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Watch Office with Meteorological Section (518/40) c1949
Photo: Jack Ruck

History

1918-1919

Although selected as a site for an aerodrome by the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, Upper Heyford was not actually brought into use for flying until July 1918, by which time the RAF had come into existence and the Armistice was only sixteen weeks away.

The site was established as a three-squadron Mobilisation Station (South-East Area), but its career was quite brief and lasted from July 1918 to the following May. But during this time the new aerodrome housed no less than seven mobilisation squadrons. None were operational, but 94 Squadron came here to complete its training on the celebrated SE5A fighter and was then, at the end of October 1918 posted to France.

The first flying unit at Upper Heyford, (157 Squadron) formed here on 14 July 1918 and was one of the few to be equipped with the Sopwith Salamander - a ground attack version of the famous Sopwith Snipe fighter. The sister 158 Squadron also commenced to form, but did not receive any aircraft, and both of these units were disbanded after a short stay.

Two more of the early units based here were 89 Squadron, which had previously been working up on SE5s elsewhere, and a newly formed 122 Squadron, which was to have received DH10s 'Amiens' bombers. With the end of hostilities in sight, both disbanded after staying only two or three weeks.

Just after the Armistice on 11 November 1918, two new Canadian squadrons were formed here and became the last of the World War One residents. These were 1 and 2 Canadian Air Force Squadrons which also carried the dual titles 81 and 123 Squadrons, RAF and were equipped with the Sopwith Dolphin fighter and DH9A bomber respectively. Both units trained here during the first post-war winter and were then transferred to Shoreham on the south coast. Last to leave, in May 1919, was 1 CAF/ 81 Squadron. With its departure flying ceased and as Upper Heyford was not chosen as one of the RAFs permanent aerodromes, the station closed. Along with many other newly-built RAF stations, the land reverted back to the landlord and the buildings removed.

1924-1939

The new station offices was officially opened on 27 October 1927 and on this day a Station Flight was formed here with three Avro 504Ns to enable members of Oxford University Air Squadron gain flying experience. In its new form, the station recommenced its flying activities in January 1928, when it became the home of the Handley Page Hyderabads of 10 and 99 Squadrons, these were later supplemented by a more powerful variant - the similar looking Hinaidi.

In April 1931, 10 Squadron moved away to Boscombe Down, and from then until the outbreak of war, Upper Heyford regularly housed at least three bomber squadrons. Two of these were usually equipped with Hart or Hind light bombers, but during the summer of 1932 a new type of 'heavy' arrived. This was the Handley Page HP.38, and 99 Squadron together with No. 9 Squadron, were chosen to test fly and evaluate the aeroplane at Upper Heyord. While 99 Squadron found it a easy to fly and handle, but doubts were expressed concerning the strength of the undercarriage. The doubts were well-founded, for on 10 June 1932, an undercarriage collapsed following a flying demonstration here before the Air Member for Supply and Research and the AOC Wessex Bombing Area. The Air Ministry placed an order for a production version, known as the HP.50, that incorporated improvements to the undercarriage (amongst others). This version was eventually and appropriately named the 'Heyford. Number 99 Squadron was chosen as the first to receive this aircraft, which took place on 14 November 1933. (99 Squadron was also the first to receive the Heyford's two immediate lineal predecessors, the Hydrerabad and the Hinaidi).

After a year the Heyfords departed for the new airfield at Mildenhall, and the next heavy bombers to be based here were the Vickers Virginias of 58 and 215 Squadrons. These flew from here for the first nine months of 1936 until their new base at Driffield was ready.

As the sinister signs of the Nazi threat began to dominate the news in Europe, the RAF Expansion Scheme rapidly gained momentum and during 1936 and 1937, six completely new squadrons were formed and worked up here before moving on to their operational stations. All but one received Harts, Hinds or Audaxes and the exception was 233 Squadron, which was formed with Ansons to undertake maritime patrols over the North Sea. Another unit, 218 Squadron, stayed just long enough to re-equip here in January 1938 with one of the new types then being introduced - the Fairy Battle. One unusual unit based here in 1938 was the Long Range Development Flight, which was formed at Upper Heyford in January 1938 and used its five specially modified Wellesleys on long range test flights ranging out to the Persian Gulf and as far afield as Australia.

Another important development in 1938 was the appearance in March of the new Bristol Blenheim I, which took over from the Hinds of 57 Squadron and then re-equipped 34 Squadron in July. Biplanes finally departed in May 1939, when the Hinds of 18 Squadron were replaced by Bristol Blenheims. Meanwhile in March 1939, 34 Squadron had departed and been replaced by 76 Squadron which was equipped with another one of the new types of bombers - the Handley Page Hampden.

