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 and former airfield at Thorpe Abbotts.
Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139).
Opened quite late in the war, (April 1943), Thorpe Abbots would only be active for a short period of time. But during these months, it would be home to one major air group, the 100th BG of the US Eighth Air Force, who would gain the unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th’. Their legacy would become well-known, it would be a legacy connected with death and destruction, and would be one that would live on for many years, even after the cessation of conflict in Europe.
The first units of the 100th BG would arrive in June 1943, and would operate continuously here until the cessation of conflict in 1945. The site would never see any further action after this, being returned to the RAF who retained ownership until its final closure in 1956. Now totally agricultural, it boasts a superb museum as a memorial to those who gave so tragically flying with ‘The Bloody 100th’.
The 100th’s name developed as a result of losses sustained by the group, which in actual fact were not significantly worse than any other Bomb Group of the US Air Force at that time. However, throughout their 306 operational missions over occupied Europe, 177 aircraft along with 700 lives were sadly lost in what were some of the most difficult and terrifying air battles of the Second World War.
Designated Station 139, Thorpe Abbots was built to Class A specification, with three concrete and woodchip runways in the form of an inverted ‘A’, with the cross of the A being the main runway running east to west. Being a bomber base it had 36 pan style hardstands and 16 spectacle hardstands around the perimeter. Maintenance was carried out in two T2 hangars (a type A to drawing 8254/40, and a standard T2). The technical area, accommodation areas and even the bomb store were very unusually all nestled close together in the south-western corner of the site, giving the whole airfield a compact feel.
With two communal sites, six airmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and sewage works, it was a large accommodation area capable of holding 3,000 men and women of mixed ranks. All the accommodation areas used a range of standard huts, Nissen, Romney, Seco, Thorn and Orlit, all of which appeared on site.
Being a large base, it was, like many of its counterparts, a little town in its own right, with a barber’s shop, a cobblers, grocery store, a gymnasium and squash courts. It also had an on site plumbers, a cement store and a carpenter’s shop.
Although the journey of the 100th started with the activation on June 1st 1942, little occurred until later that year, when the collection of 230 enlisted men and 26 Officers arrived at Walla Walla, Washington, under the guidance of the Group Adjutant Cpt. Karl Standish. He began to organise the cadre into something worthwhile, and as more men arrived the ranks began to swell and the 100th began to take shape. The four squadrons: 349th (led by Cpt. William Veal), 350th (Cpt. Gale Clevan), 351st (Cpt. John Kidd) and 418th (Cpt. Robert Flesher), formed bonds and very quickly, and very soon after, the air echelons would begin to arrive, bringing with them brand new ‘straight out of the factory’ B-17Fs.
Their next move came at the end of November with a move that took them to Wendover Field, Utah, followed by, Sioux City and then Kearney Air Base in Nebraska, their final major US base before leaving for the UK in May 1943.
After the ground and air echelons split for their transition, the air echelons flew to bases in Newfoundland, where they departed across the northern route to Prestwick at the end of May. The ground echelons then carried out ground training before departing on the “Queen Elizabeth” on the 27th May, many men being confined below decks because of the overcrowding on the upper decks.
The Queen Elizabeth finally made Greenock, and the men began unloading, the transition from the US to the UK being a shock to many as they clambered aboard the small ‘box cars’ size trains. That night they arrived at Poddington, their first base, and following a poor night’s sleep they received their initial introduction into the British way of life.
The 100th’s arrival at Thorpe Abbotts was not a pleasant one, the base was unfinished, accommodation was lacking and overcrowded, and food supplies were poor to say the least; this was not going to be an easy ride by any means.
Finally, in June, the air echelons began to arrive, the ground and air crews began to work on their machines, rehearsing, tweaking instruments and flying around the local area, until just after midnight on June 25th 1943, the order came through; they were to fly their first mission early that next morning.
The 100th were the third B-17 group to join the Mighty Eighth, as part of the new and reorganised 4th Bombardment Wing, they would join with the 379th BG (Kimbolton) and the 384th BG (Grafton Underwood), both also B-17 groups.
