The American and RAF Bomber command influences extended far beyond the boundaries of the Midlands visited in Trail 6. East Anglia saw by far the largest influx of aircrew, staff, troops and associated hardware. Many of the airfields built-in East Anglia were designed to last only a few years, basically as long as the war would last. However, like their Midland’s counterparts, many would go on beyond that time and have a lasting effect on both the locals, and the landscape of East Anglia.
In Trail 7, we visit the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. At the first stop on this trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.
Not far from RAF Marham, we look at this once busy airfield to see what is left and take a look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.
RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)
Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.
Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.
Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.
Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.
Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.
On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.
On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.
Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.
On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret), the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.
In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.
In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.
Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use. It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.
Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.
The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.
One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others escaping with injuries.
With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.
In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.
However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.
The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.
The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.
In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.
The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.
The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.
Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.
The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.
635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.
The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.
Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.
635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.
A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito. In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.
The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.
Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.
This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.
On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.
The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.
At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.
Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.
On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.
For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.
During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.
608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.
Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.
The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.
On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.
The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.
By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.
With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.
Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.
At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.
The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.
The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!
Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.
Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.
The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works. This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.
Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.
The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.
In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.
In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.
The trail now leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich. Before stopping off at RAF Marham, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.
RAF Barton Bendish
On leaving Downham Market, travel East toward the A47 and Norwich. A few miles along, is a field, unmarked and to all intents and purposes, insignificant. It did however, serve several squadrons.
At the outbreak of war, orders were issued to all airfields across the UK to implement the ‘Scatter’ directive, a plan to relocate aircraft at various satellite airfields to disperse them away from the main airfield and possible German attack. This meant that many squadrons were spread over several airfields for short periods of time until the immediate threat, or perceived threat, had subsided.
This was first seen at Barton Bendish (a satellite of Marham) when Wellingtons of 115 Sqn located at nearby RAF Marham were placed here. With no cover, the protection Barton Bendish offered seemed small in comparison to the main airfield at Marham.
The openness and cold of Barton Bendish has been noted in several scripts, and this caused problems in the winter months when starting cold engines. ‘Johnnie’ Johnson recalls in Martin Bowman’s book “The Wellington Bomber“*1 how they had to start the Wellington’s engine by getting it to backfire into the carburettor thus igniting unspent fuel in the air intake. This was then allowed to burn for a few seconds warming the carburettor allowing the engine to start. Careful timing was paramount, the danger being that the aircraft could catch fire if you were not cautious!
In the early part of the war Barton Bendish was also used as a decoy site, a flare path being lit at night to attract enemy bombers away from Marham a few miles down the road. How effective this was, is not known, but it may well have saved one or two lives at the main airfield.
Also during 1941, 26 Squadron (RAF) flying Tomahawk IIs were stationed here for three days from the 27th – 30th September, as was 268 Squadron on several other occasions. Also flying Tomahawk IIs, they passed through here during May 1941, then again between the 21st and 25th June 1941, 28th and 30th September 1941 and then again on the 25th/26th October 1941. No. 268 Sqn who were then based at RAF Snailwell, used the airfield as ‘the enemy’ in a station defence exercise, whereby they would perform mock attacks on Snailwell using gas, parachute and low flying strafing attacks methods. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for the visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight, these being removed the next day after the attacks had been made.
By 1942, the Stirling was becoming a predominant feature at Marham, and with Barton Bendish being too small for its required take off distance, Downham Market became the preferred satellite, Barton Bendish being sidelined for other minor uses.
Little exists about its existence or purpose other than a few mentions in the operational record books of these squadrons, or recordings in the writings of RAF Marham personnel. Rumours state a ‘huge military (HQ) bunker’ and hard standings, but these are more likely farmer’s concrete pans, abundant across the area. No physical buildings (other than pill boxes) were ever thought to have been built and the airfield is listed as a satellite or landing ground of the parent airfield RAF Marham. No other signs seem to exist of the airfield. Another case of an airfield completely disappearing!
Continuing on from Barton Bendish, toward Norwich we shortly arrive at RAF Marham, one of the RAF’s few remaining front line fighter stations.
