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.

RAF Debach – Home of Helton’s Hellcats.

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

RAF Debach (Station 152).

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

The perimeter track forms access for farm vehicles.

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

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

Cpl Kenneth E Blair

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

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

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

Debach Airfield and Museum

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

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

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

Links and further reading.

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

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

*1 Photo from findagrave.com

RAF Framlingham & the 390th BG – Masters of the Air

In Trail 39 we turn south once more and return to Suffolk, to the southern most regions of East Anglia, to an area known for its outstanding beauty and its stunning coastline. It is also an area rich in both Second World War and Cold War history. Perhaps better known for its fighter and light bomber stations, it was also the location for several heavy bomber bases, each one with its own fascinating story to tell.

We start off this trail at the former site of American base at RAF Framlingham.

RAF Framlingham (Station 153)

RAF Framlingham is actually closer to the village of Parham than it is the town of Framlingham, hence it was also known as RAF Parham – a name that it became synonymous with. Built as a class ‘A’ bomber station its official American designation was Station 153.

Building work commenced in 1942, and as with most large bomber stations it was designed to the Class A specification to include: three concrete runways (one of  6,400 ft and two of 4,400 feet in length), an adjoining perimeter track that linked fifty ‘pan style’ dispersals; two T-2 hangars (one to the west with the technical site and one to the south-east) and accommodation for some 3,000 personnel dispersed in 10 sites to the south-west of the airfield.  A  further sewage treatment plant dealt with the site’s waste.

The main runway ran east-west and to the eastern end sat the bomb store, a large area that included: a pyrotechnic store, fusing point, incendiary store and small arms store – all encircled by a concrete roadway.

Peri track looking north toward tech area (A)

Part of the Perimeter track at the southern end of the airfield. To the right was the crew rest rooms, locker and drying rooms.

The administration site sat between the main technical site and accommodation areas all located to the south-west side of the airfield.

Opened in 1943, the first residents were the B-17s of 95th Bomb Group which consisted of four bomb squadrons: the 334th, 335th, 336th and the 412th. Flying a tail code of a square ‘B’ they initially formed part of the 4th Bomb Wing, changing to the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division of the Eighth Air Force in September 1943 following the reorganisation of the U.S. Air Force in Europe.

Following their inception and constitution on 28th January 1942 and subsequent activation in June, they moved from their training ground at Barksdale Field, Louisiana, through Oregon, Washington and eventually to Rapid City Air force Base in South Dakota. They began their move across the Atlantic in the spring of 1943, taking the southern route via Florida arriving at Alconbury and then moving on directly to Framlingham in early May/June that year. It was whilst stationed at Alconbury though that they would have their first few encounters of the war, and they would not all be plain sailing.

On May 27th, 1943 just 14 days after their first mission, ground crews were loading 500 lb bombs onto a 334th BS B-17 ’42-29685′ when the bombs inexplicably detonated, the Alconbury landscape was instantly turned to utter carnage and devastation. The blast was so severe that it killed eighteen men (another later died of his injuries), injured twenty-one seriously and fourteen others slightly.  The B-17 involved was completely destroyed and very little of its remains could be found in or around the huge crater that was left deep in the Alconbury soil. Three other aircraft, 42-29808, 42-29706 and 42-29833, all sat within 500 feet of the explosion, were severely damaged and subsequently scrapped. In total, fifteen B-17s were damaged by the blast, it was a major blow to the 95th and a terrible start to their war.

There then followed a transition period in which the group moved to Framlingham. During this time operations would continue from both airfields leaving the squadrons split between the two bases. The first few missions were relatively light in terms of numbers of aircraft lost, however, on June 13th 1943, they were part of a ‘small’ force of seventy-six B-17s targeting Kiel’s U-boat yards. This was to be no easy run for the 95th, a total of twenty-two aircraft were lost on this raid and of the eighteen aircraft who set off from Framlingham in the lead section, two aborted and only six made it back. In one of the lead planes, was the newly appointed Brigadier General Nathan Bedford Forrest as observer. Riddled with bullet holes, his aircraft plummeted from of the sky with the majority of its tail plane missing and one of its engines ablaze. His body was never found and he became the first U.S. General causality of the war. In total, the raid resulted in 236 crewmen being listed as either missing, killed or wounded – this would be the 95th’s heaviest and most costly mission of the entire war.

