Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of Britain’s front line fighter base RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War. However, its importance cannot be denied nor should it be over looked. Key to aviation in Norfolk and to the Royal Air Force as a whole, it played a major part in both, and therefore is pivotal to today’s modern air force. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became not only Norfolk’s first, but the biggest First World War, fixed wing aircraft airfield, only four airship stations were bigger. Leading the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force, we look back at the former RAF Narborough.
Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough has been known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size (over 900 acres) but also its multinational stature; the range of aircraft and personnel based here, and its achievements in aviation history. Used by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF), it would have names that reflected each of these fledgling services.
Records show that Narborough had military links as far back as 1912, in the year that the RFC was established when both the Naval Air Organisation and the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers were combined. Unfortunately, little exists to explain what it was used for at this time, but in later years, it was used to counteract the threat from both the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, and also to train future pilots of the RFC and RAF.
Narborough’s history in these early days is sketchy, few specific records existing as to the many changes that were taking place at this time or to the development of the RFC and RNAS. Its activities – and history though – was no doubt influenced on July 1st 1914, when the name RNAS was officially adopted, and all Naval flying units of the RFC were transferred to the control of the Navy. A major development in the formation of both forces, there were at this point, a total of: 111 officers, 544 other ranks, seven airships, fifty-five seaplanes (including shipborne aircraft) and forty aeroplanes in RNAS service.*1 Some of these may well have been used at Narborough at this point.
By 1915, Narborough’s future had been sealed, designated as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth, (itself commissioned in 1913) it was initially to be used as a night landing ground for those aircraft involved in attacks on enemy airships. No crews were permanently stationed here at this time however, but as time went on ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in, and await the call to arms should an airship raid take place over East Anglia.
The first recorded arrival was in August 1915, an event that would keep the site in use by the RNAS for the next ten months, before being designated as surplus to requirements and handed over to the RFC in June 1916.
It was in June 1916 that the first RFC squadron would make use of Narborough as an airfield, 35 Sqn transferring over here from Thetford with Vickers FB.5 and FE.2bs. disposing of their DH2s and Henry Farman F.20s in the process. Within two months of their arrival, the nucleus of the squadron would then be used to form a new unit, 59 Sqn, also here at Narborough, under the command of Lieutenant A.C. Horsburgh with the RE8s. Narborough was already beginning to grow.
It was in that same month, that the perils of war would be brought home to those based at Narborough, when one of 59 Sqn’s pilots, Lt. Gordon William Hall, was killed when the DH.1 (4631) he was flying, side slipped on approach to the airfield crashing as a result. A court of enquiry confirmed that the aircraft had been “banked too steeply” and that the pilot had put the aircraft into a dive that made it uncontrollable. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded against Lt. Hall.*2
In August, it was the turn of 35 Sqn to suffer its first fatality in a non too dissimilar accident. On the 29th, an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.3 (6201), was written off after it too side slipped and dived following a slow turn. The Pilot – Air Mechanic 1st Class – Moses Boyd was tragically killed in the accident flying an aircraft that was based at Thetford but undertaking a training exercise here at Narborough. Already, the dangers of flying were becoming all too apparent and the glamour of flying was becoming tarnished.
Within two months, another 35 Sqn aircraft would also crash, this time one of the two crewmen, pilot 2nd Lt. Robert Leslie Edward would escape with just injuries. The observer, 2nd Lt Ernest Hildreth, however, was not so lucky and was killed in the resultant crash.
As the First World War raged on the European continent, the demand for aircraft was growing. It was quickly developing into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. To fill vacant spaces and meet high demand, training programmes were rushed into place, meaning Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered very basic by any standards, recruits only had to pass a number of tests before being sent to the front. Written examinations followed up by twenty hours solo flying, cross-country flights and two successful landings, were followed by flying for fifteen minutes at 8,000 feet and landing with a cut engine. Barely enough experience to see anyone through a violent war.
During these flights, these daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the awe-inspired locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads to watch. As they were quickly learning though, life was not always ‘fun’, and the dangers of the craft were ever present. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare, even ‘minor’ accidents could prove fatal. The local church yard at Narborough, paying testament to their dangerous career with fourteen of the eighteen graves present being RFC/RAF related.
The RFC was now building in strength, not only in its front line units but in its reserves too. On November 2nd, 1916 a new reserve squadron was constituted and formed here at Narborough, 48 (Reserve) Squadron (RS). Models flown by the unit at this time included the Grahame White XV, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn and Sopwith’s Pup. Over the next period of time, there followed a number of other reserve units: No 50, 53 and 64 (Reserve) Squadron (later designated Training Squadrons*3) all passing through Narborough at some point. However, and even with this large influx of personnel in these early days, Narborough was not to be the most exotic of locations.
As a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described by one ‘resident’ as a “desolate God-forsaken place“*4. It was soon realised by the authorities that new buildings needed to be erected for not only accommodation, but for training and maintenance roles as well. In response, a total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars, and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. A development that would by the end of the war, see some 1,000 personnel based here at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.
Meanwhile the threat from Zeppelins had not yet receded, and as a result 1916 would close with a small detachment of 51 Sqn BE.12s tasked with attacking these marauding menaces. Whilst primarily based at Hingham, 51 Sqn would have detachments spread across a number of East Anglia airfields, all preparing to meet the continued threat from Germany’s enormous airships.
With increasing numbers of squadrons and men being required for front line units in France, both 35 and 59 Squadrons departed Narborough in early 1917, and by the end of February both were gone.
This left the reserves at Narborough, and it wouldn’t be long before they too suffered causalities. The first of these to lose a valuable pilot was 50 RS on March 30th 1917. A young Canadian, not yet out of his teens, 2nd Lt. Allen Ingham Murphy, was killed when his Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 ‘A2720’ stalled whilst turning after take off. 2nd Lt. Murphy was the first of four casualties from the units that year – training young pilots was not getting any easier.
This danger was made no more obvious than on October 29th, when two aircraft, both from 50 RS were lost in separate accidents. The first an Armstrong Whitworth FK.8 (A2730) side slipped during a turn and nose dived into the ground killing both crewmen, 2Lt. Norman Victor Spear (aged 29) and Air. Mech. 1 Sidney Walter Burrell (age 22). The second aircraft, also an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 (B219) spun off a low climbing turn also killing its pilot 2Lt. Laurence Edward Stuart Vaile (aged 23). It was indeed a black day for 50 RS and a stark reminder to the trainees.
In October and December two more units bolstered the numbers of trainees at Narborough. Firstly, 1 Training Squadron were formed here on October 1st, whilst 83 Sqn, born out of 18 (Reserve) Squadron (RS), arrived at Narborough during December that year bringing a range of aircraft that they quickly swapped for FE.2bs.
83 Squadron soon departed Narborough though, heading to France in March 1918 where they performed attacks on troop concentrations, attempting to stem the early spring offensive.
On June 8th, 1917 Lt. Hubert J. Game was killed when the B.E.2e (A2794) he was flying suffered a catastrophic wing failure when pulling out of a dive whilst looping the loop. Lt. Game was originally a Lieutenant in the Royal
Field Artillery (RFA) and was attached to 53 (Training) Sqn RFC at Narborough, when he was tragically killed. Hubert was the younger brother of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Philip Woolcott Game, and was just 26 years old at the time of his death. He is another one of those whose grave lays a short distance away from the site of Narborough airfield.
The occurrences of these tragic accidents were becoming so frequent, that one instructor, Capt. W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ later cited spies as the cause of many ‘accidents’ – tampering with machines causing the deaths of the crews on board. Johns, himself having written of many machines, believed Americans with German sounding names were to blame for aircraft breaking up in mid-air or crashing at the bottom of loops. More likely, the fault lay with over exuberant or poorly trained recruits.
As the war drew to a close, one further squadron would be formed here at Narborough. On New Year’s day 1918, 121 Squadron were formed here, initially created to use DH.9s, they instead flew a variety of aircraft until they moved out to Filton in mid August. Shortly after their arrival here they were disbanded.
The last months of the war had no let up in training. Keen to join the RFC young men continued to train to fly. In mid February 1918 two 18 year old boys would perhaps be fulfilling a dream when it all went tragically wrong. Flying a DH.4, 2Lt. John Fyffe Shaw and 2Lt. Charles Arkley Law were both killed after the aircraft’s engine failed causing it to stall and then nose dive into the ground.
By August, war was over, and the the big wind down of squadrons would soon begin. At Narborough, two squadrons 69 (Training) Squadron and 26 (Reserve) Squadron would both merge to form a new 22 Training Depot Station. Many other similar units would soon follow suit and either disband or merge. This dramatic wind down continued on into, and beyond, 1919. In February, both 56 Sqn and 64 Sqn arrived as cadres; 64 Sqn was disbanded here later that year whilst 56 transferred to Bircham Newton where they too were disbanded later that same year. A third squadron, 60 Sqn also suffered the same fate, arriving as a cadre mid February before themselves being sent to Bircham Newton and disbandment.
With one last roll of the dice in mid March 1919, 55 Training Deport Station also disbanded here at Narborough, but out of the ashes was born a new unit 55 Training Squadron. With that though, Narborough was heading for closure, its days now over, it was soon to be surplus to requirements.
The post war years then saw the closure of many of Britain’s war time airfields including Narborough. But unlike its sister station RAF Marham a mile or so away, it would remain closed. The buildings were all sold off in what was considered to be one of the biggest auctions in Norfolk, with some of them going to local farmers, other for small industrial units, some to schools and the like, Narborough was now scattered to the four corners of the county. The remainder of the site was sold to the farmer and it quickly returned to agriculture, a state it remains in today. Some of these original buildings are reputed to still exist at various locations around the area today, whether that is true or not, is difficult to ascertain, but most have long since succumbed to age, the inevitable deterioration and eventual demolition.
Narborough itself having no hard runways or perimeter tracks has long since gone. A small memorial has been erected by a local group aiming to promote and preserve the memory of Narborough, a memorial plaque also marks the graves of those who never made it to France; and the small Narborough Museum & Heritage Centre holds exhibits of 59 Squadron in the local church.
Significant not only in size, but in its history, Narborough has now been relegated to the history books. But with the dedication and determination of a few people the importance and historical significance of this site will hopefully continue to influence not only the aviators of tomorrow, but also the public of today.
Sources and further Reading (Narborough)
*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 14/6/21
*2 RAF Museum Story Vault Website accessed 14/6/21
*3 On May 31st 1917, all RFC ‘Reserve Squadrons’ were renamed ‘Training Squadrons’.
*4 Letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk
Narborough appears in Trail 7.