RAF West Malling revisited. 

Around two years ago, I visited West Malling airfield in Kent to see what was left of this once historic place. Surprisingly, quite a bit did still survive albeit hidden amongst new buildings and office blocks.

Many of the ‘H’ blocks were left as was the Officer’s quarters and the control tower. The tower was shrouded in scaffolding and well hidden in the depths of a housing estate.

This May, I was in the area once more and decided to pop in and see what had become of the tower. Was it an office block, a museum dedicated to the men and women who were stationed here, or a modern cafe with retro decor? It was actually a bit of all of them.

Let me explain. The ground floor is partly a Costa Coffee shop with its ‘modern’ interior, but the original walls and windows are still used. A 1940s building, they have decorated the walls with photographs taken during West Malling’s operational time. I have to admit it is rather tasteful for a coffee bar, and they have maintained the feel quite well.

The outside provides a quiet seated area.

Next door, is a property development company,  who occupy both the ground and upper floors. The ground floor entrance is a small reception in which hangs a number of large photographs, again taken from West Malling’s operational time. There are no captions to the photographs but as a visitor, you can freely browse them, or at least I did and the lady behind the reception desk didn’t seem to mind.

There still remains a fair amount of scaffolding around the top of the tower, but the overall building refurbishment seems to be complete. Even the garden area to the front, adorned with children’s comments from airshows long gone, are tastefully cared for. Whilst they have made every endeavour to preserve this historic building, it is somewhat enclosed by houses and a large supermarket. There is no reference to what role the building played or even why it is here. The whole area has been rebuilt with upmarket restaurants and boutiques and all looks very pleasant. I do wonder how long it will retain this stylish appearance?

The cafe uses the original windows and walls, displaying photographs from an era long gone.

When I was there in 2013, I distinctly remember seeing a ‘blue plaque’. These are given to specific buildings to identify them as a site of special historical interest. On visiting this time, I could not find it and as a last resort stopped and asked a suited gentleman if he knew where it was. He introduced himself as the Estates Manager and said there is no blue plaque. Maybe I was mistaken. He then proceeded to tell me that the building I was sat outside of, was the original officer’s mess and that he would show me around if I so wished.

The Officer’s Mess. The board dedicating it to Guy Gibson, is to the left of the door.

I of course jumped at the chance, and he took me around to the front of the building and showed me a board naming the building as the ‘Gibson building’ in dedication to Guy Gibson.

He unlocked the doors and we went in. The walls here are adorned with photographs, squadron badges and other personal items from those who served at West Malling during its operational time. We then went through further doors into what was the billiard room. The gentleman explained that all the wooden doors, skirting and ceiling decorations are original. He also said that the fireplace was original too and that the lighting whilst not, was the same design and shape as the original lighting.

The local toilets reflect the tower’s design.

Then we walked through to what is now the council meeting room, he again explained that the doors and ceiling decorations were originals. He went on to explain that the fireplace here too was original and showed me a photograph of the room as it was before closure, it was indeed virtually identical – all apart from the modern furniture.

We then went to what is now the public reception at the back of the building, passing on the way, the dining room. This has been made much smaller with a false wall but again much of the 1940s architecture is still evident.

“These buildings are now grade 2 listed, and as such cannot be altered without permission” he explained, and he went on to describe how on some of the buildings you can still see traces of the original camouflage paint work.

A closer look reveals the original camouflage paint.

He went on to tell me the stories behind a number of the photographs on the wall. How they got them from local people and who they were of. I asked him about other remaining buildings on the site, and he explained how all other minor structures and hangers were long since gone; this building, the ‘H’ blocks, and the control tower being the only surviving buildings.

We talked about properties near to the site such as the local pub “The Startled Saint”, which was built to keep the RAF personnel ‘on base’. He also mentioned the initial officer’s quarters, now a private residence, which has on one of the ceilings, all the names of the crew members written with candle smoke. Apparently this property is open once a year for public viewing!

Before we said our goodbyes, he gave me a booklet written in 1989 to commemorate the life of West Malling airfield and the crews and personnel stationed here before its closure.

I did not get his name, but he is the Estates manager for the property, now owned by Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, and I am truly grateful for the time he took to explain everything to me and for the booklet which I shall read and keep with pleasure.

