Spitfires Galore! – RAF Ludham (Part 1)

In this second part of Trail 58, we leave Rackheath behind and head east towards the coast of East Anglia, and an area known as the ‘Broads’. A few miles across this flat and wetland we come across a small airfield, currently used by crop sprayers and small light aircraft. This private field, almost indistinguishable from the farming land around it, just hints at its past, with two rundown towers, a blister hangar and a small collection of pathways, its history is fast disappearing.

In this the last part of Trail 58 we visit the former RAF Ludham.

RAF Ludham (Station 177, H.M.S. Flycatcher, RNAS Ludham).

Ludham is a small airfield that has been in existence since September 1941, when it opened as a satellite for RAF Coltishall located a few miles to the north-west. It would change hands on more than one occasion over the next few years, being assigned to the RAF, the USAAF and the Royal Navy before returning to RAF ownership once more.

Throughout this time, it would operate as a fighter airfield seeing  range of Spitfire Marks along with a Typhoon Squadron. A number of B-17s would crash here as would a P-38 lightning and several other USAAF aircraft; part of Ludham’s history being that of an emergency landing strip for returning aircraft.

At its inception, Ludham was a grassed airfield, with a hardened perimeter track linking a number of dispersals. Being a fighter airfield the perimeter was only 40 feet wide but of concrete construction, thus it was not designed for the larger, medium or heavy bombers of the allied air forces.

Furthermore, as a satellite, Ludham lacked the design features of a major airfield, and so the accommodation and technical facilities were not up to the same standard of those found on other sites. The accommodation huts were scattered around the north-western side of the airfield, and an initial single storey watch office was also built to the west. A standard wartime design for satellite airfields (design 3156/41), it was a single-roomed structure with a pyrotechnic cupboard and limited views. A switch room was then added to the building (design 1536/42) in early 1942, before the entire building was abandoned and a new twin storey watch office built. As with most airfields of this type, the twin storey building was constructed in conjunction with the addition of the concrete runways. This new office  (design 12779/41) with lower front windows (343/43) would have many benefits over the original not least better views across the airfield site.

Ludham airfield

The much dilapidated original Watch Office.

Another interesting, but not unique feature of Ludham, was a Modified Hunt Range, a structure designed to teach aircraft recognition. The structure, built inside a Laing Hut, saw the trainee sat in front of an enormous mirror. A moving model was then placed behind the student on an elaborate turntable that could not only move in the horizontal plane, but both turn and bank. A selection of lights and a cyclorama added to the realism, with the model reflected in the mirror in front of the student. The combination of all these features provided the students with life-like conditions, thus recreating the same difficulties they were likely to find in combat situations.

For much of its early life, Ludham was used as a satellite of Coltishall, although many of its squadrons were based here from the outset. The primary aircraft seen here was Supermarine’s magnificent Spitfire, the first of which was the MK.VB of 19 Squadron.

19 Sqn had only had this mark of Spitfire since October, previously operating the MK.IIA at RAF Matlask not far from here on the north Norfolk coast. The Mk V was the most produced Spitfire of all 24 marks (and their sub variants) and was armed with a combination of machine gun and canon depending upon which wing configuration was used. The link between the Spitfire, Matlask and Ludham would be a long one, with units moving from one to the other. forging a bond that would last the entire war.

Arriving in the opening days of December 1941, 19 Sqn immediately began carrying out patrols and bomber escort duties over the North Sea, a duty they had been undertaking whilst at Matlask. On several occasions they would fly out to meet incoming Beauforts and their escorts, after they had completed their anti-shipping missions along the Dutch coast. Daily flights would take: Red, Green, Yellow, White, Black or Blue section, each containing two aircraft, over Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth and around the coastal regions of the Norfolk / Suffolk coastline.

However, most of these encounters produced little in the way of contact – even when pilots were directed onto the enemy aircraft. On the 9th, P.O. Halford and Sgt. Turner were vectored onto an intruder, but neither aircraft saw, nor encountered the ‘bandit’, and they returned empty handed. Another two scrambles that same day by ‘Green’ and ‘Black’ sections also proved fruitless, although ‘Black’ section did manage to locate the aircraft which turned out to be a friendly.

Ludham airfield

An original Blister hangar now located on the former runway.

Other duties carried out by 19 Sqn included shipping reconnaissance flights, shadowing and monitoring shipping movements across the North Sea, particularly along the Dutch coast. Taking off at 11:20 on December 18th, F.O. Edwards and P.O. Brooker flew at zero feet across the Sea to Scheveningen where they spotted a convoy of 11 ships. One of these was identified as a flak ship protecting the convoy as it left for open waters. The pair then turned north and flew along the coast to Yumiden where they encountered three more ships. No enemy aircraft were encountered and the pair returned to Ludham to file their report.

Then on Christmas Eve, P.O.s Vernon and Hindley in ‘Blue‘ Section were tasked with a ‘Rhubarb‘ mission to attack the aerodrome at Katwyk. On route, they came across a convoy and two Me. 109Es, who were acting as escort / cover for the ships. The two Spitfires engaged the 109s, Blue 1 getting a two second canon and machine gun strike on one of them at 300 yards range. Black smoke was seen coming from the fighter which dived to the sea only to pull up at the last minute and head for home. Blue 2  engaged the other enemy aircraft, but no strikes were seen and the German pilot broke off also setting a course for home. The two Spitfires then engaged the convoy attacking a number of vessels, each pilot recording strikes on the ships, claiming some as ‘damaged’. After the attack they returned home, this leg of the flight being uneventful.

These events set a general pattern for the next four months, and one that would become synonymous with Ludham. Then, on April 4th 1942, 19 Sqn would move to RAF Hutton Cranswick, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, a direct swap with 610 Sqn who had been stationed there since the January.

Also during this time a supporting squadron had also been at Ludham, 1489 (Fighter) Gunnery Flight, (formerly 1489 (Target Towing) Flight) which had moved in to help prepare fighter pilots for air-to-air combat. Around the time that 19 Sqn departed Ludham, 1489 Flt also departed, also going to Hutton Cranswick with 19 Sqn where they were disbanded in 1943.

610 Sqn were another Spitfire squadron also operating the MK.VB at this time. They too got straight back into action carrying out the patrols undertaken by 19 squadron before them. No engagements were recorded until the 8th, when what were thought to be two ‘E’ boats were sighted but not engaged.

The remainder of April was much the same, several convoy escorts, reconnaissance missions along the Dutch coast and scrambles that led to very little. On the 27th two Spitfires did encounter and Ju 88 which they shot down, the crew from the Ju 88 were not seen after the aircraft hit the water. On the next day, ten Spitfires took off between midnight and 01:05 hrs to patrol the Norwich area. Here they saw green parachute flares, and flew to intercept. Sticks of bombs were then seen exploding in the streets of the city, and various pilots engaged with Do 217 bombers. Strikes were recorded on the enemy aircraft, but they were lost in smoke and they could not be confirmed as ‘kills’. Further attacks occurred again on the 29th and again strikes were seen by the RAF pilots on the enemy intruders.

The period April to August was pretty much along similar lines, routine patrols, shipping reconnaissances and scrambles.  Then in mid August, 610 Sqn would take part in one of the Second World War’s more famous failures.

Ludham had a mainly uneventful entry to the war, sporadic scrambles, intermittent contacts and many hours of training, its future looked secure. But, there were many changes ahead and many events that would put it firmly on the map of history.

In Part 2 we see how these changes affect Ludham and its future.

The full story of RAF Ludham appears in Trail 58.

Rear Gunner Flight Sergeant Nicholas S. Alkemade, 115 Squadron RAF

There have been many stories about bravery and acts of courage in all the Armed Forces involved in war. Jumping out of a burning aircraft at 18,000 ft without a parachute must come as one of those that will live on in history.

There have been a number of recorded incidents where this has occurred, and the crew member involved has lived to tell the tale. On the night of March 23rd/24th 1944, such a thing happened, and to the astonishment of both the Germans and the crew member, who survived to tell the tale.

Flt. Sgt. Nicholas  Stephen (Nico Stephan) Alkemade was born the 10th December 1922 (believed to be North Walsham, Norfolk, England), and was just twenty-one years old on that eventful night. He was stationed at RAF Witchford in Cambridgeshire, England and operated as a rear gunner in a Lancaster bomber.

On the night of the 23rd March 1944, the squadron was called to report to briefing to find that their mission for that night would be Berlin, the heart of Germany. They would form part of an 811 strong force made up of Lancasters, Halifaxes and Mosquitoes. This was to be the final run over Berlin.

Later that night, Alkemade climbed into the rear turret of his 115 Squadron, Lancaster ‘DS664’ named ‘Werewolf‘ and prepared himself for the coming raid which was to be his 13th mission.

Once over Oberkochen, nr, Frankfurt, Germany, the aircraft was attacked by Luftwaffe Ju 88 night-fighters, it caught fire and began to spiral out of control.

Now fearing for his life, the aircraft burning furiously, he looked round for his parachute. Turrets being notoriously small, he was not wearing it and would have to find it from inside the fuselage and put it on before exiting the aircraft.

He found himself surrounded by fire, the heat melting his mask and his skin burning. The fuselage was by now a massive fire. It was at this point, that he noticed his parachute no longer on the rack but burning on the floor of the aircraft. In his recount later in life, he describes how he felt:

“For a brief moment I stared while it dissolved before my eyes. It was not so much a feeling of fear, or dismay, or horror, as a sensation, a sort of twisting in the stomach”.

