Starting life as a none-flying airfield of the Royal Flying Corps in 1917, Bury (Ramsey) Airfield in Cambridgeshire was initially used as a night landing and satellite airfield for the nearby Elmswell, over the border in Suffolk, who were flying BE2c’s on No. 75 squadron. By the summer of 1918, they had affiliated with the newly formed Royal Air Force. In July, 191 (Night) Training Squadron had joined the unit, adding DH.6 aircraft to the mix, and shortly afterwards moved onto the FE2b. Five hangars were placed, and the name changed to RAF Upwood, 190 NTS arrived in October 1918 with the 504k. The two squadrons were part of the Home Defence force, designated to observe and intercept enemy aircraft on home soil. In 1919, RAF Upwood closed as an operational unit.
Following a review of RAF needs, in 1934, major expansion of operational units began, and in 1936 RAF Upwood was re-opened. By 1936, new C-Type Hangars were being built to accommodate two permanent squadrons of bomber aircraft, with potential for a third. Early in 1937, 52 squadron, flying Hawker Hinds and 63 squadron with Hawker Audaxes arrived, and were later designated as training squadrons, implementing Avro Ansons and Fairey Battles. Following Germany’s aggression in Europe and the invasion of Poland in 1939, 52 and 63 squadrons were re-assigned, and 90 squadron moved into RAF Upwood, flying Bristol Blenheims, joined afterwards by 35 squadron Blenheims and Ansons. Two months later the two squadrons merged to become 17 Operational Training Unit.
On February 1941, a gunshot was heard in the vicinity of Dove House Farm, near to RAF Upwood. Upon investigation, Josef Jakobs was found in the field with a broken ankle, having parachuted in the previous evening. Unable to move, he had lain in the field all night, and the following morning fired his gun to attract attention. He was wearing a flying suit, some sources say covered with civilian clothing. On his person he carried the gun, almost £500 in cash, forged identity papers, a map and details of Upwood, a radio transmitter and a German Sausage. The two farmers who discovered Jakobs alerted the Home Guard, who swiftly picked him up.
Jakobs was taken to the local police station in Ramsey, and then to Cannon Row in London, where he was questioned by MI5 and gave a voluntary statement. He was then taken to Brixton Prison where he spent the night in the Infirmary. The following morning he was questioned further by MI5 at Camp 020 before being transferred to hospital, to receive treatment for his injury, which he claimed happened as he was forced out of the aircraft, and damaged further when he hit the ground. Jakobs spent two months recovering.
Jakobs was a former Wehrmacht Oberleutnant who had been demoted to a feldwebel for selling counterfeit gold, and reassigned, first to the meteorological division, and then the Abwehr. His arrival in England had been anticipated, when Abwehr double-agent Arthur Owens had obtained the information, and passed it on to MI5. As a result of the covert nature of the situation, at the beginning of August 1941, Jakobs was taken to the Duke of York’s HQ at Chelsea and tried by an In Camera tribunal, and court martialled. For charges of espionage, after hearing evidence from eight witnesses, and being found guilty, Jakobs was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Josef Jakobs repeatedly claimed his innocence, and requested a stay of execution to be able to prove his claims. He also contested the proposed method of execution, as all other German spies were hanged following imprisonment at Wandsworth. Jakobs had been captured and interred by the military, and as a result tried through military channels. All other spies had been arrested by civilian police forces.
Arthur Owens was subsequently arrested and imprisoned in Dartmoor, his only contribution to British Intelligence had been the consistent handing over of German spies into the hands of the authorities. Prior to the war he had been employed by MI6 to spy on German Shipyards, but his usefulness was limited and his employment was short-lived. As a Welsh Nationalist, and Nazi sympathiser, he had then offered his services to the Germans, and worked for them, although quickly became a double-agent giving his German Intelligence and his German agents, to MI5. Arthur Owens’ allegiance has never been fully ascertained, could it be that Jakobs had his own information which would have assisted British Intelligence and was in fact innocent, as he claimed?
On 15th August, 1941 on the miniature rifle range at the Tower of London, Jakob Josef was blindfolded and tied onto a chair, due to his ankle injury, and executed by a firing squad of eight members of the holding battalion of the Scots Guards. He died instantly, with seven bullets hitting the target fixed over his heart and one in the head. His body was taken for post-mortem and then interred in an unmarked grave in St Mary’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green. His grave has been lost due to more recent burial activity in the area. Jakobs was the last prisoner to be executed in the Tower of London.
Due to its grass airfield, in 1943 it was decided that as a result of the increasing damage and subsequent shutdowns for repair, that heavier aircraft were not viable on the airfield. When 17 OTU was transferred to Vickers Wellingtons the decision was taken to move the unit to RAF Silverstone, and Upwood was closed to facilitate the construction of three concrete runways. It subsequently re-opened in 1944 with 139 squadron flying De Havilland Mosquitos and later 156 squadron with Avro Lancasters. Over the course of the remainder of the war, 210 aircrew were killed flying or operating in various missions from these two squadrons.