Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

In the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, are a group of airfields that are synonymous with the Second World War’s target marking units, the Pathfinders. This is an area rich in aviation history, and an area that played a major part in not only the European Theatre of Operations of World War Two, but military operations long into the Cold war and beyond. Within a short distance of each other are the airfields at Wyton, Warboys, Upwood and Alconbury to name but a few, and it is two of these we visit in Trail 17.

Our first stop is the former RAF Warboys, once home to the Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys.

Warboys village is an ancient village with records of inhabitants going back to 7,000BC, it also has links to the Bronze age, the Romans, Vikings and the Doomsday book. Even further back, some 350 million years, there was an active volcano in the area, not far from where we start today.

RAF Warboys

The farm sign reminds us of the aviation link (it would appear that this sign may have recently been removed).

The airfield itself was initially constructed as a satellite for RAF Upwood, with a requirement for three 50 yards wide tarmac runways; one of 2,000 yards, another measuring 1,400 yards and the last 1,350 yards. There were initially twenty-four frying pan hardstands, two of which were then used as hangar bases, with a further eighteen loop style hardstands added after. This gave a total of forty dispersal points available for aircraft, and they would certainly be needed.

As with many airfields of this time there were two type ‘T2’ hangars, one each side of the airfield, supplemented with a ‘B1’ hangar. A well developed bomb store lay to the west of the airfield, and eleven domestic sites lay to the eastern side of the A141 to the south of the main airfield. These would accommodate up to 1,959 men and 291 women. Even before its completion, Warboys would undergo further development, an order coming through to extend two of the runways to 2,097 yards and 1,447 yards, its was a sign perhaps, of things to come. This extension work meant altering the perimeter track layout and diverting the main road around the airfield as it would be dissected by the new extension (the original road was reinstated post war, the end of the main runway being cut off as a result).

Construction began in 1940 with the airfield opening in September 1941, initially as a satellite bomber station. Whilst intended for Upwood, it was first of all used by Short Stirling’s from XV Squadron as an overflow from nearby RAF Wyton. As a satellite, Warboys was never far from the war when not long after the first Wyton aircraft landed, the Commanding officer of XV Squadron,  Wing Commander P. Ogilvie, crashed the Stirling he was piloting (W7439) here in bad weather. Luckily he and his crew escaped major injury but unfortunately the aircraft was written off completely. This crash would signify a run of accidents occurring at the airfield whilst XV squadron used Warboys.

However, XV Sqn’s stay was short-lived, and they soon departed the site their vacant place being taken by the Blenheims of ‘D’ Flight, 17 OTU (Operational Training Unit).*1

The Training unit was expanding, and their base at RAF Upwood was becoming crowded. Their move over to Warboys on 15th December 1941, was a part of this expansion, and led to four flights being created, each with a range of aircraft including: Lysanders, Ansons, Blenheims and even the odd Hurricane and Spitfire.

In August 1942, the OTU would receive orders moving the unit elsewhere, whilst over at RAF Alconbury, a few miles to the south-west, instructions came through to 156 Squadron to relocate here to RAF Warboys. The instruction specified that the move was to take place on the 5th and be completed by the 7th, it would involve the ferrying of large numbers of crews and their aircraft. On the 5th the first aircraft was brought across, and then on the 6th a further six aircraft were transferred. This was followed by another seven on the 7th.

Following the move the squadron was put straight onto operations, but many of these were cancelled because of the poor autumn weather. One of the first, occurring on August 11th, saw ten aircraft detailed for operations, and whilst all of them managed to take off,  three of them X37998 (Flt.Sgt. F. Harker); Z1595 (Sqn. Ldr. J. Beavis) and BJ603 (P/O. C. Taylor) would fail to return. All but three of the sixteen aircrew onboard would perish – the squadron’s first fatalities whilst at Warboys.

RAF Warboys

The remnants of the main runway are used for buildings.

On the night of 15th August 1942, eight more Wellingtons took off from Warboys for Dusseldorf, of these, three returned early with a forth being lost. The Operational Record Book simply stating “This aircraft failed to return” – a rather unembellished statement that became so common in operational records. Reports about the raid later highlighted the poor visibility and scattered bombing, with little or no industrial damage being done as a result.

Whilst August 1942 was not proving to be in anyway remarkable for 156 Sqn, it would prove to be a very historic month for Bomber Command. On the same day as the Dusseldorf raid, the Pathfinders – an elite force designed to locate and mark targets for the main bomber stream –  officially came into being. This idea had long been on the minds of the Air Ministry, causing a prolonged and difficult relationship between Sir Arthur Harris and Group Captain Sidney Bufton (Director of Bomber Operations at the Air Ministry). The fallout culminated in the intervention of the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, who came down on the side of Group Captain Bufton. He disagreed with Harris’s arguments, announcing that the Pathfinders were going to go ahead as planned.

This did not meet with Harris’s approval, he feared the Pathfinders would ‘skim off’ the cream of his bomber force, creating a corps d’elite, whilst Bufton was adamant it would vastly improve Bomber Commands accuracy, something that desperately needed to be done.

Harris gained the backing of his Group Commanders, explaining that removing individual crews from squadrons would be bad for morale within the groups and be divisive amongst the squadrons. He and his Commanders preferred a target marking unit within each Group, thus retaining these elite crews keeping the unity of the squadrons and the skills they possessed together. However, the long fight between Harris and Bufton came to a climax with the intervention of Sir Charles Portal, and an ultimatum was given to Harris, ‘accept the new Pathfinders or leave’.

The job of organising this new command fell to the then Group Captain Don Bennett D.S.O., an experienced pilot himself who advocated the use of target marking to improve bombing accuracy; something Bennett had indeed tried himself. However, it was not going to be an easy ride for the Group Captain, for the squadrons chosen all operated different aircraft types: Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. The Wellingtons were becoming outdated and the Stirlings, whilst liked, had their own set of problems. Added to the mix the fact that German defences were improving and electronic counter measures (ECM) were on the increase, difficult times were definitely ahead.

