RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 2)

In Part one, we saw Tuddenham’s opening to the war. A rather cold and uninspiring airfield, it housed the Stirlings of 90 Squadron. Now, the Lancasters were arriving and front line bombing missions were once again on the horizon. 

The first of these major operations was on the night of 10th/11th June, when seven Lancasters, a mix of MK.Is and MK.IIIs, left Tuddenham to bomb rail facilities at Dreux –  90 Sqn had at last returned to the ‘front line.’

Sadly it was not to be the best night for the squadron, of the seven Lancasters that departed, two never returned home. The first NE149 ‘WP-A’ and the second NE177 ‘WP-B’ (both MK.IIIs), crashing in France. Of the fourteen airmen on board, three evaded capture, one was caught, and the remaining ten were all killed – it was not the most auspicious start for the unit. 

With two more Lancasters lost that month – one on the infamous Gelsenkirchen raid in which seventeen Lancasters were lost – June had proven to be difficult, and even though Stirlings were still operating, the Lancaster had become the main type and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride to Christmas. Forty-three, 90 Sqn airmen had been posted as either ‘killed’ or ‘missing’ in June alone.

Bomber Command’s tactical support of the land based forces continued on until mid September, by which time, Harris was back in charge and Bomber Command could once again turn its attention to targets in the German heartland. As the allied forces moved ever closer, night raids turned to daylight as allied air power began to get its grip on the skies over Europe. 

In October, a new squadron would reform here at Tuddenham, 186 Squadron also flying Lancaster MK.I and IIIs. Originally having its roots on board HMS Argus in 1918, it was another unit that had had short spells of activity before being disbanded once again. In a very different guise to its original formation, this time it was born out of 90 Sqn’s ‘C’ Flight, there the differences cease and by the December,  the squadron had left Tuddenham moving to Stradishall where it remained until the war’s end, and its final disbandment once more. 

The remainder of the year was relatively quiet for the Tuddenham group, regular missions with little or no opposition meant losses were low, and results were generally considered successful. But with bad weather setting in across both the UK and the wider continent, many squadrons had days of being stood down. Tuddenham on the other hand, with their FIDO system, was able to put up more flights than many others. Indeed during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, 90 Sqn were one of the few units able to launch attacks when most others were fog bound. 

The dawn of 1945 brought hope for an end to the war as the allied war machine moved ever closer to Berlin. The German’s last ditch attempt in the Ardennes was eventually overrun, and bombing picked up as fair weather returned once more. 

On February 2nd, Wing Commander W. G. Bannister joined the squadron on attachment. On the same day as he arrived, he took off at 20:52 in Lancaster HK610 ‘WP-Z’ along with thirteen other Lancasters from the squadron. Around an hour later, the aircraft collided with Lancaster PD336 ‘WP-P’, striking the tail trapping the rear gunner, Sgt. K. Hudspeth, inside the turret by his legs. Injured, he lay slumped over his guns. The pilot turned the aircraft over the Wash and ordered the bombs dumped in the sea. The rear tyre of the aircraft was burst and the port side of the tail was badly damaged, maybe even missing, and the turret by now was hanging off the aircraft. The pilot ordered chutes to be put on, after which the mid gunner Sgt. G. Wraith, went to help Sgt. Hudspeth, pulling him back into the aircraft’s fuselage where he administered morphine. The Lancaster made its way back to Tuddenham, and with the radio knocked out, red flares were fired to inform ground staff of its difficulties. Badly damaged with injured on board, the Lancaster made a safe landing, thanks to the skill of the pilot and crew.

Bannister’s Lancaster however, did not recover from the collision. After striking ‘P’ for Peter, the aircraft fell from the sky, crashing at 21:25,  3 miles from Bury St. Edmunds;  sadly there were no survivors.   

March 1945 saw a return of the Stirling to Tuddenham with 138 Sqn*3 transferring from Tempsford with the MK.V. As soon as they arrived they began to replace these with Lancasters MK.I and IIIs. 138 Sqn had been heavily involved in clandestine operations with the SOE, dropping agents into occupied Europe. With the need for such missions now largely gone, operations were wound down and the Stirling squadron were to be upgraded to front line bomber status. The first operational mission under this new guise was planned for the 28th but postponed until the following day. Three aircraft were ordered and all returned safely after having bombed the target. 

As the war drew  to its conclusion, 90 Squadron turned their attention to Kiel with both mining and bombing to prevent a German withdrawal. By the of the month it was all but over and operation Manna was put into place. On April 30th, 90 Sqn began their part in dropping supplies to the Dutch – targeting Rotterdam. Drop zones were identified by red T.Is and / or white crosses placed on the ground. By the end of the month 23 tons of food supplies had been dropped by the one squadron alone. During May, they began flights to Juvincourt to collect and bring back prisoners of war, dropping them at various sites including Dunsfold, Tangmere, Wing and Oakley; the aircraft then returned to base before carrying out further flights. 

On the 25th, ‘Cooks tours’ began, aircrew flying ground crew to Germany to see for themselves the damage inflicted by the war on the German heartland, it was a harrowing site for many. 

RAF Tuddenham

An electrical sub station shows its original RAF paint work

With no operational flying to do, training flights took over. It was a major change for  both the air and ground crews. As bases around the country began to close, so squadrons were moved around in preparation for disbandment. In April, two more Lancaster squadrons arrived here at Tuddenham, both 149 and 207 Sqns transferring across from RAF Methwold. The number of bomber squadrons now residing at Tuddenham totalling four.

Finally, in November 1946 the death knell finally rang for Tuddenham and it too was closed, flying ceased and the aircraft were all withdrawn. All four squadrons were pulled out of Tuddenham, 90 and 186 Sqns taking their Lancasters to RAF Wyton, whilst 149 and 207 went to RAF Stradishall. In what must have been a mass exodus, Tuddenham fell suddenly silent.

The airfield stood dormant for many years  whilst remaining in RAF hands, but then in 1953 life returned once more as the USAF arrived and used it as an ammunition storage area and renovation depot for surplus WWII ammunition and equipment. The American forces remained here for four years until 1957 when they too finally withdrew.

Tuddenham itself continued to stay in RAF ownership for a short while longer. As tension rose in the early part of the Cold War, ideal because of its low population and rural location, it was earmarked as a site for the new Thor missiles. New launch pads were built and a small section of the site was redeveloped accordingly.  Then in July 1959, 107 Squadron RAF reformed here, operating three of the Thor missiles as part of the UK-USA nuclear deterrent agreement. Retaining these until July 1963, the site finally closed once and for all. At this point all military personnel moved out and the gates were finally locked.

After this, Tuddenham was earmarked for quarrying to meet the rising demand for housing. Large sections were returned to agriculture, but a quarry opened to extract the much-needed materials for house construction. This operation has continued to the present day and has been responsible for the removal of large quantities of the main airfield site.

Visiting Tuddenham, reveals little of the history of the airfield and the people who stayed here. A few buildings, primarily the gymnasium and squash court remain standing, but in a very poor state and are likely to be pulled down soon. The roof has collapsed and part of the walls are missing. Located to the south of the airfield, they stand as reminders of those days long gone.

Other technical areas and the main part of the airfield, are now the workings of the quarry. The entrance to this site, rather insignificant, is part of the original perimeter track and is marked by an electrical sub-station. The shell is intact and complete with two blast walls, even the original RAF paint work can be seen! Overgrown and hidden beneath large thorns, this lone building will no doubt soon go the way of others some distance away.

Tuddenham airfield now stands lonely, large parts excavated and gone along with the memories of those who were stationed here. A pig farm covers a large part of the southern section and very little remains other than a few dilapidated buildings whose days are also very numbered. Tuddenham’s place in history is most certainly confined to the books and the memories of those whose numbers are also rapidly diminishing.

Before leaving Tuddenham, return to the village and stop at the village green. The village sign depicts a Lancaster flying low over the Suffolk landscape. A sundial, beautifully crafted marks the history of 90 Sqn, both the aircraft flown (1917 – 1965) as well as the airfields they were stationed at throughout their life. A superb tribute to a once active airfield and the gallant heroes of 90 Squadron Royal Air Force who served here*4.

RAF Tuddenham

Beneath the sundial, all the aircraft used by 90 squadron.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/731/25

*2 Grehan. J. & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations“, Pen & Sword, 2014

*3 No. 138 Squadron RAF went on to be the first ‘V-bomber’ squadron of the RAF, flying the Vickers Valiant between 1955 until being disbanded in 1962.

*4 Personal stories of personnel from 90 Squadron at Tuddenham can be found here on the Wartime Memories Project website.

*5 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire – FIDO The Fogbuster of World War Two“, Alan Sutton Publishing. 1995 (An excellent book detailing the work on FIDO and its installations at each airfield).

National Archives: AIR 27/733/3; AIR 27/733/4

RAF Tuddenham – The last of the FIDOs (Part 1).

In this trail we return to an RAF bomber airfield which opened later in the war. With a relatively quiet start, it soon became a front line base operating the four engined heavies the Lancasters of Bomber Command. Within a short time of it opening, it would become one of only a small number of airfields that would use the cleverly designed fog clearing system FIDO, a system that allowed aircraft to take-off and land in difficult weather conditions. As a result, it became a safe haven on more than one occasion. 

In Trail 16 we return to RAF Tuddenham.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham (as opposed to the decoy site North Tuddenham) is one of those places that is today surrounded by large towns. To the north-east lies Thetford, to the south-east, Bury-St.-Edmunds and to the south-west that mecca of horse racing – Newmarket. As a result, the landscape of the area today is somewhat different to what it was in the 1930s and 40s.

Using land requisitioned in 1943 it was opened that same year. A standard Class ‘A’ airfield, its main runway ran south-east to north-west and was the standard 2,000 yards in length. With two secondary runways both of 1,400 yards, it would open under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command. For its protection it had its own decoy site built a short distance away at Cavenham, but even this didn’t stop attacks on the airfield, none of which thankfully caused any major damage.

Built by Taylor Woodrow, it would have two T2 and later one B1 hangar, with thirty-eight loop style hardstands and a perimeter track of the standard 50 yards width. A standard watch office for all commands (design 12779/41) was later redesigned to match the new war-time standard 343/43 design which had the smaller windows especially designed for bomber airfields.

RAF Tuddenham

Tuddenham village sign showing its links to a once active airfield.

Accommodation for air and ground crews was located on land to the south of the airfield spread across twelve sites. A mix of huts, they would accommodate around 2,000 personnel of which some 250 were WAAFs. Built as temporary buildings, these huts were unheated and unhomely, they were cramped and cold and as such, Tuddenham was not one of the most popular stations with crews posted there.

A fairly nondescript airfield, it was first frequented by the RAF’s 90 Squadron with the huge Stirling MK.III. 90 Squadron in name, had been in existence since 1917 although it had been disbanded and reformed on no less than four previous occasions, and had been at a variety of locations before arriving here at Tuddenham. This time however, it would be a much more permanent formation, and for the duration of the war it would reside at only one station, that of RAF Tuddenham.

90 Squadron had previously been recreated to test the suitability of B-17s for RAF service. Initially based at Watton, it would be less than a year before they were disbanded once more. Their more recent reincarnation led them to Wratting Common, from where they departed on their journey to Tuddenham on October 13th 1943.

