In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.
Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.
But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.
Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.
Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.
Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).
Rackheath (Station 145)
Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.
Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of 2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.
A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.
A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.
Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.
The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.
The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.
Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.
The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.
But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘ on the high right.
As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’
Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.
Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.
The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.
When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.
It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire. The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.
As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.
Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down – struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.
Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night. By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.
April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.
With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.
On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.
By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.
In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.
The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.
For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history.
On December 24th, B-24 #42-50675 “Bold Venture III” piloted by 1st. Lt. P. Ehrlich, was one of sixty-two B-24s from the 467th taking part in a maximum effort attack on a range of targets in Germany. Hit by flak over the target, five of the crew, including the pilot, bailed out fearing the aircraft was lost. All five were subsequently captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war. The fires in the engines then extinguished themselves allowing the remaining crew to engage the auto-pilot, taking the aircraft homeward and over allied territory. Once over France, they too bailed out as they were unable to land the heavy bomber, each of these men being safely picked up by allied forces. The plane then continued on, unmanned across the Channel, until it ran out of fuel.
At this point, the story becomes confused. Some say it landed / crashed in a field near to Lower House Farm, Vowchurch Common in Herefordshire. The wreck being salvaged the following day. However, there is little evidence of this event, and other sources (Freeman “The Mighty Eighth“) have it landing in a Welsh marsh a little further west. Whatever the truth is, its a remarkable, but not unique, story of a crewless bomber flying ‘home’ coming to rest safely on British soil.
Also on that Christmas Eve, another Rackheath B-24, #42-95220, piloted by First Lieutenant William W. Truxes Jr , was hit over Pruen. The aircraft then exploded over Rettigny in Belgium, killing Sgt. Walter Walinski (TG); Sgt. Stanley P. Koly (LWG); Fl. Off. David J. Countey (Nav); Sgt. Roland L. Morehouse (BA); St. Sgt. Peter Hardick Jr (TTG); St. Sgt. John N. Ellefson (Radio Op) and Sgt. Alek Onischuk (RWG). Only the Nose Gunner St. Sgt. Robert J. Ball Jr. returned to duty the remainder being taken prisoners of war.
On the 29th the continuing appalling weather caused the loss of two more B-24s, both crashing attempting to take off from a foggy Rackheath (#42- 95115 and #42-51572). A third (#42-94881) was then abandoned over the sea, and a forth (#44- 10607) crashed at Attlebridge also after sustaining damage on its take off. The visibility was so poor that day that the crews couldn’t even make out the edge of the runway. As a result of these crashes, the mission to Prum, was finally scrubbed, but by then fifteen airmen had already been lost.
The dawn of 1945 saw the Ardennes offensive continuing, and at Rackheath B-24 ‘Witchcraft‘ was approaching its 100th Mission an achievement it made on January 14th 1945. In just 140 days since arriving, it had reached its 70th mission an average of one mission every two days, but what made this particular achievement so remarkable was not this incredible average, but the fact that the aircraft had been mechanically sound throughout, not having to turn back from any sortie it had undertaken. A remarkable achievement, and a solid testament to the dedication of the ground crews who kept her in the air.
“The Witch“, as she affectionately became known, would go on to complete a total of 130 missions without a single abort nor injury to any crewman. She became one of the most celebrated aircraft in the 8th Air force’s history. This total would surpass all other B-24s in the whole of the European theatre of operations. Like many though, ‘The Witch‘ eventually returned to the US where she was unceremoniously taken apart at Altus, Oklahoma. In memory of the aircraft, her achievements and the crews who were lost flying B-24s, she is now represented by the world’s last flying Liberator, currently owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, Massachusetts.
As 1945 progressed the end of the war was near. Attempts by the Luftwaffe to curtail bomber intrusions into German airspace were becoming desperate. The introduction of the Me 262 was too little, too late, to make a major difference. But so determined to stop the bombers were the Luftwaffe pilots that many still got through and they were finding the bombers.
Other fighters more determined to bring down the enemy began ramming them. A specialist squadron the ‘Sonderkommando Elbe‘ was set up using volunteer pilots. They were instructed to strike the fuselage of the bomber between the wing and tail thus cutting the aircraft in two, a tactic that would allow the German pilot to bail out of his aircraft whilst taking down the bomber.
