RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 2)

In part 1 we saw how Watton had been built as a pre-war expansion period airfield and how the Blenheims that were stationed here were decimated in the face of a superior enemy. Eventually begin withdrawn, they were simply outclassed.

Eventually, the airfield like so many in this area, was handed over to the Americans. It was re-designated and would take on a different role. Watton would now grow and develop.

The USAAF renamed the airfield Station 376, they redeveloped the accommodation blocks, added more hardstands and laid a steel mat runway. The original hangars were added to so that there were now not only the original ‘C’ types, but also the more modern ‘B1’ and ‘T2’ types, along with three smaller blisters hangars. In 1944, the steel matting was removed and a concrete runway built in its place. The airfield’s history would now become a little more complex as it officially became two sites utilising the same single runway.

The main airfield itself would house aircraft of the 802nd Reconnaissance Group (Provisional), who were later renamed the 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance). Whilst on the southern edge of the site, a new complex was built for the repair and refurbishment depot the 3rd Strategic Air Depot (SAD). This complex grew so large that it became a site in its own right, gaining the designation Neaton (Station 505). The name has been somewhat confusing however, as the site was actually closer to the village of Griston that it was to Neaton.

A collection of B-24 engines removed from their mounts. (IWM UPL 5385)

The role of the 3rd SAD was to maintain and repair the battle damaged B-24s of the 2nd Air Division, that had by now, flooded into the UK from the United States. This unenviable task required the recovery of the heavy bombers, washing them out and  perhaps removing the remains of airmen before returning them to flyable condition once more. Whilst not designed to be so, the acronym SAD certainly reflected the role perfectly.

Neaton consisted of a number of sites, 4 accommodation sites, a communal site, a sick quarters, two motor sites, a ‘miscellaneous’ site housing a Steam Jenny and then a 9AD site with tool sheds and other maintenance related buildings. The majority of these accommodation sites incorporated either the more common Laing or Nissen huts.

Watton itself would now become synonymous with reconnaissance, surveillance and electronic countermeasures (ECM). A new unit, 25th Bomb Group (Reconnaissance), it was constituted on 17th July 1944, and activated in England on 9th August that year. They would only serve from one UK airfield, that of Watton, where they would stay until VE day serving under the umbrella of the 8th Air Force. A visit by the famous ‘Carpetbaggers‘ (the special operations group designed to support French resistance operations) also saw the black Liberator’s fly regular missions from here during this time.

de Havilland DH98 Mosquito PR Mk XVI

The end of Mosquito PR Mk XVI “M” NS774 of the 25th BG after crashing at RAF Watton (Station 376) 25th March 1943. (IWM UPL 6964)

The role of the Watton Group was to carryout reconnaissance missions over the seas around Britain and the Azores, gathering meteorological data. Combined with flights over the continent, the information they would gather, would help in the preparation of bombing missions. They would also carryout aerial mapping and photo reconnaissance missions, identifying German troop movements both at night and during the day.  Many of these operations involved major battles, including northern France, the Rhineland and the Ardennes. Additional tasks included electronic countermeasures using ‘chaff’, and flying ahead of large formations to ascertain last minute weather reports. A varied and dangerous collections of roles, they used a number of aircraft types including: B-17s, B-24s, B-25s, B-26s and P-38 Lightnings.

When VE day did finally arrive, the American unit departed returning to Drew Field in Florida. The August of that year must have been quite surreal, as the Americans left, flying was reduced and Watton was returned back to RAF ownership.

With the war now over, flying units began to return to the UK, many being disbanded not long after. One such unit was 527 Sqn who arrived here in the November, only to be disbanded in the April of 1946.

The next four years saw no other front line ‘operational’ flying units here at Watton, but the 1950s would bring a number of units back through its gates. With the introduction of the jet engine at the end of the war, piston engines fighters were soon being replaced by newer designs.

RAF Watton

One of Watton’s many accommodation blocks in modern use.

The ECM activity initiated at Watton by the 25th Bomb Group, would continue on in these early post-war years. For some twenty years or so in fact, through a variety of aircraft including: the Mosquito, Wellington, Domine, Lincoln, Anson, Proctor, Canberra, Meteor, Sea Fury, Firefly, Venom and many others. Each of these would not only play a vital part in the development and use of ECM, but radio research and training as well. Warfare had taken on a very new twist.

This move would see Watton becoming a hub for ECM activity. A number of RAF and Naval squadrons would operate from here undertaking such tasks. At the end of the war, Watton had become home to the Radio Warfare Establishment (RWE), renamed in 1946 to  the Central Signals Establishment (CSE). It was only one of five such units operating jointly between the military and National Air Traffic Services Organisation (NATS).  The Navy and RAF would jointly use Watton at this time, albeit for only a short period of time between March and September 1947, when the Naval Air Warfare Radio Unit moved in under the disguise of 751 NAS.

The role of the CSE was very complex, for too complex to discuss here, but with a number of squadrons operating under different roles whilst at Watton, it would culminate in 1948 in the forming of three un-numbered units: a Signals Research Squadron, a Monitoring Squadron and a Radio Countermeasures (RCM) Squadron. In essence, their role was to monitor and jam Soviet electronic communications and defence systems – it was an total airborne electronic warfare operation.*1

But the use of un-numbered squadrons was short lived, by the end of the decade the CSE had reverted to using numbered squadrons once more, their role to probe the air defences along the Soviet borders. British aircraft combined with ground stations, would monitor the reaction and activity of Soviet communications, seeing how they responded to intrusions into their airspace. By knowing this detail,  countermeasures could be put in place to jam or scramble these communications, ideally rendering them useless or at least temporarily incapacitated. The first of these numbered squadrons were 192 and 199, who were originally  the calibration and training units of the CSE.

