RAF Oakington

Summer 1939–October 1940: Construction and arrival of 218 Squadron

Oakington was one of a number of new airfields commissioned by the government in the late 1930s in the build-up to the Second World War as conflict with Germany became an increasingly likely possibility. Oakington may have been chosen as a site for a new airfield because it was close to the Cambridge to St Ives railway, and the station and sidings at Oakington would make supplying the airfield easier. Construction began in the summer of 1939 in the area of land between Oakington and Longstanton. The village mill, originally wind powered but later run by a petrol/diesel engine, was near the edge of the new airfield and was demolished to prevent aircraft crashing into it. RAF Oakington became operational on 1st July 1940, and saw the arrival of 218 Squadron by the middle of the month, although construction was far from finished at that point.

Oakington windmill

218 Squadron, the first to fly from RAF Oakington, had first been formed on 24th April 1918 as a light bombing force and took part in operations in France from May 1918 until the end of the First World War. The squadron was disbanded on 24th June 1919, as with the end of the First World War Britain no longer needed a large air force. However, by 1936 with the threat of war again growing, 218 squadron was reformed as a light bomber force. Initially they were equipped with Hawker Hart biplanes, but in 1938 were re-equipped with the Fairey Battle, a more modern single engine light bomber monoplane with a crew of three. In August 1939, 218 squadron was mobilised as part of the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF, part of RAF 1 Group) and flew to Auberieve, France from their previous base on Boscombe Down on 2nd September 1939, the day of Hitler’s invasion of Poland the day before Britain’s declaration of war on Germany. 218 squadron at this time consisted of 16 Fairey Battle aircraft and their associated air and ground crews, under the command of Wing Commander Lewin Duggan who was a veteran of the First World War.

Fairey Battle aircraft of 218 Squadron over northern France. © IWM C 2116

In the remainder of 1939 and the early months of 1940 there was little confrontation with the Germans, and 218 Squadron were mainly engaged in training exercises and reconnaissance flights. However, this changed dramatically in May 1940 when Germany invaded France. 218 Squadron, along with other Fairey Battle equipped squadrons, was deployed on low level bombing missions to slow the advance of the German army.  Unfortunately, the lightly armed and underpowered Fairey Battle was no match for the German aircraft, and the Advanced Air Striking Force was all but annihilated. The International Bomber Command Centre (IBCC) database shows that between 10th May and 14th May 1940 218 Squadron lost 15 aircrew and had nine aircraft either severely damaged or lost completely. A further 13 men were captured and became prisoners of war. By comparison, only seven aircrew and three aircraft had been lost in the entire previous eight months that 218 Squadron had been in France. By the end of May, 218 Squadron had no serviceable aircraft, and the surviving crew were evacuated as part of the Dunkirk operation. They regrouped at RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, where they became part of RAF 2 Group and retrained on the Bristol Blenheim aircraft. This was a twin engine, slightly faster aircraft. More importantly, it was better armed to protect itself and had better armour around the cockpit and fuel tanks.

On 10th July Wing Commander Duggan, who had led 218 Squadron during their campaign in France, was posted to the new RAF station at Oakington as temporary station commander. 218 Squadron, now under the command of Wing Commander Andrew Combe, followed on 14th July. By 18th July 1940 the move was complete and 218 Squadron was installed at RAF Oakington with a force of 19 Blenheim planes. After a few more days of training, the squadron was declared operational and flew its first operation from Oakington on 19th July. Their mission was to carry out low level bombing raids against German troops and barges amassing on the French coast ready to invade Britain.

Bristol Blenheim similar to those used by 218 Squadron while at Oakington. © IWM MH 42

July – November 1940

Between mid-July and the end of October 1940, 218 Squadron carried out some 124 sorties under the command of Wing Commander Combe, at the cost of the lives of 12 aircrew. Their efforts, together with those of the other squadrons of Bomber Command, is an often-overlooked part of the Battle of Britain, frequently being overshadowed by the battle for air superiority over Britain between the German Luftwaffe and the RAF Fighter Command which operated fighter planes such as Hurricanes and Spitfires from stations that included nearby RAF Duxford and Fowlmere. Nevertheless, the raids by Bomber Command may have been a factor, alongside the failure of the German Luftwaffe to destroy the RAF, in the Germans’ decision to postpone and eventually cancel their plans for invading Britain.

Oakington was not bombed during this period, although a German Junkers JU-88 bomber was forced to crash land here on 19th September 1940. The bomber had suffered engine failure after being attacked by Hawker Hurricanes from 17 Squadron operating out of RAF Tangmere (West Sussex). This was the first complete JU-88 that the British had obtained, and was quickly taken away for technical examination. The four crew members were uninjured, and were taken prisoner.

Conditions at Oakington during the period July to October 1940 were very primitive, due to construction work being incomplete. The station’s ‘hospital’, for example, consisted initially of three tents with no floorboards, and only moved into more suitable quarters at the end of October 1940. The station’s headquarters were housed in timber huts, and the men were initially accommodated in tents until they were able to move to barrack blocks at the end of September 1940. Later, additional housing was constructed around Longstanton St Michael and Longstanton All Saints between 1942 and the end of 1944. These included airmen’s living sites along Woodside and Wilson’s Road, a Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) living site on Longstanton High Street, a gym and dance hall on Rampton Road, and a sewage disposal works to the south of Longstanton High Street. These mainly consisted of prefabricated huts that served as accommodation blocks, with communal areas built of temporary brick. Most of these sites were redeveloped as married aircrew’s and married officers’ quarters after the war; prior to that no married quarters were available.

The operational, intelligence and signal staff were initially based in a wooden hut in the same field as the station headquarters, with lack of space meaning that the operations room was also used for a wide range of other purposes besides operational control, including briefing and crew interrogation. Meanwhile, the photographic section worked from a mobile trailer until October 1940.

