The first of Suffolk’s trails take you from the northern eastern corner of Suffolk between Lowestoft and Stowmarket through the centre in a south-westerly direction. Another USAAF rich area it boasts some interesting history and some of the most beautiful countryside this county has to offer.
If travelling from Norfolk, we go south toward Stowmarket stopping first at Flixton, near Bungay.
Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum.
The Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum was opened in May 1976, following the setting up of the organisation by local enthusiasts. The Museum was opened by the soon to be president, the late Wing Commander Ken Wallis.
The museum is found not far from the USAAF site at Bungay and houses a great deal of memorabilia and artefacts from there. Because of the bases links to the USAAF, Royal Air Force and Fleet Air Arm, it hosts a number of aircraft of different origins.
Over the years the site has grown, collecting mainly through donations, artefacts from various bases located in Eastern England, an area they have primarily focused on.
The museum is located behind the ‘Buck Inn’ and as it grows space is becoming limited. There is free parking and entry, donations being more than welcome to help with the upkeep and acquisition of new materials.
On entering the site, you are greeted by a number of Aircraft including a Gloster Javelin FAW.9R, North American F-100D Super Sabre, Dassault MD-452 Mystere IVA, De Havilland Sea Vixen FAW.1 and a number of other international exhibits. Including those outside and inside, they boast some 66 aircraft including cockpits and parts of aircraft, a truly remarkable feat.
The Cold War and ‘V’ force is also represented with cockpit sections of each the Vulcan B.2(K) XL445, Victor K.2 XL160 and Valiant B(K)1 XD857, Bloodhound missiles and Eastern Bloc examples. Buildings are split into sections each representing a different era or area of aviation.
The famous late Ken Wallis is also represented, although following his recent death, some exhibits have been removed and are sadly not going to be returned.
The site really speaks for itself, so we won’t dwell here, but if you are in the area, perhaps looking for the nearby base, this is a welcome addition and a remarkable place to visit.
From the museum, we then travel the short distance to former US base represented by the museum. It is an airfield that was built-in the mid part of the war and one that took some time to establish itself as a front line bomber station. However, it would have its own share of problems, heroic acts, records and sacrifice. We next visit the former airfield RAF Bungay.
RAF Bungay (Flixton) (USAAF Station 125)
Bungay airfield lies in Suffolk, above an area known as the Waveney Valley, about two miles from the village from which it takes its name and fifteen miles from Norfolk’s county town of Norwich. It served under a variety of names: HMS Europa II, RAF Flixton, RNAS Bungay and USAAF Station 125. However, throughout its short life, it remained primarily under the control of the United States Army Air Force as a heavy bomber station designated Station 125.
Construction began in 1942, by Kirk & Kirk Ltd, but the work would not be completed for at least another two years until the spring of 1944. Even though the site was unfinished, the first units to be stationed here, would be so in the autumn of that same year, 1942. Initially designated as a satellite for the heavy bombers of RAF Hardwick, it would be some time before Bungay would establish itself as a fully operational front line airfield.
With the invasion of North Africa dominating the European theatre, a build up of military might would see many of Britain’s airfields taken over and utilised for both men and machinery. A part of this build up was the arrival of the twin-engined units the: 47th, 310th, 319th and 320th BGs operating the North American B-25 Mitchell. The 310th BG initially arrived at RAF Hardwick, over September and into October, where they would continue their flying training before departing for North Africa. The 310th consisted of the usual four Bomb Squadrons: 379th, 380th, 381st and 428th BS, and it was whilst training at Hardwick that one of these squadrons, the 428th, would move across to Bungay. Their arrival here was no more than as a dispersed site, allowing for free movement of aircraft in the busy skies over this part of East Anglia. At the end of their short stay, they would rejoin the main Group and depart for the warmer climates of North Africa.
