A DUC, 2 Medals of Honour and Napalm.

In Trails 27 and 28 we head back to  southern Norfolk, to the eastern side of Thetford Forest. We visit three airfields, each one tells a remarkable story of heroism, bravery and loss.

Our first, just to the north of Attleborough, was home to the mighty B-17s of the 452nd Bomb Group, 45th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division, Eighth Airforce. We start off at the windy and open expanse that is Deopham Green.

RAF Deopham Green (Station 142).

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Deopham Green taken 9th July 1946*1

Deopham Green (Station 142) was built-in 1943, to Class A standard and consisted of the usual three concrete runways; the main of 2,000 yds running NE-SW and two further runways NW-SE and  W-E both of 1,400 yds. All three were linked by a perimeter track with fifty-one dispersed hardstands (forty-nine loops and two pans), and two T2 hangars, one to the north and the second to the south-west of the airfield. The accommodation sites, 13 in all, lay to the west and south-west and could accommodate around 2,900 personnel. A mix of communal sites, sick quarters and accommodation blocks were spread widely to avoid injury through attack. The bomb site and fuel stores were situated to the south-east well away from the accommodation area.

Deopham Green’s first and only flying resident for the duration of the conflict was that of the 452nd Bomb Group.

The 452nd BG was made up of four bomb squadrons; 728th, 729th, 730th  and the 731st, flying B-17Gs. A black square with a white ‘L’ and parallel yellow bands denoted the group, whilst individual squadrons were issued with the codes 9Z (728th), M3, (729th), 6K (730th) and 7D (731st), although these were not displayed on individual aircraft during the conflict. Instead, squadron codes were a bar and ‘+’ sign or combinations of each allocated beneath the aircraft serial. The B-17s of the 452nd were originally olive and grey factory finish, but in March 1944, they began using the more common natural metal finish.

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The main runway looking south-west. The adjacent road uses part of the original track.

They were activated on June 1st 1943 moving to Deopham Green later that year between December and January 1944. Their first combat mission was to be on February 5th 1944. They would attack strategic targets such as: Frankfurt, Regensburg, Kassel, Schweinfurt and the oil installation at Bohlen. They initially operated over northern France attacking airfields, bridges and coastal defences in preparation for the Normandy invasion; supported ground troops in the advance against Brest, St Lo and the Battle of the Bulge. They also struck sites in preparation for the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

The 452nd was one of the first groups to use Petroleum Jelly bombs, later known as ‘Napalm’, a weapon that was to prove deadly to its victims.

It was on November 9th 1944 that Lieutenants Donald Gott and  William Metzger Jr performed courageously earning  the Medal of Honor posthumously after they were killed nursing their crippled B-17 ‘Lady Janet‘ home from Saarbrucken. Their story is described in ‘Heroic Tales‘.

For their courage, the 452nd BG received their first Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C) on April 7th 1945 for their action against strong fighter cover and flak over the jet fighter base at Kaltenkirchen.  Mission 931 would see one hundred and forty-three B-17s take on FW-190s and Me 262s – the 452nd would lose four B-17s. This was to be the final D.U.C. of the entire conflict for any bomb group.

The 452nd flew their final operational sortie  later that month on the 21st April 1945, returning to the U.S. in the following August where they were disbanded on the 28th.

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The southern end of the main runway.

In total, the 452nd flew 250 missions dropping 16,466 tons of bombs and losing 158 aircraft. They had the unenviable honour of having more Commanding Officers than any other Bomb Group during the Second World War. They achieved a D.U.C and two posthumous Medals of Honour, their awards reflecting their dedication, bravery and sacrifices.

Sadly only one aircraft 42-39970, ‘E-Rat-Icator‘ of the 730th BS, was to survive every mission and return home to the United States. E-Rat-Icator completed an incredible 120 bombing missions, a major triumph for any operational aircraft only to be unceremoniously scrapped in December 1945.

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B-17, 42-39970, ‘E-Rat-Icator’ 730th BS, which was one of the first to use Petroleum Jelly bombs. This was to be the only aircraft of the 452nd to survive every mission and return home*2

At the end of hostilities the 452nd left the UK and Station 142 was handed over to the RAF 258 Maintenance Unit for care and maintenance. It was finally closed for good on New Years day 1948, the land was sold off in 1961 and returned to agriculture, a state in which it survives today.

Deopham is a windy and wide open expanse. Development of the site has changed little of its atmospheric feeling. If starting at the southern end of the airfield, the first signs we see are two small structures; a small sentry post and ground crew hut used during maintenance work. Both stand amongst the hedges overgrown and almost hidden, the sentry post very run down and its life is surely near the end. The hut fights on, albeit in a very poor state, and is now the home of farm machinery and stores, and is more likely held together by the weed than any orignal fixings. To your left, at the end of this small track is a loop dispersal, where the B-17s would have been worked on by the crews in the hut.

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A hut once used by ground crews, barely stands in the undergrowth.

