Great Horwood During World War II June Margerrison
For some, it was World War II that put Great Horwood on the map. What actually happened in our sleepy village that made it so important to the war effort? The main influence was undoubtedly the building of RAF Little Horwood, a wartime airfield that was sited predominantly in Great Horwood with over half its area and almost all its buildings to the south of Great Horwood and in the village itself.
The airfield was established to act as a base for Operational Training Units (OTUs) whose role was to train Bomber Command recruits for combat missions and for ‘nickelling’ (dropping propaganda leaflets over occupied Europe).
Construction of the new airfield used rubble from bomb-damaged London. This was transported by rail and truck to the site to be used as hard-core for the runways, dispersal areas and roads. Irish workers were brought in to build the airfield and were billeted in Nissen huts on the Winslow Road. The migrant workers numbered about a dozen to begin with, but soon the demand for labour increased their ranks to over a hundred. However, before building work could begin the land had to be drained, and drainage pipes laid along with cables for the power supply. Finally, runways could be prepared and accommodation buildings erected. Much of this work was very physical as suitable equipment was not available locally for requisition, so machinery was brought in from other places including Dunton, Oving and Stony Stratford.
RAF Little Horwood lay on land to the south of Great Horwood, but many of its buildings and facilities were in and around the village.
The airfield became operational on 2nd September 1942 and served as a satellite for Wing airfield. Wellington bombers from No 26 OTU arrived along with the OTU Gunnery Section and the 92 Group Communications Flight to commence the basic training of recruits. No 1684 OTU Bomber Defence Training Flight moved in on 5th June 1943 and simulated battles were undertaken using Tomahawk aircraft.
Use of the airfield was shared with the Army; a Royal Signals unit worked under the control of Whaddon Hall, the home of the Special Communications Unit. The duty of this Signals unit was to send and receive covert radio messages, and as the war progressed this section worked hand-in-hand with Special Operations Unit and Political Intelligence Department to drop spies and specialist propaganda operatives behind the enemy lines. These groups were also largely responsible for supporting the work done by the French Resistance. The Special Communications Unit also utilised a building on the airfield for the top-secret manufacture and assembly of a critical tool in the war effort. A clandestine radio known as the ‘paraset’ had initially been developed in London with two prototypes, which were then moved to Whaddon Hall for small-scale trials and manufacture. After tests proved very successful the radio was put into production in the back of the Signals unit vehicle workshop under strict secrecy, with production running from 1942 until the end of the war. A wireless station was also positioned along the Bletchley road.
The airfield buildings were scattered so as to minimise damage from enemy attacks (which never came). The Communal Area contained the officers’ mess, the sergeants’ mess, a canteen and cinema, the NAAFI, and the sick quarters; Sites 1, 3 and 5 were living quarters for officers, sergeants and airmen (Site 5, was the former labour camp); Site 2 and 4 were living quarters for officers and sergeants only; the WAAF Site was self-contained with communal facilities and living quarters.
Many people have seen the BBC sitcom Dad’s Army and may wonder how true to life the tales really were. Recollections of the time do suggest that the camaraderie among the men of the Home Guard and competition with rival village platoons playing tricks on one another were real enough. The relatively high ground of the village location and the use of the church tower were certainly an advantage.
Home Guard rifle practice was held in sand pits at Little Horwood. Two platoon members, Gordon Marks and Henry Taylor, were positioned next to each other at these sessions, with Henry being a very good shot but reluctant to carry a rifle. Both men were issued with the same number of rounds, but when the targets were checked Gordon had twice as many hits as he should have, and Henry had none. Village resident Daphne Hanson, who was a teenager at the time, went once to watch, and after the men’s practice had a go herself. Daphne was an excellent shot, having been taught by her father, and she was able to outshoot all of the men.
The rural location of Great Horwood also played a vital part in the war effort because of its surrounding farms. Land Girls moved into the area, some staying with local families and others in premises requisitioned from Dr Kennish in Horn Street, Winslow. Mrs Tremayne who resided in Stonecroft, Great Horwood ran the hostel with a Mr Kemp from Granborough transporting the girls to the farms each day. The local Ministry of Agriculture office was also located in Winslow.
Local residents recall that food was not an issue during the war. Standard rations were supplemented by rabbits and game from the fields, home-grown vegetables and the friendly Air Force contributions. No-one seemed to go hungry.
Great Horwood played a role in the housing of evacuees together with orphaned children from Dr Barnardos. Many came from London, not just children but also their parents, some of whom stayed on after the war.
Italian prisoners of war were also housed in the village, billeted in the airfield accommodation buildings (now demolished) in Pilch Lane. There must have been a language barrier when the prisoners were asked to do odd jobs around the village, but recollections are that they were generally amiable, always speaking to the children. Perhaps they were missing their families back home.
Firm friendships were formed during the war. One stands out; a London navvy, Bill Compton, had come to the village to help build the airfield, and was befriended by the Barfoot family. When Bill returned to Wealdstone in north London after the war he kept up his contact with Great Horwood, and came to stay each year for the next thirty years during August Bank Holiday weekend, walking the six or seven miles from Bletchley railway station to the village.