No journey of this nature would be complete without stopping at an active airfield. In this case RAF Marham. An abundant amount of information and photographs exist about Marham and I won’t dwell on it here, but for the enthusiast good photographs can be taken from a number of sites around the airfield, with care and caution. Until 2019 it was home to the RAF’s Tornado squadron, but American built F-35s replaced both them and the Harrier as both the RAF’s and Navies strike capability. The Tornadoes were regularly on active service, operating in the middle East, their stay of execution delayed by politics, technical problems and an ever-increasing costs of the F-35. In preparation of the F-35’s arrival a whole new area was developed for training purposes and specialist landings pads and runways built to prepare crews for carrier training.
The F-35s finally arrived, and the Tornado was withdrawn from service. A nine ship formation made a farewell tour passing over the station before landing. A further nationwide tour saw a three ship formation fly across a range of sites around the country. A new era had dawned.
Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of Britain’s front line fighter base RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War. However, its importance cannot be denied nor should it be over looked. Key to aviation in Norfolk and to the Royal Air Force as a whole, it played a major part in both, and therefore is pivotal to today’s modern air force. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became not only Norfolk’s first, but the biggest First World War, fixed wing aircraft airfield, only four airship stations were bigger. Leading the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force, we look back at the former RAF Narborough.
Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough has been known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size (over 900 acres) but also its multinational stature; the range of aircraft and personnel based here, and its achievements in aviation history. Used by the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and the Royal Air Force (RAF), it would have names that reflected each of these fledgling services.
Records show that Narborough had military links as far back as 1912, in the year that the RFC was established when both the Naval Air Organisation and the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers were combined. Unfortunately, little exists to explain what it was used for at this time, but in later years, it was used to counteract the threat from both the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, and also to train future pilots of the RFC and RAF.
Narborough’s history in these early days is sketchy, few specific records existing as to the many changes that were taking place at this time or to the development of the RFC and RNAS. Its activities – and history though – was no doubt influenced on July 1st 1914, when the name RNAS was officially adopted, and all Naval flying units of the RFC were transferred to the control of the Navy. A major development in the formation of both forces, there were at this point, a total of: 111 officers, 544 other ranks, seven airships, fifty-five seaplanes (including shipborne aircraft) and forty aeroplanes in RNAS service.*1 Some of these may well have been used at Narborough at this point.
By 1915, Narborough’s future had been sealed, designated as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth, (itself commissioned in 1913) it was initially to be used as a night landing ground for those aircraft involved in attacks on enemy airships. No crews were permanently stationed here at this time however, but as time went on ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in, and await the call to arms should an airship raid take place over East Anglia.
The first recorded arrival was in August 1915, an event that would keep the site in use by the RNAS for the next ten months, before being designated as surplus to requirements and handed over to the RFC in June 1916.
It was in June 1916 that the first RFC squadron would make use of Narborough as an airfield, 35 Sqn transferring over here from Thetford with Vickers FB.5 and FE.2bs. disposing of their DH2s and Henry Farman F.20s in the process. Within two months of their arrival, the nucleus of the squadron would then be used to form a new unit, 59 Sqn, also here at Narborough, under the command of Lieutenant A.C. Horsburgh with the RE8s. Narborough was already beginning to grow.
It was in that same month, that the perils of war would be brought home to those based at Narborough, when one of 59 Sqn’s pilots, Lt. Gordon William Hall, was killed when the DH.1 (4631) he was flying, side slipped on approach to the airfield crashing as a result. A court of enquiry confirmed that the aircraft had been “banked too steeply” and that the pilot had put the aircraft into a dive that made it uncontrollable. A verdict of ‘accidental death’ was recorded against Lt. Hall.*2
In August, it was the turn of 35 Sqn to suffer its first fatality in a non too dissimilar accident. On the 29th, an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.3 (6201), was written off after it too side slipped and dived following a slow turn. The Pilot – Air Mechanic 1st Class – Moses Boyd was tragically killed in the accident flying an aircraft that was based at Thetford but undertaking a training exercise here at Narborough. Already, the dangers of flying were becoming all too apparent and the glamour of flying was becoming tarnished.
