Known as the ‘Ship of the Desert’ Ely Cathedral can be seen for many miles away, and from the air, considerably further. It must have been a welcome sight to many returning bomber crews during those dark days of World War 2.
In the shadows of Ely Cathedral lie three RAF bomber stations, Mepal, Witchford and Waterbeach. Our journey today starts off at RAF Mepal, home to the New Zealand Squadron and later on Britain’s nuclear deterrent the Thor Missile.
Mepal was built to Class A specification, as a satellite for Waterbeach further to the North. The A142 ran across the middle of the site, it was closed off for construction and traffic diverted away through the nearby village. It originally had three concrete runways; one of 2,000 yards, and two of 1,400 yards. In addition, some thirty-six hard standings were built along with a T2 and B1 hangar. The bomb store lay to the north-west, with a range of dispersed sites to the east near Witcham. It was designed to accommodate 1,884 males and 346 females.
Mepal housed only one unit in it’s wartime life, the 75 sqn (New Zealand) with Stirling bombers and latterly Lancasters. They remained there for two years, after which training squadrons arrived in preparation for the war in the Far East. Following cessation of hostilities, Mepal closed to active units and was held in care until its closure.
On September 8th 1943, a tragedy hit Mepal when one of its Stirlings ‘BK809’ took off on an night mission to attack the gun battery at Boulogne. Piloted by F/O I.R.Menzies of the RNZAF, it badly swung ending up hitting houses bordering the airfield. The resultant crash left several dead and others severely wounded. It was a terrible blow for Mepal.
It was on Wednesday 1st December 1943, that a 75 Squadron Stirling MK.III (EH880) piloted by F/S. J. S. Kerr (s/n 1558163) would be diverted and instructed to land at RAF Acklington in Northumbria. On the final approach it undershot striking a family home in Togston near Amble. Inside the house, Cliff House Farmhouse, was the Robson family. The five children, ranging in ages from 19 months to 9 years of age, were all killed, whilst the parents who were playing cards downstairs, escaped with varying injuries. All but one of the Stirling’s crew were killed, the mid upper gunner Sgt K Hook, was pulled from the burning wreckage his burning clothes being extinguished by the local butcher, Jim Rowell.
In 1957 with the increased threat from the Warsaw Pact, Mepal was chosen to house Britain’s missile deterrent the Thor, and three ‘stations’ were built. By the early 1960s, these were no longer needed, being replaced by more up-to-date weapons, and the site was closed. The main road was reopened to by-pass the villages it had once protected and the site returned to other uses. The site is best visited in three parts. Firstly, the memorial in the village of Mepal.
The village has two memorials. The first is attached to the village sign and when entering the village, continue straight on without turning off. The sign is at the far end of the village on your left, opposite the school. A small insignificant memorial, this has been recently replaced by a much larger and more improved garden of remembrance. Leave the village sign and then turn right, the memorial garden is in here, tucked away on a small section of garden. A large circular stone, with benches and rose bushes, lay close by to a memorial wall. Here plaques have been placed by family members in memory of those brave New Zealand men who gave their lives in the name of freedom.
Leave the village turning left. Drive along the main road and the airfield is on your left. Here you actually cross the runways and perimeter track. Today the site is largely unrecognisable even though when you pass it, there are long stretches of concrete that you automatically consider to be airfield architecture. Theses stretches of concrete were in fact built later and do not represent the original layout. Enter the site and drive straight up; you arrive at what would have been the threshold point of one of the 3 runways. A power station now stands here. Turn right and stop, you are now looking down what was the eastern perimeter track, now an industrial site. To your left is where one of the two hangars would have stood. If you look right, you are looking at what was the airfield and the views from the hangar. Behind these units there is a small building best viewed from the main road when you leave.
The site was prepared for heavy industrial use with a number of small roads built-in readiness for larger industrial units. These have never materialised and so there is still a little of the atmosphere that open airfields offer. The bleak unbroken expanses show why this area of the country was so well designed for bomber activity.
Go back to the entrance and cross over the roundabout. This takes you to an agricultural auction site, again large expanses of concrete suggest airfield architecture. Much of this too is a later addition, and was built where the centres of two of runways would have crossed. Turn right again, go back up and you arrive back near the power station. This gives access to where one of the three Thor missile sites (LE10) would have stood. A little of the hard standing remains, but for the larger part, it was all dug up when the power station was built. The remaining two sites and the majority of the airfield would be to your right, and is now a neatly ploughed field. Small sections of concrete do exist in the long overgrown brambles that have taken over, but little else. Better evidence is actually found at the back of the village across the road and the second part of the tour.
