RAF Glatton – a short lived airfield with a big history (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 6 we visit six former World War Two airfields, each one being a major  base used by American forces during the 1940s. One of these was a late opener, and housed a brand new Bomb Group fresh out of training, who were thrust into the war during the combined ‘Big Week‘ campaign against the German aircraft industry in February 1944. It is this airfield that we visit first. Located just off the main A1 road, it remains an active airfield today, although the roar of the Wright Cyclone engines have been replaced by much smaller and more sedate single engined aircraft. We start off at RAF Glatton, otherwise known as Station 130.

RAF Glatton (Conington) Station 130.

Glatton peri track

Glatton’s unused runways and perimeter tracks are gradually being taken over.

Built by the 809th Engineer Battalion (Aviation) of the U.S. Army in the last months of 1942, Glatton was unique in that it was constructed around a farm that remained in situ throughout the war. The owner moved out as the airfield was built with the site returning to agricultural use after the Americans left. Built as a Class A airfield, it had the standard 3 runways; one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, whose surface construction was of tarmac and wood chip. The apex of the ‘A’ pointed easterly with the main runway running west to east. To the north-west of the site lay the bomb store,  a traditional site consisting of Pyrotechnic stores (x4), incendiary stores (x10), small bomb container stores, fuzing points and component stores amongst others.

Around the perimeter track were forty-three spectacle and six frying pan style hardstands for aircraft dispersal. Unusually, the perimeter track split to the west side of the airfield, which meant that aircraft movement encircled both the technical area and main administration site. It is here, to the west of the main airfield site, that the majority of the aircraft dispersal pans were found.  The other section of this track wound round the front of this area allowing for uninterrupted views across the main airfield and its runways.

Glatton was also constructed with two type T2 hangars, both built to the 1941 design drawing No: 3653/41, with one being located to the eastern side, and the other to the western side, in the main technical area of the airfield.

To the northern side of the airfield lies the small village of Holme, and to the south the hamlet of Conington. The airfield’s name however, Glatton, came from yet another village some 4 miles away to the west; the reason ‘Glatton’ was used and not ‘Conington’ being due to the very similar RAF Coningsby not far away in Lincolnshire.

It was to the south-west of the airfield that the dispersed accommodation sites were located. Site 2, a communal site, included a barbers and shoemakers shop; Site 3, the mess, included a dining room and cooking facilities for 1,200 people; Site 4, a second mess site; Sites 5 and 6 (RAF sites) airmen’s barracks and sergeants’ quarters; Sites 7, 8 and 9 were Officers’ quarters with associated drying rooms and ablutions; Site 10 another sergeants’ site; Sites 11 and 12 were the WAAFs’ site with a hairdressers, small sick quarters, recreation room and officers’ quarters; Site 13 the main sick quarters and lastly Site 14, the sewage disposal site. The majority of the huts found on the site were Nissen, built to standard 1941 / 42 designs. All in all, the airfield could accommodate around 3,000 men and women of mixed rank.

These accommodation huts, with their cement floors and iron roofs, were cold and lacking any comforts at all, double bunks were provided for the enlisted men with slightly more space for Officers, but they all had minimal locker room or private space. Here, like many air bases in wartime Britain, new crews were largely ignored, friendships were not forged for fear of losing them on the next mission. As a result, many on these bases did not know other crews outside of their own huts, instead choosing to spend every minute with their own crew – the heartache of losing good friends being too painful to bear on a daily basis.

Used primarily by the US Eighth Air Force, Glatton was opened in 1943 and designated Station 130, home to the 457th Bomb Group, U.S. Eighth Air Force.

Composed of the: 748th, 749th, 750th, and 751st Bomb Squadrons, it was assigned to the 94th Combat Bombardment Wing (joining both the 351st and 401st BG) of the 1st Bombardment Division. Its aircraft, B-17G ‘Flying Fortresses’, flew throughout hostilities with the tail code a black ‘U’ on a white triangle, reversed in an Air Force restructuring during the winter of 1944/45 with a blue diagonal added to the fin.

The 457th’s journey to war began on May 19th, 1943 (the same time as the Trident Conference which led to a re-organisation of the USAAF in Europe), with activation that summer at Geiger Field, Washington. Being formed so late in the war, the 457th would be a short-lived group, but they were none-the-less still involved in some of the most ferocious air battles of the Second World War.

After training at Rapid City Airfield in South Dakota, they moved to Ephrata Army Air Base, one of the United States’s largest training bases, then onto Wendover Field in Utah before their final departure to the United Kingdom and Glatton airbase.

