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[RAF Elsham Wolds] [Airfield History]

History - RAF Elsham Wolds - North Lincolnshire, UK.

The site of the airfield was approximately 7 miles N E of Brigg, east of the A15 road near Elsham village in North Lincolnshire.

During WW1 raids by German Zeppelins were causing great concern and considerable anger amongst  the British population. The raids lessened during 1916 but Lincolnshire and the Humber Estuary saw  continuing attacks by a small numbers of the German Army and Navy Zeppelins which succeeded  in causing considerable disruption far in excess of the actual strategic damage they achieved.
To counter the Zeppelin raids Home Defence Squadrons were established. One of these was 33 Squadron formed in January 1916 at Filton. In October 1916 the Squadron was deployed to the east Midlands with its main base at Gainsborough. This comprised of a landing ground with huts and a hanger with repair facilities and was  responsible for major maintenance of the aircraft and general administration etc.

The squadron was split into three dispersed Flights, “A” Flight was based at Brattleby, later to become RAF Scampton. “B” Flight was based at Kirton-in-Lindsey whilst “C” Flight was based at the new flying field which had been constructed north east of Elsham in December 1916. The airfield comprised of a basic flat grass take off and landing site with a few wood huts and a small aircraft hanger. Pictured below 33 Squadron C Flight at Elsham Wolds. Captain Albert Fanstone AFC seated middle. The airfield had at least one searchlight on site and co-operated with other searchlight sites and AA guns stationed along the south Humber Estuary.


During WW1 33 Sqn was equipped with Royal Aircraft Factory BE2s from Jan 1916 to Nov 1916 when they were replaced by Royal Aircraft Factory FE2 pusher bi plane fighters from Nov 1916 to June 1918. From June 1918 to Aug 1918 the Squadron flew Bristol F2 Fighters which was a fine aircraft of its time. Finally these were replaced by Avro 504 aircraft.

Whilst at Elsham 33 Sqn C Flight undertook a number of sorties against the Zeppelins with their FE2 aircraft without success. This was largely due to the height at which the Zeppelins flew, the low rate of climb of fighters at that time plus the absence of radio communications and any sort of ground control. 33 Sqn C Flight sustained 2 fatal crashes flying from Elsham that are known, both in the vicinity of the airfield. “C” Flight departed Elsham in June 1918 and the flying field returned to agriculture. The hanger and most of the wooden huts were demolished in 1919.

Leefe Robinson

Lieutenant Leefe Robinson VC ( pictured above)  was reportedly stationed at Elsham for a while before being posted to France and was very popular with the locals. Robinson was the first pilot to destroy a Zeppelin over Britain during WW1.

See also excellent article by the late Sid Finn about Elsham Wolds during WW1 in the Articles and Misc Section here.

The demand for bomber airfields in 1939 led to many former airfields being surveyed to assess suitability for development. Elsham Wolds was chosen as a suitable site for a bomber airfield and construction work began in 1940. An important factor in the choice of the site was the railway communications with a railway station situated nearby at Barnetby and also at the village of Elsham itself..

The new airfield was built on the high plateau immediately north east of the village of Elsham and was built to an early war time pattern with a "J" type hanger on the Eastern side of the airfield and much accommodation and technical and administrative facilities grouped behind. Eventually the airfield had 3 concrete runways, the main one running NW/SE. In addition 2 further large hangers were constructed as the war progressed. It was often a cold, wet and windy site and the accommodation facilities were somewhat primitive so it was not a comfortable place, particularly in the cold weather.

See RAF Elsham Wolds site plan below.

RAF Elsham Wolds site plan

Below - Elsham Wolds in 1945.

RAF Elsham Wolds 45.

Below - Elsham Wolds today



The first OC RAF Elsham Wolds was G/C H A Constantine who arrived at the airfield  on the 29th June 1941 and assumed command.

RAF Elsham Wolds opened as a heavy bomber station as part of 1 Group Bomber Command in mid June 1941 and 103 Squadron moved to their new base soon after with its Vickers Wellington bombers. The Squadron had mixed feelings about this move as RAF Newton was a well equipped and happy station. Also it was in easy distance of the city of Nottingham which was popular with the 103 personnel because of its excellent pubs and friendly people, particularly the ladies.

The first operational sortie from the airfield took place in July 41.

The airfield was attacked by two German bombers on the 23rd July 1941 and one crashed near the airfield the crew is reported as being killed. Having said that I had heard a story of one German POW from this incident but this is unconfirmed.

The first operational sortie from the airfield took place a few days later. In spring 1942 the Squadron converted to the Handley Page Halifax four-engine bomber, beginning operations in August 1942. The Halifaxes were in turn replaced by Avro Lancasters at the end of October 1942 and Lancasters operated from the airfield for the rest of the war.

A particularly nasty crash occurred on the 1st August 1942 when Halifax R9379 of the 103 Squadron Conversion Flight stalled on approach and crashed near the airfield. 12 airmen were killed. This was one of a number of crashes that occurred on or around the airfield during WW2.

In July/August 1943 the airfield was the site of RAF operational trials of the experimental Ground Control Approach system ( GCA) invented by Luis Alvarez the famous American experimental physicist. These trials proved extremely successful.

On the 23rd August 1943 Lancaster W4323 exploded at dispersal when the incendiaries were released starting a fire underneath the aircraft and causing the 4000lb Blockbuster bomb to explode. Miraculously there was only one fatality, Sgt H Wheeler, who was Wireless operator in the crew of F/L D W Finlay whose aircraft was nearby.

576 Squadron were formed at RAF Elsham Wolds in late November 1943, also flying Avro Lancasters, and operated from the airfield until the end of October 1944 when they moved to Fiskerton.

