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.
Tuddenham (as opposed to the decoy site North Tuddenham) is one of those places that is today surrounded by large towns. To the north-east lies Thetford, to the south-east, Bury-St.-Edmunds and to the south-west that mecca of horse racing – Newmarket. As a result, the landscape of the area today is somewhat different to what it was in the 1930s and 40s.
Using land requisitioned in 1943 it was opened that same year. A standard Class ‘A’ airfield, its main runway ran south-east to north-west and was the standard 2,000 yards in length. With two secondary runways both of 1,400 yards, it would open under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command. For its protection it had its own decoy site built a short distance away at Cavenham, but even this didn’t stop attacks on the airfield, none of which thankfully caused any major damage.
Built by Taylor Woodrow, it would have two T2 and later one B1 hangar, with thirty-eight loop style hardstands and a perimeter track of the standard 50 yards width. A standard watch office for all commands (design 12779/41) was later redesigned to match the new war-time standard 343/43 design which had the smaller windows especially designed for bomber airfields.
Accommodation for air and ground crews was located on land to the south of the airfield spread across twelve sites. A mix of huts, they would accommodate around 2,000 personnel of which some 250 were WAAFs. Built as temporary buildings, these huts were unheated and unhomely, they were cramped and cold and as such, Tuddenham was not one of the most popular stations with crews posted there.
A fairly nondescript airfield, it was first frequented by the RAF’s 90 Squadron with the huge Stirling MK.III. 90 Squadron in name, had been in existence since 1917 although it had been disbanded and reformed on no less than four previous occasions, and had been at a variety of locations before arriving here at Tuddenham. This time however, it would be a much more permanent formation, and for the duration of the war it would reside at only one station, that of RAF Tuddenham.
90 Squadron had previously been recreated to test the suitability of B-17s for RAF service. Initially based at Watton, it would be less than a year before they were disbanded once more. Their more recent reincarnation led them to Wratting Common, from where they departed on their journey to Tuddenham on October 13th 1943.
According to the official records*1, this move was ‘worked out in every detail‘ and it went ‘expeditiously without incident‘ even though the airfield was still in a state of non completion. 90 Squadron’s first operational mission from Tuddenham occurred on the 17th, a return to mine laying off the Frisian Islands. Classed as ‘minor’ operations three aircraft were ordered to fly that day, one of which had to return early due to being struck by lightning and suffering damage to a number of areas including the rear turret.
With only three other mining operations and an air-sea rescue search that month, the move to Tuddenham would have been uneventful had it not been for an accident involving Stirling EF497, piloted by Sgt. Wallace Jones who was aged just 21. The crew of the Stirling were on an air test when the aircraft struck trees just close to RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As a result, all of the crew, of which three were in the RCAF, died in the ensuing crash. With only two other operational losses before the year was out, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were not fairing as badly as many other units, but the days of the type were indeed now numbered as losses overall in 3 Group were high. The Stirling would soon be relegated to secondary duties completely.
December 1943 would see a major installation take place at Tuddenham. By now, the fog dispersal system FIDO, was in place across several other British airfields and was proving to be a major breakthrough in poor weather flying.
Designed after pre-war investigations into ways of dispersing fog, it led to oil burners being laid along a mile length of the main runway at Tuddenham. Where these crossed secondary runways, the burners were entrenched and metal plates placed over the top to prevent aircraft using these runways, from having an accident.
At Tuddenham (classed as FIDO Station XIX), the Mark IV Haigill burners were used, each burner was 40 yards in length and made of three pipes looped at the ends. Oil was fed into the burner via a feed pipe from the main pump on the southern side of the airfield.
Supplying these burners took huge quantities of oil, this was brought in on the nearby railway which passed through the village of Higham. A special siding was constructed which could take a large number of wagons from which fuel was pumped into a small pumping station. From here, it would then cross several fields via underground pipes into one of three large storage tanks capable of holding around half a million gallons of fuel in total.
Work began at Tuddenham early in the new year 1944, and again Taylor Woodrow were charged with the task of carrying out the construction. By August, they were ready and stocks had begun arriving ready for a test burn.
FIDO amazed all those who saw it for the first time. Its ability to clear not only fog but low cloud as well, was a god send to those who were unfortunate enough to have found themselves lost in the thick of it. The first use of FIDO at Tuddenham was on August 8th 1944, when by pure accident, an American B-26 ‘Marauder’ was caught by fog. On that day, a test burn was planned, the burners were lit and the amazed onlookers watched as both fog and low cloud began to clear. Suddenly, out of the darkness and murk came the B-26, who had attempted to land elsewhere no less than eight times unsuccessfully. Seeing the bright blaze of Tuddenham’s burners, the pilot made for the airfield, flew over it to ascertain what it was, and once satisfied, made a successful wheels up landing.
FIDO would be used regularly over the next few months, in November it provided a safe haven for both RAF and USAAF aircraft. In Geoffrey Williams’ book ‘Flying Through Fire‘, he quotes one pilot as stating he could see Tuddenham’s FIDO “from Ostend at 7,000 ft“, a point that illustrates the effectiveness of FIDO in poor conditions.
