RAF Brize Norton History 1935 to 1942

History 1935 1942



Royal Air Force Brize Norton came into being as a result of the RAF expansion programme of the early nineteen- thirties. The original site chosen for the aerodrome was some two or three miles further south, near the village of Clanfield, but it was soon discovered that this area was liable to flooding in the winter months, so the final choice fell on an area of farmland bounded by the villages of Brize Norton, Carterton and Black Bourton. In fact, Carterton was to have been the name of the airfield, but this was changed to avoid any possible confusion with Cardington in Bedfordshire.
Work began in 1935 along well established lines, with an almost circular grass landing area approximately 1,000 yards across, with a domestic and technical site in the north west corner, which included 5 `B' type hangars. Four further hangar areas were also provided, dispersed at various points around the perimeter and each consisting of two hangars.
The station was allocated to No 23(T) Group, and was officially opened on 13th August 1937. On 7th September, the first flying unit arrived, when No 2 Flying Training School (FTS) arrived from Digby, Lincs, bringing with it a collection of Hart Trainers, Audax and Fury aircraft. In fact, much of the building work was still unfinished at this time, with personnel being housed in temporary wooden huts, but this did not prevent 2 FTS from rapidly settling back down to its task of aircrew training, which included detachments to armament practice camps.
The first such detachment since the unit arrived at Brize Norton ended in disaster, when the entire formation of aircraft en route to Penrhos in Wales was lost after flying into bad weather. Thereafter, bombing practice was moved to Chesil Beach in Dorset, with the aircraft operating from nearby Warmwell. Here again, tragedy struck, with one aircraft coming down in the sea, the pilot being killed.
Accidents like this were an all too familiar part of life at a training establishment, and Brize Norton units certainly had their fair share right up to the end of the last war. During these early days at 2 FTS, at least two more Hart Trainers were lost during local flying, killing trainee pilots in both cases. However, there was certainly a lighter side to life, and the unit was not without its quota of characters, amongst whom were Flight Sergeant Lillywhite, an instructor, who used to drive himself around in a steam car, and a wing commander, who regularly came to work on a horse! In fact, this latter mode of transport was even used for towing the biplanes on occasions.
The next major development occured on 10th October 1938, with the
forming of No 6 Maintenance Unit, which occupied one hangar on the main site and all the previously mentioned dispersed sites. The main work of the unit, which was to remain largely unaltered for the next thirteen years, was the modification, storage and reissue of a wide variety of aircraft types.
6 MU was part of 41 Group, Maintenance Command, and the first aircraft to arrive for storage were two Saunders Roe Cloud amphibians, which were flown in from Ansty on 30th January 1939. By the end of the following month, more than 200 aircraft had been received, including Swordfish, Battle, Tiger Moth, Gladiator, etc. In fact, as time passed, the variety of aircraft handled increased to encompass almost every type in RAF service up to the end of the war, and this will be dealt with in more detail later on.
Another aircraft operator on the station at this time was the Station Flight, which was one of the very few to be issued with a de Havilland Don with the arrival of L2415 during 1938. This aircraft had orginally been intended as a turreted general purpose trainer, before policy changes resulted in its relegation to the rather more mundane task of communications. However, its service life was short and all remaining examples had been grounded by 1940.
On Saturday, 20th May 1939, 2 FTS was host to the public at what was to be the last Empire Air Day. This was a very different affair from the air displays of today; there was no static display of aircraft and the public were not even allowed onto the airfield, the flying display being centred on that part of the Carterton to Black Bourton road which used to run along the western end of the aerodrome.
Of special interest was the first appearence of 2 FTS's new Harvards and Oxfords, which were just beginning to replace the biplanes. All the flying was performed by local machines with the exception of fly-pasts by a Blenheim and a Battle and a display by a Gauntlet. The now familiar instructor/pupil act was performed in a Hart Trainer piloted by Squadron Leader Broughton and Pilot Officer P. Kewliar!
However, more changes for 2 FTS were on the horizon and the Harvards were destined to be short-lived on the unit. In September 1939, the title of the unit was changed to No 2 Service Flying Training School (SFTS), and gradually over the next few months all the Harvards and remaining biplanes were withdrawn as the Oxford took over as sole equipment.
The onset of war brought feverish activity with the camouflaging of the airfield being completed on the day of the declaration, and three day later, two squadrons of Blenheim IVs, Nos 101 and 110, arrived from their home bases on a "scatter" exercise which kept them at Brize for just a week.
Other than this and a marked increase in the number of pupils passing through 2 SFTS, the early days of the war affected the day to day life of the station very little, although 6 MU made its own direct contribution to the war effort in early 1940 by despatching Gladiators to Finland and Blenheims to Jugoslavia. On l lth June 1940, the headquarters and part of the flying section of 15 SFTS moved in from Middle Wallop with Harvards and Oxfords whilst waiting for its ultimate base at Kidlington to be made ready. The rest of the unit was split between South Cerney and Chipping Norton, and shortly afterwards it became solely Harvard equipped with a total of 28 aircraft at Brize Norton. On 28th July, a 2 SFTS Oxford with Sgt Adkinson and Sgt Ward aboard, was shot down by an unknown enemy aircraft during night flying over the satellite aerodrome at Akeman Street.
