In this second part of the Norfolk Trails, we visit three more of Norfolk’s treasures. Deep in the heart of Norfolk, two of them are very much complete, but the third is all but gone. However, all is not lost as it still an active private airfield, and some of its features have luckily survived.
The first of these three jewels on this trail is RAF Sculthorpe.
Located to the west of Norwich, Sculthorpe has its origins in the Second World War, but it has a larger claim to fame that it still retains to this day.
Designed initially as a heavy bomber site, and satellite to RAF West Raynham, Sculthorpe now has three runways one of 12,000ft and two of 6,000ft, all concrete. With its enormous technical and administration sites that housed up to 10,000 personnel, Sculthorpe was one of the biggest bases in Europe, an honour it retains to this day.
Sculthorpe had a limited Second World War life, being opened quite late in the war in January 1943. Following a years development and growth, it initially housed Mosquitos of 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) squadrons. Originally based at Methwold, the Mosquito FB.VIs replaced the earlier and slower twin-engined Venturas. It was from Methwold that Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent performed so bravely receiving the Victoria Cross for his actions on May 3rd, 1943.
At Sculthorpe, these two units were joined by 21 Sqn who stayed until the following December, before moving on. Then the much heavier B-17s of 214 sqn moved in thus changing the role of RAF Sculthorpe. The B-17s were redesigned and adapted to assist in radio jamming trials, the early form of Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), the B-17 crews would also be joined by other personnel from the United States, who stayed carrying out this role, until just prior to the end of hostilities.
It was really at this time that Sculthorpe came into its own. With the influx of crews from the States, more accommodation would be needed and quickly. A sustained period of redevelopment, improving of runways and hardstands, saw Sculthorpe gain the designation of Very Heavy Bomber base. It was anticipated that the enormous Boeing B-29s would be stationed here, but when the war in Europe came to an end, further deployment at Sculthorpe ceased and the B29s never arrived. However, the rise in ‘Soviet Aggression’ and post conflict tensions during the Cold War and Berlin airlift, secured the immediate future of Sculthorpe. Atomic weapons were stored here ready, when the North American B-45 Tornado found itself becoming the front-line four engined bomber designed to attack Soviet targets from the UK. During 1952, the 47th Bomb Wing of the Strategic Air Command were redeployed here from the United States. This wing consisted of the 84th, 85th, and 86th BS, along with the 420th Refuelling Sqn and the 19th Tactical Reconnaissance Sqn. These units operated a number of types including the: B-45, B-66, KB-29, KB-50, and RB-45C aircraft.
Ninety day duty rotations saw aircraft like the mighty B-36 ‘Peacemaker’ fill the skies over Sculthorpe, until finally, political agreements and imposed de-escalation strategies between the Cold War factions, prevented further deployment of large-scale US bombers on European soil.
Gradually, as nuclear deterrents turned to missiles and naval based platforms, Sculthorpe’s activity began to slow. Being returned to RAF ownership in 1964, it was placed in care and maintenance, and held by only a small detachment of support staff. Then in the late 60s, the USAF returned once more, needing a base from which to operate its aircraft whilst other airfields were redeveloped and runways resurfaced. This brought new life to Sculthorpe, American F-4 Phantoms and C-130s were based here, along with other aircraft types from the RAF operating under similar circumstances. This process went on well into the late 1980s and Sculthorpe became a mecca for plane spotters for at least another few years.
This was not to last however, and Sculthorpe finally closed its doors in 1992, the enormous accommodation blocks and technical sites were sold off. Both these and many of the remaining buildings were left to decay, whilst planners gave thought to what they should be used for. However, like a phoenix, Sculthorpe returned from the dead yet again. The RAF, Army Air Corps and USAF using it for manoeuvres, seeing the Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tilt wing aircraft, paratroops and rehearsals of supply drops over its enormous runways; much of this activity taking place at night. Even up until recent years, C-130s had also been seen landing here, again rehearsing quick ‘stop-‘n’-go’ drops.
Looking at Sculthorpe, it is hard to believe its origins were in the Second World War. Being a real monster of the Cold War, Sculthorpe is clinging on by the skin of its teeth. The accommodation blocks that once housed 10,000 personnel are decaying and vandalised, refurbished areas are now sold off and accommodating local families. A small industrial area has been developed from the technical area, and the local farmer grazes his cows on the far reaches of the site. Many of the older original buildings have been left to rot and fall down. The American authorities still retain some ownership of the site, whilst a large part of it is in private hands.
The original guard-house is no longer manned, and a number of other buildings close by are also empty. A small public track that once took eager plane spotters to the rear of the airfield, still allows views across the north of the now quiet site where a blister hangar continues to stand alone. The control tower is still intact visible in the distance from this point, as are a number of original Nissan huts and Second World War buildings hidden amongst new buildings and old developments.
Sculthorpe was once a bustling airfield, home to some of the world’s heaviest bombers, a mecca for aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters alike. Today, it is a decaying industrial site, a mix of old buildings and new developments, a remnant of the Cold War, it clings on to life by the skin of its teeth, maybe, just maybe, the Phoenix will rise up once more and spring into life again.
From Sculthorpe, we travel a few miles south, just a stone’s throw to its sister station and another of Britain’s post-war relics. This site, closed as late as 1994, was then sold for housing development and light industrial use. With its founding in 1938, it was a long standing and also important post-war airfield, one that saw many units and aircraft types adorn its runways and buildings. In my last visit, the site was closed off and under development, so today we revisit the airfield and see what has become of it since then. As the gates are now open, we delve once more into the history of the former RAF West Raynham.
RAF West Raynham
West Raynham lies in the heart of Norfolk, west of the village that gave it its name, and five miles south-west of Fakenham. The entire site covers some 158 acres, and encompasses around 37,000 sq metres of buildings.
As a classic expansion period airfield (using garden city principles with squares and tree-lined avenues), it was built during the period 1937-39. As was common at that time, it had a number of neo-Georgian buildings, notably the Officers Mess and unmarried Officers’ quarters – the larger examples even having servants’ quarters built within. Airfields of this period had to pass a severe scrutiny from both early environmental and planning groups, and so were built with aesthetics, rather than functionality, in mind. The restrictions placed on new developments meant that these pre-war stations were far more ‘ornate’ in design than their wartime counterparts.
Construction of the airfield was initially undertaken by the Allot Ltd company. It had two grass runways both of which were replaced later in May 1943 by hard concrete and tarmac examples. The longest of these runways at 2,000 yds, lay north-east to south-west and the shorter at 1,400 yds directly east to west.
During its initial construction, four ‘C’ Type hangars were erected, two of which were allocated to the Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP). These hangars, were a mid 1930’s design which used reinforced concrete, and were commonly found on pre-war airfields, thus their dominating appearance became well known on the British landscape at that time. In close proximity to the hangars stood the Watch Office (with Fort) – another 1930’s design (built to drawing 207/36) it also utilised concrete as it was strong and in abundance at this time. Also found close by were the gunnery/training dome, a range of technical stores, workshops and numerous ancillary buildings as was common to airfields of this pre-war period.
The perimeter track was built with thirty-six heavy bomber design hardstands, and the accommodation area (which being non-dispersed was located on the airfield site) could house around 2,000 personnel. Following later developments the number of hardstands were increased as was the accommodation area. At its peak, West Raynham could house around 3,000 personnel.
The site officially opened in May 1939, just prior to the outbreak of war, under the control of No. 2 (Bombing) Group whose headquarters had by now moved to RAF Wyton. Formed on March 20th 1936, the group was made up of five Wings: 70 (Upper Heyford), 79 (Watton), 81 (here at West Raynham), 82 (Wyton) and 83 (Wattisham). As a parent airfield West Raynham would use nearby Great Massingham as a satellite, with relief landing grounds at both Bircham Newton and North Pickenham. To deter marauding Luftwaffe bombers in the area, two decoy sites would also be used, one at Fulmodestone and the other at Gateley.
In May 1939, the first two squadrons arrived at West Raynham. Transferring across from Bicester were 101 Squadron and 90 Sqn, both flying with the twin engined Bristol Blenheim IV. On arrival though, it was found that the airfield was far from ready, and only with personnel carrying out the remaining work, did it finally become operational three days later.
