"The History of Tollerton Airfield "
November 2007 Meeting Report
Speakers - Howard Fisher, Rod Gill & Bob Hammond
The November 2007 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society was held in the Centenary Lounge on Friday, November 2nd. Traditionally the November meeting is a ‘Members Evening’ when members of the Society, rather than a guest speaker, make a presentation on a subject of their choice. This year three members combined to give a talk/slide show on The History of Tollerton Airfield. For the last two years several members of the Society have been involved in a project, funded by The Local History Initiative, to write a book on The History of Tollerton Airfield. The book is currently at the printers being prepared for its initial print. Tonight therefore seemed a good opportunity for members of the project team to give a presentation to the Society to show some of the fruits that the project has borne.
Howard Fisher was the first to talk and he covered the period from 1929 to 1939, which took the airfield from its inception up to the beginning of the Second World War. During the 1920’s the Air Ministry pursued a vigorous policy of encouraging local government to promote the growth of civil aviation in this country. Nottingham City Council was amongst the first to construct an airfield in response to this. Initially three sites were selected for the proposed airfield but Tollerton was the site that was selected. The Council bought just over 140 acres of farmland from Alderman Sir Albert Ball (father of the famous First World war fighter pilot ace) for a price of £34 per acre.
The land was prepared; drains laid, land seeded with grass, and take-off and landing areas rolled level, etc. The airfield was duly, officially opened on 27th July 1930 by the Lord Mayor of Nottingham. The Mayor had been flown to London on the morning of the opening specifically to obtain the official Airfield Licence. With this in his possession he was flown back to Tollerton and the airfield was declared officially open at 12.30pm. After that there was an air pageant and later the public could buy short pleasure flights. The proceedings were very well attended, flying was still a relatively new phenomenon and the prospect of an airport near Nottingham captured the imagination of the general public.
When it was opened the airfield had virtually no facilities at all, there were none of the usual buildings that one would expect to find on a working airfield. Nottingham City Council had bought the land for the airfield at the ratepayers expense but they were expecting private enterprise to fund whatever facilities were needed on the site. Basically the Council wanted an airfield for Nottingham but they wanted it on the cheap. Luckily a new organization, National Flying Services Ltd (NFS), had recently been formed and it was that company’s aim to establish a network of airfields around the country and establish flying schools at those airports. Fortunately Tollerton was selected as one of the airfields that NFS were going to operate from and this meant that the airfield was provided with such buildings as a hangar to house aircraft, a clubhouse were members could socialize and obtain meals, and service and repair facilities for their aircraft. Facilities were also put in place to train would-be pilots.
Unfortunately, the plans that NFS had for the development of civilian flying in the United Kingdom proved to be too ambitious. The country had probably the best railway network in the world relative to its size and the road network was improving all the time. Also the distances travelled by the general public were simply not great enough to give air travel the advantage that it enjoyed over road and rail in such countries as the USA and on continental Europe. Despite Tollerton being a part of a scheduled national air network the hoped-for passengers never materialized and it wasn’t long before NFS was in severe financial difficulties which eventually saw the organization declared bankrupt.
However, the flying clubs that established themselves on the airfield fared much better and developed into a thriving business. There was a very good social side to the clubs activities and this attracted both the male members and their wives to the airfield. There were even a few women who learned to fly. Another feature of pre-war Tollerton were the air-shows and pageants that became an annual feature. Several people who had been interviewed as part of the project had vivid recollections of some of the daredevil stunts that were put on for the general public. However, these air-shows were never very profitable exercises, in part because too many spectators could simply watch the performances from the Gamston to Tollerton road, which ran just outside the airfield’s perimeter, and thus avoid paying the entrance fee.
Another problem encountered at Tollerton was the refusal of the City Council to invest in the site. Cities such as Leicester had looked at the way that Tollerton had been developed and learned from the mistakes that were undoubtedly made there. The lead that Tollerton had hoped to gain from being amongst the first municipal airfields in the country never became a reality and the airfield never generated the prosperity for Nottingham that the city fathers had hoped for.
