389th BG Exhibition at Hethel.

Whilst visiting RAF Hethel (Trail 38), we drop into the exhibition of the of the 389th BG who were stationed here during World War II.

The exhibition is small but it has a lot to offer. Located in the former Chapel/Gymnasium, it has been carefully restored and filled with information and artefacts pertaining to the former airfield and U.S Air Force during the Second World War.  There are also articles from the 466th Bomb Group who were based at nearby RAF Attlebridge, the RAF and stories from local people who befriended the Americans whilst they were here.

The exhibition is located on a working poultry farm and so access is limited, open every second Sunday of each month between April and October, from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.

The buildings have been painstakingly restored by volunteers, some of whom have had connections with the airfield or Lotus cars, the current owner of the airfield itself. In 2001 the museum opened its doors to the public, after moving a collection of memorabilia from the Lotus site over to their new home here at the 389th exhibition.

It was during the restoration that two murals were discovered, these are perhaps one of the more stunning aspects of the exhibition. Painted in 1943 by Sgt. Bud Doyle, the then Chaplin’s driver, they are located on one of the walls of the Chapel. One is of Christ on a cross, whilst the other is a portrait of a pilot, both have been restored and remain on display where they were originally painted all those years ago..

389th BG Exhibition Hethel

The restored murals in the Chapel.

Located here, are a number of items many with stories attached. In the Chaplin’s quarters next door, are maps and other documents relating to the groups activities.

Two new Nissen huts have also been built, opened and dedicated in 2014 and 2017, they extend the exhibition further to include uniforms, service records, numerous photographs and more memorabilia.

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

The dedication plaque.

There is also a refreshments bar offering the usual tea and snacks, along with a toilet facilities.

From the museum there are public footpaths into what was one of the accommodation areas of RAF Hethel, here are some of the remains of buildings, shelters primarily, hidden amongst the undergrowth. The footpaths are mainly concrete once you get onto the site.

RAF Hethel, 389th BG Museum

Part of the exhibition inside the former Chapel at RAF Hethel.

A nice little museum it has free entry and welcomes donations to help with the upkeep and maintenance of the site, if in the area, it is well worth a visit and your support .

The 389th website has further details and opening times and information of forthcoming events.

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RAF Cottam – Built and Abandoned.

Up in the Yorkshire Wolds stands an airfield that could have been considered as one the Air Ministry’s ‘less sensible’ decisions. Open to the elements, this site was built but never fully used by an operational flying unit, in fact, Cottam could be considered one of the RAF’s more expensive bomb dumps, used primarily for munitions storage toward the war’s end. In its construction it would have accommodation, a hangar, and a watch office, along with three concrete runways – all the makings of an RAF bomber base, yet it was often desolate and empty. Even though it wasn’t used operationally, it did have its own problems however, and its own casualties . As we head across the River Humber into the East Riding of Yorkshire, we visit the former RAF airfield, RAF Cottam.

RAF Cottam.

Designed originally as a satellite for RAF Driffield, Cottam airfield lies high up in the hills on Cottam Well Dale, about 5 miles north of Driffield, just a stones throw from the village of Langtoft, and the tiny parish of Cottam. At 475 ft. above sea level, it is one of the higher peaks in the area which makes it popular with dog walkers and ramblers alike.

The airfield site encompasses the site of the ancient village of Cottam, (on maps of the late 1600s it appears as Cotham) of which only the church remains.  A lone building, it stands neglected and derelict, a reminder of a small community that has long since gone.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The abandoned medieval church marks the boundary of Cottam airfield and a community long gone.

The Air Ministry decided to build an airfield here to be used as a satellite and possible bomber base. The airfield would have a watch office with detached operations block (the separate block designed to drawing 13023/41). As construction was completed before June 1941, it would be classed as a Type ‘A’ building, and would need to be modified to bring it up to the newer Type ‘B’ standard as were being built on later airfield sites. Under the Type ‘B’ scheme, Cottam would have a Watch Office built to design 13726/41, then adapted by the fitting of smaller ‘slit’ windows more in line with bomber and O.T.U. satellite airfields of that time (15683/41). Sadly, the entire building was demolished in 1980, and no there are no signs of its existence left on site today.

A single T1 hangar provided space for aircraft repairs and maintenance, and accommodation, although sparse, would accommodate around 1000 men and 120 women of the Maintenance Command by December 1944.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The remains of the secondary runway looking west.

Cottam officially opened in September 1939, and as a grassed airfield, would only be used for dispersed aircraft from Driffield’s 4 Group Bomber Command, flying Whitleys of 77 and 102 Sqn. Cottam was also used later on for the Fairy Battles of 4 Group Target Towing Flight (4G T.T.F.) also based at Driffield at that time.

It wouldn’t be long though before Cottam would have its first accident. On July 1st 1940, a dispersed aircraft, Whitley V, (N1391) ‘DY-H’ of 102 Sqn, swung on take off causing minor damage to the aircraft. Luckily there weren’t thought to be any casualties in the incident, but the aircraft was rendered unable to fly, and the damage was sufficiently serious to need it to be taken away for repairs.

A month later, the 15th August 1940, signified a major point in the Battle of Britain, one which saw all of the Luftwaffe’s air fleets deployed for the first time, in a full and coordinated attack on the British mainland. This day saw the heaviest fighting of the Battle with attacks ranging from the south coast to east Yorkshire, and up to Edinburgh. This also meant the start of a number of attacks on British airfields and Driffield would not be left out. In this first attack, a Luftwaffe force of some 50 Junkers Ju 88s attacked the airfield damaging or destroying 12 aircraft on the ground – many of these were Whitleys. This attack was particularly devastating for a number of reasons, one of which was that it caused the first death on active service of a Bomber Command W.A.A.F., (A.C.W.2) Marguerite Hudson, who was killed after delivering stores to the site. This attack caused extensive damage to both the airfield site, infrastructure, and aircraft, and for a short period whilst repairs were undertaken, some aircraft were moved and dispersed here at Cottam. Indeed, on 27th September 1940, 4 Group T.T.F moved over to Cottam where they stayed for a month, not returning until the 24th October, once repairs had been completed and air attacks had all but ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The secondary runway looking east, this part is full width but built upon.

It is possible that these attacks may have led to the demise of one 77 Sqn Whitley V (N1355) ‘KN-X’ flown by Sgt. James Walter Ward RAFVR (741435), who undershot on landing at Cottam, hitting a fence, causing the undercarriage to later collapse. The five occupants of the aircraft were unhurt, but the aircraft itself was later struck off charge on 22nd September 1940, after assessment at Armstrong Whitworth in Baginton*1. Ward himself was killed with his crew only five days later, when his aircraft, Whitley V, (N1473) was shot down by flak over Noord Brabant, 2km from Vijfhuizen, on September 25th 1940. He died along with P/O C. Montague, himself a veteran of three previous serious crashes.

By the end of August 1940, both 77 and 102 Sqns had departed Driffield and so Cottam, which left it only being used by the Fairy Battles of 4 G T.T.F. During the winter months Cottam was abandoned by these aircraft, presumably due to its inclement weather conditions, but dispersed aircraft did return again in the spring and summer months. In October 1941, 4G T.T.F. reformed at Driffield as 1484 T.T.F., and it is at this point that it is thought their use of Cottam ceased.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

The perimeter track looking east. The main airfield is to your left.

