RAF Hardwick – Ted’s Travelling Circus. (Part 1).

There are many good museums across the country that tell the stories of heroism and sacrifice witnessed during the Second World War. In Norfolk, most reflect the lives of the ‘friendly invasion’ the lives of the US armed forces and in particular the USAAF, who flocked here in their thousands to a life that was new and very dangerous.

One such group, the 93rd BG, achieved many records and fought in many theatres, but their road was not easy nor was it any ‘milk run’.

In this trail, we return to Norfolk, revisiting the lives of those who served at the former US station 104, otherwise known as RAF Hardwick.

RAF Hardwick (Station 104)

Hardwick is a difficult place to find, primarily due to the narrow lanes and the fact that the name given to it is not the closest village! In fact, Alburgh is closer, but once found this delightful place has a lot to offer to the visitor.

Opening in September 1942, the first units to arrive were B-25 Mitchells of the 310th BG of the Eighth Air Force. Its three runways of concrete and tarmac construction, one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, were laid out in the classic Class A style. The entire site covered an enormous area, housing eleven ‘spectacle’ (double loop) and fifty ‘frying pan’ type hardstands, it had three T2 hangars, a watch office (to design 518/40 later modified to 5966/43) and a wide range of support and ancillary buildings common to  all Class A airfields. Being a bomber base, it would require two enormous fuel stores holding a combined total of 144,000 imp Gallons of fuel.

The airfield’s construction process commenced in late 1941 with the main infrastructure being built by John Laing & Son Ltd. Completion was achieved in the autumn of 1942, when the site was officially opened. The construction process would lead to a site capable of  holding around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender. There would be six male sites, two female, two communal quarters and a sick quarters, and as was common with all airfields built after the start of the war, the main public road dissected the airfield separating it from the dispersed accommodation blocks. As a result, the accommodation was to the east beyond the technical area with the bomb dump far to the north-west. Accommodation for the personnel was primarily through ‘Laing’ or ‘Nissen’ hutting, with a small number of Boulton & Paul style huts, none of which offered a great deal of protection from the cold outside.

Handed over to the US forces in 1942, the ground echelons of the 310th BG arrived by sea during the September, with the air echelons bringing their B-25 ‘Mitchells’ via the northern route during early October. The 310th were lucky enough to avoid the seasonal weather change that caused so many problems for units flying across the northern route in the winter months that followed.

Brought to the UK to train crews before they were shipped out to North Africa, the new twin-engined bomber crews would very soon leave Hardwick behind, receiving their posting and transferring abroad in three stages during November and on into December.

RAF Hardwick Memorial

Memorial to the 93rd BG (328th 329th 330th and 409th BS) RAF Hardwick.

Hardwick would take on a very different sound after that, the B-25s being replaced by the heavy four-engined B-24s of the 93rd BG. The 93rd were already a battle experienced outfit, having flown a number of missions from Alconbury since the 9th October 1942 – the day the B-24 Liberator entered into the war.

Many of the early missions performed by the 93rd would be attacks on the submarine pens along the French coast, a move discussed at great length between the two US Generals, Spaatz and Arnold. The poor successes of these missions, which were designed to support the war in the Atlantic, were borne out in an Eighth Air Force study later on. In the report, published on 8th December, it was summarised that American bombs at that time were incapable of penetrating the thick ceilings of the U-boat pens, and that little damage was being achieved by the current US bombing strategy. As a result of this, attacks soon curtailed and operations moved to other targets.

Preceding the move of the 93rd to Hardwick was the posting of a large detachment to North Africa on December 5th. It was a detachment that would see the men and machines of the Eighth transfer across to the Twelfth Air Force. It was a move that was often complained about, seen as draining valuable resources and hindering the training and future operations of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.

Those who remained in the UK began transferring over to the 2nd Bombardment Wing and a new airfield here at Hardwick, where they were trained for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th Bomb Squadron (BS) were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved to a satellite airfield at Bungay. Here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee’ system and crews trained on its use. By December they were ready, and ‘Moling‘ mission could now begin.

Unfortunately, the weather played a major part in the operational downfall of these missions, with insufficient amounts of bad weather being found to allow Gee to be used properly. Much to the surprise of the Americans, it didn’t always rain in England!

With the other three squadrons away in North Africa, the 329th joined forces with its sister group the 44th BG at Shipdham. Here they waited in earnest for the return of their associate squadrons.

Gas Training Room.

The gas training room, one of the few remaining buildings at Hardwick.

However, it was not a harmonious relationship. With the squadrons placed in North Africa getting considerable press coverage for their successes, and the B-17 groups being regular features in the UK, the 44th were understandably aggrieved, feeling that the press were ignoring the immense effort and losses they were incurring. The cold of high altitude bombing over occupied Europe was, it would seem, little match for the delights of North Africa.

In the following February / March 1943 the four squadrons were reunited for the first time, and they returned to Hardwick. Here they would fly bombing mission to targets in France and the low countries. In the April, Hardwick was visited by both Lord Trenchard and, ten days later, by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews,  two high-ranking officials who would bring prestige and pride to the men and women of Hardwick. It was Andrews who would be so tragically killed flying across the Northern Atlantic route later on. He along with the crew of B-24 #41-23728 ‘Hot Stuff‘, the first Hardwick crew to achieve their mission quota, would die in a crash that left just one survivor, the tail gunner. The name Andrews would live on though, his name being given to the airfield in Essex, RAF Andrews Field in memory of his work.

The summer of 1943 saw a further detachment being sent out again to North Africa. Here they would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (one of two), for the low-level action over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Further moves and detachments between Hardwick and mainly North Africa earned the unit the name ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus’, Ted being Colonel Ted Timberlake, the Group’s Commander.

During this early period of the war the Liberator groups had little in the way of operational ‘clout’ over France and Germany. With the larger operations being handled by the established B-17 Groups, the B-24s were often relegated to Air Sea Rescue missions where they would search for downed aircraft particularity over the North Sea.