The next group to arrive was something considerably bigger but also posted from nearby RAF Hardwick, the 329th BS of the 93rd BG with their B24 Liberators. Known affectionately as ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus‘ (after the CO, Colonel Ted Timberlake), the 93rd BG earned their unique name as a result of their constant moving around, continuously being spread across, what must have seemed, the entire European and Mediterranean theatres of war. Often split between the two, rarely were the Group ever together for any length of time.
During this period UK-based units of the 93rd at Hardwick began transferring to the 2nd Bombardment Wing, where they began training for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th BS were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved here to Bungay. Once here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee‘ system and crews trained in its use. A remarkably accurate system of radio navigation, it was devised initially by Robert Dippy as a short-range aid for blind landings, but its success encouraged its development for a much greater use by the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Swanage.
Bungay was Initially planned to equip the 44th BG, but the 329th were chosen over them and within a very short time the crews were ready, and ‘Moling’ mission could now begin. Designed as a ‘blind bombing’ utility, and because of fears of the system falling into enemy hands, heavy cloud cover was needed for operations to go ahead. Such conditions occurred early in 1943, on January 2nd, when four B-24s of the 329th set off from Bungay for the Ruhr. Unfortunately, as they neared the target, the cloud cover broke and the flight was exposed. This exposure prevented Gee from being used as it was intended, and the aircraft returned both without bombing and without using their Gee successfully. The weather again proved to be the Achilles heel in the planning on both the 11th and 13th January, when similar conditions were experienced and again all aircraft returned without bombing. These erratic weather conditions carried on well into March, the last attempt being made on the 28th, after which it was decided to abandon the idea, and ‘Moling’ operations were cancelled.
It was not a complete disaster for the 329th though, the experience of flying over occupied territory and using blind bombing equipment, meant they were able to transfer to a new Pathfinder role, now skilled in equipment not known about in other units of the USAAF.
At the end of these trials, and in the absence of her sister squadrons, the 329th joined up with the 44th BG in a move that led to their imminent departure from Bungay.
Following their departure, the work on Bungay’s construction continued. Built to Class A specifications, it would have three concrete, tarmac and wood chip runways intersecting to form the ‘A’ frame. Thirty-six frying pan and fourteen spectacle hardstands provided dispersed aircraft accommodation and two T2 hangars provided covered space for maintenance and repairs. The main technical area lay to the west of the airfield, the bomb store to the east and the main administration site (site 2) across the road to the west. As a dispersed site, many of its accommodation areas would be hidden amongst the trees beyond here. Linked by a maze of footpaths and small roadways, there were two communal sites (sites 3 and 4), seven officer and other ranks sites, a WAAF site, a sewage works and a sick quarters. In all it could accommodate around 3,000 men and women of mixed rank. Updating of the watch office included the addition of a Uni Seco control room (5966/43) by anchoring it to the roof of the already built observation room. By late autumn 1943, it was completed and the site was handed over to the 446th BG (H), Bungay’s most prominent resident, who would become known as “The Bungay Buckaroos”.
Their arrival here commenced on 4th November 1943, with four squadrons of B-24s – the 704th, 705th, 706th and 707th – all of which formed the larger 20th Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division, Eighth Air Force. The remainder of this wing included those of Hardwick’s 93rd BG and Seething’s 448th BG.
The 446th’s journey took the ground echelons from Arizona, to Colorado and onto Bungay via the Queen Mary, and the air echelons the southern air route via Brazil and Marrakesh. Under the command of Colonel Jacob J. Brogger, they would begin operations on the 16th December 1943. Throughout their term here the 446th would attack prestige targets including: U-boat installations, Bremen’s port, the chemical plants at Ludwigshafen, Berlin’s ball-bearing plants, the aero-engine works in Munich and the marshalling yards at Coblenz. In addition to these, the 446th would support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St.Lo, and drop supplies to the ground forces at both Nijmegen and in the snowy conditions of the Ardennes.
