RAF Milfield – Arguably One of Britain’s Most Significant Airfields.

High up in the northern most reaches of England is an airfield that has repeatedly appeared in the memoirs of many RAF and USAAF pilots. Not because it was a busy front-line station dealing with the constant battle against marauding enemy bombers, but more simply because it was a training station. However, this airfield was no ordinary training facility. It operated a large number of aircraft whose pilots played a major part in both the Normandy landings and the drive on through France and the low countries. In this, the next trail, we visit Northumberland, and a place where ground attack pilots honed their skills, perfecting the use of rockets, canon and bombs, in the destruction of enemy troop convoys, trains and tanks. The first stop on this trail is an airfield that is arguably one of Britain’s most significant airfields – RAF Milfield.

RAF Milfield.

RAF Milfield lies a short distance from the village it takes its name from, at the foot of the Cheviot hills on an area known as the Millfield Plain. It is an area steeped in history. On this site, evidence has been found of Neolithic hearths, storage pits and post holes.  There is also evidence of two Bronze Age circular houses and a further three rectangular houses dating back to the ‘Dark Age’; an age that probably pre-dates the Anglo-Saxon conquest of the area from around AD 547.

This area was also the scene of many fierce and brutal battles between the English and the Scots, The Battle of Homildon Hill and the Battle of Flodden were both fought within a few miles of this very site. In both these conflicts, heavy casualties were suffered by both sides, and it is therefore, an area that is both used to war, and one that is rich in historical interest.

RAF Milfield

The Perimeter track is now the public road, parts lay visible alongside with associated dispersal pans.

As a military aviation site, Milfield came into being during the First World War. One of several such sites in the region that was used as little more than an emergency landing ground by 77 Squadron who were based further north at Edinburgh. Known at the time as Woodbridge, it would be a quiet little site that would soon disappear, quickly returning to its agricultural roots once war was over.

As a second war with Germany seemed inevitable, the need for new airfields became evermore apparent, and so the Air Ministry implemented the airfield expansion scheme. This programme developed so quickly that by 1942 there was a front line airfield opening at the rate of one every three days! As the German forces moved ever more quickly, and the Fall of France led to the Battle of Britain, the need for fresh, well-trained pilots became paramount. With home reserves drying up, the Commonwealth became an untapped source that would fill the ever-increasing void that was becoming a thorn in the side of the RAF.

Trained only in basic flying techniques, these crews had to be battle hardened and fit for action in a matter of weeks or even less. Initial training operations were mere ‘lip-service’ and recruits often had as much chance of killing themselves as they did the enemy they were intended to down. To meet this demand, numerous training stations were created, manned mainly by Operational Training Units (OTU), they were governed by the various arms of the Air Command: Fighter, Bomber, Naval, Transport etc.

At these training sites, crews would in essence, perform a ‘post-graduate’ training exercise, where they would be assembled for the first time and trained in their respective roles on the aircraft they would be expected to fly operationally. Milfield would be designated as one such station, and was initially identified as a suitable location for a bomber command site. Following requisition of the land in early 1941, the green-light for development was given, the process was put into place, and RAF Milfield was born.

Before any bomber crew would use Milfield though, it would pass from Bomber Command control over to Fighter Command whose focus would now be fighter pilots, and in particular, those specialising in both ground attack and dive bombing techniques.

As pilots came from all across the world, their training standards were some what disjointed, and so a refresher course bringing all crews up to the same standard would be required. This was a role that Milfield would fulfil. Working in conjunction with its satellite station a  few miles to the east, RAF Brunton, Milfield crews would spend some 9 to 10 weeks in total on flying techniques, both solo and formation flying, with the more advanced training taking place at RAF Brunton.

Nestled between the main road and the River Till, Milfield would be built to bomber station specifications, the three runways being wood chip and concrete one of 1,400 yards and two of 1,100 Yards. During development and subsequent handover to Fighter Command though, the new Class ‘A’ airfield standard would come in to being, requiring all airfields to be built with a longer runway specification. However, being a fighter training site, these were not imposed and whilst two of the runways were extended (1,800 and 1,300 yards) they were not to the full Class A specification.

RAF Milfield

The runway threshold is still surviving, note the close proximity of the hills in the background.

As a training airfield it would be exceptionally busy. An expected turnover would be a new course starting around every 3 weeks, which would mean a considerable number of aircrew and aircraft; in excess of 100 air frames would be located here at Milfield at any one time. The primary fighter aircraft at this point would be the Hurricane with other examples including the Miles Master and Magister. To repair and maintain the aircraft, two T2 hangars were constructed with a further eight blister hangars located around the dispersal areas. Squadron dispersal huts were spread around the perimeter, with the technical area and main hangars being located to the south-eastern side. Accommodation, designed to be temporary, was dispersed over 13 sites, and would be designed to accommodate in the region of 1,650 staff, both male and female. Like many airfields though, this figure was surpassed with the actual ‘on roll’ totals varying considerably reflecting the constant movement of staff. Including the numerous support staff, it is believed that some 3,300 people were employed at Milfield at its height.

Adjacent to the airfield was the former Galewood Farm House, an old farm building used as an Officer’s mess during the airfield’s operational life. Destroyed in the 1960s, it was once part of an estate that adjoined the airfield, and was previously home to Josephine Butler. Josephine was the leader of a national women’s political campaign in Victorian England, who campaigned on behalf of prostitutes, abused and trafficked women until her death in 1906*1. Now commandeered by the military, a snooker table with lights powered by a generator was placed inside, and nearby stood the NAAFI theatre, the recreational building showing the usual films to keep the personnel entertained.

It was during this construction period that the first enemy action would occur over Milfield. On September 1st 1941, at 23:00 hrs, six bombs were dropped in the vicinity of Milfield. A crater 72 feet wide and 10 feet deep was recorded, the road was blocked and telephone lines were brought down. Also during this time, and whilst not officially open, aircraft would land at Millfield, presumably as test landings or after getting into difficulty. One of the first casualties here was that of Sgt. James B Spangler (R71573) RCAF flying Hurricane V7044 on 25th June 1941, who was “killed in the course of a training flight” whilst flying with 59 OTU. This tragic accident would be a sign of things to come.

Because of the nature of training flights, accidental deaths on or around Milfield would become fairly common. These included on October 6th, 1941, Hurricane MK. I W9177 which was forced to Bellyland in a field near to Stocksfield just west of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. On 13th December 1941, Sgt. Norman Clunie Pow, (R83911) RCAF, again of 59 OTU, crashed in Hurricane P3809. Sgt. Pow was just 25 years of age and was buried some several hundred miles away next to RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, another training station.

Sutton Bridge Churchyard

Sgt. Pow’s grave at Sutton Bridge.

As a training airfield, no operational front line squadrons would use Milfield, other than a detachment of 184 Sqn Hurricane IIDs between 1st December, 1942 and 1st March, 1943. The only other use of Milfield by ‘front line’ units would be as a transit base in the early post-war months.

The first full unit to arrive was that of 59 Operational Training Unit (OTU), arriving in the August of 1942.

59 OTU were originally formed at Turnhouse in December 1940, and operated amongst other things, the Hurricane, the Magister, the Fairy Battle and finally Hawker’s Tempest, all in a training capacity. After spending some five months at Crosby-on-Eden, the unit transferred to Milfield where they trained pilots in the ground attack role. As with many training stations, casualties were high, with many accidents happening through either pilot error or mechanical defects. Many of the Hurricanes used here were veterans themselves, beaten and patched up following intensive fighting in the Battle of Britain, many were long past their sell by date.

One of the first accidents to occur was that of Sgt. K. Dole, RCAF, who stalled whilst performing aerobatics – either authorised or not. His aircraft, a Hurricane MK.I ‘V7316’, MF 89 of ‘Z’ flight 59 OTU, crashed on farmland near Cornhill in August 1942. Luckily Sgt. Dole was unhurt, and the aircraft was salvaged; being repaired and sent to operations in the Middle East. The same fate however, did not fall to P/O J. Methum, who was killed in early September 1942, when his Hurricane MK.I ‘V6840’ crashed in a forced landing a few miles away to the east. The aircraft was written off in this most tragic of accidents.

The dangers of training became evermore apparent over the next few months, Saturday 27th March 1943 being particularly poor for 59 OTU with two crashes on the same day.  Hurricanes Mk.I ‘W9184’ and ‘W9121’ crashing in forced landings and night landings respectively. Both pilots were killed that day; Sgt. Robert MacFadzean (s/n: 1349862) born of US resident parents, and Welshman, Sgt. Gordon Cullener (s/n: 1383311).

Four months after 59 OTU’s arrival, No 1 Specialised Low Attack Instructors School  (SLAIS) would also be formed here (7th December, 1942) another unit that used the Hurricane and the Magister. One of the Chief Instructors of the School would be Squadron Leader J.H. “Ginger” Lacey DFM and Bar, a Battle of Britain Veteran who ended his career with 28 confirmed kills.

Hurricane MK.IID of No. 1 Specialised Low Attack Instructors School being refueled and rearmed by Ground crew, including a WAAF, on a wet dispersal at Milfield. The fairings covering the two Vickers 40mm anti-tank guns beneath the wings have been removed and a warning notice hung from the barrel. (IWM CH 18134)

Low flying, in even in the relative safety of Northern England, was not immune from accidents, mishaps or misjudgments by the pilots. On 21st February 1943, Hurricane MK.II ‘HW731’ of the SLAIS hit an obstacle one mile north of Beal, the pilot escaped unharmed and after nursing the aircraft back to Milfield, it was repaired and converted for ground training purposes as ‘4616M’.

As flying training continued, so too did the number of accidents, burst tyres, engine malfunctions and fires, pilot error and collisions accounting for a wide range of them. On April 27th 1943, two Hurricanes collided in mid-air whilst performing formation flying. Both airmen, F/Sgt Davies and F/O Thompson were killed; an event that was mirrored in the following July when Hurricanes ‘P3475’ and ‘V7173’ also collided again with fatal results. New Zealander Charles Humphrey (s/n: 421056) is buried locally.

On May 1st 1943, 59 OTU transferred from 81 Group to No. 9 Group, at which point 81 Group was disbanded. No 9. took over 81’s responsibility, and it remained primarily a training arm of the Royal Air Force. For 59 OTU though, little would change.

On September 16th 1943, a B-17F-BO  (42-30030) named ‘Old Ironsides‘ ran out of fuel whilst returning from La Rochelle. The pilot Lieutenant Henry J Nagorka, decided to ditch in the sea near Farne Islands, off the Northumbrian coast. The aircraft quickly filled with water and in under four minutes she had disappeared beneath the waves.

