RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 5)

Part 4 revealed how FIDO proved to be a valuable asset to Foulsham. A new model of aircraft arrived along with its US crews and the war entered its final year. Now, as the war draws to a close, the future looks uncertain.

FIDO’s record at Foulsham was, like many other airfields, a great success. Only on the night of 23rd February 1945 did fatalities occur whilst using the system. With several aircraft on ops that night, fog again prevented many from returning to their own bases, and a Mosquito from 239 Sqn based at nearby RAF West Raynham, attempted a landing without permission. FIDO had just been lit but some of the pipes had burst adding smoke to the fog that had by now risen to 50 feet above the runway. The pilot, 23 year old Flt.Sgt. Leonard Twigg attempted to land Mosquito NF.30 ‘NT354’ only to miss the runway and land some 70 feet to one side, colliding with a Halifax of 192 Squadron parked at its dispersal. The pilot was killed in the incident but the navigator (Flt Sgt. Turner) managed to escape with injuries. As a result only one other aircraft, a Halifax, landed that night, the others being diverted to alternative airfields.

Two other 192 Halifaxes were lost that night, both being shot down over Germany with the loss of almost all sixteen crewmen – the only three survivors being taken prisoner. Both Halifax MK. IIIs ‘DT-T’ and ‘DT-O’ carried British, Australian and other commonwealth crews.

But the events of the 23rd February would pale into insignificance on the next night- the worst on record for the Australian 462 Sqn. Considered ‘minor operations’, they were tasked with dropping window, flying ahead of seventy-four training aircraft who were acting as a diversionary raid over northern France. Four of the squadron’s aircraft were lost that night, with the loss of twenty-six of the thirty-one lives. A further 100 group aircraft, a B-17 from RAF Oulton was also lost that night, these five accounting for the bulk of the losses of that one operation.

The late spring of April 1945 produced further poor weather, and FIDO was brought into action once more (possibly for the last time) on the night of 18th/19th. The use of FIDO that night allowed some thirteen aircraft to successfully land, providing a safe landing for crews who were no doubt by now, looking to the war’s end and a apprehensive return to peacetime,.

By August 1945 the war in Europe was over and squadrons were already beginning to disband. The FIDO system was drained and dismantled after providing a safe take-off or landing for a considerable number of aircraft. For 462 Sqn, the 24th September 1945 signified the end of its road. Eleven months after its reformation at Driffield, it ceased to exist, being removed from RAF inventory for good. Its demise also signified the coming of the end of flying operations at Foulsham and ultimately its closure.

In June 1946 the airfield was closed to all flying duties, whereupon it became the final resting ground for a large number of Mosquitoes prior to scrapping. Foulsham then remained ‘in-service’ until the mid 1950s, with a US Army Special Signals Unit, until the MOD deemed the site surplus to requirements. It was then sold off in the 1980s and its doors closed for the last and final time.

RAF Foulsham

A former workshop nestled between two refurbished T2s.

Foulsham, like many of its counterparts in this region played a major part in the electronic war, monitoring and jamming radar transmissions for larger formations of bombers. Despite this important and ground breaking role, Foulsham had only a short operational existence.

Many of Foulsham’s buildings have surprisingly withstood the test of time. Whilst the runways have all but gone, now farm tracks and tree lines, some of the buildings do still remain and even from the roadside, you can see what must have been a remarkable place during its short, but hectic life. The road passes along the eastern side of the airfield, here, you can still see a number of the original T2 hangars, three in total, now utilised by a local potato business. (‘Addison Farm’ as it is aptly named, is in recognition of Air Vice Marshall Edward Barker Addison, the only person to Command 100 Group*2 during the war). Whilst two of these hangars have been re-clad, the third is still in its original metal. Hidden amongst these structures, are some of the original technical buildings, again some refurbished, some original. The mass concrete bases signify the manoeuvring areas linking this area to the main section of the airfield to the west.

At this point, there was until recently, gates separating the dispersal area to the east (now farm dwellings) to the hangar area on your left. During the War, this road was surprisingly open to the public and aircraft would be manoeuvred across the road, traffic being halted by an RAF Policeman.

Further to the north, beyond this area passing an air raid shelter, is the original entrance and further technical area. A pill-box, marks where the main entrance was. Turn left here and follow the road west. To your right you pass the original Fire Tender shed, a B1 hangar and other minor buildings in varying states of disrepair. To your left, a further T2, partially refurbished partially original. Further along, the road crosses the original N/S runway, full width remnants to the right and a tree-lined track to the left mark clearly where the enormous concrete structure was laid. The road ahead, is the where the 08/26 runway ran as it disappears over the brow of the hill. The road then turns away north leaving the runway and airfield behind you.

As with all airfields, the accommodation blocks and bomb stores were scattered well away from the main airfield. With some searching, evidence of these may be found amongst the hedges and trees, public roads utilising the concrete sections of RAF road laid down originally.

