Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War – but it played such a major part, it should never be forgotten. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became the biggest First World War airfield and led the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force.
Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough was known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size but also its multi-national stature and its achievements in aviation history. Used by both the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) it would also have names that reflected both these fledgling services.
Designed to counteract the threat of the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, Narborough was initially used by the RNAS as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth. No crews were permanently stationed here, but ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in and await the call to arms should a raid take place over East Anglia.
The first recorded arrival was in August 1915; an event that would keep the site in use by the RNAS for the next ten months before being designated as surplus to requirements, and handed over to the RFC in June 1916.
Used as a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described as a “desolate God-forsaken place”*1 buildings needed to be erected for accommodation, training and maintenance. A total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. By the end of the war, some 1,000 personnel would be based at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.
As the First World War raged on the European continent, the use of aircraft was seen as a new way to monitor, kill and record enemy troop movements; it would develop into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. Training programmes were rushed into place, and Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered basic by today’s standards, recruits had to pass a series of tests before being sent to the France. Written examinations followed up by twenty hours solo flying, cross-country flights and two successful landings, were followed by flying for fifteen minutes at 8,000 feet and landing with a cut engine. These daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads awe-inspired by their antics.
Life was not always ‘fun’ though. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare. Some 15 graves lay in the local church at Narborough, all young men who never made it through the training and on to the battle in France.
The occurrences of these accidents were so frequent, that one instructor, W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ cited spies as the cause of many ‘accidents’ – tampering with machines causing the deaths of the crews on board. Johns, himself having written of many machines, believed Americans with German sounding names were to blame for aircraft breaking up in mid-air or crashing at the bottom of loops. More likely, the fault lay with over exuberant or poorly trained recruits.
Narborough as a training station would operate a wide range of aircraft. The French designed Henry Farman F.20, a military reconnaissance trainer, would operate with 35 Squadron from June 1916 until October when they were replaced by the Armstrong Whitworth FK8; 35 Sqn moving to France with these aircraft in January 1917.
The first full squadron to be formed here was 59 Sqn on 21st June 1916. Born out of 35 Sqn, they would operate Avro’s 504K followed by the second French design, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn; named so because of the length of the skids designed to prevent recruits overturning the aircraft on landing. After these came the BE2c, BE12 and RE8s, before the squadron moved to St-Omer in February 1917.
It was during this year that 83 Squadron would be born out of 18 Reserve Squadron (RS) operating various aircraft in the training role. They arrived at Narborough during December that year with FE2bs before they themselves moved to St-Omer in March 1918.
As the war drew to a close, one further squadron was formed at Narborough; 121 Squadron on New Year’s Day 1918. Whilst originally formed to fly the DH9, they actually used a variety of aircraft before being moved to Fliton and eventual disbandment on 17th August 1918.
Three other units would pass through Narborough before it closed. Now part of the Royal Air Force, 56, 60 and 64 Sqns would all come here as cadres in February 1919. 64 Sqn disbanded here in the following year, whilst both 56 and 60 Sqn moved to Bircham Newton and onto disbandment.
The end of the war saw the closure of Narborough. But unlike its sister station RAF Marham a mile or so away, it would remain closed. The buildings were all sold off in what was considered to be one of the biggest auctions in Norfolk, with some of them going to local farmers, small industrial units, schools and the like. Some of these buildings still exist at various places around the local area today but many have long since succumbed to age and inevitable deterioration.
Narborough itself having no hard runways or perimeter tracks has long since gone. A small memorial has been erected by a local group aiming to promote and preserve the memory of Narborough, a memorial plaque also marks the fifteen graves of those who never made it to France; and the small Narborough Museum & Heritage Centre holds exhibits of 59 Squadron in the local church.
Significant not only in size, but in its history, Narborough has now been relegated to the history books. But with the dedication and determination of a few people the importance and historical significance of this site will hopefully continue to influence not only the aviators of tomorrow, but also the public of today.
Sources, Links and Further Reading.
*1 letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk
C.G. Jefford, RAF Squadrons, Airlife Publishing limited, 2001
The Narborough History Society cane be visited through their website.
The Narborough Airfield Research Group tell the history of 59 Squadron at Narborough, this includes personal notes and details of the Narborough airfield.