RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 5)

After Part 4, in this, the final part, we see how Sculthorpe has fared, and what has happened to it now. As a major Cold War player its future is uncertain, but definitely not yet over!

Gradually, as nuclear deterrents turned to both missiles and naval based platforms, Sculthorpe’s activity began to slow. Being returned to RAF ownership in 1964, it was eventually placed in care and maintenance once more, held open by only a small detachment of support staff. However, all was not yet lost, for later in that same decade, Sculthorpe saw yet another reprieve, when the USAF returned once more, needing a base from which to operate its aircraft whilst other airfields were redeveloped and runways resurfaced. This temporarily brought new life back to Sculthorpe, with American F-4 Phantoms and C-130s operating from here. The RAF, needing a similar facility, also used Sculthorpe as a temporary base, Coltishall for example, basing their Jaguars here temporarily. This process went on well into the late 1980s and Sculthorpe became a mecca for plane spotters for at least another few years.

Eventually all this too ceased and before the final farewell the site was used to store North American Sabres prior to them being scrapped and disposed of.

 

Airmens huts

‘Hut 380’, a Second World War remnant.

Sculthorpe finally closed its doors in 1992, the enormous accommodation blocks and technical sites were sold off. Both these and many of the remaining buildings were left to decay, whilst planners gave thought as to what they should be used for. However, like a phoenix, Sculthorpe returned from the dead yet again. The RAF, the Army Air Corps and the USAF using it for manoeuvres, seeing such diverse models as the V-22 Osprey tilt wing aircraft, using it for paratroops and rehearsals of supply drops over its enormous runways; much of this activity taking place at night. Even up until recently, C-130s had also been seen operating here, again rehearsing quick ‘stop-‘n’-go’ drops, something that continues in part to this day.

The rise in ‘Soviet Aggression’ and post conflict tensions during the Cold War had secured the immediate post-war future of Sculthorpe. Not only were atomic weapons stored here ready, but a wide range of US aircraft that would otherwise not have been seen on British soil, were also based here. The demise of world peace had been the saviour of Sculthorpe’s future.

Looking at Sculthorpe, it is hard to believe its origins were in the Second World War. Being a real monster of the Cold War, Sculthorpe is clinging on by the skin of its teeth. The accommodation blocks that once housed 10,000 personnel are decaying and vandalised, refurbished areas are now sold off and accommodating local families. A small industrial area has been developed from the technical area, and the local farmer grazes his cattle on the far reaches of the site. Many of the older original buildings have been left to rot and fall down. The American authorities still retain some ownership of the site, whilst a large part of it is in private hands, such ownership does prevent some access but a good deal of the site is visible from permissible points.

The original guard-house is no longer manned, and a number of other buildings close by are also empty. A small public track that once took eager plane spotters to the rear of the airfield, still allows views across the north of the now quiet site where a blister hangar continues to stand alone. The control tower is still intact visible in the distance from this point, as are a number of original Nissan huts and Second World War buildings hidden amongst new buildings and old developments.

Reunion 'memorial'

In remembrance of the 47th BW, 50th anniversary reunion, 2002.

The post war ‘All Ranks Club’ houses a small exhibition of artefacts and information about Sculthorpe, depicting its post war life, and includes many interesting photos. The exhibition is open at certain times throughout the year allowing visitors to view them and talk to the volunteers some of which actually served here at the base.

Sculthorpe was once a bustling airfield, it was home to some of the world’s heaviest bombers, and a mecca for aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters alike. Today, it is a decaying industrial site, a mix of old buildings and new developments; a remnant of the Cold War, it clings on to life by the skin of its teeth, maybe, just maybe, the Phoenix will rise up once more and spring into life once again.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

Sources and further information.

*1 National Archives – AIR 27/1924/17

*2 Gunn, P.B., “Flying Lives – with a Norfolk Theme“, Peter Gunn, 2010

*3, *5 Cahill, W. “The Unseen Fight: USAAF radio counter-measure operations in Europe, 1943 to 1945” Journal of Aeronautical History Paper, 2020/06

*4 21 Sqn ORB Summary of Events 1943 Oct 01 – 1943 Nov 30, AIR 27/264/19

*5 Cahill, W., “The Unseen Fight: USAAF radio counter-measure operations in
Europe, 1943 to 1945” Journal of Aeronautical History, Paper 2020/06

*6 The Spyflight Website which gives considerable detail into the flights.

National Archives: AIR 27/1924/19; AIR 27/1935/19; AIR 27/1326

Photos of Sculthorpe in its heyday can be seen on the Sculthorpe  Air Base website.

Further information and personal stories can be found on the 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron website.

Gunn, P., “Sculthorpe – Secrecy and Stealth, A Norfolk Airfield in the Cold War“, 2014, The History Press.

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 4)

In Part 3, Sculthorpe had been through he war, and was now being developed ready for the arrival of B-29s on 90 day rotations. Their arrival though, was not as easy as they had hoped.

The arrival of the aircraft did not all go to plan though, as on July 21st 1949, whilst transferring across from the US, one of the B-29s #44-62191 ‘suffered problems’ 2 miles east of Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. The aircraft, a Boeing B-29A-65-BN, had a crew of twelve on board, but it soon became clear that they were not going to make it, and so decided to abandon the aircraft and leave it to its fate.

All twelve of the crew successfully departed the aircraft landing nearby, but in doing so, two of them sustained serious, but not thought to have been life threatening, injuries after exiting. The worst, suffered by the pilot, was a possible fractured skull, whilst the second crewman suffered a fractured leg; it is believed both airmen made full recoveries. The aircraft itself ultimately crashed, landing in a field east of the small Fenland market town. The remains were quickly retrieved and some parts have since ended up in the local Fenland and West Norfolk Aviation Museum located in Wisbech.

The lack of constant use however, meant that much of the accommodation at Sculthorpe had deteriorated to an unacceptable level. Damp and rot had set in and more work was now needed to bring it back up to standard before further deployments could take place. Even as this was being carried out though, bombs and other supplies were quickly beginning to arrive, and soon Sculthorpe was ready to allow an American foothold on British soil once more.

Further temporary deployments included both the 92nd and 98th BGs, each also flying B-29s that were capable of dropping atomic weapons should the need arise, thankfully, this requirement wasn’t needed and at the end of each deployment the units moved on to other theatres or their home bases back in the United States.

These regular ninety day duty rotations became a bit of a saviour for Sculthorpe, with other aircraft like the mighty B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ and the North American B-45 ‘Tornado’ finding themselves located here. Acting as the front-line bombers designed to attack Soviet targets from the UK, they became a major deterrent in the dramatic face off between East and West.

Blister Hangar

Sculthorpe’s remaining Blister hangar in a low setting sun.

Further cold war tensions saw in 1952, the deployment of the 47th Bomb Wing (formally the 47th BG) of the Strategic Air Command from the United States. This wing consisted of the 84th, 85th, and 86th BS, along with the 420th Refuelling Sqn and the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Sqn. These units operated a number of aircraft types including the: B-45, B-66, KB-29, KB-50, and RB-45C aircraft.

The 47th was activated on March 12th 1951, initially as the 47th Bombardment Wing (BW) but with just two squadrons – the 84th and 85th. As a new unit, it had the honour of being not only the first, but the only jet powered medium bomber Wing in the US Air Force. With NATO becoming more established and nuclear weapons arsenals expanding at a great rate of knots, the 47th were posted to Sculthorpe to provide an airborne nuclear strike force in support of NATO forces  who would be operating on the ground in any future conflict.

A year later, a third squadron would arrive to join the Group, that of the 422nd BS. Within a month or two of its arrival though, the unit was re-designated as the 86th BS a move that brought it in line with its two sister squadrons. For three years the 47th would operate out of Sculthorpe acting as a nuclear support unit for NATO forces in Europe.

