This area of Norfolk is filled with narrow lanes, and ‘chocolate box’ villages with duck filled streams and babbling brooks running through the middle. An ideal and welcome break from the horrors of what was witnessed in the skies of occupied Europe all those years ago.
Travelling away from Great Massingham and West Raynham, we carry on east, toward Norwich and then take a left turn and head north. Cutting through the delights of Norfolk, we take in the last few sites that offer good examples of airfield architecture. Before reaching our first sight however, turn off the main road at Weasenham St. Peter, for here is a small reminder of the terrible tragedies of war.
Nestled in the village is a small but poignant reminder of the dangers faced by the young men who flew in our skies. Once over friendly territory, crews would often feel safe knowing that ‘home’ was but a few miles away. However, for many the danger was not over yet.
A pyramid memorial in this quiet and almost insignificant village, identifies the crews of not one but three aircraft that crashed close by killing all onboard. From this point you can see the hangars of West Raynham dominating the skyline, an indication of how close to home these young men were.
Blenheim L8800, of 114 Sqn RAF, crashed on 5th June 1942. On board were: Sg. F. Cooke, Sgt. J Wallbridge (VR) and Sgt. E. Kitcher (VR) all of whom lost their lives. On 17th October that year, a B25 Mitchell, FL206 of 98 Sqn RAF, crashed killing the crew: Flt. Sgt. D. Tanner, Sgt. E. Boreham, Sgt. L. Horton and LAC F. Barnett all of RAF(VR). Finally on May 22nd 1943, close to his spot a Douglas Boston III, AL285 of 342 ‘Lorraine’ Sqn. crashed killing all her crew, who were part of the Free French Air Force: Lt. M. Le Bivic, Lt. R. Jacquinot, Sgt. L. Cohen and Cpl. J. Desertlaux. All three aircraft were based at nearby West Raynham when the tragedies struck.
When leaving here, return to the main road and head east to our first stop at Foulsham.
RAF Foulsham, sits approximately 8 miles north-east of the Norfolk town of Dereham. It had a short active life of just three years, lasting between May 1942 and 1945, at which point it was closed to flying and used as a storage site for military hardware. It remained in this lesser state until the 1980s when it was deemed surplus to requirements and finally closed. The land it stood on, was then sold off to local farmers.
Built over the period 1940-41 by the construction company Kirk and Kirk Ltd, RAF Foulsham occupied land some 173 feet above sea level, and opened under the control of 2 Group Bomber Command. Much of the material that was brought in to construct Foulsham came via nearby railways stations, then along local roads through the village, leaving locals facing endless mud and traffic.
As a war-time airfield, Foulsham would have three tar and wood chip runways, one of which would later be equipped with the fog dispersal system ‘FIDO’, a valuable if not bizarre system designed to dissipate fog along airfield runways.
Foulsham’s three runways were 1,900 and 1,350 yards long, with the main runway heading in a north-south direction. By the end of the war it would have thirty-seven heavy bomber hardstands, nine T2 hangars and one B1, and as such, was a formidable size. Personnel numbers were reflected in this, with accommodation spread over several sites to both the south and east, able to accommodate upward of 2,500 personnel of mixed rank and gender. The ever important technical site sat to the east, with the bomb store situated to the south-west of the airfield, just off the end of the main north-south runway.
The watch office, now long gone, was built to design 518/40 which included and Meteorological section attached to the building. These designs were a development of earlier models using a new 9 inch rendered brick wall as opposed to timber, although timber was initially required for the floors and ceilings. Due to a shortage in wood at the time though, concrete replaced a large portion of these leaving only the balcony and control room using such material.
Whilst Foulsham opened under 2 Group, it would almost immediately – within a month of opening – be handed over to the US forces of the 8th Air Force and be renamed station B.13. However, this change never evolved into anything more as no American personnel were stationed here, and by the October it was back in RAF hands, and 2 Group once more. The next few years would see the airfield change hands several more times, and with each change would come new aircraft, new personnel and new roles.
The first units to arrive here were those of the host unit 2 Group. Both 98 and 180 Squadron arrived in mid October 1942 after their reformation/formation at RAF West Raynham. During this time, they both began to receive their aircraft, the American built B-25 ‘Mitchell II’. Their transfer across to Foulsham gave the airfield the honour of being the first station to use the type operationally. Both squadrons would remain active in the light bomber role until 18th August 1943 at which point they would depart and the airfield would change ownership once more.
98 Squadron, a First World War unit, had been operating out of Kaldadarnes in Iceland following a terrible loss of personnel when the Lancastria was sunk in June 1940. Their reformation at West Raynham, and subsequent move to Foulsham, had been quickly met with yet more losses, when one of the Mitchells ‘FL206’, spun killing all four members of the crew on board.
