The 446th BG (H), “The Bungay Buckaroos” Part 1

In Trail 14 we visit an airfield that was built in the mid part of the war and one that took some time to establish itself as a front line bomber station. However, it is one that would have its own share of problems, heroic acts, records and sacrifice.  In the second part of this trip, we visit the former airfield RAF Bungay.

RAF Bungay (Flixton) (USAAF Station 125)

Bungay airfield lies in Suffolk, above an area known as the Waveney Valley, about two miles from the village from which it takes its name and fifteen miles from Norfolk’s county town of Norwich. It served under a variety of names: HMS Europa II,  RAF Flixton,  RNAS Bungay and USAAF Station 125. However, throughout its short life, it remained primarily under the control of the United States Army Air Force as a heavy bomber station designated Station 125.

Construction began in 1942, by Kirk & Kirk Ltd, but the work would not be completed for at least another two years until the spring of 1944. Even though the site was unfinished, the first units to be stationed here, would be so in the autumn of that same year, 1942.  Initially designated as a satellite for the heavy bombers of RAF Hardwick, it would be some time before Bungay would establish itself as a fully operational front line airfield.

With the invasion of North Africa dominating the European theatre, a build up of military might would see many of Britain’s airfields taken over and utilised for both men and machinery. A part of this build up was the arrival of the twin-engined units the: 47th, 310th, 319th and 320th BGs operating the North American B-25 Mitchell. The 310th BG initially arrived at RAF Hardwick, over September and into October, where they would continue their flying training before departing for North Africa. The 310th consisted of the usual four Bomb Squadrons: 379th, 380th, 381st and 428th BS, and it was whilst training at Hardwick that one of these squadrons, the 428th, would move across to Bungay. Their arrival here was no more than as a dispersed site, allowing for free movement of aircraft in the busy skies over this part of East Anglia. At the end of their short stay, they would rejoin the main Group and depart for the warmer climates of North Africa.

The next group to arrive was something considerably bigger but also posted from nearby RAF Hardwick, the 329th BS of the 93rd BG with their B24 Liberators. Known affectionately as ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus‘ (after the CO, Colonel Ted Timberlake), the 93rd BG earned their unique name as a result of their constant moving around, continuously being spread across, what must have seemed, the entire European and Mediterranean theatres of war. Often split between the two, rarely were the Group ever together for any length of time.

During this period UK-based units of the 93rd at Hardwick began transferring to the 2nd Bombardment Wing, where they began training for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th BS were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved here to Bungay. Once here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee‘ system and crews trained in its use. A remarkably accurate system of radio navigation, it was devised initially by Robert Dippy as a short-range aid for blind landings, but its success encouraged its development for a much greater use by the  Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Swanage.

RAF Bungay (Flixton)

The remains of Bungay’s NE-SW runway looking north-east.

Bungay was Initially planned to equip the 44th BG, but the 329th were chosen over them and within a very short time the crews were ready, and ‘Moling’ mission could now begin. Designed as a ‘blind bombing’ utility, and because of fears of the system falling into enemy hands, heavy cloud cover was needed for operations to go ahead. Such conditions occurred early in 1943, on January 2nd, when four B-24s of the 329th set off from Bungay for the Ruhr. Unfortunately, as they neared the target, the cloud cover broke and the flight was exposed. This exposure prevented Gee from being used as it was intended, and the aircraft returned both without bombing and without using their Gee successfully. The weather again proved to be the Achilles heel in the planning on both the 11th and 13th January, when similar conditions were experienced and again all aircraft returned without bombing. These erratic weather conditions carried on well into March, the last attempt being made on the 28th, after which it was decided to abandon the idea, and ‘Moling’ operations were cancelled.

It was not a complete disaster for the 329th though, the experience of flying over occupied territory and using blind bombing equipment, meant they were able to transfer to a new Pathfinder role, now skilled in equipment not known about in other units of the USAAF.

At the end of these trials, and in the absence of her sister squadrons, the 329th joined up with the 44th BG in a move that led to their imminent departure from Bungay.

Following their departure, the work on Bungay’s construction continued. Built to Class A specifications, it would have three concrete, tarmac and wood chip runways intersecting to form the ‘A’ frame. Thirty-six frying pan and fourteen spectacle hardstands provided dispersed aircraft accommodation and two T2 hangars provided covered space for maintenance and repairs. The main technical area lay to the west of the airfield, the bomb store to the east and the main administration site (site 2) across the road to the west. As a dispersed site, many of its accommodation areas would be hidden amongst the trees beyond here. Linked by a maze of footpaths and small roadways, there were two communal sites (sites 3 and 4), seven officer and other ranks sites, a WAAF site, a sewage works and a sick quarters. In all it could accommodate around 3,000 men and women of mixed rank. Updating of the watch office included the addition of a Uni Seco control room (5966/43) by anchoring it to the roof of the already built observation room. By late autumn 1943, it was completed and the site was handed over to the 446th BG (H), Bungay’s most prominent resident, who would become known as  “The Bungay Buckaroos”.

Their arrival here commenced on 4th November 1943, with four squadrons of B-24s – the 704th, 705th, 706th and 707th – all of which formed the larger 20th Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division, Eighth Air Force. The remainder of this wing included those of Hardwick’s 93rd BG and Seething’s 448th BG.

The 446th’s journey took the ground echelons from Arizona, to Colorado and onto Bungay via the Queen Mary,  and the air echelons the southern air route via Brazil and Marrakesh. Under the command of Colonel Jacob J. Brogger, they would begin operations on the 16th December 1943. Throughout their term here the 446th would attack prestige targets including: U-boat installations, Bremen’s port, the chemical plants at Ludwigshafen, Berlin’s ball-bearing plants, the aero-engine works in Munich and the marshalling yards at Coblenz. In addition to these, the 446th would support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St.Lo, and drop supplies to the ground forces at both Nijmegen and in the snowy conditions of the Ardennes.

This remarkable list of strategic targets would begin with Bremen. The mission would see twenty-three heavy bomber groups along with a Pathfinder group drop over four thousand 500lb general purpose bombs and over ten thousand 100lb incendiary bombs. During the raid four B-17s would collide in mid-air and as for the 446th, they would not escape without loss. Two of their aircraft would crash, one of which, a Ford built B-24H-1-FO Liberator #42-7539, “Ye Old Thunder Mug“, would run out of fuel and crash near to its home airfield at Bungay.