The fire reached his turret, his clothes scorched, now began to burn. With two options, die in an inferno or jump, he rotated the turret, elbowed open the hatch and fell back, he was 18,000 feet (5,500 m) up. As he fell, he could see the stricken Lancaster explode, then the stars beneath his feet. As he gained momentum, breathing became difficult, again his account reads:

‘Funny, I thought, but if this is dying, it’s not so bad . Then the rushing air, the stars, the ground, the sky, all merged and were forgotten as unconsciousness crept over me…’

Three hours later, Alkemade opened his eyes and looked at his watch, it read 3:25. He had jumped just after midnight. cautiously, he moved each part of his body to find everything was alright, if not a little  stiff.

It was at this moment he realised what he had done and that he was lying beneath pine tress in snow. It was these trees and snow that had saved his life. Cold and unable to move, he needed help.  Taking out his whistle, he blew hard, and continued with alternate blows and smokes of his remaining cigarettes, until found, unfortunately for him, by a German patrol.

The Gestapo interrogated Alkemade, at first in disbelief of his story, but after examining the wreckage of his aircraft, they found the remains of his parachute and were so amazed by his escape, they (reputedly) gave him a certificate in acknowledgement of his testimony.

He was taken to Stalag Luft 3, North Compound, in Poland, and was given Prisoner number: 4175. On the night he jumped, 76 men escaped from the very same prison, an event that became known as ‘The Great Escape’.

Alkemade’s stay was initially very unpleasant, spending days in solitary confinement for being a spy. He was eventually billeted amongst other airmen in the very same hut that one of the tunnels was dug from. He, like other prisoners, was given a diary which was his only and most prized possession. In it he wrote about the boredom and monotony of prison life. He became friends with the artist Ley Kenyon, who added illustrations to his diary.

Sporadic letters from home kept his spirits up, and eventually the Allies reached the camp and he was set free.

Alkemade found out later that the Lancaster had crashed, killing the pilot Jack Newman and three other members of the crew. Both the wireless operator and Navigator survived being thrown clear on impact. The deceased are all believed to be buried in the CWGC’s Hanover War Cemetery. Alkemade was repatriated in May 1945. Post war he returned to Leicestershire, where he married Pearl with whom he had been sending letters and was employed initially in a chemical works (where he survived 3 chemical accidents) and then as a furniture salesman until his death on June 29th 1987, in Cornwall.

Nicholas Alkemade’s story, along with his whistle, is recorded in the RAF Witchford display along with artefacts and other personal memorabilia from the crews and staff of the airfield. His diary and letters remain with his son in their Leicestershire home. Pictures from his diary were published in the ‘Leicester Mercury’ Newspaper, November 2013.

For more information about RAF Witchford see Trial 11.

alkemade

Sgt. Nicholas Alkemade

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P2)

In Part 1 of RAF Bottisham, we saw how the airfield was opened as a satellite and how it was underused for the first part of its life. With numerous short stay or training squadrons it never really  attained the level of prestige it wanted.

In part 2 we see how this struggle continued in 1943, but in 1944 things would change, and Bottisham would become a major front line airfield with a record breaking Fighter Group.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Between January and mid March, 2 Squadron were stationed here, albeit briefly, after receiving their own Mustangs in the preceding April. With their parent airfield Sawbridgeworth being unusable, they needed a new place to stay. The advanced party departing, led by F.Lt. Fletcher, on the 30 January, with the main party leaving the following day. Using these Mustangs 2 Sqn would fly long range reconnaissance flights over to Holland, where they would photograph military compounds and enemy shipping.

After that, in March, came another four short-stay units; 268 Squadron who stayed for a mere 4 days; 613 Sqn who stayed for twelve days; 169 Sqn for two days and 4 Sqn who stayed here for a little longer at four months. 4 Sqn were another unit who had previously used both the Lysander and Tomahawk before converting over to the Mustang.

Their departure in July signified the end of RAF operations from Bottisham airfield, the site being all but empty for the next six months. At this point the US Eighth Air Force took over the airfield, poured engineers into it, developed the technical site and  improved the accommodation blocks. After renaming the airfield Station 374, they began to bring in a new unit and Bottisham would finally become the airfield it was so struggling to be.

At the end of November, the twelfth and last Fighter Group to fly P-47s joined the VIII Air Force here at Bottisham. The 361st FG had only been active for eleven months when they entered combat in January 1944. Their journey had taken them from Richmond AAB in Virginia, through Langley Field, Millville New Jersey, back to Richmond and then, via the Queen Elizabeth, on to Bottisham their first European stop. Here the three squadrons: 374th FS, 375th FS and 376th FS flew P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ or ‘Jugs’ as they were affectionately known, under the command of Colonel Thomas J.J. Christian Jnr, a high ranking officer who was killed in action in August 1944.

‘The Bottisham Four’, 26th July 1944, Leader is Col. Thomas J. J. Christian Jr. Second plane ‘E2-S’ flown by Lt. Urban L. Drew; third is Major Roswell Freedman’s E2-A and the fourth is P-51B E2-H ‘Suzy G’ flown by Lt. Francis Glankler. None of these aircraft survived the war (IWM UPL 18209)

Colonel Christian led the 361st on their first combat sortie on January 21st 1944, as part of an escort of over 600 fighters, to the Pas de Calais and Cherbourg areas. Here, almost 800 B-17s and B-24s from the First, Second and Third Bomb Groups attacked thirty-six ‘V’ weapons sites, thirty-four in the Pas de Calais and two at Cherbourg. As the formation split, the 361st went to Calais, where poor weather hampered the bomb runs. However, allied air superiority meant there were little pickings for the fighters and few enemy aircraft were engaged or shot down. The group returned to Bottisham yet to draw their first blood.

Over the next few weeks, the Group would take part in further escort duties, covering bombers to Frankfurt, Watton, Wilhelmshaven and Gilze-Rijen. February saw them participate in the ‘Big Week’ campaign with further missions to Germany.

On April 27th, the Eighth Air Force undertook two missions, No. 322 and 323, both targeting areas in France and Belgium. On one of these missions was Capt. Charles H. Feller who took off with the 375th FS to escort the bombers. His P-47, ’42-75447′ was the only aircraft lost on that mission, a loss made worse by the fact that his brother Cpl. Jack Feller, was waiting to meet him at the main gate. Cpl. Feller, was informed that his brother was missing in action, and at the time his whereabouts weren’t known. It later transpired that he was killed whilst attacking the former French Air base Etampes-Mondesir which had been taken over by the Luftwaffe*1.

Back at Bottisham, the heavy weight of the Thunderbolt was playing havoc with the Sommerfeld tracking, forcing it to be replaced with Pierced Steel Planking (PSP), a feat that was achieved in a matter of just three days.

As the winter of 1944 passed and spring arrived, the 361st were told that their P-47s were to be replaced by Mustangs, the P-51 would be returning to Bottisham once more, but in a far Superior form than its original one.

In May, the first of these more agile and more powerful P-51s arrived, and under the guidance of General Arnold’s New Year message, “Destroy the enemy Air Force where ever you find them, in the air, on the ground and in the factories” they performed well achieving many high scores. Operating over the Normandy landscape during May, they attacked targets such as airfields, marshalling yards and transport systems, taking out 23 Locomotives in one day, a quarter of the entire day’s total. After Normandy, the 361st  would go on to  cover the breakout at St. Lo, and the failed airborne operation ‘Market Garden‘ in the autumn of 1944.

In late September 1944, the 361st transferred to Little Walden in Essex, but even with their belongings packed and furniture in transit, they would still be willing to perform their duty. On the 26th, they escorted over 1,100 heavy bombers to a range of targets in Germany. Whilst approaching Hamm, one of the pilots 1st Lt. Urban Drew (one of the Bottisham Four), spotted an Me 262 beneath him. After giving chase, diving at incredible speeds to catch the jet, he finally lost him, but not until after he had expelled over 1,300 rounds of ammunition, in a chase that took him from 20,000 ft to 0 ft, in a matter of minutes. The frustration of the pilots in catching these new aircraft clear in their reports back at base.

On the next day, as the move was progressing, another call came out. This time it would be a good day for the pilots of the 361st. Escorting almost 1,200 bombers to Germany again, the group spotted large numbers of enemy fighters attacking the bomber formation in a ‘company front’ attack. The P-51s dived in, splitting the 109s and 190s sending them wayward. ‘Heading for the deck’, a flight of four P-51s lead by Lt. William Beyer gave chase, and in what turned out to be a disastrous day for the Tibbenham based 455th BG (losing 25 aircraft the highest of any mission), the 361st managed to achieve the highest recorded number of kills for any fighter group to date.

After Kassel, Sept. 27, 1944: Lt. William Beyer (left), and Lt. Bocquin (right) prepare their reports. While Bocquin downed three enemy planes, Beyer got five– becoming an “Ace in a Day.” .(IWM UPL 29364)

With eighteen confirmed kills, five for Beyer who was an ‘Ace in a day’, and three for the Squadron Leader 1st. Lt. Victor Bocquin, it was an amazing achievement for the 361st, and as their last operation from Bottisham, it gave cause for great celebration.

Their time at Bottisham had now come to an end and they never returned to the airfield where they had cut their teeth. The move, instigated by a reshuffling of the Air Force’s organisation, meant that the 361st would be closer to the Bomb Groups they were to be attached to. It also signalled the end of Bottisham as an active front line airfield.

By the time the ‘Yellow Jackets‘ as they were known, had completed their tours, they had completed 441 missions, claiming 226 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 105 on the ground.

With the departure of the 361st, Bottisham fell operationally quiet. In the following June 1945, it was passed back to RAF control and linked once more to Snailwell, who used it as a relief airfield for Belgian pilots of the RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School. In the October, its status was reduced to satellite and the Belgian’s partially moved in. Using primarily Tiger Moths, the Belgians used Bottisham for a mere ten months, disbanding as a Royal Air Force unit in April 1946 and passing over to the Belgian Air Force. With that, Bottisham closed on May 1st, and stood empty until sold for agricultural use in October 1958.

