Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’

The American Air force played a major part in our aviation heritage. During the war many thousands of aircraft, took off from airfields around the Eastern Region. Many never came home. These places have left an indomitable mark on not only our landscape, but the hearts of those they touched whilst here.

During this trail, I visited 6 airfields. Most of what was there, is now gone and in terms of seeing things, there is really very little. However, the most determined of ‘expeditionists’, armed with thick gloves and big boots, will be able to find some evidence at some locations. It may be advisable to go in winter / autumn when there is less vegetation, rather than the summer as I did! The one thing on this trip that really struck me, was the close proximity of each one, literally only a handful of miles between them in some cases. The sight as they all took off and linked must have been incredible!

Our first stop is just off the main A1 road, at a little village called Conington.

RAF Glatton (Conington) Station 130.

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Glatton map (Author unknown)

Built in 1943, Glatton was unique in that it was constructed around a working farm that remained working throughout the war. Built with the traditional 3 runways, it also had two T2 hangars, one to the south-east and the other on the western side of the airfield. The bomb site was located to the north-west and the technical and admin sites primarily to the south-west. The airfield also included a large part of the nearby village of Conington but the name Glatton, came from another village some 4 miles away to the west; the reason being due to the very similar Conningsby not far away in Lincolnshire.

Used primarily by the USAAF Eighth Air Force, it was designated Station 130 and was home to the 457th Bomb Group made up of the: 748th, 749th, 750th, and 751st Bomb Squadrons. The 457th was assigned to the 94th Combat Bombardment Wing (joining the 351st and 401st BG) of the 1st Bombardment Division. Its aircraft, B-17s, flew throughout hostilities with the tail code a black U on a white triangle.

Col Luper with ‘Rene III‘ the 1000th Douglas built B17 (author unknown)

The 457th were constituted on 19th May 1943, and moved to Glatton from Wendover Field, Utah on January 22nd 1944. They stayed until 1st June 1945 when they return to Sioux Falls, South Dakota before being inactivated on 18th August 1945.

The 457th lived a baptism of fire, completing their first mission 21st February 1944 during the infamous ‘Big Week’. Throughout the war they attacked prestige targets such as ball bearing factories, oil refineries, supported both the Normandy landings and operation ‘Market Garden’. In all, the 457th flew 236 missions, dropping 17,000 tons of bombs, and destroying 33 enemy fighters (along with 12 probable and 50 damaged). They lost a total of 83 aircraft to enemy action, with a small number being scrapped following accidents and heavy flak damage.

It was here at Glatton, that the 1000th B-17 constructed at the Douglas Long Beach Plant, number 42-38113, came to serve with the 457th BG. Named ‘Rene III’ by its crew, it served its last mission, No. 214, on March 21st 1945 over Hopsten, when it was hit by flak, and crashed. Luckily all but one of the crew, Aircraft Engineer, Sgt William Wagner, evaded capture.

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The main runway now serves light aircraft where B-17s once roared.

Following VE day, the 457th flew POWs back from Europe to England, then with no further action to undertake, the airfield was handed back to the RAF’s No. 3 Group under the control of Bomber Command operating both the Avro Lancaster and Consolidated B-24 Liberators flying out to the Middle East. Glatton was eventually closed, aircrews disbanded and the site sold off, in 1948.

Glatton quickly returned to agriculture. The vast technical area was demolished, concrete tracks were dug up and buildings removed. Two of the three runways however, remained, and during the 1970s flying activity began to return once more. The main runway, 3,238 ft in length and resurfaced, is now used by the Peterborough Business Airport  whilst the second runway remains in its original concrete and unlicensed for any aviation activity. The third runway has been turned into the road that traverses the site, but all other hardstands have gone.

Glatton’s Second Runway

The original control tower was demolished years ago but a new one has been built and flying continues in the form of microlight, helicopter and fixed wing training.

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All Saints Church Memorial looking toward the airfield

At the nearby All Saints Church in Conington, a memorial stands with the bust of a pilot looking over toward the field as if watching for lost comrades to return, a poignant and moving figure, it has gradually and very sadly begun to look rather unkempt. A further memorial has been erected adjacent to the only substantial building left, a water tower at what was the original entrance to the site next to the main A1 road. This tower now stands as a reminder of the days when B-17s would rumble over the fields on their way to occupied Europe, perhaps never to return.

A website dedicated to the 457th, with diaries, stories and rare photos of Glatton is worth a visit for more information on the 457th.

From Glatton, we continue on south. Here we find the second site of this trail, another American base, that of RAF Kimbolton.

RAF Kimbolton. (Station 117)

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Looking across Kimbolton today.

We arrive not far from the busy A14 to the south-west of Graffham Water. Perched on top of the hill, as many of these sites are, is Station 117 – Kimbolton. Having a short life, it was home to the 379th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, flying some 330 missions in B-17s. The site is split in two by the main road which uses part of the original perimeter track for it’s base. To one side is where the runways and dispersal pens would have been, to the other side the main hangers, admin blocks, fuel storage and squadron quarters. The former is now open fields used for agriculture and the later a well-kept and busy industrial site. What was the main runway is crossed by this road where there is now a kart track.

Kimbolton Airfield in 1945, taken by 541 Sqn RAF. (English Heritage RAF Photography – RAF_106G_UK_635_RP_3217)

Kimbolton was designed with three concrete runways, the main running north-west / south-east, (2154 yds); the second and third running slightly off north-south (1545 yds) and east-west (1407 yds), it also had two T2 hangars with a proposed third, along with 20 ‘loop’ style hardstands and 31 ‘frying pan’ hardstands around its perimeter.

The local railway line formed the northern boundary,  the bomb store was to the south-west, the technical and administrative site to the south-east and beyond that the accommodation sites. To house the huge numbers staff to be located at Kimbolton, there were two communal sites; a WAAF site; sick quarters; two sewage sites; two officers quarters, an airmen’s quarters; a sergeants site and two further sites with ablutions and latrines. These were all spread to the south-eastern corner of the airfield,

Originally built in 1941 as a  satellite for RAF Molesworth, it was initially used by the RAF’s Wellington IVs, a rare breed where only 220 airframes were built. 460 Sqn were formed out of ‘C’ flight 458 Sqn at Molesworth and used the Wellingtons until August 1942 when they replaced them with the Halifax II. Staying only until January 1942, their departure saw the handing over of both Molesworth and Kimbolton to the USAAF Eighth Air Force and the heavier B-17s. During this time, the airfield was still under construction, and although the majority of the infrastructure was already in place, the perimeter was yet to be completed.

First to arrive was the 91stBG, who only stayed for a month, before moving on to Bassingbourn.  A short stay by ground forces preceded extensions to the runways, accommodation and improved facilities. Now Kimbolton was truly ready for a Heavy Bomb Group.

Soon to arrive, was the 379th BG, 41st CW, flying B-17Fs. Activated in November 1942 they arrived at Kimbolton via Scotland, ground forces sailing from New York whilst the crews flew their aircraft from Maine to Prestwick via the northern supply route.

Arriving in April / May, their first mission would be that same month. The 379th would attack prestige targets such as industrial sites, oil refineries, submarine pens and other targets stretching from France and the lowlands to Norway and onto Poland. Targets famed for heavy defences and bitter fighting, they would often see themselves over, Ludwigshafen, Brunswick, Schweinfurt, Leipzig, Meresberg and Gelsenkirchen. They would receive two DUCs for action over Europe including, raids without fighter escort over central Germany on January 11th 1944. They assisted with the allied invasion, the breakout at St. Lo and attacked communication lines at the Battle of the Bulge. They would operate from Kimbolton until after the war’s end, when on 12th June 1945, they began their departure to Casablanca.