Whilst the main layout of Foulsham is difficult to see from the road, the last remaining buildings have fared quite well and remain some of the better examples of original wartime architecture. There is a distinct ‘feel’ to the site that transforms you back in time to the days when heavy bombers and lighter twin-engined aircraft would rumble along its runways. Recent and ongoing development work by the farmer seems to be sympathetic and ‘in tune’ with the site, many buildings being reclaimed from nature and now ‘on show’ to the passing public. Whilst all are on private land, they are easily seen and it seems that there may be a winning formula here that other land owners could quite easily follow and preserve what is left of our disappearing heritage.

RAF Foulsham

The remains of the 08/26 runway.

In the nearby village of Foulsham, beneath the village sign, stands a memorial to the crews and personnel who once served at RAF Foulsham.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

Sources and Further Reading (Foulsham)

*1 Williams, G. “Flying through Fire – FIDO the Fogbuster of World War Two“. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995.

*2 There is a 100 Group Association that keeps the memories of 100 group alive.  A number of Veterans from the group meet for reunions, coming from all over the world.

*3 The Congregational Medal of Honour Website.

*4 Bowman, M., “100 Group (Bomber Support)” 2006, Pen and Sword.

*5 National Archives: AIR 27/782/1

National Archives: AIR 27/1156/59
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/60
National Archives: AIR 27/1456/69
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/17
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/18
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/43

Sweetman. J., “Bomber Crew – Taking on the Reich“, Abacus, 2004

Janine Harrington, secretary for the Association, writes her own books based around 100 Group, read it through her blog.

Janine’s writings are inspired by her mother’s story of her wartime fiance Vic Vinnell of 192 Squadron at Foulsham, who, together with Canadian pilot Jack Fisher, never returned from a secret operation on the night of 26th / 27th November 1944.

The wartime memories project, has a section focusing on RAF Foulsham and people trying to trace crew members who served there. It is worth a look through perhaps you may know someone from there.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 4)

In Part 3, we saw the arrival of FIDO at Foulsham, a system yet to be fully tested. As poor weather continues to hamper operations, FIDO eventually comes into its own and proves its worth. A new aircraft arrives with its aircrew, and its an aircraft not commonly seen in UK skies.

 

On 27th April 1944 seven aircraft, a mix of three Halifaxes, two Mosquitoes and two Wellingtons, were detailed to operations performing ‘special duties’ over the continent. On their return, Mosquito DZ377 ‘DT-L’ landed first. Moments later, Halifax MZ564 ‘DT-X’ came in behind. After what appears to have been an error by the ground control staff, the Halifax landed on-top of the Mosquito without any knowledge of the heavy bomber’s crew. The situation had been made worse, not only by the poor weather, but by the fact that the Halifax appeared to have no working radio and that aircraft navigation lights had been extinguished due to an air raid warning at the airfield.

The accident occurred *4, after the Senior Control Officer had flashed a steady ‘green’ to the Mosquito pilot, who was at the wrong height and (apparently) accepted the light as permission to land. The result being, the two aircraft came in to land simultaneously with near disastrous consequences. However, there were no causalities except for the Senior Flying Control Office being posted and demoted for his misjudgement of the situation.

Meanwhile, the FIDO installation continued, with initial test burns being made in July. This first burn consumed some 16,250 gallons of fuel*1, and although results were positive, it wouldn’t be until the end of the year before the system would be put to the test and its first operational use.

Being such a ‘specialist’ unit, 192 Sqn  operated for a short time in conjunction with a detachment of P-38/F-5 Lightnings of the USAAF. It would appear that there were five aircraft, Lightning 155, 156, 479, 501 and 515, operated by ten aircrew (Lt. Zeilder, Lt. Alley, Lt. Richards, Lt. Stallcup, Flt. Off. Vasser, Lt. Kunze, Capt. Brink, Capt Adams, Capt. Dixon and Lt. Holt) rotating around each one. The P-38 being a single seat fighter had to be modified to a two-seater to take the ‘Special Operator’. The purpose of this detachment was to search over the Zuider Zee in south Holland looking for signals associated with enemy radar controlled missiles – V2s. Often these searches would occur in pairs, but occasionally singular. On October 26th, Lightning 515 piloted by Capt. F. Brink with special operator Lt. F. Kunze, sent a message stating their intention to ditch in the North Sea. Using a position 60 miles off the Norfolk coast, four aircraft, two Mosquitoes and two Halifaxes, were immediately dispatched to search the area, unfortunately no sign of the aircraft was seen nor the crew. An Air-Sea-Rescue launch was also dispatched to the area locating items of wreckage that was later identified as part of a P-38 Lightning. The crew though, were never found.

December 1944 was one of Bomber Commands busiest. On the 9th the poor weather broke sufficiently for operations to take place. Four aircraft were ordered to fly, two Mosquitoes, a Wellington and a Halifax. The Mosquitoes, flew to Germany to monitor and record R/T transmissions; the Wellington monitored Knickebein transmissions thought to be used for Flying Boat activities whilst the Halifax was sent to the Ruhr for a ‘window’ dropping exercise. Unfortunately the Wellington had to return due to the bad weather whilst the Halifax failed to get airborne and crashed beyond the runway.

