In this next Trail, the 50th trail around Britain’s Wartime airfields, we continue looking at Bomber Command’s airfields around the Cambridge / Suffolk borders. Being a bomber base, this is another that operated both the ill-fated Stirling, and then later the famous Lancaster; it is also a base that had some of the best survival records of 3 Group, but it also paid the price that came with the Stirling.
Turning north-west from Haverhill toward the metropolis of Cambridge, we visit an airfield that is on one of the highest points in the eastern region, at just below 400 feet above sea level, it was cold and inhospitable in winter, but it was one whose pride and significant contribution shall live on. Here we visit the former Bomber Command base RAF Wratting Common.
RAF Wratting Common (West Wickham)
Wratting Common airfield opened in the latter part of the war, May 1943. It was initially named after the local village, West Wickham, which lies a couple of miles to the west. However, due to confusion with another airfield, it was renamed in the August, becoming known as Wratting Common, the name it retained, and used, for the remainder of the war.
Operating under No. 3 Group the losses from Wratting Common would be high, 260 personnel would lose their lives here, equating to almost eleven every month for the duration of its short two-year life. Many of these crews would be Short Stirling crews, the enormous bomber that would take an incredible amount of punishment, but suffered with a limited service ceiling and a weak undercarriage that led to numerous accidents whilst landing or taking off.
Wratting Common was opened in May 1943, under the Class A specification. Three concrete and wood chip runways were built to 2,000 yards and 1,400 yards respectively. A perimeter track joined the three runways and housed 36 spectacle hardstands for aircraft dispersal. Repairs were carried out in one of five hangars, four T2s and one B1, mainly located to the north and west of the airfield. To the south lay the bomb store, and the site had the usual range of standard design buildings. The watch office was of the 12279/41 design, a design adopted by all major airfields by the end of 1943.
Designed to take just over 2,000 males and 348 female staff, it had 10 domestic sites spread about the northern side, these would receive in the region of 2,500 males of various ranks and 486 females, numbers fluctuating as crews invariably failed to return home and units came and went.
As it was a short-lived airfield, it would have only two operational front line squadrons, No. 90 and No. 195, although other units did use the airfield including: No. 24 Heavy Glider Maintenance Section, No. 273 Maintenance Unit, No. 1552 Radio Aids Training (RAT) Flight (No 2 Section) and No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).
The opening of the airfield was preceded by the arrival of S/Ldr. W. K. Young , who took early control of the site and oversaw the final preparations for the forthcoming crews. Between April and May, construction was completed, defences were set up, and by the end of May the first operational aircraft began arriving. A handover saw a new and permanent Station Commander take over, a change that saw operational sorties begin within a matter of days.
No 90 Sqn, a first World War squadron, had been absorbed by 17 OTU in 1940, and then reformed again in May 1941. They served for almost a year being the only RAF unit at that time to fly the B-17 before being disbanded once more. This pattern of reforming and disbanding was one that 90 Sqn would perform almost perpetually.
Reforming again in November 1942 at RAF Bottesford, they began operations with the Stirling MK.I, transferring to RAF Ridgewell in December where they began to receive the MK.III. Arriving here at Wratting Common, in the last days of May 1943, they would remain here until the October that year before moving off to RAF Tuddenham,
During these five months 90 Sqn would lose 185 aircrew, a figure testament to the problems with the Stirling but also to the dedication of the crews to ‘get the job done’.
The first sortie took place on the night of 3rd/4th June 1943, when ten aircraft carried out a mine-laying mission off the Biscay ports. A rather uneventful mission, it would be one of the few where all aircraft returned safely.
With Bomber Command’s Battle of the Ruhr approaching its final chapter, 90 Sqn would suffer their first casualties on the night of June 21st/22nd, 1943. It was a mission to Krefield, a mission that saw 705 aircraft drop 2,306 tons of bombs on the town destroying almost half of it. It was the largest area of devastation so far of any mission and was preceded by an almost perfect marking from the RAF’s Pathfinders. The night was marred by high losses though, just over 6% of the force being lost, many as a result of night-fighter action. Of these, 90 Sqn got off lightly losing only one aircraft, Stirling MK.III ‘WP-T’ with the loss of all seven crewmen, a crew that included both an Australian and a Canadian airman.
By the 26th, just four days later, another five aircraft had been lost with only four survivors; a hefty blow that took the lives of thirty-one airmen whilst in their prime.
