RAF Debach – Home of Helton’s Hellcats.

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

RAF Debach (Station 152).

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

The perimeter track forms access for farm vehicles.

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

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

Cpl Kenneth E Blair

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

Links and further reading.

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

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

*1 Photo from findagrave.com

Here lay the names of 150,000 RAF Personnel.

If you are in London, maybe taking in a show or visiting one of the many museums London has to offer, perhaps visiting the RAF Museum at Hendon or as I was, the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, this is an ideal place to stop off and take time out. Its stained outer walls and hectic surroundings hint at nothing inside this remarkable building.

St. Clement Danes Church – London

St. Clement Danes church stands almost oddly in the centre of London in the Strand, surrounded on all sides by traffic; like an island it offers sanctuary and peace yet its history is far from peaceful.

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

The view toward the Altar. The floor contains nearly 900 Squadron badges of the Royal Air Force.

It reputedly dates back to the Ninth Century AD following the expulsion of the Danes from the City of London, in the late 870s, by King Alfred. As a gesture, he allowed Danes who had English wives to remain nearby, allowing them to dedicate the local church to St. Clement of the Danes. Ever since this time, a church has remained, albeit in part, on this very site.

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The ‘Rosette’ of Commonwealth Air Force Badges embedded into the floor.

In the 1300s and then again in the late 1600s it was rebuilt, the second time influenced by the great Sir Christopher Wren – notable for his designs of buildings both in and outside of London. Regarded as being Britain’s most influential architect of all time, he designed many famous buildings such as the Library at Trinity College and the Royal Hospital at Chelsea. Wren also redesigned both Kensington and Hampton Court Palaces – his influences stretched far and wide.

Of course Wren’s ultimate master-piece was St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a structure that reflected both his skill, vision and personality.

During the Great Fire of London in 1666, eighty-seven churches were destroyed in London, but only fifty-two were subsequently rebuilt. Whilst not directly damaged by the fire, St. Clement Danes was included in that list due to its very poor condition and Wren was invited to undertake the huge task.

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

The Memorial to all the Polish airmen who served with the Royal Air Force during World War II.

It then stood just short of 300 years before incendiary bombs of the Luftwaffe destroyed it in May 1941. Leaving nothing but a few walls and the tower, Wren’s design had been reduced to ashes and rubble.

For over ten years it lay in ruins, until it was decided to raise funds and rebuild it. In 1958, following a national appeal by the Royal Air Force, St. Clement Danes was officially opened and dedicated as the Central Church of the Royal Air Force in memory of all those who fought and died whilst in RAF service, and to ‘serve as a perpetual shrine of remembrance’ to them all.

In completing the restoration, every branch of the RAF was included. At the entrance of the church, is the rosette of the Commonwealth made up of all the Air Forces badges of the Commonwealth countries, each of which flew with RAF crews during the conflicts. Beyond the rosette, the floor from the north aisle to the south aisle of the Nave contains nearly 900 squadron badges each one made in Welsh Slate and embedded into the floor.

Around the walls of the church, four on each side and two to the front, are ten Books of Remembrance from 1915 to the present day, in which are listed 150,000 names of those who died whilst in RAF service. A further book on the west wall, contains a further 16,000 names of USAAF personnel killed whilst based in the United Kingdom during the Second World War.

St. Clement Danes - Church of the RAF

Ten Books of Remembrance contain 150,000 names of those who died in RAF Service 1915 – the present day. A further book contains 16,000 names of USAAF airmen who were killed.

On either side of the Altar, are boards and badges dedicated to every branch of the RAF. Two boards list the names of those who were awarded the Victoria Cross and others the George Cross. Other slate badges represent the various units to serve and support the main fighter and bomber groups, including: RAF Training units, Fighter Control units, Maintenance units, University Air Squadrons, Medical units, Communication squadrons, Groups, Colleges and Sectors.

In the North Aisle, a further memorial, also embedded into the floor, remembers those who escaped the Nazi tyranny in Poland and joined the RAF to carry on the fight during World War II. Each Polish Squadron is represented in a beautifully designed memorial around which is written:

“I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course’ I have kept the faith”

Smaller dedications can also be found around the church, such as the Mosquito Aircrew Association, dedicated to both air and ground crews of the mighty ‘Wooden-Wonder’. Some of these memorials are in the form of gifts of thanks many of which come from other nations as their own tribute to those who came from so far away to give their lives in the name of freedom and democracy.

So next time you’re in London, take time out from the hustle and bustle of the West-end, make your way to the Strand ( a fifteen minute bus journey from the IWM) and visit this peaceful retreat.

St. Clement Danes is open every day to the public, so that those who gave the ultimate sacrifice may live on for eternity.

RAF Little Snoring – not a sleepy village 70 years ago.

The second airfield on this part of the trail, takes us further north, to a little village and small airfield. It also features one of only a few round towered churches that hold some remarkable records of the region’s history.

RAF Little Snoring

Little Snoring is as its name suggests, a quiet hamlet deep in the heart of Norfolk. Surrounded by beautiful countryside, it boasts a superb round towered church (another called St. Andrew’s) that holds a remarkable little gem of historical significance.

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The Village sign shows Little Snoring’s aviation history.

