RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 1)

In the second part of Trail 17 we visit a station  with a history going back to World War One. This airfield saw a spy caught and hanged; the making of a film using Lancaster bombers, and more recently the site of a hospital for the treatment of victims of a nuclear war. Ever since its closure it has been the subject of numerous failed planning applications, and seems to have hung on by the skin of its teeth – perhaps until now.

This site must rank as one of Britain’s largest collection of ex military buildings (albeit subjected to the usual vandalism) for its collection is huge, and its a collection that includes wartime hangars. We of course go to RAF Upwood near Huntingdon.

RAF Upwood

RAF Upwood is a remarkable site to visit. Its buildings remain very empty stripped of their dignity and daubed with a wide range of graffiti, yet within its boundaries lay many years of history.

Located in the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, not far from both RAF Alconbury and RAF Warboys, Upwood is possibly one of the countries most photographed aviation sites.

RAF Upwood has seen no less than twenty-two different RAF flying units grace its runways, the majority of these being post war operational units, many coming here prior to their disbandment – it is perhaps the graveyard of RAF squadrons.

However, whilst the latter part of the 20th Century saw it gain its recognition, its origins lay way back in the First World War.

Originally opened in September 1917, as Bury (Ramsey) after the adjacent village, it had no permanent buildings and was merely a grassed airfield with no fixed squadrons of its own. Towards the end of the war though, in 1918, five hangars and a small number of huts had been built, and it was at this time that it became officially known as ‘Upwood’.

RAF Upwood

Post war, Upwood served as a hospital and most of the buildings survive.

Then, when the war ended, the personnel departed and the site was cleared of all military related artefacts, the site being returned to the local community once more.

However, the impending conflict in the late 1930s, required a massive rethinking into Britain’s defences and the need for greater air power. A number of locations were earmarked for opening, and as a former airfield, Upwood was one of them. Designed as a medium bomber station, plans were put in place for as many as five large hangars, although only four were ever completed.

Opened in early 1937, during the expansion period of pre-war Britain, it was home to both 52 and 63 Squadrons Royal Air Force. In March the two newly formed squadrons arrived, 52 Sqn from Abingdon, No. 1. Bomber Group, and 63 Sqn from Andover, No. 2 Bomber Group. At the time of opening conditions were far from ideal, only half of the total number of hangars had been built, and more importantly, there was no provision for permanent accommodation; instead, crews were faced with a rushed collection of inadequate, temporary blocks. 52 Sqn were first, followed two days later by 63 Sqn, by which time conditions had changed marginally for the better, the officers mess being one such building to open as a permanent structure – clearly rank was to have its privileges.

For 52 Sqn it was a complete change, the move being managed over just two days, which also saw them transfer to No. 2 Bomber Group bringing them in line with 63 Sqn. Initially, 52 Sqn brought with them seven Hawker Hinds, then four more on the 8th and a further two on the 10th, bringing the total number of aircraft on role to thirteen. Six of these Hinds were immediately put into reserve saved for the formation of a ‘B’ Flight.

Meanwhile, 63 Sqn began to upgrade their aircraft taking on four replacement Audaxes, each being delivered straight from the A.V. Roe factory (Woodford Aerodrome)  in Manchester. With a further three and then two more being delivered from A.V. Roe’s on the 17th and 18th respectively, the number of aircraft at Upwood now amounted to twenty-two.

This was a busy time for Upwood, with personnel coming and going, new postings arriving and staff being posted out, there was considerable movement before things finally began to settle down and operations bed in.

On the 22nd and 24th, both squadrons took turns to carry out search operations over the local countryside looking for the remains of a DH Moth belonging to Mary Russell, the Duchess of Bedford, which disappeared on the evening of the 22nd during a snowstorm. Both searches proved unsuccessful, with no sightings been made. It later transpired that the Duchess had crashed into the North Sea, her body never being found.

With 52 Sqn’s ‘B’ Flight being formed on April 6th and 63’s on the 12th, the scene was almost set, and with visits by both Air Chief Marshall Sir John Steel KCB, KBE, CMG (Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Bomber Command), and then the Under Secretary State for Air a few days later; Upwood was finally on the map and making progress toward being both operational and fighting fit.

63 Squadron would then take a step forward, having the honour of being the first operational unit to receive the new Fairey Battle, K7559 landing at Upwood on May 20th 1937, some 6 months before 52 Sqn received theirs.

Throughout the summer of 1937, the number of delivered Battles gradually increased, each one coming directly from Ringway Aerodrome, one of Fairey’s main sites. For 63 Sqn, the following months would be a busy time ‘showing off’ their new aircraft to various dignitaries from around the globe. A massive PR stunt, it started with the Gaumont British Film Company, who filmed nine of the aircraft taking off, landing and flying in formation, scenes being recorded for the film “Under the Shadow of the Wing“.