RAF Warboys

Industry marks the south-western perimeter.

As a new force, only four squadrons were initially used, although more were considered and earmarked: 7 (No. 3 Group), 35 (No. 4 Group), 83 (No. 5 Group) and 156 (No. 1 Group), but it would take time for the new crews to settle and for improvements in bombing accuracy to shine through. All the while Pathfinder crews were operating, the remainder of the squadrons continued in their normal duties, this would allow the Pathfinder force to steadily grow.

For the large part, target marking in the latter part of 1942 would be by visual means only – a ‘Finder‘ and an ‘Illuminator‘ using flares and incendiaries respectively. This would prove to be an unsatisfactory method, the markers often being ‘lost’ amongst the fires that followed, or they were simply too difficult to see. However, photos taken after these early bombing raids showed that the number of bombs falling within 3 miles of the aiming point, post August, had in fact risen to 37% from 32%; those falling within 3 miles of the centre of concentration rising to 50% from 35%.*2 Whilst these figures were quite small, and bombing was still relatively inaccurate, it was at least a step in the right direction, and a boost to those who supported both Bufton and Bennett.

So, on the 15th August 1942, Bomber Command operations changed for good, the four squadrons moved to their respective airfields and the Pathfinders began preparations for a new battle. 156 Sqn at Warboys, would be a major part of this. Being one of the four pioneering airfields, Warboys would be joined by Graveley, Oakington and Wyton, as initial homes for the new force.

On the night of the 18th -19th August 1942, the Pathfinders would be put to the test for the first time, and two Wellingtons from 156 squadron were to be a part of it. The raid to Flensburg would not be successful though, one aircraft having great difficulty in locating the target through the haze, and the second having to ditch its flares five miles from the airfield after one ignited inside the aircraft. Of those that did get to mark, it proved to be inaccurate, and one Pathfinder aircraft, from 35 Sqn, was lost.

RAF Warboys

Airfield defence in the form of an ‘Oakington’ pill box.

The day after this, Group Captain Bennett visited Warboys to give a lecture on the Pathfinder Force and to promote its use; he must have made a good impression for after the lecture six Warboy’s crews volunteered for Pathfinder duties.

Further operations were carried out on the night of  27th – 28th August to Kassel. A good night for visual marking meant that bombing was accurate, and as a result all of the Henschel factories were damaged. However, the cost to the Pathfinders was very high. It was on this operation that the Pathfinders suffered one of their greatest losses. Thirty-one aircraft were missing of which fourteen were Wellingtons and three were from 156 Sqn. The next day, the mess hall was devoid of three crews, those from: ‘X3367’, ‘Z1613’ and ‘DF667’, and unbeknown to those sitting around the mess, there were no survivors. A fourth bomber (BJ883) returned to Warboys after the pilot, Sgt. E. Bowker, suffered severe head pains and was unable to carry on.

Not all operations were as bad. On the night of 19th – 20th September following action over Saarbrucken, a flare became lodged in the bomb bay of one of the 156 Sqn Wellingtons. Whilst sitting there it ignited causing a fire in the aircraft’s belly. The Pilot,  New Zealander Sqn. Ldr. A. Ashworth, instructed his crew to bail out, after which the fire extinguished itself allowing him to fly the aircraft back single-handedly, landing at the fighter station RAF West Malling in Kent. The operation itself, undertaken by 118 aircraft, was otherwise uneventful, although haze proved to be an obstacle for the markers.

The last 156 Sqn Wellington raid for 1942 occurred on December 21st and took the squadron to Munich as part of a force of 137 aircraft. The loss of ‘BK386’ crewed entirely by Canadians brought 1942 to a close, and a loss of 15 aircraft this year. To add insult to injury, whilst the majority of the bombers claimed to have hit the city starting large fires, photographs showed that in fact most bombs had fallen outside of the city in open countryside, possibly as a result of a successful decoy employed by the Germans. It had not been the most auspicious of starts for the Pathfinders, nor 156 Squadron at Warboys.

By early January, a new aircraft type was starting to arrive at Warboys – Avro’s mighty four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.I. Created out of the under-performing Manchester, the Lancaster would go on to be one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War.

RAF Warboys

The beautiful Memorial window dedicated to the Pathfinders.

For the early part of January 1943, the poor winter weather continued to envelop the country preventing flights from Warboys going much further afield than Wyton, a stones throw away from their base. Even so, on the 13th, the Pathfinders took another major step forward, being formed into a new and unique Group of their own, No. 8 (PFF) Group, with Don Bennett (now an Air Commodore) remaining at the helm.

On the 26th, the squadron were able to use the new Lancasters for the first time on operations, a bombing raid to Lorient in which 4 Lancasters from Warboys took part; ‘ED474’, ‘ED485’, ‘W4851’ and ‘W4853’. On the 27th the same four aircraft, with different crews, went to Dussledorf, an operation that saw the use of Oboe Mosquitoes for the first time, and a mission that was followed on the 30th by Hamburg. All aircraft returned safely from each of these early operations – 1943 was beginning to look better already.

This run of ‘good luck’ ran well into April, with a relatively low loss rate per operation. This included on  April 16th, the death of Sgt. Patrick Brougham-Faddy (S/N: 577758) and the crew of both Lancasters ‘W4854’  and ‘W4930’. What perhaps makes this incident more notable, was the fact that Sgt. Brougham-Faddy was only 18 years of age, making him amongst the youngest to lose their life in Bomber Command operations. With him lost on that mission was also: his pilot P/O. Harald Andersen DFC; P/O. Kenneth Bordycott DFC, DFM and P/O. Frederick Smith DFM along with ten other experienced aircrew. These losses were a major blow to both the Warboy’s crews and the Pathfinders.

In June 1943, the Navigation Training Unit, a Lancaster based unit formed at RAF Gransden Lodge began its move, taking residency at both Upwood and here at Warboys. The split was not be in everyone’s favour, running a unit on two different sites initially caused some difficulty as the idea of the unit was to train crews in navigation techniques ready for postings to Pathfinder squadrons.