After this, the squadron would be dogged by misfortune, the squadron adjutant noting in the Operational Records that excessive rain had turned the site into a “disgraceful condition”; the weather was one aspect the staff would have to put up with for some time to come. *5
For the first sixteen days of November, all but a handful of days were washed out, the despair of staff being felt through the Operational Records, each day met with ‘Lectures continue, adverse weather for flying‘. However, on the 16th, training flights did manage to take place, but it too was met with more sadness as a second set of fatalities occurred.
During the training flight, Mitchell FL179 suffered a bird strike in the carburettor of the starboard engine, this caused the engine to fail. With only one serviceable engine the pilot, Flt. Sgt. K. Williams (s/n: 1062588), tried to land at nearby RAF Attlebridge, unfortunately the aircraft stalled and went into a spin. The resultant crash killed all three aircrew on board and wrote off the Mitchell.
Things were to not get any better for the squadron either. On the 30th, a third crash took yet four more lives when FL708 collided with high tension cables near to RAF Wendling. The explosion from the collision also killed a local farmer who was ploughing his field at the time of the accident. It had been a terrible start for the fledgling unit.
The poor weather continued relentlessly, hampering the squadron’s progress, both on the ground and in the air, with training flights being cancelled on a regular basis. During the small numbers that were taking place, further problems came to light adding to the frustrations already felt by the crews. Since taking on the initial batch of nine Mitchells on September 18th, the squadron had been having problems with the aircraft especially the guns and their turrets.
Gunners had found that extended bursts of gunfire were impossible, usually no more than a dozen rounds could be fired at any one time, a situation borne out by Wing Commander Foster, the Group Armament Officer, on the 16th December. In an attempt to remedy the situation, an American gun turret specialist visited the squadron, but by the 18th it was considered that the guns were ‘obsolete’.
January was much the same, snow added to further problems and again the aerodrome was noted as being in a “very bad condition“, all flying being cancelled until the middle of the month when a small number of flights did get airborne.
The first battle order came through on January 21st, but due to a late delivery of bombs, it was also cancelled, meaning the squadrons first operation flight wouldn’t take place until the next day.
Six aircraft were ordered to operations, and whilst all made it to the target, one aircraft, FL693, was hit by flak and disintegrated. All on board were presumed killed. The first months of 98 squadron had been challenging and difficult for those posted here.
180 Squadron had fared a little better, although after walking into a spinning propeller, L.A.C. J. Aspinall was killed, the only fatality of the squadron during the same period.
On July 26th 1943, an emergency landing was made at Foulsham by a B-17F #42-29802 of the 326th BS, 92nd BG, 8th AF, after a traumatic series of events that earned the co-pilot, John C. Morgan Flight Officer (later 2nd Lt.), the Medal of Honour for his valour and courage in action.
On that particular day, the aircraft, “Ruthie II“, was in a mass formation heading for Hanover, when a canon shell ripped through the windscreen splitting the pilots head. In addition to this, the oxygen system to the tail, waist, and radio positions was also inoperable, the top turret gunner had lost both arms and had major injuries to his side; the intercom system was out of action and several crew members had lost consciousness due to the lack of Oxygen.
Morgan grappled with the severely wounded pilot, who had wrapped his arms round the controls, to try and maintain level flight. Morgan decided the protection of the formation was better than heading for home alone, and so for the next two hours he flew in formation holding the pilot back with one hand whilst steering with the other. Eventually the navigator came forward and gave assistance allowing the aircraft to reach the safety of England and Foulsham.
For his actions, Morgan, of Vernon, Wilbarger County, Texas, received the Medal of Honour the following December in a ceremony presided over by Lt. General Ira C. Eaker. The story of Morgan’s bravery would form a part of the story line in the book and movie “Twelve O’Clock High”.*3
The posting of 98 and 180 Squadrons in August 1943 was no coincidence, as the airfield saw further development and new hangars added. These hangars were erected at various locations around the airfield site, ready to accommodate the forty or so Horsa gliders that would soon arrive here escorted by 12 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section. Their arrival marking the beginning of the preparations for the invasion of Normandy the following year.
A few days later, on September 1st, 1943, the handover of Foulsham took place and 3 Group became the new owners in a move that also signified the forming of 514 Squadron with Lancaster IIs, the less common radial engined version of this famous Avro aircraft.
514 Sqn was initially headed by Acting Wing Commander A.J. Samson D.F.C., although the first to arrive at the airfield was the squadron adjutant. On first inspection, he and his small party found that the office blocks had been completely stripped of all their furniture, even shelving had annoyingly been removed from walls. As a result the offices were virtually unusable, and so a huge clean up operation began in readiness for the ground and air crews who were to shortly follow.
Accommodation sites 2 and 5 were quickly allocated to the squadron for personnel use, and as soon as equipment began arriving, on a rainy and very wet September day, everyone was drafted in to unload and store the various much needed supplies.
