Trail 38 – To the West of Norwich.

In this Trail, we return to Norfolk, to the west of Norwich and take in three former airfields each of notable historical value. Our first is probably better known as an Army barracks than it is an RAF airfield, but, for the duration of the Second World War, it would be home to a number of different aircraft types and to a range of international crews. Amongst the many residents here would be those from Poland, the Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. We start our journey at the former RAF Swanton Morley.

RAF Swanton Morley

Following the end of hostilities in 1918, Britain’s defences and in particular the RAF, were cut back dramatically. From around 250,000 personnel (the worlds largest air force) to just under 30,000 by the early 1920s, the reductions were both severe and widespread. Political in-fighting between the three armed forces and the Government had seen the RAF lose out significantly, and under the terms of the ‘Ten year Rule’, expansion was prevented, and so little could be done to redress the declining situation.

During the 1930s, world developments (and in particular those in Germany) raised the threat of yet another war, at which point the Government realised that Britain’s defences were now totally inadequate and in dire need of redevelopment and expansion.

Their response was a series of expansion ‘schemes’  which would not only reshape the organisation of the RAF, but would cater for the huge increase in numbers of personnel that would be required to raise an adequate fighting force .

Considered lacking in direction by many, these early schemes surprisingly paid little attention to future needs, and so no real provision was made for supporting aspects such as training, maintenance or supply.

Scheme A, approved in July 1934, would set the bench mark at 84 home-based squadrons, a figure that was still woefully inadequate compared to the might that was building up across the channel. Each scheme would build on and replace the former, taking into account layout, new developments and the materials available – but all under the monetary restrictions of the 1930’s depression.

By the time war came, Scheme ‘M’ had been implemented (November 7th 1938), which called for 163 home based squadrons involving 2,500 aircraft for Britain’s home defence. It was under this scheme that Swanton Morley would be built.*1.

Initially designed as a fighter station, construction began in 1939, and one of the criteria for this scheme was to include type ‘C’ hangars. However, being incomplete by the outbreak of war, it was caught in the transition period between temporary and permanent aircraft storage. The ‘C’ types were cancelled in favour of three ‘J’ types, only one of which was actually built – this left Swanton Morley with considerably less hangar space than was actually required. Unfinished, the airfield opened on September 17th 1940 under the ownership of No. 2 Group Bomber Command.

As war broke out, a small detachment of 107 Squadron Blenheim IVs were based here. 107 Sqn were widely spread with other detachments at: Lossiemouth, Newmarket, Hunsdon, Horsham St. Faith and Ipswich, whilst the main squadron was based at RAF Wattisham. As part of 83 Wing, 107 would be joined by a further detachment from 110 Sqn the following month, also bringing the twin-engined Blenheim IV.

It was a No. 2 group aircraft that famously made the first sortie over the German frontier on the very day war broke out, and then on the second day, Monday September 4th 1939, a flight of four 107 Sqn aircraft and one 110 Sqn all from RAF Wattisham, dropped the first salvo of bombs on German ships at Wilhelmshaven . It was from one of these aircraft (Blenheim IV ‘N6240’) that Observer, Sergeant George Booth, and AC1 L. J. Slattery would become the first British Prisoners of War, captured when their Blenheim was shot down by German defences. None of the five aircraft returned, a rather disastrous start to the war for the RAF.*2

Work continued at Swanton Morley throughout the next two to three years, and eventually accommodation blocks were raised, hard perimeter tracks laid and four T2 hangars erected. Around twenty hardstands were created although many aircraft were still dispersed on the grassed areas around the technical site. A bomb store was developed to the south, and lighting added to the three runways, but despite of all the improvements, upgrades and developments, it was felt Swanton Morley did not warrant having any hard runways and so they continued to remain as grass.

It wasn’t until the end of October 1940, that Swanton Morley would have its own squadron of aircraft, 105 Squadron arrived bringing their Blenheim IVs to compliment those of 107 Sqn and 110 Sqn. With two detachments at Lossiemouth and Luqa (Malta), 105 would take part in anti-shipping sorties and attacks on targets in the low countries. A successful unit they swapped these for the Mosquito IV in November 1941, becoming the first operational squadron to receive these highly manoeuvrable aircraft, taking them to nearby Horsham St. Faith in the following month.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1939-1941.