Under the Ministry’s airfield expansion plan, new airfields of the early 40s were built with concrete surfaces. ‘Older’ grass sites, like Cottam, were upgraded having new runways laid down in an effort to reduce water logging and provide a more stable surface for the heavier bomber aircraft coming in. To meet these upgrades Cottam’s three runways – all consisting of concrete and wood chip – were built; the main being just short of 5,300 ft., with the two further runways around 4,000 ft. in length. Pan style aircraft dispersals were also added which gave Cottam a new look and hope for the future. However, and even though huge amounts of money had been spent on the airfield, it was decided it was not to be used further, as either a satellite or a bomber station. Cottam was offered to various other military groups who all turned down the location for various reasons. The army did take up residency for a short while until March 1944, whereupon it was then used to store vehicles for the impending invasion of Normandy.

RAF Cottam (Yorkshire)

Blocks from the former site, and the beautiful views across the Wolds from one of the highest peaks in the area.

It is believed that further forced landings took place at Cottam during this time. Firstly, a damaged B-24 ‘Liberator’ came down after sustaining damage on a raid; and secondly, it is also thought that a Halifax landed here after an S.O.E. mission. Sadly at present, I can find no further official details of these events, and cannot therefore expand on them further.

Toward the end of the year 91 Maintenance Unit (M.U.) were based here*2 using the runways and hardstandings to store ammunition and other stores that were delivered by road from the rail yard at Driffield. A spell of residency for 244 Maintenance Unit carried on the storage work before the airfield was finally abandoned and closed in June 1954.

Returned to agriculture, the airfield is mostly gone, a section of the easy-west runway does still exist, and in part, at full width. Footpaths allow for walks across the site allowing views along the runway in both directions, they also allow walkers to use the remains of the perimeter track and secondary runway – albeit as a track. The frame of an air-raid shelter and the standby set house (designed to drawing 13244/41) are in situ, although by far the runways are the most prominent feature surviving today.

Access is best made from the Cottam Lane junction. The path leads up through the site of the medieval village of Cottam where the church still stands. This takes you south onto the airfield site itself and along the two runways. The walk extends along the perimeter track to the south, where debris from the perimeter track can also be seen.

Built high on the Wolds of Yorkshire, it is hard to understand why such a site was chosen. In winter, it could be bleak, windy and very cold. Landing conditions must have been difficult at best, and treacherous at worst. Its history of accidents tell their own tale.

In 2016, Cottam Airfield was the subject of a wind farm review, and a battle between the locals and the energy firm R.W.E, began. As yet though the site remains free of turbines, a gem for walkers and those wishing to experience the natural beauty of the Yorkshire Wolds. The open air and fabulous views hide a strange history, one that goes back long before the Second World War, but one that has only scars to tell the tale in this oddly historical, but beautiful part of Yorkshire. *3

Source and further reading:

*1 This was reported on a number of sites (Air Safety Network) but no records could be found referring to the accident in the Operational Records Book recorded by 77 Squadron at that time.

*2 See the National Archives website for details.

*3 News report on the proposal.

The Hull and East Riding at War Website has a range of information on the area during the Second World War.

My thanks go to Ronnie and Jo for the great walk, and for being such fabulous hosts. 

The 392nd – The Highest Degree of Bombs on Target.

In the northern reaches of Norfolk lies an airfield that was the most northerly American base of the Second World War in East Anglia. Of all its crews that flew on the first mission, only four were still around to fly on the 200th a year or so later. This airfield was home to only one operational flying group, a group that was cited for its incredible bombing accuracy over occupied Europe. In this trip, we visit Station 118, otherwise known as RAF Wendling.

 RAF Wendling (Station 118)

On 15th January 1943, a new bomb Group was formed at Davis-Monthan Field in Arizona, it would be the 392nd BG and would consist of four squadrons: the 576th, 577th, 578th and 579th Bomb Squadrons. On completion of its training, the 392nd would leave the United States, and fly across the Atlantic to their new base in England. These four squadrons would be the first to operate the newly updated B-24 ‘H’ model ‘Liberators’; an improvement of the previous variants by the addition of a motorised front turret, improved waist gun positions and a new retractable belly turret. The supporting ground echelons had left the United States, sailing on the Queen Elizabeth from New York, much earlier, and before the group had received these newer models. As a result, they had neither received any training, or gained any experience with these new updated variants. The arrival of these new aircraft would therefore be met with some surprise, followed by a steep learning curve supported by additional training programmes.

The first B-24s of the 392nd arrived at Wendling, Norfolk, on 15th August 1943, and would soon be joined by the 44th at nearby Shipdham, the 389th at Hethel and the 93rd at Hardwick; four Groups that would be combined to form the Second Bombardment Wing (later 2nd Bombardment Division)*1. Battle hardened from fighting in the Mediterranean Theatre, these other three groups knew only too well the dangers of bombing missions, all having suffered some heavy losses themselves already.

Wendling’s Watch office before it was modified (see below) (IWM FRE 1670).

During September 1943,  the 392nd joined with these other three units flying missions under Operation ‘Starkey‘; probing German defences and gauging their responses to massed allied attacks on coastal regions. Largely uneventful they went on to undertake diversionary missions over the North Sea, the first three being escorted by fighters, and without incident. On the fourth however, the fighters were withheld and the bombers struck out alone.

On this particular flight, 4th October, 1943, the 392nd would gain their first real taste of war, and it would be an initiation they would rather forget. During the battle over thirty Luftwaffe fighters would shoot down four B-24s with the loss of forty-three crew members. A further eleven were injured in the remaining bombers that managed to continue flying and return home – it was not a good start for the 392nd.

Licking its wounds, they would then be combined with more experienced units, flying multiple missions as far as the Baltic regions before returning to diversionary raids again later that month. Viewed with some misgivings by crews, these ‘H’ model Liberators were soon found to be heavier, slower and less responsive at the higher altitudes these deeper missions were flown at.

The 392nd would take part in many of the Second World War’s fiercest operations; oil refineries at Gelsenkirchen, Osnabruck’s marshalling yards and factories at both Brunswick and Kassel were just some targets on the long list that entered the 392nd’s operations records book.

RAF Wendling (Beeston)

Wendling’s runway looking West.

The massive effort of ‘Big Week’ of February 20 – 25th saw the 392nd in action over Gotha, in an operation that won them a DUC for their part. Upon entering enemy airspace, the formation was relentlessly attacked by Fw-190s, Me 110s and Ju 88s using a mix of gun, rockets, air-to-air bombing and even trailing bombs to disrupt and destroy the groups. Ironically it was the very same twin-engined aircraft and component factory that was the intended target that day; a focus of the Second Bomb Division in an operation that saw the lead section, headed by aircraft of the 2nd Combat Wing, bomb in error due to the bombardier collapsing onto his bomb release as a result of oxygen starvation. Unrelenting the 392nd carried on. They realised and ignored the major error, and flew on to drop 98% of their bombs within 2,000 feet of the intended target. This highly accurate bombing came at a high cost though, Missing Air Crew Reports  (MACR) indicate seven aircraft were lost, with another thirteen sustaining battle damage.

The 392nd would carry on, with further battles taking their deadly toll on both crews and aircraft. In March that same year, the 392nd would turn their attention to Friedrichshafen – a target that would claim further lives and be the most costly yet.

Even before entering into enemy territory, losses would be incurred. Flying in close formation, two B-24s flew too close – one through the prop wash of another – which caused them to collide bringing both aircraft down.  One of those B-24s #42-109824 ‘Late Date II‘, lost half of its crew.

Despite good weather over the target the attack on Friedrichshafen in southern Germany, would have to be led by pathfinders. In an attempt to foil the attackers, the Germans released enormous quantities of smoke, enveloping the town and concealing it from the prying eyes high above. Of the forty-three bombers to fall that day, half were from the 14th Combat Wing of which fourteen came from the 392nd. Despite losses elsewhere, this would prove to be the worst mission for the 392nd, in all some 150 crew men were lost that day.