I can certainly say that whilst the majority of the airfield has gone, what they have done with these last few buildings is both a surprise and real pleasure to see. They have tried to retain the original identity of the airfield through its architecture and road names. A number of small notice boards detail the events that occurred here from its inception until its final closure in the 1990s.

Whilst flying has long since ceased and all major features are gone, West Malling as an airfield has died. However, the centrepiece of this site, the fabulous memorial of the sculpted airman running for his plane, and the tastefully refurbished buildings, not only hold many secrets and tales, but give a hint of the atmosphere of this once historic and important Kent airfield.

West Malling was originally visited in 2013, in Trail 4. I shall be updating the trail shortly as a result of this latest visit.

“The Last Farewell” sung by David Clifton, B-17 Pilot

A lovely rendition from a remarkable man.

John Knifton

In the comments section for this video, Nick Dawson of Texas says that it is “awesome”. He is right.

David Clifton, a B-17 pilot in World War Two sings his own version of an old song. I believe that the video was made to mark Mr Clifton’s 90th birthday in 2010.

Enjoy.

By the way, I have no wish whatsoever to tread on anybody’s copyright toes in this short article. I just think that Mr Clifton and his very moving song deserve a very wide audience indeed. The clip was originally uploaded by BahamasDave1, and for those interested in a first-hand account of B-17s during the war, Lt. Colonel Clifton’s oral history, prepared by Charles Riley, provides detailed recollections. The tapes and transcripts are available at Florida Atlantic University Library, Mighty Eight Air Force Museum in Savannah, and the Library of Congress.

Riley, Charles. Oral History Interviews of Lt. Colonel…

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“Ready or Not” Station 130, RAF Glatton

Not a usual post for Aviation Trails, but something I felt worth sharing.

I often ‘share’  my experiences with friends and colleagues at work, and was intrigued by a book that was shown to me called “Ready or not – into the Wild Blue” which is a biographical account of a B-17 pilot who flew from RAF Glatton (otherwise known as Conington after the nearby village) during the Second World War.

Glatton was a US base designated Station 130 and was home to the 457th BG. Comprising the 748th, 749th, 750th, and 751st Bomb squadrons. “Ready or not” is a biographical account of one of its pilots, J. Francis Angier Major, (Ret), and takes you through his life from a child to training, posting to Glatton, capture, internment, release and onto his post war service flying for the Vermont National Guard until retirement in 1968.

The book, not specifically about Glatton, contains a number of wartime photos, and for those interested in the base (Trail 6) it provides a first hand account into the crews, aircraft and life on an American base in England, during wartime

An interesting insight into one man’s life both pre, during and post Second World War it is certainly worthy of a read.

Ready or Not – Into the Wild Blue” is published by Old Forge Publishing ISBN: 0-9544507-7-9

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One of the Runways at Glatton where, Major Angier would have flown from.

 

RAF Little Snoring – not a sleepy village 70 years ago.

The second airfield on this part of the trail, takes us further north, to a little village and small airfield. It also features one of only a few round towered churches that hold some remarkable records of the region’s history.

RAF Little Snoring

Little Snoring is as its name suggests, a quiet hamlet deep in the heart of Norfolk. Surrounded by beautiful countryside, it boasts a superb round towered church (another called St. Andrew’s) that holds a remarkable little gem of historical significance.

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The Village sign shows Little Snoring’s aviation history.

The airfield, to the North East, was originally opened in 1943, late in the war, as a satellite for nearby Foulsham. It had three runways: 2 constructed of concrete 4,199 ft (1,280 m) in length, (01/19 and 13/31) and one 07/25 of 6,004 ft (1,830 m) again in concrete. As with other airfields it was a typical ‘A’ shape, with 36 dispersal sites, a bomb site to the north, fuel dump to the south and the accommodation blocks dispersed away from the airfield to the east. It was built to accommodate 1,807 RAF and 361 WAAF personnel housed over eight domestic sites.

Initially under the command of 3 Group Bomber Command, it housed the rare Bristol Hercules engined Lancaster IIs of 1678 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) and 115 squadron, (between August and November 1943) formally RAF Witchford (Trail 11) and East Wretham, who were to carry out night bombing duties, a role it had performed well at Witchford. Then, as with many of the airfields in this location, it was taken over by Addison’s 100 Group and Mosquitos moved in.

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One of two original T2 hangars still in use today.