A Blenheim of 105 Squadron passing over a fiercely burning enemy merchant vessel (© IWM (C 1940)

One of Swanton Morley’s earliest casualties was a 105 squadron aircraft, piloted by F/O. D. Murray DFC with Sgt’s C. Gavin and T. Robson. The aircraft, Blenheim IV ‘T1890’, was brought down over Brussels with the loss of all three crew members.

It was during August of 1941, that the first of many units would arrive – No. 152 Squadron. Like so many other squadrons around the country, their stay was to be short-lived taking their Spitfire IIAs to Coltishall the following December.

Coinciding with 105’s departure, was 226 Squadron’s arrival. At the end of December 1941, 226 Sqn would bring a new twin-engined aircraft to the grounds of Swanton Morley, the Douglas Boston. The Mk III was proving to be a formidable medium bomber and night-fighter, featuring improved armour, larger fuel tanks and its two Wright Twin Cyclone engines providing 1,600hp each. 226 Sqn were to later replace the MKIIIs with the MKIIIAs in January 1943 under the lend-lease agreement and then very shortly afterwards, with the B-25 Mitchell II. 226 Sqn operated these aircraft for almost a year at Swanton Morley before moving on to Hartford Bridge and the continent in 1944, thus becoming Swanton Morley’s longest standing squadron.

It was with 226 Squadron that the United States would make its mark on the war. On June 29th 1942, with both Eisenhower and Churchill present, twelve RAF Boston IIIs were sent to bomb the Marshalling yards at Hazebrouck, one of these aircraft (AL743) was flown by an all American crew. A rather ‘unofficial’ entry into the conflict, it was made more formal on Independence day, July 4th 1942 when six U.S. crews joined 226 Squadron in a low-level attack against Luftwaffe airfields in Holland. Twelve RAF aircraft took off a few minutes after 07:00 hrs and flew low and fast over the North Sea toward Holland. After splitting up to attack their designated targets, one group encountered severe flak and was badly beaten, one aircraft crashing whilst another had an engine knocked out. Before the pilot could regain control, the aircraft, Boston AL750, scraped the ground coming remarkably close to a complete disaster. However, the pilot Major Charles Kegelman, managed to regain control and nurse the stricken aircraft back to Swanton Morley. Of the twelve Bostons sent out, two U.S. and one RAF crewed aircraft failed to return. A baptism of fire that resulted in a 30% loss of the U.S. Air Force contingency. For their bravery, three DFCs and one DSC were awarded to the U.S. crews. Whilst not the first U.S. involvement nor their first casualties of the war, their actions did officially bring the United States into the European conflict.

Sergeant Bennie Cunningham, Technical-Sergeant Robert Golay, Major Charles C Kegelman and Lieutenant Randall Dorton in front of a Boston bomber. (Roger Freeman Collection IWM)

1943 would go on to prove to be an eventful year for Swanton Morley. With the Allied invasions plans taking shape, a new force was needed to support those destined to take to the Normandy beaches. The creation of the Second Tactical Air Force (TAF) in November 1943, was designed to meet that challenge and with it came changes at Swanton Morley.

Ownership now passed from Bomber Command to the Second TAF, and many units that would operate from here were part of that force. Following a relatively short stay by 88 Squadron (30th March 1943 – 19th August 1943) flying both the Boston III and IIIA, No. 305 (Weilkopolski) Squadron would arrive bringing the first Polish crews to Swanton Morley. Being the fourth and final Polish bomber squadron to be formed, they arrived in early September bringing Wellington MK Xs with them. Whilst serving in Bomber Command, the Polish had amassed some 1,117 sorties in which they had lost 136 brave young men as either killed or captured.

After arrival here, 305 Sqn changed their Wellingtons for Mitchell IIs and in line with the Second TAF objectives, began attacking targets around the Cap Griz Nez region. Being daylight operations, this was something new for the Polish crews, but one they relished and carried out well. In November after only being at Swanton Morley for two months, the Polish crews left leaving 226 Sqn with only a small detachment of 98 Squadron Mitchells for company.