A new month proved little better, on the night of 3rd/4th July, three more aircraft would be lost, one ‘WP-F’ returning beaten up overshot the runway without thankfully, loss of life. The remaining two aircraft were lost over Belgium and Germany, with only one crewman surviving, captured by ground forces and surviving as a POW.
July would see a both further losses and 90 Sqn returning to Hamburg no less than three times before the month was over. Bomber Command’s tactic of area bombing would now turn from the industrial heartland to the city of Hamburg, and its enormous ship building works. Hamburg would of course become well-known for a number of reasons, the destructive firestorms that would devastate the town, the first joint efforts of the USAAF and RAF, and the use of ‘Window‘ for the first time.
Surprisingly during these raids, 90 squadron would have a rather uniquely ‘clean bill of health’, especially considering the nature of the target. Hamburg would not be easy, attacking at heights of around 13 – 16,000 feet, they would be dropping a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs, well below the height of other squadrons. On the first night 24th/25th July, all 90 squadron aircraft would return to base, a night that was followed by the loss of one aircraft (Stirling ‘WP-S’) to Essen, before they returned to Hamburg on the 27th/28th.
The loss of this Stirling ‘S-Sugar’ was significant in that it was piloted by the Squadron Leader, S/L. Joseph Dugdale DFC, (s/n 39071). Presumed lost over the sea, the aircraft also had two New Zealanders and an Australian on board, one of which was washed up on the Norfolk coast along with two other members of the crew.
After attacking Hamburg, and damaged by flak, Stirling BK693 ‘WP-A’ would limp back to England landing at nearby RAF Stradishall, where it swung off the runway hitting another Stirling parked at a dispersal. The only 90 Sqn loss that night, it would set a precedent for the third and final attack of the month. Returning the next night, 777 aircraft would fly in from the north of the city, attacking areas so far not damaged by allied bombing. This raid would not be considered one of the RAF’s most ‘successful’ though, the bombing ‘creeping back’ some four miles into residential areas with huge loss of civilian life. Of the 119 Stirlings sent out that night, only four were lost, the only casualty of 90 squadron being ‘WP-F’ which took off at 22:00 hrs, crashing out of control without loss just after.
These light casualties, gave 90 Sqn one of the best records of No. 3 Group, a record that continued to the end of July and the closure of the Battle of the Ruhr.
At the end of July, Wratting Common was visited by an American airman. In rather less than ideal circumstances, Major William Julian of the 83rd FS, 78th FG, based at Duxford, made a wheels up landing in his battle damaged P-47 #41-6628, ‘HL-R’. The aircraft would eventually be recovered and repaired only to suffer a similar fate later on. July had been a busy month at Wratting Common!
August 1943 brought the change of name to the airfield, but no change in operations. Missions included Nuremberg, another return to Hamburg, Turin (famous for the VC awarded to Flt. Sgt. Arthur Aaron), and now for the first time, the rocket research establishment at Peenemunde. It was also a time when Sir Arthur Harris turned his attention to Berlin, the heart of the German Reich. A city heavily defended and a long way into occupied Europe, it was going to be difficult for Bomber Crews, and 90 Squadron’s run of luck could be about to falter.
During the short period of late August and early September 1943, 1,600 sorties would be flown to Berlin, and if the German’s determination to survive was going to be seen anywhere, it was going to be in their fearless defence of the capital.
On the first night of August 23rd/24th 1943, two 90 Squadron aircraft were lost, one ditching in the sea just off the coast near Cuxhaven north-west of Hamburg. After spending 7 days, 16 hours and 10 minutes in their dingy, three of the crew were rescued, the remaining four having been killed*1.
A second Stirling, EH937 ‘WP-S’ was also lost that night. Piloted by Flt. Sgt. Kenneth Longmore, (s/n 413622) an Australian and hairdresser by trade, it crashed in the Ilsselmeer, a stretch of water north of Amsterdam. The aircraft, along with all its crew, were lost at 20:37, three being killed and four classified as ‘missing’.
The path to Berlin was lit by Pathfinders, and of the 727 aircraft sent, 124 were Stirlings, the loss rate for the mission being just short of 8% in total.
A further loss of a single aircraft on the night of 27th/28th August led to a return to Berlin, and another night of heavy losses for Bomber Command. The Stirling loss rate alone being 16% of the force. Luckily 90 Squadron themselves came off ‘lightly’ once more, losing only one aircraft that night, Stirling MK. III ‘WP-Q’ piloted by W/O. Martin P. Callaway RAFVR, (s/n: 155479), who was only 20 years old.