The 446th would unusually send just one aircraft to Bremen four days later. This aircraft, a 704th BS Liberator, #42-7494 “Bumps Away” was hit by flak over Texel, one of the Dutch Wadden Islands. The strike sheered the tail turret sending the aircraft momentarily out of control. After the pilot (Second Lieutenant Thomas B. Long) stabilised the aircraft, it went on to complete its mission only to collide with another B-24 of the 392nd BG on its return journey. The collision sent the Liberator crashing into the North Sea killing all those on board*1.

Then on the 22nd, the 446th were sent back to Germany, this time Osnabruk. On this mission, B-24 #42-7611, another 704th BS Liberator thought to be ‘Silver Dollar‘, was hit by falling bombs from above. The aircraft fell from the sky killing eight of the crew with another two surviving, both being taken prisoner by the Germans. On board this aircraft was right waist Gunner Sergeant Walter B. Scurlock who had survived the crash landing in “Ye Old Thunder Mug” earlier that month on the 16th. It had been a difficult start for both Sgt. Scurlock and the 446th.

A B-24 of the 446th BG lands at a cold and frosty Bungay 24/12/44 (IWM FRE 6571)

January 1944 then took the men of the 446th to Kiel, but the cold and icy winter would be as much of an enemy to the group as the occupying German forces were a short distance across the sea. With several missions being curtailed during the month, those that did take place were prone to their own problems. On the 7th, the Bomb Group was unable to rendezvous with the 392nd and returned without bombing; on the 11th, the mission to Brunswick was recalled, again due to the bad weather. Following a Noball mission to St. Pierre-des-Jonquies on the 14th, the group were grounded for a week after yet more bad weather closed in. The continuing poor conditions prevented further immediate attacks,  but the 28th would see the weather ease and the start of four days of consecutive flights to Frankfurt, Brunswick and two further Noball targets.

February, March and April were much more conducive to flying activities but the weather still played its part in cancelled or aborted operations. As the lead up to D-Day began, breaks in the weather allowed for strategic targets to be hit, airfields and marshalling yards, along with yet more Noball targets.

April 22nd 1944 saw the USAAF’s Mission 311, a mission that would become notorious in the history of the Eighth Air Force. On this day, the Eighth would lose more aircraft to enemy infiltrators than at any other time in its wartime history. The mission was to attack the  marshalling yards at Hamm, which was considered a highly important strategic communications target, especially in the lead up to the allied invasion of Normandy. Hamm was especially chosen as it was said to be capable of dealing with up to 10,000 railways wagons a day, making it the busiest marshalling yard in Germany, and a prime target for the heavy bombers of the Allied forces.

On that particular day, over 800 bombers, a mix of B-17s and B-24s, were ordered to attack in three waves, each with its own designated target. The bombers were to take off from their respective bases between 17:50 and 18:21, but even before the stream arrived over the target, Bungay would bear witness to what was about to happen that night.

In part two we shall see what happened on the night of April 22nd and how Bungay developed during the closing stages of the war and beyond.

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A Long Way From Home.

A guest post from Mitch Peeke.

June 19th, 1944: Just thirteen days after the Allied D Day Invasion. The weather that day was dry, but the late afternoon sunshine over Kent in Southern England was hazy. A formation of around 30 American B17 “Flying Fortress” bombers from the 379th BG, part of “The Mighty Eighth”, were returning home across the Kent countryside, heading due North, toward their base at Kimbolton, in Huntingdonshire. They were returning from a raid on the V1 launching site at Zudausques in Northern France.

The raiders had taken some Flak, but thankfully, no German fighters had found them. They were doubtlessly busy elsewhere, trying to stem the Allied advances. But the Flak they had encountered had been accurate and had exacted a price from the 379th for their raid. Many of those B17’s were now badly damaged and flying home on three engines rather than four. More of them than not, now had “extra ventilation”, courtesy of the German Flak Gunners, and were trailing heavy smoke from those engines that remained running. However, the B17 was known to be “a good ship”. Inherently stable, it was a remarkable aircraft for its size, able to withstand a hell of a lot of battle damage and still be capable of flying. Many a pilot had been able to “nurse” one home, despite the odds. The crews all had faith in their aircraft. It was a faith that was born from hard experience in hostile skies.

The formation crossed the South coast of England at 21,000 feet. Leading the No. 2 Section was B17 Heavenly Body II, of the 525th Squadron, Captained by 1st Lieutenant Lloyd Burns. A veteran crew, this had been their 29th mission over enemy territory. Just one more mission and the crew would have completed their tour and then they’d be going home, Stateside. The D Day Invasion had of course been keeping them busy. This mission to the V1 site at Zudausques had been their second mission of the day.

Lloyd Burns was an exceptional pilot with an enviable reputation for pulling off the smoothest of landings under any circumstances. The original Heavenly Body had been written off quite recently when the brakes failed on landing. Not even Burns could prevent that aircraft from being a runaway and as the heavy B17 simply ran out of airfield space, she rolled off the end of the runway, down a small hill and straight into a pile of scrap concrete rubble. Miraculously, Burns and his entire crew walked away from that landing. They got a new aircraft and quickly named her Heavenly Body II. (In fact, there were at least 4 other US aircraft named Heavenly Body. Two B29’s, another B17 of the 401st Squadron and at least one B25, all of which had a pin-up girl as nose art). This was now their third mission in the replacement aircraft and although they’d not yet had the time to paint the name and art on the bomber’s nose, the crew had happily settled in to their new ship.

Just after the formation crossed the South coast, Lloyd Burns swapped seats with his co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Fred Kauffman. Fred was hoping to get a ship of his own after they completed their tour and had asked Lloyd if he could take over for the descent and landing, as he wanted more 1st pilot experience. Lloyd saw no reason not to. Now as the formation was beginning the let down toward Kimbolton, they gradually lost their height over Kent.

At nearly 18:15, the formation was almost over Allhallows and down to 17,000 feet. Ahead of them, left to right, was the Thames Estuary; even busier than usual, with all sorts of shipping, due in no small part to the D Day invasion traffic.

At 17,000 feet, the haze grew thicker. Fred Kauffman was beginning to work hard for his 1st pilot experience. He was having to fly more by instruments as the visibility forwards was down to about 1,000 yards and the horizon was beginning to disappear into the miasma, though to the airmen flying through it, it didn’t seem to be too bad at that moment.

Flying above and slightly behind Burns’ aircraft, was his Port Side Wingman. This B17  bore the serial number 44-6133, but  no name. The pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti and he was in trouble. This was his first combat mission and his B17 had been very badly damaged by the German Flak. He’d been nursing her along since leaving France behind. He’d already lost one engine, his Port elevator and a fair piece of the Starboard one had also been blown away and he had another engine on the Port side smoking heavily and running rough. Now, that engine was making an unbearably loud whining noise, looking and sounding as if it was about to seize up too. Jockeying the throttles on his remaining engines, Ramacitti was trying to compensate for the dropping power, but the flight controls were growing sloppy and with the Port elevator gone, maintaining the crippled bomber’s height was getting harder by the minute. She was beginning to give up the unequal struggle to stay in the air.

