RAF Swanton Morley – Small but rich in history.

In this Trail, we return to Norfolk and take in three former airfields each of notable historical value. Our first is probably better known as an Army barracks than it is an RAF airfield, but, for the duration of the Second World War, it would be home to a number of different aircraft types and to a range of international crews. Amongst the many residents here would be those from Poland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. We start our journey at the former RAF Swanton Morley.

RAF Swanton Morley

Following the end of hostilities in 1918, Britain’s defences and in particular the RAF, were cut back dramatically. From around 250,000 personnel (the worlds largest air force) to just under 30,000 by the early 1920s, the reductions were both severe and widespread. Political in-fighting between the three armed forces and the Government had seen the RAF lose out significantly, and under the terms of the ‘Ten year Rule’, expansion was prevented, and so little could be done to redress the declining situation.

During the 1930s, world developments (and in particular those in Germany) raised the threat of yet another war, at which point the Government realised that Britain’s defences were now totally inadequate and in dire need of redevelopment and expansion.

Their response was a series of expansion ‘schemes’  which would not only reshape the organisation of the RAF, but would cater for the huge increase in numbers of personnel that would be required to raise an adequate fighting force .

Considered lacking in direction by many, these early schemes surprisingly paid little attention to future needs, and so no real provision was made for supporting aspects such as training, maintenance or supply.

Scheme A, approved in July 1934, would set the bench mark at 84 home-based squadrons, a figure that was still woefully inadequate compared to the might that was building up across the channel. Each scheme would build on and replace the former, taking into account layout, new developments and the materials available – but all under the monetary restrictions of the 1930’s depression.

By the time war came, Scheme ‘M’ had been implemented (November 7th 1938), which called for 163 home based squadrons involving 2,500 aircraft for Britain’s home defence. It was under this scheme that Swanton Morley would be built.*1.

Initially designed as a fighter station, construction began in 1939, and one of the criteria for this scheme was to include type ‘C’ hangars. However, being incomplete by the outbreak of war, it was caught in the transition period between temporary and permanent aircraft storage. The ‘C’ types were cancelled in favour of three ‘J’ types, only one of which was actually built – this left Swanton Morley with considerably less hangar space than was actually required. Unfinished, the airfield opened on September 17th 1940 under the ownership of No. 2 Group Bomber Command.

As war broke out, a small detachment of 107 Squadron Blenheim IVs were based here. 107 Sqn were widely spread with other detachments at: Lossiemouth, Newmarket, Hunsdon, Horsham St. Faith and Ipswich, whilst the main squadron was based at RAF Wattisham. As part of 83 Wing, 107 would be joined by a further detachment from 110 Sqn the following month, also bringing the twin-engined Blenheim IV.

It was a No. 2 group aircraft that famously made the first sortie over the German frontier on the very day war broke out, and then on the second day, Monday September 4th 1939, a flight of four 107 Sqn aircraft and one 110 Sqn all from RAF Wattisham, dropped the first salvo of bombs on German ships at Wilhelmshaven . It was from one of these aircraft (Blenheim IV ‘N6240’) that Observer, Sergeant George Booth, and AC1 L. J. Slattery would become the first British Prisoners of War, captured when their Blenheim was shot down by German defences. None of the five aircraft returned, a rather disastrous start to the war for the RAF.*2

Work continued at Swanton Morley throughout the next two to three years, and eventually accommodation blocks were raised, hard perimeter tracks laid and four T2 hangars erected. Around twenty hardstands were created although many aircraft were still dispersed on the grassed areas around the technical site. A bomb store was developed to the south, and lighting added to the three runways, but despite of all the improvements, upgrades and developments, it was felt Swanton Morley did not warrant having any hard runways and so they continued to remain as grass.

It wasn’t until the end of October 1940, that Swanton Morley would have its own squadron of aircraft, 105 Squadron arrived bringing their Blenheim IVs to compliment those of 107 Sqn and 110 Sqn. With two detachments at Lossiemouth and Luqa (Malta), 105 would take part in anti-shipping sorties and attacks on targets in the low countries. A successful unit they swapped these for the Mosquito IV in November 1941, becoming the first operational squadron to receive these highly manoeuvrable aircraft, taking them to nearby Horsham St. Faith in the following month.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941.

