Carpetbagger Aviation Museum

Harrington, Northamptonshire

 

 

 

 

A History of RAF Tempsford

Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

1936

Everton Heath area is surveyed as a possible site for a new airfield. The landowner objects initially but agrees when hostilities break out

 July 1940

Contractors John Laing and Balfour Beatty commence construction of an airfield to RAF Class A standard on land known as Tempsford Flats, acquired from Leslie Pym.

October 1941

Airfield nearing completion, handed over to No 3 Group RAF, responsible for Special Duty Operations

 

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December 1941

Wellington 1Cs of 110 Operational Training Unit move in to the airfield on a temporary basis, until their home at Bassingbourne is completed

 

January 9th 1942

HQ and Wireless Development Flights of 109 Squadron move in with Wellington IIIs to begin trials with OBOE radio direction finding equipment and other secret radio equipment

 

March 11th 1942

Number 138 Special Duty Squadron (SD) moved into Tempsford together with their Whitley and Lysander aircraft to carry out covert supply and agent delivery operations. Stores and administration follow from Stradishall

 

Whitley of 138 Squadron

 Mid March 1942

Secure communications established with SOE (Special Operations Executive) and SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) intelligence sections in Baker Street, London. Container packing facilities and agent holding centre set up at Gaynes Hall near St Neots. Hazells Hall, near the airfield on the road to Sandy, requisitioned for staff and agent accommodation.

 

March 18th 1942

First covert supply mission carried out in the March moon period to drop zone in Northern France 

 

Late April 1942

SOE supply and pick-up operations of 138 and 161 Squadrons build up to major supply operation during this moon period

 

138 & 161 Squadron Crests

June 20th 1942

Squadron Leader Murphy hands over the Lysander flight to Squadron Leader Lockheart

 

April 8-10th 1942

No 161 Squadron (SD) move into the airfield from Graveley, commanded by Wing Commander E.H. Fielden, taking over dispersal areas on the western side of the airfield.

 

April 18th 1942

Handley Page Halifax IIs, specially modified for SOE operations, are delivered to 138 Squadron. These aircraft are able to carry 15 containers and begin to replace the ageing Whitley aircraft.

 

138 Squadron Halifax

 April 20th 1942

The buildings of Gibraltar Farm, on the eastern perimeter of the airfield are converted into high security SOE stores. The farmhouse is developed into an agent reception and pre-flight preparation centre

 

 Gibraltar Farm, Tempsford prior to its demolition

July 1942

Operation Ascension - Douglas Havocs commence flying radio intelligence patrols at high level along the Channel coast to relay messages from agents using UHF (ultra high frequency) transmitters

 

September 1942

Three US B-24 Liberator bombers attached to 138 Squadron to be flown by Polish crews for supply missions to Polish resistance groups. This unit operated until 1943 when it became 1586 (SD) Flight and was transferred to Brindisi in Italy to continue these operations.

 

October 1942

Wing Commander E.H. Fielden newly promoted to Group Captain takes command of RAF Tempsford with his offices at the nearby Hazells Hall. Wing Commander P.C. Pickard takes command of 161 Squadron

Sir Edward Fielden GCVO, CB, DFC, AFC, RAF

November 1942

Agent holding facilities are set up at Hazells Hall, Gaynes Hall and Tempsford Hall. Wing Commander Pickard and Flight Lieutenant Bridger fly two agents into a field near Chateauroux and return with three agents in the first double Lysander operation flown by A Flight of 161 Squadron

 

December 1942

Squadron Leader Verity takes over command of the Lysanders of A Flight, 161 Squadron

 

Lysander Mk 3 with underbelly fuel tank

 

 

Wing Commander P.C. Pickard

February 1943

The first Lockheed Hudsons are taken on charge for pick-up operations, giving an increased capacity over the Lysanders. First operation by Wing Commander Pickard to Charolles on the 14th February

 

Feb 20th 1943

Squadron Leader Ken Batchelor takes over command of 138 Squadron

 

Spring 1943

Covert supply operations during the moon periods build up to a peak as expertise develops. 138 Squadron aircraft used for air-sea rescue operations during dark periods of the moon.

 

 March 1943

Four Halifax aircraft sent to Russia for short period of supply dropping.

 

May 1943

Squadron Leader Hodges takes over 161 Squadron from Wing Commander Pickard.

 

RAF Tempsford in 1943

August 1943

This month 66 agents and 194 supply containers were dropped in 18 operations

 

October 1943

First double Hudson pick up. Wing Commander Hodges brings back 10 personnel, including Monsieur Vincent Auriol, later to become President of France.

