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RAF in Northamptonshire

Like many other counties, little remains of the RAF facilities that were established during the war years up and down Northamptonshire, with Croughton the only active military facility, used by the United States as a communications facility and home to the 422nd Air Base Group. As well as the active RAF stations that were created during WW2, a number of dummy stations (Q sites) sprung up overnight, lit by flares in an attempt to divert Luftwaffe attacks from more active locations.

The removal of Thor missiles in the early 1960s spelled the end for most of the county’s RAF sites, with only a few remaining after in a non-flying capacity.

Still Active

RAF Croughton, now under USAF control

Opened: 1938

Opening as RAF Brackley at a site nine miles north of Bicester, the station was renamed in 1941 and utilised as a satellite for RAF Upper Heyford, allowing No. 16 Operational Training Unit, OTU, extra airfield space for night-flying training, mainly for pilots from Commonwealth countries.

RAF Croughton in 2007

(RAF Croughton in 2007)

It was also designated as an emergency airfield allowing damaged planes access at all hours, with the station constantly lit irrespective of enemy activity, so regularly drawing the attention of the Luftwaffe. In July 1942, No. 23 Squadron of RAF Flying Training Command, FTC, made Croughton the new home for No. 1 Glider Training School, GTS, the last class passing out in March 1943. It continued as a training centre for a number of years with No. 1 GTS returning in November 1944, with both flying and training ceasing at Croughton in May 1946.

Used as an ammunition store for several years post war, it was 1950 that the USAF took control of the station, its new role as a communications centre. Over the years, Croughton became home to a number of US units, communications at the centre of its operations, and by 1977 it was controlling resources from Cornwall up to Iceland. Today, it is home to the 422nd Air Base Group and operates one of Europe’s largest military switchboards, processing a third of all US military communications in Europe.

Closed

RAF Chelveston

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1970

During WW2, the station five miles east of Wellingborough was home to both RAF and USAF units, opening in August 1941 for use by the Central Gunnery School, before it was taken over by the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment, operating gliders, the lighter aircraft suited to the grass airfields.

RAF Chelveston airfield 9 May 1944

(RAF Chelveston airfield 9 May 1944)

Its limitations saw concrete runways constructed with the airfield upgraded to Class A bomber status with US Eighth Air Force arriving early in 1942 – 60th Troop Carrier Group the first USAAF unit to occupy the station, consisting of a number of squadrons with C-47s. Following the 60th transferring to Aldermaston, the 301st Bombardment Group (Heavy) arrived, its squadrons operating the B-17 Flying Fortresses, with the 305th following, staying until victory in Europe was achieved.

Chelveston return to RAF control in October 1945, the station put under care and maintenance for several years before it was again handed over to US forces in 1952. The station underwent extensive redevelopment with a complete new runway built to accommodate intercontinental bombers, with the B-47 Stratojet one of the aircraft that was a familiar site in the area. In 1962, Chelveston was returned to reserve status following a restructure of US forces in Europe, with a decision to close the station in 1970; a signals facility was established at the site in 1977, remaining active until 2003.

RAF Chipping Warden

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1953

Opening under the direction of RAF Bomber Command, Chipping Warden was used by No. 12 OTU, Avro Ansons and Wellington bombers operating from the airfield located six miles north east of Banbury in Oxfordshire. In December 1942, a Wellington crashed on take off from the station, hitting the control tower and hangars, two people killed and numerous injured. In August 1945, Chipping Warden became home to No. 10 Air Navigation School RAF, with the site also used as a storage unit for Airspeed Horsa gliders prior to their disposal.

RAF Clipston

Opened: 1916

Closed: 1918

A landing ground was established at the site three miles south west of Market Harborough in December 1916 for No. 75 (Home Defence) Squadron, flying Royal Aircraft Factory BE2s and FE2bs, remaining operational until the end of WWI.

RAF Collyweston

Opened: 1917

Closed: 1945, the station absorbed by RAF Wittering

Founded as No. 5 Training Depot Station during WWI under the name of Easton-on-the-Hill, a number of training aircraft operated from the site three miles south west of Stamford including DH6s and Sopwith Camels. With the formation of the RAF, it was renamed RAF Collyweston with training continuing until the end of hostilities.

