From the first site of this trail, RAF Sculthorpe, we travel a few miles south, a stones throw, to its sister station and another post war relic – RAF West Raynham.
RAF West Raynham
Nestled away in the heart of Norfolk is a real hidden gem. West Raynham remains an incredibly intact airfield, complete virtually in its entirety. But don’t get over excited, the diggers, cranes and bulldozers are there and already casting their blows.
Built in 1939 it had four runways, all of grass with 36 pan type dispersals, an accommodation block, ‘C’ type hangars and all the associated support buildings of a wartime airfield. Used by bomber command, it would see a range of twin-engined aircraft operate from within.
Opened in May 1939, it was typical of its time. The first squadron to be based here was 101 squadron RAF, equipped with Bristol Blenheim IVs and later Vickers Wellington 1cs. 101 sqn began the war with daylight attacks on oil supplies in the port areas, communication lines and enemy airfields. A duty that later changed to the more successful night fighter role. 101 eventually left West Raynham, being replaced by further Blenheims of 114 squadron. Other squadrons to arrive included: 2 Grp TT flight, 76, 139, 18, 90 (with B17c ‘Fortresses’), 614, 18 and 1482 squadrons. A variety of aircraft came with them, including: Lysanders, Defiants, Bostons, Hampdens and Fairy Battles giving West Raynham a real diverse range of types.
In September 1942, two more squadrons arrived at West Raynham, 98 and 180 operating the North American B25 ‘Mitchells’. In the following year, Between May and November 1943, the grass runways were removed and replaced with concrete runways, one 2,000 yards (1,800 m) long and the other 1,400 yards (1,300 m) long. To coincide with this, the accommodation area was also expanded to allow for the influx of new personnel. West Raynham was now able to accommodate up to 2,456 men and 658 WAAFs.
Night intruder attacks from West Raynham increased. De Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder’, the Mosquito II, FB, VI and NF 30s of 141 and 239 squadrons taking over this role. A number of switching between nearby Sculthorpe and Great Massingham, led to regular changes in residency, indeed as the war closed and the jet age beckoned, West Raynham would be the home to many types of modern fighter and their squadrons. Fighter trials became the order of the day, Tempests, Spitfires, Firebrands, Sea Mosquitos (see here), Sea Venoms, Sea Hawks Meteors, Javelins and Canberras to name but a few. The Royal Navy based many of their types here for various trials and research projects. The last piston examples to fly from West Raynham were the Fireflys and Hellcats of 746 sqn RN as part of Naval Fighter development Unit.
Further fighter trials and development units continued into the jet age, and the last aircraft to grace the skies over West Raynham were the Hunters and Canberras of 45, 85 and 100 squadrons. Then the roar of the jet engine was replaced by the Bloodhound missile and West Raynham began its decline into closure. In the 1994 West Raynham finally closed its hangar doors and its personnel moved out, the airfield itself remaining in MOD hands. Sadly the housing lay empty and it quickly became derelict, targeted by the vandals, the accommodation blocks were damaged and windows smashed.
Long debates and scornful banter over the housing shortage boiled over in parliament and sites such as West Raynham were seen as Prime land, with a huge infrastructure already in place, they were half way to meeting the needs of a growing community. The MOD eventually gave in, agreed to the sale and the site was handed over.
Initial attempts at obtaining a Grade II listing to a large number of the airfield’s buildings was made by the English Heritage but sadly, this was later withdrawn and no follow-up made. A number of planning applications have been passed over a period of years and as a result, the number of developments designated for this site have increased. Luckily, many of the original homes will and have been refurbished and sold off, thankfully retaining their original style and layout. The Hangars remain and will be turned in to Holiday apartments. How much of the other airfield architecture will remain in its original design is yet to be seen, but much of the north end of the runway and Bloodhound sites have already gone, being replaced by the beginnings of what is reputed to be, Britain’s largest Solar Park.
The control tower remains along with a wide range of smaller ancillary buildings, shrouded in scaffolding maybe it will become a cafe or other ‘social centre’. The Rapier Training dome still stands as does the elaborate Officers Mess. The adjacent tennis courts have now been reclaimed by trees and like the mess, will no doubt will find a new lease of life in some other guise.
If you drive round the airfield, to the east side, you can still obtain good views across to the hangars. The original Battle headquarters remains buried and pill boxes for the airfields defence can also be found.
A memorial to the crews of West Raynham has been erected in what is now the centre of a new housing area that utilises the old accommodation blocks. Around it remain fences and grazing sheep, the buildings behind them yet to see their fate.
West Raynham’s lasting legacy may be down to Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock, flight commander of No 1 Squadron, who around midday on 5th April 1968 flew a Hawker Hunter FGA.9 (XF442) between the two spans of Tower Bridge in London. This stunt, a protest by Pollock at Government defence cutbacks, resulted in Pollock being invalided out of the RAF on ‘medical’ grounds, the alternative being a rather more embarrassing court-martial.
West Raynham remains today an incredibly well ‘preserved’ airfield, complete in its entirety. Its history is well documented in its walls and architecture. The layout, even as private housing is clearly that of an airfield, with the feel of an airfield, but what of its future? What will eventually become of this grand and large segment of British History? Only time will tell.
Just a few minutes drive from West Raynham to the west is another wartime airfield and our last for today. Whilst the majority of the infrastructure has gone, all is not lost as it is a private airfield open to landings and with access in part via a footpath, a real delight to end the trail. We visit the picturesque village of Great Massingham.