Ramacitti’s Bombardier, 2nd Lieutenant Theodore Chronopolos, saw that having surged slightly ahead of their leader, they were now dropping back, out of formation. He called Ramacitti on the intercom, warning him to pull up, as they were now dropping very close to Heavenly Body II. Ramacitti was desperately wrestling with the dying bomber’s controls, trying to claw back some height, but it was a losing battle. Without warning, 6133 side-slipped sickeningly to Starboard, literally dropping out of Ramacitti’s hands. Chronopolos frantically buckled on his parachute, as did the Navigator, for both men now knew with absolute certainty, what was coming next.

6133’s side-slip cut across the top of Burns’ aircraft at an angle of about 35 degrees. Engine bellowing, the Starboard outer prop cut into the top of Heavenly Body II‘s flight deck, right behind the Pilot’s window, killing Fred Kauffman instantly. The two aircraft momentarily locked together in a deadly embrace.

Theo Chronopolos knew they’d hit Burns’ aircraft. All he’d heard was a very loud, sharp bang and a terrible rending sound, as the two aircraft collided. He and the Navigator went straight for the nearest escape hatch. The Flight Engineer and a couple of the Gunners were already there, but the hatch was totally jammed. Just then, 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and inverted. Thrown about inside the aircraft like a small toy, Theo didn’t know what happened next. He recalled hearing another big bang, then he blacked out.

The momentum of 6133’s continuing side-slip had separated the two planes. As 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and then inverted, her Flak-battered Port wing now sheared off completely, which was probably the second bang that Theo Chronopolos had heard. As the wing came off, 6133 started to spin, pointing her nose straight down and plunging headlong toward the muddy waters of the Thames Estuary below.

When Theo came to, he was free-falling outside of the aircraft. Instinctively, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute, which thankfully deployed. As his descent rapidly slowed, he saw a B17 going down below him, its death-plunge marked by a thick trail of black smoke. Then shock set in and he blacked out again. Unbeknown to Theo, he was the only one who’d got out of 6133 alive.

Literally moments before, on Heavenly Body II, Lloyd Burns suddenly realised that something was horribly wrong. He was about to reach over behind Fred to pull back the curtain. He wanted to see if their rookie wingman, Ramacitti, was keeping with them, when a terrible grinding noise to his left made him duck down instinctively. The daylight through the left side windows was blocked momentarily and he felt the aircraft shudder viciously. He realised in that instant that they’d been hit by another B17, which seemed to him, to be on top of them. Then as 6133 slid off the top, he looked over at Fred. Lloyd was in no doubt at all that Fred was now dead. The first thing Lloyd tried to do was to somehow stabilise the aircraft. Grabbing the controls, he found  the ailerons completely unresponsive and he got next to no feedback from the elevators. This was not surprising as the B17’s control cables ran centrally along the top of the fuselage. 6133’s prop had undoubtedly chopped through them. Heavenly Body II was still flying as she’d been trimmed, just; but for how much longer was the question.

Lloyd noticed that the Flight Engineer was at the escape hatch, trying to open it. Realising that he’d no hope of flying the plane, Lloyd quickly reached for where his parachute was stowed, but couldn’t find it. As he climbed off the flight deck, one of the crew thrust a chute into his hands and he hurriedly strapped it on; only partially as it turned out. He assisted the Engineer in forcing the escape hatch open then literally shoved him through it, as he immediately followed the Engineer himself. As his parachute opened, Lloyd realised he was only half in the harness. Hanging on for dear life, he saw a B17 going down in a steep turn with one engine smoking badly, but was unsure which of the two aircraft it was.

The Bombardier on Burns’ aircraft, Jack Gray, later recalled that the bomber’s Plexiglas nose had been all but severed and he suddenly found himself seemingly more outside of the aircraft than inside it. Jack pulled himself back in and went for his parachute.

Heavenly Body II continued flying, though steadily losing height, even though there was only the dead co-pilot at the now useless controls. Six of her crew managed to safely escape. The Ball Turret Gunner, S/Sgt William Farmer, was one of the last to leave, noting that the aircraft looked like it was coming apart. He needed no second telling to get out and fast.

The six crew members that managed to escape were: Pilot Lloyd Burns, Bombardier Jack Gray, Top Turret Gunner Leonard Gibbs, Ball Turret Gunner William Farmer, Tail Gunner Richard Andrews and Radio Operator/Gunner Leroy Monk. All but one of those six landed in the water and were rescued by fishing boats. Tail Gunner Richard Andrews came down on dry land at Canvey. The three men who didn’t make it were: Co-pilot Fred Kauffman, Navigator Edward  Sadler and Gunner Louis Schulte.

6133 meanwhile, had gone straight down and crashed in twenty feet of water, in what was then a minefield, about half a mile or so off the west beach at Allhallows. The Estuary bottom was and still is, soft Thames mud and the main part of the wreck undoubtedly buried itself to some extent in the mud. (What remained of the wreckage was later salvaged, probably when the minefield was cleared). She had taken most of her crew with her, trapped inside.

Sole survivor Theo Chronopolos, landed safely by parachute. He was fished out of the water by a passing  boat. The eight men of 6133’s crew who died that day were: Pilot 2nd Lt. Armand Ramacitti, Co-pilot 2nd Lt. William Hager, Navigator 2nd Lt. Donald Watson, Gunner S/Sgt. Richard Ritter, Gunner S/Sgt. Cecil Tognazzini, Gunner S/Sgt. John  Burke, Gunner Sgt. Warren Oaks and Gunner Cpl. Paul Haynes.

Meanwhile, having been abandoned by her crew, Heavenly Body II continued flying, somewhat erratically and losing height all the time. At first, she’d turned west and seemed to be heading directly toward the oil storage tanks at ShellHaven on Canvey Island. To those watching on the ground, a disaster seemed inevitable, then; still losing height, she miraculously turned east, away from the refinery, over the town, toward Canvey Point and the mudflats. It seemed as though the pilot was still trying to find somewhere safe to put her down. She then circled once over Canvey Point before she  finally nose-dived onto the mudflats, throwing an engine forward as she crashed.

