RAF Hardwick – Ted’s Travelling Circus. (Part 2).

In Part 1, we saw how, at the end of 1943, the 93rd BG stationed at Hardwick had been ridiculed by B-17 crews, they had been spread far and wide and had won a hard fought DUC for their action over the Polesti oil fields. As 1943 turned to 1944, was their luck about to change?

1944 brought more similar events. January saw ‘No Ball‘ missions, attacks on the V-weapon sites across northern France. A turn that pleased some of the tired crews of the USAAF but one that was considered unnecessary and unlikely to turn the tide of the war by many others. January also saw the build up to February’s ‘Big Week’ campaign, a series of RAF and USAAF operations to destroy Germany’s aircraft manufacturing plants.

A dramatic picture taken shortly after a B-24 of the 93rd BG crashes on take-off at Hardwick on March 3rd 1944. Surprisingly the crew were all able to escape before the bombs exploded. (IWM FRE 3779)

In the following month, April 1944, the US Air Force was to suffer its greatest loss ever to intruders, Luftwaffe night fighters who followed the heavy bombers home, picking them off one at a time until they reached their bases in England. The bombers, many badly damaged or low on fuel, were easy pickings as they tried to land in the early evening darkness. Illuminated by navigation lights, the bombers could do little to protect themselves as the Luftwaffe pilots waited until the most opportune moment to unleash their cannon and machine gun bullets into the bombers. The mission to Hamm in Germany would mean the bombers were arriving back later, and once it was realised that the Luftwaffe were there, runway lights were extinguished, navigation light were put out and aircraft almost left to their own devices – the risk of collision increasing ten fold as a result of these actions. Two aircraft at Hardwick were attacked that night, both sustaining minor damage but thankfully suffering little in the way of long-term harm. Whilst a number of airfields across East Anglia did suffer badly that night, Hardwick on the face of it, got off lightly, with minimal damage being inflicted by these intruders.

June saw the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. The 2nd BD sending almost 550 B24s to the Normandy area with the 93rd bombing strategic military targets such as gun emplacements and bridges around Cherbourg. They would then go on to support the breakthrough at St. Lo and drop supplies to troops as they advanced across occupied Europe.

High numbers of operations during the summer of 1944 led to many crews achieving their 200 mission mark, each one showing the strain of continuous operations over occupied France.

During the failed operations in Market Garden, the 93rd supported the airborne troops dropping supplies on the 18th September. Then over the winter of 1944-45, they would support the troops in the Ardennes, a role they continued as the allied forces pushed across the Rhine and on into Germany itself.

By April 1945, the end was in sight and the 93rd were officially withdrawn from operations, performing their last mission on 25th April 1945.

Their stay post war would not be prolonged. They departed Hardwick over May and into June 1945, at which point the airfield was handed back to the Royal Air Force. The RAF retained the site until the early 1960s when it was eventually sold off, quickly returning to agriculture, a state in which it remains in today.

By the time they left, the 93rd had conducted 330 missions (41 from North Africa) from Hardwick, which added to the 66 already carried out from Alconbury, meant this was to be the highest number of operations of any Eighth Air Force Group. They flew 8,169 sorties dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs across Europe.  They were the oldest Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, having the first bombers to fly both 25 and 50 missions – ‘Boomerang‘ and ‘Hot Stuff‘ respectively. They had also performed in numerous theatres: the Atlantic (Anti submarine theatre), Egypt-Libya, Sicily, Normandy, the Rhine, and over wide areas of central Europe making them the most travelled Group of the Eighth Air Force. They were awarded two DUCs, and post war went on to serve well into the early 1950s. This achievement made them the only USAF Group that had not been inactivated since its original formation in 1942.

Their departure from Hardwick marked the end of an era, a move that left an enduring mark on the local area. The Liberators may have moved on, but the history of the 93rd lives on to this day though the displays and actions of those who preserve Hardwick’s small number of buildings for the benefit of future generations.

While the airfield was returned to agriculture, proposals were put forward to transform part of the site into a domestic waste site. These were later withdrawn though after investigations into the geology of the site revealed that such actions could lead to toxins entering the water course below ground. A potentially lethal release with serious consequences.

RAF Hardwick

Original buildings now serve as poultry sheds.

Today there are few physical remains of the airfield, a few scattered buildings amongst the trees, a small section of runway and a smattering of Nissen huts that form the recently created 93rd BG Museum. With such a large site, all of which is on private land, it is difficult to investigate individual parts in any depth. However, this does not lead to an uninteresting visit.

The airfield is separated by the local road, to the west are the runways and the east the admin and accommodation areas. To the west, one section of the main runway still exists in good condition and for a very special reason; the local farmer (Hardwick Warbirds) uses this to fly his TWO restored P-51Ds and other ex-military aircraft! Seen over the airfield on special occasions, he performs small displays for ‘open days’ and other museum related activities.  Looking across the westerly side, one can see a lone windsock catching the morning breeze. This windsock marks the location of  the remaining runway sections part of which can be seen easily from the public road.

There are two entrances to the eastern side, both go across private land, but the landowners are happy (in my experience) to allow free passage on both. I approached from the Barondole Lane entrance and headed to the aptly named ‘Airfield Farm’. Once there, I knocked at the farm door and gave notice of my intentions to the farmer’s delightful wife. She was happy for me to wander, and even took time out to explain the layout of the remaining buildings. She took time to show me the memorial that now stands outside the farmhouse, and then pointed me toward the museum further along the farm track and suggested I take a drive down even though they were not fully open for business. A truly lovely and helpful lady!

RAF Hardwick Museum

The original Nissen huts serve as a superb Museum.

The family now own a large part of the airfield and its remaining buildings. They have utilised some of these as part of the farm many of which now house chickens. In one of them, is a small clear block with a Liberator suspended inside, marking it as an original. Behind here are further building’s remains, in particular the gas training room, condemned as unsafe it is too costly to have demolished.

Driving on, you arrive at a small collection of Nissen huts, this forms the museum. Each one is original and in very good condition. Here they hold a huge range of memorabilia, uniforms, photographs and aircraft parts. This museum is a real gem quietly hidden away in this corner of Norfolk.

One of the volunteers at the time, himself ex-USAF, (RAF Bentwaters), told me stories about the site, the history of all the parts they had gathered and then he gave an amazing personal guided tour even though they were closed. He explained how at the end of the war, as the Americans pulled out, large trenches were dug and filled with unwanted bicycles and other artefacts that they were not allowed to give away for fear of disrupting the local economy – what you wouldn’t give for a heavy-duty metal detector! He also showed me spent cartridges that were used to light the Nissen hut fires, all found in the topsoil of the adjacent field!

RAF Hardwick

A lone windsock marks the runway.

After you leave the museum, going back by the same track, turn left out onto the road and then right, you come across another one of the entrances to the original airfield, considerably smaller in size it is now only a  farm track. It looks so insignificant shrouded by tress and bushes that it is difficult to imagine what went on here all those years ago.

Hardwick once bustled with airmen and personnel, several thousand in all, but with so much gone there is little to show for it now. It is however, good to know that flying still does take place here, and that through the museum,  the dedication, sacrifice and bravery of those young men in their B-24s shall live on for many years to come.

Hardwick was originally visited in 2014, it appears in Trail 12.

Sources and further reading.

93rd BG casualty reports.

More information about Hardwick and museum details can be found on the museum website.  When visiting the museum, check opening times as they are limited, but do spend a good half-day or more here. It will be worth your while.

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RAF Hardwick – Ted’s Travelling Circus. (Part 1).

There are many good museums across the country that tell the stories of heroism and sacrifice witnessed during the Second World War. In Norfolk, most reflect the lives of the ‘friendly invasion’ the lives of the US armed forces and in particular the USAAF, who flocked here in their thousands to a life that was new and very dangerous.

One such group, the 93rd BG, achieved many records and fought in many theatres, but their road was not easy nor was it any ‘milk run’.

In this trail, we return to Norfolk, revisiting the lives of those who served at the former US station 104, otherwise known as RAF Hardwick.

RAF Hardwick (Station 104)

Hardwick is a difficult place to find, primarily due to the narrow lanes and the fact that the name given to it is not the closest village! In fact, Alburgh is closer, but once found this delightful place has a lot to offer to the visitor.

Opening in September 1942, the first units to arrive were B-25 Mitchells of the 310th BG of the Eighth Air Force. Its three runways of concrete and tarmac construction, one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, were laid out in the classic Class A style. The entire site covered an enormous area, housing eleven ‘spectacle’ (double loop) and fifty ‘frying pan’ type hardstands, it had three T2 hangars, a watch office (to design 518/40 later modified to 5966/43) and a wide range of support and ancillary buildings common to  all Class A airfields. Being a bomber base, it would require two enormous fuel stores holding a combined total of 144,000 imp Gallons of fuel.

The airfield’s construction process commenced in late 1941 with the main infrastructure being built by John Laing & Son Ltd. Completion was achieved in the autumn of 1942, when the site was officially opened. The construction process would lead to a site capable of  holding around 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender. There would be six male sites, two female, two communal quarters and a sick quarters, and as was common with all airfields built after the start of the war, the main public road dissected the airfield separating it from the dispersed accommodation blocks. As a result, the accommodation was to the east beyond the technical area with the bomb dump far to the north-west. Accommodation for the personnel was primarily through ‘Laing’ or ‘Nissen’ hutting, with a small number of Boulton & Paul style huts, none of which offered a great deal of protection from the cold outside.

Handed over to the US forces in 1942, the ground echelons of the 310th BG arrived by sea during the September, with the air echelons bringing their B-25 ‘Mitchells’ via the northern route during early October. The 310th were lucky enough to avoid the seasonal weather change that caused so many problems for units flying across the northern route in the winter months that followed.

Brought to the UK to train crews before they were shipped out to North Africa, the new twin-engined bomber crews would very soon leave Hardwick behind, receiving their posting and transferring abroad in three stages during November and on into December.

RAF Hardwick Memorial

Memorial to the 93rd BG (328th 329th 330th and 409th BS) RAF Hardwick.

Hardwick would take on a very different sound after that, the B-25s being replaced by the heavy four-engined B-24s of the 93rd BG. The 93rd were already a battle experienced outfit, having flown a number of missions from Alconbury since the 9th October 1942 – the day the B-24 Liberator entered into the war.

Many of the early missions performed by the 93rd would be attacks on the submarine pens along the French coast, a move discussed at great length between the two US Generals, Spaatz and Arnold. The poor successes of these missions, which were designed to support the war in the Atlantic, were borne out in an Eighth Air Force study later on. In the report, published on 8th December, it was summarised that American bombs at that time were incapable of penetrating the thick ceilings of the U-boat pens, and that little damage was being achieved by the current US bombing strategy. As a result of this, attacks soon curtailed and operations moved to other targets.

Preceding the move of the 93rd to Hardwick was the posting of a large detachment to North Africa on December 5th. It was a detachment that would see the men and machines of the Eighth transfer across to the Twelfth Air Force. It was a move that was often complained about, seen as draining valuable resources and hindering the training and future operations of the Eighth Air Force in Europe.

Those who remained in the UK began transferring over to the 2nd Bombardment Wing and a new airfield here at Hardwick, where they were trained for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th Bomb Squadron (BS) were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved to a satellite airfield at Bungay. Here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee’ system and crews trained on its use. By December they were ready, and ‘Moling‘ mission could now begin.

Unfortunately, the weather played a major part in the operational downfall of these missions, with insufficient amounts of bad weather being found to allow Gee to be used properly. Much to the surprise of the Americans, it didn’t always rain in England!

With the other three squadrons away in North Africa, the 329th joined forces with its sister group the 44th BG at Shipdham. Here they waited in earnest for the return of their associate squadrons.

Gas Training Room.

The gas training room, one of the few remaining buildings at Hardwick.

However, it was not a harmonious relationship. With the squadrons placed in North Africa getting considerable press coverage for their successes, and the B-17 groups being regular features in the UK, the 44th were understandably aggrieved, feeling that the press were ignoring the immense effort and losses they were incurring. The cold of high altitude bombing over occupied Europe was, it would seem, little match for the delights of North Africa.