By early September 1943 the bulk of the 93rd were back once more at Hardwick, small in numbers they were often overlooked for the more popular B-17s. Looked down upon by the crews of the B-17s who openly criticised the ungainly lines of the Liberator with names such as ‘banana boat’, only led in turn to jeers from B-24 crews who highlighted the short-range and lower bomb load carried by the sleeker B-17.

This short-range was a factor borne out on the 93rd’s first mission back in the UK when on the 6th September, sixty-nine B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD)  were sent along with 338 B-17s of the 1st and 3rd BDs to attack Stuttgart. A disaster from start to finish, heavy cloud prevented the target being bombed, formations were separated and targets of opportunity were then chosen. With the formations broken up, defensive power was lost and the Luftwaffe made easy pickings of those aircraft left out alone. Forty-five of the B-17s were lost compared to none of the B-24s, many B-17s having to ditch in the sea or crash-land in Kent after running out of fuel.  Of the sixty-nine B-24s flown out, none dropped their bombs but all four groups returned to their respective bases safely.

For the remainder of September, the Liberators of the 2nd BD were ordered to carry out ‘STARKEY‘ operations, beginning on the 9th to airfields in France and particularly  St. Omer. With few bombs being dropped it was a poor mission and one that was followed on the 15th September by similar results at Chatres. This would be the last mission for the B-24s of the 93rd before yet another posting to North Africa in a move that left the crews both astonished and in total disbelief. During this mission on the 15th, ten airmen would be lost with at least three having been known to have been killed. All ten were from the 330th BS, a sad end to a poor series of missions.

Returning again in early October, the 93rd of Hardwick would join the recently formed 392nd at Wendling for a mission  to Vegesack, a northern district of Bremen. With heavy cloud cover, alternative targets of opportunity were chosen, with little damage being done to Vegesack itself.

The poor weather continued for much of October, preventing the Liberators flying in anything but training flights. The 93rd were able to launch a diversionary raid for the B-17s ill-fated attack on Schweinfurt on October 14th, the majority of the sixty B-24s allocated for the raid failing to even get airborne. After abandoning the mission those that had managed to get aloft headed for Emden in an aim to draw fighters away from the main body of the Schweinfurt  raid. It was hoped that this move would reduce the mauling that would occur from this deep, unprotected penetration mission.

B-24D Liberator #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ (GO-C) of the 328th BS, 93rd BG at Hardwick. This was the first Eighth AF Liberator to complete 50 missions. After completing 53 missions, it was flown back to the US for a War Bond tour.

With further diversionary raids on the 29th, attacks on Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd November, Munster on the 5th and Bremen the 13th; the 93rd would then turn to Norway and targets at Rjukan. An ineffectual raid, it preceded further runs back into Germany. December and the approaching Christmas would see no let up for the men of the 93rd and Hardwick, mission numbers being so high that on the 16th, B-24D #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ became the first Liberator of the Eighth to pass the fifty missions mark. Three mission later she would depart the UK for American shores where she would perform a war bond tour raising much-needed money for the war effort.

Five days before Christmas, December 20th 1943, would see a return trip to Bremen. Two more aircraft would be lost on this mission. The first, B-24 #42-40133 of 328th BS piloted by Captain Cleveland Hickman (s/n: 0-727870) was shot down by Lt Kard-Heinz Kapp of JG 27/5 in Bf 109G-6 with the loss of all nine men on board. The second, #42-63963 ‘Unexpected II‘ of the 329th BS collided in midair with P-47D #42-8677 and crashed into North Sea north of Den Helder, Netherlands. All nine from ‘Unexpected II’ were captured and became prisoners of war.

Two days later, T/Sgt.John Tkachuk 329th BS died of anoxia after his foot was caught between a bomb and the bomb rack. The ‘walk around bottle’ he was carrying running out of oxygen before he could be given assistance. 1943 would draw to a close with a very sad overtone.

In Part 2, we see how 1944 arrives and how the closing stages of the war produced some remarkable records for the 93rd BG. We find out what happened to Hardwick and see the museum that has emerged to remember those who served from this airfield in the heart of Norfolk.

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RAF Old Buckenham – the home of film stars!

In the second part of Trail 13 we leave Tibenham behind and head to another still active airfield. Like Tibenham, the heavy bombers have all gone, replaced by small single engined aircraft, and also like Tibenham, much of the site has likewise disappeared. However, the history of this airfield remains very much alive, through fly-ins, displays and events that all remind us about those difficult days of the late 1940s.

Synonymous with film starts such as James Stewart and Walter Matthau, this airfield lives on and is thriving. Showcasing a range of facilities it is a delightful little airfield and one that keeps the spirit of flying very much alive. From Tibenham we head only a few miles north-west, where we find the former US airfield Old Buckenham.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)

Old Buckenham is an airfield with a rather grand name. It was a short-lived airfield, purposely built for the USAAF late on in the Second World War. It only ever housed one group, a group that was itself a late joiner. It was initially a rather unpleasant place to be, mud and rain being the airmen’s worst enemy. But as the war progressed it became more hospitable, more lively and more inspiring. Whilst the group was never considered a major player in the war, it did achieve some remarkable results, the group going on to set some extraordinary bomber records.

Opened as a bomber airfield in 1943, it was built under the class ‘A’ specification, with three intersecting concrete and woodchip runways (1 x 2,000 and 2 x 1,400 yds) each 50 yards wide. It had fifty hardstands of the spectacle style, two T2 hangars (four were allocated initially) and a standard 1941 design watch tower (12779/41).

‘Old Buck’ as it became known, was exclusively the home to the American 453rd Bomb Group, operating a range of versions of the enormous B-24 Liberator, initially under the command of Col. Joseph A Miller.

