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 or exuberant antics may have caused the death of young twenty-one year old 2Lt. Jack Garside of the Fighting School. He was killed on the 18th November just a week after the armistice when his Camel (E7253) was involved in a ‘flying accident’ over Hunstanton. Although born in Yorkshire, Jack was buried at his parents home town of Coventry, in the London Road Cemetery.
The accidents didn’t stop there either. In the new year, on January 24th 1919, two more 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.
RAF Bircham Newton has one of the country’s best preserved technical and accommodation areas anywhere in the UK. This remarkable achievement is largely down to the owners, the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB), who opened their first training centre here at Bircham Newton in 1966. Attracted particularly by the large hangars, they are an organisation who specialise in training people for the construction industry through a number of training centres spread across the UK. Their work at Bircham Newton has ensured maintenance/preservation of many (but not all) of the buildings on site.
Located 8 miles from the Norfolk town of Fakenham, RAF Bircham Newton has associations with several airfields including: RAF West Raynham (its parent), RAF Docking (its satellite from where all night flying took place) and four minor decoy sites including the former RFC/RAF Sedgeford.
With its origins in the First World War, prior to the birth of the Royal Air Force, Bircham Newton has had a long and distinguished career mainly serving under 16 Group Coastal Command, who operated a range of single and twin engined aircraft from the site.
By the end of the Second World War, it would have seen considerable development, including three runways, all BRC steel matting (British Reinforcing Concrete), three ‘C’ Type Hangars, three Bellmans, ten Blister hangars and two Belfast hangars mainly located in the south eastern corner. It would also have an extensive range of accommodation and technical buildings catering for around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender.
Opened in 1916, little initially happened with the airfield, and it wasn’t until near the war’s then that Bircham really came into being. Its first operational use was as a Fighter Gunnery School in 1918, with No. 3 School of Aerial Fighting & Gunnery (later known as No. 3 Fighting School) as its initial resident.
The School was born out of the need to train both pilots and gunners in the early biplanes to use their guns effectively in aerial combat. With their roots in the Auxiliary School of Aerial Gunnery, they were formed in May 1918 when Numbers 2 and 4 merged with another two Schools, Numbers 1 and 2 School of Aerial Gunnery. This amalgamation of ‘Schools’ was designed to streamline the complex array of establishments that had grown out of the need for new gunners and pilots. Once formed, they would be one of four new schools which were joined by a fifth in September later that year. Operating a range of aircraft including: B.E.2e, Bristol M.IC, D.H.4, Dolphins, Camels and H.P. 0/400 aircraft, their stay at Bircham would however, be short lived, moving to nearby RAF Sedgeford in November of that year.
Early losses with trainee pilots were high, novices learning to fly the hard way. At Bircham, one such loss occurred to 2Lt. Horace G. R. Boyt, who was killed when his Sopwith Camel (D8226) of No. 3 Fighting School stalled whilst attempting a forced landing near to Thornham bombing range, on July 31st 1918. 2Lt. Boyt was only 19 years of age at the time of his death – a young man taken in the prime of his life.
Possibly Bircham’s most significant early aircraft was the Handley Page V/1500 (Super-Handley) bombers*1. An enormous four-engined aircraft, it first flew in May 1918, and was designed to hit Germany hard, striking targets as far away as Berlin. The V/1500 was more than capable for the role too. It could carry up to thirty 250lb bombs over a range of 1,300 miles with a crew of six. Even more unusual, especially for an aircraft so large, it boasted folding wings; presumably this allowed it to be placed inside a hangar/repair shed for maintenance or storage.
These aircraft arrived with three squadrons, the first 166 Squadron, was formed on 13th June 1918. Whilst initially receiving FE.2Bs, the squadron was created with the sole purpose of bombing Berlin, and the d’elite crews (mainly Canadian) were hand picked accordingly; a situation not unlike 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the Second World War. Bircham Newton was chosen for these aircraft, as it was both the most suitable and the most easterly aerodrome available to the RAF at that time.
Formed under the command of Major Cecil H. Darley DSC and Bar, DFC, a seasoned veteran of the war, the squadron fell under the control of 3 Group, a relationship it maintained until 13th September 1918 when it was transferred to 86 Wing, 27 Group. As the squadron rapidly developed, it naturally grew in size taking on new staff on a regular basis. By the end of September, after its Group transfer, it would have 17 officers and 308 ‘other ranks’ on its books.
After building the squadron up and preparing for war, an audacious and no doubt suicidal attack, was planned for November 9th 1918 – a raid on Berlin. However, maintenance problems meant that only two of the three aircraft at Bircham Newton were serviceable, this despite ground crews working hard to get all three in the air. There then followed a spell of bad weather which caused even further delay to the operation. By the time the situation had improved and the weather was more favourable, the armistice had been agreed, and so the raid was no longer required. As a result, the squadron was ordered to ‘stand down’ and the raid never took place.
