Help Wanted – RAF King’s Cliffe!

In 2014, I published Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’ a trail around six American bases from the Second World War, one of these, RAF King’s Cliffe, was, at the time, under threat of development.

In 2015, objections from over 300 people were received which included supporters of Glenn Miller, aviation enthusiasts, wildlife groups and local people alike, who all highlighted concerns over the proposed development of the site and the impact it may have.

At an initial meeting in September that year, the council failed to come to any overall decision as they needed to consider further reports from different interested parties.  At a second meeting held on Wednesday 14th October,  after considering all the issues raised, East Northamptonshire Council approved the plans and so planning for 55 holiday homes were passed on an area known as Jack’s Green.

This area includes a memorial to the late Glenn Miller, who performed his last ever hangar concert here at King’s Cliffe before being lost over the sea. Assurances from the land owner at that time, were that the development would be in keeping with the area and that the memorial would remain “exactly as it was”.

I have not been able to return to Jack’s Green, nor King’s Cliffe airfield to see how this development has affected the area, and was wanting to know if anyone had photos of the development taken since the development started or more so, in the years following. As it would directly affect the memorial and adjoining public footpath, I was interested in the Jack’s Green area especially. I know that many geocachers use this path as do horse riders, walkers and enthusiasts alike, and am hoping someone may have a small collection of photos I could see.

Any photos you are willing to share would be very much appreciated.

My sincere thanks.

Andy

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here.

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 2)

In Part one, we saw Tuddenham’s opening to the war. A rather cold and uninspiring airfield, it housed the Stirlings of 90 Squadron. Now, the Lancasters were arriving and front line bombing missions were once again on the horizon. 

The first of these major operations was on the night of 10th/11th June, when seven Lancasters, a mix of MK.Is and MK.IIIs, left Tuddenham to bomb rail facilities at Dreux –  90 Sqn had at last returned to the ‘front line.’

Sadly it was not to be the best night for the squadron, of the seven Lancasters that departed, two never returned home. The first NE149 ‘WP-A’ and the second NE177 ‘WP-B’ (both MK.IIIs), crashing in France. Of the fourteen airmen on board, three evaded capture, one was caught, and the remaining ten were all killed – it was not the most auspicious start for the unit. 

With two more Lancasters lost that month – one on the infamous Gelsenkirchen raid in which seventeen Lancasters were lost – June had proven to be difficult, and even though Stirlings were still operating, the Lancaster had become the main type and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride to Christmas. Forty-three, 90 Sqn airmen had been posted as either ‘killed’ or ‘missing’ in June alone.

Bomber Command’s tactical support of the land based forces continued on until mid September, by which time, Harris was back in charge and Bomber Command could once again turn its attention to targets in the German heartland. As the allied forces moved ever closer, night raids turned to daylight as allied air power began to get its grip on the skies over Europe. 

In October, a new squadron would reform here at Tuddenham, 186 Squadron also flying Lancaster MK.I and IIIs. Originally having its roots on board HMS Argus in 1918, it was another unit that had had short spells of activity before being disbanded once again. In a very different guise to its original formation, this time it was born out of 90 Sqn’s ‘C’ Flight, there the differences cease and by the December,  the squadron had left Tuddenham moving to Stradishall where it remained until the war’s end, and its final disbandment once more. 

The remainder of the year was relatively quiet for the Tuddenham group, regular missions with little or no opposition meant losses were low, and results were generally considered successful. But with bad weather setting in across both the UK and the wider continent, many squadrons had days of being stood down. Tuddenham on the other hand, with their FIDO system, was able to put up more flights than many others. Indeed during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, 90 Sqn were one of the few units able to launch attacks when most others were fog bound. 

The dawn of 1945 brought hope for an end to the war as the allied war machine moved ever closer to Berlin. The German’s last ditch attempt in the Ardennes was eventually overrun, and bombing picked up as fair weather returned once more. 