By the time 1943 drew to a close, fifty-seven aircraft had been lost from Warboys, a mix of both Lancaster MK.Is and MK.IIIs, the Wellington now having been replaced entirely within the squadron.

RAF Warboys

Buildings mark the edge of the bomb site.

The cold winter months of 1943 – 44 signified another major event in Bomber Command’s history – the air campaign against Berlin.

For almost 5 months, November to March, Bomber Command would attack Berlin relentlessly in pursuit of Harris’s doctrine of area bombing. The Short Stirling would be withdrawn as the losses mounting were unsustainable, a similar fate that began to land on the door of the Halifax. Some compared the Lancaster to the Halifax, similar to comparing a  “sports car and family saloon”*4. The handling of the Lancaster being far superior to that of the Halifax. As a result, the Lancaster squadrons would bear the brunt of the campaign, and Warboys crews would be in the thick of it. The Pathfinders using an updated version of H2S, would operate outside the range of Oboe, the land based navigation system introduced operationally a year before.

The cold of January 1944, did nothing to dampen the flights nor reduce the combat fatalities. Raids on Berlin, Brunswick, Munich and Frankfurt saw heavy losses (seventeen alone failed to return to Warboys in January, all experienced crews) and numerous aircraft returning early. For 156 Sqn this was disastrous, the squadron began to get a name for itself being referred to as the ‘chop’ squadron and consequently morale fell. With high losses the survival rate fell to an estimated 15%, *3 an unsustainable level of loss for any squadron. For the last fourteen days of January the squadron was effectively reduced to non-operational flights, and in a desperate attempt to bolster the men’s spirits and raise morale, a royal visit was arranged for the King and Queen. Both their majesty’s arrived on February 9th, where they talked to aircrew and took lunch in the Officer’s Mess. After a short stay they departed Warboys going on to visit other Pathfinder airfields in the area.

A widely used photo showing King George VI & Queen Elizabeth talking to ground crew of No 156 Squadron at Warboys(IWM CH 12153)

By the end of February 1944, 156 Sqn were prepared to leave Warboys, maybe a new start would give a new impetus. This move would be a direct swap with the remaining Lancasters of the Pathfinder’s Navigation Training Unit (NTU) based there. Perhaps ending the operating of the unit on two sites had been seen as an ideal opportunity to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, moving 156 and reuniting the NTU.  Whatever the reason the transfer began with a small advanced party taking the short drive to RAF Upwood.

By mid March the move was complete, and Warboys settled into its new role with a full complement of the NTU, hopefully now, the harrowing tales of loss were a thing of the past. With courses of generally three to five crews every few days, turnover was rapid.

With the Mosquito taking  a greater role in the Pathfinders, more crews were needing training in its operation. The 1655 (MTU) Mosquito Training Unit (formerly the 1655 Mosquito Conversion unit) originally formed at Horsham St. Faith in 1942, moved across from RAF Marham in Norfolk; Warboys was now awash with twin and four engined aircraft.

The Training unit would only stay at Warboys until December, at which point it moved to Upper Heyford where it would disband at the end of the year, being renumbered 16 Operational Training Unit (OTU). However, for that short time at Warboys, it grew extensively, gaining five flights including a mix of aircraft for training purposes. Whilst pilots were taught how to fly the Mosquito, the navigators were taught Pathfinder navigation & marking techniques, all prior to joining as a new crew for final training and ultimately postings to a Pathfinder squadron.

RAF Warboys

Further buildings survive near the bomb site.

Many of the aircraft delivered to Warboys were veteran aircraft themselves, having served with other numerous squadrons. Mosquito DZ606 which initially arrived in April 1944, had already flown at least nineteen operational sorties before arriving here. It was then passed on to another unit (139 Sqn) before returning with a further twenty-nine sorties under its belt. The dedication of ground crews, ease of repair and the reliability of the Mosquito enabled it to complete thirty-seven more operations with other units before the year was out.  It was eventually struck off charge in 1945 after being badly damaged.

One other notable example that appeared at Warboys with 1655 MTU, was W4053 which had been the Mosquito Turret Fighter Prototype in 1941. The (bizarre) idea of this was the fitting of a four gunned Bristol turret behind the cockpit, rather like a Boulton Paul Defiant. On tests though, the turret seized when turned to the front effectively trapping the occupant inside. After running further tests with the same results, the project was abandoned and no one was allowed to fly in it again – even though some did try! The aircraft had its turret removed and served with both 151 and 264 Squadrons before passing to 1655 MTU here at Warboys. In November 1944 it was damaged in a landing accident, repaired and then reused by the unit when it was renumbered as 16 OTU at Upper Heyford, where the Mosquito was destroyed in a crash.

With the Mosquito training unit moving away, the Navigation unit remained the sole user of Warboys, but years of use by heavy bombers had had a toll on the runway, their surfaces beginning to break up and cause problems. Warboys was going to need considerable repair work carried out. However, the Navigation unit remained here until the war’s end. On the 18th June 1945 a communique came through from Bomber Command and 8 (PFF) Group, announcing the disbandment  of the Navigation Training Unit., Staff began postings elsewhere, the last courses were completed and ‘Cooks’ tours (tours taking ground crews over Germany to see the devastation) were wound down.

Before the closure of Warboys though, two more squadrons would arrive, 128 Sqn and 571 Sqn, both Mosquito Pathfinder squadrons. 571 was disbanded here on September 20th, whilst 128 Sqn transferred out to B58/Melsbroek, then Wahn where it was disbanded in 1946.

After the training units were disbanded all flying ceased. The RAF did return briefly with Bloodhound missiles in 1960 staying for 4 years until the airfield was finally closed and sold off.

With that, Warboys was gone, and its remarkable history now a distant memory. But these memories were not to be forgotten forever. The local village commemorated the loss of one particular pilot who on the 10th April 1944, lost his life whilst flying a Lancaster over the Welsh countryside.

