My Dad, Fred, used to tell me many tales of his years in the RAF. He served in Bomber Command, and, as I grew older, stimulated perhaps by the increased interest generally in the Second World War, I made great efforts to find out the exact details of where he had served and what exactly he had done. This proved quite a challenge. Here he is with a few of his unduly optimistic friends during basic training:
I do know that Fred served with 103 Squadron, probably in late 1943 and/or early 1944. This was the time of the Battle of Berlin which lasted from November 1943 to March 1944. My Dad did not take part in this titanic, and ultimately losing, struggle where 2,690 aircrew were killed in action and nearly a thousand became Prisoners of War. Bomber losses ran at 5.8% which is generally considered unsustainable. Crew morale was extremely low because of these huge casualties over “The Big City” as it was called, and luckily for him, Fred was never asked to bomb Berlin. Fred considered this to be the sole reason that he survived the war.
Here is the badge of 103 Squadron. The motto means “Don’t touch me”:
Fred spent his time with 103 Squadron at RAF Elsham Wolds which is between Scunthorpe and Grimsby, two places neither of which have ever been described as the Paris of the North, shall we say? Indeed, at the end of the conflict, one of my Dad’s great resentments, whatever he achieved against such a mad and bad enemy as the Germans were at that time, was that, like all the young men of Bomber Command, he knew damn well that they had all been forced to waste the best years of their lives, all of their youth, not pursuing pretty young girls at the village dance, but sitting in a Nissen hut in the middle of nowhere, feeling freezing cold and scared to death of a dangerous and precarious future. Fred’s twenty-first birthday, for example, had been celebrated, or rather, not celebrated, on a lonely, cold airfield in the middle of nowhere, far from his family. A definition which certainly would fit Elsham Wolds.
Here is Elsham Wolds on June 26th 1943, seen from about 10,000 feet up. Look for the three runways forming a huge triangle in the middle of the photo, and, on the right, five of the many circular dispersal points where the Lancaster bombers would wait impatiently for night to fall :
And here is a Nissen hut, named after Mr Nissen:
Today, very little remains of RAF Elsham Wolds. A major road, the A15, has been built more or less right through the middle of it, and on top of the majority of one runway. There is a single hangar left, apparently a J-type. Look for the orange arrow, pointing to the hangar:
It’s a funny feeling, though, to see a wartime building that your Dad would have known and no doubt loved when he was just nineteen or twenty years of age:
Here I have made gallant attempts to match up the aerial photograph of RAF Elsham Wolds in 1943 with the present countryside. The orange arrow still marks the J-type hangar. One runway has obviously disappeared under the A15. On the Ordnance Survey Map look for the number “78” and then the irregularly shaped four sided area to the left of it. It is bordered with yellow minor roads. You may be able to pick this distinctive shape out on the 1943 photograph:
This is half of the runway which, on the Ordnance Survey map, has the radio mast symbol on it. The buildings have something to do with the Severn Trent Water Authority, but were seemed to be unoccupied during our visit:
This is the runway which runs more or less west to east, if you refer back to the Ordnance Survey map. It has now become a dumping ground for builders’ rubble:
This is the Perimeter Track, or “Peri-track” running toward the start of the runway. When they set off on a mission, all the bombers would taxi slowly along the “Peri-track” to the start of whichever runway they were using that night:
The laws of trespass are quite different in England to many countries. Here, more or less, you can go wherever you want, provided you leave when you are asked to. Only too easy then, to take a Volvo saloon off the road, over ten yards of gravel, on to the old “Peri-track” and then round and off to the start of the runway. Here is where the bombers waited to take off:
Unfortunately, some idiot vandal builder has built a metal fence to stop me attempting a proper take-off so I have to stop the car and just drink in the scenery:
Nevertheless, let’s give it a go!
And I certainly knew what to do in my Lancaster. Accelerate as hard as possible. Keep your eye on the speed. When it reaches 130 mph, a gentle dab on the brakes and then, lift off. You’re on your way. Seriously though, it was good to think that I might have been doing exactly what Dear Old Dad had done 60 plus years ago. In a Lancaster, of course, not a Volvo: