RAF Chedburgh – An appalling loss of life.

In this next trail, we start just a few miles to the south-west of Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, where we visit a number of airfields that were associated with the heavy bombers of the RAF’s Bomber Command.

Our first stop, although a satellite, more than earned its rightful place in the history books of aviation. It is an airfield where large numbers of the ill-fated Stirling flew many missions over occupied Europe, where the staggering statistics of lost men and machines speak for themselves.

Now little more than fields and a small industrial estate, the remnants of this wartime airfield stand as reminders of those dark days in the 1940s when night after night, young men flew enormous machines over enemy territory to drop their deadly payload on heavily defended industrial targets.

We begin our next trip at the former airfield RAF Chedburgh, home to the mighty four-engined bombers of No. 3 Group Bomber Command of the Royal Air Force.

RAF Chedburgh.

Built in 1942 (by John Laing and Son Ltd) as a satellite for RAF Stradishall, Chedburgh would be built to the Class A specification, a later addition to the RAF’s war effort. Being a bomber station Chedburgh would have three runways made of concrete, the initial construction being one of 2,000 yards and two of 1,400 yards, all the standard 50 yards wide, as was the standard specification brought in during 1941. Later on, these would be extended giving Chedburgh much longer runways than many of its counterparts, i.e. one at 3,000 yards and two at 2,000 yards. Having runways this long, meant that heavy bombers could use the site when in trouble, something that Chedburgh would get used to very quickly.

With the village of Chedburgh to the north of the site, directly opposite the main gate; the technical area along the north-eastern side of the main runway, and the bomb store to the east, Chedburgh would have two T2 hangars, a B1 and later on 3 glider hangars. Dotted around the perimeter track were a number of dispersals comprising 34 pan styles and 2 looped.

RAF Chedburgh

Chedburgh village sign reflects it aviation history.

Whilst housing only two major squadrons 214 Squadron and 620 Squadron, it would also be home to a small number of other operational units, 218, 301, 304 Sqns and 1653 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU).

Opening under the control of No. 3 Group, on September 7th 1942, the first resident unit was 214 Squadron (RAF) flying the Stirling MK. I, a model they operated until as late as February 1944. The bulk of the unit arrived in the October, with operations beginning very soon after. Within four months they would begin replacing some of these models with the upgraded MK.III, also operating these until the beginning of 1944 and after transferring to RAF Downham Market in Norfolk.

As with many airfields at this time, the arrival of personnel preceded the completion of the works, development continuing well into the operational time of its residents, something that would cause a problem in the coming months.

It was in March of 1943 that the first casualties would occur, the night of March 1st/2nd being a baptism of fire for 214 Sqn. Stirling MK. I (R9143) BU-E piloted by F/S. J. Lyall (RCAF) would be hit by flak, she was badly damaged, and then abandoned by her crew. As he descended from the stricken aircraft, F/O. Hotson (RNZAF) would be hit by a splintering shell – the wounding he received as a result would be fatal. The remainder of the crew all escaped the aircraft safely but were later captured by the Germans and incarcerated. A multi-national crew, this loss was to be followed just two nights later with the loss of another Stirling, ‘BU-C’, but this time none of the seven crewmen were to survive.

Then on the next night, 5th/6th March, whilst on operations to Essen (the 100,000th sortie by RAF aircraft), Stirling BK662 ‘BU-K’ crashed into the North Sea about 30 km north-northwest of Ijmuiden. Only one of the crew, Air Gunner Sgt. William H. Trotter (s/n: 1128255) was ever found, the rest of the crew remaining ‘missing in action’. This was the first Stirling to be listed as such since the squadron’s operations began. This raid would prove devastating, taking the lives of 75 RAF airmen, but the War Office considered it a major success in terms of  industrial damage to the German war machine. The targeted Krupps factory, which sat in the centre of over 100 acres of industrialised area, was devastated by both accurate marking and then the subsequent bombing.

Throughout this month there were further loses to the squadron: Stirlings ‘BU-Q’ and  ‘BU-A’ (in which F/S. D Moore (RCAF) and Sgt. T. Wilson were both awarded the George medal for saving the life of their companion Sgt. J. Flack), along with ‘BU-M’ were all lost; ‘BU-M’ losing all but one crewman. Another aircraft, ‘BU-L’, lost all seven aircrew  on the night of March 27th/28th, and closing March off, was a collision between Stirlings BK663 and EF362, which left several more crewmen either injured or dead. Although many losses were as a direct result of flak or night fighters, the cracks were beginning to show, and the poor performance of the Stirling was becoming evermore apparent.

It was during this year on 17th June 1943, that Chedburgh’s second main operational unit would be formed, 620 Sqn (RAF), also carrying out bomber operations, again with the Stirling MK. I and later in the August, the MK. III. Also part of 3 Group Bomber Command, 620 Sqn were created through the streamlining of 214 Sqn and 149 Sqn at nearby Lakenheath. The move reduced each of the two former squadrons from three flights to two,  releasing ‘C’ Flight of 214 Sqn who were already stationed here at Chedburgh.

RAF Chedburgh

Parts of the perimeter track and runways remain as tracks used for storage.

As many of these crews were already well established and experienced, there would be no delay in commencing operations, the first sortie occurring on the night of the 19th June 1943 – two days after their formation. The first casualties occurred three days later on the night of 22nd/23rd June 1943, just a few days into their operational campaign. There then followed five months of heavy operational activity, a period in which the Stirling and its crews would be pushed to the very limit and beyond. The shortcomings of the aircraft being realised further more.

Being on a partially built airfield would be the cause of the demise of Stirling EF336 (QS-D) which swung on take off and ran into the partially constructed perimeter track. The uneven surface caused the undercarriage to collapse, and whilst there were no injuries to the crew, the aircraft was written off.

The poor service ceiling of the Stirling led to several aircraft being damaged through falling bombs from aircraft flying above. A number of Stirlings were recorded returning to bases, including Chedburgh, with damage to the air frames, damage caused by these falling ‘friendly’ bombs!  However, the extent of this damage did give great credit to the aircraft, showing both its robustness and strength in design; something that often gets forgotten when talking about the Stirling in operations.

The next few months for 620 Sqn would be filled with a mix of operational sorties, mining operations (Gardening) and training flights, including both ‘Bullseye‘ and ‘Eric‘; testing the home defence searchlight and AA batteries both at night and during the day. During a fighter affiliation exercise on July 2nd, two 620 Squadron aircraft collided, ‘EF394’ (QS-V) and BK724 (QS-Y)  killing fifteen and injuring two. One of those killed, Flight Mechanic AIC Arthur Haigh (s/n: 1768277) was only 18 years old, and one of five ground crew who were aboard the two aircraft that day.

Both 214 Sqn and 620 Sqn would go on for the next few months taking part in some of the war’s largest bomber missions including Hamburg, Essen and Remscheid. A number of aircraft would be lost and many aircrew along with them. The worst recorded night for 620 Sqn was the night operation on August 27th/28th, 1943 to Nuremberg, when three aircraft were shot down, all Stirling MK.IIIs: BF576 (QS-F) piloted by Sgt. Frank Eeles (s/n: 1531789); EE942 (QS-R) piloted by Flt. Sgt. John F. Nichols (s/n: 1318759) and EF451 (QS-D) piloted by Sgt. William H. Duroe (s/n: 658365). These three losses accounted for sixteen deaths and five taken as POWs, there were no other survivors.

The last 214 Sqn Stirling to be written off during bombing missions occurred on the night of November 22nd/23rd, 1943. Whilst on a mission to Berlin, Stirling EF445 (BU-J) was hit by flak, attacked by a FW-190 and then suffered icing. The resultant damage along with a lack of fuel, caused the pilot to ditch in the North Sea with the loss of two crewmen: pilot F/S. George A. Atkinson (s/n: 1485104) and Sgt. W. Sweeney (RCAF) (s/n: R/79844).

620’s stay at Chedburgh would be fairly short-lived, taking part in their final operation on the night of November 19th/20th, 1943 to Leverkusen. They then departed Chedburgh at the end of that month after suffering a heavy toll on their numbers and a devastating start to their war. By now the limitations of the Stirling were very well-known, and it was already being replaced by the much favoured Lancaster. In the short five months it had existed, the squadron had lost eighteen of its aircraft in operations, and a further six in accidents, statistics that are however, overshadowed by the loss of ninety-three lives. 620 Sqn left both Chedburgh and Bomber Command to join other units at RAF Leicester East and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force in November, where the unit was to perform Airborne operations along side 196 Sqn and 1665 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU). A role that 620 performed for the remainder of the war.

With their departure came the arrival of another Stirling squadron, 1653 HCU, a Stirling training unit rather than a front line operational squadron. A month later 214 Sqn would also leave Chedburgh taking their Stirlings to Downham Market and then onto Sculthorpe where they replaced them with the B-17 Flying Fortress.

A P-51 Mustang (5Q-Q, serial number 42-106672) of the 504th Fighter Squadron, 339th Fighter Group, that has crash landed at Chedburgh, 18 May 1944. (IWM FRE 2784)

1653 HCU, as a training unit, would also have it share of accidents and losses, many due to technical problems, but some due to pilot error. A number of accidents were caused by tyres blowing, and some were caused by engine failures, the bravery of these pilots in dealing with these matters being no less than exemplary. One such incident being that of F/O. Hannah and his crew, who took off at 20:50 on the evening of November 3rd 1944, on a radar training flight. Immediately after take off both port engines cut out, something that was almost fatal in a Stirling. The aircraft, virtually uncontrollable, was heading towards a row of cottages but the crew managed to turn it  away missing the houses but colliding with a row of trees instead. All of the crew were injured to varying degrees – one fatally. Sgt. Eddie (RCAF) dying in the resultant crash.

After a year of being at Chedburgh, 1653 HCU would also depart (December 1944) by which time the Lancaster was well and truly the main bomber of the RAF. This late stage of the war would not be the end of Chedburgh though, Bomber Command retaining its use, sending the Lancasters I and III of 218 (Gold Coast)*1 Squadron here from RAF Methwold.

On December 2nd 1944 the first ground units began to arrive, with flying personnel arriving on the 5th, after much-needed runway repairs were completed. The airfield reopened with the arrival of eighteen Lancasters, formed into three new flights, of which thirteen would undertake operations on the 8th, to the railway yards at Duisburg – their first from Chedburgh. Both this mission and that of the 11th to the marshalling yards at Osterfeld, were heavily restricted by thick cloud, and so G-H navigation aids were used in conjunction with ‘Oboe‘.

For the majority of the remainder of the war Bomber Command continued its strategic missions against German cities, with marshalling yards and oil refineries being other major targets. It was of course this continued use of bomber aircraft against what was now a demoralised and weakened German population, that led to the outcry over Harris’s continued attacks on German cities. A controversial action that led to his move away from the lime light at the war’s end, and the lack of recognition for bomber commands efforts throughout the conflict.

218 Sqn would continue on though. The winter of 1944 / 45 proving to be one of the worst weather wise, many missions were either scrubbed or carried out in poor weather. On the night of January 1st/2nd 1945, one hundred and forty-six aircraft of No. 3 Group were tasked with the attack on Vohwinkel railway yards. During the attack in which 218 Sqn were a part, two aircraft were hit by heavy anti-aircraft fire from American guns below. One of these was 218 Sqn Lancaster MK. I PB768 (XH-B) piloted by 20 yr old Australian F/O. Robert G. Grivell. The accuracy of these guns was ironically excellent, hitting the aircraft not once but twice, causing it to spin uncontrollably toward the ground. All but one of the crew were killed in the ensuing crash.

It was during this period that the RAF began daylight bombing missions too, such was the poor state of the defending Luftwaffe. Numerous missions over the next weeks led to attacks on the coking plants at both Datteln and Hattingen, repeated again on March 17th in attacks at Huls (and Dortmund). Hattingen was again attacked by 218 Sqn aircraft on the 18th without loss.

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945.

Mechanics at work on an engine of Lancaster B Mk. III, (LM577) ‘HA-Q’ “Edith”, of No. 218 Squadron. On March 19th 1945, this aircraft was hit by flak over Gelsenkirchen damaging the rear turret and injuring the gunner’s eye. LM577 went on to complete more flying hours than any other Lancaster on the station.(© IWM (CH 15460))

The remainder of the war would see 218 Sqn fly from Chedburgh, completing many missions until the war’s end. During Operation ‘Manna‘ in which the German Army lifted an embargo on food transport into Holland, ten Lancasters of 218 Squadron dropped food supplies to the starving Dutch below. Understandably April had seen fewer operations than in previous months, but with May seeing many more food trips to the Hague, 218 Squadron leapt to the top of the leader board for operational tours, overtaking both 77 Sqn and 115 Sqn their closest friendly ‘competitors’. With further flights under ‘Manna‘, and then repatriation flights under both ‘Dodge‘ and ‘Exodus‘ 218 Sqn continued to operate the long haul flights into European territory.

During August the big wind down began, and the Lancasters were gradually flown out of Chedburgh for disposal. Then on the 10th, 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron was finally disbanded, and the various crews sent home to their respective territories across the globe.

On August 27th 1945, the last two Lancasters departed Chedburgh, and all was very quiet for those left behind. Then in September, two Polish bomber squadrons arrived, both 301 and 304 Sqns remaining here until they were also disbanded a year later on December 18th, 1946; their Warwicks, Wellingtons and Halifaxes being no doubt scrapped. Whilst here, the Polish squadrons flew long-range transport flights, retaining at least some link to the heavy aircraft and long-range flights that had been common only a year or so before.

Over the remaining years the airfield, like many, has reduced to both agriculture and industrial use. The watch Office has been heavily modified and lies hidden within an industrial complex that has completely taken over the former technical site. A number of these original buildings still survive and visible from the main A143 Bury St. Edmunds to Haverhill road, the road that separates the airfield from the village opposite. The runways and perimeter tracks, visible only in small parts, are mere concrete platforms, now used to store farm produce and machinery, rather than the lumbering bombers of RAF Bomber Command.

The huts used to house the 1,600 RAF personnel and 240 WAAFs, have all been removed, as have the thirty-six hardstands – the airfield site now being completely agricultural.

RAF Chedburgh

Some technical buildings remain in use today.

Whilst Chedburgh was only built as a satellite airfield, by the end of the war it had been witness to many great sacrifices. Eighty-three aircraft had been lost on operations, all but 12 being Stirlings; eighteen from 620 Sqn and fifty from 214 Sqn. For a period of only fourteen months for 214 Sqn and five for 620 Sqn, this was an appalling loss of life, and one that was sadly mirrored by many bomber squadrons across the British Isles in the 1940s.

Sources and further reading

Much of the specific detail for these loses came from the Chorley, W.R., “Bomber Command Losses series”, published by Midland Counties Publications.

*1 A number of books are available on this squadron. One written by Ron Warburton, ‘Ron’s War‘ chronicles the life of a Flight Engineer of a Lancaster in 218 (Gold Coast) Sqn whilst at Chedburgh in 1945. It is published by RW Press, and available online. ISBN-13: 978-0983178804

A second book is also available, “From St Vith to Victory: 218 (Gold Coast) Squadron and the Campaign Against Nazi Germany“, written by Stephen Smith, and published by Pen and Sword Aviation in 2010 (ISBN10 1473855403). It details the life of 218 (Gold Coast Sqn) from its inception through to its disbandment in 1945.

A blog has also been set up dedicated to those who served in 218 (Gold Coast) Sqn and it gives a detailed history from 1936-1945. It has also been created by Stephen Smith who has also published other books relating to 218 Sqn including “A Short War” and “A Stirling Effort” which relates specifically to their time at RAF Downham Market.  https://218squadron.wordpress.com/

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Scotland’s National Museum of Flight – East Fortune (Part 3).

The final public hangar at East Fortune holds what is perhaps its pièce de résistance, an aircraft so ahead of its time that it has never been successfully matched. An aircraft that became simply too expensive to operate but was withdrawn under a cloak of darkness and sadness. In the third public hangar is the story of the Jet Age, a story that tells of the development of the modern jet air liner, from the post war development through to the classics of today. A story that is set around the beautiful aircraft that is of course the B.A.C. Concorde.

The Jet Age Hangar.

The Concorde at the National Museum of Flight (G-BOAA) was the first model Concorde to go into active service in 1976. After flying for a total of 22,768 hours and 56 minutes, in almost 25 years of service, she finally came to rest after what was possibly the most ambitious transportation project ever undertaken. In all her flying time she has visited cities right across the world including: New York, Paris, Bahrain, Miami, Calcutta, Auckland and Barbados. In her life time, G-BOAA has landed over 8,000 times and has flown through almost 7,000 supersonic cycles. She has become an icon, a reflection of what is achievable in civil aviation development.

Concorde was designed and built in agreement between the French Sud Aviation (later Aérospatiale) and Britain’s British Aircraft Corporation (later B.A.E.). Each would make their own prototype, the French (001) flying first on 2nd March 1969, with the British model (002) flying from Fliton a month later on April 9th 1969. At the Paris airshow prospects looked good and over the next few years 65 initial orders were placed by 17 countries with options for many more. However, growing concerns over manufacturing costs, noise, environmental pollution and running costs eventually reduced the orders to just a handful from both British Airways and Air France.

With the price of a return ticket London to New York in excess of £6,500 in 2003, it certainly wasn’t cheap, nor affordable for the average man in the street (but where else can you watch the Mach Meter climb through Mach 2). It was however, a head turner. Wherever Concorde flew crowds gathered to watch in awe of her grace and technological advancement.

Concorde

Concorde G-BOAA stands proudly as the centre piece of the Concorde Experience.

Sadly, on July 25th 2000, it all went terribly wrong when taking off from Charles de Gaulle airport, Concorde  F-BTSC ran over a small piece of debris causing the tyre to burst sending shards of rubber at high-speed into the wing of the aircraft. An internal fuel tank ruptured and high-octane fuel poured from the wing igniting as it left. With too little runway to land and insufficient power to fly, it couldn’t fail to miss the Hôtelissimo Les Relais Bleus Hotel and crashed. A terrible tragedy that began the rapid rundown and retirement of the entire Concorde fleet.

Following a slump in air travel due to terrorist activities, rising costs of Concorde and the urgent need for upgrades, by 2003 all Concordes had ceased flying, and the disposal of the air-frames began.

G-BOAA was delivered to East Fortune following a major operation that involved taking it by road to the River Thames, along the Thames by specialist barge and out to sea, around the coast of England and Scotland, and then by road to East Fortune. Roads had to be purposely made cutting through a number of fields in order to get the aircraft to its new home. An operation that took over a week was supported by members of 39 Engineer Regiment’s 53 Field Squadron (Air Support) with a helicopter assistance.

Today Concorde G-BOAA stands as the centre piece of the Jet Age and Concorde Experience Hangar, a proud and open monument to the collaboration and development of the Supersonic passenger age.

But this hangar is not just about Concorde. A cockpit and front cabin portion from a Boeing 707-436 (G-APFJ), and Hawker Siddeley Trident 1C (G-ARPH) cockpit, gives the visitor another insight into life inside another 1960s long haul passenger jet. Outside another two classic passenger aircraft, de Havilland’s Comet 4C (G-BDIX) and the BAC 111-510ED (G-AVMO) further give the visitor an insight into these classic times. A range of jet engines allow you to compare sizes and features, and stories from those who were involved in flying these masters of the sky bring the ‘Golden age of air travel’ to life once more.

East Fortune

Some of the engines on view at East Fortune.

The remainder of the museum is displays and hands on activities. The history of East Fortune, is well portrayed as are the medals of Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN., and the flying jacket and personal artefacts of Rolf Niehoff, the navigator of the Humbie Heinkel.

East Fortune

Portrait and medals of Captain Eric Melrose “Winkle” Brown, CBE, DSC, AFC, Hon FRAeS, RN

As mentioned earlier, in Post 1 the parachute store has been fully refurbished and is displayed in the way it would have been used during the war years. A unique building, they are easily recognisable by their higher central roof section, or as in some models, offset sloping roofs. Designed to hang and dry parachutes, they are kept at a constant temperature, ideally between 550F and 650F. Wartime parachute stores were built with 4.5 inch thick walls, early designs having a symmetrical two-stage pitched roof as is here at East Fortune. The parachutes were hung from the highest point on a pulley system, so that the silk was kept away from the floor and allowed to dry evenly and cleanly. Once dry, they were lowered to a packing table, inspected, packed away and stored in the store on racks. Each pack was labelled with an inspection date and the person to whom it belonged – each crewman having earlier being measured for his own parachute.

This is possibly the only original parachute store remaining in this condition in the UK and shows the method of drying, packing and storing these vital pieces of equipment extremely well.

East Fortune

The inside of the parachute store clearly shows how they parachutes were dried, packed and stored.

Other exhibits include the RAF’s Matador lorry and a ‘Green Goddess’ fire engine. Made more famous perhaps by the firemen’s strikes of 2002, they were built in the 1950s, and were designed to be used in the event of a nuclear attack. Operated by civilian personnel of the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) they would be rushed into cities to extinguish fires and repair water systems. Thankfully, they were never used in this particular role.

East Fortune National Museum of Flight

The RAF’s Matador truck.

The range of exhibits at East Fortune is fabulous. The history of aviation, both civil and military is shown through a range of rare examples, that are restored and maintained in original buildings, purposely restored in line with their original designs and construction. For anyone wanting to see original airfield buildings and beautifully restored aircraft, it is certainly worthy of a trip and is time very well spent.

Sources and Further Reading.

The National Museum of Flight Website has details of tickets, events and features on the various exhibits there.

A list of the aircraft locations at East Fortune.

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 2)

After Part 1, we return to RAF Winfield, where an ‘odd’ visitor arrives. We also see the post war demise of Winfield into the site it is today.

At the end of the war many Polish units and displaced persons were pulled back to the U.K. in preparation for their repatriation into civilian life and for some return to their native country. Winfield became the site of one such group; the 22 Artillery Support Company (Army Service Corps, 2nd Polish Corps) who whilst fighting in the Middle East and Italy adopted a rather odd mascot. He became known as Wojtek, a Syrian bear who was officially given the rank of Private in the Polish Army, and who ‘fought’ alongside them as one of their own.

THE POLISH ARMY IN BRITAIN, 1940-1947

Wojtek the Syrian bear adopted by the Polish relaxing at Winfield Airfield, the unit’s temporary home after the war.*1

After finding the bear as a young cub wrapped around the neck of a small Iranian boy, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys took him and adopted him. After the war, on October 28th 1946, the Polish Army along with the bear arrived at Winfield Displaced Persons Camp – little did they know what a stir Wojtek would cause.

As displaced persons the Polish men would venture into nearby Berwick, where the locals grew fond of them and drinks flowed in abundance. Wojtek would go with them, becoming a familiar, if not unorthodox, site amongst the streets and bars or Berwick. This cigarette smoking, beer loving character, often causing a stir wherever he went. He became renowned in the area, the local villagers would flock to see him. He joined in with the frolics and loved the life that he was being allowed to live.

As a bear he loved the rivers and the River Tweed flows only a short distance from Winfield, rich and fast flowing it is abundant in that other commodity – Salmon. However, Wojtek was under strict orders not to swim alone nor stray onto the airfield which although closed, could still provide a danger for him if seen.

Wojtek became part of local history, eventually, a year after their arrival, the Polish unit were demobbed and they moved away. Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo to look after, who did so until his death at the age of 21 in 1963. A statue stands in Princess Street Gardens beneath Edinburgh Castle as a reminder of both him and the Polish troops who were stationed at Winfield camp. A second statue of Wojtek stands in the centre of Duns, the village not far from Charterhall. The Wojtek Memorial Trust, set up in his honour, aims to promote both educational and friendship links between the young people of Scotland and Poland, an aim it tirelessly works towards today.

RAF Winfield

Statue of Wojtek in the centre of nearby Duns.

After the Polish troops left, Winfield was allocated to the USAF, and earmarked for development, but this never materialised and the site was left dormant. Winfield then reverted back to RAF control some five years later in October 1955, whereupon it was disposed of and sold off.

A small group of private flyers reopened the site, renovating the watch office and utilising a small hangar on the north of the airfield. This operation has now ceased and the watch office has sadly fallen into disrepair, it windows missing and open to the elements. The demise of Winfield and its subsequent decay has begun.

Winfield airfield lies between two roads, a further public road passes through the site although this was seen to be gated at the southern end. The most prominent feature is by far the Watch Office, a two-story design built to design 15684/41, having walls some 13.5 inches thick as was standard for all night-fighter stations (but different to the one at Charterhall).

Other buildings also remain to the west on the main airfield site but these are only small and very few in number. The accommodation sites have all been removed, however, there are some buildings remaining in the former WAAF site to the north of the airfield. Located down a track just off the B4640, these buildings appear to be latrines and a possible WAAF decontamination block, with other partial remains nearby. Drawing numbers for these are unclear, (but appear to be 14420/41 and 14353/41) indicating WAAF (Officer and sergeant) quarters. Other buildings on this site look to have been a drying room, water storage tank and a picket post. Heading further south along this track leads to a small pond, here is a local design Fire Trailer shelter: a small brick-built building no more than about seven feet square. Presumably this pond was used to fill the fire trailer in cases of fire or attack and was located midway between the WAAF site and the main airfield. Also on this site, which is part of the Displaced Persons Camp, is a makeshift memorial to the Polish Armed Forces, dotted around the ground are a number of metal parts partially buried in the soil.

RAF Winfield

A plaque dedicated to the Polish Armed Forces placed next to the fire trailer hut.

The airfield runways and perimeter tracks are still in place, and years of both decay and locals using them to practice their driving skills on, have taken their toll. Like Charterhall, Winfield was also used as a motor racing circuit, although not to the same extent that Charterhall was. On one occasion though, as many as 50,000 spectators were known to have visited the site on one day alone!

Winfield like its parent site has now become history, the remnants of its past linger on as final reminders of the activities that went on here in the 1940s. The night fighter pilots who pushed the boundaries of aircraft location and interception are gradually fading away; the dilapidated buildings too are gradually crumbling and breaking apart. Inch by inch these sites are disappearing until one day soon, perhaps even they will have gone along with the brave young men who came here to train, to fight and in many cases to die.

As we leave the remnants of Winfield and Charterhall behind, we continue North to our next trail; nearing Edinburgh we take in more of Scotland’s natural beauty and even more tales of its wonderful but tragic aviation history.

My sincere thanks go to both Mr. and Mrs. Campbell for their hospitality and the help in touring these two sites. The history of both Charterhall and Winfield can be read in Trail 41.

Sources and Further Reading – RAF Winfield

*1 Photo IWM collections No.HU 16548.

The Polish Scottish Heritage website provides information about the scheme.

RAF Winfield and the Polish Connection (Part 1)

The second airfield on Trail 41 takes us a little further east to Charterhall’s satellite and a site that had strong links with the armed forces of Poland. Remembered here is an usual mascot, a bear known as ‘Wojtek’. We stop off a few miles away at the satellite that was RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield.

RAF Winfield, located a few miles east of Charterhall, was pivotal to the success of the night-fighter training programme and in particular to Charterhall and 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U.).

Charterhall and Winfield cannot be talked about with great reference to each other, they were built together, manned together and operated as part of the same training programme. Winfield and Charterhall probably operated together more closely than any parent / satellite airfields of the Second World War.

RAF Winfield

Winfield Watch Office one of the few remaining buildings now derelict and forlorn.

Winfield (like Charterhall) was initially used as a First World War landing ground for 77 Sqn based at Edinburgh flying a range of Royal Aircraft Factory B.E. types in the Home Defence role. Whilst many of these airfields were designated ‘landing grounds’, many were not officially recorded to the point that their precise locations remain vague even today. Winfield (or Horndean as it was known), was designed as a site where crews could land in an emergency, perhaps if their aircraft developed problems or if weather prevented landing at their home station.

77 Sqn were part of a force who were to patrol the eastern regions of Britain, an area stretching from Dover in the south to Edinburgh in the north. This area, was the furthest point north and the defence of the Scottish border region fell to 77 Sqn. The conditions at Horndean were not luxury, and the ‘runways’ were far from smooth, but in an emergency any semi-decent ground was most likely welcome. Crews often practised emergency landings at both Horndean and Eccles Toft (Charterhall), where aircraft guards would restart the aircraft before flight could take place again. These ‘guards’ (or Ack Emas as they were known) were often mechanics recruited into the Royal Flying Corps because of their mechanical background and knowledge of engines. After a brief training period of some eight weeks, they were sent to various establishments to maintain and prepare aircraft before and after flight.

Horndean as an airfield was not to last though, and before the war’s end it would close returning to its former agricultural use.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, the training of pilots and other crewmen became a priority. Night fighters were also needed and Winfield would fulfil this role.

Winfield was built over the period 1941 – 42 opening later than expected, due to bad weather, in April 1942. A rather hastily affair, it was built between two roads and would only have two runways. Oddly, the initial construction of the runway was by hand, red shale from local quarries being brought in by endless lorries and laid down by local workers. It didn’t take long though before it was realised that this method was too slow, and so heavy machinery was brought in, and the stocks of shale bulldozed into the foundations. At the threshold, rubble stone was laid to a depth of some 12 feet, much deeper than the remainder,  to take the impact of landing aircraft. A covering of tarmac was laid over this layer in depths of between four and six inches thick. The runways at Winfield, like Charterhall, were 1,600 and 1,100 yards and both 50 yards wide. Aircraft dispersal was provided by thirty-seven hardstands whilst maintenance was carried out in four blister hangars.

The first personnel to arrive were an advanced party of thirty-four airmen led by Flying Officer Beal, who arrived on April 30th 1942. Unlike Charterhall, the airfield was complete and ready for the new recruits to move straight in. Being a satellite station, accommodation numbers catered for were less than those at Charterhall, 686 airmen and 56 WAAFs, all spread over five sites: three airmen, a WAAF, and a communal site. A small sewage plant was located not far from these, all to the north-eastern side of the airfield.

Trainees were to follow an initial three-tier programme. Starting in ‘A’ squadron – the conversion unit – they would then pass to ‘B’ and then finally onto ‘C’ here at Winfield. C Squadron, would finely tune skills and train aircrew in uses of Aircraft Interception (AI), ground attack and air-to-air gunnery techniques. Later on, a fourth tier would be added, focusing purely in flying the D.H. Mosquito in the night fighter role.

RAF Winfield

Remains of the former WAAF site.

These initial stages primarily used Beaufighters and Blenheims, aircraft that had been passed down from front line units to the training squadrons of the O.T.U.s. Many were therefore ‘war weary’ and as a result, mechanical problems were common place.

The first fatality at Winfield occurred in a rather bizarre accident on May 23rd 1942. A dispatch rider, Aircraftman 1st Class, John R. Livesey (s/n1478277), was struck by a Blenheim flown by Sgt. J. Grundy as the aircraft was taking off. The aircraft was damaged in the collision and the pilot unhurt, but Livesey was very sadly killed; he now rests at Marton (St. Paul) church in Blackpool.

In August 1942 a combined operation was planned involving Spitfire VBs from 222 Sqn (based at North Weald) and Boston IIIs from Attlebridge’s 88 Sqn. These manoeuvres saw eighteen Spitfires and twelve Bostons arrive, supported by three H.P. Harrows of 271 Sqn bringing ground crews, spares and supplies for the various aircraft. In all, around 360 new crews were accommodated at Winfield over the short two-week period.

Adept at low-level attacks, the two squadrons would arrive here between 1st and 4th August 1942, spend several days attacking ‘enemy’ transport and troop routes across southern Scotland, before departing. Considered a relative success, their stay was only for a short period vacating to RAF airfields at Drem, near Edinburgh, and Attlebridge, in Norfolk, respectively by mid August.

A further deployment of Mustang Is of 241 Sqn based at Ayr was cut short when bad weather prevented both flying and training operations from occurring. Later that month the small party left rather disappointed having hardly flown since arriving here at Winfield.

Being the more advanced tier of the training programme, serious accidents at Winfield occurred less frequently than at Charterhall. Burst tyres and mechanical problems being the main cause of many of the problems that were incurred.

RAF Winfield

Few buildings remain at Winfield, the WAAF site having the majority of the examples.

During July 1943, a Beaufighter from ‘C’ Squadron at Winfield misjudged the distance from himself to the target drogue being pulled by a Lysander, after firing and passing, his airscrew caught the drogue’s wire; luckily both aircraft were able to land safely and neither crew were injured. At the end of July a less fortunate incident occurred when, on a night flight, the port engine of Beaufighter T3370 (a former 456 Sqn RAAF aircraft coded RX-Z) caught fire. The crew bailed out, the pilot surviving but the Radio operator/navigator P/O. Frank Walmsley (s/n J/17124) of the RCAF was posted missing, presumed drowned, after the aircraft crashed into the sea. No trace was ever found of him.

October saw further deaths of crews from Winfield. On the 11th, Beaufighter VI, (ND184) crashed killing its Pilot Sgt. Angus Taylor, after it suffered engine failure; followed the next day by the crash of Beaufighter T3218 in a gunnery exercise over the North Sea. The aircraft crashed into the water after incurring a stall, both crewmen; F/O. John W. Roussel and F/O. Francis L. Kirkwood both of the RCAF, were missing presumed drowned. Both are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial.

During 1944 the tide began to turn and night fighter crews were on the offensive. The invasion of Normandy brought new hope and a new aircraft – the Mosquito. But as 1944 ended it would be the worst for fatalities in 54 OTU.

January brought many heavy bombers to the grounds of Winfield, returning from missions over Europe, they were either damaged or unable to land at their own respective bases due to poor weather. On February 17th 1945, fourteen Halifax IIIs from 420 Squadron RCAF landed at Winfield along with a further 408 Squadron aircraft. Whilst not able to comfortably accommodate such numbers and aircraft, it would have no doubt been a happy, and very much appreciated landing.

As the war drew to a close so did the number of flying hours. By May 31st the war was over and Winfield was no longer required, all the various ranks were pulled back to Charterhall leaving only a small maintenance party behind. For the next few years Winfield would have no operational units stay here, either temporary or permanently.

In the second part of this visit, we see how Winfield changed after the war, an odd visitor arrives, and Winfield’s decline begins. 

 

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 2)

Following on from Part 1 of Trail 41 – The Borders, we return to Charterhall in the beginning of 1943.

During the Battle of Britain many pilots suffered from burns in aircraft fires and crashes. The famous ‘Guinea Pig club’ became synonymous with those men who underwent experimental techniques in reconstructive skin work carried out by of Archibald McIndoe at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead in Sussex. Some of these men wrote about their experiences, and one, Flight Lieutenant Richard Hillary, sadly lost his life at Charterhall.

Hillary arrived here in November 1942 – after two long years of surgery and hospitalisation. Writing about his experiences in ‘The Last Enemy‘ he opted for night fighter training and was posted to Charterhall. Still disfigured, he had virtually no experience in night flying and none on twin-engined aircraft.

RAF Charterhall

One of two remaining hangars.

The controls of the Blenheim were awkward and difficult to use at the best of times, Hillary, with his disfigured hands, found the Blenheim I more so and often needed help with the undercarriage. Cockpit lighting was another issue experienced by crews, even in later models instrument panels were difficult to read in the dark and this led to several pilots making errors when reading the various dials and gauges. Hillary found this a further challenge, with damaged eyelids his night sight was ‘impaired’ and on January 8th 1943, his aircraft, Blenheim V BA194, struck the ground killing both him and his Radio Operator Flight Sgt. K.W. Fison. The cause of the crash is unclear, whether Hillary’s condition added to the accident is not known, and it is generally thought to be as a result of icing due to the thick, cold Scottish fog. Whatever the cause, it ended the life of two very brave young men, one of whom had fought long and hard to survive in some of the harshest of times.*2

In April 1943 Beauforts began arriving to replace the ageing and very much outdated Blenheim Is. It was also in this month that responsibility of the O.T.Us passed over to 9 Group, and there were now fourteen operational units countrywide. Monthly ‘processing’ of new crews would be increased to an intake of 40 all undertaking a 12 week course before finally being posted to operational squadrons.

The summer of 1943 saw a rapid increase in accidents. Some of these occurred on the ground as well as whilst flying. On June 14th a tragic accident occurred when a Beaufighter piloted by Sgt. Wilkie, swung on take off colliding with another aircraft being refueled. The Bowser exploded in the accident destroying both aircraft and killing two ground staff: Leading Aircraftman (LAC) Francis P. Matthews and Leading Aircraftman George Lotherington.*3

A further incident, also caused by a Beaufighter swinging on take off, caused the first July fatality, when the aircraft hit both a blister hangar and a taxiing Beaufort. The two collisions wrote off the Beaufighter and severely damaged the Beaufort. The pilot of the Beaufighter,  Flight Sgt. W. Andrew (s/n 415280) aged just 21, was killed in the incident.

July was a milestone for 54 O.T.U in that it was the first time that 3,000 flying hours had been exceeded of which 894 had been carried out at night at a cost of 20 accidents – such was the demand for trained operational crews.

During September, new MK VI Beaufighters began to arrive. These were passed directly to Winfield and ‘C’ squadron after delivery and inspection at Charterhall. Even though they were ‘factory new’, they did not prevent further accidents nor deaths occurring. By the end of 1943, 54 O.T.U had amassed 28,940 hours flying time of which 7,012 were at night. A huge total that had enabled the RAF to pass the equivalent of 12 operational squadron crews but it had also taken a serious loss of life.

In January 1944 the unit strength was up to ninety-six aircraft, flying continued where the inclement weather allowed, and the year would start off with no serious accidents or deaths – a welcome break; but 1944 would eventually prove to be Charterhall’s worst year.

May brought a new focus for the trainees when it was decided to make  54 O.T.U operational in support of the impending invasion. Operating in the night fighter role, they were called out on to intercept German aircraft roaming over the north-east of England and southern Scotland. Unfortunately, whilst intruders were detected, no contacts were made during these operations, primarily due to the intruders flying too low for the GCI to pick them up; but it did give some purpose to the heavy losses that were being incurred.

At this time a new aircraft began appearing in ‘C’ Squadron, a model that gave new hope and determination to the crews – the incredible, D.H. Mosquito. By the war’s end, 54 O.T.U. would have used eight different variants of the Mosquito.

The initial batch of two were located at Winfield, rather disappointing perhaps for those at Charterhall, but they were not to be  devoid of their own special breed of aircraft.

The final part of our visit to RAF Charterhall will follow soon, the end of the war is in sight and so starts a new era for RAF Charterhall…

Sources and further reading

*News report on Hillary in ‘The Scotsman‘ Newspaper, 11th November 2001

*3 Commonwealth War Graves Commission website accessed 29/4/17

The Borders – RAF Charterhall (Part 1)

After leaving the Wolds of Yorkshire, Trail 41 takes us north across the border into Scotland. A land as diverse in its history as it is its beauty.  With fabulous views of the Cheviots to the south and the North Sea coast to the east, it is an area renowned for beautiful scenery and delightful walks. With Holy Island and Lindisfarne Castle standing proud, it also an area with a rich and diverse aviation history,

In this trail we stop off at two airfields where we find some remarkable relics and some terrible stories.

Our first stop is at a site that is little known about even though it played a major part in the night-fighter air war, and was also the proving ground for some of the world’s top motor racing drivers as well. Yet beneath all this glamour and bravado it holds a collection of terrible stories. We stop off at the former RAF Charterhall.

RAF Charterhall.

Located some 15 miles south-west of the coastal town of Berwick, Charterhall airfield had its aviation origins in the First World War. Its original name was RFC Eccles Tofts (although the two were not quite the same physical site), a landing ground for 77 Squadron who were based further north at Edinburgh, and flew the Royal Aircraft Factory BE.2c/d/e, BE.12, RE8, de Havilland DH6 and Avro’s 504k.  Whilst not official detached here, the airfield was available for these aircraft to land upon and be recovered should the need arise. It wasn’t kept open for long and soon disappeared returning to its former agricultural use.

Charterhall is one of those airfields that has a grand sounding name, suggesting regency and nobility, its reality though, was somewhat different. It gained the rather unsavoury, but apt, nick-name ‘Slaughterhall’, due to the high accident rate of the trainee aircrew who passed through here.

RAF Charterhall

Technical buildings at Charterhall.

Many of the aircraft that operated from here were outdated and ‘war weary’, held together by the dedicated mechanics that took great pride in their work. Used for short-term placements of trainees, it would not house any true front line squadrons until the war’s end in 1945.

As a training airfield it would have a large number of airfield buildings, two Tarmacadam (Tarmac) runways the main running east-west of 1,600 yards and the second north-east/south-west of 1,100 yards; both were the standard 50 yards wide. There were some 38 dispersal pans, similar in shape to the ‘frying pan’ style , eight blister hangars and four main hangars of which two still survive. Chaterhall’s accommodation was initially designed for 1,392 airmen and 464 WAAFs – consisting of 126 Officers (both male and female) and 1,730 other ranks (again both male and female).

The main technical area was to the north side of the airfield with accommodation spread amongst the woods around this area. The watch office, long since demolished, was a mix of concrete and timber (thought to be initially a 518/40 design), which originally had timber floors, roof and stairs. However, an acute shortage of wood led to all these designs having only a timber balcony and control room. These modified designs (Charterhall included) were therefore built to a mix of 518/40 and 8936/40 specifications.

Another interesting feature of Charterhall would have been the instructional fuselage building. Here crews would have been trained using an aircraft fuselage (Charterhall had two, one each of Beaufighter and Blenheim) jacked up and linked to a controller’s panel. A number of simulated problems could be created for the crews to experience, anything from radio exercises through small warning lights to engine failure and even ditching. All crewmen had to have a good understanding of their aircraft, working hydraulics, electrical and fuel systems were all taught using this same method. In addition to these training fuselages, Charterhall would operate six Link Trainers, along with several other ‘state of the art’ training facilities.

RAF Charterhall

Many of the remaining buildings are in a poor state of repair.

The entire airfield would occupy around 143 hectares, it was certainly not large, especially considering the numbers of crews and mix of aircraft it would have during its short life.

Construction of Charterhall took place over 1941/42 opening on April 30th as part of 81 Group Fighter Command (and later 9 Group), receiving 54 Operational Training Unit (O.T.U) in May 1942. Formed two years earlier, they flew primarily Blenheim Is and Beaufighter IIs under the Squadron code ‘BF’ (Four different unit codes were used: BF, LX, ST and YX). A number of these aircraft were fitted with Aircraft Interception radar (AI) and some Blenheims were dual control.

To support the operations at Charterhall, a satellite airfield was built at nearby Winfield, a few miles east, both sites being used by 54 O.T.U. simultaneously. Later in the war, in an effort to divert marauding Luftwaffe bombers away from the two airfields, a dummy ‘Q’ site (No. 179) was built at Swinton also to the east of Charterhall.

The increase in O.T.U.s in these early days of the war was as a direct result of the increase in demand for new pilots in Fighter Command. In December 1940, 81 Group had six such units (54-59 O.T.U.) and by June 1941 this had increased to nine (52 – 60). By 1942, a total of twelve were in existence boosted by the addition of 12, 61 and 62 O.T.U. 54 O.T.U. would be one of two specialising in twin-engined night fighter flying. New crews, of which there were about 30 per month, were initially given about ten days to establish themselves and ‘crew up’. As time passed however, this time reduced to the point where some intakes were literally herded in a hangar and told to find a crewman or they would be allocated one! *1

Many of the crews arriving at Charterhall were brought in from around the Commonwealth and after passing their basic flying training instruction, would proceed through a further three stages of training. Some crews were also ex-fighter pilots already battled hardened, who had transferred in from front line units to night-fighters.

Progression through the course would be through initially three, and latterly four, squadrons. ‘A’ Squadron would be the initial conversion unit initiating crews on the rudiments of twin-engined aircraft as many had come from single engined fighter units. ‘B’ Squadron was the intermediate squadron, where the crews moved onto the larger twin-engined aircraft and finally ‘C’, (based at Winfield) was the advanced squadron honing skills such as aircraft interception and attack.  After completing the full training period, crews would receive postings to front line squadrons across the U.K. and beyond.

RAF Charterhall

A latrine on the technical site.

Initially on opening, Charterhall was not completely ready, especially the airfield’s lighting (Drem), and so training flights would only occur during the day. But, with the help of ground crews, this was soon rectified and by the end of the month considerable work had been done, and very soon night flying could begin.

The first daylight flights took place on May 13th 1942, followed by night flying seven days later, and – as crews were to find out very quickly – flying these aircraft would be a risky business.

During 1942 some 5000 aircrew would enter 81 Group’s training units, and they would suffer in the region of 2,000 accidents, of which just under 200 would be fatal. On May 23rd, 54 O.T.U’s first accident would occur when a ‘technical failure’ on a Blenheim Mk I, would cause the controls to jam. The aircrew were thankfully unhurt but the aircraft was severely damaged in the resultant crash. The first fatality would not be long in coming though, occurring just two days later, on May 25th, less than a month after 54 O.T.U’s arrival. On this day, Blenheim IV (Z6090) crashed killing both Pilot Officer J. A. Hill (s/n 115324) and Observer Sgt. A.E. Harrison (s/n 1384501) in an accident which is thought to have been caused by icing. P/O Hill is buried at Haddington (St. Martin’s) burial ground in East Lothain, whilst Sgt Harrison is buried in Middlesbrough (Acklam) Cemetery, Yorkshire.

During June, the first Beaufighters would begin to arrive, followed quickly by their first accident. Whilst on delivery by 2 Aircraft Delivery Flight at Colerne, the aircraft – a Beaufighter MkIIf – had an engine cut out causing it to crash about 10 kilometres north-west of Charterhall. Luckily the crew were able to walk away but the aircraft was written off.

During July bad weather hampered flying activities, but it didn’t prevent the unit from increasing its strength to seventy-seven aircraft.  Primarily Blenheims and Beaufighters, there were also a small number of Lysanders for target towing and four Airspeed Oxfords.

Accidents continued to occur at Charterhall, and it wasn’t until September 1942 that it would be fatality free – a welcome boost to the morale of the instructors at the time. However, the reprieve was short-lived, and October would see further accidents and yet more fatalities. On the 5th, two Blenheim MK Is (L6788 and L8613) collided: Pilot Sgt. J. Masters (missing – presumed drowned) and Navigator Sgt. J. Gracey were both killed. There were seven other accidents that month, a tally that involved two Blenheims and five Beaufighters, with the loss of one life. Causes included: two burst tyres, two overshoots, a loss of control and an undercarriage failure, all of which added to the lengthening list of accidents occurring at Charterhall.

The need for new crews increased the pressure on training stations to increase flying hours. Courses were cut short, spares were lacking and with only rudimentary rescue equipment, further deaths were inevitable. As a result, it wouldn’t be until March 1943 before Charterhall would see a break in these increasing fatalities.