During the ditching two crewmen were lost, waist gunners: S/Sgt. Ed Christensen and S/Sgt. Claude Whitehead, whilst the tail gunner S/Sgt. Harris lost a leg. Those that survived managed to climb into a dingy and sailed to St Cuthbert’s Island where they awaited rescue. Upon being saved, they were transferred to Milfield, where they were collected by another B-17 from the USAAF. However, as Milfield was a fighter airfield and its runways hadn’t been extended to Class A specifications, there were doubts about the aircraft’s ability to get off the ground on the short space available. To overcome the problem, the hedges at the end of the runway were removed and steal planking temporarily laid, the problem never arose though as the B-17 along with its additional human cargo left Milfield safely.

B-17F ‘Old Ironsides’ 42-30030, was lost at sea on the 16th September 1943 with the loss of two men. (IWM UPL 28296)

On January 26th 1944, both 59 OTU and the SLAIS were disbanded and a new unit formed, the Fighter Leaders School (FLS). The School had its origins in 52 OTU formed at Chedworth, and was in January, created as a unit in its own right. Formed through the need for more ground attack pilots in preparation for the forthcoming invasion, it was a unit that would take on the responsibility for the majority of the RAF’s ground attack crews. One notable figure of the FLS at Milfield was Bob Doe DSO, DFC & Bar, another veteran of the Battle of Britain. He would later return to operational duties after his short stay here in Northumberland.

Using the codes HK, OQ and MF, the FLS operated a number of aircraft predominately Spitfire VBs, and Spitfire MK IXs along with a handful of other marks. It later went on to adopt the radial engined Typhoon IB. In total over 130 aircraft would be used by the  Milfield unit, an incredible amount of aircraft on one site at any one time. Milfield continued to be in the spotlight.

It was also during this time, early 1944, that the USAAF would begin to send their pilots to Milfield to train on their ranges. With them, came a variety of US built aircraft, P-38 ‘Lightnings’, P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ and the P-51 ‘Mustangs’. The brainchild of General Quesada, the plan was to train Ninth Air Force pilots in the art of dive bombing, skip bombing and low-level attacks, techniques that would become paramount if the push through France and on into Germany was to succeed. The arrival and increased use of Milfield by the US crews gave an indication that the impending invasion was drawing ever closer.

One of the earliest accidents for the FLS was in March of 1944, when Mohawk MK.III AR633 of 510 Squadron was hit by a Typhoon (JR509) of the Fighter Leader School on take off. Also on this day, a Spitfire MK.IIa (P8549) of the FLS tragically blew up in mid-air during a dive bombing attack on the Goswick ranges. The pilot of the Spitfire, F/Lt. Bouquen, a Belgian, was killed in the incident.

About a month later, a flight of four P47D Thunderbolts from the 366th FS (358th FG) from RAF Raydon attached to Milfield, were carrying out practice strafing attacks on a military convoy. During the climb out of the attack, one of the Thunderbolts (42-25530), piloted by 1st Lt A. Serapiglia collided head on with Spitfire Mk 1 ‘R6762’ which was preparing to land at nearby RAT Eshott. In the collision, both pilots Sgt. Kai Knajenhjelm a 19-year-old Norwegian and Lt. Serapiglia were killed. After the investigation it was deemed that all future exercises should be performed “outside of local flying areas” of nearby airfields, something that perhaps seems obvious today, but reflects the hectic and often frantic skies over northern England in the 1940s.

One of the benefits of attending the FLS was the diverse range not only of nationalities: Dutch, Czech, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South Africans to name but a few, but also the range of aircraft used. At the end of courses, trainees – now fully fledged fight pilots – were sometimes given the opportunity to try out other types of aircraft. An action that no doubt put the fear of God into the Station Commander who was heard to have shut his door and say “to hell with it”*2 . A number of other incidents occurred during this hectic time, which saw, by the end of December 1944, the FLS being absorbed into the Central Fighter Establishment based at RAF Wittering. Following this, the staff at Milfield all moved out, and momentarily peace prevailed once more.

Between mid December 1944 and into early January 1945, 56 OTU was reformed. Previously at RAF Sutton Bridge in Lincolnshire, it brought new aircraft, to the area, and Northumbria now reverberated to the radial engines of the Typhoon IB and the Tempest V; as four squadrons operated the aircraft using the codes FE, GF, HQ and OD. A collection of other aircraft types also graced the skies of this now highly significant airfield, Spitfires, Tiger Moths, Leopard Moths and Magisters to name but a few.

Even though the war in Europe was winding its way toward its conclusive ending, priority for aircraft was given to this purposefully created unit, and practice flights continued in earnest. The skies remained busy and accident numbers remained high.  In the space of one month between mid January and mid February 1945, there were no less than 8 incidents involving aircraft from Milfield and 56 OTU. As with many incidents here, poor weather, engine failures and pilot error were the causes of many  aircraft abandonment, pilot injuries and tragically deaths. In these eight incidents six involved Typhoons and two involved Tempests.

RAF Milfield

MG & Cannon Range building, one of the few remaining structures at Milfield.

March and April were similar stories, accidents, mishaps and deaths continued to plague Milfield, with pilot error accounting for a larger number of the accidents. Perhaps one of the most bizarre incidents took place on March 8th 1945 when the leader of a Spitfire squadron ‘deliberately’ attacked a Typhoon Mk.Ib ‘MP187’ of 56 OTU, killing the pilot F/O. R Smith of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The Typhoon was commonly mistaken for the Luftwaffe’s Focke Wolf 190, a formidable beast that became the scourge of the USAAF bomber formations.

The closing stages of the war didn’t bring a respite either. Saturday 12th May saw a collision between Tempests ‘EJ685’ and ‘NV759’ an event that killed an instructor pilot. Even after the war’s end, accidents continued to occur, with June, July, August and September all witnessing  further deaths and incidents. August 23rd saw Typhoon ‘SW638’ collide on the ground with two other aircraft, both those struck were written off whilst the ‘offending’ aircraft was badly damaged.

At the end of the war, and over just a two-day period, the only two operational units to use Milfield would arrive, using it as a transit stop. Both 164 Squadron and 183 Squadron would arrive and depart on the same day 16 – 17th June 1945 bringing with them yet more Typhoons.

Eventually, nearly nine months after the war’s end, on February 14th 1946, 56 OTU were disbanded, but not before one final roll of the dice when the life of an RAF pilot was taken. On January 29th 1946, whilst on a “Camera Exercise” and after performing a slow roll ten miles west of Holy Island, Tempest Mk. V EJ859 piloted by F/Lt. Vincent Parker (s/n 42356) RAFVR, an Australian aged 27, dived into the ground killing him. In a cruel twist of irony, F/Lt Parker was killed after having survived as a prisoner of war since 16th August 1940. He had remained in a German POW camp until its liberation at the end of hostilities, returning to England in June 1945, his post-war, peacetime life had been shorter than his life in captivity.

The departure of 56 OTU signified the end of the RAF’s interests in Milfield, and although not a front line operational airfield, it had become a very active and played a highly significant role in fighter training and development. Used to train both new and experienced pilots, it had become one of the RAF’s top fighter pilot training stations, developing pilot’s proficiency in low-level weapons delivery techniques. No matter how dangerous the training got, crews had continued to pass through, morale had  remained high and the standards were never dropped. Of the 1,200 pilots who had passed through here, many went on to make their names as the top ground attack pilots of the Second World War.

Immediately after the war, many of the accommodation huts were used to house Latvian soldiers, many staying here up until 1950. Local people were then housed in refurbished WAAF blocks before moving on to more permanent housing in the local village.

Soon after, Milfield began its decline with many of the buildings being demolished over the coming years. During the cold war era, the two T2 hangars were designated storage units for dried foods and emergency rations, thankfully a role that never had to be called into operation.  Eventually the runways were dug up and removed for hardcore, quarrying took over the southern end of the airfield and much of the surface layers were removed in the process.

During the 1970s investigations were carried by Air Anglia into the possibility of commencing commuter flights to European cities, but the project failed to ‘get off the ground’ and the service was scrapped before it ever developed into anything more than investigative flights.

Now partly returning to agriculture, a small section of the airfield has been retained by the Borders Glider Club*3 . The battle to keep gliders and flying here alive, being a long and difficult one. Through this small organisation, that operates only at the weekends, the spirit of flying lives on, and Milfield continues to fight for survival, a fight that has been both emotive and historically significant in the battle for the skies over Britain. The T2s have now gone as has virtually all the remaining buildings. A stone statue built by an Italian POW who was employed on the local farm, stands on private land, marking what was the official entrance to the airfield during the war years, it is clearly visible from the road side.

RAF Milfield

One of two sculptures, one made by an Italian POW, the second copied by an RAF serviceman.

Located four miles north-west of Wooler and Visiting today, there is little evidence of the former airfield left. Small sections of the perimeter track are now the public road, but alongside the road,  the remainder of the track can just still be seen. The north-western end of the runway is also visible as are a small collection of dispersal pans.  The MG & Cannon Range building still stands, minus its roof it is rapidly decaying, it has a very short life left.

Interestingly, as a training airfield, Milfield used both a Fisher Front Turret Trainer and Hawarden Trainer, a simulation trainer that used the fuselage of a Spitfire to train pilots in interception techniques. A model suspended from the ceiling up to 60 feet away from the pilot could be moved forwards or backwards by operating the opposite movement of the Spitfire’s throttle. As the Spitfire ‘accelerated’ the model moved backwards along a rail, rather similar in design to a 1970’s child’s toy. During these sessions a range of flying skills could be tested, interception and aircraft recognition, throttle control and cockpit procedures included. A primitive method that was state of the art in 1941. Sadly neither of these exist today.

Two memorials are located at this site, the first in a public car park to the western end of the airfield, next to the Maelmin heritage trail. The second is located outside the club house of the Borders Gliding Club, approximately on the site of the former watch office, itself no longer there. This memorial was commissioned by the club entirely through donations and is their way of acknowledging the sacrifice of those who flew from Milfield.

Milfield is arguably one of the most significant airfields of the Second World War, many Spitfire, Hurricane and Typhoon pilots quote it in their memoirs, their time here short but memorable. Here ground attack pilots cut their teeth, low-level strafing and dive bombing techniques being honed to absolute perfection. The battle for Europe would certainly have been more difficult were it not for those daring young men who passed through this remote but historically important airfield.

After we leave Milfield, we head east, toward the coast and the satellite of Milfield. A small airfield, it too played a major part in the development of ground attack crews and it too saw many accidents and losses through its training programme. From here we go to RAF Brunton.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 A website tells the story of Josephine Butler’s life, and another has photos of Galewood farm-house.

*2 Dunn, W.R., “Fighter Pilot: The First American Ace of World War II“,  1996, The University Press of Kentucky, Page 118.