During the last six months before the outbreak of war, the station was the home of 18 and 57 Squadrons, both of which were equipped with Blenheims, and 76 Squadron, which had a mixture of Hampdens and Ansons, and was primarily engaged in crew training.

1939-1945

Once hostilities had broken out the priority was to prepare and despatch the two Blenheim squadrons to France for service with the Air Component of the Field Force, and by the end of September they had both completed their move. This made room for a second Hampden/Anson Squadron (No. 7) to move in and both 7 and 76 Squadrons were now organised to act as a combined Group Pool. It functioned to train crews for the operational squadrons of the prestigious 5 Group in Lincolnshire, with which formation Upper Heyford was closely affiliated for much of the war.

A dummy airfield (K site) was established on Ot Moor to draw enemy bombers away from the real one at Upper Heyford.

In April 1940, 16 Operational Training Unit (OTU) was formed out the existing Group Pool Squadrons, with an initial complement of 36 Hampdens and 36 Ansons and this was to remain as the station's principal resident unit for the rest of the war. The OTU acquired newly trained pilots from the Service Flying Training School (SFTS) and the navigators and air gunners from Air Observer Schools (AOS) and Bombing and Gunnery Schools (BGS). 16 OTU had the task of forming them up as crews and then training them as teams ready to commence their service in the operational squadrons.

In the early stages this process had to be completed in only six weeks but in September 1940 it was extended by two weeks when the proceeding part of the pilot's training, at a SFTS was correspondingly reduced. One SFTS with which 16 OTU was closely affiliated in 1941 was No. 3 at South Cerney. Although later this school was reorganised as a (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit, to give much shorter courses to pilots coming in from training schools overseas (especially in Canada), the affiliation between Upper Heyford and South Cerney continued.

One of the trainees here in May and June 1940 was Wireless Operator Sgt. John Hannah, who not long afterwards was awarded the Victoria Cross for his exceptional bravery whilst on operations with 83 Squadron at Scampton. From Scampton, meanwhile, in October, came Guy Gibson, who was posted here at the end of his first tour to rest from operations and act as an instructor. He did not stay long however, and with a restless urge to get back into the fray he was allowed to go to a night fighter squadron instead.

The principal aircraft type between April 1940 and 1942 was the Handley Page Hampden. Its unusually narrow fuselage caused it to be sometimes known as the 'Flying Suitcase' and since it had no room for a trainee and instructor to sit side-by-side to carry out conventional dual training, the trainee pilot had to manage on his own from the start. As a result, pilots posted to Upper Heyford at this time tended to be those who had achieved 'above average' ratings. For a year or so Hampdens were supplemented by a dozen Herefords. The unit did its best with these troublesome aircraft, but the type suffered numerous engine failures and was heartily glad to see the back of the Hereford when it was finally withdrawn in 1941.

As 16 OTU grew in size, so the need for dispersal increased, and a satellite landing ground near Brackley (later known as Croughton) was brought into use for night flying. For the first year or so of its existence the unit was also detached its Armament Flight, which carried out bombing and gunnery training, firstly to Squires Gate, then to Weston-Super-Mare, for exercises over the ranges in the Bristol Channel. Some bomb dropping practice was also undertaken more locally at a range on Ot Moor, and when, in August 1942, a pair of Lysander target towing aircraft was received, some air-to-air gunnery training was undertaken, somewhat controversially, over inland flying ranges.

From July 1940 onwards, small numbers of senior crews, in the later stages of their training, were given semi-operational flights over enemy territory, often dropping leaflets over Northern France as a means of gaining experience.

By April 1941 16 OTU had a total aircraft complement of 50 Hampdens and 25 Ansons which were arranged as three flights:

A Flight (Ansons) Navigation, day and night.
B Flight (Ansons) and Hampdens) Conversion, day and night.
C Flight (Hampdens) Operational and armament training, day and night.

During the year the number of Commonwealth airmen increased, and as well as Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, several Rhodesians also passed through Upper Heyford.

Plans were drawn up in early 1942 to introduce heavy bomber aircraft into OTUs with 16 OTU one of the first to be involved, but this proposal was undertaken by the development of Heavy Conversion Units instead. However, in April 1942, the replacement of the Hampdens with Wellingtons began and this coincided with the expansion of Croughton to full satellite status.

