Not far from Wethersfield, lies the parent airfield of Castle Camps. Now closed to aviation, it currently resides in the hands of the Army as the Carver Barracks. On this, the next Trail, we wind our way through the Essex countryside to the former fighter station that gained notoriety during the early 1940s, and in particular the Battle of Britain. On this stop, we visit three sites, the first that once famous fighter airfield RAF Debden.
RAF Debden (Station 356) – Essex
The internet and history books are awash with pictures and information about RAF Debden, and rightly so. It is an airfield with an incredible history, famous for its part in the Battle of Britain and the defence of London, it was home to no less than thirty RAF squadrons at some point; it was used by the U.S. volunteer squadrons the ‘Eagle Squadrons’, and then taken over by USAAF as a fighter airfield following their official entry into the war. It was then used again by the RAF post war up until 1975 when the British Army took over, those whose hands it remains in today as the Carver Barracks. Not only is it history long but the site is historically highly significant. According to Historic England, Debden airfield represents “one of the most complete fighter landscapes of the Battle of Britain period“, considered historically important due to its “largely intact defensive perimeter and flying-field with associated blast pens“.*1
Debden is therefore a remarkable site, but as an active military base, access and views are understandably very restricted. However, some buildings can still be seen from public areas, particularly the front as you pass by the main entrance.
Debden’s life began in the mid 1930s, it eventually opened in 1937, as part of the expansion programme of the pre-war era, and was classified as a fighter airfield under Scheme ‘C’ of the airfield construction programme. During this period, great consideration was given to the architectural features of airfield buildings, standard designs being finished and positioned aesthetically in line with both the local landscape, stone and environment. Design and construction of these airfields, in this the second part of the expansion phase, was carried out in conjunction with the Royal Fine Arts Commission, whose influence led to an overall improvement in airfield design. During this phase of expansion, over 100 permanent sites were built using these new designs, in fact, according to Historic England, it is these sites that have tended to survive in the best condition to date largely thanks due to their post war and Cold War usage. Even in this pre-war period, aesthetics were as important as operability!
Built by W. L. Fench Limited, Debden wasn’t completed until after it had been opened, thus the first units there were using the site in its unfinished state. The two initial landing surfaces were grass, but as a fighter airfield little more was needed. Even so, and not long after it opened, these were replaced by concrete and tarmac surfaces, giving the airfield much stronger and more adaptable landing surfaces. Being the standard 50 yards wide, these runways were also extended from the initial 1,600 and 1,300 yards to 2,600 and 2,100 yards respectively, allowing for larger and more powerful aircraft to utilise the site.
Debden had a large number of hangars built: three ‘C’ type, one Bellman and eleven blister hangars which were all spread around the perimeter and technical areas of the airfield. Some 80 hardstands were also provided, thus large quantities of aircraft were expected to use the site at one point or another.
Of these thirty operational flying squadrons to pass through Debden, the primary aircraft to see service would be the Spitfires and Hurricanes of Fighter Command. Biplanes such as the Demon and the Gloster Gladiator were also to feature here, as were the twin-engined aircraft the Beaufighter, Havoc/Bostons and the jet engined Meteor in the latter stages of the war. The period 1939 – 1942 though, was by far the busiest period for Debden, the majority of squadrons operating from here during this time.
Upon opening in 1937, Debden would operate the outdated and obsolete biplanes of the Royal Air Force, Hawker’s Fury II of 87 squadron being the first to arrive on 7th June 1937, being replaced shortly after by Gloster’s Gladiator, that famous Biplane that protected Malta as ‘Faith’, ‘Hope’ and ‘Charity’. In the summer of 1938, prior to the outbreak of war, Hurricanes were brought in and the entire squadron moved to airfields in France where they would stay until May 1940, when France was invaded by the German forces. Brought back to England, a short two-day stop over at Debden, would lead to a move north and Yorkshire before returning to the battle, and a night fighter role over Southern England.
Joining 87 Sqn in June 1937 were further Gladiators, those of 80 Squadron who, themselves formed a month earlier, would stay at Debden until departing for the Middle East and Ismailia a year later. A third squadron would arrive during this time, 73 Squadron, who shortly after reforming at nearby Mildenhall, would also replace their Hawker Furys with Gladiators coinciding with their move to Debden. Also moving to France, 73 Sqn would eventually move to the Middle East, where they would remain for the duration of the war, flying from numerous airfields including that of Habbaniyah, one of several places where my father was stationed post-war.
