Building work started in the early summer of 1943. The design of the airfield was to be that of a typical 'Type A' with three runways that intersected at a central point. RAF personnel took over control in Jan 1944 and the first RAF squadron, No. 620, arrived on the 19th March with the second, No. 190, arriving on the 25th of March.
The two Squadrons operated the Short Stirling Mk IV a modified version of the RAF's first 4-engined bomber to allow dual operation as glider towing tugs and paratroop transports. They flew in from RAF Leicester East and towed Horsa gliders into Fairford as part of the transfer flights.
The Entrance to RAF Fairford Today
The Squadrons commenced training in both glider towing and paratroop dropping as well as flying night-time missions in support of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and SAS. These missions were quite hazardous and a number of aircraft were lost. Aircraft were also lost in training accidents, the worst being when two Stirlings collided over Kempsford and crashed, killing all those on board.
Despite these losses and support missions, the Squadrons were working up to D-Day. Their part in the invasion of Normandy was twofold. On the night of the 5th of June, 45 aircraft were detailed to carry 887 paratroops and their equipment to the dropping zone (DZ) where they were to secure and hold bridges over the River Orne and to secure a firm base east of the river. Three aircraft from 620 Squadron were lost.
On the afternoon of the 6th of June, 36 Stirling/Horsa combinations were airborne between 19. 10 and 20.01 hours. The gliders cast off and landed troops and equipment near Ranville to support and reinforce troops landed during the night.
After the excitement of D-Day, both Squadrons were soon back supporting SOE and SAS operations. They also continued glider towing exercises and this pattern of operations continued until Operation Market Garden in September 1944.
The Squadrons were to have an important role in the airborne assault on Arnhem when 6 aircraft were to drop pathfinders to mark DZs and glider Landing Zones (LZ). This was followed up by a further 36aircraft/glider combinations of which 31 gliders landed successfully. The following day a further 33 combinations were in the air and 27 gliders were landed.
On subsequent days, the Stirlings were used to drop much needed supplies of ammunition and equipment to the beleaguered paratroops. However, aircraft looses were increasing and during 6 days of Market Garden, 190 Squadron lost 12 aircraft and 620 5 aircraft with a large number from both Squadrons damaged.
The aircraft were involved in one more major mission when the Squadrons were detailed to ferry Horsa gliders to Italy. This they accomplished by the 10th October 1944. The aircraft then returned to the UK but not to Fairford. During the time that they were away, it had been decided to move the aircraft, aircrews and support personnel to RAF Great Dunmow in Essex.
So ended Fairford's role in major operations. For the rest of the war it became a satellite airfield for RAF Keevil in Wiltshire and used as a glider pilot training unit to rapidly train glider pilots in order to make up the losses suffered at Arnhem.
© 2013 Fairford History Society