A pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley deserves much greater recognition.

In Trail 29 we turn south and head to the southern end of Cambridgeshire. This area is rich in fighter stations, both RAF and USAAF. Home to Duxford and Bader’s ‘Big Wing’, Mustangs, Spitfires and Hurricanes once, and on many occasions still do, grace the blue skies of this historical part of the country.

We start off though not at a fighter station but one belonging to those other true professionals, the Pathfinders of No 8 Group, RAF and former RAF Graveley,

RAF Graveley

Graveley sits to the south of Huntingdon, a few miles east of St. Neots. It takes its name from the village that lays close by to its eastern side. It would see a range of changes, upgrades and improvements and be home to many different residents during  its wartime life.

Built as a satellite for nearby RAF Tempsford, Graveley opened in March 1942 with 161 (Special Duty) Squadron. Their role was to drop SOE agents in occupied France, a role 161 would undertake throughout its operational life. Equipped with Lysander IIIA, Hudson MkI and Whitley Vs, they were somewhat dwarfed by the enormity of Graveley airfield. Within a month of arriving however, they would leave and move away to their new permanent base at RAF Tempsford, leaving the open expanse of Graveley behind.

Built as a standard ‘A’ class airfield for 8 Group, Graveley would have three concrete runways, the main laying E-W, initially of 1,600 yds long; the second, NW-SE of  1,320 yds and the last laying NE-SW 1,307 yds. Later these would be lengthened to 2,000, 1,420 and 1,407 yards respectively as improvements and upgrades would take place. Accommodation was spread around the north side of the airfield, across the main Offord to Graveley road. These were spread over nine accommodation sites, incorporating a separate communal and sick quarters. Graveley could accommodate up to 2,600 personnel which included 299 WAAFs. As with all sites, the bomb store was well away from the accommodation to the south-west, partially enclosed by the three runways. The 50 foot perimeter track linked the runaways with 36 pan style hardstands (after the extension three of these were replaced by loops). The main technical site lay to the north-west, where two of the three T-2 hangars were located, the other being to the south-east next to a B-1.

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RAF Graveley (author unknown)

Graveley lay operationally dormant following the immediate departure of 161 Sqn in April 1942. However, in May’s ‘1000’ bomber raid, aircraft from 26 OTU flew from Graveley as part of the massive operation. Four Wellingtons (all Mk Ic) failed to return; WS704, DV740, DV707 and DV709 were lost during the night of May 30th/31st – a reality check for those at this quiet Cambridgeshire base.

As Bomber Command developed the new Pathfinder Force (PFF) Graveley would find itself a major player. Its first residents, of the new 8 Group, were 35 Sqn (RAF) with Halifax IIs. These would be upgraded to MK IIIs in the following October and Lancaster I and IIIs a year later. Arriving on August 15th 1942, they would have their first mission from here just three days later. On the night of 18th/19th August, a total of 31 PFF aircraft left to mark the target at Flensburg. Poor weather and strong winds prevented accurate marking and two Danish towns were accidentally bombed as a result. A rather disastrous start for 35 Sqn.

Another blow was to fall 35 Sqn later that same year. On the night of 19th September 1942, the experienced Wing Commander J.H. Marks was lost when his Halifax II (W7657) ‘TL-L’  crashed at Blesme near Saarbrucken with the loss of three crew members. (This same identification was given to Halifax HR928 which also crashed with the loss of its crew see photo below).

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Graveley village sign depicts its aviation heritage.

A number of other experienced crews were to be lost from Graveley over the next few months. But all news was not bad. The night of 18th/19th November saw a remarkable turn of fortune. Halifax DT488 (TL-S) piloted by Wing Commander B.V. Robinson, caught fire when flares in the bomb bay ignited. He ordered the crew to bail out, but as the last man left the fire extinguished itself. Robinson decided to try to nurse the bomber home. Flying single-handed, he reached the safety of RAF Colerne, Wiltshire, where he survived a crash landing. The six crew members who had bailed out also survived but were captured and taken prisoner by the Germans.  As a result of his actions, Robinson was awarded a Bar to add to his DSO.

Robinson would have a second lucky escape later on, after which, in May 1943, he would become the Station Commander of his home base at Graveley.

35 Sqn would carry out a number of missions marking and attacking strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany. By the end of 1942 the new H2S system was being introduced and a small number of 35 Sqn aircraft were fitted with the units. Missions were on the whole successful even after the Germans developed a device able to track aircraft using it; eventually the whole of the PFF were fitted with HS2.

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Halifax Mark II Series 1A, HR928 ‘TL-L’, 35 Sqn RAF being flown by Sqn Ldr A P Cranswick, an outstanding Pathfinder pilot who was killed on the night of 4/5 July 1944 on his 107th mission. The Cranswick coat-of-arms decorates the nose just below the cockpit.(IWM)*1

In early 1943, Graveley was to become the first base to use ‘FIDO’ the Fog Dispersion system, which led to a number of successful, poor weather landings. This in turn led to 15 other operational airfields being fitted with the facility, a  major step forward in allowing Bomber Command to fly in poor weather.