According to the official records*1, this move was ‘worked out in every detail‘ and it went ‘expeditiously without incident‘ even though the airfield was still in a state of non completion. 90 Squadron’s first operational mission from Tuddenham occurred on the 17th, a return to mine laying off the Frisian Islands. Classed as ‘minor’ operations three aircraft were ordered to fly that day, one of which had to return early due to being struck by lightning and suffering damage to a number of areas including the rear turret. With only three other mining operations and an air-sea rescue search that month, the move to Tuddenham would have been uneventful had it not been for an accident involving Stirling EF497, piloted by Sgt. Wallace Jones who was aged just 21. The crew of the Stirling were on an air test when the aircraft struck trees just close to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As a result, all of the crew, of which three were in the RCAF, died in the ensuing crash. 

With only two other operational losses before the year was out, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were not fairing as badly as many other units, but the days of the type were indeed now numbered as losses overall in 3 Group were high. The Stirling would soon be relegated to secondary duties completely. 

December 1943 would see a major installation take place at Tuddenham. By now, the fog dispersal system FIDO, was in place across several other British airfields and was proving to be a major breakthrough in poor weather flying.

Designed after pre-war investigations into ways of dispersing fog, it led to oil burners being laid along a mile length of the main runway at Tuddenham. Where these crossed secondary runways, the burners were entrenched and metal plates placed over the top to prevent aircraft using these runways, from having an accident. 

At Tuddenham (classed as FIDO Station XIX), the Mark IV Haigill burners were used, each burner was 40 yards in length and made of three pipes looped at the ends. Oil was fed into the burner via a feed pipe from the main pump on the southern side of the airfield. 

Supplying these burners took huge quantities of oil, this was brought in on the nearby railway which passed through the village of Higham. A special siding was constructed which could take a large number of wagons from which fuel was pumped into a small pumping station. From here, it would then cross several fields via underground pipes into one of three large storage tanks capable of holding around half a million gallons of fuel in total.

Work began at Tuddenham early in the new year 1944, and again Taylor Woodrow were charged with the task of carrying out the construction. By August, they were ready and stocks had begun arriving ready for a test burn.

Location unknown. FIDO burners alongside a runway 1945. © IWM CH 15274

FIDO amazed all those who saw it for the first time. Its ability to clear not only fog but low cloud as well, was a god send to those who were unfortunate enough to have found themselves lost in the thick of it. The first use of FIDO at Tuddenham was on August 8th 1944, when by pure accident, an American B-26 ‘Marauder’ was caught by fog. On that day, a test burn was planned, the burners were lit and the amazed onlookers watched as both fog and low cloud began to clear. Suddenly, out of the darkness and murk came the B-26, who had attempted to land elsewhere no less than eight times unsuccessfully. Seeing the bright blaze of Tuddenham’s burners, the pilot made for the airfield, flew over it to ascertain what it was, and once satisfied, made a successful wheels up landing. 

FIDO would be used regularly over the next few months, in November it provided a safe haven for both RAF and USAAF aircraft. In Geoffrey Williams’ book ‘Flying Through Fire‘, he quotes one pilot as stating he could see Tuddenham’s FIDO “from Ostend at 7,000 ft“, a point that illustrates the effectiveness of FIDO in poor conditions. 

The idea behind FIDO was to install it at a number of airfields that were located in a ‘hub’ of other airfields, thus keeping returning aircraft as close to their parent airfield as much as possible. It allowed returning aircraft to land (and take off) safely in poor or deteriorating weather conditions, but it was used ‘sparingly’, as in one day’s total of 6 hours burn, some 200,000 gallons*5 of fuel had been used. Not many sites actually had FIDO installed, just fifteen in the UK, eleven of which were Bomber Command airfields. However, FIDO was undoubtedly successful, these fifteen alone enabled somewhere in the region of 2,500 safe landings that would have no doubt led to a number of casualties or even deaths had it not been available. The airfields were very much appreciated by those who were caught out when returning from raids over Europe, the only major complaints being glare from the bright fires as aircraft came into land*2

RAF Tuddenham

South of the airfield lay the Squash court and Gymnasium.

Back in early 1944, Tuddenham’s operations continued, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were soldiering on. More mining operations and bombing raids on the French coast dominated the months of January and February, whilst ‘special duties’ (SOE supply operations) took over as the main focus from March to May. By this time the Stirlings were starting to be replaced by the Lancaster, as it was now being relegated universally to secondary operations: supply sorties, paratroop transport and mining operations off the European coast. 

This transition began on May 11th, with pilots gaining initial experience by flying as 2nd pilot in other squadrons. New crewmen were soon being posted in, many of these from Conversion Units, whilst 90 Sqn’s Stirling crews were posted out. The continual cycle of trained crews coming in and ‘untrained’ crews going out filling the record books.

During all this operations continued on, and Stirlings continued to be lost. Four aircraft were shot down in May, three of them, on the two consecutive nights between the 8th and 10th, with many of the crewmen either being killed or captured.

The last Stirling to be lost on operations for 90 Sqn was on the night of June 2nd / 3rd when EF294 ‘WP-B’ crashed in France in the early hours of the 3rd. Of those on board, two managed to evade capture whilst the remaining five were caught and imprisoned in POW camps. 

With the invasion of Normandy on June 5th/6th, four Lancasters and fifteen Stirlings were prepared for operations in connection with the landings, but the Lancasters were withdrawn – perhaps to the annoyance of those on board. The Stirlings all took off and carried out their mission successfully, each one returning to Tuddenham safely. 

The last Stirling only operation took place on June 7th, the last two aircraft to return landing at Newmarket after completing their special operations. The Lancaster would now take over as the main aircraft and so 90 Squadron would soon return to bombing operations once more.

RAF Tuddenham

A sundial on the village green remembers the crews of 90 Squadron RAF.

In Part two the Lancaster arrive, but it is not the most auspicious of starts for the squadron. 

Flt. Lt. William ‘Bill’ Reid VC 61 Squadron, RAF Syerston

In 1942 Air Ministry Directive S.46368/D.C.A.S. turned Bomber Command’s focus to the morale of the German population and in particular its industrial workforce. Bomber Command now turned to strategic bombing, a controversial campaign that was debated for many years after, it was seen as a way to destroy the enemy’s industrial output, by attacking the very workforce that produced it.

William Reid VC.jpg

Flt. Lt. Bill Reid VC (IWM CHP 794)

But as loses had mounted, Bomber Command had been forced to fly at night, a task that was almost impossible to satisfactorily achieve for most bomber crews who had been trained to bomb in daylight. Indeed, only some 3 in every 100 bombers were hitting within 5 miles of the aiming point at the start of the campaign.

Harris himself knew that hitting a single target consistently, at night was impossible, and so there was little choice seen other than the controversial bombing campaign.

On one of these raids, on the night of 3rd/4th November 1943, Bomber Command sent a large raid of almost 600 aircraft to Germany. In that raid was Acting Flight Lieutenant William (Bill) Reid, a Scot born in Baillieston, Glasgow, and the son of a Blacksmith .

Reid performed his duties that night in a manner that would see him earn the Victoria Cross, the highest honour possible, for taking his damaged Lancaster to the heart of Dussledorf and bombing the target even though he himself and his Flight Engineer were wounded; the navigator killed and the aircraft severely damaged and so difficult to fly.

That evening, eleven Lancasters from 61 Squadron, RAF Syserton, took off on a mission to bomb Dusseldorf. Reid’s aircraft, Lancaster LM360 was second to depart taking off at 16:59. On board with Flt. Lt. William (Bill) Reid were: Sgt. J. Norris (Flt Eng); Flt. Sgt. J. Jeffries (Nav); Sgt T. Rolton (Bomb Aimer); Flt. Sgt. J. Mann (WT/ Air Gunner); Flt. Sgt. S. Baldwin (Air Gunner) and Flt. Sgt. A. Emerson (Air Gunner).

As the aircraft crossed the Dutch coast there was a terrific bang outside the aircraft  which resulted in the windscreen being shattered and partially blown out. Reid was wounded in the head, shoulders and hands, and the plane temporarily went out of control. Flak continued to burst all around the Lancaster with one further burst injuring the Flight Engineer, who was next to read, and causing further injuries to Reid himself. The port elevator had been shot away and to compensate, Reid had to pull the stick fully back just to keep the plane straight and level. Between Reid and the Flight Engineer, they maintained level flight as part of the formation of almost 600 aircraft across an 8 to 10 mile span of up to 6000 feet deep – the option of turning back was not a viable one.

Keeping the plane straight and level, Reid watched the target indicators. The bombs were dropped and the photographic evidence taken. Turning the aircraft away, the Lancaster headed for home. Reid knew that he was the only one who could fly the aircraft and even with with no elevator, virtually no instruments and at night, he was determined to make it back safely. With further attacks from night fighters on the return trip, it was not an easy journey, but they eventually made it to England. Once over the English coast they looked for a suitable airfield to land, they came across the beacons at the American base at RAF Shipdham in Norfolk, and Reid put the aircraft down. Almost immediately, the legs of the undercarriage collapsed and the aircraft hit the runway on its belly, sliding along for some 50 yards or so, before coming to a complete stop. At this point Reid realised the Navigator had died slumped in his seat behind him.

Reid, severely injured, had managed to fly the badly damaged aircraft, without oxygen and with wounded on board, for many hours from deep inside Germany, the actions of which earned the 22-year-old acting Flight Lieutenant the Victoria Cross.

His citation in the Third Supplement to the London Gazette on Tuesday 14th December 1943 covered an entire page and read:

Air Ministry, 14th December, 1943.

The KING has been graciously pleased to confer the VICTORIA CROSS on the undermentioned officer in recognition of most conspicuous bravery: —

Acting Flight Lieutenant William REID (124438), Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 61 Squadron.

On the night of November 3rd, 1943, Flight Lieutenant Reid was pilot and captain of a Lancaster aircraft detailed to attack Dusseldorf.

Shortly after crossing the Dutch coast, the pilot’s windscreen was shattered by fire from a Messerschmitt 110. Owing to a failure in the heating circuit, the rear gunner’s hands were too cold for him to open fire immediately or to operate his microphone and so give warning of danger; but after a brief delay he managed to return the Messerschmitt’s fire and it was driven off.

During the fight with the Messerschmitt, Flight Lieutenant Reid was wounded in the head, shoulders and hands. The elevator trimming tabs of the aircraft were damaged and it became difficult to control. The rear turret, too, was badly damaged and the communications system and compasses were put out of action. Flight Lieutenant Reid ascertained that his crew were unscathed and, saying nothing about his own injuries,
he continued his mission.

Soon afterwards, the Lancaster was attacked by a Focke Wulf 190. This time, the enemy’s fire raked the bomber from stem to stern. The rear gunner replied with his only serviceable gun but the state of his turret made accurate aiming impossible. The navigator was killed and the wireless operator fatally injured. The mid-upper turret was hit and the oxygen system put out of action. Flight Lieutenant Reid was again wounded and the flight engineer, though hit in the forearm, supplied him with oxygen from a portable supply.

