RAF Downham Market (Part 2 – D-Day to the War’s End)

In Part 1 Downham was born, serving the Stirlings of Bomber Command before becoming part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force. A large airfield, it was often busy and as the war progressed toward D-Day, preparations began for operations over the invasion area.

On June 3rd 1944 Lancaster ND841 ‘F2-D‘ piloted by F/O. George. A. Young (s/n: 134149) RAFVR 635 Squadron, was detailed to attack Calais as part of the preparations for the forthcoming D-Day invasion. There would be eight other aircraft from RAF Downham Market also detailed for the mission, and take off would be late that evening.

The mission as a whole would involve 127 Lancasters and 8 Mosquitoes of 1, 3 and 8 Groups and the targets would be the gun batteries at both Calais and Wimerereux. It was a  diversionary raid as part of Operation “Fortitude South“, the elaborate plan to fool the Germans into believing the invasion would occur in the Pas-de-Calais region.

At 28 minutes past midnight, F/O. Young lined the Lancaster up on the runway, opened the throttles and began the long run. As the Lancaster approached take off, it began to swing striking the roof of the B1 Hangar. In an uncontrollable state the aircraft crashed just outside the airfield killing all those on board. What was left of the aircraft was salvaged, and three of the crew buried in the local cemetery in Downham Market.

Downham Market Cemetery

F.Sgt. Stanley Wharton (RAFVR) 635 Sqn. One of seven Killed 4th June 1944.

Two months later, another pilot of 635 Sqn, also flying a Lancaster III, ND811, ‘F2-T’, Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, would be awarded the second of Downham’s Victoria Crosses.

On August 4th 1944, flying Lancaster ‘T’ for Tommy, on a daylight raid to mark the V1 storage depot at Trossy St. Maximin, the aircraft was hit by flak knocking out both starboard engines and setting the aircraft on fire. Bazalgette pressed on, marked the target and then instructed the crew to bail out. Two of the crew were so badly injured they could not do so, and so Bazalgette attempted a crash landing. Unfortunately on impact with the ground the aircraft exploded, killing all three remaining crew members on board.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was also awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, announced the award, citing: “His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise“.

During that same month, August 1944, another squadron would appear here at Downham. Joining 635 Sqn were 608 Sqn, who had previously been operating abroad. They were reformed here on August 1st that year, also joining Bennett’s elite group. Another Mosquito squadron, they bolstered the number of aircraft and personnel present here at Downham. Flying the Mosquito XX, XXV and eventually XVI, they remained at Downham for a year whereupon they were once more disbanded. Whilst operating these aircraft, 608 Sqn would fly 1,726 operational sorties all as part of Bennett’s Pathfinder Force.

608 Sqn’s primary role was to carry out night strikes as part of the Pathfinder Operations focusing on the German heartland. Targets included: Berlin, Frankfurt, Hanover, Essen, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Emden and Kiel. Their first operational sortie from Downham was on the night of 5th/6th August 1944, when a single Mosquito took off and bombed Wanne-Eickel.

Then, a month later, on the night of 6th November 1944, twelve aircraft from 608 Sqn took off in a diversionary attack on targets at Gelsenkirchen. The idea was to draw defences away from a much larger force attacking both Gravenhorst and Koblenz. The plan was for 608 to begin their attack five minutes ahead of the other forces, a plan that went like clockwork.

The full story of Mosquito KB364, piloted by P.O. James McLean (26) and Sgt. Mervyn Lambert Tansley (21), appears in Heroic Tales, but this was to be their final, fatal flight.

On return, the aircraft careered into All Saints’ Church, Bawdeswell, some 30 miles north-east of the airfield, setting it alight. The impact was such that parts of the aircraft struck two other homes, causing extensive damage to both properties. The resultant fire took four hours to extinguish and included crews from other nearby airfields. In honour of the two airmen, a plaque manufactured from part of the Mosquito has been mounted on the church wall inside the building.

The Christmas period of 1944 was a busy one for Downham and for the FIDO operators. With freezing fog, snow and general poor weather causing many problems for those on the continent and for those on British soil attempting to take off, FIDO crews were going to be busy. FIDO primarily designed as a landing aid, also permitted take offs during poor visibility. However, getting to the runway was a challenge in itself. Often with visibility down to just feet, ground staff would line the perimeter tracks with torches to guide each aircraft safely along. Anyone who made a mistake took the risk of running off the perimeter track, sinking into the ground along side or worse.

By the dawn of 1945 the war in Europe was all but over. Operations began to focus on troop concentrations, possible German escape routes and harbours. Both 635 and 608 Sqns continued operational flying until the war’s end. In August and early September these last two operational squadrons at Downham Market were disbanded, 608 Sqn on August 24th and 635 Sqn on September 1st. This left Downham devoid of all front line units.

last raid - Kiel canal ground & air crew photo 2 May 1945 at Downham Market found by Brian Emsley, Welwyn G, father Edward Emsley far left httpwww.bbc.co.uknewseducation-32532153

A recently discovered photograph showing a D.H. Mosquito of Downham Market, taken on May 2nd 1945. It was taken just prior to the last mission undertaken by RAF aircraft on an attack on the Kiel Canal. It shows Ground & Aircrew next to their Mosquito and ‘Cookie’. It was found by Brian Emsley,  his father Edward Emsley is far left.*

With peace now settling across Europe, focus turned to returning personnel back to ‘Civvy street’. Within 8 Group, a new scheme was set up, and personnel were encouraged to make use of it. Across the range of Pathfinder stations, EVT (Educational and Vocational Training) was introduced. These classes were designed to give personnel the much needed skills in a range of civilian areas, to help them integrate back into civil life. Classes were broad and included a range of domestic activities such as: landscape gardening, cookery, music and carpentry. Some of these such as ‘domestic science’ were designed with the WAAFs in mind, whilst others were geared more (but not exclusively) toward the men.

"CIVVY STREET COURSE" IN R.A.F. PATHFINDER GROUP

1945 – Landscape and floral gardening are subjects given in the E.V.T. classes at Downham Market. Leading Aircraftman Arthur Pickersgill [centre] is now the station instructor. (IWM CH16028)

RAF Downham Market finally closed in 1946, but in 1948 the site was used for night Helicopter flight trials by BEA – the civil air company – transporting mail using Sikorsky S-51 Helicopters. This was a short lived venture but was by the end, considered a very successful companion to the day times routes recently started between Peterborough and a number of towns between Kings Lynn and Norwich. The venture included installing a flashing Sodium Beacon at Downham Market, its precise location on the airfield is not known and it may well have been a mobile unit*4.

Eventually in 1957, the land was sold off. The site was returned to agriculture but the airfield’s runways remained intact. In the 1970s, the Downham Market by-pass was built and the concrete runways were an ideal source of local hardcore. All three were subsequently removed along with large sections of the perimeter track leaving a mere road’s width for the larger part. Many of the buildings were at this time left, and small businesses soon took them over. One of these, a kitchen sales shop, now houses a small display relating to the history of the airfield.

At ground level, the discerning eye and a general appreciation of airfield structure and layout, suggest a presence of something more interesting. Huts, whilst in very poor condition, poke through overgrown trees and bushes, and provide shelter and storage facilities for local industry. The condition of windows and brickwork suggest that time is gradually running out for this once thriving airfield, unless other businesses move in.

The main runway ran east – west and for many years a small section of this remained for the farmers use. It was this runway that utilised FIDO, the storage area (at the far end) now taken over by the car dealership.

Downham Market Runway remains

The remnants of the main runway. Sadly this has now also been removed. It was this runway that utilised FIDO.

The remaining two runways were both removed for the hardcore. The western perimeter track remains in part width, from the threshold of the second runway virtually to the top to the threshold of the northern end of the third runway. However, the A10 road now dissects this and the uppermost part has been removed also. A new track (a public track) has been built for the farmer, this cuts across the northern end of the airfield and it is here that the (flooded) Battle Headquarters can be found. Now part of a ditch, its roof forms a bridge into one of the adjoining fields, it can only be found with careful searches of this ditch!

Battle Headquarters

A flooded Battle Headquarters. Several rooms exist below ground level, but these are all flooded, some said to be very deep.

Virtually the entire length of the northern part of the peri track can be walked round to the eastern end of the main runway. Part way along, another track leads off to the former bomb store, this is private the store now a wooded area. Also along here is the ultra heavy fusing point, a shed that is now used by the local farmer. At the far end of the peri track is where the accommodation area was constructed for the FIDO installers using Laing Hutting. Across the road can be seen the car dealership built on what was the FIDO installation. None of the original buildings remain here, but the peri track widens out to full width again at this point and heads east back toward the technical area.

Across the road from the technical area is the camp entrance and Bexwell, a small collection of houses and a church. Here a small memorial is placed telling the stories of the two heroic and brave crew members Aaron and Bazalgette. This road is the old road that led to all the accommodation areas. The WAAF site being the first and one of only two sites left with buildings still in place.

RAF Downham Market

Buildings on the WAAF site.

The other sites here include the Communal Site 1, Dormitory Site 1 (A), Sick Quarters, Dormitory Sites No. 2 (B), 3 (C), 4 (K) and 5 (J). Another track leads off to a sewage works. The road eventually joins the main A10. Across from here is the Communal Site 2, the second site with buildings still in use, and currently used by an engineering firm. A First World War memorial is also located here oddly hidden away amongst the bushes. Alongside these buildings are a pathway that leads to the second sewage treatment works.  This site can also be accessed by public footpath from the main road into Downham itself.

looking back to accomodation area

The sewage site. Through the trees you can see the remains of Communal Site 2.

Downham Market is an airfield that has a remarkable history, the dedication and bravery of the crews being second to none. What is left of this historic site is continually under threat, decay and dilapidation rapidly taking over.

The town is regularly overflown by F-35s from Marham, but when I was first here, two Tornadoes flew over whilst I was reading the dedications to both Bazalgette and Aaron. A fitting tribute not only to the two brave pilots, but all the crews that served here and to a station originally built to serve as a satellite for the very same airfield.