Bombing targets in Europe was never straight forward and bombs often fell well away from the intended site. On one rather unfortunate occasion at the end of March, the 392nd joined the 44th BG in mistakenly bombing Schaffhausen, a town in neutral Switzerland. The event that not only deeply upset the Swiss, but heavily fed the Nazi’s determined propaganda machine.

Eventually March, and its terrible statistics, was behind them. The 392nd would then spend the reminder of 1944 supporting ground troops, bombing coastal defences in the lead up to D-day (their 100th mission), airfields and V-weapons sites in ‘NOBALL‘ operations. Like many of their counterparts they would support the St. Lo breakout, and hit transport and supply routes during the cold weeks of the Battle of the Bulge.

It was during this time, on 12th August 1944 that heroic pilot, 2nd Lt. John D. Ellis, flying B-24H #42-95023, would manage to steer his stricken aircraft away from a residential area at Cheshunt, some 15 miles north of London,  crashing the aircraft near to what is now the A10 road. Sadly all on board were killed in the incident but undoubtedly the lives of many civilians were saved, and a memorial in their memory lies in the nearby library at Cheshunt and on the wall at Madingley, the American War Cemetery, Cambridge.

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The Memorial Plaque at the American War Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

This was not to be the only accident that the 392nd (nor any other B-24 unit) were to suffer. Crews were finding that these heavier machines were difficult to get out of if hit by flak or attacking fighters. Ferocious fires in the wing tanks and fuselage were leading to many losses, and in particular, the pilots who after fighting to keep aircraft stable long enough for crewmen to jump out, were then finding it viciously spinning the moment they let go of the controls.

On February 16th 1945 Liberator #42-95031 ‘Mary Louise‘ flown by 1st Lt. Albert J. Novik, was hit by falling bombs from another aircraft flying above him. After wrestling for some four and half hours to keep the aircraft flying, he ordered the crew out and then attempted to leave the aircraft himself. This event occurred only a month after a similar incident where he had managed to dive through the open bomb bay to safety. In this instance though, Novik was pinned to the roof as the bomber, half its tail plane missing, spun violently towards the Norfolk landscape beneath. Eventually, after a 7,000 ft fall, he was released from this centrifugal grip by a change in the aircraft’s direction. He managed to crawl down from his position and throw himself out through the bomb bay just seconds before the aircraft exploded, sending burning aircraft parts tumbling all around him. For his actions Novik was awarded the DFC, but many others were not quite so lucky, and perished in these huge lumbering giants of the sky.

On April 25th 1945, Mission 285, the 392nd BG prepared for what would be their last mission of the war. The Target, Hallein Austria. Not only would it end the 392nd’s aerial campaign, but that of the Eighth Air Force, bringing the air war in Europe to an end for the American units based in England.

By then, the 392nd had conducted some 285 missions with a high rate of loss, some 184 aircraft in total, with over 800 young men killed in action. They had dropped around 17,500 tons of bombs on some of the highest prestige targets in the German heartland. The group was cited by Major General James Hodges for its degree of accuracy for bombs on target – higher than any other unit of the 2nd Air Division over 100 consecutive missions. Operations had ranged from Norway to southern France and as far as the Baltic and advancing Russian armies at Swinemunde. Over 9,000 decorations were handed out to both air and ground crews for bravery and dedication.

Bomb dump buildings

One of several bomb dump buildings now a nature reserve.

After flying food supply missions to the starving Dutch, the 392nd departed Wendling and the site closed down, remaining dormant until it’s disposal in 1963/4.

RAF Wendling, otherwise known as Beeston from the nearby village, was classified as Station 118 by the Americans. Initially intended as an RAF Bomber base it was updated during the winter of 1942/43 opening in the summer of 1943. It would have 3 concrete runways of class ‘A’ specification, one of 2000 yards and two of 1,400 yards. The bomb dump which survives today as a nature reserve, was to the south-east, whilst the technical area is to the north-west. Two T2 hangars were located near to these sites and the watch office (drawing 5852/41) seems to have been modified in 1943 with the addition of what may have been a Uni-Seco control room (1200/43). Originally built with an adjoining Nissen hut (operations / briefing room) this is now encompassed within another more modern building, and is not visible from the outside.

Around the perimeter were a mix of ‘pan’ (28) and ‘spectacle’ (26) style hardstands, all of which have since been removed or built upon. The technical area, housing a range of: stores, workshops, huts and associated buildings, were to the north-west also. Interestingly, Wendling used Orlit huts, built by the Orlit Company of West Drayton, a mix of panel and concrete posts they were more economical than the British Concrete Foundation (BCF) huts initially ordered by the Ministry of Works.

Today, parts of two of the main runways still survive, housing turkey farms these buildings synonymous with Norfolk. The third was removed and the perimeter track has been reduced to a path. The bomb dump is part of a local nature reserve which has very limited parking, but access to the remaining buildings there is straight forward. Many of the buildings from the remaining twelve accommodation sites have been removed, however a number are still believed to be standing bound in heavy undergrowth, or used by local businesses. One currently retains a huge mural covering an entire wall, with evidence of others also within the same building.

DSC_0114

A stunning memorial now stands in memory of those who served.

Unfortunately when I visited Wendling, daylight ran out forcing me to make a retreat and head for home – a return visit is certainly planned for later. Like many other airfields in this part of the country, losses were high, and the toll on human life dramatic, both here, ‘back home’ and of course, beneath the many thousands of tons of high explosives that were dropped over occupied Europe. Now a high number of these sites house turkey farms, small industrial units or have simply been dug up, and forgotten. I hope, that we never forget and that they all get the honour and respect they deserve.

On a last note, there is a remarkable memorial in the Village of Beeston to the west of the airfield site. This is in itself worth a visit. Not only does it mention the 392nd, but all the auxiliary units stationed on the base, something we often forget when considering the Second World War. A nice and moving end to the trip.

DSC_0117

Memorial to the 392nd BG at Wendling.

Notes and further reading.

Wendling forms part of Trail 10.

*1 September 1943 saw a reorganisation of the US Eighth Air Force, and in September, the ‘Wings’ designation was changed to ‘Divisions’. Then in early 1944, a further reorganisation led to further strategic changes of the Air Force, one of which, saw the 44th and 392nd join with the 492nd to form the 14th Combat Wing, 2nd Bomb Division. Both  the 389th and the 93rd became part of the 2nd and 20th Combat Wings respectively.

A detailed website covering every mission, aircraft and most crew members offers a good deal of information and supporting photographs. It is well worth a visit for further more detailed information .

RAF North Pickenham – The Worst Record of the Eighth

There were many airfields in the eastern region of England during the Second World War, and countless crews were lost flying in combat operations. Undeterred and undaunted by these losses, many continued the brave fight to release Europe from the evil grip that was slowly strangling it. Loses were high, but at one particular airfield, the loses of one Group were the highest, and of those that came here, few were to return home alive.

In Trail 9 we visit RAF North Pickenham, an airfield with a short life, but one with a terrible tale of loss and sacrifice.

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143)

RAF North Pickenham was built in the later part of the Second World War (1943/44) and was officially handed over to the USAAF, 492nd Bomb Group (BG), on May 22nd 1944, by an RAF Officer during a ceremonial hand-over parade. This handover would see the culmination of USAAF takeovers of British Airfields – some sixty-six in all. America’s ‘friendly invasion’, would result in eighty-two major operational units moving to the UK, all of which would occupy some seventy-seven military sites in total.