The two squadrons soon took part in long distance flights over France. Inter mixed with these were tactical training exercises, with 101 Sqn acting as the enemy attacking ‘distant’ targets, these being ‘protected’ by other units. By August though, the situation on the continent had deteriorated considerably, and war seemed inevitable. As a result, and shortly after being sent to 5 A.T.S. Penrhos for training, both squadrons were quickly recalled to West Raynham and preparations began for war.
On 2nd September, mobilisation orders came through instructing the units to ‘Scatter’ aircraft. This national scheme was implemented to spread aircraft around alternative airfields, thus ‘thinning them out’ in case of an attack. Both units used a variety of airfields including: Bircham Newton, Brize Norton, Weston-on-the-Green and later Upwood, sending small groups of aircraft to each site.
In both units, staff vacancies were quickly filled with new recruits, and whilst both squadrons remained as training squadrons, they were nonetheless brought up to a war footing. Then in the middle of September, 90 Sqn were stood down once more, now awaiting official transfer from 2 Group to the 6 Group Training Pool. Transferring out of West Raynham to their new home at Upwood, they left 101 Sqn the only active unit here.
101 Sqn was at the time led by Wing Commander J.H. Hargroves, who presided over twenty-two officers and 207 airmen. Between them, they would fly twenty-one Blenheim aircraft divided into two flights – ‘A’ and ‘B’.
In preparation for flights over France, the aircraft were given the Air Ministry (squadron) letter ‘N’. After being fitted with long range drop tanks, they had their engines boosted to provide the greater take off power needed for the additional weight they would now carry.
For the next three months though little happened, Britain had now entered the Phoney War. Initially alerts and false alarms came through thick and fast, crews being ready to respond at a moments notice. However, nothing came of these alarms, and so the squadron was repeatedly ‘stood down’ from action. At Christmas, with no immediate threat pending, it was decided to grant four days leave to the majority of the squadron personnel, with many off site visiting family, the airfield all but shut down.
January 1940 brought little change, and even though still classed as a training unit, 101 Sqn remained at the ready to respond to action. To make the lull in action even worse, the cold weather now worsened and snow began to fall across the country. What training flights that were occurring were now hampered by the bad weather and cold winter air. On several days West Raynham was classed as ‘unserviceable’, snow and a frozen surface preventing aircraft from taking off or landing. The poor weather lasted well into March with only sporadic flying taking place. With such poor conditions and inexperienced crews, training flights would ultimately result in some accidents, the handful that did occur soon culminating in fatalities.
During this time it was decided to set up a new unit to take on the training role that 101 Sqn were currently performing. This would allow 101 to officially become an ‘operational’ squadron. To this end, 2 Group Target Towing Flight (2 TTF) was formed here at West Raynham, operating the Fairey Battle, Gloster Gladiator and the Avro Tutor. The relief to 101 Squadron however, would not be felt for some time, and it would be the middle of the year before they would be ready to take on the might of the Luftwaffe.
On the 7th, March 1940, a break in the weather allowed a number of crews from 101 Sqn to take part in an air firing exercise at Wainfleet Sands, but for one of those crews things would go very badly wrong.
The Blenheim IV, ‘N.6165’ piloted by F.O. F.C Mottram with A/Sgt. A.E. Maudsley and Cpl. R. Hartland on board, crashed at Botesdale near to Diss. The pilot and observer were both killed in the accident whilst the wireless operator escaped with injuries. A second aircraft, a Fairey Battle also from 101 Squadron, also ran into difficulties that day. More fortunately for the crew of this aircraft though, it managed a forced landing with no further problems nor injuries to those on board.
During April another new training squadron was formed here at West Raynham, that of 76 Sqn, which was supposed to fly the Hampden. After being disbanded earlier that month at Upper Heyford, any thoughts of longevity were soon dismissed, when before any real organisation could take place, and for whatever reason, the squadron was disbanded once more. Its life at West Raynham lasting just four weeks.
As the weather improved so training flights gradually picked up again for those based at this Norfolk airfield, and by May operational sweeps over the North Sea had begun, with reconnaissance flights out looking for enemy shipping. But still 101 squadron failed to see any major action and so flights became routine.
By May 1940 the skies of southern England were beginning to hot up. With attacks on airfields signifying the start of the Luftwaffe’s campaign to destroy the RAF, West Raynham would not be immune.
Although these attacks were mainly targeted at airfields in the south, West Raynham would be visited on no less than twelve different occasions, the first of which was on 25th. Whilst little damage was done to the airfield, the war had nonetheless been brought home to those who were stationed here, it had become incredibly real at last.
It was also at this time that a new station commander was appointed, Acting Group Captain Basil Embry, whose career to date had been varied and long. He had served in the RAF for 20 years already, in locations that included Turkey, the Middle East, the Far East and the UK. Embry led by example, taking his squadron into daring battles over Norway much against the ideals and wishes of those who were higher up in the chain of command. The move to put him in charge at West Raynham was considered an attempt to restrict his flying ambitions forcing him to keep his feet firmly on the ground. A move that Embry didn’t appreciate.
On the day of his appointment, he had one last flight, and took both his crews and a new Commanding Officer, Wing Commander L.R. Stokes into battle. However, his luck was to run out, and on leaving the target near St. Omer, his aircraft was shot down. The air gunner was killed in the attack, but Embry, along with his navigator, managed to bale out. What happened next was a dramatic series of events that led to Embry attempting to escape three times finally being successful on the last attempt. After making his way across France to Spain, he then made his way back to England where he took up active service once more.
Embry was highlighted as a possible leader for the new Pathfinder Group, but he was overlooked by Arthur Harris in favour of Donald Bennett. However, this did not inhibit Embry’s career, for he reached the heights of Air Chief Marshal and a service record with the RAF that extended long after the war had ended.
However, the incident meant that Embry never made it to West Raynham, his absence being briefly filled by the arrival of 139 Sqn. As the personnel were settling in, they were greeted with the news that their own Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Louis W. Dickens, was to be awarded the DFC for his action in leading nine Blenheims in an attack in which they faced heavy Luftwaffe opposition. The entire Squadron, apart from a ‘skeleton staff’, were all given eight days leave following the announcement.
Shortly after, and as was with many other units who found themselves here, 139 Sqn were soon ordered out of West Raynham once more, and by early June all squadron personnel had departed, neither Embry nor 139 Sqn had experienced much of this expanding Norfolk airfield.
The pattern of sort stay squadrons would continue on, and June would see yet another one, that of 18 Sqn, who on arrival, made their headquarters in No. 2 Hangar at the airfield. Classed as a medium bomber squadron it would have the ‘standard complement of personnel’ split into two flights. Another Blenheim unit, they quickly took up operations flying over Germany and the low countries, attacking targets in northern Germany, France and Belgium. These initial operations were regularly hampered by poor weather though, and many of the aircraft had to regularly return early due to fog, heavy cloud or rain. On the better days, when attacks were successful, sorties took them over Holland and Northern France attacking airfields and barges moored along the coast.
The squadron was soon transferred out of West Raynham though, and by early September, 101 Sqn was once again the only operational flying unit at the airfield.
At this point, it was decided to redevelop the airfield with new hardstands being constructed around the perimeter track. The process would last well into 1941 before it was completed, but it would allow aircraft to be parked and maintained on hard surfaces rather than grass where manoeuvring must have proven difficult over the previous poor winter months.
The new year brought a new tactic to 2 Group. With fighter flights failing to bring the Luftwaffe up to engage, it was decided to send the light bombers of 2 Group to entice them up. These ‘Circus‘ operations were designed to bring enemy fighters up so the escorting Spitfires and Hurricanes could engage with them. Primarily as bait, this new tactic would be the main focus for the Group for the remainder of the year.
Then in April 1941, another new major operation was mounted and it would be 101 Sqn who would be the first to take part.
Officially known as ‘Channel Stop’, the idea was to prevent enemy shipping from using the English Channel, the vital link between the North Sea and Baltic bases and the wide open expanses of the Atlantic Ocean. Aircraft transferred across to RAF Manston in Kent, where they would be kept on alert to attack at a moments notice. Their targets being any enemy shipping seen attempting to traverse the narrow stretch of water between England and France. These attacks would be carried out during daylight hours, and backed up at night by Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) from the Royal Navy. The first of the 101 Sqn Blenheims assigned to the role, flew from West Raynham to Manston during April, and on the 28th, their first targets were spotted. Over the next few days, a number of ships were attacked with mixed results, a 2,000 tonne vessel being one of the more prized examples that fell to the Blenheims.
