In this second part of the Norfolk Trails, we visit three more of Norfolk’s treasures. Deep in the heart of Norfolk, two of them are very much complete, but the third is all but gone. However, all is not lost as it still an active private airfield, and some of its features have luckily survived.
The first of these three jewels on this trail is RAF Sculthorpe.
Located to the west of Norwich, Sculthorpe has its origins in the Second World War, but it has a larger claim to fame that it still retains to this day.
Designed initially as a heavy bomber site, and satellite to RAF West Raynham, Sculthorpe now has three runways one of 12,000ft and two of 6,000ft, all concrete. With its enormous technical and administration sites that housed up to 10,000 personnel, Sculthorpe was one of the biggest bases in Europe, an honour it retains to this day.
Sculthorpe had a limited Second World War life, being opened quite late in the war in January 1943. Following a years development and growth, it initially housed Mosquitos of 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) squadrons. Originally based at Methwold, the Mosquito FB.VIs replaced the earlier and slower twin-engined Venturas. At Sculthorpe, these two units were joined by 21 Sqn who stayed until the following December, before moving on. Then the much heavier B-17s of 214 sqn moved in thus changing the role of RAF Sculthorpe. The B-17s were redesigned and adapted to assist in radio jamming trials, the early form of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), the B-17 crews would also be joined by other personnel from the United States, who stayed carrying out this role, until just prior to the end of hostilities.
It was really at this time that Sculthorpe came into its own. With the influx of crews from the States, more accommodation would be needed and quickly. A sustained period of redevelopment, improving of runways and hardstandings, saw Sculthorpe gain the designation of Very Heavy Bomber base. It was anticipated that the enormous Boeing B-29s would be stationed here, but when the war in Europe came to an end, further deployment at Sculthorpe ceased and the B29s never arrived. However, the rise in ‘Soviet Aggression’ and post conflict tensions during the Cold War and Berlin airlift, secured the immediate future of Sculthorpe. Atomic weapons were stored here ready, when the North American B-45 Tornado found itself becoming the front-line four engined bomber designed to attack Soviet targets from the UK. During 1952, the 47th Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command were redeployed here from the United States. This wing consisted of the 84th, 85th, and 86th BS, along with the 420th Refueling Sqn and the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance sqn. These units operated a number of types including the: B-45, B-66, KB-29, KB-50, and RB-45C aircraft.
Ninety day duty rotations saw aircraft like the mighty B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ fill the skies over Sculthorpe, until finally, political agreements and imposed de-escalation strategies between the Cold War factions, prevented further deployment of large-scale US bombers on European soil.
Gradually, as nuclear deterrents turned to missiles and naval based platforms, Sculthorpe’s activity began to slow. Being returned to RAF ownership in 1964, it was placed in care and maintenance, and held by only a small detachment of support staff. Then in the late 60s, the USAF returned once more, needing a base from which to operate its aircraft whilst other airfields were redeveloped and runways resurfaced. This brought new life to Sculthorpe, American F-4 Phantoms and C-130s were based here, along with other aircraft types from the RAF operating under similar circumstances. This process went on well into the late 1980s and Sculthorpe became a mecca for plane spotters for at least another few years.
This was not to last however, and Sculthorpe finally closed its doors in 1992, the enormous accommodation blocks and technical sites were sold off. Both these and many of the remaining buildings were left to decay, whilst planners gae thought to what they should be used for. However, like a phoenix, Sculthorpe returned from the dead yet again. The RAF, Army Air Corps and USAF using it for manoeuvres, with tilt wing aircraft, paratroops and rehearsals of supply drops over its enormous runways; much of this activity taking place at night. Even up until recently, C-130s have also been seen landing here, again rehearsing quick ‘stop-‘n’-go’ drops.
Looking at Sculthorpe, it is hard to believe its origins were in the Second World War. Being a real monster of the Cold War, Sculthorpe is clinging on by the skin of its teeth. The accommodation blocks that once housed 10,000 personnel are decaying and vandalised, refurbished areas are now sold off and accommodating local families. A small industrial area has been developed from the technical area, and the local farmer grazes his cows on the far reaches of the site. Many of the older orignal buildings have been left to rot and fall down. The American authorities still retain some ownership of the site, whilst a large part of it is in private hands.
The original guard-house is no longer manned, and a number of other buildings close by are also empty. A small public track that once took eager plane spotters to the rear of the airfield, still allows views across the north of the now quiet site where a blister hangar continues to stand alone. The control tower is still intact visible in the distance from this point, as are a number of original Nissan huts and Second World War buildings hidden amongst new buildings and old developments.
Sculthorpe was once a bustling airfield, home to some of the world’s heaviest bombers, a mecca for aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters alike. Today, it is a decaying industrial site, a mix of old buildings and new developments, a remnant of the Cold War, it clings on to life by the skin of its teeth, maybe, just maybe, the Phoenix will rise up once more and spring into life again.
From Sculthorpe, we travel a few miles south, a stones throw, to its sister station and another post war relic – RAF West Raynham.