Captured German aircraft of No. 1426 (Enemy Aircraft Circus) Flight at RAF Collyweston

(Captured German aircraft of No. 1426 (Enemy Aircraft Circus) Flight at RAF Collyweston)

After spending more than 20 years mothballed, RAF Collyweston reopened in 1940 with a grass airfield, a satellite for RAF Wittering which was literally next door – Wittering located mainly in Cambridgeshire but crossing into Northamptonshire. Among its residents was No. 23 Squadron who arrived in May 1940, flying Blenheims and sharing night-fighter duties with the Beaufighters from Wittering, No. 23 soon departing for Wittering. In September 1941, the Eagle Squadron arrived at Collyweston, manned by American volunteers and flying Hurricanes, their stay lasting a total of one week before they moved on to RAF Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire.

Concerns about the high number of accidents at Wittering saw a proposal to merge the two runways, work resulting in a three-mile landing ground capable of handling heavy bombers. All major operational activity ceased from Collyweston at this point, but it became the home of 1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight, operating captured Luftwaffe aircraft at stations across the UK, giving flying demonstrations to home aircrews as a morale booster.

RAF Deenethorpe

Opened: 1943

Closed: 1963

Constructed in 1943 two miles east of Corby, Deenethorpe was immediately handed over for US operations, the 401st Bombardment Group (Heavy) one of the first arrivals operating Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses. Operations were against a variety of targets, both industrial and military, the bombers normally carrying heavy loads which occasionally proved dangerous to the local community: one Fortress failed to get off the ground on December 5, 1943, crashing into a nearby cottage, 20 minutes later the plane and its bombload detonating with the explosion felt nine miles away in Kettering – thankfully, the crew and locals had been evacuated.

RAF Deenethorpe Control Tower, waiting for the return of a mission, 26 February 1945

(RAF Deenethorpe Control Tower, waiting for the return of a mission, 26 February 1945)

Post war, Deenethorpe became a recruiting centre, eventually being sold in the early 1960s and returning to agricultural use, the main runway, however, is still used to this day as a private airstrip.

RAF Denton

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1945

A station was located at the site six miles south east of Northampton in 1940, used as a relief landing ground, RLG, for RAF Sywell (see below). Aircraft from both the RAF and later the USAF used its two runways regularly, No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, EFTS, also utilising the station to train pilots on Tiger Moths.

RAF Desborough

Opened: 1943

Closed: 1946

A RAF Bomber Command station was constructed with three tarmac runways at Desborough, midway between Corby and Market Harborough, a number of units using the site including No. 84 OTU, No. 1381 (Transport) Conversion Unit RAF and No. 108 Gliding School.

RAF Earls Barton

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1945

A relief landing ground was situated at the site eight miles north east of Northampton, the location, like Denton, utilised by No. 6 EFTS, operating Tiger Moths in a training capacity.

RFC Finedon

Opened: 1917

Closed: 1917

No. 75 Squadron had Finedon, a grass airstrip four miles north east of Wellingborough, available to them, with BE2 and BE12 fighters using it as a Home Defence landing ground from January to July 1917, hence the Royal Flying Corps, RFC, moniker.

RAF Grafton Underwood

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1959

RAF Bomber Command’s No. 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit, HCU, was one of the first arrivals at the station four miles north east of Kettering, the airfield upgraded with the initial runways unsuitable for operating the heavy, four-engine bombers. Assigned to the USAF in 1942, it was home to a number of US units, flying operations to attack military and industrial targets throughout mainland Europe.

Aerial photograph of RAF Grafton Underwood 22 April 1944

(Aerial photograph of RAF Grafton Underwood 22 April 1944)

The station was used for vehicle storage post war, No. 236 Maintenance Unit in charge, employing civilians as drivers and mechanics, repairing military vehicles ahead of sales at auction.

RAF Greatworth

Opened: 1939

Closed: 1992

An official radio communications centre was opened at Greatworth Park, seven miles east of Banbury, early in the 1950s, but its history in the military dates back to the start of WW2, the nature of the work carried out possibly explaining why most references to it as an RAF station begin around 1950. During hostilities, Greatworth was a transmitter site for Bletchley Park, relaying vital communications across the world to help orchestrate the war effort.