The runways were initially simple grass strips, which were only replaced by concrete runways in 1941–42. The original plan for the airfield included four aircraft sheds, but initially only two were built. This was because during the first part of the second world war aircraft were forbidden from being stored indoors and instead had to be scattered around the airfield. Two sheds were therefore deemed to be sufficient. The rule was relaxed in late 1942, after which two additional hangers were installed.

Oakington was designated a Class IIa airfield under the Taylor Report of September 1940, meaning that it was considered liable to intensive attack from the air and by parachutists in the event of a German invasion. It was also an airfield chosen to be used for counter attacks against enemy forces should Britain be invaded. In the event of an invasion, all RAF training aircraft were to proceed to certain airfields, one of which was Oakington, in order to attack the invading forces alongside the squadrons normally resident at those airfields. As a Class IIa airfield, Oakington was equipped with airfield defences that included a number of pillboxes from where any German parachutists attempting to capture the airfield could be engaged. Initially 33 members of Cambridge University Officer Training Corps, armed with rifles and two machine guns and barracked in Inholmes Farmhouse on the north side of the site, made up the defence unit for the airfield. They were replaced by 155 men from the 6th Royal Sussex Regiment on 13 July 1940.

Type 22 pillbox in Station Road, Oakington

October–November 1940: Arrival of 7 Squadron

7 Squadron had been first formed in 1914, and like 218 Squadron had played a role in the First World War. It was disbanded in 1919, but reformed at RAF Bircham Newton (Norfolk) in 1923. Moving to RAF Worthy Down (Hampshire) in 1927 and then RAF Finningley (later Doncaster and Sheffield Airport) in 1936, 7 Squadron built up a reputation between the wars as a leading RAF heavy bomber squadron. It became a training unit in June 1939, and in April 1940 merged with 76 Squadron to form Operational Training Unit 16, based at RAF Upper Heyford (Oxfordshire).

7 Squadron reformed in August 1940 at RAF Leeming (North Yorkshire) with the new Short Stirling heavy bomber. The Short Stirling was the first four-engine heavy bomber to enter service, and was able to carry many more bombs than any RAF aircraft used previously. 7 Squadron was the first unit to receive the new planes, the first of which was delivered in August 1940. Oakington was selected to become a Stirling heavy bomber base, and 7 Squadron was transferred here at the end of October 1940. 142 airmen, 6 officers, and two Stirling aircraft arrived on 29th October, followed by another Stirling on 30th October and a further 72 airmen and 5 officers on 1st November. More Stirlings followed. 7 Squadron spent the next four months getting to know the new aircraft, and it would not be until February 1941 that the Stirlings would be dispatched on their first bombing raid.

November 1940: Departure of 218 Squadron

The arrival of 7 Squadron coincided with the departure of 218 Squadron, who were informed on 2 November 1940 that they would be transferred to 3 Group and would re-equip with twenty Wellington heavy bombers in place of their twenty Bristol Blenheims. The first ten Wellingtons had arrived by 15 November 1940, and the unit was ordered to move to RAF Marham in Norfolk. After their short but important association with Oakington during the Battle of Britain, 218 Squadron continued to serve the country at Marham where they remained until 1942, first with the Wellington bomber and after December 1941 with the Short Stirling, carrying out bombing raids across occupied Europe. 218 Squadron moved to RAF Downham Market (Norfolk) in July 1942 and then to RAF Woolfox Lodge (Rutland) in March 1944. The squadron played a key role in Operation Glimmer on 6 June 1944, with six Short Stirlings of 218 Squadron dropping aluminium foil in precisely defined patterns over the English Channel. This was intended to fool the German radar operators into thinking that a large fleet of ships was approaching the region around Calais, and thus deflect attention away from the D-Day landing force that was approaching Normandy. 218 Squadron moved to RAF Methwold (Norfolk) in August 1944 and re-equipped with the Lancaster bomber, and finally moved to RAF Chedburgh (Suffolk) in December 1944 where it operated until being disbanded in August 1945.

November 1940: Formation of No. 3 Photo Reconnaissance Unit (3 PRU)

The task of No. 3 PRU was to photograph targets for bombing in enemy territory both before and after bombing raids. The unit was formed at Oakington on 16th November 1940 under the command of Squadron Leader Patrick Ogilvie and consisted of approximately six camera-equipped Spitfires and two Wellingtons. Its first mission, to assess bomb damage to Cologne, was carried out on 29November 1940, and was followed by almost daily sorties from this date.

November 1940–July 1941

With the departure of 218 Squadron and with 7 Squadron engaged in training and in testing the new Short Stirling aircraft, most of the sorties between November 1940 and February 1941 were flown by the Spitfires of No. 3 Photo Reconnaissance Unit (No. 3 PRU). The unit was successful in obtaining good quality images, some of which were inspected by King George VI and his queen when they visited RAF Oakington on 16January 1941. The King and Queen subsequently visited one of the airfield’s hangers to inspect a Stirling, before tea was served in the officers’ mess.

Uncomfortably for Bomber Command, the photographs taken by No. 3 PRU revealed that the accuracy of bombing was even lower than had previously been suspected. Indeed, the photographic evidence collected suggested that only about 14% of planes across Bomber Command were in the vicinity of their target when they released their bombs. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, on learning of the results, wrote “The air photographs showed how little damage was being done. It also appeared that the crews knew this, and were discouraged by the poor results of so much hazard. Unless we could improve on this there did not seem much use in continuing night bombing.” The findings of No. 3 PRU triggered the development of improved navigation and bombing techniques that would ultimately lead to improvements in accuracy.

Meanwhile, a more immediate problem at RAF Oakington was the condition of its grass runways, as the grass surface was being badly damaged by the heavy Stirlings of 7 Squadron and the Wellingtons of 3 PRU and 218 Squadron (before their departure to Marham). The winter weather did not help, and the muddy field quickly became churned up by the enormous wheels of the towering Stirlings, leading to a number of landing and take-off accidents and damage to the aircrafts’ undercarriages. 7 Squadron began to make use of RAF Marham (Norfolk) for their training flights in order to prevent further deterioration of the landing ground, but by the middle of January 1941 the surface was often too poor even for the comparatively light Spitfires of 3 PRU which frequently used nearby RAF Alconbury.

