Birchwood Nature Park

History of Birchwood Nature Park

RAF Skellingthorpe (1941 - c 1945)

As part of 5 Group Bomber command, RAF Skellingthorpe played a major part in the Second World War. The two main squadrons based there were :

50 Squadron (Motto: From Defence to Attack)
61 Squadron (Motto: Thundering through the clear air)

Story of the Airfield

The airfield was newly built in 1941. The first squadron to arrive in November 1941 was 50 squadron flying Handley Page Hampdens. They were accompanied by 455 squadron Royal Australian Airforce also flying Hampdens. This squadron then moved to RAF Wigsley after a short stay.

In April 1942, the Hampdens were replaced by Avro Manchesters; these were not a popular aircraft as they had a tendency to catch fire!

RAF Skellingthorpe was closed in June 1942 to allow for runway extensions and repairs, with 50 Squadron returning in September 1942, equipped with Avro Lancasters. They were joined by No 97 and 106 Conversion Flights, but these soon moved to RAF Swinderby.

No 1485 Bomber Gunnery Flight also came and stayed until November 1943. They operated Miles Martinet and Vickers Wellington aircraft. As they left, they were replaced by 61 Squadron operating Avro Lancasters. 61 Squadron moved to RAF Coningsby in February 1944, so that accommodation could be built on the Doddington Road side of the airfield.

50 and 61 Squadrons operated together until the end of the hostilities.

Whilst the ground crews of both squadrons worked hard to keep their aircraft flying, a detachment of 58 Maintenance Unit worked in the hangars carrying out major repairs and maintenance on the Lancasters.

In mid 1945, two new squadrons arrived; no’s 463 and 619. They were training for operations with Tiger Force in the Far East, but with the end of hostilities, these squadrons were disbanded.

50 and 61 Squadrons

50 Squadron took part in the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne on 30/31 May 1942.

One plane was piloted by Flying Officer Leslie Manser. His Manchester was hit but he remained at the controls to allow his crew to escape by parachute. Three of his crew evaded the enemy and escaped to Britain to fly and fight again. For this act of courage, he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.

The Leslie Manser School has been built on part of the airfield and his name will not be forgotten.

50 Squadron completed the most overall sorties in Bomber Command and dropped the greatest tonnage of bombs (approx. 21000 tonnes). This squadron lost 1002 aircrew and ground staff during the war.

61 Squadron carried out more raids than any other Lancaster Squadron and completed the second highest number of bombing raids in Bomber Command “heavy” squadron. 974 aircrew and ground staff from this squadron were lost during the war.

Casualties were high as there was only a one in three chance of aircrew completing a tour of 30 operations over enemy territory, but all these young men were still very keen to fight for us to hasten the end of the war.

There is a lasting bond between the surviving members of these two squadrons and a memorial has been erected at Birchwood Leisure Centre. A service is held there each June and on Remembrance Sunday to remember their lost colleagues.

Other reminders of the airfield are the Lancaster County Infant School and in the Church of St. Luke and St. Martin, there is a wooden bookcase presented by the 50 and 61 Squadrons Associates.

As you walk through Birchwood Nature Park, which occupies a small part of the airfield, just give a thought to all those young men who flew from this airfield - some of them “Failed to Return”.

The Black Swan public house was named after the R/T call sign of the airfield.

History of the Site written by Gerry Collins

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