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!
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.
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.
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.
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’…