RAF Brize Norton History 1942 to 1950

CHAPTER TWO 1942-1950

With the coming into service during 1942 of the Airspeed Horsa glider, it became apparent that a new unit was needed in order to train army pilots to fly it. Previous glider experience had been largely confined to the much smaller General Aircraft Hotspur which had been relegated very early on to a. training-only role due to its size.

Accordingly, on the 15th July 1942, the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit was formed at Brize Norton (which by this time had been provided with paved runways), with an initial complement of 56 Horsas, plus 34 Armstrong Whitworth Whitley V tugs, and two Oxfords. The nucleus of the headquarters staff came from 2(P)AFU personnel, and the pupil establishment was set at 62. Aircraft were delivered steadily through July, until, by the end of the month, a total of 307 day and 38 night flights had been made by the Horsas.

Flying at Brize gradually became very intense as the build-up at HGCU was added to ever increasing activity at 6 MU, which was assembling Horsas received direct from the factories, and had also started handling Venturas, Hotspurs, Hudsons, Liberators, Mitchells and Fortress IIs. In fact, the air space was now becoming so congested that 6 MU brought a satellite into use at Woburn Park, on the Duke of Bedford's estate, and the HGCU was forced to transfer some flying to Grove airfield between the 10th February and 20th April 1943.

Another problem was the proximity of the aerodrome at Broadwell, the circuit of which, overlapped that at Brize Norton. In order to help the situation, circuit lights were installed to assist the aircrew during night flying, the start of the system being marked by an illuminated sign reading "BZ Start Now". However, an incident occurred later in the war which serves to illustrate just how potentially dangerous the situation was.

A Dakota took-off from Broadwell one night with a Horsa in tow, and immediately got into some kind of trouble which necessitated a forced landing. The tug came down in open land at Rock Farm, Carterton, the impact setting the glider adrift, albeit with the entire length of towing-cable still attached. At very low altitude, the Horsa Flew across Carterton village, dragging its cable across roof-tops and bringing down telephone lines until it finally was ble to set down in a field adjacent to Brize Norton aerodrome. To this day, a bungalow near the present airfield boundary shows signs of the roof repairs made necessary by the passage of the cable!

As if all this were not enough, it was thought to be desirable, in view of the Luftwaffe's previous unwelcome attentions, to set up a decoy airfield some three or four miles to the south east at Tadpole Bridge. This had no function during daylight hours, but each night, a team would set out from Brize and organise a system of false runway lights. It is not certain if the enemy ever paid any serious attention to it or not.

With all this intense activity, it will come as no surprise to learn that there were many accidents in those days with Whitleys coming off particularly badly. Perhaps the most tragic occurred in the evening of 9th November 1943, when two Whitleys on pre night-flying checks were indulging in a little highspirited low-level flying. According to eye-witness accounts, a third Whitley attempted to join in, and almost immediately, two of the aircraft (BD502 and BD512), collided and crashed, one coming down just east of Brize Norton village alongside the Witney road and the other in farmland about half a mile away; four men were killed. Today, the spot where the first aircraft came down is still marked by the partially demolished section of dry-stone wall and small parts of the second machine are still turned up by the plough on Brown's Farm.

Yet another hazard was a row of elm trees, which were exactly in line with the upwind end of the main runway close to Black Bourton village, and eventually they claimed a casualty, again at night, when a Whitley, just airborne with a Horsa in tow struck the tree tops and came down between two cottages. The Horsa managed to cast-off, but it too hit some more elms on the far side of the village and crashed. This accident is believed to have cost 6 lives.

Early in 1943, some of the first production Albemarles arrived to replace the Whitleys, but these P-serialled aircraft were not in fact used and remained only until April, when they were returned to MUs. However, the Albemarle was not to be absent from the scene for long, for it was decided in early 1944, that Brize would become the base for two squadrons of these aircraft in the operational paradrop and glider-tug role.

Thus, to make the necessary room, the HGCU was moved to North Luffenham during March, taking with it 36 Horsas, 40 Whitleys, 3 Oxfords and one Magister. On 8th March, Brize was transferred to No 38 Group and on the 13th of the same month, a headquarters party arrived from Stoney Cross in Hampshire, preceding Nos 296 and 297 Squadrons which came from Hum and Stoney Cross respectively. Almost immediately, 100 Horsas were added to the station's strength and training began in earnest to prepare them for DDay.

