Disaster at RAF Tibenham.

In this post, we revisit Tibenham in Norfolk, the home of the 445th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force. Whilst here, the 445th would suffer the worst casualty rate of any Bomb Group in a single mission, a mission that virtually wiped out the entire Group. Yet they would no give up, determined they would go onto have one of the most successful bombs on target statistics of all the Eighth’s Bomb Groups, a record they can be proud of.

RAF Tibenham (Station 124)

Station 124 was one of those purpose-built airfields designed specifically for the USAAF in the mid-part of the war. Known to the locals as Tivetshall, it occupies a site previously used by the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1 (although there appears to be no record of units based here).

In preparation for the Air Force’s arrival, a Class A airfield was built, with three standard concrete and tarmac runways, the primary of 2,000 yds and two secondary each 1,400 yds long and all the standard 50 yds wide. In addition, there were thirty-five ‘frying pans’ hardstands and a further seventeen ‘spectacle’ hardstands, all dotted around the perimeter track. Aircraft maintenance was completed in two T2 hangars, one in the technical area and one other to the south side of the airfield. The bomb store was located to the north-west of the airfield, with the technical and administrative areas to the east. Beyond this, dispersed further to the north-east were the accommodation areas: two communal sites, a WAAF site, sick quarters and seven male accommodation sites. Accommodation was initially designed for 3,000 personnel, using mainly Nissen huts with some Orlit hutting on site. Most other buildings were ‘temporary’ and built of brick.

RAF Tibenham Perimeter track

Part of the perimeter track – RAF Tibenham

Built over 1941-1942 by W. and C. French Ltd, it was opened in 1942, and was the temporary residence for the ground echelons of two squadrons of the 320th BG in November that year. The plan was to send the air echelons via the northern route, but due to heavy losses of the 47th and 319th BGs, they were diverted to North Africa via the southern route. The Ground echelons would then join them departing both Tibenham and nearby Hethel on November 21st 1942.

Tibenham then remained unoccupied by operational forces until November 4th 1943, when the 700th, 701st, 702nd and 703rd Bomb Squadrons of the 445th Bomb Group, Eighth Air Force arrived.

The 445th’s journey brought them from Gowen Field in Idaho, through Wendover Air Force Base in Utah, to Sioux City where they completed their training. In October the ground echelons sailed on the Queen Mary arriving in Scotland in early November. The air echelons flew the southern route, covering Florida, Puerto Rico, Brazil and West Africa before arriving shortly afterwards.

Flying B-24 Liberators, they would perform their first mission on December 13th 1943 – a month after their arrival. Their first target was the U-boat pens at Kiel. Along with other units of the 2nd Bomb Division fifteen aircraft would take off and undertake what was to be a relatively uneventful sortie, all the 445th aircraft returning with only two aircraft damaged and no casualties.

Their third mission, also in December, was less successful. A massive force of 546 bombers left England to attack Breman, arriving over the target between 11:42 and 12:14, the force was badly hit by ME-410s of the Luftwaffe. The 445th had fifteen of their aircraft damaged, with two crewmen wounded and eleven classed as ‘missing’. The realities of war were beginning to bite home.

1944 would be a more decisive year for Tibenham and the 445th. During the February ‘Big Week’ campaign against the German aircraft industry, Tibenham would suffer from accidental bombing by a returning Liberator. After being recalled, a  B-24 accidentally released a bomb whilst flying over Tibenham airfield, the resultant explosion killing two servicemen and a civilian in a nearby house.

The 445th would also suffer this year, but for their determination and action over Gotha they would be awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC), an award that reflected their bravery.

RAF Tibenham

Today’s huts and hangars

The eight groups of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD) were targeting the Me-110 factories on February 24th 1944, dropping 372 tons of high explosive bombs. During the  mission 239 aircraft would leave England in three large wing formations, the 445th in the 2nd Combat Wing (CW) were to fly in the lead, along with the 389th BG and the 453rd BG. Behind them were the 14th Combat Wing with the 20th Combat Wing bringing up the rear.

The lead group were hit hard as much as 80 minutes before the target. Flying ahead of schedule, they had failed to rendezvous with their escort and so were at a huge disadvantage. Flying at altitude, the lead aircraft of the 389th suffered oxygen problems, which caused the bomb aimer to suffer from anoxia, the condition led to him release the bombs early, over Eisenach and not the primary target. As the bombs fell toward the ground, others in the wing began to follow suit, all releasing their bombs far too early, and well away from the target area. The 445th realising there was a problem, ignored the false signal and continued on to the target alone. Being out of formation and without escort, the B-24s were ‘sitting ducks’, and unsurprisingly were given special attention by the Luftwaffe.

From then on, and for an hour after the bomb run, Luftwaffe fighters attacked the B-24s, and one by one, the heavy bombers fell from the sky as fighters picked them off. After two and a half hours of relentless attacks, thirteen of the original twenty-five aircraft had been lost and nine others were badly damaged. The mission had cost 50% of the groups aircraft, but it was a tragedy that was not to be their last, nor their worst.

