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 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 No. 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 No. 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, No. 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 No. 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. No. 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 No. 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. No.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, No. 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
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 No 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 No. 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.
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. No. 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 No. 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, No. 137 would be one of only two squadrons who would use it in any operational role. After moving to Matlaske, No. 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, No.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 No. 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. No. 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. No. 168 Sqn, initially flying the Curtiss Tomahawk II, was formed from the nucleus of No. 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, No.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 No. 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.
Whilst visiting the Swaffham (Norfolk) area, this was perhaps more prominent than in many of the other places I’d been. Like other sections, this area was predominately American in nature, forming the back bone of the USAAF, bomber squadrons of the 8th Air Force. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found. Our first stop along Trail 8 is RAF Methwold.
Methwold village sign
Located between Downham Market and Thetford, Methwold is a small rural setting on the edge of Thetford Forest. Its village sign and combined memorial, remind the passer-by of its strong air force links – a Lockheed Ventura taking off over the village church.
Methwold was actually built as a satellite for nearby RAF Feltwell and as such, had few squadrons of its own. Being a satellite its runways were of grass construction with little in the way of luxuries for accommodation.
On the day war broke out in Europe, 214 Squadron, equipped with Wellington MKIs, moved from RAF Feltwell to here at Methwold. Feltwell being larger, offered a prime target for the Luftwaffe and so their loss would be Methwold’s gain. The first production Wellington, the MKI was powered by two 1,000 hp Bristol Pegasus XVIII radial engines, and would soon be updated and replaced by the MKIA; the main difference being a change in gun turret from the Vickers to the Nash & Thomson. As part of Bomber Command, 214 Sqn did not carry out its first operational bombing flight until June 1940 some four months after it had left Methwold; but that is not to say casualties were not suffered.
On Monday November 6th 1939, Wellington L4345, crashed whilst circling on approach to Methwold. The accident resulted in the deaths of both crewmen, Pilot Officer J. Lingwood and Aircraftman 1, – A. Matthews.
Tragic accidents were not uncommon in these early stages of the war, another similar incident occurring at Methwold only a month later. In mid December, Pilot Officers W. Colmer and R. Russell-Forbes, along with Leading Aircraftman J. Warriner, were all killed whilst on approach to the airfield flying in another Wellington, R2699. Both these Officers were only recently commissioned and were still considered relative flying ‘novices’.
In February 1940, 214 Sqn departed Methwold and transferred to RAF Stradishall leaving only a small number of Wellington IIIs of 57 Sqn detached from their parent station at Feltwell. These would, in September 1942, be replaced by the mighty Lancaster, the four engined bomber that formed the backbone of the RAF’s Bomber Command.
Little happened at Methwold for the next two years, then in October 1942, 21 Sqn arrived. After having flown many missions against coastal targets in the Mediterranean, they were disbanded at Luqa only to be reformed and re-equipped at Bodney the same day. After changing their Blenheims for Venturas in May 1942, they transferred to RAF Methwold where they stayed for six months.
Operating both the Ventura MKI and II, they were the first Bomber Command squadron to re-equip with the type, and were one of the small number of squadrons who took part in the famous Eindhoven raid, attacking the Philips radio factory in December 1942. The daring Operation Oyster, would see the loss of sixteen aircraft – three of which belonged to 21 Sqn. Two of these aircraft crashed in enemy territory, whilst the third ditched in the North Sea after having been hit by enemy gunfire. Using a mix of Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitoes, this mission perhaps revealed the true vulnerability of such aircraft over enemy territory, a warning that would violently repeat itself in the months to come.
The spring of 1943 would again see changes at Methwold; as 21 Sqn departed, the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ of 320 (Dutch) Sqn would move in. 320 Sqn, were formed after the German forces invaded the Netherlands and consisted of mainly Dutch nationals. They carried out both anti-shipping and rescue duties before transferring, from Leuchars, to Methwold via Bircham Newton. Upon arriving here, 320 Sqn was absorbed into No. 2 Group and would shortly swap their Hudson VIs for Mitchell IIs. After a very short transfer period, they then departed Methwold, moving to the much larger base at Attlebridge.
Two further squadrons of Venturas arrived at Methwold in the early spring of 1943. Both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Sqns were formed, transferred and disbanded in unison, and both consisted of commonwealth crews. Having entered the war in a baptism of fire, they also flew alongside 21 Sqn on the Eindhoven raid; 464 Sqn contributing fourteen aircraft whilst 487 contributed sixteen – each squadron losing three aircraft and all but four of the twenty-four crewmen.
One of the original hangars at Methwold.
The Venturas earned themselves the unsavoury title the ‘flying pig‘ partly due to their appearance and partly due to poor performance. Based on the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, it was primarily a passenger aircraft and even though it had powerful engines, it performance was low and so operational losses were often high.
On May 3rd 1943, whilst on a ‘Ramrod‘ mission, eleven out of twelve (one returning due to engine trouble) 487 Sqn aircraft were lost to enemy action, and all but twelve of the forty-four crewmen were killed. Of these twelve, Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent, was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. On his eventual return to England at the end of the war, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses.
In the summer of 1943, both 464 and 487 Squadrons became part of the newly formed Second Tactical Air Force; a move that led to their departure from Methwold, along with a new role and new aircraft.
Following their departure, Methwold was passed over to 3 Group and was designated to receive the heavy four-engined bombers of Bomber Command. To accommodate them, the site was upgraded to Class ‘A’ standard. Three runways were built, five hangars (four ‘T2s’ and one ‘B1’) were erected, and a wide range of ancillary buildings added. Aircraft dispersal consisted of 36 hard standings mainly of the spectacle type.
The incoming ground and aircrews would be accommodated in areas to the east of the airfield, buildings were sufficient for a small bomber site of some 1,800 men and just over 300 women, by no means large.
In this interim period on March 13th, a lone American P-47 #42-74727, suffered engine failure whilst on a routine training flight in the area. In an attempt to land at Methwold, the P-47 Thunderbolt crashed, slightly injuring the pilot but writing off the aircraft.
The first of the heavy bombers to arrive at the newly constructed Methwold were the mighty Stirling IIIs of 218 Sqn. A small detachment from RAF Woolfox Lodge, they would operate from here along side 149 Squadron who moved here from RAF Lakenheath in May 1944. 149’s record so far had been highly distinguished. Participating in the RAF’s second bombing mission of the war on September 4th, they had gone on to take part in the first 1,000 bomber raid, attacked prestige targets such as the Rhur, and had taken part in the Battle of Hamburg. They had also been in action in the skies over the Rocket development site at Peenemunde. They had gone on to drop essential supplies to the French Resistance, and one of its pilots, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, had won the VC for his valour and determination in action. 149 Sqn would go on with the offensive right up until the war’s end, replacing the ill-fated Stirlings with Lancaster MKIs and later the MKIIIs in August 1944.
During the D-Day landings, 149 Squadron were tasked with dropping dummy parachutists away from the Normandy beaches. As part of Operation Titanic, they were to deceive the German ground forces, aiming to draw them away from the Normandy beaches, thus reducing the defensive force. A task that proved relatively successful in certain areas of the invasion zone, it caused confusion in the German ranks and pulled vital men away from drop zones. During this dramatic operation, two 149 Sqn Stirlings were lost; LJ621 ‘OJ-M’ and LX385 ‘OJ-C’ – with all but three of the eighteen crew being killed.
In August 1944, 218 Sqn moved the remaining crews over to Methwold completing the unit’s strength once more. This move also led to them taking on the Lancaster MKIs and IIIs. 218 Sqn was another squadron with a remarkable record of achievements, its most notable being the VC posthumously awarded to Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ whilst at RAF Downham Market.
As the allied advance moved across Europe, 149 Sqn supported them. In December 1944, 218 Sqn departed Methwold taking their Lancasters to RAF Chedburgh and disbandment the following year. 218’s losses were not over though, just days before the war’s end on April 24th 1945, Lancaster NF955 ‘HA-H’ crashed on take off, the last fatality of the squadron’s operational record. For 149 Sqn food packages replaced bombs as the relief operation – Operation Manna – took hold. After the fall of Germany in 1945, 149 Sqn ferried POWs back to Methwold in Operation Exodus, and for many, it was their first taste of freedom for many years.
The final squadron to be stationed at Methwold was 207 Squadron, between October 1945 and the end of April 1946 also flying the Lancaster I and III. As with many other bomber command squadrons, its history was also long and distinguished; flying its final mission of the war on 25th April 1945, against the SS Barracks at Berchtesgaden. During its wartime service 207 Sqn had completed some 540 operations, lost 154 crews and earned themselves a total of 7 DSOs, 115 DFCs and 92 DFMs.
In 1946, the Lancasters of 149 Squadron departed Methwold and all fell quiet. The site was officially closed in 1958 and the land returned to the former owners. In the early 1960s, much of the concrete was removed for hardcore, buildings were demolished and the land returned to agriculture, a state it primarily survives in today.
Stores huts used for light industry
Methwold airfield is located south of the village of Methwold, accessible by the B1112. As you drive along this road, the technical area is to your left and the main airfield to your right. The entire site is primarily agricultural, with some of the remaining buildings being used for farming purposes or light industry. Many of these are accessible or at least can be seen from the main public highway.
