At the top of Northants, close to the Cambridge / Huntingdon borders, lie a number of airfields. Quite high up, they can be bleak and windy, but to those interested in aviation history they offer some amazing stories and fascinating walks. Some of these sites have been covered in earlier Trails e.g. Kingscliffe, Deenethorpe, Spanhoe Lodge or Grafton Underwood, but because of their close proximity, they could be combined with this trip.
Our visit today is RAF Polebrook, home to the famous Clark Gable.
RAF Polebrook (Station 110)
To the west of Peterborough, across the A1 and through some of the most gorgeous countryside this area has to offer, is Polebrook, a small village that once bustled with the sound of military voices. Originally designed for the RAF, Polebrook opened in May 1941. Being a Class II airfield, it had the three triangular runways, the main one being (08-26) of 1,280 yards in length. The other two, (14-32) of 1,200 yards and (02-20), 1,116 yards, helped to give a substantial size to the overall site. To accommodate the dispersed aircraft, the Ministry of Defence also required thirty square hardstandings laid mainly to the south-west and eastern side with the admin and technical sites located to the north.
Aircraft storage consisted of two T2 hangars and one J type hanger sat next to each other, with around 20 pill boxes to cover defence of the overall site.
The first RAF units to arrive were B-17s of 90 squadron (June 1941) who stayed until disbandment in February 1942. Although liked by their crews, they were dogged by high altitude problems (freezing guns) and poor bombing results. This early version of the B-17 was not to be a record breaker and had a relatively short life before being replaced by later, better models. Between 8th July and September 2nd, 1941 Polebrook Fortresses flew 22 attacks in total against targets including: Wilhelmshaven, Bremen, Brest, Emden, Kiel, Oslo, and Rotterdam. The RAF eventually decided to pull out of daylight raids and the airfield fell silent to operational activities.
Polebrook was then handed over to the USAAF on June 28th 1942 and redesignated Station 110, but it was felt by the Americans that the current runways were inadequate for their heavier model B-17s. A period of expansion then occurred; the hardstandings increased to 50, the main runway extended to 1,950 yards and the two secondary runways both to 1,400 yards. Accommodation blocks were increased and the whole site brought up to Class A standard, all suitable for a much larger number of personnel.
The first American units were those of the 97th BG of the 1st Combat Wing. The 97th was divided between two airfields, Grafton Underwood (Trail 6) and Polebrook. B-17s of the 340th BS and 341st BS found Polebrook their home, whilst the 342nd and 343rd BS went to Grafton. These were the first American bomber units to serve from UK bases.
Created as the 97th on 8th January 1942, they would go on to serve in the European Theatre from both England and later, bases in Africa. As a unit, they would be honoured with two Distinguished Unit Citations for action over enemy territory.
The 97th would stay at Polebrook until October 21st 1942. In those 4 months of residency, they would complete 14 missions over occupied Europe, dropping 395 tons from 247 aircraft. In October / November, they transferred to the Twelfth Airforce moving to the Mediterranean Theatre and then later (November 1943) the Fifteenth Airforce. With them gone, Polebrook would remain strangely quiet for the next few months.
In April / May 1943, Station 110 once more resounded with American voices, with the arrival of the 351st BG. Assigned to the 94th Combat Wing, (1st bombardment Division) they flew B-17s of the: 508th (code YB), 509th, (code (RQ), 510th, (code TU) and 511th (code DS) Bomb squadrons. These aircraft would be distinguished by a Triangular ‘J’ on the tail.
The 351st were only activated in the previous October, and were, as ‘rookies’, to take part in some of the most severe aerial battles in Europe.
Primary targets would include, Schweinfurt, Mayen, Koblenz, Hannover, Berlin, Cologne, Mannheim and Hamburg. They would later go on to attack submarine pens, harbours and ‘V’ weapons sites. Ground support was provided for the Normandy invasion, Battle of the Bulge and other major ground battles.
In October 1943, the unit received the first of its Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC), with highly accurate bombing in very challenging conditions raising the standing of this new group. A second DUC was to follow in January 1944 for action deep in the heart of Germany. During an attack on Leipzig in the ‘big week’ campaign of 20th-25th February 1944, two crewmen of the 510th, 2nd Lt Walter Truemper (Navigator) and Sgt. Archibald Mathies (Flt. Engineer), both received Medals of Honour for taking over their stricken aircraft when both Pilot and Co-Pilot were injured / killed. B-17, TU-A ‘Ten Horsepower‘ (42-31763)*2, was directly hit by flak, both Truemper and Mathies nursed the aircraft back to Polebrook to allow the other crew members to bail out safely. On attempting to land the aircraft for the third time, it crashed (Great North Road) between Glatton (Trail 6) and Polebrook exploding, killing all three remaining crew members.