Coinciding with the arrival of the US Wing in 1952, was the formation of the ‘Special Duties Flight Sculthorpe’. This was a British unit, led by Squadron Leader John Crampton (who replaced the initial choice Sqn. Ldr. Micky Martin of the ‘Dambusters’ fame, as he had failed a high altitude medical examination)  and was designed to perform deep penetration flights into Soviet airspace carrying out reconnaissance missions for Britain’s planned ‘V’ Bomber force. This was also used as a cover for covert US operations. Only two such flights were made, each with three aircraft; the first on 17th/18th April 1952, and the second on 28th/29th April 1954*6. These flights were performed by British crews flying American RB-45Cs with their US markings replaced by British roundels. A political ‘loop-hole’ that prevented US aircraft flying over Soviet territory allowed British aircraft to do so. These flights took place under Operation ‘Ju-jitsu‘, with four aircraft which were leased from the US 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing.

Initially three routes were chosen, one of which took the aircraft close to Moscow. To ‘protect’ crews, they were issued with false papers and maps, and told, if caught, to explain  that rather implausibly, they had simply become incredibly lost!

After these flights, which weren’t totally without mishap, the crews were congratulated by General LeMay, and the unit was then disbanded. However, it was reformed again, also at Sculthorpe, in 1954 (after a second such temporary reformation in September 1952) and a second flight was made. This time the Soviets were ready for them, after having evaluated their air defence network they were far better prepared and the crews were at a much greater level of danger than during their initial flights.

It has since been revealed that Soviet aircraft were instructed to ram the RB-45Cs as they had no suitable radar with which to track the intruders. However, no such contact was made, and whilst flak was now the problem, it was generally ineffective, but sufficient to make the crews on board make a hasty return to the West where they received more fuel before returning to Sculthorpe.

The unit was then again disbanded and all flights by them ceased. The RB-45Cs now being outdated, were too slow and obsolete to perform such high risk flights over soviet territory.

Control Tower

The watch office in a setting sun

Meanwhile at Sculthorpe, the operations of the 47th BW were gradually being taken over by other branches of the US Strategic Air Command (SAC), this take over reached such a point that inevitably the 47th were withdrawn and transferred home to the US. Once here, they were dissolved, and on February 8th 1955, the wing was removed from the US military inventory and their remarkable achievements condemned to the history books.

After this, political talks and imposed de-escalation strategies between the Cold War factions, prevented further deployment of large-scale US bombers on European soil, and so further deployments on this scale would not be seen again in the UK.

As the Cold War subsides, Sculthorpe’s future become uncertain, but it is definitely not yet over. In the last part we see how Sculthorpe has fared and look at what the future holds now.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

Sgt. Norman Cyril Jackson VC. RAF Metheringham.

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.

Norman Cyril Jackson 106 Sqn RAF Metheringham (photo via Wikipedia)

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 VC

Sgt. Jackson’s Grave. He died almost 50 years to the day after his brave attempt to save teh aircraft and crew. (Photo Paul Cannon)

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 extinguish [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.

Sources.

RAF Metheringham features in Trail 1.

The London Gazette, 23rd October 1945.

National Archives. AIR 27/834/8

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 3)

In Part 2, we left with the winter of 1942-43 arriving along with a special visitor.

The harsh winter of 1943-44 would see a special visitor come to Sculthorpe. Wing Commander Leonard Cheshire arrived to discuss, with Pickard, the plausibility of dropping food and clothing to his brother in Sagan (Salag Luft III) using the Mosquito. Cheshire knowing Pickard’s vast experience, thought he was the ideal person to speak to. Whether this was a personal effort to provide comfort to his brother or whether Cheshire was considering the Mosquito for low level precision attacks is not known, but the latter befell the Wing not long after Cheshire’s visit.

The December of 1943 would bring major changes here at Sculthorpe. On New Year’s Eve, the Wing, along with Pickard and all three Mosquito squadrons, would leave the Norfolk site, taking their Mosquito VIs to RAF Hunsdon. A much smaller airfield, where the overcrowding experienced at Sculthorpe must have been considerably worse. It was from Hunsdon that Pickard would famously make his last flight.

A story goes that Pickard had left his dog ‘Ming’ at Sculthorpe to be looked after whilst he was away. On the day he was shot down, 18th February 1944, on the Amien raid, the dog fell gravely ill. Pickard’s wife, Dorothy, went to get him and sensed that Pickard had been killed after seeing the state of the animal. It took months for Ming to recover, and some years later whilst living in Rhodesia, Ming went outside, looked up to the sky as he always did when Pickard was flying, heard a whistle, collapsed and died.*2

The departure of the Wing effectively left Sculthorpe with no operational units, until on January 6th 1944, when a new and very different squadron began to move in.

Crews from 214 (Federated Malay States) Squadron based under 3 Group at Downham Market, arrived in two waves, the initial group coming across in early January 1944, whilst the main body continued  operations flying their Stirling bombers. Those that arrived here quickly settled in, but a lack of decent paths meant that initial training was mixed with the unenviable task of digging and laying of new paths. Whilst attending lectures and link training were the primary tasks for the pilots and Flight Engineers, the gunners and other aircrew were given the more ‘practical’ task of constructing the new paths ready for the remainder of the squadron’s arrival.

Then on the 25th, the remaining crews and staff of the squadron departed Downham Market, thus ending their link with 3 Group. Once here, flying circuits and more lectures became the order of the day. Additional training on ‘Monica‘ equipment, fighter affiliation tasks and local cross countries then took the squadron to late spring at which point operations began to take place.

The arrival of 214 Sqn heralded more than just a new bomber squadron though, for they would not be flying the Stirling as they had been; instead, they were set up as part of 100 Group, becoming an official member in mid January 1944. Their arrival here would not only see them change Groups but would also see them convert to the American built B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’.

Now designated 214 (BS) Sqn,  214 Sqn’s  arrival would bring a major change to Sculthorpe, a change that would continue for the next five months. Operating in the Electronic Warfare role within 100 Group, they would carry out radio jamming operations, an early form of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM). The urgency of the conversion, led to the unit taking on fourteen UK based B17-Fs , their ordered ‘G’ models being used as a trade off*3.

The British B-17 (designated Fortress I, II and III) crews were joined by personnel from various U.S. units. Their role was to train and support the air and ground crews in both flying and maintaining the new aircraft, a role they performed well, right into the early summer of 1944. The set up was so successful that American personnel were soon posted in to fly alongside the RAF crews, thus expanding the influence of the Group.

Technical site buildings

A large part of Sculthorpe has been left to rot, piece by piece.

Flying along side other bomber formations, 214 squadron would use systems including ‘Monica‘ to track or jam enemy radar, they performed ‘spoof’ missions to entice enemy fighters up to them rather than the main force that was attacking targets elsewhere; a rouse that worked well initially. Other operations flown by the Group, included: jamming or swamping German radio communications, jamming navigation aids and searching for new signals that may suggest new or improved German radar.*3

The successes of 100 Group, prompted the setting up of the U.S. 803rd (Prov) BS (H) in March that year, a US Group who would learn from and perform in the same role as 214 Sqn. Initially taking six veteran crews, all having reached 25 missions, from 96th BG at Snetterton Heath combined with those already at Sculthorpe, they would soon build up to a strength of twelve aircraft all based here at the Norfolk airfield.

Of these initial six all but one were fitted with Carpet and Mandrel jamming equipment, whilst the sixth (B-17G) had jammers and search equipment in the form of SCR-587 and Hallicrafters S-27 VHF signals intelligence receivers (SIGINT) to track Luftwaffe radar and radio transmissions.*5

The initial set up of the unit was seen as ‘messy’ and disorganised with no real focus. This led to delays in preparation, organisation and training. As D-day appeared over the horizon, the U.S. group was distinctly lacking in preparation and action was needed fast.

To assist in the training and operations of the Fortress, a new separate unit was also set up here at Sculthorpe. From April 24th 1944, 1699 (Fortress Training) Flight who operated each of the Fortress I, II and III, carried out the conversion and training role for these crews, and to speed the process up, they also used the B-24 Liberator along with some smaller examples such as the Avro Anson and Air Speed Oxford.