On April 7th, the unit was put into action in its one and only recorded attack, as over 1,000 heavies flew towards German airfields, oil storage facilities and factories in north-west Germany. From the 2nd AD, 340 B-24s headed for Krummel, Duneburg and Neumunster. As the force approached they were targeted by a mix of over 100 Luftwaffe fighters including 109s, 190s and 262s. In this mix was the Sonderkommando Elbe. Whilst the tactic would prove to be more devastating to the rammer than the target, one of Rackheath’s B-24s #42-94931 ‘Sack Time‘ was hit in the tail severing the starboard stabiliser. The B-24’s pilot, Lt. Robert Winger, managed to keep the aircraft flying but with little control, he ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft once over allied territory. The B-24 then crewless, fell from the sky.
It is not known whether the attack was a deliberate act by the Sonderkommando Elbe, or as a result of the tail gunner Robert (Bob) Perkins’s action. Perkins in his attempt to defend the B-24, fired desperately at the attacker, Heinrich Henkel, striking the aircraft several times.
Then for three days in mid April, the heavies of the USAAF turned their attention to the gun batteries around Royan. These German strong holds were hindering the allied plans to use the port at Bordeaux, they had to be ousted.
During one of the missions, on April 15th, the 467th would make history again when three of the four squadrons released all their 2,000lb bombs within 1,000 ft of the mean point of impact, half of these being within 500 ft – a record that would not be beaten by any other USAAF unit. This was the ‘icing on the cake’ for the 467th who were building a strong reputation for consistent and accurate bombing. So determined were the Americans to remove the defenders on the ground, that they used Napalm in 500 lb tanks, a rather horrific weapon used to great effect during the Vietnam war.
By the end of April the war was all but over, and at bases all around the UK, air and ground crews eagerly awaited the notice to cease operations. Some units were already being stood down, and very soon operations would begin to drop food rather than bombs. As the end of hostilities was announced, the figures began to be totted up. The 379th BG at Kimbolton were recorded as dropping the greatest number of bombs on a target, with the 467th BG at Rackheath achieving the greatest accuracy. This Rackheath record was due, in part, to the dedication, support and drive of its Commander, Colonel Albert Shower.
On April 25th 1945, the 467th completed its last mission, a total that amounted to 212 (5,538 sorties credited), dropping 13,333 tons of bombs. With 29 aircraft classed as ‘missing’, and a further 19 lost on operations, the war had not been cheap.
On May 13th, the 467th were to lead the Victory Flypast over High Wycombe, the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force operations, the choice of a B-24 as lead fuelling the ‘ill-feeling’ between B-24 and B-17 crews even further.
Over the next month, the aircraft and men of the 467th would return to the US, the majority of aircraft departing Rackheath on June 12th, whilst the ground echelons left via the Queen Mary from Greenock, the same port they had arrived at just over a year earlier. Eventually the 467th would be disbanded, renamed the 301st, but for Rackheath it was the end, and within a year much of the airfield was already being ripped up, the runways were disappearing and many of the accommodation buildings had been torn down. The entire site measuring just short of 4 km2 was already beginning to disappear.
Gradually agriculture has taken over, much of the main airfield site are now fields. The technical area has since been developed into an industrial estate with many of the original buildings being re clad, redeveloped, modernised or pulled down. The watch office has thankfully been refurbished and from the outside resembles a watch office typical of the time. Inside it is now offices. The one surviving T2 hangar, has had brickwork added to it, other buildings are almost indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. A memorial, dedicated to the men and Women of the 467th was unveiled on 29th July 1990, by the then 80 year old Colonel Albert J. Shower, returning for one last time to the place he had built up a reputation for hard graft whilst appreciating the need for recreation.
If approaching from the south, take the A1270 from Norwich heading north, leave at the roundabout with Salhouse Road turning right. The Holy Trinity Church is a few hundred yards along this road. Here you will find the village sign, memorial benches and numerous plaques in memory of the 467th. The two wrought iron gates at the entrance of the church were donated by the Coffey crew. Inside here (the church was closed on my visit) a collection of photographs and letters bring the Rackheath to life once more.
When leaving the church, go back but turn right along Green Lane West. This takes you past the remaining hardstands and along to the industrial estate. Enter by Wendover Road, named after Wendover Field in Utah. Turning into Bidwell Road, (following the signs) you will find the main memorial on the the corner of Bidwell Road and Liberator Close.
Coming back again, turn left, follow Wendover Road to the corner with Witchcraft Way, a small road to your left. Here you will see the Watch Office. Also along here are Ramirez Road, Albert Shower Road, the T2 and other buildings of interest. A real rabbit warren, it is best explored to really discover the many buildings and plaques that remain.
The main accommodation areas were located back across the from the entrance of Wendover Road. Today a new road has been cut through this wooded area but within these woods, remains of huts still exist, some with etchings on the walls. All on private land, they are also gradually disappearing from view.
