Chapter 18: It's a lovely day tomorrow ...
On the Wings of the Morning
March 1945 the allies were rapidly advancing into Germany but, despite chronic shortages of fuel and other necessities, German resistance continued to be fierce. With insufficient resources to prevent RAF bombers reaching their targets, the Luftwaffe was forced to turn to night intruder operations over Britain in an attempt to catch the returning bombers at their most vulnerable, whilst over their bases. The first attack took place on the night of March 3/4th when around 70 German nightfighters roamed eastern Britain from Northumberland to Oxfordshire. The success of the attack led to others, although on a much smaller scale. On the night of Monday March 20th Junkers 88s and 188s mingled with RAF Mosquitoes returning from a raid on Berlin, avoiding radar detection. Flying Officer John Johns, a 24 year-old West Countryman undergoing pilot training, was flying with his crew and an instructor that night. The time was eight-thirty.
I had just landed the aircraft and was still on the runway when all lights were extinguished. There was just enough light to see the perimeter track, onto which I turned right. To my surprise the intruder attacked, shooting up the left side of the track. Before he returned I shot into an empty dispersal, switched off, and hurried to a shelter – the crew beat me by yards! The following day we had to comb the airfield for ‘butterfly bombs’. Once landed they became ‘live’ and could do nasty damage if disturbed. So all the station personnel were lined up and meticulously searched the whole airfield in a series of controlled sweeps. If any foreign object was spotted, up went a hand – the line stopped – and the bomb disposal boys moved in. The exercise took all day and involved everyone, apart from a few cooks and communications staff. The following day, special teams had to examine all buildings, gutters and other such points. This went on for several days.’
The lone German had crossed the aerodrome twice, strafing as he went and dropping several small anti-personnel bombs close to the communal site. Miraculously, the only casualties were a Lancaster parked on its dispersal and several pieces of crockery in the Mess. In the process Bottesford had the distinction of suffering the very last German bombing raid of the war against Britain, ironic considering how for two years the airfield’s Manchesters and Lancasters had been engaged in meting out destruction across Germany.
Such interruptions aside, March also saw a new record of 2263 hours flying completed from the airfield. Again, the increased volume of traffic was causing heavy wear to the perimeter track, and newly delivered Bristol Beaufighters intended for nightfighter affiliation could not use the main runway due to its poor state of repair. On the plus side, after three years the dispersed sites were finally connected up to a proper sewage system. The second highlight of the month was the Harrison Cup final football match. In its first (and last) season, Bottesford came runner-up to the champions, Swinderby.
With the capitulation of Germany on May 8th 1945 there was a feeling of anti-climax across the station. Just a few weeks before, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard had visited Bottesford to address personnel on the need for patience in awaiting their discharges. Nevertheless, after six years of struggle, when the end of the war in Europe came, it still came as a shock. Although there was a well-attended celebration dance in the evening, many people seemed to prefer to spend the day’s stand-down in quiet reflection. The day after it was back to work again …
Throughout the war the ground staff had worked tirelessly to ensure that the aircraft were kept serviceable. Their contribution was rewarded after Y.E. day by cramming them into Lancasters and taking them on ‘Cooks Tours’ of Germany to see the destruction their work had helped to achieve. The scenes of utter devastation made a strong impression, at least enough to temporarily forget airsickness and take out previously forbidden cameras and snap a few souvenir photos. But despite the levity the work was not over yet. Japan had still to be beaten and the trainees learned that their services might well be required in the Far East. Nevertheless, thoughts were very much towards the future, and at Bottesford, as elsewhere, there was a spate of marriages. 1668’s Squadron Leader Barns married a local farmer’s daughter at Grantham with Flight Lieutenant Hamilton of the gunnery section as best man. A Glaswegian, Bill Hamilton, had flown from Bottesford in 1942 with 207 Squadron, and following a second tour found himself posted back as an instructor. He and his wife Evelyn rented a house from the Burrows family in the Nook, and it was here that Bill’s first son was born. As already mentioned, Allington was now home to an Italian prisoner of war camp. Italy had capitulated in September 1943, and the men, mostly conscripts captured in the western desert, were allowed to work for local farmers or around the aerodrome and army camp. As well as cutting a swathe through the female population they were also employed by officers as batmen. Bill Hamilton’s batman cycled daily to their house where he cooked, cleaned, and spoilt their baby terribly!
On fine evenings Group Captain Flinn liked to play golf with other officers. For those preferring a night on the town the LNER was as much a lifeline as ever, but there were increasing problems with airmen using the late night Nottingham-Grantham train. They regularly pulled the communication cord before the train reached the station, making their escape across the fields to avoid Service Police waiting to check passes. After several such incidents drivers began to ignore the brake and drag their trains into the station. Even more brazen airmen would hand the ticket inspector a bus ticket, cinema ticket :- anything they had in their pockets! The station master, incensed at such blatant disregard for his authority, sent a bag of tickets to the station headquarters with the request that something be done. Ron Shaw was intrigued to see a WAAF carefully going through the bag and asked her what she was doing, ‘Seeing which ones I can use again’, she replied innocently.