On that morning the aircraft would depart Thorpe Abbotts at 06:00 hrs, and whilst flying out over the North Sea, the formation would be joined by another B-17, with no top turret and the letters ‘VGY’ painted on it. No-one knew what it was, or where it had come from, and suspicions quickly arose about its authenticity. The ‘alien’ ship remained with the formation up until the target at which point it departed and “all hell broke loose”. The formation consisting of these new recruits was ragged and the experienced Luftwaffe pilots took full advantage of this. Focusing on the low squadron first, they fired a barrage of explosive shells into the fuselage’s of the B-17s. That afternoon three aircraft and thirty airmen failed to return home to Thorpe Abbotts, the war had hit home, and hit home hard.
Over the next month, there were many aborted and scrubbed missions, this continued raising and dashing of hopes set the men on edge but what few missions they did fly, they manged to get through relatively unscathed.
The end of July 1943 saw the official hand over of Thorpe Abbotts from the RAF to the USAAF, with Sqn. Ldrs. Lawson and Bloomfield representing the RAF and Col. Harding the USAAF.
On August 17th 1943, on the anniversary of the Eighth’s operations from England, the men of the 100th sat in the briefing room awaiting the revealing of the target for the day. The anticipation however, was soon replaced with trepidation as the route map revealed a line that would take them deep into the heart of southern Germany, to the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg. This would be no ordinary mission though, they were to not return to Thorpe Abbotts that day, but instead, they were to complete the first shuttle mission by the Eighth Air Force of the war, flying on to land in North Africa.
After an initial postponement because of mist, the green light was finally given and the aircrews started their engines. One by one they departed Thorpe Abbots toward the skies above Germany. The 100th were in the unenviable position of ‘tail end Charlie’ being the low squadron at the rear of the formation. Added to this the 100th BG found themselves unprotected due to miscalculations in timing, and as unprotected ‘tail-end Charlies’, they were easy prey for the fearsome and hunting Luftwaffe. For two whole hours the defenders attacked from every possible angle, venting their determination on the lowly B-17s. The sky was littered with downed aircraft and falling wreckage. The B-17s were subjected to harrowing attempts to bring them down, air-to-air bombing from Ju-88s, and rockets fired from BF-109s just added to the mayhem of exploding cannon shells and bullets.
During this engagement B-17 #42-30311, piloted by Lt. Tom Hummel was attacked by Rudolf Germeroth in Bf 109G-6 of J 3/1. The aircraft was seen to explode and fall from the sky. The two waist gunners Ken O’Connor and Dick Bowler were killed whilst the remainder of the crew escaped the wreck and were taken prisoner.
Bombing over the target was accurate and reports sent back to England hailed the mission as a total success, The Messerschmitt factory being totally destroyed, and along with it unbeknown to intelligence, secret jigs for the manufacture of Me 262 jets. But the price had been high, of the twenty-one aircraft sent from the Thorpe Abbotts group, nine had been lost and ninety men were either dead, captured or missing. Of all the groups who had taken part, the 100th had suffered the most, the lead group protected by P-47s coming off much more lightly.
The Regensburg mission would be a turning point for the 100th, their luck would run out and very soon they would earn themselves the unsavoury nickname ‘The Bloody 100th‘, a name that would stick with them for the duration of the war and beyond.
For their action in this mission, the 100th (and the entire division) would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) an award now becoming a regular feature amongst the brave crews of the Eighth Air Force.
In the Citation, the Secretary of War, G.C. Marshall said:
“The 3d Bombardment Division (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty on action against the enemy on 17th August 1943. This unprecedented attack against one of Germany’s most important aircraft factories was the first shuttle mission performed in the theatre of operations and entailed the longest flight over strongly defended enemy territory yet accomplished to this date. For 4.5 hours the formation was subjected to persistent, savage assaults by large forces of enemy fighters…
…The high degree of success achieved is directly attributable to the extraordinary heroism, skill and devotion to duty displayed by the members of this unit.”
