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RAF Hemswell

Ensign of the Royal Air Force
(Formerly RFCS Harpswell)

RAF Hemswell - - 123529.jpg
Hangars and buildings still standing at Hemswell
IATA: none – ICAO: none
Airport type Military
Operator Royal Flying Corps
Royal Air Force
United States Air Force
Location Hemswell Cliff, Lincolnshire
Elevation AMSL 177 ft / 54 m
Coordinates 53°23′56″N 000°34′26″W / 53.39889°N 0.57389°W / 53.39889; -0.57389Coordinates: 53°23′56″N 000°34′26″W / 53.39889°N 0.57389°W / 53.39889; -0.57389
Lincolnshire UK location map
Airplane silhouette.svg
RAF Hemswell
Location in Lincolnshire
Decommissioned and closed in 1967
Military Bomber airfield and a later Ballistic Missile base

Royal Air Force Station Hemswell or more simply RAF Hemswell is a former Royal Air Force station located 7.8 miles (12.6 km) east of Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, England.

Located close to the village of Hemswell in Lincolnshire, England the disestablished airfield is now in full use as a civilian industrial and retail trading estate, forming part of the newly created parish of Hemswell Cliff along with the station's married quarters and RAF built primary school that are now in non-military ownership.

The airfield used by RAF Bomber Command for 20 years between 1937[1] and 1957[2] and saw most of its operational life during the Second World War. Later used again by RAF Bomber Command as a nuclear ballistic missile base during the Cold War it closed to military use in 1967.[2]

On 19 March 1940 RAF Hemswell-based Handley Page Hampdens of No. 61 Squadron RAF were the first Bomber Command aircraft to drop bombs on German soil during the Second World War. The target was the Hörnum seaplane base on the northern Germany coast.

RAF Hemswell was immortalised on film when it was used as a substitute for RAF Scampton in all the ground based filming of the 1954 war film The Dambusters.

First World WarEdit

The first airfield on the site was opened in 1918 by the Royal Flying Corps and called RFCS Harpswell after the village of that name just across the A631 road.[3]

During the First World War it was used as a night landing ground and two night flying training squadrons were established there. In June 1919 the grass airfield was returned to its former use as farmland.[3]

Second World WarEdit

In 1935 construction began on compulsory repurchased land. The new airbase, now called RAF Hemswell, was opened on New Year's Eve 1936 to accommodate the rapidly expanding Bomber Command. The station was a base for Hawker Hind, Hawker Audax, Avro Anson, Bristol Blenheim and Boulton Paul Overstrand aircraft in its early days.

On 19 March 1940 RAF Hemswell-based Handley Page Hampdens of No. 61 Squadron RAF were the first Bomber Command aircraft to drop bombs on German soil during the Second World War. The target was the Hörnum seaplane base on the northern Germany coast.[1]

The station and its squadrons initially formed part of No. 5 Bomber Group RAF with its group headquarters at St Vincents House, St Vincents Road, Grantham,[4] transferring to No. 1 Bomber Group RAF at RAF Hucknall, Nottinghamshire in June 1941.[5]

During the war years various squadrons were based at Hemswell, including many Polish personnel flying Vickers Wellingtons. During the war a total of 122 bomber aircraft and their crews were lost on operations from Hemswell, including 38 Handley Page Hampdens, 62 Vickers Wellingtons and 22 Avro Lancasters.

Hemswell operated as a dual site with a nearby overflow airfield at RAF Ingham. RAF Ingham was a grassed field landing ground with few buildings or facilities. Between 1941 and 1943 the Polish bomber squadrons (No. 305 Polish Bomber Squadron, No. 301 Polish Bomber Squadron and No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron) used the airfield for their Wellington operations. The squadrons used Ingham while training and also flew operations from there whilst the runways were being laid at Hemswell in anticipation of the arrival of the heavier Avro Lancaster. Ingham was later renamed RAF Cammeringham and became a full station in its own right, closing for aircraft use in 1945 when the grass runways became unstable and taking on a ground training role.[6] Cliffe House, that had been commandeered as the officers' mess and a number of pre-fabricated buildings, quonset huts and the brick built control tower still stand at the abandoned airfield.[7] With the arrival of the Avro Lancaster, Hemswell took on a training role, becoming the home to 1 Lancaster Finishing School. This school was tasked with giving Lancaster experience to aircrews who had just finished their training at a Heavy Conversion Unit prior to posting to an operational squadron. During 1944, as Lancasters were then being used at Heavy Conversion Units, the Lancaster Finishing Schools were disbanded and Hemswell again took on an operational role. 150 and 170 squadrons took up residence and commenced flying bomber operations until the end of the war. The film "Night Bombers" which is available on DVD and video was shot at Hemswell during this period.

