RAF Bassingbourn: Wikis

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Bassingbourn Barracks

Flag of the British Army.svg

Formerly Royal Air Force Station Bassingbourn
Ensign of the Royal Air Force.svg

Bassingbourn 1955.jpg
RAF Bassingborn - 1955
IATA: noneICAO: none
Summary
Airport type British Army Training Facility
Owner British Army
Operator Army Training Regiment Bassingbourn
Built 1937
Runways
Direction Length Surface
ft m
07/25 6,000 Paved
13/31 4,300 Paved
17/35 4,170 Paved
RAF Bassingbourn is located in Cambridgeshire
RAF Bassingbourn shown within Cambridgeshire (grid reference TL330460)

RAF Bassingbourn is a former military airbase located in Cambridgeshire approximately 3 miles (5 km) north of Royston, Hertfordshire and 11 miles (18 km) south west 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 Army Training Regiment Bassingbourn and the Tower Museum Bassingbourn.

Contents

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 ft long by 152 ft (46 m) wide by 29 ft (8.8 m) high, with eleven roof gables and hipped ends) were erected by a sub-contractor in a semicircle 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 3,600 feet (1,097 m) runway aligned south west to north east, a 2,800 feet (853 m) runway crossing it north-south, and a 3,300 feet (1,006 m) runway connecting the north east 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 6,000 feet (1,800 m) by extending it west, with the use of extensive tile drainage, across a moat off the Mill River. The north-south runway was extended 1,320 feet (400 m) south, and the third runway lengthened 1,000 feet (305 m) to the north west. Additional perimeter track was added around the bomb store site, which was doubled in area, to reach the west end of the main runway. Ultimately seven miles of taxiway were paved.

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 takeoff. Ultimately 35 "pan" hardstands and 16 loop hardstands were constructed, able to accommodate 67 bombers.

Bassingbourn made extensive use of camouflage to disguise the location of its runways. Prior to the building of the concrete runways the strips were painted to blend the landing strips into the surrounding pattern of fields, lanes, and drainage areas. After conversion to Class A standards, which required extensive clearing and grading of the airfield area, the areas between the runways were camouflaged to resemble agricultural crops.

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 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.

USAAF use

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 24 March 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 10 August 1942 for VIII Bomber Command.

From 19 August 1942 though 25 June 1945, Bassingbourn served as headquarters for the 1st Combat Bombardment Wing of the 1st Bomb Division.

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91st Bombardment Group (Heavy)

The 91st Bomb Group 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 91st BG was assigned to the 1st Combat Bombardment Wing, also at Bassingbourn. The group tail code (after June 1943) was a "Triangle A". It's operational squadrons and fuselage codes were:

  • 322d Bomb Squadron (LG)
  • 323d Bomb Squadron (OR)
  • 324th Bomb Squadron (DF)
  • 401st Bomb Squadron (LL)
B-17F-60-BO Flying Fortress 42-29536 Mary Ruth, Memories of Mobile, 401st Bomb Squadron, shot down by fighters over Hüls, Germany, June 22, 1943, with 2 killed and 8 captured
44-83575 flying as 231909 B-17G-30-BO Flying Fortress Nine-O-Nine, 323rd Bomb Squadron, one of two longest-serving B-17's of the 91st, scrapped after World War II in Kingman, Arizona 44-83575 was built to late for the war and was for a time used as a fire bomber

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 21 April 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 7 November 1942, as one of the four "pioneer" B-17 groups. The group operated primarily as a strategic bombardment organization throughout the war.

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).

The 91st BG received a Distinguished Unit Citation for bombing marshalling yards at Hamm on 4 March 1943 in spite of adverse weather and heavy enemy opposition. From the middle of 1943 until the war ended, the Group engaged chiefly in attacks on aircraft factories, aerodromes, and oil facilities. Specific targets included airfields at Villacoublay and Oldenburg, aircraft factories in Oranienburg and Brussels, chemical industries in Leverkusen and Peenemünde, ball-bearing plants in Schweinfurt, and other industries in Ludwigshafen, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Wilhelmshaven.

On 11 January 1944 organizations of Eighth AF went into central Germany to attack vital aircraft factories. The 91st BG successfully bombed its targets in spite of bad weather, inadequate fighter cover, and severe enemy attack, being awarded a 2d Distinguished Unit Citation for the performance.

