RAF Driffield: The fascinating history of the Yorkshire air base that played key role in both world wars and could become major housing development

A former RAF base in Driffield with history spanning more than a century through the 20th century’s biggest conflicts could be set for a new life as a housing estate.

Alamein Barracks, as RAF Driffield is now known, is currently subject to draft plans from East Riding Council to turn into a 360 home estate.

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The council is currently running a consultation on the Alamein Barracks Masterplan, which sets out its vision for the future of the base, open for comments until Monday December 7.

RAF Driffield is now a cadet base

The transformation would come after the base was used during both world wars, hosted training for pilots of newly invented jet planes and was home to Cold War missiles.

Its military legacy lives on in part of the base which is still run by the Ministry of Defence’s infrastructure arm and is sometimes used by cadets.

But hangars which housed aircraft including Halifax bombers and Gloster Meteors have been turned into industrial workshops since the MOD sold the majority of its land there in 2007.

Almost a century earlier the base opened and that is when it began playing its role in the wider British war machine.

The Queen visiting RAF Driffield in 1954

RAF Eastburn, the First World War and rearmament

In July 1918, as Allied forces fought to push the German army back across the Western Front, a new RAF airfield christened Eastburn opened southwest of Driffield’s town centre.

It was one of the first built by the newest arm of Britain’s military formed only months earlier in April 1918 and began as an assortment of wood and brick buildings.

Historian Bruce Halpenny’s Action Stations: Military Airfields of Yorkshire states the base was first occupied by the No. 21 Training Depot.

But just as the airfield was getting off the ground, German resistance on the Western Front collapsed, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and fled and the November 11 armistice was signed.

Three RAF squadrons joined the base in March 1919 as revolutionary upheaval and political crises gripped Germany and Britain stepped up military intervention against the newly formed Soviet Union.

But the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in June and Britain dialling down its involvement in the Russian Civil War meant Westminster wanted to scale its expanded military back.

The three squadrons at RAF Eastburn were disbanded by early 1920 and the airfield was abandoned as politicians and the public hoped to enter a new era of peace.

But Britain became beset by its own economic and social problems and was increasingly embroiled in fighting rebellions in its colonies, losing the Irish Republic in the process.

And the rise of Benito Mussolini in Italy, the Great Depression and Adolf Hitler’s Nazis taking power in Germany meant the spectre of war hung over Europe by the 1930s.

As a result, RAF and other military officials looked to rearm and the abandoned base was chosen as part of a wider air expansion plan.

Rebuilding works began in 1935 and the rechristened RAF Driffield opened in July the following year and was home to two bomber squadrons by 1938.

Their crews began a training and exercise regime to prepare them for the conflict which finally came on September 3, 1939 when the Second World War broke out.

RAF Driffield in the fight against fascism

Crews from the bomber squadrons flying twin engined Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers were first tasked with dropping propaganda leaflets over Europe.

Their first mission, on the second night of the war, saw them drop leaflets over the French-German border and six million were scattered over Warsaw in March 1940.

Aircraft from RAF Driffield took part in the first deliberate bombing of Germany days later, targeting a seaplane base on an island off the country’s coast.

But despite crews’ early successes, German retaliation would soon follow.

At around midday on Thursday August 15 1940, base personnel would have looked up and seen about 50 Luftwaffe Ju88 bombers amassed in formation heading their way.

The raid saw about 169 bombs dropped, killing 13 including the first member of the Women’s RAF to die in the war, while damaging all five of the airfield’s hangars.

Damage to the base knocked it out of action until early 1941, with bombers swapped for fighters to patrol the North Sea once repairs finished.

But by April the bombers were back and the number of squadrons increased, including one from Canada, ready to begin Britain’s bombing campaign of Germany.

Six Wellington bombers from 104 Squadron took off from RAF Driffield on May 9, targeting Bremen.

No planes were shot down but only four reached their target, with the other two forced to turn back due to mechanical problems.

The base was closed again in 1943 for a revamp and reopened in June 1944 complete with three new concrete runways, the remains of which are visible today.

Its reopening came just in time for RAF Driffield crews, now joined by air crews from Australia, to take part in the Allied liberation of Europe.

A total of 30 bombers from RAF Driffield joined a raid on a German garrison at Le Havre in September and another the following day before it surrendered to Allied soldiers.

Australian crews flew on their final mission of the war from the base in April 1945, bombing gun emplacements on the island of Wangerange.

Halpenny wrote in his history that RAF Driffield became “one of the most important bomber bases” of the war.

RAF Driffield as the Cold War hots up

The war’s end saw Nazi Germany and fascist Italy defeated but Europe would once again be divided as Britain’s allies the US and USSR turned on each other.

Britain along with much of western Europe joined with the Americans and as the Cold War began, training programmes for pilots at RAF Driffield got going in earnest.

Navigation exercises began in 1946 with crews flying for up to six hours, sometimes at night, down the east coast, across the English Channel and up to Scotland.

RAF Driffield then found itself at the forefront of the Jet Age and became home to the world’s first dedicated school for pilots of the aircraft.

British Pathe news cameras captured footage of pilots training at the Advanced Flying School which they dubbed the ‘World’s Fastest School’.

Training was moved to Lincolnshire in 1955 and RAF Driffield once again became home to fighter squadrons.

In 1957, as fears of a nuclear confrontation between NATO and the Eastern Bloc reached fever pitch, the British government announced 60 ballistic missiles would be deployed around the country.

RAF Driffield became home to three more than 18-metre-long American-made Douglas Thor missiles in November 1958, all with ranges that put Moscow within striking distance.

The missiles were British owned but their nuclear warheads were controlled by the US, meaning an RAF officer would have had to sign for them if they were used.

Panic over the prospect of nuclear confrontation and the apocalyptic destruction it could unleash climaxed in October 1962 with the onset of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The Crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear war but efforts were made to ease tensions after it ended and RAF Driffield’s missile system was decommissioned in 1963.

Flights of naval plans continued at the base throughout the 1960s but by the late 1970s RAF Driffield’s life as an airfield was all but over.

Life after war

The Army took over RAF Driffield in 1977 and renamed it Alaheim Barracks.

The site was turned over to serve as an Army driving school before that was transferred to a new home in Leconfield and another former RAF airfield following its expansion.

In 1992 the base returned to air force control and was renamed, for the fourth and final time, RAF Staxton-Wold Driffield site.

But it was short lived and in 1996, with the Cold War rapidly vanishing in the world’s rear view mirror after the collapse of the USSR, it closed.

The RAF decided to transfer operations to a base at Staxton Wold itself and its ensign was lowered for the last time on June 28.

The departure of the RAF did not mean however that military interest had ended.

The MOD still owns a small part of the site which functions as a satellite of the Defence School of Transport training ground in Leconfield.

Cadets aiming to be among the next generation of British soldiers also use the site for exercises.

If the council’s plans for homes on the site go ahead, its future residents would live atop decades of military history and their lives would form part of its next chapter.