Consisting of the standard four Bomb Squadrons: 732nd (squadron code E3), 733rd (F8), 734th (E8) and 735th (H6), the group was constituted on the 14th May 1943 and activated on 1st June that same year. It then came into physical being on June 29th, taking its officers and enlisted men from the 29th BG (H), who, under Special Order No. 180, transferred fifty-five Officers and 231 enlisted men to the 453rd. Of these, twelve officers were sent to the 732nd, twelve to the 733rd, eleven to the 734th and another twelve to the 735th. Each of the squadrons also received fifty-five enlisted men, the remainder of the workforce going to the Group’s headquarters.

Even before leaving the United States, the 453rd would suffer casualties. Its first loss was B-24E #41-29032 piloted by 2nd Lt. David MacGowan (735thBS), which crashed into a hillside near to Du Bois, Wyoming whilst on a photographic and training exercise. The accident, on August 14th 1943, resulted in the loss of all eleven crewmen on board. It was perhaps, a sign of things to come.

After passing through a number of training sites in the United States: Wendover Field, Pocatello, Idaho and March Field, the ground echelons sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth to England. They  arrived at Old Buckenham at the end of December into what would prove to be a cold and very unpleasant winter. Considerable rain and snow had turned Old Buckenham into a mud bath. Colds and flu spread like wildfire through the ranks, and overshoes had to be issued to help against the unending sludge.

The air echelons would fly the southern route with the first leaving in early January. On the very day of departure another aircraft was lost  – two crews were now gone before the group had even reached the U.K.

The air echelons arrived throughout January and into February, organising themselves and preparing their ‘H’ model Liberators for the forthcoming battle. When possible, they undertook training flights over the English countryside, received ground instruction and took further role specific training. They began carrying out mock missions including on the 4th, a simulated mission which turned very sour for one particular crew.

Liberator #41-28641, ‘Cee Gee‘ (referred to in some references as ‘Chee Chee‘) piloted by 2nd Lt. John R. Turner, became lost and it would seem, damaged by flak. Forced down onto an enemy airfield, it was repaired by the Germans and put back into service as A3 + KB by KG 200. The aircraft was intended to be used to ferry supplies to the island of Rhodes, and was recaptured by advancing American forces in May 1945. This was the first Luftwaffe captured Liberator and only the second to be put into service with German markings.

S/Sgt J. T. Sipkovsky, inspects B-24H #41-28641 [A5+KB] of KG200  ex 453BG /732BS, left at Salsburg by retreating German forces. (WM UPL 23019)

The next day, February 5th 1944, the Union Jack was officially lowered at Old Buckenham when, with much pomp and ceremony, Sqn. Ldr. L. Archer handed over the keys of the airfield to Col. Miller. Station 144 was now officially open for business.

There would be no break nor celebratory parties for the new Group though. On that same day, the 453rd were to take part in their first mission, a bombing raid to Tours in France.

Tours had been the focus of the invading Germans in the early part of the war. Heavily bombed with incendiaries, it was quickly turned into a fortress housing military camps  with strong fortifications. The allies then made it a focus for their air bombardments, but on this occasion, the weather would be the winner with heavy cloud causing many problems over the Continent. With the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions in action that day, many would drop bombs on alternative targets, reform on other divisions or return home without bombing at all.

On the 6th February, the 453rd were back in action again, and again the horrors of war would be seen at Old Buckenham, when B-24 #42-52178 ‘Little Agnes‘ crashed after take off.  After lifting off the runway, the aircraft lost power, stalled and hit the runway hard sliding along on its belly into a ditch at the end of the threshold. The aircraft then broke up, at which point one of the ten 500lb bombs exploded setting off a chain reaction that led to a fireball. Mechanical failure of the #1 and #4 engines was blamed that day when eight of the ten crew on-board were killed when the aircraft came down.

For the remainder of February, including ‘Big Week’,  the 453rd would carry out further missions to both France, Holland and also Germany. These included: Siracourt (13th & 15th); Brunswick (20th), the airfield at Achmer (21st) and the Me-110 aircraft assembly plant at Gotha (22nd & 24th). Known for its high casualties, the 453rd managed to lose only one aircraft on the two missions it carried out to Gotha, a remarkable escape considering the ferocity of the battle, and the loss of thirty-three from other groups. It was also during this mission that sixteen aircraft would come down in Switzerland, the highest number of any mission of the war.

RAF Old Buckenham

The Blister Hangar at Old Buckenham.

During March 1944, several major events would occur at Old Buckenham. Firstly, on the 6th, B-24H #42-64469 “El Flako” of the 732nd BS, whilst only on her third mission, would accidentally drop her bomb load just 3 miles from the airfield. Thankfully there were no injuries apart from a very large dent in the pride of the crew on board. Red faces aside, this mission, the USAAF’s first daylight attack on Berlin, would not be an easy ride for the 453rd.

Of the twenty-four aircraft sent out, four would fail to return, two over the target and two ditching in the channel. A fifth, piloted by Lt. Richard Holman, was badly damaged with two engines put out of action whilst over the target area. Determined to get back home, Lt. Holman dropped down to the cloud base where he was pursued by a number of FW-190s. With only two turrets operating, the crew managed to fight off the attackers, shooting down almost half of them in the process. After passing through a flak zone in Amsterdam they continued on, Lt. Holman putting the Liberator through some of the most incredible and violent turns possible, until they reached the Channel. With fuel and ammunition now critically short, the crew threw out anything and everything, in a desperate attempt to lighten the load of the failing bomber. Eventually, and only by the skill and determination of the crew, the aircraft arrived back safely at Old Buckingham. Many prayers and thanks were said on that particular day.

Then on the 18th, B-24H #41-28649, ‘Little Bryan‘, was hit by flak over Friedrichshafen, a target located close to the border with Switzerland on the banks of Lake Constance. Whilst the weather was near perfect, the target was covered with a thick smoke screen, preventing accurate visual bombing taking place. Heavy flak and fighter activity made things even worse for the bombers of the mighty Eighth.

