After part 1, we return to Snailwell, to see how the American influence played its part at Snailwell and how the build- up to D-day affected life at this small grassed airfield.
The squadron was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group (FG) who would eventually transfer to the Middle East. It would be the 347th’s sister squadron the 346th who would later convert Hurricane Mk I #LB640 target tug into a two-seat liaison plane.
Hurricane Mk I #LB640 after being converted into a two-seat liaison plane. IWM (UPL 17052)
As they were a new squadron the 347th would initially have no ground echelon, they were still being formed and prepared for transportation over the Atlantic from their base at Harding Field, Louisiana. They would arrive in the UK in the November and after a short period at Snailwell, the entire squadron would move out to RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, before moving away to the warmer climate of the Middle East.
The winter of 1942/43 saw further detachments being based here at Snailwell. In conjunction with the US forces were No. 170 Sqn, who remained here from the end of October through the winter until February 1943. After a short spell away they made a brief one day stop over before being moved to RAF Odiham.
The January of 1943 saw yet more short stays. On the 17th No. 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, No. 182 Sqn were finding it hard to get in any flying at all, as the heavy winter rains had clogged up the metal PSP runways with thick mud preventing the aircraft from taking off.
Two days earlier 70 ground personnel had been dispatched from Sawbridgeworth to Snailwell in preparation for the forthcoming training operation. Operation “Shatter” as it was designated, would be a mock attack on gun emplacements on the outskirts of Thetford Forest. On the 17th, the ten aircraft were sent from RAF Sawbridgeworth led by Sqn. Ldr Pugh along with a further four from the detachment at RAF Hunsdon. On arrival they found their sister squadron, 181 Sqn also with Typhoons, already here for the Army Cooperation training operation. A large party was given that night in honour of the new 182 Sqn crews. The next day, a preliminary attack was made on the target by eleven 182 Sqn aircraft, who made runs over both the dummy and real guns in a “full frontal attack”. The following day, a complete squadron attack was made with the aircraft having to be airborne in under 4.5 minutes. For the first time since forming, all the canons on the Typhoons are fully loaded with live ammunition and a full squadron scramble was undertaken.
Aerial photograph of Snailwell airfield looking south, 26 July 1942 (IWM RAF_FNO_67_V_6032)
In the afternoon a four ship formation was loaded up with 2 x 250 lb bombs and a further attack was made. This attack ended the training session for 182 Sqn and the next day they return to the muddy runways of Sawbridgeworth.
Two months later on March 8th 1943, 181 Sqn was reunited with her other sister squadron No. 183 Sqn here at Snailwell. After a number of short training flights covering just four days, 183 Sqn departed the Cambridgeshire airfield leaving 181 Sqn here until the end of the month.
Throughout 1943 much of the same was to happen, short stays for training missions were the order of the day. No. 309 Sqn flew the Mustang MK.I and Hurricane VIs. The Polish squadron became renowned amongst the Allies when F/Lt Janusz Lewkowicz flew a Mustang I to Norway and back strafing targets at Stavanger just to prove the point that the Mustang had the range!
Another squadron, 613 Sqn also brought their Mustangs along in July, and No. 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. No.247 Sqn brought back the mighty Typhoon, each of these squadrons carrying out training flights, some for as little as two days others for more prolonged periods.
As the end of 1943 drew a line under the busy ebb and flow of visiting squadrons, 1944 would see a rather more settled year. After a single RAF squadron, No. 527 Sqn, moved in and then out two months later, the build up to D-day would see big changes at Snailwell.
The invasion of Europe was destined to be the largest invasion build up the world had ever seen, and southern England was to be the primary area in which this build up would take place. With the creation of the Ninth Air Force, whose primary purpose was to provide assistance to the forth coming Normandy landings, more and more airfields were going to be required. Whilst front line units would be directly involved in operations over the Normandy coast, there would need to be a major service and maintenance support network, if the invasion were to succeed. This service was to be carried out by a series of six Tactical Air Depots (TAD) all falling under the command of the IX Air Force Service Command, via two Advanced Air Depot Areas (AADA).
One of these depots, the 3rd Tactical Air Depot based at RAF Grove some 55 miles from London, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of Douglas A-20 ‘Havocs’ and P-61 ‘Black Widows’. Because of the increasing demand for maintenance facilities, the 3rd TAD took over the facilities at RAF Snailwell, moving in two Mobile Repair and Maintenance Squadrons, the 33rd and 41st, in preparation for maintenance operations. Their primary role was to make field modifications to the aircraft in preparation for operational roles, as a result of which the A-20s became a regular feature around the airfield. After only a short time though it was realised that the 41st would not be required here, and so they returned to RAF Grove. To replace them, a specialist team were brought in – the 51st Service Squadron. By the time D-day had passed, the pressure at Grove had subsided and so both units were able to return home from Snailwell. With that, the American connection with Snailwell ended.
As the war drew to a close so too did both operational flying and training flights. The RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School used the airfield sharing it with nearby RAF Bottisham. In March 1946, the Belgians pulled out returning to their own country now free from the Nazi tyranny that had dominated it for so long.
Snailwell then closed, standing empty and gradually returning to agricultural use. Many of the buildings were pulled down but some hung on for several years being used for agricultural purposes. The Blister hanger, sheds and training buildings remained for a number of years, certainly until the mid 1990s, but gradually even these were removed with little evidence of their existence being left today. The airfield was then dissected by a major road development in 1975, remaining parts being bought up by the British Horse Racing School who now own a large portion of the former airfield. High hedges and gated access restrict most access to the former site, (the Icknield Way long-distance route does pass along side these tracks and borders the former airfield from which remnants can be seen) leaving the last few sections of concrete hanging on as reminders of the airfields once proud and hectic existence.
With a mix of repair and maintenance units added to the pot, the war years for Snailwell were far from slow. The regular ebb and flow of detached units for training flights, and the occasional permanent flying unit, saw a wide range of aircraft types and nationalities grace the skies of this small area of Eastern Cambridgeshire. With little evidence of its existence left today, Snailwell, and its proud history, would seem to have been lost, replaced by Horse racing and the desire for the high stakes demanded by the equestrian market.
From Snailwell, we head west, deeper in to the area owned by the Horse racing fraternity. Here we see on every street corner evidence of this now popular sport, well groomed bushes that surround neatly cut turfs, on what now remains of Britain’s wartime heritage. Our next stop on Trail 55, is the pinnacle of these activities, the former RAF Newmarket Heath.
Sources and Further Reading.
*1 Official Directorate of Works drawing (WA7/395/41) IWM UPL 17710
In the latest Trail around Britain’s airfields, we visit four airfields so close that as the crow flys, they are a mere 12.5 km from the first to the last. It is an area to the east of Cambridge, a large University City that now dwarfs the River Cam the narrow waterway that gave the city its name. The final airfield we visit lies on the outskirts of the city itself, and is probably more famous for its more recent operations under Marshalls of Cambridge, the Aerospace and Defence Group.
Our first stop though takes us through prime horse racing land, through the home of the Jockey Club and an area divided into studs and stabling, not for live stock, but for horses.
Our first stop in Trail 55 is the former RAF Snailwell, a small airfield where life was far from slow!
RAF Snailwell (USAAF Station 361).
Snailwell lies just outside of the town of Newmarket in the county of Cambridgeshire now infinitely famous for its horse racing. The village of Snailwell from which the airfield takes its name, lies on the northern edge of the former airfield which is now owned, as is much of this area, by the British Racing School who vehemently protect it from prying eyes.
Sitting to the north of the Bury St. Edmunds railway line, the airfield opened in the Spring of 1941, after the levelling of ten Bronze age Barrows (ancient burial grounds) as a satellite for RAF Duxford located to the south-west. The airfield would go through an ever changing number of roles including: Army Co-Operation, training, and as a fighter base performing low-level attacks on shipping and land based targets. It would also see a wide range of aircraft types from the small trainer to the powerful tank-buster the Typhoon. Opened as a technical training airfield, it passed to the control of No 28 (Technical Training) Group whose headquarters were located in London. It fell under the command of Air Commodore John Charles ‘Paddy’ Quinnell, an avid lover of sailing who had a distinguished military history that extended back to 1914, first with the Royal Artillery and then with the Royal Flying Corps.
As a small grass airfield, Snailwell was by no means insignificant. It had three grass runways the largest being just short of 1,700 yards long, whilst the second and third were 1,400 yards in length. The main runway crossed the airfield on a south-west to north-east direction protruding out of the main airfield area. Aircraft were dispersed on concrete hardstands, a mix of twelve ‘Fighter’ style Type B hardstands (capable of holding two aircraft side by side but separated by a bank) along with two 50 ft diameter ‘frying pan’ style stands. They also had the use of a Bellman hangar, and ten blister hangars for servicing and maintenance of aircraft*1.
To the north, hidden amongst the trees was a bomb store, with separate fusing buildings, tail stores, incendiary and component stores, access to the site being via a 12 ft wide concrete road.
In all, there were only a few permanent personnel at the airfield, accommodation was only erected for around 1,100 officers and enlisted men in Nissen huts over just two sites; Dormitory site 1 and 2, which were supplemented with a mess site and sick quarters. It is known that later users were camped in tents around the airfield perimeter – not ideal accommodation by any means. Unusually, the technical area was widely spread with many buildings being away from the airfield hub. The watch office, at the centre of this hub, was designed to 12779/41 and had an adjoining meteorological office attached, an unusual addition for this type. There was also a wide range of buildings, AMT trainer, two Link trainers, flight offices, sleeping shelters, parachute stores, fire tender huts and numerous associated maintenance stores and sheds.
During construction of the airfield a local road was closed, and a lodge, built at the turn of the century, utilised as a guard room for the airfield. This building later passed to the Jockey Club for use by its employees.
The initial users of the airfield were the Army Co-operation Squadron No. 268 Sqn RAF, who arrived at Snailwell with Lysander IIIs on April 1st 1941. Being a slow aircraft it was ideal as a reconnaissance aircraft, flying patrols along the coast of East Anglia, looking for any sign of an invasion force. After arriving at Snailwell from Bury St. Edmunds, the three Echelons immediately began training, three photographic sorties taking place on the very day they arrived. In the days that followed, combined Army and Air Force exercises were the order of the day, after which the squadron took part in intensive gas training along with routine flying. However, 268 Sqn would not settle here, yo-yoing between Snailwell and numerous other stations no less than eleven times between their first arrival, and their last departure to RAF Odiham on May 31st 1943.
A Lysander at Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow 2019.
In the May of 1941, 268 Sqn would swap their ‘Lizzies’ (as they were affectionately known) for the Tomahawk IIA, an aircraft they kept until changing again to the better performing Mustang I a year later. These Tomahawks would perform a range of duties including – whilst based at RAF Barton Bendish in Norfolk – early morning ‘attacks’ on Snailwell as part of a Station Defence Exercise. These involved mock gas and parachute attacks along with low-level strafing runs. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight.
During the August of 1941 the first of Snailwell’s many short stay squadrons would arrive. No. 152 Squadron would use Snailwell for a period of just one week whilst transiting to nearby RAF Swanton Morley. Operating the sleek Spitfire IIA, the brain child of R.J. Mitchell, they would perform fighter sweeps, along with convoy and bomber escort duties. Arriving on the 25th, the only major event occurred on the 28th when the squadron escorted seventeen Blenheims to Rotterdam, Sgt. Savage being the only 152 Sqn pilot to be lost during the mission. The next day, ‘A’ flight searched for signs of him, but sadly found no wreckage nor any sign of Sgt. Savage.
