RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 2)

After Part 1, we return to RAF Winfield, where an ‘odd’ visitor arrives. We also see the post war demise of Winfield into the site it is today.

At the end of the war many Polish units and displaced persons were pulled back to the U.K. in preparation for their repatriation into civilian life and for some return to their native country. Winfield became the site of one such group; the 22 Artillery Support Company (Army Service Corps, 2nd Polish Corps) who whilst fighting in the Middle East and Italy adopted a rather odd mascot. He became known as Wojtek, a Syrian bear who was officially given the rank of Private in the Polish Army, and who ‘fought’ alongside them as one of their own.

THE POLISH ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1940-1947

Wojtek the Syrian bear adopted by the Polish relaxing at Winfield Airfield, the unit’s temporary home after the war.*1

After finding the bear as a young cub wrapped around the neck of a small Iranian boy, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys took him and adopted him. After the war, on October 28th 1946, the Polish Army along with the bear arrived at Winfield Displaced Persons Camp – little did they know what a stir Wojtek would cause.

As displaced persons the Polish men would venture into nearby Berwick, where the locals grew fond of them and drinks flowed in abundance. Wojtek would go with them, becoming a familiar, if not unorthodox, site amongst the streets and bars or Berwick. This cigarette smoking, beer loving character, often causing a stir wherever he went. He became renowned in the area, the local villagers would flock to see him. He joined in with the frolics and loved the life that he was being allowed to live.

As a bear he loved the rivers and the River Tweed flows only a short distance from Winfield, rich and fast flowing it is abundant in that other commodity – Salmon. However, Wojtek was under strict orders not to swim alone nor stray onto the airfield which although closed, could still provide a danger for him if seen.

Wojtek became part of local history, eventually, a year after their arrival, the Polish unit were demobbed and they moved away. Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo to look after, who did so until his death at the age of 21 in 1963. A statue stands in Princess Street Gardens beneath Edinburgh Castle as a reminder of both him and the Polish troops who were stationed at Winfield camp. A second statue of Wojtek stands in the centre of Duns, the village not far from Charterhall. The Wojtek Memorial Trust, set up in his honour, aims to promote both educational and friendship links between the young people of Scotland and Poland, an aim it tirelessly works towards today.

RAF Winfield

Statue of Wojtek in the centre of nearby Duns.

After the Polish troops left, Winfield was allocated to the USAF, and earmarked for development, but this never materialised and the site was left dormant. Winfield then reverted back to RAF control some five years later in October 1955, whereupon it was disposed of and sold off.

A small group of private flyers reopened the site, renovating the watch office and utilising a small hangar on the north of the airfield. This operation has now ceased and the watch office has sadly fallen into disrepair, it windows missing and open to the elements. The demise of Winfield and its subsequent decay has begun.

Winfield airfield lies between two roads, a further public road passes through the site although this was seen to be gated at the southern end. The most prominent feature is by far the Watch Office, a two-story design built to design 15684/41, having walls some 13.5 inches thick as was standard for all night-fighter stations (but different to the one at Charterhall).

Other buildings also remain to the west on the main airfield site but these are only small and very few in number. The accommodation sites have all been removed, however, there are some buildings remaining in the former WAAF site to the north of the airfield. Located down a track just off the B4640, these buildings appear to be latrines and a possible WAAF decontamination block, with other partial remains nearby. Drawing numbers for these are unclear, (but appear to be 14420/41 and 14353/41) indicating WAAF (Officer and sergeant) quarters. Other buildings on this site look to have been a drying room, water storage tank and a picket post. Heading further south along this track leads to a small pond, here is a local design Fire Trailer shelter: a small brick-built building no more than about seven feet square. Presumably this pond was used to fill the fire trailer in cases of fire or attack and was located midway between the WAAF site and the main airfield. Also on this site, which is part of the Displaced Persons Camp, is a makeshift memorial to the Polish Armed Forces, dotted around the ground are a number of metal parts partially buried in the soil.

RAF Winfield

A plaque dedicated to the Polish Armed Forces placed next to the fire trailer hut.

The airfield runways and perimeter tracks are still in place, and years of both decay and locals using them to practice their driving skills on, have taken their toll. Like Charterhall, Winfield was also used as a motor racing circuit, although not to the same extent that Charterhall was. On one occasion though, as many as 50,000 spectators were known to have visited the site on one day alone!

Winfield like its parent site has now become history, the remnants of its past linger on as final reminders of the activities that went on here in the 1940s. The night fighter pilots who pushed the boundaries of aircraft location and interception are gradually fading away; the dilapidated buildings too are gradually crumbling and breaking apart. Inch by inch these sites are disappearing until one day soon, perhaps even they will have gone along with the brave young men who came here to train, to fight and in many cases to die.

As we leave the remnants of Winfield and Charterhall behind, we continue North to our next trail; nearing Edinburgh we take in more of Scotland’s natural beauty and even more tales of its wonderful but tragic aviation history.

My sincere thanks go to both Mr. and Mrs. Campbell for their hospitality and the help in touring these two sites. The history of both Charterhall and Winfield can be read in Trail 41.

Sources and Further Reading – RAF Winfield

*1 Photo IWM collections No.HU 16548.

The Polish Scottish Heritage website provides information about the scheme.

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 3)

We carry on from Part 2 of Trail 41 for the final Part of RAF Charterhall. An airfield that had become known as ‘Slaughterhall’ it was about to see a new breed of aircraft, perhaps even a turn in luck.

RAF Charterhall

The main runway at Charterhall looking south.

The night of May 27th – 28th 1944 was a heavy night for Bomber Command, with large numbers of four engined heavies attacking targets in Germany.  On their return, ten Lancaster bombers were diverted to Charterhall, the first time the four engined bombers would use the airfield, but not the last. On the 8th June, another seven were to arrive, also diverted on their return from the continent. Then in July, a Halifax was diverted here after sustaining heavy flak damage over Helioland. The pilot, P/O W. Stewart of the RCAF and navigator P/O K. Evans (RAF) were both awarded DFCs for their action whilst badly injured, such was the determination to get all the crew and aircraft back safely.

July to October saw an increase in flying and an increase in accidents. July ‘led the way’ with heavy landings, burst tyres, ground collisions and engine failures being common place. The majority of these incidents were Beaufighter MKIIfs, some were visiting or passing aircraft who suffered problems and had to divert. Charterhall saw a mix of Lysanders, Barracuders, Beauforts, Wellingtons and Hurricanes all use Charterhall as a safe haven.

As the threat of attack was now diminishing, a reorganisation of the O.T.Us would see 9 Group disband in September that year. The responsibility of 54 O.T.U (now flying mainly Mosquitoes) and Charterhall would now pass to 12 Group.

Eventually 1944 turned to 1945 and the year that saw for 17 fatal crashes also saw 54 O.T.U. take on more aircraft and more crews.

January 1945 was incredibly harsh in terms of weather and the cold. Training new crews on new radar meant that Wellingtons were brought into Charterhall. Small teams of pupils would take turns to operate the radar to detect Hurricane ‘targets’. These new models increased the air frame numbers at Charterhall to 123 by the end of January.

RAF Charterhall

‘No. 1’ Building on the Technical site.

