For this trail, we venture south of Norwich toward the borders with Suffolk. Again, as is typical with this area, there is a strong American influence. We take in a number of airfields and museums with long histories and compelling memories. Starting near Diss, we start with a brief visit to the museum at Thorpe Abbotts.
Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139)
Opened quite late in the war, (April 1943), the first American units of the 100th BG arrived in June that year and operated continuously until the cessation of conflict in 1945. The site never saw any further action, being returned to the RAF until final closure in 1956. Now totally agriculture, it boasts a superb museum as a memorial to those who gave so tragically in what became know as the ‘Bloody 100th’.
This name developed as a result of losses sustained by the group, but which were not actually significantly worse than any other of the Air Force. Throughout their 306 missions, 177 aircraft and 700 lives were sadly lost in some of the most difficult and terrifying air battles of the Second World War.
During the raid on Raegensburg, they found themselves unprotected by their ‘little friends’ and as ‘tail-end Charlies’, they were easy prey for the now angry and hunting Luftwaffe. During this engagement nine aircraft were lost either on their way to or from the target area. For their action, they received a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) now becoming a regular feature amongst the brave crews of the Eighth Air Force.
Difficult times lie ahead, with losses in October 1943 (21 aircraft), March 1944 (where they achieved a second DUC for raids in Berlin) and September 1944 (11 aircraft). Coupled with a number of accidents, where flare guns and collisions caused fatal crashes, the ‘Bloody 100th’ became synonymous with death and gained a reflective reputation.
Finally leaving in December 1945, the 100th was to return to serve over the skies of the UK once more as the 100th Refuelling Wing at nearby RAF Mildenhall.
Today, the site houses a museum utilising the old original control tower and a small number of other buildings. Tucked neatly away amongst the beautiful countryside of Suffolk, this museum is more than worthy of a visit. Further details and information can be found at http://www.100bgmus.org.uk/ .
Visible remains of the airfield are restricted to mainly perimeter track, but remnants can be found with a little effort. In the woods to the east of the tower, buried in amongst the undergrowth, are the remains of buildings including the Battle Headquarters which would have commanded excellent views across the field in the case of attack.
The perimeter track has been partially utilised and turned into road, from which larger sections can be seen. Admin blocks, stores and other buildings are now engulfed by trees and vegetation and all very much on private land.
Further sections of track have, as with many of these airfields, been taken over by turkey farms and poultry sheds. These now cover what was once a major bustling airfield of the USAAF. Odd buildings do remain in private hands and in use by the local farmers. To all intents and purposes, Station 139 has gone, buried beneath agriculture and turkey sheds. However, with the dedication of a few volunteers the memories and lives of those who gave so much continue to live on.
RAF Hardwick (Station 104)
Hardwick is a difficult place to find, primarily due to the narrow lanes and the fact that the name given to it is not the closest village! In fact, Alburgh is closer, but once found this delightful place has a lot to offer to the visitor.
Opening in September 1942, the first units to arrive were B-25 Mitchells of the 310th BG of the Eighth Air Force. Its three runways were of concrete construction, one of 1,975 yards and two of 1,400 yards. The entire site covered an enormous area.
The B-25s were very soon replaced (December 1942) with B-24s of the 93rd BG, and the 310th moved away to fight the North African Campaign taking their B-25s with them. Already experienced, the 93rd BG moved in from nearby Alconbury and were to conduct a further 330 missions, many from Hardwick. Added to the 66 already carried out, this was to be the highest number of operations of any Eighth Air Force Group. Moves and detachments, mainly to Africa, earned the unit the name ‘Travelling Circus’.
It was during one of the Hardwick missions that the group earned themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (one of two), for action over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania.
Whilst here at Hardwick, they took part in bombing key European targets such as Arnhem, helping the advancement of the ground forces of the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. Explanations and details of their many missions are available on the museum website, and so we won’t dwell too long on them here.
Today there are little physical remains of the airfield, a few scattered buildings amongst the trees, a small section of runway and a smattering of Nissen huts that form the newly created 93rd BG Museum. With such a large site, all of which is on private land, it is difficult to investigate individual parts in any depth. However, this does not lead to an uninteresting visit.
The airfield is separated by the local road, to the west are the runways and the east the admin and accommodation areas. To the west, one section of the main runway still exists in good condition and for a very special reason; the local farmer (Hardwick Warbirds) uses this to fly his TWO restored P-51Ds and other ex-military aircraft! Seen over the airfield on special occasions, he performs small displays for ‘open days’ and other museum related activities. I can imagine this would make for a very moving experience given the chance of witnessing it. Looking across the westerly side, one can see a lone windsock catching the breeze. This marks the location of the remaining runway sections and can be seen easily from the road.
There are two entrances to the eastern side. Both go across private land, but the landowners are happy (in my experience) to allow free passage on both. I approached from the Barondole Lane entrance and headed to the aptly named ‘Airfield Farm’. Once there, I knocked at the farm door and gave notice of my intentions to the farmer’s delightful wife. She was happy for me to wander, and even took time out to explain the layout of the remaining buildings and show me the memorial that now stands outside the farmhouse! She then pointed me toward the museum further along the farm track. A truly lovely and helpful lady!
The family have utilised some of the original buildings as part of the farm and these now house chickens. In one of them, is a small clear block with a Liberator suspended inside, marking it as an original. Behind here are further building remains, in particular the gas training room, condemned as unsafe but too costly to have demolished.
Driving on, you arrive at a small collection of Nissen huts; this forms the museum. Each one is original and in very good condition. They hold a huge range of memorabilia, uniforms, photographs and aircraft parts. This is a real gem hidden away in a quiet corner of Norfolk.
One of the volunteers, himself ex-USAF, (RAF Bentwaters), told me stories about the site, the history of all the parts they had and gave an amazing personal guided tour even though they were closed. He explained how at the end of the war, as the Americans pulled out, large trenches were dug and filled with unwanted bicycles and other artefacts that they were not allowed to give away, for fear of disrupting the local economy! What the volunteers wouldn’t give for a heavy-duty metal detector. He also showed me spent cartridges that were used to light the Nissen hut fires, all found in the topsoil of the adjacent field!
When visiting the museum, check opening times as they are limited, but do spend a good half-day or more here. It will be worth your while.
Leave the museum by the same track, turn left out onto the road and then right. Here is one of the entrances to the original airfield, now a farm track. It looks so insignificant shrouded by tress and bushes. It is hard to think what went on here all those years ago.
Hardwick once bustled with airmen and personnel, several thousand in all, and with little to show for this now. It is good to know that flying still does take place there, and that a museum helps promote the dedication, sacrifice and bravery of those young men in their B-24s.
More information about the site and museum details can be found at http://www.93rd-bg-museum.org/ (As of late May 2014 this site is under construction).
From here, we move on to look further at the USAAF involvement in southern Norfolk. We come across some famous names and visit some superb little airfields.