In the following February / March 1943 the four squadrons were reunited for the first time, and they returned to Hardwick. Here they would fly bombing mission to targets in France and the low countries. In the April, Hardwick was visited by both Lord Trenchard and, ten days later, by Lieutenant General Frank Andrews,  two high-ranking officials who would bring prestige and pride to the men and women of Hardwick. It was Andrews who would be so tragically killed flying across the Northern Atlantic route later on. He along with the crew of B-24 #41-23728 ‘Hot Stuff‘, the first Hardwick crew to achieve their mission quota, would die in a crash that left just one survivor, the tail gunner. The name Andrews would live on though, his name being given to the airfield in Essex, RAF Andrews Field in memory of his work.

The summer of 1943 saw a further detachment being sent out again to North Africa. Here they would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (one of two), for the low-level action over the Ploesti oil fields in Romania. Further moves and detachments between Hardwick and mainly North Africa earned the unit the name ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus’, Ted being Colonel Ted Timberlake, the Group’s Commander.

During this early period of the war the Liberator groups had little in the way of operational ‘clout’ over France and Germany. With the larger operations being handled by the established B-17 Groups, the B-24s were often relegated to Air Sea Rescue missions where they would search for downed aircraft particularity over the North Sea.

By early September 1943 the bulk of the 93rd were back once more at Hardwick, small in numbers they were often overlooked for the more popular B-17s. Looked down upon by the crews of the B-17s who openly criticised the ungainly lines of the Liberator with names such as ‘banana boat’, only led in turn to jeers from B-24 crews who highlighted the short-range and lower bomb load carried by the sleeker B-17.

This short-range was a factor borne out on the 93rd’s first mission back in the UK when on the 6th September, sixty-nine B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division (BD)  were sent along with 338 B-17s of the 1st and 3rd BDs to attack Stuttgart. A disaster from start to finish, heavy cloud prevented the target being bombed, formations were separated and targets of opportunity were then chosen. With the formations broken up, defensive power was lost and the Luftwaffe made easy pickings of those aircraft left out alone. Forty-five of the B-17s were lost compared to none of the B-24s, many B-17s having to ditch in the sea or crash-land in Kent after running out of fuel.  Of the sixty-nine B-24s flown out, none dropped their bombs but all four groups returned to their respective bases safely.

For the remainder of September, the Liberators of the 2nd BD were ordered to carry out ‘STARKEY‘ operations, beginning on the 9th to airfields in France and particularly  St. Omer. With few bombs being dropped it was a poor mission and one that was followed on the 15th September by similar results at Chatres. This would be the last mission for the B-24s of the 93rd before yet another posting to North Africa in a move that left the crews both astonished and in total disbelief. During this mission on the 15th, ten airmen would be lost with at least three having been known to have been killed. All ten were from the 330th BS, a sad end to a poor series of missions.

Returning again in early October, the 93rd of Hardwick would join the recently formed 392nd at Wendling for a mission  to Vegesack, a northern district of Bremen. With heavy cloud cover, alternative targets of opportunity were chosen, with little damage being done to Vegesack itself.

The poor weather continued for much of October, preventing the Liberators flying in anything but training flights. The 93rd were able to launch a diversionary raid for the B-17s ill-fated attack on Schweinfurt on October 14th, the majority of the sixty B-24s allocated for the raid failing to even get airborne. After abandoning the mission those that had managed to get aloft headed for Emden in an aim to draw fighters away from the main body of the Schweinfurt  raid. It was hoped that this move would reduce the mauling that would occur from this deep, unprotected penetration mission.

B-24D Liberator #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ (GO-C) of the 328th BS, 93rd BG at Hardwick. This was the first Eighth AF Liberator to complete 50 missions. After completing 53 missions, it was flown back to the US for a War Bond tour.

With further diversionary raids on the 29th, attacks on Wilhelmshaven on the 3rd November, Munster on the 5th and Bremen the 13th; the 93rd would then turn to Norway and targets at Rjukan. An ineffectual raid, it preceded further runs back into Germany. December and the approaching Christmas would see no let up for the men of the 93rd and Hardwick, mission numbers being so high that on the 16th, B-24D #41-23722 ‘Boomerang‘ became the first Liberator of the Eighth to pass the fifty missions mark. Three mission later she would depart the UK for American shores where she would perform a war bond tour raising much-needed money for the war effort.

Five days before Christmas, December 20th 1943, would see a return trip to Bremen. Two more aircraft would be lost on this mission. The first, B-24 #42-40133 of 328th BS piloted by Captain Cleveland Hickman (s/n: 0-727870) was shot down by Lt Kard-Heinz Kapp of JG 27/5 in Bf 109G-6 with the loss of all nine men on board. The second, #42-63963 ‘Unexpected II‘ of the 329th BS collided in midair with P-47D #42-8677 and crashed into North Sea north of Den Helder, Netherlands. All nine from ‘Unexpected II’ were captured and became prisoners of war.

Two days later, T/Sgt.John Tkachuk 329th BS died of anoxia after his foot was caught between a bomb and the bomb rack. The ‘walk around bottle’ he was carrying running out of oxygen before he could be given assistance. 1943 would draw to a close with a very sad overtone.

In Part 2, we see how 1944 arrives and how the closing stages of the war produced some remarkable records for the 93rd BG. We find out what happened to Hardwick and see the museum that has emerged to remember those who served from this airfield in the heart of Norfolk.

RAF Old Buckenham – the home of film stars!

In the second part of Trail 13 we leave Tibenham behind and head to another still active airfield. Like Tibenham, the heavy bombers have all gone, replaced by small single engined aircraft, and also like Tibenham, much of the site has likewise disappeared. However, the history of this airfield remains very much alive, through fly-ins, displays and events that all remind us about those difficult days of the late 1940s.

Synonymous with film starts such as James Stewart and Walter Matthau, this airfield lives on and is thriving. Showcasing a range of facilities it is a delightful little airfield and one that keeps the spirit of flying very much alive. From Tibenham we head only a few miles north-west, where we find the former US airfield Old Buckenham.

RAF Old Buckenham (Station 144)

Old Buckenham is an airfield with a rather grand name. It was a short-lived airfield, purposely built for the USAAF late on in the Second World War. It only ever housed one group, a group that was itself a late joiner. It was initially a rather unpleasant place to be, mud and rain being the airmen’s worst enemy. But as the war progressed it became more hospitable, more lively and more inspiring. Whilst the group was never considered a major player in the war, it did achieve some remarkable results, the group going on to set some extraordinary bomber records.

Opened as a bomber airfield in 1943, it was built under the class ‘A’ specification, with three intersecting concrete and woodchip runways (1 x 2,000 and 2 x 1,400 yds) each 50 yards wide. It had fifty hardstands of the spectacle style, two T2 hangars (four were allocated initially) and a standard 1941 design watch tower (12779/41).

‘Old Buck’ as it became known, was exclusively the home to the American 453rd Bomb Group, operating a range of versions of the enormous B-24 Liberator, initially under the command of Col. Joseph A Miller.

Consisting of the standard four Bomb Squadrons: 732nd (squadron code E3), 733rd (F8), 734th (E8) and 735th (H6), the group was constituted on the 14th May 1943 and activated on 1st June that same year. It then came into physical being on June 29th, taking its officers and enlisted men from the 29th BG (H), who, under Special Order No. 180, transferred fifty-five Officers and 231 enlisted men to the 453rd. Of these, twelve officers were sent to the 732nd, twelve to the 733rd, eleven to the 734th and another twelve to the 735th. Each of the squadrons also received fifty-five enlisted men, the remainder of the workforce going to the Group’s headquarters.

Even before leaving the United States, the 453rd would suffer casualties. Its first loss was B-24E #41-29032 piloted by 2nd Lt. David MacGowan (735thBS), which crashed into a hillside near to Du Bois, Wyoming whilst on a photographic and training exercise. The accident, on August 14th 1943, resulted in the loss of all eleven crewmen on board. It was perhaps, a sign of things to come.

After passing through a number of training sites in the United States: Wendover Field, Pocatello, Idaho and March Field, the ground echelons sailed across the Atlantic Ocean on the Queen Elizabeth to England. They  arrived at Old Buckenham at the end of December into what would prove to be a cold and very unpleasant winter. Considerable rain and snow had turned Old Buckenham into a mud bath. Colds and flu spread like wildfire through the ranks, and overshoes had to be issued to help against the unending sludge.

The air echelons would fly the southern route with the first leaving in early January. On the very day of departure another aircraft was lost  – two crews were now gone before the group had even reached the U.K.

The air echelons arrived throughout January and into February, organising themselves and preparing their ‘H’ model Liberators for the forthcoming battle. When possible, they undertook training flights over the English countryside, received ground instruction and took further role specific training. They began carrying out mock missions including on the 4th, a simulated mission which turned very sour for one particular crew.

Liberator #41-28641, ‘Cee Gee‘ (referred to in some references as ‘Chee Chee‘) piloted by 2nd Lt. John R. Turner, became lost and it would seem, damaged by flak. Forced down onto an enemy airfield, it was repaired by the Germans and put back into service as A3 + KB by KG 200. The aircraft was intended to be used to ferry supplies to the island of Rhodes, and was recaptured by advancing American forces in May 1945. This was the first Luftwaffe captured Liberator and only the second to be put into service with German markings.

S/Sgt J. T. Sipkovsky, inspects B-24H #41-28641 [A5+KB] of KG200  ex 453BG /732BS, left at Salsburg by retreating German forces. (WM UPL 23019)

The next day, February 5th 1944, the Union Jack was officially lowered at Old Buckenham when, with much pomp and ceremony, Sqn. Ldr. L. Archer handed over the keys of the airfield to Col. Miller. Station 144 was now officially open for business.

There would be no break nor celebratory parties for the new Group though. On that same day, the 453rd were to take part in their first mission, a bombing raid to Tours in France.

Tours had been the focus of the invading Germans in the early part of the war. Heavily bombed with incendiaries, it was quickly turned into a fortress housing military camps  with strong fortifications. The allies then made it a focus for their air bombardments, but on this occasion, the weather would be the winner with heavy cloud causing many problems over the Continent. With the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions in action that day, many would drop bombs on alternative targets, reform on other divisions or return home without bombing at all.

On the 6th February, the 453rd were back in action again, and again the horrors of war would be seen at Old Buckenham, when B-24 #42-52178 ‘Little Agnes‘ crashed after take off.  After lifting off the runway, the aircraft lost power, stalled and hit the runway hard sliding along on its belly into a ditch at the end of the threshold. The aircraft then broke up, at which point one of the ten 500lb bombs exploded setting off a chain reaction that led to a fireball. Mechanical failure of the #1 and #4 engines was blamed that day when eight of the ten crew on-board were killed when the aircraft came down.

For the remainder of February, including ‘Big Week’,  the 453rd would carry out further missions to both France, Holland and also Germany. These included: Siracourt (13th & 15th); Brunswick (20th), the airfield at Achmer (21st) and the Me-110 aircraft assembly plant at Gotha (22nd & 24th). Known for its high casualties, the 453rd managed to lose only one aircraft on the two missions it carried out to Gotha, a remarkable escape considering the ferocity of the battle, and the loss of thirty-three from other groups. It was also during this mission that sixteen aircraft would come down in Switzerland, the highest number of any mission of the war.

RAF Old Buckenham

The Blister Hangar at Old Buckenham.

During March 1944, several major events would occur at Old Buckenham. Firstly, on the 6th, B-24H #42-64469 “El Flako” of the 732nd BS, whilst only on her third mission, would accidentally drop her bomb load just 3 miles from the airfield. Thankfully there were no injuries apart from a very large dent in the pride of the crew on board. Red faces aside, this mission, the USAAF’s first daylight attack on Berlin, would not be an easy ride for the 453rd.

