Desford Airfield

The Caterpillar / Neovia site was a really important airfield from 1935 to 1953 and most particularly during World War 2. This is described below in the transcript of Alan Bonser’s excellent talk given in 2008 on the history of the Desford Airfield.

What is now the SiD site was the Sergeants’ Mess attached to the northern end of the airfield during the War. Desford Parish Council bought this site from Caterpillar in 1988 and set up SiD to manage its development for sport and recreation. At the time the Sergeant’s Mess itself had already been demolished. This was originally sitting at the south end of what is now the football pitch, leaving only the semi-derelict squash court and dilapidated double tennis court standing. It is with this important history in mind that the full address of SiD includes the location as the “The Flying Fields”.

 

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Supermarine Spitfire. During World War II over one thousand  Spitfires were assembled at Desford Airfield, making a major contribution to the war effort.

 

 

 

 

 

 

tigermothDe Havilland Tiger Moth aircraft. At the peak during the war 120 Tiger Moths in 4 flights were stationed at Desford Airfield and were used for initial pilot training of several thousand pilots.

 

 

 

 

 

2345A view of the village end of the airfield. The SiD “old” squash court is clearly visible top right in the background with Tiger Moths in the foreground. The building to the very right is the Sergeants’ Mess which sits where the SiD football pitch is now sited

 

 

 

 

DESFORD AIRFIELD – A TALK GIVEN BY ROY BONSER (Click to expand)

The origins of Desford go back to World War 1, and it owes its existence to the Zeppelin raids on England. I expect that you all know that they bombed Loughborough on the 30th January 1916, they also dropped bombs again on the 5th and 6th of March 1916 on the county, but most of those fell in open countryside. Following these attacks, it was decided to set up Home Defence Squadrons, and one of these, No. 38, was formed at Castle Bromwich in October 1916 and then was moved to Melton Mowbray. When it moved to Melton, the commanding officer was a man called Harris, who in World War 2 became known as ‘Bomber’ Harris.

 

 

At that time there were no true airfields in the county, although there were nine emergency landing grounds, and one was near Desford, though it wasn’t known by that name but rather ‘Peckleton’ and it was on what was known as Desford Field which was the big one on the corner, where the road is blanked off that used to go to Peckleton. I did meet some of the locals who still remembered the field as it was in those days, and they couldn’t recall it being used by any aircraft. In fact the sergeant in charge was reputed to spend most of his time in the local hostelries, getting quite merry, as he had so little to do! By mid 1917 it had been downgraded to day use, and in the following year was discontinued entirely.

After that it reverted back to farming and carried on like that until the next stage, in 1929, with the formation of the new Leicestershire Aero Club. They searched far and wide in the county for a suitable base but none seemed possible and then a man from Hinckley, Lesley Baxter, the publisher of the Hinckley Times remembered that there was an ex Royal Flying Corp ground at Desford. Club officials came and had a look, decided that it was ideal and negotiated successfully with John Cart, the owner.

Originally it was eight and a half acres and they rented it from the 21st May 1929, soon adding a further thirteen and a half acres. By this time they had started to add certain things, but by today’s standards the facilities were very rudimentary. The clubhouse was a converted chicken shed. Another wooden shed at the side of it served as a hanger, which would take just one aircraft with its wings folded. Before they put that up on the airfield, they parked the aircraft on the other side of the road, where Highfield’s seeds are now, so when they wanted to fly it, they had to wheel it across the road onto the airfield.

They also had one fuel pump for refuelling the aircraft. It opened on the 14th of September 1929, with an air display that was billed as ‘Leicestershire’s First Great Air Pageant’. The Secretary of State for Air, Fred Montague, did the honours and the Lady Mayoress christened the first aircraft, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth, called ‘The Quorn’, after the hunt, because the club president was a hunting man, Lindsey Everard, later Sir Lindsey Everard, and the aircraft was a gift from him to the club. Admission to the display was one shilling, two shillings, three shillings or for the well off, half a guinea. They had Royal Air Force planes performing, with a flight of Siskins from Grantham, also a display of aerobatics, flour bombing, a parachute descent and joy rides. Crowd control was really up to date, as they had Boy Scouts complete with their staves, held at right angles, to keep the crowds back. It is estimated that the crowd numbered 30,000, though the parachutist, when he came down, thought that it was at least twice that, as half the crowd was watching it from the surrounding fields for free! At the end of the display the club had made a profit of £191 3s 7d.