On February 2nd, Wing Commander W. G. Bannister joined the squadron on attachment. On the same day as he arrived, he took off at 20:52 in Lancaster HK610 ‘WP-Z’ along with thirteen other Lancasters from the squadron. Around an hour later, the aircraft collided with Lancaster PD336 ‘WP-P’, striking the tail trapping the rear gunner, Sgt. K. Hudspeth, inside the turret by his legs. Injured, he lay slumped over his guns. The pilot turned the aircraft over the Wash and ordered the bombs dumped in the sea. The rear tyre of the aircraft was burst and the port side of the tail was badly damaged, maybe even missing, and the turret by now was hanging off the aircraft. The pilot ordered chutes to be put on, after which the mid gunner Sgt. G. Wraith, went to help Sgt. Hudspeth, pulling him back into the aircraft’s fuselage where he administered morphine. The Lancaster made its way back to Tuddenham, and with the radio knocked out, red flares were fired to inform ground staff of its difficulties. Badly damaged with injured on board, the Lancaster made a safe landing, thanks to the skill of the pilot and crew.

Bannister’s Lancaster however, did not recover from the collision. After striking ‘P’ for Peter, the aircraft fell from the sky, crashing at 21:25,  3 miles from Bury St. Edmunds;  sadly there were no survivors.   

March 1945 saw a return of the Stirling to Tuddenham with 138 Sqn*3 transferring from Tempsford with the MK.V. As soon as they arrived they began to replace these with Lancasters MK.I and IIIs. 138 Sqn had been heavily involved in clandestine operations with the SOE, dropping agents into occupied Europe. With the need for such missions now largely gone, operations were wound down and the Stirling squadron were to be upgraded to front line bomber status. The first operational mission under this new guise was planned for the 28th but postponed until the following day. Three aircraft were ordered and all returned safely after having bombed the target. 

As the war drew  to its conclusion, 90 Squadron turned their attention to Kiel with both mining and bombing to prevent a German withdrawal. By the of the month it was all but over and operation Manna was put into place. On April 30th, 90 Sqn began their part in dropping supplies to the Dutch – targeting Rotterdam. Drop zones were identified by red T.Is and / or white crosses placed on the ground. By the end of the month 23 tons of food supplies had been dropped by the one squadron alone. During May, they began flights to Juvincourt to collect and bring back prisoners of war, dropping them at various sites including Dunsfold, Tangmere, Wing and Oakley; the aircraft then returned to base before carrying out further flights. 

On the 25th, ‘Cooks tours’ began, aircrew flying ground crew to Germany to see for themselves the damage inflicted by the war on the German heartland, it was a harrowing site for many. 

RAF Tuddenham

An electrical sub station shows its original RAF paint work

With no operational flying to do, training flights took over. It was a major change for  both the air and ground crews. As bases around the country began to close, so squadrons were moved around in preparation for disbandment. In April, two more Lancaster squadrons arrived here at Tuddenham, both 149 and 207 Sqns transferring across from RAF Methwold. The number of bomber squadrons now residing at Tuddenham totalling four.

Finally, in November 1946 the death knell finally rang for Tuddenham and it too was closed, flying ceased and the aircraft were all withdrawn. All four squadrons were pulled out of Tuddenham, 90 and 186 Sqns taking their Lancasters to RAF Wyton, whilst 149 and 207 went to RAF Stradishall. In what must have been a mass exodus, Tuddenham fell suddenly silent.

The airfield stood dormant for many years  whilst remaining in RAF hands, but then in 1953 life returned once more as the USAF arrived and used it as an ammunition storage area and renovation depot for surplus WWII ammunition and equipment. The American forces remained here for four years until 1957 when they too finally withdrew.

Tuddenham itself continued to stay in RAF ownership for a short while longer. As tension rose in the early part of the Cold War, ideal because of its low population and rural location, it was earmarked as a site for the new Thor missiles. New launch pads were built and a small section of the site was redeveloped accordingly.  Then in July 1959, 107 Squadron RAF reformed here, operating three of the Thor missiles as part of the UK-USA nuclear deterrent agreement. Retaining these until July 1963, the site finally closed once and for all. At this point all military personnel moved out and the gates were finally locked.