During the September, the USAAF was reorganised again, the 4th Bombardment Wing now becoming the 3rd Bomb Division, 13th Combat Wing, a move that heralded little more than a change in aircraft markings. September would also be a notable month for other reasons. The mission on the 6th to Stuttgart would be a disaster for the USAAF, a deep penetration mission that saw over 400 aircraft combine in the skies over Germany. It was during this mission that B-17 #42-30088 ‘Squawkin’ Hawk II‘ would suffer from head on attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft who pounded the B-17 with 20 mm cannon shells. In the attacks the co-pilot (F/O. Harry Edeburn) was fatally wounded, the bombardier and navigator Lt. Peter Delso and Lt. Russ Engel were both severely wounded and the pilot, Lt. Summer Reeder was sprayed with metal as the nose of the B-17 shattered. With poor control and no oxygen, Reeder dropped the aircraft some 14,000 ft at an unbelievable rate of around 300 mph, before playing cat and mouse with the Luftwaffe fighters who were determined to finish off the damaged aircraft. By singing and telling jokes, the severely injured Reeder assisted by the badly wounded navigator, manged to reach England and without brakes or hydraulics, managed to put the aircraft down on a fighter airfield in England.
‘Squawkin Hawk II‘ would go on to become the first 100th BG aircraft to complete 50 missions covering a staggering 47,720 combat miles. She returned to the US in May 1944 where she was eventually sold for scrap.
During this disastrous mission many aircraft would run out of fuel, five made for Switzerland including ‘Raunchy‘ from the 100th BG in which Joe Moloney, the ball turret gunner, would be killed whilst trying to ditch. He would take the dubious honour of being the first US airman killed in neutral Switzerland.
It was also at this month, that the 100th would suffer another major blow and to rub salt into the wounds, they would not even get credit for it.
After a cancelled mission on September 24th 1943, the men of the 100th were raised from their beds for a practice mission over the North Sea, a ‘mission’ that would test their ability as Pathfinders. With bombs still in the aircraft from the morning’s preparations, skeleton crews and semi prepared aircraft took off from several bases across East Anglia.
They were to form up with P-47s over the Wash and then fly out over the sea and practice bombing. When a collection of aircraft appeared on the horizon it was assumed by the bomber crews that it was the friendlies arriving at last. The reality of it was sickening. Diving out of the sun Luftwaffe fighters from JG 3/II attacked the formation, rallying 20mm cannon shells in to the B-17’s wings and bodies. One aircraft, #42-30259 “Damifino II” piloted by Lt. J. Gossage crashed into the sea. Five crewmen were plucked from the water by Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) hunting German ‘E’ boats, five men remained missing presumed dead.
Yet more difficult times lay ahead. The October raid to Munster saw only one of fourteen aircraft return home – 120 crewmen were missing in action that day. As aircraft were hit from head on, the formation split. Aircraft dodged falling debris and exploding B-17s as rockets were launched at near point-blank range in a forty-five minute frenzy of slaughter.
This disastrous mission would see the tally of lost airmen rise to 200 in just one week, the loss could not be hidden and Munster would simply add another black chapter to the already darkening book of the 100th’s war. Even the one year celebrations at the end of October failed to cover the feeling of loss shrouding the base, a feeling as thick as the autumn fogs preventing flying from taking place.
The cold winter of 1943/44 saw more fog, rain and cold, the dismal weather allowing only a few missions to go ahead. But as spring warmed the ground, the softening of the German defences in preparation for Operation “Overlord” could begin. ‘Big Week’ of February 20th – 25th, saw the 100th in action again – Brunswick on the 21st. March saw another milestone etched in the annuals of history as the 100th took the war directly to the heart of Germany and Berlin. Over three days the 100th would target the German capital, the first on the 4th, followed by the 6th and then the 8th. The 4th would see the 100th achieve the first blood, shooting down their first German aircraft over Berlin.
Each attack brought new challenges. In the first mission the weather forced many aircraft to abandon the flight and return home, the 100th, persevering lost one aircraft that day. On the 6th, the loss was much higher, fifteen aircraft went down and then another single aircraft on the 8th; 170 men were missing from those missions.
For their action, the 100th would receive their second DUC, albeit a year later. In the General orders 3rd March 1945, No.14 it said:
“The 100th Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in connection with the initial series of successful attacks against Berlin, Germany, 4, 6, and 8 March 1944…”
For the remainder of the summer the 100th would attack oil fields. bridges, and gun positions. They would provide support at St. Lo and Brest in August. Marshalling yards would also come under the focus of the 100th, the Ardennes and the assault across the Rhine.