Since then, the runways have been pulled up, the buildings on the airfield have been removed and the accommodation blocks have all been built up expanding the village that played such a great part in its life. On the corner of the airfield site a small cluster of buildings still stand, these include the former squadron offices (themselves former crew rooms), a sleeping shelter, and general purpose huts. These have been purchased and are being restored to house a small museum dedicated to those who served at the airfield.

RAF Bottisham

The former Sleeping Shelter.

The airfield itself is now cut by the main A14 dual carriageway. But by leaving this road and turning along the A1303,  you can access both the museum and the airfield quite easily. The museum sits on the corner of the A1303 and Wilbraham Road, along which, if you turn right, cuts across the airfield and the remains of the former runway. As with many former airfields the runway line has been planted with trees giving a good indication of both its location and size. Parts of the perimeter track are also visible from this road to the north end, but otherwise there is little left to see other than a small selection of concrete patches. The village has a memorial in both the British Legion club and in the village with the Thomas Christian memorial. Sadly, little else of this small but once busy airfield exists today.

Bottisham airfield was generally speaking, a minor airfield housing a number of units in its early years. However, once it became fully fledged, it became not only significant, but a leader in the stakes of war. Now all but gone, the memories of those who served here are firmly embedded in the streets of Bottisham along with a few buildings that survive to tell their story.

My sincere thanks go to the members of the Bottisham Airfield Museum who so kindly stopped their work to give me a personal guided tour of the site when I visited. I wish them luck in their venture.

Sources and Further Reading.

The full story of Bottisham can be read in Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

The full story of Colonel Thomas Christian appears in Heroic Tales. 

National Archives – AIR 27/1465/10

National Archives – AIR 27/19/25

National Archives – AIR 27/2170/1

Bottisham Airfield Museum website.

*1 Wilson, K., “Blood and Fears – How America’s Bomber Boys and Girls in England Won Their War” Orion Books, 2016.

RAF Bottisham – A small airfield that became a big player (P1)

In Trail 55 we travel from Snailwell to Cambridge passing through Newmarket and the former bomber airfield that has become the famous horse racing circuit. From here, we continue west where we find a small airfield that has all but gone, the last remnants now a small museum that utilises a mix of original and non-original buildings.

This particular airfield was home to a number of RAF units but is perhaps more noted for its American links, and in particular the fighters of the 361st Fighter Group. On our third stop around Newmarket, we visit the former airfield RAF Bottisham.

RAF Bottisham (Station 374).

Located about 5.5 miles east of Cambridge between the villages of Little Wilbraham and Bottisham village, Bottisham airfield was initially opened in 1940 as a satellite for the new bomber base at Waterbeach, a few miles to the north of nearby Cambridge. Although designed as a satellite, it would later become a fighter airfield in its own right, with its own resident unit.

At first, the runways were grass and there were only two. However, later on, a third runway was ‘constructed’ and each of the three were then strengthened, using initially Sommerfeld Track and then Pierced Planking, both similar and both temporary methods of construction that were easy and quick to lay. Around the concrete perimeter track were fifteen concrete hardstands and a further 48 hardstands constructed with the steel matting. This gave a vast number of areas to safely disperse parked aircraft.

The longest runway was 1,435 yards long, whilst the shortest was some 300 yards shorter. The Watch office, designed to drawing 15371/41, was of brick construction with concrete slabs for the roof, which was the most common design used on World War Two airfields. Demolished in 1948, it was an off-shoot of design 12779/41 which allowed for smaller windows at the front of the tower, more commonly found where night flying regularly took place such as bomber airfields.

RAF Bottisham

On site, there were eight Blister hangars (9392/42), a fourteen bay T2 Hangar (3635/42) and a range of stores, fire tender shelters, workshops and offices, mostly brick or steel framed buildings of standard airfield designs.

Accommodation was eventually erected over ten sites both WAAF and enlisted men/officers, many of which were located in and around the village of Bottisham itself.  This huge increase would eventually lead to a massive explosion in the village’s population.

For the first seven months of its existence, from March to October 1940, Bottisham saw little activity, and as the land was little more than a field, it was totally unsuitable for anything larger than a small aircraft. As a result it was barely used, and little development occurred on the site. The only visitors being seen were the occasional Tiger Moth of the 22 Elementary Flying School (EFTS), from nearby Cambridge. 22 EFTS was set up, at Cambridge, on the declaration of war in 1939, and they used a range of small light trainers: Miles Magisters, Proctors, Tiger Moths and Hawker Demons.

For the next year or so, Bottisham airfield remained in this state, barely used and under-developed until, in July 1941, it was handed over to the Army Co-operation Command and 241 Squadron.

After being disbanded at the end of 1919, 241 Squadron was reformed in 1940 by merging two ‘A’ Flights from other units. They initially used Lysander IIs replacing them with Blackburn Rocs, a model they replaced again with Lysander IIIs before moving to Bury St. Edmunds. After that, they moved here to Bottisham, on July 1st 1941. After a matter of only weeks, the Lysanders were replaced with Tomahawk IIA (the British named P-40) which was intended to be a fighter escort aircraft for the RAF. However, its poor performance led to it being used instead for pilot training and Army cooperation work. Something that would become significant over the next year or so. Over the next few weeks, the new aircraft were collected and ‘normal flying training’ flights were the order of the day.

RAF Bottisham

The runway, marked by the treeline looking south-west.

The British saw the Tomahawk as a possible fighter aircraft during the 1940s supplementing the Spitfires and Hurricanes provided by British aircraft manufacturers. However, production problems of the P-40 led to the British seeking alternative suppliers. Realising there was a niche for a new model, the North American Company offered to design their own fighter, one which they designed, built and tested within 100 days. This new model, whilst not perfect, its Allison engine performing badly at altitude, would eventually go on to supply the American Air force and become one of the most famous aircraft ever built – the P-51 Mustang.

With detachments of aircraft based at Snailwell, Macmerry, Henlow and Docking, 241 Squadron would be spread far and wide, but continued to pursue their duties as an Army Cooperation flight. However, their job was not easy, the new Tomahawks and the poor British weather over the winter 1941-42, proved to be a major challenge for both air and ground crews here at Bottisham. The Operational Record Books for the period showing that the month of January in particular was ‘not satisfactory’, with crews struggling to keep aircraft serviceable in the poor weather. On the 20th, a new structure for the Air Force and a new section for the Squadron were brought into being. This did not however, alleviate the difficulties the crews were having. The main issue seemed to be down to generator drive problems in the P-40s, which combined with an accident in the squadron’s  Airocobra, meant flying was very much restricted to the last remaining Lysanders.

On March 15th 1942, things would begin to change. In now fine weather, the first four of the new P-51 Mustangs arrived, flown down from Speke (now Liverpool airport) by P/Os Kirkus, Clarke, Harrup and F/Lt. Coe. During the next few weeks as more P-51s arrived, the old Tomahawks were gratefully handed over to other Training units and Squadrons, and probably without a tear being shed.  Then on May 1st 1942, 241 Squadron began its departure for pastures new and Ayr in Scotland. On that day, the road party left Bottisham in 21 vehicles at 09.00hrs, whilst the rail party left in the evening at 20:00hrs. By the next day, the rail party had arrived but it would be a further 24 hours before the road party would find their new home.

Throughout the war Bottisham would develop a strong relationship with nearby RAF Snailwell, being only a few miles apart, the two frequently used each other to store and operate their aircraft. The next two squadrons to arrive were just that, both Snailwell based units that moved in to Bottisham. Bottisham was never considered a good posting in these early stages of the war, its accommodation at this point was considered primitive, cold and damp, it was certainly not the most hospitable airfield to have to stay at.

RAF Bottisham

A pot Belly stove stand now in the museum.

Some two weeks after 241’s departure the first of these squadrons arrived – 652 squadron. 652 was part of the Air Observation Post (AOP) and like all the units 651 – 666 they were manned partly by Army (pilots) and RAF (maintenance crews) personnel, they were noted for persistent and regular moves sometimes even daily. Noted as being at Bottisham between June and August 1942, 652 Sqn operated Tiger Moths in the observation role, spotting gun shots off the Hunstanton coast for field artillery units. At the end of their stay here at Bottisham they departed moving to Westley in Suffolk.

The second squadron to arrive at this time was another Tomahawk squadron, 168 Squadron, who were formed at Snailwell on 15th June 1942, moving across to Bottisham in mid July after receiving their Tomahawk IIs. Operating from Bottisham in these early days preceded a move to the fighter station at Tangmere and a more glamorous role with Mustangs and later Typhoons.

The transfer occurred in the afternoon of July 13th, with four flights amounting to twelve aircraft flying in formation across to Bottisham. The flights were led by W/Cdr. Watson-Smyth, who on their arrival realised that the AOP squadron were still using the accommodation blocks, and as the new ones were not yet finished, ‘A’ flight had to share until theirs was suitably completed. There was also insufficient room for the officers, who had to sleep in tents in the grounds around the Mess, whilst ground crews were billeted in three huts in the grounds of Bottisham Hall.

On July 19th, the squadron used the new north-south runway for the first time, it was noted that it was rather more “bumpy” and “shorter” than the east-west runway  but was considered “satisfactory” for their use.

During their stay here, 168 Sqn performed many cross country navigation and fighter affiliation exercises. However, a lack of Allison engine tool kits meant many aircraft were unserviceable for long periods. This became a frustration with the flights, restricting their flying time to a minimum. Then on 31st July, a large quantity of the specialist tool kits finally arrived, and the aircraft were able to be repaired and normal flying duties continued.

The dawn of 1943 would bring little change to Bottisham. More short stay units would mean life was a little more hectic, but Bottisham was still not the major front line airfield it so wanted to be.

In part two we see how Bottisham struggled on in the next year. But January 1944 would see big changes and a renewed impetus that would propel Bottisham to the forefront of Fighter aviation.

