RAF Bovingdon – The Hour that Never Was!

During the 1960s, a cult TV series hit the British Screens – ‘The Avengers’ starring  Patrick Macnee (as John Steed), and Diana Rigg (as Emma Peel).

In episode 9 of the fourth series, “The Hour That Never Was” the two characters go to an old airbase, the fictitious RAF Hamelin home to (also fictitious) 472 Squadron, where Steed had been invited to a party before the base was officially closed.

But following an accident in their car, Steed and Mrs. Peel, find things are not what they seem and so begins the investigation into what has happened.

The episode was filmed on location at the former RAF Bovingdon between the 5th July and 20th July 1965 before the site was officially closed in 1972.

The film designer used Bovingdon to cleverly achieve the illusion of abandonment, an aim successfully done through filming in the old original wartime buildings. They even manage to include a shot where Steed climbs inside a D.H. Mosquito!

Bovingdon was initially designed as a bomber airfield for the RAF, but was quickly passed over to the USAAF. Sadly it never became a true operational airbase primarily due to the three short runways. However, the 92nd BG, the only operational unit to be stationed here, are reported to have taken part in a small number of raids in both September and October 1942, before departing to Alconbury in January 1943. Bovingdon then became a training centre for bomber crews as the 11th Combat Crew Replacement Centre, training the majority of US crewmen after their arrival in the UK. It also trained and hosted a number of film stars (including Clarke Gable and James Stewart) along with reporters who were to fly over occupied Europe for reporting and making propaganda films.

As a support station for the Eighth Air Force Headquarters and the Air Technical Section, it would also see a range of aircraft types based here, the most noteworthy being General Eisenhower’s own personal B-17 stored in one of the four T2 hangars that stood on the base.

Bovingdon, now a prison, is also noted for being the location for “633 Squadron” as the fictional base RAF Sutton Craddock also with its D. H. Mosquitoes, and with “The War Lover” with Steve McQueen. Other films include: “Mosquito Squadron“, “The Battle of Britain“, and the James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun“.

Bovingdon has a remarkable and highly significant history and like so many others has earned its place in history.

A ‘You Tube’ version of “The Hour That Never Was” is not the best quality film, but it does give you good views of the airfield and the hangars before the airfield was closed for good.

My thanks go to fellow blogger and reader John Knifton  for the links!

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Debach Museum

On a recent trail in Suffolk, I was lucky enough to be able to visit two terrific museums both situated in the former Watch Offices of U.S.A.A.F bomber bases.

The second of these was at the former base at RAF Debach.

Like many of these sites the airfield and tower fell into disrepair after the war and remained so for many years, gradually deteriorating in the extremes of the British weather. By 1960, vegetation had taken hold and the building had become derelict.

But in the mid 1990s, the land owner decided to invest in the tower and with help from volunteers began a major restoration project that would not only restore it to its former glory, but make it into a memorial and museum to the crews and staff who lived, served and died whilst on active service at RAF Debach.

Usually open on Sunday’s, and Wednesday’s by appointment, I had the delightful opportunity to be given a personal guided tour of the site by the knowledgeable and dedicated wife of the current land owner.

Debach Airfield and Museum

1940s inside the Watch Office

The volunteers of the site were there, busy working away, and were more than happy to chat providing one of the warmest welcomes I’ve ever had the pleasure of.

The site today is a busy working farm, and any self-respecting visitor will appreciate the work, time and money that has been poured into this site. Not just the tower, but the cafe, the various buildings that remain, the enormous and varied collection of memorabilia and working vehicles hat have been collected and resorted to full working order.

The tower itself has been returned to what it would have been like during its use in the late 1940s. Each room filled with original equipment (where possible) sourced from around the world. Old photographs have been used as references and provide excellent comparisons to the current displays.

The glass house has been rebuilt, and as with other towers, provides excellent views over the former site. What a sight it must have been to stand here watching the bombers return from their daylight missions over Europe.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The ‘Glass House’ on top of the Watch Office.

The main room houses a number of dressed mannequins, radio sets and wartime artefacts set out as it would have been; whilst other rooms contain personal effects, electronic equipment, administration equipment, maps and the like. Photographs around the building tell the more personal stories of Debach airfield during the war.

Outside, one of the former huts now houses what has to be one of, if not the biggest collections of original nursing and dental equipment around. An entire dental room is on display each item having been bought by the owners over a number of years. Much of this equipment having been hidden away and not generally on show elsewhere.

Debach Airfield and Museum

Debach houses one of the finest collections of dental equipment around.

The usual array of uniforms, weapons and artefacts gathered from the airfield can also be found, along with a collection of toys and gifts made by POWs kept here post war. This collection is thought to be the biggest in the eastern region.

Also found here is an original Queen Mary trailer now converted in to a small cinema which shows films from the era, giving further insights and experiences of life in the 1940s.

Another original building, the former fire tender shed, is now a collection of household materials and artefacts depicting various rooms of a house during the Second World War. For anyone interested in domestic life in the 1940s this is a must.

Debach Airfield and Museum

One of the many rooms depicting war and post war domestic life.

Many of the original buildings on the technical site remain, the dingy shed, parachute store and stores huts, and whilst many are used for storing farm machinery, one does hold a large number of working second world war vehicles. I was lucky enough to have them start one of these up and the noise was incredible. These vehicles just ooze power!

Not being a knowledgeable vehicle buff myself, several of the volunteers gladly took timeout to explain the history and uses of each one and allowed me the freedom to wander around them.

Debach Airfield and Museum

One of the many restored vehicles that run today.

Other buildings contain further vehicles, again all restored and running. Aircraft parts and a B-17 engine recovered after 57 years are also on view, along with more Second World War artefacts that fill these rooms.

Even though the technical site is a working farm, there are no unrealistic restrictions to access and as a visitor you are warmly welcomed to wander.

Across the road, only a short walk away, is the memorial. This has been laid outside the former headquarters building, which is now used by a small industrial unit.  Again I was invited in, and allowed to peruse the photographs and record boards that adorn the walls. These photos show the building as it was during the war and make for very interesting viewing.

Debach museum is a fascinating and well run museum where a friendly welcome, excellent facilities and enormous collection of Second World War equipment is fabulously displayed, I simply cannot recommend it enough.

For further information, event listing and opening times visit the museum website.

Chivalry Amongst Enemies

On December 20th 1943, high above war-torn Europe, the lives of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot and the crew of an American B-17 would collide in an event that has become famous around the aviation world.

On that day, a B-17, “Ye Olde Pub“, of the 379th BG based at RAF Kimbolton (USAAF Station 117) , would be so severely damaged it would defy the laws of gravity and somehow remain airborne as it departed Bremen, Germany, having valiantly carried out its mission. In the skies over the freezing waters of the North Sea, the bomber hanging by a thread, with two engines out, all but one of its guns but the top turret empty or frozen, its rudder and left horizontal stabiliser torn to pieces, a dead crew member and several others wounded;  “The Pub”, as its crew affectionately nicknamed her, seemed destined to fall from the skies. Just then, the pilot and co-pilot watched helplessly as bullets ripped through the cockpit ceiling, wounding the pilot, and causing the oxygen system to malfunction, leaving the desperate crew destined to succumb to anoxia in mere moments. It was then that the bomber fell into a slow upside-down flat spin. It did not take long before the pilot saw his co-pilot, eyes closed due to lack of oxygen, that he too, slowly lost consciousness as he watched the farmlands of Germany far beneath them, grow closer with each passing moment. The fate appeared sealed for the badly beaten bomber and the lives of her remaining crew. “The Pub” would be easy prey for the hunters of the Luftwaffe. At that precise moment, and with hundreds of miles still to get home, a lone Bf 109 would see the stricken bomber, take off and prepare to shoot it down. The German pilot was an ace, and  his plane had 22 victory marks, and he only needed to shoot down one more bomber to earn the long coveted Knight’s Cross.

However, the loaded guns of the 109 did not rain down its fire of death upon the bomber. Instead – and against all that was meant to happen in war – they stayed silent. The 109 cautiously approached the B-17, its pilot carefully manoeuvred around the aircraft watching for any sign from the gun crews that might suggest they were about to fire.  Inside, he saw its pilot who sat stunned in disbelief at the sight before him, and from the outside of the bomber, he knew whatever crew remained were likely desperately fighting to save their wounded comrades and themselves. (As the B-17 lost altitude, the remaining crew, including the pilot and co-pilot regained consciousness, and somehow managed to right the plane and set her on a course for home.)