Flight Lieutenant Reid refused to be turned from his objective and Dusseldorf was reached some 50 minutes later. He had memorised his course to the target and had continued in such a normal manner that the bomb-aimer, who was cut off by the failure of the communications system, knew nothing of his captain’s injuries or of the casualties to his comrades. Photographs show that, when the bombs were released, the aircraft was right over the centre of the target.

Steering by the pole star and the moon, Flight Lieutenant Reid then set course for home. He was growing weak from loss of blood. The emergency oxygen supply had given out. With the windscreen shattered, the cold was intense. He lapsed into semi-consciousness. The flight engineer, with some help from the bomb-aimer, kept the
Lancaster in the air despite heavy anti-aircraft fire over the Dutch coast.

The North Sea crossing was accomplished. An airfield was sighted. The captain revived, resumed control and made ready to land. Ground mist partially obscured the runway lights. The captain was also much bothered by blood from his head wound getting into his eyes. But he made a safe landing although one leg of the damaged undercarriage collapsed when the load came on.

Wounded in two attacks, without oxygen, suffering severely from cold, his navigator dead, his wireless operator fatally wounded, his aircraft crippled and defenceless,  Flight Lieutenant Reid showed superb courage and leadership in penetrating a further 200  miles into enemy territory to attack one of the most strongly defended targets in Germany, every additional mile increasing the hazards of the long and perilous journey home. His tenacity and devotion to duty were beyond praise.

Reid would go on to fly in Bomber Command being transferred to the famous 617 Sqn at Woodhall Spa after his recovery. Here he would fly with Leonard Cheshire, another VC holder, on Tallboy missions, dropping the enormous weapon onto heavily fortified or deeply buried structures.

On 31st July 1944, sixteen Lancasters and two Mosquitoes of 617 Sqn were ordered to attack the V-1 site at Rily-la-Montage, a railway tunnel used by the Germans to store the pilot-less flying bombs ‘The Doodlebug’.  Here Flt. Lt. William ‘Bill’ Reid’s luck would finally run out.

He had managed so far to evade either death or capture, only to be struck down by bombs from one of his own. The Lancaster Mk.I (ME557) ‘KC-S’ he was flying with 617 Sqn, shuddered as allied bombs crashed through the Lancaster severing the control cables, fracturing the structure of the Lancaster’s body and removing one of the port engines. Uncontrollable, the aircraft then entered a spin. Reid gave the order to bail out, himself escaping through the hatch above his head. He landed heavily, breaking an arm in the process – an injury that would hinder his escape from his pursuers. Within an hour he was captured, interrogated and sent on to a POW camp. Reid and one other crewman, Flying Officer D. Luker, were the only two airmen to escape the stricken  Lancaster, the remaining five all being killed in the crash.

As the allied forces moved ever closer, the much admired Reid was moved from camp to camp, ending his war at Stalag III – a POW camp made famous by ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘The Wooden Horse’.

Back at the RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, he colleagues ‘mourned’ his capture by joking that he had escaped with all their money, money he had won in an early morning card game in the officers mess at the Petwood Hotel. *1.

Liberated in May 1945, Reid returned home and became well known in the agricultural business. He became great friends with the that other Scottish VC holder John Cruickshank a friendship that lasted a good many years.

Some time after moving to his new home in Crieff, Bill Reid sadly passed away; his death being announced  on November 28th 2001. He was buried in the local cemetery at Crieff.

Sources and Further Reading.

National Archives AIR 27/578/22
National Archives  AIR 27/2128/24
National Archives  AIR 27/2128/23

The Third Supplement of The London Gazette Publication date: 10th December 1943; Supplement: 36285 Page: 5435

World At War Series BBC narrated by Lawrence Olivier Episode 12

*1 Sweetman, J. “Bomber Crew – Taking on the Reich“, Abacus, 2004 pg 207

The Scotsman Newspaper website, 29th November 2001.

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.

Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.

The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.

The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.

A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)

The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and  perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.

Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.

Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI

The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)

The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day.  Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.

When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.

With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.

The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.

RAF Watton

One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.

The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.

This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to  the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS).  The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.

The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1

But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail,  countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally  the calibration and training units of the CSE.

Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.

199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.

The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.

On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.

As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.

The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.

Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.

As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.

RAF Watton

Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.

By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.

A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.

Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure.  One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.

Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.

Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?

The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.

As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe.  Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.

National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2

A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.

Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.

NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.

Watton can be found on Trail 9.

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 1)

Norfolk once boasted many major airfields, virtually all of which are now closed to military flying. Marham is the only major survivor spearheading the RAF’s front line fighter force, in conjunction with Lincolnshire’s RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland.

However, during the Second World War the Norfolk landscape was very different; it was littered with front line airfields, composed mainly of light bomber and fighter squadrons, all of which could be found with relative ease.

One such airfield was that of Watton. Used by a range of light and heavy aircraft, its history was chequered, bearing witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of the air-war.

Today it is a housing estate, the single runway remains and is used for storage, the hangers and technical buildings have gone and the accommodation areas have all been sold off. That said, the perimeter track remains in part, the ‘feel’ of the airfield hangs over the area and a number of memorials pay silent tribute to those who served here.

Found on the edge of the town of Watton in Norfolk, we go back to this once busy RAF base and see what has changed, and relive the life of RAF Watton.

RAF Watton (Station 376)

RAF Watton, located some 11.5 miles north-east of Thetford, opened in 1939 as a medium bomber station with the RAF. Unusually it only had one runway, a grass example, which was later extended to 2,000 yards and crossed the airfield in an east-west direction.

The late 1930s saw a massive expansion of Britain’s military might, and in particular, its airfields. With little foresight into what lay ahead, these pre-war and early war airfields were not designed, nor built, as dispersed sites. Once the realisation of what the war would bring hit home however, later examples would be dispersed, giving a new dimension to airfield design. As a result, Watton (built by the John Laing company) was constructed with much of the accommodation block, technical area, hangars and so on, all being placed closely together on one single site.

Housing for the personnel was located in the north-western corner, with the technical area just east of this. The bomb dump, an ideal target, was further to the east of this area. Four ‘C’ type hangers were constructed each having a span of 150 feet, a length of 300 feet and a height of 35 feet. Whilst Watton was a medium bomber airfield, and thus aircraft were relatively small, it was envisaged at this time that larger, heavier bombers would soon come on line, and so foresight deemed larger than necessary hangar space be provided. A 1934/35 design, these hangars would be common place across expansion period airfields.

Another architectural design found at Watton was the redesigned Watch Office, an all concrete affair built to drawing 207/36, it was one that would very quickly become inadequate, requiring either heavily modifying or, as was in many other cases, replacing altogether.

RAF Watton

Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.

Partially opened in 1937, the airfield wasn’t fully completed and handed over to the RAF until 1939. Being a pre-war design, building materials were in good supply, and so the  accommodation blocks were constructed using brick, and they catered well for those who would find themselves posted here.

Another aspect considered at this time was that of camouflage; airfields were enormous open expanses and could be easily seen from great distances and heights. Numerous proposals for hiding them were put forward, a move that resulted in the formation of a special unit within the Directorate of Works led by Colonel Sir John Turner. Watton came under the eyes of Sir John and his department, and this led to an ingenious camouflage pattern of fields and hedges being painted across the entire airfield,  thus disguising it from prying eyes above. Whilst not completely effective, it certainly went some way to protecting it from attack.

Watton airfield taken in 1942 by No. 8 Operational Training Unit. The four hangars can be seen in the centre of the photo with the patchwork of ‘fields’ disguising the main airfield. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

The first postings to arrive were the men and machines of 21 and 34 Squadrons RAF. Their arrivals on March 2nd 1939 saw a reuniting of both squadrons under the Command of Group Captain P. J. Vincent DFC and 6 (B) Group . On the 7th, the airfield was inspected by the Group’s AOC after which 34 Sqn performed a flypast; one such event that would be the start of many visits from numerous dignitaries including the Marshall of the Royal Air Force himself, Sir Edward Ellington  GCB, CMG, CBE.

Little flying took place by either squadron at this time however, as the aerodrome was soon unserviceable due to the very poor British weather. Grass runways soon became bogs, and as was found across many grassed airfields at this time, unsafe for aircraft to either take off or land without mishap. From April  things picked up slightly, and intensive training began in the form of station tactics and defence exercises. The weather would however, continue to be the worst enemy, repeatedly preventing or restricting flying from taking place.

In August, 34 Sqn received orders to depart Watton and  proceed to Singapore, and so on the 12th, the air and ground parties began their long transit leaving Watton and England far behind. The quiet of their departure would not last ling however, as within a few days of them leaving, their empty beds would be filled once more, when the Blenheims and crews of 82 Sqn arrived.

At 11:05 on September 3rd 1939, notification came though to Watton of Britain’s declaration of war. Within days of the announcement aircraft were being moved out under the ‘Scatter’ scheme to another airfield, Sealand, for there was a fear of imminent air attacks following the war’s declaration. The Blenheims remained at Sealand until mid September, at which point they were recalled and prepared for attacks on vessels belonging to the German Navy. These vessels were not located however, and so the order to stand by was cancelled and the crews stood down. This would sadly become a regular and frustrating occurrence for the men of 21 Sqn.

Shortly after on the 9th, the first of the new MK.IV Blenheims were collected from Rootes Ltd at Speke, with further examples arriving over the next few days. Further movements saw aircraft detached to Netheravon and then onto Bassingbourne where Blenheim L8473 was damaged as it ‘nosed over’ whilst taxiing. A minor, but unfortunate accident, it would be the first of many more serious losses for the squadron.

RAF Watton

A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.

On 26th September, another order came through for aircraft of 21 Sqn to stand by to attack  the German fleet, whilst a further two Blenheims (L8734 and L8743) would fly to the Rhur to carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission. However, bad weather, industrial smoke and a faulty camera prevented both aircraft from carrying out their duties: each one returning to Watton empty handed but unscathed – crews reporting heavy flak over the target area. The whole of October and November were pretty much a wash-out. Bad weather with prolonged heavy rain prevented any substantial flying beyond the local area. Air gunnery and co-operation flights were carried out whenever  possible, but the late months of 1939 had certainly been a ‘phoney war’ for 21 Sqn.

As 1940 dawned, things on the continent began to heat up and ground attacks increased for both Watton squadrons. Low-level sorties saw them attacking troop formations and enemy hardware as its galloped its was across the low-countries. Whilst bravely flying on and escorted by fighters, overall loses for the slower Blenheims of 2 Group were beginning to rise, a pattern that would only increase in the face of a far superior enemy in the coming months.

These losses were bourne out by 82 Sqn in dramatic style on the 17th May, when twelve aircraft took off at 04:50 to attack Gembloux. They were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and overwhelming fighter opposition – fifteen BF.109s, decimated the squadron. All but one aircraft was lost, the only survivor being P8858 crewed by Sgt. Morrison, Sgt. Carbutt and AC Cleary. Whilst not injured in the melee, the aircraft was badly damaged and as a result, was deemed unrepairable and written off. An entire squadron had all but been wiped out in one fell swoop.