At the end of 1943, three days after Christmas, No. 3 Squadron arrived bringing  a new breed of aircraft with them – the single-engined Typhoon IB, which they kept at Swanton Morley until February 14th 1944. No. 3 Sqn had been one of three founder squadrons of the Royal Flying Corp in 1912 and they remain one of the few squadrons to retain an active role today, flying the aircraft’s namesake, the modern Eurofighter Typhoon.

Whilst here at Swanton Morley, No. 3 Sqn carried out duties that the ill-fated Hawker Typhoon performed well at, low-level ground attack and anti-shipping roles. Dogged by development problems – engines fires and deadly levels of Carbon Monoxide in the cockpit – the Typhoons suffered terrible problems throughout their wartime service, subsequently virtually every model was scrapped at the end of war.

February 1944 was all change again at Swanton Morley. A detachment of 107 Squadron would return after a couple of years absence, and with their arrival came the departure of 226 Sqn after just over two years of being at Swanton. On the thirteenth of that month, they left for Hartford Bridge in Hampshire, in preparations for the Allied invasion at Normandy.

In the two months that followed, Swanton Morley began its wind down, a move signified by a number of short stay units. Each of these would however bring a wide range of nationalities, including crews from the Australian unit No. 464 (RAAF) Sqn, from 25th March 1944 to 9th April 1944. Then came 180 Sqn (12 – 26th April 1944) a short-lived unit that survived just under four years before disbandment only to be reformed as No. 69 Sqn.

Coinciding with 180 Sqn was the Auxiliary Squadron, No. 613 Sqn with Mosquito VIs. This too would disband at the end of the war also to reform as 69 Squadron. Then as April drew to a close another international unit would arrive and depart, a New Zealand unit, No. 487 Sqn (RNZAF)  also bringing Mosquito VIs – an aircraft they used in conjunction with 464 Sqn in the attack on the Amiens prison earlier on.

Finally for two weeks in May 1944 (6th – 18th), a dutch contingency arrived in the form of No. 320 Squadron. 320 Sqn was formed out of evacuated Dutch airmen along with a handful of Fokker T-VIIIW seaplanes which they used until spares were no longer available. Here at Swanton Morley they had lost their seaplanes and were now flying Mitchell IIs, wreaking their revenge by attacking enemy communication lines and airfields. After the war the crews of this unit were transferred to the Royal Netherlands Navy and 320 was disbanded as an RAF unit.

ROYAL AIR FORCE: 1939-1945: COASTAL COMMAND

Before arriving at Swanton Morley, No. 320 Sqn flew a handful of Fokker T-VIIIW float-planes, that they had brought with them when the Netherlands fell to the Germans. Here, one is being serviced at Pembroke Dock, August 1940. (© IWM (CH 1042)

Coinciding with the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the Bomber Support Development Unit (BDSU) transferred across from RAF Foulsham. Developed under the wing of 100 Group, they used a range of aircraft to investigate and develop electronic counter measures and radar technologies for aircraft.  At Swanton Morley, this involved nine Mosquitoes, MK XIX and XXX, to operate in both operational and non-operational duties. The BDSU (and 100 Group) were responsible for a range of electronic devices including Serrate, Hookah, Perfectos and Mandrel to name but a few, and were involved in some 114 operations, claiming  five air-to-air victories.

The USAAF were to play another small and final part in the life of Swanton Morley, when on 25th July 1944, B-24H ’41-29402′ “The Mad Monk” of the 786th BS, 466th BG, took off from nearby Attlebridge. It clipped some trees causing it to crash-land at Swanton-Morley; the aircraft was so severely damaged it was condemned and salvaged for spares.

Another near disaster was averted at Swanton Morley when Mosquito NFXXX (MM797) of the BDSU crashed after take off on the night of 2nd-3rd January 1945. On take off, with a full fuel load, the port engine began leaking glycol at a furious rate. Too low to bail out, the pilot, Flt. Lt. Harry White DFC, put the aircraft down on the frozen ground. After both pilot and co-pilot were pulled from the wreckage by local farmers, the aircraft exploded creating a ferocious fireball that destroyed the airframe completely.