Then, five months after their arrival, both 214 Sqn and the 803rd were both posted out to RAF Oulton, (May 1944), where they continued with their ECM roles. The 803rd, now commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Clayton Scott, began to work on the support of Operation Overlord, and even as late as June 5th, equipment was still being fitted to the aircraft.

The Fortress Training Flight moved with the two ECM units and in October it was disbanded and immediately reformed as 1699 (Bomber Support) Conversion Unit, a designation it used for a year before being renamed once more.

The departure of the three squadrons (along with the resident non-flying units) was not a coincidence, for Sculthorpe had been earmarked for redevelopment into a Very Heavy Bomber base (VHB). As soon as the personnel had moved out, workmen moved in, taking up residence in the now empty nissen huts.

Accomodation Block

Barrack Block

There then followed a period of sustained redevelopment. This included the removal and reinstatement of longer runways along with the construction of twelve very heavy bomber hardstands. Surrounding public roads were also diverted and further properties were demolished to make way for the airfield’s new expansion. The driving force behind this move was the anticipated deployment of the enormous Boeing B-29 “Superfortress”, but when the war in Europe came to an end a year later, further development of Sculthorpe ceased and the B-29s never arrived as permanent residents.

For the next 3 years or so, the station was basically closed, it was placed into care and maintenance with only occasional use keeping it alive; one such operator being the 1510 Beam Approach Beacon System Flight (BABS) based at nearby Bircham Newton. However, four years after the war’s end, between May and August of 1949, the airfield got a reprieve, when the 344th BS, 98th BG, USAAF did bring B-29s to Sculthorpe for the first of a number of several 90 day deployments. The first of these temporary postings were in response to the growing Soviet aggression in Eastern Europe. Identified as one of only a few sites suitable for the heavy bomber, the reprieve led to further development of the site with new storage facilities being constructed. The focus of these buildings were specifically to house and prepare atomic bombs ready for use should Anglo-Soviet relations deteriorate to a war status.

In Part 4, as the Cold War warms up, Sculthorpe becomes a major player in the front line of a potential European war.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 2)

In Part 1 we saw how Sculthorpe was developed in the mid war years but had not lived up to expectations. Two squadrons were about to move in, 464 and 487 neither of whom were overly impressed by its lack of comfort!

487 were the first to transfer. On the 19th, the advance party left Methwold followed in the early afternoon of the 20th by the main road party. The aircraft and crews then transferred over an hour or so after that.  On the 21st the aircraft of 464 Sqn also departed Methwold, the departure tinged with sadness as many were sorry to be leaving what had been a good home. The weather typical as it is, once again closed in, and several aircraft had to try two or three times before finally getting down safely at Sculthorpe. Fortunately there were no mishaps and all crews and aircraft arrived safely. By the evening all were unpacked and settling down for the night.

The lack of buildings became quickly evident though, a fact made worse by the lack of bicycles, Sculthorpe being so widespread that it meant it was difficult to get around without transport. As a result, more bikes were needed and an order was placed with an urgent request. Coinciding with this, was a memo informing staff, of the impending move to form a new headquarters here, a move which would see both new recruits along with an increase in staffing levels. This was a further worry as there was still insufficient accommodation for those already here.

Bomb store

Sculthorpe’s bomb store.

The month ended on a better note however, with good weather, night sorties and training on new equipment gave a hint of things to come. A new station Commander also arrived at this time, in the form of Group Captain P.C.  Pickard DSO, DFC, once again hopes for the two squadrons were rising.

Pickard’s arrival was by no means a coincidence – a new Wing was being formed and he had been chosen to lead it. Pickard’s record as a leader was outstanding, and he had been hand picked, for the role, by none other than Air Vice Marshall Basil Embry.

Pickard’s role here at Sculthorpe was to set up and command 140 Wing, a new unit consisting of three Mosquito squadrons, under the control of 2 Group of the Second Tactical Air Force headed by Embry himself.

Even while the new Wing was being formed, training continued for those already here at Sculthorpe. On August 18th, whilst on one such flight, one of the Venturas (AE668) of 464 Sqn crashed into a Welsh hillside at Llandwrog, with the loss of all four crewmen. What was unusual, and concerning, was why the aircraft was so far off course at the time; the Welsh mountains not being where it should have been. It was not known why the aircraft crashed nor indeed whether the deviation of course was a factor in the accident, but it was a heart felt tragedy and the squadron’s first accident whilst at Sculthorpe.

Three days after this, on August 21st, the first of the new replacement aircraft arrived, two DH Mosquitoes, a milestone that coincided the following day with the setting up of a Mosquito Conversion Flight. The purpose of the Flight was to convert Ventura aircrew from both 464 and 487 Sqns over to the Mosquito.

Flying was slow to start with, as appalling weather prevented any chance of taking off, even in the day-time; a situation that would prevail for some time. By now, the new postings for the surplus gunners of both units had begun to filter through, and gradually, one by one, they trickled out of Sculthorpe to their new respective squadrons elsewhere.

It wasn’t  just the aircrew that were being posted out either, a number of tradesmen were also posted out, but oddly enough, they were not being replaced. The distinct lack of skilled technical personnel soon raised alarm bells amongst the units, for as a Mosquito squadron,  487 had no carpenters, and other skilled workers were becoming distinctly lacking.

By early September Mosquito numbers had reached well into double figures, the lack of manpower was now the issue which was being made worse by the lack of spares, a situation that led to many aircraft being classed as unserviceable. A common problem seemed to be the undercarriages, repairs taking longer than usual keeping aircraft annoyingly grounded.

The 15th September 1943 saw another turn in the status of Sculthorpe, seeing it gain its own independence and becoming an operational airfield in its own right. With this, Sculthorpe had finally grown up.

On the 28th, the numbers of aircraft on the books had reached over 70 when another squadron (21) arrived to join both 464 and 487 thus completing the formation of the Wing. The ORB for 464 Sqn stating that the airfield was not built for three squadrons (and a conversion flight) and that overcrowding was now a major issue for those based here at a cold and wet Sculthorpe.

21 Sqn was another Ventura unit, themselves having a history as far back as 1915, and very soon after their arrival, they too, would begin to receive the Mosquito. As with 464 and 487 Sqns, pilots were quickly placed on the conversion course flying with the Conversion Flight at Sculthorpe. The transformation from Ventura to Mosquito being expedited with all speed. By the 4th October, virtually all pilots had converted and completed cross country solo flights at low level. Only the incident on the 1st, when Ft.  Lt. Henderson suffered engine trouble and subsequent fire, marred the otherwise rapid and clean transfer across. In the incident, Fl. Lt. Henderson managed to bring the aircraft down safely at RAF Attlebridge.

Other good news for the unit was that those in the administration offices were now able to move from their cold and unsuitable temporary accommodation block to a new permanent building, this new block being the ‘best they had experienced since leaving RAF Oulton‘.

Meanwhile 464 and 487 Sqn had both been flying operationally, October 9th being the blackest day yet for the New Zealanders, when twelve Mosquitoes were dispatched for the first operations over occupied territory. An attack on Metz was planned but owing to bad weather only one or two aircraft managed to find the target. After dropping their bombs it wasn’t clear whether the target was hit or not, but worse news was yet to come.

The formation, which had been dispersed due to poor weather, was being led by Wing Commander Alan G. Wilson DFC along with his navigator F.O. Donald C. F. Bridgman of 487 Sqn. During the attack the formation encountered severe anti-aircraft fire, and Wilson’s aircraft (HX965) was repeatedly hit. The navigator sustained mortal wounds and the aircraft was set on fire. In a desperate attempt to clear the fire, Wing Commander Wilson had to douse the flames with his hands causing extensive burning and injury. He managed to eject the now smouldering materials from the aircraft, but considerable damage had by now been done. Now flying on his own with his mortally wounded companion beside him, Wilson showed extreme courage and determination, flying the stricken aircraft back to England where he made a successful crash landing at RAF Manston in Kent.