Life at Kimbolton was not to be easy and initiation into the war would be harsh. On the first operation, four aircraft were lost, three over the target and one further crashing on return. Three of the crews were to die; a stark warning as to what would come. Their second mission would fair little better. An attack on Wilhelmshaven, saw a further six aircraft lost and heavy casualties amongst the survivors. Things were not going well for the 379th and with further losses, this was to be one of the bloodiest entries into the war for any Eight Air Force Group.

A B-17 Flying Fortress (FR-C, serial number 42-38183) nicknamed

B-17 Flying Fortress (‘FR-C’, 42-38183) “The Lost Angel” of the 379th BG sliding on grass after crash landing, flown by Lieutenant Edmund H Lutz at Kimbolton. (Roger Freeman Collection)

As the air battle progressed, further losses would be the pay off for accurate and determined bombing by the 379th. Flying in close formation as they did, accidents often occurred. On January 30th 1944, 42-3325 “Paddy Gremlin” was hit by bombs from above. Then again, on September 16th 1943, two further aircraft were downed by falling bombs, close formation flying certainly had its dangers.

Some 1 in 6 losses of the USAAF were due to accidents of one form or another. Collisions were another inevitable part of the close formation flying. A number of memorials around the country remember crews who lost their lives whilst flying in close formation. Kimbolton and the 379th were to be no different. On June 19th 1944, two B-17Gs 44-6133 (unnamed) and 42-97942 “Heavenly Body II” crashed over Canvey Island killing all but one of 44-6133 and three of Heavenly Body II. The official verdict stated that the second pilot failed to maintain the correct position whilst in poor visibility, a remarkable feat in any condition let alone poor visibility whilst possibly on instruments alone.

However, not all was bad for the 379th though. Luck was on the side of B-17F, 42-3167, “Ye Olde Pub“, when on December 20th 1943, anti-aircraft fire badly damaged the aircraft whilst over Bremen. The aircraft limping for home, was discovered by Lt. Franz Stigler of JG 27/6. On seeing the aircraft, Stigler escorted the B-17 over the North Sea, whereupon he saluted and departed allowing the B-17 safe passage home where it landed and was scrapped.

A number of prestige visitors were seen at Kimbolton. These included King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and General Doolittle. One particular and rather rare visitor arrived at Kimbolton on January 8th 1944. A rebuilt Messerschmitt BF-109 stayed here whilst on a familiarisation tour for crews. Shot down over Kent it was rebuilt to flying condition and flown around the country.

8th 1944.

Seen in front of a B-17, Messerschmitt BF-109 runs up her engine at Kimbolton, January 8th 1944. (Roger Freeman Collection FRE 4775)

All in all the 379th had a turbulent time. By the time they had left Kimbolton, they had lost a great many crews, but their record was second to none. They flew more sorties than any other Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force – in excess of 10,000 in 330 missions; dropped around 24,000 tons of ordnance, equating to 2.3 tons per aircraft; pioneered the 12 ship formation that became standard practice in 1944 and had the lowest abortive rate of any group from 1943. Kimbolton was visited by Lieutenant General James Doolittle, and two B-17s held the record of that time “Ol Gappy” and “Birmingham Jewel“, for the most missions at the end of their service. They also had overall, one of the lowest loss rates of all Eighth AF Groups largely due to the high mission rates.

With their departure to Casablanca, the 379th would be the last operational unit to reside at Kimbolton. Post war it was retained by the RAF until sold off in the 1960s, it was returned to agriculture, the many buildings torn down, the runways dug up and crops planted where B-17s once flew.

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The old perimeter track exists for farm machinery and forms part of the main road.

Kimbolton today is little more than a small industrial estate and farmland. At the main entrance to the industrial site, is a well-kept memorial. Two flags representing our two nations, stand aside a plaque showing the layout of the field as was, with airfield detail added.  Behind this, and almost un-noticeable, is a neat wooden box with a visitors book and a file documenting all those who left from here never to return. There are a considerable number of pages full of names and personal detail – a moving document. One of the B-17 pilots, Lt. Kermit D. Wooldridge, of the 525th Bomb Squadron, 379th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force kept a diary of his 25 raids, and many of the crew members mentioned in the memorial book appear in his diaries. These are currently being published by his daughter, and can be seen at https://sites.google.com/site/ww2pilotsdiary/  They tell of the raids, the crews and detailed events that took place over the skies of occupied Europe from June 29th 1943. I highly recommend reading it.

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Memorial book listing those that never came home.

This is a lovely place to sit (benches are there) and contemplate what must have been a magnificent sight all those years ago. It made me think of the part in the film ‘Memphis Belle’, where the crew were sitting listening to the poetry just prior to departure, how many young men also stood here ‘listening to poetry’. The control tower would have stood almost opposite where you are now, with views across an enormous expanse. Here they would have stood ‘counting them back’. Like everything else, it has gone and the site is now ‘peaceful’.

Kimbolton saw great deal of action in its short life. But if determination and grit were words to associate with any flying unit of the war, the 379th would be high on that list.

From Kimbolton we move away to an airfield that is synonymous with both the first and last bombing raids of the American Air War in Europe. We travel a few miles north, here we find a truly remarkable memorial and an area rich in history. We go to RAF Grafton Underwood.

RAF Grafton Underwood. (Station 106)

Construction of Grafton Underwood began in 1941, originally part of the RAF’s preparation of the soon to be defunct bomber group to be based in this region. But with the birth of the Eighth Air Force on January 28th 1942, it would become the USAAF’s first bomber base, when the 15th Bomber Squadron arrived after sailing on the SS Cathay from the United States.

Grafton Underwood

A B-17 of the 384th BG features in the Memorial Window at Grafton Underwood.

The original idea for the ‘Mighty Eighth’ was to house a total of  some 3,500 aircraft of mixed design in 60 combat groups. Four squadrons would reside at each airfield with each group occupying two airfields, this would require 75 airfields for the bomber units alone. This figure was certainly low and it would increase gradually as the war progressed and demand for bomber aircraft grew.

The terrible attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour diverted both attention and crews away from the European Theatre, but in April / May 1942 the build up began and American forces started to arrive in the UK.

With ground staff sailing across the Atlantic and aircrews ferrying their aircraft on the northern route via Iceland, the first plain olive drab B-17Es and Fs of the 97th BG set down on July 6th 1942, two squadrons at Polebrook and two at Grafton Underwood.

The sight of American airmen brought a huge change to life in this quiet part of the countryside. Locals would gather at the fence and stand watching the crews as if they were something strange. But as the war progressed, the Americans would become accepted and form part of everyday life at Grafton Underwood.

Eventually the airfield would be complete and although it would go through development stages, it would remain a massive site covering around 500 acres of land.

Grafton Underwood

The remains of the main runway looking south.

A total of thirteen separate accommodation and support sites would be built; two communal; seven officers; a WAAF site; a sick quarters and two sewage treatment sites to cope with upward of 3,000 men and women who were to be based here.

The accommodation was based around an octagonal road design, the centre piece being the ‘Foxy’ cinema in Site 3 the main communal site. Roads from here took the crews away to various sites hidden amongst the trees of the wooded area. All theses site were located east of Site 1, the main airfield itself.

Grafton would have three runways; runway 1 (6,000 ft) running north-east / south-west, runway 2 (5,200 ft) running north-west / south-east and runway three (4,200 ft) running north to south, all concrete enabling the airfield to remain active all year round.

42-97948 BK-U,

B-17 ’42-97948′ BK-U, “Hell on Wings” 384th BG, 546th BS. Prior to being lost on 11th October 1944. (IWM UPL 12946)

A large bomb store was located to the north-western side of the airfield, served by two access roads, it had both  ‘ultra heavy’ and ‘light’ fuzing buildings; with a second store to the north just east of the threshold of runway 1. Thirty-seven ‘pan’ style hardstands and three blocks of four ‘spectacle’ hardstands accommodated dispersed aircraft around the perimeter track. Surprisingly only two hangars were built, both T2 (drg 3653/42) one in the technical area to the east and the second to the south-west.