In May and June 1942 came Upper Heyford's first contribution to the bombing campaign proper, and on the night of 30 May, 16 OTU despatched a mixed force of 14 Wellingtons and 16 Hampdens on the first Thousand Bomber raid on Cologne. Before training on Hampdens finally ceased, the OTU sent another mixed force of 11 Wellingtons and 19 Hampdens on the second 'Millennium' raid to Essen; but for the third Thousand Bomber raid, on Breman on 25-26 June, 23 Wellingtons were despatched. The unit also took part in 'Main Force' raids in July against Hamburg and Dusseldorf, but following a change of policy, was then confined to training, except for leaflet dropping sorties over enemy territory.

In July 1942, the grass satellite at Croughton was transferred to 23 Group to act as a glider training station and 'A' Flight was temporarily accommodated at Bicester's satellite at Hinton-in-the-Hedges on a joint tenancy basis. A sharing arrangement proved unsatisfactory and since Upper Heyford's own brand new satellite at Barford St. John was not yet complete, a reshuffle of airfields took place and on 23 August, Hinton was temporarily reallocated to 16 OTU.

July also saw a change of name for a top secret Wellington unit which had been quietly flying from here since January 1942. Under the designation 'A' Flight, 109 Squadron, this was engaged in carrying out radio reconnaissance of German installations. It was now retitled 1473 Flight but its task remained the same, ferreting out enemy 'Benito' and 'Ruffian' (radar and radio) transmissions, often using airfields such as Prestwick and Wick as advanced bases. In January 1943, this unit relocated to Finmere.

During the winter months, the new satellite at Barford St. John which had officially opened on 15 December 1942, steadily advanced towards completion, and finally, on 29 April 1943, took the place of Hinton-in-the-Hedges.

Meanwhile, the large fleet of over 50 Wellingtons, for which Upper Heyford was responsible, was now being steadily renewed, firstly with Mk. III, and soon afterwards, with MkX aircraft. In the spring of 1943 a flight of Martinet target tugs was also set up.

Although full use was made of the satellite airfield, the constant flying programme at Upper Heyford itself had taken a serious toll of the airfield surface, which was still grass, fortified with Sommerfeld wire tracking. After the winter of 1943/44 it was abundantly clear that the provision of concrete runways could not be delayed any longer and in April, John Laing & Son Ltd. started work on the construction of hard runways.

The scale of the excavations and the disruption this caused precluded all flying except for occasional aircraft arriving for maintenance, or for modification by 91 Group Servicing Unit. The size of 16 OTU was therefore reduced by one quarter, and all flying training was temporarily concentrated at the satellite, with the result that for the next eight months the skies around Upper Heyford were unusually quite.

The new runways were finally completed in December 1944, whereupon the airfield was reopened for normal flying by 16 OTU. At this time the unit itself was also going through an important period of change in order to meet the ever growing demand for aircrew experienced on the De Havilland Mosquito aircraft. With the result that the Wellington aircraft were given up and replaced with the high performance twin engined 'Wooden Wonder'. The unit also absorbed 1655 Mosquito Training Unit from the Pathfinder station at Warboys in the process.

The Mosquito had already earnt an excellent reputation as a highly successful all purpose bomber with a versatility which included a considerable turn of speed as well as the capability of carrying a 4000lb. bomb. Previously all training on the type for Bomber Command was carried out under the direction of 8 (Pathfinder) Group, but during the closing months of war responsibility was transferred to three OTUs. Henceforth 16 OTU at Upper Heyford would train all pilots and navigators for the medium and high level bomber squadrons in the Main Force. 13 OTU at Harwell and 60 OTU at High Ercall provided low level bomber crews for the tactical units.

By this stage of the war, the end of the bomber offensive in Europe was almost in sight, but the campaign against Japan was very far from over and certain OTUs, including 16 OTU were selected to carry out 'Phase II' training. This was in order to provide crews for the projected 'Tiger Force' which was being formed ready for service in the Pacific.

In the event, Tiger Force never went into action but whilst most training units were quickly run down as soon as hostilities ceased. Mosquito training continued at Upper Heyford, although on a diminishing scale, until 16 OTU transferred to Cottesmore in March 1946.

The Cold War

At the time of the departure of 16 OTU, a complete change of role took place with the transfer of Upper Heyford to Transport Command. Its new task was the training of paratroops for the purpose of which No.1 Parachute Training School moved in from its wartime home at Ringway. Equipped with a small fleet of Dakotas, the school also brought with it the parachute training tower, from which the trainees made their very first drops. As part of 38 Group, the school was now designated No.1 Parachute and Glider School to reflect the fact that it also handled the RAF's (greatly reduced) glider training commitment, and to act as a suitable dropping zone with Weston-on-the Green as a satellite.

