Below is an article that I researched and submitted to the Ratcliffian, which is the Old Boys Association Magazine for Ratcliffe College.

 

 

The History and Aviation Heritage of Ratcliffe Aerodrome 1930-1950.

 

There can be little doubt that aviation was one of the most dramatic developments during the twentieth century. The effect on the lives of every citizen in the world has been profound. On a global scale, its rampant development particularly during wartime has changed the course of history effecting every nation. In today’s world, the lives of individuals as diverse as the poorest refugee or the richest billionaire are dependant on aircraft for the global transportation of freight and passengers in timescales of hours, rather than months as in the previous ship dependant era.

 

Thus, it might not seem surprising, that aviation has become a highly documented topic. People are just as fascinated today with the mystery of flight as were the crowds who witnessed the first aerial exhibitions of pioneers and cheered at the first great achievements of crossing the Channel or flying across the Atlantic. Films, television documentaries and a flood of books and magazines all testify to our interest in aviation, no better illustrated than by the millions who flock to airshows each year. Particularly popular are commemorations and anniversaries of important and historic events such as the Wright Brothers’ 100th  Anniversary or the last flight of Concorde.

 

It is, therefore, very apt that a vibrant and historic aviation legacy that has lay dormant for over fifty years amongst the dilapidated farm buildings and windswept fields that stretch north along the Fosse Way between Ratcliffe College and the neighbouring golf course, should be finally released to the honour and memory of those who created our aerodrome’s legacy and to the benefit of future generations who it may inspire.

 

Central to everything is William Lindsay Everard, as there would be no story to tell without this dynamic philanthropist.

The Everard family ran a successful Leicestershire Brewery and Sir Lindsay, who lived at Ratcliffe Hall opposite the school was the MP for Melton Mowbray. In addition he also held many committee positions such as President of the Leicestershire Aero Club.

Although he, himself, never became a pilot, he was very passionate about the need for aviation development for the benefit of the country and in 1930 he began the construction of his own aerodrome on the lands he owned directly to the north of Ratclfiffe College. Work was completed during the summer months and a grand opening Air Pageant was planned for 6th September 1930 complete with a flying celebrity to officially open the aerodrome.

 

At that time the young female aviator, Amy Johnson, had just completed her solo flight from Britain to Australia, as such she had created a great media sensation and was in great demand to be feted and host events. As such the Daily Mail had presented her with a prize of £10000 for her achievement in return for a nationwide publicity tour. Unfortunately, the strain of events resulted in Amy having to cancel all her engagements on doctor’s advice on the 4th September and so it seemed Sir Lindsay would lose his “star attraction”. 

Sir Lindsay managed to find a last minute stand-in in the form of the Director of Civil Aviation who was Sir Sefton Brancker, but possibly due to Sir Lindsay’s persuasive personality, Amy Johnson flew up from London to Ratcliffe with Sir Sefton in his own aircraft on the day. Thus although, Amy was only there in an “unofficial” capacity, there can be no doubt who the real star of the show was, as depicted in The Leicester Mercury coverage of the event showing Amy riding with Sir Lindsay in an open top car among  5000 cheering spectators. Indeed the day was not without its other excitements including air races, formation displays and even a demonstration of air power in which 3 RAF aircraft “bombed” Chinese pirates with their dummy ship exploding suitably for the occasion. However, the finale was not the end of the excitement, as one of the 100 aircraft attending the Pageant crashed on take off  narrowly missing departing spectators’ cars leaving through the aerodrome gate. Fortunately no one was killed, although the wife of the pilot who was the passenger on board was freed from the wreckage and taken to hospital.

 

Looking back now, it must have been quite a sight for pupils at Ratcliffe to have witnessed the thousands of cheering spectators running across the airfield to surround the bright yellow Puss Moth aircraft landing with Amy and Sir Sefton aboard, but although the Pageant was a success, tragedy was to follow.  In less than 4 weeks, Sir Sefton, who had officially opened the aerodrome, was killed on the inaugural flight of the R101 airship to India when it crashed in Northern France killing 48 people. All British airship development was cancelled after this disaster.