For 166 Squadron it was a bitter disappointment, had the war gone on and the flight taken place, they certainly would have made history regardless of whether or not they were successful in their task. Perhaps they too would would have been as famous as their Second World War partners 617 Sqn.
As for the V/1500s, it is believed they were left in Bircham’s sheds, allowed to decay until they had deteriorated beyond use, ultimately they were scrapped. A rather appalling end to an incredible aircraft.*2
The second squadron to be formed with these remarkable aircraft here at Bircham, was 167 Sqn, who also failed to see any active military service. Being formed on the 18th November 1918, just days after the Armistice was agreed, they too were no longer required.
The last of these special squadrons to be created was 274 Sqn, which was also formed here, at Bircham Newton, a year later on 15th June 1919. Personnel for the unit came from the nucleus of No. 5 (Communication) Squadron after it was renamed. As the war had now come to a conclusive end though, there seemed little need for these huge, long-range bombers and so all three units were disbanded each within six or seven months of their initial creation.
The immediate post-war era saw little interest in the building of a military force, especially an air force, and strong opposition from both the Navy and Army was fuelled by an anti-war feeling amongst the British public. As a result, many airfields were sold off, aircraft and equipment were scrapped and thousands of personnel demobbed. Airfields like Bircham Newton, now had in their store, numerous surplus aircraft awaiting disposal.
On of these surplus aircraft was the V/1500, and it would be Major Darley of 166 Sqn, who would go on to fly one, not in an operational capacity, but as a non-stop flight to Madrid to promote these long range aircraft as potential civilian transports. It was not all plain sailing though, for the trip nearly cost Major Darley his life when, on the return leg, the aircraft got into difficulties and crashed into he sea off Biarritz. Managing to survive the accident, Major Darley eventually returned home to Bircham where he continued his military service. In honour of his achievements, the Spanish Government awarded Major Darley the Cross of Military Merit.*3
In a twist of fate, Major (now Captain) Cecil H. Darley, was joined in 1919 by his brother Flt. Lt. Charles Curtis Darley, also a veteran of the First World War, here at Bircham Newton, and they would be tasked with flying more of these surplus aircraft, this time Vickers Vimys, to Cairo. On their first trip together, on 24th September 1919, they departed Bircham heading for France, then onto Rome and eventually Cairo. On the 27th, following a forced stop at Lake Bracciano, 20 miles from Rome, the aircraft struck a telegraph pole causing it to crash. The resultant fire killed Captain Cecil Darley whilst his brother tried in vane to pull him free from the burning wreckage.*3
Whilst Britain had entered a period of ‘demilitarisation’, the early 1920s saw increasing Government concern over France’s build up of military aircraft, particularly its bombers. The Government now saw France not as potential Allie, but a potential aggressor, and there was now a growing concern over Britain’s lack of defensive strength.
By 1922, Britain had only 12 squadrons available in the UK, a weak and lacking force it would have been unable to counteract any aggressive moves made by the French. Consequently the Government put in a place a plan to rebuild its forces and increase this number, to a more substantial 52 squadrons by the mid 1920s.
This decision then led to an initial burst of refurbishment and development of Britain’s current airfield stock, those not closed by the post-war political hatchet. This included Norfolk’s Bircham Newton.
The link forged in late 1918 with bombers would carry Bircham right through the 1920s and on into the mid 1930s, during which time a number of squadrons would either be formed here or pass through in transit elsewhere. The first of these was through the reforming of 207 Squadron on February 1st, 1920 with DH.9As. This unit came from the nucleus of 274 Sqn, itself a previous resident of Bircham. As a cadre, it would remain here for two years before departing for warmer climates and Turkey, in the Autumn of 1922. That was not the end of the link though, after a spell abroad the squadron would return to the UK, coming back to RAF Bircham Newton at the end of the decade. This return would bring a new variety of aircraft, the Fairey IIIF. By 1932 though, these models were themselves being replaced by another Fairey aircraft, the Gordon, and within three more years the squadron would be back on the road to the Middle East once more.
Another small cadre appeared here on New Year’s Day 1920. Moving in from the former Narborough airfield (Norfolk’s first), the cadre from 60 Squadron would disband later that month, having the good fortune to reappear at Risalpur, India, later in the year.
Over the period 1923 – 24 three more squadrons arrived at Bircham, 7 Sqn (who were formed here from 100 Sqn and stayed for four years); 11 Squadron (6 months) and 99 Squadron (four years) bringing a wide range of aircraft with them to this part of Norfolk. Delights such as the Vickers Vimy; Virginia II, III, IV, V, VI and VII; DH.9A, Fairey Fawn and the Handley Page Hyderabad were all present during this short period of time.
