RAF Wyton Home of the Pathfinders
The area around Wyton has been associated with aviation for over 90 years – a period that embraces almost the entire history of aviation.
Several aviation milestones have been recorded from RAF Wyton. The first sortie of WW2 took off from here, as well as the first aircraft of the 1000 Bomber raids on Germany. The legendary pathfinder Force was formed here and Wyton aircraft took part in the last Bomber Command Raid on Germany. Post War, a Wyton Canberra won the London – New Zealand Air Race in 1953 and a Victor, also from Wyton, established the fastest subsonic time in the 1969 Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race. 1981 marked the retirement from Wyton of the RAFs last serving Spitfire pilot.
In April 1912, permission was granted from Parliament to form the Royal Flying Corps. When war broke out in August 1914 Britains air service was still in its infancy. Opened in 1916 Wyton was established to train new pilots and the 7th Wing RFC was installed. Wytons role developed into one of training recently formed squadrons for overseas service. Qualifications were introduced in March 1916 to stop growing criticism of pilots released for front line service in France. Successful airmen were to have:
a) Flown 15 hours solo
b) Flown a service aeroplane satisfactorily
c) Flown cross country at least 60 miles and landed at least twice
d) Climbed to over 6000ft and stayed there for at least 15 minutes. Landed with the engine stopped, touching down initially within a circular mark 50yards in diameter.
e) Made 2 night landing assisted by flares.
Among one of the pilots who qualified was Lt J Winter MBE RFC who later went onto become the Town Clerk of Huntingdon.
By 1917 newer types such as the DH6 and Sopwith Camel were finding their way to Wyton. The RFC which started as a hybrid a few years earlier was now becoming a more experienced, professional and independent organisation. In the same year Jan SMUTS recommended, through a committee, that a separate air arm be formed.
On 1st April 1918 the Royal Air Force was formed and Wyton continued to train units for operations overseas. By this time Wyton had grown to a sizeable airfield, occupying 151 acres – 30 being taken up by buildings. Five hangars had been built and hutted accommodation stretched along the Chatteris road.
With the cessation of hostilities in November 1918, the services were run down. Wyton became a transit and training camp for the American Army Air Corps. On June 24th 1919 Wyton closed down. The buildings were taken over by Huntingdonshire County Council and converted for use as a sanatorium. The airfield reverted to pasture.
In 1933 Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and in 1935 Baldwin, expanding the RAF, finally authorized the establishment of a further 41 Squadrons. Wyton was one of the ‘new’ airfields built.
In 1936 the new RAF Command structure came into being and Wyton came under the control of 2 Group Bomber Command.
In March 1937 the first Blenheim Squadron was formed at Wyton and Empire Day of the same year saw an Air Display being held on the Station.
Early 1939 saw the Blenheim 1s being replaced with the long nosed Blenheim IV. With these aircraft Wyton entered the war. At one minute after noon on 3 September 1939 a Blenheim piloted by Fg Off A McPherson took off on a reconnaissance mission to Wilhelmshaven. The aircraft returned safely 4 hours 49 minutes later. Shortly after 0830 hrs the following morning McPherson again left Wyton but this time the weather was so poor and the low cloud forced him down to 300 feet. He persisted and successfully photographed ships at Brunsbuttel, Wilhelmshaven and Schillig Roads.
For his part in the early attacks Fg Off McPherson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. This represented another first for Wyton and on 2 November 1939, HM King George VI visited the station to make not only his first investiture of the war but also the first in the field by a reigning monarch for many years.
As a testimony to those crews, it is a sobering thought that those serving as aircrew in Bomber Command in September 1939, many would not survive the war.
Throughout the following months and years the equipment and command structure changed regularly at Wyton but by the middle of 1942 Bomber Command had shown that they were capable of taking the war to the enemy. In April 1942 Wg Cmdr Don Bennett an Australian, took command of 10 Sqn flying Whitleys in Yorkshire. Shortly after taking command, Bennett was shot down over Norway and escaped to Sweden, returning to England within a month. Shortly after his return he was summoned to Bomber Command HQ and given command of the newly created Pathfinder Force (PFF).
The PFF was initially composed of four units stationed at Oakington, Gravely Wyton and Warboys. Wyton was situated in the middle of the stations and was chosen to be the Headquarters.
The role of the PFF was to find and mark targets as best they could. A PFF tour was 45 missions, though in fact these normally worked out at 60. Chances of survival were slim. Crews were also expected to work at perfecting new techniques in their free time and were always receiving instruction in new equipment. Personnel not matching up to the required standard were quickly posted to another unit.
In the last 3 months of 1944, 60,000 tons of explosives were dropped on the Rhur area. Wytons squadrons were involved in most of these raids. At this time, although victory was in sight, no respite was given, for German Night Fighters were still flying. Losses continued, although lower than in 1943. In February and March of 1945, the PFF lost 39 aircraft although not all of these sorties were involved in the bombing offensive. Several sorties were flown under the code name of ‘Operation Manna’ where food was dropped to the starving Dutch people.