The aircraft, a Halifax III piloted by  F.O. N. Irvine, had 22 operations under its belt. However, with time up at 18:28, the four engined heavy was unable to get airborne and ran off the end of the runway into an adjacent field. In the accident MZ817 ‘DT-O’, “Pete the Penguin” was badly damaged but thankfully none of the crew were injured and all walked away unhurt.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Halifax B III, MZ817 ‘DT-O’, “Pete the Penguin” 192 Squadron, after running off the runway, 9th December 1944.  @IWM HU 60601

December was an eventful month for Foulsham. With the continuing bad weather, Bomber Command were having great difficulty getting aircraft back safely. On the night of the 18th/19th, a particularly poor night, the FIDO installation at Foulsham was finally lit and used operationally.

On that night, a large force of Lancasters were ordered to perform four operations to the Polish port of Gdynia on the Baltic coast. Along with the heavy bombers were a number of 100 Group aircraft including those from 192 Sqn based here at Foulsham. Five aircraft were ordered out on ‘Special Duties’, four Halifaxes and a Mosquito, in which ‘Window’ was dropped by three of them over the Rhur, whilst the other two monitored German radio transmissions – one 50 miles west of Stettin and the other over Gdynia.

On return to Foulsham, it was found that the airfield, as were many others in the area, was fogbound, and it had become necessary to light FIDO. The alert went out to all FIDO airfields and at Foulsham the burners were lit just after 02:00 hrs. A lack of experience and waterlogged pipes meant the system was not fully burning until some 25 minutes after the initial lighting, but just in time for the first aircraft ‘S’ Sugar to approach the runway.

The first aircraft to land was Halifax III LW623 piloted by Wing Commander D. W. Donaldson who, even after encountering strong winds caused by the fires, made a safe and successful landing. He is recorded as being the first captain to land such an aircraft at Foulsham.

Following on behind Donaldson was B-17 ‘R’ Roger from nearby RAF Oulton, who like many others, was flying on fumes. The pilot had just one chance and as he approached, he ordered the crew to take up crash positions. With visibility down to some 100 yards, he brought the B-17 in making a relatively good landing in appalling conditions between the rows of flames lining either side of the runway. Two further B-17s landed that night, one on three engines and another who missed the runway and became bogged down in the mud alongside.  By the end of the night after all aircraft had been received, the burners were extinguished and visibility over the airfield diminished  once more.

By the end of December, fifteen aircraft had benefited from the installation of FIDO at Foulsham; a system that had enabled them all to land safely in conditions that would otherwise have necessitated either finding an alternative site or bailing out. A third option was of course available, but the consequences almost final and fatal.

Whilst all this was going on, it was decided to create a new unit at Foulsham to support the electronics group. The Bomber support Development Unit (BSDU) were formed here during the April of 1944. Born out of the Special Duties (Radio) Development unit they would go on to disband at Swanton Morley in 1945 to become the Radio Warfare Establishment. Whilst here at Foulsham though, they would operate both Mosquitoes and Spitfire VBs along with the Tiger Moth and Avro Anson.

A further Halifax unit would grace the skies of Foulsham in the remaining months of the year. Also an electronics unit, 462 (RAAF) Squadron, was brought in to enable full coverage of ECM work as the war drew to its close. A former RAF Driffield unit, the squadron spent most of the last few days of the month transporting equipment to Driffield train station before departing themselves for Foulsham.

The weather over the winter of 1944 – 45 was one of the worst recorded. The Allies had reached the Ardennes where a final desperate counter attack was mounted by the Germans. Embedded in the thick woodland, troops fought both the weather and the enemy whilst much of the air cover was prevented from flying due to the continuing fog and snow.

At Foulsham some operations did occur, and on some occasions FIDO had to be lit to enable aircraft to either take off or land. January saw particularly strong winds, rain and snow, necessitating all personnel being tasked with snow clearing on January 10th. On the 15th, whilst climbing to cruising altitude the starboard outer engine caught fire. The engine was feathered and action taken to remedy the situation. However, a feathered propeller soon began windmilling causing dangerous drag and the fire spread. The bale out order was given but only two members of the crew were able to escape before the wing became detached and the aircraft came crashing to earth in a fireball. The two who escaped (Sgt. G. Sandy and F/Sgt N. Reed) were both injured in their landing, none of the others escaped with their lives.

On another occasion, an American B-24 had difficulty of its own and whilst attempting to land, crashed after over shooting the runway. The aircraft was eventually salvaged after coming to a stop on a local road.

A crashed B-24 Liberator (DC-F, serial number 42-95464) of the 577th Bomb Squadron, 392nd Bomb Group near Foulsham, 14 February 1945. Handwritten caption on reverse: '392/577. 42-95464. :F. Foulsham, 14/2/45.'

Liberator ‘DC-F’, (s/n 42-95464) of the 577th BS, 392nd BG over ran the runway at Foulsham, 14th February 1945. (IWM FRE 7993)

In Part 5, the final part, Foulsham begins the slow down of activity, the war draws to a close and the future becomes uncertain. Apprehension falls across the airfield as flights begin to reduce and personnel are posted out.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 3)

In Part 2, we reached a milestone in the life of Foulsham as it was on the brink of changing hands once more. As the new Group takes over new challenges are about to be faced, and FIDO, the fog dispersal system is desperately needed to counter the appalling weather.