Leaving here, head north, taking the road from Bush Green follow it round. You pass on your right the entrance to the former fuel dump, then you veer right, this is now the original peri track. Turning left, you pass a gate on your right,  this junction is the entrance to the bomb store . There is no longer any sign of the mass of munitions that once sat here, merely a concrete road and farm supplies. Continue heading north, you are now on the lower section of the NW-SE runway. A short way up, it crosses the main runway, remains of the original can be seen on both sides of the road, its width giving an indication of the size of the aircraft that used it. From here, turn right and then drive along its length toward Deopham Stalland. This road utilises the main runway virtually in its entirety. The length of these concrete runways clearly visible, and in places, so too is the width, some 50 feet. Along here, the old sections that have not been covered in tarmac, run along side, and stopping off at any point allows you to stand and soak up the atmosphere of those lumbering bombers racing down the runway, labouring to get airborne with their mighty loads. At the end, you can see the last section stretch out before you, the weeds now taking over. Turning left will take you round the peri track toward the north-eastern side of the airfield and away from the site.

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One of the few remaining buildings fights the vegetation – Accommodation Site 7

Turn back on your self, drive down the ‘runway’ to the crossing point and then right and continue north. This is the secondary NW-SE runway once more. Most of this is now beneath the soil, but small sections can be see. Eventually you arrive at a small triangular grassed area. Three trees enclose a small memorial dedicated in May 1992 to the crews of the 452nd BG. A large concrete expanse to the right, the ‘car park’, are the remains of the original runway; from here it heads off to the north as a small track now frequented by dog walkers rather than heavy bombers. Carry on in a westerly direction toward the farm buildings. To your right a small track leads to where the control tower once stood. Sadly long gone, it was a standard wartime design to 12779/41, and was demolished after the land was sold in the 1960s. Behind here was the admin site, housing several dispersals and a blister hangar. All now gone and the land used for buildings owned by Stallard Farm.

To your left stood one of the two T2 hangars and other technical buildings, again mostly all gone today, those that are left are now part of the farm.

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Former Gymnasium and Chancery located on Site No. 5

Continue past this area and you come to a cross roads. Directly opposite to your right is the location of accommodation site 7. Heavily overgrown, it was the home to the 728th BS. The few remaining structures here are also nearing the end of their useful lives. Further on, are accommodation sites 8 and 9, only concrete and a few foundations remain, evidence of the huts that once housed crews here. Turning left at this junction, heading south, you pass Sites 4 (Communal) and 5 (Mess). Also here were sites 12 and the sick quarters 13. Here at site 5, there are a few buildings including  the former Nissen hut library, gymnasium and chapel, and former mess hall. These buildings are now owned by the Council and the Nissen hut still has today artwork paintings of ‘Robin Hood’ on the wall to the rear. A few other buildings survive around here in modern-day use. Others are mere shells and in great danger of falling down.

The former sick quarters (Site 13) still has buildings in use today.

Carrying on along this road and you leave Deopham Green through what was the main entrance. No visible sign of this remains today, the barrier and remaining accommodation sites to your right are all sadly long gone.

Deopham Green was a major airfield used by the Eighth Airforce for bombing missions over Europe. It supported ground operations, targeted transport and communication routes, and saw bravery beyond a scale imaginable today. It also led the way in new and devastating weapons that were to become commonplace in news reels in later years. It is amongst its wind-swept fields, sections of runway and small collection of buildings, that  remain the memories of those who never came back to tell the tale of the devastating war over occupied Europe.

On leaving Deopham Green, we head south again, to our next stop where the roar of radial engines has been replaced by the roar of motor racing. We visit the former American airbase at Snetterton Heath.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo in Public Domain, taken from wikimedia.

* Photo taken from Roger Freeman collection at http://www.americanairmuseum.com/media/10336

A tale of tragic loss – RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Five

In a previous article I wrote about the tragic collision of two Avro Lancaster bombers, both of them from 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. The two aircraft were both trying to land at the same time, after permission to do so had been given to each of them by the Flying Control Officer. A subsequent Court of […]

http://johnknifton.com/2015/08/29/raf-elsham-wolds-part-five/

An airfield that holds a tremendous history, yet little exists.

In this revised trip, we go back to Woodhall Spa, and visit the former Bomber Command airfield, famed for its crews, missions and aircraft. Woodhall Spa is a remarkable airfield, yet it is hardly known, or recognisable today.

RAF Woodhall Spa was originally built as a satellite to RAF Coningsby a short distance away, and opened on 1st February 1942. It was built with three concrete runways; two of 1,400 yds (1,353 m) and a third and main runway of 2,000yds all 50yds (46 m) wide. The site like other Standard ‘A’ class airfields had two T2 hangars and one B1, thirty-six pan-style hardstands and numerous support buildings scattered around its perimeter. Accommodation was spread over 7 sites, along with a WAAF, sick quarters and 2 communal sites all located to the south-east. The technical and administrative sites were also to the south-east side of the airfield between the accommodation areas and the main airfield.

A bomb store was well to the north and the main entrance to the north-west. A range of accommodation and technical style huts were used, Laing / Nissen / Seco and a Watch Tower to drawing 15956/40.

aerial photo of RAF Woodhall Spa

An aerial photograph of Woodhall Spa taken post war. The B1 and T2 hangers can be seen to the north-west, a further T2 to the south. The accommodation block are below the frame. (Taken from a photo at the Thorpe Camp museum).