169 squadron operating both Mosquito IIs and Beaufighter VIs, would undertake night fighter missions between December 1943 and June 1944. Like their counterparts at Great Massingham, Foulsham, North Creake, West Raynham and Sculthorpe amongst others, they would take part in electronic warfare and counter measures against enemy fighter operations. 100 Group, investigated a wide range of devises suitable for tracking, homing in on or jamming enemy radars. With a wide rage of names; “Airborne Cigar”, “Jostle”, “Mandrel”, “Airborne Grocer”, “Carpet” and “Piperack”, they used both “Serrate” and “ASH” to attack the enemy on their own airfield at night before they could intercept the bombers.

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A road leads to one of the dispersed accommodation sites.

After a short spell with an American Intruder detachment between March and April 1944 flying P-51s and P-38s, Little Snoring was itself the subject of an attack from Luftwaffe aircraft that had followed the bomber stream home. The attack was so successful that Little Snoring was put out of action for some considerable time.

Night intruder missions continued, with 515 squadron, 23 squadron and 141 squadron operating a range of twin-engined aircraft such as the Beaufighter IIf, Blenheim V, Mosquito II, FB.VI and NF.30. Radar training also continued using smaller aircraft such as the Defiant, Anson and Airspeed Oxfords of 1692 Flt.

Eventually in September 1945, operational flying officially ceased  and the airfield was reduced to care and maintenance. Like other airfields in this area, it became the storage area for surplus Mosquitos on their way to a sad ending under the choppers blade. Then in the 1950s Little Snoring was opened temporarily and used by a civilian operated anti-aircraft co-operation unit, flying Spitfire XVI, Mosquito TT.35 and Vampire FB.Vs. Finally in April 1953, Little Snoring was shut, the gates locked and the site sold off.

However, that was not the of flying. Now in civilian hands, Little Snoring operates a small flying club and a microlight manufacturer. Aircraft can visit, and occasionally a ‘fly-in’ happens and the site springs into life once more.

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The road uses the former eastern perimeter track, part of which is still visible to the side.

Following sale of the site, a large number of buildings were demolished or taken away for use elsewhere. The officers’ mess housed four ornately and beautifully written honours and awards boards. Luckily, these were saved by a good samaritan and now reside in the base’s ‘official’ church, St. Andrew’s, on the west wall. Written in paint, they detail the awards and ‘kills’ of the various crew members stationed at Little Snoring. Just a short walk from the church is the village sign which depicts a Mosquito, often seen over the skies of Little Snoring all those years ago.

The perimeter track to the east is now the road, the accommodation site on the eastern side still bears the track but is closed off, what secrets it must hold! A few remnants of concrete roadway exist outside of the airfield, the northern threshold of the main runway is also there used to store gravel and other road material. A small number of buildings, mainly huts, exist in private gardens used as storage sheds. The local caravan site has what is believed to be the base hospital and / or mortuary now a washing block.

The largest and best preserved buildings are two of the original T2 hangars, both used to store potatoes. A blister hangar is also on site but thought not an original of Little Snoring.

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An air-raid bunker protected the personnel from attack.

The bomb site is a field, and all but a small part of the runways are gone or at best farm tracks. Little Snoring’s gem is its watch office, standing proud in the centre of the site, a lone wind sock fluttering from its walls. Run down and dilapidated, it is crying out for love and restoration, but I suspect this isn’t going to happen and perhaps its days are very sadly numbered.

During its operational life, twelve Lancasters and forty-three Mosquitos were lost during missions over enemy territory and to date no ‘official’ memorial exists in their honour. Maybe one day this too will change.

The base commander, ‘glass eyed’ Group Captain Rex O’Bryan Hoare (Sammy) was a known character and has been mentioned in a number of books discussing night intruder missions. He was a very successful Mosquito pilot  and looked up to by his fellow pilots. A superbly detailed account of him appears here and is certainly worth a read.

A once bustling airfield, Little Snoring is now a sleepy site with a few remaining remnants of its wartime activity. The church boards reminders of its successes and the toll paid by the young men of the Royal Air Force.

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The watch office now derelict and forlorn.

The four award and honours boards in St. Andrew’s Church can be seen by clicking here.

Little Snoring ends Trail 22, but leads us to the last part of North Norfolk and a to Trail 23. As we continue north toward the coast, we visit two sites with some remarkable features.