A third raid to Berlin, saw the withdrawal of both Stirlings and Halifaxes from these duties, their losses being too high compared to those of the Lancaster. The Germans now employing a range of tactics to illuminate the night sky, allowing the night fighters to pick the bombers off almost at will.
There then followed a period of relative calm, until at the end of September, when on the night of 22nd/23rd, 90 Sqn returned to Hannover. A raid that would perhaps be recorded as one of their worst. Between 18:50 and 18:54, three aircraft would depart Wratting Common, one ‘WP-K’ would not get far, its starboard engine catching fire shortly after take off causing the laden bomber to explode at a height of 500 feet. All but one of the crew were killed instantly, whilst the seventh, F/S. Duffy, later died from his injuries.
Of the remaining two aircraft, one was brought down by night fighters over the target, with the loss of all on board, and the third, badly beaten, limped backed to England crashing at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk. Two crewmen survived as prisoners, parachuting from the aircraft after confusion arose when the pilot lost control of the Stirling – the remainder of the crew being either killed or injured. For airmanship and courage Sgt. Jones was awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal whilst W/O Denton was awarded a DFC, and Sgt. Suddens a DFM.
By October 1943 the Stirling’s days were numbered, and orders had come through for 90 Sqn to depart Wratting Common for RAF Tuddenham. Crews began to pack and aircraft were readied for their eventual departure. On the 12th a final air test would be carried out on Stirling EP426 ‘WP-W’ and it would not go well. A full crew watched aboard as the pilot W/O. George R. Hilton(s/n: 158247) RAFVR tried to land the aircraft with the starboard outer engine feathered. The landing was a disaster and the resultant crash killed all but one of the crew, Sgt. J. Moran the rear gunner being injured. With that 90 Sqn departed Wratting Common taking with it a record that was one to be proud of, but as part of Bomber Commands overall strategy, it certainly had paid a high price.
For around six weeks the airfield was, flying wise, very quiet, final departures and preparations for new arrivals were made. At the end of November a new unit would arrive, bringing back the mighty Stirling to this open and cold station once again.
1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) were one of three such units still operating the Stirling, the remainder having switched to Lancasters or Halifaxes previously. Whilst at Wratting Common, 1651 HCU would convert crews to four engined heavies, a task much-needed as the toll of recent attacks on the German heartland was beginning to bite. Now withdrawn from front line bombing duties, Stirling crews were feeling a little pushed out, often left by the crews of Lancasters and Halifaxes who rose to the higher levels to avoid the fighters and flak. The conversion to Lancasters by Bomber Command was long and slow, the poor winter of 1943/44 playing a large part in its delay, restricting flying hours and crew training. Once ‘passed’ on Stirlings, crews would go to Lancaster finishing Schools, honing their skills on a much more adored aircraft.
The HCU would remain here for a year, suffering its own share of problems and accidents. Within the first week one Stirling would crash just 20 minutes after take off whilst on an emergency approach to nearby RAF Downham Market. After losing power the aircraft spun violently crashing into the ground. Thankfully and very remarkably, all the crew escaped with minor injuries.
In June 1944, the renowned undercarriage of the Stirling would lead to problems for the ground crews of Wratting Common. On the night of 6th June, Stirling BF473 landed on the runway at Wratting Common whereupon its port tyre burst. On departing the aircraft, leaving it to the ground crews to recover, the crew left and headed back for their debriefing. Just a few minutes behind them though, was Wellington JA619 of 69 Squadron at RAF Northolt. Suffering engine trouble, the Wellington made an emergency approach unaware of the huge obstacle that lay ahead. The two aircraft collided, creating a huge fireball that took both RAF and local fire crews several hours to extinguish. In the incident, two of the Wellington crew received injuries and a further two were killed, their bodies were not recovered until the next morning after the fire had been put out.
Further training and minor accidents continued, July 1944, saw one major loss with the crash of Stirling MK.III LK565 ‘QQ-R’. Whilst banking, the pilot F/S. DH Wilson lost control of the aircraft causing it to crash killing all eight on board; the eighth man being an additional navigator.
The year progressed and more crews were turned out. Spares for the Stirling became scarce and eventually the HCU was itself to convert to the Lancaster, the Stirlings later being disposed off. With that, 1651 HCU pulled out of Wratting Common leaving only a front line Lancaster Squadron, who arrived eight days previously, the only operational unit using Wratting Common.