 

Wing Commander 'Bob' Hodges

 October 25th 1943

US fledgling Special Duty Unit, the USAAF 801st (Provisional) Bomb Group, aircrews move in to the base for training and fly "buddy missions" in Halifax aircraft prior to eventually moving into Harrington, where they become known as the "Carpetbaggers" flying four squadrons of B24 Liberator aircraft on covert supply missions

 

November 9tth 1943

His Majesty King George VI and Queen Elizabeth visit Tempsford

 

King George VI & Queen Elizabeth visit Carpetbagger crews at Tempsford.

Major Fish to left of Queen Elizabeth, Col Heflin with back to camera next to King George

 

December 16th 1943

Two Lysander aircraft crash trying to land in fog at Ford airfield after picking up agents in France.

 

December 20th 1943

Four 138 Squadron Halifaxes lost due to exceptionally bad weather. Havoc aircraft are withdrawn from Ascension operations and replaced by Hudsons

 

January 1944

Bad weather prevents any pick-ups. Squadron Leader Hooper takes over the Lysander flight

 

Squadron Leader Robin Hooper

February 8th 1944

Flying Officer Affleck bogged down in French field for two hours before managing to take off with passengers

 

February 12th 1944

Detachment of 149 Squadron arrive with Short Stirling aircraft for supply dropping training

 

Grave of Gp Capt P.C. Pickard at Amiens Cemetery. He died during the Mosquito raid to release resistance fighters from Amiens Prison on 18th February 1944

March 1944

Wing Commander Boxer takes over 161 Squadron from Wing Commander Hodges. Squadron Leader Sells succeeds Squadron Leader Hooper as Commanding Officer of A (Lysander) Flight, 161 Squadron. Squadron Leader Ratcliff takes over the B (Hudson) Flight, 161 Squadron.

 

Operations increase in preparation for the coming invasion of Europe.

 

May 1944

Wing Commander Burnett takes command of 138 Squadron

  

May 31st 1944

First Hudson to be lost on operations, shot down over Tilburg in Holland.

 

May - June 1944

Pick-up operations increased.

 

D-Day period

Three pick-ups during 2 - 7th June, no others until 3/4th July. 138 Squadron supply missions suspended over the D-Day period. All aircraft are used for extensive radar deception and other invasion related operations

 

June 6/7th 1944

Violet Szabo with 3 other agents are flown from Tempsford in a 161 Squadron Halifax but are unable to find their drop zone due to failure of the navigational equipment. They were flown out the following night in a Carpetbagger B24 Liberator plane from Harrington piloted by Lt Marvin Fenster and successfully delivered onto their Stationer 110B drop zone

 

Violette Szabo

July 1944

138 & 161 Squadrons resume operations after Allies establish a bridgehead in Normandy

 

July 27/28th 1944

Wing Commander Boxer carries out the only Hudson pick-up during dark period of the moon to Chateauroux.

 

August 1944

148 and 624 Squadrons of No 3 Group RAF at Fairford and other bases commence Special Duty operations to augment Tempsford squadrons

 

August 10/11th 1944

Last Lysander pick up flown by Flight Lieutenant Vaughan-Fowler to Pont de Vaux

 

August 14th 1944

138 Squadron converts to Short Stirling Mk IV aircraft giving more capacity for stores. These aircraft are able to carry 20 containers compared with the Halifax's 15. A Flight of 161 Squadron also use these aircraft to augment supply drops

 

Stirling Mk IV

 Sept - October 1944

138 Squadron operations to supply Norwegian resistance increases. These missions prove hazardous owing to difficult terrain and bad weather. As Allies advance the distance to drop zones increases. Operations to the low countries and South West France become main destinations.

 

December 20th 1944

Wing Commander Murray takes over 138 Squadron 

 

 March 10th 1945

RAF Tempsford comes under control of No. 38 Group

 

March 20th 1945

Three Hudsons lost on missions to Germany  

 

April 1945

138 Squadron leaves Tempsford for RAF Tuddenham to convert to Lancaster bombers. Allied High Command sent appreciation of it's tremendous achievements during operations from Tempsford. 29,000 containers, 10,000 packages and 995 agents were flown in and as many personnel flown out. Seventy aircraft were lost, most crews being killed.

 

June 1945

161 Squadron continues operations until hostilities ceased on 7th May when the Squadron was disbanded on the 2nd June.

 

June 20th 1945

Tempsford taken over by 426 Squadron who used B-24 Liberators to bring back servicemen from Europe and India

 

December 1945

Their trooping work completed, 426 Squadron is disbanded and the B24s flown to Gransen Lodge.

 

1946 - 47

After a period of little activity RAF Maintenance took over the airfield on 7th August 1946. Various small detachments came and went. In the Spring of 1947 Harvards and Mosquitos were briefly based here

  

Sept 1947

Tempsford is transferred to a care and maintenance state.