Maintenance crews work on fighters stationed at the Ephrata airport in 1944*1

The 457th entry to the war would be a real baptism of fire. On Monday 21st February 1944, the combined forces of the USAAF and the RAF were involved in the ‘Big Week‘ campaign. Officially known as Operation ‘Argument‘, it was designed to smash the German aircraft industry in one fell swoop. Postponed repeatedly from early January due to bad weather, it finally began on the night of February 19th 1944, with US air forces flying their first operations on the 20th.

Two days into ‘Big Week‘ the 457th were dispatched along with 335 other B-17s of the 1st Bomb Division (BD) to attack Gutersloh, Lippstadt and Weri airfields, but having no pathfinder aircraft and in poor weather, they had to turn to targets of opportunity. With the 2nd and 3rd BDs also in operation that day, some 860 heavy American bombers filled the skies over Germany.

With poor results and difficulty in forming up, this initial mission was further marred by the group’s first loss; that of B-17G #42-31596 piloted  Lt. Llewellyn G. Bredeson, of the 750th BS. Flying their first mission, and in the unenviable position of ‘tail-end-Charlie’, they were singled out for a prolonged and devastating attack. Two engines were hit and substantial damaged was caused to the aircraft, including its oxygen system, in attacks which left the tail gunner seriously injured. Lt. Bredeson gave the order to bale out, an order that included the injured tail gunner. The other crewmen, tethered him to the aircraft by his static line, and then pushed him out so that his parachute would release automatically. After the stricken bomber was vacated, it crashed four miles west of Quackenbruck in northern Germany, one of the gunners, Sgt William H. Schenkel, dying from his injuries whilst the remainder of the crew were captured becoming prisoners of war.

The next day (22nd) the 457th  were back in action, with more ‘Big Week‘ attacks. This time there were no losses for the group, a reassuring mission that was followed by a day’s break from flying. On the 24th, they joined with other 1st Bomb Division groups attacking Schweinfurt, a target that struck fear into the hearts of American airmen. This mission, Mission 3 for the 457th and Mission 233 for the USAAF, would be the return to the ball bearing plants, a product that without which, the German war machine would literally grind to a halt.

In the original attack on 17th  August 1943, a combined offensive against Schweinfurt and Regensburg saw a 19% loss rate, some sixty bombers from 315 that were sent out. It was no wonder the target’s name struck fear into the hearts of the new group.

The 1st BD were the only group sent to Schweinfurt that day. The 3rd and 2nd attacking targets elsewhere in Germany. The 457th sent eighteen aircraft, part of a force of 265 B-17s. As well as dropping 401 Tonnes of high explosive bombs and 172 Tonnes of incendiary bombs, they also dropped just short of 4 million propaganda leaflets.

The defensive ring around the city had not weakened, if anything it had been strengthened since its previous attacks, flak was heavy and accurate and fighters were abundant. Some 110 US airmen were classed as ‘Missing in Action’ that day, but luckily for the 457th, only one aircraft was lost. Douglas-Long Beach built B-17G #42-38060 of the 750th BS, was hit by flak, the #1 and #2 engines were put out of action, and #3 and #4 began over revving – the crew unable to control them.

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

Glatton’s Second Runway.

With the navigator, 2nd Lt. Daren McIntyre badly wounded and the Right Waist Gunner Sgt. Italo Stella killed when flak pierced his flak jacket; the pilot, 2nd Lt. Max Morrow decided the best option was to crash land the aircraft and hope that in doing so, they would all survive. After carrying out a wheels-up belly landing near to Giessen in Germany, the aircraft was surrounded by locals, who removed the dead and wounded from the aircraft wreckage. Fearing for their lives, the immediate future looked bleak for the crew. Eventually German officials intervened, and the survivors were taken to POW camps where they stayed for the remainder of the war. 2nd Lt. McIntyre sadly later died, succumbing to his severe wounds.*2

The 457th’s final mission for ‘Big Week‘ occurred on the 25th, a mission to attack the Messerschmitt factory in Augsberg, Bavaria. On this day they lost two more aircraft: #42-97457 (six killed the remainder POWs)  and #42-31517 (Seven killed the remainder either evading capture or taken as POWs). Of the twenty-four aircraft that took part in this mission, all but one suffered battle damage to a various degree. The first week had not been disastrous, but it had nonetheless, been a very difficult week for the men of the 457th.

In Part 2 we see how the 457th went on, continuing attacks against the German heartland. We see unusual visitors to the airfield and some ‘oddities’ that graced the Skies over Glatton. 

The full account can be found at Trail 6 – American Ghosts.

Advertisements