Amble and District
     Local History




by Graeme Rendall


      RAF Boulmer today houses a radar training unit know as the School of Control and Reporting, and it is also home to the Sea King HAR.3 rescue helicopters of ‘A’ Flight, No 202 Sqn.  The base itself is located on two sites near Longhoughton village, east of Alnwick in Northumberland. However it is not generally known that there was also once an airfield sited near the village of Boulmer, one where fixed-wing aircraft were operated.  This aerodrome was used during the latter half of World War Two but it was soon closed after hostiles had ended.   A brief reprieve saw Boulmer airfield being used as a relief landing ground in the 1960s but this was only a temporary respite from oblivion and today the old flying field has been returned to agriculture.  However parts of the former aerodrome still survive in RAF ownership today as they were incorporated into the new helicopter station.


      Several fields situated just inland from the minor road running southwards along the coast from the village of Boulmer were initially used as a decoy airfield site for nearby RAF Acklington during 1940.  The dummy aerodrome had three fake runways and several wooden mock-ups of Hurricane and Spitfire fighters in an attempt to create the impression that a real airfield was situated there.  The small number of RAF personnel based there moved the wooden decoy aircraft around the site at various times to give the impression that it was an active airfield.  Lights were used during the hours of darkness to simulate night operations by aircraft.  Ironically, the dummy aerodrome possessed real anti-aircraft defences in the shape of four Lewis machine guns of World War One vintage.  These were mounted on tripods and installed around the site but did not offer any practical protection.  This decoy airfield (or ‘K’ Site, to use its official designation) was successful in that it attracted the attention of a number of Luftwaffe bombers, which otherwise may have dropped their bombs on real targets of military value or civilian areas.  Two large high explosive bombs were dropped on nearby fields during the night of 16th September 1940.


     In common with many other dummy airfields sites, the land was requisitioned by the Air Ministry later on in the war for the construction of a real aerodrome.  This occurred in 1942, when Eshott airfield was being built just south of Felton village.  No 57 Operational Training Unit (OTU) was due to move in so that airfield in November 1942 and the Boulmer site was chosen for the location of a satellite aerodrome for Eshott. There was a rush to build the airfield at Boulmer so that No 57 OTU’s Advanced Flight could move into the new site in order to relieve congestion at the parent aerodrome.  With over thirty pupil pilots to a course, the airspace around the parent airfield would be congested once flying training got going in earnest, so it made sense to farm out the later part of the syllabus to another site.


     The new aerodrome took up a triangle of land lying between the southern end of Boulmer village, Seaton Point and Field House Farm.  The layout of the airfield is depicted on a map accompanying this article.  The three runways laid at the site were 01/19, 06/24 and 15/33.  01/19 and 15/33 actually converged at the south eastern corner of the airfield, next to Seaton Point.  Each was the Air Ministry standard fifty yards in width, with the virtually north-south runway 01/19 being the longest at 1,800 yards (the other two being 1,400 and 1, 300 yards respectively).  Each was constructed from tarmac, mixed with wood chippings.  Aircraft taking off on runways 15 or 19 were virtually guaranteed to be ‘feet wet’ within seconds of becoming airborne (unless a sharp turn to starboard was carried out by machines using 19), ensuring that engine failure on take off was a rather risky business.  Pilots using 06 flew straight over the village of Boulmer only seconds after take-off.


     The perimeter track at Boulmer linked the runways with no less than twenty-five aircraft dispersal ‘pans’. Covered accommodation for aircraft at Boulmer consisted of just four Dorman Long Blister hangars, two located off the perimeter track towards the 19 threshold and the remaining two situated on the opposite end of the airfield, near the 01 threshold.  This was in keeping with the aerodrome’s stature as a satellite landing ground, which meant that the majority of buildings were of a temporary nature and hangarage was at a premium.  Many of the buildings appear to have been Nissen huts, converted to a wide range of functions.  Plans for a shed or hanger along the lines of a T2 or similar structure were set in motion but not realised, if it had been built, it would have been located next to the watch office and the proposed site appears in the official plans of the aerodrome.