One other squadron would grace the skies over Debden that year, that of 29 Squadron, whose Hawker Demons were adapted to accept a Frazer-Nash turret for defence. A small aircraft, they would be no match for enemy fighters and so were replaced in December 1938 by the far superior aircraft the Blenheim IIF. Coinciding with this, was the movement of a detachment of 29 sqn aircraft to Martlesham Heath, which was followed by a months stay at RAF Drem in the border region before returning to Debden once more. By the end of June though, the entire squadron have been pulled out of Debden and moved to Digby in Lincolnshire and a new role as night fighters.
1938 also saw the reforming of 85 Squadron on the 1st June. 85 sqn, as a unit, had their roots in the First World War, being stationed in France before disbandment in the summer of 1919. But on this occasion, they were reformed out of ‘A’ Flight of 87 squadron prior to them taking on their Hurricanes and imminent move abroad. During the period 1939 – 1940, 85 Sqn would move around almost weekly, with one of their longest permanent stays being between November 1938 and September 1939 whilst here at Debden. Being the parent airfield of Castle Camps, Debden units would often be dispersed there, or in some cases stationed there, whilst also operating out of Debden – 85 Sqn being no exception.
Two other squadrons would fly from Debden during the winter/spring of 1939 – 40, both 17 and 504 operating the Hurricane MK. I. On an almost weekly basis, both units would yo-yo between Debden and Martlesham Heath, an almost continuous spiral of postings saw them using the ‘Heath’ as a forward operating airfield until around May 1940, when both units were moved to France in support of the B.E.F.
As the fall of France turned into the Battle of Britain, fighter units to defend Britain became top priority. The dawn of 1940 would see the beginning of six more squadrons operate out of Debden, the majority of which would arrive during the height of the Battle. Debden, as the Sector Station responsible for the Thames Estuary and eastern approaches to London, would become a prestige Luftwaffe target during those early days of the Battle. As a result, it along with other Sector stations at Northolt, North Weald, Biggin Hill, Tangmere and Hornchurch, would endure some of the most sustained and prolonged attacks by German bomber formations.
To meet the demand for fighter units, 257 Squadron were reformed and posted to Debden initially flying the Spitfire MK. I. They quickly replaced these with the Hurricane I prior to them becoming operational on July 1st. Four days later they were joined at Debden by both 601 (the ‘Millionaires Squadron’ named so after the men who initially joined it) and 111 Squadron making this one of the largest collections of Hurricanes at that time.
85 Squadron were soon in the thick of the battle. As July 1940 turned to August, patrols would be sent up as regularly as the sun would rise, many of these patrols would result in enemy engagement; the Operational Record Books being testament to the continuing battle for the skies over Britain at that time. At the beginning of August on the 7th, Air Vice-Marshal K.R. Park M.C., D.F.C. visited Debden, a visit that preceded the transfer of Debden from 12 Group into 11 Group. It was also at this time that the funeral of P/O. Brittan of 17 sqn took place, a young man who lost his life in a flying accident.
In mid August 1940, both ‘A’ and ‘B’ flights of 85 Sqn were brought back from Martlesham Heath and Castle Camps to Debden, a move that preceded the not only the first but one of the largest attacks by a Debden squadron on enemy aircraft.
On August 18th 1940, at 17:30, the squadron consisting of thirteen aircraft were scrambled to patrol the Skies over Debden. Almost immediately they were diverted to Canterbury and ordered to patrol at 20,000 ft. Five minutes after reaching their designated point, they were ordered into battle attacking ‘raid 51’ who were crossing the coast in the vicinity of Folkestone. Within minutes, the two formations were entwined and the aircraft of 85 squadron set about the 150 – 250 machines of the Luftwaffe.
A mix of J.U. 87s, H.E.111s, J.U. 88s, M.E. 110s and M.E. 109s were staggered in layers between 10,000 feet and 18,000 feet, and as soon as the aircraft of 85 squadron were sighted, the enemy immediately employed tactical defensive manoeuvres with some of the bombers heading seaward whilst other climbed toward their fighter protection.
Hugely lacking in aircraft numbers, the RAF had little choice but to ‘dive in’, as a result large numbers of individual ‘dog fights’ occurred, resulting in aircraft being strewn across the Essex sky around Foulness Point. For a while there was complete chaos, aircraft were burning and crews knew little of each other’s whereabouts. In one incident P/O. J. Marshall (Yellow 2) followed his leader into attack. In the melee that followed Marshall flew into a cloud of vapour created by a damaged H.E.111 his wing colliding with the tail of the Heinkel severing it completely and cutting the wing tip-off of his own aircraft. Despite the damage Marshall nursed his crippled aircraft to Debden where he landed safely and unhurt.