By early 1930 there were 902 members, 20 of these training for an ‘A’ Licence, the first successful candidate being Leslie Baxter. They had no serious mishaps to the aircraft and a further one was added, which was also a gift to the club, from three members who raised the money between them.The club became very well known for its hospitality and range of social activities. It was twice used as a turning point for the King’s Cup air race, Alan Cobham’s air display also visited twice, in 1933 and 1934. There were also royal visitors, on the 13th. June 1930, the Duke of Gloucester flew in to open the Leicestershire Agricultural Show and on the 6th.June 1932, the Prince of Wales came for the same purpose. By 1934 the club was preoccupied with another project, because they were looking forward to managing Leicestershire’s first municipal airport, at Braunstone. There would have been two, if it hadn’t been for the war, the second one was to have been at Loughborough. The Leicestershire Aero Club vacated Desford in March 1935. The next stage in the development of the airfield was as a result of the RAF expansion scheme of the 1930’s.

Thirteen Civilian Flying Schools were to be set up and Reid and Sigrist of New Maldon contracted for one of these Schools, even though they hadn’t got an airfield at that stage. However George Reid must have had some knowledge of the Desford area, as he came to see John Cart, and it was said, that over one weekend, he negotiated with him and bought the farm, in its entirety in August 1935. The airfield, having reverted to farmland, required a lot of development before it would be suitable to teach RAF prospective pilots to fly. George Reid was a friend of Lord Nuffield and Nuffield bet him £10 that he would not get the work completed in the three months that the RAF contract required.

En Tout Cas of Syston, received the contract to level the airfield, and Fairby Construction the contract for the buildings. ‘Hallfields’, the home of the Cart’s, was demolished and it was stated that the roof slates went to re roof buildings at Mount St. Bernards Abbey whilst the bricks were pulverised and sent in ship’s ballast to the United States, where they were eventually used as hardcore for a tennis court for Ginger Rogers! Fairby also had the job of constructing bungalows for the use of the students, which were built to a high standard (and included central heating), a large hangar and a range of other ancillary buildings were also added. It became the ninth of the Civil Flying Training School to open and Reid won his bet. It is not recorded whether he was paid. The official opening was on the 13th December 1935, which was by Viscount Swinton, the Minister of State for Air. Many high ranking officers attended, along with local dignitaries like the Lord Mayor and chief of police.

From the beginning, Desford was equipped with a fleet of De Havilland Tiger Moths, an aircraft which became synonymous with the airfield and which was to be rarely absent from the local skies for the next sixteen years. In 1937 the RAF Volunteer Reserve was formed and Desford was involved from the outset. It now became, rather than a Civil Flying Training school, 7 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School. In the same year further buildings were put up on the south side and these were for use by 3 Civil Air Navigation School, who were flying Ansons. They didn’t stay for too long, as shortly after the outbreak of WW 2, they moved to Kingstown, near Carlisle.

When war was declared on 3rd. September 1939, the Germans were already aware that Desford existed, as target photographs had been taken on the 8th June of that year, well before the start of hostilities. Braunstone airfield was also similarly covered by the Germans.The wartime history of Desford is best divided into three elements: The flying school. The Civilian Repair Organisation. Vickers Armstrongs.

The school dropped the ‘Reserve’ title and became 7 Elementary Flying Training School, uniforms began to predominate and the yellow Tiger Moths were camouflaged. At the peak there were 120 Moths based at Desford, in four flights. Further accommodation was added on the north side and there were additional buildings on the south side, on Tooley Park, bordering Peckleton Lane. When invasion was threatened in 1940, some of the Tiger Moths were equipped with bomb racks, the idea was to bomb the beaches if the Germans invaded.

They also had a secret weapon at Desford, called the ‘Paraslasher’. This was an agricultural scythe blade, honed to razor sharpness, attached to a piece of aircraft tubing and slung underneath the aircraft. It was locked into place by a handle in the cockpit and the idea was that the pilot, released the handle, shoved it down and the blade was then held there beneath the aircraft by an arrangement of tubes. It was said that it was rather scary, seeing it being flown by an experienced pilot across the airfield and attacking a canvas target, painted with an effigy of Mussolini. The idea behind the weapon was that it could be used to cut the parachute canopies of descending paratroopers, by flying the suitably equipped Tiger Moth above them. They also tried it on hay bales during a demonstration before Ministry officials and this went well, but it was pointed out that German paratroops were equipped with automatic weapons and a Tiger Moth flying slowly in their vicinity, would make a rather easy target, so the scheme was not followed up.