Within two months, another 35 Sqn aircraft would also crash, this time one of the two crewmen, pilot 2nd Lt. Robert Leslie Edward would escape with just injuries. The observer, 2nd Lt Ernest Hildreth, however, was not so lucky and was killed in the resultant crash.
As the First World War raged on the European continent, the demand for aircraft was growing. It was quickly developing into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. To fill vacant spaces and meet high demand, training programmes were rushed into place, meaning Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered very basic by any standards, recruits only had to pass a number of tests before being sent to the front. Written examinations followed up by twenty hours solo flying, cross-country flights and two successful landings, were followed by flying for fifteen minutes at 8,000 feet and landing with a cut engine. Barely enough experience to see anyone through a violent war.
During these flights, these daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the awe-inspired locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads to watch. As they were quickly learning though, life was not always ‘fun’, and the dangers of the craft were ever present. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare, even ‘minor’ accidents could prove fatal. The local church yard at Narborough, paying testament to their dangerous career with fourteen of the eighteen graves present being RFC/RAF related.
The RFC was now building in strength, not only in its front line units but in its reserves too. On November 2nd, 1916 a new reserve squadron was constituted and formed here at Narborough, 48 (Reserve) Squadron (RS). Models flown by the unit at this time included the Grahame White XV, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn and Sopwith’s Pup. Over the next period of time, there followed a number of other reserve units: No 50, 53 and 64 (Reserve) Squadron (later designated Training Squadrons*3) all passing through Narborough at some point. However, and even with this large influx of personnel in these early days, Narborough was not to be the most exotic of locations.
As a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described by one ‘resident’ as a “desolate God-forsaken place“*4. It was soon realised by the authorities that new buildings needed to be erected for not only accommodation, but for training and maintenance roles as well. In response, a total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars, and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. A development that would by the end of the war, see some 1,000 personnel based here at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.
Meanwhile the threat from Zeppelins had not yet receded, and as a result 1916 would close with a small detachment of 51 Sqn BE.12s tasked with attacking these marauding menaces. Whilst primarily based at Hingham, 51 Sqn would have detachments spread across a number of East Anglia airfields, all preparing to meet the continued threat from Germany’s enormous airships.
With increasing numbers of squadrons and men being required for front line units in France, both 35 and 59 Squadrons departed Narborough in early 1917, and by the end of February both were gone.
This left the reserves at Narborough, and it wouldn’t be long before they too suffered causalities. The first of these to lose a valuable pilot was 50 RS on March 30th 1917. A young Canadian, not yet out of his teens, 2nd Lt. Allen Ingham Murphy, was killed when his Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 ‘A2720’ stalled whilst turning after take off. 2nd Lt. Murphy was the first of four casualties from the units that year – training young pilots was not getting any easier.
This danger was made no more obvious than on October 29th, when two aircraft, both from 50 RS were lost in separate accidents. The first an Armstrong Whitworth FK.8 (A2730) side slipped during a turn and nose dived into the ground killing both crewmen, 2Lt. Norman Victor Spear (aged 29) and Air. Mech. 1 Sidney Walter Burrell (age 22). The second aircraft, also an Armstrong Whitworth F.K.8 (B219) spun off a low climbing turn also killing its pilot 2Lt. Laurence Edward Stuart Vaile (aged 23). It was indeed a black day for 50 RS and a stark reminder to the trainees.
In October and December two more units bolstered the numbers of trainees at Narborough. Firstly, 1 Training Squadron were formed here on October 1st, whilst 83 Sqn, born out of 18 (Reserve) Squadron (RS), arrived at Narborough during December that year bringing a range of aircraft that they quickly swapped for FE.2bs.
83 Squadron soon departed Narborough though, heading to France in March 1918 where they performed attacks on troop concentrations, attempting to stem the early spring offensive.
On June 8th, 1917 Lt. Hubert J. Game was killed when the B.E.2e (A2794) he was flying suffered a catastrophic wing failure when pulling out of a dive whilst looping the loop. Lt. Game was originally a Lieutenant in the Royal
Field Artillery (RFA) and was attached to 53 (Training) Sqn RFC at Narborough, when he was tragically killed. Hubert was the younger brother of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Philip Woolcott Game, and was just 26 years old at the time of his death. He is another one of those whose grave lays a short distance away from the site of Narborough airfield.