To this day, those who can remember the event have always held the pilot of that aircraft in high esteem. Trouble was, the pilot was at that moment, just landing in the water off Canvey Island by parachute! Did Fred Kauffman not die in the collision after all? Had he somehow survived his injuries, regained consciousness and taken control of the shattered aircraft? Unlikely. Burns had tried to take control just after the collision and found the controls unresponsive. It is also extremely unlikely that Fred could have come round from such traumatic head injuries as he’d received when 6133’s Starboard outer prop cut through the roof and side of the Flight deck.

The answer probably has more to do with the B17’s inherent stability. With the nose section totally open and the escape hatches gone, the sheer force of the through-rushing air was probably responsible for the apparent “steering” of the aircraft. Also of course is the fact that, though a stable design, the aircraft was literally coming apart in flight. Who knows precisely how the aerodynamics were working, but one thing is certain, she was not being actively piloted.

The semi-submerged wreckage of Heavenly Body II remained on the mudflats for decades. Every so often, the tides would uncover more of it and bury other sections. The wreck was easily accessible and so subjected to many souveniring expeditions. A local historical society salvaged some of it and put it on display in a museum, until it closed. The thrown engine was salvaged fairly recently and together with some other artefacts, is now on display at another local museum. There is also a storyboard on the seafront close to the crash site at Canvey Point and a memorial plaque, dedicated to the memory of both crews. Sadly, there is nothing of the kind at Allhallows, where 6133 crashed.

Most of the bodies, including Ramacitti’s, were recovered; some at the time, some a little later, and are interred in the American Cemetery at Madingley, Cambridge; a long way from home. One body was later sent home. The body of Gunner Louis Schulte from 6133 now rests at home in a cemetery in St. Louis. Only two are still unaccounted for: Fred Kauffman, Co-pilot of Heavenly Body II and Gunner Cecil Tognazzini from 6133, both of whom are listed on the tablets of the missing at Madingley. Their last resting places are very probably in the soft Thames mud that their aircraft crashed in. They too, are a long way from home.

The US Military Authorities naturally held an inquiry into the crashes. It was chaired by  Lieutenant-Colonel Robert S Kittel of the United States Army Air Corps. The Pilots and Co-pilots of both aircraft were charged to account. At the end of the inquiry, the official findings were that 2nd Lieutenant Armand J Ramacitti had failed to keep proper position within the formation. In trying to correct this, he had over-controlled, slid into and collided with, aircraft 42-97942 (Heavenly Body II) which was leading the second section of the formation. It was further stated that “No pecuniary or disciplinary action is contemplated”.

Comment from Mitch.

Personally, I cannot help but feel that this was a “cop out” and an extremely harsh outcome for the enquiry to have reached, to say the least.  Given the actual circumstances involved, simply blaming the collision on Pilot error seems to me to be grossly unjust. Some of the deceased crew members were awarded posthumous decorations, as indeed was Ramacitti. In my opinion though, Armand Ramacitti deserved far better than the enquiry board’s sanctimonious posthumous censure, their apparent “favour”of no official punishment and the award of what certainly looks to me to have been a “token” Purple Heart. He’d given his young life, on his first combat mission, desperately trying to get his Flak-blasted aircraft back to base; as had seven others of his equally meritorious crew, all of whom will remain forever, a long way from home.

My thanks go to Mitch for allowing me to post his write-up, it was a tragic accident that may or may not have been avoidable. Whatever the cause, I personally feel that the pilot was struggling with an aircraft that was unstable, difficult to control and likely to fall out of the sky at any moment. The fact that the aircraft had gotten as far as it had was a miracle in itself and those who lost their lives should be remembered for what they did and the sacrifice they made. To even consider that the pilot(s) were to blame for what happened to me is a travesty, they were young men fighting a war that was taking the lives of thousands.

Mitch is currently trying to have a memorial or plaque raised as close to the crash site as possible, I sincerely hope he achieves that aim and that these men are remembered in perpetuity.

Post Script.

B-17  #44-6133 was a Douglas/Long Beach B-17G-45-DL Flying Fortress delivered to Tulsa airbase, Oklahoma, May 10th, 1944. It was transferred to Hunter airbase, Savannah, Georgia, on May 19th, 1944, and then onto Dow Field on May 29th, 1944. She was assigned to the 525th BS, 379th BG as ‘FR-Y’at Kimbolton Jun 8th, 1944. The crew of #44-6133 were:

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

#42-97942 was a Lockheed/Vega B-17G-40-VE Flying Fortress delivered to Denver on April 11th, 1944. She then went onto Kearney air base in Nebraska on May 4th, 1944, before transferring also to Dow Field May 23rd, 1944. She was then assigned to 525th BS,  379th BG at Kimbolton as ‘FR-K’. The crew of #42-97942 were:

Pilot: First Lieutenant Lloyd Burns (just 19 years of age)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Jack Gray
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Technical Sergeant Leonard Gibbs
Radio Operator: Technical Sergeant Leroy Monk
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant William ‘Bill’ Farmer
Waist gunner: Staff Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Andrews
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant Fred Kauffman
Navigator: Flight Officer Edward Sadler
Tail gunner: Staff Sergeant Louis Schulte

Mitch is the author of a number of books including “1940 – The Battle to Stop Hitler“the proceeds of which go to help the preservation of the Medway Queen a ‘little ship’ used in the Dunkirk evacuations.

Further reading and sources:

www.canveyisland.org

www.379thbga.org

www.americanairmuseum.com

www.8thafhs.com

MACR 6984

MACR 6983

RAF Waterbeach – Stirlings to Lancasters (Part 2).

In Part 1 we saw how Waterbeach was built. How the Conversion Units were created in response to the demands of Bomber Command and how crews were being  trained in old and war weary aircraft. In this next part we see how the station transitioned from the Stirling to the Lancaster and how Waterbeach’s squadrons fared with the aerial war.

Training exercises in old and worn aircraft were often the cause of mishaps, accidents and tragedies, and as was seen in other training squadrons, the casualty rates were sometimes high. One of the first accidents for 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) at Waterbeach was caused by a malfunction in the extractor controls of N3642 which was being flown solo at the time by Sgt. K. Richards. The damage to the aircraft was so severe that it was downgraded being used as an instructional airframe only. Thankfully Sgt. Richards was unhurt in the incident and went on to fly with a new operational squadron later on.

Several more incidents in the following months led to further badly damaged aircraft, but the first fatalities came on the evening of June 16th 1942 when Stirling N6088 ‘LS-X’ flown by 24-year-old New Zealander F/O. Milan Scansie (s/n: 411491) was seen to fall from the sky over Nottingham with its port wing in flames and parts falling away. The entire crew died as a result of the accident, the cause of which has not yet been verified. The Stirling they were flying, was a veteran of European Operations, it had flown for nearly 250 hours and in twenty-two operational sorties, a remarkable achievement for a Stirling!