 

February 1963

Many of the buildings ere sold and the site reverted to the original owners, Mr Pym of Estele Estates. Grants were provided by the Air Ministry to convert the base to agricultural use.

 

Half a dozen pick up pilots 30 years later

(Seated: Sir Robin Hooper, Sir Lewis Hodges, Per Hysing-Dahl and Peter Vaughn-Fowler;

Standing: Hugh Verity and Sir Alan Boxer)

 

The following text is taken from the 14th July 1945 edition of the newspaper The Evening Standard:

 

EVENING STANDARD. July 14th, 1945.

 

TEMPSFORD. (BEDS.) KEPT ONE OF THE WAR'S BIGGEST SECRETS.

 FLY BY NIGHTS BEAT THE GESTAPO.

 From JAMES STUART, Tempsford.

 Tempsford is just a hamlet in rural Bedfordshire. Its inhabitants mostly work on the land, and none of them knew it but Tempsford held one of the big secrets of the war.

 They knew that down a little side road marked 'This road is closed to the Public' there was an R.A.F. Station. In the Anchor and the Wheatsheaf they saw the R.A.F. men but that was all. They had no idea of the job that they were engaged on.

 Names of the pilots and crews that did that job cannot yet be revealed except for one, the late Group-Captain Pickard, D.S.O. and two bars, D.F.C., the famous 'Target for tonight' pilot.

 When he left Bomber Command, Pickard commanded one of the two 'Special Mission' Squadrons which the R.A.F. created as a link with the under-ground movement in all occupied countries. He was an expert flyer.

 The R.A.F. began this branch of its work immediately after the collapse of France with one flight of a Bomber Squadron of No. 3 Group. By March 1942 Tempsford was in operation, and finally two special squadrons were being employed.

 From Tempsford they delivered arms, ammunition, radio sets, food and other supplies to all underground fighters from the Arctic Circle of Northern Norway to the Mediterranean shores of Southern France.

From big bombers, Whitleys first, and then Stirlings and Halifaxes, they dropped their parachute containers. Every kind of supply went down from skis and sleighs for the Norwegians to the bicycles and bicycle tyres made in England, but carefully camouflaged with French names, to the resisters of Western Europe.

 For three years the airfield, built over what had been a large area of marsh, was the air centre of the resistance movement of all Europe. Night after night the villagers saw airplanes go off and probably heard them returning in the small hours. But they never saw the people, men and women in civilian clothes, who were driven down the prohibited road from the airfield, the men and women who had been brought to England from Occupied France under the very noses of the Wehrmacht and the Gestapo.

 

NO SECRET DEVICES.

 There were no secret devices to help this passenger service to operate. The R.A.F. airplanes simply landed in France, picked up their passengers and flew off again to Tempsford.

 On other trips they dropped Czech, Polish and Dutch agents in their own countries.

 About 700 resistance leaders made the trip. Sometimes the R.A.F. brought back documents, maps and messages.

 Not all the story can be told even now. There is still need for secrecy about how the great organisation was built up.

 The romantic and hazardous side of the job was flying the old unarmed Lysanders and bigger Hudsons to the secret landing grounds in France.

One of the airmen that took part in the adventure said today:- "We had to have decent fields, so we brought back men of the resistance movement to teach them the sort of places to select and what to do to help us to land, then we took them back again.

 Others we brought back were trained in England as saboteurs and dropped in France again.

 One French agent was caught by the Gestapo, who broke his feet in torturing him. He managed to escape from them and we picked him up and brought him back to England. He could not of course make a parachute landing again , but he insisted on returning to carry on with his work in France. So we took him over. He was a brave man.

 Usually when a Lysander - only a three-seater airplane, at one time used for Army Co-operation work - went out to pick up passengers, the pilot flew unaided, with a map on his knees, doing his own nagivation, looking in the dark for a small field in France."

 There was no room for a navigator when passengers had to be brought back.

 Often the Gestapo arrived just as the airplane lifted its wheels off the ground. "There were many hairbreadth escapes like that," I was told. A pilot was just about to land one night when he saw that behind each torch-holder stood a German with a revolver. The pilot realised what was happening, revved up his engine and flew off. He was wounded in the neck but flew back safely.

 "When one of our Hudsons got bogged down in landing, he rounded up 200 people, 12 oxen and 6 horses, and worked for two and a half hours before the airplane could leave - with a number of important people (political) on board."

How secret it all was may be judged by all this - said to me by another of the pilots:- "Even when high-ranking officers who were not in the know asked us about the work that we were doing, we had to lie like old Harry. It was court martial for anyone who breathed a word about the job. Not even the mechanics knew about the passenger flights."

 

Copyright Harrington Aviation Museum Society 2001 - 16

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