RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (Pt1).

In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.

Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.

But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.

Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.

Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.

Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).

Rackheath (Station 145)

Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the  East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.

RAF Rackheath

Rackheath village sign denotes its history and links to the base.

Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of  2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.

A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with  a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.

A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.

Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.

The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.

The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.

Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.

The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.

But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led  by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘  on the high right.

As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’

Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.

Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.

The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.

When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing  permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.

It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire.  The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.

RAF Rackheath

The former Watch Office has been refurbished and used as offices.

As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too  fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.

Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down –  struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.

Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night.  By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.

April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.

With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.

On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.

B-24 Liberator (4Z-U, #42-95237) 791st BS, 467th BG parked on the grass in a field in Normandy – the first four engined heavy to do so. (IWM FRE 8431)

By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.

In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.

The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.

For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history. We shall revisit Rackheath again in Part 2.

Lt. Col. Leon Vance 489th BG – Medal of Honour.

Leon vance.jpgThe story of Leon Vance is one of  the saddest stories to emerge from the Second World War. He was a young American, who through his bravery and dedication, saved the lives of his colleagues and prevented their heavily stricken aircraft from crashing into populated areas of southern England. Following a mission over France, his was very severely injured, but miraculously fought on.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. known as ‘Bob’ to his family and friends, was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11th, 1916. He graduated from high school in 1933 after receiving many honours and being singled out as a high performing athlete. He went on, after University, to the prestigious Training College at West Point in 1935, staying until his graduation four years later in 1939. It was here, at West Point, he would meet and marry his wife Georgette Brown. He and Georgette would later have a daughter, after whom Vance would name his own aircraft ‘The Sharon D’.

Vance would become an aircrew instructor, and would have various postings around the United States. He became great friends with a Texan, Lieutenant Horace S. Carswell, with whom he would leave the Air Corps training program to fly combat missions in B-24 Liberators. They became great friends but would go on to fight in different theatres.

Prior to receiving his posting, Vance undertook training on Consolidated B-24s. Then, in October 1943, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he was posted to Europe with the newly formed 489th Bombardment Group (Heavy), as the Deputy Group Commander. One of the last groups to be assigned to the European theatre, they formed part of the 95th Combat Bombardment Wing (2nd Bomb Division),  Eighth Air Force, and were sent to RAF Halesworth (RAF Holton) designated Station 365 by the USAAF.

The group left their initial base at Wendover Field, Utah in April / May 1944 and their first mission would be that same month on May 30th, 1944, as part of a combined attack on communication sites, rail yards and airfields. A total of 364 B-24s were to attack the Luftwaffe bases at Oldenburg, Rotenburg and Zwischenahn, along with other targets of opportunity far to the north in the German homeland. With only 1 aircraft lost and 38 damaged, it was considered a success and a good start to the 489th’s campaign.

As the build up to Normandy developed, Vance and the 489th would be assigned to bombing targets in northern France in support of the Normandy invasion about to take place further to the south. An area the unit would concentrate on, prior to the Allied beach invasion on June 6th that year.

The day before D-day, the 489th would fly to Wimereaux, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. This would be Leon Vance’s final mission.

File:846bs-b24-42-94860--halesworth.jpg

B-24H Liberator of the 489thBG, RAF Halesworth*2

The group, (Mission 392),  consisted of 423 B-17s and 203 B-24s and were to hit German coastal defences including: Le Havre, Caen, Boulogne and Cherbourg areas as  a precursor to the Normandy invasion. Some 127 P-47s and 245 P-51s would support the attacks. The 489th would assemble at 22,500 feet on the morning of June 5th, proceed to the south of Wimereaux, fly over dropping their payload, and then return to England. On the run in to the target, Vance was stationed behind the pilot and copilot.  The lead plane encountered a problem and bombs failed to jettison. Vance ordered a second run, and it was on this run that his plane, Missouri Sue, took several devastating hits.

Four of the crew members, including the pilot were killed and Vance himself was severely injured. His foot became lodged in the metal work behind the co-pilots seat. There were frantic calls over the intercom and the situation looked bad for those remaining on board. To further exacerbate the problems, one of the 500lb bombs had remained inside the bomb bay armed and in a deadly state, three of the four engines were disabled, and fuel spewed from ruptured lines inside the fuselage.

Losing height rapidly, the co-pilot put the aircraft into a dive to increase airspeed. The radio operator, placed a makeshift tourniquet around Vance’s leg, and the fourth engine was feathered.  They would then glide toward the English coast.

The aircraft was too damaged to control safely, so once over English soil, Vance ordered those who could, to bail out. He then turned the aircraft himself out to the English Channel to attempt a belly landing on the water. A dangerous operation in any aircraft, let alone a heavy bomber with an armed bomb and no power.

Still trapped by the remains of his foot, laying on the floor and using only aileron and elevators, he ensured the remaining crew left before the aircraft struck the sea. The impact caused the upper turret to collapse, effectively trapping Vance inside the cockpit. By sheer luck, an explosion occurred that threw Vance out of the sinking wreckage,  his foot now severed.  He remained in the sea searching for whom he believed to be the radio operator, until picked up by the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue units.

Vance was alive, but severely injured. He would spend a number of weeks, recuperating in hospital, writing home and gradually regaining his strength. Disappointed that his flying career was over, he looked forward to seeing his wife and young child once more. However, on a recuperation trip to London, Vance met a young boy, who innocently, and without thought, told him he wouldn’t miss his foot. The emotional, impact of this comment was devastating to Vance and he fell into depression. Then, news of his father’s death pushed him down even further.

Eventually, on July 26th, 1944 Vance was given the all clear to return home and he joined other wounded troops on-board a C-54, bound for the US. It was never to arrive there.

The aircraft disappeared somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland. It has never been found nor has the body of Leon Vance or any of the others on board that day. Vance’s recommendations for the Medal of Honour came through in the following  January (4th), but at the request of his wife, was delayed until October 11th 1946, so his daughter could be presented the medal in her father’s name.

The citation for Leon Vance reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 5 June 1944, when he led a Heavy Bombardment Group, in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lt. Col. Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with 3 engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully. After applying a tourniquet to his leg with the aid of the radar operator, Lt. Col. Vance, realizing that the ship was approaching a stall altitude with the 1 remaining engine failing, struggled to a semi-upright position beside the copilot and took over control of the ship. Cutting the power and feathering the last engine he put the aircraft in glide sufficiently steep to maintain his airspeed. Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast, whereupon he ordered all members of the crew to bail out as he knew they would all safely make land. But he received a message over the interphone system which led him to believe 1 of the crew members was unable to jump due to injuries; so he made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life. To add further to the danger of ditching the ship in his crippled condition, there was a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. Unable to climb into the seat vacated by the copilot, since his foot, hanging on to his leg by a few tendons, had become lodged behind the copilot’s seat, he nevertheless made a successful ditching while lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference. On coming to rest in the water the aircraft commenced to sink rapidly with Lt. Col. Vance pinned in the cockpit by the upper turret which had crashed in during the landing. As it was settling beneath the waves an explosion occurred which threw Lt. Col. Vance clear of the wreckage. After clinging to a piece of floating wreckage until he could muster enough strength to inflate his life vest he began searching for the crew member whom he believed to be aboard. Failing to find anyone he began swimming and was found approximately 50 minutes later by an Air-Sea Rescue craft. By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lt. Col. Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety. His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crew member he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces”*2

Leon Vance’s actions would be remembered. His local base in Oklahoma was renamed ‘Vance Air Force Base’ on July 9th, 1949. The gate at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma was also later named after him on May 9th, 1997, and his name appears on the ‘Wall of the Missing’ at Madingley American War Cemetery in Cambridge, England.

DSC_0582

The American War Cemetery, Madingley. Leon Vance’s Name Appears on the wall of the missing (to the left of the picture).

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (August 11th, 1916 – July 26th, 1944)

For other personal tales, see the Heroic Tales Page.

Sources.

* Photo public domain via Wikipedia

*1 “Medal of Honor recipients – website World War II”.

*2 Photo Public Domain via Wikipedia.

William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

This post has been updated since I was contacted by William’s son. Click on the title below for the full story.

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

rueckert

William Rueckert with his wife, Dee*1

William G. Rueckert (service Number: 0 -420521) was born September 9th 1920, in Moline, Illinois. At school, he became a model student, achieving high grades throughout his school life. Upon leaving, he won a place at Illinois University where he wanted to study Law. Rueckert had a passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust and was known for his hard work and dedication.

It was at University that he met, on a blind date, he wife to be, ‘Dee’. The meeting almost never took place due to a faulty car, but as a lover of dancing, they turned out to be the perfect match and his lateness was forgiven.

Inseparable as a couple, Rueckert and Dee were married only a year later, in 1940, when Rueckert was just 19 years old.

War came even closer, and Rueckert decided he had to do his part and joined up with the Army, on July 15th 1941. Based at Pine Camp, New York, he was part of the 4th Armoured Division, and his hard work and dedication was very quickly realised; he soon won himself an award on the firing range. Constant passionate letters home cemented the love between Rueckert and Dee, in one letter he said; “My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife Dee!”