RAF Foulsham, North Norfolk, Trail 22

The first airfield in this Trail reveals some excellent examples of wartime architecture. A short life, but an important one, it saw a wide range of aircraft undertaking some ground breaking activities.

We visit RAF Foulsham.

RAF Foulsham

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Halifax B Mark III, MZ817 ‘DT-O’, of No. 192 Squadron RAF after crash-landing while taking off from Foulsham, on a radar surveillance sortie. 9th December 1944*1

Foulsham, like many of its counterparts in this region played a major part in the electronic war, monitoring and jamming radar transmissions for larger formations of bombers. Despite this important and ground breaking role, Foulsham had only a short operational existence.

Built in the latter parts of 1941, Foulsham had three runways, 37 dispersals and 9 hangars. It was initially opened with light bombers of 2 Group Bomber Command. These were primarily Mitchell IIs of 98, 180 and 320 Squadrons; 320 being formed entirely of Dutch personnel. A detachment of Glider storage and maintenance personnel from 12 GMS were also at Foulsham between April 1943 and March 1944 preparing and maintaining Horsa Gliders for the forthcoming Normandy invasion. In this same year, on September 1st, 3 Group Bomber Command took over responsibility of Foulsham and the much heavier Lancasters of 1678 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) and 514 Squadron arrived for operational duties over Europe. One month later, the American 375th Servicing Squadron (SS) arrived and began modifying de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito, for photographic reconnaissance duties, a role the Mosquito excelled at.

RAF Foulsham

One of four T2 hangars.

Once more, Foulsham changed hands and it became part of the now familiar 100 Group, who were dominating this area of the country. 192 Squadron arrived with a variety of aircraft, the HP Halifax, Mosquito, Anson and Wellington for electronic warfare operations.  Other squadrons soon joined them, and Foulsham became a large operational base shrouded in secrecy. Between 1943 and post conflict in 1946, more Wellingtons, Mosquitos, P38 ‘Lightnings’, Stirlings and Halifax IIIs arrived all becoming common place in the skies over Foulsham as they gathered information, trialed radio and electronic jamming operations and evaluated new methods of electronic warfare.

Foulsham was further graced in 1944 with the installation of FIDO, the fog clearing system, a method designed to burn away sufficient amounts of fog to enable a safe landing in difficult conditions; not always successfully. However, despite all this, Foulsham’s operational life was soon to be cut short and in June 1946 it was closed to flying duties, whereupon it became the final resting ground for a large number of Mosquitoes prior to scrapping. Foulsham remained ‘in-service’ until 1955 with the US Army, and then in the hands of the MOD until deemed surplus to requirements, it was finally sold off in the 1980s and its doors closed for the last and final time.

RAF Foulsham

A workshop nestled between two refurbished T2s.

Many of Foulsham’s buildings have surprisingly withstood the test of time. Whilst the runways have all but gone, now farm tracks and tree lines, some of the buildings do still remain and even from the roadside, you can see what must have been a remarkable place during its short, but hectic life. The road passes along the eastern side of the airfield, here, you can still see a number of the original T2 hangars, 3 in total, now utilised by a local potato business. (‘Addison Farm’ as it is aptly named, is in recognition of Air Vice Marshall Edward Barker Addison, the only person to Command 100 Group*2 during the war). Whilst two of these hangars have been re-clad, the third is still in its original metal. Hidden amongst these structures, are some of the original technical buildings, again some refurbished some original. The mass concrete bases signify the manoeuvring areas linking this area to the main section of the airfield to the west.

RAF Foulsham

A fourth T2.

At this point, there was until recently, gates separating the dispersal area to the east (now farm dwellings) to the hangar area on your left. During the War, this road was surprisingly open to the public and aircraft would be manoeuvred across the road, traffic being halted by an RAF Policeman.

Further to the north, beyond this area passing an air raid shelter, is the original entrance and further technical area.

A pill-box, marks where the main entrance was. Turn left here and follow the road west. To your right you pass the original Fire Tender shed, a B1 hangar and other minor buildings in varying states of disrepair. To your left, a further T2, partially refurbished partially original. Further along, the road crosses the original N/S runway, full width remnants to the right and a tree-lined track to the left mark clearly where the enormous concrete structure was laid. The road ahead, is the where the 08/26 runway ran as it disappears over the brow of the hill. The road then turns away north leaving the runway and airfield behind you.

