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Bassingbourn Barracks and the USAAF
When I joined the British Army, I did my Basic Training at Bassingbourn Barracks, which was where the Depot of the Queen's Division was based. Before that it was 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.
Bassinngbourn Barracks in 1955
RAF Bassingbourn was constructed between 1937 and 1939. 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 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.
Three concrete runways were built during the winter of 1941–1942. 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.
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.
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.
B-17F-60-BO Flying Fortress AAF Ser. No. 42-29536 Mary Ruth, Memories of Mobile, 401st Bomb Squadron,
shot down by fighters over Hüls, Germany, 22 June 1943, with two killed and eight captured
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.
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.
B-17s of the 410th Bomb Squadron on a mission over occupied Europe
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 deactivated.
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.
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 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.
RAF Bassingbourn was also the setting for the Airfield based shots in the famous WW2 film, The Dambusters, featuring Richard Todd and Michael Redgrave.
"Every day is a beautiful day" - Elwood P Dowd
Very cool history. Thanks for sharing.
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