The occurrences of these tragic accidents were becoming so frequent, that one instructor, Capt. W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ later cited spies as the cause of many ‘accidents’ – tampering with machines causing the deaths of the crews on board. Johns, himself having written of many machines, believed Americans with German sounding names were to blame for aircraft breaking up in mid-air or crashing at the bottom of loops. More likely, the fault lay with over exuberant or poorly trained recruits.
As the war drew to a close, one further squadron would be formed here at Narborough. On New Year’s day 1918, 121 Squadron were formed here, initially created to use DH.9s, they instead flew a variety of aircraft until they moved out to Filton in mid August. Shortly after their arrival here they were disbanded.
The last months of the war had no let up in training. Keen to join the RFC young men continued to train to fly. In mid February 1918 two 18 year old boys would perhaps be fulfilling a dream when it all went tragically wrong. Flying a DH.4, 2Lt. John Fyffe Shaw and 2Lt. Charles Arkley Law were both killed after the aircraft’s engine failed causing it to stall and then nose dive into the ground.
By August, war was over, and the the big wind down of squadrons would soon begin. At Narborough, two squadrons 69 (Training) Squadron and 26 (Reserve) Squadron would both merge to form a new 22 Training Depot Station. Many other similar units would soon follow suit and either disband or merge. This dramatic wind down continued on into, and beyond, 1919. In February, both 56 Sqn and 64 Sqn arrived as cadres; 64 Sqn was disbanded here later that year whilst 56 transferred to Bircham Newton where they too were disbanded later that same year. A third squadron, 60 Sqn also suffered the same fate, arriving as a cadre mid February before themselves being sent to Bircham Newton and disbandment.
With one last roll of the dice in mid March 1919, 55 Training Deport Station also disbanded here at Narborough, but out of the ashes was born a new unit 55 Training Squadron. With that though, Narborough was heading for closure, its days now over, it was soon to be surplus to requirements.
The post war years then saw the closure of many of Britain’s war time airfields including Narborough. But unlike its sister station RAF Marham a mile or so away, it would remain closed. The buildings were all sold off in what was considered to be one of the biggest auctions in Norfolk, with some of them going to local farmers, other for small industrial units, some to schools and the like, Narborough was now scattered to the four corners of the county. The remainder of the site was sold to the farmer and it quickly returned to agriculture, a state it remains in today. Some of these original buildings are reputed to still exist at various locations around the area today, whether that is true or not, is difficult to ascertain, but most have long since succumbed to age, the inevitable deterioration and eventual demolition.
Narborough itself having no hard runways or perimeter tracks has long since gone. A small memorial has been erected by a local group aiming to promote and preserve the memory of Narborough, a memorial plaque also marks the graves of those who never made it to France; and the small Narborough Museum & Heritage Centre holds exhibits of 59 Squadron in the local church.
Significant not only in size, but in its history, Narborough has now been relegated to the history books. But with the dedication and determination of a few people the importance and historical significance of this site will hopefully continue to influence not only the aviators of tomorrow, but also the public of today.
After Narborough, we head east once more toward Swaffham. After turning off the main A47 we come across another American airfield. In the next part of this trip we visit the former RAF Attlebridge.
RAF Attlebridge (Station 120)
The area around Attlebridge is steeped in historical value, archaeological finds have dated inhabitants of the area going back as far as prehistoric times; the Romans, Anglo Saxons and Normans have all left their remnants and marks. So too, has more modern man.
Initially built as a satellite for Swanton Morley, Attlebridge would eventually pass into the hands of the USAAF, receiving the designation Station 120 . As a satellite it was built with less ‘quality’ features than standard ‘A’ Class airfields, but this would not prevent its development or use by a range of single, twin and four engined aircraft of both the RAF and USAAF.
Opened in 1941, initial occupants were the dispersed Blenheim IVs of 105 Sqn from the parent airfield RAF Swanton Morley. Operating anti-shipping roles, they were originally state-of-the-art aircraft but were quickly left behind in the development stakes as the war progressed. Their failings were soon revealed in front line operations and so activities were reduced to low-level attacks on shipping and coastal targets.