Reformed here in July 1951 flying Mosquitoes, Lincoln B.2s and then the enormous Washington (B-29), 192 Sqn would not receive their first jet until January 1953 when the Canberra B.2 arrived. 192 Sqn would also fly the Varsity and the Comet C.2 before being disbanded and renumbered as 51 Sqn in August 1958.

199 Squadron (reformed on the same day) flew both the Lincoln B.2 and the Mosquito NF.36, in the same role as 192; their stay lasting until April 1952, at which point they moved to Hemswell in Lincolnshire where they picked up their first jet engined aircraft.

The August of 1952 saw a number of other units reform, disband or pass through Watton. 116 Sqn were reformed on the 1st, another ex Calibration flight of the CSE, it stayed until August 1958 when it was disbanded and reformed as 115 Sqn. A battle hardened squadron from Bomber Command, they had since themselves been disbanded. No longer flying operational bombers, the Varsitys 115 Sqn would operate would be the new form of transport, as they were reformed and moved on within days of their inception in that August.

On that same day in late August 1958, 245 Sqn would reform, also from the renumbering of another squadron – 527 Sqn. Flying Canberras they too were gone within days of their reformation.

As 1959 began to close and 1960 dawned, Watton would become the home of a new unit, 263 Sqn, who were operating Bloodhound missiles, the RAF’s ground to air missile used to defend Britain’s airfield against attacking aircraft. The operational use of these giant weapons lasted here until June 1963.

The 1960s saw the last of the flyers, lasting only between January 1962 and May 1963, 151 Sqn operated from here as the Signals Development Squadron, bringing back the props of the Hastings, Lincoln and Varsity before being renumbered again and subsequently disbanded.

Other units at Watton included 97 Sqn from 1963 – 1967; 98 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69), 360 Sqn (1/10/63 – 17/4/69) and 361 Sqn (2/1/67 – 14/7/67) two of which were both reformed and disbanded at Watton.

As can be expected, there were a large number of subsidiary and support units based at Watton, many of these attached to the Radio Warfare Establishment, along with SAM Training units, a range of flight units and other various regiments.

RAF Watton

Part of the disused Eastern Radar complex.

By the 1970s all flying had ceased leaving Eastern, and latterly Border Radar, the only ‘operational’ activity on the site. Eventually of course, even these were moved in the early 1990s, signalling the demise of the airfield as an active base. Watton was then handed over to the British Army.

A few years later the Army also reduced it use of Watton and the accommodation areas were sold off for private housing; a move that helped retain that airfield ‘feel’ that it still maintains today. More of the site was then sold later and new housing estates were built on the land where this previously stood; the entire feel of this has now since gone, replaced instead by a rabbit warren of roads with boxes for houses. The last remaining parts of the main airfield were sold off in 2012, the runway and peri-track being retained by the farmer and used for agricultural purposes.

Neaton too was sold off and has now been replaced by HMP Wayland, a prison holding category ‘C’ prisoners at her majesty’s pleasure.  One gruesome part of history being replaced by another.

Today, the perimeter tracks, runways and hard standings support nothing more than housing. A proportion of the perimeter track remains with a small wire fence being the only defence to the continued onslaught of development. The original 4 “C” type hangars were all demolished as were the two control towers, one of which was built to support the new jet-era. Some minor buildings continue to remain surrounded by the original RAF housing, but these are few and far between, and even their future is uncertain.

Almost as lip service, many roads are named after an aircraft, Liberator, Marauder, etc., those aircraft synonymous with the operations of Watton and Neaton. Various concrete remains poke through the undergrowth and make this part of the site rather untidy. How long is it before they too disappear?

The site is split by the main road with some of the former administration buildings remaining on one side with the airfield and accommodation on the other. Some of these buildings are still in use with civilian operators and as such, have been well-preserved; others such as the technical site, have not been so fortunate and have become very rundown and in high states of disrepair.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs’ located on the airfield site.

As for the airfield itself, two small memorials ‘guard’ the entrance to the new development. On the one side is the bent propeller recovered from a crashed Blenheim (R3800) shot down in the loss of eleven aircraft over Aalborg on 13th August 1940; on the other side a memorial that commemorates the 25th Bomb group USAAF. On the original housing site itself, a further memorial commemorates the 455th AAA ‘The Rabbs‘ who were given the task of defending Britain’s airfields against the Luftwaffe.  Owned by Stanford Training Area (STANTA) for a period of time and used for air mobile training, the odd Hercules or Army helicopter might have been seen here. However, this has now ceased and housing is creeping ever closer. I’m sure it won’t be long before many of these remaining remnants are lost to the developer’s digger.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Flintham, V., “High Stakes: Britain’s Air Arms in Action 1945-1990Pen and Sword, Oct 2008.

National Archives AIR 27/263/1: AIR 27/263/2

A website dedicated to RAF Watton has an extensive range of personal stories and information about life at Watton. It also has a video of the retrieval of Blenheim R3821 being recovered from Aalborg airport.

Further Pictures of the remains at these sites can be seen on Flckr.

NB: There is a museum commemorating the lives of the Watton personnel, open on limited days only, details can be found on their website.

Watton can be found on Trail 9.