Rackheath was a short lived base, operating for just a short part of the war. But its contribution and the contribution of its crews, was nonetheless immense. With high accuracy and the determination to win, they took the war into the heart of Germany itself. The names of these young men now live on, in the road names and plaques that adorn many of the building and streets around this beautiful and now peaceful area of Norfolk.
After departing Rackheath we head a few miles east, toward the coast. Not far away, is another airfield, this time a former RAF site. Long gone it continues to use part of the original runway, two watch offices remain, and a smattering of wartime buildings lay dormant in the corner of now agricultural fields. From Rackheath we travel east to the former RAF Ludham.
RAF Ludham (Station 177, H.M.S. Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham).
Ludham is a small airfield that has been in existence since September 1941, when it opened as a satellite for RAF Coltishall located a few miles to the north-west. It would change hands on more than one occasion over the next few years, being assigned to the RAF, the USAAF and the Royal Navy before returning to RAF ownership once more.
Throughout this time, it would operate as a fighter airfield seeing range of Spitfire Marks along with a Typhoon Squadron. A number of B-17s would crash here as would a P-38 lightning and several other USAAF aircraft; part of Ludham’s history being that of an emergency landing strip for returning aircraft.
At its inception, Ludham was a grassed airfield, with a hardened perimeter track linking a number of dispersals. Being a fighter airfield the perimeter was only 40 feet wide but of concrete construction, thus it was not designed for the larger, medium or heavy bombers of the allied air forces.
Furthermore, as a satellite, Ludham lacked the design features of a major airfield, and so the accommodation and technical facilities were not up to the same standard of those found on other sites. The accommodation huts were scattered around the north-western side of the airfield, and an initial single storey watch office was also built to the west. A standard wartime design for satellite airfields (design 3156/41), it was a single-roomed structure with a pyrotechnic cupboard and limited views. A switch room was then added to the building (design 1536/42) in early 1942, before the entire building was abandoned and a new twin storey watch office built. As with most airfields of this type, the twin storey building was constructed in conjunction with the addition of the concrete runways. This new office (design 12779/41) with lower front windows (343/43) would have many benefits over the original not least better views across the airfield site.
Another interesting, but not unique feature of Ludham, was a Modified Hunt Range, a structure designed to teach aircraft recognition. The structure, built inside a Laing Hut, saw the trainee sat in front of an enormous mirror. A moving model was then placed behind the student on an elaborate turntable that could not only move in the horizontal plane, but both turn and bank. A selection of lights and a cyclorama added to the realism, with the model reflected in the mirror in front of the student. The combination of all these features provided the students with life-like conditions, thus recreating the same difficulties they were likely to find in combat situations.
For much of its early life, Ludham was used as a satellite of Coltishall, although many of its squadrons were based here from the outset. The primary aircraft seen here was Supermarine’s magnificent Spitfire, the first of which was the MK.VB of 19 Squadron.
19 Sqn had only had this mark of Spitfire since October, previously operating the MK.IIA at RAF Matlask not far from here on the north Norfolk coast. The Mk V was the most produced Spitfire of all 24 marks (and their sub variants) and was armed with a combination of machine gun and canon depending upon which wing configuration was used. The link between the Spitfire, Matlask and Ludham would be a long one, with units moving from one to the other. forging a bond that would last the entire war.
Arriving in the opening days of December 1941, 19 Sqn immediately began carrying out patrols and bomber escort duties over the North Sea, a duty they had been undertaking whilst at Matlask. On several occasions they would fly out to meet incoming Beauforts and their escorts, after they had completed their anti-shipping missions along the Dutch coast. Daily flights would take: Red, Green, Yellow, White, Black or Blue section, each containing two aircraft, over Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and around the coastal regions of the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline.
However, most of these encounters produced little in the way of contact – even when pilots were directed onto the enemy aircraft. On the 9th, P.O. Halford and Sgt. Turner were vectored onto an intruder, but neither aircraft saw, nor encountered the ‘bandit’, and they returned empty handed. Another two scrambles that same day by ‘Green’ and ‘Black’ sections also proved fruitless, although ‘Black’ section did manage to locate the aircraft which turned out to be a friendly.
Other duties carried out by 19 Sqn included shipping reconnaissance flights, shadowing and monitoring shipping movements across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast. Taking off at 11:20 on December 18th, F.O. Edwards and P.O. Brooker flew at zero feet across the Sea to Scheveningen where they spotted a convoy of 11 ships. One of these was identified as a flak ship protecting the convoy as it left for open waters. The pair then turned north and flew along the coast to Yumiden where they encountered three more ships. No enemy aircraft were encountered and the pair returned to Ludham to file their report.