A view from the tower looking East to West.

Two days after this mission the group would depart Framlingham and move to RAF Horham a few miles north-west, where they remained for the remainder of the war. The majority of the crews would probably be pleased to move away leaving behind many terrible memories and lost friends. However, the tide would turn and they would go on to gain a remarkable reputation and make a number of USAAF records. They would be the only Eighth Air Force group to achieve three Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC), and be the first group to bomb Berlin. They also claimed the highest number of enemy aircraft shot down by any bomb group and they would be the group to suffer the last aircraft loss (on a mission) of the war – all quite remarkable considering their devastating introduction to the European Theatre.

As the 95th departed Framlingham so moved in the 390th BG.

The 390th BG like the 95th and 100th were part of the 13th Combat Wing, 3rd Air Division. They too were a new Group, only being formed themselves early in 1943. The 390th BG was made up of four B-17 bomb squadrons: the 568th, 569th, 570th and 571st, and at initial full strength consisted of just short of 400 personnel. They formed part of the larger second wave of USAAF influxes who were all new recruits and whose arrival in the U.K. would double the size of the USAAF’s presence overnight.

Old hands of the Mighty Eighth, took great pride in teasing these new recruits whose bravado and cockiness would soon be knocked out of them by the more experienced Luftwaffe fighter pilots.

The 390th would create quite a stir in the Suffolk countryside and not just because of their ‘smooth taking’, ‘endless supply of chocolate’ and ‘upbeat music’. Up until now, the ‘smuggling’ of pets into American airbases had been by-and-large ignored, but with the 390th came a Honey Bear, a beast that quite frequently escaped only to be confronted by rather bemused locals! There would be however, despite all this frivolity, no rest period for the crews, and operations would start the 12th August 1943, less than a month after they arrived.

B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 390th Bomb Group in flight over Framlingham. Handwritten caption on reverse: '390BG.'

B-17s of the 390th BG over RAF Framlingham (IWM)

The latter parts of 1943 saw a lot of poor weather over both the U.K. and the continent, and this combined with the heavy use of smoke screens by the Germans, prevented large numbers of bombers finding their targets. As a result, many crews sought targets of opportunity thus breaking up strong defensive formations. The eager Luftwaffe pilots made good use of this, taking advantage of broken formations and poor defences. As a result, the bombers of this new influx would receive many heavy casualties and August 12th was to become the second heaviest loss of life in the American air war so far.

1943 would be a busy time for the 390th, within a few days and on the anniversary of the U.S. VIII Air Force’s first European operation, they would attack the Messerschmitt factory at Regensburg, a mission for which they would receive their first Distinguished Unit Citation (DUC).

The operation would be a blood bath. On that day 147 B-17s took off with the 390th forming the high squadron in the first formation. For over an hour and a half, multiple fighters of the Luftwaffe attacked the formations which were split by delayed arrivals, and large gaps in the formation. Compounded with this was the fact that the escorting P-47s had to return home leaving the formations largely undefended. With no fighter escort the bombers became easy prey and the numbers of blood-thirsty attacks increased. The rear and low formations of the force were decimated and departing P-47 fighter crews could only look on in horror.

Over the target, skies cleared and bombing accuracy was excellent, but it was the 390th that would excel. Of the seven groups to attack, the 390th manged to get 58% of its bombs within 1000 ft of the target and 94% within 2000 ft, a remarkable achievement for a fledgling group. Flying on, they passed over the Alps and across Italy onto North Africa where they landed – their first shuttle mission was complete. The run in to the target and subsequent journey to North Africa would create multiple records; two B-17s, one of which belonged to the 390th, sought sanctuary in neutral Switzerland, the first of any group to do so. But the journey across Europe had been difficult and it would cost the lives of six B-17 crews – it had truly been a hard-won DUC.