On 16th September 1944, a letter was sent by Major General Earl Partridge (U.S. Army) to the Commanding Officer of the 100thBG extending his gratitude to all the personnel at the station on their 200th mission. He concluded:
“Please extend to all Officers and Men on your station my appreciation for the outstanding work which they have done. Their achievements reflect the highest credit upon themselves and the Army Air Forces as a whole.”*1
As part of the celebrations a B-17 was sent to London to collect a “huge supply of Whisky and Vodka”, no doubt a considerable amount was consumed that night.
Eventually the war would come to a close and the 100th perform their last mission on April 20th 1945. They would lick their wounds and prepare for a well-earned return to the US.
By the end of its war-time operations the 100th BG had flown nearly 9,000 sorties, in over 300 missions, dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs. They would be credited with the destruction of 261 enemy aircraft, with another 240 damaged or probable. They earned two DUCs and the French Croix de Guerre with palm. Far from being the worst in the 8th Air Force, the 100th’s reputation for accuracy, and overall low operational loses made it one of the most outstanding Bomb Groups of the Air Force.
Finally leaving in December 1945, the 100th would eventually return to serve over the skies of the UK once more as the 100th Refuelling Wing based at nearby RAF Mildenhall.
After the 100th departed, Thorpe Abbots was returned to RAF ownership, no further military flying took place and the site remained inactive. Eventually in 1956 the airfield was closed and the site then sold off to private ownership. Many of the runways and perimeter tracks were removed for hardcore, and the buildings fell into disrepair.
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 Norfolk, this museum is more than worthy of a visit.
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. A number of admin blocks, stores and a range of accommodation buildings are now engulfed by trees and vegetation but still survive and are all very much on private land.
Whilst many buildings remain hidden away, the dedication of a few volunteers keep the memories and lives of those who gave so much alive, and enable the history of Thorpe Abbots airfield to continue on for future generations.
There are many good museums across the country that tell the stories of heroism and sacrifice witnessed during the Second World War. In Norfolk, most reflect the lives of the ‘friendly invasion’ the lives of the US armed forces and in particular the USAAF, who flocked here in their thousands to a life that was new and very dangerous.
One such group, the 93rd BG, achieved many records and fought in many theatres, but their road was not easy nor was it any ‘milk run’.
After visiting Thorpe Abbots, we head for another US bomber station, and another that has a terrific museum to offer. Whilst the airfield is gone, there is still a lot to offer here and a trip is certainly recommended. In the second part of this trail we remember those who served at the former US station 104, otherwise known as RAF Hardwick.
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 of concrete and tarmac construction, one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, were laid out in the classic Class A style. The entire site covered an enormous area, housing eleven ‘spectacle’ (double loop) and fifty ‘frying pan’ type hardstands, it had three T2 hangars, a watch office (to design 518/40 later modified to 5966/43) and a wide range of support and ancillary buildings common to all Class A airfields. Being a bomber base, it would require two enormous fuel stores holding a combined total of 144,000 imp Gallons of fuel.
The airfield’s construction process commenced in late 1941 with the main infrastructure being built by John Laing & Son Ltd. Completion was achieved in the autumn of 1942, when the site was officially opened. The construction process would lead to a site capable of holding around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender. There would be six male sites, two female, two communal quarters and a sick quarters, and as was common with all airfields built after the start of the war, the main public road dissected the airfield separating it from the dispersed accommodation blocks. As a result, the accommodation was to the east beyond the technical area with the bomb dump far to the north-west. Accommodation for the personnel was primarily through ‘Laing’ or ‘Nissen’ hutting, with a small number of Boulton & Paul style huts, none of which offered a great deal of protection from the cold outside.
Handed over to the US forces in 1942, the ground echelons of the 310th BG arrived by sea during the September, with the air echelons bringing their B-25 ‘Mitchells’ via the northern route during early October. The 310th were lucky enough to avoid the seasonal weather change that caused so many problems for units flying across the northern route in the winter months that followed.
Brought to the UK to train crews before they were shipped out to North Africa, the new twin-engined bomber crews would very soon leave Hardwick behind, receiving their posting and transferring abroad in three stages during November and on into December.
Hardwick would take on a very different sound after that, the B-25s being replaced by the heavy four-engined B-24s of the 93rd BG. The 93rd were already a battle experienced outfit, having flown a number of missions from Alconbury since the 9th October 1942 – the day the B-24 Liberator entered into the war.