A number of major operations were undertaken by 35 Sqn over the coming months, and the loss of Group Captain Robinson on the night of 23rd/24th August 1943 in a Halifax II (HR928) ‘TL-R’, brought a further blow to the base. Following this, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris restricted flying operations by base Commanders as the number being lost was becoming unsustainable.

The new year brought new changes to Graveley. Mosquito B.IVs arrived with a newly formed 692 squadron (RAF). Their first mission would be on the night of February 1st/2nd 1944 in which a single aircraft would attack Berlin.

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Armourers wheel a 4,000-lb HC bomb into a Mosquito. The Mosquitos were fitted with bulged bomb-bays in order to accommodate ‘Cookies’. The tower can be seen behind. (IWM)*2

Some of these 692 Sqn Mosquitos were later modified to carry the enormous 4,000 lb ‘Cookie’ bomb, This was first used by S/Ldr. Watts in Mosquito DZ647 who took off at 20.45 hours to attack Düsseldorf. The attack took place on  the night of 23rd/24th February 1944 from a height of 25,000 feet. The initial bomb was followed by two further bombs from Mosquitos of the same squadron, DZ534 and DZ637.

The first casualties for 692 Sqn were reported only three days earlier, on the night of 19th/20th February, which also proved to be the worst night of Bomber Command casualties in the war so far. Mosquito DZ612 ‘P3-N’ flown by F/L W Thomas (DFC) and F/L J Munby (DFC) took off at 01:05 to attack Berlin. The aircraft was shot down and both crew members killed.

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Mosquito B Mark XVIs of No. 692 Squadron RAF (PF392 ‘P3-R’ nearest), lined up at Graveley. (IWM)*3

In early April 1944, a small detachment of 571 Sqn Mosquitos (RAF Downham Market – Trail 7) joined 692 passing through on their way to RAF Oakington and then Warboys where they were eventually disbanded. An event not un-typical for Graveley.

692 would have another claim to fame a year later on January 1st 1945. In an attempt to assist in the Ardennes offensive they attacked supply lines through a tunnel, requiring the bomb to be dropped into the mouth of the tunnel where it would explode. These attacks were carried out between 100 and 250 feet using the ‘Cookies’ and were so successful that smoke was seen bellowing from the other end of the tunnel.

The final 692 Sqn mission would be on the night of May 2nd/3rd 1945, and consisted of 23 aircraft in 2 waves of 12 and 11 aircraft against Kiel; all crews would return safely.

692 Squadron RAF, would operate a variety of Mosquito types during its life the B.IV, XIV and XVI and would prove to be highly successful and instrumental in 8 Group’s ‘Light Night Striking Force’.

35 Sqn RAF would go on to have a long and established career, as late as 1982. 692 Sqn on the other hand would move to Gransden Lodge in June 1945 where they were finally disbanded; a sad end to a remarkable career. Many highly regarded crew members were lost in operations from Graveley. including Sqn. Ldr. R. Fitzgerald and Wing Commander A. Cranswick. Graveley would have a high record of prestige loses such was the nature of the PFF.

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The remaining buildings utilised by the farm, which no longer resembles the Control Tower it was.

Other units to grace the skies over Graveley would include detachments of 97, 115 and 227  Sqns all with Lancaster I and IIIs, many prior to disbandment toward the war’s end.

692 Squadron carried out 310 operations from Graveley losing 17 Mosquitos in all. A  total of 150 aircraft were registered either missing or crashed following operations from this station: 83 Halifaxes, 32 Lancasters and 35 Mosquitos.

As one of the many pathfinder stations in this part of the country, Graveley is linked by the long ‘Pathfinder Walk’ that leads all the way to RAF Warboys in the north (Trail 17). Using this walk allows you to visit a number of pathfinder bases linking each one by open cross-country footpaths.

Today, Graveley is all but gone. The control tower is now very well disguised as a farm-house, its shape considerably different to the  original design, the concrete huts have been pulled down and the runways mainly dug-up. A couple of buildings do still remain next to the farm-house, storing a range of farm equipment. The perimeter track considerably smaller in width, remains used by the local farm for lorries to transport their goods to the main road.

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The perimeter track where bombers once lumbered.

A small memorial has been erected and sad to say, is poorly maintained. It stands at the entrance to the former airfield on the northern side, now the entrance to the farm site.

Graveley is typical of the sad end to many of Britain’s lost airfields. The wide open expanses that once resounded with the roar of piston engines taking brave young men to war, are now quiet and the sounds mere whispers in the wind. Lorries gently roll where the wheels of laden bombers once lumbered. The brave acts of those young men now laid to rest in a small stone overlooking where they once walked. As a pivotal station in 8 Group, Graveley and its crews deserve a much greater recognition for their dedication, bravery and sacrifice.

A beautiful stained glass window can be found in Graveley church and is worthy a visit if time allows.

After the quiet of Graveley we head south-east, but before arriving at our next planned destination, RAF Bourn,  we stop off at the now extinct RAF Caxton Gibbet.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

*2 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

*3 Photo courtesy of Imperial War Museum

RAF Fersfield – The Last Flight of Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford Willy

There has been much written about the young Kennedy, his life, his family and his death, but a lot of information around his death has remained ‘unknown’ for many years. Even today, the actual cause of his death is not clear and will probably remain so.