With such a mass of movement, accidents were inevitable. 7 Sqn suffered a loss when Vickers Vimy (F9187) overturned whilst landing at night on 16th October 1923. Damage to the aircraft itself was not too severe and it was repaired, however, one of the four man crew, AC.1 Ronald Sinclair Watson (aged 20), was not so lucky and was killed in the crash. The remaining three crew all escaped unhurt.
Another accident befell a 99 Sqn aircraft on 27th February 1925, in which one of its crew was also killed with a second injured. The Avro 504K ‘H3083’, spun after attempting a stall turn, the manoeuvre resulted in the death of P.O. Cecil S. Marshall Woode also aged just 20. This was the first fatal accident for 99 Sqn.
This build up of squadrons saw continuous movements both in and out of Bircham throughout the 1920s, resulting in many more personnel and aircraft residing at the airfield.
In mid January 1928, 39 Sqn appeared at Bircham (DH.9A) staying for just one year, followed soon after on March 21st, by 101 Sqn. This was another former RFC unit, and were reformed, under the initial command of Sqn. Ldr. J. C. P. Wood. Sqn. Ldr. Wood was posted in from RAF Uxbridge to oversee the formation of the unit and the training of the crews. At its inception the squadron had just 23 airmen in its ranks and was tasked with operating the Sidestrand, an aircraft built by Boulton and Paul aircraft manufacturers.
The first model built, J.7938 was collected and brought to Bircham Newton, it was then taken to Ringstead for testing there. It was however, unfortunately damaged in a landing accident after it developed an oil pressure problem whilst being flown by F.O. Duggan, the now Squadron Commander.
Meanwhile, at Bircham, Ground crew were occupied with further ground and air tests, along with lectures by staff from the Bristol Aeroplane Co. on maintenance of the Sidestrand’s engine, the Jupiter VIIIF.
Rounding off the 1920s was 35 (Bomber) Sqn, reformed with DH.9As and then the Fairey IIIFs, followed not long after by the Fairey Gordon. 35 Sqn was commanded by Gilbert Stuart Martin Insall, who had in 1915 been awarded the VC for his actions in France. After having attacked a German aircraft, he was forced down suffering numerous hits to his own aircraft. Once down, he was able to complete sufficient repairs enabling him to take off again, but in a hail of gunfire that kept others seeking cover.
Later, Insall was shot down again, this time he and his crewman were both injured and captured. Moved from hospital to a POW camp, he made two escape attempts, being recaptured in the first but successfully escaping in the second.
Once repatriated, Insall was by now, a keen archaeologist, and flying with 35 Sqn enabled him to take photographs of the Norfolk landscape. These photographs led to discoveries that have since proven to be very important in the archaeological world. His endeavours in this area went on to help in the development of aerial photography as a reconnaissance tool and to aerial photography as a whole.
However, by the mid 1930s, both Insall and 35 Sqn had also departed Bircham Newton, heading for warmer climates and the Sudan, this move ending their link with this Norfolk airfield.
By now, Bircham had grown considerably, partly in response to the number of its users but also in response to the growing concern over what was happening on the continent. The airfield would by now, have a single aircraft repair section shed along with three double bay general service sheds. All of these were located in the south-eastern corner of the main airfield site, sat in a row with doors facing north-west.
In the 1930s, the Government’s plans for expansion took a new direction when Germany too began to build up its armed forces – albeit surreptitiously at first. New expansion schemes were put in place, which not only signified the expansion of the RAF’s forces, but the number of available airfields, their design, and the number of their associated buildings as well.
One of these modifications was the construction of a standard watch office with attached tower. Designed as drawing 1959/34, it became the standard design used for all Watch Offices of this time, and was in essence a square building with a small observation tower built onto a flat roof. In addition to this, Bircham also had new barrack blocks (2357/36) built, now in the familiar ‘H’ shape, supplementing the previous models which were in the form of a ‘T’. These new buildings had reinforced roofs giving better protection to those inside should it be struck by small incendiaries.
The decade started off on a bad foot however, with the loss of a 207 Sqn aircraft, a Fairey IIIF on January 21st 1930. A previous resident of Bircham, the rear party had brought the last of the personnel to Bircham in November 1929. The next weeks were spent getting as many airmen flying solo on the Fairey IIIFs as possible. However, poor visibility due to fog that day, caused the aircraft ‘J9637’ to crash into an orchard near Sudbury in Suffolk killing both crewmen: F.O. Donald Mackenzie (aged 25) and Cpl. Leonard Edward Barnard who was a year younger.
In November 1935 information was received at Bircham that two new squadrons were to be formed here, 21 Sqn and 34 Sqn, both bomber units flying Hawker Hinds. Personnel began arriving on December 3rd and began to work on 207 Sqn’s updated Fairey Gordons, preparing them for dispatch to Cardington prior to their move abroad once more. 21 Sqn were allocated Hangar No. 17, and would receive their first Hind (K.4638) on New Years Eve 1935.