Many of the early missions performed by the 93rd would be attacks on the submarine pens along the French coast, a move discussed at great length between the two US Generals, Spaatz and Arnold. The poor successes of these missions, which were designed to support the war in the Atlantic, were borne out in an Eighth Air Force study later on. In the report, published on 8th December, it was summarised that American bombs at that time were incapable of penetrating the thick ceilings of the U-boat pens, and that little damage was being achieved by the current US bombing strategy. As a result of this, attacks soon curtailed and operations moved to other targets.
Preceding the move of the 93rd to Hardwick was the posting of a large detachment to North Africa on December 5th. It was a detachment that would see the men and machines of the Eighth transfer across to the Twelfth Air Force. It was a move that was often complained about, seen as draining valuable resources and hindering the training and future operations of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.
Those who remained in the UK began transferring over to the 2nd Bombardment Wing and a new airfield here at Hardwick, where they were trained for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th Bomb Squadron (BS) were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved to a satellite airfield at Bungay. Here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee’ system and crews trained on its use. By December they were ready, and ‘Moling‘ mission could now begin.
Unfortunately, the weather played a major part in the operational downfall of these missions, with insufficient amounts of bad weather being found to allow Gee to be used properly. Much to the surprise of the Americans, it didn’t always rain in England!
With the other three squadrons away in North Africa, the 329th joined forces with its sister group the 44th BG at Shipdham. Here they waited in earnest for the return of their associate squadrons.
However, it was not a harmonious relationship. With the squadrons placed in North Africa getting considerable press coverage for their successes, and the B-17 groups being regular features in the UK, the 44th were understandably aggrieved, feeling that the press were ignoring the immense effort and losses they were incurring. The cold of high altitude bombing over occupied Europe was, it would seem, little match for the delights of North Africa.
In the following February / March 1943 the four squadrons were reunited for the first time, and they returned to Hardwick. Here they would fly bombing mission to targets in France and the low countries. In the April, Hardwick was visited by both Lord Trenchard and, ten days later, by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews, two high-ranking officials who would bring prestige and pride to the men and women of Hardwick. It was Andrews who would be so tragically killed flying across the Northern Atlantic route later on. He along with the crew of B-24 #41-23728 ‘Hot Stuff‘, the first Hardwick crew to achieve their mission quota, would die in a crash that left just one survivor, the tail gunner. The name Andrews would live on though, his name being given to the airfield in Essex, RAF Andrews Field in memory of his work.
The summer of 1943 saw a further detachment being sent out again to North Africa. Here they would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (one of two), for the low-level action over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Further moves and detachments between Hardwick and mainly North Africa earned the unit the name ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus’, Ted being Colonel Ted Timberlake, the Group’s Commander.
During this early period of the war the Liberator groups had little in the way of operational ‘clout’ over France and Germany. With the larger operations being handled by the established B-17 Groups, the B-24s were often relegated to Air Sea Rescue missions where they would search for downed aircraft particularity over the North Sea.
By early September 1943 the bulk of the 93rd were back once more at Hardwick, small in numbers they were often overlooked for the more popular B-17s. Looked down upon by the crews of the B-17s who openly criticised the ungainly lines of the Liberator with names such as ‘banana boat’, only led in turn to jeers from B-24 crews who highlighted the short-range and lower bomb load carried by the sleeker B-17.
This short-range was a factor borne out on the 93rd’s first mission back in the UK when on the 6th September, sixty-nine B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD) were sent along with 338 B-17s of the 1st and 3rd BDs to attack Stuttgart. A disaster from start to finish, heavy cloud prevented the target being bombed, formations were separated and targets of opportunity were then chosen. With the formations broken up, defensive power was lost and the Luftwaffe made easy pickings of those aircraft left out alone. Forty-five of the B-17s were lost compared to none of the B-24s, many B-17s having to ditch in the sea or crash-land in Kent after running out of fuel. Of the sixty-nine B-24s flown out, none dropped their bombs but all four groups returned to their respective bases safely.
