R.A.F. UPWOOD THE PRE-WAR EXPANSION ERA
By 1931 the R.A.F.s fortunes had reached a very low state, and in July the goverment imposed cuts in armed forces salaries in an effort to reduce expenditure. By 1934 it was admitted that this was a serious mistake and the forces were to be reorganized. In July 1934 it was announced that a massive expansion in the R.A.F. was to take place, the aim being to form 41 new squadrons by 1938. In November 1934, Winston Churchill warned of our weak defences and remarked that he felt that we might be tortured into submission if rapid action was not taken. By June 1935 the decision was made to treble the size of the R.A.F. within two years, which meant that nearly fifty new airfields were going to be needed. One of these would be built on the First World War airfield site at Upwood.
Construction began, with the idea of basing two medium Bomber squadrons at Upwood, with accomodation for a third squadron if required. The rebuilt airfield was to be squarish, rising in the centre, the subsoil being mole-drained blue clay. Upwood seems a strange choice for a modern airfield due to the fact that the grass surface was subject to water retention in wet weather and severe surface cracking in hot dry weather.
By the end of 1936 two of the five proposed C-type hangars had almost been completed, but no permanent living quarters were ready. As a temporary measure huts were put up along the south-west side of the airfield. Ultimately, only four C-type hangars were ever built. These buildings were taken over on 26 January 1937 by an opening-up party which was formed at Wyton, under the command of F/LT Horstmann, an equipment branch officer.
The first unit to be based at Upwood since it was closed in 1919 was No. 52 squadron, itself a product of the R.A.F.s expansion scheme, and was formed on 18 January 1937 at Abingdon, in Berkshire from a number of personnel from 15 squadron,and seven Hawker Hinds were delivered as initial equipment.
Permanent buildings were brought into use at Upwood as they were completed, the officers mess was finished on 18 February 1937, just in time for 52 squadrons' arrival on 27th February, though it was 1 March before the first seven Hawker Hinds with which the squadron was equipped, flew in. During the course of the next week, six more Hinds were delivered, but the squadrons move was only completed on 10 March.
Concurrent with the arrival of 52 squadron, the C.O. of another unit, 63 Squadrons` S/Ldr V.S. Parker DFC, AFC visited Upwood from Andover, Hampshire, where 63 Squadron had recently reformed, on 22 February 1937. Whilst at Upwood, S/Ldr parker took temporary command of the Station and made the necessary domestic arrangements for his Squadrons expected move, pending the arrival of a Wing Commander.
1 March 1937 also saw the arrival of 63 Squadrons first four or five Hawker Audaxes at Upwood, with the main party arriving two or three days later, bringing with them seven Hinds provided for temporary use by 12 Squadron. 63 Squadrons move was complete by 18 March when eight more Audaxes flew in.
Once the two squadrons had had time to settle in, they received the first visits by the `Top Brass`. The first of these was on 22 March 1937 by Air Comm. S.J. Goble CBE., DSO., DFC., (R.A.A.F.), the A.O.C. of 2 Group, under whose control R.A.F. Upwood came. With him was the R.A.F.`s Director of Organisation, A.V.M. W.C. Welsh CB., DFC., AFC.,and Col. Turner, the Director of Works. Three days later, 52 Squadrons` C.O., F/Lt. Ash left to be replaced by S/Ldr. L.C. Bennett.
22 March also saw 52 Squadron taking part in the abortive search for the 72-year old Duchess of Bedford who went missing that day in a snowstorm, after taking off from Woburn in Bedfordshire in her D.H. Gipsy Moth biplane. two days later, three Audaxes from 63 Squadron joined the search, and patrolled the Upwood/ Kettering/ St. Neots triangle for two hours. Mary, the Duchess of Bedford, left Woburn in the morning to view the frozen fens, but was never seen again.
63 Squadron was split into `A` and `B` Flights on 12 April 1937, and the next day W/Cdr. R.T.B. Houghton AFC replaced S/Ldr. Parker as Station Commander, and then took command of 63 Squadron, and on 20 April Air Chief Marshal Sir John Steel KCB., KBE., CMG., the A.O.C. of Bomber Command visited to address all personnel on the subject of what the future might hold for squadron. Sir Phillip Sassoon, the Under Secretary for Air then visited Upwood on 26 April.
R.A.F. Upwood at the time 63 Squadron was first based there was apparently a quite luxurious station, even down to the thick carpets in the Sergeants` Mess. The Mess kitchen was staffed almost entirely by civilians, and the Warrant Officers had their own table in the Sergeants` Mess, but the S.W.O. had a table of his own. All sergeants who were not living out were accomodated in the Mess and one waiter/batman was provided for every three S.N.C.O.`s. Flying kit was not allowed in either the Sergeants` or Officers` Mess under any circumstances, anyone not properly attired was refused food. Once a month, a dance was held in the Sergeant`s Mess, to which the station commander was always invited. He usually accepted, but if for any reason he could not attend, he sent a senior officer to represent him. Some junior officers would also attend, but were obliged to arrive and leave when the station commander did. Locally based Yeomanry officers, among other visitors to these dances, usually turned up in force, wearing dress uniform, complete with spurs, but were eventually persuaded to leave these behind for safety reasons.
On 20 May 1937, Fairey Battle K7559, the first Battle issued to a R.A.F. squadron, arrived, destined for 63 Squadron, but delivery of further Battles was going to be a slow process.
During this time, routine training continued as usual, but for 52 squadron practice formation flying for the forthcoming R.A.F. Display at Hendon formed part the training schedule, and on 26 June Hinds from 52 squadron were among the 255 aircraft which took part in the mass formation over the display.