This remarkable list of strategic targets would begin with Bremen. The mission would see twenty-three heavy bomber groups along with a Pathfinder group drop over four thousand 500lb general purpose bombs and over ten thousand 100lb incendiary bombs. During the raid four B-17s would collide in mid-air and as for the 446th, they would not escape without loss. Two of their aircraft would crash, one of which, a Ford built B-24H-1-FO Liberator #42-7539, “Ye Old Thunder Mug“, would run out of fuel and crash near to its home airfield at Bungay.
The 446th would unusually send just one aircraft to Bremen four days later. This aircraft, a 704th BS Liberator, #42-7494 “Bumps Away” was hit by flak over Texel, one of the Dutch Wadden Islands. The strike sheered the tail turret sending the aircraft momentarily out of control. After the pilot (Second Lieutenant Thomas B. Long) stabilised the aircraft, it went on to complete its mission only to collide with another B-24 of the 392nd BG on its return journey. The collision sent the Liberator crashing into the North Sea killing all those on board*1.
Then on the 22nd, the 446th were sent back to Germany, this time Osnabruk. On this mission, B-24 #42-7611, another 704th BS Liberator thought to be ‘Silver Dollar‘, was hit by falling bombs from above. The aircraft fell from the sky killing eight of the crew with another two surviving, both being taken prisoner by the Germans. On board this aircraft was right waist Gunner Sergeant Walter B. Scurlock who had survived the crash landing in “Ye Old Thunder Mug” earlier that month on the 16th. It had been a difficult start for both Sgt. Scurlock and the 446th.
January 1944 then took the men of the 446th to Kiel, but the cold and icy winter would be as much of an enemy to the group as the occupying German forces were a short distance across the sea. With several missions being curtailed during the month, those that did take place were prone to their own problems. On the 7th, the Bomb Group was unable to rendezvous with the 392nd and returned without bombing; on the 11th, the mission to Brunswick was recalled, again due to the bad weather. Following a Noball mission to St. Pierre-des-Jonquies on the 14th, the group were grounded for a week after yet more bad weather closed in. The continuing poor conditions prevented further immediate attacks, but the 28th would see the weather ease and the start of four days of consecutive flights to Frankfurt, Brunswick and two further Noball targets.
February, March and April were much more conducive to flying activities but the weather still played its part in cancelled or aborted operations. As the lead up to D-Day began, breaks in the weather allowed for strategic targets to be hit, airfields and marshalling yards, along with yet more Noball targets.
April 22nd 1944 saw the USAAF’s Mission 311, a mission that would become notorious in the history of the Eighth Air Force. On this day, the Eighth would lose more aircraft to enemy infiltrators than at any other time in its wartime history. The mission was to attack the marshalling yards at Hamm, which was considered a highly important strategic communications target, especially in the lead up to the allied invasion of Normandy. Hamm was especially chosen as it was said to be capable of dealing with up to 10,000 railways wagons a day, making it the busiest marshalling yard in Germany, and a prime target for the heavy bombers of the Allied forces.
On that particular day, over 800 bombers, a mix of B-17s and B-24s, were ordered to attack in three waves, each with its own designated target. The bombers were to take off from their respective bases between 17:50 and 18:21, but even before the stream arrived over the target, Bungay would bear witness to what was about to happen that night.
For the crew of #42-50306 “Dragon Lady“, it would begin at home. On take off the B24 skidded and crashed killing not only the ten airmen on-board, but two ground staff as well. Then, shortly before arriving over the Dutch coast, a B-17 #42-19818 of the 401st BG at Deenethorpe, suffered a fire inside the fuselage. As the fire took a grip of the aircraft, the pilot Lt. Roland Schellenberg put the B-17 into a steep dive during which three crew members either fell or jumped from the aircraft. Eventually, the fires were extinguished and the aircraft returned to the UK making an emergency landing here at Bungay, with nor further loss. The aircraft was salvaged at the Salvage depot at Watton, but the three crewmen who left the aircraft, were never found even after an intense RAF Air Sea Rescue Search of the area.
