Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
The RAF in Cumbria 1939-1946 including North Lancashire – Dumfries & Galloway by Ian Tyler . Blue Rock Publications. £40
Ian Tyler’s father was an RAF pilot and Ian grew up, almost, with aviation fuel in his blood. The result, seventy years later, is this monumental book charting the activities of the RAF in Cumbria during the years of the Second World War. Cumbria was far removed from the theatre of war and the east coast and the south-east of the country which suffered in the Blitz and witnessed the Battle of Britain. “We may not have been fully operational,” Ian argues, “but we were vital to the war effort.” The area’s comparative removal from danger, made it suitable for training and maintenance units.
The body of the book concerns itself with recording the significant events at the thirty-one RAF stations located in the area. These range from stations at Walney, Barrow, Flookburgh, Haverigg and Millom and Bootle in the south to ones at Silloth, Brayton Park, Kirkbride, Anthorn, Kingstown, Crosby on Eden and Longtown and other ones in Scotland from Loch Doon to Annan. Each one receives the same thorough, detailed treatment.
RAF Great Orton “near the top of Parsons Thor Hill OD250 ft” was one of the higher airfields in Cumbria and for years it was mistakenly signposted as RAF Wiggonby. There was a “premature landing” in the area on 21st August, 1941, when a MK1 Miles Magister V1023, piloted by Sgt Oakley on a test flight from Kingstown, suffered engine failure over Kirkbampton. “The pilot attempted to make an emergency landing, but failed to notice the ‘Searchlight Battery’ in his line of flight, into which his aircraft crashed.”
A month later land around Watchtree Farm was requisitioned from the farmer Robert Timperon and a hard runway satellite airfield for Silloth was constructed. Ian has an eye for the detail, for the aggregate excavated from the Caldew to create a runway that was 4800 yards long, 50 yards wide and a foot deep. And he has an eye for the personal story, for “the massive yellow American Caterpillar bulldozer . . . which crashed through the fence . . . destroying the farmer’s daughter’s garden; she was inconsolable. The driver offered her a ride on the ‘Caterpillar’ and she was there for weeks and he had a friend for life.”
As with all the stations there is a detailed map drawn to scale showing the disposition of the hangars, control tower and the runways and, where possible, Ian has included photographs of buildings, aircraft and personnel.
The first aircraft to land on the completed runway was a 55 OTU Hurricane Mk1 W9348 from Annan which made an emergency landing on 29th May, 1943. On 20th October, the first unit belonging to E and F Flight arrived with eight Hawker Mk 11a Hurricanes. Ironically, one of the Hurricanes Z2822 piloted by the unfortunate Flt/Lt F.S.Perkins was blown off the runway onto the grass just as it touched down.
Three months later Great Orton was host to Tactical Exercise Unit no 4. In practicethe airfield served as a holding unit keeping frustrated pilots up to scratch while they waited to move to operational units. This happened toIan’s dad, who had earned his wings and was desperate to do some real flying.
Great Orton saw Typhoons, Wellingtons, Whitley Bombers, Avro Lancasters and Halifaxes over the years before it was closed on 31st July, 1946. It was finally released to civilian use in August, 1952. The airfield came to “an ignominious end”. First there were windmills and then the carcases from the foot and mouth epidemic were buried on the site. Today it is a nature reserve and “only our feathered friends fly from there”.
Despite the sheer weight of facts – the book must be somewhere near a million words – this book retains a sense of the personality of the author, who always has time for the human detail. Above everything, The RAF in Cumbria, 1939-1946 should prove an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the aviation history of Cumbria during the Second World War.