historical overview of the RAF, RFC and RNAS in Lincolnshire
Part One : Early Days and the Great War
Updated: 2 Jan 2013
For the Royal Air Force, Lincolnshire can be considered as the spiritual home of military aviation. During the Great War, units flew from here to defend the Midlands against the Zeppelin threat. In the Second World War the county became known as Bomber County because of the concentration of British and allied air assets which defended and attacked from Lincolnshire airfields. During the Cold War the county was home to the British independent nuclear deterrent in the form of Thor missiles and the Vulcan bomber. In the current era stations such as RAF Waddington are generating air power on ongoing operations.
The first recorded lighter-than-air flight in Lincolnshire took place in October 1811 when the first Englishman to ascend in a balloon, James Sadler, landed at Heckington, near Sleaford in a hydrogen filled balloon, thus ending an 85 mile flight from Birmingham. Two years later he returned again, this time landing at Dekin Lodge near Stamford.
British military aviation has its roots in the Army. In April 1910 the War Office's Air Battalion was formed, absorbing the Royal Engineers' Balloon School and also having an airplane company. The concept of a British military air force was born in 1911 when Prime Minister Herbert Asquith instructed the Committee of Imperial Defence to examine the questions of naval and military aviation and to suggest measures to create an efficient air force. The Committee recommended the formation of a Royal Flying Corps (RFC) comprising a Military Wing, a Naval Wing, a Reserve, the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough and the Central Flying School (CFS). Thus on 13 Apr 1912 the RE Air Battalion was assumed into the new Royal Flying Corps (RFC). The Senior Service soon formed its own, unauthorised, flying branch with a training centre at Eastchurch as it was not happy with this new arrangement. The political power of the Admiralty's supporters enabled it to escape sanction and the Royal Naval Air Service was officially recognised on 1 Jul 1914.
Lincolnshire's association with military aviation of a heavier-than-air nature dates from the Great War and the units of the British Army's Royal Flying Corps and Royal Naval Air Service. In Aug 1913 the Admiralty ordered the construction of a handful of coastal air stations to include a sub-command and station to be based at Cleethorpes. However this did not materialise and the first military aerodrome in Lincolnshire was established at NAS Killingholme in Jul 1914. Meanwhile Lincolnshire’s first civil aviator, Montague F Glew of South Kelsey had given a flying demonstration in his Blackburn Monoplane at Market Rasen in 1913, soon followed by series of exhibition flights at Horncastle.
The Great War (1914 - 1918)
During the Great War Lincolnshire was of strategic importance to the air campaign in two ways. In addition to flight operations from 37 military aerodromes by the end of the War the county was also a major centre of aircraft production, focussed around Lincoln. This included the manufacture of over 5 000 aircraft by Clayton and Shuttleworth, Ruston and Proctor and Robey & Co.
Lincolnshire was an early centre of military air bases due to its geography and the nature of the terrain. The Lincoln Edge is a high limestone escarpment that runs through the centre of the County, along the edge of the Trent Valley. The land rises here from 22ft to 200ft above sea level, a significant land feature when set against the pancake-flat fens of Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and East Anglia. Theis feature was used by the early Air Force which built airfields along the Edge to help provide extra lift for aircraft. In the north-east there are also the uplands of the Lincolnshire Wolds, where other airfields were built during both Wars.
At the outbreak of war, on 4 Aug 1914, the RFC had 5 squadrons. All but No 1 Sqn RFC were sent to France with the British Expeditionary Force. The RNAS had more aircraft than the RFC and its main role at the onset of war was fleet reconnaissance, patrolling coasts for enemy ships and submarines, attacking enemy coastal territory and defending Britain from enemy air-raids. Lincolnshire locations for maritime patrol included NAS Killingholme. Aircraft from here were pressed into Zeppelin intercepts during Sep 1914 raids on Lincolnshire. Zeppelin raids caused a public outcry as they were attacks far behind the traditional conflict zone of oppposing front lines. Some damage was caused in Lincolnshire and aircraft were scrambled from both RNAS and RFC aerodromes in response to the threat, from RNAS Killingholme and Cranwell and RFC Home Defence Squadrons from Leadenham, Scampton, Kirton in Lindsey, Gainsborough, Elsham Wolds and Tydd St Mary. In Jan 1916 three civilians died in Scunthorpe as the result of a Zeppelin bombing raid. A few weeks later an attack on Humberston and Cleethorpes resulted in the death of 31 soldiers. In this raid it transpired that it had not been possible to contact the fighter aircraft at Cranwell because the phonelines were down.
