RAF Tempsford: Lifting the lid on top-secret Second World War base

PUBLISHED: 12:03 20 May 2018

161 Squadron - who landed agents in occupied Europe - photographed at RAF Tempsford. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'Connor

161 Squadron - who landed agents in occupied Europe - photographed at RAF Tempsford. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'Connor

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The history of the Royal Air Force – celebrating its centenary this year – is well documented, with tales of wartime heroics and peacetime innovation.

Author Bernard O'Connor discovered the secretive history of RAF Tempsford and has written a host of books on the airfield. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'ConnorAuthor Bernard O'Connor discovered the secretive history of RAF Tempsford and has written a host of books on the airfield. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'Connor

But for more than four decades, the operations that took place at an airfield just east of Sandy during the Second World War remained a secret.

That was until parish councillor, historian and author Bernard O’Connor stumbled across what remained of RAF Tempsford.

“I used to live in Everton and I was on the parish council as their pathways co-ordinator,” he told the Comet.

“Opposite my house, at the end of the village, was a track that led to the top of the Greensand Ridge – where you can get views over the valley and out towards Bedford.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 93000) Handley Page Halifax B Mark II, W1007 'NF-U', of No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, resting on its nose at Tempsford, Bedfordshire, having burst a tyre on landing and swung off the runway. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205211472ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 93000) Handley Page Halifax B Mark II, W1007 'NF-U', of No. 138 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, resting on its nose at Tempsford, Bedfordshire, having burst a tyre on landing and swung off the runway. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205211472

“I could see at the foot of the hill were bits of the runway of an airfield.”

After asking for information around the village and finding out nothing, Bernard spoke to a man who had served at the base – only to find he had signed the offical secrets act and could not tell him anything.

He did, however, hand over a copy of his neice’s history project on the base. And following further research, Bernard uncovered the truth about the airfield.

One of more than 1,000 RAF bases built during the Second World War, it was rejected by bomber command because of the boggy fields and heavy fog that would often fall.

An aerial view of RAF Tempsford in 1944. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'ConnorAn aerial view of RAF Tempsford in 1944. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'Connor

It was instead taken over by the Special Operation Executive, or SOE – a secret organisation whose purpose was to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe, while supporting resistance movements on the continent.

The SOE agents would be flown out of RAF Tempsford before being dropped or even landed in Axis-held territory, and then picked up when or if they completed their dangerous mission.

Due to the secrective nature of the base, it was of utmost importance that it remained hidden from enemy eyes.

Bernard explained: “It is claimed that the airfield was designed by an illusionist.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 60540) The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair (in civilian raincoat), accompanied by the Commanding Officer of No. 161 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, Wing Commander P C Pickard, talking to Flying Officers Broadley and Cocker in front of their Lockheed Hudson during his visit to Tempsford, Bedfordshire. A noted Westland Lysander pilot of the Squadron, Fg Off J A McCairns, is standing extre... Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205189265ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (HU 60540) The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair (in civilian raincoat), accompanied by the Commanding Officer of No. 161 (Special Duties) Squadron RAF, Wing Commander P C Pickard, talking to Flying Officers Broadley and Cocker in front of their Lockheed Hudson during his visit to Tempsford, Bedfordshire. A noted Westland Lysander pilot of the Squadron, Fg Off J A McCairns, is standing extre... Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205189265

“Because the work going on there was top secret, they didn’t want enemy pilots flying overhead to identify it as in use.

“The idea was to make it look inactive, so during the day there was no activity.

“Most of the buildings were camouflaged or designed to look like old farm buildings, and lines were painted across the runway so they looked like hedges.

“Activity started when the sun went down, with everything going on in the dark.”

Gibraltar Farm, part of RAF Tempsford, during the Second World War. The barn on the left still stands today. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'ConnorGibraltar Farm, part of RAF Tempsford, during the Second World War. The barn on the left still stands today. Picture: Supplied by Bernard O'Connor

While the work of renowned secret agents such as Violette Szabo and Wing Commander FFE Yeo-Thomas was incredibly dangerous, the pilots flying from Tempsford were also in great danger, as Bernard explained.

“The planes always took off and flew with no lights in complete darkness,” he said.

“They would fly across the channel or the North Sea to the likes of France, Belgium and Norway, complete their mission, then fly back before the sun came up.

“That was to give them the greatest chance of not being shot down.”

The base was home to two squadrons, with No 138 Squadron dropping supplies into Europe while No 161 Squadron – equipped with Westland Lysander and Lockheed Hudson transport planes – were tasked with landing in occupied territory to drop off and pick up agents.

These missions were undertaken by some of RAF’s best pilots, including Air-Chief Marshal Sir Lewis Hodges and Group Captain Percy Charles Pickard – who led the famous Amiens Prison raid of February 1944.

The personnel based at the airfield did reap the rewards for their top-secret work.

“There were more than 1,000 personnel based there and it was very cosmopolitan,” said Bernard.

“It provided a big economic boost to the area as the pilots and crew had money to spend in the pubs, the cinemas, the dances. There was also a lot of romance.”

Very little remains of RAF Tempsford today.

After the war it was closed and returned to farmland, but small sections of the runway are still intact.

You can still walk around the perimeter track and visit an old barn that stands as a memorial to those who worked at one of Britain’s most secret airfields.

For more about Bernard O’Connor and his books, have a look online at lulu.com/spotlight/coprolite.

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