After this, Tuddenham was earmarked for quarrying to meet the rising demand for housing. Large sections were returned to agriculture, but a quarry opened to extract the much-needed materials for house construction. This operation has continued to the present day and has been responsible for the removal of large quantities of the main airfield site.

Visiting Tuddenham, reveals little of the history of the airfield and the people who stayed here. A few buildings, primarily the gymnasium and squash court remain standing, but in a very poor state and are likely to be pulled down soon. The roof has collapsed and part of the walls are missing. Located to the south of the airfield, they stand as reminders of those days long gone.

Other technical areas and the main part of the airfield, are now the workings of the quarry. The entrance to this site, rather insignificant, is part of the original perimeter track and is marked by an electrical sub-station. The shell is intact and complete with two blast walls, even the original RAF paint work can be seen! Overgrown and hidden beneath large thorns, this lone building will no doubt soon go the way of others some distance away.

Tuddenham airfield now stands lonely, large parts excavated and gone along with the memories of those who were stationed here. A pig farm covers a large part of the southern section and very little remains other than a few dilapidated buildings whose days are also very numbered. Tuddenham’s place in history is most certainly confined to the books and the memories of those whose numbers are also rapidly diminishing.

Before leaving Tuddenham, return to the village and stop at the village green. The village sign depicts a Lancaster flying low over the Suffolk landscape. A sundial, beautifully crafted marks the history of 90 Sqn, both the aircraft flown (1917 – 1965) as well as the airfields they were stationed at throughout their life. A superb tribute to a once active airfield and the gallant heroes of 90 Squadron Royal Air Force who served here*4.

RAF Tuddenham

Beneath the sundial, all the aircraft used by 90 squadron.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/731/25

*2 Grehan. J. & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations“, Pen & Sword, 2014

*3 No. 138 Squadron RAF went on to be the first ‘V-bomber’ squadron of the RAF, flying the Vickers Valiant between 1955 until being disbanded in 1962.

*4 Personal stories of personnel from 90 Squadron at Tuddenham can be found here on the Wartime Memories Project website.

*5 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire – FIDO The Fogbuster of World War Two“, Alan Sutton Publishing. 1995 (An excellent book detailing the work on FIDO and its installations at each airfield).

National Archives: AIR 27/733/3; AIR 27/733/4

RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 1).

In this trail we return to an RAF bomber airfield which opened later in the war. With a relatively quiet start, it soon became a front line base operating the four engined heavies the Lancasters of Bomber Command. Within a short time of it opening, it would become one of only a small number of airfields that would use the cleverly designed fog clearing system FIDO, a system that allowed aircraft to take-off and land in difficult weather conditions. As a result, it became a safe haven on more than one occasion. 

In Trail 16 we return to RAF Tuddenham.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham (as opposed to the decoy site North Tuddenham) is one of those places that is today surrounded by large towns. To the north-east lies Thetford, to the south-east, Bury-St.-Edmunds and to the south-west that mecca of horse racing – Newmarket. As a result, the landscape of the area today is somewhat different to what it was in the 1930s and 40s.

Using land requisitioned in 1943 it was opened that same year. A standard Class ‘A’ airfield, its main runway ran south-east to north-west and was the standard 2,000 yards in length. With two secondary runways both of 1,400 yards, it would open under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command. For its protection it had its own decoy site built a short distance away at Cavenham, but even this didn’t stop attacks on the airfield, none of which thankfully caused any major damage.

Built by Taylor Woodrow, it would have two T2 and later one B1 hangar, with thirty-eight loop style hardstands and a perimeter track of the standard 50 yards width. A standard watch office for all commands (design 12779/41) was later redesigned to match the new war-time standard 343/43 design which had the smaller windows especially designed for bomber airfields.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham village sign showing its links to a once active airfield.

