Tuesday, 14 May 2013


Early Aviation in Melton Mowbray

he small market town of Melton Mowbray was once an important link in the aerial defence of these Islands at a time when even the concept of an airfield or aerodrome as we know it today was but a mere whim in the fancy of an increasing number of enthusiasts who were tinkering with the mystery and the yet to be understood practicalities of the nascent science of powered flight - but how forward looking were those daring young men at the time?

Around the turn of the last century a continuing saga of wars and related conflicts abroad, stirred by the increasingly confused politics of an expanding Europe, had ensured that Queen Victoria's red-coated troops were retained on a pretty well permanent state of alert, whilst jealousies, envy and antagonism between the aristocratic rulers of some of the larger nations of our near neighbours were ever a permanent threat to the good Queen's boast of having overseen the secure welfare an island population which had never been invaded. Of course, worth an incalculable number of horses and carts, there was also that 22 miles of salt water -  'La Manche" - which separated us from from our enemies, those who were well known to us and those yet to be discovered; that was, until!

In 1900,Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917), German officer and engineer, founder of the Zeppelin airship company was to dream up and eventually produce the Zeppelin, a dirigible metal-framed cigar-shaped container which was kept aloft with the placement of hydrogen - a lighter than air gas - filled balloons.  Powered by normal aircraft engines, this extremely large transport was soon to be adapted and designated initially,  for observation duties with the German Navy.  Shortly after the First World War broke out in 1914 it can be believed that the British Military chiefs were taken unawares and shaken by a series of events which would change their whole attitude to the known and accepted methods of warfare then existing; as German heavy armament and bombs fell from the sky, creating panic and confusion, it became a case of wake up and smell the coffee and welcome to the war in the air.  

The following article is taken from "history on the net.com'

World War One - Zeppelin Raids

   On the morning of January 19th 1915 two German Zeppelin airships, the L3 and L4 took off from Fuhisbuttel in Germany.  Both airships carried 30 hours of fuel, 8 bombs and 25 incendiary devices.  They had been given permission by the Emperor Wilhelm II to attack military and industrial buildings.  The Emperor had forbidden an attack on London due to concern for the Royal family to whom he was related.
   The two German Zeppelin airships crossed the Norfolk coastline at around 8.30pm. Having crossed the coast the L3 turned north and the L4 south. The incendiary bombs were dropped to enable the pilots to navigate to their chosen locations Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn where they dropped their bombs. A total of nine people were killed and some buildings were damaged. But the effect of the raid on a population who were used to battles being fought by soldiers on the battlefield was immense.  Morale dropped and people feared further raids and believed that a German invasion would follow.
   Further raids were carried out on coastal towns and London during 1915 and 1916.  The silent airships arrived without warning and with no purpose-built shelters, people hid in cellars or under tables.  There were a total of 52 Zeppelin raids on Britain claiming the lives of more than 500 people.
    Although artillery guns were used against the airships they had little effect.  In May 1916 fighter planes armed with incendiary bullets were used to attack the Zeppelins.  The incendiary bullets pierced the Zeppelins and ignited the hydrogen gas they were filled with.  Once alight the airships fell to the ground.  It was the beginning of the end of the raids.

Melton's Part in That War

The 'Zeppelin' was then, an insidious visitor with the ability to slide silently across the darkened skies of England, unmolested and with its pernicious cargo was soon to strike instant fear into the hearts of the British people, just as the 'doodle bugs', arriving from the same source, would do again some three decades later in another war.  But what part did the small market town of Melton Mowbray play in facing up to and tackling this frightening situation?  Being land-locked, the centrally located county of Leicestershire had not yet been considered as particularly relevant geographically to the rapidly escalating war of massed boots and horse's hooves occurring on the ground in a foreign land far away and even though the County did provide its fair share of willing troops and equestrian suplies, the main theatre at the outset of hostilities was being tragically played out on the poppy fields of France.  It is true that  initially, the Germans had bombed the port towns in an attempt to draw the highly lauded British Navy into a battle, but things were to change dramatically when the good folk of Loughborough, a small town in the north of that county, received a night-time visit from Zeppelin LZ-20.  On the dark winter's evening of Monday, January 31st 1916, death was to fall from the skies once more.  In his superbly produced and presented tome on 'Aviation in Leicestershire', author and enthusiast Roy Bonser explains:

