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.
This trip goes to the area of North West Norfolk, with the boundary of Cambridgeshire. Starting on the fringes, there is a little known airfield, yet its history is one that should never be forgotten. Not only did many bomber crews leave here never to return, but two crew members were given the highest award for bravery in the face of death. It is of course RAF Downham Market (Bexwell).
RAF Downham Market
Located in the corner of the now A10 and A1122, little remains of the actual airfield, however a number of the technical and some accommodation buildings still exist and are currently used by local industries.
Originally designed as a satellite for RAF Marham, Downham actually opened in 1942 as a heavy bomber station, a role it performed for a large part of the war. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of accommodation sites. Spread over a large area, it was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel, it would have a wide range of support buildings and a network of small roads. 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 1,400yds long. The ‘A’ 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 today.
The first residents were the Stirling Is of 218 Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July, they would retain these until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling III was brought into service. At this time, 214 Squadron joined 218 also bringing the Stirling III. Both these squadrons would remain at Downham until January 1944 and March 1944 respectively. 214 departed to Sculthorpe and would go onto receive B-17 Flying Fortresses shortly after, whilst 218 moved to Woolfox Lodge eventually taking on the famous Lancaster.
It was on the night of August 12-13th 1943, whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer a bullet strikes to the 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 and managed 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 is one of two pilots who received the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market, both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.
During October 1943, Downham was to receive the experimental FIDO fog dispersal system. Only a handful of airfields would use this, even though it proved quite successful. By dispersing the fog on the airfield, it enabled bombers to take off and more importantly, land in very poor weather.
It was whilst both 214 and 218 Sqns were here that 623 Squadron (RAF) would be formed, using an element of 218 Sqn. Their time was short-lived however, being disbanded in the following December 1943.
Following the departure of 218 in March 1944, 635 Squadron would be created out of units from ‘B’ flight 35 Squadron and ‘C’ Flight of 97 Squadron. Combining to form this new squadron, they would take on the Lancaster III a model they used for four months until replaced by the Lancaster VI. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft; having no nose or mid-upper turrets, it also had four bladed propellers and was crammed with radar jamming devices. 635 Sqn remained here at Downham Market for the remainder of the war, eventually being disbanded on September 1st 1945.
It was a pilot of a 635 Sqn Lancaster III, ND8111, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette who ‘won’ the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses. On a 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, so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Sadly the aircraft exploded killing all three remaining crew members on board.
In the spring of 1944, on April 5th, yet another new Squadron was formed at Downham Market, 571 Squadron (RAF) operating the new ‘wonder wonder’ the DH Mosquito XVI. Operating as part of the new 8 Group (PFF) under the command of Air Commodore Donald Bennett. They were the elite pilots of Bomber Command operating Lancasters and Mosquitoes, and would lead Pathfinder operations deep into occupied Europe. These Pathfinder units operated from a small number of airfields in and around this area, with its headquarters not far away at Wyton. Within a month of their formation, 571 would leave Downham and go with their Gravely detachment to RAF Oakington.
The last Squadron to arrive and reside at Downham Market was 608 Sqn. A unit that had been created during the 1930s, it has been disbanded and now reformed. Like 635 Sqn, they remained here at Downham for the remainder of the war, until again being disbanded on the 24th August 1945 after using three versions of Mosquito; the B.XX, B.XXV and B.XVI. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 would fly 1,726 operational sorties as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder force. Many of their targets would be high prestige targets including: Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Essen and Kiel.
Recently a photograph has come to light showing a DH Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal.
Following the end of hostilities, RAF Downham Market was closed and in 1957, the land 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 hardcore. All three were removed along with large sections of the perimeter track. Many of the buildings were left, and small businesses took them over.
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 the local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield. The original fence, always a bit of a give away, rather precariously surrounds the area, and concrete roadways lead the eye to what was the perimeter track and the runways of yesteryear.
Further examination reveals what would have been the location of the end of the North / South runway. The technical area, now built upon, retains some of the original buildings in use albeit only just and for the time being. Across the road from the airfield is Bexwell church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette.
Further to the south, is the original Communal site’s mess building. Made of three smaller interconnected buildings, it is currently used by an engineering firm. Next to this, hidden away in the bushes, is the World War 1 Memorial.
A number of smaller buildings can be seen spread around the airfield accommodation sites and perimeter, most on private land, they are testament to the activities of this once busy airfield.
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 now under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.
Whilst standing reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron, two Tornadoes from the nearby RAF Marham, flew over, a fitting tribute to not only 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.
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 here. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.
Footnote: A recent £170m regeneration plan has been announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans will be released in the early part of 2016.
From here we head East toward Norwich, before reaching RAF Marham, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall 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 intense and purposes, insignificant. It did however, serve 26 Squadron (RAF) Tomahawk IIs for three days from the 27th – 30th September 1941 and 268 Squadron for on three separate occasions. Also flying Tomahawk IIs, they passed through here between the 21st and 25th June 1941, 28th and 30th September 1941 and then again for the last time on the 25th/26th October 1941. Little exists about its existence or purpose other than recordings in the writings of RAF Marham personnel. Rumours state a ‘huge military (HQ) bunker’ and hard standings, but these are thought to be farmers concrete pans, abundant across the area (see here). 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 or records seem to exist of the airfield. Another case of an airfield completely disappearing!
