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Early Aviation around Melton Mowbray.

The small market town of Melton Mowbray was once an important link in the aerial defence of these Islands, detached as they are from the mainland of Europe, at a time when even the concept of an airfield or aerodrome as we understand it today was but a mere whim in the fancy of an increasing number of enthusiasts who were tinkering with the mystery of the yet to be understood practicalities of the concept of powered flight, man in control of a dirigible machine which he could literally fly in the sky to wherever he wished to go.  But how forward looking were those daring young men at the time? 

Around the turn of the last century, a non-stop saga of wars and related conflicts around the world were being created and exacerbated, often stirred by the increasingly confused politics of an expanding and competitive Europe. Britain had ensured that Queen Victoria's red-coated troops were retained and widely ensconced in a pretty-well permanent state of alert, whilst jealousies, envy and antagonism between the wealthy and aristocratic rulers of some of the larger nations ensured that our near neighbours were ever a permanent threat to our good Queen's's boast of having overseen the secure welfare an island population which had so far never been invaded. Of course the 22 miles of sea between our most vulnerable southern shores were worth an incalculable number of horses and carts and there was also that 22 miles of salt water, the English Channel or 'La Manche', to separate us in our small islands from our potential enemies, many of whom were well known to us by then.  As the long reign of our incumbent Monarch, Queen Victoria, came to its end her eldest son Edward was handed the keys of the Country and quite soon, after his coronation in 1901 he was to  become involved in political differences with members of his family in Germany; serious matters began to take a sinister shape.  Britain began to prepare for a new conflict; one much closer to home than Edward might have wished as Britons were soon to be faced with a new would be intruder.

Amid the tensions and increasing petty squabbles between the British and German royal families, which were intermixed with sabre rattling and threats of war, the people of England were to be introduced to their first threats of violence from the sky when in 1900, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (1838-1917), a German officer and engineer, was to dream up, design and eventually produce a dirigible metal-framed cigar-shaped container which was kept aloft with the placement of hydrogen - a lighter than air gas - filled containers.  Powered by the recently discovered petrol engines of the type being used in motorcars and with wooden propellors, they were capable of being simply steered with moveable flaps. This extremely large, but basically simple behemoth was soon to be adapted and utilised initially for aerial observation duties with the German Navy. It was the arrival of the notorious and much feared 'Zeppelin'.  With the uninvited arrivals of these almost silent craft to the skies just above the east coast of England, the authorities became alarmed and when small explosive armaments were thrown overboard by the German sailors as they passed over some seaside towns - they even ventured inland for several miles - the population became even more apprehensive. 

During these years after Queen Victoria died, the flying of heavier than air machines did become come a reality and the development of flying machines - or 'Aeroplanes' - took up their place in the modernising world. A result was that Military chiefs having been taken by surprise at the invasions, came to realise the potential that aircraft might present would change their whole attitude to the known and accepted methods of warfare as it then existed.  An interesting article on later visits of the Zeppelins can be found here:  "history on the'

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.


Aviation in Leicestershire

Visits from the Kaiser's 'Zeppelin' became considered as an insidious and uninvited intrusion with its ability to slide almost silently across the darkened skies of England and unmolested, unchallenged apart from the occasional farmers rifle and with its pernicious cargo ready to be offloaded above chosen sites, its arrival was soon to strike instant fear into the hearts of the British people, just as the 'doodle bugs', arriving from the same source, would repeat some three decades later.  But what part did the small market town of Melton Mowbray play in facing up to and tackling this frightening situation?  With a war now under way in the blood soaked fields of France, a land-locked and centrally located county like Leicestershire had not yet been properly 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 supplies, 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 German navy had bombed the port towns in an attempt to draw the highly lauded British Navy into conflict, but things were to change dramatically when the good folk of Loughborough, a small town in the east of Melton 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 aircraft enthusiast Roy Bonser explains:
'... At 1206 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 and 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 an 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. Missiles fell on the town of Loughborough where ten people were killed, 12 more injured and considerable damage was 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 and 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 a 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 [just south of Melton Mownbay] 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 those night-time intruders as they silently floated like great black sausages through the clouds of the winter skies: It reads;


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

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 new menace now being presented and delivered by these German raiders, the whole ethos of defence was to be re-visited and adjusted with the setting up of Home Squadrons based over over a much wider geographic area. Roy Bonser writes:

   'The Home Defence Unit to be charged with the defence of the Midlands was 38 Squadron which reformed for the 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.