Being a small airfield Snailwell was often home to detachments of squadrons, usually whilst on training. One such unit arriving on November 31st when No. 137 Sqn posted a detachment here whilst the main body of the squadron stayed at RAF Matlaske further north in Norfolk. Operating the heavily armed escort fighter the Westland Whirlwind, they would perform escort duties for Lysanders, searches for downed aircraft and ‘X’ raid interception duties. Many of their patrols covered Great Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast in an area to the east of the airfield.
Designed in 1937, the Whirlwind had many teething problems with the engines proving to be a particular issue. After purchasing only 112 examples of the model, No. 137 would be one of only two squadrons who would use it in any operational role. After moving to Matlaske, No. 137 began a series of training operations, posting a detachment of aircraft to Snailwell whilst preparing to commence anti-shipping operations in the North Sea. Once operationally ready, the unit moved north to RAF Drem (August 1942) before returning once more to Matlaske where further training would take place; ‘B’ Flight replaced ‘A’ Flight at Snailwell until both were reunited at Snailwell in late August. Anti shipping operations continued from Matlaske, with their final sortie occurring on August 20th in which an enemy Ju 88 was intercepted – the aircraft evading its pursuers in bad weather. Moving across to reunite the squadron on the 24th, No.137 would perform their first operational sortie from Snailwell in early September, a feint attack against Lille. Designed to attract the Luftwaffe fighters into a trap, the twelve Whirlwinds and their fighter escorts failed to sight one enemy plane and all returned to their respective bases not having fired a shot. After this, the Whirlwinds were fitted with bombs and further training followed, but by mid September, they had left Snailwell and were heading for RAF Manston in Kent.
The summer of 1942 would be a busy period for Snailwell, with several squadrons utilising the airfield. At the end of March No. 56 (Punjab) Squadron would bring the Hawker Typhoon MK.IA, a model they would begin replacing virtually immediately with the MK.IB. The April of that year was mainly taken up with practice formation flying and aircraft interception flights, before the squadron also moved to Manston in Kent. No. 56 Sqn would return briefly to Snailwell over the June / August period, but this would be short and they would then depart the airfield for good.
On June 15th 1942, a new squadron would be formed here at Snailwell. Under the command of Sqn. Ldr. F.G. Watson-Smyth, it would have two flights ‘A’ and ‘B’, each led by a Flight Lieutenant. No. 168 Sqn, initially flying the Curtiss Tomahawk II, was formed from the nucleus of No. 268 Sqn, and would remain here only until their aircraft and equipment had arrived. Being allocated RAF Bottisham as their main station, they would stay at Snailwell for a mere month. During this time aircraft would have their squadron numbers painted on, and Sqn, Ldr. Spear would give dual flying training to all pilots in a Fairy Battle.
Toward the end of June Sqn. Ldrs. Watson-Smyth and Bowen would visit Bottisham to discuss and prepare the accommodation arrangements for the squadron’s forthcoming arrival. Further deliveries of supplies took place and by the 26th there were seven Tomahawks on charge. On the 13th July, at 14:35 hrs, twelve Tomahawks took off from Snailwell and flew in formation to their new base at Bottisham, a mere stones throw from their current location. The move had begun and 168 Sqn would leave Snailwell for good.
In the August, whilst transiting to North Africa, No.614 Sqn would place a detachment of their Blenheim Vs here, a further detachment being placed at Weston Zoyland with the main body of the squadron at Odiham. Coinciding with this was also a detachment of No. 239 Sqn with Mustang Is, making Snailwell a very diverse station indeed.
With the arrival of autumn in the October of 1942, Snailwell took a very different turn, being handed over to the US Ninth Air Force Service Command who brought in the Airacobra, one of the few wartime fighters to use a tricycle undercarriage. Transferring across from Duxford, the parent airfield of Snailwell, the 347th Fighter Squadron (FS) were a brand new squadron, only being activated that very same month.
In part two we see the early American influence, and how this small grass airfield played its part in the build up to D-day.
Whilst visiting the Swaffham (Norfolk) area, this was perhaps more prominent than in many of the other places I’d been. Like other sections, this area was predominately American in nature, forming the back bone of the USAAF, bomber squadrons of the 8th Air Force. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found. Our first stop along Trail 8 is RAF Methwold.
Methwold village sign
Located between Downham Market and Thetford, Methwold is a small rural setting on the edge of Thetford Forest. Its village sign and combined memorial, remind the passer-by of its strong air force links – a Lockheed Ventura taking off over the village church.
Methwold was actually built as a satellite for nearby RAF Feltwell and as such, had few squadrons of its own. Being a satellite its runways were of grass construction with little in the way of luxuries for accommodation.
On the day war broke out in Europe, 214 Squadron, equipped with Wellington MKIs, moved from RAF Feltwell to here at Methwold. Feltwell being larger, offered a prime target for the Luftwaffe and so their loss would be Methwold’s gain. The first production Wellington, the MKI was powered by two 1,000 hp Bristol Pegasus XVIII radial engines, and would soon be updated and replaced by the MKIA; the main difference being a change in gun turret from the Vickers to the Nash & Thomson. As part of Bomber Command, 214 Sqn did not carry out its first operational bombing flight until June 1940 some four months after it had left Methwold; but that is not to say casualties were not suffered.
On Monday November 6th 1939, Wellington L4345, crashed whilst circling on approach to Methwold. The accident resulted in the deaths of both crewmen, Pilot Officer J. Lingwood and Aircraftman 1, – A. Matthews.
Tragic accidents were not uncommon in these early stages of the war, another similar incident occurring at Methwold only a month later. In mid December, Pilot Officers W. Colmer and R. Russell-Forbes, along with Leading Aircraftman J. Warriner, were all killed whilst on approach to the airfield flying in another Wellington, R2699. Both these Officers were only recently commissioned and were still considered relative flying ‘novices’.
In February 1940, 214 Sqn departed Methwold and transferred to RAF Stradishall leaving only a small number of Wellington IIIs of 57 Sqn detached from their parent station at Feltwell. These would, in September 1942, be replaced by the mighty Lancaster, the four engined bomber that formed the backbone of the RAF’s Bomber Command.
Little happened at Methwold for the next two years, then in October 1942, 21 Sqn arrived. After having flown many missions against coastal targets in the Mediterranean, they were disbanded at Luqa only to be reformed and re-equipped at Bodney the same day. After changing their Blenheims for Venturas in May 1942, they transferred to RAF Methwold where they stayed for six months.
Operating both the Ventura MKI and II, they were the first Bomber Command squadron to re-equip with the type, and were one of the small number of squadrons who took part in the famous Eindhoven raid, attacking the Philips radio factory in December 1942. The daring Operation Oyster, would see the loss of sixteen aircraft – three of which belonged to 21 Sqn. Two of these aircraft crashed in enemy territory, whilst the third ditched in the North Sea after having been hit by enemy gunfire. Using a mix of Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitoes, this mission perhaps revealed the true vulnerability of such aircraft over enemy territory, a warning that would violently repeat itself in the months to come.
The spring of 1943 would again see changes at Methwold; as 21 Sqn departed, the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ of 320 (Dutch) Sqn would move in. 320 Sqn, were formed after the German forces invaded the Netherlands and consisted of mainly Dutch nationals. They carried out both anti-shipping and rescue duties before transferring, from Leuchars, to Methwold via Bircham Newton. Upon arriving here, 320 Sqn was absorbed into No. 2 Group and would shortly swap their Hudson VIs for Mitchell IIs. After a very short transfer period, they then departed Methwold, moving to the much larger base at Attlebridge.
Two further squadrons of Venturas arrived at Methwold in the early spring of 1943. Both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Sqns were formed, transferred and disbanded in unison, and both consisted of commonwealth crews. Having entered the war in a baptism of fire, they also flew alongside 21 Sqn on the Eindhoven raid; 464 Sqn contributing fourteen aircraft whilst 487 contributed sixteen – each squadron losing three aircraft and all but four of the twenty-four crewmen.
One of the original hangars at Methwold.
The Venturas earned themselves the unsavoury title the ‘flying pig‘ partly due to their appearance and partly due to poor performance. Based on the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, it was primarily a passenger aircraft and even though it had powerful engines, it performance was low and so operational losses were often high.
On May 3rd 1943, whilst on a ‘Ramrod‘ mission, eleven out of twelve (one returning due to engine trouble) 487 Sqn aircraft were lost to enemy action, and all but twelve of the forty-four crewmen were killed. Of these twelve, Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent, was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. On his eventual return to England at the end of the war, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses.
In the summer of 1943, both 464 and 487 Squadrons became part of the newly formed Second Tactical Air Force; a move that led to their departure from Methwold, along with a new role and new aircraft.
Following their departure, Methwold was passed over to 3 Group and was designated to receive the heavy four-engined bombers of Bomber Command. To accommodate them, the site was upgraded to Class ‘A’ standard. Three runways were built, five hangars (four ‘T2s’ and one ‘B1’) were erected, and a wide range of ancillary buildings added. Aircraft dispersal consisted of 36 hard standings mainly of the spectacle type.
The incoming ground and aircrews would be accommodated in areas to the east of the airfield, buildings were sufficient for a small bomber site of some 1,800 men and just over 300 women, by no means large.
In this interim period on March 13th, a lone American P-47 #42-74727, suffered engine failure whilst on a routine training flight in the area. In an attempt to land at Methwold, the P-47 Thunderbolt crashed, slightly injuring the pilot but writing off the aircraft.
The first of the heavy bombers to arrive at the newly constructed Methwold were the mighty Stirling IIIs of 218 Sqn. A small detachment from RAF Woolfox Lodge, they would operate from here along side 149 Squadron who moved here from RAF Lakenheath in May 1944. 149’s record so far had been highly distinguished. Participating in the RAF’s second bombing mission of the war on September 4th, they had gone on to take part in the first 1,000 bomber raid, attacked prestige targets such as the Rhur, and had taken part in the Battle of Hamburg. They had also been in action in the skies over the Rocket development site at Peenemunde. They had gone on to drop essential supplies to the French Resistance, and one of its pilots, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, had won the VC for his valour and determination in action. 149 Sqn would go on with the offensive right up until the war’s end, replacing the ill-fated Stirlings with Lancaster MKIs and later the MKIIIs in August 1944.
During the D-Day landings, 149 Squadron were tasked with dropping dummy parachutists away from the Normandy beaches. As part of Operation Titanic, they were to deceive the German ground forces, aiming to draw them away from the Normandy beaches, thus reducing the defensive force. A task that proved relatively successful in certain areas of the invasion zone, it caused confusion in the German ranks and pulled vital men away from drop zones. During this dramatic operation, two 149 Sqn Stirlings were lost; LJ621 ‘OJ-M’ and LX385 ‘OJ-C’ – with all but three of the eighteen crew being killed.
In August 1944, 218 Sqn moved the remaining crews over to Methwold completing the unit’s strength once more. This move also led to them taking on the Lancaster MKIs and IIIs. 218 Sqn was another squadron with a remarkable record of achievements, its most notable being the VC posthumously awarded to Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ whilst at RAF Downham Market.
As the allied advance moved across Europe, 149 Sqn supported them. In December 1944, 218 Sqn departed Methwold taking their Lancasters to RAF Chedburgh and disbandment the following year. 218’s losses were not over though, just days before the war’s end on April 24th 1945, Lancaster NF955 ‘HA-H’ crashed on take off, the last fatality of the squadron’s operational record. For 149 Sqn food packages replaced bombs as the relief operation – Operation Manna – took hold. After the fall of Germany in 1945, 149 Sqn ferried POWs back to Methwold in Operation Exodus, and for many, it was their first taste of freedom for many years.