The start of 1943 saw a new Station Commander, but the new change in command would not see the new year start on a good note…

 

(Part 2 of Trail 41 will continue shortly).

Sources and further reading

*1 An interview with Edward Braine, in ‘reel 4’ he describes his posting to RAF Charterhall for operational training; crewing up; transfer onto Bristol Beaufighters; position of navigator in Bristol Beaufighter; accident during training; method of observing aircraft at night and interpreting radar signals. Sound file reel 4 Recorded and presented by the Imperial War Museum.

 

RAF Martlesham Heath (part 2) – A long and distinguished history.

In part two of this Trail, we continue looking at the history of RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

On August 15th 1944, two P-47s flying more than 200 miles off course mistakenly attacked the Ninth Air Force headquarters near to Laval. In the attack, ground gun crews managed to bring down one of the aircraft killing its pilot. The second aircraft managed to avoid the anti-aircraft fire and returned home safely.

For three days in September, the 356th attacked enemy gun emplacements at Arnhem, earning themselves a DUC for their actions. These aircraft had the unenviable task of attacking the gun emplacements defending the allied drop zones. In order to neutralise the guns, the pilots first had to find them, a move that involved presenting themselves as bait. They proved their worth, bombing and strafing with 260lb fragmentation bombs, destroying all but two of the guns.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Martlesham Heath’s Watch Office now a museum surrounded by housing.

In November 1944 the P-47s were replaced by the P-51 ‘Mustangs’, the delight of the USAAF Fighter Groups. Early successes were good, even though they were tainted with repeated and wide-spread gun jamming.

The winter of 1944-45 was notoriously bad, one of the worst on record and many flights were cancelled at the last-minute. Maintenance on open airfields was incredibly difficult and accidents increased because of cloud, ice and snow. In mid January, five P-51s were lost, crashing on snow packed runways, being lost in cloud or suffering from taxiing accidents. By now though the war had turned and the blue and red chequered nosed fighters of the USAAF had turned to hunters and were eager for blood.

By now, Luftwaffe jets had now been in service for some time, harassing bombing formations, diving in amongst them, firing and then fleeing. Three P-51s of the 356th had the good fortune to catch an Arado-234 in the Bielefield area. After the pilot bailed out, they flew along side photographing the aircraft before finally shooting it down. It was one of a number that day that were lost to American airmen.

As the war ended the 356th had seen only eighteen months of active service, a short time that had allowed them to amass 276.5 kills in the air. Whilst being the lowest ‘score’ in the US Air Force, it doesn’t detract from the determination nor the skill of the brave pilots who flew with the 356th.

After the war’s end, the Americans departed and in November 1945, Martlesham Heath was returned to RAF ownership.

In 1946, experimental units returned with the forming of the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit. Over the next few years they would go through several changes of name , but in essence retained their primary role. During this period, they would operate a small number of aircraft including amongst them: Mosquito NF38 (VT654); Meteor F4 (VW308); Lincoln B1 (RE242); Canberra T4 (WE189) and Comet 3B (XP915).

On November 1st 1949, the Bomb Ballistic Unit (formed May 1944 at Woodbridge) and Blind Landing Experimental Units (formed October 1945 also at Woodbridge) were amalgamated, forming one complete unit (the Bomb Ballistic and Blind Landing Experimental Unit) here at Martlesham Heath. They each operated a number of twin and four engined aircraft that would be absorbed into the Armament and Instrument Experimental Unit 15 days later. On November 1st 1955 RAF control of the unit ceased, and it was re-branded Armament and Instrument Experimental Establishment, whereupon it ran until 1st July 1957, when it was disbanded and absorbed into the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

A number of the ‘H’ blocks have been given a new lease of life as office blocks. The parade ground, the car park.

With little operationally occurring at Martlesham, its decline was inevitable. Between 15th April 1958, and New Years Eve 1960, 11 Group Communications Flight operated: two Ansons (TX193 & WB453); a Devon (VP974); a Meteor T7 (WL378) and Chipmunk T.10 (WG465). Following their disbandment the only other flying units to use Martlesham were the then Hurricane and four Spitfires of the Battle of Britain Flight (now the legendary Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby) between 1958 and 1961. The 612 Glider School also used the site between September 1952 and May 1963, whereupon they disbanded and the airfield then closed. Remaining intact, the airfield would continue to be used but for light private flying only, until this also finally ceased in 1979.

Following its closure, Martlesham Heath’s 600 acres were handed over to the Bradford Property Trust following the reversion of the lease from the Air Ministry, and because of its location to both the larger town of Ipswich and the major sea port at Felixstowe, it was destined for development. It was declared by the new owners that Martlesham would become a ‘village’, rather than a traditional ‘housing estate’ in which the concept of small groups of housing would be built, often around a cul-de-sac rather than in rows, thus promoting a ‘community spirit’ within each segment of the development. Planning permission was granted in 1973, ten years after the Ministry sold it off, the development was finally completed in 1990.*2

On its completion Martlesham was designated a village, and since then the original 3,500 population has grown, in 2011, the Martlesham Neighbourhood Development Plan stated the population of the Parish at 5,478.

Today Martlesham Heath is a thriving mix of private housing, industrial and retail units, reflecting this ‘Garden Village’ design. Two major employers soon moved in: the British Telecom Research Centre and Suffolk County Police – forming their headquarters on this and the adjacent land.

Beneath all this development though, elements of the ‘Heath’ do still exist, largely due to the good foresight of the developers. The parade ground (now a car park), the barrack ’H’ blocks (like West Malling are office blocks), the watch office, messes, hangars and RAF workshops all transformed into light industrial units which remain in use today.

In 1982, local people set on preserving the heritage of Martlesham Heath created the Martlesham Heath Aviation Society, and were allowed to set up their home in the former watch office. After raising funds, the office was refurbished and turned into a museum displaying many artefacts, stories and photographs of Martlesham’s history. The museum finally opened in 2000 and remains there today encircled by housing on all four sides. The spirit of Martlesham Heath also lives on in the road names. Even the Douglas Bader pub has a tenuous link to this historic place.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

The memorials to those who served at Martlesham Heath during its long and distinguished career.

Viewing the airfield remains are relatively easy as most are visible and accessible from the public highway. Finding them is another matter. The design of the streets are such that there are many paths and small side streets and ‘getting lost’ is quite easy for the visitor. The main A12 road through Martlesham dissects the airfield site in two. The museum is to the west off Eagles way, surrounded by housing – an odd remnant of a bygone era. What little remains of the runway can be seen further south off Dobbs lane, in an area of heath and scrub – a lingering reminder of this once historic airfield, how long I wonder, before this too is removed.

The hangars and barrack blocks are to the eastern side, mostly among the retail park. The three memorials are located on Barrack Road opposite the BT building and alongside the former parade ground and ‘H’ blocks.

Now listed locally and with Suffolk Coastal District Council, many of the remaining but obscure remnants (airfield markers, hangar foundations, revetments, and the last remains of the runway) all lie dormant amongst the footpaths, cycle tracks and parks of the huge Martlesham Heath conurbation that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

Notes and further reading

*2 Ward, S.V., The Garden City, past, Present and Future,  1992, Spon Press

RAF Martlesham Heath (Part 1) – a long and distinguished history.

On the outskirts of Ipswich close to the former Cold War bases at Woodbridge and Bentwaters, is what is perhaps a model of the future, of many of our wartime airfields. Built upon with town housing hidden in the ‘Village’ idea, it is a place with major industry and retail parks, where the few remains that exist are hidden amongst the pathways and roads of this large conurbation. However, not all is lost, a museum and modern use of many of its original structures ensure the history of this once busy airfield are not lost forever.  In Trail 40 we head to the southern reaches of East Anglia, to the the outskirts of Ipswich and the former site that was once RAF Martlesham Heath.

RAF Martlesham Heath (Station 369).

Martlesham Heath was opened in 1917, and until it closed in 1963, was the home to a very large number of military units. It was also used by a number of aircraft experimental units, each one investigating the various aspects of aircraft and weapons designs needed in a modern air force. These investigations were carried out initially by the RFC Aeroplane Experimental Station and latterly the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE). Also present at Martlesham were the Armament & Instrument Experimental Unit, the Air Sea Rescue units, and the Battle of Britain Flight (now the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight based at RAF Coningsby). In addition, a Gunnery flight was also based here, as were gliders and numerous squadrons flown by a whole range of Nationalities including: Belgian, Czech, Polish, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and American airmen. With all these units came a broad and diverse range of aircraft types. Its history is certainly long and very, very distinguished.

The dawn of aviation happened at Martlesham Heath when it officially opened on January 16th, 1917.  During that year, the Aircraft Testing Squadron would arrive here from its base at Upavon to be joined on March 16th 1920 by the Armament Experimental Station from Orfordness. The amalgamation of these two aircraft experimental units would set the foundations for Britain’s future research and development organisation. This marriage, forged the name the Aeroplane Experimental Establishment (Home) until 24th March 1924, when it disbanded to become the better known Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE), who carried out their work here, at Martlesham Heath, until the outbreak of war in 1939. 

