Sunday, 1 March 2020

South Carlton Airfield (1918)


A few years ago, out of the blue, I was sent a briefcase marked with my Grandfather's initials which contained two photo albums and various other personal items. I'd heard stories that my Grandfather, Phillip Francis Saunders, had enlisted in the RAF in 1918 and had completed his training just as the war ended. I remember Frank (as he was known) saying; "just my luck, the war ended after I'd completed my training but before I'd had a chance to get involved". It was a genuine thrill, therefore, to discover that one of the albums contained numerous photographs documenting Frank's time spent training at RAF South Carlton in Lincolnshire.

Frank Saunders - RAF
Frank had joined the Army (Royal Flying Corps) at 16 years of age on 11 November 1918 for 'Boy Service'. He joined the RAF when it was formed on 1 April 1918 and trained as an observer at No. 46 Training Depot Station - RAF South Carlton. 

South Carlton airfield was built from scratch and became operational, along with Scampton, Harlaxton, Waddington and Spitalgate, in November 1916. By March 1918 the airfield had the population of a small town. It was home to the 23rd Training Wing under the command of the highly decorated war hero, Lt Col Louis Strange (whose memoirs were later published under the title Recollections of an Airman). 39, 45 and 61 Training Squadrons trained men from Britain, Canada, America and even Russia.


'Prang' at South Carlton - Copyright Applies

My Grandfather's album is full of pictures of crashed aircraft at South Carlton - Avro 504s, 503s, Sopwith Pups, Sopwith Camels, Nieuport 20s, 'Shorthorns', Airco DH6s, BE2s and RE8s. Crashes seem to have been a regular occurrence and in his memoirs Col Strange gives some remarkable statistics:
Work in a Training Wing was no joke. The write-off of one machine for every 140 flying hours meant the loss of something between thirty and forty machines a month, in addition to some thirty or forty minor crashes. In May of 1918 for instance, we had sixteen fatal casualties in 23rd Wing.


Main Hangers - South Wingfield - 1918 - Copyright Applies

The Same View - Feb 2020

The aerodrome at South Carlton consisted of a grass runway / landing zone, four large hangers (see picture above) and three brick built hangers / workshops (one of which remains). In addition there were numerous wooden barracks (one of which is pictured in the air crash picture above), various functional buildings and a cinema. The cinema is still standing albeit with a collapsed roof. One can see the projection room on the side facing the main farm access road (see picture below).

RAF South Carlton - Camp Cinema

The owner of Cliff Farm, which has been in the same family for a couple of generations, remembers seeing the big screen on the wall and spent many childhood hours exploring the nearby bottle dump. In the bottom picture, the hardstanding for Hanger No. 4 is marked by the trees and shrubs. The other three are long gone in order to make way for productive agricultural use. The  concrete base for No. 4. remains because the farmer's wife at the time (late 1970s), having felt the farmhouse windows rattle when the base of No. 3 was blown up, called a halt to the demolitions!

Remaining Hanger / Workshop - Used For Agriculture

Three buildings and one other structure remain on site - aside from the numerous First World War hardstandings. The remaining hanger, the cinema and what looks like an old engine house. There is part of a fourth structure which has been incorporated into a modern farm building. (The owner of the land is sympathetic to the history of the site and I'm grateful for his warm welcome on a wet cold day last week!).

South Carlton - From the Air - 1918

Cliff Farm - From the Air - 1976

The four main hangers can be seen in the top 1918 photograph. The cinema is in the bottom left corner adjacent to the accommodation area. In the bottom picture the concrete bases of Hanger Nos. 3 & 4 can be seen. The remaining brick built hanger / workshop is in the top right corner.

South Carlton Church
The airfield closed in 1920 and the land, over the ensuing years, has been restored to agricultural use. After the RAF had left the area, the local vicar, the Rev'd Wardale-Hall (1917-1926) carved the pulpit in memory of those who served at South Carlton.

Nowadays there is an RFC badge presented as the fall on the church lectern. Behind the pulpit is a display - dating from 1990 - giving the history of the airfield. A brass plaque on the front of the pulpit reads Praise God for the brave men of South Carlton Aerodrome who gave their lives in our defence.

The Pulpit at South Carlton Church, Lincolnshire

The dead from South Carlton are, I think, interred in Newport Cemetery, Lincoln (sadly, I timed out and the cemetery was closed by the time I got there).

My Grandfather was extremely disappointed not to have seen action in the First World War. However, his time with men from 'the colonies' had wakened a renewed sense of adventure. At the end of hostilities he emigrated - temporarily - to Canada where he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police before absconding on a weekend pass and travelling across to British Columbia where he set up a chimney sweeping business. He eventually returned to these shores with a wealth of valuable life experience.

South Carlton - Frank Saunders - Top Right - Copyright Applies

The picture above was, I think, taken at the end of the war. My grandfather seems a lonely figure sitting on the bonnet of the vehicle on the right hand side. Within weeks he would set off for a thrilling working trip through Canada and Washington State in the USA. He wrote to the War Office from his room at the Imperial Hotel in Calgary asking for his medals to be forwarded. Sadly, they were not forthcoming. Luckily for his heirs, the war had ended before he was able to get involved.

Note: All photographs except the water colour of South Carlton Church and the two aerial shots are Copyright Phil Curme.

For more information including access to the full South Carlton photo portfolio use the contact form on my home page.

Please note that Cliff Farm is private property and permission should be sought from the landowner for access.