Aviation Heritage : RAF Woodhall Spa

RAF Woodhall Spa

Woodhall Spa Airfield was constructed on former farmland as a satellite station to RAF Coningsby and opened in February 1942. During World War 2 it was home to a number of RAF squadrons including the famous 617 “Dambusters” squadron. Other squadrons at RAF Woodhall Spa included 97 Squadron and 619 Squadron, which were heavily involved in the early operations of the Avro Lancaster bomber. Another squadron based at RAF Woodhall Spa was 627, which crucially developed a method of low level target marking that proved to be extremely successful.

The Dambusters

The most famous squadron to serve at RAF Woodhall Spa was 617 Squadron, which was based at RAF Woodhall Spa for most of the Second World War. It was this squadron that famously used the highly innovative “bouncing bomb” developed by Barnes Wallis to destroy three major dams in the Ruhr industrial region of Germany. 

The Earthquake bombs

Following successful operations using the bouncing bomb, 617 Squadron became instrumental in pioneering the use of the enormous Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs, collectively known as the earthquake bombs due to their earth shaking bunker busting capabilities. Tallboy and Grand Slam were designed to be dropped from a high altitude where they would hurtle to the ground, reaching speeds close to and beyond the speed of sound (767mph) before slamming into the ground. On impact a Tallboy bomb would create a crater 80ft (24m) across and could go through 16ft of (5m) of concrete.

These bombs were instrumental in the successful raids conducted by 617 Squadron that sunk the German battleship Tirpitz and which caused significant damage to the V-2 factories. An attack on the Samur tunnel in 1944 saw Tallboy bombs pass straight through a hill, exploding inside the tunnel 60ft (18m) below the surface.

The Victoria Cross was awarded to three officers based at RAF Woodhall Spa:

  • Guy Gibson, who flew his last fatal mission from the airfield in September 1944
  • Leonard Cheshire, the most highly decorated bomber pilot of the war, who went on to found a charity for disabled people
  • John Nettleton, who led 97 Squadron in the daring daylight raid on the submarine plant at Augsburg in 1942

617 Squadron Postwar

Following their exploits during the war 617 Squadron became part of RAF Bomber Command’s V-bomber force maintaining the UK’s strategic deterrent at RAF Scampton where they were equipped with the AVRO Vulcan bomber.
During the 1980s 617 Squadron flew the Tornado GR1 aircraft from RAF Marham and later the Tornado GR4B from RAF Lossiemouth. In July 2013 it was announced that 617 Squadron would become the first operational RAF unit to receive the F-35 Lightning stealth aircraft. 

RAF Woodhall Spa Postwar operations 

In 1960 RAF Woodhall Spa became a base for the Bristol Bloodhound Surface to Air missiles operated by 222 Squadron. However, this squadron was disbanded in 1964 and after being used as an engine and test facility RAF Woodhall Spa eventually fell into disuse. It was subsequently purchased by Cemex and used for the quarrying of sand and gravel.