The final squadron to be stationed at Methwold was 207 Squadron, between October 1945 and the end of April 1946 also flying the Lancaster I and III. As with many other bomber command squadrons, its history was also long and distinguished; flying its final mission of the war on 25th April 1945, against the SS Barracks at Berchtesgaden. During its wartime service 207 Sqn had completed some 540 operations, lost 154 crews and earned themselves a total of 7 DSOs, 115 DFCs and 92 DFMs.
In 1946, the Lancasters of 149 Squadron departed Methwold and all fell quiet. The site was officially closed in 1958 and the land returned to the former owners. In the early 1960s, much of the concrete was removed for hardcore, buildings were demolished and the land returned to agriculture, a state it primarily survives in today.
Stores huts used for light industry
Methwold airfield is located south of the village of Methwold, accessible by the B1112. As you drive along this road, the technical area is to your left and the main airfield to your right. The entire site is primarily agricultural, with some of the remaining buildings being used for farming purposes or light industry. Many of these are accessible or at least can be seen from the main public highway.
Large parts of the runways do still exist, although much of them are covered in newly developed industrial units, or are hidden away on private land. These most notable developments are at the northern end of the runway closest to Methwold village. However, best views of what’s left, are from the southern end, along a farm track that was once the perimeter track. Also here, is a single large and original ‘T2’ hangar, now used for storing agricultural equipment and other farm related products. This main north-westerly runway, built later in the war, is also used for farm related storage. Divided by a large fence, it is now part track and part storage. The remaining sections of perimeter track, a fraction of its original size, allows access to the runway past the hangar to an area of development further south to where the turret trainers once stood. Also visible here, is the Gymnasium built to drawing 16428/40 later adapted by the addition of a projection room (889/42) for recreational films.
Back alongside the B1112 hidden amongst the woods, is the technical area. Here in between the trees are the former technical huts and workshops now used by small industrial units, many of which survive in varying conditions, some of these are accessible to the general public.
One of the former runways looking north-west.
Methwold was never intended to be major player in the war. home to a small number of squadrons, it housed a variety of aircraft and a number of nationals who all combined, tell incredible stories of heroism, bravery and dedication. The squadrons who passed though here, carried out some of the RAF’s most daring raids, whether it be as part of a thousand bomber raid, a small force to attack the heart of Reich, or a diversionary raid to foil air and ground forces.
Methwold is now quiet, agriculture has taken over. The sound of heavy piston engines are now replaced by the sound of tractors, the buildings that once housed brave young men and their incredible machines now home to the machinery of food and farming. The small remnants of Methwold hold stories of their own, for it is here that history was made, war was won and lives were lost – and all in a very unassuming manner.
William G. Rueckert (service Number: 0 -420521) was born September 9th 1920, in Moline, Illinois. At school, he became a model student, achieving high grades throughout his school life. Upon leaving, he won a place at Illinois University where he wanted to study Law. Rueckert had a passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust and was known for his hard work and dedication.
It was at University that he met, on a blind date, he wife to be, ‘Dee’. The meeting almost never took place due to a faulty car, but as a lover of dancing, they turned out to be the perfect match and his lateness was forgiven.
Inseparable as a couple, Rueckert and Dee were married only a year later, in 1940, when Rueckert was just 19 years old.
War came even closer, and Rueckert decided he had to do his part and joined up with the Army, on July 15th 1941. Based at Pine Camp, New York, he was part of the 4th Armoured Division, and his hard work and dedication was very quickly realised; he soon won himself an award on the firing range. Constant passionate letters home cemented the love between Rueckert and Dee, in one letter he said; “My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife Dee!”
Rueckert’s life then changed and he joined the USAAC. As a trainee pilot, he moved from New York, to California and then onto New Mexico where he gained the qualification of Pilot instructor on October 28th 1943.
Whilst flying here at New Mexico, the plane Rueckert was in, a B-24, collided with a small training aircraft killing its pilot. Rueckert managed to land his own B-24 and following his actions, was credited with saving the lives of the crewmen on board.
Finally, the draw of the war led Rueckert to requesting a post overseas. He was sent to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Airforce, in April 1944. Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be Rueckert’s only operational squadron. Having won three DUCs already for operations over Europe including; the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, and the enormous raid of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were a battle hardened group.
“Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, took part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area, cutting supply lines and communication routes across France.
Rueckert’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944. It was to be a night flight. He joined his best friend along with his assigned pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his regular crew behind at Hardwick.
The aircraft, began its roll down the runway, as it neared the take off point, it is thought the undercarriage collapsed causing a catastrophic crash in which seven bombs exploded. The aircraft was completely destroyed and five of the crew killed including the pilot and Lt. Rueckert. The crash was so intense, it closed one of the three enormous runways for five days.
Dee, Rueckert’s wife, found out by telegraph that her husband had been killed. She was understandably devastated as were the two young children, Billy and Dianne.
Rueckert’s body was initially buried at Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, but later he was repatriated and buried in the family plot in Illinois. His purple Heart, awarded earlier, has since been donated by his son Billy, to the church at Topcroft, where Rueckert prayed the night before that fatal flight. A plaque also sits in the wall in remembrance of the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick. Rueckert’s name appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.
During March 1944, an event took place in the UK that considering its historical importance, is little known about. It was actually quite a momentous event, especially in terms of aviation history, and in particular the Second World War.
As a follow on to RAF Glatton and Trail 6, we look into the short-lived presence of Boeing’s mighty aircraft the B-29 ‘Superfortress’, in what would appear to be its first and only wartime presence on British soil.
At the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour in 1941, the United States was less than ready for a global war. The retaliation and defeat of not only Japan, but Nazi Germany as well, was going to be both costly and massive, requiring a huge increase in manufacturing of both arms and machinery.
This increase meant not only aircraft for the Air Force, but the infrastructure to support and train the aircrews too. A network of airfields and supporting organisations totalling some $100 million in 1940, would, by the war’s end be valued in the region of $3,000 million. In terms of size, this infrastructure would cover an area of land equal to the combined areas of: New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut.*1
To complete the task, along with aiding her allies, the U.S. was going to need to design and manufacture many new models of aircraft, aircraft that would outshine anything previously made available to the U.S. forces. Long range bombers in particular, capable of travelling great distances were going to be required – and a lot of them. At the outbreak of the European war, the U.S. Army Air Corps was in comparison to the European forces, very small, commanding just 26,000 officers and enlisted men, and operating only 800 front-line aircraft. The Luftwaffe on the other hand, had expanded considerably over the previous years, now commanding some 3,600 aircraft. The British, who were still some way behind the Germans but growing rapidly, had available to them some 2,000 aircraft, whilst the French could muster slightly over 1,700. *1a
To meet this demand, U.S. aircraft manufacturers were going to have to start by modifying, and with some exceptions, redesigning the various aircraft types that were already available to the U.S. forces. However, and likewise the British and German manufacturers, new models were going to have to be designed and put into production very quickly if victory was to be achieved in any of the world’s theatres.
Preempting war, the US Government put out tenders for long range bombers, in answer to which during the 1930s, the Boeing Model 299, first flew. Eventually being purchased by the US Government to fulfil the role, it was put into production as the iconic B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’, and was followed not long after by the B-24 ‘Liberator’; a more modern aircraft which took its maiden flight in 1939. But sitting on the drawing board at this time, was another aircraft that performed even better, the formidable B-29, a bomber designed to fly at altitudes up to 40,000ft, beyond the range of anti-aircraft guns and faster than many fighters of the time. The aircraft was so advanced in design that depending upon its payload it was capable of flying distances of up to 5,000 miles, far beyond that of any other heavy bomber.
Whilst the U.S. aircraft manufacturers had already begun designing and testing these new models, it would be some time before the number and types of available aircraft would come anywhere close to being comparable to those of the Luftwaffe, R.A.F. or even later, the Imperial Japanese Air Force.
By August 1942 both the development and production of these two heavy bombers, the B-17 and B-24, were well underway, and so it was decided that they would go initially to the European theatre rather than the Far East. The competition for the attack on Japan now lay between the B-29 and Consolidated’s competitor the B-32 ‘Dominator’ – an enlarged and also pressurised version of their B-24. However, two years after the first design drawings were revealed, neither of these aircraft types had yet flown, and so the shorter ranged B-17 and B-24s were going to have to fill the gap until such times as their replacements could arrive.
The war in the Far East would provide its own set of problems. The distance that supplies would have to be taken would take time and before any invasion could take place, lost ground not only had to be recovered, but held. To achieve this, ground forces would need to be protected by an air umbrella, a defensive shield formed so tightly that air supremacy was guaranteed.
Getting supplies into China was difficult, by air it required long and dangerous flights over the ‘Hump’, the Himalayan mountain range, usually fulfilled by C-47s and DC-3s, their commercial equivalent. With the C-46 ‘Commando’ and C-87 coming on line later on, the frequency and quantity of these supplies could increase but it was still not enough for the Chinese, nor for the difficult task ahead.
By March 1943 the stage was set. The Fourteenth Air Force was created out of Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault’s China Air Task Force, which by the summer time, had begun attacks on coastal positions, ports and troop concentrations under Japanese control. This air umbrella was in part achieved over Burma, and the desired attacks on Japan now looked more possible, but the B-17s and B-24s that had worked tirelessly lacked the range to hit the Japanese homeland; the long range high performance B-29 was by now desperately needed.
During the Quebec Conference in August that year, U.S. officials put forward their proposal to stage American long range bombers on airfields in China, the area required for such bases being under Chinese control already and therefore not at the mercy of the Japanese forces. This offensive, designated the Matterhorn Project, would involve the still as yet untested in battle, B-29s, their longer range and larger bomb capacity enabling them to ‘bomb Japan into submission’ in a similar way that Sir Arthur Harris had hoped for in Europe with the RAF’s bombing campaign against Germany’s industrial targets and cities.
To meet these aims a new force would be created, the Twentieth Air Force, which would be made up of two commands: the XX Bomber Command from China and the XXI Bomber Command who would be based in the Mariana Islands after they were retaken from Japanese control.
The aircraft destined to carry out this role, the B-29, was still very much an unknown quantity. Rushed into production with scant attention to testing, it was a monster of an aircraft, with a crew of eleven in pressurised compartments, electronic gun turrets and a massive 141 ft wingspan. The project was to be the biggest in U.S. aviation history, spares alone in the initial contract costing $19.5m, and one which General Arnold
referred to as the “$3 billion gamble”.*1b
The following film “Birth of the B-29 Superfortress” shows a B-29 production line and a test YB-29 in flight. It also contains some short graphic images at the start.
A batch of four XB-29 prototypes were built, and after initial test flights, a further fourteen ‘test’ aircraft, designated the YB-29, were also constructed. But problems with design drawings, missing parts and rushed testing meant that production was slowed to a minimum, part finished aircraft being stored whilst awaiting vital components. After test flights it became apparent that the B-29’s engines were prone to overheating and in several cases catching fire. This delayed further testing reducing flying time considerably until the problems could be solved. During flight tests, this problem with the engines was graphically seen, first on February 18th 1943, and then again a year later.
In February, XB-29 #41-003 (the second prototype XB) crashed into a meat packing factory killing all eight crew on board along with twenty civilians on the ground. The pilot, Eddie Allen, had already received the Air Medal for successfully landing the same XB-29 following another engine fire in the preceding December. A year later, January 29th 1944, engine problems caused yet another accident when #41-36967, the last of the fourteen*2 Wichita YB-29s manufactured, crashed after losing all four engines whilst in the air. This problem with overheating engines becoming the proverbial ‘thorn in the side’ of the Boeing production team.