On May 15th 1942, Grafton officially opened with the arrival of its first detachment. The 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) arrived without aircraft and had to ‘borrow’ RAF Bostons for training and deployment. As yet there was no official directive, and so crews had little to do other than bed in. The 15th BS remained here until June 9th 1942 whereupon they moved to their new base at RAF Molesworth and began operations in their RAF aircraft supported by experienced RAF crews. This move coincided with the arrival of the main body of the Eighth Air Force on UK soil and the vacancy at Grafton was soon filled with B-17s of the 97th BG (Heavy).

Only activated in February that year, the 97th consisted of four Squadrons: at Polebrook were the 340th BS and the 341st BS, whilst at Grafton were the 342nd BS and the 414th BS. Whilst State side they flew submarine patrols along the US coast, but with clear skies and little in the way of realistic action, the ‘rookie’ crews would be ill prepared for what was about to come.

With the parent airfield at RAF Polebrook providing much of the administration for the crews, it was soon realised that gun crews, navigators, pilots and radio operators were poorly trained for combat situations. Quickly thrown together many could not use their equipment – whether a radio or gun – effectively and so a dramatic period of intense training was initiated. The skies around Grafton and Polebrook, quickly filled with the reverberating sound of the multi-engined bombers.

These early days were to be hazardous for the 97th. On August 1st, B-17 “King Condor” would crash on landing at Grafton Underwood. The aircraft’s brakes failed, it overshot the runway, went through a hedge and hit a lorry killing the driver.

B-17 41-9024 ‘King Condor’ Crash landed August 1st, 1942 pilot Lt Claude Lawrence ran off runway, through hedge and hit a truck, killing driver John Jimmison. (IWM UPL 19654)

On August 9th, the atmosphere at Grafton became electric, as orders for the first mission came through. Unfortunately for the keen and now ‘combat ready’ crews, the English weather changed at the last-minute and the mission was scrubbed. This disappointment was to be repeated again only 3 days later, when further orders came through only to find the weather changing again and the mission being scrubbed once more.

In the intervening days the weather was to play another cruel joke on the group claiming the first major victim of the 97th. A 340th BS B-17E ’41-9098′, crashed into the mountainside at Craig Berwyn, Cadair Berwyn, Wales, killing all 11 crew members. A sad start indeed for the youngsters.

Eventually though the weather calmed and on August 17th 1942, at 15:12, twelve aircraft took off from Polebrook and Grafton and headed south-east over the French coast. Not only was it notable for its historical relevance as Mission 1, but on board one of the B-17s was Major Paul Tibbets who later went on to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima 3 years later. If this wasn’t enough, a further B-17, ’41-9023′, “Yankee Doodle”, also contained the Commanding General of the Eighth, Ira Eaker, – truly a remarkably important and historical flight indeed.

The 97th would go on to attack numerous targets including airfields, marshalling yards, industrial sites and naval installations before transferring to the Twelfth Air Force and moving away from Grafton to the Mediterranean in November 1942.

There then followed a quiet spell, for Grafton. A short spell between September and December 1942 saw the heavy bombers of the 305th BG reside at Grafton before moving off to Chelveston and another short spell for the heavies of the 96th BG in the latter half of April 1943 whilst on their way to Great Saling in Essex. It wouldn’t be until early June 1943 that Grafton would once again see continuous action over occupied Europe.

Activated at the end of 1942, the 384th BG (formed with the 544th, 545th, 546th and 547th BS) would train for combat with B-17Fs and Gs, move to Grafton via Gowen Field, Idaho, and Wendover Field, Utah, and perform as a major strategic bomber force. Focussing their attacks on airfields, industrial sites and heavy industry deep in the heart of Germany, they would receive a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C) for their action on January 11th 1944. Targets included the high prestige works such as: Cologne, Gelsenkirchen, Halberstadt, Magdeburg and Schweinfurt. They would take part in the ‘Big Week’ attacks in February 1944, support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St. Lo, Eindhoven, the Battle of the Bulge and support the allied advance over the Rhine. A further DUC came on 24th April 1944 when the group led the 41st Wing in the attack against Oberpfaffenkofen airfield and factory. Against overwhelming odds, the group suffered heavy losses but took the fight all the way to the Nazis.

A dramatic photo of B-17 Flying Fortress BK-H, (s/n 42-37781) “Silver Dollar” of the 546th BS, 384th BG as it goes down after losing its tail. (IWM FRE1282)

Just as Grafton had played its part in the opening salvo of American bombings, it was to be a part of the last. On April 25th 1945, the last bombing raids took place over south-east Germany and Czechoslovakia. Mission 968 saw 589 bombers and 486 fighters drop the final salvos of bombs of the war on rail, industrial and airfield targets, shooting down a small number of enemy aircraft including an Arado 234 jet. Last ditch efforts by the remnants of the Luftwaffe claimed 6 bombers and 1 fighter, before the fight was over. After this all remaining missions were propaganda leaflets as bombs were replaced by paper.

Two years after their arrival the 384th departed for France, eventually returning to the US in 1949 and disbandment. Their departure left Grafton quiet, it was retained by the RAF under care and maintenance and then finally in 1959 declared surplus to requirements and sold off.

In the short two years of being at Grafton, the 384th had amassed 9,348 operational sorties, in 314 missions. They dropped 22,415 tons of explosives and lost 159 aircraft for the shooting down of 165 enemy aircraft. They received two Distinguished Unit Citations and over 1000 Distinguished Flying Crosses. A remarkable achievement for any bomb group.

Grafton today is very different to how it was in the mid 1940s. But before you go to the airfield, you must visit the local church. Passing through the village you’ll see a signpost for the church, park here and walk up the short path. Approaching the church, roughly from the East, you see a dark window which is difficult to make out. However, enter the church and look back, you will see the most amazing stained glass window ever, – the vibrant colours strike quite hard. This window commemorates the men and women of the 384th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force who were stationed at here at Grafton Underwood.

Next to it, someone has placed a handwritten note with the picture of a very young man 2nd Lt. Thomas K Kohlhaas and details of the crew of B-17 ‘43-37713’ “Sons o’ Fun”. It states that he, along with 3 others of the crew, were murdered by German civilians after their aircraft was downed by flak on 30th November 1944. This is a very moving and personal place to be and a poignant reminder of what these young men were facing all those years ago.

When you leave the church, look on the wall of the porch and you will see two dedications. These list the location and names of trees, dedicated to the personnel of the Mighty Eighth, that have now replaced the runways on the airfield. Unfortunately these are on private land and for some very odd reason, not accessible.

Leave the church, turn left into the village, following the stream and then turn left up the hill. The memorial is on your right. Like most American memorials of the USAAF, it has the two flags aside the memorial which is well-kept. When I visited, ‘the keeper’ (who has since become a good friend of mine) was there and we chatted for ages. The memorial stands on what was the 6000 ft main runway and when you look behind you, you see what is left of it, a small track used for estate business. Other than this and a few inaccessible sections, the remains of the airfield have gone and it is open agriculture once more.

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Small tracks remain in the accommodation areas.

Grafton, like Kimbolton, is split by the road. Leaving the memorial drive back to the village, turn left and follow the road. Along on the left is the former technical site, a few small huts still stand here used by the local farmer. Also, a few feet from the roadside would have been the perimeter track and dispersal pans. What is left of the main entrance, now nothing more than a large blue gate, can be seen as you pass. Odd patches of concrete can also be seen through the thick trees but little else. Then a little further along, passed the equine sign, is another blue gate. Park here. This is the entrance to Grafton Park, a public space, and what was the main thoroughfare to the mess, barracks and squadron quarters. Grafton housed some 3000 personnel of which some 1600 never returned. It is immense! Walking along the path, you can just see the Battle Headquarters, poking out of the trees, the site is very overgrown and nature is claiming back what was once hers. The roads remain and are clearly laid out, some having been recovered with tarmac, but careful observations will see the original concrete beneath. Keep on the ‘Broadway’ and you will pass a number of side roads until you come to the hub. This forms a central octagonal star, off from which were the aptly named: ‘Foxy’ cinema, mess clubs and hospitals. Each road taking you from here, site 3, to the various other sites a short distance away. Careful observations and exploring – there are many hidden ditches and pits – will show foundations and the odd brick wall from the various buildings that remain. A nice touch to the hub, is that it is now a grassed area with picnic tables.

