RAF Hethel – from Africa to Norfolk

As we leave both Swanton Morley and Hingham behind, we head directly east crossing the main A11 toward Wymondham and Mulbarton. Here we visit another former USAAF base now home to Lotus cars. We stop off at RAF Hethel.

RAF Hethel (Station 114)

RAF Hethel was initially designed for the RAF but, like so many airfields of the Second World War, it was transferred very quickly to the USAAF for use by the bombers of the  Eighth Air Force. Construction of the site began in 1941 and wasn’t complete when the first units arrived in 1942.

The ground echelons of the 320th BG arrived at Hethel in September, poised and ready for training. Travelling across the northern sea route, they arrived long before the air echelons who, due to extremely bad weather, had to divert from their designated route to the longer Southern route, via Africa. As this was considerably further to fly, many of the B-26s, of these units did not arrive until well into the December.

A dramatic picture of B-24 Liberator ’44-40085′ “Z-Bar” of the 389th BG after crash landing at Hethel. It was hit by British Flak and on trying to land, crashed into a radar building. Surprisingly all the crew escaped. 22nd April 1944 (IWM)

Training of these raw crews became the responsibility of the Eighth Air Force – and raw they certainly were. The 320th had only been active since June 23rd that year, and within  weeks they would be posted to North Africa once suitable airfields had been secured.

Construction work continued on Hethel throughout the latter stages of 1942 and into 1943; the number of hardstands rose from the original 36 to 50 giving a mix of both ‘spectacle’ and ‘frying pan’ types dotted around the three concrete runways. The main runway ran north-east to south-west with two smaller runways traversing east-west and north-west to south-east respectively. A large bomb store was located to the north-west, the opposite side to both the technical and accommodation areas both of which were to the south-eastern side of the airfield. That all important commodity, fuel, was stored to the south, and three T2 hangars would eventually provide room for aircraft maintenance away from the bitter 1940’s winters.

With the 320th away in North Africa, Hethel was operationally quiet, but the summer of 1943 would once again bring changes.

Oil had long been considered a major target, reduce your enemies oil supplies and you reduce their ability to function. Stopping these supplies however, was going to be no easy task. The mighty German war machine was using oil located in the far eastern regions of Europe, located at the very edge of any major allied aircraft’s range. This gave the Luftwaffe plenty of time to attack, on both the inward and outward journeys. With round trips in excess of 2,000 miles, they would be dangerous and difficult missions for any crews. Polesti in Romania would become synonymous with oil production and a major target for the allied forces. To reach it, crews would have to fly from North Africa at very low-level, something they had not even thought possible let alone trained for in B-24s. In the summer a plan was hatched to do just that, a low-level bomber raid by B-24 Liberators of the Eighth and Ninth Air Force launched from bases in North Africa.

Hethel and the 389th would play their part in this daring plan. The first vanguard of the 389th led by Brigadier General Jack Wood, arrived at Hethel on June 11th 1943, followed by the air echelons of the four squadrons: 564th, 565th, 566th and 567th over the next two weeks. The ground echelons travelling by ship, would arrive some time later. Urgency was the key word and so as to not lose valuable training time, ground crews were drafted in from nearby Shipdham (93rd BG) and Hardwick’s 44th BG.

This change in tactics, from high-level to low certainly perplexed the crews of the 389th. New top-secret bomb sights had been trialled over The Wash to the north of the Norfolk coast and they had been successful in their operation. Extensive training operations were put in place to prepare the crews for the forthcoming operations. So intense was this low-level training, that two B-24Ds collided over East Anglia, ’42-40687′ piloted by 1st Lt. Edward Fowble, and ’42-40774′ “Heaven Can Wait” piloted by 1st Lt. Harold James, struck each other. Whilst both aircraft managed to return to Hethel, one of the navigators, 2nd Lt. Charles Quantrell sadly lost his life. Eventually on the 31st June, the crews left Hethel, to join those they had worked so hard with, they flew via Portreath to their destination in Libya. From here they would undertake a multitude of missions including the support of the Sicily invasion before going on to attack the infamous oil refineries at Polesti. Whilst in Libya the 389th would earn many distinctions including a posthumous Medal of Honour to Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes (s/n 0-666292) for his determination in dropping his bombs on target even though his B-24 was burning ferociously. The 389th would also receive the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) from Lt. General Spaatz and hence forth become known as “The Sky Scorpions“.

Former RAF Hethel

One of the remaining buildings on the Accommodation site.

Whilst the main sections of the 389th were out in Libya, the remaining Hethel units were reduced to training and Air-Sea rescue missions, ironically searching for downed B-17 crews, something the Liberator would prove to be invaluable at.

