Trail 16 – West Suffolk (Part 1)

In this trail, we venture to the west of Suffolk, to three airfields, whom, because of their rural locations and low populations, were ideal places for military bases during the Second World War.

Our first stop is about 7 miles south-east of the current major USAF base at Mildenhall,  – RAF Tuddenham.

RAF Tuddenham

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Tuddenham village sign showing its links to a once active airfield.

Built in late 1942, but not occupied until October 1943, Tuddenham was designed as a Class ‘A’ airfield, with the usual three concrete intersecting runways. The main runway was constructed 2,000 yards in length whilst the remaining two were both 1,400 yards long. Tuddenham had a total of 38 looped hardstandings,  two T2 hangars with a later addition of a B1 hangar on the northern side of the site.

Tuddenham, was one of those sites equipped with FIDO, the fog clearance facility, but only along its main runway. An expensive and fuel hungry system it was only used on a few occasions.

The admin blocks were designed to accommodate 1,845 men and 250 women, in a large area to the south of the airfield. Tuddenham had a total of 12 administration and technical areas spread across the entire site. Hurriedly built, the accommodation blocks were unheated, cold and un-homely.

The first operational units to arrive were those of 90 Squadron RAF equipped with the huge MK III Stirlings. 90 Squadron had been in existence since 1917 and had been at a variety of locations before and arriving at Tuddenham. However, Tuddenham was to become their home for the duration of the entire Second World War.

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South of the airfield lay the Squash court and Gymnasium

Primarily assigned to mine laying operations, 90 Sqn also helped to attack the German V weapon sites. The enormity and poor operational performance of the Stirling, gradually led to its use being reduced to glider tug and non ‘front line’ duties. A matter bourne out by the high losses in bomber command operations; 90 sqn themselves losing 17 aircraft. Throughout the conflict, 90 Squadron would lose a total of 58 aircraft through enemy action, the remaining being the Avro Lancaster.

May 1944 saw the Stirling withdrawn from 90 sqn and replaced by the more popular and much smaller Lancasters I and III. Front line duties returned and missions took 90 sqn to more ‘V’ sites, attacks on rail and communication lines and increased daylight activities in the lead up to the Normandy invasion in June 1944.

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An electrical sub station shows its original RAF paint work.

On October 1st 1944, a new squadron, 186 Squadron, was formed using ‘C’ flight from 90 sqn using the Lancasters they had earlier received. Further arrivals at Tuddenham were the special operations unit 138 Sqn*, whose primary role was to drop special agents and equipment behind enemy lines.

Tuddenham was not one of the better equipped stations, accommodation being cold and cramped, it was not the most popular of stations with crews. As the conflict came to a close, other reduced strength groups started to arrive as their own bases began to shut; these included more Lancasters from 149 and 207 sqns. Finally, in November 1946 the death knell finally rang for Tuddenham and it too was closed, flying ceased and the aircraft were withdrawn.

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A sundial on the village green remembers the crews of 90 Squadron RAF

The airfield stood dormant for many years  whilst remaining in RAF hands, but then in 1953 life returned once more as the USAF arrived and used it as an ammunition storage area and renovation depot for surplus WWII ammunitions and equipment. As tension rose in the early part of the Cold War, Tuddenham, ideal for its low population and rural location, was earmarked as a site for the new Thor missiles. New launch pads were built and a small section of the site  redeveloped accordingly. The American forces remained here for four years until 1957 when they finally withdrew. Tuddenham itself continued to stay in RAF ownership for a short while longer. Then in July 1959, 107 Squadron reformed at Tuddenham operating three Thor missiles on the previously specially constructed pads, retaining them until July 1963 when the site finally closed once and for all. At this point all military personnel moved out.

After this, Tuddenham was earmarked for redevelopment to meet the rising demand for housing. Large sections were returned to agriculture and eventually a quarry opened to extract the much-needed materials for house construction. This operation has continued to the present day.

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Beneath the sundial, all the aircraft used by 90 squadron.

Visiting the site, reveals little of the history of the airfield and the people who stayed here. A few buildings, primarily the gymnasium and squash court remain standing but in a very poor state and are likely to be pulled down soon. The roof has collapsed and part of the walls are missing. Located to the south of the airfield, they stand as reminders of those days long gone.

Other technical areas and the main part of the airfield, are now the workings of a quarry. The entrance to this site, rather insignificant, is part of the original perimeter track and is marked by an electrical sub-station. The shell is intact and complete with two blast walls, even the original RAF paint work can be seen! Overgrown and hidden beneath extensive overgrowth, this lone building will no doubt soon go the way of others some distance away.