In the latter stages of the war, March-April 1945 saw Wyton engaged in a wide variety of operations which included leaflet dropping on Prisoner of War camps warning guards and Commandants that they would be held personally responsible for the safety of their prisoners.
The actual end of the war brought no immediate let up in pace for the station and aircraft crews. It was soon realised that a stripped down Lancaster could carry 22 men and the aircraft were used to re-patriate prisoners of war. Between May 7 and 9 1945, Pathfinders carried 2858 men home. All ranks were then given a 48-hour pass and the celebrations began, including to the astonishment of visiting senior Russian Officers, a WRAF football match. It is pleasing to note here that when the passes expired there were no absentees and no damage to the station. On 13 May 1945, a victory parade was held in St Ives. The war was over.
In August 1945, the PFF disbanded. Wyton was again left without operational aircraft. Many ground personnel were taken to Germany in station aircraft to witness the destruction by Bomber Command. These trips were known as ‘Cooks Tours’. Demobilization was the main job in hand and by the end of 1945 Wyton had seen the departure of 900 conscripts.
In 1945 – 46 the only units remaining on site was the Group Major Servicing Unit, the Technical Training Command Communications Flight and 1688 Bomber Defence Training Flight. When these sections moved out in July 1946 Nos 15 and 44 Sqns from Mildenhall, equipped with Lancasters moved in. Married Quarters soon began to appear on the station and children played on the pillboxes.
In September 1948 the first of the ‘Battle of Britain’ days began, reminiscent of the earlier Empire Air Days and 3000 people enjoyed the show at Wyton on a particularly fine day.
In 1950 a great deal of uncertainty surrounded the base. With the cold war and the increased presence of the Americans in the country, it was rumored that Wyton was to become an American base. On 17 July, six B50 bombers of the USAF arrived, the first of many on rotation, using Wyton as a transit base. Accommodation was very crowded but this problem was eased when 15 Sqn moved to Marham, leaving only 44 Sqn and the Americans.
January 1951 saw 44 Sqn move to Marham leaving Wyton an All-American base throughout 1951 and 52.
In January 1953 the first of the Photographic Reconnaissance Units arrived, initially with Mosquito, Meteor and Lancaster aircraft. However re-equipment soon took place with the new PR version of the Canberra. The first unit to receive the Canberra was 540 Sqn.
In June 1953 the New Zealand Air Race Flight was formed. The aim was to compete in the London – New Zealand Air Race. Not only did Wyton compete, it also won flying from London Heathrow to Christchurch, New Zealand in 23 hours 51 minutes.
In 1955 the Valiants of 543 (PR) Sqn arrived on the station. This Sqn had a secondary role as the Valiant Display Squadron and took part in many displays and flypasts throughout the world.
Also in 1955, the Freedom of Huntingdon was granted to the station. The occasion, on 7 September, coincided with the 750th anniversary of the granting of the charter to the town and was marked by a ceremony in the Market Square, a church service, parade and flypast,
In January 1965, the Valiants were withdrawn from service and replaced in May by Victors. Tragically, Victor XM716 crashed into Warboys during a press day in June 1966, killing all the crew.
In February 1969, 26 Sqn arrived with Basset and Devon aircraft. Later in the year 543 Sqn took part in the Daily Mail Transatlantic Air Race and in October a 58 Sqn Aircraft opened the Blackpool Illuminations by flying along the beach at low level dropping photoflashes synchronously timed with the light switches. Also in the same year the Joint School of Photographic Interpretation arrived at Wyton.
The seventies were a time of change for Wyton. In 1971 the first Nimrod aircraft arrived. April 1975 saw the departure of the last Victor aircraft. In 1977 tragedy struck again when a Canberra crashed into the Oxmoor Estate in Huntingdon killing the crew and 3 civilians. Throughout the decade Canberra Units came and went.
In April 1981, Flt Lt Joe Kmieczik retired as the last Spitfire pilot serving in the RAF. He had arrived via Russia from his native Poland in 1942 and had served continuously from that year. Throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s Wyton Canberra’s participated in many overseas detachments and operations. The Canberra fleet finally retired from Wyton in 1995.
In April 1994 Wyton ceased to be an independent unit and it was merged with Brampton and came under the auspices of Headquarters Logistics Command. In October 1999, when HQLC disbanded and the Defence Logistic Organisation was created Brampton/Wyton came under the control of Headquarters Personnel & Training Command.
The station is once again in the flying role, supporting Grob Tutors from University of Cambridge Air Squadron, University of London Air Squadron and No 5 Air Experience Flight. This was another first for Wyton as it became the first station to operate the new Tutor aircraft – and it marked a return to the flying training role which is how the story began.
Adrian Whitwell (1/6/04)