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143) was built with three concrete runways, 50 ‘spectacle’ style hardstands and a substantial bomb store to the north-west. Accommodation for the crews, was divided into a: communal site (site 3), mess site (site 4), six officers’ quarters (sites 6 to 11) and a sick quarters (site 5). Three further sites, 12-14, consisted of a small sentry post, sewage disposal site and H.F.D.F station. All the accommodation areas were to the eastern side of the airfield well away from the extended bomb store to the west.

The 492nd were a new unit, only being activated in the previous October. On arrival in the UK in April, they were assigned to the 2nd Bomb Division, 14th Combat Wing and sent to RAF North Pickenham where they entered combat on May 11th 1944. The main body of the ground echelon was formed with personnel taken from units already in the U.K. whilst the air echelons were trained states-side and then ferried across the southern Atlantic route.

This first mission, which took the 492nd to marshalling yards in north-eastern France, saw 364 B-24s of the 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions combine with 536 fighters over occupied Europe. Whilst relatively uneventful for the 492nd, two B-24s did run out of fuel on their return journey; the first, B-24J #44-4087 “Sweet Chariot” crashing at Bury St. Edmunds, whilst the second, came to grief at West Wittering in Sussex. Thankfully, only one crewman was lost (3 were injured), but he was to be the first of the many casualties of the 492nd’s operational war.

RAF North Pickenham

Operations Block, North Pickenham

Throughout the month of May, the 492nd operated against industrial targets in Germany, and being a new unit, their loses would be high. On May 19th 1944, a week into operations, they suffered their first major casualties, eight aircraft in total, all shot down in operations over Brunswick. Loses were not only happening in air either, only two days later, on May 21st, two B-24s collided on the ground whilst taxing -‘What’s Next Doc‘ struck ‘Irishman’s Shanty‘ – causing the former to be written off. It was not a good omen for the 492nd.

In the following month, on June 20th, a massed 2nd Bomb Division formation attacked Politz, an attack that saw the 492nd lose a further fourteen aircraft, six of which managed to limp to Sweden before finally coming down.

Things then went from bad to worse for the 492nd, but undaunted and undeterred, they would continue their quest, attacking V-weapons sites, coastal batteries, and other defences along the Normandy coast. Apart from supporting the St. Lo breakout on July 25th, they continued to attack targets in the German homeland for the remainder of what would be their brief existence.

Consisting of the 856th, 857th, 858th and 859th Bomb Squadrons, they were not to fare well at all. In total, the 492nd would carry out sixty-six missions accumulating just over 1,600 sorties. During these operations, they would lose fifty-seven aircraft (including six non-operationally) which was the highest loss of any B-24 unit of the entire Eighth Air Force. Talk of ‘blame’ for these losses was rife; some blamed the aircraft’s all metal finish, saying it attracted fighter attention, others pinned loses on the Luftwaffe’s determination to bring down one single group, whilst another placed it solely at the inability of the crews to fly in neat well-structured formations. Whatever the reasons, it was certain that the 492nd were often ‘Tail-end Charlies‘ finding themselves in the weakest and most vulnerable positions of the formations – easy pickings for the now determined and desperate Luftwaffe pilots.

With loses continuing to climb and talk of a jinxed group spreading, an order came though on August 5th 1944 for the 492nd to withdraw from combat missions and take over ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations previously being performed by the 801st at RAF Harrington.  This order would not end the 492nd’s increasing casualties though. On the following day, another two B-24s would both collide on approach to the airfield. #44-4016 ‘Sugar-n-Spice‘ and #42-50719 ‘Sans Souci‘ struck each other causing them both to crash. The accident resulted in the loss of eleven crewmen with another nine injured.

RAF North Pickenham

One of many buildings now being reclaimed at North Pickenham.

Finally, on 7th August the order was put in place and after the last mission that day, the move began. This reshuffle of numbers and crews was in reality the disbandment of the 492nd, the crews and ground staff being spread far and wide and the 492nd name being transferred to an already well established unit – the 801st.

The loss of these personnel gave North Pickenham a short respite from the rigours of war. But it would only be short. Within a few days, conflict would return as yet another B-24 unit, the 491st Bomb Group, would move in.

Originally designated to reside at North Pickenham, they were instead directed to RAF Metfield, primarily due to the immense progress that the 492nd had made in their training programme. Whilst there must have been concerns around the jinxed airfield, in terms of operational records, the 491st were to be quite the reverse of the 492nd.

The 491st arrived at North Pickenham on the 15th August, and continued with their operations over occupied Europe. Like their previous counterparts, they focused on industrial targets in Germany, flying deep in to the heart of the Reich: Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne. Gelsenkirchen, Hannover and Magdeburg. It was on one of these missions, on November 26th 1944, that they were awarded a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) for successfully bombing their target in Misburg despite very heavy loses from a prolonged and determined German counter attack. Out of the original 27 aircraft that set out from North Pickenham that day, 15 were lost to enemy action.

As 1944 turned into 1945 the appalling European weather set in. The cold snows of the 1944/45 winter were one of the worst on record, as troops in the Ardennes and ground crews of the Allied Air Forces were to find out to their discomfort.

Many bombing missions were scrubbed, often at the last-minute, but desperate attempts were regularly made to not only get supplies through, but to bomb strategic positions held by the Germans. On January 5th 1945, heavy snows fell across England and in an attempt to attack German positions, two B-24s of the 491st took off from North Pickenham with disastrous results.

The two aircraft, B-24 #44-40165 ‘Rage in Heaven‘ the unit’s assembly ship, and B-24J #42-50793, both crashed just after take off, with considerable loss of life. As a result, the decision was then made for the 491st to abandon any further attempts to get aircraft airborne, and their part in this operation was cancelled. Even though some 1,000 aircraft of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Air Divisions would get aloft that day, January 5th would become a black day and notoriously famous for a number of such incidents across the English countryside.

The remains of B-24 #42-50793 lay in the heavy snows of North Pickenham following a crash on January 5th 1945.  One of two 491st aircraft that crashed that day in snow storms. (IWM FRE 8588)

Eventually by April 1945, “The Ringmasters” as they had become known, had amassed over 5000 sorties, dropping over 12,000 tons of bombs, for the loss of only 47 aircraft on operational missions over occupied Europe. In June and July, after cessation of conflict, they began their withdrawal and a gradual return to the United States. A few days of ‘R and R’ then led to their inactivation on September 8th 1945.

After the group left North Pickenham, no other flying squadrons were based here, neither American or RAF, but a brief residency of Thor missiles operated by 220 Sqn between 22nd July 1959 and 10th July 1963, saw the site brought back to life momentarily. Finally, a last reprieve in 1965 saw testing of the Kestrel VTOL aircraft which of course became famous as the Harrier, one of the many British Jet Aircraft to see combat operations in the post war eras.

After the Kestrel trials were over, the site was closed and sold off, returning to a mix of poultry farming, and light industry. Many of the hardstands were removed, buildings left to deteriorate and the perimeter track reduced to a fraction of its former self. As time has gone on wind turbines have sprouted up across the open landscape making good use of the winds that blow across the Norfolk countryside.

RAF North Pickenham

“Stanton” shelter located at South Pickenham

Despite this decline, there are still signs of this once busy station to see. If approaching from the south, you will pass through South Pickenham first. Follow the leafy road toward the village, but keep a sharp eye open for amongst the trees are a series of “Stanton” air raid shelters of which there are five in total. Many of these are only visible by the escape hatches serving the top of the shelter. These were part of the domestic site that once served the airfield.