In 2015, a £170m regeneration plan was announced, perhaps signalling the end of Downham Market airfield for good (see here) – further details of these plans were to be released in the early part of 2016, but the funding for the scheme seemed to have been withdrawn in January 2020. No more seems to have been said about this venture, but more recently, development work for a fast-food outlet and shop was started alongside the western perimeter track, hopefully this won’t lead to further loss.

In April 2017 a project was launched to raise money for a seven slab memorial to be built close to the site of the former Dormitory Site 1, adjacent to the A10 road. The project hoped to raise in the region of £250,000 to cover the cost of the memorial and provide a lasting memory of those who flew and died whilst serving at RAF Downham Market. The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. I have been unable to confirm latest details and it may be another victim to the pandemic of 2020/21, only time will tell.

Trail 7 next leaves Downham Market heading east towards Norwich, stopping off at RAF Marham. On the way, we pass through the Norfolk countryside and a secret that shall no doubt, forever remain just that.

Sources and further reading (Downham Market).

* Photo published by the BBC 3/5/2015.

Technical information regarding the site was obtained from official drawings 50/W/117/42 and 50/W/116/42 courtesy of RAF Museum Hendon.

*1 National Archives AIR 27/1350

*2 National Archives AIR 27/1352/5

*3 National Archives AIR 27/2155/1, AIR 27/381/5

*4 Woodley, C. “The History Of British European Airways” Pen & Sword, 2006

The RAF’s pathfinder group, 635 squadron, flew daring missions in Lancasters, and a site dedicated to the crew and personnel of the squadron can be found on the RAF pathfinders archive website. A superb collection of photographs and personal accounts bring their memories alive.

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

RAF Downham Market (Part 1 – The beginning)

In Trail 7, we visited the northern part of Norfolk, not far from the coast where it borders Cambridgeshire to the west and the North Sea to the north and east. In this part of the trail we visit a site that was once one of Norfolk’s most prestigious airfields, where not one, but two VCs were awarded to airmen of the RAF.

Not far from RAF Marham, we return to this once busy airfield to see what is left and take another look at the incredible history that was RAF Downham Market.

RAF Downham Market (Bexwell)

Located in the corner of the A10 and A1122, 10 miles south of Kings Lynn and and 15 miles north east of Ely, RAF Downham Market (known locally as Bexwell) was only open for four years. Yet considering its relatively short life, it created for itself a unique history that was, and remains, unprecedented in military history.

Built by W. & C. French Ltd., it was primarily a bomber station serving initially with 2 Group before transferring to 3 Group and then to 8 PFF (Pathfinder) Group, Bomber Command. Opened as a satellite station to RAF Marham, it eventually became an airfield in its own right, achieving this status on 3rd March 1944, when it became a parent station itself.

RAF Downham Market

One of the several buildings surviving at Downham Market.

Downham opened in 1942 as a bomber station, a role it performed for the duration of the Second World War. To achieve this, it would require substantial runways and a number of dispersed accommodation sites. As a classic Class ‘A’ airfield, it was spread over a large area incorporating two main sites, the main airfield to the north and the accommodation to the south. It was equipped to accommodate 1,719 male and 326 female personnel at its peak. A network of small roads would link all these dispersed sites together.

Downham would have three concrete runways the main being 1,900 yards long running east-west, whilst the second and third ran north-west to south-east and north-east to south-west, each 1,400 yds long. The classic ‘A’ formed by these runways, was linked by a perimeter track with 36 original pan style hardstands. At its peak, Downham boasted seven hangers, six ‘T2’ and one ‘B1’ which replaced two of the hardstands reducing the number to 34. None of these hangars survive here today. It had the usual bomb store (to the north east), technical area (south side) and eight accommodation areas spread well to the south and south west. As with all these Class ‘A’ stations, the two areas were separated by a public road, the ‘airfield’ to the north and accommodation to the south.

Today, little remains of the actual airfield site, the runways having been removed some considerable time ago. However, on the technical site there are a number of buildings still remaining, and in the accommodation areas further buildings also exist. All of these are either used by local industry or local farmers.

On opening, Downham received its first residents, the Stirling MK.Is of 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron. Arriving on the 8th July 1942, they would retain these aircraft until February 1943, when the new updated Stirling MK.III was brought into squadron service. 218 Sqn had a history that went back to the First World War; disbanded in 1919 they had been reborn in 1936, and were posted to France where their Fairey Battles were decimated by the superior fighters of the Luftwaffe. In November 1940, prior to arriving here at Downham, the squadron joined 3 Group, it remained operational with this Group for the remainder of the war.

On July 6th, they began preparing for their move to Downham, aircraft were stood down and no operational flying took place. On the morning of the 7th, thirteen Stirlings departed RAF Marham, completing the 10 mile straight line flight they arrived at Downham fifteen minutes later. By midnight, the entire squadron had transferred over, and crews were settling into their new quarters. Over the next few days air tests, fighter affiliations and cross country flying were the order of the day, the first operational flight not taking place until the 12th. In Stirling ‘HA-N’ was P.O. Farquharson and in ‘HA-R’ was Sgt. Hartley. A ‘gardening’ mission, only two crews were assigned and briefed but records show that “The vegetables were planted in the allotted positions. 18,000lb of seed were planted during this effort“*1. With that, Downham Market had now entered the war.

Over the next few weeks operations began to build, and targets moved into Germany itself. Lubeck, Vegesack, Duisberg, Hamburg and Saarbrucken were all on the initial list of operations. Apart from early returners due to ice or poor weather, all operations were considered successful and bombing was ‘accurate’.

On 29th July, a royal party visited RAF Downham Market to see how the crews were settling in at the new station. Led by Air Vice Marshall HRH The Duke of Kent, and accompanied by Sir Louis Grieg KBE CBO (ret),  the party were given an official tour of the airfield by Wing Commander P. D. Holder DFC – the Station Commander. After talking to a number of ground crews and watching Stirlings being bombed up, the Royal party then sampled the delights of the officers mess before departing the airfield.

In February 1943, 218 began replacing their Stirling MK.Is with the upgraded MK.IIIs, the last model of the Stirling bomber before they were relegated to other duties. By June, the last of the MK.Is were gone. Although fitted with better engines, the MK.III still remained limited by both its short wingspan and poorly designed bomb-bay.

In the following month a major decision was made to install the still experimental FIDO fog dispersal system here at Downham Market. With RAF Graveley only just having hers installed, the benefits of this system were by now bearing fruits, but despite this, only fifteen British airfields were to have the system installed. FIDO used oil burnt through a series of pipes set alongside the runway. These burners were supplied from large storage tanks, which in Downham’s case, were located to the south-east just off the airfield site. Each tank was filled by road from Kings Lynn, five tankers carrying out two runs each to complete the fill. Oil from these tanks, was then fed into the system – which was installed along the main east-west runway – by large pumps. Once lit, the burners could clear extensive fog or mist in a relatively quick time. The main storage tank site is today a car dealership, all signs of the network of pipes having since been removed.

Downham’s FIDO installation was slow at first, and only covered the initial touchdown area and the first 700 yards of the main east-west runway. A number of burner types were fitted at Downham over a period of time, starting with the MK.III or Haigill burner. These were in turn were replaced y the MK.IV and eventually, when labour became more available, the MK.V which was a sturdier, longer lasting burner capable of withstanding much heavier use.  It wouldn’t be until late 1943/44 that a longer section of the system was installed, now extending to 1,362 yds, almost the entire length of the main runway. The problem with FIDO was always where runways crossed, and here the pipes had to be placed below ground level. Along side the runway they were above ground, and with difficulty in seeing, some aircraft did manage to damage the piping on more than one occasion. With experimental lighting and landings used in the autumn of 1943, the first use of the system was on the night of December 16th/17th that year, when a large number of aircraft returning from Berlin were diverted to Downham due to their own bases being fog bound.

Over 35 aircraft landed at Downham that night, the toll on crews had FIDO not been in existence would certainly have been considerably higher than the terrible price that had already been paid on that disastrous night over Berlin. FIDO with all its counter arguments, had proved its worth in one fell swoop.

The Short Stirling, the first of the heavies for Bomber Command, was liked by many crews, but its short-comings were to become apparent all too soon. One of its problems was its enormous height, created through its huge and weak, undercarriage, which sometimes made landings difficult. Another recurring problem was a significant swing to port when taking off, combine the two features, and you have a difficult aeroplane to control at the best of times, let alone when badly damaged or in very poor weather.

One of the first casualties at Downham occurred on the morning of May 14th 1943, when Stirling ‘BF480’ HA-I piloted by Sgt. W. Carney, swung on touchdown careering off the runway into the Watch Office. No injuries were sustained by those onboard, but two other crewmen on the ground, who had previously landed, were killed in the accident. Coincidentally, another 218 Sqn Stirling, ‘EF367’, HA-G had a similar landing away at RAF Chedburgh at the same time on the same night. Onboard that aircraft there were an American and a New Zealander, all but two of the crewmen were killed, the others  escaping with injuries.

With plans for the invasion of occupied Europe well in hand by mid 1943, movements across Britain were starting to take place. At Downham a number of hangars were used to store Horsa gliders (hence the large number on site) ready for the invasion the following year. Between April 1943 and March 1944 the airfield was awash with stored examples. Accompanying the gliders were No. 14 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, who maintained and prepared the gliders ready for when they were needed.

In the August 1943, an element of 218 Sqn was extracted to create a new squadron, 623 Sqn, using the MK.III Stirlings already on site. On the very day they were formed, 10th August 1943, four crews were briefed for operations, the target Nuremberg. Unfortunately, once over the target, crews had difficulty in distinguishing any relevant ground detail, and as a result, bombs were scattered over a wide area and the operation was largely unsuccessful. With little opposition all aircraft returned to Downham safely.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts that were left on the airfield.

