Trail 33 – Essex (Part 1)

In this trail we head to pastures new and begin to explore the county of Essex. Touching the outskirts of London to the south and Suffolk to the north, its aviation history is rich and extensive – reaching far beyond the Second World War.

For our first trip though, we head back to the 1940s, the Second World War and three sites, one of which has retained at least a small part of its aviation heritage. Our first stop is to the south, and an airfield within a stones throw of the international airport at Stansted. Here some nice surprises await us, as we head toward Matching Green.

RAF Matching Green

RAF Matching (Station 166) or Matching Green, was built very late in the war, and was only operational for just over a year. It was initially built for the heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force as a Class ‘A’ heavy bomber station, but was very soon transferred to the Ninth Air Force and used by medium bombers of the 391st Bomb Group, who supported the allied advance into Germany.

It was built with 3 runways all of concrete, 50 loop style hardstands, two T2 hangars; one to the south-east and one to the south-west, a number of blister hangars and a wide range of ancillary and support buildings. Both technical and accommodation areas were all to the east and south-east well away from the main area. The bomb site, had approximately three miles of roadway, giving an indication of its generous size.

RAF Matching Green

The Watch Office at Matching now homes radar equipment.

Opened in January 1944 the first month would be busy for Matching Green. The first and primary residents were the Olive Drab B-26 Marauders of the 391st Bomb Group of the Ninth Air Force. The 391st were made up of 4 Bomb Squadrons: 572nd, 573rd, 574th and 575th, who undertook their first mission within a month after arriving in England. They were a new group, ‘rookies’ in comparison to many, only being formed a year earlier.

Their primary targets were: airfields, bridges, marshalling yards and V-weapons sites across France. During the Allied invasion, they attacked German defences along the coast and as the allies moved further inland, they attacked fuel dumps and troop concentrations. They supported the break out at St. Lo in July 1944, and prevented the enemies retreat by attacking transport and communication links behind German lines.

Being to the south of the country, Matching Green was occasionally used by returning aircraft as a safe haven. On February 4th, just a month after it opened,  the first fatality would be recorded. Whilst returning from a mission to Frankfurt and with both engines on one side feathered, B-17G  ’42-31494′ (PY) of the 407th BS, 92nd BG, based at Podington, failed to make the airfield and crashed on the approach to Matching Green. The resultant accident killed 5 of its crew members, a worse fate then the aircraft which was later salvaged.

RAF Matching Green

One of the former accommodation sites now houses light industry.

In September 1944, the 391st moved from Matching Green to Roye/Amy in France, where they received a DUC for action against heavily defended sites without fighter escort. Their departure from Matching Green sounded the end and its short life would soon cease operationally. Between their arrival in January and their departure to France in  September, the 391st would fly some 6,000 sorties losing just under 200 crew members in action over Europe.

As the war drew to a close, the airfield was handed back to the RAF for paratroop activities. Elements of both RAF and the USAAF IX Troop Carrier Command, were reputed to have been based here, operating either Short Stirlings or C-47s. These were the last military units to operate from here and the site was closed in 1945, being returned to agriculture within a very short period of time. The majority of concrete was removed for nearby development, although many of the buildings were luckily left standing.  In the late 1980s, one of the T2 hangars was dismantled and transferred to  nearby North Weald Airfield. It remains there today re clad but still in aviation use. The Control Tower remains today and in remarkably good condition, adorned with electronic equipment, it us used use as a radar equipment test facility.

The site whilst agriculture, is now home to a large selection of fauna and flora. Deer roam freely across the site and a survey in the summer of 1999 recorded over 160 species of trees, grasses and wild flowers that included three different types of Orchid.

Matching Green, like other airfields in this area, lives in the shadow of the modern Stansted International Airport, and this has proven, in part, to be its savour.

RAF Matching

The water tower at Matching Green in a former accommodation site.