195 Sqn, previously a Typhoon Squadron, had reformed at Witchford from ‘C’ flight of 115 Squadron. Flying the Lancaster MK.I and III, it arrived at Wratting Common on November 13th 1944, staying until August 1945 where upon it was disbanded.
By now the RAF bomber crews had all but total control of the skies, carrying out a number of raids in daylight such was the state of the German defences. With attacks on Merseburg, Dortmund, Oberhausen and Hamm, losses were low, around 1%, considerably lower than figures previously seen. The high morale of bomber command was about to take a battering though, in the daylight raid on the 12th December 1944 on Witten, a town that had seen extreme violence on the night of Kristallnacht of 9th/10th November 1938.
During the raid a force of 140 Lancasters from 3 Group attacked the steel works of Ruhrstahl, which made steel used in the production of aircraft, tanks and other armaments. In the attack, nine Lancasters were lost and the steel works were missed by bombs. Of these, 195 Sqn lost four Lancasters: HK697 ‘A4-C‘; NG351 ‘JE-E‘; PB112 ‘JE-H‘ and PB196 ‘JE-D‘. One crew survived a crash landing, two other crewmen were taken prisoner but the remainder were all killed – a terrible night for Bomber Command and for 195 Sqn in particular.
As the war neared its conclusion further raids were carried out, losses fell as defences weakened, a mix of both day and night sorties saw operations to Munich, Duisburg, Dortmund, Dresden and once again Berlin. 195 Sqn’s last operational bombing sortie took place on April 24th 1945, following which they took part in Operation ‘Manna‘, dropping food supplies to the starving Dutch people.
After this, 195 Sqn began the operations to bring home the many POWs in Operation ‘Exodus’, a task they took great pride in. On May 7th 1945, the last flight took place from Wratting Common and the squadron was disbanded on August 14th. No longer required, Wratting Common airfield was closed, and within eight months its hangar doors were shut for the final time, the site then returned to agriculture a state in which it survives in today.
Wratting Common was a short-lived airfield, its crews took part in many of Bomber Command’s most fierce-some air battles, losing a large number of men in the process. Whilst not the enormous toll we’ve come to expect from bomber squadrons, it none the less suffered the terrible injustices of war, and the loss of life that scarred so many families for so long. Long may they be remembered.
The efforts of the many Bomber Command crews were never forgotten though, and land owned by the Vestey family was donated for a memorial that was organised through the efforts of numerous people. Some of the original buildings have been refurbished and are now used by the local farm, several of the hangars remain also in use by local companies, by using them they are at least preserving them.
If approaching from the Haverhill direction, the first structures you see are the two hangers, a T2 and a B1, either side of the road. The B1 to your left and the T2 to your right, both linked across the road by a former track and dispersal point. There would have been four spectacle dispersal points here, all now removed. A footpath near to this point does cross part of the airfield site, allowing some access to remnants of the perimeter tracks. Continue along this road and then turn right, you will then come across Weston Woods Farm. This is the former entrance to the airfield site and here stands the memorial and a number of buildings owned by the farm. In the distance, you can see a further T2, and a small group of Nissen huts again owned by the farm. This area was once the technical area, stores, Motor Transport huts and a range of technical buildings were plentiful in the late 1940s. Now reduced to nothing more than a handful, they are reminders of the days when the RAF’s heavy bombers graced the site.
A short distance along the road from here was the operations block (now gone) and turning left at the junction, the first of the domestic sites – Site 7. The road between here and the nearby village of Weston Colville are where the majority of these site stood, the basic concrete entrances being the only significant indication of anything being here. The village sign at Weston Colville displays a Stirling indicating its links to the airfield and the domestic sites that once stood on this ground.
With little of this site remaining, a handful of buildings, the memorial and a well designed information board, keep the history of those young men who flew from here in the few short years of its existence alive, their stories shall live on as will the memories of the fight they took deep into the heart of the Nazi homeland.
From Wratting Common we head south again, turning back on our tracks and returning toward Haverhill. From here we continue on with our trail around Britain’s airfields and back once more into the counties of Suffolk and Essex.
Sources, notes and further Reading.
*1 Chorley., W. R., “Bomber Command Losses 1943“, Midland Counties Publications, 1996.
A book of remembrance is thought to be in St Mary’s Church, West Wickham. Sadly on the day I visited, the church was unusually locked.
A website dedicated to those who flew from Wratting Common has a lot of additional information and photographs, it is certainly worth a visit.