There was also a Flight Lieutenant at Desford, who flew there for many years and who I subsequently spoke to; he had his own method of dealing with enemy paratroopers, should they attack the airfield. His plan was to tow petrol bowsers around the edge of the field, with the taps open, leaving a trail of petrol behind them. Then, whilst the paratroopers were coming down, he would set fire to this ring of petrol around the perimeter with a flare pistol, catching the enemy in the middle. Fortunately this was another idea that was not put to the test.

There were also Air Training Corps camps at Desford, tents were set up for their use when necessary. The number of pupils in training was recorded in September 1942, as 298 came in and 345 went out. In October, 292 were enrolled and 221 left, so there appears to be some discrepancies in the record keeping. At this stage, I would like to read an extract from my book.

“There were varying degrees of damage done to these aircraft, and the frequency of incidents is recorded in the station operations log, which is held in the Public Record Office. For example, on the 3rd March 1942, on No.48 course, C Flight, LAC Byers was lost near Derby and hit a tree during a forced landing, damaging the whole of the front of the aircraft near the cockpit. LAC Climont damaged the port wing and undercarriage and propeller, whilst taxiing. LAC Ferguson caused category B damage to his aircraft at Desford. This was one Flight on one day”

“The accidents for March, looked like this; on the 3rd, aircraft DE298, struck a hedge when landing. On the 4th, N4859 landed on top of Sgt. Low, in aircraft N2900, extensively damaging both. Also on the 4th, DE400 was damaged whilst night flying. On the 9th a very sad incident, Sgt. Goodchild, was killed in a crash near Bagworth, in N6753. Also on the 9th BB851, tipped on to its nose when being started. Again on the 9th. BB760, collided in midair with N6488, but only minor damage was done to the aircraft and they both landed safely. On the 16th T6189 struck a windsock on landing and on the 22nd R5254, taxied into a petrol bowser. Then on the 23rd a Lancaster, W4367, was diverted after returning from an operation, overshot the flare path and hit two Tiger Moths. BB867 was written off and N9152 suffered minor damage. Damage to the Lancaster was limited to the tail and propellers. It was repaired and returned to service, with 106 Squadron, only to be reported missing on a raid to Gelsenkirchen on 25/26th June 1943.”

For some of the trainees, the hangar roofs seemed to have had a magnetic quality. In 1942 there were at least two examples of this attraction. On the 7th August LAC Jamieson stalled onto the roof of a hangar on the north side and LAC Denton, on his first solo and much to his embarrassment, did the same to one on the south side on the 7th October. In addition to all the repair work needed to these damaged Tigers, after a scheduled number of hours, each aircraft needed to be inspected and to enable both operations to be carried out successfully, a process similar to a production line, was set up.

Eventually, almost 70 people were involved in this work alone. Many of these were local women, who after training, proved particularly adept at fabric repairs. Visiting aircraft came to Desford in all shapes and sizes. I stood under a Stirling on one occasion and it was a big, leggy aircraft. A Boulton Paul Defiant crashed on the airfield on 5th. September 1943, fortunately there were no casualties. It was probably destined for the Reid and Sigrist factory, but it was so badly damaged that it was scrapped. A month later another big aircraft attempted to land, an American Flying Fortress from the 547th Bombardment Squadron part of the 384th Bombardment Group, based at Grafton Underwood in Northamptonshire, it was lost after returning from a raid on Germany. It overshot and crashed into the Bellman hangar on the south side, two of the ten crew were injured. The aircraft was later dismantled on site.

I would like to read this extract from a journal, as it gives an insight into one man’s training at Desford. The man who kept the journal unfortunately did not survive the war.

“At last, after a succession of postponed postings, we got under way for our first flying schools. At tea time on the 28th. February 1941, trains were leaving Newquay right left and centre for various parts of the country. Brian, Ted and myself were posted to 7 EFTS Desford. We said goodbye to Stan, who we left standing guard outside St. Brannocks Newquay. We arrived at Desford early the next morning to see the first snow of that winter. It had never snowed in Newquay, during the whole of the winter, though it had been severe further north. We were all thrilled to be on a real airfield at last. A Tiger Moth at close range was the realization of a dream. We were billeted comfortably in bungalows on the camp, having a room each with all mod cons. This was a far different life from what we had led for the first five months at Newquay.