A Blenheim of 105 Squadron passing over a fiercely burning enemy merchant vessel (© IWM (C 1940)

One of Swanton Morley’s earliest casualties was a 105 squadron aircraft, piloted by F/O. D. Murray DFC with Sgt’s C. Gavin and T. Robson. The aircraft, Blenheim IV ‘T1890’, was brought down over Brussels with the loss of all three crew members.

It was during August of 1941, that the first of many units would arrive – No. 152 Squadron. Like so many other squadrons around the country, their stay was to be short-lived taking their Spitfire IIAs to Coltishall the following December.

Coinciding with 105’s departure, was 226 Squadron’s arrival. At the end of December 1941, 226 Sqn would bring a new twin-engined aircraft to the grounds of Swanton Morley, the Douglas Boston. The Mk III was proving to be a formidable medium bomber and night-fighter, featuring improved armour, larger fuel tanks and its two Wright Twin Cyclone engines providing 1,600hp each. 226 Sqn were to later replace the MKIIIs with the MKIIIAs in January 1943 under the lend-lease agreement and then very shortly afterwards, with the B-25 Mitchell II. 226 Sqn operated these aircraft for almost a year at Swanton Morley before moving on to Hartford Bridge and the continent in 1944, thus becoming Swanton Morley’s longest standing squadron.

It was with 226 Squadron that the United States would make its mark on the war. On June 29th 1942, with both Eisenhower and Churchill present, twelve RAF Boston IIIs were sent to bomb the Marshalling yards at Hazebrouck, one of these aircraft (AL743) was flown by an all American crew. A rather ‘unofficial’ entry into the conflict, it was made more formal on Independence day, July 4th 1942 when six U.S. crews joined 226 Squadron in a low-level attack against Luftwaffe airfields in Holland. Twelve RAF aircraft took off a few minutes after 07:00 hrs and flew low and fast over the North Sea toward Holland. After splitting up to attack their designated targets, one group encountered severe flak and was badly beaten, one aircraft crashing whilst another had an engine knocked out. Before the pilot could regain control, the aircraft, Boston AL750, scraped the ground coming remarkably close to a complete disaster. However, the pilot Major Charles Kegelman, managed to regain control and nurse the stricken aircraft back to Swanton Morley. Of the twelve Bostons sent out, two U.S. and one RAF crewed aircraft failed to return. A baptism of fire that resulted in a 30% loss of the U.S. Air Force contingency. For their bravery, three DFCs and one DSC were awarded to the U.S. crews. Whilst not the first U.S. involvement nor their first casualties of the war, their actions did officially bring the United States into the European conflict.

Sergeant Bennie Cunningham, Technical-Sergeant Robert Golay, Major Charles C Kegelman and Lieutenant Randall Dorton in front of a Boston bomber. (Roger Freeman Collection IWM)

1943 would go on to prove to be an eventful year for Swanton Morley. With the Allied invasions plans taking shape, a new force was needed to support those destined to take to the Normandy beaches. The creation of the Second Tactical Air Force (TAF) in November 1943, was designed to meet that challenge and with it came changes at Swanton Morley.

Ownership now passed from Bomber Command to the Second TAF, and many units that would operate from here were part of that force. Following a relatively short stay by 88 Squadron (30th March 1943 – 19th August 1943) flying both the Boston III and IIIA, No. 305 (Weilkopolski) Squadron would arrive bringing the first Polish crews to Swanton Morley. Being the fourth and final Polish bomber squadron to be formed, they arrived in early September bringing Wellington MK Xs with them. Whilst serving in Bomber Command, the Polish had amassed some 1,117 sorties in which they had lost 136 brave young men as either killed or captured.

After arrival here, 305 Sqn changed their Wellingtons for Mitchell IIs and in line with the Second TAF objectives, began attacking targets around the Cap Griz Nez region. Being daylight operations, this was something new for the Polish crews, but one they relished and carried out well. In November after only being at Swanton Morley for two months, the Polish crews left leaving 226 Sqn with only a small detachment of 98 Squadron Mitchells for company.