Eventually the war came to a close, the ‘Window’ research station was transferred to the BDSU and in the summer 100 Group was disbanded. With that Swanton Morley fell quiet and no further operational units would serve from here.

In the closing months of 1946, No. 4 Radio School moved in using Avro’s Anson, and Percival’s Proctor and Prentice aircraft. Various ground units also used the site but gradually flying all but ceased. Eventually on September 15th 1995, Battle of Britain day, the RAF Ensign was lowered and RAF Swanton Morley was officially closed. A small private micro-light club took over part of the site, but in 1996 the Army claimed the airfield forcing the club to close. It remains in the hands of the Army today as the ‘Robertson Barracks’, named after Field Marshal Sir William Robertson and no flying takes place.

Swanton Morley’s history was fairly rare, in that it never had any concrete runways and boasted to be one of the longest lasting Worlds War 2 grassed airfields. It had, at its peak, one – ‘J’ Type hangar and four – ‘T2’ hangars. Its watch office, built to drawing 5845/39, included a Met Section and is now thankfully, a Grade II listed building making it one of the best originally preserved examples of Watch Office designs.

Swanton Morley june 2016 (3)

Swanton Morley had four T type hangars. All but one have been demolished. This one remains in private ownership.

Many of the original buildings have gone and either their concrete bases left or more modern replacements put in their place. Some of the concrete pathways have been removed as have all the dispersal pans. The bomb store is now a field and all but one of the hangars were demolished – the remaining one being re-clad.  A number of pill boxes and air-defence structures also remain, but like the main airfield site it is all securely kept behind very high fences and armed guards.

The public highway circumnavigates Swanton Morley, but views are best achieved from the main entrance. As with all active military sites there is a no stopping rule, but as you pass, careful observations will reveal some of the main buildings of the accommodation area.

Swanton Morley retains some if its historical features, and they are all in the care of either the Army or the local farmer. As the MOD holds this site, many of these features are well hidden from public view, but for now at least, this along with the preservation order on the watch office, does at least mean Swanton Morley’s past is in part ‘protected’ for future generations.

From Swanton Morley we visit two more airfields in the area, Hethel, a USAAF base with its own museum and Hingham an airfield that had possibly the shortest life of any UK airfield.

Hingham Home Defence Station.

There is considerable speculation about the true location of Hingham airfield. It is sadly one of those sites that has long since gone, and its history is now so blurred that its true location is not accurately known. It is known however, that it housed only three squadrons in its very short life: 51 (HD), 100 and 102, but only 51 Sqn remained for any period of time, thus making it the sole unit to have flown actively from this airfield.

A grass site, it was believed to be located near to the village of Hingham in Norfolk, some 12 miles south-west of Norwich, however, some sources cite it as Scoulton (latterly Watton airfield) located a few miles to the west of here. Wherever the true whereabouts of Hingham are, it is known that it did play a small but important part in the defence of Great Britain, and therefore worthy of a thought as we pass by.

Following the reorganisation of the RFC and RNAS in 1916, it was known that 51 (HD)  transferred from Thetford to Hingham, arriving at the fledgling airfield on 23rd September 1916, with the Royal Aircraft Factory BE12s. With detachments at Harling Road, Mattishall and Narborough, they were widely spread and would operate solely in the Home Defence role. These airfields were designated Home Defence Stations of which there were two, the ‘Flight‘ station (the smaller of the two) and the ‘Squadron‘ Station, the larger and main station. It is very likely that Hingham was designated as a Flight Station.

In October 1916, 51 (HD) replaced with the BE12s with  two-seat FE2bs and then with further RAE aircraft, the BE2e, in December 1916. The Hingham flight moved to Marham in early august 1917, whilst the Mattishall flight remained where they were.  ‘B’ flight moved west to Tydd St. Mary, a small airfield located on the Lincolnshire / Cambridgeshire border.

RAF Museum Hendon

The Royal Aircraft Factory F.E.2b at Hendon, London

Throughout the war 51 (HD) squadron fought against the Zeppelins that foraged over the eastern counties. By flying across the North Sea and then turning into The Wash, they were aiming to reach targets as far afield as Liverpool, Coventry and London.