With the ever-looming treat of another war with Germany the Government embarked on a policy of training civilian pilots as quickly as was possible. Two schemes were introduced nationwide, the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) and the Civil Air Guard (CAG). Both of these schemes were implemented at Tollerton. The RAFVR scheme was only open to young men and those approved for the course undertook to join the RAF as and when required. The CAG scheme was open to men and women of all ages and it was hoped that those who learned to fly by that route would be available, in the event of war, for such duties for the RAF as ferrying aircraft, delivering mail, operating an air-ambulance service, and ferrying personnel.
It was just prior to the outbreak of war that facilities at the airfield began to be improved and extended. Perhaps the most significant of these was the construction of the Main Hangar in 1938 that was situated alongside the Tollerton to Gamston road. That hangar would see considerable usage once war with Germany was declared.
Rod Gill was next to speak and he gave a talk on Tollerton during the war years, 1939 to 1945. On the outbreak of war the Air Ministry appropriated Tollerton for the Royal Air Force. Its official title then changed to RAF Tollerton. For the duration of the war there would be two separate strands to life at the airfield. The RAF was situated on one part of the airfield, whilst the civilian workers who worked for Tollerton Aircraft Services Ltd (TAS) occupied another section of the site. On the outbreak of war all civilian flying was banned throughout the country and the Civil Air Guard and RAFVR training schemes that had been operating on the airfield were also terminated. RAF Tollerton was designated a ‘scatter field’ for RAF Waddington and aircraft from that airfield used Tollerton as a location where aircrew could be stood down for periods of rest and relaxation. Tollerton was also used to disperse aircraft away from their parent airfields and thus make them less vulnerable to enemy attack. Thus, for the first three months of the war aircraft of 44 & 50 Squadrons occasionally used the airfield though never for operational duties.
RAF Tollerton’s first wartime fatality occurred on 21st October 1939 when a Hampden bomber struck a dummy gun emplacement in the centre of the airfield and killed one of the men on the ground. From that date onwards there was a steady stream of incidents and accidents on the airfield. The worst of these occurred on 8th February 1941 when a Wellington bomber of 12 Squadron crashed, whilst training near the airfield, with the loss of seven lives.
In 1941 concrete runways, perimeter track and hard-standings for two-dozen aircraft were installed at the airfield. However, the runways were not as long as operational RAF airfields required, probably due to the fact that it was never intended that Tollerton would be used operationally. By this time RAF Tollerton was acting as a satellite station for the airfield at nearby RAF Newton, which was a training station. About this same time RAF Tollerton began to be used, in conjunction with RAF Newton, as a station for No 16 (Polish) Service Flying Training School, which as its name implies was specifically for Polish aircrew. For the remainder of the war there would be a steady stream of Polish airmen undergoing training at the airfield using a variety of aircraft. Initially Fairey Battles were used but Airspeed Oxfords and Miles Magisters soon replaced these. The Polish aircrew were famous for their cavalier approach to flying and a steady stream of accidents, many fatal, were a feature of everyday life at the airfield.
Once war had broken out and all civilian flying banned there was no immediate use for the considerable facilities at the airfield. This was quickly remedied when the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP) designated the airfield a Civilian Repair Organization (CRO) establishment. Here aircraft could be assembled, repaired, and modified for the RAF and thus relieve the aircraft manufacturers and the RAF of a considerable amount of work. In the early stages of the war Tollerton became the sole location where the Handley Page Hampden medium bomber was sent for repair and modification. As that aircraft was phased out of operational use, towards the end of 1942, the Avro Lancaster replaced it. For the remainder of the war the Lancaster would provide the bulk of the work for the civilian workers at the airfield.
At any one time around 700 personnel could be working for TAS at Tollerton, engaged in a whole range of duties relating to repairing, modifying and assembling aircraft. Likewise a significant amount of personnel were sent from the airfield to crash sites where they assisted in the recovery of damaged aircraft. Unfortunately no official records have been located which enumerate the total number of aircraft prepared by TAS for the Ministry of Aircraft Production but the overall figure is believed to be around 1,700. That figure represents a significant contribution to the war effort by the employees of TAS.