Accommodation for air and ground crews was located on land to the south of the airfield spread across twelve sites. A mix of huts, they would accommodate around 2,000 personnel of which some 250 were WAAFs. Built as temporary buildings, these huts were unheated and unhomely, they were cramped and cold and as such, Tuddenham was not one of the most popular stations with crews posted there.

A fairly nondescript airfield, it was first frequented by the RAF’s 90 Squadron with the huge Stirling MK.III. 90 Squadron in name, had been in existence since 1917 although it had been disbanded and reformed on no less than four previous occasions, and had been at a variety of locations before arriving here at Tuddenham. This time however, it would be a much more permanent formation, and for the duration of the war it would reside at only one station, that of RAF Tuddenham.

90 Squadron had previously been recreated to test the suitability of B-17s for RAF service. Initially based at Watton, it would be less than a year before they were disbanded once more. Their more recent reincarnation led them to Wratting Common, from where they departed on their journey to Tuddenham on October 13th 1943.

According to the official records*1, this move was ‘worked out in every detail‘ and it went ‘expeditiously without incident‘ even though the airfield was still in a state of non completion. 90 Squadron’s first operational mission from Tuddenham occurred on the 17th, a return to mine laying off the Frisian Islands. Classed as ‘minor’ operations three aircraft were ordered to fly that day, one of which had to return early due to being struck by lightning and suffering damage to a number of areas including the rear turret. With only three other mining operations and an air-sea rescue search that month, the move to Tuddenham would have been uneventful had it not been for an accident involving Stirling EF497, piloted by Sgt. Wallace Jones who was aged just 21. The crew of the Stirling were on an air test when the aircraft struck trees just close to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As a result, all of the crew, of which three were in the RCAF, died in the ensuing crash. 

With only two other operational losses before the year was out, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were not fairing as badly as many other units, but the days of the type were indeed now numbered as losses overall in 3 Group were high. The Stirling would soon be relegated to secondary duties completely. 

December 1943 would see a major installation take place at Tuddenham. By now, the fog dispersal system FIDO, was in place across several other British airfields and was proving to be a major breakthrough in poor weather flying.

Designed after pre-war investigations into ways of dispersing fog, it led to oil burners being laid along a mile length of the main runway at Tuddenham. Where these crossed secondary runways, the burners were entrenched and metal plates placed over the top to prevent aircraft using these runways, from having an accident. 

At Tuddenham (classed as FIDO Station XIX), the Mark IV Haigill burners were used, each burner was 40 yards in length and made of three pipes looped at the ends. Oil was fed into the burner via a feed pipe from the main pump on the southern side of the airfield. 

Supplying these burners took huge quantities of oil, this was brought in on the nearby railway which passed through the village of Higham. A special siding was constructed which could take a large number of wagons from which fuel was pumped into a small pumping station. From here, it would then cross several fields via underground pipes into one of three large storage tanks capable of holding around half a million gallons of fuel in total.

Work began at Tuddenham early in the new year 1944, and again Taylor Woodrow were charged with the task of carrying out the construction. By August, they were ready and stocks had begun arriving ready for a test burn.

Location unknown. FIDO burners alongside a runway 1945. © IWM CH 15274

FIDO amazed all those who saw it for the first time. Its ability to clear not only fog but low cloud as well, was a god send to those who were unfortunate enough to have found themselves lost in the thick of it. The first use of FIDO at Tuddenham was on August 8th 1944, when by pure accident, an American B-26 ‘Marauder’ was caught by fog. On that day, a test burn was planned, the burners were lit and the amazed onlookers watched as both fog and low cloud began to clear. Suddenly, out of the darkness and murk came the B-26, who had attempted to land elsewhere no less than eight times unsuccessfully. Seeing the bright blaze of Tuddenham’s burners, the pilot made for the airfield, flew over it to ascertain what it was, and once satisfied, made a successful wheels up landing. 