By now the allies were winding their way into Germany, pressure was increased by Bomber Command and so more heavies were to find Charterhall a refuge when the weather closed in. On the 15th February a large ‘Gardening’ operation led to 12 heavies landing at Charterhall along with four Mosquitoes who had been flying with them over Norway. All these aircraft were able to return to their various bases at Skipton-On-Swale, Leeming and Little Snoring the next day.

Two days later, more aircraft were to find Charterhall (and Winfield) needed. Some 266 aircrews – an incredible influx for one night – were going to need bedding – billiard tables, sofas and chairs suddenly became in very short supply.

The poor weather continued well into the year and snow caused some ‘minor’ accidents at Charterhall. The first confirmed death was not until early March and others were to follow. By May the war had come to an end and operations began to wind down. Winfield was closed and crews returned to Charterhall. Beaufighters were gradually sold, scrapped or moved elsewhere, and by August the last aircraft had left.

March would see the last fatalities at Charterhall, both in Mosquitoes on the 25th and 29th. In the former, the aircraft was in a high-speed vertical crash and the latter the pilot, Flight Lieutenant Cole (s/n125484), overshot the runway and crashed his Mosquito FBVI (HR297) a mile south of the airfield. He was 22.

Apart from a small detachment of crews from 770 Squadron Naval Air Branch carrying out trials, operations began slowing down. After VJ day, the Mosquito numbers were also wound down, only fifty-one aircraft remained by the end of August.

In September the order came through to vacate Charterhall and the packing began. By the end of the month 54 O.T.U. had all but vacated leaving Charterhall quiet once more. The last eighty aircraft consisting of: Mosquito VI,  XVII and NF30s, Martinets, an Oxford, Miles Master II, Ansons, Hurricane IICs and Wellington XVIIIs were flown out for the final time, 54 O.T.U. had played its part and their end lay ahead.

In the three years that Charterhall had been in operation, they had passed over 800 crews for night fighter operations, they had suffered over 330 accidents, 56 of which had resulted in deaths. During this time crews had flown just short of 92, 000 hours flying time day and night, with almost a third being carried out at night. Had it not been for this unit, the heavy bombers of Bomber Command may well have suffered even greater losses, the determined and deadly night fighters of the Luftwaffe may have had a much wider and easier reign over our skies and the losses we quote today would be even higher.

But the withdrawal of 54 O.T.U. was not the demise of Charterhall. For a short period it was set up as No 3 Armament Practice Station, designed to support and train fighter pilots in the art of gunnery. During its period here November 1945 – March 1947 it would see a range of aircraft types grace the runways of Charterhall.

The first units were the Spitfire IXB of 130 squadron from December 1st 1945 – January 24th 1946, followed by 165 Squadron’s Spitfire IXE between 30th December and January 24th 1946. On the day these two squadrons moved out, Charterhall entered a new era as the jet engines of Meteor F3s arrived under the command of 263 Squadron. After staying for one month they left, allowing the Mustang IVs of 303 (Polish) Squadron to utilise the airfield. Each of these squadrons followed a course which included air-to-air target practice, ground attack, bombing and dive bombing techniques.

Following the completion of the course 303 pulled out and the order was given to close No. 3 Armament Practice Station and wind Charterhall down for good. The RAF sent no further flying units here and apart from a detachment of Mosquitoes from 772 Squadron of the Fleet Air Arm, by the following summer, it had closed. The final spin of the airscrew had taken place.

Post war, the airfield was left, the runways and buildings remained intact and the airfield was used by small light aircraft. Gradually though it fell into disrepair, used mainly for agriculture, it had a new lease of life when on Saturday May 31st, 1952, the airfield saw its first motor race using sections of the perimeter track and runways. A two-mile track became the proving ground for a number of the worlds most famous racing drivers including: Sir Stirling Moss, Jackie Stewart O.B.E., Roy Salvadori, Sir John Arthur ‘Jack’ Brabham, AO, OBE, Giuseppe “Nino” Farina and local boy Jim Clark O.B.E. Clark cut his racing teeth at Charterhall, eventually winning 25 Grand Prix races and the Indianapolis 500 in 1965. His grave lies in nearby Chirnside cemetery alongside his mother and father. Charterhall also saw the appearance of Scotland’s first organised sports car team, ‘Ecurie Ecosse’, using Jaguar cars*4. Racing occurred here until 1969, when the current owners took over the site.

The RAF then returned briefly in late 1976 undertaking trials of the Rapier ground-to-air missile system, in which a range of fast jets including Jaguars and Phantoms would participate. These lasted a month which would see the last and final RAF involvement end.

The owners reinvigorated the site providing a venue for rally sport events which started again in 1986. Eventually on March 30th, 2013, the last ever race was run and motor sport stopped for good and so another era finally came to a close.*5

RAF Charterhall

Jim Clark’s grave stone at Chirnside.

Today a section at the western end of the main runway is still available for use by light aircraft (with prior permission) and the main technical area is home to the Co-op Grain store, a facility which has a number of large stores for drying and storage of grain.

Accessing the site is from the B6460 where a memorial stands to the crews who passed through Charterhall and in particular Flight Lieutenant Hillary and Flight Sgt. Fison, who died in such tragic circumstances. A track leads all the way to the airfield site, which was the main entrance to the airfield. A good quantity of buildings still stand here on the technical site along with two of the original hangars. All of these are used for storage or stabling of animals including horses and are rather rundown. The perimeter track and runways are complete but their surfaces are breaking up and in a poor state of repair.

These buildings are a remarkable and poignant reminder of the tragic but significant years that Charterhall prepared and developed crews for the night fighter squadrons of the RAF. Hundreds passed through here, for many it was a difficult twelve weeks, for some it ended abruptly and decisively. Not known for its comforts, it was a pivotal station in the Second World War and indeed also for many years after for the those who went on to become some of the world’s most famous motor racing drivers.

Many airmen came and stayed, sixteen of them who were killed on active service whilst at Charterhall are buried in the nearby cemetery at Fogo, a short distance to the north of the airfield. Many are from around the commonwealth who came here to help and were never to return.

After leaving Charterhall, we head a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

Sources and further reading

*4 Obituary of Bill Dobson: ‘Ecurie Ecosse’ racing driver in ‘The Scotsman‘ newspaper 21st October 2008.

*5 A news report of the event can be read on ‘The Berwickshire News‘ Newspaper, 28th March 2013.

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 1)

After leaving the Wolds of Yorkshire, Trail 41 takes us north across the border into Scotland. A land as diverse in its history as it is its beauty.  With fabulous views of the Cheviots to the south and the North Sea coast to the east, it is an area renowned for beautiful scenery and delightful walks. With Holy Island and Lindisfarne Castle standing proud, it also an area with a rich and diverse aviation history,

In this trail we stop off at two airfields where we find some remarkable relics and some terrible stories.

Our first stop is at a site that is little known about even though it played a major part in the night-fighter air war, and was also the proving ground for some of the world’s top motor racing drivers as well. Yet beneath all this glamour and bravado it holds a collection of terrible stories. We stop off at the former RAF Charterhall.

RAF Charterhall.