Badly damaged, ‘Little Bryan‘ managed to continue flying but was losing fuel fast. As a result it would not make it home. On board ‘Little Bryan‘ that day was the Group’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Joseph A. Miller, along with the Group’s Navigator, Capt. Joseph O’Reilly. The aircraft crashed west of Vernon after the crew had baled out. Of the crew, ten were captured and taken prisoner, the last crewman escaping to fight another day. With the loss of a second aircraft along with three of its crew, March 18th would be a heartbreaking day for the 453rd.

The following day, Col. Ramsey Potts Jnr assumed command at Old Buckenham, a veteran of thirty-two missions he was one of the most decorated officers in the European Theatre, having been on both the Polesti and Rome bombing raids. He remained with the 453rd until mid 1944.

It was also at this time, (March 30th) that Major James “Jimmy” Stewart became the Group’s Operations Officer, Stewart who led the 733rd BS for 11 missions, went on to become a famous actor. He was promoted after the loss of Major Colfield earlier on, on February 16th.

RAF Old Buckenham

The mobile ‘control tower’ at Old Buckenham

April would see further losses for the group, but May would prove to be the worst so far. On the 8th, seven out of thirty-two aircraft would fail to return to Old Buckenham: #41-28650, #41-29571, #42-52180, #42-52185, #42-64453, #42-64464 and #42-110076, all being lost at Brunswick, a target gaining in its notoriety.

Following a move of the ground echelons on April 11th to form a new squadron at North Pickenham, the remaining staff were reshuffled to fill the gaps left behind. A small interruption to the continuing missions over Germany.

The 13th of April saw the first mission undertaken by Major Stewart, an operation that took 274 B-24s to various targets including the Dornier parts factory near Munich. The results that day were considered ‘good’.

For much of April the routine was the same, missions to France and Germany. After three months of being at Old Buckenham, the 453rd were now settling in well, improvements had been made to the living areas, more concrete had been laid to reduce the mud, and the cinema was now showing regular films. Other recreational areas were developed and morale was rising.

Throughout the conflict the 453rd would attack prestige targets: the fuel dump at Dulmen, marshalling yards, Hamm rail centres, Gelsenkirchen oil refineries, along with numerous airfields, canals and viaducts.

May would see yet another return to the dreaded Brunswick, and for the 453rd it would be another high loss mission. Using a mix of general purpose bombs and incendiaries, 307 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division joined aircraft from the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions in attacking it, and other major cities across Germany. On this day, ten aircraft would fail to return to base with eight being lost as the 453rd led the large formations into the target area. In the lead plane was Capt. Andy Low, who for his exemplary leadership, later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bombing through 10/10 cloud using Pathfinder equipment, the group was attacked by around 200 enemy fighters, an attack that led to the area being known to the crews as ‘fighter-alley’.

RAF Old Buckenham

Part of the runway is now used as the taxiway.

By now, with mission counts mounting, crews were beginning to finish their tours of duty, the first full crew to do so, being the crew of Lt. Ward on May 31st, 1944.

Keeping morale up whilst the young men were away from home was always a challenge. Whilst undertaking training back in the States, a band was formed, a band that managed to reform itself finding space for rehearsals at Old Buckenham. The ‘GI’vers’ became one of the most successful forces bands in England, performing at dances both at Old Buckenham and at other US bases in the East Anglia area.

The morning of D-Day 6th June, brought early dawn action from the 453rd. Military sites between Le Harve and Cherbourg were targets for the day. The shore line batteries and any targets of opportunity, railways, troop concentrations and road junctions, were now well and truly in the sights of the bombers. So determined to play their part were the 453rd, that they flew four complete missions on that one day, unheard of in many Air Force heavy bomber Squadrons. For the next ten days Old Buckenham would be extremely busy, with missions being flown on all but one day, until the weather eventually brought an enforced break on the 16th.

As the war progressed the Old Buckenham group would go on to support many ground battles, including the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 – 45. A winter that would begin with the first crew loss through anoxia, when S/Sgt. Frank Mayar failed to respond to medical aid after his oxygen mask froze.

The 26th November 1944, would see tragedy strike home again for the 453rd. Mission 182 for the Old Buckenham Group, saw 350 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division and 381 B-17s of the 3rd Bomb Division attack targets in Germany. One of these targets included the railway viaduct at Bielefeld, a viaduct that became almost illusive until later destroyed by 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the RAF.

The Bielefeld Viaduct after the dropping of the RAF’s ‘Grand Slam’. The ground bears the scars of continuous and heavy attacks (National Archives)

During take off for the mission, Capt. Ray Conard, the mission leader, failed to gain height. In a desperate attempt to avoid nearby housing, Capt. Conard jettisoned his bombs and, it is believed, deliberately crashed his aircraft away from them, thus saving the lives of those people living inside. For his actions, Capt. Conard, aged just 25, was recommended for the DSC Posthumously.

Christmas brought a much happier cheer to the Old Buckenham crews. Permission was granted to fly a plane load of toys to Paris to deliver them to French children. Locals brought as many as they could muster to the airfield and handed them over to the Americans. After slipping off the runway, ‘Liberty Run‘ eventually made it off the ground delivering the toys just in time for Christmas day.

The notorious winter weather of 1944 would claim yet another victim before the year was out. On December 27th 1944, #42-50898 failed to rise more than a few feet after taking off from a salted and slippery runway at Old Buckenham. Lt. Roscoe Brown was heard to say, “I cannot keep her up, we have had it”, just before the aircraft slammed into the ground. In the ensuing crash, the aircraft broke up and burst into flames, the fire setting off bullets and causing the bombs to explode. There was considerable ice that day, the runway and aircraft’s pitot tube later being found to have been iced up, adding to the already difficult flying conditions. As a pathfinder, it came as a terrible blow to the 453rd whose mission that day was subsequently scrubbed. Only four of Lt. Brown’s crew managed to escape the inferno that followed – it was a sad end to 1944.