Some of these shelters are easily accessible being a few feet from the roadside, but as always, caution is the key word when visiting, and remember the laws of trespass! Moving further on, take a left and you pass a small collection of buildings on the right hand side.

These are the operations block and the store for the American  Norden M7 bomb sight. In a very poor state of repair, they once played a major role in the American offensive over Nazi Germany, – there must be many stories held within their crumbling and decaying walls. Continue past the buildings and you arrive at a ‘T’ junction. Turning right will take you to the airfield, now an industrial site and turkey farm. Access from here is both limited and private. Instead turn left, follow the road along, and then join the B1077. Turn right and drive for a mile or two, the airfield is on your right. A suitable parking space allows views across the field where its enormity can be truly understood. Now containing many turkey sheds along its runways, the outline is distinct and relatively clear considering its age. Up until November 2014 one of the original hangars still remained*1 fire destroying the structure, and what was left then subsequently removed. A number of ordnance huts mark the former location of the bomb dump, these can still be seen in the foreground from this high vantage point. The Watch Office, built to design 12779/41was demolished many years ago but stood opposite you and to the right.

airfield cropped

Views across the Airfield, propellers of the wind turbines replace the propellers of B24s.

It is also possible to view the main runway. By driving around the site via Swaffham, or retracing your steps though the village, the best view is from the northern end of the airfield on the road from Swaffham to Bradenham, close to the village where the base gets its name. Substantial is size, these runways have fared remarkably well and the sheer size of them easily discernible from the views at this end.

North Pickenham may truly fit the description of ‘ghost’ airfield, its chequered history includes not only one of the worst fatality records of the whole eighth Air Force, but it also attracted a lot of Luftwaffe attention. In excess of 200 German bombs were dropped on it during its short and rather dramatic wartime life. Handed over to the Americans in May 1944, it was the 66th and final one to be so, thus ending a remarkable chapter in world history.

RAF North Pickenham

North Pickenham’s  last remaining Hangar* before it burned down in late 2014.

A memorial to the servicemen who flew from North Pickenham, lays silently in the village on the edge of a new housing development. Wreaths from nearby RAF Lakenheath enforce the link between the current American Air Force and Norfolk’s legendary flying history.

On leaving the remnants and stories of North Pickenham, we continue south-east, toward the former RAF Watton, another now extinguished British airfield.

DSC_0056

Memorial dedicated to those who flew from, and never returned to, North Pickenham.

North Pickenham was originally visited in early 2014, this post has since been updated.

*1 This hangar was burnt down in November 2014. My thanks to the anonymous reader for the updates and corrections.

RAF Debach – Home of Helton’s Hellcats.

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

RAF Debach (Station 152).

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

The perimeter track forms access for farm vehicles.

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

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

Cpl Kenneth E Blair

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

Links and further reading.

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

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

*1 Photo from findagrave.com

Trail 34 a visit to former RAF Oulton

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

RAF Oulton.

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

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

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

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

RAF Oulton

One of the huts used for agricultural purposes today.

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Oulton

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

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

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

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

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

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

DSC_0178

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Oulton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF Oulton

The eastern end of the main runway.

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

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

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

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

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

St. Andrew's Church

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

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

Notes and Further Reading.

*1 The ground crew were:

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

Source Aircrew remembered website.

*2 National Archives, RAF Bomber command diary 1940.

* The crew were:

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

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

RAF Oulton Museum, Blickling Hall.

If visiting the airfields of North Norfolk, then a stop at the grand 17th Century Blickling Hall is a must. Here, not only do we have a house that dates back some 400 years, but an estate that goes back even further to the 15th Century, and once belonged to the Boleyn family. A mix of Jacobean architecture, grand paintings and tapestries complement a library that contains one of the most historically significant collections of manuscripts and books in England. Walks that take you through a 4,800 acre estate of gardens, wild meadows and woodland, are brimming with wildlife. Even on busy days, you cannot fail to enjoy the peace and tranquillity, the inviting waters of the lake and views over the Norfolk countryside.

But equally important, you have a house that once belonged to Philip Kerr, 11th Marquis of Lothian, Britain’s Ambassador to the United States. Lord Lothian, played a major part in Britain’s war, convincing Churchill to write to Roosevelt, explaining the consequences of a Nazi victory in Europe and the poor defensive position Britain lay in at that time.  A letter that began a chain of events including Lord Lothian’s speech to the American people, that eventually led to the ‘Lend-Lease’ programme being initiated and arms allowed to flow into Britain.

Blickling Hall

Blickling Hall, the Museum can be found in the buildings to the right hand side.

A few miles from Blickling, is the airfield RAF Oulton, part of 100 Group commanded by Air Commodore Addison, whom the farm at RAF Foulsham is named after. Oulton utilised much of the house and grounds of Blickling, billeting officers in its ‘wings’ and other ranks in Nissen huts within its grounds. The lake was regularly used for dingy training, the upper floors allowed for bathing in baths – a real luxury for aircrews in the Second World War.

Housed within one of the ‘wings’, is a small museum, the RAF Oulton Museum.

The museum itself is situated in the upper floors on the eastern side, utilising one of the former barrack blocks used by the RAF. The original paintwork still colours the walls and a ‘mock’ billet has been recreated using original furniture sourced from local shops, auctions and through donations.

The museum holds a unique collection of photographs, personal letters and stories gathered over a number of years accumulating into a fascinating record of life at RAF Oulton only a few miles away.  The winter of 1944-45 was one of the worst on record and many of the photographs show crew members relaxing in the snow on and around the base.

Letters tell of the local people, their connections with the base, the pub outside the main gate formerly the ‘Bird in Hand’, (now a private residence) and the Buckinghamshire Arms next to Blickling Hall, (still a pub) where crews would spend their evenings and ‘free’ time.

Log books and uniforms from those stationed at Oulton, along with a mix of original artefacts and replica newspapers, all help to recreate the atmosphere of an RAF billet. It is packed with historical and personal information – a real gem for those interested in history and life on the RAF base.

A great little museum, it is certainly worth a visit.

More information about Blickling Hall and the RAF Museum can be found on the National Trust Website.

RAF Fersfield – The Last Flight of Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford Willy

There has been much written about the young Kennedy, his life, his family and his death, but a lot of information around his death has remained ‘unknown’ for many years. Even today, the actual cause of his death is not clear and will probably remain so.

Joseph Kennedy Jnr was based at RAF Fersfield (originally RAF Winfarthing) in Norfolk (Trail 27), and had only been there a few weeks before he tragically died on August 12th 1944, whilst operating on secret operations. A tragic loss, this is the last flight of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy from RAF Fersfield, Norfolk, England.

The Crew – Lieutenant Joseph Kennedy Jnr.

Joseph Kennedy was born July 25th 1915, Nantasket, Massachusetts, he was the eldest brother of eight siblings including John F. Kennedy. He was son to Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. Throughout his life he had been pressured into the political life by his father who had high hopes that his son would become the future President. Joseph Jnr wanted to please. As war loomed, Joe Kennedy Jnr rose to the challenge seizing his opportunity to become the ‘shining light’ of the Kennedy family.

The Kennedy parents instilled a desire to be competitive, to win and succeed and to be the best. This came out in Joseph during his time at both home and at school. The pressure on Joseph was enormous, and it was clearly evident throughout his short life.

Joseph lived in the shadow of his younger brother John, who would captain a PT boat in the Far East, and in Joseph’s absence, go on to become President of the most powerful nation on Earth. John was the brighter, the more determined of the two, and this caused friction between them. Joe always wanting to ‘out-do’ his brother persevered, but never seemed to quite make it.