Rueckert’s life then changed and he joined the USAAC. As a trainee pilot, he moved from New York, to California and then onto New Mexico where he gained the qualification of Pilot instructor on October 28th 1943.

Whilst flying here at New Mexico, the plane Rueckert was in, a B-24, collided with a small training aircraft killing its pilot. Rueckert managed to land his own B-24 and following his actions, was credited with saving the lives of the crewmen on board.

Finally, the draw of the war led Rueckert to requesting a post overseas. He was sent to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Airforce, in April 1944. Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be Rueckert’s only operational squadron. Having won three DUCs already for operations over Europe including; the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, and the enormous raid of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were a battle hardened group.

“Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, took part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area, cutting supply lines and communication routes across France.

Rueckert’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944. It was to be a night flight. He joined his best friend along with his assigned pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his regular crew behind at Hardwick.

The aircraft, began its roll down the runway, as it neared the take off point, it is thought the undercarriage collapsed causing a catastrophic crash in which seven bombs exploded. The aircraft was completely destroyed and five of the crew killed including the pilot and Lt. Rueckert. The crash was so intense, it closed one of the three enormous runways for five days.

Dee, Rueckert’s wife, found out by telegraph that her husband had been killed. She was understandably devastated as were the two young children, Billy and Dianne.

Rueckert’s body was initially buried at Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, but later he was repatriated and buried in the family plot in Illinois. His purple Heart, awarded earlier, has since been donated by his son Billy, to the church at Topcroft, where Rueckert prayed the night before that fatal flight. A plaque also sits in the wall in remembrance of the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick. Rueckert’s name appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

Hardwick appears in Trail 12

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (IWM FRE 3762)

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from The purpleheart.com author unknown.

This story recently appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, December 13th 2014, and contains more photos and personal details.

William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

This post has been updated since I was contacted by William’s son. Click on the title below for the full story.

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

rueckert

William Rueckert with his wife, Dee*1

William G. Rueckert (service Number: 0 -420521) was born September 9th 1920, in Moline, Illinois. At school, he became a model student, achieving high grades throughout his school life. Upon leaving, he won a place at Illinois University where he wanted to study Law. Rueckert had a passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust and was known for his hard work and dedication.

It was at University that he met, on a blind date, he wife to be, ‘Dee’. The meeting almost never took place due to a faulty car, but as a lover of dancing, they turned out to be the perfect match and his lateness was forgiven.

Inseparable as a couple, Rueckert and Dee were married only a year later, in 1940, when Rueckert was just 19 years old.

War came even closer, and Rueckert decided he had to do his part and joined up with the Army, on July 15th 1941. Based at Pine Camp, New York, he was part of the 4th Armoured Division, and his hard work and dedication was very quickly realised; he soon won himself an award on the firing range. Constant passionate letters home cemented the love between Rueckert and Dee, in one letter he said; “My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife Dee!”

Rueckert’s life then changed and he joined the USAAC. As a trainee pilot, he moved from New York, to California and then onto New Mexico where he gained the qualification of Pilot instructor on October 28th 1943.

Whilst flying here at New Mexico, the plane Rueckert was in, a B-24, collided with a small training aircraft killing its pilot. Rueckert managed to land his own B-24 and following his actions, was credited with saving the lives of the crewmen on board.

Finally, the draw of the war led Rueckert to requesting a post overseas. He was sent to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Airforce, in April 1944. Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be Rueckert’s only operational squadron. Having won three DUCs already for operations over Europe including; the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, and the enormous raid of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were a battle hardened group.

“Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, took part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area, cutting supply lines and communication routes across France.

Rueckert’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944. It was to be a night flight. He joined his best friend along with his assigned pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his regular crew behind at Hardwick.

The aircraft, began its roll down the runway, as it neared the take off point, it is thought the undercarriage collapsed causing a catastrophic crash in which seven bombs exploded. The aircraft was completely destroyed and five of the crew killed including the pilot and Lt. Rueckert. The crash was so intense, it closed one of the three enormous runways for five days.

Dee, Rueckert’s wife, found out by telegraph that her husband had been killed. She was understandably devastated as were the two young children, Billy and Dianne.

Rueckert’s body was initially buried at Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, but later he was repatriated and buried in the family plot in Illinois. His purple Heart, awarded earlier, has since been donated by his son Billy, to the church at Topcroft, where Rueckert prayed the night before that fatal flight. A plaque also sits in the wall in remembrance of the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick. Rueckert’s name appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

Hardwick appears in Trail 12

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group*2

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from The purpleheart.com author unknown.

*2 Photo The American Air Museum in Britain

This story recently appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, December 13th 2014, and contains more photos and personal details.

August 23, 1944 The worst aircraft accident in the UK during WW2.

During the Second World War, Britain’s landscape changed forever. The friendly invasion brought  new life, new music, rationed items became sought after bounties and they were plentiful – if you knew an American.  But this dramatic change in the British way of life could also be explosive and deadly.

Anyone living near to a wartime airfield knew only too well the risks of such a life. Aircraft could ground loop, collide in the air or suffer a major mechanical failure on take off, all of which could result in a massive explosion in a fully laden bomber. There are numerous recordings of such accidents occurring, and the brave attempts of crewmen trying to avoid local housing. One such crash was that of B-17 #42-39825, “Zenobia” which crashed on take off coming to rest in the nearby village of Deenethorpe. Luckily, the crew were able to escape and warn the locals of the impending danger, thus averting a catastrophe when the aircraft, fully laden with bombs and fuel, exploded twenty minutes later. The explosion was so fierce that it was heard nine miles away!

However, not everyone was as lucky, and on August 23rd 1944, Wartime Britain experienced what is considered its worst wartime air disaster. A disaster in which sixty-one people lost their lives when a USAAF aircraft from BAD2 at RAF Warton crashed into the adjacent village of Freckleton in Lancashire.

Warton, or BAD2 (Base Air Depot No. 2), was responsible for the modification and overhaul of US aircraft and engines when they arrived fresh from the United States. They were assembled, modified and transferred from here to front line operational airfields across the UK. A massive operation that began even before the United States had even entered the War.

Initially, Warton was built as a satellite for the RAF Coastal Command station at Blackpool, known at the time as Squires Gate Airfield, an airfield with a history going as far back as 1909. With many pleasure flights, air pageants and civil flights, it was eventually taken over and used for fighters and bombers of Coastal Command.

With many aircraft being shipped into the UK via the Atlantic during the early years of the war, the need for a site to build and then maintain them became evermore apparent and urgent. It was not long after the outbreak of war, that four such sites were earmarked for use by the USAAF as Air Depots, each one dealing solely with aircraft maintenance and refurbishment. The proposal, initiated by Lord Beaverbrook as early as October 1939, which then progressed through discussions between the American and the British Governments in 1941 , specified that these bases would need to be able to deal with large quantities of aircraft and be able to handle aircraft modifications at any stage of the assembly process. In October, these bases were identified by a consortium of American and British representatives, who selected: Warton, Little Staughton (Bedford), Burtonwood (Warrington) and Langford Lodge in Neagh, Northern Ireland, as the most suitable sites.

Warton would be massive, housing almost 16,000 people in over ten accommodation sites, which when compared to a normal Class A airfield of some 3,000 people, was an enormous conurbation. To be adaptable, the runway was strengthened and extended to match that of any wartime airfield, at almost 2,000 yards long, it could take any aircraft brought over from the United States. Along side this were a wide range of ancillary buildings: stores,  maintenance sheds, office blocks, hangars, engine test sheds and fifty dispersal points. As the war progressed, Warton was extended further with the largest European storage shed and further hangars being added in 1944.

The entire site was completed in just nine months, using a combination of construction groups led by Frank Thomas; this included both Alfred McAlpine, and Wimpey, two of the largest airfield contractors at that time.

Station 582 of the US Eighth Air Force was opened August 1942, housing a small contingent of USAAF personnel. Officially handed over to the USAAF a year later, it now had some 5,000 personnel on its books already, all specially trained to handle the unique American aircraft being brought over from the United States.

Each base would specialise, Burtonwood in radial engines and the B-17, whilst Warton concentrated on in-line engines and B-24s. However, that did not mean that this was a ‘closed door’ operation, Warton would, over the period of the war, see every example of US built aircraft pass though its doors, and at its peek, held over 800 aircraft within its grounds.

Living near such a large and active base would bring many benefits, 700, children were given a Christmas party that lasted for a week, the locals were well provided for and money poured into the local economy. However being so close also brought it dangers. There were numerous accidents with parked aircraft being hit as other aircraft taxied past. There were also several crashes, including a North American P-51D-5-NA Mustang #44-13403 that crashed on June 12th, 1944, killing its pilot. The accident being caused by a catastrophic structural failure of the wing assembly. Another P-51D #44-14608 (310th Ferry Squadron, 27th Aircraft Transport Group) was involved in a landing accident at Warton, on October 5th, 1944. The pilot survived, but the aircraft was destroyed in the crash.

