during wartime. One shows airmen outside the Alice Hawthorn pub at Nun Monkton. It was a firm favourite with crews, who took along their rations to share with regulars.

While browsing the photos a singular thought occurs. Despite all they must have been going through, everyone in every picture is smiling. And it's not a forced smile.

The impression left is one of people 'just getting on with it' and that is incredibly humbling.

But at Linton the history of Bomber County is not just a museum piece. Once a fortnight Norman Appleton joins fellow veterans in the Officers' Mess for lunch and a chat about the old days.

Mr Appleton was born in Middlesbrough and now lives in Norton near Malton. He joined the RAF in 1944 and during his career flew as an air gunner from Yorkshire bases such as Lindholme and Leconfield.

The year before he signed up, Mr Appleton got his first aerial view of the plethora of aerodromes during an air experience flight in a Linton-on-Ouse Whitley aircraft.

He said: "I sat next to the pilot and he told me to keep a good look out for other aircraft. There were so many airfields down there and some - like Topcliffe and Dalton - were only two miles apart. A bomber took of a mile to complete its downwind leg to land, so as you can imagine, there wasn't much room for error. To avoid the risk of collision, each airfield had a different circuit direction to its neighbour.

"My over riding memory is of just how busy it all was. The bombers went out at 6pm and returned at 4am. But despite being tasked with night 'ops' the airfields were in continual use throughout the day. The losses were huge and there was a constant turnover of new crews to be trained.

"Some crews were superstitious. Many took mascots with them and one ritual that springs to mind was the act of forming a circle and peeing on the tail wheel before climbing aboard. It was supposed to bring good luck!"

In 1948 Mr Appleton was handpicked along with 24 others to attend the Central Gunnery School at Leconfield where they tested what is believed to be the RAF's first computer- driven simulator.

Now, and with the passage of time, many of the county's airfields have all but disappeared. The likes of East Moor and Riccall have virtually nothing left to suggest their RAF days.

While others, such as Burn and Acaster Malbis, offer a glimpse of runway or the vestiges of a control tower as tantalising clues to their past. RAF Marston Moor remains almost as it was and there is even older flying history in the pristine shape of a First World War Hangar which is clearly visible from the A64 near Tadcaster.

The days of an airbase everywhere you looked may be long gone but the bond between Yorkshire and the RAF remains.

York Minster - once a landmark for returning crews - is the fitting home to a Book of Remembrance which contains the names of over 18,000 airmen who died on wartime missions from RAF airfields in Yorkshire and the North East. In tribute a page is turned every day to display a different list of names.

RAF Linton-on-Ouse holds the freedom of York and four times a year, to mark special occasions, Officers and men from the base take part in a 'turning of the page' ceremony together with members of the RAF Association.

At noon on Tuesday April 1, Linton station commander Group Captain Mark Hopkins will perform the page turn and take the salute as a formation of Tucanos from his base flies overhead to mark the RAF's 90th anniversary.

During its nine decades, great technological advances may have been made, but with the dream of world peace no closer than in 1918, the RAF's presence in Yorkshire appears as vital today as it did when this was Bomber County.