Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 1)

In this second part of Trail 58, we leave Rackheath behind and head east towards the coast of East Anglia, and an area known as the ‘Broads’. A few miles across this flat and wetland we come across a small airfield, currently used by crop sprayers and small light aircraft. This private field, almost indistinguishable from the farming land around it, just hints at its past, with two rundown towers, a blister hangar and a small collection of pathways, its history is fast disappearing.

In this the last part of Trail 58 we visit the former RAF Ludham.

RAF Ludham (Station 177, H.M.S. Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham).

Ludham is a small airfield that has been in existence since September 1941, when it opened as a satellite for RAF Coltishall located a few miles to the north-west. It would change hands on more than one occasion over the next few years, being assigned to the RAF, the USAAF and the Royal Navy before returning to RAF ownership once more.

Throughout this time, it would operate as a fighter airfield seeing  range of Spitfire Marks along with a Typhoon Squadron. A number of B-17s would crash here as would a P-38 lightning and several other USAAF aircraft; part of Ludham’s history being that of an emergency landing strip for returning aircraft.

At its inception, Ludham was a grassed airfield, with a hardened perimeter track linking a number of dispersals. Being a fighter airfield the perimeter was only 40 feet wide but of concrete construction, thus it was not designed for the larger, medium or heavy bombers of the allied air forces.

Furthermore, as a satellite, Ludham lacked the design features of a major airfield, and so the accommodation and technical facilities were not up to the same standard of those found on other sites. The accommodation huts were scattered around the north-western side of the airfield, and an initial single storey watch office was also built to the west. A standard wartime design for satellite airfields (design 3156/41), it was a single-roomed structure with a pyrotechnic cupboard and limited views. A switch room was then added to the building (design 1536/42) in early 1942, before the entire building was abandoned and a new twin storey watch office built. As with most airfields of this type, the twin storey building was constructed in conjunction with the addition of the concrete runways. This new office  (design 12779/41) with lower front windows (343/43) would have many benefits over the original not least better views across the airfield site.

Ludham airfield

The much dilapidated original Watch Office.

Another interesting, but not unique feature of Ludham, was a Modified Hunt Range, a structure designed to teach aircraft recognition. The structure, built inside a Laing Hut, saw the trainee sat in front of an enormous mirror. A moving model was then placed behind the student on an elaborate turntable that could not only move in the horizontal plane, but both turn and bank. A selection of lights and a cyclorama added to the realism, with the model reflected in the mirror in front of the student. The combination of all these features provided the students with life-like conditions, thus recreating the same difficulties they were likely to find in combat situations.

For much of its early life, Ludham was used as a satellite of Coltishall, although many of its squadrons were based here from the outset. The primary aircraft seen here was Supermarine’s magnificent Spitfire, the first of which was the MK.VB of 19 Squadron.

19 Sqn had only had this mark of Spitfire since October, previously operating the MK.IIA at RAF Matlask not far from here on the north Norfolk coast. The Mk V was the most produced Spitfire of all 24 marks (and their sub variants) and was armed with a combination of machine gun and canon depending upon which wing configuration was used. The link between the Spitfire, Matlask and Ludham would be a long one, with units moving from one to the other. forging a bond that would last the entire war.

Arriving in the opening days of December 1941, 19 Sqn immediately began carrying out patrols and bomber escort duties over the North Sea, a duty they had been undertaking whilst at Matlask. On several occasions they would fly out to meet incoming Beauforts and their escorts, after they had completed their anti-shipping missions along the Dutch coast. Daily flights would take: Red, Green, Yellow, White, Black or Blue section, each containing two aircraft, over Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and around the coastal regions of the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline.

However, most of these encounters produced little in the way of contact – even when pilots were directed onto the enemy aircraft. On the 9th, P.O. Halford and Sgt. Turner were vectored onto an intruder, but neither aircraft saw, nor encountered the ‘bandit’, and they returned empty handed. Another two scrambles that same day by ‘Green’ and ‘Black’ sections also proved fruitless, although ‘Black’ section did manage to locate the aircraft which turned out to be a friendly.

Ludham airfield

An original Blister hangar now located on the former runway.

Other duties carried out by 19 Sqn included shipping reconnaissance flights, shadowing and monitoring shipping movements across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast. Taking off at 11:20 on December 18th, F.O. Edwards and P.O. Brooker flew at zero feet across the Sea to Scheveningen where they spotted a convoy of 11 ships. One of these was identified as a flak ship protecting the convoy as it left for open waters. The pair then turned north and flew along the coast to Yumiden where they encountered three more ships. No enemy aircraft were encountered and the pair returned to Ludham to file their report.

Then on Christmas Eve, P.O.s Vernon and Hindley in ‘Blue‘ Section were tasked with a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission to attack the aerodrome at Katwyk. On route, they came across a convoy and two Me. 109Es, who were acting as escort / cover for the ships. The two Spitfires engaged the 109s, Blue 1 getting a two second canon and machine gun strike on one of them at 300 yards range. Black smoke was seen coming from the fighter which dived to the sea only to pull up at the last minute and head for home. Blue 2  engaged the other enemy aircraft, but no strikes were seen and the German pilot broke off also setting a course for home. The two Spitfires then engaged the convoy attacking a number of vessels, each pilot recording strikes on the ships, claiming some as ‘damaged’. After the attack they returned home, this leg of the flight being uneventful.

These events set a general pattern for the next four months, and one that would become synonymous with Ludham. Then, on April 4th 1942, 19 Sqn would move to RAF Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a direct swap with 610 Sqn who had been stationed there since the January.

Also during this time a supporting squadron had also been at Ludham, 1489 (Fighter) Gunnery Flight, (formerly 1489 (Target Towing) Flight) which had moved in to help prepare fighter pilots for air-to-air combat. Around the time that 19 Sqn departed Ludham, 1489 Flt also departed, also going to Hutton Cranswick with 19 Sqn where they were disbanded in 1943.

610 Sqn were another Spitfire squadron also operating the MK.VB at this time. They too got straight back into action carrying out the patrols undertaken by 19 squadron before them. No engagements were recorded until the 8th, when what were thought to be two ‘E’ boats were sighted but not engaged.

The remainder of April was much the same, several convoy escorts, reconnaissance missions along the Dutch coast and scrambles that led to very little. On the 27th two Spitfires did encounter and Ju 88 which they shot down, the crew from the Ju 88 were not seen after the aircraft hit the water. On the next day, ten Spitfires took off between midnight and 01:05 hrs to patrol the Norwich area. Here they saw green parachute flares, and flew to intercept. Sticks of bombs were then seen exploding in the streets of the city, and various pilots engaged with Do 217 bombers. Strikes were recorded on the enemy aircraft, but they were lost in smoke and they could not be confirmed as ‘kills’. Further attacks occurred again on the 29th and again strikes were seen by the RAF pilots on the enemy intruders.

The period April to August was pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles.  Then in mid August, 610 Sqn would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham had a mainly uneventful entry to the war, sporadic scrambles, intermittent contacts and many hours of training, its future looked secure. But, there were many changes ahead and many events that would put it firmly on the map of history.

In Part 2 we see how these changes affect Ludham and its future.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (pt2).

In Part 1 we saw how Rackheath had been developed, and how the 467th BG, the resident group had been subjected to a fierce introduction to the war.

Now, in part 2, we continue our visit to Rackheath and the bizarre event of December 1944.

On December 24th,  B-24 #42-50675 “Bold Venture III” piloted by 1st. Lt. P. Ehrlich, was one of sixty-two B-24s from the 467th taking part in a maximum effort attack on a range of targets in Germany. Hit by flak over the target, five of the  crew, including the pilot, bailed out fearing the aircraft was lost. All five were subsequently captured and incarcerated as prisoners of war. The fires in the engines then extinguished themselves allowing the remaining crew to engage the auto-pilot, taking the aircraft homeward and over allied territory. Once over France, they too bailed out as they were unable to land the heavy bomber, each of these men being safely picked up by allied forces. The plane then continued on, unmanned across the Channel, until it ran out of fuel.