Then there was the P-51B-5 #43-6623 that crashed after taking off from Liverpool’s Speke airport, it was was subsequently taken to Warton where it was combined with other parts of P-51Bs that had been dropped on delivery. The new aircraft, aptly named ‘Spare parts‘, would then be used as an unarmed two-seater ferrying VIPs around, delivering small spare parts to the other airfields and collecting supplies of of whiskey from a distillery in Glasgow. The aircraft itself was lost in late 1944 when it experienced engine failure. The two crew bailed out and survived but the aircraft crashed coming to a rest at the bottom of the Irish Sea.

One of the more terrible accidents at Warton involved the collision of two Douglas A-26B-10-DT Invaders, on November 29th 1944, when #43-22298 collided in midair with #43-22336 over Warton Marsh. The crews’ bodies were removed from the site, but the aircraft remained buried in the silt until excavation in 2004. Both aircraft were then transferred to the RAF Millom Museum at Haverigg, Cumbria where they remained until its closure on 1st September 2010. With many of it exhibits being ‘on loan’, they were returned to their original owners whilst the rest were publicly auctioned off in January 2011. The fate of the two Invaders is unknown at the time of writing.

However, it was on Wednesday, August 23rd 1944, that Warton would be shocked by Britain’s worst wartime air disaster and the terrible events that would unfold that day.

Everything appeared normal that day as the workers at BAD 2 and the surrounding area awoke. The news was generally good, the war was heading in the right direction and victory for the allies appeared to be on the cards. There were high pressure zones to the east and west and low pressure to the north. The first 2 weeks of August were generally dry and  warm with spells of sunshine. There had been  a spell of warm weather that continued into the third week, with temperatures reaching as high as 28°C in the south. On the 23rd, early sunshine was expected to change to light rain later on, nothing that should have caused any significant problems to the experienced crews at Warton.

Early on that day, two routine test flights were booked by experienced pilots on newly refurbished Consolidated B-24 Liberators  before they were sent out out to the 2nd Bomb Division. The first, piloted by First Lieutenant John Bloemendal, ‘Classy Chassis II‘, and the second piloted by First Lieutenant Peter Manassero.

After a delayed start, First Lt. Bloemendal and his two crewmen boarded the B-24, ran their ground checks and started the engines. They then departed on was was a routine test flight. Meanwhile, the second B-24 piloted by First Lt. Manassero also departed and both aircraft headed out from Warton. During this time a weather warning was passed to Warton tower informing them of an impending storm, the likes of which even the British had rarely seen. The notorious British weather had played a cruel joke.  In seconds, the summer sky had turned jet black. Daylight had been all but wiped out, Heavy rain lashed the landscape, localised flash floods and unprecedented strong winds battered the Warton skyline. Locals reported seeing trees being uprooted and buildings being damaged such was the strength of the wind and lashing rain.

The tower issued an immediate warning to land the two aircraft. B-24 #42-50291 “Classy Chassis II“,  was given clearance first, the second flown by First Lieutenant  Manassero was to come in next. With visibility down to some 500 yards, the two aircraft approached the airfield in close formation, simply to keep in visual contact. Bloemendal  lowered his undercarriage followed by Manassero. Bloemendal  then began his approach, suddenly retracting his undercarriage informing Manassero he was going round again for another try. But by now, the weather had deteriorated so much that the tower was extremely concerned, and issued an order, to both aircraft, to withdraw from the circuit and abort landings, telling them to fly to the north to avoid the storm. Bloemendal never received the message.

By now contact had been lost between the two pilots, Manassero headed out of the circuit and flew out of harms way, Bloemendal on the other hand had already hit the ground, a massive fireball ensued. Eye witness accounts differed as to what the cause of the crash was, one witness said she saw  lightning strike the aircraft at the wing root, “splitting the aircraft in two“, others say they saw the wings in a near vertical position as if the pilot was banking steeply to turn away.

The aircraft came down across Lytham Road, after hitting the ‘Sad Sack Snack Bar’, purposefully built for the American servicemen of BAD 2. It demolished three houses and the infant section of Freckleton’s Holy Trinity School, which at the time, was full of children between the ages of 4 and 6 who, along with their teachers, were going about their daily routine. The resultant crash led to a fireball, one that eventually took the lives of sixty-one people. Eighteen in the cafe, forty in the school and the three crewmen aboard “Classy Chassis II“.  Many of these dying in the days that followed from severe burns as burning petrol engulfed the school before flowing into the street .

The crash was so devastating that at the inquest, only the School’s register could be used to identify some of the missing children whilst others were identified merely by parts of their clothing painfully presented to grieving parents. First Lieutenant John Bloemendal was only identified by the remains of his dog tags and wedding ring, the only married man aboard the aircraft.

The US servicemen from BAD2 were highly praised in the days that followed for their quick and brave response to the crash. Pulling away debris while the aircraft still burned, attempting to put out the fire and fighting to save whomever they could from the burning wreck that was once Freckleton village school.

The papers understandably ran the story for months and even years afterwards, as more and more information came to light. Some of the injured were so severely burned, they were read their last rights, whilst many had to have long term skin grafts, including some as part of McIndoe’s Guinea Pig Club.

From Lytham St. Annes, to London and New York, the story of Britain’s worst air disaster spread, putting good news from the front line into painful perspective. Whilst convalescing, young survivors were visited by Bing Crosby, who diverted from his tour of American airfields across the UK, to pay his respects. A small gesture to avert the grieving now felt across both sides of the ocean.

A mass funeral service took place in Freckleton on August 26th, the streets were lined with mourners as service personnel carried the many tiny coffins along in one mass parade. Afterwards, a fund was set up by the USAAF, and an area of land was developed into a playground as a lasting memorial to those lost in the accident. A tablet laid at the playground reads:  “This playground presented to the children of Freckleton by their neighbours of Base Air Depot No. 2 USAAF in recognition and remembrance of their common loss in the disaster of August 23rd 1944”.

The inquest into the crash could not prove conclusively as to the cause of the crash. It states:

“The cause of this accident is unknown. It is the opinion of the Accident Investigating Committee that the crash resulted from pilot’s error in the judgement of the violence of the storm. The extent of the thunder-head was not great and he could have flown in perfect safety to the North and East of the field”.

It also states that a possible “rough air structural failure occurred“, although verification of this was impossible due to the total destruction of the aircraft’s structure.

freckleton 28 Aug 1944 funeral procession Photo Ralph Scott

Crowds line the street as US Servicemen carry the many coffins at Freckleton (Photo Ralph Scott, BAD2)

What did arise from the crash was that US service personnel who were trained in the bright blue skies of America, were unaccustomed to the changeable and fierce British weather. Many, like First Lieutenant Bloemenda, often under-estimating the dangers of these thunderstorms and as a result, training was amended to include warnings about such events.

With the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Warton, the memories of that day linger on, regular services are held at Frekleton in remembrance of those sixty-one lives who were all innocent victims of Britain’s worst air disaster of World War Two.

Sources and Further reading

There are many sites that cover this story, in particular I refer you to:

British Newspaper Archive website.

The Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team Website which has many photographs pertaining to the crash and is well worth a visit.

BAD2 Blog 

The Book “The Freckleton, England, Air Disaster” by James R. Hedtke, details the accident in depth giving eyewitness accounts, background details and transcripts of the conversations between pilots and the tower. It served as a valuable source of information for this post and is worth buying if interested in reading about this further.

Also, the book ‘Blood and Fears‘ by Kevin Wilson, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) also briefly mentions accounts of the event. Again a good book should you wish to read further.

RAF Shipdham – The 44th BG ‘The Jinx Squadron’ (Pt. 2)

In part 1 we left the “Eightballs” in the middle of a cold and icy winter, before which, a heavy toll had been paid. The January of 1944 would not prove to be any better for the men of the 44th BG, with both further losses and the high levels of stress playing their part in the coming months at RAF Shipdham.

On January 13th, a training mission was organised for a new crew, who had only joined the group on the Christmas Eve, and were barely three weeks into their war. On this day, B-24 #42-7551 of the 68th BS piloted by 2nd Lt. Glenn Hovey, would come in on approach to Shipdham, a landing in which one of the engines was feathered to simulate one engine out. With flaps and gear down, the pilot overshot, banking to the left striking a tree causing the aircraft to crash. The ensuing fireball killed nine men instantly, the tenth 2nd Lt. Richard Sowers being taken to hospital where he died shortly after. For a rookie crew this was perhaps the worst possible cause of death.

B-24 Liberators, including a B-24 (serial number 41-29153) nicknamed

Liberators, including a B-24 (#41-29153), ‘Greenwich’ of the 506th BS, 44th BG (pilot 1st Lt. Robert Marx) conducts a raid on a German airfield near Diepholz. February 21st 1944. This aircraft was subsequently lost on April 8th 1944, all the crew were taken prisoner. (Official U.S. Air Force Photo)

The extreme pressures placed of aircrew were beyond that imaginable, and for some, it was just too much. After having joined the 44th and flown since July 1943, for one pilot it all became too great, and on January 20th he sadly took his own life. Not a unique event by any means, but his death shows the great pressure that airmen were subjected to and for some it was simply a step too far.