The main formation who had released early, had also suffered badly, being subjected to aerial bombing, cable bombing and rockets, an attack which led to a mission tally of thirty-three aircraft being lost and 314 airmen being classed as ‘missing in action’.

March 1944 would also be a noteworthy month. It was the end of a career as Commanding Officer for Capt. James Stewart, Commander of the 703rd BS. Posted here before he was declared unfit for flying duty, he arrived as ‘Operations Officer’, before being given the Command of the 703rd. He would go onto fly ten missions with the 703rd before departing Tibenham for Old Buckenham and the 453rd BG as Group Operations Manager.

Because the 445th had flown many missions over the winter months, March would become noteworthy for another reason. Four months after their first operation, Lt. Sam Miller and the crew of B-24 #42-110037 of the 700th BS had completed twenty-five missions whilst here at Tibenham, they were the first crew of the group to do so. At last some good news had brought relief to the horrors of the previous months and in particular the disaster of ‘Big Week’.

Ground personnel of the 445th Bomb Group gather around a B-24 Liberator (I5-B+, serial number 42-110037) after its return to base on D-Day. Printed caption on reverse: '51451- Ground crew swarming around a bomber returning from a D-Day mission for information on the invasion.' Handwritten caption on reverse: 'Lt Sam Miller's B-24 returning to Tibenham, Norfolk after he and crew completed a 25 mission tour of operations. First crew in the 445th bomb Group to do so.'

The return of B-24 #42-110037 after its crew had completed 25 Missions (USAF).

In the lead up to the Normandy invasion in June, the 445th attacked airfields in the Paris area along with V-weapons sites in Northern France, and on D-Day itself, they returned and attacked the shore installations, pounding them before the land forces arrived. The 445th then went on to help with the breakout at St. Lo striking enemy defensive positions. The Tibenham group were now so successful that they led the ratings for the most accurate bombing of all the Liberator groups in Europe, these successes though, were to be short-lived, for on September 27th 1944, the 445th would suffer its own ‘day of infamy’.

On that day the group was allocated the Henschel facility in Kassel, and they were to lead 315 B-24s to the target. Navigating by GEE the 445th took a wrong turn and left the protection of the formation. The turn went unnoticed by the remainder of the group and so, all of a sudden, the 445th were now out on a limb and lacking the protection of the formation once again.

The group then all dropped their bombs, but unbeknown to them they were not over Kassel but were in fact over Gottingen some 20 miles away. After implementing the withdrawal plan, the 445th put themselves even further away from the main force, they were now alone. All of a sudden the 445th met II/JG.4, and what followed would all but wipe out the group.

Fw-190s approached the group from behind, three abreast diving down as they fired. Then followed two Me-109 Gruppen of JG.4 who picked off the damaged aircraft. With individuals falling away, the formation was spread and broken up, some 150 enemy aircraft had attacked and devastated the group.

In around five minutes, the Luftwaffe fighters had picked off and dispatched twenty-five B-24s and damaged most of those that remained flying. Only the intervention of US fighters stopped the total and complete annihilation of the group. The scene was devastating, the sky was full of smoke and debris, parachutes from both sides floated through the carnage. Three more B-24s crashed on the way, luckily in allied territory, two others managed to reach Manston’s emergency runway and one more crashed at Old Buckenham. The four remaining aircraft managed to limp back to Tibenham, but only one was able to fly again the next day.

In a written account*1, Pilot Capt. William R Dewey Jr describes the scene in his B-24 (one of those that made Manston)

“The tail turret had caught fire, from direct hits by 20 mm cannon in the first wave of FW-190s, both waist gunners were wounded and bloody along with the tail gunner. There was a huge hole in the right waist ahead of the window, the left waist window was shattered. Control cables to the tail were partially damaged, and the twin vertical rudders appeared frayed and disintegrating. Looking out the copilot’s window we could see a 3′ diameter hole in the upper surface of the wing behind the #3 engine, where 100 octane gasoline was splashing out.”

Dewey goes on to explain how the co-pilot William L. Boykin Jr, carried oxygen bottles back to the wounded crew, gave them first aid and comforted them. Dewey then decided to drop below oxygen requirement level and risk ditching. Switching channels to the emergency channel, he manged to contact air-sea rescue using the code word “Colgate“. After obtaining a radar fix, they gave him a heading for Manston.

After an hour Dewey spotted Manston and began the task of landing not knowing what condition the flaps, undercarriage or tyres were in. Thankfully all were in good order and he described it as:

“the best I ever made in a B-24 – like we were on feathers. A day we will never forget!”*1

Statistics for the day were horrendous, the efficiency of the German controllers had been spectacular, no previous efforts had yielded such incredible results; 236 men were missing, 1 was dead and 13 were injured in the resultant crashes. This loss, left only ten aircraft in the entire group, and would go down as the worst operational day of the war for any single group of ‘The Mighty Eighth’.