Large parts of the runways do still exist, although much of them are covered in newly developed industrial units, or are hidden away on private land. These most notable developments are at the northern end of the runway closest to Methwold village. However, best views of what’s left, are from the southern end, along a farm track that was once the perimeter track. Also here, is a single large and original ‘T2’ hangar, now used for storing agricultural equipment and other farm related products. This main north-westerly runway, built later in the war, is also used for farm related storage. Divided by a large fence, it is now part track and part storage. The remaining sections of perimeter track, a fraction of its original size, allows access to the runway past the hangar to an area of development further south to where the turret trainers once stood. Also visible here, is the Gymnasium built to drawing 16428/40 later adapted by the addition of a projection room (889/42) for recreational films.
Back alongside the B1112 hidden amongst the woods, is the technical area. Here in between the trees are the former technical huts and workshops now used by small industrial units, many of which survive in varying conditions, some of these are accessible to the general public.
One of the former runways looking north-west.
Methwold was never intended to be major player in the war. home to a small number of squadrons, it housed a variety of aircraft and a number of nationals who all combined, tell incredible stories of heroism, bravery and dedication. The squadrons who passed though here, carried out some of the RAF’s most daring raids, whether it be as part of a thousand bomber raid, a small force to attack the heart of Reich, or a diversionary raid to foil air and ground forces.
Methwold is now quiet, agriculture has taken over. The sound of heavy piston engines are now replaced by the sound of tractors, the buildings that once housed brave young men and their incredible machines now home to the machinery of food and farming. The small remnants of Methwold hold stories of their own, for it is here that history was made, war was won and lives were lost – and all in a very unassuming manner.
In this new addition to Trail 20, we visit a former airfield whose history not only stems back to the First World War, but is deeply rooted in it. Between the wars it lay dormant, and then sprang into life once more, as military activity in Norfolk increased during the 1940s. Known under four different names, and controlled by three different branches of the armed forces, we visit an airfield that has been the subject of one of Britain’s largest archaeological digs in recent years. Situated east of the coastal resort of Heacham in Norfolk, it now forms the first airfield on our tour in Trail 20. We start the Trail at the former RAF Sedgeford.
Also known as RFC Sedgeford, RNAS Sedgeford or Sedgeford Aerodrome, the airfield lies just outside of the village from which it takes its name, and on the south side of the B1454 Docking Road.
Sedgeford originally opened as a First World War airfield during the latter half of 1915 as Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Sedgeford. It was initially a Class 1 night landing ground (NLG) for the main base at Great Yarmouth (South Denes) much further to the east on East Anglia’s North Sea Coast.
The Royal Naval Air Service were themselves a fledgling service, being formed only a year earlier in July 1914, after the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) was removed from RFC control, being placed under the jurisdiction of the Admiralty. At their time of formation the RNAS had on its books some fifty-five seaplanes (inc. ship-borne aircraft); forty aeroplanes; seven airships; 111 officers and 544 men*1.
With aviation very much in its infancy, the RNAS had been using mainly airships, and were only just beginning to venture into aeroplanes as a means of fighting a war. With a range of airfields in the area including both RFC Holt and RFC Bacton (NLG), it also used Ludham (HMS Flycatcher), Pulham (an airship station), Hickling Road (a seaplane airfield), Lowestoft (a balloon site) and Great Yarmouth (South Denes which was a mixed use airfield for home defence and marine operations). From these humble beginnings, the RNAS were to become a strong force during the First World War.
With the might of the Zeppelin ruling the skies, it wasn’t long before the first attacks were made along the North Norfolk coast, ranging from Great Yarmouth to Kings Lynn. These attacks, and continuing intruder flights by Zeppelins, called for a much greater aerial protection of East Anglia. It was this call that led to the creation of not only Sedgeford but also Aldeburgh, Bacton, Holt, Narborough (which later became Norfolk’s first military airfield) and Burgh Castle as active airfields operating armed flying units*2.
During the early part of 1916, RNAS Sedgeford was transferred across to the RFC (themselves only formed on 13th April 1912) and used as a training station. The site was developed with further buildings added, eventually gaining eleven canvassed Bessonneaux hangars, two more permanent General Service Sheds, a range of buildings suitable for aircraft repair and maintenance, barrack huts, MT (motor transport) sheds and even a locomotive shed fed by a branch line to the main Hunstanton and West Norfolk Railway a mile or so to the north. Sedgeford would develop into a substantial sized airfield with some 100 buildings accommodating over 1,200 personnel including WRENs and WRAFs. Whilst the overall dimensions of the site cannot be confirmed, it is thought that the airfield covered around 170 acres.
The WRAFs, (known affectionately as ‘Penguins,’ because they didn’t fly) were often found working in aircraft doping sheds repairing aircraft fabrics using a potentially harmful ‘dope’ containing an acetate solvent. The fumes from this solvent were known to be lethal in large doses, with many of those using it on a regular basis, feeling ill or in extreme cases, dying from the effects of its toxic fumes. To combat the problem, some First World War doping sheds had extractor fans built into them to remove these hazardous fumes, and at Sedgeford, evidence has been found (by the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project), that confirms their use here.
Over the next few years Sedgeford would house a number of flying units, both training and ‘operational’ whilst preparing to move to France. The first of these (No. 45 Squadron) arrived on 21st May 1916 operating the Bristol BE.2b, an aircraft that they had been using since April at Thetford. Over the next five months, 45 Sqn would take on three other aircraft types: the Henry Farman F.20, (June to August), Royal Aircraft Factory FE.2b (July to Sept) and lastly the Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (July to Sept 1917); the first British aeroplane to have synchronised guns firing through a two bladed propeller. The rather odd name was given to the aircraft because of the unusual ‘half-struts’ that attached the wings to the fuselage.
Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter (unknown photographer via Wikipedia.)
In August 1916, 45 Sqn was broken up, with the nucleus being used to form a new squadron here at Sedgeford – No. 64 Sqn. The remainder of No. 45 Sqn then prepared for France, a move it made two months later.
No. 64 Sqn continued using the Henry Farman F.20s that had previously been allocated to them, but over time, they too would use a variety of aircraft types including: the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c and FE.2b, Sopwith’s famous Pup, the Avro 504 and the de Havilland DH5.
Then on February 1st 1917, 64 Sqn was itself then split, the demand for new pilots and new squadrons increasing as the conflict entered its third gruesome year. From this split, another new squadron was born, No. 53 Reserve Squadron, who were themselves re-designated as No. 53 Training Squadron on 31st May 1917, and operated models such as the RE.8, BE.2c, Avro 504J and the DH.6. They would eventually leave Sedgeford and end their days at Harlaxton where they were disbanded and merged into another unit.
Although many of these pilots were ‘experienced’, being in training meant there were of course accidents, many taking the lives of the young men who had been drawn to the thrill of flying. One such pilot, twenty year old Sec. Lt. Arthur Le Roy Dean, was killed when his Sopwith ‘Pup’ (official name Scout) #B1788 spun into the ground whilst flying with 64 Sqn on August 8th 1917. He initially survived the crash only to die from his injuries the following day.
The grave of Second Lieutenant Arthur Dean RFC.
The 9th would prove to be a black day for 64 Sqn, after they lost a second pilot, Canadian Lt. Edward Gordon Hanlan, who was killed when his DH.5 (#A9393) crashed following a wing failure whilst performing a loop over the airfield at nearby Bircham Newton.
September 1917 would prove to be a busy month for both Sedgeford airfield and the many airmen stationed there. On the 15th, another new unit arrived to join 64 Sqn. They too were a new squadron, only being formed a few days earlier at Upavon. No. 87 Sqn, remained at Sedgeford for just three months prior to moving to Hounslow before themselves moving across to St. Omer in France, which was rapidly becoming the hub of the Royal Flying Corp in continental Europe.
This month was the penultimate month of 64’s stay at Sedgeford, and prior to them leaving for France another Sopwith Pup (#B1787) would take the life of its pilot, 2Lt. Francis Brian Hallam Anderson (aged 19) who, like Sec. Lt. Dean, survived the actual crash only to succumb to his injuries and die several days later on the 8th. Flying these lightweight aircraft was not proving to be easy.
By mid October (14th), orders to move had come through, and 64 Squadron packed its bags – they were on their way to France taking their DH5s to St. Omer. St. Omer being the very place the parent squadron (No. 45 Sqn) had moved to almost a year to the day previously. The many faces of 45 Sqn surely being different to those that departed a year before.
It was in France that 64 Sqn’s Acting Captain Flt, Lt. James A. Slater MC., DFC. would go on to be the Sqn’s top ace achieving 22 kills, which when added to the two he achieved with No. 1 Sqn, gave him a total of 24 kills. His determination and expertise in the air earning him both the DFC and Military Cross (with Bar) which was Gazetted in the London Gazette Supplement published on February 1st 1918*3*4.
The beginning of November 1917 would see another short lived unit arrive at this Norfolk site, and it would be the brief reuniting of two sister units.
Both No. 72 Sqn and No. 87 Sqn, had their roots firmly fixed in the same place – the Central Flying School at Upavon; 87 being formed from the resident ‘D’ Flight whilst 72 were formed from ‘A’ Flight. Whilst they perhaps enjoyed a momentary annexation, it would not last long before they would all depart and go their separate ways for good. Whilst 87 Sqn moved to the cold winter of France, No. 72 Sqn would take their Pups to the much warmer Persian Gulf and onto Basra and Baghdad, where they stayed until the war’s end.