Accomodation blck adjacent to the guard room

Blocks adjacent to the Guard Room.

A second aircraft (HX912), flown by Flt. Lt. Phillip C. C. Kerr and F.O. Bernard J. E. Hannan (464 Sqn) – were less lucky, both being killed when the aircraft dropped its bombs at low level. It is believed the subsequent explosion also blew up the Mosquito.

On a separate operation to attack the aircraft engine factory at Woippy in France, Mosquito  HX938 piloted by Sqn. Ldr. Walter F. Wallington DFC and navigator P.O.  James H. Fawdrraf, dropped its bombs by accident  and crashed. This time, both airmen managed to bail out, but some thirty people on the ground were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Wallington managed to evade capture but P.O. Fawdrraf was not so lucky and was picked up by German ground forces. The same fate did not befall two more 487 Sqn airmen that day. Flt. Lt. Edgar W. P. Court and Flt. Lt. Jack B. Sands were both killed when their Mosquito (HX937) blew up whilst flying on one engine near to Antwerp.

It had been a very sad day for the Wing, and the loss of several ‘good’ men would be deeply felt by both squadrons.

More rain and strong winds eventually turned Sculthorpe into something that resembled a “seaplane base”, by the end of the month, the entire site was waterlogged. The winds were so severe they were reported to have lifted hut roofs off their mountings causing even more problems for those inside. The foul weather broke momentarily on the 22nd – 23rd October and allowed for some bombing practice to take place. On return, one of the 464 Sqn Mosquitoes overshot and crashed onto a hedge at the end of the runway. On the 23rd, one of 487’s Mosquitoes ‘T’ for Tommy, did exactly the same thing, coming to rest only feet from the wreck that was previously a Mosquito. As if that was not remarkable enough, a few minutes later one of 21 Sqn’s aircraft also overshot, landing directly on top of the 464 Sqn aircraft!

Miraculously no one was hurt in any of these incidents, but according to 21 Sqn’s ORB “considerable loss of public property sustained“, presumably referring to the pile of wood chippings now sitting at the end of the runway.*4 The fact that no one was hurt was a miracle in itself, and all the cockpits remaining intact was a sight that gave the personnel at Sculthorpe a great belief in the strength of the Wooden Wonder!

By October’s end, the crews of all squadrons were now fully conversant with the new Mosquito, and the supporting Conversion Flight was disbanded; specific training units taking on the role elsewhere.

In Part 3, the harsh winter of 1943-44 arrives and so does a special visitor. Does it mean something new for Sculthorpe?

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

 

RAF Sculthorpe – A relic of the Cold War (Part 1)

In the heart of Norfolk, lies an airfield that had its origins in the Second World War, but its legacy is more of a Cold War monster that was a key player in what could have been the world’s demise.

In the second part of Trail 21, we return to that relic of the Cold War – RAF Sculthorpe.

RAF Sculthorpe 

Sculthorpe airfield is located a few miles to the north-west of the town of Fakenham in Norfolk, in a parish that has links as far back as the Romans and even pre-historic eras. The airfield itself however, has its origins more recently, in the latter part of the Second World War, but it has a much larger claim to fame one that it still retains to this day.

A once busy shop

A once busy shop now derelict and forgotten.

Designed initially as a heavy bomber site, and satellite to RAF West Raynham, Sculthorpe had three runways, one of 12,000ft and two of 6,000ft, and all made of concrete. By the end of its life, it had enormous technical and administration sites and was capable of housing up to 10,000 personnel, giving Sculthorpe the ability to boast being one of the biggest airbases in Western Europe, an honour it retains to this day. Built by a collection of major companies including: Bovis Ltd, John Laing & Sons, and Constable Hart & Co. Ltd; it would boast as many as five major hangars, one B1 and four T2s, along with several blister hangars all located around the site.

Although built in the Second World War, Sculthorpe had a limited War life, being opened quite late, in January 1943. Operating under the control of 2 Group, the first users were those of the 11 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section along with 2 Heavy Glider Maintenance Unit, who both moved in as soon as it opened. As non-flying units they prepared, repaired and maintained Horsa gliders, many of which would have been used the following year in the Normandy invasion. These units remained in situ at Sculthorpe for almost a year, departing in mid March 1944.

Following an initial year’s development and growth, Sculthorpe finally opened operationally with Boston IIIAs of 342 (Lorraine) Squadron on May 15th 1943.

342 Sqn had originally been set up as a Free French squadron in September 1941, operating in the Middle East with French crews. Their time there had not been good though, with many losses as a result of flying what were now considered ‘out of date’ aircraft – the Blenheim. It was then decided, after talks between the RAF and General Valin, the Commander of the Free French Air Force, to bring these men back and retrain them on more modern aircraft, and so in September 1942, orders from the UK directed many of these airmen back to the UK. Sadly however, during their return voyage, two of the four ships that were used to transport them, were sunk by German U-boats and many of the  personnel were lost as a result.

Once in the UK, refresher courses were undertaken with 342 Sqn being officially re-formed, on April 1st 1943, using these French personnel at nearby RAF West Raynham . Once formed, training continued, followed not long after by the first loss, when one of the aircraft attempted an emergency landing after running out of fuel. That aside, the Boston IIIa, or A20, they were now using, was considered a much improved model compared to the Blenheim, with both greater power and better armament, it was far more suited to the role it was about to perform.

Following further training, the squadron finally transferred over to Sculthorpe on May 15th 1943, where crews attended lectures on “evasive action and fighter control”. Two further crashes would cost the squadron several more airmen, some of whom were highly experienced and valued members of the unit.  The move of the squadron also signified a change for Sculthorpe itself, as at this time, it ceased to be a satellite of West Raynham – the move to total independence was now a step nearer, albeit temporarily.

RAF Sculthorpe

One of many buildings on site today.

As the saying goes, any port in a storm, and Sculthorpe provided that port. On May 19th, an American B-17 was forced to make an emergency landing at the airfield. On board the aircraft were three injured crewmen, the ball turret gunner, and the two waist gunners. The Ball Turret Gunner was given urgent medical assistance, but unfortunately he later died from those injuries, whilst the two waist gunners, both with frost bite to their hands and ears, thankfully survived. A second B-17 landed some time after the landing and collected the crewmen, transferring them back to their own base where they received further medical assistance.

There then came yet another change at Sculthorpe, as the Free French unit was combined with two other squadrons, 88 and 107 to form the new 137 Wing; a Wing made up of both French and British units.  On June 12th 1943, under the new Wing, 342 Sqn’s first operational flight took place, a ‘circus’ raid undertaken in conjunction with 107 Sqn. These types of operations would become the norm for the next month, and whilst there were some losses, they were thankfully light. In mid July, orders came through for the unit to depart Sculthorpe and move to nearby RAF Great Massingham, a move that was well organised and one that went smoothly. By the evening of July 19th all but two aircraft had departed Sculthorpe, and crews were settling in well to their new home.

There was no let up at Sculthorpe though, as over the next two days two more squadrons would move in to the now vacant premises.

Orders for the transfer of both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Squadrons were received with mixed emotions though. To make things worse, the transfer of both men and machinery did not go totally to plan and only happened following a change in operations and planning.

Both Squadrons had been flying from  RAF Methwold, an airfield not far from Sculthorpe, as light bomber units with Lockheed’s Venturas. They regularly attacked targets in western Europe, often without fighter escort, which resulted in some heavy losses for the units. It was whilst at Methwold that Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent would perform so bravely receiving the Victoria Cross for his actions on May 3rd, 1943, with 487 (RNZAF) Sqn.

The whole process began in mid June with an initial order requiring 464 (RAAF) Sqn, to move to Dunsfold, however, that move never materialised, the order being cancelled on July 4th. This meant that preparations would stop, and the squadron would remain here at Methwold. They then entered a period of training, the weather having curtailed many operational flights for both this unit and others across the UK.