This disaster would be reflected right across 2 Group, who had now suffered its greatest overall loss to date, but for 82 Sqn it would not yet be the end of this traumatic and devastating period. The burning cauldron that was now facing the light bomber was taking its toll on crews, who were all at a distinct disadvantage to their Luftwaffe counterparts. On the 21st, three more aircraft were lost from Watton, with one being forced down in France, another lost without trace and a third limping home so badly damaged it also had to be written off.

A short visit by 18 Sqn between 21st and 26th May barely interrupted proceedings at Watton. After returning from France, they had spent no less than nine days in May at five different airfields including the nearby Great Massingham.

By early June 1940 Operation Dynamo had been completed and France was lost. The British Bulldog, whilst not a spent force, had shown her teeth, been bitten hard and was now licking her heavy wounds. Preparations would now begin to protect her own shores from the impending invasion.

Fuelled by revenge, combined attacks by both 21 and 82 Sqn continued on into the summer months. But revenge alone does not protect a crew from superior fighters and heavy flak. On June 11th, three more 21 Sqn aircraft were lost whilst attacking positions around La Mare, it is thought all three fell to Luftwaffe fighters. Two days later on the 13th, another five aircraft were lost, two from 21 Sqn and three from 82 Sqn; losses were mounting for the light bombers and Watton was amongst those bearing the brunt of these. On the 24th, 21 Sqn saw a reprieve, whether to rest crews, take on a new role or simply regroup, they began a move north to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. 82 Sqn however, would remain at Watton, where they would carry on with the punishing raids over the continent.

After the arrival and departure of another short stay unit, 105 Sqn between 10th July and 31st October, Watton was now left in the lone hands of 82 Sqn, a situation that would remain until the spring of 1942.

The dramatic loss of eleven crews back in May would come back to haunt 82 Sqn in August that year. On the 12th, another twelve aircraft took off on a high altitude bombing mission to Aalborg in Denmark. The airfield they were to target was well defended, and as if history were to repeat itself, once again eleven of the twelve aircraft were lost. The only one to return, that of R3915 crewed by Sgt. Baron, Sgt. Mason and Sgt, Marriott, turned back early due to low fuel.

In the space of three months, an entire squadron has been all but wiped out not once, but twice, unsustainable losses that would surely bring the squadron to its knees.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the crews lost at Aalborg, 13th August 1940. The propeller of Blenheim R3800, that crashed that day.

It was loses like this that helped convince the authorities to eventually withdraw Blenheims from front line service during 1942 – the Blenheim being long outdated and outclassed. At this time, Watton’s 82 Sqn, would begin their transfer to the Far East, a place they would remain at until the war’s end.

A lull in operations meant that Watton was then reduced to mainly training flights, through the Advanced Flying Unit. Small single and twin-engined aircraft providing the activity over the Norfolk countryside. Many of the crews being trained here would be shipped out to the satellite airfield at Bodney, before returning here for their evening meals.

A brief interlude in the May of 1942 saw the rebirth of the former 90 Squadron, a First World War unit that had gone through this very process on a number of occasions since its inception in 1917.

Flying the American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ or Fortress I as it was in RAF designations, 90 Sqn was set up to trial the use of the four-engined heavy for its suitability as an RAF bomber. During the first 15 days at Watton, the squadron gained personnel and received their first aircraft,  after which they moved to nearby RAF West Raynham. Here they would begin these trials which also required the use of a number of smaller airfields in the local area. These included both RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney, neither of which were particularly suited to the heavy bombers.

Watton then saw no further operational units, and in the mid 1943, it was handed over to the Americans who began to develop the airfield into something more suitable for their needs. It was now that Watton would take on a more sinister role.

In Part 2 we see how the Americans developed Watton, and how it became two sites rather than just one, and also, how its role in Electronic countermeasure took it into the post war years.

The full story of Watton can be found in Trail 9.

Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle – Heartbreak on Christmas Eve, 1944

On the morning of December 24th, 1944, Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (s/n 0-319375), woke to the greet the day, and like most pilots facing perilous missions, he probably wondered if it would be his last. However, knowing what I know about Castle from my research, he was a calm, confident and highly competent pilot, so most likely he had every reason to believe in the success of his next mission. Sadly though, that was not to be the case. Castle never made it back that night. On Christmas Eve of 1944, this brave pilot lost his 30th and final battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Elliott Vandevanter of the 385th Bomb Group with Colonel Frederick W Castle (centre) of the 487th Bomb Group and Brigadier General Curtis A LeMay. *1

Frederick W. Castle was born on October 14th, 1908 at Fort McKinley in Manila, the Philippines. He came from an active military family and was the son of Col. Benjamin Frederick Castle. Following the end of World War 1, he was to settle in the United States in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

From a young age, Castle was destined to follow in his fathers footsteps, groomed for a life of military service. He attended Boonton High School and Storm King Military Academy before moving on to the US Military Academy from where he graduated in June 1930.

His first service was with the New Jersey National Guard, where he stayed for two years  transferring to the Air Corps, March Field, California, then onto Kelly Field in Texas. Castle gaining his wings in October 1931.

Serving as a pilot with the 17th Pursuit Squadron for 3 years, he eventually left the forces returning to civilian life but holding a reserve status. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, Castle would be called upon by his good Friend Ira Eaker, returning to the fold in January 1942, and being promoted within two months to Major. By the following September, Castle had been promoted yet again, he was now a Lieutenant Colonel.

With the forming of the Eighth Air Force in England, headed by General Ira Eaker, Castle was one of seven high-ranking officers selected to fly with him on the dangerous route over the Bay of Biscay, eventually arriving at Hendon wearing their civilian clothes. Joining Eaker on February 20th 1943 in the DC-3 from Lisbon were: Lt Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr, Major Peter Beasley, Captain Beirne Lay Jnr, Lt. Harris Hull and Lt. William Cowart Jnr.

Castle desired a combat role, and this desire would lead to him taking over the command of the ailing 94th Bomb Group. His methods of command were initially considered weak, but in the face of low morale and apprehension, he personally took the 94th to some of the furthest targets yet, his first being Oschersleben in the heart of Germany; a mission that went on to inspire the film “12 o’clock High“.  Castle went on to fly in many combat missions including numerous high prestige targets, a role that took him on to Brigadier General and command of 4th Combat Wing.

On Christmas Eve 1944, following a week of poor weather, orders came though for a maximum effort mission, involving every available B-17 and B-24 in support of the troops in the Ardennes. Airfields, supply lines and troop movements were to be attacked, and following weeks of poor weather, a break was at last predicted.

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham), home of the 379th Bomb Group. Image stamped on reverse: 'Passed for publication 3 Sep 1943.' [stamp] nand '282085.' [censor no.] A printed caption was previously attached to the reverse however this has been removed. Associated news story: 'American Air Forces G.O.C. Meets The

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)*2

As a joint effort, this would be the largest single attack to date involving 500 RAF and Ninth Air force bombers, 800 fighters and just short of 2,050 Eighth Air Force bombers. Such was the demand for aircraft, that even ‘war weary’ examples, were hastily armed and prepared, many unfit for more than assembly or training duties. Truly an armada of incredible proportions.

Taking lead position, Frederick Castle, was in B-17G-VE, ’44-8444′ “Treble Four“, an aircraft that had itself seen battle experience. Assigned to the 836BS, 487BG, and at RAF Lavenham, it was previously damaged in a raid over Darmstadt. The aircraft was  later salvaged in January 1945.

A veteran of 29 missions, Castle was a more than a competent leader. They set off, the weather was as predicted but with a haze that restricted ground level visibility. It was this haze prevented the fighters from leaving causing an all important delay in the escorts. This delay was not considered a major problem at the time however, as the escorts being faster, would soon catchup and overtake the heavily laden bombers. The Luftwaffe, in an unprecedented move, brought forward fighters into the Liege area to meet the oncoming bombers before any escorts could reach them. In the first few minutes of the battle, four of the 487th BG’s aircraft were downed and a further five forced to land in Belgium.

Castle’s lead plane, suffering problems with one of its engines (possibly due to previous battle damage) was attacked by the first wave of fighters, action was taken to leave the flight and join a formation further back. It was then attacked again, the aircraft catching fire, and the navigator being wounded.

Castle took control, and even though still being attacked, refused to jettison the bombs for fear of killing civilians or allied troops below. Further attacks led to both engines on the starboard wing catching fire, which ultimately led to the fuel tank exploding sending the aircraft into an uncontrollable spin.

Through Castle’s actions, seven of the crewmen were able to leave the aircraft, sadly  though not all survived.

Frederick Castle died in the crash, his body is now buried in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Liege, Belgium, Plot D, Row 13, Grave 53.

His citation reads:

“He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. En route to the target, the failure of 1 engine forced him to relinquish his place at the head of the formation. In order not to endanger friendly troops on the ground below, he refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed maneuverability. His lagging, unescorted aircraft became the target of numerous enemy fighters which ripped the left wing with cannon shells. set the oxygen system afire, and wounded 2 members of the crew. Repeated attacks started fires in 2 engines, leaving the Flying Fortress in imminent danger of exploding. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the bail-out order was given. Without regard for his personal safety he gallantly remained alone at the controls to afford all other crew-members an opportunity to escape. Still another attack exploded gasoline tanks in the right wing, and the bomber plunged earthward. carrying Gen. Castle to his death. His intrepidity and willing sacrifice of his life to save members of the crew were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service*3.”

For his action, Frederick W. Castle was awarded the Medal of Honour posthumously. In 1946, the Castle Air Force Base, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, was dedicated in his name, and on June 20th, 1981, the Castle Air Museum was officially opened on the now closed base, for the purpose of preserving the Air Force and Castle heritage. Museum details can be found on their website. His  name is also on a plaque in the Memorial Park, in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

The awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”, who chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, and leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9833

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9879

*3 Congregational Medal of Honour SocietyWebsite, accessed 22/12/15

Mountain Lakes Library, Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The B-17 Flying Fortress Story”, Roger A Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1997.

Air Forces Historical Support, Division,  Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The Mighty Eighth”, Roger Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1986.

A very Happy Christmas!

As the year draws to a close, I would like to pass on my sincere thanks to all those of you who have followed, read, commented and shared a common interest with me here at Aviation Trails. It has truly been a challenging year but with determination we will no doubt get through these difficult times and on to better ones in the months ahead.

Since starting, I have now written over 60 trails, the number of airfields I have now visited has increased to over 120 stretching from Scotland’s north west coast to Kent in the south, from the eastern regions of England to the west; a huge area but one in which there are still many, many more airfields and sites yet to visit.

As 2021 approaches I would like to take the opportunity to wish you all, wherever you are in the world, a very happy and safe Christmas and both a peaceful and prosperous New Year.

Merry Christmas one and all!

IMG_1716

Christmas menu 324 Wing Deversoir

RAF Great Massingham – Blenheims, Bostons and Mosquitoes.

In the heart of Norfolk, some 40 miles west of Norwich and 13 miles to the east of King’s Lynn, lies a small, quaint village typical of the English stereotype. Small ponds frequented by a range of ducks, are thought originally to be fish ponds for the 11th century Augustinian Abbey, and the history of the village is believed to go back as far as the 5th Century.  Massingham boasts an excellent village pub, and a small shop along with beautiful walks that take you through some of Norfolk’s most beautiful countryside; it has to be one of Norfolk’s greatest visual assets.

