In this trail, we visit the north of Norfolk, in an area that stretches from The Wash, to the East Coast beyond Norwich. Sandringham, the Queen’s residence, is a stones throw away and this area is filled with some of Norfolk’s most beautiful countryside.
In Trail 20, we visit three airfields in this area. Our first, is to a former airfield whose history not only stems back to the First World War, but is deeply rooted in it. Between the wars it lay dormant, and then sprang into life once more, as military activity in Norfolk increased during the 1940s. Known under four different names, and controlled by three different branches of the armed forces, we visit an airfield that has been the subject of one of Britain’s largest archaeological digs in recent years. Situated east of the coastal resort of Heacham in Norfolk, it forms the first airfield on our tour in Trail 20. We start the Trail at the former RAF Sedgeford.
RAF Sedgeford (RFC Sedgeford, RNAS Sedgeford)
Also known as RFC Sedgeford, RNAS Sedgeford or Sedgeford Aerodrome, the airfield lies just outside of the village from which it takes its name, and on the south side of the B1454 Docking Road.
Sedgeford originally opened as a First World War airfield during the latter half of 1915 as Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Sedgeford. It was initially a Class 1 night landing ground (NLG) for the main base at Great Yarmouth (South Denes) much further to the east on East Anglia’s North Sea Coast.
The Royal Naval Air Service were themselves a fledgling service, being formed only a year earlier in July 1914, after the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was removed from RFC control, being placed under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. At their time of formation the RNAS had on its books some fifty-five seaplanes (inc. ship-borne aircraft); forty aeroplanes; seven airships; 111 officers and 544 men*1.
With aviation very much in its infancy, the RNAS had been using mainly airships, and were only just beginning to venture into aeroplanes as a means of fighting a war. With a range of airfields in the area including both RFC Holt and RFC Bacton (NLG), it also used Ludham (HMS Flycatcher), Pulham (an airship station), Hickling Road (a seaplane airfield), Lowestoft (a balloon site) and Great Yarmouth (South Denes which was a mixed use airfield for home defence and marine operations). From these humble beginnings, the RNAS were to become a strong force during the First World War.
With the might of the Zeppelin ruling the skies, it wasn’t long before the first attacks were made along the North Norfolk coast, ranging from Great Yarmouth to Kings Lynn. These attacks, and continuing intruder flights by Zeppelins, called for a much greater aerial protection of East Anglia. It was this call that led to the creation of not only Sedgeford but also Aldeburgh, Bacton, Holt, Narborough (which later became Norfolk’s first military airfield) and Burgh Castle as active airfields operating armed flying units*2.
During the early part of 1916, RNAS Sedgeford was transferred across to the RFC (themselves only formed on 13th April 1912) and used as a training station. The site was developed with further buildings added, eventually gaining eleven canvassed Bessonneaux hangars, two more permanent General Service Sheds, a range of buildings suitable for aircraft repair and maintenance, barrack huts, MT (motor transport) sheds and even a locomotive shed fed by a branch line to the main Hunstanton and West Norfolk Railway a mile or so to the north. Sedgeford would develop into a substantial sized airfield with some 100 buildings accommodating over 1,200 personnel including WRENs and WRAFs. Whilst the overall dimensions of the site cannot be confirmed, it is thought that the airfield covered around 170 acres.
The WRAFs, (known affectionately as ‘Penguins,’ because they didn’t fly) were often found working in aircraft doping sheds repairing aircraft fabrics using a potentially harmful ‘dope’ containing an acetate solvent. The fumes from this solvent were known to be lethal in large doses, with many of those using it on a regular basis, feeling ill or in extreme cases, dying from the effects of its toxic fumes. To combat the problem, some First World War doping sheds had extractor fans built into them to remove these hazardous fumes, and at Sedgeford, evidence has been found (by the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project), that confirms their use here.
Over the next few years Sedgeford would house a number of flying units, both training and ‘operational’ whilst preparing to move to France. The first of these (No. 45 Squadron) arrived on 21st May 1916 operating the Bristol BE.2b, an aircraft that they had been using since April at Thetford. Over the next five months, 45 Sqn would take on three other aircraft types: the Henry Farman F.20, (June to August), Royal Aircraft Factory FE.2b (July to Sept) and lastly the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (July to Sept 1917); the first British aeroplane to have synchronised guns firing through a two bladed propeller. The rather odd name was given to the aircraft because of the unusual ‘half-struts’ that attached the wings to the fuselage.
