Bassingbourn Barracks, is a Phase One recruit training camp and is home to the Army Training Regiment Bassingbourn and the Tower Museum Bassingbourn located in Cambridgeshire approximately 3 mi (5 km) north of Royston, Hertfordshire and 11 mi (18 km) south west of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire.
The barracks was previously the Depot of the Queen’s Division and before that RAF Bassingbourn, a Royal Air Force station. During the Second World War it served first as an RAF station and then as a bomber airfield of the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) Eighth Air Force.
Origin and development
RAF Bassingbourn was constructed by John Laing & Son Ltd. between 1937 and 1939 in the parishes of Wendy and Bassingbourn immediately to the west of the A14 (now the A1198) road. The site selected was low ground between several tributaries of the River Cam. The area had been long cleared of forest and tended to be swampy and unstable, and because the boggy ground produced a persistent mist over the large meadow the site was considered ideal for airfield camouflage.
The project was begun in April 1937 under the direction of Sir Maurice Laing, with Reginald Silk as the site engineer and John Crowther the site surveyor. Four C Type hangars (300 ft (91 m) long by 152 ft (46 m) wide by 29 ft (8.8 m) high, with eleven roof gables and hipped ends) were erected by a sub-contractor in a semi-circle at the south edge of the airfield site approximately one mile north of the hamlet of Kneesworth. Laing then began work pouring concrete foundations for the technical site buildings, communal sites and barracks; the nature of the ground necessitated the rebuilding of several foundations that had sunk into the ground. Roadway cores were built of unusual thickness to prevent crumbling of the pavement.
The technical site was built with permanent, kerbed streets and landscaped. Originally treeless, Bassingbourn was made one of the most attractive RAF stations by the planting of hundreds of plum trees as part of the project.
The runways were originally grass. The Bristol Blenheim light bombers that first used the field were able to operate under the existing conditions, although landings often produced pronounced water splashes, but the weight of heavier bombers tore ruts in the grass surface and limited take-off speeds.
W & C French Ltd. constructed three concrete runways surfaced with asphalt during the winter of 1941–1942: a 3,600 ft (1,097 m) runway aligned southwest to northeast, one of 2,800 ft (853 m) crossing it north–south, and a 3,300 ft (1,006 m) runway connecting the northeast ends of the first two. The Class A airfield standard was promulgated by the Air Ministry in August 1942 and the runways at Bassingbourn were immediately extended. The main runway was lengthened to 6,000 ft (1,800 m) by extending it west, with the use of extensive tile drainage, across a moat off the Mill River. The north–south runway was extended 1,320 ft (400 m) south, and the third runway lengthened 1,000 ft (305 m) to the northwest. Additional perimeter track was added around the bomb store site, which was doubled in area, to reach the west end of the main runway. Ultimately seven miles of taxiway were paved.
Four dispersal areas were also built. Dispersal A was placed in a large field between the technical site and the hamlet of Bassingbourn-North End. Dispersal B was located north and west of the bomb store. Dispersal C was next to the A14 north of the runways and Dispersal D was built in the grand avenue of Wimpole Park, the tree-lined entrance to Wimpole Hall across the A14 from the station. Bombers using this dispersal had to cross the road to marshal for take-off. Ultimately 35 “pan” hardstands and 16 loop hardstands were constructed, able to accommodate 67 bombers.
Bassingbourn made extensive use of camouflage to disguise the location of its runways. Prior to the building of the concrete runways, the strips were painted to blend them into the surrounding pattern of fields, lanes and drainage areas. After conversion to Class A standards, which required extensive clearing and grading of the airfield area, the areas between the runways were camouflaged to resemble agricultural crops.
RAF operations, 1938-1942
RAF personnel first arrived at Bassingbourn from RAF Uxbridge in March 1938, followed by No. 108 Squadron from RAF Cranfield in April. The first aircraft, a Hawker Hind, landed on the airfield on 2 May 1938, and the station became an Operational Training Unit (OTU) as well as a staging post for operational aircraft as part of 2 Group, RAF Bomber Command. The first Station Commander was Wing Commander F. Wright, a local man from Royston. No 108 Squadron operated Hinds until the end of June 1938, when it converted to the Blenheim I.
Bassingbourn retained its OTU role following the outbreak of the Second World War, although No 108 Squadron was transferred to RAF Bicester and replaced by 215 Squadron. On 8 April 1940, No. 11 Operational Training Unit was formed at Bassingbourn as part of No. 6 Group from the Station HQ and No 215 Squadron. Equipped with Vickers Wellingtons, its role was to train night bomber crews. From December 1941 to February 1942 the OTU operated from RAF Tempsford while runways were constructed at Bassingbourn.