To provide flying personnel for the new squadron, a support unit would also be formed at the airfield, that of 1678 Heavy Conversion Unit. The formation of this unit was achieved through the renumbering of the Flight of the same designation, a changeover that took place a month later, on October 16th 1943. The role of this unit was to convert experienced bomber crews over to the new Lancaster.
In the interim period, the new aircraft began to arrive. The first Lancaster ‘DS735’ touching down on 11th September, 1943, followed by three more (DS785, 783 and 784) over the next three days. Their arrival was met not with pomp and ceremony though, but by heavy showers and thunderstorms, the weather that had dogged earlier squadrons continued to play its terrible part in life at Foulsham. Over the next few weeks, aircraft were quickly modified and air-tested ready for flying, by the end of the month, eighteen Lancasters had been flown in and virtually all the crews had arrived ready for converting to the new type.
Over the next month, and although the weather yet again played havoc with flights, cross-countries and air tests were carried out with a high level of success. However, no one could control the weather, and the first planned operational sortie had to be cancelled due to extensive fog that blanketed the Norfolk countryside. Not until November 6th did a break allow any operational flying to take place, and that break allowed two small flights to get airborne.
A mining operation undertaken by four aircraft along with a bombing mission in which only two aircraft got off the ground, were the squadrons break into operational flying; not a major mission, but one that nevertheless broke the ice.
With the poor weather continuing, several more ‘ops’ were again cancelled allowing only the occasional ‘Bulls-eye’ or morning flight to get away. Whilst it must have been frustrating for crews, this did allow them to finally put into practice all the training they had undertaken so far.
Then on the 14th November 1943, news came through from above that 3 Group was being reorganised and that 514 Sqn would be moving from Foulsham to RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire as a result. The move, expected to be completed by the 23rd, would coincide with the first operation to Berlin, a move that also signified the first phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’. This would also be the first time a 514 Sqn aircraft (DS784 ‘JI-C’) would not return from operations; the loss being a blow to the squadron. Of the seven-man crew, one would be taken prisoner (F/S. B. Haines (RAAF)) whilst a further (Sgt. H. Lucas) would evade capture, successfully hiding out in Brussels until its liberation in 1944. The remaining five crewmen however, all perished in the aircraft’s crash.
By the 25th November, the move had been completed, and both 514 and 1678 HCU had now departed the airfield. With Foulsham now empty, it would undergo yet another change of ownership, this time to 100 Group, the specialists in electronic warfare. This change of ownership would, as before, bring another two new units, 192 Sqn and a supporting training unit 1508 (Blind Approach Training) Flight.
100 Group was formed that November as 100 (Special Duties) Group under the Command of Air Commodore E.B. Addison CB, CBE with its headquarters at Radlett in Hertfordshire. The aim of the move was to place all the electronic units under one single command, thus unifying its aim and bringing together all the resources of the thinly spread units. One of the main aims of the Group was to provide ‘spoof’ operations, confusing the ground operators and radar controlled night fighters, thus spreading them over wider areas. This would in turn, it was hoped, reduce the number of casualties from RAF bombers and achieve better bombing results as a consequence.
Other duties of the Group would involve the jamming of radar and radio equipment used by German aircraft and ground stations, monitoring German airways and providing incorrect orders to German crews using native speaking RAF crewmen. The war had become a battle of science.
Over November and December, airfields were taken over and aircraft supplied to the new Group. Squadrons were brought in to fill these sites and the Group grew from strength to strength.
A newly registered unit, 192 Sqn (formed a year before at RAF Gransden Lodge) operating a mix of Wellingtons, Mosquitoes, Halifax IIs and more recently, their newly acquired Halifax Vs, were transferred over to Foulsham, in one of the first moves to the airfield.
Formed through the renumbering of 1474 (Special Duties) Flight, 192 Sqn had been previously been monitoring the German Ruffian and Knickebein beams. In their new form they would monitor, amongst others, the western approaches to the Bay of Biscay, monitoring and recording night fighter channels.
However, the winter weather was up to its usual tricks, and it played havoc with initial flights. But despite this, within 48 hours of their arrival, 192 Sqn was classed as operational, and a memo to that effect was sent off to Headquarters 3 Group Bomber Command.
With no flying over the next three days due to the continuing bad weather, initial flights were able to begin on the 29th November, with three aircraft, all Wellingtons, performing Special Duties Flights over the Bay of Biscay. After landing at Davidstow Moor for refuelling, there was a major electrical fault at the airfield and the entire flare path and flying control facilities were put out of action. As a result, the three Wellingtons were grounded and unable to continue their flight home.
The weather continued to play havoc for the crews at Foulsham. A flight planned for a Mosquito and two Wellingtons on the 1st December had to be postponed and then finally cancelled. The next day, 2nd December 1943, three aircraft were ordered to fly to the Frisian Islands and the Dutch coast, but one had to return due to the pilot’s escape hatch blowing off, and a second overshot the runway on take off becoming bogged down in the mud. The aircraft was damaged but the crew were unhurt in the incident.
