In this new addition to Trail 20, we visit a former airfield whose history not only stems back to the First World War, but is deeply rooted in it. Between the wars it lay dormant, and then sprang into life once more, as military activity in Norfolk increased during the 1940s. Known under four different names, and controlled by three different branches of the armed forces, we visit an airfield that has been the subject of one of Britain’s largest archaeological digs in recent years. Situated east of the coastal resort of Heacham in Norfolk, it now forms the first airfield on our tour in Trail 20. We start the Trail at the former RAF Sedgeford.
Also known as RFC Sedgeford, RNAS Sedgeford or Sedgeford Aerodrome, the airfield lies just outside of the village from which it takes its name, and on the south side of the B1454 Docking Road.
Sedgeford originally opened as a First World War airfield during the latter half of 1915 as Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Sedgeford. It was initially a Class 1 night landing ground (NLG) for the main base at Great Yarmouth (South Denes) much further to the east on East Anglia’s North Sea Coast.
The Royal Naval Air Service were themselves a fledgling service, being formed only a year earlier in July 1914, after the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was removed from RFC control, being placed under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. At their time of formation the RNAS had on its books some fifty-five seaplanes (inc. ship-borne aircraft); forty aeroplanes; seven airships; 111 officers and 544 men*1.
With aviation very much in its infancy, the RNAS had been using mainly airships, and were only just beginning to venture into aeroplanes as a means of fighting a war. With a range of airfields in the area including both RFC Holt and RFC Bacton (NLG), it also used Ludham (HMS Flycatcher), Pulham (an airship station), Hickling Road (a seaplane airfield), Lowestoft (a balloon site) and Great Yarmouth (South Denes which was a mixed use airfield for home defence and marine operations). From these humble beginnings, the RNAS were to become a strong force during the First World War.
With the might of the Zeppelin ruling the skies, it wasn’t long before the first attacks were made along the North Norfolk coast, ranging from Great Yarmouth to Kings Lynn. These attacks, and continuing intruder flights by Zeppelins, called for a much greater aerial protection of East Anglia. It was this call that led to the creation of not only Sedgeford but also Aldeburgh, Bacton, Holt, Narborough (which later became Norfolk’s first military airfield) and Burgh Castle as active airfields operating armed flying units*2.
During the early part of 1916, RNAS Sedgeford was transferred across to the RFC (themselves only formed on 13th April 1912) and used as a training station. The site was developed with further buildings added, eventually gaining eleven canvassed Bessonneaux hangars, two more permanent General Service Sheds, a range of buildings suitable for aircraft repair and maintenance, barrack huts, MT (motor transport) sheds and even a locomotive shed fed by a branch line to the main Hunstanton and West Norfolk Railway a mile or so to the north. Sedgeford would develop into a substantial sized airfield with some 100 buildings accommodating over 1,200 personnel including WRENs and WRAFs. Whilst the overall dimensions of the site cannot be confirmed, it is thought that the airfield covered around 170 acres.
The WRAFs, (known affectionately as ‘Penguins,’ because they didn’t fly) were often found working in aircraft doping sheds repairing aircraft fabrics using a potentially harmful ‘dope’ containing an acetate solvent. The fumes from this solvent were known to be lethal in large doses, with many of those using it on a regular basis, feeling ill or in extreme cases, dying from the effects of its toxic fumes. To combat the problem, some First World War doping sheds had extractor fans built into them to remove these hazardous fumes, and at Sedgeford, evidence has been found (by the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project), that confirms their use here.
Over the next few years Sedgeford would house a number of flying units, both training and ‘operational’ whilst preparing to move to France. The first of these (No. 45 Squadron) arrived on 21st May 1916 operating the Bristol BE.2b, an aircraft that they had been using since April at Thetford. Over the next five months, 45 Sqn would take on three other aircraft types: the Henry Farman F.20, (June to August), Royal Aircraft Factory FE.2b (July to Sept) and lastly the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (July to Sept 1917); the first British aeroplane to have synchronised guns firing through a two bladed propeller. The rather odd name was given to the aircraft because of the unusual ‘half-struts’ that attached the wings to the fuselage.
In August 1916, 45 Sqn was broken up, with the nucleus being used to form a new squadron here at Sedgeford – No. 64 Sqn. The remainder of No. 45 Sqn then prepared for France, a move it made two months later.