By the summer of 1943, B-29 training squadrons were being set up, the first, the 58th Bombardment Operational Training Wing (Heavy) later the 58th BW (Very Heavy), was formed with the 40th, 444th, 462nd, 468th and 472nd Bombardment Groups, each with four or five squadrons of their own.
After a period of training four of these groups (the 472nd was disbanded April 1944) would transfer to India flying via Africa to join the Twelfth Air Force initially flying supplies over ‘the Hump’, before taking part in operations against Japan from the Chinese airfields.
Departure for these groups occurred over the March – April 1944 period, during which time one of these aircraft would divert to the U.K. causing a huge stir whilst ‘touring’ several U.K. airbases.
Whilst precise sources seem scarce, it is thought that flying B-29s across the southern route raised fears of a Luftwaffe attack whilst en-route, and so a plan of ‘disinformation’ was set in motion to fool the Germans into thinking that the B-29s were to be based in England, ready to be used against German targets. The first part of this ruse was in early March 1944, when YB-29 #41-36963 ‘Hobo Queen‘ took off from Salina Airbase in Kansas and flew to England. It initially took the southern route toward Africa, but then deviated north heading to Newfoundland. The YB-29, piloted by Colonel Frank Cook, then flew across to the UK initially landing at RAF St. Mawgan, in Cornwall.
During its short stay in the U.K. it was known to have visited RAF Horsham St. Faith near Norwich, RAF Bassingbourn on the 8th March, RAF Knettishall and RAF Glatton on 11th March before its final departure from RAF St. Mawgan to India in April that year. The route took the YB-29 to Marrakech, Cairo (2nd April), Karachi (5th Apr) finally arriving at Kharagpur, India, on 6th Apr 1944 . Once here, it was assigned to the 769th Bomb Squadron, 462nd Bomb Group who were then based at Piardoba in India, where it was modified as a tanker to ferry fuel over ‘the Hump’. The YB-29, the only test model to fly overseas, gave a successful service, eventually being declared war weary and returned to the United States, its eventual fate being unknown, presumably, like many war weary models, the aircraft was scrapped.*3
Whilst in the U.K. the YB-29 was certainly a major draw, over 1,000 key personnel viewing the aircraft at RAF Glatton alone, its enormous size dwarfing anything that had been seen in U.K. skies before.
The ruse was considered a success. The many B-29s that followed across the southern route did so without any interference from German aircraft, although how much of that was actually down to the ruse itself, is hard to distinguish. It is even thought in some circles that photos of the ‘Hobo Queen‘ appeared in the newspaper of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, The Völkischer Beobachter, although an initial search of the paper through the Austrian National Library proved fruitless.
Crews and ground staff swarm around B-29 #41-36963 at Glatton airfield 11th March 1944*4.
Although B-29s were initially considered for the European theatre none operated from British soil until after the wars end, when a joint British and American operation, Project ‘Ruby‘*5, investigated deep penetration bombs against reinforced concrete structures. Three B-29s were prepared in the United States along with four B-17s and a select detachment of admin, maintenance, technical staff and air crew, who arrived at RAF Marham, Norfolk, on March 15th 1946. Initial plans were to test a series of bombs on the submarine assembly plant at Farge, but due to the close proximity of housing and an electricity plant, the U-boat shelter at Heligoland was used instead. The bombing trials began on March 25th by which time an original three B-17s from RAF Mildenhall had also joined the group.
A number of both American and British bombs were tested in the trials:
The US 22,000lb. ‘Amazon’ bomb
The US rocket assisted 4,500lb. ‘Disney’ bomb (used by B-17s in the latter stages of the war)
The 4,500lb. ‘Disney’ bomb without rocket assistance
The American 22,000lb. fabricated ‘Grand Slam’ (designated T14)
The American 12,000lb. fabricated ‘Tall Boy’ (designated T10)
The British 12,000lb, ‘Tall Boy’
The British 2,000lb. Armour Piercing bomb
The inert loaded 2,000lb. SAP (M103) bomb
The Picratol filled 2,000lb. SAP (M103) bomb
The 1,650lb. Model bomb
The results of the trials were quite conclusive, none of these bombs in their current form, were capable of penetrating the 23 ft thick concrete of the Farge roof, and therefore, all would need adapting, redeveloping or redesigning if such operations were to be carried out again.
Post war, B-29s were brought into the UK and operated as Boeing Washington B1s, operating with nine RAF Squadrons: No. 15, 35, 44, 57, 90, 115, 149, 192 and 207 at various airfields including RAF Marham, RAF Coningsby, RAF Watton and RAF Waddington, eventually being replaced by the high flying English Electric Canberra. The B-29 then disappeared from operational service in the UK.
Without doubt, the development of the B-29 had a major impact on the world as we know it today, and even though its first arrival in the UK in March 1944 caused a major stir in the aviation world, it incredibly remains a little known about clear fact. With little documentation available, there is clearly much more research to be done.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Nalty, B., et al. “With Courage The U.S. Army Air Forces in World War II” 1994. Air Force Historical Studies Office (p61)
*1a ibid (p38)
*1b ibid (p147)
*2 Only 14 YB-29BWs were built (#41-36954 – #41-36967) and all at Wichita. They were painted olive drab upper surfaces and light gull grey lower surfaces.
*5 Comparative Test of the Effectiveness of Large Bombs Against Large Reinforced Concrete Structures (PDF), Report of the Air Proving Ground Command, Elgin Field, Florida – Anglo-American Bomb Test Project “Ruby”. October 31st, 1946.
On April 26th 1944, the RAF sent 206 Lancasters and 11 Mosquitoes from No. 5 Group, along with 9 Lancasters from No. 1 Group, to attack the notorious ball bearing factories at Schweinfurt in Bavaria.
Schweinfurt, had since August 1943, struck fear into the the hearts of allied airmen, ever since the USAAF’s attack on the city resulted in a disaster in which 230 unescorted B-17s were cut to pieces by German defences. Subsequent raids, whilst not as disastrous, had also proven costly, and it was a target that Bomber Command’s Commander in Chief, Sir Arthur Harris, so vividly wanted to avoid.
The attention Schweinfurt was getting from the Allies, gave the German authorities sufficient concern to force them into spreading their ball-bearing production far and wide across Germany. This aligned with the fact that the Swiss and Swedes were supplying large quantities of ball-bearings to the Germans, led Harris to believe it was a target for the American forces to deal with, and not Bomber Command.
Much against his wishes, an order under the ‘Point-blank’ directive was given, and Harris sent his men to attack the factories. With smoke screens surrounding the area, it proved difficult to hit, as the attack in February proved.
In April, they were to go again, this time using a new low-level target marking technique devised by the then Wing Co. Leonard Cheshire. It would be in this mission that the remarkable actions by the crew of Lancaster ME669, and in particular Flight Engineer Sergeant Norman C. Jackson (later Warrant Officer), would become well known.
At RAF Metheringham in Lincolnshire, sixteen Lancasters completed their ground checks, started their engines and began the taxi along to the runway’s threshold. For around fifteen minutes between 21:30 and 21:45, the heavily laden aircraft took off and headed along the first long unbroken leg 130 miles into enemy held territory.
In Lancaster ‘ZN-O’ #ME669 were: F/O. F Miffin DFC (Pilot); Sgt. N Jackson (Flt. Eng.); Flt. Sgt. F. Higgins (Nav.); Flt. Sgt. M. Toft (Bomb Aim.); Flt. Sgt. E. Sandelands (W/Op); Sgt. W. Smith (M.Up. Gunner) and Flt. Sgt. N. Johnson (Rear Gun.) on the penultimate operation of their tour of duty. The plan was for two groups to attack the city from different directions, bombing on a series of markers dropped by the pathfinders.
On approach to the target the formation encountered strong headwinds and no cloud. With a new moon, they were going to be easy targets for the Nachtjägers. These winds blew markers off track, and repeated efforts by the master bomber to relay instructions to the crews failed, primarily due to faulty radio equipment.
Throughout the run-in over the city, attacks were fierce and consistent. Confused by poor messages and inaccurately placed markers, bombs fell well away from their intended targets. By now fourteen aircraft had already been lost to the fighters, many of them the ghostly Schräge Musik, upward firing fighters.
After bombing from 21,500 feet, Lancaster ‘ZN-O’ was hit several times by a night fighter, starting a fire started in the inner starboard wing section next to the upper fuel tank. Sgt. Jackson, who had been wounded in the leg and shoulder, donned his parachute and grabbed a fire extinguisher before climbing out on to the wing through an escape hatch in the fuselage roof. In doing so, his parachute was deployed into the cockpit area, where his colleagues gathered it up and gradually fed the lines through the hole allowing Jackson to gain access to the fire in the wing. Undertaking such an act on a burning aircraft at speed and altitude, was no easy task, and getting back, had he been successful, virtually impossible. The wind knocked the extinguisher out of his grip which prevented Jackson from succeeding in achieving his aim. The fire now spreading, began to burn his parachute, hands and face and fearing for his safety, his colleagues let go releasing him from the stricken bomber. Sgt. Jackson fell to Earth, his parachute partially burned, opened and allowed him to reach the ground alive, but suffering several injuries in the process.
Norman Cyril Jackson 106 Sqn RAF Metheringham (photo via Wikipedia)
The 21 year old Canadian Captain, F/O. Frederick M. Miffin D.F.C., then ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; himself and 20 year old F/Sgt, Norman H. Johnson, both failing to survive.
Sgt. Jackson’s brave attempt to save his colleagues and their aircraft earned him the Victoria Cross, his actions being published in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 23rd October 1945.
25 year old Sgt. Jackson from London, had been with the crew since training at Wigsley, and had completed his tour of duty. He volunteered for the Schweinfurt mission so he could be with his own crew as they completed their own tour of duty, before all going to join the Pathfinders. Earlier that same day, Sgt. Jackson had received news that he was now a father too.
Sgt. Jackson spent ten months in hospital before eventually being repatriated. He received his VC at the same time as the then, Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire, would receive his. Cheshire asking for Jackson to receive his first, citing his selfless act of bravery as going far beyond anything he had achieved himself.
Sgt. Jackson’s citation reads:
This airman’s attempt to extingush [sic] the fire and save the aircraft and crew from falling into enemy hands was an act of outstanding gallantry. To venture outside, when travelling at 200 miles an hour, at a great height and in intense cold, was an almost incredible feat. Had he succeeded in subduing the flames, there was little or no prospect of his regaining the cockpit. The spilling of his, parachute and the risk of grave damage to its canopy reduced his chances of survival to a minimum. By his ready willingness to face these dangers he set an example of self-sacrifice which will ever be remembered.
In this new addition to Trail 20, we visit a former airfield whose history not only stems back to the First World War, but is deeply rooted in it. Between the wars it lay dormant, and then sprang into life once more, as military activity in Norfolk increased during the 1940s. Known under four different names, and controlled by three different branches of the armed forces, we visit an airfield that has been the subject of one of Britain’s largest archaeological digs in recent years. Situated east of the coastal resort of Heacham in Norfolk, it now forms the first airfield on our tour in Trail 20. We start the Trail at the former RAF Sedgeford.
Also known as RFC Sedgeford, RNAS Sedgeford or Sedgeford Aerodrome, the airfield lies just outside of the village from which it takes its name, and on the south side of the B1454 Docking Road.
