Although it escaped bombing raids, Blackpool played an important role in World War II as a center for training, with numerous airfields and factories surrounding the area. This book is the first to offer a dedicated history of the town during this period. It includes interesting stories such as the people’s playground, the Freckleton Air Disaster, and an event-by-event account of activities. Despite being less affected than some other areas, the difficult war years still impacted the local people. Filled with true tales of local courage and of the spirit of the people of Blackpool during these tumultuous years, this nostalgic volume will be of interest to all who know and love Blackpool.
|Publisher:||The History Press|
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About the Author
John Ellis has been compiling this book for many years, interviewing local people and consulting a number of different sources.
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Blackpool at War
A History of the Fylde Coast During the Second World War
By John Ellis
The History PressCopyright © 2013 John Ellis
All rights reserved.
RAF SQUIRES GATE
Blackpool already had a long history of aviation before the start of the Second World War. The original airport to the south of the town (which would later become RAF Squires Gate and the modern-day Blackpool International Airport), was host to its, and indeed Lancashire's, first powered flight during an air show in October 1909. It was one of the first airstrips to open in the country and was a pioneer of regional aviation. The initial facilities were basic, relying on the flat land and its proximity to the resort to cater for small bi-planes, the sort made famous over the trenches of the First World War. It was also the site of the first official meeting of the Aero Club and held an early air show. With the public fascinated by the technology of the early planes, the show was attended by around 200,000 people. It was a showcase for the latest technology and attendees proudly flew flags during the show, consumed over 36,000 bottles of beer and some 500 hog roasts. The show included many pioneers of flight, most notably Henry Farman. The field initially ran pleasure flights in the area as well as being home to a small club for local pilots who wanted to get to grips with the unusual machines. As well as being one of the country's new airports, it saw other uses including life as a military hospital during the Great War and as a racetrack. Although the airport did eventually host some commercial flying activity, including direct flights to the Isle of Man that was mostly cut off from the mainland at that time and relied upon steam ferries, but eventually it lost out as the new council-backed municipal airport situated at Stanley Park gained favour. However, some direct flights to the Isle of Man still fly from the original airport to this day.
As an existing airfield with operational history, space to expand, situated near a large population and near (as the crow flies) to the target port city of Liverpool, it comes as no surprise that the airport was chosen as a Second World War RAF base. The site was requisitioned, along with almost all of the country's existing airfields, slightly before the outbreak of the conflict. Squires Gate, similar to Stanley Park, was also home to a flying club, which the RAF planners saw as a quick way to train enthusiasts ready for operational combat in the event of an invasion threat. It was men lured from the early flying clubs that were to become 'the few', who staved off the Luftwaffe during the precarious years of the Battle of Britain. Many of the older hands would be responsible for training pilots for both Fighter and Bomber Command, with many recruits undertaking their general training in various locations around the resort. At the outbreak of the war, many buildings were erected to bring the site up to operational standards, being initially run by the RAF Volunteer Reserve. These included numerous hangars, a control tower and accommodation for workers on the outskirts of the airfield. Existing buildings were used, some improved and some, like the old racecourse buildings, were simply used for storage. Four large metal Bellman hangars were built to house the planes safely; these could be erected quickly from flat-packs in order to get the airfields up and running as soon as possible. The speed of construction was quite staggering and included offices, arms/bomb storage facilities, air-raid shelters, photographic interpretation suites, an airfield defence office, staff 'NAAFI' quarters and numerous other buildings and, by the end of the construction spree, some 200 had been erected on the site. The large air traffic control tower is still in use today (although it has gone through some modernisation), which is situated in the centre of the airfield with a good view of the operations.
One of the biggest improvements to the site was the laying of three large runways in 1940, which were made out of bitumen in order to ease aircraft movements and allow larger planes to land, thus improving the sites capability. A golf course that bordered the site was built over to accommodate the full-length runway. The clubhouse from the old course was dismantled and moved to the Lytham Green Drive course where it formed part of that clubhouse. It was around this time that the field began to be referred to as RAF Squires Gate. Initially it was thought that the site would be used as a Coastal Command Centre, taking advantage of its situation on the Irish Sea coast, but it had numerous other uses with a heavy focus on training. It was also used as an operational night fighter station where it focused primarily on protecting the city of Liverpool, in particular its ports that were vital in landing 'lend/lease' equipment and much needed food and supplies into the country.
The airport, being an important site, needed to be protected both from the air and from the ground, for which anti-aircraft guns were placed near to the sand dunes and there was a concentration of pillboxes situated around the field. Other buildings sprang up from the airfield, including the Vickers aircraft factory situated further up Squires Gate Lane and the old Wood Street Mission holiday camp, which was used as accommodation, although mainly for billeting troops from the Manchester Regiment. Initially units were stationed at Squires Gate as part of a scheme to rotate and disperse them from other regions, particularly from the vulnerable southern airfields, which were seen as key targets for the Luftwaffe. These early squadron visitors (such as 63, 75, 215, and 256 Squadrons) were to form some of the units who fought tooth and nail against Hitler in the Battle of Britain in 1940.
