Reaching For Yorkshire's Skies
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
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
"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
"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 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 cafés 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
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
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
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 ¾ 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
"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
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.