My interest in RAF Tempsford, a small airfield in rural Mid-Bedfordshire, has arisen only recently. I moved from Potton into a bigger house with a garden in Everton in 1990. As a teacher of Humanities at St Neots Community College, I was keen to find out more about my local area. I’d researched the ‘Potton Iguanodon’ and uncovered a fascinating story about a very unusual 19th century industry that involved digging up coprolites, which some thought to be fossilised dinosaur droppings. To find that information I had had to visit libraries, museums, Record Offices all over southern England. I had to write, E-mail, telephone, fax, knock on doors and talk to people. These were all valuable research skills. I typed up what I found and, after many years, managed to publish articles and books on the subject.
Looking for another topic to research I wondered about writing up the history of Everton but, with a population of only around 500, I didn’t think the book would sell well. Instead I decided to create a website and put my research on that. In fact, I started my research the wrong way round by spending years studying the geology, archaeology and early history of the village. I thought when I first embarked on my mission that I’d have a page on the First World War, a page on the Mid-War, a page on the Second World War and then bring the history up to date with another on the late 20th century. By the time I got round to these topics in the mid-1990s, a number of potentially knowledgeable local figures had died. I was too late to hear their experiences of life in the village and local area.
Talking to some of the people in Everton I eventually discovered that there was much more than a page that could be written on what happened there during the Second World War. I’d seen the war graves in the local parish church and seen the photograph in the Village Hall of the local man who did not come back but it was Les and Gwen Dibdin, a local couple, who sparked what has become an ongoing research project. Les told me that he was an aircraft fitter during the war on Tempsford Airfield. I’d seen the disused airfield at the bottom of the Greensand Ridge on some of my walks around the village and noticed it on the Ordnance Survey maps I’d bought. What intrigued me was that Les was not prepared to give me any details about what work he did there. Why? Because he had signed the Official Secrets Act.
However, they were prepared to show me the work of their niece, Susie Scott. It was a piece of GCSE History coursework on Tempsford Airfield which, based on her interviews with some of the pilots, aircrew and passengers, shed fascinating light on what had gone on. She said it had been a secret airfield and the locals were not meant to know what went on. That sparked my interest and I began what has been a sixteen-year investigation into what exactly happened there during the war. The first edition of my book, RAF Tempsford: Now the Story can be Told was published in 1997 with a print run of only fifty. They were nearly all bought by women, wanting to know what their husband, brother, father, uncle, cousin or grandfather did during the war. They had not told them because of the Official Secrets Act.
Over the years I have added more and more information as my research has uncovered more details. The number of pages has increased more than threefold. The latest edition is ‘RAF Tempsford – Bedfordshire’s Secret Airfield', the story of how the Air Ministry selected this isolated spot and designed it specifically to look as if it was a disused airfield. For all intents and purposes the locals considered it an ordinary airfield except for the fact that the flights were only a few days every month - on either side of the moon period. It was used by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in part of Churchill’s plan “to set Europe ablaze” and provide the resistance with ammunition, supplies and training as part of the Allies’ long-term plan to liberate occupied Europe..
The book details many of the top secret SOE missions that the two special Squadrons, 138 and 161, flew from Tempsford airfield. They used Lysanders, Stirlings, Halifaxes, Hudsons and other planes to drop supplies to the resistance in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland as well as to drop nearly 1,500 'Joes' or ‘Bods’, the RAF slang for secret agents. These agents included a number of brave women who were flown out on top secret missions. Sometimes these agents needed bringing back to England. So did stranded air crew, resistance leaders and VIPs. Many were lifted out from behind enemy lines by Tempsford crews.
RAF Tempsford, perhaps a lot more than other World War Two airfields, was very cosmopolitan. Americans, French, Belgians, Dutch, Czechoslovakians, Norwegians and Poles were all stationed there. However, Great Britain’s links with the Commonwealth meant that there were also pilots and crews from further afield. Many did not return.
They took part in vital operations such as the destruction of the heavy water plant at Vermork in Norway, the assassination of Heydrich in Prague and the attempts to delay German support reaching Normandy after the D-Day landings. Analysis of the Squadrons’ records show that between 1942 and 1945 there were 5,634 sorties from Tempsford to France. How many missions there were to Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, North Africa and elsewhere are unknown. 138 Squadron took 995 agents and dropped an estimated 29,000 containers and 10,000 packages. Seventy of their planes failed to return. 161 Squadron took an estimated 400 agents and lost 49 aircraft.