RAF Watton – The origins of ECM (Part 1)

Norfolk once boasted many major airfields, virtually all of which are now closed to military flying. Marham is the only major survivor spearheading the RAF’s front line fighter force, in conjunction with Lincolnshire’s RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth in Moray, Scotland.

However, during the Second World War the Norfolk landscape was very different; it was littered with front line airfields, composed mainly of light bomber and fighter squadrons, all of which could be found with relative ease.

One such airfield was that of Watton. Used by a range of light and heavy aircraft, its history was chequered, bearing witness to some of the more gruesome aspects of the air-war.

Today it is a housing estate, the single runway remains and is used for storage, the hangers and technical buildings have gone and the accommodation areas have all been sold off. That said, the perimeter track remains in part, the ‘feel’ of the airfield hangs over the area and a number of memorials pay silent tribute to those who served here.

Found on the edge of the town of Watton in Norfolk, we go back to this once busy RAF base and see what has changed, and relive the life of RAF Watton.

RAF Watton (Station 376)

RAF Watton, located some 11.5 miles north-east of Thetford, opened in 1939 as a medium bomber station with the RAF. Unusually it only had one runway, a grass example, which was later extended to 2,000 yards and crossed the airfield in an east-west direction.

The late 1930s saw a massive expansion of Britain’s military might, and in particular, its airfields. With little foresight into what lay ahead, these pre-war and early war airfields were not designed, nor built, as dispersed sites. Once the realisation of what the war would bring hit home however, later examples would be dispersed, giving a new dimension to airfield design. As a result, Watton (built by the John Laing company) was constructed with much of the accommodation block, technical area, hangars and so on, all being placed closely together on one single site.

Housing for the personnel was located in the north-western corner, with the technical area just east of this. The bomb dump, an ideal target, was further to the east of this area. Four ‘C’ type hangers were constructed each having a span of 150 feet, a length of 300 feet and a height of 35 feet. Whilst Watton was a medium bomber airfield, and thus aircraft were relatively small, it was envisaged at this time that larger, heavier bombers would soon come on line, and so foresight deemed larger than necessary hangar space be provided. A 1934/35 design, these hangars would be common place across expansion period airfields.

Another architectural design found at Watton was the redesigned Watch Office, an all concrete affair built to drawing 207/36, it was one that would very quickly become inadequate, requiring either heavily modifying or, as was in many other cases, replacing altogether.

RAF Watton

Part of Watton’s decaying perimeter track.

Partially opened in 1937, the airfield wasn’t fully completed and handed over to the RAF until 1939. Being a pre-war design, building materials were in good supply, and so the  accommodation blocks were constructed using brick, and they catered well for those who would find themselves posted here.

Another aspect considered at this time was that of camouflage; airfields were enormous open expanses and could be easily seen from great distances and heights. Numerous proposals for hiding them were put forward, a move that resulted in the formation of a special unit within the Directorate of Works led by Colonel Sir John Turner. Watton came under the eyes of Sir John and his department, and this led to an ingenious camouflage pattern of fields and hedges being painted across the entire airfield,  thus disguising it from prying eyes above. Whilst not completely effective, it certainly went some way to protecting it from attack.

Watton airfield taken in 1942 by No. 8 Operational Training Unit. The four hangars can be seen in the centre of the photo with the patchwork of ‘fields’ disguising the main airfield. English Heritage (RAF Photography).

The first postings to arrive were the men and machines of 21 and 34 Squadrons RAF. Their arrivals on March 2nd 1939 saw a reuniting of both squadrons under the Command of Group Captain P. J. Vincent DFC and 6 (B) Group . On the 7th, the airfield was inspected by the Group’s AOC after which 34 Sqn performed a flypast; one such event that would be the start of many visits from numerous dignitaries including the Marshall of the Royal Air Force himself, Sir Edward Ellington  GCB, CMG, CBE.

Little flying took place by either squadron at this time however, as the aerodrome was soon unserviceable due to the very poor British weather. Grass runways soon became bogs, and as was found across many grassed airfields at this time, unsafe for aircraft to either take off or land without mishap. From April  things picked up slightly, and intensive training began in the form of station tactics and defence exercises. The weather would however, continue to be the worst enemy, repeatedly preventing or restricting flying from taking place.

In August, 34 Sqn received orders to depart Watton and  proceed to Singapore, and so on the 12th, the air and ground parties began their long transit leaving Watton and England far behind. The quiet of their departure would not last ling however, as within a few days of them leaving, their empty beds would be filled once more, when the Blenheims and crews of 82 Sqn arrived.

At 11:05 on September 3rd 1939, notification came though to Watton of Britain’s declaration of war. Within days of the announcement aircraft were being moved out under the ‘Scatter’ scheme to another airfield, Sealand, for there was a fear of imminent air attacks following the war’s declaration. The Blenheims remained at Sealand until mid September, at which point they were recalled and prepared for attacks on vessels belonging to the German Navy. These vessels were not located however, and so the order to stand by was cancelled and the crews stood down. This would sadly become a regular and frustrating occurrence for the men of 21 Sqn.

Shortly after on the 9th, the first of the new MK.IV Blenheims were collected from Rootes Ltd at Speke, with further examples arriving over the next few days. Further movements saw aircraft detached to Netheravon and then onto Bassingbourne where Blenheim L8473 was damaged as it ‘nosed over’ whilst taxiing. A minor, but unfortunate accident, it would be the first of many more serious losses for the squadron.