RAF Rackheath

The former hangar has been completely refurbished.

At this point, the story becomes confused. Some say it landed / crashed  in a field near to  Lower House Farm, Vowchurch Common in Herefordshire. The wreck being salvaged the following day. However, there is little evidence of this event, and other sources (Freeman “The Mighty Eighth“) have it landing in a Welsh marsh a little further west. Whatever the truth is, its a remarkable, but not unique, story of  a crewless bomber flying ‘home’ coming to rest safely on British soil.

Also on that Christmas Eve, another Rackheath B-24, #42-95220, piloted by First Lieutenant William W. Truxes Jr , was hit over Pruen. The aircraft then exploded over Rettigny in Belgium, killing Sgt. Walter Walinski (TG); Sgt. Stanley P. Koly (LWG); Fl. Off. David J. Countey (Nav); Sgt. Roland L. Morehouse (BA); St. Sgt. Peter Hardick Jr (TTG); St. Sgt. John N. Ellefson (Radio Op) and Sgt. Alek Onischuk (RWG). Only the Nose Gunner St. Sgt. Robert J. Ball Jr. returned to duty the remainder being taken prisoners of war.

On the 29th the continuing appalling weather caused the loss of two more B-24s, both crashing attempting to take off from a foggy Rackheath (#42- 95115 and #42-51572). A third (#42-94881) was then abandoned over the sea, and a forth (#44- 10607) crashed at Attlebridge also after sustaining damage on its take off. The  visibility was so poor that day that the crews couldn’t even make out the edge of the runway. As a result of these crashes, the mission to Prum, was finally scrubbed, but by then fifteen airmen had already been lost.

The dawn of 1945 saw the Ardennes offensive continuing, and at Rackheath B-24 ‘Witchcraft‘ was approaching its 100th Mission an achievement it made on January 14th 1945. In just 140 days since arriving, it had reached its 70th mission an average of one mission every two days, but what made this particular achievement so remarkable was not this incredible average, but the fact that the aircraft had been mechanically sound throughout, not having to turn back from any sortie it had undertaken. A remarkable achievement, and a solid testament to the dedication of the ground crews who kept her in the air.

The Witch“, as she affectionately became known, would go on to complete a total of 130 missions without a single abort nor injury to any crewman. She became one of the most celebrated aircraft in the 8th Air force’s history. This total would surpass all other B-24s in the whole of the European theatre of operations. Like many though, ‘The Witch‘ eventually returned to the US where she was unceremoniously taken apart at Altus, Oklahoma. In memory of the aircraft, her achievements and the crews who were lost flying B-24s, she is now represented by the world’s last flying Liberator, currently owned and operated by the Collings Foundation, Massachusetts.

Ground crew of the 467th BG B-24 “Witchcraft“. Standing Crew Chief Joe Ramirez, Chamberlin. Front Row Walter Elliot, Geo Dong, Joe Vetter, Ray Betcher.’ (IWM FRE 1979)

As 1945 progressed the end of the war was near. Attempts by the Luftwaffe to curtail bomber intrusions into German airspace were becoming desperate. The introduction of the Me 262 was too little, too late, to make a major difference. But so determined to stop the bombers were the Luftwaffe pilots that many still got through and they were finding the bombers.

Other fighters more determined to bring down the enemy began ramming them. A specialist squadron the ‘Sonderkommando Elbe‘  was set up using volunteer pilots. They were instructed to strike the fuselage of the bomber between the wing and tail thus cutting the aircraft in two, a tactic that would  allow the German pilot to bail out of his aircraft whilst taking down the bomber.

On April 7th, the unit was put into action in its one and only recorded attack, as over 1,000 heavies flew towards German airfields, oil storage facilities and factories in north-west Germany. From the 2nd AD, 340 B-24s headed for Krummel, Duneburg and Neumunster. As the force approached they were targeted by a mix of over 100 Luftwaffe fighters including 109s, 190s and 262s. In this mix was the Sonderkommando Elbe. Whilst the tactic would prove to be more devastating to the rammer than the target, one of Rackheath’s B-24s #42-94931 ‘Sack Time‘ was hit in the tail severing the starboard stabiliser. The B-24’s pilot, Lt. Robert Winger, managed to keep the aircraft flying but with little control, he ordered the crew to abandon the aircraft once over allied territory. The B-24 then crewless, fell from the sky.

It is not known whether the attack was a deliberate act by the Sonderkommando Elbe, or as a result of the tail gunner Robert (Bob) Perkins’s action. Perkins in his attempt to defend the B-24, fired desperately at the attacker, Heinrich Henkel, striking the aircraft several times.

Then for three days in mid April, the heavies of the USAAF turned their attention to the gun batteries around Royan. These German strong holds were hindering the allied plans to use the port at Bordeaux, they had to be ousted.

During one of the missions, on April 15th, the 467th would make history again when three of the four squadrons released all their 2,000lb bombs within 1,000 ft of the mean point of impact, half of these being within 500 ft – a record that would not be beaten by any other USAAF unit. This was the ‘icing on the cake’ for the 467th who were building a strong reputation for consistent and accurate bombing.  So determined were the Americans to remove the defenders on the ground, that they used Napalm in 500 lb tanks, a rather horrific weapon used to great effect during the Vietnam war.

By the end of April the war was all but over, and at bases all around the UK, air and ground crews eagerly awaited the notice to cease operations. Some units were already being stood down, and very soon operations would begin to drop food rather than bombs. As the end of hostilities was announced, the figures began to be totted up. The 379th BG at Kimbolton were recorded as dropping the greatest number of bombs on a target, with the 467th BG at Rackheath achieving the greatest accuracy. This Rackheath record was due, in part, to the dedication, support and drive of its Commander, Colonel Albert Shower.

On April 25th 1945, the 467th completed its last mission, a total that amounted to 212 (5,538 sorties credited), dropping 13,333 tons of bombs. With 29 aircraft classed as ‘missing’, and a further 19 lost on operations, the war had not been cheap.

RAF Rackheath

The former runway looking north-east.

On May 13th, the 467th were to lead the Victory Flypast over High Wycombe, the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force operations, the choice of a B-24 as lead fuelling the ‘ill-feeling’ between B-24 and B-17 crews even further.

Over the next month, the aircraft and men of the 467th would return to the US, the majority of aircraft departing Rackheath on June 12th, whilst the ground echelons left via the Queen Mary from Greenock, the same port they had arrived at just over a year earlier. Eventually the 467th would be disbanded, renamed the 301st, but for Rackheath it was the end, and within a year much of the airfield was already being ripped up, the runways were disappearing and many of the accommodation buildings had been torn down. The entire site measuring just short of 4 km2  was already beginning to disappear.

Gradually agriculture has taken over, much of the main airfield site are now fields. The technical area has since been developed into an industrial estate with many of the original buildings being re clad, redeveloped, modernised or pulled down. The watch office has thankfully been refurbished and from the outside resembles a watch office typical of the time. Inside it is now offices. The one surviving T2 hangar, has had brickwork added to it, other buildings are almost indistinguishable from their modern counterparts. A memorial, dedicated to the men and Women of the 467th was unveiled on 29th July 1990, by the then 80 year old Colonel Albert J. Shower, returning for one last time to the place he had built up a reputation for hard graft whilst appreciating the need for recreation.

If approaching from the south, take the A1270 from Norwich heading north, leave at the roundabout with Salhouse Road turning right. The Holy Trinity Church is a few hundred yards along this road. Here you will find the village sign, memorial benches and numerous plaques in memory of the 467th. The two wrought iron gates at the entrance of the church were donated by the Coffey crew. Inside here (the church was closed on my visit) a collection of photographs and letters bring the Rackheath to life once more.