The 445th would regroup and return though. In December and January they supported the troops in the Battle of the Bulge by bombing German communication lines, helping the Paratroops holding up in the forests of the Ardennes.

On February 24th 1945, Ford built Liberator B-24H-1-FO #42-7619 “Bunnie” a veteran of 103 missions, took off from Tibenham’s main east-west runway. Within seconds something went wrong and the bomber crashed a few hundred yards west of the airfield. In the crash four of the crew were killed, the remaining five managed to survive.

Photo of

“Chuck” Walker & his crew being congratulated by Lt. Col. Fleming, (deputy commander) on completion of their 35th mission and “Bunnie’s” 100th.(IWM)

and then on 24th March 1945, they dropped food, ammunition and medical supplies to the troops who had made the Rhine crossing at Wesel. They returned later that day to bomb the landing grounds at Stormede.

The 445th went on to carry out a total of 282 operations building a reputation for high accuracy bombing in the face of danger. Further awards were received from the French for their support of the Resistance, in dropping food supplies, gaining them the Croix de Guerre, a highly regarded award.

The 445th flew their last mission on 25th April 1945, the last mission by the Eighth Air Force in Europe, attacking airfields and rail targets in south-east Germany and Czechoslovakia without loss. The 445th finally returned to the US at the end of hostilities leaving behind huge numbers of crews for whom home would never be back on their own soil.

After their departure in May / June, Tibenham remained ‘operational’ although no operational flying took place. The RAF then began to sell off parts of the airfield to the local farmers. A short-lived expansion of the airfield’s runway in 1955 led nowhere, as no aircraft were assigned to the airbase, and in 1959, Tibenham was finally closed as a military base. During this time, the Norfolk Gliding Club took over part of the site, paying a rent to the Ministry of Defence, remaining here even after 1964/65 when the airfield site was finally sold.

Since then the Club has fought long and hard to keep flying at Tibenham. Battles over land and attempts to curb flying have so far failed. Gradually bit-by-bit the infrastructure has been removed, sold off for hardcore and agriculture use.

Flying at Tibenham

Small piston engined aircraft keep the spirit alive

A small collection of memorabilia and photographs of the four squadrons based at Tibenham are maintained by the club, and a memorial stands as a lasting legacy to those who never returned.

Currently, large parts of two of the runways remain; the perimeter track can also be seen, being split by the main road round the airfield. Also a small number of huts are still being used and the site is in remarkable condition as a result.

Other evidence is hard to find, the majority of the accommodation, stores and works all being located to the east amongst the trees and on private land. I am reliably informed that primitive airfield defences can be found amongst the trees at the end of the runway. These amount to a ladder that would enable any defence troops to climb up and remain hidden should any German paratroopers fall.

The heavily laden bombers have long since been replaced by the grace and beauty of gliders, the control tower and other major buildings are now history, but as the summer sun and cool breeze wafts across the open skies above Norfolk, it is easy to picture these lumbering bombers, fuelled and crewed waiting for their turn to depart. With the roar of labouring engines now long gone, peace has returned once more to this quiet corner of Norfolk.

RAF Tibenham memorial

Memorial dedicated to the 445th BG.

Tibenham was initially visited in April 2014 when these photos were taken. It appears as part of Trail 13 along with Old Buckenham and East Wretham. This page is an update with additional information on the 445th’s history.

Sources and further reading.

The Norfolk Gliding Club website gives details of their activities, opening times and flying operations.

*1 A typescript memoir written by Capt. William R. Dewey ‘Disaster at Kassel’: 27th Sep 1944. Second Air Division Digital Archive . Ref: MC 371/250, USF 5/1 accessed 25/3/18.

All Saints Church in Tibenham also has a small memorial and kneelers dedicated to those who flew from Tibenham.

50 Aviation Trails Reached!

I am pleased to announce that since starting Aviation Trails four years ago, I have now reached that magic number of 50 Trails around Britain’s wartime airfields, a feat I never thought would happen.

Each Trail covers two or more sites, in some cases six, many three, covering in total, over 100 former RAF and USAAF airfields and museums around Britain.

I can honestly say its been a terrific four years, in which I have learnt a lot about Britain’s wartime past, the men and machines that flew from these places and the tragedies that occurred at so many. The development of these airfields was staggering, the process of construction, and the subsequent decay just as eye-opening. These sites and the people who used them, have changed both the British and world landscape, leaving in many cases scars that may never heal. The buildings and stretches of concrete that remain are monuments to human endurance and sacrifice, a sacrifice that we hope may never have to be repeated.

RAF Tibenham Perimeter track

The perimeter track at the former RAF Tibbenham.

During these four years there have been several changes at many of these sites, hangars and other buildings have gone, runways are continuing to be dug up as they become prime land for development. As we speak there are numerous sites under planning proposals, whilst others are waiting in the wings to hear what their fate will be.

To compile these trails I have personally visited each and every one of these sites, even a field has a certain something when you know who stood there before you.