But by the 9th May, aircraft losses had mounted significantly, and so the remaining six aircraft of the flight were sent back home and a temporary stop was put to the operation. It was at this point, that the now outdated Blenheim would finally be replaced with the Wellington, a new aircraft with its unique geodesic design was now appearing at the Norfolk site.
The month of May also saw the return of 90 Sqn, a unit that had been resident here at the outbreak of war with their Blenheims. This time they were not bringing twin engined models with them though, this time it was the Fortress I the mighty US four engined heavy, the B-17.
90 Squadron were trialling the use of the bomber, and whilst based at West Raynham, they also operated from RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney in an attempt to see if these grass airfields were suitable for the Fortress. However, it was quickly realised that such an operation with these models was not feasible and so they departed a month later, transferring out to RAF Polebrook, in Northamptonshire. Further tests revealed problems with the B-17’s guns at high altitude, the cold causing many to freeze and become inoperable. Within four months of arriving, the B-17s were sent packing, their use as an RAF bomber having been rejected.
The summer of 1941 saw a great deal of activity at West Raynham. The changes, led by the departure of 90 Sqn in June, was quickly followed by the departure of West Raynham’s long standing 101 Sqn to Oakington in July. This meant that space was freed up for two new squadrons 114 Sqn and 268 Sqn along with a detachment of 614 Sqn.
The first of these units, 268 Sqn, was not based here but stayed on a short temporary basis whilst on a ‘Bulldog‘ exercise; ‘A’ and ‘B’ echelons transferring in on the 20th June from RAF Snailwell near Newmarket. At the time, the exercise was said to be the biggest such operation to be held in the UK, an event that saw co-operation between air and ground forces. A section from this party travelled from West Raynham to open an Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) at Barton Bendish, not far from Downham Market, in Norfolk. The next day was then spent opening communication lines between West Raynham, the Corps Headquarters and Barton Bendish.
Over the next couple of days aircraft flew out of both Barton Bendish and West Raynham, amassing some twenty-five sorties in all, mainly low-level reconnaissance flights, collecting a mass of information about the ‘ground forces’ taking part in the exercise. On the 24th, the exercise was completed, and both air and ground staff departed West Raynham heading back to their base at Snailwell.
The second squadron, a detachment of Lysander IIIs, arrived here from the Macmerry based 614 Sqn. The small unit exchanged these aircraft for Blenheim IVs shortly after their arrival, performing in the Air Sea Rescue role for almost a year before they too departed this Norfolk site.
The last of the three units, 114 Sqn, arrived overnight of the 19th / 20th July, crews and ground personnel ferrying aircraft and equipment to West Raynham in three separate parties. With little time to settle in, operations began almost immediately.
On the 22nd, with ten aircraft heading to targets along the French coast, attacks were made by six Blenheims from between 10,000 and 15,000 ft on sheds and slipways, a number of hits were seen and the sheds appeared to be badly damaged in the attack. On leaving the target, clouds of smoke were seen to be rising from the ground, a welcome sight for the unwelcome intruders. A further three aircraft however, failed to find their primary target in a separate attack, and a single aircraft on a beat patrol also failed to locate a target, and so no bombs were dropped by either of these two sections. Flak was generally light on all occasions and still the Luftwaffe failed to make a dedicated appearance.
These intruder operations continued on, and on July 23rd another small raiding party attacked similar targets in similar locations, these however, were met with considerably more anti-aircraft fire. Regardless of the intense ground fire though, all aircraft returned without any major problems although some had received extensive damage to their air frames.
During August, a major attack was arranged with massed fighter escort on target GO.1237 – the Knapsack Power Station in northern Germany. The attack was to involve fifty-four Blenheims along with their fighter escorts. The operation, led by Wing Commander Nicol, was a daylight raid which took place in the late morning between 400 and 500 feet. Considerable damage was seen to be done to the plant; chimneys were hit, pipes were fractured, sheds were hit by bombs and a considerable amount of debris was thrown up into the air. The attack, the first of several, had proved to be a big success. The return journey then proved to be as eventful as the attack itself; flying at low-level, Dutch citizens were seen to wave to the bombers, a cheering site no doubt, and certainly one more pleasurable than the unfortunate flight of ducks that were struck by some of the aircraft. One of the observers on return commented “the impact was as terrifying as flak“.*1
The attack was considered so successful and so daring that an entry was made in the London Gazette 357237 on 12th September 1941, in which the crews’ bravery was highlighted and the many awards that had subsequently been granted were listed. It read:
Air Ministry, 12th September, 1941.
ROYAL AIR FORCE.
“The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards in recognition of gallantry displayed in flying operations against the enemy: —
On the morning of I2th August, 1941, Blenheim bombers carried out simultaneous attacks on the great power stations near Cologne. A strong force attacked the station at Knapsack, whilst a smaller force attacked two stations at Quadrath. These missions involved a flight of some 250 miles over enemy territory which was carried out at an altitude of 100 feet. At Knapsack the target was accurately bombed and machine gunned from between 200 and 800 feet and at Quadrath both power stations were hit from the height of the chimneys; the turbine House at one of the two stations was left a mass of flames and smoke. The success of this combined daylight attack and the co-ordination of the many formations of aircraft depended largely on accurate timing throughout the flight. That complete success was achieved, despite powerful opposition from enemy ground and air forces, is a high tribute to the calm-courage and resolute determination displayed by .the following officers and airmen, who participated, in various capacities as leaders and members of the aircraft crews”.
The medals included two DSOs, ten DFCs and three DFMs. Among them was Wing Commander James Nicol (DSO); Acting Squadron Leader Alan Judson (DFC); Flying Officer Herbert Madden (DFC) and Acting Flying Officer Thomas Baker (DFC) all of 114 Sqn. The remaining awards being given to crews in other squadrons who also took part in the daring attack.
Two days after the operation, on the 14th August, Wing Commander James Nicol along with Sqn. Ldr. Judson and Sgt. Davidson, with their respective crews, travelled to RAF Polebrook to meet the A.O.C about the operation. The A.O.C. chatted to the men before congratulating them on their great success. The next day, Sgt. Griffiths (W.Op/G) travelled to London to make a recording for the BBC about the raid, talking about it from an eye-witness’s point of view. The recording was then broadcast over the next two days giving both the squadron and the nation a much needed boost in morale.
The joy for Wing Commander Nicol was to be short lived though. On the 19th August 1941, his plane failed to return from operations, Nicol along with Sgt. E. Jones and F.O. H. Madden were classed as “Presumed Missing”, they were later found to have been killed. A second Blenheim from the squadron also went missing that night, a reconnaissance flight with the loss of three more crewmen.*3 Nicol and his crew remain with no known grave and so are all commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial.
The October saw more changes to the gunnery training unit being performed here at West Raynham. 2 TTF was disbanded and renamed as 1482 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight. Some additional aircraft were brought in including the Defiant and Tomahawk, but their work, towing targets for gunners to aim at, continued on. In late 1942, it would change name again this time becoming 1482 (Bomber) Gunnery Flight. The unit would eventually disband in 1944 at Swanton Morley, the use of such units now being seen as obsolete.
The opening of January 1942, saw 114 Sqn off operational flying as a new training flight was created from within the unit. The number of new recruits, many of whom had directly transferred across from army co-operation units, was so high that this flight had became urgent. For the time being, gunnery training, formation flying and other training flights took precedence over all operational flying.
The training was interrupted on February 12th 1942 though, when orders came through to 114 Sqn to immediately dispatch six aircraft to attack the German warships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which were making their way up the English Channel from Brest to their home docks in Germany. Joined by Prinz Eugen and a host of other vessels, this became known as the “Channel Dash” in which Bomber Command, the Fleet Air Arm and the Royal Navy all had a hand in. The first West Raynham group took off early afternoon and attacked from a height of 15,000 ft, diving through cloud cover they experienced “intense flak”. A second order came through some three hours later for a further three aircraft from 114 Sqn, and they too departed, bombed up, to attack the fleet.
