- Contributed by
- Warwickshire Libraries Heritage and Trading Standards
- People in story:
- Numerous Air Force Personnel
- Location of story:
- Wellesbourne, Warwickshire.
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 06 July 2005
During the war years, Wellesbourne had its share of famous airmen pass through its gates.
Squadron Leader ‘Dingy’ Young went on to serve in No. 617 Squadron and failed to return from the famous Dambusters Raid.
Air Commodore H. Cozens, in 1943-45, made the unique colour film entitled 'Night Bombers' which captured the life of a Lincolnshire bomber airfield and dramatically travelled in a Lancaster on a bombing mission over Germany.
Group Captain J.B.Tait D.S.O. D.F.C., became known as 'Tirpitz Tait' after he lead 617 Squadron on the raid against the mighty battleship whilst in Norwegian waters. He was C.O. of 22 O.T.U. from 7th August 1943 to 31st January 1944.
On 26th January 1942, Australian born Wing Commander H.I.Edwards V.C. D.F.C. arrived at Wellesbourne and reported for duty as Chief Flying Instructor and assumed command of the Flying Training Wing. Hughie Edwards won his V.C. on his 36th operational trip during a low level bombing raid over Bremen on 4th July 1941.
Leading a force of fifteen Blenheims, nine from 105 Squadron and six from 107 Squadron at low level across the North Sea, they crossed into Germany picking their way through the defences, avoiding the barrage balloons, telegraph poles and wires. Edwards flew low across the docks and released his bombs. For ten minutes his aircraft was under constant attack from anti aircraft fire, and his gunner Sgt. Quin D.F.M. was wounded in the knee. All fifteen Blenheims suffered flak damage, two being shot down.
The remaining aircraft found their way back from the target at zero feet to avoid being seen and returned to their base at Swanton Morley. Edwards’ aircraft was badly damaged and had telegraph wires wrapped around its tailwheel. On 22nd July he was awarded the Victoria Cross for having, in the words of its citation,’... displayed the highest possible standard of gallantry and determination’.
Whilst based at Wellesbourne, Edwards married Cherry, the widow of Flight Lieutenant H.R.A.Berisford.
Later in 1942, when based at Marham in Norfolk, he beat up the airfield at very high speed in a twin engined Mosquito, which was still on the secret list at that time.
After the war he rose to become Air Commodore Sir Hughie Idwal Edwards V.C., K.C.M.G., C.B.,D.S.O., O.B.E., D.F.C., and in 1963 he retired from the R.A.F. and returned to his native Australia to receive a Knighthood in 1974. He became Governor of Western Australia but sadly died in August 1982.
WELLESBOURNE CONTROL TOWER
The Control Tower at Wellesbourne was constructed in late 1940/early 1941 and was of the standard 'box’ section with an external metal staircase allowing full utilisation of all available space inside. The stairs lead to a handrailed balcony at first floor level which gave good viewing on all elevations. Perched on top of the building was a small observation post and the signals square was positioned to the front, outlined in white. The airfield identification letters WM were laid out in front of the square. The building was sadly demolished in 1974.
R.A.F. GAYDON OPENS
R.A.F. Gaydon opened on 13th June 1942 as satellite station to 12 O.T.U. Chipping Norton but was transferred to 22 O.T.U. on 1st September of that same year. The station was immediately occupied by the training wing aircraft due to the poor state of Wellesbourne's runways which were being repaired.
A bizarre accident occurred on 29th August 1942 when Wellington MklA L4310 was parked between the hangers. It was a very early model, having a fixed gun turret and it was not popular with the ground crews. Static electricity ran down the aircraft whilst it was being refuelled and the Wellington burst into flames and was totally destroyed much to the delight of the ground crew. Unfortunately, the burning fuel flowed into the drains causing fires to break out all around the station, causing many a scare and giving the fire fighting crews a bit of a headache. There were no casualties.
July llth 1943 saw the arrival of No.312 Ferry Training unit which was formed at Wellesbourne to train crews to fly Wellington bombers prior to ferrying the aircraft overseas to Middle Eastern R.A.F. Units. It was disbanded in December 1943.
Towards the end of 1943 and beginning of 1944 there was an increase in activity at Wellesbourne and an even greater workload. In January, 22 O.T.U. flew 2,221 hours despatching eighteen sorties and delivering 2,788,000 leaflets, 23 O.T.U. at Pershore disbanded in March 1944 and Wellesbourne received many of its aircraft, bringing the total to 81 Wellingtons which made it the largest O.T.U. in the country. The intake became 24 crews every fortnight which put a great strain on the available space and accommodation on the airfield.