Then on July 10th, the weather broke just enough for an operational flight to be carried out by 464, attacking targets at St. Omer. These were hit with great success; the 487 squadron commander commenting “a wizard piece of bombing”,  but still the squadron awaited, with anticipation, news of its next posting. Then two days later, whilst a contingent of the Australian press where visiting, news came through that the two units were to change its aircraft for Mosquitoes, and that the pilots would be fully trained within 6 weeks. The swap although not what was expected, was generally accepted well by the squadrons, but it brought disappointment for both the wireless operators and air gunners of each unit, who would have no place on board the two-seat ‘Mossie’,  and would have to be transferred out.

Following further training, the long awaited news finally arrived. For 487 Sqn it arrived on July 16th, noted as ‘Panic day’, and on July 17th for 464 Sqn. Both squadrons would now transfer over to Sculthorpe. In preparation, 464 Sqn’s station adjutant visited the new airfield on the 19th to assess its condition, but he was not impressed! He reported that “there was very little of it to work in comfort and everything is drastically dispersed.”*1 His aggrieved feelings about the site were further exasperated by a lack of office space, the only silver lining to the whole move, being that more accommodation was apparently ‘in the pipeline’.

In Part 2 we see how both 464 and 487 Sqns get on at this dispersed, lacking in comfort site.

The full history can be seen in Trail 21.

Flying Officer Leslie Manser VC. (RAFVR) 50 Squadron – Royal Air Force

Born in New Delhi in 1922, Flying Officer Leslie Thomas Manser, (66542) posthumously earned himself the Victoria Cross for an act of bravery in his Avro Manchester, over Cologne on the night of May 30th, 1942.

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Flying Officer Leslie Manser VC. (RAFVR) 50 Squadron – Royal Air Force

As a young child, he moved with his family to Radlett, Hertfordshire, England, was educated at St. Faith’s, Cambridge and Cox’s House Aldenham, Hertfordshire. Following this, he decided to join the Armed Forces. Attempts to enlist in both the Army and Royal Navy were unsuccessful, however, in August 1940, he approached the Royal Air Force and was quickly accepted.

Manser was commissioned as a pilot officer in May the following year and after further training, was posted on 27th August to 50 Sqn at RAF Swinderby, Lincolnshire, operating Hampdens.

His first experience of war, came very quickly. As a copilot, he was to join over 100 other aircraft in the Frankfurt raid only two days after his arrival. Further action saw him fly over prestigious targets such as Berlin, Hamburg and Karlsruhe before being posted twice to Finningly and then back to Swinderby, this time as an instructor.

Following a brief service with No. 420 (R.C.A.F.) Sqn, again on Hampdens,  Manser returned to 50 Sqn, this time operating from Skellingthorpe, Lincolnshire. It was here that he experienced for the first time, the ill-liked Heavy Bomber, the Avro Manchester. Manser flew a number of missions on this type including a leaflet drop over occupied Paris on April 8th. His skill as a pilot soon earned him promotion to the rank of Flying Officer just five days before his 20th birthday on May 6th 1944.

With high losses and increasing ‘failures’, bomber command was coming in for its own criticism and despite some success, Harris was making enemies at home as well as overseas. It was now that he created his master plan “The Thousand Plan” code named ‘Operation Millennium’. This would involve over 1,000 British bombers, attacking one major German city in a single night. Churchill, impressed with the idea, gave Harris full support and the wheels of Operation Millenium were put in motion. Aircraft and crews were pulled from every available source, many being taken from training units where crews were only partially trained and inexperienced.

Orders were finalised on 26th May, and an initial date for the attack set for the night of the 27/28th May, the target would be Bremen. However, continued unfavourable weather conditions made Harris’s first choice unsuitable and then at midday on the 30th May, 1942, Harris issued the order to strike, that night, against his second choice of target – Cologne.

The immense armada, which consisted of: Whitleys, Wellingtons and Hampdens, Stirlings, Halifaxes, Manchesters and Lancasters made up a force of 1,046 bomber aircraft along with an assortment of night fighters in support.

On the morning of 30th, Manser and another pilot were instructed to collect two Manchesters from Coningsby, Lincolnshire. As many of these aircraft were drawn from reserves and training squadrons, it was inevitable that many would be in poor condition. Manser’s was no exception, it had no mid upper turret and a sealed escape hatch.

50 sqn

When the order came and Manser took off, his aircraft L7301 ‘D’ Dog, an Avro Manchester Mk1, with a full bomb load of incendiaries, was now difficult to manoeuvre and he was unable to reach an altitude of more than about 7,000 ft. Hoping the main bomber force would attract the greater concentration of  flak, he decided to continue on.

They soon arrived over the target area and being lower, they were subjected to an immense barrage of anti-aircraft fire. Many of these shells struck the aircraft causing fires within the fuselage and the port engine. Careful nursing and a cool head by Manser, enabled them to eventually extinguish the fire which had now spread along the entire wing.

Struggling to maintain any height and keep the aircraft airborne, the crew threw out whatever they could to lighten the load. with little power, the aircraft lost considerable height and Manser finally ordered the crew to bail out. Knowing his crew would not survive jumping as the aircraft swung and moved awkwardly, he fought to maintain level flight for as long as possible. Refusing his own parachute over his crew’s safety, he held it just long enough for them to get out. The bomber finally crashed a few miles from the Dutch border near to Bree 13 mi (21 km) north-east of Genk in Belgium and burst into flames with Manser at the controls, he was just 20 years old. Manser’s bravery came out following debriefing of the crew members, five of the six having made it home through the resistance network.

Manser’s crew on that flight were:

Sergeant Baveystock (2nd Pilot)
Pilot Officer Horsley (Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Naylor (Rear Gunner)
Flying Officer ‘Bang On’ Barnes (Navigator / Bomb Aimer – Captured following jumping at low-level)
Sergeant King (Second Wireless Operator)
Sergeant Mills (Front Gunner)

Leslie Manser’s courage and self-sacrifice led to him being posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. On 23rd October 1942. The citation for the VC read:

“In pressing home his attack in the face of strong opposition, in striving, against heavy odds, to bring back his aircraft and crew and, finally, when in extreme peril, thinking only of the safety of his comrades, Flying Officer Manser displayed determination and valour of the highest order.”

Other members of the crew:  Barnes, Horsley,  Baveystock, Mills and Naylor all received immediate awards of the Distinguished Flying Cross or Distinguished Flying Medal.

Today Manser’s memory lives on. A Primary School (The Leslie Manser Primary School) was opened in 1981 on what was the old RAF Skellingthorpe airfield. On 31st June 2004, a Memorial to F/Off. Leslie Manser was unveiled in  Stamprooierbroek near Molenbeersel, Kinrooi in the north-east of Belgium. He is buried at Heverlee War Cemetery Leuven, Flemish Brabant (Vlaams-Brabant), Belgium. Plot: 7.G.1.

Manser’s VC is on display in the Lord Ashcroft Gallery at the Imperial War Museum, London.

The following personal message from Sir Arthur Harris was sent to Leslie Manser’s Father:

“Sir,

Accept from me personally and on behalf of my Command and my Service, Salutations upon the signal honour, so well indeed merited, which his Majesty the King has seen fit to confer upon your gallant son. No Victoria Cross has been more gallantly earned. I cannot offer you and yours condolence in personal loss in circumstances wherein your son’s death and the manner of his passing must so far surmount, by reason of the great services he rendered this country and the last service to his crew, all considerations of personal grief. His shining example of unsurpassed courage and staunchness to death will remain an inspiration to his Service and to him an imperishable memorial.

Arthur T. Harris Air Marshal R.A.F.”

M/Sgt. Hewitt Dunn – Flew 104 missions.

