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RAF Scampton

From WWII Heroes to the Red Arrows: The Rich History of RAF Scampton

WHEN it was announced in 2018 that RAF Scampton would be closing at the end of 2022, the over-riding concern both locally and nationally was that there should be a plan in place to commemorate the site’s history as part of any redevelopment.

Red Arrows on the flight line at RAF Scampton

(Red Arrows on the flight line at RAF Scampton)

The station is best known recently as the home of the Red Arrows, and to those with longer memories as the location from where 617 Squadron (Dambusters) launched their daring raids using bouncing bombs to damage key German dams during the Second World War – successfully breaching the Mohne and Eder dams.

Both the Reds and the Dambusters have formed part of the numerous ideas mooted for the development of the site six miles north-west of Lincoln, with one of the most recent including an edifice to the Red Arrows and a 550-acre commemorative park for the RAF and the Dambusters.

The Red Arrows have made the short trip to a new home at RAF Waddington, campaigners will continue the fight to ensure a heritage centre is front and centre of any proposals for the site. There remain fears that Scampton will just become new housing and business units, with only cursory recognition of what the station meant to the country, as well as what it still means to the people of Lincolnshire.    

Members of 617 Squadron taken at RAF Scampton on 22 July 1943, and featuring (left to right) Wing Commander Guy Gibson; Pilot Officer P.M. Spafford; Flight Lieutenant R. E. G. Hutchinson; Pilot Officer G. A. Deering and Flying Officer H. T. Taerum.

(Members of 617 Squadron taken at RAF Scampton on 22 July 1943, and featuring (left to right) Wing Commander Guy Gibson; Pilot Officer P.M. Spafford; Flight Lieutenant R. E. G. Hutchinson; Pilot Officer G. A. Deering and Flying Officer H. T. Taerum.)

Its importance in the defence of Britain didn’t start on the night of May 16, 1943, when 19 Lancaster Bombers carrying Barnes-Wallis’s ingenuous bouncing bombs took off in three waves, carrying out one of the most innovative raids in military history. Scampton’s history dates back almost 30 years before the Dambusters, with Brattleby Cliff, as it was then known, made a Home Defence Flight Unit in 1916. The first operational unit was No. 33 Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, RFC; operating Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2bs, No. 33 were tasked with the role of defending the country against the threat from German Zeppelins.

Scampton was then designated as a training aerodrome with No. 60 Training Squadron joined by No. 81 and No. 11 Training Squadrons flying Sopwith Camels, Pups and Dolphins. It was 1918 when the site was designated as RAF Scampton, shortly after the RFC became the Royal Air Force.

Despite being one of the oldest RAF stations, its initial role with its new moniker didn’t last long, the site returning to the agricultural sector in 1919 shortly after the end of hostilities; it reopened in August 1936 with the expansion of Britain’s air defences coinciding with the increase in tensions across Europe ahead of the Second World War. 

An 83 Squadron Handley Page Hampden and crew at RAF Scampton, October 1940

(An 83 Squadron Handley Page Hampden and crew at RAF Scampton, October 1940)

The first new residents through the door were No. 9 and No. 214 squadrons, flying Handley Page Heyfords and Vickers Virginias, and at the outbreak of war in 1939, Scampton transferred to No. 5 Group within RAF Bomber Command, No. 49 and No. 83 squadrons arriving with their Hampdens. Within hours of war being declared, No. 83 Squadron – led by Guy Gibson who later became famous for his Dambusters role – launched a sweep off the German coast, the likely motive to send a message to the enemy that hostilities had begun.     

A B-29 of the 28th Bombardment Group, 718th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Scampton

(A B-29 of the 28th Bombardment Group, 718th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Scampton)

After the Second World War ended, the close alliance between the UK and the US saw Scampton become home to the US Strategic Air Command B29 Superfortress bombers, and in 1953 four squadrons of Canberras – No.10, No.18, No.21 and No.27 – were based at the site.

With the Cold War intensifying, the Canberras moved on in 1955 with Scampton earmarked as a V-bomber base, the runway extended to 10,000 feet (1.9miles) to cater for the Vulcans, the A15 being rerouted as part of the changes. The station badge of a longbow with an arrow is a representation of Scampton’s terrain: the arrow acting as the lengthened runway and the bow string representing Ermine Street, a historic route through the north of Lincolnshire.

No. 83 Squadron made the short 12-mile trip from Waddington in 1960, and along with No. 27 and No. 617, the three formed the Scampton Wing, all operating Vulcans carrying Blue Steel nuclear missiles. In 1968, the need for an airborne bomber force ended with the new Polaris submarines effectively handed the role of carrying Britain’s nuclear deterrent, leading to the disbandment of No.83 Squadron in August 1969.

Vulcan B.2 XH534 of 230 Operational Conversion Unit

(Vulcan B.2 XH534 of 230 Operational Conversion Unit)

The station, however, was still very much active, its remaining squadrons assigned tactical nuclear and conventional bombing roles. In 1969, No. 230 Operational Conversion Unit transferred from RAF Finningley, and they were joined by No. 35 Squadron in 1975, relocating from RAF Akrotiri.

The status of the station came under serious scrutiny in the early 1980s with the cessation of Vulcan operations, Scampton transferring to RAF Support Command and becoming home to the Central Flying School, CFS.

In the mid-1990s, the closure of the station was first proposed under the Front Line First programme, the CFS moving to RAF Cranwell, but thanks to a locally-led campaign, Save our Scampton, supported by the regional newspaper, the Lincolnshire Echo, RAF Scampton survived, despite being effectively mothballed for four years, the relocation of the Red Arrows in 2000 giving the station a new lease of life.

Five years later Scampton became home to the UK Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) and the Mobile Meteorological Unit (MMU), but by 2008 its future was again in doubt. Proposals were in place to move the Red Arrows to Waddington with ASACS switching to Coningsby, but before they were implemented a further defence review occurred in 2010 – the conclusion being that the Reds staying at Scampton would allow them to train and carry out displays without affecting other operational flying bases.

But the writing was on the wall and in 2018 a final decision was made to close Scampton, with the Red Arrows moved to Waddington and No. 1 Air Control Centre switched to Boulmer.

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