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History of RAF Benson

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Brief History of RAF Benson  by Sue and Mick Brown
Building of RAF Benson airfield
In 1937 the Royal Air Force was expanding to meet the threat of Nazi aggression so work began on building a new airfield beside Benson village. The land, owned by five families, was formerly part of the Duchy of Cornwall estate and farmed by the Edwards, Chamberlains, Walter, Orpwood, Wilders and Wingfield families.  It was compulsorily purchased at a cost of £18 an acre and the airfield was built by John Laing & Son of Oxford. Construction of RAF Benson finished in 1939. Its establishment on land previously farmed, meant the destruction of the 18th-century Lamb pub, which once stood on the outskirts of the village, near the present Crash Gate No 6.
On 1st April 1939, 103 Squadron arrived from Abingdon followed by 150 Squadron from Boscombe Down the following day. Both Squadrons of Fairey Battle aircraft were the first to fly from the new airfield under the command of Group Captain RT Leather AFC. The Squadrons left Benson for Challerange in France on 2nd September 1939 as components of the advanced air striking force.
At the same time, The King's Flight moved to Benson sharing ‘A’ Hangar, but was disbanded in 1942 to form the nucleus of 161 Squadron at Newmarket. At the outbreak of war, the station became No 12 Operational Training Unit to train pilots, observers and air gunners on Fairy Battles and Avro Ansons. In 1940 these aircraft were superseded by Wellingtons.
Among those trained during this period was a Polish contingent and during the war RAF Benson was honoured by many distinguished visitors including King George VI & HRH the Duke of Kent. Less welcome were the German aircraft that attacked the airfield on a number of occasions.
The Photographic Reconnaissance Unit
In December 1940, RAF Benson became the home of the experimental Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, set up to test & develop new reconnaissance methods using Spitfires and the station became grouped under Coastal Command.
It was careful analysis of photographs taken by PRU pilots from RAF Benson which established that the Germans were developing their V1 and V2 weapons at Peenemunde, Holland. Other dangerous flights included sorties to check out German shipping movements and coastal defences.
In their book, Benson. A Century of Change: 1900-2000, Janet Burt and Peter Clarke write: "Taking, developing and analysing thousands of photographs involved huge numbers of people, some based at Mount Farm, Berinsfield, and Chalgrove, others at Medmenham, near Marlow."
They also quote an account of the actual business of photographing a target by Pilot Officer Gordon Green: "The technique of high altitude photography from a single-seater like the Spitfire was largely a question of experience, for a great deal depended on being able to judge where the cameras were pointing. One flew alone to the general area of the target and then tipped the aircraft on its side to check one was properly lined up."
An expansion of the runway was completed in 1942 to cater for more advanced types of aircraft but this work caused the closure of Old London Road; as a result the Royal Engineers built the present road to Crowmarsh Gifford. With this development came the expansion of the PRU into 5 separate Squadrons, numbering from 540 - 544, flying Spitfire and Mosquito aircraft. These Squadrons ranged as far as northern Norway and southern Italy.
The squadrons operated across enemy territory until Victory in Europe in 1945, providing the necessary visual intelligence to defeat Nazi Germany. The squadrons flew a wide variety of aircraft types in the photo recce role, including the Wellington bomber and the American Mustang fighter. However, the mainstays of photo recce were the Spitfire and the twin-engined Mosquito PR variants. Both these aircraft were able to out-perform the Luftwaffe, only being challenged by the German Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter in the last months of the war.
The Benson squadrons were responsible for many outstanding sorties. The Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams were photographed after the Dambuster attack (the aircraft, Spitfire PR XI EN343, is reproduced as the replica gate-guardian). Berlin was comprehensively photographed for 3/4-hour in one mission over the heavily defenced German capital. Photography of the Tirpitz battleship led to its destruction by Lancaster bombers. The long range of the Mosquito gave it a new role in flying important diplomatic mail for the Allied Yalta and Potsdam Conferences, which discussed the future of Europe in 1945. Thus, Benson contributed to the Allied victory.