No. 88 Sqn (RAF) were the first permanent residents of Attlebridge. Having replaced their Blenheim IVs for Boston IIIs in the previous July, they brought these new and updated American built aircraft to Attlebridge to continue the low-level attacks on the European continent. 88 Sqn would operate various model s of the Boston right up until their departure the following year and then subsequent disbandment later in 1945.
These were infant years for Attlebridge, and it was soon realised that upgrading was going to be needed if it was to be a serious contender. So reconstruction work began and the site was upgraded with new concrete runways, improved perimeters tracks and dispersal points.
Across the Atlantic, the American’s began their immense build-up, and in the Autumn of 1942, Martin’s controversial B-26 ‘Marauders‘ were flown in via the northern Atlantic route. Both Attlebridge and nearby-by Horsham St. Faith received the new crews. A period of training was undertaken that consisted of low-level flights across the English countryside, but Attlebridge remained a back-seat airfield, acting as a staging post before the Marauders along with the Twelfth Air Force, moved on to the Mediterranean Theatre.
Little happened following their departure; the construction work was completed and the RAF returned with another American built model, the B-25 ‘Mitchell II’. 320 Sqn (one of three Dutch squadrons) brought these with them from RAF Methwold in the western regions of Norfolk; they stayed here until August 1943 undertaking a small number of operations in low-level raids.
A spate of Luftwaffe attacks on the East Anglian coast instigated a short stay by Typhoons of 247 Sqn (RAF) which saw them use Attlebridge as a stepping stone, moving through 12 airfields in as many months, a pattern that would continue well into 1947.
At this point, Attlebridge was assigned to the Eighth Air Force and further reconstruction of the airfield began. Improvements to the runways were made, new perimeter tracks, dispersals and technical areas were all added. The three original runways of 1,220, 1,120 and 1,080 yards, were by now increased to the standard 2,000 and two of 1,400 yards accordingly, each being 50 yards wide.
To accommodate the expected influx of 3000 crews and support staff, the accommodation sites would be increased to a total of 11: two communal; a WAAF site; sick quarters; a mix of officers, sergeants and enlisted airmen quarters and a sewage treatments works. Aircraft would be dispersed around a mix of both original and new ‘spectacle’ and ‘pan style’ hard stands, over 60 in total, with two T2 hangars and a blister hanger providing maintenance shelters. A larger bomb store – located to the east, would also accommodate the huge tonnage of bombs that was going to be required in the forthcoming onslaught over occupied Europe.
The scene was set and in February 1944, the Skies over Norfolk would reverberate with the sound of America’s most-produced, four-engined ‘heavy’ bomber.
The only major Group to be stationed at Attlebridge was the 466th Bomb Group, 96th Combat Wing, 2nd Air Division, who arrived in early 1944.
The 466th BG were constituted on 19th May 1943, being activated in August that year. They flew Consolidated’s B-24 ‘Liberator‘ in the ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models, and was made of four Bomb Squadrons: the 784th BS (code T9), the 785th BS (code 2U), the 786th BS (code U8) and the 787th BS (code 6L). The 466th would be nicknamed “The Flying Deck” and they would operate solely from Attlebridge.
In February-March 1944 the 466th moved in. The air echelon transferred via the southern ferry route to England, the ground echelon taking the Queen Mary to Greenock. They were new, inexperienced in combat, and as ‘rookies’ this would be a major factor in their disastrous start to the war.
Their maiden operation, a mission to Berlin, on March 22nd 1944 would very quickly bring home the dangers of aerial warfare and close formation flying. Even though fighter attacks were non-existent, two B-24s were to collide with the loss of 13 of the two crews. B-24H ’41-29434′ “Terry and the Pirates” collided with B-24H ’41-29416 “Rebel Yell” after “Rebel Yell” was hit by flak. The resultant collision caused both aircraft to fall from the sky and crash West of Oranienburg, in Germany.