It was this determination and rivalry that perhaps led Joseph to do what he did, to impress, to be the best and the ideal way he thought was as a war hero.

With a remarkable academic background behind him, Joseph Kennedy joined the U.S. Naval Reserves on October 15th 1941, reporting to the Naval Air Station (N.A.S.) at Jacksonville, Florida the following day. After several months of training he received his commission and on January 10th 1943 he joined a flying patrol squadron. In May he became a Junior Grade Lieutenant transferring to a bomber squadron in the following July that year. In 1944, on July 1st, he was promoted to Lieutenant United States Naval Reserve. His military life would last just one more month.

Joseph was posted to RAF Dunkeswell serving under the RAF’s Coastal Command. Flying a PB4Y he would carry out U-Boat searches over the Atlantic around the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic. As he accumulated flying hours, he rarely came into any real danger, even when posted to cover the Allied invasion fleet over Normandy he rarely came into contact with any opposing aircraft or vessels.

Joseph Kennedy’s opportunity came when volunteers were asked for to undertake a special secret and dangerous operation. He jumped at the chance to be a hero.

Joseph Kennedy arrived at RAF Fersfield, Norfolk on 30th July 1944 where he was trained for two weeks.  On August 10th 1944 he wrote a letter home, it would be his last communication with his family. Joseph Kennedy was to become a pilot in operation Anvil.

Lieutenant Wilford John Willy

Sadly, Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy (s/n: O-137078), has remained in the shadows probably because the status of Joseph Kennedy Jnr. A tragic loss nonetheless and no less an important one. Willy was born 13th May 1909, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Navy in 1928, gaining his Naval Wings on April 30th 1937, just two years after he had married his sweetheart, Edna C. Schaffery, the women he left behind. On advancing through the rank of Chief Petty Officer,  he was awarded Lower Grade Lieutenant (April 28th 1942) and two months later, on June 26th, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. Willy served at a number of operational stations, including Pearl Harbour, before being posted to RAF Fersfield, in Norfolk.

Willy, now an expert in Radio Operations and procedures, became the Executive Officer of the Special Air Unit One (S.A.U.1), the rank he achieved when he took off with Kennedy on August 12th 1944.

Operations Anvil and Aphrodite.

Whilst Drone technology and research had been around as early as World War I, it was still relatively unchartered territory. However, radio controlled drones (modern name Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or U.A.V.s) were already being used with relative success for target practice by the RAF and USAAF during World War II. The ‘Queen Bee’ being one of many used by the RAF. The Germans had also been investigating drone and guided bomb use through examples such as the Mistel aircraft (the most successful being a combination of either a FW-190 or Me-109 mounted above a Ju 88).

Both the  USAAF and USN were undertaking secret trials into drone aircraft operations with the view of attacking
the  heavily defended and ‘impenetrable’ submarine and ‘V’ weapons sites across northern France . The aim, to stop, or at least reduce, the Nazi’s use of the V1, V2 rockets and the development of the new V3 canon.

Codenamed ‘Aphrodite‘ by the USAAF,  and ‘Anvil‘  by the Navy, they were two secret operations running side by side. The idea behind these operations, was to remove all excess equipment from war-weary B-17s and B-24s, fill them with explosives, such as the British Torpex, put in radio receivers so that the drone (baby) could be controlled by a separate aircraft (mother) and fly them into designated targets. A volunteer crew of two would take off, set the aircraft in flight and then bail out over the U.K. or English Channel, leaving the ‘baby’ in the control of the ‘mother’ aircraft. These would then fly, by remote control, to the target when they would be put into a dive destroying whatever they hit.

The controls of the B-17 . The arm linkage moved the control column in response to the radio controls. (credit USAF)

The idea was remarkable but not new, and the equipment whilst innovative for its day, was limited to say the least. In all the operations undertaken only one drone ever reached its target, and that was through more luck than skill.

‘Azon’ (from AZimuth ONly*1) controls had been used successfully on individual 500lb or 1000lb bombs, where the control box was attached to the rear of the bomb and controlled by the bomb aimer through a joy stick. Using two directional controls (left or right) he could direct a bomb very accurately onto a given point. The downside of Azon, was that range and fall had to be determined in the usual way by the bomb aimer and could not be altered once the bomb had left the aircraft.

Azon had been used and proven in attacking bridges, railways and other longitudinal targets and was very accurate with a good bomb aimer. However, because of its limitations, it could only be used in one dimension and therefore was not capable a making a ‘baby’ take off.

Two aircraft types were identified for the project. Boeing’s B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ and Consolidated’s B-24 ‘Liberator’. These once converted would be given new identifications BQ-7 (usually B-17Fs) and BQ-8 (B-24D/J). In each case it was deemed that two crew members would be needed to raise the ‘baby’ off the ground, partly because of the strength needed to pull back the control columns in these heavy bombers. Once airborne, they would climb to around 20,000ft, arm the Torpex, set the aircraft on a trajectory to the target, switch on the receivers and bail out.

About twenty-five  BQ-7s were modified, but it is not known accurately how many USAAF BQ-8s were converted. However, it is known that at least two naval PB4Y-1s (the naval version of the B-24 of which 400 had been converted from B-24 status – these were given s/n 31936 – 32335) were converted to BQ-8 standard; one of which was flown by Lt. Kennedy and  Lt. Willy on the 12th August 1944.

A number of support aircraft were needed for each mission. Prior to the attack a Mosquito XVI of the 653rd BS would photograph the target. Then the ‘baby’ would be accompanied by at least one fighter (either P-38 or P-51) incase the ‘baby’ lost control and had to be shot down and for fighter escort; a ‘mother’ either a Lockheed Ventura or another B-17 modified to CQ-4 standard, and a photographic  Mosquito from the 8th Combat Camera Unit (CCU) to record inflight behaviour. A post mission photo reconnoissance operation was carried out by the 25th BG at Watton to analyse the effectiveness of the bombing. It therefore took a lot of fuel, crew and aircraft to fly one drone to its target.

Because of the design features of the bombers, the USAAF looked into removing the cockpit to allow easy departure. The only aircraft that received this treatment was B-17F, “Olin’s 69’ERS” 42-30595 formally of 560BS, 388BG at Knettishall. It was never used on an Aphrodite mission  and was scrapped post war after being used for training in the open cockpit mode.  The BQ-8  (B-24) also had modifications made in the form of a widened hatch in the nose allowing for an easier escape from the aircraft. Once modified, the aircraft would have had all previous markings removed, and a special white or yellow paintwork applied to identify them from other bombers. To assist the controllers in sighting the ‘babies’ whilst in flight, the aircraft were fitted with a smoke canister that would be ignited allowing the bomb aimer to see the aircraft as it began its dive. In addition to this, two cameras were fitted to some ‘babies’ that transmitted pictures to the mother or support ship. These pointed at the controls and through the plexiglass. A revolutionary step forward in drone technology.

A modified B-17 (BQ-7) with its canopy removed, this aircraft became a training drone. Credit USAF

In all, there were fifteen missions undertaken by the USAAF and USN, but none were to successfully hit their targets.  These included: Mimoyecques (Fortress); Siracourt (V1 Bunker); Watten (V2 Bunker); Heligoland (U-boat pens); Heide; Le Havre (docks); Hemmingstedt (oil refinery); Herford (marshalling yard) and Oldenburg (Power station). Both the operations and entire programme were cancelled only a few months after the Kennedy/Willy mission.

The last flight.