However, two days after this on the night of August 12th /13th 1943, it was a different matter. It was whilst flying a 218 Sqn Stirling over Turin, that Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, would suffer bullet strikes to his head that would break his jaw and tear away a large part of his face. Further bullets damaged his lung and right arm rendering it useless. Aaron still fought on though, despite his severe injuries, managing to assist the bomb-aimer in flying the stricken Stirling away from the enemy. Unable to speak, he communicated instructions to his bomb-aimer by writing with his left hand. Aaron attempted on four occasions to land the plane, but with failing strength, he was persuaded to vacate the cockpit; enabling the bomb-aimer to complete the belly landing on the fifth attempt. Aaron later died from exhaustion, the consequence of his determination and unparalleled allegiance to his crew, his aircraft and his duty. Aaron was the first of two pilots to receive the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market – both for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

The new squadron 623 Sqn, like many other squadrons however, was to be a short lived one. With high demand for Stirlings in the Conversion Units, it was decided to utilise the aircraft of 623 Sqn for this role, and on December 6th 1943 the unit was officially disbanded. Some crews returned to 218 Sqn but many others were posted out to new units. Flying of a total of 150 sorties in just four months, the squadron would lose ten aircraft, a loss rate of almost 7%.

The void left by 623 Sqn would be soon filled though. Just four days later another unit would transfer in, that of 214 (Federated Malay States) Sqn from RAF Chedburgh also a Stirling MK.III unit. For the majority of December, 214 Sqn would carry out ‘gardening’ missions, dropping mines designated ‘Nectarines‘ or ‘Cinnamon‘. Other operations would see bombs dropped on ‘Special Targets‘ although the Operational Records don’t specify the identity of these targets. 214 Sqn as with 623 Sqn, would be another of these short stay units, on January 17th 1944 they would transfer to RAF Sculthorpe and 100 Group, for RCM (electronic warfare) duties and a new aircraft, the B-17 Flying Fortress or Fortress I. As crews carried out circuits, lectures and training at Sculthorpe, the remainder of the squadron continued operations from Downham. By the 24th January though, all personnel had transferred over and Downham Market was far behind them.

In March 1944, Downham’s long standing unit 218 Sqn was finally ordered out, and on the 7th the entire squadron departed, the operations books simply stating: “218 Sqn moved from Downham Market to Woolfox Lodge by road and air today“. *2 Once at Woolfox Lodge, they would begin disposing of their Stirlings to take on the new heavy bomber – the Avro Lancaster.

The dust wasn’t allowed to settle at Downham however, and before long more personnel and a new Squadron would arrive, ready to fill the skies of Norfolk. This was no ordinary squadron though. With concerns about the poor quality of bombing and the lack of accuracy, it was decided to form a new Group that went much against the wishes of Arthur Harris. Seen as ‘elitist’, Harris vehemently disagreed with the new Group and fought his corner bravely. But with little choice in the matter and lacking his own high level support, he eventually succumbed to the Air Ministry’s demands, putting in command the Australian Group Captain Donald C.T Bennett, CB, CBE, DSO.

The new group would be called 8 Group (PFF) ‘The Pathfinders’, and was designed to use the cream of Bomber Command crews whose record for bombing had been excellent. Aircraft from the Group were to fly ahead of the main bomber force and ‘mark’ the target by various means – coloured flares being the primary and main method. In principle it worked well, but as records show, it was not without its own difficulties or setbacks.

Bennett, an aggressive pilot who didn’t suffer fools gladly, quickly won the admiration of his crews. He was also highly admired by Harris, who once described him as the the “most efficient airman” he had ever met; Harris considered Bennett perfect for the role. In appointing Bennett, Harris dismissed all other possible candidates including Air Chief Marshall Basil Embry, the Air Ministry’s most likely favourite.

The Pathfinders were officially formed on 15th August 1942, with 8 Group coming into official formation in January 1943. With the arrival of the new Squadron, 635 Sqn, Downham would now be playing its part in this role. This change would also mean a change in aircraft type at this Norfolk airfield, out went the now relegated Stirlings and in came Avro’s remarkable four engined heavy, the Lancaster MK.III.

RAF Downham Market

The remains of the Technical site looking toward the airfield.

635 Sqn was created under the command of Wing Commander Alan George Seymour Cousens on March 20th 1944. Using ‘C’ Flight from RAF Graveley’s 35 Sqn and ‘C’ Flight from RAF Bourn’s 97 Sqn. A total of eight aircraft and crews from each flight immediately began the move to Downham. At 09:15 the first of the road crews arrived from Bourn, with further sporadic arrivals until 11:00. The first aircraft to arrive touched down at 12:00, and within the next 20 minutes all aircraft were safely on the ground. Graveley crews began arriving soon after this, their first aircraft, along with a ground party, arriving at 15:05.

The new squadron consisted of 36 Officers, 120 NCOs and 200 ‘other ranks’. They were accommodated in Site ‘J’ whilst 20 NCOs and 40 armourers were accommodated in site ‘B’. A small number of officers were put up in the Rectory just outside the main gate of the airfield*3.

Shortly after the crews had landed, they were quickly briefed for an operation to attack Munich, but by the time the aircraft were prepared and bombs loaded, the operation was cancelled, the crews were then given the chance to settle in to their new homes.

635 Sqn would continue to use the Mk.III Lancaster for the next four months, replacing it with the Lancaster MK.VI  from March onward. This was an unusual model of the famous aircraft as it had neither a nose nor mid-upper turret, instead it was crammed with electronic radar jamming devices. Also replacing the normal three-bladed propellers were four bladed examples, aiming to improve the aircraft’s performance.

A growth in aircraft numbers and the development of Pathfinder methods soon led to a new branch of the Group, the Light Night Striking Force (LNSF) equipped with de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder‘ the Mosquito.  In response to this, 571 Sqn, a new light bomber squadron equipped with the Mosquito XVI, was born here at Downham on April 5th 1944, barely two weeks after 635 Sqn themselves arrived. As a temporary measure it was decided that on April 10th, the squadron would be reduced to one Flight instead of two leaving eight aircraft plus a ‘spare’ at Downham whilst the remainder transferred to RAF Graveley. The idea behind the move was two-fold, firstly to bolster the expansion of 105 Sqn at Graveley, and secondly, to provide experience for the ground crews on the Mosquito.

The move went well, but on the 17th, a new order would come through that would change Downham yet again.

Movement order 21 required the entire 571 squadron to transfer to RAF Oakington, effective by 24th April. With that, preparations began and the advanced party moved from Downham on the 22nd followed by the rear party on the 24th. The entire squadron including the Graveley detachment were, by the end of the day, now at Oakington. Due to the move, there were no operations flown by the squadron from Downham Market during this short period of their history.

This departure left 635 Sqn as the only operational squadron at Downham Market. Whilst somewhat quieter, it is was not to be all plane sailing.

In Part 2, we see how Downham takes part in D-Day, the end of the war approaches but operations continue and Downham remains busy. After the war, the airfield is used for other purposes, and eventually closes. We then see what remains today and ask what does the future hold?

The full Trail appears in Trail 7.

July 2nd 1919, H.M.A. R.34 Sets A World Record Flight.

On July 2nd 1919 at 01:42, airship R.34 lifted off from the airfield at East Fortune, east of Edinburgh, to make an epic voyage – the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean east to west by a powered aircraft.

R.34 possibly at East Fortune. (author unknown)

Conceived as early as 1916, R.34 was built at the works of William Beardmore and Co. Ltd. of Inchinnan near Glasgow. At 634 feet in length with a top speed of 62 mph, she would have five 270 hp Sunbeam ‘Maori’ engines, and would cost £350,000 to build. Her massive size gave her an impressive 1,950,000 cubic feet for gas storage, and she would be equivalent in size to a Dreadnought battleship. A major step forward in airship design, her aerodynamic shape reduced total air resistance to that of just 7% of an equivalently sized flat disc.

As she was designed under war specifications, R.34 would be built to carry twenty 100 lb and four 550 lb bombs, a range of Pom-Pom guns, Lewis machine guns and a small number of two-pounder quick-firing guns; but as she wasn’t finished until after the war, none of these were ever fitted, nor was she ever flown in anger.

Completed in early 1919, she just missed out on achieving the record of the first Atlantic crossing, being laid up by damage caused by poor handling, and thus beaten to the record now held by Alcock and Brown.

In May, she arrived at East Fortune airfield, a major airship station in East Lothian, from where she carried out a number of test flights including an endurance flight across the Scandinavian countries. In July she was set to make the first  Atlantic crossing, east to west.

In preparation for the flight, eight engineers were sent to the United States to train ground crews in the safe handling of the airship. The Admiralty provided two  warships, the Renown and Tiger, as surface supply vessels, and should R.34 have got into difficulty, she could have been taken in tow by one, or both of the two vessels.

On the evening of 1st July 1919 the ship was fueled to capacity (some 6,000 gallons), and in the early hours of the morning she was moved out of her shed and prepared for the flight. Her captain, Major G. H. Scott, gave the order to release early, and at 1.42 am (GMT) R.34 lifted slowly in to the Scottish sky.

After battling strong winds and Atlantic storms, R.34 finally arrived at Mineola. Huge crowds had turned out to greet her and her crew, a grandstand had been erected, parks and public spaces were packed with onlookers. Major J. Pritchard (The Special Duties Officer) put on a parachute and jumped from the airship to become the first man to arrive in America by air. He helped organise ground staff and prepared the way for R.34 to safely dock. As she settled on her moorings, she had not only become the fist aircraft to fly the Atlantic East to West, but broke the current endurance record previously held by the North Sea Airship NS 11, also based at East Fortune.

A record was made, R.34 had put British Airship designs and East Fortune firmly on the map. After 108 hours and 12 minutes flying time, R.34, her crew and two stowaways: William Ballantyne and a small tabby kitten called “Whoopsie”, had landed at Mineola, Long Island, New York.