In August 1916, 45 Sqn was broken up, with the nucleus being used to form a new squadron here at Sedgeford – No. 64 Sqn. The remainder of No. 45 Sqn then prepared for France, a move it made two months later.
No. 64 Sqn continued using the Henry Farman F.20s that had previously been allocated to them, but over time, they too would use a variety of aircraft types including: the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c and FE.2b, Sopwith’s famous Pup, the Avro 504 and the de Havilland DH5.
Then on February 1st 1917, 64 Sqn was itself then split, the demand for new pilots and new squadrons increasing as the conflict entered its third gruesome year. From this split, another new squadron was born, No. 53 Reserve Squadron, who were themselves re-designated as No. 53 Training Squadron on 31st May 1917, and operated models such as the RE.8, BE.2c, Avro 504J and the DH.6. They would eventually leave Sedgeford and end their days at Harlaxton where they were disbanded and merged into another unit.
Although many of these pilots were ‘experienced’, being in training meant there were of course accidents, many taking the lives of the young men who had been drawn to the thrill of flying. One such pilot, twenty year old Sec. Lt. Arthur Le Roy Dean, was killed when his Sopwith ‘Pup’ (official name Scout) #B1788 spun into the ground whilst flying with 64 Sqn on August 8th 1917. He initially survived the crash only to die from his injuries the following day.
The 9th would prove to be a black day for 64 Sqn, after they lost a second pilot, Canadian Lt. Edward Gordon Hanlan, who was killed when his DH.5 (#A9393) crashed following a wing failure whilst performing a loop over the airfield at nearby Bircham Newton.
September 1917 would prove to be a busy month for both Sedgeford airfield and the many airmen stationed there. On the 15th, another new unit arrived to join 64 Sqn. They too were a new squadron, only being formed a few days earlier at Upavon. No. 87 Sqn, remained at Sedgeford for just three months prior to moving to Hounslow before themselves moving across to St. Omer in France, which was rapidly becoming the hub of the Royal Flying Corp in continental Europe.
This month was the penultimate month of 64’s stay at Sedgeford, and prior to them leaving for France another Sopwith Pup (#B1787) would take the life of its pilot, 2Lt. Francis Brian Hallam Anderson (aged 19) who, like Sec. Lt. Dean, survived the actual crash only to succumb to his injuries and die several days later on the 8th. Flying these lightweight aircraft was not proving to be easy.
By mid October (14th), orders to move had come through, and 64 Squadron packed its bags – they were on their way to France taking their DH5s to St. Omer. St. Omer being the very place the parent squadron (No. 45 Sqn) had moved to almost a year to the day previously. The many faces of 45 Sqn surely being different to those that departed a year before.
It was in France that 64 Sqn’s Acting Captain Flt, Lt. James A. Slater MC., DFC. would go on to be the Sqn’s top ace achieving 22 kills, which when added to the two he achieved with No. 1 Sqn, gave him a total of 24 kills. His determination and expertise in the air earning him both the DFC and Military Cross (with Bar) which was Gazetted in the London Gazette Supplement published on February 1st 1918*3*4.
The beginning of November 1917 would see another short lived unit arrive at this Norfolk site, and it would be the brief reuniting of two sister units.
Both No. 72 Sqn and No. 87 Sqn, had their roots firmly fixed in the same place – the Central Flying School at Upavon; 87 being formed from the resident ‘D’ Flight whilst 72 were formed from ‘A’ Flight. Whilst they perhaps enjoyed a momentary annexation, it would not last long before they would all depart and go their separate ways for good. Whilst 87 Sqn moved to the cold winter of France, No. 72 Sqn would take their Pups to the much warmer Persian Gulf and onto Basra and Baghdad, where they stayed until the war’s end.