One remarkable features of Woodhall Spa was the installation of six arrester gear units on the runways. These were designed to prevent aircraft overshooting the runway and were installed during the building programme. Some 120 units were manufactured in all but only a handful of sites had them. On October 22nd 1942, the Woodhall Spa units were tested using an Avro Manchester from the Royal Aircraft Establishment and all went well. However, as the war progressed, reservations were registered about such a technique and the units were never used ‘operationally’ in any of the allocated sites.

At the same time that Woodhall Spa opened, the newly equipped Lancaster (Mk I & III) squadron, 97 Sqn, moved from RAF Coningsby into RAF Woodhall Spa and within a month were flying operations from their new home. However, their first operation, mine laying, was to be fatal for three aircraft, cashing on the journey home. This was not to be the general theme for 97 Sqn though. For the next year they would prove themselves more than capable, hitting many targets accurately with bravery and courage.

Lancaster Mk I ‘R5495’ OF-N of 97 Sqn Woodhall Spa, bombs up. This aircraft was shot down over Essen 8th/9th June 1942, the crew were all killed.*4

The following March (1943) the main bulk of 97 Sqn moved to Bourn to form part of the new Pathfinder force, with detachments at Graveley, Gransden Lodge, Oakington and a further section remaining at Woodhall.  On April 18th 1943, 619 Sqn was formed from the Woodhall Spa detachment retaining their Lancaster Is and IIIs. However, their stay was very short; they moved out to Coningsby in January 1944 and were replaced overnight by the famous 617 (Dambusters) Sqn*5.

During their year here, 619 Sqn would prove themselves further in raids over the Ruhr, Düsseldorf, Oberhausen and Krefeld. Casualties were light during these early missions, but in the following August (1943) the RAF a mounted a massive raid consisting of 596 aircraft on the V2 rocket site at Peenemunde. Three of the twelve aircraft sent by 619 Sqn would fail to return.

Bomb Shelter now flooded.

The bomb shelter now flooded and inaccessible.

When 619 Sqn moved out, 617 Sqn moved in. Lead by Group Captain Leonard Cheshire, 617 Sqn were the elite of 5 Group, Bomber Command and accordingly were to be assigned some of the most difficult and outright dangerous precision bombing missions.

Throughout 1944, 617 Sqn would have many near misses, and losses, ranging from low-level bird strikes to fighter attacks and flak. Targets varied considerably including those at: Limoge (aircraft engine factory), the Antheor Viaduct, Albert, St. Etienne and Metz (aircraft parts factories); many using the new ‘Tall Boy’ 12,000lb bomb.

On 15th April 1944, 617 Squadron were joined by 627 Sqn and obtained some D.H. Mosquito VIs, using these to good effect in the Pathfinder role while their Lancasters continued with the bombing. In June, they had a small respite from bombing missions and on the day of the Allied Invasion, they were tasked with dropping ‘Window’ over the Pas-de-Calais to fool the Germans into believing the invasion force would strike there.

Nissen Huts

A handful of huts and buildings remain.

Throughout the remainder of 1944, 617 Sqn continued to use ‘conventional’ and Tall Boy  bombs on prestige targets like U-boat pens and the Samur Tunnel. Cheshire found himself handed a P-51, and after having it unpacked and engine tested, he used it to mark a V1 target to which 617 struck a devastating blow.

Further major targets were to befall the wrath of 617 Sqn. Flying 2,100 miles to a forward operating base at Yagodonik with Lancasters from 9 Sqn, they attacked the German main Battleship the ‘Tirpitz’. During the mission, for which they had long-range fuel tanks, of the 38 aircraft that set off, six were to crash on the outward journey, one turn back and one to crash on the return. The Tirpitz however was to remain ‘unsinkable’ for some time. It would take two more return trips by 617 Sqn from Lossiemouth to finally sink the ship, the last being on 12th November 1944, with the loss of 1000 German sailors.

Bombing and pathfinder operations for Woodhall spa crews continued right up to the end of the war. Early that year they would start to use the new ‘Grand Slam’ 22,000lb bomb, with their last operational fatality being on 16th April 1945. That was not the end for Woodhall Spa though. The famous Guy Gibson drove here and ‘borrowed’ a Mosquito of 627 Sqn against a backdrop of changed minds, mishaps and misjudgements, the resulting crash leaving him dead.

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Brick walls outline former structures.

Woodhall closed soon after the war ended, but it was identified as a suitable location for Britain’s air defence missile the ‘Bloodhound’ and on May 1st 1960, Woodhall Spa became the base of 222 Sqn with Bloodhound MkI missiles. These were disbanded in June 1964 and replaced by Bloodhound Mk IIs of 112 Sqn on November 2nd 1964. These stayed until 1st October 1967 when they moved to Episkopi in Cyprus.

After the removal of the Bloodhound squadron, the RAF continued to use a small site near to the main entrance, utilising the 617 Sqn T2 hangar and other ancillary buildings as an engine maintenance and testing facility. This too has since closed and the main use is now as a quarry.

Thorpe Camp (RAF Woodhall Spa)

Map showing the location of the Bloodhound Missile Site (Photo of the display at the museum)

A long and distinguished life, Woodhall Spa’s operational losses totalled 91 aircraft, of which 74 were Lancasters and 17 Mosquitoes. Daring and brave crews, they gave their all for freedom and the love of flying.

