This airfield concludes our three-part tour of Southern Cambridge for now; we shall be revisiting this area again shortly to see the remaining historic sites that once protected these green and pleasant lands from our invaders. This last stop however, is a former base just a stones throw from the Imperial War Museum and former Fighter Command base at Duxford – we go to RAF Fowlmere.
RAF Fowlmere (Station 378)
Fowlmere’s life can really be divided into two mains parts. That under the RAF as a Battle of Britain era airfield and that of the USAAF for which Fowlmere would achieve a remarkable number of aviation firsts and combat records.
But whatever its achievements, its wartime life was dogged by bad weather, and in particular rain! Poor drainage and heavy water logging left if unusable for large periods, inhospitable and rather bleak with poor accommodation, it was not a noteworthy ‘curriculum vitae’ for a prestigious fighter airfield. It is one of those airfields that took a long time to reach an honorary status, being home to a large number of RAF units, most for short assignments only, it was rarely in the spotlight. In total, it would be home to some 17 operational RAF squadrons, a small number of training squadrons and one USAAF squadron. A rather high number for any second world war station.
Initially built as a First World War airfield, it opened on October 1st 1916, a small number of buildings were erected including six hangars and the runways were grass. It remained operational until the early 1920s at which point the buildings were demolished and the land reused.
With the next threat of an invasion looming, the defence of Britain was paramount. Fowlmere was then identified as a suitable site for a satellite to nearby Duxford, and Spitfires began to arrive from 19 Squadron. 19 Squadron would ‘yo-yo’ between Duxford and Fowlmere between June 1940 and August 1941, operating the Spitfire I, IB and IIA in the process. These crews would operate as part of the Duxford Wing in the Battle of Britain where 19 Squadron would gain notoriety.
Following significant loses over France and southern England, the Boulton Paul Defiant was withdrawn from front line operations and pulled back to perform in ‘secondary’ duties. Part of this meant a short stay at Fowlmere in July 1940 for 264 Squadron who, whilst carrying out night-fighter duties, were in transit to Kirton-in-Lindsey.
Subsequent to their departure, there was a silence at Fowlmere which was only broken by a short five-day stay by the Hurriacne IIBs of 133 Squadron, whilst moving between Collyweston and Eglington. Noted for their twelve .303 machine guns and Merlin XX engines, first used in the Hurricane IIA, it used a mix of 30% glycol and 70% water. By using this mix, the fuel mixture was not only safer but it meant the engine would run much cooler thus giving it a longer life. Further examples of this aircraft would return later in the summer of 1942 with another squadron, 174 Sqn, also whilst transiting, but this time from and back to their main station at RAF Manston.
The winter of 1941 / 42 would remain quiet at Fowlmere, and it wouldn’t be until the following spring on March 12th, that there would be any significant action at the base. The first visitors being a detachment of Spitfire VBs from 154 Sqn whose main force was based away at Coltishall. Eventually, a month later, the entire squadron would transit over, but yet again, they would be another short-stay resident who would depart for RAF Church Stanton in early May that year. Other than the short visits by the Hurricanes, all would be quiet again until the autumn and in September Fowlmere would be blessed with yet another short stay of transiting Spitfires. The VBs of 111 Squadron, would stay for one month whilst on their way the Mediterranean and North Africa. 111 would go on to become famous for their Lightnings and the ‘Black Arrows’ aerobatics team with their Hunters in the post war jet era.
Once again the winter would have a quietening effect on Fowlmere, and there would be little happen for the next few months. The following March though, would see a considerable amount of movement at the airfield. Preceded by a short stay of Austers from 655 Squadron, Spitfire VBs of 411 Squadron and Spitfire VCs of 167 Squadron would arrive in the early days of March. Their departures on the 12th and 13th respectively would be interceded by the arrival of more Spitfire VBs of 421 Squadron, who also left on the 13th of that month. Similar movements would take place only a few days later. On the 19th 2 Sqn RAF arrived and stayed for just over a month. But the arrival and departure of 2 Sqn signalled a big change for Fowlmere and their Mustang Is were to be not only the end of RAF interests in the airfield, but a sign of things yet to come.
After April, Fowlmere would remain very quiet. With the increasing need for bomber bases for the USAAF, Fowlmere was identified as a possible site. This potential new lease of life was to be short-lived though and the decision was reversed only a matter of weeks later. It was not to be, but thankfully, it was not the end of Fowlmere.
Handed over to the Americans as a fighter airfield, it would be upgraded. Two new runways were built (1,400 and 1,600 yds) using Sommerfield Track and pierced planking, eight new blister hangars were erected, to compliment the ‘T2’ hangar to the north of the site and firm plans were drawn up that would shape Fowlmere for the rest of the war.
To deal with the staff, eight sites would be developed. All to the north-eastern side of the airfield, there would be a communal site, five accommodation blocks in total for officers and enlisted men separately, a sick quarters and a sewage treatment site. The main road to Fowlmere village already severed, would have a runway built across it, aircraft pens, technical buildings and a wide range of supporting structures including: fire sheds, harmonisation walls and around forty hardstands around a perimeter track that encircled the two runways. The main technical area would be to the north, whilst the bomb and fuel stores were to the south along side the remains of the southern section of the main road. Fowlmere would be taking on a new role and it would be permanent.
Fowlmere would open again on the 4th April 1944 as Station 378, with the arrival of the 339th FG, the penultimate fighter group to be based in the UK. Flying P-51s, the 339th FG at this time consisted of three squadrons, the 503rd (D7), 504th (5Q) and 505th FS (6N). They would use Fowlmere as their only European base and whilst here would be used in both the fighter escort and ground attack role.