The idea behind FIDO was to install it at a number of airfields that were located in a ‘hub’ of other airfields, thus keeping returning aircraft as close to their parent airfield as much as possible. It allowed returning aircraft to land (and take off) safely in poor or deteriorating weather conditions, but it was used ‘sparingly’, as in one day’s total of 6 hours burn, some 200,000 gallons*5 of fuel had been used. Not many sites actually had FIDO installed, just fifteen in the UK, eleven of which were Bomber Command airfields. However, FIDO was undoubtedly successful, these fifteen alone enabled somewhere in the region of 2,500 safe landings that would have no doubt led to a number of casualties or even deaths had it not been available. The airfields were very much appreciated by those who were caught out when returning from raids over Europe, the only major complaints being glare from the bright fires as aircraft came into land*2.
Back in early 1944, Tuddenham’s operations continued, the Stirlings of 90 Sqn were soldiering on. More mining operations and bombing raids on the French coast dominated the months of January and February, whilst ‘special duties’ (SOE supply operations) took over as the main focus from March to May. By this time the Stirlings were starting to be replaced by the Lancaster, as it was now being relegated universally to secondary operations: supply sorties, paratroop transport and mining operations off the European coast.
This transition began on May 11th, with pilots gaining initial experience by flying as 2nd pilot in other squadrons. New crewmen were soon being posted in, many of these from Conversion Units, whilst 90 Sqn’s Stirling crews were posted out. The continual cycle of trained crews coming in and ‘untrained’ crews going out filling the record books.
During all this operations continued on, and Stirlings continued to be lost. Four aircraft were shot down in May, three of them, on the two consecutive nights between the 8th and 10th, with many of the crewmen either being killed or captured.
The last Stirling to be lost on operations for 90 Sqn was on the night of June 2nd / 3rd when EF294 ‘WP-B’ crashed in France in the early hours of the 3rd. Of those on board, two managed to evade capture whilst the remaining five were caught and imprisoned in POW camps.
With the invasion of Normandy on June 5th/6th, four Lancasters and fifteen Stirlings were prepared for operations in connection with the landings, but the Lancasters were withdrawn – perhaps to the annoyance of those on board. The Stirlings all took off and carried out their mission successfully, each one returning to Tuddenham safely.
The last Stirling only operation took place on June 7th, the last two aircraft to return landing at Newmarket after completing their special operations. The Lancaster would now take over as the main aircraft and so 90 Squadron would soon return to bombing operations once more.
The first of these major operations was on the night of 10th/11th June, when seven Lancasters, a mix of MK.Is and MK.IIIs, left Tuddenham to bomb rail facilities at Dreux – 90 Sqn had at last returned to the ‘front line.’
Sadly it was not to be the best night for the squadron, of the seven Lancasters that departed, two never returned home. The first NE149 ‘WP-A’ and the second NE177 ‘WP-B’ (both MK.IIIs), crashing in France. Of the fourteen airmen on board, three evaded capture, one was caught, and the remaining ten were all killed – it was not the most auspicious start for the unit.
With two more Lancasters lost that month – one on the infamous Gelsenkirchen raid in which seventeen Lancasters were lost – June had proven to be difficult, and even though Stirlings were still operating, the Lancaster had become the main type and it wasn’t going to be an easy ride to Christmas. Forty-three, 90 Sqn airmen had been posted as either ‘killed’ or ‘missing’ in June alone.
Bomber Command’s tactical support of the land based forces continued on until mid September, by which time, Harris was back in charge and Bomber Command could once again turn its attention to targets in the German heartland. As the allied forces moved ever closer, night raids turned to daylight as allied air power began to get its grip on the skies over Europe.
In October, a new squadron would reform here at Tuddenham, 186 Squadron also flying Lancaster MK.I and IIIs. Originally having its roots on board HMS Argus in 1918, it was another unit that had had short spells of activity before being disbanded once again. In a very different guise to its original formation, this time it was born out of 90 Sqn’s ‘C’ Flight, there the differences cease and by the December, the squadron had left Tuddenham moving to Stradishall where it remained until the war’s end, and its final disbandment once more.
The remainder of the year was relatively quiet for the Tuddenham group, regular missions with little or no opposition meant losses were low, and results were generally considered successful. But with bad weather setting in across both the UK and the wider continent, many squadrons had days of being stood down. Tuddenham on the other hand, with their FIDO system, was able to put up more flights than many others. Indeed during the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes, 90 Sqn were one of the few units able to launch attacks when most others were fog bound.
The dawn of 1945 brought hope for an end to the war as the allied war machine moved ever closer to Berlin. The German’s last ditch attempt in the Ardennes was eventually overrun, and bombing picked up as fair weather returned once more.