34 Sqn on the other hand, wouldn’t receive their first batch of Hinds until January 1936, when four examples were delivered from the Hawker Aircraft Company Ltd. at Brooklands, by pilots from other units. With two more Hinds being delivered on June 11th, also by pilots of other units, the cadre would soon be preparing to move. On July 30th, both 21 and 34 cadres were ordered north, making the move from Bircham Newton to Abbotsinch in Scotland.
The latter part of the decade reflected previous events at Bircham. Many new changes meant that events at the airfield were as dynamic as ever. Several new squadrons were formed resulting in new crews and some new aircraft. Sharing the space at Bircham were 18 Sqn (Harts and Hinds), 49 Sqn (formed from ‘C’ Flight of 18 Sqn) and ending the decade 206 Sqn with Ansons and later Hudsons. 206 would themselves later be used to form 220 Sqn, which in turn would see ‘C’ Flight be renamed as 269 Sqn. Many of these new squadrons would in turn depart Bircham as changes occurred on the continent.
With 206 came new changes of command at Bircham. Their arrival in 1936, saw a move to Coastal Command (16 Group). Formed at Manston in June under the initial command of Sqn. Ldr. A. H. Love, 23 (Training) Group, 206 Sqn had three flights of six aircraft each and a further six Ansons in reserve. The squadron transferred across to Bircham at the end of July by which time the command had been taken over by Wing Commander F.J. Vincent D.F.C.
206’s main role at this point was training pilots selected for Flying Boats and the Blenheim squadrons of Coastal Command. Shortly after arrival, the unit’s command would pass over to Wing Commander H. Long D.S.O., and by June 1937, 270 pilots would have been successfully converted in 2,700 hours of flying time.
Naturally accidents did occur during this time, on November 9th 1936, 220 Sqn Anson ‘K6199’ stalled after take-off killing P.O. Peter White (age 23) and injuring three others: Sqn. Ldr. William M. M. Hurley (the pilot), AC.2 Eric D. Butler and AC.1 Reginald K. Birtwistle. The aircraft was written off, after which a court of enquiry recommended modifications to locking bars, as it appeared that the pre-flight checks had been made with the control systems locked. The aircraft was left as an instructional air frame and a stark reminder for proper pre-flight checks!*7
A second accident occurred a year later in September 1937, when another 220 Sqn Anson, ‘K6227’ also stalled, this time falling into the sea near Conway. This time, the crew were not so lucky, with all three, a Sergeant, an AC.1 and an AC.2 all being killed. Their average age was just 22 years old.
During the later years of the 1930s, a royal visitor was often seen parked in the hangars at Bircham Newton. The Airspeed Envoy G-AEXX of the King’s Flight was a regular here, being so close to Sandringham House, the Royal residency, it was an ideal location for the aircraft. The Envoy was a creation of the Airspeed company, headed by the author Nevil Shute, a former de Havilland and Vickers employee who later set up his own business, Airspeed Limited. The Envoy was later developed into the Airspeed Oxford which became one of the main trainers used by the RAF.
As the era closed and just weeks before the outbreak of war, another squadron arrived here at Bircham in the form of 42 Sqn with Vickers Vildebeests. The Vildebeest was a late 1920s design biplane, designed to meet Specification 25/25 which required an aircraft operating in the Coastal Defence role and capable of both day bombing and ant-shipping torpedo operations. Several marks were manufactured, up to and including the MK.IV of which only 18 were built. It was some of these that were later delivered to 42 Sqn at Bircham Newton. These aircraft remained in service at Bircham until April 1940, when they were replaced by Beauforts at which point, 42 Sqn departed Bircham transferring to Thorney Island in West Sussex.
On the day war was declared, another very mobile squadron appeared at the door of Bircham, this time it was the Blenheims of 90 Sqn who made a very brief appearance here from West Raynham. Over a period of just two weeks they would locate at five different RAF stations!
With the introduction of the last of the Expansion Schemes ‘L’ and ‘M’ over the years 1938 -39, Bircham would see yet more changes to its infrastructure, notably the demolition of the repair sheds and their replacement with three Type ‘C’ hangars. At this point a fourth was also proposed such was the size and nature of activity at Bircham Newton. In addition, the two original Belfast type hangars were retained providing a mass of hangar space on the airfield. Another bonus for Bircham was the addition of further accommodation blocks, providing better accommodation for the many new air and ground crews who were increasingly appearing at this Norfolk site.
The declaration of war and the early 1940’s would see some remarkable events take place at Bircham Newton; new aircraft and new roles, along with some advances that were to help downed airmen who ended up in Britain’s coastal waters.
