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RAF Stations in Cumbria

WHILE the county of Cumbria may not be associated with a heavy RAF presence in terms of stations, it remains a vital training area, with jets regularly seen flying low between the fells and over the lakes of what many see as England’s most attractive holiday destination.

But the county is steeped in the RAF, and what it lacks in numbers with regards to actual sites, it makes up for in importance: RAF Spadeadam is the only active station, becoming Europe’s first Electronic Warfare Tactics Range. 

While Spadeadam stands alone, historically there were sites dotted across the county; military aircraft being stored, serviced and flown throughout the day and night during the Second World War, as airfields popped up regularly to play their part in the fight to defend Britain against the threat of invasion.

Active RAF Stations

RAF Spadeadam 

Opened 1955

RAF station since 1976 

When it comes to RAF stations, Spadeadam is unlikely to feature high on most people’s list of notable sites in Britain, but it is arguably one of the most important in the UK, if not in all NATO countries.

Situated in north Cumbria, on the border with Northumberland, the word remote doesn’t do the site justice, with the area locally known as Spadeadam Waste. It was the early 1950s when the MoD was looking to locate a ballistic missile test centre, part of the Blue Streak project, that Spadeadam came into the orbit of the military. 

Blue Streak was to be Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, with Spadeadam one of around 60 launch sites planned, before the cost and vulnerability to surprise attacks saw the idea quietly confined to the bin. Spadeadam’s role only came to light in 2004 when tree felling in the area uncovered the remains of abandoned excavations for a missile silo.

One of the rocket-firing stands for the Blue Streak missile at RAF Spadeadam

(One of the rocket-firing stands for the Blue Streak missile at RAF Spadeadam)

The RAF took over the site in 1976, becoming Europe’s first Electronic Warfare Tactics Range the following year, with the remote location of the 9,000-acre site ideal in its training role for RAF and NATO personnel – since 2006 the area has been the only mainland UK location where aircrews can drop practice bombs.  

Former RAF Stations 

RAF Barrow

Opened 1941

Closed 1955 – Vickers purchased the airfield in 1959, BAE Systems now operate the site.

Also known as RAF Walney Island, it is located two miles from Barrow, linked to the mainland by Jubilee Bridge. Work started on the site in 1940 to turn into an airfield, but it dated back much further, being used as an airship station during the First World War – airships were built a mile from the site between 1910 and 1920. In 1941, No. 25 Group RAF became the first to take up post, the airfield subsequently designated as No. 10 Air Gunnery School, one of many sites located around the coast offering ideal facilities for training.

By December 1941 there were 17 Boulton Paul Defiants (interceptor aircraft) located at Walney, gunners undergoing intensive training before moving to the operational units of Bomber Command. The Defiants were replaced by Avro Ansons in 1943, and by the end of that year more than 5,000 trainees had passed through Walney.   

By the final year of the war, Vickers Wellingtons had replaced the Avro Ansons, and in 1946 No. 10 Air Gunnery School relocated to RAF Mona in Anglesey, the site finally closing as an RAF station in 1955. In the 1980s, it was used for short-haul commercial flights to the likes of Manchester and Edinburgh, and today BAE still operates regular shuttle flights to Bristol and East Midlands airports.  

RAF Cark

Opened 1941

Closed 1947 – currently home of the North West Parachute Centre

Situated on the south-west peninsula of Cumbria, around three miles due south of Cartmel, Cark’s first brush with air travel came when it was proposed as a site for a potential airship factory in 1916, before the project was cancelled. It officially opened 25 years later in 1941, designated as a fighter station under the control of RAF Fighter Command, but it was occupied initially by ‘F’ Flight of No. 1 Anti-aircraft Co-operation Unit, helping train RAF gunners. By the mid-1940s, with the threat of invasion receding, the station was used for pilot and anti-aircraft gunnery training, with aircraft such as Hawker Hurricanes, Miles Martinets and Spitfires.   

The RAF Mountain Rescue transferred to Cark from Millom (see below) in 1944, and amongst the squadrons stationed there during the Second World War were Nos. 289, 290 and 650, with the last residents to leave in 1947, No. 188 Gliding School which transferred to RAF Barrow.