During this attack six Me 110s, three Me 109s and one He 111 were confirmed as destroyed, a further He 111, Me 110, Ju 87 and Me 109 were confirmed as probables, whilst four Me 110s and two Do 17s were known to have been damaged.
85 Squadron casualties on the day consisted of one Hurricane destroyed and one damaged. It was during this attack that Flight Lieutenant Richard H.A. Lee, D.S.O., D.F.C. (s/n 33208), flying as Blue 1, was last seen by Sqn. Ldr. Townsend and F/O. Gowers 10 miles east of Foulness Point chasing 5 Me 109s. He lost contact and failed to return to Debden. Lee, a veteran with nine victories to his name, was Lord Trenchard’s Godson, and was reported missing that day. *2
On the next day, 19th August 1940, 85 Squadron departed Debden, swapping places with 111 squadron who had previously moved to Croydon. In a signal Air Chief Marshal Sir Cyril Newall, G.C.B., C.M.G., C.B.E., A.M., expressed his thanks to the crews of 85 Sqn, sending his gratitude for “all your hard fighting” in which he added “This is the right spirit for dealing with the enemy.” 85 Squadron went on to continue the fight at Croydon flying in the same determined manner they had shown whilst based at Debden.*2
It was also during August 1940 that Debden became a focus for attacks by the Luftwaffe. On the 20th, a small reconnaissance mission took German aircraft over the airfield along with other airfields in the region. Six days later, on August 26th, the first attack on Debden would occur, a combined attack that would also involve strikes on Kenley, Biggin Hill, Hornchurch and North Weald airfields.
Whilst 11 Group – whose sector headquarters were at Debden – put up ten squadrons and one flight to intercept the incoming raiders, a number of bombers did get through and over 100 bombs were dropped on the airfield damaging the landing area; the sergeants mess, NAAFI , a motor transport depot and equipment stores. In addition to this the water and electricity supplies were both cut, and five personnel were killed. The raid was made worse by the inefficient vectoring of protective aircraft from Duxford due to them being unable to obtain the correct radio frequency. This mishap did little to help the ongoing ‘dispute’ between Air Marshal Sir Keith Park and Air Vice-Marshall (later Air Marshal) Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who were both locked in dispute over the defences of 11 Group’s airfields – it was arguably this feud that eventually cost Park his command of 11 Group, and a move as AOC to Malta.
At the end of August, Debden would once again become the focus of Luftwaffe attacks. Shortly after 8:00am on the morning of August 31st 1940, waves of Luftwaffe bombers flew over Kent turning northwards toward North Weald, Duxford and Debden. A formation of Dornier bombers managed to reach Debden again where they dropped over 100 incendiary and high explosive bombs on the airfield. This time the sick quarters and barrack blocks received direct hits whilst other buildings were damaged by blasts.
Further attacks on September 3rd and 15th failed to materialise and Debden was finally left alone to lick its wounds and repair the damage to its fragile infrastructure. It was also during this time (2nd September to the 5th September 1940) that all three resident squadrons: 257, 601 and 111 would depart, leaving Debden behind and heading further south to pastures new.
With the ending of the Battle of Britain, things would become a little quieter at Debden, although movements of man and machine would continue with a perpetual occurrence. The October and November would see more short stays: 25 squadron (8th October for around two and half months); 219 Sqn as a detachment for two months, and 264 Sqn at the end of November for just one month. These changes would lead Debden into the new year and 1941.
During 1941, 85 Squadron would return yet again, and after being bounced around with almost regular occurrence this, their final visit, would be in the night fighter role. Initially using their Hurricanes and then Defiants, they soon replaced these with the Havoc before vacating the site for good and the fields of Hunsdon in May that year.
There were yet more short stays during 1941: 54 Squadron in June (two days), 403 Squadron (25th August – 3rd October); 258 Squadron (3rd October – 1st November); 129 Squadron (1st November – 22nd December); 418 squadron (15th November – 15th April 1942); a detachment of 287 Squadron; 157 who were reformed here on 13th December moving to Castle Camps five days later where they would receive their Mosquito II aircraft, and finally 65 Squadron who arrived three days before Christmas and stayed until 14th April 1942.
One of these squadrons, 403 Squadron flying Spitfire VBs, was formed as a result of Article XV of the Riverdale Agreement, in which it was agreed between the British Government and the nations of the commonwealth: Canada, Australia and New Zealand; that their trained military personnel would fly and operate as part of the Royal Air Force. This would mean that both air and ground crews would perform their duties under RAF command. Some 70 squadrons were created as a result of this agreement, and of those seventy, 67 were numbered in the 400 series. Even though they were part of the RCAF, RNZAF and RAAF, they were treated as integral parts of the British Royal Air Force for the duration of the conflict.
