• Mark Appleby

RAF Driffield (Eastburn) – the early years

By Damian Smyth

At the beginning of the 1914-1918 war military air activity was rare; indeed, the aeroplane was still very much a novelty. The courtship with military aviation in the surrounding area of what would become RAF Driffield and the local town of the same name began in 1916. In the middle of that year, the military authorities requisitioned 180 acres from Eastburn Farm and a further 60 from the neighbouring Kelleythorpe Farm to the south-west of Great Driffield to build an airfield.

Construction work commenced in December 1916 to provide the facilities required for an aerodrome on each side of the Driffield to Market Weighton road. In common with the construction of other aerodromes at this period the building work was carried out by civilian contractors. At Eastburn the work was carried out by H. Matthews & Son Ltd. The raw materials needed for the project were brought into the Eastburn area by railway. Around this time Driffield was an important rail junction with connections to most of Northern England. The construction company laid down a narrow gauge light railway into the main technical site on which to move the vast quantities of building materials required for what would become the seven aeroplane sheds as well as Regimental Buildings, Officers’ mess, stores and living quarters etc.

A Bristol Monoplane with Captain Balfour getting ready to take-off from Driffield 1917.
A Bristol Monoplane with Captain Balfour getting ready to take-off from Driffield 1917.

During October 1917, Number 2 School of Aerial Fighter took up residence, but this was only a cadre unit equipped with a variety of aircraft: Avro 504, DH 4, DH 9 and a Bristol MIC Monoplane under the command of Captain Harold Balfour who was billeted in Driffield town with a Mr and Mrs Good. Towards the end of May 1918, Captain Balfour was posted to Bircham Newton.

By now work had been completed up to a point, but was far from complete and construction work was still in progress with makeshift buildings. The construction work was finally completed in February 1919. Eastburn now had seven 170ft x 100 ft hangars on the southern edge of the airfield which covered an area of 240 acres. Officially opened, the aerodrome now had number 21 Training Deport Station which was formed here from the resident unit 2 SAF.

A9152’ D.H. 4, Seen here after it crashed at Driffield on 11 November 1919 after hitting a shed roof on the station.
A9152’ D.H. 4, Seen here after it crashed at Driffield on 11 November 1919 after hitting a shed roof on the station.

On February 24, 1919 number 202 Squadron arrived and was followed four days later by number 217 Squadron with their DH 4 aircraft. On October 19 1919, the latter disbanded followed by number 202 on January 22 1920. The United States of America had entered the First World War in April 1917 but it was almost nearly a year later that American forces arrived in Europe. An element of the U.S. Army Air Service Construction Company arrived at Eastburn to carry out construction work as US ground staff were about to be stationed alongside the number 21 TDS where they were instructed in all aspects of running a flying unit.

A visiting DH.5 to Driffield from possibly Marske or Bircham Newton, 1919.
A visiting DH.5 to Driffield from possibly Marske or Bircham Newton, 1919.

The American unit left Driffield during mid November 1917. Activity continued at Eastburn up until the early 1920s, at which point the station was reduced to a Care and Maintenance basis. Eastburn was not scheduled to be retained as a permanent aerodrome and was eventually dismantled some years later.

During the 1930s the site was surveyed and found suitable to re-activate as an airfield. Although work did not start until the end of 1935, the airfield was one of the 14 listed on the 1935 war map for the north-east of England. The airfield was planned to the standard pattern with five ‘C’ type hangars on the eastern side and substantial brick-built administrative buildings, officers’ and other ranks’ messes and living quarters grouped neatly behind them. The new airfield, now known as Driffield, opened on July 30 1936, as a bomber station within number 3 Group, under the command of Group Captain Murliss-Green.

The grass airfield was far from complete and the hangars and living quarters were not completed until early 1937. In September 1936 the first aircraft arrived with numbers 58 and 215 Squadron from Worthy Down. Their Vickers Virginia biplane bombers touched down on the grass runway and an extensive course of day and night flying training was begun. Two squadrons re-formed here on March 15 1937. The first was number 51 from ‘B’ Flight of 58 Squadron, but this moved immediately to Boscombe Down on the 24th of the month along with 58 Squadron. The other squadron to re-form was number 75 from ‘B’ Flight of number 215 Squadron. 75 Squadron was initially equipped with Virginias and Ansons but later re-equipped with the Handley-page Harrow.

As the build-up continued the station was transferred to number 4 Group on June 29 1937. There were further changes in July 1938. During the early part of the month 75 Squadron exchanged places with 102 Squadron at Honington, Suffolk. In the latter part of the month 215 Squadron also moved to Honington and the Honington-based Wellesleys of 77 Squadron moved to Driffield.

The two resident squadrons began to re-equip with the Armstrong Whitworth Whitley during October and November 1938, and it was with these aircraft that Driffield entered the Second World War.

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