No. 64 Sqn continued using the Henry Farman F.20s that had previously been allocated to them, but over time, they too would use a variety of aircraft types including: the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c and FE.2b, Sopwith’s famous Pup, the Avro 504 and the de Havilland DH5.
Then on February 1st 1917, 64 Sqn was itself then split, the demand for new pilots and new squadrons increasing as the conflict entered its third gruesome year. From this split, another new squadron was born, No. 53 Reserve Squadron, who were themselves re-designated as No. 53 Training Squadron on 31st May 1917, and operated models such as the RE.8, BE.2c, Avro 504J and the DH.6. They would eventually leave Sedgeford and end their days at Harlaxton where they were disbanded and merged into another unit.
Although many of these pilots were ‘experienced’, being in training meant there were of course accidents, many taking the lives of the young men who had been drawn to the thrill of flying. One such pilot, twenty year old Sec. Lt. Arthur Le Roy Dean, was killed when his Sopwith ‘Pup’ (official name Scout) #B1788 spun into the ground whilst flying with 64 Sqn on August 8th 1917. He initially survived the crash only to die from his injuries the following day.
The 9th would prove to be a black day for 64 Sqn, after they lost a second pilot, Canadian Lt. Edward Gordon Hanlan, who was killed when his DH.5 (#A9393) crashed following a wing failure whilst performing a loop over the airfield at nearby Bircham Newton.
September 1917 would prove to be a busy month for both Sedgeford airfield and the many airmen stationed there. On the 15th, another new unit arrived to join 64 Sqn. They too were a new squadron, only being formed a few days earlier at Upavon. No. 87 Sqn, remained at Sedgeford for just three months prior to moving to Hounslow before themselves moving across to St. Omer in France, which was rapidly becoming the hub of the Royal Flying Corp in continental Europe.
This month was the penultimate month of 64’s stay at Sedgeford, and prior to them leaving for France another Sopwith Pup (#B1787) would take the life of its pilot, 2Lt. Francis Brian Hallam Anderson (aged 19) who, like Sec. Lt. Dean, survived the actual crash only to succumb to his injuries and die several days later on the 8th. Flying these lightweight aircraft was not proving to be easy.
By mid October (14th), orders to move had come through, and 64 Squadron packed its bags – they were on their way to France taking their DH5s to St. Omer. St. Omer being the very place the parent squadron (No. 45 Sqn) had moved to almost a year to the day previously. The many faces of 45 Sqn surely being different to those that departed a year before.
It was in France that 64 Sqn’s Acting Captain Flt, Lt. James A. Slater MC., DFC. would go on to be the Sqn’s top ace achieving 22 kills, which when added to the two he achieved with No. 1 Sqn, gave him a total of 24 kills. His determination and expertise in the air earning him both the DFC and Military Cross (with Bar) which was Gazetted in the London Gazette Supplement published on February 1st 1918*3*4.
The beginning of November 1917 would see another short lived unit arrive at this Norfolk site, and it would be the brief reuniting of two sister units.
Both No. 72 Sqn and No. 87 Sqn, had their roots firmly fixed in the same place – the Central Flying School at Upavon; 87 being formed from the resident ‘D’ Flight whilst 72 were formed from ‘A’ Flight. Whilst they perhaps enjoyed a momentary annexation, it would not last long before they would all depart and go their separate ways for good. Whilst 87 Sqn moved to the cold winter of France, No. 72 Sqn would take their Pups to the much warmer Persian Gulf and onto Basra and Baghdad, where they stayed until the war’s end.
Sedgeford was rapidly becoming a major player in the RFC’s continued development, with yet another new unit arriving here the same month they were formed – No. 110 Sqn. They too would be another relatively short stay unit, and again, operating a number of different aircraft types. Formed on November 1st, they were created out of the nucleus of 38 Training Squadron at Rendcomb, and stopped off at Dover on their way to Sedgeford. By June 1918, they were on their way again, moving to Kenley in Surrey, a station that would become famous in the Second World War as a fighter airfield.