One of these advances, was the creation of the ‘Bircham Barrel’, a container manufactured from the tail end of a 250lb bomb that was carried under the wing of searching Air Sea Rescue (ASR) aircraft and dropped to downed aircrews. The barrel was based on the ‘Thornaby bag’ a container designed at RAF Thornaby, in which supplies of: water, food rations, first-aid equipment, clothing and cigarettes were all placed. The Bircham Barrel, developed this idea a little further, making it more water tight and easier to retrieve by crews once in the water.*4
The Barrel was placed under the wing of an aircraft on a bomb rack, and once a crew was sighted, the pilot could drop the barrel providing the crew with sufficient rations for several days. After tests, the idea was given the green light and by 1941 it was in use by a range of aircraft operating in the ASR role.
With an increase in coastal operations from Bircham, particularly in the Air Sea Rescue role, many of the aircraft that would now use the airfield would be the twin-engined types. Kicking off the decade were the Bristol Blenheims, of 254 Sqn in January 1940. Joining a small detachment of 233 Sqn Blenheims that had arrived here late in 1939, 254 Sqn only stayed for three months, operating as ‘Trade defence’ or fisheries protection unit – perhaps one of the lesser well known operations of Coastal Command.
Twin-engined models were not to be the only aircraft seen at Bircham though. The spring and early summer of 1940 would see further detachments with Hurricanes from 229 Sqn, a short stay by 235 Sqn and the first of a number of Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA) units 815 Sqn with the delightful Swordfish. One further unit to be based here at this time, would bring with it one of the more intriguing models of aircraft used during the Second World War, the Wellington DWI of No 2 General Reconnaissance Unit (GRU).
One of the roles of the GRU was to detect and destroy German mines, particularly new magnetic mines that were proving to be a menace to allied shipping. Using a Wellington 1A bomber modified to carry a large 51 foot ring of wood containing an aluminium coil, it would generate, using a Ford motor, an electronic signature that would resemble a ship. By flying low and slow over the water, it was hoped that the signal from the coil would detonate the new mines. Whilst the idea worked well in principal on land, over water it caused a number of issues primarily because the aircraft had to fly between 60 feet and 35 feet to detonate the mine. A number of successful detonations were recorded, but some aircraft were struck by the blast wash, causing them to be knocked ‘off balance’ as the mines exploded. Fortunately though, there are no recordings of any serious damage being sustained by these aircraft, but it was nonetheless, a dangerous job to do and because of advances elsewhere, it became a short lived attempt to gain an advantage over the Germans in the mine laying war.
Like the Swordfish, both the Wellingtons of 2 GRU and the Blenheims of 235 Sqn were only based at Bircham for a month, all departing in May 1940, although 235 Sqn did return in the summer staying this time for a year. The immediate period after their departure saw yet more FAA units arrive, 826 and 812 Sqns, with Albacores and Swordfish respectively. Both of these units would operate as shipping patrols and also in mine laying operations, but would again only stay for a short period of time. During operations on 21st June 1940, at De Kooy Naval air base, one 826 Sqn aircraft was lost, two of the Albacore’s crewmen: Sub Lieutenant (A) Peter William S. Butterworth, (famed for his acting in the ‘Carry On’ films) and Telegraphist /Air Gunner Robert (TAG) J. Jackson, were both captured. Sub. Lt Butterworth survived ending up in Stalag Luft III after several failed escape attempts, whilst TAG Jackson died in captivity on 18th January 1945. The third crewman, Sub-Lieutenant Victor J. Dyke, died the day after the attack.*6
Bircham’s long standing 206 Sqn were by now replacing their Blenheims with Hudsons, the American built twin engined aircraft designed around the civil Lockheed Super Electra. By militarising it, they produced an aircraft that would serve well in Coastal Command operations.
Initially carrying out convoy duties, the Hudsons would then patrol as far away as the ‘North German Islands’, but primarily flew reconnaissance patrols along the coastline between Norway and Brest. Shipping was engaged on a number of occasions as were flak and Luftwaffe aircraft. During May, as the new Hudsons were being delivered, a number were lost to enemy action, particularly fighters.
For one Hudson, (P5120), life at Bircham would be short lived, the aircraft arriving here in April, only to be written off after a crash landing in June. The aircraft, one of three, departed Bircham on June 19th at 23:50 for a night patrol. On return it struck a ridge on the airfield’s approach causing it to bounce heavily. The aircraft then stalled and hit the ground so hard it caused the undercarriage to collapse. Thankfully all four crewmen emerged from the aircraft unhurt.
Both during and after the build up to Hitler’s planned invasion of Britain, airfields across southern England were targeted by the Luftwaffe, and Bircham Newton was no exception. Whilst not a fighter airfield high on the list of Luftwaffe priorities, bombs nonetheless did fall on the airfield, and it was the Hurricane detachment of 229 Sqn based here, who were tasked with providing cover against such attacks.