Sited above this delight is the former airfield RAF Great Massingham, which during the war years was home to number of light bombers and even for a short while, the four engined heavy, the B-17. In Trail 21, we return to RAF Great Massingham.

RAF Great Massingham

Before entering Great Massingham I suggest you stop at Little Massingham and the church of St. Andrew’s. For inside this delightful but small church, is a roll of honour*1 that lists enormous amounts of information about the crews who served at the nearby base. It gives aircraft details, mission dates and crew names amongst others. It is a hugely detailed collection of information covering 1940-45, in which time 600 Massingham crews lost their lives. Seven of these crew members, are buried in the adjacent church yard: Sqn. Ldr. Hugh Lindsaye (18 Sqn), Sgt. John Wilson (RNZAF – 107 Sqn), Sgt. Thomas Poole (107 Sqn), P/O. Arthur Lockwood (107 Sqn), Flt. Sgt. Gordon Relph (107 Sqn), F/O. Charles Ronayne (RAF) and F/O. Joseph Watkins (239 Sqn), all being killed in different circumstances. This is a valuable and enlightening stop off to say the least.

RAF Great Massingham

The Roll of Honour in St. Andrew’s Church, Little Massingham.

On leaving the church turn right and you will almost straight away enter the village of Great Massingham.

The airfield is to the east behind the village holding the high ground, which makes for a very windy and open site, whilst the village nestled on the lower ground, remains calm and quiet.

Built originally as a satellite for the nearby West Raynham, Massingham opened in 1940 with grass runways initially under the command of 2 Group, Bomber Command and then latterly 100 Group, whose headquarters were at Bylaugh Hall. The distance between both RAF West Raynham and RAF Massingham was so small, that crews would cycle from one to the other each morning before operations.

RAF Great Massingham

The Officers Mess now a farm building.

There were a total of four T2 hangars and one B1 hangar built on this site. The airfield also had sixteen pan-type hardstands and twenty-one loop-type hardstands, giving a total of thirty-seven dispersal points around its perimeter.

The main accommodation and communal sites which totalled five and two respectively, were near to Little Massingham church, to the west, along with further areas to the south of the airfield . These included a communal area to the south-west of the village and sufficient accommodation for 1,197 men, consisting of Officers, Senior NCOs and ordinary ranks.  This was later upgraded to accommodate 1,778 men.

In addition, accommodation was provided for the WAAFs of the airfield, 102 in total at the outset. This was also increased in the airfield’s upgrade, taking the total number of  WAAFs to 431.

The bomb dump and ammunition stores were well to the north away from the personnel as was standard. A number of anti-aircraft sites were scattered around the perimeter offering good protection from any attacking aircraft.

The first occupants of Massingham were the Blenheim IVs of 18 Sqn RAF who arrived in the September of 1940.

18 Sqn were previously based at West Raynham, making the transition invariably very smooth. In fact, operations barely ceased during the change over, the last West Raynham sortie occurring on 7th September 1940 with a six ship formation attack on the docks and shipping at Dunkirk, and the first Great Massingham sortie on the evening of the 9th to Ostend.

Whilst at Great Massingham, 18 Sqn flew the Blenheim Mk.IV initially on short range bombing sorties to the French coast. All was fairly quiet for the first few weeks, the squadron’s first loss not occurring until November 28th 1940, when Blenheim P6934 crashed after hitting high tension wires west of the airfield. All three of the crew were injured and admitted to hospital, but Sgt. William E. Lusty (S/N: 751633) died from his injuries the following day.

18 Squadron remained at Great Massingham until April the following year (1941), performing in the low-level bombing role. Like most other RAF airfields around this area of Norfolk, it would be dominated by twin-engined aircraft like the Blenheim and its subsequent replacements.

As a reminder to those who may have got complacent about the dangers of flying in wartime, the departure of 18 Sqn was marred by the loss of Squadron Leader Hugh Lindsaye (S/N: 40235), who was killed whilst towing a drogue near to Kings Lynn a few miles away. An investigation into the crash revealed that a drogue he was pulling had become separated and fouled the port elevator. The pilot lost control as a result and all three crewmen (SgT. Stone and F/O. Holmes) were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Lindsaye is one of those seven buried in Little Massingham.

Shortly after the departure of 18 Sqn, Massingham took on another Blenheim squadron in the form of 107 Sqn, a move that was coincided with a detachment of B-17 Flying Fortresses of 90 Squadron.

The B-17 (Fortress I) squadron was formed at Watton earlier that month, they moved to West Raynham whereupon they began trials at a number of smaller airfields including Bodney and Massingham, to see if they were suitable for the B-17. These initial tests, which were undertaken by Wing Commander McDougall and Major Walshe, were a series of ‘circuits and bumps’ designed to see if the ground and available runways were suitable. It was decided that Massingham was indeed suitable, and so a decision was made on the 13th, to base the aircraft at Massingham but retain the crews at West Raynham, transport vehicles ferrying them to and from the aircraft on a daily basis.

For the next few days further tests were conducted, and engineers from Boeing came over to instruct ground crews on the B-17’s engineering and armaments. Concerns were soon raised by crews about Massingham’s grass runways, and how well they would perform with the heavier four engined B-17’s constantly pounding them.

RAF Great Massingham

Remains around the perimeter track.

On the 23rd May, H.R.H The King conducted an inspection of Bomber Command aircraft at RAF Abingdon, in Oxfordshire. Amongst the types presented with the RAF bombers was a Fortress I from Massingham. The King, Queen and two Princess’s Elizabeth and Margaret, all attended and took a great interest in the Fortress. The Royal party taking considerable time to view and discuss the heavy bomber’s merits and features.

Back at Massingham, flight tests, training and examinations of the B-17 continued until in June 1941, when 90 Sqn were ordered out of both Massingham and West Raynham, moving to RAF Polebrook in Northamptonshire. But by the October, the Fortress’s had all gone from RAF bomber service, problems with freezing equipment convincing the RAF not to use the heavies in bombing operations. By February 1942 the unit was disbanded and all its assets were absorbed into 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

Within days of 90 Sqn’s arrival at Massingham, another more permanent squadron also arrived, again performing in the same low-level bombing role as their predecessors 18 Sqn.

The spring of 1941 saw 2 group perform some of their largest operational sorties to date, with many Blenheims continuing their daylight raids on shipping and docks in north-west Germany. It was during this hectic time, on May 11th, that 107 Sqn, would arrive at the Norfolk base at Massingham.

Being taken off operations on the 10th, the air personnel made their way down from the Scottish base at Leuchars whilst the ground staff travelled by train the following day. A number of crews were posted on detachment to bases at Luqa, Ford and Manston. After a short settling in period missions began again in earnest with their first twelve ship operation in Bomber Command taking them to Heliogoland on the 13th. Two of these Blenheims returned with engine problems, but the remainder managed to attack the target, in an operation that was considered a great success, with complete surprise being achieved. Flying at very low level was key to this operation, and whilst all aircraft returned home safely, one aircraft piloted by Sgt. Charney, flew so low he managed to strike the sea with his port engine; as a result, the airscrew was damaged and broke away leaving the aircraft flying on just one of its two powerplants!

The end of May was a difficult month for 107. On the 21st they returned to Heligoland, with nine aircraft taking off at 14:00, detailed for a daylight formation attack on the target. With  visibility of 12 – 15 miles, they pressed home their attack from as low as fifty feet, in spite of what was an ‘intense and accurate’ flak barrage. Four aircraft were hit by this flak, and in one of them, Sgt. John Wilson (S/N: 40746) was killed when shrapnel struck him in the head. Sgt. Wilson is also one of the seven in the church yard at Little Massingham.*2

On the return flight, a second aircraft also damaged by the flak, had an engine catch fire. The pilot and crew were all lost after ditching in the sea. Fl. Sgt. Douglas J. R. Craig (S/N: 903947) never having being found, whilst two other crewmen (Sgt. Ratcliffe and Sgt. Smith) were seen climbing into their life raft, later being picked up by the Germans and interned as prisoners of war.

On the 23rd the squadron was then detailed to search for shipping off France’s west coast. Due to bad weather, they were unable to make Massingham and had to land at Portsmouth instead. Continued bad weather forced them to stay there until the 27th when they were able at last to return to Massingham. No further operations were then carried out that month.

RAF Great Massingham

Gymnasium and attached Chancellery now a car repair shop.

The dawn of 1942 saw Bomber Command face its critics. High losses brought into question the viability of these small light aircraft as bombers over enemy territory, a situation that would see 2  Group, as it was, all but removed from operations by the year’s end.

But the end was not quite here, and January  of 1942 saw 107 take on the Boston III ( an American built aircraft designated the ‘Havoc’) as a replacement for the now ageing Blenheim. With the new aircraft 107 remained at Massingham, at least until the early August, where they made a short move to Annan before returning to Massingham a mere week later.

It would take only a month before the first 107 Sqn Boston would be lost. Whilst on a training flight, Boston W8319, struggled to join the formation, after turning back, it was seen to fall to the ground, the resultant fireball killing all three crewmen on board.

Despite this, losses over the coming months remained light. With the introduction of US airmen and the 15th Bomb Squadron, June / July saw a number of Massingham aircraft transfer across to the American’s hosts 226 Sqn at Swanton Morley. One of these aircraft, crewed by two US airmen; Captain S. Strachan and Lt. C. Mente, crashed near RAF Molesworth killing both on board.

By the end of 1942, 107 Sqn had lost a total of 23 aircraft on operations, and with each Boston carrying four crewmen it meant losses were increasing for the unit.

In February 1943, the Boston IIIs were replaced by the IIIa model. During May, the whole of 2 Group would begin to transfer across to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) in preparations for the invasion the following year. Losses had been high for the group, the light bombers being easily cut down by both Luftwaffe fighters and flak. At the end of August 1943, it was 107 Sqn’s turn and they departed Great Massingham for Hartford Bridge and a new life within the 2nd TAF.

It was during these summer months that a Free French unit, 342 Lorraine Squadron would arrive at Massingham. A unit formed with Bostons at West Raynham, it would stay at Massingham between July and into early September before moving off to rejoin 107 Sqn at Hartford Bridge, also beginning a new life within the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

It was these postings that would lead to the end of Massingham as a day bomber station, and no further vulnerable light bombers of this nature would be stationed here again.

In April 1944 Great Massingham  was redeveloped and upgraded, more accommodation blocks were provided and three concrete runways were laid; 03/21 and 13/31 both of 1,400 yards, and the third 09/27 at  2,000 yards, this would give the site the shape it retains today.

A year-long stay by 1694 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight with amongst them, Martinets, gave the airfield a much different feel. Target towing became the order the day and non ‘operational’ flying the new style.

In the June of 1944, 169 Sqn would arrive at Massingham, operational flying was once again on the cards, with night intruder and bomber support missions being undertaken with the Wooden Wonder, the D.H. Mosquito. Between June and the cessation of conflict this would be a role the squadron would perform, and perform well, with numerous trains, ground targets and Luftwaffe night fighters falling victim to the Mosquito’s venomous attacks. Included in these are a damaged Ju 88 on the night of October 26th 1944 south of the Kiel Canal, and five trains on the night of October 29th.

