Dave’s father-in-law, D. Stewart Robertson was a commanding officer at RAF Sleap during World War II.
If you have additional photos or information regarding the wartime history at RAF Sleap
please contact Dave at library(at)bombercommandmuseum.ca
Royal Air Force Station Sleap
by Dave Birrell
Located in the lovely, rural Shropshire countryside three miles south of the town of Wem, the Sleap Aerodrome (pronounced “Slape”) has an interesting history and continues in active use today.
Opened in 1943, Sleap was to be a satellite station for RAF Tilstock and initially was home to No. 81 Operational Training Unit under 93 Group; Bomber Command. OTU’s provided aircrew with their final training prior to flying operations with Bomber Command.
Looking at the Aerodrome map, the airfield was a substantial operation. RAF Sleap operated three runways, including one 6000 feet in length. It included dispersal locations for 27 aircraft, bomb storage areas, two large hangars for maintenance work, a technical area with shops, etc., two sites for airmen’s quarters, a WAAF quarters area, a communal site that included airmen’s messes, dining rooms, ration stores, etc., an instructional site with classroom facilities, Link Trainers, and a building that contained an “AM Bombing Teacher and Turret Trainer,” and various infrastructure such as power generating and sewage disposal facilities.
There are records of aircraft landing as early as January, 1943, but regular use of the base did not begin until April with the arrival of the twin-engined Whitley bombers of No. 81 OTU. Although training was the primary purpose of the station it is known that some leaflet dropping operations were flown over enemy territory.
In January, 1944 Sleap’s role became one of training glider pilots (38 Group; Airborne Forces), still using the Whitleys but now as tugs for the Horsa gliders that were capable of carrying 20 to 25 troops each. Preparations were being made for the airborne assaults that were part of D-Day and Arnhem. As the end of 1944 approached the Whitleys were replaced by Wellington aircraft.
RAF Sleap was initially commanded by W/C Carter. He was succeeded by W/C D. Stewart Robertson DFC on 15 July, 1943. W/C Robertson was previously the Chief Flying Instructor.
In January, 1945 Sleap returned to its former role as an OTU but now with Wellington bombers. The base was closed in December, 1945.
Notable incidents at the base included the following:
- During the night of 4/5 April, 1943 two Lancaster crews were grateful to land at Sleap after finding their field fogged in.
- In the early hours of August 26, 1943 a Whitley (LA-937), having taken off at 20:50 the previous evening, was returning from a night navigation exercise when both engines faltered immediately prior to touch-down. The aircraft went out of control and struck the control tower. The pilot (F/O K.N. Laing RCAF from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan) and bomb aimer (Sgt. T.R. Armstrong RCAF of Parry Sound, Ontario) were killed and three others aboard the aircraft (Sgt. T.W. Fair RCAF, Sgt. R.G. Henderson, and Sgt. R. Guile) were seriously injured. Three on the ground were injured, including the station commanding officer, W/C D.S. Robertson. The others were AC1 Ferguson and LAW2 J.M. Viney of the WAAF. According to a report, “about 15 personnel miraculously escaped injury.”
- At 00:20 on September 7, 1943 another Whitley (BD-257) swung out of control and hit the control tower while taking off and burst into flames. Four crewmembers aboard the aircraft were killed (F/O R.W. Browne, F/L E.L. Ware RCAF from Guelph, Ontario, Sgt. W.D. Kershaw, and Sgt. E. Young) and three others (Cpl. Norman W. Peate, and WAAFs ACW2 Vera Hughes and ACW2 Kitty Ffoulkes) were killed in the tower. The aircraft’s rear gunner was badly injured and two WAAF met staff (LACW A.B. Jowett and ACW2 B. Hall) were badly burned. Clearly, two bombers crashing into the control tower at RAF Sleap within less than two weeks was an extraordinary double tragedy.
- In September, 1943, a lost B-17 carrying 19 ferry pilots landed at Sleap with very little fuel remaining.
- During March 1944, the massive four-engined Stirling bombers were used to tow gliders at Sleap.
- In November, 1944, 31 American B-17’s returning from a raid landed at Sleap after being diverted from their bases at Molesworth, Grafton Underwood and Great Ashfield in East Anglia.
- Also in November, 1944, a Horsa crashed at the edge of the airfield, killing the pilot.
According to Tim Yates, a wireless operator-air gunner, the officers’ mess at Slape had, “the best chef in the air force. She had worked at the Ritz before the war. She was brilliant.”
During the 1950’s the base was used by the RAF to train air traffic controllers, with Vampires and other early jet aircraft being regular visitors.
The RAF left in 1964, but RAF Shawbury-based Helicopter pilots still use the Sleap from time to time for training.
Following its use by the RAF, the field became the home of the Shropshire Aero Club. The club focuses on providing flying and flight training opportunities for its members at the lowest possible price. The control tower, which had been repaired following the two tragedies in 1943, still stands and serves as a clubhouse and operations facility. If you know where to look, evidence of the crashes and subsequent fires may still be seen. A soaring group operates out of Sleap as well, providing an interesting link with the base’s wartime history. The Shropshire Aero Club’s website address is: [www.shropshireaeroclub.co.uk]
Through the co-operation of the Shropshire Aero Club, the “Wartime Aircraft Recovery Group” operates a museum on the site. This all-volunteer group investigates crash sites and recovers and displays artifacts as a memorial to pilots that gave their lives operating in the Shropshire area during World War II.
From 15 July, 1943 until 1 March, 1945
RAF Sleap was commanded by a Canadian serving with the Royal Air Force.
D. Stewart Robertson had joined the Royal Air Force in May, 1937. He flew Whitleys during his initial tour of 38 operations with No. 51 and No. 78 Squadrons, participating in the first raids to Berlin and Italy. He was awarded the DFC on 8 February, 1941. Following a year of instructing in Southern Rhodesia, S/L Robertson flew six operations in stirlings as a Flight Commander with No. 149 Squadron. He was Chief Flying Instructor with No. 81 OTU when he was appointed c/o of RAF Sleap.
[ Some information courtesy of Shropshire Aero Club ]