RAF Framlingham (Parham) otherwise known as Station 153, achieved a remarkable record, or rather one man in particular did. His name was Hewitt Dunn, a Master Sergeant in the U.S.A.A.F and later the U.S.A.F.

Known as “Buck” he would achieve the remarkable record of completing 104 missions with the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy) – a record that astounded many as life expectancy in a heavy bomber was short, and few survived beyond one tour of 30 missions.

Hewitt Tomlinson Dunn (s/n 13065206) was born on July 14th 1920. He progressed through school to join the Air Corps where he was assigned to the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division, Eighth Air Force, as a gunner in December 1943.

His first mission was with the 569th Bombardment Squadron in the following January. He completed his first gruelling tour of 30 missions by April that year, upon which he immediately applied for a further tour that he would complete by the summer of 1944. His attitude of ‘its not over until its won’, would see him accept a further remarkable third tour, virtually unheard of for a heavy bomber crew member.

On Friday, April 6th 1945, mission 930, an armada of aircraft of the U.S.A.A.F would strike at the marshalling yards in Leipzig, Germany. Inside B-17 #43-38663, ‘The Great McGinty‘, was Hewitt Dunn.

After the mission Dunn described how earlier at the morning briefing, he, like so many of his colleagues, had been a little ‘nervous’. Then, when the curtain was pulled back, their nervousness was justified, Leipzig – the 390th had been there before.

Many crews in that briefing would look to Dunn for signs of anguish, if he remained steady and relaxed, they knew it would be ‘easy’, if he sat forward, then it was going to be a difficult one. The atmosphere must have been tense.

Luckily, unlike other missions into the German heartland, this one turned out to be ‘just another mission’ a ‘milk run’. Much to the huge relief of those in command of the 390th, all aircraft returned safely.

On his arrival back at Framlingham, Dunn was greeted by cheering crowds, ground crews lifted him high in their air carrying him triumphantly away from his aircraft, it was a heroes welcome.

By the time the war had finished, Dunn had flown in 104 missions, he had been a tail gunner on twenty-six missions, twice a top-turret gunner, a waist gunner and the remainder as togglier (Bombardier). He had flown over Berlin nine times, he claimed a FW-190 shot down and had amassed an impressive array of medals for his bravery and actions, and all at just 24 years old.

Post war, he continued to fly as an Instructor Gunner for B-52s in the 328th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Strategic Bomb Wing, at Castle Air Force Base in California. Here he was described as “quiet and reserved” and never talked about his war experiences. He was “handsome man with black hair”, and only when he wore his dress uniform, did others realise how well decorated he was.

Dunn was considered a rock by those who knew him and perhaps immortal, but he was not, and on June 15th , 1961 after flying for a further 64 flights, he was killed. Details of his death are sketchy, but the man who had flown in more missions than any other person in the Eighth Air Force and had gone to train others in that very role, was highly decorated. He was looked up to and liked by those who knew him.

Following his death a service was held in Merced, California, his body was then taken to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. where he was finally laid to rest in grave number 3675, section 28.

For a man who achieved so much in his fighting career, little exists about him or his achievements. Maybe, by the end of the war, records were no longer needed, tales of dedication and bravery were no longer useful propaganda. Whatever the reason, Hewitt Dunn’s name should be heavily embossed in the history books of the Second World War.

hewiit-dunn

Hewitt Dunn on return from his 100th mission, April 1945 (IWM)

Hewitt Dunn’s medal tally:

– Air Force Longevity Service Award with 3 oak leaf clusters
– Air Medal with 13 oak leaf clusters (2 silver, 3 bronze)
– Air Medal with 7 oak leaf clusters (1 silver, 2 bronze)
– American Campaign Medal
– Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 oak leaf cluster
– Good Conduct Medal
– National Defence Service Medal
– Silver Star
– World War II Victory Medal
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 bronze star
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 silver star

Hewitt Dunn’s story is one of many featured in Heroic Tales.

Lt. Col. Leon Vance 489th BG – Medal of Honour.

Leon vance.jpgThe story of Leon Vance is one of  the saddest stories to emerge from the Second World War. He was a young American, who through his bravery and dedication, saved the lives of his colleagues and prevented their heavily stricken aircraft from crashing into populated areas of southern England. Following a mission over France, his was very severely injured, but miraculously fought on.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. known as ‘Bob’ to his family and friends, was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11th, 1916. He graduated from high school in 1933 after receiving many honours and being singled out as a high performing athlete. He went on, after University, to the prestigious Training College at West Point in 1935, staying until his graduation four years later in 1939. It was here, at West Point, he would meet and marry his wife Georgette Brown. He and Georgette would later have a daughter, after whom Vance would name his own aircraft ‘The Sharon D’.

Vance would become an aircrew instructor, and would have various postings around the United States. He became great friends with a Texan, Lieutenant Horace S. Carswell, with whom he would leave the Air Corps training program to fly combat missions in B-24 Liberators. They became great friends but would go on to fight in different theatres.

Prior to receiving his posting, Vance undertook training on Consolidated B-24s. Then, in October 1943, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he was posted to Europe with the newly formed 489th Bombardment Group (Heavy), as the Deputy Group Commander. One of the last groups to be assigned to the European theatre, they formed part of the 95th Combat Bombardment Wing (2nd Bomb Division),  Eighth Air Force, and were sent to RAF Halesworth (RAF Holton) designated Station 365 by the USAAF.

The group left their initial base at Wendover Field, Utah in April / May 1944 and their first mission would be that same month on May 30th, 1944, as part of a combined attack on communication sites, rail yards and airfields. A total of 364 B-24s were to attack the Luftwaffe bases at Oldenburg, Rotenburg and Zwischenahn, along with other targets of opportunity far to the north in the German homeland. With only 1 aircraft lost and 38 damaged, it was considered a success and a good start to the 489th’s campaign.

As the build up to Normandy developed, Vance and the 489th would be assigned to bombing targets in northern France in support of the Normandy invasion about to take place further to the south. An area the unit would concentrate on, prior to the Allied beach invasion on June 6th that year.

The day before D-day, the 489th would fly to Wimereaux, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. This would be Leon Vance’s final mission.

File:846bs-b24-42-94860--halesworth.jpg

B-24H Liberator of the 489thBG, RAF Halesworth*2

The group, (Mission 392),  consisted of 423 B-17s and 203 B-24s and were to hit German coastal defences including: Le Havre, Caen, Boulogne and Cherbourg areas as  a precursor to the Normandy invasion. Some 127 P-47s and 245 P-51s would support the attacks. The 489th would assemble at 22,500 feet on the morning of June 5th, proceed to the south of Wimereaux, fly over dropping their payload, and then return to England. On the run in to the target, Vance was stationed behind the pilot and copilot.  The lead plane encountered a problem and bombs failed to jettison. Vance ordered a second run, and it was on this run that his plane, Missouri Sue, took several devastating hits.

Four of the crew members, including the pilot were killed and Vance himself was severely injured. His foot became lodged in the metal work behind the co-pilots seat. There were frantic calls over the intercom and the situation looked bad for those remaining on board. To further exacerbate the problems, one of the 500lb bombs had remained inside the bomb bay armed and in a deadly state, three of the four engines were disabled, and fuel spewed from ruptured lines inside the fuselage.

Losing height rapidly, the co-pilot put the aircraft into a dive to increase airspeed. The radio operator, placed a makeshift tourniquet around Vance’s leg, and the fourth engine was feathered.  They would then glide toward the English coast.

The aircraft was too damaged to control safely, so once over English soil, Vance ordered those who could, to bail out. He then turned the aircraft himself out to the English Channel to attempt a belly landing on the water. A dangerous operation in any aircraft, let alone a heavy bomber with an armed bomb and no power.

Still trapped by the remains of his foot, laying on the floor and using only aileron and elevators, he ensured the remaining crew left before the aircraft struck the sea. The impact caused the upper turret to collapse, effectively trapping Vance inside the cockpit. By sheer luck, an explosion occurred that threw Vance out of the sinking wreckage,  his foot now severed.  He remained in the sea searching for whom he believed to be the radio operator, until picked up by the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue units.