On December 7th, Foulsham officially became part of 100 Group and another unit No. 1473 (Radio Counter Measures) Flight also arrived here to assist with the ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) operations. By February 1944, it was decided to merge the Flight with 192 thus forming a ‘C’ Flight. With additional Mosquitoes and Ansons – the hardware inventory at Foulsham was now growing rapidly.
Much of December suffered the same fate as its preceding months however, poor weather rendering flying unsuitable, leaving many aircraft and their crews grounded for prolonged periods of time.
100 Group’s inaugural operation on the night of 16th / 17th December, did not however, go in their favour. On what has become known as ‘Black Thursday’ the RAF bomber force of over 480 aircraft, took heavy losses. These losses whilst high over occupied territory, were made far worse by poor weather which claimed some eight aircraft from 97 Squadron at RAF Bourn – one sixth of its strength,
The beginning of the new year, 1944, saw big changes not only in Bomber Command, but at Foulsham also. As the second phase of the ‘Battle of Berlin’ began, Stirling squadrons and now Halifax units were being pulled out of the front line bombing campaign; their shortcomings becoming all to obvious as losses in the types began to mount. The poor weather continued to cause misery across Britain’s airfields, rain and fog preventing large continuous attacks on the German heartland.
The interminable fog was the driving force behind the new FIDO system now being installed at Foulsham. Bomber command had initially asked for eight airfields across the UK, but by the end of 1943 they were seeking twelve, and Foulsham (designated Station XXI) was identified as one suitable.
William Press were given the contract to install the system, and by mid February work had begun. Supplying the huge storage tanks was going to be a challenge though, and so a new siding was constructed at nearby Foulsham railway station. Its not known for sure whether the fuel was then piped the two mile distance to the airfield, or brought across in tankers, but whichever it was, it required a good deal of extra work.
At the airfield site, three storage tanks were assembled on Land at Low Farm, located at the northern end of the main runway. The much needed pump house and control point were also located here. Operators were kept on a 24 hr watch system, being billeted near to the equipment in two Nissen huts, one for officers and the other for ‘other ranks’.
Initial plans were for a mile of runway to be lined with the Haigill MK IV burners, with intersecting burners placed in trenches across the two intersecting runways. The placing of these burners, well out of the way of moving aircraft, initially being a difficult challenge to overcome.
Operating the burners was a tedious and dangerous job. After opening the valves and allowing petrol to fill a pool through which the operator had to walk, a match was thrown into the pool and the poor ‘Erk’ had to then run as fast as he could and throw himself into a small indentation in the ground hoping the flames would pass over and not ignite the clothes he was wearing. Once the burn had been achieved and all aircraft were down safely, the system was shut down and allowed to cool. Once the pipes were cool enough to touch, some 72,000 holes along the length of the pipes adjoining the runway had to be cleaned out to prevent a build up of soot. It was perhaps, one of the most tedious but vital jobs, RAF personnel had to perform.
Before the system could be fully tested though, a bizarre accident happened that resulted in no crew injuries, but two badly damaged aircraft and a Senior Flying Control Officer being posted and demoted.
On 27th April 1944 seven aircraft, a mix of three Halifaxes, two Mosquitoes and two Wellingtons, were detailed to operations performing ‘special duties’ over the continent. On their return, Mosquito DZ377 ‘DT-L’ landed first. Moments later, Halifax MZ564 ‘DT-X’ came in behind. After what appears to have been an error by the ground control staff, the Halifax landed on-top of the Mosquito without any knowledge of the heavy bomber’s crew. The situation had been made worse, not only by the poor weather, but by the fact that the Halifax appeared to have no working radio and that aircraft navigation lights had been extinguished due to an air raid warning at the airfield.
The accident occurred *4, after the Senior Control Officer had flashed a steady ‘green’ to the Mosquito pilot, who was at the wrong height and (apparently) accepted the light as permission to land. The result being, the two aircraft came in to land simultaneously with near disastrous consequences. However, there were no causalities except for the Senior Flying Control Office being posted and demoted for his misjudgement of the situation.
Meanwhile, the FIDO installation continued, with initial test burns being made in July. This first burn consumed some 16,250 gallons of fuel*1, and although results were positive, it wouldn’t be until the end of the year before the system would be put to the test and its first operational use.