Finding your way to the remaining parts in the second section of the visit, is a matter of trial and error. Small lanes that end abruptly are the norm but drive into the village go along and take aright at the garage and you will come to a pile of old tarmac chippings. Stop here. To your left is the perimeter track still evident and in quite good condition. Follow it with your eye and you can make out the runway that traverses south – north. This is now a famer’s track, but it gives a sense of the size and location of the structure. Behind you in amongst the shrubbery, is another part of the perimeter track leading round past the houses. It was along here that a MK II Lancaster from 115 Sqn RAF Witchford crashed following an attack by Luftwaffe night fighters. These Lancasters were powered by Bristol Hercules engines unlike the more common Merlins.
Leave the village and return to the main road and the roundabout. Cross back over to the site and pull over. On the exit side is a further memorial showing the location of the runways, perimeter track etc; a recent dedication to the crews that flew from here.
There is little evidence left of this once busy base that thundered under the roar of engines and heavy bombers on their way to Nazi Germany. What is left is rapidly disappearing. Very soon, the remaining site will be gone and Mepal will all but have disappeared into the history books. A sad ending to such an important part of history.
At the roundabout turn left and head toward Ely and our next location, RAF Witchford.
Witchford is found a few miles East of Mepal in the shadows of Ely Cathedral. Now an industrial estate, a large amount of the site is still in existence (and being used) and freely accessible to the general public. This makes it one of the rarer airfields around in terms of visiting.
A typical triangular Class A airfield, it had two runways of 1,408 and 1,415 yards and a further main runway of 2,010 yards, all concrete and 50 yards in width. The technical site was located on the western side of the airfield behind the long and straight perimeter track. A number of Nissen workshop huts were constructed along with the standard 343/43 Watch Office, Braithwaite water tower and 150 or so supporting buildings. As with all bomber airfields, the bomb store was well away from accommodation and was located to the southern side. Being a large airfield, it had three hangars, two T2 and one B1, and a total of 36 loop-type dispersed hardstands.
The accommodation sites (14 in total), were spread out well behind the technical site predominately where the village now stands and beyond. The main entrance to the airfield, also to the west, is now a small track leading to housing known as Bedwell Hey Lane. In total Witchford was designed to accommodate 1,502 men and 230 female ranks and it officially became operational in July / August 1943.
Witchford was served initially by Stirling IIIs of the newly formed 196 sqn RAF, whose first operational flight took place on August 28th that year. But as heavy operational losses built up, it soon became obvious that the large bomber was ‘unsuitable’ for long distance bombing missions and gradually, squadron by squadron, they were replaced by the more superior Lancaster to which the business park gets it’s modern name. As these Stirlings became obsolete for front line use many were redeployed covering glider towing, mine laying and transport duties.
During September to November 1943 a number of changes were to happen at Witchford. A second squadron, 195 sqn RAF, was reformed at Witchford (October 1st 1943) using elements of 115 sqn, who were at that time, based at Little Snoring (Trail 22) in Norfolk.
A further unit, 513 Squadron, also formed at Witchford (15th September) again using the ill-fated Stirlings. However, 513 sqn never became operational, and were disbanded only two months later.
On the night of 26th November 1943, 12 aircraft of 115 Squadron left RAF Little Snoring in Norfolk, to attack the German capital, Berlin. On return, they were to land at their new station RAF Witchford where the ground staff had moved to that very day. Only one aircraft did not make it back that night and this meant that 115 sqn (who in August 1941 had taken part in trials of GEE) were now totally based at Witchford. 115 were still using the Armstrong Whitworth (Bagington) built Lancaster IIs with their Bristol Hercules engines. (My father, the inspiration to my love of aircraft, worked for Armstrong Whitworth at the Bagington site not long after being demobbed). It was with these aircraft that the Squadron dropped the first 8000 lb bomb on Berlin during Air Chief Marshal Harris’s bombing campaign against the German capital.
In March 1944, 115 sqn began replacing its Mk IIs with the Merlin engined Mk I and IIIs, aircraft it flew until hostilities ceased in 1945.
Enemy intruder missions over Allied Airfields were common place, and Witchford and her neighbour Mepal, were no exception. On the night of April 18th and 19th 1944 an ME 410 joined the circuit over nearby Mepal (see above) and shot down two Lancasters both from 115 sqn. A further intruder mission also occurred on the night of April 20th / 21st but luckily there were no fatalities and little damaged was caused in this attack.
When 115 sqn’s war finally came to an end, it had one of the finest records in Bomber Command. A total of 678 operations in all, second only to 75(NZ) Sqn at Mepal. But the price was high, 208 aircraft being shot down or lost in action. Witchford as an airfield closed in March 1946 with the withdrawal of all operational units at the end of hostilities.
Today the site is a small business park, located on the western side of the airfield with a wide range of businesses working where the main Technical site of the field once stood. On entering the park, you drive down a long straight road, this is the original perimeter track. On your right is where the main hangars and maintenance area would have been located. The original B1 still stands today, but it is heavily transformed with new cladding and metal work. If you drive the length of this road you come to a security gate. Just to your right are a number of small huts. These are the original stores and in remarkable condition. Used by local businesses they house machinery and other equipment, but their features and layout clearly represent airfield architecture. Tucked away in here, in the foyer of one of the businesses, is a small collection of memorable dedicated to the crews and personnel of RAF Witchford and nearby Mepal. It has an array of photographs, personal items and one of the Bristol Hercules engines from the downed 115 sqn Lancaster II. A free museum, it has a bizarre feeling to it as workers casually walk through between offices while you peruse the items neatly displayed on the walls. Do spend some time here; it is a fascinating insight into life on the base.
After leaving here, return back up the road taking the first right turn. On your right is the location of the control tower – now long gone. This brings you onto the remains of the main runway. If you drive to the top and turn back, you will see that it has been cut by a hedge that now separates the runway with the field. To the left of the hedge, you can still see the concrete remains of the original track. Continue to the top and turn the corner, then turn right.
This is the threshold of the runway and joining perimeter and is marked by a superb memorial dedicated to the crews of the airfield. Also on here, is the remarkable ‘factual diary’ of the squadron and makes for very interesting reading. Look back south from here you have views across the airfield, along the perimeter track and down the runway; you just can sense the roar of lumbering bombers on their way to occupied Europe.
If you now leave the site, and turn left out of the park, follow the road down and turn left. Drive along as far as you can and stop at the gate. This is Bedwell Hey Lane and the original main entrance to the airfield. Vehicle access is only by permission, but a ‘kissing gate’ allows walkers free access and walks across the field. Go through. On your right are the entrances to various works stations, denoted by covered brickworks, further along to your left is the site of the original guard-house. keep going, and on your left you will see the Nissen huts mentioned previously. You finally arrive at the rear of the security gate you were at earlier. There are several occurrences of a worker having stood in the wet concrete, these footprints can be found at numerous points around the site, especially here. Turn right and walk through another farm gate and you are on the remainder of the perimeter track. From here you can walk around a large portion of the perimeter track, having great views across the field. In a short distance you join where the threshold of the second runway would have been, it too is now all but gone.
Continue walking round the perimeter track, after a while, you see it narrows, the sides becoming overgrown with weeds, If you look in the adjacent fields, you will find a large quantity of former airfield drainage piping, scattered amongst pieces of building left after demolition. Eventually you arrive at a split in the track. Access straight on is not permitted, but you can take the right fork and in front you will see the low-lying remains of the armoury. Walking down this section will eventually bring you onto the main Ely to Cambridge road. If you look straight ahead and to the right from where you are standing, you will see the location of one of the two type T2 hangars.
To your right and behind, is the bomb store, a significant size in its day, covered in huts and stores, bustling with activity; today there is sadly no remaining evidence of this busy section of the airfield. However, this part of the perimeter track is well-preserved and shows use by the local farmer who now uses a majority of the site. But looking across back toward the industrial area, you get a real sense of wartime activity, Lancasters and Stirlings rumbling where you now stand, bomb crews readying aircraft and vehicles hurrying from one aircraft to the next. Take in the atmosphere before walking back the way you came. Keep your eye open to the right. Part way along here, you can see along the length of what remains of the second runway along to the point where you stood earlier by the memorial. The original concrete still evident and witness to the many aircraft that flew from here. A poignant moment indeed. Continue back the way you came taking in views across the filed and the stores area.
After leaving the site, drive back along the main road away from Ely, you will pass a number of derelict buildings once used by the RAF at Witchford. Indeed one such building is now a small industrial unit, the others overgrown and in a poor state of disrepair. (Photos of both these buildings are available on flckr).
One of the happier stories to emerge from wartime Witchford is that of Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade, who given the choice of staying in his burning Lancaster, to die a terrible death, or jump minus his parachute, to a rather quicker death, opted for the latter. Amazingly for him, jumping from 18,000ft he landed in fir trees and soft snow, surviving with little injury. The Germans, after questioning him, confirmed his story after finding burnt sections of his parachute in the aircraft wreckage. He survived the war and returned to England later marrying his sweetheart. See his story here.
There are few wartime airfields today that exist in any form let alone accessible to the general public. Witchford has a few little gems tucked away in amongst the now busy business park, none more so than the display and memorial. But walking round the perimeter track, you do so knowing that many years ago, Lancasters and Stirlings also rumbled here, and that many a young man left here never to return again.