On the second operation, the following day, two more B-24s collided over Osterburg, and again heavy casualties were incurred. Onboard one of the aircraft, – B-24H ’41-29466 ‘Dark Rhapsody‘ – were three replacement crew members: Robert A. Gum (C/P), Bogan Radich (R/O) and Aleck A. Amich (TG), it was Amich’s first and only mission – suffering from his injuries, he died three days later in hospital. The two B-24s crashed into or near the Zuiderzee, in the north-west of Holland, where fuselage parts of ‘Dark Rhapsody‘ were later recovered in 1981. Only three of either crew survived taken as prisoners of war.
Then a third collision on the 27th March meant that six aircraft had been lost in five days with little or no enemy intervention. It was not a good start for the freshman of the 466th!
In an attempt to reduce these collisions, which occurred throughout the war, war-weary B24s were stripped of their armaments, painted bright colours and patterns, and lit up so formating aircraft could identify their correct path and position in the formation. Known as ‘Forming Ships’, ‘Circus Leaders’, ‘Judas Goats’ or more commonly ‘Assembly Ships’; they were painted in bizarre patterns and carried a huge quantity of pyrotechnics, that itself being a danger to the operating crews. Many units operated their own assembly ships for this purpose, the 466th using a former 44th BG B-24 ’41-24109′ painted entirely in red zigzags.
The 466th BG would recover from this terrible start and go on to operate in a strategic bombing role, attacking targets such as: Liege; Brunswick; the Bohlen oil refineries; Kempten aircraft plants; Hamburg; Saarbrucken; Misburg and airfields at St. Trond. They supported the Normandy landings, the St. Lo breakout, hit communication and transport links during the Battle of the Bulge, and supported the Rhine Crossing. They would fly their last mission on April 25th 1945.
The 466th BG would not suffer as badly as many of the other groups did. Their initial entrance in the war marred by losses, would soon fade away. By the war’s end they would complete a total 232 missions, a remarkable achievement in just over one year. A total of 5,762 operational sorties would see 12,914 tons of bombs dropped on enemy positions. They would lose ‘only’ 47 aircraft in action with a further 24 others being lost as ‘other’ loses. The 785th BS had the enviable record of 55 consecutive missions without loss, but the 466th were to also suffer the last aircrew casualties of the entire Eighth Air Force.
After the USAAF pulled out, Attlebridge was returned to RAF ownership, it was put under care and maintenance and retained until sold off in 1959. It is now owned by the Bernard Matthews company and as with many of the airfields that adorn Norfolk, they are now used to house Turkey sheds.
The main runways and perimeter track of the airfield are very much evident and in a good state. As this is private ground, access is not permitted, but good views across the tracks can be gained from the local road. There were minimal visible signs of standing buildings, but the control tower was extended and is used by the management of the site. More careful probing will reveal signs of buildings and the bomb shelters laying waste amongst the trees. It is possible to drive round the entire site, being only feet from the perimeter track at any one time. Amongst these trees evidence can be seen of the airfields perimeter track. Odd derelict buildings lay swamped by vegetation and trees. At entrances to the site, good views along the runways give a perspective of the size of the place. Hard standings and concrete dispersal pens lay on either side of the road, now used to store sugar beet and other produce cultivated by the local farmers.
The accommodation sites, widely spread to the south-east, have little in the way of visible structures, although some huts are still used by small businesses and remain in reasonable condition.
The blister hanger still stands, although it is now showing signs of wear and its life may well be limited. Whilst large parts of the airfield have survived and survived well, many of the spectacle dispersals have been reduced, in some areas completely removed, presumably for hardcore, and only the tracks through the bomb store remain through the trees.
The western end of the main runway, perimeter track and connected dispersals have all been removed, the public road (Breck Road) now cutting through what was the main technical area. It is the only part that utilises any of the original perimeter track.
It is along this road, only feet from one of the dispersals, that there is a memorial dedicated to the crews of the airfield who served here. A well-kept memorial, it portrays a Liberator of the 466th, 2nd Division, 8th Air force, ‘The Flying Deck’ and the badges of each of the four bombardment squadrons. It tells of the combat missions over Normandy, France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Dedicated in 1992, 50 years after the end of hostilities, it serves as a little reminder of those brave souls, who gave their all from this small part of Norfolk.