In the B-17, pilot 2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown watched in amazement as the 109 piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Franz Stigler formed up against it, perhaps teasing the crew before delivering the final and devastating blow. Stigler however, a sworn enemy of the Eighth Air Force, instead of firing, gestured to the crewmen to fly to Sweden and safety. But Brown, stubborn in his determination to get his crew home, didn’t understand, and carried on flying straight and level toward the North Sea and home. Stigler flew alongside, fearing the bomber would never make it and crash into the sea, so he continued to gesture to the crew. Steadfast, they carried onward, watching the 109, waiting for him to attack the defenceless bomber. Finally, fearing he may be shot down himself, Stigler saluted the crew and departed, leaving the bomber to fly safely back to England.

The story of this brief encounter remained unknown for many years – Stigler sworn to secrecy for fear of his own life, and Brown for fear of complacency in the Air Force, were both unable to openly talk about the experience. Then, after many years and through extensive research and letter-writing, the two pilots finally met up in a meeting that was so charged with emotion that it reduced both men to tears.

Immortalised in John Shaw’s painting* and Adam Mako’s book, “A Higher Call” is the dramatic story of this strange and heartfelt encounter.

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John Shaws’ painting of the two aircraft flying together.

This is not a book about one meeting though. This is a book  about two men, the people behind the guns, the characters, their experiences and their lives. It tells the story of Franz Stigler, how he, as a natural pacifist, was drawn into a vulgar fight waged by madmen and tyrants thirsty for revenge. The story is told as he progressed from flying school then onto Egypt and Sicily and eventually back to defend his homeland against the continued onslaught of heavy bomber formations reigning death and destruction upon a foe so evil, it led to the slaughter of millions of innocent people.

But why did Stigler let the bomber crew live? The book reveals his character, his determination to carry out his duty to defend his homeland, the honour that existed between friend and foe, the unwritten rules of warfare, and the distaste he had for all that Nazism stood for. When these worlds collided, he had to make a decision. His finger poised over the trigger, to squeeze it or not? That… That was the moment when Franz Stigler realized if he DID shoot, it would be no ‘victory’ for him. With that, his desire to earn the Knight’s Cross disappeared. He knew that there were more important aspirations for him.

In this well written book , Mako reveals the man behind the gesture. Through research and interviews with both crewmen, he lays out the story of Stigler delving into his character, digging deep into the memories of that night and the events that led up to and after it. He explores the events that created the man, the decisions that made him the person he was. A man to whom medals and numbers were not important, a man who would risk his own life to ensure the safety of others.

It would look at how the people of post war Germany, would turn against him and his kind, laying the blame for defeat firmly at the feet of the fighter pilot. How a once hero of the Reich would become the villain, be despised by those he protected even though he disagreed with what they stood for.

This is a fascinating and compelling book, detailed in every aspect – it is difficult to put down. It provides a fascinating insight into the man and his machine, the tragedies and traumas of war. Supplemented by original letters and photographs, this book is a fascinating read into the story behind the picture, and the events that occurred on that day, December 20th 1943.

A Higher Call is written by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander is published by Atlantic Books.

* The original painting was created by Robert Harper, the Assistant Intelligence Officer of the 448th BG at RAF Seething where Brown’s B-17 landed.

RAF Debach – Home of Helton’s Hellcats.

As we depart Framlingham we head a short distance away to the south-west, to another U.S Bomber base also with a remarkable museum. As we head towards Ipswich we arrive at Debach, the former base of the 493rd BG(H) and a group named after its commander Col. Elbert Helton, “Helton’s Hellcats.”

RAF Debach (Station 152).

Debach was one of the last bases to be built during the war, hence its life span was relatively short. Construction began in 1943 opening in 1944 and was constructed by the 820th Engineer Battalion (Aviation) whose headquarters were at Great Barrington in the Cotswolds.

Debach Airfield and Museum

Part of the runway at Debach, cracking and breaking up, it once resounded to the roar of heavy bombers.

As a Class ‘A’ site, it had three concrete runways, the main running slightly off north/east-south/west, the second east-west, and the third slightly off north-south.  The runway patterns at Debach were slightly different to the norm in that the cross of the ‘A’ was at the base rather than part way up, but the various lengths were as per other Class ‘A’ models.

A perimeter track with 50 spectacle hardstands joined the thresholds of each runway, with the bomb store to the south-east and the accommodation, admin and technical areas all spread along the western side. The airfield site encompassed the medieval site of Thistledon Hall, a three-moated house that has historical features dating back to the late 16th and early 17th Century. A building that was demolished to make way for the airfield.

Accommodation was split over 6 officer and enlisted crewmen sites, two WAAF sites, a sick quarters and admin block that granted access to the main airfield. The majority of the buildings were Nissen huts, with some Romneys, a blister hanger for the gunnery trainer and two T2 hangars.

The watch office was of the standard wartime design, built to drawing 12779/41 later adapted to take the much smaller windows as per the updated drawing 343/43. This gave it a slightly different appearance to non-modified towers of the time.

In the technical area, Debach had the usual range of buildings, stores and supply huts, however, the parachute store was almost unique in that it had its own drying room attached – perhaps as a result of the late building of the site.

The mid war years saw a dramatic and rapid build up of the Eighth Air Force on British soil. This build up had seen huge numbers of both men and machinery arrive via Atlantic routes, many coming through the large ports at Greenock or Liverpool. The 40th, and last group to be assigned to the ‘Mighty Eighth’, would be the 493rd Bombardment Group (Heavy) and they would be assigned to RAF Debach.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The perimeter track forms access for farm vehicles.

The 493rd would be a relatively short-lived unit, moving from their training ground at McCook Army Airfield in Nebraska, to their headquarters at Elveldon Hall, and Debach airfield. They remained here until their return to Sioux Falls post war. Their entire service would last just short of 2 years. Following their activation in November 1943, they had their ground echelons assigned in early 1944 with the air echelons joining in the following May. Ground crews were pulled in from other units to form these ground echelons, with additional support coming over from the U.S arriving at Liverpool on the USS Brazil. The 493rd were initially assigned the mighty ‘Olive-Drab’ B-24H ‘Liberator’  a lumbering giant of the skies it was loved by many and loathed by some.

Their inauguration would be a baptism of fire, celebrations overshadowed by events taking place overseas. On the morning of Tuesday 6th June 1944, high spirits took the crews of the 860th, 861st, 862nd and 863rd Bombardment squadrons high above the beaches of Normandy. Joining some 11,000 other aircraft, this 3rd Air Division unit would aim to soften up German gun defences dug in along the Normandy beach head. As the allies moved inland, the 493rd would go on to target key bridges and airfields, German strongholds around St. Lo and Caen. Other strategic targets further inland would include marshalling yards, manufacturing plants and the heavily defended oil plants at Merseberg.

Cpl Kenneth E Blair

Cpl. Kenneth Blair died in a tragic accident on July 8th 1944. He is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery, Madingley.*1

Losses in battle are often more ‘acceptable’ than losses though accidents, and Debach would have its share of both. On July 8th 1944 only a month after their first mission, Cpl. Kenneth Blair of the 18th Weather Squadron, 493rd BG would be killed in a tragic accident that involved him walking into the spinning propeller of a running B-24. Only minutes before, he had received good news that took him  to his ultimate and tragic death.

The last mission to see the 493rd using B-24s was on August 24th, when fifty-two B-24s and 383 B-17s attacked Kiel in Germany. Within two weeks crews were using the formidable B-17G ‘Flying Fortress’, an aircraft that took them back to the German Heartland. Using these aircraft they went on to support the allied push through Holland to Arnhem, and in the fight back against Von Rundstedt’s last-ditch attempt to push back the Allies in the Ardennes.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The parachute room was rare with its addition of a separate drying area.

Late 1944 was a difficult time for the crews of the Air Forces. many of the airfields in the UK were shrouded in fog, causing many operations to be cancelled at late notice. Those that did go ahead were largely ineffective until finally, the clouds lifted and the fog dispersed. The frustration for the crews must have been immense.

It was during this time that one crew had a very lucky escape in an event that was reflected on many airfields across England. On December 12th, whilst on the 493rd’s third trip to Darmstadt, B-17 #43-38219 ‘Devil’s Own‘ suffered an engine problem that resulted in an intense fire on the port wing. In an attempt to extinguish the fire, the pilot, Lt. John E. DeWitt, put the aircraft into a dive. This proved fruitless and with little choice left he decided to bring the stricken aircraft back to Debach. The fire had now become so intense that there was an almost certain chance that the wing would separate from the fuselage. The resulting crash would have most certainly led to the deaths of the crew and those on the ground below.

DeWitt flew straight in to Debach narrowly missing parked aircraft and vehicles. The crew abandoned the B-17 and within moments the entire bomb load exploded in an explosion that was so severe that the nearby hangar doors were blown completely off their rails. The aircraft was blown apart and pieces spread across a wide area.