Being such a ‘specialist’ unit, 192 Sqn operated for a short time in conjunction with a detachment of P-38/F-5 Lightnings of the USAAF. It would appear that there were five aircraft, Lightning 155, 156, 479, 501 and 515, operated by ten aircrew (Lt. Zeilder, Lt. Alley, Lt. Richards, Lt. Stallcup, Flt. Off. Vasser, Lt. Kunze, Capt. Brink, Capt Adams, Capt. Dixon and Lt. Holt) rotating around each one. The P-38 being a single seat fighter had to be modified to a two-seater to take the ‘Special Operator’. The purpose of this detachment was to search over the Zuider Zee in south Holland looking for signals associated with enemy radar controlled missiles – V2s. Often these searches would occur in pairs, but occasionally singular. On October 26th, Lightning 515 piloted by Capt. F. Brink with special operator Lt. F. Kunze, sent a message stating their intention to ditch in the North Sea. Using a position 60 miles off the Norfolk coast, four aircraft, two Mosquitoes and two Halifaxes, were immediately dispatched to search the area, unfortunately no sign of the aircraft was seen nor the crew. An Air-Sea-Rescue launch was also dispatched to the area locating items of wreckage that was later identified as part of a P-38 Lightning. The crew though, were never found.
December 1944 was one of Bomber Commands busiest. On the 9th the poor weather broke sufficiently for operations to take place. Four aircraft were ordered to fly, two Mosquitoes, a Wellington and a Halifax. The Mosquitoes, flew to Germany to monitor and record R/T transmissions; the Wellington monitored Knickebein transmissions thought to be used for Flying Boat activities whilst the Halifax was sent to the Ruhr for a ‘window’ dropping exercise. Unfortunately the Wellington had to return due to the bad weather whilst the Halifax failed to get airborne and crashed beyond the runway.
The aircraft, a Halifax III piloted by F.O. N. Irvine, had 22 operations under its belt. However, with time up at 18:28, the four engined heavy was unable to get airborne and ran off the end of the runway into an adjacent field. In the accident MZ817 ‘DT-O’, “Pete the Penguin” was badly damaged but thankfully none of the crew were injured and all walked away unhurt.
December was an eventful month for Foulsham. With the continuing bad weather, Bomber Command were having great difficulty getting aircraft back safely. On the night of the 18th/19th, a particularly poor night, the FIDO installation at Foulsham was finally lit and used operationally.
On that night, a large force of Lancasters were ordered to perform four operations to the Polish port of Gdynia on the Baltic coast. Along with the heavy bombers were a number of 100 Group aircraft including those from 192 Sqn based here at Foulsham. Five aircraft were ordered out on ‘Special Duties’, four Halifaxes and a Mosquito, in which ‘Window’ was dropped by three of them over the Rhur, whilst the other two monitored German radio transmissions – one 50 miles west of Stettin and the other over Gdynia.
On return to Foulsham, it was found that the airfield, as were many others in the area, was fogbound, and it had become necessary to light FIDO. The alert went out to all FIDO airfields and at Foulsham the burners were lit just after 02:00 hrs. A lack of experience and waterlogged pipes meant the system was not fully burning until some 25 minutes after the initial lighting, but just in time for the first aircraft ‘S’ Sugar to approach the runway.
The first aircraft to land was Halifax III LW623 piloted by Wing Commander D. W. Donaldson who, even after encountering strong winds caused by the fires, made a safe and successful landing. He is recorded as being the first captain to land such an aircraft at Foulsham.
Following on behind Donaldson was B-17 ‘R’ Roger from nearby RAF Oulton, who like many others, was flying on fumes. The pilot had just one chance and as he approached, he ordered the crew to take up crash positions. With visibility down to some 100 yards, he brought the B-17 in making a relatively good landing in appalling conditions between the rows of flames lining either side of the runway. Two further B-17s landed that night, one on three engines and another who missed the runway and became bogged down in the mud alongside. By the end of the night after all aircraft had been received, the burners were extinguished and visibility over the airfield diminished once more.
By the end of December, fifteen aircraft had benefited from the installation of FIDO at Foulsham; a system that had enabled them all to land safely in conditions that would otherwise have necessitated either finding an alternative site or bailing out. A third option was of course available, but the consequences almost final and fatal.
Whilst all this was going on, it was decided to create a new unit at Foulsham to support the electronics group. The Bomber support Development Unit (BSDU) were formed here during the April of 1944. Born out of the Special Duties (Radio) Development unit they would go on to disband at Swanton Morley in 1945 to become the Radio Warfare Establishment. Whilst here at Foulsham though, they would operate both Mosquitoes and Spitfire VBs along with the Tiger Moth and Avro Anson.
A further Halifax unit would grace the skies of Foulsham in the remaining months of the year. Also an electronics unit, 462 (RAAF) Squadron, was brought in to enable full coverage of ECM work as the war drew to its close. A former RAF Driffield unit, the squadron spent most of the last few days of the month transporting equipment to Driffield train station before departing themselves for Foulsham.
The weather over the winter of 1944 – 45 was one of the worst recorded. The Allies had reached the Ardennes where a final desperate counter attack was mounted by the Germans. Embedded in the thick woodland, troops fought both the weather and the enemy whilst much of the air cover was prevented from flying due to the continuing fog and snow.
