Oxfordshire's Operational Training Units
Air Chief Marshall Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt (IWM)
For good reason, Lincolnshire has long been known as ‘Bomber County’. What is perhaps less well known is the role played by Oxfordshire in training the RAF’s bomber crews throughout the Second World War. With war looming, the Commander-in-Chief of RAF’s Bomber Command was Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt. A clear thinker of very sharp intellect, Ludlow-Hewitt was well aware of the deficiencies in the forces under his Command, chiefly their inability to navigate and bomb sufficiently accurately to drop a meaningful concentration of weapons on a distant target. Although some in the Air Staff were keen to declare total numbers of squadrons, crews and aircraft available for operations, Ludlow-Hewitt had been pressing hard for the establishment of Operational Training Units to bridge the gap between the product of the RAF’s Training Command and the operational capability required on the front line. In the short term, such a strategy would deny the front line a significant proportion of its declared strength, but would assure real long-term capability in the face of the inevitable losses. The consequence of this battle in the higher echelons of the RAF was the removal of Ludlow-Hewitt in April 1940, to be replaced by Sir Charles Portal, but not before the former had established the Operational Training Units (OTUs). Sir Arthur Harris later described Ludlow-Hewitt as “far and away the most brilliant officer I have ever met in any of the three services… in losing Ludlow-Hewitt we lost the finest of commanders”.
It is easy to see how the Midlands, and Oxfordshire in particular, became home to the OTUs. Oxfordshire offered an abundance of sites for potential airfields, while such locations in the eastern England were required for operations. The OTUs were the place where the famously random process of ‘crewing’ occurred, where pilots, navigators, flight engineers, wireless operators and air gunners were left to congregate in a hangar until they had coalesced into constituted crews; thereafter those crews trained, lived and often died together. With Finest Hour headquartered at Bicester Heritage, it is natural that our interest starts there; the local OTUs were as follows:
13 OTU was formed at Bicester on 8 April 1940 to train crews for the Bristol Blenheim. Later in the War, Mitchells, Bostons and Mosquitos were added to the Unit’s task. 13 OTU moved to Harwell in late 1944 as Bicester became focussed on the logistic support of operations on the continent.
Flywheel Festival 2016 at Bicester viewed from the Finest Hour Tiger Moth (Charles Fynn)
Blenheims of 13 OTU, RAF Bicester, 1943 (IWM)
Barford St John
RAF Barford St John opened in 1941 as a satellite to the Service Flying Training School at RAF Kidlington. By the end of 1942, hard runways had been constructed and the airfield became a satellite to RAF Upper Heyford, used by its Wellingtons and later, Mosquitos. During 1943, test flying of the Gloster jets, the E28/39 and Meteor, also took place from Barford St John.
Barford St John from the Finest Hour Experiences Tiger Moth in 2016
Originally known as RAF Brackley, Croughton was a satellite of RAF Upper Heyford, who based a number of 16 OTU’s Wellingtons there. From July 1942, Croughton became the home of 1 Glider Training School, with Hotspur and Horsa gliders.
RAF Croughton in 2016, seen from the Finest Hour Tiger
RAF Harwell was home to 15 OTU, who used Wellingtons to train night bomber crews. Harwell also played a key role in the invasion of Normandy in 1944, launching troop-carrying gliders on D-Day.
Horsa Gliders and Troops from the 6th Airborne Division at RAF Harwell prior to D-Day, 1944 (IWM)
RAF Kidlington spent the War as home to Elementary and Service Flying Training Schools, but the Hotspur Gliders of 101 and 102 (Glider) OTUs were also based there, before being re-named as Glider Training Schools.
Opened in 1942 as a satellite to RAF Bicester, from later that year Oakley became a satellite to 11 OTU at RAF Westcott, who based a number of its Wellingtons at Oakley. In May 1945, it became a centre for the repatriation of Prisoners of War.
Oakley airfield, seen from the Finest Hour Tiger Moth in 2016
16 OTU formed at RAF Upper Heyford during April 1940 to train night bomber crews, using Handley Page Hampdens and Herefords. Re-equipping with Wellingtons in 1942, 16 OTU used Mosquitos from January 1945.
Hampdens of 16 OTU (IWM)
11 OTU moved to Westcott from Bassingbourn in October 1942, equipped with Wellingtons to train night bomber crews. RAF Westcott was a major centre for the repatriation of PoWs in 1945.
A Whitley and bomb-towing tractor of 10 OTU, RAF Abingdon July 1940 (IWM)
Other OTUs just outside Oxfordshire, but within striking distance of our Bicester base, were as follows:
A few miles East of Evesham in Worcestershire, RAF Honeybourne was home to 24 OTU, who used Ansons, Whitleys and Wellingtons to train night bomber crews.
From 1941, 21 OTU flew Wellingtons from Moreton-in-Marsh to train night bomber crews.
26 OTU trained night bomber crews on Vickers Wellingtons from 1942.