Trail 36 – North Norfolk (Part 6)

This trail visits two more airfields in this beautiful part of north Norfolk, an area littered with the remnants of war and aviation history.  As we depart RAF Matlask and RAF Oulton, we continue on south through the narrow lanes of the Norfolk countryside. Our first stop is another one that formed part of the 100 Group ‘collection’, we visit the almost forgotten airfield at Swannington.

RAF Swannington

Swannington was one of the last airfields to be opened during the Second World War, hence very few units were permanently based here. This considered, an appreciable amount of it remains visible even today.

Also known as Haveringland, construction was started as early as 1942, but it didn’t actually open until 1944. It utilised much of the forests of nearby Haveringland Hall along with large parts of its estate. The hall itself, a rather large and grand building, was blown up at the end of the war following requisition damage and then being classed as ‘surplus to requirements’ by the MOD!

Once the forest area had been removed, work could begin, and a number of accommodation sites were erected. Haveringland Hall itself became the Officers mess, with various accommodation sites constructed all around it, all located to the east of the airfield. In 1944 there were 154 Officers (of both RAF and WAAF ranks) along with 1239 other ranks stationed here although accommodation was provided for around 2,500.

RAF Swannington

Former Sergeants Mess in use Today

Designated a class ‘A’ airfield, Swannington would have two T2 hangars and one B1, three runways (1 x 2000 yds and 2 x 1,400 yds) and 36 loop style hardstands.

100 Group became the immediate owners of Swannington and instantly placed two squadrons of de Havilland’s Mosquito at the base – No. 85 and 157 Squadrons. 100 Group were formed in November 1943 to investigate and oppose the electronic warfare operations being conducted by the Luftwaffe. To counter this threat, a number of airfields in this area were utilised, Swannington being one of them.

Using a range of new devises and tactics, 100 Group operated a range of different aircraft, predominately the heavier bombers: B-24s, Lancasters, B-17s, Halifaxes, Wellingtons along with the smaller and more agile, Mosquito.

On May 1st 1944, following a successful tour at West Malling*1 , the first Mosquito XVIIs of 85 Squadron arrived at Swannington.

Having a history that extended back to the First World War, 85 Sqn had been in France to support the B.E.F then, re-equipped, they participated in the opening skirmishes of the Battle of Britain. After taking on a new role as a night fighter squadron and moving to Yorkshire, they transferred to 100 group with their move to Swannington. Here they began supporting bombing missions, seeking out enemy night fighters before they attacked the bombers and then loitering over their airfields as they returned.

RAF Swannington

Portions of the Perimeter Track remain today. Much of it single track.

The Mosquitoes had proven so successful in all operations that 85 Sqn were moved back to West Malling for a short period to combat the increasing threat from the V-1 ‘Doodlebugs’. Their stay in Kent ended in the following August, at which point they returned to Swannington upgrading to the Mosquito XXX before moving off again, to RAF Castle Camps.

157 Squadron joined 85 at Swannington on May 7th 1944 with the Mosquito XIX, later upgrading to the NF.30 with its superchargers and a new radar. 157 had been the first squadron to receive the NF.IIs earlier in March 1942 with the delivery of both W4087 and W4098*2 .

157 Sqn’s arrival would not be the best. Three days after their arrival, Flight Lieutenants Tweedale and Cunningham would take off for an Airborne Interception (AI) training sortie in their Mosquito XVII. On their return, the aircraft would crash, losing its starboard undercarriage, and whilst neither officer was injured, it would be the first ‘casualty’ of 157 Squadron whilst based at Swannington. A very successful fighting unit, they would not be immune from further incidents, some to the embarrassment of their crews.

Whilst on patrol on November 21st 1944, Mosquito MM629 ‘RS-Y’ piloted by Flying Officers A Mackinnon and G Waddell, were shot down in error by another Mosquito of the same squadron, who believed them to be a Ju 88! Both crew members parachuted safely into enemy territory but managed to evade capture returning home within 12 hours.

RAF Swannington

Portions of concrete remain in the Technical Area.

