RAF Hemswell

RAF Hemswell was an airfield used by RAF Bomber Command for 20 years between 1937 and 1957 and saw most of its operational life during World War Two. Later used by RAF Fighter Command as a nuclear ballistic missile base during the Cold War it closed to military use in 1967. Located close to the village of Hemswell in Lincolnshire, England the disestablished airfield is now in full use as a civilian industrial and retail trading estate, forming part of the newly created parish of Hemswell Cliff along with the station's married quarters and RAF built primary school that are now in non-military ownership.

On 19 March 1940 RAF Hemswell-based Handley Page Hampdens of No. 61 Squadron RAF were the first Bomber Command aircraft to drop bombs on German soil during the Second World War. The target was the Hörnum seaplane base on the northern Germany coast.

RAF Hemswell was immortalised on film when it was used as a substitute for RAF Scampton in all the ground based filming of the 1954 war film The Dambusters. The station's most famous RAF resident was Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC who departed from Hemswell when flying his fatal last mission.

Military use

First World War

The first airfield on the site was opened in 1916 by the Royal Flying Corps and called RFCS Harpswell after the village of that name just across the A631 road. During the First World War it was used as a night landing ground and two night flying training squadrons were established there. In June 1919 the grass airfield was returned to its former use as farmland.

Second World War

In 1935 construction began on compulsory repurchased land. The new airbase, now called RAF Hemswell, was opened on New Year's Eve 1936 to accommodate the rapidly expanding Bomber Command. The station was a base for Hawker Hind, Hawker Audax, Avro Anson, Bristol Blenheim and Boulton Paul Overstrand aircraft in its early days. The station and its squadrons initially formed part of No. 5 Bomber Group RAF with its group headquarters at St Vincents House, St Vincents Road, Grantham , transferring to No. 1 Bomber Group RAF at RAF Hucknall, Nottinghamshire in June 1941.

During the war years various squadrons were based at Hemswell. RAF Hemswell, along with the nearby RAF Woodhall Spa, was a designated standby landing field for the Avro Lancasters from the major base at RAF Scampton. During the war a total of 122 bomber aircraft and their crews were lost on operations from Hemswell, including 38 Handley Page Hampdens, 62 Vickers Wellingtons and 22 Avro Lancasters.

Hemswell operated as a dual site with a nearby overflow airfield at Ingham. RAF Ingham was a grassed field landing ground with few buildings or facilities. Between 1941 and 1943 the Polish bomber squadrons used the airfield for their Wellington operations, as the Hemswell dispersal areas were overflowing with Lancasters. Later No. 199 Squadron RAF used Ingham while training over The Wash with their Short Stirlings for maritime mine laying operations. Ingham was later renamed RAF Cammeringham and became a full station in its own right, closing in 1945 when the grass runways became unstable.

Guy Gibson

The Dambusters' leader Wing Commander Guy Gibson returned from public relations tours of America to operational duties at RAF Hemswell in 1944, after pestering Bomber Command for another active flying posting. Gibson was appointed Squadron Commander of No 150 (Pathfinder) Squadron and also took up dual duties as Hemswell's temporary Station Commander.

Gibson was killed a few months later, along with his navigator Sqn Ldr Jim Warwick, on a bombing raid to Rheydt (a borough of Mönchengladbach) operating as a Pathfinder Master Bomber based at RAF Hemswell. Their de Havilland Mosquito crashed near Steenbergen in the Netherlands on 19 September 1944. Gibson was just 26 years old. It was assumed for many years that they had been shot down but, following the excavation of the plane's wreckage, it was discovered that a mechanical fault with the fuel tank selector switch had meant that the aircraft had simply run out of fuel.

Cold War deployments

After the war a variety of aircraft were stationed at Hemswell including de Havilland Mosquitos, Avro Lincolns, English Electric Canberras and V-Force Vickers Valiants with various peacetime roles undertaken including ex-prisoner-of-war repatriation, the dropping of food supplies during the relief of Holland and the Berlin Blockade, goodwill visits to foreign countries, electronic counter measures and nuclear air sampling over hydrogen bomb test sites in the Pacific and Australia.