RAF Great Massingham

Original high-level Braithwaite water tank.

With them, came 1692 (Bomber Support Training) Flight, to train crews in the use of radar and night interception techniques. Formed at RAF Drem in Scotland in 1942 as 1692 (Special Duties) Flight, they operated a range of aircraft including Defiants, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.

The two units stayed here at Massingham until both departed in August 1945, at which point 12 Group Fighter Command, took over responsibility of the site.  As radar and night interception roles developed, a new unit was created at Massingham under the control of the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), who were to trial different techniques and strategies for air interception. They later moved to West Raynham where they continued to carry out this role.

Over the years a number of  post war celebrities were stationed at Massingham, they included F.O. Keith Miller AM, MBE – the Australian Test cricketer; P.O. (later Squadron Leader) Bill Edrich DFC – the England cricketer and the BBC commentator – Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Wolstenholme DFC and Bar.

After the aircraft left, the airfield fell quiet and was very quickly closed. 1946 saw the last personnel leave, and it remained dormant until being sold in 1958. Bought by a farmer, it is now primarily agriculture, although a small private airfield has opened utilising the former runways, and flying visitors are welcomed with prior permission.

The airfield at great Massingham has a public footpath running part way through it. This is accessible at either end of the southern side of the airfield, and permits access along part of the original perimeter track.

Accessing the eastern end of the path is easiest, a gated road from the village takes you up to the airfield site. Once at the top, you can see the large expanse that was the main airfield site. Trees have since been cultivated and small coppices cover parts of it. To your right at this point the peri track continues on in an easterly direction, but this section is now private and access is not permitted. This track would have taken you toward the Watch office, the Fire Tender building and storage sheds – all these being demolished long ago. A further area to the south of here has now been cultivated, and there was, what is believed to have been a blister hangar, located at this point – this too has long since gone.

The public path turns left here and takes you round in a northerly direction. To your left is a T2 hangar, it is believed that this is not the original, but one that had been moved here from elsewhere. This however, cannot be confirmed, but there was certainly a T2 stood here originally.

The track continues round, a farm building, very much like a hangar, houses the aircraft that now fly. Sections of runway drainage are visible and piles of rubble show the location of smaller buildings. The track then takes you left again and back to the village past another dispersal site, now an industrial unit complete with blister hangar. Other foundations can been seen beneath the bushes and leaves on your right. This may have been the original entrance to the site, although Massingham was unique in that in was never fenced off, nor guarded by a main gate. Other examples of airfield architecture may be found to the north side of the airfield, indeed satellite pictures show what looks like a B1 hangar on the northern perimeter.

RAF Great Massingham

The perimeter track and T2 hanger re-sited post war.

After walking round, drive back toward Little Massingham, but turn left before leaving the village and head up toward the distant radio tower, itself a remnant from Massingham’s heyday. We pass on our left, the former accommodation site. Now a field, there is no sign of its previous existence. However, further up to the right, a small enclave utilises part of the Officers’ Mess, the squash court, and gymnasium with attached chancery. Hidden amongst the trees and bushes are remnants of the ablutions block, and other ancillary buildings.

Continue along this road, then take the left turn, toward the tower. Here is the original high-level Braithwaite water tank and pump house, still used for its original purpose and in very good condition.

Finally, a lone pill-box defensive position can also be found to the west of the village, some distance from the airfield in the centre of a farmer’s field. All small reminders of the areas once busy life.

Great Massingham is a delightful little village, set in the heart of Norfolk’s countryside. Its idyllic centre, pubs and shops surround ponds and greens. A short walk away, is the windy and open expanse that once was a bustling airfield, resounding to the noise of piston engines. All is now much quieter, their memories but a book, some dilapidated buildings and a handful of graves. Standing at the end of the runway, looking down the expanse of concrete, you can easily imagine what it must have been like all those years ago.

From Great Massingham we head east, to RAF Foulsham, before turning north and the North Norfolk coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty and some fine examples of airfield architecture.

Sources and links RAF Great Massingham

*1 A comprehensive history of RAF Massingham, including RAF material, is now under the care of the Massingham Historical Society. Contact Anthony Robinson ant@greatmassingham.net for details about the Museum or Roll of Honour, a hard copy of which can be purchased for £10.00.

*2 The ORB shows this as Sgt G, WIlson and not J.W. Wilson. National Archives AIR 27/842/10

RAF Great Massingham is remembered on the Massingham village website which includes details of the Roll of Honour.

Massingham was first visited in 2015.

RAF Seahouses – A short lived airfield of the First World War.

A final stop on Trail 47 sees us north again, a few miles from the A1 on England’s north east coast, where in the distance are the Farne Islands, a small group of islands that are home to some 150,000 seabirds all fighting for their own small piece of space during the breeding season. A little further north is Bamburgh Castle and beyond that, Holy Island and Lindisfarne with its Castle and monastic history. It is truly a location full of history and beauty.

Here we stop off at the small coastal town of Seahouses, a town much visited by tourists along this beautiful Northumbrian coastal route.

During the First World War though, this was also the site, albeit for only a short time, of a wartime airfield and a marine operating station.

RFC/RAF Seahouses (Elford ).

Seahouses or Elford as it was primarily  known, was initially a landing ground for 77 (HD) Sqn from February 1917. 77 Sqn, who were based at numerous airfields around the country including Thetford, Edinburgh and the not so far away Haggerston, used it well into 1918, flying Royal Aircraft Factory B.E.2 and B.E.12 models. They operated here until it became a Maritime Operations Station (RNAS Seahouses) in the summer of 1918. It was at this point that 256 Sqn were formed at the airfield with the idea of carrying out maritime patrols. Shortly after their creation though, they were absorbed as 256 Sqn into the newly formed Royal Air Force.

In conjunction with this formation, the final 92 acre site was graced with Bessonneau hangars, these were standard aircraft hangars constructed using a canvas covering over a wooden frame, and could be erected by a team of twenty skilled men within forty-eight hours. As a transportable hangar, they were used well into the 1930s being replaced by Bellman hangars after that time.

256 Sqn, initially operated the DH.6, one of  along line of de Havilland models built by Airco and de Havilland. These would be maintained in the hangars and used for anti-submarine patrols over the North Sea.

DH6SideView.jpg

DH 6 Note the roundel under the top wing as a result of the wings being interchangeable. (public domain via Wikipedia)

The Airco company was founded in 1911 by George Holt Thomas, who initially had the idea of selling and maintaining Farman aircraft at Hendon on the outskirts of London. He met with Geoffrey de Havilland at Farnborough and soon an agreement was struck between the two for Airco  to begin manufacturing de Havilland aircraft. After a period away in service, de Havilland returned to Airco and the process of designing new aircraft fr the military began. Many of these new models were given the designation DH.

At Seahouses, 256 Sqn took delivery of the DH.6, their arrival being just after they were formed, in June 1918. A standard British military trainer biplane, it was designed to be cheap and easy to repair, de Havilland considering the mishaps that many pilots were likely to have during training periods.

RFC Seahouses

The memorial plaque erected by Airfield of Britain Conservation trust.

It was a solid basic design, with wings that were interchangeable, heavily braced and with a strong camber. Many considered them ‘too safe’ being almost impossible to stall even by the unwary, and with dual controls any trainee was even less likely to get into trouble as the instructor could easily take over if the situation required it. Even so, those that used them would often refer to them in derogatory ways, a range of unsavoury names becoming the more common wartime references.

256 Sqn consisted of four initial flights: 525, 526, 527 and 528 (Special Duty) Flights all arriving in the summer / autumn of 1918, with 495 (Light Bomber) Flight arriving at the war’s end. With detachments at New Haggerston (a field a few  miles north of here), Remmington, Cairncross and Ashington, the DH.6s were eventually supplemented by Blackburn Kangaroos of 495 (Light Bomber) Flight in the November of 1918. Both of these models operated with 256 Sqn even after they departed Seahouses for Killingholme as a cadre in January 1919. By the June of that year, with the war in Europe long over, the squadron was disbanded.

During their time here at Seahouses, 256 Sqn patrolled the coastal region around the Northumbrian coast. Flying in the twin seaters they were not armed but did carry bombs, luxuries such as parachutes were considered too heavy and so were not permitted. Flying over the sea, they would search for German submarines, but with a four hour duration, flights could be long and cold and concentration was sometimes difficult. Once spotted though, a sub would be forced to submerge, here it could do little damage, wartime submarines being unable to communicate or place mines once under water.

One Flight Lieutenant Morley Roy Shier, one of many Canadian pilots in the fledgling RAF was killed flying from Seahouses in his D.H.6 (C5172), when he went into the sea in fog off Coquet Island. He was killed on September 6th 1918, age 23,  in the last few days of the war. He is commemorated at the Hollybrook Memorial in Southampton, a memorial that honours some 1,900 service men and women from the commonwealth who were lost at sea or have no known grave from such action.

Two weeks later on the 19th September, another 256 Sqn accident occurred, also with a D.H.6 (C5174), when a young eighteen year old Air Mechanic 3 Thompson Mackenzie and his Canadian pilot 2Lt Clarence Wilfred Kerr,  were caught in a gust of wind on take-off at Edinburgh. Unable to control the light aircraft in the wind, it crashed killing Thompson Mackenzie and injuring Clarence Kerr.

When the armistice finally came, one over exuberant pilot, Captain Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville, decided to ‘celebrate’ in style. He took off from the airfield in a biplane armed with rockets for shooting down Zeppelins, and flew over Seahouses town. He decided he was going to have his own firework display and fired off the rockets toward to the sea. However, some fell short and landed on hay stacks at Seafield Farmhouse, setting fire to the hay. The local people, also excited by the rather large fires, came to watch the event unfold.

Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville, by Bassano Ltd - NPG x83908

Charles Augustus Grey Bennet, 8th Earl of Tankerville by Bassano Ltd. In the Second World War he went on to become a Flight Lieutenant in the RAFVR © National Portrait Gallery, London

With the posting of 256 Sqn, Seahorses as it was now known, returned to agricultural use, any remnants of its aviation heritage being removed very quickly.

This signified the ending of all aviation activity at the site, Seahouses never being brought back to military aviation use again.

On June 14th, 2018, the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial plaque in the town centre of Seahouses, to commemorate those who served. It is all that stands to remind us of that small and short lived airfield of the First World War.

 

Sources and Further Reading.

Graces Guide to British Industrial History website.

Commonwealth War Graves Commission website

RAF Gravesend – A mecca for RAF squadrons.

Another trip along the North Kent coast in Trail 44, brings us from Herne Bay past Allhallows to the former RAF Gravesend. Another of Britain’s airfields that has since disappeared under housing, it has a history going back to the heydays of aviation and the 1920s. It was, during the war, a fighter airfield and was home to many famous names including James “Ginger” Lacey DFM and Squadron Leader Peter Townsend. A number of RAF squadrons used the site, as did American units in the build up to D-day. A wide range of aircraft from single engined biplanes to multi-engined fighters and even air-sea rescue aircraft could have been seen here during those war years. Gravesend was certainly a major player in Britain’s war time history and thanks to Mitch Peeke, we can visit the site once more.