The watch office (control tower), the flight offices and crew rooms were situated just off the perimeter track linking the 15 and 19 thresholds.  Attached to the watch office was the switch room, which controlled the airfield lighting. Behind these buildings was the airfield technical site, which included the Link Trainer building, the Hut Recognition Trainer and the Armoury.  Also located here were the lecture rooms and the all important Speech Broadcasting Building (for the tannoy announcements).  Air raid shelters around the airfield (each able to accommodate up to fifty personnel) were constructed from granite quarried at Shap Cumbria.


     The road leading westwards through the Technical Site crossed the aerodrome boundary at the Whaw Burn and then become a lane that ran west for about half an mile to the Longhoughton-Lesbury road.  The end of the lane can still be seen today, it reaches the main road next to an isolated house, but is a private farm track.  However, at the boundary, another road led northwards towards the Boulmer-Longhoughton road, bordered on both sides by a hedge.  This led to firstly the Sick Quarters site and eventually to the Communal Site, reaching the Boulmer road at the corner where the McDonnel-Douglas Phantom F.3 ‘gate guardian’ stands today, in fact the present day helicopter station occupies the entire former Communal Site, which includes messes, ration stores, the camera gun workshop and aptly named ‘Bucket Emptying Enclosure’.


    Also situated alongside the Longhoughton-Boulmer road were the Dispersed Site, the WAAF Site and the Ground Defence Site.  The first included the Officers and Sergeants Quarters, plus the airmen’s barracks huts.  The RAF used the building until just a few years ago, the lighting ‘gate guardian’ used to stand at the entrance to the site, but the building were abandoned and boarded up.  Some time during late 2002 the buildings were completely demolished and all that exists the day is the old road network that linked them all together.  The WAAF site had a similar set-up in terms of buildings and was located opposite the Communal Site. This is still used the day by the RAF but presumably now has a different purpose; a large metal fence and gates surround the entrance, the site itself being about a hundred yards to the north.  The Ground Defence Site consisted of twenty-seven buildings and was situated in the present day copse of trees about four hundred yards east of where the Phantom is parked today, and the site’s entrance road can still be seen today.  Without information to the contrary it is assumed that the Ministry of Defence still owns this land and therefore closer inspection is not recommended.


      Situated just off the perimeter track between the 01 and 06 thresholds was the Bulk Fuel Installation site, which sat on a small loop off the entrance road leading down the small hill to the road leading from Lesbury to Field House Farm. Between this area and the 06 threshold was another site of Flight Offices and crew rooms, in the middle of the ‘triangle’ formed by the tree runways were a ‘remote site’ and a bombing target, the latter possibly a relic from Boulmer’s previous incarnation as a decoy site.  The remote site could still be discerned in an aerial photograph of the old aerodrome that was taken as recently as 1980.  In keeping with most airfields Boulmer also had a Battle Headquarters which would have controlled the aerodrome if the site had come under heavy attack or the threat of imminent invasion by enemy forces.  This building was an underground bunker with several above ground observation sites, and was located to the south west of the 01 and 33 thresholds. The target date for the completion of RAF Boulmer was set the 1st March 1943; this was apparently achieved and the first Spitfires landed at Boulmer later that day.  No 57. OTU ran courses to train pupils how to fly the Spitfire.  Initial conversion training was on Miles Masters at Eshott, followed by basic instruction on Spitfires and then more advanced training at Boulmer.  The advanced Flight emulated the day-to-day activities of a front line squadron, giving the trainee Spitfire pilots a reasonable idea of what would be expected of them once they were posted to an operational unit.  Many of the instructors were former operational pilots, who had managed to amass a wide range of experiences and were being ‘rested’ between tours of front-line duty or before promotions took effect.