As the bomber stream made its way to Hamm, unpredicted winds played havoc with many aircraft, some passing beneath the higher groups as they approached the bomb release point, putting themselves in grave danger of being hit from falling bombs. Others following these leading groups also began arriving too early over the target, and were unable to distinguish landmarks due to the heavy smoke from the previous wave’s bombing.
Whilst conditions were very difficult, most aircraft did manage to bomb either their given target or alternative targets of opportunity, and considering this, results were generally good for the three Divisions. However, the troubles for the crews didn’t really start until they left the target and began their flight home.
Being a late operation, returning bombers were not locating their bases until well after dark, a situation the Luftwaffe exploited to their full advantage. A small force of Me-410 night fighters mingled with the returning bombers, and so ground radar were then unable to pick them up. Once the ground staff realised what was happening airfield lights were extinguished and crews ordered to other bases. Unseen, the German fighters gradually picked off the bombers as they tried in vain to land at darkened airstrips. One such pilot, 2nd. Lt. Frank Baker, luckily managed to avoid not only the fighters but another B-24 as he struggled to bring his aircraft (#42-95294) down at an alternative base. For his action that night, Baker received an Oak Leaf Cluster to add to his DFC. The entire night cost the USAAF nearly 60 men, some of these being to friendly fire in the confusion that reigned in the skies that night. Twenty Liberators had been damaged by the marauding Luftwaffe fighters, many crashing with fatal results.
The night of June 5th 1944, brought good news and a surprise for the men of the 446th. A crew briefing was called at 23.30 in which they were told they would lead the Eighth Air Force’s part in the invasion the next day. A massive operation, it would require pin-point accuracy and split-second timing to achieve its aim. Bombers were to take off in darkness and rendezvous at given heights with the 2nd Division forming up in an area between the Mersey and Humber estuaries. Take off was just before 02:00 with the 446th’s ‘Red Ass‘ piloted by Captain Charles Ryan, along with Sgt William Barlow, (G); Sgt Stuart Merwin, (R/O); Sgt Bruno Corridino, (G); Sgt Jesse Davis, (G); Sgt Joseph Parkin, (G); Sgt Howard Weaver, (Flt. Eng/G); 1st. Lt Robert McConnel, (C/P); 1st. Lt. Banks Jacobs, (B/A); and 1st. Lt. Michael Paczan, (N) taking the lead. Also on board that day was Col. Jacob Brogger the station Commander.
At 05:55 the formation was over Vierville dropping one hundred 500lb bombs. A days long event that saw continued and repeated attacks behind the invasion line. With no Luftwaffe intervention, the event was more of a side-show for the gunners of the heavy bombers, and very few casualties were incurred by the crews. This did not mean however, that casualties were absent throughout the invasion period. On June 7th, #42-51116 crashed on takeoff on a mission to Alencon in France. In the accident eight members of the ten crew were killed.
It was also the 446th that would suffer from the little impact that the Luftwaffe had. On the next day 8th and then again on 12th near Jersey and Rennes respectively, they were attacked by a small group of Bf109s, on each day one 446th aircraft was lost.
On the 8th, the first of these two days, #42-109830 went down in the English Channel with the loss of five crewmen. The remaining five were rescued by French fishermen only to be picked up later the German forces.*2 On the second day, B-24 #42-94859 also went down with another five aircrew killed. Of those who survived, one was caught and taken prisoner, whilst the remaining four managed to evade capture.*3
As the allies pushed on thorough France, Holland and into Germany, the 446th supported them. They targeted bridges, gun batteries and enemy troop positions during the St. Lo breakout in July. They dropped supplies to the paratroops around Nijmegen in September and attacked marshalling yards, bridges and road junctions in the Ardennes, preventing German reinforcements from pushing through in December 1944 – January 1945. This support continued right up to the wars end, dropping supplies to advancing troops over the Rhine and on through Germany itself.
