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Places in Bedfordshire

Bedfordshire Airfields
in the Second World War

The following are brief summaries related to Bedfordshire from:

Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire Airfields
in the Second World War

Written by Graham Smith in 1999 (Reprint due October 2003)
ISBN 1853065854  

The book was available from local booksellers priced 12.95 and is published by
Countryside Books, 2 Highfield Avenue, Newbury, Berkshire,  RG14 5DS, England 

They have kindly granted permission for the reproduction of the following extracts.
 

Cardington

Cranfield

Gransden Lodge

Henlow

Little Staughton

Luton

Podington

Tempsford

Thurleigh

Twinwood Farm


Cardington

Although not an airfield in the strict sense, Cardington has been included because of it special place in British aviation history associated with the H.M. Airship R101 and the disaster on 5 October 1930.  Cardington's salvation came when it was decided to resurrect the First World War barrage balloon defence system and No 1 Balloon Training Unit was formed on 9 January 1937 with Grp. Capt A.A. Thompson, MC, AFC as Commanding Officer.  One month later the first Barrage Balloon Group, No 30, was formed and the first training courses for balloon crews were started; in November of 1938 30 Group became the Balloon Command. By September 1939 almost 50 squadrons had been formed manning about 600 sites. The balloons were to remain a familiar site in our skies for the duration of the war.  In November 1943 No 1 Balloon Training Unit was closed, having seen some 22,000 operators and drivers through its courses; the Barrage Command was disbanded in February 1945.

In September 1937 No 2 RAF Recruitment Centre moved in from Henlow; this was to be followed by Aircrew Selection and Medical Boards.  After the war it was to also house No 102 Personnel Despatch Centre so many of those who had joined the RAF here passed through its gates again as they were demobilized.

Cranfield
Work on  the airfield began in 1935 by the contractors John Laing & Son Ltd. and it opened in May 1936 under the control of No 1 Group, Bomber Command.  During the first week of July the Hind aircraft of  Nos 62, 82 and 108 squadrons arrived.

Bomber Command 6 Group were formed in April 1936 and then moved to Cranfield.  In September 1939 No 6 (Training) Group became responsible for the eight "Group Pool" units comprising fourteen squadrons with No 35 (Madras Presidency) and No 207 (Leicester) arrived at Cranfield towards the end of August to provide operational training.

It was decided to lay firm runways and by the spring of 1940 Cranfield was a prime RAF station with excellent facilities and three tarmac runways, it remained in a training role.

No. 51 OTU arrived during the first week of August 1941 and remained for the rest of the war; it was disbanded on 14th June 1945.

Notable instructors who served with the unit included Sgt. Colin Payne, a New Zealander; Fg. Off. Henry Jacobs, D.F.C.; Sqn Ldr C.A. Pritchard, D.F.C., RAAF and Wg. Cdr. C.A. Holland.

After the war Cranfield briefly served a base for repatriation of Canadian and Australian airmen before once again providing a home for training with the Empire Test Pilots School in 1946 for one year and continued with the College of Aeronautics.  The location now includes Cranfield University and has one of the highest number of aircraft movements as any airfield in the UK.

Gransden Lodge
John Laing and Son Ltd also built Gransden Lodge; in 1942 the first aircraft to arrive were Wellington's of No 1418 (Experimental) Flight.  It was with these aircraft that a number of electronic devices were developed.  In January 1943 another Special Duties squadron was formed here, No 192; they were engaged in electronic intelligence (ELINT).

In April 1943 the station became fully operational as part of No 8 Group providing training as the Pathfinder Navigation Training Unit but it was the RCAF squadron No 405 (Vancouver) that was to make Gransden Lodge its home for the war; they arrived from Leeming in Yorkshire on the 19th.

No 142 Squadron Mosquitos arrived on 27th August 1944 and were engaging the enemy on the 29th. as the start of countless operations that they would make to the "Big B" (Berlin).

The Canadians flew back home in June 1945 for  a further period of training but the sudden end of hostilities resulted in No 405 being disbanded in September; the Mosquitos were disbanded at the same time.

Little Gransden, as it is now known, is used by a flying school.