Meanwhile, within a few months of the end of the war with Germany, serious trouble was developing in East Europe, and in 1948 Berlin was subjected to a communist siege. Events in Czechoslovakia and Poland made it clear that a new Cold War had broken out and the worst fears were realised when, in 1950, communist forces made an attempt to annexe South Korea.

In response to what was perceived as a growing world-wide threat, Strategic Air Command was set up by the USAF and it was decided to base a strong force of American bomber aircraft in England. The first B-29s arrived in 1948 and were initially deployed in Eastern England at Lakenheath and elsewhere, but it was also decided to convert four airfields in and around Oxfordshire to serve as their regular bases. Upper Heyford was one of those selected, the others being Brize Norton, Fairford and Greenham Common, and once agreement had finally been reached in 1950 on how their development should be funded, the sites were made available for work to begin.

At Upper Heyford the first change was the relocation of the parachute school to Abingdon, and then, on 26 June 1950, men of the 801st Engineer Aviation Battalion started work on extending the 6,000ft runway to 8,300ft, also new hardstandings for very heavy bombers and a secure weapons storage facility. The extended runway required the stopping-up of a couple of minor roads and a few dwellings outside the WW2 boundary had to be removed including 'Half's Barn'. Civilian contractors Wimpey and Higgs & Hill were engaged in improving the living accommodation and bulk aviation facilities.

The new base was formally handed over to the USAF 3rd Air Force on 15 May 1951. This was formalised at a special ceremonial parade on 1 June. At this time the construction work was well advanced and the 7509th Air Base Squadron was then established here as a 'host' organisation to support the succession of visiting Strategic Air Command units which would be detached here in turn from their home bases in the USA.

Aerodrome defence was quickly established with the 98th Smoke Generating Company and the 4th AA Artillery Battalion.

Under normal circumstances in the 1950s, one Heavy Bomber Wing on a 90 day detachment would be based in the UK, at any one time, consisting of three bomber and one air refuelling squadrons, split between two airfields. The first SAC aircraft to be based here were the 15 B-50Ds of the 328th Bomb Squadron, which arrived in December 1951, whilst the other three-squadrons in their wing (the 93rd) were deployed at Lakenheath.

Large B-50s developed from the B-29 Superfortress, carried out their training and 'stood by' at Upper Heyford for their allotted 90 day period, and were succeeded in March by the tanker KB-29s of the 97th Air Refuelling Squadron (ARS), which in turn handed over to the 509th ARS in June. In each of these cases the other squadrons in the wings were based at Lakenheath.

By September 1952, Upper Heyford was ready to handle a full complement of 45 aircraft and when the 2nd Bomb Wing arrived it deployed all three of its bomb squadrons here with their B-50s and detached its ARS to Lakenheath. Upper Heyford was now considered to be fully operational and after housing just one more KB-29 unit (301 ARS) between December 1952 and March 1953, it lay ready, but unused, for several months whilst the successive visiting wings were deployed elsewhere to put their bases to the test.

When flying started again, in December 1953, everything had changed and the futuristic high performance jet B-47 Stratojet had superseded the familiar piston engined-heavy bombers. The first to be based here came with the 22nd Bomb Wing, and since the airfield was equipped to house a maximum of 45 bombers, the air refuellers had, once again to go elsewhere - in this case Mildenhall.

It would be twelve months after the departure of the B-47Bs of the 22 March 1954 before the station would be fully occupied again, but in the meantime it was used temporarily to handle parts of the 303rd Wing, when runway problems closed Greenham Common soon after it had opened for the first time. One of the most notable events of 1954, was the arrival here of the first of the truly massive RB-36s, a small number of which flew in for a brief stay in June and July by the 5th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Two more full strength B-47 wing detachments to Upper Heyford took place between March and June 1955 (310th Bomb Wing) and May and July 1956 (97th Bomb Wing), whilst another flight of B-36s, this time from the 42nd Bomb Wing, made a brief stay in October/November 1955. But with the growing threat of inter-continental ballistic missiles on the one hand and escalating costs on the other, it was becoming essential to change the way in which SAC bombers were deployed.

From 1958 onwards, the B-47s would no longer come to England in whole wings, but would be detached in smaller numbers and scattered over a larger number of airfields. As well as providing a much less vulnerable target, they would now be capable of a much more rapid launch time, and the new policy was known as the 'Reflex Alert' scheme. Typically now, a maximum of about 15 aircraft would be parked here, and often these would be provided by two or more wings.