Today little exists of this former airfield. Being a quarry and partly MOD, much of the  land it is not accessible to the general public. Most of the buildings have long since gone and the runways mostly dug up. A few minor concrete ‘side roads’ are in situ and with searching some evidence can be found. The tower was demolished just after the war as were many of the other buildings and huts. Steps have now been taken to turn whats left into a nature reserve (see post dated 4th July 2015) and a memorial has been placed at the intersection of the runway remains. The best remnants can be seen a little way to the south-east at the former No 1 communal site at Thorpe Camp (see below).

Former NAAFI

The former NAAFI for 469 airmen and 71 officers.

A small number of buildings remain here utilised now as a museum. These include a war-time NAAFI able to accommodate 469 airmen and 71 officers, the ablutions block, ration store and various Nissen huts. A bomb shelter is also here, now flooded and blocked off along with other part brick structures.

In the adjacent woods, the airmen’s quarters and other buildings can be found, now derelict and in a dangerous condition. Odd buildings are scattered about the various sites but these too are few and far between.

Considering the history of Woodhall Spa, the men who flew from here, the operations they undertook, the testing of revolutionary equipment, the new and deadly bombs, it has suffered possibly greater than most and much of this history, if it were not for the Thorpe Camp museum, would now be lost forever. Now it has become a nature reserve in part, then maybe, just maybe, the footsteps of those who were stationed here may once again be walked by others and their memories brought back to life.

Sources and further Reading.

*1 Author unknown, photo from http://www.aircrewremembered.com/hughes-mervyn.html, August 2015

*2 617 Squadron are most famous for the raid on the Ruhr dams in Operation Chastise ‘Operation Chastise’ carried out on 17 May 1943 under the command of Wing Commander Guy Gibson.

This is an updated trail part of Trail 1 Lower Lincolnshire.

Amongst the Rabbit holes and bracken stand the bomb stores of yesteryear.

Trail 13 continued around the western edges of Norfolk, near to Thetford Forest and the heaths of Breckland. Here, not from Thetford, is an airfield left over from the latter parts of the war. Seeing both RAF and USAAF personnel, it was often boggy and wet, but that didn’t deter those brave young men who fought for freedom.

Now an Army training camp, what’s left is being attacked by another enemy. We return to Southern Norfolk to complete an earlier Trail.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built-in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was designed as a satellite to RAF Honington with an all grass runway running NE/SW, 2 x T2 hangars, various defence pillboxes, support buildings and a number of blister hangars. At Honington, a newly formed 311 (Czech) Sqn was formed (29th July 1940) flying Wellington ICs, and they utilised East Wretham as a dispersal until August that year, when they permanently moved in. 311 Sqn carried out night bombing duties for the duration of the time they were here, but then in 1942, Wretham’s status changed once more. 311 sqn moved out and East Wretham became a satellite for Mildenhall taking in 115 Sqn on the 8th November, with their Wellington IIIs. The following March (1943) these were replaced with the rarer Lancaster MkIIs and these remained here in the night bomber role, until a further change in August 1943 when 115 sqn moved to Little Snoring and the site passed to American hands to become Station 133.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. durinhttps://aviationtrails.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=1422&action=editg a raid on Cologne on the night of 28/29 June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

Now home to the 359th Fighter Group,  it hosted the big heavy P-47 Thunderbolts of the 368th (code CV), 369th (IV) and 370th (CR latterly CS) Fighter Squadrons and so had to have steel matting runways laid to accommodate their heavy weight on the soft ground. Used primarily for bomber escort, the 359th FG would fly escort to targets in nearby France. However, in April 1944 the P-47s  were replaced with the more agile P-51s which allowed them to penetrate deep into the heart of both Germany and Poland. A task the ‘Mustang’ became famous for. During the Allied invasion of Normandy the 359th attacked bridges, locomotives and supported bombers hitting targets around the invasion area. As the invasion force got a foothold in France, the three squadrons of the 359th returned to long-range bomber escort duties, taking part in raids over Ludwigshafen, Frankfurt, Berlin and Merseburg. During August 1944, the group supported the operations in ‘Market Garden‘ and later that year the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes.

Wetmore

Maj. R. Wetmore, of the 370th FS, in front of P-51B (42-106894) ‘CS-P’. on the shoulders of his ground crew*1.

On 11th September 1944, the Green nosed Mustangs of the 359th really made their mark when they shot down 26 enemy fighters; for this, they received the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC). The determination shown by the 359th resulted in many outstanding pilots. One, Maj. Raymond “X-Ray Eyes” Wetmore became the 359th (370th FS) top ace scoring 21 victories – his last being an Me 163. Flying in P-51 “Daddies Girl” named after his daughter, he received numerous awards and by the end of the conflict had completed 142 missions covering 563 combat hours.

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The old part remains cordoned off.

This attitude to the war, gave the 359th a worthy credit of 263 aircraft shot down with over 100 more being destroyed on the ground. In the 346 missions they flew, they lost a total of 106 of their own aircraft.