*3 Border flying club website

The Friends of Berwick and District Museum and Archives website provide information about the archaeological history of Milfield.

A book has been published about RAF Milfield, a complementary website gives fabulous personal detail of life at the airfield and is well worth a visit.

Photos of those stationed at Milfield can be seen through the BGC Flckr account.

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The death of the Robson Children, 1st December 1943.

It was on Wednesday 1st December 1943, that a 75 Squadron Stirling MK.III (EH880)  piloted by F/S J. S. Kerr (s/n 1558163) would be diverted from RAF Mepal and instructed to land at RAF Acklington in Northumbria. On the final approach it undershot striking a family home in Togston near Amble. Inside the house, Cliff House Farmhouse, was the Robson family. The five children, ranging in ages from 19 months to 9 years of age, were all killed, whilst the parents who were playing cards downstairs, escaped with varying injuries. All but one of the Stirling’s crew were killed, the mid upper gunner Sgt K Hook, was pulled from the burning wreckage his burning clothes being extinguished by the local butcher, Jim Rowell.

This crash was the greatest civilian loss of life in the district,

The crew of Stirling EH880 ‘AA-J’ were:

F/S George John Stewart Kerr, RAFVR (s/n 1558163) – Pilot.
Sgt. Donald Frank Wort, RAFVR (s/n 1585034) – Navigator.
Sgt. Ronald Smith, RAFVR (s/n 1239376) – Air Bomber.
Sgt. Derek Arthur Holt, RAFVR (s/n 1217087) – Wireless Operator.
Sgt. Leonard George Copsey, RAFVR (s/n 1691471) – Flight Engineer.
Sgt. Kenneth Gordon Hook, RAFVR (s/n 1335989) – Mid Upper Gunner.
Sgt. George William Thomas Lucas, RAFVR (s/n 1250557) – Rear Gunner.

The Robson children were:

Sheila (19 months)
William (3 Years)
Margery (5 Years)
Ethel (7 Years)
Sylvia (9 Years)

The ‘Times’ Newspaper, published the story of 3rd December 1943:

Aircraft Crash on Farmhouse. Family of five young children killed.

Five children – all their family – of Mr and Mrs W. Robson were killed when an Aircraft crashed into Cliff House, a small dairy farm near Amble, Northumberland, on Wednesday night. The children’s ages ranged from one to nine years. They were sleeping in an upstairs room.

The mother and father, who with two friends Mr. and Mrs Rowell of Dilston [Terrace] Amble, were sitting in a downstairs room, were injured but not seriously. One of the crew of the aircraft, a gunner, was saved by Mr. Rowell.

Mr Rowell said last night: “We did not realise what had happened until the house collapsed above our heads. We managed to stand up, bruised and badly dazed, and, looking upward we saw the sky. Mrs Robson tried to make her way towards the stairs, which had been blown away. My wife called my attention to a burning object outside which was moving about.  We rushed over and found it was a gunner with his clothes alight. Mr Rowell rolled the airman on the ground to extinguish the burning clothes. Although badly burned, the gunner was alive.

The children’s partly charred bodies were recovered later.

Five streets on a housing estate near to the crash site in Amble have since been named after each of the Robson children. The crew are remembered on a plaque in St. John the Divine, the official church of RAF Acklington St. John.

RAF Waterbeach Museum.

Earlier this year I was able to visit the Waterbeach Military Heritage Museum located on the former RAF Waterbeach airfield; creating the museum has been quite an achievement and a very worthy cause. The museum contains many interesting photographs and artefacts relating to life at “the ‘Beach”, from its inception in 1940 right through to its final closure in 2013.

The current Museum was opened after the Army’s departure and the subsequent closure of the barracks. It is currently housed in Building 3 just inside the main entrance next to the former guard-house, and access is strictly controlled, and by prior arrangement only. It was created by the then curator, Oliver Merrington, along with a handful of local people who wanted to secure the future of the museum and keep the memories of Waterbeach alive for future generations. Mr. Merrington has since sadly passed away, but the volunteers continue the good work he put in place.

Whilst the museum is currently small, it holds a tremendous amount of information, all  of which is neatly displayed in cabinets and on the walls. Many original photographs are supplemented with official documents, personal stories, newspaper cuttings and artefacts, some of which relate to specific aircraft from Waterbeach’s history.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

Part of one of the many displays in the museum.

Whilst most of the displays reflect life at Waterbeach during the Second World War, various aspects reflect its post war life, both with the RAF and with the Army’s Engineer Regiment – the founders of the original Waterbeach Museum in 1984.

The two rooms of the museum are dedicated to all these people, taking you on a journey through the life of Waterbeach, starting with the sad First World War story of three brothers: Sgt. Jack Day, (1st July 1916), Private Walter Day (1st July 1916) and Private Clifford Day (13th August 1918). Like so many families of the war, their lives were all taken prematurely, two of which occurred on the first day of the first Battle of the Somme. The three brothers, whose ages ranged from 19 to 22 years old, were all local boys to Waterbeach, and like so many, left a family devastated by their loss. Two of the boys remain buried abroad but Walter, like so many other young men, has no known grave and remains missing.

From here the display takes us to Waterbeach in the 1940s, the story of its construction and design are told using photographs taken at that time. Representations of the various bomber squadrons who used the airfield are supported with operational details, personal stories and artefacts relating to individual aircraft that flew from Waterbeach during these early war years.

In the post-war period Waterbeach was transferred to the Transport Command and again photographs and documents show the range of aircraft that flew from here: Liberators, Dakotas, Lancastrians and Avro Yorks.

Into the jet age and we see a flying suit, and a canopy from Gloster Javelin XH871, which ended its days at Bovingdon as a fire fighting air frame. It is particularity significant as it previously served here at RAF Waterbeach in the late 1950s.

RAF Waterbeach Museum

One of the many exhibits on display at the Museum.

After the Royal Air Force departed the base was handed over to the Army, and a small number of exhibits represent their presence here at Waterbeach. The Royal Engineers finally departed the barracks themselves in March 2013.

Other exhibits on display here include: the weather vane from the station church (now demolished), the operations boards, astro-compasses, radios and telephone equipment, all neatly arranged inside glass cabinets. A detailed history of one of the former gate guards, Spitfire LF MK.XIVe ‘TE392’ which now flies with the Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston, Texas, is also on view.

This is a delightful little museum that has been put together to pay homage to those who served at Waterbeach, either under RAF command or with the Royal Engineers. It is run by volunteers and relies on charitable donations to keep it running. Like many museums, it has limited opening hours, but the range of material is fabulous and it deserves a great deal of public support.

On a final note, my personal thanks go out to Adrian Wright who gave up his own time to open up and show me around the museum.

For details of opening times and other information the curator can be contacted via email at:  waterbeachmilitarymuseum@waterbeach.org

or via Facebook at: https://en-gb.facebook.com/waterbeachmilitaryheritagemuseum/

 

R.A.F. Wethersfield (U.S.A.A.F. Station 170).

After a short journey from Castle Camps we soon arrive at our next port of call. This airfield, although a Second World War airfield, saw little action but was used by both the U.S.A.A.F. and the R.A.F. both during and after the war. Whilst it does not generally have active flying units today, it does house the M.O.D. dog training unit and as such is classed as an active military site.

This part of the trail brings us to the former airfield RAF Wethersfield.

R.A.F. Wethersfield (Station 170).

RAF Wethersfield was originally designed and built as a Class ‘A’ bomber airfield with construction occurring during 1942. During this expansion period materials and labour were both in short supply, which delayed the completion of the airfield until late 1943. During this period, ownership of the airfield passed hands several times, initially belonging to the Eighth Air Force, it was to be loaned to the R.A.F. between December 1942 and May 1943, before returning back to American hands. However, the delay to construction meant that by the time it was completed and opened, it would not be used by the R.A.F. but passed instead directly into the hands of the ‘new’ U.S. Ninth Air Force.

Constituted in 1941, the Ninth had already been fighting in Egypt and Libya, before they were moved to England in late 1943 in preparation for the forthcoming invasion of the continent. Throughout the remainder of the war they would pave the way for the advancing forces from Normandy deep into Germany itself. As an Air force, it would be disbanded in 1945 only to be reborn post war as part of the Tactical Air Command, and latterly the Continental Air Command, at which point it was assigned to Reserve and National Guard duties.

The first units to arrive at Wethersfield did so in the February of 1944, four months before the invasion took place. The first aircraft to arrive were the A-20 ‘Havocs’ of the 416th Bombardment Group (Light). The Group, who was only a year old itself, was made up of the: 668th, 669th, 670th and 671st Bomb Squadrons, and would fall under the control of the IX Bomber Command, Ninth Air Force who had their headquarters at the rather grand stately home Marks Hall in Essex.

A-20 Havocs, including (serial number 43-9701) of the 416th BG. 9701 was salvaged August 18th 1945. IWM (FRE 6403)

A journey that started at Will Rogers Airfield in Oklahoma, would take the men of the 416th from Lake Charles in Louisiana, through Laurel Airfield, Mississippi and onto Wethersfield some 28 miles to the south-east of Cambridge, in Essex.

As a Class A airfield, its three concrete runways would be standard lengths: 1 x 2,000 yards and 2 x 1,400 yards, all the normal 50 yards wide. Scattered around the perimeter were fifty hardstands for aircraft dispersal – all but one being of the spectacle style.

The 2,500 ground and air crews would be allocated standard accommodation, primarily Nissen huts, situated over several sites to the south-west of the main airfield site. Two T2 hangars were provided for aircraft maintenance, one in the technical area also to the south-west, and the second to the east. One notable building at Wethersfield was a Ctesiphon hut. An unusual, and indeed controversial design, it originated in the Middle East when a sergeant, unable to camouflage his tent, had poured concrete over it. As the pole was removed, the structure remained both intact and strong. The commanding officer, Major J.H. De W. Waller took the idea, named it after a 1,600 year old palace at Bagdad, and developed it in the UK, through the Waller Housing Corporation.

The idea behind the building is that a metal frame is constructed, similar in design to Nissen hut ribs, then covered with hessian after which concrete is poured over it. As the concrete hardens, the hessian sags giving added strength through its ‘corrugated’ shape. The ‘scaffolds’ are then removed leaving the hut’s shell standing independently. At Wethersfield there were originally fourteen of these huts built, all within the technical site, it is not currently known whether any of these still exist today, but it is extremely unlikely as most were pulled down post war.

The 416th BG were part of the 97th Combat Wing, and were among the first to receive the new ‘Havocs’, along with the 409th and 410th BG who were also under the control of the 97th. For the short period between the 416th’s arrival (February 1944) and the invasion in June, they carried out sustained training missions transferring their skills from the B-25s they had earlier used, to the new A-20s, which included operational sorties targeting V-weapons sites in northern France starting in March 1944.