Their first mission was on April 30th with a fighter sweep over France, followed by around 5 weeks of escort duties of medium and heavy bombers. They soon made their mark on the air war though. In the first thirty days, they claimed forty aircraft shot down and fifteen destroyed on the ground.
Initially flying P-51Bs they would also use the ‘C’, ‘D’ and ‘K’ models. Missions would include: strafing runs over airfields; attacking communication lines; supporting the allied push out of Normandy; dive bombing locomotives; marshalling yards; anti-aircraft batteries and troops. They also supported allied advances such as the breakout at St Lo and in the Ardennes. The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for operations on September 10th and 11th whilst attacking heavily defended airfields and defending bombers of the ‘Bloody Hundredth’ whilst attacking cities in Germany. All in all they were to prove themselves a formidable force in the air.
Each time the 339th went into battle it would seem a new record would be set. On the 29th November 1944, in a ferocious air battle, Lt. Jack Daniell shot down five FW-190s, giving him ‘Ace in a day’ status, the last pilot of the US Eighth Air force to do so. In early 1945, during strafing attacks 105 aircraft were destroyed in one mission, another first for any group. A remarkable feat that was repeated only twelve days later with a high score of 118 and an individual record for its leader Captain Robert Ammon.
The 339th would not only becomes a formidable force, but they would be the first units to test new ‘G’ suits, designed to prevent blacking out in tight turns, an essential piece of clothing in today’s modern air force. They would also take the British designed gyroscopic gun sight and develop it for use in the P-51, an innovative device that calculated deflection increasing hit rates both at greater distances and with more accurately.
By the war’s end the 339th would rack up a total of 264 missions, with 680 aircraft destroyed, two-thirds being on the ground and on heavily defended airfields, whilst losing less than 100 aircraft and crews. They achieved the greatest number of air and ground ‘kills’ in any twelve month period of the war, a DUC and a remarkable reputation.
Fowlmere had finally achieved the status of its more famous neighbours, but it was a little too late for this airfield, the war was finally over. After the Americans pulled out in October 1945, Fowlmere fell silent for the last permanent time. The land was eventually sold off in the 1950s long after all military operations had ceased.
Fowlmere is one of those airfields that is quite difficult to find. Tucked away at the back of the village access is through an industrial site and along a rather grand driveway that is actually a farmers track. The road leads to nowhere other than the farm, a small light airfield and a memorial.
Before driving or walking to the memorial start off at the village centre. Facing south, site 3 would be behind you, and sites 4, 9, 7 and 5 to your front. Take the road south and then turn in toward Manor farm; as you enter, there is an industrial site on your right. This road, was the original main entrance, and there would have been a picket post, Co’s house and Officer’s Mess to your right. On you left was a further Officer’s mess, recreation room for enlisted men, and a block with showers and ablutions for the Sergeants. The road bears right, here you can see, in the field to your right, a Nissen hut once part of the Communal area (Site 2). Now derelict and truly overgrown its days are definitely numbered. The original plan layout differs quite a bit from the current layout, and it is difficult to ascertain the precise nature of its origin. However, it could have been either an ‘A.M.W.D*4‘. or latrines for 310 – 400 enlisted men. Using satellite photos, you can clearly see the foundations for a number of other buildings including the: Officer’s Mess, Dental Centre, Stand-by set house and CO’s quarters. This road, which was originally much shorter than it is today takes you into an industrial estate that has reused some of the period buildings, these may well have come from the original site and have been moved or the site was built differently to the original design. It is at this stage difficult to determine.
Leave here and turn right at the end of the road. This grand road takes you up the hill toward the airfield. On your left would have been the sick block Site 8 with a barrack hut, sick quarters with 18 beds, a garage and mortuary. Follow this road along, at the farm follow the road right, and the memorial is about 100 yards further along on your left. A small space has been made available for parking by the adjacent property who kindly ask you to look after the memorial during your visit. It is sad that we have to ask people to do this, it should be an absolute.
The memorial overlooks the remains of the airfield. The original T2 hangar stands reclad in its original position now storing small private aircraft. Other remains, the crew rest rooms and two main workshops, have been reclaimed by the farm and incorporated into the farm infrastructure. A considerable amount of concrete also exists from this technical area, again utilised by the farm. The watch office, originally built to 17/65840 for the RAF, was later replaced by a the more common 343/43 two storey type; this too is long gone and would have been to your front beyond the hangar.
A quiet an unassuming place, Fowlmere remained a satellite for most if its life, seeing a number of temporary stays by some prestige aircraft and squadrons. It wasn’t until the latter parts of the war that it really came into its own, sadly though, this was short-lived; but the P-51s of the 339th would carry Fowlmere’s history into the annuls of time and the small private aircraft that now stand where Spitfires, Hurricanes and Mustangs were once dispersed, grace the skies where their forefathers cut their teeth – in the skies over war-torn Europe.
A stones throw from Fowlmere, is the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, essential to anyone with an interest in the Second World War. Home of many displays, exhibitions, and restoration projects it has to be on everyone’s list of to-dos. The Duxford website can be accessed here.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Photo from Russell Abbey (www.55th.org) from the ‘Little Friends’ website.
*2 Photo from Roger Freeman collection FRE 5982 American Air Museum in Britain.
*3 Photo from Roger Freeman collection FRE 5961 American Air Museum in Britain.
*4 This is the reference on the site plans, if anyone knows what it means please let me know.