At Foulsham some operations did occur, and on some occasions FIDO had to be lit to enable aircraft to either take off or land. January saw particularly strong winds, rain and snow, necessitating all personnel being tasked with snow clearing on January 10th. On the 15th, whilst climbing to cruising altitude the starboard outer engine caught fire. The engine was feathered and action taken to remedy the situation. However, a feathered propeller soon began windmilling causing dangerous drag and the fire spread. The bale out order was given but only two members of the crew were able to escape before the wing became detached and the aircraft came crashing to earth in a fireball. The two who escaped (Sgt. G. Sandy and F/Sgt N. Reed) were both injured in their landing, none of the others escaped with their lives.
On another occasion, an American B-24 had difficulty of its own and whilst attempting to land, crashed after over shooting the runway. The aircraft was eventually salvaged after coming to a stop on a local road.
FIDO’s record at Foulsham was, like many other airfields, a great success. Only on the night of 23rd February 1945 did fatalities occur whilst using the system. With several aircraft on ops that night, fog again prevented many from returning to their own bases, and a Mosquito from 239 Sqn based at nearby RAF West Raynham, attempted a landing without permission. FIDO had just been lit but some of the pipes had burst adding smoke to the fog that had by now risen to 50 feet above the runway. The pilot, 23 year old Flt.Sgt. Leonard Twigg attempted to land Mosquito NF.30 ‘NT354’ only to miss the runway and land some 70 feet to one side, colliding with a Halifax of 192 Squadron parked at its dispersal. The pilot was killed in the incident but the navigator (Flt Sgt. Turner) managed to escape with injuries. As a result only one other aircraft, a Halifax, landed that night, the others being diverted to alternative airfields.
Two other 192 Halifaxes were lost that night, both being shot down over Germany with the loss of almost all sixteen crewmen – the only three survivors being taken prisoner. Both Halifax MK. IIIs ‘DT-T’ and ‘DT-O’ carried British, Australian and other commonwealth crews.
But the events of the 23rd February would pale into insignificance on the next night- the worst on record for the Australian 462 Sqn. Considered ‘minor operations’, they were tasked with dropping window, flying ahead of seventy-four training aircraft who were acting as a diversionary raid over northern France. Four of the squadron’s aircraft were lost that night, with the loss of twenty-six of the thirty-one lives. A further 100 group aircraft, a B-17 from RAF Oulton was also lost that night, these five accounting for the bulk of the losses of that one operation.
The late spring of April 1945 produced further poor weather, and FIDO was brought into action once more (possibly for the last time) on the night of 18th/19th. The use of FIDO that night allowed some thirteen aircraft to successfully land, providing a safe landing for crews who were no doubt by now, looking to the war’s end and a apprehensive return to peacetime,.
By August 1945 the war in Europe was over and squadrons were already beginning to disband. The FIDO system was drained and dismantled after providing a safe take-off or landing for a considerable number of aircraft. For 462 Sqn, the 24th September 1945 signified the end of its road. Eleven months after its reformation at Driffield, it ceased to exist, being removed from RAF inventory for good. Its demise also signified the coming of the end of flying operations at Foulsham and ultimately its closure.
In June 1946 the airfield was closed to all flying duties, whereupon it became the final resting ground for a large number of Mosquitoes prior to scrapping. Foulsham then remained ‘in-service’ until the mid 1950s, with a US Army Special Signals Unit, until the MOD deemed the site surplus to requirements. It was then sold off in the 1980s and its doors closed for the last and final time.
Foulsham, like many of its counterparts in this region played a major part in the electronic war, monitoring and jamming radar transmissions for larger formations of bombers. Despite this important and ground breaking role, Foulsham had only a short operational existence.
Many of Foulsham’s buildings have surprisingly withstood the test of time. Whilst the runways have all but gone, now farm tracks and tree lines, some of the buildings do still remain and even from the roadside, you can see what must have been a remarkable place during its short, but hectic life. The road passes along the eastern side of the airfield, here, you can still see a number of the original T2 hangars, three in total, now utilised by a local potato business. (‘Addison Farm’ as it is aptly named, is in recognition of Air Vice Marshall Edward Barker Addison, the only person to Command 100 Group*2 during the war). Whilst two of these hangars have been re-clad, the third is still in its original metal. Hidden amongst these structures, are some of the original technical buildings, again some refurbished, some original. The mass concrete bases signify the manoeuvring areas linking this area to the main section of the airfield to the west.
At this point, there was until recently, gates separating the dispersal area to the east (now farm dwellings) to the hangar area on your left. During the War, this road was surprisingly open to the public and aircraft would be manoeuvred across the road, traffic being halted by an RAF Policeman.
