Trail 20 is a Trail that takes us round northern Norfolk. Our first stop is RAF Docking. After Docking, we travel to Bircham Newton.
Bircham Newton has it origins in the First World War prior to the birth of the Royal Air Force. Its distinguished career, saw action in both World Wars and post war right up to 1965 when it finally closed.
Opened in 1916, its first operational use was as a fighter gunnery School in 1918. Its runways were grass and early residents included: DH4, DH5 and the DH9, amongst others. There then followed a period of expansion and development where larger buildings and accommodation blocks were built. Its first and possibly its most significant early aircraft, were the Handley Page V/1500 bombers. An enormous 4 engined aircraft, it was designed to hit Germany hard, targeting Berlin from airfields in East Anglia.
During expansion, a number of squadrons were based here: 7, 11, 166, 167 and 274 to name but a few. Primarily a bomber base during this period, it was soon passed to Coastal Command, who would also take charge of a number of other airfields around this area, including both satellites at RAF Docking and RAF Langham. Many of the original buildings were demolished and those we see today built instead.
New residents for Bircham featured heavier twin-engined aircraft such as the Lockheed Hudson, Bristol Beaufighter and Vickers Wellington, for which steel matting was laid to prevent sinking in the soft earth.
The majority of missions from here were anti-shipping activities, mine laying and Air-Sea rescue. Like its satellite, Docking, it saw a large number of squadrons pass through it gates, too many to give the required credit to here.
As the second World War drew to a close, Bircham’s activity began to dwindle and its role lessened. From Anti Shipping activities to Flying Training, Transport Command and finally to a Technical Training unit, training the Officers of the future. Flying reduced, and Chipmunks became the order of the day. The most notable ‘resident’ of Bircham being HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who made several landings here as part of his flying training in the early 1950s.
Finally, in 1962, Bircham Newton closed its doors to aviation, but it was not to be the end of the story. In 1965, with the development of the Kestrel, Hawker Siddeley’s VTOL baby, Bircham came to life once more, albeit briefly, with the sound of the jet engine.
A year later, Bircham was sold to the National Construction College and the pathways are adorned with young building apprentices, diggers and cranes of varying sizes. Being a busy building college, many of the original buildings hae been restored but the runways, flying areas and sadly the Control Tower, removed. Whilst private, the airfield retains that particular feel associated with an airfield.
Luckily, the main road passes through the centre of Bircham. A memorial project has been set up to remember those that served at the airfield with photos and exhibits from days long gone. A memorial has also been erected and stands outside the original Station Commanders house, just off the main road and is well sign posted. The original accommodation blocks, technical buildings and supporting blocks are still visible even from the road. The 1923 guard-house, is now a shop and the operations block, the reception centre.
Reputedly haunted, the squash courts (built-in 1918) continue to serve their original purpose, and most significantly, the three large C-type hangers and 2 Bellman sheds are still there – all visible from the public highway.
RAF Bircham Newton, stands as a well-preserved model one of Britain’s wartime airfields. Although Private now, the buildings reflect the once time bustling activities of a busy centre of aviation.