RAF Gravesend

Gravesend aerodrome was born during the heyday of public interest in aviation in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The original site was nothing more than two fields off Thong Lane in Chalk, which was used by some aviators of the day as an unofficial landing ground. One such pilot was the Australian aviator Captain Edgar Percival, who often landed his own light aircraft there when visiting his brother, a well-known Doctor in Gravesend. It is widely thought that it was Percival, who was after all a frequent user of those fields, who first suggested the actual building of an airport there.

Whether he did or whether he didn’t, the two men who founded the airport’s holding company, Gravesend Aviation Ltd., in June of 1932, were Mr. T. A. B. Turnan and Mr. W. A. C. Kingham. A local builder, Mr. Herbert Gooding, was engaged to build the Control Tower/Clubhouse building. In September of that year, with the construction work well advanced, Herbert Gooding and a man named Jim Mollison (the husband of the British aviatrix Amy Johnson), joined the Board of Directors of Gravesend Aviation Ltd.

The Mayor of Gravesend, Councillor E. Aldridge JP, officially opened the newly constructed airport as “Gravesend-London East”, on Wednesday 12th October 1932. To mark this Gala occasion, the National Aviation Air Days Display Team, led by Sir Alan Cobham, visited the new airport and gave flying demonstrations to thrill those people present. Also on display for visitors was a curious flying machine called the Autogiro, a sort of cross between a helicopter and a small aircraft, that had been built for a Spanish aviator by the name of Senor Cierva.

At the time of its opening, Gravesend airport covered 148 acres. Its two 933 yard-long runways were grass and the airfield buildings comprised the combined Control Tower/Clubhouse, two smallish barn-style hangars and some other, small ancillary workshop and stores buildings. Located in open countryside on the high, relatively flat ground on the western side of Thong Lane, between the Gravesend-Rochester road and what is now the A2 (Watling Street), Gravesend airport boasted an Air-Taxi service and a flying school among its amenities.

In November of 1932, just one month after the airport’s opening, Herbert Gooding took over as Managing Director of Gravesend Aviation Ltd. It seems likely that Mr. Gooding had effectively been “saddled” with the airport that he’d largely built. The original Directors, Messrs. Turnan and Kingham, possibly had run out of cash with which to pay Mr. Gooding for his construction work. They disappeared at this time, probably having paid Mr. Gooding with their own company shares. Jim Mollison, though married to Amy Johnson, had never been anything more than a “sleeping” director anyway, so it fell solely to Gooding to try to recoup his investment by making the airport a commercial success.

The original idea behind the airport had been to encourage the rapidly expanding European airlines to use Gravesend as an alternative London terminal to the often-fogbound Croydon airport, and this, Gooding now set out to accomplish. Although a number of airlines such as KLM, Swissair, Imperial Airways and even Deutsche Lufthansa did indeed make use of Gravesend, they didn’t utilise it on anything like the scale that had been hoped for. Perhaps it was thought at the time that Gravesend just wasn’t quite close enough to London, geographically.

Then in 1933, a year after the airport had been officially opened; Captain Edgar Percival established his aeroplane works in the small hangar next to the flying school. It was from here that he started to turn out the Percival Gull and Mew Gull aircraft. These were possibly the finest light and sports aeroplanes respectively, of their day, and in fact pilots flying these aircraft set many inter-war aviation records. Such pilots, for example, as Alex Henshaw, (who later became a Spitfire test pilot), Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith, Amy Johnson, and another well-known aviatrix, Jean Batten, as well as Edgar Percival himself.

Gravesend airport 1935 – Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg). During this time, a much larger, third hangar had been constructed by A.J. & J. Law Ltd. of Merton, alongside the existing two. This new hangar, forever referred to as the “Law hangar”, was 130 feet wide and 100 feet long, with integral offices and workshops running down each of its two sides. The Law hangar was completed in the early part of 1934 and prominently bore the legend “GRAVESEND LONDON EAST” above the hangar doors.

In December of 1936, Captain Percival moved his business to Luton. This may have seemed like a disaster for Gooding and his airport at the time, but as luck would have it, a company called Essex Aero Ltd., moved into Percival’s vacated premises almost immediately and stayed at Gravesend, building a thriving business from aircraft overhaul and maintenance, though their real forte was the preparation of racing aircraft and the manufacture of specialist aircraft parts.

Business at Gravesend airport was positively booming when Gooding sold the place to Airports Ltd., the owners of the recently built Gatwick airport. It was felt that if anyone could make a proper commercial success out of using Gravesend for its originally intended purpose, these people could. They certainly tried, but in the end sadly, even they couldn’t; and they quickly offered the site to Gravesend Borough Council, for use as a municipal airport. There followed protracted negotiations over terms, price, etc., all of which were suspended when, because of the increasingly ominous rumblings from Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the Air Ministry stepped in.

It was the expansion of the Royal Air Force that ultimately saved Gravesend. In 1937, No 20 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School was established at Gravesend to train pilots for the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm.

The training of service pilots began in October of 1937. The school operated the De Havilland Tiger Moth and the Hawker Hart at that time. Accommodation for the instructors and the student pilots wasn’t exactly salubrious. For the most part, they used the clubhouse, together with rooms in some of the local houses.

Meanwhile, as the trainee service pilots learned their craft daily, (and not without accident!) the civil aviation side of Gravesend continued, with record attempts to the fore.  In 1938, the twin-engined De Havilland Comet, G-ACSS that was used to set a record for the flight to New Zealand and back, was fully prepared for its successful record attempt by Essex Aero, as was Alex Henshaw’s Percival Mew Gull, which he used the following year to make a record-breaking flight from England to Capetown and back. Both of these record flights departed from Gravesend and were well publicised at the time.

The origin of the Hawker Hurricane. This visiting Hawker Fury MkI, K2062 belonging to No.1 Squadron, was photographed at Gravesend airport in 1938. Photo: S Parsonson via Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg).

But in the same year that Alex Henshaw set his record, war with Germany looked to be a near certainty and the Air Ministry duly set in motion the formalities needed to requisition Gravesend airport, in the increasingly likely event of war.

When war indeed came that September, No 20 E&RFTS was relocated, Airports Ltd surrendered their lease to the Air Ministry and the RAF duly took over Gravesend airport as a satellite fighter station in the Hornchurch sector. Essex Aero however, stayed; taking on a vast amount of contract work for the Air Ministry. Among the items they soon found themselves making, were fuel tanks for Spitfires.

The first fighter squadron to be based at what was now RAF Gravesend was 32 Squadron, who moved in with their Hurricanes in January of 1940. They were followed by 610 (County of Chester) Squadron with their Spitfires, who helped cover the Dunkerque evacuation. Following the deaths in action of two successive commanding officers within a short space of time, 610 Squadron was moved to Biggin Hill in July and 604 Squadron moved into RAF Gravesend temporarily with their Bristol Blenheims, whilst training as a night fighter unit. Also on temporary detachment at this time from their usual base at Biggin Hill, were the Spitfires of 72 Squadron.

It was during this period that the two decoy airfields at Luddesdown and Cliffe were completed, to help protect Gravesend. It was thought to have been an obvious matter to the Germans that the RAF would take over the airport at the commencement of hostilities. After all, the Germans certainly knew that Croydon airport was now a fighter station.

Accommodation was always to remain something of a problem at Gravesend. The clubhouse of course had some rooms, but nowhere near enough to house an operational fighter squadron’s complement of pilots, let alone the ground crews, station maintenance crews, or even the administration staff. In the end, most pilots were billeted either in the Control Tower/Clubhouse accommodation, or at nearby Cobham Hall, the ancestral home of Lord Darnley. (In fact, Lord Darnley nearly lost his home during the Battle of Britain. Not to German bombs, but to the hi-jinks of some of 501 Squadron’s pilots, who nearly burned the place down letting off steam on one drunken evening!).

The station’s Ground crews were billeted at either the Laughing Waters Roadhouse (the original site of which is now occupied by The Inn on the Lake) about one mile up Thong Lane, or just the other side of Watling Street in somewhat spartan accommodation encampments, where “home” was a village of Nissen huts hidden in Ashenbank Woods. (Nothing remains of these encampments today save for three of the large underground Air Raid Shelters). Those who could not be accommodated in the huts were billeted in Bell tents pitched around the airfield perimeter. No doubt this was fine during the spring and summer, but not so good during the winter.

On 27th July 1940, 604 and 72 Squadrons moved out and 501 Squadron took up residence, being based there throughout the greater part of the Battle of Britain period, during which time the sector boundary was changed, so that Gravesend then came under the aegis of Biggin Hill. 66(F) Squadron arrived to relieve 501 in September, but as the Battle of Britain raged and German bombs mercilessly pounded Fighter Command’s other airfields, Gravesend got off lightly, especially compared to the sector command station at Biggin Hill.

Pilots of 66(F) Squadron in the clubhouse at RAF Gravesend in September 1940. From left to right, standing: Flight Lieutenant Bobby Oxspring, Squadron Leader Rupert Leigh and Flight Lieutenant Ken Gillies. From left to right, seated: Pilot Officer C Bodie, Pilot Officer A Watkinson, Pilot Officer H Heron, Pilot Officer H (Dizzy) Allen, Hewitt (Squadron Adjutant), Pilot Officer J Hutton (Squadron Intelligence Officer) and Pilot Officer Hugh Reilley. Photo: The Times, via Gravesend Airport Research Group (Ron Neudegg).

Although the Luftwaffe reconnaissance branch belatedly photographed Gravesend airfield again in November of 1940 and updated their target identification sheet, (Gravesend was given the target designation G.B. 10 89 Flugplatz) one can only conjecture that prior to that, the decoy site at Cliffe must have performed its role superbly. The fact that only two German bombs ever landed on RAF Gravesend during the entire Battle of Britain period, and then only in passing, would seem to support this, as the decoy airfield at Cliffe was bombed many times. Each time the Germans bombed the decoy airfield at Cliffe, with its equally fake Hurricanes dispersed around it, RAF work gangs would fill in the craters. This activity in turn seemed to convince the Germans that Cliffe ought to be bombed again. In the meantime, the real fighter station at Gravesend was left virtually unmolested. On the only occasion when Gravesend airfield was specifically targeted, the Germans bombed the wrong side of Thong Lane and missed the airfield completely.

Given the fact that during the pre-war period, Lufthansa flights had regularly made use of Gravesend airport to deposit passengers, it seems all the more astonishing that the Luftwaffe were seemingly unable to find the place again when distributing their stock of bombs. Ultimately, the night decoy airfield at Luddesdown also attracted little attention from the Luftwaffe either.

Piece of paper from the Sergeants Mess at RAF Gravesend in 1940, bearing the signatures of some of the Sergeant Pilots of 501 Squadron. Clearly legible is that of James “Ginger” Lacey DFM, who became the top-scoring RAF Battle of Britain pilot, and Geoffrey Pearson, (last one down, right hand column) who was killed in combat, aged just twenty-one. Via Kent County Library Services.