The last presenter was Bob Hammond and he dealt with the period from 1945 to 2007, bringing the history of the airfield up to the present day. Bob began by explaining how, once the war had been won, TAS continued to operate from Tollerton but at a much-reduced level, though their name had by now changed to Field Aviation Services Ltd. Contracts were secured with the USAF to convert old Douglas Dakota troop carriers into more up-to-date transport aircraft. Another contract involved the scrapping of large numbers of Lancaster bombers that were now surplus to the RAF’s requirements. It must have been strange for those workers still employed at the site to see aircraft that they had possibly been instrumental in constructing and maintaining returning to the airfield to be scrapped. Although times were fairly hard just after the war it still seems a shame that no one had the foresight to preserve a few examples of such an illustrious aircraft for future posterity. 7,377 Lancasters were produced of which 3,346 were lost on operations. That still leaves over 4,000 aircraft that survived. Of that number only a handful now exist worldwide to show a later generation the legendary aircraft that a generation of young men bravely flew in, and often died in, attacking targets in enemy occupied Europe.
RAF Newton continued to use Tollerton until 1946 when the airfield was returned to civilian use. However, the RAF retook possession of the site from 1949 until 1956 when the airfield was used for the initial training of pilots of the Fleet Air Arm. In 1956 that training was transferred to RAF Wymeswold. Whilst the airfield was occupied by the RAF the civilian side of the airfield continued to operate much as it had done during the war, though obviously on a much reduced scale, and the separate military and civilian bodies seemed to have co-existed quite amicably.
What had been TAS during the war became Field Aircraft Services (FAS) and this company continued to operate in the Main Hangar. A variety of aircraft were worked on post-war on various contracts but slowly the work diminished and with it the workforce. The most popular aircraft appears to have been the Dakota, many of which were bought from the Government as war surplus and refitted as luxury aircraft for foreign airlines. However the numbers involved was never very great and simply gave FAS a steady turnover of work.
For a short while a few private airlines operated services from Tollerton in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s but these were all companies with only one or two aircraft operating mainly on a charter basis. None proved very successful and all had a fairly short operating life before disappearing from the scene altogether..
By the early 1960’s the future of Tollerton airfield looked precarious. The RAF and Fields had both left by 1960 and, apart from the flying club there was little commercial activity on the site. However, in 1963 Derek Truman took over the lease for the site and began to breathe new life into the airfield. By the 1960’s it was clear that the future of commercial aviation lay mainly with high passenger capacity jets operating from larger, regional airports. If Tollerton was to be a viable undertaking then other uses would have to be found for the facilities at the airfield.
Thus the site was split up into industrial units and these were leased out to a variety of companies. These companies were as diverse as office furniture manufacturers to clothing manufacturers but very few were aviation related. Once again, for various reasons, none of the companies remained at the airfield for very long. However, they did provide an income for Truman Aviation and helped to secure the future of the airfield. Derek Truman had an avid interest in flying and also developed the aviation related business at Tollerton. He secured agencies for the sale of new and second-hand Piper and Beagle aircraft and developed a thriving business selling the ‘planes. He also put on some air-shows and these were very popular though, unfortunately, they were never very profitable. Too many spectators could watch from the road and thus avoid paying the entrance fee, echoing the same problems that were faced at the airfield in the 1930’s. In 1980 Derek Truman retired and sold the business to Derek Leatherland, who continued in much the same vein as Derek Truman.
At various times a new control tower was installed at the airfield, the Bridge Hangar was demolished and replaced by a mobile-home park. A country club and restaurant occupied the old clubhouse. However, this was totally destroyed by fire in 1982 just after it had been extensively refurbished. An Indian restaurant now occupies the site. The Main Hangar is currently being used as a vehicle pound by Jacksons Recovery Ltd. Ormonde Aviation Ltd has set up a business at the airfield manufacturing parts for reproduction aircraft. The servicing of light aircraft is also undertaken at the site. The Sherwood Flying Club has been located at the airfield for many years and has a thriving membership.
In the Summer of 2006 Nottingham City Council announced that it proposed selling Tollerton airfield the following November. It looked possible that the land would be sold and developed for housing, with the demise of flying at the airfield. However, a new company was formed, Nottingham City Airport plc, and they managed to secure ownership of the land. One of the new company’s directors is Derek Leatherland and proposals are being submitted that will see the site developed and flying continuing to take place at Tollerton. The presentation lasted for nearly an hour and a half and was very well received by an appreciative audience. Hopefully, when it becomes available early next year, sales of the new book relating to tonight’s presentation will be just as successful.