Of the twenty-four aircraft sent out, four would fail to return, two over the target and two ditching in the channel. A fifth, piloted by Lt. Richard Holman, was badly damaged with two engines put out of action whilst over the target area. Determined to get back home, Lt. Holman dropped down to the cloud base where he was pursued by a number of FW-190s. With only two turrets operating, the crew managed to fight off the attackers, shooting down almost half of them in the process. After passing through a flak zone in Amsterdam they continued on, Lt. Holman putting the Liberator through some of the most incredible and violent turns possible, until they reached the Channel. With fuel and ammunition now critically short, the crew threw out anything and everything, in a desperate attempt to lighten the load of the failing bomber. Eventually, and only by the skill and determination of the crew, the aircraft arrived back safely at Old Buckingham. Many prayers and thanks were said on that particular day.

Then on the 18th, B-24H #41-28649, ‘Little Bryan‘, was hit by flak over Friedrichshafen, a target located close to the border with Switzerland on the banks of Lake Constance. Whilst the weather was near perfect, the target was covered with a thick smoke screen, preventing accurate visual bombing taking place. Heavy flak and fighter activity made things even worse for the bombers of the mighty Eighth.

Badly damaged, ‘Little Bryan‘ managed to continue flying but was losing fuel fast. As a result it would not make it home. On board ‘Little Bryan‘ that day was the Group’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Joseph A. Miller, along with the Group’s Navigator, Capt. Joseph O’Reilly. The aircraft crashed west of Vernon after the crew had baled out. Of the crew, ten were captured and taken prisoner, the last crewman escaping to fight another day. With the loss of a second aircraft along with three of its crew, March 18th would be a heartbreaking day for the 453rd.

The following day, Col. Ramsey Potts Jnr assumed command at Old Buckenham, a veteran of thirty-two missions he was one of the most decorated officers in the European Theatre, having been on both the Polesti and Rome bombing raids. He remained with the 453rd until mid 1944.

It was also at this time, (March 30th) that Major James “Jimmy” Stewart became the Group’s Operations Officer, Stewart who led the 733rd BS for 11 missions, went on to become a famous actor. He was promoted after the loss of Major Colfield earlier on, on February 16th.

RAF Old Buckenham

The mobile ‘control tower’ at Old Buckenham

April would see further losses for the group, but May would prove to be the worst so far. On the 8th, seven out of thirty-two aircraft would fail to return to Old Buckenham: #41-28650, #41-29571, #42-52180, #42-52185, #42-64453, #42-64464 and #42-110076, all being lost at Brunswick, a target gaining in its notoriety.

Following a move of the ground echelons on April 11th to form a new squadron at North Pickenham, the remaining staff were reshuffled to fill the gaps left behind. A small interruption to the continuing missions over Germany.

The 13th of April saw the first mission undertaken by Major Stewart, an operation that took 274 B-24s to various targets including the Dornier parts factory near Munich. The results that day were considered ‘good’.

For much of April the routine was the same, missions to France and Germany. After three months of being at Old Buckenham, the 453rd were now settling in well, improvements had been made to the living areas, more concrete had been laid to reduce the mud, and the cinema was now showing regular films. Other recreational areas were developed and morale was rising.

Throughout the conflict the 453rd would attack prestige targets: the fuel dump at Dulmen, marshalling yards, Hamm rail centres, Gelsenkirchen oil refineries, along with numerous airfields, canals and viaducts.

May would see yet another return to the dreaded Brunswick, and for the 453rd it would be another high loss mission. Using a mix of general purpose bombs and incendiaries, 307 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division joined aircraft from the 1st and 3rd Bomb Divisions in attacking it, and other major cities across Germany. On this day, ten aircraft would fail to return to base with eight being lost as the 453rd led the large formations into the target area. In the lead plane was Capt. Andy Low, who for his exemplary leadership, later received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bombing through 10/10 cloud using Pathfinder equipment, the group was attacked by around 200 enemy fighters, an attack that led to the area being known to the crews as ‘fighter-alley’.

RAF Old Buckenham

Part of the runway is now used as the taxiway.

By now, with mission counts mounting, crews were beginning to finish their tours of duty, the first full crew to do so, being the crew of Lt. Ward on May 31st, 1944.

Keeping morale up whilst the young men were away from home was always a challenge. Whilst undertaking training back in the States, a band was formed, a band that managed to reform itself finding space for rehearsals at Old Buckenham. The ‘GI’vers’ became one of the most successful forces bands in England, performing at dances both at Old Buckenham and at other US bases in the East Anglia area.

The morning of D-Day 6th June, brought early dawn action from the 453rd. Military sites between Le Harve and Cherbourg were targets for the day. The shore line batteries and any targets of opportunity, railways, troop concentrations and road junctions, were now well and truly in the sights of the bombers. So determined to play their part were the 453rd, that they flew four complete missions on that one day, unheard of in many Air Force heavy bomber Squadrons. For the next ten days Old Buckenham would be extremely busy, with missions being flown on all but one day, until the weather eventually brought an enforced break on the 16th.

As the war progressed the Old Buckenham group would go on to support many ground battles, including the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 – 45. A winter that would begin with the first crew loss through anoxia, when S/Sgt. Frank Mayar failed to respond to medical aid after his oxygen mask froze.

The 26th November 1944, would see tragedy strike home again for the 453rd. Mission 182 for the Old Buckenham Group, saw 350 B-24s of the 2nd Bomb Division and 381 B-17s of the 3rd Bomb Division attack targets in Germany. One of these targets included the railway viaduct at Bielefeld, a viaduct that became almost illusive until later destroyed by 617 (Dambusters) Sqn of the RAF.

The Bielefeld Viaduct after the dropping of the RAF’s ‘Grand Slam’. The ground bears the scars of continuous and heavy attacks (National Archives)

During take off for the mission, Capt. Ray Conard, the mission leader, failed to gain height. In a desperate attempt to avoid nearby housing, Capt. Conard jettisoned his bombs and, it is believed, deliberately crashed his aircraft away from them, thus saving the lives of those people living inside. For his actions, Capt. Conard, aged just 25, was recommended for the DSC Posthumously.

Christmas brought a much happier cheer to the Old Buckenham crews. Permission was granted to fly a plane load of toys to Paris to deliver them to French children. Locals brought as many as they could muster to the airfield and handed them over to the Americans. After slipping off the runway, ‘Liberty Run‘ eventually made it off the ground delivering the toys just in time for Christmas day.

The notorious winter weather of 1944 would claim yet another victim before the year was out. On December 27th 1944, #42-50898 failed to rise more than a few feet after taking off from a salted and slippery runway at Old Buckenham. Lt. Roscoe Brown was heard to say, “I cannot keep her up, we have had it”, just before the aircraft slammed into the ground. In the ensuing crash, the aircraft broke up and burst into flames, the fire setting off bullets and causing the bombs to explode. There was considerable ice that day, the runway and aircraft’s pitot tube later being found to have been iced up, adding to the already difficult flying conditions. As a pathfinder, it came as a terrible blow to the 453rd whose mission that day was subsequently scrubbed. Only four of Lt. Brown’s crew managed to escape the inferno that followed – it was a sad end to 1944.

The new year started as the old had finished, with more aircraft slipping on ice and crashing into parked aircraft. After further lives were lost and sliding incidents increased, the Group’s Commanding Officer Col. Thomas, called a halt to the proceedings and another mission was also scrubbed. Those that had got off the ground continued on, joining other groups in bombing their target – the Ramagen Bridge.

Crumpled tail of B-24 #42-51865 1st January 45 Old Buckenham. Eventually after numerous crashes and aircraft sliding on ice, the mission was scrubbed. (IWM FRE 1863)

With more attacks on Germany, January would become the month when the 453rd would set a record for the most missions flown (200) by any Liberator Group in a short space of time. A record they would be proud of and celebrate at reunions for years after.

As the war drew to a close, more missions would take the group into the very heart of Germany.  Even though the war was nearly over, accidents continued to occur and aircraft continued to be lost. The last mission for the 453rd took place on March 31st 1945, bombing the rail junction at Amberg. Thankfully all aircraft sent out that day came home. With the decrease in bombing sorties the Group’s focus began to change, recreational activities taking over where flying had been lost.

The final orders to stand-down finally came through on the 12th April 1945, and with it the end of 259 missions, in which 15,800 tons of bombs had been dropped. Of the original sixty-one aircraft sent over with the 453rd, only one was left, ‘Male Call‘, a B-24 veteran of ninety-five missions.

Elsewhere, the 453rd had ten aircraft that had completed 100 or more missions, the highest being that of 120  – “My Babs” of the 733rd Bomb Squadron. Even though they had lost almost all the original aircraft, they had set another record of 82 consecutive  missions without loss; a remarkable achievement considering the losses sustained by other heavy bomber groups in the European Theatre.

In mid April the group received orders to depart European shores for home. The group had been earmarked for a role in the Pacific, but ‘R & R’ was the order of the day and even though ground crews prepared the aircraft for combat, the US was firmly on the minds of all. On the 13th May the USS Hermitage set sail for the States, and Old Buckenham fell silent as the last few men departed closing the gates behind them.

Post-war, the airfield returned to RAF ownership seeing a few aircraft from other units being placed here, but no other major service or operators. Eventually in 1960, the RAF disposed of the site and it returned primarily to agriculture. Flying does continue today though, as Old Buckenham hosts fly-ins, displays and has a thriving aero club on part of the remains of the east-west runway.

As the site is an active airfield, access to any parts other than the public areas is very limited and so there is little to see from those dark days of the 1940s. The runways do remain as small roads for local tractor access, and one small part of the east-west runways is used for light flying. A further section of the north-west/south-east runway also exists as a taxiway to access the main runway. An original blister hangar is also on site along with a Nissen hut that now houses a museum.

RAF Old Buckenham

RAF Old Buckenham, memorial to those who served.

There is a varied collection of military hardware, mainly field guns, located on the site. A further ‘famous’ attraction is the T-55 Tank used in the James Bond film ‘Golden Eye’ which greets you as you arrive. A small, well cared for memorial in the shape of a Liberator tail-fin is dedicated to those 366 crew members and staff of the 453rd BG who lost their lives, and a cafe, aptly entitled “Jimmy’s“, provides refreshments for the visitor.

A delightful place to spend a warm Sunday afternoon watching light aircraft and contemplating what life was like at Old Buckenham as the roar of B-24s filled the air over 70 years ago.

RAF Old Buckenham

The T-55 tank used in the film ‘Golden Eye’

Post script

Some rare photographs taken at Old Buckenham were found following an auction in Montana, in a box of old photographic supplies. The story was reported in the ‘Eastern Daily Press‘ on December 18th 2013.

A museum to honour the men of the 453rd BG has since opened at Old Buckenham. Their website gives details of the collection and opening times.

RAF East Wretham (P2)- From Bomber Command to USAAF

After part one of RAF East Wretham, we see how the poor fortunes of the Czech squadron of Bomber Command were left behind, a new breed of aircraft had now arrived in the form of the US fighter Group’s P-47s and P-51s. After the departure of Bomber Command, the site was turned over to the USAAF and renamed Station 133.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

With this change came a number of modifications to the airfield. Temporary Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) was laid, more concrete pathways added and the site accommodation improved generally. The work continued for several weeks whilst the personnel of the newly formed 359th Fighter Group (FG) were gathered together in the United States, finally shipping out across the Atlantic in the October 1943.

Only being recently manned, the 359th were truly a new group (although some pilots were drawn from other established combat units) being formed of the 368th, 369th and 370th Fighter Squadrons (FS). Arriving from Westover Field Massachusetts in the October 1943, they were one of the last units to join the Eighth Air Force with P-47 Thunderbolts; a move that bolstered fighter numbers to some 550, trebling the Eighth’s total number of fighters in only a matter of weeks.