Bombing-up a Stirling of No 1651 CU/HCU  Waterbeach, Cambridgeshire, 30 April 1942.© IWM (CH 5474)

Gaining operational experience was one of the most valuable tasks the trainee crews could undertake, and there was no ‘softly, softly’ approaches for the Conversion Units. The first 1,000 bomber raid to Cologne required every available aircraft and the Conversion Units were called upon to provide some of these aircraft.  In June 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the first operational aircraft casualty would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. Another factor that made this loss so great was the fact that not only did all seven crewmen lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had international caps for the England rugby team.

Born in 1909, Booth is one of sixteen boys from the Malsis School, who is commemorated on the Chapel’s stained glass window. After playing his debut match against Wales, his career ended in a game against Scotland at Murrayfield. In-between these games he achieved seven international caps for England scoring three tries.

The following July and August were to see the start of a catalogue of accidents and operational losses that would reflect not only the poor quality of the machines that trainees were expected to fly, but the disadvantages that the Stirling became famous for. The night of July 28th/29th being one of the worst with the loss of four aircraft in a mission to Hamburg, followed on the 30th by a further loss of an aircraft whilst on a training flight. In two nights alone, twenty-four airmen had lost their lives with a further one being injured and four taken prisoner.

Waterbeach would prove to be a safe haven again on the night of August 10th/11th 1942, when aircraft sent to drop SOE troops at zones ‘Giles‘ and ‘John‘ found their home base at Fairford fog-bound. Spread far and wide the sight of Waterbeach’s runway must have been a very welcome sight indeed.

In the early days of October 1942, on the 7th, the two flights, 214 and 15 Squadron Conversion Flights were amalgamated fully into 1651 Conversion Unit raising the number of personnel to over 1,000. This change would mean that 1651 would now be designated 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) allowing for the first time, flight engineers and second air gunners to join the crews. Training would then continue, some of it for only a matter of a few weeks, as would more losses.

Whilst the transition between Conversion and Heavy Conversion Unit went smoothly, the 2nd and 18th saw two more training accidents. Whilst both incidents only involved one crewman – the pilot – both accidents involved the aircraft developing a swing that became uncontrollable – the resultant crash leaving both aircraft severely damaged.

1942 turned to 1943, and by the end of the year 1651 HCU would eventually depart Waterbeach. With a further small number of training accidents, some due to the aircraft swinging, some due to mechanical failures, others were due to forces outside of the control of Waterbeach crews.

On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, a Lancaster from 97 Squadron from RAF Bourn was diverted to land at Waterbeach. On landing, the aircraft overshot the runway colliding with Stirling MK.I  (BF393), wrecking both aircraft. Of the seven aircrew in the Lancaster, the pilot Sgt. Anthony Reilly (s/n: 1005145) was killed with a further three injured, thankfully there were no injures associated with the parked Stirling.

May would also see an increase of the numbers of Heavy Conversion Units at Waterbeach, but inadequate planning meant that this unit was spread across three separate airfields, a situation that proved too much and so within a month, they were all moved to RAF Woolfox Lodge. This short interlude by 1665 HCU played no major part in Waterbeach’s history.

The last 1651 HCU  accident occurred at Waterbeach on October 27th 1943 when Stirling N3704 piloted by F/O. K Becroft DFC, another New Zealander, and F/S. F Burrows, an Australian, landed with its undercarriage still retracted. Neither airmen were hurt in the accident, but it was F/O Becroft’s third accident in a Stirling in the last year. Whilst no further accidents were to occur at Waterbeach, a 1651 HCU aircraft did have the misfortune to crash-land at RAF Witchford a few miles away, after suffering brake failure, on the last day of the month.

November 1943 would bring further changes to Waterbeach as 1651 CU pulled out, moving to Wratting Common to allow room for the new radial engined version of the famous Lancaster bomber – the Lancaster MK.II of 514 Squadron and her associated Conversion Unit 1678 HCU. This move was in response to a reorganisation of No. 3 Group, the whole process of transferring taking a mere few days, primarily by road.

514 were formed on 1st September 1943, and 1678 HCU on the 16th September, both whilst at Foulsham (under the control of No.3 Group) and would go on to specialise in blind bombing techniques. Like many of Bomber Command’s Squadrons, 514 Sqn would draw their crews from a broad spectrum of the Commonwealth countries, giving it a real multi-national feel.

The squadrons first mission took place on the night of November 26th/27th and it would be to the German heartland, and Berlin. This would be their second trip into the Lions den in three days and would see eight aircraft  leave Waterbeach each carrying 4,000lb bombs and a wide range of incendiaries. Leaving between 17:45 and 17:55, they would arrive over the target at around 21:30 dropping their bombs from a height of between 20,000 and 21,000 feet. Large fires were seen from the bomber stream, some crews saying from 100 miles away, indicating that the city was “well alight”. On this mission, one aircraft returned at 19:28 with engine problems jettisoning its bombs before returning and another was reported ‘missing’ over the target area. It was later found that the aircraft was shot down over Germendorf killing all on board. Lancaster MK.II (DS814) ‘JI-M’ was piloted by twenty-one year old Canadian F/O. Maurice R. Cantin (RCAF).

RAF Waterbeach

The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.

It was during this period of the war that the Stirling was withdrawn from front line operations, its losses far outweighing its benefits. From this point on no further action over Germany would include the Stirling, and the hunters now focused on the Halifaxes and Lancasters. On this night alone over 40 Lancasters were lost (either over the target or crashing in England) with the majority of the crews being killed. This would prove to be one of the most devastating raids of Berlin causing extensive damage, loss of life and casualties.

The terrible winter of 1943/44 made operational flying very difficult. Ice was a problem as was thick cloud over the target area. With numerous bombing missions taking place, many to Berlin again, Harris’s desire to destroy the German Capital was proving difficult. Whilst many front line squadrons were suffering high casualties, for 514 Sqn, losses would be light.

The first loss of 1944 would not occur until January 14th/15th in a raid to Brunswick. During this night two Lancasters would be lost, that of LL679 ‘JI-J2’ and LL685 ‘JI-G2’ with the loss of fourteen airmen. For a raid that cost thirty-eight Lancasters, equivalent to 7.6% of the force, it provided very disappointing results, many of the bombs falling on open countryside or in the suburbs of the city.

Berlin would be hit hard during January. Over almost three consecutive nights, 27th-31st Lancasters would strike at the heart of the Reich, 514 Sqn losing  no aircraft in their part even though nineteen aircraft would participate in the mission. Of those nineteen, four would not get off the ground and one would return early.