RAF Boulmer Aerodrome Plan


A - Flight Offices D - Cannon Test Standing
B - Blister Hangers E - Guard House
C - Land Mine Dumps F - Bulk Petrol Installation
A map of RAF Boulmer circa early 1945, showing the site of the planned T2 (or similar hanger). The proximity of the thresholds of the two runways with the North Sea is quite evident (Map drawn by Graeme based upon plans kindly provided by the RAF Museum)


     The Spitfires operated by No 57 OTU were a mixture of early marks, some of the aircraft being up to three or four years old, veterans of the Battle of Britain or plenty of hard fighting over the Channel afterwards.  Most of them were considered fit only for second-line use and were labelled as ‘clapped-out’ by experienced pilots. Despite the valiant efforts of the frequently overworked ground staff, mechanical failure occurred on a regular basis and this combined with the trainees’ lack of experience on Masters and Spitfires, led to many aircraft being written off in accidents.  Several of these accidents occurred at Boulmer airfield itself, as detailed in the following table.  A more comprehensive account of the loss of Spitfire R6960 can be found on page 645 of the December 2003 edition of Air NORTH.


     No.57 OTU. Accident write-offs at RAF Boulmer during WW2.

10/07/43 P7836 – Spitfire IIA Crash landed after mid-air collision with P8071
10/07/43 P8071 – Spitfire IIA Spun into sea after collision with P7836
22/11/43 P8197 – Spitfire IIA Dived into ground after night take-off
05/01/44 P8015 – Spitfire IIA Engine failure in circuit, abandoned over sea
10/03/44 P8251 – Spitfire IIA Swung after tyre burst on landing
10/09/44 EP227 – Spitfire VB Undershot landing and lost wing
06/12/44 R6960 – Spitfire VB Landing accident in snowstorm
02/02/45 AB178 – Spitfire VB Swung on landing and overturned
15/02/45 BM487 – Spitfire VB Undercarriage jammed; belly landed
18/02/45 AR292 – Spitfire VB Crashed on landing
26/02/45 AB921 – Spitfire VB Hit by BR391 while on runway
02/03/45 W3713 – Spitfire VB Hit tree after take off


     The RAF Regiment provided a full detachment of Bofors anti aircraft guns for defence of the airfield, a far cry from the four ancient Lewis guns it sported during its time as a decoy site.  However, Luftwaffe attention was waning by this time in the war and they were probably never fired in anger.


     Due to the lack of airfields in Northumberland, No. 57 OTU was forced to share Boulmer with other units in the area, particularly during 1943 and 1944.  No. 59 OTU based at Milfield already used Brunton as a satellite airfield, but this was in need of repairs in the summer of 1943 due to over use.  To avoid disruption, No. 59 OTU’s Advanced Flight used Boulmer while Brunton’s runways and taxiways were being repaired.  When the Milfield OTU disbanded in January 1944 and become the nucleus of the new Fighter Leaders School, this new unit also found it necessary to use Boulmer at various times during the following twelve months in order to avoid overcrowding their ‘own’ airfields.

Boulmer was home to a Fleet Air Arm Fighter squadron for an extremely brief time towards the end of September 1944.  Equipped with Seafire  L MK, IIIs, No 808 Sqn arrived from Hawarden on the 25th September and stayed until the following day, before flying off to Eglinton.  The unit was engaged in bombardment spotting and target reconnaissance work, but would swap its Seafires for Hellcats before the end of the year.  During its brief stay at Boulmer, the squadron was commanded by Lieutenant Commander J.F. Rankin, DSC.


     Because of Boulmer’s position on the coast, aircraft forced to divert away from their home airfields further south due to bad weather frequently used it.  A Canadian crewed Halifax MK.III from No 425 (Alouette) Sqn based at RAF Tholthorpe, LW590KW-P, diverted to the aerodrome on 4th October 1944 after a raid on Bergan, returning to base later that day.  P/O Corbett crashed on take off; power from both starboard engines was lost on take off and the Halifax swung, hitting a shed.  Happily, there were no injuries reported among Corbett’s crew.  New Years Eve 1944 saw no less than six Consolidated B-24 Liberators from the US Eighth Air Force arrived for the night (some twenty-six others sought refuge at the parent airfield of Eshott at the same time).  Further diversions involved bombers from British and American commands.