In addition, many support units were also based at Bircham, these would provide training for pilots, gunners, navigators, other members of aircrew along with cooperation with ground operations as well. One such unit here at Bircham was No. 1 Anti Aircraft Co-operation Unit (AACU) which consisted of several Flights, designated ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’, ‘K’ and ‘M’, they all operated the Hawker Henley, the Hurricane’s little known relative.
With Flights designated A – Z (‘I’ was omitted), the unit operated at various airfields across Britain, flying a mix of Henley IIIs, Wallace, Lysander and Battle aircraft, with both Flights ‘B’ and ‘M’ being formed here at Bircham Newton. Several of these Flights also used RAF Langham, another Coastal Command / training airfield a few miles away on the Norfolk coast, particularly useful for the training of heavy anti-aircraft guns.
The Henley – built along side the Hurricane – essentially used the same jigs, their similarity thus being quite stark. The Henley was initially designed as a light bomber with modifications to the guns and an additional seat added behind the pilot. However, changes in Government policy toward daylight bombers meant that the Henley was soon transferred to other duties notably target towing. To assist this, a small propeller driven motor was added to the port side of the aircraft, just below the rear cockpit, this would power the winch that held the target drogue as it was towed some 7,000ft behind the aircraft for gunners to aim at*5.
In November of 1940, two more squadrons were formed here, one, another First World War unit, was 252 Sqn. It would not fly operationally from here though, instead collecting its aircraft from Chivenor to where it would move a matter of weeks later.
The second unit, 221 Sqn was formed on the 21st November, and was also a former World War One unit. Disbanded in 1919, it would serve for the remainder of the war with the Wellingtons in the Coastal Command role. The initial order was to train crews at Bircham prior to their move to operations at Limvardy, a role it would perform using twenty-four Wellington IC aircraft. By the end of the month two such models, N2909 and N2910 were delivered and ready to be used for the job. A third aircraft, a dual control Wellington (R2700), arrived on the 6th and then on the 12th December, the personnel were all moved off site to a new location the rather grand Heacham Hall. The hall, which burned down during the war, was a 17th Century building, and had historic ties to Matoaka (better known as “Pocahontas”), who married local man John Rolfe. It must have been a rather nice change for the airmen to be ‘off base’ and in more luxurious, and historical, surroundings.
During the remainder of December more aircraft arrived and by the last day of the year, eleven more Wellingtons were ‘on role’ along with a growing number of personnel – both air and ground crew.
1941 started on a high for Bircham Newton, with a Royal Visit. On 26th January, the Royal party consisting of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, and Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, visited the area inspecting the airfield and its aircraft. Whilst here, the King gave airmen a number of awards before the whole party moved of to other airfields across Norfolk.
For the whole of January, training flights were the order of the day for the Wellingtons of 221 Sqn, but poor weather meant that only 12 out of the 31 days were actually suitable. However, by March 27th 1941, all pilots had flown solo by day and a new flight was crewed up and ready for operations. The squadron then began its move over to Limvardy in Northern Ireland.
The summer of 1941 was another busy time for Bircham Newton. In May, two squadrons appeared, the first 200 Sqn was formed from 206 Sqn, which had already been used to create 220 Sqn earlier on. 200 Sqn were formed to perform the ‘operational duties of a Coastal Command general reconnaissance land-plane squadron’ in other words maritime and anti-submarine patrols. It would be made up initially of 210 personnel, who would depart Bircham on the 25th to Greenock, whilst seven Hudsons would fly to Gibraltar on route to Gambia. It would remain abroad until its disbandment at the war’s end in 1945.
The second, 500 Sqn moved in from Detling in Kent, bringing Blenheims with it. With detachments at both Limvardi and Carew Cheriton, these were replaced by the Hudson V in November before the unit departed for Stornaway in Scotland’s Western Isles in May 1942. Once at Bircham they immediately began patrols, looking for downed aircrew, mines or enemy shipping. Poor weather restricted many of these patrols, but both mines and shipping were spotted, sadly no dinghies or aircraft were found in these early days.
The next unit to arrive was another Blenheim squadron, 248 Sqn who performed convoy patrols and strikes against enemy shipping. During July, a month after they moved in, they began to replace the Blenheim with Beaufighter ICs, a powerful and heavily armed aircraft built to design Specification F.37/35. After initial handling issues, it became a sturdy weapons platform that performed well, especially in the anti-shipping role, carrying a torpedo or rockets. For the next month the weather prevented much in the way of flying, with fog, rain and poor visibility preventing all but minimal flying, the squadron remained firmly on the ground for a good deal of August.