Two months and some 20 missions later, they would repeat this epic achievement. On October 14th 1943, they took part in the second major attack on Schweinfurt, a target whose name alone put the fear of God into many crews. The route that day would take them across some of the most notorious Flak black spots, Aachen, Frankfurt, Bad Kissingen and Schweinfurt itself. On top of that, Luftwaffe fighters would be hungry for blood, many crew members knew this would be a one way trip.

Take off was at 10:00am, and the Third Air Division would provide 154 aircraft, but again due to mechanical problems and poor weather, the formation were scattered across the sky and defences were weak. As they crossed the channel enemy aircraft were few and far between, giving false hopes to rookie crews who were cruising 20,000 feet above the ground. Eventually at around 1:00pm the escorts left and the waiting Luftwaffe crews stepped in. All hell broke loose. Rockets, timed bombs and heavy machine gun fire riddled the B-17 formations – Schweinfurt was going to live up to its reputation. After fending off relentless attacks by the Luftwaffe, the formation reached their target and all 390th aircraft managed to bomb with an accuracy of 51% of the MPI (Mean Point of Impact). For this they received their second DUC – the newbies were rapidly becoming masters of the air.

July 2016 019

The widest section of runway, now a mere fraction of its former self.

1943 would draw to a close, and the optimism of many ‘successful’ raids over the Reich would bring the dawn of 1944.  Big week in February saw the massed attacks on the German aircraft production factories, and in March, the 390th attacked Berlin. During this raid B-17 ’42-30713′ “Phyllis Marie” made an emergency landing only to be captured intact by the Luftwaffe and flown under KG200. It was later found in Bavaria.

Other major targets for the 390th this year included Frankfurt marshalling yards, Cologne, Mannheim, the navel yards at Bremen and the oil refineries at Mersburg. In 1944 the 390th softened the German defences along the Atlantic coast just fifteen minutes before the invasion force landed in June. They followed up the advance by supporting the allied break out at St. Lo.

During August 1944, the 390th flew a round mission that took them for the second time to a Russian airfield. After refuelling and rearming, they attacked the oil refineries at Trzebinia (later famed with the POW’s ‘death march’ across western Europe) and then back to Russia. Three days later they flew to North Africa, depositing high explosives in Romania, and then four days after that, the return trip to Framlingham bombing Toulouse on the way.

The cold winter of 1944 would become well-known for its snow and ice, a period in which almost as many aircraft were lost to ice as to enemy action. On December 27th, the cold would claim B-17 ’42-107010′ “Gloria-Ann II” of the 569th BS. A build up of ice would bring her down within a minute of taking off and the ensuing explosion of fuel and bombs would cause a fire from which nine crew members would perish. Houses in the vicinity of Parham were also damaged but there were no local casualties and the aircraft would be salvaged and reborn as “Close Crop“.

B-17G-35-VE #42-97849

Battle damage was often severe, here B-17G #42-97849 “Liberty Bell” of the 570th BS, shows extensive damage to her tail section. (IWM)

In the early months of 1945 the Ardennes was also gripped in this terrible fog and cold. The 390th took off in support of the paratroopers locked in the Belgium forests, bombing strategic targets beyond the Ardennes, they cut German lines preventing further supplies reaching the front.

By 1945 it was no longer a rare occurrence for bombers to have exceeded the 100 mission milestone, for the crews however, it was a target to avoid. For the 390th, April 1945 would see the first US airman to surpass the 100 mission mark achieved solely whilst operating in the European theatre. Hewitt Dunn, acting as bombardier (Togglier) was the first US Eighth AF airman to surpass 100 missions in an operational span that started in January 1944 and that had seen him in virtually every position of an operational B-17, and over virtually every high risk target in occupied Europe – he was just 24 years old.