RAF Watton

A fence separates the housing estate from the airfield remains.

On 26th September, another order came through for aircraft of 21 Sqn to stand by to attack  the German fleet, whilst a further two Blenheims (L8734 and L8743) would fly to the Rhur to carry out a photographic reconnaissance mission. However, bad weather, industrial smoke and a faulty camera prevented both aircraft from carrying out their duties: each one returning to Watton empty handed but unscathed – crews reporting heavy flak over the target area. The whole of October and November were pretty much a wash-out. Bad weather with prolonged heavy rain prevented any substantial flying beyond the local area. Air gunnery and co-operation flights were carried out whenever  possible, but the late months of 1939 had certainly been a ‘phoney war’ for 21 Sqn.

As 1940 dawned, things on the continent began to heat up and ground attacks increased for both Watton squadrons. Low-level sorties saw them attacking troop formations and enemy hardware as its galloped its was across the low-countries. Whilst bravely flying on and escorted by fighters, overall loses for the slower Blenheims of 2 Group were beginning to rise, a pattern that would only increase in the face of a far superior enemy in the coming months.

These losses were bourne out by 82 Sqn in dramatic style on the 17th May, when twelve aircraft took off at 04:50 to attack Gembloux. They were met with heavy anti-aircraft fire and overwhelming fighter opposition – fifteen BF.109s, decimated the squadron. All but one aircraft was lost, the only survivor being P8858 crewed by Sgt. Morrison, Sgt. Carbutt and AC Cleary. Whilst not injured in the melee, the aircraft was badly damaged and as a result, was deemed unrepairable and written off. An entire squadron had all but been wiped out in one fell swoop.

This disaster would be reflected right across 2 Group, who had now suffered its greatest overall loss to date, but for 82 Sqn it would not yet be the end of this traumatic and devastating period. The burning cauldron that was now facing the light bomber was taking its toll on crews, who were all at a distinct disadvantage to their Luftwaffe counterparts. On the 21st, three more aircraft were lost from Watton, with one being forced down in France, another lost without trace and a third limping home so badly damaged it also had to be written off.

A short visit by 18 Sqn between 21st and 26th May barely interrupted proceedings at Watton. After returning from France, they had spent no less than nine days in May at five different airfields including the nearby Great Massingham.

By early June 1940 Operation Dynamo had been completed and France was lost. The British Bulldog, whilst not a spent force, had shown her teeth, been bitten hard and was now licking her heavy wounds. Preparations would now begin to protect her own shores from the impending invasion.

Fuelled by revenge, combined attacks by both 21 and 82 Sqn continued on into the summer months. But revenge alone does not protect a crew from superior fighters and heavy flak. On June 11th, three more 21 Sqn aircraft were lost whilst attacking positions around La Mare, it is thought all three fell to Luftwaffe fighters. Two days later on the 13th, another five aircraft were lost, two from 21 Sqn and three from 82 Sqn; losses were mounting for the light bombers and Watton was amongst those bearing the brunt of these. On the 24th, 21 Sqn saw a reprieve, whether to rest crews, take on a new role or simply regroup, they began a move north to RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. 82 Sqn however, would remain at Watton, where they would carry on with the punishing raids over the continent.

After the arrival and departure of another short stay unit, 105 Sqn between 10th July and 31st October, Watton was now left in the lone hands of 82 Sqn, a situation that would remain until the spring of 1942.

The dramatic loss of eleven crews back in May would come back to haunt 82 Sqn in August that year. On the 12th, another twelve aircraft took off on a high altitude bombing mission to Aalborg in Denmark. The airfield they were to target was well defended, and as if history were to repeat itself, once again eleven of the twelve aircraft were lost. The only one to return, that of R3915 crewed by Sgt. Baron, Sgt. Mason and Sgt, Marriott, turned back early due to low fuel.

In the space of three months, an entire squadron has been all but wiped out not once, but twice, unsustainable losses that would surely bring the squadron to its knees.

RAF Watton

Memorial to the crews lost at Aalborg, 13th August 1940. The propeller of Blenheim R3800, that crashed that day.

It was loses like this that helped convince the authorities to eventually withdraw Blenheims from front line service during 1942 – the Blenheim being long outdated and outclassed. At this time, Watton’s 82 Sqn, would begin their transfer to the Far East, a place they would remain at until the war’s end.

A lull in operations meant that Watton was then reduced to mainly training flights, through the Advanced Flying Unit. Small single and twin-engined aircraft providing the activity over the Norfolk countryside. Many of the crews being trained here would be shipped out to the satellite airfield at Bodney, before returning here for their evening meals.

A brief interlude in the May of 1942 saw the rebirth of the former 90 Squadron, a First World War unit that had gone through this very process on a number of occasions since its inception in 1917.

Flying the American B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ or Fortress I as it was in RAF designations, 90 Sqn was set up to trial the use of the four-engined heavy for its suitability as an RAF bomber. During the first 15 days at Watton, the squadron gained personnel and received their first aircraft,  after which they moved to nearby RAF West Raynham. Here they would begin these trials which also required the use of a number of smaller airfields in the local area. These included both RAF Great Massingham and RAF Bodney, neither of which were particularly suited to the heavy bombers.

Watton then saw no further operational units, and in the mid 1943, it was handed over to the Americans who began to develop the airfield into something more suitable for their needs. It was now that Watton would take on a more sinister role.