In November 1945 the USAAF left and no further flying took place at East Wretham . The airfield reverted to 12 Group (RAF) ownership, then in May the following year, it was handed back once more to Bomber Command . Within a month the site was handed over to the Technical Training Command and finally East Wretham became a Polish resettlement camp for those personnel who were unable to return home. When they had all finally be moved on, the majority of the site became what it is today, used by the British Army as part of the massive Stanford Practical Training Area (STANTA ) for manoeuvres and live firing training.

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The bombs stores blast walls are still intact – just.

Today most traces of the airfield as it was are gone. A number of buildings notably a T2 hangar and several Nissen huts survive on what is now farmland or in the military camp. The unique Watch Tower was demolished after the war as were many of the other ‘temporary’ buildings. Now used by STANTA, a mix of old and new are intertwined and the majority stands on inaccessible military ground.

Perhaps the best and by far most accessible examples of East Wretham’s past, is the bomb site which forms part of the East Wretham Heath Nature Heritage Trail. Access is to the south of the site just off the main A1075, Thetford Road. A two-mile walk though Heath land, it takes you right through the original bomb store. An area of natural beauty, famed for its wetland and ancient flints, you can easily find the many blast walls and small fusing buildings still there. Also traceable are the tracks that once took bomb loaded trailers to the airfield across the heath. Many now buried under the acidic soil, their existence evident in exposed patches of bare concrete.

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The decay is evident throughout the bomb store.

All these stores are being gradually reclaimed by nature, trees and rabbit holes have both played taken their toll, the layout is still discernible and whilst much of the brickwork is intact, the warning signs are there and they are crumbling fast.

A small airfield, East Wretham was never considered the most ‘homely’ of sites. Often wet and boggy, it was one of the less well-known and less famous places to be used. But the courage and determination of those who served here both RAF and USAAF, went a long way to helping defeat the tyranny that stood facing us across the small section of water not so far away.

To see the other sites on this Trail, Old Buckenham and Tibbenham, go to Trail 13.

Sources and further reading:

*1 Photo: 359th Fighter Group Association, accessed at http://www.littlefriends.co.uk/

A trip around my Dad’s past: RAF Elsham Wolds

My Dad, Fred, used to tell me many tales of his years in the RAF. He served in Bomber Command, and, as I grew older, stimulated perhaps by the increased interest generally in the Second World War, I made great efforts to find out the exact details of where he had served and what exactly […]

http://johnknifton.com/2015/08/17/a-trip-around-my-dads-past-raf-elsham-wolds/

A Gem of a Museum in the Heart of an Aviation Mecca

I recently updated the original Trail on this site after visiting the Thorpe Camp Museum. A really pleasant little museum, it provides a wealth of information for very little cost. Its history and that of the area, is incredible.

Thorpe camp museum sits on the original  communal site 1 on the former RAF Woodhall Spa and was acquired in 1988 by a group of volunteers (The Thorpe Camp Preservation Group) who have utilised the original buildings and pathways that would have been used by RAF personnel during their stay at Woodhall Spa. Entrance is a nominal fee and worth every penny.

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Original buildings of No. 1 communal site are now a museum.

A number of original huts and buildings display a range of letters, photos, memorabilia and other artefacts that take you through aspects of life both at Woodhall Spa and Lincolnshire life during the Second World War. Specific displays tell you about each of the four squadrons based here (97, 617, 619 (Dambusters) and 627) , the crew members, aircraft and personal stories. A memorial stands at the centre of the site reflecting their dedication.

Extensive work has been done to research the famous dams raid of 617 Squadron, how the bouncing bomb was developed, how it worked and what the aftermath of the operation was.

A small shop provides food and drink, and is a welcome break after a long journey.

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An Allan Williams Turret on the site.

A civilian section shows life ‘at home’. Weddings of the Second World War were scant affairs due to lack of money and rationing, but brides made the most of what they had; examples of these are nicely displayed. The home guard, ARPs, and domestic life are all represented in this atmospheric museum.

Many young men were sent from within the borders of Lincolnshire on major operations such as ‘Market Garden’, these too are represented through displays of uniforms, photos, letters and official documents.

Further buildings, also originals, house well stocked displays of the V1 and V2 development. The terror weapons used by Hitler to break the morale of the British people. Over 3000 of these V2s were used against targets in the UK predominately London and the South East. Models, photographs and documents again show the extent of this development.

Something I had never come across before was the idea of using arrester gear on heavy bombers where runways may have been shorter than ideal. The principle, based upon that used by the navy on their aircraft carriers, was to place one or more steel cables across the runway for a landing bomber to ‘catch’ as it landed. A small number of airfields in the UK has these, Woodhall Spa being one of them, and an original winch has been removed from the airfield and carefully refurbished. This now has pride of place in the museum. It is believed a further example remains on the airfield alongside the remains of the runway. A rather ingenious but ineffective idea, it was not widely used due to mis-landings and the increased weight that the arrested gear added to an already heavy aircraft.

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An Arrester Gear Hub that was used on RAF Woodhall.

Thorpe Camp provides a chance to see inside a Lancaster cockpit. A replica, painstakingly built includes all the detail of an original Lancaster bomber. Other parts, including turrets, dials and engines can also be found in this dedicated exhibition room.

