Part 1 of Newmarket Heath saw the rebirth of this First World War airfield. The outbreak of war and the confusion that grew from the Phoney War.
Part 2 continues the growth and development of Newmarket and its eventual demise.
The Autumn of 1941 saw the reforming of a World War 1 squadron, 138 Sqn whose re-creation on the 25th, was the result of renumbering 1419 Flight. who would operate Lysanders, Whitleys and finally Halifax IIs before they departed mid December. 138 Sqn would then go on to play a major part in the forming of yet another squadron, also here at Newmarket, in a few months time.
December 1941 heralded another First World War squadron reformation, this time the ground echelons of 215 Sqn, who would make their way to India before the air echelons – formed at Waterbeach – could join them.
The winter of 1941 – 1942 would be a time of great discord for Bomber Command even to the point where its whole future was at stake. With high losses and poor bombing accuracy, there were those in power who were seeking to reduce the Command to a fraction of its size, and with such unsustainable losses, their arguments were holding a lot of water. But Sir Charles Portal, who vehemently supported the Bomber Command dogma of carpet bombing, managed to secure the backing of Churchill, and having Churchill on your side meant you had power.
Across Bomber Command, 1942 would bring many changes. To implement this mass bombing policy, now targeting the populous rather than individual industrial targets, Portal employed Sir Arthur Harris in February 1942. Whilst not Harris’s conception, it would be his name that would become synonymous with the policy that has become so controversial ever since.
Along with Harris came a restructuring of Bomber Command, including its support structure. With the heavier four-engined types all coming on line and into full squadron service, it would see the reduction on the reliance of the smaller, now outdated, twin-engined types: Whitley, Hampden and the Manchester; and whilst the numbers of Bomber Command aircraft would not significantly increase, its payload would.
These changes would include the training units designed to train crews for the new bomber aircraft, With larger aircraft, came larger and more specific roles. Within the reshuffle came renumbering, amalgamation and reformation, making their evolution a complicated mix of numbers and bases. Newmarket was a part of this mix.
One such unit to go through these changes was No. 1483 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight which joined with other flights to be finally renamed No. 3 Group Air Bomber Training Flight in mid 1942. The Flight would continue on in this form until mid March 1944, whereupon it was disbanded, and its aircraft disposed of.
The confusing reforming of training units would reflect the reshaping that Bomber Command would also go through, much of which was settled and firmly embedded by the year’s end. Much of this would be under Harris’s direction, but some by the natural evolutionary process of development and improvement.
The development of aircraft was rapid during the war years. With both the Allied and Axis powers investigating faster and more powerful aircraft, it wouldn’t be long before the jet engine would make an appearance. For the RAF, the Meteor (F.9/40 ‘GlosterWhittle’ twin-jet interceptors) would be the breakthrough. A twin engined jet aircraft, of which twelve prototypes were initially ordered by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (designated DG202 – DG213), and was unofficially known as the ‘Rampage’, would have different engines to undergo flight testing.
On July 2nd, 1942, one of these prototypes DG202, was transferred from the Gloster factory at Bentham in Gloucestershire, here to Newmarket by road. Loaded onto a low loader, its wings were removed and then reassembled for ground run and taxiing trials.
On the 10th, the aircraft was powered up and taxied by Flt. Lt. P.E.G. ‘Gerry’ Sayer, who attempted two short flights. On the second attempt, Sayers managed to get the aircraft off the ground for a few seconds before bringing it back down again. The engines fitted at the time, were not designed to be flight condition engines and so no greater duration attempts were made.
After suffering problems with the undercarriage, trials were resumed with Hawker Typhoon wheels, until mid August when the engines were removed, and the aircraft stored in one of the hangars on the airfield.
After further tests, the aircraft was transported, again by road, to RAF Barford St. John, in Banbury, Oxon where it would eventually fly for six minutes under the control of Gloster’s chief test pilot, Michael Daunt. DG202 then underwent numerous modifications and further flight tests, eventually being mothballed and refurbished, until it found its way to the RAF Museum at Hendon, London. The Meteor would of course go on the break the Air Speed Record at Herne Bay, Kent on November 7th 1945.
Meanwhile back at Newmarket, the end of October 1942 saw air and ground crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn at nearby RAF Mildenhall, begin transferring across to Oakington, an airfield that had caused so many problems with mud earlier in the war. The purpose of the move was to convert the men, initially of ‘B’ Flight and then ‘A’ Flight, over to the Stirlings they were about to receive. Once trained, they would return to Mildenhall and then transfer to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, where they would be based for the foreseeable future.
At the end of October the transformation from Wellington to Stirling began. Thirteen Welllingtons were dispatched to other squadrons, at which point the New Zealanders began their move to Newmarket. The move, overseen by Sqn. Ldr. R. Crawford, commenced on November 1st 1942, and involved two parties, one travelling by road whilst the other travelled by air. Once at Newmarket the crews would begin settling in, and as soon as their replacement aircraft arrived, they would carry out air training flights acclimatising themselves to the intricacies of the new four-engined heavy.
