Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

In the south-western corner of Cambridgeshire, are a group of airfields that are synonymous with the Second World War’s target marking units, the Pathfinders. This is an area rich in aviation history, and an area that played a major part in not only the European Theatre of Operations of World War Two, but military operations long into the Cold war and beyond. Within a short distance of each other are the airfields at Wyton, Warboys, Upwood and Alconbury to name but a few, and it is two of these we visit in Trail 17.

Our first stop is the former RAF Warboys, once home to the Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys.

Warboys village is an ancient village with records of inhabitants going back to 7,000BC, it also has links to the Bronze age, the Romans, Vikings and the Doomsday book. Even further back, some 350 million years, there was an active volcano in the area, not far from where we start today.

RAF Warboys

The farm sign reminds us of the aviation link (it would appear that this sign may have recently been removed).

The airfield itself was initially constructed as a satellite for RAF Upwood, with a requirement for three 50 yards wide tarmac runways; one of 2,000 yards, another measuring 1,400 yards and the last 1,350 yards. There were initially twenty-four frying pan hardstands, two of which were then used as hangar bases, with a further eighteen loop style hardstands added after. This gave a total of forty dispersal points available for aircraft, and they would certainly be needed.

As with many airfields of this time there were two type ‘T2’ hangars, one each side of the airfield, supplemented with a ‘B1’ hangar. A well developed bomb store lay to the west of the airfield, and eleven domestic sites lay to the eastern side of the A141 to the south of the main airfield. These would accommodate up to 1,959 men and 291 women. Even before its completion, Warboys would undergo further development, an order coming through to extend two of the runways to 2,097 yards and 1,447 yards, its was a sign perhaps, of things to come. This extension work meant altering the perimeter track layout and diverting the main road around the airfield as it would be dissected by the new extension (the original road was reinstated post war, the end of the main runway being cut off as a result).

Construction began in 1940 with the airfield opening in September 1941, initially as a satellite bomber station. Whilst intended for Upwood, it was first of all used by Short Stirling’s from XV Squadron as an overflow from nearby RAF Wyton. As a satellite, Warboys was never far from the war when not long after the first Wyton aircraft landed, the Commanding officer of XV Squadron,  Wing Commander P. Ogilvie, crashed the Stirling he was piloting (W7439) here in bad weather. Luckily he and his crew escaped major injury but unfortunately the aircraft was written off completely. This crash would signify a run of accidents occurring at the airfield whilst XV squadron used Warboys.

However, XV Sqn’s stay was short-lived, and they soon departed the site their vacant place being taken by the Blenheims of ‘D’ Flight, 17 OTU (Operational Training Unit).*1

The Training unit was expanding, and their base at RAF Upwood was becoming crowded. Their move over to Warboys on 15th December 1941, was a part of this expansion, and led to four flights being created, each with a range of aircraft including: Lysanders, Ansons, Blenheims and even the odd Hurricane and Spitfire.

In August 1942, the OTU would receive orders moving the unit elsewhere, whilst over at RAF Alconbury, a few miles to the south-west, instructions came through to 156 Squadron to relocate here to RAF Warboys. The instruction specified that the move was to take place on the 5th and be completed by the 7th, it would involve the ferrying of large numbers of crews and their aircraft. On the 5th the first aircraft was brought across, and then on the 6th a further six aircraft were transferred. This was followed by another seven on the 7th.

Following the move the squadron was put straight onto operations, but many of these were cancelled because of the poor autumn weather. One of the first, occurring on August 11th, saw ten aircraft detailed for operations, and whilst all of them managed to take off,  three of them X37998 (Flt.Sgt. F. Harker); Z1595 (Sqn. Ldr. J. Beavis) and BJ603 (P/O. C. Taylor) would fail to return. All but three of the sixteen aircrew onboard would perish – the squadron’s first fatalities whilst at Warboys.

RAF Warboys

The remnants of the main runway are used for buildings.