As with the first wave, they dived through cloud from 15,000 ft. Not only did they experience intense flak, but the weather was appalling, heavy rain and poor visibility made sighting very difficult. Some bombs were dropped and photographs were taken, but the attack was not a success and the Blenheims returned to West Raynham, some still with their bombs on board after having been unable to sufficiently see their targets.
In September, there was another change at West Raynham with the forming of yet another new squadron, 180 Sqn along with the reforming of a former World War I unit, 98 Sqn, both within a day of each other. Given North American B-25 ‘Mitchell’ IIs, both units very quickly moved out of West Raynham, each one transferring to RAF Foulsham where they would begin performing new duties within the month.
The departure of 114 Sqn in November signalled another major change for this Norfolk airfield. Now effectively left without any operational squadrons, a major refurbishment was on the cards, and it wouldn’t be too long before the contractors would move in.
For the whole of 1943, little flying activity took place here at West Raynham. A short interruption by the arrival and subsequent departure of 342 (Lorraine) Sqn (a Free French unit) on April 1st and May 15th respectively, did little to delay the upgrading.
The entire site was then expanded. The first move was to replace the two grass runways with concrete and tarmac examples (one 2,000 yards and the other 1,400 yards). In addition, more hardstands were added around the perimeter track, and on the technical site, a new watch office was constructed.
A new two storey design (4698/43) the Watch Office allowed new airfield lighting equipment to be installed at the site. This would assist aircraft when landing or taking off, making the airfield more visible when needed.
In addition to these improvements, the accommodation area was also expanded, this is was thought, would allow for the perceived influx of new personnel. By the end of the upgrading, West Raynham would be able to accommodate up to 2,500 men and 660 WAAFs.
In December 1943, the airfield passed over to 100 (Bomber Support) Group, where upon two more squadrons arrived at the newly refurbished base – 141 Sqn and 239 Sqn. Both these units would operate the D.H Mosquito the ‘Wooden Wonder‘ in a variety of marks: II, FB, VI and NF 30, all performing as night intruders. Both units would retain these aircraft to the war’s end and their eventual disbandment in the summer of 1945.
That month was not only filled with intruder flights, but football matches. A series of games culminated on December 23rd when a West Raynham team beat Norwich City 5-1 – a marvellous result for the RAF.
Outside of football, sorties continued, and for 141 Squadron, their last operational flight was to bomb the airfields at Hohn and Flensburg in Germany using Napalm gel. Buildings were set alight and a dog-fight ensued but one Mosquito was unable to jettison one of its Napalm tanks, and brought it home to West Raynham dropping it on the runway. The damage this caused meant that those crews from 239 Sqn who had also been out, supporting bombing raids at Keil, had to divert to alternative airfields. The subsequent problems led to the 239 Sqn Wing Commander being somewhat annoyed, blaming the “untidiness of a pilot of No. 141 Squadron who brought home one of his nasty oil bombs and dropped it on the runway“.*4 More associated with Vietnam, the squadron had dropped in excess of 11,000 gallons of the gel causing extensive damage by the war’s end.
With the announcement of VE day just days later, the celebrations began. The airfield beacon was changed to flash ‘V’ instead of ‘WR’, and the ‘Sandra Lights’ (three search lights positioned around the airfield which could be directed upwards to form a homing cone) were switched on. A large bonfire was enjoyed by all and even with 22 barrels of beer, there was a lot of “quiet fun and no excesses at all“.
The month closed with a great deal of uncertainty, a comment in the Operational Record Books summing up the general feelings: “The cessation of operational flying and the transition to a semi peace-time basis, is a little disturbing after the day to day activities of the months gone by.”
Understandably as talk of the Far East or disbandment became rife, many questions were asked about their future . The Wing Commander of 239 Sqn adding his personal concerns to the ORB*4 “Who is going where? Am I for the Far East? If so, on what type? Am I going to Transport Command? Am I going to be a flying instructor again?” These thoughts no doubt reflecting those of many based around Britain’s wartime airfields at this time.
The immediate post war period then saw fighter trials become the order of the day. The Royal Navy basing many of their types here for various trials and research projects. With two second line squadrons bringing their aircraft here No 746 Sqn and No 787 Sqn, the last piston engined examples to fly from West Raynham were the Fireflys and Hellcats of 746 Sqn RN, operating as part of the Naval Fighter Development Unit.
With the departure of the last aircraft, West Raynham was once again earmarked for upgrading which included amongst other things, another new watch office, designed to replace the mid-war example that had served so well. An additional extension to the perimeter track was also planned in, as was the creation of further, larger hardstands. In addition to all this, an increase in personnel was also envisaged and so extensions to the accommodation areas were also planned in once more. These upgrades were not subject to the same planning constraints as those originally built, and as such these buildings were not as ‘impressive’ as the older, original examples that remained on the site.
This particular watch office example (294/45), was a new and modern approach to airfield control buildings, incorporating for the first time an airfield control room (ACR later called Visual Control Room) the first of its kind. What made this building more significant than its predecessors was that it was designed with three floors as opposed to two, a style more commonly seen at wartime Naval stations.
The ground floor was primarily used as crew rest rooms (air and fire) with a kitchen, GPO equipment and a meteorological room. The first floor contained a planning room with a large plotting table and map wall, a feature reminiscent of World War II watch offices. A number of smaller rooms were also located off this room, providing accommodation for the Wing Commander and a Navigation Officer. The top floor was primarily the airfield control room (ACR) again a plotting table and additional staff rooms were located here. Also found here was the airfield lighting panel, R/T equipment and access to the ‘glasshouse’ above, with its distinguishable slanted windows. This floor gave a complete 3600 view around the entire airfield, a much improved view over pre and mid-war designs. The very design of this building has since been its saviour, as the best example of only one of five examples, its architectural interest, rarity, ‘completeness’ and interior systems, have enabled Historic England to list it as a Grade II building; this should at least offer it some protection from future development or demolition.
On completion of the work the airfield was passed to The Central Fighter Establishment (CFE) under the control of the RAF, where it began a new role as Britain’s top fighter training establishment, taking the airfield through the 1960s and on into the 1970s.
The CFE was a huge organisation formed in late 1944 through the amalgamation of a number of other training units: The Fighter Interception Unit, Air Fighting Development Unit, Fighter Combat School and the Fighter Leader School to name but a few. It would use personnel from across the military spectrum including: the RAF, Fleet Air Arm, Army Air Corps and the United States Air Force.
During this time, West Raynham operated as both a front line fighter base and as an aircrew training airfield. This would mean a huge influx of personnel and so a return to the high numbers of staff and aircraft that had been seen here during the war-time period.
In 1956, tragedy struck The Central Fighter Establishment here at West Raynham, when on 8th February, eight Hunter F1s took off from the airfield to carry out an exercise only to have six of them crash.
The exercise, a 4 against 4 dogfight involved two instructors and six students, and took place around 45,000ft in airspace above the airfield. By the time it had been completed, the weather over West Raynham had deteriorated so much that the eight aircraft had to be diverted to an alternative airfield, and RAF Marham was assigned. The cloud base was by now very low over West Raynham, as little as 250ft in places, and so a visual landing was almost impossible without GCA talk down (Ground Controlled Approach). Unfortunately, there was substantial R/T congestion that day and Marham GCA had great difficulty in picking up the Hunters. By now, the group had paired off and each pair had descended, flying low over West Raynham to pick up a heading for Marham’s runway (both runways were almost in direct line of each other), most of the aircraft were by now down to just minutes of fuel in their tanks.
By the time the aircraft were approaching Marham, the weather there had also deteriorated, and as such, the aircraft were unable to make a GCA landing. Of the eight, two managed to land one running out of fuel as it departed the runway, but the remaining six aircraft struggled, low on fuel and unable to see the ground, it became a near catastrophe.
Of those six, Hunter ‘WW639’ ‘N’ descended to 250 ft, after which the pilot lost visual contact with his leader. Now lacking sufficient fuel to land safely or divert elsewhere, the pilot elected to climb to 2,000 ft and eject. The Hunter, now pilot-less and without power, then crashed 3 miles south of Swaffham.
The second Hunter, ‘WW635’ ‘L’ was the only aircraft to have a fatality. The aircraft crashing four-and-a-half miles north-west of Swaffham killing the pilot Sqn. Ldr. R.J. Tumilty, (31).