7 Squadron flew their first offensive mission on the night of 10February 1941, when three Stirlings bombed enemy oil storage tanks near Rotterdam. Raids on Boulogne and Brest followed on 15 and 24 February. The night of 24 February also saw Oakington suffer an attack by a single enemy aircraft, which bombed the airfield at 11 pm. Two large craters, some  9 m across and 2.5 m deep, were discovered the next morning, but no other damage was recorded.

Bombing and reconnaissance raids continued to be hampered by the poor condition of Oakington’s grass runways, with the result that the Stirlings of 7 Squadron often flew from Newmarket instead throughout March and April. 7 Squadron even based a detachment there between 27 March and 27 April 1941. Meanwhile, the Spitfires of No. 3 PRU often used Alconbury, and it was from there that Squadron Leader Ogilvie flew his famous mission to Berlin on 14 March 1941. He became the first RAF pilot to fly over the German capital in daylight, and after collecting 95 images succeeded in making it back to Alconbury, landing with only 20 gallons of fuel left in his Spitfire’s tank. Ogilvie received the Distinguished Service Order for this mission, which is also commemorated on the village sign of nearby Little Stukeley.

Operations continued throughout May, June and July 1941, with the Stirlings of 7 Squadron bombing Germany industry in cities including Berlin and Hamburg. They also took part in attacks on enemy warships including on the Scharnhorst at Brest on 18 June and at La Pallice on 23 July, as well as on German shipping convoys. Oakington’s muddy grass field remained a problem, however. A short paved ‘accelerator strip’ at the start of the runway was constructed in June, but had only a limited effect, serving only to make the mud even worse at the point where the track ended and the grass began. The airfield was also the target of further enemy bombing, with bombs being dropped by a single aircraft on 16 June (no damage recorded) and on the night of 22/23 July in which one airman was killed and a Stirling was damaged.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill inspects a Stirling of 7 Squadron during a review of British and American bombers at RAF Northolt, 6 June 1941. © IWM CH 17535
Churchill watches a Stirling of 7 Squadron taking off, 6 June 1941. © IWM H 10314

July 1941: Arrival of 101 Squadron and departure of 3 PRU

101 Squadron arrived in early July 1941, transferring from their previous base at RAF West Raynham (Norfolk). They flew the Wellington bomber. Their first operation from Oakington was on 9 July 1941, when 7 Wellingtons targeted Osnabrück (north-west Germany).

Meanwhile, in July 1941 the RAF decided to concentrate all photo reconnaissance units into a single force based at RAF Benson (Oxfordshire). No. 3 PRU left Oakington for Benson on 30 July 1941.

July 1941 – December 1941

Bombing by both the Stirlings of 7 Squadron and the Wellingtons of 101 Squadron continued over the summer. The two squadrons often operated independently with different targets, although on some occasions they flew together. They also typically joined larger groups made up of aircraft from different bases and squadrons. For example, a night attack on Cologne on 20 July included 3 Stirlings from 7 Squadron, 8 Wellingtons from 101 Squadron, and 102 aircraft from other bases (including 38 other Wellingtons but no other Stirlings). As well as contributing aircraft to these raids, Oakington often served as a reception site for returning aircraft who needed to land (perhaps due to damage sustained by enemy fire) before they could reach their home bases.

A Short Stirling of 7 Squadron at Oakington © IWM CH 3138

Oakington airfield was bombed again on the night of 2/3 August, but no injury or damage was caused. High explosives were also dropped on farmland near Cottenham on 6 August – a possible success of a dummy airfield (“Q site”) set up there to distract enemy bombers from Oakington. Another such Q site was also set up at Boxworth. An attack on 3 October was more costly, when Squadron Leader Mcleod returned from a bombing raid on Brest to find a German Ju 88 plane waiting for him as he circled to land at Oakington. As a result of the attack his plane caught fire and crashed near Bourn with only two survivors. Meanwhile, the Ju 88 and another enemy aircraft bombed Oakington, leading to a Wellington being damaged.

The success of the operations carried out by 7 Squadron and 101 Squadron was somewhat mixed. Many raids had to be cancelled due to poor weather, for example if it was thought likely that Oakington would be obscured by fog at the time the planes would be returning. It was also common for aircraft to have to abort their missions early due to engine trouble or other faults. Cloud cover over targets, as well as enemy fire, often made things difficult, and planes often attacked alternative targets instead. For example, a raid by seven Stirlings of 7 Squadron on Turin railway station on 10 September 1941 resulted in only three aircraft reporting having bombed the target, while the other four were unable to locate it and bombed the town instead. This included Wing Commander Graham, who reported accidentally dropping his inflatable dingy over the city as well as bombs. The records at Oakington note that “It is hoped that this further inflation will do much to imperil the financial stability of the Axis”.

Nose art on Stirling S-Sugar at Oakington © IWM CH 3138

It was also common for planes to attack other targets by mistake. For example, a Stirling of 7 Squadron detailed to bomb the docks at Le Havre on 22 October actually attacked Honfleur by mistake, and a Wellington of 101 Squadron intended to attack Ostend on 4 November mistakenly attacked Nieuport instead.

Construction of a hard runway at Oakington finally started in September 1941, ultimately ending the problems of the muddy field. The main NE/SW runway was built first, with aircraft taking off from the remainder of the airfield during its construction. Two shorter N/S and E/W runways were also constructed, although they were not completed until around June 1942.

1941-42 also saw the construction of satellite airfield at Bourn. This was used by 101 Squadron, who moved across as soon as it was completed to become Bourn’s first resident unit. 101 Squadron operated from Bourn from 11 February 1942, although Bourn airfield did not become fully independent as a station in its own right until June 1943. 7 Squadron continued to operate from Oakington.