... At 1206 on that date Zeppelin LZ-20 with Kapitanleutnant Franz Stabbert in command left its base at Tondern as part of a nine airship force with orders to 'Attack England middle or south, if at all possible, Liverpool'. After being airborne for over 71/2 hrs LZ-20 is believed to have crossed the coast between the Humber and the Wash at 7.45pm. The airship proceeded inland and Stabbert's raid report indicates that and hour later LZ-20 was faintly lit by searchlights through cloud and fired on by a 'battery' which was silenced after six explosives were released. The missiles fell on the town of Loughborough, ten people were killed, 12 more injured and considerable damage caused to civilian property.  Stabbert thought he was in the vicinity of Sheffield and continued westwards for a short time but as the airship was experiencing some sort of engine trouble he elected not to endeavour to reach Liverpool so he made his main attack.  By this time LZ-20 had passed over Leicestershire and the 27 bombs dropped fell on Burton-Upon-Trent.
    Bombs again fell on county soil on the night of 5th/6th March 1916. This time they came from the Zeppelin LZ-13 which like LZ-20 before was also experiencing loss of engine power and in order to lighten ship, the Commander Kapitanleutnant Heinrich Mathy, was forced to jettison a large part of the airship's offensive load.  Thirty incendiary and 15 explosive bombs were released which fell on fields between Sproxton and Thistleton causing little damage.  It is recorded that the detonations of the high explosive missiles could be heard as far away as Norwich.

The Derby Daily Telegraph was to report on Thursday, 3rd February, without mentioning the actual name of the town - due to wartime restrictions - the following account of the raid on Loughborough which goes some way to deliver a taste of the ramifications of the problems created by these night-time intruders as they floated like great black sausages through the clouds of the winter skies:


At a town in Leicestershire warning was received by seven o’clock in the evening that hostile aircraft were making in that direction, and precautions were taken immediately. Afterwards the noise of a Zeppelin's engines was heard on the north side of the town, and two or three minutes later the first bombs fell in a public-house yard, the explosion wrecking all the outbuildings in the vicinity and smashing every window for a hundred yards around. A woman was killed in her home in an adjacent street.
A second bomb fell about a second later in a wide main thoroughfare. The damage to property was not substantial, although the full force of the explosion caught a young married couple, killing the woman instantly, and so injuring the man that he died shortly afterwards. A woman shopkeeper was also killed in her doorway, and another young woman was injured so seriously that she died later at the hospital.
About three minutes elapsed before before the next bombs fell on the other side off the town. These wrecked two houses completely and killed three members of one family who were near their home. A shopkeeper and an employee who were just leaving work were also killed.
Another bomb fell about a hundred yards away in a garden and did no damage of any consequence. There were 10 deaths in the town, and several persons were injured.
Two bombs fell in the rural district some miles away. Many persons had narrow escapes but there were no fires as all the bombs dropped were non-incendiary. The Zeppelin was heard again but no further attack was made. Of the injured, the majority sustained cuts by broken glass and some of the cases were serious.


The Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Services

The coveted pilot's wings.