Into 1942 and yet more of the same, 350, 41, 124, 232 and 531 Squadrons all following this similar pattern of short stays and placements, thus life at Debden was becoming a constant carousel of ground crews and flying personnel. Two squadrons from here did make a real name for themselves though, that of 71 and 121 Squadrons.
121 Sqn, were reformed in 1941 at Kirton-in-Lindsey, initially with the Hurricane MK. I, and then IIBs moving on to the Spitfire IIA and eventually the VB; a model they brought with them to Debden. 71 Squadron had been formed at Church Fenton, and after moving through a series of stations that included Martlesham Heath, they arrived at Debden on 3rd May 1942 also with the Spitfire VB. On September 29th 1942 the two RAF units along a with a third, the 133 Sqn at Great Sampford, were officially disbanded, but the men of the three units were not dispersed. Instead they absorbed into the USAAF as the 4th Fighter Group (FG). The men of these squadrons were all originally US volunteers who formed the three American ‘Eagle Squadrons‘ operating within the Royal Air Force.
The 4th FG was specially created to take these three squadrons, they were brought together at Debden where they became the 334th (71 Sqn), 335th (121 Sqn) and 336th (133 Sqn) Fighter Squadrons (FS). Debden would then be passed from the RAF to the USAAF, the transition of which, would be smooth and relatively uneventful, the units retaining the Spitfires they already had before replacing them with P-47s later in 1943.
The handover of ownership of Debden took place on the 12th September 1942, with an official ceremony on the 29th to coincide with the disbandment of the RAF units. During this ceremony both Major General Spatz and Brigadier General Hunter were joined by Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas of the RAF’s Fighter Command, to see Debden and the aircrews officially joining the ranks of the USAAF. Initially little changed after the handover, the most prominent feature being the removal of the RAF roundels and the application of the US Star on the aircraft’s fuselage and wings. New ground crews were brought in and trained by RAF personnel to maintain the Spitfires, and so RAF crews remained on site until such times as the American were in position to become self-sufficient.
As these crews had been involved in front line operations for some time – the 71st having gathered a total of over half the 73.5 kills recorded by the three squadrons – they were immediately made operational and went on performing in the duties they had been so adept at completing thus far. So proud of their origins were they, that the 4th FG stood out from their fellow Americans both in the way they flew, and the way they behaved.
With their first mission under the ‘Stars and Stripes’ on October 2nd, they would not have to wait long before seeing action once again. The Eagle Squadrons would become famous throughout the war, achieving many records in aerial combat over the next three years. Taking part in the Normandy invasion, aerial battles over Northern France, the Ardennes, the Rhineland, and over Berlin itself; they would not be short of combat experience. Throughout their time the 4th FG would achieve many ‘firsts’. They were the oldest fighter group of the Eighth Air Force, and their combined totals of enemy aircraft destroyed both in the air and on the ground was the highest of the entire USAAF. They were also the top scoring Allied Fighter Group of the war, destroying 1016 enemy aircraft for a loss of 241 of their own aircraft, many of which were due to flak. They would be the first unit to engage the enemy in air battles over both Paris and Berlin, and they would be the first US Eighth AF Group to penetrate German airspace – a record they established on 28th July 1943. The 4th would also be the first fighter group to be selected to escort the heavy bombers of the USAAF on their first shuttle run, landing in Russia before returning home.
Not only did they undertake many ‘firsts’, but the 4th FG gained an undeniable reputation, between the 5th March and 24th April 1944 they earned a Distinguished Unit Citation when they shot down 189 enemy aircraft whilst destroying 134 on the ground. You cannot mention the 4th without mentioning the name of Donald M. Blakeslee, credited with 16 kills, he was a brilliant fighter pilot who retired from the USAAF as a Colonel. Blakeslee was considered one of finest combat fighter leaders of the Second World War who shunned publicity even refusing to paint ‘kills’ on his aircraft, and he was known, on several occasions, to give kills to rookie airmen. Blakeslee initially flew in 401 Sqn (RCAF) before transferring to 133 Sqn and then the USAAF when they transferred across. He was a remarkable man, a great leader who was looked up to by all those who flew with him, he sadly died in September 2008 leaving a daughter. All-in-all, the 4th achieved quite a remarkable record considering they were initially volunteers of the American air war in Europe.