HELPING OUR ALLIES
On the afternoon of Friday 16th February at about 1600 hours, twenty four B17 Flying Fortresses of the 457 Bomb Group U.S.A.A.F were diverted to land at Wellesbourne as their own base at Glatton in Huntingdonshire was closed due to bad weather. They had taken off at 1100 hours that morning, led by their Air Commander, Lt Col Francis, on a mission to bomb the synthetic oil plant at Geilsenkirchen in Germany. On the return journey they received instructions to divert to Wellesbourne Mountford as they reached the English coast. The bombers arrived in formation over the airfield and, following a quick circuit of the base, they did a stream landing with three aircraft on the runway at one time. Within a few minutes all twenty four were down and parked on the west side of the airfield. After staying overnight, they refuelled and took off the next day at 1300 hours on runway 06. Climbing out at about 400ft over the Warwick road, a port waist gunner baled out and landed unhurt in a tree opposite the Warwick Road Cafe, then called "The Tea Gardens". Squadron Leader 'Johnny' Green , who was in the tower at the time, jumped into a 5 cwt Hillman pick-up and raced out of the airfield and through the village to assist the American airman out of his predicament. When asked why he had jumped out the gunner replied "Well the plane started juddering as though it was going to crash and I figured it was time to get the hell out". He was very lucky to be alive. As the last B17 lifted off the runway, watched by a lot of the station personnel, its rear gunner was seen to throw an object which fell heavily to the ground. On investigation, the Station Commander, Group Captain Nuttall found it to be a pair of old flying boots with a message tucked inside on an old piece of paper. It was a message of thanks to everyone at Wellesbourne for their kind hospitality during their short but enjoyable stay.
On March 24/25, Wellesbourne crews participated in Operation 'Bullseye’ which provided a diversion to the main force of bombers attacking Berlin.
Many operational aircraft were diverting to Wellesbourne during this period, on route to their bases. On April 5th, for instance, twelve Lancasters landed from 61 Squadron, Coningsby and on June 7th, eight Halifaxes of 420 Squadron arrived after bombing Coutances and 10 more on August 25th from East Moor following an attack on Brest.
Tragic accidents were still occurring but October 1944 brought a welcome lull when 3600 hours were flown without a mishap
With the end of hostilities in Europe, 22 O.T.U. was quickly wound down. In all 91 courses had been completed with approximately 9,000 airmen being trained and on 24th July 1945 22 O.T.U. ceased to exist.
GLIDER TRAINING SCHOOL
Peace for the local villages was to last precisely three days, for on the afternoon of 28th July 1945 there arrived overhead, formations of Miles Master II aircraft towing Hotspur gliders. Wellesbourne and Gaydon were to become the home of No. 3 Glider Training School, part of No. 23 Group Training Command who had been transferred from R.A.F. Exeter in Devon. The school also brought with them six Tiger Moths and two Aispeed Oxfords. The function of the unit was to train pilots of the Glider Pilots Regiment for the war in the Far East, but with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan the war came to an end. On a cold December day in 1947, a plume of black smoke appeared over Wellesbourne airfield which hung in the air over the Warwickshire countryside. The smoke came from a huge pile of unwanted gliders which had been set on fire to destroy them. Such was the wastage after the war.
TRAINING THROUGH THE FIFTIES
From the beginning of 1948, Wellesbourne was allocated the task of Technical Training. The first unit to arrive in the Spring of that year, was the R.A.F. School of Photography which had previously been based at Farnborough. Commanded by Wing Commander Tim Scott and equipped with Avro Ansons, it trained photographers in the art of mounting and using the special photographic equipment necessary for the difficult task of airborne photography. The School of Photography continued their occupation of Wellesbourne until 1963 when it moved to its present home at R.A.F. Cosford near Wolverhampton.
In May 1948, the R.A.F. School of Education arrived with Wing Commander Stockwell in Command. The School was introduced to give basic service training to newly commissioned school leavers with Higher School Certificates.
Also in 1948 the Advanced Training School settled into life at Wellesbourne. This unit provided a basic course in administration for Senior N.C.O.'s. By 1952 both schools had moved on.
During 1951 the Airfield Construction Branch arrived. They used the sand and gravel quarries at Claverdon to train their operators on mechanical shovels and diggers. Whilst at Wellesbourne they became well known for their Tug-o-War team which won many trophies in local competitions and there was much rivalry with the village team as they both trained together. The A.C.B. left in 1964 when they moved to R.A.F. Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire.
Largest of the post war units to come to Wellesbourne was No.9 Flying Training School which later in 1951 was to become No. 9 Advanced Flying Training School. Group Captain N De W Boult, D.F.C., A.F.C. was in Command. The school had been in existence since 2nd March 1936 when it was formed at Thornaby, Yorkshire flying Avro Tutors, Hawker Harts and Hawker Audax aircraft. Now equipped with twin engined Airspeed Oxford, - later joined by Chipmunks and Harvards-pupils arrived from basic flying training at R.A.F. Sywell, Northants to complete their advanced training. Following their stay at Wellesbourne, the newly qualified pilots were usually posted to R.A.F. Tarrant Rushton for jet training on Vampire and Meteor aircraft. They were an extremely busy unit and flew both day and night operations until1954 when the aircraft movements became a hazard to the Valiants and Victors operating out of the newly re-opened R.A.F. Gaydon.
