RAF Norton 1939-1964

THIS FORMAT SHOWS TEXT taken from WARTIME IN NORTON published by NHG in 1995

The confusingly named Coal Aston Aerodrome was neither at Coal Aston nor was an aerodrome in the accepted sense of the term. Only for the few months in 1916 was it used by operational aircraft of the RFC.

The R.A.F. Station on Norton Avenue at Herdings, locally called Norton Aerodrome, was not an aerodrome in the commonly accepted sense. Like its First World War predecessor, at the opposite end of Norton, it had no aircraft or any runways. It was, however, a very important R.A.F. Station.

The Story of the Balloon Barrage in Sheffield and the part played by R.A.F. Norton.

It was realised that if war did break out, barrage balloons would be a real deterrent to enemy bombers. The planes would have to fly at a great height, rather than risk a collision, so it would be difficult for bombs to be aimed with accuracy.

In February of 1939 three Squadrons were raised in Sheffield as part of the Auxiliary Air Force . The C.O. was Sq/Ldr R.Caley M.C., assisted by the adjutant, Fl.Lt. E.O.Whitamore, and a few other regular officers. Their work was mainly administrative and their office was at 641 Attercliffe Road.

An advertisement asked for men aged from 25-50 to enlist for a period of 4 years. They had to be fairly fit and would be required to pass a medical examination; wearing glasses would not count against them. Training would take 2 hours on one night a week and one week-end out of 3 and attendance at an annual camp of 15 days was required. Pay was 6d. an hour (2.5p in today’s currency) whilst training, plus travelling expenses.

About 1,000 men from Sheffield and district volunteered for service, the majority having served in the first World War. They began training, learning about knots, ropes and wires and how to fly balloons.

The first balloons were made and assembled in an old confectionery factory in Bridge Street. This was not large enough to allow the balloons to be inflated so work started on building balloon hangars at the 150-acre Herdings site at Norton in March 1939. Training took place here, now known as the No.16 (Sheffield) Balloon Centre, Norton, where the three Auxiliary Squadrons were under the command of Wing Commander R.E.M. Cherry, M.C.

By July steel-framed hangars were up, concrete roads laid, a wooden hut built to accommodate regular airmen attached to the Squadron, an officers' mess provided and a sports ground levelled at the south-east corner.

On 24th August 1939, just days before the declaration of war, the three Squadrons, Nos. 939, 940 and 941, were mobilized and barrage balloons were flown at Norton on 26th August. The H.Q. personnel moved to Norton and communications established with Fighter Command. Three fully trained Meteorological Officers received weather reports from all over the country via secured telephone links and teleprinters and gave weather forecasts to operational staff.

Supplies of hydrogen, petrol and food rations were stored and sent out to 80 different places, often by the help of private cars. Men called dispatch riders delivered all messages, often using their own motor cycles.

In December 1939 Wing Commander Cherry transferred back to the Army and Sq/Ldr Caley, the C.O. of 939 Squadron, was promoted to Wing Commander and took charge at Norton.

A certain amount of reorganisation of Command took place between 1939 and 1941. No.16 Balloon Centre was in No.33 Group under Air Commodore A.R. Bisteed and the Group H.Q. was located firstly in Newcastle, then Hull and finally in Sheffield at Parkhead House. The area covered by the Group was the largest in the U.K., stretching from Derby to the Orkneys. In April 1940, Sheffield was reorganized into two Squadrons, two Flights from 941 going to 939 and one Flight to 940. Wing Commander Caley moved to Birmingham and the new C.O. was Group Captain N.W.R. Mawle, D.F.C.

On the memorable night of December 12th, 1940, the barrage round Sheffield was at full strength - 72 balloons. Of these, no fewer than 47 were damaged by enemy planes or by shrapnel. By great effort of the crews, the barrage was restored to full strength within 24 hours of the end of the raid.

At the end of January 1941 the Air Training Corps was established and within a few weeks 2,000 people had volunteered, forming 10 Squadrons. The Sheffield Wing was commanded by N. Lee. Many ex R.F.C. men volunteered to act as officers and went for refresher courses at Norton.

A De Havilland Gypsy Moth, G-AAEE, was given to Sheffield Wing by Major H.R. Senior and handed over at Norton R.A.F. Station on 24th May 1941.

Norton was the base for 367 Squadron, Sheffield South. The city squadrons paraded at Norton on 12th July 1941 for a rehearsal and the next day the Duke of Kent made his first inspection of the Wing, taking the salute outside the Town Hall.

