Through wide open skies on a moonless night

The long flat fens of Lincolnshire were dominated during World War II by bomber squadrons droning off over the North Sea. Now, an Airfield Trail leads past the Dambusters' base to one of the few remaining Lancasters
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The Independent Culture
THERE was no moon the night I arrived in Lincoln. It wasn't easy to tell, the sky glowing peach from the city lights and clotted with that matt white cloud that is snow waiting to fall - but imagine the lounge windows and the neon-lit petrol stations blacked out, the cathedral no longer illuminated like gold filigree, and this freezing winter night would have been very dark. In the Wig and Mitre pub a group of women were talking about flying. "We had a meal on the flight," one was saying. "We didn't expect a meal." "It all comes down to the duty-frees," remarked another.

Fifty-odd years ago, that moonless sky would indeed have been the occasion for flight. Four engines roaring, seven men to a Lancaster: all over Lincolnshire the bomber squadrons would have been taxiing out on to the runway and droning off over the North Sea.

Lincolnshire is not Britain's most visited county and, aside from Stam- ford's recent popularity as the location for the BBC's Middlemarch, the county town itself is usually the sole port of call. But with a Royal Air Force presence reaching back to the early years of the century, a fenland landscape ideal for long flat runways, and an east-coast location naturally facing any threat from Europe - be it Nazi Germany or Cold War Russia - Lincolnshire has a rich aviation heritage. These days, say the staff of the Tourist Information Office next to the cathedral, they receive inquiries daily about the history of the "Bomber County".

In mythologising the Allied bomber campaign in the Second World War, posterity has seized on opposite extremes: those Boy's Own heroes, the Dambusters; or the notorious fire-storm that destroyed Dresden in 1945 when the war was already nearly won. The daily war-time reality of Bomber Command for Lincolnshire, however, was tens of thousands of airmen at dozens of airfields, flying off night after night in slow, heavily laden aircraft on exhausting and terrifying missions from which a 10th of their number would not come back.

It's a history - and largely unexplored landscape - that Lincoln-shire's district councils are unlocking with an "Airfield Trail". "It is not the intention... to celebrate aspects of war and death," a leaflet on the county's RAF memorials is concerned to point out, "but to commemorate the bravery of men, women and families involved, and to recognise the losses endured by both sides during two world wars."

That sober aim was certainly fulfilled, I found, by the first stops on the Airfield Trail - in the tourist centre of Lincoln itself. Tucked in the corner of the north-west transept of the wonderful cathedral I found the little Airmen's Chapel, with memorial books containing the names of all the men "who flew from Royal Air Force stations in or near Lincolnshire during the Second World War, and never returned". From just one county: 25,000. The service held there every Thursday is still taken by an Air Force chaplain from one of the local bases.

A few minutes' walk away at The Lawns, a converted asylum building, the council has set up the new 50 and 61 Squadrons Museum, to tell the history of two wartime squadrons based at nearby Skellingthorpe and Swinderby. Of the small selection of memorabilia nothing is more arresting than the citation from the London Gazette accompanying one of the two Victoria Crosses. Captain William Reid's Lancaster was attacked twice after crossing the Dutch coast in November 1943 on a mission to Dusseldorf. His navigator killed, wireless operator fatally wounded, hit in the head, shoulder and hands himself, he piloted the plane so exactly over the target - one of the most heavily defended in Germany - that the bomb aimer down in the nose didn't know his colleagues had even been injured. Then, navigating by the Pole Star, in the intense cold caused by the shattered windscreen, semi-conscious from loss of blood and lack of oxygen, the captain got plane and crew back to their airfield and landed in mist with the damaged undercarriage collapsing. I peeked in the 61 Squadron Roll of Honour fearing to find "Reid, W" - but, no; this extraordinary man appeared to have survived the war.

A veteran of 50 Squadron met me at my next port of call, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight hangar at RAF Coningsby. Jim Brown had done a full tour of 30 operations as a mid-upper gunner on Lancasters - in January 1944 being sent out over Berlin, one of the longest missions, three times in four days, "and if that isn't flying the arse off people I don't know what is". Now, he volunteers one day a week to give guided tours around the RAF's vintage aircraft collection. There had been 30 men like him when it opened in 1986: now they were down to 12 and "waiting to see who's the next to go", he said matter-of-factly, "just like we were 50 years ago."

