RAF Great Massingham – A Real Gem in Norfolk’s Heartland.

On leaving RAF West Raynham, we head to a real gem of a village. Nestled in the beautiful countryside, with its ponds and quaint houses lies Great Massingham, one of Norfolk’s little treasures. It must hae been a real change from the horrors of the war in the air during the 1940s.

RAF Great Massingham

Before entering Great Massingham, it is recommended that you stop at Little Massingham and the church of St. Andrew.

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The Roll of Honour in St. Andrew’s Church, Little Massingham.

Inside this delightful but small church is a roll of honour*1 that lists enormous amounts of information about the crews who served at the nearby base. It gives aircraft details, mission dates and crew names amongst others. It is a hugely detailed collection of information covering 1940-45 in which time 600 Massingham crews lost their lives. Seven of these crew members, are buried in the church yard here: Sqn Ldr. H. Lindsaye (RAF), Sgt. J. Wilson (RNZAF), Sgt. J Poole (RAF), P.Officer A Lockwood (RAF), Flt. Sgt. G. Relph (RAF), Flying Officer C Ronayne (RAF) and Flying Officer J Watkins (RAF), all being killed in different circumstances. This is a valuable and enlightening stop off to say the least. On leaving the church turn right and you will almost straight away enter the village of Great Massingham. With its ponds and quaint houses, it has to be one of Norfolk’s greatest visual assets.

The airfield is to the east behind the village holding the high ground, which makes for a very windy and open site whilst the village nestled on the lower ground remains calm and quiet.

Built originally as a satellite for the nearby West Raynham, Massingham opened in 1940 with grass runways initially under the command of 2 Group, Bomber Command and then latterly 100 Group. The distance between both Raynham and Massingham was so small, that crews would cycle from West Raynham to Massingham each morning before operations.

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The Officers Mess

There were a total of four T2 and one B1 hangars built on this site. A communal site to the south-west of the village and sufficient accommodation for 1,778 RAF and 431 WAAF personnel.

Great Massingham had sixteen pan-type hardstandings and twenty loop-type hardstandings, giving a total of thirty-six dispersal points across it.

The main accommodation and communal sites which totalled 5 and 2 respectively, were near to Little Massingham church, to the west and further areas to the south of the airfield . The bomb dump and Ammunitions stores were well to the north. A number of anti-aircraft batteries were scattered around the perimeter offering good protection from attacking aircraft.

The first occupants of Massingham were the Blenheim IVs of 18 sqn RAF who arrived in the September of 1940. They stayed until April the following year performing in the low-level bombing role. Like most other RAF fields around this northern area of Norfolk, it would be dominated by twin-engined aircraft like the Blenheim and its replacements. Shortly after the departure of 18 sqn, 107 sqn arrived also using the Blenheim IV again performing in the same low-level bombing role.

107 sqn’s stay was to be short, literally only three months before moving on. Massingham then took on a new role and a new bread of aircraft, albeit for only one month. The mighty B-17Cs arrived with 90 sqn to perform daylight bombing raids. At high altitude, the crews found it difficult to operate finding guns jamming and equipment failing due to the extreme cold; whilst generally liked by the crews, the early models proved to be less than successful with the RAF.

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Gymnasium and attached Chancel now a car repair shop.

Following the departure of the B-17s, 107 once again returned, this time with updated aircraft. The new Boston III (Havoc) which proved to be a big improvement over the Blenheims of previous. 107’s stay was much longer this time, but just prior to them leaving in August the following year, a Free French unit, 342 sqn, arrived also operating the Boston. These postings would eventually see the end of Massingham’s role as a day bomber station.

Following their departure, Massingham was redeveloped and three concrete runways were laid; 03/21 and 13/31 both of 1,200 m (3,937 ft)  and the third 09/27 of 1,780 metres (5,840 ft), giving the site the shape it retains today.

