The History of RAF Blakehill

From forest, to farm to war, to nature - a pocket history of the site

 

  • 800 years ago the area was believed to have been part of the ancient ‘Braydon Forest’ – a hunting ground for the English King John – who reigned from 1199 –1216 and is most associated with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215.   There is a scheduled ditch or moat feature which may relate to this period and it is thought probable that a "forest guardian" may have dwelt there, managing the animals and rides to allow a successful hunt.

  • In 1943 the UK government requisitioned 580 acres of land to create an airfield by compulsory purchase.     The airfield was named RAF Blakehill, taken from the name of the farm that once stood at the top of the hill to the south of the airfield.    The ruins of the farm house, yard and buildings are still situated on the hill on private land.

 

  • RAF Blakehill was one of three airfields (the others being Broadwell and Down Ampney) to be constructed north of Swindon to house No. 46 Group, the RAF formation that brought together the tactical air transport squadrons that were to support the army in the planned invasion of Europe.

 

  • Two, T2 hangars were erected along with other airfield buildings such as training, administration and accommodation for personnel – the control tower or ‘watch office’ stood to the south of the site alongside runway number 2.   Most of the airfield buildings have now been demolished with the exception of a ministry shed near to the wildlife hospital, Wiltshire Wildlife Trust’s  ‘Whitworth Building’ and buildings in the ‘technical site’ which now form Chelworth Industrial Estate.    Many of the sites off the B4040 Malmesbury Road were occupied by Nissen huts for accommodation for families and personnel, and a school was set up in the fields opposite the industrial estate entrance, which has now been converted for stables.

 

  • The station opened on 9th February 1944

 

  • First flying squadrons appeared in March 1944 – the first was No.233 Squadron operating C47 Dakotas

 

  • Mid march 1944 -  Horsa Glider towing training was introduced, then eventually parachute dropping.

 

  • 24th April 1944 – a rehearsal known as Operation Mush, took place as a dress rehearsal for the airborne phase of the invasion over Salisbury plain.

 

  • During this period, many aircrews gained experience of flying operations by flying ‘Nickelling’ missions over northern France, dropping propaganda leaflets.

 

  • 1st June 1944 – airdrop phase of operation Overlord, No. 233 Squadron was joined by part of another No. 46 Group squadron, No. 271, who were deployed to Blakehill Farm due to congestion at Down Ampney.

 

  • D Day - On the evening 5th June 1944 the peace in the south of England was shattered as 362 transport aircraft from fifteen RAF squadrons started their engines from eight separate airfields.   The first aircraft to take off from RAF Blakehill were six No.233 Dakotas towing Horsa gliders at 22.50 hrs.   They were followed by 24 Dakotas carrying troops.

 

  • 8th June 1944 – Operation Rob Roy – No.233 flew a re-supply mission to the 6th Airborne Division.

 

  • 13th June 1944 – A C47 Dakota from No.233 Squadron became the first allied aircraft to land in France after the D Day invasion.   Blakehill Farm had a Causality Air Evacuation Centre (CAEC) – wounded were brought back for treatment by female medical auxiliaries who flew in the aircraft to tend the wounded.  The aircraft on outbound flights carried ammunition and supplies and only the return flights carried the wounded.  Because of the rules of war, as a result, the aircraft could not be marked with a Red Cross and were often attacked.   The nurses earned the nickname of ‘Flying Nightingales’.

 

  • 4th September 1944 – a new flying unit was formed – Husky Squadron No.437 – Royal Canadian Air force.   Both No. 437 and No. 233 were then prepared for ‘Market Garden’ – the attack on the Arnhem bridges made famous by the film, “A Bridge Too Far”

 

  • Arnhem - 17th September 1944 - 34 Dakotas, some towing Horsa Gliders carried 454 troops into action from the airfield.   11 Dakotas and their crews were lost during the campaign.

  • 24th Oct 1944  – FZ655, one of 437’s Dakota failed to return from Antwerp – Flt/Sgt Schneider declared missing - air nursing orderly Margaret Campbell was later buried at Calais – crew killed – mercifully the aircraft carried no wounded on board that could have been heading back to Blakehill bringing the total losses to 12.

  • 24th March 1945 saw the last major operation by Dakotas from Blakehill with the crossing of the river Rhine to establish a bridge head north of Wesel – Operation Varsity – a total of 1600 transport aircraft, 1330 gliders and 21,700 troops across airfields in the UK and France.

 

  • May 1945 - No.437 Squadron moved to the continent to provide shuttle services for Allied bases.

  • 8th June 1945 – No.233 Squadron moved to Odiham in Hampshire.

 

  • No.22 Heavy Glider Conversion Unit moved to Blakehill from Fairford with large Hamilcar Griders and Albermarle glider tugs  – disbanded 15th November 1945

 

  • December 1945 – No.575 Squadron – then moved and flew out to Bari in Italy at the end of January 1946.

 

  • December 1945 – No.1528 Radio Aids Training Flight with Airspeed Oxfords trained here, using the station’s blind approach for training.  Left in August 1946.

 

  • 5th November 1946 – RAF Blakehill was put into a care and maintenance programme.   

 

  • December 1948 – used as a relief landing ground for South Cerney Airfield – Flying Training Command.’

 

  • c1955 – Royal Observer Corps underground monitoring post installed due to the threat of nuclear war.

 

  • 1967 – Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) set up an experimental radio and monitoring station.   The county’s tallest wooden radio mast at 200 feet high was installed, amongst many other top secret instruments.

 

  • 1970’s – Partial site clearance when the runways were ripped up and used as hardcore for the M4 motorway.

 

  • Memorial cairns dedicated on 25th Sept 1994 in the presence of the Commanding Officer of 437(T) Sqdn Canadian Air force, the chairman of Cricklade Town Council and other dignitaries, supported by the Cricklade Band and the Royal British Legion. 

  • 2000 – Present - Site finally disposed of by the MOD.  240 Hectares converted to Wildlife Reserve by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, new features such as ponds, tracks and fencing installed.   Rest of land purchased privately and returned to farmland.

  • Oak and Furrows Wildlife Rescue Centre set up 2015.

  • March 2016 - New information board installed at main nature reserve entrance bringing the story of the airfield operations to visitors and the WAR TO WILDLIFE project initiated, to offer formal tours and presentations to visitors