Gradually the summer sun came and with it clear skies. Allied air operations increased and soon the end was in sight for Nazi Germany, but air accidents and US losses would still continue. On landing his B-17 “Chapel in the Sky“, Murrell Corder ground looped his aircraft to prevent crashing into other parked B-17s. In doing so, he clipped the wings of “Satan’s Second Sister” severely damaging both aircraft, thankfully though, there were no casualties.

At the end of the war the 390th left Framlingham and returned to the United States. They had received two Distinguished Unit Citations, had the highest enemy aircraft claim of any unit on one single mission and reached the first 100th mission of any aircrew member. Their tally had amounted to 300 missions in which they had dropped over 19,000 tons of bombs. They had definitely earned their place in the Framlingham history books.

On departure, Framlingham was given back to the RAF who used it as a transit camp to help with the relocation of displaced Polish people. It was then closed in the late 1940s and sold back to the local farmer, with whom it remains today.

A small consortium of volunteers have manged to rebuild the control tower into a fabulous museum, displaying a wide variety of aircraft and airfield parts, and personal stories from those at Framlingham. They have also refurbished a couple of Nissen huts, recreating life in a barrack room as it would have been during the Second World War, and displaying articles and stories from the resistance organisation.

As for the airfield, much of the perimeter track remains as do long sections of the runways as farm tracks. The public road today passes through the centre of the airfield dissecting the technical area from the bomb store. From the northern most end a footpath allows you to walk along the north-western section of the perimeter track, currently used by a road repair company for storing stone chippings and lorries. The hardstands have been removed and piles of rubble contain evidence of drainage and electrical supply pipes. From the road at this point you can also see a small section of the main runway – now holding piggery sheds – which has virtually all been removed. From the western side of the perimeter track you can look along the north-west to south-east runway, a mere fraction of its former self, it is barely wide enough for a tractor let alone a heavily laden B-17 and her crew.

Returning to the museum front takes you along the widest part of this runway. A small section at almost full width, it gives you an indication of the 150 feet of concrete that makes up these great structures, and an insight into what they would have been like during the mid 1940s.

Tower 4

The Watch office is now a refurbished museum and highly recommended.

Behind the museum stands one of the hangars, this along with the tower are the two most discernible buildings left on site. Many of the accommodation buildings are now gone, and what is left is difficult to see. A footpath does allow access across the bomb store – now a wooded area, but if walking from the north, it is virtually impossible to park a car due to the very narrow and tight roads in the area.

Like many of Britain’s airfields Framlingham holds a wealth of stories in its midsts. The near constant roar of B-17s flying daily missions over occupied Europe are now whispers in the trees. The museum, a lone statue, gazes silently over the remains of the airfield offering views of ghostly silhouettes as they lumber passed on their way to a world gradually being forgotten. Framlingham and the 390th, have definitely earned their place in the world’s history books.

Whilst in the area, take a short trip to Framlingham town, below the castle, is St Michael’s church and above the door a 390th Group Hatchment in honour of those who served at Framlingham.

From here, we travel south-west toward Ipswich and stop at another USAAF base also with a fabulous museum. We go to RAF Debach – home of the 493rd BG(H).

Notes, sources and further reading.

*Photos exist of what appears to be a Type ‘J’ or ‘K’ hangar on the site. This does not appear on the airfield drawings however and its origin is as yet unknown.

A number of sources were used to research the history of RAF Framlingham and the 390th, they are highly recommended for further information. They include:

The 390th Memorial Museum website.

Veronico. N., “Bloody Skies“, Stackpole Books, 2014

Freeman, R., “The Mighty Eighth“, Arms and Armour Press, 1986

Freeman, R,. “The B-17 Flying Fortress Story“, Arms and Armour Press, 1998