The end of March and into April saw the poor weather continuing, with many missions being aborted. On April 1st, a mission to Grafenhausen was yet again cancelled, but B-24s of the 44th and 392nd did continue on. Unbeknown to them, they were way of course, and when they released their bombs it was the Swiss town of Schaffhausen that was beneath them, and not the Germany city. Ten aircraft were lost that day whilst Swiss papers reported the loss of thirty residents. The Nazi propaganda machine-made good use of this most unfortunate accident.

Only eight days later the ‘Eightballs’ would suffer their greatest loss of the war, April being the month that cost more in men and machines than any other month of the conflict. This was a month that put even Ploesti and Foggia in the dark. A mission to Brunswick was scrubbed as the town was shrouded in smoke, and so a secondary target was selected Langenhagen Aerodrome near Hanover in Germany.

Now for the first time, fitted with PFF, the B-24s flew toward the target. It was a cloudless and sunny day, an escort of P-51s were with the Liberators when suddenly, out of the sun, came a whole horde of enemy fighters. They struck from above and in front making a concentrated attack that took out eleven of the 44th’s group; forty-one airmen were killed that day with almost as many being taken prisoner.

For the remainder of the war the group attacked many high prestige targets, including airfields, oil refineries, railways, V-weapon sites, aided the Normandy landings and the breakout at St. Lo. They supported the ground forces in the Battle of the Bulge and attacked railway bridges, junctions and tunnels preventing German reinforcements arriving at the front.

With their last operational bombing sortie taking place on April 25th 1945, never again would they lose as many aircraft as they did during those three major raids. Bombing turned to food supplies and transit flights bringing home POWs from camps across Europe.

Then over May / June 1945, the various echelons began to depart Shipdham returning to the U.S., they had completed 343 missions using six different marks of B24. They had flown against submarine pens, industrial complexes, airfields, harbours and shipyards. Whilst in Africa they had flown in the Ploesti raid in Romania, the raid on Foggia and had helped in the invasion of Italy.

The Unit achieved one of the highest mission records of any B24 group for the loss of 153 aircraft, the highest loss of any B-24 group. They had taken the taunting of the B-17 crews, been called ‘Jinxed’ and had lost a lot of young men in the process. The 44th had paid the price, but they had earned two DUCs, a Purple Heart and numerous other medals for gallantry and bravery in the face of adversity.

The 44th and their home at Shipdham had well and truly written itself into the history books.

Following cessation of conflict the mighty 8th left Shipdham. The airfield became a POW camp closing in 1947, it then remained in care and maintenance until finally being sold off in 1963. Over the years it has been turned into agricultural premises with an industrial complex covering the technical area of the airfield. Fortunately, flying activity has managed to keep a small part of Shipdham alive with the Shipdham Aero Club utilising one of the remaining runways.

If you drive round the site to the industrial area, you  can clearly see the remaining two hangers through the fence. Behind these are a small selection of dilapidated buildings from what was the technical site, including the control tower and operations block.

RAF Shipdham

Shipdam’s runway used for storage.

The tower is now a mere shell and in danger of demolition. For those not tempted to venture further, views of these can be seen from across the fields on the aero club side of the site. Further views reveal one runway covered in farm storage units, but the runway they sit on, remains intact.

This is a large site, much of which is now either agriculture or industrial, with what is left is in desperate need of TLC. Whilst there is a small part of this airfield alive and kicking, the more physical features cling on by their finger nails desperate for the care and attention they wholeheartedly deserve.

The club house at the aero club houses a small museum in memory of those who flew from here, with many pictures and personal stories it is one to add to the list of places to go.

I found this rare original footage of the 44BG taken at Station 115 on ‘You Tube’.  This features a number of B-24s preparing for, and returning from, the November 18th Mission to Kjeller Airfield, Oslo (not the 19th as implied on the film). It also includes B24H #42-7535 ‘Peepsight‘ of the 506th crash landing after a mission.

The latter half of the film includes footage from 1944-45 noted by the change in the tail fin Bomb Group coding (Black stripe on white background as opposed to the black ‘A’ in a white circle). It would appear therefore to be a compilation of dates, but this aside, it is very much worth watching.

Shipdham was a relatively short-lived airfield, used by only one unit, the 44th Bomb Group, it saw many crews come and go and bore witness to some incredible actions. Whilst Shipdham lives on, the future of its buildings remain in doubt, the creeping industrial strong hold gaining in strength with each passing day. How long will it be before it sinks into obscurity and the brave actions of those who never returned are forgotten.

RAF Shipdham appears in Trail 10.

Sources and Further Reading.

Lundy, W., “44th Bomb Group Roll of Honor and Casualties“, 2005, Greenharbor.com  – a detailed account of the 44th’s missions, including personal accounts of each mission and details of the losses. (Twitter @44thbgROH)

Todd, C.T., “History of the 68th Bomb Squadron 44th Bomb Group – The Flying EIghtballs“. PDF document

RAF Shipdham – The 44th BG ‘The Jinx Squadron’ (Pt. 1)

As part of Trail 10, we revisit the first Norfolk airfield opened as a heavy bomber base for the USAAF. It is an airfield that lives on – just – and was the home to only one major bomb group. This group led the way for the B-24, they took heavy loses and bore the brunt of B-17 jokes. Their loses were so high that unofficially, they became the ‘Jinx Squadron’.

In this Trail, we go to RAF Shipdham otherwise known as Station 115.

RAF Shipdham (Station 115)

On leaving Watton, we travel north-east across the countryside to the small village of Shipdham, some 3.5 miles south of East Dereham. If you miss the turn, you will pass along the main road and a row of memorial trees dedicated to the parishioners of Shipdham who died in both World Wars. A list of those concerned is on a large board placed adjacent to the road. Turn back, return towards the village and take the left turn toward the airfield site. Opened in 1942, it was the first airfield to receive the Mighty 8th, who named it Station 115.

RAF Shipdham

One of Shipdham’s remaining Hangars.

Shipdham was built during the period 1941-42 and opened as the first US heavy bomber airfield in Norfolk. It was built as a Class A airfield having three concrete runways, one of 2,000 yards, and two of 1,400 yards, each 50 yards wide. A standard perimeter track linked all three runways, the main one of which ran east-west.

The technical and administrative area was located in the south-eastern corner, the bombs store to the south-west, and the accommodation areas dispersed off to the south, unusually, between the two aforementioned sites. There were initially 50 concrete hardstands, but this increased later on to 55 as the airfield was updated. The majority of these hardstands (37) were the single pan style, whilst the remainder were the dual spectacle style.

Accommodation was built for around 3,000 personnel using a range of temporary buildings over nine different sites, with a further two sites, both sewage works, and a wireless transmitter site, also being located here . Shipdham unusually had three communal sites, two male and a WAAF, and many buildings were temporary in nature: Laing, Nissen, Thorn and some Hall huts. A further number of buildings were brick with both temporary and permanent designs in use.

The Watch Office (built to drawing 8936/40) was part timber and part concrete, a deviation from drawing 2423/40, and still stood, albeit in a very poor condition, at the time of visiting.

The first group to arrive here were the 319th BG, a group made up of twin-engined B-26 ‘Marauders’, who flew across the northern route of the Atlantic during September 1942. Their trip across was hazardous, many aircraft suffering as a result of the cold and closing winter months. Sent to Shipdham to begin training operations, they only remained here for around one month, being moved to RAF Horsham St. Faith in October, and with it vacating Shipdham for good. In their place came the main resident unit, the 44th BG known as the ‘Flying Eight Balls‘ bringing with them the mighty B-24 Liberators.

RAF Shipdham

Shipdham’s Watch Office sites amongst the cranes and industrial buildings. (Just below the two cranes)

Activated on January 15th 1941, they were the USAAF’s first Liberator unit, becoming an operational training unit in February 1942, carrying out anti-submarine duties before making preparations for the European theatre. They moved from MacDill Field in Florida to Barkdale Field, Louisiana, and then onto Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma before setting off for England in October 1942. The three squadrons of the 44th, the 66th, 67th and 68th BS, were finally provided with aircraft and a full complement of aircrew at Will Rogers; however, this did not include the fourth and final squadron, the 404th BS, who were diverted to Alaska to protect the west coast against potential Japanese attacks. Being only three squadrons, the 44th BG would operate below full strength for almost six months until the replacement squadron, the 506th BS, would arrive. This weakened force would play its part in the 44th’s short and tragic history.

On September 4th, the ground echelons sailed on the Queen Mary, arriving in Scotland on the 11th. The first aircraft did not leave the US until later that same month, after which all personnel were gathered at their temporary base at Cheddington before moving off to Shipdham in October.

Once in England, the Liberators of the 44th were modified, flown to Langford Lodge, they were given scanning windows in the nose, the fitting of British IFF equipment, and improvement to the guns. The B-24s had been supplied with limiting ‘cans’ of ammunition rather than the much longer belt fed ammunition. Another adaptation at this point was the fitting of two .50 calibre machine guns in the nose, similar in style to those of the B-17.

On November 7th 1942, the ‘Flying Eight Balls‘ were put on limited combat status, with a small number of eight aircraft being sent on their first operational sortie. A diversionary flight, it was followed by four more sorties, of which only one involved any bombing at all. The 44th were not having a successful time though, the equipment they had been provided with was not protecting the crews from the extremely low temperatures found at high altitudes, several crewmen suffering from frostbite as a result.

