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RAF in Oxfordshire Part One

A hotbed of aircraft activity from pre-WWI to the present day, Oxfordshire remains a key location for RAF operations, with the USAF also utilising the county during the ‘first’ Cold War, both Upper Heyford and Brize Norton selected as key European sites in the early 1950s.

During WW2, many of the airfields of Oxfordshire performed an important training role, with a number of factories in the county also helping in the war effort: the Morris plant at Cowley in Oxford was converted into aircraft workshops repairing Spitfires and Hurricanes and building training aircraft, with grass runways created at the front of the main plant.

Still Active

RAF Benson

Opened: 1939

Today a support helicopter main operating base working within Joint Helicopter Command, Benson started life as bomber training centre just before the outset of WW2, Nos. 103 and 150 Squadrons arriving with Fairey Battles. No. 12 Operational Training Unit (OTU) was established at Benson in 1939, tasked with training all crew on the Battle and Avro Anson, and later the site was selected for the establishment of an experimental unit charged with exploring the use of photographic reconnaissance – No. 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) flying camouflaged Spitfires at high altitude, the aircraft virtually invisible to enemy defences. The images taken resulted in, amongst other discoveries, pinpointing the location of the German battleship Bismarck in waters off Norway in May 1941, the Allies destroying it later that month.

Post war, the King’s Flight was reformed at Benson in 1946 with Vickers Vikings, renamed the Queen’s Flight in June 1953, the station also retaining its photographic reconnaissance role into the early 1950s. In 1953, Benson came under Transport Command, the Armstrong Whitworth Argosy amongst the aircraft operating, and when the Argosys departed in the early 1970s, the Queen’s Flight was the only flying unit that remained, joined later by the No. 115 Squadron operating Hawker Siddeley Andovers in the radio and navigation-aid calibration role.

The helicopter element of HM King Charles III Coronation Flypast depart RAF Benson, 06 May 2023
(The helicopter element of HM King Charles III Coronation Flypast depart RAF Benson, 06 May 2023)

In 1992, Benson’s helicopter role began when No. 60 Squadron reformed at the site flying Westland Wessexes, and when Abingdon closed in the same year, several more units were transferred to the station. The HQ of the Support Helicopter Force (SHFHQ) relocated to Benson the following year when RAF Gütersloh in Germany closed, and in June 1997 No. 33 Squadron arrived from Odiham, operating Westland Pumas.

In the 2000s, Nos. 28 and 78 Squadrons were reformed at Benson flying Merlins, the Puma force centralised at the Oxfordshire site with No. 230 Squadron relocating from Aldergrove. Along with the frontline Puma squadrons, the station is home to an OCU flying a mix of Pumas and Chinooks.

RAF Brize Norton

Opened: 1937

A name synonymous with the RAF, Brize Norton is the service’s largest station with almost 6,000 service personnel and home to the RAF’s mobility force. However, when it opened in the late 1930s, it boasted just one unit, No. 2 Flying Training School, FTS, who transferred from RAF Digby in Lincolnshire to the site 15 miles west of Oxford.

During the Battle of Britain, the station came under attack from the Luftwaffe: on August 16, 1940, German bombers destroyed 35 Airspeed Oxfords and 11 Hawker Hurricanes – one of the biggest single losses of aircraft during the conflict. Despite being in the Luftwaffe’s sights, No. 6 Maintenance Unit (MU) continued to store large numbers of aircraft at Brize Norton throughout WW2.

Post war, the station became a site for the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) with heavy investment in infrastructure seeing the runway extended to around 4.3km, with work also to improve taxiways and dispersals; the work was completed in April 1951, with command transferring to SAC in December 1952.

Vickers VC-10 at Brize Norton during 2003

(Vickers VC-10 at Brize Norton during 2003)

Returning to RAF control in April 1965, the station underwent further upgrades, becoming home to RAF’s strategic transport force – VC-10, Short Belfast and Britannia squadrons arriving. With the closure of RAF Lyneham in 2011, its Hercules squadrons moved to Brize Norton, with Voyager tankers and Atlas transporters also arriving at the station; 2023 saw the Hercules retired from operations and No. 47 Squadron disbanding at Brize Norton.

Closed

RAF Abingdon

Opened: 1932

Closed: 1992

Located around eight miles south west of Oxford, RAF Abingdon opened as a site for bomber squadrons, with Fairey Gordons and Hawker Harts among the first aircraft operating, the station assuming a training role at the start of the war as operational aircraft were moved further east. Nos. 97 and 166 Squadrons were among those located at Abingdon, flying Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys, the station heavily involved in the so-called Thousand Bomber Raids that hit Cologne, Essen and Bremen in the spring of 1942.

Post war, the station became part of transport command following the arrival of No. 525 Squadron, pivotal in the Berlin Airlifts in 1948/49 following the Soviet blockade of land and river routes between West Berlin and West Germany – the unit operating Avro Yorks to bring supplies into West Berlin.