Flt. Lt. John L. Sloper DFC and Bar, was a veteran of 156 Sqn who had transferred out of operational duties to the Training Unit after completing his tour of duty on December 29th 1943. His last mission being a bombing raid to Berlin in Lancaster JB476. Flt. Lt. Sloper had achieved his quota in just seven months. He joined the Mosquito unit to pass on his skills to others, his personality, knowledge and determination making him very popular with the other crews.

RAF Warboys

A plaque dedicated to the memory of both Flt. Lt. Sloper and those who served with 156 Squadron.

Flt Lt. Sloper (S/N: 147214) was killed in Lancaster ‘JB 471’ during a cross country navigation flight near the village of LLanwrtyd Wells in Breconshire. The aircraft crashed after entering cloud, the ensuing fireball killing all those inside. Flt. Lt. Sloper’s remains were buried at Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium, Bath.

The site today houses small industrial units, but it is primarily farmland. Only a small section of the main runway exist, and this has farm buildings upon it. This section, has been cut by the original A141 now a ‘B’ road, and evidence of the runway can still be seen either side of the road.

RAF Warboys

Pathfinder long distance walk.

The farm entrance has a large sign with a Lancaster modelled out of metal. Two memorials on the gate posts mark the runway (since my original visit the sign and one of the memorial plaques appears to have been removed, though I have yet to verify this). Across the road from here, you can see the extension to the runway and the remains of a small building, but probably not war-time due to its location.

There is luckily a footpath that circumnavigates the field called ‘The Pathfinder Long distance Walk’, and uses that iconic aircraft, the Mosquito, as its icon. This path allows views across the airfield and access to some of the remaining buildings.

Entry to the path is toward the village, a gated path that is actually part of the perimeter track. As you work your way round, to your right can be found one of the few Air Ministry designed pill boxes. The manufacturer of these mushroom defences being F. C. Construction, they were designed in such a way as to allow machine gun fire through a 360 degree turn. Often referred to as ‘Oakington’ pill boxes, there are only a few remaining today.

Also, deeply shrouded in hedges and undergrowth, another structure possibly a second pill box or the battle headquarters. With permission from the farmer, you may be able to access these, but they look in a rather dangerous condition.

Further along to your right is where one of the T2 hangars would have stood before its demolition. Tracks lead away from here, and there is what appears to be further examples of airfield architecture buried amongst the trees.

The perimeter track takes you around the rear of the airfield across the threshold of the main runway and round the perimeter track. A local model flying club now uses this part of the site between the runway and perimeter track. To your right would have been the bomb store, now open fields laden with crops rather than bombs. There are a few buildings here marking the boundary of the store, now used for chickens and extensively ‘modified’ by the farmer. They house farm machinery, a far cry from what would have been here many years ago.

The track then takes you away from the site and out across the Cambridgeshire countryside.

RAF Warboys

The remains of the Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station.

Returning back to the road, we go in the opposite direction from the village and come to the entrance of the industrial site. These buildings stand on the perimeter track marking the western corner of the airfield.

Next to this part of the site, is a large telecommunications transmitter, apparently the origins of the site being 1941. Whilst its use and history is somewhat difficult to locate or verify, it is known that this was a Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station used to lock fighters onto incoming enemy aircraft. Later, there was a high-powered transmitter here used by RAF Mildenhall and RAF Wyton. It was also used to communicate with the V bombers on long-range flights. The mast believed to be original, has been updated and refurbished for telecommunications purposes, but the block house remains behind high fencing with very strong padlocks!

The majority of the admin sites are located along the A141 toward Wyton, some evidence exists here but the majority have long gone. Return toward the village and find the church; located just on the outskirts of the village.

A superb memorial window and roll of honour can be found here, and it is well worth the effort. In Huntingdon town is the former Headquarters building of the Pathfinders, Castle Hill House, which now belongs to the local council. A blue plaque describes the historical significance of the building.

Pathfinders

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon. The Headquarters of the Pathfinders. (Photo courtesy Paul Cannon)

Designed initially as a satellite airfield, Warboys went on to be a pioneering airfield for a new and dedicated team of bombing experts. With 156 Squadron it took the war deep into the heart of Nazi Germany. As a result it suffered great losses, but without  doubt it performed one of the most vital roles in the latter parts of the war and it’s a role that should not be forgotten beneath waving crops and developing industry. The name of Warboys should be remembered as a Pathfinder icon.

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

The immediate issuing of order S.D.107 and S.D.107a, resulted in the whole of 63 Sqn, including their dispersed aircraft, being moved to Abingdon, whose crews and aircraft were in turn moved to France. The transfer of men and machinery being completed by 08:00 on the 8th September, at which point 63 Sqn joined No.6 Group, leaving Upwood far behind.

52 Sqn also brought back their aircraft from Alconbury filling the spaces left by 63 Sqn, before moving themselves to Kidlington, and then onto Abingdon where they would join once again with 63 Sqn.

The outbreak of war saw huge changes for the RAF. The immediate mobilisation began with the implementation of the ‘Scatter Scheme’, where aircraft were dispersed away from parent airfields to avoid the ‘imminent’ threat of attack. Over at West Raynham, 90 Sqn were doing just that. In mid September, aircraft that were dispersed to Weston-on-the-Green were now brought over to the all but vacant Upwood, in a move that preceded a more long lasting move by the squadron to the airfield.

RAF Upwood

Guard house to the former airfield.

Over the next few weeks a mix of Mk.I and MK.IV Blenheims were collected and brought into Upwood supporting the training role carried out by 90 Sqn. Training was a risky business, as many trainee crews would find out. On the 18th October, two Upwood Blenheims crashed, one in a field with its undercarriage retracted following an engine failure, and the second on the airfield itself. The worst of these was Blenheim L4876 which crashed on take off, and resulted in the loss of the life of the pilot P.O T. Peeler. His observer, Sgt. Dobbin was injured, whilst the wireless operator, AC2 Brown,  managed to escape without injury.