To all those who have visited, commented and followed me on this journey, I thank you, I hope you have enjoyed the journey back in time as much as I have writing it. I hope that through these trails, the memories of those who gave their all may live on so that future generations may know who they were and what they did, so that we may enjoy the peace we do today.

Here’s to the next 50!

Andy.

RAF Andrews Field – (Great Saling/Station 485) – Trail 33: Essex Part 1.

RAF Attlebridge  (Station 120) – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Barton BendishTrail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Biggin Hill (Westersham) (Station 343) – Trail 4: Kent Part 1.

RAF Bircham NewtonTrail 20: North Norfolk (Part 1).

RAF Bodney (Station 141) – Trail 8: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 1 of 3).

RAF BournTrail 31: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 2).

RAF Brenzett (ALG) – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF BruntonTrail 47: Northumberland.

RAF Bungay (Flixton) (Station 125) – Trail 14:  Central Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Bury St. Edmunds (Rougham) (Station 468) – Trail 16: West Suffolk (part 1).

RAF Castle CampsTrail 45: Essex (Part 2).

RAF Caxton GibbetTrail 29: Southern Cambridge (Part 1).

RAF Charterhall Trail 41: The Borders of Scotland and England.

RAF ChedburghTrail 49: Bomber Command – Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill

RAF Collyweston Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Coltishall – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF ConingsbyTrail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF CottamTrail 40: Yorkshire (East Riding).

RAF CranwellTrail 2: Lincoln Borders and Newark.

RAF Debach (Station 152) – Trail 39: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 1).

RAF Debden (Station 356) – Trail 46: Essex Part 3,

RAF Deenethorpe (Station 128) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Deopham Green (Station 142) – Trail 27: Southern Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF Digby (Scopwick) – Trail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF Docking – Trail 20: North Norfolk (Part 1).

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell) – Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Drem – Trail 42: Edinburgh’s Neighbours.

RAF East Fortune – Trail 42: Edinburgh’s Neighbours.

RAF East Kirkby Trail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Eye (Brome) (Station 134) – Trail 14: Central Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Fersfield – (Station 130) – Trail 28: Southern Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF FoulshamTrail 22North Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF FowlmereTrail 32Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 3).

RAF Framlingham (Parham) (Station 153)Trail 39: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 1).

RAF Glatton (Station 130) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Gransden Lodge – Trail 31: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 2).

RAF Graveley – Trail 29: Southern Cambridge (Part 1).

RAF Grafton Underwood (Station 106) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Great Dunmow (Station 164)- Trail 33: Essex (Part 1).

RAF Great MassinghamTrail 21: North Norfolk (Part 2).

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359) – Trail 50: Haverhill’s neighbours – Wratting Common and Great Sampford.

RAF Hardwick (Station 104) – Trail 12: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 1).

RAF Hawkinge – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF Hethel – Trail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RFC HinghamTrail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RAF Hunsdon – Trail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF Kimbolton (Station 117) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF King’s Cliffe (Station 367) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF LanghamTrail 23: North Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF Lashenden (Headcorn) – Trail 18: Kent Part 2.

RAF Lavenham (Station 137) – Trail coming soon.

RAF Little Snoring – – Trail 22North Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF MarhamTrail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF Martlesham HeathTrail 48: Suffolk around Ipswich (Part 2).

RAF Matching (Station 166) – Trail 33: Essex Part 1.

RAF Matlask (Station 178) – Trail 34: North Norfolk (Part 5).

RAF MattishallTrail 36: North Norfolk (Part 6).

RAF Mendlesham (Station 156) – Trail 15: Central Suffolk (Part 2).

RAF MepalTrail 11: Around Ely.

RAF Methwold – Trail 8: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 1).

RAF Millfield –  Trail 47: Northumberland.

RAF Narborough (Narborough Aerodrome)- Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

RAF North CreakeTrail 23: North Norfolk (Part 4).

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143) – Trail 9: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 2).

RAF North WealdTrail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF North Witham (Station 479) – Trail 3: Gone But Not Forgotten.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Oulton – Trail 34: North Norfolk (Part 5).

RAF Polebrook (Station 110) – Trail 19: Northamptonshire American Ghosts II.

RAF Rattlesden (Station 126) – Trail 15: (Central Suffolk (Part 2).

RAF SawbridgeworthTrail 25: Hertfordshire.

RAF ScamptonTrail 30: Scampton and the Heritage Centre.

RAF SculthorpeTrail 21: North Norfolk Part 2.

RAF Shipdham (Station 115) – Trail 10: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 3).

RAF Snetterton Heath – (Station 138) – Trail 27: Southern Norfolk (Part 3).

RAF Spanhoe Lodge (Station 493) – Trail 6: American Ghosts.

RAF Steeple Morden – Trail 32: Southern Cambridgeshire (Part 3).

RAF Stoke OrchardTrail 24: Gloucestershire.

RAF Stradishall- Trail 49: Bomber Command – Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill

RAF Sutton BridgeTrail 3: Gone But Not Forgotten.

RAF Swannington – Trail 36: North Norfolk (Part 6) 

RAF Swanton Morley – Trail 38: To the West of Norwich.

