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 We stop off at a world-famous racing circuit where the roar of radial engines has been replaced by the roar of motor racing.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.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.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.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!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.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. 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.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.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.