The first major exercise took place on 20th March, when 28 Albemarles, split 50/50 between the two squadrons, together with other 38 Group squadrons, dropped paratroops onto Brize Norton and released gliders. This exercise was code-named "Bizz One", and was followed by others entitled "Dreme", "Dingo", "Exeter" and "Confirmation", all along similar lines, and all preparing for the allotted tasks which were soon to follow on the 6th June.

The two Albemarle squadrons commenced Brize's D-Day activities by dropping the main body of the 5th Parachute Brigade on landing zone "N" at 0320 hours, from 9 aircraft of each unit. The landing zone was 6 miles from the coast and 6 ~i miles north east of Caen, on the banks of the river Orne. The first job of the troops was to prepare the landing zone for the Horsas which followed in the second wave behind 8 tugs from 296 Squadron and nine from 297. In addition to these, further Horsas landed from behind tugs airborne from Harwell and Tarrant Rushton, with a final total of 68 gliders being put down. The main task of the men aboard these gliders was to capture two bridges over the River Orne and the Caen canal and this was successfully accomplished.

The final phase of this operation was the capture of the coastal battery at Merville, and for this, three further Horsas were towed by 297 Squadron

following 2'/z hours behind a heavy bombardment by 100 Lancasters, and a landing of Horsas from other 38 Group stations. The Brize aircraft were landed directly onto the battery to effect its final capture, although in the event, only two aircraft made it, the tow-rope of the third aircraft broke and it was forced to set down at Odiham on the outward journey.

Finally, on the evening of D-Day, in Operation Mallard, the two squadrons each used 20 Albemarles to tow Horsas containing men of the 6th Airborne Division to another landing zone.

Operation Comet, which was planned for the 8th September, involved 97 Horsas being flown to Manston' but in the event, the operation was cancelled. However, they returned to Manston on the 15th for operation Market, joining other units, including Hadrian gliders. On the 17th, a total of 46 Horsas and 10 Hadrians were towed-off and joined the many other units en route to Arnhem. In one of the gliders was Brize Norton's Station Commander, Group Captain T M Abraham, DFC, who spent some time at the landing zone. On the second day of the operation, a further 43 gliders were taken over, but thereafter, Brize aircraft took no further part.

In addition to all the towing work, which also included positioning gliders for other tug squadrons, 296 and 297 were involved in leaflet raids on the Channel Islands, code-named "Nest Egg", and also dropped personnel and supplies to the resistance movement in Europe.

In all these operations, only one fatal accident at Brize is recorded when an Albemarle, returning from an operational sortie, crashed at Black Bourton, killing 7 crew. On 30th September, 296 and 297 moved to Earls Colne in Essex in two stages taking 47 Horsas each time.

On October 15th the HGCU returned home from North Luffenham, with the flying wing shortly preceding the servicing wing, and by the 20th, it had become No 21 HGCU, reflecting the still increasing pace of glider operations. No 22 HGCU was set up at the same time at nearby Keevil and Fairford, with No 23 HGCU at Peplow and Seighford.

The establishment of 21 HGCU at this time was intended to be 35 Albemarles, 34 Horsas and 6 Oxfords, but in fact, the Whitley was destined to soldier on, the last examples not leaving until January 1945. In addition, Hadrian gliders began arriving during November 1944 to supplement the Horsas.

During all these changes on the operational side of the station, the MU had steadily continued and indeed diversified its work still further. On 8th February 1943, it had taken over the satellite at Barton Abbey from 39 MU and then transfered that at Woburn Park to 8 MU. By early 1944, the predominant aircraft being handled was the Spitfire, with growing numbers of Stirling III and IV. At the end of June there were 301 aircraft in stock, and in November there was another about-tam when the Woburn Park strip was taken over again, and gradually, 175 Stirlings accumulated there. One Stirling came to grief at Brize on March 26th 1944, causing injury to three of the crew, one of whom later died.

Another fatal accident involving the MU occurred in March 1945, when one of the test pilots, Sqn Ldr Anderson was killed in a crash near the village of Shilton; the aircraft has been variously reported as a Spitfire or Hurricane. 21 HGCU also continued to suffer accidents and on November 17th 1944, yet again at night, Whitley LA873 flew into the ground at Ducklington, with

Horsa LG749 still attached, killing both crews.