RAF Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139) – Trail 12: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 1).

RAF Tibenham (Station 124) – Trail 13: Southern Norfolk around Diss (Part 2).

RAF Tuddenham – Trail 16: West Suffolk (Part 1).

RAF Tydd St. Mary – Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Upwood – Trail 17: The Pathfinders.

RAF Warboys – Trail 17: The Pathfinders.

RAF Watton (Station 376/Station 505) – Trail 9: Swaffham & Her Neighbours (Part 2).

RAF Wendling (Station 118) – Trail 10: Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 3).

RAF West Malling Trail 4: Kent Part 1.

RAF West RaynhamTrail 21: North Norfolk Part 2.

RAF WethersfieldTrail 45: Essex (Part 2).

RAF Westley – Trail 16: West Suffolk (part 1).

RAF WinfieldTrail 41: The Borders of Scotland and England.

RAF Winthorpe Trail 2: Lincoln Borders and Newark.

RAF WitchfordTrail 11: Around Ely.

RAF Wittering  – Trail 37: The Northern Reaches of Cambridgeshire.

RAF Woodall SpaTrail 1: Lower Lincolnshire.

RAF Wratting CommonTrail 50 – Haverhill’s neighbours – Wratting Common and Great Sampford.

 

Great Sampford – A disaster for the U.S. “Eagles”.

After leaving RAF Wratting Common, we turn south and head back past Haverhill towards Finchingfield. Reputedly one of the most photographed villages in England, it has a ‘chocolate box’ appeal, its quaint houses, old tea shops and village pond, reminiscent of Britain’s long and distant past. Finchingfield and this trail, are also close to the airfield at Wethersfield, and a short detour to the east, is an added bonus and a worthy addition to the trail.

This next airfield, a small satellite airfield, lies one and a half miles to the west of Great Sampford village, and five miles south-east of Saffron Walden. It is actually quite remote, with no public roads close to the site. Footpaths do cross parts of the former airfield, which is all now  completely agricultural.

As we head south we stop  off at the former airfield RAF Great Sampford.

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359)

RAF Great Sampford was a short-lived airfield, built initially as a satellite for RAF Debden, it would be used primarily by RAF Fighter Command, and later by the US Eighth Air Force. It was also used by 38 Group for paratroop training, and by the Balloon Command.

Being a satellite it was a rudimentary airfield, and accommodation was basic; utilising wooden huts as opposed to the more pleasant brick dwellings found at its parent station RAF Debden. It was very much the poorer of the airfields in the area, although by the war’s end a wooden hut would no doubt have been preferential to a cold, metal Nissen hut!

As a satellite it would be used by a small number of squadrons, No. 65 RAF, No. 133 (Eagle Squadron) RAF and No. 616 Squadron RAF. The famous Eagle Squadrons being manned by American volunteers, 133 Sqn was later renamed 336th Fighter Squadron (FS), 4th Fighter Group (FG), after their absorption into the US Army Air Force.

There were two runways at Great Sampford, one of grass and one of steel matting (Sommerfeld track), a steel mat designed by Austrian Expatriate, Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with a handful of other track types) were common on fighter, training and satellite airfields, especially in the early part of the war. It was also used extensively on forward landing grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced. Some records report tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

At Great Sampford the steel matting was 1600 yards long, extended later to 2,000 yards, the grass strip being much shorter at just over 1,000 yards. A concrete perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield, and due to the nature of the area the airfield took on a very odd shape indeed. With many corners and little in the way of straight sections, it may have suited the longer noses of the RAF’s Spitfires well, avoiding the need to weave continuously to see passed the long engine. However, because it was small and uneven, it caused numerous problems for pilots taking off, the hedges and trees proving difficult obstacles to clear without stalling the aircraft in an attempt to get above them.

Hangars and maintenance huts were also sparse, but four blister hangars were provided as the main structures for aircraft repair and maintenance.

Opened on 14th April 1942, the first unit to use the site was No. 65 (East India) Squadron RAF who arrived the same day that it was opened. No. 65 Sqn, being veterans of both Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, had been moved about to regroup and refit, upgrading its aircraft numerous times before settling with the Spitfire.

The Spitfire VB of 65 Sqn (who were previously based at Debden) was a modified MK.V,  the first production version of the Spitfire to have clipped wingtips, a modification that reduced the wingspan down to 32 ft but increased the roll rate and airspeed at much lower altitudes. No. 65 Squadron, would use their Spitfire VBs for low-level fighter sweeps and bomber escort duties, something that suited the clipped wing version well.

Between April and July 1942, 65 Squadron would move between Debden, Martlesham Heath and Hawkinge with short spells in between at Great Sampford. They would then have a longer spell in Kent before leaving for RAF Drem in Southern Scotland. These repeated moves were largely in response to the threat of renewed Luftwaffe attacks on the airfields of southern England, and were part of a much larger plan put into place to protect the front line squadrons.