New balloon sites in Sheffield were set up by R.A.F. personnel who were billeted near Norton. They collected all the stores and equipment needed from Norton, including the new balloons and the Fordson 6-wheeled vehicles with balloon winches, and transported everything to the new site.

As the war progressed, men were sent from Norton to start new air balloon sites in Britain and the Mediterranean, resulting in a serious shortage of manpower. The only way to keep up a defensive balloon barrage throughout Britain was to train women to do the job, so in January 1941 the A.O.C. was asked to consider women in this capacity. Twenty W.A.A.F.s, working mostly in fabric repair shops, volunteered for a balloon course at Cardington and were fully trained by June 1941. Sheffield was chosen for the "WAAFization experiment".

In July, women crews were deployed on eight sites. Over 1,000 W.A.A.F. officers, N.C.O.s and airwomen moved into the area and by December 1941 W.A.A.F.s were operating most of the balloons. This great success resulted in the No. 16 Balloon Centre, R.A.F. Station Norton, becoming the foremost training centre for W.A.A.F. officers and airwomen in the country. There were 15,700 W.A.A.F. balloon operators on 1,029 sites by the end of 1942.

A barrage balloon was made from rubber proofed cotton fabric, using 600 pieces of fabric totalling 1,000 yards of material. Punctures had to be repaired swiftly; pin holes and tears up to three inches across were patched by using rubber solution. The personnel were given a glass of milk at 11.00 a.m. daily in order to counteract any ill effects of breathing in the dope!

The balloon measured 63 ft x 31 ft and contained 19,600 cubic feet (500 lbs) of hydrogen gas. At the beginning of the war it took 40 minutes for ten men to raise a balloon to about 6,000 ft, the usual operational height.

Fordson Sussex winch vehicles were used. Pre-war types had a rounded, more streamlined appearance to the lorry cab whilst those made during the war had an angular, utility look. They had two engines, one the normal Fordson V8 engine under the bonnet for driving the vehicle and the second engine on the back for driving the cable winch. The operator sat above this engine in a cage of wire mesh fastened over two curved metal bars. This gave some protection against loose or broken cables, which lashed about with considerable force. The cable winch had two controls, a throttle governing the engine speed and a brake lever.

Small trailers carried 36 gas cylinders. These could all be opened at the same time in order to inflate a balloon at speed. It was a very dangerous job at times, especially if the balloon was dragged about in a high wind, but no death was recorded in Britain as a result of controlling a balloon.

W.A.A.F. balloon crews were issued with warm kit, consisting of: airman's rough serge battle-dress top ; seaman's pullover; seaman's stockings; seaman's sou'wester; grey woollen knee length under garment; clog type hob-nailed boots.

Good food was also necessary and all W.A.A.F.s on balloon sites received R.A.F. men's rations. An advert asking for W.A.A.F. recruits to take over the balloon barrage states: " It's a fine healthy life for women who are fit and strong and fond of the open air. You must be 5ft. 1in. tall or over and aged between 17 yrs 6 mths and 43 yrs. After training you will be posted to a balloon site where you will live and work in a small community of about a dozen or so. When fully trained your minimum pay is 3/- a day (15p in today’s currency) and all found.

A Serviceman's wife does NOT lose her allowances on joining up and she IS granted her leave to coincide with her husband's leave, subject only to urgent Service considerations.

Single girls born between 1st Jan 1918 and 30th June 1922 come under the National Service Act and must go to an Employment Exchange not a Recruiting Centre."

It has already been stated that the Balloon Centre, apart from being a major training centre, had other departments. The complementary function of storing equipment for furnishing new balloon sites was one; the meteorological and medical services were also important


A War Department document file (in possession of Mr Morton- Hall) includes a map of Civil and R.A.F. Airfields and gives R.A.F. Non-flying Unit Locations. These include two Sheffield Aircrew discipline centres. Latitude and longitude co-ordinates are given for Norton, 53 20 North and 01 27 West, and for Winter Street 53 23 North and 01 29 West.

Certainly Norton was a centre for airmen who had broken rules and may also have been a centre for men who needed help for shattered nerves. A book with a title like "They are not shooting at you now, grandfather" by Hazard mentions the discipline centre.

It was also a place where aircrew were sent for R. & R. (Rest and Recuperation), after they had completed a number of tours of duty. All aircrews were rested by sending them for courses, or some non-demanding occupation, at non-operational air stations. Local residents remember Australian airmen attending dances in the neighbourhood of Norton.