Conceived and initiated amid much anguish of the top brass at the disturbing turn of events, the powers-that-be of the United Kingdom with much perturbation rushed into existence the new strike arms of their Army and Navy services which were to become known as the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS). Pilots were recruited in great haste from all over the country and indeed, from other european areas which were currently at peace with us.  Both those who could and those who couldn't fly, were rapidly trained to pilot the new aeroplanes which were soon being manufactured in large numbers at divers factories across the country and with a crazy verve and spirit, all mixed with a little anxiety but always a lot of national pride.  As in the battlefields on terra firma, human flesh was expendable and many would-be 'Red Barons' would suffer an early demise before even reaching their postings.  Initially, the establishment of purpose-built aerodromes and temporary landing sites for the use of the 'daring young men' would pass Leicestershire by, but as a result of the menace now being presented and delivered by these German raiders, the situation was to change with the setting up of Home Squadrons over a much wider geographic area. Roy Bonser continues:

   The Home Defence Unit to be charged with the defence of the Midlands was 38 Squadron which reformed for this purpose at Castle Bromwich, Warwickshire in July 1916.  By October of that year the unit had moved further eastwards and established its headquarters at Melton Mowbray.  Unfortunately this move did not lead to recognised aerodromes being set up within the county as the unit's three main flight stations were all established in Lincolnshire. [Leicester's neighbouring county to the east]  Little is known of their use, but it is possible that detached flights may have operated from them.  It is most likely though that their main functions were connected with training exercises and as emergency landing grounds.  Aircraft of 38 Squadron made many attempts to to intercept the Zeppelin raiders whenever they entered the unit's area of operation.  Unfortunately their efforts met with scant success as the following two incidents serve to illustrate.  On the night of 1st/2nd October 1916 a ten airship raid was launched against London and the Midlands.  Seven eventually crossed the English Coast and one of these, the LZ-21 commanded by Oberleutnant zur See K Frankenburg, managed to penetrate as far inland as Oakham.  Over central England a blanket of cloud and mist covered covered large areas which made things difficult for airship and aircraft alike.  Only one sortie, a weather reconnaissance  was flown by 38 Squadron. This ended in a forced-landing, in the course of which the aircraft was wrecked and the pilot, Captain C T Black, slightly injured.

The Landing Grounds.

So by the autumn of 1916, 38 (Home Defence) Squadron had moved its Midland Headquarters from Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands to Scalford Road in Melton Mowbray, in the East Midlands. Many of these small landing areas were located just over the county border in Lincolnshire, (2 large ones were maintained at nearby Grantham and Stamford) but at least three smaller fields were commissioned near to the town.

BRENTINGBY (Melton Mowbray) 

Was the once famous Polo grounds adjacent to the railway line - very flat and level but would flood in the season. A 30 acre site located between the village and Gravel Hole Spinney, it was used for a short time in 1916 as a night landing ground (NLG) but later closed in favour of the site at Scalford.

PLUNGAR 2 miles from Barkestone railway station


Another of the squadron's NLG. Utilised in 1917 on the Ridgmere Lane near the village. In 1917 the 25 acre site became available for day landings only. (DLG).

Queniborough - (courtesy of Old Maps)

SCALFORD (Melton Mowbray) was established 1½ miles from Melton Mowbray railway station and actually nearer to Melton Mowbray than the village it was named after.  Sited off the main A 606 Nottingham Road on the minor road from Sysonby Lodge Farm  towards the rear of Scalford Hall, it comprised at least 45 acres - 700 x 600 yards.  Roy Bonser provides more detail:

... Established initially as a night landing ground it replaced a similar type of field which 38 Squadron had previously used at Brentingby to the east of Melton Mowbray.  One factor which in all probability influenced the change and choice of site was the fact that the squadron's headquarters were moved from Castle Bromwich to a new home at Scalford Road, Melton Mowbray.  The use of a landing ground in close proximity to unit headquarters would be of great value for communication and liaison purposes, especially as the three flight stations of the Squadron were some distance away in Lincolnshire.    The field was used by the unit from Late 1916 until it departed for a tour of duty in France in May, 1918.  To fill the gap left by this move, 90 Squadron formed at Buckminster and assmed responsibility for Salford until it was closed down following the German capitulation.    Scalford was to be used briefly for flying activities again during the 1930s by Sir Alan Cobham when his National Aviation Day Displays toured the country.  When Melton Mowbray was on the intinerary the 'Old Aerodrome, Nottingham Road' became the venue for the air show.