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The entry in the Operational Record Book for April 14th shows the first landing of Spitfires at Great Sampford. (AIR 27/594/4)

On April 14th, the move took place, a move that was achieved under some difficulty as the squadron was called upon to participate in two Rodeo (fighter sweeps) operations. After extensive searching between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, no enemy aircraft were sighted, and so the wing returned to their various bases. At 20:00 hrs, the first 65 Sqn aircraft touched down at Great Sampford – the base was now open and operational.

The next mission would be the very next day – there was no let up for the busy flyers! “Circus 125” led by Wing Commander J. Gordon, consisted of ten aircraft from Great Sampford, who after taking off at 18:10, met with the bomber formation and escorted them to an airfield target near Gravelines. The entire mission was uneventful and the aircraft arrived safely back at Great Sampford at 19:55 hrs.

This mission pretty much set the standard for the remainder of the month. Numerous Rodeo and Circus operations saw 65 Sqn repeatedly penetrate French airspace with various sighting of, but little contact with, enemy aircraft. The first real skirmish took place on the 25th, when the Boston formation they were escorting was attacked by fourteen FW-190s. One of the Bostons was hit and subsequently crashed into the sea. Flt. Sgt. Stillwell (Red 3) of 65 Sqn threw his own dingy out to the downed crewman who seemed to make no effort to reach it – he was then assumed to be already dead.

On the April 27th, “Circus 142” took place, the escort of eight Hurricane bombers who were attacking St. Omer aerodrome. Three sections ‘Red’, ‘White’ and ‘Blue’ made up 65 Squadron’s section of the Wing, and consisted of both Rhodesian, Czech and British airmen. The Wing flew across the Channel at 15,000 ft, and when on approach to the target, they were attacked by 50-60 FW-190s. In the ensuing dogfight F/O. D. Davies, in Spitfire #W3461; P/O. Tom Grantham (s/n: 80281) flying Spitfire #BL442, and P/O. Frederick Haslett (s/n: 80143) in Spitfire #AB401, were all reported missing presumed dead. It was thought that both F/O. Davies and P/O. Grantham may have collided as they were together when they went down, P/O. Grantham was just 19 years of age.

There were no further losses that month although operations continued up until the last day. In all, 21 operations had been flown in which 2 enemy aircraft were destroyed, 1 was a probable and 1 was damaged. April proved to be a record month in terms of operational flying hours for every pilot below the rank of Squadron Leader, the successes of which though, were marred by the sad events of the 27th and the loss of three colleagues.

On the 28th, their last day of this, the first of several stays at Great Sampford, a congratulatory message came though from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, “Well done the Debden Wing”, which went some way to lighten the atmosphere before the new month set in.*1

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The Operational Record Book for 65 Squadron. A message of congratulations from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group. (AIR 27/594/4)

It was three months later on July 29th 1942, that 65 Squadron would depart Great Sampford for the last time, and the next squadron would arrive, the Spitfire VIs of No. 616 Squadron RAF.

No. 616 Sqn were formed prior to the declaration of war in November 1938. An Auxiliary Air Force Unit, it too took part in supporting both the Dunkirk evacuation and the early days of the Battle of Britain. Now, at Great Sampford, it had been given the high altitude Spitfire, the MK. Vl, an attempt by Supermarine to tackle the Luftwaffe’s high altitude bombers, and quite the opposite to the VBs of 65 Sqn – these Spitfires had extended wingtips!

616 Squadron would, like 65 Sqn before them, spend July to September yo-yoing between Great Sampford and the airfields further south, Ipswich and Hawkinge, before departing Great Sampford for the final time on September 23rd 1942 for RAF Tangmere. Whilst here at Great Sampford, they would perform fighter sweeps, bomber escort and air patrols over northern France, engaging with the enemy on numerous occasions.

On the same day as 616 Sqn departed, the last operational unit would arrive at Great Sampford, the U.S. volunteer squadron, 133 Squadron known as one of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Being one of three squadrons manned totally by American crews, it had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving here at Great Sampford. Whilst some British RAF ground crews helped servicing and maintenance, the aircrew were entirely US, and crews were regularly changed as losses were incurred or crews were transferred out.

Many of these new recruits came in from other units. Ground crews coming into Great Sampford would have to get the train to Saffron Walden where they were met by a small truck who would take them to RAF Debden for a meal and freshen up. Afterwards they were transferred, again by truck, the few miles here to Great Sampford, the transformation was astonishing! In the words of many of those who were stationed here, “there was nothing ‘great’ about Great Sampford!”*2 Also flying Spitfire VBs, they were to quickly replace them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise.

It would be a short-lived stay at Great Sampford though, as 133 Sqn RAF were disbanded on the 29th September, being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, USAAF, and officially becoming US Air Force personnel. They were no longer volunteers of the Royal Air Force.

Just three days before this final transfer, on September 26th 1942, 133 Sqn would suffer a major disaster, and one that almost wiped out the entire squadron.

