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RAF in Leicestershire

It’s been 40 years since the RAF were operating from Leicestershire in any major capacity, but while farmland was used across the county as air strips during WW1, it was the Second World War when the need for effective air stations was key to the fight against Hitler’s forces. The county boasted its fair share of sites, with thousands of involved in readying aircraft, training air crews and heading out day and night from sites across the region on bombing missions and other sorties over mainland Europe.

Here we look at some of the sites used for air operations, many now built over or returned to their former use before playing their part in the defence of the country.

RAF Bitteswell

Opened – 1940

Closed – 1982

While the station officially opened in 1941, the site two miles west of Lutterworth was used the previous year as an emergency landing ground for RAF Bramcote in Warwickshire, the station becoming a satellite for No. 18 Operational Training Unit, OTU, flying a range of aircraft including Avro Ansons and Vickers Wellingtons.

Hard runways were laid in 1942 with an increased number of OTUs moving in to teach flying and navigation, as well as taking part in live bombing missions and air sea rescue off the east coast.

Post-war, the station was placed in care and maintenance status, serving as a RAF flying school and used for equipment storage, with Armstrong Whitworth returning to use the site for final assembly and flight testing of aircraft in 1952 – the company buying the airfield outright four years later. Maintenance of aircraft took place on site for the next three decades with the retirement of the Vulcan spelling the end of flying in the early 1980s.

RAF Bottesford

Opened – 1941

Closed – 1960

Located on the border with Lincolnshire, around seven miles north west of Grantham, Bottesford was used initially by Bomber Command in No. 5 Group RAF, No. 207 Squadron arriving with the short-lived Manchester bombers in November 1941. When the Manchester’s engine problems became clear, they were switched for Lancasters in March 1942, with raids on Germany stepped up.

RAF Bottesford, April 1944.

(RAF Bottesford, April 1944)

When No. 207 left, Aussie squadron No. 467 arrived in November 1942, before a year later it became the HQ for the USAAF 50th Group Troop Carrier Wing, a reception base for their Douglas Skytrains, thousands of US troops arriving through the site before being dispatched onwards. A month after D-Day, Bottesford was returned to No. 5 Group RAF, and remained in use by bombers till the end of the war when it became a relief landing ground. It closed to flying in June 1947 but was still used for the storage of ammunition and unused bombs awaiting disposal.

RAF Bruntingthorpe

Opened – 1942

Closed – 1970

When the station opened in November it was the home of No. 29 OTU, flying and training on Wellingtons, but it became better known post-war as the testing ground for Gloster Meteors, before being mothballed under care and maintenance status until 1957, despite being allocated for use by the USAF in November 1953. Plans were drawn up in the mid-1950s for Bruntingthorpe, located 10 miles south of Leicester, to become a Strategic Air Command, SAC, bomber base, used for forward deployment of the Stratojet medium ranger nuclear bomber. The runway was widened and lengthened and the station was activated by SAC on March 1, 1957, 43 B-47s of the 100th Bombardment Wing deployed.

100th Bombardment Wing Boeing B-47 parked at RAF Bruntingthorpe

(100th Bombardment Wing Boeing B-47 parked at RAF Bruntingthorpe)

Soon after the deployment, French President Charles de Gaulle decided to remove all foreign nuclear forces from France, so forcing the Allies to reassess US European air defences, with Bruntingthorpe transferred from SAC to USAF in Europe (USAFE), its role becoming one of reconnaissance. The station returned to the control of the MoD, and in the 1960s a decision was taken to sell off parts of the facility; Bruntingthorpe Aerodrome remained which became home of the last airworthy Avro Vulcan, XH558, before it left in 2009.

RAF Buckminster

Opened – 1916

Closed – 1919

It was more than a century ago that the site nine miles north east of Melton Mowbray was used as a Home Defence Flight Station, initially Royal Aircraft Factory FE2b fighters of No. 38 Squadron, then Royal Flying Corps, operated from Buckminster before they moved over to France in May 1918 – the squadron depot that stayed behind became No. 90 Squadron RAF, which disbanded in June 1919 when the station closed.