RAF Rackheath

The memorial gates donated by the Coffey crew.

When leaving the church, go back but turn right along Green Lane West. This takes you past the remaining hardstands and along to the industrial estate. Enter by Wendover Road, named after Wendover Field in Utah. Turning into Bidwell Road, (following the signs) you will find the main memorial on the the corner of Bidwell Road and Liberator Close.

Coming back again, turn left, follow Wendover Road to the corner with Witchcraft Way, a small road to your left. Here you will see the Watch Office. Also along here are Ramirez Road, Albert Shower Road, the T2 and other buildings of interest. A real rabbit warren, it is best explored to really discover the many buildings and plaques that remain.

The main accommodation areas were located back across the from the entrance of Wendover Road. Today a new road has been cut through this wooded area but within these woods, remains of huts still exist, some with etchings on the walls. All on private land, they are also gradually disappearing from view.

Rackheath was a short lived base, operating for just a short part of the war. But its contribution and the contribution of its crews, was nonetheless immense. With high accuracy and the determination to win, they took the war into the heart of Germany itself. The names of these young men now live on, in the road names and plaques that adorn many of the building and streets around this beautiful and now peaceful area of Norfolk.

After departing Rackheath we head a few miles east, toward the coast. Not far away, is another airfield, this time a former RAF site. Long gone it continues to use part of the original runway, two watch offices remain, and a smattering of wartime buildings lay dormant in the corner of now agricultural fields. In part 2 of Trail 58 we visit RAF Ludham.

Sources and further reading RAF Rackheath

For more detail on Mission 311 see: McLachlan, I., “Night of the Intruders” Pen and Sword (1994).

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (Pt1).

In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.

Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.

But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.

Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.

Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.

Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).

Rackheath (Station 145)

Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the  East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.

RAF Rackheath

Rackheath village sign denotes its history and links to the base.

Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of  2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.

A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with  a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.

A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.

Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.

The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.

The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.

Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.

The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.

But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led  by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘  on the high right.

As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’

Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.

Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.

The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.

When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing  permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.

It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire.  The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.

RAF Rackheath

The former Watch Office has been refurbished and used as offices.

As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too  fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.

Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down –  struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.

Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night.  By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.

April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.

With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.

On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.

B-24 Liberator (4Z-U, #42-95237) 791st BS, 467th BG parked on the grass in a field in Normandy – the first four engined heavy to do so. (IWM FRE 8431)

By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.

In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.

The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.

For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history. We shall revisit Rackheath again in Part 2.

An update to the Allhallows 379th BG Memorial.

A note kindly sent in by Mitch Peeke regarding an update of the Allhallows memorial – 379th BG after its winter ‘clean up’.

I had taken the plaque and the storyboard down for the winter, after I got out of hospital (that’s another story!). The storms we’d had plus the unprecedented amount of rain, had inflicted some damage to the base work. Paul Hare and his Grounds keeping team at the Holiday Park once again stepped in. They installed a third, lower stand for me and then carefully removed the decorative stones so they could concrete the entire base, putting the stones back on the setting concrete so that the whole thing is now set and solid. I came back and repainted the original stands.

I then re-installed the original plaque and storyboard, the backboards of which I had re-varnished. On the third, lower stand is a new plate I had made, bearing the only known photos of some of the crew members. The pictures had been taken by Teddy Chronopolis during a training flight in Texas. His daughter, Jeanne, very kindly let me have copies, which I took to the signmakers. Having done that, I went down onto the beach and gathered up loads of Oyster shells and some driftwood. I laid the driftwood at the base of the lower stand with some of the Oyster shells, then used the rest of the shells to lay a complete border around the inner perimeter of the memorial base. The driftwood and shells are to symbolize the aircraft’s final resting place.I then took a photo, which I sent to both Jeanne and Noel. They were both touched by this “Mk II” memorial!

The memorial has now been formally inducted into the Allhallows Village Heritage Trail. The first guided Heritage walk was held on the second weekend in March and was well attended. Unfortunately of course, the Coronavirus restrictions have curtailed such activities at the moment and the Holiday Park is closed to holidaymakers too. But people do still exercise their dogs and themselves along the seafront. Hopefully, things will return to some kind of normality before this summer is done!

Allhallows Memorial update

Photo by Mitch Peeke 14/3/20

My thanks to Mitch for the update and photo, the memorial is looking splendid!

The original story was told in ‘A Long Way From Home‘.

The unveiling took place on June 22nd 2019.

Lt. Col. Leon Vance 489th BG – Medal of Honour.

Leon vance.jpgThe story of Leon Vance is one of  the saddest stories to emerge from the Second World War. He was a young American, who through his bravery and dedication, saved the lives of his colleagues and prevented their heavily stricken aircraft from crashing into populated areas of southern England. Following a mission over France, his was very severely injured, but miraculously fought on.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. known as ‘Bob’ to his family and friends, was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11th, 1916. He graduated from high school in 1933 after receiving many honours and being singled out as a high performing athlete. He went on, after University, to the prestigious Training College at West Point in 1935, staying until his graduation four years later in 1939. It was here, at West Point, he would meet and marry his wife Georgette Brown. He and Georgette would later have a daughter, after whom Vance would name his own aircraft ‘The Sharon D’.

Vance would become an aircrew instructor, and would have various postings around the United States. He became great friends with a Texan, Lieutenant Horace S. Carswell, with whom he would leave the Air Corps training program to fly combat missions in B-24 Liberators. They became great friends but would go on to fight in different theatres.

Prior to receiving his posting, Vance undertook training on Consolidated B-24s. Then, in October 1943, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he was posted to Europe with the newly formed 489th Bombardment Group (Heavy), as the Deputy Group Commander. One of the last groups to be assigned to the European theatre, they formed part of the 95th Combat Bombardment Wing (2nd Bomb Division),  Eighth Air Force, and were sent to RAF Halesworth (RAF Holton) designated Station 365 by the USAAF.

The group left their initial base at Wendover Field, Utah in April / May 1944 and their first mission would be that same month on May 30th, 1944, as part of a combined attack on communication sites, rail yards and airfields. A total of 364 B-24s were to attack the Luftwaffe bases at Oldenburg, Rotenburg and Zwischenahn, along with other targets of opportunity far to the north in the German homeland. With only 1 aircraft lost and 38 damaged, it was considered a success and a good start to the 489th’s campaign.

As the build up to Normandy developed, Vance and the 489th would be assigned to bombing targets in northern France in support of the Normandy invasion about to take place further to the south. An area the unit would concentrate on, prior to the Allied beach invasion on June 6th that year.

The day before D-day, the 489th would fly to Wimereaux, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. This would be Leon Vance’s final mission.

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B-24H Liberator of the 489thBG, RAF Halesworth*2

The group, (Mission 392),  consisted of 423 B-17s and 203 B-24s and were to hit German coastal defences including: Le Havre, Caen, Boulogne and Cherbourg areas as  a precursor to the Normandy invasion. Some 127 P-47s and 245 P-51s would support the attacks. The 489th would assemble at 22,500 feet on the morning of June 5th, proceed to the south of Wimereaux, fly over dropping their payload, and then return to England. On the run in to the target, Vance was stationed behind the pilot and copilot.  The lead plane encountered a problem and bombs failed to jettison. Vance ordered a second run, and it was on this run that his plane, Missouri Sue, took several devastating hits.

Four of the crew members, including the pilot were killed and Vance himself was severely injured. His foot became lodged in the metal work behind the co-pilots seat. There were frantic calls over the intercom and the situation looked bad for those remaining on board. To further exacerbate the problems, one of the 500lb bombs had remained inside the bomb bay armed and in a deadly state, three of the four engines were disabled, and fuel spewed from ruptured lines inside the fuselage.

