In this, the 34th trail, we go back to the northern area of Norfolk, not far from the North Sea coast, and then head south. We end up near to RAF Attlebridge found in Trail 7, west of the city of Norwich.
Our first stop was a quite unassuming airfield, but one that played an important role during the Second World War. British readers will remember the distinct voice of one Raymond Baxter OBE, the voice behind so many thrilling air show commentaries, the TV programme ‘Tomorrow’s World‘ and a wide range of outside commentaries that brought the wonders of science and technology into our homes. Baxter himself served in 602 Sqn RAF, and was stationed at the airfield in the latter stages of the war. We are of course at RAF Matlask.
RAF Matlask (Station 178)
Documented on airfield site plans and other RAF Documents as Matlask, as opposed to Matlaske the name of the village, it was a large grassed airfield hidden well into the Norfolk countryside.
The village of Matlaske separates the main airfield from the four airmen sites and sewage disposal site, which were widely spread away to the north; only site 2 (communal and WAAF area) and site 7 (Sick Quarters), were located in the village itself.
Accommodation was substantial, even taking over the large and rather grand Barningham Hall for the Officer’s Mess. The current building dates back to 1612 and stands in 150 Hectares of garden, park and lakes, a rather ‘up market’ dwelling, that is closed off to public access.
Other accommodation included a range of the usual huts, ‘Nissen’ and ‘Laing’ being the most prominent, with brick and timber featuring most.
The airfield itself stands to the south of the village, with the main entrance way off to the western side. A guard hut would have marked the main gate where a number of brick buildings would have been used for storage, technical activities, fuel storage and the like. A small road took you onto the concrete perimeter track that led all the way round the site. Dispersal was provided by 21 concrete hardstands, although a further 21 temporary hardstands were planned. One single T2 hangar was located next to the technical area, with a further 5 Blister hangers (design 12512/41) spread around the perimeter. Aircraft dispersal was also provided by the standard 6 Type B protected dispersal pens, (7151/41) with built-in air raid shelters; each shelter having a crew entrance and emergency exit. Matlask initially had one watch tower to the north of the site next to the technical area. This was later modified to a two storey design and then a further example was built slightly to the south, this being of the more common two storey ‘standard’. wartime design (343/43).
Matlask although tucked away in the Norfolk countryside would not be devoid of activity. Some 22 RAF squadrons, an Air Sea Rescue unit and an American Fighter Group would all use it at some point.
Designed initially as a satellite for Coltishall, it was dogged with drainage problems, and surprisingly never seem to warrant any form of hard runway. It was opened in 1940 as part of 12 group, destined for fighter defence of the Midlands.
In 1937, 72 Sqn (RAF) was reformed. they moved around a variety of bases eventually ending up at Matlask’s parent base, RAF Coltishall. When Coltishall was attacked in late October 1940, it was decided to move the Spitfire squadron to Matlask for protection. This merely brought the war to Matlask for on the 29th, five Dorniers attacked the airfield, inflicting damage on several dispersed aircraft and injuring a number of personnel.
After this attack, the first of two, the Spitfires would leave and Matlask would revert back to a satellite having no permanent residents of its own. This situation continued until May/June 1941, when Spitfires IIbs would arrive also from RAF Coltishall (Trail 7) . 222 Sqn (RAF) only stayed until the following July, moving south to the large fighter base at RAF Manston, in Kent.
This would then set the tone for Matlask, a large number of short stays, most for no more than a month or so. But whilst their stays were short, the diversity of aircraft they used was not. Spitfire Is, IIbs, IX, XVI, Hurricane II, Airacobra I, Walrus, Lysanders, Westland Whirlwind, Typhoon Ia and Ib, P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’, Miles Master, Martinets, Hawker’s Henley, Tempest Vs and Mustang IIIs would all grace the skies over this region of Norfolk.