Joseph Kennedy Jnr was based at RAF Fersfield (originally RAF Winfarthing) in Norfolk (Trail 27), and had only been there a few weeks before he tragically died on August 12th 1944, whilst operating on secret operations. A tragic loss, this is the last flight of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy from RAF Fersfield, Norfolk, England.

The Crew – Lieutenant Joseph Kennedy Jnr.

Joseph Kennedy was born July 25th 1915, Nantasket, Massachusetts, he was the eldest brother of eight siblings including John F. Kennedy. He was son to Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. Throughout his life he had been pressured into the political life by his father who had high hopes that his son would become the future President. Joseph Jnr wanted to please. As war loomed, Joe Kennedy Jnr rose to the challenge seizing his opportunity to become the ‘shining light’ of the Kennedy family.

The Kennedy parents instilled a desire to be competitive, to win and succeed and to be the best. This came out in Joseph during his time at both home and at school. The pressure on Joseph was enormous, and it was clearly evident throughout his short life.

Joseph lived in the shadow of his younger brother John, who would captain a PT boat in the Far East, and in Joseph’s absence, go on to become President of the most powerful nation on Earth. John was the brighter, the more determined of the two, and this caused friction between them. Joe always wanting to ‘out-do’ his brother persevered, but never seemed to quite make it.

It was this determination and rivalry that perhaps led Joseph to do what he did, to impress, to be the best and the ideal way he thought was as a war hero.

With a remarkable academic background behind him, Joseph Kennedy joined the U.S. Naval Reserves on October 15th 1941, reporting to the Naval Air Station (N.A.S.) at Jacksonville, Florida the following day. After several months of training he received his commission and on January 10th 1943 he joined a flying patrol squadron. In May he became a Junior Grade Lieutenant transferring to a bomber squadron in the following July that year. In 1944, on July 1st, he was promoted to Lieutenant United States Naval Reserve. His military life would last just one more month.

Joseph was posted to RAF Dunkeswell serving under the RAF’s Coastal Command. Flying a PB4Y he would carry out U-Boat searches over the Atlantic around the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic. As he accumulated flying hours, he rarely came into any real danger, even when posted to cover the Allied invasion fleet over Normandy he rarely came into contact with any opposing aircraft or vessels.

Joseph Kennedy’s opportunity came when volunteers were asked for to undertake a special secret and dangerous operation. He jumped at the chance to be a hero.

Joseph Kennedy arrived at RAF Fersfield, Norfolk on 30th July 1944 where he was trained for two weeks.  On August 10th 1944 he wrote a letter home, it would be his last communication with his family. Joseph Kennedy was to become a pilot in operation Anvil.

Lieutenant Wilford John Willy

Sadly, Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy (s/n: O-137078), has remained in the shadows probably because the status of Joseph Kennedy Jnr. A tragic loss nonetheless and no less an important one. Willy was born 13th May 1909, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Navy in 1928, gaining his Naval Wings on April 30th 1937, just two years after he had married his sweetheart, Edna C. Schaffery, the women he left behind. On advancing through the rank of Chief Petty Officer,  he was awarded Lower Grade Lieutenant (April 28th 1942) and two months later, on June 26th, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. Willy served at a number of operational stations, including Pearl Harbour, before being posted to RAF Fersfield, in Norfolk.

Willy, now an expert in Radio Operations and procedures, became the Executive Officer of the Special Air Unit One (S.A.U.1), the rank he achieved when he took off with Kennedy on August 12th 1944.

Operations Anvil and Aphrodite.

Whilst Drone technology and research had been around as early as World War I, it was still relatively unchartered territory. However, radio controlled drones (modern name Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or U.A.V.s) were already being used with relative success for target practice by the RAF and USAAF during World War II. The ‘Queen Bee’ being one of many used by the RAF. The Germans had also been investigating drone and guided bomb use through examples such as the Mistel aircraft (the most successful being a combination of either a FW-190 or Me-109 mounted above a Ju 88).

Both the  USAAF and USN were undertaking secret trials into drone aircraft operations with the view of attacking
the  heavily defended and ‘impenetrable’ submarine and ‘V’ weapons sites across northern France . The aim, to stop, or at least reduce, the Nazi’s use of the V1, V2 rockets and the development of the new V3 canon.

Codenamed ‘Aphrodite‘ by the USAAF,  and ‘Anvil‘  by the Navy, they were two secret operations running side by side. The idea behind these operations, was to remove all excess equipment from war-weary B-17s and B-24s, fill them with explosives, such as the British Torpex, put in radio receivers so that the drone (baby) could be controlled by a separate aircraft (mother) and fly them into designated targets. A volunteer crew of two would take off, set the aircraft in flight and then bail out over the U.K. or English Channel, leaving the ‘baby’ in the control of the ‘mother’ aircraft. These would then fly, by remote control, to the target when they would be put into a dive destroying whatever they hit.

The controls of the B-17 . The arm linkage moved the control column in response to the radio controls. (credit USAF)

The idea was remarkable but not new, and the equipment whilst innovative for its day, was limited to say the least. In all the operations undertaken only one drone ever reached its target, and that was through more luck than skill.