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The hub of the accommodation site is now a picnic area.

You do lose a sense of this being an airfield; the trees and vegetation have taken over quite virulently and hidden what little evidence remains. Exploring the area, you will find some evidence, but you have to look hard. Walk back along the Broadway, and take the first turn left. Keep an open to the right, and you will see other small buildings, the officers’ quarters and shelters – this was site 4. Again, very careful footing will allow some exploration, but there is little to gain from this.

Considering the size of Grafton Underwood, and then fact that 3000 men and women lived here, there is little to see for the casual eye. A beautiful place to walk, Grafton’s secrets are well hidden; perhaps too well hidden, but maybe the fact that it is so peaceful is as a result and great service to those that fought in that terrible battle above the skies of Europe directly from here.

There is a superb website dedicated to the crews of  Grafton Underwood and it can be found at: http://384thbombgroup.com

The memorial has been ‘updated’ since this visit. It was opened on May 22nd 2015 and a video / phots can be seen in the posts below.

1. 7/3/2015, 9/3/15, 11/3/15, 7/5/15 and 9/6/15

Leaving Grafton Underwood behind, proceed in a northerly direction. When you pass through Weldon, stop at the church, I believe there is another delightful stained glass window here to commemorate the lives of the crews at this local airfield. But unlike Grafton, the church was sadly locked, so next time I’m down this way I shall stop by.

RAF Deenethorpe (Station 128)

Deenethorpe saw action by 4 squadrons from the 401st Bombardment Group, reputedly  “The best damned outfit in the USAAF”. They flew 254 combat missions and received two Distinguished unit Citations. They had the best bombing accuracy of the mighty Eighth and one of the lowest loss ratios of any USAAF unit. However, a local disaster and inauspicious start, did not mean it was all plain sailing.

Deenethorpe October 1942, taken by No. 8 OTU (RAF/FNO/166). English Heritage (RAF Photography). The memorial is to the bottom right*1

Constructed in 1942/43 as a Class ‘A’ airfield, it would have three concrete runways, a main of 2,000 yds and two secondary both 1,400 yds. The main runway ran in a north-east to south-west direction whilst the two secondary runways ran north-west to south-east and east-west respectively. The airfield was built adjacent to the (now) main A427 Weldon to Upper Benefield road and had around 50 loop style hardstands for aircraft dispersal.

For maintenance of the heavy bombers, two ‘T2’ hangars were sited on the airfield, one to the south-eastern corner and the second to the west, next to the apex of the ‘A’. Fuel stores were in the southern and northern sections, away form the technical site located to the south-east. Accommodation sites for 421 Officers and 2,473 enlisted men were also to the south-east beyond the road. Initially used as the RAF as a training base, it was quickly adopted by the USAAF and personnel soon moved in.

The main inhabitants of Deenethorpe were the four squadrons of the 401st BG, 94th Combat Wing, 1st Air Division. This Division, operated from nine airfields, in this Peterborough-Cambridge-Northampton triangle with three further fields to the south-east of Cambridge. A small cluster of sites located close together but away from the main 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions of Norfolk and Suffolk.

The 401st were a short-term unit operating until the end of the war; although they did go on to serve post war in the 1950s following reactivation. Originally constituted on March 20th 1943, they moved through various training airfields eventually arriving in England in October/November 1943.

B-17 Flying Fortress SC-O (42-97487) “Hangover Haven” of the 612th BS/401st BG after crash landing at Deenethorpe, 3rd October 1944*2

The four squadrons of the 401st, the 612th, 613th, 614th and 615th, all flew B-17Gs and operated with  the codes ‘SC’, ‘IN’, ‘IW’ and ‘IY’ respectively.  Using a tail code of a white ‘S’ in a black triangle, a yellow band was later added across the fin (prior to September 1943, the tail fin codes were reversed, i.e. black ‘S’ in a white triangle as in the above photo). The ground forces arrived via Greenock sailing on the Queen Mary, whilst the air echelon flew the northern routes via Iceland. Their introduction into the war would be a swift one.

The primary role of the 401st would be to attack strategic targets, such as submarine pens, ship building sites, heavy industrial units, marshalling yards and other vital transport routes. Many of these were heavily defended either by flak or by fighter cover, much of which was very accurate and determined.

On the 26th November 1943 they would fly their first mission – Bremen, headed by their commanding officer Colonel Harold W. Bowman. It was not to be an auspicious start though. With 24 crews briefed, engines started at 08:00, twenty-four B-17s rolled along the perimeter track to their take off positions at the head of the northern end of the main runway.

It was then that B-17 “Penny’s Thunderhead” 42-31098, of the 614th BS, slipped of the perimeter track trapping the following aircraft, commanded by the Station Commander Major Seawell, behind it. Then a further incident occurred where aircraft 42-39873, “Stormy Weather” suffered brake failure and collided into the tail of 42-31091 “Maggie“, severely damaging the tail. Four crews were out of action before the first mission had even started. Bad luck was not to stop there. Once over the target, cloud obscured vision and whilst on the bomb run “Fancy Nancy“, 42-37838, collided with another B17 from the 388thBG. “Fancy Nancy” was luckily able to return to England, but severely damaged it could only make RAF Detling in Kent where it crash landed. So severe was the damage, that it could only be salvaged for parts and scrap. The mission report for the day shows that the ball turret gunner lost his life in the incident, the turret being cut free from the fuselage. A further gunner was wounded by flak and a third suffered frost injuries to his face.

On their second mission, the 401st were able to claim their first kill. A FW-190 was hit over the target at Solingen and the aircraft destroyed, but their luck was not necessarily about to change.

Within a matter of weeks the 401st were to have yet another set back and it was only due to the quick thinking of the crew that casualties were kept to a minimum. On December 5th 1943, mission 3 for the 401st, target Paris; B-17 42-39825, “Zenobia” crashed on take off coming to rest in nearby Deenethorpe village. The uninjured crew vacated the burning aircraft and warned the villagers of an impending explosion. Fire crews and colleagues rushed to the scene, and the two remaining injured crewmen were safely pulled out. Twenty minutes after the initial crash, the aircraft, full of fuel and bombs, finally exploded destroying a number of properties along with the fire tender. The explosion was so enormous, it was heard nine miles away.

The crew of the B17 which crashed on the village of Deenthorpe. L-R. T/Sgt William D Woodward, (t/t), Sergeant Waldon D Cohen, (b/t), Sergeant Harold J Kelsen, (w/g), Sergeant Robert V Kerr, (t/g), S/Sgt Benjamin C Misser, (r/o), and Lieutenant Walter B Keith, talking to Captain RJ White, who rescued the navigator Lieutenant King. The navigator and bomb-aimer are still in hospital, recovering from injuries. *3

The new year however, brought new luck. During operations in both January and February 1944 against aircraft production facilities, the 401st were awarded two DUCs for their action and as part of the 1st Air Division, they would be awarded a Presidential Citation. The 401st attacked many prestige targets during their time at Deenethorpe including: Schweinfurt, Brunswick, Berlin, Frankfurt, Merseburg and Cologne, achieving an incredible 30 consecutive missions without the loss of a single crew member.

Like many of their counterparts, they would go on to support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St Lo. the Siege of Brest and the airborne assault in Holland. They attacked communication lines in the Battle of the Bulge and went on to support the Allied crossing into Hitler’s homeland over the Rhine.