A small force of seventy-five B-17s from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, were to mount raids on Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix, when the weather closed in. The 301st BG were recalled as their fighter escort failed to materialise, and the 97th BG were ineffective as cloud had prevented bombing to take place. The RAF’s 133 (Eagle) Sqn were to provide twelve aircraft (plus two spares) to escort the bombers on these raids. After refuelling and a rather vague briefing at RAF Bolt Head in Devon, they set off. Unbeknown to them at the time, the two pilots instructed to stay behind, P/O. Don Gentile and P/O. Erwin Miller, had a guardian angel watching over them that day.

During talks with P/O. Beaty, it was ascertained that the Spitfires had flown out above 10/10th cloud cover and so were unable to see any ground features, thus not being able to gain a true understanding of where they were. Added to that, a 100 mph north-easterly wind blew the aircraft far off course into the bay of Biscay. Finding the bombers after 45 minutes of searching, the flight set for home and reduced their altitude to below the cloud for bearings. Being over land they searched for the airfield, all the time getting low on fuel. Instead of being over Cornwall however, where they thought they were, they were in fact over Brest, a heavily defended port, and in the words of 2nd Lt. Erwin Miller – “all Hell broke loose.” *3

In the subsequent battle, all but one of 133 Sqn aircraft were lost, with four pilots being killed.  P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; P/O. Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140 – Millers replacement; P/O. Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and P/O. Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294.

Only one pilot managed to return, P/O. Robert ‘Bob’ Beatty,  who crash landing his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal. From his debriefing it was thought that several others managed to land either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland. Of these, six were known to have been captured and taken prisoners of war, one of whom, F/Lt. Edward Brettell  DFC was executed for his part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. A full report of the events of that day are available in an additional page.

There would be no further operational flying take place for the rest of the month for 133 Sqn – all in all it was a disastrous end for them, and to their spell as RAF aircrew.*4

Pilot Officer Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

Because these marks of Spitfire were in short supply, the remainder of the Squadron were re-equipped with the former MK.VBs, a model they retained into 1943 before replacing them with the bigger and heavier Republic P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’.

As a result of the losses, the dynamics of the group would change. The cohesive nature of the men who had been together for so long, was now broken and the base took on a very different atmosphere.

The effect on those left behind was devastating, morale slumped, and in an attempt to raise it, Donald ‘Don’ Blakeslee ordered the remaining pilots to line up along the eastern perimeter track and take off in formation; something that had been considered virtually impossible due to its short length, uneven surface and rather awkwardly placed trees along its boundary. Blakeslee, who became a legendary fighter pilot with both 133 Sqn and later the 4th Fighter Group (FG), led the group in true American Style, getting all the aircraft off the ground without any mishaps. Heading for Debden, they formed up, and flew directly over the station at below 500 feet, shaking windows and impressing those on the ground with precision flying that took as much out of the pilots as did air to air combat.

That night, the mess hall at Debden, was awash with celebrations as 133 Squadron pilots enjoyed the limelight they had for so long deserved.

On the next day, September 29th, the crews packed their personal belongings and departed Great Sampford for the comforts of Debden, where an official handover took place. General Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, witnessing the official transfer of the three Eagle Squadrons to the United States Air Eighth Air Force, a move that on the whole, pleased the American airmen.

From then on, Great Sampford would remain under control of the USAAF, being used as a satellite for the 4th FG at Debden, but without any permanent residents. The occasional flight of Spitfires or P-47s would land here whilst on detachment or away pending a Luftwaffe attack. In the early stages of 1943, the Americans decided that Great Sampford (renamed Station 359 as per US designations) was no longer suitable for their needs as it wouldn’t accommodate either the  P-38s or the P-47s due to its awkward size and shape. By February 1943 they had pulled out, and Great Sampford was returned to RAF ownership. By March 1943 the airfield now surplus to flying requirements, was closed, used only by a large selection of RAF Regiments training in airfield defence, Guard of Honour duties and VIP Security. The station eventually closed in August 1944.

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. Handwritten caption on reverse: '19A. KP. Fall, 1942. Great Sampford Satellite Field. 336th crew by 336th Spit Mk. Vb. Wings clipped by sawing off wing & pounding in board then carving and painting it. MD-A, red/blue wheel. Source -Bill Chick, Megura.'

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. at Great Sampford. (@IWM – FRE3230)

However, this closure was not the end for Great Sampford. With paratroop operations progressing in Europe, the airfield was put back into use on 6th December 1944 by 620 Sqn in Operation ‘Vigour‘.

No. 38 Group, in need of practice areas, had acquired the airfield, and were dropping SAS paratroops into the site. This flight preceded another similar activity the following day where Horsa gliders pulled by 620 Sqn Stirlings, took part in Operation ‘Recurrent‘; a cross-country flight from RAF Dunmow in Essex. This flight culminated with the Horsas being released and landing here at Great Sampford. These activities continued throughout the appalling winter of 1944 / 45, and into the following months. In March, in the lead up to Operation ‘Varsity‘ the allied crossing of the Rhine, there was further activity in the skies of this small grass strip. Operation ‘Riff Raff‘  saw yet more paratroops and gliders at Great Sampford, whilst in November 1945, after the war’s end, Operation ‘Share-Out‘ saw the final use of Great Sampford by the paratroops. No. 620 Squadron, who had been based at RAF Dunmow, were now winding down themselves and their use of Great Sampford ceased virtually overnight.