Sedgeford was rapidly becoming a major player in the RFC’s continued development, with yet another new unit arriving here the same month they were formed – No. 110 Sqn. They too would be another relatively short stay unit, and again, operating a number of different aircraft types. Formed on November 1st, they were created out of the nucleus of 38 Training Squadron at Rendcomb, and stopped off at Dover on their way to Sedgeford. By June 1918, they were on their way again, moving to Kenley in Surrey, a station that would become famous in the Second World War as a fighter airfield.
Within days of 110 Sqn’s arrival, pilot James Alan Pearson was killed following a flying accident at Sedgeford. Pearson, who was from Chesterfield, had only joined the RFC in August that same year, transferring from South Farnborough, to Winchester, Oxford and then Hendon, where he joined No. 19 Training Squadron on September 19th, 1917. On November 19th, he completed his probationary period and was confirmed as a Temporary Second Lieutenant upon which, he was posted to No. 110 Sqn, at Sedgeford, just after the main squadron arrived at the busy Norfolk airfield.
His death came within a matter of days of his arrival, some references stating he ‘blacked out’, whilst other say his aircraft, a Martinsyde Elephant (#B866), broke apart. No doubt, both actions resulted from a steep dive from which Pearson never recovered. During the dive, and probable breakup of the aeroplane, Pearson was thrown out of the cockpit, unaided or not conscious, he failed to survive the fall. His official service record (AIR 76/396/34) simply states ‘Killed as result of aero accident‘, the short few entries showing how limited, at 18 years old, his experience was.
As the war turned to another year and the winter of 1917/18 dragged on, New Year’s day 1918, would see No. 110 Sqn joined by another newly formed unit, No. 122 Sqn, who whilst initially operating a range of aircraft, were earmarked to receive the de Havilland DH.9. However, the transition would not go smoothly and it would ultimately result in the squadron’s demise.
Both 110 and 122 Sqns were assigned to go to France, 110 Sqn leaving on 15th June 1918 initially to Kenley before Bettoncourt to the south of Nancy in France, whilst No. 122 Sqn were to be sent to Hamble (which became the more prominent Upper Hayford post World War Two) where they were to take on the DH.9s before also moving to the continent.
However, the unit was disbanded whilst still as a training unit at Sedgeford on the day prior to its move on 17th August 1918. No. 122 was then reformed at Hamble, but further plans stalled as the DH.9 was replaced by the DH.10 and a delay in allocation prevented the reformed squadron from its final activation. With the war’s end and no further requirement seen for the squadron, the process then halted, and in November 1918, the squadron was disbanded for good .
With the war in Europe now over, the withdrawal of squadrons from France began and units started the long journey home. Sedgeford would continue to host some of these units, continuing to perform their role as a training airfield. Even at this point, expansion of the airfield was still occurring but the future for Sedgeford was not bright.
At the end of 1918, No 3 Fighting School (FS) (who had been formed at nearby Bircham Newton) arrived at Sedgeford. Being a former Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School, it operated a number of different aircraft types including: Pups, a range of de Havilland models, Dolphins, Camels and Handley Page 0/400s. Perhaps now, as the war was over, a lapse in concentration may have been the cause of a New Year’s misadventure, when on January 24th 1919, two Sopwith Camels collided over Sedgeford airfield. Camel #C8318 flown by Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC., was in collision with #H2724 flown by Lt Hector Daniel MC.
Capt. King, who had been wounded in France, had been awarded not only the Military Cross in April 1918, but also the Distinguished Flying Cross in August 1918 along with the Croix de Guerre. Incredibly he was just short of his 19th birthday. Lt Daniel (a South African), survived the accident, and also achieved the Military Cross along with the Air Force Cross in July 1918 and June 1919 respectively.*5
The wind down was slow at Sedgeford, but March 1919 would see two major changes at the airfield. Firstly, on the 14th, No. 3 FS was disbanded, reforming as No. 7 Training Squadron (TS), who continued in the training role at Sedgeford. By October though, with cutbacks in the pipeline, it would no longer be required and so operations were curtailed, and it was finally disbanded.
Secondly, the end of March saw the arrival of a cadre of No. 13 Sqn with RE.8s. Their journey to Sedgeford had taken them around the many battlefields of France over the last three years, the skies of Norfolk must have been a more than welcome break for the young pilots.
