In this next trail, we start just a few miles to the south-west of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, where we visit a number of airfields that were associated with the heavy bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command.
Our first stop, although a satellite, more than earned its rightful place in the history books of aviation. It is an airfield where large numbers of the ill-fated Stirling flew many missions over occupied Europe, where the staggering statistics of lost men and machines speak for themselves.
Now little more than fields and a small industrial estate, the remnants of this wartime airfield stand as reminders of those dark days in the 1940s when night after night, young men flew enormous machines over enemy territory to drop their deadly payload on heavily defended industrial targets.
We begin our next trip at the former airfield RAF Chedburgh, home to the mighty four-engined bombers of No. 3 Group Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force.
Built in 1942 (by John Laing and Son Ltd) as a satellite for RAF Stradishall, Chedburgh would be built to the Class A specification, a later addition to the RAF’s war effort. Being a bomber station Chedburgh would have three runways made of concrete, the initial construction being one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, all the standard 50 yards wide, as was the standard specification brought in during 1941. Later on, these would be extended giving Chedburgh much longer runways than many of its counterparts, i.e. one at 3,000 yards and two at 2,000 yards. Having runways this long, meant that heavy bombers could use the site when in trouble, something that Chedburgh would get used to very quickly.
With the village of Chedburgh to the north of the site, directly opposite the main gate; the technical area along the north-eastern side of the main runway, and the bomb store to the east, Chedburgh would have two T2 hangars, a B1 and later on 3 glider hangars. Dotted around the perimeter track were a number of dispersals comprising 34 pan styles and 2 looped.
Whilst housing only two major squadrons 214 Squadron and 620 Squadron, it would also be home to a small number of other operational units, 218, 301, 304 Sqns and 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).
Opening under the control of No. 3 Group, on September 7th 1942, the first resident unit was 214 Squadron (RAF) flying the Stirling MK. I, a model they operated until as late as February 1944. The bulk of the unit arrived in the October, with operations beginning very soon after. Within four months they would begin replacing some of these models with the upgraded MK.III, also operating these until the beginning of 1944 and after transferring to RAF Downham Market in Norfolk.
As with many airfields at this time, the arrival of personnel preceded the completion of the works, development continuing well into the operational time of its residents, something that would cause a problem in the coming months.
It was in March of 1943 that the first casualties would occur, the night of March 1st/2nd being a baptism of fire for 214 Sqn. Stirling MK. I (R9143) BU-E piloted by F/S. J. Lyall (RCAF) would be hit by flak, she was badly damaged, and then abandoned by her crew. As he descended from the stricken aircraft, F/O. Hotson (RNZAF) would be hit by a splintering shell – the wounding he received as a result would be fatal. The remainder of the crew all escaped the aircraft safely but were later captured by the Germans and incarcerated. A multi-national crew, this loss was to be followed just two nights later with the loss of another Stirling, ‘BU-C’, but this time none of the seven crewmen were to survive.
Then on the next night, 5th/6th March, whilst on operations to Essen (the 100,000th sortie by RAF aircraft), Stirling BK662 ‘BU-K’ crashed into the North Sea about 30 km north-northwest of Ijmuiden. Only one of the crew, Air Gunner Sgt. William H. Trotter (s/n: 1128255) was ever found, the rest of the crew remaining ‘missing in action’. This was the first Stirling to be listed as such since the squadron’s operations began. This raid would prove devastating, taking the lives of 75 RAF airmen, but the War Office considered it a major success in terms of industrial damage to the German war machine. The targeted Krupps factory, which sat in the centre of over 100 acres of industrialised area, was devastated by both accurate marking and then the subsequent bombing.
Throughout this month there were further loses to the squadron: Stirlings ‘BU-Q’ and ‘BU-A’ (in which F/S. D Moore (RCAF) and Sgt. T. Wilson were both awarded the George medal for saving the life of their companion Sgt. J. Flack), along with ‘BU-M’ were all lost; ‘BU-M’ losing all but one crewman. Another aircraft, ‘BU-L’, lost all seven aircrew on the night of March 27th/28th, and closing March off, was a collision between Stirlings BK663 and EF362, which left several more crewmen either injured or dead. Although many losses were as a direct result of flak or night fighters, the cracks were beginning to show, and the poor performance of the Stirling was becoming evermore apparent.
It was during this year on 17th June 1943, that Chedburgh’s second main operational unit would be formed, 620 Sqn (RAF), also carrying out bomber operations, again with the Stirling MK. I and later in the August, the MK. III. Also part of 3 Group Bomber Command, 620 Sqn were created through the streamlining of 214 Sqn and 149 Sqn at nearby Lakenheath. The move reduced each of the two former squadrons from three flights to two, releasing ‘C’ Flight of 214 Sqn who were already stationed here at Chedburgh.