Cold WarEdit

Hemswell hangars - - 123534

The almost unchanged wartime line of aircraft hangars, photographed in 2006

After the war a variety of aircraft were stationed at Hemswell including de Havilland Mosquitos, Avro Lancasters and Lincolns, English Electric Canberras with various peacetime roles undertaken including ex-prisoner-of-war repatriation, the dropping of food supplies during the relief of Holland and the Berlin Blockade, goodwill visits to foreign countries, electronic counter measures and nuclear air sampling over hydrogen bomb test sites in the Pacific and Australia.

Hemswell continued in operational flying use by RAF Bomber Command until as late as 1956.[2] The last flying squadrons had departed in January of that year but RAF Hemswell was then established as an RAF Bomber Command missile unit, maintaining and operating threeThor Intermediate Range Ballistic Nuclear Missile launchers of No 97 (Strategic Missile) Squadron RAF that remained at Hemswell from December 1959 to May 1963. Each missile was tipped with a one-megaton nuclear warhead, jointly controlled by the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force under the so-called dual-key arrangements. RAF Hemswell was also the headquarters for the No 5 (Lincolnshire) Missile Dispersal Sites located at RAF Bardney, RAF Caistor, RAF Coleby Grange and RAF Ludford Magna. The Cuban Missile Crisis brought the entire UK based Thor missile force to maximum strategic alert and readiness for a ten-day period during October and November 1962.

In 1964 the station was designated and prepared as an operational conversion unit for the expected deployment of the planned TSR-2 (Tactical Strike and Reconnaissance) aircraft, but when the TSR-2 programme was cancelled by the government in 1965. Hemswell had a brief existence as a sub site of 7 School of Recruit Training whose headquarters were at RAF Swinderby. Recruit training continued from Hemswell but the base was eventually placed on "Care and Maintenance" in 1967, when it was decided that all future recruit training would be carried out at Swinderby.

During 1967 the gliders of 643 gliding school Air Training Corps moved in from Kirton in Lindsey. 643 GS operated from Hemswell until 1974, giving ATC cadets air experience and glider pilot training until moving to RAF Lindholme on 1 April 1974.

This event marked the last RAF use of the base which closed and was largely sold with the runways being broken up and used as hardcore for the extension of the A180 road. For several years the buildings were occupied by Ugandan nationals expelled from their country by Idi Amin. In April 1985 the entire technical site including the barrack blocks were sold to The Welbeck Estate Group by tender. In addition the same company purchased a large number of the post war NCO married quarters. In 1986 the group sold the individual buildings by auction which took place in the Airmens Mess and as a result, with the creation of many new businesses it was renamed The Caenby Corner Estate.

In popular cultureEdit

Hemswell was used as a substitute for RAF Scampton in the ground based filming of the 1954 film The Dam Busters as the wartime layout of both Scampton and Hemswell was similar in many places. The film "Night Bombers" remains the best known filmed record of what RAF Hemswell looked like during and just after the war, which is a colour film of Avro Lancasers at Hemswell in preparation for a raid over Germany which shows briefings, loading of bombs and the raid itself and was the only known colour film of Lancasters at War. Scenes for the Dambusters film were filmed in various offices of the station headquarters; the front entrance, the bedrooms, ante room and dining room of the officers' mess; hangars and the NAAFI canteen with the latter used for the squadron briefing theatre scenes, as well as on the roadways within the base.