Tuddenham airfield now stands lonely, large parts excavated and gone along with the memories of those stationed here. A pig farm cover a large part of the southern section and very little remains other than a few dilapidated buildings whose days are also very numbered.

Before leaving Tuddenham, return to the village and stop at the village green. The village sign depicts a Lancaster flying low over the Suffolk landscape. A sundial, beautifully crafted marks the history of 90 Sqn, both the aircraft flown (1917 – 1965) as well as the airfields they were stationed at throughout their history. A moving and superb tribute to a once active airfield and the gallant heroes of 90 Squadron Royal Air Force*4.

On leaving Tuddenham, carry on in a south-easterly direction toward Bury St. Edmunds and follow the A14 east. Passing Bury, we arrive at an industrial area on your left. Here we discover an aviation dream world.

RAF Bury St. Edmunds (Rougham)

(Station 468)

RAF Bury St Edmunds (more often referred to as Rougham) was built-in the later part of 1941 and then opened  in September 1942. It was designated a Main Battle Headquarters for the 4th Combat Bombardment Wing of the 3rd Bomb Division, Eighth Airforce. As a result, its control tower ‘glass house’ is twice the size of other towers of similar design. Designed with the main admin area and technical areas well to the south, Rougham was designed to accommodate upward of 3,000 personnel. It had the usual three intersecting runways the main being 2,000 yards in length and crossing the site in an east-west direction. An encircling perimeter track provided fifty hardstandings, two T2 hangars and a range of buildings needed to suit the American war machine.

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Parachute store is now used for beer.

Following a brief spell by A-20 Havocs of the 47th BG in September 1942, Rougham received its first long-term residents, the 322nd BG and their Martin B-26 Marauders. The 322nd were made up of 4 squadrons; 449th, 450th, 451st and 452nd, but due to the airfield being unfinished, the latter two had to be temporarily based at nearby RAF Rattlesdon until March 1943.

Ordered quickly and rushed into production, the Marauder suffered numerous problems and the 322nd operations suffered as a result. Their first mission was a low-level attack on May 14th against the Ijmuiden power station in the Netherlands, in which nine of the twelve aircraft despatched suffered heavy flak damage and the mission was designated a failure. Their second mission would prove to be worse. Three days later on the 17th, eleven aircraft were sent to another target in the Netherlands and only one was to return, turning back prematurely due to technical problems. Flak and defending Luftwaffe fighters were to claim the lives of 60 brave airmen. As a result of these disastrous missions, morale fell quickly and it became a problem. This was not helped when a further B-26 crashed into the field killing all the crew.

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T2 hangar still in use.

The 322nd would eventually regain their confidence, gain a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC), and to go on to continue successful low-level attacks on numerous targets before being moved to forward fields in France, via Essex in November 1942.

One particular B-26B of the 322nd BG ‘Flak Bait‘ (41-31773) of the 449th BS (nicknamed the ‘Annihilators’) went on to complete a total of 207 missions more than any other American aircraft during World War II, a record only surpassed by a Mosquito of the RAF. This aircraft returned to United States after the war and is now housed in the Smithsonion National Air and Space Museum as a reminder and memorial.

Following the departure of the 322nd, the site became vacant, then the 94th BG moved in during April / May 1943, bringing with them the legendary B-17, ‘Flying Fortress’.

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Technical site has a range of buildings in situ.

The 94th was made up of four Squadrons: 331st, 332nd, 333rd and 410th and used the tail code a Square-‘A’. Constituted as the 94th BG (H) on 28th January 1942, and activated on the 15th June that year, they would earn themselves two DUCs for action over Germany. Their first operational mission was on the 13th June 1943 and further missions would see them over prestige targets such as Kiel, Kassel, Hannover, Ludwigshafen, Frankfurt and Regensburg for which they earned their first DUC on August 17th 1943. The second DUC came on 11th January 1944 following a particularly brutal attack on Brunswick. The 94th would take part in the dreaded 311 mission*2, of 22nd April 1944, where returning aircraft were followed and attacked as they approached home, some 75% of B-17s would receive severe and in many cases fatal battle damage. This brutal and devastating mission saw the remarkable flight of B-17 ‘Puddin‘ in which the pilot Lieutenant Vernon J Boyle, completed 25 missions, and earned himself a place in the ‘Lucky Bastard’ club.

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A turret trainer still stands.

The 94th continued to fly operations and in support of the Normandy invasion in 1944 hit a number of communication and rail lines behind enemy lines. The 94th would carry out a total of 324 missions losing 153 aircraft plus an additional 27 to ‘other causes’. They returned to the United States in December 1945 following the cessation of conflict, and would then go through a series of inactivation and reactivation in the following years to perform in other theatres of operations.

