RAF Stations in Lancashire

WITH Britain’s defences prioritising the threat from the East, it is perhaps unsurprising that the western county of Lancashire boasts only one active RAF station. However, the emergence of RAF Woodvale in 1941 was in response to Liverpool becoming the biggest target of the Luftwaffe after London at the start of the Second World War, the city and its sister site at Birkenhead across the Mersey the largest west coast port in the UK.

Along with the supplies of food and cargo arriving from America and Canada on a daily basis, the port was integral in Britain’s participation in the Battle of the Atlantic, the Luftwaffe responsible for 4,000 deaths as well as extensive damage – during the May Blitz of 1941, 70 of 140 berths were put out of commission.

Today, Woodvale works closely with nearby universities to help train the RAF personnel of the future.

Active Station

RAF Woodvale

Opened 1941

In response to Liverpool suffering its worst bombing campaign of WW2, RAF Woodvale was established at a site on the coast just south of Southport. Its primary aim was as a night fighter airfield to defend Liverpool, 308 (Krakowski) being the first squadron to arrive in December 1941.

RAF Woodvale

(Aerial View of RAF Woodvale)

There were several Polish squadrons located at Woodvale, with regular rotation of air personnel, 315 (Deblinski) and 317 (Wilenski) two further units based there, both flying Spitfires.

Post-war Woodvale reopened with No. 611 (West Lancashire) Squadron operating Spitfires, and in 1951 Gloster Meteors arrived, before 611 joined No. 610 Squadron at RAF Hooton Park, the Wirral location offering better facilities. Woodvale continued to maintain and fly Spitfires with the last operational flight by the iconic aircraft taking place in 1957.

From 1951, Liverpool University Air Squadron was based at Woodvale, with Manchester University (later Manchester and Salford Universities) joining them two years later, with training its sole role from around 1971 to this day. In 2006, 631 Volunteer Gliding Squadron moved to the station, becoming 631 Aerospace Ground Training Squadron in 2018, and in 2013, 611 Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force reformed at Woodvale.

Former Stations

RAF Barton Hall

Opened 1939

Closed 1945 as RAF Operations Centre

Barton Hall was very much an operations centre during the Second World War, part of it requisitioned by the military in 1939, with No. 9 Group RAF housed at the site and directing RAF aircraft in their area from a location in a bunker one mile east of the hall.

RAF Barton Hall

(Air Traffic Control Centre at RAF Barton Hill)

Alongside the operations room there was also a filter room where intelligence was dissected, and a communications room which possessed all the necessary equipment to monitor the movement of both home and enemy aircraft.

Following the war, Barton Hall, located just north of Preston, became the Royal Observer Corps 21 Group HQ and then the Western Sector Control for the UK’s Warning and Monitoring Organisation, effectively becoming responsible for control of the infamous four-minute warning air raid system, a syren which would inform the public of an imminent nuclear attack.

Barton Hall was also the site of the Preston Air Traffic Control Centre, ATCC, one of three domestic ATCCs in the UK, closing in 1975 as the task was absorbed by both the Manchester sub-centre and London ATCC.

Plans have recently been submitted to demolish many of the old buildings and reopen part of the site as a business park.

RAF Kirkham

Opened 1940

Closed 1957

Located between Preston and Lytham St Annes, Kirkham was a training centre for the RAF, initially opening as a camp for RAF tradesmen to learn the skills needed to develop and maintain equipment and weapons. In five years, it trained in excess of 72,000 British and Allied service personnel, with visitors from across the globe utilising the facilities which included ten hangars, as well as its own hospital and cinema.

Post war, it was used to train RAF boy entrants, closing in 1957 before part of the site opened as Kirkham Prison in 1962.

RAF Speke

Opened 1930

Now Liverpool John Lennon Airport, requisitioned by RAF, 1939-1945

Scheduled flights from Liverpool to London (Croydon) Airport began in 1930, and by the late 1930s Speke’s popularity was growing, with demand for flights over the Irish Sea seeing a passenger terminal, control tower and two hangars built on site.

The old terminal building, used until 1986 and now the Crowne Plaza Liverpool John Lennon Airport Hotel

(The old terminal building, used until 1986 and now the Crowne Plaza Liverpool John Lennon Airport Hotel)

Around 100 acres of the site were leased to the Air Ministry in 1937, and the RAF requisitioned the airport during WW2, a shadow factory constructed with a production line building Bristol Blenheims and Handley Page Halifaxes. Many other planes were constructed at Speke by Lockheed, and in 1940 WW2’s fastest kill occurred above the airport, a Hawker Hurricane shooting down a Junkers 88 with the Hawker still retracting its wheels.