Vance was alive, but severely injured. He would spend a number of weeks, recuperating in hospital, writing home and gradually regaining his strength. Disappointed that his flying career was over, he looked forward to seeing his wife and young child once more. However, on a recuperation trip to London, Vance met a young boy, who innocently, and without thought, told him he wouldn’t miss his foot. The emotional, impact of this comment was devastating to Vance and he fell into depression. Then, news of his father’s death pushed him down even further.

Eventually, on July 26th, 1944 Vance was given the all clear to return home and he joined other wounded troops on-board a C-54, bound for the US. It was never to arrive there.

The aircraft disappeared somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland. It has never been found nor has the body of Leon Vance or any of the others on board that day. Vance’s recommendations for the Medal of Honour came through in the following  January (4th), but at the request of his wife, was delayed until October 11th 1946, so his daughter could be presented the medal in her father’s name.

The citation for Leon Vance reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 5 June 1944, when he led a Heavy Bombardment Group, in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lt. Col. Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with 3 engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully. After applying a tourniquet to his leg with the aid of the radar operator, Lt. Col. Vance, realizing that the ship was approaching a stall altitude with the 1 remaining engine failing, struggled to a semi-upright position beside the copilot and took over control of the ship. Cutting the power and feathering the last engine he put the aircraft in glide sufficiently steep to maintain his airspeed. Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast, whereupon he ordered all members of the crew to bail out as he knew they would all safely make land. But he received a message over the interphone system which led him to believe 1 of the crew members was unable to jump due to injuries; so he made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life. To add further to the danger of ditching the ship in his crippled condition, there was a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. Unable to climb into the seat vacated by the copilot, since his foot, hanging on to his leg by a few tendons, had become lodged behind the copilot’s seat, he nevertheless made a successful ditching while lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference. On coming to rest in the water the aircraft commenced to sink rapidly with Lt. Col. Vance pinned in the cockpit by the upper turret which had crashed in during the landing. As it was settling beneath the waves an explosion occurred which threw Lt. Col. Vance clear of the wreckage. After clinging to a piece of floating wreckage until he could muster enough strength to inflate his life vest he began searching for the crew member whom he believed to be aboard. Failing to find anyone he began swimming and was found approximately 50 minutes later by an Air-Sea Rescue craft. By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lt. Col. Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety. His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crew member he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces”*2

Leon Vance’s actions would be remembered. His local base in Oklahoma was renamed ‘Vance Air Force Base’ on July 9th, 1949. The gate at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma was also later named after him on May 9th, 1997, and his name appears on the ‘Wall of the Missing’ at Madingley American War Cemetery in Cambridge, England.

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The American War Cemetery, Madingley. Leon Vance’s Name Appears on the wall of the missing (to the left of the picture).

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (August 11th, 1916 – July 26th, 1944)

For other personal tales, see the Heroic Tales Page.

Sources.

* Photo public domain via Wikipedia

*1 “Medal of Honor recipients – website World War II”.

*2 Photo Public Domain via Wikipedia.

RAF North Witham – Leading the way into Normandy.

If you follow the A151 towards the main A1, close to the Lincolnshire / Leicestershire border, and you come across Twyford Woods, and an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for this airfield, many may not have been as successful as they were. In Trail 3, we head further west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets – RAF North Witham.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

RAF North Witham sits quietly amongst the trees of Twyford Woods, a site originally known as Witham Wood, which is now a public space owned and maintained by the U.K.’s Forestry Commission.

Originally, North Witham was one of twelve airfields in the Leicestershire cluster intended to be an RAF bomber station for No. 7 Group, however, it was never used operationally by the Royal Air Force, instead like ten others in the area, it was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force and in particular the IX Troop Carrier Command.

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

As it was originally designed as a bomber station it was built to the Air Ministry’s class ‘A’ specification, formed around the usual three triangular runways, perimeter track and aircraft hardstands. With construction beginning in the mid-war years 1942/43, its main runway would be 2000 yds long, with the second and third runways 1,400 yds in length and all 50 yds wide. To accommodate the aircraft, 50  ‘spectacle’ style dispersals were built, scattered around the adjoining perimeter track. As a bomber base it had a bomb store, located to the north-eastern side of the airfield, with the admin and technical site to the south-east. The usual range of stores and ancillary buildings adorned these areas. One architectural feature of North Witham was its operations block, built to drawing 4891/42, it was larger than most, with ceilings of 14 feet high. Amongst the myriad of rooms were a battery room, cipher office, meteorology room, PBX, traffic office and teleprinter room, all accessed through specially designed air locks. A further feature of this design was the attachment of a Nissen hut to house plant and boiler equipment, a feature not commonly seen at this time.

Aircraft maintenance could be carried out in one of two ‘T2’ hangars with additional work space provided by one of six ‘Butler’ hangars. Designed and built by the Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas, USA, these were supplied in kit form and had to be erected on site by an Engineer Aviation Battalion. These hangars consisted of rigid box section girders over a canvas cladding, and once fully erected, gave a wide 40 ft span. Quite a rare feature, these types of structures were only built in limited numbers during the Second World War and only appeared on American occupied airfields. Post-war however, they were far more commonly used appearing on many American cold-war sites across the UK.

A hangar under construction at the 1st Tactical Air Depot at North Witham. Printed caption on reverse: '77877 AC - A butler hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion at North Witham, England. U.S. Air Force Photo.'

A ‘Butler’ hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) at a very snowy North Witham (IWM479)

The Ninth Air Force was born in 1942 out of the ashes of the V Air Support Command, and then combined with units already located in the England operating under the American Eighth Air Force. Its initial activities focused on the allied push across North Africa followed by the move up into southern Europe through Italy.

Moving to England in October 1943, it then became the tactical Air Force that would support the Normandy invasion, supplying medium bombers, operating as troop support and finally providing supply flights. Facilitation of this massive invasion required both a huge backup, and an intricate supply and support network. North Witham would form part of this support network through both repair and maintenance of the troop carrier aircraft that were operated by the Ninth Air Force – primarily the C-47s. The main group undertaking this role at North Witham was the 1st Tactical Air Depot comprising the 29th and 33rd Air Depot Groups between January and September 1944*1. One of a number of depots, they were once described as the “backbone of Supply for the Army Air Force”, and had a complicated arrangement that encompassed numerous groups across the entire world theatre.

For such a large base, North Witham would be operationally ‘underused’, the only unit to fly from here being those of the IX Troop Carrier Command (TCC), who would primarily use C-47 ‘Skytrains’ – an established and true workhorse, and one that would go on to supply many air forces around the world.

During the Sicily campaign, it was found that many incoming aircraft were not finding the drop zones as accurately as they should, and as a result, paratroops were being widely and thinly scattered. More accurate flying aided by precise target marking was therefore required, and so the first Pathfinder School was set up.

North Whitham pen

Part of one of North Witham’s 50 dispersal pans.

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore in Rutland. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham on March 22nd 1944. These aircraft were fitted with, at the time, modern Gee radar and navigation equipment, along with SCR-717 navigational radar housed in a dome beneath the fuselage of the aircraft. This combination of equipment would allow the aircraft to be used as ‘Pathfinders’, and would be used to train both crews and paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would train at North Witham before returning to their own designated bases to pass on their newly acquired skills. The idea being that these troops would set up ‘homing’ stations using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft (distinguished from the outside by antenna protruding from the nose). This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

On arrival at North Witham, the Pathfinders were accommodated in the huts originally provided for the depot’s crews – some 1,250 enlisted men and 75 officers. Many of these displaced men were rehoused in tents along the northern end of the site which only added a further strain to the already rudimentary accommodation that was already in place at the airfield. At its height, North Witham would house upward of 3,700 men in total, a figure that included an RAF detachment of 86 men and large quantities of GIs.

