Tuesday, 29 July 2014

RAF Morpeth (NZ173821)

If you’re a car boot sale enthusiast you may well know about this little bit of wartime history. For three miles SW of Morpeth, near the village of Tranwell, lie the fading remains of a short-lived World War II airfield once known as RAF Morpeth – aka Tranwell Airfield.

It existed for a few short years in the 1940s, but has now lain fallow for more than sixty years. Constructed from 1941, it was opened the following year as ‘No.4 Air Gunnery School’, and was handed a collection of ungainly Blackburn Bothas for the purposes of training up student airmen – with around 4,000 young men passing through its gates during WWII.

The Botha was essentially a failed torpedo bomber, relegated to a training role early in the war. Other, more reliable, aircraft were to be found at Tranwell, but it was the Botha which was to be most infamously linked to the site – and which was to account for several fatalities during the base’s short life.

Essentially, the Bothas were heavy and underpowered – and the airstrips at Tranwell were only just long enough to take them. Several incidents in a few short months were punctuated by two especially notable accidents – the first occurred in November 1942 when two planes collided on the same runway, resulting in one death. Then in March 1943 two Bothas collided over the base, killing ten young airmen (average age 20) – five of whom were from The Netherlands. All are buried at St.Mary’s Church, Morpeth. With its appalling safety record the Bothas were eventually replaced by Avro Ansons in July 1943.

In time, demand for air gunners dimished and RAF Morpeth/Tranwell was closed in December 1944 – the substantial numbers of staff being reassigned elsewhere. A few months later the site reopened as No.80 Operational Training Unit, pairing Free French pilots with the famous Spitfire – though this only lasted three months before the base became a Maintenance Unit. Activity diminished thereafter before it was closed for good in 1948. Many of the overseas men who spent time at Tranwell – including a large Polish contingent – settled in the region after the war.

A few relics remain, including an underground control room, but the site is today a car boor sale haven. Proposals to reactivate the airfield and/or create a museum there in recent years have come to nought.

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