The similarities between Scampton and Hemswell continue to cause confusion. It has been said that, at the end of the film actor Richard Todd can be seen walking up the main driveway at Hemswell past Gibson House in the direction of the hangar line; this scene was in fact shot at Scampton.

Part of the RAF's fleet of aging Avro Lincolns had been mothballed at RAF Hemswell prior to being broken up and several of these static aircraft appeared in background shots during filming, doubling for additional No 617 Squadron Lancasters, as the filmmakers only had four airworthy and fully flying Lancasters available to them.

Squadrons and units based at RAF HemswellEdit

No. 542 Operating Canberras in the Nuclear Test (USSR's not ours) Sampling Role. 31 March 1957 from Weston Zoyland. 11 July 1958 TO Upwood
Date of arrival Unit Notes
1916 Several RFC Squadrons Hemswell used as a night landing ground
April 1918 No. 99 (Depot Training) Squadron RFC Renumbered from No 199 Sqn before arriving at Hemswell from Rochford it was tasked with the training of night bomber pilots destined for service in France. Disbanded on 13 June 1919.
1918 No. 200 (Depot Training) Squadron RFC Tasked with the training of night bomber pilots destined for service in France. Disbanded on 13 June 1919.
1935 - 1937 Building programe constructed station buildings, hangars and married quarter housing
February 1937 No. 144 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Anson and Hawker Audax and later new Bristol Blenheims and Handley Page Hampdens. Mainly involved in maritime bombing raids on shipping. The squadron left Hemswell in July 1941 and moved to RAF North Luffenham.[8]
March 1937 No. 61 Squadron RAF 61 Sqn's Hemswell-based Handley Page Hampdens were the first Bomber Command aircraft to drop bombs on German soil during the Second World War, on 19 March 1940. The target was the Hörnum seaplane base. Re-equipped with Avro Manchesters the squadron left Hemswell in October 1941 and relocated to RAF North Luffenham.
June 1941 No. 305 Polish Bomber Squadron Operating Vickers Wellingtons. Left Hemswell / Ingham in August 1943 and relocated to RAF Swanton Morley.
June 1941 No. 301 Polish Bomber Squadron Operating Vickers Wellingtons. Squadron disbanded in April 1943 after major crew losses could not be restaffed.
July 1942 No. 300 Polish Bomber Squadron Operating Vickers Wellingtons. Left Hemswell / Ingham in March 1944 and relocated at RAF Faldingworth.
February 1943 No. 199 Squadron RAF Operating Vickers Wellington. Training for maritime mine laying operations. Left Hemswell in July 1943 and relocated to RAF Lakenheath.
July 1943 Concrete runways laid
Autumn 1943 No. 1 (Lancaster Finishing School) Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters. Squadron disbanded at Hemswell in November 1944
1944 No. 150 (Bomber) Squadron RAF equipped with the Avro Lancaster No 1 Group RAF. The squadron was disbanded in November 1945.
November 1944 No. 170 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters. The squadron was disbanded in 1945
March 1945 No. 1687 (Bomber Defence Training) Flight RAF Regiment No. 1687 Flight also maintained a Q decoy site on the far side of nearby Caenby village.
July 1946 No. 83 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lincolns. Disbanded at Hemswell in January 1956. Reformed at RAF Waddington in 1957, flying Avro Vulcans.
1946 and 1950 No. 109 Squadron RAF Operating de Havilland Mosquitos in a Pathfinder and Oboe role. Left Hemswell in 1947. Returned 1950 operating English Electric Canberras, departed January 1956.
1946 and 1950 No 139 Squadron RAF Operating de Havilland Mosquitos. Left Hemswell in 1947. Returned 1950 operating English Electric Canberras, departed January 1956.
October 1946 No. 97 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters and later Avro Lincolns. The Squadron was disbanded in December 1955
1946 No. 100 Squadron RAF Operating Avro Lancasters and later Avro Lincolns. Left Hemswell in 1950, relocating to Malaysia for Operation Firedog.
April 1952 No. 199 Squadron RAF Operating at various times Avro Lincolns, de Havilland Mosquitos, English Electric Canberras. Left Hemswell in September 1957, bringing to an end Bomber Command flights from Hemswell. The squadron disbanded in 1958.
December 1959 No. 97 (Strategic Missile) Squadron RAF Operating Thor IRBM missiles for RAF Bomber Command. Left Hemswell in May 1963 and its missiles were returned to America where they were used as launch vehicles in the early development of the space programme. No. 97 Sqn disbanded, with the personnel transferred to RAF Watton to join No. 151 Squadron RAF.
1963 No.2 Wing of 7 School of Recruit Training RAF Used for follow on training for senior recruits from the Recruit Training School at nearby RAF Swinderby. Closed in December 1967
1967 Station on Care and Maintenance. Parented by RAF Scampton 643 Gliding School Air Training Corps, Cadet Mk 3, Sedbergh and Prefect winch launched gliders. Moved to Lindholme 1/4/74 RAF Hemswell finally Closed 1/4/74