On the night of 15th August 1942, eight more Wellingtons took off from Warboys for Dusseldorf, of these, three returned early with a forth being lost. The Operational Record Book simply stating “This aircraft failed to return” – a rather unembellished statement that became so common in operational records. Reports about the raid later highlighted the poor visibility and scattered bombing, with little or no industrial damage being done as a result.

Whilst August 1942 was not proving to be in anyway remarkable for 156 Sqn, it would prove to be a very historic month for Bomber Command. On the same day as the Dusseldorf raid, the Pathfinders – an elite force designed to locate and mark targets for the main bomber stream –  officially came into being. This idea had long been on the minds of the Air Ministry, causing a prolonged and difficult relationship between Sir Arthur Harris and Group Captain Sidney Bufton (Director of Bomber Operations at the Air Ministry). The fallout culminated in the intervention of the Chief of Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal, who came down on the side of Group Captain Bufton. He disagreed with Harris’s arguments, announcing that the Pathfinders were going to go ahead as planned.

This did not meet with Harris’s approval, he feared the Pathfinders would ‘skim off’ the cream of his bomber force, creating a corps d’elite, whilst Bufton was adamant it would vastly improve Bomber Commands accuracy, something that desperately needed to be done.

Harris gained the backing of his Group Commanders, explaining that removing individual crews from squadrons would be bad for morale within the groups and be divisive amongst the squadrons. He and his Commanders preferred a target marking unit within each Group, thus retaining these elite crews keeping the unity of the squadrons and the skills they possessed together. However, the long fight between Harris and Bufton came to a climax with the intervention of Sir Charles Portal, and an ultimatum was given to Harris, ‘accept the new Pathfinders or leave’.

The job of organising this new command fell to the then Group Captain Don Bennett D.S.O., an experienced pilot himself who advocated the use of target marking to improve bombing accuracy; something Bennett had indeed tried himself. However, it was not going to be an easy ride for the Group Captain, for the squadrons chosen all operated different aircraft types: Wellingtons, Stirlings, Halifaxes and Lancasters. The Wellingtons were becoming outdated and the Stirlings, whilst liked, had their own set of problems. Added to the mix the fact that German defences were improving and electronic counter measures (ECM) were on the increase, difficult times were definitely ahead.

RAF Warboys

Industry marks the south-western perimeter.

As a new force, only four squadrons were initially used, although more were considered and earmarked: 7 (No. 3 Group), 35 (No. 4 Group), 83 (No. 5 Group) and 156 (No. 1 Group), but it would take time for the new crews to settle and for improvements in bombing accuracy to shine through. All the while Pathfinder crews were operating, the remainder of the squadrons continued in their normal duties, this would allow the Pathfinder force to steadily grow.

For the large part, target marking in the latter part of 1942 would be by visual means only – a ‘Finder‘ and an ‘Illuminator‘ using flares and incendiaries respectively. This would prove to be an unsatisfactory method, the markers often being ‘lost’ amongst the fires that followed, or they were simply too difficult to see. However, photos taken after these early bombing raids showed that the number of bombs falling within 3 miles of the aiming point, post August, had in fact risen to 37% from 32%; those falling within 3 miles of the centre of concentration rising to 50% from 35%.*2 Whilst these figures were quite small, and bombing was still relatively inaccurate, it was at least a step in the right direction, and a boost to those who supported both Bufton and Bennett.

So, on the 15th August 1942, Bomber Command operations changed for good, the four squadrons moved to their respective airfields and the Pathfinders began preparations for a new battle. 156 Sqn at Warboys, would be a major part of this. Being one of the four pioneering airfields, Warboys would be joined by Graveley, Oakington and Wyton, as initial homes for the new force.

On the night of the 18th -19th August 1942, the Pathfinders would be put to the test for the first time, and two Wellingtons from 156 squadron were to be a part of it. The raid to Flensburg would not be successful though, one aircraft having great difficulty in locating the target through the haze, and the second having to ditch its flares five miles from the airfield after one ignited inside the aircraft. Of those that did get to mark, it proved to be inaccurate, and one Pathfinder aircraft, from 35 Sqn, was lost.