Within days of 110 Sqn’s arrival, pilot James Alan Pearson was killed following a flying accident at Sedgeford. Pearson, who was from Chesterfield, had only joined the RFC in August that same year, transferring from South Farnborough, to Winchester, Oxford and then Hendon, where he joined No. 19 Training Squadron on September 19th, 1917. On November 19th, he completed his probationary period and was confirmed as a Temporary Second Lieutenant upon which, he was posted to No. 110 Sqn, at Sedgeford, just after the main squadron arrived at the busy Norfolk airfield.
His death came within a matter of days of his arrival, some references stating he ‘blacked out’, whilst other say his aircraft, a Martinsyde Elephant (#B866), broke apart. No doubt, both actions resulted from a steep dive from which Pearson never recovered. During the dive, and probable breakup of the aeroplane, Pearson was thrown out of the cockpit, unaided or not conscious, he failed to survive the fall. His official service record (AIR 76/396/34) simply states ‘Killed as result of aero accident‘, the short few entries showing how limited, at 18 years old, his experience was.
As the war turned to another year and the winter of 1917/18 dragged on, New Year’s day 1918, would see No. 110 Sqn joined by another newly formed unit, No. 122 Sqn, who whilst initially operating a range of aircraft, were earmarked to receive the de Havilland DH.9. However, the transition would not go smoothly and it would ultimately result in the squadron’s demise.
Both 110 and 122 Sqns were assigned to go to France, 110 Sqn leaving on 15th June 1918 initially to Kenley before Bettoncourt to the south of Nancy in France, whilst No. 122 Sqn were to be sent to Hamble (which became the more prominent Upper Hayford post World War Two) where they were to take on the DH.9s before also moving to the continent.
However, the unit was disbanded whilst still as a training unit at Sedgeford on the day prior to its move on 17th August 1918. No. 122 was then reformed at Hamble, but further plans stalled as the DH.9 was replaced by the DH.10 and a delay in allocation prevented the reformed squadron from its final activation. With the war’s end and no further requirement seen for the squadron, the process then halted, and in November 1918, the squadron was disbanded for good .
With the war in Europe now over, the withdrawal of squadrons from France began and units started the long journey home. Sedgeford would continue to host some of these units, continuing to perform their role as a training airfield. Even at this point, expansion of the airfield was still occurring but the future for Sedgeford was not bright.
At the end of 1918, No 3 Fighting School (FS) (who had been formed at nearby Bircham Newton) arrived at Sedgeford. Being a former Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School, it operated a number of different aircraft types including: Pups, a range of de Havilland models, Dolphins, Camels and Handley Page 0/400s. Perhaps now, as the war was over, a lapse in concentration may have been the cause of a New Year’s misadventure, when on January 24th 1919, two Sopwith Camels collided over Sedgeford airfield. Camel #C8318 flown by Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC., was in collision with #H2724 flown by Lt Hector Daniel MC.
Capt. King, who had been wounded in France, had been awarded not only the Military Cross in April 1918, but also the Distinguished Flying Cross in August 1918 along with the Croix de Guerre. Incredibly he was just short of his 19th birthday. Lt Daniel (a South African), survived the accident, and also achieved the Military Cross along with the Air Force Cross in July 1918 and June 1919 respectively.*5
The wind down was slow at Sedgeford, but March 1919 would see two major changes at the airfield. Firstly, on the 14th, No. 3 FS was disbanded, reforming as No. 7 Training Squadron (TS), who continued in the training role at Sedgeford. By October though, with cutbacks in the pipeline, it would no longer be required and so operations were curtailed, and it was finally disbanded.
Secondly, the end of March saw the arrival of a cadre of No. 13 Sqn with RE.8s. Their journey to Sedgeford had taken them around the many battlefields of France over the last three years, the skies of Norfolk must have been a more than welcome break for the young pilots.
As more and more units were disbanded, Sedgeford too would feel the bite. On New Year’s Eve 1919/20, orders were received and subsequently carried out, to disband the last remaining squadron at the airfield, and with this, the end of Sedgeford as a flying base was now signalled.
The interwar years saw many of the buildings removed, many being sold off or demolished, but fortunately some remained, falling into disrepair or put to agricultural use. What remained of the airfield was left in a dormant state, fading bit by bit. But, the 1930s increase in international tensions would be the saviour of Sedgeford, as war once again reared its ugly head. This time however, it would not be as an operational airfield with the usual buzz and activity it was once so used to, this time it would be a much quieter decoy site.
