SEVENTY-FIVE years ago RAF Benson opened for the first time, with Group Captain Ralph Leather the base’s first station commander.
So far, the archives have only revealed an old photo of him but researchers are trying to find out more of his life story.
They have been piecing together a detailed history of the base in preparation for the anniversary, and a series of events are being scheduled throughout the year to celebrate the milestone.
There are about 4,000 people behind the wire at Benson with 1,800 personnel, civil servants, contractors and their families living in about 600 houses.
They will be invited to take part in the anniversary celebrations throughout the year, as will the town of Wallingford, where RAF personnel and a marching band will exercise the freedom of the town on June 25, a special privilege the town offers the base.
On April 24 there will be a celebration on the base, and another event is being planned in May for the neighbouring villages of Benson and Ewelme.
From tomorrow historians, with the help of the base media officer Nikki Hamilton, will place their latest discoveries about RAF Benson’s history on its Facebook page and Twitter feed.
For the past four years, Mick Prendergast has been beavering away at Benson to bring together all the different stories from the past seven-and-a-half decades.
In a bid to make those stories of bravery in the face of adversity more widely known, many are also going up online.
Mr Prendergast, from Tiddington, near Thame, was an aircraft painter and finisher on the Queen’s Flight from 1981 to 1987, and has been the base historian for the past five years.
- Mick Prendergast
“We’ve got a room here at Benson with lots of photos up on display but it’s not always open to the public so this anniversary is a good opportunity to bring material together and get some of it online,” he said.
“There are some amazing stories of bravery over the years and some of them we now have on display.
“Flying Officer Frank Fray was tasked to take photos of the Mohne Dam in Germany following the Dambusters raid in 1943.
“He is now dead but his logbook has been bequeathed to us.
“Flt Lt Alastair Gunn and Flying Officer Sidney Dowse were in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III in Sagan.
“Flt Lt Gunn was recaptured and shot by the Gestapo but Flying Officer Dowse was released by the Russians after he was put in a concentration camp.
- Flt Lt Alastair Gunn
- Flying Officer Frank Fray
- Flying Officer Sidney Dowse
“People often get in touch with me to hand over new material and I go looking for it in war museums.
“One family in Ewelme got in touch and said they had six wheels and tyres from an Avro Anson sitting in their shed with two brakes from a Mosquito.”
In Mr Prendergast’s history room at the base, Benson heroes from more recent conflicts are also featured, including Flt Lt Michelle Goodman, who was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for her bravery in June 2007, flying in the centre of Basra City in Iraq to help take part in a rescue operation.
- Flt Lt Michelle Goodman
Ms Hamilton said: “There will be events right throughout the year to celebrate the 75th anniversary but some of the dates have not yet been finalised.”
Referring to the Freedom parade, Wing Commander Karl Mahon, the Officer Commanding Base Support Wing at RAF Benson, said: “During our 75th anniversary year, we felt that it was fitting that we honoured not only our heritage but also our close links with the local community that have developed and extended over three quarters of a century.
“We were delighted to accept the invitation from Wallingford to take this opportunity to exercise the Freedom of the Borough.
“It promises to be a spectacular occasion that appropriately marks a milestone in our history and further cements our close relations with the town.”
RAF Benson is a frontline support helicopter base working within the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC).
The station is home to Puma helicopers of 33 and 230 Squadrons, Merlin HC3 and HC3a helicopters of 28 (AC) and 78 Squadrons, and the Tutor T1 Aircraft of Oxford University Air Squadron and 6 Air Experience Flight.
RAF Reserve unit 606 (Chiltern) Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force are also located there as a helicopter support squadron.
There are also numerous other lodger units based at Benson including Thames Valley Police helicopters of the Chiltern Air Support Unit and the Thames Valley and Chiltern Air Ambulance.
Second World War
With Germany building up its military forces in the 1930s, the Government decided to buy up land to build new aerodromes.
Land owned by five families, formerly part of the Duchy of Cornwall’s estate, was bought by compulsory purchase order so that the RAF station at Benson could be built.
Group Captain Ralph Leather arrived on January 18, 1939, and officially opened the station on February 1 under No 1 Group Bomber Command.
The base was home to No 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit throughout the Second World War.
The new airfield welcomed its first aircraft when two squadrons of Fairey Battle Bombers moved in on April 3, 1939.
The Battle squadrons were then joined by the King’s Flight from Hendon, which was renamed the Queen’s Flight after the death of King George VI.
The Queen’s Flight remained at Benson, apart from a break during World War II, until 1995 when it moved to Northolt.
The Battles left Benson in 1940 and were replaced by twin-engine Wellington Bombers. That month Spitfires of 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit put Benson in the forefront of the war.
In 1953, the station regrouped under Transport Command. Two squadrons, 147 and 167, had responsibility for ferrying aircraft to all parts of the world including Germany and the Far East.
The first Armstrong Whitworth Argosy arrived on November 20, 1961, and two Argosy squadrons, 114 and 267, operated from Benson until the spring of 1970 as part of the medium-range transport force of Air Support Command.
In 1972 there were station extensions and improvements and in 1983 No 115 Squadron, the Andover Training Flight, the Andover Serving Flight and the Support Command Flight Checking Unit all moved to RAF Benson from RAF Brize Norton.
In 1986, the BAe entered service with the Queen’s Flight and in 1989 the station celebrated its 50th anniversary.
In 1990 the role of the base changed with the influx of new units and in March 1992, 60 Squadron formed with Wessex HC2 helicopters returning from Northern Ireland.
In 1997, Puma helicopters arrived and 2001 saw the reformation of the Merlin Squadron, with 28 Squadron accommodating the Merlin HC3.
As 2007 drew to a close a new Merlin Squadron was ‘stood up’ at the base, with 78 Squadron reformed alongside 28 Squadron.
In November 2009, the Puma Force was reunited at RAF Benson, when 230 Squadron moved from Northern Ireland to join 33 Squadron.
Last year, after more than 10 years on operation in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, the Merlin force returned from Operation HERRICK to RAF Benson.