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RAF in Gloucestershire

The county was a hotbed for aircraft activity during WW2, with estimates putting the number of abandoned airfields in Gloucestershire around the 50 mark, including decoy or Q sites used at night: basic examples of Q sites consisted of lit flares in a field to mimic a runway, several model aircraft dispersed at the location, and possibly a few broken down vehicles to give the impression of a working station.

There are two active sites with RAF Fairford the best known – currently under USAF control – and Little Rissington, a satellite for RAF Syerston.

Still Active

RAF Fairford

Opened: 1944

While Fairford comes under the RAF banner, it is currently run as a USAF station, a Forward Operating Location (FOL) made available to the United States by the UK Government – it is the only FOL location in Europe and is used for US heavy bombers and supporting Bomber Taskforce Operations.

The history of the station dates back to WW2, opening in January 1944 as a planned home to USAF personnel and equipment. However, the RAF’s No. 620 Squadron were the first occupants, moving in from RAF Leicester East with their Short Stirlings, soon followed by another Stirling outfit, No. 190 Squadron. Troop carriers and gliders from Fairford were used in the D-Day landings, the station also key during Operation Market Garden in the Netherlands.

Soldiers boarding aircraft for Operation Market Garden
(Soldiers boarding for Operation Market Garden)

Post-war, Fairford did become part of the USAF Strategic Air Command (SAC), a 3km runway constructed in 1950 to allow US long-range bombers to use the site – US B-47s were maintained at the station, effectively ready for action during heightened tensions with the old Eastern Bloc in the ‘first’ Cold War. It has remained in use by the USAF, many operations originating from the site including during the Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq War in 2003.

The Shuttle Carrier carrying Enterprise on its way to the Paris Air Show in 1983
(The Shuttle Carrier carrying Enterprise on its way to the Paris Air Show in 1983 - Mike Freer)

Fairford has played host to a number of famous non-military aircraft over the years, the station used as test centre for the Concorde and a stop-off for the Space Shuttle on its way back from the Paris Air Show in 1983 when it was attached to a 747; Fairford was also designated as a possible emergency landing site for the Shuttle, one of four in Europe. The station was also used by Air Force One when President Obama visited for the NATO conference in Wales in 2014, and remains home to the Royal International Air Tattoo, RIAT, one of the largest airshows in the world.

RAF Little Rissington

Opened: 1938

While no longer a full-time RAF station, Little Rissington remains in use as a satellite for RAF Syerston in Nottinghamshire, is home to 637 Volunteer Gliding Squadron, used by Brize Norton for parachute training, and is also utilised by Helicopter Training Command.

Opening just before the start of WW2 as part of the Air Ministry’s Expansion Period, it wasn’t until 1942 that three asphalt runways were laid, the station three miles south east of Bourton-on-the-Water home to No. 6 Service Flying Training School, FTS, and No. 8 Maintenance Unit, MU. With the number of aircraft being stored at the station increasing as the war progressed, the station was given its own defensive fighter force of Spitfires.

Folland Gnat of the RAF Central Flying School at RAF Little Rissington in 1967
(Folland Gnat of the RAF Central Flying School at RAF Little Rissington in 1967)

Post-war, the RAF Central Flying School arrived in 1946, and the RAF’s aerobatics teams – up to and including the Red Arrows – made Little Rissington their home for a period of time. The station was used by the Army in the late 1970s, and from 1981 to 1994 it was home to the largest military contingency hospital in Europe in response to the USAF’s heavy presence in Europe. It returned to RAF control in 1994 and plans to close it were shelved in the mid-2000s, with 2008 seeing RAF Little Rissington designated a Core Site up to 2030.

Closed

RAF Aston Down/Minchinhampton

Opened: 1918

Closed: 1976; still used as a glider base

Opening towards the end of WWI as Minchinhampton, the station situated six miles south east of Stroud was initially an aerodrome used by the Australian Flying Corps.

It closed soon after the end of hostilities, reopening in 1938 as tensions grew across Europe, renamed Aston Down at the request of local residents who feared a slump in the value of houses in Minchinhampton. It was home to No. 20 MU, used for storing and preparing aircraft, later joined by No. 55 Operational Training Unit, OTU, who trained Hawker Hurricane and Bristol Blenheim pilots.