During these flights, accidents would happen. A number of aircraft were damaged or written off whilst attempting  landings at Wethersfield: ’43-9203′, (671st BS) piloted by George W. Cowgill crashed on 21st April 1944; ’43-9209′ piloted by Pilot Elizabeth O. Turner, crashed on 13th August 1944, and ’43-9368′ crashed two days earlier on 11th August 1944. Some of these accidents resulted in fatalities, including that of ’43-9223′ (668th BS) which crashed on a routine test flight 1.5 miles north-west of Wethersfield, on 9th May 1944. The pilot Capt. William P. Battersby (the Squadron Operations Officer) and a passenger Private First Class Charles W. Coleman (s/n 32372194) a Parachute Rigger, were both killed in the accident.

In the April, two months after the Americans had moved in, the R.A.F. officially handed over the airfield to the U.S. forces in a ceremony that unusually, saw a large number of civilians take part.

As the invasion neared, the 416th began to attack coastal defences and airfields  that were supporting Luftwaffe forces. During and after the invasion they targeted rail bottlenecks, marshalling yards, road networks, bridges and other strategic targets to prevent the build up of reinforcements and troop movements into Normandy.

As the German forces retreated, the 416th attacked escape routes in the Falaise Gap to the south of Caen, destroying the many bridges that allowed the German armies to leave the encircled area. During the battle, nine aircraft were lost, and all those lucky enough to return suffered flak damage, some of it heavy. For their actions here between the 6th and 9th of August 1944, the 416th earned themselves a Distinguished Unit Citation (D.U.C.) the only one they would receive during the conflict.

By the following September, the Allies had pushed into France and the Ninth began to move across to captured airfields on the continent, the 416th being one of those to go. Leaving the leafy surroundings of Wethersfield for the Advanced Landing Ground (A.L.G.) at Melun, to the south of Paris, it would be a move that would coincide with the change to the new A-26 ‘Invader’; the 416th being the first unit to do so, another first and another distinction. During their seven month stay at Wethersfield the 416th BG would fly 141 operational sorties losing twenty-one aircraft in the process.

A-20 Havocs and A-26 Invaders of the 416th Bomb Group at Wethersfield. This picture was probably taken around the time the 416th were departing Wethersfield for the Landing Ground at Melun, France. FRE 7445 (IWM)

With their departure, Wethersfield was handed back to the R.A.F. and the First Allied Airborne Army. This would see a dramatic change from the light twin-engined A-20s to the mighty four-engined Stirlings MK.IV, the former heavy bombers turned transport and glider tugs, whose nose stood at over 20 feet from the ground.

The two squadrons operating these aircraft at Wethersfield, 196 Sqn and 299 Sqn, would both arrive on the same day, October 9th 1944 and depart within 24 hours of each other on 26th and 25th of January 1945 respectively.

The Stirling, initially a heavy bomber of Bomber Command, was pulled from front line bombing missions due to its high losses, many squadrons replacing them with the newer Lancaster. 196 Sqn however, retained the Stirling and instead transferred from Bomber Command into the Allied Expeditionary Air Force.

The Stirlings proved to be much more suited to their new role supporting resistance and S.O.E. operations in occupied Europe. But the heavy weight of the Stirling took its toll on the runways at Wethersfield, and eventually they began to break up. Now in need of repairs, the two squadrons were pulled out and sent to Shepherds Grove where they would eventually be disbanded at the war’s end.

RAF Wethersfield

One of the original T2 Hangars on the south-eastern side.

A short stay in March of 1945 by the 316th Troop Carrier Group (T.C.G.) allowed them to participate in Operation ‘Varsity‘, transporting paratroops of the British 6th Airborne across the Rhine into Wessel, and on into northern Germany itself. An operation that saw 242 C-47 and C-53 transport aircraft leave bases in England filled with paratroops and their associated hardware. For many of these troops, it was their first drop into enemy territory – a true baptism of fire. During the take offs, paratroopers witnessed a V-1 flying bomb race across the Wethersfield sky, the Germans last-ditch effort to turn the tide that was very much against them. Immediately after the operation the 316th returned to their home station at R.A.F. Cottesmore, a move that signified the operational end of Wethersfield for the Second World War. Now unoccupied the site was put into care and maintenance, a state it remained in for a good number of years.

With the heightening threat of a soviet attack and the suggestion of the Cold War turning ‘hot’, Wethersfield was then given a new lease of life. On the 1st June 1952, the U.S. returned once more with the 20th Fighter Bomber Wing (F.B.W.), the 55th and 77th Fighter Bomber Squadrons (F.B.S.) operating the F-84G ‘Thunderjet’.

To accommodate the new jets, the main runway was extended, the original wartime buildings were removed and replaced with more modern structures. The original control tower was developed and upgraded to meet the new higher standards required of a military airfield. Accommodation and family support was also considered. Like many U.S. bases in the U.K. they had their own shops, bowling complex, basketball centre, Youth club, cinema and school. Wethersfield was to become, for a short period of time, a front line base and a major part of the U.S.’s twenty-two European bases.

Children are shown around RAF Wethersfield as part of cementing American and British relations. 

The F-84G was a Tactical-fighter bomber designed to carry a 2,000 lb nuclear bomb for use on enemy airfields in the event of all out war. Operating as part of the 49th Air Division, 3rd Air Force, they would operate in conjunction with the B-45’s located at nearby R.A.F. Sculthorpe.

In June 1955, the wing, now reformed but utilising the same units, began flying the Republic F-84F ‘Thunderstreak’. The ‘F’ model was essentially a swept-wing version of the ‘G’; designed to be more powerful whilst utilising many of the tooling used by the ‘G’. Gradually the ‘G’ was phased out by the 20th with the ‘F’ becoming the standard flying air frame.

Up grading of the F-84F to the F-100 ‘Super Sabres’ occurred in 1957, during which time the unit was also re-designated the 20th Tactical Fighter Wing after a major reorganisation of the U.S. forces in Europe. The Super Sabres remaining in service here until 1970 when the nearby development of Stansted Airport led to the Wing moving to Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire. Prior to this move Wethersfield would bear witness to the first demonstration of the F-111 in U.K. skies, an aircraft that would become the back-bone of the 20th after its departure to Upper Heyford in June that year.

In 1963, Wethersfield suffered a blow when  an F-100F Super Sabre ’56-3991′ piloted by First Lieutenant Paul Briggs (s/n 69418A) and co-pilot Colonel Wendell Kelley (s/n 7784A) crashed at Gosfield in Essex. The aircraft experienced repeated “severe compressor stalls” and ongoing problems with oil pressure. After disposing of their fuel tanks over the sea, the aircraft was guided back towards Wethersfield. Eventually the crew decided to eject, the co-pilot asked for the canopy to be blown, and believing he had gone, the pilot ejected. It was not until afterwards that the pilot realised the co-pilot was still in the aircraft, and he was killed in the resultant crash in a farmer’s field. To commemorate the tragic accident that took the life of Colonel Kelley, a memorial stands on the village playing field*1.

RAF Wethersfield

Cold War Shelters located on the original hardstands.

With this move in 1970, Wethersfield went back into care and maintenance, used by the airport repair organisation the Rapid Engineer Deployable Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineers or RED HORSE for short, who were responsible for the rapid repair of runways and other large airfield structures in times of war. This would also mean the end of operational flying at Wethersfield, and after the departure of the 20th, no further active flying units would return.

As the Americans began their European wind down, the ‘RED HORSE’ unit was also pulled out and the site returned to Ministry of Defence ownership. The R.A.F.’s M.O.D. Police units moved in during 1991, the hands of which it remains in today.

The airfield is still complete, the runways a little worn, its surfaces ‘damaged’ by experimentation with new techniques and repair practices, but it is used by visiting aircraft associated with Police and M.O.D. operations – Police Helicopters and the like. A glider training unit 614  V.G.S. also reside here utilising one of the remaining T2 hangars, keeping the aviation spirit alive if only for a short while longer.

Today it remains an active Military base, and as such access is strictly forbidden. The roads around the airfield do offer some views but these are limited. A public road and footpath is located at the north-eastern end of the site, from here the runway, parts of the perimeter track and hangar can be seen through the fencing. Passing the main entrance, there are a small number of buildings remaining derelict on adjacent farmland, these were part of the original accommodation site and are few and far between. Continuing along this road leads to a dead-end and private dwelling, but it does allow views of the current  accommodation and training buildings on the former technical area, all now very modern.

RAF Wethersfield

There have been many of these post-war additions to the airfield,

Whilst Wethersfield remains an active site, plans were announced in March 2016 to dispose of it as part of the M.O.D.’s plan to sell off many of its sites to raise money and streamline its activities. If planning permission is granted, Wethersfield could see 4,850 homes being built on it and the resident units of the military being moved elsewhere. It is planned to pass Wethersfield over to the Homes and Communities Agency by 2020, for its disposal*2.

Having a short war service and limited cold war history, Wethersfield is one of those airfields that never achieved huge recognition. Despite this, it was nonetheless, one that played its part in major world history. Achieving many ‘firsts’ and seeing many new developments in aviation, it is slowly starting that decline into obscurity. If the Government have their way, Wethersfield will shortly become a housing estate, and its history will sadly become yet another of those condemned to the local library.

After leaving here, we carry on into Essex and yet another airfield that has remained active but not as a flying base. We go to the Carver Barracks and the former R.A.F. Debden.

Sources and further Reading.

*1A website dedicated to the 20th T.F.W. at Wethersfield has a number of pictures of both aircraft and people associated with Wethersfield and the 20th T.F.W.  It also includes a transcript of the discussion between the pilot and the tower prior to the Sabre’s crash. There are also other documents relating to the crash located on the site.

*2 The announcement was highlighted ion the Essex Live website, March 24th 2016.

Flt. Sgt. Arthur L. Aaron, V.C., D.F.M., 218 Sqn, RAF Downham Market

The Second World War produced some incredible heroes, men and women, who in he face of incredible odds, continued to carry out their duties, often going beyond those expected of anyone.

One such man was Arthur Louis Aaron, of 218 Squadron, RAF Downham Market, Norfolk.

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Arthur Louis Aaron (RAFVR) V.C., D.F.M, (source unknown)

Aaron, born 5th March, 1922, in Leeds,  who at the time that war was declared, was training to become an architect at Leeds School of Architecture. On joining the Royal Air Force on December 15th, 1941, he was sent, via Canada, to No.1 British Flying Training School (B.F.T.S.) at Terrell, Texas, where he completed his initial flying training.