Losing height rapidly, the co-pilot put the aircraft into a dive to increase airspeed. The radio operator, placed a makeshift tourniquet around Vance’s leg, and the fourth engine was feathered.  They would then glide toward the English coast.

The aircraft was too damaged to control safely, so once over English soil, Vance ordered those who could, to bail out. He then turned the aircraft himself out to the English Channel to attempt a belly landing on the water. A dangerous operation in any aircraft, let alone a heavy bomber with an armed bomb and no power.

Still trapped by the remains of his foot, laying on the floor and using only aileron and elevators, he ensured the remaining crew left before the aircraft struck the sea. The impact caused the upper turret to collapse, effectively trapping Vance inside the cockpit. By sheer luck, an explosion occurred that threw Vance out of the sinking wreckage,  his foot now severed.  He remained in the sea searching for whom he believed to be the radio operator, until picked up by the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue units.

Vance was alive, but severely injured. He would spend a number of weeks, recuperating in hospital, writing home and gradually regaining his strength. Disappointed that his flying career was over, he looked forward to seeing his wife and young child once more. However, on a recuperation trip to London, Vance met a young boy, who innocently, and without thought, told him he wouldn’t miss his foot. The emotional, impact of this comment was devastating to Vance and he fell into depression. Then, news of his father’s death pushed him down even further.

Eventually, on July 26th, 1944 Vance was given the all clear to return home and he joined other wounded troops on-board a C-54, bound for the US. It was never to arrive there.

The aircraft disappeared somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland. It has never been found nor has the body of Leon Vance or any of the others on board that day. Vance’s recommendations for the Medal of Honour came through in the following  January (4th), but at the request of his wife, was delayed until October 11th 1946, so his daughter could be presented the medal in her father’s name.

The citation for Leon Vance reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 5 June 1944, when he led a Heavy Bombardment Group, in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lt. Col. Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with 3 engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully. After applying a tourniquet to his leg with the aid of the radar operator, Lt. Col. Vance, realizing that the ship was approaching a stall altitude with the 1 remaining engine failing, struggled to a semi-upright position beside the copilot and took over control of the ship. Cutting the power and feathering the last engine he put the aircraft in glide sufficiently steep to maintain his airspeed. Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast, whereupon he ordered all members of the crew to bail out as he knew they would all safely make land. But he received a message over the interphone system which led him to believe 1 of the crew members was unable to jump due to injuries; so he made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life. To add further to the danger of ditching the ship in his crippled condition, there was a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. Unable to climb into the seat vacated by the copilot, since his foot, hanging on to his leg by a few tendons, had become lodged behind the copilot’s seat, he nevertheless made a successful ditching while lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference. On coming to rest in the water the aircraft commenced to sink rapidly with Lt. Col. Vance pinned in the cockpit by the upper turret which had crashed in during the landing. As it was settling beneath the waves an explosion occurred which threw Lt. Col. Vance clear of the wreckage. After clinging to a piece of floating wreckage until he could muster enough strength to inflate his life vest he began searching for the crew member whom he believed to be aboard. Failing to find anyone he began swimming and was found approximately 50 minutes later by an Air-Sea Rescue craft. By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lt. Col. Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety. His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crew member he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces”*2

Leon Vance’s actions would be remembered. His local base in Oklahoma was renamed ‘Vance Air Force Base’ on July 9th, 1949. The gate at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma was also later named after him on May 9th, 1997, and his name appears on the ‘Wall of the Missing’ at Madingley American War Cemetery in Cambridge, England.

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The American War Cemetery, Madingley. Leon Vance’s Name Appears on the wall of the missing (to the left of the picture).

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (August 11th, 1916 – July 26th, 1944)

For other personal tales, see the Heroic Tales Page.

Sources.

* Photo public domain via Wikipedia

*1 “Medal of Honor recipients – website World War II”.

*2 Photo Public Domain via Wikipedia.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P2)

In Part 1 of RAF Bottisham, we saw how the airfield was opened as a satellite and how it was underused for the first part of its life. With numerous short stay or training squadrons it never really  attained the level of prestige it wanted.

In part 2 we see how this struggle continued in 1943, but in 1944 things would change, and Bottisham would become a major front line airfield with a record breaking Fighter Group.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Between January and mid March, 2 Squadron were stationed here, albeit briefly, after receiving their own Mustangs in the preceding April. With their parent airfield Sawbridgeworth being unusable, they needed a new place to stay. The advanced party departing, led by F.Lt. Fletcher, on the 30 January, with the main party leaving the following day. Using these Mustangs 2 Sqn would fly long range reconnaissance flights over to Holland, where they would photograph military compounds and enemy shipping.

After that, in March, came another four short-stay units; 268 Squadron who stayed for a mere 4 days; 613 Sqn who stayed for twelve days; 169 Sqn for two days and 4 Sqn who stayed here for a little longer at four months. 4 Sqn were another unit who had previously used both the Lysander and Tomahawk before converting over to the Mustang.

Their departure in July signified the end of RAF operations from Bottisham airfield, the site being all but empty for the next six months. At this point the US Eighth Air Force took over the airfield, poured engineers into it, developed the technical site and  improved the accommodation blocks. After renaming the airfield Station 374, they began to bring in a new unit and Bottisham would finally become the airfield it was so struggling to be.

At the end of November, the twelfth and last Fighter Group to fly P-47s joined the VIII Air Force here at Bottisham. The 361st FG had only been active for eleven months when they entered combat in January 1944. Their journey had taken them from Richmond AAB in Virginia, through Langley Field, Millville New Jersey, back to Richmond and then, via the Queen Elizabeth, on to Bottisham their first European stop. Here the three squadrons: 374th FS, 375th FS and 376th FS flew P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ or ‘Jugs’ as they were affectionately known, under the command of Colonel Thomas J.J. Christian Jnr, a high ranking officer who was killed in action in August 1944.

‘The Bottisham Four’, 26th July 1944, Leader is Col. Thomas J. J. Christian Jr. Second plane ‘E2-S’ flown by Lt. Urban L. Drew; third is Major Roswell Freedman’s E2-A and the fourth is P-51B E2-H ‘Suzy G’ flown by Lt. Francis Glankler. None of these aircraft survived the war (IWM UPL 18209)

Colonel Christian led the 361st on their first combat sortie on January 21st 1944, as part of an escort of over 600 fighters, to the Pas de Calais and Cherbourg areas. Here, almost 800 B-17s and B-24s from the First, Second and Third Bomb Groups attacked thirty-six ‘V’ weapons sites, thirty-four in the Pas de Calais and two at Cherbourg. As the formation split, the 361st went to Calais, where poor weather hampered the bomb runs. However, allied air superiority meant there were little pickings for the fighters and few enemy aircraft were engaged or shot down. The group returned to Bottisham yet to draw their first blood.

Over the next few weeks, the Group would take part in further escort duties, covering bombers to Frankfurt, Watton, Wilhelmshaven and Gilze-Rijen. February saw them participate in the ‘Big Week’ campaign with further missions to Germany.

On April 27th, the Eighth Air Force undertook two missions, No. 322 and 323, both targeting areas in France and Belgium. On one of these missions was Capt. Charles H. Feller who took off with the 375th FS to escort the bombers. His P-47, ’42-75447′ was the only aircraft lost on that mission, a loss made worse by the fact that his brother Cpl. Jack Feller, was waiting to meet him at the main gate. Cpl. Feller, was informed that his brother was missing in action, and at the time his whereabouts weren’t known. It later transpired that he was killed whilst attacking the former French Air base Etampes-Mondesir which had been taken over by the Luftwaffe*1.

Back at Bottisham, the heavy weight of the Thunderbolt was playing havoc with the Sommerfeld tracking, forcing it to be replaced with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), a feat that was achieved in a matter of just three days.