Exactly how many women agents were taken out from Tempsford is uncertain, but it is estimated that there were at least twenty. Of the estimated 1,400 agents, six were killed either by being dropped too low or by jumping without static lines attached to their parachutes. How many people were lifted out of occupied Europe and safely returned to Tempsford is unknown. Across occupied Western Europe there were about 5,500 dropping grounds, areas jokingly called “The Field” by those in the know.
Before D-Day the Tempsford planes had dropped an estimated total of 2,151 million propaganda leaflets over the continent. Few, if any of the pilots and crew, recognised the role they played in the Allies’ psychological warfare of disinformation and propaganda! Other missions flown from Tempsford included dropping pigeons. The aim of this was that people could open the canister attached to their leg, fill in the questionnaire with details about German gun emplacements, troop movements etc and then release the bird to fly back to Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire, where there was a pigeon loft above the Station Commander’s garage! The information was then added to that already obtained by the decoders using the Enigma machine. Of the 16,554 birds dropped by the Tempsford squadrons, only 1,842 returned, just an 11% success rate. Perhaps it was still enough to help in vital intelligence gathering. The Germans were reported as saying that they tasted nice with peas!
The book investigates what went on in requisitioned local country houses like Hazells Hall, Woodbury Hall, Tetworth Hall, Tempsford Hall and Gaynes Hall. It looks at what links the airfield had with Bletchley Park in Buckinghamshire and the American air base at RAF Harrington, near Kettering, Northamptonshire. It includes extracts from books, memoirs, poems, letters, phone calls and E-mails written by agents, pilots, and crewmembers of the RAF (Royal Air Force) and other air forces, the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force), the FANY (First Aid Nursing Yeomanry), catering staff and local men and women. It details the many air crashes around the airfield and includes reminiscences of the social life on the base, in the Officers’ Mess, the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute) and local hostelries.
The Government restriction on the release of sensitive documents to The National Archive, formerly the Public Record Office in Kew, has meant that secret SOE documents are only gradually becoming available. The release of information has not only shed light on some of the secret work undertaken by the 2,000 plus personnel that served at RAF Tempsford but has also encouraged an increasing number of people to publish their memoirs. The recently launched BBC’s ‘People’s War’ website has been an attempt to allow anyone with wartime memories to have them transcribed and added to a searchable online database. Some of them have referred to their time at Tempsford.
In 2005 I was contacted by the Secretary of Blunham Women’s Institute and asked to talk to their members about RAF Tempsford. I suggested that I would try to focus on the role of the women involved on the airfield and set about putting together various anecdotes and finding illustrations for them. The talk proved so successful that I was asked to repeat it at Sandy Library. Advertisements in the local press and an interview on Three Counties Radio meant the evening was a sell-out. The interest generated has prompted me to write another book.
I’d like to thank Philippa Smalls for editing my initial draft and making valuable suggestions to tie up loose ends. Any typographical errors are mine as I’ve added subsequent information in dribs and drabs. I’d like to acknowledge the following people for their research, publications and reminiscences on the SOE and World War Two: Mont Bettles, Lucy Bittles, Stuart Black, Bob Body, Bill Bright, John Button, Gordon Dunning, Frank Griffiths, Roly Groom, Maureen Gurney, Steve Harris, David Harrison, Jelle Hoolveld, Eileen Hytch, Wendy King, Steve Kippax, Bob Large, Tom Lowe, Mrs. Park, Juliette Pattinson, Jim Peake, Murray Peden, Edna Phillips, Elsie Riding, Jack and Dorothy Ringlesbach, Geoff Rothwell, Nigel Seamarks, Martin Sugarman, Dorothy Summerhayes, Roger Tobbell, Steve Tomlinson and James Wagland.
The following websites and organisations have also been invaluable source of background information and illustrations for which due credit is noted: Harrington Aviation Museum, Channel 4 – The Real Charlotte Grays, Wikipedia, Spartacus, 64-Baker-Street, BBC/ww2peopleswar, scrapbookpages, sameshield, users.nlc, smithsonianmag, RAF Museum, Hendon, East Anglian Aviation Society, aeroplanemonthly, Jaapteeuwen, 2iemeguerre, moviemail-online, Clutch.open, site.voila, nzedge, wereldomroep, specialforcesroh, rafbombercommand, histru.bournemouth, FANY, WAAF and Steve Kippax’s Special Operations Executive user group on Yahoo.com Full details are provided in the bibliography.
Any additions or deletions can be included in the next edition (firstname.lastname@example.org).