The 401st performed many operations, 254 in total. Their last being on April 20th 1945 to the Marshalling yards at Brandenburg. During the mission, B17 “Der Grossarschvogel” (The Big Ass Bird) was shot down. Five crew members were killed in the crash and several others, who had managed to escape, were beaten by civilians almost killing two of them. Ironically, they were ‘saved’ by Luftwaffe personnel, and in one case, even freed although the orders had been to shoot him.

These were not to be the last 401st fatalities though. On May 5th 1945, VE day of all days, Sgt G. Kinney was hit by the spinning propeller of a taxying B17 killing him; a devastating end to operational activities at Deenethorpe.

On June 20th, the 401st vacated Deenethorpe, returning via the same route they came and were disbanded in the US. Deenethorpe was returned to RAF ownership and retained until the 1960s when it was sold off. The standard design 12779/41 tower was demolished in 1996 and the remainder of site returned to agriculture. All major buildings have been removed as have two of the three runways. The main one still exists today for light aircraft and microlights, as does most of the perimeter track – but as a mere fraction of its former self.

Whilst there is little to see of this once enormous airfield, best views can be obtained from the main road the A427 Weldon to Upper Benefield road. A few miles along from Weldon on your left is the airfield. Stop at the memorial. The original control tower, now gone, stood proud, visible from here beyond the memorial. The technical site would be to your right, and you would be looking almost straight down the secondary runway to your left. The communal and accommodation sites were directly behind you and traces of these can be seen but only as building footings. In the distance you can see the modern-day hangars used to store the microlights,

Access to this area is restricted, prior permission being needed before entering the site, records show that there have been a number of ‘incidents’ with landowners and users of the airfield. So what little remains is best viewed from here.

The memorial is flanked by two flags, is neat and well cared for. The runway layout is depicted on the memorial stone and it proudly states the achievements of the 401st. I am led to believe the ‘Wheatsheaf’ pub further along was the haunt of many an American airman and has a ‘401 bar’ with photos and memorabilia. I was not able to visit this  unfortunately and cannot therefore verify this. Definitely one for another day!

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Modern activity at Deenethorpe

Deenethorpe is one of those airfields that has quietly slipped away, the passage of time leaving only simple scars on the landscape. This once busy and prestigious airfield now nothing more than rubble and fields with a memorial to mark the brave actions, the death and the sacrifice made by crews of the United States Army Air Force so long ago.

A BBC news report covered the planting of a time capsule in June 2011, when the widow of Tom Parker (the last of the 401st Bombardment Squadron crew, that flew the B-17 plane “Lady Luck” out of Deenethorpe), kept their promise that whoever was last would bring a collection of tankards back to Deenethorpe with their own personal stories.  The tankards were a gift from the pilot of Lady Luck, Lt Bob Kamper who presented them to the crew at a reunion in 1972. Mr Parker, the last member of the crew, sadly died in March 2011.

May their stories live on forever more.

For further accounts of life at Deenethorpe, read the recollections of a B-17 co-pilot through his memories at ‘A Box of Old Letters‘.

The BBC news report can be found here.

Deenethorpe falls under Northampton County Council, and like Kings Cliffe in the same area, has been the subject of planning applications. It is proposed that the airfield be removed and all flying activity stopped. A Garden Village will be built on the site, and the area landscaped accordingly. The proposal can be found here.

From here we go onto an airfield that saw action involving a large numbers of paratroopers, and into the jaws of death – we go to Spanhoe.

RAF Spanhoe (Station 493)

With the BEF evacuation at Dunkirk, some thought that the war was over and that the mighty Nazi war machine was undefeatable. Poised on the edge France, a mere 20 or so miles from the English coast, the armies of the Wehrmacht were waiting ready to pounce and invade England. For Britain though, the defences came up and the determination to defeat this evil regime grew even stronger.

Defeat in the air during the Battle of Britain reversed the fortunes of Germany. Then the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in the Pacific, which led to the United States joining the war, set the scene for a new and vigorous joint front that would lead to the eventual invasion of occupied Europe, and ultimately the freedom for those held in the grip of the Nazi tyranny.

Plans for the invasion were never far from the thoughts of those in power – even in the darkest hours of both Dunkirk and the Battle for the British homeland. To complete this enormous task, an operation of unprecedented size and complexity would be needed. Vehicles, troops and supplies would all needed to be ferried across the English Channel, a massive air armada would have to fly thousands of young men to the continent. To succeed in this auspicious and daring operation, a number of both training and operational airfields would need to be built, and in 1943 Spanhoe was born.

Known originally as RAF Wakerley (and also referred to as Harringworth or Spanhoe Lodge) it was handed over to the U.S.A.A.F. and designated Station 493.

RAF Spanhoe Lodge

Remaining buildings on the Technical site at Spanhoe Lodge.

Located in the county of Northamptonshire, it would be a huge site with three concrete runways, the longest of which was 6000 ft. Two smaller intersecting runways were of 4,200 ft and all three were a huge 150 ft wide. A total of 50 spectacle hardstands were spread around the perimeter track whilst the tower, built to a 1941 design (12779/41), was located to the south of the airfield between the technical area and main airfield. Such was the design of the airfield, that the tower was located a good distance away from the main runway to the north. The technical area included a small number of Quonset huts, temporary brick-built buildings and two T2 hangars. Instructional and training buildings included a Synthetic Navigation Classroom (2075/43) designed with the most up-to-date projection and synthetic training instruments possible. These buildings were made more distinct by the two glazed astrodomes located at one end of the building which could be used on nights when stars were visible.

As Spanhoe was originally built as a bomber station, a bomb and pyrotechnic store was built on the eastern side of the airfield with three huge fuel stores, one to the north and two others to the west, all capable of holding 72,000 gallons of aviation fuel each.

Accommodation for the crews and ground staff was widely spread to the south amongst the local woods and fields, and consisted of numerous cold Quonset huts – but for the residents, Spanhoe was considered nothing special to write home about.

The first U.S. units to arrive were the Troop Carriers the of the 315th Troop Carrier Group (TCG), whose journey from the United States was not as straightforward as most.

Whilst on their way over the north Atlantic route, they were hit by bad weather and had to be diverted to Greenland. Here they stayed for over a month scouring the seas for downed aircraft and dropping supplies to the crews before they were rescued.

Eventually the 315th made England and began a series of training operations. A small detachment were sent to Algiers to assist in the dropping of supplies to troops in the Sicily and Italy campaigns before returning to the main squadron in the U.K. The 315th arrived at Spanhoe on 7th February 1944 now part of the Ninth Air Force,  IX Troop Carrier Command, 52nd Troop Carrier Wing. They operated two versions of the adapted Douglas DC-3; the C-47 Skytrain and the C-53 Skytrooper transport aircraft. Four Troop Carrier Squadrons (TCS) would use Spanhoe: the 34th, 43rd, 309th and 310th, and would all operate purely as paratroop carriers.

C-47 Skytrains of the 315th Troop Carrier Group in flight. Handwritten caption on reverse: 'C-47 Skytrain. 315 TCG over Lincolnshire. C-47 before 1944.'Image actually shows Harringworth Viaduct. RAF Spanhoe, the home field of the two Aircraft, is slightly out of shot to the left, making this right on the border of Rutland & Northamptonshire.

C-47 Skytrains of the 315th Troop Carrier Group in flight. over the Harringworth Viaduct. RAF Spanhoe, the home of the two Aircraft is just out of shot. (IWM – FRE 3396)

For the next few months they would train in preparation for the forthcoming D-day landings in which they would rehearse both formation flying at night and night paratroop drops with the 82nd Airborne; the unit the 315th would take to drop zones behind enemy lines in Normandy. These preparations were relentless, and not without casualties. The 315th were considered as one of the ‘weaker’ elements of the air invasion force, and would carry out drops nightly until the paratroops had completed their full quota of jumps and all were finally classed as ‘proficient’. The majority of these jumps were however, carried out in clear weather, a point that had not been factored into the final decision.

Flying at night would, unsurprisingly, claim  lives and this was brought home when on the night of May 11th-12th, two aircraft from the 315th’s sister group the 316th, collided during combined operations, killing fourteen airmen.

Even with all this training and a very high aircraft maintenance programme, there were many factors that could affect the outcome of operations. Some 40% of crews had only recently arrived before operations, and thus were not a party to a large part of the training missions.  Of the 924 crews that were designated for the operations, 20% had only had minimal training and 75% had never actually been under fire. The airborne crews were not well prepared.

On the third day of June the order came through to paint invasion stripes on the aircraft. These three white and two black stripes, each two feet wide, were designed to enable the recognition of allied aircraft who were sworn to radio silence over the invasion zones. D-Day was now imminent.

The 52nd’s mission would involve all the other groups of the Wing, taking aircraft from: Barkston Heath (61st TCG), Folkingham (313th TCG) Saltby (314th TCG) and Cottesmore (316th TCG) as well as eleven other paratroop and glider-towing units of the U.S. Ninth Air Force and fifteen RAF Squadrons – it was going to be an incredible sight.

315th C-47 landing at Spanhoe. On the ground can be seen the 315th’s C-109 (converted B-24) tanker . (Knight Collection)

Forty-eight aircraft took off from Spanhoe and formed up with the other Groups at checkpoint ‘ATLANTA’, they continued on toward Bristol turning south at checkpoint ‘CLEVELAND’ . They flew crossed the south coast at Portland and headed out toward Guernsey. The route would then take them north of the island where the 52nd would turn east and head over the Cherbourg Peninsula. They would drop their load of heavily laden paratroops south of Utah beach to capture the important town of St. Mere-Eglise. A ten-mile wide corridor would be filled with aircraft and gliders.

Over the drop zone the aircraft encountered cloud and heavy flak. Whilst a quarter received damage, all but one were able to return to England, the last being lost over the drop zone. For their efforts that night, the 315th TCG was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, the only one they would receive during the war.

After D-day, units of the 315th continued to drop supplies to the advancing troops, a default role they carried out for much of the war.

Tragedy was to rear its ugly head again and strike down Spanhoe crews. In July 1944, 369 Polish paratroopers arrived for training as part of Operation ‘Burden’. This involved thirty-three C-47s of the 309th TCS, fully loaded flying in formation at around 1,300 ft. The aim of the flight was to drop the Polish Paratroops at a drop zone (DZ) over R.A.F. Wittering.

RAF Spanhoe Lodge

One of the few overgrown buildings at the entrance to Spanhoe Lodge.

Shortly before arriving at the DZ near to the Village of Tinwell, two aircraft made deadly contact and both plummeted to the ground. Twenty-six paratroops and eight crewmen were killed that day, the only survivor was Corporal Thomas Chambers who jumped from an open door. Eyewitness accounts tell of “soil soaked in aviation fuel”, and bodies strapped to part open parachutes as many tried to jump as the aircraft fell. This tragic accident was a devastating blow to the Polish troops especially as they had not yet been able to prove themselves in combat and one that ultimately led to the disbandment of the section and reabsorption into other units.*1

The 315th’s next major combat mission would be ‘Market Garden‘ on September 17th, 1944, another event that led to many tragedies. On the initial day, ninety aircraft left Spanhoe with 354 Paratroops of the U.S. 82nd Airborne, the following day another fifty-four aircraft took British paratroops and then on the third day they were to take Polish troops. However, bad weather continually caused the cancellation of the Polish operations and even with attempts at take-offs, it wasn’t to be. Finally on September 23rd good skies returned and operations could once more be carried out. During all this time, the Polish troops were loaded and unloaded, stores under the wings of the C-47s were added and then removed, it became so frustrating that one Polish paratrooper, unable to cope with the stress and anticipation of operations, fatally shot himself.

Later that month, another plan was hatched to resupply the beleaguered troops in Holland. The idea was to land large numbers of C-47s on different airfields close to Nijmegen. Not sure if they had been secured, or even taken, the daring mission went ahead. Escorting fighters and ground attack aircraft neutralised anti-aircraft positions around the airfields allowing hundreds of C-47s to land, deposit their supplies and take off again, in a mission that took over six hours to complete. In total: jeeps, trailers, motorcycles, fuel, ammunition, rations and 882 new troops were all delivered safely without the loss of a single transport aircraft – a remarkable feat.

Further supplies were dropped to troops during both the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Varsity – the crossing of the Rhine – in March 1945. During this operation, the 315th would drop more British paratroopers near Wesel, Germany, a mission that would cost 19 aircraft with a further 36 badly damaged.

By now the Allies were in Germany and the Troop Carrier units were able to move to France leaving their U.K. bases behind. This departure signalled the operational end for Spanhoe and all military flying at the airfield would now cease.

Two months later the 253rd Maintenance Unit arrived and prepared Spanhoe for the receiving of thousands of military vehicles that would soon be arriving from the continent. Now surplus to requirements, they would either be scrapped or sold off, Spanhoe became a huge car park and at its height, would accommodate 17,500 vehicles. For the next two years trucks, trailers and jeeps of all shapes and sizes would pass through, until in 1947 the unit left and the site was closed for good and eventually sold off.

This was not the end for Spanhoe though. Aviation and controversy would return again for a fleeting moment on August 12th 1960, with the crash of Vickers Valiant BK1 ‘XD864’ of 7 Squadron RAF. The aircraft, piloted by Flt. Lt. Brian Wickham, took off from its base at nearby RAF Wittering, turned and crashed on Spanhoe airfield just three minutes after take off. The official board of enquiry concluded that the accident was caused by pilot error and that Flt. Lt. Wickham, was guilty of “blameworthy negligence”. The Boards findings were investigated by an independent body who successfully identified major flaws in both the analysis and the Boards subsequent findings.  Sadly no review of the accident or the Boards decision has ever taken place since.

Spanhoe Lodge

Spanhoe was the home of the 315th Troop Carrier Group, part of the 52nd Troop Carrier Wing, Ninth Air Force.

Spanhoe was then turned into a limestone quarry by new owners, the runways and the majority of the perimeter track was dug up and the substrate was removed. The majority of the buildings were demolished but a few were left and now survive as small industrial units involved in, amongst other things, aircraft maintenance and preservation work. A private flying club has also started up and small light aircraft now use what remains of the southern section of the perimeter track and technical area.

The main entrance to the airfield is no longer grand, and in no way reflects the events that once took place here. From this point you can see some of the original technical buildings and hidden behind the thicket, what was possibly a picket post. A footpath though the nearby woods allows access to the remains of eastern end of the main runway and perimeter track, other than this little is accessible without permission.

Outside the main entrance are two memorials consisting of a modern board detailing the group and squadron codes, and a stone obelisk listing the names of those crew members who failed to come home. Both are well cared for if not a little weathered.

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Spanhoe Lodge memorial

Spanhoe leaves a legacy, for both good reasons and bad. The crews that left here taking hundreds of young men into the jaws of death showed great bravery and skill. Determination to be the best and perform at the limits were driving factors behind their successes. Relentless training led to the deaths of many who had never even seen combat, and the scars of these events linger in what remains of the airfield today. Thankfully for the time being, the spirit of aviation lives on, and Spanhoe clings to the edge, each last gasp of breath a reminder of those brave men who flew defenceless in those daring and dangerous missions over occupied Europe.

On leaving Spanhoe, return to the main road, keeping the airfield to your left, join the A43, and then turn right and then immediately left. Follow signs to Oundle and Kings Cliffe and our next destination, the former airfield at Kings Cliffe, an airfield with its own modern controversies.

Sources and Further Reading

*1 A list of those killed in the Tinwell Crash can be found via this Dutch website for Polish War Graves.

The 315th TCG has a detailed website with regular newsletters and photographs.