By early December the last of the modified B-24s arrived back at Shipdham and the Group was back up to its three squadron strength. On the 6th December 1942, the group flew its first mission, a nineteen strong formation was sent to bomb the airfield at Abbeville-Drucat in France.

This mission would not go well. A diversionary attack, it would see the two squadrons the 66th and 67th called back, the abort signal did not however reach the 68th who unaware of the changes, carried on to the target. Being only six aircraft, they were woefully under protected, and after releasing their bombs over the target, were attacked by around thirty FW-190s. What resulted was devastating for the 68th, one aircraft was lost, Liberator #41-23786 piloted by 1st Lt. James Du Bard Jr. (s/n: 0-410225), along with its entire crew.  Witness accounts from other crews say that as the aircraft went down, its guns continued to fire, the gunners of #786 staying at their respective stations even though their fate was sealed. As the pilot struggled to regain control and get the aircraft home, they managed to bring down two enemy aircraft before crashing into the sea themselves. For their actions and bravery, the entire crew were awarded the Silver Star.

In the attack on Abbeville-Drucat , every B-24 was hit by enemy cannon fire. Following a head on attack by fourteen FW-190s in waves of three or four, an exploding 20mm shell in the cockpit of  ‘Victory Ship‘ #41-23813, badly injured both the pilot and co-pilot; but undeterred, 1st  Lt. Walter Holmes Jr (s/n: 0-437615), managed to get home and land the aircraft even though he and his copilot, 2nd Lt. Robert Ager, were badly injured. For his brave action and determination to get home, he was awarded the first DFC for the group. Holmes would also go onto receive a DSC in the mission to Ploesti in August going on to complete his tour of duty later that same month.

A medical truck and ground personnel of the 44th Bomb Group on standby as a B-24 Liberator (V, serial number 41-23813) nicknamed

A medical truck and ground personnel standby as B-24 Liberator #41-23813 “Victory Ship” returns from a mission. (IWM FRE 640)

A second attack to the same target was aborted, but during this mission one crewman suffered frostbite and had to have his arm amputated at the elbow. Then followed the  third mission, and it proved just as disastrous for the 44th. A flight of 101 aircraft, a mix of B-17s and B-24s were sent to Romilly-sur-Seine, and of the 101 aircraft sent, only seventy-two made it to the target, the remainder being lost or aborting. From the 44th, only twelve of the twenty-one sent out made it through, and of these, one suffered a head on attack by a FW -190. The pilot Cap. Algene E. Key took evasive action but cannon shells ripped through the aircraft killing gunner S/Sgt. Hilmer Lund and seriously wounding two others. Key manged to fly the aircraft to the target and then home, even though it was badly damaged and difficult to fly. For his actions he was awarded the DSC.

The start of the war was not a good one for the 44th, many of those who came over were now in a state of shock, the extremely cold temperatures and determined fighters of the Luftwaffe both taking a toll on the crews. The early days of the 44th were difficult and the crews faced a very steep learning curve.

When the 44th’s sister group the 93rd BG departed for North Africa, the 44th’s three squadrons consisting of only nine aircraft each, accounted for the entire Liberator force in the European Theatre. Performance figures for the B-24s made it difficult to fly in tight formations, the faster speed of the B-24 also meant it ended up at the rear of the large formations and slightly higher. It was a difficult aircraft to fly and crews were finding it hard to maintain flight with the slower and lighter B-17s.

To counteract these problems they were given restricted fuel levels, a restriction that proved to be fatal on the January 3rd 1943 mission to St. Nazaire. With further aircraft aborting, only 8 aircraft reached the target and able to drop their bombs. On the way back, the leading B-17s took an incorrect heading, and the flight flew up the Irish Sea as opposed to crossing over southern England. Now desperately short of fuel they split up, searching for a safe haven. Some aircraft unable to locate an airfield, ran out of fuel, and had to land in fields with the expected results. Three crewmen were killed that day and seventeen were wounded, some dying later from injuries sustained in the crashes.

1943 had started as badly as 1942 had ended. Spirits were now low and over the next few weeks several aborted missions added to the misery of the 44th. With further losses in the few missions they flew, rumours spread of a ‘hard luck’ squadron, and questions were raised as to the suitability of the B-24 as a bomber. Things got so bad that the 67th was reduced to just three aircraft, with no sign of replacements of men or machine being delivered anytime soon.

Nissen huts at Shipdham airbase, home of the 44th Bomb Group. Image via Colonel William R Cameron. This is part of the 67th BG LIVING SITE

Relaxation time at the 67th BS accommodation site (IWM FRE 670)

Then came some good news, the fourth squadron the 506th, arrived in March 1943 raising the 44th to its full complement of four squadrons for the first time since leaving the United States. Manning these aircraft was going to be another challenge though, many of the gunners were ground crews retrained as aircrew, some were drafted in from other squadrons, often being crewmen who had ‘failed’ in their previous roles. The future didn’t look any better even with the full complement of staff.

The Eighth now looked toward night flying as a possibility, the 93rd, having returned from Africa, stopped flying in order to train in their new role, leaving the 44th to ‘carry the can’ once more. Reduced to diversionary raids, the 44th were sent to Kiel on May 14th 1943, carrying a large number of incendiaries. Flying behind the higher B-17s, they were easy pickings for the FW-190s who picked off five of the twenty-one sent out before they reached the target. However, the determination of the crews saw some aircraft both get through and bomb successfully, a determination that won the group their first Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC).

With another aircraft lost on the return leg, the 44th had taken yet another beating, apart from odd crewmen who had been on leave or indisposed, the entire 67th had now been wiped out, one-quarter of the 44th was gone. Those that were left became bitter, some refused to fly, some had breakdowns but many others became stronger and more determined to see this through. The strength of those left was fuelled by both the bitter feeling toward the B-17 crews who continually mocked them, referring to them as ‘the jinx unit’, and those in command who it was felt used them for Luftwaffe bait.

There then followed a short period of good luck. A raid on the Submarine repair depot at Bordeaux on May 17th 1943 saw the loss of only one aircraft. ‘Avenger II‘ #42-40130 suffered engine problems, and being too far from England to make it back, the pilot 1st Lt. Ray Hilliard and the crew, decided to try their luck in neutral Spain. Turning south, they landed at the airfield at Alhama de Aragon where they were interned spending the next three months at the pleasure of the Spanish, before being returned to England.

There next followed an operational intermission, the B-24s swapping ‘ops’ for low flying practice over the English countryside until, on June 26th, when they departed Shipdham for the warmer climates of North Africa. Here they would carry out bombing missions over Italy and southern Europe including the famous Ploesti Oil refinery raid in August, for which they took another hammering and earned a second DUC in August 1943.

In late August, the 44th began returning  to Shipdham, with some detachments remaining in North Africa, this meant that the 44th was split between both England and North Africa, performing missions from both locations. A disastrous few months however, had taken further tolls on the crews, but camaraderie remained high and resilience strong.

The winter of 1943/44 was one of the worst for the cold, ice and snow. England like most of Europe was snowed in and temperatures dropped dramatically. For the 44th, the new year would not bring any let up, and it started on yet another terrible note!

The 446th BG (H), “The Bungay Buckaroos” – Part 2

In part 1 of this Trail (Trail 14) we saw how Bungay had grown from a satellite airfield into a fully fledged bomber airfield housing the 446th BG known as “The Bungay Buckaroos”.

The night of April 22nd 1944 saw the USAAF’s Mission 311, when over 800 bombers, a mix of B-17s and B-24s, were ordered to attack the marshalling yards at Hamm in three waves, each with its own designated target. The bombers were to take off from their respective bases between 17:50 and 18:21, but even before the stream arrived over the target, Bungay would bear witness to what was about to happen that night.

For the crew of #42-50306 “Dragon Lady“, it would begin at home. On take off the B24 skidded and crashed killing not only the ten airmen on-board, but two ground staff as well. Then, shortly before arriving over the Dutch coast, a B-17 #42-19818 of the 401st BG at Deenethorpe, suffered a fire inside the fuselage. As the fire took a grip of the aircraft, the pilot Lt. Roland Schellenberg put the B-17 into a steep dive during which three crew members either fell or jumped from the aircraft. Eventually, the fires were extinguished and the aircraft returned to the UK making an emergency landing here at Bungay, with nor further loss. The aircraft was salvaged at the Salvage depot at Watton, but the three crewmen who left the aircraft, were never found even after an intense RAF Air Sea Rescue Search of the area.

B-24H #42-50306 crashed on take off at Bungay on April 27th 1944 with killing twelve men. (IWM FRE 6607)

As the bomber stream made its way to Hamm, unpredicted winds played havoc with many aircraft, some passing beneath the higher groups as they approached the bomb release point, putting themselves in grave danger of being hit from falling bombs. Others following these leading groups also began arriving too early over the target, and were unable to distinguish landmarks due to the heavy smoke from the previous wave’s bombing.

Whilst conditions were very difficult, most aircraft did manage to bomb either their given target or alternative targets of opportunity, and considering this, results were generally good for the three Divisions. However, the troubles for the crews didn’t really start until they left the target and began their flight home.