Continuing on from here, 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. Currently home to the RAF’s Tornado squadron, American built F-35s are soon to be stationed here replacing the Harrier as both RAF and Naval strike capability. The Tornados are currently on active service, operating in the middle East, their stay of execution delayed by politics, technical problems and an ever-increasing cost for the F-35. I will leave you to decide the merits of that one.
Resting not more than a mile or so from the boundary of RAF Marham, is an airfield that never made it beyond the First World War, but it played such a major part, it should never be forgotten. Opened originally as a satellite by the Royal Naval Air Service, it became the biggest First World War airfield and led the way for the aviators of today’s Royal Air Force.
Built as the largest, aircraft based, World War One aerodrome, Narborough was known under a range of different names. The most common, ‘The Great Government Aerodrome’ reflected not only its size but also its multinational stature and its achievements in aviation history. Used by both the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS) and the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) it would also have names that reflected both these fledgling services.
Designed to counteract the threat of the German Zeppelin and Schütte-Lanz airships, Narborough was initially used by the RNAS as a satellite station to RNAS Great Yarmouth. No crews were permanently stationed here, but ‘on-duty’ crews would fly in and await the call to arms should a 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.
Used as a training ground, accommodation was basic to say the least, being described as a “desolate God-forsaken place”*1 buildings needed to be erected for accommodation, training and maintenance. A total of seven Boulton and Paul hangars and up to 150 buildings would be built on the site over the next two years. By the end of the war, some 1,000 personnel would be based at Narborough – a number comparable with any modest Second World War airfield.
As the First World War raged on the European continent, the use of aircraft was seen as a new way to monitor, kill and record enemy troop movements; it would develop into a lethal weapon and a very potent reconnaissance vehicle. Training programmes were rushed into place, and Narborough would become a preparation ground for new recruits. With training considered basic by today’s standards, recruits had to pass a series of tests before being sent to the France. 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. These daring young men, many who were considered dashing heroes by the locals, would display their skills for all who lined the local roads awe-inspired by their antics.
Life was not always ‘fun’ though. Accident rates were high and survival from a crash was rare. Some 15 graves lay in the local church at Narborough, all young men who never made it through the training and on to the battle in France.
The occurrences of these accidents were so frequent, that one instructor, W.E. Johns, creator of ‘Biggles’ 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.
Narborough as a training station would operate a wide range of aircraft. The French designed Henry Farman F.20, a military reconnaissance trainer, would operate with 35 Squadron from June 1916 until October when they were replaced by the Armstrong Whitworth FK8; 35 Sqn moving to France with these aircraft in January 1917.
The first full squadron to be formed here was 59 Sqn on 21st June 1916. Born out of 35 Sqn, they would operate Avro’s 504K followed by the second French design, the Maurice Farman Shorthorn; named so because of the length of the skids designed to prevent recruits overturning the aircraft on landing. After these came the BE2c, BE12 and RE8s, before the squadron moved to St-Omer in February 1917.
It was during this year that 83 Squadron would be born out of 18 Reserve Squadron (RS) operating various aircraft in the training role. They arrived at Narborough during December that year with FE2bs before they themselves moved to St-Omer in March 1918.
As the war drew to a close, one further squadron was formed at Narborough; 121 Squadron on New Year’s Day 1918. Whilst originally formed to fly the DH9, they actually used a variety of aircraft before being moved to Fliton and eventual disbandment on 17th August 1918.
Three other units would pass through Narborough before it closed. Now part of the Royal Air Force, 56, 60 and 64 Sqns would all come here as cadres in February 1919. 64 Sqn disbanded here in the following year, whilst both 56 and 60 Sqn moved to Bircham Newton and onto disbandment.
The end of the war saw the closure of 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, small industrial units, schools and the like. Some of these buildings still exist at various places around the local area today but many have long since succumbed to age and inevitable deterioration.
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 fifteen 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.
On leaving Marham, continue East joining the A47. Driving along the road you enter the preserve of the USAAF. A huge number of airfields exist here, and in this trail we visit one that opened as a satellite to Swanton Morley, June 1941 and was home to Bostons of 2 group. Designated Station 120 by the USAAF, it is 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 hardstandings, 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 17,000ft of storage for small arms, and over 20,000ft for pyrotechnics. Tail units, not fitted to the bombs until arming, were stored in an area covering 36,750ft. In addition to this at Hockering, there were two extra accommodation sites also planned in just beyond the perimeter fence should there be an overspill 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.
Sources and further reading
*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.
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. 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*1 within easy travel from here , it too houses aircraft from around the area and is well worth a visit.
Sources, links and further Reading.
* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32532153)
*1 The Norfolk and Suffolk Air Museum website is available here.
Details of the City of Norwich Aviation Museum can be found on their website.
Sources, Links and Further Reading (RAF Narborough).
*1 letter from 2/AM C. V. Williams from 59squadronraf.org.uk
*2 Photo appeared in ‘Let’s Talk‘ – ‘ High flyers of Narborough’ published 22nd October 2014.
C.G. Jefford, RAF Squadrons, Airlife Publishing limited, 2001
The Narborough History Society cane be visited through their website.
The Narborough Airfield Research Group tell the history of 59 Squadron at Narborough, this includes personal notes and details of the Narborough airfield.