By December they were combat ready, and their first mission took place on December 13th 1943 – an escort mission protecting  heavy bombers as they attacked airfields in France. During the mission, thirty-six aircraft of the 359th carried out fighter sweeps in the  Pas-de-Calais area without loss and without a single ‘kill’, a rather calm opening to their European war. On the 20th, they undertook their second mission, another escort of heavy bombers to Breman. Joining them were the 4th FG, 56th FG, 78th FG, 352nd FG, 353rd FG, 356th FG, and for their first time the 358th FG all flying P-47s. For the fighters it was another ‘uneventful’ mission with only minimal losses, but for the heavy bombers it was their first encounter with Me-410s, and their time-fused, aircraft launched missiles.

During March 1944 a special squadron was formed commanded by Capt. Charles E. Ettlesen of the 359th. Known as “Bill’s Buzz Boys”, the purpose of the unit was to develop ground-attack tactics as so few of these had been truly successful up until now.

The group tried many new ways of attacking enemy airfields, and in the month they were together, they succeeded in destroying or damaging numerous aircraft, blowing up several hangars, locomotives, barges and other small boats in their attacks. During one of these attacks on the airfield at Chateudun, Capt. Ettlesen hit a high tension wire which cut half way through his wing. He manged to fly the P-47 back to England landing at RAF Martlesham Heath in Suffolk, trailing a good 30 feet of wire behind him! On April 7th, the unit’s four flights returned to their respective groups, and the new tactics learned were taken to RAF Millfield, the brainchild of General Quesada to train pilots in the art of ground attack.

, 8AF USAAF.

Capt Charles C. Ettlesen 369FS, 359FG, headed the specialised ground attack unit. After returning to East Wretham he was last seen going down to strafe a Locomotive north of Gotha, 9th Feb. 1945. Classed as MIA he was never heard from again. *2

The 359th at East Wretham continued on with bomber escort operations throughout the early stages of 1944, and then in the April, they began to convert to P-51 Mustangs, a change that involved major retraining of both pilots and ground crews. Used to the air-cooled Douglas Wasp engines of the P-47s, they now had to convert to liquid cooled Merlins. To prepare mechanics for the forthcoming Mustangs, ‘sample’ P-51Bs were sent out prior to the shipment to allow for a smooth transition from one aircraft to the other.

By May, the 359th were ready with their P-51s and their first foray into enemy territory took place on the 5th. Not unlike their first mission with P-47s, it was an escort mission to attack targets in the Pas-de-Calais and Siracourt areas in ‘Noball‘ operations. Like the first, it also was uneventful, cloud cover preventing both allied bombing or Luftwaffe intervention.

Ground attacks were incredibly dangerous, and the summer of 1944 would reinforce that fact. In May pilot, Major George “Pop” Doersch, whose daring would eventually take his ‘kill’ rate into double figures, flew too low to the ground in a strafing attack on an airfield near Rheims. In the attack his propeller struck the ground causing the blades to bend at the tips. Fortunately and using all his skill and strength, he managed to nurse the aircraft (P-51B) back to Manston where it landed without further incident.

George

Major George Doersh who took his P-51B too close to the ground bending the propeller tips. (IWM)* 3

As D-Day approached, the 359th focused on strafing ground targets in and around the Normandy area; railway locomotives and communication lines were all now very high priority. During the invasion itself, the 359th escorted the heavy bombers across the channel, and whilst over France, they took the opportunity to continue with these opportunist attacks.

With the new P-51s they were now able to fly deeper into the heart of Germany and as far east as Poland. It was during these later stages of the war that the 359th really began to make their mark, participating in some of the biggest bombing missions of Germany, including those of: Ludwigshafen, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Berlin, Mersberg, and Brux.

On 11th September 1944, the green nosed Mustangs of the 359th were finally rewarded for their efforts when they received the Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC) for their action over Mersberg. After attacking over 150 Luftwaffe fighters they also went on to destroy seven  locomotives on their way home. The detailed Citation highlights the bravery and dedication shown by the pilots of the 359th summing up with:

The conspicuous intrepidity, aggressive tactics and esprit de corps displayed by the pilots of this unit on this occasion accounted for the destruction of thirty-five enemy aircraft and contributed to the safe escort of the attacking bombardment formations. The actions of this unit reflect the highest credit upon the 359th Fighter Group and the Armed Forces of the United States.

The determination shown by the 359th resulted in many outstanding pilots. One, Maj. Raymond “X-Ray Eyes” Wetmore became the 359th’s (370th FS) top ace scoring 21 victories (plus 3 on the ground)- his last being an Me 163. Flying latterly  in P-51 #44-14733, Wetmore, like Doersch had a very lucky escape when his aircraft was hit by friendly fire during the Battle of the Bulge. By putting the Mustang into a steep dive he was able to extinguish the fire and return home safely. Flying in three aircraft all called “Daddies Girl” after his daughter, he received numerous awards and by the end of the conflict had completed 142 missions covering 563 combat hours.

RAF East Wretham 4

The old part remains cordoned off.

This attitude to the war, gave the 359th a worthy credit of 263 aircraft shot down with over 100 more being destroyed on the ground. In the 346 missions they flew, they lost a total of 106 of their own aircraft.

Along with further support operations in France and Holland, the 359th went on performing ground attack missions as the allied forces entered Germany. At the war’s end flying wound down, and the USAAF remained at East Wretham until the November of 1945 when the 359th departed, returning to the States and inactivation. With this, no further flying took place at East Wretham and the skies would fall quiet once more.

The airfield then reverted to 12 Group (RAF) ownership, then in May the following year, it was handed back once more to Bomber Command. Within a month the site was handed over to the Technical Training Command and finally East Wretham became a Polish resettlement camp for those personnel who were unable to return home. When they had all finally been moved on, the majority of the site became what it is today, used by the British Army as part of the massive Stanford Practical Training Area (STANTA) for manoeuvres and live firing training.

Bomb Store

The bombs stores blast walls are still intact – just.

Today most traces of the airfield as it was are gone. A number of buildings notably a T2 hangar and several Nissen huts survive on what is now farmland or in the military camp. The unique Watch Tower was demolished after the war as were many of the other ‘temporary’ buildings. Now used by STANTA, a mix of old and new are intertwined with the majority standing on inaccessible military ground. Parts of the perimeter track and hardstands do exist, many overgrown or broken up by the weather and weed growth.

Perhaps the best and by far most accessible examples of East Wretham’s past, is the bomb site which forms part of the East Wretham Heath Nature Heritage Trail. Access is to the south of the site just off the main A1075, Thetford Road. A two-mile walk through Heath land, it takes you right through the original bomb store. An area of natural beauty, famed for its wetland and ancient flints, you can easily find the many blast walls and small fusing buildings still there. Also traceable are the tracks that once took bomb loaded trailers to the airfield across the heath. Many now buried under the acidic soil, their existence evident in exposed patches of bare concrete.

Bomb Store

The decay is evident throughout the bomb store.

All these stores are being gradually reclaimed by nature, trees and rabbit holes have both taken their toll, the layout is still discernible and whilst much of the brickwork is ‘intact’, the warning signs are there and the wartime structures are crumbling fast.

A small airfield, East Wretham was never considered the most ‘homely’ of sites. Often wet and boggy, it was one of the less well-known and less famous places to be used. But the courage and determination of those who served here both RAF and USAAF, went a long way to helping defeat the tyranny that stood facing us across the small section of water not so far away.

Sources and further reading: (East Wretham)

For more detailed information on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force see their superb website.

No.311 ORB – AIR 27/1687/7

*1 IWM –  FRE 6117

*2 IWM – UPL 31469

*3 IWM – UPL 22685

Norfolk Wildlife Trust website.

RAF East Wretham – Home to the Czechs of Bomber Command (P1)

Hidden in the depths of Thetford Forest not far from the two major US Air bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath, is a former airfield that has received a new lease of life as an Army training facility. Once home to Bomber Command’s only Czechoslovakian Squadron, it was also home to Canadians and other Commonwealth nationals. After their final departure, it became the home of an American Fighter unit meaning its history is both diverse and multinational.

In Trail 13, we stop off at the former Station 133, more widely known as RAF East Wretham.

RAF East Wretham (Station 133)

Originally built in the early part of the Second World War and opened in March 1940, East Wretham was primarily designed as a satellite airfield for nearby RAF Honington.  Being a satellite the airfield’s facilities would be basic, accommodation rudimentary and technical facilities limited. It would however, be developed as the war progressed and as its use increased. The main runway for example, (running north-east to south-west) was initially grass but with the arrival of the USAAF it would be covered with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), designed to strengthen the surfaces and thus prevent aircraft digging into the soil.

East Wretham would also have a range of hangars. In addition to the standard two ‘T2’ hangars, it would have a canvas Bessoneau hangar, (more generally linked to the First World and inter-war years),  and an additional four Blister hangars (9392/42) all believed to be double ‘extra over’ blister hangars each 69 ft wide in the singular design.

The watch office at East Wretham was another unusual design. Built to drawing 15498/40, it was originally a single storey room built on concrete pillars with a flat roof. It was then modified later on in the war to include an overhanging observation room, with the extension being mounted on metal pillars. This new extension had considerably more glazing than the original structure, and was more in keeping with the building style of other wartime airfields. These extra windows gave a much better view across the entire airfield, especially useful as the office was unusually located along the perimeter fence well behind the technical area of the airfield!

The Control Tower of the 359th Fighter Group at East Wretham. Caption on reverse: 'Caption on reverse: '359th FG Photos Source: T.P. Smith via Char Baldridge, Historian Description: #13 Control Tower at Station F-133, East Wretham, England.'

The unusual design of the Watch Office can clearly be seen in this photograph*1. (IWM)

Originally there were only 27 ‘frying pan’ style concrete hardstands, each one being located at various points around the perimeter track, all in groups of three or four. These were then added to later on, again using steel planking, to extend the number of dispersal points located on hard surfaces; a further indication to the problems with the boggy soil found in this part of East Anglia.

Accommodation for the initial 1,700 personnel, was dispersed over twelve sites around the north of the airfield, and across the road from the main airfield site. One of these sites (Site 2) was the nearby Wretham Hall, a grand building built in 1912, it was utilised by Officers of the USAAF for their own personal accommodation. Sadly, the grand three storey building was demolished in the early 1950s, possibly as a result of its wartime use.

A bomb storage site was also built on the airfield. Located on the south side of the site, it was well away from any accommodation or technical buildings. It was also well away from the three large fuel stores,  which boasted storage capacities of: 24,000, 40,000 and 90,000 gallons.

The initial use of East Wretham was as a dispersal for aircraft based at Honington, the first of which was a newly formed Czechoslovakian Squadron, No. 311 (Czech) Sqn, on 29th July 1940. So new were they that they didn’t receive their Wellington ICs until the August. This was to be a unique squadron in that it was the only Czech squadron to fly with Bomber Command, and whilst the main body of the squadron was located at Honington, the operational flight (A Flight) moved to East Wretham shortly after its  formation. In mid September a decision was made to move the entire squadron across to East Wretham posting a detachment to RAF Stradishall, where they stayed until April 1942.

On September 10th 1940, 311 Sqn, now with a small number of operational crews, took part in their first mission, a true baptism of fire flying directly into the German heartland and Berlin. For one of the crews and their Wellington, this would not go well, the aircraft believed forced down in the vicinity of a railway line near Leidschendam in Zuid-Holland, with all but one of the six airmen on-board being captured.

The only crew member not to be caught was Sgt. Karl Kunka, who managed to evade capture for a short period, only to shoot himself with the aircraft’s Very Pistol. It was thought that he carried out this action to not only avoid capture but any possible retaliation against his family back home in Czechoslovakia. Whilst Sgt. Kunka’s wounds were not initially fatal, they were so severe that he later died, failing to respond to treatment whilst in hospital.

The aircraft, Wellington MK.Ia, #L7788, ‘KX-E’, was also captured, repainted in Luftwaffe colours and flown for testing and evaluation to Rechlin, the Luftwaffe’s main aircraft test facility north of Berlin.

RAF East Wretham 3

East Wretham still uses the Nissen huts and smaller buildings today.

