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RAF Leeming

Leeming still key to the nation’s air defences more than 80 years after its first squadrons arrived

THE announcement that operations at Leeming will be scaled up over the coming months, with the prospect of 24-hour flying, may have caused a degree of consternation amongst some of the residents living near the North Yorkshire site, but it is a sign that the most northerly station in England with a fully functioning runway remains key to RAF operations.

RAF stations across the UK regularly warn about the possibility of night-time flights, recognition of the importance of the local community to the site in question, and also a reminder of how crucial night-time operations are to the RAF and its allies. The increased activity for a centre that delivers and supports UK and overseas Expeditionary Air Operation normally points to the arrival of overseas units, the importance of the RAF working alongside its allies more important today following events in Ukraine since February 2022.

The location just off the A1, around nine miles south east of Catterick, has a flying history that dates back even further than when it opened in 1940, a nearby site used by local flying enthusiasts from the late 1920s, later becoming known as Londonderry Aerodrome after the nearby hamlet; in 1937 the aerodrome and the area surrounding it was purchased by the Government as work commenced to create RAF Leeming.

Among those believed to have witnessed the early development of the station was a certain William Joyce who regularly stayed at nearby Scruton House, a man who was better known as the notorious Lord Haw-Haw, a Nazi sympathiser who defected to Germany at the start of WW2 and broadcast English language propaganda. Among his pronouncements was an insistence that Leeming would be flattened when it was finished – one of his many statements that failed to materialise.

It was June 3, 1940 when Leeming officially opened as a bomber station, with a decoy airfield also created four miles south at Burneston, a detachment of No. 219 Squadron based at RAF Catterick among Leeming’s first residents. They were soon joined by Nos, 7, 10 and 102 Squadrons, with a range of aircraft operating including Bristol Blenheims, Handley Page Halifaxes and Short Stirlings.

7 Squadron Stirling being prepared for a flight at RAF Leeming in 1941
(7 Squadron Stirling being prepared for a flight at RAF Leeming in 1941)

The station was upgraded between 1941 and ’42 to Class A standard with longer concrete runways, later assigned to No. 6 Group Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), initially operating Halifaxes before switching to Lancasters in the spring of 1945.

Post war, Leeming became a night-fighter station, initially de Havilland Mosquitos operating before Gloster Meteors and Javelins arrived, the site also using Martinet aircraft as targets for crews training in the use of interception radar in larger bomber aircraft.

Disaster hit the station on August 13, 1951, a day when cadets from 1869 (Middlesbrough) Squadron ATC were visiting, some allowed aboard the training flights operating that day. In mid-afternoon, a Martinet took off with a cadet on board alongside the pilot, before a Wellington departed soon after with seven on board, including one cadet, flying in the opposite direction.

A routine training exercise, radar operators guided the Wellington toward the Martinet at around 8,000-10,000 feet with the area seemingly cloud-free before a sudden change in the weather saw cloud rapidly close in. The Martinet appeared out of cloud close to the Wellington and its wing collided with the bomber, the Martinet forced into an uncontrollable dive with the two on board killed when it crashed. The damaged Wellington went into a spin and started to break up in mid-air, the aircraft doomed to crash, but not before Flight Lieutenant John Quinton had grabbed the one parachute available – further parachutes were stowed elsewhere in the disintegrating Wellington – and clipped it on the young cadet onboard who then fell out of the aircraft.

There were eight killed in the two aircraft with just one survivor, the cadet who deployed the one parachute available in the Wellington, a memorial erected to mark the 60th anniversary of the disaster at Hudswell Village, near Richmond, where the crash occurred.

11 Sqn Tornado F3
(11 Sqn Tornado F3)

In the early 1960s Leeming came under Flying Training Command, becoming home to No. 3 Flying Training School, operating the BAC Jet Provost, a training role it maintained until the mid-1980s when the station closed to allow the installation of Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS), the North Yorkshire site selected as the home base for three Tornado squadrons – Nos. 11(F), 23 and 25(F). The frontline role for Leeming continued until 2008, the last Tornado unit departing in April 2008 when No. 25 (F) Squadron was disbanded.

The station’s Tornado link, however, remained until around 2020, with the site used as a host for BAE Systems reverse assembly line process for the aircraft, stripping all usable components from Tornados that had been retired from duty, with one of the aircraft, a F3, now standing as gate guardian.

The station’s training role saw No. 100 Squadron RAF arrive in the mid-1990s ahead of the closure of RAF Finningley, operating Hawk T.1As, until its disbandment in 2022. However, the station continues as a training centre, currently operating Hawk 167s as part of the Joint Qatar Emiri Air Force-RAF Hawk Training Squadron, training pilots from both air forces.

On April 1, 2006, No. 135 Expeditionary Air Wing was formed at Leeming to create a deployable air force structure, involved regularly in Baltic Air Policing, a firm focus for NATO forces since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2007, 90 Signals Unit arrived from Brize Norton, now nearly 1,000-strong, a force that makes up around half the station’s population, involved with providing vital information and communication services to operations at home and across the globe. On January 5, 2015, 607 (County of Durham) was reformed at Leeming after almost 60 years, now a General Service Support Squadron (GSS).

When RAF Linton-on-Ouse closed as a front-line station in 2020, Yorkshire Universities Air Squadron relocated to Leeming, joining Northumbrian Universities Air Squadron who have been at the station for almost 50 years.

The station’s location in close proximity to the RAF training area at Spadeadam in Cumbria, along with army centres at Catterick and Otterburn, highlight Leeming’s importance as the preferred site for deployed exercises and detachments from UK and overseas units.

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