Staff at Woodhall Spa are carrying out renovation projects and have their own workshop to do this. The process can be viewed and makes for an added interest to the visit.

As an aviation enthusiast the trip is topped off with another feature in the form of a BAC Lightning F1A (XM192) in 111 Squadron markings standing proud beside another cold war relic the Bristol Bloodhound missile.

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BAC Lightning of 111 Squadron RAF.

Using a range of original documents, photographs, letters and memorabilia, Thorpe Camp at Woodhall Spa is a delight to wander and a real insight not only into the life of this Second World War airfield but life during those hard times in general.

Thorpe Camp is part of Trail 1, and is located near to RAF Coningsby. It has its own dedicated webpage where you can find further information and details.

A museum with an international flavour

This museum forms Trail 26 of our tour around Britain’s aviation past. It is of particular interest to me, not just because of its aviation heritage, but because it’s not far from where I was brought up. Indeed, I was born in the City of Coventry, a mere three miles or so from here. After about 6 months we moved away to more leafy surroundings but the influence of Coventry was not left behind.

More importantly though, my father, my inspiration and the man who gave me my love of aviation, worked here at Baginton on the Argosy for Armstrong Whitworth, an aviation company long since gone. A dear friend of his, also worked here on some secret aircraft, so secret my father sadly never saw it.

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The main building; the Sir Frank Whittle Heritage Centre.

Of course, this area is steeped in aviation history. The Jet engine was developed around here, Sir Frank Whittle’s name is used in his honour for a number of pubs and industrial sites across the region. I used to live not far from Lutterworth, famed for ‘Bitteswell’ where many test flight were made for AW, modifications were carried out to Britain’s Vulcans, Buccaneers, Gnats and Hawks to name but a few all under the name of British Aerospace. Also not far from my home was Whetstone, which had the first purpose-built jet engine factory. Coventry itself was a main target for the Luftwaffe suffering great casualties and damage during the blitz and the Cathedral ruins now stand as a monument to those who lost their lives during those terrible times. The former Standard (Later British Leyland) Motor works here built over 1000 Mosquitos and a number of other aircraft parts were made in this area. Baginton itself produced heavy bombers such as the Whitley and the Lancaster, Dunlop has a factory here as does Rolls Royce. Coventry and the area around it is steeped in both wartime and aviation history.

So Baginton holds good links to my past, and it has been far too long since I was there. So, whilst in the area, I decided to take a detour and visit the Midland Air Museum, Coventry.

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The cargo hold of the Argosy

The museum is located to the northern side of Baginton (Coventry) Airport and has utilised this site since 1975. It originally had only five exhibits when it opened but has grown  into the enormous collection it is today, holding around 40 airframes and various exhibits including: helicopters, a range of aircraft engines, cockpits, galleries and a vast collection of models. The main building, the ‘Sir Frank Whittle Jet Heritage Centre‘ is not only the main building for the displays and  engines but holds a dedicated exhibition of Sir Frank Whittle’s remarkable work.

In here, are a vast number of photographs, letters and other documents relating to the creation and development of the Jet Engine. It takes you through, step by step, the process of development of the engine, Frank Whittle’s life and the organisations that built and developed this major invention.

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Sir Frank Whittle and the early jet engine

The exhibition is housed in a small hangar crammed with jet engines amongst a small collection of aircraft. A meteor F-4 (and Mk 8 cockpit), a DH Vampire F-1, Saab J-29 and Lockheed’s T-33 being the most prominent. Cockpits other than the Meteor include that of the Harrier and a Canberra from RAF Wyton and some of these the visitor is free to sit in and experience what it was like as a pilot. Upstairs in this building, are displays of Baginton’s links with the air industry and local events of the Second World War. Again, photographs and documents relate the lives of those who lived through the war in the surrounding area. An absolute wealth of information here finished of with a huge range of well made models,

Sadly, most of the airframes are outside, some succumbing to the weather and all that the elements can throw at them. However, this aside, the range and selection of airframes is tremendous. Most models here come from the post war era, remnants of the Cold War. A Meteor night fighter stands next to the modern Tornado, A Gloster Javelin, A.W. Sea Hawk, D.H. Sea Vixen, Fairy Gannet and Harrier represent the great naval traditions of British aviation. From the RAF we have the Canberra, Hunter, Gnat, Percival’s Prentice, D.H. Beaver and two stunning E.E. Lightnings; a Saudi T-55 and a Binbrook F6 retired in 1988.

Many of these aircraft saw development in the years following the Second World War. The Canberra, first flown in 1949, served right up until 2007 and achieved many awards for altitude and performance flights. Used by Air Forces across the world, variants saw action over the Suez Canal, in Vietnam and in the Indo-Pakistan conflict in the late 1960s. Built under licence in the United States with a redesigned cockpit, the B-57 was admired by many. Production of the Canberra and its variants total around 1,500 and filled a number of roles with a variety of Air forces.

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The Boulton Paul P.111A bulit in one piece and designed to explore the aerodynamic properties of the Delta wing.

Baginton is not just limited to RAF types either. The USAF is also represented through several models, there’s the North American F-86A Sabre and F-100D Super Sabre,  McDonnell Douglas F-101B Voodoo and of course the famous McDonnell Douglas F-4c Phantom.