As the re-equipment with Albemarles built up, the training of RAF glider pilots ceased altogether, and thereafter, only army pupils passed through the unit.

On the 1st June 1945, the HGCU became the parent unit for No 1 Glider Training School at Croughton, Northants, which had a complement of Masters, Tiger Moths and Hotspurs. With the end of the war came a reduction in the intensity of training, but experiments were tried with alternative tug aircraft, both Stirlings and Halifaxes being tried, although the Albemarle continued in use. During October, some Horsas and Hadrians were towed over to nearby Hullavington for "TAF" Day; unfortunately, Horsa RX618 crashed into a hangar after release and was written off.

Brize Norton's long association with glider training finally came to an end on the 31 st December 1945, when 21 HGCU moved to Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire, taking Horsas, Hadrians, Albemarles and Halifaxes with it. Many Horsas, however, were destined not to make the journey, for with the cessation of hostilities, the need for large numbers of the gliders abruptly ended leaving a great number awaiting assembly at 6 MU. The solution found was to offer the fuselages for sale locally; the original price was £25, but as time went by this gradually came down in stages to 25/- and then the final two dozen aircraft were offered free to anyone who could take them away!

The redundant machines found a ready market as garden sheds, and thirtythree years later, a few were still to be found in back gardens and allotments. In fact, during 1978, `wo fuselage sections were rescued for restoration by the Mosquito Aircraft vluseum at London Colney, Herts, with another going to the care of the Brize Norton Aviation Society. Amongst many other unwanted items which found there way onto the open market, were Spitfire mainwheels which went for 10/- a pair!

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of 6 MU's work at this time however, was the storage of captured German aircraft after their evaluation at Farnborough, or use as "hacks" by the occupying forces. The first to arrive was a Junkers Ju. 188 on the 10th May, and between then and 1947, when the last new arrivals were received, around 70 aircraft were handled, the most numerous being the Junkers Ju. 52/3M and the Messerschmitt Me. 163B, with about 20 examples of each.

In addition to storage, the German aircraft were also sent out to various exhibitions, including Hyde Park in September 1945 (Me 163, He 162, Me 108, Me 110, Fw 190, Ju 88 and Fi 156) and Brize Norton's own Battle "At Home" Day on the same day (15th September) when the following were displayed: Ju 52/3M, Ar 234B, Fw 190, Fw 189, Ju 188, Ju 88, Me 262, He 162, He 219, Si 204. In addition, another He 162 plus an Me 163 were despatched to Little Rissington on loan for their open day.

Although some aircraft were passed to 47 MU at Sealand, 76 MU at Wroughton and various other RAF stations in ones and twos, the vast majority lingered on at Brize, with the larger aircraft open to the elements until the bad winter of 1946/47 took its toll. Many of the aircraft were overturned in the gales, and others suffered from falling trees, and shortly after this, the wholesale scrapping began. The aircraft were taken to the south side of the airfield where 6 MU were already scrapping Spitfires, Spitefuls and Liberators. After all useful pieces and large metal areas had been removed, the mortal

remains were buried in twenty feet deep holes where they remain to this day. This burial process was quite common with another pit being sited out beyond Brize Norton village in farmland, to accommodate the remains of aircraft that had been stored in dispersed sites.

The last recorded "movement" of a German aircraft took place on the 16th of December 1948, when Siebel Si 204D AM 46 was sold to the Eyre Smelting Co. Most of the German aircraft on display in Britain today passed at some stage through 6 MU, but it is sad to record that many now extinct aircraft were scrapped in the great clear-out, including such types as Ju 290, He 219, Fw 189, Do 217.

The MU's main task now was to reduce to scrap a wide variety of aircraft; the Spitefuls already mentioned, together with its naval counterpart, the Seafang, were received straight from the production line, with many never having been flown. In January 1946,-it took over the satellite at Chipping Warden in Northants for the storage of complete Horsas, and then in May 1947, Woburn Park was closed after the last Stirlings there had been scrapped.

After this, 6 MU became a mere shadow of its former self, although it entered the jet age in January 1948 when the first two Meteors arrived, the main variants handled being the F 4 and T 7. However, the Spitfire continued to be the main type to be found here right up to the time the MU finally disbanded on the 31 st December 1951, when all the Spitfires, plus 3 Meteors and 7 Proctors were despatched to other MUs.