Another member of the Barfoot family, living at 18 Spring Lane, owned a small mongrel dog called Sally which became a mascot for the airmen and accompanied them on raids over Germany. Needless to say her owner, Margaret Barfoot, was always glad to see Sally back in the shed in the morning because she knew that at least one of the planes had returned safely.
Residents of the village certainly saw an upturn in their social lives throughout the war. Young ladies of the village were rewarded for their waitressing work on camp by being allowed to go to the cinema situated on site and the Sergeants’ Mess dances, being checked in and out at the guard house. Wartime morale was also boosted with social afternoons and weekly dances in the Village Hall. Village resident Mrs Gertie Davies (the wife of the then Rector, the Reverend Reginald Davies) joined the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service in North Buckinghamshire in 1939. Throughout the war she did admirable work running two busy service canteens, and recruiting and organising teams to run emergency telephones. By 1949 Mrs Davies was appointed WVS (now WRVS) centre organiser for the Winslow district; her duties included the regular distribution of welfare food and clothes at the request of the local authority, which had learned to rely confidently on her good sense and discretion. Over thirty years after her work had begun, Mrs Davies received the British Empire Medal for her unstinting work for the community.
Mrs Gertie Davies.
One downside to friendships with the RAF young men was when village residents were told that such-and-such a flyer had not come home. Daphne Hanson remembered one particularly shy young man, Arthur Aaron, aged 21, who did not return. Arthur had trained at RAF Little Horwood, and had become the captain and pilot of a Stirling four-engined bomber attached to 218 Squadron.
Short Stirling bombers, as flown from RAF Little Horwood.
On the night of 12th August 1943 Arthur, by now an Acting Flight Sergeant and the holder of a DFM (Distinguished Flying Medal), and his crew left their base. Their mission was a bomb-run over Turin, Italy. However they encountered an enemy fighter which delivered a devastating burst of fire. The Stirling was hit 36 times, three engines were holed, the rear windscreen smashed, front and rear turrets put out of action and the elevator control damaged. The navigator was killed and several other crew members wounded. A bullet struck Arthur in the face, breaking his jaw and tearing away part of his face. He was also wounded in his lung and his right arm was rendered useless. Despite his horrific injuries Arthur insisted on helping the crew make a successful landing near Tunis, where he died nine hours later. Arthur Louis Aaron was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. The citation on his award read ‘Had he been content, when grievously wounded, to lie still and conserve his failing strength, he would probably have recovered’.
Acting Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron VC DFM.
Sadly, disasters could occur closer to home. In the early hours of Saturday 7th August 1943 a Wellington bomber based at RAF Little Horwood crashed on Winslow while returning from a training exercise, killing four of the five crew including the pilot, and 13 Winslow residents. The 22-year-old pilot, Sergeant Wilfred Davies had decided to return to base because of a malfunction with the bomb sight, but when he made his approach he found his landing blocked by another aircraft which had belly-flopped on the runway. He tried to complete another circuit of the airfield but failed to gain enough height. The plane hit the top of a walnut tree and crashed through the top storey of a butcher’s shop into the Chandos Arms, killing the landlord, and finishing up in Rose Cottages. Among the dead was a three-month-old baby who was buried in her mother’s arms, and a couple with their daughter and grand-daughter who had left London to escape the Blitz.
The aftermath of the Winslow air crash of 7th August 1943
Flying from the airfield finished on 30th November 1945. By the end of 1947 the RAF camp was evacuated by the forces. It was reported at the time that within a very short interval of the departure residents of condemned or unsatisfactory cottage properties in the village moved onto the camp and took up their new abodes. Other residents of the village watched the migration with surprise, as furniture removal was carried out in the pouring rain. The squatters had obviously taken some time, prior to their moves, in selecting their new residences and had undoubtedly picked the best accommodation. This included the former WAAF quarters, the hospital, the NAAFI premises and extensive former stores, and the Officer Commanding’s quarters. It was believed at the time that a rumour that the camp was to be taken over for displaced persons had also encouraged the exodus of the villagers from their condemned homes. The new camp occupants described their new abodes as ‘palaces’ compared to the damp, leaky and rat-infested premises which they had left behind.
After the squatters moved in: Dick Barfoot in front of some of the former RAF buildings.
The camp was demolished in the 1960s, much to the disappointment of the village children, as a lot of fun was had on the derelict site. Playing chase in and out of the buildings and swinging on loose drainpipes were favourite pastimes. No health and safety regulations in those days, but nobody seemed to come to any harm. The Spring Lane and Greenway houses were later built on the site.
Two known buildings which did survive lie on Jeannie Marshall’s land in Spring Lane and are rumoured to be haunted. Tales of snooker cues sailing around the air and a headless airman walking in one door and out through the opposite one have been told. Jeannie was informed that the airman met an untimely end whilst starting a small plane by manually turning the propeller, which whipped back taking his head with it!
A permanent memorial to our local fallen heroes of World War 2 is situated inside St.James, Great Horwood. A commemorative roll call of casualties is made each Remembrance Day, following a service in St James’ Church.