Expanding its operations to include interdictory and support missions, the group contributed to the Battle of Normandy by bombing gun emplacements and troop concentrations near the beachhead area in June 1944 and aided the Saint-Lô breakthrough by attacking enemy troop positions on 24–25 July 1944. The 91st flew tactical bombing missions on the front lines near Caen in August 1944 and attacked communications near the battle area during the Battle of the Bulge during Dec 1944-Jan 1945. In support of Operation Varsity, the group assisted the push across the Rhine by striking airfields, bridges, and railways near the front lines in the spring of 1945.

The 91st Bomb Group continued combat operations until April 25, 1945, flying 340 missions. 197 B-17s failed to return to Bassingbourn, the highest heavy bomber loss in the USAAF.

After V-E Day the group helped to evacuate prisoners from German camps. During June and July 1945, the 91st BG withdrew from Bassingbourn and returned to the United States, being assigned on paper to Drew Field, Florida, while its personnel were being discharged. Its B-17s were flown to storage in Texas and Arizona. On 7 November 1945 the group was inactivated.

94th Bombardment Group (Heavy)

B-17s of the 410th Bomb Squadron on a mission over occupied Europe

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 Bombardment Group (Heavy) from April 20 to 13 May 1943. The 94th flew a few missions from Bassingbourn while under the tutorage of the 91st Bomb Group until moving to RAF Earls Colne on 12 May 1943.

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.

Post-war

The RAF resumed occupation of Bassingbourn on 26 June 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 29 August 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 22 January 1970, and on July 15, The Queen's Division moved from Colchester to Bassingbourn.

The depot was responsible for training recruits undergoing their 19 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. Since approximately 1970 it has kept its RAF links by becoming the home of 2484 (Bassingbourn) Squadron Air Training Corps.

Hollywood at Bassingbourn

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 FortressOne of the Memphis Belles Props stands to greet you at the gatehouse on entering the ATR. 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. It also served as the location for the fictional "28th Bomb Group" in the 1950 Humphrey Bogart film "Chain Lightning".

Bassingbourn Barracks was used for location filming of the movie Full Metal Jacket in 1987, standing in place of the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. Some of the Vietnam scenes were filmed at Bassingbourn, and palm trees imported for the film were left onsite and could be seen for a period of time after filming. British Army recruits based at Bassingbourn during the filming were used as extras.

Tower Museum Bassingbourn

Opened in 1974, the Tower Museum Bassingbourn is located in the original control tower of RAF Bassingbourn. The museum is focused on the history of the base during World War II, and the men and women of the Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force who trained and worked there during the war. Exhibits include photographs, documents and military artifacts about the RAF, USAAF, Queen's Division, and the 91st Bombardment Group. The museum is open seasonally.

See also

References

 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

Notes
Bibliography
Primary sources
  • Hamlin John F. and Simons, Graham M. Bassingbourn (Airfield Focus No 2). Bretton, Peterborough, UK: GMS Enterprises, 1992. ISBN 1-870384-13-X.
  • Havelaar, Marion H., and Hess, William N., The Ragged Irregulars of Bassingbourn: The 91st Bombardment Group in World War II. ISBN 0-88740-810-9.
  • Freeman, Roger A. The Mighty Eighth War Manual. 1991 ISBN 0-87938-513-8.
  • Jefford, C.G. RAF Squadrons: A Comprehensive Record of the Movement and Equipment of All RAF Squadrons and Their Antecedents Since 1912. 2001. ISBN 1-84037-141-2.
Secondary sources
  • Andrade, John M. U.S. Military Aircraft designations and Serials since 1909. Earl Shilton, Leicester, UK: Midland Counties Publications, 1979. ISBN 0-904597-22-9.
  • Bishop, Cliff T. Fortresses of the Big Triangle First. 1986. ISBN 1869987004.
  • Freeman, Roger A. The Mighty Eighth. 1970. ISBN 0-87938-638-X.
  • ______________. The Mighty Eighth War Diary. 1990. ISBN 0-87938-495-6.
  • ______________. Airfields of the Eighth: Then and Now. After the Battle. 1978. ISBN 0900913096.
  • Maurer. Air Force Combat Units of World War II. 1961. ISBN 0-405-12194-6.
  • Ravenstein, Charles A. (1984). Air Force Combat Wings Lineage and Honors Histories 1947-1977. Maxwell AFB, Alabama: Office of Air Force History. ISBN 0912799129.
  • Rogers, Brian (2005). United States Air Force Unit Designations Since 1978. Hinkley, England: Midland Publications. ISBN 1-85780-197-0.

External links


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