At RAF Fersfield, on August 12th 1944, Lieutenants Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford J. Willy, both of the S.A.U. 1 of the Fleet Air Arm Wing Seven, boarded their converted B-24 Liberator, s/n 32271 (ex USAAF B-24J 42-110007)*2 and began their preflight checks. The aircraft was filled with 21,270lbs of explosive. At 17:55 and 17:56 two Lockheed Ventura ‘mother’ aircraft took off, followed by a further navigation aircraft and then the ‘baby’ at 18:07. The ‘baby’ climbed to 2,000 ft, the two ‘mothers’ 200 feet higher and slightly behind. They were joined by two Mosquitos, one for monitoring the weather, and the second, A USAAF F-8, to photograph the ‘baby’. This aircraft was flown by pilot Lieutenant Robert A. Tunnel and combat camera man Lieutenant David J. McCarthy. There was a further B-17 relay ship, a P-38 high altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft and five P-51 Mustangs to provide fighter cover.

The group set off toward the target at Mimoyecques , Northern France. They were to fly south-east toward the Suffolk coast, then turn south and head toward the target. Once level and stabilised, Kennedy and Willy handed over control to one of the ‘mother’ ships Then they reached the first control point (CP) at which time the group began to turn south; the ‘mother’ controlling the ‘baby’. Shortly after the turn was completed (about two minutes) Kennedy was heard to give the code “Spade Flush”, then at that 18:20 the ‘baby’ disintegrated in what was described as “two mid-air explosions” and a “large Fireball”.*4 The explosion, spread debris over a large area of the Suffolk countryside killing both crew members instantly. The following Mosquito also suffered damage and minor injuries to its crew. Following the explosion, all the aircraft were ordered back to base and the crews debriefed.

Many months (and indeed years) of investigations followed, but no firm conclusions could be drawn as to the precise cause of the explosion that ripped the aircraft apart. A number of speculative theories were drawn up, but the most plausible is that the electronic arming system was faulty and when Kennedy or Willy flicked the switch, an electronic short occurred that caused the bombs to detonate. Oddly the film that was in the following Mosquito has never been seen or made public – if indeed it was filming at that time.

The cause of deaths of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy still remain a mystery to this day.

Joseph Kennedy wanted to be a hero. He wanted to be talked about as the one who achieved and outshone his brother. Sadly, this dream cost him his life.

Page 1 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

Page 2 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

This fateful mission and its two crew members are remembered across the world. In France, the Mimoyecques museum contains a memorial honoring both pilots, and their names are carved in the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridge. Kennedy has a ship the Destroyer ‘USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ DD850 named after him and this is now a museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts. Both aviators were awarded the Naval Cross posthumously,

joe kennedy

Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jr, USNR, appears on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

Lieutenant Jospeh P. Kennedy Jnr had no dependents but Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy left a widow and three children.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Azimuth being the clockwise horizontal angle from a given point (usually North) to a second given point.

*2US Navy and US Marine Corps BuNos, Third Series (30147 to 39998)‘  Joe Baugher, accessed 20/8/15

*3 Photos taken from ‘A People at War‘  Archives.Gov, Accessed 20/8/15

*4Crisis Hunter: The Last Flight of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ Paul Elgood, Columbia Point, 2014 pg 45, 65,

For a list of USAAF drones and pilotless missiles, see here.

For the details on Drones see Wikipedia.

For more information and types, see Mistel aircraft, on Wikipedia.

RAF Fersfield – Where history was made – and lost.

After leaving the open expanses of Deopham Green and the roar of Snetterton, we head to a very remote and quiet airfield. Quiet and remote for a very special reason. From here crews would experience top-secret flights, we would see a link to one of America’s greatest and most powerful families and the RAF would strike another blow at the heart of the Gestapo. We head to RAF Fersfield.

RAF Fersfield (Station 140/554)

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/15/RAF_Fersfield_-_29_Aug_1946_Airfield.jpg

29 August 1946. Photograph taken by No. 541 Squadron, sortie number RAF/106G/UK/1707. English Heritage (RAF Photography).*1

Originally built as a satellite for RAF Knettishall, RAF Fersfield, was built-in late 1943. The third Class A airfield on this Trail, its main runway ran along a NE-SW direction, was 2000 yds in length and was constructed of concrete. There was a second and third runway of 1,400 yds running N-S and E-W again of concrete. Fersfield had two T-2 Hangars, one to the north side and one to the south, and 50 loop dispersals for aircraft storage. The bomb dump was located to the north, the technical area to the south and the accommodation blocks to the south and south-west. Fersfield would eventually be able to accommodate up to 2000 mixed personnel.

Initially, the airfield was called Winfarthing and designated station 140, it was then handed over  to the USAAF who would rename it Fersfield Station 554 (I am at present unable to locate a precise date for this transfer).

Fersfield was specifically chosen for its remote location as, unknown to those who came here, it was going to play a major role in the battle over Europe.

The first residents were a detachment of the 388th Bomb Group (BG) based at Knettishall which consisted of four bomb squadrons: the 560th 561st, 562nd and 563rd. A detachment specifically from the 562nd, were brought here to perform special operations and research into radio controlled bombs using war-weary B-17s and B-24s.

T2 Hangar now a store

An original T2 Hangar now stores grain rather than B17s.

Operating as Operation ‘Aphrodite’, the idea was to remove all operational equipment from the aircraft, fill it with around 20,000 lb of ‘Torpex’ and fly it by remote control into a specified target such as ‘V’ weapon sites, submarine pen (Operations Crossbow and Noball) or similar hight prestige targets that were otherwise difficult to destroy .

Both the USAAF and USN were carrying out these trials. The Navy, also using Fersfield, called their operations ‘Anvil’ and used the PB4Y (the Navy version of the B-24 ‘Liberator’) as their drone.

The first Aphrodite mission took place on August 4th 1944, and was to set the tone for all future operations. Mission 515, was flown using four B-17 ‘babies’ with four accompanying ‘mothers’ to target ‘V’  weapon sites at : Mimoyecques, Siracourt, Watten, and Wizernes. Escorting them were sixteen P-47s and sixteen P-51s. One of the babies, B-17 (42-39835) ‘Wantta Spa(r)‘ (TU-N), had completed 16 missions between November 18th 1943 and July 6th 1944 with the 351st at Polebrook and was declared to be “war-weary”. It took off and very soon  the crew, Lt J. Fisher and T/Sgt E. Most, realised there was a problem with the altimeter causing it to climb too quickly. Whilst T/Sgt Most bailed out, Lt. Fisher struggled on with the controls until it finally crashed in an almighty fireball in woodlands at Sudbourne, Suffolk creating a crater 100ft wide. The three remaining ‘babies’ carried on but all failed to hit their designated targets. One Mother lost control and the baby hit a Gun Battery at Gravelines, the second overshot and the third B-17F formally (41-24639) “The Careful Virgin”  ‘OR-W’ of the 91st BG (323rd BS), hit short due to controller error.

The Careful Virgin 41-24639

B-17F “The Careful Virgin” before modification and whilst in the hands of the 91st BG. (USAF Photo)

Similar results were to follow in another mission only two days later, and then in further operations throughout both the Aphrodite and Anvil projects.

The most famous tragedy of these missions was that of Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jnr, who was killed when his PB4Y unexpectedly blew up over Suffolk killing both him and his co-pilot on 12th August 1944.*2 In all there were 25 drone missions completed but none successfully hit their designated target with either control or accuracy. The missions were all considered failures and the operations were all cancelled soon after.

Operations Block

Former Operations Block south of the Technical site.

