RAF Bircham Newton (Part 4 – Bircham Enters the War)

So far we have seen how Bircham Newton developed from a First World War training airfield through the cutbacks of the early 1920s, and on into the Expansion period of the 1930s. Bircham is now in the hands of Coastal Command, a force lacking in materials but not will power. The units at Bircham work hard, and new developments come along that will help save lives at sea and put Bircham on the map. After Part 3, Bircham now enters the war.

The declaration of war and the early 1940’s would see some remarkable events take place at Bircham Newton; new aircraft and new roles, along with some advances that were to help downed airmen who ended up in Britain’s coastal waters.

One of these advances, was the creation of the ‘Bircham Barrel’, a container manufactured from the tail end of a 250lb bomb that was carried under the wing of searching Air Sea Rescue (ASR) aircraft and dropped to downed aircrews. The barrel was based on the ‘Thornaby bag’ a container designed at RAF Thornaby, in which supplies of: water, food rations, first-aid equipment, clothing and cigarettes were all placed. The Bircham Barrel, developed this idea a little further, making it more water tight and easier to retrieve by crews once in the water.*4

The Barrel was placed under the wing of an aircraft on a bomb rack, and once a crew was sighted, the pilot could drop the barrel providing the crew with sufficient rations for several days. After tests, the idea was given the green light and by 1941 it was in use by a range of aircraft operating in the ASR role.

With an increase in coastal operations from Bircham, particularly in the Air Sea Rescue role, many of the aircraft that would now use the airfield would be the twin-engined types. Kicking off the decade were the Bristol Blenheims, of 254 Sqn in January 1940. Joining a small detachment of 233 Sqn  Blenheims that had arrived here late in 1939, 254 Sqn only stayed for three months, operating as ‘Trade defence’ or fisheries protection unit – perhaps one of the lesser well known operations of Coastal Command.

Twin-engined models were not to be the only aircraft seen at Bircham though. The spring and early summer of 1940 would see further detachments with Hurricanes from 229 Sqn, a short stay by 235 Sqn and the first of a number of Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) units 815 Sqn with the delightful Swordfish. One further unit to be based here at this time, would bring with it one of the more intriguing models of aircraft used during the Second World War, the Wellington DWI of No 2 General Reconnaissance Unit (GRU).

One of the roles of the GRU was to detect and destroy German mines, particularly new magnetic mines that were proving to be a menace to allied shipping. Using a Wellington 1A bomber modified to carry a large 51 foot ring of wood containing an aluminium coil, it would generate, using a Ford motor, an electronic signature that would resemble a ship. By flying low and slow over the water, it was hoped that the signal from the coil would detonate the new mines. Whilst the idea worked well in principal on land, over water it caused a number of issues primarily because the aircraft had to fly between 60 feet and 35 feet to detonate the mine. A number of successful detonations were recorded, but some aircraft were struck by the blast wash, causing them to be knocked ‘off balance’ as the mines exploded. Fortunately though, there are no recordings of any serious damage being sustained by these aircraft, but it was nonetheless, a dangerous job to do and because of advances elsewhere, it became a short lived attempt to gain an advantage over the Germans in the mine laying war.

ROYAL AIR FORCE OPERATIONS IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA, 1940-1943.

Wellington DWI Mark II of No. 1 GRU based at Ismaliya. The ring weighed over two and a quarter tons.© IWM (CM 5312)

Like the Swordfish, both the Wellingtons of 2 GRU and the Blenheims of 235 Sqn were only based at Bircham for a month, all departing in May 1940, although 235 Sqn did return in the summer staying this time for a year. The immediate period after their departure saw yet more FAA units arrive, 826 and 812 Sqns, with Albacores and Swordfish respectively. Both of these units would operate as shipping patrols and also in mine laying operations, but would again only stay for a short period of time. During operations on 21st June 1940, at De Kooy Naval air base, one 826 Sqn aircraft was lost, two of the Albacore’s crewmen: Sub Lieutenant (A) Peter William S. Butterworth, (famed for his acting in the ‘Carry On’ films) and Telegraphist /Air Gunner Robert (TAG) J. Jackson, were both captured. Sub. Lt Butterworth survived ending up in Stalag Luft III after several failed escape attempts, whilst TAG Jackson died in captivity on 18th January 1945. The third crewman, Sub-Lieutenant Victor J. Dyke, died the day after the attack.*6

Peter Butterworth - Wikipedia

Peter Butterworth from the 1968 film “Carry on… Up the Khyber” (wikipedia)

Bircham’s long standing 206 Sqn were by now replacing their Blenheims with Hudsons, the American built twin engined aircraft designed around the civil Lockheed Super Electra. By militarising it, they produced an aircraft that would serve well in Coastal Command operations.