With the return of the Africa detachments, the Bomb Group  was complete again, and missions over occupied Europe could begin once more from Hethel. Their first contribution to this new phase was to attack Leeuwarden, but cloud cover forced them to find alternative targets on which they unleashed their devastating load. With operation STARKEY about to commence, the 389th were ordered to target the Luftwaffe airfields in the St. Omer region, and then again six days later they visited St. Andre De L’Eure. The next day, the 389th were informed that they would be returning to North Africa this time in support of the Salerno beachhead. A blow to those crews who had only recently arrived here at Hethel.

With the group split again, Hethel based units would continue the fight on. As the renamed 2nd Bombardment Division, they now carried a large Black ‘C’ enclosed in a white circle on their tail fins and starboard wingtip, they would also fly the updated ‘H’ model B-24. With a nose turret, more experienced crews had their reservations about these aircraft, slower and heavier they were also colder due to gaps in the turret surrounds.

A number of strategic missions took these aircraft over occupied Europe many deep across the German Heartland. As 1943 drew to a close the 389th would attack dock yards at Vegesack, Danzig and Wilhelmshaven; targets at Munster, Breman, Emden and Kiel to name but a few. It was at Emden that the Luftwaffe fighters were trialling a new weapon, a bomb dangled on 100 feet of wire to catch the bombers. A rather poor attempt it nevertheless caused great concern for pilots having to fly through wires hanging in an already busy sky. To bring 1943 to a close, on the 30th and 31st December, the 389th were part of further large formations attacking both Ludwigshafen on the Rhine and the airfield at St. Jean D’Angeley respectively.

Former RAF Hethel

Views of the former Technical site, now under the ownership of Lotus cars. The grey line across the centre of the photograph is the former runway now a testing track.

A new year brought little change, but with the introduction of H2X-equipped aircraft, bombing became more accurate, and new targets were identified; ‘No Ball’ operations began and attacks on German cities increased. Late February saw the 389th in action during ‘Big Week’, an operation designed to cripple the German aircraft industry by targeting both aircraft and component manufacturing sites.

With the lead up to D-day, operations would occur almost every day from June 2nd up to June 29th, there would be only six days in this month period where no missions were flown by the 389th.

November 1944 would bring another devastating blow to the crews of Hethel. A collision between B-24J ’42-50452′ ‘Earthquake Magoon‘ and another B-24J ’44-10513’ on November 21st over the local parish of Carelton Rode, saw the loss of 17 of the 20 crew men. A devastating blow that highlighted the need for good communication and careful flying in these close quarters.

Missions carried on and as the war drew to a close, fighter attacks became less effective but even more daring. Pockets of resistance were becoming a ‘nuisance’ and the need for the further ports led to an attack in the Bordeaux region. On April 14th 1945, 1,161 heavy bombers were sent to the area. The 2nd Air Division accounted for 336 of these aircraft, of which only two were lost; B-24J ’42-50774′ “Stand By” and B-24J ’42-51233′ “The Bigast Boid“.

In “The Bigast Boid” of the 567th BS, was pilot 2nd Lt. Edward Bush and his nine other crew members. The aircraft was seemingly hit by friendly fire from B-17s flying above, completely severing the aircraft in half at the trailing edge of the wing, resulting in total loss of control. In the subsequent crash all ten crew members were killed. Other pilots from the 389th who witnessed the accident, attributed the fires and crash to flares being dropped from higher flying B-17s, – such was the danger of flying in tight formations.

Leon J Nowicki, and engineer of the 389th Bomb Group with the nose art of a B-24 Liberator (serial number 42-51233 nicknamed

Leon J Nowicki, engineer of the 389th BG with the B-24 “The Bigast Boid”. The aircraft would be lost to ‘friendly fire’ on April 14th 1945.  (IWM)

Eleven days later on April 25th, 1945 the 389th BG flew its final mission. The last target to receive the attention of the four squadrons was Salsburg, an operation that closed the books on 321 operational missions in five different versions of B-24. In total they dropped 17,548 tons of ordnance, lost 116 aircraft as Missing in action and claimed 209 enemy aircraft shot down. In 1945 they were awarded ‘best squadron’ on efficiency, an award that clearly reflected their attitude and dedication to the war effort.

With the departure of the air echelon at the end of May 1945 and the ground echelons from Bristol, the unit was given 30 days ‘R and R’ before inactivation in September. Hethel like so many airfields was then handed back to RAF Fighter Command who stationed a small number of Squadrons here before disbanding them. In September 1945, 65 Sqn and 126 Sqn were here with Mustang IVs. 65 Sqn stayed taking on Spitfire LF XVI E models before moving to Spilsby in early 1946. 126 Sqn left, had a months stay at Bradwell bay and then returned here, also taking the Spitfire LF XVI E and eventual disbandment in the following March.