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 Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 2.

Part 1 of Newmarket Heath saw the rebirth of this First World War airfield. The outbreak of war and the confusion that grew from the Phoney War.

Part 2 continues the growth and development of Newmarket and its eventual demise.

The Autumn of 1941 saw the reforming of a World War 1 squadron, 138 Sqn whose re-creation on the 25th, was the result of renumbering 1419 Flight. who would operate Lysanders, Whitleys and finally Halifax IIs before they departed mid December. 138 Sqn would then go on to play a major part in the forming of yet another squadron, also here at Newmarket, in a few months time.

December 1941 heralded another First World War squadron reformation, this time the ground echelons of 215 Sqn, who would make their way to India before the air echelons – formed at Waterbeach – could join them.

The winter of 1941 – 1942 would be a time of great discord for Bomber Command even to the point where its whole future was at stake. With high losses and poor bombing accuracy, there were those in power who were seeking to reduce the Command to a fraction of its size, and with such unsustainable losses, their arguments were holding a lot of water. But Sir Charles Portal, who vehemently supported the Bomber Command dogma of carpet bombing, managed to secure the backing of Churchill, and having Churchill on your side meant you had power.

Across Bomber Command, 1942 would bring many changes. To implement this mass bombing policy, now targeting the populous rather than individual industrial targets, Portal employed Sir Arthur Harris in February 1942. Whilst not Harris’s conception, it would be his name that would become synonymous with the policy that has become so controversial ever since.

AIR CHIEF MARSHAL SIR ARTHUR HARRIS, KCB.,OBE.,AFC.

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, KCB.,OBE.,AFC. © IWM (CH 13021)

Along with Harris came a restructuring of Bomber Command, including its support structure. With the heavier four-engined types all coming on line and into full squadron service, it would see the reduction on the reliance of the smaller, now outdated, twin-engined types: Whitley, Hampden and the Manchester; and whilst the numbers of Bomber Command aircraft would not significantly increase, its payload would.

These changes would include the training units designed to train crews for the new bomber aircraft, With larger aircraft, came larger and more specific roles.  Within the reshuffle came renumbering, amalgamation and reformation, making their evolution a complicated mix of numbers and bases. Newmarket was a part of this mix.

One such unit to go through these changes was No. 1483 (Target Towing and Gunnery) Flight which joined with other flights to be finally renamed No. 3 Group Air Bomber Training Flight in mid 1942. The Flight would continue on in this form until mid March 1944, whereupon it was disbanded, and its aircraft disposed of. 

The confusing reforming of training units would reflect the reshaping that Bomber Command would also go through, much of which was settled and firmly embedded by the year’s end. Much of this would be under Harris’s direction, but some by the natural evolutionary process of development and improvement.

The development of aircraft was rapid during the war years. With both the Allied and Axis powers investigating faster and more powerful aircraft, it wouldn’t be long before the jet engine would make an appearance. For the RAF, the Meteor (F.9/40 ‘GlosterWhittle’ twin-jet interceptors) would be the breakthrough. A twin engined jet aircraft, of which twelve prototypes were initially ordered by the Ministry of Aircraft Production (designated DG202 – DG213), and was unofficially known as the ‘Rampage’, would have different engines to undergo flight testing.

On July 2nd, 1942, one of these prototypes DG202, was transferred from the Gloster factory at Bentham in Gloucestershire, here to Newmarket by road. Loaded onto a low loader, its wings were removed and then reassembled for ground run and taxiing trials.

On the 10th, the aircraft was powered up and taxied by Flt. Lt. P.E.G. ‘Gerry’ Sayer, who attempted two short flights. On the second attempt, Sayers managed to get the aircraft off the ground for a few seconds before bringing it back down again. The engines fitted at the time, were not designed to be flight condition engines and so no greater duration attempts were made.

After suffering problems with the undercarriage, trials were resumed with Hawker Typhoon wheels, until mid August when the engines were removed, and the aircraft stored in one of the hangars on the airfield.

After further tests, the aircraft was transported, again by road, to RAF Barford St. John, in Banbury, Oxon where it would eventually fly for six minutes under the control of Gloster’s chief test pilot, Michael Daunt. DG202 then underwent numerous modifications and further flight tests, eventually being mothballed and refurbished, until it found its way to the RAF Museum at Hendon, London. The Meteor would of course go on the break the Air Speed Record at Herne Bay, Kent on November 7th 1945.

Meanwhile back at Newmarket, the end of October 1942 saw air and ground crews of 75 (NZ) Sqn at nearby RAF Mildenhall, begin transferring across to Oakington, an airfield that had caused so many problems with mud earlier in the war. The purpose of the move was to convert the men, initially of ‘B’ Flight and then ‘A’ Flight, over to the Stirlings they were about to receive. Once trained, they would return to Mildenhall and then transfer to Newmarket’s Rowley Mile, where they would be based for the foreseeable future.

At the end of October the transformation from Wellington to Stirling began. Thirteen Welllingtons were dispatched to other squadrons, at which point the New Zealanders began their move to Newmarket. The move, overseen by Sqn. Ldr. R. Crawford, commenced on November 1st 1942, and involved two parties, one travelling by road whilst the other travelled by air. Once at Newmarket the crews would begin settling in, and as soon as their replacement aircraft arrived, they would carry out air training flights acclimatising themselves to the intricacies of the new four-engined heavy.

With new aircraft to get used to, it would not be long before the first accident would occur, one that thankfully did not involve casualties. A wheels-up landing by Sgt. P. Buck at Holme whilst on an air-to-air firing flight to RAF Marham, marked the start of a new era.

The first operational flight from Newmarket took place on November 20th, a long distance flight to Turin. A small force comprising of only four aircraft carrying 4 lb incendiary bombs, made up 75 Sqn’s component of 232 aircraft – the largest Italian  raid of the period. Whilst the raid was successful and no losses were encountered by any squadron, two of the four No. 75 Squadron Stirlings returned early with problems; the incendiaries they were carrying being dropped over southern France or in The Wash.

Operations to Stuttgart two nights later showed similar results, this time only two aircraft were detailed of which one returned early with an unserviceable rear turret.

A pattern was beginning to emerge. On the 28th, another raid with four aircraft saw one forced to jettison its load of 1,000 lb and 500 lb bombs due to one engine cutting out, the other three aircraft bombing Turin successfully. On the return, Stirling BK608 ‘T’ ran out of fuel over Stradishall, the crew bailing out as low as 600 ft, but against the odds, they all survived unhurt. The aircraft crashed, but was eventually recovered and converted to an instructional air frame. Sadly the same could not be said for the crew of BF399, who whilst on a training flight back at Oakington, flew into the ground killing all but the mid-upper gunner instantly. Sgt. C. T. Roberts, the only crash survivor,  unfortunately succumbed to his injuries a few days later, adding another tally to the list of dead.  It later transpired that the pilot, Sgt. H. Broady, had tried to avoid a head-on collision with another Stirling possibly putting the aircraft into a stall from which he could not recover.

On the 29th, further problems dogged the Stirlings, a faulty bomb release mechanism meant an early return for BK609 ‘R’, who landed in poor weather at Bradwell Bay; the pilot overshooting the runway damaging the aircraft and injuring the Air Bomber Sgt. Broadle.

Over the October / November period, 75 Sqn received a quantity of new Stirlings, the factories at Rochester, Swindon and Birmingham each supplying examples as the last of the Wellingtons were dispatched elsewhere.

By December, the crews were all together back here at Newmarket and taking part in squadron operations over occupied Europe. The last days of 1942 would not be happy yule tides for all though, as fate would claim one last victim of 75 Sqn, that of BF400 ‘G’ which was shot down over Holland. The crew were all captured and placed in POW camps, F/O. Eric Williams being one of those whose famous escape via the Wooden Horse was immortalised on film.

As 1943 dawned and Bomber Command settled into its new form, Newmarket would see a short stay of 2 Sqn Mustang Is. Based primarily a stones throw away at RAF Bottisham, they were only a detachment and would soon depart the site. Similarly, between the 6th and 14th March of 1943, 453 Sqn flying Spitfire VBs utilised the bomber site. Another short stay unit, the Merlin engined fighter group had only been formed at Drem in Scotland, some nine months earlier.

In the preceding years, the Stirling and Wellington had remained, for a large part, the main backbone of 3 Group, with the Stirling gradually replacing the twin-engined ‘Wimpy’, until it too would be withdrawn from front line service in favour of the Lancaster.

75 Sqn suffered only a handful of losses, many aircrew being captured and taken prisoners of war. In the March, the MK.I began to be replaced by the MK.III, and with it came new hope for improved performance. Many of the teething troubles that had dogged the earlier version of the Stirling had now been resolved, but it still remained a poorly performing aircraft, even in its current form.

Initial tests of the MK.III at Boscombe Down were positive. Altitudes of 17,000 ft were achievable, and whilst still far below that of the Lancaster or Halifax, it was better than the MK.I. However, these tests failed to take account of new equipment such as new dorsal turrets and flame dampers, additional weight and drag meant that in operational form, the new model was barely better than its predecessor, and far better engines were needed if any significant improvement was going to be made. With further engine developments the first of the MK.III Stirlings came out. Fitted with Hercules MK.VI engines they could achieve a marginal 2,300 ft better altitude and a slightly faster climb rate; it was hardly anything to call home about, but with improved German flak defences it was welcomed with open arms.

In March, 75 Sqn received two of the new models, with others following not long after. One of these was lost on April 8th on a mission to Duisburg. The crew were all lost when the aircraft came down on its way home only three miles west of Diss in Norfolk.