One of several Home Defence airfields in this region, the role of Hingham aircraft (and the other Home Defence units around here), was to protect these industrial areas by intercepting the Zeppelins before they were able to fly further inland.

However, in the early days of the war, Zeppelins were able to fly at greater speeds and altitudes than many of the RFC aircraft that were available, and so the number of RFC ‘kills’ were relatively light. Many of these German Naval airships were able to wander almost at will around the Fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire dropping their bombs wherever they pleased. It was this lack of a strong defence strategy that perpetuated the creation of the Home Defence squadrons. This new organisation along with improvements and developments in both ammunition and aircraft performance, began to improve the ‘kill’ success rates, and gradually the number of raids decreased. 51 (HD) Sqn played a pivotal part in this role, attacking Zeppelins on a number of occasions in these mid-war years.

It was during this time that two new RFC squadrons would be formed at Hingham. On February 11th 1917, the nucleus of 51 Sqn were relocated here to form the new 100 Sqn, whilst on August 9th that same year, the new 102 Sqn was formed. Both these units would train in the night bombing role and then go on to attack airfields and troops in Northern France in support of the stagnating Allied ground troops.

A stay of about 6 weeks for 102 Sqn and 12 days for 100 Sqn saw them both depart to pastures new, St. Andre-aux-Bois in France and Farnborough in the south of England respectively. It was at these locations that they would collect their operational aircraft before reuniting in Northern France in March that year.

After 51 (HD) squadron left Hingham, the site was never used again by the military and it was subsequently closed down. Whatever structures that were there were presumably sold off in the post war RAF cutbacks, and the field returned to agriculture with all traces, if any, removed – Hingham’s short history had finally come to a close.

Hingham was a small airfield that played its own small part in the defence of the Eastern counties. Whilst its true location is sadly not known, it is certainly worthy of a thought as we travel between two much larger, and perhaps much more significant sites, in this historical part of Norfolk.

Continuing on our journey, we head further south arriving at the former base at Hethel. Here the roar of aircraft engines has been been replaced by a different roar, the sound of high performance cars.

RAF Hethel (Station 114)

RAF Hethel was initially designed for the RAF but, like so many airfields of the Second World War, it was transferred very quickly to the USAAF for use by the bombers of the  Eighth Air Force. Construction of the site began in 1941 and wasn’t complete when the first units arrived in 1942.

The ground echelons of the 320th BG arrived at Hethel in September, poised and ready for training. Travelling across the northern sea route, they arrived long before the air echelons who, due to extremely bad weather, had to divert from their designated route to the longer Southern route, via Africa. As this was considerably further to fly, many of the B-26s, of these units did not arrive until well into the December.

A dramatic picture of B-24 Liberator ’44-40085′ “Z-Bar” of the 389th BG after crash landing at Hethel. It was hit by British Flak and on trying to land, crashed into a radar building. Surprisingly all the crew escaped. 22nd April 1944 (IWM)

Training of these raw crews became the responsibility of the Eighth Air Force – and raw they certainly were. The 320th had only been active since June 23rd that year, and within  weeks they would be posted to North Africa once suitable airfields had been secured.

Construction work continued on Hethel throughout the latter stages of 1942 and into 1943; the number of hardstands rose from the original 36 to 50 giving a mix of both ‘spectacle’ and ‘frying pan’ types dotted around the three concrete runways. The main runway ran north-east to south-west with two smaller runways traversing east-west and north-west to south-east respectively. A large bomb store was located to the north-west, the opposite side to both the technical and accommodation areas both of which were to the south-eastern side of the airfield. That all important commodity, fuel, was stored to the south, and three T2 hangars would eventually provide room for aircraft maintenance away from the bitter 1940’s winters.

With the 320th away in North Africa, Hethel was operationally quiet, but the summer of 1943 would once again bring changes.

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

One of the many shelter remains on the former accommodation site.