In Part 2 we see how the Americans developed Watton, and how it became two sites rather than just one, and also, how its role in Electronic countermeasure took it into the post war years.

The full story of Watton can be found in Trail 9.

RAF Bodney – High casualties and Heroic acts (Part 2).

After Part 1, we return to RAF Bodney to the point where the RAF had pulled out handing Bodney over to the US forces. From now on, it would be the home of the USAAF 352nd FG, its P-47s and P-51s.

Famed for the blue-noses on their P-51s, there would be high successes but there would also be many tragedies along the way.

Formed previously in September 1942, the 352nd Fighter Group (FG) composed of three Fighter Squadrons (FS): 328th FS, 486th FS (previously the 21st PS) and 487th FS (formally the 34th PS). Their journey had been both long and difficult, using elements of two squadrons who had previous battle experience in the Pacific theatre. The new 352nd would move through a series of training camps and bases across America, serving as part of the US Air Defence force before deploying overseas. From Mitchel Field, they transferred to Bradley Field (Connecticut), Westover Field (Massachusetts), Trumbull Field (Connecticut) and onto Republic Field, New York before  eventually leaving on the Queen Elizabeth arriving a week later at Bodney on July 7th 1943.

Arriving via Greenock and the Queen Elizabeth, the ground echelons of the 352nd were deposited at Watton station where they were taken by truck to RAF Watton. Pleasantly surprised by the far nicer accommodation blocks they had been used to, their joy was to be short-lived as Bodney was perhaps even worse than the original training camps they had endured back home.

Whilst the surrounding woods had been utilised for aircraft dispersal, the base was in need of an upgrade if it was to be used successfully. These improvements included the addition of steel mat and pierced-steel planking hardstands, additional taxiways and more roads constructed of both macadam and concrete. The men of the 352nd commuted daily from Watton carrying out repairs and improvements until such time as the airfield was more or less ready for occupation and they moved in.

During its time, Bodney would have two T2 hangars and five Blister hangars, accommodation would continue to be limited, allowing for around 1,700 men of mixed rank. Eleven accommodation sites were spread round the north and east of the main airfield, which included two communal sites (site 2 and 3) and two sewage works (sites 12 and 13). There were no WAAF accommodation blocks and due to initial shortages of Nissen huts, nearby Clermont Hall (originally a grand plastered brick Italian style building built by William Pilkington in 1812 as Lord Clermont’s hunting lodge*1)  was ‘requisitioned’ and flying crews moved in, it was a complete change and total luxury compared to other bases and camps used by either the RAF or USAAF. However, following a visit from an Air Inspector, the stay was short-lived and the airmen moved back to the basic hutting of Bodney, even after strong protests from Group Commander, Lt. Col. Joe Mason.

Master Mark II glider tug at Bodney, during airborne forces Exercise ‘SNAFFLE‘ © IWM (H 31737)

During this time manoeuvres regularly took place in the local area, and between August 9th and 11th 1943, one such exercise was conducted near to Newmarket, an exercise that involved both Polish and Canadian divisions opposing each other in mock attacks. During exercise ‘SNAFFLE‘, Master Mark II glider tugs used Bodney airfield whilst dropping a range of supplies such as petrol, ammunition and ordnance to illustrate both the usefulness, and importance of such activities. This made an interesting change to Bodney and something else for the crews to focus on.

It wasn’t long however, before the first P-47s were to arrive at Bodney, and at last flying could begin again with training flights started very soon afterwards. However, maintenance and flying operations were arrested by the lack of equipment, spares and aircraft – all very typical of the build up of US squadrons across the UK. As morale sunk, a special visitor arrived at Bodney, that of Capt. Clark Gable along with a film crew who were documenting the lives of American Fighter Squadrons involved in the European war.

A line up of P-47 Thunderbolts including (PZ-T,) “Little Evey” and (PZ-Z) “Pistol Packin’ Mama” at Bodney.  (IWM FRE 2795)

On September 9th 1943, some two months after their arrival, the 352nd flew their first mission. An uneventful patrol over England’s eastern coast between Southwold and Felixstowe. For the next few mission, even those into enemy territory, similar conditions were found, the enemy were not seen and flak remained low. However, this did not mean the 352nd were casualty free.

On 13th September 1943, Lt. Arthur Eaker was killed in a local flying accident, the groups first, then on the 14th, Lt. William Alm disappeared whilst in flight over the North Sea. His aircraft P-47D (#42-22531) was thought to have been lost due to mechanical failure, he was never found.

It wasn’t until the 10th October that the pilots of the 352nd got to fire their guns in anger, when they encountered a flight of Bf-109s near to Hertogenbosch, Holland. The first kills were recorded, but it was not to be all plain sailing. Four days later on the 14th (‘Black Thursday‘), the Luftwaffe changed tactics and hit the escorts as they crossed the coastline. Leaving the bombers unescorted to their targets in Germany. Once away from their ‘Little Friends’ the bomber formations were decimated by Me-110s – something need to be done.

With more mission to Germany and escort duties, the 352nd began to cut their teeth and become battle hardened. By the turn of the year they had completed 38 missions with the loss of ten aircraft. The pilots of the 352nd had now twenty-two enemy aircraft as confirmed ‘kills’, but five of their own were killed and two others had been made prisoners of war.

A new year and new directives for fighter squadrons. in order to achieve total air superiority pilots were instructed to hunt for the Luftwaffe and destroy them whenever the opportunity arose. Every aircraft destroyed on the ground now counting as a battle credit, the same as an aerial kill. In addition, fighter squadrons were now given designated ‘zones’ to protect, and once the bomber stream had passed through their zone, the fighters were free to roam at will. The gauntlet had been thrown and the US pilots were hungry for rewards.