The new year started as the old had finished, with more aircraft slipping on ice and crashing into parked aircraft. After further lives were lost and sliding incidents increased, the Group’s Commanding Officer Col. Thomas, called a halt to the proceedings and another mission was also scrubbed. Those that had got off the ground continued on, joining other groups in bombing their target – the Ramagen Bridge.

Crumpled tail of B-24 #42-51865 1st January 45 Old Buckenham. Eventually after numerous crashes and aircraft sliding on ice, the mission was scrubbed. (IWM FRE 1863)

With more attacks on Germany, January would become the month when the 453rd would set a record for the most missions flown (200) by any Liberator Group in a short space of time. A record they would be proud of and celebrate at reunions for years after.

As the war drew to a close, more missions would take the group into the very heart of Germany.  Even though the war was nearly over, accidents continued to occur and aircraft continued to be lost. The last mission for the 453rd took place on March 31st 1945, bombing the rail junction at Amberg. Thankfully all aircraft sent out that day came home. With the decrease in bombing sorties the Group’s focus began to change, recreational activities taking over where flying had been lost.

The final orders to stand-down finally came through on the 12th April 1945, and with it the end of 259 missions, in which 15,800 tons of bombs had been dropped. Of the original sixty-one aircraft sent over with the 453rd, only one was left, ‘Male Call‘, a B-24 veteran of ninety-five missions.

Elsewhere, the 453rd had ten aircraft that had completed 100 or more missions, the highest being that of 120  – “My Babs” of the 733rd Bomb Squadron. Even though they had lost almost all the original aircraft, they had set another record of 82 consecutive  missions without loss; a remarkable achievement considering the losses sustained by other heavy bomber groups in the European Theatre.

In mid April the group received orders to depart European shores for home. The group had been earmarked for a role in the Pacific, but ‘R & R’ was the order of the day and even though ground crews prepared the aircraft for combat, the US was firmly on the minds of all. On the 13th May the USS Hermitage set sail for the States, and Old Buckenham fell silent as the last few men departed closing the gates behind them.

Post-war, the airfield returned to RAF ownership seeing a few aircraft from other units being placed here, but no other major service or operators. Eventually in 1960, the RAF disposed of the site and it returned primarily to agriculture. Flying does continue today though, as Old Buckenham hosts fly-ins, displays and has a thriving aero club on part of the remains of the east-west runway.

As the site is an active airfield, access to any parts other than the public areas is very limited and so there is little to see from those dark days of the 1940s. The runways do remain as small roads for local tractor access, and one small part of the east-west runways is used for light flying. A further section of the north-west/south-east runway also exists as a taxiway to access the main runway. An original blister hangar is also on site along with a Nissen hut that now houses a museum.

RAF Old Buckenham

RAF Old Buckenham, memorial to those who served.

There is a varied collection of military hardware, mainly field guns, located on the site. A further ‘famous’ attraction is the T-55 Tank used in the James Bond film ‘Golden Eye’ which greets you as you arrive. A small, well cared for memorial in the shape of a Liberator tail-fin is dedicated to those 366 crew members and staff of the 453rd BG who lost their lives, and a cafe, aptly entitled “Jimmy’s“, provides refreshments for the visitor.

A delightful place to spend a warm Sunday afternoon watching light aircraft and contemplating what life was like at Old Buckenham as the roar of B-24s filled the air over 70 years ago.

RAF Old Buckenham

The T-55 tank used in the film ‘Golden Eye’

Post script

Some rare photographs taken at Old Buckenham were found following an auction in Montana, in a box of old photographic supplies. The story was reported in the ‘Eastern Daily Press‘ on December 18th 2013.

A museum to honour the men of the 453rd BG has since opened at Old Buckenham. Their website gives details of the collection and opening times.

RAF East Wretham (P2)- From Bomber Command to USAAF

After part one of RAF East Wretham, we see how the poor fortunes of the Czech squadron of Bomber Command were left behind, a new breed of aircraft had now arrived in the form of the US fighter Group’s P-47s and P-51s. After the departure of Bomber Command, the site was turned over to the USAAF and renamed Station 133.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

With this change came a number of modifications to the airfield. Temporary Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) was laid, more concrete pathways added and the site accommodation improved generally. The work continued for several weeks whilst the personnel of the newly formed 359th Fighter Group (FG) were gathered together in the United States, finally shipping out across the Atlantic in the October 1943.

Only being recently manned, the 359th were truly a new group (although some pilots were drawn from other established combat units) being formed of the 368th, 369th and 370th Fighter Squadrons (FS). Arriving from Westover Field Massachusetts in the October 1943, they were one of the last units to join the Eighth Air Force with P-47 Thunderbolts; a move that bolstered fighter numbers to some 550, trebling the Eighth’s total number of fighters in only a matter of weeks.

By December they were combat ready, and their first mission took place on December 13th 1943 – an escort mission protecting  heavy bombers as they attacked airfields in France. During the mission, thirty-six aircraft of the 359th carried out fighter sweeps in the  Pas-de-Calais area without loss and without a single ‘kill’, a rather calm opening to their European war. On the 20th, they undertook their second mission, another escort of heavy bombers to Breman. Joining them were the 4th FG, 56th FG, 78th FG, 352nd FG, 353rd FG, 356th FG, and for their first time the 358th FG all flying P-47s. For the fighters it was another ‘uneventful’ mission with only minimal losses, but for the heavy bombers it was their first encounter with Me-410s, and their time-fused, aircraft launched missiles.

During March 1944 a special squadron was formed commanded by Capt. Charles E. Ettlesen of the 359th. Known as “Bill’s Buzz Boys”, the purpose of the unit was to develop ground-attack tactics as so few of these had been truly successful up until now.