Oil had long been considered a major target, reduce your enemies oil supplies and you reduce their ability to function. Stopping these supplies however, was going to be no easy task. The mighty German war machine was using oil located in the far eastern regions of Europe, located at the very edge of any major allied aircraft’s range. This gave the Luftwaffe plenty of time to attack, on both the inward and outward journeys. With round trips in excess of 2,000 miles, they would be dangerous and difficult missions for any crews. Polesti in Romania would become synonymous with oil production and a major target for the allied forces. To reach it, crews would have to fly from North Africa at very low-level, something they had not even thought possible let alone trained for in B-24s. In the summer a plan was hatched to do just that, a low-level bomber raid by B-24 Liberators of the Eighth and Ninth Air Force launched from bases in North Africa.

Hethel and the 389th would play their part in this daring plan. The first vanguard of the 389th led by Brigadier General Jack Wood, arrived at Hethel on June 11th 1943, followed by the air echelons of the four squadrons: 564th, 565th, 566th and 567th over the next two weeks. The ground echelons travelling by ship, would arrive some time later. Urgency was the key word and so as to not lose valuable training time, ground crews were drafted in from nearby Shipdham (93rd BG) and Hardwick’s 44th BG.

This change in tactics, from high-level to low certainly perplexed the crews of the 389th. New top-secret bomb sights had been trialled over The Wash to the north of the Norfolk coast and they had been successful in their operation. Extensive training operations were put in place to prepare the crews for the forthcoming operations. So intense was this low-level training, that two B-24Ds collided over East Anglia, ’42-40687′ piloted by 1st Lt. Edward Fowble, and ’42-40774′ “Heaven Can Wait” piloted by 1st Lt. Harold James, struck each other. Whilst both aircraft managed to return to Hethel, one of the navigators, 2nd Lt. Charles Quantrell sadly lost his life. Eventually on the 31st June, the crews left Hethel, to join those they had worked so hard with, they flew via Portreath to their destination in Libya. From here they would undertake a multitude of missions including the support of the Sicily invasion before going on to attack the infamous oil refineries at Polesti. Whilst in Libya the 389th would earn many distinctions including a posthumous Medal of Honour to Lt. Lloyd H. Hughes (s/n 0-666292) for his determination in dropping his bombs on target even though his B-24 was burning ferociously. The 389th would also receive the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) from Lt. General Spaatz and hence forth become known as “The Sky Scorpions“.

Former RAF Hethel

One of the remaining buildings on the Accommodation site.

Whilst the main sections of the 389th were out in Libya, the remaining Hethel units were reduced to training and Air-Sea rescue missions, ironically searching for downed B-17 crews, something the Liberator would prove to be invaluable at.

With the return of the Africa detachments, the Bomb Group  was complete again, and missions over occupied Europe could begin once more from Hethel. Their first contribution to this new phase was to attack Leeuwarden, but cloud cover forced them to find alternative targets on which they unleashed their devastating load. With operation STARKEY about to commence, the 389th were ordered to target the Luftwaffe airfields in the St. Omer region, and then again six days later they visited St. Andre De L’Eure. The next day, the 389th were informed that they would be returning to North Africa this time in support of the Salerno beachhead. A blow to those crews who had only recently arrived here at Hethel.

With the group split again, Hethel based units would continue the fight on. As the renamed 2nd Bombardment Division, they now carried a large Black ‘C’ enclosed in a white circle on their tail fins and starboard wingtip, they would also fly the updated ‘H’ model B-24. With a nose turret, more experienced crews had their reservations about these aircraft, slower and heavier they were also colder due to gaps in the turret surrounds.

A number of strategic missions took these aircraft over occupied Europe many deep across the German Heartland. As 1943 drew to a close the 389th would attack dock yards at Vegesack, Danzig and Wilhelmshaven; targets at Munster, Breman, Emden and Kiel to name but a few. It was at Emden that the Luftwaffe fighters were trialling a new weapon, a bomb dangled on 100 feet of wire to catch the bombers. A rather poor attempt it nevertheless caused great concern for pilots having to fly through wires hanging in an already busy sky. To bring 1943 to a close, on the 30th and 31st December, the 389th were part of further large formations attacking both Ludwigshafen on the Rhine and the airfield at St. Jean D’Angeley respectively.

Former RAF Hethel

Views of the former Technical site, now under the ownership of Lotus cars. The grey line across the centre of the photograph is the former runway now a testing track.