January 1942 – August 1942

The first half of 1942 continued in a similar way to 1941, with regular bombing trips by both the Stirlings of 7 Squadron and the Wellingtons of 101 Squadron (operating from Bourn). Industrial sites in Germany and occupied Europe remained the main target, although shipping was also targeted and both squadrons also carried out mine laying. By now heavy bombers were being produced in greater numbers, and both 7 Squadron and 101 Squadron were involved in training new aircrew to use them (the 7 Squadron and 101 Squadron Conversion Flights (CF)). The scale of bombing operations gradually increased, with 7 Squadron flying a total of 109 sorties in April (dropping a total of over 200 tonnes of bombs), approximately double their average number of sorties for the previous few months and thought to be a record for a Stirling unit. In the same month, 101 Squadron flew 122 sorties, dropping approximately 90 tonnes of bombs.

7 Squadron Stirlings ‘bombing up’ for a night raid on Dortmund © IWM CH 5287
Aerial view of the same occasion, showing Stirlings lined up on the perimeter track on the north-east side of the airfield. The Cambridge to St Ives railway line is visible in the top right. © IWM CH 5290

30 May 1942 saw the first ‘Thousand Bomber Raid’ in which a total of 1047 aircraft from across Bomber Command targeted Cologne. Oakington and its satellites contributed 19 Stirlings from 7 Squadron (flying from Oakington) and 12 Wellingtons from 101 Squadron (operating from Bourn). A further 10 Wellingtons from 23 Operational Training Unit (based at Pershore, Worcestershire) used Oakington as a forward base with 5 Wellingtons flying from Oakington and 5 from Bourn. A second thousand bomber raid took place on 1 June with a total of 1012 aircraft (including 77 Stirlings and 545 Wellingtons) attacking Essen. 7 Squadron contributed 18 Stirlings, 101 Squadron 10 Wellingtons, and 23 Operational Training Unit (operating from Oakington) a further 9 Wellingtons.

Things did not always go smoothly, however. It was common for aircraft to fail to return from missions, with the crew either killed or captured. One incident on the night of 15/16 August involved Sergeant Orrel running into engine failure while his Stirling was on a mine laying mission over Heligoland. He subsequently crashed near the town of Gorkum in the Netherlands. The crew were captured and sent to the Stalag VIII-B prisoner of war camp. Meanwhile, the Germans took control of the largely intact Stirling, which the crew had not had time to destroy. After carrying out repairs they managed to get the Stirling airborne, and flew it to a nearby airfield on 5 September.

Accidents closer to home were also common. 28 July saw a mid-air collision shortly after take-off between a Stirling of 7 Conversion Flight and a Wellington of 101 Squadron. The tailplane was ripped off the Stirling, but the crew were all able to bail out successfully. This was not the case for the Wellington, which crashed with the loss of all on board.

August 1942: Departure of 101 Squadron and arrival of 15 Squadron

101 Squadron moved to RAF Stradishall (Suffolk) in August 1942, with the move being complete by 13 August. They had carried out 60 operations involving 641 sorties while at Bourn. This was achieved at the cost of the lives of at least 81 airmen, with at least a further 55 having been lost while the squadron was at Oakington. 101 Squadron continued to serve the country after leaving Oakington, both for the remainder of the war and after it. The squadron is currently based at RAF Brize Norton (Oxfordshire).

101 Squadron were replaced at Bourn by 15 Squadron, who moved in from RAF Wyton immediately after 101 Squadron’s departure. Equipped with Stirlings, they flew their first operation from Bourn on 15 August when 7 Stirlings from 15 Squadron targeted Düsseldorf alongside 8 Stirlings from 7 Squadron and 115 aircraft from other bases. Like 218 Squadron, 15 Squadron had been involved in the Battle of France flying Fairey Battles in the Advanced Air Striking Force, and had re-equipped with the Bristol Blenheim on return to England. They subsequently converted to the Wellington, before becoming only the second squadron (after 7 Squadron) to fly the Short Stirling with which they re-equipped in April 1941. 

August 1942: Formation of the Pathfinder Force

As had been previously highlighted by No. 3 Photo Reconnaissance Unit when they were based at Oakington, the accuracy of bombing across Bomber Command as a whole was poor. Subsequent investigations confirmed this, with the Butt Report of August 1941 concluding that only about 5% of bombers setting out dropped their bombs within 5 miles of their target, with about half of all bombs dropped falling harmlessly in open country. A major problem with the lack of accurate navigational equipment, leaving the bomber crews to guess (based on forecasted wind speeds) when they were over their target. This was particularly difficult when cloud cover prevented visual observations.

By 1942 improved navigation equipment had begun to become available. These included the ‘GEE’ system, in which radio signals transmitted from stations in the UK were picked up by aircraft and used to pinpoint the aircraft’s position in a way similar to modern GPS. The Oboe system also used signals transmitted from ground stations, while the H2S system involved use of radar on the aircraft to build up a picture of the ground below. Unfortunately, only limited equipment was available in 1942, so the decision was taken to concentrate available apparatus in a specialised elite unit which would locate and then mark the target with pyrotechnics for the main bombing force. This Pathfinder Force was formed in August 1942 with five squadrons:

  • 7 Squadron (Stirling heavy bombers), based at RAF Oakington.
  • 35 Squadron (Halifax heavy bombers), based at RAF Graveley. 35 Squadron were the first unit to fly the Halifax bomber and were based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse (Yorkshire) before moving to Graveley to join the Pathfinder Force.
  • 83 Squadron (Lancaster heavy bombers), based at RAF Wyton. 83 Squadron were famous for having flown the RAF’s first offensive of the second world war (just 6 hours after the declaration of war) and moved to Wyton to join the Pathfinder Force from RAF Scampton.
  • 109 Squadron (Wellington medium bombers and Mosquito light bombers), based at RAF Wyton. 109 Squadron pioneered the use of the Oboe system and moved to Wyton from RAF Stradishall to join the Pathfinder Force.
  • 156 Squadron (Wellington medium bombers) based at RAF Warboys, having moved from RAF Alconbury to join the Pathfinder Force.