RAF Warboys

Airfield defence in the form of an ‘Oakington’ pill box.

The day after this, Group Captain Bennett visited Warboys to give a lecture on the Pathfinder Force and to promote its use; he must have made a good impression for after the lecture six Warboy’s crews volunteered for Pathfinder duties.

Further operations were carried out on the night of  27th – 28th August to Kassel. A good night for visual marking meant that bombing was accurate, and as a result all of the Henschel factories were damaged. However, the cost to the Pathfinders was very high. It was on this operation that the Pathfinders suffered one of their greatest losses. Thirty-one aircraft were missing of which fourteen were Wellingtons and three were from 156 Sqn. The next day, the mess hall was devoid of three crews, those from: ‘X3367’, ‘Z1613’ and ‘DF667’, and unbeknown to those sitting around the mess, there were no survivors. A fourth bomber (BJ883) returned to Warboys after the pilot, Sgt. E. Bowker, suffered severe head pains and was unable to carry on.

Not all operations were as bad. On the night of 19th – 20th September following action over Saarbrucken, a flare became lodged in the bomb bay of one of the 156 Sqn Wellingtons. Whilst sitting there it ignited causing a fire in the aircraft’s belly. The Pilot,  New Zealander Sqn. Ldr. A. Ashworth, instructed his crew to bail out, after which the fire extinguished itself allowing him to fly the aircraft back single-handedly, landing at the fighter station RAF West Malling in Kent. The operation itself, undertaken by 118 aircraft, was otherwise uneventful, although haze proved to be an obstacle for the markers.

The last 156 Sqn Wellington raid for 1942 occurred on December 21st and took the squadron to Munich as part of a force of 137 aircraft. The loss of ‘BK386’ crewed entirely by Canadians brought 1942 to a close, and a loss of 15 aircraft this year. To add insult to injury, whilst the majority of the bombers claimed to have hit the city starting large fires, photographs showed that in fact most bombs had fallen outside of the city in open countryside, possibly as a result of a successful decoy employed by the Germans. It had not been the most auspicious of starts for the Pathfinders, nor 156 Squadron at Warboys.

By early January, a new aircraft type was starting to arrive at Warboys – Avro’s mighty four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.I. Created out of the under-performing Manchester, the Lancaster would go on to be one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War.

RAF Warboys

The beautiful Memorial window dedicated to the Pathfinders.

For the early part of January 1943, the poor winter weather continued to envelop the country preventing flights from Warboys going much further afield than Wyton, a stones throw away from their base. Even so, on the 13th, the Pathfinders took another major step forward, being formed into a new and unique Group of their own, No. 8 (PFF) Group, with Don Bennett (now an Air Commodore) remaining at the helm.

On the 26th, the squadron were able to use the new Lancasters for the first time on operations, a bombing raid to Lorient in which 4 Lancasters from Warboys took part; ‘ED474’, ‘ED485’, ‘W4851’ and ‘W4853’. On the 27th the same four aircraft, with different crews, went to Dussledorf, an operation that saw the use of Oboe Mosquitoes for the first time, and a mission that was followed on the 30th by Hamburg. All aircraft returned safely from each of these early operations – 1943 was beginning to look better already.

This run of ‘good luck’ ran well into April, with a relatively low loss rate per operation. This included on  April 16th, the death of Sgt. Patrick Brougham-Faddy (S/N: 577758) and the crew of both Lancasters ‘W4854’  and ‘W4930’. What perhaps makes this incident more notable, was the fact that Sgt. Brougham-Faddy was only 18 years of age, making him amongst the youngest to lose their life in Bomber Command operations. With him lost on that mission was also: his pilot P/O. Harald Andersen DFC; P/O. Kenneth Bordycott DFC, DFM and P/O. Frederick Smith DFM along with ten other experienced aircrew. These losses were a major blow to both the Warboy’s crews and the Pathfinders.