Located some 15 miles south-west of the coastal town of Berwick, Charterhall airfield had its aviation origins in the First World War. Its original name was RFC Eccles Tofts (although the two were not quite the same physical site), a landing ground for 77 Squadron who were based further north at Edinburgh, and flew the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c/d/e, BE.12, RE8, de Havilland DH6 and Avro’s 504k.  Whilst not official detached here, the airfield was available for these aircraft to land upon and be recovered should the need arise. It wasn’t kept open for long and soon disappeared returning to its former agricultural use.

Charterhall is one of those airfields that has a grand sounding name, suggesting regency and nobility, its reality though, was somewhat different. It gained the rather unsavoury, but apt, nick-name ‘Slaughterhall’, due to the high accident rate of the trainee aircrew who passed through here.

RAF Charterhall

Technical buildings at Charterhall.

Many of the aircraft that operated from here were outdated and ‘war weary’, held together by the dedicated mechanics that took great pride in their work. Used for short-term placements of trainees, it would not house any true front line squadrons until the war’s end in 1945.

As a training airfield it would have a large number of airfield buildings, two Tarmacadam (Tarmac) runways the main running east-west of 1,600 yards and the second north-east/south-west of 1,100 yards; both were the standard 50 yards wide. There were some 38 dispersal pans, similar in shape to the ‘frying pan’ style , eight blister hangars and four main hangars of which two still survive. Chaterhall’s accommodation was initially designed for 1,392 airmen and 464 WAAFs – consisting of 126 Officers (both male and female) and 1,730 other ranks (again both male and female).

The main technical area was to the north side of the airfield with accommodation spread amongst the woods around this area. The watch office, long since demolished, was a mix of concrete and timber (thought to be initially a 518/40 design), which originally had timber floors, roof and stairs. However, an acute shortage of wood led to all these designs having only a timber balcony and control room. These modified designs (Charterhall included) were therefore built to a mix of 518/40 and 8936/40 specifications.

Another interesting feature of Charterhall would have been the instructional fuselage building. Here crews would have been trained using an aircraft fuselage (Charterhall had two, one each of Beaufighter and Blenheim) jacked up and linked to a controller’s panel. A number of simulated problems could be created for the crews to experience, anything from radio exercises through small warning lights to engine failure and even ditching. All crewmen had to have a good understanding of their aircraft, working hydraulics, electrical and fuel systems were all taught using this same method. In addition to these training fuselages, Charterhall would operate six Link Trainers, along with several other ‘state of the art’ training facilities.

RAF Charterhall

Many of the remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair.

The entire airfield would occupy around 143 hectares, it was certainly not large, especially considering the numbers of crews and mix of aircraft it would have during its short life.

Construction of Charterhall took place over 1941/42 opening on April 30th as part of 81 Group Fighter Command (and later 9 Group), receiving 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U) in May 1942. Formed two years earlier, they flew primarily Blenheim Is and Beaufighter IIs under the Squadron code ‘BF’ (Four different unit codes were used: BF, LX, ST and YX). A number of these aircraft were fitted with Aircraft Interception radar (AI) and some Blenheims were dual control.

To support the operations at Charterhall, a satellite airfield was built at nearby Winfield, a few miles east, both sites being used by 54 O.T.U. simultaneously. Later in the war, in an effort to divert marauding Luftwaffe bombers away from the two airfields, a dummy ‘Q’ site (No. 179) was built at Swinton also to the east of Charterhall.

The increase in O.T.U.s in these early days of the war was as a direct result of the increase in demand for new pilots in Fighter Command. In December 1940, 81 Group had six such units (54-59 O.T.U.) and by June 1941 this had increased to nine (52 – 60). By 1942, a total of twelve were in existence boosted by the addition of 12, 61 and 62 O.T.U. 54 O.T.U. would be one of two specialising in twin-engined night fighter flying. New crews, of which there were about 30 per month, were initially given about ten days to establish themselves and ‘crew up’. As time passed however, this time reduced to the point where some intakes were literally herded in a hangar and told to find a crewman or they would be allocated one! *1

Many of the crews arriving at Charterhall were brought in from around the Commonwealth and after passing their basic flying training instruction, would proceed through a further three stages of training. Some crews were also ex-fighter pilots already battled hardened, who had transferred in from front line units to night-fighters.

Progression through the course would be through initially three, and latterly four, squadrons. ‘A’ Squadron would be the initial conversion unit initiating crews on the rudiments of twin-engined aircraft as many had come from single engined fighter units. ‘B’ Squadron was the intermediate squadron, where the crews moved onto the larger twin-engined aircraft and finally ‘C’, (based at Winfield) was the advanced squadron honing skills such as aircraft interception and attack.  After completing the full training period, crews would receive postings to front line squadrons across the U.K. and beyond.

RAF Charterhall

A latrine on the technical site.

Initially on opening, Charterhall was not completely ready, especially the airfield’s lighting (Drem), and so training flights would only occur during the day. But, with the help of ground crews, this was soon rectified and by the end of the month considerable work had been done, and very soon night flying could begin.

The first daylight flights took place on May 13th 1942, followed by night flying seven days later, and – as crews were to find out very quickly – flying these aircraft would be a risky business.

During 1942 some 5000 aircrew would enter 81 Group’s training units, and they would suffer in the region of 2,000 accidents, of which just under 200 would be fatal. On May 23rd, 54 O.T.U’s first accident would occur when a ‘technical failure’ on a Blenheim Mk I, would cause the controls to jam. The aircrew were thankfully unhurt but the aircraft was severely damaged in the resultant crash. The first fatality would not be long in coming though, occurring just two days later, on May 25th, less than a month after 54 O.T.U’s arrival. On this day, Blenheim IV (Z6090) crashed killing both Pilot Officer J. A. Hill (s/n 115324) and Observer Sgt. A.E. Harrison (s/n 1384501) in an accident which is thought to have been caused by icing. P/O Hill is buried at Haddington (St. Martin’s) burial ground in East Lothain, whilst Sgt Harrison is buried in Middlesbrough (Acklam) Cemetery, Yorkshire.

During June, the first Beaufighters would begin to arrive, followed quickly by their first accident. Whilst on delivery by 2 Aircraft Delivery Flight at Colerne, the aircraft – a Beaufighter MkIIf – had an engine cut out causing it to crash about 10 kilometres north-west of Charterhall. Luckily the crew were able to walk away but the aircraft was written off.

During July bad weather hampered flying activities, but it didn’t prevent the unit from increasing its strength to seventy-seven aircraft.  Primarily Blenheims and Beaufighters, there were also a small number of Lysanders for target towing and four Airspeed Oxfords.

Accidents continued to occur at Charterhall, and it wasn’t until September 1942 that it would be fatality free – a welcome boost to the morale of the instructors at the time. However, the reprieve was short-lived, and October would see further accidents and yet more fatalities. On the 5th, two Blenheim MK Is (L6788 and L8613) collided: Pilot Sgt. J. Masters (missing – presumed drowned) and Navigator Sgt. J. Gracey were both killed. There were seven other accidents that month, a tally that involved two Blenheims and five Beaufighters, with the loss of one life. Causes included: two burst tyres, two overshoots, a loss of control and an undercarriage failure, all of which added to the lengthening list of accidents occurring at Charterhall.