On the RAF’s anniversary, 75 Sqn formed a new section, ‘C’Flight, an increase in crew meant an an increase in operations too. Whilst 1943 saw low casualties generally, there were three nights on which four aircraft were lost each time. On the night of 28-29th April R9290, W7513, BF4667 and BK807 were all lost whilst on ‘Gardening’ missions in the Baltics, there were no survivors. Another four aircraft were then lost over Wuppertal, with only seven of the airmen surviving – it was another huge loss. A further four aircraft were lost on the night 22-23rd June whilst on a mission to Mulheim. During this attack the four aircraft were shot down by a combination of night fighters and flak, with only five crewmen from BK810 surviving as prisoners of war.

June 1943 saw the last remaining Newmarket operations. On the 19th, fourteen aircraft were dispatched to Krefeld on the western banks of the Rhine a few miles north-west of Dusseldorf. Over the target, Stirling MK.I EH880 piloted by Flt. Lt. J. Joll, was hit by flak, breaking a fuel-cock and control cables. As a result, fuel and oil poured into the aircraft’s body, causing a fire in the fuselage, mainplane and mid-upper turret. Without thinking for his safety, the Flight Engineer Sgt. G. Falloon, cut a hole into the wing with an escape axe, and crawled through. Once inside, he located and isolated the leak enabling the aircraft to land safely back at Newmarket.

Undaunted the crew returned to Krefeld two nights later, this time safely returning without damage. As the month closed, the last Newmarket loss came on the night of 25-26th June 1943, a loss that coincided with the Sqn’s departure from Newmarket, and a move to pastures new at RAF Mepal. The Loss of Stirling BK768 ‘L’ piloted by F/O. Perrott, came as a last minute blow to the squadron, with the loss of all on board.

As the war progressed, new technologies and better methods for bombing were being investigated by both sides. Within the RAF, the Bomber Development Unit (BDU) (formally 1418 Flight) was making huge steps in this direction. A specialist unit that was set up to run trials of new technologies for the RAF’s heavy bombers included: H2S, ‘Monica’, ‘Boozer’ and ‘Fishpond‘, each one designed to improve bombing accuracy or aircraft protection.

On 13th September 1943, the BDU  moved from RAF Feltwell to Newmarket, where they continued these tests, including trials into higher altitude mine laying. The research carried out by the BDU was paramount in the introduction of ventral guns fitted in many of the RAF’s wartime heavy bombers. Under the leadership of Sqn. Ldr. (later Wing Commander) Richard ‘Dickie’ Speare DSO, DFC and bar, and Sir Lewis Hodges, they also investigated the  idea of a radar guided rear turret (AGLT) that locked onto enemy aircraft. A design feature that never really took off, and the idea was later scrapped.

A number of other units, Maintenance units, Glider Maintenance sections, Training Schools and Flights, also graced the skies over Newmarket. But by now the end was drawing closer, and operations from Newmarket began winding down until they finally ceased shortly after the end of the war. A military presence remained for a further two years, but there was little activity. Post war, the Rowley Mile racecourse was reinstated, the buildings returned to their former use and the majority of the airfield’s buildings were pulled down. Within three years the military had pulled out and Newmarket’s wartime history came to a close.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

Newmarket racecourse today. The Grandstand to the right with the Rowley Mile along the front (white fencing). The main runway was directly in front of you at this point, cutting across the airfield. (Taken from the lowered section of the Dyke)

Today the racecourse is predominant, little evidence can be seen of the former airfield, the Dyke still has the lowered section, and one original hangar remains to the north of the site next to the A14 road. The July landing strip still operates, and aircraft are permitted to land and take off up to an hour before or after racing commences/finishes, used mainly by visiting jockeys and horse owners, it is perhaps the last remaining sign of an aviation history at this once busy airfield.

The dangers of the Dyke continue to show themselves today, on June 1st 2000, a Piper Seneca carrying the Jockeys Frankie Dettori and Ray Cochrane crashed on this site both suffering serious injuries. The pilot, Patrick Mackey, was killed in the crash which took place between the July strip and Rowley mile, impacting on the Devils Dyke – yet another victim claimed by this ancient structure.

The Grandstand, the former accommodation block for aircrews, still stands but much refurbished and updated, a grand viewing platform where race-goers can watch in comfort as the horses gallop across the finish line.

Newmarket airfield started off as a rather insignificant satellite airfield growing considerably in size over its life. Although the runways were grass, (there were three officially designated) the longest stretched to around 9,000 ft (2,500 yds) – some 500 more than a standard Class A bomber airfield of the war years. The remaining two runways (1,800 yds and 1,600 yds), were also large for its size. A bomb store, much needed early on in the war, was located to the north and a small, non circular perimeter track linked the many hangers that were found on the original wartime site. Several T2s, two B1s, and various blister hangars were all located around the airfield.

The majority of the technical area was found to the north of the site, the opposite end of the Grandstand which was close to the watch office. In this technical area were located twenty-four hardstands of the spectacle style, all of which have now gone. The main A14 road now cuts across this former technical area, only one of the B1s still exists today, the second having been burnt down and replaced in recent years.

RAF Newmarket Heath saw a huge range of flying activities during its life. Primarily a bomber station, it witnessed many accidents and suffered many losses. From its inception in the First World War to its development as a substantial airfield in the second, it grew to be a remarkable site, and one which continues to be prominent today. Sadly though, this important period of history seems to have all but vanished, the slate wiped clean and replaced with something much more appealing to the general public today.

After we leave Newmarket, we head a short distance west towards Cambridge where we find another airfield that has long since gone. Through huge efforts by a small group of volunteers though, we see a museum sprouting out of the ashes, as we head to the former airfield RAF Botisham.

The full text appears in Trail 55.

Sources and further reading (Newmarket Heath)

*1The British History Online website has detailed studies of the Devil’s Dyke.

National Archives – AIR 27/788/3, AIR 27/788/8,  AIR 27/98/3, AIR 27/646/19,
AIR 27/646/21, AIR 27/646/36

Star Jockeys survive plane Crash inferno‘ story appeared in the Guardian Online Website.  June 2nd 2000.

Bowyer, M.J.F., “The Stirling Bomber“, Faber and Faber, 1980

For information about Newmarket the Newmarket Shops History website has a wealth of information about the town.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile) Part 1.

In the second of the four airfields visited in Trail 55, we move on from Snailwell, a small grassed airfield to a similar station a stones throw away to the west.

This second airfield is now one of the major venues of British Horse Racing, second only to Ascot, and is found in an area where much of the land is owned by the British Horse Racing School, stud farms, and stabling. It is also home to the famous Jockey Club, an organisation founded in 1750 that has a turnover of over £200 million.

Now where virtually all traces have long gone, we visit the former base RAF Newmarket Heath.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile).

Like RAF Snailwell, Newmarket Heath saw a wide variety of units using it, initially as a satellite airfield. It housed in excess of 20 squadrons or training units during its life. Being a satellite it would also be used by a wide range of aircraft types, but primarily the heavy bombers of Bomber Command, each one bringing its own story of hardship and heroism.

Opened in October 1916, its history lasted until the military finally pulled out on 15th April 1948, but whilst military flying has ceased, some light flying still does occur, mainly for those attending race days at the Newmarket race course.

Today Newmarket airstrip is one that confuses many pilots trying to land and use its facilities. The original landing strip was know as ‘Rowley Mile’, which now forms part of the Newmarket racecourse ending at the Rowley Mile Stands. During the summer months, another strip is used, known simply as the ‘July landing strip’, and this sits to the west of the Rowley Mile along side the ‘Devils Dyke’*1 (locally called the  Devil’s Ditch’). This is is a 7 mile long embankment, created in Anglo-Saxon times, and is thought to be around 1,450 years old.  Because of its collection of wild fauna and flora, is has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI), which, at its highest point, reaches some 50 feet. It was this dyke that caused at least one major accident when a Stirling of 75 Squadron, based at the airfield, struck the dyke at ten minutes past ten on December 16th 1942.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The Devils Dyke looking north. The ‘July Strip’ is to the left and the ‘Rowley Mile’ and Newmarket Airfield to the right. This is the bank struck by the Stirling.

During take off, Stirling R9245 piloted by Sgt. B. Franklin, and carrying mines for the Gironde Estuary, clipped the Dyke with its starboard undercarriage tearing out the oil tank which caused one of the engines to fail.  The incident brought the aircraft down  about a mile from the airfield, killing all seven crewmen on board after the mines it was carrying, exploded. As a result, the mission was cancelled and the following five aircraft were stood down for the night. Because of this, and other accidents involving the Dyke, part of it was lowered during 1943, the results of which are still apparent today, and it is where a memorial stands in memory of the crew lost of that night in December 1942.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The plaque at the base of the Dyke where Stirling R9245 struck on the night of December 16th 1942.

Today there is a further, and more permanent landing area located behind the racecourse stands, and it is this area that forms the bulk of what was the Royal Air Force base RAF Newmarket Heath.

The Rowley Mile airfield originally opened during the First World War and operated for almost than three years. The primary users of this site, were the two Night Training Squadrons: 190 and 192 who were created out of elements of both 51 Sqn and 33 Sqn respectively. These two units operated from Newmarket in the latter stages of World War I, both being disbanded in 1919 after the war’s end. 190 Sqn had by then, moved to RAF Upwood whilst 192 had remained at Newmarket whereupon its operations ceased.

Between the wars it would seem there was no real flying activity, the race course being the prominent feature. But when war broke out again, it was put back into use, and utilised by the RAF as a large airfield capable of dealing with some rather large aircraft.

Being bordered to the north by the modern A14 road, and with the town of Newmarket to the east, Newmarket Heath reopened for military business in 1939 under the control of 3 Group Bomber Command, whose headquarters were at Harraton House in nearby Exning. Newmarket accepted its first visitors, a detachment of Blenheim IVs from 107 Sqn, during May of that same year.