Over the winter months Upwood would rise in the league tables of airfields notorious for flooding and water logged  ground. The heavy rains making the airfield unserviceable on numerous occasions. This caused great concern for the air staff who made the difficult decision to cut short training programmes, thus enabling the supply of aircrew to be maintained. It did however, mean that there would be a supply to front line squadrons of crews with partial or less than perfect training.  This problem would persist at Upwood for some time to come, eventually being partly solved by the building of hard runways.

1940 brought with it another training squadron, 35 Sqn, who also found the ground at Upwood difficult, their move being hampered for several weeks before they could finally settle in and begin operations properly. The summary for February shows thirteen days were lost to bad weather and nine to waterlogged surfaces!

March 12th 1940, saw another fatal accident at Upwood, with the death of trainee pilot Sgt. Alphonse Hermels (s/n: 517823) whose aircraft collided with a Blenheim on detachment from  90 Sqn, the two aircraft taking off simultaneously but neither apparently being aware of the other’s presence.

In early April, both 35 and 90 Sqns were disbanded and amalgamated to form No. 17 Operational Training Unit (OTU). The name of 35 Sqn would be reborn as part of Bomber Command at Boscombe Down at the year’s end, but that would be their ties with this rather wet airfield cut, until in 1956, when it would return extending its stay to a more permanent five years. For the next three years the OTU would be the main user of Upwood, flying with a wide range of aircraft types, including: the Lysander, Anson, Hurricane, Spitfire, Wellington and Fairey Battle. The unit  eventually departed to Silverstone – famous for British Motor Racing – in December 1943.

As the BEF were being withdrawn from the beaches of Dunkirk, Britain began to brace itself for the impending invasion. Although the Battle of Britain would not officially start for some time yet, the period immediately after Dunkirk saw minor attacks on British airfields, particularly those in East Anglia. On several days during June, enemy bombers would penetrate British airspace and unload their small bomb loads on these sites. Some of the first enemy intruder missions were recorded at this time, and Upwood would receive its fair share of bombings although little damage was done.

This operational ‘dry spell’ was momentarily broken when 26 Squadron appeared on the scene at Upwood. For what must be one of the most mobile squadrons of the RAF, 26 Squadron were constantly transferring from airfield to airfield, staying here on an overnight stop in early October. In the space of less than a week the squadron had operated from no less than 6 different airfields including: Twinwood Farm (Glenn Miller’s last stop), Barton Bendish, and Snailwell.

RAF Upwood

Upwood’s collection of buildings are numerous.

Upwood was to experience some rather difficult times and localised action. Numerous accidents were interspersed with attacks by marauding Luftwaffe aircraft, they even had their own parachuting spy. The event caused a great deal of excitement around the base, and saw the spy,  Josef Jakobs, being found guilty of treason and subsequently executed at the Tower of London.

Jakobs, who parachuted into England on January 31st 1941, broke his ankle when he landed at Dovehouse Farm, Ramsey Hollow, a few miles from the airfield. He was found by passing farm workers after firing shots into the air. With him were maps with both RAF Upwood and RAF Warboys identified, transmitting equipment and false papers. He was arrested, taken to London where he was interrogated and imprisoned until August. On the morning of the 15th he was shot by firing squad at the Tower of London, his body being buried in an unmarked grave in St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green, North-West London.*2

Often, training airfield squadrons would operate in conjunction with various specialised units, in this case 11 Blind Approach Training Flight who were formed here at Upwood, in October 1941, with Air Speed Oxfords. This unit was quickly renamed 1511 (Beam Approach Training) Flight, and trained pilots in the use of navigation beams for poor weather or night landings. These twin engined Oxfords were found in numerous training flights and at numerous airfields across Britain and in Canada, and were generally popular with trainees.

As the war progressed new advances meant that the older aircraft were becoming tired and in need of replacement. With larger bombers coming on line, Wellingtons pulled from front line service were now being used in training operations. Added to this, the introduction of the Lancasters of the Navigation Training Unit (NTU) in June 1943, meant that Upwood’s runways could no longer withstand the churning up by heavy aircraft, and it was now that Upwood’s notoriously bad surface began to really show its true colours.

RAF Upwood

A scene typical of the buildings at Upwood

Being a heavier breed than the Blenheims and Oxfords, the ground began to break up, and it was for this reason that the OTU moved to Silverstone, and the Beam Training Flight moved out to Greenham Common. This left the airfield devoid of all operational aircraft apart from the NTU. It was now time to make amends at Upwood.

Whilst the site was all but vacant, one of the RAF’s Airfield Construction Flights moved in and construction began on the three concrete runways needed for Upwood to continue operations. The brain child of Wing Co. Alexander John ‘Daddy’ Dow, they were a huge organisation that supported the RAF’s front line squadrons by building, repairing and maintaining their runways.

By the end of the year these runways were completed, and in the early months of 1944, two more new squadrons would arrive at the airfield, 139 and 156 in February and March respectively.

By  now Bomber Command aircraft had been pounding German cities and industrial targets, the period January to March 1944 was to see Berlin hit particularly hard, and with Stirlings being withdrawn due to their high losses, the Lancaster crews would now be taking the brunt.

Now under the control of Bennett’s new Pathfinder Force (PFF), 139 (Jamaica) Sqn would bring with them the beautiful and much loved Mosquito MK.XX. Coming from nearby RAF Wyton, they had already begun replacing these with the MK.XVI, flying both models whilst performing operations from the Cambridgeshire airfield. The following month a Lancaster squadron, 156, who were based at another PFF airfield, RAF Warboys, joined 139. Within a month Upwood had become a major front line airfield, the roar of multiple Merlins now filling the Cambridgeshire skies.

RAF Upwood

139 (Jamaica) Squadron had a long history, which had begun on July 3rd 1918. This first period of their existence lasted only a year, the unit being disbanded in March 1919. With the onset of war they were called back into operation being reformed in 1936, when they went on to fly Blenheims, and later Hudsons, until being disbanded and renumbered as 62 Sqn in April 1942. Reformed again in the June of that year 139 Sqn would go on to serve well into the late 1950s.