After a 3 day stay in which the crew were treated like the heroes they were, R.34 was prepared for the homeward journey. On Wednesday July 10th 1919, at 23:54 she lifted off and set sail for home.

With prevailing winds carrying her eastward, she made an astonishing 90 mph, giving the opportunity to cut some of the engines and preserve fuel. This gave the crew a chance to divert over London, but due to a mechanical breakdown, this was cancelled and R.34 continued on her original route. Poor weather at East Fortune meant that she was ordered to divert to Pulham Air Station, Norfolk, but even after clarification that the weather had improved, her return to East Fortune was denied and she had to continue to Pulham – much to the disgust of the crew on board. At Pulham, the reception was quiet, RAF personnel greeted her and secured her moorings. She has covered almost 7,500 miles at an average speed of 43 mph.

Eventually after a major refit at East Fortune, R.34 left for the return to Pulham. After six weeks of static mooring, R.34 was sent to Yorkshire, to Howden Airship Station. Here she was used to train American crews, was modified for mast mooring and used for general training duties. During one such training mission, she was badly damaged in strong winds, and after sustaining further damage whilst trying to moor and secure her, she began to buckle. Falling to the ground, she broke up and was damaged beyond repair. R.34 was then stripped of all useful materials and the remainder of her enormous structure sold for scrap – a rather ungainly ending to an incredible and historical machine.

H.M.A. R.34 and her crew had become the first to cross the Atlantic east to west, they had achieved the  longest endurance flight, and become the first aircraft to complete a double-crossing of the Atlantic.

East Fortune

The memorial stone at East Fortune airfield commemorating the epic flight of R.34.

The Flight Crew for the Atlantic journey were:

Major G. H. Scott A.F.C – Captain
Captain G. S. Greenland – Second Officer
Second Lt. H. F. Luck- Third Officer
Second Lt. J. D. Shotter – Engineering Officer
Major G. G. H. Cooke DSC – Navigator
Major J. E. M. Pritchard O.B.E. – Special Duties
Lt. G. Harris – Meteorological Officer Second
Lt. R. F. Durrant – Wireless Officer
Lt. Commander Z. Lansdowne – Representative U S Navy
Brigadier General E. M. Maitland – Special Duties
Warrant Officer W. R. Mayes – First Coxswain
Flight Sergeant W. J. Robinson – Second Coxswain

Sergeant H. M. Watson – Rigger
Corporal R. J. Burgess – Rigger
Corporal F. Smith – Rigger
F. P. Browdie – Rigger
J. Forteath – Rigger Corporal

H. R. Powell – Wireless Telegraphy
W. J. Edwards – Wireless Telegraphy

W. R. Gent – Engineer
R. W. Ripley – Engineer
N. A. Scull – Engineer
G. Evenden – Engineer
J. Thirlwall – Engineer
E. P. Cross – Engineer
J. H. Gray – Engineer
G. Graham – Engineer
J. S. Mort – Engineer
J. Northeast – Engineer
R. Parker – Engineer

W. Ballantyne – Stowaway
“Whoopsie” – a small tabby kitten and stowaway

The crew of R.34 Crew – with the crew pets.

East Fortune airfield appears in Trail 42.

Help Wanted – RAF King’s Cliffe!

In 2014, I published Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’ a trail around six American bases from the Second World War, one of these, RAF King’s Cliffe, was, at the time, under threat of development.

In 2015, objections from over 300 people were received which included supporters of Glenn Miller, aviation enthusiasts, wildlife groups and local people alike, who all highlighted concerns over the proposed development of the site and the impact it may have.

At an initial meeting in September that year, the council failed to come to any overall decision as they needed to consider further reports from different interested parties.  At a second meeting held on Wednesday 14th October,  after considering all the issues raised, East Northamptonshire Council approved the plans and so planning for 55 holiday homes were passed on an area known as Jack’s Green.

This area includes a memorial to the late Glenn Miller, who performed his last ever hangar concert here at King’s Cliffe before being lost over the sea. Assurances from the land owner at that time, were that the development would be in keeping with the area and that the memorial would remain “exactly as it was”.

I have not been able to return to Jack’s Green, nor King’s Cliffe airfield to see how this development has affected the area, and was wanting to know if anyone had photos of the development taken since the development started or more so, in the years following. As it would directly affect the memorial and adjoining public footpath, I was interested in the Jack’s Green area especially. I know that many geocachers use this path as do horse riders, walkers and enthusiasts alike, and am hoping someone may have a small collection of photos I could see.

Any photos you are willing to share would be very much appreciated.

My sincere thanks.

Andy

Links

The BBC report can be accessed here.

RAF King’s Cliffe was visited in Trail 6

Previous reports can be found here.

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Glenn Miller Memorial RAF Kings Cliffe Dec 2014

Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ludham airfield

The much dilapidated original Watch Office.

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

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

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

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

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

Ludham airfield

An original Blister hangar now located on the former runway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

 An Unknown Airman; No longer

A Guest Post by Mitch Peeke.

At 10:30 on the morning of Tuesday 3rd September, over the Kent village of Chart Sutton, near Maidstone, the then usual sounds of cannon and machine gun fire, from yet another dogfight high in the heavens, were heard. Then came the other sound; a high-pitched screaming, as a blazing Hurricane plunged toward the earth out of the summer sky, with a long plume of black smoke marking its descent. Farm workers and others watched in horror; the stricken fighter looked set to crash onto the village school, where classes of local children were in attendance. But at almost the last moment, the doomed fighter was seen to veer sharply away to Port and to then crash in flames on the edge of the apple orchard at nearby Parkhouse Farm. The unfortunate pilot was obviously still at the controls.

The force of the crash was so great that identification of the pilot and aircraft seemed virtually impossible at the time, though in typically British fashion, a sharp-eyed local Police Officer watching the events unfold, had managed to note the aircraft’s serial number and the crash was reported to the Hollingbourne district ARP office. Despite this, it would be another forty-five years before the identity of this self-sacrificing pilot would even be guessed at, and a further five years before it was even remotely confirmed. Until then, he would simply be one of the increasing number of unsung heroes; young pilots who were simply posted as “Missing, presumed Killed In Action” as the Weald of Kent continued to be both a witness to, and a graveyard of, the great aerial struggle that was known as The Battle Of Britain.

Yet what this tiny piece of the huge Battle of Britain jigsaw vividly illustrates, is precisely the reason that this period of our island’s history is so dear to us.

As I said; the identity of the gallant pilot, who had stayed with his blazing aircraft and steered it away from the village school, remained a mystery for years. In 1989, I’d just moved to that area and was intrigued when one Sunday afternoon, I saw a Hurricane and a Spitfire, obviously from the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, performing a display over a nearby farm. My curiosity was of course aroused, as I knew the BBMF do not spare the engine hours of their aircraft lightly; so I asked around locally the following day and started to piece together the story, which ultimately turned into a full page article for the local newspaper, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the battle.

During the course of my research in 1989, I came across the following reports in the Kent County Archive at Maidstone:

Tuesday 3rd September 1940, Hollingbourne District A.R.P. Office: 

10:42.  A British Fighter has crashed in flames on Parkhouse Farm, Chart Sutton. Map reference 21/73.

11:12.  The aircraft is still burning fiercely and its ammunition is now exploding. There is no news of the pilot yet.

I also found out, thanks to the helpful locals, that even then, 49 years on from the crash, there is in fact a memorial to this unknown pilot, very close to where the aircraft crashed. It is a peaceful, beautifully kept garden, with a simple wooden cross bearing the inscription “RAF PILOT 3rd September 1940”. It was above this little memorial garden that the RAF had been performing their display.

The memorial lies hidden in a shady copse beside an apple orchard, on a south-facing slope that overlooks the one of the most beautiful parts of the county: the Weald of Kent. It is only open to the public once a year, and few people outside of the local Royal Air Force Association’s Headcorn branch and the people of Chart Sutton village, know its location. The whole thing, even now, is still a rather private affair between the local people, the RAF and the memory of the fallen pilot.

In 1970, the overgrown crash site was cleared and a formal garden constructed. There has been a memorial service every year at Chart Sutton Church ever since, which is usually followed by a display from either a lone fighter, or a pair of fighters, from the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Tuesday, 3rd September 1940, is a date that Chart Sutton, and the RAF, have never forgotten.

Despite the fact that a local Police Officer had actually witnessed the crash and managed to log the involved aircraft’s number, confusion arose at the time because two more British fighters crashed in close proximity to the first very soon afterwards; one the next day in fact, at neighbouring Amberfield Farm and one ten days later on 14th September, almost unbelievably at Parkhouse Farm again.

The RAF sent a recovery squad to Chart Sutton on September 26th 1940, to clear the wreckage from all three crash sites. Although a local constabulary report to the RAF cited Hurricane P3782 as having been cleared from Parkhouse Farm, along with the fragmented remains of its pilot, plus the remains of the other pilot who’d crashed there on the 14th, that single piece of seemingly unimportant paper then got buried, lost in the general Police archives for years. It didn’t come to light again till the early to mid-nineteen eighties, probably during a clearout. It was then reproduced in that epic book, “The Battle of Britain Then & Now”.

Meanwhile, the removed remains of both pilots were interred at Sittingbourne & Milton Cemetery, in graves marked “unknown British airman”. The fighter that crashed at Amberfield Farm had left very little in its wake, having gone straight into the ground, so it is easy to see now, how the confusion over the identification of the three pilots subsequently arose, as aircraft crashes in Kent were of course quite commonplace during that long hot summer of 1940.

That was pretty much how things remained, till in 1980 a museum group excavated the site of the second Parkhouse Farm crash. Forty years to the very day since he’d crashed, Sergeant Pilot J.J. Brimble of 73 Squadron and his Hurricane, were exhumed from the Kent soil and positively identified. Also excavated at sometime soon afterwards, was the site of the Amberfield Farm crash, which was then positively identified as being that of Flying Officer Cutts of 222 Squadron, and his Spitfire. This left the last of the three “unknown airmen” and Hurricane P3782, the number from the now rediscovered police report.