Sedgeford was rapidly becoming a major player in the RFC’s continued development, with yet another new unit arriving here the same month they were formed – No. 110 Sqn. They too would be another relatively short stay unit, and again, operating a number of different aircraft types. Formed on November 1st, they were created out of the nucleus of 38 Training Squadron at Rendcomb, and stopped off at Dover on their way to Sedgeford. By June 1918, they were on their way again, moving to Kenley in Surrey, a station that would become famous in the Second World War as a fighter airfield.
Within days of 110 Sqn’s arrival, pilot James Alan Pearson was killed following a flying accident at Sedgeford. Pearson, who was from Chesterfield, had only joined the RFC in August that same year, transferring from South Farnborough, to Winchester, Oxford and then Hendon, where he joined No. 19 Training Squadron on September 19th, 1917. On November 19th, he completed his probationary period and was confirmed as a Temporary Second Lieutenant upon which, he was posted to No. 110 Sqn, at Sedgeford, just after the main squadron arrived at the busy Norfolk airfield.
His death came within a matter of days of his arrival, some references stating he ‘blacked out’, whilst other say his aircraft, a Martinsyde Elephant (#B866), broke apart. No doubt, both actions resulted from a steep dive from which Pearson never recovered. During the dive, and probable breakup of the aeroplane, Pearson was thrown out of the cockpit, unaided or not conscious, he failed to survive the fall. His official service record (AIR 76/396/34) simply states ‘Killed as result of aero accident‘, the short few entries showing how limited, at 18 years old, his experience was.
The grave of 18 yr old, Sec. Lt. James A. Pearson at St. Mary’s Church, Docking, who was killed within four months of joining the RFC.
As the war turned to another year and the winter of 1917/18 dragged on, New Year’s day 1918, would see No. 110 Sqn joined by another newly formed unit, No. 122 Sqn, who whilst initially operating a range of aircraft, were earmarked to receive the de Havilland DH.9. However, the transition would not go smoothly and it would ultimately result in the squadron’s demise.
Both 110 and 122 Sqns were assigned to go to France, 110 Sqn leaving on 15th June 1918 initially to Kenley before Bettoncourt to the south of Nancy in France, whilst No. 122 Sqn were to be sent to Hamble (which became the more prominent Upper Hayford post World War Two) where they were to take on the DH.9s before also moving to the continent.
However, the unit was disbanded whilst still as a training unit at Sedgeford on the day prior to its move on 17th August 1918. No. 122 was then reformed at Hamble, but further plans stalled as the DH.9 was replaced by the DH.10 and a delay in allocation prevented the reformed squadron from its final activation. With the war’s end and no further requirement seen for the squadron, the process then halted, and in November 1918, the squadron was disbanded for good .
With the war in Europe now over, the withdrawal of squadrons from France began and units started the long journey home. Sedgeford would continue to host some of these units, continuing to perform their role as a training airfield. Even at this point, expansion of the airfield was still occurring but the future for Sedgeford was not bright.
At the end of 1918, No 3 Fighting School (FS) (who had been formed at nearby Bircham Newton) arrived at Sedgeford. Being a former Aerial Fighting and Gunnery School, it operated a number of different aircraft types including: Pups, a range of de Havilland models, Dolphins, Camels and Handley Page 0/400s. Perhaps now, as the war was over, a lapse in concentration may have been the cause of a New Year’s misadventure, when on January 24th 1919, two Sopwith Camels collided over Sedgeford airfield. Camel #C8318 flown by Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC., was in collision with #H2724 flown by Lt Hector Daniel MC.
Capt. King, who had been wounded in France, had been awarded not only the Military Cross in April 1918, but also the Distinguished Flying Cross in August 1918 along with the Croix de Guerre. Incredibly he was just short of his 19th birthday. Lt Daniel (a South African), survived the accident, and also achieved the Military Cross along with the Air Force Cross in July 1918 and June 1919 respectively.*5
The grave of Capt. Cecil Frederick King MC., DFC, Croix de Guerre
The wind down was slow at Sedgeford, but March 1919 would see two major changes at the airfield. Firstly, on the 14th, No. 3 FS was disbanded, reforming as No. 7 Training Squadron (TS), who continued in the training role at Sedgeford. By October though, with cutbacks in the pipeline, it would no longer be required and so operations were curtailed, and it was finally disbanded.
Secondly, the end of March saw the arrival of a cadre of No. 13 Sqn with RE.8s. Their journey to Sedgeford had taken them around the many battlefields of France over the last three years, the skies of Norfolk must have been a more than welcome break for the young pilots.
As more and more units were disbanded, Sedgeford too would feel the bite. On New Year’s Eve 1919/20, orders were received and subsequently carried out, to disband the last remaining squadron at the airfield, and with this, the end of Sedgeford as a flying base was now signalled.
The interwar years saw many of the buildings removed, many being sold off or demolished, but fortunately some remained, falling into disrepair or put to agricultural use. What remained of the airfield was left in a dormant state, fading bit by bit. But, the 1930s increase in international tensions would be the saviour of Sedgeford, as war once again reared its ugly head. This time however, it would not be as an operational airfield with the usual buzz and activity it was once so used to, this time it would be a much quieter decoy site.
With so many strategic airfields located in East Anglia, and with the extended development of Bircham Newton as few miles away, the protection of these sites was paramount. The war of deception created the dummy airfield, with the sole purpose of diverting the Luftwaffe bombers away from the real airfield located nearby. Sedgeford was seen as a suitable location for such a site, the few remaining buildings being partly representative of a wartime airfield. With a little development and appropriate lighting added, Sedgeford became one such site, the remaining buildings being utilised to create an image of activity one would expect to see on an active airfield.
The airfield today is far different from the one used in World War One.
These decoy sites were the brainchild of Colonel John Fisher Turner, a retired Officer from the Air Ministry who had turned his hand to film work and special effects. Working with a team of tradesmen and engineers, they produced life-like aircraft, vehicles, boats and buildings using canvas, wood and other lightweight materials that when viewed from the air, look like the real thing. With lights added to give the impression of runway lighting, fires and vehicles, it proved to be a major coup in the war against the Luftwaffe. Designated as both a ‘Q’ (night time) and ‘K’ (day time) decoy station, Sedgeford was operational between June 1940 and August 1942, after which time the larger threat of bombing had sub-sided.
Sedgeford had a small number of operators on site to perform the deception, and because they were to attract enemy attention, they were provided with a shelter, the bulk of which still exists on the site today. After this, Sedgeford was finally closed down and returned to agricultural use once more. A state it has remained in ever since.
The airfield’s site is located just outside of the village, a gate and long path indicate the original entrance to the site. This path was once lined with First World War buildings, none of which remain today. The actual airfield itself is now an agricultural field, the railway spur that led from the main line has also gone, as has the main line itself. From the public road there are sadly no indications of the significance of this once historic site.
The main entrance and long road into former RAF Sedgeford. The field to the left would have had several buildings along it. The buildings remaining today are located beyond the forest on the horizon.
Along from the airfield toward the village of Docking, is another private dwelling that was also known to have been used as a billet for Sedgeford’s airmen. Formally the Union Workhouse it dates back to 1835 and was one of the largest workhouses in Norfolk at that time. Intended to hold up to 450 people, it rarely had more than 100 at any one time. The RFC took over the building in 1916 handing it back at the war’s end.
Since 2009 the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) has carried out a huge excavation of the site at Sedgeford, uncovering a number of foundations and links to Sedgeford’s aviation history. Some of these buildings include the mortuary and Officers quarters, with its very ornate fireplace, and the World War 2 shelter mentioned previously. These are all firmly on private land hidden in a small wood around which the majority of the technical buildings were originally erected. Access to these sites is understandably only with permission, something I didn’t have on the day. The project, which has been carried out yearly, also uncovered numerous building foundations and a track for a hangar door. Substantial information being gleaned from the various digs being carried out over the years.
The types of buildings remaining at Sedgeford, especially the First World War examples, make this quite a unique site. So few buildings exist from this era, Stow Maries being the only other site with examples of any quality. This, along with the many deaths and sacrifices witnessed by Sedgeford, make it both historically and architecturally significant, and as such, perhaps the site should be protected.
The history of Sedgeford is extraordinary. Many of those who passed through its doors were teenagers, some lasted only weeks, whilst others went on to fly for years performing acts of great bravery and daring. But one thing that draws them all together was the thrill of flying in an era were flight was new and boundaries were unknown. Their bravery and courage should be remembered.
Sedgeford airfield had sadly all but passed into the history books, but recent excavations have given new life to this once significant site, and maybe one day, these will be given public status, and the memories of those who served and died here will live again.
This recognition took a step forward when on 21st July 1918 the Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust erected a memorial at Sedgeford. The report can be seen on both Your Local Paper website, and the ABCT website along with videos of the day and interviews with SHARP members.
From Sedgeford we continue with Trail 20, and travel east toward Docking, stopping off at St. Mary’s Church, before travelling a few miles further to the former airfield RAF Docking.
Sources and further reading.
*1 Fleet Air Arm Officers Association Website accessed 10/8/2019
*2 Gunn. P. “Aviation Landmarks – Norfolk and Suffolk“. The History Press (2017)
*3 London Gazette Publication date: Supplement: 30827, Page:9204.
In the last two parts (Part 1 and Part 2) of RAF Glatton – a short lived airfield with a big history, we see the war draw to a close and those left at Glatton begin dreaming of home. But as the year turns to 1945, there is still plenty to do and many more missions to fulfil.
