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RAF Stations in County Durham

WHEN it comes to the historically great counties of the UK, Durham is one of the few to have no active RAF sites within its borders. There is only one RAF station located between RAF Boulmer in Northumberland and RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire: Spadeadam, situated in the western county of Cumbria.

However, from Sunderland in the north to Middleton St George in the south, the RAF did have an historical presence in County Durham, the last remaining station closing in 1964.

RAF Bowes Moor

Opened 1941

Closed 1947

Sign at former RAF Bowes Moor

(Sign at former RAF Bowes Moor)

Situated close to Barnard Castle, Bowes Moor is a remote stretch of land which was seen as an effective location to be used as a Chemical Warfare Agent, CWA, storage site, run by the RAF. After the Dunkirk retreat in 1940, chemical weapons were returned from the continent with the need to find suitable areas for storage and disposal, Bowes Moor being established in December 1941.

The area was used for training – infantry and tanks – before No. 81 Maintenance Unit arrived to oversee the storage of poisons including mustard gas, phosphene and lewisite. The chemical weapons were originally left only covered by tarpaulin, but after grazing sheep ate through the tarpaulin, most of the weapons were stored inside buildings. As the war came to end, more chemical weapons arrived on site, with somewhere approaching 2,800 tonnes of bombs shipped in, with disposal by burning before a large amount was dumped at sea.

In 1997, stocks of mustard gas were discovered on the site ahead a of a proposed sale of the land, and a decade later the MoD carried out environmental tests before declaring the contamination did not pose a threat to the health of humans, livestock or wildlife.

RAF Greatham

Opened 1933

Closed 1958

Located around two miles west of the beach at Seaton Carew, the station was known as RAF West Hartlepool during the Second World War. Despite records listing the airstrip opening in 1933, an official ceremony was carried on April 15, 1939 by the Secretary of State for Air, Sir Kingsley Wood, the venue being used as a satellite station for nearby RAF Thornaby. It was, in effect, a grass airstrip and was the base for four 403 Squadron Spitfires for seven months from June 1942 to February 1943.

The site also played host to, amongst others: No. 243 Squadron; No. 6 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit, OTU, RAF; No. 26 Gliding School RAF; No, 32 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School RAF; No. 1613 (Anti-Aircraft Co-operation) Flight RAF; No. 2782 Squadron RAF Regiment; No. 4054 Anti-Aircraft Flight RAF Regiment; and ‘N’ Flight of No. 1 Anti-Aircraft Co-operation Unit RAF.

RAF Middleton St George

Opened 1941

Closed 1964, now Teesside Airport

RAF Middleton St George August 1960

(RAF Middleton St George August 1960)

Opening in 1941 under Bomber Command, the first arrivals at the site included Nos. 76 and 78 Squadrons flying Handley Page Halifaxes and Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys respectively. It was allocated to No. 6 Group, Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943, with a sub-station located at nearby RAF Croft, with 419 ‘Moose’ Squadron flying Lancasters and 420 ‘Snowy Owl’ Squadron flying Wellingtons among those based at the site five miles east of Darlington.

Another Canadian squadron based here was No. 428, with the heroism of pilot Stuart McMullen remembered in nearby Darlington to this day, a street being named after him. In January 1945, McMullen took off in his Lancaster for a routine three-hour navigation exercise over the North York Moors, but as they approached the airfield on their return a fire quickly engulfed the wing. McMullen gave the other seven men aboard the order to abandon the aircraft, but he insisted on remaining in control for fear of the aircraft hitting homes in Darlington. He managed to skim the rooftops of several houses before crashing into a field, McMullen being killed on impact.

The airfield was very much part of RAF services post-war, Nos. 92 and 264 Squadron among those based there, with the English Electric Lightning a notable resident. In 1962, Flight Officer Jean Oakes became the first female pilot to join the 1,000mph club, flying a Lightning up and down the North East coast registering a top speed of around 1125mph, or Mach 1.6. In 1964 the RAF left, the site reopening as Teesside Airport.

RAF Usworth

Opened 1916

Closed 1962

The Royal Flying Corps, a precursor of the RAF, was handed the task of home defence in the First World War, Usworth a key site in defending the coast between North Yorkshire and Tyneside, serving as a Flight Station for No. 36 Squadron. Patrols were mounted to protect major industrial sites like Newcastle from enemy airship attack, but little action ensued – the squadron was disbanded in 1919 with the area returning to non-flying use.

In the 1930s the airfield reopened, hosting Empire Day air displays and becoming home to No. 103 Squadron, and after World War Two commenced two hard runways were built, Nos. 43 and 64 Squadrons operating for spells from the site. The importance of Usworth became clear when the Luftwaffe started a second major front during the Battle of Britain, No. 607 Squadron returning to help drive off the German attacks on north east England – training became the airfield’s primary role after the threat of invasion diminished.

After the war, the airfield came under the control of No. 14 Maintenance Unit RAF, before it was sold to Sunderland Corporation in 1962, reopening as Sunderland Airport. It now forms part of the Nissan Motor Manufacturing UK plant.

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1 comment

  • Thanks very much for the wonderful framed RAF Coningsby print, together with the inscribed name of my father. He was a medical orderly (Sgt) at the RAF Sick Bay on the Station. He played hockey for Bomber Command until it destroyed his knees. I arrived there aged 3 years and left in December 1953 for postings to Germany with the rest of the family. I went to the local school. I well remember the windmill and forge. I also remember lying in the ditch beyond the peri fence whilst Canberras landed over my head. I loved Coningsby and have revisited in my dotage,

    Mike and Hilary Ankers

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