The station was attacked on 5 April 1940 by an isolated German raider that dropped 10 bombs, causing damage to the direction finding equipment and WT (wireless transmitter) huts, and in August 1940 by a single bomb dropped on the barrack block situated immediately south of the parade ground, which killed 11 and injured 15.
At the end of May 1942 aircraft from Bassingbourn participated in the “Thousand Bomber” raid on Cologne. In order to raise this number, Bomber Command employed every aircraft capable of taking to the air, including 20 Wellington bombers from No. 11 OTU. Subsequently aircraft from here often contributed to major raids until the group moved in October 1942 to RAF Westcott.
Plans for locating United States Army Air Forces heavy bomber groups dated back to before America’s entry into the war, when RAF Thurleigh was tentatively designated in November 1941. Initial concepts anticipated that 75 heavy bomb groups would eventually be based in East Anglia and the Huntingdon area in five bombardment wings (later termed air divisions), but the first plan on 24 March 1942, called for 45 groups, with four to be moved to the UK by June. This did not come to pass (of the four groups, only one eventually came to the UK, in 1944) but 75 fields were allocated by the Air Ministry on 10 August 1942 for VIII Bomber Command.
From 19 August 1942 to 25 June 1945, Bassingbourn served as headquarters for the 1st Combat Bombardment Wing of the 1st Bomb Division. It was assigned USAAF designation Station 121.
91st Bombardment Group (Heavy)
The 91st Bomb Group was the seventh of an eventual 42 heavy groups to deploy to England. A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress unit, it moved into RAF Kimbolton on 10 October 1942, but that station, in Huntingdonshire, had not yet been reconstructed to Class A standards and was immediately found to be unsuitable for operations. Bassingbourn had recently been vacated by the RAF and made available to the Eighth Air Force. The commanding officer of the 91st BG inspected Bassingbourn on 13 October 1942 and, not wanting to lose the opportunity, moved his entire unit there the next day before seeking permission.
The 91st BG was assigned to the 1st Combat Bombardment Wing, also at Bassingbourn. The group tail code (after June 1943) was a “Triangle A”. Its operational squadrons and fuselage codes were:
- 322d Bombardment Squadron (LG)
- 323d Bombardment Squadron (OR)
- 324th Bombardment Squadron (DF)
- 401st Bombardment Squadron (LL)
The Eighth Air Force in general and the 91st Bomb Group in particular were critically short of support personnel, and the airfield remained under RAF administration until 21 April 1943. The final commanding officer of RAF Bassingbourn before its transfer was Squadron Leader J. S. Ellard. The 91st began combat operations from Bassingbourn on 7 November 1942, as one of the four “pioneer” B-17 groups. The group operated primarily as a strategic bombardment organization throughout the war. The first eight months of operations concentrated against the German submarine campaign, attacking U-boat pens in French ports or construction yards in Germany in 28 of the first 48 missions flown. Secondary targets were Luftwaffe airfields, industrial targets, and marshalling yards.
The 91st BG received a Distinguished Unit Citation for bombing marshalling yards at Hamm on 4 March 1943 in spite of adverse weather and heavy enemy opposition. From the middle of 1943 until the war ended, the Group engaged chiefly in attacks on aircraft factories, aerodromes, and oil facilities. Specific targets included airfields at Villacoublay and Oldenburg, aircraft factories in Oranienburg and Brussels, chemical industries in Leverkusen and Peenemünde, ball-bearing plants in Schweinfurt and other industries in Ludwigshafen, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Wilhelmshaven.
On 11 January 1944 organisations of Eighth AF went into central Germany to attack vital aircraft factories. The 91st BG successfully bombed its targets in spite of bad weather, inadequate fighter cover and severe enemy attack, being awarded a second Distinguished Unit Citation for the performance.
Expanding its operations to include interdictory and support missions, the group contributed to the Battle of Normandy by bombing gun emplacements and troop concentrations near the beachhead area in June 1944 and aided the Saint-Lô breakout by attacking enemy troop positions on 24 and 25 July 1944. The 91st flew tactical bombing missions on the front line near Caen in August 1944 and attacked communications near the battle area during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 and January 1945. In support of Operation Varsity, the group assisted the push across the Rhine by striking airfields, bridges and railways near the front line in the spring of 1945.
The 91st Bomb Group continued combat operations until 25 April 1945, flying 340 missions. 197 B-17s failed to return to Bassingbourn, the highest heavy bomber loss in the USAAF.
After V-E Day the group helped to evacuate prisoners of war (POW) from German camps. During June and July 1945, the 91st BG withdrew from Bassingbourn and returned to the United States, being assigned on paper to Drew Field, Florida, while its personnel were being discharged. Its B-17s were flown to storage in Texas and Arizona. On 7 November 1945 the group was inactivated.