RAF Kings Cliffe (Station 367)

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The Memorial at Kings Cliffe.

Unlike the other airfields in the tour, Kings Cliffe was a fighter airfield. Pass through the village from the south, out the other side, under the odd twin-arched bridge and then right. A few hundred yards along and the airfield is now on your right hand side. The memorial is here, flanked by the two flags. It is a more elaborate memorial than some, being made with the wing of a Spitfire on one side and the wing of a Mustang on the other. Various squadron badges are etched into the stone and as the weather takes it’s toll, these are gradually disappearing.

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Protected aircraft pen, with ‘dual skin’ defences on three sides. A number of these litter the site.

Over its life, Kings Cliffe would have a number of fighter units grace it skies. Built in 1943, it would receive its first squadron late that same year when P-39 Airacobras of Duxford’s 347th FS (350th FG) were temporarily based here. A short spell they would soon leave and be replaced with another short-term unit.

The following January, the 347th left and three squadrons: the 61st (code HV), 62nd (code LM) and the 63rd (code UN) of the 56th FG arrived from the U.S. This group fell under the command of the 67th Fighter Wing, Eighth Air Force. Redesignated the 56th FG in the previous May, they were initially given P-47s and continued to train at Kings Cliffe for fighter operations until moving on the 4th/6th April 1943 to Horsham St Faith, Norfolk. A few days later on 13th April 1943, they undertook their first operational sortie. Over the next two years the 56th FG would become famous for the highest number of destroyed aircraft of any fighter unit of the entire Eighth Airforce. A remarkable feat.

Littlefriends.co.uk

Pilots of the 77th FS, at Kings Cliffe 1944-45*4

After the 56th left Kings Cliffe, three more squadrons arrived. In August that year, the 20th FG arrived with their P-38 Lightnings. The 55th (code KI), 77th (code LC) and the 79th (code MC), would fall under the umbrella of the 67th Fighter Wing, Eighth Airforce.

After a spell of renaming, aircraft changes and training, their arrival at Kings Cliffe would see a period of stability for the 20th. Initial operations started in December that year, and their primary role would be to escort bombers over Europe, a role it maintained until the cessation of conflict. Targets of opportunity were often found whilst on these missions, but toward the end of the war, with fighter cover becoming less of an issue, dive bombing and ground attack missions became more common place. Their black and white chequered markings became feared by airfields, barracks and in particular trains as they became known as the “Loco Group” for their high number of locomotive attacks.

Oakington Pillbox Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Oakington Pillbox, found in pairs, they offer a 360 degree field of fire.

On April 8th 1944, the 20th attacked an airfield in Germany, action for which they received a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC). They would later take part in the Normandy invasion, Operation Market Garden, and air cover in the Battle of Bulge. In July 1944 they converted to P-51s and continued to escort bombers and search out targets of opportunity until the war closed. In the following October 1945, they returned to the U.S. and Kings Cliffe was returned to RAF ownership. The RAF would use it as a storage depot until selling it off in 1959. Its runways were dug up for hardcore, the buildings demolished and the site finally returned to agriculture.

Kings Cliffe December 2014 Draincover

Drainage covers and pipes adorn the remains of the runway.

Whilst standing at the memorial, it is difficult to imagine any of the activity that occurred here all those years ago. However, behind the memorial you can see a number of brick defence buildings enshrouded in trees and bushes. Move along the road to your right and there is the main gate. Stating that it is an airfield, it doesn’t encourage entrance. However, walk or drive a little further and there is a bridal way that allows access to the site. Walking along around the edge of the airfield, you can see hidden amongst the thorn bushes  an Oakington Pill box. Found in pairs and common in this area, they offer a 360 degree view of the site. The second of the pair is  short distance away in the middle of the field and more visible to the viewer. Also round here are three protected dispersal pens. Each pen has a double skin, in other words, an outside loop holed wall for firing through and an inner wall to protect air and ground crews in the event of an attack. There are a handful of other ancillary buildings here, all of which can be accessed with careful treading. A considerable number of these exist close to the road and path, so extensive travelling or trespass is not required for the more ‘informal’ investigation.

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Inside the Shelter.

Walking further along the path, you pass a large clump of trees heading of in an easterly direction. These mark the line of the east-west runway. Whilst the runway has gone, evidence of its existence can be found. A drainage channel, numerous pieces of drainage material and grates can be found amongst the remains of hardcore.

The path continues in a southerly direction away from the main part of the airfield, and a better option may be to return to the car and drive along to a different part of the site.

If you return through Kings Cliffe, bear left and through the small but gorgeous village of Apethorpe. Continue on and you’ll see a footpath that goes through the woods. Park here and walk through the woods. A couple of miles in and you come across a large open space, to your left is a distinguished memorial to Glenn Miller.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Memorial to Glenn Miller’s final hangar concert, 3rd October 1944.

The memorial is located on the site of the original T2 hangar, quite a distance away from the main airfield. It was here that Miller performed his final hangar concert on October 3rd 1944. Standing here in the wintry air listening to ‘In the Mood’, is a surreal experience. To think that, on this spot 70 years ago, this very tune was performed by Miller himself; whilst young couples jitterbugged the evening away – a brief respite from the wartime tragedies that dominated their daily lives.

Leaving here, back to the track, you come across a footpath that takes you north, toward the main airfield before veering off and away to the west.

This path provides what is probably the nearest access point to the tower, as it crosses the track that joins the perimeter near to the towers location. The control tower still stands, but access from the path is over private land and should be undertaken with the land owner’s permission.

A final car trip back to the north side of the airfield reveals evidence of the accommodation blocks. The cinema, Gymnasium and chapel along with some other communal buildings still stand and in use by local timber companies. Well preserved, they are easily accessible and offer a good view to anyone aiming to find evidence of Kings Cliff’s history.

Kings Cliffe December 2014 Chapel with gym

Gymnasium and Chapel now used by a timber company.

Like many sites of it’s age, the majority of Kings Cliffe’s buildings are overgrown, indeed entering them you can see how the roofs have become detached in many cases, and mature trees now the only inhabitants where personnel once stood.

The main part of the airfield is agriculture, and it can be seen from further back, why this site was chosen as the views across the landscape toward Peterborough and the south are stunning. A remarkable place, it offers good evidence, nostalgia and beautiful walks into the bargain.

Overgrown buildings

Overgrown buildings

Kings Cliffe concludes this tour, however, if you return back along the road to the village of Kings Cliffe, turn right away from the village, you will eventually find yourself sitting opposite one of the crash exits of RAF Wittering, the main station to which Kings Cliffe was built as a satellite. Also along here, is a remnant of RAF Collyweston, an airfield absorbed into RAF Wittering during the war. Wittering of course expanded ready for the V – force bomber aircraft and later the Harriers. Closed to operational flying due to the government cutbacks of December 2010, it housed an army detachment and small RAF detachments for logistics and support duties only. However, flying has now returned and Wittering is a training station once more. Both Collyweston and Wittering can be seen later in Trail 37.

Much of the evidence from the American participation in the Air War of the Second World War has now disappeared, being swallowed up by natures determination to regain what was originally hers. Agriculture and small businesses have clung on to the remainder, leaving little to see. In some ways, and I touched on this earlier, the fact that peace has now taken over what were bustling camps of 3000+ personnel, the roar of four engined bombers laden with high explosives or troop carriers taking scared young men to the killing fields of Europe, is a reflection on their bravery and dedication. These areas are simply peaceful now because of the men that served, lived and died here and whilst they are now gone, maybe their ghosts remain.

This visit was updated December 2014 and since then planning permission has been granted to build Holiday properties on this site, updates to these can be found in the following pages.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from IWM American Air Museum In Britain.

*2 Photo Roger Freeman Collection, from IWM American Air Museum In Britain. FRE 8079

*3 Photo Roger Freeman Collection, from IWM American Air Museum In Britain. FRE 2218

*4 photo by Robert Derenbacker from ‘Little friends’ website http://www.littlefriends.co.uk

The 401st BG website contain a vast amount of information about crews, aircraft and missions of the 401st. It can be accessed here.

