RAF Usworth – Durham, UK
In WW1 the Royal Flying Corps took over home defence following an increase in German Zeppelin bombing raids. The north east of England came under the protection of No 36 Home Defence Squadron and Hylton, just north of the river Wear between Washington and Sunderland, was chosen as the base for B Flight 36 Sqn. From there they operated B E 2c’s and B E 12’s in the defence of the coast between Whitby and Newcastle.
Flying from Hylton could be very difficult as the weather conditions were oftenextremely bad with industrial haze and smoke proving great hazards. By 1918 A Flight replaced B Flight of 36 Sqn and operated from the airfield until the Armistice. During this period the airfield became known as Usworth. 36 Sqn movedtheir headquarters to the site in Nov 1918 and operated the much improved Bristol F 2Bs until moving to Ashington and then being disbanded in June 1919. Usworth airfield returned to agricultural use until reactivated in March 1930.
The new airfield was sited alongside the B1289 road between Sunderland and Washington with the flying field south of the road and the ancillary buildings to the north. The North Camp was the site of living quarters and dining facilities for officers and NCOs. A large Lamella hanger and technical facilities were built on the South Camp with firing butts alongside the railway. Usworth then became the base for 607 (County of Durham) Sqn, Royal Auxiliary Air Force, operating Westland Wapitibombers. Empire Air Day displays were an annual feature at Usworth in the 30s andproved very popular.
In 1936 607 Sq were redesignated a fighter unit and equipped with Hawker Demons.
In February 1937 103 Sqn RAF arrived at Usworth with their Hawker Hinds flyingduring the week and leaving the weekends free for the part time flyers 607 Sqn. Theairfield was a very popular posting for the 103 Sqn personnel because of its proximity to the large cities of Newcastle and Sunderland and also the seaside resort of Whitley Bay.
During 1937 103 Sqn conducted an intensive training programme of bombing, airgunnery, reconnaissance, night flying and instrument and navigation exercises. They also attended practice camps at Catfoss and Bridlington and the Centurion bombing trials held at Tangmere.
103 Sqn participated in the 1937 Empire Air Day display which was attended by over14,000 paying spectators although the actual attendance was estimated at nearer 20,000. Unfortunately the event the following year was cancelled due to poor weather.
During the summer of 1938 103 Sqn was re-equipped with the new Fairey Battle single engined bomber and the squadron moved out to its new base at Abingdon in September. At the same time 607 Sqn also started to re-equip with the Gloster Gladiator bi-plane fighter. G Flight of No 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit arrived on the 1st Feb 1939and departed in May after only a brief stay.
Further development of the airfield was made in September 1939 when two concrete runways were laid and the airfield was expanded to the south, east and west. Both runways were 2,800 ft long and a perimeter track was laid round the airfield with eight dispersal pens and 34 hardstands. Several of the old pre war hangers were dismantled leaving the Lamella hanger and one Callender hanger opposite the main gate. Many additional buildings were constructed with an operations room which was later supplemented by an underground headquarters in one corner of the airfield.
New accommodation was built in the North Camp and also a new WT/RT station. Numerous air raid shelters were built on both sites. A number of dispersed sites were built in the vicinity of the airfield for the defence of the airfield which were manned by the Durham Light Infantry and Royal Artillery.These included searchlights, and light and heavy anti aircraft guns. This work involved the curtailment of all flying activity and 607 Sqn moved to Acklington and then to France in late 1939.
Despite this pause in flying Usworth was designated a Sector Fighter Station of No 13 Group and controlled the reporting of raids in the area.
The airfield was reopened for flying in March 1940 when 64 Sqn with their Spitfires became new residents. Their staywas brief and they left in May of that year to be replaced by 607 Sqn who had returnedfrom France and had been once again re-equipped, this time with Hawker Hurricanes.
Usworth was amongst the targets of the Luftwaffe on the 15th August 1940 when a large raid on the North East was successfully beaten off by the defenders with heavy losses to the attackers and no damage sustained.
607 Sqn departed from Usworth for Tangmere on the 7th September to be replaced by43 Sqn which flew up from Tangmere for a period of rest and re-equipment after beinginvolved in the Battle of Britain for some time.
43 Squadron departed for Drem in December 1940 and 607 Sqn returned from Tangmere just before Xmas.
On the 16th January 1941 607 Sqn left Usworth for the last time for RAF MacMerry in Scotland and subsequently fighter defences were based at Ouston and Usworth was henceforward used solely in a training role.
In February 1941 No 55 Operational Training Unit moved to the airfield. Its role wasthe training of fighter pilots and it was equipped with Hurricanes and an assortment of aircraft for target towing, dual seat training and other tasks.
At the end of April 1942 55 OTU left for Annan to be replaced, in June, by No 62Operational Training Unit whose task was the training of radar operators for night fighter squadrons. Twin engined Avro Anson aircraft were used as flying classrooms for the practical instruction of pupil operators.
Usworth proved to be totally inadequate for the rapidly growing training unit with livingaccommodation stretched to the limit. The installation of a balloon barrage at Usworththen made the site totally unsuitable as a training base so the 62 OTU moved to Ouston in June 42.
776 Sqn Fleet Air Arm operated at the airfield from March 43 to July 43 after which the
airfield was reduced to a care and maintenance basis. In November 1943 the station was given over entirely to ground training when No 20 Initial Training Wing arrived. Its role was the training of wireless operators and airgunners. At that time there were 900 trainees at any one time which put great strain on the limited living facilities.
Flying returned in September 1944 when No 31 Gliding School was formed at the airfield. Its role was to give elementary flight training to cadets of the Air TrainingCorps from local squadrons. An Aircrew Disposal Unit arrived in June 1944 followed by No 2739 and No 2759 Squadrons RAF Regiment before their departure overseas in September. The Aircrew Disposal Unit relocated to Coventry soon after.
The airfield once more returned to a care and maintenance basis under the control of No14 Maintenance unit at Carlisle and was used for storage of RAF equipment. The Gliding School continued to operate from the airfield and in February 1949 No 23 Reserve Flying School was formed and eventually disbanded in July 1953.
In April 1951 control of Usworth passed to No 2 Basic Training Navigation Schooloperating Ansons and De Havilland Chipmunks and they continued until April 1953when they were disbanded.
The Durham University Air Squadron then moved to Usworth where they operatedTiger Moths and the Newcastle Gliding Club also used the airfield when their own site became unavailable. In 1958 the Gliding School and University Air Squadron moved to Ouston as Usworth was to close but some limited use was made of the site by the Territorial Army for parachute training from tethered balloons.
In 1962 RAF Usworth was purchased by Sunderland Corporation for 27,000. The runways were relayed and the hanger renovated and, in June 1963, the Sunderland Flying Club was formed.
The following year an open day and commemorative ceremony took place to celebrate the opening of what was now known as Sunderland Airport. The Air Day was tobecome a popular event, although not held every year, until closure of the airfield in 1980. Charter and freight services were flown from the new airport on a regular basisand the facilities gradually improved.
In the mid seventies the North East Aircraft Museum was formed at the airport andstarted to develop its excellent collection including an Avro Vulcan which was flown injust before the airport finally closed.
Sadly the airport did not prove a financial success and was closed in 1984 to be usedinstead for the site of the new Nissan car plant.
The North East Aircraft Museum was offered a site adjacent to the factory and Nissan decided to retain the large Lamella hanger erected in 1929 but all the runways have long since disappeared.
Source. This item is an edited version of the excellent written history of RAF Usworth and Sunderland Airport written by Dave Charles
Item written by David Fell