Then on Christmas Eve, P.O.s Vernon and Hindley in ‘Blue‘ Section were tasked with a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission to attack the aerodrome at Katwyk. On route, they came across a convoy and two Me. 109Es, who were acting as escort / cover for the ships. The two Spitfires engaged the 109s, Blue 1 getting a two second canon and machine gun strike on one of them at 300 yards range. Black smoke was seen coming from the fighter which dived to the sea only to pull up at the last minute and head for home. Blue 2 engaged the other enemy aircraft, but no strikes were seen and the German pilot broke off also setting a course for home. The two Spitfires then engaged the convoy attacking a number of vessels, each pilot recording strikes on the ships, claiming some as ‘damaged’. After the attack they returned home, this leg of the flight being uneventful.
These events set a general pattern for the next four months, and one that would become synonymous with Ludham. Then, on April 4th 1942, 19 Sqn would move to RAF Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a direct swap with 610 Sqn who had been stationed there since the January.
Also during this time a supporting squadron had also been at Ludham, 1489 (Fighter) Gunnery Flight, (formerly 1489 (Target Towing) Flight) which had moved in to help prepare fighter pilots for air-to-air combat. Around the time that 19 Sqn departed Ludham, 1489 Flt also departed, also going to Hutton Cranswick with 19 Sqn where they were disbanded in 1943.
610 Sqn were another Spitfire squadron also operating the MK.VB at this time. They too got straight back into action carrying out the patrols undertaken by 19 squadron before them. No engagements were recorded until the 8th, when what were thought to be two ‘E’ boats were sighted but not engaged.
The remainder of April was much the same, several convoy escorts, reconnaissance missions along the Dutch coast and scrambles that led to very little. On the 27th two Spitfires did encounter and Ju 88 which they shot down, the crew from the Ju 88 were not seen after the aircraft hit the water. On the next day, ten Spitfires took off between midnight and 01:05 hrs to patrol the Norwich area. Here they saw green parachute flares, and flew to intercept. Sticks of bombs were then seen exploding in the streets of the city, and various pilots engaged with Do 217 bombers. Strikes were recorded on the enemy aircraft, but they were lost in smoke and they could not be confirmed as ‘kills’. Further attacks occurred again on the 29th and again strikes were seen by the RAF pilots on the enemy intruders.
The period April to August was pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles. Then in mid August, 610 Sqn would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.
On August 16th, a need arose for fighters to bolster 11 Group for ‘Operation Jubilee‘ – the raid on Dieppe by allied forces, primarily Canadian. The raid was supposed to achieve a number of objectives, but only one was successful, the main force being held on the beach where vehicles became bogged down in the shingle. 610 Sqn formed part of the aerial umbrella, along with 411 Sqn and 485 Sqn who all jointly formed the 12 Group wing flying from a temporary base at RAF West Malling. On the previous night to the raid, the 19th, ground crews were busy at West Malling fitting long range drop tanks to the Spitfires which according to the ORB, “proved their worth on this occasion“. During the air battle, which raged between the Spitfires, Typhoons and around fifty Me 109s and FW 190s, 610 Sqn claimed two 109s along with one FW 190 as destroyed and two FW 190s as damaged. Three of 610 Sqn’s aircraft went down, one of the pilots Flt. Sgt. Creagh, being picked up from the sea. Interestingly enough, during this skirmish, pilots noted seeing FW 190s in Italian markings! By 09:30 hrs the squadron had returned to West Malling.
The flight then returned to the skies over Dieppe three further times that day, taking off at 11:20 hrs and then again at 14:00 hrs, each time to cover the withdrawal of shipping. The last evening sortie took off at 17:35 hrs. On the 20th, 610 Sqn flew out to France once again, this time though it was to escort US bombers returning from the continent, perhaps seeing the carnage left by the disastrous raid the day before.
By the 21st it was all over, and the sixteen aircraft returned to Ludham where they would receive a message of thanks from the AOC 11 Group – Leigh Mallory.
As the squadron were returning to Ludham, so too came a new delivery, the squadron’s first batch of Spitfire Mk.VCs, with three arriving on the 21st and one further aircraft arriving on the 22nd. These were gradually absorbed into flying duties as the squadron returned to normal patrols and escort duties from Ludham. 610’s tally for the month stood at 123 enemy aircraft destroyed and 41.5 probables.