Although numbers were down, the variety of SAC aircraft to be seen at Upper Heyford now increased. Occasional visits by the huge B-52 commenced at the end of 1960, and became more and more frequent over the next five years. Meanwhile, following nuclear tests behind the 'Iron Curtain' in the summer of 1962, a detachment of top secret U2 'spyplanes' operated from here in August to carry air sampling and analysis at very high altitudes in order to determine the characteristics of latest Soviet weapons. A third new type was the B58 Hustler, which, whilst never common, was occasionally seen.

In 1964, it was decided that regular detachments of SAC bomber aircraft to England would cease altogether, and both Fairford and Greenham Common were closed. At Upper Heyford 'Reflex Alert' continued until 1 January 1965, and the very last B-47 detachment was stood down at Brize Norton on 1 March 1965. As well as the bomber force, Brize Norton had regularly hosted small and highly secret detachments of reconnaissance aircraft such as the B-47s of the 55th SRW, for whom Detachment 1 of the 98th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing had acted as the host organisation. In preparation for the transfer of Brize Norton to the RAF, this detachment had to be relocated and since Upper Heyford was the only station of the four Oxfordshire bases to remain in American hands, it became the new advanced base for these special operations, now increasingly undertaken by RC-135s.

After a comparatively quiet period, Upper Heyford was suddenly back in the news again as a result of General de Gaulles sudden decision, on 22 February 1966, to force the removal of all US forces from French soil. It was now to serve as the new and urgently needed base for the RF-101 Voodoos of the 66th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing which had been stationed at Laon. After rapid preparations had been made, the unforeseen transfer of this unit was completed by 1 September 1966 and the Voodoos commenced their stay of just over three years.

This was the time of the Vietnam war, and by 1968 the days of the brightly coloured aircraft were over as green and brown camouflage was introduced on a large scale. In March 1969, another new type - the RF-4C Phantom - made its appearance here when it replaced the RF-101s in one of the 66th Wing's two squadrons. The Phantoms did not stay for long, however, as in January 1970 the inactivation of the 66th Wing commenced, the RF-4Cs going to the 26th Wing at Zweibrucken and the RF-101s back to the USA.

Over in Essex, since the early 1950s, the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing had been operating from the USAF station at Weathersfield, but this base had a limited potential for development and was awkwardly close to the expanding civilian airport at Stansted. Between January and June 1970 the 20th Wing was accordingly transferred to Upper Heyford, bringing with it a fleet of F-100 Super Sabres which were now due for replacement. Now with more aircraft on the base than there had been for some time, it was necessary to transfer the 98th SRW detachment to Mildenhall, thus bring to an end the SAC presence.

In September 1970 the first aircraft arrived of the type which was to be associated with Upper Heyford for longer than any other - the F-111. This versatile swing wing tactical bomber was to be based here for no less than 23 years and together with the similarly equipped 48th TFW at Lakenheath, it was one of the principal components in the USAF deterrent force in Europe.

In a period as long as 23 years, numerous developments were inevitably made in air defence technology. By the late 1970s there was much concern once more about the vulnerability of large numbers of military aircraft on operational stations. At Upper Heyford, for example, there were normally 75 F-111 aircraft in residence. It was therefore decided to construct a number of Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HASs) and by 1980 a whole complex of these small arched-shaped shelters appeared across the northern side of the airfield.

There was known to be a considerable improvement also in the performance of the Soviet radar network and to combat this a special squadron of EF-111A 'Ravens' (42 ECS) began to form here in February 1984. These aircraft were painted in a low visibility grey colour scheme and could also be easily distinguished by the 'acorn' bulge on their tails, which concealed some of the aerials for the extensive range of countermeasures with which they were equipped.

Four of the Ravens flew with the force of F-111s to make their famous raid on Tripoli in April 1986, but this was largely a Lakenheath operation, since aircraft of the 48th TFW were equipped with the 'Pave Tack' bombing aid.

The F-111s of the 20th TFW did, however, play a very active part in the Gulf War 'Desert Storm' operations in early 1991, and flew no less than 1131 sorties from forward bases in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The following April they took part on the 'Provide Comfort' campaign aimed at assisting the Kurds in northern Iraq.

The end of the Cold War, however, at last offered the possibility of greatly scaling down the USAF presence in Britain, and in the spring of 1991 plans for the closure of several bases, including Upper Heyford, began. First unit to go was the EF-111 equipped 42nd ECS on 10 July 1992 and by the end of that year most of the preparations for the phasing out of the Upper Heyford Wing had been made. During 1993, each squadron in turn was inactivated, the 79th FS on 23 April, the 77th on 9 July and the 'Fighting Fifty-Fifth' on 7 December. On that date the last F-111s were flown away and soon afterwards the whole site was transferred back to the RAF, bringing nearly eighty years of military aviation history to a close.

Denis Corly

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