The headquarters of the Pathfinder Force was at RAF Wyton. The force initially comprised aircraft representing the four most widely used bombers at the time (Wellington, Stirling, Halifax and Lancaster) but all units would eventually convert to Lancasters and Mosquitos as these were found to be the most suitable.

August 1942 – January 1943

The Pathfinder Force’s first operation was on 18 August 1942, targeting Flensburg (north Germany). A total of 118 aircraft took part, with the Pathfinder Force comprising 31 Stirlings, Halifaxes, Lancasters and Wellingtons from 7, 35, 83 and 156 Squadrons. They flew ahead of the main force to mark the target area. 7 Squadron contributed 7 Stirlings to the Pathfinder Force, while 15 Squadron (operating from Bourn) contributed 6 Stirlings to the main attack. Two of 7 Squadron’s Stirlings had to abort, but the remaining five reached the target and claimed to have marked it, along with 11 other Pathfinder crews. 78 crews from the main force, including all six from 15 Squadron, claimed to have bombed the target. However, subsequent reports from the area indicated that Flensburg had not been hit at all, and instead a large area of Denmark up to 25 miles north of Flensburg had received bombing.

The second operation, against Frankfurt on 24 August, was also disappointing. Cloud cover made it difficult to locate the target, and subsequent reports indicated that although some bombs did hit the city most fell in open country to the north and west. 14 Stirlings from 7 Squadron were planned to take part, but three were withdrawn due to the possibility of poor visibility. Of the 11 that took off, two returned early with engine trouble while 6 reached the target and claimed to have marked it. One was intercepted by enemy aircraft and crash landed at Abingdon, with the crew surviving. The remaining two Stirlings failed to return; this included the plane of 7 Squadron’s commanding officer Wing Commander Sherwell. Meanwhile, 9 Stirlings of 15 Squadron attacked the target area as part of the main force. One returned early with engine trouble, while another was attacked by an enemy fighter plane but managed to shake off the attacker and make a successful return to Oakington.

Subsequent operations, including on Kassel and Nuremberg at the end of August 1942, were more successful, and as time went on the Pathfinder Force was able to practice and refine its tactics. Illuminators were aircraft that arrived at the target area first and dropped flares to assist the Primary Visual Markers, who were the next aircraft to arrive. These were flown by very experienced crew, who would fly over the target area and identify the precise location of the target, which they would mark with ‘target indicators’. These were pyrotechnic devices of varying types and colours including red, green, yellow and white. Some carried delay fuses and others were designed to produce flashes or to alternate colours. Different types and colours could be used on different occasions, in order to make it more difficult for the Germans to replicate the markers and set up false trails. The target indicators would typically burn for a few minutes each.

Once the Primary Visual Markers had marked the target, a second wave of slightly less experienced markers (the ‘Visual Centerers’ or ‘Backers Up’) would arrive and drop their target indicators on the sites indicated by the Primary Markers. Their aim was to keep the target permanently illuminated. Meanwhile, ‘Recenterers’ had a similar role but had the objective of preventing the centre of the bombing from ‘drifting’ due to successive planes dropping their bombs slightly before where the previous plane had dropped theirs.

Other Pathfinder roles included ‘Route Markers’ who would drop indicators along the route to the target in order to help prevent the main bombing force getting lost on their way, and ‘Windowers’ who dropped thin metallised paper strips designed to confuse the enemy radar. The rest of the Pathfinder force were termed ‘Supporters’. They consisted mainly of less experienced crews who would arrive early at the target (along with the Illuminators) and drop conventional bombs in order to create fires that would burn longer than the markers and to dissuade defenders from putting out the markers.

Further improvements included the introduction of the new radar H2S navigation system, which 7 Squadron began training to use from October 1942. After extensive trials, this was used for the first time in a raid on Hamburg on 30 January 1943. A number of H2S-equipped Halifaxes from 35 Squadron at Graveley also took part. The H­2S system used radar mounted on the aircraft to build up a picture of the ground beneath, which enabled targets to be precisely pinpointed even if obscured by cloud.

January 1943 – April 1943

By January 1943 the Pathfinder Force had proved its worth in increasing the accuracy of bombing, and was expanded to become the new 8 Group in January. Two further squadrons were added in April: No 405 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Squadron who flew Halifax bombers from RAF Gransden Lodge (which became Oakington’s second satellite airfield alongside Bourn), and No 97 Squadron, who flew Lancasters from Bourn. (97 Squadron had previously been one of the first two squadrons to fly the Lancaster bomber, while they were based at RAF Waddington in early 1942). Meanwhile, 15 Squadron who had previously been at Bourn re-equipped with Lancasters and moved to RAF Mildenhall on 14 April 1943 where they would remain until the end of the war.

The first mission of 405 and 97 Squadrons as part of the Pathfinder Force was on 25 April, when 7 Squadron (6 Stirlings), 97 Squadron (8 Lancasters) and 405 Squadron (11 Halifaxes) targeted Duisburg. Visibility over the target was excellent and the Pathfinder Force successfully marked the target. A total of 561 aircraft took part in this raid.

Oakington were also successful on the football pitch, winning the RAF (Cambridge) football cup on 21 April.

April 1943 – Formation of 1409 Meteorological Flight

1409 Flight, a part of the Pathfinder Force, was formed at Oakington on 1 April 1943 to act as Bomber Command’s own meteorological unit. Seven Mosquitos arrived on 1 April, and the unit flew its first mission on 2 April, with one Mosquito recording the weather at Lorient. It soon became common practice on bombing raids to send the Mosquitos of 1409 Flight to the target area ahead of the main force so that they could radio back up to date information on the weather conditions.

April – November 1943

7 Squadron’s Stirlings continued their missions as part of the Pathfinder Force, marking targets including Nuremberg, Berlin, Stettin and Frankfurt. Unfortunately, the Stirling was not able to fly high enough or fast enough to escape anti-aircraft fire, and this led to an increasing number of planes being lost. A total of 7 aircraft failed to return in April 1943, out of a total of 84 sorties. This included one from a raid on Duisburg on 8 April, two from a raid on Frankfurt on 10 April, three from a raid on Stuttgart on 14 April, and one each from raids on Stettin (20 April) and Bocholt (30 April). June was also a costly month, with at least nine crews missing including four from a raid on Krefeld (21 June) and three from a raid on Elberfeld 24 June).

