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.
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
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.
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
time the young female aviator, Amy Johnson, had just completed her solo flight
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
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
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
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
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.
only be a few months later that war with
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
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
stationed at Ratcliffe, J. E. Martens, for example, moved 261
at Ratcliffe could be extremely harsh, but apparently as long as 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
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
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.
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
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.
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
survived the risk of a direct accident for 20 years, perhaps it is
understandable that it was
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.
Written by Steve Clark (Old Ratcliffian 1974 – 79 )
(The Story of the Air Transport Auxiliary) by E.C. Cheeseman.
The Forgotten Pilots by Lettice Curtis.
(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: