Trail 10 – Swaffham and Her Neighbours (Part 3)

The third and final part of this Trail around North Norfolk, takes in two further former USAAF airfields. Being in the more northern reaches of Norfolk, they share similar stories of tragedy and loss. Our first stop is Shipdham home to the ‘Flying Eightballs’ followed by a short hop to Wendling, the most northerly of the American bases.

RAF Shipdham (Station 115)

RAF Shipdham

Shipdham’s remaining Hangar.

On leaving Watton (see part 9), we travel NE across the countryside to the Small village of Shipdham. If you miss the turn, you will pass along the main road and a row of memorial trees dedicated to the parishioners of Shipdham who died in both wars. A list of those concerned is on a large board placed adjacent to the road. Turn back, return toward the village and take the left turn toward the site. Opened in 1942, it was the first airfield to receive the Mighty 8th, who named it Station 115. Operating B24 Liberators, the 44th Bomb Group became known as the ‘Flying Eightballs’ carrying out their first mission on 7th November that year.  They went on to complete 343 missions using six different marks of B24 during this time. Their first Distinguished Unit Citation came on 14th May 1944 in operations against Kiel, an operation that had been officially scrubbed. The message to abort did not reach Shipdham and out of the 17 aircraft that took off, 6 failed to return. They earned themselves a second Unit Citation for action after moving to North Africa later that year.

RAF Shipdham

Shipdham’s Watch Office sites amongst the cranes and industrial buildings. (Just below the two cranes)

The Unit achieved one of the highest mission records of any B24 group for the loss of 153 aircraft. The only ‘bad mark’ on the record was when they mistakenly bombed Schaffhausen (Switzerland) instead of the intended target Ludwigshafen in Germany.

Following cessation of conflict, the mighty 8th left, and the airfield became a POW camp, closing in 1947. It then remained in care until finally being sold off in 1963. It is now an industrial complex covered with the usual buildings and structures commonly found in this area. However, flying activity has managed to keep a small part of Shipdham alive with the Shipdham Aero Club utilising part of one of the runways. If you drive round the site to the industrial area, you  can clearly see the remaining two hangers through the fence. Behind these, are a small selection of dilapidated buildings from what was the technical site, including the control tower and operations block.

Shipdam's runway used for storage

Shipdam’s runway used for storage

The tower now a mere shell and in jeopardy of demolition. For those not tempted to venture further, views of these can be seen from across the fields on the aero club side of the site. Further views reveal one runway covered in farm storage units, but the runway they sit on remains intact.

This is a large site, much of which is now either agriculture or industry, but at least there is a small part of this airfield alive and kicking, whilst the more physical features cling on by their finger nails desperate for the care and attention they deserve.

I found this amazing and rare original footage of the 44BG taken at Station 115 on You Tube.  This features B24H 42-7535 ‘Peepsight’ of the 506th crash landing after a mission in which 9 out of the 10 crew members were injured and two of them received Purple Hearts from the Queen.

On leaving Shipdham go back to the village and head toward our next stop RAF Wendling, where the 392nd were cited for their incredible bombing accuracy but losses were high.

RAF Wendling (Station 118)

On 15th January 1943, a new bomb Group was formed at Davis-Monthan Field in Arizona, it would be the 392nd BG and would consist of four squadrons: the 576th, 577th, 578th and 579th Bomb Squadrons. On completion of its training, the 392nd would leave the United States, and fly across the Atlantic to their new base in England. These four squadrons would be the first to operate the newly updated B-24 ‘H’ model ‘Liberators’; an improvement of the previous variants by the addition of a motorised front turret, improved waist gun positions and a new retractable belly turret. The supporting ground echelons had left the United States, sailing on the Queen Elizabeth from New York, much earlier, and before the group had received these newer models. As a result, they had neither received any training, or gained any experience with these new updated variants. The arrival of these new aircraft would therefore be met with some surprise, followed by a steep learning curve supported by additional training programmes.

The first B-24s of the 392nd arrived at Wendling, Norfolk, on 15th August 1943, and would soon be joined by the 44th at nearby Shipdham, the 389th at Hethel and the 93rd at Hardwick; four Groups that would be combined to form the Second Bombardment Wing (later 2nd Bombardment Division)*1. Battle hardened from fighting in the Mediterranean Theatre, these other three groups knew only too well the dangers of bombing missions, all having suffered some heavy losses themselves already.

Wendling’s Watch office before it was modified (see below) (IWM FRE 1670).

During September 1943,  the 392nd joined with these other three units flying missions under Operation ‘Starkey‘; probing German defences and gauging their responses to massed allied attacks on coastal regions. Largely uneventful they went on to undertake diversionary missions over the North Sea, the first three being escorted by fighters, and without incident. On the fourth however, the fighters were withheld and the bombers struck out alone.

On this particular flight, 4th October, 1943, the 392nd would gain their first real taste of war, and it would be an initiation they would rather forget. During the battle over thirty Luftwaffe fighters would shoot down four B-24s with the loss of forty-three crew members. A further eleven were injured in the remaining bombers that managed to continue flying and return home – it was not a good start for the 392nd.

Licking its wounds, they would then be combined with more experienced units, flying multiple missions as far as the Baltic regions before returning to diversionary raids again later that month. Viewed with some misgivings by crews, these ‘H’ model Liberators were soon found to be heavier, slower and less responsive at the higher altitudes these deeper missions were flown at.

The 392nd would take part in many of the Second World War’s fiercest operations; oil refineries at Gelsenkirchen, Osnabruck’s marshalling yards and factories at both Brunswick and Kassel were just some targets on the long list that entered the 392nd’s operations records book.

RAF Wendling (Beeston)

Wendling’s runway looking West.

The massive effort of ‘Big Week’ of February 20 – 25th saw the 392nd in action over Gotha, in an operation that won them a DUC for their part. Upon entering enemy airspace, the formation was relentlessly attacked by Fw-190s, Me 110s and Ju 88s using a mix of gun, rockets, air-to-air bombing and even trailing bombs to disrupt and destroy the groups. Ironically it was the very same twin-engined aircraft and component factory that was the intended target that day; a focus of the Second Bomb Division in an operation that saw the lead section, headed by aircraft of the 2nd Combat Wing, bomb in error due to the bombardier collapsing onto his bomb release as a result of oxygen starvation. Unrelenting the 392nd carried on. They realised and ignored the major error, and flew on to drop 98% of their bombs within 2,000 feet of the intended target. This highly accurate bombing came at a high cost though, Missing Air Crew Reports  (MACR) indicate seven aircraft were lost, with another thirteen sustaining battle damage.

The 392nd would carry on, with further battles taking their deadly toll on both crews and aircraft. In March that same year, the 392nd would turn their attention to Friedrichshafen – a target that would claim further lives and be the most costly yet.

Even before entering into enemy territory, losses would be incurred. Flying in close formation, two B-24s flew too close – one through the prop wash of another – which caused them to collide bringing both aircraft down.  One of those B-24s #42-109824 ‘Late Date II‘, lost half of its crew.

Despite good weather over the target the attack on Friedrichshafen in southern Germany, would have to be led by pathfinders. In an attempt to foil the attackers, the Germans released enormous quantities of smoke, enveloping the town and concealing it from the prying eyes high above. Of the forty-three bombers to fall that day, half were from the 14th Combat Wing of which fourteen came from the 392nd. Despite losses elsewhere, this would prove to be the worst mission for the 392nd, in all some 150 crew men were lost that day.

Bombing targets in Europe was never straight forward and bombs often fell well away from the intended site. On one rather unfortunate occasion at the end of March, the 392nd joined the 44th BG in mistakenly bombing Schaffhausen, a town in neutral Switzerland. The event that not only deeply upset the Swiss, but heavily fed the Nazi’s determined propaganda machine.

Eventually March, and its terrible statistics, was behind them. The 392nd would then spend the reminder of 1944 supporting ground troops, bombing coastal defences in the lead up to D-day (their 100th mission), airfields and V-weapons sites in ‘NOBALL‘ operations. Like many of their counterparts they would support the St. Lo breakout, and hit transport and supply routes during the cold weeks of the Battle of the Bulge.

It was during this time, on 12th August 1944 that heroic pilot, 2nd Lt. John D. Ellis, flying B-24H #42-95023, would manage to steer his stricken aircraft away from a residential area at Cheshunt, some 15 miles north of London,  crashing the aircraft near to what is now the A10 road. Sadly all on board were killed in the incident but undoubtedly the lives of many civilians were saved, and a memorial in their memory lies in the nearby library at Cheshunt and on the wall at Madingley, the American War Cemetery, Cambridge.

DSC_0572

The Memorial Plaque at the American War Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

This was not to be the only accident that the 392nd (nor any other B-24 unit) were to suffer. Crews were finding that these heavier machines were difficult to get out of if hit by flak or attacking fighters. Ferocious fires in the wing tanks and fuselage were leading to many losses, and in particular, the pilots who after fighting to keep aircraft stable long enough for crewmen to jump out, were then finding it viciously spinning the moment they let go of the controls.

On February 16th 1945 Liberator #42-95031 ‘Mary Louise‘ flown by 1st Lt. Albert J. Novik, was hit by falling bombs from another aircraft flying above him. After wrestling for some four and half hours to keep the aircraft flying, he ordered the crew out and then attempted to leave the aircraft himself. This event occurred only a month after a similar incident where he had managed to dive through the open bomb bay to safety. In this instance though, Novik was pinned to the roof as the bomber, half its tail plane missing, spun violently towards the Norfolk landscape beneath. Eventually, after a 7,000 ft fall, he was released from this centrifugal grip by a change in the aircraft’s direction. He managed to crawl down from his position and throw himself out through the bomb bay just seconds before the aircraft exploded, sending burning aircraft parts tumbling all around him. For his actions Novik was awarded the DFC, but many others were not quite so lucky, and perished in these huge lumbering giants of the sky.

On April 25th 1945, Mission 285, the 392nd BG prepared for what would be their last mission of the war. The Target, Hallein Austria. Not only would it end the 392nd’s aerial campaign, but that of the Eighth Air Force, bringing the air war in Europe to an end for the American units based in England.

By then, the 392nd had conducted some 285 missions with a high rate of loss, some 184 aircraft in total, with over 800 young men killed in action. They had dropped around 17,500 tons of bombs on some of the highest prestige targets in the German heartland. The group was cited by Major General James Hodges for its degree of accuracy for bombs on target – higher than any other unit of the 2nd Air Division over 100 consecutive missions. Operations had ranged from Norway to southern France and as far as the Baltic and advancing Russian armies at Swinemunde. Over 9,000 decorations were handed out to both air and ground crews for bravery and dedication.

Bomb dump buildings

One of several bomb dump buildings now a nature reserve.

After flying food supply missions to the starving Dutch, the 392nd departed Wendling and the site closed down, remaining dormant until it’s disposal in 1963/4.

RAF Wendling, otherwise known as Beeston from the nearby village, was classified as Station 118 by the Americans. Initially intended as an RAF Bomber base it was updated during the winter of 1942/43 opening in the summer of 1943. It would have 3 concrete runways of class ‘A’ specification, one of 2000 yards and two of 1,400 yards. The bomb dump which survives today as a nature reserve, was to the south-east, whilst the technical area is to the north-west. Two T2 hangars were located near to these sites and the watch office (drawing 5852/41) seems to have been modified in 1943 with the addition of what may have been a Uni-Seco control room (1200/43). Originally built with an adjoining Nissen hut (operations / briefing room) this is now encompassed within another more modern building, and is not visible from the outside.

Around the perimeter were a mix of ‘pan’ (28) and ‘spectacle’ (26) style hardstands, all of which have since been removed or built upon. The technical area, housing a range of: stores, workshops, huts and associated buildings, were to the north-west also. Interestingly, Wendling used Orlit huts, built by the Orlit Company of West Drayton, a mix of panel and concrete posts they were more economical than the British Concrete Foundation (BCF) huts initially ordered by the Ministry of Works.

Today, parts of two of the main runways still survive, housing turkey farms these buildings synonymous with Norfolk. The third was removed and the perimeter track has been reduced to a path. The bomb dump is part of a local nature reserve which has very limited parking, but access to the remaining buildings there is straight forward. Many of the buildings from the remaining twelve accommodation sites have been removed, however a number are still believed to be standing bound in heavy undergrowth, or used by local businesses. One currently retains a huge mural covering an entire wall, with evidence of others also within the same building.

DSC_0114

A stunning memorial now stands in memory of those who served.

Unfortunately when I visited Wendling, daylight ran out forcing me to make a retreat and head for home – a return visit is certainly planned for later. Like many other airfields in this part of the country, losses were high, and the toll on human life dramatic, both here, ‘back home’ and of course, beneath the many thousands of tons of high explosives that were dropped over occupied Europe. Now a high number of these sites house turkey farms, small industrial units or have simply been dug up, and forgotten. I hope, that we never forget and that they all get the honour and respect they deserve.

On a last note, there is a remarkable memorial in the Village of Beeston to the west of the airfield site. This is in itself worth a visit. Not only does it mention the 392nd, but all the auxiliary units stationed on the base, something we often forget when considering the Second World War. A nice and moving end to the trip.

DSC_0117

Memorial to the 392nd BG at Wendling.

Notes and further reading.

*1 September 1943 saw a reorganisation of the US Eighth Air Force, and in September, the ‘Wings’ designation was changed to ‘Divisions’. Then in early 1944, a further reorganisation led to further strategic changes of the Air Force, one of which, saw the 44th and 392nd join with the 492nd to form the 14th Combat Wing, 2nd Bomb Division. Both  the 389th and the 93rd became part of the 2nd and 20th Combat Wings respectively.

A detailed website covering every mission, aircraft and most crew members offers a good deal of information and supporting photographs. It is well worth a visit for further more detailed information .

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