As more and more units were disbanded, Sedgeford too would feel the bite. On New Year’s Eve 1919/20, orders were received and subsequently carried out, to disband the last remaining squadron at the airfield, and with this, the end of Sedgeford as a flying base was now signalled.
The interwar years saw many of the buildings removed, many being sold off or demolished, but fortunately some remained, falling into disrepair or put to agricultural use. What remained of the airfield was left in a dormant state, fading bit by bit. But, the 1930s increase in international tensions would be the saviour of Sedgeford, as war once again reared its ugly head. This time however, it would not be as an operational airfield with the usual buzz and activity it was once so used to, this time it would be a much quieter decoy site.
With so many strategic airfields located in East Anglia, and with the extended development of Bircham Newton as few miles away, the protection of these sites was paramount. The war of deception created the dummy airfield, with the sole purpose of diverting the Luftwaffe bombers away from the real airfield located nearby. Sedgeford was seen as a suitable location for such a site, the few remaining buildings being partly representative of a wartime airfield. With a little development and appropriate lighting added, Sedgeford became one such site, the remaining buildings being utilised to create an image of activity one would expect to see on an active airfield.
These decoy sites were the brainchild of Colonel John Fisher Turner, a retired Officer from the Air Ministry who had turned his hand to film work and special effects. Working with a team of tradesmen and engineers, they produced life-like aircraft, vehicles, boats and buildings using canvas, wood and other lightweight materials that when viewed from the air, look like the real thing. With lights added to give the impression of runway lighting, fires and vehicles, it proved to be a major coup in the war against the Luftwaffe. Designated as both a ‘Q’ (night time) and ‘K’ (day time) decoy station, Sedgeford was operational between June 1940 and August 1942, after which time the larger threat of bombing had sub-sided.
Sedgeford had a small number of operators on site to perform the deception, and because they were to attract enemy attention, they were provided with a shelter, the bulk of which still exists on the site today. After this, Sedgeford was finally closed down and returned to agricultural use once more. A state it has remained in ever since.
The airfield’s site is located just outside of the village, a gate and long path indicate the original entrance to the site. This path was once lined with First World War buildings, none of which remain today. The actual airfield itself is now an agricultural field, the railway spur that led from the main line has also gone, as has the main line itself. From the public road there are sadly no indications of the significance of this once historic site.
Along from the airfield toward the village of Docking, is another private dwelling that was also known to have been used as a billet for Sedgeford’s airmen. Formally the Union Workhouse it dates back to 1835 and was one of the largest workhouses in Norfolk at that time. Intended to hold up to 450 people, it rarely had more than 100 at any one time. The RFC took over the building in 1916 handing it back at the war’s end.
Since 2009 the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has carried out a huge excavation of the site at Sedgeford, uncovering a number of foundations and links to Sedgeford’s aviation history. Some of these buildings include the mortuary and Officers quarters, with its very ornate fireplace, and the World War 2 shelter mentioned previously. These are all firmly on private land hidden in a small wood around which the majority of the technical buildings were originally erected. Access to these sites is understandably only with permission, something I didn’t have on the day. The project, which has been carried out yearly, also uncovered numerous building foundations and a track for a hangar door. Substantial information being gleaned from the various digs being carried out over the years.
The types of buildings remaining at Sedgeford, especially the First World War examples, make this quite a unique site. So few buildings exist from this era, Stow Maries being the only other site with examples of any quality. This, along with the many deaths and sacrifices witnessed by Sedgeford, make it both historically and architecturally significant, and as such, perhaps the site should be protected.
The history of Sedgeford is extraordinary. Many of those who passed through its doors were teenagers, some lasted only weeks, whilst others went on to fly for years performing acts of great bravery and daring. But one thing that draws them all together was the thrill of flying in an era were flight was new and boundaries were unknown. Their bravery and courage should be remembered.
Sedgeford airfield had sadly all but passed into the history books, but recent excavations have given new life to this once significant site, and maybe one day, these will be given public status, and the memories of those who served and died here will live again.
This recognition took a step forward when on 21st July 1918 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial at Sedgeford. The report can be seen on both Your Local Paper website, and the ABCT website along with videos of the day and interviews with SHARP members.