Over September, flights were pretty much routine once more, then October arrived and Ludham became frantic again. On the 8th, a road party was sent as advanced party to Biggin Hill with a view to taking part in a “Hush-Hush” operation. Unfortunately the operation was cancelled just prior to the party’s arrival, and they had to return to Ludham somewhat disappointed; road and rail transport being provided for the next morning.
That day also saw 610 Sqn Spitfires provide withdrawal cover for “over 100 Fortresses”, which at the time was a “headline” mission, this being the largest daylight raid of the war so far. The incredible sight of this massed formation would be dwarfed in comparison by the wars end with formations consisting of 1,000 aircraft or more, in a stream that lasted for what must have seemed forever. Whilst enemy aircraft were seen in this first momentous occasion, there were no claims of ‘kills’ or ‘probables’ made by pilots of Ludham’s 610 Sqn.
By now, rumours of another move were circulating widely, hopes for a move south nearer to the action were dashed, when signal O2OB, dated 11.10.42, came through instructing the squadron to move to Castletown, near Caithness in Scotland – the opposite end of the country to where they wanted to be.
The move was to take place on the 14th October, and would be a direct swap with 167 (Gold Coast) Sqn, yet another Spitfire VC squadron. The airlift of 167 Sqn was late in arriving, meaning that many men were left ‘Kicking their heels” at Ludham, so a number headed to Norwich and a little light entertainment at the cinema. The transfer then happened on the next day, the 15th, with many of the pilots suffering sickness on the way up, thought to be due to the poor weather. Now 610’s link to this small Norfolk airfield was broken, and a new link in Ludham’s chain of history would be forged – a new squadron had arrived.
167 Sqn stayed at Ludham for five months, after which they took part in exercise ‘Spartan‘, a twelve day posting first at Kidlington and then Fowlmere, before returning to Ludham on March 13th, 1943. Exercise Spartan was a prelude to D-day, a huge military exercise that took place in southern England as a practise for the allied offensive across Europe in June 1944. Like Operation Jubilee, it consisted heavily of Canadian units, and also like Operation Jubilee, there were many shortcomings, the result of which was the loss of Command for three Canadian Generals.
A further short two month stay at Ludham then saw 167 Sqn depart in May for good. This left the Norfolk airfield to the only Typhoon squadron to use the base – 195 Sqn.
Formed in November 1942, 195 Sqn had formed at Duxford, transferring to Hutton Cranswick where they were assigned their Typhoons. A further move to Woodvale then brought them to Ludham where they would stay until 31st July 1943.
On arrival at Ludham the squadron was immediately confirmed as operational, and on the 15th May 1943, the very day the operational notice came through, Sgt. R.A. Hough spotted an Me 109f bombing Southwold. He engaged the enemy shooting him down into the sea, the squadrons first confirmed kill of the war.
With four more Typhoons arriving on the 20th, the squadron was in good spirits and eager to get on. But like their predecessors before them, their month consisted of patrols, practice scrambles and training flights some of which included the squadron’s Hurricane (7778) and Tiger Moth (209). By the end of the month, the Ludham unit had made 362 flights, most as patrols or as training flights. June was similar, the lack of contact frustrating the pilots; a note in the ORB saying “Patrols carried out dawn to dusk, 12 operational sorties being flown, but the Hun wouldn’t play“. The highlight of the day was perhaps the darts match against the local Home Guard, the Home Guard winning that night! As the month progressed, the squadron began to venture further afield taking on trains and oil storage facilities on the continent, scoring many hits and receiving flak damage as a result. On the 8th July the squadron suffered its first Ludham fatality when Flt. Sgt. F. Vause hit the ground in a low flying exercise. A talk by Sqn. Ldr. Taylor reflected the sentiments of the unit when he said they had lost a “Damn good pilot”. He went on to stress the low flying rules.
The end of July came and notification to depart Ludham for Matalsk, and a share of the airfield with 609 Sqn. There was some regret withe the more ‘romantic’ types of the squadron and due honours were paid to Ludham on that last night of the 30th July.
The last Spitfire squadron before Ludham left RAF control was 611 Sqn, with their Spitfire LF VBs. This was a short stay lasting only until August 4th, when they were told to move to Coltishall as Ludham was being closed down in preparation for transference to the USAAF. After one sortie at Ludham the move went ahead on the 4th, but it was not overly welcomed as Coltishall was already busy and accommodation was cramped.
With that, Ludham was closed, and the airfield was taken over by the Air Ministry (Works) whereupon construction work began on three new concrete and tarmac runways, a project that would take a year to complete. During this time new hardstands were installed – a mix of (17) double and (18) single types using pierced steel, some of these were located outside of the perimeter, and a small maintenance unit took care of the running of the airfield. A new two storey watch office was built with the original being re-purposed.