A new year brought little change, but with the introduction of H2X equipped aircraft, bombing became more accurate, and new targets were identified; ‘No Ball’ operations began and attacks on German cities increased. Late February saw the 389th in action during ‘Big Week’, an operation designed to cripple the German aircraft industry by targeting both aircraft and component manufacturing sites.

With the lead up to D-day, operations would occur almost every day from June 2nd up to June 29th, there would be only six days in this month period where no missions were flown by the 389th.

November 1944 would bring another devastating blow to the crews of Hethel. A collision between B-24J ’42-50452′ ‘Earthquake Magoon‘ and another B-24J ’44-10513’ on November 21st over the local parish of Carelton Rode, saw the loss of 17 of the 20 crew men. A devastating blow that highlighted the need for good communication and careful flying in these close quarters.

Missions carried on and as the war drew to a close, fighter attacks became less effective but even more daring. Pockets of resistance were becoming a ‘nuisance’ and the need for the further ports led to an attack in the Bordeaux region. On April 14th 1945, 1,161 heavy bombers were sent to the area. The 2nd Air Division accounted for 336 of these aircraft, of which only two were lost; B-24J ’42-50774′ “Stand By” and B-24J ’42-51233′ “The Bigast Boid“.

In “The Bigast Boid” of the 567th BS, was pilot 2nd Lt. Edward Bush and his nine other crew members. The aircraft was seemingly hit by friendly fire from B-17s flying above, completely severing the aircraft in half at the trailing edge of the wing, resulting in total loss of control. In the subsequent crash all ten crew members were killed. Other pilots from the 389th who witnessed the accident, attributed the fires and crash to flares being dropped from higher flying B-17s, – such was the danger of flying in tight formations.

Leon J Nowicki, and engineer of the 389th Bomb Group with the nose art of a B-24 Liberator (serial number 42-51233 nicknamed

Leon J Nowicki, engineer of the 389th BG with the B-24 “The Bigast Boid”. The aircraft would be lost to ‘friendly fire’ on April 14th 1945.  (IWM)

Eleven days later on April 25th, 1945 the 389th BG flew its final mission. The last target to receive the attention of the four squadrons was Salsburg, an operation that closed the books on 321 operational missions in five different versions of B-24. In total they dropped 17,548 tons of ordnance, lost 116 aircraft as Missing in action and claimed 209 enemy aircraft shot down. In 1945 they were awarded ‘best squadron’ on efficiency, an award that clearly reflected their attitude and dedication to the war effort.

With the departure of the air echelon at the end of May 1945 and the ground echelons from Bristol, the unit was given 30 days ‘R and R’ before inactivation in September. Hethel like so many airfields was then handed back to RAF Fighter Command who stationed a small number of Squadrons here before disbanding them. In September 1945, 65 Sqn and 126 Sqn were here with Mustang IVs. 65 Sqn stayed taking on Spitfire LF XVI E models before moving to Spilsby in early 1946. 126 Sqn left, had a months stay at Bradwell bay and then returned here, also taking the Spitfire LF XVI E and eventual disbandment in the following March.

Five Polish squadrons then came to Hethel. During the period March to December 1946: 302, 303, 308, 316 and 317 each stayed bringing with them Spitfire XVIs / Es, Mustang IIIs, and IVs, before all being disbanded in the December 1946.

Some technical activity on the site became almost token in comparison and eventually, after being used for repatriation and displaced persons purposes, Hethel was closed and sold off. After laying dormant for a number of years, the majority of the site was bought by Lotus Cars, the company who own the ‘airfield’ today using part of the main runway and perimeter track for testing their high performance cars. The remaining accommodation areas were bought back by the local farmer and are now used for chicken farming, or left allowing the woods to envelop what is left of the accommodation sites.

Former RAF Hethel

A T2 Hangar moved to the northern side of the airfield. One of the better ‘accessible’ features of Hethel.