Although close to Stansted, the network of country roads that lead to the airfield are small and signposts are few and far between. It is not an easy place to find – one of the many features of Second World War airfields. One of the first things you see is the old original water tower. It pokes its head above the many trees that now cover matching green airfield.

Access to this site is along what would have been the original entrance to the airfield. To mark the spot, a memorial has been built here. Sadly it’s not well looked after and was looking rather worn when I visited in the summer of 2015.

The tower, a rusty guardian, watches over a few of the remaining huts that once formed one of the many accommodation areas in this south-eastern corner of this airfield. A number of huts, in generally good condition, they are now utilised by a quantity of small businesses. The atmosphere of the place has not been lost and it is easy to imagine the hustle and bustle of crew moving between huts along its concrete paths. Some of the huts are in disrepair, a few have been ‘refurbished’ but the layout is clear.

From here drive back to the memorial and with the technical site behind you, turn left, drive along the road past the small forests and you can see evidence of more paths. These would have led to the technical area. This part, whilst predominantly agricultural, is also home to a number of deer and if you are lucky, as I was, you will see them walk across the road from one side to the other. A rather fitting sight bringing peace to a place that once brought death and destruction in the fight against an evil regime. Carry on along this road and you arrive at the more open areas of the airfield. To your right appears from almost nowhere, the original watch tower. In good condition also, it is fenced off and now used as a radar test facility.

RAF Matching Green

The perimeter track heads off to the north to join the east-west runway at the bend.

With the tower in front of you, the majority of the site is beyond this. A track, that was the perimeter track, leads off onto private land and a farm dwelling still using a blister hangar and other  small buildings. Carry on along the main road, at the bend you are now on the former NW-SE runway as it heads off north-east. At the next bend is further evidence  of the runways. Here the you are at the top of the ‘A’ where two of the three runways cross, now a mere track. Continue along, this is the second runway. It then turns and you drive along the perimeter track. To the south would have been one of the ‘T2s’ and loop dispersals, now all gone. On the other side of the road, the track heads off to the third runway and is used for storing farm ‘waste’.

Much of Matching Green has now gone, returned to agriculture and nature. A peaceful wind blows across the once busy airfield, a few huts linger as reminders of days long gone, but amongst the wild flowers a few well hidden surprises tell the short story of RAF Matching Green.

From here, we head off to the second stop on our Essex trail and an airfield that is probably unique in that it was named after a General. After leaving Matching Green, we travel a few miles to the north-east and stop at the former USAAF base -Andrews Field.

RAF Andrews Field

Andrews Field (officially Great Saling or Station 485) can be found nestled in the Essex countryside, not far from Stansted airport, about 3 miles west of Braintree. It has the unique honour, among many, to have been the first airfield designed and built for the USAAF in England.

Construction began in the summer of 1942 as a bomber station for the then fledgling Eighth Air Force. Units from the 96th BG would start to arrive mid 1943 and their first operational duty would come in the middle of that same year. Heavy bombers of the 96th would go on to perform a strategic bombing role for the remainder of the Second World War, although not from Andrews Field.

Great Saling was renamed Andrews Field in honour of Lieut. Gen. Frank M. Andrews, who was killed when his B-24 crash-landed in Iceland on 3rd May 1943. Andrews was the eighth American general to lose his life (or to be reported missing in action) since the war began, and was known as a ‘doer’, once quoted in the New York Times as saying: “I don’t want to be one of those generals who die in bed.”*3

The airfield was built as a Class A airfield, with accommodation situated to the north-eastern side of the airfield. A communal site, two mess sites, six airmen accommodation sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and a sewage works would accommodate upward of 3,000 officers, airmen, WAAFs and ground crews.  The airfield, with the pinnacle of the ‘A’ pointing north, had three hard runways, the main (2,000yds) running east-west and two secondary (1,400 yd) running north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west respectively. A perimeter track with 50 hardstands joined the three runways together. Further storage and maintenance ‘sheds’ were provided by two T2 hangars, one to the south and one to the east. A bomb store, for small bombs, incendiaries and fusing, was also to the south next to Boxted Woods. The main administrative area was to the east, where the main entrance led out of the site to the accommodation areas. The technical aspects of Great Saling were widely spread and in comparison to many other airfields of this nature, quite thinly catered for. With the majority of the work being undertaken on this side of the airfield, the western side was left primarily for aircraft dispersal.