Designated Station 177, Ludham was never actually occupied by the Americans though, even though all the upgrade work had been completed, it remained firmly deserted apart from a small maintenance unit who oversaw its use.
Instead, it was decided to use Ludham as a dummy airfield and emergency landing ground for returning aircraft. A decision that was partly made for them as heavy bombers returning from daylight missions over occupied Europe would often come in over this part of East Anglia, and Ludham was the first airfield they would come across. Because of this, Ludham would see some eight B-17s, a B-24, one P-47, and a P-38 aircraft have to either crash or make emergency landings at Ludham or in the immediate vicinity.
The first to make use of the airfield in this way occurred on October 8th, 1943 barely a month into the airfield’s upgrading. A B-17F #42-3393 “Just-A-Snappin” was badly damaged over Bremen. The aircraft, piloted by Capt. Everett Blakely, made it back to England crossing the Norfolk coast east of Ludham. The aircraft had sustained severe damage from flak, the Number 4 engine, the hydraulics and the brakes all being put out of action. The aircraft made an emergency landing at Ludham crashing into a large tree causing further damage to the air frame. It was salvaged a few days later. This particular aircraft had only been assigned to the 418th BS at Thorpe Abbots, part of the Bloody Hundredth, in the July. It also went under the name of “Blakely’s Provisional Group” and ”Did You Say Ten Cents?“, the multitude of names causing confusion in a number of references.
A second aircraft would attempt to use Ludham as a safe haven not long after this. On the 13th December, 1943 P-38H #42-67503 of the 55th FG, 343rd FS, “Vivacious Vera” piloted by First Lt. Hugh J. Goudelock, sustained damage to one engine whilst escorting bombers also over Bremen. After nursing the aircraft back to Britain he attempted a landing at Ludham when, suddenly, the second engine gave out. This left the P-38 powerless, causing it to crash in Ludham, the pilot sustaining only minor injuries. The strength of the P-38 having brought the pilot back for 375 miles on a single engine,
A similar story was repeated on December 23rd when B-17F #42-3273 “Impatient Virgin” crashed at Potter Heigham, another village only a stones throw from the airfield, while attempting to land at Ludham following damage it received over Munster. A sudden loss of power meant the aircraft had to put down in a field rather than on the airfield, all ten crewmen luckily returned to duty and the aircraft was salvaged.
December had certainly been a busy month for Ludham, even though officially it was closed to flying, it had more than proved its worth as an emergency landing ground.
The work continued at Ludham and eventually, in August 1944, it was complete. By then the US forces had decided against using Ludham and it was then handed over to the Royal Navy (RN).
Being only four miles from the Norfolk coast, Ludham (or HMS Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham as it was now known) would have normally been ideal for the Royal Navy, however, this was not the case. The RN had recently set up the Mobile Naval Airfields Organisation, (MNAO) and was looking for a suitable location for its headquarters. The RN had considered locations as far away as the Far East, but in desperation had turned to the RAF for help with a suitable site. The RAF offered Ludham which the Royal Navy reluctantly accepted.
A small party arrived at Ludham and took charge, led by Commander (A) J.B. Wilson and Captain L.J.S. Edes. The airfield still being closed to flying, was commissioned for use by the RN on September 4th.
The purpose of the MNAO, which had by now changed names to Mobile Naval Air Base (MONAB), was as a facility providing airfield facilities working in conjunction with the Fleet as they progress across the Pacific toward Japan. They would take control of captured airfields or otherwise construct their own, thus providing air support and maintenance work for Royal Naval aircraft*1. The range of aircraft that Ludham would cater for included: the Avenger; Corsair; Expeditor; Firefly and Hellcat.
The creation and structure of MONAB is complex, each unit consisting upward (and sometimes in excess) of 1,000 personnel a number that would cause great problems for those at Ludham. With new personnel coming in, the numbers would exceed those that Ludham could realistically cater for and so many were put up in tents or other temporary accommodation. The winter of 1944 – 45 being one of the worst, eventually turned Ludham into a bog, cold, wet and very muddy! Ludham soon became a terrible place to work, let alone live! The RN decided to split the MONAB so that only the Receipt & Dispatch Unit was based at Ludham, which in itself led to more complications. As time went on, the RN began searching for a more suitable location, one with good road and rail connections as well as better accommodation facilities.