With new aircraft to get used to, it would not be long before the first accident would occur, one that thankfully did not involve casualties. A wheels-up landing by Sgt. P. Buck at Holme whilst on an air-to-air firing flight to RAF Marham, marked the start of a new era.
The first operational flight from Newmarket took place on November 20th, a long distance flight to Turin. A small force comprising of only four aircraft carrying 4 lb incendiary bombs, made up 75 Sqn’s component of 232 aircraft – the largest Italian raid of the period. Whilst the raid was successful and no losses were encountered by any squadron, two of the four No. 75 Squadron Stirlings returned early with problems; the incendiaries they were carrying being dropped over southern France or in The Wash.
Operations to Stuttgart two nights later showed similar results, this time only two aircraft were detailed of which one returned early with an unserviceable rear turret.
A pattern was beginning to emerge. On the 28th, another raid with four aircraft saw one forced to jettison its load of 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs due to one engine cutting out, the other three aircraft bombing Turin successfully. On the return, Stirling BK608 ‘T’ ran out of fuel over Stradishall, the crew bailing out as low as 600 ft, but against the odds, they all survived unhurt. The aircraft crashed, but was eventually recovered and converted to an instructional air frame. Sadly the same could not be said for the crew of BF399, who whilst on a training flight back at Oakington, flew into the ground killing all but the mid-upper gunner instantly. Sgt. C. T. Roberts, the only crash survivor, unfortunately succumbed to his injuries a few days later, adding another tally to the list of dead. It later transpired that the pilot, Sgt. H. Broady, had tried to avoid a head-on collision with another Stirling possibly putting the aircraft into a stall from which he could not recover.
On the 29th, further problems dogged the Stirlings, a faulty bomb release mechanism meant an early return for BK609 ‘R’, who landed in poor weather at Bradwell Bay; the pilot overshooting the runway damaging the aircraft and injuring the Air Bomber Sgt. Broadle.
Over the October / November period, 75 Sqn received a quantity of new Stirlings, the factories at Rochester, Swindon and Birmingham each supplying examples as the last of the Wellingtons were dispatched elsewhere.
By December, the crews were all together back here at Newmarket and taking part in squadron operations over occupied Europe. The last days of 1942 would not be happy yule tides for all though, as fate would claim one last victim of 75 Sqn, that of BF400 ‘G’ which was shot down over Holland. The crew were all captured and placed in POW camps, F/O. Eric Williams being one of those whose famous escape via the Wooden Horse was immortalised on film.
As 1943 dawned and Bomber Command settled into its new form, Newmarket would see a short stay of 2 Sqn Mustang Is. Based primarily a stones throw away at RAF Bottisham, they were only a detachment and would soon depart the site. Similarly, between the 6th and 14th March of 1943, 453 Sqn flying Spitfire VBs utilised the bomber site. Another short stay unit, the Merlin engined fighter group had only been formed at Drem in Scotland, some nine months earlier.
In the preceding years, the Stirling and Wellington had remained, for a large part, the main backbone of 3 Group, with the Stirling gradually replacing the twin-engined ‘Wimpy’, until it too would be withdrawn from front line service in favour of the Lancaster.
75 Sqn suffered only a handful of losses, many aircrew being captured and taken prisoners of war. In the March, the MK.I began to be replaced by the MK.III, and with it came new hope for improved performance. Many of the teething troubles that had dogged the earlier version of the Stirling had now been resolved, but it still remained a poorly performing aircraft, even in its current form.
Initial tests of the MK.III at Boscombe Down were positive. Altitudes of 17,000 ft were achievable, and whilst still far below that of the Lancaster or Halifax, it was better than the MK.I. However, these tests failed to take account of new equipment such as new dorsal turrets and flame dampers, additional weight and drag meant that in operational form, the new model was barely better than its predecessor, and far better engines were needed if any significant improvement was going to be made. With further engine developments the first of the MK.III Stirlings came out. Fitted with Hercules MK.VI engines they could achieve a marginal 2,300 ft better altitude and a slightly faster climb rate; it was hardly anything to call home about, but with improved German flak defences it was welcomed with open arms.
In March, 75 Sqn received two of the new models, with others following not long after. One of these was lost on April 8th on a mission to Duisburg. The crew were all lost when the aircraft came down on its way home only three miles west of Diss in Norfolk.
On the RAF’s anniversary, 75 Sqn formed a new section, ‘C’Flight, an increase in crew meant an an increase in operations too. Whilst 1943 saw low casualties generally, there were three nights on which four aircraft were lost each time. On the night of 28-29th April R9290, W7513, BF4667 and BK807 were all lost whilst on ‘Gardening’ missions in the Baltics, there were no survivors. Another four aircraft were then lost over Wuppertal, with only seven of the airmen surviving – it was another huge loss. A further four aircraft were lost on the night 22-23rd June whilst on a mission to Mulheim. During this attack the four aircraft were shot down by a combination of night fighters and flak, with only five crewmen from BK810 surviving as prisoners of war.