A B-26 Marauder (serial number 43-34132) nicknamed

B-26 Marauder (s/n 43-34132) “Patricia Ann” of the 450th BS undergoing an engine test at Andrews Field. The aircraft collided with another B-26 (42-96279) over Beauville Airfield, it suffered damage but was able to return*1.

The first but not primary residents, were the heavy B-17s of the 96th BG, 4th BW, Eighth Air Force. Activated in July 1942 at Salt Lake City Utah, they trained on B-17s from the start of their inception. Moving to the United Kingdom in the following May, they would stay at Andrews Field for only one month before moving on to nearby Snetterton Heath on 12th June 1943. The 96th would operate four squadrons (337th, 338th, 339th and 413rd BS), attacking targets such as shipyards, harbours, aircraft factories, and major industrial targets across occupied Europe. Later in the war, they would receive a Distinguished Unit Citation before their return to the United States post war.

With their departure, Andrews Field would be passed over to a new unit, the 332nd BG, who were to be the largest and most major operational unit to serve at Andrews Field for the duration of the hostilities.

The USAAF was not generally associated with medium bombers, and the introduction of the Martin B-26 Marauder, would bring a whole host of issues. Rushed into service, it was to gain notoriety for poor handling, regular engine failures, weak undercarriage and high stall speeds that led to a string of accidents and crew deaths. The aircraft soon gained a collection of unsavoury names; ‘Widow Maker‘, ‘Baltimore Whore‘ and ‘Flying Prostitute‘, reasons for which were born out in its early days of flying.

B-26 Marauder (s/n 41-18276) “Pickled Dilly” of the 322nd BG. Later shot down 13km south of Abbeville, by Bf-109G-6 (JG301/1), July 8, 1944. 3 KIA 4 POW*2

The 322nd BG, activated at MacDill, Florida, trained with this particular aircraft and Marauder Squadrons soon found themselves transferring across the Atlantic to bases in both Suffolk and Norfolk as part of Eaker’s Eighth Air Force.

General Eaker however, soon decided that the low flying, medium bombers were adding little to his strategic bombing campaign, and so placed all the Marauder units under the control of the VIII Air Support Command, very much a back seat of the mighty Eighth’s activities. Coinciding with this move, was the decision to move all Marauder units of the 3rd Wing south so as to be within easy reach of the continent and more able to support the impending invasion.  The first units to be affected were the 386th (to Boxted), the 322nd (from Rougham to Andrews Field) and the 323rd (to Earls Colne). The headquarters for these also moved south, taking up new residency at the less luxurious Marks Hall, an Elizabethan mansion!

After a series of disasters at Rougham, the 322nd, arrived at Andrews Field on June 12th 1943. The four squadrons (449th, 450th451st and 452nd BS) all returned to action in the July, following a series of intense low-level training duties. Better successes followed, and this led to a growing belief in the Marauder’s capability in proven hands; the future began to look brighter for the aircraft. The 322nd went on to use their new skills, attacking targets that included airfields across the lowlands, power stations, shipyards and the rail networks. Success flourished and the 322nd would eventually earn themselves both notoriety and a DUC for their high performance; if nothing else it was a reputation that stopped the Marauder crews being on the wrong end of B-17 crew jokes.

Former RAF Andrewsfield

The 80,000 gl Braithwaite Water Tower at Andrews Field

On October 6th, 1943, the four units of the  VIII Air Support Command flew their last mission as part of the Eighth. Now there was a new control, the Ninth Air Force had moved to England. A new focus and more low-level strikes against the enemy led the preparation for the invasion. Coastal defences were hit and airfields in the northern area of France were targeted as part of operation STARKEY, the allied plan to fool the Germans into thinking a full-scale attack would take place around the channel ports.

