RAF Scampton closure: constructive proposals needed

Pic: Lincolnshire Live

The government’s announcement on Tuesday that RAF Scampton is to close by 2022, leading to the relocation of the Red Arrows and the other RAF personnel who work there, has been met with predictable sound and fury. BBC Lincolnshire and the Lincolnshire Live websites provided blog updates throughout the day, the news was featured in most national radio and TV bulletins and Wednesday’s Daily Express even ran the item as its front page lead.

There is now a Facebook group called ‘Save RAF Scampton and its Red Arrows’, where the alternative suggestions include selling off the MoD’s main building in London, and moving the entire ministry to Lincolnshire.

There are two separate issues here. It is clear that there is no immediate threat to the future of the Red Arrows themselves. The RAF’s official aerobatic team has been based at other RAF stations over the years, and could be relocated. However, the bricks and mortar assets owned by the MoD have been consolidated in the last two decades as all three services, including the RAF, have had to adjust to their 21st century roles. Many RAF stations have been selected for closure over this period, including fifteen which were announced just a few months ago, in April.

Scampton has in fact been threatened with the axe several times previously, starting way back in 1995. At a later point, a date of 2014 was announced, although the station was reprieved in June 2012 when the MoD confirmed that the Red Arrows would remain there until at least the end of the decade. The runway was then resurfaced.

It is undoubtedly the case that the reason why the potential closure became headline news this week is because of Scampton’s connection with 617 Squadron and the Dams Raid. The squadron was formed there in March 1943, but in fact it moved out just five months later, at the end of August and never returned during the second world war. By contrast, the role of the other Bomber Command squadrons stationed at Scampton during the rest of the war is hardly ever mentioned, as is the fact that two other men besides Guy Gibson (Roderick Learoyd and John Hannah) won VCs while flying in 83 Squadron from the station in 1940. In fact, 617 Squadron returned to Scampton in peace-time, flying Vulcans, and occupied the station between 1958 and 1981.

It is possible that the decision will lead to a reappraisal of Lincolnshire County Council’s 2013 Feasibility Study for a new aviation heritage attraction at Scampton. This proposed a ‘credible model for the development of a major new aviation heritage attraction at RAF Scampton which would be able to sit alongside the existing scale of military use and would be flexible enough to work with a greater or lesser RAF presence.’ Five ‘key stories’ would be told at the site:  ‘The First World War, The Dambusters, Coldwar Standoff, The Red Arrows, Aircraft Innovation in Lincolnshire’ and there would also be a frequently updated exhibition space.

Any new aviation heritage attraction would take into account the fact that Scampton’s four 1930s hangars are ‘listed buildings‘, and therefore cannot be demolished or altered without official consent. Hangar No 2 contains the office used by 617 Squadron CO Guy Gibson, which has recently been restored with Princes Trust money. Along with the hangars, the presence on the site of other buildings such as the Officers’ Mess (in which the King and Queen had lunch after they visited the station after the Dams Raid), the Airmens’ Mess (which housed the briefing room used for the Dams Raid) and a parade ground and it is obvious that there is plenty of scope for a very attractive series of exhibits.

The current Heritage Centre is run by a group of volunteers, whose Head Guide, Tom Evans, told the Dambusters Blog:  ‘Our main concern is that the artifacts in our collection and the historic nature of the buildings are preserved. This could best be done by a sympathetic regeneration of the site, and improving the visitor experience.’

Taken as a whole, the airfield is a vast space, big enough for a 9,000ft runway, so any development could well be done piecemeal. It is to be hoped that, if it is to be sold, consideration is given to the preservation of enough of RAF Scampton’s historic features to make a fitting tribute to the generations of personnel who have served there over the last 100 years.

Advertisements

Dambusters and beyond: Oxford exhibition marks school’s RAF connections

Report and pictures by Edwina Towson.

The school in Oxford attended by Guy Gibson is currently joint hosting an exhibition called “The Dambusters and beyond” at the North Wall Gallery. The school, St Edward’s, is set in the leafy suburb of North Oxford and has a solid but progressive look to it in the Victorian manner:

The exhibition collects together a thoughtful selection of photographic, documentary and other material relating to key figures in the school’s history who were also significant contributors to the first 100 years of the RAF (Douglas Bader, Guy Gibson, Geoffrey de Havilland, Adrian Warburton, to pick on perhaps the most famous names). The coverage of those 100 years is supported by material from the Imperial War Museum and other national collections and prints are available of many items.

The exhibition covers all the walls of the North Wall foyer and café area:

The Dambusters section is along one of the larger sections of wall. It includes logbook material (private papers from Flt Lt W C Townsend) describing the raid as “successful”, replicas of Gibson’s medals and, to the left of them, a portrait of him by Cuthbert Orde (a pilot in WWI).

These are in the setting of numerous photographs and documents giving something of the atmosphere of the secrecy and unique nature of the operation, of the extreme risks for the bomber crews (there is a telling photo – just above the medal case – of a captured RAF crewman with his German interrogators after his Halifax was shot down over Bremen) and of the morale-lifting effect of the success of the special bomb.

One of the most personal items is a letter written by Gibson to his headmaster and which has the memorable postscript “Was Awarded V.C. yesterday”.

Another pointed reminder of the operational cost is the May 1943 photo of the surviving captains of the raid – there are not many of them:

The rest of the exhibition contains a wealth of interest covering the origins and development of the RAF and of military flying. The spread is wide, through WWI, the Battle of Britain, the Pathfinders, SOE, the jet age and onward. Allow at least an hour and a half if you want to look at each item. I have given only a tiny taste of what is on offer.

As you leave, you see some posters:

Beside the posters is a tower of mugs, in case the brochure is not sufficient as a souvenir.

The exhibition runs until 17th July (entry is free of charge) and there is more information here:
https://www.thenorthwall.com/whats-on/the-dambusters-and-beyond/

 

Tuesday’s events going ahead in Lincoln!

I’m looking forward to meeting other Dams Raid aficionados this coming Tuesday, 10 July, at two events in Lincoln.

The first is at 3pm in the International Bomber Command Centre, Canwick Hill. The second is at 6pm in Waterstone’s Bookshop, High Street. At both events I will be talking about the research that went into my new book, The Complete Dambusters, and also signing copies.

So if you are in the area, do come along. Careful planning (well done, Gareth Southgate!) will mean that you can rest assured that you won’t miss a minute of any football match involving England!