During the early fifties, Wellesbourne regularly opened its gates to the public when it hosted the Battle of Britain air displays. The last show was held on 15th September 1956 and included a Sunderland from R.A.F. Pembroke Dock, eighteen Vampires from No. 605 County of Warwickshire Squadron, four F84 s from R.A.F. Manston and the show was concluded with a very low flypast from a Valiant appropriately based at Gaydon.
In 1964 the R.A.F. finally left Wellesbourne Mountford and the airfield was put on to a care and maintenance basis.
IN CIVILIAN HANDS
In 1965, bit by bit the airfield slowly returned to civilian life with the hangers being sold for factories and warehouses. Much of the remainder was re-purchased by the Littler family who have continued to farm the land in between the runways and perimeter tracks.
During the latter part of the sixties, the runways were used by Rootes Motors Ltd, Coventry as a vehicle testing ground. In 1974 most of the dispersal pans and some of the peri-track were ripped up for use as hardcore on motorway projects. As each year passed more and more of the airfield has been demolished to make way for housing and industrial sites including part of the Wellesbourne by-pass.
Aviation returned to Wellesbourne on 17th March 1980 in the shape of Smiths Aviation who set up a centre for civil flying. It was officially opened by H.R.H. The Duke of Edinburgh when he landed at the aerodrome in an Andover of the Queens Flight on Friday 13th March 1981.
Microlight aircraft were built and flown for a time from the airfield, flying lessons were available and slowly life returned to the airfield. The jet age arrived at Wellesbourne when a Vulcan Bomber XM655 was flown in by an R.A.F. crew on behalf of a London businessman who hoped to keep the aircraft flying on the airshow circuit. Regrettably his plans were thwarted and the aircraft now stands overshadowing all around it as a modern example of its more frail ancestors that lumbered into the Warwickshire skies all those years ago.
Today the airfield is managed by Messrs Radarmoor Ltd through its airport manager Mr Tom Evans. At week-ends it is a popular centre for light aircraft with two flying schools in residence. An airfield cafe provides refreshments for the numerous pilots and aircraft enthusiasts who visit the airfield.
WELLESBOURNE WARTIME MUSEUM
Today, Wellesbourne’s past is carefully preserved in the Wellesbourne Wartime Museum, by members of the Wellesbourne Aviation Group. The W.A.G. was formed in 1981 with the idea of promoting and developing the interests of enthusiastic minded persons. Following its amalgamation with the Stratford Aviation and Military Enthusiasts (S.A.M.E.), who added their vast stock of interesting exhibits collected from the many 'digs' of local aircraft crash sites, the group has expanded quite rapidly, exhibiting at many local events including the Town and Country Festival at Stoneleigh.
In 1984 they acquired their first aircraft, a De Havilland D.H. 115 Vampire Til XK590, complete with Goblin engine, which they lovingly restored to static condition over a period of four years.
A building to display all their exhibits was badly needed however, and in 1986 the W.A.G. decided that the Underground Headquarters building would make a most suitable museum dedicated to the memory of Wellesbourne, and in particular to No. 22 O.T.U.
The command post was built in 1941 as a secure position for key personnel, to co-ordinate the defence of the airfield in the event of an attack by paratroopers or ground forces. It was constructed of brick and concrete and positioned away from the major buildings on the opposite side of the runways. It comprises five small rooms and a look-out post.
The task of waterproofing and refurbishing the building and surrounding areas, was carried out by a Manpower Services Commission sponsored community project, arranged and supervised by the Rural Warwickshire Agency. Dedicated members of the W.A.G. then completed the project including lighting, humidity control, decoration and the displaying of relevant exhibits.
Since then the group continues to receive many items of historical significance from members of the public which have been placed on display, to such an extent that an above-ground annexe to the museum has had to be erected which includes a small sales stand. All the work is carried out voluntary by members of the W.A.G., the only income being via the donation box.
The museum is open on Sundays and most Bank Holidays, 10am -4pm and admission is free. Information on how to join the W.A.G. can be obtained from the museum.
On the 14th April 1991, fifty years to the day that Wellesbourne Airfield came into being, the museum was officially opened by The Worshipful The Mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon after a small dedication ceremony conducted by the Chaplain to the Stratford Aircrew Association.
This has been the story of Wellesbourne Mountford and thus the beginning of the next fifty years .......
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