No. 2 Ferry Pool Air Transport Auxiliary, ATA, arrived at Aston Down in 1941, their role transporting aircraft to operational airfields, renamed No. 187 Squadron and moving to RAF Benson in Oxford in 1953. The first operational squadron at Aston Down was 180, a detachment transferring from RAF Dunsfold and remaining until April 1943, flying the North American Mitchell, with No. 4 Squadron arriving on January 3, 1944 for a two-month spell, operating de Havilland Mosquitos.

The station remained an active airfield after WW2, later becoming a satellite for the Central Flying School, CFS, based at RAF Little Rissington.

RAF Babdown Farm

Opened: 1939

Closed: 1950

Opening as a Relief Landing Ground, RLG, seven miles south of Stroud, Babdown Farm had two grass runways and a flare path and was used by No. 9 Service FTS, operating Hawker Audaxes and Hurricanes as well as Miles Masters. The runways were later upgraded with Sommerfield (wire mesh) tracking but no concrete structures were laid. Post war it was used by No. 7 MU for storing and repairing Airspeed Oxfords.

RAF Barnsley Park

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1945

A strip located around five miles north east of Cirencester was used as a Satellite Landing Ground, SLG, by No. 6 and No. 5 MU during WW2. As with some of the rapidly created war stations, Barnsley Park was little more than a cut field that used natural foliage as cover for the aircraft stored there.

RAF Bibury

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1950

Known as one of the Battle of Britain’s more unlikely fighter airfields, it opened in the spring of 1940 as a RLG for No. 3 FTS but by August the site around eight miles north east of Cirencester was being utilised by the Hurricanes and Spitfires of Nos. 87 and 92 Squadrons, helping fill a defensive gap in central England. It came under attack by the Luftwaffe on August 19, one airman killed and one Spitfire destroyed, and remained in use by fighter aircraft for a period of WW2 as well as its main role as a training airfield.

RAF Boddington

Opened: 1940

Closed: 2007 as RAF station; now a MoD installation, ISS Boddington.

Not your usual RAF station with no airfields or aircraft, the site five miles north west of Cheltenham was originally an army telephone exchange, later becoming the home of No. 9 Signals Unit RAF.

RAF Brockworth

Opened: 1915

Closed: 1960

While not a typical RAF station, Brockworth, or Hucclecote, was the home of the Gloster aircraft manufacturer with accompanying test airfield, and was officially classed as an RAF station, No. 90 Squadron disbanding there at the end of WWI in 1918. Among the aircraft developed at the factory on the outskirts of Gloucester was the only allied jet flown by the RAF in WW2, the Meteor, whose major role towards the of the war was to divert V1 bombs by flying alongside and deflecting them, causing the bombs to crash before they reached their targets.

RAF Chedworth

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1950

Located eight miles north of Cirencester, Chedworth opened in April 1942 as a satellite to RAF Aston Down, No. 52 OTU arriving to operate Spitfires and Miles Magisters. It briefly became home to the headquarters squadron of the Ninth Air Force of the US Army Air Forces units in June and July 1944, before reverting to its primary training role for the rest of WW2.

Aerial photograph of Chedworth airfield looking north, the control tower and airfield code are to the top left of the runway intersection, 7 June 1946

(Aerial photograph of Chedworth airfield looking north, the control tower and airfield code are to the top left of the runway intersection, 7 June 1946)

RAF Down Ampney

Opened: 1944

Closed: 1947

The station located between Cirencester and Swindon was focused an air transportation, Nos 48 and 271 Squadrons flying Douglas Dakotas from the site towards the end of WW2. On D-Day, the station’s Dakotas were used to drop the 3rd Parachute Brigade into Normandy, towed Airspeed Horsa gliders, with the same squadrons also bringing home wounded personnel after the beach landings; the station was also key in Operation Market Garden and the Rhine crossing.

RAF Down Farm

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1946

A SLG used by No. 10 MU located around six miles west of Malmesbury, with Airspeed Oxfords and Avro Ansons among the aircraft stored there.

RAF Filton

Opened: 1910

Closed: 2012

Starting life at the dawn of Britain’s aviation industry, Filton was home to the Bristol Aeroplane Company, BAC, and became a Royal Flying Corps, RFC, centre in WWI, Nos. 33 and 42 Squadrons formed there from elements of Nos. 20 and 19 Squadrons respectively, flying Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2s. Also formed at Filton was No. 66 (Fighter) Squadron in June 1916 with Sopwith Pups, who moved over to France in March 1917, and No. 62 Squadron who flew Bristol F.2 Fighters.

