Trail 50 – Haverhill’s neighbours – Wratting Common and Great Sampford.

In this next Trail, the 50th trail around Britain’s Wartime airfields, we continue looking around the Cambridge / Suffolk borders. Being a bomber base, the first is another that operated both the ill-fated Stirling, and then later the famous Lancaster; it is also a base that had some of the best survival records of 3 Group, but it also paid the price that came with the Stirling.

The second is a satellite that whilst only housed a small number of units, saw many casualties and witnessed a near disaster for the American Eagle Squadron 133 Squadron.

Turning north-west from Haverhill toward the metropolis of Cambridge, our first airfield that is on one of the highest points in the eastern region, at just below 400 feet above sea level, it was cold and inhospitable in winter, but it was one whose pride and significant contribution shall live on. Here we visit the former Bomber Command base RAF Wratting Common.

RAF Wratting Common (West Wickham)

Wratting Common airfield opened in the latter part of the war, May 1943. It was initially named after the local village, West Wickham, which lies a couple of miles to the west. However, due to confusion with another airfield, it was renamed in the August, becoming known as Wratting Common, the name it retained, and used, for the remainder of the war.

Operating under No. 3 Group the losses from Wratting Common would be high, 260 personnel would lose their lives here, equating to almost eleven every month for the duration of its short two-year life. Many of these crews would be Short Stirling crews, the enormous bomber that would take an incredible amount of punishment, but suffered with a limited service ceiling and a weak undercarriage that led to numerous accidents whilst landing or taking off.

Wratting Common was opened in May 1943, under the Class A specification. Three concrete and wood chip runways were built to 2,000 yards and 1,400 yards respectively. A perimeter track joined the three runways and housed 36 spectacle hardstands for aircraft dispersal. Repairs were carried out in one of five hangars, four T2s and one B1, mainly located to the north and west of the airfield. To the south lay the bomb store, and the site had the usual range of standard design buildings. The watch office was of the 12279/41 design, a design adopted by all major airfields by the end of 1943.

RAF Wratting Common

The only B1 hangar built at Wratting Common still survives today.

Designed to take just over 2,000 males and 348 female staff, it had 10 domestic sites  spread about the northern side, these would receive in the region  of 2,500 males of various ranks and 486 females, numbers fluctuating as crews invariably failed to return home and units came and went.

As it was a short-lived airfield, it would have only two operational front line squadrons, No. 90 and No. 195, although other units did use the airfield including: No. 24 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, No. 273 Maintenance Unit, No. 1552 Radio Aids Training (RAT) Flight (No 2 Section) and No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

The opening of the airfield was preceded by the arrival of S/Ldr. W. K. Young , who took early control of the site and oversaw the final preparations for the forthcoming crews. Between April and May, construction was completed, defences were set up, and by the end of May the first operational aircraft began arriving. A handover saw a new and permanent Station Commander take over, a change that saw operational sorties begin within a matter of days.

No 90 Sqn, a first World War squadron, had been absorbed by 17 OTU in 1940, and then reformed again in May 1941. They served for almost a year being the only RAF unit at that time to fly the B-17 before being disbanded once more. This pattern of reforming and disbanding was one that 90 Sqn would perform almost perpetually.

Reforming again in November 1942 at RAF Bottesford, they began operations with the Stirling MK.I, transferring to RAF Ridgewell in December where they began to receive the MK.III. Arriving here at Wratting Common, in the last days of May 1943, they would remain here until the October that year before moving off to RAF Tuddenham,

During these five months 90 Sqn would lose 185 aircrew, a figure testament to the problems with the Stirling but also to the dedication of the crews to ‘get the job done’.

The first sortie took place on the night of 3rd/4th June 1943, when ten aircraft carried out a mine-laying mission off the Biscay ports. A rather uneventful mission, it would be one of the few where all aircraft returned safely.

With Bomber Command’s Battle of the Ruhr approaching its final chapter, 90 Sqn would suffer their first casualties on the night of June 21st/22nd, 1943. It was a mission to Krefield, a mission that saw 705 aircraft drop 2,306 tons of bombs on the town destroying almost half of it. It was the largest area of devastation so far of any mission and was preceded by an almost perfect marking from the RAF’s Pathfinders. The night was marred by high losses though, just over 6% of the force being lost, many as a result of night-fighter action. Of these, 90 Sqn got off lightly losing only one aircraft, Stirling MK.III ‘WP-T’ with the loss of all seven crewmen, a crew that included both an Australian and a Canadian airman.