From Sedgeford we continue with Trail 20, and travel east toward Docking, stopping off at St. Mary’s Church, before travelling a few miles further to the former airfield RAF Docking.
Some years ago, I was handed a book by the parent of a child that I had been teaching. He shook my hand and thanked me for my support and hard work with his son. The gesture took me by surprise, and when I took the book, he added, “it’s been signed by the author”.
Not a book of major works, nor a world-famous author, but a book on the history of RAF Docking, written by someone who lived there on the site. The author later became a Royal Air Force Officer, worked as a civilian within SHAPE in Belgium, and finally settled in the south Norfolk area, near Diss. The significance of the book is as much because it is signed by a ‘local’ man in an area of my interests, as it is about the fact that this parent had obviously got to know me as I didn’t generally talk about my interests in school – my professional life and private life kept well apart.
“Up in all Weather” by David Jacklin, a book I’ve kept to this day, features RAF Docking the second airfield on this Trail.
RAF Docking (also known as RAF Sunderland after the farm it took over) was originally built as a satellite for nearby RAF Bircham Newton. As one of many dummy airfields in this area, it saw an unusually high level of activity.
Docking had 3 grass runways one each of 1,730 yds, 1,400 yds and 1,100 yds (all extendable) it also had 8 blister hangars, 1 x A1 hangar and accommodation for 789 RAF personnel and 92 WAAFs.
Located to the East of Docking village, it was a ‘K’ site during the day and a ‘Q’ site at night. Dummy aircraft and false buildings would be used along with flare path lighting to guide enemy bombers away from major nearby targets; it was quite successful in this role being bombed on a number of occasions.
Docking became a dispersal site for RAF Bircham Newton, and often took aircraft returning during the hours of darkness. They would remain here and then be transferred home the following day. As it grew, it took more and more aircraft, eventually becoming an airfield in its own right to the point that it had its own satellite which became RAF North Creake.
Many of the airfields in this area, participated in the anti-shipping role under the control of Coastal Command. A small number of larger aircraft based with RAF squadrons, having with their longer range and larger bomb loads, were also based here and used to attack targets in Holland. A wide range of aircraft both visited and were stationed here at Docking, Avro Ansons, Lockheed Hudson and even Gloster’s Gladiators graced the grass field. In fact the range was so vast, (ranging from the iconic biplanes, Swordfish and Albacore to the larger Wellingtons, Whitley and Hampdens to the more modern Spitfire and Mosquito) that there are simply too many to mention with any real accuracy.
Movements in and out of Docking were frequent, but, many units were here at some point officially, these included: 53, 143, 221, 235, 241, 254, 268, 288, 304, 407, 415, 502, 521 and 524 RAF squadrons. With so many movements, it is hard to believe so little exists about its history or photographs of its activity.
Undoubtedly, the most significant contribution by Docking was that of meteorological reconnaissance, preparing weather reports for returning bombers and reports for forthcoming missions and the like. Many of these operations involved flying up to altitudes as high as 40,000 ft, taking measurements every 5,000 ft and reporting back. They would fly in set zones around the UK, Docking’s aircraft focusing on an area between Norfolk and Wick in Scotland. These sorties were code named ‘RHOMBUS‘, some from the west coast flying out deep into the Atlantic and some as far north as Iceland. Later on, these flights code named ‘PAMPA’ would involve flying deep into enemy territory to ascertain weather conditions over the target area in advance of a forthcoming bombing raid. Performed by Spitfires, and later Mosquitoes, these were often very dangerous with many crews failing to return.
Docking had its fair share of accidents. One such unfortunate incident on 10th October 1943, saw a Docking based Handley Page Hampden crash on take off, three of the crew members being killed in the ensuing fireball, whilst two others escaped – Sgt. J. Alloway and Flying Officer J. Maxwell. Alloway was severely burned and became one of ‘McIndoe’s’ army later known as the ‘Guinea Pig Club‘.
A number of other crashes, many in extremely poor weather, paid a toll on the crews, these are all talked about in detail in David Jacklin’s book so I won’t dwell here. One that is worth a mention is that of Flying Officer H.E.M. Featherstone (41275), 206 Sqn*1, Royal Air Force who died on 1st January 1941, Age 27 when the aircraft he was in crashed killing him and seven other crew members. Featherstone’s grave is found in the nearby war cemetery at Great Bircham.