Aaron like the other recruits would pass through ten weeks of biplane flying, moving onto monoplane aircraft at which point, if successful, they would receive their wings. Returning back home also via Canada, he was hoping to fly fighters but was disappointed when he was posted to bomber training, and was sent to 6 Advanced Flying Unit at Little Rissington. After further training, he was sent on to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (Stradishall) flying Stirling MKIs, and then on 17th April 1943, he was posted to his first operational flying unit, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron, at RAF Downham Market.  

Whilst here at Downham Market, Aaron continued flying Short Stirling bombers, the large heavy bomber that proved to be both vulnerable to fighters and poor performing. Due to high losses it  was eventually pulled out of front line bombing duties, and used for mine laying, glider towing and parachute operations.

Aaron’s first mission would be the very next day after arriving at Downham Market. He, and his crew, would fly a ‘gardening’ mission laying mines off Biaritz, after which he would be sent on more heavily defended targets within German occupied Europe and Germany itself.

At 21:35 on the night of August 12 – 13th 1943, Flt. Sgt. Aaron and his crew: Sgt. M. M. Mitchem (Flt Eng.); Sgt. A. C. Brennan (RCAF) (Nav.); Flt. Sgt. A. W. Larden (RCAF) (Bomb Aim.); Sgt. T. Guy (Wop/AG); Sgt. J. Richmond (M.U. Gunner) and Sgt. T. M. McCabe (R. Gunner), all took off from Downham Market on their second mission of August to attack Turin, a night that featured several attacks on Italian targets.

This would be Aaron’s 20th and final mission, three as co-pilot and seventeen as pilot. He was a man known for his courage and bravery, only 12 days earlier he had struggled with his aircraft whilst his crew bravely fought fires that had broken out in the fuselage after being hit by incendiaries from aircraft flying above. Using his skill and judgement, he managed to evade both flak and searchlights by corkscrewing his aircraft whilst the crew members put out the fire that resulted from the accident. For his action on this day, he would be awarded the D.F.M.,*1 one of the highest possible awards for non-commissioned officers in the Royal Air Force, but this, like his V.C., would only come posthumously after his death on 13th August 1943.

That night, two of the thirteen 218 Sqn aircraft from RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, would be posted ‘missing’; Stirling HA-Y ‘MZ 263’ piloted by F/O J. McMallister, and that of 21-year-old Arthur Aaron – Stirling III ‘EF452’ HA-O . Whilst in the bomber stream heading toward Turin,  the aircraft was hit by gunfire from another aircraft. The navigator, (Sgt. Brennan s/n R/117605) was killed, Sgt. Mitchem and Flt. Sgt. Larden were both injured. The aircraft, now badly damaged, had been hit in three of the engines resulting in one of them being put out of action. Both front and rear turrets were immobilised, various control lines were broken and the windscreen was shattered. During the attack, Aaron received devastating blows to his face, his jaw being broken and quantities of flesh being blown away. A further bullet struck him in the chest, puncturing his lung. Now in great pain and severely injured, Aaron fell against the control column forcing the aircraft into a dive. After the Flight Engineer regained control, a course was set for North Africa, Aaron was moved to the rear of the plane where he was treated. He remained here for only a short time, insisting on returning to the cockpit where he was placed with his feet on the rudder bars. Wanting to take over, he had simply insufficient strength, and was persuaded to assist rather than fly. He wrote notes with his left hand, guiding the crew toward the airfield at Bone, in Algiers. After four failed attempts at landing, the bomb-aimer finally managed to get the aircraft down, low on fuel and with its undercarriage still raised.

The entry in the Operations Record Book for August 12th 1943, merely states “Landed in Algiers, Sergeant Brennan, Navigator Killed.”*2

At 15:00 on August 13th 1943, Arthur Aaron finally lost his determined battle to survive and died from his terrible injuries. He had fought on, overcoming severe pain and injury to guide his crewmen back to safety. Flt. Sgt. Aaron was buried alongside Sgt. Brennan in Bone War Cemetery, in Algeria.

For their action Flt. Sgt. Larden received the C.G.M., and Sgt Mitcham and Sgt. Guy, both a D.F.M.

Arthur Aaron was awarded not only his D.F.M. from his previous mission, but the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. His V.C. was announced in the London Gazette on November 5th, 1943*3.

It reads:

Air Ministry, 5th November, 1943.

The King has been graciously pleased to confer the Victoria Cross on the undermentioned airman in recognition of most conspicuous bravery:
1458181 Acting Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron, D.F.M., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, No. 218 Squadron (deceased).

On the night of 12 August 1943, Flight Sergeant Aaron was captain and pilot of a Stirling aircraft detailed to attack Turin. When approaching to attack, the bomber received devastating bursts of fire from an enemy fighter. Three engines were hit, the windscreen shattered, the front and rear turrets put out of action and the elevator control damaged, causing the aircraft to become unstable and difficult to control. The navigator was killed and other members of the crew were wounded.

A bullet struck Flight Sergeant Aaron in the face, breaking his jaw and tearing away part of his face. He was also wounded in the lung and his right arm was rendered useless. As he fell forward over the control column, the aircraft dived several thousand feet. Control was regained by the flight engineer at 3,000 feet. Unable to speak, Flight Sergeant Aaron urged the bomb aimer by signs to take over the controls. Course was then set southwards in an endeavour to fly the crippled bomber, with one engine out of action, to Sicily or North Africa.

Flight Sergeant Aaron was assisted to the rear of the aircraft and treated with morphia. After resting for some time he rallied and, mindful of his responsibility as captain of aircraft, insisted on returning to the pilot’s cockpit, where he was lifted into his seat and had his feet placed on the rudder bar. Twice he made determined attempts to take control and hold the aircraft to its course but his weakness was evident and with difficulty he was persuaded to desist. Though in great pain and suffering from exhaustion, he continued to help by writing directions with his left hand.

Five hours after leaving the target the petrol began to run low, but soon afterwards the flare path at Bone airfield was sighted. Flight Sergeant Aaron summoned his failing strength to direct the bomb aimer in the hazardous task of landing the damaged aircraft in the darkness with undercarriage retracted. Four attempts were made under his direction; at the fifth Flight Sergeant Aaron was so near to collapsing that he had to be restrained by the crew and the landing was completed by the bomb aimer.

Nine hours after landing, Flight Sergeant Aaron died from exhaustion. Had he been content, when grievously wounded, to lie still and conserve his failing strength, he would probably have recovered, but he saw it as his duty to exert himself to the utmost, if necessary with his last breath, to ensure that his aircraft and crew did not fall into enemy hands. In appalling conditions he showed the greatest qualities of courage, determination and leadership and, though wounded and dying, he set an example of devotion to duty which has seldom been equalled and never surpassed.

A number of memorials exist in honour of Arthur Aaron. On the site of the former accommodation blocks at Bexwell (RAF Downham Market) stands a small plaque in his honour along side that of Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, who also won the V.C. whilst at Downham Market.

There is another plaque in the main hall of Roundhay School, Leeds, Aaron’s former school; another commemoration can be found at the AJEX Jewish Military Museum in Hendon, London, and a five-metre bronze sculpture by Graham Ibbeson has been erected on a roundabout to the north of Leeds city centre. Unveiled on 24th March 2001 by the last survivor of the crew, Malcolm Mitchem, it represents the freedom Aaron’s sacrifice helped ensure.

RAF Downham Market

The Memorial Plaque at the former RAF Downham Market.

Sources and Further Reading:

RAF Downham Market appears in Trail 7.

Other Heroic tales appear in Heroic Tales of WW II.

*1 London Gazette, 15th October 1943, page 4620.

*2 Air 27/1351 – National Archives

*3 London Gazette, (supplement) 5th November 5th, 1943, page 4859

No. 218 Gold Coast Squadron, 1936-1945. A blog that has many letters, from Aaron along with the history of 218 Squadron.

RAF Bardney to become a Shooting Range

After the closure of many of Britain’s wartime airfields, many were returned to agriculture or converted for use by light industry. Some were completely removed and some developed into housing. RAF Bardney, located a few miles to the east of Lincoln, has since been one of those used for a multitude of light industrial and agricultural uses and has been the recent subject of a planning application.

Bardney was home to three RAF squadrons during World War Two: Nos 9, (April 1943 – July 1945);  No. 227, who were reformed here at Bardney from ‘A’ flight of No. 9 Sqn and ‘B’ flight of 619 Sqn, staying for two weeks in October 1944; and finally No. 189 Sqn (April – October 1945) – all three squadrons operated the Lancaster MKI and MKIII.

During their stay here, No. 9 Sqn operated as part of 5 Group Bomber Command, using the Squadron code ‘WS’, and after moving in from nearby Waddington, they carried out a number of operations into the German heartland losing fifty-nine aircraft during 1943, half of which were whilst based here at Bardney.

The first fatality occurred on April 30th, when Lancaster III WS-R, ‘KD838’ was lost without trace in an operation to Essen. None of the seven crew members were ever found nor was there ever any trace of the aircraft.

9 Squadron was a mix of nationalities: British, Australian, Canadian, Rhodesian and Trinidadian. As with KD838, a large number of these crews were lost without trace, and as such, have no known grave – their memories being carved into the walls of the Runnymede Memorial.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Lancaster Mk III, ED831 ‘WS-H’, of No 9 Squadron RAF, flown by Squadron Leader A M Hobbs RNZAF and his crew, at Bardney. © IWM (CH 10405)

In the dying stages of the war, Bardney was used by the RAF’s Bomber Command Film Unit, flying Lancasters and Mosquitoes, the unit was itself eventually disbanded at Upwood later in the same year.

Post war Bardney was used  as a Thor missiles base by No. 106 Squadron (July 1959 – May 1963), before its eventual closure and final disposal.

A planning application was originally submitted in September 2016 for a:

“Change of use and conversion of existing agricultural land and associated outbuildings to provide an outdoor activities centre providing archery, air rifle shooting, axe throwing, combat archery and zombie training, and the construction of earth bunds to a maximum height of 3.0metres (bunds already constructed), in accordance with the amended plans received by the Local Planning Authority on 15th November 2016”.

Objections were put forward by local people and comments made by other interested bodies such as Environmental Health, Health and Safety and the Economic Development Team. Permission was initially granted in December that year. There are certain conditions in the terms of the decision, but it seems more than likely that the development will progress as planned.

The proposal and supporting documents can be found on the East Lindsey District Council Planning site.

The story first appeared in ‘Lincolnshire Live‘ news report on May 27th 2017.

Sqn. Ldr. Ian Willoughby Bazalgette (RAFVR) VC

RAF Downham Market was one of a small number of airfields that were home to the RAF’s Pathfinder Squadrons. Elite airmen who would lead formations of heavy bombers into some of the most heavily defended areas of the Reich, often against insurmountable odds and always at great risk to themselves. The Pathfinders produced some remarkable flyers and many, many heroes. Of all the crews who flew with 8 Group PFF, only three were rewarded for their valour and gallantry with the highest possible accolade, the Victoria Cross. One of those went Posthumously to Sqn. Ldr. I. W. Bazalgette, whose long and distinguished career led him to achieving 58 missions before his death. Based at RAF Downham Market, Bazalgette, would become legendary, flying his Lancaster bomber in pursuit of victory against a tyranny beyond all evil.