FIDO would be used regularly over the next few months, in November it provided a safe haven for both RAF and USAAF aircraft. In Geoffrey Williams’ book ‘Flying Through Fire‘, he quotes one pilot as stating he could see Tuddenham’s FIDO “from Ostend at 7,000 ft“, a point that illustrates the effectiveness of FIDO in poor conditions. 

The idea behind FIDO was to install it at a number of airfields that were located in a ‘hub’ of other airfields, thus keeping returning aircraft as close to their parent airfield as much as possible. It allowed returning aircraft to land (and take off) safely in poor or deteriorating weather conditions, but it was used ‘sparingly’, as in one day’s total of 6 hours burn, some 200,000 gallons*5 of fuel had been used. Not many sites actually had FIDO installed, just fifteen in the UK, eleven of which were Bomber Command airfields. However, FIDO was undoubtedly successful, these fifteen alone enabled somewhere in the region of 2,500 safe landings that would have no doubt led to a number of casualties or even deaths had it not been available. The airfields were very much appreciated by those who were caught out when returning from raids over Europe, the only major complaints being glare from the bright fires as aircraft came into land*2

RAF Tuddenham

South of the airfield lay the Squash court and Gymnasium.

Back in early 1944, Tuddenham’s operations continued, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were soldiering on. More mining operations and bombing raids on the French coast dominated the months of January and February, whilst ‘special duties’ (SOE supply operations) took over as the main focus from March to May. By this time the Stirlings were starting to be replaced by the Lancaster, as it was now being relegated universally to secondary operations: supply sorties, paratroop transport and mining operations off the European coast. 

This transition began on May 11th, with pilots gaining initial experience by flying as 2nd pilot in other squadrons. New crewmen were soon being posted in, many of these from Conversion Units, whilst 90 Sqn’s Stirling crews were posted out. The continual cycle of trained crews coming in and ‘untrained’ crews going out filling the record books.

During all this operations continued on, and Stirlings continued to be lost. Four aircraft were shot down in May, three of them, on the two consecutive nights between the 8th and 10th, with many of the crewmen either being killed or captured.

The last Stirling to be lost on operations for 90 Sqn was on the night of June 2nd / 3rd when EF294 ‘WP-B’ crashed in France in the early hours of the 3rd. Of those on board, two managed to evade capture whilst the remaining five were caught and imprisoned in POW camps. 

With the invasion of Normandy on June 5th/6th, four Lancasters and fifteen Stirlings were prepared for operations in connection with the landings, but the Lancasters were withdrawn – perhaps to the annoyance of those on board. The Stirlings all took off and carried out their mission successfully, each one returning to Tuddenham safely. 

The last Stirling only operation took place on June 7th, the last two aircraft to return landing at Newmarket after completing their special operations. The Lancaster would now take over as the main aircraft and so 90 Squadron would soon return to bombing operations once more.

RAF Tuddenham

A sundial on the village green remembers the crews of 90 Squadron RAF.

In Part two the Lancaster arrive, but it is not the most auspicious of starts for the squadron. 

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.

Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.

The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.

The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.

A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)

The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and  perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.

Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.

Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI

The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)

The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day.  Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.

When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.

With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.

The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.

RAF Watton

One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.

The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.

This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to  the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS).  The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.

The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1

But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail,  countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally  the calibration and training units of the CSE.

Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.

199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.

The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.

On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.

As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.

The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.

Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.

As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.

RAF Watton

Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.

By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.

A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.

Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure.  One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.

Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.

Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?

The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.

As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe.  Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.

National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2

A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.

Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.

NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.

Watton can be found on Trail 9.

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 1)

Norfolk once boasted many major airfields, virtually all of which are now closed to military flying. Marham is the only major survivor spearheading the RAF’s front line fighter force, in conjunction with Lincolnshire’s RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland.

