RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.

Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.

The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.

The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.

A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)

The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and  perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.

Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.

Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI

The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)

The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day.  Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.

When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.

With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.

The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.

RAF Watton

One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.

The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.

This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to  the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS).  The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.

The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1

But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail,  countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally  the calibration and training units of the CSE.

Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.

199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.

The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.

On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.

As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.

The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.

Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.

As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.

RAF Watton

Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.

By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.

A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.

Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure.  One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.

Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.

Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?

The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.

As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe.  Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.

National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2

A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.

Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.

NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.

Watton can be found on Trail 9.