During December 1941, a further Czech unit, No.1429 Czech Operational Training Flight (COTF) was formed along side 311 Sqn, under the command of Sqn/Ldr. Josef Šejbl. This unit was designed specifically to train Czechoslovakian aircrews for Bomber Command, with instructors for the flight, being taken from 311 Sqn following completion of their tour of operations.

As aircrew completed their training, they were transferred to the operational flight, a steady but slow build up meant that numbers were quite low, the squadron being  considerably reduced by heavy casualties in the early stages of the war. As with other Bomber Command squadrons, 311 Sqn carried out night bombing missions, many penetrating Germany itself.

1941 would see more missions to Germany, starting with the first three nights January 1st – 3rd, when Bomber Command aircraft hit Bremen, with 311 Sqn taking part on the night of the 2nd. On this night, three aircraft from 311 Sqn would join the Hampdens and Whitleys of Bomber Command in attacking a major railway junction in the centre of the city, where fires and explosions were seen as far away as 20 miles. A relatively successful operation, it would not be long before the first casualties of 311 Sqn would occur.

On the night of January 16th – 17th Wellington IC #T2519 ‘EX-Y’ was lost on a mission to Wilhelmshaven, the aircraft going down after suffering ‘technical’ problems. Last heard from  at 22:21, the aircraft disappeared without trace along with the entire crew, none of whom were ever heard from again.

1941 would end as it started, with a return trip to Wilhelmshaven, in which good results were recorded. One aircraft was lost on this mission, Wellington #T2553 ‘EX-B’, the pilot, Sgt. Alois Siska ditching the aircraft after it had sustained serious flak damage over the target area. As the aircraft sunk, it took the life of the rear gunner Sgt. Rudolf Skalicky, the other’s climbing into the aircraft’s dingy, a small craft in which they remained for several days.

As the dingy drifted towered the Dutch coast, the icy conditions would take two more lives, that of Sgt. Josef Tomanek (Co/P) and F/O. Josef Mohr (Nav.), whilst the pilot, Sgt. Siska, suffered badly from frost bite and gangrene. The remaining crewmen, F/O. Josef Scerba (W/O), Sgt. Pavel Svoboda (air gunner) along with Sgt. Siska, were picked up by German forces and  interned as POWs, mainly staying in hospitals for treatment for cold related injuries. Sgt. Svoboda went on to escape captivity no less than three times, evading capture until after the war whereupon he returned to England.

By mid 1942, 311 Sqn were assigned a new posting and a new airfield, but before departing in their final month, April 1942, they  would be visited by two particularly significant dignitaries. On April 3rd, Air Vice Marshal J. Baldwin, Air Officer Commanding No. 3 Group, RAF Bomber Command, visited to award the DFC  to P/O. Karel Becvar for his services as a navigator with 311 Sqn. Then on the 18th April, the President of the Czechoslovak Republic, Dr. Edward Benes, arrived along with several other dignitaries to inspect the Squadron, and give a speech regarding the work carried out by the crews here at East Wretham.

Tarck to Bomb Store

A number of tracks remain on the site.

During their last month, 311 Sqn would fly twelve more operations before finally departing Norfolk for Northern Ireland and Aldergrove. Whilst here at East Wretham, they would fly 1,011 sorties which included both attacks on industrial targets and propaganda leaflet drops. On the 30th, the main air body along with the rear party departed the site, the bulk of the squadron moving two days earlier. After their departure, 311 Sqn would not return to East Wretham.

In November 1942, after a long quiet break, East Wretham would spring into life once more with the arrival of another bomber squadron, No. 115 Sqn (RAF) from Mildenhall now flying  Wellington MK.IIIs.

Over the winter of 1942-43, 115 Sqn would lose ten aircraft, most to missions over Germany but two whilst ‘Gardening’, the last occurring on the night of New Years Eve 1942.

During the early months of 1943 six more Wellingtons would be lost from 115 Sqn, KO-D, KO-X, KO-C, KO-N, KO-T and KO-Q, the new year had not brought new fortunes.

By now the limits of the Wellington had been realised and its days as a front line bomber were numbered. A poor performer in the bombing theatre, it would be gradually moved to other duties, being replaced by the superior four-engined heavies; 115 Sqn was no exception. The MK.II Lancaster, powered by four Bristol Hercules engines, was less common than the Merlin powered MK.I and MK.III, but none the less was far superior to the Wellington in both performance and bomb carrying capacity.

The first Lancaster arrived in the March of 1943, and as it did the Wellingtons began to depart. To help train crews on the new aircraft, a detachment from 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) would be re-designated 1678 (Heavy Conversion) Flight (HCF) and was based here at East Wretham.

Flying the radial engined Lancaster MK.IIs under the code ‘SW’, they were one of only two HCFs to be established in Bomber Command, both in May of that year. Specifically set up to convert crews from the Wellington to the Lancaster, they were a short-lived unit, becoming a Heavy Conversion Unit once more on September 16th 1943, after moving to RAF Foulsham. During this time the flight would operate only eight aircraft in total, losing none whilst at East Wretham.

Even with the new aircraft though, flying over Germany was not without its problems for 115 Sqn. The first aircraft to be lost, and the first of its type in Bomber Command, Lancaster MK.II #DS625 ‘KO-W’ was lost without trace in a raid to Berlin on the night of March 29th/30th. The Pilot Sgt. H. Ross, (RCAF) and his crew all being commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. The aircraft being new, it had only flown 26 hours since its arrival at East Wretham earlier that year on March 9th.

rear-turret-of-Lanc-lost-595x478

Avro Lancaster B Mk II, DS669 ‘KO-L’, of No. 115 Squadron, was hit by bombs from an aircraft flying above. during a raid on Cologne on the night of 28th/29th June 1943. The tail gun and gunner were both lost. (Author unknown)

With more missions into Germany, 115 Squadron’s Lancasters  would continue to serve well, perhaps one of the worst nights occurring just days before their eventual departure to RAF Little Snoring in early August 1943.

On the night of 2nd/3rd a mission was planned for Hamburg in which 740 aircraft were allocated. Of these, 329 were Lancasters, by far the largest contingency of the raid. Whilst over Germany, the formation entered a severe thunderstorm, and with many aircraft suffering from icing, they were forced to either turn back, or find other targets. The poor weather, including lightning, accounted for several of the losses that night including one of three lost from 115 Sqn.

Lancaster #DS673 was shot down by a night fighter, #DS685 was lost without trace and #DS715 was struck by lightning causing it to crash not far from the target. From the three that went down that night, there were no survivors from the twenty-one crewmen on board. 115’s time at East Wretham would close on a very sour note indeed.

With the departure of 115 Sqn in August, East Wretham would then pass from RAF ownership into the hands of the US Eighth Air Force, to become Station 133, the home of the three squadrons of the 359th Fighter Group – ‘The Unicorns’

September 26th 1942, a near tragedy for three RAF Squadrons.

The Eagle Squadrons were three RAF Squadrons made up of American volunteers, their achievements and records are well-known and well documented, however, it was not all plain sailing for these determined and courageous flyers. For one Squadron in particular, 133 Squadron, September 26th 1942 would be a disaster, a disaster that would almost wipe out the entire flight of twelve airmen.

133 Squadron had been on the front line serving at RAF Biggin Hill and RAF Martlesham Heath before arriving at RAF Great Sampford, a satellite for RAF Debden. The ground crews were predominately British, assisting and training the US ground crews in aircraft maintenance and support. All the pilots however, were US volunteers, formed into three separate squadrons but under RAF control.

1st Lt Dominic 'Don' Gentile and Spitfire BL255 'Buckeye-Don', 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF.

1st Lt Dominic ‘Don’ Gentile and Spitfire BL255 ‘Buckeye-Don’. The photo was taken after 133 Squadron RAF was disbanded and absorbed into the USAAF as the, 336th FS, 4th FG, 8th AF. (@IWM)

133 Squadron would arrive at RAF Great Sampford on September 23rd 1942, the same day as 616 Sqn RAF departed, they would be the last operational unit to fully use the airfield before its eventual closure.

Initially flying the Spitfire VBs, they soon replaced them with the MK.IX, a Spitfire that was essentially a MK.V with an updated engine. Having a higher ceiling than the FW-190 and being marginally faster, its improved performance took the Luftwaffe by complete surprise. It was so new and improved, that it remained on the secret list until after this particular operational flight.

On that fateful day, September 26th 1942, fourteen Spitfires of 133 Sqn took off from RAF Great Sampford in Essex, piloting those Spitfires were:

BS313 – F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC (61053) The only British pilot and leader
BS275 – P/O. Leonard T. Ryerson (O-885137)
BS446 – P/O. William H. Baker Jr (O-885113)
BS137 – P/O. Dennis D. Smith (O-885128)
BR638 – P/O. G.B. Sperry (O-885112)
BS445 – P/O. Dominic “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile (O-885109)
BS138 – P/O. Gilbert G. Wright (?)
BS279 – F/Lt. Marion E. Jackson (O-885117)
BS447 – P/O. R.E. Smith (O-885110)
BR640 – P/O. C.A. Cook (O-885112)
BS148 – P/O. Richard “Bob” N. Beaty (?)
BS301 – P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr (O-885127)
BS140 – P/O. Gene P. Neville (O-885129)
Unknown  – P/O. Ervin “Dusty” Miller (O-885138) (not listed but known to have been on the flight).

They were to fly to RAF Bolt Head in Devon, where they would meet with 401 Squadron (RCAF) and 64 Squadron RAF, refuel and be briefed for the mission. A mission that was supposed to be straight forward and relatively uneventful.

The aim of the mission was to escort US bombers to Morlaix on the Brest peninsula. The usual commander of 133 Sqn, Red McColpin, was not placed in charge that day, instead he had been posted, and a British Pilot, F/Lt. Edward Gordon Brettell DFC, was issued with the task.

McColpin was a strict disciplinarian and his leadership was admired by those who followed him. Without this leadership, 133’s preparation was slack and they ultimately paid the price for this.

After landing at 12:30 hours, they realised there were no facilities at Bolt Head for refuelling, and they would have to go with what they had. This would kick-start a catalogue of errors that would ultimately seal the fate of the flight. Following a briefing in which Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC and all but two of 133 Sqn pilots had failed to show up for, the flight (which included the sixteen 401 (RCAF) Squadron Spitfire IXs from RAF Kenley) took off at 13:50 hours. Of the fourteen 133 Sqn Spitfires sent to Bolt Head, only twelve would be needed, and two pilots were instructed to remain at Bolt Head, they were P/O. Ervin Miller, and P/O. Don “Buckeye-Don” S. Gentile, they would be the luckiest two men of the squadron that day.

The briefing, a very vague and rushed one, instructed the flight to carry out a ‘Circus‘ mission escorting seventy-five B-17 Flying Fortresses from the 92nd BG, 97th BG and the 301st BG, who were bombing Cherbourg and the airfields at Maupertus and Morlaix in Brittany. When the squadron took off the weather was clear, and winds were predicted to be 35 mph at 24,000 feet, but 5 miles off the English coast, they encountered 10/10th cumulus cloud cover at 7,000 feet, and so had to climb above it so that they could locate the bombers more easily.

The take of was a mess, disorganised and lacking both radio information and in many cases maps, the aircraft were lucky not to collide with each other.

Of the three RAF squadrons involved in the mission, 401 would take the high position, 133 the middle and 64 Squadron, the lower. They were to form up over Bolt Head at 2,000 feet and then head at 200o at 180 mph to overtake the bombers before they arrived at the target. If they could not locate the bombers, the flight was to circle the target for three minutes and then depart.

As the flight approached the rendezvous area, one 133 Squadron Spitfire had to drop out of formation and return home, as he had encountered engine problems; this problem was thought to be due to his low fuel. The remainder of the flight  scanned the skies for any sign of the bomber formation, and after searching for some 45 minutes, they spotted the bombers, some 50 miles south of Brest. The bombers had in fact already turned for home after having discarded their bombs near to the Pyrenees.