Early 1944 saw these directives put into action. ‘kill’ rates began to rise, but along with it casualties also mounted. By February the war-weary P-47s were looking tired and the new P-51 began to appear. The Ninth Air Force taking first pickings with Don Blakeslee, (Trail 46 and Trail 50) formerly of the ‘Eagle Squadrons’ becoming the first US squadron to have the mighty Mustangs. It wasn’t until March 1st, 1944 that the 352nd would receive their first P-51s, with seven being delivered and duly handed over to the pilots of the 486th FS at Bodney.

A battled damaged P-51 Mustang (PZ-S) of the 486th FS, in a Blister hangar at Bodney. (IWM- FRE 2803)

It would take just eight days for the Bodney crews to mark their first Mustang ‘Kill’. Capt. Ed Gignac, in P-51B ‘PZ-W’ (#43-7022), shooting down a Bf-109 in battle that saw both P-51s and P-47s of the 352nd participate.

April saw more changes and new arrivals, by now there were two squadrons of P-51s at Bodney, a new sound reverberated around the grassed airfield and with it came more new directives, As many squadrons were equipped with a mix of aircraft, it was beginning difficult to tell them apart in the hectic skies. Coloured noses, wing tips and fins were rapidly becoming markings of individual squadrons and those in charge realised that a standard form of scheming was now necessary for this new and innovative way of distinguishing squadrons.

The blue nose was born, and Bodney’s Blue-nosed Mustangs were soon to be seen at low-level attacking airfields, locomotives, vehicles, troop columns and other similar ground targets.

In May, whilst acting on escort duties for a raid over Brunswick, the group shot down 27 enemy Bf-109s and FW-190s with the loss of only one aircraft. This action earned them a Distinguished Unit Citation, for taking on a “numerically superior force of German interceptors” continuing on until lack of ammunition and fuel forced their withdrawal.

The 352nd went on to support the Normandy invasion, an operation that proved to be a fatal tragedy for one pilot in particular, Lieutenant Bob Frascotti.

IMG_2210

Robert Frascotti next to his P-51B, 43-6685, named ‘Umbriago’ . At 21 years of age he was killed on his final mission before returning home. (Photo – Marc Hamel)

D-Day began early for the 352nd, the night sky was dark and to assist the take off temporary runway lights had been lit. Preceding Frascotti were his compatriots of the 486th FS. During the take off, one of the preceding aircraft struck a light causing the entire collection to extinguish. In the moments that followed, Frascotti and his wing-man, Lt. Carlton Fuhrman, were plunged into total darkness. Unable to see, the two were now committed and carried on, Fuhrman slightly behind Frascotti. Within seconds of them leaving the ground, there was a sudden and massive fireball in front of Fuhrman, a fireball that was the result of Frascotti striking the new, and as yet unfinished, watch office. His aircraft, fully armed and fully fuelled, became a fireball that lit-up the night sky, and one from which Frascotti would not survive.

Blinded temporarily by the flash, Fuhrman fought to prevent his aircraft stalling as he flew through the flames and on out into the night sky, struggling to orientate himself and  unable to register his instruments due to the blinding flash. Behind him, Frascotti’s burning wreck lit up the field, one of the 352nd’s finest had been killed in a total and needless tragedy. The only saving grace from this was that every other aircraft taking off after Frascotti was able to see, a guiding light some say, and so prevented other tragic accidents from happening that night. This was the young 21 year old’s final mission, his 89th, and on completion he would have been returning home.

During D-Day the 352nd flew 116 sorties, reigning death and destruction down on the German forces below, other casualties were to follow, but none until now, as destructive and heart rendering as that of Frascotti.

The Watch Office after being hit by Frascotti’s P-51 on the morning of D-Day. (© 352nd FG, USAAF)*2

After Normandy, the 352nd went on to support the breakout at St.Lo and the airborne assault in Holland. As autumn led into winter, the temperature dropped and the weather took a dramatic turn for the worse; with heavy snow and cold winds across the continent, as the ground forces held out on the Ardennes forest knew only too well. The 352nd, like many other squadrons, were to help support the paratroops, being moved on a short-term basis to Belgium (Asch (Y-29) and Chievres (Y-84)) to join the Ninth Air Force earning themselves the French Croix de Guerre on New Year’s Day 1945.

A week earlier, on Christmas Day 1944 a second tragedy was to befall the 352nd, one that would take the life of another one of the 352nd’s finest. The squadrons highest scoring pilot at that time, Major George Preddy, a hero to many of the airmen and ground crews at Bodney, flew into an American Flak barrage put up by the US Army’s 12th Anti-Aircraft Group. His plane was hit and whilst his canopy was seen to be ejected, no chute appeared, and his body was found still in the wreckage of his beloved P-51. The news of Preddy’s death stunned the celebrations at both Asch and Bodney, no-one could believe that such a daring and brave pilot could have been lost, let alone lost to friendly fire.

April would see the 352nd return to Bodney, where they continued operations until May 3rd 1945. Their final move on November 4th would take them home to the United States, a move that left Bodney empty and a legacy that would be hard to follow. The 352nd had flown 420 missions, losing 118 aircraft with 70 pilots killed. They had been awarded 13 DSC’s, 31 Silver Stars, 336 DFCs, 1304 Air Medals and 42 Bronze Star Medals. The Group had created 52 ‘Aces’, 28 of which had achieved the status in air-to-air combat, accounting for 505 aircraft in the air with Major George Preddy achieving 27 of these himself.