157 Sqn would also transfer with 85 Sqn to West Malling, undertaking ‘anti-diver’ or ‘Doodlebug’ sorties; operations that saw 157 Sqn claim a total of 36.5 flying bombs, whilst 85 claimed some 18.

157 Sqn then returned to Swannington with 85 Sqn at the end of August 1944 and as with 85 Sqn, they upgraded to the MK XXX Mosquito. They, unlike 85 Sqn however, remained at Swannington until disbandment on 16th August 1945. By the end of operations at Swannington, both 85 Sqn and 157 Sqn had completed a touch under 2000 sorties between them, with 108 enemy aircraft destroyed and 19 damaged.

Toward the end of 1944 and early 1945, four other fighter squadrons would visit Swannington. 229 and 451 (Australian) Squadrons came first in the November of 1944; in a move initiated by poor weather, they would come from nearby waterlogged Matlask. 229 brought Spitfire IXs which within a month they would replace with LF XVIEs. This was followed by a swift departure to nearby Coltishall where they were disbanded and renumbered 603 (Auxiliary) Sqn in the following January.

It was a similar story for both 453 (Australian) Sqn with their Spitfire LF XVI, and 602 Sqn with their Spitfire XVI, both swinging like a pendulum between Matlask and Swannington and Swannington and Coltishall. 453 Sqn then transferred to Kent and eventually the continent whilst 602 Sqn followed 229 to Coltishall where they were disbanded on May 15th 1945. These late model Spitfires were now escorting daylight bombing raids such was the strength and superiority of the Allied Air Force over Europe.

DSC_0220

Swannington’s Stand By Set House is used for storage.

The majority of Swannington airfield is best seen from the eastern side. Approaching from the north, you first come across the former technical site that marks the top right corner of the site. Turn right here and you will see the location of one of the T2s, a farm building now stands here and behind it the location of the tower and a small number of ancillary buildings. These are today shrouded in trees and large bushes, which prevents any real sighting of them. Sadly the current condition, which is believed to be quite poor, is difficult to verify from this point on the roadside. Large portions of concrete denote the perimeter track and access routes to the technical area. Across the road from here, other buildings do still remain and are easily seen from the roadside. A small portion of the north-east / south-west runway also remains here, virtually full in its width.

Turning back on yourself, turn right and drive past the technical area to your right. Poultry sheds and farm buildings now stand here, but the shape of the hardstands are easily recognisable. On your left are more concrete structures and piles of rubble from former buildings. After a sort distance you arrive at the perimeter track, this crosses the road and is full width at this junction. A gate to your left allows access to the distant church, and by driving along here you traverse the actual perimeter where many Mosquitoes would  have moved on those night missions in 1944/45. The distant round-towered Church was so close to the perimeter that aircraft were often parked next to  the church yard, a rather eerie and stark reminder to those crews boarding the aircraft at this point. Stopping at the church the enormous size of the track can again be seen,  virtually full in its width, photos exist of a Mosquito also standing here in this very same position.

Outside this church, is a memorial dedicated by the ‘Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust’, the only ‘official’ memorial on the site. The church itself is locked, but two graves within the church yard and a bench dedicated to two members of the same family can be found here. The bench, dedicated to Lt. Cdr. M. Auckland and Flt. Lt. W. Auckland, both Harrier Pilots stands near the gate, whilst the older graves, F.O J. Edwards (Navigator) and Corporal C. Mace, can be found behind the church.

Flying Officer Edwards (s/n) 172240) was killed when his Mosquito TA392 ‘RS-K’ developed trouble whilst returning from an intruder mission. The aircraft crashed close to the airfield and both he and his pilot, Flt. Lt. W. Taylor, lost their lives. *3

Before returning, look across to the north to the small wooded area and you will see the Squash courts, standing in  what was the Haveringland Hall estate. Now return back to the road, and turn left, follow the road south. You will cross, a short distance away, the remains of the east-west runway, followed shortly by the returning perimeter track. Carry on to Clay Lane, and turn right. To your left is a small farm and a track that leads away over private land. This is the entrance to the bomb store, it circles round and rejoins the road further along, both now narrow and restricted to farm traffic only.