With fires still burning, ‘Devil’s Own‘ is scattered across a wide area of Debach. (IWM)

The weather at this time was to play its own part in Debach’s history. Even though it was a relatively new airfield, the frost and cold worked its way into the runway surfaces, and with continued heavy use, it began to break up. New runways were the only answer and so as soon as the aircraft left to attack Uim on March 1st, the ground echelons and servicing units began the arduous task of moving every possible piece of machinery and all supplies over to a temporary base at Little Walden. The 493rd would fly twenty missions from this site as the runways of Debach were removed and then relaid. Remarkably the entire event went with out a single hitch.

In 1945, the 493rd went on to  support the Rhine crossing softening up defences along the German borders, but by the end of April, their bombing war was over, their last mission was carried out on the 20th April 1945 in which they attacked the marshalling yards at Nauen just 38 km west of Berlin. An event that would take their bomb load tally to 11,733 tons in 4,871 sorties. For the remainder of the war the 493rd took part in operation Mania, dropping food in six missions over Holland. Further revival flights took the 493rd to Austria on four occasions in the last days of May 1945.

In the following month the ground echelons returned via the Queen Elizabeth to New York whilst the air echelons flew back in the following July and August. Following thirty days rest and recuperation the unit was disbanded. Debach was now devoid of aircraft and the empty accommodation blocks became a site for both German and Italian Prisoners of War, and displaced persons.

Post war, Debach fell into disrepair. It was eventually sold to the current landowner after the T2s were removed and the runways largely dug up for the lucrative road hardcore. Many of the technical buildings were left and, as with the watch tower, they were in a very poor state of repair.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The Watch Office is now a superbly restored museum dedicated to those who served at Debach.

Debach is now a busy farm, the watch tower has been superbly refurbished as have many of the remaining buildings. It now forms the 493d BG museum which houses an incredible amount of memorabilia and wartime stories. It also has a remarkable collection of toys and other items made by prisoners of war and is thought to be the largest collection in the East Anglia region.

Debach is a working farm and the museum is only open at limited times. However, the curators and farm owners are happy to oblige visitors, my self having a personal guided tour of the museum during the summer of 2016. Much of the perimeter track is still there, sections of the runways are also there in part  and allow for the landing of light aircraft during special occasions; but these are amongst the farm grounds and generally off-limits to the public. Then technical area has several buildings used for storage of farm material and a wide collection of military vehicles and memorabilia. The parachute and dingy store are still present as are former motor transport shed and other stores; as a visitor you are able to wander these at will.

If you leave through via main entrance (itself the original airfield entrance) cross the road, walk along the track, on your right you will find the former headquarters building which is now a small industrial unit, this is where you will find the memorial. I was invited in to the building to browse, again freely, at the various photos and mission charts that adorned the walls. These give a fascinating insight into the lives of those at Debach.

When you leave here, head north, (left) turn right at the main road and pass the Clopton Commercial Park (the northern most end of the main and secondary runway, which is still visible beneath the many huts built upon them now). Turn right into Debach village, the village sign is on your left. Depicting a B-17 flying over the village, it has at its base a dedication to those who served and died at the base. Behind the houses to your right are where many of the hardstands upon which the B-17s would have stood. These are now gone beneath the homes of the local residents. Continue on and then turn first right, this road is the old perimeter track and takes you to the end of the secondary runway. From here you can see along its length and width which is still full width today. The decay is obvious though and large cracks filled with small bushes are a sign of its impending demise. This road, still using the perimeter track, then takes you round toward the end of the main runway and away from the site.

Debach Airfield and Museum

The Dingy Store is one of the many buildings in use today storing farm machinery.

Whilst only being around for a short period of time, Debach has, like so many of these wartime airfields, its own unique stories to tell. It has a history that is part of a time so dramatic that it has become a monument to human ingenuity, planning and suffering.

Almost forgotten and abandoned for good, Debach has been painstakingly and lovingly restored to represent a superb monument to those who fought and died from his airfield. The dedication of the owners is second to none, their passion for the site reflected in the warm welcome you receive when visiting. The small group of volunteers that work so tirelessly to keep it open, enables it to stand today as a reminder of so many events that occurred in the dreadful years leading up to end of the conflict in 1945.

Links and further reading.

Whilst in the village, the now closed church of All Saints also has a memorial in its graveyard.

The 493rd Museum website has all the details of the site and the museum opening hours.

*1 Photo from findagrave.com

Parham Museum – A Great Day Out.

Located in the old refurbished Watch Tower at RAF Framlingham is the museum of the 390th Bombardment Group (H). Parham airfield, as it is more commonly known, was home to the heavy B-17s of the U.S.A.A.F from 1943 to 1945 (see Trail 39) and the museum tells of the many people who were stationed at Framlingham during this time.

The airfield was sold off after the war and the tower left to deteriorate for some 30 years. A small group of volunteers then got together and raised enough funds to transform the building into what it is today, finally opening its doors in 1976.

Tower

The former Watch Tower, now refurbished, holds a remarkable and historical collection.

The entrance located next to the small car park, displays a large board, on which lists all those who flew from Framlingham and never returned, 729 in all, and a further 754 who were taken as prisoners of war. The seemingly endless list of names being a stark reminder of the losses that occurred flying from Framlingham.

The main museum is split into two layers, the ground floor housing the many heavier and larger artefacts, including engines (a Wright Cyclone from a B-17 and a Merlin from a Mosquito NF.II to name but two), and aircraft and undercarriage parts from both fighters and heavy bombers. The upper floor, houses a large diorama, with an array of uniforms and photographs of life at RAF Framlingham. A doorway allows access to the balcony and further steps to the ‘glass house’ on the roof. With fantastic views over what is left of the airfield, you can only imagine what it was like standing here as the bombers took off or returned following a mission over occupied Europe. With an adjoining Quonset hut remodelled as a barrack room to represent what it would have been like during the time that the 390th were here, the whole experience gives a good insight into airfield life during the Second World War.

A further hut tells the unique story of the Resistance Organisation, in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Personal items, documents, photographs and examples of equipment, all add to the fascinating story of this most secret organisation.

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A number of undercarriage parts stand against the wall on the lower floor.

A further room off here houses the wall of remembrance, a chapel to go and pay your respects. The number of signatures from veterans and their families show the immense interest in retracing the steps of lost loved ones.

Wall of remebrance signed by visiting vets

The wall of remembrance has been signed by visiting veterans.

Perhaps some of the more unusual exhibits in the museum are the top, and tail turrets from a B-24  Liberator and a further Frazer-Nash top turret from a Short Stirling of the R.A.F, all refurbished from what was basically scrap metal. Also on the upper floor, is what is believed to be parts of the bomb bay from Joe Kennedy’s adapted B-24 (PBY) Liberator that blew up on the Anvil mission over Suffolk, killing both Kennedy and his co pilot “Bud” Willy – a very rare find indeed.

Uniforms, documents and some of the more unusual aspects of the air war are nicely displayed in glass cabinets throughout the building and all add up to a fascinating trip back to the 1940s.

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More than just a list of names, those who never returned or who taken prisoner are listed – over 1,400 crew members.

A further bonus for anyone interested in the aviation war is the ‘research room’, where you can access hundreds of records, both print and electronic, pertaining to the people who were based at RAF Framlingham during the war, a very useful addition to any small museum.

A good cafe that sells a range of products, refreshments and food, finishes the day off nicely. All in all, the museum and the very helpful volunteers at Framlingham, tell a remarkable story of the air war and of the people who were based here. To top it all off it is free, but donations are as always, very much welcomed, and in my opinion, exceedingly well-earned.

Parham museum is open Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays, April – October and Wednesdays (June – August). The website has further details.

M/Sgt. Hewitt Dunn – Flew 104 missions.

RAF Framlingham (Parham) otherwise known as Station 153, achieved a remarkable record, or rather one man in particular did. His name was Hewitt Dunn, a Master Sergeant in the U.S.A.A.F and later the U.S.A.F.

Known as “Buck” he would achieve the remarkable record of completing 104 missions with the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy) – a record that astounded many as life expectancy in a heavy bomber was short, and few survived beyond one tour of 30 missions.

Hewitt Tomlinson Dunn (s/n 13065206) was born on July 14th 1920. He progressed through school to join the Air Corps where he was assigned to the 390th Bombardment Group (Heavy), 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division, Eighth Air Force, as a gunner in December 1943.

His first mission was with the 569th Bombardment Squadron in the following January. He completed his first gruelling tour of 30 missions by April that year, upon which he immediately applied for a further tour that he would complete by the summer of 1944. His attitude of ‘its not over until its won’, would see him accept a further remarkable third tour, virtually unheard of for a heavy bomber crew member.