By the time that Group Captain J.H.T. Simpson DSO took over the station in July, Langar was on ‘care and maintenance’ and training at Bottesford had slowed almost to a stop. It had already been decided to close the station and transfer 1668 HCU to pre-war Cottesmore, a move hastened by renewed subsidence on the main runway. Only 11 crews were received during July, and of the 23 who graduated that month just 8 were posted to squadrons, the rest being sent on indefinite leave. As a consequence, when harvest time came bored aircrew gladly volunteered to work for hard-pressed local farmers. In return, people like George Lovett of Normanton offered sumptuous farmhouse cooking. The meals were much sought-after, so a strict rota was drawn up to avoid fights as to who should be chosen. For three years Lovett had provided bacon to the messes, with ‘something extra’ prior to parties.
Rationing meant that the authorities had to be notified when pigs and cattle were to be slaughtered, but like many farmers, Lovett’s pigs always seemed to have eight legs! The family were also well known because they allowed airmen to fill their haversacks with eggs, apples or pears before going on leave, always for threepence. It occurred to Bill Hamilton that it was a measly sum, and when he got to know the family betterhe asked why. ‘Because’, Mrs Lovett replied, ‘if we’d given them to you for nothing, you wouldn’t have come back!’.
On Monday August 6th 1945, in the most awesome display of the power of strategic bombing the world has ever seen, a single aircraft of the U.s. 20th Army Air Force destroyed the city of Hiroshima, and with it an estimated 80,000 people. A follow-up raid on Nagasaki three days later effectively ended the war. V.J. Day, 15th August 1945, was a day of mixed emotions at Bottesford, as it was across Britain. Very suddenly it was all over, and everyone on the station was drawn up in the recreational hangar to be addressed by Group Captain Simpson. After a short service of thanksgiving by the padre, everyone was dismissed to celebrate the day as they wished. The engineering section were taking no chances, and removed the contact breakers from all aircraft to discourage joy-riders. Exactly a month later on September 15th, Battle of Britain Day, motor transport provided by 7 Group began ferrying 1668 HCU personnel to Cottesmore. The thirty or so aircraft on strength were also flown out that same day and Bottesford officially closed to flying on the 17th, almost exactly four years to the day after it had opened.
Shortly after 1668 HCU had departed Bottesford became a sub-site of 256 Maintenance Unit based at 6arkston Heath, responsible for the storage and disposal of surplus equipment. With no further need for material, the runways and taxiways rapidly filled up with lines and lines of vehicles, factory fresh but awaiting disposal. Elsewhere the living sites were crammed with mattresses and bedding, and what couldn’t be stored was either sold off to locals ‘for a few bob’ or unceremoniously burnt. It was a sad end to an illustrious career.
Although RAF Bottesford officially closed in 1948 with most of the landing ground coming under the plough, it still had one more job to fulfill – as a store for some of the millions of tonnes of wartime ammunition stockpiles still awaiting disposal. Hundreds of bombs were stacked along the runways, behind the B1 hangar across the Normanton road and on the grass verges beside it. When the bomb dump was finally cleared in the 1960s the pyrotechnics remaining gave local children a firework display they would remember for years to come! John Rose from nearby Kilvington had been farming the airfield since just after the war, and after the Air Ministry auctioned it off in lots in 1954 he gradually acquired piece after piece until eight years later he owned the whole of the former technical site and landing ground. With remarkable foresight he realised that with its ten hangars, the airfield had potential for industrial storage, and set up the Newark Storage Company (now a part of the Roseland Group). It is to this that the airfield owes its preservation.
Although the northern end of the main runway was torn up for hardcore in the 1970s, the perimeter track reduced in width and all the dispersals removed, the airfield today is remarkably intact. At a short service in April 1993 a commemorative plaque was placed by members of the 467/463 and 207 Squadron Associations in the refurbished control tower – now used as offices. Two years later the Aussies were back in force to plant a eucalyptus tree on the former signals square on the 50th anniversary of VE Day. For many it must inevitably have been their last pilgrimage back to England.
To the casual visitor passing through Bottesford today, the graves in the churchyard are the only reminders of a time when this quiet part of Leicestershire carried the war night after night to the heartland of Germany. Returning veterans remark on the emptiness they experience on the old ‘drome. Back in 1945, those same men and women were struggling to re-adapt to civilian life. One of them was Corporal Ron Shaw, who went back again on an errand shortly after de-mob. He still returns once a year, just to remember and ‘pay his respects’, but his simple description of that first journey back evoke feelings that will be recognised by many of his comrades:
On Christmas Eve 1945 I went back to the aerodrome with my wife and two daughters, then aged six and ten, as I’d arranged to collect some eggs and poultry from Ablewhite’s farm. We passed one of the living sites and then the Sergeants’ Mess. One of the doors was blowing open and shut in the wind, and inside I could see pans still on the stoves. In the picket post which fronted the lane opposite Sick Quarters, a curtain fluttered in the breeze through a broken window pane. Imagine – all that activity in the war – the hustle and bustle – everything that happened there; now it was deserted, not a soul in sight …
Coming back through Normanton, past No.9 hangar, we called on an old lady and her daughter who I used to get eggs from. They’d just made mince pies in the shape of little cradles, and only a few hours before they’d had a calf born. They invited my daughters to go and have a look at it, and they were fascinated! I remember kidding them on the way home that we’d have to hurry to get back before Santa Claus! It’s a memory that takes me back all those years. I could shut my eyes, and I’d be there …