The need for new crews increased the pressure on training stations to increase flying hours. Courses were cut short, spares were lacking and with only rudimentary rescue equipment, further deaths were inevitable. As a result, it wouldn’t be until March 1943 before Charterhall would see a break in these increasing fatalities.

The start of 1943 saw a new Station Commander, but the new change in command would not see the new year start on a good note…

 

(Part 2 of Trail 41 will continue shortly).

Sources and further reading

*1 An interview with Edward Braine, in ‘reel 4’ he describes his posting to RAF Charterhall for operational training; crewing up; transfer onto Bristol Beaufighters; position of navigator in Bristol Beaufighter; accident during training; method of observing aircraft at night and interpreting radar signals. Sound file reel 4 Recorded and presented by the Imperial War Museum.

 

RAF Methwold – unassumingly famous.

The East Anglia countryside is littered with remnants of the Second World War. The massive build up that occurred here in the mid 1940s has led to changes in both landscape and culture, the ‘friendly invasion’ as it has become fondly known, had a huge impact on the towns and villages around here. An area rich in aviation history there are numerous tales of heroism and valour to be found.

Whilst on the eighth Trail of aviation sites, we stop at the former site that was RAF Methwold.

RAF Methwold

Methwold Village sign

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.

The Intelligence Room of No. 140 Wing, No. 2 Group, at Methwold, Norfolk. © IWM (HU 81315)

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 Mosquitos, 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.

DSC_0029

One of the original hangers

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.

RAF Methwold

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.

RAF Methwold

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.

Notes and further reading:

Methwold appears in Trail 8 and was originally visited in April 2013.

Local information and further detail is available from the local Methwold history group. 

Lancaster Pilot Maxwell Storey – 149 Squadron

I was recently contacted by a reader who was trying to find out information about her grandfather, F.O. Maxwell Graydon Storey, 149 Squadron RAAF, Bomber Command, RAF Methwold.

This is his story so far:

He joined the Air Force in Australia in 1942/43 and was sent to England in December 1943. Here he was attached to the RAF and continued with his training as a bomber pilot. He transferred through a number of stations honing his skills and advancing his flying attributes. On completion, he joined 149 Squadron at RAF Methwold, where he flew Lancaster MK IBs up to and after the war. He flew a small number of bombing and food parcel missions before the war ended and his eventual return to Australia.

Maxwell died earlier this year at the age of 92, he didn’t reveal very much about his time in England and so there are a number of gaps to be filled. Whilst I have manged to find out a fair bit, we are lacking photographs and finer details, if you, or anyone you know, could provide these, they would be a most welcome addition to the history of this Lancaster pilot and help his granddaughter find the missing pieces to his life.

Training sites in the UK.

1.RAF Flying Training Command RAF Smith’s Lawn.(RAF Smith’s Lawn was used primarily used as dispersal site and Relief Landing Ground for the de Havilland Tiger Moth trainers of the unit. He would have more likely been at RAF Fairoaks near Cobham).

Wrexham Instrument Flying School – Does anyone have any record of this site?

RAF Abingdon Training Station, Oxfordshire – used to train crews in landing in poor weather flying medium bombers (Vickers Wellingtons possibly of 10 Operational Training Unit)

RAF Wing – flying Wellington X Bombers 26 OTU Again there is very limited information about this, can anyone shed any light on it?

No 3 Aircrew Survival School, Whitby – I can find no records for this.

1651 HCU- RAF Woolfox Lodge – Information about 1651 HCU?

RAF Methwold – posted to 149 Sqn either February or more likely March 1945. (149 Squadron arrived Methwold 15.5.44).

Aircraft he is known to have flown with, targets and crews: 

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April 14th 1945, P.O. Storey flew Lancaster HK795 ‘TK-B’ to Potsdam.

Lancaster I – HK 795 – “TK-B” – 14 April 1945 – bombing mission to Potsdam

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/O E.C. Grimwood (M/upper) and F/O R. Silver (R/G)

Lancaster 1 – HK 645 – “TK-D” – 18 April 1945 – bombing mission to Heligoland

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), Sgt. J. Bell (M/upper) and Sgt M. Stewart (R/G).

Lancaster 1 – HK 652 – “TK-E” – 22 April 1945 – bombing mission to Bremen

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/S R.P. Irwin (M/Upper) and F/S. A.E. Sutton (R/G)

Lancaster I – HK654 – “TK-G” – 1 May 1945 – ‘Target’ The Hague – Food parcels

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/L T.B. Oddie (M/Upper) and F/O. E.C. Grimwood (R/G)

Lancaster I – HK577 – “TK-H” – 7 May 1945 – ‘Target’ Gouda – Food parcels

F/S. L. A. Pounder (Nav.), Sgt F.W. Harris (Bomb Aimer), Sgt W. T. Wiggins (F/Eng), Sgt J.R. Richards (W/op), F/S G. Moxham (M/Upper) and F/S A. Perkins (R/G).

Lancaster HK577. The gentleman in the doorway is P.O. Storey (although on the website it says Story – I can find no record of a ‘Story’ so I presume it’s a spelling error). The gentleman with his foot on the ladder is the navigator, L. A. Pounder. I do not know who the other three are and one member is missing (perhaps he took the photo). *1

If you have any information about any of the places or people mentioned above, I would love to hear from you and would be only to willing to pass the information on.

Sources and further reading

*1 Photo from Mr. David Pounder, via the C.N.P.G. website.

The National Archives, London.

Mildenhall (15, 90, 149, 218 and 622 sqn Association) website.

The National Archives of Australia 

 

 

Mosquitoes abound – RAF Swannington

This airfield forms another in a short trail through this part of north Norfolk. An area littered with the remnants of war and aviation history.  As we continue south through the narrow lanes of the Norfolk countryside, we find the almost forgotten airfield at Swannington.

RAF Swannington

Swannington was one of the last airfields to be opened during the Second World War, hence very few units were permanently based here. This considered, an appreciable amount of it remains visible even today.

Also known as Haveringland, construction was started as early as 1942, but it didn’t actually open until 1944. It utilised much of the forests of nearby Haveringland Hall along with large parts of its estate. The hall itself, a rather large and grand building, was blown up at the end of the war following requisition damage and then being classed as ‘surplus to requirements’ by the MOD!

Once the forest area had been removed, work could begin, and a number of accommodation sites were erected. Haveringland Hall itself became the Officers mess, with various accommodation sites constructed all around it, all located to the east of the airfield. In 1944 there were 154 Officers (of both RAF and WAAF ranks) along with 1239 other ranks stationed here although accommodation was provided for around 2,500.

RAF Swannington

Former Sergeants Mess in use Today

Designated a class ‘A’ airfield, Swannington would have two T2 hangars and one B1, three runways (1 x 2000 yds and 2 x 1,400 yds) and 36 loop style hardstands.

100 Group became the immediate owners of Swannington and instantly placed two squadrons of de Havilland’s Mosquito at the base – No. 85 and 157 Squadrons. 100 Group were formed in November 1943 to investigate and oppose the electronic warfare operations being conducted by the Luftwaffe. To counter this threat, a number of airfields in this area were utilised, Swannington being one of them.

Using a range of new devises and tactics, 100 Group operated a range of different aircraft, predominately the heavier bombers: B-24s, Lancasters, B-17s, Halifaxes, Wellingtons along with the smaller and more agile, Mosquito.