Henlow
There are precious few current RAF stations that can boast a longer lineage than Henlow; over 80 years of continuous service, one month after the RAF was formed.

It started as an Aircraft Repair Depot on 10th May 1918 as No 5 Eastern Area.   In addition to this role there were also stints providing training and development, indeed the immediate pre-war years saw a variety of courses available in the RAF Technical College here.

In April 1938 Maintenance Command was formed and the unit at Henlow became No 13 MU under control of No 43 Group; mainly for repair and modification of aircraft.  By June 1940 most of the training units had left the station.

The Luftwaffe clearly considered Henlow to be of some strategic importance as it was bombed in September and November 1940, February 1941 and July 1942 but without serious damage.

In January 1940 the first Hurricane aircraft that had been built in Canada arrived here for assembly, test and delivery to the operational squadrons.  By late 1944 most of the Hurricanes had gone, the final one being appropriately named The Last of the Many left in September.

At the end of 1944 No 13 MU was still the main occupant but No 6 Repairable Equipment Unit (REU) was based there as well as a number of mobile Dental Units and The School of Aeronautical Engineering.  Today the main occupant is The Radio Engineering Unit (also REU!).

Little Staughton
The airfield was not built until 1942, as a standard bomber station.  It was only to exist for less than three years but saw plenty of action as a repair base for damaged American B-17s until February 1944 and then as a Pathfinder station with Lancasters and Mosquitos.

The new Lancaster squadron, No 582 officially formed on 1st April 1944 and they were joined the next day by the Mosquito crews of No 109 squadron from Marham in Norfolk who saw action over Cologne only three days later; many more sorties were to be flown by them  The Lancasters were to go into action on the 9th and took part in many intensive raids in France and Belgium. Both squadrons were very active on 5th/6th June, the eve of D-Day and continued afterwards with many successful and heroic missions.  Mosquito type XVI, crewed by Flying Officers A.C. Austin and P. Moorehead dropped the last bombs of the war at 02:14 hours on 21st April 1945.

At the end of 1945 the airfield was placed under care and maintenance but was effectively closed to service flying and is now in very limited use by a small number of private aircraft.

Luton
The airfield was started by private aviators before the first commercial use in 1932 producing the Percival Gull.  Six years later the Elementary & Reserve Flying Training School opened its doors.

At the outbreak of war all civilian flying ceased and the school closed; the airfield was soon to provide the production facility for Percival Proctors and the Airspeed Oxfords.

Training returned on 22nd July 1940 when No 24 Elementary Flying Training School moved in from Sydenham, Ireland (not South London as stated in the book - Ed) before moving on to Sealand in Cheshire in early February 1942.  It was replaced in April by No 5 Ferry Pool of the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) from Hatfield; the only all female Pool.  

By 1943 the ATA had more than 600 pilots and late in the year had to move on to Cosford (near the Spitfire factories) to make room for Mosquito manufacture.  Winston Churchill was moved to write in May 1944 praising the fact that under the Command of Air Commodore D'Erlanger more than 200,000 aircraft ferryings had been undertaken since 1940 on behalf of the RAF and Royal Navy whilst expressing regret of the loss of 113 pilots.

The ATA disbanded at the end of November 1945; the development and growth of the airfield from the late 1950s has resulted in a major passenger airport, now London Luton Airport.

Podington
Although the airfield at Podington began to take shape in 1941, it would be another two years before it became fully operational as an Eighth Air Force heavy bomber base. Several units used it as a temporary base before the airfield was improved and runways extended and it was to be the oldest Bomb Group (92nd) that came to make Podington its home for the rest of the war.  

Operations started on 23rd September 1943 with two missions against the V1 rocket sites; all aircraft returned safely.  Losses were significant but so were the achievements and for the final five months of the war the 92nd piled up the number of operations with steady regularity, passing a milestone in April 1945 - its 300th operation.  On the 25th the Group was to fly its last mission, its 308th with the loss of one aircraft and crew bringing the total number of aircraft lost in action to 154; mostly from Podington.  They left for France in June that year.