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Sqn Leader Ian Bazalgette (RAFVR) died August 4th 1944, a few days before his 26th Birthday.*1

Squadron Leader Ian Willoughby “Baz” Bazalgette was born on October 19th 1918 in Calgary, Canada and was the youngest of three children. His parents decided to move to England in 1924 when he was six, settling in New Malden, Surrey on the outskirts of London.

During his school life he developed a passion for music, and in particular Classical Music, which he immersed himself in spending hours listening to and writing about.

As a teenager, he would have his first real battle, that of tuberculosis, which meant he would have to undergo four long months of hospital treatment. Bazalgette’s strength and determination would see him pull though this, a strength and determination that would go on to show itself on a number of occasions later on during his RAF career. 

Prior to the outbreak of war, Bazalgette decided to enlist, applying to, and being accepted by, the Royal Artillery; achieving a commission as Second Lieutenant within a year. This new role took him to the outskirts of Edinburgh operating a radar searchlight, protecting both the city, and the Forth Estuary from Luftwaffe bombers. Dissatisfied with the routine of searchlight activities, he decided to give up this role, and whilst on a trip into nearby Edinburgh in March 1941, he applied to the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves. His application was accepted and in the following July, he received his first posting to a training unit – 22 Elementary Flying Training School at Cambridge.

Throughout his training Bazalgette showed great tenacity and promise, quickly passing  a number of stringent and difficult flying tests. Flying solo for the first time during August, gave him the opportunity he had been longing for. His flying skills impressed his seniors so much that on the 28th, he passed the C.O.s test taking just 30 minutes to complete the flight. Upon passing, he was graded as an ‘above average’ pilot by his examiners.

Bazalgette was then transferred to Cranwell where he trained on Airspeed Oxfords. At Cranwell he achieved his wings, and after a short break, he was sent to Scampton and 18 Beam Approach School. Bazalgette eventually left Scampton, heading towards his first operational unit, 25 Operational Training Unit, where he would form his first crew.

Informal crewing up was very much encouraged by the RAF, but those that didn’t manage the task were allocated crew members by the relevant staff at the various bases; Bazalgette had no problems in finding his own.

Whilst at the OTU, Bazalgette would have his first experience of heavy bombers flying the Vickers Wellington; a remarkable aircraft that used Barnes Wallis’ geodesic construction in Rex Pierson’s design.  Bazalgette and his crew competed a range of training flights whilst at 25 OTU, including air gunnery and bombing practice, all of which they passed. On September 18th 1942, after accumulating some 223 hours as a pilot, Bazalgette received his first posting to a fully operational Squadron, 115 Squadron at RAF Marham, Norfolk, he was off to war.

The very next day he flew “Second Dickie” assisting an experienced crew tackling the rigours of an operational sortie to Saarbrucken. Two days later he was back out, but this time laying mines on a ‘Gardening’ mission shortly before the squadron moved to nearby RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. It was here that Bazalgette would fly his first operational mission as a pilot leading his own crew.

After moving to East Wretham, 115 squadron then began the task of replacing their Wellingtons with Stirlings, and Bazalgette was sent to 1567 Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) to convert to the big heavy four-engined aircraft. Between him completing the course and returning to East Wretham though the Stirling had been superseded, proving to be a poor performer in conflict zones. Bazalgette would now get his chance to fly the legendary Lancaster.

On the 3rd April 1943, Bazalgette was awarded the DFC, and the same strength and determination that had got him though tuberculosis would get him through his tour of 30 missions. On completion, as was customary at this point, he and his crew were separated and scattered across a range of new squadrons within the Air Force.

Bazalgette was sent back to Scotland and RAF Lossiemouth where he reluctantly trained new bomber pilots, a position he disliked immensely. He pleaded for postings to an operational unit, a plea that was eventually granted in April 1944, and a posting to RAF Warboys and the Pathfinder Conversion Unit.

From here he transferred with a new crew to 635 Squadron at RAF Downham Market, in Norfolk, a few miles west of Marham the very station he had spent his early days at with 115 Sqn.

As a model crew, he was looked up to by others at Downham Market. He would go on to fly 58 missions in total, two off his score of two tours of duty.

However, his 58th mission would be his last. On August 4th 1944, Lancaster ‘M’ for Mother would not be listed for duty, but an absent crew left an opening that Bazalgette and his crew jumped at. It was a decision that would change their lives forever.

On that day, Bazalgette would fly Lancaster Mk III, F2-‘T’ for Tommy, not their usual aircraft but it was ready, fuelled and bombed up. The aircraft was known for a history of mechanical problems, its usual pilot tending to work the engines much harder than necessary, but it was a choice of stay on the ground or fly the mission: for Bazalgette and the crew of ‘M’ for Mother it was an easy choice.

The mission for the day was as Master Bomber of the Pathfinder squadron to identify and mark a V1 storage site at Trossy St. Maximin, a heavily defended area to the north of Paris. Take off was set for 11:00, over the next fifteen minutes at five-minute intervals, 14 Lancasters of 635 Sqn would leave Downham Market heading for France. The weather was less than 3/10 cloud over the target, excellent for the determined and accurate anti-aircraft gunners below. On the second run in to the target, the Master Bomber and Deputy Master bomber were both hit, one being downed (PA983 F2-A piloted by F/L. R. W. Beveridge) and the second forced to return home, leaving Bazalgette as the lead aircraft.

Flak was incredibly intense and his aircraft repeatedly hit. The starboard wing was struck causing damage to both engines, subsequently putting them both out of action. In the wing the fuel tanks caught fire, fuel poured into the rear of the fuselage and the situation becomes desperate. The bomb aimer was mortally wounded, his arm barely recognisable due to his injuries, but Bazalgette managed to reach the target, drop both his markers and his bombs, whereupon the aircraft began a steep spin toward the ground below. As the situation worsened, he gave the order to bail out, all but three; Bazalgette, F/Lt. I. A. Hibbert and F/Sgt. V. V. R. Leader are left.

Bazalgette continued to fight with the controls and quite remarkably managed to keep the stricken bomber flying long enough to avoid the French village of Senantes. Unable to maintain height, the aircraft finally hit the ground, resting momentarily before exploding in a massive fireball killing all those remaining on board.

Once the ferocious fire subsided, locals were able to reach the wreck and remove the bodies of both Leeder and Hibbert. Bazalgette’s remains were not found until the air frame was removed, some days later.

For his bravery and sacrifice, Ian Bazalgette was awarded the V.C., the highest honour for military personnel. The London Gazette, of 14th August 1945, published the following:

On 4th August 1944 Squadron Leader Bazalgette was “Master bomber” of a Pathfinder Squadron detailed to mark an important target for the main bomber force. When nearing the target his Lancaster was seriously damaged and set on fire by anti-aircraft fire; the bomb aimer was badly wounded. As the deputy “Master bomber” had already been shot down, the success of the attack depended on Squadron Leader Bazalgette who despite appalling conditions in his burning aircraft pressed on gallantly, bombed, and marked the target accurately. That the attack was successful was due to his magnificent effort. The condition of the aircraft had by now become so bad that Squadron Leader Bazalgette ordered his crew to leave the aircraft by parachute. He attempted the almost hopeless task of landing the crippled and blazing aircraft to save the wounded bomb aimer, and one air-gunner, who had been overcome by fumes. With superb skill and taking great care to avoid a French village, be brought the aircraft safely down. Unfortunately it then exploded and this gallant officer and his two comrades perished. His heroic sacrifice marked the climax of a long career of operations against the enemy. He always chose the more dangerous and exacting roles. His courage and devotion to duty were beyond praise.

Ian Bazalgette’s sacrifice marked the end of a career covering an incredible 58 operational missions. His courage, determination and devotion to duty going way beyond those expected of any serving officer. With him that day on ‘T’ for Tommy were: Sgt. G. R. Turner; F/L. G. Goddard; F/L. I. A. Hibbert DFC; F/O. C. R. Godfrey DFC; F/S. V. V. R. Leeder (RAAF) and F/O. D. Cameron DFM. Of the four men who manged to get out of the aircraft: Turner, Goddard, Godfrey and Cameron, all managed to evade capture*2.

In his honour, Bazalgette has a Garden in New Malden, Surrey named after him, a school in Calgary, the ‘Ian Bazalgette Junior High School’, and at the Bomber Command Museum of Canada, an Avro Lancaster, FM159, was painted in the markings of his aircraft; the Lancaster was dedicated in 1990. At the ceremony, Bazalgette’s sister, Mrs. E. Broderick, unveiled a commemorative plaque whilst the aircraft itself was unveiled by two of Bazalgette’s former crew members, Chuck Godfrey DFC and George Turner, both of whom were with him of that fateful night.

Outside the church of St. Mary’s at Bexwell close to the accommodation sites of Downham airfield, stands a small memorial in his name. Laying beside him is the memorial of another V.C. winner Arthur Aaron, who was also based at RAF Downham Market during the Second World War.

Ian Bazalgette was one of those many young men who sacrificed their lives in the hope of saving others. He dedication to duty, determination to win and above all, his value of other’s led to a tragic and sad end, that shall forever be remembered in the hearts and minds of those who lived through those terrible years 1939-45.

RAF Downham Market

The memorial at St. Mary’s Church Bexwell.

RAF Downham Market appears in Trail 7: Northwest Norfolk.

There is a book written listing every operation of 635 Sqn whilst at RAF Downham Market, with crew details, aircraft profiles and mission aerial photographs. It is an amazing record and the result of three years work. The author Christopher Coverdale, is also on the committee aiming to construct the new memorial at RAF Downham Market.

Notes and Further Reading.

Coverdale C. ‘Pathfinders 635 Squadron – definitive history March 1944 – September 1945‘ Published by Pathfinder Publishing, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-9561145-0-1

The Bomber Command Museum of Canada website has a detailed account of the restoration of Lancaster FM159.

*1 Photo IWM – CH 15911 in the public domain.

*2 Chorley, W. R. ‘Bomber Command Losses of the Second World War‘ Vol 5, 1944, 1997

Other records of heroism and crew stories can be found on the Heroic Tales page.

A New Memorial to Honour Those Who Never Came Home.

RAF Downham Market in Norfolk, was home to 6 squadrons during the Second World War: 214, 218, 571, 608, 623 and 635 along with a number of other non-flying units. It was also home to a number of aircraft types, Short’s enormous Stirling, the famous Lancaster and of course de Havilland’s ‘Wooden Wonder’ the Mosquito of the RAF’s Pathfinder force.