In June 1943, the Navigation Training Unit, a Lancaster based unit formed at RAF Gransden Lodge began its move, taking residency at both Upwood and here at Warboys. The split was not be in everyone’s favour, running a unit on two different sites initially caused some difficulty as the idea of the unit was to train crews in navigation techniques ready for postings to Pathfinder squadrons.

By the time 1943 drew to a close, fifty-seven aircraft had been lost from Warboys, a mix of both Lancaster MK.Is and MK.IIIs, the Wellington now having been replaced entirely within the squadron.

RAF Warboys

Buildings mark the edge of the bomb site.

The cold winter months of 1943 – 44 signified another major event in Bomber Command’s history – the air campaign against Berlin.

For almost 5 months, November to March, Bomber Command would attack Berlin relentlessly in pursuit of Harris’s doctrine of area bombing. The Short Stirling would be withdrawn as the losses mounting were unsustainable, a similar fate that began to land on the door of the Halifax. Some compared the Lancaster to the Halifax, similar to comparing a  “sports car and family saloon”*4. The handling of the Lancaster being far superior to that of the Halifax. As a result, the Lancaster squadrons would bear the brunt of the campaign, and Warboys crews would be in the thick of it. The Pathfinders using an updated version of H2S, would operate outside the range of Oboe, the land based navigation system introduced operationally a year before.

The cold of January 1944, did nothing to dampen the flights nor reduce the combat fatalities. Raids on Berlin, Brunswick, Munich and Frankfurt saw heavy losses (seventeen alone failed to return to Warboys in January, all experienced crews) and numerous aircraft returning early. For 156 Sqn this was disastrous, the squadron began to get a name for itself being referred to as the ‘chop’ squadron and consequently morale fell. With high losses the survival rate fell to an estimated 15%, *3 an unsustainable level of loss for any squadron. For the last fourteen days of January the squadron was effectively reduced to non-operational flights, and in a desperate attempt to bolster the men’s spirits and raise morale, a royal visit was arranged for the King and Queen. Both their majesty’s arrived on February 9th, where they talked to aircrew and took lunch in the Officer’s Mess. After a short stay they departed Warboys going on to visit other Pathfinder airfields in the area.

A widely used photo showing King George VI & Queen Elizabeth talking to ground crew of No 156 Squadron at Warboys(IWM CH 12153)

By the end of February 1944, 156 Sqn were prepared to leave Warboys, maybe a new start would give a new impetus. This move would be a direct swap with the remaining Lancasters of the Pathfinder’s Navigation Training Unit (NTU) based there. Perhaps ending the operating of the unit on two sites had been seen as an ideal opportunity to ‘kill two birds with one stone’, moving 156 and reuniting the NTU.  Whatever the reason the transfer began with a small advanced party taking the short drive to RAF Upwood.

By mid March the move was complete, and Warboys settled into its new role with a full complement of the NTU, hopefully now, the harrowing tales of loss were a thing of the past. With courses of generally three to five crews every few days, turnover was rapid.

With the Mosquito taking  a greater role in the Pathfinders, more crews were needing training in its operation. The 1655 (MTU) Mosquito Training Unit (formerly the 1655 Mosquito Conversion unit) originally formed at Horsham St. Faith in 1942, moved across from RAF Marham in Norfolk; Warboys was now awash with twin and four engined aircraft.

The Training unit would only stay at Warboys until December, at which point it moved to Upper Heyford where it would disband at the end of the year, being renumbered 16 Operational Training Unit (OTU). However, for that short time at Warboys, it grew extensively, gaining five flights including a mix of aircraft for training purposes. Whilst pilots were taught how to fly the Mosquito, the navigators were taught Pathfinder navigation & marking techniques, all prior to joining as a new crew for final training and ultimately postings to a Pathfinder squadron.

RAF Warboys

Further buildings survive near the bomb site.

Many of the aircraft delivered to Warboys were veteran aircraft themselves, having served with other numerous squadrons. Mosquito DZ606 which initially arrived in April 1944, had already flown at least nineteen operational sorties before arriving here. It was then passed on to another unit (139 Sqn) before returning with a further twenty-nine sorties under its belt. The dedication of ground crews, ease of repair and the reliability of the Mosquito enabled it to complete thirty-seven more operations with other units before the year was out.  It was eventually struck off charge in 1945 after being badly damaged.