On September 1st, two days before the declaration of war between Britain and Germany, the airfield was, by then, a satellite for RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. Present at Mildenhall was 99 Sqn, with Wellington MK.Is, an aircraft they had been operating for a year.

The beginning of September marked a turning point not only in world history, but also in British aviation. On September 1st, a general mobilisation order was received at airfields across Britain, and at RAF Mildenhall, like many, 99 Sqn were told to prepare to put “Scatter” schemes into operation. Once confirmation was received, eleven aircraft were flown from Mildenhall to Newmarket along with a sufficient number of crews to prepare Newmarket for crew accommodation. This accommodation was to be the Grandstand originally used for spectators at the various race meetings.

The Grandstand was never designed for aircrew accommodation, the NCO’s never fully accepting the poor living conditions in which they had to stay. It was dirty and the mess hall was merely a room provided for them within the grandstand complex; the ablutions were a makeshift building outside, and it was impossible to keep yourself, or your clothes clean. Newmarket was not a popular place to be posted to.

RAF Newmarket Heath (Rowley Mile)

The Grandstand today taken from the Devil’s Dyke. The white fencing indicates the Rowley mile and the former World War 1 landing strip.

The intention was to transfer the entire squadron to Newmarket leaving only a maintenance and repair section at Mildenhall, a move which began almost immediately. Then on September 3rd, at 11:00 hrs, the squadron were called to assemble on Newmarket’s parade ground to hear the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announce Britain’s declaration of war on Germany.  Little did they know that history was being made, and that for the next five years the world would be plunged into very dark times indeed.

On the very same day that the declaration was made, orders were put in place to carryout leaflet drops, but subsequent instructions cancelled these, and no flying took place. As Britain entered the ‘phoney war’, confusion, mixed orders and a rather disorganised period would follow. Orders and counter orders became the norm, squadrons were moved and reorganised, and no one seemed to know quite what they were to do.

New orders came through on the 5th to prepare to ‘disperse all aircraft that could be flown’, along with skeleton crews, to RAF Upper Heyford. The confusion of the Phoney War continued, and when the local air raid warning sounding at 7:15 on the 6th, crews found themselves spread about the field as only one air raid shelter at Newmarket was usable. Immediately after, a new order came through to implement the ‘withdrawal’ scheme and so eleven Wellingtons, who had only recently arrived, took off for RAF Upper Heyford. A twelfth aircraft, that had also transferred over to  Newmarket, was unable to fly due to it being unserviceable.

Further mixed orders came through with yet more operations being cancelled. But then on the 8th, a new order for leaflet drops was issued, and four aircraft were designated to fly to Newmarket and then onto Mildenhall where they would receive up to date information on the ‘target’ area. Four crews arrived and prepared to take off from Mildenhall. One of these Wellingtons, L.7770, was then found to have a leak in the oxygen system, and its flight was cancelled. With insufficient time to collect a spare aircraft from Newmarket, the operation was again scrubbed, and the three aircraft returned to base; another frustrating let down and another source of confusion for the crews.

On the 9th, another message came through to evacuate Newmarket, and all aircraft were prepared once more to move to RAF Elmdon (now Birmingham Airport). An additional sortie also planned for that night was also again cancelled, this time though due to bad weather, as preparations for the squadron’s move continued. Four Newmarket aircraft then departed for Elmdon in the afternoon, Wing Commander Walker making the necessary arrangements, flying to both RAF Upper Heyford, where further aircraft were dispersed, and then onto RAF Elmdon to ensure the move went smoothly. Coinciding with all this, the squadron received its first upgrade, the MK.IA, in the form of Wellington N2870, which was delivered by a ferry pilot to RAF Mildenhall.

The evacuation was completed by the late evening, all personnel had departed leaving just an NCO and a working party to clear the Grandstand and remove any remaining stores. A 32 seat omnibus along with a heavy lorry transported thirteen men and their supplies to Elmdon. The remainder of the party then transferred back to Mildenhall.

On the 25th, another order was received in the early evening to return to Newmarket, Sqn. Ldr. J. Griffiths must have said a few choice words as he made the arrangements to move the men and their stores back from where they had only just come.

Suggestions where again made to locate the entire squadron to Newmarket, but this was now seen as impracticable, and so only the dispersed Elmdon group made the  move. By the end of the next day the transfer was complete.

With firing trials taking place at Carew Cheriton near Tenby, further instructions came through, again suggesting the squadron move to Newmarket. Again though this was noted as impractical, and the move stopped for a second time. The confusion was then broken at 12:15 when a message came thought to say that a Wellington had crashed on take off prior to undertaking gunnery practice, the crew sustaining minor injuries, but the aircraft being severely damaged in the accident. The crew were able to return to Newmarket after receiving treatment for their injures, where they resumed their duties.

On the 20th, the aircraft located at Newmarket were placed on a 60 minute standby, ready to attack the German fleet which was sailing from its base in northern Germany. But, by 16:30, the chance had passed and the flight was stood down. The irony of training with Leica cameras must have broken the monotony of gunnery practice, when on the 8th October, six aircraft did finally take off from their Newmarket base to attack the fleet. Unfortunately, the aircrews could not locate the ships, and all aircraft returned to Mildenhall for debriefing before flying on back to Newmarket.

Official photograph

Wellingtons of 9 Sqn in close formation 1939. The idea of bombers defending themselves was proven to be a misconception, and daylight raids were soon stopped as a result. © IWM (CH 17)

It was this same order that would, on December 14th 1939, decimate the Newmarket detachment. A search for the fleet over the North Sea led to forty-two aircraft from various squadrons, flying Bomber Command’s most extensive search yet. The twelve 99 squadron aircraft finally managed to locate the fleet through the cloud at Schillig Roads, close to Willhelmshaven. Once here, the cloud, highly accurate flak and the Luftwaffe, decimated the formation. Five of the Wellingtons went down in the target area, and a further aircraft, after disposing of its bombs over the sea, limped back to Newmarket badly beaten up. Even though they were away from hostile territory, the crew were not yet safe, and when within sight of the airfield, the aircraft finally gave up the battle and crashed into the ground. The pilot, Flt.Lt. Eugene Hetherington (s/n: 39026) a New Zealander, perished along with two others of his crew. Of the six aircraft lost, only three from Flt. L. Herington’s crew survived, and the bodies of only two men from the other five aircraft were ever found. 99 Sqn had lost 33 aircrew in one night, a terrible blow to the Newmarket crews.

In the post operation analysis, Bomber Command officials decided that it was not the fighters that brought the aircraft down, and that good close formation flying had been a ‘success’ of the mission. They decreed that concealment was better than any amount of firepower and that pilots should seek shelter in cloud wherever possible.

With only one other aircraft going down in the then, neutral Belgium, there were no other major loses in 1940 and only a few, largely due to training accidents, in early 1941. The Winter of 1939-40, was certainly a baptism of fire for the crews of 99 Sqn.

The dawn of 1941 would signify changes to Newmarket. By March, 99 Sqn had finally pulled out, their poor start to the war proving that the idea of bombers successfully protecting themselves on daylight missions was a fallacy. A point made in dramatic style in one single operation.

On the 16th of March, orders were issued at nearby RAF Oakington to move the Stirlings of  ‘A’ Flight, 7 Sqn, out to the new satellite station here at Newmarket; the runways at Oakington now becoming nothing more than a mass of mud, causing a danger to any aircraft that dare to venture out. By the 26th, the situation has become so bad that both ‘A’ and ‘B’ Flight officers had departed, with the main body of ‘A’ Flight following the next day. For a month the squadron’s Flights operated out of Newmarket whilst Oakington’s mud dried out. However, by the 5th April, it was clear that the  accommodation situation at Newmarket, both ‘inhospitable’ and ‘cold’, was far too cramped, and ‘B’ Flight were ordered back to Oakington where they would be ferried the short distance to Newmarket where their aircraft were to remain.

ROYAL AIR FORCE 1939-1945: BOMBER COMMAND

Stirling N3663/MG-H of No 7 Squadron,  at Newmarket Heath, during a visit by King Peter of Yugoslavia, 29 July 1941. © IWM (CH 3175)

By the 27th April, Oakington had sufficiently dried out and the surface was ‘improving rapidly’, enough at least for ‘A’ Flight to return home. After one  month of being at Newmarket, the crews could finally breathe a sigh of relief to be leaving the rather inaptly named ‘Grandstand’ behind.

Part 2 will see how Newmarket developed further, its wartime legacy and its eventual demise as an operational airfield.

The full text appears in Trail 55.

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt2)

After part 1, we return to  Snailwell, to see how the American influence played its part at Snailwell and how the build- up to D-day affected life at this small grassed airfield.

The squadron was assigned to the 350th Fighter Group (FG) who would eventually transfer to the Middle East. It would be the 347th’s sister squadron the 346th who would later convert Hurricane Mk I #LB640 target tug into a two-seat liaison plane.

Hurricane Mk I LB640, which was being operated as a target-tug with the P-39-equipped 346th Fighter Squadron, 350th Fighter Group, 12th AF USAAF in Sardinia in early 1944. It was field converted into a two-seater as a liaison plane by the unit's ground crew.

Hurricane Mk I #LB640 after being converted into a two-seat liaison plane.  IWM (UPL 17052)

As they were a new squadron the 347th would initially have no ground echelon, they were still being formed and prepared for transportation over the Atlantic from their base at Harding Field, Louisiana. They would arrive in the UK in the November and after a short period at Snailwell, the entire squadron would move out to RAF Kings Cliffe in Northamptonshire, before moving away to the warmer climate of the Middle East.

The winter of 1942/43 saw further detachments being based here at Snailwell. In conjunction with the US forces were 170 Sqn, who remained here from the end of October through the winter until February 1943. After a short spell away they made a brief one day stop over before being moved to RAF Odiham.