Hurricane P3782 belonged to No. l Squadron, whose records show that on 3rd September 1940, it was allocated to Pilot Officer R.H. Shaw. The squadron log posts both Shaw and Hurricane P3782 as: “Missing, failed to return from a standing patrol” on the morning of Tuesday September 3rd 1940.

There can be little doubt now as to whom the Chart Sutton memorial belongs, but as the engine and cockpit of Shaw’s Hurricane are still deeply buried where they fell, there is nothing to base any official identification upon. Despite this, and the fact that the RAF removed what human remains they could find at the time, it has always been regarded locally as the last resting place of this gallant young airman.

Pilot Officer Robert Henry Shaw of 1 Squadron. By kind permission of Winston G. Ramsay, via Mitch Peeke.

Robert Henry Shaw was born on 28th July 1916, in Bolton to a family in the textile Business. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in the RAF on February 1st 1940 and posted to 11 Group, Fighter Command. On March 11th, he joined No.1 Squadron in France, as part of the force attempting to stem the German advance. The squadron was withdrawn to Tangmere, in Hampshire just before Dunkerque. It was at this time that Robert was inadvertently shot down by the pilot of another British fighter, who had evidently mistaken Robert’s Hurricane for a Messerschmitt 109. However, Robert managed to land his damaged Hurricane back at Tangmere and was himself unhurt.

I had the pleasure of meeting Robert’s brother when we were introduced to each other at the annual memorial service the year after the local newspaper ran my original story. Unbeknown to me, the paper had traced and contacted Robert’s family. His brother, who was completely unaware that Robert’s memory had been honoured annually in Chart Sutton for the previous nineteen years, travelled down for the 1991 service. At our meeting, he told me that Robert, in connection with the family’s textile business, had been a frequent visitor to Germany before the war and was at first mightily impressed by Hitler’s regime. However, during what turned out to be his final visit in 1937, Robert was witness to a public incident that dispelled any illusions he had formed of Hitler’s new Germany. Robert never did say exactly what it was that he’d witnessed, but though obviously tight of lip, he was decidedly firm of jaw. Robert came straight home and joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, immediately.

The exact circumstances of Robert’s death have never been established, but it seems likely that he and his flight commander, Flight Lieutenant Hillcoat, probably encountered a pack of “Free hunting” Messerschmitt 109’s; ironically, one of the last such hunting pack operations before Goring unwisely tied his fighters to the bomber formations as a close escort. Robert was by then a seasoned and experienced fighter pilot, but the ensuing dogfight would have been anything but equal. Despite the odds being heavily against them, the pair did not shrink from the fight. Flight Lieutenant Hillcoat was also killed.

Pilot Officer Robert Henry Shaw of 1 Squadron Chart Sutton, Maidstone (photo Mitch Peeke)

The Chart Sutton memorial is the village’s way of honouring that last great courageous deed of Robert’s in steering his blazing and doomed Hurricane away from the village school. It was his final, desperate act of pure self-sacrifice that has justly made twenty-four year-old Pilot Officer Robert H. Shaw an immortal part of that Kent village.

Since I first penned this, some evidence has now emerged in the form of an engine plate that was apparently dug up at the site as long ago as 1987, which has now at last been brought out into the light of day. One is left to wonder just how many such artefacts, souvenired at some point in the past, still lie undiscovered in people’s houses!

My thanks go to Mitch for bringing this story to us.

RNAS Dunino – in the shadow of St. Andrews.

Continuing on in Trail 53, Scotland’s east coast, we visit another Royal Naval Air Station, this one, a satellite of RNAS Crail, is not quite so well preserved.  However, with that said, a number of buildings do still exist, and whilst most are on private land, some are visible from the public road.

Sitting not far from Scotland’s east coast and a short distance from the parent airfield at Crail, we visit an airfield that had a short military life, but one that saw many squadrons use it. With these squadrons came a multitude of aircraft types, but one in particular stood out as the predominant type- the Fairy Swordfish, a biplane that became famous with the Royal Naval Air Service.

On this trip, we visit another of Scotland’s relics, this time the former Royal Naval Air Station at Dunino.

RNAS Dunino (HMS Jackdaw II, HMS Merlin III).

Dunino is a small hamlet in the north eastern region of Fife in Scotland. The area around here is littered with golf courses, the most famous being St. Andrews the home of international golf and perhaps the most famous golf course in the world. Played on by the world’s top golfers, it is known to be at least 600 years old, and probably even older with its origins going as far back as the 12th Century.

The Firth of Forth forms the main shoreline of St. Andrews and encompasses this whole region of Fife. A beautiful region, it has views out across the North Sea in a landscape broken by undulating hills, castles and quaint fishing villages.

The airfield of Dunino, sits about two miles east of the hamlet from which it takes its name, and about 3.5 miles west of its parent airfield at Crail. Dunino being so small, is often overlooked by visitors to the region, but its claim to fame is a sacred grove and a Holy Well which remain there to this day.

The airfield initially opened as a satellite for nearby RAF Leuchars, a neighbour of St. Andrew’s, after requisition of the land on which its sits in 1939. As a satellite of RAF Leuchars some 5 miles away, Dunino lacked all the comforts of home, wide open and exposed to the elements, it was not the best place to be posted to. In many ways Dunino was primitive, lacking proper accommodation and hard runways, it was perhaps one of the less comforting of the north’s operational bases. With little to occupy themselves, many ‘residents’ visited the ancient cities of Perth or Dundee, or strolled the streets of St. Andrews not far away.

The airfields itself was an irregular oval shape with a main runway running south-west to north-east, initially made of grass and later Sommerfeld tracking, a steel matting laid down on many of Britain’s temporary airfields and advanced landing grounds.

The other landing strips at Dunino remained grass, joined together by a concrete perimeter track intersected with hardstands and blister hangars. For a satellite, it had a large quantity of hangars, eight Super -blisters, four blister and another four hangars used for storage. A further aircraft repair shed (ARS) was used to maintain and repair aircraft on site.

Accommodation was located on three sites to the east of the airfield and could cater for 88 officers, 647 ratings, and 140 WRNS of mixed rank. Accommodation was not sufficient for all visitors to have a roof over their heads, some visiting units having to sleep in tents scattered around the airfield. Most naval airfields were built to similar designs as Royal Air Force designs, although they were not so tightly controlled, and variation within designs was more common.

Dunino’s watch office was initially the standard RAF watch office for Fighter Satellite Stations, a small single storey building it was later abandoned when the Royal Navy took over and built their own standard two story naval type to design 3860/42.

Not long after opening in 1940, the airfield passed from RAF control to Royal Navy control, who used it as  a satellite airfield for nearby RNAS Crail.

RNAS Dunino

The current Watch Office at Dunino is a two storey building designed by the RNAS.

On May 24th 1939, the Board of Admiralty took over control of the Fleet Air Arm from the Royal Air Force, a force that included all carrier based aircraft, some 230 examples across 20 squadrons. Squadron numbers were issued between 700 – 899, those in the range of 700 – 749 initially being catapult units, and 750-799 as training units – which were then changed to ‘Second Line’ or permanent training units. Those in the range of 800 – 809 and 870 – 899, were allocated to single seat fighter squadrons, including all carrier based and land based operational units. Those in between were allocated to torpedo units, spotter squadrons and other front line squadrons*1.

Operating primarily from ships, the Fleet Air Arm needed land bases to place their aircraft when ships were in for repairs or refurbishments, this allowed maintenance and training to continue, and even allowed for off-shore protection with torpedo aircraft carrying out patrols and attacks on enemy shipping where possible. As with all Royal Naval Air Stations, Dunino took a bird’s name and the designation of a floating vessel as its own name, being a satellite, Dunino took HMS Jackdaw II after Crail’s HMS Jackdaw. Such was the demand for airfields that the Fleet Air Arm took over five airfields initially, but then implemented their own building programme, a programme that saw the total number of air stations reach twenty-four (plus seven non-commissioned sites) by 1944 along with fifteen satellites more commonly known in Naval circles as “Tenders”.*1 It was this need to place aircraft and their crews that led to Dunino having such a high number of users, many being just short stays whilst their carriers were refurbished.

The first users of Dunino were two training squadrons, the first, 785 NAS was formed out of the Naval element of the Torpedo Training Unit at Abbotsinch. Primarily a Torpedo Bomber Reconnaissance (TBR) Training Squadron, they were based at Crail and flew the Swordfish and Blackburn Shark, a bi-plane very much out of date by the time war broke out. The Swordfish, the Shark’s replacement, was also a bi-plane, but one that went on to be successful under naval control in numerous operations including the Channel Dash in 1942. The Swordfish was such a good little aeroplane, it even outshone its designed replacement, the Albacore, an ‘upgraded’ version of the Swordfish, which never managed to fulfil the role as well as its predecessor.

Like 785, their sister unit 786 NAS, was also a  training squadron and also operated from Crail using Dunino as a secondary field from which to operate.

During this time of Naval residency, the RAF also used Dunino posting 309 (Polish) Sqn here with Westland Lysanders. An Army Co-operation unit they were the only Polish squadron to have been formed in Scotland (at Abbotsinch during the Autumn of 1940). After moving from Renfrew into RAF Scone in Perth, they were posted here to Dunino,  arriving in early may 1941. On arrival, the crews were told the bad news, that their accommodation was to be tents in the local woods surrounding the airfield – not a pleasant surprise in the least.

This region of Scotland became a mecca for the Poles, many being posted here to protect Scotland’s east coast from German attack. They developed deep and sincere relationships with the locals, frequenting the bars and towns of Fife, including Cupar and St. Andrews, and built strong friendships that have lasted to this day.

The Lysander, famous for its SOE operations, was a small aircraft with high wing and STOL (short take of and landing) capabilities. Ideal for spotting and landing in small areas, it went on to excel in airborne operations over occupied France.