By the 25th November, the move had been completed, and both 514 and 1678 HCU had now departed the airfield. With Foulsham now empty, it would undergo yet another change of ownership, this time to 100 Group, the specialists in electronic warfare. This change of ownership would, as before, bring another two new units, 192 Sqn and a supporting training unit 1508 (Blind Approach Training) Flight.

100 Group was formed that November as 100 (Special Duties) Group under the Command of Air Commodore E.B. Addison CB, CBE with its headquarters at Radlett in Hertfordshire. The aim of the move was to place all the electronic units under one single command, thus unifying its aim and bringing together all the resources of the thinly spread units. One of the main aims of the Group was to provide ‘spoof’ operations, confusing the ground operators and radar controlled night fighters, thus spreading them over wider areas. This would in turn, it was hoped, reduce the number of casualties from RAF bombers and achieve better bombing results as a consequence.

Other duties of the Group would involve the jamming of radar and radio equipment used by German aircraft and ground stations, monitoring German airways and providing incorrect orders to German crews using native speaking RAF crewmen. The war had become a battle of science.

RAF Foulsham

One of four T2 hangars.

Over November and December, airfields were taken over and aircraft supplied to the new Group. Squadrons were brought in to fill these sites and the Group grew from strength to strength.

A newly registered unit, 192 Sqn (formed a year before at RAF Gransden Lodge)  operating a mix of Wellingtons, Mosquitoes, Halifax IIs and more  recently, their newly acquired Halifax Vs, were transferred over to Foulsham, in one of the first moves to the airfield.

Formed through the renumbering of 1474 (Special Duties) Flight, 192 Sqn had been previously been monitoring the German Ruffian and Knickebein beams. In their new form they would monitor, amongst others, the western approaches to the Bay of Biscay, monitoring and recording night fighter channels.

However, the winter weather was up to its usual tricks, and it played havoc with initial flights. But despite this, within 48 hours of their arrival, 192 Sqn was classed as operational, and a memo to that effect was sent off to Headquarters 3 Group Bomber Command.

With no flying over the next three days due to the continuing bad weather, initial flights were able to begin on the 29th November, with three aircraft, all Wellingtons, performing Special Duties Flights over the Bay of Biscay. After landing at Davidstow Moor for refuelling, there was a major electrical fault at the airfield and the entire flare path and flying control facilities were put out of action. As a result, the three Wellingtons were grounded and unable to continue their flight home.

The weather continued to play havoc for the crews at Foulsham. A flight planned for a Mosquito and two Wellingtons on the 1st December had to be postponed and then finally cancelled. The next day, 2nd December 1943, three aircraft were ordered to fly to the Frisian Islands and the Dutch coast, but one had to return due to the pilot’s escape hatch blowing off, and a second overshot the runway on take off becoming bogged down in the mud. The aircraft was damaged but the crew were unhurt in the incident.

On December 7th, Foulsham officially became part of 100 Group and another unit No. 1473 (Radio Counter Measures) Flight also arrived here to assist with the ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) operations. By February 1944, it was decided to merge the Flight with 192 thus forming a ‘C’ Flight. With additional Mosquitoes and Ansons – the hardware inventory at Foulsham was now growing rapidly.

Much of December suffered the same fate as its preceding months however, poor weather rendering flying unsuitable, leaving many aircraft and their crews grounded for prolonged periods of time.

100 Group’s inaugural operation on the night of 16th / 17th December, did not however, go in their favour. On what has become known as ‘Black Thursday’ the RAF bomber force of over 480 aircraft, took heavy losses. These losses whilst high over occupied territory, were made far worse by poor weather which claimed some eight aircraft from 97 Squadron at RAF Bourn – one sixth of its strength,

The beginning of the new year, 1944, saw big changes not only in Bomber Command, but at Foulsham also. As the second phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’ began, Stirling squadrons and now Halifax units were being pulled out of the front line bombing campaign; their shortcomings becoming all to obvious as losses in the types began to mount. The poor weather continued to cause misery across Britain’s airfields, rain and fog preventing large  continuous attacks on the German heartland.

The interminable fog was the driving force behind the new FIDO system now being installed at Foulsham. Bomber command had initially asked for eight airfields across the UK, but by the end of 1943 they were seeking twelve, and Foulsham (designated Station XXI) was identified as one suitable.

William Press were given the contract to install the system, and by mid February work had begun. Supplying the huge storage tanks was going to be a challenge though, and so a new siding was constructed at nearby Foulsham railway station. Its not known for sure whether the fuel was then piped the two mile distance to the airfield, or brought across in tankers, but whichever it was, it required a good deal of extra work.

At the airfield site, three storage tanks were assembled on Land at Low Farm, located at the northern end of the main runway. The much needed pump house and control point were also located here. Operators were kept on a 24 hr watch system, being billeted near to the equipment in two Nissen huts, one for officers and the other for ‘other ranks’.

RAF Foulsham

One of the air raid shelters used around wartime airfields.

