THE HISTORY OF ROYAL AIR FORCE UPAVON - 1912-1993
by John Cabra
On the formation of the Royal Flying Corps on 13 May 1912, one of its components was a Central Flying School, which was established on a site of some 2,400 acres near the village of Upavon on Salisbury Plain. The open nature of the surrounding countryside was ideal for flying purposes, and it was remote enough to discourage would be sightseers, who in the early days of aviation often flocked to see the flying and created an additional hazard for the aviators.
Work on the first buildings at Upavon was begun in April 1912 and the Central Flying School opened on 19 June under the command of Captain Godfrey M Paine RN. The first course began on 17 August 1912 and of the 34 officers attending only 2 failed. Even in these early days, courses were affected by lack of equipment. In January 1913 there were only 12 aircraft available and no balloons - which were to be used for familiarisation.
The purpose of the Central Flying School was to produce professional war pilots and not to give basic flying instruction, indeed, candidates for the course were generally required to have obtained the Royal Aero Club Aviator's Certificate before joining. In addition, technical instruction was given to non-commissioned ranks, some of whom were taught to fly. Both the Army and the Royal Navy were almost entirely dependent on the Central Flying School for the training of pilots. Initial training was given on the Maurice Farman with both dual instruction and solo familiarisation being given. Advance instruction and solo work was carried out on either Avros or BE2s. The final test was a cross country flight during which the student was expected to reach 3000 feet and make a spiral landing with the engine stopped. It was rare to fly above 4000 feet as this was considered to be the maximum useful height for reconnaissance.
In 1913, Major H M Trenchard (later Marshal of the Royal Air Force, the Viscount Trenchard), who took the first course at the Central Flying School and later became one of the flying instructors, was appointed Assistant Commandant. During that year, 56 pilots were trained at the School, which was already recognised as the centre of Service flying in the United Kingdom. During the First World War there was a large increase in the number of training stations and for a time, Upavon became a school for instruction in air fighting.
Upavon was the scene of important experiments in the early days. Air-to-ground wireless telephony was tried with some success, also air armament trials. Several important people visited the station even at that early date, including Mr Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty. It is recorded that he flew for 12 minutes as a passenger in a Farman biplane.
In December 1914 the question of a satisfactory aeroplane bomb-sight became so important that the Royal Flying Corps headquarters arranged for a Lieutenant K B Bourdillon, an intelligence officer on the staff of III Corps, who had shown great interest in this subject, to be sent home to the Central Flying School, where, in the experimental flight at the School he would have facilities to work on his ideas. By the middle of 1915 in co-operation with Second Lieutenant G M B Dobson, a meteorological officer at the school, Lieutenant Bourdillon had produced the famous Central Flying School bomb-sight. The chief novel feature of the sight was a timing scale which enabled a pilot in the air, with the help of a stop-watch, to measure his speed over the ground by 2 sights taken on one object. To give the correct angle for bomb-dropping, the movable foresight was then set on the timing scale to correspond with the time-interval as recorded, in seconds, on the stop-watch between the 2 sightings. Minor improvements were made in the original sight, and others, especially for work over the sea, were developed by the Naval Air Service, but the Central Flying School bomb-sight held pride of place on the western front until the end of 1916.
The Central Flying School was firmly established by 1914, and when war came the 6th course was nearing completion. By this time many instructors and aircraft had been taken away from the School to bring squadrons up to strength, but throughout the War a high standard of instruction was maintained at Upavon and a steady stream of pilots was sent out ready for operational duty, chiefly with fighter squadrons. On 1 April 1918, Upavon airfield became Royal Air Force Upavon on the formation of the Royal Air Force.
After the First World War the Central Flying School became responsible for training all Royal Air Force flying instructors, and between the wars was the fountainhead of all flying training. Since that time the initials CFS have come to represent the highest possible standard of flying. A revision of the air-defence organisation in the United Kingdom resulted in the Central Flying School leaving Upavon for Wittering in 1926. Meanwhile, since 1924, No 3 (Fighter) Squadron had been using Upavon, and No 17 (Fighter) Squadron moved in in October 1926. These 2 squadrons remained at the station for the next 8 years, engaged principally in a training programme. No 3 Squadron was the only night-fighter squadron in the Service at that time and during its stay at Upavon did much valuable work evolving night-flying and fighting techniques. In addition, the 2 squadrons provided spectacular displays of aerobatics at the various air shows so popular between the wars. The aircraft used during their stay at Upavon were Woodcocks, Gamecocks, Siskins and Bulldogs.