Following the June invasion, for which the 322nd played a major part, they went on to continue supporting Allied ground movements. Battles at Caen and St. Lo helped the Allied forces advance through France: bridges, railway junctions, defensive positions and ordnance depots all came under the focus of the 322nd.

As the Allies moved further in land toward Germany, so too did the Marauders. In September 1944, the 322nd left Andrews Field and moved to Beauvais in France. They continued to support the Allies into the German Heartland performing their last mission on April 24th 1945, before commencing inventory duties in Germany and then returning to the US for disbandment on 15th December 1945.

By the end of their tour, the 322nd had performed remarkably. The Marauder had gone from one of the most despised aircraft to the perhaps one of the most respected. Its ability to perform in good hands, and its sturdy airframe, reflected its remarkably low loss rate, 0.3 %, 13 losses in only 4000 sorties.

After their departure, Andrews Field was passed to RAF control and a considerable number of fighter units would pass through here. First came the Mustang IIIs of 316 Sqn, who arrived in August 1944, staying until September 1945. The October of 1944, saw yet more Mustangs arrive, with 19, 122, 129, 315 and 316 sqns again all with the Mark IIIs. By now Andrews Field was a very busy base, and even more units were to pass through. In December, 309 Sqn arrived staying until August 1945, and it was during this year (1945) that 65 Sqn brought the updated Mustang IV as did 303 Sqn later in the August. A monopoly of American hardware was only broken for two months (June to August 1945) by the Spitfires of 276 Sqn.

Then as the jet age dawned and Meteors began to arrive, two squadrons would operate the aircraft from Andrews Field; both 616 Sqn and 504 Sqn (albeit for a short period only) would fly the MK.III, transforming the sound from piston engines to jet engines. As December 1945 came so did the departure of the 303 Sqn and the last remaining Mustangs, a move that signalled the end of military action at Andrews Field. Following this, the airfield was mothballed and finally put into care and maintenance.

Andrews Field was to produce some remarkable records during its operational time. The first by B-26 ‘Mild and Bitter‘ s/n 41-31819, of the 450th BS, was the first Allied bomber to pass 100 operational missions (in Europe). A second,  ‘Flak Bait‘, s/n 41-31773, became the first to surpass 200 missions – both remarkable feats when at that time few pilots relished the thought of flying just one mission let alone two hundred.

Post war, the airfield was used for a multitude of roles, eventually having much of its infrastructure removed and returning to a primarily agricultural role. However, aviation grew from the ashes and flying thrives once again through light aviation as Andrews Field Aviation. Offering a range of flying lessons, they keep the spirit of Andrews Field alive long after the last military aircraft departed on its final journey. Using a grass runway that follows the line of the original, it is one of the few reminders that an airfield existed here many years ago.

Andrews Field (Station 485)

A memorial board in the airfield clubhouse

Visiting Andrews Field today, there is little of its former life left. The runways, buildings and perimeter tracks have all but been removed. Much of the evidence of its existence lies in the nearby village of Great Saling. The 80,000 gl high level water tower (Braithwaite built to design 16305/41) stands on the former Site 3, now a playing field, and a defensive pill-box hints at the area’s historical use. The main accommodation areas are now either all built upon with small housing estates or ploughed up for agricultural purposes. The original entrance from the main road is today the entrance to a small quarry.

Driving away from the village to the rear of the airfield takes you along the former north-western perimeter track. Down here almost buried under the hedgerow are the steep banks of the firing butt. The road continues round to the southern side of the site, again utilising part of the original perimeter track. Entering the site, takes you alongside the runway to the clubhouse and parking areas. From here one of the remaining two T2s can still be seen, lurking in amongst the tress, as if defiant to development.