The airfield, to the North East, was originally opened in 1943, late in the war, as a satellite for nearby Foulsham. It had three runways: 2 constructed of concrete 4,199 ft (1,280 m) in length, (01/19 and 13/31) and one 07/25 of 6,004 ft (1,830 m) again in concrete. As with other airfields it was a typical ‘A’ shape, with 36 dispersal sites, a bomb site to the north, fuel dump to the south and the accommodation blocks dispersed away from the airfield to the east. It was built to accommodate 1,807 RAF and 361 WAAF personnel housed over eight domestic sites.

Initially under the command of 3 Group Bomber Command, it housed the rare Bristol Hercules engined Lancaster IIs of 1678 HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit) and 115 squadron, (between August and November 1943) formally RAF Witchford (Trail 11) and East Wretham, who were to carry out night bombing duties, a role it had performed well at Witchford. Then, as with many of the airfields in this location, it was taken over by Addison’s 100 Group and Mosquitos moved in.

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One of two original T2 hangars still in use today.

169 squadron operating both Mosquito IIs and Beaufighter VIs, would undertake night fighter missions between December 1943 and June 1944. Like their counterparts at Great Massingham, Foulsham, North Creake, West Raynham and Sculthorpe amongst others, they would take part in electronic warfare and counter measures against enemy fighter operations. 100 Group, investigated a wide range of devises suitable for tracking, homing in on or jamming enemy radars. With a wide rage of names; “Airborne Cigar”, “Jostle”, “Mandrel”, “Airborne Grocer”, “Carpet” and “Piperack”, they used both “Serrate” and “ASH” to attack the enemy on their own airfield at night before they could intercept the bombers.

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A road leads to one of the dispersed accommodation sites.

After a short spell with an American Intruder detachment between March and April 1944 flying P-51s and P-38s, Little Snoring was itself the subject of an attack from Luftwaffe aircraft that had followed the bomber stream home. The attack was so successful that Little Snoring was put out of action for some considerable time.

Night intruder missions continued, with 515 squadron, 23 squadron and 141 squadron operating a range of twin-engined aircraft such as the Beaufighter IIf, Blenheim V, Mosquito II, FB.VI and NF.30. Radar training also continued using smaller aircraft such as the Defiant, Anson and Airspeed Oxfords of 1692 Flt.

Eventually in September 1945, operational flying officially ceased  and the airfield was reduced to care and maintenance. Like other airfields in this area, it became the storage area for surplus Mosquitos on their way to a sad ending under the choppers blade. Then in the 1950s Little Snoring was opened temporarily and used by a civilian operated anti-aircraft co-operation unit, flying Spitfire XVI, Mosquito TT.35 and Vampire FB.Vs. Finally in April 1953, Little Snoring was shut, the gates locked and the site sold off.

However, that was not the of flying. Now in civilian hands, Little Snoring operates a small flying club and a microlight manufacturer. Aircraft can visit, and occasionally a ‘fly-in’ happens and the site springs into life once more.

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The road uses the former eastern perimeter track, part of which is still visible to the side.

Following sale of the site, a large number of buildings were demolished or taken away for use elsewhere. The officers’ mess housed four ornately and beautifully written honours and awards boards. Luckily, these were saved by a good samaritan and now reside in the base’s ‘official’ church, St. Andrew’s, on the west wall. Written in paint, they detail the awards and ‘kills’ of the various crew members stationed at Little Snoring. Just a short walk from the church is the village sign which depicts a Mosquito, often seen over the skies of Little Snoring all those years ago.

The perimeter track to the east is now the road, the accommodation site on the eastern side still bears the track but is closed off, what secrets it must hold! A few remnants of concrete roadway exist outside of the airfield, the northern threshold of the main runway is also there used to store gravel and other road material. A small number of buildings, mainly huts, exist in private gardens used as storage sheds. The local caravan site has what is believed to be the base hospital and / or mortuary now a washing block.

The largest and best preserved buildings are two of the original T2 hangars, both used to store potatoes. A blister hangar is also on site but thought not an original of Little Snoring.

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An air-raid bunker protected the personnel from attack.

The bomb site is a field, and all but a small part of the runways are gone or at best farm tracks. Little Snoring’s gem is its watch office, standing proud in the centre of the site, a lone wind sock fluttering from its walls. Run down and dilapidated, it is crying out for love and restoration, but I suspect this isn’t going to happen and perhaps its days are very sadly numbered.

During its operational life, twelve Lancasters and forty-three Mosquitos were lost during missions over enemy territory and to date no ‘official’ memorial exists in their honour. Maybe one day this too will change.

The base commander, ‘glass eyed’ Group Captain Rex O’Bryan Hoare (Sammy) was a known character and has been mentioned in a number of books discussing night intruder missions. He was a very successful Mosquito pilot  and looked up to by his fellow pilots. A superbly detailed account of him appears here and is certainly worth a read.

A once bustling airfield, Little Snoring is now a sleepy site with a few remaining remnants of its wartime activity. The church boards reminders of its successes and the toll paid by the young men of the Royal Air Force.

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The watch office now derelict and forlorn.

The four award and honours boards in St. Andrew’s Church can be seen by clicking here.

Little Snoring ends Trail 22, but leads us to the last part of North Norfolk and a to Trail 23. As we continue north toward the coast, we visit two sites with some remarkable features.