Since then, Great Sampford has become completely agricultural, the perimeter track virtually all that remains of this small but rather interesting site. It lies in a remote area, fed only by farm tracks and small footpaths. The tracks, now a fraction of their original size, still weave their way around the airfield as they did for that short, but busy time, in the mid 1940s.

Regretfully the airfield and its unique history has all but passed into the history books, and rather sadly, no memorial marks the airfield, even though many airmen were lost during  the many sorties in those dark days of the war-torn years of the 1940s.

We depart Great Sampford heading off once more, the airfields of Essex and East Anglia beckoning. As we move off, we spare a thought for those for whom this was the last view they had of ‘home’, and of those who never came back to this quiet and remote part of the world.

Sources and further reading

*1 National Archives: AIR 27/594/4 .

*2 Goodson. J,. “Tumult in the clouds” Penguin UK, (2009) 

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

*4 National Archives: AIR 27/945/26

National Archives: AIR 27/945/25

The “Slightly-out-of-Focuswebsite has details of a photo essay documenting the planning and execution of an airborne exercise prior to Operation Varsity. It’s a detailed document which includes gliders of 38 Group RAF landing at Great Sampford.

Operation ‘Fuller’ – “The Channel Dash”.

On 12th February 1942, 18 young men took off on a daring mission from RAF Manston, in outdated and out gunned biplanes, to attack the German fleet sailing through the English Channel.

Leaving Brest harbour, a force of mighty ships including the Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen, attempted a break out, supported by sixty-six surface vessels and 250 aircraft, they were to head north through the Channel out into the North Sea and homeward to Germany where they could receive valuable repairs.

For many weeks the British had been monitoring the vessels awaiting some movement out to sea. Then,  German transmitting stations based at both Calais and Cherbourg, began a cat and mouse game transmitting false readings to interfere with British radar sets on the south coast. In mid February, the Luftwaffe organised themselves over northern France and the radars went wild with false readings and interference. Temporarily blinded by these measures, the British were unable to ‘see’ the mighty armada slip out into the Channel waters. Their escape had been a success.

The British, fearing such an attempt, had prepared six Fairy Swordfish of 825 Naval Air Squadron at nearby RAF Manston in readiness for the breakout. Ageing biplanes, they were no match for the Luftwaffe’s fast and more dominant fighters, nor the defensive guns of the mighty German fleet they were hoping to attack.

In front of their Swordfish, Lieut Cdr E Esmonde, RN, (2nd Left) on board HMS Ark Royal, October 1941. This photo was taken after the attack on the Bismark, and includes the various aircrew who received decorations as a result of that daring attack. (Left to right: Lieut P D Gick, RN, awarded DSC; Lieut Cdr E Esmonde, RN, awarded DSO; Sub Lieut V K Norfolk, RN, awarded DSC; A/PO Air L D Sayer. awarded DSM; A/ Ldg Air A L Johnson, awarded DSM). (© IWM A 5828)

In the cold winter of 1942, the Swordfish were kept ready, engines warmed and torpedoes armed, when suddenly and unexpectedly, at 12:25 on the 12th February, the fleet was sighted. They could no longer wait, and instead of attacking as planned at night, they would have to attack during the day, and so the order was given. The crews started their engines and set off on their daring and suicidal mission.

Shortly after take off, the escort arrived, merely ten Spitfires from No. 72 Squadron RAF, led by Squadron Leader Brian Kingcombe, and not the five Spitfire squadrons promised. The six Swordfish, led by  Lt. Cdr. Eugene Esmonde, dived to 50 feet and began their attack. Hoping to fly below the level of the anti-aircraft guns each of the six Swordfish flew gallantly toward their targets. Eventually hit and badly damaged, they pressed home their attacks, but they were out-gunned, and out performed, and just twenty minutes after the attack began, all six had fallen victim to the German guns. No torpedoes had struck home.

Of the eighteen men who took off that day, only five were to survive.

Leading the attack, Lt. Cdr. Esmonde was warded the V.C. Posthumously, he had previously been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his part in the attack on the Battleship Bismark; an award that also went to: S/Lt. B Rose, S/Lt. E Lee, S/Lt. C Kingsmill, and S/Lt. R Samples. Flying with them, L/A. D. Bunce was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal and twelve of the airmen were mentioned in dispatches.

In their honour and to commemorate the brave attempt to hit the German fleet that day, a memorial was erected in Ramsgate Harbour, the names of the eighteen men are listed where their story is inscribed for eternity.

Operation 'Fuller'

The memorial stands in Ramsgate Harbour.

Operation 'Fuller'

The names of the 18 airmen and the Swordfish they flew.