January 1945 and Glatton’s 457th continued the battle, returning to skies over Germany once more. This time they were assigned to the oil refinery at Derben, an industrial target sitting on the banks of the Elbe to the west of Berlin. A massed and concentrated attack, it saw all the 1st Air Division in operation along with both the 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions. In all 850 B-17s and B-24s were launched that winter’s day. With cloud covering large parts of the continent, targets were difficult to find, the Group had to deviate from both its primary and secondary targets, as neither could be seen for visual bombing. Instead Kassel was chosen as a target of opportunity, and the bomb run made. Again, cloud covered much of the area, but the target itself was found to be clear and so the formation followed a Pathfinder force and bombed on their markers.
Whilst Flak was light, it was considered accurate, with fourteen aircraft being damaged, but thankfully there were no 457th losses that day, and all crews returned to Glatton safely. It was during this mission that B-17 #42-38021 “Mission Maid” achieved her seventy-fifth mission, a remarkable achievement for any heavy bomber of the Second World War. In February she would be forced down onto French soil, after which she was declared ‘War Weary’ and transferred No. 5 SAD where she was modified to carry lifeboats. In July 1945 she was then transferred to the United States where she was sold for scrap metal. During her operational life ‘Mission Maid‘ was credited with the downing of eight enemy aircraft – a sad end to a glorious career.
B-17G #42-38021 “Mission Maid” ‘K’ 748th BS at Glatton *7
The cold winter of 1944 / 45 also saw the German’s last-ditch effort to defeat the allied forces on the ground. With a massed counter attack through the Ardennes forests in what became famously called the ‘Battle of the Bulge’, the Germans surrounded the town of Bastogne and the 101st Airborne. The Glatton crews supported the ground troops by attacking resupply lines behind enemy lines, including the numerous failed attempts at the Remagen Bridge.
As the Allies fought their way over the Rhine, the Glatton crews were there in support attacking other targets behind German lines.
On April 20th 1945, the 457th flew their final operational mission, attacking the marshalling yards at Seddin, to the south of Berlin. With the end of the war just around the corner there was little resistance from either ground forces or the Luftwaffe, none of the 457th aircraft taking hits or suffering any damage, it was virtually a ‘milk run’.
Following VE day, the 457th flew POWs back from Europe to England, then with no further action to undertake, the airfield was handed back to the RAF’s No. 3 Group under the control of Bomber Command operating both the Avro Lancaster and Consolidated B-24 Liberators flying out to the Middle East.
By June the war for the 457th was over. The men and machines were transferred back to the United States with the aircraft leaving Glatton between May 19th and 23rd, and the ground echelons sailing on the Queen Elizabeth from Gourock in Scotland, at the end of June. After arriving at New York there was 30 days rest before the men assembled at Sioux Falls. Here the axe fell and the 457th was no more, the four squadrons being disbanded for good and the Group removed from the Air Forces inventory. Glatton was eventually closed and the site was sold off in 1948.
The 50ft high Braithwaite water tower is virtually the only surviving structure at Glatton. Thus stands on the edge of the former Site 7.
The 457th had been short-lived. They had taken part in many of Europe’s major battles, seen action over Normandy, the breakout at St. Lo, supported the Airborne attack on Holland and the crossing over the Rhine into Germany itself. They had bombed many of Germany’s major cities, including the heart of the German Reich, Berlin. In all, the 457th flew 236 missions, dropping 17,000 tons of bombs, and destroying 33 enemy fighters (along with 12 probable and 50 damaged). They lost a total of 83 aircraft to enemy action, with a small number being scrapped following accidents and heavy flak damage.
Glatton quickly returned to agriculture. The vast technical area was demolished, concrete tracks were dug up and buildings removed. Two of the three runways however, remained, and during the 1970s flying activity began to return once more. The main runway was resurfaced, and is now used by the Peterborough Business Airport whilst the second runway remains in its original concrete but unlicensed for any aviation activity. The third runway has been turned into the road that traverses the site, but all other hard tracks have all but gone.
The original control tower was demolished years ago but a new one has been built and flying continues in the form of microlight, helicopter and fixed wing training.
All Saints Church Memorial looking toward the airfield.
At the nearby All Saints Church in Conington, a memorial stands with the bust of a pilot looking over toward the field as if watching for lost comrades to return, a poignant and moving figure, it has gradually and very sadly begun to look rather unkempt. A further memorial has been erected adjacent to the only substantial building left, a water tower at what was the original entrance to the site next to the main A1 road. This tower now stands as a reminder of the days when B-17s would rumble over the fields on their way to occupied Europe, perhaps never to return. A small display is available in the flying school offices, a reminder to the budding flyers of today of the strong history and heritage of RAF Glatton.
Part 1 of RAF Glatton saw how the 457th were thrown into the deep end of the war. With a baptism of fire in the ‘Big Week’ campaign attacks against the German aircraft industry, they managed to survive with few casualties, but learned a great deal about the air war over Germany. In Part 2, we see the 457th in yet more high prestige raids and how they played a further part in the attacks on German industry. We also see unusual visitors and ‘oddities’ appear in the skies over Glatton.
Following the February campaign, the 457th would go on to drop both leaflets and bombs on coastal targets and more prestige targets including Wilhelmshaven on March 3rd 1944, and Berlin on March 6th. On this mission, two further aircraft were lost, not by being shot down by flak or enemy fighters, but because one was rammed by a Luftwaffe Me-410 fighter causing it to strike a second B-17 of the same group in the lower section.
Mission 8 for the 457th would take the group consisting of eighteen aircraft to the V.K.F. ball-bearing works in Erkner on the outskirts of Berlin. The factory, a subsidiary of the Swedish S.K.F. ball-bearing company, produced many of the ball-bearings required for the German war machine. B-17G #42-31595 ‘Flying Jenny‘ was struck by the fighter causing it to fall into the lower section of the formation B-17G #42-31627. Only the tail gunner of 627 survived, the remainder being ‘killed in action’*3.
During this period, losses remained remarkably low for the group, possibly due to the many targets they bombed being secondary, or targets of opportunity, a decision forced on the group primarily by bad weather over the primary target area.
March 1944 saw a remarkable and unique visitor to Glatton, one that not only attracted many military visitors to the airfield, but one that lightened the atmosphere amongst the men. A plan had earlier been formed in the United States to send B-29 ‘Superfortresses’ to China in a bid to support the Chinese and to allow the bombing of Japan from Chinese bases. In early 1944 this plan became reality but reliability problems had dogged the B-29’s engines and so major modifications had to be carried before the long flight could begin.
There was a fear that the Germans might attack the aircraft as they were ferried across the Mediterranean, and so a devious plan was set in motion to fool the Germans into thinking that B-29s were to be based in England, ready to be used against German targets. The first part of this rouse was in early March 1944, when YB-29 #41-36963 ‘Hobo Queen‘ took off from Salina Airbase in Kansas taking initially the southern route then deviating to the north and heading to Newfoundland. The B-29, piloted by Colonel Frank Cook, then flew across to the UK landing at RAF Glatton. The aircraft remained at Glatton for a short period before visiting both St Mawgan and Bassingbourn, before its final departure to India in April that year. The ruse had been a success. The B-29 certainly was a draw to the crews, its enormous size dwarfing anything hat had been seen at Glatton before, it was truly a remarkable aircraft, the likes of which had never been seen over the Huntingdon countryside previously.
Crews and ground staff swarm around B-29 #41-36963 at Glatton airfield 11th March 1944*4.
On April 22nd 1944, the 457th took part in the famous Mission 311, the mission in which US forces lost more aircraft to enemy intruders than at any other time in the war. On this mission, Hamm – the largest marshalling yard in Germany – was the target. The 457th along with the 401st BG and the 351st BG of the 94th Combat Wing, found themselves arriving last over the target, by which time it was covered in smoke from both previous bombing and German defensive smoke pots. Finding a break in the cloud the 457th dropped their bombs onto the target achieving ‘good’ results. However, by the time the Group were approaching home, it was dark and a group of Luftwaffe fighters had managed to hide themselves within the formations mingling with the bomber stream. By the time their presence was known, it was too late, and a number of aircraft, mainly B-24s, were attacked and either shot down or badly damaged. The 457th were once again lucky, only one aircraft, #42-106985 ‘La Legende‘, was severely damaged, but not to the point that it couldn’t crash-land back at Glatton. Significantly, on-board this aircraft was the station commander Lt. Col. James R. Luper.
B-17G #42-106985 after crash landing at Glatton April 22nd 1944. On board the aircraft was the station Commander Lt. Col James Luper. *5
It was Lt. Col. Luper who had had the honour of both collecting and naming the 1000th Douglas Long Beach built B-17, (#42-38113), ‘Rene III‘, named so after his wife. Initially called ‘Pistol Packing Mama‘ by the very people who built the aircraft, she was flown from the United States to Glatton by Lt. Col. Luper and his crew.
Lt. Col. Luper with ‘Rene III’ the 1000th Douglas built B17 (IWM)
Over the next year, ‘Rene III‘ would complete fifty-three missions, many over Germany including: Augsburg, Schweinfurt, Ludwigshafen, Leipzig, Munich, Cologne and Bremen. On her final mission, March 21st, 1945 to Hopsten, she was piloted by Lt. Craig P. Greason (s/n: 0-825840) of the 749th BS.