After arrival, the crews began training for the invasion. Flying cross country flights enabled them to practise using their new radar sets, flying in all weathers, at night and during the day. By D-Day, all navigators had been using the equipment in excess of 25 hours and were considered more than competent in its operation.

With postponements of the invasion came frustration, crews and paratroops mentally prepared for war were let down, there was little for them to do to release the tension that many must have felt.

On June 5th, after the plan was finally given the go ahead, some 821 Dakotas at various sites across England were primed ready for the initial wave of the invasion. Timing was of the utmost importance. As rehearsals had shown, seconds could mean the difference between life and death – for the crews of the C-47s, the pressure was on.

Around 200 Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their twenty C-47s and rose into the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, and remarkably only one aircraft was lost in the entire flight. Flying under mission ‘Albany‘, the Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 (aircraft #4) was lost en route either due to mechanical failure, or as some sources say, following a direct hit by Anti-Aircraft fire. Either way, the aircraft lost an engine and was forced to ditch in the sea. Once down, the crew and paratroops on-board were rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)*1

The aircraft flew in groups of three in an in-line ‘V’ formation; aircraft 1, 2, 3 followed by 4, 5, 6; 19 and 20 (added as a late decision); 7, 8, 9; 10, 11, 12; then 16, 17 and 18. The formation was finally completed with aircraft 13, 14 and 15 bringing up the rear. Each C-47 would deposit its collection of Paratroops over six drop zones (DZ) A, C, D, O, N and T between 00:20 and 02:02.

Flying alongside aircraft #19, the only pair on the flight, was C-47 #20 piloted by 1st Lt. Paul F. G. Egan, of Massachusetts. Joining him in the aircraft were: Sgt. Jack Buchannon, Crew Chief (Mass); 2nd Lt. Richard A. Young, Co-Pilot (Ohio); 2nd Lt. Fern D. Murphy, Navigator (PA);  Staff Sgt. Marvin Rosenblatt, Radio Operator (NY) along with ten Combat Engineers of the 101st Airborne who  were dropped at Sainte-Mère-Église on the Cherbourg Peninsula early in the morning 6 June 1944.

Lt. Paul Egan had a remarkable service history, serving in each of the US Army, US Army Air Force and US Air Force after the war, a service that stretched from 1939 to 1967. His remarkable record includes: Pearl Harbour in 1939 and the Japanese attack in December 1941, the Battle of Midway in 1942, followed by advanced training in 1943. This training kept Lt. Egan in military intelligence as a Pathfinder pilot flying mostly C-47s out of both North Witham and later Chalgrove. As well as dropping the paratroopers on D-Day in Operation Market Garden, he also dropped troops in Operation Varsity along with every other major airborne operation flown from England. He also flew bombing missions in B-17s and flew ‘secret’ missions in early 1945. At the signing of the Japanese surrender onboard the USS Missouri on September 2nd 1945, he was the only USAAF representative there, General McArthur wanting someone who was present at Pearl Harbour to also be present at the surrender. His record is certainly remarkable and one to admire.*5

1st Lt Paul F. G. Egan and crew (photo courtesy Jean Egan)

Photo taken at North Witham Air Base, England on June 5, 1944, the night before D-Day. C-47 #20 (note the number chalked in front of the door to ensure paratroops boarded the right aircraft, and the crudely painted invasion stripes) one of the first 20 aircraft to fly with the elite group, the Pathfinders.  Front row: Sgt. Jack Buchannon, Crew Chief; 2nd Lt. Richard A Young, Co-Pilot; 2nd Lt. Fern D. Murphy, Navigator; 1st Lt. Paul F. G. Egan, Pilot (Captain); Staff Sgt. Marvin Rosenblatt, Radio Operator along with ten 101st Airborne Combat Engineers dropped on the Cherbourg Peninsula early morning 6 June 1944, “D-Day” (Photo courtesy Jean Egan).

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham beyond D-Day, well into 1944. The scope of those trained expanding to include Polish paratroops of the 1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade, who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and also Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

As the Allies pushed further into enemy territory, the flying distance from England became too great and so new airfields were either hastily constructed on the continent or captured airfields refurbished. As a result, the Pathfinder School soon moved away to Hampshire and the maintenance units, needed nearer the front lines, gradually departed to these newly acquired bases on the continent.

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise continued on at North Witham, but it wouldn’t long before the demand for UK-based maintenance and repair work would slow, and within months North Witham’s fate would be finally sealed.

As the end of the war approached, the airfield quickly became obsolete, and the long wind-down to closure, that many of these unique places suffered, began to take effect.

By the time the war was over, the last American personnel had pulled out and the site was handed back to the RAF’s 40 Group who, after using it for a brief spell as a maintenance depot themselves, placed it under care and maintenance. It was used as a munitions and hardware store until 1948, and then finally, in 1956, it was closed by the Ministry and within two years the site was sold off.

Photograph of North Witham taken on 17th January 1947. The technical site and barrack sites are at the top left, the bomb dump is bottom left. (IWM RAF_CPE_UK_1932_FP_1221)

The site, intact as it was, was returned to the Forestry Commission who planted a range of new tress around the site, covering the vast areas of grass. The technical area was developed into a small industrial unit and perhaps most sadly the watch office left to decay and fall apart.

Today the three runways and perimeter track still exist almost in their entirety, and remarkably, in generally good condition. Largely overgrown with weeds and small trees, the remainder is well hidden obscuring what little there is in the way of buildings – most being demolished and the remains left piled up where they stood. However, a T2 hangar is now used on the industrial estate and the watch office still stands tucked away amongst the trees and undergrowth. This area is a favourite place for dog walkers, and because of its runways, it is accessible for prams and pushchairs. Whilst here, I spoke to quite a few people, remarkably none of them knew of the site’s historical significance let alone the office’s existence!

Today the watch office remains open to the elements. Surrounded by used tyres and in constant threat of the impending industrial complex over the fence, its future is uncertain. Access stairs have been removed, but an entrance has been made by piling tyres up to the door – presumably by those wishing to enter and ‘explore’ further. Little evidence of its history can be seen from the outside, even the rendering has been removed, and so, any possible personal links with the past are more than likely now gone.

North Whitham runway

The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

Returning back to the main public entrance along the perimeter track, a number of dispersal pens can be found; overgrown but relatively intact, they are a further sign that even here, war was never very far away.

North Witham was one of those ‘backroom boys’ whose contribution, whilst extremely important, is little known about. The work carried out here not only helped to maintain a strong and reliable fighting force, but one that spearheaded the frontal invasion of Normandy. It served as a cold and perhaps uncomfortable home to many brave troops, many of whom took the fight direct to Nazi Germany.

Standing here today, it is quiet and strangely surreal – you can almost hear the roar of engines. Looking along its enormous runways you get an eerie feeling – how many troops also stood here, spending their last few hours in this quiet place. Looking around now, it is difficult to imagine the immense work that went on here, the gathering of equipment as preparations were made for the big push into Normandy on that famous June night.

North Witham is truly a remarkable place, hidden away amongst the trees as a giant time capsule, a monument to those who lived, worked and died during that turbulent time in 1944-45.

North Whitham runway

Another view along the main runway.

Sadly in May 2015, Twyford Woods was the scene of a large illegal rave, over 1000 people attended the event where a number of arrests were made in the violent altercations that took place*4. A sad day that would turn the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the freedom we take for granted so very easily today.

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources (RAF North Witham)

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

*2 C-47A #42-93098 itself was later lost whilst flying with the 439th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) on September 18th 1944, whilst flying in support of Operation ‘Market Garden‘ in Holland.

*3 Superb footage of Crouch and his crew as they depart from North Witham is available on-line, it also shows the Watch Tower in its former glory.

*4 A report of the event is available on the BBC News website.

*5 My sincere thanks go to Jean Egan, daughter of Lt. Paul Egan, for the information and photograph.

An excellent website contain photos of paratroops and air crew as they prepare for embarkation and advance through France.