February 1944 was a big month for both the RAF and USAAF as more combined operations began against the aircraft production and supply facilities. On the 19th/20th, Leipzig was hit by 823 aircraft of which 561 were Lancasters. 514 Sqn would lose three aircraft that night: DS736 ‘JI-D2’, piloted by F/S. Norman Hall, DS823 ‘J1-M’ piloted by F/S. Walter Henry and LL681 ‘JI-J’ piloted by F/L. Leonard Kingwell, there were no survivors from any of the three aircraft.

Schweinfurt ball bearing factories were once again targeted on the night of the 24th/25th, a foreboding target that had proven so disastrous for the USAAF in the previous October. Luckily for 514 Sqn though, losses were much lighter, with only one crew failing to return home.

As the summer arrived in England, so too did the invasion of continental Europe. May meant that the RAF’s bomber force would switch from the industrial targets of Germany to strategic bombing of defences, marshalling yards, communication lines and fortifications all along western France and in particular the Normandy area. Allied leaders stressed the importance of blocking a German reinforcements through the rail network, as a result, the entire system west of the Rhine became a target with Bomber Command being given the lion’s share to attack. Seventy-nine rail centres were chosen for the attacks, and by D-Day all those assigned to Bomber Command had received their attention.

On the days before the invasion the aircraft were painted with the well-known black and white invasion stripes, used to allow easy identification of allied aircraft by friendlies. On the early morning of June 6th, twenty-two 514 Sqn aircraft set off to attack fortifications at  Ouistreham, the port at the mouth of the Canal de Caen à la Mer, the canal that serves Caen found on the eastern flank of the allied beachhead area.

RAF Waterbeach

The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.

Considering that the June raids set new records for the number of Bomber Command raids, 514 Sqn suffered no casualties. The first coming in the days after when two Lancasters (DS822) ‘JI-T’ and (LL727)  ‘JI-C2’ were lost over France. With a loss of four, the remainder of the two crews were either captured or managed to escape.

By June 1944 the need for the HCU had diminished, crews no longer needing the training to transfer to heavy bombers, and so 1678 HCU was disbanded in the usual grand style that was becoming famous in RAF circles.

It was also at this time, mid June, that 514 Sqn began to replace it MK.II Lancasters with the more famous Merlin engined MK.I and IIIs. The change itself didn’t herald a significant change in operations, now dogged by bad weather the constant cancellation of missions began to affect morale as crews were stood down often at a moments notice. The poor weather continued for most of the summer, what operations did take place were in support of the Allied forces as they advanced through France. Harris remained under the control of Eisenhower and so the focus of attacks continued to be Western France and German supply lines to the invasion area.

July into August saw a return to Germany for the bombers, a new experience for many crews of Bomber Command. By the October, raids were now being carried out in daylight hours. The first enemy jet aircraft were encountered and morale was high. However, the year would not end quietly.

December 29th 1944 was a hazy day with severe frost, fourteen aircraft were allocated for operations whilst H2S and G.H. training was provided for the non-operational crews. Out on the dispersal, the operational aircraft were being loaded with their bombs and prepared for the forthcoming flight, when suddenly one of the bombs being loaded on to Lancaster (PD325) ‘JI-L2’ fell and exploded. The explosion completely destroyed the aircraft and severely damaged seven others including NG141 which was parked alongside. The blast, heard as far away as Mildenhall, had repercussions across the airfield damaging windows and sending aircraft parts far and wide. Nine members of the ground crew attending to the aircraft also died, some simply ‘disappeared’ as did a tractor along with its portable generator. Following the incident, which was thought to have been caused by an ‘old stock’ bomb, the Station Commander cancelled operations for the day, partly in case time-delayed bombs exploded. To clear them and make the area safe, bomb disposal teams were brought in to remove those that were left remaining in the aircraft’s bomb bays.

1945 brought good fortune as the war came to an end. ‘Manna’ operations became the order of the day along with ‘Exodus’ flights bringing POWs back home for their captive camps across the continent. Slowly flights were wound down and on August 22nd 1945, 514 Squadron was disbanded at Waterbeach. Whilst they had been here, 514 Sqn had lost sixty-six aircraft on operational missions with the loss of over 400 aircrew, some of whom are buried in the neighbouring Cemetery at Waterbeach.

Thus ended the wartime exploits of RAF Waterbeach, despite crews leaving and the aircraft being taken away, Waterbeach’s wartime legacy would go on, strongly embedded in Britain’s aviation history. The peace would not last long though, for within a month a new era would dawn, a new aircraft type would arrive and Waterbeach would begin to see a change in operational flying take place.

In the final part of this trail we see how Waterbeach entered a new age of flying and how its wartime legacy was carried on through the front line fighters of the RAF as the jet age arrived.

 

RAF Waterbeach – Birth of the Conversion Units (Part 1).

In Trail 11, we visit three airfields all within a stones throw of each other, and all situated around Britain’s third smallest city Ely, in Cambridgeshire. They were all once major airfields belonging to the RAF’s Bomber Command. Post war, two of the three went on to be major Cold War stations, one housing the Thor Missile, whilst the second housed the fast jets of the RAF’s front line of defence. It is this one we visit in the final part of this Trail. It is also one whose days are numbered, already closed and earmarked for development, the bulldozers are knocking at the door whilst the final plans are agreed and development can begin. But this development may not be the total clearing of the site it often is. With plans to integrate parts of this historical site into the development, it is aimed to create a living and working space that reflects it significant historical value. Today, in the final part of Trail 11, we visit the former station RAF Waterbeach.

RAF Waterbeach.

The land on which Waterbeach airfield stands has a history of its own, with royal connections going back as far as the 12th Century. Eventually divided up into farms, one of which, Winfold Farm, stood at the centre, the area would be developed into a long-term military base.

RAF Waterbeach would have a long career, one that extended well into the Cold War and beyond. It would be home to no less than twenty-two operational front line squadrons from both Bomber Command and Fighter Command, along with a further five Conversion Units. With only six of these units (3 front line and 3 Conversion Units) operating during the Second World War, the majority would be post-war squadrons, three being reformed here and eleven being disbanded here. This range of squadrons would bring with them a wide range of aircraft from Dakotas and Wellingtons through the four engined heavies the Stirling, Lancaster and B-24 Liberator, and onto the single and two seat jets, the Meteor, Hunter and Javelin, who would all grace the skies over this once famous airfield.

Originally identified as a possible site in the late 1930s, the land was purchased by the Government with development beginning in 1939. The farm at its centre was demolished and the surrounding fields dug up and prepared for the forthcoming heavy bombers of Bomber Command. As with many airfield developments, there was local opposition to the idea, partly as it occupied valuable Fen farmland with a farm at its centre.