As many of these crews were already well established and experienced, there would be no delay in commencing operations, the first sortie occurring on the night of the 19th June 1943 – two days after their formation. The first casualties occurred three days later on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1943, just a few days into their operational campaign. There then followed five months of heavy operational activity, a period in which the Stirling and its crews would be pushed to the very limit and beyond. The shortcomings of the aircraft being realised further more.
Being on a partially built airfield would be the cause of the demise of Stirling EF336 (QS-D) which swung on take off and ran into the partially constructed perimeter track. The uneven surface caused the undercarriage to collapse, and whilst there were no injuries to the crew, the aircraft was written off.
The poor service ceiling of the Stirling led to several aircraft being damaged through falling bombs from aircraft flying above. A number of Stirlings were recorded returning to bases, including Chedburgh, with damage to the air frames, damage caused by these falling ‘friendly’ bombs! However, the extent of this damage did give great credit to the aircraft, showing both its robustness and strength in design; something that often gets forgotten when talking about the Stirling in operations.
The next few months for 620 Sqn would be filled with a mix of operational sorties, mining operations (Gardening) and training flights, including both ‘Bullseye‘ and ‘Eric‘; testing the home defence searchlight and AA batteries both at night and during the day. During a fighter affiliation exercise on July 2nd, two 620 Squadron aircraft collided, ‘EF394’ (QS-V) and BK724 (QS-Y) killing fifteen and injuring two. One of those killed, Flight Mechanic AIC Arthur Haigh (s/n: 1768277) was only 18 years old, and one of five ground crew who were aboard the two aircraft that day.
Both 214 Sqn and 620 Sqn would go on for the next few months taking part in some of the war’s largest bomber missions including Hamburg, Essen and Remscheid. A number of aircraft would be lost and many aircrew along with them. The worst recorded night for 620 Sqn was the night operation on August 27th/28th, 1943 to Nuremberg, when three aircraft were shot down, all Stirling MK.IIIs: BF576 (QS-F) piloted by Sgt. Frank Eeles (s/n: 1531789); EE942 (QS-R) piloted by Flt. Sgt. John F. Nichols (s/n: 1318759) and EF451 (QS-D) piloted by Sgt. William H. Duroe (s/n: 658365). These three losses accounted for sixteen deaths and five taken as POWs, there were no other survivors.
The last 214 Sqn Stirling to be written off during bombing missions occurred on the night of November 22nd/23rd, 1943. Whilst on a mission to Berlin, Stirling EF445 (BU-J) was hit by flak, attacked by a FW-190 and then suffered icing. The resultant damage along with a lack of fuel, caused the pilot to ditch in the North Sea with the loss of two crewmen: pilot F/S. George A. Atkinson (s/n: 1485104) and Sgt. W. Sweeney (RCAF) (s/n: R/79844).
620’s stay at Chedburgh would be fairly short-lived, taking part in their final operation on the night of November 19th/20th, 1943 to Leverkusen. They then departed Chedburgh at the end of that month after suffering a heavy toll on their numbers and a devastating start to their war. By now the limitations of the Stirling were very well-known, and it was already being replaced by the much favoured Lancaster. In the short five months it had existed, the squadron had lost eighteen of its aircraft in operations, and a further six in accidents, statistics that are however, overshadowed by the loss of ninety-three lives. 620 Sqn left both Chedburgh and Bomber Command to join other units at RAF Leicester East and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force in November, where the unit was to perform Airborne operations along side 196 Sqn and 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU). A role that 620 performed for the remainder of the war.
With their departure came the arrival of another Stirling squadron, 1653 HCU, a Stirling training unit rather than a front line operational squadron. A month later 214 Sqn would also leave Chedburgh taking their Stirlings to Downham Market and then onto Sculthorpe where they replaced them with the B-17 Flying Fortress.
1653 HCU, as a training unit, would also have it share of accidents and losses, many due to technical problems, but some due to pilot error. A number of accidents were caused by tyres blowing, and some were caused by engine failures, the bravery of these pilots in dealing with these matters being no less than exemplary. One such incident being that of F/O. Hannah and his crew, who took off at 20:50 on the evening of November 3rd 1944, on a radar training flight. Immediately after take off both port engines cut out, something that was almost fatal in a Stirling. The aircraft, virtually uncontrollable, was heading towards a row of cottages but the crew managed to turn it away missing the houses but colliding with a row of trees instead. All of the crew were injured to varying degrees – one fatally. Sgt. Eddie (RCAF) dying in the resultant crash.
After a year of being at Chedburgh, 1653 HCU would also depart (December 1944) by which time the Lancaster was well and truly the main bomber of the RAF. This late stage of the war would not be the end of Chedburgh though, Bomber Command retaining its use, sending the Lancasters I and III of 218 (Gold Coast)*1 Squadron here from RAF Methwold.
On December 2nd 1944 the first ground units began to arrive, with flying personnel arriving on the 5th, after much-needed runway repairs were completed. The airfield reopened with the arrival of eighteen Lancasters, formed into three new flights, of which thirteen would undertake operations on the 8th, to the railway yards at Duisburg – their first from Chedburgh. Both this mission and that of the 11th to the marshalling yards at Osterfeld, were heavily restricted by thick cloud, and so G-H navigation aids were used in conjunction with ‘Oboe‘.