After closureEdit

In 1972 the station became the temporary Hemswell Resettlement Camp when it received Ugandan-Asian refugees expelled from Uganda by president Idi Amin.[2]

After Hemswell closed the site was eventually redeveloped into a private trading estate and residential area with the former estates of officers' and other ranks' married quarters becoming what is now the new civil parish and village of Hemswell Cliff. The wartime station headquarters building still stands on the new trading estate and is called Gibson House. It is used by a number of companies as office space. Hemswell almost uniquely amongst the wartime flying stations has retained its pre-war road layout, most of its buildings and an almost "RAF feel", despite being in private ownership.

Two short lengths of the original metalled runways still exist, used as farm machinery hardstanding, as do most of the hangars and station buildings which have been pressed into alternate uses by private companies. Until 2006 a private aviation museum displayed a small collection of ex-RAF aircraft on a grassed area behind the old Station Headquarters, including two Hawker Hunters, a BAC Jet Provost, a de Havilland Vampire, an English Electric Canberra and an English Electric Lightning. The museum closed and the collection has either been dispersed to other museums or broken up for spares and scrap.

The station is now totally civilian, however, the RAF still own the community centre and have spent considerable money refurbishing it. The old H Block other rank accommodation buildings on the site have now become home to one of Europe's largest antique centres and there are also various shops, a garden centre, hairdresser, used book shop and several cafés. On Sundays there is a very large Sunday market and car boot sale. Hemswell Cliff Primary School, formally the RAF primary school, still serves the children of the nearby communities. The former station officers' mess is now known as Hemswell Court and provides an elegant venue for weddings, banqueting and conference facilities. The Hemswell hangars have been pressed into service as European Union Common Agricultural Policy Intervention Stores on several occasions as a Lincolnshire location for the occasional EU "grain mountain" excesses.

The non-profit RAF Hemswell Association's membership is open to all ranks and trades who served at Hemswell any time between 1937 and 1967. There is an annual reunion at Hemswell and the association also publishes a bi-annual magazine. Annual subscriptions are currently set at £7.

There have also been several cases of unexplained occurrences and cases of ghostly music being heard, where no music should be.[9]

2009 FireEdit

In August 2009 there was a large fire at one of the former RAF hangars that was being used as a plastics recycling site by AWS Eco-plastics. Several propane gas cylinders exploded and as a result of the intensity of the fire the A631 had to be closed from Harpswell Hill to Caenby Corner.[10]

See alsoEdit




  • Halpenny, B.B. Action Stations: Wartime Military Airfields of Lincolnshire and the East Midlands v. 2. Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, Patrick Stephens Ltd, 1981. ISBN 0-85059-484-7.
  • Halpenny, B.B. Ghost Stations Lincolnshire (Paperback). L'Aquila Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1871448061.
  • Jefford, C.G, MBE,BA ,RAF (Retd). RAF Squadrons, a Comprehensive Record of the Movement and Equipment of all RAF Squadrons and their Antecedents since 1912. Shrewsbury, Shropshire, UK: Airlife Publishing, 1988. ISBN 1-84037-141-2.

External linksEdit

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