Ipswich Icons: Town reached for the skies and the Prince of Wales touched down
Ipswich Airport never quite made it onto the world stage, writes John Norman, from the Ipswich Society.
Between its opening in 1930 and closure in 1997 there were commercial flights to Southend, Clacton and Jersey.
Suckling Airways also operated a service – Manchester, Ipswich, Amsterdam – but moved the East Anglia stop-off to Cambridge soon after it began.
None of these routes was an outstanding commercial success; there were simply not enough passengers who wanted to fly from Ipswich.
The airport, however, was a useful asset to the town for pleasure flying, and for its wartime service.
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Someone made an inspired choice when choosing the dignitary to open the airfield.
The Prince of Wales, later to become King Edward VIII (and then the Duke of Windsor), had just obtained his private pilot’s licence and was able to fly himself from Northolt.
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On Thursday, June 26, 1930, he arrived in Ipswich in a Westland Wapiti, a two-seater single-engine biplane.
The Prince of Wales was preceded onto the grass runway by a Blackburn Bluebird carrying the mayor, who brought the Air Ministry licence giving the borough full permission to operate an airfield.
The mayor was councillor Arthur Lewis Clouting, Ipswich’s first Labour mayor, and the plane was piloted by Dr Henry Paterson, chairman of the Suffolk Aero Club, an organisation that had been awarded the contract to run the facility on behalf of the borough.
During the opening ceremony the prince congratulated the borough on its far-sighted policy of providing an aerodrome for the town. The cost of the entire airfield, including the cost of the land, was £13,245. (The terminal building was to come later.)
The Prince of Wales had been accompanied to Ipswich by two RAF fighter pilots. After the official opening, they commented on the quality and convenience of the new aerodrome, a remark that may have said more about the inadequacy of other municipal airfields than the virtues of the grass at Ipswich.
In February, 1936, the Straight Corporation took on the management of the aerodrome and prepared ambitious plans for the site, including a terminal building designed by architects Hening & Chitty.
With aspirations for commercial success, the new terminal was officially opened on July 9, 1938, by the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Air, Captain Harold Balfour.
It was a great day for Ipswich Airport, with more than 30,000 spectators and with aircraft flying in from Martlesham Heath and Stradishall.
Sea planes from The Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Felixstowe staged a flypast and three Gloster Gladiators performed aerobatics.
A few days earlier the Straight Corporation had commenced a regular scheduled service to Clacton-on-Sea, return fare 9/6 (nine shillings and sixpence or 47½ new pence). This service was not to last. Early in 1939 the airport was taken over by the Reserve Flying School to train pilots for the Volunteer Reserve
On the day Germany declared war on Poland, the Luftwaffe struck immediately, catching the Poles off-guard with their aircraft on the ground, sitting targets for the incoming fighters.
This was not the case in Britain, where the RAF had made arrangements to disperse aircraft both into woodland close to the outfield (Martlesham) and to subsidiary airfields.
The day before war broke out (September 2, 1939) 20 Blenheims were dispatched from Wattisham to Ipswich. The Blenheim was a twin-engined light bomber, the first of a new generation of monoplanes produced by the Bristol Aeroplane Company – the first metal-skinned monoplane with a retractable undercarriage to be built in Britain.
That month, the Government requisitioned Ipswich airfield and facilities, and allocated it as an outpost of RAF Wattisham, under No. 2 Group Bomber Command.
The very first air-raid of the Second World War by the British involved Blenheim aircraft from RAF Nacton (as the Ipswich airfield was now called) crossing the North Sea to the Schillig Roads near Wilhelmshaven (on the approach to Hamburg).
Fifteen Blenheims were sent to attack German warships. Only 10 found their target and five of those were lost during the sortie. One of those crashed onto the deck of the cruiser Emden and inflicted serious damage. However, the light bombs used proved to be entirely useless against the armoured decks of the German warships.
Ipswich Airport had entered the war...
Look out for part two next week.