Memorial to the Women of SOE February 2016
RAF Tempsford was actually in the parish of Everton, but access came from the road from Tempsford Station and so the base was named after Tempsford. An aerodrome had planned on Everton Heath as early as 1936 but abandoned. When needed a new airfield later it was decided the Heath was too exposed and needed for market gardening in time of disruption to food supplies. An alternative site on Tempsford Flats was suggested.
The aerodrome at Tempsford was constructed on farmland requisitioned by the Air Ministry from the Pyms family of Hasells Hall, Sandy. The site chosen by the Ministry, known to some as Tempsford Flats, was ideally situated for an airbase, being flat, close to a railway line, well connected by roads and far from the coast. The base was largely built by Irish labourers, with a few local men. The government’s plan, originally, was for a secret airfield to act as a satellite to the larger base at Bassingbourn, eleven miles away in Cambridgeshire. With this in mind Balfour Beatty and John Laing & Son Ltd began construction work in late 1940 and three concrete runways were completed by the summer of the following year. Although the airfield was officially operational by October 1941, building work was still ongoing when the No. 11 Operational Training Unit arrived from Bassingbourn in December. They were joined by two other units later that winter.
While work at Temspford was underway, there had been a radical shift in British tactics to the war. By this time the Nazis had invaded much of mainland Europe and, following the emergency evacuation of Dunkirk in June 1940, Churchill had set up the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret department tasked solely with finding ways to undermine the enemy from within the occupied zones. In practice this meant espionage, sabotage and supporting foreign underground groups engaged in resisting the Nazis. Churchill famously stated that the work of the SOE would ‘Set Europe ablaze!’ and it was RAF Temspford that the SOE would now use as its base for some of those secret operations.
On 1st March 1942 the recently established 138 (Special Duties) Squadron arrived from RAF Stradishall and the Operational Training Units moved out shortly afterwards. The 138 Squadron had been specially formed to serve as the transportation arm of the SOE. From their base at Tempsford they would fly regular nightly sorties over Western Europe, parachuting agents, equipment, arms and ammunition to the waiting resistance groups below. In April they were joined at Tempsford by the 161 (Special Duties) Squadron, formed two months earlier at RAF Newmarket. This Squadron was tasked with covert landing and pick up operations: the airmen of the 161 Squadron landed their planes on enemy territory to drop off and collect passengers, usually downed airmen, returning agents and VIPs trapped behind enemy lines.
At first there were only a limited number of such assignments for the Tempsford squadrons but as the war progressed so did the scale of their activities. In 1942 they conducted 93 sorties over the occupied zones; in 1944 the figure was closer to 3,000. To support their work extra aircraft were made available and additional squadrons drafted to the base. Hassells Hall was eventually requisitioned for use as an officer’s mess with sleeping quarters and Gibraltar Farm became a reception area where agents would receive pre-flight training before departing for occupied Europe. Farm buildings were used as high security SOE stores, runways were extended, hangers built and existing buildings developed to accommodate the increasing amount of secret activity centred around Tempsford.
The SOE operatives who passed through RAF Tempsford included female agents such as Violette Szabo, Odette Sansom, Noor Inayat Khan and many others. These women are commemorated on a memorial in the centre of the village which was unveiled in 2013. In total, 995 agents were parachuted into the occupied territories by the Temspford squadrons and a further 485 landed by plane. Between April 1942 and May 1945, 29,000 containers of arms, ammunition, documents and equipment were dropped to the waiting resistance groups below. The work of the agents, and the airmen who transported them, was always dangerous. 126 aircraft failed to return from their missions with the loss of all those on board. Those men and women captured by the Nazis faced torture, imprisonment and execution.
Lists of women sent from Tempsford on the memorial - to see a larger version please click on the appropriate image
At the end of the war the airbase at Tempsford was shut down. An article in Bedfordshire Times, 10 Jan 1947 spoke of plans to develop housing on site of former RAF base but sub-committee of Biggleswade Rural District Council visited and decided it was not suitable. In 1961 the original buildings were auctioned and the land was eventually sold in 1963. Today a few buildings and the lengths of the runways are all that remain of the aerodrome. A barn, formerly part of the now demolished Gibraltar Farm, houses a memorial to the men and women who passed through RAF Tempsford during the few short years in which it was operational.
Information boards on RAF Tempsford - to see larger versions please click on the appropriate image