The History of RAF Brize Norton
Construction of the airfield at the Brize Norton site began in 1935. Although most of the site lay within the parish boundary of Carterton, it was thought that there would be confusion with RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire, and hence it was decided to name the station after the next nearest village, Brize Norton.The official opening of RAF Brize Norton took place on 13 August 1937, but No 2 Flying Training School, the first unit to be stationed here, arrived on 7 September 1937, before the building programme had been completed. The Station was used for various forms of flying training until July 1942, when it became the home of the Heavy Glider Conversion Unit (HGCU), later renamed No 21 HGCU, which remained at RAF Brize Norton until 31 December 1945.
Between March and October 1944 the Station was used as a base for parachute and glider operations by Nos 296 and 297 Squadrons, both equipped with Albemarles. On D-Day, these Squadrons were involved in dropping paratroops and launching Horsa gliders for the purpose of capturing bridges, six miles inland from the coast, over the River Orne and Caen Canal. On the same day, two more gliders were placed directly on a coastal battery controlling the estuary of the River Orne, which was in a position to oppose the seaborne landings. All of these operations were completed successfully. The Squadrons were involved in the airborne landings at Arnhem in September 1944, and throughout the period March-October 1944 they were also engaged in dropping personnel and supplies to the resistance movements in Europe.
On 31 December 1945, RAF Brize Norton was transferred from Flying Training Command to Transport Command, and became the home of the Transport Command Development Unit and the School of Flight Efficiency. The Army Airborne Transport Development Unit joined these units in May 1946. Flying Training Command returned to the Station with No 204 AFTS in August 1949, but their stay was only to be a short one and they left in June 1950 when the first Americans began to arrive.
The USAF formally accepted control of RAF Brize Norton on 16 April 1951. Until early 1952, the main task of the USAF elements at RAF Brize Norton was to support US Army engineers engaged in extending the runway and building taxiways, hardstandings and accommodation.
In June 1952, some 21 B36 Convair Peacemaker bombers of the USAF were the first American aircraft to arrive at RAF Brize Norton. The first jet bombers to land here were B47 Stratojets in September 1953. A rotation of bomber wings and refuelling squadrons continued until April 1958, with the exception of a period of runway reconstruction from October 1955 until September 1956. In April 1958, the Reflex alert concept came into force and, under this arrangement, units of Strategic Air Command were detached from the United States for a 90-day tour of duty. A total of seven USAF bomber wings provided B47 aircraft for Reflex duty at RAF Brize Norton, the last one returning to the United States in April 1965.
On 1 April 1965 the Royal Air Force took back control of RAF Brize Norton and it became a Transport Command airfield. Then, on the renaming of the Command in August 1967, it became an Air Support Command airfield. There followed a steady build up of personnel and facilities to make RAF Brize Norton the Strategic Air Transport (AT) base for the Royal Air Force. This included the construction of the Gateway House Hotel and the building of the £2 million Base Hangar, at that time the largest cantilever structure in Western Europe. Two Britannia Squadrons, Nos 99 and 511, joined the VC10s of No 10 Squadron and the Belfasts of No 53 Squadron in June 1970 to bring the Station up to its full operational strength. Early in 1972, the Station became part of No 46 Group, Strike Command and, in October 1975, became part of No 38 Group, Strike Command.
Following the 1974 Defence White Paper, Nos 53, 99 and 511 Squadrons were disbanded. No 10 Squadron remained to provide its worldwide role, and it was joined by No 115 Squadron in 1976, operating Argosy aircraft which were used to calibrate Service Ground Radio and Radar Aids. Andover aircraft replaced the Argosys and, in 1982, No 115 Squadron was moved to RAF Benson. To replace the disbanded Nos 53, 99 and 511 Squadrons, the following major units moved into RAF Brize Norton during 1976: the Joint Air Transport Establishment; No 38 Group Tactical Communications Wing (TCW); No 1 Parachute Training School and the RAF Movements School.
In 1982, many TCW and Station personnel were deployed to Ascension Island in support of the Falkland Islands conflict. No 10 Squadron was heavily engaged with moving personnel, stores and ammunition to Ascension Island, and the recovery of casualties from Ascension and Montevideo. At the end of the War, No 10 Squadron repatriated hundreds of Servicemen back to their families. The Squadron then assumed the re-supply task for the new Falklands Garrison. Also in 1982, the Royal Auxiliary Air Force Squadrons were formed. No 4624 (County of Oxford) Movements Squadron and No 2624 (County of Oxford) Regiment Squadron recruited locally and were based at RAF Brize Norton. In 1983, the first TriStar arrived, and the following year No 216 Squadron was formed and the first VC10K was delivered to No 101 Squadron.
The usefulness of a large tanker force was graphically illustrated during RAF Brize Norton's next major commitment, the Gulf War in 1991. No 101 Squadron deployed to the Gulf area, as did elements of No 216 Squadron. They provided air-to-air refuelling (AAR) support for the RAF's fast jet assets as well as providing support for the US Navy and Marine Corps. No 10 Squadron, along with the balance of No 216 Squadron, provided logistic support into theatre. TCW and many individual Station personnel also deployed into Saudi Arabia as part of the Multi-National Force.
With the demise of the Victor force in 1993, RAF Brize Norton became the centre for all AAR operations in the Royal Air Force. During 1994, No 19 Squadron RAF Regiment, which was based at RAF Brize Norton for the purpose of providing Rapier missile defence for the United States Air Force bases at nearby RAF Upper Heyford and RAF Fairford, was disbanded. Over the years, the Station has maintained its links with the USAF, hosting several large-scale USAF tanker deployments and culminating in a major operational deployment providing support for the Kosovo air campaign. RAF Brize Norton's assets were widely used, with aircraft from Nos 10, 101 and 216 Sqns all playing key roles, whilst the USAF detachment flew 24 KC135 aircraft from the Station for the duration of the operation. At the same time, the nearby USAF base of RAF Fairford was launching B52 and B1 sorties. As a result, the airspace was sometimes quite crowded.
On 1 April 2000, the Station became part of No 2 Group. The complement of flying squadrons was increased to four with the formation of No 99 Sqn and the arrival of C-17 aircraft in Summer 2001. Following the tragic incidents of 11 September 2001, RAF Brize Norton has played a significant role in the campaign against terrorism. A total of 7 aircraft and 500 personnel deployed to support operations in Afghanistan, and 12 aircraft and 600 personnel deployed in support of Operation Telic (Iraq). For both operations, the Station undertook the movement of record numbers of passengers and massive amounts of freight before, during and after war fighting operations.
Today, the Station is as busy as ever, being home to the entire RAF AAR fleet and Strategic AT fleets. Aircraft depart 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on worldwide operations, and any world hotspot or crisis invariably sees the arrival of VC10s, TriStars or C-17s from RAF Brize Norton. In the future, as in the past, RAF Brize Norton will continue to play its part on the world stage, providing support and relief wherever it is most needed.