Perhaps one of the more notable examples to fly here, was the American Airacobra. 601 Sqn (RAF) moved from RAF Manston to Matlask at the end of June 1941, bringing Hurricanes with them. These were replaced by the distinctive tricycle undercarriaged P-39 ‘Airacobra‘ a short time after. The first auxiliary squadron, 601 was known as the “Millionaires’ Squadron” and said to have been created by Lord Grosvenor at the gentlemen’s club “White’s“. Membership was initially very restricted, and boasted a unique initiation into the ‘club’. Whilst a determined and very professional unit in the air, they acquired a reputation for flamboyance and bravado on the ground.
In looking for a new fighter, the RAF turned to the Americans. The Airacobra was trialled and whilst found to have a number of advantages over its adversaries, it was considered too poor at heights over 15,000ft. Used in only a small number of raids it was deemed inadequate and soon replaced, with many supplied models being sent on to Russia and the Far East. 601 would use these partly at Matlask and then back at the Fighter Development Unit at Duxford where they moved to on August 16th 1941.
On that same day, Spitfires arrived with 19 Sqn (RAF). They changed their Mk.IIs for Vbs before moving off to RAF Ludham in December. It was during this stay though that a change was to take place for Matlask.
On October 1st 1941, 278 Sqn would be formed out of 3 Air Sea Rescue (ASR) Flight, operating Lysander IIIs. These, whilst successful in SOE missions, were considered the weak link in the Air Sea Rescue Role. Operating initially as a spotter, it would fly to the last reported position of the downed aircraft, carry out a search, drop whatever aids it could, and then pass the information on to a Walrus which would collect the airman. In theory this worked well, but due to its poor capacity (supplies were limited to what could be fitted on the bomb racks), slow speed and vulnerability, it was limited to flying no further than 40 miles from the coast. As a result, and almost immediately, the Lysanders were replaced by the Walrus, an aircraft 278 Sqn operated for some time. Performing in this vital role, they were eventually moved in April 1942 to RAF Coltishall leaving Matlask firmly behind.
Around the time 19 Sqn departed Matlask, 137 Sqn moved in. They were to be perhaps the longest-serving squadron at Matlask and perhaps also one of the most notable.
Operating in the Coastal patrol and fighter role, they brought with them the Westland Whirlwind. Potentially thought be a world-beater, they would be liked by their crews, perform well at low altitude and have a punch that matched anything in the European Theatre at that time. However, having a poor combat range, and production problems with their engines, they were only built-in limited numbers and were restricted to ground attack, anti-shipping duties and low-level sorties. As such, they were only supplied to 2 operational squadrons, 137 Sqn and 263 Sqn; 137 Sqn being the second. Operations by the Whirlwind were mixed. Some great successes were reported, its concentrated fire power proving devastating not only to enemy aircraft but more heavily armoured targets including locomotives.
Despite this however, 137 Sqn was to suffer a major blow in February 1942. Whilst escorting British destroyers, they were unaware of the presence of the two German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. On diving to investigate, they were attacked from above by escorting Bf-109s and of the six Whirlwinds sent out, four were shot down and lost. Despite its good performance, it was never to enter full production and soon the Whirlwind would be declared obsolete and be destined to fall into aviation obscurity.
137 Sqn would leave Matlask in August 1942 only to return 10 days later before departing again to RAF Snailwell at the end of the month. Almost as a direct replacement, Typhoons from Snailwell’s 56 Sqn and Coltishall’s 266 Sqn took their place. 56 Sqn stayed here for almost a year, moving to Manston in July 1943 whilst 266 Sqn moved to Duxford that same month. One of the last fatalities of 56 Sqn was Flight Sergeant R.G. Gravett (s/n 1268706), flying a ‘Rhubarb’ mission in his Typhoon JP392, who was killed when his aircraft was hit by Flak whilst attacking a locomotive at Leiden train station. The resultant crash, which hit 5 homes in Leiden, also killed one civilian and wounded five others.*1
After 56 Sqn’s departure the airfield was allocated to the Eighth Air Force and given the designation Station 178. Sadly though, it was only used for small detachments of the 56th FG flying P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’, and plans to expand the station to three runways were not carried out.