As the 749th BS aircraft approached the target, ‘Rene III‘ took a direct hit in the wing, close to the No. 4 engine, which caused a fuel leak and subsequent fire. The aircraft then dropped out of formation – one of the worst things that could happen to a stricken bomber. Official records suggest that the B-17 then went on to bomb the target after the fire appeared to extinguish itself. However, the crew were known to have all bailed out safely, after which all the aircrew (apart from Aircraft Engineer Sgt. William Wagner, who was caught and became a POW) managed to evade capture.
The station commander, Lt. Col. Luper, who was not aboard that day, continued to fly with his crew, eventually being lost on 7th October 1944 whilst flying in B-17 #44-8046 on a mission to Politz. Lt. Col. Luper survived a Flak strike on the aircraft and along with 4 other crewmen, was captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. The other six members who were not captured were sadly killed in the attack*6.
The main runway now serves light aircraft where B-17s once roared.
The salvage and rescue of damaged aircraft went a long way to supporting the work of the allied Air Forces in Europe. The need to keep aircraft flying meant stripping bits of damaged or scrapped aircraft and reusing them to repair less damaged examples. At Glatton, this went one step further.
B-17 #42-38064 was made into a composite aircraft with an olive drab front end and an aluminium rear; the two fuselage halves being joined at the wing root. The aircraft was named ‘Arf ‘n’ Arf‘, after a popular pub drink at the time made up of half a bitter and half a mild.
The rear of the aircraft came from B-17 #42-32084 ‘Li’l Satan‘ which lost an engine on landing at Glatton after receiving battle damage over Bremen in June 1944, the tail section being salvaged and added to #42-38064.
B-17 ‘Arf ‘n’ Arf’ a composite aircraft operating with the 457th BG at Glatton. (IWM UPL 28214)
‘Arf ‘n’ Arf‘ went on to complete several missions, its fate being sealed on November 8th 1944, in a heavy dousing of irony when it collided over the channel with B-17 #44-8418, ‘Bad Time Inc II’. In the collision, in which all the crewmen of ‘Arf ‘n’ Arf‘ were killed, the propellers of 8418 sliced through the fuselage of ‘Arf ‘n’ Arf‘ cutting the aircraft in two. 8418 went on to land ‘safely’ the crew being uninjured.
With the end of the year in sight, many were looking forward to the New Year celebrations and a renewed hope for peace. But New Years day 1945, would be a notable day in the European Air War for other reasons. Not only for the appalling bad weather that had dogged the whole theatre of operations for the entire winter, but also for the fact that the Eighth Air Force Bomb Divisions were re-designated as ‘Air Divisions’. It was also a day where the Luftwaffe launched a series of attacks against allied airfields in the low countries causing widespread damage to aircraft and airfields.
The turn of 1944/5 would be a terrible time for bad weather. Mission either being cancelled at the last minute or flown in appalling conditions. As the end of the war draws ever closer the wind-down begins and the thought of going home becomes ever increasingly stronger. The end of the war also signifies the end of Glatton as a military base, but even after it is all but removed, its legacy lives on.
In Trail 6 we visit six former World War Two airfields, each one being a major base used by American forces during the 1940s. One of these was a late opener, and housed a brand new Bomb Group fresh out of training, who were thrust into the war during the combined ‘Big Week‘ campaign against the German aircraft industry in February 1944. It is this airfield that we visit first. Located just off the main A1 road, it remains an active airfield today, although the roar of the Wright Cyclone engines have been replaced by much smaller and more sedate single engined aircraft. We start off at RAF Glatton, otherwise known as Station 130.
RAF Glatton (Conington) Station 130.
Glatton’s unused runways and perimeter tracks are gradually being taken over.
Built by the 809th Engineer Battalion (Aviation) of the U.S. Army in the last months of 1942, Glatton was unique in that it was constructed around a farm that remained in situ throughout the war. The owner moved out as the airfield was built with the site returning to agricultural use after the Americans left. Built as a Class A airfield, it had the standard 3 runways; one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, whose surface construction was of tarmac and wood chip. The apex of the ‘A’ pointed easterly with the main runway running west to east. To the north-west of the site lay the bomb store, a traditional site consisting of Pyrotechnic stores (x4), incendiary stores (x10), small bomb container stores, fuzing points and component stores amongst others.
Around the perimeter track were forty-three spectacle and six frying pan style hardstands for aircraft dispersal. Unusually, the perimeter track split to the west side of the airfield, which meant that aircraft movement encircled both the technical area and main administration site. It is here, to the west of the main airfield site, that the majority of the aircraft dispersal pans were found. The other section of this track wound round the front of this area allowing for uninterrupted views across the main airfield and its runways.
Glatton was also constructed with two type T2 hangars, both built to the 1941 design drawing No: 3653/41, with one being located to the eastern side, and the other to the western side, in the main technical area of the airfield.
To the northern side of the airfield lies the small village of Holme, and to the south the hamlet of Conington. The airfield’s name however, Glatton, came from yet another village some 4 miles away to the west; the reason ‘Glatton’ was used and not ‘Conington’ being due to the very similar RAF Coningsby not far away in Lincolnshire.
It was to the south-west of the airfield that the dispersed accommodation sites were located. Site 2, a communal site, included a barbers and shoemakers shop; Site 3, the mess, included a dining room and cooking facilities for 1,200 people; Site 4, a second mess site; Sites 5 and 6 (RAF sites) airmen’s barracks and sergeants’ quarters; Sites 7, 8 and 9 were Officers’ quarters with associated drying rooms and ablutions; Site 10 another sergeants’ site; Sites 11 and 12 were the WAAFs’ site with a hairdressers, small sick quarters, recreation room and officers’ quarters; Site 13 the main sick quarters and lastly Site 14, the sewage disposal site. The majority of the huts found on the site were Nissen, built to standard 1941 / 42 designs. All in all, the airfield could accommodate around 3,000 men and women of mixed rank.
These accommodation huts, with their cement floors and iron roofs, were cold and lacking any comforts at all, double bunks were provided for the enlisted men with slightly more space for Officers, but they all had minimal locker room or private space. Here, like many air bases in wartime Britain, new crews were largely ignored, friendships were not forged for fear of losing them on the next mission. As a result, many on these bases did not know other crews outside of their own huts, instead choosing to spend every minute with their own crew – the heartache of losing good friends being too painful to bear on a daily basis.
Used primarily by the US Eighth Air Force, Glatton was opened in 1943 and designated Station 130, home to the 457th Bomb Group, U.S. Eighth Air Force.
Composed of the: 748th, 749th, 750th, and 751st Bomb Squadrons, it was assigned to the 94th Combat Bombardment Wing (joining both the 351st and 401st BG) of the 1st Bombardment Division. Its aircraft, B-17G ‘Flying Fortresses’, flew throughout hostilities with the tail code a black ‘U’ on a white triangle, reversed in an Air Force restructuring during the winter of 1944/45 with a blue diagonal added to the fin.
The 457th’s journey to war began on May 19th, 1943 (the same time as the Trident Conference which led to a re-organisation of the USAAF in Europe), with activation that summer at Geiger Field, Washington. Being formed so late in the war, the 457th would be a short-lived group, but they were none-the-less still involved in some of the most ferocious air battles of the Second World War.
After training at Rapid City Airfield in South Dakota, they moved to Ephrata Army Air Base, one of the United States’s largest training bases, then onto Wendover Field in Utah before their final departure to the United Kingdom and Glatton airbase.
Maintenance crews work on fighters stationed at the Ephrata airport in 1944*1
The 457th entry to the war would be a real baptism of fire. On Monday 21st February 1944, the combined forces of the USAAF and the RAF were involved in the ‘Big Week‘ campaign. Officially known as Operation ‘Argument‘, it was designed to smash the German aircraft industry in one fell swoop. Postponed repeatedly from early January due to bad weather, it finally began on the night of February 19th 1944, with US air forces flying their first operations on the 20th.
Two days into ‘Big Week‘ the 457th were dispatched along with 335 other B-17s of the 1st Bomb Division (BD) to attack Gutersloh, Lippstadt and Weri airfields, but having no pathfinder aircraft and in poor weather, they had to turn to targets of opportunity. With the 2nd and 3rd BDs also in operation that day, some 860 heavy American bombers filled the skies over Germany.
With poor results and difficulty in forming up, this initial mission was further marred by the group’s first loss; that of B-17G #42-31596 piloted Lt. Llewellyn G. Bredeson, of the 750th BS. Flying their first mission, and in the unenviable position of ‘tail-end-Charlie’, they were singled out for a prolonged and devastating attack. Two engines were hit and substantial damaged was caused to the aircraft, including its oxygen system, in attacks which left the tail gunner seriously injured. Lt. Bredeson gave the order to bale out, an order that included the injured tail gunner. The other crewmen, tethered him to the aircraft by his static line, and then pushed him out so that his parachute would release automatically. After the stricken bomber was vacated, it crashed four miles west of Quackenbruck in northern Germany, one of the gunners, Sgt William H. Schenkel, dying from his injuries whilst the remainder of the crew were captured becoming prisoners of war.
The next day (22nd) the 457th were back in action, with more ‘Big Week‘ attacks. This time there were no losses for the group, a reassuring mission that was followed by a day’s break from flying. On the 24th, they joined with other 1st Bomb Division groups attacking Schweinfurt, a target that struck fear into the hearts of American airmen. This mission, Mission 3 for the 457th and Mission 233 for the USAAF, would be the return to the ball bearing plants, a product that without which, the German war machine would literally grind to a halt.