The pilot of the next aircraft, Hunter ‘WW633’ ‘H’, descended to 500 ft, but with limited ground visibility also decided to climb away. Unfortunately he suffered an engine flame out and so ejected from the aircraft leaving it to crash in a field three-and-a-half miles north-west of Swaffham.
The fourth Hunter, ‘WW603’ ‘G’ attempted to land, but only managed a wheels up landing after also suffering a flame out. The aircraft came down not far from the eastern side of the airfield, the pilot escaping unhurt.
The fifth pilot, that of ‘WT639’ ‘N’, descended to 600 ft after being unable to contact Marham GCA. The cloud at this level was very dense, and also after losing his leader he too elected to climb away. As with other Hunters that day, he also suffered a flame out and so ejected at 2,500 ft leaving the aircraft to fall to Earth in a forest 2.5 miles south-west of Swaffham.
The final aircraft, ‘WT629’ ‘T’ suffered the same fate as many of the others. After running out of fuel, and unable to see the ground at 600 ft, the pilot elected to climb to 4,000 ft and eject. Now without either power or a pilot, the aircraft crashed in fields 2 miles northwest of Swaffham.
In a ministerial briefing after the Court of Enquiry had published their report, it was noted that the aircraft were not defective nor was there any question of inadequate fuel being supplied. The short range of early jets and these Hunters in particular being acknowledged by those present. The board highlighting that “the accidents were primarily caused by the sudden and unexpected deterioration in the weather“.
The board then questioned the basis of the divert to Marham, as it was based on the assumption that the weather was good at Marham.
“The question then arises whether, notwithstanding the deterioration that had taken place at West Raynham, the decision taken to divert the aircraft to Marham, spaced for visual landings, was correct. This diversion was ordered on the assumption that visual landings would be possible”.
The conclusion was that mistakes had been made and the report then went on to firmly lay the blame at the controller’s feet:
The findings of the enquiry concluded that this was an error on the part of the controllers at West Raynham, “who failed to appreciate that, because of the relative positions of the two airfields, it was probable that any deterioration in the weather at West Raynham would affect Marham shortly afterwards, thus necessitating Ground Control Approach landings there”.*5
As a result, controllers at West Raynham were subjected to disciplinary action over the incident, one of whom was removed from his post. It was a sad day indeed for the squadron and for all those who were involved at West Raynham. However, what turned out to be a loss of one life could have been so tragically worse.
The 1960s then saw even more changes at the airfield. As tensions across the world began to rise once more, so the country was put on alert. At West Raynham more new squadrons would arrive, the first, 85 Sqn, arrived at the airfield in September 1960, bringing more front line fighters to the site, this time it was Gloster’s distinguishable delta, the Javelin FAW 8.
Whilst at their previous base RAF West Malling, the squadron had been dogged with both starter problems and the serviceability of the A.I. radars on the Javelins; both of which continued after they arrived at West Raynham. At the end of the month senior officials from both the RAF and G.E.C. visited the base with a view to resolving the ongoing A.I. situation. However, the problems persisted even after they had gone, problems which merely compounded other issues the squadron were having around poorly fitted equipment, bad weather and surprisingly a lack of married quarters.
The Javelin was brought in to complement the Lightning, operating in the Night Fighter and all weather role, it was designed to intercept bombers that threatened the cities or airfields of Britain. In order to train aircrew in this role, a number of ‘support’ units were also established during this time. These included the Javelin Operational Conversion Squadron, a unit set up to convert pilots to the Javelin from other aircraft; the Fighter Support Development Squadron; the Fighter Command Instrument Training Squadron; the Radar Interception Development Squadron; the Night All Weather Wing and the Night Fighter Development Wing, along with numerous other units that supported the training of fighter pilots at this very busy airfield.
In July / August 1962, there were a spate of engine fires in Javelins at West Raynham, something that seemed to be a problem with these aircraft. Three such events affected XJ128, XA646 and XA701 during a three week period. There are no reports of injuries as a result of the incidents, and records simply show ‘engine fires at start up’. But it would appear to have been a rather regular occurrence at this time.
85 Squadron was then disbanded on March 31st 1963, a move that was forced by Duncan Sandy’s White Paper cutting back military expenditure on front line fighter units. They immediately reformed the next day taking over from the Target Facilities Squadron. They obtained new aircraft to fulfil the role, the Canberra T.11 – a B.2 converted to facilitate target towing, fighter interception and navigator training; all achieved through the fitting of a nose radome and A.I. radar. Their stay at West Raynham only lasted one more month though, when they finally left, transferring out to RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire.
Later in August that same year, Nos. 1 and 54 Squadrons arrived at West Raynham boosting the numbers of personnel present here once more. Both units transferred over from Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, in a move that saw the return of the Hawker Hunter F.G.A. 9.
No.1 Squadron, one of the RAF’s longest serving squadrons had provided almost continuous service since 1912, and had flown a wide variety of aircraft across Britain, France and the Far East. They brought with them a long and distinguished history.
It was perhaps a No. 1 Sqn pilot who defined West Raynham’s lasting legacy, that of the Flight Commander – Flight Lieutenant Alan Pollock, who around midday on 5th April 1968, flew a Hawker Hunter FGA.9 (XF442) between the two spans of Tower Bridge in London. The stunt, a protest by Pollock already annoyed at the Government’s defence cuts, was to raise the concerns of personnel at the lack of celebration of the RAF’s fiftieth anniversary. After leaving Tangmere (following a celebration dinner) he and his colleagues headed back toward their home base at RAF West Raynham. Pollock then turned away from the group and flew at tree top level along the Thames circling the Houses of Parliament no less than three times, before dipping his wings at the RAF Memorial and heading along the river and home. However, before long he was faced with Tower Bridge and a split second decision had to made. He decided to fly through the arches rather than over the bridge.
His fate was well and truly sealed, he was going to be disciplined and severely. On the way home, his single handed salute to the service he adored included ‘beating up’ Wattisham, Lakenheath and Marham airfields, before carrying out an inverted flypast at West Raynham. On landing, Pollock was arrested by the Military Police, after which a long, drawn out legal process was put into place. Rather than face a public outcry, the authorities gave him the ‘option’ to leave on medical grounds or through the more severe removal under Queens Regulations with the loss of all financial backing.
There was no option, and Flt. Lt. Pollock was sent packing. The political fallout from the event went on for months afterwards, leading to a stronger rebellion from the press who were already gunning for the Wilson Government. No one in authority wanted their ‘dirty washing’ aired in a public hearing.
54 Sqn meanwhile operated out of West Raynham as part of 38 Group Air Support Command. A role that required them to fly as a ground support unit, operating in conjunction with army ground forces. They flew from West Raynham for seven years, departing at the end of the decade. During this time, they would reinforce the Mediterranean and Germany even locating to Gibraltar after political ‘pressure’ from General Franco.
The 1960s also saw a change in direction for Britain’s defence network, which was brought about by the same 1957 Defence White Paper that saw the demise of 85 Sqn. The basis of this saw manned fighters be replaced by guided missiles along with investment in the V bombers, a retaliatory force that could deliver Britain’s nuclear weapons arsenal.
On September 1st, 1965, the first of West Raynham’s guided surface-to-air missiles arrived. The reformation of No. 41 Sqn with two units (sixteen missiles in each) saw the construction of a secure Bloodhound missile site on the eastern side of the airfield. These MK.II guided weapons would become the main airfield protection system of that time, although their presence only lasted five years before the unit was again disbanded and the missiles put onto storage.
With the birth of vertical take off and landings in the form of the Kestrel (later the Harrier) an evaluation unit was set up here at West Raynham. Designed to test the flying abilities of the Kestrel, up to and including near service conditions, it was made up of pilots from the UK, USA and West Germany. The unit, designated the Tri-Partite Evaluation Squadron Royal Air Force (TES), was designed to see how the aircraft would perform from both airfields and unprepared sites, using its VTOL and STOL capabilities. To this end the unit also used Buckenham Tofts located in the Stanford Training Area, the Army’s huge training area near to Thetford.
Testing any new aircraft is a risky business, the Kestrel being no different, and on April 1st 1965, Kestrel XS696, caught fire and crashed following a take off from West Raynham. Only a month old, the aircraft was struck off charge the same day as a Cat.5(c) and the remains scrapped after all recoverable components had been removed. The pilot was thankfully unhurt in the incident.