The Coastal Command aircraft were used to patrol against German U-boats operating mainly in the Atlantic, subsequently, as the range of the aircraft improved, they would help protect convoys further afield. Convoys, particularly from Liverpool, travelled in the Irish Sea off the coast of the Fylde. Training was a big part of life, so much so that the land closest to Squires Gate Lane itself was given over to training facilities and numerous classroom buildings were erected at the site along with other training facilities. The west side of the airfield and adjacent to the railway line was a gunning range where moving targets would be towed for trainee pilots to practise on. With all this activity, a number of aircraft accidents were inevitable. An accident that is not that well known occurred when the pilot of a Fairey aircraft clipped the Squires Gate railway bridge when he lost his bearings during a practice session. The plane then crashed and three people lost their lives in the incident. The three aircraft that flew in formation before the Blackpool Central Station disaster had also set off from the airfield. Different training courses were taken at the site, including photographic reconnaissance (which operated the famous Spitfire aircraft), observation and navigation schools and flying practice. Some of the schools that used the airport were the Nos 2 and 3 Schools of General Reconnaissance and the No. 3 School of Technical Training.
The site was also operational for flying missions in the greater arena of the war. Night fighters, protecting Merseyside, Liverpool and the North West were based at the site. The airfield was often used as a satellite site for squadrons based at other fields in the North West, such as Speke, Burtonwood etc., to allow them wider coverage of the area. In late 1940, 96 Squadron sent a detachment of aircraft to the field and German aircraft were shot down by planes based in Blackpool. As well as British squadrons, a Polish squadron (No. 308) formed at Squires Gate (the Polish Air Force being based in the town centre), which gave the field an international flavour. As a recognised operational field, other aircraft in trouble could land at the site. One of the more notable landings was when the sole surviving bomber touched down after a daring raid at the MAN diesel factory in Germany, for which some of the crew were rewarded for their bravery. The airfield was a part of local life and most people found it simply exciting. A wide array of differing aircraft used the site making it a Mecca for plane spotters and the local children. It did bring its problems though, as it could be quite noisy and had to operate at night, as well as having the habit of attracting unwanted German attention. Nearly a hundred bombs were dropped at the site, although the number could have been much higher as and evidence has been uncovered that the Germans were aware of the runways and factory buildings. One bombing raid happened when a lone German bomber tailed a night fighter back as it landed, and then let its bomb loose over the central runways. Nearby streets, including Faringdon Avenue and Squires Gate Lane, did suffer minor bomb damage. As a token gesture of the local desire to help the site, money was raised to purchase aircraft for use by the RAF. Enough was raised to buy three spitfires, which took the town's motto ('Progress' 1, 2 & 3), and a lavish ceremony took place that helped bridge the gap between the local community and the airfield.
In 1940, the site was briefly used by larger transport planes as part of an air convoy route with North America. Lockheed Liberator aircraft flew regularly between Squires Gate and Montreal in Canada to bring back vital supplies for the British.
After a very busy and effective wartime operation, Squires Gate airfield was handed back to civilian usage in August 1946 and the RAF moved out. The airport is now very busy and has regular flights to the Isle of Man, Ireland and the Continent, continuing its rich tradition of aviation.CHAPTER 2
THE VICKERS ARMSTRONG FACTORY AT SQUIRES GATE
The site, which is situated next to the modern-day Blackpool Airport – or RAF Squires Gate as it was known during the Second World War – was one of the largest aircraft manufacturing centres in the country. It was a huge complex, over 1,500,000 square feet, on the edge of town, which hired large numbers of local workers, often women, to build the fearsome Wellington bomber. It was the centre of large-scale production and many of the town's other buildings were used as satellite sites. Some of the most notable used for production were the Talbot Road bus station, Stanley Park Aerodrome and Blackpool Pleasure Beach, each specialising in its own part of the production process. The site was critical in respect of the volume of aircraft produced for Bomber Command. The factory churned out just short of 3,000 of the large bombers (some references show even higher production numbers) which helped turn the tide of the war and secure Allied victory. At its operational peak the factory produced over 100 bombers a month to be put into service by the RAF. The average time it took to build a plane was around 60 hours more than other models as it was hard to assemble. It used many different materials that had to be brought into Blackpool including metal, wood and linen. Most people have heard of the Wellington bomber. It was the only aircraft to be produced for the duration of the war and it is said that over 20 per cent of all the Wellington bombers made were at Squires Gate. The shadow sites in the area highlight how critical the operation was to the wider conflict and indeed Bomber Command.