For the majority of the remainder of the war Bomber Command continued its strategic missions against German cities, with marshalling yards and oil refineries being other major targets. It was of course this continued use of bomber aircraft against what was now a demoralised and weakened German population, that led to the outcry over Harris’s continued attacks on German cities. A controversial action that led to his move away from the lime light at the war’s end, and the lack of recognition for bomber commands efforts throughout the conflict.
218 Sqn would continue on though. The winter of 1944 / 45 proving to be one of the worst weather wise, many missions were either scrubbed or carried out in poor weather. On the night of January 1st/2nd 1945, one hundred and forty-six aircraft of No. 3 Group were tasked with the attack on Vohwinkel railway yards. During the attack in which 218 Sqn were a part, two aircraft were hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire from American guns below. One of these was 218 Sqn Lancaster MK. I PB768 (XH-B) piloted by 20 yr old Australian F/O. Robert G. Grivell. The accuracy of these guns was ironically excellent, hitting the aircraft not once but twice, causing it to spin uncontrollably toward the ground. All but one of the crew were killed in the ensuing crash.
It was during this period that the RAF began daylight bombing missions too, such was the poor state of the defending Luftwaffe. Numerous missions over the next weeks led to attacks on the coking plants at both Datteln and Hattingen, repeated again on March 17th in attacks at Huls (and Dortmund). Hattingen was again attacked by 218 Sqn aircraft on the 18th without loss.
The remainder of the war would see 218 Sqn fly from Chedburgh, completing many missions until the war’s end. During Operation ‘Manna‘ in which the German Army lifted an embargo on food transport into Holland, ten Lancasters of 218 Squadron dropped food supplies to the starving Dutch below. Understandably April had seen fewer operations than in previous months, but with May seeing many more food trips to the Hague, 218 Squadron leapt to the top of the leader board for operational tours, overtaking both 77 Sqn and 115 Sqn their closest friendly ‘competitors’. With further flights under ‘Manna‘, and then repatriation flights under both ‘Dodge‘ and ‘Exodus‘ 218 Sqn continued to operate the long haul flights into European territory.
During August the big wind down began, and the Lancasters were gradually flown out of Chedburgh for disposal. Then on the 10th, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron was finally disbanded, and the various crews sent home to their respective territories across the globe.
On August 27th 1945, the last two Lancasters departed Chedburgh, and all was very quiet for those left behind. Then in September, two Polish bomber squadrons arrived, both 301 and 304 Sqns remaining here until they were also disbanded a year later on December 18th, 1946; their Warwicks, Wellingtons and Halifaxes being no doubt scrapped. Whilst here, the Polish squadrons flew long-range transport flights, retaining at least some link to the heavy aircraft and long-range flights that had been common only a year or so before.
Over the remaining years the airfield, like many, has reduced to both agriculture and industrial use. The watch Office has been heavily modified and lies hidden within an industrial complex that has completely taken over the former technical site. A number of these original buildings still survive and visible from the main A143 Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill road, the road that separates the airfield from the village opposite. The runways and perimeter tracks, visible only in small parts, are mere concrete platforms, now used to store farm produce and machinery, rather than the lumbering bombers of RAF Bomber Command.
The huts used to house the 1,600 RAF personnel and 240 WAAFs, have all been removed, as have the thirty-six hardstands – the airfield site now being completely agricultural.
Whilst Chedburgh was only built as a satellite airfield, by the end of the war it had been witness to many great sacrifices. Eighty-three aircraft had been lost on operations, all but 12 being Stirlings; eighteen from 620 Sqn and fifty from 214 Sqn. For a period of only fourteen months for 214 Sqn and five for 620 Sqn, this was an appalling loss of life, and one that was sadly mirrored by many bomber squadrons across the British Isles in the 1940s.
Sources and further reading
Much of the specific detail for these loses came from the Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses series”, published by Midland Counties Publications.
*1 A number of books are available on this squadron. One written by Ron Warburton, ‘Ron’s War‘ chronicles the life of a Flight Engineer of a Lancaster in 218 (Gold Coast) Sqn whilst at Chedburgh in 1945. It is published by RW Press, and available online. ISBN-13: 978-0983178804
A second book is also available, “From St Vith to Victory: 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign Against Nazi Germany“, written by Stephen Smith, and published by Pen and Sword Aviation in 2010 (ISBN10 1473855403). It details the life of 218 (Gold Coast Sqn) from its inception through to its disbandment in 1945.
A blog has also been set up dedicated to those who served in 218 (Gold Coast) Sqn and it gives a detailed history from 1936-1945. It has also been created by Stephen Smith who has also published other books relating to 218 Sqn including “A Short War” and “A Stirling Effort” which relates specifically to their time at RAF Downham Market. https://218squadron.wordpress.com/