In October, at Churchill’s insistence, 421 Flight was formed at Gravesend from a nucleus of 66(F) Squadron’s pilots. In recognition of their origin, 421 Flight’s aircraft wore the same squadron identification letters as 66(F) Squadron’s aircraft, (LZ) but with a hyphen between them. Their job was to act as singleton flying observers to incoming enemy raids. A job with rather a high risk element!

With the manifest failure of the Luftwaffe’s daylight offensive, 66(F) Squadron and 421 Flight moved out of Gravesend at the end of October, and 141 Squadron with their Boulton-Paul Defiants moved in. They were joined soon afterwards by the Hurricanes of 85 Squadron, a former day-fighting unit led by Squadron Leader Peter Townsend, to take up the challenging role of night-fighting. These two squadrons stayed at Gravesend throughout the remainder of 1940. Townsend’s squadron moved out just after New Year, leaving 141 Squadron as the resident unit into the spring of 1941, though another Defiant-equipped squadron, 264 Squadron, joined them for a short time while the Luftwaffe continued with their efforts to destroy London by night. When the Luftwaffe finally abandoned that enterprise late in May of 1941, the night fighters moved out and Gravesend once again saw the Spitfires of several different day-fighting squadrons based there to carry out offensive sweeps over occupied France.

In 1941, the height of the control tower was raised by one level and during more major works that were carried out during 1942 and 1943, the two existing 933-yard grass runways were extended. The north-south runway was lengthened to 1, 700 yards and the east-west runway to 1, 800 yards. The station’s storage facilities were also enlarged and runway lighting was finally installed, as was Summerfield runway tracking, in an attempt to combat the autumn and winter mud. Also enlarged was the ground crew accommodation camp at nearby Ashenbank Wood.

Spitfire LF VB BM271/SK-E Kenya Daisy of No 165 Squadron returns to its dispersal at Gravesend on 16 October 1942. © IWM CH 7686

In December of 1942, 277 Squadron, an RAF Air-Sea Rescue unit, duly took up residence. An unusual unit inasmuch as they flew a variety of aircraft at the same time. They had the amphibious Supermarine Walrus, which one would expect given the nature of their work, but they also had Westland Lysanders, Boulton-Paul Defiants and Spitfires. They were stationed at RAF Gravesend for a total of sixteen months, making them the record holders for the longest stay of any squadron at Gravesend.

The enlargement and improvement of the station had made possible the accommodation of three squadrons and in fact, three fighter squadrons of the USAAF were stationed at Gravesend for a while. Having longer and better runways also meant that battle-damaged heavy bombers returning from raids on Germany now stood a reasonably good chance of making a successful emergency landing at Gravesend, too.

In the early part of 1944, 140 Wing of the 2nd Tactical Air Force was based at Gravesend with their Mosquito fighter-bombers. The Wing comprised two Australian squadrons and one New Zealand squadron. The Wing’s task was that of “softening up” targets prior to the Normandy landings. With the success of the D-Day landings, 140 Wing continued their operations but shortly after D-Day, a new menace totally curtailed the station’s flying activities.

On 13th June, the very first V-1 “Doodlebug” landed at nearby Swanscombe, having flown almost directly over RAF Gravesend. In the coming weeks, the sheer numbers of these high speed pilot-less rocket-bombs passing very close to, if not actually over the RAF station, meant that flying from there was now a hazardous undertaking. 140 Wing moved out.

With the aircraft gone, RAF Gravesend became a command centre for the vast number of barrage balloon units that were brought into the surrounding area to help deal with the V-1 menace. The station also became a local air traffic control centre, to ensure that no friendly aircraft fell foul of the balloons. The V-1 campaign petered out toward the end of 1944 as the advancing Allied armies rapidly overran the launching sites and five months into 1945, the war ended.

With the end of the war, Gravesend was put into a care and maintenance state and surplus service equipment was stored in the Law hangar for a while. Only Essex Aero continued to work there, as they had throughout the war, eventually taking over the Law hangar, too.

Although Essex Aero tried hard to carry on from where they had left off just before the war, the nature of civilian aircraft and aviation had changed a great deal. Air racing and record-breaking was no longer in the public eye, as they had been in the thirties. The Air Training Corps now ran a gliding operation from Gravesend, and Essex Aero continued to make specialist aircraft parts and revolutionary Magnesium Alloy products, but the biggest problem facing them was the fact that Gravesend Borough Council steadfastly refused to grant the necessary planning permission that would allow the wartime runway extensions to be properly incorporated into the post-war aerodrome.

In April 1956, unable to work on the more numerous but ever-larger civilian aircraft types, because the pre-war dimensions of the airfield would not permit them to land there, Essex Aero went into liquidation.

In June of 1956, the Air Ministry relinquished their lease on the airfield and demolition and clearance work began in 1958. First to go were the two Barn-style hangars. The Law hangar was dismantled and re-erected on Northfleet Industrial Estate, minus its offices and workshops, where it served as a bonded warehouse until the late 1990’s. The rest of the buildings, except the Control Tower/Clubhouse, which became the site offices of the developers, were bulldozed to make way for a massive new housing estate, known today as Riverview Park. In 1961, the control tower was finally demolished and the last houses were built where it had stood. No visible trace of the once vital fighter station was left to remind anyone of what had been there.

A final view to the south from the Control Tower of Gravesend aerodrome, prior to its demolition in 1961. The stacks of bricks piled up on the old hangar floors are for the construction of the houses that made up the final stage of the development. These houses were built where the airport buildings once stood, thus removing the last visible trace of this once vital fighter station. Photo: P Connolly, Gravesend Airport Research Group, via Ron Neudegg.

Yet RAF Gravesend had one last, hidden, reminder of its presence left to reveal. In April of 1990, many of the houses on the estate had suddenly to be evacuated when an unusual item was found buried in one of the gardens.

Fifty years previously, in June of 1940, the prospect of a German invasion looked very real. As we have seen, measures were taken to protect the airfield such as the setting up of the two decoy fields and the building of perimeter defence positions. Another, since totally forgotten measure, was the laying of “pipe mines” that would be exploded to deny the use of the airfield to the Germans should they succeed in invading England. It was one of these mines that had been found.

It transpired that Dolphin Developments Ltd, the building contractors who had constructed Riverview Park, were completely unaware of the presence of these mines and had happily built the entire estate on top of them. The original plans of the minefield were finally procured and the Royal Engineers were called in to locate and remove the rest of the mines. Once this operation had been successfully completed, the very last wartime vestige of RAF Gravesend had been removed.

Yet the story of RAF Gravesend doesn’t quite end there. When “Cascades” Leisure Centre was built on the eastern side of Thong Lane, almost opposite where the main entrance to the RAF station once was, they put up a plaque of remembrance to the station and the pilots who had lost their lives flying from there during the Battle of Britain. The original plaque was initially located on an outside wall. Unfortunately, the name of the first of those pilots, Phillip Cox of 501 Squadron, was somehow shamefully omitted.

RAF Gravesend

Cascades Leisure Centre, Thong Lane, Chalk, near Gravesend (Mitch Peeke)

The plaque stayed there, despite the inglorious error, for many years until 2003; when Sunday 2nd March saw the dedication of an all-new memorial to commemorate RAF Gravesend, the part it played in the Battle of Britain and a new plaque commemorating all fifteen of the pilots who died in combat whilst flying from the airfield during the battle.

The memorial itself is a large Black Marble plaque with Gold lettering, bearing both the RAF and the Fighter Command crests; one set either side of the gilded legend “RAF GRAVESEND”. The plaque is set into a purpose-built, stone-clad wall outside the gates of the Leisure Centre, and faces the houses that now stand close to where the airfield’s main entrance once was. The new plaque, finally listing all fifteen pilots, can now be found on the wall in the reception of the Leisure Centre, along with other displays which include a brief history of the airfield and the two squadrons that flew from there during the Battle of Britain. A few years later, photographs of all of the fifteen pilots were put into a collective frame and added to the display.

There was a full dedication ceremony flanked by standard-bearing parties of Air Cadets from the two local units, 402 Gravesend and 2511 Longfield Squadrons, led by Flight Lieutenant Tony Barker, the Commanding Officer of 2511 Squadron. Reverend Group Captain Richard Lee, lead the service of dedication and thanksgiving. Also included was a short history of the airfield read by Ron Neudegg, a founder of the Gravesend Airport Research Group. The Right Honourable Chris Pond, MP for Gravesham, then read the lesson, before Sergeant Steve Maher of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force sounded the ‘Last Post’ on the bugle. At last was paid a truly fitting tribute to a once vital fighter station and the fifteen pilots who lost their lives while flying from there.

One last, but still little-known fact however, is that if you know where to look, you will find the graves of two of those fifteen pilots quite nearby, in Gravesend Cemetery. The graves are those of Pilot Officer John Wellburn Bland of 501 Squadron, and Pilot Officer Hugh William Reilley of 66(F) Squadron.

The fortunes of the place where the pilots used to relax, The White Hart, have been as up and down as the aircraft those pilots flew. The pub the airmen knew was opened on October 19th 1937, just as the RAF moved into Gravesend Airport and started to train service pilots there. It was a new building, replacing one that had stood there for over a century, which was itself a replacement of the much older original building. The new White Hart was owned by Truman’s Brewery and Daniel Pryor was the first Landlord of this newly built inn. Daniel’s association with the airfield’s pilots probably started with those being trained at No 20 E&RFTS. By the time Daniel’s Den was playing host to the pilots of 501 and later, 66(F) Squadrons’ pilots, a direct line had been set up from the airfield to the pub, to warn pilots of imminent air raids (and probably visits from high-ranking officers!). Daniel Pryor’s tenure lasted till 1943. After a succession of further Landlords, the building was demolished in 1999 to make way for the Harvester Pub and Restaurant that occupies the site today.

In what is surely a strange quirk of fate, more actually remains of the fake airfield at Cliffe marshes, despite the bombing, than the real one at Gravesend, today. At the site of the decoy airfield, the southwest and the western parts of the access track remain, as does the fake control point. The control point is accessible from the track and is a two-roomed, brick-built bunker with a concrete roof. The bunker is entered via a small, door-less corridor. The two rooms are at the end of the short corridor, one on each side. The left-hand room has light, due to a square hatch in the ceiling, the cover of which has long since been removed. The right-hand room is smaller and completely dark, as the whole bunker is window-less. There is nothing inside the bunker today except for a small amount of rubbish and the seemingly inevitable graffiti that adorns the walls. The three-quarter-mile-long grass runways that never actually were, are today home to grazing cattle.

RAF Gravesend

The new memorial situated in Thong Lane, Gravesend, to commemorate the part played in the Battle of Britain by RAF Gravesend. Photo: Mitch Peeke.

Apart from the bunker, there is no lasting or purpose-built memorial to the part played by the dummy airfield, even though it saved untold damage being done to the real fighter station at Gravesend, not to mention the corresponding casualties that would have been sustained among the personnel stationed there. Sadly, RAF Cliffe is now but a little-known and seldom remembered place. Above all, like the vital fighter station it once protected, it is yet another example of this country’s disappearing heritage.

By Mitch Peeke.

Editors note: in 2016 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected an airfield marker outside of Cascades Leisure Centre to commemorate and mark the location of RAF Gravesend.