‘Azon’ (from AZimuth ONly*1) controls had been used successfully on individual 500lb or 1000lb bombs, where the control box was attached to the rear of the bomb and controlled by the bomb aimer through a joy stick. Using two directional controls (left or right) he could direct a bomb very accurately onto a given point. The downside of Azon, was that range and fall had to be determined in the usual way by the bomb aimer and could not be altered once the bomb had left the aircraft.

Azon had been used and proven in attacking bridges, railways and other longitudinal targets and was very accurate with a good bomb aimer. However, because of its limitations, it could only be used in one dimension and therefore was not capable a making a ‘baby’ take off.

Two aircraft types were identified for the project. Boeing’s B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ and Consolidated’s B-24 ‘Liberator’. These once converted would be given new identifications BQ-7 (usually B-17Fs) and BQ-8 (B-24D/J). In each case it was deemed that two crew members would be needed to raise the ‘baby’ off the ground, partly because of the strength needed to pull back the control columns in these heavy bombers. Once airborne, they would climb to around 20,000ft, arm the Torpex, set the aircraft on a trajectory to the target, switch on the receivers and bail out.

About twenty-five  BQ-7s were modified, but it is not known accurately how many USAAF BQ-8s were converted. However, it is known that at least two naval PB4Y-1s (the naval version of the B-24 of which 400 had been converted from B-24 status – these were given s/n 31936 – 32335) were converted to BQ-8 standard; one of which was flown by Lt. Kennedy and  Lt. Willy on the 12th August 1944.

A number of support aircraft were needed for each mission. Prior to the attack a Mosquito XVI of the 653rd BS would photograph the target. Then the ‘baby’ would be accompanied by at least one fighter (either P-38 or P-51) incase the ‘baby’ lost control and had to be shot down and for fighter escort; a ‘mother’ either a Lockheed Ventura or another B-17 modified to CQ-4 standard, and a photographic  Mosquito from the 8th Combat Camera Unit (CCU) to record inflight behaviour. A post mission photo reconnoissance operation was carried out by the 25th BG at Watton to analyse the effectiveness of the bombing. It therefore took a lot of fuel, crew and aircraft to fly one drone to its target.

Because of the design features of the bombers, the USAAF looked into removing the cockpit to allow easy departure. The only aircraft that received this treatment was B-17F, “Olin’s 69’ERS” 42-30595 formally of 560BS, 388BG at Knettishall. It was never used on an Aphrodite mission  and was scrapped post war after being used for training in the open cockpit mode.  The BQ-8  (B-24) also had modifications made in the form of a widened hatch in the nose allowing for an easier escape from the aircraft. Once modified, the aircraft would have had all previous markings removed, and a special white or yellow paintwork applied to identify them from other bombers. To assist the controllers in sighting the ‘babies’ whilst in flight, the aircraft were fitted with a smoke canister that would be ignited allowing the bomb aimer to see the aircraft as it began its dive. In addition to this, two cameras were fitted to some ‘babies’ that transmitted pictures to the mother or support ship. These pointed at the controls and through the plexiglass. A revolutionary step forward in drone technology.

A modified B-17 (BQ-7) with its canopy removed, this aircraft became a training drone. Credit USAF

In all, there were fifteen missions undertaken by the USAAF and USN, but none were to successfully hit their targets.  These included: Mimoyecques (Fortress); Siracourt (V1 Bunker); Watten (V2 Bunker); Heligoland (U-boat pens); Heide; Le Havre (docks); Hemmingstedt (oil refinery); Herford (marshalling yard) and Oldenburg (Power station). Both the operations and entire programme were cancelled only a few months after the Kennedy/Willy mission.

The last flight.

At RAF Fersfield, on August 12th 1944, Lieutenants Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford J. Willy, both of the S.A.U. 1 of the Fleet Air Arm Wing Seven, boarded their converted B-24 Liberator, s/n 32271 (ex USAAF B-24J 42-110007)*2 and began their preflight checks. The aircraft was filled with 21,270lbs of explosive. At 17:55 and 17:56 two Lockheed Ventura ‘mother’ aircraft took off, followed by a further navigation aircraft and then the ‘baby’ at 18:07. The ‘baby’ climbed to 2,000 ft, the two ‘mothers’ 200 feet higher and slightly behind. They were joined by two Mosquitos, one for monitoring the weather, and the second, A USAAF F-8, to photograph the ‘baby’. This aircraft was flown by pilot Lieutenant Robert A. Tunnel and combat camera man Lieutenant David J. McCarthy. There was a further B-17 relay ship, a P-38 high altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft and five P-51 Mustangs to provide fighter cover.

The group set off toward the target at Mimoyecques , Northern France. They were to fly south-east toward the Suffolk coast, then turn south and head toward the target. Once level and stabilised, Kennedy and Willy handed over control to one of the ‘mother’ ships Then they reached the first control point (CP) at which time the group began to turn south; the ‘mother’ controlling the ‘baby’. Shortly after the turn was completed (about two minutes) Kennedy was heard to give the code “Spade Flush”, then at that 18:20 the ‘baby’ disintegrated in what was described as “two mid-air explosions” and a “large Fireball”.*4 The explosion, spread debris over a large area of the Suffolk countryside killing both crew members instantly. The following Mosquito also suffered damage and minor injuries to its crew. Following the explosion, all the aircraft were ordered back to base and the crews debriefed.