Initially carrying out convoy duties, the Hudsons would then patrol as far away as the ‘North German Islands’, but primarily flew reconnaissance patrols along the  coastline between Norway and Brest. Shipping was engaged on a number of occasions as were flak and Luftwaffe aircraft. During May, as the new Hudsons were being delivered, a number were lost to enemy action, particularly fighters.

For one Hudson, (P5120), life at Bircham would be short lived, the aircraft arriving here in April, only to be written off after a crash landing in June. The aircraft, one of three, departed Bircham on June 19th at 23:50 for a night patrol. On return it struck a ridge on the airfield’s approach causing it to bounce heavily. The aircraft then stalled and hit the ground so hard it caused the undercarriage to collapse. Thankfully all four crewmen emerged from the aircraft unhurt.

WITH A HUDSON OF COASTAL COMMAND

Hudson C-VX (P5120) of 206 Sqn on patrol before being written off in a crash landing. (© IWM CH 287)

Both during and after the build up to Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain, airfields across southern England were targeted by the Luftwaffe, and Bircham Newton was no exception. Whilst not a fighter airfield high on the list of Luftwaffe priorities, bombs nonetheless did fall on the airfield, and it was the Hurricane detachment of 229 Sqn based here, who were tasked with providing cover against such attacks.

In addition, many support units were also based at Bircham, these would provide training for pilots, gunners, navigators, other members of aircrew along with cooperation with ground operations as well. One such unit here at Bircham was No. 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit (AACU) which consisted of several Flights, designated ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘K’ and ‘M’, they all operated the Hawker Henley, the Hurricane’s little known relative.

With Flights designated A – Z (‘I’ was omitted), the unit operated at various airfields across Britain, flying a mix of Henley IIIs, Wallace, Lysander and Battle aircraft, with both Flights ‘B’ and ‘M’ being formed here at Bircham Newton. Several of these Flights also used RAF Langham, another Coastal Command / training airfield a few miles away on the Norfolk coast, particularly useful for the training of heavy anti-aircraft guns.

The Henley – built along side the Hurricane – essentially used the same jigs, their similarity thus being quite stark. The Henley was initially designed as a light bomber with modifications to the guns and an additional seat added behind the pilot. However, changes in Government policy toward daylight bombers meant that the Henley was soon transferred to other duties notably target towing. To assist this, a small propeller driven motor was added to the port side of the aircraft, just below the rear cockpit, this would power the winch that held the target drogue as it was towed some 7,000ft behind the aircraft for gunners to aim at*5.

ROYAL AIR FORCE COASTAL COMMAND, 1939-1945.

Hawker Henley, L3353, of ‘K’ or ‘M’ Flight, No. 1 AACU, next to a bomb crater at Bircham Newton. A lone Do 17 dropped seven high explosive bombs on the station causing light damage but also slightly damaging this aircraft. The similarities to the Hurricane are very evident. (IWM CE 43)

In November of 1940, two more squadrons were formed here, one, another First World War unit, was 252 Sqn. It would not fly operationally from here though, instead collecting its aircraft from Chivenor to where it would move a matter of weeks later.

The second unit, 221 Sqn was formed on the 21st November, and was also a former World War One unit. Disbanded in 1919, it would serve for the remainder of the war with the Wellingtons in the Coastal Command role. The initial order was to train crews at Bircham prior to their move to operations at Limvardy, a role it would perform using twenty-four Wellington IC aircraft. By the end of the month two such models, N2909 and N2910 were delivered and ready to be used for the job. A third aircraft, a dual control Wellington (R2700), arrived on the 6th and then on the 12th December, the personnel were all moved off site to a new location the rather grand Heacham Hall. The hall, which burned down during the war, was a 17th Century building, and had historic ties to Matoaka (better known as “Pocahontas”), who married local man John Rolfe. It must have been a  rather nice change for the airmen to be ‘off base’ and in more luxurious, and historical, surroundings.

During the remainder of December more aircraft arrived and by the last day of the year, eleven more Wellingtons were ‘on role’ along with a growing number of personnel – both air and ground crew.

1941 started on a high for Bircham Newton, with a Royal Visit. On 26th January, the Royal party consisting of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, visited the area inspecting the airfield and its aircraft. Whilst here, the King gave airmen a number of awards before the whole party moved of to other airfields across Norfolk.