For the remainder of September, the Liberators of the 2nd BD were ordered to carry out ‘STARKEY‘ operations, beginning on the 9th to airfields in France and particularly St. Omer. With few bombs being dropped it was a poor mission and one that was followed on the 15th September by similar results at Chatres. This would be the last mission for the B-24s of the 93rd before yet another posting to North Africa in a move that left the crews both astonished and in total disbelief. During this mission on the 15th, ten airmen would be lost with at least three having been known to have been killed. All ten were from the 330th BS, a sad end to a poor series of missions.
Returning again in early October, the 93rd of Hardwick would join the recently formed 392nd at Wendling for a mission to Vegesack, a northern district of Bremen. With heavy cloud cover, alternative targets of opportunity were chosen, with little damage being done to Vegesack itself.
The poor weather continued for much of October, preventing the Liberators flying in anything but training flights. The 93rd were able to launch a diversionary raid for the B-17s ill-fated attack on Schweinfurt on October 14th, the majority of the sixty B-24s allocated for the raid failing to even get airborne. After abandoning the mission those that had managed to get aloft headed for Emden in an aim to draw fighters away from the main body of the Schweinfurt raid. It was hoped that this move would reduce the mauling that would occur from this deep, unprotected penetration mission.
With further diversionary raids on the 29th, attacks on Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd November, Munster on the 5th and Bremen the 13th; the 93rd would then turn to Norway and targets at Rjukan. An ineffectual raid, it preceded further runs back into Germany. December and the approaching Christmas would see no let up for the men of the 93rd and Hardwick, mission numbers being so high that on the 16th, B-24D #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ became the first Liberator of the Eighth to pass the fifty missions mark. Three mission later she would depart the UK for American shores where she would perform a war bond tour raising much-needed money for the war effort.
Five days before Christmas, December 20th 1943, would see a return trip to Bremen. Two more aircraft would be lost on this mission. The first, B-24 #42-40133 of 328th BS piloted by Captain Cleveland Hickman (s/n: 0-727870) was shot down by Lt Kard-Heinz Kapp of JG 27/5 in Bf 109G-6 with the loss of all nine men on board. The second, #42-63963 ‘Unexpected II‘ of the 329th BS collided in midair with P-47D #42-8677 and crashed into North Sea north of Den Helder, Netherlands. All nine from ‘Unexpected II’ were captured and became prisoners of war.
Two days later, T/Sgt.John Tkachuk 329th BS died of anoxia after his foot was caught between a bomb and the bomb rack. The ‘walk around bottle’ he was carrying running out of oxygen before he could be given assistance. 1943 would draw to a close with a very sad overtone.
At the end of 1943, the 93rd BG stationed at Hardwick had been ridiculed by B-17 crews, they had been spread far and wide and had won a hard fought DUC for their action over the Polesti oil fields. As 1943 turned to 1944, was their luck about to change?
1944 brought more similar events. January saw ‘No Ball‘ missions, attacks on the V-weapon sites across northern France. A turn that pleased some of the tired crews of the USAAF but one that was considered unnecessary and unlikely to turn the tide of the war by many others. January also saw the build up to February’s ‘Big Week’ campaign, a series of RAF and USAAF operations to destroy Germany’s aircraft manufacturing plants.
In the following month, April 1944, the US Air Force was to suffer its greatest loss ever to intruders, Luftwaffe night fighters who followed the heavy bombers home, picking them off one at a time until they reached their bases in England. The bombers, many badly damaged or low on fuel, were easy pickings as they tried to land in the early evening darkness. Illuminated by navigation lights, the bombers could do little to protect themselves as the Luftwaffe pilots waited until the most opportune moment to unleash their cannon and machine gun bullets into the bombers. The mission to Hamm in Germany would mean the bombers were arriving back later, and once it was realised that the Luftwaffe were there, runway lights were extinguished, navigation light were put out and aircraft almost left to their own devices – the risk of collision increasing ten fold as a result of these actions. Two aircraft at Hardwick were attacked that night, both sustaining minor damage but thankfully suffering little in the way of long-term harm. Whilst a number of airfields across East Anglia did suffer badly that night, Hardwick on the face of it, got off lightly, with minimal damage being inflicted by these intruders.
This time of the year had been particularly difficult for the station. In May a young new group of recruits arrived at Hardwick. One of those, 1st. Lt. William G Rueckert, was to lose his life before barely leaving the ground on his first mission. His sad and moving story is detailed in Heroic Tales – ‘1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick‘ .