Many months (and indeed years) of investigations followed, but no firm conclusions could be drawn as to the precise cause of the explosion that ripped the aircraft apart. A number of speculative theories were drawn up, but the most plausible is that the electronic arming system was faulty and when Kennedy or Willy flicked the switch, an electronic short occurred that caused the bombs to detonate. Oddly the film that was in the following Mosquito has never been seen or made public – if indeed it was filming at that time.

The cause of deaths of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy still remain a mystery to this day.

Joseph Kennedy wanted to be a hero. He wanted to be talked about as the one who achieved and outshone his brother. Sadly, this dream cost him his life.

Page 1 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

Page 2 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

This fateful mission and its two crew members are remembered across the world. In France, the Mimoyecques museum contains a memorial honoring both pilots, and their names are carved in the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridge. Kennedy has a ship the Destroyer ‘USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ DD850 named after him and this is now a museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts. Both aviators were awarded the Naval Cross posthumously,

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Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jr, USNR, appears on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

Lieutenant Jospeh P. Kennedy Jnr had no dependents but Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy left a widow and three children.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Azimuth being the clockwise horizontal angle from a given point (usually North) to a second given point.

*2US Navy and US Marine Corps BuNos, Third Series (30147 to 39998)‘  Joe Baugher, accessed 20/8/15

*3 Photos taken from ‘A People at War‘  Archives.Gov, Accessed 20/8/15

*4Crisis Hunter: The Last Flight of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ Paul Elgood, Columbia Point, 2014 pg 45, 65,

For a list of USAAF drones and pilotless missiles, see here.

For the details on Drones see Wikipedia.

For more information and types, see Mistel aircraft, on Wikipedia.

RAF Fersfield – Where history was made – and lost.

After leaving the open expanses of Deopham Green and the roar of Snetterton, we head to a very remote and quiet airfield. Quiet and remote for a very special reason. From here crews would experience top-secret flights, we would see a link to one of America’s greatest and most powerful families and the RAF would strike another blow at the heart of the Gestapo. We head to RAF Fersfield.

RAF Fersfield (Station 140/554)

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29 August 1946. Photograph taken by No. 541 Squadron, sortie number RAF/106G/UK/1707. English Heritage (RAF Photography).*1

Originally built as a satellite for RAF Knettishall, RAF Fersfield, was built-in late 1943. The third Class A airfield on this Trail, its main runway ran along a NE-SW direction, was 2000 yds in length and was constructed of concrete. There was a second and third runway of 1,400 yds running N-S and E-W again of concrete. Fersfield had two T-2 Hangars, one to the north side and one to the south, and 50 loop dispersals for aircraft storage. The bomb dump was located to the north, the technical area to the south and the accommodation blocks to the south and south-west. Fersfield would eventually be able to accommodate up to 2000 mixed personnel.

Initially, the airfield was called Winfarthing and designated station 140, it was then handed over  to the USAAF who would rename it Fersfield Station 554 (I am at present unable to locate a precise date for this transfer).

Fersfield was specifically chosen for its remote location as, unknown to those who came here, it was going to play a major role in the battle over Europe.

The first residents were a detachment of the 388th Bomb Group (BG) based at Knettishall which consisted of four bomb squadrons: the 560th 561st, 562nd and 563rd. A detachment specifically from the 562nd, were brought here to perform special operations and research into radio controlled bombs using war-weary B-17s and B-24s.

T2 Hangar now a store

An original T2 Hangar now stores grain rather than B17s.

Operating as Operation ‘Aphrodite’, the idea was to remove all operational equipment from the aircraft, fill it with around 20,000 lb of ‘Torpex’ and fly it by remote control into a specified target such as ‘V’ weapon sites, submarine pen (Operations Crossbow and Noball) or similar hight prestige targets that were otherwise difficult to destroy .

Both the USAAF and USN were carrying out these trials. The Navy, also using Fersfield, called their operations ‘Anvil’ and used the PB4Y (the Navy version of the B-24 ‘Liberator’) as their drone.

The first Aphrodite mission took place on August 4th 1944, and was to set the tone for all future operations. Mission 515, was flown using four B-17 ‘babies’ with four accompanying ‘mothers’ to target ‘V’  weapon sites at : Mimoyecques, Siracourt, Watten, and Wizernes. Escorting them were sixteen P-47s and sixteen P-51s. One of the babies, B-17 (42-39835) ‘Wantta Spa(r)‘ (TU-N), had completed 16 missions between November 18th 1943 and July 6th 1944 with the 351st at Polebrook and was declared to be “war-weary”. It took off and very soon  the crew, Lt J. Fisher and T/Sgt E. Most, realised there was a problem with the altimeter causing it to climb too quickly. Whilst T/Sgt Most bailed out, Lt. Fisher struggled on with the controls until it finally crashed in an almighty fireball in woodlands at Sudbourne, Suffolk creating a crater 100ft wide. The three remaining ‘babies’ carried on but all failed to hit their designated targets. One Mother lost control and the baby hit a Gun Battery at Gravelines, the second overshot and the third B-17F formally (41-24639) “The Careful Virgin”  ‘OR-W’ of the 91st BG (323rd BS), hit short due to controller error.