A rather unusual addition to the site is a somewhat forlorn Dassault Mystere IVA jet, gradually decaying in the British weather. It certainly has seen better days, and maybe one day it too will rise from the ashes and become a thing of aviation beauty once more.

A memorial to those who built the airfield can be found where the entrance to the sick quarters were, and a further memorial can be seen along the road linking Great Saling and the A120 in memory of the crews of the 322nd BG. Inside the clubhouse is a mural and photos of the airfield whilst under construction.

Andrews Field (Station 485)

The mural painted to commemorate the crews of the 322nd.

Andrews Field is an airfield that has clung onto its heritage, but whilst much of its former life has gone, the sound of small piston engined aircraft provides something of a reminder of the mighty engines that once relentlessly throbbed on this amazingly historical site.

After leaving Andrews Field, we travel a few miles west back again toward Stansted Airport. We stop at Great Dunmow and the neighbouring church at Little Easton.

RAF Great Dunmow (Station 164)

Great Dunmow is another former airfield that sits in the shadow of nearby Stansted airport, itself a former World War 2 airfield. Dunmow was home to only two RAF units, 190 Squadron (RAF) and 620 Squadron (RAF) operating Stirling IVs and latterly the Halifax III and VII. It was also used by the USAAF flying B26 Marauders under the 386th BG.

Great Dunmow, had a multitude of names: Little Easton,  Easton Lodge and Great Easton due to its close proximity to all three locations. It was designated Station 164 by the Americans but became more commonly known as Great Dunmow.

RAF Great Dunmow

The Village sign depicts its wartime heritage.

Not built until mid-way through the war (1942-43) by the US Army’s 818th Engineer Battalion (Aviation), the American units of the 386thBG were the first to move in.

It would have three runways (concrete and wood chip), with the main one running north-west / south-east and 6,000ft in length. The second and third runways ran east-west and north-east \ south-west and were both 4,200 ft in length. The main technical and administrative areas were to the north side in which one of the airfield’s two T2 hangars were located. A bomb store was situated to the east and was capable of storing in excess of 800 tons of bombs. Dispersals consisted of 50 loop style hardstands around the concrete perimeter track. The staff accommodation sites were dispersed over 12 sites all to the north around the Easton Lodge, referred to by crews as ‘The Big House’*1. Two Mess sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters, an officers and four airmen sites housed a huge number of personnel – even parts of the house itself were used. A communal site provided a number of small shops selling local produce and groceries.

RAF Great Dunmow

The secondary runway (N/E-S/W) disappears into the distance. This section is the only part in full width. The tree line marks the third E-W runway.

The 386th BG (M) were activated mid-war, on December 1st 1942 at MacDill Field, Florida, and arrived in England with their olive and grey B-26s in the following June. Their journey to Great Dunmow would take them via both RAF Snetterton Heath and RAF Boxted. For four months they would operate under the control of the Eighth Air Force, swapping in October 1943, to the 99th Combat Wing of the Ninth Air Force. Consisting of four Medium Bomb Squadrons: 552nd (code RG), 553rd (AN), 554th (RU) and 555th (YA), they would focus their attention on airfields, marshalling yards and gun batteries. Over the winter of 1943-44 they targeted V weapon sites, along France’s coast, and attacked enemy airfields during the ‘Big-Week’ campaign of February 1944.

During the Normandy invasion, they targeted bridges and Luftwaffe airfields, coastal batteries, fuel and munitions supplies, they preceded the allied forces as they moved inland; supported ground troops at Caen and St. Lo in July 1944, earning themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their actions. As the allies moved deeper into France, they were then free to move to the continent allowing them to reach further afield and support the advance toward and into Germany itself.