Another secret operation taking place from Fersfield, also involved radio controlled bombs. Designated Operation ‘Batty’ it involved GB-4 television controlled bombs being  slung underneath B-17s and guided onto targets using TV. The 563rd BS provided much of the support whilst the others in the 388th BG the crews. In the later part of 1944 a small number of these operations were flown again with little success and this too was abandoned before it could have any significant effect on the war.

All in all, the operations carried out here, were disastrous, killing as many crews and causing as much damage to the UK as it did the enemy. However, it did mean that the Allies had entered into the drone war and set the scene for future military operations.

The Americans left Fersfield late in 1944, and it was handed back to the RAF. A number of units used it for short periods primarily for aircrew training. However, Fersfield was to have one last remarkable mission and a further claim to fame.

Accomodation Site

Nissan Huts on the former accommodation site.

On March 21st 1945, Mosquito VI units of 21 Sqn (RAF), 464 Sqn (RAAF) and 487 Sqn (RNZAF) all part of 140 Wing, were pulled back from the continent for a special mission to attack the Gestapo Headquarters at Copenhagen. Primarily based at Hunsdon (Trail 25), the mission was Led by Gp. Capt R Bateson and Sqn Ldr E Sismore, who took off in Mosquito RS570 ‘X’ at 08:35 and led a group of Mosquitoes in three waves of 6 aircraft in Operation Carthage.

The Shellhaus building raid gained notoriety for two reasons. Firstly, a large part of the building was bombed and destroyed and important documents set alight thus achieving the overall objective of the mission. A low-level daring raid it was operationally a great success. However, Mosquitos following the initial wave attacked what they believed to be the building but what was in fact a school masked by fire and smoke. This caused a significant number of casualties including children.

Six aircraft failed to return from the mission, four Mosquitos (one of which crashed causing the smoke and fire that masked the school) and Two P-51s that were part of a 28 strong fighter escort.

This operation was one of many daring low-level raids that the wing carried out, attacking various buildings including  the Amiens prison.

The wing left Fersfield which signified the end of overseas operations and Fersfield would become a staging post for units prior to disbandment. Between November 1944 and September 1945 a number of units would be located here  which included 98, 107 (one week), 140 (four days), 180 (one week), 226, 605 and 613 Sqns. Operating a number of aircraft types including: Mosquitos (T.III), Bostons (IIa), Hurricanes (IV), Martinets (TT.III), Mitchells (III) and Anson Is, Fersfield had now had its day. In the following month, December 1945, the site was closed and the land sold off. Fersfield had closed its door for the last time and history had been written.

Post war, Fersfield had a brief spell of motor racing on its tracks and runways, but unlike Snetterton or Podington it wouldn’t last and in 1951 Fersfield became agricultural once more, with many of the buildings being demolished and the remainder left to rot or, some thankfully, used for storage.

Nissen Huts

A few buildings remain on the technical Site.

Today a few buildings still do remain clinging onto life. The T-2 on the south side stores grain, and a number of Nissen huts  that housed the technical aspects of the airfield, are now storage for farm machinery and other associated equipment. All these can be located at the end of a small road from the village and when visiting, I found the workers here only to willing to allow the visitor to wander freely among them. Footpaths cross the southern side of this site and to the north across the field dissecting the airfield. The path is very poorly marked and you are simply wandering across the crops. From here, you can find the last few remains of the accommodation site, further south a short distance away. Latrines and other communal buildings are shrouded in weeds, gradually disappearing beneath the undergrowth. Trees sprout from between the walls where so many walked, before or after a mission. Nissen huts survive further out, now dilapidated and hastily patched, their memories mixed amongst the personal belongings of new owners.

Latrine Block

One of the many Latrines on the communal site.

It is hard to believe that an airfield with such an iconic history as Fersfield never made it to the status of so many others. Surprisingly, it was here at this quiet and remote part of Norfolk that aviation history was made and American politics changed forever.

Mosquito Mk.VIs involved in the Operation Carthage,*3.

No 487 Squadron

RS570 ‘X’ Gp Capt R N Bateson / Sqn Ldr E B Sismore (Raid Leader)
PZ402 ‘A’ Wg Cdr F M Denton / Fg Off A J Coe (damaged, belly landed at base)
PZ462 ‘J’ Flt Lt R J Dempsey / Flt Sgt E J Paige (hit by flak, 1 engine u/s, returned safely)
PZ339 ‘T’ Sqn Ldr W P Kemp / Flt Lt R Peel
SZ985 ‘M’ Fg Off G L Peet / Fg Off L A Graham
NT123 ‘Z’ Flt Lt D V Pattison / Flt Sgt F Pygram (missing)

No 464 Squadron

PZ353 Flt Lt W K Shrimpton RAAF (Pilot) / Fg Off P R Lake RAAF
PZ463 Flt Lt C B Thompson / Sgt H D Carter
PZ309 Flt Lt A J Smith RAAF / Flt Sgt H L Green RAAF
SZ999 Fg Off H G Dawson RAAF / Fg Off P T Murray (missing)
RS609 Fg Off J H Palmer RAAF / 2nd Lt H H Becker RNorAF (missing)
SZ968 Wg Cdr Iredale RAAF / Fg Off Johnson
All aircraft took off at 0840; last back landed 1405.

No 21 Squadron

SZ977 Wg Cdr P A Kleboe / Fg Off K Hall (missing)
PZ306 Sqn Ldr A F Carlisle / Flt Lt N J Ingram
LR388 Sqn Ldr A C Henderson / Flt Lt W A Moore
HR162 Flt Lt M Hetherington / Fg Off J K Bell
No 21 Squadron records list only these four aircraft and crews above as taking part in this operation.
All aircraft took off at 0835; the three which returned did so at 1355.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photograph in Public Domain, taken from Wikipedia 20/8/15

*2 For a more detailed explanation of the Anvil operation that killed Joseph Kennedy Jnr see  ‘Heroic Tales‘.

*3 Information from The National Archives, 21/8/15

Death of a Ball Turret Gunner – Randall Jarrell.

ball

A Ball Turret, the home to many young men.1

There have been many poems written around the theme of death and dying in the line of duty. Some have become ‘classics’ known and used world-wide. Others have remained unknown but to those who wrote them.

Often written by young men, they reflect the horror of war , the conditions in which they served and lived , the sense of hopelessness and never-ending feeling of not knowing if today would be your last. Written in the latter stages of the Second World War and published in 1945, ‘The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner‘ is a short poem by Randall Jarrell. Jarrell, too old to serve as a Combat Pilot himself, served as an instructor and wrote many works around the theme of war. He reflects in this piece about the ‘matter-of-factness’ of war and death and how men (or boys) are slaughtered with little thought or remorse.

‘Death of a Ball Turret Gunner’ is about the death of a gunner in the underbelly of an American bomber.

“From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”

Jarrell, added his own explanation, describing how the ball turret resembled a mother’s womb and the “short small man”, the gunner within, a foetus.

As a ball gunner, you were exposed to exploding cannon shells. Spinning round and round contoured into all sorts of positions. Your only companion being the two .50 calibre machine guns that rattled their violent disgust. Many have analysed the work, it has been the inspiration for a play, published with illustrations and referred to in many literature works.

To me. It’s more simple. The work of a young man whose life was turned upside down, taken from the safety of his home, put into a killing machine and then discarded with little thought when life is extinguished.

The poem appears in many publications and websites, I found this copy on Wikipedia at:

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Death_of_the_Ball_Turret_Gunner

A biographical account of Jarrell can be found here.

1 Photo courtesy of Marcella.

Other poems can be found here.