In the early years of the war, it was found that heavy aircraft, bombers in particular, were struggling to use the grassed surfaces originally constructed on pre-war airfields. The rather ridiculous test of taxing a laden Whitley bomber across the site to test the ground’s strength would soon be obsolete, and so after much internal wrangling, hard runways were eventually agreed upon which would be built into all bomber and some fighter stations from that point forward*1.

As an airfield built at the end of the expansion period and into the beginning of the war, Waterbeach would be one of those stations whose runways were hard from the start; a concrete base covered with tarmac to the soon to be standard 2,000 and 1,400 yards in length. By the end of 1945, there would be 35 heavy bomber hardstands of the ‘frying pan’ style and a further three of the spectacle style, all supporting a wide range of aircraft types well into the cold war.

Waterbeach would develop into a major airfield, capable of housing in excess of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender, dispersed as was now common, over seven sites to the south-eastern corner of the airfield. The bomb store was located well away to the north of the airfield, but surprisingly close to the main public road that passed alongside the western boundary of the site.

Being a bomber base, there would be a wide range of ancillary and support buildings, including initially, two J type hangars, followed by three T2s and a B1. The site was considered by its new occupants as ‘luxurious’ and compared to many other similar airfields of that time, it certainly was. This opinion was not formed however, when it opened on January 1st 1941, as it was in a state that was nowhere near completion. The official records show that along with Group Captain S. Park (Station Commander) were the Sqn. Ldr. for Admin  (Sqn. Ldr. F Carpenter), Station Adjutant (Flt. Lt. H. Daves) and Sqn. Ldr. J. Kains (Senior Medical Officer) who were joined  by various other administrative officers, Senior NCOs and 157 corporals and Airmen. They found the majority of buildings incomplete, the runways and dispersals still being built and the site generally very muddy. The cook house was ‘adequate’ for the needs of the few who were there, but the sergeants mess could not be occupied for at least another five to six weeks.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ Hangar seen from the public road at Waterbeach.

As occurred with many airfields at this time, the first personnel to arrive took up the task of completing many aspects of the outstanding work themselves, laying concrete, installing fixings and preparing accommodation blocks for the forthcoming arrivals.

During these early years of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe targeted Britain’s Fighter airfields as a way of smashing the RAF before the German planned invasion could take place. Whilst this policy failed, attacks on RAF airfields were continued, becoming more ‘nuisance’ attacks or small raids, in which airfields beyond the reaches of Kent and London were also targeted. Waterbeach itself was subjected to these nuisance attacks on two occasions between the New Year December 1940 and February 1941. During these, some minor damage was done to the site (hangars, aprons and a runway) and there was one fatality.

These early days of 1941 would be a busy time for the personnel at Waterbeach, further attacks intermixed with flying activities kept them alert and on their feet. Being a large base, its runways would become safe havens for crippled or lost aircraft desperately trying to find a suitable site on which to put down. A number of aircraft used Waterbeach for such an activity, primarily Whitleys and Wellingtons, many being damaged and unable to reach their home bases further north in Yorkshire.

With changes in airfield command taking place a month after its opening, the first units to arrive were the Wellingtons of No. 99 Squadron RAF, in a move that was delayed by a further month in part due to the late completion of the construction work and also because of yet another nuisance attack by the Luftwaffe.

Whilst 99 Sqn were preparing to transfer to Waterbeach, operations would continue from their base at Newmarket Heath, bombing raids that took the Wellingtons to Breman, Gelsenkirchen, Dusseldorf, Duisburg and Cologne.

Once arriving here at Waterbeach, they found early missions, on both the 1st and 2nd of April 1941, being cancelled due to poor weather – training would therefore be the order of the day. The 3rd however, would be very different.  With revised orders coming through in the morning, thirteen aircraft would be required to attack the Battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau located in Brest harbour.

Whilst one of the aircraft allocated was forced to land at RAF St Eval in Cornwall due to icing, the remainder flew on completing the raid which was considered a “great success”. One crew, led by P/O. Dixon, carried out particularly daring diving attacks scoring direct hits on one of the two ships in question. Whilst no other hits were recorded by the Wellingtons, many bombs fell very close to the targets and it was thought some may have even struck one of the two ships.

With the squadron being stood down on the 5th April, there would be a return to flying on the 6th, with ten aircraft being allocated to a maximum effort mission returning to Brest and the two German ships. Taking off at 20:17, ten aircraft flew directly to the harbour and carried out their attacks, whilst a ‘freshman’ crew flew a diversionary mission elsewhere. Although all but one aircraft returned safely to base, one aircraft did have problems when its 4,000lb bomb fell off the mounts prematurely.

Flying the MK.I, MK.IC and MK.II Wellington, 99 Sqn would carry out further operations to Germany, and on one of these sorties on the night of April 9th/10th, eight aircraft were assigned to Berlin, two to Breman and a further two to Emden. One Wellington, R1440, piloted by P/O. Thomas Fairhurst (s/n 85673) crashed in the Ijsselmer near Vegesack, whilst the second, R3199 disappeared without trace after making a distress call. On the 30th, the Air Ministry informed Waterbeach that POW cards had been received from a German prison camp from four of the crew: S/L. D. Torrens, P/O. P. Goodwin, Sgt. A. Smith and Sgt. E. Berry. The remaining two crewmen were also taken prisoner but this was not confirmed until much later.

April was a difficult month for 99 Sqn, operations called for in the morning were often cancelled by the evening, those that went ahead were made more difficult by poor weather over the target area. Two positive events occurring during April did bring good news to the crews however. On the 15th, the King approved an award of the DFC to P/O. Michael Dixon (s/n: 86390) for his action in attacking the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau earlier on, and on the 22nd, the Inspector General of the RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt visited the station where he inspected various sections of the squadron, met the crews and discussed some of their recent operations with them. A nice end to what had been a difficult start at Waterbeach.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, sitting in his office at Headquarters Bomber Command, High Wycombe. © IWM (C 1013)

Throughout the summer months 99 Sqn would continue operations into Germany along with further attacks on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau docked at Brest. With further loses on May 5/6, May 8/9, June 11/12 , and June 21st with the loss of X9643 two miles from the airfield, losses would be relatively low. In a freak accident X9643 would be lost with all of her crew when the dingy became dislodged and fouled the elevators causing the aircraft to crash and burst in to flames.

Corporal C. P. Eva

Corporal C. P. Eva, killed 21st June 1941 when the dingy in his aircraft fouled the elevators.