In WW2, Filton was part of RAF Fighter Command 10 Group, with No. 935 Barrage Balloon Unit using the airfield from January 1939, responsible for the defence of the Naval Yard at Plymouth as well as Filton, with no defensive fighter squadrons allocated for the role during the early part of WW2. Among the squadrons based at Filton during 1940 was No. 236 Squadron, in May and June flying defensive sweeps with their Bristol Blenheim fighters. Tragedy struck the station, the BAC factory and surrounding area on September 25, 1940 when it was hit hard by the Luftwaffe: a sustained attack by 58 Heinkel 111 bombers saw more than 200 killed and extensive damage sustained; No. 504 Squadron RAF moving in soon after with their Hurricanes to defend the station, the BAC factory, and the Bristol area.

An Avro Vulcan B1A V bomber parked on one of the four rapid dispersal points at Filton during a public air display in the 1960s
(An Avro Vulcan B1A V bomber parked on one of the four rapid dispersal points at Filton during a public air display in the 1960s)

Post-war, the station remained crucial to RAF operations, and in the 1950s and 60s it became a V bomber dispersal site, with Avro Vulcans kept at Filton on ‘immediate readiness’ status during the Cuban Missile Crisis that was at its peak in October 1962.

The site was also famous as the home of the UK arm of the Concorde project alongside Toulouse, early flights departing from the runway and the final Concorde returning in 2003 when the fleet was withdrawn from service. The site is now home to Aerospace Bristol, a museum that charts the history of aviation and whose star attraction is Concorde 216, the last to fly.

RAF Innsworth

Opened: 1940

Closed: 2008; transferred to the Army

A non-flying station located just north of Gloucester, Innsworth was the first home of No. 7 School of Technical Training, offering training for engine and airframe fitters and mechanics – more than 2,000 officers and other staff based there by 1941, an initial delay in its availability due to the facility housing 1500 evacuees from Dunkirk. In December 1941, No. 2 WAAF Depot opened at Innsworth, the station becoming increasingly associated with the RAF’s women’s section, and by the end of 1941 the population on site had grown to 4,000.

Queen Elizabeth chatting with a WAAF sergeant whilst visiting RAF Innsworth during the Second World War.
(Queen Elizabeth chatting with a WAAF sergeant whilst visiting RAF Innsworth during the Second World War.)

Post-war, the centre became home to a number of RAF sections including No. 33 Wing RAF Regiment, No. 4 Police District, and the RAF Record Office HQ, with the RAF Personnel and Training Command centre created there in 1994; Innsworth was transferred to Army control in 2008, and is home to the headquarters of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) – capable of deploying a High Readiness Force (Land) HQ at short notice for operations and crisis response.

RAF Leighterton

Opened: 1918

Closed: 1939

The Australian Flying Corps, AFC, were given two airfields for their own use towards the end of WWI, the site at Leighterton eight miles north west of Malmesbury joining Minchinhampton/Aston Down (see above). Various aircraft were flown by the AFC with their Nos 7 and 8 (Training) Squadrons staying at Leighterton until May 1919 when they were both disbanded. Also flying from the site were RAF Squadrons 28 and 66, with No. 6 Training Squadron based there for a short time in 1919, the station closing later that year for a short time. It remained in use for regular aviation and was listed by the Automobile Association as one of the country’s official civil landing grounds.

RAF Moreton Valence

Opened: 1939

Closed: 1962

The station located six miles south west of Gloucester was used as a satellite for the nearby RAF Staverton (see below) and as an Advanced Flying Unit of RAF Flying Training Command. It was perhaps best known as test centre for the Gloster Meteor, the UK’s first jet that was used towards the end of WW2, and post-war, Moreton Valence remained a test centre for the Gloster company.

RAF Moreton-in-Marsh

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1955

Located near the chocolate box Cotswold village, midway between Cheltenham and Banbury, the station was the home of No. 21 OTU, flying Vickers Wellington bombers during WW2. The station closed for operational flying a few years after the end of the war, but remained in use until the mid-1950s as a relief runway and for training purposes.

RAF Pucklechurch

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1944

Northleach was only in operation as a RAF station for two years at the height of WW2, used as a RLG for the nearby RAF Stoke Orchard (see below) before being assigned to No. 3 Glider Training School (GTS), providing basic training for pilots. The station was also used to train soldiers of the RAF Regiment.