Initial plans were for a mile of runway to be lined with the Haigill MK IV burners, with intersecting burners placed in trenches across the two intersecting runways. The placing of these burners, well out of the way of moving aircraft, initially being a difficult challenge to overcome.

Operating the burners was a tedious and dangerous job. After opening the valves and allowing petrol to fill a pool through which the operator had to walk, a match was thrown into the pool and the poor ‘Erk’ had to then run as fast as he could and throw himself into a small indentation in the ground hoping the flames would pass over and not ignite the clothes he was wearing. Once the burn had been achieved and all aircraft were down safely, the system was shut down and allowed to cool. Once the pipes were cool enough to touch, some 72,000 holes along the length of the pipes adjoining the runway had to be cleaned out to prevent a build up of soot. It was perhaps, one of the most tedious but vital jobs, RAF personnel had to perform.

Before the system could be fully tested though, a bizarre accident happened that resulted in no crew injuries, but two badly damaged aircraft and a Senior Flying Control Officer being posted and demoted.

In the next part (4) Foulsham’s  appalling weather accounts for a bizarre accident. The arrival of a new and relatively unique aircraft brings excitement to the site and FIDO really comes into its own.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Foulsham began its life and how early squadrons suffered with bad weather and malfunctioning guns. In Part 2, we continue our journey and find out how an American pilot, who crash landed at Foulsham was awarded the Medal of honour.

On that particular day, the aircraft, “Ruthie II“, was in a mass formation heading for Hanover, when a canon shell ripped through the windscreen splitting the pilots head. In addition to this, the oxygen system to the tail, waist, and radio positions was  also inoperable, the top turret gunner had lost both arms and had major injuries to his side; the intercom system was out of action and several crew members had lost consciousness due to the lack of Oxygen.

Morgan grappled with the severely wounded pilot, who had wrapped his arms round the controls, to try and maintain level flight. Morgan decided the protection of the formation was better than heading for home alone, and so for the next two hours he flew in formation holding the pilot back with one hand whilst steering with the other. Eventually the navigator came forward and gave assistance allowing the aircraft to reach the safety of England and Foulsham.

For his actions, Morgan, of Vernon, Wilbarger County, Texas, received the Medal of Honour the following December in a ceremony presided over by Lt. General Ira C. Eaker. The story of Morgan’s bravery would form a part of the story line in the book and movie “Twelve O’Clock High”.*3

The posting of 98 and 180 Squadrons in August 1943 was no coincidence, as the airfield saw further development and new hangars added. These hangars were erected at various locations around the airfield site, ready to accommodate the forty or so Horsa gliders that would soon arrive here escorted by 12 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section. Their arrival marking the beginning of the  preparations for the invasion of Normandy the following year.

A few days later, on September 1st, 1943, the handover of Foulsham took place and 3 Group became the new owners in a move that also signified the forming of 514 Squadron with Lancaster IIs, the less common radial engined version of this famous Avro aircraft.

514 Sqn was initially headed by Acting Wing Commander A.J. Samson D.F.C., although the first to arrive at the airfield was the squadron adjutant. On first inspection, he and his small party found that the office blocks had been completely stripped of all their furniture, even shelving had annoyingly been removed from walls. As a result the offices were virtually unusable, and so a huge clean up operation began in readiness for the ground and air crews who were to shortly follow.

RAF Foulsham

One of the original T2 hangars.

Accommodation sites 2 and 5 were quickly allocated to the squadron for personnel use, and as soon as equipment began arriving, on a rainy and very wet September day, everyone was drafted in to unload and store the various much needed supplies.

To provide flying personnel for the new squadron, a support unit would also be formed at the airfield, that of 1678 Heavy Conversion Unit. The formation of this unit was achieved through the renumbering of the Flight of the same designation, a changeover that took place a month later, on October 16th 1943. The role of this unit was to convert experienced bomber crews over to the new Lancaster.

In the interim period, the new aircraft began to arrive. The first Lancaster ‘DS735’ touching down on 11th September, 1943, followed by three more (DS785, 783 and 784) over the next three days. Their arrival was met not with pomp and ceremony though, but by heavy showers and thunderstorms, the weather that had dogged earlier squadrons continued to play its terrible part in life at Foulsham. Over the next few weeks, aircraft were quickly modified and air-tested ready for flying, by the end of the month, eighteen Lancasters had been flown in and virtually all the crews had arrived ready for converting to the new type.

Over the next month, and although the weather yet again played havoc with flights, cross-countries and air tests were carried out with a high level of success. However, no one could control the weather, and the first planned operational sortie had to be cancelled due to extensive fog that blanketed the Norfolk countryside. Not until November 6th did a break allow any operational flying to take place, and that break allowed two small flights to get airborne.

A mining operation undertaken by four aircraft along with a bombing mission in which only two aircraft got off the ground, were the squadrons break into operational flying; not a major mission, but one that nevertheless broke the ice.

With the poor weather continuing, several more ‘ops’ were again cancelled allowing only the occasional ‘Bulls-eye’ or morning flight to get away. Whilst it must have been frustrating for crews, this did allow them to finally put into practice all the training they had undertaken so far.