Until now, I hadn't realised why so few wartime aircraft had survived to the present. Spitfires, all aluminium, were the exception: even when flogged off to a scrap merchant after the war for pounds 25, as one of these RAF examples had been, they could be retrieved and restored years later. When Mr Brown gently rapped the Hurricane's fuselage it gave a hollow pock. "Irish linen. Stretched tight as a drum by the application of an acetone dope - like women's nail varnish." You also saw how Bomber Command had been able to take out German dams and railway viaducts: the Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs on show outside looked as long as a small car. Wondering if visitors these days ever gave him a hard time about the morality of aerial bombardment, I asked Mr Brown what had been the most difficult question posed to him. He thought. "Someone asked me once what the tyre pressure was for a Lancaster's undercarriage wheel." That night, in Martin Middlebrook's book The Berlin Raids, I read how Jim Brown had saved his aircraft when its starboard petrol tank was set on fire, persuading his pilot that only a dive so steep it risked the plane breaking up would extinguish the flames.

And what had happened to Skellingthorpe airfield, where that overstressed Lancaster had been towed away and written off as soon as it landed? "A bloody great housing estate," he warned me - but taking a circular route around the county to as many wartime airfields as possible proves a strange and fascinating archaeological trail. Earlier I'd seen a mediaeval cathedral whose every stone and curlicue is little changed from when it was set in place 600 years ago: now the only evidence of RAF Skellingthorpe is a stone memorial outside the Seventies' Birchwood Community Centre with the local playbus parked next door. Like Coningsby, where the thunder of frontline Tornados taking off drowned out Jim Brown's words, Waddington and Scampton - from where Guy Gibson led the famous Dambusters Raid - are still operational bases, with grim services semis behind high fences and unromantic signs warning of "RAF Police Dogs on Patrol".

My Airfield Trail booklet noted a newly opened "viewing area" at Waddington from which to watch its giant AWACS early warning planes. I drove over expecting a raised eyrie full of plane spotters, and found a potholed layby where van drivers stopped to open their Thermoses, but in its arid featurelessness the view was instructive. Not only, I realised, had the vivid scene in Guy Gibson's memoir, Enemy Coast Ahead - the red and green flares, the bomber stream crawling over white-lit cities like flies on a tablecloth - vanished into the other country of the past, but airfields had always been strictly functional, built neither to last nor as architectural statements. Hangars were merely warehouses for aircraft.

In The Making of the English Landscape, indeed, W G Hoskins rails at airfields for having "flayed it bare": certainly they are a clearing-away of the landscape, and, just as people often resumed their careers in 1945 as though the war had been an interruption, so once the flying finished there was no reason not to roll the landscape back over the aerodrome. At the former RAF Elsham Wolds, an Anglian Water official told me I had just missed a New Zealander visiting his old base for the first time since 1943. I wondered what the veteran would have made of the backdrop to its twisted propeller memorial: the glass-fronted pump room of a water treatment plant. The sheer quantity of Lincolnshire's Air Force memorials, more than 600 at the last count, is remarkable - until you see how often this miniature marble cenotaph, that slate wall of water breaching a stone dam, is actually there to mark how everything else has been utterly wiped from the map.

Elsewhere, though, the remains seem indestructibly ancient: odd tumuli in fields near Scampton that might be prehistoric barrows, but are probably wartime blast pens or bunkers; a Roman road straight across a beet field connecting nowhere to nowhere that was actually a main runway. At Thorpe Camp, once the barracks for RAF Woodhall Spa, to which 617 Dambusters Squadron moved later in the war, preservationists are doing up these "temporary brick buildings", originally erected to last 10 years and now as weathered as a Roman camp. Around them nature has grown up so lush that the Woodland Trust has in turn conserved most of the site. Then again, just up the road in Woodhall Spa village, the Petwood Hotel, its wood-panelled Dambusters Bar lined with memorabilia, offers the same view of clipped yew and wheeling rooks that Leonard Cheshire must have enjoyed over a whisky soda when it was the officers' mess.

But I hadn't yet found a Lancaster. Seven thousand of this classic aircraft had been built: only a handful survived, and Lincolnshire had two. One had been away for repair to maintain it as Britain's last still flying, but eight miles east of Coningsby was the other. The Lincoln-shire Aviation Heritage Centre is run by two brothers who originally purchased the old East Kirkby airfield for their poultry farming business, and still stump around their museum in green wellies and cloth caps. Fred and Harold Panton's elder brother, Chris, was killed in a Halifax bomber on the disastrous Nuremberg Raid; not one complete Halifax is left anywhere in the world. "I could have bought one in 1949 for pounds 100," Fred ruefully recalls, but they decided to acquire a Lancaster and restore it as a memorial to Chris.