RAF Castle Donington

Opened – 1943

Closed – 1946; site redeveloped as East Midlands Airport in mid-1960s, opening in 1965

Modern day RAF Castle Donnington as East Midlands Airport

(Modern day RAF Castle Donnington as East Midlands Airport)

Created as a satellite airfield for RAF Wymeswold (see below), it was used by No. 28 OTU under 93 Group Bomber Command, training crews on Wellington bombers, and then transferring to Transport Command in October 1944 – No. 108 OTU training crews on Douglas Dakotas. The station, located 13 miles south east of Derby, was mothballed in 1946, becoming inactive in 1948, parented by RAF Newton, before being handed over to the Ministry of Agriculture in 1950. While the site has a DE postcode and many people believe it is in Derbyshire, it is officially in Leicestershire.

RAF Desford

Opened – 1916

Closed – 1952

Located seven miles west of Leicester city, the station opened in 1916 when the RFC rented a field from a farmer for use as an emergency landing ground for No. 38 Squadron, based at Melton Mowbray. It reverted to agricultural use at the end of WW1 before an aerodrome opened at the site in 1929. In December 1935, the site opened as a Civilian Flying School as part of the RAF’s expansion in response to growing concerns over events in mainland Europe, equipped with 17 Tiger Moths for flying instruction.

Instructor and pupil in front of a de Havilland Tiger Moth at No. 7 EFTS, Desford

(Instructor and pupil in front of a de Havilland Tiger Moth at No. 7 EFTS, RAF Desford)

At the start of WW2, the school became No. 7 Elementary Flying Training School with, at its peak, 120 Tiger Moths based at Desford; the station also housed units of the Civilian Repair Organisation carrying out repairs and modifications of aircraft. Vickers Armstrong had a factory at Desford, manufacturing undercarriages for Spitfires, and later assembling aircraft, around 1,000 Spitfires headed out from Desford to stations across the UK. It continued operating as a flying school post war until 1952.

RAF Husbands Bosworth

Opened – 1943

Closed – 1946

RAF Husbands Bosworth 1943

(RAF Husbands Bosworth 1943)

A classic WW2 station, opening midway through hostilities and closing shortly after the end of the conflict. Located 20 miles south of Leicester, No. 14 OTU arrived from Cottesmore in August 1943, daylight operational flying beginning on August 10, night operations a week later. Initially a satellite for RAF Market Harborough, No. 85 OTU was formed from an element of No. 14 OTU and was tasked with training crews for night bombing, disbanding in June 1945, the station closing a year later.

RAF Leicester East

Opened – 1943

Closed – 1947; now Leicester Airport

Leicester Airport Control Tower

(Leicester Airport Control Tower)

The site five miles south east of Leicester was home to Leicestershire Aero Club from 1909, with the RAF requisitioning the airfield in 1940. However, it was three years later that the station opened with Squadron Nos. 196 and 620 among the first arrivals, both operating the lesser-known Short Stirling, the first four-engine heavy bomber introduced into the RAF. It was famously visited by General Eisenhower, later to become the 34th US President Dwight Eisenhower, who reviewed the 12,000 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division camped near the station in August 1944. It closed soon after hostilities ended, the Aero Club returning a few years later, with the airfield designated as Leicester Airport in 1974.

RAF Lindley

Opened – 1943

Closed – 1946

Also known as RAF Nuneaton, located four miles north of the market town, Lindley was first used by No. 1513 BAT Flight RAF, operating Airspeed Oxfords – the Beam Approach Trainers were key to providing training for aircrews on how to safely land on runways in poor visibility: the beam approach system relied on two audible signals originating from airfields. The airfield was also used in 1943 by No. 18 (Polish) OTU as a satellite from RAF Bramcote before it was transferred to RAF Transport Command in June 1943, home to No. 105 OTU flying Vickers Wellingtons and Douglas Dakotas.