RAF Wratting Common

One of the remaining five T2 Hangars still in use at Wratting Common.

By the 26th, just four days later, another five aircraft had been lost with only four survivors; a hefty blow that took the lives of thirty-one airmen whilst in their prime.

A new month proved little better, on the night of 3rd/4th July, three more aircraft would be lost, one ‘WP-F’ returning beaten up overshot the runway without thankfully, loss of life. The remaining two aircraft were lost over Belgium and Germany, with only one crewman surviving, captured by ground forces and surviving as a POW.

July would see a both further losses and 90 Sqn returning to Hamburg no less than three times before the month was over. Bomber Command’s tactic of area bombing would now turn from the industrial heartland to the city of Hamburg, and its enormous ship building works. Hamburg would of course become well-known for a number of reasons, the destructive firestorms that would devastate the town, the first joint efforts of the USAAF and RAF, and the use of ‘Window‘ for the first time.

Surprisingly during these raids, 90 squadron would have a rather uniquely ‘clean bill of health’, especially considering the nature of the target. Hamburg would not be easy, attacking at heights of around 13 – 16,000 feet, they would be dropping a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs, well below the height of other squadrons. On the first night 24th/25th July, all 90 squadron aircraft would return to base, a night that was followed by the loss of one aircraft (Stirling ‘WP-S’) to Essen, before they returned to Hamburg on the 27th/28th.

The loss of this Stirling ‘S-Sugar’ was significant in that it was piloted by the Squadron Leader, S/L. Joseph Dugdale DFC, (s/n 39071). Presumed lost over the sea, the aircraft also had two New Zealanders and an Australian on board, one of which was washed up on the Norfolk coast along with two other members of the crew.

After attacking Hamburg, and damaged by flak, Stirling BK693 ‘WP-A’  would limp back to England landing at nearby RAF Stradishall, where it swung off the runway hitting another Stirling parked at a dispersal. The only 90 Sqn loss that night, it would set a precedent for the third and final attack of the month. Returning the next night, 777 aircraft would fly in from the north of the city, attacking areas so far not damaged by allied bombing. This raid would not be considered one of the RAF’s most ‘successful’ though, the bombing ‘creeping back’ some four miles into residential areas with huge loss of civilian life. Of the 119 Stirlings sent out that night, only four were lost, the only casualty of 90 squadron being ‘WP-F’ which took off at 22:00 hrs, crashing out of control without loss just after.

These light casualties, gave 90 Sqn one of the best records of No. 3 Group, a record that continued to the end of July and the closure of the Battle of the Ruhr.

At the end of July, Wratting Common was visited by an American airman. In rather less than ideal circumstances, Major William Julian of the 83rd FS, 78th FG, based at  Duxford, made a  wheels up landing in his battle damaged P-47 #41-6628, ‘HL-R’. The aircraft would eventually be recovered and repaired only to suffer a similar fate later on. July had been a busy month at Wratting Common!

August 1943 brought the change of name to the airfield, but no change in operations. Missions included Nuremberg, another return to Hamburg, Turin (famous for the VC awarded to Flt. Sgt. Arthur Aaron), and now for the first time, the rocket research establishment at Peenemunde. It was also a time when Sir Arthur Harris turned his attention to Berlin, the heart of the German Reich. A city heavily defended and a long way into occupied Europe, it was going to be difficult for Bomber Crews, and 90 Squadron’s run of luck could be about to falter.

During the short period of late August and early September 1943, 1,600 sorties would be flown to Berlin, and if the German’s determination to survive was going to be seen anywhere, it was going to be in their fearless defence of the capital.

The crew of a Short Stirling Mk III, No. 90 Squadron by their aircraft on a hard stand north of the main runway at Wratting Common, watch as other Stirlings of the Squadron prepare for the night’s operation, a raid on Berlin. (@IWM CH10900)

On the first night of August 23rd/24th 1943, two 90 Squadron aircraft were lost, one ditching in the sea just off the coast near Cuxhaven north-west of Hamburg. After spending 7 days, 16 hours and 10 minutes in their dingy, three of the crew were rescued, the remaining four having been killed*1.