Initially designed as a carrier based aircraft, the Phantom was adopted by numerous air forces across the world including the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. First flown in 1958, it was so successful that it would continue to serve into the early 21st century; with production totaling nearly 6,000 – it was a major contribution to aviation history. Like other models here, the Phantom fulfilled a variety of roles, being continually adapted to meet new demands and challenges. Truly a great aircraft.

No Cold War exhibition would be complete without opposing aircraft. A MIL Mi-24D Hind helicopter with its formidable nose mounted cannon and gas turbine engine stands alongside  Russia’s highly proven  warrior, the Mig 21.

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A McDonnell Douglas F-101B Voodoo

The Midland Air Museum has a good international flavour to it. Lockheed’s F-104 Starfighter, dubbedWitwenmacheror ‘Widowmaker’ because of its unforgiving nature, stands in Royal Danish Air Force colours, the Mig 21, East German, the Gnat in Finnish Air force markings and the French represented with Dassault’s Mystere IV.

However, amongst all this hardware, there are two airframes that stand out for me here at Baginton, and not for their size alone, Avro’s B2 Vulcan ‘City of Coventry’ XL 360 which stands in 617 Squadrons colours, a squadron it served with before retirement, and Armstrong Whitworth’s Argosy 650, of which this is the oldest surviving example. To see both, not only remind me of my younger days, but provide a link to my father whose memories are fading as each day goes by.

One of the delights of the Midland Air Museum is that you can sit for free (donations accepted) in many of the cockpits where knowledgable guides will talk you through its history and features, something rarely found elsewhere.

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Avro Vulcan B2 XL360 ‘City of Coventry’

To finish off your walk round, there is a small but clean and pleasant cafe, a shop that is filled to the brim with model kits, books and other mementos of your day. The staff are friendly and helpful, always a blessing.

Whilst some of the airframes are looking a little jaded, there is an extensive collection  to be found here, and for those interested in all things aviation, especially the development of the Jet engine; from the early days of the Sapphire, through to the Olympus, the Avon and the RB199 turbo fans of the Tornado; the Midland Air Museum has them all.

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Sisters sit side-by-side

Coventry Cathedral is about 3 miles from here, and if time permits, is also worthy of a visit.

Details of the museum can be found through their website.

An airfield whose history remains secret.

This is the second airfield of Trail 25 which takes place in the Hertfordshire countryside. Even today, much of what went on here remains secret and little information about the people or its activities exists. However, its role in the both wars was significant.

RAF Sawbridgeworth

RAF Sawbridgeworth was originally constructed as an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) during April 1916. It was designed to take aircraft from 39 sqn, who were currently based at nearby North Weald. Activated initially to combat the Zeppelins from Germany, 39 sqn are currently based at RAF Waddington flying the MQ-9 Reaper against a much different enemy.

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Part of the Airfield defences.

It wasn’t until the Second World War, that RAF Sawbridgeworth  really came into its own as an operational airfield.

Mathams Wood ALG, as it was known, saw expansion in the early 1940s, more through luck than careful planning. Each of the three runways, were constructed of Summerfield tracking, and measured 1,700 yds, 1,400 yds and 900 yds in length.  The usual Drem lighting was installed adjacent the track rather than embedded as would be the usual case.

A number of buildings were requisitioned as aircraft were dispersed here following France’s fall in 1940. The ALG was expanded through local workers and Mathams Wood ALG took on the unofficial name RAF Sawbridgeworth after the village that stands close by.

The expansion of Sawbridgeworth also included a number of buildings: 16x Dorman Long (4630/42) blister hangars, a T2 hangar, a number of ‘Blenheim’ style aircraft pens and 8 dispersed sites primarily to the East of the airfield. A watch tower, fire tender station, hospital, grocery store, Link trainer, gymnasium and the usual accommodation blocks all added to the much bigger site than had been previously been designed.

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The former Grocery Store.

The first unit to be based here was that of 2 (AC) sqn flying Westland Lysander II and IIIs in the observational role. Performing primarily in this activity, 2 sqn later on used the Curtis Tomahawk I & II, followed shortly after by the Mustang I and eventually the IA. Other squadrons to be based here included: 4, 63, 80, 126, 168, 170, 182 , 239, 268 and 652 sqns primarily undertaking a PR role whilst here.  A number of other non-flying units performing the evacuation and redeployment of personnel were also stationed here.

2 Sqn were also heavily involved in the secret work of the Special Operations Execute (SOE) involved in dropping agents into occupied France. Much of the training of the aircrews took place at Sawbridgeworth, with practice flights using the famous ‘Black’ Lysanders. Even today, some 75 years later, these operations and the role of the photographic reconnaissance units, remain well hidden operations cloaked in secrecy.

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The perimeter track still remains, in full at some points.

Sawbridgeworth was not devoid of its own enemy attention. On September 19th 1940 a Heinkel III was shot down and crashed in nearby Thorley Wash, one of several crashes close by.

