In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.
Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.
But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.
Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.
Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.
Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).
Rackheath (Station 145)
Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.
Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of 2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.
A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.
A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.
Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.
The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.
The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.
Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.
The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.
But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘ on the high right.
As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’
Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.
Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.
The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.
When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.
It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire. The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.
As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.
Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down – struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.
Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night. By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.
April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.
With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.
On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.
By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.
In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.
The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.
For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history. We shall revisit Rackheath again in Part 2.