On July 6, 1965, a Handley Page Hastings of No. 36 Squadron took off from Abingdon with a number of parachutists on board, kitted out to make jumps: in total the flight had 24 RAF and 11 Army passengers. Shortly after departing, the aircraft crashed into a field at Little Baldon, around five miles east of Abingdon, killing all six crew plus 35 passengers. Shortly after, the accident was put down to metal fatigue of two bolts in the elevator control system, with all Hastings grounded and the aircraft’s retirement fast forwarded.

An aerial view of RAF Abingdon circa 1972
(An aerial view of RAF Abingdon circa 1972)

In the 1970s, the station’s role switched to maintenance, repair and salvage of a huge variety of aircraft, with basic flying training also carried out, and in 1992 Abingdon was handed over to the Army and renamed Dalton Barracks. It is still made available today, however, to RAF Benson for helicopter training and to No. 612 Volunteer Gliding Squadron.

RAF Akeman Street

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1947

A Relief Landing Grond, RLG, for Brize Norton, Akeman Street was named after the Roman road it was situated on, the station located around 16 miles north west of Witney. Soon after opening, a Luftwaffe raid on Brize Norton saw their Airspeed Oxfords relocating to Akeman Street, the site later becoming an equipment storage sub site for No. 3 MU before it closed early in 1947.

RAF Bampton Castle

Opened: 1969

Closed: 2006

A non-flying RAF station that was established by the Royal Corps of Signals in 1939, handed over to the RAF in 1969, becoming home to Nos. 2 and 81 Signal Units dealing with radio communications, under the control of RAF Brize Norton – Bampton Castle is situated four miles south of Brize Norton which was the home of No. 38 Group Tactical Communications Wing RAF until 2006.

RAF Barford St John

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1946; in current use by USAF

A training facility was opened at the site for RAF Flying Training Command with three grass runways used by the Airspeed Oxfords of No. 15 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) RAF from nearby RAF Kidlington. Late in 1942, the station underwent a rebuilding programme to lay concrete runways, coming under RAF Bomber Command, reopening as a satellite for RAF Upper Heyford before it served as a test centre for the Gloster air company, notably the Meteor, the only allied jet that operated during WW2.

Aerial view of RAF Barford St John during 2011
(Aerial view of RAF Barford St John during 2011)

The airfield closed soon after the end of WW2, and in 1951 the USAF opened a communications centre at Barford St John, five miles south of Banbury, coming under the control of the nearby RAF Croughton.

RAF Barton Abbey

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1945

The station was used as a RLG and as a storage centre by Nos. 6, 8 and 39 MUs, the main aircraft associated with the site – located midway between Bicester and Chipping Norton – being the Wellington.

RAF Bicester

Opened: 1917

Closed: 1976

While records of flying at the site north west of the centre of the historic market town date back to 1911, it was 1917 when the Royal Flying Corps moved in with the arrival of night-bomber units. Further squadrons relocated to Bicester following their return from France, with the station put under care and maintenance in 1920, re-opening for flying in 1928 with a variety of RAF bombers operating from the station, including Vickers Virginias and Boulton Paul Sidestrands.

Modern Day View of Bicester Airfield
(Modern Day View of Bicester Airfield)

In 1938, squadrons operating Bristol Blenheims arrived, and a year later the prototype Handley Page Halifax bomber made its inaugural flight from Bicester, the station predominantly used during WW2 as a training centre; flying ceased in September 1945 when it became a motor and spares depot. In later years, the site was used by the RAF Gliding and Soaring Association (RAFGSA), and in 1966, Nos. 1 and 26 LAA (Light Anti-Aircraft) Squadron RAF Regiments arrived from Malaysia and Singapore, before the RAF stopped using Bicester as a station in 1976; a gliding operation was kept running at the location as adventure training for military personnel.

Bicester was later used as contingency hospital by USAF, those facilities rapidly expanded in 1990 ahead of an anticipated influx of injured servicemen during Operation Desert Shield (the first Gulf War), an influx which never materialised.

RAF Broadwell

Opened: 1943

Closed: 1947

Operating under Transport Command when it opened, among Broadwell’s early residents were Nos. 512 and 575 Squadrons flying Douglas Dakotas, both heavily involved in D-Day operations. Towards the end of the war, the station, situated two miles west of Brize Norton, saw squadrons including Nos. 10, 76 and 77 reformed, also with Dakotas, ahead of serving in the Far East campaign.

RAF Burford

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1950

There is little known about the site, located around five miles north west of Brize Norton, but reports indicate it was used by No. 8 MU for aircraft preparation and parts storage. Post war the area was used for private aviation services, a company called Anglo Continental Air Services believed to have started air tour operations in the late 1940s from Burford, flying three-seater Auster Autocrats, a business which folded in 1950.

RAF Bush Barn (Pusey)

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1945

Land near Pusey Village, around 12 miles south west of Oxford, was requisitioned in 1941 and used as a RLG by the Tiger Moths of No. 3 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), and by No. 5 MU for training, aircraft preparation, and aircraft parts storage.