Sedgeford originally opened as a First World War airfield during the latter half of 1915 as Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Sedgeford. It was initially a Class 1 night landing ground (NLG) for the main base at Great Yarmouth (South Denes) much further to the east on East Anglia’s North Sea Coast.
The Royal Naval Air Service were themselves a fledgling service, being formed only a year earlier in July 1914, after the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was removed from RFC control, being placed under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. At their time of formation the RNAS had on its books some fifty-five seaplanes (inc. ship-borne aircraft); forty aeroplanes; seven airships; 111 officers and 544 men*1.
With aviation very much in its infancy, the RNAS had been using mainly airships, and were only just beginning to venture into aeroplanes as a means of fighting a war. With a range of airfields in the area including both RFC Holt and RFC Bacton (NLG), it also used Ludham (HMS Flycatcher), Pulham (an airship station), Hickling Road (a seaplane airfield), Lowestoft (a balloon site) and Great Yarmouth (South Denes which was a mixed use airfield for home defence and marine operations). From these humble beginnings, the RNAS were to become a strong force during the First World War.
With the might of the Zeppelin ruling the skies, it wasn’t long before the first attacks were made along the North Norfolk coast, ranging from Great Yarmouth to Kings Lynn. These attacks, and continuing intruder flights by Zeppelins, called for a much greater aerial protection of East Anglia. It was this call that led to the creation of not only Sedgeford but also Aldeburgh, Bacton, Holt, Narborough (which later became Norfolk’s first military airfield) and Burgh Castle as active airfields operating armed flying units*2.
During the early part of 1916, RNAS Sedgeford was transferred across to the RFC (themselves only formed on 13th April 1912) and used as a training station. The site was developed with further buildings added, eventually gaining eleven canvassed Bessonneaux hangars, two more permanent General Service Sheds, a range of buildings suitable for aircraft repair and maintenance, barrack huts, MT (motor transport) sheds and even a locomotive shed fed by a branch line to the main Hunstanton and West Norfolk Railway a mile or so to the north. Sedgeford would develop into a substantial sized airfield with some 100 buildings accommodating over 1,200 personnel including WRENs and WRAFs. Whilst the overall dimensions of the site cannot be confirmed, it is thought that the airfield covered around 170 acres.
The WRAFs, (known affectionately as ‘Penguins,’ because they didn’t fly) were often found working in aircraft doping sheds repairing aircraft fabrics using a potentially harmful ‘dope’ containing an acetate solvent. The fumes from this solvent were known to be lethal in large doses, with many of those using it on a regular basis, feeling ill or in extreme cases, dying from the effects of its toxic fumes. To combat the problem, some First World War doping sheds had extractor fans built into them to remove these hazardous fumes, and at Sedgeford, evidence has been found (by the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project), that confirms their use here.
Over the next few years Sedgeford would house a number of flying units, both training and ‘operational’ whilst preparing to move to France. The first of these (No. 45 Squadron) arrived on 21st May 1916 operating the Bristol BE.2b, an aircraft that they had been using since April at Thetford. Over the next five months, 45 Sqn would take on three other aircraft types: the Henry Farman F.20, (June to August), Royal Aircraft Factory FE.2b (July to Sept) and lastly the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (July to Sept 1917); the first British aeroplane to have synchronised guns firing through a two bladed propeller. The rather odd name was given to the aircraft because of the unusual ‘half-struts’ that attached the wings to the fuselage.
Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (unknown photographer via Wikipedia.)
In August 1916, 45 Sqn was broken up, with the nucleus being used to form a new squadron here at Sedgeford – No. 64 Sqn. The remainder of No. 45 Sqn then prepared for France, a move it made two months later.
No. 64 Sqn continued using the Henry Farman F.20s that had previously been allocated to them, but over time, they too would use a variety of aircraft types including: the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c and FE.2b, Sopwith’s famous Pup, the Avro 504 and the de Havilland DH5.
Then on February 1st 1917, 64 Sqn was itself then split, the demand for new pilots and new squadrons increasing as the conflict entered its third gruesome year. From this split, another new squadron was born, No. 53 Reserve Squadron, who were themselves re-designated as No. 53 Training Squadron on 31st May 1917, and operated models such as the RE.8, BE.2c, Avro 504J and the DH.6. They would eventually leave Sedgeford and end their days at Harlaxton where they were disbanded and merged into another unit.
Although many of these pilots were ‘experienced’, being in training meant there were of course accidents, many taking the lives of the young men who had been drawn to the thrill of flying. One such pilot, twenty year old Sec. Lt. Arthur Le Roy Dean, was killed when his Sopwith ‘Pup’ (official name Scout) #B1788 spun into the ground whilst flying with 64 Sqn on August 8th 1917. He initially survived the crash only to die from his injuries the following day.
The grave of Second Lieutenant Arthur Dean RFC.
The 9th would prove to be a black day for 64 Sqn, after they lost a second pilot, Canadian Lt. Edward Gordon Hanlan, who was killed when his DH.5 (#A9393) crashed following a wing failure whilst performing a loop over the airfield at nearby Bircham Newton.
September 1917 would prove to be a busy month for both Sedgeford airfield and the many airmen stationed there. On the 15th, another new unit arrived to join 64 Sqn. They too were a new squadron, only being formed a few days earlier at Upavon. No. 87 Sqn, remained at Sedgeford for just three months prior to moving to Hounslow before themselves moving across to St. Omer in France, which was rapidly becoming the hub of the Royal Flying Corp in continental Europe.
This month was the penultimate month of 64’s stay at Sedgeford, and prior to them leaving for France another Sopwith Pup (#B1787) would take the life of its pilot, 2Lt. Francis Brian Hallam Anderson (aged 19) who, like Sec. Lt. Dean, survived the actual crash only to succumb to his injuries and die several days later on the 8th. Flying these lightweight aircraft was not proving to be easy.
By mid October (14th), orders to move had come through, and 64 Squadron packed its bags – they were on their way to France taking their DH5s to St. Omer. St. Omer being the very place the parent squadron (No. 45 Sqn) had moved to almost a year to the day previously. The many faces of 45 Sqn surely being different to those that departed a year before.
It was in France that 64 Sqn’s Acting Captain Flt, Lt. James A. Slater MC., DFC. would go on to be the Sqn’s top ace achieving 22 kills, which when added to the two he achieved with No. 1 Sqn, gave him a total of 24 kills. His determination and expertise in the air earning him both the DFC and Military Cross (with Bar) which was Gazetted in the London Gazette Supplement published on February 1st 1918*3*4.
The beginning of November 1917 would see another short lived unit arrive at this Norfolk site, and it would be the brief reuniting of two sister units.
Both No. 72 Sqn and No. 87 Sqn, had their roots firmly fixed in the same place – the Central Flying School at Upavon; 87 being formed from the resident ‘D’ Flight whilst 72 were formed from ‘A’ Flight. Whilst they perhaps enjoyed a momentary annexation, it would not last long before they would all depart and go their separate ways for good. Whilst 87 Sqn moved to the cold winter of France, No. 72 Sqn would take their Pups to the much warmer Persian Gulf and onto Basra and Baghdad, where they stayed until the war’s end.
Sedgeford was rapidly becoming a major player in the RFC’s continued development, with yet another new unit arriving here the same month they were formed – No. 110 Sqn. They too would be another relatively short stay unit, and again, operating a number of different aircraft types. Formed on November 1st, they were created out of the nucleus of 38 Training Squadron at Rendcomb, and stopped off at Dover on their way to Sedgeford. By June 1918, they were on their way again, moving to Kenley in Surrey, a station that would become famous in the Second World War as a fighter airfield.
Within days of 110 Sqn’s arrival, pilot James Alan Pearson was killed following a flying accident at Sedgeford. Pearson, who was from Chesterfield, had only joined the RFC in August that same year, transferring from South Farnborough, to Winchester, Oxford and then Hendon, where he joined No. 19 Training Squadron on September 19th, 1917. On November 19th, he completed his probationary period and was confirmed as a Temporary Second Lieutenant upon which, he was posted to No. 110 Sqn, at Sedgeford, just after the main squadron arrived at the busy Norfolk airfield.
His death came within a matter of days of his arrival, some references stating he ‘blacked out’, whilst other say his aircraft, a Martinsyde Elephant (#B866), broke apart. No doubt, both actions resulted from a steep dive from which Pearson never recovered. During the dive, and probable breakup of the aeroplane, Pearson was thrown out of the cockpit, unaided or not conscious, he failed to survive the fall. His official service record (AIR 76/396/34) simply states ‘Killed as result of aero accident‘, the short few entries showing how limited, at 18 years old, his experience was.
The grave of 18 yr old, Sec. Lt. James A. Pearson at St. Mary’s Church, Docking, who was killed within four months of joining the RFC.
As the war turned to another year and the winter of 1917/18 dragged on, New Year’s day 1918, would see No. 110 Sqn joined by another newly formed unit, No. 122 Sqn, who whilst initially operating a range of aircraft, were earmarked to receive the de Havilland DH.9. However, the transition would not go smoothly and it would ultimately result in the squadron’s demise.
Both 110 and 122 Sqns were assigned to go to France, 110 Sqn leaving on 15th June 1918 initially to Kenley before Bettoncourt to the south of Nancy in France, whilst No. 122 Sqn were to be sent to Hamble (which became the more prominent Upper Hayford post World War Two) where they were to take on the DH.9s before also moving to the continent.
However, the unit was disbanded whilst still as a training unit at Sedgeford on the day prior to its move on 17th August 1918. No. 122 was then reformed at Hamble, but further plans stalled as the DH.9 was replaced by the DH.10 and a delay in allocation prevented the reformed squadron from its final activation. With the war’s end and no further requirement seen for the squadron, the process then halted, and in November 1918, the squadron was disbanded for good .
With the war in Europe now over, the withdrawal of squadrons from France began and units started the long journey home. Sedgeford would continue to host some of these units, continuing to perform their role as a training airfield. Even at this point, expansion of the airfield was still occurring but the future for Sedgeford was not bright.
At the end of 1918, No 3 Fighting School (FS) (who had been formed at nearby Bircham Newton) arrived at Sedgeford. Being a former Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School, it operated a number of different aircraft types including: Pups, a range of de Havilland models, Dolphins, Camels and Handley Page 0/400s. Perhaps now, as the war was over, a lapse in concentration may have been the cause of a New Year’s misadventure, when on January 24th 1919, two Sopwith Camels collided over Sedgeford airfield. Camel #C8318 flown by Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC., was in collision with #H2724 flown by Lt Hector Daniel MC.
Capt. King, who had been wounded in France, had been awarded not only the Military Cross in April 1918, but also the Distinguished Flying Cross in August 1918 along with the Croix de Guerre. Incredibly he was just short of his 19th birthday. Lt Daniel (a South African), survived the accident, and also achieved the Military Cross along with the Air Force Cross in July 1918 and June 1919 respectively.*5
The grave of Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC, Croix de Guerre
The wind down was slow at Sedgeford, but March 1919 would see two major changes at the airfield. Firstly, on the 14th, No. 3 FS was disbanded, reforming as No. 7 Training Squadron (TS), who continued in the training role at Sedgeford. By October though, with cutbacks in the pipeline, it would no longer be required and so operations were curtailed, and it was finally disbanded.
Secondly, the end of March saw the arrival of a cadre of No. 13 Sqn with RE.8s. Their journey to Sedgeford had taken them around the many battlefields of France over the last three years, the skies of Norfolk must have been a more than welcome break for the young pilots.
