Coningsby at 75
Our means of attack are the numerous aircraft designed before the war and the new types being developed to fight the Luftwaffe, disrupt the German war effort and reduce the output of German industry. These aircraft required a whole network of support just like today and the RAF bases of Lincolnshire provided not just a home for these aircraft but also the home for the heart of the whole operation, its people.
Construction work at Coningsby started in late 1937 during the second phase of the RAF’s expansion in Lincolnshire. The first entry in the operations record book states on the 4th November 1940 ‘Flight Lieutenant L.W. Stotter, equipment officer, arrived at RAF Station to form an advanced party’ but it wasn’t until the 7th January 1941 when Coningsby officially opened due to a delay in essential services.
The build-up of personnel continued on the 20th January with the arrival of the Royal Welch Fusiliers to carry out station defence duties. By the end of the first month there were 625 RAF personnel including 176 Army personnel with February seeing the arrival of 65 Royal Artillery personnel which were to carry out the role of Anti-Aircraft Defence. On the 23rd February 1941 the Handley Page Hampden bombers of 106 Squadron arrived from Finningley and Coningsby’s 75 year history as an operational flying base began.
On the night of the 1st/2nd of March eight aircraft from 106 Squadron were detailed to take part on its first operation from Coningsby with a raid on Cologne. During this stage of the war the destruction of synthetic oil plants was the main focus of Bomber Command operations, but if the weather conditions did not favour these targets, then Cologne was chosen. This was due to being classed as a short range target and located outside the Ruhr Flak and searchlight defences. Only five aircraft got airborne with two having engine trouble and the other bogged down prior to take off in what was then an airfield without a hardened runway. All five successfully reached Cologne with four aircraft dropping their bombs, and the fifth aircraft piloted by Sgt Howard bringing back its bomb load.
The personal experience report from this crew states: “The target was identified by the glow of fires and during the bombing run the bridges were identified by the light of a flare dropped by another aircraft. Bombs were seen to burst in the target area and as the distributer panel worked correctly it was presumed that our bombs had been dropped. The aircraft appeared to be flying slowly on the return journey and the bomb inspection covers were removed during the return crossing over the sea. The bombs were all brought back.”
The second operation was conducted on the following night with the target being another raid on Cologne. This Bomber Command raid consisted of 71 Hampdens, Wellingtons and Whitley’s but this time out of the 9 Hampdens which took off from Coningsby to take part in the raid that night, only 8 returned safely and this aircraft was the only one to be lost that night. This loss is just one example of the multitude of sacrifices made by the crews of Bomber Command during the war and this loss was notably the first aircraft and crew not to return to Coningsby from operations. That aircraft was Hampden X3002 and crewed by Sgt Good, Sgt Ward, Sgt Crouch and Sgt Essex. 106 Squadron records show the same crew flew together on this aircraft during the Squadron’s movement to Coningsby only 9 days before. They are buried at Schoonselholf Cemetery in Antwerp, Belgium and believed to have been taken down by Flak during their mission.
By the end of the first month of operations from RAF Coningsby a total of eight missions were carried out but it was just over a month since 106 Squadrons first mission from Coningsby that they were to lose their Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Polglase who did not return after a low level attack on the German battleships “Scharnhorst” and “Gneisenau” near Brest, France. His Hampden aircraft AD738 was crewed by Sgt Holman, Pilot Officer Brown, and Flight Sgt Allanson. The crew are buried in St. Renan churchyard, Finistere France.
The 11th March 1941 saw the arrival of 97 Squadron who would operate the Avro Manchester. They flew their first operational mission from Coningsby on the 8/9th of April with a raid on the German shipbuilding works at Kiel in Germany. This raid and the preceding night of attacks on Kiel were part of a wider effort to reduce the threat on British shipping losses after Winston Churchill stated in a directive to his military commanders “We must take the offensive against the U-Boat and the Focke-Wulf wherever we can and whenever we can. The U-Boat at sea must be hunted, the U-Boat in the building yard or in dock must be bombed”.
The station operations record book states a visit the next day by Viscount Hugh Trenchard, which was also described in the 97 Squadron record book stating that he “Lunched in the officers mess after chatting to the men in the Ante room and afterwards interviewed the aircrews”.
By the end of 1941 RAF Coningsby was well under way creating the history which we are all part of now. From 75 years ago facing the risks of the Second World War right up to today’s operations around the world, our station personnel have passed the baton of history and it is us now, continuing that story for future generations to look back on us, just like we do today on our forbearers.
RAF Coningsby Aviation Heritage and Ethos Group
At the end of last year the RAF Coningsby Aviation Heritage and Ethos Group was created to focus the development and promotion of the history of RAF Coningsby. The group consists of civilian and service personnel with an interest in aviation history and are all passionate about preserving our station’s heritage. We have established relationships with the counties other aviation heritage centres and we are part of a larger network coordinated by Aviation Heritage Lincolnshire. Since our creation we have received immense support from the station commander as well as a wide range of station personnel. Our research has recently been enhanced by an unpublished book about RAF Coningsby written by the extensive knowledge of Len Sutton who in his past was the Warrant Officer at BBMF. We are all part of RAF Coningsby’s heritage and if you think you could give some time to help preserve that history then please contact us via our email to: