November 7th 1945 – World Air Speed Record Herne Bay.

Trail 44 takes a look at the aviation highlights of the North Kent Coast in the small town of Herne Bay and its neighbour Reculver. It was here, on November 7th 1945, that the World Air Speed record was set in a ‘duel’ between two Gloster Meteors, as they raced across the Kent Sky.

On that day, two Meteor aircraft were prepared in which two pilots, both flying for different groups, would attempt to set a new World Air Speed record over a set course along Herne Bay’s seafront. The first aircraft was piloted by Group Captain Hugh Joseph Wilson, CBE, AFC (the Commandant of the Empire Test Pilots’ School, Cranfield); and the second by Mr. Eric Stanley Greenwood O.B.E., Gloster’s own chief test pilot. In a few hours time both men would have the chance to have their names entered in the history books of aviation by breaking through the 600mph air speed barrier.

The event was run in line with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale‘s rules, covering in total, an 8 mile course flown at, or below, 250 feet. For the attempt, there would be four runs in total by each pilot, two east-to-west and two west-to-east.

With good but not ideal weather, Wilson’s aircraft took off from the former RAF Manston, circling over Thanet before lining his aircraft up for the run in. Following red balloon markers along the shoreline, Wilson flew along the 8 mile course at 250 feet between Reculver Point and  Herne Bay Pier toward the Isle of Sheppey. Above Sheppey, (and below 1,300 ft) Wilson would turn his aircraft and line up for the next run, again at 250ft.

Initial results showed Greenwood achieving the higher speeds, and these were eagerly flashed around the world. However, after confirmation from more sophisticated timing equipment, it was later confirmed that the higher speed was in fact achieved by Wilson, whose recorded speeds were: 604mph, 608mph, 602mph and 611mph, giving an average speed of just over 606mph. Eric Greenwood’s flights were also confirmed, but slightly slower at:  599mph, 608mph, 598mph and 607mph, giving an overall average speed of 603mph. The actual confirmed and awarded speed over the four runs was 606.38mph by Wilson*1.

The event was big news around the world, a reporter for ‘The Argus*2‘ – a Melbourne newspaper – described how both pilots used only two-thirds of their permitted power, and how they both wanted permission to push the air speed even higher, but both were denied at the time.

In the following day’s report*3, Greenwood described what it was like flying at over 600 mph for the very first time.

As I shot across the course of three kilometres (one mile seven furlongs), my principal  worry was to keep my eye on the light on the pier, for it was the best guiding beacon there was. On my first run I hit a bump, got a wing down, and my nose slewed off a bit, but I got back on the course. Below the sea appeared to be rushing past like an out-of-focus picture.

I could not see the Isle of Sheppey, toward which I was heading, because visibility was not all that I wanted.

At 600mph it is a matter of seconds before you are there. It came up just where I  expected it. In the cockpit I was wearing a tropical helmet, grey flannel bags, a white silk shirt, and ordinary shoes. The ride was quite comfortable, and not as bumpy as some practice runs. I did not have time to pay much attention to the gauges and meters, but I could see that my air speed indicator was bobbing round the 600mph mark.

On the first run I only glanced at the altimeter on the turns, so that I should not go too high. My right hand was kept pretty busy on the stick (control column), and my left hand was. throbbing on the two throttle levers.

Greenwood went on to describe how it took four attempts to start the upgraded engines, delaying his attempt by an hour…

I had to get in and out of the cockpit four times before the engines finally started. A technical hitch delayed me for about an hour, and all the time I was getting colder and colder. At last I got away round about 11.30am. 

He described in some detail the first and second runs…

On the first run I had a fleeting glance at the blurred coast, and saw quite a crowd of onlookers on the cliffs. I remembered that my wife was watching me, and I found that there was time to wonder what she was thinking. I knew that she would be more worried than I was, and it struck me that the sooner I could get the thing over the sooner her fears would be put at rest.

On my first turn toward the Isle of Sheppey I was well lined up for passing over the Eastchurch airfield, where visibility was poor for this high-speed type of flying. The horizon had completely disappeared, and I turned by looking down at the ground and hoping that, on coming out of the bank, I would be pointing at two balloons on the pier 12 miles ahead. They were not visible at first.

All this time my air speed indicator had not dropped below 560 mph, in spite of my back-throttling slightly. Then the guiding light flashed from the pier, and in a moment I saw the balloons, so I knew that I was all right for that.

On the return run of my first circuit the cockpit began to get hot. It was for all the world like a tropical-summer day. Perspiration began to collect on my forehead. I did not want it to cloud my eyes, so for the fraction of a second I took my hands off the controls and wiped the sweat off with the back of my gloved hand. I had decided not to wear goggles, as the cockpit was completely sealed. I had taken the precaution, however, of leaving my oxygen turned on, because I thought that it was just that little extra care that might prevent my getting the feeling of “Don’t fence me in.”

Normally I don’t suffer from a feeling of being cooked up in an aircraft, but the Meteor’s cockpit was so completely sealed up that I was not certain how I should feel. As all had gone well, and I had got half-way through the course I checked up my fuel content gauges to be sure that I had plenty of paraffin to complete the job.

I passed over Manston airfield on the second run rather farther east than I had hoped, so my turn took me farther out to sea than I had budgeted for. But I managed to line up again quite satisfactorily, and I opened up just as I was approaching Margate pier at a height of 800 feet. My speed was then 560 mph.

Whilst the first run was smooth, the second he said, “Shook the base of his spine”.

This second run was not so smooth, for I hit a few bumps, which shook the base of my spine. Hitting air bumps at 600 mph is like falling down stone steps—a series of nasty jars. But the biffs were not bad enough to make me back-throttle, and I passed over the line without incident, except that I felt extremely hot and clammy.

After he had completed his four attempts, Greenwood described how he had difficulty in lowering his airspeed to enable him to land safely…

At the end of my effort I came to one of the most difficult jobs of the lot. It was to lose speed after having travelled at 600 mph. I started back-throttling immediately after I had finished my final run, but I had to circuit Manston airfield three times before I got my speed down to 200mph.

The two Meteor aircraft were especially modified for the event. Both originally built as MK.III aircraft – ‘EE454’ (Britannia ) and ‘EE455’ (Yellow Peril) – they had the original engines replaced with Derwent Mk.V turbojets (a scaled-down version of the RB.41 Nene) increasing the thrust to a maximum of 4,000 lbs at sea level – for the runs though, this would be limited to 3,600 lbs each. Other modifications included: reducing and strengthening the canopy; lightening the air frames by removal of all weaponry; smoothing of all flying surfaces; sealing of trim tabs, along with shortening and reshaping of the wings – all of which would go toward making the aircraft as streamlined as possible.

Related image

EE455 ‘Yellow Peril’ was painted in an all yellow scheme (with silver outer wings) to make itself more visible for recording cameras.*4

An official application for the record was submitted to the International Aeronautical Federation for world recognition. As it was announced, Air-Marshal Sir William Coryton (former commander of 5 Group) said that: “Britain had hoped to go farther, but minor defects had developed in ‘Britannia’. There was no sign of damage to the other machine“, he went on to say.

Wilson, born at Westminster, London, England, 28th May 1908, initially received a short service commission, after which he rose through the ranks of the Royal Air Force eventually being placed on the Reserves Officers list. With the outbreak of war, Flt. Lt. Wilson was recalled and assigned as Commanding Officer to the Aerodynamic Flight, R.A.E. Farnborough. A year after promotion to the rank of Squadron Leader in 1940, he was appointed chief test pilot at the Royal Aircraft Establishment (R.A.E.) who were then testing captured enemy aircraft. He was promoted to Wing Commander, 20th August 1945, retiring on 20th June 1948 as a Group Captain.

Eric Greenwood, Gloster’s Chief Test Pilot, was credited with the first pilot to exceed 600 miles per hour in level flight, and was awarded the O.B.E. on 13th June 1946.

His career started straight from school, learning to fly at No. 5 F.T.S. at Sealand in 1928. He was then posted to 3 Sqn. at Upavon flying Hawker Woodcocks and Bristol Bulldogs before taking an instructors course, a role he continued in until the end of his commission. After leaving the R.A.F., Greenwood joined up with Lord Malcolm Douglas Hamilton (later Group Captain), performing barnstorming flying and private charter flights in Scotland.

Greenwood then flew to the far East to help set up the Malayan Air Force under the guise of the Penang Flying Club. His time here was adventurous, flying some 2,000 hours in adapted Tiger Moths. His eventual return to England saw him flying for the Armstrong Whitworth, Hawker and Gloster companies, before being sent as chief test pilot to the Air Service Training (A.S.T.) at Hamble in 1941. Here he would test modified U.S. built aircraft such as the Airocobra, until the summer of 1944 when he moved back to Gloster’s – again as test pilot.

It was whilst here at Gloster’s that Greenwood would break two world air speed records, both within two weeks of each other. Pushing a Meteor passed both the 500mph and 600mph barriers meant that the R.A.F. had a fighter that could not only match many of its counterparts but one that had taken aviation to new record speeds.

During the trials for the Meteor, Greenwood and Wilson were joined by Captain Eric ‘Winkle’ Brown, who between them tested the slimmed-down and ‘lacquered until it shone’ machine, comparing  drag coefficients with standard machines. Every inch of power had to be squeezed from the engine as reheats were still in their infancy and much too dangerous to use in such trials.

To mark this historic event, two plaques were made, but never, it would seem, displayed. Reputed to have been saved from a council skip, they were initially thought to have been placed in a local cafe, after the cliffs – where they were meant to be displayed – collapsed. The plaques were however left in the council’s possession, until saved by an eagle-eyed employee. Today, they are located in the RAF Manston History Museum where they remain on public display.

RAF Manston History Museum

One of the two plaques now on display at the RAF Manston History Museum.

To mark the place in Herne Bay where this historic event took place, an information board has been added, going some small way to paying tribute to the men and machines who set the world alight with a new World Air Speed record only a few hundred feet from where it stands.

Part of the Herne Bay Tribute to the World Air Speed Record set by Group Captain H.J. Wilson (note the incorrect speed given).

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Guinness World Records website accessed 22/8/17.

*2 The Argus News report, Thursday November 8th 1945 (website) (Recorded readings quoted in this issue were incorrect, the correct records were given in the following day’s issue).

*3 The Argus News report, Thursday November 9th 1945 (website)

*4 Photo from Special Hobby website.

The RAF Manston History Museum website has details of opening times and location.

The Manston Spitfire and Hurricane Memorial museum website has details of opening times and location.

Sqn. Ldr. Edgar A. Good (RCAF)

On a recent visit to Houghton Hall in Norfolk, I came across a small church in the grounds, which held a number of graves belonging to those who had lived in the nearby village.

One of these was that of a pilot, 29 year old Squadron Leader, Edgar Andrew Good (s/n: C/18640), of 280 Squadron RAF Thornaby, North Yorkshire.

It turns out that Sqn. Ldr. Good was a Canadian, killed whilst undertaking an Air Sea Rescue (ASR) mission on 13th November 1943, whilst flying in a Vickers Warwick.

The Warwick was a Vickers Armstrong aircraft, issued to the squadron in October 1943. The aircraft was originally intended to be a bomber, built to meet specification B.1/35 it would be the largest twin-engined aircraft to serve during World War 2. It had a striking resemblance to the Wellington, utilising Barnes Wallis’s geodetic design. Models operating in the ASR role were capable of carrying Lindholme rescue gear and/or droppable lifeboats.

On 13th November 1943, three crews were briefed at Thornaby and ordered out to perform a search and rescue operation for a missing aircrew. Sqn. Ldr. Good departed at 16:40 and headed toward the Dutch coast where it was thought the aircraft had come down. After searching the area, nothing was seen and so the three aircraft began their return leg to RAF Thornaby across the North Sea.

On approaching the British coastline, the weather deteriorated significantly and the aircraft entered a thunderstorm. Two of the aircraft including Sqn. Ldr. Good’s Warwick (BV336) were struck by lightning, suffering damage to electronic equipment and loss of the radio. Severe turbulence and icing then caused further problems, making the Warwick difficult to control. Over land the weather failed to improve and control of the aircraft appears to have been lost by Sqn. Ldr. Good.

With no communication with the ground, the Warwick then entered a spin diving onto the ground at an area known as Sleights Moor, near Whitby in Yorkshire. There were no survivors.

The crew of Warwick BV336 were:

Squadron Leader Edgar Andrew Good, (pilot) s/n: C/18640
Flying Officer Willis Wylie Coons, (navigator) s/n: J/17250
Flying Officer Dennis Maurice Stewart, (wireless op. and air gunner) s/n: 115344
Flight Sgt. William Vernon Crockett, (wireless op. and air gunner) s/n: R/98771
Flight Sgt. Douglas Allan Payton, (wireless op. and air gunner) s/n: R/105266
Warrant Officer Henry George Richardson, (air gunner) s/n: 1377980

The second Warwick struck by lightning also entered a dive, but he pilot of this aircraft managed to regain control and return to Thornaby without further problems.

Although flying with the Canadian Air Force, Sqn. Ldr. Good was the Son of Nickolai Andreyev and Nina Andreyevna. After hod father died, his mother married Joseph Good (husband of Elaine Blair Good). The family eventually left Russia emigrating to Canada living in Montreal after becoming naturalised Canadians in 1922. After studying in both Canada and the US, Edgar then joined the RAF obtaining his wings in 1937. He was then sent to RAF Bircham Newton, where he would later return to and 280 Sqn.

The inscription on his headstone reads:

All that you hoped for, all you had, you gave to save mankind…”
Air Sea Rescue Service.

He is buried in Houghton (St. Martin) Churchyard (Houghton Hall).

Sqn. Ldr. Edgar Andrew Good

The grave of Squadron Leader, Good.

Sources:

Commonwealth War Graves Commission website.

Aviation-safety website.

RAF Downham Market (Part 2 – D-Day to the War’s End)

In Part 1 Downham was born, serving the Stirlings of Bomber Command before becoming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. A large airfield, it was often busy and as the war progressed toward D-Day, preparations began for operations over the invasion area.

On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.

The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a  diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.

At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.

Downham Market Cemetery

F.Sgt. Stanley Wharton (RAFVR) 635 Sqn. One of seven Killed 4th June 1944.

Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.

On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.

During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.

608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.

The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.

On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.

The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.

By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.

last raid - Kiel canal ground & air crew photo 2 May 1945 at Downham Market found by Brian Emsley, Welwyn G, father Edward Emsley far left httpwww.bbc.co.uknewseducation-32532153

A recently discovered photograph showing a D.H. Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal. It shows Ground & Aircrew next to their Mosquito and ‘Cookie’. It was found by Brian Emsley,  his father Edward Emsley is far left.*

With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.

"CIVVY STREET COURSE" IN R.A.F. PATHFINDER GROUP

1945 – Landscape and floral gardening are subjects given in the E.V.T. classes at Downham Market. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pickersgill [centre] is now the station instructor. (IWM CH16028)

RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.

Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.

At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.

The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.

Downham Market Runway remains

The remnants of the main runway. Sadly this has now also been removed. It was this runway that utilised FIDO.

The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!

Battle Headquarters

A flooded Battle Headquarters. Several rooms exist below ground level, but these are all flooded, some said to be very deep.

Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.

Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.

RAF Downham Market

Buildings on the WAAF site.

The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works.  This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.

looking back to accomodation area

The sewage site. Through the trees you can see the remains of Communal Site 2.

Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.

The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.

In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.

In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.

Trail 7 next leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich, stopping off at RAF Marham. On the way, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.

Sources and further reading (Downham Market).

* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.

Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350

*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5

*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5

*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006

The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Downham Market (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 7, we visited the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. In this part of the trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.

Not far from RAF Marham, we return to this once busy airfield to see what is left and take another look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)

Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.

Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.

RAF Downham Market

One of the several buildings surviving at Downham Market.

Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.

Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.

Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.

On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.

On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.

Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.

On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret),  the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.

In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.

In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.

Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use.  It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.

Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.

The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.

One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others  escaping with injuries.

With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.

In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts that were left on the airfield.

However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.

The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.

In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.

The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.

Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.

The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.

RAF Downham Market

The remains of the Technical site looking toward the airfield.

635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.

The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.

Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.

635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI  from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.

A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito.  In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.

The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.

Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.

This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.

In Part 2, we see how Downham takes part in D-Day, the end of the war approaches but operations continue and Downham remains busy. After the war, the airfield is used for other purposes, and eventually closes. We then see what remains today and ask what does the future hold?

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.