At the end of 1943, three days after Christmas, No. 3 Squadron arrived bringing  a new breed of aircraft with them – the single-engined Typhoon IB, which they kept at Swanton Morley until February 14th 1944. No. 3 Sqn had been one of three founder squadrons of the Royal Flying Corp in 1912 and they remain one of the few squadrons to retain an active role today, flying the aircraft’s namesake, the modern Eurofighter Typhoon.

Whilst here at Swanton Morley, No. 3 Sqn carried out duties that the ill-fated Hawker Typhoon performed well at, low-level ground attack and anti-shipping roles. Dogged by development problems – engines fires and deadly levels of Carbon Monoxide in the cockpit – the Typhoons suffered terrible problems throughout their wartime service, subsequently virtually every model was scrapped at the end of war.

February 1944 was all change again at Swanton Morley. A detachment of 107 Squadron would return after a couple of years absence, and with their arrival came the departure of 226 Sqn after just over two years of being at Swanton. On the thirteenth of that month, they left for Hartford Bridge in Hampshire, in preparations for the Allied invasion at Normandy.

In the two months that followed, Swanton Morley began its wind down, a move signified by a number of short stay units. Each of these would however bring a wide range of nationalities, including crews from the Australian unit No. 464 (RAAF) Sqn, from 25th March 1944 to 9th April 1944. Then came 180 Sqn (12 – 26th April 1944) a short-lived unit that survived just under four years before disbandment only to be reformed as No. 69 Sqn.

Coinciding with 180 Sqn was the Auxiliary Squadron, No. 613 Sqn with Mosquito VIs. This too would disband at the end of the war also to reform as 69 Squadron. Then as April drew to a close another international unit would arrive and depart, a New Zealand unit, No. 487 Sqn (RNZAF)  also bringing Mosquito VIs – an aircraft they used in conjunction with 464 Sqn in the attack on the Amiens prison earlier on.

Finally for two weeks in May 1944 (6th – 18th), a dutch contingency arrived in the form of No. 320 Squadron. 320 Sqn was formed out of evacuated Dutch airmen along with a handful of Fokker T-VIIIW seaplanes which they used until spares were no longer available. Here at Swanton Morley they had lost their seaplanes and were now flying Mitchell IIs, wreaking their revenge by attacking enemy communication lines and airfields. After the war the crews of this unit were transferred to the Royal Netherlands Navy and 320 was disbanded as an RAF unit.

ROYAL AIR FORCE: 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND

Before arriving at Swanton Morley, No. 320 Sqn flew a handful of Fokker T-VIIIW float-planes, that they had brought with them when the Netherlands fell to the Germans. Here, one is being serviced at Pembroke Dock, August 1940. (© IWM (CH 1042)

Coinciding with the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the Bomber Support Development Unit (BDSU) transferred across from RAF Foulsham. Developed under the wing of 100 Group, they used a range of aircraft to investigate and develop electronic counter measures and radar technologies for aircraft.  At Swanton Morley, this involved nine Mosquitoes, MK XIX and XXX, to operate in both operational and non-operational duties. The BDSU (and 100 Group) were responsible for a range of electronic devices including Serrate, Hookah, Perfectos and Mandrel to name but a few, and were involved in some 114 operations, claiming  five air-to-air victories.

The USAAF were to play another small and final part in the life of Swanton Morley, when on 25th July 1944, B-24H ’41-29402′ “The Mad Monk” of the 786th BS, 466th BG, took off from nearby Attlebridge. It clipped some trees causing it to crash-land at Swanton-Morley; the aircraft was so severely damaged it was condemned and salvaged for spares.

Another near disaster was averted at Swanton Morley when Mosquito NFXXX (MM797) of the BDSU crashed after take off on the night of 2nd-3rd January 1945. On take off, with a full fuel load, the port engine began leaking glycol at a furious rate. Too low to bail out, the pilot, Flt. Lt. Harry White DFC, put the aircraft down on the frozen ground. After both pilot and co-pilot were pulled from the wreckage by local farmers, the aircraft exploded creating a ferocious fireball that destroyed the airframe completely.

Eventually the war came to a close, the ‘Window’ research station was transferred to the BDSU and in the summer 100 Group was disbanded. With that Swanton Morley fell quiet and no further operational units would serve from here.