By now the 301st BG had been recalled, as their fighter escort failed to materialise, whilst the 97th BG had continued on. However, due to the heavy cloud cover over the target area, they had been ineffective as no bombing of the target had taken place. The American bombers, who were only three months into their European air war, had inadvertently miscalculated a tail wind putting them off track well away from the Bay of Biscay.

1st Lt George H Middleton Jr 336FS, 4FG, 8AF USAAF. Former Eagle Sqn Spitfire pilot.

P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr of 133 Squadron RAF was shot down and taken Prisoner of War (@IWM).

The three squadrons formed up on the bombers at just after 16:45 hours, with 64 Squadron on the port side, 401 Squadron on the starboard and 133 Squadron behind. The whole formation then flew north for 30 minutes, at which point it became evident that the wind speed was in fact over 100 mph, and not the 35 mph as stated by the Meteorological Office, or at the briefing! It has since been revealed that this information was known to those in authority, but it had not been passed down the chain of command and the pilots were never informed.

The formation then spotted land, the bombers thought they were over Falmouth and turned right. 64 and 401 Squadron broke away maintaining height, but 133 Squadron dropped down below the cloud base and prepared to land.

133 Squadron then began to search for the airfield, and after searching in vain, they found a large town, this they hoped would give them the vital fix they desperately needed. Flying low over the houses they realised they were not over England at all but in fact still over France. The flight, uninformed of the 100 mph north-easterly wind at their altitude, had also been blown wildly off course, and after 1.5 hours flying time, the situation had suddenly become very severe indeed.

The Squadron flight Leader, Flight Lieutenant E.G. Brettell, wanting to ascertain his exact position, called up a ground direction finding station who provided a  bearing and heading – 100 miles off the English coast with a homing vector of 020o. It was at this point they suddenly realised they were over the port of Brest, one of the most heavily defended ports under German occupation.

Immediately, the sky filled with flak and small arms anti-aircraft fire. The pilot in the number 2 position, Pilot Officer Gene Neville (O-885129) in Spitfire #BS140, took a direct and fatal hit, he was killed instantly. Three other aircraft were to be shot down in the melee that followed: Pilot Officer William H Baker Jr (O-885113) in Spitfire #BS446; Pilot Officer Leonard Ryerson (O-885137) in Spitfire #BS275 and Pilot Officer Dennis Smith (O-885128) in Spitfire #BS294 – all four were killed, and all four were awarded the Purple Heart.

2nd Lt. Gene P. Neville 133 (Eagle) Sqn RAF, stands before his MK. IX Spitfire at Great Sampford. He was Killed during the Morlaix disaster. (@IWM UPL 18912)

The remainder of 133 Squadron struggling to defend themselves, they scattered and were forced to land out of fuel, either on the island of Ouissant or on the French mainland.

Of the seven 133 squadron pilots who crash landed on French soil, five were known to have been captured immediately and taken prisoner: P/O. G.B. Sperry; F/Lt.  Edward Brettell; F/Lt. M.E. Jackson; P/O. C.A. Cook and P/O. G.H. Middleton Jr., with a sixth, P/O. G.G. Wright, evading the Germans for several days before being captured later on.

Of these initial five, F/Lt. Jackson was injured in his crash and hospitalised for eight weeks. He was then taken to Stalag Luft III from where he was able to escape for about ten days by jumping from the roof of his cell house into a lorry load of evergreen branches that were being taken away from the camp.

Another Pilot, F/Lt.  Edward Brettell  DFC. was executed for his part in the Great Escape from the same prison camp, Stalag Luft III, whilst P/O. Robert E. Smith, the last remaining pilot, managed to abandon his aircraft evading capture, eventually returning to England on 18th January 1943.

The pilot who turned back early due to his own engine problems,  P/O. Robert Beatty,  crash landed his Spitfire at Kingsbridge in Devon after he too ran out of fuel over the Channel. During the crash he sustained severe injuries but luckily survived his ordeal and was able to give an account of the mission through what he heard over the radio.

Several of the 401 Squadron pilots,  who had continued on, also reported being low on fuel and gave their intention to bail out before land was finally sighted. One of these, P/O. Junius L. Hokan (s/n: J/6833), did have to bail out over the sea, he was last seen in a gradual dive, his aircraft heading seaward. His body was never recovered. Others in the flight that day only just made land fall, one crashed and was taken to hospital where he recovered from his injuries, the others just managed to reach either RAF Bolt Head or RAF Harrowbeer. The Operational Record Books for 401 Squadron state that “many casualties were avoided by the clear thinking and cool behaviour of all members of our Squadron“.

A full report of the days tragic events was issued to Fighter Command Headquarters by Wing Commander Kingcombe DFC, Squadron Leader Gaze and Squadron leader K. Hodson DFC.

The effect on those left behind in 133 Squadron was devastating. The result of poor preparation, inadequate briefings and sub-standard communication between the Met. Office and Fighter Command had cost many lives, and very nearly many, many more. A number of postings to the Far East soon followed, and many lessons weren’t that day that led to improvements preventing such a tragedy ever happening again.

133 Squadron would continue to operate after this, transferring over to the USAAF being renumbered as 336th FS, 4th FG, three days later as planned, leaving both RAF Great Sampford and the sad memories of that very tragic day far behind.

S/L Gordon Brettell 133 Eagle Squadron

S/L Gordon Brettell, 133 Eagle Squadron, executed for his part in the Great Escape breakout at Stalag Luft III  (@IWM UPL 25574)

Sources and further reading.

Great Sampford appears in Trail 50.

National Archives: Operational Record Book 133 Sqn – AIR 27/945/2

National Archives: Operational Record Book 401 Sqn – AIR 27/1772/17

National Archives: Operational record Book 64 Sqn – AIR 27/590/41

*3 Price. A., “Spitfire – A Complete Fighting History“, Promotional Reprint Company,  (1974).

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).

The Development of Britain’s Airfields (Part 6).

After considering the architecture of Britain’s airfields in Part 5, we turn to the hard surfaces, primarily the runways. Developed out of necessity, they created a steep learning curve for those involved in their construction. Many problems were found, many materials were tried, but ultimately they were built and even after their removal for hardcore, many have left scars in the tissue of the earth that remind us of their once massive presence.

Runways, Perimeter Tracks and Hardstands

In the pre-war years, the development of hard runways and large airfields was a new phenomena, hard surfaces being a new aspect still very much a topic of considerable controversy. In the First World War, water logging and mud was an issue even for the small biplanes that filled the skies over Britain and  France. To overcome this, ash was spread over landing surfaces and to some degree successfully, but even though many local remedies were tried, it wouldn’t be taken seriously until the Second World War loomed.

Glatton (Conington) second runway markings

Runways like this one at Glatton (Conington) remain in good condition and used by the local flying club.

At this point the typical airfield layout included up to four grass runways, one of 1,300 x 400 yards and three of 1,000 x 200 yards, many were even smaller. Bomber and Fighter Command, realising that not only would the new era of aircraft call for longer, hard runways on its airfields, but the need to maintain year round activity was essential if Britain was to defeat the Luftwaffe.

Both Fighter and Bomber Command pushed the Government to allow these to be developed, on the one hand Sir Hugh Dowding, fighting the corner for Fighter Command, pressed home the need for hard surfaces on his fighter airfields, whilst Sir Arthur Harris on the other, pushed for hard surfaces on his bomber airfields.

The entire process was lengthy and complex, and lacked in-depth, professional knowledge. The first hard ‘pavements’ later runways and taxi ways, being constructed based on road building techniques and knowledge. So before any firm decisions could be made, trials would need to be carried out to determine not only whether or not they were indeed needed, but if so, how they should be best constructed.

Initial steps in runway construction was started as early as 1937, where ‘flexible’ runways were constructed comprising layers of brick or stone covered with two further layers of tarmac and a coat of asphalt to seal the structure in. Concrete pavements, which proved to be much stronger were either 150 mm or 200 mm thick slabs laid directly onto the ground after the topsoil had been removed by heavy machinery. As would be expected, these early designs failed quite quickly under the heavy loads of the fighters and bombers that were coming into service. Rapid repairs were carried by adding a further layer of tarmac (6.5cm) and another layer (2cm) of sealant.

These early flexible constructions continued to fail whereas the concrete designs stood up to much more wear and tear and proved longer lasting. However, time was short and the learning curve would be steep.

The test to determine these needs was to take a Whitley bomber, laden to equal its full operational weight, and taxi it across a grassed surface.  A rather primitive assessment, it was intended to ascertain the effects of the aircraft on the ground beneath. Trials were first carried out at Farnborough and then Odiham, and these were generally successful, the Whitley only bogging down on recently disturbed soils. Further trials were then carried out at RAF Stradishall in March 1938, and the results were a little more mixed. Whilst no take offs or landings took place during these trials, the general agreement was that more powerful bombers would have no problems using grassed surfaces, as long as the ground was properly prepared and well maintained. All well and good when the soils were dry and well-drained.

By April 1939, the Air Ministry conceded, and agreed to lay runways at a small number of fighter and bomber airfields, of which Kenley, Biggin Hill, Debden and Stradishall were identified.  Whilst construction was slow, only two fighters airfields being completed by the outbreak of war, progress was finally being made.

These initial runways were only 800 yards long and 50 yards wide, but were extended later that year to 1,000 yards long, as aircraft were repeatedly running off the ends on to the grassed areas. Over the years Stradishall in particular, would be further developed, its longest runway eventually extending to 2,000 yards.

RAF Charterhall

The runway at Charterhall in the borders, breaking up after many years of use both by training units and as a motor racing circuit post war.

During the early war years, the demand for airfields grew. By early 1940 the requirement was for three runways as close as possible at 60o to each other, and of a minimum length of 1,000 yards with room for extension up to 1,400 yards. This then became the norm by late 1940 especially at bomber airfields, with the main runway being 1,400 yards and subsidiaries at 1,100 yards. A month later, this increased by another 200 yards with a requirement to be able to extend to 2,000 and 1,400 yards respectively.

However, these short piecemeal responses were not sufficient and it was both a continual problem and a thorn in the side for the Air Ministry. Sir Arthur Harris, in raising his concerns for airfields belonging to Bomber Command, also pushed the need to develop good, long and reliable surfaces. He voiced his frustration in a vehement letter*6 to Lord Beaverbrook in 1941, In which he states:

“For twenty years everybody on the stations and the squadrons has been screaming for runways without avail.”

and he continues stressing the need for hard surfaces particularly in winter as:

“Through not having runways our effort will be seriously detracted from in normal winter conditions and reduced very probably to zero in abnormal winter conditions.”

He then goes on to state that Britain’s views were ‘blinkered’ saying that:

“Every other nation throughout the world has long been convinced of the necessity for runways…”

By the summer of 1941, the length of runways had again increased, all stations would now have a main runway of 2,000 yards and two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards and where this was not possible, then a minimum of 1,600 and 1,100 yards (fighter and night fighter stations being shorter at 1,300 and 1,400 yards respectively).

The harsh winters were less than ideal for laying concrete (by far the best material for the job) but any delay could mean the difference between success and failure. Elaborate testing was therefore passed over, materials were laid and experience led the way. This method of trail and error, led to many instances of runways having to be dug up and relaid, this in itself led to problems as aircraft, men and machinery had to then be moved and housed elsewhere. The American Eighth Air Force suffered greatly with these problem, fully laden bombers repeatedly breaking through the surface or falling off the edges as it gave way.

Another consideration was that of training and satellite airfields. As the need for new pilots increased, the training of new recruits intensified. The harsh winters were causing major headaches for these airfields as mud, stones and other winter debris was causing continuous problems for flying. With both man power and materials being in short supply, suitable alternatives were sought.  A number of solutions were offered all very similar in their design and material.

The answer it seemed lay in steel matting – of which twelve different types were used – the more common being : Sommerfeld Track, Pierced Steel Planking (PSP – also called Marston Mat), or Square Mesh Track (SMT).