RAF Swannington

The Grave of F.O. J Edwards, Killed 22nd December 1944, age 22.

From here it is best to retrace your tracks, go back along Clay Lane, turn left and head north. On your right is a turn into the Haveringland Hall Holiday Park. A number of buildings remain here, the squash court, former sergeants mess and standby set house and most in good condition. The woods around here also contain many derelict remains and foundations of former structures. Some visible others shrouded by growth, many are too dangerous to explore.

Swannington had a short life, and many of the crews that passed though here went on to achieve great things. Swannington though wasn’t without its drama. Because of the nature of the operations carried out from here, losses were incurred, many fatal. The later part of 1944 saw a particularly high number of accidents and crew losses, many of these young men never being found.

The remaining buildings at Swannington stand as a silent reminder of the activities of 100 Group. Along with the brave Mosquito and Spitfire crews are all those who fought a long and hard battle against Hitler and his terror weapons. Whilst the Griffons and Merlins have gone, their memories have not.

The second airfield to mention on this part of the trail, is that at Mattishall. Now completely gone, it was once buzzing with small biplanes and brave crews defending Britain’s eastern side from the great Zeppelins of the German Navy.

RAF Mattishall.

Close by to RAF Swannington is the former RAF/RFC airfield at Mattishall, a few miles to the south beyond Attlebridge and its huge USAAF base. Closed at the end of the First World War, Mattishall saw detachments of 51 Squadron during the First World War. 51 (HD – Home Defence) Squadron had its headquarters at Thetford, with other flights at Harling Road, Narborough and Tydd St. Mary. Flying a range of models, including both the BE2 and BE12 models; 51 (HD) Sqn had a mix spread across these airfields taking on the FE2b in both single and two variants later on in the war.

Intrusions by Zeppelins were more common in the earlier stages of the war, and the Home Defence Squadrons were created to counter-act them. Poor performance initially led to poor successes against these airships but that didn’t stop the determined young crews of the RFC and latterly the RAF. Toward the end of the war in 1918, home defence had been scaled back. However, as the newer Zeppelins, Gotha and Zeppelin-Staaken were able to fly at much higher altitudes, home defence squadrons needed a more able aircraft to combat them. In poured numbers of Sopwith Camels, SE5 and DH4s, but it was all a bit ‘too-little, too-late’ for the mighty airships that once ruled the skies.

During the last Zeppelin raid of the war on the night of August 5th/6th, 1918, RAF DH4s and Sopwith Camels attacked a small fleet of airships of the Norfolk coast. Inland the home defence squadrons were alerted and scrambled but the group of Zeppelins never made it in-land and flights from 51 Squadron at Mattishall were to play no part in their eventual downfall. Sadly Lt. Drummond from Mattishall flying in FE2b ‘A5732’ had to make a forced landing at Skegness, presumably as a result of engine trouble. This was to bring the night fighter operations to an end and with it the end of both 51 Sqn and RAF Mattishall.

The airfield was built close to Toll House Farm and had a range of facilities common to First World War airfields. A few wooden huts and two hangars were erected on-site and these proved to be the limit of accommodation on the 80 acre site. Post war, these were all sold off to local businesses and farms and the land returned to the farmer.

Now completely agricultural, Mattishall was once a hive of flying activity for a short period of the war, where flying bravely in open cockpits and without parachutes was common place. Sadly, Mattishall’s existence has disappeared into the history books and it is no more.

A short history of Mattishall along with some personal accounts can be found here.

Sources and further reading.

*1 85 Squadron was previously commanded by Wing Commander ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham, who became famous for downing 20 enemy aircraft during hostilities. He later went on to be a test Pilot for de Havilland, testing the DH Comet – the worlds first jet airliner. He received a number of awards and achieved a number of aviation firsts, He died in 2002.

*2 de Havilland Mosquito, An Illustrated History Vol 2, Ian Thirsk, Crecy Publications.

**3RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, W.R. Chorley, Midland.

Spitfire Dive-Bombers versus the V-2, Volume 2, Bill Simpson, Pen and Sword Books, has a good account of the V-2 war by the RAF Squadrons.