Scalford - (courtesy of of Old Maps)

Known as 'Flight Stations', or more commonly as 'Landing Grounds', these small areas of land were most likely chosen for their levelness and smoothness, together with an absence  of potential obstructions such as trees, ditches or other hazards which might have hindered the safe operation of the aircraft. Little is known today of the actual usage or purpose of the fields - especially those local to Melton Mowbray - but it is safe to assume that there would have been just basic facilities for the material comfort of the pilots, such as toilet breaks, meal times and probably even rest facilities, not to mention the very important provision of fuel and perhaps service facilities to keep the frail little aircraft operational. Temporary buildings or tented premises provided cover from the weather but they were not designed for permanent occupation. I have borrowed the below evocative pictures from 'FlightGlobal/Archives' to give an idea of what might have been seen over the hedges of our local fields during the conflict.

A Typical Landing Ground Scene of 1916 - (Courtesy 'Flight' Archives)

A larger landing ground location with hangar marquees - (Courtesy 'Flight' Archives)

The use of landing grounds was considered a significant part of a pilot's early training and in 'Flight' magazine of June 26th, 1914, a detailed account of this training was published, part of which I reproduce here.

... Landing of aeroplanes, - These reconnaissances were succeeded by a series of flights, in the course of which it was necessary for the pilot to land on temporary landing grounds.  The military pilot, unlike his civilian counterpart, does not fly between two definite recognised landing grounds, but, particularly when operating on foreign soil, may often have, at short notice, to effect a landing in an entirely unknown country during a cross-country flight; and since the problem of flight at the present day is largely one of landing safely, and not only involves a knowledge of how to land but also the ability to readily choose a landing ground of a suitable character and size with expedition whilst flying, practice in this direction has been indulged in.  On the first day of these exercises, the pilot was required to land on one temporary landing ground, and after this was successfully accomplished each squadron was ordered to land on two temporary landing grounds successively during flight.
    But in effecting a landing it is most important that a pilot should know in what distance it is possible for his machine to come to rest on the ground after passing an obstacle of a given height, say, a hedge or a clump of trees; and hence, prior to the experiments in landing just indicated, tests were carried out to determine what this is, for different machines.
    So far the landing tests which have been referred to have been carried out during the day; but one, if not the only, difficulty encountered in night flying, especially in cross-country work - and night flying will probably be and important section of the work on active service - is that of knowing where, and when to land with safety, that is, the location of a suitable landing ground relative to the machine. 

The Aircraft.

The Aircraft most likely to have been 'spotted' by the wide-eyed young lads of Melton Mowbray, who probably rode up on their bikes to get as close as possible to the fields for the best view of the planes, would have been the Bleriot BE, classified as a reconnaissance/light bomber. Not greatly manouverable, it was not well loved by most of the pilots who were more keen to fly the ubiquitous and ever-popular Avro 504, the model in which they were more than likely trained and was to serve them better as a fighting machine.

'Jack of all trades' - an Avro 504 very formerly posed by its crew

A BE 2c (Bleriot Experimental) 2c - typical workhorse of the  RFC - (both pics courtesy 'Flight' Archives)

(Looks like he is stranded in a potato patch - oh well, a regular hazard I suppose!)


An Afterthought

In the early 1950s, as a very young boy and already an avid aircraft spotter, I clearly recall pedalling my cycle many miles to a Leicestershire airfield, where, from the the bottom of a hawthorn bush and lying in a very wet ditch, I experienced the thrill of watching a jet fighter landing on a concrete runway just in front of me - what excitement! I also remember the smacking from my father for travelling so far from home.  I wonder if the local boys from Melton Mowbray were around to watch those daring young men of the Royal Flying Corps. descend from the skies  in their string and wood machines, to rest awhile or for a smoke, a nap, a call of nature or whatever, before winding up that large propeller in order to continue his day's work.  I wouldn't mind betting that they were!

And this was the subject of my rapt attention a half a century ago! 

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