Through all these missions, the ‘Bungay Buckaroos‘ managed some remarkable achievements. Liberator #42-52612 of the 706th BS, “Home Breaker” flew 102 missions before returning to the US, and both the 706 BS and the 707 BS surpassed 60 consecutive mission each (62 and 68 respectively) without loss.
RAF Eye (Station 138)
Sitting alongside the main A140 south of Diss , Eye still has many features from its conception even though a huge industrial / retail complex has taken over its runways and hardstandings.
Officially opened on 1st May 1944, Eye was one of the last USAAF airbases to be opened and consisted on the usual triangular layout of three runways. It was to have a short life of only one year but in that year managed to record one of the greatest success records of all the Eighth bomber groups.
The first and only group to arrive was the 490th Bombardment Group (Heavy) who were assigned to the 93rd Combat Wing. They operated 4 Bombardment Squadrons: 848th, 849th, 850th and the 851st.
The first mission took place one month later using B-24 Liberators, in which they carried out 40 missions before being replaced with the B-17 Flying Fortresses in the following August. Their missions took them into the deepest parts of Germany, including Berlin, Hamburg, Merseburg, Münster, Kassel, Hannover, and Cologne as well as supporting the Normandy landings and attacking supply lines in the Battle of the Bulge.
The 490th can claim to have been involved in one of the wars final aerial battles in April 1945 in which they took on the new and deadly Me 262 jets. The Germans, in a last-ditch attempt to defend the homeland, manged to down four bombers before breaking off the attack.
By the time the war had finished, the 490th had completed 158 missions losing only 22 (40 in total ‘other causes’ being the reason) aircraft in combat; one of the lowest records in the whole of the Eighth Airforce. Immediately after cessation of the conflict, the 490th continued to fly, supplying food and supplies to the people in the Netherlands and other humanitarian operations involving allied POWs across Europe.
One other ‘claim to fame’ of the 490th, was that they had some of the most provocative nose art on any USAAF aircraft, seemingly uncensored unlike their brothers in arms. Aircraft wore full length nudes and made references to prostitutes of the day, all unheard of in other places.
The airfield finally closed when the 490th departed the following August (1945) and Eye returned largely to agriculture and more recently industry.
Evidence of the Eighth’s presence can still be seen today. Amongst the industrial units can be found a selection of buildings and more astonishingly one of the main runways intact in its entirety.
Now used at one end by industry, lorry parks and larger storage units, the other is open and shows signs of the locals’ car driving activities. The full width of the runway gives you a real sense of the activity that went on here. The perimeter tracks remain but in a much worse state; overgrown and barely big enough to fit a tractor let alone a lumbering B24 or B-17.
Within the industrial units can be seen a Gas clothing store, an electrical sub station and modified T2 Hangar. Further Nissen huts and concrete sub structures suggest the location of more structures long since removed. The admin blocks, Control tower and other buildings have long gone and whilst there may be the odd one surviving, they are buried deep in undergrowth or on private land and inaccessible. Unlike other bases in this area, Eye lacks a prominent memorial on the site, a real shame but perhaps one day this will be rectified and the sacrifice of those crews who never returned will be much better represented.*
From Eye, we continue south along the A140 for only a few miles and arrive at our next stop, and a new trail, RAF Mendlesham (Trail 15).
Sources and further reading (Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum).
For more information visit the official website.
Sources and further reading (RAF Bungay).
*1 MACR 1735
*2 MACR 5482
*3 MACR 5802
Freeman, R.A., “The Mighty Eighth“, 1986, Arms and Armour Press.
A website dedicated to the 446th has further details of the crews and aircraft.
Sources and further reading (RAF Eye).
* A memorial has since been built on the site at Eye, I hope to return soon and see how things have changed since my original visit.