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