In the closing months of 1946, No. 4 Radio School moved in using Avro’s Anson, and Percival’s Proctor and Prentice aircraft. Various ground units also used the site but gradually flying all but ceased. Eventually on September 15th 1995, Battle of Britain day, the RAF Ensign was lowered and RAF Swanton Morley was officially closed. A small private micro-light club took over part of the site, but in 1996 the Army claimed the airfield forcing the club to close. It remains in the hands of the Army today as the ‘Robertson Barracks’, named after Field Marshal Sir William Robertson and no flying takes place.

Swanton Morley’s history was fairly rare, in that it never had any concrete runways and boasted to be one of the longest lasting Worlds War 2 grassed airfields. It had, at its peak, one – ‘J’ Type hangar and four – ‘T2’ hangars. Its watch office, built to drawing 5845/39, included a Met Section and is now thankfully, a Grade II listed building making it one of the best originally preserved examples of Watch Office designs.

Swanton Morley june 2016 (3)

Swanton Morley had four T type hangars. All but one have been demolished. This one remains in private ownership.

Many of the original buildings have gone and either their concrete bases left or more modern replacements put in their place. Some of the concrete pathways have been removed as have all the dispersal pans. The bomb store is now a field and all but one of the hangars were demolished – the remaining one being re-clad.  A number of pill boxes and air-defence structures also remain, but like the main airfield site it is all securely kept behind very high fences and armed guards.

The public highway circumnavigates Swanton Morley, but views are best achieved from the main entrance. As with all active military sites there is a no stopping rule, but as you pass, careful observations will reveal some of the main buildings of the accommodation area.

Swanton Morley retains some if its historical features, and they are all in the care of either the Army or the local farmer. As the MOD holds this site, many of these features are well hidden from public view, but for now at least, this along with the preservation order on the watch office, does at least mean Swanton Morley’s past is in part ‘protected’ for future generations.

From Swanton Morley we visit two more airfields in the area, Hethel, a USAAF base with its own museum and Hingham an airfield that had possibly the shortest life of any UK airfield.

Sources and further reading

*1 Royal Air Force Historical Journal No. 35

*2 Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, V1, 1939-40″, Classic, 1992

Norfolk Heritage Website

Freeman, R.A., “The Mighty Eighth“, Arms & Armour, 1970

Bowman, M., “100 Group (Bomber Support)”, Pen & Sword, 2006

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16 thoughts on “RAF Swanton Morley – Small but rich in history.

  1. You are quickly becoming my reference guide for airfield history. I have shared on DotR’s Facebook page.

    I still find it amazing the RAF survived the 1920s. It seems everybody saw it as something born out of the necessity of war rather than a serious long-term service. As much as their wartime role in 1918 forged the RAF i firmly believe it was the RAF’s usefulness in policing the empire in the 1920s and 30s that really guaranteed its existence.

    Bomber Command’s start to the war was particularly bad. A number of Hampdens joined the raid on Wilhelmshaven but bad weather caused them to scatter all over the North Sea having to ditch their weapons and return. The problem then was itchy Fighter Command pilots who thought they were Do.17s.

    I do love those Bostons. The Fokker T-VIIIW float-plane was one of the very few aircraft used by both the RAF and Luftwaffe operationally during the war.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing it Tony. I think you are right, had it not been for the unrest in the Middle (Surprise surprise) and Far East regions during those years, the RAF would have had a much harder time convincing those in power of its true worth. Thankfully it was realised, but it was a very close shave! I did wonder about the Fokker VIIIWs. I don’t know how many were brought across perhaps you might know? The early years of the RAF were certainly difficult, I suspect from all that I have read, it was a little ‘boys and their toys’ kind of attitude and it all came as a bit of a shock!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I wouldn’t know how many Fokkers came over. Yes it was a boy’s club and that attitude prevailed into World War II much to the service’s detriment in my opinion. Had the RAF been more of a meritocracy rather than an aristocracy in the 30s it might have put on a better showing in the early months of the war. I guess I’m being a socialist again, lol

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another fascinating post Andy. It makes me wonder how much the world wars actually cost (in terms of money, not least in lives). What with a drastic reduction in the RAF after WWI, then an increase after the Great Depression, that included, main airfields, expansion airfields, satellite grounds, personnel, equipment and aircraft – it must have been staggering!

    Liked by 1 person

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