As the war drew to a close, so did the activity at Sawbridgeworth. Following the invasion of Normandy, and the subsequent liberation of Europe, all operational flying ceased in November 1944 and the site went into care and maintenance. The runways were pulled up using P.O.Ws and the tower was demolished a year after the cessation of conflict in 1945. Other buildings were removed or demolished and the land turned back to agriculture.

Wandering the site today, there is luckily still quite a bit of evidence about. The perimeter track is complete, not in its full width throughout, but a large proportion of it. A number of pill boxes remain scattered around the perimeter of the site and the Battle Headquarters (design 11008/41) can be found with determined searching amongst the brambles and hedgerows.

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The former guard block, still largely intact.

To the west of the site is a small industrial complex utilising what was a ten-bed sick quarters, dental annexe, a twelve bed Barrack hut that doubled as a hospital ward, mortuary and an ambulance shed. An ablutions block is was also located here and the site is more or less complete. Not far from here, is a modern farm, which houses a number of smaller original buildings including a Parachute store (built to drawing 11137/41), fabric store, sub station, main stores and other technical buildings. These are all located on private land and in use by the farmer. There is also a signals block, located nearby to these sites and easily visible from the road.

Across to the east of the airfield, is whats left of the communal site. Here stood 33 buildings in total, incorporating a wide range of supporting units for recreation and general living. The only remaining buildings being the standby generator house and the grocery store. Both are used by local businesses.

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The Standby Generator House now a stores for machinery.

A memorial to those who served at Sawbridgeworth stands outside what was the guard block. A recent addition, it is a nice reminder of the dedication of the crews who were stationed here during two world wars.

Sawbridgeworth is a small well hidden airfield and takes some finding. Hidden by woodland and crops, it was created through luck rather than good planning. The crews and aircraft of Sawbridgeworth played a considerable part in the Second World War, and all in its short but yet significant life.

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A memorial stands dedicated to those who served at Sawbridgeworth.

Sawbridgeworth features with its sister station RAF Hunsdon in Trail 25.

1940s revisited

A little more light-hearted look at the 1940s away form the disused airfields of Britain.

These last two years have been significant years in terms of both the First and Second World Wars. With the 100th anniversary  of the start of WWI last year, the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year, VE-day and of course to come VJ-day commemorations, there has been an understandable increase in interest in all things Second World War.

One thing I have noticed in particular, is the increase in numbers at 1940s weekends, in both participants and visitors.

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Vehicles of all shapes and sizes came for the weekend.

I myself have been to two recently, and at one I got the chance to sit in a Spitfire cockpit. Not something you do every day!

I know these events are not to everyone’s taste and some will groan at the thought of it, but I do think there is an historical value to them. Many of the participants only use genuine clothing or equipment, much of what you see is rare and in all cases they are only too keen to talk about what they have, its history, how and where it was used and in some cases, allow you to hold the articles in question.

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The rumbling of tanks could be heard once more.

From another perspective, and for those of you who know my day job, there are too, a growing number of children attending these events which I believe is a good thing as it brings history to life – something that is very difficult in a school classroom. A gun in school? I can see the headline now!

Two events I recently attended, both for different reasons, were at Woodhall Spa and Baston, two small villages in ‘Bomber country’, Lincolnshire.

Woodhall Spa was the home to the Dambusters, and for one weekend each year the entire village steps back in time to the 1940s. A second invasion occurs. Walking along the high street is like walking along in 1940, uniforms of every description can be seen, from RAF aircrew to British Army, U.S. infantry, Canadian, and even a variety of Russian, Luftwaffe and German infantry. Even the 1940s housewife, ‘spiv’, Firemen, Policeman and Milkman are represented in full 1940s attire. Many of the vehicles that line the numerous side streets are authentic World War II vehicles, half-tracks, trucks, endless jeeps and even the odd small tank driven here on trailers or under their own steam. Owners have taken a lot of time and money to get them rebuilt and keep them going.

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Re-enactors were everywhere

At the Petwood Hotel, used by 617 Squadron as a mess and officers quarters, there are re-enactments, talks and even ‘briefings’ in a 1940s style. The BBMF perform short displays over the grounds of this small village adding to the feel and as always people stop and watch in awe as once again a Spitfire, Hurricane and Dakota fly low over the streets of this small Lincolnshire village.

Inside the Petwood, you can wander the rooms that 617 Sqn once wandered by Guy Gibson and his crews; drink a tea or refreshing beer in the same room they did. The Squadron bar, displays numerous letters, photographs and other memorabilia connected with 617’s stay here. It is a remarkable place to be, knowing you walk the same ground as those special crew members did some 70 years ago.

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The Squadron bar.

Outside in the manicured gardens among the rhododendrons singers perform the many songs that inspired a nation, bolstered our morale and kept us going through those dark days of the Second World War. The feel is very much 1940s.

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Spitfire that is about 80% original.

Baston was very much the same. A large participation of re-enactors, vehicles and uniforms, many rasing money, good money, for War Veterans – a valuable cause I’d say. But it is the most odd feeling to walk amongst uniforms that once fought to the death and that were feared by those who were governed by them. In the summer and autumn of 1940, Britain came so close to being invaded, today an invasion has taken place.

Whether you like them or not, these events do have a place in our ‘living history’ and thankfully now, at least, it is on friendly terms.