It was during this time that (Cp.) Clark Gable was stationed at Polebrook, initially to make recruitment films for air gunners. He only flew five combat missions in total, taking a film crew on each one. The first was on 4th May 1943 and his last on 23rd September that same year. He was initially awarded the Air Medal, and later the Distinguished Flying Cross, finally leaving Polebrook with over 50,000 feet of film on 5th November 1943. In 1944, the film ‘Combat America’, narrated by Gable himself, was shown in theaters around the United States.
The 351st remained at Polebrook until shortly after VE day, returning to the US and becoming deactivated on August 28th 1945. Polebrook became quiet once more being put under care and maintenance until its final closure in 1948.
During the three years the 351st were at Polebrook, they flew a total of 279 B-17s on 9,075 sorties with 7,945 of them dropping 20,778 tons of bombs. Air gunners on these aircraft were credited with 303 enemy aircraft destroyed. In all they flew 311 credited missions losing 124 B-17s in all.
Post war and with the heightened threat from the Soviet Union, Polebrook was once more brought back to life, with three Thor missile sites being constructed in the centre of the main runway. These remained operational until August 1963 when they were finally removed and the site closed off. It was sold back to the former owners, the site dug up for hardcore and many buildings pulled down.
Standing on the site now, the wind howling across the open fields, it is easy to imagine how the site must have been all those years ago. A memorial stands on what remains of the main runway, a small section of concrete, overlooking the airfield.
Two benches carved in marble with a main triangular stone are beautifully carved and well cared for. Trees planted in lines mark the threshold where many bombers would have left on their way to targets in occupied Europe. A guest book is supplied in a wooden box and signatures reveal visitors from all over the world.
Across the road from here, tucked away in the corner of a field, is the main battle headquarters. Originally a sunken chamber with communications centre and raised platform, it allows observers a full 360 degree view over the site and surrounding area. Built to specification 1008/41 it is sadly now flooded and standing proud of the ground. Both access are open to the more adventurous or fool hardy explorer.
The single largest and most well-preserved building is the original J type hangar. Used for farming purposes, it is well looked after and visible from most parts of the site. The T2 hangars that would have been opposite but are gone as has the control tower and other main structures.
The three Thor sites are still standing, used by the farmer for storage. They were (at the time of visiting) buried beneath hay bales and farm machinery. One is clearly visible however, the blast walls standing proud. Whilst carefull exploring around the others reveals tracks and remains of the housing for the Liquid oxygen supply tank and hydropneumatic controllers, all ancillary buildings are gone.
The best evidence of life at Polebrook can be seen from the entrance to the ‘industrial’ site on the Lutton to Polebrook road. This area, now woodland, is actually designated a nature reserve and access seems to be freely available. This small road is the original entrance to the airfield and to both your left and right are the technical areas. Beneath the leaves and muddy floor, road ways still lined with kerbstones, are visible and whilst the road way is not clear, it is possible to make out the general view of the site.
Hidden amongst the trees and brambles, are a few good examples of the buildings once used. Most, are now piles of concrete, but quite a few shelters are still about and accessible. Storage tanks are open, the covers gone and so as a caution, tread very carefully amongst the bushes watching your footing.
From the entrance, to your left and a little further in, are two buildings, still shells but intact. The larger, I believe is the operations block, a smaller building next to it may have been a power or perhaps communications building.
Polebrook is unique in that it has/had examples of twin looped pill boxes. Here one firing window is situated above the other. A few other more standard examples are also on site some easily seen from the road or track.
I believe that the office on the site contains a full-scale model of the airfield as it was, and that the owner is more than helpful to visitors. Unfortunately on the day I was there, I was unable to take advantage of this so a return visit is certainly on the cards for later.
I was amazingly surprised by Polebrook. It is a truly an atmospheric place, with plenty to see for the visitor. Remnants of a time gone by are hidden amongst the trees and brambles. Little reminders of lives lost, lay beneath the leaves. A howling winter wind replaced by summer sun, carry the voices of those young men across its open expanse and through the decaying walls of history.
For further information, a superbly detailed website dedicated to the 351st BG with photos of crews and aircraft details can be found here.
If time allows, the nearby Polebrook church also has a memorial dedicated to the personnel of the base.
Notes and sources.
*1 Photo taken from Wikipedia open source. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polebrook-Aug1948.png
*2 The story of Archie Mathies appears in the ‘Heroic Tales‘ section of the blog. The crew list of B-17 ‘Ten Horsepower‘ was:
Pilot: Clarry Nelson,
Co-Pilot: Roland Bartley,
Navigator: Walter Truemper
Engineer / Top Turret Gunner: Archie Mathies
Bombardier: Joe Martin (POW)
Radio Operator: Joe Rex,
Ball Turret Gunner: Carl Moore,
Waist Gunner: Tom Sowell,
Waist Gunner: Russ Robinson,
Tail Gunner: Magnus Hagbo
Source: 8th Airforce Operational History http://8thafhs.com/search.php