When the large yellow earth moving machines arrived in the village and started to pull up the large wood where, as children, we used to play and gather nuts and when the two nearby farmhouses were demolished, we were all very sad for, being a small community. we all knew one another. We didn't like what was happening. When the runways were laid and buildings of all shapes and sizes sprang up, there was great activity. Burn was no longer a sleepy village.
Marjorie Burley, wartime resident of Burn.
Few tourists driving along the busy A19 Selby to York road in North Yorkshire, when passing through the village of Burn, realise that behind the eastern hedgerows extend the remains of what, half a century ago, was a front line Heavy Bomber Station of distinction. No direction sign is to be seen although a clue exists as to the presence of a nearby airfield in the form of a small notice advertising a Gliding Club.
Those who choose to stop at the ‘Wheatsheaf Inn’ and look across the main road will see a small commemoration stone dedicated to ‘All who served in 578 Squadron, Royal Air Force, Burn 1944 -1945’. In the nearby Methodist Chapel the names of the 219 airmen who flew out of Burn, never to return, are permanently displayed together with other mementos of Squadron achievement.
Those of a curious disposition, with time to spare, could find their way along the short spur road opposite the Methodist Church, past a row of new houses to a large gap in the hedge. This in turn shortly leads to an open hard standing, formerly the armoury, maintenance unit and hangar area but now occupied by a modern brick-built Gliding Club Headquarters and equipment park.
The direct view ahead is due east, although mounds of dumped earth obscure the criss-cross of runways in the middle foreground and the former London to Edinburgh main railway line which forms the far boundary, nearly a mile distant.
To the right, due south and seven hundred yards away, a large poppy field now defines, in summer, the site of the former Squadron Control area and main entrance to the airfield from Burn Lane. Here there were numerous buildings of many shapes and sizes, all clustered together and accommodating over one hundred essential but varied activities, including the Watchtower and Command Offices, Administration Units, Aircrew Briefing, Locker, Rest and Mess Rooms, Parachute, Respirator and Photographic Stores, Intelligence Unit, Blast Shelters and all the rest of the establishment paraphernalia all now long since disappeared.
Over to the left, well hidden by piles of agricultural waste and builders’ rubbish, is the former bomb dump, reaching to the Selby Canal on the northern extremity of the airfield.
The adventurous, with more time at their disposal, might decide to circumnavigate the three mile long perimeter track along which the heavy laden bombers would proceed from their scattered dispersal points to selected main runways in order to start their flight.
As with most military airfields of the era, Burn had three intersecting runways, giving six alternative headings for take-off or landing, into the prevailing wind at the time. The direction of the runway at the entry was measured in degrees clockwise from the datum of true north as a three digit figure, and then abbreviated to the first two digits for easier identification e.g 150 to 15.
Shortly after turning left onto the perimeter track from the present Gliding Club headquarters, is runway 15, heading approximately south east. The next, beyond the humps marking the bomb dump on the left, is runway 19, which at 5,700 feet is the longest of the three, running due south, parallel to the old London North Eastern Railway main line from London to Edinburgh.
Stories have been told that pilots would hope for the timely appearance of an express train from the north just as they were revving their engines for take-off, so that the train would overtake at the start of their run but be thoroughly outpaced when the aircraft became airborne at the far end of the runway, usually accompanied by loud blasts on the steam whistle and the waving of arms from the cab and carriage windows.
The next runway, just round the right turn of the perimeter track is 25, heading approximately south west and then, three quarters of a mile later, 33, the commencement of a notorious short runway of 4,290 feet which pointed north west. The Barff, a hillock of land, a mile or two distant which, although rising only a score or two feet, was viewed with apprehension by pilots hard pressed to coax their machines to sufficient height to clear the copse of trees on the summit.
Another unpopular runway was 01, starting on the southern turn of the airfield. This aligned with the tower of Selby Abbey to the north which, at two and a half miles distant, rather resembled a nine pin but one very definitely not to be knocked down!
Finally, runway 07 which, together with its reciprocal in the opposite direction, was probably the most used of all being in the general direction of the prevailing winds. But this was not immune to accidents, one notorious instance being when a fully loaded Halifax failed to take off and ploughed into a siding full of bomb and ammunition trucks, all waiting to be unloaded. Swift work by ground crews in isolating possible causes of ignition averted a serious explosion.
Some visitors may find the present airfield an uninteresting place. Others will be prepared and be able to imagine the necessary bustle of activity required to service and crew up to thirty large four-engined aircraft scattered around the perimeter, with men and women in vehicles, riding the ubiquitous bicycle, or on foot, going about their business within the confines of the airfield or the domestic sites beyond.
Most nights would have echoed the increasing noise of up to one hundred and twenty Bristol Hercules engines bursting into life, shortly to be followed by the stately, shadowy follow-my-leader movements of the aircraft taxiing in orderly procession towards the chosen runway, then the full powered crescendo of their taking off, at one minute intervals or less, to circle overhead until all were airborne when, in loose formation, they would head toward foreign lands to discharge their deadly loads
In four, six or eight hours time, according to the location of the target, the noise would be repeated, but to a lesser extent perhaps, depending upon how many aircraft were to return. The ‘Dawn Chorus’ at daybreak, would herald a semblance of normality but, after a few hours respite, the process would start all over again.
For fourteen months this place was the second home for two and a half thousand service men and women. The accommodation was spread over twelve sites, containing in total billets, mess halls, ablution facilities, sick quarters, mortuary, chapel and meeting rooms, in all over 230 separate buildings and installations. Even the most diligent investigator would be unlikely to locate a dozen of them today.
By the end of March 1945 the brief operational life of Burn airfield was over. In 1946 it was used by the War Department to store, and recondition, vast numbers of armoured and other military vehicles. This gave much needed work to some 600 civilian population until 1959 when the whole property was acquired by the Central Electricity Generating Board with the intention of using the airfield as a dumping ground for pulverised fuel ash waste created by the new coal fired Power Station developments in the area. The proposition was defeated at a subsequent public enquiry, since when, some of the land has been returned to agricultural use, the remainder lying dormant apart from the activities of the Burn Gliding Club whose graceful aircraft circle and swoop above these historic acres, as if in silent requiem.
A lonely field when summer’s day is ending
The drowsing birds, their evening prayers intone
A stillness reigns and yet, somehow, I cannot feel alone.
There’s naught to see, rank grass and brambles clinging.
There’s naught to hear, yet something holds me there
Are they not voices? Is not that someone singing?
A million sounds now fill the evening air.
The drone of ‘planes is that the sound I’m hearing?
The hum of engines across the misted field
Now left, now right, dispersal points appearing
And winged leviathans standing now revealed.
There in the haze the drab clad figures milling
Like busy ants their burdens to dispose.
Their deadly loads the hungry bellies filling
From midnight sky disgorge on Britain’s foes.
Now harnessed youths with parachutes a swinging
Wither away where journeying this night.
They laugh, they sing their voices round me ringing
Shall I not see them in morning’s greying light?
But turn away. Who gave me leave to listen.
Their glorious past. Who gave me leave to peep
Yet glance again, already dewdrops glisten.
They’re natures tears her secrets she will keep.
The entrance to the airfield is off the short length of residential road behind the ‘Wheatsheaf’ public house. The gate is usually locked for vehicles but pedestrian access is possible. Intending visitors, especially on flying days, should report to the Burn Gliding Club headquarters behind the hangar. In the absence of available attention, they should proceed with caution and confine themselves to the perimeter track