Further to the north, beyond this area passing an air raid shelter, is the original entrance and further technical area. A pill-box, marks where the main entrance was. Turn left here and follow the road west. To your right you pass the original Fire Tender shed, a B1 hangar and other minor buildings in varying states of disrepair. To your left, a further T2, partially refurbished partially original. Further along, the road crosses the original N/S runway, full width remnants to the right and a tree-lined track to the left mark clearly where the enormous concrete structure was laid. The road ahead, is the where the 08/26 runway ran as it disappears over the brow of the hill. The road then turns away north leaving the runway and airfield behind you.
As with all airfields, the accommodation blocks and bomb stores were scattered well away from the main airfield. With some searching, evidence of these may be found amongst the hedges and trees, public roads utilising the concrete sections of RAF road laid down originally.
Whilst the main layout of Foulsham is difficult to see from the road, the last remaining buildings have fared quite well and remain some of the better examples of original wartime architecture. There is a distinct ‘feel’ to the site that transforms you back in time to the days when heavy bombers and lighter twin-engined aircraft would rumble along its runways. Recent and ongoing development work by the farmer seems to be sympathetic and ‘in tune’ with the site, many buildings being reclaimed from nature and now ‘on show’ to the passing public. Whilst all are on private land, they are easily seen and it seems that there may be a winning formula here that other land owners could quite easily follow and preserve what is left of our disappearing heritage.
In the nearby village of Foulsham, beneath the village sign, stands a memorial to the crews and personnel who once served at RAF Foulsham.
From Foulsham, we head north-west, to a little airfield with the quaint name ‘Little Snoring’.
RAF Little Snoring
Little Snoring is as its name suggests, a quiet hamlet deep in the heart of Norfolk. Surrounded by beautiful countryside, it boasts a superb round towered church (another called St. Andrew’s) that holds a remarkable little gem of historical significance.
The airfield, to the North East, was originally opened in 1943, late in the war, as a satellite for nearby Foulsham. It had three runways: 2 constructed of concrete 4,199 ft (1,280 m) in length, (01/19 and 13/31) and one 07/25 of 6,004 ft (1,830 m) again in concrete. As with other airfields it was a typical ‘A’ shape, with 36 dispersal sites, a bomb site to the north, fuel dump to the south and the accommodation blocks dispersed away from the airfield to the east. It was built to accommodate 1,807 RAF and 361 WAAF personnel housed over eight domestic sites.
Initially under the command of 3 Group Bomber Command, it housed the rare Bristol Hercules engined Lancaster IIs of 1678 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) and 115 squadron, (between August and November 1943) formally RAF Witchford and East Wretham, who were to carry out night bombing duties, a role it had performed well at Witchford. Then, as with many of the airfields in this location, it was taken over by Addison’s 100 Group and Mosquitoes moved in.
169 squadron operating both Mosquito IIs and Beaufighter VIs, would undertake night fighter missions between December 1943 and June 1944. Like their counterparts at Great Massingham, Foulsham, North Creake, West Raynham and Sculthorpe amongst others, they would take part in electronic warfare and counter measures against enemy fighter operations. 100 Group, investigated a wide range of devises suitable for tracking, homing in on or jamming enemy radars. With a wide rage of names; “Airborne Cigar”, “Jostle”, “Mandrel”, “Airborne Grocer”, “Carpet” and “Piperack”, they used both “Serrate” and “ASH” to attack the enemy on their own airfield at night before they could intercept the bombers.
On the night of August 23rd/24th 1943, Lancaster III ‘KD802’ (M-Mother) of 207 Sqn from RAF Langar, piloted by P.O. John McIntosh – a quiet and unassuming character admired and respected by his crew – flew as part of the Berlin raid. On passing Hanover the aircraft was attacked by a Ju 88 night fighter, which attacked the Lancaster from behind. The rear gunner, Sgt. R. Middleton, managed to fire back at the Ju 88 getting strikes on it which caused the enemy aircraft to ignite and fall from the night sky. By then though, the Ju 88 had got his own strikes on the Lancaster, and a fire broke out in the inner fuel tank of the starboard wing and inside the fuselage. To exacerbate the problem, the starboard tail plane, rudder and fin had also been badly damaged, and the aircraft was all but uncontrollable.
P.O. McIntosh ordered the bombs ditched at 22.49 hrs, turned for home with hopes of at least reaching the relative safety of Holland, but with the efforts of him and his crew, unbelievably they managed to get the aircraft to England. In an effort to extinguish the fire, Sgt. Middleton volunteered to climb out onto the wing, a feat that had been tried by others, so successfully in some cases. Rightly or wrongly McIntosh refused him permission, fearing he would be lost in the desperate, but brave attempt.
Over the North Sea, McIntosh considered ditching, but in time the navigator announced that they were over England and the nearest airfield was sought. Little Snoring was the first they came to.
Shortly after lowering the landing gear, one of the engines cut out, a second attempt at landing was not on the cards, and McIntosh gingerly put the aircraft down on the runway.