The accident didn’t completely deter the US Government though, and at the end of the year, six aircraft were sold to the US for further tests. Initially they were not convinced of its use, but the US Marine Corps were interested, and subsequently a long service began for the Harrier in both the US and here in the UK.
In 1967, Napalm saw a return to West Raynham when famously the Torrey Canyon struck rocks off the Cornish coast. The ship soon grounded and began to break up, spilling its cargo of oil onto rocks and into the waters around Cornwall. The Government decided to bomb the stricken vessel to reduce the impact of the oil spill, and so aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm and RAF were called in to bomb it. No. 1 Squadron were assigned the challenge and four Hunters were tasked with the role. Eventually after several attempts the wreck finally sank and much of the oil was burnt off.
Two years later in 1969, both No. 1 and No. 54 Sqns departed West Raynham. Their gap quickly being filled by No. 4 Sqn who arrived in September that year staying until the following March. Both 1 and 54 Sqns would become new Harrier units, forming squadrons in both Germany and here in the UK.
The dawning of 1972 saw the return of 85 Sqn, who after a spell of some nine years at Binbrook, returned with a new model Canberra the PR.3, a long range photo-reconnaissance aircraft, it was unarmed and relied on its high speed to escape any enemy aircraft.
A month later in February, it was decided to also reform 100 Sqn here at West Raynham, initially using staff from 85 Sqn. Starting off with the Canberra B.2, they quickly began changing these for the T.19, essentially a T.II with its Airborne Intercept radar (A.I.) removed – West Raynham was now awash with Canberras. One of the roles of 85 Sqn was to act as enemy intruders so QRA crews could perform practice intercepts. Although the QRA crews were aware of the nature of the intercepts, Canberras would fly in low and then climb over the UK coast imitating a Soviet bomber – often to great success.
On June 26th 1972 tragedy would strike at West Raynham once more, when a 100 Sqn Canberra T.19 ‘WJ610’ crashed shortly after take off. The Aircraft, crewed by Flight Lieutenant Nicholas Whitlock (pilot) with navigator Flight Lieutenant John Sheran, struck trees 2 miles south, south west of Rougham whereupon it burst into flames killing both airmen.
In the months before the accident, the aircraft had been on loan to 85 Sqn, although this had no bearing on the cause of the crash itself, but it has led to some confusion as to which squadron it was actually with at that time,
Investigations recorded that the aircraft was one of a pair that took off in bad weather flying on instruments. Then as it entered low cloud, Flt. Lt. Whitlock reported that the aircraft had suffered an undercarriage problem, at which point it peeled away from its leader, the assumption being that Flt. Lt. Whitlock was aiming to deal with the issue in hand. The investigation surmised that he may have been concentrating on the gear issue and became disorientated as a result. It is thought this then led to the accident and the aircraft’s inverted crash.
As a result of the tragic loss, formation take offs by Canberras were subsequently prohibited, any future take offs having a minimum of 30 seconds between each departing aircraft, it was a tragic loss that served to help others*2.
A brief interlude in the autumn of 1972 saw the reformation of 45 Sqn with Hunter F.G.A.9s, once established and organised the unit quickly transferred out, leaving West Raynham behind.
The 1970s saw further big changes within the RAF. The handing over of the nuclear deterrent to the Royal Navy for one along with Britain’s air defence missiles (Bloodhound) being withdrawn and transferred to Germany. However, later concerns over potential attacks forced a review, and as a result, in December 1975, 85 Sqn were disbanded, the aircraft were transferred out, and they were immediately reformed as a new Bloodhound unit. The missiles were brought out of storage and placed here in Norfolk. Some of the 85 Sqn personnel were absorbed into West Raynham’s 100 Sqn but they would only remain here at West Raynham for a further month before they too moved out.
85 Sqn operated across a number of sites. Primarily based at West Raynham, they had Flights at both Bawdsey on the south Essex coast and North Coates in North Norfolk. In October 1989 the squadron grew further, absorbing No. 25 Sqn, which gave the unit three more Flights at Wattisham, Barkston Heath and Wyton. By the start of the 1990s though, Bloodhound had become obsolete ‘Rapiers’ being the new low level airfield defence missile, and so Flights ‘B’, ‘C’ , ‘D’, and ‘F’ were all disbanded. This left the HQ (West Raynham), ‘A’ Flight (North Coates) and ‘E’ Flight (Wattisham), until these too were disbanded the following summer.
By the time the 1980s had dawned, front line flying at West Raynham had been scaled back and no operational fighter units were based here. The airfield had entered the long and slow wind down to eventual closure.
By July 1991, with the last of the Bloodhound units being disbanded, the missiles they had been using scrapped or sold to the Swiss military, and the personnel pulled out, the site was left all but empty.
Any residue support units were also removed and in 1994 West Raynham finally closed its hangar doors. The airfield itself remained in MOD hands, but sadly the housing lay empty and it quickly became derelict, targeted by vandals. The accommodation blocks were damaged and windows were smashed. Long debates and scornful banter over the housing shortage boiled over in parliament and sites such as West Raynham were seen as prime land, with a huge infrastructure already in place, they were half way to meeting the needs of a growing community. The MOD eventually gave in, agreed to the sale and the site was handed over.
The two gate guardians, a Bloodhound missile ended up at Cosford Museum whilst the Javelin XH980 , was scrapped on site and disposed of. Since then the site remained closed and quiet.
This closure left what is a rare example of a complete wartime and post-war airfield. As a result, many of its buildings are now of ‘historical interest’ and attempts at obtaining a Grade II listing to a large number of the airfield’s buildings was made by the English Heritage. Sadly, this was later withdrawn and no follow-up made although the post war Watch Office is now Grade II listed and more recently a private dwelling.
For many years the site stood empty gradually decaying. A number of planning applications were submitted and some of the accommodation blocks were transformed into private homes. This has thankfully meant that the original style and layout has been maintained. However, the runway and Bloodhound sites have now gone, having been replaced by what is reputed to be, one of Britain’s largest Solar Parks.
In 2016 a proposal was put forward to develop the site into a mix of housing, leisure facilities and industrial units, all utilising the existing buildings where possible. A design brief was put forward by FW Properties who estimated the 158 acre site to be worth £7.3m with a refurbishment value of some £5.2m. The proposal was for a four phase plan to include refurbishment of the original properties for housing, redevelopment of the landscape and infrastructure and new builds to create an integrated community on the site. A grand proposal that would keep the integrity of the site and utilise as many of the buildings as possible.
When I initially visited, the site had been sealed off, but the control tower along with a wide range of smaller ancillary buildings, were all shrouded in scaffolding. The Officers Mess had seen better days and the adjacent tennis courts had been reclaimed by trees.
The Rapier training dome, original Battle headquarters and wartime pill boxes were also evident. A memorial to the crews of West Raynham had been erected in what is now the centre of a housing area that utilises the old accommodation blocks.
Today, much of it hasn’t changed, many of the smaller buildings continue to decay, but the post war watch office is a private dwelling, open for visitors and tours on heritage days, the guard house is a shop for fire places and the hangars are used by small, light industrial companies.
A Hunter F.1 ‘WT660’ has been acquired and sits near to the modern watch office, previously on display/stored in Scotland, it has been brought back to be refurbished and displayed in the colours it would have worn whilst in the Day Fighter Leader School between 1955 and 1957 here at West Raynham.
West Raynham is one of only a few complete sites that reflect the development and commitment of Britain’s air defences. Its origins and initial construction in the 1930s has seen continued improvements leading to its gaining a remarkable status that few other sites have gained.
Throughout its history it has seen a wide range of units, personnel and aircraft, it has been a training airfield, a front line fighter defence, a bomber airfield and even a missile base. Its future is now in the hands of a developer, who are implementing a gradual change from airfield to community utilising the main buildings on site to support light industry and housing. What the eventual model will look like only time will tell, lets hope the promises hold and West Raynham becomes a model for other disused airfields before they are bulldozed and all their history cleared for evermore.
Just a few minutes drive from West Raynham to the west is another wartime airfield and our last for today. Whilst the majority of the infrastructure has gone, all is not lost as it is a private airfield open to landings and with access in part via a footpath, a real delight to end the trail. We visit the picturesque village of Great Massingham.