Hemswell continued in operational flying use by RAF Bomber Command until as late as 1956. The last flying squadrons had departed in January of that year but RAF Hemswell was then established as a Fighter Command missile unit, maintaining and operating nine mobile mounted Thor Intermediate Range Ballistic Nuclear Missile launchers of No 97(Strategic Missile) Squadron RAF that remained at Hemswell from December 1959 to May 1963. Each missile was tipped with a one-megaton nuclear warhead, jointly controlled by the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force under the so-called dual-key arrangements. RAF Hemswell was also the headquarters for the No 5 (Lincolnshire) Missile Dispersal Sites located at RAF Bardney, RAF Caistor, RAF Coleby Grange and RAF Ludford Magna. The missiles were rotated around the five airfields in groups of three launchers, always with two locations not containing deployed missiles as an attempt to confuse the USSR military planners. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the entire UK based Thor missile force to maximum strategic alert and readiness for a ten day period during October and November 1962.

In 1964 the station was designated and prepared as an operational conversion unit for the expected deployment of the planned TSR-2 (Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance) aircraft, but when the TSR-2 programme was cancelled by the government in 1965 the fate of Hemswell was sealed and it was decommissioned as a military base in early 1967, after the closure of No 1 Recruit Training School in December 1966.

Hemswell in the media

To emphasise the Guy Gibson and No 617 Squadron connection, Hemswell was used as a substitute for RAF Scampton in the ground based filming of the 1954 movie The Dambusters as the wartime layout of both Scampton and Hemswell was almost identical. It remains the only known filmed record of what RAF Hemswell looked like during and just after the war. Scenes were filmed in various offices of the station headquarters; the front entrance, the bedrooms, ante room and dining room of the officers' mess; hangars and the NAAFI canteen with the latter used for the squadron briefing theatre scenes, as well as on the roadways within the base. At the end of the film, actor Richard Todd can be seen walking up the main driveway past Gibson House in the direction of the hangar line.

Part of the RAF's fleet of aging Avro Lincolns had been mothballed at RAF Hemswell prior to being broken up and several of these static aircraft appeared in background shots during filming, doubling for additional No 617 Squadron Lancasters, as the filmmakers only had four airworthy and fully flying Lancasters available to them.

Squadrons and units based at RAF Hemswell

Date of arrival Unit Notes
1916 Several RFC Squadrons Hemswell used as a night landing ground
April 1918 No. 99 (Depot Training) Squadron RFC Renumbered from No 199 Sqn before arriving at Hemswell it was tasked with the training of night bomber pilots destined for service in France. Disbanded on 13 June 1919.
1918 No. 200 (Depot Training) Squadron RFC Tasked with the training of night bomber pilots destined for service in France. Disbanded on 13 June 1919.
1935 - 1937 Building programe constructed station buildings, hangars and married quarter housing
February 1937 No. 144 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Anson and Hawker Audax and later new Bristol Blenheims and Handley Page Hampdens. Mainly involved in maritime bombing raids on shipping. The squadron left Hemswell in July 1941 and moved to RAF North Luffenham.
March 1937 No. 61 Squadron RAF 61 Sqn's Hemswell-based Handley Page Hampdens were the first Bomber Command aircraft to drop bombs on German soil during the Second World War, on 19 Mar 1940. The target was the Hörnum seaplane base. Re-equipped with Avro Manchesters the squadron left Hemswell in October 1941 and relocated to RAF North Luffenham.
June 1941 No. 305 Polish Bomber Squadron Operating Vickers Wellingtons. Left Hemswell / Ingham in August 1943 and relocated to RAF Swanton Morley.
June 1941 No. 301 Polish Bomber Squadron Operating Vickers Wellingtons. Squadron disbanded in April 1943 after major crew losses could not be restaffed.
July 1942 No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron Operating Vickers Wellingtons. Left Hemswell / Ingham in March 1944 and relocated at RAF Faldingworth.
February 1943 No. 199 Squadron RAF Operating Vickers Wellington and later Short Stirling. Training for maritime mine laying operations. Left Hemswell in July 1943 and relocated to RAF Lakenheath.
July 1943 Concrete runways laid
Autumn 1943 No. 1 (Lancaster Finishing School) Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters. Squadron disbanded at Hemswell in November 1944
1944 No. 150 (Pathfinder) Squadron RAF Master Bomber Pathfinder squadron commanded by Wg Cdr Guy Gibson. Operating Avro Lancasters and de Havilland Mosquitos. The squadron formed part of No 8 Group RAF (Pathfinder Force). The squadron was disbanded in November 1945.
November 1944 No. 170 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters. The squadron was disbanded in 1945
March 1945 No. 1687 (Bomber Defence Training) Flight RAF Regiment No. 1687 Flight also maintained a Q decoy site on the far side of nearby Caenby village.
July 1946 No. 83 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lincolns. Disbanded at Hemswell in January 1956. Reformed at RAF Waddington in 1957, flying Avro Vulcans.
1946 and 1950 No. 109 Squadron RAF Operating de Havilland Mosquitos in a Pathfinder and Oboe role. Left Hemswell in 1947. Returned 1950 operating English Electric Canberras, departed January 1956.
1946 and 1950 No 139 Squadron RAF Operating de Havilland Mosquitos. Left Hemswell in 1947. Returned 1950 operating English Electric Canberras, departed January 1956.
Oct 1946 No. 97 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters and later Avro Lincolns. The Squadron was disbanded in December 1955
1946 No. 100 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters and later Avro Lincolns. Left Hemswell in 1950, relocating to Malaysia for Operation Firedog.
April 1952 No. 199 Squadron RAF Operating at various times Avro Lincolns, de Havilland Mosquitos, English Electric Canberras and Vickers Valiants. Left Hemswell in September 1957, bringing to an end Bomber Command use of Hemswell. The squadron disbanded in 1958.
December 1959 No. 97 (Strategic Missile) Squadron RAF Operating Thor IRBM missiles for RAF Fighter Command. Left Hemswell in May 1963 and its missiles were returned to America where they were used as launch vehicles in the early development of the space programme. No. 97 Sqn disbanded, with the personnel transferred to RAF Watton to join No. 151 Squadron RAF.
1963 No. 1 School of Recruit Training RAF Used for follow on training for senior recruits from the Recruit Training School at nearby RAF Swinderby. Closed in December 1966
1967 RAF Hemswell disestablished and closed