Help arrived in the form of the Lancaster. Although shorter and not as high as the Stirling, it had a slightly larger wingspan and could fly higher. It also had a greater range and could carry larger bombs, and was to become one of the most famous and successful RAF bombers of the second world war. Over 7000 Lancasters were built, compared to only just over 2000 Stirlings, and by late 1943 the Stirling had largely been replaced as a front-line bomber by the Halifax and the Lancaster. 7 Squadron’s first Lancasters arrived at Oakington on 11 May, but complete conversion to the Lancaster took some time. 7 Squadron used Lancasters for the first time on 19 June, when two Lancasters and 20 Stirlings of 7 Squadron targeted Le Creusot and Montchanin. Stirlings continued to fly from Oakington alongside Lancasters until August 1943, but by the end of that month 7 Squadron was fully operational on the Lancaster.

7 Squadron were also briefly joined at Oakington at the end of August by 97 Squadron ‘C’ flight, who temporarily relocated from Bourn to allow urgent repairs to the runway there. (‘A’ and ‘B’ flights were relocated to Gransden Lodge and Gravely respectively). Both squadrons operated out of Oakington on the night of 31 August, contributing 18 Lancasters (7 Squadron) and 9 Lancasters (97 Squadron) to a raid on Berlin.

Meanwhile, the Pathfinder Force (8 Group) moved its headquarters from RAF Wyton to Huntingdon in June 1943 and continued to grow, adding 105 and 139 Squadrons in the same month as the move. These had been the first two Squadrons to fly the Mosquito, and were based at RAF Marham, although 139 Squadron moved to Wyton in July 1943. 8 Group would continue to grow throughout the rest of 1943 and 1944, eventually reaching a total of 19 squadrons. Tactics were also refined, including the introduction of the Master Bomber role in June 1943. The Master Bomber role would be carried out by a very experienced crew who would frequently fly low over the target area to assess the situation, and communicate instructions to the rest of the bomber force by radio. They would also carry out re-marking as necessary. A further role was the ‘Long Stop’. Originally carried out by the Master Bomber, this involved dropping yellow markers in a line to indicate a boundary, or on top of bad markers to cancel them.

The first large raid to be led by a Master Bomber was on 17 August 1943, targeting German rocket research at Peenemünde. A total of 596 aircraft took part in what became a successful raid. This included 17 crews of 7 Squadron, all flying their new Lancasters equipped with the H2S radar system. One of these crews performed the Primary Visual Marker role (the most elite role of the Pathfinder Force), two acted as Recenterers, four as Illuminators and four as Backers-up. A further five were Supporters, dropping conventional bombs.

Meanwhile, 1409 Meterological Flight continued operations, with one sortie on 29 September 1943 being flown by Air Commodore Don Bennett, commander of the Pathfinder Force and of 8 Group from its formation until the end of the war, and the youngest Air Vice-Marshal of the RAF.

November 1943 – Formation of 627 Squadron

8 Group wanted to increase its use of the fast and manoeuvrable Mosquito light bomber for precision raids, and on 12 November 1943 formed 627 Squadron at Oakington using a nucleus of crew and aircraft from Wyton’s 139 Squadron. Their first operation from Oakington was to join an attack on Berlin on 24 November, where they flew alongside 139 Squadron to drop ‘Window’ (strips of metallised paper) to confuse enemy fighter planes and draw them away from the target area.

January 1944 – Departure of 1409 (Meteorological) Flight

1409 Flight left Oakington on 8 January 1944 to RAF Wyton, in order to be nearer to nearer to 8 Group’s headquarters.

A Mosquito of 1409 Flight and crew at RAF Wyton, January 1945. © IWM CH 14466.
The same Mosquito in flight, November 1944. © IWM CH 14467

January – March 1944

1944 opened with a series of attacks on Berlin, in which both 7 and 627 Squadrons took part. The scale of operations continued to increase throughout the year. On 30 March 1944 both squadrons took part in the “Nuremberg Raid”, which was to prove Bomber Command’s most costly raid of the war with 95 aircraft (11.9% of the force) failing to return. Cloud cover also contributed to inaccurate marking and only moderate damage was caused. 7 Squadron despatched 21 Lancasters to take part, of which two returned early, sixteen attacked the target, and two failed to return. A further Lancaster was also lost when it crash-landed on the way home. 627 Squadron detailed 11 Mosquitos; one cancelled but the other 10 successfully attacked either the primary or secondary targets and returned home safely. The following day, 7 Squadron was reduced to 2 flight status to make room for more Mosquitos, with its ‘C’ flight being sent to Little Staughton to form a nucleus of the new 528 Squadron.

April 1944 – Departure of 627 Squadron

As a result of internal politics in Bomber Command, 5 Group was given permission to form its own pathfinder force, and 627 Squadron was selected to join it. 627 Squadron therefore moved to RAF Woodhall Spa (Lincolnshire) on 15 April, where it joined the famous 617 ‘Dambuster’ Squadron. 97 and 83 Squadron also moved from 8 Group to 5 Group at this time, with 97 Squadron moving from Bourn to Coningsby.

April 1944 – Arrival of 571 Squadron

571 Squadron were a Mosquito unit formed at Downham Market on 7 April 1944. They moved to Oakington two weeks later to replace 627 Squadron, having spent some time ‘working-up’ with 692 Squadron at Graveley. Their first operation from Oakington was on 24 April, when three Mosquitos of 571 Squadron targeted Düsseldorf in a small diversionary attack. (The main bomber force, including 12 Lancasters from 7 Squadron, attacked the important transportation centre of Karlsruhr). One Mosquito returned early, but the other two successfully bombed the target, each dropping a 1.8 tonne ‘cookie’ bomb. 571 Squadron quickly became part of the Pathfinder Force’s Light Night Striking Force (LNSF), which utilised the fast and long-range Mosquito bombers to harass the Germans.

