This airfield concludes our four-part tour around Norfolk. It visits a large airfield that played a revolutionary part in the Second World War. So revolutionary, that it paved the way for air defence well beyond the Second World War. We go to the very edge of North Norfolk, to an area of sanctuary, mud flats and a bird watchers paradise. A place where the sound of the Lark has replaced the roar of the piston engine.
RAF Langham is located at the tip of North Norfolk’s coast. Its location perfect for the role it was to operate.
Built as a satellite to Bircham Newton, it opened in 1940, with three grass runways, and would take aircraft from a number of nearby airfields. Not having any official resident units until 1941, when the Polish and Czech units of 300 and 311 squadrons used it as a forward operating base, it saw little operational action. Langham was initially used as a gunnery training airfield, towing targets for gunnery practice at nearby Stiffkey, a few miles to the north. This is perhaps Langham’s most famous role and the one that many people associate with Langham.
Then in November 1942 Langham was closed and redeveloped having concrete runways laid and around 35 looped style dispersals. The longest runway, (NE/SW) was of 1,988 yards, the second (N/S) 1,400 yards and the third (E/W) also of about 1,400 yards, all approximate. The accommodation sites were well away from the airfield many in and around the village of Langham itself to the east or south-east. Three T2 hangars were also erected, one to the north-west and two the south-east in the technical area. There were also various technical and administration blocks and a bomb storage area well away to the north of the site.
The first operational units arrived in April 1944, with Beaufighters of 455 (Australian) and 489 (New Zealand) squadrons of the Beaufighter Strike Wing, on the 8th and 13th respectively. This wing would famously form a combined attack against enemy shipping in the North Sea, being responsible for the sinking of 4 ‘U’ Boats and 36 surface vessels whilst here. A combination of nose mounted cannons and underwing rockets proved a deadly adversary for the flak ships and merchant vessels of the German Navy.
In August that year, the 521st Squadron moved from their base at RAF Docking to Langham to carry out its role of meteorological reconnaissance. Operating with Lockheed Hudsons, they would soon be ‘upgraded’ to Boeing’s massive B-17 adapted for these special duties. Other coastal command roles such as air-sea rescue were also carried out from Langham and a range of aircraft types would operate from here for the duration.
Post war Langham was used by the Royal Netherlands Air Force as a Technical Training School, until June 1947 when it was vacated and then finally put into care and maintenance in the following September. For a short period between March 1953 and November 1958, it became a target towing site once more, pulling targets for No. 2 Civilian Anti-Aircraft Cooperation Unit and finally as if to defy the odds, it was used as an emergency landing ground for aircraft from nearby RAF Sculthorpe.
As with many of these Norfolk sites, Langham was eventually sold off, bought by Bernard Matthews becoming home to a number of turkey Sheds, the role it performs to this day.
The majority of the concrete layout of Langham remains today, utilised by the company for transportation and storage. The technical sites and accommodation sites virtually indistinguishable from the farmland it once occupied. A small collection of buildings can be seen from the public road including: the watch tower, Fire tender shed, a Floodlight trailer, tractor shed, a Night flying equipment store and a small brick hut used for weather balloons. To the north-east, on the brow of the hill sits the restored battle headquarters. But certainly the most famous and most distinguishable building of this site, is the former gunnery trainer dome.
Refurbished through Lottery Money, the dome is now classed as an ancient monument and a museum run by the Trust and Friends of the Langham Dome. Much has been written about the dome and recently (May 17th 2015) the BBC ran a programme about its development and history which is available on BBC iplayer for a short period. Only a small number of these structures exist today, none of which are accessible, which is what makes the Langham dome so special and unique. Developed in conjunction with Kodak, it projected a film of an aircraft onto the dome wall, to simulate an attack, at which the gunner would ‘fire’ his gun. The trainer would measure the trainees accuracy using a dot to the front of the aircraft visible only to himself. A remarkable breakthrough in gunnery training, it led the way in anti-aircraft training for a good number of years even after the war.
Langham is one of Norfolk’s most Northerly airfields, it provided a safe haven for returning aircraft, and its residents conducted air-sea rescue missions, sank a number of ships and played a role in meteorological reconnaissance and anti-aircraft training. A mixed bag, but certainly an important one, the memory of Langham should continue and thrive for without it, there would certainly have been many more casualties in the Second World War.
A website dedicated to the Dome and life at RAF Langham can be found here. It includes a range of photographs and first hand accounts of what it was like to live on or near the airfield.
The BBC iplayer programme may only available in the UK and for a short period of time. You can find it here.