However, during the Second World War the Norfolk landscape was very different; it was littered with front line airfields, composed mainly of light bomber and fighter squadrons, all of which could be found with relative ease.

One such airfield was that of Watton. Used by a range of light and heavy aircraft, its history was chequered, bearing witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of the air-war.

Today it is a housing estate, the single runway remains and is used for storage, the hangers and technical buildings have gone and the accommodation areas have all been sold off. That said, the perimeter track remains in part, the ‘feel’ of the airfield hangs over the area and a number of memorials pay silent tribute to those who served here.

Found on the edge of the town of Watton in Norfolk, we go back to this once busy RAF base and see what has changed, and relive the life of RAF Watton.

RAF Watton (Station 376)

RAF Watton, located some 11.5 miles north-east of Thetford, opened in 1939 as a medium bomber station with the RAF. Unusually it only had one runway, a grass example, which was later extended to 2,000 yards and crossed the airfield in an east-west direction.

The late 1930s saw a massive expansion of Britain’s military might, and in particular, its airfields. With little foresight into what lay ahead, these pre-war and early war airfields were not designed, nor built, as dispersed sites. Once the realisation of what the war would bring hit home however, later examples would be dispersed, giving a new dimension to airfield design. As a result, Watton (built by the John Laing company) was constructed with much of the accommodation block, technical area, hangars and so on, all being placed closely together on one single site.

Housing for the personnel was located in the north-western corner, with the technical area just east of this. The bomb dump, an ideal target, was further to the east of this area. Four ‘C’ type hangers were constructed each having a span of 150 feet, a length of 300 feet and a height of 35 feet. Whilst Watton was a medium bomber airfield, and thus aircraft were relatively small, it was envisaged at this time that larger, heavier bombers would soon come on line, and so foresight deemed larger than necessary hangar space be provided. A 1934/35 design, these hangars would be common place across expansion period airfields.

Another architectural design found at Watton was the redesigned Watch Office, an all concrete affair built to drawing 207/36, it was one that would very quickly become inadequate, requiring either heavily modifying or, as was in many other cases, replacing altogether.

RAF Watton

Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.

Partially opened in 1937, the airfield wasn’t fully completed and handed over to the RAF until 1939. Being a pre-war design, building materials were in good supply, and so the  accommodation blocks were constructed using brick, and they catered well for those who would find themselves posted here.

Another aspect considered at this time was that of camouflage; airfields were enormous open expanses and could be easily seen from great distances and heights. Numerous proposals for hiding them were put forward, a move that resulted in the formation of a special unit within the Directorate of Works led by Colonel Sir John Turner. Watton came under the eyes of Sir John and his department, and this led to an ingenious camouflage pattern of fields and hedges being painted across the entire airfield,  thus disguising it from prying eyes above. Whilst not completely effective, it certainly went some way to protecting it from attack.

Watton airfield taken in 1942 by No. 8 Operational Training Unit. The four hangars can be seen in the centre of the photo with the patchwork of ‘fields’ disguising the main airfield. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

The first postings to arrive were the men and machines of 21 and 34 Squadrons RAF. Their arrivals on March 2nd 1939 saw a reuniting of both squadrons under the Command of Group Captain P. J. Vincent DFC and 6 (B) Group . On the 7th, the airfield was inspected by the Group’s AOC after which 34 Sqn performed a flypast; one such event that would be the start of many visits from numerous dignitaries including the Marshall of the Royal Air Force himself, Sir Edward Ellington  GCB, CMG, CBE.

Little flying took place by either squadron at this time however, as the aerodrome was soon unserviceable due to the very poor British weather. Grass runways soon became bogs, and as was found across many grassed airfields at this time, unsafe for aircraft to either take off or land without mishap. From April  things picked up slightly, and intensive training began in the form of station tactics and defence exercises. The weather would however, continue to be the worst enemy, repeatedly preventing or restricting flying from taking place.