As more and more units were disbanded, Sedgeford too would feel the bite. On New Year’s Eve 1919/20, orders were received and subsequently carried out, to disband the last remaining squadron at the airfield, and with this, the end of Sedgeford as a flying base was now signalled.
The interwar years saw many of the buildings removed, many being sold off or demolished, but fortunately some remained, falling into disrepair or put to agricultural use. What remained of the airfield was left in a dormant state, fading bit by bit. But, the 1930s increase in international tensions would be the saviour of Sedgeford, as war once again reared its ugly head. This time however, it would not be as an operational airfield with the usual buzz and activity it was once so used to, this time it would be a much quieter decoy site.
With so many strategic airfields located in East Anglia, and with the extended development of Bircham Newton as few miles away, the protection of these sites was paramount. The war of deception created the dummy airfield, with the sole purpose of diverting the Luftwaffe bombers away from the real airfield located nearby. Sedgeford was seen as a suitable location for such a site, the few remaining buildings being partly representative of a wartime airfield. With a little development and appropriate lighting added, Sedgeford became one such site, the remaining buildings being utilised to create an image of activity one would expect to see on an active airfield.
The airfield today is far different from the one used in World War One.
These decoy sites were the brainchild of Colonel John Fisher Turner, a retired Officer from the Air Ministry who had turned his hand to film work and special effects. Working with a team of tradesmen and engineers, they produced life-like aircraft, vehicles, boats and buildings using canvas, wood and other lightweight materials that when viewed from the air, look like the real thing. With lights added to give the impression of runway lighting, fires and vehicles, it proved to be a major coup in the war against the Luftwaffe. Designated as both a ‘Q’ (night time) and ‘K’ (day time) decoy station, Sedgeford was operational between June 1940 and August 1942, after which time the larger threat of bombing had sub-sided.
Sedgeford had a small number of operators on site to perform the deception, and because they were to attract enemy attention, they were provided with a shelter, the bulk of which still exists on the site today. After this, Sedgeford was finally closed down and returned to agricultural use once more. A state it has remained in ever since.
The airfield’s site is located just outside of the village, a gate and long path indicate the original entrance to the site. This path was once lined with First World War buildings, none of which remain today. The actual airfield itself is now an agricultural field, the railway spur that led from the main line has also gone, as has the main line itself. From the public road there are sadly no indications of the significance of this once historic site.
The main entrance and long road into former RAF Sedgeford. The field to the left would have had several buildings along it. The buildings remaining today are located beyond the forest on the horizon.
Along from the airfield toward the village of Docking, is another private dwelling that was also known to have been used as a billet for Sedgeford’s airmen. Formally the Union Workhouse it dates back to 1835 and was one of the largest workhouses in Norfolk at that time. Intended to hold up to 450 people, it rarely had more than 100 at any one time. The RFC took over the building in 1916 handing it back at the war’s end.
Since 2009 the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has carried out a huge excavation of the site at Sedgeford, uncovering a number of foundations and links to Sedgeford’s aviation history. Some of these buildings include the mortuary and Officers quarters, with its very ornate fireplace, and the World War 2 shelter mentioned previously. These are all firmly on private land hidden in a small wood around which the majority of the technical buildings were originally erected. Access to these sites is understandably only with permission, something I didn’t have on the day. The project, which has been carried out yearly, also uncovered numerous building foundations and a track for a hangar door. Substantial information being gleaned from the various digs being carried out over the years.
The types of buildings remaining at Sedgeford, especially the First World War examples, make this quite a unique site. So few buildings exist from this era, Stow Maries being the only other site with examples of any quality. This, along with the many deaths and sacrifices witnessed by Sedgeford, make it both historically and architecturally significant, and as such, perhaps the site should be protected.
The history of Sedgeford is extraordinary. Many of those who passed through its doors were teenagers, some lasted only weeks, whilst others went on to fly for years performing acts of great bravery and daring. But one thing that draws them all together was the thrill of flying in an era were flight was new and boundaries were unknown. Their bravery and courage should be remembered.
Sedgeford airfield had sadly all but passed into the history books, but recent excavations have given new life to this once significant site, and maybe one day, these will be given public status, and the memories of those who served and died here will live again.
This recognition took a step forward when on 21st July 1918 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial at Sedgeford. The report can be seen on both Your Local Paper website, and the ABCT website along with videos of the day and interviews with SHARP members.
From Sedgeford we continue with Trail 20, and travel east toward Docking, stopping off at St. Mary’s Church, before travelling a few miles further to the former airfield RAF Docking.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 10/8/2019
*2 Gunn. P. “Aviation Landmarks – Norfolk and Suffolk“. The History Press (2017)
*3 London Gazette Publication date: Supplement: 30827, Page:9204.
During the Second World War, Britain’s landscape changed forever. The friendly invasion brought new life, new music, rationed items became sought after bounties and they were plentiful – if you knew an American. But this dramatic change in the British way of life could also be explosive and deadly.
Anyone living near to a wartime airfield knew only too well the risks of such a life. Aircraft could ground loop, collide in the air or suffer a major mechanical failure on take off, all of which could result in a massive explosion in a fully laden bomber. There are numerous recordings of such accidents occurring, and the brave attempts of crewmen trying to avoid local housing. One such crash was that of B-17 #42-39825, “Zenobia” which crashed on take off coming to rest in the nearby village of Deenethorpe. Luckily, the crew were able to escape and warn the locals of the impending danger, thus averting a catastrophe when the aircraft, fully laden with bombs and fuel, exploded twenty minutes later. The explosion was so fierce that it was heard nine miles away!
However, not everyone was as lucky, and on August 23rd 1944, Wartime Britain experienced what is considered its worst wartime air disaster. A disaster in which sixty-one people lost their lives when a USAAF aircraft from BAD2 at RAF Warton crashed into the adjacent village of Freckleton in Lancashire.
Warton, or BAD2 (Base Air Depot No. 2), was responsible for the modification and overhaul of US aircraft and engines when they arrived fresh from the United States. They were assembled, modified and transferred from here to front line operational airfields across the UK. A massive operation that began even before the United States had even entered the War.
Initially, Warton was built as a satellite for the RAF Coastal Command station at Blackpool, known at the time as Squires Gate Airfield, an airfield with a history going as far back as 1909. With many pleasure flights, air pageants and civil flights, it was eventually taken over and used for fighters and bombers of Coastal Command.
With many aircraft being shipped into the UK via the Atlantic during the early years of the war, the need for a site to build and then maintain them became evermore apparent and urgent. It was not long after the outbreak of war, that four such sites were earmarked for use by the USAAF as Air Depots, each one dealing solely with aircraft maintenance and refurbishment. The proposal, initiated by Lord Beaverbrook as early as October 1939, which then progressed through discussions between the American and the British Governments in 1941 , specified that these bases would need to be able to deal with large quantities of aircraft and be able to handle aircraft modifications at any stage of the assembly process. In October, these bases were identified by a consortium of American and British representatives, who selected: Warton, Little Staughton (Bedford), Burtonwood (Warrington) and Langford Lodge in Neagh, Northern Ireland, as the most suitable sites.
Warton would be massive, housing almost 16,000 people in over ten accommodation sites, which when compared to a normal Class A airfield of some 3,000 people, was an enormous conurbation. To be adaptable, the runway was strengthened and extended to match that of any wartime airfield, at almost 2,000 yards long, it could take any aircraft brought over from the United States. Along side this were a wide range of ancillary buildings: stores, maintenance sheds, office blocks, hangars, engine test sheds and fifty dispersal points. As the war progressed, Warton was extended further with the largest European storage shed and further hangars being added in 1944.
The entire site was completed in just nine months, using a combination of construction groups led by Frank Thomas; this included both Alfred McAlpine, and Wimpey, two of the largest airfield contractors at that time.
Station 582 of the US Eighth Air Force was opened August 1942, housing a small contingent of USAAF personnel. Officially handed over to the USAAF a year later, it now had some 5,000 personnel on its books already, all specially trained to handle the unique American aircraft being brought over from the United States.
Each base would specialise, Burtonwood in radial engines and the B-17, whilst Warton concentrated on in-line engines and B-24s. However, that did not mean that this was a ‘closed door’ operation, Warton would, over the period of the war, see every example of US built aircraft pass though its doors, and at its peek, held over 800 aircraft within its grounds.
Living near such a large and active base would bring many benefits, 700, children were given a Christmas party that lasted for a week, the locals were well provided for and money poured into the local economy. However being so close also brought it dangers. There were numerous accidents with parked aircraft being hit as other aircraft taxied past. There were also several crashes, including a North American P-51D-5-NA Mustang #44-13403 that crashed on June 12th, 1944, killing its pilot. The accident being caused by a catastrophic structural failure of the wing assembly. Another P-51D #44-14608 (310th Ferry Squadron, 27th Aircraft Transport Group) was involved in a landing accident at Warton, on October 5th, 1944. The pilot survived, but the aircraft was destroyed in the crash.
Then there was the P-51B-5 #43-6623 that crashed after taking off from Liverpool’s Speke airport, it was was subsequently taken to Warton where it was combined with other parts of P-51Bs that had been dropped on delivery. The new aircraft, aptly named ‘Spare parts‘, would then be used as an unarmed two-seater ferrying VIPs around, delivering small spare parts to the other airfields and collecting supplies of of whiskey from a distillery in Glasgow. The aircraft itself was lost in late 1944 when it experienced engine failure. The two crew bailed out and survived but the aircraft crashed coming to a rest at the bottom of the Irish Sea.
One of the more terrible accidents at Warton involved the collision of two Douglas A-26B-10-DT Invaders, on November 29th 1944, when #43-22298 collided in midair with #43-22336 over Warton Marsh. The crews’ bodies were removed from the site, but the aircraft remained buried in the silt until excavation in 2004. Both aircraft were then transferred to the RAF Millom Museum at Haverigg, Cumbria where they remained until its closure on 1st September 2010. With many of it exhibits being ‘on loan’, they were returned to their original owners whilst the rest were publicly auctioned off in January 2011. The fate of the two Invaders is unknown at the time of writing.
However, it was on Wednesday, August 23rd 1944, that Warton would be shocked by Britain’s worst wartime air disaster and the terrible events that would unfold that day.
Everything appeared normal that day as the workers at BAD 2 and the surrounding area awoke. The news was generally good, the war was heading in the right direction and victory for the allies appeared to be on the cards. There were high pressure zones to the east and west and low pressure to the north. The first 2 weeks of August were generally dry and warm with spells of sunshine. There had been a spell of warm weather that continued into the third week, with temperatures reaching as high as 28°C in the south. On the 23rd, early sunshine was expected to change to light rain later on, nothing that should have caused any significant problems to the experienced crews at Warton.
Early on that day, two routine test flights were booked by experienced pilots on newly refurbished Consolidated B-24 Liberators before they were sent out out to the 2nd Bomb Division. The first, piloted by First Lieutenant John Bloemendal, ‘Classy Chassis II‘, and the second piloted by First Lieutenant Peter Manassero.
After a delayed start, First Lt. Bloemendal and his two crewmen boarded the B-24, ran their ground checks and started the engines. They then departed on was was a routine test flight. Meanwhile, the second B-24 piloted by First Lt. Manassero also departed and both aircraft headed out from Warton. During this time a weather warning was passed to Warton tower informing them of an impending storm, the likes of which even the British had rarely seen. The notorious British weather had played a cruel joke. In seconds, the summer sky had turned jet black. Daylight had been all but wiped out, Heavy rain lashed the landscape, localised flash floods and unprecedented strong winds battered the Warton skyline. Locals reported seeing trees being uprooted and buildings being damaged such was the strength of the wind and lashing rain.