June saw the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. The 2nd BD sending almost 550 B24s to the Normandy area with the 93rd bombing strategic military targets such as gun emplacements and bridges around Cherbourg. They would then go on to support the breakthrough at St. Lo and drop supplies to troops as they advanced across occupied Europe.
High numbers of operations during the summer of 1944 led to many crews achieving their 200 mission mark, each one showing the strain of continuous operations over occupied France.
During the failed operations in Market Garden, the 93rd supported the airborne troops dropping supplies on the 18th September. Then over the winter of 1944-45, they would support the troops in the Ardennes, a role they continued as the allied forces pushed across the Rhine and on into Germany itself.
By April 1945, the end was in sight and the 93rd were officially withdrawn from operations, performing their last mission on 25th April 1945.
Their stay post war would not be prolonged. They departed Hardwick over May and into June 1945, at which point the airfield was handed back to the Royal Air Force. The RAF retained the site until the early 1960s when it was eventually sold off, quickly returning to agriculture, a state in which it remains in today.
By the time they left, the 93rd had conducted 330 missions (41 from North Africa) from Hardwick, which added to the 66 already carried out from Alconbury, meant this was to be the highest number of operations of any Eighth Air Force Group. They flew 8,169 sorties dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs across Europe. They were the oldest Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, having the first bombers to fly both 25 and 50 missions – ‘Boomerang‘ and ‘Hot Stuff‘ respectively. They had also performed in numerous theatres: the Atlantic (Anti submarine theatre), Egypt-Libya, Sicily, Normandy, the Rhine, and over wide areas of central Europe making them the most travelled Group of the Eighth Air Force. They were awarded two DUCs, and post war went on to serve well into the early 1950s. This achievement made them the only USAF Group that had not been inactivated since its original formation in 1942.
Their departure from Hardwick marked the end of an era, a move that left an enduring mark on the local area. The Liberators may have moved on, but the history of the 93rd lives on to this day though the displays and actions of those who preserve Hardwick’s small number of buildings for the benefit of future generations.
While the airfield was returned to agriculture, proposals were put forward to transform part of the site into a domestic waste site. These were later withdrawn though after investigations into the geology of the site revealed that such actions could lead to toxins entering the water course below ground. A potentially lethal release with serious consequences.
Today there are few 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 recently 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. Looking across the westerly side, one can see a lone windsock catching the morning breeze. This windsock marks the location of the remaining runway sections part of which can be seen easily from the public 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. She took time to show me the memorial that now stands outside the farmhouse, and then pointed me toward the museum further along the farm track and suggested I take a drive down even though they were not fully open for business. A truly lovely and helpful lady!
The family now own a large part of the airfield and its remaining buildings. They have utilised some of these as part of the farm many of which 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’s remains, in particular the gas training room, condemned as unsafe it is 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. Here they hold a huge range of memorabilia, uniforms, photographs and aircraft parts. This museum is a real gem quietly hidden away in this corner of Norfolk.
One of the volunteers at the time, himself ex-USAF, (RAF Bentwaters), told me stories about the site, the history of all the parts they had gathered and then he 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 you 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!
After you leave the museum, going back by the same track, turn left out onto the road and then right, you come across another one of the entrances to the original airfield, considerably smaller in size it is now only a farm track. It looks so insignificant shrouded by tress and bushes that it is difficult to imagine what went on here all those years ago.
Hardwick once bustled with airmen and personnel, several thousand in all, but with so much gone there is little to show for it now. It is however, good to know that flying still does take place here, and that through the museum, the dedication, sacrifice and bravery of those young men in their B-24s shall live on for many years to come.
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.
Sources and further reading (RAF Thorpe Abbots)
*1 100th BG Quartermaster Log via their website August 2019.
Freeman, Roger A. “The Mighty Eighth” (1986) Arms and Armour
Arnold, Henry. H., “Contrails, My War Record: A history of World War Two as recorded at U.S. Army Air Force Station #139, Thorpe Abbots, near Diss, county of Norfolk, England” (1947) World War Regimental Histories Book 194.
Further details of the 100th BG and information about the museum can be found on the museum website.
Sources and further reading (RAF Hardwick)
93rd BG casualty reports.
More information about Hardwick and museum details can be found on the museum website. 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.