In August, 34 Sqn received orders to depart Watton and  proceed to Singapore, and so on the 12th, the air and ground parties began their long transit leaving Watton and England far behind. The quiet of their departure would not last ling however, as within a few days of them leaving, their empty beds would be filled once more, when the Blenheims and crews of 82 Sqn arrived.

At 11:05 on September 3rd 1939, notification came though to Watton of Britain’s declaration of war. Within days of the announcement aircraft were being moved out under the ‘Scatter’ scheme to another airfield, Sealand, for there was a fear of imminent air attacks following the war’s declaration. The Blenheims remained at Sealand until mid September, at which point they were recalled and prepared for attacks on vessels belonging to the German Navy. These vessels were not located however, and so the order to stand by was cancelled and the crews stood down. This would sadly become a regular and frustrating occurrence for the men of 21 Sqn.

Shortly after on the 9th, the first of the new MK.IV Blenheims were collected from Rootes Ltd at Speke, with further examples arriving over the next few days. Further movements saw aircraft detached to Netheravon and then onto Bassingbourne where Blenheim L8473 was damaged as it ‘nosed over’ whilst taxiing. A minor, but unfortunate accident, it would be the first of many more serious losses for the squadron.

RAF Watton

A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.

On 26th September, another order came through for aircraft of 21 Sqn to stand by to attack  the German fleet, whilst a further two Blenheims (L8734 and L8743) would fly to the Rhur to carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission. However, bad weather, industrial smoke and a faulty camera prevented both aircraft from carrying out their duties: each one returning to Watton empty handed but unscathed – crews reporting heavy flak over the target area. The whole of October and November were pretty much a wash-out. Bad weather with prolonged heavy rain prevented any substantial flying beyond the local area. Air gunnery and co-operation flights were carried out whenever  possible, but the late months of 1939 had certainly been a ‘phoney war’ for 21 Sqn.

As 1940 dawned, things on the continent began to heat up and ground attacks increased for both Watton squadrons. Low-level sorties saw them attacking troop formations and enemy hardware as its galloped its was across the low-countries. Whilst bravely flying on and escorted by fighters, overall loses for the slower Blenheims of 2 Group were beginning to rise, a pattern that would only increase in the face of a far superior enemy in the coming months.

These losses were bourne out by 82 Sqn in dramatic style on the 17th May, when twelve aircraft took off at 04:50 to attack Gembloux. They were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and overwhelming fighter opposition – fifteen BF.109s, decimated the squadron. All but one aircraft was lost, the only survivor being P8858 crewed by Sgt. Morrison, Sgt. Carbutt and AC Cleary. Whilst not injured in the melee, the aircraft was badly damaged and as a result, was deemed unrepairable and written off. An entire squadron had all but been wiped out in one fell swoop.

This disaster would be reflected right across 2 Group, who had now suffered its greatest overall loss to date, but for 82 Sqn it would not yet be the end of this traumatic and devastating period. The burning cauldron that was now facing the light bomber was taking its toll on crews, who were all at a distinct disadvantage to their Luftwaffe counterparts. On the 21st, three more aircraft were lost from Watton, with one being forced down in France, another lost without trace and a third limping home so badly damaged it also had to be written off.

A short visit by 18 Sqn between 21st and 26th May barely interrupted proceedings at Watton. After returning from France, they had spent no less than nine days in May at five different airfields including the nearby Great Massingham.

By early June 1940 Operation Dynamo had been completed and France was lost. The British Bulldog, whilst not a spent force, had shown her teeth, been bitten hard and was now licking her heavy wounds. Preparations would now begin to protect her own shores from the impending invasion.

Fuelled by revenge, combined attacks by both 21 and 82 Sqn continued on into the summer months. But revenge alone does not protect a crew from superior fighters and heavy flak. On June 11th, three more 21 Sqn aircraft were lost whilst attacking positions around La Mare, it is thought all three fell to Luftwaffe fighters. Two days later on the 13th, another five aircraft were lost, two from 21 Sqn and three from 82 Sqn; losses were mounting for the light bombers and Watton was amongst those bearing the brunt of these. On the 24th, 21 Sqn saw a reprieve, whether to rest crews, take on a new role or simply regroup, they began a move north to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. 82 Sqn however, would remain at Watton, where they would carry on with the punishing raids over the continent.