On Friday, April 6th 1945, mission 930, an armada of aircraft of the U.S.A.A.F would strike at the marshalling yards in Leipzig, Germany. Inside B-17 #43-38663, ‘The Great McGinty‘, was Hewitt Dunn.

After the mission Dunn described how earlier at the morning briefing, he, like so many of his colleagues, had been a little ‘nervous’. Then, when the curtain was pulled back, their nervousness was justified, Leipzig – the 390th had been there before.

Many crews in that briefing would look to Dunn for signs of anguish, if he remained steady and relaxed, they knew it would be ‘easy’, if he sat forward, then it was going to be a difficult one. The atmosphere must have been tense.

Luckily, unlike other missions into the German heartland, this one turned out to be ‘just another mission’ a ‘milk run’. Much to the huge relief of those in command of the 390th, all aircraft returned safely.

On his arrival back at Framlingham, Dunn was greeted by cheering crowds, ground crews lifted him high in their air carrying him triumphantly away from his aircraft, it was a heroes welcome.

By the time the war had finished, Dunn had flown in 104 missions, he had been a tail gunner on twenty-six missions, twice a top-turret gunner, a waist gunner and the remainder as togglier (Bombardier). He had flown over Berlin nine times, he claimed a FW-190 shot down and had amassed an impressive array of medals for his bravery and actions, and all at just 24 years old.

Post war, he continued to fly as an Instructor Gunner for B-52s in the 328th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Strategic Bomb Wing, at Castle Air Force Base in California. Here he was described as “quiet and reserved” and never talked about his war experiences. He was “handsome man with black hair”, and only when he wore his dress uniform, did others realise how well decorated he was.

Dunn was considered a rock by those who knew him and perhaps immortal, but he was not, and on June 15th , 1961 after flying for a further 64 flights, he was killed. Details of his death are sketchy, but the man who had flown in more missions than any other person in the Eighth Air Force and had gone to train others in that very role, was highly decorated. He was looked up to and liked by those who knew him.

Following his death a service was held in Merced, California, his body was then taken to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. where he was finally laid to rest in grave number 3675, section 28.

For a man who achieved so much in his fighting career, little exists about him or his achievements. Maybe, by the end of the war, records were no longer needed, tales of dedication and bravery were no longer useful propaganda. Whatever the reason, Hewitt Dunn’s name should be heavily embossed in the history books of the Second World War.

hewiit-dunn

Hewitt Dunn on return from his 100th mission, April 1945 (IWM)

Hewitt Dunn’s medal tally:

– Air Force Longevity Service Award with 3 oak leaf clusters
– Air Medal with 13 oak leaf clusters (2 silver, 3 bronze)
– Air Medal with 7 oak leaf clusters (1 silver, 2 bronze)
– American Campaign Medal
– Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 oak leaf cluster
– Good Conduct Medal
– National Defence Service Medal
– Silver Star
– World War II Victory Medal
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 bronze star
– European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with 1 silver star

Hewitt Dunn’s story is one of many featured here.

RAF Framlingham & the 390th BG – Masters of the Air

In Trail 39 we turn south once more and return to Suffolk, to the southern most regions of East Anglia, to an area known for its outstanding beauty and its stunning coastline. It is also an area rich in both Second World War and Cold War history. Perhaps better known for its fighter and light bomber stations, it was also the location for several heavy bomber bases, each one with its own fascinating story to tell.

We start off this trail at the former site of American base at RAF Framlingham.

RAF Framlingham (Station 153)

RAF Framlingham is actually closer to the village of Parham than it is the town of Framlingham, hence it was also known as RAF Parham – a name that it became synonymous with. Built as a class ‘A’ bomber station its official American designation was Station 153.

Building work commenced in 1942, and as with most large bomber stations it was designed to the Class A specification to include: three concrete runways (one of  6,400 ft and two of 4,400 feet in length), an adjoining perimeter track that linked fifty ‘pan style’ dispersals; two T-2 hangars (one to the west with the technical site and one to the south-east) and accommodation for some 3,000 personnel dispersed in 10 sites to the south-west of the airfield.  A  further sewage treatment plant dealt with the site’s waste.

The main runway ran east-west and to the eastern end sat the bomb store, a large area that included: a pyrotechnic store, fusing point, incendiary store and small arms store – all encircled by a concrete roadway.

Peri track looking north toward tech area (A)

Part of the Perimeter track at the southern end of the airfield. To the right was the crew rest rooms, locker and drying rooms.

The administration site sat between the main technical site and accommodation areas all located to the south-west side of the airfield.

Opened in 1943, the first residents were the B-17s of 95th Bomb Group which consisted of four bomb squadrons: the 334th, 335th, 336th and the 412th. Flying a tail code of a square ‘B’ they initially formed part of the 4th Bomb Wing, changing to the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division of the Eighth Air Force in September 1943 following the reorganisation of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.

Following their inception and constitution on 28th January 1942 and subsequent activation in June, they moved from their training ground at Barksdale Field, Louisiana, through Oregon, Washington and eventually to Rapid City Air force Base in South Dakota. They began their move across the Atlantic in the spring of 1943, taking the southern route via Florida arriving at Alconbury and then moving on directly to Framlingham in early May/June that year. It was whilst stationed at Alconbury though that they would have their first few encounters of the war, and they would not all be plain sailing.

On May 27th, 1943 just 14 days after their first mission, ground crews were loading 500 lb bombs onto a 334th BS B-17 ’42-29685′ when the bombs inexplicably detonated, the Alconbury landscape was instantly turned to utter carnage and devastation. The blast was so severe that it killed eighteen men (another later died of his injuries), injured twenty-one seriously and fourteen others slightly.  The B-17 involved was completely destroyed and very little of its remains could be found in or around the huge crater that was left deep in the Alconbury soil. Three other aircraft, 42-29808, 42-29706 and 42-29833, all sat within 500 feet of the explosion, were severely damaged and subsequently scrapped. In total, fifteen B-17s were damaged by the blast, it was a major blow to the 95th and a terrible start to their war.

There then followed a transition period in which the group moved to Framlingham. During this time operations would continue from both airfields leaving the squadrons split between the two bases. The first few missions were relatively light in terms of numbers of aircraft lost, however, on June 13th 1943, they were part of a ‘small’ force of seventy-six B-17s targeting Kiel’s U-boat yards. This was to be no easy run for the 95th, a total of twenty-two aircraft were lost on this raid and of the eighteen aircraft who set off from Framlingham in the lead section, two aborted and only six made it back. In one of the lead planes, was the newly appointed Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest as observer. Riddled with bullet holes, his aircraft plummeted from of the sky with the majority of its tail plane missing and one of its engines ablaze. His body was never found and he became the first U.S. General causality of the war. In total, the raid resulted in 236 crewmen being listed as either missing, killed or wounded – this would be the 95th’s heaviest and most costly mission of the entire war.

A view from the tower looking East to West.

Two days after this mission the group would depart Framlingham and move to RAF Horham a few miles north-west, where they remained for the remainder of the war. The majority of the crews would probably be pleased to move away leaving behind many terrible memories and lost friends. However, the tide would turn and they would go on to gain a remarkable reputation and make a number of USAAF records. They would be the only Eighth Air Force group to achieve three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC), and be the first group to bomb Berlin. They also claimed the highest number of enemy aircraft shot down by any bomb group and they would be the group to suffer the last aircraft loss (on a mission) of the war – all quite remarkable considering their devastating introduction to the European Theatre.

As the 95th departed Framlingham so moved in the 390th BG.

The 390th BG like the 95th and 100th were part of the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division. They too were a new Group, only being formed themselves early in 1943. The 390th BG was made up of four B-17 bomb squadrons: the 568th, 569th, 570th and 571st, and at initial full strength consisted of just short of 400 personnel. They formed part of the larger second wave of USAAF influxes who were all new recruits and whose arrival in the U.K. would double the size of the USAAF’s presence overnight.

Old hands of the Mighty Eighth, took great pride in teasing these new recruits whose bravado and cockiness would soon be knocked out of them by the more experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots.

The 390th would create quite a stir in the Suffolk countryside and not just because of their ‘smooth taking’, ‘endless supply of chocolate’ and ‘upbeat music’. Up until now, the ‘smuggling’ of pets into American airbases had been by-and-large ignored, but with the 390th came a Honey Bear, a beast that quite frequently escaped only to be confronted by rather bemused locals! There would be however, despite all this frivolity, no rest period for the crews, and operations would start the 12th August 1943, less than a month after they arrived.

B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 390th Bomb Group in flight over Framlingham. Handwritten caption on reverse: '390BG.'