Great Massingham airfield lies in the heart of Norfolk, some 40 miles west of Norwich and 13 miles to the east of King’s Lynn, lies a small, quaint village typical of the English stereotype. Small ponds frequented by a range of ducks, are thought originally to be fish ponds for the 11th century Augustinian Abbey, and the history of the village is believed to go back as far as the 5th Century. Massingham boasts an excellent village pub, and a small shop along with beautiful walks that take you through some of Norfolk’s most beautiful countryside; it has to be one of Norfolk’s greatest visual assets.
Sited above this delight is the former airfield RAF Great Massingham, which during the war years was home to number of light bombers and even for a short while, the four engined heavy, the B-17.
RAF Great Massingham
Before entering Great Massingham I suggest you stop at Little Massingham and the church of St. Andrew’s. For inside this delightful but small church, is a roll of honour*1 that lists enormous amounts of information about the crews who served at the nearby base. It gives aircraft details, mission dates and crew names amongst others. It is a hugely detailed collection of information covering 1940-45, in which time 600 Massingham crews lost their lives. Seven of these crew members, are buried in the adjacent church yard: Sqn. Ldr. Hugh Lindsaye (18 Sqn), Sgt. John Wilson (RNZAF – 107 Sqn), Sgt. Thomas Poole (107 Sqn), P/O. Arthur Lockwood (107 Sqn), Flt. Sgt. Gordon Relph (107 Sqn), F/O. Charles Ronayne (RAF) and F/O. Joseph Watkins (239 Sqn), all being killed in different circumstances. This is a valuable and enlightening stop off to say the least.
On leaving the church turn right and you will almost straight away enter the village of Great Massingham.
The airfield is to the east behind the village holding the high ground, which makes for a very windy and open site, whilst the village nestled on the lower ground, remains calm and quiet.
Built originally as a satellite for the nearby West Raynham, Massingham opened in 1940 with grass runways initially under the command of 2 Group, Bomber Command and then latterly 100 Group, whose headquarters were at Bylaugh Hall. The distance between both RAF West Raynham and RAF Massingham was so small, that crews would cycle from one to the other each morning before operations.
There were a total of four T2 hangars and one B1 hangar built on this site. The airfield also had sixteen pan-type hardstands and twenty-one loop-type hardstands, giving a total of thirty-seven dispersal points around its perimeter.
The main accommodation and communal sites which totalled five and two respectively, were near to Little Massingham church, to the west, along with further areas to the south of the airfield . These included a communal area to the south-west of the village and sufficient accommodation for 1,197 men, consisting of Officers, Senior NCOs and ordinary ranks. This was later upgraded to accommodate 1,778 men.
In addition, accommodation was provided for the WAAFs of the airfield, 102 in total at the outset. This was also increased in the airfield’s upgrade, taking the total number of WAAFs to 431.
The bomb dump and ammunition stores were well to the north away from the personnel as was standard. A number of anti-aircraft sites were scattered around the perimeter offering good protection from any attacking aircraft.
The first occupants of Massingham were the Blenheim IVs of 18 Sqn RAF who arrived in the September of 1940.
18 Sqn were previously based at West Raynham, making the transition invariably very smooth. In fact, operations barely ceased during the change over, the last West Raynham sortie occurring on 7th September 1940 with a six ship formation attack on the docks and shipping at Dunkirk, and the first Great Massingham sortie on the evening of the 9th to Ostend.
Whilst at Great Massingham, 18 Sqn flew the Blenheim Mk.IV initially on short range bombing sorties to the French coast. All was fairly quiet for the first few weeks, the squadron’s first loss not occurring until November 28th 1940, when Blenheim P6934 crashed after hitting high tension wires west of the airfield. All three of the crew were injured and admitted to hospital, but Sgt. William E. Lusty (S/N: 751633) died from his injuries the following day.
18 Squadron remained at Great Massingham until April the following year (1941), performing in the low-level bombing role. Like most other RAF airfields around this area of Norfolk, it would be dominated by twin-engined aircraft like the Blenheim and its subsequent replacements.
As a reminder to those who may have got complacent about the dangers of flying in wartime, the departure of 18 Sqn was marred by the loss of Squadron Leader Hugh Lindsaye (S/N: 40235), who was killed whilst towing a drogue near to Kings Lynn a few miles away. An investigation into the crash revealed that a drogue he was pulling had become separated and fouled the port elevator. The pilot lost control as a result and all three crewmen (SgT. Stone and F/O. Holmes) were killed. Sqn. Ldr. Lindsaye is one of those seven buried in Little Massingham.
Shortly after the departure of 18 Sqn, Massingham took on another Blenheim squadron in the form of 107 Sqn, a move that was coincided with a detachment of B-17 Flying Fortresses of 90 Squadron.
The B-17 (Fortress I) squadron was formed at Watton earlier that month, they moved to West Raynham whereupon they began trials at a number of smaller airfields including Bodney and Massingham, to see if they were suitable for the B-17. These initial tests, which were undertaken by Wing Commander McDougall and Major Walshe, were a series of ‘circuits and bumps’ designed to see if the ground and available runways were suitable. It was decided that Massingham was indeed suitable, and so a decision was made on the 13th, to base the aircraft at Massingham but retain the crews at West Raynham, transport vehicles ferrying them to and from the aircraft on a daily basis.
For the next few days further tests were conducted, and engineers from Boeing came over to instruct ground crews on the B-17’s engineering and armaments. Concerns were soon raised by crews about Massingham’s grass runways, and how well they would perform with the heavier four engined B-17’s constantly pounding them.
On the 23rd May, H.R.H The King conducted an inspection of Bomber Command aircraft at RAF Abingdon, in Oxfordshire. Amongst the types presented with the RAF bombers was a Fortress I from Massingham. The King, Queen and two Princess’s Elizabeth and Margaret, all attended and took a great interest in the Fortress. The Royal party taking considerable time to view and discuss the heavy bomber’s merits and features.
Back at Massingham, flight tests, training and examinations of the B-17 continued until in June 1941, when 90 Sqn were ordered out of both Massingham and West Raynham, moving to RAF Polebrook in Northamptonshire. But by the October, the Fortress’s had all gone from RAF bomber service, problems with freezing equipment convincing the RAF not to use the heavies in bombing operations. By February 1942 the unit was disbanded and all its assets were absorbed into 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).
Within days of 90 Sqn’s arrival at Massingham, another more permanent squadron also arrived, again performing in the same low-level bombing role as their predecessors 18 Sqn.
The spring of 1941 saw 2 group perform some of their largest operational sorties to date, with many Blenheims continuing their daylight raids on shipping and docks in north-west Germany. It was during this hectic time, on May 11th, that 107 Sqn, would arrive at the Norfolk base at Massingham.
Being taken off operations on the 10th, the air personnel made their way down from the Scottish base at Leuchars whilst the ground staff travelled by train the following day. A number of crews were posted on detachment to bases at Luqa, Ford and Manston. After a short settling in period missions began again in earnest with their first twelve ship operation in Bomber Command taking them to Heliogoland on the 13th. Two of these Blenheims returned with engine problems, but the remainder managed to attack the target, in an operation that was considered a great success, with complete surprise being achieved. Flying at very low level was key to this operation, and whilst all aircraft returned home safely, one aircraft piloted by Sgt. Charney, flew so low he managed to strike the sea with his port engine; as a result, the airscrew was damaged and broke away leaving the aircraft flying on just one of its two powerplants!
The end of May was a difficult month for 107. On the 21st they returned to Heligoland, with nine aircraft taking off at 14:00, detailed for a daylight formation attack on the target. With visibility of 12 – 15 miles, they pressed home their attack from as low as fifty feet, in spite of what was an ‘intense and accurate’ flak barrage. Four aircraft were hit by this flak, and in one of them, Sgt. John Wilson (S/N: 40746) was killed when shrapnel struck him in the head. Sgt. Wilson is also one of the seven in the church yard at Little Massingham.*2
On the return flight, a second aircraft also damaged by the flak, had an engine catch fire. The pilot and crew were all lost after ditching in the sea. Fl. Sgt. Douglas J. R. Craig (S/N: 903947) never having being found, whilst two other crewmen (Sgt. Ratcliffe and Sgt. Smith) were seen climbing into their life raft, later being picked up by the Germans and interned as prisoners of war.