RAF Carlisle

Opened Early 1930s

Closed 1957 – becoming an administrative centre

Whilst there was an airstrip in Carlisle as early as 1911, the old racecourse used as a landing site for an air race, it was the early 1930s when the local council opened Kingstown municipal airport, two miles north of the city centre. It was soon sold to the Air Ministry in 1936, the RAF installing concrete runways, and in 1938 RAF Kingstown became home to two operational bomber squadrons flying Fairey Battles.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the runway was deemed too short for the new generation of bombers, with the RAF developing a new site at Crosby-on-Eden (see below), Kingstown converting to No. 24 Elementary Flying Training School.  

The station became famous for an audacious escape attempt by two German POWs, who fled from a prison camp at Shap disguised as Dutch airmen, complete with forged papers. They made the 30-mile journey to Kingstown, and with the help of an RAF mechanic, started up a Miles Magister trainer plane. Low on fuel, they were forced to abandon their plan to head for Holland, diverting while over the North Sea, instead landing near Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. They were escorted to Norwich, still claiming to be Dutch pilots, before their true identity was discovered and they were returned to Shap, subsequently being transferred to more secure facilities in Canada. 

Miles Magister trainer

(Miles Magister trainer)

The 1950s saw the station handed the role of No. 14 Maintenance Unit, becoming the RAF’s most northerly storage facility, and in 1957 it became the administrative station for nearby RAF Spadeadam. It was finally closed as an RAF facility in 1996, and is now a business park. 

RAF Crosby-on-Eden

Opened 1941

Closed 1947 – now the site of Carlisle Lake District Airport

After RAF Carlisle was deemed to have too small an airstrip, Crosby-on-Eden was developed into a new facility with a longer runway, originally coming under the umbrella of RAF Fighter Command, housing No. 59 Operational Training Unit, OTU, providing training for Hawker Hurricane pilots.

It was handed over to RAF Coastal Command, training long-rang fighter crews on Bristol Beauforts and Bristol Beaufighters, as well as night flying. Other units based there were No. 109 (Transport) OTU RAF, No. 14 Maintenance Unit RAF, No. 105 (Transport) OTU, and No. 2711 Squadron RAF Regiment. It closed in 1947, later becoming a municipal airport.     

RAF Great Orton 

Opened 1943

Closed 1952

Located around ten miles west of Carlisle city centre, Great Orton was used as a satellite airfield for Silloth (see below) by the Vickers Wellingtons of No.6 OTU. Other flying unit detachments stationed during WW2 included No. 55 OTU flying Hawker Hurricanes, and two air-sea rescue squadrons – detachments of No. 281 and No. 282 Squadrons – with Vickers Warwicks. At the end of WW2 Great Orton was home to No. 249 Maintenance Unit until it closed in 1952.

More recently, the site was infamously used as a mass funeral pyre for the disposal of half a million cattle carcasses during the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, with the Watchtree Nature Reserve established there shortly afterwards.

RAF Hornby Hall

Opened 1941

Closed 1945

Hornby Hall was another satellite station, situated four miles east of Penrith, used by No. 22 Maintenance Unit, MU, RAF based at Silloth, with the landing ground temporarily operated by No. 18 MU at RAF Dumfries. 

RAF Longtown 

Opened 1941 

Closed 1946

Among the units posted at Longtown, eight miles north-east of Carlisle, were No. 41 Squadron flying Spitfires during August 1942, along with No. 55 OTU, No. 59 OTU, and Nos. 6 (Coastal) and 9 (Coastal) OTUs.  

RAF Millom

Opened 1941

Closed 1946 – reopened in 1953 for a short period

As part of the need to protect the industrialised north west of England, Millom, located on the south west peninsula of Cumbria, opened as a bombing and gunnery school. In 1942 it became No. 2 Observer Advanced Flying Unit, remaining in that role until the end of the war. It reopened for a spell in 1953 as No. 1 Officer Cadet Training Unit, before it relocated to RAF Jurby on the Isle of Man.   

RAF Silloth

Opened 1939

Closed 1960 

Airfield during World War Two

(Airfield during World War Two)

The original plan was for Silloth, situated on the coast due west of Carlisle, to be used by No. 22 Maintenance Unit, MU, but in November 1939 it was handed over to Coastal Command with an increased threat from German U-boats. Early residents included No. 1 (Coastal) OTU flying Lockheed Hudsons, the aircraft synonymous with Silloth, with the nearby Solway Firth becoming known as ‘Hudson Bay’ because so many had to ditch there due to damage inflicted during wartime duties.   

Post war, No. 22 MU returned Silloth to its original role, with the site being used for aircraft scrappage as well as storage, closing at the end of 1960.

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