Remembering those magnificent men in their flying machines

Glamorous hotbed of wealthy Sheffield socialites, controversial testing ground and, this week, the location of a new memorial. Rachael Clegg looks at the history of Firbeck airfield

Tuesday, 23rd August 2011, 8:52 am

TUCKED away between the Black Lion pub and a row of 60s-built houses in a small South Yorkshire village is a gem of social and military history.

Beneath what is now acre upon acre of agricultural land lies what was a glamorous 1930s airfield and RAF base used during the Second World War. And now, 80 years on, the site’s history will be officially recognised by the construction of a memorial.

The memorial is thanks to historians Chris Percy and Noel Ryan, aged 46, from Wath, who have been researching the airfield for the past four months.

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Chris, 47, from Crookes, Sheffield, says: “Noel and I are in an airfield research group and were taking a walk one day by Firbeck airfield and spotted the concrete patch of land and said ‘That’d be a good place for a memorial’.”

The memorial, which honours all those who served at the former RAF Firbeck airfield, will be officially unveiled tomorrow and will stand as a testament to the airfield’s brief history.

The airfield was established in 1935, when a wealthy Sheffield stockbroker decided to transform Firbeck Hall, a Jacobean pile in Firbeck village, just outside Rotherham, into one of Europe’s most exclusive country clubs.

Cyril Nicholson, from Sandygate, Sheffield, invested £80,000 – almost £800,000 in today’s money – to create what was to be the one of the most desirable hang-outs of the 1930s. His club, simply known as Firbeck Hall Country Club, was completely decked out with a lush art deco interior, designed by Sheffield architects Hadfield Cawkwell Davidson.

It had a landscaped pool, complete with a water filtration system and a stunning art deco fountain. The club was so sought after that even Vogue published an entire Firbeck supplement featuring beautiful 1930s-clad women posing throughout the club’s vast grounds.

Nicholson didn’t do things by halves, and nowhere was this better manifested than his airfield.

And he didn’t just appoint anybody to design his airfield. He drew upon the talents of one of the most eminent pilots of the 1930s – Captain Tom Campbell-Black.

Campbell-Black was joint winner of the Midenhall-Melbourne Air Race in 1935 and he was also a very well-connected socialite.

It was through Campbell-Black that the Prince of Wales learned about Firbeck and would fly in for a visit in his Dragon aircraft, bearing the royal insignia. Other famous visitors included Sheffield University graduate and pioneering aviator Amy Johnson.

The airfield was also used by Sheffield Aero Club in 1938, which flew Tiger Moth and Gypsy Moth aircraft. The aero club was bankrolled, in part, by Sheffield steel manufacturers and attracted members such as Mrs L A K Halcomb – a woman pilot and instructor, an appointment that did not go unnoticed in the local newspapers.

‘Woman Flying Tutor for Sheffield Club’ read one headline. Clearly, this was big news and reflected a section of Sheffield society which is often overlooked – the wealthy, fun-loving beneficiaries of the city’s industrial economy.

“These would have been very well-heeled women indeed and very typical of the swinging 20s and 30s,” says Chris. “They were probably the daughters of wealthy steel magnates or industrialists.”

But Firbeck Airfield’s life as a landing ground of leisure was short-lived. By 1938 the club joined the ‘Great Flying Scheme’ under the instruction of the then air minister Sir Kingsley Wood.

It was a scheme aimed at recruiting a volunteer reserve for the RAF and, like most other aero clubs throughout the country, Firbeck was to take part.

One year later, war broke out and Firbeck was closed to civilian flying. By 1940 the land had been requisitioned by the Air Ministry under the Emergency Powers Act for military use.

From this semi-rural idyll, pilots conducted coastal patrols over the east coast and low-flying army convoy-spotting exercises.

And while the airfield wasn’t hugely significant to Britain’s war effort, it was a hot-bed of controversial warfare tactics, albeit ones that were never implemented.

It is likely that Firbeck was implicated in Winston Churchill’s proposed use of mustard gas spraying over German forces, at a time when an invasion of southern England was a possibility.

The plan was to fit British aircraft with equipment similar to that used for crop-spraying.

The aircraft would then fly close to and above the enemy fleet and spray them with the gas.

There was a mustard gas storage facility planned at Rossington, Doncaster, and it was intended that 613 Squadron, which was based at Firbeck, would be involved.

In the end, mustard gas was never used in this manner against the Germans.

Firbeck was used as a satellite relief landing ground for an elementary training school and RAF Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, which remained the airfield’s purpose for the duration of the war.

In 1948, the hangar at Firbeck was taken down.

Today, all that remains of the airfield is a concrete patch.

But at least now, with the unveiling of the memorial, the airfield’s history will be commemorated.

The memorial unveiling at Firbeck will be carried out by Wing Commander John E Bates OBE tomorrow, accompanied by a full dedication service and a fly-past over the airfield.

Chocks Away

Firbeck airfield was constructed under the supervision of Thomas Campbell-Black in 1935.

In 1938 Sheffield Aero Club established itself at Firbeck with a collection of planes such as Tiger Moths and Gypsy Moths.

In 1939 the airfield was closed to the Sheffield Aero Club and in 1940 was requisitioned by the Air Ministry for military use.

The airfield was used as a base for duties such as low flying and reconnaissance patrols.

The base was used throughout the war as a training ground.

The hangar was dismantled in 1948.

The site of the airfield is now used for growing wheat.