Five Polish squadrons then came to Hethel. During the period March to December 1946: 302, 303, 308, 316 and 317 each stayed bringing with them Spitfire XVIs / Es, Mustang IIIs, and IVs, before all being disbanded in the December 1946.

Some technical activity on the site became almost token in comparison and eventually, after being used for repatriation and displaced persons purposes, Hethel was closed and sold off. After laying dormant for a number of years, the majority of the site was bought by Lotus Cars, the company who own the ‘airfield’ today using part of the main runway and perimeter track for testing their high performance cars. The remaining accommodation areas were bought back by the local farmer and are now used for chicken farming, or left allowing the woods to envelop what is left of the accommodation sites.

Former RAF Hethel

A T2 Hangar moved to the northern side of the airfield. One of the better ‘accessible’ features of Hethel.

Considering the role of the Lotus factory, access is generally good. Look for signs for ‘Lotus Engineering’ and drive along the road passing the Lotus site. This was the main entrance to the airfield, separating the ten accommodation and defence sites (on your right) from the main airfield to your left. On the right hand side are some of the former Defence site buildings, now used by small industrial units, the Lotus factory taking over the main technical area including the control tower. On your left is one of the original three hangars. Continue on past the Lotus entrance along the road as far as you can. To your right is a wood, this once housed Communal Site 1 and beyond this the other accommodation sites. A footpath allows access through here where a small number of buildings can be seen albeit enveloped in very dense undergrowth. The road along here eventually turns into a farm, and private property, however, the chapel and Gymnasium are located along this road and have since been turned into a museum. Access to the museum is through this gate. Beyond, the road turns into a footpath and utilises the former perimeter track linking to the main runway to the north. This runs alongside the track now used by Lotus.

From here turn back, return to the main road and turn right. Follow the road parallel to the former east-west runway and turn right. Keep going following the road round, eventually you come to another T2 Hangar. Not originally erected here, it was moved at some point from elsewhere, but is perhaps one of the better examples of airfield archaeology left on the site that is ‘accessible’.

Whilst the majority of Hethel has been removed or utilised by Lotus, it makes for a fascinating trip. The museum, run by volunteers, opens infrequently but I believe offers a fabulous insight into life on the base during the war. One of the more stunning aspects of the exhibition is a number of murals painted in 1944 by “Bud” Doyle. A small memorial is also located at the museum in honour of those who served here.

Hethel was once a heaving airfield, it has now taken on a new sound, but the memories of those brave young men still linger in the Norfolk air; the trees sway to the tunes of their music and their lives rest peacefully at last, honoured in the churches of the nearby Norfolk villages.

Sources and notes

While in the area, visit All Saints Church at Hethel, a memorial headstone dedicated to the crews of Hethel is located in the churchyard with a Roll of Honour inside the church itself. It also contains a Roll of Honour and extracts from ‘The Attlebridge Diaries’, for those who flew as part of the 466th BG from nearby RAF Attlebridge.

A plaque and small stained glass window in All Saints Church, Carelton Rode, commemorates the deaths of the seventeen airmen killed in a mid-air collision in November 1944.

The Hethel Museum was closed on my visit, but a blog site gives some details of the exhibits along with the restricted opening time information.

I recommend: Freeman, R.A., “The Mighty Eighth“, published by Arms and Armour, 1986 which has proven to be a valuable source of background information.

Also Joe Baugher’s website, for serial numbers of the USAAF aircraft.

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6 thoughts on “RAF Hethel – from Africa to Norfolk

  1. Another thoroughly researched article. One thing that always strikes me when reading your articles is just how prolific accidents were during the war. It’s especially shocking when it comes to mid air collisions as was the case with the B24s.

    Speaking of which, I wonder if those crews who complained about the nose turret versions knew what early Stirling crews had to contend with since their nose turrets often made the aircraft yaw to the left or right!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The number of accidents certainly is high, I would say every airfield I come across has a record of not just one but multiple collisions or ground accidents to their name. I suppose when you are manoeuvring that many aircraft in a small space whether in the sky or on the ground, accidents are inevitable. I always think it a worse way to lose you life than in combat. As for the gunners I guess they were used to their ‘home comforts’ and having a gun rather than just plexiglass to protect you may have had its advantages. Thanks as always Tony good to see you back.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. RAF Hethel and the 389th certainly had a busy time in such a short space of time. I had heard (as so many have) of the raid(s) on the Polesti oil fields in Romania, but I hadn’t realized it was such an involved and dangerous undertaking. Thank you for the education there Andy. It amazes me that those crews of young men, continuously put themselves in harms way, in so many theatres of operation under the constant threat of death. Thanks again for a great post Andy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oddly enough until a few years ago I had never head of Polesti, but they were difficult missions and it was repeatedly hit by a number of squadrons. To fly B-24s at low level was both daring and dangerous. Thanks for your comment as always Rich.

      Liked by 1 person

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