Not long after arriving at Dunino an accident in Lysander V9608 piloted by Sgt. Kowalczyk with observer Flt. Lt. Lukinski, saw a very-light pistol fall from its secure holding onto the floor of the cockpit whereupon it fired, igniting the cockpit. Taking immediate and remedial action, Sgt. Kowalczyk attempted an emergency landing, but crashed in the process. Both pilot and observer survived, but both suffered burnt hands and feet and were treated in the Polish Military Hospital No.1, (understood to be the requisitioned Taymouth Castle in Perth).

Whilst here, the Polish crews undertook a number of training operations including on the 20th – 21st June 1941, operations with 614 Sqn who were based at RAF Macmerry in the Borders. Orders were, that on the 19th, three aircraft from both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flights were to depart with their crews by air at 16:00 hrs, to arrive shortly after at RAF Macmerry. The ground party would depart earlier at 14:00 hrs, taking the drive south arriving later that afternoon. The air party was led by F/Lt. Pictrowski and the ground party by Sgt. Kouarba. Whilst operating out of Macmerry, the two Flights would fall under the control of the O.C.of 614 Squadron who were also operating Lysanders at that time.

The MK. III Lysanders used by 309 Sqn, where soon replaced with the MK.IIIA which was based on the MK.I but with an updated engine, a model they would use until August 1942, by which point the first of the new Mustang Is had already began arriving. By the July, ‘B’ Flight had completely converted over to the new American built aircraft. Going from the slow Lysander to the powerful Mustang must have proven to be both a major challenge and huge step up in the eyes of the Polish crews.

Westland Lysander Mk IIIAs No. 309 (Polish) Squadron based at Dunino, taking part in a low-level bombing exercise in Scotland (12/3/42). © IWM (H 17776)

In November 1942, the Polish crews departed, in a move that ended the RAF’s dealings with Dunino, although 309 would return to Scotland and RAF Drem later on in the war.

After a quiet winter over 1942-43, Dunino would then, in the February / March, spring into life once more, and it would be this period that would see a great deal of movement here at Dunino.

There would initially be two front line squadrons arrive here, 825 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) and 837 NAS both flying the Fairy Swordfish. It was 825 NAS who so bravely attacked the German fleet that sailed from Brest to their home in the Baltics, a force of mighty ships that included the ScharnhorstGneisenau and Prinz Eugen . After a cat and mouse game between the RAF and the German navy, a dash was made by the fleet under heavy escort and a powerful air umbrella through the English Channel. It was at this time that 825 NAS were launched from RAF Manston in Kent to attack the fleet, the six aircraft led by  Lt. Cdr. Eugene Esmonde, being decimated in the attack with the loss of thirteen airmen. The full story of the suicidal mission became known as ‘Operation Fuller – The Channel Dash‘.

837 NAS was originally formed in Jamaica, and sailed to the United Kingdom in the summer of 1942. After arriving here, they formed two flights, one going to Gibraltar and the other posting to Iceland, both operating the Swordfish. In March of 1943, the two flights recombined here at Dunino, remaining here until the summer at which point the squadron disbanded temporarily.

A third squadron was also here at this time, 737 NAS, formed here on 22nd Feb 1943, as an amphibious Bomber Reconnaissance Training Squadron. 737 NAS would eventually leave Dunino on September 28th 1943, seven months after they were formed.

There then followed a period of activity during 1943 at the airfield which saw a series of short stays for 824 NAS, 827 NAS, 860 NAS and 833 NAS whose departure coincided with the arrival of 813 NAS. All these squadrons, apart from from 827, operated the Swordfish, 827 operating the Fairey Barracuda, the first Fleet Air Arm squadron to do so. The Barracuda, like the Albacore, was designed to replace the Swordfish. Crewed by three, it was the result of design specification S.24/37, but was never truly successful being hampered by supply problems.  However, the Barracuda did go on to serve well into the 1950s, with over 2,500 examples being built.

The end of January 1944 saw the penultimate unit arrive, 838 NAS who arrived mid January and stayed to see in the new Month of February before they too left the cold and openness of Dunino behind. That left just one further squadron to fly out of Dunino, 770 Sqn, who had been here since January 29th leaving on July 16th 1944.

By this time, Dunino had been extensively developed, and although not equal to front line stations in terms of quality, it boasted a good range of hangarage and storage that many other airfields could not even come close to.

RNAS Dunino

One of the many buildings that stand at the former RNAS Dunino. Now derelict, many house farm machinery and general rubbish.

With the departure of 770 Sqn, came the gradual demise of the airfield. With the war’s end, flying all but ceased and Dunino became a site for storing military hardware. With many aircraft being kept here well  into 1945, it was then closed off and emptied of its aircraft, the site remaining under military ownership until the late 1950’s.

Since then, many of the buildings have been removed, a few examples lay dormant in the wooded areas that surround the airfield, and the tower, visible from the public road, sits forlorn and empty in the middle of a field detached from the reminder of the airfield’s remnants.

Scattered around the perimeter and on farms are the tell-tale signs of a time gone by, dilapidated buildings used for storage of farm machinery and agricultural products, they are reminders of a day when Royal Naval flying was in its infancy and biplanes still remained in service against the more powerful aircraft of a determined and ruthless enemy.

Dunino is a difficult airfield to find, even though a fair number of buildings still exist. Taking the B9131 from St. Andrew’s head south. Pass through the hamlet of Stravithie, onto Dunino, itself little more than an old closed school and a few houses, the road takes south towards Beleybridge where we turn left. The first signs of it being a wartime location are seen here, with further buildings along side the road. A wooded area on your left, houses further buildings away from public view and access over farmland to where the airfield lies. Further along this road, the tower can be seen in the distance, as can some of the former blister hangars some way off.

Without walking through this wood, or across open farmland, access is limited, but the more intrepid adventurer would discover some interesting remnants in this area.

Dunino may have been a satellite, but the number of aircraft types and crews who passed through here were large. Primarily a Royal Naval Air Station it saw a good deal of action and along with its parent station at Crail, led the way with Naval Flying in this, a remote area of eastern Scotland.

Sources and further reading (RNAS Dunino)

*1 Lavery, B. “Churchill’s Navy: The Ships, People and Organisation, 1939-1945“, (2006) Bloomsbury

National Archives – AIR 27/1677/3

RAF Scone – Rudimentary but Very Important.

In Trail 56, we head north once again, this time across the River Tay into Perthshire,  the gateway to the Highlands.

The grand city of Perth boasts a majestic history, once the capital of Scotland, it is a city with galleries, museums and stunning architecture; described by VisitScotland.com as “a picturesque playground for Kings and Queens“, and rightly so.

The village that gave this airfield its name, has a history going back as far as the Iron age, once the seat of Royals it is mentioned in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and once housed the famous ‘Stone of Scone’ or ‘Coronation stone’ that has for centuries been used for coronations of the Kings and Queens of Scotland and England. It was stolen by King Edward I of England who took it to London, and was last used in the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. It now resides in Edinburgh Castle on the proviso that it returned to London for Royal Coronations – it must be the most famous 125kg of rock anywhere in the world.

On Trail 56 we pass though the beautiful city of Perth and onto this small but famous village that leads into the countryside beyond. It is here that we find a former RAF airfield that has since become Perth Airport. In the same region as Scone Castle, we visit the former RAF Scone.

RAF Scone.

RAF Scone is known under a range of names: Perth Airport, Perth Aerodrome, Perth Municipal Airport, RAF Perth, RAF Scone and Scone Aerodrome, and can be found 3 1/2 miles north-east of Perth.

Scone (pronounced Scoone) opened in 1936 under the control of 51 Group based in Leeds and was, throughout it military life, an Elementary Flying Training School operating a number of training flights as well as some operational squadron detachments.

A very rudimentary station, it had no more than a watch office, a single Civil 160 x 90 ft hangar; one 120 x 110 ft hangar, and six blister hangars spread about the site. There were no hardstands and runways were initially grass. A hard perimeter track circumnavigated the airfield and although it only had one officially designated ‘runway’,  a grass strip of 1,300 yds in length, other strips were used.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

The Watch Office at Scone (Perth Airport).

Being a training airfield accommodation was also rudimentary and limited, designed for only 400 permanent personnel, it would cater for both males and females of mixed rank. Even though Scone was small, it was by no means insignificant, boasting the passage of hundreds of pupils passing though its gates on their way to front line flying units.

The initial user of Scone was 11 Elementary and Reserve Flying Training School (E&RFTS) operating Hawker Harts, Audax, Hinds, Battles, Tiger Moths and Ansons at some point. Formed here on the 27th January 1936 it was operated by A.M. Airwork Ltd.

The Airwork company was founded in 1928 and based at the then Heston Aerodrome in Middlesex. For much of this time, Airwork’s chief pilot was Captain Valentine Baker MC, DFC, who later joined forces with Sir James Martin to form the now famous  Martin-Baker company famous for it ejector seats found on numerous fast jests world wide.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

Numerous buildings survive from Scones wartime past.

Airwork moved north under contract from the Air Ministry to support training needs for the Royal Air Force, they moved into Scone (and several other airfields such as Renfrew and Abbotsinch) and developed the airfield providing much of the infrastructure themselves. A large company they would also provide maintenance facilities and operations across Britain supporting what would become a thriving civil aviation network.

On September 3rd 1939, with Britain’s declaration of war, the training units operating on behalf of the RAF were reorganised and re-designated, 11 E&RFTS becoming known more simply as 11 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS). Also at this time  Airwork formed and operated a further training unit here at Scone, 7 Civil Air Navigation School (CANS) flying Dragon Rapides. They too were re-designated though, becoming  7 Air Observers Navigation School (AONS) on 1st November 1939. They would then take on the Avro Anson, training crews in navigation techniques. On June 1st 1940, the AONS was also disbanded, training needs being met elsewhere. 