The group tried many new ways of attacking enemy airfields, and in the month they were together, they succeeded in destroying or damaging numerous aircraft, blowing up several hangars, locomotives, barges and other small boats in their attacks. During one of these attacks on the airfield at Chateudun, Capt. Ettlesen hit a high tension wire which cut half way through his wing. He manged to fly the P-47 back to England landing at RAF Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, trailing a good 30 feet of wire behind him! On April 7th, the unit’s four flights returned to their respective groups, and the new tactics learned were taken to RAF Millfield, the brainchild of General Quesada to train pilots in the art of ground attack.

, 8AF USAAF.

Capt Charles C. Ettlesen 369FS, 359FG, headed the specialised ground attack unit. After returning to East Wretham he was last seen going down to strafe a Locomotive north of Gotha, 9th Feb. 1945. Classed as MIA he was never heard from again. *2

The 359th at East Wretham continued on with bomber escort operations throughout the early stages of 1944, and then in the April, they began to convert to P-51 Mustangs, a change that involved major retraining of both pilots and ground crews. Used to the air-cooled Douglas Wasp engines of the P-47s, they now had to convert to liquid cooled Merlins. To prepare mechanics for the forthcoming Mustangs, ‘sample’ P-51Bs were sent out prior to the shipment to allow for a smooth transition from one aircraft to the other.

By May, the 359th were ready with their P-51s and their first foray into enemy territory took place on the 5th. Not unlike their first mission with P-47s, it was an escort mission to attack targets in the Pas-de-Calais and Siracourt areas in ‘Noball‘ operations. Like the first, it also was uneventful, cloud cover preventing both allied bombing or Luftwaffe intervention.

Ground attacks were incredibly dangerous, and the summer of 1944 would reinforce that fact. In May pilot, Major George “Pop” Doersch, whose daring would eventually take his ‘kill’ rate into double figures, flew too low to the ground in a strafing attack on an airfield near Rheims. In the attack his propeller struck the ground causing the blades to bend at the tips. Fortunately and using all his skill and strength, he managed to nurse the aircraft (P-51B) back to Manston where it landed without further incident.

George

Major George Doersh who took his P-51B too close to the ground bending the propeller tips. (IWM)* 3

As D-Day approached, the 359th focused on strafing ground targets in and around the Normandy area; railway locomotives and communication lines were all now very high priority. During the invasion itself, the 359th escorted the heavy bombers across the channel, and whilst over France, they took the opportunity to continue with these opportunist attacks.

With the new P-51s they were now able to fly deeper into the heart of Germany and as far east as Poland. It was during these later stages of the war that the 359th really began to make their mark, participating in some of the biggest bombing missions of Germany, including those of: Ludwigshafen, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin, Mersberg, and Brux.

On 11th September 1944, the green nosed Mustangs of the 359th were finally rewarded for their efforts when they received the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their action over Mersberg. After attacking over 150 Luftwaffe fighters they also went on to destroy seven  locomotives on their way home. The detailed Citation highlights the bravery and dedication shown by the pilots of the 359th summing up with:

The conspicuous intrepidity, aggressive tactics and esprit de corps displayed by the pilots of this unit on this occasion accounted for the destruction of thirty-five enemy aircraft and contributed to the safe escort of the attacking bombardment formations. The actions of this unit reflect the highest credit upon the 359th Fighter Group and the Armed Forces of the United States.

The determination shown by the 359th resulted in many outstanding pilots. One, Maj. Raymond “X-Ray Eyes” Wetmore became the 359th’s (370th FS) top ace scoring 21 victories (plus 3 on the ground)- his last being an Me 163. Flying latterly  in P-51 #44-14733, Wetmore, like Doersch had a very lucky escape when his aircraft was hit by friendly fire during the Battle of the Bulge. By putting the Mustang into a steep dive he was able to extinguish the fire and return home safely. Flying in three aircraft all called “Daddies Girl” after his daughter, he received numerous awards and by the end of the conflict had completed 142 missions covering 563 combat hours.

RAF East Wretham 4

The old part remains cordoned off.

This attitude to the war, gave the 359th a worthy credit of 263 aircraft shot down with over 100 more being destroyed on the ground. In the 346 missions they flew, they lost a total of 106 of their own aircraft.

Along with further support operations in France and Holland, the 359th went on performing ground attack missions as the allied forces entered Germany. At the war’s end flying wound down, and the USAAF remained at East Wretham until the November of 1945 when the 359th departed, returning to the States and inactivation. With this, no further flying took place at East Wretham and the skies would fall quiet once more.

The airfield then reverted to 12 Group (RAF) ownership, then in May the following year, it was handed back once more to Bomber Command. Within a month the site was handed over to the Technical Training Command and finally East Wretham became a Polish resettlement camp for those personnel who were unable to return home. When they had all finally been moved on, the majority of the site became what it is today, used by the British Army as part of the massive Stanford Practical Training Area (STANTA) for manoeuvres and live firing training.

Bomb Store

The bombs stores blast walls are still intact – just.

Today most traces of the airfield as it was are gone. A number of buildings notably a T2 hangar and several Nissen huts survive on what is now farmland or in the military camp. The unique Watch Tower was demolished after the war as were many of the other ‘temporary’ buildings. Now used by STANTA, a mix of old and new are intertwined with the majority standing on inaccessible military ground. Parts of the perimeter track and hardstands do exist, many overgrown or broken up by the weather and weed growth.

Perhaps the best and by far most accessible examples of East Wretham’s past, is the bomb site which forms part of the East Wretham Heath Nature Heritage Trail. Access is to the south of the site just off the main A1075, Thetford Road. A two-mile walk through Heath land, it takes you right through the original bomb store. An area of natural beauty, famed for its wetland and ancient flints, you can easily find the many blast walls and small fusing buildings still there. Also traceable are the tracks that once took bomb loaded trailers to the airfield across the heath. Many now buried under the acidic soil, their existence evident in exposed patches of bare concrete.