In May 1934, there came a further change in the Home Defence system and the 2 squadrons were transferred to Kenley. Upavon was used for the next year or so by 4 squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm from the aircraft carriers "Courageous" and "Furious". This was only a temporary measure, and in August 1935, the Central Flying School returned to Upavon. The essential feature of its work from then until the war was expansion so as to keep the rapidly growing Royal Air Force supplied with instructors to staff the increasing number of Flying Training Schools. The scope of its work had to be expanded, too, and instruction in night flying and on twin-engined types was added to the course. In addition, the first Link trainer courses were begun. All this required extraordinary effort on the part of the station. The threat of war brought with it a demand for even more instructors and it became obvious that one school would be unable to produce all that were required. The then Commandant of the Central Flying School (later Air Chief Marshal Sir James Robb RAF) went to Canada in October 1939 to help lay the foundations for the Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Meanwhile the Central Flying School continued to function at Upavon until April 1942, when it was replaced by No 7 Flying Instructors School which absorbed many of the Central Flying School staff and facilities. This School produced many flying instructors during the next 4 years, specialising in training pupils for Operational Training Unit courses. In fact 3 courses were run simultaneously, the Operational Training Unit course, the Beam Approach Training course and the Link Trainer course.
In May 1946, No 7 Flying Instructors School left Upavon for Little Rissington and for the first time in its 35 years existence Upavon was reduced to inactive status, with only a care-and- maintenance party. This was only temporary, and in July 1946 Headquarters No 38 Group, Transport Command, was established at Upavon and remained until its disbandment in February 1951. In April that year Headquarters Transport Command transferred from Bushey Park to Upavon. The airfield, which in the 14 years since the Second World War had been used only by Command and Group Communications Flights, in April 1959 became the home of No 230 Squadron, . equipped with Pioneers, which remained there until May 1960 when it moved to Odiham. 38 Group reformed again in 1960 but it was soon obvious that Upavon was not large enough for 2 Headquarters and shortly afterwards Headquarters 38 Group transferred to Odiham. The new Headquarters building for Transport Command evolved in the early 1960s and a new wing was added in 1969.
Meanwhile, the Command was renamed Air Support Command on 1 August 1967. On 1 September 1972 Air Support Command was merged with Strike Command but, on the same date, 46 Group was reformed and, with its Headquarters at Upavon, maintained the station's long-lasting link with the transport forces of the Royal Air Force. On 10 November 1975, 46 Group and 38 Group were merged under the latter's title and 38 Group returned to Royal Air Force Upavon to become the largest Group in the Royal Air Force. Almost 8 years later, on 17 November 1983, Upavon became the home of No 1 Group after its amalgamation with 38 Group. Nearly 9 years after it was amalgamated 38 Group has been reformed at Strike Command and Headquarters No 1 Group was transferred to Royal Air Force Benson in 1993 which resulted in the closure of Royal Air Force Upavon.
Throughout its long history, Royal Air Force Upavon has been known locally as "The School" and its relations with the local residents has been a close and happy one. Many of the buildings have been in existence since the early days of the station; the Officers' and Sergeants' Messes were the oldest still in use in the Royal Air Force. The Unit, being one of the oldest stations in the Royal Air Force, chose as its badge a Pterodactyl rising from Rocks to symbolise the first days of flying. The rocks also have reference to the location of the station near Stonehenge. The motto: "IN PRINCIPIO ET SEMPER" may be translated as: "In the beginning and always". Sadly, the "always" was not to be, but there have been occasional Hercules landings on the airfield and the Gliding Schools remain at Upavon. To maintain the continuity of history, the Army agreed to name the site Trenchard Lines.
ROYAL AIR FORCE UPAVON - BUILDINGS 1912-1993
When the Central Flying School opened in 1912 only a few buildings had been completed and work continued over the next 3 years. Today there are still 20 of the original buildings in existence although the use to which some of them had been put, has changed. The earliest are 5 single officers' quarters built in 1913 on the east side of York Road, 4 of which are located to the north of the Officers' Mess and one to the south. However, during 1914 considerable progress was made and 14 buildings were completed. Of these, 8 comprised the Sergeants' Mess, the Regimental Institute, 5 small barrack blocks and a building for NCOs' quarters situated between the Sergeants' Mess and the Avon Club. The remaining 6 buildings consisted of 3 houses for Warrant Officers in what is now Devon Road, one of which still bears the date '1914', a squash court near the Officers' Mess, an observatory which has been converted into a post office and bank and the Regimental Office. This last building is now the Trenchard Building Museum which was opened by Viscount Trenchard MC on 9 September 1983. It included the Commandant's Office which was used by Captain G M Paine and this contains a number of personal items such as his binoculars. Displays in other rooms cover the early days of the Central Flying School, some aspects of the work of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Trenchard and the development of Upavon from the 1920s to the 1980s.
