Finmere Airfield (RAF Finmere)

Before 1938, the skies in the triangle with Bicester, Banbury and Buckingham at its corners were comparatively free of military aircraft. With the advent of the Second World War in September 1939, that was about to change. In 1941, there was an abundance of new airfields within or close to that triangle; nearly all were Operational Training Units (OTUs). The OTUs job was to transform airmen into battle-ready aircrew for Bomber Command’s war machine. Some airfields remain and many travellers have paused to view the long evacuated, disintegrating sites, their decaying steel and concrete now hidden by the time-encroaching woodland and brambles. These mysterious sites conjure up images of bombers, droning into the night on missions over enemy territory, never to return, or so badly damaged they return on a ‘wing and a prayer.’

Aerodromes in or near the triangle include Upper Heyford, Weston-on-the-Green, Bicester, Mixbury Landing Ground (Shelswell), Barton Abbey (Hopcroft’s Holt), Turweston, Hinton-in-the-Hedges, Great Horwood, Silverstone, Croughton, Barford St John, Enstone and RAF Finmere. Relics of Finmere’s former operational status are still evident. The most recognisable are the short span of main east/west runway (10/28) and two aircraft maintenance hangars, both in good repair. The most poignant reminder is the dilapidated control tower; a very sorry sight situated in the middle of the aerodrome.

But what of its past? To find the answer, we go back to RAF Bicester, 6 km (4 miles) south of Finmere. Bicester RAF camp was established in 1916. By April 1940, it was home for a newly formed 13 OTU operating Bristol Blenheim Mk 1 & Mk 1V twin engine medium bombers, following the amalgamation of No. 104 & No. 108 squadrons. The new OTU was created to supply aircrew, following crippling losses sustained by Blenheim squadrons during early action assisting British Expeditionary Forces during the French campaign before Dunkirk. Unfortunately, RAF Bicester had one major problem that could not be easily overcome—it was an all grass airfield and proved unserviceable during wet winter periods.

Also, two exciting new American bombers were due to come into service and would replace the ageing Blenheims: the Douglas Boston and, later, the North American Mitchell. Both were fast twin engine medium bombers. They were wholly unsuitable for grass airfields because of their tricycle undercarriage and weight. They had a nose wheel instead of tail wheel, the later being a feature of nearly all British aircraft during the Second World War. Their fully loaded weight was nearly double that of the 14,500 pound (6,500 kg) Blenheim bomber. A building programme of satellite airfields became a top priority to relieve the pressure of aircrew training on the premier stations. At Finmere, the first priority was runway lay out. This differed from most wartime airfields, in that all three concrete runways radiate from the northern tip of the ‘drome’. The airfield configuration was almost ‘shoe-horned’ into an area surrounded by the local roadways. The Tingewick to Newton Purcell by-road was closed at the airfield for the duration of the war.

Apart from the runway layout, the rest of the airfield was similar to other satellite airfields, except for the position of the control tower, which was close to the end of all three runways. Such was the urgency of training that by late 1941 and even before the contractors had finished their work the aircraft of 13 OTU Bicester were using the newly constructed runways.

By the end of July 1942, when the airfield was declared officially operational, residents of Finmere and Little Tingewick had grown accustomed to the sight and sound of Blenheim Mk I planes, their short Perspex noses, and Blenheim Mk IV planes, with long perspex noses, taking off and landing over their homes. An area once festooned with wild life, ponds, ditches, and cattle grazing pastures was now forbidden territory to locals who were warned to ‘KEEP OUT.’

Quiet rarely prevailed. Aircraft movement only ceased when the planes were grounded due to very bad weather, on which occasions their eerie form was just discernable through the gloom, while anchored to their hard standing pans, twenty-seven of which were scattered around the airfield perimeter track, or taxi-way.

Despite Finmere being classified as a satellite of RAF Bicester, it soon assumed a much greater role because of its ability to cater for heavier and faster aircraft. Thanks to its concrete runways, it became an important source of pilot training for 2 Group Bomber Command, especially with its Drem electric runway lighting essential for night exercises. RAF Bicester still used ‘goose neck flares,’ which were rather like watering cans stuffed full of oily rag, the flame coming out of the spout.

Later the concrete surfaces were modified. Pete Reeve, now living at Fritwell and then 15–16 years old, recalls:

In 1942–3, I worked for the contractors, Audbry Watson Ltd.We were contracted at Finmere to coat the main runways with wood chipping—something like match sticks. They were rolled into hot tar, ending up in a layer, about a quarter of an inch [6mm] thick. My job was to sweep surplus chips up for further use, using an old sweeping lorry. They were super soft to walk on and saved aircraft tyre life no end. I liked working at Finmere, I was paid 6d per hour, the cookhouse dinners were smashing and cost 3d.

Blenheim bombers were withdrawn from operations with Bomber Command by August 1942 but training continued at Finmere using both marks of aircraft: with No 307 Ferry Training Unit, (FTU) formed at RAF Bicester in late 1942, later moving to Finmere in 1943. Their task was to ferry aircraft to northwest Africa. The move also assisted Blenheim crews to convert to the new Bostons and Havocs. Occasional fighter aircraft frequented Finmere, including the famous Spitfire and Tempest. They were from the Fighter Affiliation Flight at RAF Bicester, which trained bomber crews in retaliation and avoidance of enemy fighters; training that proved invaluable over the battle zone. Of 7,781 de Havilland Mosquitos built throughout the UK, Canada and Australia between 1941 and 1950, not one flying example exists today. Known as the ‘Wooden Wonder’ its versatility was unique and, besides photo reconnaissance, it provided the fastest and most potent operational twin engine fighter-bomber of its era. 13 OTU at RAF Finmere was due to receive them by mid 1943 but they did not come into use until January 1944. By March 1945, the end of the war in Europe was in sight, but the war in the Far East seemed destined to continue. Finmere had become a ‘hot-bed’ for Mosquito aircrew training with almost fifty aircraft available, turning out thirty trained crews per month for the Far East. The war was hastened to an end by the detonation of two atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. Already, by July 1945, the runways of RAF Finmere had fallen silent.

After the war, Finmere airfield became a storage area for 38 Group (Transport Command). Amongst other equipment stored were many tons of surplus ammunition. It is now used as a Sunday Market.