For the whole of January, training flights were the order of the day for the Wellingtons of 221 Sqn, but poor weather meant that only 12 out of the 31 days were actually suitable. However, by March 27th 1941, all pilots had flown solo by day and a new flight was crewed up and ready for operations. The squadron then began its move over to Limvardy in Northern Ireland.

The summer of 1941 was another busy time for Bircham Newton. In May, two squadrons appeared, the first 200 Sqn was formed from 206 Sqn, which had already been used to create 220 Sqn earlier on. 200 Sqn were formed to perform the ‘operational duties of a Coastal Command general reconnaissance land-plane squadron’ in other words maritime and anti-submarine patrols. It would be made up initially of 210 personnel, who would depart Bircham on the 25th to Greenock, whilst seven Hudsons would fly to Gibraltar on route to Gambia. It would remain abroad until its disbandment at the war’s end in 1945.

The second, 500 Sqn moved in from Detling in Kent, bringing Blenheims with it. With detachments at both Limvardi and Carew Cheriton, these were replaced by the Hudson V in November before the unit departed for Stornaway in Scotland’s Western Isles in May 1942. Once at Bircham they immediately began patrols, looking for downed aircrew, mines or enemy shipping. Poor weather restricted many of these patrols, but both mines and shipping were spotted, sadly no dinghies or aircraft were found in these early days.

The next unit to arrive was another Blenheim squadron, 248 Sqn who performed convoy patrols and strikes against enemy shipping. During July, a month after they moved in, they began to replace the Blenheim with Beaufighter ICs, a powerful and heavily armed aircraft built to design Specification F.37/35. After initial handling issues, it became a sturdy weapons platform that performed well, especially in the anti-shipping role, carrying a torpedo or rockets. For the next month the weather prevented much in the way of flying, with fog, rain and poor visibility preventing all but minimal flying, the squadron remained firmly on the ground for a good deal of August.

Armoury and Photographic building

Former armoury and photographic building.

The last of the summer squadrons to arrive were 53 Sqn and 59 Sqn. Initially based at Detling / Thorney Island, they had also maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham. Once the two squadrons had reformed at Bircham, they both took on the Hudson replacing their Blenheims before departing back to St Eval in the October of that year (53 Sqn) and North Coates (59 Sqn).

By September 1941, the need for more Air Sea Rescue aircraft, particularly deep search aircraft, had become ever more apparent, and it called for the creation of two more squadrons able to perform such tasks. However, suitable aircraft were in short supply, especially Lockheed’s Hudson with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) radar equipment and Lindholme rescue gear. Thanks though to Sir John Salmond GCB, CMG, CVO, DSO & Bar , Coastal Command’s corner was fought, and even though by the end of 1941, aircraft were still few and far between, by the December one of these Squadrons, 279 Sqn, was up and running here at Bircham. However, it would be a long haul, and it would not be until March the following year before they would be fully operational and their Hudsons operating regularly in the Air Sea Rescue role from this airfield.

The second squadron, 280 Sqn however, was not given the Hudson, instead they had to contend with the Anson. Another unit set up in 1941, its primary base was also at Detling in Kent. Whilst performing this duty, they maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham Newton, a position it held whilst the bulk of the squadron moved to Langham in Norfolk in the summer of 1942. It would then be after this, that the entire squadron would move into Bircham Newton.

Like its sister unit it would take time to become fully operational and it would not be until June before the squadron was operating as it should. The benefit of both units was quickly seen though, thirty-five men from six crews were rescued over May – June by 279 Sqn, whilst one crew was rescued by 280 Sqn within days of them becoming fully operational.

The early years of the war were busy for Bircham Newton, and as war progresses, further units arrive and depart, the hectic scenes will not be stopping yet!

The full text can be seen in Trail 20 – North Norfolk Part 1.

4 thoughts on “RAF Bircham Newton (Part 4 – Bircham Enters the War)

  1. What a fascinating post, never heard of Bircham but it has so many stories and saw so much action didn’t it? And thats just the beginning of the war. The Bircham Barrel sounds incredible, again all new to me and that mine sweeping wooden wheel seems crazy but if it worked ……..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another marvellously detailed account of a few more years at Bircham Newton. One of the Old Nottinghamians I have written about was killed there during this period. Ronald Smith and his two colleagues took off from Bircham Newton in the late evening or early night time of July 7th 1941. They were in a Bristol Blenheim Mark IV on a training flight but a German intruder shot them down and all three were killed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you John. What a sad tale, how awful to be killed in what must have been considered ‘safe’ territory whilst training. Not even over enemy territory or on ops! If there’s a link please feel free to add it to this.

      Like

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