B-17s of the 390th BG over RAF Framlingham (IWM)

The latter parts of 1943 saw a lot of poor weather over both the U.K. and the continent, and this combined with the heavy use of smoke screens by the Germans, prevented large numbers of bombers finding their targets. As a result, many crews sought targets of opportunity thus breaking up strong defensive formations. The eager Luftwaffe pilots made good use of this, taking advantage of broken formations and poor defences. As a result, the bombers of this new influx would receive many heavy casualties and August 12th was to become the second heaviest loss of life in the American air war so far.

1943 would be a busy time for the 390th, within a few days and on the anniversary of the U.S. VIII Air Force’s first European operation, they would attack the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, a mission for which they would receive their first Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC).

The operation would be a blood bath. On that day 147 B-17s took off with the 390th forming the high squadron in the first formation. For over an hour and a half, multiple fighters of the Luftwaffe attacked the formations which were split by delayed arrivals, and large gaps in the formation. Compounded with this was the fact that the escorting P-47s had to return home leaving the formations largely undefended. With no fighter escort the bombers became easy prey and the numbers of blood-thirsty attacks increased. The rear and low formations of the force were decimated and departing P-47 fighter crews could only look on in horror.

Over the target, skies cleared and bombing accuracy was excellent, but it was the 390th that would excel. Of the seven groups to attack, the 390th manged to get 58% of its bombs within 1000 ft of the target and 94% within 2000 ft, a remarkable achievement for a fledgling group. Flying on, they passed over the Alps and across Italy onto North Africa where they landed – their first shuttle mission was complete. The run in to the target and subsequent journey to North Africa would create multiple records; two B-17s, one of which belonged to the 390th, sought sanctuary in neutral Switzerland, the first of any group to do so. But the journey across Europe had been difficult and it would cost the lives of six B-17 crews – it had truly been a hard-won DUC.

Two months and some 20 missions later, they would repeat this epic achievement. On October 14th 1943, they took part in the second major attack on Schweinfurt, a target whose name alone put the fear of God into many crews. The route that day would take them across some of the most notorious Flak black spots, Aachen, Frankfurt, Bad Kissingen and Schweinfurt itself. On top of that, Luftwaffe fighters would be hungry for blood, many crew members knew this would be a one way trip.

Take off was at 10:00am, and the Third Air Division would provide 154 aircraft, but again due to mechanical problems and poor weather, the formation were scattered across the sky and defences were weak. As they crossed the channel enemy aircraft were few and far between, giving false hopes to rookie crews who were cruising 20,000 feet above the ground. Eventually at around 1:00pm the escorts left and the waiting Luftwaffe crews stepped in. All hell broke loose. Rockets, timed bombs and heavy machine gun fire riddled the B-17 formations – Schweinfurt was going to live up to its reputation. After fending off relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, the formation reached their target and all 390th aircraft managed to bomb with an accuracy of 51% of the MPI (Mean Point of Impact). For this they received their second DUC – the newbies were rapidly becoming masters of the air.

July 2016 019

The widest section of runway, now a mere fraction of its former self.

1943 would draw to a close, and the optimism of many ‘successful’ raids over the Reich would bring the dawn of 1944.  Big week in February saw the massed attacks on the German aircraft production factories, and in March, the 390th attacked Berlin. During this raid B-17 ’42-30713′ “Phyllis Marie” made an emergency landing only to be captured intact by the Luftwaffe and flown under KG200. It was later found in Bavaria.

Other major targets for the 390th this year included Frankfurt marshalling yards, Cologne, Mannheim, the navel yards at Bremen and the oil refineries at Mersburg. In 1944 the 390th softened the German defences along the Atlantic coast just fifteen minutes before the invasion force landed in June. They followed up the advance by supporting the allied break out at St. Lo.

During August 1944, the 390th flew a round mission that took them for the second time to a Russian airfield. After refuelling and rearming, they attacked the oil refineries at Trzebinia (later famed with the POW’s ‘death march’ across western Europe) and then back to Russia. Three days later they flew to North Africa, depositing high explosives in Romania, and then four days after that, the return trip to Framlingham bombing Toulouse on the way.

The cold winter of 1944 would become well-known for its snow and ice, a period in which almost as many aircraft were lost to ice as to enemy action. On December 27th, the cold would claim B-17 ’42-107010′ “Gloria-Ann II” of the 569th BS. A build up of ice would bring her down within a minute of taking off and the ensuing explosion of fuel and bombs would cause a fire from which nine crew members would perish. Houses in the vicinity of Parham were also damaged but there were no local casualties and the aircraft would be salvaged and reborn as “Close Crop“.

B-17G-35-VE #42-97849

Battle damage was often severe, here B-17G #42-97849 “Liberty Bell” of the 570th BS, shows extensive damage to her tail section. (IWM)

In the early months of 1945 the Ardennes was also gripped in this terrible fog and cold. The 390th took off in support of the paratroopers locked in the Belgium forests, bombing strategic targets beyond the Ardennes, they cut German lines preventing further supplies reaching the front.

By 1945 it was no longer a rare occurrence for bombers to have exceeded the 100 mission milestone, for the crews however, it was a target to avoid. For the 390th, April 1945 would see the first US airman to surpass the 100 mission mark achieved solely whilst operating in the European theatre. Hewitt Dunn, acting as bombardier (Togglier) was the first US Eighth AF airman to surpass 100 missions in an operational span that started in January 1944 and that had seen him in virtually every position of an operational B-17, and over virtually every high risk target in occupied Europe – he was just 24 years old.

Gradually the summer sun came and with it clear skies. Allied air operations increased and soon the end was in sight for Nazi Germany, but air accidents and US losses would still continue. On landing his B-17 “Chapel in the Sky“, Murrell Corder ground looped his aircraft to prevent crashing into other parked B-17s. In doing so, he clipped the wings of “Satan’s Second Sister” severely damaging both aircraft, thankfully though, there were no casualties.

At the end of the war the 390th left Framlingham and returned to the United States. They had received two Distinguished Unit Citations, had the highest enemy aircraft claim of any unit on one single mission and reached the first 100th mission of any aircrew member. Their tally had amounted to 300 missions in which they had dropped over 19,000 tons of bombs. They had definitely earned their place in the Framlingham history books.

On departure, Framlingham was given back to the RAF who used it as a transit camp to help with the relocation of displaced Polish people. It was then closed in the late 1940s and sold back to the local farmer, with whom it remains today.

A small consortium of volunteers have manged to rebuild the control tower into a fabulous museum, displaying a wide variety of aircraft and airfield parts, and personal stories from those at Framlingham. They have also refurbished a couple of Nissen huts, recreating life in a barrack room as it would have been during the Second World War, and displaying articles and stories from the resistance organisation.

As for the airfield, much of the perimeter track remains as do long sections of the runways as farm tracks. The public road today passes through the centre of the airfield dissecting the technical area from the bomb store. From the northern most end a footpath allows you to walk along the north-western section of the perimeter track, currently used by a road repair company for storing stone chippings and lorries. The hardstands have been removed and piles of rubble contain evidence of drainage and electrical supply pipes. From the road at this point you can also see a small section of the main runway – now holding piggery sheds – which has virtually all been removed. From the western side of the perimeter track you can look along the north-west to south-east runway, a mere fraction of its former self, it is barely wide enough for a tractor let alone a heavily laden B-17 and her crew.

Returning to the museum front takes you along the widest part of this runway. A small section at almost full width, it gives you an indication of the 150 feet of concrete that makes up these great structures, and an insight into what they would have been like during the mid 1940s.

Tower 4

The Watch office is now a refurbished museum and highly recommended.

Behind the museum stands one of the hangars, this along with the tower are the two most discernible buildings left on site. Many of the accommodation buildings are now gone, and what is left is difficult to see. A footpath does allow access across the bomb store – now a wooded area, but if walking from the north, it is virtually impossible to park a car due to the very narrow and tight roads in the area.

Like many of Britain’s airfields Framlingham holds a wealth of stories in its midsts. The near constant roar of B-17s flying daily missions over occupied Europe are now whispers in the trees. The museum, a lone statue, gazes silently over the remains of the airfield offering views of ghostly silhouettes as they lumber passed on their way to a world gradually being forgotten. Framlingham and the 390th, have definitely earned their place in the world’s history books.

Whilst in the area, take a short trip to Framlingham town, below the castle, is St Michael’s church and above the door a 390th Group Hatchment in honour of those who served at Framlingham.

From here, we travel south-west toward Ipswich and stop at another USAAF base also with a fabulous museum. We go to RAF Debach – home of the 493rd BG(H).

Notes, sources and further reading.

*Photos exist of what appears to be a Type ‘J’ or ‘K’ hangar on the site. This does not appear on the airfield drawings however and its origin is as yet unknown.

A number of sources were used to research the history of RAF Framlingham and the 390th, they are highly recommended for further information. They include:

The 390th Memorial Museum website.