We were living in the lap of luxury at Desford. As far as work was concerned we had our hands pretty full, our only time off being at weekends. We spent half the day on flying instruction, the other half on ground subjects, these were similar to the ones that we had been lapping up at the initial training wing, but were considerably more advanced. There were, however, additions to the subjects and these were airmanship, along with the study of aero engines and airframes. There was only one outstanding thing that was worthy of note as far as ground instruction was concerned at Desford, that was the remarkable laziness of the civilian instructors, who endeavoured, in their delightfully bored manner, to teach us all that was required by Training Command. The other part of training, flying instruction, naturally was far more interesting and exciting. My first trip into the air took place on the 3rd of March and my instructor was Flight Lieutenant Booth, an oldish fellow with grey hair, who had been flying for donkey’s years. After that, trips came at infrequent intervals due to bad weather and the fact that I did not get on very well with Flt. Lt. Booth. However, after a few flying hours there was a change and I must say it was not for the better.

This time it was with Sgt. Berry, who was very short tempered. The first time that I flew with him, I was attempting to land at Braunstone and making a very poor show of it. He asked me, very politely, if I thought that I was flying a submarine! Anyway we got over that and finally I made a better job of it. On the 2nd April I went up with Flt. Lt. Baker, who showed me more flying in an hour, than I had learnt in all my previous time in the air. He sent me solo and that was a great day, I did a circuit and a moderate landing. I could manage to take off in a Tiger, fly it around and land it all in one piece. After that I put in a number of hours with various instructors, as one by one they took leave and so I was shifted around. Sgt. Berry was posted to Canada, he had spent the early part of the war flying Fairey Battles and survived to tell the tale, so I suppose he was allowed to be bad tempered.

Sgt. Griffiths was my next flying instructor. He had held the rank of Flying Officer in France, but had been demoted for low flying. He was a grand bloke and taught me a lot about low flying. During my time with Griffiths, I learned a variety of different types of flying – blind flying, low flying, aerobatics, forced landings and how to map read. He sent me on my first cross-country solo. I was to go to Cambridge, have lunch and return. I reached Cambridge quite safely but couldn’t quite make up my mind which airfield to land on. I investigated one which had Wellingtons scattered about, but I didn’t land there. However I did find one that had an abundance of Tiger Moths in the circuit, so I landed. It was Cambridge. I had a wizard lunch there, and then with an air of self confidence, set off back to Desford. The return journey was managed quite successfully and old Griffiths breathed a sigh of relief when I stepped out of the plane at Desford. Griffiths went on leave and I finished the course with Flt.Lt.Gadd and Pilot Officer Lavender. He was a Leicester man and had a car business there. (His son Bob lives near Leicester now- Roy). Both were oldish fellows, Gadd had been with an air circus before the war, I didn’t like him at all. Lavender was a very nice bloke and gave me lots of encouragement. I did make quite a hit with Lavender and we did get on well together. During all this time Ted, Brian and John Lee had been doing the same as me. At the end of the course we took our exams, and we all four did rather well. A number of fellows had failed on the flying course and had been posted, but the majority had got through. Allan, who I had known at Newquay, had been trained on the Reid and Sigrist Snargasher and was invariably airsick, until he had done his first twenty hours or so in it.

Squadron Leader Wardell gave a number of us a chief flying instructor test before we left, but I, fortunately, escaped that. He was a holy terror on the ground, what he was like in the air I don’t know. I suppose really he had good reason for his remarkably short temper, considering the large number of pranged Tigers around the aerodrome. On one or two occasions it was colossal. On the 29th April, No.37 course left Desford. Brian, John Lee and myself were posted to Kidlington and were due to report there on the 1st May. We had been recommended for single engined fighters. Ted was to leave us and go to Brize Norton as he had been recommended for multi-engined bombers. So Ted left us and we all went our way, from the smell of petrol and the sound of Gypsy Majors”.

Sadly, John Cheney did not survive the war; he crashed in a Mosquito and was killed. By the end of WW2, several thousand embryo pilots had received their initial training at Desford. Now we move on to the CRO. Prior to the start of the war it was realised that the RAF would not be able to cope with all the repairs and modifications that would be necessary to aircraft in service, so the Civil Repair Organisation was set up. From the outset Reid and Sigrist were involved in this. They used the hangars that still exist today on the northern side of the airfield.

Shortly after the outbreak of war, further hangars were built on the southern side of the airfield and these have been absorbed into the industrial complex on the Peckleton side, a blister hangar and four Robin hangars are still in there somewhere and can be seen quite clearly from the air. The initial contract involved the Boulton Paul Defiant aircraft and it began in January 1940 and continued until June 1945. For this type of aircraft, over one thousand assembly, conversion and modifications were carried out on site. Some of the aircraft visited the works several times. After the work on the Defiant began to tail off, Reid and Sigrist were awarded a contract for the North American Mitchell. It was much more complex and it took up hangar space on both sides of the airfield.By the end of that contract, over 140 aircraft had gone through the works and left the airfield. The last to go was in November 1945.