Bomb Store

The decay is evident throughout the bomb store.

All these stores are being gradually reclaimed by nature, trees and rabbit holes have both taken their toll, the layout is still discernible and whilst much of the brickwork is ‘intact’, the warning signs are there and the wartime structures are crumbling fast.

A small airfield, East Wretham was never considered the most ‘homely’ of sites. Often wet and boggy, it was one of the less well-known and less famous places to be used. But the courage and determination of those who served here both RAF and USAAF, went a long way to helping defeat the tyranny that stood facing us across the small section of water not so far away.

Sources and further reading: (East Wretham)

For more detailed information on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force see their superb website.

No.311 ORB – AIR 27/1687/7

*1 IWM –  FRE 6117

*2 IWM – UPL 31469

*3 IWM – UPL 22685

Norfolk Wildlife Trust website.

RAF East Wretham – Home to the Czechs of Bomber Command (P1)

Hidden in the depths of Thetford Forest not far from the two major US Air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, is a former airfield that has received a new lease of life as an Army training facility. Once home to Bomber Command’s only Czechoslovakian Squadron, it was also home to Canadians and other Commonwealth nationals. After their final departure, it became the home of an American Fighter unit meaning its history is both diverse and multinational.

In Trail 13, we stop off at the former Station 133, more widely known as RAF East Wretham.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was primarily designed as a satellite airfield for nearby RAF Honington.  Being a satellite the airfield’s facilities would be basic, accommodation rudimentary and technical facilities limited. It would however, be developed as the war progressed and as its use increased. The main runway for example, (running north-east to south-west) was initially grass but with the arrival of the USAAF it would be covered with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), designed to strengthen the surfaces and thus prevent aircraft digging into the soil.

East Wretham would also have a range of hangars. In addition to the standard two ‘T2’ hangars, it would have a canvas Bessoneau hangar, (more generally linked to the First World and inter-war years),  and an additional four Blister hangars (9392/42) all believed to be double ‘extra over’ blister hangars each 69 ft wide in the singular design.

The watch office at East Wretham was another unusual design. Built to drawing 15498/40, it was originally a single storey room built on concrete pillars with a flat roof. It was then modified later on in the war to include an overhanging observation room, with the extension being mounted on metal pillars. This new extension had considerably more glazing than the original structure, and was more in keeping with the building style of other wartime airfields. These extra windows gave a much better view across the entire airfield, especially useful as the office was unusually located along the perimeter fence well behind the technical area of the airfield!

The Control Tower of the 359th Fighter Group at East Wretham. Caption on reverse: 'Caption on reverse: '359th FG Photos Source: T.P. Smith via Char Baldridge, Historian Description: #13 Control Tower at Station F-133, East Wretham, England.'

The unusual design of the Watch Office can clearly be seen in this photograph*1. (IWM)

Originally there were only 27 ‘frying pan’ style concrete hardstands, each one being located at various points around the perimeter track, all in groups of three or four. These were then added to later on, again using steel planking, to extend the number of dispersal points located on hard surfaces; a further indication to the problems with the boggy soil found in this part of East Anglia.

Accommodation for the initial 1,700 personnel, was dispersed over twelve sites around the north of the airfield, and across the road from the main airfield site. One of these sites (Site 2) was the nearby Wretham Hall, a grand building built in 1912, it was utilised by Officers of the USAAF for their own personal accommodation. Sadly, the grand three storey building was demolished in the early 1950s, possibly as a result of its wartime use.

A bomb storage site was also built on the airfield. Located on the south side of the site, it was well away from any accommodation or technical buildings. It was also well away from the three large fuel stores,  which boasted storage capacities of: 24,000, 40,000 and 90,000 gallons.

The initial use of East Wretham was as a dispersal for aircraft based at Honington, the first of which was a newly formed Czechoslovakian Squadron, No. 311 (Czech) Sqn, on 29th July 1940. So new were they that they didn’t receive their Wellington ICs until the August. This was to be a unique squadron in that it was the only Czech squadron to fly with Bomber Command, and whilst the main body of the squadron was located at Honington, the operational flight (A Flight) moved to East Wretham shortly after its  formation. In mid September a decision was made to move the entire squadron across to East Wretham posting a detachment to RAF Stradishall, where they stayed until April 1942.

On September 10th 1940, 311 Sqn, now with a small number of operational crews, took part in their first mission, a true baptism of fire flying directly into the German heartland and Berlin. For one of the crews and their Wellington, this would not go well, the aircraft believed forced down in the vicinity of a railway line near Leidschendam in Zuid-Holland, with all but one of the six airmen on-board being captured.

The only crew member not to be caught was Sgt. Karl Kunka, who managed to evade capture for a short period, only to shoot himself with the aircraft’s Very Pistol. It was thought that he carried out this action to not only avoid capture but any possible retaliation against his family back home in Czechoslovakia. Whilst Sgt. Kunka’s wounds were not initially fatal, they were so severe that he later died, failing to respond to treatment whilst in hospital.

The aircraft, Wellington MK.Ia, #L7788, ‘KX-E’, was also captured, repainted in Luftwaffe colours and flown for testing and evaluation to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s main aircraft test facility north of Berlin.

RAF East Wretham 3

East Wretham still uses the Nissen huts and smaller buildings today.

During December 1941, a further Czech unit, No.1429 Czech Operational Training Flight (COTF) was formed along side 311 Sqn, under the command of Sqn/Ldr. Josef Šejbl. This unit was designed specifically to train Czechoslovakian aircrews for Bomber Command, with instructors for the flight, being taken from 311 Sqn following completion of their tour of operations.

As aircrew completed their training, they were transferred to the operational flight, a steady but slow build up meant that numbers were quite low, the squadron being  considerably reduced by heavy casualties in the early stages of the war. As with other Bomber Command squadrons, 311 Sqn carried out night bombing missions, many penetrating Germany itself.

