During the First World War 1914-1918, the Germans flew their Zeppelin airships across the North Sea to attack targets in England. Among the targets were the steel works at Sheffield and Rotherham, and the Zeppelin airships crossed Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire at night on their way to, and returning from, their bombing raids. Sometimes the bombs were dropped on Retford, Doncaster or Grimsby, and often in open fields in the countryside.
Although there were searchlights and anti-aircraft guns in place along the east coast, the Zeppelins were able to fly higher than the guns could reach with their shells, and so the War Department decided to move Squadrons of fighter aircraft to new locations in the east of England, in the hope that they would be able to shoot down some of these night-time raiders.
The Squadron detailed to protect South Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire was No 33 (Home Defence) Squadron, and it was decided that the Squadron Headquarters should be at Gainsborough, ‘A’ Flight at Brattleby (later RAF Scampton), ‘B’ Flight at Manton (north of Kirton-in-Lindsey), and ‘C’ Flight at Elsham (later RAF Elsham Wolds). Army officers and soldiers from the Royal Flying Corps moved into the area. The Squadron Headquarters was established in a large detached house called ‘The Lawn’ on Summer Hill in Gainsborough overlooking the town and the river.
The grounds of ‘The Lawn’ were filled with wooden huts, which were used to accommodate the Clerks, Cooks, Drivers and other Headquarter’s staff. The Officer’s Mess was also at ‘The Lawn’. Once the landing grounds were prepared the Squadron flew in on Christmas Eve, 1916. One of the aircraft crashed on landing, killing a 23 year old Canadian, Lieutenant John Brophy; the first of several fatalities during the Squadron’s stay in the Gainsborough area.
The Commanding Officer of 33 Squadron was 21 year old Major Arthur Thomson, RFC, rather young to be in command of a fighter squadron, indeed many of his pilots were older than he was. However, Major Thomson was an officer who always had an aeroplane on the Squadron’s airfield at Saundby every night, and if a Zeppelin airship alert was received he was able to take off to fly to whichever of his 3 Flights had been scrambled to try and find the German airships.
33 Squadron’s Aerodrome or ‘Landing Ground’ for Gainsborough was in the Parish of Saundby on the Nottinghamshire side of the River Trent. The War Department took over some large flat fields which were owned by a Gainsborough butcher, a Mr Layne, and set up wooden huts and hangers around the edge of them. The location of this aerodrome was on the south side of the Old Flood Road, or Ramper Road, the A631 road, and went from the small humped backed bridge (Eight Arches) up to the Great Northern Railway that ran through Beckingham.
The Squadron Headquarters Landing Ground was used for servicing and repairs to aircraft, rather than a front-line fighter base, although patrols were flown if an aircraft was available at night when Zeppelin activity was reported.
The ground staff soldiers, or ‘Air Mechanics’ as they were called in the Royal Flying Corps (there was no separate Royal Air Force until April 1918) lived in the Gainsborough Workhouse on Lea Road, where the Aldi Supermarket is today.
They must have passed to and fro over the Trent Bridge on their way to carry out their duties at the airfield, both by day and night. The Officers (Aircrew, Pilots and Observer/Gunners) lived at the Squadron Headquarters on Summer Hill, rather remote from the airfield.
The aircraft flown by 33 Squadron were mostly the FE2 type. FE stood for Fighter Experimental, and these aircraft were certainly of a very unusual design. At the front of the aircraft was the Gunner, exposed to the elements like the figurehead of an old ship. Behind the Gunner sat the Pilot; behind him was the engine; and at the rear of the engine was the propeller, enclosed in a skeleton-type framework, with the tail and rudder at the back.
Although the FE2 was an odd looking aircraft it seemed to fly well and equipped several fighter squadrons at that time. Provided that the target was in front of the aircraft, the Gunner had a good field of fire.
Because the prevailing wind across England was from southwest to northeast, the aircraft of 33 Squadron would have taken off over the railway line and village of Saundby, and come into land over Gainsborough and the river.
On the evening of 20th October 1917 a report was received at 33 Squadron Headquarters that Zeppelins had been heard flying inland over the Lincolnshire coast, and two aircraft took off from the Saundby airfield to try to intercept them. One of the aircraft crashed as it was taking off, killing 2nd Lt. Herbert Solomon, who was the Pilot, although the other crew member survived. Herbert Solomon was aged 34, older than most of the other aircrew, and he was the third fatal casualty in the 10 months that 33 Squadron had been based in North Lincolnshire. The other member of his crew broke his collarbone in the crash, but with his arm in a sling he followed his Pilot’s coffin to the graveside. Before 33 Squadron moved away from this area, another 5 aircrew were killed in crashes, mostly night landings, making a total of eight Officers killed in a year and a half, including 2 Canadians and a South African.
All are buried on the slope of the hill in the cemetery at Gainsborough, not far from the former Squadron Headquarters, and looking out across the town and the river to where in the distance can be seen the former airfield at Saundby.
Left: 2nd Lt Herbert Solomon, died aged 34 years on 20.10.17
Right: Lt Laurens J Van-Staden, died aged 24 years on 26.04.18
A happier occasion at the aerodrome was when a Wedding Reception was held in one of the hangers, after a Pilot married a young lady from Gainsborough. Her name is believed to be a Miss Jecock, and after the war ended in 1918 her father bought the hanger (or Aircraft Shed, as they were called) and moved it over the Trent Bridge to Southolme in Gainsborough where it became a garage which is still in use today. 33 Squadron sent up their fighter aircraft every time there was a Zeppelin alert at night, but they never saw any of the Zeppelins. In 1918 the war came to an end, the Squadron moved away, the buildings on the airfield at Saundby were sold off locally and the fields were returned to Mr Layne.
In the mid-nineties the area was checked, with the landowner’s permission, but all that was found were some brick bases where huts had been; and when the land was ploughed later a thick electric cable was found leading from the former airfield to the riverbank opposite Marshall’s power station on Lea Road, which perhaps supplied electricity to the Saundby airfield.
Today there is nothing to show that ninety years ago a busy airfield was once here, in the Parish of Saundby.