The latter months of 1941 would see two conversion flights formed at Waterbeach. Designed to train crews on the new four engined bombers, the Stirling and latterly the Lancaster, 26 Conversion Flight was formed out of ‘C’ flight of 7 Sqn on 5th October with 106 Conversion Flight joining them in December. Both units flew the Stirling bomber and were amalgamated in January 1942 to form 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) (later 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU)). Flying a mix of Stirlings and later Lancasters, they also used a Beaufighter, Spitfire, Tiger Moth and Airspeed Oxford. 1651 CU were one of only three Conversion Units set up in early 1942, with 1651 being the only Stirling unit at this point; the other two units flying with the Halifax or Liberator aircraft.

By the end of 1941, 99 Sqn would suffer thirty-four aircraft lost (2 in non-operational accidents), with many of the crewmen being killed. Whilst these were tragic losses, they were nevertheless ‘in line’ with the majority of all 3 Group operational units of that year. In early 1942 the squadron was sent overseas to India, a move that coincided with the new arrivals at RAF Waterbeach of No. 215 Sqn.

215 Sqn were going through a process of reorganisation and transfer. On 21st February 1942, the air echelon formed at Waterbeach whilst the ground echelons were already on route to India from Stradishall. With more Wellington ICs, they would also depart for India a month later, where they would stay for the remainder of the war. Being only a brief stay, their departure left Waterbeach with only 1651 Conversion Unit and its associated units in situ.

Being a conversion unit, 1651’s aircraft were worn and often unserviceable, and in February 1942, they could only muster five flight worthy aircraft. As the need for more bomber crews grew, so too did the number of aircraft supplied to the Conversion Units, and as a result the number of crews undertaking training also grew. To help meet this demand, another new squadron was formed within 1651 CU in the April, that of 214 Squadron Conversion Flight. Another Flight was also formed at Alconbury and moved to join these two units, No. 15 Squadron Conversion Flight. The idea behind this unit was to provide aircrews with operational experience, an experience many would find hard to deal with.

In Part 2 we see how the Conversion Units were sent into battle, how they coped with the rigours of the aerial war over occupied Europe and then the change from Stirlings to the Lancaster.

 

“1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler” – Mitch Peeke

A book review.

This is a superbly written book that looks at the Battle of Britain through the life of the airmen who were primarily based at a now disused RAF station (RAF Gravesend) in Kent. Whilst being historically accurate throughout, it is not one of those books that is full of data, figures and graphs, more a book based on personal and general historical events. It deals well with the political climate in Europe post World War I, setting the scene for Hitler’s rise to power, and the lethargic way in which the Allies allowed him to achieve his ultimate goal. It looks at the political unrest at home, and how that shaped both a public and government totally unprepared for war.

Each of the first four chapters look at specific events that led to the declaration of war on September 3rd, 1939. It looks at how the Allied response to Poland’s invasion was belittled by the massive and hugely technologically advanced German forces, who cut through Belgium circumnavigating the Maginot line, forcing the BEF and French forces to a small pocket at Dunkirk. It then looks at the evacuation through the eyes of two small boats (one of which Mitch supports through his book sales) and those who sailed on her. By examining the infrastructure surrounding the evacuation, it adds a very personal touch to what was a massive undertaking, and one that the many other books, films and documentaries have failed to highlight.

After Dunkirk, Mitch examines the Battle of Britain as it occurred in the skies over Kent and London. Individual skirmishes, with details of those involved, add a very personal touch to the blow-by-blow account of the battle as it weaves its way to its ultimate ending.

It is clear from the references to the skirmishes that Mitch has carried out extensive and prolonged investigations into each one, even pinpointing in many cases the actual crash site of the aircraft. Added to this are the personal and eye-witness accounts which continue to keep the personal aspect very much at the front. As the battle draws to its conclusion, life in London’s city streets are revealed through events that are again backed up with eyewitness accounts and personal details. Some of these stories will make you laugh, the absurdity of ill-fitting fire hoses and the tenacity of the firemen to solve the problem whilst all around were in chaos, is just one incredible example. It also shows that how through it all, the people of Britain managed to keep smiling, still seeing the good in what was a terrible time.

Whilst the Battle of Britain officially ended on 31st of October, Mitch continues to tell the story as autumn turns to winter and as the Battle of Britain turned to the Blitz. The nightly bombing of British cities gave rise to some dark secrets and activities, but balanced with these are other more informal and light-hearted highlights, all of which add to pulling the reader into the atmosphere of 1940s Britain.

In summing up, Mitch analyses the flaws in the German strategic plan for attacking Britain. He looks at how poor decisions enabled Britain to refocus and rearm thus building her forces up to a strength that was far better than those that remained in the period immediately following Dunkirk.

He then reintroduces the characters that had appeared throughout the book informing the reader of their postwar lives, some of whom were his own family members and who witnessed first hand, the true horrors of war.

Throughout Mitch’s final chapters there is a glowing slant toward the people,  showing the true grit and resolve of the British people who ‘pulled together’, that has become synonymous with those dark days of 1940/41. But this is not a patriotic, ‘let’s wave the flag and tell the world how good we were’ book, it’s more a heartfelt look at a very decisive time in world history, one that could have been so very different if it were not for ‘the few’, their leaders and the British people who supported them.

As appendices, Mitch looks at one RAF Station in particular, RAF Gravesend, its history and what has happened to the site since its closure post war. Now long gone, it is one of the many airfields that were so important to Britain’s survival, yet nothing remains of it today. He also looks at the 15 brave airmen who lost their lives in 501 and 66(F) Sqns, their names now on a plaque on the wall of a leisure centre on what was the former entrance to the airfield. Reading their short biographies really brings home the tender age of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom.

I read this book in about two days, it’s easy, and compelling reading, very detailed and very personal. “1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler” is not about the Battle of Britain per se, but more a personal examination of the people who were involved in the two battles; Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain, and how their lives were interwoven in the summer of 1940. Light hearted in places, extremely moving in others, it adds another dimension to those famous battles, and I for one would most certainly recommend it.

1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler” by Mitch Peeke is available from Pen and Sword Books Limited. It is sadly only available in digital format and all the author’s royalties go to The Medway Queen Preservation Society, The Medway Queen being a survivor of the Dunkirk evacuation and featured in Mitch’s book.

1940: The Battles to Stop Hitler”  is available from Pen and Sword Books,  ISBN: 9781473858091, Published: 24th June 2015. https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/1940-The-Battles-to-Stop-Hitler-Kindle/p/11118

I would like to pass on my immense gratitude to Mitch for providing me with a copy of the book via publishers Pen and Sword Books.

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.

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’