'Loading the Mail'

By the autumn of 1916, 38 (Home Defence) Squadron had moved its Midland Headquarters from Castle Bromwich in the West Midlands to premises in Scalford Road, Melton Mowbray, in Leicestershire. Many small landing areas were by now located just over the county border in Lincolnshire which bordered the North Sea overlooking Germany which was considered a priority.  The term 'DLG' or 'NLG' was adopted for day and night purposes for these temporary landing grounds and this was certainly apt for the majority of these small patches of grass.  Usually within comfortable range of local towns, they often presented the appearance of a boy scout's camp in the summer holidays.  Two or three canvas tents were pitched for the convenience of flying visitors and sometimes a means of communication and a supply of fuel. Two larger ones were maintained at the nearby towns of Grantham and Stamford and at least three smaller fields were commissioned close to Melton Mowbray.  As one drives into Melton Mowbray from Nottingham, a small road goes off to the left towards the rear of Scalford Hall and the old mine workings at Holwell and it was here, 100 years ago, that a small landing ground (RFC Scalford) was based at the side of that road.  Today it still lies, long reverted to pasture land with no trace or evidence of those brave young pilots' comings and goings. Just two decades later during the 2nd World War, many purpose built airfields would replace the grass strips and canvas tents to accommodate and service the much larger aircraft and related personnel.

BRENTINGBY (Melton Mowbray) 

A tiny backwater where the first aeroplanes to be seen by crowds of onlookers called in during the famous Round Britain air race of 1911, it was used as the local polo grounds adjacent to the railway line - very flat and level but would flood badly 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.


The site at Plunger was situated astride the border with Nottinghamshire and housed the well loved FE2b.  No 38 Squadron had Plungar available to them as a Home defence LG during World War One until 1918. This illustration is from the RAF Museum at Hendon

First introduced as a two-seat fighter on the Western Front in late 1915, the Beardmore-engined Royal Aircraft Factory F.E. 2b and its successor the similar Rolls-Royce engined F.E. 2d were later used extensively in the night bomber role in Europe, which is the variant represented by the RAF Museum's aircraft at Hendon


Another of the squadron's night landing grounds, (NLG) utilised in 1917 on the Ridgmere Lane near the village. In 1917 the 25 acre site became available for day landings only. (DLG).  Not a lot more information found for this place.


(Melton Mowbray, already mentioned), was a quite important base which was established about 1½ miles from Melton railway station which was 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 and 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 assumed responsibility for Scalford 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.
There circulated many tales of the air displays which took place in the 1930s at the Old Aerodrome, when Balloon jumps, aerobatics and paid-for flights for the brave were accompanied by beer, ox roasts and all the usual fun of the fair.  Indeed, many of the world famous travelling 'circus' pilots attended and attracted great crowds to the area.

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 remembered today of the actual usage or activities of the fields but it is safe to assume that they 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 service facilities to keep the frail and often flimsy little aircraft operational. Temporary buildings or tented premises provided cover from the weather but they were not designed for permanent occupation.

A Strip.

It is a fact that the use of the landing grounds was considered a vital 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 aeroplanes 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 likely have been the French made Bleriot BE-2e which was classified as a reconnaissance/light bomber. Not greatly manoeuvrable, the BE (Bleriot Experimental) was not well loved by most of the pilots who were more keen to get into the more ubiquitous and ever-popular Avro 504, the model in which they were more than likely to have trained in and later, to be used by them in combat against the 'Hun' as a fighting machine.

Avro 504 - bomber trainer

Armstrong Whitworth K3

Peace, For a While!

At the end of the cruel and devastating war in Europe, little use was required of the grass landing strips dotted about the Midlands counties and the process of passing time and nature were soon to obliterate all traces of their once important role.  With the demise of the use of the horse in close combat which would be replaced by tanks, the aeroplane was to ensure a much bolder and formidable presence in the conflicts to follow, initially in a battlefield observation role.

Many of these novice but truly enthusiastic young pilots failed to return home after that 'war to end wars', many killed not only by enemy action, but by machine failure, inexperience or by the impossible aerial manoeuvres of raw youth.

We should thank them all.

©John McQuaid - 2015


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