Veronico. N., “Bloody Skies“, Stackpole Books, 2014

Freeman, R., “The Mighty Eighth“, Arms and Armour Press, 1986

Freeman, R,. “The B-17 Flying Fortress Story“, Arms and Armour Press, 1998

The story of a B17 Pilot- Watching Hogan’s Heroes with my Dad

Hogan’s Heroes, the CBS sitcom about life in a German prisoner of war camp during World War II, debuted September 17th, 1965. Our family was living in Burnt Hills, New York, a small, bedroom community upstate just a few miles north of Schenectady. I was fifteen years old and just starting the 10th grade.

http://aboxofoldletters.com/2016/08/10/watching-hogans-heroes/

RAF Grafton Underwood – a remarkably important and historical place.

As part of the ‘American Ghosts’ trail around the borders of Northampton and Cambridgeshire, we move away from Kimbolton to an airfield that is synonymous with both the first and last bombing raids of the American Air War in Europe. We travel a few miles north, here we find a truly remarkable memorial and an area rich in history. We go to RAF Grafton Underwood.

RAF Grafton Underwood. (Station 106)

Construction of Grafton Underwood began in 1941, originally part of the RAF’s preparation of the soon to be defunct bomber group to be based in this region. But with the birth of the Eighth Air Force on January 28th 1942, it would become the USAAF’s first bomber base, when the 15th Bomber Squadron arrived after sailing on the SS Cathay from the United States.

Grafton Underwood

A B-17 of the 384th BG features in the Memorial Window at Grafton Underwood.

The original idea for the ‘Mighty Eighth’ was to house a total of  some 3,500 aircraft of mixed design in 60 combat groups. Four squadrons would reside at each airfield with each group occupying two airfields, this would require 75 airfields for the bomber units alone. This figure was certainly low and it would increase gradually as the war progressed and demand for bomber aircraft grew.

The terrible attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbour diverted both attention and crews away from the European Theatre, but in April / May 1942 the build up began and American forces started to arrive in the UK.

With ground staff sailing across the Atlantic and aircrews ferrying their aircraft on the northern route via Iceland, the first plain olive drab B-17Es and Fs of the 97th BG set down on July 6th 1942, two squadrons at Polebrook and two at Grafton Underwood.

The sight of American airmen brought a huge change to life in this quiet part of the countryside. Locals would gather at the fence and stand watching the crews as if they were something strange. But as the war progressed, the Americans would become accepted and form part of everyday life at Grafton Underwood.

Eventually the airfield would be complete and although it would go through development stages, it would remain a massive site covering around 500 acres of land.

Grafton Underwood

The remains of the main runway looking south.

A total of thirteen separate accommodation and support sites would be built; two communal; seven officers; a WAAF site; a sick quarters and two sewage treatment sites to cope with upward of 3,000 men and women who were to be based here.

The accommodation was based around an octagonal road design, the centre piece being the ‘Foxy’ cinema in Site 3 the main communal site. Roads from here took the crews away to various sites hidden amongst the trees of the wooded area. All theses site were located east of Site 1, the main airfield itself.

Grafton would have three runways; runway 1 (6,000 ft) running north-east / south-west, runway 2 (5,200 ft) running north-west / south-east and runway three (4,200 ft) running north to south, all concrete enabling the airfield to remain active all year round.

42-97948 BK-U,

B-17 ’42-97948′ BK-U, “Hell on Wings” 384th BG, 546th BS. Prior to being lost on 11th October 1944. (IWM UPL 12946)

A large bomb store was located to the north-western side of the airfield, served by two access roads, it had both  ‘ultra heavy’ and ‘light’ fuzing buildings; with a second store to the north just east of the threshold of runway 1. Thirty-seven ‘pan’ style hardstands and three blocks of four ‘spectacle’ hardstands accommodated dispersed aircraft around the perimeter track. Surprisingly only two hangars were built, both T2 (drg 3653/42) one in the technical area to the east and the second to the south-west.

On May 15th 1942, Grafton officially opened with the arrival of its first detachment. The 15th Bombardment Squadron (Light) arrived without aircraft and had to ‘borrow’ RAF Bostons for training and deployment. As yet there was no official directive, and so crews had little to do other than bed in. The 15th BS remained here until June 9th 1942 whereupon they moved to their new base at RAF Molesworth and began operations in their RAF aircraft supported by experienced RAF crews. This move coincided with the arrival of the main body of the Eighth Air Force on UK soil and the vacancy at Grafton was soon filled with B-17s of the 97th BG (Heavy).

Only activated in February that year, the 97th consisted of four Squadrons: at Polebrook were the 340th BS and the 341st BS, whilst at Grafton were the 342nd BS and the 414th BS. Whilst State side they flew submarine patrols along the US coast, but with clear skies and little in the way of realistic action, the ‘rookie’ crews would be ill prepared for what was about to come.

With the parent airfield at RAF Polebrook providing much of the administration for the crews, it was soon realised that gun crews, navigators, pilots and radio operators were poorly trained for combat situations. Quickly thrown together many could not use their equipment – whether a radio or gun – effectively and so a dramatic period of intense training was initiated. The skies around Grafton and Polebrook, quickly filled with the reverberating sound of the multi-engined bombers.

These early days were to be hazardous for the 97th. On August 1st, B-17 “King Condor” would crash on landing at Grafton Underwood. The aircraft’s brakes failed, it overshot the runway, went through a hedge and hit a lorry killing the driver.

B-17 41-9024 ‘King Condor’ Crash landed August 1st, 1942 pilot Lt Claude Lawrence ran off runway, through hedge and hit a truck, killing driver John Jimmison. (IWM UPL 19654)

On August 9th, the atmosphere at Grafton became electric, as orders for the first mission came through. Unfortunately for the keen and now ‘combat ready’ crews, the English weather changed at the last-minute and the mission was scrubbed. This disappointment was to be repeated again only 3 days later, when further orders came through only to find the weather changing again and the mission being scrubbed once more.

In the intervening days the weather was to play another cruel joke on the group claiming the first major victim of the 97th. A 340th BS B-17E ’41-9098′, crashed into the mountainside at Craig Berwyn, Cadair Berwyn, Wales, killing all 11 crew members. A sad start indeed for the youngsters.

Eventually though the weather calmed and on August 17th 1942, at 15:12, twelve aircraft took off from Polebrook and Grafton and headed south-east over the French coast. Not only was it notable for its historical relevance as Mission 1, but on board one of the B-17s was Major Paul Tibbets who later went on to drop the atom bomb on Hiroshima 3 years later. If this wasn’t enough, a further B-17, ’41-9023′, “Yankee Doodle”, also contained the Commanding General of the Eighth, Ira Eaker, – truly a remarkably important and historical flight indeed.

The 97th would go on to attack numerous targets including airfields, marshalling yards, industrial sites and naval installations before transferring to the Twelfth Air Force and moving away from Grafton to the Mediterranean in November 1942.

There then followed a quiet spell, for Grafton. A short spell between September and December 1942 saw the heavy bombers of the 305th BG reside at Grafton before moving off to Chelveston and another short spell for the heavies of the 96th BG in the latter half of April 1943 whilst on their way to Great Saling in Essex. It wouldn’t be until early June 1943 that Grafton would once again see continuous action over occupied Europe.

Activated at the end of 1942, the 384th BG (formed with the 544th, 545th, 546th and 547th BS) would train for combat with B-17Fs and Gs, move to Grafton via Gowen Field, Idaho, and Wendover Field, Utah, and perform as a major strategic bomber force. Focussing their attacks on airfields, industrial sites and heavy industry deep in the heart of Germany, they would receive a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C) for their action on January 11th 1944. Targets included the high prestige works such as: Cologne, Gelsenkirchen, Halberstadt, Magdeburg and Schweinfurt. They would take part in the ‘Big Week’ attacks in February 1944, support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St. Lo, Eindhoven, the Battle of the Bulge and support the allied advance over the Rhine. A further DUC came on 24th April 1944 when the group led the 41st Wing in the attack against Oberpfaffenkofen airfield and factory. Against overwhelming odds, the group suffered heavy losses but took the fight all the way to the Nazis.

A dramatic photo of B-17 Flying Fortress BK-H, (s/n 42-37781) “Silver Dollar” of the 546th BS, 384th BG as it goes down after losing its tail. (IWM FRE1282)

Just as Grafton had played its part in the opening salvo of American bombings, it was to be a part of the last. On April 25th 1945, the last bombing raids took place over south-east Germany and Czechoslovakia. Mission 968 saw 589 bombers and 486 fighters drop the final salvos of bombs of the war on rail, industrial and airfield targets, shooting down a small number of enemy aircraft including an Arado 234 jet. Last ditch efforts by the remnants of the Luftwaffe claimed 6 bombers and 1 fighter, before the fight was over. After this all remaining missions were propaganda leaflets as bombs were replaced by paper.