With that departure Bodney fell silent, it closed very soon after the war in Europe ended on November 26th 1945, reverting back to farmland soon after.

Today Bodney falls next to the British Army’s STANTA training ground and as such parts are a military site. Some structures can easily be seen from the main road, B1108,  with signs warning of MOD activity are everywhere.  The original water tower and pump still serve the camp, a few air raid shelters exist and some buildings on the camp. Hardstands can be seen in the woods but little from the road itself.

The watch office is accessible (on farmland) where there are also a few other buildings to be found, including  number of Type 22 pillboxes, many are derelict. The main army base is on part of the former accommodation site, with a memorial outside the gate dedicated to 352nd FG and associated units.

RAF Bodney

Bodney’s memorial to the 352nd FG.

Many of the buildings that were in existence were pulled down in 2012/13 due to increased vandalism and their heavy use for Rave parties. As a result even less now stands visible telling the incredible stories of this forgotten airfield.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Norfolk Heritage Explorer website, accessed 15/8/18

*2 Photo via www.controltowers.co.uk

Frascotti’s story is told in more detail in Heroic tales.

Preddy’s story is told in more detail in Heroic Tales.

Walton, D. “Northumberland Aviation Diary” (1999), Norav Publications

Freeman, R. “The Mighty Eighth“, (1986), Arms and Armour.

There is a website dedicated to the 352nd with a link to the superb ‘Bluenoser’ magazine.

RAF Bodney – High casualties and Heroic acts (Part 1).

Much has been written about the Famous ‘Blue Nosed Bastards of Bodney‘, the 352nd Fighter Group, Eighth Air Force. Famed for their determination and ferocious attacks on Luftwaffe aircraft, they produced some remarkable results – but they also suffered some terrible losses. Nicknamed the ‘Blue Nosers‘, because of their blue nosed P-51 Mustangs, they became one of the most successful fighter groups of the Eighth Air Force. In just a two-year period (September 1943 to May 1945), they were credited with 800 enemy aircraft destroyed, either on the ground or in the air, flying a total of 420 missions. Today the airfield they served from, RAF Bodney, is a small part of the STANTA training ground used by the Army for military exercises, and whilst the airfield has all but gone, the stories and tales of the 352nd continue to live on.

In this Trail, we look again at RAF Bodney, the units and the men who served, the heroic acts and the cost paid at this small grass airfield.

RAF Bodney (Station 141)

Bodney was initially an RAF airfield, opened in 1940 as a grassed site with a hardened perimeter track. During its construction, it had 27 asphalt hard stand of mixed sizes, fifteen large and twelve small, and was designed as a satellite for nearby RAF Watton (Trail 9). Whilst primarily associated with the USAAF, it was in fact an RAF Airfield for several years, housing detachments of aircraft from its parent station.

On 2nd March 1939, 21 (Norwich) Squadron (RAF), now part of 2 Group,  moved into Watton from Eastchurch bringing with them Blenheim MK.Is which they retained until the September when they changed them for the MK.IV. Being early on in the war, they were not yet fully operational, and so were limited to reconnaissance flights over northern France. They were also joined in the August by 82 Sqn, another Blenheim squadron, and it was at this time that they began to utilise Bodney as a satellite, dispersing aircraft here away from the parent airfield.

One of the earliest casualties to occur at Bodney was that of 82 Squadron, on the 22nd anniversary of the forming of the Royal Air Force – 1st April 1940. Take off occurred at 11:00 hrs when Blenheim MK.IV #L8867, piloted by F/O. Glyn Harries (s/n 39520), along with Sgt, Herbert Kelleway (s/n 561573) and LAC. Eric Wolverson (s/n 544700), was sent to attack enemy shipping off the Danish coast. During an attack, the aircraft was hit by Flak from enemy shipping and brought down with the loss of all three  crewmen on board. Their bodies were never recovered and they are commemorated at Runnymede.

RAF Bodney

Bodney today.

By the summer of 1940, Western Air Plan W.A.4(b) was put into operation, a plan that formed part of a 16 part operations plan in the event of a German attack, and one that would focus British Air power in the destruction of German power sources. Part 4(b) focused on the advancing troop and armour columns when they crossed into Southern Holland, Belgium and France. This required aerial attacks primarily from Blenheim and Fairy Battle Squadrons, and was intended to slow or even stop the advancement.

Blenheims of 21 Squadron were assigned to this plan focusing on troop columns and bridges, but being under-powered and weaker than their adversaries, Blenheim casualties were very high and operations over enemy territory were soon curtailed.

Western Air Plan W.A.4(b) was a plan that sent many pilots to their ultimate death or capture, as the aircraft they were flying were woefully inadequate for the job in hand. A fact borne out by the brave attempts of three crewmen on June 14th. On this day, Blenheim #R3742, of 21 Squadron at Bodney, was shot down over France, the three crewmen: P/O. W. Saunders, Sgt. H. Eden and Sgt. C. Webb,  fortunately surviving the resultant crash. After making their way to the coast, finding a boat and attempting to row to England, the three men began to hallucinate through exhaustion. After the second night, P/O. Saunders ‘disappeared’, leaving only his tunic behind in the boat. After being what they thought was only 10 miles from the English coast, they were eventually picked up in France and taken to a new POW camp on the Baltic coast.