The tower issued an immediate warning to land the two aircraft. B-24 #42-50291 “Classy Chassis II“, was given clearance first, the second flown by First Lieutenant Manassero was to come in next. With visibility down to some 500 yards, the two aircraft approached the airfield in close formation, simply to keep in visual contact. Bloemendal lowered his undercarriage followed by Manassero. Bloemendal then began his approach, suddenly retracting his undercarriage informing Manassero he was going round again for another try. But by now, the weather had deteriorated so much that the tower was extremely concerned, and issued an order, to both aircraft, to withdraw from the circuit and abort landings, telling them to fly to the north to avoid the storm. Bloemendal never received the message.
By now contact had been lost between the two pilots, Manassero headed out of the circuit and flew out of harms way, Bloemendal on the other hand had already hit the ground, a massive fireball ensued. Eye witness accounts differed as to what the cause of the crash was, one witness said she saw lightning strike the aircraft at the wing root, “splitting the aircraft in two“, others say they saw the wings in a near vertical position as if the pilot was banking steeply to turn away.
The aircraft came down across Lytham Road, after hitting the ‘Sad Sack Snack Bar’, purposefully built for the American servicemen of BAD 2. It demolished three houses and the infant section of Freckleton’s Holy Trinity School, which at the time, was full of children between the ages of 4 and 6 who, along with their teachers, were going about their daily routine. The resultant crash led to a fireball, one that eventually took the lives of sixty-one people. Eighteen in the cafe, forty in the school and the three crewmen aboard “Classy Chassis II“. Many of these dying in the days that followed from severe burns as burning petrol engulfed the school before flowing into the street .
The crash was so devastating that at the inquest, only the School’s register could be used to identify some of the missing children whilst others were identified merely by parts of their clothing painfully presented to grieving parents. First Lieutenant John Bloemendal was only identified by the remains of his dog tags and wedding ring, the only married man aboard the aircraft.
The US servicemen from BAD2 were highly praised in the days that followed for their quick and brave response to the crash. Pulling away debris while the aircraft still burned, attempting to put out the fire and fighting to save whomever they could from the burning wreck that was once Freckleton village school.
The papers understandably ran the story for months and even years afterwards, as more and more information came to light. Some of the injured were so severely burned, they were read their last rights, whilst many had to have long term skin grafts, including some as part of McIndoe’s Guinea Pig Club.
From Lytham St. Annes, to London and New York, the story of Britain’s worst air disaster spread, putting good news from the front line into painful perspective. Whilst convalescing, young survivors were visited by Bing Crosby, who diverted from his tour of American airfields across the UK, to pay his respects. A small gesture to avert the grieving now felt across both sides of the ocean.
A mass funeral service took place in Freckleton on August 26th, the streets were lined with mourners as service personnel carried the many tiny coffins along in one mass parade. Afterwards, a fund was set up by the USAAF, and an area of land was developed into a playground as a lasting memorial to those lost in the accident. A tablet laid at the playground reads: “This playground presented to the children of Freckleton by their neighbours of Base Air Depot No. 2 USAAF in recognition and remembrance of their common loss in the disaster of August 23rd 1944”.
The inquest into the crash could not prove conclusively as to the cause of the crash. It states:
“The cause of this accident is unknown. It is the opinion of the Accident Investigating Committee that the crash resulted from pilot’s error in the judgement of the violence of the storm. The extent of the thunder-head was not great and he could have flown in perfect safety to the North and East of the field”.
It also states that a possible “rough air structural failure occurred“, although verification of this was impossible due to the total destruction of the aircraft’s structure.
Crowds line the street as US Servicemen carry the many coffins at Freckleton (Photo Ralph Scott, BAD2)
What did arise from the crash was that US service personnel who were trained in the bright blue skies of America, were unaccustomed to the changeable and fierce British weather. Many, like First Lieutenant Bloemenda, often under-estimating the dangers of these thunderstorms and as a result, training was amended to include warnings about such events.
With the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Warton, the memories of that day linger on, regular services are held at Frekleton in remembrance of those sixty-one lives who were all innocent victims of Britain’s worst air disaster of World War Two.
Sources and Further reading
There are many sites that cover this story, in particular I refer you to:
The Book “The Freckleton, England, Air Disaster” by James R. Hedtke, details the accident in depth giving eyewitness accounts, background details and transcripts of the conversations between pilots and the tower. It served as a valuable source of information for this post and is worth buying if interested in reading about this further.
Also, the book ‘Blood and Fears‘ by Kevin Wilson, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) also briefly mentions accounts of the event. Again a good book should you wish to read further.
In this, the last part of RAF Metheringham, we see how one of its brave crews earned the Victoria Cross for their outstanding bravery, and how, as the war camr to a close, Metheringham was closed down and disposed of.
On the night 24th/25th April, 1944, took 106 Sqn back to Germany once more, to Munich and another ‘clear night’ with accurate bombing reported. But, then it was Schweinfurt a city that would become synonymous with high casualties especially amongst colleagues in the US Air Force.
Metheringham would send sixteen aircraft that night with take off commencing at 21.25 from the Lincolnshire airfield with another mix of 4,000lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, marking would again be low level by Mosquitoes but this time it was inaccurate. Strong winds hampered the bombers, with many of the bombs falling away from the main target. Crews reported large fires across the city accompanied by ‘large explosions’. Sadly these were not to be the target and as a result the mission was not deemed a success.
Of the 206 Lancasters sent out that night (26th/27th) twenty-one were lost to heavy and sustained night fighter attacks, a figure of 10% of the force, a terrible blow for Harris and his Command. From Metheringham, five aircraft failed to return, with a further one returning on three engines. Methringham’s loss that night was some 31%, a third of its force gone in one mission. It was a difficult mission for 106 Sqn, with thirty-six airmen lost, (JB601 was carrying a second pilot). Ten of these were taken alive as POWs, four managed to evade capture, whilst the rest were killed. The deaths of the remaining twenty-two must have had another huge impact in the Metheringham dining room that morning.
During this mission the remarkable actions by the crew of Lancaster ME669, and in particular Flight Engineer Sergeant Norman C. Jackson (later Warrant Officer), would become well known. After being hit several times by a night fighter, a fire started in the inner wing section next to the upper fuel tank. Sgt. Jackson, who had been wounded in the leg and shoulder, donned his parachute and grabbed a fire extinguisher before climbing out on to the wing through an escape hatch in the fuselage roof. Upon leaving, his parachute was deployed into the cockpit area, where his colleagues gathered it up and gradually fed the lines through the hole allowing Jackson to gain access to the fire in the wing. Undertaking such an act on a burning aircraft and at altitude, was no easy task and getting back, had he been successful, virtually impossible. The wind knocked the extinguisher out of his grip which prevented Jackson from succeeding in achieving his aim. The fire, now spreading, began to burn both his parachute, hands and face and fearing for his safety, his colleagues let go, releasing him from the stricken bomber. Sgt. Jackson fell to Earth, his parachute partially burned, opened and allowed him to reach the ground alive, but suffering several injuries in the process.
The 21 year old Canadian Captain, F/O. Frederick M. Miffin D.F.C., then ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft; himself and 20 year old F/Sgt, Norman H. Johnson (Air Gunner) both failing to survive.
Sgt. Jackson’s brave attempt to save his colleagues and their aircraft earned him the Victoria Cross for his actions, his citation being published in the Fourth Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 23rd October 1945.*2
The Schweinfurt raid had been a major blow to the Metheringham crews, but it had also shown their courage and determination to win, regardless of the dangers to their own safety.
Another heavy blow on the night of 7th/8th May took another four aircraft along with all but one of the crew, Sgt. J Smith evading capture, in a month that would see a further six aircraft go down with heavy losses.
June 1944 would see another remarkable event take place. Although the entire crew of DV367 were lost on the night of 7th / 8th, they were all awarded the DFM for their action, an usual act in any squadron, and one that nonetheless reflected the bravery of RAF crews at that time.
Metheringham’s memorial garden rests besides a C-47 Dakota ‘KG651’ as a representative model that visited the airfield at the end of the war. Visitors are able to enter the aircraft and sit in the cockpit.
Following the Allied invasion of Normandy, the US forces would begin to use Metheringham as an evacuation point for wounded American troops from nearby Nocton Hall Military Hospital. Once a suitable recovery had been made, the troops were brought to Metheringham and flown on to Prestwick for onward travel and reparation to the United States.
Rarely a month would go by without the squadron facing some loss. Exactly a month later in July, Metheringham would see yet another dip in their crew numbers as five more aircraft went down on the mission to St.-Leu-D’Esserent – the flying bomb storage dump. A force of 208 Lancasters and thirteen Mosquitoes accurately bombed the mouth and access roads to the tunnels in which the bombs were being stored. Metheringham’s loss was particularly high, almost a third of the sixteen sent out being lost. Whilst many airmen were either captured or evaded capture, another eighteen were lost.
In September 1944, No. 1690 (Bomber) Defence Training Flight arrived ay Metheringham airfield. A unit formed seven months earlier at Syerston after 1485 (Bomber) Gunnery Flight was re-designated, it operated a number of single and twin engined aircraft including the Spitfire, Oxford and Wellington bomber under the code ‘9M’. They were used to train bomber crews in the art of defence against fighters, performing violent moves to throw off their attacker. One famous pilot of this unit who served at Metheringham was the Commanding Officer Sqn. Ldr. John Leslie Munro, CNZM, DSO, QSO, DFC, JP of 617 Sqn fame. The Flight would leave Metheringham in the summer of 1945, being disbanded in October that same year back at Syerston.
It had been a long and difficult war for the crews at RAF Metheringham. As the end of the war drew ever closer, they all knew their last mission would soon be here. On April 25th 1945, that day arrived.
Sixteen Lancasters took off to either bomb Tonsberg in the southern region of Norway, or mine the Oslo fjord. A last ditch effort to force the capitulation of the German leadership and end the conflict that had devastated the world for the last six years.
By the time the cease fire was announced, 106 squadron had flown 5,834 sorties with a loss of 187 aircraft (59 from Metheringham), 3.21% on average per mission. 17,781 tons of bombs and mines were dropped and 267 decorations awarded.
After the war, 106 Sqn was earmarked for ‘Tiger Force’ operations and training was tailored to meet these new requirements: fighter affiliation sorties, high level bombing and air-sea firing exercises. Also during May, operation ‘Exodus‘ was put into place and a number of 106 Sqn aircraft flew to the Continent to bring back POWs, many landing at Dunsfold on their return. On the 9th May, whilst evacuating POWs from Rheine airfield, one aircraft from 106 Sqn struck a bomb crater causing damage to the aircraft, the crew and their valuable cargo of POWs thankfully escaped unhurt. The aircraft was then repaired with parts being ferried over from Metheringham the next day. Between May 4th and May 11th, Metheringham crews repatriated 1,484 prisoners of war bringing them home from captivity.
During June aircraft were exchanged with those from 8 Group at RAF Oakington, RAF Warboys and RAF Graveley, allowing Operation ‘Firebrand‘ to be completed by the 19th. Other operations included ‘Rebecca‘, ‘Dodge‘, ‘Nickel‘ and ‘SPASM‘.
On June 15th, another Lancaster squadron, No. 467 (RAAF), joined 106 here at Metheringham. In the days preceding their arrival, they spent many hours dropping ordnance into the sea, a comment in the ORB stated “it seemed like the old days with all serviceable aircraft loaded with incendiaries and it looked like a real operational take off.” It goes on to say a ‘waste but necessary‘ reflecting perhaps the feelings of the men as the squadron wound down for the final few weeks.
