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.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. 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. 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.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.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/