1941 would see more missions to Germany, starting with the first three nights January 1st – 3rd, when Bomber Command aircraft hit Bremen, with 311 Sqn taking part on the night of the 2nd. On this night, three aircraft from 311 Sqn would join the Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command in attacking a major railway junction in the centre of the city, where fires and explosions were seen as far away as 20 miles. A relatively successful operation, it would not be long before the first casualties of 311 Sqn would occur.

On the night of January 16th – 17th Wellington IC #T2519 ‘EX-Y’ was lost on a mission to Wilhelmshaven, the aircraft going down after suffering ‘technical’ problems. Last heard from  at 22:21, the aircraft disappeared without trace along with the entire crew, none of whom were ever heard from again.

1941 would end as it started, with a return trip to Wilhelmshaven, in which good results were recorded. One aircraft was lost on this mission, Wellington #T2553 ‘EX-B’, the pilot, Sgt. Alois Siska ditching the aircraft after it had sustained serious flak damage over the target area. As the aircraft sunk, it took the life of the rear gunner Sgt. Rudolf Skalicky, the other’s climbing into the aircraft’s dingy, a small craft in which they remained for several days.

As the dingy drifted towered the Dutch coast, the icy conditions would take two more lives, that of Sgt. Josef Tomanek (Co/P) and F/O. Josef Mohr (Nav.), whilst the pilot, Sgt. Siska, suffered badly from frost bite and gangrene. The remaining crewmen, F/O. Josef Scerba (W/O), Sgt. Pavel Svoboda (air gunner) along with Sgt. Siska, were picked up by German forces and  interned as POWs, mainly staying in hospitals for treatment for cold related injuries. Sgt. Svoboda went on to escape captivity no less than three times, evading capture until after the war whereupon he returned to England.

By mid 1942, 311 Sqn were assigned a new posting and a new airfield, but before departing in their final month, April 1942, they  would be visited by two particularly significant dignitaries. On April 3rd, Air Vice Marshal J. Baldwin, Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command, visited to award the DFC  to P/O. Karel Becvar for his services as a navigator with 311 Sqn. Then on the 18th April, the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Dr. Edward Benes, arrived along with several other dignitaries to inspect the Squadron, and give a speech regarding the work carried out by the crews here at East Wretham.

Tarck to Bomb Store

A number of tracks remain on the site.

During their last month, 311 Sqn would fly twelve more operations before finally departing Norfolk for Northern Ireland and Aldergrove. Whilst here at East Wretham, they would fly 1,011 sorties which included both attacks on industrial targets and propaganda leaflet drops. On the 30th, the main air body along with the rear party departed the site, the bulk of the squadron moving two days earlier. After their departure, 311 Sqn would not return to East Wretham.

In November 1942, after a long quiet break, East Wretham would spring into life once more with the arrival of another bomber squadron, No. 115 Sqn (RAF) from Mildenhall now flying  Wellington MK.IIIs.

Over the winter of 1942-43, 115 Sqn would lose ten aircraft, most to missions over Germany but two whilst ‘Gardening’, the last occurring on the night of New Years Eve 1942.

During the early months of 1943 six more Wellingtons would be lost from 115 Sqn, KO-D, KO-X, KO-C, KO-N, KO-T and KO-Q, the new year had not brought new fortunes.

By now the limits of the Wellington had been realised and its days as a front line bomber were numbered. A poor performer in the bombing theatre, it would be gradually moved to other duties, being replaced by the superior four-engined heavies; 115 Sqn was no exception. The MK.II Lancaster, powered by four Bristol Hercules engines, was less common than the Merlin powered MK.I and MK.III, but none the less was far superior to the Wellington in both performance and bomb carrying capacity.

The first Lancaster arrived in the March of 1943, and as it did the Wellingtons began to depart. To help train crews on the new aircraft, a detachment from 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) would be re-designated 1678 (Heavy Conversion) Flight (HCF) and was based here at East Wretham.

Flying the radial engined Lancaster MK.IIs under the code ‘SW’, they were one of only two HCFs to be established in Bomber Command, both in May of that year. Specifically set up to convert crews from the Wellington to the Lancaster, they were a short-lived unit, becoming a Heavy Conversion Unit once more on September 16th 1943, after moving to RAF Foulsham. During this time the flight would operate only eight aircraft in total, losing none whilst at East Wretham.

Even with the new aircraft though, flying over Germany was not without its problems for 115 Sqn. The first aircraft to be lost, and the first of its type in Bomber Command, Lancaster MK.II #DS625 ‘KO-W’ was lost without trace in a raid to Berlin on the night of March 29th/30th. The Pilot Sgt. H. Ross, (RCAF) and his crew all being commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. The aircraft being new, it had only flown 26 hours since its arrival at East Wretham earlier that year on March 9th.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28th/29th June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

With more missions into Germany, 115 Squadron’s Lancasters  would continue to serve well, perhaps one of the worst nights occurring just days before their eventual departure to RAF Little Snoring in early August 1943.

On the night of 2nd/3rd a mission was planned for Hamburg in which 740 aircraft were allocated. Of these, 329 were Lancasters, by far the largest contingency of the raid. Whilst over Germany, the formation entered a severe thunderstorm, and with many aircraft suffering from icing, they were forced to either turn back, or find other targets. The poor weather, including lightning, accounted for several of the losses that night including one of three lost from 115 Sqn.

Lancaster #DS673 was shot down by a night fighter, #DS685 was lost without trace and #DS715 was struck by lightning causing it to crash not far from the target. From the three that went down that night, there were no survivors from the twenty-one crewmen on board. 115’s time at East Wretham would close on a very sour note indeed.

With the departure of 115 Sqn in August, East Wretham would then pass from RAF ownership into the hands of the US Eighth Air Force, to become Station 133, the home of the three squadrons of the 359th Fighter Group – ‘The Unicorns’