A crashed B-26 Marauder (AN-J, serial number 41-31585) nicknamed

B-26 Marauder ‘AN-J’, (s/n 41-31585) nicknamed “Blazing Heat” of the 553rd BS, 386th BG, 23rd June 1944.  balances on its nose after making a crash landing at Great Dunmow. (IWM)

In total, the 386th would fly 257 missions from Dunmow, operating between 24th September 1943 and 2nd October 1944, in an aircraft that earned itself a rather distasteful name for being unreliable and difficult to fly. Later versions having both larger wingspans and flying surfaces, partly cured this problem, but in the hands of a good crew, they were deemed no more ‘dangerous’ than any other bomber of that time. In fact, a number of Marauders were known to return home in an incredible condition, after taking a substantial beating at the hands of both flak and fighter attention.

After the 386th left Dunmow, it was handed over to the RAF and the first unit to arrive was 190 Squadron (RAF) with the Stirling IV. Pulled out of bomber squadrons for its ‘poor’ record, they were used by various units for both mine laying activities and glider-tug operations. Arriving from Fairford they stayed here until July 1946 whereupon 190 Sqn was disbanded. During this time they also flew the Halifax III and later the Halifax VII – an aircraft that was proven in combat and also as a transport machine. With a history that extended back to the First World War, 190 Sqn operated as a Glider-tug unit taking Horsa gliders to a number of prestige targets;  both Normandy, during the D-Day invasion, and Arnhem during the ill-fated Rhine crossing of Operation Market Garden. They flew fuel and supplies to advancing troops and carried out a number of transport duties as the war drew to a close.

The changeover between the exiting Americans and the arriving British was seen as an ideal opportunity to gather ‘supplies’ by the locals. Many tins of rationed food and other ‘luxuries’ left by the U.S. airmen were deemed ‘fair-game’ and ‘removed’ in the intervening days. Dennis Williams*2 book ‘Stirlings in Action with the Airborne Forces’ describes in detail how the incoming airmen were surprised by the extent of the items left by the Americans.

Four days after 190’s arrival, 620 Sqn also arrived at Dunmow, along with all their respective Echelons. Like their partners, they also came from RAF Fairford flying the Stirling IV. A former bomber squadron, they cut their teeth at RAF Chedburgh, then in November 1943 they transferred across to the Airborne Forces. Also flying glider operations, they too swapped their Stirlings for Halifax A.VIIs in July 1945 before moving off to the Middle East post war. Similarly, 620 Sqn flew troops into some of the most dangerous war zones, losing a number of crews and aircraft along the way.

Both 620 and 190 Sqn returned to operations soon after their arrival, flying SOE operations, glider training sorties across the UK and dropping equipment into occupied territory. As can be imagined these dangerous operations were not without their problems. A number of aircraft were lost and even during training flights, losses were still incurred.

On the 21st November 1944, Stirling LK276 crashed killing all seven crew members. It was initially thought that the pilot either failed to read his altimeter correctly causing the aircraft to strike trees and power lines, or he took his attention away from the instruments in front. Subsequent reports however, show eye witnesses claiming to have seen a following night fighter. Again contradictions in statements were not helpful and no conclusive decision could be reached. The court of enquiry ruled that it was an accident and so the case was closed. Whatever the cause was, it was a major blow to the crews at Great Dunmow.

RAF Great Dunmow

The Administrative site is now used by the local farmer and small ‘industrial’ units. The crew briefing room (front) stands in front of the intelligence block. The main Operations block has gone but the station offices are still here.

Being so far south, Great Dunmow offered a safe haven for some returning bombers. On November 5th 1944, whilst on their return from mission 166 over Frankfurt, the 401st were diverted to the Great Dunmow as bad weather had closed in over Deenethorpe. An eye-witness account describes two B-17s ‘colliding’ on the runway, whilst other records suggest the two B-17s crash landed both suffering from extensive flak damage.  Records show one of them as B-17G ’42-102674′ flown by 2nd Lt. William F. Grimm  and the other as B-17 ’42-31662′ flown by 1st Lt. Leland R. Hayes. However this particular aircraft (42-31662) was known to be ‘Fancy Nancy IV‘ flown by Walter Cox which did not crash at Dunmow, going on to serve to the war’s end. As with many war records, it can be difficult ascertain total accuracy and an anomaly has occurred here somewhere.*3

Both 190 and 620 Sqns continued on in SOE operations, including their first to Norway on the night of November 6th/7th 1944.  Both operations were seen as failures but it would highlight the difficulties of flying for four hours to often heavily fog-laden environments and back again.