As the winter of 1944 passed and spring arrived, the 361st were told that their P-47s were to be replaced by Mustangs, the P-51 would be returning to Bottisham once more, but in a far Superior form than its original one.

In May, the first of these more agile and more powerful P-51s arrived, and under the guidance of General Arnold’s New Year message, “Destroy the enemy Air Force where ever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories” they performed well achieving many high scores. Operating over the Normandy landscape during May, they attacked targets such as airfields, marshalling yards and transport systems, taking out 23 Locomotives in one day, a quarter of the entire day’s total. After Normandy, the 361st  would go on to  cover the breakout at St. Lo, and the failed airborne operation ‘Market Garden‘ in the autumn of 1944.

In late September 1944, the 361st transferred to Little Walden in Essex, but even with their belongings packed and furniture in transit, they would still be willing to perform their duty. On the 26th, they escorted over 1,100 heavy bombers to a range of targets in Germany. Whilst approaching Hamm, one of the pilots 1st Lt. Urban Drew (one of the Bottisham Four), spotted an Me 262 beneath him. After giving chase, diving at incredible speeds to catch the jet, he finally lost him, but not until after he had expelled over 1,300 rounds of ammunition, in a chase that took him from 20,000 ft to 0 ft, in a matter of minutes. The frustration of the pilots in catching these new aircraft clear in their reports back at base.

On the next day, as the move was progressing, another call came out. This time it would be a good day for the pilots of the 361st. Escorting almost 1,200 bombers to Germany again, the group spotted large numbers of enemy fighters attacking the bomber formation in a ‘company front’ attack. The P-51s dived in, splitting the 109s and 190s sending them wayward. ‘Heading for the deck’, a flight of four P-51s lead by Lt. William Beyer gave chase, and in what turned out to be a disastrous day for the Tibbenham based 455th BG (losing 25 aircraft the highest of any mission), the 361st managed to achieve the highest recorded number of kills for any fighter group to date.

After Kassel, Sept. 27, 1944: Lt. William Beyer (left), and Lt. Bocquin (right) prepare their reports. While Bocquin downed three enemy planes, Beyer got five– becoming an “Ace in a Day.” .(IWM UPL 29364)

With eighteen confirmed kills, five for Beyer who was an ‘Ace in a day’, and three for the Squadron Leader 1st. Lt. Victor Bocquin, it was an amazing achievement for the 361st, and as their last operation from Bottisham, it gave cause for great celebration.

Their time at Bottisham had now come to an end and they never returned to the airfield where they had cut their teeth. The move, instigated by a reshuffling of the Air Force’s organisation, meant that the 361st would be closer to the Bomb Groups they were to be attached to. It also signalled the end of Bottisham as an active front line airfield.

By the time the ‘Yellow Jackets‘ as they were known, had completed their tours, they had completed 441 missions, claiming 226 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 105 on the ground.

With the departure of the 361st, Bottisham fell operationally quiet. In the following June 1945, it was passed back to RAF control and linked once more to Snailwell, who used it as a relief airfield for Belgian pilots of the RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School. In the October, its status was reduced to satellite and the Belgian’s partially moved in. Using primarily Tiger Moths, the Belgians used Bottisham for a mere ten months, disbanding as a Royal Air Force unit in April 1946 and passing over to the Belgian Air Force. With that, Bottisham closed on May 1st, and stood empty until sold for agricultural use in October 1958.

Since then, the runways have been pulled up, the buildings on the airfield have been removed and the accommodation blocks have all been built up expanding the village that played such a great part in its life. On the corner of the airfield site a small cluster of buildings still stand, these include the former squadron offices (themselves former crew rooms), a sleeping shelter, and general purpose huts. These have been purchased and are being restored to house a small museum dedicated to those who served at the airfield.

RAF Bottisham

The former Sleeping Shelter.

The airfield itself is now cut by the main A14 dual carriageway. But by leaving this road and turning along the A1303,  you can access both the museum and the airfield quite easily. The museum sits on the corner of the A1303 and Wilbraham Road, along which, if you turn right, cuts across the airfield and the remains of the former runway. As with many former airfields the runway line has been planted with trees giving a good indication of both its location and size. Parts of the perimeter track are also visible from this road to the north end, but otherwise there is little left to see other than a small selection of concrete patches. The village has a memorial in both the British Legion club and in the village with the Thomas Christian memorial. Sadly, little else of this small but once busy airfield exists today.

Bottisham airfield was generally speaking, a minor airfield housing a number of units in its early years. However, once it became fully fledged, it became not only significant, but a leader in the stakes of war. Now all but gone, the memories of those who served here are firmly embedded in the streets of Bottisham along with a few buildings that survive to tell their story.

My sincere thanks go to the members of the Bottisham Airfield Museum who so kindly stopped their work to give me a personal guided tour of the site when I visited. I wish them luck in their venture.

Sources and Further Reading.

The full story of Bottisham can be read in Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

The full story of Colonel Thomas Christian appears in Heroic Tales. 

National Archives – AIR 27/1465/10

National Archives – AIR 27/19/25

National Archives – AIR 27/2170/1

Bottisham Airfield Museum website.

*1 Wilson, K., “Blood and Fears – How America’s Bomber Boys and Girls in England Won Their War” Orion Books, 2016.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P1)

In Trail 55 we travel from Snailwell to Cambridge passing through Newmarket and the former bomber airfield that has become the famous horse racing circuit. From here, we continue west where we find a small airfield that has all but gone, the last remnants now a small museum that utilises a mix of original and non-original buildings.

This particular airfield was home to a number of RAF units but is perhaps more noted for its American links, and in particular the fighters of the 361st Fighter Group. On our third stop around Newmarket, we visit the former airfield RAF Bottisham.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Located about 5.5 miles east of Cambridge between the villages of Little Wilbraham and Bottisham village, Bottisham airfield was initially opened in 1940 as a satellite for the new bomber base at Waterbeach, a few miles to the north of nearby Cambridge. Although designed as a satellite, it would later become a fighter airfield in its own right, with its own resident unit.

At first, the runways were grass and there were only two. However, later on, a third runway was ‘constructed’ and each of the three were then strengthened, using initially Sommerfeld Track and then Pierced Planking, both similar and both temporary methods of construction that were easy and quick to lay. Around the concrete perimeter track were fifteen concrete hardstands and a further 48 hardstands constructed with the steel matting. This gave a vast number of areas to safely disperse parked aircraft.

The longest runway was 1,435 yards long, whilst the shortest was some 300 yards shorter. The Watch office, designed to drawing 15371/41, was of brick construction with concrete slabs for the roof, which was the most common design used on World War Two airfields. Demolished in 1948, it was an off-shoot of design 12779/41 which allowed for smaller windows at the front of the tower, more commonly found where night flying regularly took place such as bomber airfields.

RAF Bottisham

On site, there were eight Blister hangars (9392/42), a fourteen bay T2 Hangar (3635/42) and a range of stores, fire tender shelters, workshops and offices, mostly brick or steel framed buildings of standard airfield designs.

Accommodation was eventually erected over ten sites both WAAF and enlisted men/officers, many of which were located in and around the village of Bottisham itself.  This huge increase would eventually lead to a massive explosion in the village’s population.

For the first seven months of its existence, from March to October 1940, Bottisham saw little activity, and as the land was little more than a field, it was totally unsuitable for anything larger than a small aircraft. As a result it was barely used, and little development occurred on the site. The only visitors being seen were the occasional Tiger Moth of the 22 Elementary Flying School (EFTS), from nearby Cambridge. 22 EFTS was set up, at Cambridge, on the declaration of war in 1939, and they used a range of small light trainers: Miles Magisters, Proctors, Tiger Moths and Hawker Demons.