Attlebridge had the dubious honour of having the last crew to be shot down over Germany fly from it. As with other sites, its easy to picture a bustling base, aircraft rumbling along preparing to take off on what may be their last flight. Where man once stood, turkeys now breed.
Whilst visiting Attlebridge, it is worth taking a short journey westward to Hockering Wood, a site of Special Scientific Interest and one that is also steeped in history. More recently, it served as a massive bomb store, and evidence of its activities still remain.
Hockering Bomb Store.
With the increase in airfield construction and the demand for greater quantities of munitions, additional bomb storage became a problem during the Second World War. Bomb sites needed to be close enough to the airfields so that stores could be transferred quickly, but far enough away so as to not cause problems should an attack happen at either the airfield or at the store.
Apart from the major underground stores bought and secured in the 1930s, the War Office planned an additional nine above ground ‘Ammunition Parks’ at the outbreak of war*1. They were to add a further two more once the war had started and following the realisation that nine would not be sufficient to meet the demands of the air war over Europe.
Each of these parks were initially designed to hold a total of 1,000 tons of ordnance, but it was quickly realised that this too was not going to be anyway near sufficient and the capacity was soon raised to 10,000 tons.
Any store, needless to say, had to be safe, secure and well hidden from prying eyes, all of which presented the War Office with numerous problems. The initial pre-war sites relied upon the strength of the design to protect them but it was then thought better to use concealment as a way of protecting them and so the latter two sites did just this.
About one mile from RAF Attlebridge (Station 120) in Norfolk, stands one of these two sites. Located in Hockering Wood, now a site of Special Scientific Interest, it not only houses some of the rarest plants and animals in Norfolk but across the country as well.
Hockering Wood is one of the largest ancient, semi-natural woodlands in Norfolk, its ponds provide habitats for the protected Great Crested Newt, and a rare mix of soils support an ecological range that is remarkably unusual for Norfolk. It also contains a moated site believed to date as far back as the middle ages.
Yet with all this fauna and flora thriving, it is hard to believe that during the Second World War, this was an enormous bomb store capable of accommodating 8,400 tons of High Explosive (H.E.) bombs and 840 tons of incendiary bombs. A number of hardstands, huts, component stores, staffing blocks and open sites, were spread out across the site, each linked by 9 foot (18 foot by adjoining H.E. groups) tar sprayed, metal roads that followed the natural contours of the wood. Whilst the general layout and design of each of these sites were similar, each construction team would have a certain amount of autonomy in the decision-making depending upon the conditions at each site. At Hockering, this would take into account the drainage, natural ditches, tree cover and natural barriers that existed there at the time. The requirement being that all natural features were to be retained as much as possible.
The H.E. bombs and ordinary small arms ammunition (S.A.A.) would be stored on hardstands, with the S.A.A. sited between the H.E. in the wooded area. The incendiaries, components stores and pyrotechnics would be stored in 36′ x 16′ Nissen huts, with some of the incendiaries on open land. The original plan was for the pyrotechnics to be grouped together in 6 huts per group, whilst the component stores would be in pairs. This provided a total of 17,000 ft of storage for small arms, and over 20,000 ft for pyrotechnics. Tail units, not fitted to the bombs until arming, were stored in an area covering 36,750 ft. In addition to this at Hockering, there were two extra accommodation sites also planned in just beyond the perimeter fence should there be an over-spill at nearby Attlebridge.
Access to the site was limited and controlled. Three public roads were closed off and entrance along these roads was by-pass only – security was understandably high.
The site designed in the early 1940s, and designated as a ‘Forward Ammunition Depot’, was originally built to supply RAF units of 2 Group Bomber Command, and was under the control of No. 231 Maintenance Unit. It was constructed in the latter part of 1942, opening in early 1943 closing in 1945 at the end of the war. At its height it is thought to have served both USAAF and RAF units.
The tracks that led around the store are still there today, hidden beneath years of vegetation and soil build up. Foundations from many of the huts are still evident and even the odd building still stands as a reminder of the work that took place here all those years ago.