On May 1st 1944, following a successful tour at West Malling*1 , the first Mosquito XVIIs of 85 Squadron arrived at Swannington.

Having a history that extended back to the First World War, 85 Sqn had been in France to support the B.E.F then, re-equipped, they participated in the opening skirmishes of the Battle of Britain. After taking on a new role as a night fighter squadron and moving to Yorkshire, they transferred to 100 group with their move to Swannington. Here they began supporting bombing missions, seeking out enemy night fighters before they attacked the bombers and then loitering over their airfields as they returned.

The Mosquitoes had proven so successful in all operations that 85 Sqn were moved back to West Malling for a short period to combat the increasing threat from the V-1 ‘Doodlebugs’. Their stay in Kent ended in the following August, at which point they returned to Swannington upgrading to the Mosquito XXX before moving off again, to RAF Castle Camps.

157 Squadron joined 85 at Swannington on May 7th 1944 with the Mosquito XIX, later upgrading to the NF.30 with its superchargers and a new radar. 157 had been the first squadron to receive the NF.IIs earlier in March 1942 with the delivery of both W4087 and W4098*2 .

157 Sqn’s arrival would not be the best. Three days after their arrival, Flight Lieutenants Tweedale and Cunningham would take off for an Airborne Interception (AI) training sortie in their Mosquito XVII. On their return, the aircraft would crash, losing its starboard undercarriage, and whilst neither officer was injured, it would be the first ‘casualty’ of 157 Squadron whilst based at Swannington. A very successful fighting unit, they would not be immune from further incidents, some to the embarrassment of their crews.

Whilst on patrol on November 21st 1944, Mosquito MM629 ‘RS-Y’ piloted by Flying Officers A Mackinnon and G Waddell, were shot down in error by another Mosquito of the same squadron, who believed them to be a Ju 88! Both crew members parachuted safely into enemy territory but managed to evade capture returning home within 12 hours.

RAF Swannington

Portions of concrete remain in the Technical Area.

157 Sqn would also transfer with 85 Sqn to West Malling, undertaking ‘anti-diver’ or ‘Doodlebug’ sorties; operations that saw 157 Sqn claim a total of 36.5 flying bombs, whilst 85 claimed some 18.

157 Sqn then returned to Swannington with 85 Sqn at the end of August 1944 and as with 85 Sqn, they upgraded to the MK XXX Mosquito. They, unlike 85 Sqn however, remained at Swannington until disbandment on 16th August 1945. By the end of operations at Swannington, both 85 Sqn and 157 Sqn had completed a touch under 2000 sorties between them, with 108 enemy aircraft destroyed and 19 damaged.

Toward the end of 1944 and early 1945, four other fighter squadrons would visit Swannington. 229 and 451 (Australian) Squadrons came first in the November of 1944; in a move initiated by poor weather, they would come from nearby waterlogged Matlask. 229 brought Spitfire IXs which within a month they would replace with LF XVIEs. This was followed by a swift departure to nearby Coltishall where they were disbanded and renumbered 603 (Auxiliary) Sqn in the following January.

It was a similar story for both 453 (Australian) Sqn with their Spitfire LF XVI, and 602 Sqn with their Spitfire XVI, both swinging like a pendulum between Matlask and Swannington and Swannington and Coltishall. 453 Sqn then transferred to Kent and eventually the continent whilst 602 Sqn followed 229 to Coltishall where they were disbanded on May 15th 1945. These late model Spitfires were now escorting daylight bombing raids such was the strength and superiority of the Allied Air Force over Europe.

RAF Swannington

Portions of the Perimeter track remain, some of it in full width.

These four squadrons, 602, 229, 453 and 451, were to join forces with 124 and 303 to tackle the new V-2 rocket, strafing and bombing the launch and control sites. It was on the 14th February 1945, that 602 Sqn pilot Sgt. T “Cupid” Love fired upon a rising V-2, the first (and only) record of any such incident occurring. An account of the event appears in Raymond Baxter’s log, and he explains how it was fortunate that the shots missed, for had he hit the rocket, it would no doubt have exploded ending the lives of himself and his fellow crews.

As the war came to a close and German forces were thought to be amassing troops at Kiel for a final assault on Norway, Mosquitoes from 157 Sqn were sent along with those from 8 Group to attack airfields in the area. These were to be some of the last attacks carried out by RAF aircraft in the European Theatre.

Their final departures signalled the end of operational duties for Swannington. The site was used for storage of surplus materials, mothballed Mosquitoes and numerous Merlin Engines until the RAF finally pulled out in 1947. Future plans for an upgrade to the airfield were abandoned, and the site was then sold off, it has since become a mix of agriculture and forestry.

DSC_0220

Swannington’s Stand By Set House is used for storage.

The majority of Swannington airfield is best seen from the eastern side. Approaching from the north, you first come across the former technical site that marks the top right corner of the site. Turn right here and you will see the location of one of the T2s, a farm building now stands here and behind it the location of the tower and a small number of ancillary buildings. These are today shrouded in trees and large bushes, which prevents any real sighting of them. Sadly the current condition, which is believed to be quite poor, is difficult to verify from this point on the roadside. Large portions of concrete denote the perimeter track and access routes to the technical area. Across the road from here, other buildings do still remain and are easily seen from the roadside. A small portion of the north-east / south-west runway also remains here, virtually full in its width.

Turning back on yourself, turn right and drive past the technical area to your right. Poultry sheds and farm buildings now stand here, but the shape of the hardstands are easily recognisable. On your left are more concrete structures and piles of rubble from former buildings. After a sort distance you arrive at the perimeter track, this crosses the road and is full width at this junction. A gate to your left allows access to the distant church, and by driving along here you traverse the actual perimeter where many Mosquitoes would  have moved on those night missions in 1944/45. The distant round-towered Church was so close to the perimeter that aircraft were often parked next to  the church yard, a rather eerie and stark reminder to those crews boarding the aircraft at this point. Stopping at the church the enormous size of the track can again be seen,  virtually full in its width, photos exist of a Mosquito also standing here in this very same position.

Outside this church, is a memorial dedicated by the ‘Airfields of Britain Conservation Trust’, the only ‘official’ memorial on the site. The church itself is locked, but two graves within the church yard and a bench dedicated to two members of the same family can be found here. The bench, dedicated to Lt. Cdr. M. Auckland and Flt. Lt. W. Auckland, both Harrier Pilots stands near the gate, whilst the older graves, F.O J. Edwards (Navigator) and Corporal C. Mace, can be found behind the church.

Flying Officer Edwards (s/n) 172240) was killed when his Mosquito TA392 ‘RS-K’ developed trouble whilst returning from an intruder mission. The aircraft crashed close to the airfield and both he and his pilot, Flt. Lt. W. Taylor, lost their lives. *3

Before returning, look across to the north to the small wooded area and you will see the Squash courts, standing in  what was the Haveringland Hall estate. Now return back to the road, and turn left, follow the road south. You will cross, a short distance away, the remains of the east-west runway, followed shortly by the returning perimeter track. Carry on to Clay Lane, and turn right. To your left is a small farm and a track that leads away over private land. This is the entrance to the bomb store, it circles round and rejoins the road further along, both now narrow and restricted to farm traffic only.