One other notable example that appeared at Warboys with 1655 MTU, was W4053 which had been the Mosquito Turret Fighter Prototype in 1941. The (bizarre) idea of this was the fitting of a four gunned Bristol turret behind the cockpit, rather like a Boulton Paul Defiant. On tests though, the turret seized when turned to the front effectively trapping the occupant inside. After running further tests with the same results, the project was abandoned and no one was allowed to fly in it again – even though some did try! The aircraft had its turret removed and served with both 151 and 264 Squadrons before passing to 1655 MTU here at Warboys. In November 1944 it was damaged in a landing accident, repaired and then reused by the unit when it was renumbered as 16 OTU at Upper Heyford, where the Mosquito was destroyed in a crash.

With the Mosquito training unit moving away, the Navigation unit remained the sole user of Warboys, but years of use by heavy bombers had had a toll on the runway, their surfaces beginning to break up and cause problems. Warboys was going to need considerable repair work carried out. However, the Navigation unit remained here until the war’s end. On the 18th June 1945 a communique came through from Bomber Command and 8 (PFF) Group, announcing the disbandment  of the Navigation Training Unit., Staff began postings elsewhere, the last courses were completed and ‘Cooks’ tours (tours taking ground crews over Germany to see the devastation) were wound down.

Before the closure of Warboys though, two more squadrons would arrive, 128 Sqn and 571 Sqn, both Mosquito Pathfinder squadrons. 571 was disbanded here on September 20th, whilst 128 Sqn transferred out to B58/Melsbroek, then Wahn where it was disbanded in 1946.

After the training units were disbanded all flying ceased. The RAF did return briefly with Bloodhound missiles in 1960 staying for 4 years until the airfield was finally closed and sold off.

With that, Warboys was gone, and its remarkable history now a distant memory. But these memories were not to be forgotten forever. The local village commemorated the loss of one particular pilot who on the 10th April 1944, lost his life whilst flying a Lancaster over the Welsh countryside.

Flt. Lt. John L. Sloper DFC and Bar, was a veteran of 156 Sqn who had transferred out of operational duties to the Training Unit after completing his tour of duty on December 29th 1943. His last mission being a bombing raid to Berlin in Lancaster JB476. Flt. Lt. Sloper had achieved his quota in just seven months. He joined the Mosquito unit to pass on his skills to others, his personality, knowledge and determination making him very popular with the other crews.

RAF Warboys

A plaque dedicated to the memory of both Flt. Lt. Sloper and those who served with 156 Squadron.

Flt Lt. Sloper (S/N: 147214) was killed in Lancaster ‘JB 471’ during a cross country navigation flight near the village of LLanwrtyd Wells in Breconshire. The aircraft crashed after entering cloud, the ensuing fireball killing all those inside. Flt. Lt. Sloper’s remains were buried at Haycombe Cemetery and Crematorium, Bath.

The site today houses small industrial units, but it is primarily farmland. Only a small section of the main runway exist, and this has farm buildings upon it. This section, has been cut by the original A141 now a ‘B’ road, and evidence of the runway can still be seen either side of the road.

RAF Warboys

Pathfinder long distance walk.

The farm entrance has a large sign with a Lancaster modelled out of metal. Two memorials on the gate posts mark the runway (since my original visit the sign and one of the memorial plaques appears to have been removed, though I have yet to verify this). Across the road from here, you can see the extension to the runway and the remains of a small building, but probably not war-time due to its location.

There is luckily a footpath that circumnavigates the field called ‘The Pathfinder Long distance Walk’, and uses that iconic aircraft, the Mosquito, as its icon. This path allows views across the airfield and access to some of the remaining buildings.

Entry to the path is toward the village, a gated path that is actually part of the perimeter track. As you work your way round, to your right can be found one of the few Air Ministry designed pill boxes. The manufacturer of these mushroom defences being F. C. Construction, they were designed in such a way as to allow machine gun fire through a 360 degree turn. Often referred to as ‘Oakington’ pill boxes, there are only a few remaining today.