Being a late operation, returning bombers were not locating their bases until well after dark, a situation the Luftwaffe exploited to their full advantage. A small force of Me-410 night fighters mingled with the returning bombers, and so ground radar were then unable to pick them up. Once the ground staff realised what was happening airfield lights were extinguished and crews ordered to other bases. Unseen, the German fighters gradually picked off the bombers as they tried in vain to land at darkened airstrips.  One such pilot, 2nd. Lt. Frank Baker,  luckily managed to avoid not only the fighters but another B-24 as he struggled to bring his aircraft (#42-95294) down at an alternative base. For his action that night, Baker received an Oak Leaf Cluster to add to his DFC. The entire night cost the USAAF nearly 60 men, some of these being to friendly fire in the confusion that reigned in the skies that night. Twenty Liberators had been damaged by the marauding Luftwaffe fighters, many crashing with fatal results.

The night of June 5th 1944, brought good news and a surprise for the men of the 446th. A crew briefing was called at 23.30 in which they were told they would lead the Eighth Air Force’s part in the invasion the next day. A massive operation, it would require pin-point accuracy and split-second timing to achieve its aim. Bombers were to take off in darkness and rendezvous at given heights with the 2nd Division forming up in an area between the Mersey and Humber estuaries. Take off was just before 02:00 with the 446th’s ‘Red Ass‘ piloted by Captain Charles Ryan, along with Sgt William Barlow, (G); Sgt Stuart Merwin, (R/O); Sgt Bruno Corridino, (G); Sgt Jesse Davis, (G); Sgt Joseph Parkin, (G); Sgt Howard Weaver, (Flt. Eng/G); 1st. Lt Robert McConnel, (C/P); 1st. Lt. Banks Jacobs, (B/A); and 1st. Lt. Michael Paczan, (N) taking the lead. Also on board that day was Col. Jacob Brogger the station Commander.

At 05:55 the formation was over Vierville  dropping one hundred 500lb bombs. A days long event that saw continued and repeated attacks behind the invasion line. With no Luftwaffe intervention, the event was more of a side-show for the gunners of the heavy bombers, and very few casualties were incurred by the crews. This did not mean however, that casualties were absent throughout the invasion period. On June 7th, #42-51116 crashed on takeoff on a mission to Alencon in France. In the accident eight members of the ten crew were killed.

It was also the 446th that would suffer from the little impact that the Luftwaffe had. On the next day 8th and then again on 12th near Jersey and Rennes respectively, they were attacked by a small group of Bf109s, on each day one 446th aircraft was lost.

On the 8th, the first of these two days, #42-109830 went down in the English Channel with the loss of five crewmen. The remaining five were rescued by French fishermen only to be picked up later the German forces.*2 On the second day, B-24 #42-94859 also went down with another five aircrew killed. Of those who survived, one was caught and taken prisoner, whilst the remaining four managed to evade capture.*3

As the allies pushed on thorough France, Holland and into Germany, the 446th supported them. They targeted bridges, gun batteries and enemy troop positions during the St. Lo breakout in July. They dropped supplies to the paratroops around Nijmegen in September and attacked marshalling yards, bridges and road junctions in the Ardennes, preventing German reinforcements from pushing through in December 1944 – January 1945. This support continued right up to the wars end, dropping supplies to advancing troops over the Rhine and on through Germany itself.

Through all these missions, the ‘Bungay Buckaroos‘ managed some remarkable achievements. Liberator #42-52612 of the 706th BS, “Home Breaker” flew 102 missions before returning to the US, and both the 706 BS and the 707 BS surpassed 60 consecutive mission each (62 and 68 respectively) without loss.

RAF Bungay (Flixton)

Admin and bomb site Site – now a decaying.

The end of the war however brought a final twist for the 446th. On April 11th, when on the return flight from Regensburg, two B-24s #42-50790 and #42-51909, both of the 706th BS, collided over the base killing all twenty-two airmen on-board. But as if that were not enough, there was another evil twist of the knife just two weeks later, on the 26th, when two days after their final mission, a transition flight crashed killing a further six crewmen. It was a tragic and sad end to the Group’s war.

In all, the 446th had carried out 273 missions in total, dropping just short of 17,000 tonnes of bombs for the loss of 68 aircraft in combat and 28 through accidents and other incidents. Yet with all these remarkable achievements, the Group were never awarded any recognition in the form of a Citation or Group award.

With the war at an end, the 446th would depart Bungay for home. The aircraft departing mid June via the southern routes and the ground parties departing on the Queen Mary from Greenock in early July.

Bungay airfield, then surplus to US requirements, was transferred over to the Fleet Air Arm and renamed HMS Europa II on September 25th 1945. Bungay formed one of a small cluster of former USAAF airfields handed over to the Fleet Air Arm in preparation for the war in the Pacific. Acting as a satellite for HMS Sparrowhawk (formally RAF Halesworth another US airbase), it fell under the command of  Lt. Csr. R.J. Hanson D.S.O., D.S.C. but due to the end of the war against Japan, it only operated until May 1946 when it was handed back to the RAF and placed under the control of 53 Maintenance Unit. A further change in management saw it pass to 94 Maintenance Unit in November 1947 who stored surplus munitions along its runways and inside its buildings. A range of ordinance, from 250lb bombs to 4,00lb bombs, cables, flares, mines and German munitions were all stored here before disposal.

In the early 1950s the site was gradually run down, no longer needed by the RAF and finally closed in 1955. It was eventually sold off in 1961 and was returned to agriculture. As it closed, the last main gate board to adorn the site was rescued and now rests in the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum a short distance away.

Bungay gate sign

The last main gate sign from Bungay.

After that some private flying did take place at the airfield, the Martlesham Heath Parachute Club using it with a variety of aircraft types, but this was short-lived. Gradually the site was taken over by agricultural uses, the runways and perimeters tracks being all but removed, the buildings allowed to deteriorate with many being removed over time. Time had gone full circle, and Bungay airfield is no more. In memory of those who were stationed here a memorial stone in the shape of a B24 tail fin marks the site of the former airfield. Just one of several memorials in the local area.

Tucked away down a country lane, Bungay is best found from the B1062. Stopping on the small country lane, Abbey Road, you can see along what is left of these parts. Now predominately agriculture, fields stretch where the Liberators once stood, trees adorn the admin areas and hard standings support tractors and other modern farm machinery. Much of what remains is rooted on private land, and many of these buildings contain murals created by those who were stationed here in the latter part of the war. Dilapidated huts, they are gradually falling into ruin, overgrown with bushes and trees.

A well presented memorial and garden marks the site, and the Airfield entrance is now a farm along with its associated dwellings. A small plaque signifies a crash site at Barsham some 3 miles east and a superb museum at nearby Bungay  houses a range of artefacts associated with the 446th and other Eights Air Force groups. The nearby church holds a roll of honour and its own memorial to the group. A former rest room for the crews is now the local Community Centre and it too holds a plaque in memory of the 446th.

RAF Bungay (Flixton)

A peaceful memorial garden to the 446th marks the site of Station 125.

Sources and further reading.

*1 MACR 1735
*2 MACR 5482
*3 MACR 5802

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

A website dedicated to the 446th has further details of the crews and aircraft.

The 446th BG (H), “The Bungay Buckaroos” Part 1

In Trail 14 we visit an airfield that was built in the mid part of the war and one that took some time to establish itself as a front line bomber station. However, it is one that would have its own share of problems, heroic acts, records and sacrifice.  In the second part of this trip, we visit the former airfield RAF Bungay.

RAF Bungay (Flixton) (USAAF Station 125)

Bungay airfield lies in Suffolk, above an area known as the Waveney Valley, about two miles from the village from which it takes its name and fifteen miles from Norfolk’s county town of Norwich. It served under a variety of names: HMS Europa II,  RAF Flixton,  RNAS Bungay and USAAF Station 125. However, throughout its short life, it remained primarily under the control of the United States Army Air Force as a heavy bomber station designated Station 125.

Construction began in 1942, by Kirk & Kirk Ltd, but the work would not be completed for at least another two years until the spring of 1944. Even though the site was unfinished, the first units to be stationed here, would be so in the autumn of that same year, 1942.  Initially designated as a satellite for the heavy bombers of RAF Hardwick, it would be some time before Bungay would establish itself as a fully operational front line airfield.

With the invasion of North Africa dominating the European theatre, a build up of military might would see many of Britain’s airfields taken over and utilised for both men and machinery. A part of this build up was the arrival of the twin-engined units the: 47th, 310th, 319th and 320th BGs operating the North American B-25 Mitchell. The 310th BG initially arrived at RAF Hardwick, over September and into October, where they would continue their flying training before departing for North Africa. The 310th consisted of the usual four Bomb Squadrons: 379th, 380th, 381st and 428th BS, and it was whilst training at Hardwick that one of these squadrons, the 428th, would move across to Bungay. Their arrival here was no more than as a dispersed site, allowing for free movement of aircraft in the busy skies over this part of East Anglia. At the end of their short stay, they would rejoin the main Group and depart for the warmer climates of North Africa.