Two years after their arrival the 384th departed for France, eventually returning to the US in 1949 and disbandment. Their departure left Grafton quiet, it was retained by the RAF under care and maintenance and then finally in 1959 declared surplus to requirements and sold off.

In the short two years of being at Grafton, the 384th had amassed 9,348 operational sorties, in 314 missions. They dropped 22,415 tons of explosives and lost 159 aircraft for the shooting down of 165 enemy aircraft. They received two Distinguished Unit Citations and over 1000 Distinguished Flying Crosses. A remarkable achievement for any bomb group.

Grafton today is very different to how it was in the mid 1940s. But before you go to the airfield, you must visit the local church. Passing through the village you’ll see a signpost for the church, park here and walk up the short path. Approaching the church, roughly from the East, you see a dark window which is difficult to make out. However, enter the church and look back, you will see the most amazing stained glass window ever, – the vibrant colours strike quite hard. This window commemorates the men and women of the 384th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force who were stationed at here at Grafton Underwood.

Next to it, someone has placed a handwritten note with the picture of a very young man 2nd Lt. Thomas K Kohlhaas and details of the crew of B-17 ‘43-37713’ “Sons o’ Fun”. It states that he, along with 3 others of the crew, were murdered by German civilians after their aircraft was downed by flak on 30th November 1944. This is a very moving and personal place to be and a poignant reminder of what these young men were facing all those years ago.

When you leave the church, look on the wall of the porch and you will see two dedications. These list the location and names of trees, dedicated to the personnel of the Mighty Eighth, that have now replaced the runways on the airfield. Unfortunately these are on private land and for some very odd reason, not accessible.

Leave the church, turn left into the village, following the stream and then turn left up the hill. The memorial is on your right. Like most American memorials of the USAAF, it has the two flags aside the memorial which is well-kept. When I visited, ‘the keeper’ (who has since become a good friend of mine) was there and we chatted for ages. The memorial stands on what was the 6000 ft main runway and when you look behind you, you see what is left of it, a small track used for estate business. Other than this and a few inaccessible sections, the remains of the airfield have gone and it is open agriculture once more.

Grafton Underwood

Small tracks remain in the accommodation areas.

Grafton, like Kimbolton, is split by the road. Leaving the memorial drive back to the village, turn left and follow the road. Along on the left is the former technical site, a few small huts still stand here used by the local farmer. Also, a few feet from the roadside would have been the perimeter track and dispersal pans. What is left of the main entrance, now nothing more than a large blue gate, can be seen as you pass. Odd patches of concrete can also be seen through the thick trees but little else. Then a little further along, passed the equine sign, is another blue gate. Park here. This is the entrance to Grafton Park, a public space, and what was the main thoroughfare to the mess, barracks and squadron quarters. Grafton housed some 3000 personnel of which some 1600 never returned. It is immense! Walking along the path, you can just see the Battle Headquarters, poking out of the trees, the site is very overgrown and nature is claiming back what was once hers. The roads remain and are clearly laid out, some having been recovered with tarmac, but careful observations will see the original concrete beneath. Keep on the ‘Broadway’ and you will pass a number of side roads until you come to the hub. This forms a central octagonal star, off from which were the aptly named: ‘Foxy’ cinema, mess clubs and hospitals. Each road taking you from here, site 3, to the various other sites a short distance away. Careful observations and exploring – there are many hidden ditches and pits – will show foundations and the odd brick wall from the various buildings that remain. A nice touch to the hub, is that it is now a grassed area with picnic tables.

Grafton Underwood

The hub of the accommodation site is now a picnic area.

You do lose a sense of this being an airfield; the trees and vegetation have taken over quite virulently and hidden what little evidence remains. Exploring the area, you will find some evidence, but you have to look hard. Walk back along the Broadway, and take the first turn left. Keep an open to the right, and you will see other small buildings, the officers’ quarters and shelters – this was site 4. Again, very careful footing will allow some exploration, but there is little to gain from this.

Considering the size of Grafton Underwood, and then fact that 3000 men and women lived here, there is little to see for the casual eye. A beautiful place to walk, Grafton’s secrets are well hidden; perhaps too well hidden, but maybe the fact that it is so peaceful is as a result and great service to those that fought in that terrible battle above the skies of Europe directly from here.

There is a superb website dedicated to the crews of  Grafton Underwood and it can be found at: http://384thbombgroup.com

Grafton Underwood was originally visited in 2014, this post has been updated since then. It forms part of Trail 6.

Trail 34 a visit to former RAF Oulton

Laying quietly between the airfields at Matlaske and Swannington is another one of Addison’s 100 group’s small collection. An airfield that not only saw a variety of makes and models, but a range of nationalities as well, each having a remarkable story to tell. In the second part of Trail 34, we travel a few miles south and visit RAF Oulton.

RAF Oulton.

RAF Oulton in 1946, taken  from the north. (IWM)

Although an RAF base, Oulton was also home to the heavy American bombers the B-17 and B-24. However, they were not used in their natural heavy bomber role, but a more secret and sinister one.

Initially built as a satellite for the larger bomber base at Horsham St. Faith, Oulton originally only had grass runways. It would later, in 1942, be upgraded to class ‘A’ standard, which would require the construction of three concrete runways, a new tower and bomb store and upgrading to the technical site. Runway 1 (2000 yds) ran east-west, runway 2 (1,400 yds), north-east to south-west, and runway 3 ran approximately north-south and was also 1,400 yds. All were the standard 50 yards wide and would be connected by thirty-two loop style hardstands and eleven pan style hardstands. Uncommonly, Oulton would also have four T2 hangars (three to the eastern side and one to west, two of which would later hold Horsa gliders) and a further blister hangar.

The majority of the technical area was to the eastern side of the airfield next to the main entrance and along side Oulton Street. The two bomb stores were located to the north and western sides of the airfield well away from personnel and aircraft as was common. The first of the two towers, was built to drawing 15898/40, which combined the tower and crew rooms; the second built later to drawing 12779/41 (adapted to the now common 343/43) brought the airfield in line with other Class ‘A’ airfields.

RAF Oulton

One of the huts used for agricultural purposes today.

Throughout the war personnel accommodation utilised the grand and audacious Blickling Hall. A seventeenth century building that stands in a 4,777 acre estate that once belonged to the family of Anne Boleyn. Owned more recently by Lord Lothian, he famously persuaded Churchill to write to Roosevelt declaring Britain’s position and poor military strength. Lord Lothian was a great entertainer dining with many notable people including Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign Policy advisor and close friend. A number of other notable events took place at Blickling, including, in early 1945, Margaret Lockwood raising eyebrows when she and James Mason arrived to film ‘The Wicked Lady’ .

In the early 1940s, the hall was requisitioned by the RAF, officers were billeted inside the ‘wings’ whilst other ranks were put up in Nissen huts within the grounds. The lake was used for Dingy training and the upper floors allowed for baths albeit with cold water!  In total some 1,780 personnel could be housed in and around the estate.

For the first two years between 1940 and 1942, Oulton airfield was the home to Blenheims, Hudsons and Beaufighters, each undertaking a light bombing or anti-shipping role as part of 2 Group.

First came 114 sqn on August 10th 1940 with Blenheim IVs. Apart from a small detachment at Hornchurch, they stayed here until the following March whereupon they moved to Thornaby. Their most notable mission was the mid-December attack on Mannheim, an attack that would signify the start of the RAF’s ‘area’ bombing campaign.  A short spell of three months beginning April 1941 by 18 Sqn, preceded their return later in November and then subsequent move to Horsham St Faith.

Like many airfields during this time, units moved around and it was no different for 139 Sqn. With their Blenheims and later Hudsons, they would leapfrog between Horsham St. Faith and Oulton throughout 1941 only to disband and reform returning in 1942 with Mosquito IVs.

RAF Oulton

A few buildings remain on the site, many are fighting a losing battle with nature. The main entrance to the airfield is just to the right of this building.

It was during this time in late 1941 that Hudson conversion flight 1428 would be formed at Oulton with the sole job of training crews on the Hudson III. They would remain here until the following May, at which point they were disbanded.

The re-establishment of 236 Sqn in July 1942 with Beaufighter ICs meant Oulton performed as part of Coastal Command for a short time. The success of 236 in torpedo strikes, led to a new wing being formed at North Coates with 236 leading the way, they departed taking their Beaufighters with them. This left a vacancy, that would soon be filled with a new twin-engined model, the Boston III and 88 Squadron.