The site 10 miles north east of Cirencester became unusable for flying late in 1942 due to the grass runway becoming waterlogged, returning for air operations in mid-1943, but problems with the runway surfaces remained. A planned upgrade at the station never materialised and operations eventually switched to RAF Zeals in Wiltshire late in 1944 when flying at Northleach ceased.

RAF Overley Park

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1945

Overley Park, located around two miles north west of Cirencester, was used by Nos. 10 and 20 MUs as a satellite landing ground until the end of WW2.

RAF Pucklechurch

Opened: 1939

Closed: 1959

Coming under the command of RAF Filton, see above, Pucklechurch was used as storage site and was home of the barrage balloons that were flown over Bristol as part of home defences against Luftwaffe attacks. The site ten miles north east of Bristol was used for training of balloon operators, and didn’t officially become RAF Pucklechurch until 1952, 13 years after it opened, with the site used for training and storage after the war. In the 1950s Pucklechurch was also used as a linguistics centre.

RAF Quedgeley

Opened: 1939

Closed: 1995

A military use of the 300-acre Manor Farm site on the south western outskirts of Gloucester dated back to WWI when it was requisitioned as a munitions factory, becoming RAF Quedgeley in 1939. During WW2 more than 4,500 members of the RAF Regiment and civilians were employed at Quedgeley, the vast facility also used for maintenance and storage of aircraft equipment and motor vehicles. Its RAF logistics role continued until the mid-1990s when the site was sold.

RAF South Cerney

Opened: 1937

Closed: 1971; now Duke of Gloucester Barracks

The station opened well before the outbreak of WW2, initially focused on training, No. 23 Group RAF transferring there soon after hostilities commenced. Among the training aircraft used were Airspeed Oxfords and Hawker Harts, the training role continuing post-war through to the late 1960s, the station handed over to the army in 1971.

South Cerney Control Tower

(South Cerney Control Tower)

RAF Southrop

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1947

The station’s three grass runways were used as a RLG for training flights of 23 Group RAF from South Cerney. From 1942, the station. 12 miles west of Cirencester, was used by No. 2 FTS and other training units through to 1947.

RAF Staverton

Opened: 1936

Closed: 1953; now Gloucestershire Airport

An airfield was located at the site four miles west of Cheltenham from the early 1930s, the RAF taking control of Staverton in 1936 for use as a training school. Among the units based at the station during WW2 was No. 44 Group Communications Flight RAF.

Aerial Photograph of RAF Staverton in 1941

(Aerial Photograph of RAF Staverton in 1941)

Part of No. 7 MU was based at the station from June 1945 until its closure, with the RAF Police Dog Training School moving to Staverton in 1946 before transferring to RAF Netheravon in February 1951. The station was famously used by Sir Alan Cobham in his pioneering work on air-to-air refuelling, and it was known as Staverton Airport when the RAF moved out, before becoming Gloucestershire Airport in 1993.

RAF Stoke Orchard

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1950

Developed originally as a RLG before becoming a training airfield utilised by No. 10 Elementary Flying Training School, EFTS, operating de Havilland Tiger Moths, and No. 3 GTS, training pilots and instructors. Located six miles north west of Cheltenham, the station was also home to a shadow factory run by the Gloster Aircraft Company, later becoming a research centre for the National Coal Board.

RAF Temple Guiting

Opened: late 1930s

Closed: 1945

A 50-acre field near the Cotswolds village located seven miles west of Stow-on-the-Wold was requisitioned by the Air Ministry as a RLG for nearby airfields, the site returning to agricultural use at the end of WW2.

RAF Windrush

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1945

A site equidistant between Cheltenham and Oxford near the Gloucestershire village of Windrush was chosen as a location for a RAF station soon after WW2 began, opening in 1940 initially as a RLG for RAF Chipping Norton, before coming under the control of RAF Little Rissington (see above). Created with two Sommerfield runways, the station boasted a concrete perimeter track along with associated buildings and hangars which were added after the station opened. Some of the buildings remain intact, with the Watch Tower restored in the 1990s and part of the site now owned by the National Trust. A memorial at the church in Windrush village commemorates Sgt Pilot Bruce Hancock who died on August 18, 1940 when he rammed a Luftwaffe Heinkel bomber with his unarmed Avro Anson training aircraft.

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