A second Stirling, EH937 ‘WP-S’ was also lost that night. Piloted by Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Longmore, (s/n 413622) an Australian and hairdresser by trade, it crashed in the Ilsselmeer, a stretch of water north of Amsterdam. The aircraft, along with all its crew, were lost at 20:37, three being killed and four classified as ‘missing’.

The path to Berlin was lit by Pathfinders, and of the 727 aircraft sent, 124 were Stirlings, the loss rate for the mission being just short of 8% in total.

The crew of a Stirling are debriefed by an intelligence officer after the costly night raid on Berlin, 23/24 August 1943. © IWM (CH 10804) Can you identify any of these men?

A further loss of a single aircraft on the night of 27th/28th August led to a return to Berlin, and another night of heavy losses for Bomber Command. The Stirling loss rate alone being 16% of the force. Luckily 90 Squadron themselves came off ‘lightly’ once more, losing only one aircraft that night, Stirling MK. III ‘WP-Q’ piloted by W/O. Martin P. Callaway RAFVR, (s/n: 155479), who was only 20 years old.

A third raid to Berlin, saw the withdrawal of both Stirlings and Halifaxes from these duties, their losses being too high compared to those of the Lancaster. The Germans now employing a range of tactics to illuminate the night sky, allowing the night fighters to pick the bombers off almost at will.

There then followed a period of relative calm, until at the end of September, when on the night of 22nd/23rd, 90 Sqn returned to Hannover. A raid that would perhaps be recorded as one of their worst. Between 18:50 and 18:54, three aircraft would depart Wratting Common, one ‘WP-K’ would not get far, its starboard engine catching fire shortly after take off causing the laden bomber to explode at a height of 500 feet. All but one of the crew were killed instantly, whilst the seventh, F/S. Duffy, later died from his injuries.

Of the remaining two aircraft, one was brought down by night fighters over the target, with the loss of all on board, and the third, badly beaten, limped backed to England crashing at RAF Lakenheath in  Suffolk. Two crewmen survived as prisoners, parachuting from the aircraft after confusion arose when the pilot lost control of the Stirling – the remainder of the crew being either killed or injured. For airmanship and courage Sgt. Jones was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal whilst W/O Denton was awarded a DFC, and Sgt. Suddens a DFM.

By October 1943 the Stirling’s days were numbered, and orders had come through for 90 Sqn to depart Wratting Common for RAF Tuddenham. Crews began to pack and aircraft were readied for their eventual departure. On the 12th a final air test would be carried out on Stirling EP426 ‘WP-W’  and it would not go well. A full crew watched aboard as the pilot W/O. George R. Hilton(s/n: 158247) RAFVR tried to land the aircraft with the starboard outer engine feathered. The landing was a disaster and the resultant crash killed all but one of the crew, Sgt. J. Moran the rear gunner being injured. With that 90 Sqn departed Wratting Common taking with it a record that was one to be proud of, but as part of Bomber Commands overall  strategy, it certainly had paid a high price.

For around six weeks the airfield was, flying wise, very quiet, final departures and preparations for new arrivals were made. At the end of November a new unit would arrive, bringing back the mighty Stirling to this open and cold station once again.

RAF Wratting Common

Nissen huts once used by technical staff are now part of the farm complex.

1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) were one of three such units still operating the Stirling, the remainder having switched to Lancasters or Halifaxes previously. Whilst at Wratting Common, 1651 HCU would convert crews to four engined heavies, a task much-needed as the toll of recent attacks on the German heartland was beginning to bite. Now withdrawn from front line bombing duties, Stirling crews were feeling a little pushed out, often left by the crews of Lancasters and Halifaxes who rose to the higher levels to avoid the fighters and flak. The conversion to Lancasters by Bomber Command was long and slow, the poor winter of 1943/44 playing a large part in its delay, restricting flying hours and crew training. Once ‘passed’ on Stirlings, crews would go to Lancaster finishing Schools, honing their skills on a much more adored aircraft.

The HCU would remain here for a year, suffering its own share of problems and accidents. Within the first week one Stirling would crash just 20 minutes after take off whilst on an emergency approach to nearby RAF Downham Market.  After losing power the aircraft spun violently crashing into the ground. Thankfully and very remarkably, all the crew escaped with minor injuries.