Early in August, a photographic reconnaissance flight over Brize was made by the Luftwaffe as a prelude to what was to be a disastrous air-raid which had a profound effect on operations. The raid took place on Friday, 16th August, when at around teatime, two Ju 88s appeared in the circuit. Previously published accounts of the raid have talked of the aircraft flying round the circuit with their wheels down in an attempt to fool the defences into mistaking them for friendly aircraft, but this is not born out by eye-witness accounts. What is certain is that the aircraft made a low- level attack and headed straight for the main hangar complex, dropping a total of 32 bombs including two 250 kilo bombs, one of which skidded off a hard- standing and came to rest perilously near an ammunition store, fortunately failing to explode. However, one hangar, packed full of Oxfords, received a direct hit, destroying all the aircraft inside. In all, 46 aircraft were destroyed, comprising 35 Oxfords and 11 Hurricanes lodging with 6 MU. In addition, a further 7 Oxfords were damaged; both Ju. 88s escaped unchallenged.
One result of this raid was that within a couple of days 2 SFTS had dispersed their aircraft to relief landing grounds at Southrop and Akeman Street, and although Brize Norton was to be bombed on three more occasions no further aircraft were lost as a result. Also, on the same day that 2 SFTS completed its dispersion, 15 SFTS moved out to Kidlington.
Throughout the remainder of 1940 and most of 1941, the work of 2 SFTS continued as before, though the nature of that work continued to take a heavy toll in terms of casualties from flying accidents. A visit to the churchyard at Black Bourton reveals just how many men lost their lives before they ever got to combat, with a large proportion of European and Commonwealth airmen amongst them.
One potentially dangerous situation, which fortunately came to a safe conclusion, concerned a pilot on a solo handling flight in an Oxford. Having got airborne, he discovered that he had undercarriage trouble, so, being unable to communicate with the ground, he had the idea of throwing a note out of the aeroplane! This he did, with the result that the circuit was cleared for him to make a safe landing! Another lucky escape came the way of the crew of a Wellington which came down in the camp area, coming to rest on the Sergeants' Mess tennis court! No injuries were sustained.
Yet another Oxford unit to operate from Brize for a brief period of time was No 1525 Beam Approach Training Flight, which was present from 18th February until 16th July 1942. It was during this period, on the 14th March to be exact, that 2 SFTS finally became 2 (P)AFU, still with Oxfords, although it also had one or two Ansons on strength. Its job was now to provide short courses for Dominion personnel until, on 14th July 1942, it was disbanded, thus bringing to an end nearly five years of powered aircraft pilot training activities.
Although the major flying activities of Brize Norton were now to enter a very different, and certainly better known, phase, the work of 6 MU continued unabated with large numbers of aircraft passing through their hands. Amongst the many types being handled there were numbers of Douglas Bostons, many of which were destined to sit out on the airfield for several years, plus Hampdens, Beauforts, Defiants, Whirlwinds, Blenheims, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Oxfords, Tiger Moths, and even such rarities as an Avro Commodore (HH979) and Monospar ST.25 (X9334), impressed into
military use at the outbreak of war, both of which spent short periods in storage before being re-issued for service.
However, the type which was probably present in the greatest numbers at that time was the Fairey Battle, brought here after its premature withdrawal from bombing duties, following its heavy mauling at the hands of the Luftwaffe in France. By now, the airfield had spread considerably into the surrounding countryside, and a large wood to the east of Brize Norton village was the home for around 60 Battles for two years or more. Finally, a sheet-metal worker on 6 MU, who still lives in the area today, was detailed to carry out modifications to all the aircraft, which consisted of cutting holes down through the floor and installing periscopes. He is not sure if this was ever put to use, but well remembers the aircraft being eventually overhauled and despatched overseas for further use, presumably in the training role in Canada.
The MU also suffered its share of accidents and incidents, the worst being to an Anson engaged in ferrying pilots around which crashed on approach to Brize, killing all 5 on board. Then, on 22nd December, 1940, a Hurricane crashed in a snow-storm, killing the pilot. However, all incidents did not have such tragic results, as the following, which is well remembered locally, will show.
A Spitfire was carrying out ground runs on the 28th February 1941 with a Czech or Polish pilot in the cockpit, when it inadvertently took-off with a 6 MU man still lying across the tail! A very cautious circuit was flown and a safe landing made, the tail-hanger being none the worse for his experience; in fact he still lives locally. Not so fortunate was the pilot of a Defiant whose aircraft hit No 4 hangar and was destroyed.
The spread of the airfield brought about some interesting situations. Several small hangars suitable for two or three Spitfire-sized aircraft were erected in Carterton and other areas and disguised to look like farm buildings. It thus became a common site to see aircraft taxiing or being towed along the village roads and country lanes on their way to and from these dispersed sites. Today, just one of these small hangars remains, long since converted for use as a garage workshop. Despite its new frontage, however, a walk round the back of the building reveals its unmistakable outline and the original doors, now fixed permanently open.
Another feature which must have caused a few headaches was the Witney to Fairford railway line, which, following Brize Norton's first period of growth, found itself, for a few hundred yards, running inside the airfield boundary with a taxiway crossing it! This was resolved by the provision of one, later two, aircraft/train level crossing, and although the railway finally closed in the early nineteen-sixties the remains of the crossings can still be seen on the airfield today.
On the 15th July 1942, the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit (HGCU) was formed at Brize Norton, a move which was to eventually result in the station assuming a front-line operational role.


These sites cover the ox18 area of Oxfordshire England, including  the following villages, OX18, Alvescot, Bampton, Black Bourton, Burford, Broadwell, Carterton, Clanfield, Kelmscott, Kencot, Langford, Lechlade, RAF Broadwell, Shilton, Parish Pump, Oxfordshire Events,