      As soon as the war in Europe ended, numerous training units were considered surplus to requirements and No. 57 OTU disbanded on 6th June 1945.  Boulmer was placed under ‘Care and Maintenance’ the airfield becoming a satellite landing ground for units based across at RAF Acklington.


     Units based at or using RAF Boulmer (aerodrome):

Advanced Flight, No.57 OTU 1st March 1943 - 6th June 1945
Conversion Flight, No.57 OTU Various times in 1943 and 1944
Advanced Flight, No.59 OTU Summer 1943
No.9 Group Battle School 1944
Fighter Leaders  School (satellite) January 1944-December 1944
No.808 Sqn, Fleet Air Arm 25th - 26th September 1944
No, 6 Flying Training School (RLG) early 1950s

     A pilot from No2 Armament Practice Station at Acklington had a lucky escape when his Martinet TT.1 target tug lost engine power while flying in the area on 27th August 1949;  he managed to glide to the old aerodrome at Boulmer and belly landed his aircraft there.  Martinet NR300 was deemed uneconomic to repair and was later struck from RAF charge.


     The onset of the Cold War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the late forties and early fifties dictated that many former wartime facilities were prime candidates to re-activated and put to use.  Boulmer was one such location picked to become a part of the post war RAF structure, but this time as a radar station, helping to defend the British Isles against any incursions from the bombers of Soviet Long Range Aviation.  The former dispersed sites were selected for development and extra land was acquired to satisfy the requirements of the planners, in June 1953, Boulmer re-opened as a RAF station when No.500 Signals Unit moved in, although control of the site was still exercised from nearby Acklington.  The station now sported an Operations Block, an Engineering Section, various Messes, plus Domestic and Administration Sites, many of these facilities occupying locations used by the War time buildings.  October 1954 saw the completion of the underground Operations Centre and with it, Boulmer’s independence from Acklington, the first time RAF Boulmer had exercised complete independence since its days as a decoy site.

Meanwhile, the aerodrome still had a role to play, even if it continued to be just a convenient place to land an aircraft in distress.  At around 0840 hours on the morning of 20th August 1950 Flying officer Curran took off from Ouston in Spitfire Mk. F.22 PK393 to practice close formation flying in concert with other aircraft from the squadron.  Nearly two hours into the flight the Spitfire had forced-landed in a field near the former wartime Boulmer airfield.  Comments written into the accident card for PK393 state that the pilot ‘failed to carry out distress procedure’ and ‘failed to reduce airspeed for max endurance’.  Curran’s predicament was not helped by the ‘Homer’ operator who according to the notes from the card, ‘failed to carry out instructions (and) failed to pass bearing to ATCC Watnall’.  Reaching the limits of the aircraft endurance, the pilot’s options were running out, F/O Curran decided to abandon his aircraft and unfastened his Sutton harness in preparation for releasing the canopy and bailing out.  However he changed his mind and started to make a descent for a forced landing at the old aerodrome.  Unfortunately the pilot undershot the landing and crashed, sustaining head injuries, as he had been unable to refasten his Sutton harness.  The Spitfire suffered extensive damage and was later scrapped.


    On the after noon of 15th August 1953, de Havliland Venom FB.1 WE367 took off from RAF Ouston in Northumberland on an interceptor patrol flight, flown by flying officer Bolger.  The No 14 Sqn pilot began patrolling his assigned area under Northern Sector at 40,000 feet.  Suddenly the Venom’s Ghost turbojet engine flamed out.  Having informed his controller of his predicament, Bolger was instructed to turn onto a heading of 340 degrees and descend to 10,000 feet. During this manoeuvre, he attempted to re-light the engine but was unsuccessful.  The Venom descended through a gap in the cloud and Bolger saw the disused airfield at Boulmer.  He decided to land his aircraft there, but during the final moments of the approach, he noticed that fences now obstructed the former airfield.  Bolger instead elected to land ‘wheels-up’ in a ploughed field alongside one of the old runways, doing so at around 1509 hours.  The pilot was slightly injured during the incident.  During the forced landing, Bolger’s damaged various fences, fence posts at least fifty compressed hay bales.