Then on the 14th November 1943, news came through from above that 3 Group was being reorganised and that 514 Sqn would be moving from Foulsham to RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire as a result. The move, expected to be completed by the 23rd, would coincide with the first operation to Berlin, a move that also signified the first phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’. This would also be the first time a 514 Sqn aircraft (DS784 ‘JI-C’) would not return from operations; the loss being a blow to the squadron. Of the seven-man crew, one would be taken prisoner (F/S. B. Haines (RAAF)) whilst a further (Sgt. H. Lucas) would evade capture,  successfully hiding out in Brussels until its liberation in 1944. The remaining five crewmen however, all perished in the aircraft’s crash.

In Part 3, Foulsham passes to new ownership and its life in electronic warfare begins. The new Group will bring new challenges, new aircraft and the installation of FIDO, the Fog dispersal system.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

RAF Foulsham – A Leader in Electronic Warfare. (Part 1)

In Norfolk sits an airfield that only had a short wartime life, but it is one that is more than significant. Used in the electronic warfare role, it went on to house a small number of heavy bomber squadrons all crammed with electronics to detect, monitor and interfere with enemy transmissions.

In conjunction with this, it also saw a detachment of two-seat P-38/F-5 Lightnings, a rare aircraft in this country, and possibly the only one to do so. Dogged by bad weather it was identified as a suitable site for ‘FIDO’ the fog dispersal system, and post war it was used in both the scrapping of DH Mosquitoes and as a storage unit.

In Trail 22 we revisit the former RAF Foulsham.

RAF Foulsham

RAF Foulsham, sits approximately 8 miles north-east of the Norfolk town of Dereham. It had a short active life of just three years, lasting between May 1942 and 1945, at which point it was closed to flying and used as a storage site for military hardware. It remained in this lesser state until the 1980s when it was deemed surplus to requirements and finally closed. The land it stood on, was then sold off to local farmers.

Built over the period 1940-41 by the construction company Kirk and Kirk Ltd, RAF Foulsham occupied land some 173 feet above sea level, and opened under the control of 2 Group Bomber Command. Much of the material that was brought in to construct Foulsham came via nearby railways stations, then along local roads through the village, leaving locals facing endless mud and traffic.

As a war-time airfield, Foulsham would have three tar and wood chip runways, one of which would later be equipped with the fog dispersal system ‘FIDO’, a valuable if not bizarre system designed to dissipate fog along airfield runways.

Foulsham’s three runways were 1,900 and 1,350 yards long, with the main runway heading in a north-south direction. By the end of the war it would have thirty-seven heavy bomber hardstands, nine T2 hangars and one B1, and as such, was a formidable size. Personnel numbers were reflected in this, with accommodation spread over several sites to both the south and east, able to accommodate upward of 2,500 personnel of mixed rank and gender. The ever important technical site sat to the east, with the bomb store situated to the south-west of the airfield, just off the end of the main north-south runway.

RAF Foulsham

The original Fire Tender shed.

The watch office, now long gone, was built to design 518/40 which included and Meteorological section attached to the building. These designs were a development of earlier models using a new 9 inch rendered brick wall as opposed to timber, although timber was initially required for the floors and ceilings. Due to a shortage in wood at the time though, concrete replaced a large portion of these leaving only the balcony and control room using such material.

Whilst Foulsham opened under 2 Group, it would almost immediately – within a month of opening – be handed over to the US forces of the 8th Air Force and be renamed station B.13. However, this change never evolved into anything  more as no American personnel were stationed here, and by the October it was back in RAF hands, and 2 Group once more. The next few years would see the airfield change hands several more times, and with each change would come new aircraft, new personnel and new roles.

The first units to arrive here were those of the host unit 2 Group. Both 98 and 180 Squadron arrived in mid October 1942 after their reformation/formation at RAF West Raynham. During this time, they both began to receive their aircraft, the American built B-25 ‘Mitchell II’. Their transfer across to Foulsham gave the airfield the honour of being the first station to use the type operationally. Both squadrons would remain active in the light bomber role until 18th August 1943 at which point they would depart and the airfield would change ownership once more.

98 Squadron, a First World War unit, had been operating out of Kaldadarnes in Iceland following a terrible loss of personnel when the Lancastria was sunk in June 1940. Their reformation at West Raynham, and subsequent move to Foulsham, had been quickly met with yet more losses, when one of the Mitchells ‘FL206’, spun killing all four members of the crew on board.

After this, the squadron would be dogged by misfortune, the squadron adjutant noting in the Operational Records that excessive rain had turned the site into a “disgraceful condition”; the weather was one aspect the staff would have to put up with for some time to come. *5

For the first sixteen days of November, all but a handful of days were washed out, the despair of staff being felt through the Operational Records, each day met with ‘Lectures continue, adverse weather for flying‘. However, on the 16th, training flights did manage to take place, but it too was met with more sadness as a second set of fatalities occurred.

During the training flight, Mitchell FL179 suffered a bird strike in the carburettor of the starboard engine, this caused the engine to fail. With only one serviceable engine the pilot, Flt. Sgt. K. Williams (s/n: 1062588), tried to land at nearby RAF Attlebridge, unfortunately the aircraft stalled and went into a spin. The resultant crash killed all three aircrew on board and wrote off the Mitchell.