June 1943 saw the last remaining Newmarket operations. On the 19th, fourteen aircraft were dispatched to Krefeld on the western banks of the Rhine a few miles north-west of Dusseldorf. Over the target, Stirling MK.I EH880 piloted by Flt. Lt. J. Joll, was hit by flak, breaking a fuel-cock and control cables. As a result, fuel and oil poured into the aircraft’s body, causing a fire in the fuselage, mainplane and mid-upper turret. Without thinking for his safety, the Flight Engineer Sgt. G. Falloon, cut a hole into the wing with an escape axe, and crawled through. Once inside, he located and isolated the leak enabling the aircraft to land safely back at Newmarket.
Undaunted the crew returned to Krefeld two nights later, this time safely returning without damage. As the month closed, the last Newmarket loss came on the night of 25-26th June 1943, a loss that coincided with the Sqn’s departure from Newmarket, and a move to pastures new at RAF Mepal. The Loss of Stirling BK768 ‘L’ piloted by F/O. Perrott, came as a last minute blow to the squadron, with the loss of all on board.
As the war progressed, new technologies and better methods for bombing were being investigated by both sides. Within the RAF, the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) (formally 1418 Flight) was making huge steps in this direction. A specialist unit that was set up to run trials of new technologies for the RAF’s heavy bombers included: H2S, ‘Monica’, ‘Boozer’ and ‘Fishpond‘, each one designed to improve bombing accuracy or aircraft protection.
On 13th September 1943, the BDU moved from RAF Feltwell to Newmarket, where they continued these tests, including trials into higher altitude mine laying. The research carried out by the BDU was paramount in the introduction of ventral guns fitted in many of the RAF’s wartime heavy bombers. Under the leadership of Sqn. Ldr. (later Wing Commander) Richard ‘Dickie’ Speare DSO, DFC and bar, and Sir Lewis Hodges, they also investigated the idea of a radar guided rear turret (AGLT) that locked onto enemy aircraft. A design feature that never really took off, and the idea was later scrapped.
A number of other units, Maintenance units, Glider Maintenance sections, Training Schools and Flights, also graced the skies over Newmarket. But by now the end was drawing closer, and operations from Newmarket began winding down until they finally ceased shortly after the end of the war. A military presence remained for a further two years, but there was little activity. Post war, the Rowley Mile racecourse was reinstated, the buildings returned to their former use and the majority of the airfield’s buildings were pulled down. Within three years the military had pulled out and Newmarket’s wartime history came to a close.
Today the racecourse is predominant, little evidence can be seen of the former airfield, the Dyke still has the lowered section, and one original hangar remains to the north of the site next to the A14 road. The July landing strip still operates, and aircraft are permitted to land and take off up to an hour before or after racing commences/finishes, used mainly by visiting jockeys and horse owners, it is perhaps the last remaining sign of an aviation history at this once busy airfield.
The dangers of the Dyke continue to show themselves today, on June 1st 2000, a Piper Seneca carrying the Jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ray Cochrane crashed on this site both suffering serious injuries. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, was killed in the crash which took place between the July strip and Rowley mile, impacting on the Devils Dyke – yet another victim claimed by this ancient structure.
The Grandstand, the former accommodation block for aircrews, still stands but much refurbished and updated, a grand viewing platform where race-goers can watch in comfort as the horses gallop across the finish line.
Newmarket airfield started off as a rather insignificant satellite airfield growing considerably in size over its life. Although the runways were grass, (there were three officially designated) the longest stretched to around 9,000 ft (2,500 yds) – some 500 more than a standard Class A bomber airfield of the war years. The remaining two runways (1,800 yds and 1,600 yds), were also large for its size. A bomb store, much needed early on in the war, was located to the north and a small, non circular perimeter track linked the many hangers that were found on the original wartime site. Several T2s, two B1s, and various blister hangars were all located around the airfield.
The majority of the technical area was found to the north of the site, the opposite end of the Grandstand which was close to the watch office. In this technical area were located twenty-four hardstands of the spectacle style, all of which have now gone. The main A14 road now cuts across this former technical area, only one of the B1s still exists today, the second having been burnt down and replaced in recent years.
RAF Newmarket Heath saw a huge range of flying activities during its life. Primarily a bomber station, it witnessed many accidents and suffered many losses. From its inception in the First World War to its development as a substantial airfield in the second, it grew to be a remarkable site, and one which continues to be prominent today. Sadly though, this important period of history seems to have all but vanished, the slate wiped clean and replaced with something much more appealing to the general public today.
After we leave Newmarket, we head a short distance west towards Cambridge where we find another airfield that has long since gone. Through huge efforts by a small group of volunteers though, we see a museum sprouting out of the ashes, as we head to the former airfield RAF Botisham.
The full text appears in Trail 55.
Sources and further reading (Newmarket Heath)
*1The British History Online website has detailed studies of the Devil’s Dyke.
National Archives – AIR 27/788/3, AIR 27/788/8, AIR 27/98/3, AIR 27/646/19,
AIR 27/646/21, AIR 27/646/36
‘Star Jockeys survive plane Crash inferno‘ story appeared in the Guardian Online Website. June 2nd 2000.
Bowyer, M.J.F., “The Stirling Bomber“, Faber and Faber, 1980
For information about Newmarket the Newmarket Shops History website has a wealth of information about the town.