Betheniville - Champagne – France
Midway between Argonne and Reims in the French province of Champagne is situatedthe little town of Betheniville. After WW1 the town was almost in ruins but was rebuilt in the 1920s and the rural life returned to normal.
In the 1930s a number of satellite and dispersal airfields were created in the area of the large Reims airfield and Betheniville was one of the sites chosen. Suitable land was compulsory purchased in 1935 and construction work began in November of that year.
The land was leveled and two concrete platforms were set for the provision of supplies. Three tanks were installed for fuel and oil storage. The nearby road was widened andresurfaced and electrical and telephone wires laid underground to the site. Some of the trees in the vicinity were cut down as they were considered a hazard to aircraft landingand taking off.
The airfield was little used until August 1939 when the French 66th Air Companyarrived and erected tents and temporary buildings and also connected up the electrical power and telephone lines. Fire appliances were brought in and a flashing beacon set up at a nearby farm. 225 RAF bombs were delivered from Mourmelon and trucks, a mobile kitchen, motor bikes and a bus also arrived. Two anti aircraft sites were built for airfield defense and a number of Lewis guns and mountings were also delivered.
On the 2nd of September 16 Fairey Battles of XV Sqn and 16 similar aircraft of 40 Sqn departed from Abingdon for Betheniville and 31 arrived later that day. One aircraft of 40 Sqn had the misfortune to suffer an engine failure and ditched in the Channel. The crew were rescued by a passing steamer and returned to the UK. Other squadron personnel and equipment was either flown in by transport aircraft ortravelled by road, rail and ferry.
By the 17th September the complement of the station had reached 769. RAF airmen were billeted with families in and around the village and also in requisitioned buildings like the school and town hall. The 66th Air Company dugtrenches in and around the village as air raid shelters and defensive positions and also mounted guard. 15 new tents were delivered and erected at the request of the RAF 71 Wing which had a temporary HQ at Betheniville until moving into a large house in the area later that month.
On the 11th September XV Squadron moved out to Vraux. 40 Sqn undertook various reconnaissance tasks and training flights until moving back to the UK to be re-equipped with Bristol Blenheims at the end of November.
They were replaced by 139 Sqn with their Bristol Blenheims on the 30th November. They were preceded by ten transport aircraft which transported 14 tons of equipment. Other flights were undertaken on the 2nd December. 139 Sqn soon settled into to their new surroundings and commenced training exercises on the bombing and gunnery ranges at Moronvilliers.
On the 17th December Betheniville was visited by the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
139 Sqn undertook numerous reconnaissance flights and training tasks, the harsh winter weather permitting, until they too departed for Plivot in February 1940.
Betheniville then became part of 75 Wing and 103 Sqn were transferred to the airfield from Plivot, arriving on the 15th February. During the winter of 39/40 the airfield defenses had been improved and additional anti aircraft emplacements and air raid shelters dug. Dummy aircraft were erected around the airfield to confuse any attackers.
103 Sqn commenced a period of intensive training as the weather improved and started flying reconnaissance and leaflet dropping missions into Germany.
On the 11th April 1940 Lord Trenchard paid a visit to the airfield speaking to a numberof pilots.
The long period of the Phoney War came dramatically to a close at dawn on the 10thMay 1940 when the German commenced their attack on France. Betheniville received a raid at 5.00 hours which slightly damaged two aircraft.
Over the next few weeks 103 Sqn were involved in a series of desperate attacks against hopeless odds in an attempt to stem the advancing Germans. 501 Sqn with 16 Hawker Hurricanes were flown over from the UK that day to strengthen the Allied fighter cover. Tragically a transport aircraft flying in 501 Sqn personnel and equipment crashed onlanding on the 11th May.
501 Sqn were soon engaged in fierce air combat until being withdrawn on the 16th May.
On the 13th May Betheniville was bombed again by 40 aircraft with most of thebombing falling around the village. The airfield was bombed three times on the morning of the following day without sustaining any damage. Another raid followed in the afternoon mostly falling on the village, in particular an old people’s home, and causing many casualties amongst the local people.
On the 15th May the airfield was subjected to another raid destroying one aircraft. Atthis time relations with the local people became very strained as the French population started to panic blaming the RAF for their predicament.
Later that day orders came through for all RAF personnel to evacuate the airfield andwithdraw to less vulnerable airfields to the West. The first convoy from 103 Sqn leftlater that day followed by the main ground party and equipment and aircraft the day after. 103 Sqn left a rearguard to destroy all remaining equipment and services and thisparty did sterling work under almost continuous bombardment until the 20th May when they too were finally withdrawn.
501 Sqn started their withdrawal on the 16th and also designated a rearguard to stay behind and destroy all equipment that had to be left on site. They too withdrew severaldays later.
Soon afterwards the advancing Germans took control of the area.
The Germans used a local factory for the salvage of gliders used in their assault and the airfield was used to fly the gliders out. Later the factory was used for the storage and assembly of V1 flying bombs.
The site has long since returned to agricultural use but the memories of the days of 1939 and 1940 still remain and the local people erected a memorial to the airmen of both 103 Sqn and 501 Sqn who were killed during this period. This tribute stands proudly to mark the site of the old airfield.
Source Betheniville 1939-1940 by Arnaud Gillet
Item written by David Fell