The last of the summer squadrons to arrive were 53 Sqn and 59 Sqn. Initially based at Detling / Thorney Island, they had also maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham. Once the two squadrons had reformed at Bircham, they both took on the Hudson replacing their Blenheims before departing back to St Eval in the October of that year (53 Sqn) and North Coates (59 Sqn).
By September 1941, the need for more Air Sea Rescue aircraft, particularly deep search aircraft, had become ever more apparent, and it called for the creation of two more squadrons able to perform such tasks. However, suitable aircraft were in short supply, especially Lockheed’s Hudson with ASV (Air to Surface Vessel) radar equipment and Lindholme rescue gear. Thanks though to Sir John Salmond, Coastal Command’s corner was fought, and even though by the end of 1941, aircraft were still few and far between, by the December one of these Squadrons, 279 Sqn, was up and running here at Bircham. However, it would be a long haul, and it would not be until March the following year before they would be fully operational and their Hudsons operating regularly in the Air Sea Rescue role from this airfield.
The second squadron, 280 Sqn however, was not given the Hudson, instead they had to contend with the Anson. Another unit set up in 1941, its primary base was also at Detling in Kent. Whilst performing this duty, they maintained a detachment of aircraft here at Bircham Newton, a position it held whilst the bulk of the squadron moved to Langham in Norfolk in the summer of 1942. It would then be after this, that the entire squadron would move into Bircham Newton.
Like its sister unit it would take time to become fully operational and it would not be until June before the squadron was operating as it should. The benefit of both units was quickly seen though, thirty-five men from six crews were rescued over May – June by 279 Sqn, whilst one crew was rescued by 280 Sqn within days of them becoming fully operational.
By 1942, designs in ASR equipment had moved on, and a jettisonable lifeboat had by now been designed. The Hudsons at Bircham were the first unit to have the necessary modifications made to them to enable them to carry such boats, and as a result several crews were saved by the aircraft of 279 Sqn. Many searches however, were not fruitful and lives continued to be lost as a result of the lack of suitable equipment and poor weather.
During the year yet more front line squadrons would arrive here at Bircham. The first, 502 Sqn brought with it a change of aircraft type, with the Whitley V. The Whitley was a 1930’s design, constructed to Specification B.3/34, and was only one of three front line bombers in service at the outbreak of the war.
Within a matter of weeks, one of these Whitleys, returned from a maritime night patrol, overshot the flare path and crash landed. This particular mark of Whitley was soon replaced by the VII, and as 502 received their new models, so they began their departure to St.Eval; they had only been here at Bircham for a mere month.
March and April 1942 would then see two more units, both operating Hudsons. The first, 407 Sqn, was the first Canadian unit to be based here at Bircham, and would only stay here until October. As part of 16 Group, it would perform attacks on enemy shipping between Heligoland and the Bay of Biscay. The second squadron, 320 Sqn, would arrive at Bircham a month later on April 21st and would remain here for the next year. An entirely Dutch manned unit they had transferred from Leuchars in Scotland where they had been carrying out maritime patrols. The main part of April for 320 Sqn would consist of ferry flights, tests and cross country flying.
The final squadron, 521 (Meteorological) Sqn, was formed here on 22nd July 1942 through the joining of 1401 and 1403 (Met) Flights. These were operating a number of aircraft including the Blenheim IV, Gladiator II, Spitfire V, Mosquito IV and Hudson IIIA, and all passed over to 521 Sqn in the July on its formation. In the following year, March 1943, the squadron would be split again, returning back to two flights once more, Nos 1401 and 1409, thus ending this period of its history. The role of 521 sqn was meteorological, the Gladiators flying locally usually above base, whilst the remainder flew long range sorties over northern Germany or to altitudes the Gladiator could not reach.
There was little ‘front line’ movement in or out of Bircham during 1943, only two new squadrons would be seen here, 695 Sqn with various types of aircraft, and 415 (Torpedo Bomber) Sqn another Canadian unit.
415 were initially a torpedo squadron operating in the North Sea and English Channel areas attacking shipping along the Dutch coast. They arrived here at Bircham Newton in November with both Albacores and Wellingtons, and remained here in this role until July 1944 when they left for East Moor and Bomber Command. During D-day the squadron lay down a smoke screen for the allied advance, taking on the Halifax to join in Bomber Command operations. Throughout their stay they retained detachments at a number of airfields including: Docking and North Coates (Wellingtons) and Manston, Thorney Island and Winkleigh (Albacores). They were well and truly spread out!
695 Sqn were formed here out of 1611, 1612 and 1626 Flights, and performed anti-aircraft co-operation duties using numerous aircraft including: Lysanders, Henleys, Martinets, Hurricanes and Spitfires. They remained here until August 1945 whereupon they departed to Horsham St. Faith now Norwich airport.