In June 1944, the renowned undercarriage of the Stirling would lead to problems for the ground crews of Wratting Common. On the night of 6th June, Stirling BF473 landed on the runway at Wratting Common whereupon its port tyre burst. On departing the aircraft, leaving it to the ground crews to recover, the crew left and headed back for their debriefing. Just a few minutes behind them though, was Wellington JA619 of 69 Squadron at RAF Northolt. Suffering engine trouble, the Wellington made an emergency approach unaware of the huge obstacle that lay ahead. The two aircraft collided, creating a huge fireball that took both RAF and local fire crews several hours to extinguish. In the incident, two of the Wellington crew received injuries and a further two were killed, their bodies were not recovered until the next morning after the fire had been put out.

Further training and minor accidents continued, July 1944, saw one major loss with the crash of Stirling MK.III LK565 ‘QQ-R’. Whilst banking, the pilot F/S. DH Wilson lost control of the aircraft causing it to crash killing all eight on board; the eighth man being an additional navigator.

The year progressed and more crews were turned out. Spares for the Stirling became scarce and eventually the HCU was itself to convert to the Lancaster, the Stirlings later being disposed off. With that, 1651 HCU pulled out of Wratting Common leaving only a front line Lancaster Squadron, who arrived eight days previously, the  only operational unit using Wratting Common.

195 Sqn, previously a Typhoon Squadron, had reformed at Witchford from ‘C’ flight of 115 Squadron. Flying the Lancaster MK.I and III, it arrived at Wratting Common on November 13th 1944, staying until August 1945 where upon it was disbanded.

By now the RAF bomber crews had all but total control of the skies, carrying out a number of raids in daylight such was the state of the German defences. With attacks on Merseburg, Dortmund, Oberhausen and Hamm, losses were low, around 1%, considerably lower than figures previously seen. The high morale of bomber command was about to take a battering though, in the daylight raid on the 12th December 1944 on Witten, a town that had seen extreme violence on the night of Kristallnacht of 9th/10th November 1938.

During the raid a force of 140 Lancasters from 3 Group attacked the steel works of Ruhrstahl, which made steel used in the production of aircraft, tanks and other armaments. In the attack, nine Lancasters were lost and the steel works were missed by bombs. Of these, 195 Sqn lost four Lancasters: HK697 ‘A4-C‘; NG351 ‘JE-E‘; PB112 ‘JE-H‘ and PB196 ‘JE-D‘. One crew survived a crash landing, two other crewmen were taken prisoner but the remainder were all killed – a terrible night for Bomber Command and for 195 Sqn in particular.

As the war neared its conclusion further raids were carried out, losses fell as defences weakened, a mix of both day and night sorties saw operations to Munich, Duisburg, Dortmund, Dresden and once again Berlin. 195 Sqn’s last operational bombing sortie took place on April 24th 1945, following which they took part in Operation ‘Manna‘, dropping food supplies to the starving Dutch people.

After this, 195 Sqn began the operations to bring home the many POWs in Operation ‘Exodus’, a task they took great pride in. On May 7th 1945, the last flight took place from Wratting Common and the squadron was disbanded on August 14th. No longer required, Wratting Common airfield was closed, and within eight months its hangar doors were shut for the final time, the site then returned to agriculture a state in which it survives in today.

RAF Wratting Common

One of the few permanent buildings left on the technical site.

Wratting Common was a short-lived airfield, its crews took part in many of Bomber Command’s most fierce-some air battles, losing a large number of men in the process. Whilst not the enormous toll we’ve come to expect from bomber squadrons, it none the less suffered the terrible injustices of war, and the loss of life that scarred so many families for so long. Long may they be remembered.

The efforts of the many Bomber Command crews were never forgotten though, and land owned by the Vestey family was donated for a memorial that was organised through the efforts of numerous people. Some of the original buildings have been refurbished and are now used by the local farm, several of the hangars remain also in use by local companies, by using them they are at least preserving them.

