This trip continues around the southern regions of Norfolk close to Diss and Attleborough. Unlike other trips, two of these World War 2 airfields are all still active in one form or another, a very rare case indeed.
RAF Tibenham (Station 124)
Station 124 was one of those purpose-built airfields designed specifically for the USAAF in the mid-part of the war. Known to the locals as Tivetshall, it occupies a site previously used by the Royal Flying Corps in World War 1.
In preparation for their arrival, three main runways were built; two of 4200 feet and one of 6000 ft.; 36 ‘frying pans’ (hard stands) were also installed as were two T2 hangars and accommodation blocks for upward of 3000 personnel.
A number of visiting groups stayed for short periods, bringing Marauders with them on their way to the North African Campaign. James Stewart also served here before being transferred to nearby RAF Old Buckenham.
The first units [700th (IS), 701st (squadron code MK), 702nd (WV) and 703rd (RN) Bomb Squadrons] of the 445th BG arrived in November 1943 bringing with them B-24s that remained here until their last mission in April 1945 and final departure that June. The airfield itself remained ‘operational’ until 1959 although no operational flying took place, even after expansion for further planned USAF activity.
Like many other USAAF units, the 445th were awarded a number of awards including the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC). The 445th’s battle records included high prestige targets such as Frankfurt, Brunswick and Ludwigshafen. However, their success record was not totally unblemished.
The 445th started off well with two of their more successful missions. On the 13th December 1943, they flew to Kiel and then in the following February they were in action again, this time in the Gotha raid. It was for this operation that they received their first DUC. Things were not to stay so positive for the 445th however.
On the 27th September 1944, whilst heading toward the Henschel engine factory at Kassel, a navigation error led to the 445th becoming detached from the main body of the force. They continued on and bombed the wrong target. Having less protection than a large force offers, they were attacked by around 100+ Fw190s and Bf109s. The group was decimated. Of the original 37 aircraft that set off, 25 were shot out of the sky, 2 more crashed in France and a further 3 in England. Only the intervention of P-51s stopped the total and complete annihilation of the group. Only 7 aircraft made it home and these too were very badly damaged. This loss, 236 aircrew was to go down as the worst operational day of the war for any single group of ‘The Mighty Eighth’.
Undeterred, the strength of the Eighth pulled the 445th through. They went on to carry out a total of 282 operations building a reputation for high accuracy bombing in the face of danger. Further awards were received from the French for their support of the Resistance, in dropping food supplies gaining them the Croix de Guerre, a highly regarded award.
The 445th finally returned to the US at the end of hostilities leaving behind huge numbers of crews for whom home would never be back on their own soil.
Currently, large parts of two of the runways remain; the perimeter track can also be seen, being split by the main road round the airfield. Also a small number of huts are still being used and the site is in remarkable condition as a result.
Other evidence is hard to find, the majority of the accommodation, stores and works all being located to the east amongst the trees and on private land, but I am reliably informed that primitive airfield defences can be found amongst the trees at the end of the runway. These amount to a ladder that would enable any defence troops to climb up and remain hidden should any German paratroopers fall.
Today, a memorial stands to those gallant men who gave their all and a small collection of memorabilia awaits at Tibenham. The heavily laden bombers have long been replaced by the grace and beauty of gliders that moved in soon after the closure of Station 124, keeping the flying spirit and memories alive.
The control tower and other major buildings are now history, but as the summer sun and cool breeze wafts across the open skies above Norfolk, it is easy to picture lumbering bombers, fuelled and crewed waiting for their turn to depart. With the roar of labouring engines now long gone, peace has returned once more to this corner of Norfolk.
On leaving Tibenham we continue westerly, not far to another active airfield, Old Buckenham.
RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)
Hidden well behind trees, Old Buckenham has a fine but short history to tell.
Constructed from 1942-43, it was designed for heavy bombers of the USAAF and opened late in the war in 1943. There was only ever one group to operate from here, the 453rd BG, of the Eighth Air Force, with B-24 Liberators.
Consisting of the 732nd (squadron code E3), 733rd (F8), 734th (E8) and 735th (H6) Bomb Squadrons, the group completed a total of 259 missions which started on the 5th February 1944, ending on the 11th April 1945; and had the honour of having the lowest loss rate of any Bomb Group in the Eighth Air Force. In fact, this ‘record’ was reflected greatly by the incredible achievements of the 733rd who flew without a single loss for 82 consecutive missions over Occupied Europe. In comparison to the many other groups of the Eighth, this was an astonishing achievement. There were initially 61 aircraft that flew into Old Buckenham in 1943, but despite the good record, only one remained at the end of the war. This was “Male Call” and flew a total of 95 missions, all with the 734th BS. Within the 453rd BG, there were 10 aircraft that flew for a total of 100 missions or more, the highest being that of 120 – “My Babs” of the 733rd Squadron.
However, this record was not to be totally untarnished. On one of the Brunswick raids, 8th April 1944, a total of 7 aircraft were shot down, all with crews being lost or captured.
Aircraft from the 453rd supported many campaigns in the European Theatre. These included the bombing of heavy artillery installations on D-Day and communications lines in support of the Battle of the Bulge. They also carried on more humane activities, dropping food, blankets and supplies to the French as well as supporting troops in the push across the Rhine.
Life at Old Buckenham continued on right through to the end of hostilities and the 453rd left during May / June 1945. Two notable characters did emerge from ‘Old Buck’; that of Major James Stewart, the 453rd’s Group Operations Officer and SSgt Walter Matthau,a radioman-gunner, both of whom went on to be the famous actors we know of today.
Post-war, the airfield returned to RAF ownership and saw a few aircraft from other units, but no other major service or operators. Eventually in 1960, the RAF disposed of the site and it returned primarily to agriculture. Flying does continue today though. Old Buckenham hosts fly-ins, displays and has a thriving aero club on part of the remains of the E-W runway.
As the site is an active airfield, access to any parts other than the public areas is limited. But, there is little to see from those dark days of the 1940s. The runways do remain as small roads for local tractor access, and one small part of the E-W runways is used for light flying. A further section of the N-S runway also exists as a taxiway to access the runway, but this is the most you are likely to see.
There is a varied collection of military hardware, mainly field guns, located on the site. A further ‘famous’ attraction is the T-55 Tank used in the film Golden Eye which greets you as you arrive. A small, well cared for memorial is dedicated to those 366 crew members and staff of the 453rd BG, and a cafe, aptly entitled “Jimmy’s”, also hosts a few pieces of memorabilia from that era.
A delightful place to spend a warm Sunday afternoon watching light aircraft and contemplating what life was like at Old Buckenham as the roar of B-24s filled the air.
On leaving Old Buckenham, we continue to travel westward toward East Wretham and the final stop on this trip.
RAF East Wretham (Station 133)
Originally built-in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was designed as a satellite to RAF Honington with an all grass runway running NE/SW, 2 x T2 hangars, various defence pillboxes, support buildings and a number of blister hangars. At Honington, a newly formed 311 (Czech) Sqn was formed (29th July 1940) flying Wellington ICs, and they utilised East Wretham as a dispersal until August that year, when they permanently moved in. 311 Sqn carried out night bombing duties for the duration of the time they were here, but then in 1942, Wretham’s status changed once more. 311 sqn moved out and East Wretham became a satellite for Mildenhall taking in 115 Sqn on the 8th November, with their Wellington IIIs. The following March (1943) these were replaced with the rarer Lancaster MkIIs and these remained here in the night bomber role, until a further change in August 1943 when 115 sqn moved to Little Snoring and the site passed to American hands to become Station 133.
Now home to the 359th Fighter Group, it hosted the big heavy P-47 Thunderbolts of the 368th (code CV), 369th (IV) and 370th (CR latterly CS) Fighter Squadrons and so had to have steel matting runways laid to accommodate their heavy weight on the soft ground. Used primarily for bomber escort, the 359th FG would fly escort to targets in nearby France. However, in April 1944 the P-47s were replaced with the more agile P-51s which allowed them to penetrate deep into the heart of both Germany and Poland. A task the ‘Mustang’ became famous for. During the Allied invasion of Normandy the 359th attacked bridges, locomotives and supported bombers hitting targets around the invasion area. As the invasion force got a foothold in France, the three squadrons of the 359th returned to long-range bomber escort duties, taking part in raids over Ludwigshafen, Frankfurt, Berlin and Merseburg. During August 1944, the group supported the operations in ‘Market Garden‘ and later that year the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes.
On 11th September 1944, the Green nosed Mustangs of the 359th really made their mark when they shot down 26 enemy fighters; for this, they received the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC). The determination shown by the 359th resulted in many outstanding pilots. One, Maj. Raymond “X-Ray Eyes” Wetmore became the 359th (370th FS) top ace scoring 21 victories – his last being an Me 163. Flying in P-51 “Daddies Girl” named after his daughter, he received numerous awards and by the end of the conflict had completed 142 missions covering 563 combat hours.
This attitude to the war, gave the 359th a worthy credit of 263 aircraft shot down with over 100 more being destroyed on the ground. In the 346 missions they flew, they lost a total of 106 of their own aircraft.
In November 1945 the USAAF left and no further flying took place at East Wretham . The airfield reverted to 12 Group (RAF) ownership, then in May the following year, it was handed back once more to Bomber Command . Within a month the site was handed over to the Technical Training Command and finally East Wretham became a Polish resettlement camp for those personnel who were unable to return home. When they had all finally be moved on, the majority of the site became what it is today, used by the British Army as part of the massive Stanford Practical Training Area (STANTA ) for manoeuvres and live firing training.
Today most traces of the airfield as it was are gone. A number of buildings notably a T2 hangar and several Nissen huts survive on what is now farmland or in the military camp. The unique Watch Tower was demolished after the war as were many of the other ‘temporary’ buildings. Now used by STANTA, a mix of old and new are intertwined and the majority stands on inaccessible military ground.
Perhaps the best and by far most accessible examples of East Wretham’s past, is the bomb site which forms part of the East Wretham Heath Nature Heritage Trail. Access is to the south of the site just off the main A1075, Thetford Road. A two-mile walk though Heath land, it takes you right through the original bomb store. An area of natural beauty, famed for its wetland and ancient flints, you can easily find the many blast walls and small fusing buildings still there. Also traceable are the tracks that once took bomb loaded trailers to the airfield across the heath. Many now buried under the acidic soil, their existence evident in exposed patches of bare concrete.
All these stores are being gradually reclaimed by nature, trees and rabbit holes have both played taken their toll, the layout is still discernible and whilst much of the brickwork is intact, the warning signs are there and they are crumbling fast.
A small airfield, East Wretham was never considered the most ‘homely’ of sites. Often wet and boggy, it was one of the less well-known and less famous places to be used. But the courage and determination of those who served here both RAF and USAAF, went a long way to helping defeat the tyranny that stood facing us across the small section of water not so far away.
Sources and further reading:
There is a website dedicated to the crews of the 445th and can be found at here.
*1 Photo: 359th Fighter Group Association, taken from http://www.littlefriends.co.uk/