Named ‘Jamaica’ Squadron, 139 acquired their name as a result of the huge effort of the colony to provide enough money for twelve Blenheims, a remarkable effort considering the nature and size of the country. It was from Trinidad that Sqn. Ldr. Ulric Cross came, the most decorated West Indian of World War II, who earned himself the DSO and DFC whilst flying with the Pathfinders.

139’s drafting in to the Pathfinders occurred at the end of May 1943, leaving 2 Group for Don Bennett’s 8 Group, they formed the nucleus of the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF).  At this time they were still at RAF Marham, but moved across to Wyton and then onto Upwood arriving here on 1st February 1944, with a mix of Mosquito IV, IX, XX and XVIs.

There would be no settling in period for 139 Sqn, their first sortie, marking for a raid on Berlin, was due that very night. Take off for F.O. D Taylor and F.Lt. C. Bedell in Mosquito DZ 476, was at 17:50; they dropped their Target Indicator which was subsequently bombed on by Mosquitoes from another squadron. Whilst flak was recorded as ‘slight’, the aircraft was heavily engaged over Neinburg. The Mosquito landed back at Upwood, ending the squadrons first successful operation from here, at 22:40.

Photograph taken during an attack by De Havilland Mosquito B Mark IVs of No. 139 Squadron, on the locomotive sheds at Tours, France (date unknown) © IWM C 3409

156 Squadron were one of the four initial Pathfinder units having been taken on by the new Group in August 1942 whilst at RAF Warboys a few miles up the road. After two years of relatively high losses for the Squadron, the time for change had come, and they moved across here to RAF Upwood. Hopefully a new start for the depleted unit would see better results and higher morale. As 156 moved in, the few remaining aircraft of the NTU moved out, rejoining the main collection at Warboys, the unit having been split over the two sites for some time.

However, the first three months of 1944 were to prove to be the worst for 156 Sqn, over half its total yearly losses occurring during this period. This culminated, at the end of March, with the loss of four Upwood aircraft. Lancaster MK.IIIs: ND406 (S),  ND466 (Z), ND476 (V) and ND492 (L) all left as part of a seventeen strong force from Upwood joining with a further ninety-three other PFF aircraft to attack Nuremberg. Even though the weather was against the bombers, the operation went ahead, the 795 heavy bombers of Bomber Command making their way east. Strong winds caused havoc, with large parts of the force drifting off course, much farther north than they should have done. This resulted in them unknowingly bombing Schweinfurt and not Nuremberg. Outward bound, the German defences waited, many picking off the bombers before they even reached Germany. In total 95 bombers were lost, 82 of them on the outward journey. For 156 Squadron it was another devastating blow, and for Bomber Command a disaster, their biggest loss of the entire war*3.

RAF Upwood

A huge number of derelict buildings remain on the now abandoned site.

Of the thirty 156 Sqn airmen lost that night (two Lancasters were carrying eight crewmen), only six survived, each of these being incarcerated as POWs, the rest all being killed and buried in this region of Germany.

The months preceding June were taken up with missions to support the impending D-Day landings. With Bomber Command forces being pulled away from targets in Germany, many missions now focused on V weapons sites, rail and transport links, coastal batteries and airfields across western France. The number of Pathfinder Mosquitoes increased, as did the need for precision bombing, the wider ‘blanket’ bombing not being implemented on these small scale targets.

The transportation plan as it was known, required intense operations from 8 Group, and although the number of missions rocketed the number of casualties fell. Morale was on the increase and things were looking up for the crews of Upwood based aircraft.

With the Pathfinders being mainly experienced and skilled crews, any loss was considered damaging. In the period up to D-Day, losses for both squadrons were  in single figures, but of those who were lost, many were DFC or DFM holders, including on the 27th – 28th April, 156 Sqn Lancaster III ND409, which had five DFC bearing crewmen on board.

During this raid, which was only some four weeks after Nuremburg, 323 aircraft attacked Friedrichshafen’s engineering plants, where components were made for German tanks. Highlighted as an ‘outstanding’ raid, marking was near perfect which resulted in the entire destruction of the plant and almost three-quarters of the town.

Meanwhile, the Canadians were busily building Mosquitoes for the RAF, and on May 10th – 11th, the first Bomber Command MK. XX built in Canada, was written off when a flare ignited inside the aircraft. Returning from Ludwigshafen, the marker had failed to release only to cause disaster near Cambridge on the return flight. Inside the aircraft were Flying Officers G. Lewis and A. Woollard DFM, Woollard going on to survive a second serious crash on 12th June when his aircraft crashed in Sweden after it was hit by flak. Flying Officer Lewis in the first crash failed to survive.

In June 1944, a very special aircraft was unveiled at the de Havilland Canada Downsview factory during the ‘Million Dollar Day’ ceremonies. Mosquito KB273 was unveiled by  the cousin of Geoffrey de Havilland Junior, Joan Fontaine, the Hollywood film star, who gave her name to the aircraft. KB273 ‘Joan‘ would be passed to 139 Sqn here at Upwood before being handed over to 608 Sqn in August. In fact, KB273 was one of many Mosquitoes from this same stable that passed through 139 Sqn to the Downham Market unit. It was sadly lost on 29th February 1945, its pilot evading capture whilst the navigator was taken as a POW.

Losses remained relatively low on a month by month basis for the two squadrons, an excellent improvement compared to previous months and against other units. By the end of the year, 139 Sqn had sustained twenty operational losses whilst 156 Sqn suffered fifty-two. All in all 1944 had been a little more positive.

The dawn of 1945 saw the world entering the final stages of the war. The long and cold winter of 1944-45 prevented many operations from being carried out, and even though the Luftwaffe were finding it difficult to put up sufficient numbers of aircraft and skilled pilots, losses in Bomber Command were still high overall. Last ditch efforts saw attacks from fighter jets, mainly Me 262s, and 1945 would signify the end of operations from Upwood for one of the two Pathfinder squadrons based here.