The intense fire destroyed the Lancaster, but the crew all escaped without injury thanks to the skilful flying of P.O. McIntosh. To what must have been their relief, the sortie was counted towards their operational total.
After a short spell with an American Intruder detachment between March and April 1944 flying P-51s and P-38s, Little Snoring was itself the subject of an attack from Luftwaffe aircraft that had followed the bomber stream home. The attack was so successful that Little Snoring was put out of action for some considerable time.
Night intruder missions continued, with 515 Squadron, 23 Squadron and 141 Squadron operating a range of twin-engined aircraft such as the Beaufighter IIf, Blenheim V, Mosquito II, FB.VI and NF.30. Radar training also continued using smaller aircraft such as the Defiant, Anson and Airspeed Oxfords of 1692 Flt.
Eventually in September 1945, operational flying officially ceased and the airfield was reduced to care and maintenance. Like other airfields in this area, it became the storage area for surplus Mosquitoes on their way to a sad ending under the choppers blade. Then in the 1950s Little Snoring was opened temporarily and used by a civilian operated anti-aircraft co-operation unit, flying Spitfire XVI, Mosquito TT.35 and Vampire FB.Vs. Finally in April 1953, Little Snoring was shut, the gates locked and the site sold off.
However, that was not the of flying. Now in civilian hands, Little Snoring operates a small flying club and a microlight manufacturer. Aircraft can visit, and occasionally a ‘fly-in’ happens and the site springs into life once more.
Following sale of the site, a large number of buildings were demolished or taken away for use elsewhere. The officers’ mess housed four ornately and beautifully written honours and awards boards. Luckily, these were saved by a good samaritan and now reside in the base’s ‘official’ church, St. Andrew’s, on the west wall. Written in paint, they detail the awards and ‘kills’ of the various crew members stationed at Little Snoring. Just a short walk from the church is the village sign which depicts a Mosquito, often seen over the skies of Little Snoring all those years ago.
The perimeter track to the east is now the road, the accommodation site on the eastern side still bears the track but is closed off, what secrets it must hold! A few remnants of concrete roadway exist outside of the airfield, the northern threshold of the main runway is also there used to store gravel and other road material. A small number of buildings, mainly huts, exist in private gardens used as storage sheds. The local caravan site has what is believed to be the base hospital and / or mortuary now a washing block.
The largest and best preserved buildings are two of the original T2 hangars, both used to store farm produce. A blister hangar is also on site but thought not an original of Little Snoring.
The bomb site is a field, and all but a small part of the runways are gone or at best farm tracks. Little Snoring’s gem is its watch office, standing proud in the centre of the site, a lone wind sock fluttering from its walls. Run down and dilapidated, it is crying out for love and restoration, but I suspect this isn’t going to happen and perhaps its days are very sadly numbered.
During its operational life, twelve Lancasters and forty-three Mosquitoes were lost during missions over enemy territory and to date no ‘official’ memorial exists in their honour. Maybe one day this too will change.
The base commander, ‘glass eyed’ Group Captain Rex O’Bryan Hoare (Sammy) was a known character and has been mentioned in a number of books discussing night intruder missions. He was a very successful Mosquito pilot and looked up to by his fellow pilots. A superbly detailed account of him appears in ‘The Snoring Villages‘ and is certainly worth a read.
A once bustling airfield, Little Snoring is now a sleepy site with a few remaining remnants of its wartime activity. The church boards reminders of its successes and the toll paid by the young men of the Royal Air Force.
The four award and honours boards in St. Andrew’s Church can be seen on the Flckr page.
Sources and Further Reading (Foulsham)
*1 Williams, G. “Flying through Fire – FIDO the Fogbuster of World War Two“. Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995.
*2 There is a 100 Group Association that keeps the memories of 100 group alive. A number of Veterans from the group meet for reunions, coming from all over the world.
*3 The Congregational Medal of Honour Website.
*4 Bowman, M., “100 Group (Bomber Support)” 2006, Pen and Sword.
*5 National Archives: AIR 27/782/1
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/59
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/60
National Archives: AIR 27/1456/69
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/17
National Archives: AIR 27/1917/18
National Archives: AIR 27/1156/43
Janine Harrington, secretary for the Association, writes her own books based around 100 Group, read it through her blog.
Janine’s writings are inspired by her mother’s story of her wartime fiance Vic Vinnell of 192 Squadron at Foulsham, who, together with Canadian pilot Jack Fisher, never returned from a secret operation on the night of 26th / 27th November 1944.
The wartime memories project, has a section focusing on RAF Foulsham and people trying to trace crew members who served there. It is worth a look through perhaps you may know someone from there.
Sources and Further Reading (Little Snoring)
For more personal stories about 23 Squadron at RAF Little Snoring, visit Pierre Lagace’s blog at RAF 23 Squadron.
Sweetman. J., “Bomber Crew – Taking on the Reich“, Abacus, 2004