The Careful Virgin 41-24639

B-17F “The Careful Virgin” before modification and whilst in the hands of the 91st BG. (USAF Photo)

Similar results were to follow in another mission only two days later, and then in further operations throughout both the Aphrodite and Anvil projects.

The most famous tragedy of these missions was that of Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jnr, who was killed when his PB4Y unexpectedly blew up over Suffolk killing both him and his co-pilot on 12th August 1944.*2 In all there were 25 drone missions completed but none successfully hit their designated target with either control or accuracy. The missions were all considered failures and the operations were all cancelled soon after.

Operations Block

Former Operations Block south of the Technical site.

Another secret operation taking place from Fersfield, also involved radio controlled bombs. Designated Operation ‘Batty’ it involved GB-4 television controlled bombs being  slung underneath B-17s and guided onto targets using TV. The 563rd BS provided much of the support whilst the others in the 388th BG the crews. In the later part of 1944 a small number of these operations were flown again with little success and this too was abandoned before it could have any significant effect on the war.

All in all, the operations carried out here, were disastrous, killing as many crews and causing as much damage to the UK as it did the enemy. However, it did mean that the Allies had entered into the drone war and set the scene for future military operations.

The Americans left Fersfield late in 1944, and it was handed back to the RAF. A number of units used it for short periods primarily for aircrew training. However, Fersfield was to have one last remarkable mission and a further claim to fame.

Accomodation Site

Nissan Huts on the former accommodation site.

On March 21st 1945, Mosquito VI units of 21 Sqn (RAF), 464 Sqn (RAAF) and 487 Sqn (RNZAF) all part of 140 Wing, were pulled back from the continent for a special mission to attack the Gestapo Headquarters at Copenhagen. Primarily based at Hunsdon (Trail 25), the mission was Led by Gp. Capt R Bateson and Sqn Ldr E Sismore, who took off in Mosquito RS570 ‘X’ at 08:35 and led a group of Mosquitoes in three waves of 6 aircraft in Operation Carthage.

The Shellhaus building raid gained notoriety for two reasons. Firstly, a large part of the building was bombed and destroyed and important documents set alight thus achieving the overall objective of the mission. A low-level daring raid it was operationally a great success. However, Mosquitos following the initial wave attacked what they believed to be the building but what was in fact a school masked by fire and smoke. This caused a significant number of casualties including children.

Six aircraft failed to return from the mission, four Mosquitos (one of which crashed causing the smoke and fire that masked the school) and Two P-51s that were part of a 28 strong fighter escort.

This operation was one of many daring low-level raids that the wing carried out, attacking various buildings including  the Amiens prison.

The wing left Fersfield which signified the end of overseas operations and Fersfield would become a staging post for units prior to disbandment. Between November 1944 and September 1945 a number of units would be located here  which included 98, 107 (one week), 140 (four days), 180 (one week), 226, 605 and 613 Sqns. Operating a number of aircraft types including: Mosquitos (T.III), Bostons (IIa), Hurricanes (IV), Martinets (TT.III), Mitchells (III) and Anson Is, Fersfield had now had its day. In the following month, December 1945, the site was closed and the land sold off. Fersfield had closed its door for the last time and history had been written.

Post war, Fersfield had a brief spell of motor racing on its tracks and runways, but unlike Snetterton or Podington it wouldn’t last and in 1951 Fersfield became agricultural once more, with many of the buildings being demolished and the remainder left to rot or, some thankfully, used for storage.

Nissen Huts

A few buildings remain on the technical Site.

Today a few buildings still do remain clinging onto life. The T-2 on the south side stores grain, and a number of Nissen huts  that housed the technical aspects of the airfield, are now storage for farm machinery and other associated equipment. All these can be located at the end of a small road from the village and when visiting, I found the workers here only to willing to allow the visitor to wander freely among them. Footpaths cross the southern side of this site and to the north across the field dissecting the airfield. The path is very poorly marked and you are simply wandering across the crops. From here, you can find the last few remains of the accommodation site, further south a short distance away. Latrines and other communal buildings are shrouded in weeds, gradually disappearing beneath the undergrowth. Trees sprout from between the walls where so many walked, before or after a mission. Nissen huts survive further out, now dilapidated and hastily patched, their memories mixed amongst the personal belongings of new owners.

Latrine Block

One of the many Latrines on the communal site.

It is hard to believe that an airfield with such an iconic history as Fersfield never made it to the status of so many others. Surprisingly, it was here at this quiet and remote part of Norfolk that aviation history was made and American politics changed forever.

Mosquito Mk.VIs involved in the Operation Carthage,*3.