By far the largest of the original buildings is the Officers' Mess in York Road and while the date over the entrance is 1915, this records the year in which it was completed although it was in use by 1914. It was the oldest officers' mess in the Royal Air Force which was still in service but at one time this claim was contested by Netheravon. However, it was finally established that the Upavon mess was completed a few weeks before its opposite number at Netheravon and it was consequently able to uphold its claim to seniority. A plan of the School area dated 30 December 1917 which was issued by Salisbury Plain District shows 2 lines of 'aeroplane sheds'. One of these lines comprising 11 sheds, ran parallel to and south of, the Upavon- Ludgershall road and occupied the site of the present-day hangars. The other, numbering 7 sheds which were used by the Experimental Flight, were located along the eastern boundary of the Camp at right angles to the Ludgershall road.
Although an Ordnance map published in 1925 marks a Roman Catholic Church opposite and on the north side of the present NAAFI, it does not show one for the Church of England but only a 'Church Hall' opposite the Sergeants' Mess. However the Ordnance map of 1974 names this building as 'St Peters Church (C of E)' and also marks a Catholic Church of St Thomas More between York Road and the most westerly of the 3 hangars which has since been demolished. It would appear that St Peter's did not become a church, as opposed to a building in which services were held, until 1956 since a plaque in the Church bears the following inscription:
This Church was Dedicated to the Glory of God and named St Peter's at a service on 28 October 1956
The bell was originally a ship's bell in HMS Centaur, an aircraft carrier of 22000 tons which was completed in 1953, placed in reserve in 1966 and scrapped in 1971. Since 1985 the Church has been used by all denominations.
The first married quarters for airmen at Upavon were built in Beverley Crescent in 1931 with additional quarters being provided in Pembroke and Oxford Roads after 1937. The officers' married quarters were built during 2 main periods, those in Comet Avenue and Hastings Avenue between 1930 and 1950 and those in Britannia Avenue and Anson Avenue during the 1950s. Of the remaining station buildings the following may be mentioned: the 2 westerly hangars were erected in 1926 and that on the east sometime later, while
Station Headquarters and the Headquarters of 1 Group were built in 1962 an extension being added in 1968.
ROYAL AIR FORCE UPAVON - COMMANDING OFFICERS
Royal Flying Corps
Captain G M Paine CB MVO RN
Lieutenant Colonel D Le G Pitcher
Lieutenant Colonel C J Burke DSO
Captain A C H MacLean
Lieutenant Colonel A J L Scott MC
Royal Air Force
Major J C Slessor
Captain H Maintjes MC
Lieutenant Colonel P H L Playfair MC
Wing Commander G D Breese AFC
Wing Commander P K Wise CMG DSO
Wing Commander H D K MaCEwen CMG DSO
Air Commodore E A D Masterman CMG CBE AFC
Group Captain F V Holt CMG DSO
Group Captain W R Freeman DSO MC
Wing Commander V S Brown
Wing Commander W R Read MC DFC AFC
Wing Commander E W Norton DSC
Wing Commander G S M Install VC MC
Wing Commander A D Pryor
Group Captain H G Smart CBE DFC AFC
Group Captain J M Robb DSO DFC
Wing Commander D W F Bonham-Carter
Wing Commander G H Stainforth AFC
Air Commodore J M Robb DSO DFC
Group Captain H H Down AFC
Group Captain A J Holmes AFC
Group Captain E A C Britton DFC
Squadron Leader Parker
Squadron Leader W McGregor
Squadron Leader S J Rawlins
Squadron Leader M P Thompson
Squadron Leader D T Lees MC
Squadron Leader L J Hill
Squadron Leader K H Steel OBE
Squadron Leader C G Lewis
Squadron Leader R P James MBE
Squadron Leader R R McGowan AFC
Squadron Leader T A Warren
Squadron Leader N Comber
Squadron Leader M Gill
Squadron Leader H C Burrows
Group Captain R S Bradley
Wing Commander J R Shepherd
Wing Commander W G Wood
Squadron Leader J E Dixon
Squadron Leader A R J Pascall
Squadron Leader R A Betteridge
Squadron Leader M Pritchard
Squadron Leader K W Baldock
Squadron Leader D N Barnes
Squadron Leader C F Shaw
Squadron Leader R I Clifford MIMgt