With so many strategic airfields located in East Anglia, and with the extended development of Bircham Newton as few miles away, the protection of these sites was paramount. The war of deception created the dummy airfield, with the sole purpose of diverting the Luftwaffe bombers away from the real airfield located nearby. Sedgeford was seen as a suitable location for such a site, the few remaining buildings being partly representative of a wartime airfield. With a little development and appropriate lighting added, Sedgeford became one such site, the remaining buildings being utilised to create an image of activity one would expect to see on an active airfield.
These decoy sites were the brainchild of Colonel John Fisher Turner, a retired Officer from the Air Ministry who had turned his hand to film work and special effects. Working with a team of tradesmen and engineers, they produced life-like aircraft, vehicles, boats and buildings using canvas, wood and other lightweight materials that when viewed from the air, look like the real thing. With lights added to give the impression of runway lighting, fires and vehicles, it proved to be a major coup in the war against the Luftwaffe. Designated as both a ‘Q’ (night time) and ‘K’ (day time) decoy station, Sedgeford was operational between June 1940 and August 1942, after which time the larger threat of bombing had sub-sided.
Sedgeford had a small number of operators on site to perform the deception, and because they were to attract enemy attention, they were provided with a shelter, the bulk of which still exists on the site today. After this, Sedgeford was finally closed down and returned to agricultural use once more. A state it has remained in ever since.
The airfield’s site is located just outside of the village, a gate and long path indicate the original entrance to the site. This path was once lined with First World War buildings, none of which remain today. The actual airfield itself is now an agricultural field, the railway spur that led from the main line has also gone, as has the main line itself. From the public road there are sadly no indications of the significance of this once historic site.
Along from the airfield toward the village of Docking, is another private dwelling that was also known to have been used as a billet for Sedgeford’s airmen. Formally the Union Workhouse it dates back to 1835 and was one of the largest workhouses in Norfolk at that time. Intended to hold up to 450 people, it rarely had more than 100 at any one time. The RFC took over the building in 1916 handing it back at the war’s end.
Since 2009 the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has carried out a huge excavation of the site at Sedgeford, uncovering a number of foundations and links to Sedgeford’s aviation history. Some of these buildings include the mortuary and Officers quarters, with its very ornate fireplace, and the World War 2 shelter mentioned previously. These are all firmly on private land hidden in a small wood around which the majority of the technical buildings were originally erected. Access to these sites is understandably only with permission, something I didn’t have on the day. The project, which has been carried out yearly, also uncovered numerous building foundations and a track for a hangar door. Substantial information being gleaned from the various digs being carried out over the years.
The types of buildings remaining at Sedgeford, especially the First World War examples, make this quite a unique site. So few buildings exist from this era, Stow Maries being the only other site with examples of any quality. This, along with the many deaths and sacrifices witnessed by Sedgeford, make it both historically and architecturally significant, and as such, perhaps the site should be protected.
The history of Sedgeford is extraordinary. Many of those who passed through its doors were teenagers, some lasted only weeks, whilst others went on to fly for years performing acts of great bravery and daring. But one thing that draws them all together was the thrill of flying in an era were flight was new and boundaries were unknown. Their bravery and courage should be remembered.
Sedgeford airfield had sadly all but passed into the history books, but recent excavations have given new life to this once significant site, and maybe one day, these will be given public status, and the memories of those who served and died here will live again.
This recognition took a step forward when on 21st July 1918 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial at Sedgeford. The report can be seen on both Your Local Paper website, and the ABCT website along with videos of the day and interviews with SHARP members.
From Sedgeford we continue with Trail 20, and travel east toward Docking, stopping off at St. Mary’s Church, before travelling a few miles further to the former airfield RAF Docking.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 10/8/2019
*2 Gunn. P. “Aviation Landmarks – Norfolk and Suffolk“. The History Press (2017)
*3 London Gazette Publication date: Supplement: 30827, Page:9204.
Norfolk in the First World War: Somme to Armistice project Website accessed 11/8/19
The Workhouse, The Story of an Institution website. Accessed 12/8/19
Photos of Sedgeford’s buildings can be seen on the ‘Derelict places’ website.