Considering the role of the Lotus factory, access is generally good. Look for signs for ‘Lotus Engineering’ and drive along the road passing the Lotus site. This was the main entrance to the airfield, separating the ten accommodation and defence sites (on your right) from the main airfield to your left. On the right hand side are some of the former Defence site buildings, now used by small industrial units, the Lotus factory taking over the main technical area including the control tower. On your left is one of the original three hangars. Continue on past the Lotus entrance along the road as far as you can. To your right is a wood, this once housed Communal Site 1 and beyond this the other accommodation sites. A footpath allows access through here where a small number of buildings can be seen albeit enveloped in very dense undergrowth. The road along here eventually turns into a farm, and private property, however, the chapel and Gymnasium are located along this road and have since been turned into a museum. Access to the museum is through this gate. Beyond, the road turns into a footpath and utilises the former perimeter track linking to the main runway to the north. This runs alongside the track now used by Lotus.

From here turn back, return to the main road and turn right. Follow the road parallel to the former east-west runway and turn right. Keep going following the road round, eventually you come to another T2 Hangar. Not originally erected here, it was moved at some point from elsewhere, but is perhaps one of the better examples of airfield archaeology left on the site that is ‘accessible’.

Hethel was once a heaving airfield, it has now taken on a new sound, but the memories of those brave young men still linger in the Norfolk air; the trees sway to the tunes of their music and their lives rest peacefully at last, honoured in the churches of the nearby Norfolk villages.

389th BG Exhibition.

Whilst the majority of Hethel has been removed or utilised by Lotus, it makes for a fascinating trip. The museum, run by volunteers, is small but it has a lot to offer. Located in the former Chapel/Gymnasium, it has been carefully restored and filled with information and artefacts pertaining to the former airfield and U.S Air Force during the Second World War.  There are also articles from the 466th Bomb Group who were based at nearby RAF Attlebridge, the RAF and stories from local people who befriended the Americans whilst they were here.

The exhibition is located on a working poultry farm and so access is limited, open every second Sunday of each month between April and October, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

The buildings have been painstakingly restored by volunteers, some of whom have had connections with the airfield or Lotus cars, the current owner of the airfield itself. In 2001 the museum opened its doors to the public, after moving a collection of memorabilia from the Lotus site over to their new home here at the 389th exhibition.

It was during the restoration that two murals were discovered, these are perhaps one of the more stunning aspects of the exhibition. Painted in 1943 by Sgt. Bud Doyle, the then Chaplin’s driver, they are located on one of the walls of the Chapel. One is of Christ on a cross, whilst the other is a portrait of a pilot, both have been restored and remain on display where they were originally painted all those years ago..

389th BG Exhibition Hethel

The restored murals in the Chapel.

Located here, are a number of items many with stories attached. In the Chaplin’s quarters next door, are maps and other documents relating to the groups activities.

Two new Nissen huts have also been built, opened and dedicated in 2014 and 2017, they extend the exhibition further to include uniforms, service records, numerous photographs and more memorabilia.

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

The dedication plaque.

There is also a refreshments bar offering the usual tea and snacks, along with a toilet facilities.

From the museum there are public footpaths into what was one of the accommodation areas of RAF Hethel, here are some of the remains of buildings, shelters primarily, hidden amongst the undergrowth. The footpaths are mainly concrete once you get onto the site.

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

Part of the exhibition inside the former Chapel at RAF Hethel.

A nice little museum it has free entry and welcomes donations to help with the upkeep and maintenance of the site, if in the area, it is well worth a visit and your support .

The 389th website has further details and opening times and information of forthcoming events.

While in the area, visit All Saints Church at Hethel, a memorial headstone dedicated to the crews of Hethel is located in the churchyard with a Roll of Honour inside the church itself. It also contains a Roll of Honour and extracts from ‘The Attlebridge Diaries’, for those who flew as part of the 466th BG from nearby RAF Attlebridge.

A plaque and small stained glass window in All Saints Church, Carelton Rode, commemorates the deaths of the seventeen airmen killed in a mid-air collision in November 1944.

Sources and further reading

*1 Royal Air Force Historical Journal No. 35

*2 Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, V1, 1939-40″, Classic, 1992

Norfolk Heritage Website

Freeman, R.A., “The Mighty Eighth“, Arms & Armour, 1970

Bowman, M., “100 Group (Bomber Support)”, Pen & Sword, 2006

Also Joe Baugher’s website, for serial numbers of the USAAF aircraft.

Advertisements