The next group to arrive was something considerably bigger but also posted from nearby RAF Hardwick, the 329th BS of the 93rd BG with their B24 Liberators. Known affectionately as ‘Ted’s Travelling Circus‘ (after the CO, Colonel Ted Timberlake), the 93rd BG earned their unique name as a result of their constant moving around, continuously being spread across, what must have seemed, the entire European and Mediterranean theatres of war. Often split between the two, rarely were the Group ever together for any length of time.

During this period UK-based units of the 93rd at Hardwick began transferring to the 2nd Bombardment Wing, where they began training for ‘special duties’. Gaps in the 329th BS were filled with crews from the other 3 squadrons of the Group (328th, 330th, 409th) and were moved here to Bungay. Once here, the aircraft were fitted with the British ‘Gee‘ system and crews trained in its use. A remarkably accurate system of radio navigation, it was devised initially by Robert Dippy as a short-range aid for blind landings, but its success encouraged its development for a much greater use by the  Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Swanage.

RAF Bungay (Flixton)

The remains of Bungay’s NE-SW runway looking north-east.

Bungay was Initially planned to equip the 44th BG, but the 329th were chosen over them and within a very short time the crews were ready, and ‘Moling’ mission could now begin. Designed as a ‘blind bombing’ utility, and because of fears of the system falling into enemy hands, heavy cloud cover was needed for operations to go ahead. Such conditions occurred early in 1943, on January 2nd, when four B-24s of the 329th set off from Bungay for the Ruhr. Unfortunately, as they neared the target, the cloud cover broke and the flight was exposed. This exposure prevented Gee from being used as it was intended, and the aircraft returned both without bombing and without using their Gee successfully. The weather again proved to be the Achilles heel in the planning on both the 11th and 13th January, when similar conditions were experienced and again all aircraft returned without bombing. These erratic weather conditions carried on well into March, the last attempt being made on the 28th, after which it was decided to abandon the idea, and ‘Moling’ operations were cancelled.

It was not a complete disaster for the 329th though, the experience of flying over occupied territory and using blind bombing equipment, meant they were able to transfer to a new Pathfinder role, now skilled in equipment not known about in other units of the USAAF.

At the end of these trials, and in the absence of her sister squadrons, the 329th joined up with the 44th BG in a move that led to their imminent departure from Bungay.

Following their departure, the work on Bungay’s construction continued. Built to Class A specifications, it would have three concrete, tarmac and wood chip runways intersecting to form the ‘A’ frame. Thirty-six frying pan and fourteen spectacle hardstands provided dispersed aircraft accommodation and two T2 hangars provided covered space for maintenance and repairs. The main technical area lay to the west of the airfield, the bomb store to the east and the main administration site (site 2) across the road to the west. As a dispersed site, many of its accommodation areas would be hidden amongst the trees beyond here. Linked by a maze of footpaths and small roadways, there were two communal sites (sites 3 and 4), seven officer and other ranks sites, a WAAF site, a sewage works and a sick quarters. In all it could accommodate around 3,000 men and women of mixed rank. Updating of the watch office included the addition of a Uni Seco control room (5966/43) by anchoring it to the roof of the already built observation room. By late autumn 1943, it was completed and the site was handed over to the 446th BG (H), Bungay’s most prominent resident, who would become known as  “The Bungay Buckaroos”.

Their arrival here commenced on 4th November 1943, with four squadrons of B-24s – the 704th, 705th, 706th and 707th – all of which formed the larger 20th Combat Wing of the Second Bombardment Division, Eighth Air Force. The remainder of this wing included those of Hardwick’s 93rd BG and Seething’s 448th BG.

The 446th’s journey took the ground echelons from Arizona, to Colorado and onto Bungay via the Queen Mary,  and the air echelons the southern air route via Brazil and Marrakesh. Under the command of Colonel Jacob J. Brogger, they would begin operations on the 16th December 1943. Throughout their term here the 446th would attack prestige targets including: U-boat installations, Bremen’s port, the chemical plants at Ludwigshafen, Berlin’s ball-bearing plants, the aero-engine works in Munich and the marshalling yards at Coblenz. In addition to these, the 446th would support the Normandy invasion, the break out at St.Lo, and drop supplies to the ground forces at both Nijmegen and in the snowy conditions of the Ardennes.

This remarkable list of strategic targets would begin with Bremen. The mission would see twenty-three heavy bomber groups along with a Pathfinder group drop over four thousand 500lb general purpose bombs and over ten thousand 100lb incendiary bombs. During the raid four B-17s would collide in mid-air and as for the 446th, they would not escape without loss. Two of their aircraft would crash, one of which, a Ford built B-24H-1-FO Liberator #42-7539, “Ye Old Thunder Mug“, would run out of fuel and crash near to its home airfield at Bungay.

The 446th would unusually send just one aircraft to Bremen four days later. This aircraft, a 704th BS Liberator, #42-7494 “Bumps Away” was hit by flak over Texel, one of the Dutch Wadden Islands. The strike sheered the tail turret sending the aircraft momentarily out of control. After the pilot (Second Lieutenant Thomas B. Long) stabilised the aircraft, it went on to complete its mission only to collide with another B-24 of the 392nd BG on its return journey. The collision sent the Liberator crashing into the North Sea killing all those on board*1.

Then on the 22nd, the 446th were sent back to Germany, this time Osnabruk. On this mission, B-24 #42-7611, another 704th BS Liberator thought to be ‘Silver Dollar‘, was hit by falling bombs from above. The aircraft fell from the sky killing eight of the crew with another two surviving, both being taken prisoner by the Germans. On board this aircraft was right waist Gunner Sergeant Walter B. Scurlock who had survived the crash landing in “Ye Old Thunder Mug” earlier that month on the 16th. It had been a difficult start for both Sgt. Scurlock and the 446th.

A B-24 of the 446th BG lands at a cold and frosty Bungay 24/12/44 (IWM FRE 6571)

January 1944 then took the men of the 446th to Kiel, but the cold and icy winter would be as much of an enemy to the group as the occupying German forces were a short distance across the sea. With several missions being curtailed during the month, those that did take place were prone to their own problems. On the 7th, the Bomb Group was unable to rendezvous with the 392nd and returned without bombing; on the 11th, the mission to Brunswick was recalled, again due to the bad weather. Following a Noball mission to St. Pierre-des-Jonquies on the 14th, the group were grounded for a week after yet more bad weather closed in. The continuing poor conditions prevented further immediate attacks,  but the 28th would see the weather ease and the start of four days of consecutive flights to Frankfurt, Brunswick and two further Noball targets.

February, March and April were much more conducive to flying activities but the weather still played its part in cancelled or aborted operations. As the lead up to D-Day began, breaks in the weather allowed for strategic targets to be hit, airfields and marshalling yards, along with yet more Noball targets.

April 22nd 1944 saw the USAAF’s Mission 311, a mission that would become notorious in the history of the Eighth Air Force. On this day, the Eighth would lose more aircraft to enemy infiltrators than at any other time in its wartime history. The mission was to attack the  marshalling yards at Hamm, which was considered a highly important strategic communications target, especially in the lead up to the allied invasion of Normandy. Hamm was especially chosen as it was said to be capable of dealing with up to 10,000 railways wagons a day, making it the busiest marshalling yard in Germany, and a prime target for the heavy bombers of the Allied forces.

On that particular day, over 800 bombers, a mix of B-17s and B-24s, were ordered to attack in three waves, each with its own designated target. The bombers were to take off from their respective bases between 17:50 and 18:21, but even before the stream arrived over the target, Bungay would bear witness to what was about to happen that night.

In part two we shall see what happened on the night of April 22nd and how Bungay developed during the closing stages of the war and beyond.

RAF Waterbeach – Birth of the Conversion Units (Part 1).

In Trail 11, we visit three airfields all within a stones throw of each other, and all situated around Britain’s third smallest city Ely, in Cambridgeshire. They were all once major airfields belonging to the RAF’s Bomber Command. Post war, two of the three went on to be major Cold War stations, one housing the Thor Missile, whilst the second housed the fast jets of the RAF’s front line of defence. It is this one we visit in the final part of this Trail. It is also one whose days are numbered, already closed and earmarked for development, the bulldozers are knocking at the door whilst the final plans are agreed and development can begin. But this development may not be the total clearing of the site it often is. With plans to integrate parts of this historical site into the development, it is aimed to create a living and working space that reflects it significant historical value. Today, in the final part of Trail 11, we visit the former station RAF Waterbeach.

RAF Waterbeach.

The land on which Waterbeach airfield stands has a history of its own, with royal connections going back as far as the 12th Century. Eventually divided up into farms, one of which, Winfold Farm, stood at the centre, the area would be developed into a long-term military base.

RAF Waterbeach would have a long career, one that extended well into the Cold War and beyond. It would be home to no less than twenty-two operational front line squadrons from both Bomber Command and Fighter Command, along with a further five Conversion Units. With only six of these units (3 front line and 3 Conversion Units) operating during the Second World War, the majority would be post-war squadrons, three being reformed here and eleven being disbanded here. This range of squadrons would bring with them a wide range of aircraft from Dakotas and Wellingtons through the four engined heavies the Stirling, Lancaster and B-24 Liberator, and onto the single and two seat jets, the Meteor, Hunter and Javelin, who would all grace the skies over this once famous airfield.

