Taking advantage of the winter sun and nearby location, I decided to take a short visit to one of the earlier trails and see how things had changed. Being a different time of year too, perhaps the buildings I saw would now be less obscured. I also thought that the initial trails were lacking and needed a little ‘historical substance’.
Whilst not wanting to lose sight of the idea behind the blog, I felt a little extra would not go amiss. Hearing about a memorial that I had missed earlier, I braved the late December air, donned coat, hat and scarf and set off to Kings Cliffe, in the top corner of Northamptonshire – land of Fighter squadrons and the last hangar concert performed by Major Glenn Miller.
RAF Kings Cliffe (Station 367)
(Revisited and updated December 2014)
Unlike the other airfields in the tour, Kings Cliffe was a fighter airfield. Pass through the village from the south, out the other side, under the odd twin-arched bridge and then right. A few hundred yards along and the airfield is now on your right hand side. The memorial is here, flanked by the two flags. It is a more elaborate memorial than some, being made with the wing of a Spitfire on one side and the wing of a Mustang on the other. Various squadron badges are etched into the stone and as the weather takes it’s toll, these are gradually disappearing.
Over its life, Kings Cliffe would have a number of fighter units grace it skies. Built in 1943, it would receive its first squadron late that same year when P-39 Airacobras of Duxford’s 347th FS (350th FG) were temporarily based here. A short spell they would soon leave and be replaced with another short-term unit.
The following January, the 347th left and three squadrons: the 61st (code HV), 62nd (code LM) and the 63rd (code UN) of the 56th FG arrived from the U.S. This group fell under the command of the 67th Fighter Wing, Eighth Air Force. Redesignated the 56th FG in the previous May, they were initially given P-47s and continued to train at Kings Cliffe for fighter operations until moving on the 4th/6th April 1943 to Horsham St Faith, Norfolk. A few days later on 13th April 1943, they undertook their first operational sortie. Over the next two years the 56th FG would become famous for the highest number of destroyed aircraft of any fighter unit of the entire Eighth Airforce. A remarkable feat.
After the 56th left Kings Cliffe, three more squadrons arrived. In August that year, the 20th FG arrived with their P-38 Lightnings. The 55th (code KI), 77th (code LC) and the 79th (code MC), would fall under the umbrella of the 67th Fighter Wing, Eighth Airforce.
After a spell of renaming, aircraft changes and training, their arrival at Kings Cliffe would see a period of stability for the 20th. Initial operations started in December that year, and their primary role would be to escort bombers over Europe, a role it maintained until the cessation of conflict. Targets of opportunity were often found whilst on these missions, but toward the end of the war, with fighter cover becoming less of an issue, dive bombing and ground attack missions became more common place. Their black and white chequered markings became feared by airfields, barracks and in particular trains as they became known as the “Loco Group” for their high number of locomotive attacks.
On April 8th 1944, the 20th attacked an airfield in Germany, action for which they received a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC). They would later take part in the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Garden, and air cover in the Battle of Bulge. In July 1944 they converted to P-51s and continued to escort bombers and search out targets of opportunity until the war closed. In the following October 1945, they returned to the U.S. and Kings Cliffe was returned to RAF ownership. The RAF would use it as a storage depot until selling it off in 1959. Its runways were dug up for hardcore, the buildings demolished and the site finally returned to agriculture.
Whilst standing at the memorial, it is difficult to imagine any of the activity that occurred here all those years ago. However, behind the memorial you can see a number of brick defence buildings enshrouded in trees and bushes. Move along the road to your right and there is the main gate. Stating that it is an airfield, it doesn’t encourage entrance. However, walk or drive a little further and there is a bridal way that allows access to the site. Walking along around the edge of the airfield, you can see hidden amongst the thorn bushes an Oakington Pill box. Found in pairs and common in this area, they offer a 360 degree view of the site. The second of the pair is short distance away in the middle of the field and more visible to the viewer. Also round here are three protected dispersal pens. Each pen has a double skin, in other words, an outside loop holed wall for firing through and an inner wall to protect air and ground crews in the event of an attack. There are a handful of other ancillary buildings here, all of which can be accessed with careful treading. A considerable number of these exist close to the road and path, so extensive travelling or trespass is not required for the more ‘informal’ investigation.
Walking further along the path, you pass a large clump of trees heading of in an easterly direction. These mark the line of the east-west runway. Whilst the runway has gone, evidence of its existence can be found. A drainage channel, numerous pieces of drainage material and grates can be found amongst the remains of hardcore.
The path continues in a southerly direction away from the main part of the airfield, and a better option may be to return to the car and drive along to a different part of the site.
If you return through Kings Cliffe, bear left and through the small but gorgeous village of Apethorpe. Continue on and you’ll see a footpath that goes through the woods. Park here and walk through the woods. A couple of miles in and you come across a large open space, to your left is a distinguished memorial to Glenn Miller.
The memorial is located on the site of the original T2 hangar, quite a distance away from the main airfield. It was here that Miller performed his final hangar concert on October 3rd 1944. Standing here in the wintry air listening to ‘In the Mood’, is a surreal experience. To think that, on this spot 70 years ago, this very tune was performed by Miller himself; whilst young couples jitterbugged the evening away – a brief respite from the wartime tragedies that dominated their daily lives.
Leaving here, back to the track, you come across a footpath that takes you north, toward the main airfield before veering off and away to the west.
This path provides what is probably the nearest access point to the tower, as it crosses the track that joins the perimeter near to the towers location. The control tower still stands, but access from the path is over private land and should be undertaken with the land owner’s permission.
A final car trip back to the north side of the airfield reveals evidence of the accommodation blocks. The cinema, Gymnasium and chapel along with some other communal buildings still stand and in use by local timber companies. Well preserved, they are easily accessible and offer a good view to anyone aiming to find evidence of Kings Cliff’s history.
Like many sites of it’s age, the majority of Kings Cliffe’s buildings are overgrown, indeed entering them you can see how the roofs have become detached in many cases, and mature trees now the only inhabitants where personnel once stood.
The main part of the airfield is agriculture, and it can be seen from further back, why this site was chosen as the views across the landscape toward Peterborough and the south are stunning. A remarkable place, it offers good evidence, nostalgia and beautiful walks into the bargain.
Kings Cliffe concludes this tour, however, if you return back along the road to the village of Kings Cliffe, turn right away from the village, you will eventually find yourself sitting opposite one of the crash exits of RAF Wittering, the main station to which Kings Cliffe was built as a satellite. Also along here, is a remnant of RAF Collyweston, an airfield absorbed into RAF Wittering at the end of the war when it expanded ready for the V – force bomber aircraft and later the Harriers. Now closed to flying due to government cutbacks, it houses an army detachment and a small RAF detachment for maintenance duties only.
Much of the evidence from the American participation in the Air War of the Second World War has now disappeared, being swallowed up by natures determination to regain what was originally hers. Agriculture and small businesses have clung on to the remainder, leaving little to see. In some ways, and I touched on this earlier, the fact that peace has now taken over what were bustling camps of 3000+ personnel, the roar of four engined bombers laden with high explosives or troop carriers taking scared young men to the killing fields of Europe, is a reflection on their bravery and dedication. These areas are simply peaceful now because of the men that served, lived and died here and whilst they are now gone, maybe their ghosts remain.
Kings Cliffe originally featured in Trail 6 ‘American Ghosts’.
*1 photo by Robert Derenbacker from ‘Little friends’ website http://www.littlefriends.co.uk