In the original attack on 17th August 1943, a combined offensive against Schweinfurt and Regensburg saw a 19% loss rate, some sixty bombers from 315 that were sent out. It was no wonder the target’s name struck fear into the hearts of the new group.
The 1st BD were the only group sent to Schweinfurt that day. The 3rd and 2nd attacking targets elsewhere in Germany. The 457th sent eighteen aircraft, part of a force of 265 B-17s. As well as dropping 401 Tonnes of high explosive bombs and 172 Tonnes of incendiary bombs, they also dropped just short of 4 million propaganda leaflets.
The defensive ring around the city had not weakened, if anything it had been strengthened since its previous attacks, flak was heavy and accurate and fighters were abundant. Some 110 US airmen were classed as ‘Missing in Action’ that day, but luckily for the 457th, only one aircraft was lost. Douglas-Long Beach built B-17G #42-38060 of the 750th BS, was hit by flak, the #1 and #2 engines were put out of action, and #3 and #4 began over revving – the crew unable to control them.
Glatton’s Second Runway.
With the navigator, 2nd Lt. Daren McIntyre badly wounded and the Right Waist Gunner Sgt. Italo Stella killed when flak pierced his flak jacket; the pilot, 2nd Lt. Max Morrow decided the best option was to crash land the aircraft and hope that in doing so, they would all survive. After carrying out a wheels-up belly landing near to Giessen in Germany, the aircraft was surrounded by locals, who removed the dead and wounded from the aircraft wreckage. Fearing for their lives, the immediate future looked bleak for the crew. Eventually German officials intervened, and the survivors were taken to POW camps where they stayed for the remainder of the war. 2nd Lt. McIntyre sadly later died, succumbing to his severe wounds.*2
The 457th’s final mission for ‘Big Week‘ occurred on the 25th, a mission to attack the Messerschmitt factory in Augsberg, Bavaria. On this day they lost two more aircraft: #42-97457 (six killed the remainder POWs) and #42-31517 (Seven killed the remainder either evading capture or taken as POWs). Of the twenty-four aircraft that took part in this mission, all but one suffered battle damage to a various degree. The first week had not been disastrous, but it had nonetheless, been a very difficult week for the men of the 457th.
In Part 2 we see how the 457th went on, continuing attacks against the German heartland. We see unusual visitors to the airfield and some ‘oddities’ that graced the Skies over Glatton.
I have recently been contacted by Mike Potter, the former Museum Director of Jerry Yagen’s Warbird collection / museum in Virginia. A self confessed ‘aviation nut’, Mike is struggling to find details of the inner workings of a standard World War II Watch Office built to design 518/40.
For those who may not know, or remember, the Military Aviation Museum is the team that dismantled the former RAF Goxhill Watch Office in North Lincolnshire (post June 2017) in 2017 and had it shipped back to the United States where it has been painstakingly rebuilt brick by brick to its former glory. The refurbishment is all but complete and will be opening to the public very shortly. However, Mike and his team of dedicated volunteers, are trying to find out about the various posters, boards and instruments located within the office as specific information is quite rare.
Mike has been using a photo taken at RAF Snaith as a ‘model’ and specific questions refer to the ‘SANDRA‘ poster? flares or signal rockets? and Landing Control Board on the left side of the picture. Mike would like further details on the operation of these and pictures or originals that they could obtain for their own watch office.
By Clark N S (Fg Off), Royal Air Force official photographer – (IWM – CH18743)
The team have been on contact with numerous organisations here in the UK who have all supplied various drawings, pictures and advice, but as yet these specific details remain a little ‘foggy’. If anyone knows of precise information about these items or any others within the office, please get in contact with Mike (Mhpotterone@gmail.com) or myself and I will pass the information on.
Specifically, they would like to find a digital copy or photo of the poster titled “Searchlight Assistance To Lost Aircraft”. They are also looking to learn what kind of signal flares or rockets are below the poster, and finally specifically what is on the Landing Control Board, and how the various markers were used. If anyone has a clearer photograph or illustration of this kind of Board, it would be quite helpful.
Ideally someone who worked in the/a Watch Office itself would be ideal, however, I appreciate due to the length of time that has passed, this may not sadly be possible any longer.
Any help anyone can offer would be most gratefully appreciated by both Mike and his team.
Sometimes, we come across quite unexpectedly, something of great interest. Whilst on my travels recently, passing through the southern regions of Cambridge into Essex, I came upon the former station RAF Little Walden. Being an unplanned visit, I was rather short in prior knowledge and preparation, no maps, aerial photographs, or other documents that I normally seek out before venturing off into the wilderness. So I was quite unprepared when I stumbled across the Watch Office from former station RAF Little Walden, otherwise known as Station 165 of the USAAF.
RAF Little Walden (Hadstock) – (Station 165)
Little Walden lies slightly closer to the village of Hadstock than it does Little Walden, and was originally called Hadstock. When construction began in 1942, it was allocated to the Eighth Air Force as a Class A bomber airfield. However, due to the bad winter of 1942/43 work ceased temporarily, being held up until well into the summer of 1943. At this point, Hadstock became known as Little Walden, a name change that coincided with the formation of the Ninth Air Force in Europe, an organisation whose primary role was the support of ground troops in the European theatre. With its headquarters at Sunninghill Park1 in Ascot, it would operate both transport and bomber units, taking many of these units (and their airfields) from the already established Eighth Air Force. Little Walden was one such airfield passing from the Eighth to the Ninth to fulfil this new role.
Although a Class A airfield, Little Walden’s main runway was slightly shorter than those of its counterparts, 1,900 yards as opposed to 2,000 yards, but the two auxiliary runways were both the standard 1,400 yards in length. A concrete and wood chip construction gave these runways good strength, it also had hardened perimeter tracks and fifty hardstands of the spectacle type. Grouped mainly in blocks of five, they were located around the perimeter track with a further block of eighteen to the north-west of the site. In the development process a public road the B1052, was closed as it passed directly though the centre of the proposed site.
Little Walden’s Watch Office is now a private residential property.
A large bomb store lay to the west of the airfield, surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands, any major accidental discharge being likely to cause substantial damage to parked aircraft. There were four areas within the bomb store, each holding 200 tons of bombs and tail units, further stores held pyrotechnics, incendiaries, ‘small’ bombs, grenades and small arms ammunition. Most of these were secured by earth banks with fusing points (both ultra-heavy and heavy-light) being held in temporary brick buildings.
To the eastern side of the airfield lay the technical area, with one of the type T2 hangars (the second being located to the north), a fire tender shelter, and a watch office designed to drawing 12779/41 – the standard airfield design of 1942/43. Behind this, lay the main technical area, with its usual range of dingy stores, MT (Motor Transport) sheds, parachute stores and a wide range of ancillary buildings.
Accommodation for staff was, as usual by now, dispersed over eleven sites, a sick quarters, communal site and WAAF site accounting for three of them. A further sewage works made the twelfth site. All-in-all accommodation was provided for just short of 3,000 men and women of mixed rank.
On March 6th, 1944 the airfield officially opened, the day before its first residents arrived. The 409th BG were a new Group, only constituted on June 1st, the previous year (1943). They trained using Douglas A-20 Havocs (known in British service as the Boston) a twin engines light bomber capable of carrying up to 4,000lb of bombs.
The 409th BG formed at Will Rogers Field (Oklahoma) and transitioned through Woodward and DeRidder bases before arriving in the UK. Between March and September they operated out of Little Walden, bombing V-weapons sites and airfields in France in a strategic role. Initially they performed in the low-level role, but soon moved to higher altitudes, performing their first mission on April 13th 1944.
In the short period of residency at Little Walden, the 409th would lose a number of aircraft, one of the first being that of #43-9899 of the 642nd BS, which was written off in a landing accident on April 22nd 1944. Three days later a second aircraft, #43-9691, would also crash-land at Little Walden being damaged in the process.
May would also prove to be a difficult month for the 409th, with one aircraft ‘lost’ on the 9th, a further crash landing on the 11th, another lost on the 22nd and two further aircraft lost (classified as MIA) on the 27th. It was on this mission that a further Havoc would collide with a low flying Mustang resulting in several tragic deaths.
Havoc #43-10130 of the 643rd BS, piloted by Captain Roger D. Dunbar took off from Little Walden heading south-east, when it collided with P-51B #42-106907 of the 503rd FS, 339th FG, piloted by 2nd Lt. Robert L. Dickens. The Mustang, on a training flight, disintegrated killing the pilot, whilst the Havoc crashed into the farmland below. In the ensuing fire, a local farmer’s widow and trained nurse, Betty Everitt ran to the scene and managed to pull one of the airmen out of the aircraft. When returning to retrieve another crewman, one of the bombs on board the aircraft exploded killing her, her small dog, a helping Staff Sgt. and those left inside the aircraft. As a thank you to Betty, the US airmen, from the base, raised almost £3,000 to provide an education for her four-year old orphaned son, Tony2. This was not a one-off either, a fund set up by Stars and Stripes and the British Red Cross, aimed to raise funds for children who had suffered the loss of one or both parents. The amounts raised went a long way to getting these children an education that they would not otherwise have had.
Early June would see another such tragedy, when three more Havocs would collide. Havocs A-20G #43-9703 and #43-9946, both of the 641st BS, would crash whilst the third aircraft managed to land at the airfield. #43-9703 was piloted by Joseph R. Armistead, whilst #43-9946 was piloted by Thomas A. Beckett. A young girl, Marjorie Pask, ran to help, pulling two airmen out of the wreckage then waiting with them until help arrived. Five airmen including the pilots and an air gunner, Staff Sergeant Albert H Holiday, were all killed. It was not until later that Marjorie realised that there were many bombs scattered around the site and how much danger she had been in 3.
