User:Buckboard/Draft: RAF Bassingbourn
Royal Air Force Ensign
RAF Bassingbourn is a former military airbase located in Cambridgeshire approximately three miles north of Royston, Hertfordshire and 11 miles southwest of Cambridge. During World War II it served first as an RAF station and then as a bomber base of the U.S. Eighth Air Force. Now known as Bassingbourn Barracks, it functions as a Phase One recruit training base and is home to ATR Bassingbourn.
Origin and development
RAF Bassingbourn was constructed by John Laing & Son Ltd. between 1937-39 in the parishes of Wendy and Bassingbourn immediately to the west of the A14 (now A1198) road. The site ( ) selected was low ground between several watercourse tributaries of the River Cam. The area had been long cleared of forest and tended to be swampy and unstable, and because the boggy ground produced a persistent mist over the large meadow the site was considered ideal for airfield camouflage.
The project was begun in April 1937 under the direction of Sir Maurice Laing, with Reginald Silk as the site engineer and John Crowther the site surveyor. Four Type C hangars (300' L by 152' W by 29' H, with seven roof gables and hipped ends) were erected by a sub-contractor in a semi-circle at the south edge of the airfield site approximately one mile north of the hamlet of Kneesworth. Laing then began work pouring concrete foundations for the technical site buildings, communal sites, and barracks, and the nature of the ground necessitated the rebuilding of several foundations that had sunk into the ground. Roadway cores were built of unusual thickness to prevent crumbling of the pavement.
The technical site was built with permanent, curbed streets and landscaped. Originally treeless, Bassingbourn was made one of the most attractive RAF stations by the planting of hundreds of plum trees as part of the project.
The runways were originally grass. The Blenheim light bombers that first used the field were able to operate under the existing conditions, although landings often produced pronounced water splashes, but the weight of heavier bombers tore ruts in the grass surface and limited takeoff speeds.
W & C French Ltd. constructed three concrete runways surfaced with asphalt during the winter of 1941-1942: a 3600-foot runway aligned southwest to northeast, a 2800-foot runway crossing it north-south, and a 3300-foot runway connecting the northeast ends of the first two. The Class A airfield standard was promulgated by the Air Ministry in August 1942 and the runways at Bassingbourn were immediately extended. The main runway was lengthened to 6000 feet by extending it west, with the use of extensive tile drainage, across a moat off the Mill River. The north-south runway was extended 1320 feet south, and the third runway lengthened 1000 feet to the northwest. Additional perimeter track was added around the bomb store site to reach the west end of the main runway.
Four dispersal areas were also built. Dispersal A was placed in a large field between the technical site and the hamlet of Bassingbourn-North End. Dispersal B was located north and west of the bomb store. Dispersal C was next to the A14 north of the runways, and Dispersal D was built in the grand avenue of Wimpole Park, the tree-lined entrance to Wimpole Hall across the A14 from the station. Bombers using this dispersal had to cross the road to marshal for takeoffs. Ultimately 35 "pan" hardstands and 16 loop hardstands were constructed, able to accommodate 67 bombers.
RAF operations, 1938-1942
RAF personnel first arrived at Bassingbourn from RAF Uxbridge in March 1938, followed by No. 108 Squadron from RAF Cranfield in April. The first aircraft, a Hawker Hind, landed on the airfield on May 2, and the station became an Operational Training Unit (OTU) as well as a staging post for operational aircraft as part of 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command. The first station commander was Wing Commander F. Wright, a local man from Royston. 108 Squadron operated Hinds until the end of June, 1938, when it converted to the Blenheim I.
Bassingbourn retained its OTU role following the outbreak of the Second World War, although 108 Squadron was transferred to RAF Bicester and replaced by No. 215 Squadron. On April 8, 1940, No. 11 Operational Training Unit was formed at Bassingbourn as part of 6 Group from the Station HQ and 215 Squadron. Equipped with Wellingtons its role was to train night bomber crews. From December 1941 to February 1942 the OTU operated from RAF Tempsford while runways were constructed at Bassingbourn.
The station was attacked April 5, 1940, by an isolated German raider that dropped 10 bombs, causing damage to the Direction Finding Equipment and WT huts, and in August 1940 by a single bomb dropped on the barrack block situated immediately south of the parade ground, killing 11 and injuring 15.
At the end of May 1942 aircraft from Bassingbourn participated in the "Thousand Bomber" raid on Cologne. In order to raise this number, Bomber Command employed every aircraft capable of taking to the air, including 20 Vickers Wellington Bombers from No. 11 OTU. Subsequently aircraft from here often contributed to major raids until the group moved in October 1942 to RAF Westcott.