I highly recommend the book, “The B-17 Flying Fortress Story“, by Roger Freeman, published by Arms and Armour, 1998. Some aspects may have been updated, but the detail is incredible and a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in this area.

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16 thoughts on “Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’

  1. Just found your Aviation Trails, especially #6 Grafton Underwood. I was a ball turret gunner stationed their and flew 17 missions toward the end of the war. I visited the 384th and saw the memorial, it has changed a lot since then. Ken Fleckner who lives in Kettering watch’s over it for us. The 384th bombgroup is still active and we will be having our second final reunion i Tucson AZ onthe 29th of oct.2015. I was the president of the 384th from Oct 2012 to Oct 2014. Len Estrin

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a pleasure to hear from you. I’m so glad you found the blog, I hope you enjoyed reading it. I have literally just had an email from Kevin who is a friend of mine, with new pictures of the memorial. There are now two flag poles next to the memorial ready for the flags to go up. A parking space has also been added and the verges improved. Kevin has worked wonders on it. I added details in a post earlier this week, no pictures as yet, hopefully they will follow on. I’m sure you have some incredible stories to tell and would love to know more if you ever have a few minutes to spare.

      You have my greatest respect and I hope that you are your colleagues enjoy your reunions and continue meeting for a good number of years to come. My very best wishes to you all. Andy Laing

      Like

  2. I know Kimbolton well. Did you know, one of the Frying Pans is still in perfect order and reachable from the road ?

    Many’s the time, I parked up, got out on a hazy summers evening, listened to the skylarks fading call, and just… Remembered.

    What sat here ?
    Who were they ?
    Where are they now ?

    Also, do all the people passing in cars, realise what they are driving past or nearby ? I doubt it.

    The line of trees marks the main runway and this is also a great walk.

    Cheers

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    • I know that a large part is used by a local kart track company and one building still exists on the industrial estate. I too often wonder if people know what they are passing, standing on or even living on. Many I guess don’t nor don’t care. Kimbolton is a great place to sit and wonder who else was there? I have a friend in the states whose father was stationed there and she ‘tweets’ his diaries regularly. Really helps bring these places alive. Thanks again Steve.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Although far off the trail of “American Ghosts”, visiting the American Memorial Chapel at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was an extremely emotional experience. My father was stationed at Parham with the 390th Bombardment Group, 571st Bombardment Squadron from December 1944 until he was killed during a mission in mid-March 1945. I can’t imagine what it might be like emotionally to visit the area and the airfield where he lived for a few short months.

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    • So sorry about your father like so many life was taken too early. Getting to see where he was would be a real experience. I have a good friend in America who’s father was stationed at kimbolton during the war. She tweets his diary regularly and I sent her photos following my visit there. She was so pleased to see the names in a ROH and what the place looks like now.

      Im going to get back to London soon and if/when I get to parham I can send you see some photos of the area. I know there are many who don’t get the chance to visit such places and there is so little left these days it’s hard to imagine what went on there.

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      • In today’s world with Google Earth and other Internet sites, there is little that is not accessible in Western countries. Through Google Earth, I have “traveled” the roads around Parham and Framlingham as well as other former 8th Air Force bases. Always missing, though, are the smells and sounds of the countryside. . . the light of the sky. You have to be there for that. It is the same with a B-17. You can watch them fly in movies and in person. You can read B-17 related books and manuals, but until you’ve spent time in one. A month ago, I was lucky enough to spend almost two hours in a B-17 sitting in the various positions — except the ball turret for which I was not flexible enough to get into. Only when you’ve sat quietly in the navigator’s or bombardier’s positions and had time to think do you come understand what they might have felt when they looked forward and faced a head on fighter attack.

        I appreciate your offer of photographs, but I need to go there and smell the earth, feel the wind, and see the sky.

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      • You are so right, there is an abundance of information, pictures and so on out there, indeed images like Google Earth probably show sites better than photos from ground level and will reveal hidden buildings where the explorer cannot go. The true feel of these places, the emotions and smells can only be done in person. Even today it is difficult to truly understand what somebody felt standing watching their buddies fly out possibly for the last time, something only being there at that time can recreate. A sense lost in history. You are lucky to have sat in a B17 a rare opportunity indeed. I hope one day you get to go before any farmer or industrial unit finally wipes away those little reminders and the memories are gone forever.

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      • We look forward to getting back to England in the next year or two. My sister lived in Cirencester for awhile and we enjoyed visiting her. We’ve also enjoyed being in London for the Lord Mayor’s Show and for Remembrance Day.

        It was a great experience to spend time in a B-17 with a museum docent, a former airline pilot who explained how everything worked. I don’t know if there are ever such opportunities at Duxford or any of your other air museums, but if there are, take advantage of them.

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      • They are rare or very expensive. Opportunities exist to taxi in a Lancaster but getting into much else is often difficult or indeed impossible. I was once allowed to stand in a Dakota and that was thought provoking. Being in a bomber must be incredible. I shall continue to look for them and hope that one day I too can feel even a little of what it was like for a young man to feel as he set off from a quiet field in England to fly over occupied Europe and be at war. Thank you for your continuing support and kind comments.

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  4. Excellent read & being a Northants boy (which these airfields are in) you’ve only just touched the surface; Harrington and it’s great little museum, old concrete Thor bases, memorial and runways / peritrack. Sywell still very active, art deco buildings and at weekends museum open. Polebrook not much left apart from industrial estate using hangar and some buildings. Denton nothing really to see apart from fields. Desborough fair amount still survives but developers are closing in. Silverstone I think everyone knows about, apart from runways very little WW2 now survives. Turweston, Hinton in the Hedges still active and evocative. Croughton now listening base with ‘golf balls’ and attennae of various sorts. Weston on the Green used for parachute training, but developers circuling. Sure I’ve missed a few but keep up the good work. PS. Chipping Warden yet to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Glenn, Thank you for the kind comments, it’s great to know there are many others around who share the same ideas as me. Northants is certainly awash with the old places and like the areas I’ve visited; they are disappearing fast, ideal locations for housing and industry unfortunately. Thanks for sharing your experiences, certainly a few there I would like to see myself! Thanks again Andy

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  5. If you want super nostalgia, just head to Poddington.. Not when the drag racing is going on, but on any summers evening. You can walk around the perimeter track, walk the runways, walk through fields of corn rustling in the breeze. As the hazy sun sets, and you notice the (still intact) control tower, you can transport yourself back to the days when the skies were full of B17’s. Many buildings intact, and some only rubble go to make this place haunting. I used to live in Bedford, then moved to Rushden and spent many years hunting down these old land based aircraft carriers from WW2. Another superb place for atmosphere is Thorpe abbots… there are so many. I had the fortune of meeting the surviving members of the 92Nd Bomb Group (Fames Favoured Few) who made one last trip back to Poddington about 20 years ago. A local artist, Keith Hill sold me one of his artists proofs and all the survivors signed my picture and wrote a few lines at the same time. This picture hangs on my study wall – pride of place.

    Well done with this website.. it’s brilliant

    Id like to help in any way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Steve, sounds like a fabulous place to stand and allow yourself to be taken back to the dark days of World
      War 2. Your description is stunning and conjures up amazing pictures that need to be experienced. I recently visited Thorpe Abbots, but unfortunately it was closed and I could not see inside. I am planning a return trip later this year. I did manage to see some of the hidden bunkers and will Include these in Trail 12 along with other sites around Southern Norfolk.

      The picture sounds like a real gem and an amazing piece of history, I am not surprised you keep it in pride of place!

      I mentioned in response to your other post about guest posts, it would be great to share readers experiences of these fading sites before they all too quickly disappear. Be glad to have and share your superb writings. Thanks again Andy.

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