If approaching from the Haverhill direction, the first structures you see are the two hangers, a T2 and a B1, either side of the road. The B1 to your left and the T2 to your right, both linked across the road by a former track and dispersal point. There would have been four spectacle dispersal points here, all now removed. A footpath near to this point does cross part of the airfield site, allowing some access to remnants of the perimeter tracks. Continue along this road and then turn right, you will then come across Weston Woods Farm. This is the former entrance to the airfield site and here stands the memorial and a number of buildings owned by the farm. In the distance, you can see a further T2, and a small group of Nissen huts again owned by the farm. This area was once the technical area, stores, Motor Transport huts and a range of technical buildings were plentiful in the late 1940s. Now reduced to nothing more than a handful, they are reminders of the days when the RAF’s heavy bombers graced the site.

A short distance along the road from here was the operations block (now gone) and turning left at the junction, the first of the domestic sites – Site 7. The road between here and the nearby village of Weston Colville are where the majority of these site stood, the basic concrete entrances being the only significant indication of anything being here. The village sign at Weston Colville displays a Stirling indicating its links to the airfield and the domestic sites that once stood on this ground.

With little of this site remaining, a handful of buildings, the memorial and a well designed information board, keep the history of those young men who flew from here in the few short years of its existence alive, their stories shall live on as will the memories of the fight they took deep into the heart of the Nazi homeland.

RAF Wratting Common

Weston Colville village sign depicts its links with Wratting Common, the village being home to the many domestic sites of the airfield.

After leaving RAF Wratting Common, we turn south and head back past Haverhill towards Finchingfield. Reputedly one of the most photographed villages in England, it has a ‘chocolate box’ appeal, its quaint houses, old tea shops and village pond, reminiscent of Britain’s long and distant past. Finchingfield and this trail, are also close to the airfield at Wethersfield, and a short detour to the east, is an added bonus and a worthy addition to the trail.

This next airfield, a small satellite airfield, lies one and a half miles to the west of Great Sampford village, and five miles south-east of Saffron Walden. It is actually quite remote, with no public roads close to the site. Footpaths do cross parts of the former airfield, which is all now  completely agricultural.

As we head south we stop  off at the former airfield RAF Great Sampford.

RAF Great Sampford (Station 359)

RAF Great Sampford was a short-lived airfield, built initially as a satellite for RAF Debden, it would be used primarily by RAF Fighter Command, and later by the US Eighth Air Force. It was also used by 38 Group for paratroop training, and by the Balloon Command.

Being a satellite it was a rudimentary airfield, and accommodation was basic; utilising wooden huts as opposed to the more pleasant brick dwellings found at its parent station RAF Debden. It was very much the poorer of the airfields in the area, although by the war’s end a wooden hut would no doubt have been preferential to a cold, metal Nissen hut!

As a satellite it would be used by a small number of squadrons, No. 65 RAF, No. 133 (Eagle Squadron) RAF and No. 616 Squadron RAF. The famous Eagle Squadrons being manned by American volunteers, 133 Sqn was later renamed 336th Fighter Squadron (FS), 4th Fighter Group (FG), after their absorption into the US Army Air Force.

There were two runways at Great Sampford, one of grass and one of steel matting (Sommerfeld track), a steel mat designed by Austrian Expatriate, Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with a handful of other track types) were common on fighter, training and satellite airfields, especially in the early part of the war. It was also used extensively on forward landing grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced. Some records report tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

At Great Sampford the steel matting was 1600 yards long, extended later to 2,000 yards, the grass strip being much shorter at just over 1,000 yards. A concrete perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield, and due to the nature of the area the airfield took on a very odd shape indeed. With many corners and little in the way of straight sections, it may have suited the longer noses of the RAF’s Spitfires well, avoiding the need to weave continuously to see passed the long engine. However, because it was small and uneven, it caused numerous problems for pilots taking off, the hedges and trees proving difficult obstacles to clear without stalling the aircraft in an attempt to get above them.

Hangars and maintenance huts were also sparse, but four blister hangars were provided as the main structures for aircraft repair and maintenance.

Opened on 14th April 1942, the first unit to use the site was No. 65 (East India) Squadron RAF who arrived the same day that it was opened. No. 65 Sqn, being veterans of both Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, had been moved about to regroup and refit, upgrading its aircraft numerous times before settling with the Spitfire.

The Spitfire VB of 65 Sqn (who were previously based at Debden) was a modified MK.V,  the first production version of the Spitfire to have clipped wingtips, a modification that reduced the wingspan down to 32 ft but increased the roll rate and airspeed at much lower altitudes. No. 65 Squadron, would use their Spitfire VBs for low-level fighter sweeps and bomber escort duties, something that suited the clipped wing version well.