Failure to prevent the Zeppelin bombing raids led to the RFC being given responsibility for home air defence in Feb 1916. Three squadrons given the responsibility for Home Defence were based in Lincolnshire. 33 Sqn RFC was the first Sqn to be formed in Lincolnshire to counter the Zeppelin Raids on the Midlands over north Lincolnshire in 1915/16. It operated out of Elsham Wolds, Kirton in Lindsey and Brattleby (Scampton). 38 Sqn RFC operated in the south from Leadenham Aerodrome and Buckminster. In addition to their home bases the squadrons could call on emergency landing strips at Anwick, Braceby, Bucknall, Cockthorne, Cuxwold (nr Grimsby), Grimsthorpe Park, Kelstern, Market Deeping, New Holland, Swinstead, and Winterton. The network of emergency landing grounds was the best available solution to keeping the fighters airborne as long as possible to engage enemy aircraft and dirigibles.
The size and number of bombing raids increased during 1916 as the new, larger L-30 class airships were delivered to the German navy.
While the Home Defence Squadrons patrolled the skies to defend against Zeppelin and Gotha, the Squadrons at Killingholme, Greenland Top and North Coates Fitties continued to defend the sealanes and convoys against the submarine threat.
As the offensive employment of aircraft became more important on the Western Front and casualties mounted the RFC grew to fill the new role. It was natural for Lincolnshire to be selected to be home to many of the new airfields as it was flat and sparsely populated. Nov 1916 saw RFC aerodromes open at Brattleby (soon renamed Scampton), Harlaxton, South Carlton, Waddington and Grantham (the later RAF Spitalgate). Meanwhile the Reserve Squadrons which were to train pilots for 15 hours solo, bombing, air fighting and formation flying moved into the new airfields in Nov 1916: 37 Sqn to Scampton, 44 Sqn to Harlaxton, 45 Sqn to South Carlton, 47 Sqn to Waddington and 49 Sqn to Spitalgate. These Sqns were renamed from Reserve Sqns to Training Sqns in May 1917.
With almost all of the operational flying units in France none could be spared for home defence. The training organisation was therefore called on to supply the bulk of the home-defence aircraft and aircrews for the duration of the war. Night flying and fighting was in effect a secondary duty. Combat missions were often flown by instructors at the end of long days of flying training in aircraft already worn-out and often obsolete. A minor mitigating factor was that the pilots selected as instructors were among the best trained and qualified in the RNAS and RFC. With the most up to date equipment disappearing from Lincolnshire factories and across to the troops in France, training units got cast-offs, obsolete types and types designed for other roles eg seaplanes. Up to 1916 these were largely pre-war in design and often French, eg Blériot, REP, and Morane-Saulnier monoplanes, with Bristol Scouts and the Sopwith Schneider and Sopwith Baby seaplanes serving in that role. In the early years none of these types were optimised to climb to Zeppelin operating altitudes, orbit in search and then intercept the silent threat. The German Zeppelins were in fact not much slower than their British interceptors. For more details on the problems of intercept and why aircraft were failing, see the RAF BE2c page in the aircraft section.
In 1917, three years into the Great War, the British War Cabinet decided to increase the number of squadrons in the Royal Flying Corps to 200.
The growing role of air power over the Western Front led the War Office to consider the role of air bombing of factories, lines of communication and enemy targets. This specialised task was to be the driving force behind the creation of the Independent Air Force commanded by General Sir Hugh Trenchard. With the Royal Navy unable to equip the RNAS for its mission the air services were combined; the Royal Air Force and the Womens Auxiliary Air Force came into being on 1 Apr 1918, subsuming the Army's Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service. RNAS squadrons were renumbered to avoid numerical conflict, with 1 Sqn RNAS becoming 201 Sqn RAF, etc. More details on squadron numbering are on this site.
The United States and Australia were among those who sent squadrons to the Western Front, via training in the United Kingdom. There was a US Navy flying presence at Killingholme, and the Australian RFC staged 2 Sqn AFC and 3 Sqn AFC via local aerodromes.
> RAF history in Lincolnshire
> The command structure
> Airfield information
> Other historical pages
History of the RNAS on the Fleet Air Arm Archive
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