Sommerfeld track was a steel mat designed by Austrian Kurt Sommerfeld. The tracking was adapted from a First World War idea, and was a steel mat that when arrived, was rolled up in rolls 3.25 m (10 ft 8 in) wide by 23 m (75 ft 6 in) long. It was so well designed that a full track could be laid, by an unskilled force, in a matter of hours. Each section could be replaced easily if damaged, and the entire track could be lifted and transported by lorry, aeroplane or boat to another location and then reused.

Sommerfeld track (along with these other track types) were not only used commonly on training and satellite airfields, but also on Advanced and Forward Landing Grounds in Kent and later France after the Allied invasion of Normandy. In the build up to D-Day, 24 Advanced Landing Grounds in southern England were created using this form of Steel Matting,

Tracking had to be robust, it had to be able to withstand heavy landings and be non-conspicuous from the air. Sommerfeld track met both of these, and other stringent criteria very well, although it wasn’t without its problems. Crews often complained of a build up of mud after heavy rain, and concerns over both tyre and undercarriage damage were also extensively voiced; several records reporting tail wheels being ripped off after catching in the track lattice.

Because of the poor state and short length of runways, bombers were still regularly running off the ends, especially at night, or being unable to fly because the surfaces were poor or even unusable. A number of ideas were tested out to alleviate the problem, one such idea led to twenty sites testing arrester hook facilities. Several heavy bombers: Halifax, Manchester, Stirlings  and later the Lancaster,  were all modified to undertake these trials, with Woodhall Spa becoming the first airfield to have the full complement of six arrester sets.

Runway arrester gear

Runway arrester gear at Woodhall Spa.

The idea was met with scepticism, but trials went ahead and in January 1942, a list of priority airfields was sent out to the Headquarters of No. 1,3,4, and 5 Groups RAF detailing those twenty sites selected for the equipment. At the top of the list was RAF Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire, followed by Bottesford, Swinderby, Ossington, Syerston, Middleton St. George, Linton, and ending with Waterbeach and Stradishall. By late 1942 Woodhall Spa was ready and in October, five landings were made by an Avro Manchester.  A month later the decision was made to install units at all major operational airfields, but this never came to fruition and the idea was soon mothballed. By 1943, it had been forgotten about and the 120 or so units built were scrapped (many being left buried where they were laid).

It was finally during early 1942 that a standard design airfield would be put in place. Known as the Class ‘A’, it would be the standard to which all new airfields and updated older sites would be made.

A Class A airfield would be designed around three hard concrete runways, shaped like an ‘A’ with each runway at 60o  to each other where possible. The main runway would be aligned with the prevailing wind again were possible to allow aircraft to take off/land into the wind as often as possible (north-east, south-west). In several cases, due to land features and local restrictions, this was not always possible, and so many permutations of design were seen as a result.

Rapidly becoming the largest part of the airfield layout, the runways and other paved areas – perimeters tracks, aprons and hardstands – were now given high priority. The standard now called for a main runway of 2,000 yards with two subsidiaries of 1,400 yards. Each of these would be 50 yards wide whilst the connecting perimeter tracks would be 50 feet wide. Along side these runways would be an emergency landing strip, a grassed area given a landing surface of 400 and  200 yards respectively.

Dues to the high numbers of bombers returning badly damaged and unable to make safe and proper landings, a small number of emergency strips were created by extending the main runways to 4,000 yards long and 400 yards wide. One such airfield was RAF Manston in Kent. Being on of the closest airfields to the continent, it was often the first place a stricken aircraft, especially a bomber, would seek out.

Whilst the general layout of airfields did not change for the remainder of the war, some further runways were extended to 3,000 yards, one such example being RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk which was prepared to take the heavy B29 ‘Superfortress’ and post war, the B-36 ‘Peacemaker’.

A further point worth mentioning here is that of dispersals, not required pre-war, they were also an aspect of airfield architecture that were born out of the Second World War. In the inter-war years, aircraft were housed either on a central pan (apron or ramp) or within hangars. These collections of aircraft were easy targets and even a small amount of munitions could cause huge damage. In 1939 the need for dispersals was therefore recognised and so to address the issue, hedges were removed and tracks created that took aircraft away from the main runway but kept them within easy reach of the airfield site. The initial design was that of the ‘frying pan’ a 150 ft circle connected to the perimeter track by a small concrete track.

However, by 1942, it was found that aircraft were clogging up these tracks, some even ‘falling off’ the concrete onto soft soil and so blocking following aircraft in their tracks. The answer was the ‘spectacle’ or ‘loop’ hardstand, so-called by their oval shape, generally in pairs, that allow aircraft in and out without the need to turn or block access tracks. From 1942 onward, this model became the standard hardstand for all Class A airfields, and the aim was to have 50 such hardstands placed strategically around the perimeter, with 25 at satellite airfields. As the threat of attack diminished toward the end of the war, ‘finger’ or ‘star’ dispersals began to appear, much less effective than the predecessors, they were however cheaper and easier to construct.

RAF Milfield

Unusual as many training airfields didn’t have aircraft pans, RAF Millfield, in the borders, had several

In addition to hardstands, pens were built on fighter stations. The first, an experimental pit, was dug at Feltwell, whilst overly expensive and obtrusive, it did lead the way to aircraft pens later on, pens that were developed as either type ‘B’ or ‘E’  on these fighter airfields. The main difference here is that the early type ‘B’ had cranked side walls whereas the ‘E’ had walls that were straight. The former requiring more space, was later phased out in favour of the ‘E’, named so by its shape, using side and back walls to protect the fighter or small bomber located within.

Remains of Type 'B' fighter Pen

The remains of a Type ‘B’ Fighter Pen at Matlaske.

RAF Macmerry

A Type ‘B’ Pen at RAF Macmerry. The cranked wall can be seen to the right, with the central wall on the left. The entrance is to the bottom right.

Examples of these pens were located at Matlaske (type ‘B’ – built to design 7151/41) and Macmerry in Scotland, whilst the type ‘E’ were found on airfields especially those around London that included Biggin HiIl, Kenley and North Weald.

Kingscliffe airfield

One of the ‘E’ type pens found at Kings Cliffe. Adapted with rifle slits for additional defence.

These pens were designed to specific dimensions and were designed as either a ‘Hurricane’ or ‘Blenheim’ to accommodate either a single engined or twin-engined aircraft. Within the back wall of these pens was a shelter for up to 25 personnel, and in some cases, they had Stanton Shelters built-in to the structures. Some, for example, at Kings Cliffe in Northampton, remain with rifle slits for additional protection from ground forces.

King's Cliffe airfield

Inside the aircraft pen shelter at King’s Cliffe.

Whilst the majority of these shelters were manufactured using banks of soil, sandbags, brick or concrete, there was a least one example at RAF Drem, in Scotland which used logs cut to size and shape and built in the style of a Scandinavian house. It is these various designs of aircraft pen that paved the way to modern hardened aircraft shelters (HAS) seen on military airfields today.

From the early days of grass runways to the massive lengths of concrete that were created up to and after the mid 1940s, runways and hardstands have become a defining factor in airfield design. The sole purpose of an airfield – to get aircraft off the ground as quickly as possible, get them to their target and them get them home again – led to the development of both runway lengths and construction materials, much of which has paved the way for modern airfields today. These early leaps into runway designs have enabled larger and heavier aircraft to make those important journeys that we very much take for granted in this the modern world of air travel and general aviation.

In the next section we look at one of the buildings most associated with the airfield. An early form of aircraft storage, its role changed as it was soon realised that aircraft needed to be dispersed and not grouped together on large aprons as they were in the prewar era. Aesthetics and neatly lined up aircraft were no longer an important factor in front line flying, but safety and the ability to repair aircraft quickly and efficiently were. Here we introduce the hangar, a huge building often of a temporary or transportable nature, that became one of the more longer lasting structures of airfield architecture.

Sources and further reading. 

*6 Letter from Arthur Harris to Lord Beaverbrook, February 1941 – AIR 19/492 – National Archives

RAF Thorpe Abbotts – home to the ‘Bloody 100th’.

There are few Bomb Groups who got through the war unscathed. Some earned notable awards, many earned notable nicknames. There are none more though than that of the 100th Bomb Group of the United States Air Force, a groups of men who fought in many of Europe’s most fearsome air battles, suffering many great loses but also achieving great successes.

In this review of Trail 12 we look again at the airfield at Thorpe Abbots, and the history behind the derelict buildings and the concrete remains, we see how the 100th BG earned themselves that most unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th‘.

Thorpe Abbotts (Station 139).

Opened quite late in the war, (April 1943), Thorpe Abbots would only be active for a short period of time. But during these months, it would be home to one major air group, the 100th BG of the US Eighth Air Force, who would gain the unsavoury name ‘The Bloody 100th’. Their legacy would become well-known, it would be a legacy connected with death and destruction, and would be one that would live on for many years, even after the cessation of conflict in Europe.

The first units of the 100th BG would arrive in June 1943, and would operate continuously here until the cessation of conflict in 1945. The site would never see any further action after this, being returned to the RAF who retained ownership until its final closure in 1956. Now totally agricultural, it boasts a superb museum as a memorial to those who gave so tragically flying with ‘The Bloody 100th’.

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

Thorpe Abbotts Village sign

The 100th’s name developed as a result of losses sustained by the group, which in actual fact were not significantly worse than any other Bomb Group of the US Air Force at that time. However, throughout their 306 operational missions over occupied Europe, 177 aircraft along with 700 lives were sadly lost in what were some of the most difficult and terrifying air battles of the Second World War.

Designated Station 139, Thorpe Abbots was built to Class A specification, with three concrete and woodchip runways in the form of an inverted ‘A’, with the cross of the A being the main runway running east to west. Being a bomber base it had 36 pan style hardstands and 16 spectacle hardstands around the perimeter. Maintenance was carried out in two T2 hangars (a type A to drawing 8254/40, and a standard T2). The technical area, accommodation areas and even the bomb store were very unusually all nestled close together in the south-western corner of the site, giving the whole airfield a  compact feel.

With two communal sites, six airmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and sewage works, it was a large accommodation area capable of holding 3,000 men and women of mixed ranks. All the accommodation areas used a range of standard huts, Nissen, Romney, Seco, Thorn and Orlit, all of which appeared on site.

Being a large base, it was, like many of its counterparts, a little town in its own right, with a barber’s shop, a cobblers, grocery store, a gymnasium and squash courts. It also had an on site plumbers, a cement store and a carpenter’s shop.

Although the journey of the 100th started with the activation on June 1st 1942, little occurred until later that year, when the collection of 230 enlisted men and 26 Officers arrived at Walla Walla, Washington, under the guidance of the Group Adjutant Cpt. Karl Standish. He began to organise the cadre into something worthwhile, and as more men arrived the ranks began to swell and the 100th began to take shape. The four squadrons: 349th (led by Cpt. William Veal), 350th (Cpt. Gale Clevan), 351st (Cpt. John Kidd) and 418th (Cpt. Robert Flesher), formed bonds and very quickly, and very soon after, the air echelons would begin to arrive, bringing with them brand new ‘straight out of the factory’ B-17Fs.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Thorpe Abbotts Control Tower now a museum to the 100th BG.

Their next move came at the end of November with a move that took them to Wendover Field, Utah, followed by, Sioux City and then Kearney Air Base in Nebraska, their final major US base before leaving for the UK in May 1943.

After the ground and air echelons split for their transition, the air echelons flew to bases in Newfoundland, where they departed across the northern route to Prestwick at the end of May. The ground echelons then  carried out ground training before departing on the “Queen Elizabeth” on the 27th May, many men being confined below decks because of the overcrowding on the upper decks.

The Queen Elizabeth finally made Greenock, and the men began unloading, the transition from the US to the UK being a shock to many as they clambered aboard the small ‘box cars’ size trains. That night they arrived at Poddington, their first base, and following a poor night’s sleep they received their initial introduction into the British way of life.

The 100th’s arrival at Thorpe Abbotts was not a pleasant one, the base was unfinished, accommodation was lacking and overcrowded, and food supplies were poor to say the least; this was not going to be an easy ride by any means.