RAF Downham Market

One of the many huts still left on the airfield.

It was also the airfield that launched the last bombing mission by an RAF aircraft, a Mosquito, on May 2nd 1945, to attack retreating German forces at the Kiel canal.

Considering the strong links it has with the RAF and Bomber Command, it has never been given a fitting memorial, but maybe finally, this is about to change.

A proposal has been put forward to erect a grand memorial on a site next to where one of the former accommodation sites once stood. It will honour not only those who flew from Downham Market and never returned, but those who served and were stationed here as well.

It is hoped that the new memorial will consist of seven polished, black granite slabs with each name of the 700 crewmen who lost their lives, carved into it, in the order in which they were lost. It is hoped to raise £250,000 to cover the cost of the structure which will be grand in scale and stand next to the main A10, a road that was made using the runways for its hardcore.

Currently the only reminder of their sacrifice is a small memorial outside of Bexwell church. It is a small memorial telling the stories of the two heroic crew members, Flight Sergeant Arthur Louis Aaron and Squadron Leader Ian Bazalgette, two pilots who both received the Victoria Cross whilst at Downham Market, for extreme bravery in the face of the enemy.

Today whilst none of the runways or perimeter tracks exist, a number of the original buildings are still present, used by small businesses and light industry. Recently however, a  £170m regeneration plan was announced, one that may signify the end of these buildings and Downham Market airfield for good (see here).

RAF Downham Market and especially the many crew members, who came from all across the Commonwealth, deserve great recognition for the work they did. Perhaps this, is finally a sign that it may now happen.

The full story and pictures can be accessed on the Eastern Daily Press website. There are more details and a link to the donations page on the RAF Downham Market website. 

RAF Downham Market appears on Trail 7 – North West Norfolk. 

 

Sqn. Ldr. Leonard Trent VC – RAF Methwold.

RAF Methwold was a small airfield that was never intended to be a major player in the Second World War, yet it would see some remarkable achievements performed by the people who were stationed there.

Once such notable person was Squadron Leader Leonard Trent V.C., who, on 3rd May 1943, took a squadron of Lockheed Venturas on a ‘Ramrod’ Mission to attack an electricity power station on the northern side of Amsterdam.

As part of a larger attack, it would not be a mission central to Bomber Command’s overall bombing strategy, but more a mission of support and encouragement to the resistance fighters bravely fighting in occupied Holland.

Trent (N.Z.248i), born in Nelson, New Zealand on 14th April 1915, achieved his wings with the RNZAF in Christchurch in May 1938, a month before sailing to England and a role with the Royal Air Force.

At the outbreak of war he was sent with No. 15 Squadron flying Fairy Battles, to France to carry out photo-reconnaissance sorties over occupied territory. The squadron then moved back to England (RAF Wyton) and changed their Fairy Battles for Bristol Blenheim IVs.

After carrying out a number of low-level attacks, he was awarded a DFC for his part in the air war over Belgium, after which he became a flying instructor for RAF crews.

Wing Commander G J “Chopper” Grindell (centre), Commanding Officer of No. 487 Squadron RNZAF, with his two flight commanders in front of a Lockheed Ventura at Methwold, Norfolk. On his left is the ‘A’ Flight commander, Squadron Leader T Turnbull, and on his right is the commander of ‘B’ Flight, Squadron Leader L H Trent. (IWM)*1

In 1942 he returned to operational duties as a newly promoted Squadron Leader taking command of B Flight, 487 (NZ) Squadron at Feltwell. At the time 487 were part of No. 2 Group and were in the process of replacing their Blenheims with Venturas. The squadron moved from Feltwell to Methwold in early April 1943. Little did they know that only a month later, the Squadron’s Operations Record Book would read: “This is a very black day in the Squadron history…a better set of boys could not be met in 30 years. Everybody is still feeling dazed by the news.”

As an experienced pilot Trent would fly several low-level missions over the low countries, using an aircraft that was originally designed around a small passenger aircraft back in the United States. Whilst having powerful engines, Venturas suffered from poor manoeuvrability and a heavy air frame, these two failings combined with its rather ‘fat’ appearance, earned it the name “flying pig”.

Loses in Ventura operations would be high, and this was reflected nowhere else than on the very mission that Trent would fly on May 3rd 1943.

On that day fourteen Venturas of 487 Sqn were detailed to attack a target in Amsterdam, however only twelve aircraft actually took off, all at 16:43 from RAF Methwold. These aircraft were all part of a much wider operation, one that would involve an escort of nine RAF fighter squadrons. Timing was therefore crucial, as was low-level flying and maintaining the element of surprise. Within five minutes of their departure though, ‘EG-Q’ piloted by Sgt. A. Baker, would return after losing the crew escape hatch. This left eleven aircraft to carry on to the target.

A diversionary attack carried out by aircraft of 12 Group flying ahead of the main formation flew in too high, too soon, thus losing the surprise and alerting the defenders of the impending attack. Caught out by low fuel, many of the escorting fighters had to then leave thus reducing the overall effectiveness of the defensive escorting force. The Luftwaffe, now ready and waiting, had scrambled numerous fighters, a deadly cocktail of FW-190s and Bf-109s. The squadron record book reports an estimated “80+ ” enemy aircraft in the locality of the attacking Venturas.

From this point on things went very badly for 487 Sqn.

As they crossed the Dutch coast Ventura ‘AJ478’ (EG-A) was attacked and shot down by Luftwaffe fighters. Ditching in the sea the crew took to a life raft where Sgt. T Warner, injured in the attack, died of his injuries. Committing his body to the sea the remaining three would be captured and become prisoners of war. Warner’s body would wash up two days later on a Dutch beach and be buried in the small town of Bergen op Zoom – all four were from New Zealand.

A second aircraft, ‘AE916’ (EG-C) was also very badly shot up by the pouncing fighters. However, it managed to return to England landing at their former base RAF Feltwell. The pilot and navigator were both unhurt, but the wireless operator and air gunner were both badly wounded, and were immediately taken directly the RAF hospital at Ely, Cambridgeshire. The aircraft was so badly damaged in the attack that it was written off. For their actions the pilot (F/Lt. Duffill) and navigator (F.O. Starkie) were both awarded the DFC, whilst the wireless operator (Sgt. Turnbull) and gunner (Sgt. Neill) the DFM.  Dufill later went on to become the managing director of Humbrol paints, a company renowned for its paint and modelling supplies.

Pressing on to the target, the casualties got worse and the loss rate increased.

Firstly, Ventura ‘AE684’ (EG-B) was shot down at 17:45 near Bennebroek with the loss of two; at the same time ‘AE731’ (EG-O) was shot down  just north of Vijfhuizen, three crewmen were captured but the fourth, Sgt. Tatam, died. Five minutes later at 17:50, ‘AE780’ (EG-S) was lost, with only one crew member surviving – the aircraft crashing into the suburbs of Amsterdam. Within three more minutes, a fourth aircraft of this group would go down; ‘AE713’ (EG-T) was hit, also causing it to crash in the northern suburbs of Amsterdam, this time killing all on board. By 18:00 there were only two of the eleven aircraft left, ‘AJ209’ (EG-V) flown by Squadron Leader Leonard Trent, and ‘AE716’ (EG-U) flown by F.O. T. Baynton.

Baynton’s aircraft, ‘EG-U’, would then be shot down by fighters causing it to crash in the outskirts of Amsterdam, also killing all four on board. Squadron Leader Trent, seeing all around him fall from the sky, pressed on. Flying toward the target he dropped his bombs and then turned away. Trent bravely and coolly defended his aircraft, shooting down a Bf-109 with his forward facing guns. Shortly after, he too was hit, the aircraft badly damaged, spiralled earthward uncontrollably, breaking up as it did so, throwing both Trent and his navigator F.L. V. Philips, out of the falling wreckage.

Both Trent and Philips were later captured and taken prisoner, the other two crew members; F.O. R. Thomas and Sgt. G. Trenery, both lost their lives in the crash.

One further aircraft, ‘AJ200’ (EG-G) piloted by New Zealander Sgt. J Sharp was thought to crash 3 km west of Schiphol, with only Sharp surviving; whilst the remaining two unaccounted aircraft, ‘AE956’ (EG-H) and ‘AE 798’ (EG-D), were lost over the sea on the way to the target. All eight crewmen were presumed killed, two of them being washed up several days later on the Dutch coast. The remainder were never heard from again.

In the space of only a few minutes, eleven aircraft had been attacked and ten shot down with the loss of 28 young RAF lives.

operations-record-page

The Operations Record Book for May 3rd 1943, shows the depth of feeling felt by the crews at Methwold following the disastrous mission. (Crown Copyright*2)

Trent spent the remainder of the war in Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. Only on his eventual return to England did the full and disastrous story of what had happened come out. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses. The London Gazette published his citation on Friday 1st March 1946, in the Third Supplement which said:

“Before taking off, Squadron Leader Trent told the deputy leader that he was going over the target, whatever ‘happened…”

It later went on to say…

“On this, his 24th sortie, Squadron Leader Trent showed outstanding leadership. Such was the trust placed in this gallant officer that the other pilots followed him unwaveringly. His cool, unflinching courage and devotion to duty in the face of overwhelming odds, rank with the finest examples of these virtues.” *3

A determined attack, it was flawed from the moment the preceding force were spotted. The Venturas, woefully inadequate and unprotected, were literary cut down from the sky. Fighters escorting the Venturas confirmed seeing seven parachutes from the aircraft, but the scale of the loss was a blow so devastating, it left only six operational crews in the entire squadron.

For many days after, the Operational Record Books indicated “no news of the boys“, and as new crews and aircraft arrived, prayers for their return faded, but hopes for a return to operational status rose. Following a number of training flights, the next operational mission would finally take place on May 23rd, a mission that was a total success, and one that must have boosted the morale of the squadron immensely.

This mission was a disaster for the Royal Air Force and for Methwold in particular. The loss of life dealt a huge blow to the community both on, and around the base. In memory of these gallant young men, many of whom were never found, their names are inscribed on the Runnymede memorial, whilst those whose bodies were recovered, remain scattered in various graves across the Dutch countryside.

May their memories live for evermore.

RAF Methwold appears in Trail 8.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo source The Imperial War Museum Collections

*2 AIR\27\1935\13

*3  The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 37486. p. 1179. 26 February 1946. Retrieved 29th January 2017

AIR\27\1935\13 – Operational Records Book (summary), The National Archives

AIR\27\1935\14 – Operational Records Book (work carried out), The National Archives

Chorley, W.R., Bomber Command Losses, 1943, Midland Counties, 1996

RAF Methwold – unassumingly famous.