 

However, Ratcliffe aerodrome was then to settle down to what was probably its golden years up to the start of the Second World War. During this decade Sir Lindsay developed the aerodrome into one of the finest civil aerodromes in the country. The club house facilities were extremely hospitable including an open air swimming pool (still there today). First class maintenance hangars were built to accommodate the full time engineer who looked after Sir Lindsay’s various aircraft. Sir Lindsay also employed a series personal pilots including another famous aviatrix named Winifred Spooner. His pilot would fly him around Europe both on business trips and on his entry into other flying competitions such as the Oasis Trophy in Cairo, which he won in his beautiful twin engine Dragon aircraft.

 

Fetes and displays continued at Ratcliffe aerodrome during the inter-war years and the Ratcliffian records occasion of the boys from the school being taken up for flights in Sir Lindsay’s aircraft, even by Amy Johnson on her later visits up to Ratcliffe. It also records Sir Lindsay’s admiration at the high standard of aeronautical knowledge displayed by the pupils during their visits, however, this is not surprising as boarding on the boundary of one of the finest aerodromes in Britain must have been a schoolboys’ dream for many of the pupils, although maybe not for the clergy and parents.

Some of the galas were most unusual for the time, such as the night time displays utilising the aerodrome’s floodlight equipment and especially the high power mobile searchlight mounted on the chassis of an old Rolls Royce of Sir Lindsay.  Other fetes were of a truly international nature, such as the Weekend Aerien in 1936 and the Federation Aeronautique Internationale visit the following year. These occasions would be hosted in style with a large marquee and a garden party atmosphere, often a display from an overseas aircraft and pilot would be enjoyed. Strange to realise that an aircraft with a swastika on the tail was flying over Ratcliffe as a welcome guest many years before others would return “uninvited”!

 

It is a fine example of the aviation spirit of this time that a man running a textile machinery business in Thurmaston should suddenly decide to start producing aircraft! However, the growing aviation interest at the time had included the formation of the County Flying Club around the Leicester area. Again Sir Lindsay being the man he was, initially let the club use Ratcliffe aerodrome until they could set up a nearby airfield in Rearsby in 1938 on land owned by Sir Lindsay. The club purchased a Taylorcraft aircraft from the USA and this aircraft very much impressed a club member named A.L. Wykes, who was previously a pilot in World War I.

In fact, he was impressed enough to arrange with the American parent company to build the aircraft under licence in his textile machinery works. The prototype differed from the American version in some respects due to the British aircraft regulations and was called a Taylorcraft Plus Model C. This was taken by road from the works to Ratcliffe aerodrome for final assembly and the historic maiden flight of the aircraft that was to become the Auster aircraft took place at Ratcliffe on 3rd May 1939.

It would only be a few months later that war with Germany would overtake the destiny of both the Taylorcraft and Ratcliffe aerodrome itself. Most relevantly upon the outbreak of war, all civil flying in Britain was curtailed. As Britain moved onto a wartime footing, the Taylorcraft design was now evolved to suit a military requirement for an unarmed light aircraft flown by Artillery Officers to act as an Air Observation Post (AOP) aircraft.  In line with the fashion for naming military aircraft along windy lines such as Hurricane, Typhoon, Tempest etc. the Taylorcraft became “the Auster” which was a warm south westerly wind in Roman times. Although, all the initial Taylorcraft had been first flown at Ratcliffe, production and flying was now moved to Rearsby a few miles away as Ratcliffe itself was to be given its own role to fulfil.

 

This role was born out of the need to ferry newly produced aircraft away from the factories as soon as they were ready. This task had initially been done by Service pilots. However, the need for operational pilots to be in the front line led to the formation of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) which utilised the flying skills of pilots not fit for RAF service due to their age or some condition precluding combat duties. With the creation of this organisation a logistical need for ATA ferry airfields spread strategically across the country arose. With Ratcliffe’s central location and excellent facilities it became an obvious choice and the ATA pipped the RAF to the post to gain the agreement of Sir Lindsay for its use. Thus Ratcliffe started a new career as No 6 Ferry Pool for the ATA; part of a network of around 14 ATA Ferry pools stretching from Hamble in the South to Lossiemouth in the far North, with White Waltham as the Head Quarters to the west of London.