For 156 Sqn the early months of 1945 would be their last, and although there was an all out effort, casualties were relatively light. With one Lancaster being lost in January (PB186) with all on board; three in February – two over the Prosper Benzol plant at Rottrop, (ME366, PB505) and another (PB701) over Dussledorf – January and February would close with few losses. March similarly would see another two in the closing hours of the month over Berlin, both crews of PB468 and PB517 being completely wiped out.

Germany continued to be pounded by large formations during April, a month that saw many of the last major operations for several squadrons. For 156, their final bombing mission came on the 25th, sixteen aircraft taking part in a raid to Wangerooge in which Bomber Command lost seven aircraft – six of which were collisions in near perfect weather. For 156 though, the raid was casualty free, and with that their bombing raids ceased. The final capitulation of Germany was taking place and mercy raids could now be flown to supply those who had lived in terror and hunger under the Nazi regime.

3010671412_0a0a4fd717

Aerial photo taken on 25th April 1945 over Wangerooge*1.

In that month alone, Squadron crews were awarded no less than: one DSO; nineteen DFCs; a CGM and three DFMs. Aircrews had flown over 850 operational hours in 141 sorties, a small fraction of the 4,839 they had flown in their three year existence. By June, operations for 156 Sqn had wound down at Upwood and they moved back to Wyton, finally being disbanded and removed from the  RAF register in September.

139 Sqn meanwhile, had continued their marking for night raids on German cities. During the period late February to the end of March, 139 Sqn carried out thirty-six consecutive night raids on Berlin, one of these being the largest ever attack by Mosquitoes on the German capital. On this operation, 142 twin-engined ‘Wooden Wonders’ from a number of different squadrons unleashed their loads in two waves over the German city. 139 Sqn leading the Light Night Striking force using up to date models of H2S.

After the Battle of Berlin had ended, along with a winter of heavy bombing, the analysis would now begin. Bomber Command’s effectiveness, and in particular its bombing strategy, would suddenly be under the spotlight, with its leader Sir Arthur Harris, the focal point. It would be a legacy that would last for generations to come, even to this day the debate continues, and there are many that fight the cause in support of Harris’s operational strategy.

The end of the bombing war for 139 Sqn came in May 1945, ironically their busiest month of the year, flying 256 sorties which culminated with an attack on Kiel.

Throughout their operational tour, 139 Sqn had lost a total 23 aircraft in 438 raids , the highest of all the Mosquito PFF squadrons.

With the war in Europe now over, Upwood would become a ‘graveyard’ for RAF squadrons. The first of these 105 Squadron, arrived in the same month as 156 departed, with Mosquito XVIs. By the end of January 1946 they were gone, but like the Phoenix of Greek folklore, they would arise from the ashes at Benson in the early 1960s.

102 Squadron were another typical example of this, arriving in February 1946, only to be disbanded two weeks later, being renumbered as 53 Squadron. 53 Sqn made a conscious effort to buck the trend by  flying with the four engined heavies the Liberator VIs and VIIIs, but sadly they too did not last long, closing in the summer of that same year.

1946 was a busy year at Upwood, with what seemed a constant ebb and flow of ‘heavies’, this motion setting a scene that would prevail for the next eight years or so.

February 1946 finally saw the departure of 139 Sqn to Hemswell, after two years at Upwood, their time here had come – their historic role had come to an end. But for Upwood, it was still not the final curtain, for on July 29th, another unit would arrive, 7 Squadron. The unit was reduced to just ten aircraft prior to the move, and would not take on any new models until 1949 when the Lincoln B.2 arrived. An aircraft developed from the highly successful Lancaster, it would be used in operations over Malaya until the squadron was disbanded and then reformed elsewhere with Valiants in 1956.

Back in November 1946, two other squadrons would reform here at Upwood, both 148 and 214 Sqns, and both with Lancaster B.1 (F.E.). These ‘tropicalised’ versions of the B.1 had been destined to go to the Far East to fly operations against Japan as the ‘Tiger Force‘. These modifications included changes made to the radio, radar, navigational aids and included having a 400 gallon fuel tank installed in the bomb bay. Faced with the high temperatures of the Far East, they were painted white on top to reduce heat absorption, and black underneath. Fortunately though, the war with Japan had ended before they could be used, and in 1949, both these units would lose them in favour of the Lincoln also. This meant that Upwood now boasted three Lincoln squadrons, the war may have been over, but the power of the Merlin continued on well into the mid 1950s, these three squadrons disbanding between 1954 and 1956.

In the summer months of 1952, Dirk Bogarde starred in a film made at Upwood using Lancasters in an ‘Appointment in London‘.

A wartime story it was made by Mayflower Film Productions, and used four Lancasters crewed by Upwood airmen. Starring Dirk Bogarde, it is a story of intense rivalry between a Wing Commander aiming for his 90th mission, and an American officer, there is the usual love story attached as the two try to put aside their rivalry to achieve their own personal aims.

On February 23rd 1954, a forth Lincoln squadron arrived at Upwood, 49 Squadron took the number of four engined heavy bombers even further, staying here until August 1st the following year, at which point they were disbanded only to be reborn at Wittering in 1956.

By now, the RAF’s long range jet bomber, the Canberra, had been in service for a few years, and had proved itself as a more than capable aircraft. A first generation medium bomber, it was designed by W. E. W. ‘Teddy’ Petter, and would go on to set the world altitude record of 70,310 ft two years after entering service here at Upwood.

The success of the Canberra would be one to rival the Lancaster and Spitfire. Being built in twenty-seven different versions, it was exported to over fifteen countries world wide. In the RAF it served with no less than thirty-five squadrons, several of them ending up here at Upwood. Over 900 examples were built by British companies, with a further 403 being built under licence by the American Martin Company and designated the B-57. In RAF service, it reigned for fifty-seven years, the last examples being stood down in 2006.