The only RAF squadron to appear here at Bircham Newton in 1944, was 524 Sqn. It was originally formed at Oban on the Scottish West coast with the failed Martinet, in October 1943, the squadron lasted a mere two months before being disbanded in the early days of December.
Like a phoenix though, it would be reborn later in April 1944 at Davidstow Moor. By the time it reached Bircham in the July, it was operating the Wellington XIII. After moving to nearby RAF Langham in October, it would eventually disband for the final time in 1945.
It was also during this year that further FAA units would make their presence here at Bircham. 855 Sqn FAA brought along the Avenger, whilst 819 Sqn FAA brought more Albacores and Swordfish. Both these units served as torpedo spotter reconnaissance and torpedo-bomber reconnaissance squadrons.
As the war drew to a close, 1945 would see the winding down of operations and squadrons. Two units would see their days end at Bircham, 598 Sqn with various types of aircraft and 119 Sqn with the Fairey Swordfish, would both be disbanded – in April and May respectfully.
Bircham’s activity then began to dwindle, and its role as a major airfield lessened. From anti-shipping activities to Fighter Command, Flying Training, Transport Command and finally to a Technical Training unit, Bircham was now training the Officers of the future. Flying activity naturally reduced, and small trainers such as the Chipmunk became the order of the day. Whilst a number of recruits passed through here, the most notable was perhaps HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, who made several landings here as part of his flying training in the early 1950s.
Like all RAF Stations, Bircham was the proud owner of several ‘gate guardians’, notably at this time was Spitfire LF Mk.Vb Spitfire ‘EP120’ from around 1955 to late 1962, along with Vampire F MK.3 ‘VF272’.
Spitfire EP120, was a Castle Bromwich model, which entered RAF service in May 1942, with 45 Maintenance Unit (MU) at Kinloss in Scotland. Whilst serving with several squadrons she achieved seven confirmed ‘kills’ before being relegated to a ground instructional air frame. There then followed a period of ‘Gate Guardianship’ standing at the front of several stations including Bircham Newton. In 1967 she was used as a static example in the famous Battle of Britain movie, before being transferred back to gate guard duties. In 1989 she was then transferred to a storage facility at St. Athan along with several other Spitfires awaiting their fate. Finally she was bought by the ‘Fighter Collection‘ in 1993. After a two year restoration, EP120 finally returned to the skies once more, in September 1995 where she has performed displays around the country ever since.
Unfortunately, Vampire VF272 wasn’t so lucky. Whilst her fate is unknown at this time, it is believed she was scrapped on site when Bircham finally closed in 1962.
But it was not to be the end of the story though. 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. With tests of the new aircraft being carried out, Bircham Newton once again hung on by its finger nails – if only temporarily.
A year later, Bircham was sold to the National Construction College and the pathways were 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 watch office, removed. Whilst private, the airfield retains that particular feel associated with a wartime 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 two Bellman sheds are still there – again 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 bustling activities of this busy centre of aviation.
In February 2020, the CITB announced that they had sold the site to the Bury St Edmunds based West Suffolk College. The move, it says, was planned as a cost cutting exercise with the loss of some 800 jobs. The intention of the West Suffolk College is to continue with the construction training at Bircham, hopefully preserving the site for generations to come. Only time will tell.
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.
Sources and links for further reading (Docking):
David Jacklin’s book “Up in all Weather – The story of RAF Docking” is published by Larks Press, 2004, ISBN 1 904006 19 1
Norfolk Heritage Explorer has more details here.
Please see the comment below from David Jacklin.
Sources and links for further reading (RAF Bircham Newton):
*1 A detailed history of the production of the HP.15 /1500 can be found on Tony Wilkin’s blog ‘Defence of the Realm‘.
*2 Letter from C.C. Darley (the brother of C.H. Darley) to Sqn Ldr. J. Wake 1st March 1937 (AIR 27/1089/1 Appendix B)
*3 Gunn, P.B. “Flying Lives with a Norfolk theme“, 2010 Published by Peter Gunn.
*4 Pitchfork, G, “Shot down and in the Drink” 2007, Published by The National Archives. – A very interesting and useful book about the development of the ASR service along with true stories of airmen who had crashed in the sea.
*5 BAE Systems website accessed 6/7/21
*6 Traces of World War 2 Website, accessed 11/7/21
*7 Aviation Safety Network website, accessed 21/7/21
National Archives AIR 27/263/1
National Archives AIR 27/788/1
National Archives AIR 27/1233/1
National Archives AIR 27/1221/1
AIR 27/1222/11, AIR 27/1222/12
Details of 206 Sqn fatalities are available on the 206 Sqn Coastal Command website.
Details of Great Bircham war cemetery graves are available at the role of honour of St Mary’s Church.
The memorial project at RAF Bircham Newton has a website and can be found here.