RAF Swannington

The Grave of F.O. J Edwards, Killed 22nd December 1944, age 22.

From here it is best to retrace your tracks, go back along Clay Lane, turn left and head north. On your right is a turn into the Haveringland Hall Holiday Park. A number of buildings remain here, the squash court, former sergeants mess and standby set house and most in good condition. The woods around here also contain many derelict remains and foundations of former structures. Some visible others shrouded by growth, many are too dangerous to explore.

Swannington had a short life, and many of the crews that passed though here went on to achieve great things. Swannington though wasn’t without its drama. Because of the nature of the operations carried out from here, losses were incurred, many fatal. The later part of 1944 saw a particularly high number of accidents and crew losses, many of these young men never being found.

The remaining buildings at Swannington stand as a silent reminder of the activities of 100 Group. Along with the brave Mosquito and Spitfire crews are all those who fought a long and hard battle against Hitler and his terror weapons. Whilst the Griffons and Merlins have gone, their memories have not.

Sources and further reading.

*1 85 Squadron was previously commanded by Wing Commander ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham, who became famous for downing 20 enemy aircraft during hostilities. He later went on to be a test Pilot for de Havilland, testing the DH Comet – the worlds first jet airliner. He received a number of awards and achieved a number of aviation firsts, He died in 2002.

*2 de Havilland Mosquito, An Illustrated History Vol 2, Ian Thirsk, Crecy Publications.

**3RAF Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War, W.R. Chorley, Midland.

Spitfire Dive-Bombers versus the V-2, Volume 2, Bill Simpson, Pen and Sword Books, has a good account of the V-2 war by the RAF Squadrons.

Home to the P-51s with a Reputation for Success. RAF Steeple Morden

In the final section of these Cambridgeshire Trails, we end with two fighter stations, both of which played a vital part in the defence of Britain and subsequently taking the war to Germany. Our first stop, boasts probably one of the best memorials in the area if not the country. It is that of RAF Steeple Morden.

RAF Steeple Morden (Station 122)

RAF Steeple Morden has been on my list of places to go for quite some time. Since seeing the photos taken by my friend, and reader, Steve Darnell,  I have wanted to know much more about it. After driving for a short distance from our previous site at Gransden Lodge, we arrive at the site of this former base.

The wide open expanses reveal little of its former life, the travesties , the bravery nor even the mundane hustle and bustle of a busy fighter airfield.

FRE_002932 aerial view

Steeple Morden, 11 May 1945*1.

Construction of Steeple Morden began in 1939 with its opening the following year. Initially, a satellite for nearby RAF Bassingbourn, its early existence would be fairly low-key, housing Wellington MK.1s of 11 Operational Training Unit (OTU) who were based at nearby RAF Bassingbourn. 11 OTU as a training flight, used the airfield primarily for navigation, landing and other training operations. This wasn’t to say that Steeple Morden was to be all quiet though. The first and probably most talked about event of this time, was the mistaken landing by a Junkers Ju 88 after the crew became disoriented following a raid in the midlands. The aircraft crashed as it landed and was written off, but enough of it was salvageable to  be used for assessment purposes. Shortly after this, at least two attacks occurred by the Luftwaffe rendering a number of Wellingtons damaged. Whilst some damage was inflicted upon the airfield, little overall disruption occurred.

Being a training unit, accidents were inevitable. Following a tragedy filled inception, the OTUs generally were to lose a number of crews or aircraft through lack of experience or mechanical failures. 11 OTU was no exception. On April 5th 1941 Wellington L4216 careered off the flare path causing its undercarriage to collapse. Luckily no one was injured in this instance, but it would set the scene for further tragic incidents. Wellington L4302 stalled on the night of 18th April, killing both pilots as the aircraft plunged into the ground at Abington Pigotts and on 8th June 1941, Wellington Ic, R1728, mysteriously crashed into the sea killing all six crew members. It is believed they were bounced by enemy aircraft and shot down. Steeple Morden’s crews were not as unfortunate though as those at nearby Bassingbourn, whose loss rates were even higher, – but they would certainly not get away lightly.

Aug 2015 002

The Village Sign at Steeple Morden Reflects its Aviation Links.

Following runway upgrades at Bassingbourn in the Autumn of 1941, further aircrews would find themselves based here and the pace of life would increase. During 1942 11 OTU would take part in the 1000 bomber raids over Germany, and attacks on prestige targets such as Bremen, Düsseldorf, Essen and Koln. On the night of 25th/26th June 1942, Wellington Ics DV778, ‘KJ-A’; R1078, ‘TX-Q’ and X2313, ‘KJ-L’; would all fail to return from Bremen. These high prestige  targets would claim further: Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and British lives from 11 OTU.

In September 1942, Steeple Morden was handed over to the US Eighth Airforce, and 11 OTU would move on to their new base at RAF Westcott in Buckinghamshire, to carry on training activity there. Earmarked for a new bomber station, it was given the designation Station 122, and would undergo a huge structural transformation.

Three concrete runways were built, the main running NE-SW, and two secondary running E-W and NW-SE. A large concrete perimeter track linked each one with some 55 pan style hardstands, 9 blister hangars and a T2 hangar. The main dispersals were to the south-east and south-west, with the technical and administration areas to the north behind the watch office. There were seven crew sites, two further WAAF sites, two communal sites and a sick quarters, enough for over 2000 personnel. These were all situated to the north-east beyond the end of the main runway. The bomb store, capable of holding 100 tons of bombs, was to the south-east.

The first units to arrive were the: 5th, 12th, 13th and 14th Photographic Squadrons of the 3rd photographic Group, Eighth Airforce, who would remain here between 26th October and November 1942, whilst on their way to the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations and the Twelfth Air Force. Led by Colonel Elliot Roosevelt, the son of the US President, they would go on to achieve a Distinguished Unit Citation for their part in action over southern France.

FRE_000443

P-51 Mustangs of the 355th Fighter Group break formation, ready for landing, over the ground support vehicles and control tower of Steeple Morden Airfield. *2

For a short period between the departure of the Americans and January the following year, Steeple Morden would remain calm and quiet. The next residents being a return to training and 17 OTU (RAF), bringing with them Blenhheims, who wold also only stay for a very short period before moving off again to RAF Silverstone to the west.

The sound over Steeple Morden would then change for good. In came the mighty P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ nicknamed ‘Jugs’ of the newly formed 355th Fighter Group (FG). No longer seen as suitable for a bomber station, Steeple Morden would be designated a fighter base and this would become its sole use for the remainder of the war.

The 355th FG was made up of 354th (Sqn code WR), 357th (OS) and 358th (YF) Fighter Squadrons, having white noses with red, blue and yellow rudders respectively. Their initiation into war would be slow, lack of supplies and aircraft restricting their ability to perform operationally. With a gentle start, they covered short-range bomber escort duties and low-level sweeps over Belgium, their first operational sortie being on 14th September 1943. Subsequent escort duties though, would take them deep into the heart of Germany. Using the American 75 gallon drop tanks as a substitute for slow delivered 108 gallon British paper tanks, they could reach Germany itself and support the beleaguered bombers of the Eighth Air force all the way to the target and back – a god send to the crews of the B-17s and B-24s.