The whole saga ended up being so poor, that by January the RN were almost as desperate for a new location as they were before being offered Ludham. In February, the Air Ministry offered Middle Wallop, an airfield under the control of 7 Group RAF. On the 16th, the transfer occurred and RNAS Ludham ceased to be, Middle Wallop taking on the both the role and the name HMS Flycatcher.
After the Fleet Air Arm vacated Ludham, the airfield was handed back to RAF control, although many of the functions continued to be carried out by the remaining Naval personnel. In mid February, the former Station Commander of Matlask Sqn. Ldr. P. G. Ottewill (previously awarded the George Medal) arrived to formally take over control of Ludham. His arrival would signify the definitive end of the Navy’s links, and the last Naval personnel finally moved out on the 24th.
Ludham wouldn’t stay quiet for long though. Within days of the Navy’s departure two new squadrons would arrive bringing back the old favourite, the Spitfire, with the arrival of both 602 and 603 Sqns.
Both 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron were Auxiliary Air Force (AAF) Squadrons, devised out of the remnants of the First World War, and led by Sir Hugh Trenchard. Post war apathy however, prevented the official formation of this force until 1924 when a Bill was passed in Government making them both legal and official. Initially designed to be ‘reservists’ they were to be located near to the city of their name and would be called upon to protect that region in the event of an attack. Manned by a cadre of regulars and non-regulars, the Auxiliary Air Force officially came into being on January 17th, 1939. Throughout the war the AAF, sometimes seen as ‘part-timers’, were responsible for a number of both high ranking officials and remarkable feats. Indeed, the AAF were a force to be reckoned with, the first Luftwaffe aircraft shot down over Britain*2 (the ‘Humbie Heinkel‘) going jointly to both 602 and 603 Sqns in an attack over Edinburgh.
602 (City of Glasgow) Sqn had the honour of being the first of these AAF units to emerge from this Bill, being formed on 12th September 1925 at Renfrew, Glasgow. 603 (City of Edinburgh) Sqn joining them not long after on 14th October 1925 at Turnhouse. Throughout the war years both units would move around covering the length and breadth of Britain (603 even having postings to Egypt) before reuniting here at Ludham in February 1945.
February 1945 had been a wintery month, the poor weather causing several missions to be postponed, with all commands of the Allied forces suffering. 602 Sqn returned from France to Coltishall, after which they moved between Matlask, Swannington and back to Coltishall before arriving here at Ludham on February 23rd 1945. The following day, their sister squadron 603 Sqn, arrived having been abroad operating with Beaufighters. Their arrival here at Ludham meant that 12 Group would have six operational squadrons in the vicinity, all dedicated to defeating the V2 rocket menace that was plaguing London and the south east. Upon moving in, neither squadron took long to settle, and the general consensus was that Ludham was a ‘good airfield’ to be based at, especially compared to Matlask and Swannington!
By this time 602 would have the Spitfire XVI which allowed for a 1,000lb bomb-load. This would be used not only against ‘Big Ben‘ (V2) sites, but bridges, railways and other communication lines across Holland and western Germany. 603 Sqn had the LF XVIE Spitfire, capable of carrying a more modest 500lb bomb load (either as 2 x 250lb or 1 x 500lb bomb) as a dive bomber, a role that the Spitfire was not designed for. As might be expected, a friendly rivalry had grown between the two squadrons resulting in a competition to see who could hit the most locomotives or other vehicles. This resulted in numerous ground attacks being carried out, some 1,008 hours being flown by 603 Sqn alone.
The daily routine continued with the bombing of sites in Holland as ‘Ramrod‘ missions. Crews from Matlask, Swannington and Coltishall all joining the Ludham crews. These sorties focusing on the V2 rocket sites, the Haagsche Bosch taking a particular pasting in these last few cold days of February 1945.
Following information provided by the Dutch resistance, these Spitfires would patrol, with, pretty much, ‘free-reign’ over the Dutch countryside concentrating on areas around The Hague. Woodland became a source for many attacks, the Germans being particularly clever at hiding mobile V2 sites in such areas. Pilots, being acutely aware of Dutch civilians, would look for any traffic movement on roads around these areas and these were to be ‘fair game’, civilian traffic unlikely to be roaming so freely at this time.
Attacks would normally come in from between 6,000 and 8,000 ft, diving down at about 70o, letting bombs go at around 3,000 ft. It was a difficult attack, keeping the target in the sights whilst avoiding flak and keeping the aircraft together. On one occasion, a Spitfire was seen to lose its wings pulling out of a dive too quickly, the bombs still attached to their mounts.