The January of 1943 saw yet more short stays. On the 17th 182 Sqn arrived with Typhoon IBs. Based at RAF Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, 182 Sqn were finding it hard to get in any flying at all, as the heavy winter rains had clogged up the metal PSP runways with thick mud preventing the aircraft from taking off.

Two days earlier 70 ground personnel had been dispatched from Sawbridgeworth to Snailwell in preparation for the forthcoming training operation. Operation “Shatter” as it was designated, would be a mock attack on gun emplacements on the outskirts of Thetford Forest. On the 17th, the ten aircraft were sent from RAF Sawbridgeworth led by Sqn. Ldr Pugh along with a further four from the detachment at RAF Hunsdon. On arrival they found their sister squadron, 181 Sqn also with Typhoons, already here for the Army Cooperation training operation. A large party was given that night in honour of the new 182 Sqn crews. The next day, a preliminary attack was made on the target by eleven 182 Sqn aircraft, who made runs over both the dummy and real guns in a “full frontal attack”. The following day, a complete squadron attack was made with the aircraft having to be airborne in under 4.5 minutes. For the first time since forming, all the canons on the Typhoons are fully loaded with live ammunition and a full squadron scramble was undertaken.

Aerial photograph of Snailwell airfield looking south, 26 July 1942 (IWM RAF_FNO_67_V_6032)

In the afternoon a four ship formation was loaded up with 2 x 250 lb bombs and a further attack was made. This attack ended the training session for 182 Sqn and the next day they return to the muddy runways of Sawbridgeworth.

Two months later on March 8th 1943, 181 Sqn was reunited with her other sister squadron 183 Sqn here at Snailwell. After a number of short training flights covering just four days, 183 Sqn departed the Cambridgeshire airfield leaving 181 Sqn here until the end of the month.

Throughout 1943 much of the same was to happen, short stays for training missions were the order of the day.  309 Sqn flew the Mustang MK.I and Hurricane VIs. The Polish squadron became renowned amongst the Allies when F/Lt Janusz Lewkowicz flew a Mustang I to Norway and back strafing targets at Stavanger just to prove the point that the Mustang had the range!

Another squadron, 613 Sqn also brought their Mustangs along in July, and 184 Sqn arrived with Hurricanes. 247 Sqn brought back the mighty Typhoon, each of these squadrons carrying out training flights, some for as little as two days others for more prolonged periods.

As the end of 1943 drew a line under the busy ebb and flow of visiting squadrons, 1944 would see a rather more settled year. After a single RAF squadron, 527 Sqn, moved in and then out two months later, the  build up to D-day would see big changes at Snailwell.

The invasion of Europe was destined to be the largest invasion build up the world had ever seen, and southern England was to be the primary area in which this build up would take place. With the creation of the Ninth Air Force, whose primary purpose was to provide assistance to the forth coming Normandy landings, more and more airfields were going to be required. Whilst front line units would be directly involved in operations over the Normandy coast, there would need to be a major service and maintenance support network, if the invasion were to succeed. This service was to be carried out by a series of  six Tactical Air Depots (TAD) all falling under the command of the IX Air Force Service Command, via two Advanced Air Depot Areas (AADA).

One of these depots, the 3rd Tactical Air Depot based at RAF Grove some 55 miles from London, were responsible for the maintenance and repair of Douglas A-20 ‘Havocs’ and P-61 ‘Black Widows’. Because of the increasing demand for maintenance facilities, the 3rd TAD took over the facilities at RAF Snailwell, moving in two Mobile Repair and Maintenance Squadrons, the 33rd and 41st, in preparation for maintenance operations. Their primary role was to make field modifications to the aircraft in preparation for operational roles, as a result of which the A-20s became a regular feature around the airfield. After only a short time though it was realised that the 41st would not be required here, and so they returned to RAF Grove. To replace them, a specialist team were brought in – the 51st Service Squadron. By the time D-day had passed, the pressure at Grove had subsided and so both units were able to return home from Snailwell. With that, the American connection with Snailwell ended.

As the war drew to a close so too did both operational flying and training flights. The RAF (Belgian) Initial Training School used the airfield sharing it with nearby RAF Bottisham. In March 1946, the Belgians pulled out returning to their own country now free from the Nazi tyranny that had dominated it for so long.

Snailwell then closed, standing empty and gradually returning to agricultural use. Many of the buildings were pulled down but some hung on for several years being used for agricultural purposes. The Blister hanger, sheds and training buildings remained for a number of years, certainly until the mid 1990s, but gradually even these were removed with little evidence of their existence being left today. The airfield was then dissected by a major road development in 1975, remaining parts being bought up by the British Horse Racing School who now own a large portion of the former airfield. High hedges and gated access restrict most access to the former site, (the Icknield Way long-distance route does pass along side these tracks and borders the former airfield from which remnants can be seen) leaving the last few sections of concrete hanging on as reminders of the airfields once proud and hectic existence.

With a mix of repair and maintenance units added to the pot, the war years for Snailwell were far from slow. The regular ebb and flow of detached units for training flights, and the occasional permanent flying unit, saw a wide range of aircraft types and nationalities grace the skies of this small area of Eastern Cambridgeshire. With little evidence of its existence left today, Snailwell, and its proud history, would seem to have been lost, replaced by Horse racing and the desire for the high stakes demanded by the equestrian market.

From Snailwell, we head west, deeper in to the area owned by the Horse racing fraternity. Here we see on every street corner evidence of this now popular sport, well groomed bushes that surround neatly cut turfs, on what now remains of Britain’s wartime heritage. Our next stop on Trail 55, is the pinnacle of these activities, the former RAF Newmarket Heath.

Sources and Further Reading.

*1 Official Directorate of Works drawing (WA7/395/41) IWM UPL 17710

British History Online (Snailwell) website.

National Archives AIR 27/1563/9

National Archives AIR 27/954/6

National Archives AIR 27/1135/1

Niall Corduroy. “Whirlwind: Westland’s Enigmatic FighterFonthill Media, 2017.

RAF Snailwell – Where life was far from Slow (Pt 1).

In the latest Trail around Britain’s airfields, we visit four airfields so close that as the crow flys, they are a mere 12.5 km from the first to the last.  It is an area to the east of Cambridge, a large University City that now dwarfs the River Cam the narrow waterway that gave the city its name. The final airfield we visit lies on the outskirts of the city itself, and is probably more famous for its more recent operations under Marshalls of Cambridge, the Aerospace and Defence Group.

Our first stop though takes us through prime horse racing land, through the home of the Jockey Club and an area divided into studs and stabling, not for live stock, but for horses.

Our first stop in Trail 55 is the former RAF Snailwell, a small airfield where life was far from slow!

RAF Snailwell (USAAF Station 361).

Snailwell lies  just outside of the town of Newmarket in the county of Cambridgeshire now infinitely famous for its horse racing. The village of Snailwell from which the airfield takes its name, lies on the northern edge of the former airfield which is now  owned, as is much of this area, by the British Racing School who vehemently protect it from prying eyes.

Sitting to the north of the Bury St. Edmunds railway line, the airfield opened in the Spring of 1941, after the levelling of ten Bronze age Barrows (ancient burial grounds) as a satellite for RAF Duxford located to the south-west. The airfield would go through an ever changing number of roles including: Army Co-Operation, training, and as a fighter base performing low-level attacks on shipping and land based targets. It would also see a wide range of aircraft types from the small trainer to the powerful tank-buster the Typhoon. Opened as a technical training airfield, it passed to the control of 28 (Technical Training) Group whose headquarters were located in London. It fell under the command of Air Commodore John Charles ‘Paddy’  Quinnell, an avid lover of sailing who had a distinguished military history that extended back to 1914, first with the Royal Artillery and then with the Royal Flying Corps.

As a small grass airfield, Snailwell was by no means insignificant. It had three grass runways the largest being just short of 1,700 yards long, whilst the second and third were 1,400 yards in length. The main runway crossed the airfield on a south-west to north-east direction protruding out of the main airfield area. Aircraft were dispersed on concrete hardstands, a mix of twelve ‘Fighter’ style Type B hardstands (capable of holding two aircraft side by side but separated by a bank) along with two 50 ft diameter ‘frying pan’ style stands. They also had the use of a Bellman hangar, and ten blister hangars for servicing and maintenance of aircraft*1.

To the north, hidden amongst the trees was a bomb store, with separate fusing buildings, tail stores, incendiary and component stores, access to the site being via a 12 ft wide concrete road.

In all, there were only a few permanent personnel at the airfield, accommodation was only erected for around 1,100 officers and enlisted men in Nissen huts over just two sites; Dormitory site 1 and 2, which were supplemented with a mess site and sick quarters. It is known that later users were camped in tents around the airfield perimeter – not ideal accommodation by any means. Unusually, the technical area was widely spread with many buildings being away from the airfield hub. The watch office, at the centre of this hub, was designed to 12779/41 and had an adjoining meteorological office attached, an unusual addition for this type. There was also a wide range of buildings, AMT trainer, two Link trainers, flight offices, sleeping shelters, parachute stores, fire tender huts and numerous associated maintenance stores and sheds.

During construction of the airfield a local road was closed, and a lodge, built at the turn of the century, utilised as a guard room for the airfield. This building later passed to the Jockey Club for use by its employees.

The initial users of the airfield were the Army Co-operation Squadron  268 Sqn RAF, who arrived at Snailwell with Lysander IIIs on April 1st 1941. Being a slow aircraft it was ideal as a reconnaissance aircraft, flying patrols along the coast of East Anglia, looking for any sign of an invasion force. After arriving at Snailwell from Bury St. Edmunds, the three Echelons immediately began training, three photographic sorties taking place on the very day they arrived. In the days that followed, combined Army and Air Force exercises were the order of the day, after which the squadron took part in intensive gas training along with routine flying. However, 268 Sqn would not settle here, yo-yoing between Snailwell and numerous other stations no less than eleven times between their first arrival, and their last departure to RAF Odiham on May 31st 1943.