Finally, in June, the air echelons began to arrive, the ground and air crews began to work on their machines, rehearsing, tweaking instruments and flying around the local area, until just after midnight on June 25th 1943, the order came through; they were to fly their first mission early that next morning.

The 100th were the third B-17 group to join the Mighty Eighth, as part of the new and reorganised 4th Bombardment Wing, they would join with the 379th BG (Kimbolton) and the 384th BG (Grafton Underwood), both also B-17 groups.

On that morning the aircraft would depart Thorpe Abbotts at 06:00 hrs, and whilst flying out over the North Sea, the formation would be joined by another B-17, with no top turret and the letters ‘VGY’ painted on it. No-one knew what it was, or where it had come from, and suspicions quickly arose about its authenticity. The ‘alien’ ship remained with the formation up until the target at which point it departed and “all hell broke loose”. The formation consisting of these new recruits was ragged and the experienced Luftwaffe pilots took full advantage of this. Focusing on the low squadron first, they fired a barrage of explosive shells into the fuselage’s of the B-17s. That afternoon three aircraft and thirty airmen failed to return home to Thorpe Abbotts, the war had hit home, and hit home hard.

Robert H. Wolff’s crew. L to R Back Row: Ira Bardman, Alfred Clark, William ‘Casey’ Casebolt, James Brady, Arthur ‘Eagle’ Eggleston, Willis ‘Browny’ Brown . Front Row: Charles ‘Stu’ Stuart, Fredric ‘Buzz’ White, (aiming at the enemy) Bob Wolff, Lawrence ‘Mac’ McDonell. The photo was taken after Regensburg for publicity purposes. (@IWM FRE 905)

Over the next month, there were many aborted and scrubbed missions, this continued raising and dashing of hopes set the men on edge but what few missions they did fly, they manged to get through relatively unscathed.

The end of July 1943 saw the official hand over of Thorpe Abbotts from the RAF to the USAAF, with Sqn. Ldrs. Lawson and Bloomfield representing the RAF and Col. Harding the USAAF.

On August 17th 1943, on the anniversary of the Eighth’s operations from England, the men of the 100th sat in the briefing room awaiting the revealing of the target for the day. The anticipation however, was soon replaced with trepidation as the route map revealed a line that would take them deep into the heart of southern Germany, to the Messerschmitt plant at Regensburg. This would be no ordinary mission though, they were to not return to Thorpe Abbotts that day, but instead, they were to complete the first shuttle mission by the Eighth Air Force of the war, flying on to land in North Africa.

After an initial postponement because of mist, the green light was finally given and the aircrews started their engines. One by one they departed Thorpe Abbots toward the  skies above Germany. The 100th were in the unenviable position of ‘tail end Charlie’ being the low squadron at the rear of the formation. Added to this the 100th BG found themselves unprotected due to miscalculations in timing, and as unprotected ‘tail-end Charlies’, they were easy prey for the fearsome and hunting Luftwaffe. For two whole hours the defenders attacked from every possible angle, venting their determination on the lowly B-17s. The sky was littered with downed aircraft and falling wreckage. The B-17s were subjected to harrowing attempts to bring them down, air-to-air bombing from Ju-88s, and rockets fired from BF-109s just added to the mayhem of exploding cannon shells and bullets.

During this engagement B-17 #42-30311, piloted by Lt. Tom Hummel was attacked by Rudolf Germeroth in Bf 109G-6 of J 3/1. The aircraft was seen to explode and fall from the sky. The two waist gunners Ken O’Connor and Dick Bowler were killed whilst the remainder of the crew escaped the wreck and were taken prisoner.

Bombing over the target was accurate and reports sent back to England hailed the mission as a total success, The Messerschmitt factory being totally destroyed, and along with it unbeknown to intelligence, secret jigs for the manufacture of Me 262 jets. But the price had been high, of the twenty-one aircraft sent from the Thorpe Abbotts group,  nine had been lost and ninety men were either dead, captured or missing. Of all the groups who had taken part, the 100th had suffered the most, the lead group protected by P-47s coming off much more lightly.

The Regensburg mission would be a turning point for the 100th, their luck would run out and very soon they would earn themselves the unsavoury nickname ‘The Bloody 100th‘, a name that would stick with them for the duration of the war and beyond.

For their action in this mission, the 100th (and the entire division) would earn themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) an award now becoming a regular feature amongst the brave crews of the Eighth Air Force.

In the Citation, the Secretary of War, G.C. Marshall said:

“The 3d Bombardment Division (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty on action against the enemy on 17th August 1943. This unprecedented attack against one of Germany’s most important aircraft factories was the first shuttle mission performed in the theatre of operations and entailed the longest flight over strongly defended enemy territory yet accomplished to this date. For 4.5 hours the formation was subjected to persistent, savage assaults by large forces of enemy fighters…

…The high degree of success achieved is directly attributable to the extraordinary heroism, skill and devotion to duty displayed by the members of this unit.”

During the September, the USAAF was reorganised again, the 4th Bombardment Wing now becoming the 3rd Bomb Division, 13th Combat Wing, a move that heralded little more than a change in aircraft markings. September would also be a notable month for other reasons. The mission on the 6th to Stuttgart would be a disaster for the USAAF, a deep penetration mission that saw over 400 aircraft combine in the skies over Germany. It was during this mission that B-17 #42-30088 ‘Squawkin’ Hawk II‘ would suffer from head on attacks by Luftwaffe aircraft who pounded the B-17 with 20 mm cannon shells. In the attacks the co-pilot (F/O. Harry Edeburn) was fatally wounded, the bombardier and navigator Lt. Peter Delso and Lt. Russ Engel were both severely wounded and the pilot, Lt. Summer Reeder was sprayed with metal as the nose of the B-17 shattered. With poor control and no oxygen, Reeder dropped the aircraft some 14,000 ft at an unbelievable rate of around 300 mph, before playing cat and mouse with the Luftwaffe fighters who were determined to finish off the damaged aircraft. By singing and telling jokes, the severely injured Reeder assisted by the badly wounded navigator, manged to reach England and without brakes or hydraulics, managed to put the aircraft down on a fighter airfield in England.

Squawkin Hawk II‘ would go on to become the first 100th BG aircraft to complete 50 missions covering a staggering 47,720 combat miles. She returned to the US in May 1944 where she was eventually sold for scrap.

After completing 50 missions, “Squawkin’ Hawk II” was covered with autographs before being sent back to the US for retirement and eventual scrapping.(@IWM FRE 4124)

During this disastrous mission many aircraft would run out of fuel, five made for Switzerland including ‘Raunchy‘ from the 100th BG in which Joe Moloney, the ball turret gunner, would be killed whilst trying to ditch. He would take the dubious honour of being the first US airman killed in neutral Switzerland.

It was also at this month, that the 100th would suffer another major blow and to rub salt into the wounds, they would not even get credit for it.

After a cancelled mission on September 24th 1943, the men of the 100th were raised from their beds for a practice mission over the North Sea, a ‘mission’ that would test their ability as Pathfinders. With bombs still in the aircraft from the morning’s preparations, skeleton crews and semi prepared aircraft took off from several bases across East Anglia.

They were to form up with P-47s over the Wash and then fly out over the sea and practice bombing. When a collection of aircraft appeared on the horizon it was assumed by the bomber crews that it was the friendlies arriving at last. The reality of it was sickening. Diving out of the sun Luftwaffe fighters from JG 3/II attacked the formation, rallying 20mm cannon shells in to the B-17’s wings and bodies. One aircraft, #42-30259 “Damifino II” piloted by Lt. J. Gossage crashed into the sea. Five crewmen were plucked from the water by Motor Torpedo Boats (MTB) hunting German ‘E’ boats, five men remained missing presumed dead.

Yet more difficult times lay ahead. The October raid to Munster saw only one of fourteen aircraft return home – 120 crewmen were missing in action that day. As aircraft were hit from head on, the formation split. Aircraft dodged falling debris and exploding B-17s as rockets were launched at near point-blank range in a forty-five minute frenzy of slaughter.

This disastrous mission would see the tally of lost airmen rise to 200 in just one week, the loss could not be hidden and Munster would simply add another black chapter to the already darkening book of the 100th’s war. Even the one year celebrations at the end of October failed to cover the feeling of loss shrouding the base, a feeling as thick as the autumn fogs preventing flying from taking place.

Thorpe Abbotts Emergency operations block

Ghostly reminders hidden amongst the trees. Thorpe Abbott’s Battle Headquarters.

The cold winter of 1943/44 saw more fog, rain and cold, the dismal weather allowing only a few missions to go ahead. But as spring warmed the ground, the softening of the German defences in preparation for Operation “Overlord” could begin. ‘Big Week’ of February 20th – 25th, saw the 100th in action again – Brunswick on the 21st. March saw another milestone etched in the annuals of history as the 100th took the war directly to the heart of Germany and Berlin. Over three days the 100th would target the German capital, the first on the 4th, followed by the 6th and then the 8th. The 4th would see the 100th achieve the first blood, shooting down their first German aircraft over Berlin.

Each attack brought new challenges. In the first mission the weather forced many aircraft to abandon the flight and return home, the 100th, persevering lost one aircraft that day. On the 6th, the loss was much higher, fifteen aircraft went down and then another single aircraft on the 8th; 170 men were missing from those missions.

For their action, the 100th would receive their second DUC, albeit a year later. In the General orders 3rd March 1945, No.14 it said:

“The 100th Bombardment Group (H) is cited for outstanding performance of duty in action against the enemy in connection with the initial series of successful attacks against Berlin, Germany, 4, 6, and 8 March 1944…”

For the remainder of the summer the 100th would attack oil fields. bridges, and gun positions. They would provide support at St. Lo and Brest in August. Marshalling yards would also come under the focus of the 100th, the Ardennes and the assault across the Rhine. Eventually the war would come to a close and the 100th perform their last mission on April 20th 1945. They would lick their wounds and prepare for a well-earned return to the US.

By the end of its war-time operations the 100th BG had flown nearly 9,000 sorties, in over 300 missions, dropping over 19,000 tons of bombs. They would be credited with the destruction of 261 enemy aircraft, with another 240 damaged or probable. They earned two DUCs and the French Croix de Guerre with palm. Far from being the worst in the 8th Air Force, the 100th’s reputation for accuracy, and overall low operational loses made it one of the most outstanding Bomb Groups of the Air Force.

Finally leaving in December 1945, the 100th would eventually return to serve over the skies of the UK once more as the 100th Refuelling Wing based at nearby RAF Mildenhall.

After the 100th departed, Thorpe Abbots was returned to RAF ownership, no further military flying  took place and the site remained inactive. Eventually in 1956 the airfield was closed and the site then sold off to private ownership. Many of the runways and perimeter tracks were removed for hardcore, and the buildings fell into disrepair.

Today, the site houses a museum utilising the old original control tower and a small number of other buildings. Tucked neatly away amongst the beautiful countryside of Norfolk, this museum is more than worthy of a visit.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

The Tower has Commanding Views.

Visible remains of the airfield are restricted to mainly perimeter track, but remnants can be found with a little effort. In the woods to the east of the tower, buried in amongst the undergrowth, are the remains of buildings including the Battle Headquarters  which would have commanded excellent views across the field in the case of attack.

The perimeter track has been partially utilised and turned into road, from which larger sections can be seen. A number of admin blocks, stores and a range of accommodation buildings are now engulfed by trees and vegetation but still survive and are all very much on private land.

Thorpe Abbotts Museum

Remnants of the perimeter track at Thorpe Abbotts.

Whilst many buildings remain hidden away, the dedication of a few volunteers keep the memories and lives of those who gave so much alive, and enable the history of Thorpe Abbots airfield to continue on for future generations.

Sources and further reading. 

Freeman, Roger A. “The Mighty Eighth” (1986) Arms and Armour

Arnold, Henry. H., “Contrails, My War Record: A history of World War Two as recorded at U.S. Army Air Force Station #139, Thorpe Abbots, near Diss, county of Norfolk, England” (1947) World War Regimental Histories Book 194.

Further details of the 100th BG and information about the museum can be found on the museum website.