Another ‘noteworthy’ mention is that of Pilot Officer A.L. Kippen (407 Sqn RCAF) who was killed on 16th May 1942. Kippen, (J/7208), an Air Observer, was killed when the badly damaged Lockheed Hudson he was in crashed on its approach to Docking hitting an anti-aircraft gun pit killing the occupants. He too is buried in the nearby church. What makes Kippen’s death so significant, is that just eight days earlier, his sister had sent him a poem, this poem now stands beside the headstone on a plaque.
Meteorological reconnaissance was not the only role played by Docking. Air Sea rescue were responsible for saving a number of downed crews, mine laying, anti-submarine missions and attacks by the Polish 304 Sqn RAF in the ‘1000 Bomber’ raid on Breman all form part of its rich tapestry. Even though it was a grass airfield, it became a refuge for many returning ‘heavies’, Lancasters, Halifaxes and even Stirlings found Docking a safe haven. On one day alone, 17th January 1944, a total of five Lancasters who had run out of fuel managed to land safely on its grass tracks. A number of B-17s also tried to land at Docking, but believing it to be a much longer runway, they ran off the end forcing their undercarriage to collapse in an adjacent ploughed field.
Toward the end of the war, Docking was used less and less operationally and eventually became a ‘demob’ centre for crews. Many faces were to pass through, including Richard Burton and Mick Misell (aka Warren Mitchell/Alf Garnet for those who watched British TV!). Robert Hardy (All Creatures Great and Small) another British TV actor was also here with Burton, as was Danny Blanchflower (Tottenham and Norther Ireland footballer). With little to do, these particular crew members were often in trouble, fights, vandalism and fraternisation with the locals led to many a run in with the law.
After the war had ended, Docking was used as emergency housing for the locals, many stories are told by David in his book and indeed he was one of those souls who had to brave the cold and ‘misery’ of a Nissan hut in winter.
With such a ‘distinguished’ history, RAF Docking is one of those airfields that has managed to fade into the past. Little now remains of its existence. Being grass, there are no runway remains or even an indication of a runway. The perimeters being concrete now form the eastern road that pass along side the site, being single track it is considerably smaller today then it was in the 1940s. At the top of this road, where the track swings west, is the former bomb site. Now a ploughed field, its wartime existence totally masked.
To the West of the site, the main road (B1154) passes through what was the admin and technical sites. A single crew hut stands in a field marking the location of the airmen barracks. Further along, the road forks, and to the left would be a further domestic site housing crews in more Nissan huts. The triangular coppice that stands in the middle of this fork, still retains, in a very dilapidated state, the gas decontamination centre and the emergency electrical supply, the stand-by set house. Both these are in a very poor state and now house disused agricultural machinery. Careful observations amongst the bracken and undergrowth reveals entrances to underground shelters, four entrances in total. These have been blocked and partially filled by the farmer to prevent access. Further along the right fork, would have been to the left, the WAAF site, to the right, the water tower along with further domestic units. All traces of these are now sadly gone.
Newly created on this fork, is a memorial to those who flew from Docking, beautifully crafted in black, it over looks the airfield to the east. From here, a small pill-box can be seen amongst the hedgerow, and with permission, it may be accessible and could be one that was damaged when hit by an Handley Page Hampden.
The entrance to the rebuilt Sunderland farm is also along here. This led to the A1 hangar, again now gone, and on through to the centre of the airfield to where the watch office still sits. Used for storage, again with permission it may be accessible. A number of smaller buildings are still evident here too and many can just be seen between the hedgerows, from the public highway.
When visiting Docking, it is strongly recommended that you visit the War Cemetery at St. Mary’s Church, Great Bircham, which includes 11 German war graves and a Cross of Sacrifice unveiled by King George VI on the 14th July 1946. These graves highlight the sacrifice of these men who flew in poor weather for the benefit of their more famous counterparts, the bomber crews. The high number of graves here and the stories that can be told, all reveal a rich tapestry of valour, bravery, sadness and loss that for a decoy station certainly earned its place in history.