An interesting story concerns one of these Mitchells, you must have heard of Jim Pickering, he has just died. In September 1944 he flew a Mitchell back from France for a major inspection at Desford. When he arrived at the airfield, he joined the circuit, selected ‘Undercarriage down’ but it didn’t, so he got a sergeant fitter who had hitched a ride on the aircraft, to get the crash axe and cut through the hydraulic lines in the hope that the undercarriage would fall down and lock, so this was done, but the undercarriage still stayed up, so he decided to come in to do a belly landing. By firing red flares from the ground, they managed to clear the Tiger Moths from the circuit and the Mitchell made a good belly landing. Jim later told me that he came to rest at virtually the same spot from where he had taken off to do his first solo when he was with the RAFVR seven years earlier. When he got out of the aircraft and was backing away from it, he nearly got knocked flat by a bloke coming behind him with fire extinguisher. Then we move on to Vickers Armstrongs. They came to Desford following the enemy attacks on Castle Bromwich in 1940. After these attacks, a massive dispersal programme was set in place and at Desford, the hangars that had been occupied by Ansons, were added to with a Bellman and that became No. 8 factory. In February 1941, the first complete aircraft, a Spitfire, left those hangars. The components that were used to assemble the aircraft at Desford, came from several different locations and many would probably have come from local Leicester factories. Both fuselages and wings were built in Leicestershire and from September 1940, no Spitfire or Seafire could have flown, without an undercarriage that was produced in the county.

Many factories were taken over for the production of these components and they included box and hosiery factories, bus and motor garages and other premises. In all, 28,567 pairs of main undercarriage units were manufactured, enough to equip every Spitfire and Seafire ever produced and leaving 5808 to spare. Alex Henshaw was the chief test pilot at Castle Bromwich and on many occasions he came to Desford to test the Spitfires assembled there. I never saw him fly whilst I was at Desford, but it was said that ‘he could really wring an aircraft out’, and it was a joy to watch him fly. No accurate figures seem to exist for the production figures at Desford, but from a work force of around sixty, it is believed that in excess of 1000 Spitfires were assembled there.

Post war, production of military aircraft soon ceased. There was a rapid reduction in the RAF which led to problems. Many of the CRO staff were made redundant and flying training was reduced. By May 1947 the permanent RAF staff had been reduced to three officers and fifteen other ranks. Reid and Sigrist managed to retain a nucleus of skilled staff and to try and generate income, they started a charter service, using Rapides and Percival Proctors, but it was not a success due to lack of customers, so they tried to drum up more trade by joy riding from the airfield and at airshows. One of the aircraft that they used was a Rapide with an interesting history. It was registered G-ACYR and this particular aircraft was the one that Olley Air Services flew to Morocco to bring General Franco back to Spain to start the revolution at the beginning of the Spanish civil war. It survived WW2 and came to Desford where it joined Reid and Sigrist but when the airfield closed; it disappeared. Some years later though it reappeared and it survives today in a museum at Quattro Ventres in Spain.

In 1947, the reservist training began to increase and the Tiger Moths were at last phased out and were replaced by Percival Prentices and two Ansons. The ATC were still present on the airfield, they had No. 44 Gliding School there, from 1948 to 1950. There was also an Air Observation Flight equipped with Austers and they were there for three years until they went to Hucknall.

In January 1952, the last unit to be formed at Desford came into being, that was 5 Basic Flying Training School, to train National Service pilots. The school was equipped with De Havilland Chipmunks, but this project proved to be short lived. A statement made in parliament in December 1952 was to decide Desford’s fate. Seven BFTS and seven Reserve Flying Schools were to close and one of these was to be Desford. Following discontinuation of government contracts, Reid and Sigrist decided to sever connections with Desford. Most staff were informed that R. & S. would cease to trade on the 30th.June 1953, and on the 31st July 1953, 7 RFS officially closed.

After twenty four years of continuous flying operation, Desford also closed. Shortly after this, Caterpillar bought the airfield and began to move onto the site. At first, change was very gradual, but expansion since has meant that almost the entire area, once occupied by the airfield, has been redeveloped and today it is virtually unrecognisable for what it had once been. For a brief interlude on the 10th June 1999, aircraft returned to the skies over Desford once more, when the company celebrated the completion of the 100,000th back hoe loader. The Hawks of the Red Arrows performed their spectacular aerial ballet and there was a solo performance by a Spitfire of the RAF Memorial Flight. Whether there will ever again be that sort of activity at Desford is unknown. More likely it will be the odd visit of a helicopter to remind us of the past.

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