The site was earmarked in the early stages as a potential shadow factory for the Weybridge site, and it was decided that a large factory should be purpose-built for production adjacent to the already operational airfield. Plane production commenced with parts brought in from the Weybridge site even before the factory construction was complete – starting in temporary hangars. During construction the roof collapsed and the site had its first casualties with six people being killed (there is a detailed document about the accident stored in the National Archives should you wish to have more information). The large factory, which still stands today on Squires Gate Lane and has a recognisable roof, was once home to the simultaneous production of multiple aircraft by a variety of workers at any one time. Specialist machines were erected including drilling apparatus, overhead cranes to transport the planes down the production line, large metal lathes, and riveting machines. The noise and heat must have been immense and conditions hard. Due to the size of the site, it needed railway access and so track was laid, which has since been concreted over, to connect the factory to the South Fylde branch line near to Squires Gate station. Many local women were put into an alien setting along with school leavers and other youngsters, the minimum age being 16 years old to work on the floor. As well as manual labour, a variety of 'white collar' roles were also required to run the factory including senior and junior management, administration staff, switchboard operators, human resource specialists, etc., who were mostly recruited from the local area.
The Wellington bomber was a large, medium range, twin-engined bomber that operated on mainly night-time bombing raids. It slowly fell out of favour towards the end of the war, although it played a pivotal role in anti-submarine warfare (often being kitted out with radar and mine detection apparatus). The planes served in numerous different operations from fabled anti-V1 raids to the harrowing flattening of German cities. Places like Cologne suffered at the hands of such planes when the city was demolished in the first 1,000 bomber raid, the majority of which were Wellington bombers. The local workers certainly were not to blame for the havoc being caused by the fruits of their labours but it is hard to argue in favour of carpet-bombing now, and we have to recognise that Blackpool did play a role in this. The planes built in the town were piloted by many different nations, including the Free French, Polish (the Polish HQ was located on Talbot Road) and South Africans. It saw operations all over the world being notably effective in the North African campaign and the Allied fight in the Middle East.
The factory provided welcome permanent work for many in the area both in the factory itself and at ancillary sites around the town. After the depression of the 1930s and the town's traditional reliance on low paid seasonal wages, the work was welcome and money could be made. You had to work hard and, as with most war production, workers, often women (including my grandmother who worked in the offices at the factory), had to work long hours in a target-driven environment. Workers were told the faster they worked the quicker the war would be over and there was some truth in this statement. At its peak, over 10,000 people worked at the site, some were even bussed in from East Lancashire to meet the demand. The conditions were hard and some of the jobs were dangerous and quite skilled (if a little repetitive). The factory manufactured all parts of the bomber and different workers specialised in different things. At shift change hundreds of bicycles would flood the nearby roads, such as St Anne's Road (then longer than it is now), Squires Gate Lane and Highfield Road, and would have been quite a sight to any observers.
To view the Vickers factory as simply Squires Gate would not be appropriate. The town as a whole became linked to the factory itself with many satellite sites acting as spin offs from the main factory. Some of these sites were unique to Blackpool including the Pleasure Beach, where sheds that had previously been used to build and repair the rides were converted to working factory space. In particular, the old maintenance sheds now situated at the back of the site were used to produce gunning turrets. To have people enjoying much needed wartime respite on the rides, such as the Big Dipper and Grand National, so close to locals churning out parts in an intense war production environment could not have occurred anywhere other than in Blackpool. These activities illustrated some of the most important roles the resort played during this troubled time.
Talbot Road bus station was also used by the factory. As production increased, more space was needed and the floors above the ground level once used by the buses had large machines installed and these were utilised to make parts. Workers had to get the pieces needed for production from the offices at the top of the building and then account for each piece. By workers having to report for each new part the management could identify anyone that was not pulling their weight – even toilet breaks were monitored. Not working as hard as you could was considered a bad effort and very un-British. The factory and its sites had very little problems with production being interrupted by worker grievances such as strikes and 'go slows', as the locals just wanted to do anything they could to help the greater cause. However, other industries did suffer elsewhere across the country from this, particularly the shipyards and mining. The factory also brought war production to the centre of the town near to the North Station, so access was good.
Excerpted from Blackpool at War by John Ellis. Copyright © 2013 John Ellis. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 RAF Squires Gate,
2 The Vickers Armstrong Factory at Squires Gate,
3 Education and Evacuees,
4 Tourism During the War,
5 Training the RAF,
6 The People's Playground,
7 Transition of Labour and the Welfare State,
8 Warton Aerodrome – 'The World's Greatest Air Depot',
9 The Freckleton Air Disaster,
10 Time Team and the Warton Crash,
11 Bombing Raids on the Fylde,
12 Blackpool Central Railway Disaster,
13 RNAS Inskip,
14 Stanley Park Aerodrome,
15 Lytham St Anne's At War,
16 HMS Penelope,
17 Fleetwood at War,
18 Kirkham At War,
19 The Blackpool Copper and the 'Great Escape',
20 Blackpool FC at War,
21 Blackpool Footballers' Wartime Wrongdoing,
22 Short Stories,
23 Fortified Wartime Defence Positions,
24 After the War,