April 1944 – June 1945

As part of preparation for the D-Day Normandy landings, Bomber Command devoted a significant amount of resources to destroying the rail network in France, in order to make it harder for the Germans to send in reinforcements when the landings were made. 7 Squadron took part in a number of raids, including on Chambly railway depot (14 Lancasters from 7 Squadron on 1 May), Mantes-la-Jolie railway yards (11 Lancasters from 7 Squadron on 6 May), Courtrai railway yards (14 Lancasters on 10 May) and Louvain railway yards on 11 May. They also attacked Nantes/Château Bougon airfield on 7 May. Oakington received an unexpected visit by a German bomber on 28 May, but although some bombs were dropped, they caused very little damage and there were no casualties.

On the days before D-Day, 7 Squadron undertook deception raids on Calais (3 and 4 June 1944) in order to make the Germans think that the landings would occur there. Then, on the night of 5 June, 16 Lancasters from 7 Squadron attacked two large coastal gun batteries near Caen, in one case just two hours before the allied troops landed. In the week that followed, 7 Squadron continued attacks aimed at disabling the rail network to prevent German troops reaching the battle areas. The squadron provided the Master Bomber for several of these attacks, including raids on the Massy-Palaiseau railway centre on 7 June, railway yards near Rennes on 8 June, Dreux railway yards on 10 June, and Amiens railway centre on 12 June.

July 1944 began with a visit to Oakington by Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen) who accompanied her father (King George VI) and mother on a visit to the airfield on 5 July. Shortly afterwards on 7 July, 7 Squadron took part in an operation in support of the British and Canadian 2nd Army in Normandy, when a force of 497 aircraft including 16 Lancasters of 7 Squadron attacked an important concentration of enemy troops and ammunition near Caen that was in front of the Allied forces’ position. A telegraph received from the Army immediately afterwards read “Heavy bomber attack has just taken place – A wonderfully impressive show and was enormously appreciated by the Army. The Army would like their appreciation and thanks conveyed to all crews.” Many similar operations were to follow in the coming months.

Meanwhile, the Mosquitos of 571 Squadron continued to target Germany itself, particularly Berlin, “to prevent the Berliners sitting back, or at least sleeping at night”. They also undertook precision minelaying.

Operations by both 7 Squadron and 571 Squadron continued throughout the rest of 1944 and into 1945. 7 Squadron increasingly attacked transport and other targets in Germany. They also took part in attacks on German jet aircraft factories to prevent Germany from building up a fleet of jet aircraft that could break allied air superiority. 7 Squadron contributed 11 Lancasters to the second wave of the double raid on Dresden on the night of 13th February 1945. These included four Illuminators, three Markers, and four Visual Centerers/Backers-Up. The aim, as communicated to the crews, was to provide support to the Russian offensive by preventing German troops in Dresden from resisting them. However, the bombing was subsequently heavily critisised for the number of civilian casualties and the limited strategic significance.

571 Squadron carried out a particularly spectacular raid on 1 January 1945, when five Mosquitos attacked railway tunnels in the Moselle valley. Flying in low, P/O Tucker dropped his 1.8 tonne ‘cookie’ bomb (with a slightly delayed action to allow the Mosquito time to get out of the way) and then watched as the hillside collapsed onto the train tracks and into the path of an approaching German train. 571 Squadron were also selected to pioneer the use of the new ‘Loran’ navigation equipment (similar to the Gee radio system but with a longer range) which they introduced on raids to Magdeburg and Koblenz on 7 February 1945. The busiest month for 571 Squadron was March 1945, when they flew a total of 276 sorties on 22 days of the month. Of these, 261 were successful, and only one aircraft failed to return.

7 Squadron’s last offensive mission from Oakington was on 25 April 1945, when 10 Lancasters targeted enemy gun batteries on the Frisian Islands. 571 Squadron’s last offensive took place the following day, when 12 Mosquitos targeted Grossenbroder airfield. The start of May saw 7 Squadron back in action, this time as part of Operation Manna to drop emergency food supplies to the Netherlands. 7 Squadron’s Lancasters were involved in marking targets for food dropping in Rotterdam, Valkenburg, and the Hague. 8 May 1945 saw VE Day celebrations after the final surrender of Germany, but 7 Squadron were still at work, this time on Operation Exodus evacuating prisoners of war from Brussels Melsbroek and, in the following days, from Lübeck and Juvincourt. For the remainder of the month both 7 Squadron and 571 Squadron also flew their Lancasters and Mosquitos on ‘Cook’s Tours’ – flights over Germany for ground staff (taken as passengers) to survey the damage that had been done. The Lancasters each carried six passengers, and the Mosquitos one. In June 7 Squadron also began training for operations in the far East, where the war against Japan was still going on. It was planned that 7 Squadron would join air attacks on Japan, but in the event Japan surrendered before the squadron was due to move.

July 1945 – Departure of 571 Squadron and 7 Squadron

571 Squadron left Oakington on 20 July 1945 to RAF Warboys, where the squadron was disbanded on 20 September 1945. 7 Squadron left for Mepal a few days later on 24 July, ending the role of Oakington as a centre for Bomber Command. While at Oakington, 7 Squadron had flown over 5,000 sorties across over 540 operations, at a cost of 981 aircrew who gave their lives in flights from Oakington. 7 Squadron’s losses were the third highest in Bomber Command.

7 Squadron would go on to serve the country in numerous ways, including in recent times in the Gulf (1993), Sierra Leone (2000), Afghanistan (2001–2014) and Iraq (2003–2011). 7 Squadron is currently based at RAF Odiham, and has flown the RAF’s Chinook helicopter since 1982.

The numbers above each bar give the number of men killed in action while flying from Oakington. *Including 485 while flying Stirlings and 489 while flying Lancasters
Oakington pillbox © Dee Prince

August 1945 – November 1950: RAF Transport Command

The five years after the end of the war saw a series of RAF transport squadrons based at Oakington.