While all this was going on, the operational side of the station had yet again undergone great changes. With the departure of 21 HGCU, Brize had been handed over to Transport Command, and the School of Flight Efficiency and the Transport Command Development Unit arrived from Harwell. Also, at this time, Finmere, Bucks and Hampstead Norris, Berks, were taken over as satellites. In May 1946 the Army Airborne Transport Development Unit took up residence.

The TCDU started life at Tarrant Rushton, Dorset on 1 st December 1943, as the Airborne Forces Tactical Developmet Unit and its primary tasks were experimenting with methods of carriage and delivery of airborne loads and. paratroops. The main types used at the time of the move to Brize were the Stirling, Dakota, Halifax, York, Liberator, Horsa, Hadrian and Sikorsky Hoverfly. Strangely, the TCDU never operated a Lancastrian which was one of the principal Transport Command types in use at that time, although one aircraft (VM702) was present briefly during September and October 1946. A fairly spectacular accident to a TCDU York occurred when, having failed to become airborne, it crossed the railway line, at which point the tail unit parted company and was left on the track. The aircraft came to rest in a field with no serious injury suffered.

A rare aircraft adapted by TCDU for its own use was the Bristol Buckingham C2. Originally intended as a bomber, the few Buckinghams completed were adapted for a variety of secondary roles and in March 1946, the TCDU obtained KV365 and modified it for use as a seven passenger transport. In later years, the unit was also to add the Hastings and Valetta to its strength, the Hastings being used as a tug for Hamilcar gliders.

TCDU also carried out trials with aircraft from other air forces and during 1947, Fairchild C-82s spent some time at Brize carrying out dropping trials on the airfield in order to give the USAAF benefit of TCDU's experience. Later

still, the USAAF returned again, this time with C-119s and towing trials with Horsas were carried out.

On the 5th September 1946, 297 Squadron returned to Brize from Tarrant Rushton, although it was now equipped witfi'the Halifax A IX. Its six aircraft stayed for just under a year before moving to Fairford in August 1947.

Shortly after this, on the 23rd September, Brize Norton staged "Exercise Longstop Il", which was a demonstration of operating a mobile staging post for forward air supply. For the purpose of the exercise, Brize was considered to be a captured airfield whose runways were still intact.

A total of twenty Yorks were flown in, consisting of five from No 4 Group and fifteen from No 47 Group. Before 1,500 invited spectators, the aircraft were taxied in front of the tented staging post area for unloading. Unfortunately, the timing went slightly adrift, with some aircraft sitting on the taxiway with engines running for some considerable time, waiting for the aircraft ahead to unload and clear. However, the usefulness of the York at that time was well illustrated, with one aircraft unloading a jeep, anti-tank gun and trailer in less than five minutes.

The final part of the exercise consisted of a rapid-landing demonstration by TCDU Dakotas, with five aircraft being brought in at two minute intervals. Another advance in long-range transport technology had already been demonstrated at Brize the previous day, when a USAAF C-54 (42-72461) Skymaster landed after flying from the United States without any of the nine crew having touched the controls. The aircraft used a system of radio beams and "corridor control" and had a mixed crew of USAAF and RAF personnel and civilians. It belonged to the All Weather Flying Centre.

On June 30th 1949, the TCDU moved to Abingdon, Berks, and on the 4th July, Brize Norton was again transferred, this time to No 21 Group, Flying Training Command, thus echoing its earliest days; a feeling which was reinforced by the arrival the next day of 25 Harvards from the Examining Wing of the Central Flying School, Little Rissington. They stayed until the 16th March 1950, during which time Fairford was used as a relief landing ground.

Prior to this, on the 15th August 1949, yet another unit had arrived. This time it was No 204 Advanced Flying School from Driffield, Yorkshire, with Mosquito T 3 and FB 6 aircraft. The job of this unit was to convert aircrew onto type, and yet again, accidents were fairly frequent, with one Mosquito coming down alongside the Brize Norton to Bampton road, and another crashing in marshy ground opposite the "Mason's Arms" public house in Brize village. This accident, on the 5th December 1949, killed one of the crew.

On Ist March 1950, the station was moved to 23 Group, Flying Training Command and then on the 9th June, the Mosquitoes left for Swinderby, Lincs. Finally, on the 1st of June, just before 204 AF S's departure, the station was put in the charge of Bomber Command as a prelude to its handing over to the United States Air Force.

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,