Also, deeply shrouded in hedges and undergrowth, another structure possibly a second pill box or the battle headquarters. With permission from the farmer, you may be able to access these, but they look in a rather dangerous condition.

Further along to your right is where one of the T2 hangars would have stood before its demolition. Tracks lead away from here, and there is what appears to be further examples of airfield architecture buried amongst the trees.

The perimeter track takes you around the rear of the airfield across the threshold of the main runway and round the perimeter track. A local model flying club now uses this part of the site between the runway and perimeter track. To your right would have been the bomb store, now open fields laden with crops rather than bombs. There are a few buildings here marking the boundary of the store, now used for chickens and extensively ‘modified’ by the farmer. They house farm machinery, a far cry from what would have been here many years ago.

The track then takes you away from the site and out across the Cambridgeshire countryside.

RAF Warboys

The remains of the Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station.

Returning back to the road, we go in the opposite direction from the village and come to the entrance of the industrial site. These buildings stand on the perimeter track marking the western corner of the airfield.

Next to this part of the site, is a large telecommunications transmitter, apparently the origins of the site being 1941. Whilst its use and history is somewhat difficult to locate or verify, it is known that this was a Ground Control Interceptor (GCI) Radar Station used to lock fighters onto incoming enemy aircraft. Later, there was a high-powered transmitter here used by RAF Mildenhall and RAF Wyton. It was also used to communicate with the V bombers on long-range flights. The mast believed to be original, has been updated and refurbished for telecommunications purposes, but the block house remains behind high fencing with very strong padlocks!

The majority of the admin sites are located along the A141 toward Wyton, some evidence exists here but the majority have long gone. Return toward the village and find the church; located just on the outskirts of the village.

A superb memorial window and roll of honour can be found here, and it is well worth the effort. In Huntingdon town is the former Headquarters building of the Pathfinders, Castle Hill House, which now belongs to the local council. A blue plaque describes the historical significance of the building.

Pathfinders

Castle Hill House, Huntingdon. The Headquarters of the Pathfinders. (Photo courtesy Paul Cannon)

Designed initially as a satellite airfield, Warboys went on to be a pioneering airfield for a new and dedicated team of bombing experts. With 156 Squadron it took the war deep into the heart of Nazi Germany. As a result it suffered great losses, but without  doubt it performed one of the most vital roles in the latter parts of the war and it’s a role that should not be forgotten beneath waving crops and developing industry. The name of Warboys should be remembered as a Pathfinder icon.

After we leave Warboys, we head to her sister station to the west, and an airfield with a history going back to World War I. This airfield saw a spy caught and hanged; the making of a film using Lancasters, and more recently the site of a hospital for the treatment of victims of a nuclear war. We of course go to RAF Upwood.

RAF Upwood

Located in the western corner of Cambridgeshire not far from RAF Alconbury or RAF Warboys, RAF Upwood is possibly one of the most photographed stations in the country, partly due to the fact that it closed fairly recently, but more so because virtually all the buildings are still intact. A remarkable site, it was preserved by its use by the USAF Medical Service as a hospital until it’s closure.

RAF Upwood

Guard house to the former airfield.

Resembling a ghost town, it is an eerie and strange place to visit but its life may be ending soon.

RAF Upwood was originally opened in September 1917, as Bury (Ramsey) after the adjacent village. It had no permanent buildings and was a grass airfield with no fixed squadrons. Toward the end of the war in 1918, five hangars and a small number of huts had been built and it was at this time that it became officially known as ‘Upwood’.

When the war ended, the squadrons left and the site was cleared, being returned to the local community once more.

However, the impending conflict in the late 1930s, required a massive rethinking into Britain’s defences and the need for greater air power. A number of locations were earmarked for opening and as a former airfield, Upwood was one of them. Designed as a medium bomber station, plans were in place for as many as five large hangars.