Originally identified as a possible site in the late 1930s, the land was purchased by the Government with development beginning in 1939. The farm at its centre was demolished and the surrounding fields dug up and prepared for the forthcoming heavy bombers of Bomber Command. As with many airfield developments, there was local opposition to the idea, partly as it occupied valuable Fen farmland with a farm at its centre.

In the early years of the war, it was found that heavy aircraft, bombers in particular, were struggling to use the grassed surfaces originally constructed on pre-war airfields. The rather ridiculous test of taxing a laden Whitley bomber across the site to test the ground’s strength would soon be obsolete, and so after much internal wrangling, hard runways were eventually agreed upon which would be built into all bomber and some fighter stations from that point forward*1.

As an airfield built at the end of the expansion period and into the beginning of the war, Waterbeach would be one of those stations whose runways were hard from the start; a concrete base covered with tarmac to the soon to be standard 2,000 and 1,400 yards in length. By the end of 1945, there would be 35 heavy bomber hardstands of the ‘frying pan’ style and a further three of the spectacle style, all supporting a wide range of aircraft types well into the cold war.

Waterbeach would develop into a major airfield, capable of housing in excess of 3,000 personnel of mixed rank and gender, dispersed as was now common, over seven sites to the south-eastern corner of the airfield. The bomb store was located well away to the north of the airfield, but surprisingly close to the main public road that passed alongside the western boundary of the site.

Being a bomber base, there would be a wide range of ancillary and support buildings, including initially, two J type hangars, followed by three T2s and a B1. The site was considered by its new occupants as ‘luxurious’ and compared to many other similar airfields of that time, it certainly was. This opinion was not formed however, when it opened on January 1st 1941, as it was in a state that was nowhere near completion. The official records show that along with Group Captain S. Park (Station Commander) were the Sqn. Ldr. for Admin  (Sqn. Ldr. F Carpenter), Station Adjutant (Flt. Lt. H. Daves) and Sqn. Ldr. J. Kains (Senior Medical Officer) who were joined  by various other administrative officers, Senior NCOs and 157 corporals and Airmen. They found the majority of buildings incomplete, the runways and dispersals still being built and the site generally very muddy. The cook house was ‘adequate’ for the needs of the few who were there, but the sergeants mess could not be occupied for at least another five to six weeks.

RAF Waterbeach 'J' Hangar

A ‘J’ Hangar seen from the public road at Waterbeach.

As occurred with many airfields at this time, the first personnel to arrive took up the task of completing many aspects of the outstanding work themselves, laying concrete, installing fixings and preparing accommodation blocks for the forthcoming arrivals.

During these early years of the Second World War, the Luftwaffe targeted Britain’s Fighter airfields as a way of smashing the RAF before the German planned invasion could take place. Whilst this policy failed, attacks on RAF airfields were continued, becoming more ‘nuisance’ attacks or small raids, in which airfields beyond the reaches of Kent and London were also targeted. Waterbeach itself was subjected to these nuisance attacks on two occasions between the New Year December 1940 and February 1941. During these, some minor damage was done to the site (hangars, aprons and a runway) and there was one fatality.

These early days of 1941 would be a busy time for the personnel at Waterbeach, further attacks intermixed with flying activities kept them alert and on their feet. Being a large base, its runways would become safe havens for crippled or lost aircraft desperately trying to find a suitable site on which to put down. A number of aircraft used Waterbeach for such an activity, primarily Whitleys and Wellingtons, many being damaged and unable to reach their home bases further north in Yorkshire.

With changes in airfield command taking place a month after its opening, the first units to arrive were the Wellingtons of No. 99 Squadron RAF, in a move that was delayed by a further month in part due to the late completion of the construction work and also because of yet another nuisance attack by the Luftwaffe.

Whilst 99 Sqn were preparing to transfer to Waterbeach, operations would continue from their base at Newmarket Heath, bombing raids that took the Wellingtons to Breman, Gelsenkirchen, Dusseldorf, Duisburg and Cologne.

Once arriving here at Waterbeach, they found early missions, on both the 1st and 2nd of April 1941, being cancelled due to poor weather – training would therefore be the order of the day. The 3rd however, would be very different.  With revised orders coming through in the morning, thirteen aircraft would be required to attack the Battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau located in Brest harbour.

Whilst one of the aircraft allocated was forced to land at RAF St Eval in Cornwall due to icing, the remainder flew on completing the raid which was considered a “great success”. One crew, led by P/O. Dixon, carried out particularly daring diving attacks scoring direct hits on one of the two ships in question. Whilst no other hits were recorded by the Wellingtons, many bombs fell very close to the targets and it was thought some may have even struck one of the two ships.

With the squadron being stood down on the 5th April, there would be a return to flying on the 6th, with ten aircraft being allocated to a maximum effort mission returning to Brest and the two German ships. Taking off at 20:17, ten aircraft flew directly to the harbour and carried out their attacks, whilst a ‘freshman’ crew flew a diversionary mission elsewhere. Although all but one aircraft returned safely to base, one aircraft did have problems when its 4,000lb bomb fell off the mounts prematurely.

Flying the MK.I, MK.IC and MK.II Wellington, 99 Sqn would carry out further operations to Germany, and on one of these sorties on the night of April 9th/10th, eight aircraft were assigned to Berlin, two to Breman and a further two to Emden. One Wellington, R1440, piloted by P/O. Thomas Fairhurst (s/n 85673) crashed in the Ijsselmer near Vegesack, whilst the second, R3199 disappeared without trace after making a distress call. On the 30th, the Air Ministry informed Waterbeach that POW cards had been received from a German prison camp from four of the crew: S/L. D. Torrens, P/O. P. Goodwin, Sgt. A. Smith and Sgt. E. Berry. The remaining two crewmen were also taken prisoner but this was not confirmed until much later.

April was a difficult month for 99 Sqn, operations called for in the morning were often cancelled by the evening, those that went ahead were made more difficult by poor weather over the target area. Two positive events occurring during April did bring good news to the crews however. On the 15th, the King approved an award of the DFC to P/O. Michael Dixon (s/n: 86390) for his action in attacking the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau earlier on, and on the 22nd, the Inspector General of the RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt visited the station where he inspected various sections of the squadron, met the crews and discussed some of their recent operations with them. A nice end to what had been a difficult start at Waterbeach.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief Bomber Command, sitting in his office at Headquarters Bomber Command, High Wycombe. © IWM (C 1013)

Throughout the summer months 99 Sqn would continue operations into Germany along with further attacks on the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau docked at Brest. With further loses on May 5/6, May 8/9, June 11/12 , and June 21st with the loss of X9643 two miles from the airfield, losses would be relatively low. In a freak accident X9643 would be lost with all of her crew when the dingy became dislodged and fouled the elevators causing the aircraft to crash and burst in to flames.

Corporal C. P. Eva

Corporal C. P. Eva, killed 21st June 1941 when the dingy in his aircraft fouled the elevators.

The latter months of 1941 would see two conversion flights formed at Waterbeach. Designed to train crews on the new four engined bombers, the Stirling and latterly the Lancaster, 26 Conversion Flight was formed out of ‘C’ flight of 7 Sqn on 5th October with 106 Conversion Flight joining them in December. Both units flew the Stirling bomber and were amalgamated in January 1942 to form 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) (later 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU)). Flying a mix of Stirlings and later Lancasters, they also used a Beaufighter, Spitfire, Tiger Moth and Airspeed Oxford. 1651 CU were one of only three Conversion Units set up in early 1942, with 1651 being the only Stirling unit at this point; the other two units flying with the Halifax or Liberator aircraft.

By the end of 1941, 99 Sqn would suffer thirty-four aircraft lost (2 in non-operational accidents), with many of the crewmen being killed. Whilst these were tragic losses, they were nevertheless ‘in line’ with the majority of all 3 Group operational units of that year. In early 1942 the squadron was sent overseas to India, a move that coincided with the new arrivals at RAF Waterbeach of No. 215 Sqn.

215 Sqn were going through a process of reorganisation and transfer. On 21st February 1942, the air echelon formed at Waterbeach whilst the ground echelons were already on route to India from Stradishall. With more Wellington ICs, they would also depart for India a month later, where they would stay for the remainder of the war. Being only a brief stay, their departure left Waterbeach with only 1651 Conversion Unit and its associated units in situ.

Being a conversion unit, 1651’s aircraft were worn and often unserviceable, and in February 1942, they could only muster five flight worthy aircraft. As the need for more bomber crews grew, so too did the number of aircraft supplied to the Conversion Units, and as a result the number of crews undertaking training also grew. To help meet this demand, another new squadron was formed within 1651 CU in the April, that of 214 Squadron Conversion Flight. Another Flight was also formed at Alconbury and moved to join these two units, No. 15 Squadron Conversion Flight. The idea behind this unit was to provide aircrews with operational experience, an experience many would find hard to deal with.

In Part 2 we see how the Conversion Units were sent into battle, how they coped with the rigours of the aerial war over occupied Europe and then the change from Stirlings to the Lancaster.