After the arrival and departure of another short stay unit, 105 Sqn between 10th July and 31st October, Watton was now left in the lone hands of 82 Sqn, a situation that would remain until the spring of 1942.

The dramatic loss of eleven crews back in May would come back to haunt 82 Sqn in August that year. On the 12th, another twelve aircraft took off on a high altitude bombing mission to Aalborg in Denmark. The airfield they were to target was well defended, and as if history were to repeat itself, once again eleven of the twelve aircraft were lost. The only one to return, that of R3915 crewed by Sgt. Baron, Sgt. Mason and Sgt, Marriott, turned back early due to low fuel.

In the space of three months, an entire squadron has been all but wiped out not once, but twice, unsustainable losses that would surely bring the squadron to its knees.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the crews lost at Aalborg, 13th August 1940. The propeller of Blenheim R3800, that crashed that day.

It was loses like this that helped convince the authorities to eventually withdraw Blenheims from front line service during 1942 – the Blenheim being long outdated and outclassed. At this time, Watton’s 82 Sqn, would begin their transfer to the Far East, a place they would remain at until the war’s end.

A lull in operations meant that Watton was then reduced to mainly training flights, through the Advanced Flying Unit. Small single and twin-engined aircraft providing the activity over the Norfolk countryside. Many of the crews being trained here would be shipped out to the satellite airfield at Bodney, before returning here for their evening meals.

A brief interlude in the May of 1942 saw the rebirth of the former 90 Squadron, a First World War unit that had gone through this very process on a number of occasions since its inception in 1917.

Flying the American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ or Fortress I as it was in RAF designations, 90 Sqn was set up to trial the use of the four-engined heavy for its suitability as an RAF bomber. During the first 15 days at Watton, the squadron gained personnel and received their first aircraft,  after which they moved to nearby RAF West Raynham. Here they would begin these trials which also required the use of a number of smaller airfields in the local area. These included both RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney, neither of which were particularly suited to the heavy bombers.

Watton then saw no further operational units, and in the mid 1943, it was handed over to the Americans who began to develop the airfield into something more suitable for their needs. It was now that Watton would take on a more sinister role.

In Part 2 we see how the Americans developed Watton, and how it became two sites rather than just one, and also, how its role in Electronic countermeasure took it into the post war years.

The full story of Watton can be found in Trail 9.

RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 4)

In Part 3 Upwood became part of the Pathfinders operating Mosquitoes on major operations as Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. Eventually the war drew to a close and bombing operations wound down. Then we entered the jet age.

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.

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/

The full text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 3)

In Part 2 Upwood progressed through the early war years as a training airfield operating a range of aircraft types. As the larger, heavier aircraft came n line, its wet and boggy ground became churned up necessitating the construction of hard 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.

Part 4 takes us into the Cold War, the development of the jet engine in which Upwood becomes a graveyard for disbanding RAF Squadrons.

The full text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

RAF Upwood (Trail 17) – The Graveyard of RAF Squadrons (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Upwood was formed and how the first squadrons arrived ready to show off their new Fairey Battles. As September 1939 dawned, war was declared and Upwood stepped up to the mark and prepared itself for the conflict.

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.

In Part 3 Upwood see the arrival and use of the four engined heavies. The Pathfinders are born and Upwood becomes a front line bomber airfield.

The full text can be read in Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

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.

RAF Warboys – Home to the Pathfinders (Part 1)

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.

However, 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. Perhaps now the tide of misery would turn and Warboys crews would begin a new era in aviation history.

RAF Warboys

The beautiful Memorial window dedicated to the Pathfinders.

The full trail appears in Trail 17