Staff Sgt. Albert H Holiday, killed June 11th 1944 in a collision between two Havocs of the 409th BG. (IWM-UPL 21530)
With two further loses and a forced landing in June, it was be a difficult month for the 409th. The late summer months of July and August would be lighter but by no means a clean sheet. In September 1944, on the 18th, the 409th were moved out of Little Walden and posted to a forward Landing Ground A-48 at Bretigny, where they would continue to suffer from landing accidents, Flak and fighters.
Next at Little Walden came the Mustangs of the 361st FG, in a move that saw possession of Little Walden pass back into the hands of the Eighth Air Force. Station 165 was now back with its original owners.
The 361st FG were the last of the P-47 Groups to arrive in the UK. Initially based at Bottisham, they converted to the P-51 in the weeks leading up to D-day. Using the Thunderbolts they earned a reputation as a strong and determined ground attack unit, hitting rail yards and transportation links across France.
A short break whilst transferring from Bottisham to Little Walden gave a somewhat minor break for the 361st. But, following changes to the Eighth’s overall structure, it was soon back to normal and more attacks over occupied France. In October, Lt. Urban Drew shot down two Me 262s who were in the process of taking off from their airfield at Achmer. What was more remarkable about the attack was that Lt. Drew had only arrived in the U.K. a few days earlier, had been grounded for a Victory Roll and then went on to become an Ace shooting down six enemy aircraft and the first pair of 262s! He was awarded the Air Force Cross, being denied the Distinguished Flying Cross until after the war when records from both the Luftwaffe and US Air Force were able to confirm his dramatic claims.
The Christmas and winter of 1944-45 was notoriously bad, very cold temperatures, fog, frost and ice played havoc with operations. The Battle of the Bulge was raging and the allies were finding it all but impossible to provide assistance from the air. Many Bomb Groups suffered terrible tragedies as collisions and accident numbers increased in the poorer weather. The Ninth, who themselves had primary roles in ground support were finding it particularly difficult. To help, a selection of men and machines from the 361st (and 352nd from Bodney) were transported to France and the airfields at St. Dizier (Y-64) and Asch (Y-29) where they were seconded into the Ninth Air Force. The main force back at Little Walden continued to support bomber missions whenever they could, a difficult job in often appalling conditions.
‘Ferocious Frankie’ #44-13704 (374th FS, 361st FG). The original crashed during a wheels up belly landing at RAF Little Walden, on November 9th, 1944. (This aircraft was flying at the Duxford American Airshow May 2016).
‘Ferocious Frankie’ (named after the wife of Lieutenant-Colonel Wallace E. Hopkins) seen at the Eastbourne Air Display August 2015.
By the end of January the seconding to the Ninth came to an end and the entire Group moved across to Belgium and Chievres, a former Belgian airfield captured and used by Luftwaffe bombers during the earlier years of the war. The 361st would remain there until April 1945 whereupon they returned back to Little Walden. During their absence Little Walden was made good use of. Being a ‘bomber airfield’ by design, its runways and hardstands were put to good use by Debach’s 493rd BG and their B-17 ‘Flying Fortresses’ whilst their own airfield was repaired and strengthened.
Spending only a month at Little Walden, the Air Echelons of the 493rd BG would depart in the April as the 361st FG returned. On the 20th, the 361st would fly their last operational mission, a flight that would close the record books culminating in a total of 441 missions. As the war ended and personnel were sent home, crews and aircraft of the 361st were dispersed to depots around the U.K., those that were left were sent home via the Queen Mary from Southampton arriving in New York in early November 1945. Within hours the group was disbanded and the men scattered to the four winds.
Between early September and early October 1945, the 56th FG ‘The Wolfpack’ were brought to Little Walden. The aircraft were also dispatched to depots around the country whilst personnel were brought to Little Walden for onward transportation to the United States. By mid October they too had gone.
Little Walden then began the wind down, transferring back to RAF ownership in early 1946. For the next twelve years or so, it was used to store surplus military equipment before they were sold off. After that, the site was returned to agriculture, the majority of the buildings pulled down and the runways dug up for road building hardcore.
The control tower stood for many years derelict and forlorn, until being purchased by an architect in 1982, eventually being turned into a private residence, the state it exists in today. The closed road has since been restored, utilising part of the NE-SW runway. Other parts that remain being a public footpath, but all a fraction of their former selves and no more than a tractor’s width wide.
What’s left of the technical area is a small industrial unit, remaining buildings being used for storage or small industrial companies. An access road from the B1052 passes the site an on to private residencies.
Little else survives of Little Walden. Memorial plaques are believed to be mounted on the side of the watch office, although I could not see these when I visited, and the village memorial mentions those who were stationed at the airfield.
The serenity of Little Walden does nothing to reflect the goings on here over 70 years ago. The aircraft are gone, the bird song replacing the sound of engines, and the busy runways now a small road. For those who were lost here, the watch office stands as a memorial to their memory and the dedication shown by the many young men and women of the USAAF.
Sources and further reading.
1 Sunninghill Park was originally part of Windsor Forest and dates back to the 1600s and King Charles 1. Its ownership changed hands several times, and in the early 1800s during the Georgian period, a large house was built upon it. The Ninth Air Force made it their headquarters between November 1943 and September 1944, after which, in 1945, it was sold to the Crown Estate as a future home for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. However, before their marriage, the house burned down and the site remained unoccupied until the 1980s when a new property was designed and constructed for the Duke and Duchess of York. However, it was never occupied, the house fell into a very poor state of disrepair and was bought for £15m by an overseas investor. The site continued to decay and by 2014 was ordered for demolition.
In Part 1 we saw how Waterbeach was built. How the Conversion Units were created in response to the demands of Bomber Command and how crews were being trained in old and war weary aircraft. In this next part we see how the station transitioned from the Stirling to the Lancaster and how Waterbeach’s squadrons fared with the aerial war.
Training exercises in old and worn aircraft were often the cause of mishaps, accidents and tragedies, and as was seen in other training squadrons, the casualty rates were sometimes high. One of the first accidents for 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) at Waterbeach was caused by a malfunction in the extractor controls of N3642 which was being flown solo at the time by Sgt. K. Richards. The damage to the aircraft was so severe that it was downgraded being used as an instructional airframe only. Thankfully Sgt. Richards was unhurt in the incident and went on to fly with a new operational squadron later on.
Several more incidents in the following months led to further badly damaged aircraft, but the first fatalities came on the evening of June 16th 1942 when Stirling N6088 ‘LS-X’ flown by 24-year-old New Zealander F/O. Milan Scansie (s/n: 411491) was seen to fall from the sky over Nottingham with its port wing in flames and parts falling away. The entire crew died as a result of the accident, the cause of which has not yet been verified. The Stirling they were flying, was a veteran of European Operations, it had flown for nearly 250 hours and in twenty-two operational sorties, a remarkable achievement for a Stirling!
Gaining operational experience was one of the most valuable tasks the trainee crews could undertake, and there was no ‘softly, softly’ approaches for the Conversion Units. The first 1,000 bomber raid to Cologne required every available aircraft and the Conversion Units were called upon to provide some of these aircraft. In June 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the first operational aircraft casualty would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. Another factor that made this loss so great was the fact that not only did all seven crewmen lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had international caps for the England rugby team.
Born in 1909, Booth is one of sixteen boys from the Malsis School, who is commemorated on the Chapel’s stained glass window. After playing his debut match against Wales, his career ended in a game against Scotland at Murrayfield. In-between these games he achieved seven international caps for England scoring three tries.
The following July and August were to see the start of a catalogue of accidents and operational losses that would reflect not only the poor quality of the machines that trainees were expected to fly, but the disadvantages that the Stirling became famous for. The night of July 28th/29th being one of the worst with the loss of four aircraft in a mission to Hamburg, followed on the 30th by a further loss of an aircraft whilst on a training flight. In two nights alone, twenty-four airmen had lost their lives with a further one being injured and four taken prisoner.
Waterbeach would prove to be a safe haven again on the night of August 10th/11th 1942, when aircraft sent to drop SOE troops at zones ‘Giles‘ and ‘John‘ found their home base at Fairford fog-bound. Spread far and wide the sight of Waterbeach’s runway must have been a very welcome sight indeed.
In the early days of October 1942, on the 7th, the two flights, 214 and 15 Squadron Conversion Flights were amalgamated fully into 1651 Conversion Unit raising the number of personnel to over 1,000. This change would mean that 1651 would now be designated 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) allowing for the first time, flight engineers and second air gunners to join the crews. Training would then continue, some of it for only a matter of a few weeks, as would more losses.
Whilst the transition between Conversion and Heavy Conversion Unit went smoothly, the 2nd and 18th saw two more training accidents. Whilst both incidents only involved one crewman – the pilot – both accidents involved the aircraft developing a swing that became uncontrollable – the resultant crash leaving both aircraft severely damaged.
1942 turned to 1943, and by the end of the year 1651 HCU would eventually depart Waterbeach. With a further small number of training accidents, some due to the aircraft swinging, some due to mechanical failures, others were due to forces outside of the control of Waterbeach crews.