Also during early November 1940, 309 Squadron sent a detachment of Lysander IIIs to Scone. only recently formed, they remained here for about six months. The sole purpose of 309 Sqn was as a Polish Cooperation unit to work in conjunction with the C-in-C of the Polish Army. It was unique in that it was ‘double’ ranked, having both British and Polish officers in charge, the idea being that once the Polish personnel were in place the British would be pulled out and the squadron would operate as an independent Polish unit. A series of training flights were carried out by the Polish pilots, but with lectures being carried out through a translator, it was often difficult task to do.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

Old buildings are utilised for modern purposes.

In September 1941, ‘E’ Flight of 11 EFTS  was used to form a new training unit, 5 Flying Instructors School (Supplementary) then simply Flying Instructors School, finally becoming Flying Instructors School (Elementary) from April 1942. The small number of pilot instructors flew Miles Masters and Tiger Moths training hundreds of pilots between them before the unit was disbanded in November 1942.

The remainder of 11 EFTS continued on to the war’s end gradually being reduced in size. Post war, in 1947, it was renamed as 11 Reserve Flying School (RFS) still operated by Airwork and still flying the biplane the Tiger Moth along with Airspeed Oxfords, Ansons and Hawk trainers. By 1954, the unit had wound down finally being disbanded that same year.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

The Battle Headquarters is very much exposed, this would normally be below ground level with only the slits visible.

In 1949, 666 Squadron was reformed at Scone as a Royal Auxiliary Air Force unit comprising: 1966 Air Observation Post Flight (AOP), with 1967 (AOP) Flight at Renfrew and 1968 (AOP) Flight at Abbotsinch. The squadron flew Austers Vs and VIs, in a cooperation role with Army units, and by 1957 all three flights, and thus the squadron, had ceased to exist when a letter, written by the Queen, was handed to more than eighty senior officers of the RAuxAF, officially ending its existence as it was. With that, thirty-two years of history had come to an end, a history that had seen the RAuxAF take part in virtually all of Britain’s major air battles since 1925.

In that same year on March 8th, 1957, another training unit, 1 Civilian Fighter Control Co-operation unit, formed here operating the Avro Anson T21. Little seems to be published about the activities of this unit, but I would assume it was operated by civilians working as part of the Royal Air Force’s training programme. It remained active here at Scone until 31st January 1961 where upon it was disbanded. A year after its disbandment on May 10th, an Anson of the unit ‘VV977’ was sold as scrap at No.27 MU Shawbury.

Later on D.H. Chipmunks of the Glasgow University Air Squadron graced the skies over Scone, the airfield now being known as Perth. A reign that lasted until 1993 when the squadron moved back to Glasgow, and its place of formation in the early days of the Second World War.

Due to high usage, two hard concrete runways were built on the site, whilst the third remained as grass.

With that the RAF’s connections with Perth ceased. The airfield was passed to ACS Aviation, who claim to be the “leading Commercial Flight Training Organisation in Scotland”. Operating a range of services including commercial pilot training and maintenance provisions. Other users of Perth include Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA) flying the EC135-T2 helicopter, a charitable organisation that relies solely on donations to keep it flying.

Today many of the wartime buildings remain, in use, by small industrial units. The Battle Headquarters, can be seen from the road very much exposed, as all but the top slotted observation ‘turret’ would normally be underground. The accommodation and technical areas are located together and many now form part of a small hotel for those visiting the area.

The airfield lies a few miles north of Perth, the main A94 offers access to the airfield and views across some of the site. It sits on a hill and so much of it is hidden from view at ground level. Being an active airfield, access is limited and understandably restricted. However, views of the current residents are available and many of the wartime buildings are accessible operating as retail and industrial units.

Scone for such a small airfield, had a long and fruitful history. Its links to pilot training, especially throughout the war years, no doubt sent many airmen to front line squadrons, many of whom  would go onto serve in some of Britain’s fiercest air battles. A small and rudimentary airfield, it played a huge part in Britain’s wartime and post-war aviation history.

RAF Scone (Perth Airport)

Modern day Scone is home to a large number of small aircraft.

Sources and further reading.

National Archives AIR 27/1679/1

Lake, A., “Flying Units of the Royal Air Force“, Airlife, 1999.

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt2)

After part 1, we return to  Snailwell, to see how the American influence played its part at Snailwell and how the build- up to D-day affected life at this small grassed airfield.

The squadron was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group (FG) who would eventually transfer to the Middle East. It would be the 347th’s sister squadron the 346th who would later convert Hurricane Mk I #LB640 target tug into a two-seat liaison plane.

Hurricane Mk I LB640, which was being operated as a target-tug with the P-39-equipped 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th AF USAAF in Sardinia in early 1944. It was field converted into a two-seater as a liaison plane by the unit's ground crew.

Hurricane Mk I #LB640 after being converted into a two-seat liaison plane.  IWM (UPL 17052)

As they were a new squadron the 347th would initially have no ground echelon, they were still being formed and prepared for transportation over the Atlantic from their base at Harding Field, Louisiana. They would arrive in the UK in the November and after a short period at Snailwell, the entire squadron would move out to RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, before moving away to the warmer climate of the Middle East.

The winter of 1942/43 saw further detachments being based here at Snailwell. In conjunction with the US forces were 170 Sqn, who remained here from the end of October through the winter until February 1943. After a short spell away they made a brief one day stop over before being moved to RAF Odiham.

The January of 1943 saw yet more short stays. On the 17th 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, 182 Sqn were finding it hard to get in any flying at all, as the heavy winter rains had clogged up the metal PSP runways with thick mud preventing the aircraft from taking off.

Two days earlier 70 ground personnel had been dispatched from Sawbridgeworth to Snailwell in preparation for the forthcoming training operation. Operation “Shatter” as it was designated, would be a mock attack on gun emplacements on the outskirts of Thetford Forest. On the 17th, the ten aircraft were sent from RAF Sawbridgeworth led by Sqn. Ldr Pugh along with a further four from the detachment at RAF Hunsdon. On arrival they found their sister squadron, 181 Sqn also with Typhoons, already here for the Army Cooperation training operation. A large party was given that night in honour of the new 182 Sqn crews. The next day, a preliminary attack was made on the target by eleven 182 Sqn aircraft, who made runs over both the dummy and real guns in a “full frontal attack”. The following day, a complete squadron attack was made with the aircraft having to be airborne in under 4.5 minutes. For the first time since forming, all the canons on the Typhoons are fully loaded with live ammunition and a full squadron scramble was undertaken.

Aerial photograph of Snailwell airfield looking south, 26 July 1942 (IWM RAF_FNO_67_V_6032)

In the afternoon a four ship formation was loaded up with 2 x 250 lb bombs and a further attack was made. This attack ended the training session for 182 Sqn and the next day they return to the muddy runways of Sawbridgeworth.

Two months later on March 8th 1943, 181 Sqn was reunited with her other sister squadron 183 Sqn here at Snailwell. After a number of short training flights covering just four days, 183 Sqn departed the Cambridgeshire airfield leaving 181 Sqn here until the end of the month.

Throughout 1943 much of the same was to happen, short stays for training missions were the order of the day.  309 Sqn flew the Mustang MK.I and Hurricane VIs. The Polish squadron became renowned amongst the Allies when F/Lt Janusz Lewkowicz flew a Mustang I to Norway and back strafing targets at Stavanger just to prove the point that the Mustang had the range!

Another squadron, 613 Sqn also brought their Mustangs along in July, and 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. 247 Sqn brought back the mighty Typhoon, each of these squadrons carrying out training flights, some for as little as two days others for more prolonged periods.

As the end of 1943 drew a line under the busy ebb and flow of visiting squadrons, 1944 would see a rather more settled year. After a single RAF squadron, 527 Sqn, moved in and then out two months later, the  build up to D-day would see big changes at Snailwell.

The invasion of Europe was destined to be the largest invasion build up the world had ever seen, and southern England was to be the primary area in which this build up would take place. With the creation of the Ninth Air Force, whose primary purpose was to provide assistance to the forth coming Normandy landings, more and more airfields were going to be required. Whilst front line units would be directly involved in operations over the Normandy coast, there would need to be a major service and maintenance support network, if the invasion were to succeed. This service was to be carried out by a series of  six Tactical Air Depots (TAD) all falling under the command of the IX Air Force Service Command, via two Advanced Air Depot Areas (AADA).

One of these depots, the 3rd Tactical Air Depot based at RAF Grove some 55 miles from London, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of Douglas A-20 ‘Havocs’ and P-61 ‘Black Widows’. Because of the increasing demand for maintenance facilities, the 3rd TAD took over the facilities at RAF Snailwell, moving in two Mobile Repair and Maintenance Squadrons, the 33rd and 41st, in preparation for maintenance operations. Their primary role was to make field modifications to the aircraft in preparation for operational roles, as a result of which the A-20s became a regular feature around the airfield. After only a short time though it was realised that the 41st would not be required here, and so they returned to RAF Grove. To replace them, a specialist team were brought in – the 51st Service Squadron. By the time D-day had passed, the pressure at Grove had subsided and so both units were able to return home from Snailwell. With that, the American connection with Snailwell ended.

As the war drew to a close so too did both operational flying and training flights. The RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School used the airfield sharing it with nearby RAF Bottisham. In March 1946, the Belgians pulled out returning to their own country now free from the Nazi tyranny that had dominated it for so long.

Snailwell then closed, standing empty and gradually returning to agricultural use. Many of the buildings were pulled down but some hung on for several years being used for agricultural purposes. The Blister hanger, sheds and training buildings remained for a number of years, certainly until the mid 1990s, but gradually even these were removed with little evidence of their existence being left today. The airfield was then dissected by a major road development in 1975, remaining parts being bought up by the British Horse Racing School who now own a large portion of the former airfield. High hedges and gated access restrict most access to the former site, (the Icknield Way long-distance route does pass along side these tracks and borders the former airfield from which remnants can be seen) leaving the last few sections of concrete hanging on as reminders of the airfields once proud and hectic existence.