The advanced party arrived to make sure the transition went smoothly, with the main party arriving shortly afterwards. Beer was supplied by Metheringham and the crews soon got to know each other well. On July 11th, an athletics competition was run between the two squadrons, involving contests such as ‘tug-o- war’, ‘hop, step and jump’, ‘throwing the cricket ball’ and distance races.
With the announcements of Japan’s capitulation on August 15th, all 106 Sqn ‘Tiger Force’ training flights were cancelled although it continued to be used as the basis of further training operations. B.A.B.S. (Beam Approach Beacon System) training also continued at the airfield.
Air Raid Shelters were once common place on Britain’s airfields.
Shortly after 467’s disbandment on September 30th 1945, October saw yet another Lancaster unit arrived at Metheringham, No. 189 Squadron who brought yet more Lancaster MK.Is and III. to be disposed of and they too were disbanded within a month.
The poor weather that had caused so many problems during the winters of the 1940s leading to Metheringham having FIDO installed, continued on into 1946 curtailing many flights and operations. On 13th February 1946 the final curtain came down and a memo came though to Metheringham to ‘stand down’ from all operational and non-operational flying as of 00:01, 15th February 1946. Sixteen aircraft were to be ferried to RAF Graveley to have Mark III H2S units fitted, although this was cancelled and the aircraft were sent to Waddington (10), Binbrook (1), Lindholme (4) and one further Lancaster going to Waddington. By 22nd February 1946 all aircraft had left Metheringham and the squadron no longer existed, 106 Squadron was once more consigned to the history books and Metheringham airfield would follow not long after. Men, machinery and administrative items were then disposed of in accordance with the relevant Bomber command instructions. By April, everyone had left, the site was stripped and placed in care and maintenance, a condition it remained in until December 1950, whereupon it was abandoned before being sold off ten years later.
Like many stations, local people used the accommodation sites for their own accommodation, the runways were eventually pulled up for hardcore, buildings and other metal structures were removed for scrap or sold off to farmers. By the early 1970s Metheringham had all but been wiped off the map. The Watch Office left to decay has since been bought by a local developer, with a mammoth task ahead of him he hopes to turn it into accommodation and a small museum/residential block.
Metheringham’s record of achievement was a proud one, with generally low loss statistics they were to face some of the toughest challenges of the war, losing many crews in the process. Their determination to survive and to win over the Nazi tyranny led to many brave and heroic acts, acts which helped secure the release of hundreds of captured airmen.
There are many reminders of RAF Metheringham.
Metheringham’s gallant and brave young men, are all remembered in a small, but excellent museum that now utilises part of one of the accommodation areas. A memorial to the aircrew stands on the eastern perimeter track as a reminder of the 995 Airmen who were lost whilst serving with 106 Sqn.
Much of Metheringham’s runway and perimeter track still exists today, in most part as a public road. The width of the concrete bases far exceeding the width of the road. A memorial stands to the eastern side overlooking the main airfield site (Site 1) with lines of tress denoting the remainder of runways long gone. The main B1189 road dissects the accommodation areas with Site 1, as was common with late wartime airfields. The museum lies off the junction of this road and the main Woodhall Spa road B1191 along the entrance to Westmoor Farm. If taking the B1189 toward the Metheringham village, you will pass a number of former wartime buildings used as small industrial units and farm storage. These are on private land although the museum do organise visits to some of these at certain times of the year. After passing these, turn right, this road was one of the secondary runways and crosses the remains of the main runway part way down. It then bends to the right taking you along the perimeter track, and then right again to the memorial – a circular route that traverses what was the peri track. Several of the hardstands still survive, mainly on farm property and difficult to see from the ground, but the number of buildings still standing is quite remarkable for such a short lived airfield.
Trail 1 then continues on, visiting another former Bomber Command airfield RAF Woodhall Spa.
After Part 1, we continue following the crews of 106 Squadron at RAF Metheringham. The weather and in particular fog became a huge problem for aircrew, and bomber Command in particular. Something had to be done.
During the 1940s, fog was a particular problem around Britain’s airfields, often reducing visibility down to virtually nil, meaning bombers could neither take off nor land. Arthur Harris realising the effect this was having on his bomber operations, requested investigations be carried out into a possible method for clearing the fog thus allowing bombers to operate in this appalling conditions and widening the possibilities of operations in bad weather.
Churchill, influenced by Harris’s argument, instructed his Scientific Adviser Lord Cherwell to begin action at once, and so the Petroleum Warfare Department began to assemble a team of experts – who had already carried out some investigations into the weather and methods for dealing with fog – into a team to investigate the problem. A wide ranging group of scientists and industrialists carried out research concluding that heat was by far the best method for clearing fog over the low lying landscape.
The requirement put forward was to clear a standard Class A runway of at least 1,000 yards long and 50 yards wide, and an area up to 100 feet above the ground – a staggering 1.65m cubic yards of air. Further limitations were then put on the order restricting the placement of any obstacles likely to endanger an aircraft within 50 feet of the runway’s edge. A mammoth task but one which saw the development of the oil burning FIDO system.
The FIDO (Fog Investigation and Dispersal Operation) system was developed under the leadership a British Civil Engineer Arthur Clifford Hartley, CBE who worked with the Petroleum Warfare Department, and whose initial ideas involved using one of two streams of fuel; petroleum trialled at RAF Graveley, and Coke trialled at RAF Lakenheath. After initial (and rather crude) tests at both Moody Down (petroleum) and Staines (coke), petroleum was found to be the better of the two fuels, and henceforth, the Gravely model was used as a template for fourteen further sites of which Metheringham was one.
Installed at Metheringham during early 1944, it saw pipes laid alongside the runway which when lit, created an initial mass of smoke. Once the system had ‘warmed up’ the smoke dissipated and the fog began to ‘burn off’ as the immense heat from the burners created an up draft of warm air.
By the war’s end FIDO had been used across England to assist in the landing of almost 2,500 aircraft most of which would otherwise have not been able to land without great danger to the crews or ground staff; it had been one of the war’s greatest success stories and was sold as such to the wider public. So successful in its outcomes, FIDO was intended to be installed at London’s major airport Heathrow, after the war, but the cost of running each system was astronomical, burning some 6,000 – 7,000 gallons of fuel in four minutes – the time it took to clear the designated volume of air. It is estimated that during its wartime use, something like 30 million gallons of fuel were burnt and whilst the cost to the taxpayer was tremendous, it is thought to have saved the lives of over 10,000 airmen in the process.*1
Back in the air, the night of March 15th/16th saw split missions with one section going to Stuttgart and and a further six aircraft heading to the aero-engine factory at Woippy in France. These six made up a total formation of twenty-two Lancasters, a flight that included 617 Sqn aircraft. With promises of good weather over the Metz region, it came as a huge disappointment to find 10/10 cloud cover over the entire target. Even with the target being identified on the H2S screen and five marker flares being dropped, the leader announced the mission scrubbed and all aircraft were instructed to return to base taking their full complement of bombs with them. So strong were the crew feelings that 617 Sqn’s leader, Leonard Cheshire, seriously considered complaining! However, despite this, all aircraft returned including those of 106 Sqn to Metheringham with only minor flak damage to ND331.
With the next few missions passing without major incident, the night of March 30th, would deal a hefty blow to the crews of 106 Sqn.
With take off starting at 22:15, seventeen Lancasters would depart Metheringham heading for Nurumberg carrying a range of 4,000lb, 1,000lb, 500lb, 41lb and 30lb bombs. Over the target, skymarkers guided the bomb-aimers as cloud was reported as heavy as 10/10 again. Searchlights and flak were evident as were fighters which attacked and damaged Lancaster ND332 piloted by F/O. Penman. The Lancaster, which claimed two enemy aircraft damaged, returned to England putting down on Manston’s emergency runway. Both the rear and mid upper turrets were out of action, one of the engines caught fire, and on landing, the undercarriage collapsed due to the enemy action. luckily though, no crewmen were injured in the sustained attack that caused the Lancaster’s severe damage.
A further Lancaster had to return early, Lancaster JB567 after suffering the failure of the port inner engine landing back at Metheringham after two and half hours into the flight. Similarly it was an engine failure that also caused the early return of JB641 this time landing three hours after departure. Three of the seventeen Lancasters were already out of action.
Meanwhile on the continent, Lancaster ND585, was reported missing, later being found to have been shot down by a German night fighter, crashing in Belgium with the loss of all its crew. On board was, at 18 years old, another of Bomber Command’s youngest ever crewmen, Sgt. Julian Mackilligin RAFVR (S/N: 1804016), who even at his young age, was already half way through his operational quota. He was buried at the Hotton War Cemetery, Luxenbourg.
Next came another two losses, Lancasters JB566 piloted by F/S. T. Hall DFM and ND535 piloted by F/O. J Starkey. Both went down with the loss of all but four crewmen. The mission had indeed been costly, forty-two airmen were out of action, seventeen of them killed.*3
By the end of the first quarter of 1944, 106 Sqn had carried out more sorties than any other 5 Group squadron (358) losing 8 aircraft in the process. This gave the men of Metheringham an average of 19 sorties per aircraft in the first 90 days.
April began with a mix of bombing and ‘Gardening‘ missions, operations that included laying mines along the Koningberger Seekanel, with mines being dropped from as low as 150 ft. Even though some aircraft reported heavy ground fire from the banks of the Canal, the mission was deemed to be a great success and all aircraft returned safely.
The month continued to go well for the Metheringham crews, but the night of April 22nd / 23rd would take another toll on the morale of the crews. That night saw twenty Lancasters fly to Brunswick as part of a much larger force of 238 Lancasters and seventeen Mosquitoes. The mission, whilst generally uneventful, marked the first operation in low level target marking by No. 5 Group over a large city, an aid that proved fruitless on this occasion partly due to low cloud/haze obscuring the bomb aimer’s clear sight. With varying reports of cloud from 5/10 to no cloud and haze, all bombers reported bombing on markers, but damage and ground causalities were recorded as low.
The former Gymnasium now forms part of the museum and holds a range functions including weddings and talks.
RAF loses that night were also relatively low, with only four aircraft being lost from the whole flight. Sadly though, one of these, Lancaster MK.III ‘JB567’ ZN-E piloted by F/Lt. J. Lee was a Metheringham aircraft. F/Lt Lee had only one more mission to go before completing his first tour of duty. Only two of his crew survived, being picked up by German forces and sent to POW camps. This loss only went to strengthen the idea that it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve a full tour of duty unscathed.
The next night 24th/25th April, 1944, took 106 Sqn back to Germany once more, to Munich and another ‘clear night’ with accurate bombing reported. But, then it was Schweinfurt a city that would become synonymous with high casualties especially amongst colleagues in the US Air Force.
In part 3, we see how incredible brave acts earned a Metheringham airman the highest honour – the Victoria Cross.
In researching a short period of the Bomber Command campaign in 1941 and 1942 I thought I would share my research on the web. My interest stems from having had a lifelong interest in aviation and having served 21 years in the Royal Air Force. The snapshot in history I have taken, is a sample of the activity that took place at a 5 Group airfield in Rutland. The airfield is RAF North Luffenham and it’s satellite airfield Woolfox Lodge. The period is 1941 to 1942 when a number of squadrons operated from the grass airfield. 61 Squadron operated Hampdens and converted to Manchesters. 144 Squadron RAF and 408 RCAF Squadron operated Hampdens. Hampdens were operated at RAF Cottesmore at an operational training unit – that might be another project!