Things were to not get any better for the squadron either. On the 30th, a third crash took yet four more lives when FL708 collided with high tension cables near to RAF Wendling. The explosion from the collision also killed a local farmer who was ploughing his field at the time of the accident. It had been a terrible start for the fledgling unit.

The poor weather continued relentlessly, hampering the squadron’s progress, both on the ground and in the air, with training flights being cancelled on a regular basis. During the small numbers that were taking place, further problems came to light adding to the frustrations already felt by the crews.  Since taking on the initial batch of nine Mitchells on September 18th, the squadron had been having problems with the aircraft especially the guns and their turrets.

Gunners had found that extended bursts of gunfire were impossible, usually no more than a dozen rounds could be fired at any one time, a situation borne out by Wing Commander Foster, the Group Armament Officer, on the 16th December. In an attempt to remedy the situation, an American gun turret specialist visited the squadron, but by the 18th it was considered that the guns were ‘obsolete’.

RAF Foulsham

A defence ‘pill box’.

January was much the same, snow added to further problems and again the aerodrome was noted as being in a “very bad condition“, all flying being cancelled until the middle of the month when a small number of flights did get airborne.

The first battle order came through on January 21st, but due to a late delivery of bombs, it was also cancelled, meaning the squadrons first operation flight wouldn’t take place until the next day.

Six aircraft were ordered to operations, and whilst all made it to the target, one aircraft, FL693, was hit by flak and disintegrated. All on board were presumed killed.  The first months of 98 squadron had been challenging and difficult for those posted here.

180 Squadron had fared a little better, although after walking into a spinning propeller, L.A.C. J. Aspinall was killed, the only fatality of the squadron during the same period.

On July 26th 1943, an emergency landing was made at Foulsham by a B-17F #42-29802 of the 326th BS, 92nd BG, 8th AF, after a traumatic series of events that earned the co-pilot, John C. Morgan Flight Officer (later 2nd Lt.), the Medal of Honour for his valour and courage in action.

In part 2 we see how Morgan earned this prestigious award and how Foulsham continues to develop.

The entire story of Foulsham can be seen in Trail 22.

August 23, 1944 The worst aircraft accident in the UK during WW2.

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.

freckleton 28 Aug 1944 funeral procession Photo Ralph Scott

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:

British Newspaper Archive website.

The Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team Website which has many photographs pertaining to the crash and is well worth a visit.

BAD2 Blog 

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.

1st Lt. Raymond Harney and 2nd Lt. Warren French – 349th BS, 100th BG

Lt Raymond Harney (Photo courtesy of Tsymond Harney JR.)*1

A few years ago a story came to light that not only brought home the brutality of war but also the compassion found in war. It was of two American airmen whose World War II story finally come to a close 70 years after their death.

The two airmen, U.S. Army Air Corps 1st Lt. Raymond Harney (s/n O-523208) and U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Warren French, (s/n O-2056584) of the 349th BS, 100th BG, were in a B17G (44-6306) over Germany on September 28th 1944, when they were hit by flak whilst on a mission to Merseberg. This would be their eighth and final mission.

Mission 652 involved a total of 342 B-17s which were sent to bomb the Merseburg/Leuna oil refinery and any additional targets of opportunity. During the operation, 10 B-17s were lost, 4 were damaged beyond repair and 251 damaged but repairable. Escort for the mission was provided by 212 P-51s of the USAAF.

B-17 ‘#44-6306’, was delivered to Kearney airbase on 28th June 1944,  then moved to Grenier airbase, New Hampshire on 9th July 1944, for onward transport to the United Kingdom.  It was assigned to the 349th Bomb Squadron, of the 100th Bomb Group, given the code ‘XR-G’, and based at RAF Thorpe Abbotts from the 12th July 1944.

The crew of #44-6306, assigned on the 28th August 1944, was: (Pilot) 1st Lt. Raymond E.Harney (Co-pilot); 2nd Lt. William R.Kimball (Navigator); 2nd Lt. Charles M.Hamrick (Bombardier); 2nd Lt. Warren.M.French (Top Turret/Engineer); Cpl. Thadeus L.Gotz (Radio Operator/Gunner); Cpl. Hubert J.Burleigh,Jr. (Ball Turret); Cpl. Melvin F.Cordray (Waist Gunner); Cpl. Robert C.Minear (Waist Gunner); Cpl James J.Sorenson, and (tail Gunner) Cpl. John H. Bundner. However, for reasons unknown at this time, for this particular mission, Gotz was not aboard, and instead S/Sgt. Jack D.Francisco flew as tail gunner and Cpl. Robert C.Minear flew as the Flight Engineer.

At 12:10, whilst over the target, the B-17 was hit in the number 2 engine by anti-aircraft flak. As a result, the engine caught fire, the aircraft withdrew from the protection of the formation, joining another formation further back, but began to fall back again when the number 4 engine was also feathered. Harney continued to fly the crippled B-17 for two hours after being hit, before finally deciding enough was enough and he ordered the crew to bail out. Being determined to save his friend and the aircraft, he also decided that he and the injured French, would remain and try to land the aircraft.