On leaving Docking, we head south for a few miles, to a former station that is reputed to be not only the best preserved airfield around, but a haunted one as well. RAF Bircham Newton.
RAF Bircham Newton.
Bircham Newton has it origins in the First World War prior to the birth of the Royal Air Force. Its distinguished career, saw action in both World Wars and post war right up to 1965 when it finally closed.
Opened in 1916, its first operational use was as a fighter gunnery School in 1918. Its runways were grass and early residents included: DH4, DH5 and the DH9, amongst others. There then followed a period of expansion and development where larger buildings and accommodation blocks were built. Its first and possibly its most significant early aircraft, were the Handley Page V/1500 bombers*2. An enormous 4 engined aircraft, it was designed to hit Germany hard, targeting Berlin from airfields in East Anglia.
During expansion, a number of squadrons were based here: 7, 11, 166, 167 and 274 to name but a few. Primarily a bomber base during this period, it was soon passed to Coastal Command, who would also take charge of a number of other airfields around this area, including both satellites at RAF Docking and RAF Langham. Many of the original buildings were demolished and those we see today built instead.
New residents for Bircham featured heavier twin-engined aircraft such as the Lockheed Hudson, Bristol Beaufighter and Vickers Wellington, for which steel matting was laid to prevent sinking in the soft earth.
The majority of missions from here were anti-shipping activities, mine laying and Air-Sea rescue. Like its satellite, Docking, it saw a large number of squadrons pass through it gates, too many to give the required credit to here.
As the second World War drew to a close, Bircham’s activity began to dwindle and its role lessened. From Anti Shipping activities to Flying Training, Transport Command and finally to a Technical Training unit, training the Officers of the future. Flying reduced, and Chipmunks became the order of the day. The most notable ‘resident’ of Bircham being HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who made several landings here as part of his flying training in the early 1950s.
Finally, in 1962, Bircham Newton closed its doors to aviation, but it was not to be the end of the story. In 1965, with the development of the Kestrel, Hawker Siddeley’s VTOL baby, Bircham came to life once more, albeit briefly, with the sound of the jet engine.
A year later, Bircham was sold to the National Construction College and the pathways are adorned with young building apprentices, diggers and cranes of varying sizes. Being a busy building college, many of the original buildings have been restored but the runways, flying areas and sadly the Control Tower, removed. Whilst private, the airfield retains that particular feel associated with an airfield.
Luckily, the main road passes through the centre of Bircham. A memorial project has been set up to remember those that served at the airfield with photos and exhibits from days long gone. A memorial has also been erected and stands outside the original Station Commanders house, just off the main road and is well sign posted. The original accommodation blocks, technical buildings and supporting blocks are still visible even from the road. The 1923 guard-house, is now a shop and the operations block, the reception centre.
Reputedly haunted, the squash courts (built-in 1918) continue to serve their original purpose, and most significantly, the three large C-type hangers and 2 Bellman sheds are still there – all visible from the public highway.
RAF Bircham Newton, stands as a well-preserved model one of Britain’s wartime airfields. Although Private now, the buildings reflect the once time bustling activities of a busy centre of aviation.
Sources and links for further reading:
*2 A detailed history of the production of the HP.15 /1500 can be found on Tony Wilkin’s blog ‘Defence of the Realm‘.
Details of Great Bircham war cemetery graves are available at the role of honour of St Mary’s Church.
David Jacklin’s book “Up in all Weather – The story of RAF Docking” is published by Larks Press, 2004, ISBN 1 904006 19 1
The memorial project at RAF Bircham Newton has a website and can be found here.
Norfolk Heritage Explorer has more details here.
Please see the comment below from David Jacklin.
Sources and further reading (Sedgeford).
*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 10/8/2019
*2 Gunn. P. “Aviation Landmarks – Norfolk and Suffolk“. The History Press (2017)
*3 London Gazette Publication date: Supplement: 30827, Page:9204.
Norfolk in the First World War: Somme to Armistice project Website accessed 11/8/19
The Workhouse, The Story of an Institution website. Accessed 12/8/19
Photos of Sedgeford’s buildings can be seen on the ‘Derelict places’ website.