How Blackpool's RAF links played key role in war - and kept theatres in business
One hundred years ago tomorrow, a new branch of the armed forces was formed '“ the RAF '“ and although there are no operational airfields in this part of the country, Lancashire will always be closely associated with the service, thanks to the aircraft it has built.
Blackpool still has its airport and RAF aircraft were stationed there in the Second World War, but while Biggin Hill, Duxford and Tangmere stole the headlines down south in the Battle of Britain, few people realise the pivotal part Blackpool played in the battle for the skies.
For the resort was chosen as the main training base for RAF servicemen due to its distance from the part of the country under the shadow of the Nazi bombers in the Blitz. For the same reason, it became the HQ for the thousands of Polish airman who had escaped to carry on the fight against their homeland’s invader.
Russell Brown, from the Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team, has helped document the history of the RAF in Blackpool.
'A sea of uniforms'
He said: “During the Second World War, Blackpool was the biggest training centre in the world.
“The RAF presence here was huge. It was like a garrison town. At times, the streets were a sea of blue grey uniforms.
“I would say that no-one under the age of 60 would have the slightest idea what happened here in the Second World War.
“Around three quarters of a million airman did their basic training and wireless operator training here throughout the war – 45,000 were billeted at any one time.
There was also a convalescent hospital in South Shore for RAF servicemen and an officers convalescent hospital in the Cleveleys area.
“The Polish air crew depot had been based at Newchurch but moved to Blackpool away from the bombing for training. It’s base was the Goodwood Hotel. And of course we have the White Eagle club in Hornby Road as a result.
From the archives: 100 years of the RAF on the Fylde coast“It was a great time for Blackpool. The RAF personnel were billeted in the B&Bs. I spoke to one owner who said they had 30 airmen at a time. He said it was great but hard work.
“When they were off duty they had to be entertained so the theatres, which used to close for the off-season, remained open all year round.
“They had the Contact RAF variety shows and the likes of comedian Max Wall, Eric Sykes and actor Denholm Elliott were all in the RAF in Blackpool.
“While the south coast resorts were all closed for fear of invasion in 1940, Blackpool prospered like never before.”
Russell’s interest in the RAF began as a boy and he joined the Blackpool Air Cadets at Squires Gate at 14. He said he there came across a rusty old machine gun from a US bomber which had crashed on the marsh – and he became hooked on aircraft history.
He was involved in the excavation of a German Junkers 88 which had been shot down at Banks Marsh on the other side of the Ribble.
Parts of the aircraft, including the engines are on display at the Blackpool airport aviation museum.
The bomber had been on a raid to Liverpool in 1941 and was caught by a nightfighter, a Boulton Paul Defiant from 256 Squadron based at Squires Gate.
Three of the crew bailed out, the pilot parachuted down on mudflats near Lytham Windmill.
Also based at the airport at that time was the Polish 307 nightfighter squadron.
When the RAF station at Blackpool was founded in 1939 it made use of the civilian buildings already at the airport and nearby.
Later the huge Vickers factory on the east side was built along Squires Gate Lane where the RAF’s Wellington bombers were built.
The developing aviation museum at the airport is housed in one of the few remaining 1939 Bellman Hangars built in the war.
It is now home to replica Spitfires and a hurricane plus the remains of the Junkers 88 and other artefacts celebrating the RAF’s connection to the Fylde coast.
It will be open tomorrow from 10am to mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of the RAF and one of its aircraft, a Spitfire will be on the Promenade this weekend near the Tower to pay tribute to the service and the men and women who served in it.
One of those veterans was Keith Graham, Blackpool FC’s media steward who joined the RAF in January 1975.
'A privilege to serve'
Keith was a senior aircraftman working in security during the conflict with Argentina in the South Atlantic in 1982.
He said: “I was on the New Zealand sea ferry which went down there and my job was security, making sure the young ones kept their backsides down. It was a privilege to serve with those people.
“While down there we took part in Songs of Praise for the BBC and I got to meet many of the television people such as the late great Bob Greaves from Granada Tonight who came out to interview people from the area.”
Keith, a former Hawes Side Primary and Highfield pupil, said he joined the RAF after being made redundant from his job at the former Blackpool chocolates and sweets maker Waller and Hartley.
“They got taken over by Barker and Dobson and were closed down so I joined the RAF. I had been brought up by my great grandma but the RAF really looked after me.
“It taught me to stand on my own two feet and I got to see the world. I also got to meet the Queen Mother and the Queen through being on parade I would recommend it to any youngster today, it was a great career.”