Header image: A Handley Page Hampden of 106 Sqn at RAF Coningsby in 1941.
Eighty years ago, RAF Coningsby, the current home of the RAF Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF), sent out the first aircraft to fly from the new airfield on operations.
Construction work on the new airfield at Coningsby had started in late 1937 during the second phase of the RAF’s expansion in Lincolnshire, but it was not until the 7th January 1941 that RAF Coningsby officially opened. On the 23rd February 1941 the Handley Page Hampden bombers of 106 Squadron arrived from Finningley and Coningsby’s 80-year history as a flying base began.
On the night of the 1st/2nd of March eight Hampdens from 106 Squadron were detailed to take part in the first operation from Coningsby, a raid on Cologne. Only five aircraft got airborne, with two having engine trouble and the other becoming bogged down prior to take off on what was then a grass airfield without a hardened runway. All five 106 Squadron Hampdens reached Cologne, with four aircraft dropping their bombs; the fifth, piloted by Sgt Howard, brought its bomb load back because an electrical fault prevented the bombs from being dropped.
The second operation from Coningsby was conducted on the following night, 3/4th March 1941, with the target again being Cologne. This Bomber Command raid consisted of 71 Hampdens, Wellingtons and Whitley’s with nine Hampdens of 106 Squadron flying from Coningsby. They departed Coningsby around 20.00 hours, and arrived in the target area to find large amounts of cloud with gaps, but generally fair conditions, which allowed them to gain glimpses of the city. Bombing took place from between 10,000 and 12,000 feet in the face of considerable searchlight activity, but little ‘flak’, and returning crews reported a positive outcome. In fact, only a few locations in the western fringes of the city had been hit. One of the 106 Squadron Hampdens that took part in the raid that night failed to return. Hampden X3002, crewed by Sgt Ken Good, Sgt Bert Ward, Sgt Dave Crouch and Sgt Vic Essex, crashed near Ardres, in the Antwerp region of Belgium, with the deaths of all four of the crew. The aircraft is believed to have been shot down by a heavy ‘flak’ battery. This was the only aircraft to be lost that night, the first aircraft and crew that failed to return to Coningsby from operations, the first operational loss by 106 Squadron and just one example of the multitude of sacrifices made by the crews of Bomber Command during the war.
By the end of the first month of operations from RAF Coningsby in 1941, a total of eight missions had been carried out by 106 Squadron. There were to be very many more flown from the airfield and today the base’s Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s fly operational Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) missions and its pilots are deployed to Cyprus for operations against Daesh over Syria and Iraq on Operation Shader.
The BBMF moved to RAF Coningsby from Coltishall 45 years ago this month, in March 1976.