88 Sqn were split over 6 different airfields before being pulled together here at Oulton. They retained two of these detachments, one at RAF Ford and the other at RAF Hurn, and their arrival and start of operations at Oulton, would be tarnished with sadness.

On October 31st 1942, a month after they arrived, ground crews were unloading a 250lb bomb from 88 Sqn Boston ‘W8297’ when it suddenly went off. The resultant explosion destroyed the Boston and killed six members*1 of the ground crew. The youngest of these, AC2 K. F. Fowler, was only 19.

After having suffered serious losses in France whilst claiming the first RAF ‘kill’ of the war, they were the first unit to fly the new Boston, and would continue to undertake dangerous daylight intruder operations. Flying daring, low-level missions, they would attack shipping and coastal targets before supporting the allied advance on D-day. Their most famous attack was the renowned bombing of the Philips works in Eindhoven, which resulted in the loss of production for six months following the raid. Ninety-three aircraft took part in the raid, all flying beyond the reach of any fighter escort, a factor that no doubt resulted in the heavy casualties sustained by 2 Group on that mission*2 .

DSC_0178

Two Nissen huts would have been next to this building, and according to the site map, it was part of the rubber store.

In March 1943, the Boston IIIs left and Oulton passed to Addison’s 100 group. As with many other airfields in this part of Norfolk, 100 group were using them to fly missions investigating electronic warfare and radio counter measures. This move to 100 Group would bring a major change for Oulton.

The now satellite of Foulsham would soon be seeing larger and heavier aircraft in the form of the American Fortress I (B-17E), II (F), III (G) and Liberator VI (B-24H). This change required extensive upgrading; the construction of hard runways, updating of the accommodation, new technical buildings and a second, updated tower, along with further storage facilities. The airfield was closed throughout the operation, and with the completion in May 1944 operations could begin almost immediately.

Both USAAF and RAF crews moved in. 1699 Flight were providing conversion for crews to fly the heavy bombers for their parent Squadron 214 Sqn, whilst the American 803rd BS, 36th BG flew radio-countermeasures in their B-17s and later B24s. This move here allowed their own parent station RAF Sculthorpe, to also be extensively redeveloped.

The Americans stayed for three months whilst their work was undertaken, but the RAF units remained until the end of the war. After 1699 Flt. had completed conversions, 214 changed Fortress IIs for IIIs and flew these until disbandment on July 27th 1945.

On August 23rd 1944, 223 Sqn reformed at Oulton. Having previously been flying the twin-engined Baltimore, the new unit would have to get used to much larger aircraft very quickly, a task they commanded with relative ease. They flew the heavier Liberator IVs, and Fortress IIs and IIIs until their final disbandment a year later.

Both 214 and 223 flew the heavy bombers now bristling with electronics. Using a range of electronic gadgetry such as ‘window’ ,’H2S’ and ‘Mandrel’, they had their front turrets painted over or removed and electronic equipment added. ‘Window‘ chutes were installed in the fuselage of the aircraft and a heavy secrecy enveloped the airfield.

The winter of 1944 proved to be one of the worst for many years, crews worked hard in the snowy environment, relaxing where they could at the nearby pubs, one nicely placed next to Blickling Hall and the other directly opposite the entrance to the airfield.

Both units would participate in a number of major, high prestige operations, providing radio jamming and window curtains for the bomber formations. ‘Spoof’ operations were common, diverting enemy fighters away from the real force and playing a daring game of cat and mouse with the German radio operators. As the war drew to a close, so too did the operations from 214 and 223. Eventually in July 1945 both Squadrons were disbanded, 214 being the renumbered 614 squadron, with 223 having to wait until 1959 before being reborn as a THOR missile squadron.

With the withdrawal of the heavies, the end was near for Oulton. After being used for storage of surplus  Mosquitoes for a year it was closed and sold off. The end had finally arrived and Oulton closed its gates for the last time.

Oulton airfield stands as a  reminder of the bravery of the light bomber and ECM crews; today many of the original buildings still remain, used for agricultural purposes and even by the National Trust.

RAF Oulton

One of the few buildings that remain, the former squadron offices.

Whilst the general layout of the airfield has changed with the addition of farm and ‘industrial’ units, its layout can still be recognised. The majority of the runways still exist, now housing poultry sheds, and large sections can easily be seen from the roadside. Luckily, even some of the original huts from the technical area are also in existence and ‘accessible’.

Approaching from the north, the first reference point is the memorial. Standing at the crossroads on the north-eastern corner, it serves as a pointer directly in line with the centreline of the Runway 2. Behind you to your right is the former sick quarters, here would have been an ambulance station, Static water tank and sick quarters, now all gone. Turning right here, keeping the airfield to your left, you pass along the northern boundary, within a short distance of what would have been the perimeter track.

The first sign is a pillbox. This was placed next to the special signals workshop which consisted of three small buildings. Now overgrown, this maybe a Vickers Machine gun Pillbox, different to ‘standard’ pill boxes as it has a concrete ‘table’ beneath the gun port designed to support the heavier gun and tripod.

Further along this road, to your right, is the first and main bomb store. A small track being the only visible reminder, the walls having been removed long ago. The large concrete ‘pan’ being the entrance, on which farm products are now stored.

The second store and USAAF quarters were further along this road, again all trace has gone and it is purely agricultural now. Retracing your steps, go back to the memorial. At the crossroads, ahead of you, was Number 1 accommodation site, now all farm buildings, but formerly the officers, sergeants quarters and airman’s barracks.

Turn right here and as you drive down Oulton Street, there are a number of original buildings back from the road in a small enclave. The National Trust own part of these and use them to restore historic textiles, one of these buildings being the squadron offices. The main entrance to the airfield is further along this road and now an insignificant farm gate, allowed to grow and fill in, the path buried beneath the grass. Beyond this, you can see some remaining buildings across the field, truly overgrown and very dilapidated, these are possibly the crew locker and drying rooms. Continue on along this narrow road and you arrive at the pond. Behind the pond, stands a well-preserved hut and smaller buildings. These were the main workshops, rubber store and general stores, now holding agricultural products and waste material. Certainly they are some of the better preserved buildings on the site. Further along, the road crosses the main runway, here it is full width on both sides of the road. Poultry sheds stand on the main section, whilst farm waste resides on the left.

RAF Oulton

The eastern end of the main runway.

Continuing on and the road crosses the third runway, where we turn left. We can now see the site of one of the four T2s, the road at this point using the original perimeter track before it departs away to the north.

From here, we return north, head back past the airfield and return to the main road. Here we turn right and follow the road for a few miles east through the woodland where we arrive at Blickling Hall. The accommodation sites here, include the No.1 and 2 WAAF sites, NAAFI, No. 4 and 5 accommodation site and various service sites.

The east wing of the Blickling Hall is now a museum, formerly the barracks and still shows the original paintwork. A range of uniforms, photos and personal stories can be seen and read.

There are virtually no remnants of the other sites which were primarily Nissen huts. Footpaths do allow you to walk through these, now natural spaces, walking in the footsteps of former airmen and women.

Next to the Hall, is the church of St. Andrew, in here is a small collection of artefacts and a roll of honour for those who died at Oulton. Also here is the sole grave of Sergeant L. Billington, who died on March 4th 1945 at the young age of 20. He was part of a crew in a Fortress III (B-17) on window duties. As the aircraft was returning from its mission, it was attacked by a JU 88, causing it to crash on the airfield boundary. All but two of the crew were killed*3, their bodies being buried in different locations. A sad end to another young life at Oulton.

St. Andrew's Church

The Roll of Honour at St. Andrew’s Church, next to Blickling Hall.

RAF Oulton housed a range of aircraft types and nationalities. Their role encompassed many important duties and missions that certainly helped defeat the Nazi tyranny. Many of these young men, led the way in today’s electronic counter measures and electronic warfare. The daring missions they led, firmly embedded in our history, and now the remnants of Oulton stand as a reminder to both their sacrifice and dedication.

Notes and Further Reading.

*1 The ground crew were:

E.J. Bone, Aircraftsman Ist Class
H. Bramham, Aircraftsman 2nd Class
A.C. Emery, Aircraftsman 2nd Class
K.F. Fowler, Aircraftsman, 2nd Class
F. Packard, Leading Aircraftsman
A. Torrence, Leading Aircraftsman

Source Aircrew remembered website.

*2 National Archives, RAF Bomber command diary 1940.

* The crew were:

P/O H Bennett
Sgt. L Billington
F/S H. Barnfield
W/O LJ Odgers (RAAF)
F/S W Bridden
F/S LA Hadder
F/S F Hares
Sgt. A McDirmid (injured)
W/O RW Church (injured)
Sgt. PJ Healy

Source: Chorley, W.R., RAF Bomber Command Losses 1945, 1998, Midland Counties.