In 1949, land was acquired to expand Greatworth, its communication work continuing throughout the Cold War, with a 24-hour watch employed made up of a RAF sergeant, a junior technician, a senior aircraftsman, and a civilian radio technician. The team carried out preventative and corrective maintenance during the night, and retuned transmitters under direction from RAF Stanbridge in Bedfordshire. In 1988 it was leased to the USAF, eventually closing for good in 1992.

RAF Harrington

Opened: 1943

Closed: 1963

One of the most crucial stations in the UK during WW2, Harrington became known as the home of the Carpetbaggers, the name given to the 801st Bomb Group, its mission to deliver secret agents and supplies to resistance groups across Europe.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito of the "Carpetbaggers"

(de Havilland DH98 Mosquito of the "Carpetbaggers")

It opened in 1943 as a satellite for No. 84 OTU at RAF Desborough, but quickly became a centre for US forces, their units completing construction work on tarmac runways intended for heavy bomber use. Many US aircraft were regularly seen around the site six miles west of Kettering, including B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators, some of the latter having most of their armaments and bombload equipment removed to allow for drops of specialist equipment – the planes were also heavily camouflaged to avoid detection.

Post war, Harrington was underused and fell into disrepair, but in late 1950s it was chosen as a Thor missile site, three rocket launch pads built with associated buildings; nuclear-armed rockets targeted on locations behind the Iron Curtain as part of the Cold War – when the missiles were removed Harrington closed.

In 1993, Harrington became home to the Carpetbagger Aviation Museum and in 2011 its Thor missile site was given Grade II Listed status as an example of Cold War architecture.

RAF Hinton-in-the-Hedges

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1950

Created as part of Bomber Command, the station 11 miles south east of Banbury was home to Nos. 13 and 16 OTUs, both providing essential training for pilots, navigators, gunners and associated crew. Post RAF, the runways continued to be used by private aircraft and remain in use today for flying and skydiving.

Aerial view of RAF Hinton-in-the-Hedges 1941-1942

(Aerial view of RAF Hinton-in-the-Hedges 1941-1942)

RAF King’s Cliffe

Opened: 1917

Closed: 1959

While official use of the site 12 miles west of Peterborough began in 1939, there was a relief landing ground created at Kings Cliffe around 1917 to be utilised by WWI aircraft. Construction of the concrete runways began in 1940, opening the following year as a satellite for RAF Wittering, No. 133 Fighter Squadron one of the first occupants with Spitfire Vbs – No. 133 was the third of the Eagle Squadrons, made up of volunteer pilots from North America. Overseas squadrons from New Zealand, Belgium and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) were also based at King’s Cliffe, the station handed over for USAF use in the winter of 1942.

RAF ace Johnnie Johnson climbing out of the cockpit of his Spitfire at RAF King's Cliffe

(RAF ace Johnnie Johnson climbing out of the cockpit of his Spitfire at RAF King's Cliffe)

The station is noted for being the location where Glenn Miller played his last airfield concert on October 3, 1944, the famous big band leader going missing on a flight over the English Channel in December 1944 – a memorial to the musician built where one of the station hangars once stood.

Post war, King’s Cliffe was used for armament storage until it was sold in 1959.

RAF Lilbourne

Opened: 1915

Closed: 1920

Located close to the Warwickshire border, Lilbourne was one of the most important flying centres in the UK during WWI, and home to a number of training squadrons. No. 10 Training Squadron operated Avro 504s and Sopwith Camels at the site five miles south of Lutterworth, with other aircraft also operating from the site under the guidance of No. 44 Reserve/Training Squadron and No. 55 Training Squadron, who also used Castle Bromwich Aerodrome. Lilbourne was also home to a number of operational squadrons during the latter part of WWI including Nos. 73 and 84 Squadrons.

RFC Litchborough

Opened: 1916

Closed: 1917

Royal Aircraft Factory BE2 and BE12s of No. 75 Squadron used a landing strip at Litchborough, 11 miles south west of Northampton, as a Home Defence landing ground during WWI.