91st Bombardment Group (Heavy), 1942-1945
Plans for basing U.S. Army Air Forces heavy bomber groups dated back to before the United States' entry into the war, when RAF Thurleigh was tentatively designated in November, 1941. Initial concepts anticipated that 75 heavy bomb groups would eventually be based in East Anglia and the Huntingdon area in five bombardment wings (later termed air divisions), but the first plan on March 24, 1942, called for 45 groups, with four to be moved to the UK by June. This did not come to pass (of the four groups, only one eventually came to the UK, in 1944) but 75 fields were allocated by the Air Ministry on August 10, 1942 for VIII Bomber Command.
The 91st Bomb Group (Heavy) was the seventh of an eventual 42 heavy groups to deploy to England. A B-17 Flying Fortress unit, it moved into RAF Kimbolton on October 10. but that base, in Huntingdonshire, had not yet been reconstructed to Class A standards and was immediately found to be unsuitable for operations. Bassingbourn had recently been vacated by the RAF and made available to the Eighth Air Force. The commanding officer of the 91st BG inspected Bassingbourn on October 13 and not wanting to lose the opportunity, moved his entire unit there the next day before seeking permission.
The Eighth Air Force in general and the 91st Bomb group in particular were critically short of support personnel, and the base remained under RAF administration until it was officially transferred to the Eighth Air Force at noon, April 21, 1943. The final commanding officer of RAF Bassingbourn before its transfer was Squadron Leader J. S. Ellard.
The 91st began combat operations from Bassingbourn on November 7, 1942, as one of the four "pioneer" B-17 groups. The first eight months of operations concentrated against the German submarine campaign, attacking U-boat pens in French ports or construction yards in Germany in 28 of the first 48 missions flown. Secondary targets were Luftwaffe airfields (4), industrial targets (9), and marshalling yards (7).
VIII Bomber Command quadrupled in size from May 1943 to August to implement the Pointblank Directive. As part of this expansion, RAF Bassingbourn temporarily hosted the flying echelon of the new 94th Bomb Group (Heavy) from April 20 to May 23, 1943, while its base at Bury St. Edmunds was being completed.
At the same time, VIII Bomber Command proceeded with its plan to organize the groups into "combat wings" which in turn were organized into "bombardment wings" (later "divisions"). The first of these, the 101st Provisional Combat Bomb Wing, commanded by Brig. Gen. Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., set up its headquarters at Bassingbourn on April 16, 1943. In August Brig. Gen. Robert B. Williams succeeded to command of the 101st PCBW, followed by Brig. Gen. William M. Gross when the organization was redesignated 1st Combat Bomb Wing on September 13, 1943.
During 1943 RAF Bassingbourn was the focus of a number of media events. The station and its locality were featured in the documentary film Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. The base and group were also the subject of a series of newspaper articles written by John Steinbeck during the spring and summer of 1943. Captain Clark Gable had temporary duty at Bassingbourn while producing a gunnery film for the USAAF.
The RAF resumed occupation of Bassingbourn on June 26, 1945, and the base was officially returned on July 10. The station became one of the main bases for long-range transport aircraft. In 1948 and 1949 York, Lancaster and Dakota aircraft from the base took part in the Berlin Airlift, a massive operation transporting essential commodities to the beleaguered city. During the Korean War, USAF bombers returned to Britain as part of the NATO deterrent force and for two years from September 1950, B-29s and B-50s were based at Bassingbourn.
In February 1952, RAF Bassingbourn received its first allocation of Canberra bombers and became the first jet bomber operational conversion unit (OCU) in the world. Canberras operated from Bassingbourn for 17 years and one of the aircraft is on static display in the Barracks. From 1963 to 1969 the Joint School of Photographic Interpretation was also based here.
On August 29, 1969, the last RAF Commanding Officer, Sqn Ldr A.M. McGregor MBE, turned over the station to the Royal Anglian Regiment, the Queen's Division. Depot The Queens Division began training recruits at Bassingbourn Barracks in January 1970 with permanent staff drawn from the Regiment’s former Depots in Kent, Warwickshire and Suffolk. The first Commanding Officer was Lt.Col. W.C. Deller who had previously commanded Depot The Royal Anglian Regiment at Bury St. Edmunds. The first adult recruit intake formed up on January 22, 1970, and on July 15, The Queens Division moved from Colchester to Bassingbourn.
The depot was responsible for training recruits undergoing their 14 week basic training before joining a regular battalion of the Queen's Regiment, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the Royal Anglian Regiment. The depot also trained Junior Bandsmen, Junior Drummers and Junior Infantrymen on 18-month and two-year courses. From 1970 to 1985 recruits of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) and from 1985, those of the Royal Pioneer Corps, were also trained at Bassingbourn.
In 1993 the Barracks became the home of the Army Training Regiment Bassingbourn.
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