RAF Chalgrove

Opened: 1943

Closed: 1945

Opening immediately as USAAF Station No. 465, Chalgrove was utilised by a photo-reconnaissance (PR) squadron of Lockheed P-38 Lightning aircraft, followed by further squadrons that performed low-level operations over France ahead of the D-Day landings. Further USAAF PR units joined from nearby RAF Mount Farm (see later) flying P-51 Mustangs, with their operations continuing into peacetime to assess damage over mainland Europe.

An F-6 Mustang (IX-H, serial number 42-103213) nicknamed "'Azel" of the 10th Photographic Reconnaissance Group at Chalgrove Airfield
(An F-6 Mustang (IX-H, serial number 42-103213) nicknamed "'Azel" of the 10th Photographic Reconnaissance Group)

Initially after hostilities ended, the station was handed back to the RAF and used as satellite for RAF Benson, before an agreement was reached with the Martin-Baker Aircraft Company, the site ten miles south east of Oxford used to test aircraft ejector seats; the first live test was conducted over Chalgrove in July 1946, fitted in a Gloster Meteor jet.

RAF Chipping Norton

Opened: 1940

Closed: 1953

The first arrival at a station that was located around 18 miles north west of Oxford was No. 15 SFTS, operating North American Harvards and Airspeed Oxfords, the site also used as a RLG for Kidlington (see below) and Little Rissington in Gloucestershire. By the end of 1944, the airfield had two runways made up of Sommerfield Track (steel matting) and continued in use until the end of hostilities, when it was returned to agricultural use before being disposed of in the early 1950s. Part of the site is now used for the TV show Clarkson’s Farm with Jeremy Clarkson.

RAF Edgehill

Opened: 1941

Closed: 1953

The station located at Shenington, seven miles north west of Banbury opened as a satellite for RAF Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, No. 21 OTU among the first arrivals, flying Vickers Wellingtons, Miles Martinets and Hawker Hurricanes, soon joined by No. 12 OTU and No. 1 FTS RAF. The station was later used for flight testing the Gloster E28/39, a jet prototype that led to the development of the Gloster Meteor, the only jet used by the Allies in WW2.

After the war, the site was used for storage by No. 25 MU, before seeing flying again in the early 1950s as a RLG for Moreton-in-Marsh, with gliders still operating at Edgehill today.

RAF Enstone

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1952

Opening in late 1942 as a satellite station for RAF Moreton-in-Marsh under Bomber Command, the Vickers Wellingtons of No. 21 OTU were the first to use the three hard runways of the airfield 17 miles north west of Oxford a few months’ later, staying until April 1944. The site was later used by No. 1682 Bomber Defence Training Flight, BDTF, operating Tomahawk Fighters, and the Harvards and Oxfords of No. 17 SFTS.

RAF Grove

Opened: 1942

Closed: 1955

Grove was used initially as a training airfield for Bomber Command 91 Group, and as a satellite for No. 15 OTU RAF for the nearby RAF Harwell (see below), before being handed over to the USAAF in September 1943. By June 1944 the station, one mile north west of Wantage, was among the busiest in operation with thousands of tonnes of stores and fuel transferred into France following the D-Day landings.

Aerial View of RAF Grove 6 September 1946
(Aerial View of RAF Grove 6 September 1946)

The buildings at Grove were later used to house German PoWs, and in 1946, the station returned to RAF control and was used for surplus aircraft disposal. After closure, the site was turned over to the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) based at nearby Harwell.

RAF Harwell

Opened: 1937

Closed: 1945

While Harwell became more famous post war as the UK’s centre for atomic energy research, the site was perhaps best known during WW2, and prior to the outbreak of hostilities, as the development site for the Royal Aircraft Establishment Mark III Catapult: a device intended to assist aircraft in take offs from shorter runways, allowing them to be loaded with more fuel. While technical issues saw the project abandoned in 1940, it did lead to the catapult technology that allowed Hawker Hunters to be placed on board cargo ships, the aircraft deployed if an attacking bomber was spotted.

While aircraft activity at the site five miles south east of Wantage was recorded in the early 1930s and possibly even before that, it was 1937 when Harwell officially opened, various bomber squadrons stationed there before and during WW2, becoming part of No. 38 Group RAF. In the spring and summer of 1944, Airspeed Horsa troop-carrying gliders flew from the station, securing vital strategic positions in advance of the D-Day landings; a memorial to those killed in the operations has been created at the site.

A Short Stirling of No. 295 Squadron RAF, taking off from RAF Harwell towing an Airspeed Horsa glider, 17 September 1944
(A Short Stirling of No. 295 Squadron RAF, taking off from RAF Harwell towing an Airspeed Horsa glider, 17 September 1944)

It was January 1946 that Harwell became home to the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, dedicated to work on harnessing nuclear power for both military and energy purposes.

You can read part two here

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