RFC Moulton

Opened: 1916

Closed: 1918

Similar to Litchborough, Royal Aircraft Factory BE2 and BE12s of No. 75 Squadron had an airstrip at the site five miles north east of Northampton available to them as a Home Defence landing ground.

RAF Peterborough

Opened: 1932

Closed: 1964

Located two miles north west of the centre of Peterborough, it was utilised for flying for several years before WW2, with units stationed there including No. 1 Aircraft Storage Unit RAF, No. 1 Pupil Pilots Pool RAF, No. 7 Flying Training School, No. 7 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit RAF, and No. 25 (Polish) Elementary Flying Training School RAF.

Post war, the station became a base for British European Airways, BEA, helicopter division, an experimental Royal Mail delivery service operating between Peterborough and several major Norfolk towns.

RAF Polebrook

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1963

One of the first units operating from Polebrook was No. 90 Squadron RAF, work still ongoing when the squadron arrived in June 1941, equipped with American B-17 Flying Fortresses. The B-17s were used for high altitude raids in daylight, No. 90 aircraft attacking the naval barracks at Wilhelmshaven on their first operation from Polebrook from 30,000 feet – unfortunately, they were unable to hit any targets from such a height and their defensive artillery froze.

In June 1942, Polebrook was handed over to the USAAF, and from December 1943 the station served as HQ for 94th Combat Bombardment Wing, designated as USAAF Station 110. Among the US servicemen stationed at Polebrook was Hollywood star Clark Gable, who refused to stay and make movies in the US, wanting to ‘do his bit’ for the war effort; he was involved in operations over occupied Europe and produced a recruiting film for aircraft gunners.

Lt. James M. Stewart & Lt. Clark Gable 1943

(Lt. James M. Stewart & Lt. Clark Gable, 1943)

Post war, the station returned to the RAF, coming under No. 273 Maintenance Unit RAF, initially closing in 1948 before reopening as a Thor missile base in the late 1950s, closing a second time when the missiles were removed.

RAF Silverstone

Opened: 1943

Closed: 1947

Better known today as motor racing circuit, Silverstone’s RAF life began midway through WW2 when it became the home of No. 17 OTU, operating Vickers Wellington bombers. The station ten miles south west of Northampton fell out of use post war, and in 1950 hosted the first British Grand Prix on May 13, still home today to one of F1’s most famous races – the old airfield’s three runways in the typical bomber ‘A’ formation lying within the outline of the classic Silverstone racetrack.

RAF Silverstone in 1945

(RAF Silverstone in 1945)

RAF Spanhoe

Opened: 1944

Closed: 1946

Located seven miles north east of Corby, Spanhoe was built for use by both the RAF and the USAF, opening on New Year’s Day 1944 and earmarked to be used to carry US troops. In February it became HQ for the 315th Troop Carrier Group, with two of their Douglas C-47 Skytrains involved in a mid-air collision on July 8, 1944, at Tinwell near Stamford, 34 people killed in the accident with one crew member parachuting to safety.

82d Airborne parachutists loading onto 43d and 309th TCS aircraft, 1944

(82d Airborne parachutists loading onto 43d and 309th TCS aircraft, 1944)

RAF Sywell

Opened: 1927

Closed: 1945

Opening as an aerodrome in the late 1920s, Sywell was home to many private aircraft with aviation still in its infancy, and by the mid-1930s, Brooklands Aviation Ltd had established a repair and maintenance facility. By 1938, several training schools had been created at Sywell, with new pilots learning the basics by operating Tiger Moth biplanes. The war years saw training intensify, with an extensive network of container buildings constructed, with the site six miles north east of Northampton used to both build Avro Wellingtons from 1942, and to repair other aircraft.

The aerodrome continued post war as a private airfield, a role it still has today, with private flying, flight training and corporate flights operating from Sywell; an aviation museum is also on site with a Hawker Hunter airframe on display.

RFC Thrapston

Opened: 1916

Closed: 1917

A Home Defence landing ground was located at Thrapston during WWI, Royal Aircraft Factory BE2 and BE12s of No. 75 Squadron using the airstrip ten miles east of Kettering.

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