Apart from target towing activities, the early summer of 1943 was relatively quiet at Matlask; Lysanders returned along with the more unusual Masters, Henleys and Martinets of 1489 Flt.
Then came a flurry of fighter activity. The July of that year would see Matlask become a fighter base once again, with Spitfires, Tempest and Mustangs all being stationed here. Some 11 squadrons: 611, 195, 609, 3, 486, 65, 122, 229, 453, 602 and 451 all brought their own variety of fighter with them over the next year.
January 1944 would bring two more ‘unusual’ visitors to Matlask, although neither would be particularly graceful. On the 11th, B-17G (s/n 42-31090) ‘Nasty Habit‘ was instructed to land at Matlask, because of poor weather at its own station, RAF Deenethorpe (Trail 6). The B17 overshot and crashed through the boundary hedges and onto the road. Flying with the 613 BS, 401 BG, it was salvaged ten days later.
Then at the end of that month, whilst returning from a mission to Berlin, Halifax III, HX239*3 ‘HD-G’ of 466 Sqn RAF Leconfield, attempted a landing at Matlask due to low fuel. On touchdown the pilot, P.O. D. Graham realised he was on a collision course for a group of workmen. In averting what could have been a major catastrophe, he ground looped and hit a partially built building, injuring three of the crew members. For the crew, a mix of Canadians and Australians, it was not the most comfortable of landings!
Almost as quickly as it all started, aircrews left and Matlask fell silent. The war came to an end and the RAF pulled out. 451 Squadron leapfrogged between here and nearby RAF Swannington, finally leaving on April 6th 1945 to RAF Lympne in Kent. The end had arrived for Matlask. A short spell as a POW camp and then it began its rapid return to agriculture and its present day form.
Matlask airfield today is very different from its heyday of the 1940s. The perimeter track is all but gone, only a small section remains as a simple farm track that leads across what was the northern section of the airfield. Half way across this part of the airfield lay the remains of the base of the T2 hanger. Today its holds farm machinery, waste and other products. On the north-western side would have been the main gate and the technical area. The two towers have left no remnants and even the last fighter pen is all but indistinguishable. Having grass runways, means the site is flat and unrecognisable as having any notable history. A memorial erected by the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust stands on what was the north-eastern section of the airfield just south of the village. From the village, heading south past this memorial takes you parallel to the airfield, the former perimeter tracks only feet from where you are driving.
In the village of Matlaske itself, you can find the former sick quarters – site 7, its distinctive roadway still evident but housing small homes and Bungalows now rather than sick bays of the 1940s. To the west there are a small number of buildings remaining on private land, shrouded in vegetation and trees, they are barely visible from the roadside. This would have been the former site 3, the location of six airmen’s barracks, five latrines, an ablutions block, drying room, fuel compound and a picket post. A small community in its own right.
Many of the accommodation sites are located within the grounds of Barningham Hall and the roadways that once took weary crews to and from the airfield now gone. Driving down the western side past the technical site, presents no sign of wartime activity. The former huts have all been removed, and even the battle headquarters, often one of the last few buildings to survive, has been removed.
Matlask has all but gone. When I visited early in 2016 it was a foggy, cold morning. The Norfolk wind has replaced the piston engines, the Merlin’s no longer resonate across the open expanse. The village is quiet. A public defibrillator in an old phone box perhaps a metaphorical gesture. The village sign acknowledges the history, a lone aircraft flying low over the village. As the fog lifts on this winter morning it reveals a wide open expanse that was once the busy and historic RAF Matlask.
Raymond Baxter commentates on some British Classics at RAF St. Athan.
After leaving Matlask airfield, we head south, a short distance to the former base at Swannington.
*1 Air War WW2 database V4.1, Jan Nieuwenhuis, Netherlands
*2 Photo IWM, Roger Freeman Collection. FRE 8078
*3 Aircrew Remembered website, accessed 4/3/16
*3 Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, W.R.Chorley, 1944, Midland Publishing