With a mix of repair and maintenance units added to the pot, the war years for Snailwell were far from slow. The regular ebb and flow of detached units for training flights, and the occasional permanent flying unit, saw a wide range of aircraft types and nationalities grace the skies of this small area of Eastern Cambridgeshire. With little evidence of its existence left today, Snailwell, and its proud history, would seem to have been lost, replaced by Horse racing and the desire for the high stakes demanded by the equestrian market.

From Snailwell, we head west, deeper in to the area owned by the Horse racing fraternity. Here we see on every street corner evidence of this now popular sport, well groomed bushes that surround neatly cut turfs, on what now remains of Britain’s wartime heritage. Our next stop on Trail 55, is the pinnacle of these activities, the former RAF Newmarket Heath.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Official Directorate of Works drawing (WA7/395/41) IWM UPL 17710

British History Online (Snailwell) website.

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

National Archives AIR 27/954/6

National Archives AIR 27/1135/1

Niall Corduroy. “Whirlwind: Westland’s Enigmatic FighterFonthill Media, 2017.

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt 1).

In the latest Trail around Britain’s airfields, we visit four airfields so close that as the crow flys, they are a mere 12.5 km from the first to the last.  It is an area to the east of Cambridge, a large University City that now dwarfs the River Cam the narrow waterway that gave the city its name. The final airfield we visit lies on the outskirts of the city itself, and is probably more famous for its more recent operations under Marshalls of Cambridge, the Aerospace and Defence Group.

Our first stop though takes us through prime horse racing land, through the home of the Jockey Club and an area divided into studs and stabling, not for live stock, but for horses.

Our first stop in Trail 55 is the former RAF Snailwell, a small airfield where life was far from slow!

RAF Snailwell (USAAF Station 361).

Snailwell lies  just outside of the town of Newmarket in the county of Cambridgeshire now infinitely famous for its horse racing. The village of Snailwell from which the airfield takes its name, lies on the northern edge of the former airfield which is now  owned, as is much of this area, by the British Racing School who vehemently protect it from prying eyes.

Sitting to the north of the Bury St. Edmunds railway line, the airfield opened in the Spring of 1941, after the levelling of ten Bronze age Barrows (ancient burial grounds) as a satellite for RAF Duxford located to the south-west. The airfield would go through an ever changing number of roles including: Army Co-Operation, training, and as a fighter base performing low-level attacks on shipping and land based targets. It would also see a wide range of aircraft types from the small trainer to the powerful tank-buster the Typhoon. Opened as a technical training airfield, it passed to the control of 28 (Technical Training) Group whose headquarters were located in London. It fell under the command of Air Commodore John Charles ‘Paddy’  Quinnell, an avid lover of sailing who had a distinguished military history that extended back to 1914, first with the Royal Artillery and then with the Royal Flying Corps.

As a small grass airfield, Snailwell was by no means insignificant. It had three grass runways the largest being just short of 1,700 yards long, whilst the second and third were 1,400 yards in length. The main runway crossed the airfield on a south-west to north-east direction protruding out of the main airfield area. Aircraft were dispersed on concrete hardstands, a mix of twelve ‘Fighter’ style Type B hardstands (capable of holding two aircraft side by side but separated by a bank) along with two 50 ft diameter ‘frying pan’ style stands. They also had the use of a Bellman hangar, and ten blister hangars for servicing and maintenance of aircraft*1.

To the north, hidden amongst the trees was a bomb store, with separate fusing buildings, tail stores, incendiary and component stores, access to the site being via a 12 ft wide concrete road.

In all, there were only a few permanent personnel at the airfield, accommodation was only erected for around 1,100 officers and enlisted men in Nissen huts over just two sites; Dormitory site 1 and 2, which were supplemented with a mess site and sick quarters. It is known that later users were camped in tents around the airfield perimeter – not ideal accommodation by any means. Unusually, the technical area was widely spread with many buildings being away from the airfield hub. The watch office, at the centre of this hub, was designed to 12779/41 and had an adjoining meteorological office attached, an unusual addition for this type. There was also a wide range of buildings, AMT trainer, two Link trainers, flight offices, sleeping shelters, parachute stores, fire tender huts and numerous associated maintenance stores and sheds.

During construction of the airfield a local road was closed, and a lodge, built at the turn of the century, utilised as a guard room for the airfield. This building later passed to the Jockey Club for use by its employees.

The initial users of the airfield were the Army Co-operation Squadron  268 Sqn RAF, who arrived at Snailwell with Lysander IIIs on April 1st 1941. Being a slow aircraft it was ideal as a reconnaissance aircraft, flying patrols along the coast of East Anglia, looking for any sign of an invasion force. After arriving at Snailwell from Bury St. Edmunds, the three Echelons immediately began training, three photographic sorties taking place on the very day they arrived. In the days that followed, combined Army and Air Force exercises were the order of the day, after which the squadron took part in intensive gas training along with routine flying. However, 268 Sqn would not settle here, yo-yoing between Snailwell and numerous other stations no less than eleven times between their first arrival, and their last departure to RAF Odiham on May 31st 1943.

Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow

A Lysander at Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow 2019.

In the May of 1941, 268 Sqn would swap their ‘Lizzies’ (as they were affectionately known) for the Tomahawk IIA, an aircraft they kept until changing again to the better performing Mustang I a year later. These Tomahawks would perform a range of duties including – whilst based at RAF Barton Bendish in Norfolk – early morning ‘attacks’ on Snailwell as part of a Station Defence Exercise. These involved mock gas and parachute attacks along with low-level strafing runs. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight.

During the August of 1941 the first of Snailwell’s many short stay squadrons would arrive. 152 Squadron would use Snailwell for a period of just one week whilst transiting to nearby RAF Swanton Morley. Operating the sleek Spitfire IIA, the brain child of R.J. Mitchell, they would perform fighter sweeps, along with convoy and bomber escort duties. Arriving on the 25th, the only major event occurred on the 28th when the squadron escorted seventeen Blenheims to Rotterdam, Sgt. Savage being the only 152 Sqn pilot to be lost during the mission. The next day, ‘A’ flight searched for signs of him, but sadly found no wreckage nor any sign of Sgt. Savage.

Being a small airfield Snailwell was often home to detachments of squadrons, usually whilst on training. One such unit arriving on November 31st when 137 Sqn posted a detachment here whilst the main body of the squadron stayed at RAF Matlaske further north in Norfolk.  Operating the heavily armed escort fighter the Westland Whirlwind, they would perform escort duties for Lysanders, searches for downed aircraft and ‘X’ raid interception duties. Many of their patrols covered Great Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast in an area to the east of the airfield.

Designed in 1937, the Whirlwind had many teething problems with the engines proving to be a particular issue. After purchasing only 112 examples of the model, 137 would be one of only two squadrons who would use it in any operational role. After moving to Matlaske, 137 began a series of training operations, posting a detachment of aircraft to Snailwell whilst preparing to commence anti-shipping operations in the North Sea.  Once operationally ready, the unit moved north to RAF Drem (August 1942) before returning once more to Matlaske where further training would take place; ‘B’ Flight replaced ‘A’ Flight at Snailwell until both were reunited at Snailwell in late August. Anti shipping operations continued from Matlaske, with their final sortie occurring on August 20th in which an enemy Ju 88 was intercepted – the aircraft evading its pursuers in bad weather. Moving across to reunite the squadron on the 24th, 137 would perform their first operational sortie from Snailwell in early September, a feint attack against Lille. Designed to attract the Luftwaffe fighters into a trap, the twelve Whirlwinds and their fighter escorts failed to sight one enemy plane and all returned to their respective bases not having fired a shot. After this, the Whirlwinds were fitted with bombs and further training followed, but by mid September, they had left Snailwell and were heading for RAF Manston in Kent.

The summer of 1942 would be a busy period for Snailwell, with several squadrons utilising the airfield. At the end of March 56 (Punjab) Squadron would bring  the Hawker Typhoon MK.IA, a model they would begin replacing virtually immediately with the MK.IB. The April of that year was mainly taken up with practice formation flying and aircraft interception flights, before the squadron also moved to Manston in Kent. 56 Sqn would return briefly to Snailwell over the June / August period, but this would be short and they would then depart the airfield for good.

On June 15th 1942, a new squadron would be formed here at Snailwell. Under the command of Sqn. Ldr. F.G. Watson-Smyth, it would have two flights ‘A’ and ‘B’, each led by a Flight Lieutenant. 168 Sqn, initially flying the Curtiss Tomahawk II, was formed from the nucleus of 268 Sqn, and would remain here only until their aircraft and equipment had arrived. Being allocated RAF Bottisham as their main station, they would stay at Snailwell for a mere month. During this time aircraft would have their squadron numbers painted on, and Sqn, Ldr. Spear would give dual flying training to all pilots in a Fairy Battle.

Toward the end of June Sqn. Ldrs. Watson-Smyth and Bowen would visit Bottisham to discuss and prepare the accommodation arrangements for the squadron’s forthcoming arrival. Further deliveries of supplies took place and by the 26th there were seven Tomahawks on charge. On the 13th July, at 14:35 hrs, twelve Tomahawks took off from Snailwell and flew in formation to their new base at Bottisham, a mere stones throw from their current location. The move had begun and 168 Sqn would leave Snailwell for good.

In the August, whilst transiting to North Africa, 614 Sqn would place a detachment of their Blenheim Vs here, a further detachment being placed at Weston Zoyland with the main body of the squadron at Odiham. Coinciding with this was also a detachment of 239 Sqn with Mustang Is, making  Snailwell a very diverse station indeed.

With the arrival of autumn in the October of 1942, Snailwell took a very different turn, being handed over to the US Ninth Air Force Service Command who brought in the Airacobra, one of the few wartime fighters to use a tricycle undercarriage. Transferring across from Duxford, the parent airfield of Snailwell, the 347th Fighter Squadron (FS) were a brand new squadron, only being activated that very same month.

In part two we see the early American influence, and how this small grass airfield played its part in the build up to D-day.

The full page can be seen on Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.