 

 

 

Sir Lindsay in his inimitable style had thrown open the doors of his own large home at Ratcliffe Hall to accommodate many of the pilots stationed at Ratcliffe during the war, others were billeted in the local area.  The ATA at Ratcliffe later became a “mixed” pool consisting of both male and female pilots. Many of the pilots were also from abroad, including many American volunteer pilots, all providing a varied backdrop to tasks in hand. Apparently, the Ratcliffe Ferry Pool always retained a friendly atmosphere that it inherited from its previous club existence, but the workload was considerable as the pilots moved thousands of aircraft from the industrious Midland production lines. Bombers from Coventry, transports from Anstey and a flood of Spitfires from Castle Bromwich, which was the main source of work. In the meantime, the local Auster works was also specialising in repairing Tiger Moths, Hurricanes and later Typhoons all covered by the ferry pilots at Ratcliffe.

 

 

One pilot stationed at Ratcliffe, J. E. Martens, for example, moved 261 Lancasters, 148 Wellingtons and 315 Spitfires among the 1797 ferry flights he completed during the war. Another pilot, Commander Francis, who became one of Ratcliffe’s Commanding Officers, managed to deliver a Stirling, a Liberator, a Mosquito, a Spitfire and a Sunderland flying boat, all on the same day! This in itself is an incredible feat, not least due to the problems of flying aircraft with vastly different systems, engines and procedures. To address this a superb aide-memoir was devised which listed the vital handling details and checks for over 80 aircraft types condensed into a small flip card format. These ATA Ferry Pilots notes were often the only guide to ferrying an aircraft never flown by the pilot before. That the ATA delivered over 300000 aircraft during the war with such low accident rates is a testament to the abilities of the pilots, not least because the aircraft from the factories were usually bare without radios or navigation aids.

 

The weather at Ratcliffe could be extremely harsh, but apparently as long as the tower of Ratcliffe College could be seen the 200 yards away from the Watch Tower, it was deemed safe to take off, whereupon the aircraft would try to follow the Fosse towards better conditions.

 

 

The aerodrome was not without its mishaps, however, and accidents did occur and lives were lost. It  must have been a worry to the school that a potential crash might also cause a catastrophic loss of life among the pupils given the close proximity to the school and also the potential for the airfield to be a target for the Luftwaffe. An account from Old Boy Basil d’Oliveira recalls how during the standing for the school photograph in 1941, they were treated to a wonderful low flying display by Old Ratcliffian George Saddington who was later on killed in the war. He also recalls how a Hampden bomber overshot the runway in October 1941 and ended up in a blazing heap on the Fosse, fortunately no-one was killed. Basil ran the aeroplane spotter club and could see many of the flights into the aerodrome from the school tower. He estimates that some nights there were over 50 aircraft spread out around the aerodrome perimeter and remembers having to sleep in the gas tank shelters the night that Coventry was blitzed and also mines being dropped at Thrussington as well as other air raids when pupils slept on mattresses in the corridors. On a lighter note, he can also recall that a Handley Page Harrow was placed between the rugby pitch and the aerodrome boundary to be broken up since it was no longer airworthy, he believes every boy in the school at that time possessed a piece of that aircraft.

 

 

It was also in 1941 that Amy Johnson died, although not stationed at Ratcliffe, she had joined the ATA and was ferrying an aircraft in bad weather from Blackpool down to Oxford. She was caught above cloud and eventually parachuted from her aircraft, coming down into the Thames estuary.

Her descent was seen by a Royal Navy ship patrolling close by. Although they got close to her, the sea was too rough for her to grasp the ropes and swept her away, the Captain ran aft and dived into the sea to reach her and although the crew could see him supporting her, they could not reach them. The body of Lt-Cdr Fletcher was found later, but Amy’s body was never recovered. Thus Amy Johnson became one of over 170 ATA personnel to lose their lives whilst serving in the ATA.