On July 12th 2015, I was lucky enough to have been invited to join members of the 115 squadron Memorial project who have painstakingly researched the crash site and details of Lancaster ‘KO-Y’ DS 734, that took off from Witchford and crashed near Pasbrug, Mechelen, Belgium on the night of April 24th/25th, 1944.
Together with Sue Aldridge, one of the Museum founders, we met Dave Howell, son of Aubrey Howell DFC who flew Lancasters whilst at RAF Witchford. We were also given a short tour of the buildings by David Brand of Grovemere Holdings, the current land owners of both Witchford and Mepal sites. To them all I would like to say a huge thank you, It was a most memorable day and a great honour to have met you.
Sue and her husband Barry, have written a book ‘Memories of RAF Witchford which includes an enormous number of personal stories, photographs and detail about the life of RAF Witchford and the people who worked here. It is available to buy for anyone wanting to know more.
A third airfield lies a few miles south of here, also part of bomber command it opened in 1940 and remained in use, by both the RAF and latterly the Army, until 2013. As an ongoing development its access is restricted but I hope to add details here shortly. The is however, a small museum here and it is certainly worth a visit if you are able. The airfield is RAF Waterbeach.
RAF Waterbeach Museum.
Earlier this year I was able to visit the Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum located on the former RAF Waterbeach airfield; creating the museum has been quite an achievement and a very worthy cause. The museum contains many interesting photographs and artefacts relating to life at “the ‘Beach”, from its inception in 1940 right through to its final closure in 2013.
The current Museum was opened after the Army’s departure and the subsequent closure of the barracks. It is currently housed in Building 3 just inside the main entrance next to the former guard-house, and access is strictly controlled, and by prior arrangement only. It was created by the then curator, Oliver Merrington, along with a handful of local people who wanted to secure the future of the museum and keep the memories of Waterbeach alive for future generations. Mr. Merrington has since sadly passed away, but the volunteers continue the good work he put in place.
Whilst the museum is currently small, it holds a tremendous amount of information, all of which is neatly displayed in cabinets and on the walls. Many original photographs are supplemented with official documents, personal stories, newspaper cuttings and artefacts, some of which relate to specific aircraft from Waterbeach’s history.
Whilst most of the displays reflect life at Waterbeach during the Second World War, various aspects reflect its post war life, both with the RAF and with the Army’s Engineer Regiment – the founders of the original Waterbeach Museum in 1984.
The two rooms of the museum are dedicated to all these people, taking you on a journey through the life of Waterbeach, starting with the sad First World War story of three brothers: Sgt. Jack Day, (1st July 1916), Private Walter Day (1st July 1916) and Private Clifford Day (13th August 1918). Like so many families of the war, their lives were all taken prematurely, two of which occurred on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme. The three brothers, whose ages ranged from 19 to 22 years old, were all local boys to Waterbeach, and like so many, left a family devastated by their loss. Two of the boys remain buried abroad but Walter, like so many other young men, has no known grave and remains missing.
From here the display takes us to Waterbeach in the 1940s, the story of its construction and design are told using photographs taken at that time. Representations of the various bomber squadrons who used the airfield are supported with operational details, personal stories and artefacts relating to individual aircraft that flew from Waterbeach during these early war years.
In the post-war period Waterbeach was transferred to the Transport Command and again photographs and documents show the range of aircraft that flew from here: Liberators, Dakotas, Lancastrians and Avro Yorks.
Into the jet age and we see a flying suit, and a canopy from Gloster Javelin XH871, which ended its days at Bovingdon as a fire fighting air frame. It is particularity significant as it previously served here at RAF Waterbeach in the late 1950s.
After the Royal Air Force departed the base was handed over to the Army, and a small number of exhibits represent their presence here at Waterbeach. The Royal Engineers finally departed the barracks themselves in March 2013.
Other exhibits on display here include: the weather vane from the station church (now demolished), the operations boards, astro-compasses, radios and telephone equipment, all neatly arranged inside glass cabinets. A detailed history of one of the former gate guards, Spitfire LF MK.XIVe ‘TE392’ which now flies with the Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston, Texas, is also on view.
This is a delightful little museum that has been put together to pay homage to those who served at Waterbeach, either under RAF command or with the Royal Engineers. It is run by volunteers and relies on charitable donations to keep it running. Like many museums, it has limited opening hours, but the range of material is fabulous and it deserves a great deal of public support.
On a final note, my personal thanks go out to Adrian Wright who gave up his own time to open up and show me around the museum.
For details of opening times and other information the curator can be contacted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
or via Facebook at: https://en-gb.facebook.com/waterbeachmilitaryheritagemuseum/
Sources and Links
Further details of the Robson family loss can be found here.
The 115 Squadron Memorial Project website can be found here.
For further information about both RAF Mepal and RAF Witchford see the Ousewashes website.