On the 23rd the squadron was then detailed to search for shipping off France’s west coast. Due to bad weather, they were unable to make Massingham and had to land at Portsmouth instead. Continued bad weather forced them to stay there until the 27th when they were able at last to return to Massingham. No further operations were then carried out that month.
The dawn of 1942 saw Bomber Command face its critics. High losses brought into question the viability of these small light aircraft as bombers over enemy territory, a situation that would see 2 Group, as it was, all but removed from operations by the year’s end.
But the end was not quite here, and January of 1942 saw 107 take on the Boston III ( an American built aircraft designated the ‘Havoc’) as a replacement for the now ageing Blenheim. With the new aircraft 107 remained at Massingham, at least until the early August, where they made a short move to Annan before returning to Massingham a mere week later.
It would take only a month before the first 107 Sqn Boston would be lost. Whilst on a training flight, Boston W8319, struggled to join the formation, after turning back, it was seen to fall to the ground, the resultant fireball killing all three crewmen on board.
Despite this, losses over the coming months remained light. With the introduction of US airmen and the 15th Bomb Squadron, June / July saw a number of Massingham aircraft transfer across to the American’s hosts 226 Sqn at Swanton Morley. One of these aircraft, crewed by two US airmen; Captain S. Strachan and Lt. C. Mente, crashed near RAF Molesworth killing both on board.
By the end of 1942, 107 Sqn had lost a total of 23 aircraft on operations, and with each Boston carrying four crewmen it meant losses were increasing for the unit.
In February 1943, the Boston IIIs were replaced by the IIIa model. During May, the whole of 2 Group would begin to transfer across to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF) in preparations for the invasion the following year. Losses had been high for the group, the light bombers being easily cut down by both Luftwaffe fighters and flak. At the end of August 1943, it was 107 Sqn’s turn and they departed Great Massingham for Hartford Bridge and a new life within the 2nd TAF.
It was during these summer months that a Free French unit, 342 Lorraine Squadron would arrive at Massingham. A unit formed with Bostons at West Raynham, it would stay at Massingham between July and into early September before moving off to rejoin 107 Sqn at Hartford Bridge, also beginning a new life within the 2nd Tactical Air Force.
It was these postings that would lead to the end of Massingham as a day bomber station, and no further vulnerable light bombers of this nature would be stationed here again.
In April 1944 Great Massingham was redeveloped and upgraded, more accommodation blocks were provided and three concrete runways were laid; 03/21 and 13/31 both of 1,400 yards, and the third 09/27 at 2,000 yards, this would give the site the shape it retains today.
A year-long stay by 1694 Bomber (Defence) Training Flight with amongst them, Martinets, gave the airfield a much different feel. Target towing became the order the day and non ‘operational’ flying the new style.
In the June of 1944, 169 Sqn would arrive at Massingham, operational flying was once again on the cards, with night intruder and bomber support missions being undertaken with the Wooden Wonder, the D.H. Mosquito. Between June and the cessation of conflict this would be a role the squadron would perform, and perform well, with numerous trains, ground targets and Luftwaffe night fighters falling victim to the Mosquito’s venomous attacks. Included in these are a damaged Ju 88 on the night of October 26th 1944 south of the Kiel Canal, and five trains on the night of October 29th.
With them, came 1692 (Bomber Support Training) Flight, to train crews in the use of radar and night interception techniques. Formed at RAF Drem in Scotland in 1942 as 1692 (Special Duties) Flight, they operated a range of aircraft including Defiants, Beaufighters and Mosquitoes.
The two units stayed here at Massingham until both departed in August 1945, at which point 12 Group Fighter Command, took over responsibility of the site. As radar and night interception roles developed, a new unit was created at Massingham under the control of the Central Fighter Establishment (CFE), who were to trial different techniques and strategies for air interception. They later moved to West Raynham where they continued to carry out this role.
Over the years a number of post war celebrities were stationed at Massingham, they included F.O. Keith Miller AM, MBE – the Australian Test cricketer; P.O. (later Squadron Leader) Bill Edrich DFC – the England cricketer and the BBC commentator – Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Wolstenholme DFC and Bar.
After the aircraft left, the airfield fell quiet and was very quickly closed. 1946 saw the last personnel leave, and it remained dormant until being sold in 1958. Bought by a farmer, it is now primarily agriculture, although a small private airfield has opened utilising the former runways, and flying visitors are welcomed with prior permission.
The airfield at great Massingham has a public footpath running part way through it. This is accessible at either end of the southern side of the airfield, and permits access along part of the original perimeter track.
Accessing the eastern end of the path is easiest, a gated road from the village takes you up to the airfield site. Once at the top, you can see the large expanse that was the main airfield site. Trees have since been cultivated and small coppices cover parts of it. To your right at this point the peri track continues on in an easterly direction, but this section is now private and access is not permitted. This track would have taken you toward the Watch office, the Fire Tender building and storage sheds – all these being demolished long ago. A further area to the south of here has now been cultivated, and there was, what is believed to have been a blister hangar, located at this point – this too has long since gone.
The public path turns left here and takes you round in a northerly direction. To your left is a T2 hangar, it is believed that this is not the original, but one that had been moved here from elsewhere. This however, cannot be confirmed, but there was certainly a T2 stood here originally.
The track continues round, a farm building, very much like a hangar, houses the aircraft that now fly. Sections of runway drainage are visible and piles of rubble show the location of smaller buildings. The track then takes you left again and back to the village past another dispersal site, now an industrial unit complete with blister hangar. Other foundations can been seen beneath the bushes and leaves on your right. This may have been the original entrance to the site, although Massingham was unique in that in was never fenced off, nor guarded by a main gate. Other examples of airfield architecture may be found to the north side of the airfield, indeed satellite pictures show what looks like a B1 hangar on the northern perimeter.
After walking round, drive back toward Little Massingham, but turn left before leaving the village and head up toward the distant radio tower, itself a remnant from Massingham’s heyday. We pass on our left, the former accommodation site. Now a field, there is no sign of its previous existence. However, further up to the right, a small enclave utilises part of the Officers’ Mess, the squash court, and gymnasium with attached chancery. Hidden amongst the trees and bushes are remnants of the ablutions block, and other ancillary buildings.
Continue along this road, then take the left turn, toward the tower. Here is the original high-level Braithwaite water tank and pump house, still used for its original purpose and in very good condition.
Finally, a lone pill-box defensive position can also be found to the west of the village, some distance from the airfield in the centre of a farmer’s field. All small reminders of the areas once busy life.
Great Massingham is a delightful little village, set in the heart of Norfolk’s countryside. Its idyllic centre, pubs and shops surround ponds and greens. A short walk away, is the windy and open expanse that once was a bustling airfield, resounding to the noise of piston engines. All is now much quieter, their memories but a book, some dilapidated buildings and a handful of graves. Standing at the end of the runway, looking down the expanse of concrete, you can easily imagine what it must have been like all those years ago.
From Great Massingham we head east, to RAF Foulsham, before turning north and the North Norfolk coast, an area of outstanding natural beauty and some fine examples of airfield architecture.
Sources and links (RAF Sculthorpe)
Photos of Sculthorpe in its heyday can be seen here.
Sources and links (West Raynham).
*1 National Archives Operational Record Book 114 Sqn August 1941 – AIR 27/882/36
*2 Aviation Safety Network database
*3 National Archives AIR 27/882/36
*4 National Archives AIR 27/1456/75
*5 “Hansard 1803–2005” digitised editions of Commons and Lords Hansard, the Official Report of debates in Parliament. Hunter Aircraft (report of Enquiry)
National Archives AIR 27/731/1
For personal stories and more photos see the West Raynham Association website.
The West Raynham Development Brief published by FW Properties.
My thanks to Jon Booty at the West Raynham Control Tower) for corrections.
Sources and links (RAF Great Massingham)
*1 A comprehensive history of RAF Massingham, including RAF material, is now under the care of the Massingham Historical Society. Contact Anthony Robinson email@example.com for details about the Museum or Roll of Honour, a hard copy of which can be purchased for a small fee.
*2 The ORB shows this as Sgt G, WIlson and not J.W. Wilson. National Archives AIR 27/842/10
RAF Great Massingham is remembered on the Massingham village website which includes details of the Roll of Honour.