Poor weather dogged this part of the country especially in the early 1940s. The airfield was in a poor condition and a great deal of work had to be carried out to assist operations. Lighting, repairs to the runways and drainage were all severe problems and all needed urgent and immediate attention. Conditions therefore were not good. Successive cold winters and the continual mud, left some with very ‘unsavoury’ memories. Working in bitter cold weather outside certainly became a challenge for hard pressed ground-crews.

A number of operations involved Dunmow aircraft over the next few months, but they were mainly confined to practice flights towing Horsa gliders. Then in late March 1945, Operation ‘Varsity’ began. The drive into Germany required 21,000 troops, 1,800 transport aircraft and over 1,300 gliders. The base was sealed off from the outside world, only air-tests and spoof flights were scheduled, and then on the morning of the 24th March 1945 60 aircraft were lined up along the runways ready to go.

Anti-aircraft fire was heavy and conditions poor over the drop zone, but all 190 Sqn and 620 Sqn aircraft returned – some with damage. They seem to fair far better than the gliders though of which some 80% were damaged by flak – many severely.

Toward the end of the war, both squadrons dropped supplies and recovered POWs from the now free Europe. It was an emotional time for all but accidents and losses still occurred and crews still died.

In July 1945 620 Sqn received the Halifax A.VII and finally in January 1946 it would be all change for Great Dunmow. 620 Sqn were posted to Aqir in Palestine; 190 Squadron was disbanded and the unit renumbered as 295 Squadron and sent to Tarrant Rushton – this was the end for Great Dunmow. The airfield was used as a vehicle storage unit until 1948, at which point it was closed for good. The tower and major buildings were demolished, the concrete dug up for hardcore for the new road, and the remainder returned to agriculture, a state it survives in today.

As with many airfields today, there is little left to see in the way of buildings and infrastructure at Dunmow airfield. A memorial stands alongside the B1256 road a few miles to the south side of the airfield site and an adjacent footpath takes you through what was the bomb store on to the airfield itself.  By driving from here to the village of Little Easton, you can more easily access the site from the northern side, by far the better option. Drive through the small village of little Easton, past the quaint village duck pond and on toward Little Easton Manor. Much of the grounds of the Manor were the accommodation areas and now as an estate once more, is (at the time of writing) up for sale for a cool £5,000,000.

Before arriving at the manor – which shows little of its aviation history – there is a small tourist sign and access to the adjacent fields. Stop here. The footpath to your left crosses the airfield utilising  much of the remaining perimeter track. This path is an old access road to the airfield and takes you up to the threshold of the former second runway (N/E-S/W).  It is a short walk but once there the full width of the runway can be seen, and when looking on, so to can the length (albeit cut short). The only part that is full width, the enormity of these tracks is staggering. The path then leads off to the west through the field strangely enough only feet from the usable but broken and much narrower perimeter track. At the end of this path, you arrive at the threshold of the third (E-W) runway. Now only a single farm track; the length is in its entirety but again standing at this point you can see how long the runways were. The path then crosses over the southern half of the airfield away to the south but there is little to be gained from taking this route, other than to know you have walked where many crews would have spent their time.  The dispersals that once stood here are now long gone and no trace remains of their existence.

If you continue east the path splits again and the one turning south takes you through the former bomb store and onto the afore-mentioned memorial. Now a quarry, the store is supplied by the perimeter track which is used by lorries to transport materials. Turning back on yourself it is possible to walk along the perimeter track back to your starting point. Along these paths are signs of the concrete that once carried the B-26s, Stirlings and Halifaxes, much narrower now, their significance little more than a farm track. Away to your right, was the former ‘dump’ or Marauder graveyard, where scrapped B-26s were left to rot.