The 355th would take part in some of Europe’s fiercest air battles, covering targets such as: Berlin, Karlsruhe, Misburg and Gelsenkirchen. But for such dramatic missions, ‘kill’ rates would remain remarkably low.

With the introduction of the new P-51 ‘Mustang’ the 355th’s fortune would turn. Now turning to strafing and low-level bombing runs, they would focus their attention on destroying the Luftwaffe on the ground. They would attack German airfields and earn themselves the apt name ‘The Steeple Morden Strafers‘. A DUC would follow on April 5th 1944 for an attack in a snow storm on the Luftwaffe airfield at Oberfaffenhofen and five other military bases. The 355th claiming to have destroyed 43 aircraft, damaging a further 81 and achieving 8 ‘kills’. From here the numbers continued to climb, both kill rates and the numbers of aircraft destroyed. They had certainly earned their reputation and their name.

FRE_000441 tower

Men of the 355th Fighter Group Survey the Airfield from Inside Steeple Morden Control Tower.*3

Further operations would take the 355th as far away as Politz in Poland, a remarkable achievement for a fighter aircraft, made possible by the addition of the larger drop tanks. The Normandy landings and the St Lo breakthrough were also covered by the 355th, supporting ground troops, strafing supply lines and enemy ground forces. Confidence and determination were high and a short visit by Glenn Miller would only go to increase the joys of the 355th’s successes – morale would be good.

Then Steeple Morden would take a blow. Early on January 1st 1945, B-17 ’42-37911′, “Heat’s on“, of the 401st BS, 91st BG, RAF Bassingbourn, would crash in the dispersal at Steeple Morden killing all crew members and injuring a number of staff on the ground. At least two P51-Ds, 44-14374, ‘WR-A‘ and 44-14498, ‘YF-S‘ were destoyed*4. Such were the fortunes of war.

“We started off the New Year of 1945 with a scheduled flight to the oil refineries at Merseburg on January 1st, but diverted to Kassel when we found Merseburg clouded over. No. 911, “Heats On”, of the 401st Squadron, on her 92nd mission and flown by 1Lt Earl J. Jeffers, had an engine fail on take-off. Lt Jeffers tried to put her down on the nearby 355th Fighter Group base at Steeple Morden, the main runway of which was directly in the flight path from runway 25 at Bassingbourn. Back on the 6th of March 1944, 2Lt Walter Wildinson in No. 761, “Blue Dreams”, had made a similar emergency landing at Steeple Morden. Although the crew forgot to lower the landing gear and completely wrecked the aircraft, no one in “Blue Dreams” or on the ground was injured. But, as “Heats On” touched down, for some unknown reason she careened into a P-51 dispersal area, striking parked aircraft and exploded, killing all 9 of the crew aboard. There are all sorts of ways to die in an air war. Several of the fighter base ground crew members were seriously injured, but none was killed. For us the mission was uneventful.”*5

As the war drew to a close, the 355th continued to strafe ground targets. Their final operation taking place on 25th April 1945. Their final tally would rise to over 860 ‘kills’ with 500 being as a result of ground strafing – one of the highest of any Eighth Air Force unit. Withdrawing Germans left airfields empty and allowed the allies to move to France and eventually into Germany itself. The 355th would go on to form part of the occupying Allied force leaving Steeple Morden for Gamblingen airfield on July 3rd 1945, and then onto Schweinfurt in April 1946, itself a former target for the Eighth Air Force. Eventually in August 1946 the 355th would return to the US without any equipment to be disbanded in the following November.

The departure of the 355th left Steeple Morden quiet. The 4th FG moved in with the 334th, 335th, and 336th FS before they too moved back to the US in November 1945 and temporary disbandment. Formed around a nucleus of former RAF ‘Eagle’ Squadron members, they came here from RAF Debden with a record of success that exceeded most other units. This departure signified the end for Steeple Morden and the airfield was finally closed. The land was sold off back to its original three owners in the early 1960s and it was returned to agriculture, having the majority of its infrastructure demolished or removed.

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Steeple Morden Technical Site today. The Watch Office would be to the Right in This Picture.

The only significant remnants of this historic airfield, now stand high on the hill-top, a few huts, odd buildings but a remarkable and formidable memorial, that are in tune with the success and bravery of all Steeple Morden’s Allied crews.

With Steeple Morden it is best to start in the village at the village sign, which signifies the links between the community and the base. Located at the village centre, the  sign depicts both an RAF Wellington and a P-51 flying low of the countryside.  A timely reminder that both RAF and USAAF services operated from  here. Take the main road east out of the village, and the airfield and memorial are on your right hand side. A small parking space, once a concrete road that led away from the main part of the airfield and housed general purpose huts, allows you to leave your car and view the memorial without causing a problem to the speeding traffic that uses this road.

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The Impressive Memorial to the Crews Who Served at RAF Steeple Morden, both USAAF and RAF.

A grand three-part concrete memorial, its centrepiece the propeller Bose of a P-51 Mustang, overlooks the airfield. To the right and left side are the inscriptions and dedications to the crews of both the RAF and the USAAF. A polished granite stone, all that is left of the watch tower, sits beneath the memorial and three former Nissen huts remain behind giving an atmospheric feel to this site. The fields beyond now completely agriculture this little part of the airfield virtually all that remains. Small sections of concrete, show where the technical site once stood, primarily to your left, with the dispersals and main airfield to your front. The watch office (drawing 13726/40) now long gone, would have been to your left and in front. The entire technical area in which you are standing is now soil, returned to agriculture once more. There are three small huts behind the memorial, these were the crew lockers and drying room, which stood in front of crews tennis courts, suitable for a much-needed recreation break. Along the hedgerow beside the road, would have been 5 further Nissen huts housing the defence crew quarters, again they have all gone.

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Crew Locker and Drying Rooms are Virtually the only buildings left.

On a warm summers day, the views from here are stunning. I can imagine a cold winter would transform this place to a freezing, inhospitable airfield with little protection from the elements. A dramatic change indeed.

If you leave here and continue east away from the village, you pass on your left the original operations block designed to drawing 228/43. It contained the crew briefing room, interrogation block and office annex. Still intact, the surrounding buildings mere piles of rubble. Continue on from here and you arrive at the village of Litlington. The church of St. Catherine’s is on your right and this is a ‘must stop’.

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The Airfield Operations Room, Whilst Standing, is in Poor Condition.

Before entering the church, look around, the houses opposite, and most of those making up Litlington, are on six of the former accommodation sites. Now mainly bungalows and family homes, there is virtually nothing left visible to show that this was once a vibrant military area.

Once inside the church you will see a beautiful stained glass window that commemorates the 355th FG. A P-47 and P-51, stand aside the eagle of the U.S. Air Force, with the 355th’s sword insignia at the centre of the crest; its detail and stunning blue colours enhanced in the summer light.

A specially commissioned painting can also be seen here. Created by Spencer Trickett, it depicts a P-51D “Miss Steve” as flown by Lt. William Cullerton of the 357th FS, 355th FG, at RAF Steeple Morden. His story is a remarkable one. Shot down by ground fire on April 8th 1945, he was captured by the SS, shot and left for dead. A Jewish doctor and German farmer found him and saved his life. He was then taken to a German hospital from where he escaped and was found by advancing American forces.