The 4th FG would remain at Debden thought the war, leaving it only when the RAF required the return of the airfield in July 1945, at which point the whole group packed up and departed for Steeple Morden in Cambridgeshire.As 1943 dawned it would become much quieter in terms of movements at Debden. Now officially a US fighter airfield, the RAF had little to do here. For a short period of a week, 303 Squadron would stop over, the only visitors to make any great use of the airfield for the entire year. With Debden having long concrete runways, it was regularly visited by the lighter bombers, Marauders and Havocs taking refuge here from their own fog bound airfields during poor winter weather. It was during this time in 1943, that The Duchess of Kent, made a royal visit to Debden, taking time out to inspect the aircraft and crews of the 4th Fighter Group, accompanied by General D. Hunter and Colonel Edward Anderson.
With that 1943 faded into 1944, the jet age was dawning and the end of the war nearing sight. In the July, 616 Squadron appeared with the Meteor, Britain’s first operational Jet aircraft. The squadron detachment stayed here until early 1945 when they moved on to Colerne and eventually the continent.
This move would signify the end of operational flying at Debden. The RAF retained the site reforming the Empire Flying Training School here on 7th March 1946 by merging both 12 and 14 Radio Schools into one. Flying a number of aircraft including Proctors, Tiger Moths, Ansons, Dominie and Lincoln IIs until October 20th 1949 when it was disbanded and Debden became the Royal Air Force Technical College, Signals Division. After a further name change the unit was finally disbanded on April 8th 1960, after it had operated a variety of aircraft including an: Anson, Air Speed Oxford, Spitfire XVI, Lincoln and Varsity.
Between 1963 and October 1973, Vampire F. MK.3 VF301 stood outside Debden’s front gate as guardian, one of several that have been here. It is now sits in the Midland Air Museum at Baginton in the markings of 605 (County of Warwick) Sqn as ‘RAL-G’.
Although remaining open, the airfield was used for a number of public displays and as a race track, including in 1966, the RAF Debden Motor Gala which featured Donald Campbell’s car, Bluebird CN7, in which Campbell set the land speed record in 1964. Parts of the site are still used for racing today by the Borough 19 Motor Club*3
In 1975 the airfield officially closed although 614 Gliding School (later 614 Volunteer Gliding School) remained on site using it for flying, until they too departed moving to Wethersfield in 1982.
The army took over the site when the RAF Departed and they remain there to this day.
Debden, because if its post war usage, is a remarkably unique site, but whilst many of the original buildings remain intact, some even being listed as Grade II buildings*4, access is not permitted to the general public and therefore very little can be seen without prior permission. From public roads, high fences and thick hedges obscure most views although from the south, parts of the runway, and several dispersals can be seen quite easily.
By keeping the gate house to your right and passing along the road east to west, you pass the current accommodation area, Guard House and modern buildings used by the current Army owners. Continuing along this road soon brings you to the memorial. Whilst there is no official parking space here, there is a grass verge opposite the memorial where you can safely park your car off the busy main road. Behind the memorial is the north-south runway, still in full width, in which a small section of it can be seen as it rises and dips over the hill. Returning toward the main entrance brings you to a parking area on your right, where public access is permitted to Rowney Wood. Here there are a small number of original buildings still left along with former roads / and taxi ways. During its US occupation, there were five Blister Hangars located here, today only a couple survive, both in current use by local companies.
Like many former airfields and military sites, Debden has been identified as a possible housing location, with the potential for the construction of 55,000 homes. The announcement to close the barracks was made on November 7th 2016, as part of the ‘Better Defence Estate’ strategy, in which 91 MOD sites across the country will close by 2040. Government figures say that the move will save £140 million by closing these sites which also includes the US base at Mildenhall.*5
Considering the history of RAF Debden and the current status of its buildings, the restrictive nature of the site is also its guardian angel. However, with the axe looming heavily overhead, what will become of this site in the future? Its runways will no doubt be dug up, the older non-classified buildings could be demolished, its pathways and taxiways removed. Debden is in danger of disappearing for good leaving only small traces of this once famous airfield that not only took part in the Battle of Britain, but whose airmen defended London in what was very much our darkest hour.
From here, we head south-east to former RAF Chedburgh.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Historic England, Historic Military Aviation Sites – Conservation Guidance, 2016.
*2 AIR 27/703/17 National Archives
*3 ‘Borough 19 Motor Club’ website has details of their race activities.
*4 One such building is the Sector Operations Block, built in 1938, to the designs of J.H. Binge of the Air Ministry’s Directorate of Works and Buildings (drawing no. 5000/137).
*5 The story was highlighted in the Saffron Walden Reporter website accessed 11th October 2017.
Royal Air Force Police Flights who were at Debden have photos and information on their website.