On June 24th, 21 Sqn left Bodney moving north to RAF Lossiemouth where they performed anti-shipping operations off the Norwegian coast, before returning once more to Watton (and Bodney) where they continued these low-level operations. It was whilst back here at Bodney that another of 21 Sqn’s pilots, Sqn. Ldr. Malcolm McColm, flying in Blenheim MK.IV #T2223 ‘YH-T’ would also be shot down also ending his war as a POW.

On the night of 27th/28th December 1940, he took off with his crew, Sgt.  Cecil Hann (s/n 580541) and Sgt David Shepherd (s/n 625253), to attack coastal targets. After being shot down, both Sgts. Hann and Shepherd were killed but Sqn. Ldr. McColm survived and would go on to be one of the RAF’s greatest evaders, escaping no less than seven times from German incarceration. Eventually he was sent to Colditz where he shared a room with Douglas Bader and was an active member of the Colditz Escape Committee along with Airey Neave. These would prove to be residencies that would befall many Blenheim pilots at this point in the War.

Eventually in 1941, 21 Sqn moved away to the Middle East, only to be disbanded and reformed later on, all on the same day.

Being a satellite, the facilities at Bodney were rudimentary, and remained so even when 90 Squadron (RAF) began using it during testing of the mighty B-17 (Fortress MK.I). Initially reformed at Watton on May 3rd 1941, they quickly moved to larger bases at West Raynham and then Polebrook, where the Fortresses were tested for RAF bombing missions. Unfortunately operations proved too costly with too little success for them to continue, and the B-17s were gradually phased out of RAF operations.

RAF Bodney water tower

The water tower and pump house at Bodney are some of the structures remaining.

These coming and goings at Bodney had left 82 Sqn one of the few squadrons still in situ. Performing anti-shipping activities off the coast of the Friesian Islands, they would regularly fly over the sea at very low levels, attacking whatever ships they could find. On August 20th 1941, Blenheim MK.IV #V6445 ‘UX-E’ took off from Bodney on what was supposed to be a routine operation; at the controls was 20-year-old F/Lt. Dennis R. Gibbs (s/n 63471), with Sgt. Stanley V. Pascoe (s/n 548419) as wireless operator / gunner, and Sgt. Eric L. Cash (s/n 916895) as Observer / bomb aimer.

As the aircraft flew in low toward its target, Sgt. Cash (referred to as ‘Laurie’) released the bombs, at which point the pilot, realising how low he was, pulled up only to strike the mast of the ship they were attacking. The mast smashed the Blenheim’s perspex front severely wounding Sgt. Cash, and damaging numerous instruments, including the radio, in the process.

Unable to navigate properly, the pilot turned west and headed for what he hoped would be land. After some 6 1/4 hours flying time, a point very close to the flying limit of the Blenheim, F/Lt. Gibbs, not knowing where he was, decided to put the aircraft down in a suitable field. The nose of the aircraft still had part of the mast embedded in it, which made handling and landing the aircraft even more difficult than it would have been normally.

Luckily a passing Home Guard platoon were near by, and once the aircraft had come to a stand still, they helped pull the crew out of the wreckage; Sgt. Cash was taken to Acklington Hospital whilst F/Lt. Gibbs and Sgt. Pascoe were treated for minor injuries.

Later that night Sgt. Cash died from wounds he sustained in the collision, and was buried in Chevington Cemetery. F/Lt. Gibbs and Sgt. Pascoe returned to Bodney and after a short period of leave, returned to flying duties; F/Lt. Gibbs later receiving the DSO.

Until now Bodney had not had its own squadron, but on March 14th, 1942, a unique day in 21 Sqn’s history, the unit was disbanded in Malta only to be reformed the same day at Bodney. They continued to use the Blenheim MK.IVs, placing a small detachment at Abbotsinch (now Glasgow Airport) whilst the main part of the squadron stayed at Bodney. It was also during this month that 82 Sqn departed for the far east leaving Bodney to the new 21 Sqn.

During May 1942, 21 Sqn began to change their Blenheims, replacing them with the American built Lockheed Ventura (MK.I and MK. II), the first RAF squadron to do so. Throughout the summer months 21 Sqn carried out training flights converting crews from the Blenheim onto the Ventura, a slow process as new aircraft were only being sent as few as one or two at a time. The Ventura, a former passenger aircraft, could carry a 2,500lb bomb load with a larger crew of 4 or 5 including a top turret gunner. Take offs, landings and formation flying were the order of the day until in the October 1942, when 21 Sqn finally departed Bodney for RAF Methwold (Trail 8). This move signalled the permanent break that would mean 21 Sqn would now leave Bodney behind for good.

The winter months of 1942-43 were quiet at Bodney. The gradual build up of American forces in the UK meant that more and more airfields were needed to house fighters and bombers of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces. Through both a renewed building programme and the taking over of older RAF sites, this heavy demand would soon be met. As part of this buildup, Bodney was identified as suitable site for a bomber station, but upgrading to Class A standard never happened, and instead it was allocated to a fighter group. After being designated Station 141, it was handed over to the US forces, who quickly began to make improvements to its design.

In part 2 of this RAF Bodney – High casualties and heroic acts, we shall see how Bodney  became home to the three squadrons of the 352nd FG, The tragedies that occurred at this small grassed airfield, and how the 352nd became one of the top scoring Fighter Groups of the US Air Force.

(See part two for references).