As with many of these historic sites though, mother nature has a way of claiming them back. Careful ecological management ensures the public get to enjoy the site whilst protecting the rare species that continue to thrive there.
A quiet and unassuming site today, it was once a hive of activity that supplied the bombs and bullets that brought death and destruction upon our enemy. It is somewhat reassuring to know that we can once again enjoy the peace and tranquillity that it now brings.
From here, our trail around Norfolk one of the RAF’s more recent closures, and to what was one of the RAF’s biggest airfields. RAF Coltishall.
Built in 1939, Coltishall was originally designed as a bomber base, but turned to house fighters soon after it’s creation. Even as the airfield was being prepared, war was never far away. A raid by Luftwaffe bombers saw six bombs fall on one of the hangars before it was completed, a reminder what they were building the airfield for. Used by 66 squadron, it played a major part in the Battle of Britain. Being home later to-night fighter Defiants and Mosquitoes, a role it continued well into the cold war with Venoms and famously the Jaguars. Again there is much information about Coltishall around and it’s history is both interesting and well documented. At present, it is in generally good condition, although buildings are starting to deteriorate and nature is fighting a hard battle. The government have since opened a prison on the site (HMP Bure) and access is not permitted, (the man on the gate is very helpful and polite), but views can be found from various points around the field if persistence is strong enough. From one vantage point near the top end of the runway, you can see the runway lights, distant buildings and structures that form the airfield blocks. Standing by the crash gate, looking down the length of the runway, you can imagine the Jaguars and fast jets being practice scrambled and roaring off into the skies of Britain in search of invading soviet aircraft.
I remember well seeing Jaguars and Phantoms racing across our skies, but at Coltishall it’s a sight I won’t unfortunately ever get to see. The Control tower now stands idle, overlooking the single runway, whilst further up you can see the main hanger and admin block (I believe) with the proud lettering ‘Royal Air Force Coltishall’ still prevalent. Along side are the badges of some of the squadrons based there. The front of the base used to be dignified, grand and over seen by an E.E. Lightning. Now they are all gone, even the guard-room is falling into disrepair. A small metal sign says ‘Welcome to former RAF Coltishall’ as poor recognition of Britain’s flying history.
At the northern end of the runway, just outside the perimeter, is a small chapel dedicated to the people who gave their lives whilst at Coltishall. A small, peaceful place, that holds some surprises. Within the military headstones, there are several German headstones. Crew members shot down during those terrible years of the Second World War. A stark reminder that casualties occurred on both sides, and that their ‘young men’ died over foreign shores as well as ours.
I found this 25 minute video, made to celebrate the history of RAF Coltishall, I thought you may like it, or even know someone in it.
From Coltishall, there are many more places worth a visit, within a stones through numerous bases still lay dormant, regrettably, all quiet and fighting nature rather than some foe from far across the waters. Gradually our flying heritage is being lost, and it would seem, that in this part of the world at least, they are being ‘preserved’ through secondary use. A fate better than total decay.
UPDATE – December 2015 – RAF Coltishall is subject to development plans that will turn it into a heritage park retaining its many buildings. See here for details.
Footnote: from here, I also visited the City of Norwich Aviation Museum based on the outskirts of Horsham St Faith (Now Norwich airport) itself a former RAF base. A delightful little museum with many relics, pictures and stories from around the area. It features many of the bases and units mentioned above and is well worth a visit. There is also a second museum, Norfolk and Suffolk Air Museum within easy travel from here , it too houses aircraft from around the area and is well worth a visit.
Sources and further reading (Downham Market).
* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.
Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.
*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350
*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5
*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5
*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006
The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.
Sources and further reading (Barton Bendish)
National Archives AIR 27/1563/9
*1 Bowman, M. “The Wellington Bomber“, (2015), Pen and Sword
Sources and further Reading (Narborough)
*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 14/6/21
*2 RAF Museum Story Vault Website accessed 14/6/21
*3 On May 31st 1917, all RFC ‘Reserve Squadrons’ were renamed ‘Training Squadrons’.
*4 Letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk
Sources and further reading (Hockering)
*1 Wikipedia has a full list of all the designated ammunition parks.
The technical information was obtained from the plan drawing MC/97/42 Sheet B.