Between 22nd May 1955 and 11th September 1961, eight RAF squadrons: 18, 61, 50, 40, 76, 542 and finally 21,  were all disbanded at Upwood, and all operating the aforementioned Canberra; primarily the B.2 or B.6 models, few of them operating the model for more than three years. There was also a return of 35 Sqn, the former Bomber Command unit who operated from Upwood in early 1940; they came over from Marham having operated as the Washington Conversion Unit before renumbering as 35 Sqn. They remained here until September 1961 whereupon they were disbanded for the penultimate time.
After the last Canberra Sqn had departed, Upwood remained under RAF control as part of the RAF’s Strike Command, until 1964 when they too pulled out leaving a small care and maintenance unit behind. Over the next few years Upwood would be used in the training of non-flying duties, until these units also left, the last in 1981. Upwood’s future now looked very insecure.
RAF Upwood

Inside the Gate house, the USAF presence. (Security Police Squadron).

Fortunately though, control of Upwood was then passed to the USAF for training and support services for nearby RAF Alconbury and RAF Lakenheath. It was earmarked for medical services, and should an attack occur during the Cold War, it would quickly be turned into a control area ready to deal with heavy nuclear attack casualties. Thankfully this was never put to the test though, and gradually the USAF phased out its use of Upwood, and as other airfields closed, personnel numbers became less and the homes they used emptied. Eventually, even the 423rd Medical Squadron pulled out, taking their community support, equipment and staff with them.

Upwood finally closed on 26th October 2012, and the remaining buildings including the NAFFI and NCO homes, were all sold off to developers and the site wound down. Since then, there have been numerous attempts to purchase the site and develop it with housing. These have all faltered along the way for one reason or another. On the positive side, the hangars remain actively used by an aero-engine company who refurbish jet engines. A glider club has been agreed a 10 year lease on the remaining parts of the runways (although these have been removed) and two Nissen huts have been fully refurbished to allow modern use. This part of the airfield looks and feels like a real and active military base, whilst the admin and medical side are ghostly reminders of its past. Standing on the site looking around, the imagination can only begin to think how this lonely and desolate place once bustled with crews and aircraft, crews going about their business and vehicles ferrying aircrew to their machines.

RAF Upwood

RAF Upwood’s hangars are still in use today. Aero engines outside await work.

Today it is an enormous site covered with derelict buildings as if left following an atomic blast. The windows are all shattered, the buildings vandalised and graffiti daubed on all the walls. Two tanks have been brought in and a small urban assault company use it for mock battles. The guardroom, officers quarters and associated mess halls all remain, some in a worse state than others.

In 2017 the redundant site was acquired without conditions, and planning permission obtained for a comprehensive development of a small six acres of the site. This plan, put forward by Lochailort *5 included 60 houses. Huntingdon District Council have now incorporated Upwood into their long term Local Plan, and a proposal is under consideration for further development which would include the removal of large quantities of the buildings. It would also see hardstands being replaced by a mix of housing (450 homes) and business premises. The intention is to keep the architecturally significant buildings and layout, along with the hangars, thus retaining the military atmosphere, developing it “in a way which respects its setting and former use“.*4 I only hope that the sympathetic approach is indeed used, and that this incredible and historic site does not become another of Britain’s matchbox towns.

Post Script:

A website dedicated to RAF Upwood shows a range of older photographs, squadron details and information about Upwood’s history. Created by Sean Edwards, it is well worth a visit for more specific details.

A local gentleman has purchased a scrapped Canberra nose section that once flew  from Upwood, and has rebuilt it. It remains in his garage and is displayed at shows around the country.

Sources and further reading (RAF Warboys).

*1  A good blog  describes the life of Wing Co. T G ‘Jeff’ Jefferson, DSO AFC AE who served part of his life as a Pathfinder at RAF Upwood. It is well worth a read.

*3 Smith, G. “Cambridgeshire airfields in the Second World War“. Countryside Books (1997)

*4 Flying Officer J Catford DFC “View from a Birdcage“Tucaan Books (2005) Pg 51

National Archive: AIR 27/203/18
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/13
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/14
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/16
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/24

For more details of the Pathfinders see the excellent RAF Pathfinders Archive Website.

A website detailing crews, missions, aircraft and other information about 156 squadron is also well worth visiting for more specific and detailed information.

Sources and further reading (RAF Upwood).

National Archives – AIR 27/379/4
National Archives – AIR-27-961-4

BAE Systems Website

*1 Photo from the UK Archives, (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives) no known copyright restrictions.

*2 Josepf Jakobs story can be read on the: Josef Jakobs blog with further information on the Upwood Website.

*3 Middlebrook, M & Everitt, C. “The Bomber Command War Diaries 1939-1945“, Midland Publishing (1996)

*4 Huntingdonshire District Council Local Plan Proposal

*5 Lochailort Investments Ltd, Webiste.

Thirsk, I., “de Havilland Mosquito an illustrated History – Vol 2” Crecy publishing (2006)

For more information and details of the Pathfinders, see the excellent RAF Pathfinders Archive at: https://raf-pathfinders.com/

17 thoughts on “Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

  1. I live in Bury next to the formaer RAF Upwood. How sad that it has become a ruin like so many former WW2 bases. There are not a propsed 250+ houses going on the site. Thank you for your interesting research it is a fantastic read.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I was at Oakington in the 80`s with the Royal Anglian Regt, prior to handing over to the Queens Regt, there was also an AAC squadron there, before closing and becoming an IRC

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Frank. The places listed are those I’ve personally been to, rather than listing all which is probably nigh on impossible – I’m bound to miss some! There are a large number on the ‘to do’ list and I’m working my way through them – slowly. Sadly many of these places are earmarked for housing, one of the reasons for doing the blog (and the personal visit) is to see for myself what is still about, and record what I can in the time that I have. Thanks for the info on Oakjngton – another one bites the dust!

      Like

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