RAF Foulsham

The original Fire Tender shed.

As with all airfields, the accommodation blocks and bomb stores were scattered well away from the main airfield. With some searching, evidence of these may be found amongst the hedges and trees, public roads utilising the concrete sections of RAF road laid down originally.

Whilst the main layout of Foulsham is difficult to see from the road, the last remaining buildings have fared quite well and remain some of the better examples of original wartime architecture. There is a distinct ‘feel’ to the site that transforms you back in time to the days when heavy bombers and lighter twin-engined aircraft would rumble along its runways. Recent and ongoing development work by the farmer seems to be sympathetic and ‘in tune’ with the site, many buildings being reclaimed from nature and now ‘on show’ to the passing public. Whilst all are on private land, they are easily seen and it seems that there may be a winning formula here that other land owners could quite easily follow and preserve what is left of our disappearing heritage.

RAF Foulsham

The remains of the 08/26 runway.

The wartime memories project, has a section focusing on RAF Foulsham and people trying to trace crew members who served there. It is worth a look through perhaps you may know someone from there.

In the nearby village of Foulsham, beneath the village sign, stands a memorial to the crews and personnel of RAF Foulsham.

From Foulsham, we head north-west, to a little airfield with the quaint name ‘Little Snoring’.

 

*1 photo from Royal Air Force Bomber Command, 1942-1945.© IWM (HU 60601)

Sad news on Grafton Underwood…

I heard from my good friend, that the recently refurbished RAF Grafton Underwood Memorial, has been ‘attacked’ by as yet unknown people or persons and has had the two flags (the Union flag and the Stars and Stripes) that flew on the masts, removed and burnt. 

This is particularly sad as a lot of hard work had gone into the refurbishment after a long battle with local land owners and officials. 

The good news is that the memorial itself was not harmed and that the ‘opening’ will go ahead as planned. Veterans of Grafton will be joind by locals as the memorial is dedicated and officialy opened. A fly past by the B17 ‘Sally B’ is also scheduled to take place at the dedication. 

Why people do such things is beyond me, I can only hope that they are found and dealt with appropriately.  

 

A memorial for three aircraft that crashed close by.

Trail 22 takes us to an area of Norfolk that is filled with narrow lanes, and ‘chocolate box’ villages with duck filled streams and babbling brooks running through the middle. An ideal and welcome break from the horrors of what was witnessed in the skies of occupied Europe all those years ago.

Travelling away from Great Massingham and West Raynham, we carry on east, toward Norwich and then take a left turn and head north. Cutting through the delights of Norfolk, we take in the last few sites that offer good examples of airfield architecture. Before reaching our first site however, turn off the main road at Weasenham St. Peter, for here is a small reminder of the terrible tragedies of war.

Nestled in the village is a small but poignant reminder of the dangers faced by the young men who flew in our skies. Once over friendly territory, crews would often feel safe knowing that ‘home’ was but a few miles away. However, for many the danger was not over yet.

A pyramid memorial in this quiet and almost insignificant village, identifies the crews of not one but three aircraft that crashed close by killing all onboard. From this point you can see the hangars of West Raynham dominating the skyline, an indication of how close to home these young men were.

Blenheim L8800, of 114 sqn RAF, crashed on 5th June 1942. On board were: Sg. F. Cooke, Sgt. J Wallbridge (VR) and Sgt. E. Kitcher (VR) all of whom lost their lives. On 17th October that year, a B25 Mitchell,  FL206 of 98 sqn RAF, crashed killing the crew: Flt. Sgt. D. Tanner, Sgt. E. Boreham, Sgt. L. Horton and LAC F Barnett all of RAF(VR). Finally on May 22nd 1943, close to his spot a Douglas Boston III, AL285 of 342 ‘Lorraine’ Sqn.  crashed killing all her crew, who were part of the Free French Airforce: Lt. M. Le Bivic, Lt. R. Jacquinot, Sgt. L. Cohen and Cpl. J. Desertlaux. All three aircraft were based at nearby West Raynham when the tragedies struck.

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The memorial at Weasenham St. Peter. Behind you, are the not so distant hangars of RAF West Raynham.

A sad and terrible loss of life. When leaving here, return to the main road and head east to our first stop at RAF Foulsham.