2 July saw 63 Squadron beginning extensive development trials using three of their new Fairey Battles, K7562, K7563 and K7566. The squadron had built up sufficient experience by 10 August to be allowed to take part in 2 Group exercises which had been designed to test London`s defences. Also, during August a temporary Operations Room was brought into action at Upwood, and a flarepath comprising of goose-neck flares was laid out for night flying, which back in 1937 was often seen as something of an adventure, only a few crews having flown at night before. The defence of the Station was organized for the first time, a blackout scheme was brought into operation and instructions were issued on how to deal with a poison gas attack.
As 63 Squadron were pioneers in the use of the new Battle aircraft in service, it was in the limelight on several occasions that autunm. A film, called `Under the Shadow of the Wing`, by the Gaumont British Film Corporation, was made when cameramen spent two days at Upwood at the end of August, filming many of the Battles. At around the same time, photographers from `Flight` magazine were taken up in the Battles to take shots of some of `B` Flight`s aircraft. The Italian government also showed an interest in the Battle, for on 16 September the Duke of Aosta led an Italian party which visited 63 Squadron. The Egyptian government was also keen to see the new aircraft, so on 21 September, some of 63 Squadron`s Battles went to Northolt in Middlesex to be inspected. Belgium was another country to show interest in the Battle, and Major Woutieres of the Belgian Air Force visited Upwood on 23 September, then a week later Lt. Lim Weir K`nei from China arrived at Upwood on 30 September.
Meanwhile, construction of permanent buildings was still going on at Upwood and during September 1937 the first sixteen Airmens` Married Quarters were occupied, being allocated to those airmen who needed them most.
In what today would seem a somewhat crazy decision by the powers that be, was the elaborate show laid on at Mildenhall, Suffolk, for the German mission led by General der Flieger Erhard Milch. Nine Battles from 105 Squadron at Harwell, near Abingdon, Oxon, arrived on 13 October 1937 to practice formation flying with nine of 63 Squadron`s aircraft, and three days later the eighteen aircraft flew over Mildenhall. One other Battle had been sent there, fully fitted with the latest equipment, for inspection on the ground. The Germans inspected the aircraft very carefully, and amongst them were General Lt. Stumpff and General Major Ernst Udet. In retrospect, this display of Britian`s latest state of the art combat aircraft to her most likely potential enemy seems completely ridiculous.
Eight aircraft from 63 Squadron left for their annual training camp at West Freugh in Scotland on 24 October, returning on 25 November. While they were away, Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Edward Ellington GCB, CMG, CBE., the Chief of the Air Staff, came to inspect the rest of the squadron. Meanwhile, 52 Squadron received the first of its Fairey Battles which it re-equipped with to replace their Hinds. The last of the Battles allocated to 63 Squadron arrived on 11 December 1937. 52 Squadron`s re-equipment was completed on 14 December, the squadron`s strength being set at twelve aircraft, plus four in reserve. Personnel at this time comprised of 14 officers, 5 pilots, 10 S.N.C.O.s (Senior Non-commisioned Officers), 12 corporals and 78 airmen. 119 in total. By 17 December all married airmen below the rank of Warrant Officer at Upwood had moved into their quarters and eight spare A.M.Q.s were handed over to R.A.F. Wyton for the temporary use by personnel based there. Warrant Officers eventually occupied their married quarters during January 1938.
63 Squadron`s development programme on the Fairey Battle took precedence over all other activities during February 1938, and each of the three aircraft devoted to the scheme was required to be airborne for three periods of at least three hours each day. Nightflying began on 1 March. That same day, 52 Squadron`s `A` Flight was detached to Northolt for air fighting development trials. Seven of 63 Squadron`s aircraft were then sent to the opening ceremony at Belfast`s new airport at Aldergrove on 15 March. 63 Squadron completed their development work on 21 March.
One cold night in early 1938 an AC2 airman working at the Chance Light was told to go to the hangar to fetch his officer`s greatcoat. On the way back, as he was in a hurry, the airman decided to take an unauthorized lift on a Battle aircraft which was beginning to taxi to the end of the runway for take-off. Unfortunately for him, the aircraft didn`t make its normal stop to run up its engine; instead it built up speed, taking the poor airman with it. The rear seat passenger in the Battle drew attention to the pilot, P/O Edwards, of what had happened, and a careful circuit and landing was made, the airman hanging on for dear life and falling off in a state of shock as soon as the aircraft had stopped.
During May 1938, 52 Squadron, apart from `A` Flight, still possibly on detachment to Northolt, took part in a test of dispersal procedures, for which the aircraft were sent to Alconbury in Huntingdonshire. This was probably the first time that this site, then still only a grass field with no facilities, was used, as it was opened as a satellite to Upwood on 17 May 1938. The air and ground crews were housed in tents under what were assumed to be the conditions which might be found as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force.
On 23 and 24 May, aircraft from 52 Squadron took part in mass flights over southern England, in preparation for the 1938 Empire Air Day. Also, on 24 May, nine Battles of 63 Squadron took part in two mass formation flights over southern England, and one, K7613, was sent to West Freugh, Scotland, to take part in the Empire Air Day display there. On the day itself, 28 May, 52 Squadrons Battles were sent to various pther RAF Stations to act as static exhibits or to give flying displays. 52 Squadron was involved in more promotional work that summer. For instance, on 30 May, `A` Flight, still detached to Northolt, participated in a demonstration and flypast for a visiting French mission, that was interested in, among other aircraft, the Fairey Battle.and when the same mission went to Marham, `B` Flight performed the same function there, along with twelve aircraft from 63 Squadron, which arrived there on 1 June. At Upwood on 1 June, the Officers` Married Quarters were finally declared ready for occupation. 52 Squadron was still in demand for demonstrations as `B` Flight took part in the ceremony marking the opening of the new Manchester Airport at Ringway on 25 June.
last updated 25/11/00