Return to the road and walk from here west toward the lodge. After a few minutes you arrive at the former airfield entrance. The airfield sub-station marks the entrance and a footpath takes you along the road onto the airfield site. The technical area would be to your left and right, with one of the T2 hangars to your left. Follow the path as it crosses the field and you arrive where the tower once stood. There is no sign of it now, but the path takes you right though the spot where so many decisions were made and aircraft counted back. The path then leads on through the airfield and  joins the third (E-W) runway at its centre. largely overgrown with trees, the line is clearly evident, but again evidence of the concrete structure lay  scattered along the edges of this once gigantic pathway.

RAF Great Dunmow

The airfield substation marks the airfield entrance.

Turn back again and through the technical area. Hovering over the tress to your left you will be able to see the current control tower and landing aircraft at Stansted airport – a mere stones throw away. Also to your left are a small group of farm buildings , amongst them a blister hangar that appears to have been moved here after the war. Beyond these and accessible from the roadway, a small collection of administrative buildings remain now used by the local farmer and as small industrial units. By walking along the road these are accessible and perfectly visible from the roadway.

The road from here continues on and takes you into where the  main accommodation sites once stood. Much of this is private land but traversed in places by small bridal ways and footpaths. Immediately opposite was the mess site 4 and further along the road the sick quarters. The remaining accommodation sites were to the north of here amongst the now dense forests that have replaced them. To the north of these woods was the sewage plant that once served the airfield. It has now been replaced by a more a modern unit but its location is still precise.   Various tracks lead into private land from here, but they are the original tracks for the various accommodation sites that once housed the crews and staff of this once busy base.

Return to your car and drive back to Little Easton stopping at the church  (St. Mary the Virgin). Inside at the back of the church on the north wall are two beautiful widows that commemorate the service of those stationed here at Great Dunmow – both RAF and USAAF. Primarily focusing on the USAAF, they depict a number of scenes – each reflecting the daily lives of the airmen. Some show them holding hands with the civilian children, others preparing for and returning from flight; Marauders in the ‘Missing man’ formation, and two hands clasped together as a sign of American and British unity – each one is beautifully presented and well maintained. One of the windows depicts ‘peace and tranquillity’, whilst the other called “The Window of the Crusaders”; depicts the role played by the 386th. Plaques, rolls of honour and information boards give great detail about the lives of those who were stationed here for those short periods during the Second World War.

Little Easton Church (RAF Great Dunmow)

One of two stained glass windows in Little Easton church.

Great Dunmow served an important role during the Second World War. Today its historical significance is in no way played down. Whilst the majority of the airfield is now crops, ‘free access’ allows you to revisit those days of the Second World War, to walk in the footsteps of heroes, to experience the sight of a welcome runway as a returning bomber would. The huts and church windows stand as reminders of those who, whilst so young, gave their all in the name of freedom and democracy.

Notes, sources and further reading (RAF Great Dunmow)

*1The Big House, was the former Estate of Frances, Countess of Warwick, who was regularly visited by the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII. A railway halt was built outside the house to accommodate these visits.

*2 Williams D., “Stirlings in Action with the Airborne Forces”, Pen and Sword Aviation, 2008 – this book provides an in-depth look at life within both 620 Squadron and 190 Squadron whilst at RAF Great Dunmow. It is highly recommended as a follow-up to the activities of these two units whilst here and abroad.

*3 See the 401st BG website for details of these aircraft and missions, including the original mission reports.

Sources and further reading (RAF Andrews Field)

1 Photo Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE4482
*2 Photo Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE1187
*3 New York Times published May 5th 1943 (accessed May 26th 2018)
Freeman, R.,”The Mighty Eighth“, (1970),  Arms and Armour.
Jefford, C.G., “RAF Squadrons“, (1998)  Airlife.

A number of detailed and remarkable websites exist around the B-26, each is worthy of a visit. (art work)