On the night of 4th/5th May 1943, a Lancaster from 97 Squadron from RAF Bourn was diverted to land at Waterbeach. On landing, the aircraft overshot the runway colliding with Stirling MK.I (BF393), wrecking both aircraft. Of the seven aircrew in the Lancaster, the pilot Sgt. Anthony Reilly (s/n: 1005145) was killed with a further three injured, thankfully there were no injures associated with the parked Stirling.
May would also see an increase of the numbers of Heavy Conversion Units at Waterbeach, but inadequate planning meant that this unit was spread across three separate airfields, a situation that proved too much and so within a month, they were all moved to RAF Woolfox Lodge. This short interlude by 1665 HCU played no major part in Waterbeach’s history.
The last 1651 HCU accident occurred at Waterbeach on October 27th 1943 when Stirling N3704 piloted by F/O. K Becroft DFC, another New Zealander, and F/S. F Burrows, an Australian, landed with its undercarriage still retracted. Neither airmen were hurt in the accident, but it was F/O Becroft’s third accident in a Stirling in the last year. Whilst no further accidents were to occur at Waterbeach, a 1651 HCU aircraft did have the misfortune to crash-land at RAF Witchford a few miles away, after suffering brake failure, on the last day of the month.
November 1943 would bring further changes to Waterbeach as 1651 CU pulled out, moving to Wratting Common to allow room for the new radial engined version of the famous Lancaster bomber – the Lancaster MK.II of 514 Squadron and her associated Conversion Unit 1678 HCU. This move was in response to a reorganisation of No. 3 Group, the whole process of transferring taking a mere few days, primarily by road.
514 were formed on 1st September 1943, and 1678 HCU on the 16th September, both whilst at Foulsham (under the control of No.3 Group) and would go on to specialise in blind bombing techniques. Like many of Bomber Command’s Squadrons, 514 Sqn would draw their crews from a broad spectrum of the Commonwealth countries, giving it a real multi-national feel.
The squadrons first mission took place on the night of November 26th/27th and it would be to the German heartland, and Berlin. This would be their second trip into the Lions den in three days and would see eight aircraft leave Waterbeach each carrying 4,000lb bombs and a wide range of incendiaries. Leaving between 17:45 and 17:55, they would arrive over the target at around 21:30 dropping their bombs from a height of between 20,000 and 21,000 feet. Large fires were seen from the bomber stream, some crews saying from 100 miles away, indicating that the city was “well alight”. On this mission, one aircraft returned at 19:28 with engine problems jettisoning its bombs before returning and another was reported ‘missing’ over the target area. It was later found that the aircraft was shot down over Germendorf killing all on board. Lancaster MK.II (DS814) ‘JI-M’ was piloted by twenty-one year old Canadian F/O. Maurice R. Cantin (RCAF).
The main entrance of Waterbeach through which many have passed.
It was during this period of the war that the Stirling was withdrawn from front line operations, its losses far outweighing its benefits. From this point on no further action over Germany would include the Stirling, and the hunters now focused on the Halifaxes and Lancasters. On this night alone over 40 Lancasters were lost (either over the target or crashing in England) with the majority of the crews being killed. This would prove to be one of the most devastating raids of Berlin causing extensive damage, loss of life and casualties.
The terrible winter of 1943/44 made operational flying very difficult. Ice was a problem as was thick cloud over the target area. With numerous bombing missions taking place, many to Berlin again, Harris’s desire to destroy the German Capital was proving difficult. Whilst many front line squadrons were suffering high casualties, for 514 Sqn, losses would be light.
The first loss of 1944 would not occur until January 14th/15th in a raid to Brunswick. During this night two Lancasters would be lost, that of LL679 ‘JI-J2’ and LL685 ‘JI-G2’ with the loss of fourteen airmen. For a raid that cost thirty-eight Lancasters, equivalent to 7.6% of the force, it provided very disappointing results, many of the bombs falling on open countryside or in the suburbs of the city.
Berlin would be hit hard during January. Over almost three consecutive nights, 27th-31st Lancasters would strike at the heart of the Reich, 514 Sqn losing no aircraft in their part even though nineteen aircraft would participate in the mission. Of those nineteen, four would not get off the ground and one would return early.
February 1944 was a big month for both the RAF and USAAF as more combined operations began against the aircraft production and supply facilities. On the 19th/20th, Leipzig was hit by 823 aircraft of which 561 were Lancasters. 514 Sqn would lose three aircraft that night: DS736 ‘JI-D2’, piloted by F/S. Norman Hall, DS823 ‘J1-M’ piloted by F/S. Walter Henry and LL681 ‘JI-J’ piloted by F/L. Leonard Kingwell, there were no survivors from any of the three aircraft.
Schweinfurt ball bearing factories were once again targeted on the night of the 24th/25th, a foreboding target that had proven so disastrous for the USAAF in the previous October. Luckily for 514 Sqn though, losses were much lighter, with only one crew failing to return home.
As the summer arrived in England, so too did the invasion of continental Europe. May meant that the RAF’s bomber force would switch from the industrial targets of Germany to strategic bombing of defences, marshalling yards, communication lines and fortifications all along western France and in particular the Normandy area. Allied leaders stressed the importance of blocking a German reinforcements through the rail network, as a result, the entire system west of the Rhine became a target with Bomber Command being given the lion’s share to attack. Seventy-nine rail centres were chosen for the attacks, and by D-Day all those assigned to Bomber Command had received their attention.
On the days before the invasion the aircraft were painted with the well-known black and white invasion stripes, used to allow easy identification of allied aircraft by friendlies. On the early morning of June 6th, twenty-two 514 Sqn aircraft set off to attack fortifications at Ouistreham, the port at the mouth of the Canal de Caen à la Mer, the canal that serves Caen found on the eastern flank of the allied beachhead area.
The remaining hangars in close proximity to the Cemetery.
Considering that the June raids set new records for the number of Bomber Command raids, 514 Sqn suffered no casualties. The first coming in the days after when two Lancasters (DS822) ‘JI-T’ and (LL727) ‘JI-C2’ were lost over France. With a loss of four, the remainder of the two crews were either captured or managed to escape.
By June 1944 the need for the HCU had diminished, crews no longer needing the training to transfer to heavy bombers, and so 1678 HCU was disbanded in the usual grand style that was becoming famous in RAF circles.
It was also at this time, mid June, that 514 Sqn began to replace it MK.II Lancasters with the more famous Merlin engined MK.I and IIIs. The change itself didn’t herald a significant change in operations, now dogged by bad weather the constant cancellation of missions began to affect morale as crews were stood down often at a moments notice. The poor weather continued for most of the summer, what operations did take place were in support of the Allied forces as they advanced through France. Harris remained under the control of Eisenhower and so the focus of attacks continued to be Western France and German supply lines to the invasion area.
July into August saw a return to Germany for the bombers, a new experience for many crews of Bomber Command. By the October, raids were now being carried out in daylight hours. The first enemy jet aircraft were encountered and morale was high. However, the year would not end quietly.
December 29th 1944 was a hazy day with severe frost, fourteen aircraft were allocated for operations whilst H2S and G.H. training was provided for the non-operational crews. Out on the dispersal, the operational aircraft were being loaded with their bombs and prepared for the forthcoming flight, when suddenly one of the bombs being loaded on to Lancaster (PD325) ‘JI-L2’ fell and exploded. The explosion completely destroyed the aircraft and severely damaged seven others including NG141 which was parked alongside. The blast, heard as far away as Mildenhall, had repercussions across the airfield damaging windows and sending aircraft parts far and wide. Nine members of the ground crew attending to the aircraft also died, some simply ‘disappeared’ as did a tractor along with its portable generator. Following the incident, which was thought to have been caused by an ‘old stock’ bomb, the Station Commander cancelled operations for the day, partly in case time-delayed bombs exploded. To clear them and make the area safe, bomb disposal teams were brought in to remove those that were left remaining in the aircraft’s bomb bays.
1945 brought good fortune as the war came to an end. ‘Manna’ operations became the order of the day along with ‘Exodus’ flights bringing POWs back home for their captive camps across the continent. Slowly flights were wound down and on August 22nd 1945, 514 Squadron was disbanded at Waterbeach. Whilst they had been here, 514 Sqn had lost sixty-six aircraft on operational missions with the loss of over 400 aircrew, some of whom are buried in the neighbouring Cemetery at Waterbeach.
Thus ended the wartime exploits of RAF Waterbeach, despite crews leaving and the aircraft being taken away, Waterbeach’s wartime legacy would go on, strongly embedded in Britain’s aviation history. The peace would not last long though, for within a month a new era would dawn, a new aircraft type would arrive and Waterbeach would begin to see a change in operational flying take place.
In the final part of this trail we see how Waterbeach entered a new age of flying and how its wartime legacy was carried on through the front line fighters of the RAF as the jet age arrived.
In researching a short period of the Bomber Command campaign in 1941 and 1942 I thought I would share my research on the web. My interest stems from having had a lifelong interest in aviation and having served 21 years in the Royal Air Force. The snapshot in history I have taken, is a sample of the activity that took place at a 5 Group airfield in Rutland. The airfield is RAF North Luffenham and it’s satellite airfield Woolfox Lodge. The period is 1941 to 1942 when a number of squadrons operated from the grass airfield. 61 Squadron operated Hampdens and converted to Manchesters. 144 Squadron RAF and 408 RCAF Squadron operated Hampdens. Hampdens were operated at RAF Cottesmore at an operational training unit – that might be another project!