 

 

As the war progressed, the buildings surrounding the white clubhouse grew as more facilities were added on as Ratcliffe’s workload steadily increased. At one point the production of Spitfires the Castle Bromwich plant reached an incredible 320 aircraft per month.

Ratcliffe’s central position made it an ideal staging post and the aerodrome is credited with having received every different type of RAF aircraft that it operated at some time during the war. It even became responsible for the ferrying of Sunderland flying boats from Rochester and so strangely had a group of Sea cadets stationed at Ratcliffe to assist with the mooring duties. Overall it is estimated that around 50000 ferry flights were carried out from the aerodrome. With the end of the war, the ATA was disbanded, but not until there had been grand display to mark the occasion at Ratcliffe. This occurred on 6th October 1945 and included many different types on show and a flying display by the famous Geoffrey de Havilland in a DH Vampire and also a Spitfire flown by Alex Henshaw who had been chief test pilot at Castle Bromwich. By all accounts it was quite a day.

 

As the post war austerity began to ease in 1947, Sir Lindsay again stepped in to help aviators in need, this time the homeless Leicester Aero Club, which was looking for a new home to reform. Once again Ratcliffe aerodrome reverberated to the sound of aircraft engines and once again spectators flocked to see an annual display with a crowd of approximately 10000 people at the aerodrome in May 1949.

However, this month also marked the passing of the aerodrome’s great patron and with the death of Sir Lindsay, the aerodrome land was soon put up for sale. The end of the aerodrome was marked by a 16 aircraft flight around the local area and a party on 25th March 1950.

 

Having survived the risk of a direct accident for 20 years, perhaps it is understandable that it was Ratcliffe College itself that bought the aerodrome and closed it and turned it back to farming use.

Certainly comments in the Ratcliffian at the time refer to the risk posed by training aircraft in the hands of inexperienced pilots, however the Ratcliffian also looked forward to the increased area available for school playing fields. So, although, the motives to close the aerodrome were genuine and sincere, one cannot help wondering whether a slight inner guilt has caused the school to stay very low key about the historic role and wonderful heritage that it had brought to an end. Certainly in my 5 years as a pupil in the 1970s, no details were made forthcoming, and all I had was my own curiosity for the hangar buildings, where we pulled out our CCF Primary Glider on RAF cadet training afternoons. It was called the old airfield, but with the planting of the crops, I could never tell where landing areas lay or find out the history.

 

Now, many years later, having listened to stories of some of the people involved, such as Peter George and Ann Wood-Kelly, who were both Ratcliffe ATA pilots and also having seen how proud the local people who worked at Auster factory were of their achievements such as the 3000 aircraft they produced, it is time to re-address a balance.  Time to give credit to the vision and forethought of Sir Lindsay Everard who set these events in motion and to be proud of our connection with Amy Johnson. Time to admire the skill and adaptability of a local community who with no prior experience became the country’s largest producer of light aeroplanes and finally to honour the courage and determination of a largely forgotten group of ATA pilots whose dedication and flying skill played an important role in the vital output of wartime aircraft.

Ratcliffe College as a school has a lot to be proud of and commemorating this heritage will hopefully inspire the young people that it can also be proud of in the future.

 

 

Written by Steve Clark (Old Ratcliffian 1974 – 79 )

 

 

References:

 

Brief Glory

(The Story of the Air Transport Auxiliary)  by E.C. Cheeseman.

 

The Forgotten Pilots                                    by Lettice Curtis.

 

Aviation in Leicestershire and Rutland        by Roy Bonser.

 

Austers

(Nearly all you wanted to know)                  by  The Intl Auster Club Heritage Group.

 

Leicester Mercury Archives.      (Many Thanks to Peter Stoddart)

 

 

Click on the links below to find out more about the ATA and the Auster:

 

 

Link to an ATA History website

 

 

Link to the Auster Club website

 

 

Link to Maidenhead Heritage website. The Heritage Centre has become a good resourse for information and exhibits on the ATA due to its proximity to the former ATA HQ at White Waltham.

 

 

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