No 487 Squadron

RS570 ‘X’ Gp Capt R N Bateson / Sqn Ldr E B Sismore (Raid Leader)
PZ402 ‘A’ Wg Cdr F M Denton / Fg Off A J Coe (damaged, belly landed at base)
PZ462 ‘J’ Flt Lt R J Dempsey / Flt Sgt E J Paige (hit by flak, 1 engine u/s, returned safely)
PZ339 ‘T’ Sqn Ldr W P Kemp / Flt Lt R Peel
SZ985 ‘M’ Fg Off G L Peet / Fg Off L A Graham
NT123 ‘Z’ Flt Lt D V Pattison / Flt Sgt F Pygram (missing)

No 464 Squadron

PZ353 Flt Lt W K Shrimpton RAAF (Pilot) / Fg Off P R Lake RAAF
PZ463 Flt Lt C B Thompson / Sgt H D Carter
PZ309 Flt Lt A J Smith RAAF / Flt Sgt H L Green RAAF
SZ999 Fg Off H G Dawson RAAF / Fg Off P T Murray (missing)
RS609 Fg Off J H Palmer RAAF / 2nd Lt H H Becker RNorAF (missing)
SZ968 Wg Cdr Iredale RAAF / Fg Off Johnson
All aircraft took off at 0840; last back landed 1405.

No 21 Squadron

SZ977 Wg Cdr P A Kleboe / Fg Off K Hall (missing)
PZ306 Sqn Ldr A F Carlisle / Flt Lt N J Ingram
LR388 Sqn Ldr A C Henderson / Flt Lt W A Moore
HR162 Flt Lt M Hetherington / Fg Off J K Bell
No 21 Squadron records list only these four aircraft and crews above as taking part in this operation.
All aircraft took off at 0835; the three which returned did so at 1355.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photograph in Public Domain, taken from Wikipedia 20/8/15

*2 For a more detailed explanation of the Anvil operation that killed Joseph Kennedy Jnr see  ‘Heroic Tales‘.

*3 Information from The National Archives, 21/8/15

Where Radials have been Replaced by Racing Cars – Snetterton Heath

In the second part of Trail 27 we head further south toward the Suffolk border. We stop off at a world-famous racing circuit where the roar of radial engines has been replaced by the roar of motor racing. With all its development and changes, there are some surprises in stall, as we visit RAF Snetterton Heath.

RAF Snetterton Heath (Station 138)

RAF Snetterton Heath is located to the south-east of Snetterton village, and was built to Class A standard in 1942 for the RAF. It had three concrete runways, the main heading SW – NE of 2000 yds, with a second N-S and third W-E both of 1,400 yds.  There were initially 36 ‘frying pan’ hardstands, and both T2 and blister hangars. In May 1943 it was handed over to the USAAF and designated Station 138. Snetterton was then upgraded,  and the number of dispersals increased to fifty. A further four T2 hangars were constructed to house what was intended to be an air depot, however this never came to fruition and the work was stopped.

The accommodation areas were far to the south-east and east, the technical site to the North East and north and the fuel dump to the south. Snetterton covered a wide area, with little to the northern side because of the main Newmarket to Norwich road.

crew lockers and drying room

Former Crew Lockers and Drying room.

Snetterton was to become the home of the 45th Bombardment Wing, moving from Brampton Grange on 13th September 1943, who stayed at Snetterton until 18th June 1945 when it was disbanded. The 45th included groups at: Great Ashfield, Knettishall, Deopham Green, Great Saling and later Mendlesham.

The first residents were only to have a short stay. The B26 B and C ‘Marauders’ of the 386th BG, which was made up of four squadrons: 552nd, 553rd, 554th and 555th, who would arrive at Snetterton on June 3rd 1943. They would leave here one week later on the 10th June moving to RAF Boxted and then later to RAF Great Dunmow in September that same year. It was during this move that they transferred from the Eighth AF to the Ninth. The idea behind this move was to reduce the number of ‘setbacks’ that has bestowed the Marauders in operational duties, and place them closer to the continent. Whilst here at Snetterton, the 386th flew no operational missions and were soon replaced by the heavier B-17F/Gs of the 96th Bomb Group.

Fabric store

The original fabric store now has an alternative use.

During the conflict, the 96th would operate B-17s in four operational squadrons: 337th (code ‘AW’), 338th (code ‘BX’), 339th (code ‘QJ’), and the 413th (code ‘MZ’); aircraft having two parallel red lines on the wings and tail and a white ‘C’ in a black square. The 96th moved across from Great Saling (Andrews Field/Station 485) after a month of residency and remained at Snetterton from 12th June 1943 to 12th December 1945 whereupon they returned to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and were disbanded.

The 96th would attack strategic  targets such as shipyards, harbours, railways, oil refineries and aircraft factories across the whole of Europe, including Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary. On the 17th August 1943, in the battle over Regensburg, the 96th’s bravery and dedication was rewarded with a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) the first of two. The second coming following the raid on Poznan, Poland, on 9th April 1944 when it led the 45th Combat Wing (CW) through poor weather and intense anti-aircraft fire. This was to be their finest mission of the conflict.

Gunnery Trainer

A gunnery Trainer serves as an office today.

However, all was not good for the 96th. Whilst many ‘jinxed’ bomb groups were noted for their high losses and poor success rates, it was in fact the 96th that suffered some of the most devastating losses. In October 1943, they lost seven aircraft over Schweinfurt, then a further 10 over Rostock on April 11th 1944. In fact during this first half of 1944, the 96th lost a total of 100 B-17s, a greater loss rate than any other unit of the Eighth Airforce. This was a tragic loss that was reflected on a later ‘Shuttle mission’ to Poltava, Poland, when seventeen out of the twenty-one B-17s of the 96th BG were lost.