The outstanding book about Bomber Command, Don Charlwood's No Moon Tonight, the memoir of an Australian navigator at Elsham Wolds, gives a powerful impression of the remoteness of these airfields' rural locations. Nowadays, the quiet Barnetby crossroads where Charl-wood shouldered his kitbag and walked the country lane back to base is a main roundabout with a Texaco garage and Little Chef for the motorway junction. Harold Panton mourns that no decision was taken when the war ended to preserve an airfield exactly as it was - "leave the vehicles parked just where they were" - but while they've restored the original control tower with model controllers talking down a stream of returning bombers, East Kirkby's great virtue is its atmosphere, its out-of-the-way tranquility beneath Lincolnshire's wide empty sky. At a Mildenhall air fete flypast, slottted between Starlifters and B-52s, a Lancaster looks tiny and creeping; here, next to the chicken sheds and beet fields, it has a massive ox-like solidity.

"I always thought that big burly brutes of farmers' boys like me could put it into a sharper turn than people with slight builds like you," said John Chatterton, as we imagined the plane trying to avoid being "coned" by German searchlights. Your typical unflappable Lancaster pilot, born here (he pointed across the old runway) before their farm had been requisitioned, Mr Chatterton had completed his tour over the winter of 1943-44, and seen Chris Panton's Halifax go down in front of him on the Nuremberg raid. Still farming - he'd arrived in an ancient Barbour, and dreamily extolled the splendours of ploughing, "like wiping the blackboard clean, making a new page" - he had a similarly phlegmatic verdict on his own survival: "Ninety-five per cent luck and five per cent skill. It was a bit lonely," he said. "You just felt like a little family up there; all depended on each other to make sure you survived."

Around the Lancaster in the main hangar lay heaps of mangled wreckage unearthed by the Lincolnshire Aircraft Recovery Group, every exhaust manifold and intercom jackplug diligently labelled. I asked Mr Chatterton if a Lancaster veteran like him found the idea of excavating such graphic evidence of what happened when a 20-ton aircraft smashed into the ground as disagreeable as I did. "I think we're probably hardened to it," was the level answer, "to the extent that we take a morbid interest in it - ask technical questions like, 'I wonder if that tyre stayed blown up?' 'Oh look, there was a bloke in that, or at least his boot was...'"

The photograph of Guy Gibson in the Petwood's Dambusters Bar had shown someone too impossibly nonchalant ever to have piloted a great truck of the sky like a Lancaster; Don Charlwood had remained so troubled by the isolated sadness of his brief Lincolnshire tour with Bomber Command that, 30 years after his first memoir, he'd written a second of that time all over again. But in John Chatterton's experience - driving his Austin Seven back to his mother's after a night mission to Berlin to hear Alvar Liddell announcing the raid on the radio over breakfast - there was continuity. Nowadays, his son flies the Coningsby Lancaster - a touching photograph framed in the museum cafeteria shows a white-haired man in his garden shading his eyes as the plane flies low over his house to mark his Golden Anniversary - and if the Pantons succeed in getting theirs flying again, father has already volunteered to accompany son on the maiden flight.

Lincolnshire's Airfield Trail had finally taken me to the attritional history of Bomber Command and the level, serene landscape of Lincolnshire at one and the same time. "It's a bit shiny," mused Mr Chatterton, taking one last peep inside the hangar at the Lancaster. "I liked it better when it was a bit more matt, like I remember them..." ! TRAVEL NOTES Lincolnshire has numerous centres of aviation history that are open to the public peppered around North Kesteven. Guided day tours of the airfield operate every Saturday from 22 June-21 September and cost pounds 19.75 per person, including lunch.

RAF Waddington, three miles south of Lincoln, hosts an International Air Show which this year takes place on 29 and 30 June. Admission is pounds 8 per day for adults and pounds 5 for children or pounds 6 and pounds 4 for advanced bookings. Contact the Air Show Office, RAF Waddington, Lincoln LN5 9NB.

Cranwell Aviation Hertiage Centre houses exhibitions and archive film telling the history of RAF College, Cranwell, from its origins to the present day. Open daily from April to October, 10am-5pm, and from November to March, 10am-4pm. Admission free.

From 2-5pm on Sundays from Easter to October access to Thorpe Camp is free. Artifacts and photographs are displayed in wartime buildings that housed the communal site of RAF Woodhall Spa.

Visitors to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight Visitor Centre at RAF Coningsby (01526 344041) are shown round the hangar where the world's only flying Hurricane, Spitfires and Lancasters are housed. Open weekdays (except Bank Holidays) 10am-5pm, adults pounds 3, children and senior citizens pounds 1.50.

Copies of the Guide to the Airfield Trail and further information on where to stay in this part of Lincolnshire are available free of charge from Sleaford Tourist Information Centre (01529 414294), The Mill, Money's Yard, Sleaford, Lincs NG34 7TW.

FOR FURTHER READING: The Berlin Raids by Martin Middlebrook (Penguin, pounds 8.99); Enemy Coast Ahead by Guy Gibson (Bridge Books, pounds 19.95); and No Moon Tonight by Don Charlwood (Goodall, pounds 3.99)