In December 1943 RAF Elsham Wolds became the principal airfield of the new 13 Base responsible for the nearby subsidiary airfields at RAF Kirmington and RAF North Killingholme.

On the 1st April 1945 100 Squadron were transferred to RAF Elsham Wolds for the last stages of WW2 as the runways at Waltham were in poor repair.

103 Squadron was disbanded soon after the war and, in December 1945 and 100 Squadron moved to Scampton.

RAF Elsham Wolds was then home to No 21 HGCU of Transport Command who vacated the airfield in November 1946.

In 1947 RAF Elsham Wolds closed.  Some of the buildings were used as accommodation for Polish Displaced Persons for a number of years and was referred to as Warsaw Hamlet.

Most of the site has reverted to agricultural use but one hanger remains as part of a small industrial estate. The main road South from the Humber Bridge runs right through the middle of the airfield.

Q Sites - RAF Elsham Wolds

 There was a bombing decoy site, Q site, to the south east of the airfield at Great Limber that was built to deflect enemy bombing from Elsham Wolds airfield. This was a Q-type night decoy that displayed a series of lights to simulate an active airfield. It is thought to have been in operation between 1941 and 1942. After the WW2  the site had been given over to agricultural use and no features of the decoy survive. Another bombing decoy for RAF Elsham Wolds was situated at South Ferriby several miles to the north of the airfield.

Info courtesy of the Historic England website.

Buried Lancasters at Elsham Wolds

From time to time this topic crops up and it has been mentioned in magazines and newspapers occasionally. I have been asked about it many times over the years. In 35 years of researching 103/576 Sqns and Elsham Wolds I have never met anyone who has any knowledge of buried aircraft in the area or even believes this story. That includes both local residents and veterans. It is possible some smaller components etc were shoveled into holes post war to get rid of them. That is all.

Ghosts at Elsham Wolds

Although this topic is mentioned on several websites on the internet I have no knowledge of ghosts at Elsham Wolds and have never met anyone who has seen one. I will pass on that.

Warsaw Hamlet

Displaced Persons at Elsham Wolds post war. See Warsaw Hamlet page

Elsham Village

Elsham is a rather quiet and secluded village in North Lincolnshire. It is  situated at the foot of the Wolds about 4 miles north of Brigg and well  off the main roads.

At the last census the population was approx 400. The local All Saints church dominates the village and dates back to the 12th century. Elsham has a splendid village hall but no shop or pub.

Not far away is Elsham Hall, owned by the Elwes family, which is a popular  attraction with its extensive gardens, animals, shops, exhibitions etc.

Elsham boasted a railway station for many years. It was opened in 1866 by the  Trent Ancholme and Grimsby railway and was not officially closed till 1993.

Elsham All Saints Church

Elsham Church postcard

There is an oft repeated story regarding the lack of RAF war graves in the Elsham churchyard. It has been said over the years that the minister at the time was a pacifist and objected to war graves in his church cemetery. Hence the cluster of RAF burials at Brigg Cemetery.

I am not at all sure that this is correct and we may well be doing the minister a disservice. There are no RAF graves at Kirmington and Killingholme churches either. There is in fact only one war grave at Kirmington which is a WW1 army private. Probably a local man.

The Elsham minister may well have been a pacifist but I suspect the fact that the local RAF burials are at Brigg is due to the regulations for dealing with deceased service personnel that applied in wartime.

My understanding of the procedure in WW2 which would have applied in this area is that the deceased were identified and transferred from Elsham Wolds and the other surrounding airfields to the nearest town with proper mortuary facilities. In this case Brigg. They were stored there for a short time and many of the UK residents were claimed by their next of kin and sent on by rail to be buried in their home towns.

The Commonwealth Air Forces sometimes claimed their own men to be buried in their own cemeteries like the Canadians at Stonefall at Harrogate.

Those that were left or for whom it was felt more suitable they be interred locally were buried at the nearest officially designated cemetery as specified by the authorities.

In this case that was Brigg Cemetery. There are 50 War Dead buried there who are mostly RAF men killed in crashes in this little part of North Lincs.

I am not even sure whether the Elsham minister could object to burials in his churchyard anyway as this may conflict with the common law right of burial. These apply to all parishioners or inhabitants of the parish in which they reside. Also persons whose death occurs within the area of a parish.

A limiting factor to the common law burial right is the space available for interments which may well be another reason why a cemetery like Brigg was officially designated in preference to the small local churchyards.

I am clearly no expert however and would welcome any more learned opinion to clarify this matter.

Barnetby Railway Station

During WW2 Barnetby railway station was the railhead for RAF Elsham Wolds and almost all the personnel serving at the airfield would know it well. The station is mentioned in a number of biographies written by former Elsham Wolds airmen.

The railway first came to Barnetby in 1848 when the Great Grimsby and Sheffield Junction Railway was constructed. Originally part of the Trent, Axholme & Grimsby Railway, it later passed into the hands of the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway, later becoming part of the Great Central Railway. In the 1923 the Great Central became the London and North Eastern Railway and in 1948 becoming British Railways before becoming Railtrack and then the present-day Network Rail.

The line connected Grimsby and Immingham to the east with Scunthorpe and Doncaster to the west and on to the great industrial cities of Sheffield and Manchester and beyond. It was mainly used for freight.

Below is a photo of the old Barnetby railway station much as it would have looked during WW2. That photo may date from the 1950s or even 1960s but I imagine it would look much the same during WW2. It is certainly far more interesting and appealing than the rather desolate and unwelcoming structure that it has become today.

Barnetby Station 1950s

Item written by David Fell


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