Crew standing by the rear turret of their Lancaster Bomber in 1942. Pic: Paul Wright
Hemswell was a former WWI aerodrome. Originally called Harpswell, the site was revisited during the Expansion Period when it was surveyed as a potential airfield site by the Air Ministry Works Directorate.
Hemswell was officially opened 31 December 1936 within 5 Group. It was a typical Expansion Period airfield, with permanent technical and living structures overseen by four imposing ‘C’ Type hangars. The airfield was initially grass-surfaced.
On 9 February 1937, 144 Squadron arrived with Anson and Audax aircraft and on 8 March 1937, 61 Squadron reformed at the airfield Both units re-equipped with Hampdens in February and March 1939 respectively. Both squadrons left Hemswell on 17 July 1941 for North Luffenham, Rutland, 61 Squadron having converted to the Manchester aircraft one month before.
Hemswell transferred to 1 Group and two Polish units 300 (Mazowiecki) Squadron and 301 (Pomorski) Squadron arrived on 18 July 1941 from Swinderby, Nottinghamshire, equipped with Wellington bombers. On 18 May 1942, 300 Squadron moved to Ingham, returning on 31 January 1943. A further Polish unit, 305 (Weilkopolski) Squadron arrived at Hemswell on 22 June 1943 when Hemswell was closed to flying to allow for the construction of hard runways.
The Class ‘A’ standard station reopened in January 1944. It had three intersecting runways built to the standard length of 2,000 yards for the main strip and above-standard 1,700 yards for the two subsidiaries.
Upon reopening, 1 Lancaster Finishing School (LFS) arrived from Lindholme, South Yorkshire. The LFS ran a familiarisation course between crews completing their time at HCUs (Heavy Conversion Unit) and being posted to operational squadrons.
The LSF disbanded in November 1944, when Hemswell then returned to operational duty with the arrival of 150 Squadron and 170 Squadron on the 22nd and 29th November respectively.
The two Lancaster squadrons remained at Hemswell until the end of the war disbanding in November 1945.
Hemswell memorial. (Pic: Phil Bonner).
Hemswell was retained by the RAF and saw almost continuous use until 1966. Today, the location is still very much recognisable as an airfield as much of the infrastructure remains, including three of the four ‘C’ Type hangars (one being destroyed by fire in 2009). Much of the site is now used by a variety of small businesses and antique shops.
Map: Hemswell – Harpswell