The first operational units to arrive were Hinds of 52 Squadron RAF, followed later by 63 Squadron RAF. Being very much outdated, these were replaced quite soon by Fairy Battles, themselves to prove to be outdated very quickly later on.

RAF Upwood

Being moved away from Upwood, the ‘Battle’s allowed Blenheims of 90 squadron to move in on September 20th 1939, and Avro Ansons in the following month. Having no concrete runways yet, the weather and poor drainage proved to be the worst enemy at Upwood, causing very difficult operations and often cessation of any flying activity at all. Eventually, the two Upwood based squadrons would merge forming No 17 Operational Training Unit (OTU) in April 1940.

Upwood was to experience some rather difficult times and localised action. Numerous accidents were interspersed with attacks by marauding Luftwaffe aircraft and a parachuting spy. This event led to much excitement around the base. The spy,  Josef Jakobs, was found guilty of treason and later executed at the Tower of London.

17 OTU would later, in 1943, transfer to Wellington bombers, but it was decided that the poor soil would not permit sufficient support for the aircraft and so they moved out leaving the airfield devoid of all operational aircraft. The RAF then placed the airfield into care and maintenance, passed over to the new 8 PFF group and by the end of October three new concrete runways had been constructed.

The first Pathfinder Squadron (139 Sqn) moved in early in the new year equipped with Mosquitos from nearby RAF Wyton. The pathfinders would target a number of high-profile targets including: Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund, Frankfurt, Hanover, Mannheim and Brunswick. Often flying singularly or in pairs, they would mark targets for the larger force following on behind.

RAF Upwood

Post war, Upwood served as a hospital and all of the buildings survive.

Gradually as the Pathfinder force grew, so did the number of resident aircraft at Upwood. On March 5th, 156 Squadron joined from Warboys (See above) following a series of disastrous raids and heavy losses. 156 Sqn ‘won’ the dubious award for having the highest losses in bomber command. The high loss rate continued for some time, and many experienced crews were lost to enemy action.

On June 21st, 156 Sqn started daylight raids attacking flying bomb sites. They also continued the onslaught of German cities and industrial targets in an aim to stop, or at least slow, arms production. Having to travel further into the heartland, 156 Sqn were to experience new and harder fighters. One such experience was the new Messerschmitt 262, on the night of 8th /9th February 1945,  Germany’s last-ditch attempt to stop the allied bombing campaign. Operations finally came to a close for 156 Sqn with the last raid on 25th April 1945 to Wangerooge, just off the Dutch coast. It was to be a rather distasteful ending with seven aircraft being lost, six in mid-air collisions.

3010671412_0a0a4fd717

Aerial photo taken on 25th April 1945 over Wangerooge*.

139 Sqn meanwhile, continued their night raids on German cities having their busiest month in May that year – 256 sorties. Mission continued on right up to the end of the war. During the period late February to Late March, 139 Sqn carried out 36 consecutive night raids on Berlin. At the end of March, they were involved in the largest ever attack on Berlin by Mosquitoes, when 142 in total flew in two waves over the German city. Their cessation of operations didn’t come until May 1945 following a 14 strong attack on Kiel.

RAF Upwood

A huge number of derelict buildings remain on the now abandoned site.

Throughout their operational tour, 139 Sqn had lost a total 23 aircraft in 438 raids , the highest of all the Mosquito PFF squadrons. 156 Squadron on the other hand, carried out a total of 308 raids (4,230 sorties) losing 143 aircraft – 913 crew members in total.

Post war saw a number of changes for Upwood. Further Mosquitoes and Lancasters would arrive and depart throughout 1946. The new Lincoln Bombers would also see service here before being shipped out to the Suez. In 1954 Dirk Bogarde starred in a film made at Upwood using Lancasters and Lincolns in ‘Appointment in London

During 1955 / 56 the Lincolns were gradually replaced with the new Canberras. A number of squadrons including: 18, 61, 50, 35 and 40 all had a place at Upwood, until on September 11th 1961, the last operational unit left. RAF Strike Command made some changes and then in 1964 they too pulled out leaving a small care and maintenance unit behind. Oer the next few years Upwood would be used for training of non flying training duties, until they too left in 1981. Upwood’s future looked insecure.