Podington, which is one of the better preserved wartime airfields, is now better known as Santa Pod, the major European centre for drag racing.  The old control tower is one of the few to have been converted into an unusual private house.

Tempsford
This airfield was another to be constructed by John Laing & Son, this time with Balfour Beatty, and it came to life in December 1941 with the arrival of Wellingtons of No 11 Operational Training Unit; this was only temporary whilst their home base of Bassingbourn was being improved.  

Several other units came on a temporary basis including experimental and intelligence flights so it is perhaps not surprising that two Special Duties squadrons arrived and were to remain for the duration engaged on secret operations.   No 138 Sqn. arrived in the middle of March 1942, they were operating as the air arm of the Special Operations Executive and were equipped with Lysanders, Whitley Vs and a few Halifax IIs.

During the second week of April No 161 Sqn. joined them from Graveley in Hertfordshire; they were newly formed and were engaged in the skilled duties of landing and picking-up 'passengers' behind enemy lines with the Lysanders which had very short take-off and landing space requirements.

During 1943 the Lockheed Hudsons were used increasingly for these hazardous pick-up operations; they were faster, quieter, of greater capacity and had more sturdy undercarriage than the Lysanders.  A fine book written by 161 Sqn.'s flight commander, Sqn. Ldr. Hugh Verity, D.F.C., entitled We Landed By Moonlight gives detailed accounts of the secret landings.

In the months leading up to D-Day, the two Tempsford squadrons were unable to cope with the insatiable demand for arms, ammunition, supplies and agents Several Stirling squadrons came to assistance.

Special operations continued on a greatly reduced scale and in February 1945 NO 138 relinquished  its special role and became a Lancaster bomber squadron from 9th March; it had made 2,560 sorties, dropping more than 40,000 packages and almost 1000 agents.

No 161 Squadron was disbanded on 2nd June 1945 having made 1,749 sorties with the loss of 49 aircraft.

The airfield was placed under care and maintenance in June 1947.  Many of the buildings were auctioned off in April 1961and the airfield site was sold in 1963 with some of the wartime buildings and lengths of runway surviving.

Thurleigh
The original airfield was built by W & C French Ltd in 1941.  Following some temporary allocations the Eighth Air Force were to be here for over three years.  On 7th September 1942 the 306th Group started to arrive; with some of their B17s flying in the following week.  From October 1942, the 306th Group (or Reich Wreckers) mounted a long, arduous and very costly offensive from here.

By 1944 the 306th had been in action for almost 15 months and was nearing its 100th mission and having sustained many losses.  The Group finally completed their long war on 19th April 1945 which was their 342nd mission; the second highest for any B17 Group.  During its time at Thurleigh over 9,600 sorties had been flown with the loss of 171 aircraft in action and over 22,500 tons of bombs were dropped.

In 1946 construction work began on the airfield to turn the site into what became know as the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Bedford.  Note that the airfield was finally closed in 1997 with the RAE having become DERA and moved its experimental operations to Boscombe Down and Farnborough.

Twinwood Farm
 
It was mid-1941  when the RAF began to use the grassed field, by April 1942 it had three concrete runways and additional temporary buildings.  From then until the end of the war the Blenheims, Beaufighters, Beauforts and Mosquitos of  No 51 Operational Training Unit use 'Twinwoods', as it was generally known.

Even before that fateful December day in 1944 (the 15th) Twinwood Farm had established an association with Glen Miller and his American Band of the Supreme Allied Command as it was originally known.  It was based in Bedford in early July 1944 and they used the airfield on a couple of accessions as they undertook their exhausting tours.  They gave a  concert at the airfield on 27th August.

The order detailing Maj. Miller's journey to France for another tour was issued on 12th December but fog delayed departure and a friend offered to help him out with an aircraft.  This was to be a Canadian-built Noordugn UC-64A Norsman.  It was a cold, rainy and foggy afternoon and Glen Miller said to the band's manager, Lt Don Hayes, as he was boarding the aircraft, "Haynsie, even the birds are grounded today".  The aircraft took off at 1.55pm and was never seen again.

The airfield closed in June 1945.  Although the site returned to agriculture it has become a mecca for Glen Miller enthusiasts.

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