94th Bombardment Group (Heavy)
VIII Bomber Command quadrupled in size from May 1943 to August to implement the Pointblank Directive. As part of this expansion, RAF Bassingbourn temporarily hosted the flying echelon of the new 94th Bombardment Group (Heavy) from April to May 1943.The 94th flew a few missions from Bassingbourn while under the tutorage of the 91st Bomb Group until moving to RAF Earls Colne on 12 May 1943.
At the same time, VIII Bomber Command proceeded with its plan to organise the groups into “combat wings” which in turn were organised into “bombardment wings” (later “divisions”). The first of these, the 101st Provisional Combat Bomb Wing, commanded by Brigadier General Frank A. Armstrong, Jr., set up its headquarters at Bassingbourn on 16 April 1943. In August Brig. Gen. Robert B. Williams succeeded to command of the 101st PCBW, followed by Brig. Gen. William M. Gross when the organisation was redesignated 1st Combat Bomb Wing on 13 September 1943.
The RAF resumed occupation of Bassingbourn on 26 June 1945, the airfield was officially returned on 10 July 1945. The station became one of the main airfields for long-range transport aircraft. In 1948 and 1949 Avro York, Avro Lancaster and Douglas Dakota aircraft from the base took part in the Berlin Airlift, a massive operation transporting essential commodities to the beleaguered city. During the Korean War, USAF bombers returned to Britain as part of the NATO deterrent force and, for two years from September 1950, Boeing B-29s and Boeing B-50 Superfortresses were based at Bassingbourn.
In February 1952, RAF Bassingbourn received its first allocation of English Electric Canberra bombers and became the first jet bomber operational conversion unit (OCU) in the world. Canberras operated from Bassingbourn for 17 years and one of the aircraft is on static display in the Barracks. From 1963 to 1969 the Joint School of Photographic Interpretation was also located there.
On 29 August 1969, the last RAF Commanding Officer, Sqn Ldr A.M. McGregor MBE, turned over the station to become the Depot of the Queen’s Division. The Depot began training recruits at Bassingbourn Barracks in January 1970 with permanent staff drawn from the Regiment’s former depots in Kent, Warwickshire and Suffolk. The first Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel W.C. Deller, he had previously commanded Depot, The Royal Anglian Regiment at Bury St. Edmunds. The first adult recruit intake formed up on 22 January 1970 and on 15 July 1970 The Queen’s Division moved from Colchester to Bassingbourn.
The depot was responsible for training recruits undergoing their 19-week basic training before joining a regular battalion of the Queen’s Regiment, Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the Royal Anglian Regiment. The depot also trained Junior Bandsmen, Junior Drummers and Junior Infantrymen on 18-month and two-year courses. From 1970 to 1985 recruits of the Royal Army Veterinary Corps (RAVC) and, from 1985, those of the Royal Pioneer Corps, were also trained at Bassingbourn.
In 1993 the Barracks became the home of the ‘Army Training Regiment Bassingbourn’. Since approximately 1970 it has kept its RAF links by becoming the home of 2484 (Bassingbourn) Squadron Air Training Corps.
Bassingbourn Barracks closed in August 2012. It has been reported that it will be used by the MOD for training troops from Libya.
Hollywood at Bassingbourn
During 1943 RAF Bassingbourn was the focus of a number of media events. The station and its locality were featured in the documentary film Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. One of the Memphis Belle‘s propellers stands to greet you at the gatehouse on entering the Army Training Regiment. The airfield and group were also the subject of a series of newspaper articles written by John Steinbeck during the spring and summer of 1943. Captain Clark Gable had temporary duty at Bassingbourn while producing a gunnery film for the USAAF. It also served as the location for the fictional “28th Bomb Group” in the 1950 Humphrey Bogart film Chain Lightning.
Bassingbourn Barracks was used for location filming of the movie Full Metal Jacket in 1985 standing-in for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, South Carolina. Some of the Vietnam scenes were filmed at Bassingbourn, and palm trees imported for the film were left on site and could be seen for a period of time after filming. British Army recruits based at Bassingbourn during the filming were used as extras.
Tower Museum, Bassingbourn
Opened in 1974, the Tower Museum, Bassingbourn is located in the original pre-war air traffic control (ATC) tower (watch office) of RAF Bassingbourn. The museum is focused on the history of the airfield during the Second World War, and the men and women of the RAF and USAAF who trained and worked there during that war. Exhibits include photographs, documents and military artifacts about the RAF, USAAF, Queen’s Division, and the 91st Bombardment Group. The museum is open seasonally.