For the next year or so, Bottisham airfield remained in this state, barely used and under-developed until, in July 1941, it was handed over to the Army Co-operation Command and 241 Squadron.

After being disbanded at the end of 1919, 241 Squadron was reformed in 1940 by merging two ‘A’ Flights from other units. They initially used Lysander IIs replacing them with Blackburn Rocs, a model they replaced again with Lysander IIIs before moving to Bury St. Edmunds. After that, they moved here to Bottisham, on July 1st 1941. After a matter of only weeks, the Lysanders were replaced with Tomahawk IIA (the British named P-40) which was intended to be a fighter escort aircraft for the RAF. However, its poor performance led to it being used instead for pilot training and Army cooperation work. Something that would become significant over the next year or so. Over the next few weeks, the new aircraft were collected and ‘normal flying training’ flights were the order of the day.

RAF Bottisham

The runway, marked by the treeline looking south-west.

The British saw the Tomahawk as a possible fighter aircraft during the 1940s supplementing the Spitfires and Hurricanes provided by British aircraft manufacturers. However, production problems of the P-40 led to the British seeking alternative suppliers. Realising there was a niche for a new model, the North American Company offered to design their own fighter, one which they designed, built and tested within 100 days. This new model, whilst not perfect, its Allison engine performing badly at altitude, would eventually go on to supply the American Air force and become one of the most famous aircraft ever built – the P-51 Mustang.

With detachments of aircraft based at Snailwell, Macmerry, Henlow and Docking, 241 Squadron would be spread far and wide, but continued to pursue their duties as an Army Cooperation flight. However, their job was not easy, the new Tomahawks and the poor British weather over the winter 1941-42, proved to be a major challenge for both air and ground crews here at Bottisham. The Operational Record Books for the period showing that the month of January in particular was ‘not satisfactory’, with crews struggling to keep aircraft serviceable in the poor weather. On the 20th, a new structure for the Air Force and a new section for the Squadron were brought into being. This did not however, alleviate the difficulties the crews were having. The main issue seemed to be down to generator drive problems in the P-40s, which combined with an accident in the squadron’s  Airocobra, meant flying was very much restricted to the last remaining Lysanders.

On March 15th 1942, things would begin to change. In now fine weather, the first four of the new P-51 Mustangs arrived, flown down from Speke (now Liverpool airport) by P/Os Kirkus, Clarke, Harrup and F/Lt. Coe. During the next few weeks as more P-51s arrived, the old Tomahawks were gratefully handed over to other Training units and Squadrons, and probably without a tear being shed.  Then on May 1st 1942, 241 Squadron began its departure for pastures new and Ayr in Scotland. On that day, the road party left Bottisham in 21 vehicles at 09.00hrs, whilst the rail party left in the evening at 20:00hrs. By the next day, the rail party had arrived but it would be a further 24 hours before the road party would find their new home.

Throughout the war Bottisham would develop a strong relationship with nearby RAF Snailwell, being only a few miles apart, the two frequently used each other to store and operate their aircraft. The next two squadrons to arrive were just that, both Snailwell based units that moved in to Bottisham. Bottisham was never considered a good posting in these early stages of the war, its accommodation at this point was considered primitive, cold and damp, it was certainly not the most hospitable airfield to have to stay at.

RAF Bottisham

A pot Belly stove stand now in the museum.

Some two weeks after 241’s departure the first of these squadrons arrived – 652 squadron. 652 was part of the Air Observation Post (AOP) and like all the units 651 – 666 they were manned partly by Army (pilots) and RAF (maintenance crews) personnel, they were noted for persistent and regular moves sometimes even daily. Noted as being at Bottisham between June and August 1942, 652 Sqn operated Tiger Moths in the observation role, spotting gun shots off the Hunstanton coast for field artillery units. At the end of their stay here at Bottisham they departed moving to Westley in Suffolk.

The second squadron to arrive at this time was another Tomahawk squadron, 168 Squadron, who were formed at Snailwell on 15th June 1942, moving across to Bottisham in mid July after receiving their Tomahawk IIs. Operating from Bottisham in these early days preceded a move to the fighter station at Tangmere and a more glamorous role with Mustangs and later Typhoons.

The transfer occurred in the afternoon of July 13th, with four flights amounting to twelve aircraft flying in formation across to Bottisham. The flights were led by W/Cdr. Watson-Smyth, who on their arrival realised that the AOP squadron were still using the accommodation blocks, and as the new ones were not yet finished, ‘A’ flight had to share until theirs was suitably completed. There was also insufficient room for the officers, who had to sleep in tents in the grounds around the Mess, whilst ground crews were billeted in three huts in the grounds of Bottisham Hall.

On July 19th, the squadron used the new north-south runway for the first time, it was noted that it was rather more “bumpy” and “shorter” than the east-west runway  but was considered “satisfactory” for their use.

During their stay here, 168 Sqn performed many cross country navigation and fighter affiliation exercises. However, a lack of Allison engine tool kits meant many aircraft were unserviceable for long periods. This became a frustration with the flights, restricting their flying time to a minimum. Then on 31st July, a large quantity of the specialist tool kits finally arrived, and the aircraft were able to be repaired and normal flying duties continued.

The dawn of 1943 would bring little change to Bottisham. More short stay units would mean life was a little more hectic, but Bottisham was still not the major front line airfield it so wanted to be.

In part two we see how Bottisham struggled on in the next year. But January 1944 would see big changes and a renewed impetus that would propel Bottisham to the forefront of Fighter aviation.

William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

rueckert

William Rueckert with his wife, Dee*1

William G. Rueckert (service Number: 0 -420521) was born September 9th 1920, in Moline, Illinois. At school, he became a model student, achieving high grades throughout his school life. Upon leaving, he won a place at Illinois University where he wanted to study Law. Rueckert had a passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust and was known for his hard work and dedication.

It was at University that he met, on a blind date, he wife to be, ‘Dee’. The meeting almost never took place due to a faulty car, but as a lover of dancing, they turned out to be the perfect match and his lateness was forgiven.

Inseparable as a couple, Rueckert and Dee were married only a year later, in 1940, when Rueckert was just 19 years old.

War came even closer, and Rueckert decided he had to do his part and joined up with the Army, on July 15th 1941. Based at Pine Camp, New York, he was part of the 4th Armoured Division, and his hard work and dedication was very quickly realised; he soon won himself an award on the firing range. Constant passionate letters home cemented the love between Rueckert and Dee, in one letter he said; “My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife Dee!”

Rueckert’s life then changed and he joined the USAAC. As a trainee pilot, he moved from New York, to California and then onto New Mexico where he gained the qualification of Pilot instructor on October 28th 1943.

Whilst flying here at New Mexico, the plane Rueckert was in, a B-24, collided with a small training aircraft killing its pilot. Rueckert managed to land his own B-24 and following his actions, was credited with saving the lives of the crewmen on board.

Finally, the draw of the war led Rueckert to requesting a post overseas. He was sent to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Airforce, in April 1944. Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be Rueckert’s only operational squadron. Having won three DUCs already for operations over Europe including; the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, and the enormous raid of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were a battle hardened group.

“Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, took part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area, cutting supply lines and communication routes across France.

Rueckert’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944. It was to be a night flight. He joined his best friend along with his assigned pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his regular crew behind at Hardwick.

The aircraft, began its roll down the runway, as it neared the take off point, it is thought the undercarriage collapsed causing a catastrophic crash in which seven bombs exploded. The aircraft was completely destroyed and five of the crew killed including the pilot and Lt. Rueckert. The crash was so intense, it closed one of the three enormous runways for five days.

Dee, Rueckert’s wife, found out by telegraph that her husband had been killed. She was understandably devastated as were the two young children, Billy and Dianne.

Rueckert’s body was initially buried at Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, but later he was repatriated and buried in the family plot in Illinois. His purple Heart, awarded earlier, has since been donated by his son Billy, to the church at Topcroft, where Rueckert prayed the night before that fatal flight. A plaque also sits in the wall in remembrance of the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick. Rueckert’s name appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

Hardwick appears in Trail 12

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (IWM FRE 3762)

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from The purpleheart.com author unknown.

This story recently appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, December 13th 2014, and contains more photos and personal details.

August 23, 1944 The worst aircraft accident in the UK during WW2.

During the Second World War, Britain’s landscape changed forever. The friendly invasion brought  new life, new music, rationed items became sought after bounties and they were plentiful – if you knew an American.  But this dramatic change in the British way of life could also be explosive and deadly.

Anyone living near to a wartime airfield knew only too well the risks of such a life. Aircraft could ground loop, collide in the air or suffer a major mechanical failure on take off, all of which could result in a massive explosion in a fully laden bomber. There are numerous recordings of such accidents occurring, and the brave attempts of crewmen trying to avoid local housing. One such crash was that of B-17 #42-39825, “Zenobia” which crashed on take off coming to rest in the nearby village of Deenethorpe. Luckily, the crew were able to escape and warn the locals of the impending danger, thus averting a catastrophe when the aircraft, fully laden with bombs and fuel, exploded twenty minutes later. The explosion was so fierce that it was heard nine miles away!

However, not everyone was as lucky, and on August 23rd 1944, Wartime Britain experienced what is considered its worst wartime air disaster. A disaster in which sixty-one people lost their lives when a USAAF aircraft from BAD2 at RAF Warton crashed into the adjacent village of Freckleton in Lancashire.

Warton, or BAD2 (Base Air Depot No. 2), was responsible for the modification and overhaul of US aircraft and engines when they arrived fresh from the United States. They were assembled, modified and transferred from here to front line operational airfields across the UK. A massive operation that began even before the United States had even entered the War.

Initially, Warton was built as a satellite for the RAF Coastal Command station at Blackpool, known at the time as Squires Gate Airfield, an airfield with a history going as far back as 1909. With many pleasure flights, air pageants and civil flights, it was eventually taken over and used for fighters and bombers of Coastal Command.

With many aircraft being shipped into the UK via the Atlantic during the early years of the war, the need for a site to build and then maintain them became evermore apparent and urgent. It was not long after the outbreak of war, that four such sites were earmarked for use by the USAAF as Air Depots, each one dealing solely with aircraft maintenance and refurbishment. The proposal, initiated by Lord Beaverbrook as early as October 1939, which then progressed through discussions between the American and the British Governments in 1941 , specified that these bases would need to be able to deal with large quantities of aircraft and be able to handle aircraft modifications at any stage of the assembly process. In October, these bases were identified by a consortium of American and British representatives, who selected: Warton, Little Staughton (Bedford), Burtonwood (Warrington) and Langford Lodge in Neagh, Northern Ireland, as the most suitable sites.

Warton would be massive, housing almost 16,000 people in over ten accommodation sites, which when compared to a normal Class A airfield of some 3,000 people, was an enormous conurbation. To be adaptable, the runway was strengthened and extended to match that of any wartime airfield, at almost 2,000 yards long, it could take any aircraft brought over from the United States. Along side this were a wide range of ancillary buildings: stores,  maintenance sheds, office blocks, hangars, engine test sheds and fifty dispersal points. As the war progressed, Warton was extended further with the largest European storage shed and further hangars being added in 1944.

The entire site was completed in just nine months, using a combination of construction groups led by Frank Thomas; this included both Alfred McAlpine, and Wimpey, two of the largest airfield contractors at that time.

Station 582 of the US Eighth Air Force was opened August 1942, housing a small contingent of USAAF personnel. Officially handed over to the USAAF a year later, it now had some 5,000 personnel on its books already, all specially trained to handle the unique American aircraft being brought over from the United States.

Each base would specialise, Burtonwood in radial engines and the B-17, whilst Warton concentrated on in-line engines and B-24s. However, that did not mean that this was a ‘closed door’ operation, Warton would, over the period of the war, see every example of US built aircraft pass though its doors, and at its peek, held over 800 aircraft within its grounds.

Living near such a large and active base would bring many benefits, 700, children were given a Christmas party that lasted for a week, the locals were well provided for and money poured into the local economy. However being so close also brought it dangers. There were numerous accidents with parked aircraft being hit as other aircraft taxied past. There were also several crashes, including a North American P-51D-5-NA Mustang #44-13403 that crashed on June 12th, 1944, killing its pilot. The accident being caused by a catastrophic structural failure of the wing assembly. Another P-51D #44-14608 (310th Ferry Squadron, 27th Aircraft Transport Group) was involved in a landing accident at Warton, on October 5th, 1944. The pilot survived, but the aircraft was destroyed in the crash.

Then there was the P-51B-5 #43-6623 that crashed after taking off from Liverpool’s Speke airport, it was was subsequently taken to Warton where it was combined with other parts of P-51Bs that had been dropped on delivery. The new aircraft, aptly named ‘Spare parts‘, would then be used as an unarmed two-seater ferrying VIPs around, delivering small spare parts to the other airfields and collecting supplies of of whiskey from a distillery in Glasgow. The aircraft itself was lost in late 1944 when it experienced engine failure. The two crew bailed out and survived but the aircraft crashed coming to a rest at the bottom of the Irish Sea.

One of the more terrible accidents at Warton involved the collision of two Douglas A-26B-10-DT Invaders, on November 29th 1944, when #43-22298 collided in midair with #43-22336 over Warton Marsh. The crews’ bodies were removed from the site, but the aircraft remained buried in the silt until excavation in 2004. Both aircraft were then transferred to the RAF Millom Museum at Haverigg, Cumbria where they remained until its closure on 1st September 2010. With many of it exhibits being ‘on loan’, they were returned to their original owners whilst the rest were publicly auctioned off in January 2011. The fate of the two Invaders is unknown at the time of writing.

However, it was on Wednesday, August 23rd 1944, that Warton would be shocked by Britain’s worst wartime air disaster and the terrible events that would unfold that day.

Everything appeared normal that day as the workers at BAD 2 and the surrounding area awoke. The news was generally good, the war was heading in the right direction and victory for the allies appeared to be on the cards. There were high pressure zones to the east and west and low pressure to the north. The first 2 weeks of August were generally dry and  warm with spells of sunshine. There had been  a spell of warm weather that continued into the third week, with temperatures reaching as high as 28°C in the south. On the 23rd, early sunshine was expected to change to light rain later on, nothing that should have caused any significant problems to the experienced crews at Warton.

Early on that day, two routine test flights were booked by experienced pilots on newly refurbished Consolidated B-24 Liberators  before they were sent out out to the 2nd Bomb Division. The first, piloted by First Lieutenant John Bloemendal, ‘Classy Chassis II‘, and the second piloted by First Lieutenant Peter Manassero.

After a delayed start, First Lt. Bloemendal and his two crewmen boarded the B-24, ran their ground checks and started the engines. They then departed on was was a routine test flight. Meanwhile, the second B-24 piloted by First Lt. Manassero also departed and both aircraft headed out from Warton. During this time a weather warning was passed to Warton tower informing them of an impending storm, the likes of which even the British had rarely seen. The notorious British weather had played a cruel joke.  In seconds, the summer sky had turned jet black. Daylight had been all but wiped out, Heavy rain lashed the landscape, localised flash floods and unprecedented strong winds battered the Warton skyline. Locals reported seeing trees being uprooted and buildings being damaged such was the strength of the wind and lashing rain.

The tower issued an immediate warning to land the two aircraft. B-24 #42-50291 “Classy Chassis II“,  was given clearance first, the second flown by First Lieutenant  Manassero was to come in next. With visibility down to some 500 yards, the two aircraft approached the airfield in close formation, simply to keep in visual contact. Bloemendal  lowered his undercarriage followed by Manassero. Bloemendal  then began his approach, suddenly retracting his undercarriage informing Manassero he was going round again for another try. But by now, the weather had deteriorated so much that the tower was extremely concerned, and issued an order, to both aircraft, to withdraw from the circuit and abort landings, telling them to fly to the north to avoid the storm. Bloemendal never received the message.

By now contact had been lost between the two pilots, Manassero headed out of the circuit and flew out of harms way, Bloemendal on the other hand had already hit the ground, a massive fireball ensued. Eye witness accounts differed as to what the cause of the crash was, one witness said she saw  lightning strike the aircraft at the wing root, “splitting the aircraft in two“, others say they saw the wings in a near vertical position as if the pilot was banking steeply to turn away.

The aircraft came down across Lytham Road, after hitting the ‘Sad Sack Snack Bar’, purposefully built for the American servicemen of BAD 2. It demolished three houses and the infant section of Freckleton’s Holy Trinity School, which at the time, was full of children between the ages of 4 and 6 who, along with their teachers, were going about their daily routine. The resultant crash led to a fireball, one that eventually took the lives of sixty-one people. Eighteen in the cafe, forty in the school and the three crewmen aboard “Classy Chassis II“.  Many of these dying in the days that followed from severe burns as burning petrol engulfed the school before flowing into the street .

The crash was so devastating that at the inquest, only the School’s register could be used to identify some of the missing children whilst others were identified merely by parts of their clothing painfully presented to grieving parents. First Lieutenant John Bloemendal was only identified by the remains of his dog tags and wedding ring, the only married man aboard the aircraft.

The US servicemen from BAD2 were highly praised in the days that followed for their quick and brave response to the crash. Pulling away debris while the aircraft still burned, attempting to put out the fire and fighting to save whomever they could from the burning wreck that was once Freckleton village school.

The papers understandably ran the story for months and even years afterwards, as more and more information came to light. Some of the injured were so severely burned, they were read their last rights, whilst many had to have long term skin grafts, including some as part of McIndoe’s Guinea Pig Club.

From Lytham St. Annes, to London and New York, the story of Britain’s worst air disaster spread, putting good news from the front line into painful perspective. Whilst convalescing, young survivors were visited by Bing Crosby, who diverted from his tour of American airfields across the UK, to pay his respects. A small gesture to avert the grieving now felt across both sides of the ocean.

A mass funeral service took place in Freckleton on August 26th, the streets were lined with mourners as service personnel carried the many tiny coffins along in one mass parade. Afterwards, a fund was set up by the USAAF, and an area of land was developed into a playground as a lasting memorial to those lost in the accident. A tablet laid at the playground reads:  “This playground presented to the children of Freckleton by their neighbours of Base Air Depot No. 2 USAAF in recognition and remembrance of their common loss in the disaster of August 23rd 1944”.

The inquest into the crash could not prove conclusively as to the cause of the crash. It states:

“The cause of this accident is unknown. It is the opinion of the Accident Investigating Committee that the crash resulted from pilot’s error in the judgement of the violence of the storm. The extent of the thunder-head was not great and he could have flown in perfect safety to the North and East of the field”.

It also states that a possible “rough air structural failure occurred“, although verification of this was impossible due to the total destruction of the aircraft’s structure.

freckleton 28 Aug 1944 funeral procession Photo Ralph Scott

Crowds line the street as US Servicemen carry the many coffins at Freckleton (Photo Ralph Scott, BAD2)

What did arise from the crash was that US service personnel who were trained in the bright blue skies of America, were unaccustomed to the changeable and fierce British weather. Many, like First Lieutenant Bloemenda, often under-estimating the dangers of these thunderstorms and as a result, training was amended to include warnings about such events.

With the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Warton, the memories of that day linger on, regular services are held at Frekleton in remembrance of those sixty-one lives who were all innocent victims of Britain’s worst air disaster of World War Two.

Sources and Further reading

There are many sites that cover this story, in particular I refer you to:

British Newspaper Archive website.

The Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team Website which has many photographs pertaining to the crash and is well worth a visit.

BAD2 Blog 

The Book “The Freckleton, England, Air Disaster” by James R. Hedtke, details the accident in depth giving eyewitness accounts, background details and transcripts of the conversations between pilots and the tower. It served as a valuable source of information for this post and is worth buying if interested in reading about this further.

Also, the book ‘Blood and Fears‘ by Kevin Wilson, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) also briefly mentions accounts of the event. Again a good book should you wish to read further.

379th BG Memorial, June 22nd 2019

June 22nd 2019, the day of the unveiling of the memorial to the crews of two 379th Bomb Group B-17s that collided over Allhallows, Kent on June 19th 1944.

The day finally arrived, after six months of organising, emailing, badgering and beavering away, Mitch Peeke’s vision of a memorial for the crew of B-17 #44-6133 piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti, finally arrived.

A break in what had been many days of storms and heavy rain allowed the sun to shine on this, a quiet corner on the northern coast of Kent. A place which overlooks the mud flats of the Thames Estuary, with Essex and Southend beyond. A place where like minded people gathered to pay their respects to the brave crew of a B-17 that fought tirelessly in the skies of Europe during World War II.

Flanked by two authentic World War II jeeps, reenactors and an Air Cadet Guard of Honour, Mitch Peeke took centre stage and reminded us why we were here. With the ‘Stars and Stripes’ flapping in the wind, Mitch told the story of the two aircraft that collided in the skies above, an accident in which eleven young men lost their lives almost 75 years ago to the day.

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

The Thames Estuary were the B-17 came down.

A solemn silence fell as Mitch then introduced two living relatives of that crew, Jeanne Cronis-Campbell (the daughter of Bombardier Second Lieutenant Theodore ‘Teddy‘ Chronopolis) and Noel Togazzini (nephew of Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini), who had flown over all the way from the United States for this special occasion.

The sound of TAPS then resonated across the site, after which Jeanne and Noel lifted the flag from the plaque. The Reverend Steven Gwilt then blessed the memorial, and lead the gathered in  prayers of remembrance.

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

Jeanne and Noel unveil the memorial.

The silence  prevailed, people’s thoughts perhaps turning to that day in 1944, and what must have been going through the minds of those young men as they battled to get out of that B-17 as it fell perilously towards Earth and a decisive fate.

Mitch then stepped forward once more, introduced the band who lightened the moment with their collection of well known 1940’s music. The band played on throughout the afternoon, the drinks flowed and friendships were forged. Just as in the 1940s, hands that had stretched across the sea were now hands together, stories and personal moments were shared, it was like meeting an old friend.

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

The Memorial at Allhallows.

The day was more than a success, it was a celebration of life. A celebration that now sees a memorial, long since missed,  standing as close as it can to the point of impact, where all but one of the Ramacitti crew died.

My own personal thanks go to Mitch for the hard work he put in to organising the event, to both Jeanne and Noel, for sharing their stories and also to Geoff Burke for sharing stories of his own personal voyage to this point.

Most of all though, I would like to thank the crew of B-17 #44-6133, who fought so bravely for the freedom we all enjoy today.

The crew of #44-6133 were:

Pilot: Second Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant William ‘Bill’ Hager
Navigator: First Lieutenant Donald ‘Don’ Watson
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini
Radio Operator: Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Ritter
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant John Burke
Waist gunner: Corporal Paul Haynes
Tail gunner: Sergeant Warren Oaks (his second mission)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Theodore Chronopolis

The full story of the accident can be read in Mitch’s guest post “A Long Way From Home.

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

Mitch, Jeanne and Noel.

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

World War II Jeep ‘Jezebel’.

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

Geoff’s print of the two B-17s signed by some surviving members of the crew and relatives. Many of these crewmen have now passed on.

Allhallows Memorial 379th BG

Some of the reenactors.