Duxford Battle of Britain Airshow

A Lysander at Duxford’s Battle of Britain Airshow 2019.

In the May of 1941, 268 Sqn would swap their ‘Lizzies’ (as they were affectionately known) for the Tomahawk IIA, an aircraft they kept until changing again to the better performing Mustang I a year later. These Tomahawks would perform a range of duties including – whilst based at RAF Barton Bendish in Norfolk – early morning ‘attacks’ on Snailwell as part of a Station Defence Exercise. These involved mock gas and parachute attacks along with low-level strafing runs. Being little more than a field, Barton Bendish provided no accommodation for visitors, and so the aircrews slept in tents overnight.

During the August of 1941 the first of Snailwell’s many short stay squadrons would arrive. 152 Squadron would use Snailwell for a period of just one week whilst transiting to nearby RAF Swanton Morley. Operating the sleek Spitfire IIA, the brain child of R.J. Mitchell, they would perform fighter sweeps, along with convoy and bomber escort duties. Arriving on the 25th, the only major event occurred on the 28th when the squadron escorted seventeen Blenheims to Rotterdam, Sgt. Savage being the only 152 Sqn pilot to be lost during the mission. The next day, ‘A’ flight searched for signs of him, but sadly found no wreckage nor any sign of Sgt. Savage.

Being a small airfield Snailwell was often home to detachments of squadrons, usually whilst on training. One such unit arriving on November 31st when 137 Sqn posted a detachment here whilst the main body of the squadron stayed at RAF Matlaske further north in Norfolk.  Operating the heavily armed escort fighter the Westland Whirlwind, they would perform escort duties for Lysanders, searches for downed aircraft and ‘X’ raid interception duties. Many of their patrols covered Great Yarmouth on the East Anglian coast in an area to the east of the airfield.

Designed in 1937, the Whirlwind had many teething problems with the engines proving to be a particular issue. After purchasing only 112 examples of the model, 137 would be one of only two squadrons who would use it in any operational role. After moving to Matlaske, 137 began a series of training operations, posting a detachment of aircraft to Snailwell whilst preparing to commence anti-shipping operations in the North Sea.  Once operationally ready, the unit moved north to RAF Drem (August 1942) before returning once more to Matlaske where further training would take place; ‘B’ Flight replaced ‘A’ Flight at Snailwell until both were reunited at Snailwell in late August. Anti shipping operations continued from Matlaske, with their final sortie occurring on August 20th in which an enemy Ju 88 was intercepted – the aircraft evading its pursuers in bad weather. Moving across to reunite the squadron on the 24th, 137 would perform their first operational sortie from Snailwell in early September, a feint attack against Lille. Designed to attract the Luftwaffe fighters into a trap, the twelve Whirlwinds and their fighter escorts failed to sight one enemy plane and all returned to their respective bases not having fired a shot. After this, the Whirlwinds were fitted with bombs and further training followed, but by mid September, they had left Snailwell and were heading for RAF Manston in Kent.

The summer of 1942 would be a busy period for Snailwell, with several squadrons utilising the airfield. At the end of March 56 (Punjab) Squadron would bring  the Hawker Typhoon MK.IA, a model they would begin replacing virtually immediately with the MK.IB. The April of that year was mainly taken up with practice formation flying and aircraft interception flights, before the squadron also moved to Manston in Kent. 56 Sqn would return briefly to Snailwell over the June / August period, but this would be short and they would then depart the airfield for good.

On June 15th 1942, a new squadron would be formed here at Snailwell. Under the command of Sqn. Ldr. F.G. Watson-Smyth, it would have two flights ‘A’ and ‘B’, each led by a Flight Lieutenant. 168 Sqn, initially flying the Curtiss Tomahawk II, was formed from the nucleus of 268 Sqn, and would remain here only until their aircraft and equipment had arrived. Being allocated RAF Bottisham as their main station, they would stay at Snailwell for a mere month. During this time aircraft would have their squadron numbers painted on, and Sqn, Ldr. Spear would give dual flying training to all pilots in a Fairy Battle.

Toward the end of June Sqn. Ldrs. Watson-Smyth and Bowen would visit Bottisham to discuss and prepare the accommodation arrangements for the squadron’s forthcoming arrival. Further deliveries of supplies took place and by the 26th there were seven Tomahawks on charge. On the 13th July, at 14:35 hrs, twelve Tomahawks took off from Snailwell and flew in formation to their new base at Bottisham, a mere stones throw from their current location. The move had begun and 168 Sqn would leave Snailwell for good.

In the August, whilst transiting to North Africa, 614 Sqn would place a detachment of their Blenheim Vs here, a further detachment being placed at Weston Zoyland with the main body of the squadron at Odiham. Coinciding with this was also a detachment of 239 Sqn with Mustang Is, making  Snailwell a very diverse station indeed.

With the arrival of autumn in the October of 1942, Snailwell took a very different turn, being handed over to the US Ninth Air Force Service Command who brought in the Airacobra, one of the few wartime fighters to use a tricycle undercarriage. Transferring across from Duxford, the parent airfield of Snailwell, the 347th Fighter Squadron (FS) were a brand new squadron, only being activated that very same month.

In part two we see the early American influence, and how this small grass airfield played its part in the build up to D-day.

The full page can be seen on Trail 55 – Around Newmarket.

June 25th 1944, loss of a Rugby Star.

Sir Arthur Harris’s continuation of the bomber initiative of 14th February 1942, in which German cities became the focus for RAF raids, led to massed formations of light and heavy bombers striking at the very heart of Germany.

In order to achieve these aims, bomber forces of 1,000 aircraft would be required, meaning every available Bomber Command aircraft would be utilised along with those from Operational Training Units (OTU) and (Heavy) Converstion Units (CU).

On June 25th, 1942, whilst on operations to Bremen, the third of the ‘1,000’ bomber raids, one of the first operational aircraft casualties  for 1651 CU would occur when N7442 was shot down shortly before 01:00 by a Luftwaffe night-fighter over Holland. One factor that made this particular loss so great was that not only did all seven crewmen onboard lose their lives, but one of the crew, P/O. Lewis A. Booth (s/n: 118627), had gained international caps playing for England’s National  rugby team.

Born on September 26th 1909, Lewis Booth was the son of Alfred and Amie Booth. He was educated initially at Giggleswick School in Yorkshire, after which he transferred to the Malsis School becoming one of sixteen boys who was lost during the war and since commemorated on the Chapel’s Stained glass window.

Booth attended the Malsis school for two years, 1920-22, when the school first opened. A grand School, it was founded by Albert Henry Montagu, which grew and expanded over the years.

Ten years after he left the school, Booth made his international rugby debut in a game against Wales at Twickenham (January 21st, 1933), in front of a crowd of 64,000 fans; a game in which Wales beat England by 7 points to 3. Booth played his last international match against Scotland at Edinburgh’s Murrayfield stadium two years later on March 16th, 1935. Throughout his two year international rugby career he achieved seven caps for England scoring three tries, his first for England against Ireland at Twickenham, on 11th February 1933. After serving his national team, Booth went on to serve his country joining  the Royal Air Force where he achieved the rank of Pilot Officer within Bomber Command.

On the night of 25/26th June 1942, he was in a Short Stirling MK.I flying with 1651 Conversion Unit (CU) based at RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire. 1651 CU was one of three Conversion Units set up in January 1942, by merging previously formed Conversion Flights. It served to convert crews of No. 3 Group to the Stirling, a rather ungainly aircraft that developed a poor reputation as a bomber. 1651 CU would join that night, sixty-eight other Stirlings in a force of over 1,000 aircraft; a mix of heavy and light bombers, ranging from the Hampden and Whitley to the Halifax and Lancaster.

Take off was at 23:58 from RAF Waterbeach, the weather that week had been good with little rain for many days. After forming up they headed for Germany a course that would take them across the North Sea and on to the western coast of Holland. Just 40 minutes into the flight, whilst over Waddenzee, the Stirling was attacked by a Luftwaffe night fighter and shot down with the loss of all seven crewmen on-board.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

A Stirling MK.I bomber of 1651 HCU at Waterbeach. @IWM (COL202)

P/O. Booth was publicly reported missing four days later on Tuesday 30th June in an article in the local paper “Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer”, which stated that he had been ‘lost in a Bomber Command raid’. The article highlighted Booth’s rugby career, saying that he had been a member of the Headingly Club playing over sixty games for his county team Yorkshire, before leaving to join up. 

P/O. Booth died just short of his 33rd birthday, he left behind a wife, Gladys, and a son Michael. His son would follow in his father’s footsteps also taking up rugby and also playing for his home country. P/O. Booth’s body was never recovered and remains missing to this day.

P/O Lewis Booth is joined by two other Pilot Officers, two Flying Officers, a Flight Lieutenant and two Sergeant Pilots amongst other ranks and service personnel all honoured by the Malsis School. Amongst the many awards they’ve achieved are three D.F.C.s and an A.F.M.

The game of rugby was hit hard by the Second World War, during which Germany would lose 16 of its international rugby players, Scotland 15, England 14, Wales 11, Australia 10, Ireland and France both 8, Wales 3 and New Zealand 2. All these losses were a severe blow to the international game, a game that brought many enemies face to face in a friendly tournament where there was little more at stake that honour and a cup.

With no official burial, P/O Booth’s service was commemorated on Panel 68 of the Runneymede Memorial, Surrey.

Lewis Booth @Tim Birdsall from the Malsis website.

Sources

ESPN Website accessed 12/6/19.

The British Newspaper Archive.

Old Malsis Association website accessed 14/6/19.

Rugby Football History website accessed 14/6/19.