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Original high-level Braithwaite water tank

A year-long stay by 1694 Bomber Defence Training Flight with Martinets gave the airfield a much different feel. Target towing became the order the day. 169 sqn joined in June 1944 and began carrying out night intruder missions using a range of Mosquitos, a role they carried out until the cessation of conflict. With them, came 1692 Bomber Support Training Unit, to train crews in the use of radar and night interception techniques. They stayed with 169 sqn until they both departed in August 1945, at which point 12 Group Fighter Command took over responsibility of the site. A number of  post war celebrities were stationed at Massingham, they included FO. Keith Miller, the Australian Test cricketer, P.O. (later Squadron Leader) B. Edrich (the England cricketer) and the BBC commentator – Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Wolstenholme.

As radar and night interception roles developed, a new unit was created at Massingham, the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE) who were to trial different techniques and strategies for air interception, they later moved to West Raynham where they continued to carry out this role.

After they left, the airfield fell quiet and was very quickly closed. 1946 saw the last personnel leave and it remained dormant until being sold in 1958. Bought by a farmer, a small private airfield has opened and flying visitors are welcomed with prior permission.

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Drainage remains around the perimeter track.

Because it is still used for flying, Great Massingham has retained part of its three runways. The entire layout is visible from the air with each runway and the perimeter track still in place albeit in a much smaller width. The main section, still used for flying is full width, and gives a good indication of what the site must have been like when in full use. The airfield has a brow across the centre, so only a small part can be seen at any one time. A footpath leads from the village, up through a dispersal site and onto the peri track at the end of the runway.

To your right at this point, the peri track continues on in an easterly direction, but this section is private. This track would have taken you toward the Watch office, Fire Tender and other storage sheds, all long since demolished. An area to the south, has now been cultivated, and what is believed to have been a blister hangar here, also long gone.

The path turns left here and takes you round in a northerly direction. To your left is a T2 hangar, it is believed that this is not the original, but one that had been moved here from elsewhere. This however, cannot be confirmed, but there was certainly a T2 stood here originally.

The track continues round, a farm building, very much like a hangar, houses the aircraft that now fly. Sections of runway drainage are visible and piles of rubble show the location of smaller buildings. The track then takes you left again and back to the village past another dispersal site, now an industrial unit complete with blister hangar. Other foundations can been seen beneath the bushes and leaves on your right. This may have been the original entrance to the site, although Massingham was unique in that in was never fenced off, not guarded by a main gate. Other examples of airfield architecture may be found to the north side of the airfield, indeed satellite pictures show what looks like a B1 hangar on the northern perimeter.

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The perimeter track and T2 hanger re-sited post war.

After walking round, drive back toward Little Massingham, but turn left before leaving the village and head up toward the distant radio tower, itself a remnant from Massingham’s heyday. We pass on our left, the former accommodation site. Now a field, there is no sign of its previous existence. However, further up to the right, a small enclave utilises the Part of the Officers’ Mess, the squash court, and gymnasium with attached chancel. Hidden amongst the trees and bushes are remnants of the ablutions block, and other ancillary buildings.

Continue along this road, then take the left turn, toward the tower. Here is the original high-level Braithwaite water tank and pump house, still used for its original purpose and in very good condition.

Finally, a lone pill-box defensive position can also be found to the west of the village, some distance from the airfield in the centre of a farmer’s field. All small reminders of the areas once busy life.

Great Massingham is a delightful little village, set in the heart of Norfolk’s countryside. Its idyllic centre, pubs and shops surround ponds and greens. A short walk away, is the windy and open expanse that once was a bustling airfield, resounding to the noise of piston engines. All is now much quieter, their memories but a book, some dilapidated buildings and a handful of graves. Standing at the end of the runway, looking down the expanse of concrete, you can easily imagine what it must have been like all those years ago.

Great Massingham ends Trail 21, Sculthorpe and West Raynham making up the other two in this section. From Great Massingham we head east, to Foulsham, before turning north and the North Norfolk coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty and some fine examples of airfield architecture.

Sources and links

*1 A comprehensive history of RAF Massingham, including RAF material, is now under the care of the Massingham Historical Society. Contact Anthony Robinson ant@greatmassingham.net for details about the Museum or Roll of Honour, a hard copy of which can be purchased for £10.00.

A small site dedicated to RAF Great Massingham is available here.

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