The 96th were to set a number of other ‘records’. They were to have the second highest rate of MIA crews in the Eighth Airforce and they were to lead the first ‘shuttle mission’ (intended to split the Luftwaffe forces by attacking a European target then flying on to Africa or Russia) whilst on a raid to Ragensburg.  It was on one of these shuttle missions though that the 96th was to see the ‘softer’ side of the war when both they and  the 100th BG (also labeled for high losses) both brought back donkeys bought for the sum of 400Ff!

Aug 2015

“Lady Moe” looking out of the Waist Gunners position of ‘The Miracle Tribe‘. USAF Photo

The very last operational mission by the 96th was flown on April 21st 1945. However, they continued to fly in humanitarian operations over Europe, dropping food and other supplies to the Dutch, a role they carried out until they finally returned to the United States in December 1945 where they were inactivated for two years.

On the 13th June 1945 the 30th Bomb Wing used Snetterton Heath as its headquarters but had no flying units here; instead they were scattered around other USAAF bases in Norfolk and Suffolk. They pulled out of the UK on August 15th 1945 returning to the US.

Post war, Snetterton Heath was placed in care and maintenance under the watchful eye of the RAF 262 Maintenance Unit (MU) until the end of 1948, whereupon it was sold off.

Today Snetterton is famous for its motor-racing history, much of the track utilising the former runways and perimeter track. Small industrial units use a number of former hangars (reclad) and airfield buildings such as the turret trainer, the standby set house, crew rooms and fabric stores. A few dilapidated Nissen Huts lay decaying in fields, storing farm machinery but their days are all sadly numbered.

The best examples of these wartime buildings are located on the technical site on the eastern side of the airfield. From the main A11 come off and head toward the track, pass the main entrance and the technical site is on your right. A good range of the original buildings are here, reused for modern activities. The Gunnery trainer is neatly masked as an office, but its structure and shape clearly distinguishable from the outside. The crew rooms just a little before this are in a small complex of other former wartime huts.

A former workshop carries out mechanical work and the original admin building is now a small brewery – something that would no doubt have pleased many a young man in the mid 1940s.

Admin buildign and Nissen huts

A small brewery occupies the former admin office, a welcome change for those of the 1940s!

A few other buildings remained scattered around the area, particularly in the woods. With careful searching these can be found but access is very limited and in most cases prevented.

Speech Broadcasting building

Other buildings remain in the wooded areas to the south-east.

A considerable amount of industrial work has been carried out on the Snetterton site, the runways and perimeter being repaired and improved to create a suitable surface for racing. Hardstands and wider sections of runway are storage areas for heavy lorries, racing vehicles and associated equipment.

Public access to this part of the site is free, and this allows you to see the recently built memorial inside the main gate adjacent to what was the main runway, now the entrance to the track. A beautiful memorial that was proposed by the Board of Directors and the members of the 96th Bomb Group Association. Following a competition at the local school, the design was submitted by one of its teachers, Mr. Martin Rance, and depicts a B-17  at the top of four triangular, stainless steel columns. Each of the columns representing one of the four squadrons attached to the group. The B-17 pointing upward as if taking off into the skies above. Beneath is a simple dedication that refers to all the personnel who served with the 96th.

Aug 2015 014

An imposing memorial stands as a reminder of the 96th BG.

Throughout the war, the 96th BG achieved two DUCs, lost 189 crews as missing in action, flew 8,924 sorties dropping over 19,277 tons of bombs. Today the remnants remind us of those crews, the buildings stand as testament to their bravery and dedication, the memorial as a reminder of what once went on here, before the radial engines were lost and to the roar of racing cars.

We leave Snetterton, and head south-easterly toward Diss. As we do, we find the little village of North Lopham. Here is a small memorial dedicated to two crews of B-17s from the 337th and 338th Bomb Squadrons who collided over the village killing all on board on January 29th 1945. *1 The accident happened as the aircraft were forming up on a mission to the Bielefeld Marshalling yards. A small reminder of the perils of flying a large number of heavy bombers in tight formations.

Aug 2015 found in North Lopham

Memorial to two B-17s that collided killing all on board, January 29th 1945.

After a brief stop here, we continue on toward Diss. Here we find an incredible history that not only links us to possibly one of the greatest Americans that ever lived, but a mission that reveled the daring and skill of precision bombing by the RAF.

We go to RAF Fersfield.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Other memorials to the 96th BG can be found at St. Andrew’s Church, Quidenham and at the local school, where a small museum can also be accessed. I shall add these later.

A website dedicated to the 96th Bomb group is limited in detail but has some interesting information.

Wartime memories project have personal artefacts and letters linked to Snetterton and many other bases across East Anglia.

A great series of posts – RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Six: a few loose ends

While I was doing the researches for these sad and grim tales of Bomber Command, I came across a number of interesting details which I would like to share. Perhaps one or two loose ends might be tied up. The first is only loosely connected with the collision of the two unfortunate Lancasters returning from […]

http://johnknifton.com/2015/09/01/raf-elsham-wolds-part-six-a-few-loose-ends/