RAF Upwood

Inside the Gate house, the USAF presence. (Security Police Squadron).

Control for Upwood was then passed to the USAF for training and support services from nearby Alconbury and Lakenheath. It was earmarked for medical services, and should an attack occur during the Cold War, it would quickly be turned into a control area ready to deal with heavy casualties. The USAF gradually phased out its use of Upwood, as other airfields closed, crew number became less and the homes they used emptied. Eventually, even 423d Medical Squadron pulled out, taking their community support, equipment and staff with them.

Upwood finally closed on 26th October 2012 and the remaining buildings including the NAFFI and NCO homes were all sold off to developers and the site wound down.

Today it is a ghostly figure, an enormous site covered with buildings as if left following an atomic blast. The windows are all shattered, the buildings vandalised and graffiti daubed on all the walls. Two tanks have been brought in and a small Urban Assault company use it for mock battles. The guardroom, officers quarters and associated mess halls all remain, some in a worse state than others.

RAF Upwood

RAF Upwood’s hangars are still in use today. Aero engines outside await work.

On the positive side, the hangars are actively used by an aero-engine company who refurbish jet engines, a glider club has been agreed a 10 year lease on the remaining parts of the runways (although these have been removed) and two Nissen huts have been fully refurbished to allow modern use. This part of the airfield looks and feels like a real and active military base, whilst the admin and medical side a ghostly reminder of its past. Standing on the site looking around, the imagination can only begin to think how this lonely and desolate place once bustled with aircraft engines, crews going about their business and vehicles ferrying aircrew to their machines.

Post Script:

Ever since the site was sold, numerous plans and buyers have come forward, but nothing is certain and no one seems to know exactly what the destiny of Upwood is. One thing is for sure, if it is left and eventually demolished, it would be a tragic missed opportunity to preserve a once thriving military base in the heart of England.

A website dedicated to RAF Upwood shows a range of older photographs, squadron details and information about Upwood’s history. Created by Sean Edwards, it is well worth a visit for more specific details.

A local gentleman has purchased a scrapped Canberra nose section that once flew  from Upwood and has rebuilt it. It remains in his garage and is displayed at shows around the country.

Sources and further reading (RAF Upwood).

There are further photos and videos on my flickr account.

*Photo from the UK Archives, (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nationalarchives) no known copyright restrictions.

For more information and details of the Pathfinders, see the excellent RAF Pathfinders Archive at: https://raf-pathfinders.com/

Sources and further reading (RAF Warboys).

*1  A good blog  describes the life of Wing Co. T G ‘Jeff’ Jefferson, DSO AFC AE who served part of his life as a Pathfinder at RAF Upwood. It is well worth a read.

*3 Smith, G. “Cambridgeshire airfields in the Second World War“. Countryside Books (1997)

*4 Flying Officer J Catford DFC “View from a Birdcage“Tucaan Books (2005) Pg 51

National Archive: AIR 27/203/18
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/13
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/14
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/16
National Archive: AIR 27/1041/24

For more details of the Pathfinders see the excellent RAF Pathfinders Archive Website.

A website detailing crews, missions, aircraft and other information about 156 squadron is also well worth visiting for more specific and detailed information.

11 thoughts on “Trail 17 – The Pathfinders

  1. I was at Oakington in the 80`s with the Royal Anglian Regt, prior to handing over to the Queens Regt, there was also an AAC squadron there, before closing and becoming an IRC

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Frank. The places listed are those I’ve personally been to, rather than listing all which is probably nigh on impossible – I’m bound to miss some! There are a large number on the ‘to do’ list and I’m working my way through them – slowly. Sadly many of these places are earmarked for housing, one of the reasons for doing the blog (and the personal visit) is to see for myself what is still about, and record what I can in the time that I have. Thanks for the info on Oakjngton – another one bites the dust!

      Like

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