Station 468 would see no further units and the airfield closed in 1948. Much of it being returned to agriculture. The control tower was taken over as a private dwelling for a short time before eventually being bought by the Rougham Tower Association and turned into a remarkable museum.

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Part of the perimeter track. The HQ is to the right and the tree hit by the B-17 to the left.

Elsewhere, a surprisingly large number of buildings still exist in one form or another. Whilst the runways were dug up, grass runways now take their place and due to the hard work of the then landowner, flying began again and a series of aircraft temporarily filled the air once more in annual airshows.

The technical area adjacent to the tower has been turned over to industry. A number of the buildings can be seen but take a little walking / driving round. The Parachute store and dingy store along with other buildings are now used by the local farmer; the parachute store being used to brew and store beer!. The turret trainer is still in situ as are a number of stores blocks. Other smaller huts have been utilised by engineering companies and a T2 hangar is fully utilised as a storage unit.

The emergency headquarters exists hidden by the undergrowth and is often visited by ‘Ghost hunters’ in search of paranormal activity. Deep in soil and water, unsupervised or unaccompanied access is best avoided.

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A memorial stands before three Nissan huts.

To the west of the airfield and visible from the tower’s glass house, is a tree damaged by a crashing B-17. Parts of the perimeter track are still evident to the north and west and the south of the site, and sections of hardstandings can also be found used for storage or parking.

If you leave the main site and cross under the busy A14, a number of admin and accommodation huts can still be found in the fields and woods. Unfortunately many are, as always, on private land, but carefull observations can reveal a surprisingly good selection.

In the  north/west corner, standing at the end of what was the main runway, is an old pub called the ‘Flying Fortress’ which stands as a reminder of the field’s activity. The original sign being found in the museum, this too has closed.

RAF Rougham Museum.

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RAF Rougham control tower now serves as a remarkable museum

The museum association have acquired not only the control tower, but several Nissen hits in which they house memorabilia, personal artefacts and some amazing pieces of history. The control tower itself has been completely refurbished, a wide range of personal artefacts can be seen including a ‘Lucky bastard’ certificate. Uniforms from those stationed there have also been donated and the work continues to keep the history of Rougham alive.

There are amazing views from the ‘glass house’ across the airfield, and a huge range of models depict B-17s from a range of units.

Outside, a memorial has been built using an aircraft engine, around it, plaques dedicated to some of the crews that served at Rougham during those years 1942- 45.

Rougham museum is a fabulous museum and well worth a visit, it unfortunately has limited opening hours so it is best to check before going. Details can be found on their website*3.

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View from the control tower over the airfield.

Rougham is a remarkable relative ‘success’ story. Many buildings have survived and are currently in use. Progress may well have the last laugh though. Proposed new roads, and the sad departure of one of the land owners has meant that  airshows have for now stopped, and housing is creeping ever closer. A super museum, the generosity of the current land owner and dedicated work by a group of volunteers are fighting hard to keep the history of Rougham alive. Let’s hope it succeeds, for the sake of those brave young men who never returned to this delightful part of Suffolk and home.

On leaving Rougham, return to the A14 head west and to the south of Bury St Edmunds.

RAF Westley

Designed and used as a private airstrip before the war, Westley was taken over by the Army Co-operation Command in 1940 with Lysanders and latterly the Curtis Tomahawk for patrols of the East Coast. In 1942 number 652 Air Observation Post Squadron arrived with Tiger Moths which were replaced with Auster Is. These squadrons would direct artillery fire onto ground forces and proved to be very rugged in battle indeed. A further squadron, 656 Sqn, arrived and stayed a short while before departing to India in 1943. The Army Cooperation Command was disbanded that same year, but flying training continued for a short time until D-Day when all flying ceased and the airfield closed.

Westley and its history have now long since gone, buried beneath a modern housing estate. It played a small but significant part in the defeat of Nazi Germany and goes down as one of the second world wars lost treasures.

A further field exists close by Westley, RAF Chedburgh, we shall visit here later but if you have time it is another airfield that saw action with the ill-fated Short Stirling.

Notes:

* No. 138 Squadron RAF went on to be the first ‘V-bomber’ squadron of the RAF, flying the Vickers Valiant between 1955 until being disbanded in 1962.

*2 An account of mission 311 is very well detailed in ‘Night of the Intruders‘ by Ian McLachlan, Published by Pen and Sword Books, 2010 ISBN 184884294-5

*3 A range of photos of the museum are on my ‘flckr’ account.

*4 Personal stories of personnel from 90 Squadron at Tuddenham can be found here on the Wartime Memories Project website.

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