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

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

RAF Methwold

Methwold Village sign

Methwold village sign

Located between Downham Market and Thetford, Methwold is a small rural setting on the edge of Thetford Forest. Its village sign and combined memorial, remind the passer-by of its strong air force links – a Lockheed Ventura taking off over the village church.

Methwold was actually built as a satellite for nearby RAF Feltwell and as such, had few squadrons of its own. Being a satellite its runways were of grass construction with little in the way of luxuries for accommodation.

On the day war broke out in Europe, 214 Squadron, equipped with Wellington MKIs, moved from RAF Feltwell to here at Methwold. Feltwell being larger, offered a prime target for the Luftwaffe and so their loss would be Methwold’s gain. The first production Wellington, the MKI was powered by two 1,000 hp Bristol Pegasus XVIII radial engines, and would soon be updated and replaced by the MKIA; the main difference being a change in gun turret from the Vickers to the Nash & Thomson. As part of Bomber Command, 214 Sqn did not carry out its first operational bombing flight until June 1940 some four months after it had left Methwold; but that is not to say casualties were not suffered.

On Monday November 6th 1939, Wellington L4345, crashed whilst circling on approach to Methwold. The accident resulted in the deaths of both crewmen, Pilot Officer J. Lingwood and Aircraftman 1, – A. Matthews.

Tragic accidents were not uncommon in these early stages of the war, another similar incident occurring at Methwold only a month later. In mid December, Pilot Officers W. Colmer and R. Russell-Forbes, along with Leading Aircraftman J. Warriner, were all killed whilst on approach to the airfield flying in another Wellington, R2699. Both these Officers were only recently commissioned and were still considered relative flying ‘novices’.

In February 1940, 214 Sqn departed Methwold and transferred to RAF Stradishall leaving only a small number of Wellington IIIs of 57 Sqn detached from their parent station at Feltwell. These would, in September 1942, be replaced by the mighty Lancaster, the four engined bomber that formed the backbone of the RAF’s Bomber Command.

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

Little happened at Methwold for the next two years, then in October 1942, 21 Sqn arrived. After having flown many missions against coastal targets in the Mediterranean, they were disbanded at Luqa only to be reformed and re-equipped at Bodney the same day. After changing their Blenheims for Venturas in May 1942, they transferred to RAF Methwold where they stayed for six months.

Operating both the Ventura MKI and II, they were the first Bomber Command squadron to re-equip with the type, and were one of the small number of squadrons who took part in the famous Eindhoven raid, attacking the Philips radio factory in December 1942. The daring Operation Oyster, would see the loss of sixteen aircraft – three of which belonged to 21 Sqn. Two of these aircraft crashed in enemy territory, whilst the third ditched in the North Sea after having been hit by enemy gunfire. Using a mix of Venturas, Bostons and Mosquitos, this mission perhaps revealed the true vulnerability of such aircraft over enemy territory, a warning that would violently repeat itself in the months to come.

The spring of 1943 would again see changes at Methwold; as 21 Sqn departed, the ‘Flying Dutchmen’ of 320 (Dutch) Sqn would move in. 320 Sqn, were formed after the German forces invaded the Netherlands and consisted of mainly Dutch nationals. They carried out both anti-shipping and rescue duties before transferring, from Leuchars, to Methwold via Bircham Newton. Upon arriving here, 320 Sqn was absorbed into No. 2 Group and would shortly swap their Hudson VIs for Mitchell IIs. After a very short transfer period, they then departed Methwold, moving to the much larger base at Attlebridge.

Two further squadrons of Venturas arrived at Methwold in the early spring of 1943. Both 464 (RAAF) and 487 (RNZAF) Sqns were formed, transferred and disbanded in unison, and both consisted of commonwealth crews. Having entered the war in a baptism of fire, they also flew alongside 21 Sqn on the Eindhoven raid; 464 Sqn contributing fourteen aircraft whilst 487 contributed sixteen – each squadron losing three aircraft and all but four of the twenty-four crewmen.

DSC_0029

One of the original hangers

The Venturas earned themselves the unsavoury title the ‘flying pig‘ partly due to their appearance and partly due to poor performance. Based on the Lockheed Model 18 Lodestar, it was primarily a passenger aircraft and even though it had powerful engines, it performance was low and so operational losses were often high.

On May 3rd 1943, whilst on a ‘Ramrod‘ mission, eleven out of twelve (one returning due to engine trouble) 487 Sqn aircraft were lost to enemy action, and all but twelve of the forty-four crewmen were killed. Of these twelve, Squadron Leader Leonard H. Trent, was captured and taken to Stalag Luft III where he participated in the ‘Great Escape‘. On his eventual return to England at the end of the war, he was awarded the Victoria Cross for his leadership in ensuring the bomb run was completed despite heavy enemy resistance and very high losses.

In the summer of 1943, both 464 and 487 Squadrons became part of the newly formed Second Tactical Air Force; a move that led to their departure from Methwold, along with a new role and new aircraft.

Following their departure, Methwold was passed over to 3 Group and was designated to receive the heavy four-engined bombers of Bomber Command. To accommodate them, the site was upgraded to Class ‘A’ standard. Three runways were built, five hangars (four ‘T2s’ and one ‘B1’) were erected, and a wide range of ancillary buildings added. Aircraft dispersal consisted of 36 hard standings mainly of the spectacle type.

The incoming ground and aircrews would be accommodated in areas to the east of the airfield, buildings were sufficient for a small bomber site of some 1,800 men and just over 300 women, by no means large.

In this interim period on March 13th, a lone American P-47 #42-74727, suffered engine failure whilst on a routine training flight in the area. In an attempt to land at Methwold, the P-47 Thunderbolt crashed, slightly injuring the pilot but writing off the aircraft.

The first of the heavy bombers to arrive at the newly constructed Methwold were the mighty Stirling IIIs of 218 Sqn. A small detachment from RAF Woolfox Lodge, they would operate from here along side 149 Squadron who moved here from RAF Lakenheath in May 1944. 149’s record so far had been highly distinguished. Participating in the RAF’s second bombing mission of the war on September 4th, they had gone on to take part in the first 1,000 bomber raid, attacked prestige targets such as the Rhur, and had taken part in the Battle of Hamburg. They had also been in action in the skies over the Rocket development site at Peenemunde. They had gone on to drop essential supplies to the French Resistance, and one of its pilots, Flight Sergeant Rawdon Middleton, had won the VC for his valour and determination in action. 149 Sqn would go on with the offensive right up until the war’s end, replacing the ill-fated Stirlings with Lancaster MKIs and later the MKIIIs in August 1944.

During the D-Day landings, 149 Squadron were tasked with dropping dummy parachutists away from the Normandy beaches. As part of Operation Titanic, they were to deceive the German ground forces, aiming to draw them away from the Normandy beaches, thus reducing the defensive force. A task that proved relatively successful in certain areas of the invasion zone, it caused confusion in the German ranks and pulled vital men away from drop zones. During this dramatic operation, two 149 Sqn Stirlings were lost; LJ621 ‘OJ-M’ and LX385  ‘OJ-C’ – with all but three of the eighteen crew being killed.

In August 1944, 218 Sqn moved the remaining crews over to Methwold completing the unit’s strength once more. This move also led to them taking on the Lancaster MKIs and IIIs. 218 Sqn was another squadron with a remarkable record of achievements, its most notable being the VC posthumously awarded to Flight Sergeant Arthur Aaron for his ‘most conspicuous bravery’ whilst at RAF Downham Market.

As the allied advance moved across Europe, 149 Sqn supported them. In December 1944, 218 Sqn departed Methwold taking their Lancasters to RAF Chedburgh and disbandment the following year. 218’s losses were not over though, just days before the war’s end on April 24th 1945, Lancaster NF955 ‘HA-H’ crashed on take off, the last fatality of the squadron’s operational record. For 149 Sqn food packages replaced bombs as the relief operation – Operation Manna – took hold. After the fall of Germany in 1945, 149 Sqn ferried POWs back to Methwold in Operation Exodus, and for many, it was their first taste of freedom for many years.

The final squadron to be stationed at Methwold was 207 Squadron, between October 1945 and the end of April 1946 also flying the Lancaster I and III. As with many other bomber command squadrons, its history was also long and distinguished; flying its final mission of the war on 25th April 1945, against the SS Barracks at Berchtesgaden. During its wartime service 207 Sqn had completed some 540 operations, lost 154 crews and earned themselves a total of 7 DSOs, 115 DFCs and 92 DFMs.

In 1946, the Lancasters of 149 Squadron departed Methwold and all fell quiet. The site was officially closed in 1958 and the land returned to the former owners. In the early 1960s, much of the concrete was removed for hardcore, buildings were demolished and the land returned to agriculture, a state it primarily survives in today.

RAF Methwold

Stores huts used for light industry

Methwold airfield is located south of the village of Methwold, accessible by the B1112. As you drive along this road, the technical area is to your left and the main airfield to your right. The entire site is primarily agricultural, with some of the remaining buildings being used for farming purposes or light industry. Many of these are accessible or at least can be seen from the main public highway.

Large parts of the runways do still exist, although much of them are covered in newly developed industrial units, or are hidden away on private land. These most notable developments are at the northern end of the runway closest to Methwold village. However, best views of what’s left, are from the southern end, along a farm track that was once the perimeter track. Also here, is a single large and original ‘T2’ hangar, now used for storing agricultural equipment and other farm related products. This main north-westerly runway, built later in the war, is also used for farm related storage. Divided by a large fence, it is now part track and part storage. The remaining sections of perimeter track, a fraction of its original size, allows access to the runway past the hangar to an area of development further south to where the turret trainers once stood. Also visible here, is the Gymnasium built to drawing 16428/40 later adapted by the addition of a projection room (889/42) for recreational films.

Back alongside the B1112 hidden amongst the woods, is the technical area. Here in between the trees are the former technical huts and workshops now used by small industrial units, many of which survive in varying conditions, some of these are accessible to the general public.

RAF Methwold

One of the former runways looking north-west.

Methwold was never intended to be major player in the war. home to a small number of squadrons, it housed a variety of aircraft and a number of nationals who all combined, tell incredible stories of heroism, bravery and dedication. The squadrons who passed though here, carried out some of the RAF’s most daring raids, whether it be as part of a thousand bomber raid, a small force to attack the heart of Reich, or a diversionary raid to foil air and ground forces.

Methwold is now quiet, agriculture has taken over. The sound of heavy piston engines are now replaced by the sound of tractors, the buildings that once housed brave young men and their incredible machines now home to the machinery of food and farming. The small remnants of Methwold hold stories of their own, for it is here that history was made, war was won and lives were lost – and all in a very unassuming manner.

Notes and further reading:

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

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