On February 2nd, Wing Commander W. G. Bannister joined the squadron on attachment. On the same day as he arrived, he took off at 20:52 in Lancaster HK610 ‘WP-Z’ along with thirteen other Lancasters from the squadron. Around an hour later, the aircraft collided with Lancaster PD336 ‘WP-P’, striking the tail trapping the rear gunner, Sgt. K. Hudspeth, inside the turret by his legs. Injured, he lay slumped over his guns. The pilot turned the aircraft over the Wash and ordered the bombs dumped in the sea. The rear tyre of the aircraft was burst and the port side of the tail was badly damaged, maybe even missing, and the turret by now was hanging off the aircraft. The pilot ordered chutes to be put on, after which the mid gunner Sgt. G. Wraith, went to help Sgt. Hudspeth, pulling him back into the aircraft’s fuselage where he administered morphine. The Lancaster made its way back to Tuddenham, and with the radio knocked out, red flares were fired to inform ground staff of its difficulties. Badly damaged with injured on board, the Lancaster made a safe landing, thanks to the skill of the pilot and crew.
Bannister’s Lancaster however, did not recover from the collision. After striking ‘P’ for Peter, the aircraft fell from the sky, crashing at 21:25, 3 miles from Bury St. Edmunds; sadly there were no survivors.
March 1945 saw a return of the Stirling to Tuddenham with 138 Sqn*3 transferring from Tempsford with the MK.V. As soon as they arrived they began to replace these with Lancasters MK.I and IIIs. 138 Sqn had been heavily involved in clandestine operations with the SOE, dropping agents into occupied Europe. With the need for such missions now largely gone, operations were wound down and the Stirling squadron were to be upgraded to front line bomber status. The first operational mission under this new guise was planned for the 28th but postponed until the following day. Three aircraft were ordered and all returned safely after having bombed the target.
As the war drew to its conclusion, 90 Squadron turned their attention to Kiel with both mining and bombing to prevent a German withdrawal. By the of the month it was all but over and operation Manna was put into place. On April 30th, 90 Sqn began their part in dropping supplies to the Dutch – targeting Rotterdam. Drop zones were identified by red T.Is and / or white crosses placed on the ground. By the end of the month 23 tons of food supplies had been dropped by the one squadron alone. During May, they began flights to Juvincourt to collect and bring back prisoners of war, dropping them at various sites including Dunsfold, Tangmere, Wing and Oakley; the aircraft then returned to base before carrying out further flights.
On the 25th, ‘Cooks tours’ began, aircrew flying ground crew to Germany to see for themselves the damage inflicted by the war on the German heartland, it was a harrowing site for many.
With no operational flying to do, training flights took over. It was a major change for both the air and ground crews. As bases around the country began to close, so squadrons were moved around in preparation for disbandment. In April, two more Lancaster squadrons arrived here at Tuddenham, both 149 and 207 Sqns transferring across from RAF Methwold. The number of bomber squadrons now residing at Tuddenham totalling four.
Finally, in November 1946 the death knell finally rang for Tuddenham and it too was closed, flying ceased and the aircraft were all withdrawn. All four squadrons were pulled out of Tuddenham, 90 and 186 Sqns taking their Lancasters to RAF Wyton, whilst 149 and 207 went to RAF Stradishall. In what must have been a mass exodus, Tuddenham fell suddenly silent.
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 ammunition and equipment. The American forces remained here for four years until 1957 when they too finally withdrew.
Tuddenham itself continued to stay in RAF ownership for a short while longer. As tension rose in the early part of the Cold War, ideal because of its low population and rural location, it was earmarked as a site for the new Thor missiles. New launch pads were built and a small section of the site was redeveloped accordingly. Then in July 1959, 107 Squadron RAF reformed here, operating three of the Thor missiles as part of the UK-USA nuclear deterrent agreement. Retaining these until July 1963, the site finally closed once and for all. At this point all military personnel moved out and the gates were finally locked.
After this, Tuddenham was earmarked for quarrying to meet the rising demand for housing. Large sections were returned to agriculture, but a quarry opened to extract the much-needed materials for house construction. This operation has continued to the present day and has been responsible for the removal of large quantities of the main airfield site.
Visiting Tuddenham, 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 the 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 large thorns, 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 who were stationed here. A pig farm covers a large part of the southern section and very little remains other than a few dilapidated buildings whose days are also very numbered. Tuddenham’s place in history is most certainly confined to the books and the memories of those whose numbers are also rapidly diminishing.
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 life. A superb tribute to a once active airfield and the gallant heroes of 90 Squadron Royal Air Force who served here*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 Air Force. 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.
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 Rattlesden 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 dispatched, 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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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 hardstands 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 careful 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.
The museum association have acquired not only the Watch Office, 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.
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.
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 visit here later in Trail 49 but if you have time it is another airfield that saw action with the ill-fated Short Stirling.
Sources and Further Reading (RAF Tuddenham).
*1 National Archives AIR 27/731/25
*2 Grehan. J. & Mace. M. “Bomber Harris – Sir Arthur Harris’ Despatch on War Operations“, Pen & Sword, 2014
*3 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.
*4 Personal stories of personnel from 90 Squadron at Tuddenham can be found here on the Wartime Memories Project website.
*5 Williams, G. “Flying Through Fire – FIDO The Fogbuster of World War Two“, Alan Sutton Publishing. 1995 (An excellent book detailing the work on FIDO and its installations at each airfield).
National Archives: AIR 27/733/3; AIR 27/733/4
Sources and Further Reading (RAF Rougham). *
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.