RAF Market Harborough

Opened – 1943

Closed – 1948

The station three miles north west of the market town came under the control of No. 92 Group RAF (Bomber Command), with No. 14 OTU reformed at the site following their transfer from Cottesmore – tasked with training aircrews in both day and night operations. Among other units based at Market Harborough were No. 1683 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight RAF, operating Hawker Hurricanes and Curtiss Tomahawks, and post-war the station transferred to the British Army, with military operations stopping in the late 1950s. HMP Gartree was constructed on the site in the 1960s, currently a Category B prison.

RAF Melton Mowbray

Opened – 1943

Closed – 1963

Modern day buildings of RAF Melton Mowbray

(Modern day buildings of RAF Melton Mowbray)

Opening as a site for aircraft maintenance, the station was taken over by Transport Command with Spitfires, Douglas Dakotas and Handley Page Halifaxes among the numerous aircraft flown from the site two miles south of the town. Post war, Melton Mowbray housed Polish Air Force personnel and their families before becoming home to No. 254 Squadron, reformed in 1959 as one of 20 Strategic Missile squadrons and equipped with three Thor Strategic Missiles – forming part of Britain’s nuclear deterrent until they were removed and the station was closed in 1963.

RAF Ratcliffe

Opened – 1939

Closed – 1945

A former civil aerodrome that staged a number of high-profile airshows throughout the 1930s, Ratcliffe, ten miles north of Leicester, was commandeered by the Air Ministry at the start of WW2 as an Air Transport Auxiliary ferry pool.

RAF Saltby

Opened – 1941

Closed – 1948

Originally opening with a grass airfield, Saltby was used as a satellite to Cottesmore, becoming the home of No. 14 OTU. It underwent development with three concrete runways laid and its use extending from the RAF to the USAF, the 314th Troop Carrier Group arriving in February 1944, with Douglas C-47 cargo planes and C-53 troop carriers. Closing after the war it was kept under care and maintenance for a number of years, with the site ten miles south of Grantham skirting the borders of Leicestershire and Lincolnshire – part of it is now home to Buckminster Gliding Club.

RAF Wymeswold

Opened – 1942

Closed – 1969

It was home to No. 28 OTU when it opened, with Vickers Wellington bombers operating over Germany on leaflet drops but its main role was training bomber pilots – amongst other aircraft it also trained on Douglas Dakotas, as well as Hampdens to tow Horsa gliders ahead of the D-Day landings.

Post-war it became a fighter station with No. 504 Squadron swapping Spitfires for the Gloster Meteor, staying at the site four miles north east of Loughborough until 1957, when the airfield closed as a frontline RAF station. It continued to be used as a satellite for RAF Syerston up until the late 1960s

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4 comments

  • Does anyone have any knowledge of No 3 RAF School of Physical Training being located around or within Loughborough College around the latter war years?

    Les
  • As a Fleet Air Arm pilot coming home on leave in the Summer of 1963, I managed to “borrow” a DH Sea Vampire T22 for a couple of days. I flew down from RNAS Lossiemouth to RAF Wymeswold and left the aircraft in an empty hangar on the SW of the airfield; It turned a 12 hour car journey in those dsys to a 1 hour 15 minute flight!
    Nothing else was based there although 504 had been and now Airwork. There was just one ATC gentleman to cope with the odd landing aircraft each week.
    Maybe I was the last aircraft to operate from there before its final return to agricultural use ? Mmm…

    Bruce Hutton
  • RAF Cottesmore is in Rutland. The postal address is correct and does not relate to its physical location but to the postal district in which it is situated.

    Colin Glenister
  • So RAF Cottesmore was not a significant base then? Toughest lineys in the airforce.
    It’s LE15 postal address must be wrong then…

    Damian

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