The Post War Period


The King's Flight was reformed at Benson in 1946 changing to The Queen's Flight in 1952. The PRU Spitfire and Mosquitos continued to operate from Benson until the 1950's, flying all around the UK photographing the countryside to assist in making the Ordnance Survey Maps.  In 1953 the Station was re-grouped under Transport Command, with 147 and 167 Squadrons ferrying aircraft to all parts of the world.
Please click here to read the memories of Sam Mold, who served at RAF Benson 1949-1951.
In November 1961, the first Argosy arrived and subsequently Squadrons were formed, with RAF Benson developing its role as a medium range tactical air transport force.  In 1972, the continued presence of the Queen's Flight and the arrival of HQ 38 Group kept the level of activity at the station high and this led to the extension and improvement of the facilities.  Also in 1972, the late Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) was repatriated to England by VC 10 and laid in RAF Benson’s Church before lying in state at Windsor.
Between 1976 and 1986 more units moved into RAF Benson including Support Command Signals HQ, the Radio Introduction Unit and the Andover Training Flight (115 Squadron) and in 1986, the Queen's Flight received the first of three BAe 146 aircraft.
In their excellent book, Janet Burt and Peter Clarke write: "There can surely never have been such well-maintained aircraft as these. Unsurprisingly, both the old Andover aircraft and the Wessex Mk2 helicopters in 1983 had completed over 10,000 hours' flying and continued to break all previous records for longevity."
RAF Benson celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1989 with the presentation of the Colour to the Royal Auxiliary Air Force by HM The Queen.
Helicopter Squadrons
Since 1990 the role of RAF Benson has changed with the influx of new units including helicopters. 60 Squadron with Wessex HC2 returned from Northern Ireland. Universities of London & Oxford Air Squadrons arrived and the Mobile Catering Unit returned. In 1995, the Queen’s Flight amalgamated with 32 Squadron at RAF Northolt.  1997 saw the Pumas of 33 Squadron take up residence in the old Royal Hangar and in 2001 the station saw the reformation of 28 Squadron to accommodate the Merlin HC3.
From 2013, RAF Benson has hosted the Puma & Merlin Forces under the direction of the Station Commander and after 10 years continuous deployment during operations in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Merlin Force returned to RAF Benson.  They remained home-based alongside their sister Puma Squadrons.  Royal Naval personal were posted into RAF Benson to be trained on both flying and maintaining the Merlin as the RAF Merlin was totally different to the Royal Naval version. On 1st October 2014, 78 Squadron disbanded and handed some of the Merlins over to 846 Squadron Royal Navy. The remaining Merlins of 28 Squadron were handed over to the Royal Navy in July 2015.

Immediately afterwards 28 Squadron reformed as 28 Squadron Reserve (28R) with a new OC Wing Commander Lock MA. It took responsibility for training aircrew on Puma and Chinook helicopters. The first Chinooks arrived at RAF Benson from RAF Odiham on 21st October 2015 to their modified hangar.

Having been formed on 7th November 1915, 28 Squadron celebrated their 100 years in service on 7 April 2016 in B Hangar. Their Reviewing Officer was His Royal Highness Prince Michael of Kent.

12th June 2016 marked 100 years of 33 Squadron. A parade in D Hangar was held on that day with the Station Commander Group Captain Paterson on the dais and the Reviewing Officer being the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire, Mr John Harwood.

Below: A TIMELINE from 1937 - 2001, produced by RAF Benson for the booklet,
               "A Walk through Benson's History", available from Benson Library
History of Benson
History of Benson
LEFT: Flight Lieutenent Michelle Goodman, based at RAF Benson. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for her bravery in June 2007, for her part in a rescue operation in Basra City, Iraq.
For more detailed information on Royal Air Force Benson Photographic Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) History, please click the button below, to go to an MOD website.
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