Cullerton was the fourth highest scoring ace of the group and the 29th of the entire Eighth Air Force. He was awarded: a Presidential Citation; the Victory in Europe Medal; the Air Medal with Clusters; the Distinguished Flying Cross with Clusters; the Purple Hear; Silver Star with Clusters and the Distinguished Service Cross. His aircraft, “Miss Steve” was named after his girlfriend whom he later married, and is depicted flying low over the church; a landmark used by Steeple Morden crews as it stands directly in line with the main runway.

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The Memorial Window at St. Catherine’s Church.

Whilst the majority of Steeple Morden has gone, there are thankfully strong community links with the Eighth and the veterans of the 355th. Whilst predominately American in ‘flavour’, the church window provides a fitting end to a fruitful trail, and what is surely one of the most prestigious memorials on any airfield today. For other photos of this and other memorials, click this link to the memorial page.

From here we go on to conclude this part of our trip with a visit to the RAF base at Fowlmere.

Notes and sources:

*1 Photo from IWM, Roger Freeman Collection, FRE2932,

*2 Photo from IWM, Roger Freeman Collection, FRE000443

*3 Photo from IWM, Roger Freeman Collection, FRE441

*4 Information from ‘Little Friendswebsite accessed 30/10/15

*5 Extract from “Mary Ruth Memories of Mobile…We Still Remember” Ch1- Another Time, Another Place–Lady Lois, Little Jean, published on 91st Bomb Group Website.

A great series of posts – RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Six: a few loose ends

While I was doing the researches for these sad and grim tales of Bomber Command, I came across a number of interesting details which I would like to share. Perhaps one or two loose ends might be tied up. The first is only loosely connected with the collision of the two unfortunate Lancasters returning from […]

http://johnknifton.com/2015/09/01/raf-elsham-wolds-part-six-a-few-loose-ends/

A tale of tragic loss – RAF Elsham Wolds: Part Five

In a previous article I wrote about the tragic collision of two Avro Lancaster bombers, both of them from 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds. The two aircraft were both trying to land at the same time, after permission to do so had been given to each of them by the Flying Control Officer. A subsequent Court of […]

http://johnknifton.com/2015/08/29/raf-elsham-wolds-part-five/

RAF Langham – A revolution on the very tip of Norfolk.

This airfield concludes our four-part tour around Norfolk. It visits a large airfield that played a revolutionary part in the Second World War. So revolutionary, that it paved the way for air defence well beyond the Second World War. We go to the very edge of North Norfolk, to an area of sanctuary, mud flats and a bird watchers paradise. A place where the sound of the Lark has replaced the roar of the piston engine.

RAF Langham

RAF Langham is located at the tip of North Norfolk’s coast. Its location perfect for the role it was to operate.

Built as a satellite to Bircham Newton, it opened in 1940, with three grass runways, and would take aircraft from a number of nearby airfields. Not having any official resident units until 1941, when the Polish and Czech units of 300 and 311 squadrons used it as a forward operating base, it saw little operational action. Langham was initially used as a gunnery training airfield, towing targets for gunnery practice at nearby Stiffkey, a few miles to the north. This is perhaps Langham’s most famous role and the one that many people associate with Langham.

Langham airfield display board

Langham Airfield (photo of the display board at Langham Dome).

Then in November 1942 Langham was closed and redeveloped having concrete runways laid and around 35 looped style dispersals. The longest runway, (NE/SW) was of 1,988 yards, the second (N/S) 1,400 yards and the third (E/W) also of about 1,400 yards, all approximate. The accommodation sites were well away from the airfield many in and around the village of Langham itself to the east or south-east. Three T2 hangars were also erected, one to the north-west and two the south-east in the technical area. There were also various technical and administration blocks and a bomb storage area well away to the north of the site.

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Langham’s Watch Office.

The first operational units arrived in April 1944, with Beaufighters of 455 (Australian) and 489 (New Zealand) squadrons of the Beaufighter Strike Wing, on the 8th and 13th respectively. This wing would famously form a combined attack against enemy shipping in the North Sea, being responsible for the sinking of 4 ‘U’ Boats and 36 surface vessels whilst here. A combination of nose mounted cannons and underwing rockets proved a deadly adversary for the flak ships and merchant vessels of the German Navy.

In August that year, the 521st Squadron moved from their base at RAF Docking to Langham to carry out its role of meteorological reconnaissance. Operating with Lockheed Hudsons, they would soon be ‘upgraded’ to Boeing’s massive B-17 adapted for these special duties. Other coastal command roles such as air-sea rescue were also carried out from Langham and a range of aircraft types would operate from here for the duration.

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A collection of technical buildings still exist today.

Post war Langham was used by the Royal Netherlands Air Force as a Technical Training School, until June 1947 when it was vacated and then finally put into care and maintenance in the following September. For a short period between March 1953 and November 1958, it became a target towing site once more, pulling targets for No. 2 Civilian Anti-Aircraft Cooperation Unit and finally as if to defy the odds, it was used as an emergency landing ground for aircraft from nearby RAF Sculthorpe.

As with many of these Norfolk sites, Langham was eventually sold off, bought by Bernard Matthews becoming home to a number of turkey Sheds, the role it performs to this day.

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Like so many in Norfolk, Langham’s main runway now houses poultry.

The majority of the concrete layout of Langham remains today, utilised by the company for transportation and storage. The technical sites and accommodation sites virtually indistinguishable from the farmland it once occupied. A small collection of buildings can be seen from the public road including: the watch tower, Fire tender shed, a Floodlight trailer, tractor shed,  a Night flying equipment store and a small brick hut used for weather balloons. To the north-east, on the brow of the hill sits the restored battle headquarters. But certainly the most famous and most distinguishable building of this site, is the former gunnery trainer dome.

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The ‘famous’ Langham Dome – former Gunnery Trainer.

Refurbished through Lottery Money, the dome is now classed as an ancient monument and a museum run by the Trust and Friends of the Langham Dome. Much has been written about the dome and recently (May 17th 2015) the BBC ran a programme about its development and history which is available on BBC iplayer for a short period. Only a small number of these structures exist today, none of which are accessible, which is what makes the Langham dome so special and unique. Developed in conjunction with Kodak, it projected a film of an aircraft onto the dome wall, to simulate an attack, at which the gunner would ‘fire’ his gun. The trainer would measure the trainees accuracy using a dot to the front of the aircraft visible only to himself. A remarkable breakthrough in gunnery training, it led the way in anti-aircraft training for a good number of years even after the war.

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A plaque from Veterans of the Royal Netherlands Airforce in the Church at Langham.

Langham is one of Norfolk’s most Northerly airfields, it provided a safe haven for returning aircraft, and its residents conducted air-sea rescue missions, sank a number of ships and played a role in meteorological reconnaissance and anti-aircraft training. A mixed bag, but certainly an important one, the memory of Langham should continue and thrive for without it, there would certainly have been many more casualties in the Second World War.

References

A website dedicated to the Dome and life at RAF Langham can be found here. It includes a range of photographs and first hand accounts of what it was like to live on or near the airfield.

The BBC iplayer programme may only available in the UK and for a short period of time. You can find it here.