A number of both civilian and military aircraft were tested here, one of the most notable being the enormous all-metal tri-engined transport, the Beardmore Inflexible. Designed by William Beardmore, it had a wing span of 157 feet – 16 feet longer than Boeing B-29. Other aircraft included the 4.F1 ‘Taper Wing’ Camel, a sole example was produced with simplified wing-struts in an attempt to reduce drag and improve the Camel’s performance.  Amongst others featuring at Martlesham, were the Bristol Blenheim, various Auto Gyros and the Bristol Bombay. The A&AEE would be joined in July 1923 by the reformed 22 Sqn who would undertake armament testing investigations; and then, a year later, by the reformed 15 Sqn who would carry out performance and handling trials. Both these units operated solely as trials units, flying  a notional number of aircraft including a: Boulton Paul Bugle II, Fairy Ferret, Gloster Gamecock, Vickers 161 and Hawker Horsley aircraft.

INTER WAR BRITISH AIRCRAFT

The prototype Bristol Blenheim at Martlesham Heath under evaluation. (IWM)

With the outbreak of war, all sections of the A&AEE, with one exception, was moved for its own protection, to its new base at Boscombe Down. Here its history has become renowned, and many weapons and aircraft developments have taken place since. The exception to the move, was ‘D’ Flight of the A&AEE’s Performance Testing section, who moved to Perth where it became the Royal Air Force Detachment, Perth.

Over the next few years Martlesham Heath would become a major player in the war. Some 60 or so RAF squadrons would pass through here, either permanently based here or as detachments away from their parent bases. The first of these was 64 Sqn RAF flying Hawker Demons. After a short spell abroad, they would return in 1941 with Spitfire IIAs – the first permanently based unit. Other sqn’s that would pass through in these early years included:  29 and 151 Sqn (December 1938); 110 Sqn (June 1939); 25 and 56 Sqn (October 1939);  604 Sqn (September 1939) and 236 Sqn (December 1939).

With the evacuation of the BEF and the subsequent Battle of Britain, Martlesham would become increasingly busy. During 1940 five squadrons would be based here, whilst in 1941, thirteen squadrons would pass through. This would increase to sixteen in 1942; nine in 1943 and only two in 1944; thus the number of units using Martlesham would reflect both the level of the German threat and direction that the war was moving.

Being close to London, Martlesham would play its part in the Battle of Britain. A number of gritty and determined fighter pilots would serve here, including both Group Captain Douglas Bader and Squadron Leader Bob Stanford Tuck.

Squadron Leader Stanford Tuck poses with a group of pilots of 257 Squadron, RAF © IWM (CH 1674)

On September 19th 1940, 71 Sqn was reformed at RAF Church Fenton moving to Martlesham in the following April. Made of volunteer U.S. pilots it was to be one of three ‘Eagle Squadrons’ destined to become famous before the U.S. officially entered the conflict in December 1941. (Also during this time, ‘A’ Flight of the Special Duties Flight would reside here whilst the main parent unit was located at St. Athan, until replaced by the various Radio Servicing Sections).

71 Squadron were initially provided with Brewster Buffalo MKIs, so disappointed with them were they, that it was rumoured the commanding officer ‘instructed’ his pilots to deliberately damage them so that more ‘appropriate’ aircraft would be issued*1. By the time 71 Sqn arrived at Martlesham Heath in early April 1941, these Buffaloes had been replaced and 71 Sqn  was equipped with the much superior Hurricane MKIs, followed soon afterwards, by the Hurricane MKIIA. 71 Squadron then left Martlesham in June 1941 only to return in December that year with Spitfire VBs. They finally departed in May 1942 thus ending their presence  at the ‘Heath’ for good. It wasn’t the last of the Eagle squadrons though, for a very short period of about eight days, 133 Squadron graced the grounds of this Suffolk airfield before departing to Biggin Hill and eventual amalgamation into the USAAF.

Primarily a grass stripped fighter base, Spitfires and Hurricanes were the most commonly seen aircraft here. Exceptions being the very brief visit of Tomahawks of No. 2 Sqn, Mustang MkIs of 26 and 239 Sqns, Typhoons of 198 and 182 Sqns (who were formed here in August 1942) ; Defiants of 264 Sqn; Lysander IIIA of the Air Sea Rescue Flight (formed here May 1941 and latterly 277 Sqn) and a detachment of Lysander IIs of 613 Sqn in September 1940. Thus a wide range of aircraft were to pass through Martlesham adding to the variety and diversity of its aviation history.

Many of those units to use Martlesham’s facilities were short stays, often passing through to other stations either in the U.K. or abroad. Some consisted of days whilst others were perhaps weeks.

In 1942, the airfield was designated as a U.S. Fighter base and the first real permanently stationed units would soon arrive. Following testing, they created two soil-stabilised, oil and tar mixture runways, linked together by steel pierced planking.  Also known as ‘Marston Matting’ or Perforated Steel Planking (PSP), these were strips of metal slotted together that meant no heavy excavations were needed and the tracks could be laid very quickly by small engineering teams. Once work had been undertaken, Martlesham Heath would receive the P-47s and latterly P-51s, of the 356th Fighter Group.

Former RAF Martlesham Heath

Memorial to the 356th FG based at Martlesham Heath.

By the time the airfield had been developed it covered a wide area, and because of it long history, it would consist of multitude of architectural features. Many of these dated back to the First World War and included aeroplane sheds (damaged in attacks) built to various drawings (e.g. 146/16-149/16, 110/16 and 1656/18); Type A aeroplane sheds (based on 19a/24 designs); aeroplane Type B ‘Goliath’ shed (1455/27); blacksmiths and welders workshops; a range of barrack blocks; married and single officers quarters; separate RAF and USAAF latrines; workshops; blister hangars; squadron offices and a wide range of associated buildings.

Around 70 aircraft dispersals were also laid using a mix of both an unusual square, and the more common pan style hardstands.

The 356th FG, arrived here in October 1943, after a 10 month journey that began at Westover Field, Massachusetts. They arrived in England in  August 1943 transiting from Goxhill to Martlesham Heath over the following weeks. Consisting of three squadrons: the 359th, 360th and 361st FS, they would initially be equipped with P-47D ‘Thunderbolts’ lovingly referred to as ‘Jugs‘.

The main duties of the 356th FG was as fighter escort covering the heavy bombers of the American Eighth Air Force as they penetrated occupied Europe. After initial engine difficulties, the P-47 proved to be a reliable and agile workhorse, much against the stereotyped view reflected by its resemblance to a ‘flying brick’. One of the first missions the 356th carried out was to escort a mix of P-47 ‘Thunderbolts’ of the 56th FG fitted with bombs flying in conjunction with B-24 ‘Mitchells’. This new strategy became known as ‘drop-on-leader’ whereby the B-24s would sight the target, and drop their bombs as a signal to the P-47s to drop theirs. The first mission to St. Omer was to produce poor results however, the B-24 bombing mechanisms jamming which resulted in all the bombs overshooting the target.

The 356th would be active throughout the remainder of the war, initially supporting bombers until January 1944 when they took on the role of ground attack, strafing targets such as U-Boat installations, Marshalling yards, Locomotives, airfield flak units and German radar installations. In June 1944 they supported the Normandy invasion going on to assist in the allied push through France,  the low countries and on into Germany itself. With ground attack and fighter aircraft being given almost free-reign, anything that moved became a target. Avoiding civilian areas and civilian traffic was a high priority and the perceived threat of friendly fire on troops below, a distant thought in the minds of the crews. However, not everything went according to plan.

Part 2 will follow next week.

 

Notes and further reading

*1 Imperial War Museum Website

RAF North Pickenham – The Worst Record of the Eighth

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

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

RAF North Pickenham (Station 143)

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

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

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

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

RAF North Pickenham

Operations Block, North Pickenham

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

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

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

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

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

RAF North Pickenham

One of many buildings now being reclaimed at North Pickenham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RAF North Pickenham

“Stanton” shelter located at South Pickenham

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

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

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

airfield cropped

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

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

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

RAF North Pickenham

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

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

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

DSC_0056

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

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

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

RAF North Witham – A Truly Historical Place

On the western fringes of Lincolnshire close to the Leicestershire border, is an airfield that is little known about, yet its part in history is perhaps one of the most important played by any airfield in Britain. Famous battles such as the Normandy invasion, the Ardennes and the crossing of the Rhine all took place because of the events that occurred here, and were it not for North Witham, many may not have been as successful as they were. For the next part of trail 3, we head west to perhaps one of Britain’s best kept secrets.

RAF North Witham (Station 479)

RAF North Witham sits quietly amongst the trees of Twyford Woods, a site originally known as Witham Wood, it is now a public space owned and maintained by the U.K.’s Forestry Commission.

Originally, North Witham was one of twelve airfields in the Leicestershire cluster intended to be an RAF bomber station for No. 7 Group, however, it was never used operationally by the Royal Air Force, instead like ten others in the area, it was handed over to the US Ninth Air Force and in particular the IX Troop Carrier Command.

North Whitham control tower

North Witham’s Tower – now a mere shell.

As it was originally designed as a bomber station it was built to the Air Ministry’s class ‘A’ specification, formed around the usual three triangular runways, perimeter track and aircraft hardstands. With construction beginning in the mid-war years 1942/43, its main runway would be 2000 yds long, with the second and third runways 1,400 yds in length and all 50 yds wide. To accommodate the aircraft, 50  ‘spectacle’ style dispersals were built, scattered around the adjoining perimeter track. As a bomber base it had a bomb store, located to the north-eastern side of the airfield, with the admin and technical site to the south-east. One feature of North Witham was its operations block, built to drawing 4891/42, it was larger than most, with ceilings of 14 feet high. Amongst the myriad of rooms were a battery room, cipher office, meteorology room, PBX, traffic office and teleprinter room, all accessed through specially designed air locks. A further feature of this design was the attachment of a Nissen hut to house plant equipment and boiler equipment, a feature not commonly seen at this time.