The whole of March saw similar patterns, attacks on railway yards, locomotives, transport facilities, trucks and V2 sites.
By April, the war was all but over, with which came a final move for both 602 Sqn and 603 Sqns to Coltishall. Prior to this, on the 3rd, the two squadrons were given an ‘Easter gift’ in the form of a day out on the Norfolk Broads. For 603 breakfast finished at 10:30 at which point the bar opened for Guinness, providing a liquid recreation for those who wished it. Other 603 Sqn crews took boats up to the Broads where they joined with 602 crews spending the day relaxing on its quiet waterways.
On the 4th the order to vacate Ludham came through, the airfield was busied, sorting and packing equipment and tools, and on the 5th all aircraft, ground staff and equipment of both squadrons departed in shuttle flights for Coltishall – another link had been broken.
However, this was not to be the end of Ludham. Even as the Nazi war machine ground to a halt, Ludham would continue on, with two more squadrons arriving. Throughout the war the Spitfire in its various marks had been the main type to use Ludham, this was no different, 91 Sqn bringing the Spitfire XXI (8th April), and 1 Sqn the F.21.
There time here at Ludham was filled with mass formation flying, cross-country flights, dive bombing practise and regular parties. The crews even enjoying time fishing and boating on the Broads. Events were becoming so predictable that almost anything different was news, on August 1st Fl. Lt.R. (Tac) Brown became a father, a baby son being recorded in the ORB for that day!
Both units would stay until mid / late July 1945, at which point they departed, 1 Squadron heading to Hutton Cranswick, the Spitfire being the last piston-engined fighter aircraft to fly with this prestigious unit before taking on jets; and 91 Sqn to Fairwood Common, again the Spitfire seeing the end of piston engined aircraft before the dawn of the jet age. With their departure, the end had now come for Ludham as an active military airfield. The site was closed, put into care and maintenance and eventually sold off for agriculture.
By the time it closed Ludham had developed from a basic satellite station to an airfield in its own right, with the addition of three hard runways, twelve pens, nine hardstands and the addition of (US type) single and double hardstands. It also had one type T2 hangar and four blister hangars – one of which survives today although not in its original location.
As with many of Britain’s wartime airfields, Ludham returned to agriculture, the runways were dug up and many of the buildings pulled down. Some remained used for agricultural purposes and part of one runway was left, used for crop sprayers and private light aircraft, one of the blister hangars was uprooted and placed on the end of the runway. Those buildings that were left decayed, including the two watch offices. In 2000 – 01, they were restored, and in 2005, Historic England (entry No: 1393540) designated both buildings as Grade II listed, as an “exceptionally well-preserved example of a Second World War control tower.” However, they were both left empty and the inevitable happened again, they began to decay and fall into disrepair once more a state they exist in today*3.
Dotted around the perimeter (a mere track) are a handful of buildings, defensive posts and firing butts, all remnants of Ludham’s once chaotic but meaningful past.
Ludham airfield rests between the villages of Ludham (to the south west) and Potter Higham (to the south east). The main A149 passes to the eastern side and the entire site is circumnavigated by a minor road. From this road, the majority of remnants can be seen, with good views across the entire site. A small private road leads up to the watch offices, and parts of the peri track and runways are still in evidence. Various buildings and structures can be found around this track too, some hidden in private gardens and utilised for storage.
Ludham started out as a satellite airfield, its future seemingly never intending to be major. But, circumstances dictated otherwise, eventually becoming a major player in the front line against enemy shipping, the V2 menace and as a safe haven for returning aircraft, limping home from battles over occupied Europe. If that isn’t sufficient for an entry in the history books, then what is?
Sources and further reading RAF Rackheath
For more detail on Mission 311 see: McLachlan, I., “Night of the Intruders” Pen and Sword (1994).
Sources and further reading RAF Ludham
National Archives: AIR 27/253/24
National Archives:AIR 27/2107/15
National Archives: AIR 27/2107/19
National Archives AIR 27/1164/17
National Archives AIR 27/1164/14
National Archives AIR 27/2078/31
National Archives AIR 27/2080/29
National Archives AIR 27/4/33
*1 For further information and a detailed explanation of MONAB, including photographs and history, see The MONAB Story – A history of the mobile airfields of the Royal Navy website.
*2 The shooting down of the ‘Humbie Heinkel‘ can be read in Trail 42 – East Lothian, Edinburgh’s Neighbours.
*3 Historic England Website Listing 1393540
Simpson, B., “Spitfire Dive-Bombers versus the V2” Pen and Sword (2007) – for further information about Spitfires used against the V2 rockets.