206 and 86 Squadrons were the first to arrive, and were based at Oakington between August 1945 and April 1946. Their primary role was to carry troops to and from bases in India, taking out replacement troops and bringing back prisoners of war and military personnel. Both squadrons were disbanded at Oakington on 25 April 1946 after this job had been completed.

242 Squadron arrived on 2 May 1946 and stayed at Oakington until 1 December 1947 when they moved to Abingdon. 242 Squadron were one of Transport Command’s regular transport units, and carried out flights using the Avro York plane mainly to Singapore. The squadron mainly flew out of RAF Lyneham (Wiltshire) but used Oakington for accommodation and maintenance.

27, 30 and 46 Squadrons all arrived at Oakington in November 1947. They flew the Dakota aeroplane, and carried out frequent flights to occupied Germany, carrying mail, freight and personnel. All three squadrons took part in the Berlin Airlift of 1948–49, in which British and American planes carried fuel, food and other supplies to West Berlin after road and rail access to the city had been cut off by the Soviets who occupied East Germany. 46 Squadron was disbanded in February 1950, 27 Squadron left Oakington in June 1950, and 30 Squadron departed at the end of November 1950.

10 Squadron was another Dakota transport squadron. It reformed at Oakington in November 1948, and joined 27, 30 and 46 Squadrons. It carried out operations mainly in Germany, and was disbanded in February 1950 along with 46 Squadron.

24 Squadron arrived from Waterbeach in February 1950, and stayed at Oakington until 27 November 1950 when they transferred to Lyneham. 24 Squadron had served as the RAF’s VIP transport squadron since 1920, carrying senior military personnel. It continued this role for its 9-month stay in Oakington, with its passengers in this period including HRH Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh, Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, and Field Marshall Lord Montgomery. Although 24 Squadron was based at Oakington, it normally collected and delivered its VIP passengers at other airfields such as Northolt and Lyneham. 30 Squadron, who remained at Oakington alongside 24 Squadron in the second half of 1950, also carried out some VIP duties, including carrying embassy staff to Germany and Poland. Many of these flights were to destinations behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, and for these 30 Squadron had to provide precise details of the aircraft to be used weeks in advance. They got around this by specifying plane number KN222 for almost all flights, and painting this number on whichever aircraft was actually used nearer the time.

December 1950 – March 1975: Flying Training School

At the end of 1950 it was decided to concentrate all transport squadrons into a smaller number of bases, with the result that 24 Squadron moved to Lyneham and 30 Squadron to Abingdon at the end of November 1950. Oakington then became a flying training centre. 1 Flying Training School was reformed here on 1 December 1950 with the Harvard aircraft, and offered advanced training and refresher courses to pilots. It moved to Moreton-in-Marsh       in October 1951 so that Oakington could be used for training pilots to fly jet aircraft that were needed for the Korean war.

To fulfil this purpose, 206 Advanced Flying School (206 AFS) was formed at Oakington on 6 November 1951 with the Meteor jet aircraft, and ran courses for pilots who had previously flown piston propellor aircraft and now needed to convert to jet planes. 413 students were accepted in the first two years, of which 347 successfully ‘passed out’. 206 AFS switched to Vampires in December 1953. It was renumbered as 5 Flying Training School on 1 June 1954, and continued to run training courses on the Vampire and later (from 1963) on the Varsity. Up to a few hundred pilots graduated each year. Typically, there were several courses running concurrently with staggered starts, with each lasting around six months. Charles III (then Prince Charles) began pilot training at Oakington in October 1968, and chose to celebrate his 21st birthday here in November 1969. He subsequently undertook jet pilot training at RAF Cranwell and passed out in September 1971, but subsequently pursued a career in the Navy rather than in the RAF.

Not everyone was happy about the flying school though, and the late 1960s saw increasing numbers of complaints from residents of nearby villages (mainly Dry Drayton, Madingley, Girton, Histon, Cottenham and Rampton) about the noise levels from the Varsity aircraft flights. The training circuit for the school passed over or close to these villages, many of which had grown significantly in population in recent years, and pilots often flew low in order to practice flying below cloud.

Control tower of No. 5 Flying Training School at Oakington

By 1972, with the Varsity aeroplane coming to the end of its life, a surplus of pilots in the RAF, and uncertainties over the possible development of Stansted as London’s third airport and consequent increase in nearby air traffic, the decision was taken to close RAF Oakington. The airfield was then gradually run down until its final closure on 10 March 1975, when it was formally handed over to the army. Henceforth the station was known as Oakington Barracks.

March 1975 – May 1999: Oakington Barracks

After the closure of RAF Oakington, the site was used by the army as an infantry battalion barracks. A series of regiments occupied the site between 1975 and 1999. By 1978 the runways had been removed, except for a short section of the main runway left in place for light aircraft, and the material was used as hardcore for the M11 motorway. Army Air Corps 657 Squadron lodged on the site between 1979 and 1992, flying helicopters. Oakington barracks closed in May 1999.

January 2000 – November 2010: Immigration reception centre

The site was acquired by the Home Office in January 2000, and four barrack blocks were converted into a accommodation for asylum seekers while their claims were being processed. The centre could accommodate up to 400 people and process up to 13,000 applications per year when working at full capacity. Applications were aimed to be processed and decided on within seven to ten days, during which time the applicants were not allowed to leave the site which was secured by fencing. The centre closed in November 2010, in preparation for the development of the new town of Northstowe on the site.

Main sources

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Barbara Page says:

    I am the secretary of a women’s group in Bar Hill. Since the conception of Northstowe we have been wondering about the history of the Oakington Barrcks. how it came to be at Oakington and how it ended up becoming the site for a new town. As you are aware Bar Hill was a new village some 50 odd years ago. and it set us thinking about Oakington. I wonder if there is someone in your organisation who would be willing to come and speak at one of our meetings or if there is anyone you can suggest who might be able to help.
    I look forward to hearing from you

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