Between April and July 1942, 65 Squadron would move between Debden, Martlesham Heath and Hawkinge with short spells in between at Great Sampford. They would then have a longer spell in Kent before leaving for RAF Drem in Southern Scotland. These repeated moves were largely in response to the threat of renewed Luftwaffe attacks on the airfields of southern England, and were part of a much larger plan put into place to protect the front line squadrons.

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The entry in the Operational Record Book for April 14th shows the first landing of Spitfires at Great Sampford. (AIR 27/594/4)

On April 14th, the move took place, a move that was achieved under some difficulty as the squadron was called upon to participate in two Rodeo (fighter sweeps) operations. After extensive searching between Cap Gris Nez and Calais, no enemy aircraft were sighted, and so the wing returned to their various bases. At 20:00 hrs, the first 65 Sqn aircraft touched down at Great Sampford – the base was now open and operational.

The next mission would be the very next day – there was no let up for the busy flyers! “Circus 125” led by Wing Commander J. Gordon, consisted of ten aircraft from Great Sampford, who after taking off at 18:10, met with the bomber formation and escorted them to an airfield target near Gravelines. The entire mission was uneventful and the aircraft arrived safely back at Great Sampford at 19:55 hrs.

This mission pretty much set the standard for the remainder of the month. Numerous Rodeo and Circus operations saw 65 Sqn repeatedly penetrate French airspace with various sighting of, but little contact with, enemy aircraft. The first real skirmish took place on the 25th, when the Boston formation they were escorting was attacked by fourteen FW-190s. One of the Bostons was hit and subsequently crashed into the sea. Flt. Sgt. Stillwell (Red 3) of 65 Sqn threw his own dingy out to the downed crewman who seemed to make no effort to reach it – he was then assumed to be already dead.

On the April 27th, “Circus 142” took place, the escort of eight Hurricane bombers who were attacking St. Omer aerodrome. Three sections ‘Red’, ‘White’ and ‘Blue’ made up 65 Squadron’s section of the Wing, and consisted of both Rhodesian, Czech and British airmen. The Wing flew across the Channel at 15,000 ft, and when on approach to the target, they were attacked by 50-60 FW-190s. In the ensuing dogfight F/O. D. Davies, in Spitfire #W3461; P/O. Tom Grantham (s/n: 80281) flying Spitfire #BL442, and P/O. Frederick Haslett (s/n: 80143) in Spitfire #AB401, were all reported missing presumed dead. It was thought that both F/O. Davies and P/O. Grantham may have collided as they were together when they went down, P/O. Grantham was just 19 years of age.

There were no further losses that month although operations continued up until the last day. In all, 21 operations had been flown in which 2 enemy aircraft were destroyed, 1 was a probable and 1 was damaged. April proved to be a record month in terms of operational flying hours for every pilot below the rank of Squadron Leader, the successes of which though, were marred by the sad events of the 27th and the loss of three colleagues.

On the 28th, their last day of this, the first of several stays at Great Sampford, a congratulatory message came though from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group, “Well done the Debden Wing”, which went some way to lighten the atmosphere before the new month set in.*1

65 Squadron ORB Great Sampford

The Operational Record Book for 65 Squadron. A message of congratulations from the Air Officer Commanding No. 11 Group. (AIR 27/594/4)

It was three months later on July 29th 1942, that 65 Squadron would depart Great Sampford for the last time, and the next squadron would arrive, the Spitfire VIs of No. 616 Squadron RAF.

No. 616 Sqn were formed prior to the declaration of war in November 1938. An Auxiliary Air Force Unit, it too took part in supporting both the Dunkirk evacuation and the early days of the Battle of Britain. Now, at Great Sampford, it had been given the high altitude Spitfire, the MK. Vl, an attempt by Supermarine to tackle the Luftwaffe’s high altitude bombers, and quite the opposite to the VBs of 65 Sqn – these Spitfires had extended wingtips!

616 Squadron would, like 65 Sqn before them, spend July to September yo-yoing between Great Sampford and the airfields further south, Ipswich and Hawkinge, before departing Great Sampford for the final time on September 23rd 1942 for RAF Tangmere. Whilst here at Great Sampford, they would perform fighter sweeps, bomber escort and air patrols over northern France, engaging with the enemy on numerous occasions.

On the same day as 616 Sqn departed, the last operational unit would arrive at Great Sampford, the U.S. volunteer squadron, 133 Squadron known as one of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’. Being one of three squadrons manned totally by American crews, it had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving here at Great Sampford. Whilst some British RAF ground crews helped servicing and maintenance, the aircrew were entirely US, and crews were regularly changed as losses were incurred or crews were transferred out.

Many of these new recruits came in from other units. Ground crews coming into Great Sampford would have to get the train to Saffron Walden where they were met by a small truck who would take them to RAF Debden for a meal and freshen up. Afterwards they were transferred, again by truck, the few miles here to Great Sampford, the transformation was astonishing! In the words of many of those who were stationed here, “there was nothing ‘great’ about Great Sampford!”*2 Also flying Spitfire VBs, they were to quickly replace them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise.

It would be a short-lived stay at Great Sampford though, as 133 Sqn RAF were disbanded on the 29th September, being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, USAAF, and officially becoming US Air Force personnel. They were no longer volunteers of the Royal Air Force.

Just three days before this final transfer, on September 26th 1942, 133 Sqn would suffer a major disaster, and one that almost wiped out the entire squadron.

A small force of seventy-five B-17s from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, were to mount raids on Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix, when the weather closed in. The 301st BG were recalled as their fighter escort failed to materialise, and the 97th BG were ineffective as cloud had prevented bombing to take place. The RAF’s 133 (Eagle) Sqn were to provide twelve aircraft (plus two spares) to escort the bombers on these raids. After refuelling and a rather vague briefing at RAF Bolt Head in Devon, they set off. Unbeknown to them at the time, the two pilots instructed to stay behind, P/O. Don Gentile and P/O. Erwin Miller, had a guardian angel watching over them that day.

During talks with P/O. Beaty, it was ascertained that the Spitfires had flown out above 10/10th cloud cover and so were unable to see any ground features, thus not being able to gain a true understanding of where they were. Added to that, a 100 mph north-easterly wind blew the aircraft far off course into the bay of Biscay. Finding the bombers after 45 minutes of searching, the flight set for home and reduced their altitude to below the cloud for bearings. Being over land they searched for the airfield, all the time getting low on fuel. Instead of being over Cornwall however, where they thought they were, they were in fact over Brest, a heavily defended port, and in the words of 2nd Lt. Erwin Miller – “all Hell broke loose.” *3

In the subsequent battle, all but one of 133 Sqn aircraft were lost, with four pilots being killed.  P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; P/O. Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140 – Millers replacement; P/O. Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and P/O. Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294.

Only one pilot managed to return, P/O. Robert ‘Bob’ Beatty,  who crash landing his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal. From his debriefing it was thought that several others managed to land either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland. Of these, six were known to have been captured and taken prisoners of war, one of whom, F/Lt. Edward Brettell  DFC was executed for his part in the Great Escape from Stalag Luft III. A full report of the events of that day are available in an additional page.

There would be no further operational flying take place for the rest of the month for 133 Sqn – all in all it was a disastrous end for them, and to their spell as RAF aircrew.*4

Pilot Officer Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

Because these marks of Spitfire were in short supply, the remainder of the Squadron were re-equipped with the former MK.VBs, a model they retained into 1943 before replacing them with the bigger and heavier Republic P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’.

As a result of the losses, the dynamics of the group would change. The cohesive nature of the men who had been together for so long, was now broken and the base took on a very different atmosphere.

The effect on those left behind was devastating, morale slumped, and in an attempt to raise it, Donald ‘Don’ Blakeslee ordered the remaining pilots to line up along the eastern perimeter track and take off in formation; something that had been considered virtually impossible due to its short length, uneven surface and rather awkwardly placed trees along its boundary. Blakeslee, who became a legendary fighter pilot with both 133 Sqn and later the 4th Fighter Group (FG), led the group in true American Style, getting all the aircraft off the ground without any mishaps. Heading for Debden, they formed up, and flew directly over the station at below 500 feet, shaking windows and impressing those on the ground with precision flying that took as much out of the pilots as did air to air combat.

That night, the mess hall at Debden, was awash with celebrations as 133 Squadron pilots enjoyed the limelight they had for so long deserved.

On the next day, September 29th, the crews packed their personal belongings and departed Great Sampford for the comforts of Debden, where an official handover took place. General Carl Spaatz and Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas, witnessing the official transfer of the three Eagle Squadrons to the United States Air Eighth Air Force, a move that on the whole, pleased the American airmen.

From then on, Great Sampford would remain under control of the USAAF, being used as a satellite for the 4th FG at Debden, but without any permanent residents. The occasional flight of Spitfires or P-47s would land here whilst on detachment or away pending a Luftwaffe attack. In the early stages of 1943, the Americans decided that Great Sampford (renamed Station 359 as per US designations) was no longer suitable for their needs as it wouldn’t accommodate either the  P-38s or the P-47s due to its awkward size and shape. By February 1943 they had pulled out, and Great Sampford was returned to RAF ownership. By March 1943 the airfield now surplus to flying requirements, was closed, used only by a large selection of RAF Regiments training in airfield defence, Guard of Honour duties and VIP Security. The station eventually closed in August 1944.

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. Handwritten caption on reverse: '19A. KP. Fall, 1942. Great Sampford Satellite Field. 336th crew by 336th Spit Mk. Vb. Wings clipped by sawing off wing & pounding in board then carving and painting it. MD-A, red/blue wheel. Source -Bill Chick, Megura.'

Airmen of the 336th Fighter Squadron, 4th Fighter Group with a clipped wing Spitfire Mk. Vb (MD-A), 1943. at Great Sampford. (@IWM – FRE3230)

However, this closure was not the end for Great Sampford. With paratroop operations progressing in Europe, the airfield was put back into use on 6th December 1944 by 620 Sqn in Operation ‘Vigour‘.

No. 38 Group, in need of practice areas, had acquired the airfield, and were dropping SAS paratroops into the site. This flight preceded another similar activity the following day where Horsa gliders pulled by 620 Sqn Stirlings, took part in Operation ‘Recurrent‘; a cross-country flight from RAF Dunmow in Essex. This flight culminated with the Horsas being released and landing here at Great Sampford. These activities continued throughout the appalling winter of 1944 / 45, and into the following months. In March, in the lead up to Operation ‘Varsity‘ the allied crossing of the Rhine, there was further activity in the skies of this small grass strip. Operation ‘Riff Raff‘  saw yet more paratroops and gliders at Great Sampford, whilst in November 1945, after the war’s end, Operation ‘Share-Out‘ saw the final use of Great Sampford by the paratroops. No. 620 Squadron, who had been based at RAF Dunmow, were now winding down themselves and their use of Great Sampford ceased virtually overnight.

Since then, Great Sampford has become completely agricultural, the perimeter track virtually all that remains of this small but rather interesting site. It lies in a remote area, fed only by farm tracks and small footpaths. The tracks, now a fraction of their original size, still weave their way around the airfield as they did for that short, but busy time, in the mid 1940s.

Regretfully the airfield and its unique history has all but passed into the history books, and rather sadly, no memorial marks the airfield, even though many airmen were lost during  the many sorties in those dark days of the war-torn years of the 1940s.

We depart Great Sampford heading off once more, the airfields of Essex and East Anglia beckoning. As we move off, we spare a thought for those for whom this was the last view they had of ‘home’, and of those who never came back to this quiet and remote part of the world.

Sources, notes and further Reading (Wratting Common).

*1 Chorley., W. R., “Bomber Command Losses 1943“, Midland Counties Publications, 1996.

A book of remembrance is thought to be in St Mary’s Church, West Wickham. Sadly on the day I visited, the church was unusually locked.

A website dedicated to those who flew from Wratting Common has a lot of additional information and photographs, it is certainly worth a visit.

Sources and further reading (Great Sampford)

*1 National Archives: AIR 27/594/4 .

*2 Goodson. J,. “Tumult in the clouds” Penguin UK, (2009) 

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

*4 National Archives: AIR 27/945/26

National Archives: AIR 27/945/25

The “Slightly-out-of-Focuswebsite has details of a photo essay documenting the planning and execution of an airborne exercise prior to Operation Varsity. It’s a detailed document which includes gliders of 38 Group RAF landing at Great Sampford

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