     During the 1960’s, Boulmer aerodrome’s role changed to that of a relief landing ground for No.6 Flying Training School based at Acklington.  However the closure of the parent unit the writing was on the wall for the old airfield and it finally fell into disuse at the end of the sixties.

A history of the post-war RAF Boulmer complex is outside the scope of this article but the station renewed the area’s acquaintance with the Spitfire when MK. VB EP120 arrived to take up duties as gate guardian. Aircraft from the same production batch as the Spitfire had actually served at Boulmer during WW2.  The aircraft stayed until 1967 when it was required for film work in the Battle of Britain.  A replacement aircraft arrived on 14th August 1969, LF MK.XV1 TB252/RR-M staying until early December when it moved up to Leuchars for similar duties.


     Much of the former aerodrome site can be seen today if one knows where to look.  Although the three runways have long since been taken up, the former lines of 01/19 and 15/33 can be seen from the minor road running south of the Boulmer village to Lesbury and Alnmouth.  As the roads bend right at Seaton Point a rough lay-by next to the Foxton Hall golf course affords a good view along these two former runways, which have been returned to farm land.  For the next two hundred yards, the road itself now follows the line of the old perimeter track until a left hand bend is reached.  The perimeter track carries on northwards and is still in site, used by the local farmers to store bales of hay and other items.  Two small sheds were erected along here some years ago but today are only comprised of their framework.  A visit in March 2003 found that the location of the flight offices near the old Bulk Fuel installation on the southern side of the aerodrome was now a field of Brussels sprouts!  The entrance road to the former fuel installation was reached via a lane running to Field House Farm from Boulmer-Lesbury road.  Both the lane and the entrance road still exist, and the old gateposts for the barrier can still be seen today, but all of the buildings in this part of the former aerodrome have been demolished and the plinths dug up and removed.  Even the ‘ loop’ of the fuel installation has been removed.  The old perimeter track continues on around the western side of the airfield until the old Technical Site is reached.  The only evidence of the latter existence today are the old roadways through the site.  Even the old circular hardstanding (‘pans’) that were built at intervals along the perimeter track have been removed it was not possible to visit the old Technical Site during March visit though, as construction work appeared to be going on in that area.  This work appeared to be still in progress at the end of December 2003.


     On the eastern side of the former aerodrome the old hardstanding for cannon testing disappeared under the present day road to Lesbury and Alnmouth.  The first two entrances to the perimeter track on this side of the airfield is now used as the entry to a static caravan site that occupies the mid-section of the old 01/19 runway.  The second entrance is found at the bend in the road before Boulmer Village, the farmer has extended the access lane right across to the intersection of runways 01/19 and 06/24, the track then following the course of the latter to the south west, just visible in the small paddocks to the west of the minor road between the two old entrances are a couple of small buildings that were original fixtures, one of them contained fire fighting equipment when the aerodrome was active.


     Boulmer aerodrome cannot boast a memorable history on a par with Acklington or Ouston, but it did outlive its parent Eshott, and many other wartime airfields in the region in military service by virtue of being retained for use as a relief landing ground into the 1960’s.  Of course flying continues from the current RAF station in the shape of the two ‘A’ Flights No 202 Sqn Sea King HAR.3 rescue helicopters that can been seen carrying out sterling service in the region 365 days a year.  However when visiting the area spare thought for the fact that Boulmer had a previous ‘life’, one where Spitfires were the order of the day and the skies reverberated to the sound of Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.


CREDITS; The Department of Research and Information Services, RAF Museum.

 Copyright © Graeme Rendall 2013. (reproduced here with permission)