Outside of the village of Schwickershausen, to the north of another major target, Schweinfurt, Germany, they attempted a belly landing bringing the aircraft down in a turnip field. The B-17 slid across the ground, ripping off the port wing, causing a tremendous fire. Neither Harney nor French sadly survived the subsequent fireball.

Although he managed to get the crew to leave the aircraft, their safety was not guaranteed and sadly, three were killed by local police in the following days. An event not uncommon in Nazi Germany. Only two of the gunners, Cpl. Melvin F.Cordray, and Cpl. Robert C.Minear, survived as POWs.

What makes this story more significant than usual, is what followed after the crash.

The local people made a wooden cross in remembrance of the crew and they kept it hidden away in the local church for over 70 years.

The cross kept secret for so many years.*2

The large wooden cross, had the words “Hier ruhen in Gott! 2 amer. Flieger,” or “Here rests in God 2 American flyers,” engraved on it, along with details of the aircraft crash. On the 70th anniversary of the crash, 28th September 2014, a memorial service was held in the village of Schwickershausen. Following this, on 5th October, the cross was flown over to England in an American KC-135 Stratotanker from RAF Mildenhall, with two Luftwaffe Tornadoes escorting them over Germany. The cross was donated to the ‘Bloody 100th’ museum at Thorpe Abbots for safe keeping. A certificate was also handed over along with the cross signifying not only the now peaceful and co-operative alliance between the two nations, but the final closing of a chapter of the history of two crew members of the “Bloody Hundredth.”

The cross being transported in the Boom pod of a KC-135 Stratotanker. October 2014.*4

This is a remarkable story, and one that certainly stands out amongst the horrors and heroism of the Second World War.

2Lt Warren M French

Warren French’s memorial stone in Belgium*3

Lt. Raymond E. Harney’s Gravestone is at Ft. Snelling Cemetery in Minnesota, his remains are in the graveyard at Gemeindefriedhof Schwickershausen. Warren French’s headstone is in the Ardennes, Neuville-en-Cond, in Belgium.

Thorpe Abbotts airfield and museum is featured in Trail 12

Sources:

*1 photo the Bloody 100th Foundation.

*2 Photo from RAF Mildenhall news

*3 Photo from ‘Find a Grave

*4 Photo from RAF Mildenhall News

This story first appeared in the RAF Mildenhall News report October 20th 2014.

June 16th 1942 loss of Stirling LS-X.

On June 16th, 1942, Stirling LS-X #N6088, took off from RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, on a routine training flight. On board that day were: (Pilot) P/O. M. Scansie (RNZAF); Sgt. E. Morris; Flt/Sgt. J. Tomlinson; Sgt. D. Robinson; Sgt. J. Smith; Sgt. R. Broadbridge; Flt/Sgt. H. Johnson (RCAF) and Sgt. R. Le Blanc.

At 15:25 the aircraft, a Stirling MK.I of ‘C’ Flight 1651 Conversion Unit (CU), left Waterbeach heading north-westerly. It was to be a routine cross country navigation exercise.

Around forty-five minutes later, the aircraft was seen on fire, and falling in a spiral toward the ground with its port wing detached, outside of the outboard engine. The bomber hit the ground on the Great North Road near to Barnby Moor.

The crew flying the aircraft that day were a young crew, the pilot being 24 years of age, whilst Sgt. Ernest Morris was 19, Sgt. David Robinson – 21, Sgt. Roland Broadbridge – 20, Flt/Sgt. Harry Johnson – 26 and Sgt. R. Le Blanc. the oldest at 27 years of age.

What also made this particular accident more significant was that the Stirling, a veteran of European Operations, had flown for nearly 250 hours on twenty-two operational sorties, a remarkable achievement for a Stirling!

The Stirling would prove to be a poor bomber. Designed to Air Ministry Specification B.12/36 (the very reason it was to be poor), it had to have a reduced wingspan to enable it to fit inside the currently available hangars. This reduction gave poor lift qualities, barely able to achieve more than 17,000 feet when fully loaded. Another restrictive feature was the bomb bay design. Being sectioned it could not accommodate the larger bombs being brought into production as the war progressed, thus it underachieved compared to its stable mates the Halifax and Lancaster. The original specification set out such requirements, and so the design was flawed from the start. It did however, have good low altitude handling capabilities, but this wasn’t enough to secure its future as a long term investment in Bomber Command.

As a bomber, casualties in Stirlings were high, and toward the end of the war it was reduced to secondary operations, an area where it more than proved its worth as both a glider tug, mine layer and paratroop transport aircraft.

Apart from Sgt. Robinson, all of the crew are buried at Finningley, St. Oswalds Church. Sgt. Robinson is buried in his home town Bedlay Cemetery, Lanark.

RAF Waterbeach appears in Trail 11.

Sources and Further Reading.

The crew’s interment along with photos of Raymond Le Blanc are available on the Compagnons de la Libération du Havre website.

Chorley. W., “Bomber Command Losses Heavy Conversion Units and Miscellaneous Units 1939-1947 ” Midland Publishing, 2003.

 

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.