RAF Linton-on-Ouse 1973
Linton has history, it was major station for Bomber Command during the Second World War and played a significant role in the bloodiest chapters of the bomber offensive against the German cities. As an operational bomber crew member your odds of living through a tour of operations (thirty trips) were at one stage short to non existent. There was no way to predict who would make it and who wouldn’t, the reaper was remarkably even handed when it came to experience and ‘time in’. Some crews, very few admittedly, did several tours. Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, a truly remarkable man completed four.
But the truth was that this trip was a return, a return to a crucible from their earlier lives. Our rain swept, sun blessed corner of Yorkshire was the last place on earth they had stood before climbing aboard their Lancasters to join the bomber streams from all over the southern UK to set course for Germany. A return to this atmospheric and hugely important place in their collective lives was long overdue for most of them.
The coaches were evident across the afternoon during our working day, picking their way around the station slowly, the figures inside pointing or gesturing where some feature or moment returned to cause focus or hilarity. They seemed to be doing a lot of laughing, their wives didn’t look bored, the jokes and the joy of active participants made its way through the windows. Perhaps as a squadron association they had remained close across the years even though they must have come from across the UK and Canada?
The day was coming to a close when they rolled up to the control tower. The flying program had ceased, the flight line clear of aircraft except for one remaining Jet Provost standing alone with a starter crew preparing it for flight. The sun was beginning to make its way towards the horizon lengthening the shadows and removing the last vestiges of heat from the day. The veterans climbed from their coaches and were shown towards stadium style seating that had been erected in front of the tower to provide a grandstand view of the airfield and the airspace above it. As they seated Wing Commander Flying stood before them describing what was the final show of the day, an aerobatic display by Flt Lt John Cheyne, the school’s display pilot.
The peace was disturbed by the whine of a starter motor and the crackle of high energy igniters as the JP cranked then lit with a whump. Post start checks gave way to chocks being waved away and the little jet taxied past the small assembled crowd.
The sky was clear though streaked with high level cloud lit orange by now by the setting sun. The orb itself was obscured which would have made Johns display just that little bit easier to execute. He lifted of with a muted roar, half the crowd waved him away as he climbed to altitude.
The display was a great success, the maneuvers crisply executed and imaginatively linked to engage the crowd. After around fifteen minutes John concluded his display with a low pass and break into the circuit to land. The crowd were delighted and returned John’s salute again as he taxied past us with the canopy open. He quickly vanished between the hangers, the wail of the Viper gas turbine diminished to a dying whine then ceased.
As silence returned to the airfield and the wives started to shuffle expectantly and gather their belongings. The station commander stood to face the audience; politely they became silent. “Ladies and gentlemen, I wonder if I could ask you to remain seated for just a short while. We have a final item this evening which may take a few minutes to bring before you.” Without further comment he returned to his seat.
By now the airfield had become utterly silent, not even a bird sang as the sun lowered itself toward the horizon; station personnel had started to collect in the vicinity of the hangers well out of sight of our Canadians. Silence.
From a distance a starter motor whined and a prop turned – with it the moved the head of every man on the stadium seating toward the source. It was a sound engrained across the heart and soul of each grey haired visitor. The large motor at the urging of its starter burst into life blowing a cloud of blue exhaust smoke from behind the furthermost hanger. With one running another whine, another billowing cloud, then another until forty eight cylinders played a steady, perfect symphony. The steady low throaty rumble echoed around every hangar space and building on the base. As the smoke cleared the roar subsided before chocks were removed, the aircraft was still invisible to the crowd but every man there knew what she was. The power and that beautiful noise rose again, with a gentle squeal and squeak of brakes first the glinting bomb aimers cupola, then the brown, green and black bulk of an Avro Lancaster nosed into view.
The effect was immediate among the assembled Lancaster crews as the years slipped away. Most became animated, others hardly moved. All were clearly deeply affected by what they were witnessing. Their wives and family remained stock still.
The Lancaster moved clear of the hanger behind which it been parked overnight. With her four spinning propellor arcs reflecting the evening light she moved across the taxiway towards us in front of the tower, the volume and proximity of the huge beast become more evident with every passing yard she travelled until she came to a halt thirty feet in front of us on the apron.
Each gun turret and every operational station as I recall seemed to be manned by a crew-member swaddled in flying clothing. The skipper set the parking brake, checked around the vicinity of the bomber then increased power on the port engines to carry out his power and magneto check on each engine. As each magento was checked in turn the heterodyne effect played harmonies for our ears.
The powerful rumble of those motors resonated in every chest cavity, that wonderful wall of sound exhilarated me, what it must have done for our Canadians I will never know.
The roar died back to a characteristic Rolls Royce Merlin crackling, burbling rumble as the port engines were brought back to idle then the same ritual was performed on the starboard side. Never in history was an engine better named. By now emotions were running, the wives blocked their ears to the noise looking to their men for reassurance. They looked in vain – they were lost in another time.
I can still see the crew working their way through their checks seemingly oblivious to the audience off their port wing at around thirty yards. They knew. The moment arrived, with brakes released the Lanc’ started to edge forward slowly at idle. The skipper turned, looked towards the crowd, gave a sort of half wave, half salute and taxied onto the runway.
Tradition had it within Bomber Command that station personnel would group up next to the takeoff point and wave the boys on their way. It generated a human connection, a strong bond between those that flew and those that awaiting their return.
When that Lancaster started its takeoff roll everyone present stood up and waved it into the air The crescendo of sound at takeoff power was deafening. As the bomber’s tail rose she accelerated further, unstuck and climbed swiftly into he evening sky.
There was not a dry eye on the airfield and by the she had finished ringing the walls of hangers and buildings with her unique historic sound, many had gone very quiet. The final flyby in landing configuration was slow and sedate, it finished with her climbing away, turning whilst raising her gear and flaps then heading towards the setting sun.
It was a while before anyone moved, the Lanc had dissapeared and with it some of the magic she brought with her but he atmosphere remained highly charged. The Station Commander stood up and seemed to be a little lost for words. In the end he found the only ones that would do, he kept it simple, he said, “Thank you”.
The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight had pre positioned the Lancaster earlier in the day but had done so without ceremony. The photographs here are collated from internet sources, the BBMF Lancaster was the aircraft depicted in the story which happened exactly as I describe it (well, as accurately as I can recall it). I later had a similar but more personal experience with a DC6 on the island of Malta. What is it about the sound of large piston engines that makes the blood flow as it does?
405 Squadron only spent a couple of months at Linton during the war, I believe they spent more time at Leeming just down the road. That might have been part of the subterfuge, they may well have come across the lancaster during their travels had they brought the show to them at their ‘main’ base.