The History of Cranfield Airfield

by Bernice Maynard

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A Short History of Cranfield Airfield

The First Ten Years - by Bernice Maynard

The new aerodrome at Cranfield was intended to strengthen the lines of air defence in the Eastern Counties and to provide a link in the chain of aerodromes from the Wash to the lower Thames. Undertaking construction of an elaborate airfield in the 1930's was a tremendous task. Even acquiring the ground for landing areas was complicated as the best agricultural land was also the best for smooth flat airfield use. The Air Ministry's negotiations for the purchase of about 400 acres of land were almost complete by March 1935 - the Ministry making arrangements to take possession of most of the land on 24th June of that year. Work began in August 1935 and it took just under two years for it to be completed. Cranfield Aerodrome was opened 1 June 1937 under the control of No 1 Bomber Group. The first aeroplanes to arrive were the Hinds of 108 Squadron from Farnborough, soon to be followed by further Hinds of 82 and 62 Squadrons. Cranfield's operational contingent of three dozen Hinds was then complete. By the time of the Munich crisis in September 1938 No 108 had moved to Bassingbourn and the Hinds of the other two squadrons had been replaced by Blenheim 1's. Following the Munich Crisis, training became more realistic, fuel consumption trials took place as did training flights over France. In August 1939 No 62 Squadron were sent to the Far East and Singapore and No 82 moved to Watton.

Nos 35 and 207 Squadrons then arrived from Cottesmore, in Fairey Battles, to take their place. Both these Squadrons provided replacement pilots and observer/gunners for Nos 15 and 40 squadrons in France. Thirty men trained each six week period. These squadrons departed in late 1939 leaving Servicing Flight only. Three hardened runways were then being built to replace the original grass ones and it was only possible for aircraft to take off at Cranfield. Slow progress in the runway construction forced Servicing Flight to move to Upwood in February 1940. Once the runways were completed, a change overtook Cranfield. Forced out of Kinloss, the Airspeed Oxford Trainers of No 14 Service Flying Training School (SFTS) moved in. The Oxford Trainers were later joined by Havards and in June 1940 30 Miles Master aircraft were delivered to replace Havards. No. 14 SFTS stayed at Cranfield until moving to Lyneham early in August 1941, and were replaced by a new unit.

No 51 Operational Training Unit (OTU) opened on August 25 1941 offering night fighter crews courses mainly on Blenheims. This assumed major importance and Cranfield acquired a satellite at Twinwood. August 1942 saw the first of the Beaufighters for 51 OTU arrive. March 1943, Nos 181 and 183 squadrons stayed here and snarling Sabres shattered the air during Exercise Spartan. During March/April 1943, Seven Wellington X1s arrived to train 100 Group Mosquito crews. No 3501 Servicing Unit was set up to handle overhauls of fighters. There were plenty of pilots available for flight testing, because No 3501 Pilot Replacement Unit was also here until September 1944 when it was moved to Middle Wallop. In May/June 1943 Americans came to learn to operate A1 MKV111 American marked Beaufighters. No 51 OTU were still here with equipment at that time listed as:- 78 Beaufighter 1Fs (A1 Mk 1V), 4 Beaufighter VIFs, 4 Beaufighter 1Fs without A1, 10 Blenheim Vs (dual control), 6 Beauforts, 3 Blenheim 1s, 1 Blenheim 1V, 3 Lysanders, 5 Martinets, 4 Magisters and 1 Dominie. In July 1944 Mosquito 11's started to supplement 51 OTUs Beaufighters until in February 1945 the last Beaufighter was withdrawn. No 51 OTU disbanded June 14 1945 and during the last week of June, the remaining Mosquitoes, Beaufighters and Beauforts were flown away. Canadian and Australian airmen who were here were also starting for home. By the end of August 1945 all of Cranfield's aircraft had gone.

Several airmen stationed at Cranfield lost their lives in the war and some of these lie in Cranfield Churchyard. The first airman to be buried was P/O David Shine age 19 of No 62 Squadron. His home was Tipperary, Ireland. His Blenheim bomber crashed on 22 March 1939 near Kettering, Northamptonshire, 6 months before the war even began. This was the first military funeral to take place in Cranfield. Another grave at Cranfield is that of Sgt. Stanley John Newcombe of No 14 SFTS. He was buried 12 August 1940. This was the pilot of Master N7717 which crashed during night flying, a few days earlier. For trying to save the life of Sgt. Newcombe and two other members of the crew by dashing into their blazing aircraft A/C Vivian Hollowday was awarded the George Cross. A/C Hollowday had only just been released from hospital having one month earlier dashed into another blazing aircraft on the airfield boundary in an unsuccessful attempt to rescue the pilot of that aeroplane. He survived his near fatal burns and was awarded the George Cross for his bravery - the first member of the RAF to receive this honour. The Empire Test Pilots School (ETPS) moved to Cranfield from Boscombe Down in November 1945. Group Captain H J Wilson (Commandant ETPS) broke the World speed Record, in his Meteor 1V at Herne Bay 7 November 1945, reaching an average speed of 606 mph. He arrived at Cranfield a week later where he was given a Welcome Party in the Officer's Mess. The following day Geoffrey de Havilland flew into Cranfield and had lunch in the Officer's Mess. A month earlier de Havilland had made an unscheduled stop here due to his Vampire running short of fuel. The first ETPS course opened at Cranfield 2 January 1946 using Lancasters, Mosquito V1s, Boston 111s, Meteor 111s, Spitfire 1Xs, Tempest 11s and Vs, Oxfords, Harvards, a Dominie, a Swordfish and a Tiger Moth. Post-war needs for test pilots in Britain and many other parts of the world were met by ETPS graduates. Cranfield's future was assured in 1946 when the College of Aeronautics, a government sponsored institution, was founded. Some of the college's original equipment came from German research establishments. In August 1947 the Empire Test Pilots School moved to Farnborough, but the College of Aeronautics remained now forming part of Cranfield University.

Sources of Information

Bernice Maynard

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