Navigator





Because of the war like noises being emitted from Hitler’s Nazi Germany in 1934, the British Government decided that the R.A.F should be increased in strength. This period was known as the ‘Expansion Scheme’ and part of the plan was the provision of scores of additional new aerodromes, stretching the length and breadth of Britain.

These RAF Stations were to be of a permanent nature and would have hangars and associated buildings constructed of concrete, and brick of an attractive design. Oxfordshire already had two permanent R.A.F aerodromes at Upper Heyford and Bicester which were to be modernised under this scheme, but additional stations were planned to be built at Brize Norton, and here at Benson.

Building of this station commenced in 1937 when a large grass landing area was soon established, but the construction of the four C type hangars and the many associated buildings took almost two years to complete. Incidentally, a further 18 Blister type hangars were erected around the perimeter of the airfield in the early 1940s.

The station was originally intended as a medium bomber base and opened as such in April 1939 with the arrival of two bomber squadrons (Nos.103 and 150) equipped with Fairey Battles. The day before the Second World War broke out these squadrons were hurriedly sent over to France as part of our Expedition Force.

Two other Fairey Battle squadrons soon moved in which were later joined by a third. All of these set about the desperate task of training new crews for Bomber Commands many other Fairy Battle equipped squadrons, especially to replace those lost in France.

In April 1940 the training of bomber crews became more organised and the above squadrons lost their identity and formed into one of the new Operational Training Units, in this instance No.12 O.T.U. Avro Anson twin- engine aircraft were also added to the strength, and the heavier Vickers Wellington soon replaced the Battles. During an air raid on the 13th August 1940 several aircraft were destroyed and much damage was inflicted to the station.

The role of training hundreds of new bomber crews continued through to the 22nd of July 1941 when the No.12. O.T.U. left for Chipping Warden, by then flying only Wellingtons. This move had been brought about by the fact that Benson was planned to be the Central Photographic Development Unit for the whole of the R.A.F, with close by Medmenham Hall being used as the interpretation centre. This role was to be carried out from here for a long time, lasting right through to April 1953.

The first Photo Recce Flight had arrived from Heston back in December 1940 equipped with a mixture of special high-flying Spitfires plus Hudsons. With the departure of the bomber O.T.U the strength of the No.1 Photo Recce Unit, as it had become known increased and received Blenhiem and Mosquito aircraft as well as many more Spitfires. These latter were painted blue or pink and ‘souped up’ to enable them to fly very fast and very high.

There were usually four P.R squadrons based here after 1942, with the Mosquito being the main type of aircraft in use. Hundreds of photo taking missions into Germany were mounted each week, chiefly to obtain target photographs for our bombers, be it whole cities or single radar sites etc. So great was the demand for their services that a satellite airfield at Mount Farm was also in use, as the unit strength was around 80 plus aircraft.

Other units to be based at Benson was No.309 Ferry Training Unit which was involved with delivering aircraft overseas, plus the Kings Flight which provided transport aircraft for the Royal family, having reformed here in June 1946 with Viking aircraft . This small Flight, later named the Royal Flight, was to have a long association with Benson which lasted for over 50 years.

From October 1946 onwards No.8 O.T.U, whose role was training new crews in the P.R role, operated alongside the P.R squadrons with its Mosquitoes and Spitfires. In July 1947 it changed title to 237 Operational Conversion Unit. It departed for Leuchars in April 1948 but returned in October 1950, although twelve months later it finally left for Bassingbourn.

In addition to photographing most of post-war Europe the resident P.R squadrons also took on photographic surveys abroad. Also present from August 1947 to being disbanded in March 1950 was the Air Photographic Development Unit which operated a few Mosquito, Wellington and Spitfire aircraft.

In the early 1950s jet aircraft such as Canberras and Meteors were introduced, but it was decided to combine photo recce with the electronic countermeasures role with the result that the last of the P.R squadrons had left for Wyton by May 1953.

In March 1953 Transport Command took over control of Benson although one of their squadrons No.30, had already arrived with its Valettas back in May of the previous year. However, this squadron then left for Dishforth to make room for the Transport Command Development Unit, plus two Ferry Squadrons. The former experimented with such aircraft as Hastings and Varsities for their load carrying capabilities whilst the latter delivered every type of piston and jet powered aircraft to overseas stations, using Ansons and Valettas which also carried personnel on occasions.

From July 1953 to the time of disbanding in March 1957, the station was also used by the Fleet Air Arm Volunteer Reserve Squadrons, equipped with Sea Hawks and Attackers, but thankfully these units were only active mainly at week ends.

In September 1958 the two resident ferry squadrons became the Ferry Wing, but in November 1960 it too disbanded at a time when the RAF was pulling out of most of its overseas bases which rendered it redundant. A rather odd looking aircraft to be seen here between May and September 1958 was the Prestwick Pioneer, flown by No.21 Squadron which normally operated with them in Malaya.

For most of 1961 only the Royal Flight was in residence, by then operating with Devons, Herons and Whirlwind helicopters, with Prince Philip often piloting the fixed wing types. In early November 1961 the first Argosy four-engined transport aircraft arrived on the station as it had been decided that Benson would be the home for an Operational Training Unit (No.242) for this type. After converting scores of crews on to the Argosy the O.C.U left in April 1963 for Thorney Island.

For the rest of the decade several transport squadrons, also equipped with Argosies, were based here. However, in October 1971 all such activity ceased when Benson was left to the Royal Flight plus several non flying units which includes the Headquarters 90 Group of Signals Command who moved in from Medmanham Hall. No.38 Group also had its Headquarters on the station from June 1972 to November 1975 with its Comms Fight with a Devon, Pembroke and Chipmunk aircraft.

Very little in the way of flying took place for the ten years 1973 to 1983 other than that done by the Royal Flight. However, during 1983 No.115 Squadron with its Andovers arrived from Brize Norton whose role was the calibration of radar and radio installations within the RAF. It remained here until disbanding in 1993 when its duties were let out to a civilian contractor.

Benson thereafter became the base for an operational helicopter squadron that was equipped with Wessex aircraft. Since that time, and up to the time of writing in 1998, operational helicopter squadrons have found this their home, mainly equipped with Puma helicopters. There are presently plans in the pipeline to turn the station into an important quick reaction helicopter base for the RAF.