During this period, Upwood would be inundated with visitors; his Highness the Duke of Aosta along with Italian representatives started the ball rolling, followed by: Major Woutieres of Belgium; Lt. Lim Weir K’nei of the Chinese Air Force; Air Chief Marshal Sir E. Ludlow-Hewitt KCB, CMG, DSO, MC; Air Commodore S. Goble CBE, DSO, DSC. and even a consortium from Germany – General der Flieger Milch, General Lieutenant Stumpff, General Major Udet along with their entourage. These three high ranking officials were, from the 1930s onward, key to the development, build up and use of Germany’s illegal Luftwaffe. Accompanying them, were a number of high ranking British Air Force personnel, who openly guided the party through a range of inspections of the Battles, a programme of events that included a flying display at RAF Mildenhall.

Generalfeldmarschall
Erhard Milch March 1942 (Source: Wikipedia)

By the end of 1937, 63 Sqn had flown 2,256 hours, many of these to show off their aircraft. With little else to do at this time, a range of pageants and shows kept the crews busy in between the obligatory gunnery and navigation training sessions.

1938 would be filled with similar such undertakings, but as the year drew on training  would take on a more serious and predominant role, mock bombing attacks being regularly practised by the squadron on various sites including Upwood itself.

After a short period away training at West Freugh, the squadron was placed in a ‘precautionary’ state, in readiness for immediate mobilisation – the threat of war in Europe now growing ever stronger. This period was short lived however, and the squadron temporarily returned to normal duties, with yet more visits from both high ranking officials and royal dignitaries from overseas.

November 25th 1938, would be a sad day for Upwood crews, training flights proving to be hazardous, and even fatal.

New Zealander P.O. K Vare, managed to land and walk away from Battle K7603 as it burned on a nearby railway line, whilst 63 Sqn Battle K7567 crashed in poor weather whilst undertaking a navigation exercise over Hampshire. The aircraft, piloted by P.O. J Ellis (killed), collided with trees severely injuring Cpl. A Thoroughgood and ejecting AC2 V. Rawlings. Being thrown from the aircraft was possibly Rawlings’s saviour, the likely hood of being killed himself higher had he not been.

Fairey Battle Mk.I (K7602) of 52 Squadron, at RAF Upwood.© IWM H(am) 179

On the 16th December, in a ceremony attended by the station staff, P.O. Ellis’s ashes were scattered over the airfield, the procedure being carried out from another Fairy Battle from the squadron.

After a short Christmas break, 63 Sqn returned to their duties once more, training flights, many of which were in conjunction with squadrons from other airfields, increasing in frequency as events across the Channel took on an even more sinister turn.

In mid March, a new policy was issued that would affect the operation of both the Upwood squadrons. This policy turned both 52 and 63 into ‘non mobilising’ units, meaning that the more senior officers would remain on site as instructors, whilst the ‘regular’ crews would be posted to operational units. The spaces left by these vacating staff being filled by Volunteer Reserves from the various Flying Schools. After a period of some months, these trained staff would revert to civilian status, but as reserves, they could be called upon if, or more likely when, war was declared – the war machine was again stepping up a gear. A further element of this change was the allocation of 10 new Avro Anson aircraft, each of these twin-engined training aircraft arriving over the next few weeks direct from Woodford.

This period would see world tensions rise even further, and as war looked even more likely, changes were again made to Upwood’s staff. Rehearsals in dispersing aircraft were carried out, passes were restricted to ensure sufficient numbers were always on hand in case of war being declared, and mock attacks on the airfield were carried out. During these mock attacks ‘Gas’ was sprayed by both ‘attacking’ aircraft and from a ground based “High Pressure Jenny”, a devise developed in America to spray water and steam over the outside of aircraft.

Upwood then experienced a second fatal accident, which occurred on the night of 25th July 1939, the crash involving Fairy Battle K9412 of 63 Sqn with the loss of all on board: Sgt. Albert Shepherd, Sgt. Aubrey Sherriff and AC2 William Murphy. The aircraft struck the ground and caught fire whilst taking part in one of these preparatory exercises.

The end of August saw a further ramping up of the gears with the implementation of the Bomber Command War Order (Readiness ‘D’). Aircraft of both squadrons were now restricted to essential tests and practises only, being dispersed across the airfield, bombed up but without fuses, ready for flight. Personnel were also put on high alert, anyone on leave was recalled and had to return back to the station.

As September dawned, the full readiness ‘D’ plan was brought into full force. 52 Sqn were ordered to disperse aircraft at nearby Alconbury, with twenty-four Battles and five Ansons being flown across, along with a small guard and a selection of maintenance personnel. The Royal Air Force as a body was mobilised by Royal Proclamation, and preparations were made for war, the entry in the Operations Record Book for 63 Sqn simply stating:

3rd Sept. 11:00 “A state of war is declared between Great Britain and the German Reich

In Part 2, Upwood goes to war, major changes come in terms of both aircraft and infrastructure. New squadrons arrive and an unwelcome visitor is caught.

The entire text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders.