Steve Smith of Fighter Control and Runway Photography examines the history of a little known airbase located within 3,000 yards of RAF Brize Norton – the often forgotten RAF Broadwell.
Many of the Fighter Control regulars will know Brize Norton. They will also know that there is very little in the way of RAF bases in the immediate vicinity. Within 15 miles in either direction today we only have RAF Fairford. However not so in the early 1940s – we had Windrush, Southrop, Kelmscott, Down Ampney, Akeman Street, and Little Rissington. Amongst many others is an airbase which was a hub of activity, but is very rarely mentioned nowadays – RAF Broadwell.
The history of RAF Broadwell is not a particularly long one in comparison to its famous neighbour. Its origins can be traced back to the early 1940s when airfields were springing up left, right and centre across the country, as the British people hunkered down and prepared to face an onslaught from across the channel.
These were the days of RAF bases in practically every county, a force consisting of thousands of aircraft, and a deadly enemy not many miles away. There are certainly more ‘glamourous’ airbases from this era; Biggin Hill, Bassingbourn, Tangmere spring to mind, but few that will have been as vital in the run up to ‘Operation Overlord’ than Broadwell.
Broadwell began life on 15 November 1943, five years after Brize Norton and four years after the commencement of hostilities. No.46 Group, RAF Transport Command arrived in February 1944, bringing both 512 and 575 Squadrons of C-47 Dakotas. No.46 Group was spread around between Broadwell, Down Ampney and Blakehill Farm, both near Cirencester, all operating Dakotas.
As early 1944 wore on, the residents of local villages became very accustomed to the Dakotas flying overhead, streaming troops from their rear doors. Many practice drops were carried out in the area during March and April 1944. In particular, the village of Lechlade, five miles to the South of Broadwell became the setting for an intensive practice exercise during April 1944.
May 1944 saw both 8th and 9th Parachute Regiments in residence, along with 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles. A tented village had sprung up near the airfield and security was tightened in the run-up to what was to become D-Day. A signal was given, a seemingly innocuous occurrence to the men of RAF Broadwell, but the instruction to prepare for the invasion of occupied Europe to the base commanders – a Spitfire circled the airfield three times.
The moment came for base and both squadrons when they were brought into action on the night of 5th/6th June 1944, otherwise known as D-Day. 512 Squadron went airborne towards midnight; 32 aircraft taking off in less than 30 minutes, using runway 02. They headed northeast towards Banbury and met up with the other Squadrons from 46 Group. On board were hundreds of troops, to be dropped five miles behind enemy lines in occupied France.
The happenings on D-Day are well documented, but it is sufficient to say here that light anti-aircraft fire was encountered over Normandy and no Dakotas were damaged. The results of the parachute drop was disappointing, with many pilots failing to identify the Drop Zone.
Later on the 6th, they took to the skies again, this time towing Horsa gliders, containing the men of the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles. One Broadwell aircraft was damaged on this sortie and ditched in the sea. The remaining aircraft came under fire from Allied naval forces in the English Channel. All Horsa gliders were able to find the Landing Zone, in a drop which took place at 9pm on the 6th.
This was the end of the D-Day action for RAF Broadwell. That night the flight crews slept soundly in their beds, whilst their Army colleagues from only 12 hours ago, were enduring a rough night in Nazi occupied France.
Once the beaches were secure and the allies were established on the mainland, 575 Squadron shuttled to and from the temporary landing strip at Camilly. They brought back over 250 casualties.
As the allies pushed further into France, the need for units such as 512 and 575 Squadron was diminished. They were called into action again in March 1945, this time operating from RAF Gosfield, once again flying with Horsa gliders, but this time to aid the crossing of the Rhine (Operation Varsity). The aircraft returned to Broadwell after the operation was over.
What became of RAF Broadwell after the war?
There was no let up in the operations from Broadwell. The transport services were very much in demand, both to various locations around Europe, but also as far away as India and the Middle East. 6 August 1945 saw the arrival of No’s 10, 76, 77 and 78 Squadrons. All were recently transferred from Bomber Command to Transport Command and were re-equipping with Dakotas. At least two of these units (10 and 77 Squadrons) were former Halifax Squadrons. They stayed until just after VJ Day before being re-assigned to the Middle East and Far East.
In October 1945, No.271 Squadron took up residence at Broadwell, again flying Dakotas, this time however they were flying a transport service to India. They soon became No.77 Squadron (the aforementioned No. 77 Squadron having been disbanded) and began operating to Europe, before they were moved out to RAF Manston in December 1946.
What became of Broadwell’s resident Squadrons after the war?
In the last few months of the war, 512 Squadron operated a transport service to and from Brussels. After brief spells in Palestine and Bari in Italy, the unit returned to the UK. It was disbanded on 14 March 1946. No. 575 Squadron found its transport services still very much in demand. However, 5 August 1945 found them relocated to RAF Melbourne, followed by RAF Blakehill Farm before following 512 Squadron to Bari. The squadron was disbanded on 15 August 1946. RAF Broadwell saw its last departure on 31st March 1947, and the airfield was returned to agriculture. At its height, the amount of traffic at Broadwell would have put Brize Norton to shame, with March 1944 alone recording over 400 sorties.
What about Broadwell today?
There are many remnants of Broadwell’s past, that is still present in the landscape today, but none more prominent than the Control Tower, which sits alone in a field just off the road which now disects the site. Some taxiways and runways have been removed, presumably smashed up for use as hardcore, but there are still some substantial chunks intact.
The Bomb Dump to the north of the site is located on private land, but is believed to contain many remains from its previous use. In addition, to the north of the site, are several M&E (Mechanical and Electrical) plants and one of the more unusual reminders – a small brick built ‘outhouse’.
Richard Drew’s excellent Atlantik Wall website provides the following map as to other dispersed sites around the area:
Richard also documents part of the Bomb Dump, Ops Block and some domestic sites Atlantik Wall – Broadwell.
The site of former RAF Broadwell is certainly worth a visit, particularly for those who have an interest in the operations of the RAF during the Second World War. The whole atmosphere around the base is filled with faint essences of action, of important decisions being made and of vital conversations taking place. In the same way as those who have seen Sir Arthur Harris’ desk belonging to the RAF Museum will wonder what decisions were made over that table and of what documents were signed there. Broadwell is an emotive place to visit, it’s not too hard to imagine the hum of the Dakotas engines, with Horsa glider in tow, heading off to take their place in history.
In some ways, there is also a slight twinge of sadness in the air. For many men, Broadwell would have been their last experiences of their home country, as no doubt many of the soldiers who flew from here to France or Germany would not have returned to see England again.
The author would like to express his gratitude to two parties in particular. Firstly David Oakey, with whose permission we have been able to reproduce the wartime photographs and sketch plan of the airfield. His website (www.ox18.com) contains a wealth of information, both on RAF Broadwell and many of the surrounding villages in the OX18 postcode area. There are more documents relating to Broadwell here.
Secondly, we would like to thank Richard Drew, for the use of some material relating to the Ops Block and Bomb Dump. His excellent website provides many photographs of RAF Broadwell as it is today, and also scores of other abandoned airfields across the UK. www.atlantikwall.co.uk
If anyone has any wartime photographs of operations at Broadwell, we would be delighted to see them, and perhaps add them to this report. If you do, please e-mail a copy to email@example.com.
Note – There any many public footpaths that cross the site and these can be found by parking in the lay-by adjacent the control tower. From here the footpaths are obvious. Please do not trespass on any areas that are on private land, or seek permission from the landowner before doing so.
- Rickard, J (1 May 2007), No. 10 Squadron (RAF): Second World War