After closure

In 1972 the station became the temporary Hemswell Resettlement Camp when it received Ugandan-Asian refugees expelled from Uganda by president Idi Amin.

After Hemswell closed the site was eventually redeveloped into a private trading estate and residential area with the former estates of officers' and other ranks' married quarters becoming what is now the new civil parish and village of Hemswell Cliff. The wartime station headquarters building still stands on the new trading estate and is still called Gibson House, renamed by the RAF just after his death. It is used by a number of companies as office space. The room that was Wing Commander Guy Gibson's office, after the Dambuster Raid and immediately prior to his death in a flying accident, is currently occupied by a computer software design company. Hemswell almost uniquely amongst the wartime flying stations has retained its pre-war road layout, most of its buildings and an almost "RAF feel", despite being in private ownership.

Two short lengths of the original metalled runways still exist, used as farm machinery hardstanding, as do most of the hangars and station buildings which have been pressed into alternate uses by private companies. Until 2006 a private aviation museum displayed a small collection of ex-RAF aircraft on a grassed area behind Gibson House, including two Hawker Hunters, a BAC Jet Provost, a de Havilland Vampire, an English Electric Canberra and an English Electric Lightning. The museum closed and the collection has either been dispersed to other museums or broken up for spares and scrap.

The Red Arrows, officially known as the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team still utilise the airspace above Hemswell airfield during winter training sessions. This arrangement will probably continue after 2011 when the Red Arrows relocate from their present base at RAF Scampton to nearby RAF Waddington, a few miles south of Scampton.

By mid 2008 the last RAF presence on the site departed and the station is now totally civilian. However, the RAF still own the community centre and have spent considerable money refurbishing it. The old H Block other rank accommodation buildings on the site have now become home to one of Europe's largest antique centres and there are also various shops, a garden centre, hairdresser, used book shop and several cafés. On Sundays there is a very large Sunday market and car boot sale. Hemswell Cliff Primary School, formally the RAF primary school, still serves the children of the nearby communities. The former station officers' mess is now known as Hemswell Court and provides an elegant venue for weddings, banqueting and conference facilities. The Hemswell hangars have been pressed into service as European Union Common Agricultural Policy Intervention Stores on several occasions as a Lincolnshire location for the occasional EU "grain mountain" excesses.

The non-profit RAF Hemswell Association's membership is open to all ranks and trades who served at Hemswell any time between 1937 and 1967. There is an annual reunion at Hemswell and the assocation also publishes a bi-annual magazine. Annual subscriptions are currently set at £7.


See also

External links

Main reference

  • Bruce Barrymore Halpenny Action Stations: Wartime Military Airfields of Lincolnshire and the East Midlands v. 2 (ISBN 978-0850594843)
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