Aircraft maintenance could be carried out in one of two ‘T2’ hangars with additional work space provided by one of six ‘Butler’ hangars. Designed and built by the Butler Manufacturing Company of Kansas, USA, these were supplied in kit form and had to be erected on site by an Engineer Aviation Battalion. These ‘hangars’ had rigid box section girders over a canvas cladding, and once fully erected, gave a wide 40 ft span. Quite a rare feature, these types of structures were only built in limited numbers during the Second World War and only appeared on American occupied airfields. Post-war however, they were far more commonly used appearing on many American cold-war sites across the UK.

A hangar under construction at the 1st Tactical Air Depot at North Witham. Printed caption on reverse: '77877 AC - A butler hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion at North Witham, England. U.S. Air Force Photo.'

A ‘Butler’ hangar under construction by members of the 833rd Engineer Aviation Battalion (EAB) at a very snowy North Witham (IWM479)

The Ninth Air Force was born in 1942 out of the ashes of the V Air Support Command, and then combined with units already located in the England operating under the American Eighth Air Force. Its initial activities focused on the allied push across North Africa followed by the move up into southern Europe through Italy.

Moving to England in October 1943, it then became the tactical Air Force that would support the Normandy invasion, supplying medium bombers, operating as troop support and providing supply flights. Facilitation of this massive invasion required both a huge backup, and an intricate supply and support network. North Witham would form part of this support network through both repair and maintenance of the troop carrier aircraft that were operated by the Ninth Air Force – primarily the C-47s. The main group undertaking this role at North Witham was the 1st Tactical Air Depot comprising the 29th and 33rd Air Depot Groups between January and September 1944*1. One of a number of depots, they were once described as the “backbone of Supply for the Army Air Force”, and had a complicated arrangement that encompassed numerous groups across the entire world theatre.

For such a large base, North Witham would be operationally ‘underused’, the only unit to fly from here being those of the IX Troop Carrier Command (TCC), who would primarily use C-47 ‘Skytrains’ – an established and true workhorse, and one that would go on to supply many air forces around the world.

During the Sicily campaign, it was found that many incoming aircraft were not finding the drop zones as accurately as they should and as a result, paratroops were being widely and thinly scattered. More accurate flying aided by precise target marking was therefore required and so the first Pathfinder School was set up.

North Whitham pen

Part of one of North Witham’s 50 dispersal pans.

The IX TCC Pathfinder School (incorporating the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Pathfinder Squadrons) was formed whilst the TCC was at RAF Cottesmore. Initially having only seven C-47 aircraft, it arrived at North Witham in March 1944. These aircraft were fitted with ‘modern’ Gee radar and navigation equipment, and would be used to train paratroops of the 101st and 82nd Airborne to mark targets prior to the main invasion force arriving.

These crack troops would remain at North Witham for short periods before returning to their own designated bases. The idea being a joint venture to land the troops who would then set up a ‘homing’ station using ‘Eureka’ beacons that would connect to ‘Rebecca’ receivers in the aircraft. This would allow flying to near pinpoint accuracy even in poor weather or at night; something that would be employed with relative success in the forthcoming Normandy landings.

On arrival at North Witham, the Pathfinders were accommodated in the huts originally provided for the depot’s crews – some 1,250 enlisted men and 75 officers. Many of these displaced men were rehoused in tents along the northern end of the site which only added a further strain to the already rudimentary accommodation that was already in place at the airfield. At its height, North Witham would house upward of 3,700 men in total, a figure that included an RAF detachment of 86 men and large quantities of GIs.

Pathfinders of North Witham were the first to leave the UK and enter the Normandy arena. Departing late in the evening of June 5th, men of the 82nd and 101st Airborne climbed aboard their C-47s and departed in to the night sky. North Witham based C-47A*2 ‘#42-93098’ piloted by Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch*3, led the way. Nineteen other North Witham aircraft joined Crouch that night, with only one being lost in the entire mission. The Douglas built C-47A-15-DK Skytrain, #42-92845 was lost en route due to mechanical failure – the aircraft ditching in the sea. All the crew and paratroops on-board were believed to have been rescued by the British destroyer HMS Tartar.

Image result for Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch and his crew

The Crew of C-47A #42-93098, a few hours before they left for Normandy. Including Pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Joel Crouch (centre), Captain Vito Pedone (copilot), Captain William Culp (Navigator), Harold Coonrod (Radio Operator), along with Dr. Ed Cannon (physician), and E. Larendeal (crew chief)

Pathfinder training continued at North Witham into the summer of 1944, training that included Polish paratroops (1st Independent Polish Airborne Brigade) who would perform a similar role to their American counterparts. These various Pathfinder groups would go on to have long and distinguished careers, supporting the battles at Arnhem, the Ardennes and participating in Operation Varsity – the Allied crossing of the Rhine.

As the Allies pushed further into enemy territory, the flying distance from England became too great and so new airfields were either constructed or captured airfields refurbished. The Pathfinder School soon moved away to Hampshire and the maintenance units, needed nearer the front lines, gradually departed to new bases on the continent.

September 1944 would see big changes in the Ninth and the knock-on was felt at North Witham. Firstly, the IX TCC transferred from the Ninth AF to the First Allied Airborne Army, and as a result, the Air Depot title was changed to IX Troop Carrier Service Wing (Provisional), which was re-assigned to aid and supply the new Troop Carrier Groups (TCG) now based in France. To accomplish this new role, groups often used borrowed or war-weary C-47s, C-46 (Commandos) or C-109s (converted B-24 Liberators) to fulfil their role. Secondly, the Pathfinder School was re-designated IX Troop Carrier Pathfinder Group (Provisional) and they moved away from North Witham to their new base at Chalgrove near Oxford. Now much quieter, life otherwise carried on at North Witham, but gradually the UK-based maintenance and repair work slowed down, and before long its fate was sealed and the airfield began the long wind-down that many of these unique places suffered.

By the war’s end the last American personnel had pulled out and the site was handed back to the RAF’s 40 Group who, after using it for a brief spell as a maintenance depot themselves, placed it under care and maintenance. It was used as a munitions and hardware store until 1948, and then finally, in 1956, it was closed by the Ministry and the site sold two years later.

Photograph of North Witham taken on 17th January 1947. The technical site and barrack sites are at the top left, the bomb dump is bottom left. (IWM RAF_CPE_UK_1932_FP_1221)

The site, intact as it was, was returned to the Forestry Commission who planted a range of new trees around the site, covering the vast areas of grass. The technical area was developed into a small industrial unit and perhaps most sadly the watch office left to decay and fall apart.

Today the three runways and perimeter track still exist almost in their entirety, and remarkably, in generally good condition. Largely overgrown with weeds and small trees, the remainder is well hidden obscuring what little there is in the way of buildings – most being demolished and the remains left piled up where they stood. However, a T2 hangar is now used on the industrial estate and the watch office still stands tucked away amongst the trees and undergrowth. This area is a favourite place for dog walkers, and because of its runways, it is accessible for prams and pushchairs. Whilst here, I spoke to quite a few people, remarkably none of them knew of the site’s historical significance let alone the office’s existence!

Today the watch office remains open to the elements. Surrounded by used tyres and in constant threat of the impending industrial complex over the fence, its future is uncertain. Access stairs have been removed, but an entrance has been made by piling tyres up to the door – presumably by those wishing to enter and ‘explore’ further. Little evidence of its history can be seen from the outside, even the rendering has been removed, and so, any possible personal links with the past are more than likely now gone.

DSCF1273

The view of the main runway from outside the tower.

Returning back to the main public entrance along the perimeter track, a number of dispersal pens can be found; overgrown but relatively intact, they are a further sign that even here, war was never very far away.

North Witham was one of those ‘backroom boys’ whose contribution, whilst extremely important, is little known about. The work carried out here not only helped to maintain a strong and reliable fighting force, but one that spearheaded the frontal invasion of Normandy. It served as a cold and perhaps uncomfortable home to many brave troops, many of whom took the fight direct to Nazi Germany.

Standing here today, it is quiet and strangely surreal – you can almost hear the roar of engines. Looking along its enormous runways you get an eerie feeling – how many troops also stood here, spending their last few hours in this quiet place. Looking around now, it is difficult to imagine the immense work that went on here, the gathering of equipment as preparations were made for the big push into Normandy on that famous June night.

North Witham is truly a remarkable place, hidden away amongst the trees as a giant time capsule, a monument to those who lived, worked and died during that turbulent time in 1944-45.

After leaving North Witham, we return to the main A1 road and head south. Any journey here can not avoid briefly mentioning RAF Wittering, its Harrier still standing proudly outside the main gate. All went quiet here following the Government cutbacks of December 2010, but flying has now returned in the form of Grob Trainers – a small reprieve for this historic site. Wittering can seen later in Trail 37.

Another view along the main runway.

Another view along the main runway.

Sadly in May 2015, Twyford Woods was the scene of a large illegal rave, over 1000 people attended the event where a number of arrests were made in the violent altercations that took place*4. A sad day that would turn the souls of those who sacrificed themselves for the freedom we take for granted so very easily today.

(North Witham was originally visited in early 2013)

Links and sources

*1 American Air Museum in Britain

*2 C-47A #42-93098 itself was later lost whilst flying with the 439th Troop Carrier Group (TCG) on September 18th 1944, whilst flying in support of Operation ‘Market Garden‘ in Holland.

*3 Superb footage of Crouch and his crew as they depart from North Witham is available on-line here, it also shows the Watch Tower in its former glory.

*4 A report of the event is available on the BBC News website.