RAF Squires Gate

Opened 1909

Now Blackpool Airport

The site on the Fylde coast near Blackpool played host to the UK’s first official public flying meeting in 1909, Frenchman Henri Farman entertaining an estimated 200,000 crowd with his aviation skills; there was a further meeting the following year before the site became a racecourse in 1911. A military hospital was set up at Squires Gate during the First World War, many of the patients from the Royal Lancashire Regiment, closing in 1924, with scheduled flight services to Manchester, Liverpool and the Isle of Man beginning in the 1930s.

RAF Squires Gate in summer 1945. The Vickers factory is top right with 23 Wellington bombers scattered below. Avro Ansons of the No. 3 School of General Reconnaissance can be seen at top and lower right

(RAF Squires Gate in summer 1945. The Vickers factory is top right with 23 Wellington bombers scattered below. Avro Ansons of the No. 3 School of General Reconnaissance can be seen at top and lower right)

The airfield was requisitioned by the Air Ministry in 1938 as tensions rose in Europe ahead of the outbreak of World War Two, new runways being laid with RAF Station Blackpool officially opening in October 1939; later in the year it became known as RAF Squires Gate. It soon became home to Squadrons including No. 63, No. 75, No. 96, No. 215, No. 256 and No. 308 Polish Fighter Squadron; RAF Coastal Command were also based at the site.

The site’s location close to Blackpool saw it becoming a training wing due to the abundance of accommodation, with two specialist training schools established: No. 3 School of General Reconnaissance and No. 5 School of Technical Training, for air mechanics.

Vickers-Armstrong operated a shadow aircraft factory on the premises, with more than 2,500 Wellington bombers produced, many tested and dispatched from Squires Gate. After the war the Vickers factory was taken over by Hawker Aircraft in the 1950s, producing Hawker Hunter jet fighters.

The site was famous for the regular visits of Amy Johnson, the pioneering pilot who was the first woman to fly solo from London to Australia. Johnson’s sister lived in Newton Drive in the town, and she would often fly past her house buzzing her, before heading for Squires Gate. She landed there on January 4, 1941 in an Airspeed Oxford she had flown from Prestwick, staying overnight at her sister’s before continuing her journey to Kidlington in Oxfordshire.

Somehow, reportedly due to adverse weather conditions, she found herself off course on January 5 on her trip south, eventually baling out of the Airspeed in the Thames Estuary near Herne Bay, HMS Haslemere seeing her parachute into the sea before the plane crashed. Despite their efforts they could not reach her, with a body never found. Various reports say her plane was shot down by friendly fire, but the exact reason why she was so far off course and was forced to jump from her plane were never discovered.

RAF Warton/Warton Aerodrome

Opened 1942

Now operated by BAE Systems

Warton Aerodrome was situated six miles west of Preston, constructed to act as a satellite station for the nearby Squires Gate in 1942, but first operated as an air depot of the US Army Air Forces, USAAF, with the site not becoming an RAF station until 1945. At its peak, the number of US personnel at Warton was in excess of 10,000, with thousands of US aircraft serviced prior to being dispatched throughout Europe and beyond.

Aerial photograph of RAF Warton 10 August 1945

(Aerial photograph of RAF Warton 10 August 1945)

After the war it was home to English Electric Aviation, which in turn became British Aircraft Corporation, BAC, and then British Aerospace. Aircraft tested at the site include the Canberra, Lightning, Jaguar, Tornado and, most recently, the Typhoon.

In August 1944, two B-24 Liberators took off from Warton on a routine test flight only to be ordered to return to Warton when a violent storm approached the area. One of the planes experienced severe turbulence at 500 feet, the pilot losing control, with the aircraft clipping a tree and a wing being ripped off before it crashed into Freckleton. Parts of the aircraft hit Holy Trinity School and in total 61 people died, including 38 children, in Britain’s worst aircraft accident of WW2.

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1 comment

  • Hi,
    Re RAF Kirkham. In1962/1963, I was in Kirkham training to become a housemother in Lancs Children’s Homes. I remember we used to go to Sat night dances at RAF Kirkham during this period. I was surpised to read that the Camp had closed in 1957! Can you throw any light on this?

    Norma Allen

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