Transfer from Balloon Barrage to Radio and Radar

As the amount of bombing lessened, the balloon service and supply facilities were gradually reduced and finally the site passed from Balloon Command to Signals' Command on 1st July 1943. No.16 Balloon Centre was renamed R.A.F. Norton and became the home of No.3 Ground Radio and Radar Servicing Squadron. Their motto was "Arte et Animo" (with skill and spirit). The Signals' motto was "Aetherem vincere". (to conquer the upper air).

This meant that high-class mechanical, electrical and radio engineers were on the site and, as a result of this, the Radio Vehicle Convoy Assembly Unit was established at Norton.

Radio Vehicles were fitted out with the most modern equipment available for communication, search and navigational purposes and these vehicles with their various types of equipment were assembled into convoys for use by the R.A.F. throughout the world.

Pictures exist which show some two dozen Radio Vehicles lined up outside large workshops on the site and of a convoy driving along the roads in the site.

The badge of the Unit showed a lightning flash (red on white) and, below this, a chain pulled taut between two mailed fists. This indicated the parallel between the strength of a chain being dependent on each link and the strength of a radio convoy being dependent on the efficiency of each vehicle.

Plaques showing the badge of R.A.F. Norton are in St James' Church and in Mundella Place School. The latter is mounted on a very heavy oak shield and bears a silver oblong inscribed Presented by Wing Commander K.A.Mummery July 1957.

Buildings on the Station Plan available, List of buildings available

Many buildings on the site can be seen on aerial photographs which are now in Sheffield City Libraries Local Studies Department. These can be interpreted from a plan which was printed in a leaflet produced for a Battle of Britain "At Home" Day at Norton in 1956. See also section on Daily Life.

A number of ring-shaped structures show on the photographs. Their use has not yet been resolved (Feb 1994) They may have been practise sites for setting up balloon "beds" (when it was hauled down and secured) or, possibly, were hydrogen gas cylinder storage areas.


Daily life at R.A.F.Norton

Accommodation at the Norton base was supplied for airmen and airwomen in an area containing 14 huts. Others were billeted with local families, for example, two lived at Spring House on Norton Lane (the "little shop", now demolished). (Ref. Mrs Pat Allen). WAAF were also billeted in White Lane, Gleadless. (Ref. Mrs. McAllen, in White Lane herself).

A number of local people can remember houses which were rented as officers' quarters, for example in School Lane, Norton.

Some houses were built for officers in Adastral Avenue, Luna Croft, Rosser Avenue and Bowman Drive. A 4-bedroomed house, reputedly belonging once to a Camp Commandant, was sold in 1993 for £19,000. This area, to the east of the site, is still owned by the Ministry.

Mrs Eveline Latimer (nee Babe Stenning) was stationed at Norton from May 1941 until October 1943. For a short time she was a fabric worker, repairing the damaged balloons, "which even now I think of as real fun". She attended several courses and was made up to L.A.C.W., gradually taking on more and more office duties, working for the C.O. She left Norton with two stripes, going to R.A.F. Manston in Kent as a telephonist.

Most of the R.A.F. personnel on camp were from the South Yorkshire area whilst the W.A.A.F. came from all over Britain. I came from Hove, Sussex.

The W.A.A.F. billets were near the hangars but there were only a very few permanent girls. Some of them were: Irene HUDSON, Terry DOYLE, Freda CASTLE

My recollections of the site from 1941 are that the office of the then C.O., Flt/Lt. Marshall, was on the left of the gate, together with the office of Flt/Lt. Richardson and Sgt. Duro. The latter was in charge of the ten or twelve airmen who had worked on sites in Sheffield and were then being taken over by W.A.A.F. They acted as instructors and relief to the sites. Some names of these local men were: Cpls. Ted HODGSON, Alf CHAMBERLAIN, I? MIDGLEY, Jack BEAUMONT."

Ref. Babe Stenning 1993

Corporal Webb joined the regular R.A.F. in 1938. He helped train Auxiliary Air Force male crews for balloon work. There was always one Regular N.C.O. on each balloon site. He then worked from Norton, taking supplies, gas, pay and rations to all local balloon sites. There is a photo of him, with balloon winch, in Mundella School yard; also group photos taken at the Beard Homes at Carfield site.

A Mess was provided for Officers and another for Sergeants, plus a large dining hall for the men. Sick quarters were available and a well-appointed hospital on the site dealt with all but the most severe cases. The Sheffield hospital specialists gave unfailing help when needed. Refs. Plans; Sheffield at War.